With the first matchday of the 2021-22 Saudi Professional League finally here, we look at 10 talking points for the season ahead.
1. Can anyone stop Al-Hilal?
That is the big question. Al-Hilal have won the last two league titles and have strengthened. So have their rivals, but it remains to be seen whether Al-Ittihad, Al-Shabab, Al-Ahli and Al-Nassr have done enough in the transfer market and in pre-season to stop a “three-peat.” Other factors may help. Al-Hilal are in the quarterfinals of the AFC Champions League in September, which will prove a distraction, and the club provides a fair proportion of the national team. But, still, rivals will have to step up.
2. Can Nestor El-Maestro mark a comeback for British coaches?
At one time there were British coaches all over the region, but they have fallen out of fashion in recent years with Serbian, Brazilian, Romanian, Portuguese and other nationalities coming to the fore. Nestor El-Maestro came in to take over Al-Taawoun in March and did a commendable job in Buraidah. If the 38-year-old can carry on where he left off last season then he may not only lift the club into the top three but could also show that the UK can still be a source of coaching knowhow.
3. Who will be top scorer?
Bafetimbi Gomis was No.1 last season with 24 and there is a good chance that total will be beaten this time round as there is a real wealth of striking talent. Gomis may not play as often for Al-Hilal this season after the arrival of Moussa Marega from Porto. Omar Al-Somah should get more supply this time at Al-Ahli and then there is Romarinho at Al-Ittihad. There is creativity at Al-Nassr and 2019 top scorer Abderrazzak Hamdallah should beat his tally last season.
4. How will the promoted teams perform?
Al-Hazem, Al-Fayha and Al-Tai came up from the second tier last season, and of the three Al-Hazem look best equipped to stay up. The Ar Rass club finished 10 points clear at the top of the league and also have Carlos Strandberg back. The Swedish striker was out on loan to Abha last season and his 16 goals secured top flight football for another season. He may well do the same for Al-Hazem. Al-Fayha and Al-Tai would love to have the same proven goalscorer and their survival chances may depend on finding one.
5. Who is in danger of the drop?
Incredibly, no fewer than five teams finished just a point above the relegation zone last season and they will want to get some early points on the board in a bid to avoid getting sucked in this time around. Abha just survived and have lost their star striker Strandberg. Al-Batin will be hoping that striker Fabio Abreu does not have a difficult second season after impressing in his first. Al-Faisaly were distracted by the King’s Cup and this time they have the Champions League so will need to be careful. Damac looked down and out until the last couple of weeks but seem to have recruited well. It should be a fierce battle.
6. Will any Saudi player go overseas?
Everyone knows that, sooner or later, if Saudi Arabia want to become increasingly competitive on the international stage then some of the country’s best players need to go overseas. Players such as Salman Al-Faraj and Salem Al-Dawsari are good enough, but their time has probably gone. This season, even if nobody goes, it would be great to hear a younger player or two talk of their international dreams and ambitions, and even hear a couple of rumors.
7. Can Jaloliddin Masharipov push Central Asia’s case?
There is a real shortage of Asian players in the league this season, but Masharipov catches the eye. The Uzbekistan winger spent last season on loan in the United Arab Emirates and is now at Al-Nassr. If the 27-year-old has a good campaign for the nine-time champions, he will show the rest of the league, and perhaps the region, that clubs really should be looking toward Central Asia for talent. Al-Hilal were thrashed by Istiklol of Tajikistan in the Asian Champions League earlier this year, but no moves were made to look at that improving country or its neighbors. Players from Central Asia are relatively cheap and most would love the chance to go to Saudi Arabia.
8. Which of the big signings will shine and which will flop?
Pity Martinez was one of the biggest signings last season, but the 2018 South American player of the year struggled at Al-Nassr and injuries did not help. This year there have been some big deals to bring in the likes of Paulinho, Marega, Igor Coronado, Ezgjan Alioski, Matheus Pereira and others. Football is not a science and not all of the big additions are going to be stars in Saudi Arabia. The ones who shine could deliver titles, while the ones who flop are likely to be moved on quickly.
9. Will there be any financial issues?
Last season there were issues at Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli among others and there is no doubt that improvements can be made off the pitch in Saudi Arabian football. Problems such as late player payments, FIFA sanctions and transfer bans reared their ugly head at some point. If they fail to make an appearance in this campaign, they will not be missed. Fans want a season that is just about football.
10. Can a Saudi goalkeeper top the clean sheet charts?
The debate over whether foreign goalkeepers should be allowed in the Saudi Pro League (they are not in leagues like South Korea and China) simmers, but national team coach Herve Renard would surely welcome local keepers at the top of the charts. Brazil’s Cassio of Al-Taawoun was the top-ranked keeper last time, but it was 2018 when a Saudi stopper last had the most clean sheets. Mohammed Al-Owais and Zaid Al-Bawardi and a few others could be in contention.