10 talking points ahead of the new Saudi Pro League season

10 talking points ahead of the new Saudi Pro League season
Al Hilal SFC emerge champions of the Saudi Pro League for the 17th time after defeating Al Taawoun. (File/Internet)
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Updated 11 August 2021

10 talking points ahead of the new Saudi Pro League season

10 talking points ahead of the new Saudi Pro League season
  • From title challengers to relegation battlers, foreign coaches to Saudi keepers — here are the questions that will be answered starting this week

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.


Goal rush as foreign contingent take center stage in ninth round of Saudi Pro League season

Goal rush as foreign contingent take center stage in ninth round of Saudi Pro League season
Updated 26 October 2021

Goal rush as foreign contingent take center stage in ninth round of Saudi Pro League season

Goal rush as foreign contingent take center stage in ninth round of Saudi Pro League season
  • Overseas players score 18 of 22 goals in latest round of matches featuring 16 SPL clubs

Overseas players took center stage in the ninth round of the 2021-22 Saudi Professional League season, with the eight fixtures producing 22 goals at rate of 2.75 goals per match.

Foreign players at the 16 top-flight Saudi clubs continued to shine, scoring 18 of the 22 goals, with doubles notched by Syrian striker Omar Al-Soma in Al-Ahli’s 2-1 win away to Al-Tai; the Nigerian Odion Ighalo in Al-Shabab’s 2-0 victory over Al-Ittihad; and Argentine Luciano Vietto for Al-Hilal in the 3-2 win over Al-Raed, in which the winning goal came from Frenchman Bafetimbi Gomis.

Romain Amalfitano, Al-Faisaly’s French midfielder, scored a late equalizer against Al-Taawoun to secure a 2-2 draw for his team, while Emilio Zelaya of Argentina grabbed the only goal goal of the match for Damac against Al-Hazem to take his is team to the top of the SPL standings with 18 points.

Meanwhile, Al-Ettifaq’s Slovakian midfielder Filip Kiss converted a penalty in the 1-0 win against Al-Nassr at the end of the round, which also witnessed goals by Guilherme Augusto (Al-Faisaly), Saad Bguir (Abha), Mitchell te Vrede (Abha), Cedric Amissi (Al-Taawoun), Christian Cueva (Al-Fateh), Eder Lopes (Al-Raed), Lucas Alves (Al-Tai) and Renato Chavez (Al-Batin).

The Saudi quartet of Fahad Al-Jumayah (Abha), Yousef Al-Shammari (Al-Batin), Yahya Al-Shehri (Al-Raed) and Sumayhan Al-Nabit (Al-Taawoun) completed the scoring with a goal each.


All signs point to Jeddah as world’s top women golfers prepare for $2m Saudi Arabia double-header

All signs point to Jeddah as world’s top women golfers prepare for $2m Saudi Arabia double-header
Updated 26 October 2021

All signs point to Jeddah as world’s top women golfers prepare for $2m Saudi Arabia double-header

All signs point to Jeddah as world’s top women golfers prepare for $2m Saudi Arabia double-header
  • Aramco Saudi Ladies International and Aramco Team Series, Jeddah events in November ‘will bring new generation to the sport’

Some of the biggest names in women’s golf will head to Saudi Arabia in November for back-to-back Aramco Saudi Ladies International and Aramco Team Series Jeddah tournaments.

The two events will take place at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in nearby King Abdullah Economic City and, together, form the Kingdom’s debut Women in Sport Season.

Leading players on the Ladies European Tour will compete for a total of $2 million in the space of a fortnight.

First up is the Aramco Saudi Ladies International (Nov. 4-7), presented by the Public Investment Fund, in which almost 100 players will go head to head for a share of $1 million in prize money.

The final of four Aramco Team Series events — launched on the Ladies European Tour for the first time this year — will take place from Nov. 10-12, with the Jeddah leg following tournaments in London, Spain and New York.

The new format sees three professional players team up with an amateur player and then compete for a share of $800,000, with the best individual scorers also battling for a $200,000 prize fund.

The individual category of this month’s New York leg was won by England’s Charley Hull, who returns to Saudi Arabia after competing in last year’s debut tournament.

Speaking after her win in New York, the 25-year-old Hull said: “I’ve loved the Aramco Team Series and played in every event so far — London, Spain, New York and Saudi Arabia is now next. I can’t wait. I played in Saudi last year and thought it was a great event. The golf course was lovely, so I’m really looking forward to getting back.”

She added: “The Aramco Team Series isn’t just a great event for the women on tour, but also for the amateurs who get to play and the fans who get to watch. It’s a lot of fun. For me, it will be great to get back to Saudi, especially with the support Golf Saudi and Aramco are giving the sport. Since last year’s first event I’ve heard that a lot of young girls out in Saudi Arabia are taking up golf, which is so good to hear.”

Joining Hull at Royal Greens will be Denmark’s Emily Kristine Pedersen, who recorded a clean sweep in the Kingdom last year when she won the Aramco Saudi Ladies International presented by Public Investment Fund, then both the team and individual elements in what was then the Saudi Ladies Team International, the precursor to the Aramco Team Series.

“Last year was such a fantastic experience for me in Saudi Arabia,” Pedersen said. “I loved the course, the weather, the people were so nice, and it was just a great 10 days. I obviously have such fond memories so going back will certainly be special for me.”

“The Aramco Saudi Ladies International felt like a big moment in women’s golf — something the Aramco Team Series has really built on this year, building our game even further. I’ve really enjoyed all three ATS events so far this season, and I know the final one in Jeddah will be awesome, too.”

Other names taking part are England’s Annabel Dimmock, Anna Nordqvist of Sweden, Minjee Lee of Australia and Georgia Hall, also of England.


Dec. 14 confirmed as date for Maradona Cup match between Barcelona and Boca Juniors in Saudi Arabia

Dec. 14 confirmed as date for Maradona Cup match between Barcelona and Boca Juniors in Saudi Arabia
Updated 26 October 2021

Dec. 14 confirmed as date for Maradona Cup match between Barcelona and Boca Juniors in Saudi Arabia

Dec. 14 confirmed as date for Maradona Cup match between Barcelona and Boca Juniors in Saudi Arabia
  • The match between the Spanish and Argentine giants, which is part of the Riyadh Season festivities, will honor the late Diego Maradona, who played for both

Spanish soccer giants Barcelona and Argentina’s Boca Juniors will contest the Maradona Cup on Dec. 14 at King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh, several sources confirmed on Monday, including the European side.

Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, had previously announced in a message posted on Twitter this month that two of Argentine legend Diego Maradona’s former clubs would face off in a friendly match in November as part of Riyadh Season. On Monday night he posted update with the new date for the match.

The post included a short video that showed Maradona scoring his famous solo goal against England during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, along with highlights from his time with Barcelona and Boca Juniors. It ends with the words “legend forever.”

The inaugural Riyadh Season in 2019 attracted more than 10 million visitors. After skipping 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event returned this month. Described as one of the biggest global entertainment festivals, with a diverse program of events and experiences spread across 14 venues in the capital, it will continue until March 2022.


Saudi Arabia beat Kuwait by four wickets in ICC T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier

Saudi Arabia managed 149/6 with six balls remaining, with player of the match Sajid Cheema scoring 52 runs, having earlier taken two catches. (Twitter: @cricketsaudi)
Saudi Arabia managed 149/6 with six balls remaining, with player of the match Sajid Cheema scoring 52 runs, having earlier taken two catches. (Twitter: @cricketsaudi)
Updated 25 October 2021

Saudi Arabia beat Kuwait by four wickets in ICC T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier

Saudi Arabia managed 149/6 with six balls remaining, with player of the match Sajid Cheema scoring 52 runs, having earlier taken two catches. (Twitter: @cricketsaudi)
  • Men’s T20 World Cup will be held in Australia next October

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia beat Kuwait by four wickets in their Men's ICC T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier in Doha on Monday.

They won the toss and elected to field first, with Kuwait posting 146/8 in their 20 overs.

With a target of 147 set for a win, Saudi Arabia managed 149/6 with six balls remaining, with player of the match Sajid Cheema scoring 52 runs, having earlier taken two catches.

The Asia qualifiers in Qatar will determine which team progresses to next year’s Men’s ICC T20 World Cup taking place in Australia.

After two rounds of matches, Saudi Arabia now lead the five-team qualifying competition with a maximum of four points from two wins, followed by Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, who have two points each from a win and a loss. 

The Maldives are in last place with no points from two defeats. Saudi Arabia comfortably beat the Maldives in their first match by seven wickets, with 29 balls remaining.

The Maldives were 98/9, while the Saudis were 101/3 from 15.1 overs.

Saudi Arabia’s next match will be on Wednesday against hosts Qatar.


Casper Ruud and Denis Shapovalov confirmed for the 2021 Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi

Casper Ruud and Denis Shapovalov confirmed for the 2021 Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi
Updated 25 October 2021

Casper Ruud and Denis Shapovalov confirmed for the 2021 Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi

Casper Ruud and Denis Shapovalov confirmed for the 2021 Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi
  • The two men join women’s US Open winner Emma Raducanu and Olympic champion Belinda Bencic in the line-up for the tournament

ABU DHABI: World No. 8 Casper Ruud and No. 13 Denis Shapovalov have been confirmed for the 2021 Mubadala World Tennis Championship taking place at the International Tennis Centre on December 16-18.

After a one-year absence due to the pandemic, the tournament will be held in the UAE capital for the 13th time with full capacity crowds.

Ruud, winner of the most ATP titles in 2021, and Shapovalov, who reached his first Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon, are the first two male players to be confirmed for this year’s event.

The pair, both regarded as future Grand Slam champions, join women’s US Open winner Emma Raducanu and her opponent on day one, Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic, in signing up to make their Abu Dhabi and tournament debuts. The remaining four players will be announced in the coming weeks.

“Announcing the players for the Championship is always a special moment and we have two special players in Casper and Denis,” said John Lickrish, CEO of Flash Entertainment, which is running the tournament. “Our goal is to bring the world’s best talent and build on the legacy of our championship and both players are the perfect fit.”

“They are young, supremely talented, have had successes this season and are great additions to the line-up alongside Emma and Belinda,” he said. “We are once again on track to bring the best-of-the-best from the world of tennis. Stay tuned for more announcements and rest assured the Championship is, as always, a must attend for all tennis fans.”

Norwegian ace Ruud is arguably the most improved player on the ATP tour this year, having won five tour titles in 2021, his latest victory coming at the San Diego Open earlier this October. It is a run that has made him the first Norwegian to break into the world’s top 10.

“I’ve had a great season this year and I’m excited to make my debut at this year’s Mubadala World Tennis Championship. I’m eager to keep improving next year, so Abu Dhabi in December provides a chance to play against the world’s best in preparation for another big season, while exploring a new destination and new cultures,” said Ruud.

Canadian star Shapovalov has also had an impressive year, achieving his best Grand Slam results in reaching the semi-finals at Wimbledon. In 2020 he was one of only two Canadian men to achieve an ATP Top-10 ranking.

“It’s always nice to play in a new city and get the opportunity to see and do different things. I’m excited to come to Abu Dhabi to see all it has to offer, and I’ve heard great things about the venue so I’m looking forward to playing against the best in the world and putting on a show for the fans,” said Shapovalov.