The first round of games of the 2021-22 Saudi Pro League season is over and what a start it was. Fans are back in stadiums, stars are back on the pitch and the goals are flying in. Of course, there is a long way to go, but there was enough to suggest that this is going to be a season to remember.
1. A tale of three strikers at Al-Hilal
Al-Hilal coach Leonardo Jardim has a wealth of attacking players at his disposal and decided to go with two strikers against Al-Tai in a 4-4-2 formation, not one seen much these days in Saudi Arabian football. That meant a forward line of Moussa Marega and Bafetimbi Gomis, perhaps the most formidable in Asia.
Yet the newly promoted team, hoping to grab a point, made it difficult and while the big-name strikers showed signs of working well together, the deadlock remained intact. There was a lot of possession for the hosts, but in the absence of Salman Al-Faraj, the approach play was sometimes lacking, and as the match drifted into stoppage time, the visitors still had that precious point. Up stepped substitute striker Saleh Al-Shehri, who found space between two defenders to head home a fine cross from Nasser Al-Dawsari. As well as clinching three points, it was a gentle reminder that local strikers have a nose for goal, too.
2. Talisca wows the fans
Pity Martinez who? A year ago, Al-Nassr spent big on Pity Martinez. The Argentine star is injured, but he was not missed as the Riyadh club signalled their intentions in style with a 4-1 win. OK, the opposition may have been unfancied Damac, but other title hopefuls lost opening games they would have expected to win.
They didn’t have Talisca.
The Brazilian looked good during his spell in China, and he was everywhere on Friday, like a man possessed. It wasn’t just the goal but the possibilities that seemed to exist on the pitch whenever he had the ball. The ungainly but effective midfielder won the opening penalty early in the game that was converted by Abderrazzak Hamdallah to send Al-Nassr on their way. He headed the second and made the fourth.
A fantastic debut, one of the best seen in Saudi Arabia for years. Damac struggled to handle his strength and skill, and it bodes well for the season.
3. Al-Ittihad need Coronado
Al-Ittihad were not far away last season, finishing just five points behind champions Al-Hilal. Paying $12 million or so for Igor Coronado seemed to be great business, but the Brazilian missed the opening game as he was not registered in time, with the Tigers waiting to receive the correct financial documentation.
It needs to be sorted as soon as possible. Al-Ittihad looked toothless in their opening day 1-0 defeat at the hands of Al-Feiha. They had over two-thirds of possession, and there were lots of chances created, but none finished — there was a definite rustiness.
The hosts didn’t create much, but when the chance came, it was converted and that was the difference. Al-Ittihad may well look back at the opening game and regret the absence of their new star. Coronado needs to start as soon as possible.
4. The league is looking competitive
Al-Ittihad are not the only big team to suffer a setback in the opening round.
Al-Shabab finished second last season and were, in the end, a little disappointed not to take a first title for a decade. They lost 2-1 to an Abha team that were close to relegation last season. Al-Taawoun finished fourth, but threw away a 3-1 lead at Al-Hazm and ended up having to settle for a point.
It bodes well for the season ahead. A competitive league is not only good for the fans but also for Saudi Arabian football. If there are no easy games for the big boys, then everyone has to be at their best in every game, and this creates the kind of mentality that is needed across the league.
If the smaller teams can finish high up the table and even challenge for the top three and the Champions League, it inspires and motivates others to try to do the same, which will ultimately result in a stronger league. These are early days, of course, but a little unpredictability goes a long way.
5. One point gained for Al-Ahli
Al-Ahli had a disappointing season last time around, but after plenty of activity in the transfer market, hopes are high for the campaign ahead. A number of new foreign stars such as Paulinho, Dankler and Ezgjan Alioski, were absent for the opener as the club struggled to arrange visas and flights, and get registrations sorted in time for kick-off.
As such, a 1-1 draw with King’s Cup winner Al-Faisaly was not a bad result — and not a bad performance. Coach Besnik Hasi knows that he has to tighten a leaky defense and there was a more solid look at the back.
Al-Faisaly will look back on the game as a missed opportunity to start the season with a vital win as Al-Ahli will surely get better when their foreign stars take to the pitch.