The Saudi Pro League has seen so many twists and turns already this season that it would be a brave person who predicts anything with confidence.
Al-Shabab turned a poor start into a championship challenge, usual relegation-battlers Damac led the standings for a while, and reigning champions Al-Hilal have hovered on the fringes of the title race without truly getting involved.
One thing that is certain however, is that the title battle between Al-Ittihad in first and Al-Nassr in second is going to be that bit spicier thanks to Abderrazak Hamdallah.
The two-time Saudi Pro League golden boot winner started the season in Riyadh, but after being released from his contract in November, made his debut — a goal-scoring one, naturally — for Al-Ittihad on Jan.14.
Hamdallah, who spent three-and-a-half years with Al-Nassr, can be a controversial figure. He had clearly not been happy for a while in the capital, and after starting his final game for the club in October, his departure became inevitable.
Last season Al-Nassr became exasperated by his behavior, and there were reports of the player feigning injury to miss games, going on unauthorized trips to Morocco and criticizing coaches. Whatever happened, there is little doubt that if Hamdallah goes on to play a part in the title race then fans back in Riyadh may find it hard to stomach. That is because he scored lots and lots of goals — 115 in 110 games — and no supporter can fail to love a striker who finds the target so regularly.
Al-Nassr initially protested against their former star going to Jeddah, but in the end could do little to stop the move and a begrudging acceptance was the only course to take.
The situation has been made easier thanks to the Yellows’ recent form, as wins remove worries, stress and all kinds of bad feelings. Few teams in Asia would be able to lose such a guarantor of goals and barely notice, but the nine-time champions, who started the season slowly, have won their past six games to move into second behind their Jeddah rivals.
The Riyadh faithful have new heroes now. The arrival of Anderson Talisca has been a huge plus for the team and hugely entertaining for the league. The Brazilian could not get inside China to play for Guangzhou FC due to the country’s travel restrictions which led to his departure, but he has had few problems opening up defenses in Saudi Arabia since making his debut last August.
It is not only his blond hair and ungainly running style that have caused the former Benfica star to stand out. Some of his goals have been spectacular, too. Last week, he was called the best player in the league by Pity Martinez who may be a teammate, but this season there have not been many better (though Talisca declared that such a title actually belongs to Al-Hilal maestro Salem Al-Dawsari) .
Martinez, almost the forgotten man of Saudi Arabia and South American football, is also playing a part. The Argentine arrived in 2020 amid a lot of fanfare, international headlines and with a transfer fee reported to be around SR67 million ($18 million).
The playmaker was expected to lead the team to Asian glory and never really got going before a serious injury kept him out of action for almost a year. Now returning to fitness, the 28-year-old is like a new signing and has been showing glimpses of the talent that had him named as the 2018 South American player of the year. The former River Plate star looks more settled in Saudi Arabia and also has a fellow Argentine as coach. Miguel Angel Rosso may have been seen as an underwhelming choice to take over early in December, but the former Boca Juniors boss has looked very comfortable.
The same is true of Al-Ittihad. The leaders have followed the perceived wisdom and strengthened when at their best, at the top of the league and winning games. Now Hamdallah has come in as the main striker. He has yet to really gel with his teammates, but as soon as talented Brazilians such as Bruno Henrique, Romarinho and the impressive Igor Coronado (when he returns from injury) start to create the chances, then the Moroccan will surely start banging them in. That is what he does.
Not too many, though, the neutrals will hope. With Al-Ittihad six points clear, they will want a title race and will be cheering on Al-Nassr as a team in great form and looking like the only obstacle between the Tigers and a first win title since 2009.
However, Al-Nassr, who will welcome in-form striker Vincent Aboubaker back from the African Nations Cup where he has been on hot scoring streak for hosts Cameroon, want more than to challenge — they want the big prize.
And if they can stop their former hotshot from lifting the trophy then it will make victory all the sweeter. Hamdallah could make the title race very interesting, indeed.