On Monday evening, Al-Hilal became champions of Saudi Arabia for the 18th time, defeating Al-Faisaly to finish first above Al-Ittihad, but the next day, rivals were already on the move, making plans for next season.
There is not much time for rest and preparation. The just-finished campaign lasted for 10-and-a-half months due to international breaks, continental club commitments, the AFC U-23 Asian Cup (which Saudi Arabia won earlier this month) and the postponement in May due to the death of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.
Those that start early will get the advantage and Al-Nassr, for one, are wasting no time. Head coach Miguel Angel Rosso was always going to be on his way at the end of the season, though the Argentine boss did manage to get the Yellows to third, just four points behind Al-Ittihad and six behind the champions. Bosses at the club had their eyes on another coach for some time, and on Tuesday announced that they had finally got their man.
Rudi Garcia is preparing to leave France and head to Saudi Arabia on a two-year contract.
“The first step to prepare for the next season is to contract with the coach,” Musalli Al-Muammar, CEO of Al-Nassr, said. “The negotiations were long and arduous but we got through the obstacles and difficulties. Garcia will be in Riyadh next week, to complete preparations and study the situation of the team.”
The Frenchman has a fine resume. He was linked in November to the interim Manchester United head coach position that eventually was filled by Ralf Rangnick. The 58-year-old was in charge of Lyon in 2020 when they knocked Juventus and Manchester City out of the UEFA Champions League and went all the way to the semifinals where they were eliminated by Bayern Munich. He took Roma to successive second-place finishes behind the dominant Juventus and now has a two-year contract to take Al-Nassr back to the top of Saudi football for the first time since 2019, when they won their ninth title.
First order of business for Garcia will be to keep Talisca, the Brazilian who scored 20 goals last season. There have been reports that he may be heading back to Europe, though recent comments from the man himself suggest that he may stay. Meanwhile, Vincent Aboubakar, looks to be heading to Qatar. The Cameroonian striker scored eight goals though was not quite as impressive after returning from the African Cup of Nations earlier this year as top scorer. Uruguayan forward Jonathan Rodriguez has already left. Argentine defender Ramon Mori is also likely to be surplus to requirements along with Brazilian midfielder Anselmo.
One benefit of getting a coach with recent experience at the top of the European game is the players he can bring in. Already French media is reporting that Al-Nassr are about to beat Lyon to sign Ghislain Konan, the Ivory Coast international left-back. He has been one of the most highly rated defenders in the French league and would be a fine addition to the SPL.
David Ospina has also been strongly linked with Riyadh. The former Arsenal goalkeeper has been released by Napoli and it was thought that he could be heading to Lazio but that was before Garcia took the job in Riyadh. It remains to be seen if one or both of those stars follow Garcia from Europe to Saudi Arabia but it is certain that there will be more talent to arrive at Al-Nassr in the coming weeks.
Like true champions Al-Hilal have not been standing still either and have already announced the extension of Jang Hyun-soo’s contract and it is likely that central defensive partner Ali Al-Bulaihi and goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf will get the same treatment.
And what of Al-Ittihad? The Tigers, who led the SPL table so long but then let a 16-point advantage over Al-Hilal become a two-point deficit when it mattered, are licking their wounds. The pain will be there for some time to come but preparations for next season can’t wait. They are going to go ahead without Cosmin Contra. For much of the season it was questionable whether the Romanian boss needed to win the title to keep his job but the way it ended, with Al-Ittihad throwing it away and dropping 13 points from the last eight games, means that there will be a new coaching team in place. Club officials are hoping it is sooner rather than later.
There is plenty of talent in Jeddah with the prolific Romarinho in attack, the talented Igor Coronado and the commanding Ahmed Hegazi in defense. Winger Fahad Al-Muwallad is set to appeal the 18-month ban he received in May for testing positive for a banned substance, and his return would be a big boost. It may be harder to keep Moroccan striker Abderrazak Hamdallah who has been linked with a move to Europe. Most importantly however is getting the right coach in quickly.
Football never stops and last season is already history. There is a lot of work for title hopefuls if they are going to give themselves the best chance of stopping Al-Hilal making it four in a row. Al-Nassr are making the early running but all need to get their preparations in gear.