A Roshn Saudi League campaign like no other is in the books.
Jeddah giants Al-Ittihad ended their long wait for top-flight glory, while Al-Batin and Al-Adalah dropped into Yelo League.
A series of other substantial events occurred throughout a remarkable campaign which transformed preconceived notions about the Middle East’s premier club competition.
From Cristiano Ronaldo’s paradigm-shifting, mid-season Al-Nassr switch to Al-Hilal’s historic run at the FIFA Club World Cup and beyond, here are Arab News’ highlights from a memorable 2022-23.
A new benchmark was set for goalkeeping excellence by Ittihad’s Marcelo Grohe.
The Brazil custodian surged past the previous record of 14 clean sheets in a single Pro League campaign, ending with an official Opta tally of 18 (which would be 19 if he had not been afforded deserved adulation by a late substitution in the season finale vs. Al-Tai).
His 58 saves occurred in a title campaign which saw him beaten only 13 times. Remarkably, it took until match week six for him to concede.
Ittihad’s success was built from the back and Grohe laid firm foundations.
Ittihad’s missing ingredient to end a 14-year title wait proved to be Nuno Santo.
Last season’s agonizing near miss under Cosmin Contra left a sense of desolation and desire for change. The club’s turn to their bearded ex-Valencia, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur supremo proved astute.
Defensive rigidity was instilled as Egypt center-back Ahmed Hegazi became his conduit on the pitch, with Ittihad letting in five fewer goals than anyone else. But this did not come at a cost up top, with a second-best tally of 60 goals scored helped by 21-goal top marksman Abderrazak Hamdallah.
March’s astute 2-0 victory vs. Nassr and April’s roller coaster 2-1 win against Al-Shabab — more on that later — proved critical junctures.
Saudi Arabian football changed forever on December 30, 2022.
This was when Ronaldo’s heralded arrival was announced and a proud footballing nation’s limitless sporting ambitions became real.
The ex-Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid forward could not deliver silverware for Nassr, despite notching an impressive 14 times in 16 top-flight outings. That must wait for next season.
But he did deliver vast global attention, booming interest in television rights — 48 channels/platforms now broadcast to 170 countries — and packed stands wherever he performed.
Ronaldo has helped set a course for Roshn Saudi League to enter the “top-five leagues in the world.” Enormous intrigue surrounds which stellar names will join him on this quest.
Saudi Arabia’s lineage of elite strikers, from Majed Abdullah to Nasser Al-Shamrani, appears in safe hands with Firas Al-Buraikan.
The Al-Fateh star — who started World Cup 2022’s group-stage victory vs. eventual-champions Argentina — produced a career-best 17 top-flight goals, two more than he had netted in every other campaign combined since his bow in April 2018. This eye-catching tally was enough to make him the league’s fourth-highest scorer.
Al-Khaleej required a source of inspiration — and they found one in Fabio Martins.
Pedro Emanuel’s promoted side were 15th on four points prior to the ex-Shabab loanee’s mid-season procurement on a free transfer after an unfulfilled spell at the UAE’s Al-Wahda.
A trio of rejuvenating victories followed in the Portuguese winger’s opening three matches. Martins ended the campaign on seven goals and three assists from 17 run-outs, with Khaleej finishing safe in 14th.
Signing who failed to spark
It seemed the perfect winter replacement for the irreplaceable David Ospina.
Nassr swiftly reacted to the Colombia goalkeeper’s serious elbow injury by loaning Agustin Rossi. The 27-year-old had amassed more than 100 league run-outs for Boca Juniors, been previously called up by Argentina and performed to such a high standard that a pre-contract had been agreed with 2022 Copa Libertadores winners Flamengo.
Reality, however, would prove distinctly underwhelming. February’s shaky debut in a 2-2 draw at Al-Fateh saw him swiftly displaced by Nawaf Al-Aqidi and he only started again two months later when the Saudi Arabia prospect suffered fitness issues of his own.
“Epic” barely does justice to April 27’s unforgettable 2-1 victory for Ittihad over Shabab.
This was a contest from which three penalties were scored, one critical spot-kick was missed and an 106th-minute winner cemented long-held title aspirations for the victor, while crushing those of the vanquished.
Hamdallah and Cristian Guanca exchanged efforts from 12 yards in an ultra-competitive top-three clash. Referee Srdjan Jovanovic would again point to the spot in the 89th minute, this time for Al-Shabab.
Conjecture followed when Gabon forward Aaron Boupendza took on penalty duties. His “Panenka” chip floated harmlessly into the arms of a grateful Grohe.
Fast forward a quarter of an hour at an electrified King Abdullah Sports City and Hamdallah lobbed home his own penalty. Cue pandemonium in this game for the ages.
Ronaldo’s free-kick abilities remained sharp with a sensational 38-yard strike which sparked March’s rousing comeback victory against Abha.
Valuable points appeared to be draining away after Nassr loanee Abdulfattah Adam’s early opener for the visitors went without reply.
This was until the 78th minute when Ronaldo unleashed a ferocious low effort from distance which swerved past the despairing grasp of Cameroon’s emergent 2022 World Cup No. 1, Devis Epassy.
Stratospherically high standards at Hilal mean the 2022-23 season will always be tinged by disappointment.
But this does not provide full context. The Riyadh heavyweights competed with distinction on all fronts, despite a transfer ban and punishing schedule which would have derailed other clubs.
They became the first Asian outfit to reach a FIFA Club World Cup showpiece final, made the final of their AFC Champions League defense and secured a top-three Roshn Saudi League finish.
The dramatic penalty shootout victory — after Ali Al-Bulaihi’s 99th-minute leveler vs. Al-Wehda — in the King’s Cup decider will never be forgotten.