Midseason review of Roshn Saudi Pro League 2023-2024

Midseason review of Roshn Saudi Pro League 2023-2024
Al-Hilal are top of the Roshn Saudi League as it returns following the lengthy AFC. (Asian Cup break X/@Alhilal_FC)
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Updated 13 February 2024
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Midseason review of Roshn Saudi Pro League 2023-2024

Midseason review of Roshn Saudi Pro League 2023-2024
  • Arab News looks at the state of play for the SPL clubs as they return from the AFC Asian Cup break, starting with positions 1-9

Anticipation abounds ahead of this week’s restart of the 2023-2024 Roshn Saudi Pro League.

The six-week interlude for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup saw managerial changes, eye-catching player acquisitions and noteworthy exits.

Arab News provides a breakdown of the 16 clubs as they head into Thursday’s resumption, including their key winter business and outlook for the 15 remaining matchweeks.

In part one, we look at the clubs occupying the first nine positions.

 

1. Al-Hilal

Points 53

Goals scored/conceded 59-9

Season so far: The major injury to Neymar aside, this campaign could not be going any better.

Their other massive summer additions have all contributed significantly — Serbia hitman Aleksandar Mitrovic has struck 17 times, and Salem Al-Dawsari is putting in displays worthy of being AFC Player of the Year. In addition, it is like returning head coach Jorge Jesus has never been away, and November’s 9-0 thrashing of Al-Hazem was the division’s biggest win.

Major winter changes: With an attack firing on all cylinders even without Neymar, a measured call was made to bolster defensive ranks with the addition of Marseille and Brazil fullback Renan Lodi.

Outlook: In short, Hilal look unstoppable in this quest to regain their crown. Last week they registered a 2-0 victory versus Al-Nassr in the Riyadh Season Cup. A 12-match top-flight winning run has opened up a seven-point lead, while they boast the best defense and attack. They must navigate away-trips to nearest challengers Nassr and Al-Ahli.

 

2. Al-Nassr

Points 46

Goals scored/conceded 55-23

Season so far: An opening pair of league defeats had set alarm bells ringing. But the summer decision to hire Luis Castro has proven to be an inspired one. The Brazilian has orchestrated 56 goal contributions from a fearsome attacking trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane and Talisca, with Marcelo Brozovic and Aymeric Laporte adding defensive quality. The only serious blemish was December’s 3-0 derby humbling at Hilal, which had seen a second-half collapse.

Major winter changes: The loan of Aziz Behich from Melbourne City raised eyebrows. Also, either the experienced Australia left-back or injury prone returning Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina will take the place of departed Ivory Coast midfielder Seko Fofana. The latter was part of a trio of mid-season exits to Ettifaq, alongside winger Khalid Al-Ghannam and Saudi Arabia center-back Abdullah Madu.

Outlook: With the ageless Ronaldo at the top of scoring (20) and assists (nine), anything is possible. A return of 46 points from the last 51 shows they will be there, if imperious Hilal ever start slipping.

 

3. Al-Ahli

Points 40

Goals scored/conceded 41-19

Season so far: This season was always going to be a work in progress because of a heralded top-flight return, the injection of world-class signings and the visionary hire of young German manager Matthias Jaissle. Al-Ahli’s four-match winning start belied their winter struggles to come.

But a near-perfect December witnessed things click under their ex-Red Bull Salzburg tactician. The influence of the Ivory Coast’s Africa Cup of Nations inspiration Franck Kessie is palpable. In addition, Algeria superstar Riyad Mahrez has 15 goal contributions and Saudi Arabia striker Firas Al-Buraikan headed into the break with five goals in his last five league outings — made vital by ex-Liverpool superstar Roberto Firmino’s disappointing output.

Major winter changes: Not applicable.

Outlook: A nine-point gap to Jeddah rivals Al-Ittihad means these promoted giants are well placed to hold on for qualification to the inaugural AFC Champions League elite. They must showcase how the youthful and visionary Jaissle can carry them even further in 2024-2025.

 

4. Al-Taawoun

Points 34

Goals scored/conceded 32-22

Season so far: Another campaign as dark horses under the ingenious Pericles Chamusca continues. A flood of summer exits at last term’s fifth-placed finishers did not derail them. Instead, we have witnessed former Al-Wahda target man Joao Pedro netting frequently upon his return to the Kingdom. In addition, former Nantes defender Andrei Girotto represents a rock at the back alongside Saudi Arabia breakout Awn Al-Saluli, and Nagoya Grampus-import Mateus has registered four goals and assists. Ending December with two defeats provides a note of caution, however.

Major winter changes: Key Spanish midfielder Alvaro Medran departed to Ettifaq, with the mercurial Mohammed Al-Kuwaykibi among those making the opposite trip. Argentine playmaker Cristian Guanca has a new temporary home, on loan from Al-Shabab.

Outlook: It appears a huge ask to gatecrash the top three, but Chamusca’s ambition and application makes this a possibility.

 

5. Al-Ittihad

Points 31

Goals scored/conceded 37-26

Season so far: This has been a title defense to forget. The fanfare that greeted the summer arrivals of Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho has not translated onto the pitch. Nuno Espirito Santo departed in November and his replacement Marcelo Gallardo has taken just seven points from 18. They are a side struggling in the transition from defensive football to an expansive outlook. A 3-0 victory last week against Al-Tai — rescheduled because of Al-Ittihad’s early FIFA Club World Cup exit — does hold promise.

Major winter changes: A free transfer granted to Brazilian assist-machine Igor Coronado should allow fit-again Egypt colossus Ahmed Hegazi to be re-registered after serious injury. Al-Shabab fullback Fawaz Al-Sqoor has inked a move from Al-Shabab when on Asian Cup duty, while Hamed Al-Ghamdi, Ahmed Al-Ghamdi and Saad Al-Mousa have joined on loan from Ettifaq; with Abdulrahman Al-Aboud and Haroune Camara moving the opposite way.

Outlook: With so much ground to make up, Gallardo must swiftly showcase the brilliance which made him a triple Copa Libertadores champion.

 

6. Damac

Points 30

Goals scored/conceded 35-25

Season so far: Cosmin Contra’s first full campaign has been hugely impressive. Fueled by the sensational 14-goal return from ex-Tottenham Hotspur forward Georges-Kevin Nkoudou, the wiles of Egypt veteran Tarek Hamed and impact of Romania forward Nicolae Stanciu, a rise from last term’s eighth place appears apparent. This will be some achievement.

Major winter changes: Not applicable.

Outlook: They have Taawoun in their sights for a battle to become the competition’s best of the rest.

 

7. Al-Fateh

Points 29 

Goals scored/conceded 33-26

Season so far: Another former Ittihad boss is working wonders in the Kingdom. Slaven Bilic has weathered the late exit of Firas Al-Buraikan, developing a potential Asian superstar in teenager Abbas Al-Hassan, and eliciting excitement through driving attackers Mourad Batna, Cristian Tello and Lucas Zelaryan. They have recorded just one defeat from matchweek four to 11.

Major winter changes: Not applicable.

Outlook: Another side that have Taawoun and Damac in their sights. A repeat of last term’s sixth-place finish would be commendable.

 

8. Ettifaq

Points 25

Goals scored/conceded 22-22

Season so far: Here is a manager and a squad with much to prove. Steven Gerrard’s heralded tenure began with purpose, with his victory over Nassr being one of five from his opening seven RSL games. The wheels had already started to come off, however, before injury to seven-goal French striker Moussa Dembele. They are currently winless from their last eight matchweeks.

Major winter changes: This has easily been the busiest side. A frantic end to the transfer window witnessed Abha raided for Cameroon forward Karl Toko Ekambi, Taawoun for Medran, and Nassr for Fofana. International headlines had already been made by England midfielder Jordan Henderson’s departure to Ajax. Brazilian forward Vitinho (Al-Shabab) and DR Congo center-back Marcel Tisserand (Abha) also exited.

Outlook: Gerrard must justify last month’s award of a two-year contract extension despite disappointing recent results. Superior squad depth has been delivered to him.

 

9. Al-Wehda

Points 25

Goals scored/conceded 31-34

Season so far: A significantly more comfortable campaign than last season’s relegation battle. The return of manager Giorgios Donis and impactful Australia winger Craig Goodwin have provided sizeable uplift in quality. Veteran pre-season recruit Odion Ighalo’s nine goals is already six more than anyone managed in 2022-2023.

Major winter changes: Not applicable.

Outlook: Al-Wehda is enjoying mid-table security. Saudi Arabia forward Abdulaziz Noor is one to watch, after recording three goals and five assists in 18 games.


Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves
Updated 03 March 2024
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Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

NEWCASTLE: Criticism, at this level, is only ever just around the corner. One year you may be returning a club to the Champions League after two decades, the next some may be calling for change at the top. That’s the situation that’s faced Eddie Howe at Newcastle United in recent times.

A one-trick pony. The lack of Plan B. Howe has faced up to some tactical criticism from certain sections of the Newcastle fanbase in a drift from top four contenders to the fringes of the bottom half of the division in what has turned into a winter of discontent on Tyneside.

And in fairness, some of that criticism has been justified. However, when a tactical tweak was needed, Howe delivered, landing a blow to his critics by producing a compact, robust Newcastle setup that was far too much for opposite number Gary O’Neil — transforming a resurgent, on-the-rise Wolverhampton Wanderers’ bark in to a whimper at St. James’ Park.

Alexander Isak gave the hosts the lead on the break, while another counter goal by Anthony Gordon had the Magpies cruising at half-time. A late wondergoal from youngster Tino Livramento added a flourish in the dying embers.

Famed for their transition play, Wolves have torn teams apart in the Premier League on their rise. And getting caught by teams on the transition, has been Howe and Newcastle’s kryptonite during their winter struggles.

Answering that, Howe tweaked it, as Newcastle sat deeper, invited the pressure and surrendered possession wilfully. It worked wonders.

“We changed things tactically today. It was a big win,” he said after recording the Magpies’ first home win since December 16.

“We knew, being back at home, that we hadn’t won here for quite a while, certainly in 2024. Our home form has always been so good. Ever since I’ve come to the football club, even in the season when we stayed up and then making the top four in the following one, the home form was really the bedrock of all our success. So, to have our first wobble here was a concern. We’re delighted to win, it was a massive game for us.”

“It was a slight tweak from our normal way of playing. We analyze our opposition, like we do always, and I know there’s a lot of people that say we play the same way every week, but I can assure you that’s not the case. There’s always tweaks and little things we try to do to help us in our performance, and that was one today, to try to maybe play a slightly more transitional game.

“I still think we’re not quite where we were at times last year, and also at times this year, but I thought it was better. I thought we had a better physical look about us, with really good running capacity, highlighted by our first goal, which was really transitional. There were players running the full length of the pitch, with a real desire to score. I thought, individually, we looked better as well in that respect. As I’ve said many times, confidence can ebb and flow, from individuals and the team. But I thought toward the end of the game, we started to see the confidence flow back into the group, and the last ten to 15 minutes was really good.”

Newcastle have so often been starved of options when they’ve needed them, injuries to key players at key times has limited what the head coach can do off the bench. With just 12 games left, that situation is clearly easing — and it is no surprise to see Newcastle put in arguably their most impressive, coherent performance in 2024.

Turning to goalscorer Livramento as well as summer signing Harvey Barnes, coupled with Miguel Almiron, Lewis Miley and Elliot Anderson off the subs bench is as strong a group as Howe has been able to name for months. Arguably, the biggest impact of all, however, was getting Joe Willock back into the starting XI.

After 12 months of struggles, this was the first match the former Arsenal man has started since November. And what a difference his energy and legs gave to a United midfield that has lacked anything like it for so long.

Howe said: “Naturally, I think our midfield does have a different complexion with Willock in the team. I think he has different qualities, although I have to compliment Lewis Miley when he came on because that’s a difficult game situation for someone so young, but I thought he did really well.

“Joe does add a running and an athleticism that maybe we don’t have without him. I was delighted with his contribution. Yes, we’ve managed his game minutes, but it’s great that he’s come through three games and done really well.

“I thought he was (Bruno) was very good and had moments where he really showed his class. When he’s at the top of his game, for me, there’s no one better in playing the role that he does. I was really pleased with his impact in the first goal because it’s a full length of the pitch counter-attack and he’s had to make up a lot of yards to get a vital contribution to that goal. That lets me know that, mentally, he’s in a good place and, physically, he’s in a good place too after a three-game week with extra-time. I was really pleased with that part of his game.”


Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers

Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers
Updated 03 March 2024
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Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers

Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers
  • Details of the trial were believed to have been close to publication by the International
  • Football Association Board (IFAB) last month Stronger enforcement on time-wasting goalkeepers was the major development to emerge from the meeting

LONDON: A controversial sin bin trial featuring blue cards was absent from the latest changes made by football’s lawmakers to improve player behavior on Saturday.
It was reported in February that blue cards were set to be part of a trial of sin bins at higher levels of the professional game.
Details of the trial were believed to have been close to publication by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) last month.
But the negative response to the proposal from Premier League managers like Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and Tottenham’s Ange Postecoglou played a role in the trial details being delayed.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino said on Friday that he “wasn’t aware” blue cards were intended to be used in the trial and said his organization was “completely opposed” to the idea.
Sin-bin yellow cards will continue to be trialled at grassroots level instead.
“If the trials at the lower levels work, of course the conversation continues throughout the pyramid,” said the English Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham after IFAB’s annual general meeting near Loch Lomond, Scotland.
“I don’t think that was ever the intention for the trial to start in the Premier League.”
Stronger enforcement on time-wasting goalkeepers was the major development to emerge from the meeting.
Fans could be encouraged to join in countdowns on goalkeepers holding on to the ball too long.
In competitions taking part in the trial, goalkeepers will be able to hold onto the ball for eight seconds and the sanction for holding on too long would be a corner or a throw-in in line with the penalty spot, rather than an indirect free-kick.
Under current guidelines, ‘keepers are supposed to only hold onto the ball for a maximum of six seconds, but the rule is rarely strictly enforced.
The other two trials approved by IFAB are designed to help referees regulate player behavior.
Referees now have the option to create captain-only zones and cooling-off areas in the event of mass confrontations.


Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner

Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner
Updated 02 March 2024
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Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner

Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner
  • Nunez marked his return from injury by heading home nine minutes into stoppage-time at the City Ground
  • “It happened exactly the same in the first half didn’t it? Exactly the same, just the other way round,” Klopp said

NOTTINGHAM, United Kingdom: Jurgen Klopp claimed Darwin Nunez’s controversial late winner against Nottingham Forest was legitimate as Liverpool moved four points clear at the top of the Premier League on Saturday.
Nunez marked his return from injury by heading home nine minutes into stoppage-time at the City Ground.
But the Uruguay forward’s decisive contribution left Forest furious after referee Paul Tierney had stopped play before the build-up to the goal for an apparent head injury to Liverpool defender Ibrahima Konate.
Tierney blew with Forest in possession on the edge of Liverpool’s area and after Konate had quickly recovered, the official dropped the ball to Reds goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher, who then started the move that led to Nunez’s goal.
“It happened exactly the same in the first half didn’t it? Exactly the same, just the other way round,” Klopp said.
“I accepted it would happen like that because it happened in the first half. If it didn’t happen in the first half, I would have asked the question as well.
“I would assume that’s the rule, I don’t know. But because it happened twice and got handled exactly the same, I don’t really see their reasons for a discussion.”
Earlier in the game, Tierney halted a Liverpool attack after Forest captain Ryan Yates was felled by Harvey Elliott’s shot and play resumed with goalkeeper Matz Sels taking possession.
“I understand 100 percent the excitement and the anger of Nottingham, of course, they fought for everything. But it happened twice the same and was consistent,” Klopp said.
Nunez’s winner secured Liverpool their first league victory at the City Ground in almost 40 years.
The priceless success by the banks of the River Trent piled pressure on second-placed Manchester City and third-placed Arsenal, who play on Sunday and Monday against Manchester United and Sheffield United respectively.
Klopp admitted it had been a huge effort from his injury-hit squad, who have registered six straight wins in all competitions, including last Sunday’s League Cup final win over Chelsea.
“Four games in 11 days, come on. Five in 15,” Klopp said. “It’s really tough. With our squad situation it’s super-tough and how the boys fought through that is really special.
“The fourth game was the toughest. It was an unbelievable effort the boys put in. A proper, proper shift.
“If you had asked me 12 days ago if it was possible to win all four games, I’d have said no.”


Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved

Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved
Updated 02 March 2024
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Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved

Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved
  • “I’ve been told — I didn’t hear, to be honest. It’s difficult for me to understand,” the Argentine coach said
  • Chelsea rescued a point on Pochettino’s 52nd birthday when Axel Disasi headed home Cole Palmer’s cross

LONDON: Chelsea fans turned on Mauricio Pochettino as they watched their team labor to draw at west London rival Brentford 2-2 in the English Premier League on Saturday.
The Blues were leading through Nicolas Jackson’s 35th-minute header but were pegged back by Mads Roerslev’s close-range strike in the 50th.
When Yoane Wissa put Brentford ahead with a spectacular overhead kick in the 69th, the away fans began singing the name of former manager Jose Mourinho as well as calling for Pochettino to go.
“I’ve been told — I didn’t hear, to be honest. It’s difficult for me to understand,” the Argentine coach said.
“But it’s normal, we were losing the game 2-1 and they expressed their frustration. I am one of the ones responsible, I’m the coach.”
Chelsea rescued a point on Pochettino’s 52nd birthday when Axel Disasi headed home Cole Palmer’s cross.
The point left Chelsea languishing in 11th place in another dismal league campaign and the first season under Pochettino.
“I was asked before if I feel the love from the fans — no,” Pochettino said. “I’m not worried — we need to accept this relationship. You win your relationship through winning games.
“I will continue to work and try to change this perception. We need to manage some reality. We are working really hard to try to win games, the team is fighting. If it doesn’t work and the fans are disappointed, I need to respect their opinion.”


Max Verstappen cruises to ‘unbelievable’ Red Bull one-two in Bahrain Grand Prix

Max Verstappen cruises to ‘unbelievable’ Red Bull one-two in Bahrain Grand Prix
Updated 02 March 2024
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Max Verstappen cruises to ‘unbelievable’ Red Bull one-two in Bahrain Grand Prix

Max Verstappen cruises to ‘unbelievable’ Red Bull one-two in Bahrain Grand Prix
  • Verstappen delivered the 12th ‘hat-trick’ of his career leaving only the seven-time champions Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton ahead on 22 and 19 trebles respectively

SAKHIR, Bahrain: Three-time world champion Max Verstappen began his title defense in flawless fashion on Saturday when he guided his Red Bull team to a crushing one-two triumph, ahead of team-mate Sergio Perez, at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
In a statement of emphatic superiority, the 26-year-old Dutchman came home 22.5 seconds clear of Perez, who started from fifth, to ease some of the pressure on team boss Christian Horner.
Pole sitter Verstappen held off the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc to lead into the first corner, and it was business as usual from there to the flag as he enjoyed the perfect start to his quest for a fourth consecutive title.
By claiming the 33rd pole of his career, fastest lap and race win, Verstappen delivered the 12th ‘hat-trick’ of his career leaving only the seven-time champions Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton ahead on 22 and 19 trebles respectively.
It was Verstappen’s eighth successive win, his 55th race victory and 99th podium finish as Red Bull dominated an uneventful race on a cold evening at Sakhir’s Bahrain International Circuit.
it also extended his run as championship leader to 40 races since the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix.
“Unbelievable!” said Verstappen.
“I think today went better than expected and we had a lot of pace. It was super-enjoyable to drive and we stayed out of trouble. It’s a good start to the year — it couldn’t be better.
“It was a lot of fun. And it’s very special to have days like today as it doesn’t happen often, when everything is all ok with the car. It felt great today.”
Team-mate Perez praised the team.
“The team definitely had good momentum. We’ve got to keep it up now for the coming weekends,” he said.
“It was the maximum we could achieve — a tricky race with the tire management and plenty to learn from the race.”
Carlos Sainz, whose seat at Ferrari is to be taken by Hamilton next year, finished a pugnacious third ahead of team-mate Charles Leclerc, who profited from a rare error by Mercedes George Russell in the closing laps.
“I felt really good today and had good pace. We had a clear plan and it worked well,” said Sainz.
“I managed my tires and then I could overtake a few cars on the way to the podium. A good step forward compared to last year.”
Russell finished fifth ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris, Hamilton in the second Mercedes, Oscar Piastri in the second McLaren and the Aston Martin duo two-time champion Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll.
After days of speculation, Red Bull boss Horner arrived hand in hand with his wife, former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell — a show of unity following the release on Thursday of a cache of alleged messages from him to a female member of staff.
That had come just 24 hours after he had been cleared by Red Bull’s internal investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior.
On track, the team showed no apparent distraction as Verstappen topped qualifying to secure his 33rd pole position — and lead the pack when the lights went out in cold, dry conditions in the desert.
The Dutchman made a clean start and led from lights to flag.
When he came in for his final set of new softs at the end of lap 37, he re-joined with a 17-second cushion ahead of Perez.
It was a commanding performance from the champion, decorated with a fastest lap of 1:32.608 as he cruised through the final 16 laps: a lap that was fully 1.5 seconds quicker than any other.
“Look, it’s been the best possible start to the season,” said Horner afterwards.
“Very clinical from the team and a well-executed race. The perfect start.”
Asked about his own position and the confidence that Red Bull’s owners have in him, Horner was bullish.
“Do I have their backing? Absolutely, yes,” he said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”