RIYADH: The 2022-23 Saudi Professional League season kicked off on Thursday night with champions Al-Hilal starting the action with a 2-0 win at newly promoted Al-Khaleej, and Damac winning 1-0 on the road against Al-Feiha. Here are five things learned from the campaign’s appetizer.
1. The champions start clinically
Liverpool found in the recently started English Premier League that an opening away game at the home of a team that has just arrived in the top tier can be a very tricky proposition. The Reds were relieved to come away from Fulham with a point, but Al-Hilal left Al-Khaleej with all three.
This looked to be a real banana skin for the Riyadh giants, but it was negotiated smoothly with two goals inside the first 25 minutes from Odion Ighalo and then Moussa Marega that had the points secured with plenty of time to spare.
It was not a vintage performance from the defending champions, but they took advantage of mistakes to get ahead and then stayed there. It was a case of getting the job done and bagging three points to get the season started.
With temperatures high, Al-Hilal did not have to get out of second gear and while tougher tests will come, securing the points in games such as these is just as important.
2. Ighalo lays down marker
Ighalo finished as the top scorer last season and this writer tipped the Nigerian to do the same this time around. After just 145 seconds of the new campaign, he showed exactly why. A slip in Al-Khaleej’s defense let in Salem Al-Dawsari. His low shot was parried by Douglas Friedrich and there was Ighalo to slot home the rebound into the empty net.
It was not a spectacular strike or an especially memorable one, but it showed why the former Manchester United marksman topped the scoring charts. He just happens to be in the right place at the right time and does not miss many.
It was symbolic that it came so early and so smoothly. It was Al-Hilal’s first attack of the season and it ended with Ighalo scoring a goal that he could have scored with his eyes shut. It was an ominous moment for the rest of the league and all the defenders. If you make a mistake, then a goal is likely to be the result.
3. Al-Hilal squad looking good
After a hectic 2022 so far, Al-Hilal know better than anyone that a deep squad is necessary if you want to keep challenging at home in Saudi Arabia and also in Asia, and even the world.
Thursday showed that there is such a squad despite the fact that the current transfer ban prevented coach Ramon Diaz from signing anyone this summer.
The Argentine boss was missing several players. Jang Hyun-soo, Mohamed Kanno, Michael, Abdulelah Al-Malki, Saleh Al-Shehri, and others were all missing for various reasons. Yet Al-Hilal controlled the game and never really looked to be in danger.
Being unable to sign new players may be a benefit in the end for the champions. Diaz has a settled side to choose from and with only 10 games in the league to play before the end of the year, he can move swiftly in January to strengthen and freshen where he sees fit for when the season really gets going.
4. Some positives for Al-Khaleej
It was a real lesson for the newly promoted club. There was a lively atmosphere in front of their fans for the visit of the Asian champions and a real sense of excitement. But it did not even last three minutes as Ighalo welcomed them back into the big time, showing the new boys that any defensive mistake in the top tier will be punished.
When Marega made it two soon after, it was looking very bleak indeed and there were fears that it could have been a real beating. It was credit to coach Pedro Emanuel and his men that they regrouped, stood firm, did not concede again, and started to carve out a few chances of their own.
With as many as 16 new players joining the club since their promotion, it was always going to be difficult for the coach to mold those arrivals into a functioning team but there were some promising signs. At the very least, they will not have to face the champions for a while though a tough trip to Damac awaits in the next round of games.
5. Damac ready to prove not one-season wonders while Al-Feiha’s problems remain
Damac took fifth place last season despite indifferent results in the final phase. In the end, however, they finished seven points ahead of sixth.
It is always going to be difficult to break into the top four with their spending power, deep squads, and top-class talent so it would be a success to finish in fifth once more and perhaps put some pressure on the likes of Al-Shabab. To start this year with an away win was encouraging and it was a solid performance.
Last season was a special one for Al-Feiha as they won the King’s Cup, their first major piece of silverware. If they are to use that triumph as a springboard, then there is one issue that needs to be addressed. Last season they scored 0.7 goals a game, despite often being on top of their opponents.
It is early days, but the pattern looked familiar on Thursday as they lost 1-0 at home to Damac. Next comes a trip to Al-Hilal and there is plenty of work to do.