RIYADH: The 2022-2023 season of the Saudi Professional League is almost upon us and there are, as always, lots of questions. Arab News looked into the future and attempted to predict this season’s major issues.
It is the toughest call of all, but of the contenders, Al-Nassr are the ones who have really strengthened over the summer.
The club finished strongly last season with 16 points from the last six games and it went almost unnoticed that they finished just six points behind the champions Al-Hilal.
The three big signings look very good on paper. David Ospina in goal, full-back Ghislain Konan, and midfielder Luis Gustavo all have good experience in the big leagues and if they settle then Al-Nassr should take some stopping.
Much depends on new coach Rudi Garcia, but he has worked at huge clubs such as Roma and Lyon and will not be fazed by taking on Al-Hilal.
Add attacking talent such as Pity Martinez (2018 South American player of the year), Talisca, who was a standout last season, and Vincent Aboubakar, top scorer at the last Africa Cup of Nations, and Al-Nassr have all the ingredients in place for title No. 10. Add to that good local talent, including an improving Ayman Yahya, Abdulrahman Ghareeb, Sultan Al-Ghanam, and Abdulelah Al-Amri.
With no Champions League commitments, it is all looking very promising for the Riyadh club.
Second place: Al-Hilal
Only once in the past decade has Al-Hilal finished outside the top two and it is unlikely to happen this time around. Every season, the Riyadh giants target first place, just like last season when they won title No. 18.
This summer’s transfer ban means that coach Ramon Diaz has not been able to strengthen his squad, however. There have, instead, been rumors of playmaker Matheus Pereira wanting away and even question marks over whether star striker Odion Ighalo would stay.
There are injury issues too, as well as the Mohamed Kanno saga, the one that caused the ban, that do not help. Add Asian Champions League commitments and several of their players heading to the World Cup, and it all adds up to a more difficult season than usual.
Yet, despite all this, Al-Hilal can never be counted out. In February, they were 16 points behind Al-Ittihad but ended up taking the title. The Blues are a winning machine and, as well as the talent, have an amazing mentality. But no new players — at least until January — may make the difference this time.
Third place: Al-Ittihad
The Tigers have been licking their wounds since throwing away a double-digit lead in last season’s title race. Under new coach Nuno Espirito Santo, they are likely to come out fighting.
The additions of Tarek Hamed and Helder Costa look to be good ones, but the four-month ban on prolific striker Abderrazak Hamdallah could be costly. There are questions over the defense that the coach will need to answer but the big one is how the failure last season will affect the mood and mentality.
Surprise package: Al-Ettifaq
Last season, a late run under Patrice Carteron saw the men from Dammam escape relegation, just.
The Frenchman knows the region well and while he is not the type to stay in one place for too long, the former Lyon boss, who has won the African Champions League and the Egyptian title, did seem to galvanize the players after arriving in February and that brought results when they were needed.
There is a decent spine at Al-Ettifaq. New goalkeeper Paulo Victor has a solid resume, Swedish striker Robin Quaison has shown he can score, and midfield looks promising too, especially if the new signings can gel quickly.
Apart from a second-round clash with Al-Ittihad, the team’s start looks fairly gentle and if there are points on the board early on, the pressure is off, and the prospect of a much better season is on.
Top scorer: Odion Ighalo
The suspension of Hamdallah until December means that it is unlikely, though not impossible, that the Moroccan will win the Golden Boot for a third time.
It gives Odion Ighalo, who looks to be staying at Al-Hilal and in good pre-season form, a great chance to repeat his feat from last season when he finished top of the scoring charts, splitting his goals between Al-Shabab and then the champions after his mid-season transfer.
All in all, the Nigerian scored 24 goals and is one those strikers that can be almost invisible but then pops up with a goal. The former Manchester United man will surely be finding the target on a regular basis. There is no World Cup to deal with and with Al-Hilal, there are sure to be lots of chances.
Best goalkeeper: David Ospina
He is the highest-profile goalkeeper in the league and was playing regularly in Serie A for Napoli last season and before that featured in the UEFA Champions League for Arsenal.
With more than 100 caps for Colombia, he has a resume that few other goalkeepers can match and in 2015, was called the best goalkeeper in the English Premier League by an admittedly biased Arsene Wenger.
Ospina is a great shot stopper but is not the tallest and that, and his reputation for making errors, has perhaps stopped him from reaching the very top echelons of the goalkeeping world, but he has got close.
A first league title win outside his homeland would add to that resume and may lead other Saudi Arabian clubs to look for bigger name No. 1s.
Foreign player to watch: Ever Banega
There are so many to choose from but there can be few better than the Argentine playmaker who has made Al-Shabab tick in the past two seasons.
He is now well and truly settled in Riyadh and under Spanish coach Vicente Moreno should be ready to set the league alight. If Al-Shabab are going to challenge for the title, then they will need their 34-year-old fit and firing.
There is another Argentine in Pity Martinez who has yet, partly due to injuries, to show his true ability for Al-Nassr though there were flashes late last season. With plenty of time to train, the former River Plate man could be like a new signing for the Yellows.
Saudi player to watch: Firas Al-Buraikan
It is to be hoped that Hassan Tambakti, a young center-back, gets more minutes on the pitch with Al-Shabab this season, as the 23-year-old has real potential.
The big story however may be that of Firas Al-Buraikan who, similar to Tambakti, joined the under-23 team after the group stage of the AFC Asian Cup in June and helped the young Green Falcons win the title.
There is a shortage of Saudi Arabian strikers playing regularly and he was the only homegrown forward to finish among the top 10 scorers last season, especially impressive as he was playing for Al-Fateh and not one of the giants.
If the 22-year-old keeps improving, especially with the injury to Al-Hilal’s Saleh Al-Shehri, then he will be starting, and perhaps starring at the World Cup.
Coach to watch: Nuno Espirito Santo
It is a funny old game. One year ago, the Portuguese boss was sitting on top of the English Premier League after three wins out of three with Tottenham Hotspur but now he is in Jeddah.
If Nuno can achieve success in Saudi Arabia and Asia and not jump at the first chance to return to Europe that comes along, then he really could show others that this is a place where coaches can make a difference and work with top players.
That is in the future, as the first task will be to bring the title to Al-Ittihad for the first time since 2009. The Tigers messed it up last season but now have a high-profile boss and higher expectations.