Midseason review of Roshn Saudi Pro League 2023-2024

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 and goals scored and 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 and goals scored and 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 and goals scored and 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 and goals scored and 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 and goals scored and 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 and goals scored and 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 and goals scored and 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 and goals scored and 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 domestic travails. Superior squad depth has been delivered to him.

 

9. Al-Wehda

Points 25 and goals scored and 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.

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