The scenario at the start of the new Saudi Professional League season looks much as it did a year ago, with 13-time league champions Al Hilal getting ready to defend their title against a host of ambitious rivals.
Despite losing Belgian coach Eric Gerets to the Morocco national team midway through the previous campaign, Al Hilal were able to retain their crown under the guidance of former Al Ittihad (Jeddah) coach Gabriel Calderon. Dominant and hungry for more, the Riyadh-based giants will take some beating this year. FIFA.com takes a closer look at what lies in store for them and their opponents.
Changes for the champs, challengers confident
Champions they might be, but victory has not stopped Al Hilal from making a number of changes in their ranks, notably with German Thomas Doll stepping into their hot-seat. The club's fans have also said goodbye to key players Yasser Al Qahtani and Mirel Radoi, who have both moved to Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates.
It is not all one-way traffic: the squad has been bolstered by the arrival of a clutch of foreign players, including Cameroonian Achille Emana and the Moroccan twosome of Adil Hermach and Youssef El Arabi, who is expected to shine this season after recent superlative performances for French side Caen.
Al Ittihad’s failure to recapture the league crown they won in 2009 may be put down to their excessive turnover of technical staff in recent times. This year, the Jeddah side's hopes are high that Dimitri Davidovic, who returned at the end of last season for his fifth stint in charge, can put an end to the trophy hiatus. After seeing his side down Al Hilal in the AFC Champion’s League Round of 16 in May, the 67-year-old veteran of Saudi football will be looking to extend his team’s run in Asia and end their sequence of second places in the domestic league.
Last season’s third-placed finishers, Al Ittifaq, will want to maintain their supremacy over Al Shabab and Al Nasr, neither of whom performed to expectation in 2010/11 and will be looking to challenge at the head of the table.
Al Ahli, meanwhile, have much to be excited about. Victory in the 2011 Saudi Champions Cup has booked them a berth in next year’s AFC Champions League despite their relatively lowly sixth-place league finish.
The rivalry between the top two teams continued after the end of the season as the clubs fought tooth and nail to secure the services of premier foreign imports. Al Ittihad responded to Al Hilal’s El Arabi coup by signing Brazilian winger Wendel from Bordeaux to join Kuwait international Fahad Al Enazi, on loan from Kazma.
Asian Player of the Year in 2008, Uzbekistan's Server Djeparov joins Al Shabab, while Al Ittifaq have signed Korea Republic defender Lee Jong Ho. Al Nasr, for their part, have been strengthened by the arrival of Algerian international Antar Yahia, formerly of Bundesliga side Bochum, and Colombia’s Juan Pino from Galatasaray.
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