The conclusion of last season’s Zain Saudi Professional League was a nail-biter, with the country’s football fans on the edge of their seats as the race for top spot between Riyadh outfit Al Shabab and Jeddah’s Al Ahli went down to the line.
Al Shabab prevailed in the end, but the dramatic events of the Saudi league competition hinted at a seismic shift in the balance of power. Perennial favourites Al Hilal have not been champions for two seasons in a row, while Al Ahli’s success suggests they are finally emerging from the shadows of Jeddah rivals Al Ittihad.
With a new season set to get underway, FIFA.com takes a whistle-stop tour of the Saudi clubs preparing to tilt for the title.
Al Shabab and their Belgian coach Michel Preud’homme will be determined to defend their title, though much will depend on the performance of striker Nassir Al Shamrani, whose 21 goals last season put him level on top of the division’s scoring charts with Victor Simoes of Al Ahli.
The latter side will also be keen to prove that their sterling performances in finishing runners-up were no fluke. Czech coach Karel Jarolim, who has led the side to the AFC Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2005, has the task of ensuring his squad are as strong at the back and as dangerous up front as they were last term.
Al Hilal, meanwhile, face the task of winning back the faith of their shell-shocked supporters following an unexpected third-placed finish. In the run-up to the new season the Riyadh club have switched coaches yet again, with Czech Republic’s Ivan Hasek making way for Frenchman Antoine Kombouare. Much is being asked of the former Paris Saint-Germain coach, who is expected to restore domestic glory to the trophy-hungry club in addition to progressing from the last eight of the AFC Champions League.
Things are much the same for Al Ittihad, whose fifth-placed finish in last season’s championship was their lowest for a staggering 14 campaigns. Spaniard Raul Caneda took over as technical director midway through last term and, though not held fully accountable for the side’s failure, he is under pressure to deliver both domestically and in continental competition.
The dark horses
In recent years Al Ittifaq have consistently punched above their weight and last season’s fourth-placed finish, which put them ahead of more fancied outfits like Al Ittihad and Al Nasr, was ample reward for their efforts. New Swiss coach Alain Geiger is a veteran of the Arab game and his experience could help the side do even better this time out, while he will also hope to continue their run in this year's AFC Cup.
Despite their recent dip in form, Saudi stalwarts Al Nasr should never be taken lightly. With former Colombia coach Francesco Maturana in the hotseat, they will want to give their huge fanbase a better result than last season’s seventh-placed finish.
Due to all the drama at the very top of the table, it was easy to overlook the incredible achievements of modest outfit Al Fath. Sixth in the league and King’s Cup of Champions semi-finalists last term, can Tunisian coach Fathi Al Jabali and his charges keep the surprises coming this season?
Players to watch
Champions Al Shabab have bolstered their ranks by bringing back Brazilian Camacho and signing Argentinian Sebastian Tagliabue from Al Ittifaq. Al Ahli, for their part, have kept faith with the foreign signings who have served them so well to date: aforementioned Brazilian sharpshooter Simoes, Imad Al Hosni from Oman and Colombia’s Jairo Palomino.
At Al Hilal, meanwhile, Moroccan Adil Hermach and Korea Republic’s Yoo Byung Soo are joined by new signings Abdou Kader Mangane from Senegal and Wesley Lopes da Silva, the Brazilian who scored 27 times to head the goalscoring charts in last season’s Romanian top flight.
Al Ittihad too have managed to lure yet another Brazilian to Saudi Arabia, with Vasco da Gama’s Diego Souza the side’s latest foreign signing. Moroccan Abdelghani Faouzi stays on in Jeddah, while Hosny Abd Rabo of Egypt makes the move from Al Ittihad to Al Nasr. He is one of four new foreign faces at the club, which include Jaime Ayovi from Colombia, the Argentinian Damian Manso and Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mulladjanov.
Have your say
Can Al Shabab retain their crown or will there be new champions come the end of the season?