Giants to begin wide-open race
© AFP

Saudi Arabian football followers are bracing themselves for the start of the 2009/10 season. And while Al Ittihad's mission will be to defend their crown, they know they face fierce competition.

Among those expected to be in contention are a trio of sides from the capital - namely Al Nasr, Al Shabab and Al Hilal - who would dearly love to bring the title back to Riyadh. The latter will be especially motivated after Al Ittihad wrested the trophy from them in their final game last season.

Back in Jeddah, meanwhile, the holders' cross-city rivals Al Ahli will also be doing their best to dethrone Gabriel Calderon's side. FIFA.com runs the rule over the main contenders for glory in what promises to be a fascinating battle.

The champions
After steering his charges to the title last term, Argentinian coach Gabriel Calderon will be hoping for back-to-back successes. Ittihad have not been resting on their laurels, instead strengthening their squad with the likes of Tunisian Amine Chermiti, on loan from Germany's Hertha Berlin, and Argentinian Luciano Leguizamon from Arsenal de Sarandi. The duo will bolster an attack that already includes Moroccan ace Hisham Aboucherouane, who netted the club's winning goal in the 2008/09 championship decider against Al Hilal in April.

As part of their preparations, Al Ittihad took their training camp to Spain, where they competed against Real Madrid and Ecuador's Liga de Quito in last month's Peace Cup.

The contenders
Perhaps the biggest threat to Al Ittihad this term will come from Al Hilal. In a bid to return to winning ways, the Riyadh side have handed coaching responsibilities to the Belgian Eric Gerets, who spent the previous two seasons in charge of French Ligue 1 heavyweights Marseille. They then added to their squad by signing Korea Republic defender Lee Young-Pyo from Borussia Dortmund and recalling Brazilian Thiago Neves from his loan spell with Fluminense. Also encouraging is the fact that Hilal have maintained the services of Swedish winger Christian Wilhelmsson and Romanian midfielder Mirel Radoi, and signed Al Wehda forward Issa El Mehiani.

Competition will also come from another of the capital's big sides, Al Shabab, who have been serious contenders for several years now and have won the last two editions of the Saudi Champions' Cup. In July 2009, the club secured the services of Portuguese coach Jaime Pacheco and strengthened their squad with three impressive imports: Angola's Flavio from Egyptian side Al Ahly, Libyan playmaker Tarek Al Tayeb from Al Hilal, and Australian midfielder Adam Griffiths. Al Shabab also possess a solid group of Saudi players who form the backbone of the team.

The outsiders
Al Nasr may not have won a league title since the 1994/95 season, but the team's preparations for this campaign showed they are aiming for top spot once more. The new man at the helm is Uruguayan Jorge Da Silva, and there have been two prominent squad additions in the form of Argentinian Victor Figueroa, who impressed during their pre-season stay in Barcelona, and winger Lee Chun-Soo, bought from Chunnam Dragons in his native Korea Republic. At local level, their biggest signings were those of Saudi veteran international Hussein Abdel-Ghani, and Al Qadsiya forward Mohammad Al Sahlawi.

Players to watch
Last season witnessed the emergence of many players who look set to feature again this term, though they face competition from a host of new arrivals keen to leave their mark. One man expected to continue his heroics from the previous campaign is Al Ittihad's Hisham Aboucherouane, who joint-top scored alongside Al Shabab's Nasser Al Shamrani.

Elsewhere, Hilal fans will be hoping forward Yasser Al Qahtani can recapture the kind of form that earned him the Asian Player of the Year award two years ago. Similarly, striker Mohammad Al Sahlawi will be out to prove his worth to Al Nasr, who are also expecting big things from the aforementioned Lee Chun-Soo.

Have your say
Can capital sides Al Hilal, Al Shabab or Al Nasr wrench the title back from Ittihad, or will Gabriel Calderon's men make it two in row? Click on 'Add Your Comment' to make your opinion known.