Last season proved to be a special one for Al Hilal. Under the tutelage of former Belgium international Eric Gerets and boasting a settled squad, the Riyadh club won the Saudi Arabian league title for the 12th time, setting a new national record. Just for good measure, they also made off with the Crown Prince Cup and reached the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League. Having lost out to major rivals Al Ittihad in 2008/09, Al Hilal are determined to come out on top again and take their championship haul to 13.
With the new season about to dawn in Saudi Arabia, FIFA.com assesses their chances of doing just that and looks at the title credentials of the teams expected to challenge them.
The defending champions
Al Hilal have held on to the squad that won them the title number 12. Although Yasser Al Qahtani, the star striker of the national side and the 2007 Asian Footballer of the Year, caused a scare when he picked up an injury, he was soon back in training, much to the relief of the fans. As well as retaining their title, Al Qahtani and Co are also aiming for the AFC Champions League title, a coveted stepping stone to the FIFA Club World Cup.
The only cloud on the horizon is the departure of Gerets at the end of the year. The Belgian coach has agreed to take over Morocco's national team and his planned exit at the halfway point of the season could undermine the club’s title hopes.
The other contenders
Al Ittihad’s chances of snatching the 2009/10 crown from the eventual champions evaporated with three games remaining. Now coached by the Portuguese Manuel Jose, the Jeddah outfit are looking to rising Saudi star Naif Hazazi to inspire them to go one better this time and build on last term’s Saudi Champions Cup triumph.
Another side that ought to be in the running are Al Shabab, who have appointed Jorge Fossati as their new coach. No stranger to the region, having previously taken the helm at Qatari club Al Sadd and the Qatar national team, the Uruguayan is clearly looking forward to his latest challenge.
“Al Shabab are a well-organised team and have the kind of attributes that would make most coaches happy,” he said after taking up the post. “With the help of the players I’m confident we can reach our objectives. I already know the team, having come up against them in the Champions League when I was at Al Sadd, and also when I was national coach in Qatar.”
Without a league championship for 15 years and overshadowed in recent times by long-running city rivals Al Hilal, Al Nasr are determined not to figure among the also-rans this time, having prepared hard for their latest bid to win a fourth title. Al Ahli are also looking to restore their lustre and even decamped to Germany to finalise their preparations for the big kick-off.
A lowly ninth last season, Al Ittifaq will be hoping to match the expectations of their supporters in the months ahead, while Al Qadasiyah, from the eastern city of Al Khubar, finished one place below them in tenth and have plenty of room for improvement.
Al Wahda, who surprised everyone by pipping the mighty Al Ahli to fifth, and Al Hazm, who took seventh, both have the task of building on those achievements, which in the case of Al Hazm included notable wins over Al Shabab and Al Ittifaq and draws with Al Nasr and Al Ahli.
Apart from loaning out Meshaal Al Mouri, Mohammed Al Anbar and Ahmed Al Sowayleh to give them the first-team football they need, Al Hilal have decided to leave their squad untouched.
In contrast, the clubs hoping to relieve them of their crown have been busy reshuffling their packs. Leading the way have been Al Ittihad, who showed the door to Argentinian coach Enzo Trossero and replaced him with Manuel Jose, who called in compatriots Paulo Jorge and Nuno Assis as his assistants.
Al Shabab have bolstered their defence by signing the Brazilian Marcelo Tavares, formerly with Al Hilal, and have also added Korea Republic international Song Chong Gug and the Uruguayan Juan Manuel Olivera, a new recruit from Universidad de Chile, to their ranks.
Walter Zenga’s Al Nasr have also rung the changes, bringing in Romanian duo Ovidiu Petre and Razvan Cocis and the Australian Jonathan McKain. Norwegian coach Trond Sollied has settled into the hotseat at Al Ahli, drafting in Brazilian goalscorer Wanderson, who has spent the last couple of seasons in the Swedish top flight, and Oman international Imad Al Hosni.
Players to watch
The league’s new faces will do well to match the impact made last season by Al Hilal’s star quartet of Thiago Neves, Mirel Radoi, Christian Wilhelmsson and Lee Young-Pyo. Al Ittihad fans are expecting more from their Algerian frontman Abdelmalek Ziaya on this occasion, especially with Moroccan forward Hicham Aboucherouane and the Tunisian striker Amine Chermiti having both left the club. Al Nasr’s classy Argentinian midfielder Victor Figueroa is another one to keep an eye out for.
Have your say
Will Al Hilal, Al Shabab and Al Ittihad continue to rule the roost, just as they have over the last ten seasons, or will their domination of the Saudi scene be broken?