Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Saudi Arabia’s boxers shine at UAE championships


This summer’s transfer window has seen frenetic activity like no other in the Roshn Saudi League.

Karim Benzema, Steven Gerrard, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez, Neymar and several others led a deluge of talent into Asia’s premier domestic club competition. Football’s focus shifted definitively eastwards, with further ripples of excitement being fanned by unfulfilled — but insistent — talk of Mohamed Salah’s impending arrival right up until the Sept. 7 deadline.

Now comes the real action.

This window’s closure heralds the start of Saudi Arabia’s topflight settling into a familiar rhythm. There is much to anticipate and embrace in the coming weeks, starting with Thursday’s matchweek-six resumption.

Here is what to expect, plus major issues at play, in this campaign for the ages.

We’re just getting started

If the transfer season, with all its heightened drama and playful speculation, is the starter, now it is time for the Roshn Saudi League’s main course.

The new additions can settle into their unfamiliar environment. The arrival of autumn and less searing temperatures will provide opportune conditions to excel.

Head coaches throughout the division can, finally, take stock of their enviable options, determining an optimal way to get the best out of them. Jorge Jesus’ Al-Hilal XI, for example, which opened with 3-1 victory at Abha on Aug. 14 contained only a trio of foreign stars.

A tantalizing 14 matchweeks lie ahead, before a lengthy break for next year’s anticipated AFC Asian Cup.

Highlights include October’s Jeddah Derby for promoted Al-Ahli and holders Al-Ittihad, November’s capital clash between Hilal and Al-Nassr and December’s meeting of Ittihad and Nassr. Megastar Cristiano Ronaldo is averaging a goal contribution every 35.6 minutes in the 2023-24 RSL season for Nassr.

Expect coveted Spain under-21 midfielder Gabri Veiga to soar for Ahli after being thrust into an hour-long cameo in the staggering 5-1 defeat at Al-Fateh. Al-Shabab’s tumult off the pitch can be forgotten when Belgium utility man Yannick Carrasco and veteran Morocco defender Romain Saiss make their bows.

Debuts await for Demarai Gray and Georginio Wijnaldum at expectant Ettifaq, Australia flyer Craig Goodwin is back for Al-Wehda, and Andre Gray adds Premier League experience to promoted Riyadh.

But nothing compares to the anticipation surrounding a fresh face in blue.

It’s Neymar time

Among a galaxy of stars, it takes someone extraordinarily special to shine brightest.

Neymar is that someone. His opening Hilal minutes could come against neighbors Riyadh on Friday.

A city stopped in mid-August for the unalloyed entertainer’s unveiling at a packed King Fahd International Stadium, illuminated by pyrotechnics and drones. Further fireworks are expected from the most expensive signing in Asian history.

The exuberant 31-year-old was denied his debut in Al-Hilal’s unforgettable 4-3 ‘Saudi Classico’ victory at Ittihad by a training knock. He could be unleashed after an international break of substantial achievement.

Neymar raced past the lionized Pele at the summit of Brazil’s top-scorers list with his 78th and 79th goals in a 5-1 demolition of Bolivia. This was followed by a 90th minute assist for ex-Paris Saint-Germain teammate Marquinhos in the 1-0 triumph at Peru.

Ice packs on his ankles post-Bolivia point toward the painful cost of being one of football’s great showmen — and may yet temper immediate involvement.

Yet, at some point soon, “Neymar is Blue” will become a technicolor reality.

Portugal metronome Ruben Neves and revered Serbia center-midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic are his supply line. Sparks should fly in tandem with Saudi Arabia magician Salem Al-Dawsari and four-goal compatriot Malcom, while bulldozing Serbia center-forward Aleksandar Mitrovic appears the perfect physical foil.

Hilal have surged into top spot, and as third top scorers, without Neymar. It appears limitless what they can achieve with him in their ranks.

Saudi topflight is taking an intriguing shape

Familiar — and unfamiliar — faces can be found at the front.

A reaction from Hilal was predicted after last season’s dethroning, while sixth-placed Nassr are flying now that their draining 2023 King Salman Club Cup and 2023-24 AFC Champions League-qualifying demands are out of the way. Holders Ittihad were 100 percent before the defeat to Hilal, while promoted Ahli were in similarly fine fettle before inexplicably sinking at Fateh.

This quartet look poised for a memorable title showdown. Yet, less-celebrated names cannot be ruled out on the evidence of the opening weeks.

Pericles Chamusca’s masterly reign has been extended at second-placed Al-Taawoun by the brilliance of Nagoya Grampus forward Mateus. Gerrard has inspired Ettifaq into fifth, even prior to unleashing Gray and Wijnaldum.

Competition should be fierce elsewhere, with only three points separating eighth-placed Al-Fayha — buoyed by brilliant attacker Fashion Sakala — from 16th-placed Damac in the drop zone.

It’s all to play for.

Mancini has much to ponder on testing run to Asian Cup

Foreign recruitment has dominated discourse on the Roshn Saudi League, but international matters cannot be ignored.

This has gained greater pertinence in a chastening start for Roberto Mancini with Saudi Arabia. Italy’s Euro 2020 winner will now cast a keen eye on the topflight, in a breathless beginning which swiftly moves onto their kickoff for the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers and the Asian Cup.

The progress of two promising attackers could be illuminating.

In Mancini’s opening friendly defeats to Costa Rica (1-3) and South Korea (0-1), Abdullah Al-Hamdan and Firas Al-Buraikan were the only natural strikers selected.

The former had produced two goals in two starts for Hilal, before being usurped by Mitrovic. The latter netted four times from five matches at Fateh, before switching to Ahli where Brazil forward Roberto Firmino stands in his way.

These prospects require club minutes to fire Saudi Arabia to success. A challenge has been set to get them.



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