League Focus: Saudi Arabia (Professional League)

Martin Lowe (@plasticpitch) continues to preview the start of the West Asian league season by looking at the Saudi Arabian Pro League and how the increase in spending of its leading clubs will affect the national team ahead of the Asian Cup.

The Saudi Professional League (SPL) have developed into star performers in the Asian Champions League (ACL) without previously spending money on big name foreign stars to bolster their squads. However, with the rapid rise and wealth of Qatari and Emirati clubs threatening to overthrow the usual balance internationally, the Saudis have followed suit in the past couple of years bringing in some recognisable faces not only to win trophies but to compete on a continent-wide brand enhancing exercise.

What effect this has had on the state of the national team has not yet to be fully realised but the fact that Saudi Arabia have dropped to 9th in Asian FIFA rankings isn’t great news for starters. Despite romping to qualification for the Asian Cup, a dismal display in World Cup qualification saw them not make it out of the preliminary group phase, finishing behind the likes of Oman in the chase for progression. After four consecutive appearances at FIFA’s showpiece event between 1994 and 2006, Saudi Arabia have now missed the previous two editions after disappointing qualifying campaigns.

While it’s not usually a sure fire solution for national team success, bringing in highly paid overseas talent has worked well in some leagues around the world to improve performance and personnel. The USA squad who impressed in Brazil’s World Cup finals this summer was heavily reliant on MLS based players who had previously been dwarfed in salaries by their “designated player” club colleagues. While Saudi’s West Asian rivals UAE have grown from strength to strength in recent years despite a huge influx of highly paid overseas talent.

This is a trend Saudi Arabia have tried to follow, after both of their remaining ACL quarter finalists Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad having filled their overseas registration berths with high salaried imports, ultimately having to be heavily reliant on young and talented Saudi Arabian players who make up the backbone of the national team squad. Rivalry between the country’s two largest footballing cities; Riyadh and Jeddah stretches past the glamorous off-season international signings & to their ever growing list of promising home grown talents.

Riyadh’s largest club Al-Hilal have been the best at making most of their overseas selections with arguably the strongest overseas CB pairing in Asian football; Brazilian Digao and South Korean World Cup defender Kwak Tae-Hwi. However, their recent success is mainly based on the exploits of Saudi performers; through goal machine Nasser Al-Shamrani, creative winger Salem Al-Dossari and midfield creator Saud Khariri. They’re favourites this time around to take the title after narrowly missing out last season but eyes will firmly be fixed on the resumption of the ACL in September before their domestic campaign really kicks into gear.

Capital neighbours Al-Nassr edged the title last term by two points and will be looking forward to returning to the ACL in February. While possessing deadly finisher Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, who has yet to convince national team coach Lopez Caro of his merits despite scoring 17 last term, Al-Nassr have brought in Polish international winger Adrian Mierzejewski to bolster their claims of back to back titles. Cross town rivals Al-Shabab have also been in the market after losing influential Colombian playmaker Macnally Torres, by bringing in Brazilian striker Rogerio and Senegalese talent Mbaye Diagne to fire in the goals for them this season. The latter is hoping to replicate his performances on loan in Belgium with Lierse last season in another spell away from his parent club Juventus.

The other remaining SPL side in the quarters of the ACL is Jeddah outfit Al-Ittihad, who will be without international football in 2015 after finishing way off the pace in 6th last term. With that in mind, ACL silverware will be a clear priority for a management team keen to appease their fans as the season gets underway. The signings of Ivory Coast international Didier Ya Konan from Hannover, Marquniho from Roma and Samba Diakite from QPR would be decent signings for most clubs around the world let alone for an SPL side. Many have questioned the big money moves and voiced their concerns over the longevity of the deals after Ittihad exit the ACL, but if they’re to stay they should prove more than an interesting prospect domestically.

It’s not just their international names that are grabbing the headlines. The form of young wingers Abdulfattah Assiri and Fahad Al-Muwallad have given Saudi fans as a whole a number of reasons to be excited. Teenager Al-Muwallad’s devastating display against Al-Shabab in the ACL earlier in the year was a master class in build-up play and finishing, with many scouts booking their tickets to Australia to see this youngster take on Asia’s finest in the Asian Cup.

Of the outsiders for a title hunt, fellow Jeddah based club Al-Ahli, who despite their lack of spending power in the transfer market possess a few commanding home grown players who have made it into the national team set up. Saudi defender Osama Hawsawi and playmaker Taisir Al-Jassim are two that will ensure Al-Ahli are in the hunt for glory this season. 2013 champions Al-Fateh should also be considered as outsiders for ACL qualification despite only finishing just ahead of relegation last term. Congo DR striker Doris Salumo and Brazilian midfielder Elton are two of the sides’ most impressive overseas players.

Balancing a forward thinking prosperous league with the future of the national team in mind is a hard task to juggle. This season however offers much promise in both the culmination of the ACL knockout stages and the start of the Asian Cup in January. Along with some recognisable names, the SPL offers some quality young talents ready to impress on a continental stage. Home fans will hope the increase in investment doesn’t leave behind those talents going forward.

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