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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Saudi Pro League: Who’s thriving – and who could be following Jordan Henderson back to Europe?

Cristiano Ronaldo’s surprise move to Al Nassr one year ago set the wheels in motion for many more transfers to the Saudi Pro League from Europe.

The question now is whether Jordan Henderson’s switch from Al Ettifaq to Ajax will have the reverse effect, with several Saudi-based players being linked with departures.

With that in mind, we have taken a look at the state of play for the footballers who waved goodbye to European teams and leagues to join clubs in the SPL.

Who’s thriving? And who could be eyeing the next flight back?

Saudi Pro League table

Pos Team GP GD PTS

1

Al Hilal

19

50

53

2

Al Nassr

19

32

46

3

Al Ahli

19

22

40

4

Al Taawoun

19

10

34

5

Damak

19

10

30

6

Al Fateh

19

7

29

7

Al Ittihad

18

8

28

8

Al Ittifaq

19

0

25

9

Al Wehda

19

-3

25

10

Al Khaleej

19

-5

22

11

Al Shabab

19

-6

21

12

Al Akhdoud

19

-12

20

13

Al Raed

19

-7

19

14

Al Fayha

19

-12

19

15

Al Riyadh

19

-20

19

16

Al Tai

18

-16

17

17

Abha

19

-30

14

18

Al Hazm

19

-28

13


The top teams

Al Hilal: Yassine ‘Bono’ Bounou, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Ruben Neves, Neymar, Kalidou Koulibaly

Al Hilal were one of our clubs taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) last summer and they wasted little time in targeting high-profile players.

Neymar was their marquee signing but his move hasn’t gone to plan — a serious knee injury (rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus) has kept him out since September.


Neymar was the Al Hilal’s most high-profile signing (Getty Images)

Aleksandar Mitrovic has stepped up, however, with 17 goals in 17 SPL appearances. Team-mate Ruben Neves has also impressed — he had been linked with a Premier League return, but The Athletic has reported that he is not expected to move.

Moroccan goalkeeper Bono, one of the stars of the 2022 World Cup, is also enjoying life at Al Hilal having joined from Sevilla in August. The same can be said about a player who spent many summers being linked with the Premier League — Sergej Milinkovic-Savic finally left Lazio last summer, making the shock switch to Al Hilal, where he has eight goals and four assists in 16 SPL appearances.

Kalidou Koulibaly has been a mainstay at the heart of his new club’s defence, playing every minute of the last 16 SPL matches.


Al Nassr: Seko Fofana, Aymeric Laporte, Sadio Mane, Cristiano Ronaldo

Al Nassr have cancelled their upcoming tour to China because of an injury to Ronaldo.

A year into his move, the 38-year-old remains an advocate of the SPL, perhaps as a result of his impressive record of 38 goals and 13 assists in 44 games.

SPL top scorers 2023-24

Pos Player Team Games Goals

1

Cristiano Ronaldo

Al Nassr

18

20

2

Aleksandar Mitrovic

Al Hilal

17

17

3

Georges-Kevin N’Koudou

Damac

17

14

=4

Firas Al Buraikan

Al Ahli

17

11

=4

Anderson Talisca

Al Nassr

14

11

6

Abderrazak Hamdallah

Al Ittihad

14

10

=7

Salem Al Dawsari

Al Hilal

18

9

=7

Malcom

Al Hilal

18

9

=7

Odion Ighalo

Al Wehda

17

9

=7

Bernard Mensah

Al Tai

15

9

=7

Karim Benzema

Al Ittihad

15

9

And one of his team-mates has also nailed his colours to the mast. Sadio Mane, signed from Bayern Munich, was very complimentary of his new home.

“I can say the Saudi league is very good, and watched by everybody in the world,” he said, via AP. “As long as I’m doing my best and I’m enjoying myself every single minute, that’s more important.”

There was a suspicion that former Manchester City defender Aymeric Laporte was not having the same experience, but he distanced himself from reports that he said “many (players) are dissatisfied” in Saudi Arabia.


Al Ahli: Roberto Firmino, Franck Kessie, Riyad Mahrez, Edouard Mendy, Allan Saint-Maximin, Gabri Veiga

Edouard Mendy was one of four Chelsea players who moved to Saudi Arabia in the summer. A place as first-choice goalkeeper at Al Ahli helped in his preparations for the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) with Senegal.

Gabri Veiga shocked many around Europe when he swapped Celta Vigo for Saudi Arabia. Performances in La Liga last season left him on the radar of Europe’s top clubs and Italian champions Napoli were close to securing his signature.

They had a verbal agreement in place, but Al Ahli stole a march and paid the midfielder’s €40million (£34m; $43m) release clause. Toni Kroos, a player vocal about his disdain towards Saudi Arabia’s sporting project, labelled Veiga’s decision “embarrassing” on Instagram.

Veiga is on the SPL’s rising stars (Photo: Getty Images)


Veiga is one of the SPL’s rising stars (Getty Images)

Roberto Firmino left Liverpool upon the expiration of his contract and kept everyone guessing on his next move. A move to Al Ahli transpired and all seemed well when he netted a hat-trick on his debut.

But without a goal in his 18 matches across all competitions since, he has been linked with a return to Europe following doubts over his happiness in the Middle East.

He has been flanked in the Al Ahli attack by Allan Saint-Maximin, formerly of Newcastle United, and Manchester City treble winner Riyad Mahrez. The two wingers have enjoyed better form than their Brazilian team-mate.

Mahrez, 32, has eight goals and seven assists in 19 SPL games, while Saint-Maximin, 26, has three goals and eight assists.

Ivory Coast midfielder Franck Kessie, 26, departed Barcelona last summer for €12.5 million after winning La Liga in his final season at the club. Kessie is Al Alhi’s club captain and has started all 19 league games since signing, scoring six goals and adding two assists.


Al Ittihad: Karim Benzema, Fabinho, Jota, N’Golo Kante

Trouble is afoot with the five-time Champions League winner Karim Benzema. His absence from Al Ittihad over the last few weeks has led to rumours regarding his future and Lyon are exploring a move to bring him back to France.

The Saudi club, though, have not yet received any offers for Benzema and the striker has not told the club that he wants to leave, despite leaving for a holiday without permission and returning late. Talks are continuing between the 36-year-old and Al Ittihad in an attempt to clear the air.

Benzema could follow Henderson back to Europe (Photo: Getty Images)


Benzema could follow Henderson back to Europe (Getty Images)

Fabinho, who visited Anfield with Firmino during the winter break, has not been linked with a move away from the Middle East and neither has his team-mate N’Golo Kante, who hardly has a history of causing problems.

The former Leicester City and Chelsea midfielder has been a staple figure in midfield, playing 23 times in all competitions and scoring at the Club World Cup.

Former Celtic favourite Jota has suffered a bumpy start to life in Saudi Arabia. Rumours spread quickly that Al Ittihad were looking to cancel his contract just weeks after he joined up with compatriot Nuno Espirito Santo, now at Nottingham Forest. Jota was not registered on the squad list, so has not played in the SPL since September 1.

It remains unclear whether he will be given a second chance, making him one to watch in the January transfer window.


Lower down the table

Al Ettifaq: Moussa Dembele, Demarai Gray, Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson (left), Steven Gerrard (manager)

There is not anywhere near the same financial power for the teams outside the ‘big four’ in Saudi Arabia, but Al Ettifaq have spent heavily.

Jordan Henderson, though, has already departed, making a U-turn to Europe by signing for Ajax. The blow of that departure has been softened somewhat by manager Steven Gerrard signing a two-year contract extension. The Liverpool link is strong at Al Ettifaq, with Georginio Wijnaldum also on the books having signed from Roma.

Wijnaldum has taken the captain’s armband from Henderson, whose exit raised the question of whether others would follow suit.

For now, they are staying put with former Celtic striker Moussa Dembele and former Everton winger Demarai Gray on the books. Dembele has scored seven league goals in 12 games while Gray has scored twice in the same number of games.


Al Shabab: Yannick Carrasco, Romain Saiss

Al Shabab have also brought in a couple of high-profile players.

Even before his move to Saudi Arabia last summer, Yannick Carrasco had experience outside of European football, having moved to Dalian Yifang in 2018 during China’s unsuccessful nationwide investment into football.

And he is joined at Al Shabab by Romain Saiss who may wonder what he has done with his side in the bottom half of the SPL table halfway through the season.

Former Wolves player Saiss now stars for Al-Shabab on loan from Al Sadd (Photo: Getty Images)


Former Wolves player Saiss now stars for Al-Shabab on loan from Al Sadd (Getty Images)

(Top photos: Getty Images)



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