Saudi Pro League preview: Can Jones boost Al-Nassr's title challenge?

The Saudi Professional League kicks off on Friday morning and, with four Aussies plying their trade in the Arabian Peninsula this season, it’s sure to be an intriguing watch.

It will be the 43rd season of the Saudi top flight. The season runs from runs from August 31 through till May 2019 and each team plays 30 league games. 

With the Saudi Arabian Football Federation expanding the competition to 16 teams in March, the competitive stakes have been raised.

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Here’s everything you need to know as the action gets underway in the Middle East.

Al-Hilal fans celebrate their 2018 title victory
Al-Hilal fans celebrate their 2018 title victory

TITLE CONTENDERS

With 15 league triumphs - seven more than eight-time winners Al-Ittihad - Al-Hilal are perennial title challengers in the Saudi top flight.

Australian football fans will be familiar with the Saudi heavyweights following the club's recent AFC Asian Champions League exploits.

Famously beaten by Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014, Al-Hilal were runners up again in 2017 after going down to Andrew Nabbout’s current club Urawa Red Diamonds.

Despite their failure to seize Asia’s top prize in recent years, the Riyadh based club are the nation’s most successful institution and have been the benchmark of Saudi Arabia’s premier division in the last two seasons.

Jorge Jesus' side were chased all the way by rivals Al-Ahli, who ultimately trailed Al-Hilal by a single point. League winners in 2015/16, Al-Ahli are expected to go head to head with Al-Hilal again this season.

Al-Nassr may have finished 12 points behind the champions last campaign but they shouldn’t be ruled out of the race this time around after huge recruitment in the off-season.

STAR PLAYERS

The captures of ex-Leicester City forward Ahmed Musa and Brazilian midfield lynchpin Petros headline what has been a statement of intent by Al-Nassr.

However, Al-Hilal have also recruited strongly, signing ex-Swansea City and Marseille forward Bafetimbi Gomis from Galatasaray. They’ve also managed to snare Benfica attacker Andre Carrillo, who starred and scored for Peru against the Caltex Socceroos in the FIFA World Cup™.

Carrillo
Andre Carrillo starred for Peru against the Caltex Socceroos in Russia

AUSSIES

Brad Jones should play a critical role in Al-Nassr’s title tilt from between the posts. The experienced Caltex Socceroos gloveman kept 31 clean sheets in 80 Eredivisie appearances for Feyernoord and arrives at the King Fahd Stadium with big things expected.

He’s not the only Australian goalkeeper plying his trade in the Saudi top flight this season. Jones will have golden glove competition from ex-Newcastle Jets goalkeeper Jack Duncan, who signed for Al-Qadsiah in July – joining former Melbourne Victory midfielder Rhys Williams at the Khobar-based side.

Al-Qadsiah finished one point below the relegation playoff spots last season and will be hoping the arrival of the two Australians will spur a rise up the table.

The same goes for Caltex Socceroos defender Matthew Jurman. Jurman signed for mid-table outfit Al-Ittihad at the start of July and made his debut in the club’s 2-1 loss to Al-Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup last week.

The Saudi Professional League season kicks off in the early hours of Friday morning, with Jones' Al-Nassr travelling to Ohud Medina at 2.15am.

On Saturday morning, Duncan and Williams' Al-Qadsiah host Al Fateh FC at 1.40am and Jurman will be in action for Al-Ittihad against Al-Shabbab at 1.55am.

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This article was originally published on the Caltex Socceroos website.
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