Disregard all thinly veiled criticism directed at the Saudi Arabia Pro League. The quality of football being played by the best clubs in the country is well on par with anything we witness across Europe. Recently took in Al Nassr pulverising champions Al Ittihad 5-2, a game in which Cristiano Ronaldo and Sadio Mane grabbed braces. Everything was top notch. Former Premier League player of the year Ngolo Kante, ex Liverpool midfielder Fabinho and the immediate former Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema all gave their all in a losing effort for Al Ittihad.
Games involving leaders Al Hilal are played at an even higher level despite an injury ending the season of Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. Alexander Mitrovic, Sergei Milinkovic-Savic, Malcolm and Ruben Neves are really turning on the show. In brief, Prince Mohamed Bin Salman’s decision to invest heavily in the beautiful game is reaping handsome returns. Neymar Jr wasn’t far off the mark when he suggested games involving the top four – Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ahli and Al Ittihad are already better than anything you find in French Ligue One.
Proud of the job former Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo is doing overseeing the country’s football development. In another first, the league is taking a 45 day break to allow players feature in the Asia Cup which runs from January 11 to February 10. Unlike Tottenham Hotspur whose already stuttering bid for Champions League qualification will suffer a further setback when they lose captain Son Heung Min, or Wolves, which will struggle for goals without top scorer Hwang Hee Chan, clubs that invested in overseas stars will continue to get full value for money.
It is difficult to envisage how Nuno Espirito Santo, who guided Al Ittihad to their first league crown in decades last season is going to ensure Nottingham Forest’s Premier League status considering the impending exodus of players to the Africa Cup of Nations which commences in a fortnight. Forest are losing up to seven players to AFCON. Without Ivorians Serge Aurier, Wilfred Boly and Ibrahim Sangare, as well as Nigerians Taiwo Awoniyi and Ola Aina, plus Senegalese Cheikh Kouyate and Mousa Niakhite, it’s easy to see the former European champions getting dragged into a relegation dogfight.
Manchester City are still bookmakers favourites to win the Premier League, in part, thanks to the impending return of top scorer Erling Braut Haaland and assists king Kevin de Bruyne, but also due to the fact they are not losing any players to AFCON or the Asian Cup. Leaders Liverpool are to be without Egypt captain Mohamed Salah as well as Japan Samurai skipper Wataru Endo while Arsenal must do without Ghana Black Stars captain Thomas Partey and Takehiro Tomiyasu (Japan).
Bayer Leverkusen were Europe’s best team before the winter break but Xabi Alonso’s attempt to end their 119 year wait for the Bundesliga title could be scuppered by the loss of Nigerian forward Victor Boniface, Burkina Faso defender Edmond Tapsoba and Ivory Coast Odilon Kossounou. Such is the dilemma facing players that Manchester United keeper Andre Onana is trying to resist calls for him to skip the tournament altogether in order for him to keep his number one slot.