Five things you need to know ahead of the Saudi Pro League’s Round 25

The drama at the top of the table may sometimes divert attention away from the action at the bottom end of the league. (Supplied)
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Updated 13 August 2020

Five things you need to know ahead of the Saudi Pro League’s Round 25

  • As we approach the start of Round 25 tomorrow afternoon, we take a close look at the top five things SPL fans needs to know ahead of the round’s first match between Al-Fateh and Abha

With only six rounds remaining until the curtain closes on the longest-ever Saudi Pro League (SPL) season, there’s still plenty to play for on both ends of the table. The first two rounds since the restart did not disappoint and were filled with excitement and shock results, giving the fans the perfect dose of football after many months of absence.

As we approach the start of Round 25 tomorrow afternoon, we take a close look at the top five things SPL fans needs to know ahead of the round’s first match between Al-Fateh and Abha.
 
Winner takes all

Draws have not been an option so far with teams going all-out in the remaining rounds in the hope of achieving their objectives and bringing joy to their supporters at home. In the opening 16 matches since the restart, just one draw was recorded between Al-Raed and Al-Wehda. Meanwhile, fans watching from afar enjoyed a goalfest with 46 goals finding the back of the net, with an average of 2.8 goals per match.
 
Champions League qualification battle heating-up

The race to the Champions League spots has been the story of the season so far, with just five points separating eighth-placed Ettifaq and fourth-placed Al-Wehda as things stand. Al-Ahli’s back-to-back wins strengthened their hopes of securing their position in the top four. Meanwhile, Makkah-side Al-Wehda have struggled lately with just one point from a possible six since the restart.

Two massive showdowns will take place in Round 25 when Al-Ahli visit Al-Majmaah to face off Al-Faisaly. The Jeddah giants will be hoping to make it three out of three. Meanwhile, Al-Faisaly will be eyeing the sought-after fourth position with just two points separating them from it. Al-Nassr will play host to Al-Wehda as the Riyadh team will be aiming to continue its championship push on leaders Al-Hilal. Jose Daniel Carreno’s men will be hoping to find their winning ways with their first three points since the restart.
 
Fight for survival continues

The drama at the top of the table may sometimes divert attention away from the action at the bottom end of the league, but that’s certainly not the case in the 19/20 campaign. SPL debutants Damac and Al-Adalah are desperate for a renewed season in the top flight, and they’ve both showed a strong will to do so by recording wins in Round 24.

With 18 points left to play for till the end of the campaign, just seven points separate eleventh-placed Al-Fayha with Al-Adalah at the bottom of the table.

A North African battle for the top playmaker award

The top four players with the highest number of assists this season all share one thing in common — their North African heritage. Al-Faisaly’s Youssef El Jebli, who is Dutch with Moroccan origins, currently leads the way with 11 assists and 46 chances created to his name. Meanwhile, Al-Hazm’s Driss Fetouhi (Tunisia) comes in second with nine assists, Al-Nassr’s Nordin Amrabat (Morocco) and Abha’s Saad Beguir (Tunisia) follow with eight assists each.

Al-Hilal can cement their position at the top

With nine points separating Riyadh neighbors Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, Razvan Lucescu enter Round 25 with confidence as they take on 16th-placed Al-Adalah away from home. Despite the comfortable position that they find themselves in at this stage of the season, the league leaders have a challenging set of matches remaining until the end of the season with crucial trips to King Abdullah Sports City to face off in-form Al-Ahli and King Abdulaziz Sports City against Al-Wehda. They will also play host to Riyadh neighbors Al-Shabab, Champions League qualification hopefuls Al-Faisaly and 12th-placed Al-Hazm.

 Recognizing that fans are unable to attend games for the remaining eight rounds of fixtures, the SPL has developed its #OurLeagueIsBack campaign, which allows fans to share their support online, with videos and messages then being shown across stadiums on match days.

 


Bayern Munich, as always, the team to beat in Bundesliga

Updated 17 September 2020

Bayern Munich, as always, the team to beat in Bundesliga

  • Bayern’s main challengers are Leipzig; they open title defense Friday at home against Schalke

DUSSELDORF, Germany: Bayern Munich is always the team to beat in Germany. As the European champions, even more so, and Robert Lewandowski knows it.

Lewandowski scored a scarcely believable 55 goals in 47 games last season as Bayern won the Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League. At 32, he is still a key player, though the team around him looks different with Leroy Sané in and Thiago Alcantara leaving.

“If you play so good in the last season, then everyone is looking at you now and how you will be in the new season,” Lewandowski said in the run-up to Friday’s season opener. “And if you are on the top you have to work harder to stay longer on the top. And I think so for us that is the big challenge for this season.”

Just like last year, Bayern’s main challengers are Leipzig, the only team to stay undefeated against Bayern last season, and Dortmund, whose young stars are rapidly gaining experience and maturity.

Bayern ended up winning the title by 13 points last season, but for most of the campaign it was a much closer battle. The Munich team slipped as low as seventh in December before recovering under coach Hansi Flick to win 19 of their last 20 league games and a record-extending eighth straight Bundesliga title.

Bayern start  Friday at home against Schalke, before Dortmund play Borussia Mönchengladbach on Saturday and Leipzig host Mainz on Sunday. Bayern will follow that with matches against Sevilla in the European Super Cup on Sept. 24 and against Dortmund in the German Super Cup six days later.

 

No fans

After the last campaign finished without fans, a deal between German politicians Tuesday allows supporters back into stadiums for a six-week trial at maximum 20 percent capacity — with one big exception.

Bayern wanted 7,500 fans on Friday but fell foul of a rule which keeps the stadiums closed if the local coronavirus infection rate climbs too high.

Games with partial crowds have split Germany’s vocal fan groups. Boycotts are rare but many say they won’t take part in any organized displays of support for the team. Social distancing rules kill the atmosphere, some argue, and there’s widespread discontent with the perceived unfairness of barring away fans and allocating the few available tickets by lottery.

 

New-look Bayern

With barely four weeks between the Champions League final against Paris Saint-Germain and the start of the new league season, it’s hardly surprising that Bayern’s squad has changed little.

Forward Leroy Sane is finally eligible to play after joining from Manchester City in July and could make his debut against Schalke, the team he left in 2016. New signings were barred from the Champions League tournament. He will need to find his place in an attack already boasting Lewandowski, Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry.

Midfielder Thiago Alcantara left Bayern after seven years for Liverpool on Thursday and likely won’t be replaced. Three loan signings have also moved on. Philippe Coutinho is back at Barcelona, with Ivan Perisic returning to Inter Milan and defender Alvaro Odriozola to Real Madrid.

 

Dortmund’s year?

Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho lit up the Bundesliga last season — Haaland with 13 goals in 15 games and Sancho with 17 goals and 17 assists — but Dortmund’s title challenge was once again let down by defensive frailty.

Perhaps surprisingly, Dortmund have not  bought a center back. However, they have replaced rampaging right back Achraf Hakimi, who was on loan from Real Madrid, by signing the more experienced Thomas Meunier from Paris Saint-Germain.

Sancho is still a Dortmund player — so far — despite a determined attempt by Manchester United to buy him. The transfer window closes on Oct. 5.

Seventeen-year-old English midfielder Jude Bellingham looks like Dortmund’s next young sensation after arriving from Birmingham, and scored on his debut in the German Cup on Monday. But there’s still a lack of depth at the back, with midfielder Emre Can drafted in at center back for the cup game.

 

Replacing Werner

Leipzig’s run to the Champions League semifinals was remarkable for a team only founded 11 years earlier, even given energy drink giant Red Bull’s financial backing, but it obscured a fundamental weakness for next season.

Without Werner, both of Leipzig’s goals in the 2-1 quarterfinal win over Atletico Madrid came from midfielders, and the 3-0 semifinal loss to PSG could have been very different had center forward Yussuf Poulsen not missed a good first-half chance while trailing 1-0.

New signing Hwang Hee-chan started in the center forward role and scored in Leipzig’s first game of the new season, a 3-0 win over third-division club Nuremburg in the German Cup. The South Korean is Leipzig’s 17th signing since 2012 from Salzburg, Red Bull’s Austrian club.

Known for his pace and incisive runs, Hwang is more in Werner’s mold, while Poulsen is an old-school center forward known for his heading ability.

 

Outside challengers

Gladbach was the team which surprised everyone last season in the Bundesliga.

During Bayern’s blip under former coach Niko Kovac, Gladbach was the early-season leader and eventually secured Champions League qualification by finishing fourth. The pandemic has caused financial strain, though, and on-loan midfielder Valentino Lazaro is the most notable signing.

Bayer Leverkusen, last year’s fifth-place finisher, was weakened in attack by selling Kai Havertz to Chelsea and Kevin Volland to Monaco. It has patched the gaps by signing Roma forward Patrik Schick.

Hertha Berlin investor Lars Windhorst’s lavish funding hasn’t translated to big spending in the off-season. Lucas Tousart is the most notable arrival, though that deal was actually concluded in January.