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Winners and losers from Saudi Pro-League as Ronaldo, Mane excel

We may only be seven rounds into the 2023-24 Saudi Pro League season, but this is already shaping up to be a thrilling campaign in the Middle East. The top six teams are now separated by just three points after a thoroughly entertaining set of fixtures that returned 36 goals.

Perhaps the most entertainment came in the biggest game of them the past week, as Al-Nassr re-established themselves as title contenders with a 4-3 win over Al-Ahli in which Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice to maintain his fine form in front of goal.

Nassr are now within touching distance of the summit, in part because of leaders Al-Hilal dropping points in their 1-1 draw with Damac. Jorge Jesus’ side have now been surpassed at the top by defending champions Al-Ittihad who saw off Al-Fateh with a 2-1 win.

Steven Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq are also well in the title race after a 4-3 win of their own over Al-Ta’ee, but who had a week to remember, and who would rather forget their latest performance?

GOAL breaks down the winners & losers from the latest round of Saudi Pro League action…

WINNER: Cristiano Ronaldo & Anderson Talisca

Ever since Ronaldo arrived at Al-Nassr in January, there have been doubts over whether he can play together with Brazilian forward Anderson Talisca. That concern only grew in the early weeks of the current campaign when the club suffered some poor results when they were paired together, before results picked up following an injury to Talisca.

There was, then, understandable worries among Nassr fans when the duo were both named in the line up for Friday’s crucial clash with high-flying Al-Ahli. As it turned out, though, they need not have been worried.

The pair both scored twice in the 4-3 win, with Ronaldo taking his season’s tally to nine goals in just six appearances. The three points moved Nassr up to fifth and to within striking distance of the top of the table, and there is now clear evidence that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner can dovetail with Talisca going forward.

LOSER: Neymar

It’s not been a good week for Neymar, either on or off the pitch, in what has been a crash course for Al-Hilal in what it means to have a (sometimes troubled) global superstar within their ranks.

Ahead of his side’s clash with Damac on Thursday, a video published by a Brazilian journalist seemed to show Neymar spending the night with two women in an incident that allegedly took place three months ago in Barcelona.

Neymar’s pregnant girlfriend, Bruna Biancardi, responded by posting an angry Instagram story, and there are now reports that the pair could separate following the footballer’s apparent infidelity.

Certainly, something seemed to be on Neymar’s mind as he put in a disappointing showing and missed a number of relatively easy chances for Hilal as they were held to a 1-1 draw, the dropped points meaning they would give up their place at the top of the table.

WINNER: Nuno Santo

Al-Ittihad had won the Saudi league title since 2009 when Nuno Espirito Santo took over as manager last season, and so he is already revered as a hero in Jeddah after guiding the club to both the Pro League title and the Saudi Super Cup in his first campaign in charge.

And after Friday’s 2-1 win over Al-Fateh, he has his side on course for a successful defence of their title, with the win moving them back to the top of the table after they had slipped behind Al-Hilal following their dramatic Clasico defeat before the international break.

That he pulled off the win without the likes of Karim Benzema, top scorer Abderrazak Hamdallah and key playmaker Igor Coronado is testament to Nuno’s coaching ability, and a good sign that he will be tasting success again come the end of the campaign.

LOSER: Jorge Jesus

Saudi fans are not known for their patience with managers, and Jorge Jesus is the latest to be facing the wrath of his supporters as calls for him to be sacked by Al-Hilal grow by the day. That might seem harsh for a coach whose team were top of the table until this past week and recently beat their biggest rivals, Al-Ittihad, but performance levels have not always been high despite positive results.

Things took a turn this week as Jesus’ side could only draw 1-1 with Uzbeki side Navbahor in the AFC Champions League on Monday, before following that up with the same result against a struggling Damac side who are yet to win a game this season in the Pro League.

Questions have been asked of Jesus’ selection choices and his in-game substitutions, while his utilisation of star midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic has also come under the microscope after he was seen telling the Serbia international to stay back and not join the attack late on on Thursday, despite Hilal needing a win to retain top spot.

<b

Due to a series of injury problems, it feels like it has been some time since fans got to see N’Golo Kante perform at his best, at least on a consistent basis, but on Thursday he put in what was his most complete performance since arriving at Al-Ittihad.

The ex-Chelsea star scored a superb opener against Al-Fateh before providing the assist for the eventual winner as Ittihad moved back to the top of the Pro League table.

Defensively, Kante was everywhere on the pitch and played a key role in retaining possession as the visitors went in search of an equaliser. If Kante can stay fit and keep performing like this, then he could prove to be an X-factor for Nuno’s team.

LOSER: Ahmed Sharahili

Despite their win and returning to the Pro League summit, Al-Ittihad did suffer a major blow on Thursday as star defender Ahmed Sharahili suffered an injury that is likely to keep him out long-term.

The Saudi Arabia international suffered a cruciate ligament tear which only adds to Nuno’s defensive headache, given he is already without club captain Ahmed Hegazi due to a similar injury.

Given Ittihad are competing on four fronts, with the Pro League title race, the King’s Cup, the AFC Champions League and the upcoming Club World Cup on home soil all on their schedule, they could do without two such massive absences from their backline.

WINNER: Georginio Wijnaldum

In only his second Saudi Pro League appearance, Georgino Wijnaldum endeared himself perfectly to Al-Ettifaq supporters with a match-winning display against Al-Ta’ee. The Netherlands international scored twice in his side’s 4-3 win, moving them up to fourth in the table and just points off the top.

After a forgettable two seasons at Paris Saint-Germain, Wijnaldum promises to be a major addition to Steven Gerrard’s squad, and should help remove some of the goalscoring burden from star striker Moussa Dembele.

LOSER: Edouard Mendy

Regarded as one of the most disappointing summer signings of the season so far, Edouard Mendy’s performance for Al-Ahli against Al-Nassr has led to some calling for him to be sold once the January transfer window opens.

The former Chelsea goalkeeper should have done better for three of Nassr’s four goals, with this not the first time that he has been culpable in his new side conceding already this season.

The Senegal international will need to improve quickly or Al-Ahli risk falling out of the title race, with matches against Al-Ettifaq and leaders Al-Ittihad coming up in the next two matchdays. Further defeats could spell the end of Mendy’s time in the Middle East.</b

Source: goal.com

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