Saudi Pro League clubs count the cost as stars head to Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon
Much has been said and written in Europe, especially England, about leading players leaving the top leagues to take part in the African Cup of Nations, which kicks off on Jan. 9.
However, it is not all about Liverpool missing Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez leaving Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain saying goodbye to Achraf Hakimi.
Saudi Arabian teams also will be without their African stars as they head to Cameroon to compete for the continent’s biggest prize.
The tournament may well have an influence on a Saudi Pro League title race that is shaping up to be a thrilling contest. Two of the top tier’s biggest and best strikers will be absent at a crucial time.
For one, the league’s leading goalscorer has been called up by Nigeria. Odion Ighalo has found the target 10 times already this season as Al-Shabab have recovered from a poor start and won eight of the last nine league games to move into second place behind Al-Ittihad.
The former Manchester United striker was last in action at the weekend, scoring the winning goal in a 4-3 win over Al-Ahli. There are reports that Everton and Newcastle United are interested in signing the 32-year-old this month in order to get their English Premier League campaigns back on track.
If he does help the Super Eagles to success then those rumors are likely to intensify. Al-Shabab fans will be happier than most if Nigeria exit the tournament early and they get their star player back.
There is more respite for defenses as Vincent Aboubakar will also be absent and lining up for the hosts instead of Al-Nassr.
The Cameroon striker has plenty of history at the tournament and famously scored a late goal that won the 2017 tournament for the Indomitable Lions against Egypt. The 29-year-old has been developing a promising understanding at his club with Anderson Talisca, and the pair contributed once more to win a crucial game on New Year’s Day at Al-Fateh that moved the team up to third and in sight of the leaders.
The leading team, Al-Ittihad, are also affected by the African Cup. The Tigers have been in great form of late and have reinforced with Moroccan marksman Abderrazzak Hamdallah.
Fans in Jeddah will be relieved that the two-time Saudi Pro League top scorer will not be in Cameroon. but will miss their talismanic Egyptian Ahmed Hegazi, who has been perhaps the best defender in the league over the past year. Even with Hegazi, the backline has been conceding too many goals of late — six in the last three games. Without him, however, coach Cosmin Contra faces even more work to keep Al-Ittihad in pole position.
The team with the greatest Saudi-based representation are Algeria with three. The defending champions having summoned two goalkeepers. Veteran Rais M’Bolhi had a good FIFA Arab Cup as the North Africans won the tournament and showed that he is a rock between the sticks for country as well as Ettifaq.
Moustapha Zeghba also heads west, leaving Damac behind. The surprise package of the league so far have dipped of late and the 31-year-old has conceded nine goals in the past three games. The former Al-Wehda man is unlikely to play in Cameroon, but will be missed back in the southwest corner of Saudi Arabia.
Another standout in the Arab Cup was Sofiane Bendebka. The midfielder made his senior international debut in 2016, but has played little part for Algeria since. He impressed in the opening game against Sudan and then went from strength to strength to become one of the players of the tournament.
The only regret is that it took the Al-Fateh man until he was 29 to show what he can do on the international stage. It will be fascinating to see what happens in the coming weeks and whether he gets the same minutes now Algeria have called a full-strength squad.
Tunisia pushed Algeria to the end in the Arab Cup and have also dipped into the Saudi Pro League. Naim Sliti has been an important player for the North Africans and has been looking good for Ettifaq. Tunisia have a passable group and it may be some time before Sliti returns to his club.
Julio Tavares will definitely be missed. Al-Faisaly are struggling at the wrong end of the table, despite the 33-year-old having scored six goals already to add to 15 from last year. If Tavares can take his domestic shooting boots to Africa then finishing above Ethiopia and Burkina Faso is possible.
Knowledge Musona is just as important to Al-Tai, though the team are looking solid enough in eighth place. The Zimbabwean has netted five goals in 12 league games, a third of his team’s total. His scoring record for the Warriors is as impressive and the 31-year-old will be needed against Senegal, Malawi and Guinea.
Ghana always have ambitions of reaching the final stages of the tournament and there may be a part to play for Samuel Owusu. The winger has been a fringe player for the Black Stars, but has been in good form for Al-Feiha since making his international debut in 2019.
It remains to be seen which of these stars shine in Cameroon, but it is certain that some will have an impact at the African Cup of Nations — just as it is certain that their absence will have an impact in the Saudi Pro League.