Al Ettifaq and Al Shabab laying platform for major RSL push next season

With just two games left to play in the Roshn Saudi League season, for those clubs not involved in battles to qualify for Asia or to avoid relegation, it might be easy to assume there is nothing to play for.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth, particularly in the case of Al Ettifaq and Al Shabab, both of whom strive for more than their current sixth and ninth positions, respectively. 

Far from being dead rubbers, the final two matches present an opportunity to lay down an early marker for the 2024-25 season. It makes their meeting this weekend in Dammam all the more interesting as both look to generate momentum to carry into next season.

In that context, every game is hugely important, especially against a side that shares the same ambition.

“We will try to finish the season in a good way,” Alvaro Medran, Al Ettifaq’s Spanish midfielder, said after their 1-1 draw with Al Okhdood in Matchweek 32. “To win the two matches we have, and then from next season we will push from the beginning.”

Outside of the big four, Al Ettifaq were the club that generated the most headlines in the off-season last summer, with the capture of Steven Gerrard as coach, as well as a host of eye-grabbing signings headlined by former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, alongside Jack Hendry, Moussa Dembele and Georginio Wijnaldum.

While Henderson has since departed for Dutch giants Ajax, mid-season reinforcements in the form of Seko Fofana, Karl Toko Ekambi and Medran signalled Al Ettifaq’s intent to challenge for the top four and Asian qualification.

While they’ve fallen short of that ambition this season, they have shown enough signs to suggest a push further up the table next season is well within reach.

Al Ettifaq’s 12 draws this season is the most in the RSL, and if they converted half of those into wins, they’d currently be in fourth position and eyeing a spot in the AFC Champions League Two.

It’s those fine margins Gerrard will be seeking to improve heading into his second RSL campaign. With a season in the Saudi Arabian top flight under his belt, the former Liverpool captain will have a better understanding of the landscape and just what is required to succeed at this level.

There will no doubt be more reinforcements secured as he looks to beef up his squad, particularly in attack where he has continually bemoaned Al Ettifaq’s inability to convert the chances they create. Their conversion rate sits at 15.1 percent - ranking the east-coast club in the bottom half of the league.

“We’re doing a lot of good work,” Gerrard said last month. “Good organisation, good structure, but it’s clear we need to score more goals. We need to be creative; we need to take more chances for us to progress and improve as a team.”

It’s that progression and improvement he will be hoping comes over the summer, but quite clearly, the work for that has already begun.

Equally, Al Shabab are also intent on finishing the season in winning style after an impressive turnaround under Vitor Pereira.

The Portuguese, who has previous experience in Saudi Arabia with Al Ahli, was appointed in early February, and more than half of Al Shabab’s 11 wins in this season’s RSL have come since his appointment.

While there have been losses along the way, they have been narrow defeats against teams higher in the table, such as the 3-2 reverse to Al Nassr in Matchweek 21, the 4-3 loss to Al Hilal four rounds later, and the 2-1 defeat to Al Ahli earlier this month.

Despite failing to collect any points in those, Al Shabab’s performances were much improved compared to earlier in the season and offered hope that the Riyadh club were moving in the right direction.

That is the case off-field, too, with Al Shabab taking a major step forward this year when they moved into the new, purpose-built stadium on the site of their old training ground. Tellingly, it gives the club the facilities required to attract the calibre of player needed to take the six-time Saudi champions forward.

The capture of Croatian legend Ivan Rakitic in the mid-season transfer window was proof of that. It also signalled Al Shabab’s ambition.

“The president told me the idea is to bring Al Shabab back to where they have to be,” Rakitic said in a recent interview.

“The history of the club says it really clearly that Al Shabab has to be at the top. The next weeks and next season will be really good for Al Shabab.”

This coming transfer window presents another opportunity to strengthen the squad, with the rumour mill already in full swing as to who might join Rakitic and Belgian midfielder Yannick Carrasco in black and white next season.

Finishing the 2023-24 campaign on a winning note, therefore, is necessary to give the club confidence and momentum heading into what will potentially be a defining few months.

There may just be three points on the line when Ettifaq and Al Shabab meet this weekend in Matchweek 33. But, in many ways there, is so much more.