How are Ronaldo and other Saudi Pro League stars shaping up for Euros?

<span>Cristiano Ronaldo is on the brink of breaking the goalscoring record in the Saudi Pro League. But has the season been challenging enough ahead of the Euros? </span><span>Photograph: Elie Hokayem/Saudi Pro League/Getty Images</span>
Cristiano Ronaldo is on the brink of breaking the goalscoring record in the Saudi Pro League. But has the season been challenging enough ahead of the Euros? Photograph: Elie Hokayem/Saudi Pro League/Getty Images

England kick off Euro 2024 against Serbia on 16 June and if Jordan Henderson is called up then the former Al-Ettifaq midfielder should be able to give Gareth Southgate an idea of the kind of form that Aleksandar Mitrovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic are in. They are two of a growing number of European internationals who will be acting as unofficial ambassadors for the Saudi Pro League (SPL) this summer – especially if they underperform.

The two Serbs have played a major part in Al-Hilal becoming champions of the SPL for a 19th time. The deal was sealed on Saturday but it was all a bit of a stroll. Rúben Neves, another standout, will also head to Germany with a league winner’s medal in his suitcase ready to show fellow Portuguese international Cristiano Ronaldo.

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The spending spree that started with Ronaldo joining Al-Nassr in December 2022 reached its zenith last summer with a number of big names heading to Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam and elsewhere. Portugal will probably have three Saudi-based stars: Neves, Ronaldo and his Al-Nassr teammate Otávio. Marcelo Brozovic plays for Croatia while Scotland have Jack Hendry to keep tabs on. Belgium may select Yannick Carrasco while Romania could call up Nicolae Stanciu and Florin Tanase.

Much of the focus will be on Ronaldo. It has been an up and down campaign for the 39-year-old. He missed out on the league title for the second successive season and his two suspensions, one for an elbow against Al-Hilal and the other for a suggestive gesture in response to fans chanting “Messi”, made news everywhere. There were goals though. Lots of goals. With 33 in the league already, he is going to add the SPL golden boot to his extensive collection of trophies and with three games remaining there is a good chance that Abderrazak Hamdallah’s league record of 34 will be broken.

Whether he does or not will be more interesting than the title race which looked as good as over when Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr 3-0 in the Riyadh derby in early December before the season was halfway done. The Yellows are now 12 points behind their local rivals. Al-Nassr’s points tally has been impressive – they are 19 points clear of third-placed Al-Ahli and their attacking trio of Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino and Allan Saint-Maximin – it is just a few defensive issues and mistakes at crucial times have been costly.

That, and the amazing form of Al-Hilal. The champions have long been known as a team that can get a result when all looks lost. This season they have dropped just four points.

Even without Neymar, who was just starting to get in form when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament when in action for Brazil in October, it has been a relentless march to the title that included a world-record winning run of 36 games with Mitrovic second to Ronaldo in the goalscoring charts. The Serb’s physical presence, aerial ability and composure in front of goal have been too much for defenders. Milinkovic-Savic took some time to settle in midfield after arriving from Lazio but has become a driving force.

With the European Championship approaching, only Al-Hilal players truly know how challenging their season has been and whether it has been good preparation for the Euros. The team are unbeaten, have a positive goal difference of 75 and have won games 7-0 and 9-0. They were never really put under pressure at the top.

Next season should be tougher. The Riyadh giants Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr and the Jeddah powerhouses Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad were taken over by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) last summer. Already well funded, they now have much deeper pockets than the rest. Al-Ittihad, the defending champions, have been the real disappointment, not helped by injuries to Karim Benzema and Fabinho and the spectacular disintegration of a defence that conceded 13 goals last season to 48 this time around with three left to play. Nuno Espírito Santo was sacked in November and his Argentinian replacement, Marcelo Gallardo, is about to be soon.

For Saudi Arabians fans, failure to reach the final of the Asian Champions League was a disappointment. Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates saw off Al-Nassr in the quarter-finals on penalties and then ended Al-Hilal’s 36-game world-record winning run in the last four. Al-Ain’s Moroccan forward Soufiane Rahimi showed that it is not all about the big names on huge money. But had Mitrovic been fit, it could well have been a different story.

At home, the top four next season can be predicted with some confidence but then this is not a unique scenario. Adding others into the mix is the challenge. The underperforming Al-Shabab will be hoping to improve when it all starts again and Steven Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq, who are sixth, need to find more consistency. More strength in depth is apparent but to be expected when this is the first season that has seen a real influx of stars. Next season should, in theory, shed more light on how the league is developing and whether the smaller teams can bloody the noses of the Big Four on a more regular basis to keep the stars feeling sparkly.

And with that in mind, bosses in Riyadh would probably be quite happy if Mitrovic and Milinkovic-Savic ensure England’s summer starts badly and that Serbia go on to meet Portugal in the final.