16 August 2017
LONDON: On the first day of the inaugural English Premier League season in 1992, of the 242 players that started the 11 matches, only 13 were not British or Irish.
Back then, managers could lose two matches on the bounce and not fear the sack, and $260 million would have likely bought you every single player and still leave you with sizeable change.
To state the obvious, times have changed.
The Premier League is not now so much a parochial English sporting competition than it is a rapacious, money-loving monster hellbent on global domination.
That new reality may have ushered in mind-boggling wages and increased ticket prices, but it has also created as diverse a sporting spectacle as anything you are likely to find. The number of overseas players who started the 10 games on the last day of last season was 112 out of 220, more than half.
That change has seen the number of Arab stars showing off their skills in England increase season-on-season, with nine Arabs now lining up in the Premier League.
Here Arab News gives its scout’s report on the men representing the region in the world’s most popular league.
MOHAMED SALAH — LIVERPOOL: When you are known as the “Egyptian Messi” it seems fair to say two things: You must be quite good, and there is a lot of pressure on your shoulders to prove it.
Even if you ignore the nickname, Salah is the new poster boy of Arab football. No stranger to big transfer fees — he moved to Chelsea in 2014 for £11 million, and Roma, two years later for £13 million — he became Liverpool’s most expensive buy ever this summer when he moved from the Italian capital to Anfield. And when you consider the legends of the game who have played for the Reds, that is a daunting accolade to have.
His record suggests, however, he will kick any doubts some may have into Row Z.
Salah’s 18-game stint at Chelsea says more about the vagaries of team selection at Stamford Bridge than it does about his ability. It is his time at Roma that hints at just how good the winger is.
He negotiated Serie A’s claustrophobically-tight defenses with flair and ease, scoring 29 goals in 65 appearances. Add in his 29 strikes in 53 matches for Egypt and it is not hard to see what attracted Jurgen Klopp to the 25-year-old.
Salah’s Liverpool debut on Saturday against Watford gave a glimpse of what might follow. He played as part of an attacking three which, when considering the Reds’ dodgy defense, will be key to the side’s chances of success this season. He scored the third in the 3-3 draw and gave a good first impression.
He has always had the ability, now he has the stage on which to live out his dreams and become Arab football’s first global star.
SCOUT’S ASSESSMENT: Potential world beater.
RIYAD MAHREZ — LEICESTER CITY: One man who can tell Salah a few things about dreams coming true is Riyad Mahrez.
The Algerian ace was the leading man in Leicester’s fairytale march to the Premier League title last year; his winning the PFA Player of the Year Award only marginally more believable than his side’s lifting of the famous trophy.
But it was an accolade he more than deserved. As much as anyone, Mahrez personified the traits that made football’s most unlikely story become reality: persistence, hard work, tenacity and a huge helping of skill.
The 26-year-old was key to the Foxes’ tactic of playing on the counterattack: Him terrorizing opposition defenses with his mazy runs was one of the memorable sights of the shock season. He ended up scoring 17 goals and setting up 11.
It did not go unnoticed by bigger clubs, with Barcelona reportedly interested in enticing him to the Nou Camp. But keen on adding another chapter to the fairytale he stayed at Leicester and helped them reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League last season, a run which saw him score four times.
The harsh reality of Leicester rejoining the pack of teams for whom survival is the only target has Mahrez now looking to leave, with a big-money move to Roma on the cards — the Italians have already had an offer of £26 million rejected.
Until they increase their bid Mahrez remains at the King Power Stadium, and on the evidence of Friday night’s 4-3 thriller at Arsenal he looks close to his title-winning form. Whether that is his swan song or a prelude to another successful Premier League season, only the next few weeks will tell.
SCOUT’S ASSESSMENT: Established global star.
AHMED HEGAZY — WEST BROM: Egyptians have largely failed to make an impact on the Premier League, Hossam Ghaly and (especially) Mido were just two players who were much better than their forgettable stints in England suggested.
That may change this season is not just down to Salah’s big-money move to Liverpool. Arguably the Arab player who made the most impact on the opening weekend was Hagazy, the Al-Ahly defender currently on loan at West Brom.
The 26-year-old not only scored the winner on his debut against Bournmouth, a towering header from a free-kick, but looked every inch the bulwark in defense his 6-foot-5-inch frame suggests he is.
West Brom boss Tony Pulis was rumored to be looking to sign Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen over the summer to shore up the Baggies’ defense. On the evidence of Saturday, however, it looks like he will not need to. Hagazy was dominant throughout and is already a fan favorite, thanks to some impressive displays in the pre-season Asia Trophy in Hong Kong.
It is early days yet, but Hegazy could be one of the signings of the season.
SCOUT’S ASSESSMENT: Possible cult hero.
MOHAMED ELNENY — ARSENAL: Another Arab who played during Friday’s Premier League opener was the Egyptian midfielder. He has had trouble nailing down a starting spot at the Emirates and the jury is still out on whether he will ever be able to do so.
His performance during Arsenal’s 4-3 win over Leicester summed up his time at the Gunners: Brilliance and effort mixed in with some indifferent stuff, not least giving the ball away in the buildup to Leicester’s second goal.
While not a fan favorite, the supporters more than appreciate his ability to keep the ball — he once completed 122 passes in a match, a then-season record — without ever believing he is the man to marshal the midfield toward a title tilt.
A stat that reveals much about his role at Arsenal is that he has played no more than 26 games since he moved to North London from Swiss club Basel in January last year.
He is, however, still only 24 and, having turned down an offer to move to Leicester this summer, keen to prove he can impress for the Gunners.
Friday’s performance offered up some hope, as does the fact he has already played over 50 times for his country.
SCOUT’S ASSESSMENT: Solid team man, needs to do more to impress.
ISLAM SLIMANI — LEICESTER CITY: Before Salah, the last Arab to move to the Premier League with a big transfer fee attached was Slimani.
The Algerian striker moved to the then champions with a £28 million price tag and the promise of goals on top of a big, powerful presence up front.
He arrived from Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon but is yet to settle at the King Power Stadium. In 23 appearances last season he scored just seven times and was increasingly used as an impact player off the bench, not exactly what you dish out a club record fee for.
Over the summer there has been speculation he could move to either Everton or Newcastle, so could yet still show the Premier League what he is capable of — at Sporting he scored 42 goals in 82 appearances.
However, with him having stayed on the bench during Leicester’s 4-3 defeat at Arsenal on Friday, and the Foxes having splashed £25 million ($32 million) on Kelechi Iheanacho, the chances of him doing that at Leicester look increasingly slim.
SCOUT’S ASSESSMENT: Bench warmer.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH
NORDIN AMRABAT — WATFORD: The Moroccan winger started for Watford in their 3-3 draw against Liverpool, and played the full 90 minutes. There were rumors this summer he wanted to move back to Spain, where he played for Malaga before joining the Hornets, and chances are Watford will allow him to go.
SCOUT’S ASSESSMENT: On the move.
SOFIANE BOUFAL — SOUTHAMPTON: The Moroccan winger was the Saints’ record signing last year when they splashed £16 million to sign him from French club Lille. He struggled to impress, however, and only played 20 Premier League matches last season. He came on during Southampton’s bore draw with Swansea on Saturday and needs to impress new manager Mauricio Pellegrino.
SCOUT’S ASSESSMENT: Bench warmer.
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