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Five big-name players keen to quit the Saudi Pro League

The Saudi Pro League’s remarkable recruitment drive was headline news in the summer transfer window, as the big-spending division lured some illustrious names to the Middle East.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the first marquee recruit after joining Al-Nassr in January 2023 and has thrived in Saudi Arabia, scoring 44 goals in 50 appearances in all competitions. Not every high-profile recruit has adapted so well, however, with murmurs of discontent among some of the league’s summer signings.

 

Here are five big-name players reportedly keen to quit the Saudi Pro League.

Jordan Henderson

Jordan Henderson has faced significant backlash over his decision to move to Al-Ettifaq in the summer, with the former Liverpool captain criticised for the moral hypocrisy of the transfer. Henderson had aligned himself as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community while in the Premier League, but chose to move to a country where same-sex relationships are illegal.

The 33-year-old’s reputation has been damaged following that decision, and six months after trading Merseyside for the Middle East, the midfielder is understood to be keen on an exit. Ajax and Celtic are among the clubs who have been linked, while sides in the Bundesliga and Premier League are also monitoring his situation.

The hast at which Henderson has angled for a return to Europe is indicative of the regret at his decision to sign for Al-Ettifaq in the first place. A transfer this month might provide Henderson with the level of football required to stake a claim for involvement with England at Euro 2024, but it is unlikely to repair the reputation he spent so long building, only to dismantle in one decision.

Henderson insisted his decision to move to Saudi Arabia was based on a desire to grow the game, an admission few, if any, bought. After six months and a handful of underwhelming performances, is that really mission accomplished? The inflated wages no doubt drove the decision, one some will find difficult to forgive.

Karim Benzema

Karim Benzema was one of the headline signings of the Saudi Pro League window, as Al-Ittihad completed a deal to sign the Ballon d’Or winner from Real Madrid. Installed as captain of the Saudi side, Benzema has scored 15 goals in 24 appearances in all competitions this season.

However, the Frenchman continues to be linked with an exit, with Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea all linked with signing the 36-year-old as a short-term solution to their goalscoring issues.

Benzema has struggled to win the affection of the Al-Ittihad fans, however, who sit seventh in the SPL table despite summer signings that included N’Golo Kante and Fabinho, alongside the French forward.

Former Manchester United forward Louis Saha last week endorsed his former side to move for his compatriot.

“He [Benzema] will shake up the United frontline and that’s what they need,” Saha said, as per the Evening Standard.

“He will definitely score goals and he will link up the play a lot better. It’s just a dream but Karim is still a very professional guy, he’s the type of striker that (Rasmus) Hojlund will learn from, but that’s just a fantasy.”

Ruben Neves

Ruben Neves was arguably the most surprising signing for the Saudi Pro League last summer. While the majority of the big-name imports into the division were reaching the latter stages of their careers, Neves arrived in Saudi in his prime.

The 26-year-old had spoken of his desire to play Champions League football if he left Wolves, but swapped Molineux for the Middle East and a lucrative pay-packet. Brutally honest, Neves told BBC Sport that money was a persuasive factor in his decision to sign for Al-Hilal.

“Of course one of the things is the money. Of course, you cannot hide that. But when we see the project and I know a lot of people think we say this because just to say it, but it’s not true. When they present us with the project, it’s a very big project.

“I think people have no idea how the country is improving and how the football is improving here. How the football can be in a few years. In one year, we did this in the Saudi Pro League. I believe in two more years, three more years, that will be an amazing league.”

Neves has, publicly, insisted he is happy in Saudi Arabia, but he continues to be linked with a Premier League return. Newcastle have been named as admirers, with the Magpies funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

Roberto Firmino

Roberto Firmino joined the aforementioned Henderson in waving farewell to Liverpool last summer, bringing an end to his decorated career with the club.

Firmino spent eight seasons with Liverpool and was a key figure in the success of Jurgen Klopp’s side, before agreeing a deal to sign for Al-Ahli on a free transfer. The Brazilian reportedly wants out of the Saudi Pro League after a disappointing spell with the club, in which the 32-year-old has scored just three times in 19 appearances.

Firmino, who was named captain in the summer, has started the last seven league fixtures on the bench in a noticeable fall from grace. Fulham and Sheffield United have been credited with interest in bringing the forward back to the Premier League.

Jota

Jota looks set to leave Al-Ittihad this winter, just six months after signing from Celtic in a £25m deal. Incredibly, the Portuguese winger was not registered for the Saudi Pro League under former manager Nuno Espirito Santo and has seen his game time limited to the AFC Champions League.

The winger’s torrid time in the Middle East could come to an end this month, with journalist Rudy Galletti having reported that three clubs have made approaches to sign the 24-year-old in January.

Jota scored 28 goals and provided 26 assists in 83 appearances during a successful spell at Celtic, in which the winger won five domestic trophies and became a huge fans’ favourite.

Read – Six January signings who made an immediate impact in the Premier League

See more – Midfield Magicians: Barcelona’s beating heart, Xavi

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