Saudi ‘Clasico’: Mitrovic masterclass, Nuno reality check and Neymar wait goes on

After a remarkable summer of spending by Roshn Saudi League (RSL) heavyweights Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal, fans of both sides were eagerly awaiting the first ‘Saudi Clasico’ of the season.

The clubs didn’t leave their supporters disappointed.

Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal – winners of 27 RSL titles between them – served up an enthralling fare on Friday, with Al-Hilal earning three points and the bragging rights as well, thanks to an entertaining 4-3 away victory at Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium in Jeddah.

In a topsy-turvy game, hosts Al-Ittihad raced to a 3-1 half-time lead, but a spirited fightback from Al-Hilal in the second half, aided by Aleksandar Mitrovic’s hat-trick and the winning strike from Saudi national team forward Salem Al-Dawsari, saw Al-Hilal have the last laugh.

The point-counterpoints will continue for some time to come, as it usually happens with all big games, but here are three key aspects arising out of the match that proved to be a perfect advertisement for a new-look RSL.

1) Mitrovic masterclass

Among the star-studded new attacking arrivals in the Kingdom in recent months, Serbian national Aleksandar Mitrovic’s move from English Premier League side Fulham was relatively low-key. However, Mitrovic is a world-class finisher. His 14 Premier League goals for Fulham in 2022-23 came after he netted 43 in 44 games to help his side earn promotion to the elite group the previous season.

Al-Hilal’s Aleksandar Mitrovic celebrates scoring their first goal. (Reuters)
Al-Hilal’s Aleksandar Mitrovic celebrates scoring their first goal.

Mitrovic had marked his RSL debut with a goal against Al-Raed but was kept out by Al-Ettifaq in his last outing before the ‘Clasico.’ However, Serbia’s all-time leading scorer exploded back into life with a masterclass against Al-Ittihad, earning him instant stardom among Al-Hilal supporters.

A defender’s nightmare, Mitrovic boasts great movement and an intensity that can admittedly boil over into petulance occasionally. Against Al-Ittihad, he was unstoppable at times, with his opening goal an immediate addition to an already impressive career highlights reel. Most strikers would have attempted to control Saud Abdulhamid’s right-wing cross, but Mitrovic took it the first time instead, sweetly volleying into the top corner of the net.

His second was a poacher’s finish, poking the ball home after Marcelo Grohe had saved his initial header. Mitrovic completed his hat-trick by demonstrating his composure under pressure, coolly slotting home a penalty in front of 20,000 cheering Al-Ittihad fans.

Al-Hilal had relied on goals from Odion Ighalo last season, but with Mitrovic now leading the pack and Neymar set to join him soon in the attack, Al-Hilal’s firepower has been handed a significant upgrade – one that is sure to strike fear in rival defences this season.

2) Reality check for Santo

After guiding Al-Ittihad to the Saudi league title last season and starting the 2023-24 campaign with four straight wins, life appeared rosy for coach Nuno Espirito Santo. However, this home defeat to fiercest rivals Al-Hilal provides an early reality check for Santo – now without a win in five games against Al-Hilal – and all those who had thought his team would stroll towards another crown.

Al-Ittihad coach Nuno Espirito Santo. (Reuters)
Al-Ittihad coach Nuno Espirito Santo.

There were, of course, plenty of positives, with some scintillating counter-attacks – particularly in the first half. Abderrazak Hamdallah’s through for Romarinho’s opener was beautifully crafted, while French international Karim Benzema’s delicately flicked finish was impressive, with Igor Coronado keeping the supply line well-oiled from the midfield.

Yet, Al-Ittihad looked frail in defence. Conceding four goals at home in a high-stakes derby is catastrophic.

It could have been worse as Al-Hilal hit the crossbar twice.

Santo needs more from Ngolo Kante, particularly with 37-year-old Omar Hawsawi at the heart of their defence. Hawsawi is a respected former Saudi international and a veteran, but he will struggle against the new-generation RSL talents.

Al-Ittihad has been focused on signing Mohamed Salah before the Saudi transfer window closes. Still, the near-$200 million they have offered to Liverpool for the Egyptian superstar may be better spent on world-class defensive reinforcements to match Al-Hilal’s acquisition of Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea.

The ongoing Salah saga raises major questions about Santo’s relationship with marquee signing Benzema, who scored in the Clasico but also missed a golden opportunity to put Al-Ittihad 4-1 up and surely beyond reach when he was denied by goalkeeper Bono early in the second half. If reports of a rift are true, it will be a major barrier to Al-Ittihad’s hopes of retaining their RSL title.

3) The long wait for Neymar

That Neymar has yet to make his Al-Hilal debut is frustrating for his fans and a relief for supporters of rival RSL clubs. Jorge Jesus’ side sit top of the league, even without their Brazilian ace, and it bodes well, considering they may need to get used to seeing him on the sidelines.

Neymar’s signing from Paris Saint Germain was a calculated risk by Al-Hilal. He is a global icon who accords a worldwide appeal to the club. The queues of fans clamouring for Al-Hilal jerseys at the club shop are a testament to his status as a genuine football icon.

However, the downside is that Neymar is also extremely injury-prone.

Al-Hilal coach Jesus summed it up perfectly after his arrival, describing Neymar as an “innovative and creative player,” but in the same breath admitting, “I don’t know when he will return”.

The flamboyant forward has regularly been on and off the treatment table in the past few seasons. He last played club football this February, and it has been more than a year since he last turned out for Brazil in an international match.

When Neymar finally makes his debut at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, it will surely be a euphoric occasion, but it could also be a false dawn. Al-Hilal will be fighting for trophies on multiple fronts this year, and there is no question that Neymar will be an asset if and when he is fully fit. It remains to be seen how often that may be.

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