Football fans around the world are following this season’s Saudi Pro League like never before after clubs here welcomed a host of star-studded new arrivals to the Kingdom over the past nine months.
Each week, Al Arabiya English will do a round-up of the key storylines as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar and Co slug it out for the 2023-24 title.
On Matchday Eight, Al Hilal moved back to the top of the table while Ronaldo rescued Al Nassr. Al Taawoun also capitalized as some of the league’s big-hitters faltered after a busy week of King’s Cup fixtures.
Al Hilal bounce back
It has been a tough couple of weeks for Al Hilal, who were held to successive draws against Navbahor in the AFC Champions League and then Damac in the Saudi Pro League last week. An unconvincing 1-0 triumph against First Division side Al Jabalain in a King’s Cup match left many wondering whether Al Hilal will be able to come out of their bad patch any time soon.
Against Al Shabab, they labored again, but second-half goals from two of their big summer signings – uncompromising Senegal center-back Kalidou Koulibaly and imposing Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic – gave Al-Hilal the win they needed to return to the top of the Saudi Pro League table.
With rumors surfacing a few days ago that marquee recruit Neymar had fallen out with coach Jorge Jesus, Al Hilal executive Fahd al-Mufarrej had to publicly allay such fears after his side’s win against Al Shabab, saying: “Al Hilal is not in a crisis, the team is leading and stable. We need time and patience for the team to do better. The squad has many new players”.
Ronaldo rescues Al Nassr
Fresh from having a night off in the King’s Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Al Nassr’s starting XI with a bang as Luis Castro’s side secured all three points with a late show at Al Tai. Al Nassr had managed well without Ronaldo last Monday, overcoming Ohod with a comfortable 5-1 away win, but the Portuguese superstar looked hungry as he came back into the side.
Despite missing a couple of first-half chances, Ronaldo made the difference with two decisive contributions later.
To open the scoring for Al Nassr, the former Real Madrid man’s delightful through-ball was placed perfectly into the path of Talisca, who slotted a left-footed shot past goalkeeper Victor Braga. It was Talisca’s fifth goal in four games. His partnership with Ronaldo is flourishing.
Al Nassr continued to have the better opportunities, but Al Tai managed a surprise equalizer as Dutchman Virgil Misidjan suddenly raced clear of the visitors’ defense and finished with aplomb for his first goal since moving to the Kingdom from FC Twente.
However, just eight minutes later, Ronaldo was given a chance to seal victory from the penalty spot, following a handball, and Al Nassr’s No. 7 kept his cool to give his team their ninth straight win in all competitions and power the side to fourth on the points table.
Al Ahli have been this season’s great entertainers so far and, heading into their home clash against in-form Al Ettifaq, had seen their previous four games yield a remarkable 23 goals – 10 for Ahli and 13 for their opponents. With Steven Gerrard’s Al Ettifaq also having scored three goals in each of their last four games, hopes were high for what appeared to be the game of the weekend in Jeddah.
However, football doesn’t always go to plan and the most unlikely result – a goalless draw – was what the two sides delivered on an evening of scrappy play.
Clear-cut opportunities were few and far between, though it seemed Al Ahli had taken the lead after Robert Firmino slotted home on 16 minutes, only for the VAR to find that provider Alain Saint-Maximin had strayed marginally offside in the build-up. It was the closest either side came on a frustrating evening.
Al Fayha and Al Ittihad both had to fight hard to progress in their respective King’s Cup ties and it showed in their stalemate at Al Majma’ah Sports City as neither side could find the breakthrough.
Al Ittihad saw a lot more of the ball, but aside from a couple of half-chances for N’Golo Kante, the reigning Saudi Pro League champions were fairly toothless in attack and it was actually Al Fayha who had the better chances, with Marcelo Grohe making a trio of smart first-half stops to keep his side in the game.
Given that both the sides will be back in AFC Champions League action again this week and the relentless nature of the fixtures, the going could get increasingly tough for Al Fayha – particularly as their squad lack the depth of quality of Al Ittihad.
Tello treble, Al Taawoun march on
Al Fateh have really blown hot and cold this season, losing 5-0 at home to Al Nassr, but also impressively downing Al Ahli 5-1 at the beginning of last month. Thankfully for the home fans, it was their team scoring five again on Saturday as Al Wehda were put to the sword with ease.
Cristian Tello was once described by his coach at Barcelona, Jordi Roura, as a “player with extraordinary qualities,” and against Al Wehda, he put on the best individual display in the Saudi Pro League last weekend with a superb hat-trick that powered his side to a 5-1 win.
Elsewhere, Al Taawoun continued to be one of the surprise packages in this season’s Saudi Pro League as goals from Musa Barrow, Abdulfattah Adam and Sattam Al Roqi gave them a comfortable 3-1 win against struggling Al Hazm, maintaining their spot as the best of the rest, behind Al Hilal and Al Ittihad, so far.