Saudi Pro League Week 13: Benzema strikes back; Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr march on

The attention of global football lovers is focused on the Saudi Pro League this season like never before after the Kingdom’s clubs welcomed a host of star-studded new arrivals to the country over the past nine months.

Each week, Al Arabiya English brings you a round-up of the key storylines as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar and Co battle it out for the 2023-24 title.

On Matchday 13, ahead of a rest week for FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Al-Ittihad began life without Nuno Espirito Santo with a bang. At the same time, Al-Hilal survived the challenge from Al-Taawoun; Cristiano Ronaldo scored yet again, while two of the league’s strugglers claimed crucial results in their quest for Saudi Pro League survival.

Benzema enjoys life after Nuno

There was considerable speculation all through last week that it was a breakdown in the relationship between Al-Ittihad coach Nuno Espirito Santo and star striker Karim Benzema that led to the former being sacked by the club last Wednesday. Benzema certainly seemed a different player in his first game since Nuno’s departure, with the Frenchman in irresistible form against Abha – netting a match-winning hat-trick in Jeddah.

Al Ittihad former coach Nuno Espirito Santo reacts. (Reuters)
Al Ittihad former coach Nuno Espirito Santo reacts.

In the first half, a VAR check ruled that Benzema was fouled inside the box. He slotted home the penalty, much to the delight of interim boss Hassan Khalifa.

Abha equalized after goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe fumbled with the ball at the feet of Karl Toko Ekambi, who finished impressively.

However, Al-Ittihad retook the lead through Benzema’s ‘Maradona turn’ inside the box. He put the ball into the path of Igor Coronado, who lifted it over onrushing goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu.

Benzema then sprinted clear of the Abha offside trap on 66 minutes and kept his cool to slot the ball home before completing his hat-trick less than two minutes later with a simple finish from close range. Benzema had only scored five goals in the last 10 games, heading into this match, but propelled himself to eight in 11, giving Al-Ittihad hope that life without last season’s championship-winning boss may be bright.

Abha scored its second through Fahad Al-Jumayah’s header in the 84th minute, but it was only a consolation as Al-Ittihad posted its first Saudi Pro League win since September.

Al-Hilal survives Al-Taawoun test

Saudi Pro League leader Al-Hilal remains undefeated this season after an impressive 2-0 victory over Al-Taawoun in Riyadh. It was the 11th league victory of the season for Jorge Jesus’ side, who have now won six in succession and 11 in a row in all competitions. The team was made to work for the three points, with Al-Hilal No. 1 Bono called into action several times, including an impressive stop that prevented Hassan Atambakti from scoring an own goal.

Al-Taawoun has been in fine form this season and this was only its second defeat in the league so far. It seemed as though Pericles Chamusca’s team would hold on for a well-earned draw, but in-form Aleksandar Mitrovic had other ideas. The Serbian striker’s 81st-minute diving header slid fortuitously through the legs of goalkeeper Mailson.

It was Mitrovic’s 10th Saudi Pro League goal in what has been a prolific campaign so far, while Mohammed Kanno added a second in injury-time with an deft free-kick from 25 yards. It was this ex-Fulham forward’s goal that turned out to be the decisive intervention.

Al-Hilal now faces bottom-of-the-table Al-Hazm in the league, before a potential title-deciding clash with Riyadh rival Al-Nassr on December 1.

Reliable Ronaldo nets again

Al-Hilal’s Mitrovic and Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo remain locked in a battle for the Saudi Pro League Golden Boot and after watching his rival score on Friday night, the Portuguese superstar responded with a goal in his side’s 3-1 victory at Al-Wehda on Saturday.

It was an unlikely source that opened the scoring for Al-Nassr, with left-back Alex Telles curling in a quickly taken free-kick early in the first half.

Abdulelah Al-Amri then doubled the visitors’ lead before the interval, rising to head Marcelo Brozovic’s cross in off the post, even as Ronaldo spurned two chances before finding the net on the third attempt. The former Real Madrid striker showed his instincts have not diminished as he capitalized on a poor defensive header to poke the ball past goalkeeper Munir Mohamedi.

Al-Wehda snatched a late consolation, thanks to Anselmo’s close-range header, but Al-Nassr held on to keep pace with league leader Al-Hilal.

Luis Castro’s side remains four points behind, but has the added benefit of already qualifying for the next round of the AFC Champions League. Al-Nassr can afford to rest some of its key players in its next two continental matches, but Al-Hilal still needs results to advance.

Strugglers snatch vital wins

Al-Raed and Al-Akhdoud have both had very little to cheer about this season, with the two clubs winless in recent weeks heading into Matchday 13. Al-Raed, in particular, looked at risk at being cut adrift, having failed to win a match since August 28 – losing to both Akhdoud and fellow relegation rival Al-Hazm since then.

However, Al-Raed finally secured a rare positive result with a hard-fought win against Al-Shabab, courtesy goals from Karim el-Berkaoui and Julio Tavares. Al-Akhdoud also registered a 2-1 win, highlighting an unusually fruitful weekend for a couple of the division’s prime relegation candidates. It was particularly satisfying for Al-Akhdoud coach Jorge Mendonca as fellow struggler Al-Hazm was put to the sword by a brace from Cameroon forward Leandre Tawamba.

Elsewhere, Al-Ettifaq’s difficulties in front of goal continued as the team failed to score for the fifth time in its past seven games, with a goalless draw with Al-Fayha, while Al-Ahli climbed to third on the Saudi Pro League points table after a 2-2 draw at Damac.

The team from Jeddah should have been celebrating all three points after goals from Abdulbasit Hindi and Sumayhan A-Nabit saw them spring into a comfortable 2-0 half-time lead. However, Damac dug in and a dramatic late leveller by Romanian Nicolae Stanciu followed Farouk Chafai’s second-half strike.

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