Whenever a new Saudi Professional League fixture list is released there are some games that neutral fans look out for. These include the big Jeddah and Riyadh derbies, the great inter-city clashes and a select few others.
Damac have never featured on this list — until now. On Thursday they travel as league leaders to the capital to take on Al-Hilal. With the season a third of the way complete, if the team occupying the top spot can win at the home of the defending champions, then their title challenge has to be regarded as a serious one.
Damac have earned 21 points from their first 10 games, one point more than Al-Ittihad and three ahead of third-placed Al-Shabab. Al-Hilal are in fifth spot with 16 points but have played two fewer games than Damac as a result of their AFC Champions League commitments.
A victory in Riyadh would put the league leaders eight points clear of the title-holders heading into the international break. It is almost unthinkable.
To say this is an unfamiliar position for Damac, who are enjoying only their third season in the top tier after promotion in 2019, is an understatement. Their first top-flight campaign was a tough one, with a six-game losing streak leaving them languishing at the bottom of the table until a late rally lifted them to safety.
Last season was a similar story but in January, with the club again in the relegation zone, coach Kresimir Rezic arrived to take control. Under the Croatian, the club finished with a nine-game unbeaten run to secure another season in the top flight.
A 4-1 defeat by Al-Nassr in the opening game of this season suggested another tough season ahead. That proved not to be the case, however, after an impressive response to the loss in which the team have again gone nine games unbeaten. This means that Damac have lost only one of their last 19 league games. This is championship form.
Rezic has now been in the job for 10 months and has got to grips with the defense, which has gone from conceding more than 1.6 goals a game last season to 0.8 so far in this campaign. The team has become a much better organized and more cohesive unit, with the whole squad working hard.
Goalkeeper Moustapha Zeghba has barely put a glove wrong, and there is an experienced central-defensive pairing of Sergio Vittor from Argentina and Farouk Chafai from Algeria. All three players have been at the club long enough to have built an understanding. The addition in August of defensive midfielder Filipe Augusto, who is suspended for this game, alongside Abdulaziz Majrashi has helped to keep the team compact when not in possession.
Left-back Abdullah Al-Ammar, whose diving header clinched victory against Ettifaq on Saturday, has been a revelation going forward and has helped Emilio Zelaya in attack. The Argentine scored seven of the team’s 14 goals so far and needs to be wrapped in cotton wool.
This is the worry. It remains to be seen whether Damac have the strength in depth to really mount a sustained challenge against the traditional big boys.
“Every team has to deal with absences in the form of injuries and suspensions; this is normal,” said Rezic ahead of the game in Riyadh. “We have to trust the squad we have.”
He is doing what coaches do, which is trying to keep everyone’s feet on the ground despite being in a lofty position.
“We must not get carried away,” he said after last weekend’s 1-0 win at Ettifaq. “We have to take each game as it comes and keep our focus more on the upcoming matches. When we have time in between, we will work on improving as a team and strengthening our weak points.”
Al-Hilal will provide the toughest test of the season so far and it will be fascinating to see how the game progresses. In addition to the red-hot Salem Al-Dawsari, Damac’s tight defense might also have to deal with the return of Moussa Marega.
The Malian marksman was injured during the AFC Champions League semi-final against Al-Nassr last month but is approaching full fitness. If he has recovered, it remains to be seen whether coach Leonardo Jardim will go with a 4-4-2 formation, with Marega lining up alongside Bafetimbi Gomis as fans saw earlier in the season, or stick with the more recent 4-2-3-1.
The champions have not yet hit top gear this season, despite reaching the Champions League final and staying in touch at the top of the league. Their most recent result was a 1-1 draw with Al-Ahli on Friday. Jardim was not best pleased with the performance and has demanded a response.
“What annoyed me was that we allowed the opponent to play many passes comfortably and we need to sort this out in the coming weeks,” said the former Monaco boss, who has been linked with the vacant Newcastle United post.
“We need to have more control of games, correct our mistakes and not allow the opposition to keep winning the second ball. We have to be better against Damac.”
Whether or not Jardim has been thinking about the English Premier League, he warned his players not to be distracted by thoughts of the AFC Champions League final on Nov. 23.
“The players thinking about the Asian final is a big mistake,” said Jardim, adding that all thoughts of the big game can wait until the international break.
There are no such issues for Damac: This is their biggest game of the season so far. Whether it ends up being the biggest game of the entire season will depend, in part, on what happens against the reigning champions on Thursday.