As with most domestic competitions around the world, this has been a stop-and-start season for the Roshn Saudi League, but the action moves up a level with Sunday’s Classico as Al-Nassr host Al-Ittihad at a sold-out Mrsool Park.
It is the first clash between two of the Kingdom’s giants in this campaign so far, and while it will not decide anything, it will be a fascinating meeting on many levels.
After four games so far, the top four from last season are in the top four positions at the moment. Al-Shabab and Al-Hilal both have a maximum of 12 points (and their meeting a week later will be something to witness). Ittihad are third with 10, and like the top two have yet to concede a goal, and then come Al-Nassr with nine points. Assuming that the top two both extend their winning streak on Sunday then either Al-Ittihad or Al-Nassr are going to find themselves already with some ground to make up if they end up losing.
Yet it is still early days, with two coaches who are still getting two grips with football in Saudi Arabia ahead of their first big test. And it is those coaches who provide many of the talking points and should ensure that there are plenty of observers around the world.
Nuno Santo moved to Jeddah in the summer, following in the footsteps of Rudi Garcia who arrived to take charge of Al-Nassr a few weeks earlier. Together, these two have managed some big clubs in Europe including Valencia, Porto, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur, Roma, Marseille and Lyon. The Portuguese and the Frenchman may have different styles and philosophies but the remit is very much the same — to bring the league trophy back.
For Garcia, there is a little less pressure in that regard as it was only 2019 since Al-Nassr were last champions but he has brought in some big stars and bosses will be expecting a return. It could be an issue this weekend with some serious air miles needed to get those players back to Riyadh after representing their homelands in far-flung locations.
Goalkeeper David Ospina was in the US as Colombia beat Guatemala 4-1 in New Jersey and then headed to California to play in the 3-2 win over Mexico. It is a long way back and the former Arsenal and Napoli star only reported for training on Friday along with full-back Ghislain Konan, who played in France as the Ivory Coast defeated Togo and Guinea. Then there is Vincent Aboubakar. The striker was in action for Cameroon in South Korea after taking on Uzbekistan earlier, and picked up a knock. It remains to be seen if this year’s AFCON top scorer can start on Sunday.
Al-Nassr will need all their firepower including Talisca, who has recently released a rap album. The Brazilian played in the past two games in which the Yellows have looked more threatening in attack, with the most recent outing a 4-0 win over Al-Batin. It was a fluid display with the attacking midfielder getting forward well to support Aboubakar. With Al-Ittihad defensively solid under Santo — with four clean sheets out of four — it could well be that chances are at a premium in this Classico.
The Portuguese boss is perhaps under a bit more pressure than his counterpart as Al-Ittihad were last champions in 2009 and last year threw away the title after having a double-digit lead at the top of the table.
In the short-term, there are some worries. Brazilian attacker Romarinho may miss the game through injury and there are also questions about Portuguese winger Helder Costa. Both face late fitness tests. Neither have scored yet this season with half of their six goals coming from defenders, and there is better news in that regard. Center-back Ahmed Hegazy has declared himself fit. There were worries when the former West Bromwich Albion star left the pitch after an hour of Egypt’s 3-0 win over Liberia on Tuesday, but he is set to start.
Compatriot Tarek Hamed has added even more solidity to the midfield and returns from Egyptian duty fit and ready for action. It will be up to these two to keep an eye on Aboubakar and Talisca.
Then there is Abderrazak Hamdallah, who was released by Al-Nassr late last year and then ended up signing for Al-Ittihad. There is still plenty of bad feeling around the whole deal but he is now back in the team and looking to become a late bolter for Morocco at the World Cup. To have a chance of persuading new coach of the Atlas Lions Walid Regragui, who is looking to strengthen his front line, Hamdallah is going to need to start banging in the goals in the next few weeks.
That may not be enough and similarly this latest Classico will not decide anything in terms of titles either. It will, however, give an indicator of where Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad are at this early stage under these two famous European coaches. It should be quite the clash.