4 things to look for as Saudi Pro League takes off

4 things to look for as Saudi Pro League takes off
The exuberant 31-year-old was denied his debut in Al-Hilal’s unforgettable 4-3 ‘Saudi Classico’ victory at Ittihad by a training knock. (Twitter: @Alhilal_EN)
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Updated 13 September 2023
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4 things to look for as Saudi Pro League takes off

4 things to look for as Saudi Pro League takes off
  • After the drama of the summer transfer window, focus can finally turn to sustained action on the pitch

This summer’s transfer window has seen frenetic activity like no other in the Roshn Saudi League.

Karim Benzema, Steven Gerrard, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez, Neymar and several others led a deluge of talent into Asia’s premier domestic club competition. Football’s focus shifted definitively eastwards, with further ripples of excitement being fanned by unfulfilled — but insistent — talk of Mohamed Salah’s impending arrival right up until the Sept. 7 deadline.

Now comes the real action.

This window’s closure heralds the start of Saudi Arabia’s topflight settling into a familiar rhythm. There is much to anticipate and embrace in the coming weeks, starting with Thursday’s matchweek-six resumption.

Here is what to expect, plus major issues at play, in this campaign for the ages.

We’re just getting started

If the transfer season, with all its heightened drama and playful speculation, is the starter, now it is time for the Roshn Saudi League’s main course.

The new additions can settle into their unfamiliar environment. The arrival of autumn and less searing temperatures will provide opportune conditions to excel.

Head coaches throughout the division can, finally, take stock of their enviable options, determining an optimal way to get the best out of them. Jorge Jesus’ Al-Hilal XI, for example, which opened with 3-1 victory at Abha on Aug. 14 contained only a trio of foreign stars.

A tantalizing 14 matchweeks lie ahead, before a lengthy break for next year’s anticipated AFC Asian Cup.

Highlights include October’s Jeddah Derby for promoted Al-Ahli and holders Al-Ittihad, November’s capital clash between Hilal and Al-Nassr and December’s meeting of Ittihad and Nassr. Megastar Cristiano Ronaldo is averaging a goal contribution every 35.6 minutes in the 2023-24 RSL season for Nassr.

Expect coveted Spain under-21 midfielder Gabri Veiga to soar for Ahli after being thrust into an hour-long cameo in the staggering 5-1 defeat at Al-Fateh. Al-Shabab’s tumult off the pitch can be forgotten when Belgium utility man Yannick Carrasco and veteran Morocco defender Romain Saiss make their bows.

Debuts await for Demarai Gray and Georginio Wijnaldum at expectant Ettifaq, Australia flyer Craig Goodwin is back for Al-Wehda, and Andre Gray adds Premier League experience to promoted Riyadh.

But nothing compares to the anticipation surrounding a fresh face in blue.

It’s Neymar time

Among a galaxy of stars, it takes someone extraordinarily special to shine brightest.

Neymar is that someone. His opening Hilal minutes could come against neighbors Riyadh on Friday.

A city stopped in mid-August for the unalloyed entertainer’s unveiling at a packed King Fahd International Stadium, illuminated by pyrotechnics and drones. Further fireworks are expected from the most expensive signing in Asian history.

The exuberant 31-year-old was denied his debut in Al-Hilal’s unforgettable 4-3 ‘Saudi Classico’ victory at Ittihad by a training knock. He could be unleashed after an international break of substantial achievement.

Neymar raced past the lionized Pele at the summit of Brazil’s top-scorers list with his 78th and 79th goals in a 5-1 demolition of Bolivia. This was followed by a 90th minute assist for ex-Paris Saint-Germain teammate Marquinhos in the 1-0 triumph at Peru.

Ice packs on his ankles post-Bolivia point toward the painful cost of being one of football’s great showmen — and may yet temper immediate involvement.

Yet, at some point soon, “Neymar is Blue” will become a technicolor reality.

Portugal metronome Ruben Neves and revered Serbia center-midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic are his supply line. Sparks should fly in tandem with Saudi Arabia magician Salem Al-Dawsari and four-goal compatriot Malcom, while bulldozing Serbia center-forward Aleksandar Mitrovic appears the perfect physical foil.

Hilal have surged into top spot, and as third top scorers, without Neymar. It appears limitless what they can achieve with him in their ranks.

Saudi topflight is taking an intriguing shape

Familiar — and unfamiliar — faces can be found at the front.

A reaction from Hilal was predicted after last season’s dethroning, while sixth-placed Nassr are flying now that their draining 2023 King Salman Club Cup and 2023-24 AFC Champions League-qualifying demands are out of the way. Holders Ittihad were 100 percent before the defeat to Hilal, while promoted Ahli were in similarly fine fettle before inexplicably sinking at Fateh.

This quartet look poised for a memorable title showdown. Yet, less-celebrated names cannot be ruled out on the evidence of the opening weeks.

Pericles Chamusca’s masterly reign has been extended at second-placed Al-Taawoun by the brilliance of Nagoya Grampus forward Mateus. Gerrard has inspired Ettifaq into fifth, even prior to unleashing Gray and Wijnaldum.

Competition should be fierce elsewhere, with only three points separating eighth-placed Al-Fayha — buoyed by brilliant attacker Fashion Sakala — from 16th-placed Damac in the drop zone.

It’s all to play for.

Mancini has much to ponder on testing run to Asian Cup

Foreign recruitment has dominated discourse on the Roshn Saudi League, but international matters cannot be ignored.

This has gained greater pertinence in a chastening start for Roberto Mancini with Saudi Arabia. Italy’s Euro 2020 winner will now cast a keen eye on the topflight, in a breathless beginning which swiftly moves onto their kickoff for the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers and the Asian Cup.

The progress of two promising attackers could be illuminating.

In Mancini’s opening friendly defeats to Costa Rica (1-3) and South Korea (0-1), Abdullah Al-Hamdan and Firas Al-Buraikan were the only natural strikers selected.

The former had produced two goals in two starts for Hilal, before being usurped by Mitrovic. The latter netted four times from five matches at Fateh, before switching to Ahli where Brazil forward Roberto Firmino stands in his way.

These prospects require club minutes to fire Saudi Arabia to success. A challenge has been set to get them.


Ronaldo and Talisca take Al-Nassr to 3rd in Saudi Pro League

Ronaldo and Talisca take Al-Nassr to 3rd in Saudi Pro League
Updated 29 September 2023
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Ronaldo and Talisca take Al-Nassr to 3rd in Saudi Pro League

Ronaldo and Talisca take Al-Nassr to 3rd in Saudi Pro League
  • Portuguese star linked up well with Anderson Talisca and the pair look to be enjoying themselves
  • Yellows fans now see their side just a point behind leaders Al-Ittihad who were held to a 0-0 draw at Al-Fayha

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 10th of the season as Al-Nassr made it six from six in the league on Friday with a 2-1 win at Al-Tai.

The Portuguese star linked up well with Anderson Talisca and the pair look to be enjoying themselves.

The same can be said for fans of the Yellows who now see their side just a point behind leaders Al-Ittihad who were held to a 0-0 draw at Al-Fayha.

After starting the campaign with two defeats in the first two games, Al-Nassr are showing themselves to be capable of putting teams to the sword and grinding out victories when they need to.

This was more the latter, and it was a close-run thing. The visitors moved ahead just after the half hour to quieten the vociferous home fans, and it was a beauty. Ronaldo, on the edge of the area, flicked the ball up for the advancing Talisca to fire home from the right side of the box for his third in two games. It was a fifth assist of the season so far for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.

The goal had been coming as Al-Nassr had been pushing forward, with Ronaldo missing good chances earlier in the game.

From one opportunity Talisca had set up his captain, running into the area and supplying the unmarked Portuguese international who, to the surprise of everyone, unleashed a shot that lacked power and enabled Victor Braga to save.

Ronaldo had a slightly tougher chance six minutes before the break. Marcelo Brozovic made use of plenty of space in the middle of the Al-Tai half to chip a perfect pass into the area. On the right corner of the six-yard box, the former Real Madrid and Manchester United star fired a half-volley just wide of the post.

The half ended with a spectacular overhead kick by Ronaldo finding Talisca at the far post but, while the Brazilian rounded the goalkeeper to roll the ball home, he was just offside.

It was not all one-way traffic, though. Al-Tai wanted a penalty early in the second half and came close to an equalizer on the hour, but Nawaf Al-Aqidi got down quickly at his near post to push a smart free-kick from Anselmo around the post.

Ronaldo looked to have provided his side’s second on 63 minutes but his header was palmed away acrobatically by the busy Braga.

And then, with 11 minutes remaining, Al-Tai did score. Abdulrahman Al-Harthi produced a beautiful pass that sent Virgil Misidjan sprinting free of three Al-Nassr defenders and the Dutch forward rolled the ball home.

A draw looked likely, but Al-Nassr grabbed the winner with three minutes left as Anselmo handled a Talisca header and Ronaldo fired home from the spot.

Al-Nassr now have 18 points from eight games and are breathing down the neck of champions and leaders Al-Ittihad, who were held to a goalless draw at Al-Fahya.

Al-Ittihad, again without the injured striker Karim Benzema, had the better chances in the first half.

Abderrazak Hamdallah was denied at close range by Vladimir Stojkovic. The Serbian stopper could then only watch as a thunderbolt from Ahmed Bamsaud rocketed back off the crossbar.

Al-Fayha had their chances but the game remained goalless.

Al-Ittihad stay top but are now level on points with Al-Taawoun who won 3-1 at Al-Hazm.


Saudi football club Shabab to host Roma during Riyadh Season

Saudi football club Shabab to host Roma during Riyadh Season
Updated 29 September 2023
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Saudi football club Shabab to host Roma during Riyadh Season

Saudi football club Shabab to host Roma during Riyadh Season
  • The club is set to mark the their diamond jubilee with a match against the Giallorossi

RIYADH: One of Saudi Arabia’s oldest football club is set to mark the their diamond jubilee with a match against Roma, one of Italy’s iconic clubs.

The Saudi club was founded in Riyadh in 1947 and their name, Shabab, means youth in Arabic.

Playing on the club’s youthful name and its long history, Saudi entertainment chief Turki Alalshikh wrote on X that the “Old man of clubs” will mark its diamond jubilee by facing the Giallorossi during Riyadh Season, a key fixture on the Saudi entertainment calendar.

Alalshikh did not mention when the match will take place, nor did Shabab.

The Riyadh club have won the Saudi league six times along with half a dozen national cups.

Roma, who have made a slow start to their Serie A campaign this season with only six points from 5 games, have won the league three times and  league competitions 11 times.

The next Supercoppa Italiana will be played in Saudi Arabia on Jan. 4, 2024, with the final on Jan. 8 and will see champions Inter attempt to defend the cup from Napoli, Lazio and Fiorentina. Super cup games have been hosted in the Kingdom since 2018, except for two years due to Covid restrictions.


Al-Hilal to play home games at Boulevard Hall in Riyadh 

Al-Hilal to play home games at Boulevard Hall in Riyadh 
Updated 29 September 2023
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Al-Hilal to play home games at Boulevard Hall in Riyadh 

Al-Hilal to play home games at Boulevard Hall in Riyadh 
  • The project has a capacity of 26,000 seats and is expected to be handed to the club in January

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal have found a new home for their matches this season with the under-construction Boulevard Hall in Riyadh.

Entertainment authority chief Turki Al-Sheikh said during a live on Instagram that they have reached a SAR40 million a year agreement with Al-Hilal president Fahd bin Nafel with a grace period of the first 6 months.

Al-Sheikh thanked Prince AlWaleed bin Talal, a long standing backer of Al-Hilal and founder of the Kingdom Holding Company, for contributing SAR25 million, thus renaming the stadium the Kingdom Arena.

The project has a capacity of 26,000 seats and is expected to be handed to the club in January.

Bin Nafel said the new filed will meet all requirements of the Saudi Pro League, FIFA and, AFC.

Al-Hilal will play the first match in the new stadium in January for the Riyadh Season Cup.

Per the agreement, Al-Sheikh said the Kingdom Arena will host entertainment events off season.

Bin Nafel said the club is working on packages for foreign tourist where they come and spend two days in Riyadh and visit entertainment hubs in addition to attending the games.

The new facility holds 20 VIP cabins and a sky lounge with a capacity of 360 persons.


Al-Shabab goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu ready to face nemesis Neymar in Riyadh derby

Al-Shabab goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu ready to face nemesis Neymar in Riyadh derby
Updated 28 September 2023
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Al-Shabab goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu ready to face nemesis Neymar in Riyadh derby

Al-Shabab goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu ready to face nemesis Neymar in Riyadh derby
  • South Korean No. 1 has conceded 3 penalties for his country taken by Al-Hilal’s Brazilian star
  • Kim Seung-gyu: I hope he doesn’t get a penalty this time, but I will do my best to save it even if it won’t be easy as he is one of the best in the world

RIYADH: Kim Seung-gyu is ready to face Neymar again. The Al-Shabab goalkeeper is looking forward to the Riyadh derby against Al-Hilal on Friday more than most players would be.

It is a chance for the team to continue their recent good form after a poor start to the season as well as an opportunity for the 32-year-old shot stopper to cross swords once more with the Brazilian star who has yet to score in Saudi Arabia since arriving from Paris Saint-Germain in August.

The South Korean No. 1, who has made more than 70 appearances for the Asian giants, faced the South American twice in 2022, first in a Seoul friendly and then in the Round of 16 clash against Brazil at the World Cup.

Neymar scored three penalties against Kim in those two matches — which the five-time world champions won with a combined score of 9-1 — sending him the wrong way each time.

Kim told Arab News: “I didn’t think I would play against him again so soon. I am excited to face him and am ready.

“I hope he doesn’t get a penalty this time, but I will do my best to save it even if it won’t be easy as he is one of the best in the world. Keeping a clean sheet is a priority for me as we want to win the game.”

That was not looking likely a few weeks ago as the six-time champions started the season poorly. Just two points were taken from the first five games, the low point a 4-0 loss at Al-Nassr, but Al-Shabab have won the last three, two in the league and one in the King’s Cup.

Three goals from the last two games from Belgian international and new signing Yannick Carrasco is one reason why the team are heading in the right direction after the slow start and Moroccan captain Romain Saiss has added some stability at the back.

Kim said: “There were some internal changes inside the club that needed to be done.

“We didn’t bring that many players in during the summer and as everyone knows, most of the other teams brought in a lot of players and filled their foreign quota of eight players and we didn’t have that when the season kicked off.

“We then brought in some very good players just before the window closed and we are on the right track. We had a slow start, but we are moving now and let’s see what happens later in the season. We are all feeling confident,” he added.

Kim moved to Riyadh in 2022, coming to Saudi Arabia from the Japanese J1 League where he starred for Vissel Kobe and Kashiwa Reysol. The glovesman who also won the 2012 Asian Champions League with South Korea’s Ulsan Horangi, has witnessed enough in his time in the country to see the changes.

“The standard of play is definitely improving all around the league and now I am playing against players that I only saw on TV before. As a goalkeeper it can be tough, but I am learning a lot and enjoying it.

“The league is getting better and better and that is good for all of us, and we have to keep working hard,” Kim said.

And that goes for the domestic goalkeepers too. There have been concerns expressed that there are few teams among the 18 in the top tier that give minutes to Saudi shot stoppers. At times, it has been left to Al-Nassr’s Nawaf Al-Aqidi and Abdulquddus Atiah at Al-Wehda to fly the flag.

New national team coach Roberto Mancini would surely love to have more Saudi Arabian goalkeepers in action in the league. It has been suggested that the country could follow the example of South Korea where only homegrown No. 1s are allowed between the sticks in the K League. Kim, however, does not think that is the correct path to go down.

“There are more positives for the Saudi Arabian goalkeepers themselves as well as the country. When I was in Japan, there were a lot of foreign goalkeepers and many people raised this same question, but as a professional player, you can’t take a spot in the starting line-up for granted, you must fight for it. You have to challenge your team-mates and then the chance comes, and this is how you develop as a player and then show what you can do on the pitch.

“I think this is a positive, Saudi Arabian goalkeepers have to come and fight for their places, and they will be better players,” he added.

Kim noted that the influx of world-class talent into the league had helped him to improve his game. He also pointed out that when he now reported for international duty, his South Korean team-mates were much more curious about what was going on in Saudi Arabia.

He said: “There are a lot of questions now when we meet up. They ask me about the big players coming in and they want to know what the league is like and what has changed. It is not just the players, but everyone is now much more interested.”

And they will be watching to see if Kim can get the better of Neymar on Friday.


Saudi King’s Cup round-of-16 football matches drawn

Saudi King’s Cup round-of-16 football matches drawn
Updated 28 September 2023
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Saudi King’s Cup round-of-16 football matches drawn

Saudi King’s Cup round-of-16 football matches drawn
  • Last edition’s winners Al-Hilal will face Al-Hazem in Riyadh
  • Round will be played in a single match, with losing teams eliminated from the tournament

RIYADH: The matches for the Saudi King’s Cup round of 16 were drawn on Wednesday night and will be played on Oct. 30 and 31, 2023.
The last edition’s winners Al-Hilal will face Al-Hazem in Riyadh, while Al-Nassr will play Al-Ettifaq at Alawal Park in Riyadh.
Al-Ittihad will play Al-Fayha at Al-Majma’ah, while Al-Ahli will host Abha.
The 16th round will be played in a single match, with losing teams eliminated from the tournament.
In the other matches, Al-Khaleej will host Damac, and Al-Shabab will be a guest at Al-Fateh.
Clubs Al-Najma and Al-Faisaly from the “Yellow League” will face each other in the city of Unaizah, while Al-Taawon will host Al-Wehda.
Earlier this week, Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal booked their spots in the round of 16 with away victories over lower-tier opposition.