Football fans worldwide are focused on the Saudi Pro League like never before after its clubs welcomed a host of star-studded arrivals in the Kingdom over the past nine months. Each week, Al Arabiya English will do a round-up on the key storylines as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar and Co slug it out for the 2023-24 silverware.
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On Matchday Six, while Neymar finally made his debut for table-topper Al Hilal, Al-Ahli players showed their resilience, even as Cristiano Ronaldo climbed to the summit of the scoring charts and Steven Gerrard’s impressive start at Al-Ettifaq continued.
Neymar era begins
There was one name on everyone’s lips in the Saudi capital on Friday night as Neymar finally made his debut for Al Hilal against newly-promoted Al-Riyadh.
A long trip back to South America for World Cup qualifiers during the international break saw the Brazil superstar start on the substitutes’ bench initially, but with his side already 2-0 up, he came on to a raucous reception in the 64th minute.
Neymar proceeded with a high-quality cameo, offering a quartet of key contributions. It began with a beautifully scooped through-ball that led to Nasser Al-Dawsari scoring before a perfect lay-off allowed compatriot Malcom to slot home. Neymar’s quick feet then forced a handball and penalty, but while the crowd called enthusiastically for their No 10 to take the spot-kick, Salem Al-Dawsari instead went ahead and duly slotted home. The Saudi midfielder then put the icing on Neymar’s welcome cake with the team’s sixth goal in a 6-1 win after the ex-PSG man’s shot was initially saved.
It was a riotous display that saw Al-Hilal return to the top of the league table after Karim Benzema’s lone goal had fired Al-Ittihad to that position 24 hours earlier.
Priorities now switch to the AFC Champions League this week for Jorge Jesus’ side.
Al-Ahli bounces back
After an embarrassing 5-1 defeat at the hands of Al-Fateh the last time out, Al-Ahli demonstrated its resilience against Al-Taawoun on Saturday, emerging 3-2 victors in the weekend’s most entertaining fixture.
Al-Taawoun had been a surprise inclusion among the early Saudi Pro League pacesetters – thanks to four wins in their previous four games – and they certainly proved troublesome for Al-Ahli, too, as the former came up with a brave display away from home in Jeddah. The hosts raced to a 2-0 lead after Riyad Mahrez’s free-kick was headed home by Abdulbasit Hindi, and Waleed Al-Ahmed put through his own net.
Yet, Al-Taawoun battled back to make it 2-2.
Al-Ahli spent big this summer to pack its team with match-winners. Minutes after one of them, Roberto Firmino, narrowly headed wide, another one of the marquee signings made the difference. Allan Saint-Maximin was a fan favorite at Newcastle United for his unpredictability, and he conjured up another magic moment at the Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium, rifling home a stunning strike from 25 yards to hand Al-Ahli the win and keep them just a point behind Al-Hilal.
Ronaldo reaches scoring summit
Al-Nassr’s free-scoring start to the season continued as goals from Sadio Mane, Anderson Talisca and Cristiano Ronaldo powered the team to a 3-1 win at Al-Raed.
After losing its first two league matches, Al-Nassr responded impressively with 17 goals in the past four games to record four convincing wins in a row.
Ronaldo now leads the Saudi Pro League scoring charts with seven goals, while Mane has six to his credit. Mane’s strike helped Al-Nassr break the deadlock on Saturday as Al-Raed fell apart just before half-time. The Senegal forward’s fine finish put Al-Nassr 1-0 up, and a minute later, he was brought down by Bander Whaeshi, who was sent off for the challenge.
Talisca and Ronaldo made sure of the three points for Al-Nassr, who has a huge week ahead. First up is a compelling AFC Champions League opener against Persepolis in Iran on Tuesday before Al-Ahli rolls into Riyadh on Friday for a match that could indicate which of the two sides is in the best shape to challenge Saudi Pro League supremacy this season.
Watch: Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo and his Saudi team, Al-Nassr, arrive in Iran’s capital #Tehran for Asian Championship match against Persepolis FC.#Iran #Ronaldo #AlNassr #ACL pic.twitter.com/CfVZGPkUsT— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) September 18, 2023
Gerrard’s confidence growing
Many wondered whether Al-Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard would take a while before getting into grips with Saudi Pro League, given that his only experience of playing or coaching outside the UK was an 18-month stint at Los Angeles Galaxy at the end of his career.
However, Gerrard has hit the ground running at Al-Ettifaq, with his side suffering only a solitary defeat so far in the season – to leaders Al-Hilal. Away to Al-Abha on Saturday, a strong second-half showing secured a 3-1 win.
The first goal came thanks to some quick thinking from England international Jordan Henderson, who chipped the ball through for Moussa Dembele to race on and slot under Romanian goalkeeper Ciprian Tătărușanu. A fantastic strike from Robin Quaison doubled the lead before Hamed Al-Ghamadi added a third to leave Al-Ettifaq fifth on the points table.
Gerrard appears to be quickly fitting into his new role.