In one of the most eagerly anticipated matches on the Saudi Pro League calendar, Al Nassr hosts Al-Ahli on Friday night in a game that is, on paper, the highlight of this weekend’s fixtures.
Al Arabiya English takes a look at what’s on the cards in this clash between the arch-rivals.
Having been relegated in 2022, for the first time in its history, Al-Ahli had to wait for 16 long months before the team could take on its old rivals in the Saudi Pro League again. They earned promotion as champions at the first time of asking and have had an encouraging start to their first season back in the top tier – exploding out of the blocks with four wins in their first four games and five from six outings in total.
Al Nassr, in contrast, started slowly before hitting its stride in recent weeks – scoring a total of 17 goals as the team won each of its past four league games.
Traditionally, two of the biggest clubs in Saudi Arabia, Al Nassr (9) and Al-Ahli (3), have won 12 league titles between them and finished as runners-up in the division for a combined 16 times. Both teams are usually found in the upper echelons of the Saudi Pro League, and they are among the early pacesetters for the 2023-24 campaign, with Al-Ahli in third place and Al Nassr just three points behind them in sixth.
Al-Ahli will be better rested for Friday, having not played since its hard-fought 3-2 victory over Al-Taawoun last weekend.
On the other hand, Al Nassr traveled to Tehran on Tuesday for a tough AFC Champions League fixture against Persepolis. However, a 2-0 victory for Luis Castro’s side in Iran means Al Nassr has additional momentum going into Friday’s showdown in Riyadh.
Both sides have had busy summers and this is set to be one of the most memorable matches between them in years, thanks to the quality of the players involved. While Al Nassr can call on Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Seko Fofana, Aymeric Laporte and Marcelo Brozovic, Al-Ahli also have an embarrassment of riches, including Roberto Firmino, Edouard Mendy, Riyad Mahrez, Franck Kessie and Allan Saint Maximin.
Beyond the impressive imports, there are significant connections between the clubs’ Saudi players, too. Al-Ahli’s Fahad al-Hamad and Ibrahim al-Zubaidi previously represented Al Nassr, while Saudi international forward Firas al-Buraikan – who switched over to Al-Ahli from Al-Fateh earlier this summer – began his career at Al Nassr after coming through their youth team.
On the other side, Mohammed al-Fatil had been at Al-Ahli for nine years before moving to Al Nassr in 2021, while 26-year-old Abdulrahman Ghareeb – who had impressed against Persepolis – was at Al-Ahli from the age of 14 until he joined Al Nassr in 2022. When the two clubs last played each other in the league last May, Ghareeb had scored for Al-Ahli in a 1-1 draw. He could be in line for an emotional start against his former club on Friday.
Luis Castro has already won his first trophy with Al Nassr after his side claimed their inaugural Arab Club Champions Cup triumph in August. The Portuguese coach is now hungry for more silverware. Al Nassr has found its rhythm after a slow start in the league, and their all-out attacking style has won Castro plenty of admirers in recent weeks.
He will be pitting his wits against Matthias Jaissle, who, at 35 years old, is a whopping 26 years younger than his opposite number. Jaissle has been widely tipped to have a successful coaching career ahead of him after impressively leading Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg to the UEFA Champions League knockout stage for the first time in what was his first major assignment.
Alex Telles/Ghislain Konan/Abdulrahman Ghareeb vs Riyad Mahrez
While ex-Roma defender Roger Ibañez’s attempts to keep Cristiano Ronaldo at bay will make for an interesting tussle, the most intriguing contest on Friday will be on Al-Ahli’s right wing. It remains to be seen who from Al Nassr will be tasked with stifling Riyad Mahrez, who – as was the case for several years at Manchester City – has been absolutely lethal this season when cutting in from the right and positioning his favored left foot for a deadly strike.
Ex-Manchester United man Alex Telles played at left-back for Al Nassr in their last league outing, but Mahrez convincingly got the better of him when the pair did battle in the 2022 Manchester derby, scoring twice in a 4-1 win.
Ivorian Ghislain Konan has also appeared at left-back a few times this season and could be preferred, while Abdulrahman Ghareeb scored against Persepolis in the AFC Champions League earlier this week. Whoever Al Nassr coach Castro selects, his left-back is destined to have his hands full with Al-Ahli’s Algerian ace.
Although Mahrez is certainly capable of conjuring up magic moments, Al Nassr has players capable of keeping him quiet and have really hit the ground in recent games. They should be too strong for Al-Ahli at the King Saud University Stadium.
Absolute gut feelings? Expect a home win.