Al-Hilal, Al-Nasr take Saudi Super Cup battle to London
The two giants of Saudi football will clash at London’s Loftus Road stadium this year
If referee John Beaton arrived in Saudi Arabia uninitiated in the intensity of the country’s rivalry between Al-Hilal and Al-Nasr, he certainly left with more of an education - and perhaps a sore nose too.
The Scottish official - drafted in to referee last May’s league decider between the two clubs - was on the end of a head-butt from Al-Hilal midfielder Salem al-Dawsari, illustrating just how fiery this derby can be.
Al-Nasr and Al-Hilal will face off once again in Wednesday’s Saudi Arabia Super Cup match, providing another episode in one of world football’s most compelling rivalries.
However, for the first time the two teams will do battle outside Saudi Arabia, with the Super Cup clash taking place at London’s Loftus Road stadium this year.
Originally scheduled to be held at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, the fixture was moved in an effort to find a wider audience for Saudi football’s brightest showcase.
Whether holding the game at the home of Queens Park Rangers will indeed attract such a demographic is open to debate, but it does underline the country’s newfound willingness to look beyond its own borders in order to develop.
If any fixture can distinguish itself among English football’s already crowded marketplace, it is this one - Saudi Arabia’s fiercest derby.
Giants of the Saudi game
Al-Nasr and Al-Hilal are giants of the Saudi game. Both will compete in next year’s AFC Champions League, and share 20 top-flight titles between them, with two of the country’s best squads.
As reigning Pro League champions, the former currently hold the edge, but with Al-Hilal making moves to make amends for a disappointing league campaign last season, the rivalry’s dynamic could be about to shift once again.
There has been a marked improvement under new manager Giorgos Donis since his appointment in February, demonstrated by the King’s Cup triumph over Al-Nasr just two months ago.
Progression to the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League also underlined the potential of Al-Hilal’s squad, and how their new German coach might be the one to get the most out of it. Victory over their Riyadh rivals in London would reiterate such enhancement.
However, while Al-Hilal are in the midst of a rebuild, Al-Nasr have been a somewhat more settled club over the past year or so.
Managers rarely last the course in Saudi Arabia’s Pro League, but Jorge da Silva has quickly become the country’s predominant coaching figure by leading his side to last season’s league title.
In Mohammad Ibrahim Mohammad al-Sahlawi, Al-Nasr have Saudi Arabia’s most potent striker, having netted 21 goals over the course of last season, leading his team to the league title over their closest challengers Al-Ahli.
If da Silva’s side are to avenge June’s penalty shootout defeat in the King’s Cup final, Sahlawi will surely play a pivotal role in providing the firepower.
Al-Hilal now have their own goal-scoring extraordinaire, or at least they hope so. Brazilian number-nine Ailton Almeida will play his first game for the club on Wednesday, having joined over the off-season.
Much of the club’s hopes for the coming season are pinned on him hitting the ground running. A debut goal at Loftus Road would help the Brazilian settle into his new surroundings.
Some may discount the Super Cup match as merely a campaign curtain-raiser, but it presents both teams with the chance to set the tone for the season ahead. Besides, derbies between Al-Nasr and Al-Hilal always mean something.
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