Spotlight on Karim Benzema and other Saudi star signings at King Salman Cup

Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Ittihad will look to impose their new-found status as regional heavyweights

Karim Benzema will make his competitive debut for Al Ittihad in Saudi Arabia this week. Photo: Al-Ittihad
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Football fans across the world will turn their attention towards the south-west of Saudi Arabia as 16 of the best clubs in the region compete for the King Salman Cup, which will take place in the mountain cities of Taif, Abha and Al Baha starting this week.

Reigning champions Raja Casablanca are joined by arch rivals and CAF Champions League runners-up Wydad, while the UAE will be represented by Abu Dhabi side Al Wahda. But all eyes will be on the domestic trio of Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Ittihad who come into the competition on the back of record spending following their acquisition by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund PIF.

Al Hilal, runners-up in 2019 when they lost to Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel in the final in Al Ain, get their campaign under way on Thursday against Libyan side Al Ahli Tripoli in Abha. They have bolstered their ranks with two of the best midfielders in Europe in Serbian international Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio and Portugal’s Ruben Neves from Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The pair were introduced to the home fans on Sunday in a friendly against fellow King Salman Cup participants Kuwait SC, with both getting on the scoresheet in a 4-2 victory. Coach Jorge Jesus’s side also recruited Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea to marshal their defence.

And while supporters will get a first look at the trio in competitive action, the tournament comes too soon for their attacking additions, with the Riyadh club reportedly close to completing deals for Fulham forward Aleksandar Mitrovic and Zenit Saint Petersburg winger Malcom.

In recent days, reports have emerged of a sensational world record €300 million move for Paris Saint-Germain ace Kylian Mbappe, but all three deals will take varying amounts of time to be completed – if at all – and are unlikely to go through in time for the new arrivals to make it for Thursday’s opener.

Top Saudi Pro League signings

In turn, Saudi Pro League champions Al Ittihad had already been spending their pre-season training camp in Taif where they take on Tunisia’s Esperance later on Thursday.

Coach Nuno Espirito Santo’s side are the new home of Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema and his fellow Frenchman N’Golo Kante, the pair are set to make their competitive debuts in the King Salman Cup despite earlier concerns regarding Kante’s fitness.

Former Celtic winger Jota is another name the Ittihad faithful will be excited to get a first sighting of come Thursday. Al Ittihad’s pursuit of Liverpool anchorman Fabinho remains on track, but a deal is also unlikely to be completed before the start of the tournament.

Al Ittihad had reached the final of the most recent edition of the competition, back in 2021, losing to Raja Casablanca on penalties. Brazilian forward Romarinho bagged a hat-trick in that 4-4 thriller, and he remains a key part of the side.

Nuno will face the enviable challenge of trying to utilise his abundance of attacking talents of Benzema, Jota, Romarinho as well as former Sharjah playmaker Igor Coronado and Moroccan striker Abderrazak Hamdallah into his team without damaging its defensive balance, especially as their captain and defensive leader, Ahmed Hegazy, remains sidelined with a long-term injury.

The third of the PIF-backed trio of Saudi clubs in the competition, Al Nassr, led by five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, just missed out on the league title last season but have since recruited Inter Milan's Marcelo Brozovic and Lens captain Seko Fofana to upgrade their midfield and most recently completed the signing of Brazilian left back Alex Telles from Manchester United.

Al Nassr start their journey against fellow Riyadh side Al Shabab in a game that highlights the growing gulf between PIF-backed sides and others in the Saudi Pro League. Al Shabab remain without a coach having most recently failed in their efforts to bring in Euro 2016 winning coach Fernando Santos.

Al Shabab are also yet to make any high-profile signings, adding only Colombian midfield enforcer Gustavo Cuellar, who was deemed surplus to the requirements at Al Hilal.

The growing focus of attention on the star-studded Saudi sides reflects a growing shift in the balance of power in Arab football, from the traditional North African giants to the wealthy and well-run centres of power in the Gulf.

Teams from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have won each of the past seven editions of the Arab Clubs Cup in its various names. Al Ittihad were the last Asian side to win it back in 2005.

While Egypt’s Al Ahly remain the dominant force in African football, their absence means the Arab world’s most populous country, Egypt, is represented by a Zamalek side whose prowess and popularity outside of Cairo has waned in recent years. Since their last CAF Champions League title in 2002, they have had to watch their city rivals win Africa’s top club competition eight times.

Other North African teams participating in this year’s edition including the likes of Raja, Wydad, Sfaxien, Esperance and Algeria’s CB Belouizdad have had to watch their best players leave season after season for richer clubs either to the north in France, Spain and the Netherlands or east to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.

Whether Saudi Arabia emerges as a genuine football power in the region will be one of the most exciting narratives to watch during the King Salman Cup over the next couple of weeks.

Updated: July 31, 2023, 9:52 AM