Saudi Pro League predictions: Benzema's Al Ittihad and Ronaldo's Al Nassr win first games

The highly-anticipated season kicks off on Friday when Al Ahli host Al Hazem in Jeddah

Ittihad's French forward Karim Benzema (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's second goal during the 2023 Arab Club Champions Cup group A football match between Tunisia's Esperance de Tunis and Saudi Arabia's Al-Ittihad at the King Fahd Stadium in Taif on July 27, 2023.  (Photo by AFP)
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Check out our full Saudi Pro League season guide here

The 2023-24 Saudi Pro League season gets underway on Friday with Al Ahli taking on Al Hazem. The expanded competition with 18 teams and a plethora of international star promises plenty of excitement. Every week, we have a go at predicting the scores of all nine games from across the kingdom.

Al Ahli v Al Hazem

The two newly promoted teams played out a goalless draw in the final game of last season in the second tier, but less than three months later, things look drastically different for the pair. Al Ahli have bolstered their ranks with the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino and Allan Saint Maximin up front as well as Edouard Mendy in goal and midfielder Franck Kessie, for whom the game might come just too soon, having only joined on Wednesday.

In turn, Al Hazem renewed their faith in Portuguese manager Felipe Gouveia, who led them back to promotion at the first time of asking. Former Al Nasr playmaker Toze and Brazilian forward Vina are decent additions, but the onus will be on Tunisian international goalkeeper Aymen Dahman to keep Al Ahli’s star-studded attack at bay.

Prediction: Al Ahli 4-1 Al Hazem

Al Tai v Damac

There wasn’t much between these two teams last season, with Damac finishing just two points ahead of ninth-placed Al Tai, largely thanks to doing the double over the Ha’il club.

Al Tai have lost Amir Sayoud, Guy Mbenza and Knowledge Musona, who between them contributed 28 of the side’s 41 goals last term, but will hope Ghanaian playmaker Bernard Mensah, Dutch winger Virjil Misidjan and former Al Nassr and Al Ahli man Abdulfattah Asiri will more than makeup for it, while Chilean international Enzo Roco and former Werder Bremen man Robert Bauer will marshall the defence.

Stability was the name of the game at Damac who made no changes to their foreign contingent, but added former Al Ittihad winger Abdulaziz Al Bishi. A repeat of last season’s eighth place finish will be a success for coach Cosmin Contra’s men.

Prediction: Al Tai 0-1 Damac

Al Fayha v Al Khaleej

Two sides who just about escaped relegation last season will hope for a positive start to this campaign. Al Fayha have Asian Champions League commitment to add to their burdens later in the season, so a winning run ahead of the fixtures congestion will make a difference for them.

Last season, Al Fayha and Al Khaleej exchanged wins at each other’s grounds, and they have both added to their ranks. Bosnian goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic, Korean midfielder Jung Woo-young joined Al Khaleej, while forward Fashion Sakala from Rangers was the highest profile addition to coach Vuk Rasovic’s side.

Prediction: Al Fayha 0-0 Al Khaleej

Al Fateh v Al Taawoun

For the second season in a row, these two teams lock horns on the opening matchday. Last time out, Leandre Tawamba helped Al Taawoun come away from Al Ahsa with the three points. The Cameroonian will once more rely on service from former Real Madrid prodigy Alvaro Medran, but this time he will have to get past former Olympique Lyon and Shabab Al Ahli defender Jason Denayer.

While Al Taawoun finished one place ahead of their hosts last season, the margin was actually significant, with the Buraidah-based side collecting 12 points more than their sixth-placed rivals.

Prediction: Al Fateh 1-2 Al Taawoun

Al Riyadh v Al Wehda

Runners-up in 1993-94, Al Riyadh were last in the top division nearly two decades ago, and they wasted no time in preparing for their return to the Saudi Pro League, making 13 new signings, including names with experience in the competition like former Al Batin goalkeeper Martin Campana and Al Tai playmaker Musona. They also appointed Belgian coach Yannick Ferrera.

Al Wehda evaded relegation by four points to extend their stay in the top flight for a second consecutive season and have since decided to swap adventurous coach Jose Luis Sierra for the defensive-minded Georgios Donis, but have made no changes to their roster.

Prediction: Al Riyadh 2-0 Al Wehda

Al Raed v Al Ittihad

A 3-1 defeat against Al Hilal in the King Salman Cup quarter-final threw a spanner in the works for coach Nuno Espirito Santo’s start to the season, but with former Liverpool midfielder Fabinho yet to make his debut, Al Ittihad will be eager to start their title defence on the front foot, having recruited a bunch of stars led by Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema.

Al Raed may have finished 10th in the table, but they can be a tricky opponent to face as Al Ittihad found out last season, being held to a goalless draw in Jeddah and needing a header from defender Ahmed Hegazi to take a slim 1-0 win from Buraidah. Algerian playmaker Sayoud has arrived and former Shakhtar Donestsk coach Igor Jovicevic will dream of a perfect start to life at King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Sports City if he can stun the defending champions.

Prediction: Al Raed 0-1 Al Ittihad

Abha v Al Hilal

Al Hilal’s most recent trip to Abha saw them collect the three points, but it was far from straightforward as they needed a Salem Al Dawsari penalty in the second half to secure a 2-1 win. Abha have since undergone a Polish transformation, appointing former Poland head coach Czesław Michniewicz and recruiting his compatriot Grzegorz Krychowiak from Al Shabab.

The influx of funds from the PIF brought Al Hilal enforcements at the level of Ruben Neves, Sergei Milinkovic-Savic, Malcom, and Kalidou Koulibaly, while Jorge Jesus was appointed to replace Ramon Diaz whose tenure ended in disappointment after a third place finish in the league and losing the AFC Champions League final.

Prediction: Abha 1-3 Al Hilal

Al Ettifaq v Al Nassr

The pick of the opening matchweek’s fixtures sees Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr travel to Steven Gerrard’s Al Ettifaq in a game that will see former Liverpool teammates Jordan Henderson and Sadio Mane reunite.

A seventh-place finish is a solid foundatioin for the Dammam-based outfit to build on, but they will be aiming higher after a summer in which they also added the likes of Moussa Dembele and Jack Hendry. For Nassr, losing the league title on the penultimate matchweek was a blow, but new coach Luis Castro is well equipped with his side having signed Mane, Seko Fofana, Marcelo Brozovic and Ronaldo’s former Manchester United teammate Alex Telles.

Prediction: Al Ettifaq 1-3 Al Nassr

Al Shabab v Al Okhdood

A tough away journey awaits Al Okhdood on their Saudi Pro League debut. Not only is it nearly 1,000 kilometres to Riyadh, but in the King Salman Cup semi-finalists, they take on an opponent that led the title race for significant parts of last season, before eventually finishing fourth.

Al Shabab have been light on recruiting despite losing striker Aaron Boupendza who left for FC Cincinnati and Cristian Guanca making the move to UAE’s Al Wahda. Their only major signing this summer has been defensive midfielder Gustavo Cuellar from Al Hilal. The South American double-pivot with him and club captain Ever Banega will be crucial, but without an established striker, goals will be difficult to come by.

Prediction: Al Shabab 0-0 Al Okhdood

Updated: August 16, 2023, 9:33 AM