Saudi Pro League: Can Ronaldo out-score Benzema and inspire title glory?

Five fascinating subplots ahead of the big kick-off on Friday

Al Nassr's Cristiano Ronaldo will be hoping for success this season. Reuters
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All eyes will be on the big names as the 2023-24 Saudi Pro League kicks-off on Friday. Roberto Firmino, Riyad Mahrez and Allan Saint-Maximin will be some of the names featuring in the opening match between Al Ahli and Al Hazem, but beyond the star power, the competition offers some interesting storylines to follow over the course of the coming season. Here we look at five of these compelling subplots.

One more league title for Ronaldo?

Despite being one of the most decorated players in the history of the game, Cristiano Ronaldo has not won a league title in three years, a drought the Portuguese has only experienced once in his career, between 2013 and 2016, while at Real Madrid – but it was a period in which he won two Champions Leagues.

Ronaldo’s last league success dates back to his second season at Juventus in 2019-20. Since then, he’s had to watch Inter Milan, Manchester City and most recently Al Ittihad beat his teams to the title. The five-time Ballon d'Or winner had a productive half-season in Riyadh last term, bagging 14 goals, and his team has since bolstered their squad with the likes of Sadio Mane, Marcelo Brozovic, Seko Fofana and Alex Telles. Is it time for one last league title for one of the greatest players of all time?

The race for the golden boot

Al Ittihad striker Abderrazak Hamdallah has been the league's top scorer three times in the last five seasons, including twice in Al Nassr colours. The other two winners of the award in that period, Odion Ighalo and Bafetimbi Gomis, have since left the league, while Hamdallah is now partnering Karim Benzema up front.

With Ronaldo leading the line for Al Nassr and the arrival of the likes of Firmino, Benzema, Moussa Dembele and others, the 2023-24 season promises a thrilling race on the scoring front. Don’t rule out league veterans like Al Taawoun’s Leandre Tawamba and Al Raed’s Mohammed Fouzair, or rising Saudi stars such as Al Fateh’s Firas Al Buraikan, who ended last season with an impressive tally of 18 goals, just three behind Hamdallah's tally.

Can Gerrard inspire Al Ettifaq to unlikely glory?

Al Ettifaq might not be one of the established big five in the country – this honour is reserved for Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ittihad, Al Ahli and Al Shabab – but Steven Gerrard’s new side have done impressive business, attracting Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, former Celtic and Lyon striker Dembele and Scottish defender Jack Hendry.

The side from Dammam were once a force to reckon with in the league, becoming Saudi Arabia’s first ‘Invincibles’ when they won the league in 1982-83 without a single defeat, then adding their second title four years later. Since then, the club has gone through some difficult times and even experienced a spell in the second tier. In recent years, Al Ettifaq have seen a resurgence and were able to break into the top four as recently as 2017-18. If Gerrard can lead them to title glory against the odds, his status in the East of Saudi Arabia might just rival that on Merseyside.

The return of Al Riyadh

For the first time in over two decades, the capital Riyadh will be represented by four clubs in the Saudi Pro League. The established trio of Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Shabab have often competed at the top end of the table, but they are joined this season by a fourth outfit that have suffered a long absence in the lower tiers of Saudi football.

Al Riyadh FC were relegated from the top division in 2004-05 and have since dropped to the third division before making their way back up to the top. The team in black and red do, however, have a proud tradition in the competition. In the 1990s they provided the national team with many players and finished runners-up in 1993-94 and in third place the following season.

Following their promotion, Al Riyadh recruited some of the most experienced names in the league, including the likes of Zimbabwe captain Knowledge Musona and Uruguay international goalkeeper Martin Campana. Will that be enough to see them re-establish themselves among the elite beyond next season?

Al Okhdood, the ultimate outsiders

For all the excitement and debate about the top teams, one team in the newly-expanded competition stands out as a complete unknown quantity even for the most seasoned followers of Saudi football.

Al Okhdood (Arabic for ‘The Ditch’) are not only geographically the remotest of all 18 teams, but they are also the only ones to have never competed in the top division before this season. The club from the southernmost city of Najran, on the border with Yemen, have made some intriguing signings such as former Barcelona starlet Alex Collado and Romanian playmaker Florin Tanase from UAE’s Al Jazira. Their rise from obscurity could provide the basis for the most romantic underdog story in the Saudi Pro League this season.

Updated: August 11, 2023, 5:43 AM