If Monday’s dominant football headline offered a stark reminder of the turbo-titanic change sweeping Saudi Arabia, then the duel being duked out on the kingdom’s foremost eastern point that night underlined it.
Granted, this wasn’t Neymar debuting for Al Hilal, as seems certain to come in the not-too-distant future. Brazil’s joint-record goalscorer is expected to be signed in time, though, for Saturday’s home tie against Al Fayha.
Subsequently, the record Saudi champions had to make do – bless – with trotting out a team containing Ruben Neves and Malcom in their 2023/24 Saudi Pro League opener at Abha. They didn’t even need Kalidou Koulibaly (injured) or Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (rested) in the 3-1 win.
Over in Buraidah, the largest city of Al Qassim region in north-central Saudi, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho were starring for Al Ittihad. Ex-Celtic winger Jota looked on from the bench. He would’ve liked what he saw: the champions got their defence under way with a routine 3-0 victory at Al Raed.
The night’s marquee fixture, however, was taking place in Dammam, where Al Ettifaq hosted Riyadh giants Al Nassr. Even without Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcelo Brozovic, Alex Telles and Seko Fofana, all given a breather following the team’s just-concluded King Salman Club Cup success, there was still Sadio Mane, the reigning African player of the Year.
Acquired last month from Bayern Munich, the Senegalese international captained the side in Ronaldo’s absence.
And, anyway, he did cross paths with a few familiar faces at the Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium. Sporting the Ettifaq armband was Jordan Henderson, Mane’s colleague and captain through the recent glory years at Liverpool.
Henderson was convinced, in part, to come to the two-time Saudi champions by Steven Gerrard, one of the Anfield club’s genuine greats, who now manages Ettifaq.
Seventh last season – Nassr were runners-up – Ettifaq have bolstered their squad also with Moussa Dembele, the former Fulham, Celtic and Lyon striker, and Jack Hendry, previously of Celtic and Club Brugge. They all began the ninth and final fixture of Matchday 1 of the remodelled Saudi Pro League season.
That’s what these past few months have brought. Some of football’s most prominent names, from Europe’s dominant domestic competitions to the kingdom. To Dammam on a mid-August night where the mercury touched 35 degrees at kick-off and the humidity clocked in at 63 per cent. That is, if you could read your phone through the steamed-up screen.
Credit, then to Mane, who burst out of the blocks, meeting Ali Al Hassan’s low cross from the right byline on four minutes to fire into the Nassr net.
Unquestionably buoyed by a goal on league debut, Mane then flashed a half-volley from distance narrowly wide.
Understandably, it did not take long for the tempo to slow. By the end of the first half, after Henderson had found Faisal Al Ghamdi with his only contribution of note and the winger tested Nassr goalkeeper Nawaf Al Aqidi, it was reduced almost to walking pace.
Henderson departed the pitch visibly wrecked, a cold towel wrapped around his neck. Oh, for a dip in the Mersey.
Yet do not estimate the galvanising effect of a comeback. Within eight minutes of the restart, Ettifaq were in front. Al Aqidi was at fault for both goals, first failing to hold onto the ball to allow Sweden's Robert Quaison to prod home. Nassr remonstrated with the referee that Al Aqidi was nudged as he caught the ball, which he was ever so slightly, VAR was consulted, but the goal stood.
Then, on 53 minutes, Al Aqidi flapped at Vitinho’s deflected cross, leaving Dembele to poke into the empty net. The Ettifaq fans exploded in a cacophony of colour and noise. On the bench, Gerrard jumped for joy.
Soon Nassr would rue striking the woodwork not once but twice, through Abdulmajeed Al Sulaiheem and Mane, the latter’s expert towering header back across goal cannoning off the Ettifaq upright. The rebound was somehow deflected over.
With three minutes of normal time remaining, Henderson was withdrawn, to a standing ovation from the home support. Shattered, he will anticipate easier nights ahead.
Before Henderson could, rather gratefully, take his seat on the bench, Mane sent a sumptuous volley angling inside the Ettifaq far post. To be fair, he knew he was offside; VAR simply confirmed it.
Ettifaq stood strong, through the wave of Nassr attacks, through the tension stretched across 14 minutes of injury-time. Fourteen minutes? How the players were able to conjure the conviction was remarkable.
But they did it. Ettifaq defeated their illustrious rivals, last season’s runners-up, the nine-time Saudi champions with the fresh and frightening Public Investment Fund backing. Even if Nassr were shorn of most of their summer signings.
Gerrard, greeted by a rousing reception when he first entered the athletic track that encircles the pitch, left to his name reverberating around the stands.
It represented some welcome to the spruced-up Saudi Pro League, where galaxy of stars aside, even the weather can play protagonist.