Nearly a month after they clashed in the quarter-finals of the King Salman Cup, Saudi Arabia’s two most successful clubs – Al Ittihad and Al Hilal – find themselves face to face again, this time in matchweek 5 of the Saudi Pro League.
Back in August, it was Al Hilal who emerged 3-1 winners thanks to goals from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Salem Al Dawsari and Malcom. Karim Benzema missed a penalty for Al Ittihad and Romarinho’s lone goal proved to be merely a consolation. Hilal marched on to the final before losing to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr in extra time. But a month on, things look quite different for both teams.
The arrival of midfield anchor Fabinho from Liverpool proved to be the missing piece in coach Nuno Espirito Santo’s Al Ittihad jigsaw, with the Brazilian partnering N’Golo Kante in the middle of the park, unlocking the attacking potential of the likes of Igor Coronado and Romarinho. Al Ittihad arrive at Friday's 'Saudi Clasico' boating a 100 per cent start to the SPL season, scoring 12 and conceding none in their four matches.
Despite their perfect record, Saudi champions Ittihad have concerns ahead of the match.
Captain Benzema was withdrawn from their most recent match – a 3-0 win over Al Wehda – just before half time holding his hamstring. Despite no official updates from the club, the signs point towards the 35-year-old Frenchman being sidelined until after the international break at least. Benzema’s replacement, Jota, opened his account for his new club in that match with the second of the three goals, and seems certain to start at Jeddah's Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium.
While Ittihad sweat on the fitness updates for Benzema, Hilal fans are just as eager to learn if they will catch a first glimpse of their new superstar signing in action.
Neymar joined the Riyadh club in the middle of August, joining from Paris Saint-Germain for a reported fee of €96 million. More than 56,000 fans welcomed the Brazilian forward at his official unveiling, but the 31-year-old is yet to appear for his new side as he recovers from a long-term ankle injury.
While fans wait with bated breath on Neymar, his teammates continue to thrive. Aleksandar Mitrovic finally saw his move from Fulham to Al Hilal materialise and he already has one league goal to his name. The Serb is almost certain to start up front, flanked by Malcom and Salem Al Dawsari, both of whom found the back of the net in Al Hilal’s most recent league match; a 2-0 win over Al Ettifaq.
Jorge Jesus’ team are also unbeaten in the league, but their form has been far from perfect. It took half an hour for Abha to penetrate their defence on the opening matchweek of the league. They went on to win that game but were not as fortunate in their second match as they were held to a 1-1 home draw by Al Fayha, leaving them trailing Al Ittihad an Al Ahli by two points in the standings.
The biggest challenge for Jesus in his second coming at Hilal remains finding the right configuration and personnel to partner Milinkovic-Savic and Ruben Neves in midfield. Mohammed Kanno has been employed at the base, allowing his two teammates more attacking freedom, and Al Dawsari was tested in a more advanced role with Neves dropping deep in other games. With captain Salman Al Faraj also available after injury, the Portuguese tactician finds himself with plenty of options.