Two Saudi Pro League title contenders lock horns in Riyadh on Friday night as the in-form Cristiano Ronaldo and Al Nassr host Al Ahli and their dynamic attacking trident of Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino and Allan Saint-Maximin.
This fixture has been one of the most watched in Saudi football over the years, pitting two of the most successful clubs in the country against one another.
Al Ahli have three league titles, most recently in 2015-16, and they have also reached the AFC Champions League final in 2012, but found themselves unexpectedly relegated in 2021-22 before bouncing back at the first time of asking. Their opponents, Al Nassr, have won the league nine times, including three of the last 10 editions.
Nassr have returned from a successful midweek trip to Tehran where they defeated two-time AFC Champions League finalists Persepolis 2-0, thanks to goals from Abdulrahman Ghareeb and Mohammed Qassem.
Lifted by their continental foray, Nassr are also set for another boost with tenacious midfielder Seko Fofana recovering from injury, but with Abdullah Al Khaibari performing well in his absence, the Ivoirian might find it difficult to walk straight back into the starting XI.
Al Nassr have been on a free-scoring run with their attack bagging 19 goals in their last five matches in all competitions, and they have been equally solid at the back, conceding just twice in the same period.
Ronaldo’s own form is as good as it has been since his arrival in the SPL, with the Portuguese ace scoring seven goals in his last four league outings to top the Saudi Pro League’s scoring chart. Right behind him in the race is his colleague Sadio Mane, who has also found the back of the net in each of the last four matches, taking his league tally to six this campaign.
Meanwhile, for Ahli, despite the fact they are currently third in the table, three points above Nassr and one behind league leaders Al Hilal, it has not been straightforward upon their return from their only ever season in the First Division League.
Matthias Jaissle’s men have struggled to shore up their defence, conceding nine goals so far, which leaves them as only the 10th best back-line in the division.
Their defensive issues are exasperated by a lack of discipline that saw two centre-backs get sent off in their last two games: Turkish defender Merih Demiral was sent off against Al Fateh and returns this weekend, while his replacement, Abdulbasit Hindi, also received his marching orders in the 3-2 win over Al Taawoun and is suspended for Friday’s encounter.
New signing Abdullah Al Ammar has suffered a hamstring injury and will be out for the clash, with fellow summer arrival Saad Balobaid set to deputise for him at left-back.
And, despite their star-studded front line, Jaissle’s side are only the fourth best attack in the league, with their tally of 13 goals, while respectable, still a far cry from Al Hilal’s 20 and Al Nassr’s 18. Of particular concern is Firmino, who has failed to build on his opening day hat-trick.
The only Al Ahli player in the list of the Saudi Pro League’s top 10 scorers this campaign is Feras Al Buraikan – signed from Al Fateh on the penultimate day of the transfer window – but none of the 23-year-old’s four goals have come in Al Ahli colours.
The Saudi international could make his full debut against his childhood club Al Nassr, who he left in 2021 in pursuit of regular playing time and has since grown into the best Saudi striker in the top division and the starting number nine for the national team.
With competition for the title starting to take shape, both Al Nassr and Al Ahli are expected to be there or thereabouts come the end of the season, and this game will likely tell us a lot about their respective chances.