When Al Hilal finally ended their extended pursuit of a top-class marquee signing to match those of Cristiano Ronaldo at Al Nassr and Al Ittihad's Karim Benzema, fans were elated that a summer search that saw their club flirt with the likes of Bernardo Silva and Victor Osimhen ended with them landing the player who would soon be Brazil’s all-time top scorer.
But for anyone who had watched the career of the flamboyant forward, from his early days at Santos, to the highs of Barcelona’s unstoppable MSN trio alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, to the short-lived triple threat alongside Messi and Kylian Mbappe at PSG, Neymar’s injury record was the standout concern.
Since the start of 2018, Neymar had missed a total of 144 matches for club and country, an average of just under 29 matches that he was unavailable for every calendar year. By comparison, Cristiano Ronaldo, six years his senior, missed only 20 matches through injury during the same period.
Indeed, when Al Hilal announced the signing of the iconic number 10, they had to manage the expectations of their supporters, with the Brazilian still recovering from ankle surgery he underwent in March.
Al Hilal fans had to wait for a month before they could see their prized asset in action, making his debut off the bench in the 6-1 thumping of Al Riyadh, where played for 26 minutes and provided an assist for his compatriot Malcom.
Over the course of the next three weeks, he would start and complete 90 minutes on four occasions between the Saudi Pro League and the AFC Champions League, contributing a goal and an assist as he gradually started to adapt to life in Saudi Arabia.
The Brazilian had to be left out of the squad for the trip to Al Okhdood as he instead flew to Sao Paulo to celebrate the birth of his daughter Mavie with girlfriend Bruna Biancardi.
Little did Al Hilal know that it would be the last they see of their new talisman in a while. With the international break rolling around just after, Neymar linked up with his national team, setting up Gabriel Magalhaes’ goal with from a corner as the Selecao drew with Venezuela 1-1.
On Tuesday night, Neymar was carried off the pitch in agony after picking up what looked like a potentially serious knee injury after tussling for the ball with Nicolas De la Cruz.
Despite no official confirmation yet, Neymar could be out of action for an extended period, delivering a blow to Al Hilal’s hopes of regaining the Saudi Pro League title they had lost to Al Ittihad last season.
Nine games into the season, Al Hilal sit top of the table, but their lead on second-placed Al Taawoun is a solitary point, with Al Nassr, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli breathing down their necks.
In their next six games, Al Hilal face Al Taawoun as well as powerhouses Al Ahli and Al Nassr, two of the title favourites. Sandwiched in between those difficult SPL games are AFC Champions League trips to India and Uzbekistan where they face Mumbai City and a Navbahor side that had held them to a 1-1 draw in Riyadh last month.
Neymar’s four goal contributions in six matches is far from the highest in the team, but since he took his place in the starting XI, the Brazilian has made a notable impact on the quality and level of creativity in Jorge Jesus’ side, slotting seamlessly into the number 10 position in front of Ruben Neves and Sergei Milinkovic-Savic and playing off the main striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.
In his absence, midfielder Mohammed Kanno and winger Michael could be the main beneficiaries, with the former likely to be deployed to anchor the midfield in bigger games and the latter taking up a role on the wing should Salem Al Dawsari be moved centrally as the most advanced of the midfield three.
For Al Hilal fans, just as was the case with those of Barcelona and PSG, possessing one of the games most talented players ever is always a blessing and a pain as it is inevitable that whatever club he represents, will have to learn to navigate extended stretches of the season without him.
It is now time for Jesus to go through that experience and carve a path forward for Al Hilal to remain competitive without their star player.