As the Saudi Pro League title race starts to take shape, Friday evening sees two of the top contenders go head-to-head at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh. Leaders Al Hilal host fourth-placed Al Ahli, with only four points separating the two.
One of the most celebrated fixtures in the Saudi football calendar, the clash returns after a one-season hiatus where Al Ahli spent a year in the second tier following their shock relegation.
But the Jeddah-based outfit bounced back at the first time of asking and have quickly established themselves back amongst the elite thanks to some heavy spending and the backing of their new majority owners, the Public Investment Fund (PIF).
The last encounter between the two sides, back in March 2022, saw Al Hilal emerge 4-2 winners in Riyadh, thanks to a hat-trick from Odion Ighalo, now at Al Wehda, while Al Ahli’s last win was in 2020 when goals from Omar Al Somah and Abdulfattah Asiri secured a 2-1 victory in Jeddah. Both players have since left the club.
Al Hilal fans look back fondly to May 2021 when they recorded their biggest-ever win against Friday's opponents. Doubles from Bafetimbi Gomis and Saleh Al Shehri helped the Blues to a 5-1 win as they went on to lift the title for a second season in a row.
For the Al Ahli faithful, arguably their best night in the past three decades came at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah against Al Hilal back in 2016 when a brace from Al Somah sealed their first league title in 32 years with a 3-1 home triumph.
Al Ahli go into the match with Turkish defender Merih Demiral sidelined by what looks like a long-term knee problem, while winger Allan Saint-Maximin faces a race against time to recover from a foot injury. Should he fail to make the starting XI, former Al Fateh forward Firas Al Buraikan could be set for a start on the left of an attacking trinity alongside Riyad Mahrez and Roberto Firmino.
The latter, club captain and a marquee signing this summer, has struggled in front of goal despite opening the season with a hat-trick against Al Hazem. His goal drought now exceeds 12 hours of football.
Mahrez, however, has been in fair form, with his five assists and 35 chances created so far both league highs. His four goals also make him Al Ahli’s joint top scorer alongside Franck Kessie who has been imperious at the heart of midfield and even came up with the derby-winning goal against Al Ittihad a couple of weeks ago.
For Al Hilal manager Jorge Jesus, the season-ending injury of star signing Neymar came as a major blow, but the team showed they still have plenty of firepower, putting six past Mumbai City in the AFC Champions League in midweek, with Aleksandar Mitrovic bagging his second hat-trick in club colours.
His first came against the other Jeddah side, Al Ittihad, and he has seven in the league this season. Only Cristiano Ronaldo (11) has more.
In Neymar’s absence, the importance of his compatriot Malcom increases. The 26-year-old has been impressive since joining from Zenit Saint Petersburg in the summer, scoring six goals and assisting three more in the league, as well as creating 16 chances – the highest for any Al Hilal player.
The form guide shows Al Hilal are the only team in the league yet to lose, and have only dropped points twice this season, drawing 1-1 against both Al Fayha and Damac.
Whatever the outcome of Friday’s encounter, the eyes of fellow title contenders Al Nassr, Al Taawoun, and reigning champions Al Ittihad, will be fixed on King Fahd International Stadium with the SPL title race shaping up to be a classic.