When Saudi Pro League leaders Al Hilal welcome third-placed Al Taawoun to the King Fahd International Stadium on Friday evening it will not only be a vital match in the title race, but also a fascinating clash of styles between two clubs who have forged their way to the top in contrasting fashion.
Al Taawoun are the older club, albeit by just one year, having been founded in 1956 in the agricultural heartland of Saudi Arabia that is Al Qassim region, while Al Hilal came into existence in the capital Riyadh in 1957, but that is very much where Al Taawoun’s historical superiority finishes.
Friday’s hosts have firmly established themselves as Saudi Arabia’s most successful club, producing national legends such as 1988 Asian Cup winning captain Saleh Al Nuaimah, Saudi Arabia’s all-time top scorer in the World Cup, Sami Al Jaber, and the nation’s most capped player in history, goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deayea.
In terms of foreign players, Al Hilal have always attracted the biggest names to the league – from the arrival of World Cup winner Rivellino in 1978 to the capture of Brazil’s all-time top scorer Neymar earlier this year. This has formed part of the club’s DNA alongside its constant obsession with winning the AFC Champions League, which they lifted on four occasions, more than any other team in Asia.
In contrast, for most of their history, Al Taawoun were not even the biggest team in the 750,000-resident city of Buraidah, often competing in the lower tier of Saudi football while their neighbours Al Raed enjoyed extended spells in the top division.
This started to change in 2010-11 when they achieved promotion to the Saudi Pro League for the first time and never looked back, qualifying for the AFC Champions League three times since and winning the King’s Cup in 2019.
This difference in history and stature is reflected in how the two sides approached the 2023-24 season, with both ways of working leading them to this point where they are going head-to-head at the top of the table.
Propelled by investment from the Public Investment Fund, Al Hilal sold seven of the eight foreign players who were on their books in 2023-24, only retaining Brazilian winger Michael, and splashing the cash on new arrivals from Neymar to Ruben Neves, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Kalidou Koulibaly and more.
Manager Ramon Diaz also departed despite leading the club to the finals of the AFC Champions League and the Club World Cup last season. Former Benfica, Flamengo and Fenerbahce coach Jorge Jesus returned for a second spell at the club.
Meanwhile, Al Taawoun opted for stability, building on the foundations laid by coach Pericles Chamusca who led them to fifth place last term. Goalkeeper Mailson, defensive midfielder Flavio, Spanish playmaker Alvaro Medran as well as club captain Aschraf El Mehdaioui continued with the team.
Intelligent recruitment saw Chamusca’s side identify value in the transfer market, brining in Joao Pedro from UAE’s Al Wahda to replace the outgoing Leandre Tawamba, and landing Brazilian winger Matues Castro from Japan’s Nagoya Grampus as well as centre-back Andre Girotto from Nantes in France.
The trio were pivotal in Al Taawoun's run of seven wins from their first nine matches. They briefly topped the table before three consecutive draws brought them down to third, but they have still only lost one game this season, a 3-2 defeat at Al Ahli in a game where they saw an equaliser ruled out in added time.
And while their stadium in Buraidah only seats 6,000 fans, compared to the 56,000 that can fill the King Fahd Stadium for Al Hilal, Al Tawoun enjoy strong support at home, and the atmosphere at some of their games rivals the very best in the country, an important factor in their rise as a close-knit group.
Coach Chamusca, 59, arrived in the gulf in 2015 to join Qatar’s Al Gharafa and has since stayed in the region, building experience with three different Saudi clubs, including Al Hilal, before joining Al Taawoun in July 2022. He is a master motivator who relies on rallying his players to work for each other and go beyond their natural abilities in every game.
In turn, Jesus, 10 years his senior, is an animated character with a history of clashing with star players, but he makes up for it with an intense brand of attacking football that entertains supporters and often delivers the results his board desires.
The clash between the star-studded leaders and the underdogs in third place promises to be one of the most exciting fixtures of the season so far, and should the Wolves of Buraidah manage to be the first team to bring down the Riyadh Blues, it could well be a season-defining moment for Chamusca and his squad.