Al Taawoun’s Gambian forward Musa Barrow is looking forward to getting better acquainted with Al Hilal’s Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly over the coming months.
Competitors during their days in Italy’s Serie A with Bologna and Napoli, the duo have been drawn in the same group at the Africa Cup of Nations, which takes place in Ivory Coast at the beginning of 2024.
And while their two club sides have also been drawn together in Saudi Arabia’s King’s Cup quarter-final next month, the immediate priority is Friday's Saudi Pro League encounter.
Al Taawoun, a team from the northern city of Buraydah, are punching above their weight and are this season's surprise package.
While Al Hilal spent tens of millions on star signings such as Neymar, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Ruben Neves, and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, as well as Koulibaly, Al Taawoun were far more modest, with the €8 million spent on Barrow their most expensive outlay.
Sitting in third place, Al Taawoun travel to the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh to face unbeaten table toppers Al Hilal.
“I played against Koulibaly for Bologna against Napoli,” Barrow said. “It’s not easy. He’s a strong defender. But I’m looking forward to it.”
With Al Taawoun, widely praised for their style of play, and Gambia, Barrow will be on the team less fancied versus both Al Hilal and Senegal. That has no concerns for him.
“Hilal will try to knock the ball about and keep the ball, but we are fast on the counterattack, so we try to be patient, play compactly and play our football,” said Barrow. “We are going to get chances, Inshallah. We know they’re a big team, and we respect the big teams, but we show no weakness and will try to play and have confidence to win the game.”
Taawoun have made great strides under manager Pericles Chamusca, finishing fifth last season in the Brazilian's debut season. Notable scalps this campaign include a win over Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr and a point against Karim Benzema's Al Ittihad.
“We are confident we can play our football the same way we played against Ittihad,” Barrow, who spent three seasons at Atalanta and four with Bologna in Italy, said of the Hilal clash.
With four goals in nine appearances in all competitions, Barrow, who predominantly plays on the left of a three-pronged attack but can also shift to the right, is enjoying his football.
“I think there’s a good blend between the players who played together last year and players like me who came in,” said Barrow. “We have a great midfield and a great connection. We try to play as a team. There’s no star in this team. Everyone plays together and when we lose the ball, presses hard. We play football and have our own identity – every game we play football. We look to create spaces and chances every game.”
The new year brings new opportunities for Barrow at the Africa Cup of Nations. Gambia surprised many by reaching the quarter-finals of the 2021 tournament. Guinea and Cameroon – the team that defeated Gambia at that stage – make up Group C alongside Koulibaly’s Senegal this time around.
“I am looking forward to it,” said Barrow. “Last time we went to the African Cup, we were underdogs. We have Senegal first, then we are going to play Guinea, and then Cameroon.
"We lost to Cameroon last time, so we are going back for revenge. It’s not an easy group. We are the underdogs in the group, but I have a feeling we are going to do something good.”