Al Hilal's Aleksandar Mitrovic targets more goals in Riyadh derby against Al Nassr

Serbian striker eager to continue his red-hot streak as rivals face-off in a top-of-the-table clash in the Saudi Pro League

Aleksandar Mitrovic celebrates after scoring for Al Ittihad during the Saudi League match against Al Hilal. EPA
Powered by automated translation

Al Hilal’s dominant start to the 2023/24 Saudi Pro League faces its biggest challenge yet as they take on rivals Al Nassr in the Riyadh derby on Friday evening.

Four points separate the two sides at the top of the table with both riding hot streaks in the league – Nassr have won their past five matches while Hilal boast seven straight victories – and both secured safe passage to the knockout rounds of the AFC Champions League in midweek.

The Riyadh rivals have dominated Saudi football in recent years, winning eight of the past 10 league titles between them (Hilal have five league titles to Nassr's three).

Cristiano Ronaldo is expected to shake off a neck injury that saw him withdrawn in the second half of Nassr's 0-0 draw with Persepolis, but it is Al Hilal boss Jorge Jesus who will be forced to shuffle his pack.

With Brazilian superstar Neymar sidelined with a long-term knee problem, Jorge Jesus is also without Saudi Arabia international defenders Hassan Tambakti, Yasser Al Shahrani and Nasser Al Dawsari.

But for all the absentees, the home side will have the reliable Aleksandar Mitrovic to rely on in front of goal. The Serbian has been in hot form since joining from Fulham in the summer and is now second only to Ronaldo in the SPL scoring charts with 11 goals.

“Scoring goals is something every forward dreams about and lives for, and every player wants to experience that adrenaline rush after you score a goal,” said Mitrovic, who was rested as Al Hilal confirmed their place at the top of Group D of the AFC Champions League with a 2-0 win over Uzbek side Navbahor on Tuesday.

Aleksandar Mitrovic scores hat-trick as Al Hilal beat Al Ittihad in seven-goal thriller

Aleksandar Mitrovic scores hat-trick as Al Hilal beat Al Ittihad in seven-goal thriller

“I have been fortunate to score a lot of goals in my career, and I hope there will be more of them in the future. It is my job and what I enjoy doing. The more I score, the better I feel. I have scored plenty, but I still have more."

The 29-year-old enjoyed one of his best games since arriving in Saudi Arabia in Matchweek 5 against reigning champions Al Ittihad, where his hat-trick, including a fantastic volley, helped his side turn a 3-1 half-time deficit into a 4-3 win. He believes big games such as the one on Friday fuel his passion to score more.

“I have a lot more in me, and there are more big games coming up like the derby. I want to score more goals in games like that. I want to score goals all the time.”

Meanwhile, Nassr welcome back midfielder Seko Fofana and winger Sadio Mane, who have both recovered from injuries, while Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina has been left out of the registered squad as he continues his recovery from a long-term injury.

The yellow half of Riyadh have already experienced derby delight this season when Ronaldo’s brace helped them come from behind to beat Al Hilal in the final of the King Salman Cup in Taif, but that trophy came at the cost of the current gap in the table, as fatigue and having to rest key players, including Ronaldo, in their first two matches of the league season saw them lose two in a row.

It's a situation they have somewhat rectified by going on a 12-match unbeaten run, but still find themselves four points short of Hilal.

“We already lost twice, so that means we cannot afford to fail anymore,” said Nassr's Portuguese coach Luis Castro. “We know Al Hilal will not drop that many points, neither will Al Ittihad nor the other title contenders, so the pressure is on us to keep winning."

Victory on Friday will not only cut the gap to one point, it will also bring Castro closer to his Hilal counterpart Jorge Jesus in terms of their head-to-head meetings. The Portuguese duo having faced-off 10 times during their time coaching in Portugal and Brazil, with Jorge Jesus winning five and Castro winning twice.

“I love derbies,” added the Al Nassr coach. “These games are intense. The fans, the passion, the atmosphere. That gives a lot of pleasure for the players and the manager. Winning them is one of the best moments in football.”

Updated: December 01, 2023, 5:39 AM