Benzema v Ronaldo, Kante v Neves: Top 10 early 2023/24 Saudi … – The National

Karim Benzema will take on former Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo when Al Ittihad and Al Nassr clash in December. EPA, Getty Images
Karim Benzema will take on former Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo when Al Ittihad and Al Nassr clash in December. EPA, Getty Images
The Saudi Pro League confirmed at the weekend the fixture list for the 2023/24 season, as the top tier of football in the kingdom ushers in a new era with a collection of the game’s star names.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Roberto Firmino and Steven Gerrard are already there, with many more expected before the action kicks off next month.
Here are some of the standout clashes to come in the first half of the campaign, which is sure to kick off amid unprecedented attention when it begins on August 11.
The league gets under way with the returning Al Ahli as hosts, back in the top-flight after experiencing the first relegation in their history two seasons ago. The Jeddah side, who have recently signed former Liverpool forward Firmino and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, from Chelsea, open against familiar foes: they pipped Al Hazem to the second-tier title last season. Ahli might well even by then have Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez, ramping up the interest.
The champions, fresh from a first top-flight crown in nine years, kick off their defence at Al Raed, where Benzema, Kante, Portuguese winger Jota and probably another high-profile recruit or two – Ittihad are expected to sign Brazil midfielder Fabinho from Liverpool – will be introduced amid much fanfare to the Pro League. Boasting the current Ballon d’Or holder and a 2018 World Cup winner, Ittihad will be eager to start off with a bang. Al Raed, 10th last season, are their opening opponents.
It feels a real new era at Al Hilal in particular, after a campaign in which they narrowly missed out on major silverware. The record 18-time Saudi champions, third in the league and runners-up in both the Fifa Club World Cup and the Asian Champions League, have Jorge Jesus back as manager and have so far signed a trio of marquee recruits: Portuguese international midfielder Ruben Neves from Wolves, defender Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea, and Serbia international Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio. They begin at Abha, 12th last season.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Al Nassr): The transfer that started it all. The Portuguese superstar moved to the Saudi Pro League in January after his acrimonious exit from Manchester United. Ronaldo scored 14 goals in his first 16 Saudi Pro League games. AFP

What an introduction to the Pro League for Gerrard. The former Liverpool and England captain was appointed as Al Ettifaq manager earlier this month, and could not have been handed a much more difficult start. The Dammam side, seventh last season and with current Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson in their sights, welcome the 2023/24 runners-up, with Nassr set to look considerably different by then. They have already added Inter Milan midfielder Marcelo Brozovic and there are more signings to come. Oh, and they’re captained by none other than Ronaldo.
The season’s first Riyadh derby is sure to provide plenty of fireworks. It will also offer a stern challenge to new Nassr manager Luis Castro, who is tasked with going one better than last season by delivering the capital club’s first top-flight title since 2019. Ronaldo, of course, will play protagonist. Fourth last season, Al Shabab are a formidable outfit themselves, highlighted by crafty midfielder Ever Banega and the astute addition of another midfielder, Gustavo Cuellar, from Al Hilal.
🇵🇹 @Cristiano did this last time Al Nassr faced Al Shabab 🔥

29 August is the date those two Riyadh powerhouses lock horns again 🟠🔵🆚⚪⚫#RoshnSaudiLeague
Mark the calendars for the season’s first “El Clasico”, with champions Al Ittihad entertaining a revamped Al Hilal at King Abdullah Sports City. Expect a packed house in Jeddah, with the trademark tifos, fireworks and an incredibly vocal backing that last season helped lift Nuno-Espirito Santo’s side to the title. On the pitch, some of the league’s leading players will battle it out not only for bragging rights but a vital three points in the championship. Can Benzema shoot the hosts to success?
Jeddah plays home to the first derby between its lead teams in two seasons. Al Ahli, who bounced straight back into the Pro League to again challenge their crosstown rivals on the main stage, will hope to come into match on the back on a positive result at Al Nassr, whom they play two matchdays beforehand. By then, the expectation is Firmino will have found his feet in Saudi football. Thankfully for his side, though, they have Mendy as the last line of defence against Benzema, Romarinho, Jota, Igor Coronado and Co.
Rounding off a difficult run that includes games across five matchdays against the three other teams now controlled by the Public Investment Fund, Al Ahli travel to King Fahd International Stadium to take on Al Hilal. Even with Koulibaly, Neves and Milinkovic-Savic signed, the Riyadh club are expected to acquire a top new striker in preseason: Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku and Fulham’s Aleksander Mitrovic sit high on their list. Once more, Senegal international Mendy may well have to be on top form.
The big Riyadh derby, always a standout on the Saudi football calendar, falls well into first half of the season, so in theory it should make for thrilling viewing as both teams will be fully stocked and most probably up to speed. Ronaldo, who scored 14 goals in 16 matches last season, has already outlined his ambition for major silverware after going so close to the title during his debut campaign. A sell-out King Fahd International Stadium, where his side lost 2-0 in April, should await.
Fans will have to wait until the final match day of the first half to the campaign to witness last season’s champions against its runners-up. Ittihad will once more lean on that incredible home support – they defeated Nassr 1-0 at a vociferous King Abdullah Sports City in March en route to the title – while Nassr will be out for revenge. There should be intriguing battles all over the pitch, with the game also pitting against one another former Real Madrid teammates in Benzema and Ronaldo.
نحنُ في زحـام من النعم 😍💛 #Benzema2Ittihad #HereToInspireKSA







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