Neymar's debut, six goals and back in first place — a perfect … – Arab News

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The big question before the game was “will he or won’t he?” But ultimately, the more important outcome than learning whether or not Neymar would make his debut in Saudi Arabia on Friday evening was Al-Hilal thrashing Al-Riyadh 6-1 to return to the top of the Saudi Pro League, ahead of champions Al-Ittihad, in the most emphatic of styles.
It is a case of so far so good for the 18-time champions, who have 16 points from their first six games, one more than Al-Ittihad. This was a by-the-numbers win, certainly, but it was also a bit more than that. It was a perfect evening.
In the end, Neymar, who surpassed Pele’s goal-scoring record for Brazil during the international break as he reached a total of 79 goals for the five-time world champions, came off the bench to a rapturous reaction just after the hour mark. By then, the result was not in any real doubt but he had the fans on their feet and feeling very excited about the future.
His team-mates in blue had made the running against their newly promoted opposition, who had collected only four points from their first five games.
The breakthrough came after 27 minutes when Michael broke through to the right side of the area and was brought down by Mohammed Al-Shwirekh. The referee pointed to the spot and Aleksandar Mitrovic stepped up to fire home his fifth goal of the season.
Al-Riyadh gave as good as they got but could not find a way through the back line. Then Al-Hilal extended their lead just before the break. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic drove toward the left side of the area and slipped the ball through to Yasser Al-Shahrani. The left-back returned the favor and then was resupplied by the Serbian, before shooting home from close range.
From then on it was always going to be the case that Al-Riyadh would be making the short journey home across the capital empty-handed.
Soon after Neymar took to the pitch the lead increased to 3-0, as Nasser Al-Dawsari fired home from close range after Malcom was fouled in the area.
There were more goals to come, along with Neymar’s first major attacking contribution. With seven minutes remaining, the former Barcelona star slipped the ball to Malcom and his fellow Brazilian swept the ball into the net to make it 4-0.
With three minutes remaining, Al-Hilal were awarded a penalty. The fans made it clear that they wanted the new arrival to take it but, instead, it fell to Salem Al-Dawsari to make it five.
Five minutes into added time, Neymar fired a shot from outside the area, only for the goalkeeper to palm the ball out to Salem Al-Dawsari, who grabbed his second. Al-Hilal fans were in dreamland and not even a very late consolation goal from Ali Al-Zaqan could dampen the spirits of the home fans.
It meant the Blues maintained their unbeaten start to the season and returned to pole position above Al-Ittihad. The Jeddah giants suffered their first loss of the season, at the hands of Al-Hilal, before the international break, a dramatic 4-3 defeat, but bounced back to win 1-0 on Thursday at Al-Okhdood. Karim Benzema grabbed the only goal of a hard-fought game with 18 minutes remaining after Haroune Camara rolled the ball back from the left byline and it bounced fortuitously for the French striker, who clinched the three points from close range.
Also on Thursday, Al-Wehda’s promising start to the season continued with a 4-2 win over Damac, with Odion Ighalo bagging a hat-trick. On Friday, Al-Shabab picked up their first three points of the season with a 1-0 victory at Al-Fayha. Moroccan defender Romain Saiss got the only goal of the game.
Two-goal hero Aleksandar Mitrovic was full of praise for Al-Hilal fans after they generated an electric atmosphere in the 3-0 Riyadh derby victory over title rivals Al-Nassr.
Mitrovic snatched a late brace for Al-Hilal on Friday, adding to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s opener to put Luis Castro’s side to the sword at the King Fahd Stadium. The victory extends their lead at the top of the Saudi Pro League to seven points.
And Mitrovic, who played in the West London derby for Fulham, Tyne-Wear derby for Newcastle and Belgrade derby for Partizan, claimed that Friday’s clash between Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr was the pick of them.
“(It was) amazing, really amazing,” Mitrovic said after the match. “I played derbies in many countries, but for sure this is, if not the best, for sure top, top of the list.
“The pressure before the game, the build-up with fans before the game (was) really, really amazing, something special. To be honest, I don’t think I ever played a better derby.”
Mitrovic has quickly become a fan favorite at Al-Hilal, helped by his 20 goals in 20 games across all competitions for the Riyadh heavyweights. The double against Al-Nassr meant the supporters were serenading their Serbian striker again. 
“I’m lucky that everywhere I play, I always have a great relationship, but with these fans it’s amazing,” Mitrovic said.
“Since I arrived, from the first moment, we had a really special connection. They make me happy. I hope I will continue making them happy. It’s a happy marriage.”
Both sides had opportunities in the game, but it was the league leaders who were eventually more ruthless in front of goal, despite spurning some earlier chances.
“It was a very open game,” Mitrovic added. “From the beginning of the first half, we were better, we dominated; we had probably three, four clean chances to score goals, but we didn’t. We knew that of course, they have quality, a lot of experience.
“We knew that if we wanted to win the game, we had to keep a clean sheet. I think we scored the first goal on time, and we defended really, really well as a team.
“(With the) second goal, we killed the game, the third goal as well. I could even have scored a hat trick today with a little bit of luck. But overall, it was a great performance, a great game from us and a very big win for us and our fans.”
Al-Hilal coach Jorge Jesus believes his side’s 3-0 victory over Al-Nassr in the Riyadh derby on Friday was a perfect advert for the new-look Saudi Pro League.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic opened the scoring for Al-Hilal in the second half before a late brace from Aleksandar Mitrovic put the result beyond doubt in an often-fiery encounter at King Fahd Stadium.
“I want to pass a message to the fans that this game was a very good spectacle for the Roshn Saudi League,” Jesus said.
“It was broadcast all over the world and was a great showcase for Saudi football. It was a high-quality game with high-quality players. The game, until right at the end, was of the highest competitive level between the two teams.”
It appeared that Cristiano Ronaldo had grabbed an equalizer for Al-Nassr with a smart back-post finish, but it was ruled out for offside, leading to vociferous protestations from the visitors’ players and coaching staff. Al-Nassr coach Luis Castro was particularly irate, something Jesus feels is to be expected.
“It’s natural that Luis look at the game differently because he ended up losing 3-0,” Jesus added. “I wouldn’t like to comment on the referee’s decisions and on any of his criticisms of the referee’s decisions.
“We won 3-0 because we were the better team individually and collectively. In the first 30 minutes, we could already have been two or three goals up.
“In the second half, we positioned ourselves a little differently on the field while still transitioning well between defense and attack. At the end, we were better and could’ve won by more.”
Jesus praised the continued resilience of his players in the face of Neymar’s season-ending injury, with the Portuguese coach suggesting that Al-Hilal will deregister their star forward to free up a spot in their squad.
“We’re used to playing without him … The whole team has grown stronger together,” Jesus said. “I wouldn’t like to imagine Al-Nassr without Cristiano, Al-Ahli without Mahrez or Al-Ittihad without Benzema — how would they be with the loss of those influential players?
“We lost a player that today we could say would’ve made us much stronger with the presence of Neymar. Without him, we’re still doing well as a group.
“January we’ll add, and a player is going to replace Neymar. Neymar is going to go out and for sure a player is going to come. He should be replaced. It’s not a reinforcement, more an adjustment.”
Al-Hilal are now seven points clear at the top of the Saudi Pro League table, though Jesus insists his leaders are taking nothing for granted.
“In my experience, seven points doesn’t guarantee anything. Yes we’ve had a good season, but there are no guarantees in football.
“We have to prepare ourselves for difficult moments to come because the league is very competitive.
“I’m happy with the three points today, but I want to say to the fans that nothing has been achieved yet.”
Losing Al-Nassr coach Castro admitted that the seven-point deficit will be tough to make up, saying: “It’ll be difficult. For every team in the championship, it’ll be difficult. But we push and we keep going.
“We keep applying pressure because it’s still a long way to go in the championship. We’re going to compete.”
RIYADH: In front of a packed King Fahd Stadium, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr played out a Riyadh derby that radiated significance well beyond Saudi Arabia’s capital city on Friday night.
The top-of-the-table Saudi Pro League clash brought together two clubs whose profile is now growing well beyond the Kingdom’s borders.
While Al-Hilal claimed a 3-0 victory that extended their lead at the summit to seven points, this was an opportunity to showcase Saudi football to a wider audience.
The media center brimmed with international representatives sampling the Kingdom’s football culture for the first time and though injured Al-Hilal star Neymar was absent, the home fans created a carnival atmosphere at the King Fahd.
Among those watching in Riyadh was Carlo Nohra, the Saudi Pro League’s chief operating officer, who since June has been plotting the next steps in the league’s growth.
What began with Cristiano Ronaldo’s marquee signing by Al-Nassr in January evolved into a summer influx of new talent and a host of global broadcast rights deals.
“We said at the very least we needed to go out and distribute the broadcast rights through the world,” Nohra told Arab News at the King Fahd Stadium.
“We couldn’t predict what the appetite would be so the fact that people have both taken and paid for them is testament to the quality of players we’ve brought into the league.
“Did we expect to be here at this stage? No. But the Ronaldo factor has contributed to the acceleration of our journey.”
More eyes are on the league than ever before and Nohra believes the next steps are vital in creating a sustainable, self-sufficient product that is not perennially reliant on investment.
He said: “Over time we know we have to be revenue-generating and move from where we are today with 100 percent dependence on government money to exactly the opposite end, where we are fully independent financially.
“It’s a historic time and such a rare opportunity and great privilege to be here but we know this is a massive project and undertaking and it will take us a long time to achieve those objectives.
“We’ve taken the first early steps. We’re where the J-League was in 1993 and MLS in 1996. It’s a long journey ahead but we definitely still have major aspirations.”
Among those objectives for Nohra — the former CEO of Emirati clubs Al-Jazira and Al-Ain, as well as the UAE Football League — is a desire to revolutionize the relationship between players and fans.
Nohra’s most recent role before the Saudi Pro League was a seven-year stint as vice president and general manager of WWE Asia Pacific and he feels that football can learn a lot from wrestling.
He said: “Stepping out of football and seeing what happens elsewhere was such a valuable experience. It helps you understand that there is a different, and perhaps better, way of doing things.
“Right now, our athletes are not performers, but they should be. We need to better connect them with the fans because there is that great divide between the player and the fan that adores them. WWE is great at this and I hope we can develop a new environment that fosters this.”
It is just one of Nohra’s lofty ambitions for the Saudi Pro League, but more pressing are a series of fundamental infrastructure challenges. Providing a better fan experience is central to Nohra’s manifesto.
“Almost everywhere you turn, there is something that needs to be improved but it is impossible to do everything at the same time,” he said. “At the moment the customer journey for Saudi football needs to be of a much higher quality.
“We are working on the access to the stadium, getting tickets in a more regulated fashion through new platforms. These are some of the pain points right now because what is the point in having a good product on the pitch if people can’t get to the stadium to watch it?”
Despite the teething problems in the Saudi Pro League’s development, the attention given to Friday’s Riyadh derby is indicative of the potential that the division has to capture the imagination of a wider audience.
“Football will always be the real product and it has existed in this country for a long time,” Nohra says.
“We know we can put on good football matches, that’s not the issue. We just want to put on more of these matches that are meaningful for the rest of the world to watch.
“Sometimes we wonder if we should have focused on infrastructure first before the players but there is no question that the presence of these players has triggered the attention and investment to deal with these other areas.
“Bringing the players was key and it’s wonderful to see the interest that we’ve generated.”
RIYADH: The endless line of cars, thousands of people walking the streets dressed in yellow as well as blue, and the Friday night lights beaming out of King Fahd International Stadium could only mean one thing: the Riyadh derby, the most eagerly awaited in years.
Most of the cars heading back home were filled with happy fans as Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr 3-0 thanks to a second-half header from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and two goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic.
It was a deserved win, although with a slightly flattering scoreline, that sent the victors, still unbeaten, seven points clear at the top, above their beaten rivals.
It was not a classic by any means, and it was tight and tense right until the last few minutes when Mitrovic bagged his brace.
Any meeting between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr is always a huge game but the Saudi Arabian capital was throbbing with anticipation ahead of this meeting as it had a little extra: It marked the halfway point of the season, it saw the top two teams in the Roshn Saudi League, and it showcased a whole host of stars, both international and domestic.
The three points were more important, though. Al-Hilal knew that a win would give them, a team with 18 domestic championships under their belt, a huge advantage going into the second half of the season. Al-Nassr were desperate to close the gap to a single point.
Al-Hilal should have been ahead early on. After just 120 seconds, Mitrovic made room for himself on the left side of the area but pulled his shot just wide. Then it was the turn of Salem Al-Dawsari to go close on a couple of occasions.
Yet it was not a complete blue wave. As the home fans booed Cristiano Ronaldo, Anderson Talisca, with his back to goal, lifted the ball over his own head, his lob being just a little too high. It would have been a goal-of-the-season contender.
Four minutes later, Nawaf Al-Aqidi’s clearance was blocked by Mitrovic and fell to Michael whose tame shot was gratefully gathered by the goalkeeper.
Ronaldo’s first real sight of goal came midway through the first half, a low shot on the run that was comfortably saved by Yassine Bounou.
The rest of the half was a tighter affair with neither team really able to create the chances needed. It all became a little niggly with fouls, free-kicks and yellow cards.
The period ended in controversy with Al-Nassr appealing for a penalty after Seko Fofana went down under a Kalidou Koulibaly challenge, but neither referee nor video assistant was interested.
Defenses again had the upper hand after the break and the final pass was not quite good enough to produce the breakthrough.
That is, until the 64th minute when Milinkovic-Savic, from near the penalty spot, headed home into the bottom right corner past the outstretched hand of Al-Aqidi.
It brought the fans and the game to life. Ronaldo told his teammates to stay calm and focused and, soon after, his low shot flew just outside the near post.
With 17 minutes remaining, he volleyed hard into the roof of the net but had been adjudged to have strayed offside. It was close, coach Luis Castro complained for minutes, but soon after Hilal got the all-important second with Mitrovic heading home. There were huge complaints from Al-Nassr who claimed that the former Fulham forward had pushed Ronaldo to the ground.
But the goal stood and moments later Mitrovic added his second and his team’s third.
It was harsh on Al-Nassr and their fans, who started to leave, overwhelmed by the sea of blue and a wave of noise.
Al-Hilal will take some stopping from here. There is a long way to go, but on Friday night Riyadh was blue and the cars honked their horns in delight.
JEDDAH: Al-Ittihad continued an impressive week of sport for Jeddah with a 4-2 win over Al-Khaleej on Thursday to give new coach Marcelo Gallardo his first Roshn Saudi League victory following his appointment earlier in the month.
It makes it two wins out of two in the space of four days for the Argentine coach who saw the Tigers book a spot in the knockout stages of the Champions League on Monday with a win over AGMK of Uzbekistan.
This was just as important, although it did not actually take place in the Red Sea port at all. With state-of-the-art boats from around the world thrilling sailing fans at the Jeddah Yacht Club on the Corniche, Ferrari spending time in the city, and the ATP Next Gen tennis tournament at King Abdullah Sports City, the game with Khaleej was moved to the King Abdulaziz Stadium in nearby Makkah.
Those who made the journey were soon celebrating as Igor Coronado opened the scoring after just nine minutes, the goal coming after great approach play from Karim Benzema.
The former Real Madrid marksman picked up possession just inside the opponents’ half and sped off into the distance. The Frenchman was well inside the penalty area when his shot was blocked, the loose ball falling to Coronado who converted from close range.
The lead should have been doubled after 12 minutes with Benzema coming close to finishing a slick move, only for his shot to come back off the post with the goalkeeper nowhere.
Soon after, Fabinho was marauding into the danger area but the former Liverpool midfielder was unable to get his shot away.
Just before the half hour, Ittihad claimed a handball by Abdullah Al-Shanqiti. The video assistant agreed and Benzema stepped up to roll the ball home from the spot for his ninth league goal of the season.
The former Ballon d’Or winner, who seemed to have picked up an injury, was then substituted, limping off the pitch on which he had contributed so much despite the short space of time.
There will be concerns given that Al-Ittihad are taking part in the FIFA Club World Cup in less than two weeks’ time.
Just before the break, Khaleej were awarded their own penalty after Mansour Hamzi went down following a challenge from Marcelo Grohe, Khaled Narey making no mistake from the spot after the referee had viewed the monitor.
There was another visit to the monitor on the hour as Abderrazak Hamdallah went down in the middle of four defenders just inside the area. For the third time in the evening, the kick was given, and for the third time it was converted. Hamdallah took over Benzema’s duties and the two-goal cushion was restored, though goalkeeper Marwan Al-Haidari got a hand to it.
There was not much he could do 16 minutes from the end, though, when substitute Zakaria Al-Hawsawi cut in from the left, feinted past one defender and skipped away from two more before driving a low shot into the bottom corner.
The visitors did grab another before the end, but a flying volley from Fawaz Al-Terais was too little, too late.
This was another good win for Al-Ittihad and another triumph for Jeddah.
Earlier in the day, Alhi picked up their biggest win of the season as they thrashed Abha 6-0. Gabri Veiga and Firas Al-Buraikan scored two each while Franck Kessie and Riyad Mahrez bagged one apiece. 
The result keeps Al-Ahli in third, four points behind Al-Nassr in second and eight behind the leaders Al-Hilal, with the top two meeting in the eagerly awaited Riyadh derby on Friday.

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