RIYADH: The Saudi Super Cup expands from two teams to four teams just in time.
Today, Thursday, Al-Hilal, the league champion, faces Al-Fayha, but the other semi-final match, which is a confrontation between Al-Nasr and Al-Ittihad, is what captured the audience’s attention. And for good reason.
Whatever the outcome, it means that the Portuguese hands will be close to the trophy, whether it belongs to Cristiano Ronaldo or Al Ittihad coach Nuno Santo.
Ronaldo’s performance in last Sunday’s 1-0 win over Al-Ettifaq, his first appearance since signing with Al-Nassr at the end of December, was seen all over the world.
This should be a bigger test; A high-profile game between league leaders and third-placed Al-Ittihad, although these two teams have the best defensive records in Saudi Arabia, don’t expect too many goals. But this is the grail, and anything can happen.
No one will claim that this is the biggest prize on offer in Saudi football. It used to be that the final match took place between the winners of the league and the King’s Cup from the previous season, but the runner-up in each competition is now allowed, and since Al-Hilal is the champion and the runner-up of the cup, this gives extra room for victory.
Nevertheless, she will be a very welcome addition to the prize coffers of both Riyadh and Jeddah.
It will take some pressure off both clubs. For victory, the reason is clear. Signing one of the best players in the history of the game means you are in the spotlight and expectations are skyrocketing.
The image of a smiling Ronaldo, who won the most titles that can be won in Europe, just a week after his debut, will be broadcast all over the world. It will set the tone well for the rest of the season.
It’s not just about the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. Coach Rudi Garcia, who led major European teams such as Marseille, Roma and Lyon, already had a star-studded squad at his disposal.
The likes of Anderson Talisca, Betty Martinez and Luiz Gustavo all have experience at the top of world football and there are many Saudi internationals, six of whom have been to the World Cup. This is a band that should be winning stuff and expected to do just that.
There’s also David Ospina. Or rather, it was. The Colombian goalkeeper, who arrived last summer from Napoli and impressed me, fractured his elbow in the 0-0 draw with Al Shabab on January 14 and will be out for the rest of the season.
Rather than allow Nawaf Al-Aqidi to step in – after the 22-year-old performed well in the last Gulf Cup – Al-Nassr moved quickly to bring in a South American substitute. Agustin Rossi arrives from Boca Juniors on loan until the end of the current season and could make his debut on Thursday, and if all goes well for his team, he will be in the final on Sunday.
The union will have something to say about that. Coach Nuno has done what many who have seen his work in his native Portugal, as well as in the English Premier League with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur, would expect. It’s becoming harder for the Tigers to score against and harder to beat.
The Egyptian duo Tariq Hamad and Ahmed Hegazy provide stability and solidity in the back. Five goals in their last two matches suggests they have become more fluent going forward too with free kick scorer Abdul Razzaq Hamdallah doing his best, ably bolstered by Brazilian stars Romarinho and Igor Coronado.
For Nuno too, the trophy will give him something to show as he sets his team up for the title race. He knew before taking over last summer that Al-Ittihad had not won the championship since 2009, and came closer than ever last season before taking a double-digit lead at the top in heartbreaking fashion.
Until he arrived by way of the Red Sea, he was not despondent in the port city.
Of course, the popular Portuguese newcomers might not fully appreciate the crescent hitch. The 18-time champions are a trophy-collecting machine who also had unfinished business against rivals Al-Fayhaa on Thursday.
When the two met in the King’s Cup final last May, Salem Al-Dosari gave Al-Hilal the lead in the first half only for Ramon Lopez to equalize in front of nearly 50,000 in Jeddah. Al-Fayhaa won on penalties 3-1. It was one of the biggest shocks for Saudi football in recent years.
Defeat was less painful as Al-Hilal clinched the league, but the Riyadh giants will want to exact some cold revenge and win a tasty final against their huge rivals from Riyadh or Jeddah. Lifting the Saudi Super Cup would also be a perfect preparation for the upcoming FIFA Club World Cup.
Al-Fayhaa may be in 13th place, but they are in good shape. After collecting just two points from their first eight games of the season, they won four of their previous five before losing to Al-Ittihad last week.
Last season’s Copa del Rey victory brought them their first ever piece of silverware. The second will be a cause for huge celebration.
Thursday is set to be one of the most exciting football days of the season.