RIYADH: The 2023-24 season’s first principal Riyadh derby kicks off this weekend, with Roshn Saudi League leaders Al-Hilal hosting second-placed Al-Nassr. As such, the stakes couldn’t be much higher.
Here’s all you need to know about one of the fiercest rivalries not only in Saudi football, but in the region, ahead of Friday’s much anticipated encounter.
The capital’s two premier clubs, part of the RSL’s traditional “Big Four” (including Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli), less than 10 kilometres apart in the city. On the pitch, Al-Hilal have won a record seven RSL titles, while Al-Nassr have the next best, with three.
In Al-Nassr’s most recent title success, in the 2018-19 campaign, they pipped Al-Hilal to the trophy by a solitary point; the following season, it was Al-Hilal who were celebrating the championship, with Al-Nassr finishing second.
The derby is therefore considered one of the marquee fixtures of the RSL calendar, with the matches often sold-out well in advance. On Friday, there is expected to be another full house at the King Fahd Sports City – anticipate fireworks, flags, banners and plenty of back-and-forward between the opposing fans. It should be rivalled only by what takes place on the pitch, as Riyadh bragging rights and, potentially, a huge step towards the RSL title are up for grabs.
Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr have met 30 times in the RSL era, with the former winning 15 matches and the latter nine. Both teams have not lost more games to anyone else, or conceded as many goals (54 Al-Nassr, 34 Al-Hilal).
Fixture’s top scorer
Mohammed Al Sahlawi (Al-Nassr) – 11 goals
Salem Al Dawsari (Al-Hilal) – 8 goals
Al-Hilal 5-1 Al-Nassr 4 May 2017
Al-Nassr 0-4 Al-Hilal 3 March 2022
Al-Nassr 1-4 Al-Hilal 5 August 2020
Last six meetings
Al-Hilal 2-0 Al-Nassr
Al-Nassr 1-0 Al-Hilal
Al-Hilal 0-2 Al-Nassr
Al-Nassr 0-4 Al-Hilal
Al-Nassr 2-2 Al-Hilal
Al-Hilal 2-0 Al-Nassr
Last season’s matches
Al-Nassr 2-2 Al-Hilal, 26 December 2022
Just days before the biggest transfer in Saudi football history, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal played out a mightily entertaining draw at Al-Awwal Park at King Saudi University. Al-Hilal took the lead early through former Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo, before Anderson Talisca levelled for the hosts, with Salem Al-Dawsari restoring the visitors’ advantage from the spot just after the hour. But there was late, late drama: Abdulrahman Ghareeb struck an 88th-minute equaliser. Four days later, Al-Nassr signed five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
Al-Hilal 2-0 Al-Nassr, 18 April 2023
With Al-Nassr chasing a first RSL title in four years, they fell to a damaging defeat to Al-Hilal thanks to a penalty in either half from Ighalo. To make matters worse for the visitors, Ronaldo had a goal disallowed for a marginal offside, while he also saw the award of a penalty overturned. Nassr were now three points behind leaders Al Ittihad with only five rounds remaining. They eventually finished runners-up to Al-Ittihad, and their wait for a 10th league championship continued.
To add a little more spice to the clash – as if that is needed – Al-Nassr defeated Al-Hilal in August in the final of the King Salman Club Cup. They won 2-1 in extra-time, with Ronaldo getting both their goals.
The form guide
Unbeaten in the RSL this season, Al-Hilal have won 12 and drawn two matches. They are riding a seven-match win streak, most recently making history by defeating Al-Hazem 9-0 away – a record result for the RSL.
Al-Nassr have built an impressive run since losing their opening two RSL matches, going unbeaten in the next 12. They have won five on the bounce since drawing with Abha in Matchweek 9; last time out, Al-Nassr sealed a comfortable 3-0 win at home to Al-Akhdood.
With the exception of the first two rounds this season, the two are tied at the top of the table with 34 points each. They are also tied at the summit of the RSL’s ranking in 2023, with 75 points each in 33 games and are, rather unbelievably, equal in scoring 77 goals and conceding 27 goals.
Players to watch
Kalidou Koulibaly: The Senegal international defender, signed this summer from Chelsea, will have to be on guard against an all-firing Al-Nassr who possess the league’s second-best attack this season.
Salem Al-Dawsari: The current Asian Player of the Year really needs no introduction. Arguably Saudi’s most talented player, he carries a sizeable goal and assist threat. Will be difficult to shackle.
Aleksandar Mitrovic: What an impact from the Serbian international following his summer move from Fulham. Has 11 goals in 12 RSL matches, showing in the “Saudi Clasico” with Al-Ittihad what he can do in high-stake games by notching a hat-trick.
Nawaf Al-Aqidi: The league’s leading local goalkeeper, the Saudi stopper has emerged as one of the league’s most reliable pair of hands since deputising for the injured David Ospina. Up against the season’s most prolific attack, he will need to be at his best.
Aymeric Laporte: One of the most notable RSL additions this summer, the recent treble winner with Manchester City knows what he is up against in Neves, Mitrovic and Co. The battle with the imposing Mitrovic should be pivotal.
Cristiano Ronaldo: What more can be said about the superstar? The Al-Nassr captain leads the way this season in RSL goals (15 in 13 games) and sits joint-top of the assist charts also, with seven. Quite clearly, the club’s go-to man.
Coaching compatriots, but competitors too
In the blue corner, Al-Hilal boast the vastly experienced, and hugely decorated, Jorge Jesus. The Portuguese manager is enjoying his second spell at the club after a brief, seven-month reign from June 2018. Formerly managed Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and Flamengo, with his notable trophies including three Portuguese top-flight titles and the 2019 Copa Libertadores.
In the opposing dugout, fellow Portuguese tactician Luis Castro has managed a raft of clubs in his homeland before spells in Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk, Qatar with Al-Duhail and Brazil’s Botafogo. Helped Shakhtar win the 2019-20 Ukrainian top-flight title. Joined proved a real hit at Al-Nassr since joining in July.
Jesus and Castro have faced each other in 10 games, with the former winning five and the latter three.