Karim Benzema and Saudi star signings at King Salman Cup

Photo of Karim Benzema ready for King Salman Cup

Karim Benzema ready for King Salman Cup in the south-west of Saudi Arabia.

In the upcoming week, football fans from around the globe will turn their attention to the south-west region of Saudi Arabia. Sixteen leading clubs from the area will compete for the prestigious King Salman Cup, which will be held in the picturesque mountain cities of Taif, Abha, and Al Baha.

Raja Casablanca, the reigning champions, have their arch rivals and CAF Champions League runners-up, Wydad, alongside them in the King Salman Cup. Representing the UAE is Abu Dhabi’s Al Wahda. However, all eyes are on the domestic trio of Al Hilal, Al Nassr, and Al Ittihad, as they enter the competition after making significant investments following their acquisition by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund PIF.

Al Hilal, who were runners-up in 2019, will kick off their campaign in Abha against Libyan side Al Ahli Tripoli. They have strengthened their squad with prominent European midfielders: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio and Ruben Neves from Wolverhampton Wanderers. Both players impressed the home fans in a friendly against Kuwait SC, contributing to a 4-2 victory.

Additionally, Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea has joined their ranks to bolster the defense. While fans will see the trio in competitive action, their attacking additions might not be available for the opening match. Al Hilal is reportedly close to finalizing deals for Fulham forward Aleksandar Mitrovic and Zenit Saint Petersburg winger Malcom.

Recent reports indicate a potential €300 million move for Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, but all three deals may take varying amounts of time to complete, making it unlikely for the new arrivals to participate in Thursday’s opener. Meanwhile, Saudi Pro League champions Al Ittihad have been conducting their pre-season training camp in Taif, where they will face Tunisia’s Esperance later on Thursday.

Under Coach Nuno Espirito Santo, Al Ittihad has become the new home for Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema and fellow Frenchman N’Golo Kante, both expected to make their competitive debuts in the King Salman Cup despite earlier fitness concerns about Kante.

Another player to watch out for is former Celtic winger Jota, who will make his debut for Al Ittihad during the tournament. While the pursuit of Liverpool’s anchorman Fabinho remains on track, it is unlikely to be finalized before the tournament begins. In the most recent edition of the competition, Al Ittihad reached the final in 2021 but lost to Raja Casablanca in a thrilling 4-4 match, with Brazilian forward Romarinho playing a pivotal role in the team’s performance.

Nuno faces an appealing challenge of effectively incorporating a range of attacking talents, such as Benzema, Jota, Romarinho, former Sharjah playmaker Igor Coronado, and Moroccan striker Abderrazak Hamdallah, into his team without compromising its defensive balance, particularly with captain and defensive leader Ahmed Hegazy out of action due to a long-term injury. Al Nassr, one of the PIF-backed Saudi clubs in the competition, is led by the five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.

Despite narrowly missing the league title last season, they have strengthened their midfield with the additions of Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic and Lens captain Seko Fofana. Moreover, they have recently secured Brazilian left-back Alex Telles from Manchester United. Kicking off their journey against fellow Riyadh side Al Shabab, Al Nassr’s participation highlights the growing divide between PIF-backed teams and others in the Saudi Pro League.

Al Shabab is currently without a coach after their efforts to recruit Euro 2016-winning coach Fernando Santos were unsuccessful. Their high-profile signings have been limited, with Colombian midfielder Gustavo Cuellar being the main addition, having been deemed surplus to requirements at Al Hilal.

The increasing focus on the star-studded Saudi clubs indicates a shift in the balance of power in Arab football, moving away from the traditional North African giants towards the wealthy and well-organized clubs in the Gulf. Over the years, teams from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia have dominated the Arab Clubs Cup, with the past seven editions won by representatives from these countries.

Al Ittihad was the last Asian side to secure the title back in 2005. The absence of Egypt’s dominant force, Al Ahly, in this competition means that Egypt is represented by Zamalek, whose influence and popularity beyond Cairo have diminished in recent times. Meanwhile, their city rivals have achieved the CAF Champions League title eight times since 2002.

Several North African teams participating in this year’s edition, including Raja, Wydad, Sfaxien, Esperance, and Algeria’s CB Belouizdad, have experienced a consistent loss of their top players season after season to wealthier clubs in Europe’s northern regions (France, Spain, Netherlands) or in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE).

The King Salman Cup’s storyline is captivating, as it raises the question of whether Saudi Arabia will establish itself as a genuine football power in the region, and this will be closely monitored in the coming weeks.


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