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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - The start of a new football season moves a lot closer this week as the King Salman Club Cup, also known as the Arab Club Champions Cup, kicks off in the Saudi city of Abha on Thursday.
This year’s event is perhaps the most eagerly awaited in the tournament’s history, as it will give fans across the region a first look at some very famous international players in competitive action.
The group stage features four groups of four teams, with the top two from each progressing to the knockout phase. Among the 16 teams gathering in the southwest of the Kingdom are three that have been busy recently strengthening their squads and making headlines.
On the opening day, the eyes of many will be on Saudi champions Al-Ittihad, who won this tournament in 2005, when they were all-conquering in Asia, and reached the final in 2020.
The Tigers have been busy since lifting the Saudi Pro League trophy on the final day of the season at the end of May. Most notable was their early capture of reigning FIFA Ballon D’Or holder, Karim Benzema, as the French striker said goodbye to Real Madrid and hello to Jeddah and coach Nuno Santo.
There have been concerns about the fitness of N’Golo Kante in midfield but the former Chelsea star looks set to start on Thursday. Then there is Portuguese winger Jota, who arrives in Jeddah after a spell with Scottish champions Celtic.
Al-Ittihad’s opponents in their opening game are Esperance Sportive de Tunis, and the game should be a fine test for the Tunisian side. They are no strangers to big international tournaments, and have won this one three times and finished second twice, a record unequaled by any other team.
Rounding out Group A we have Club Sportif Sfaxien, also from Tunisia, and Iraq’s Al-Shorta, who will also be looking forward to taking on the Jeddah giants. It would be a surprise, however, if Santo and his talented team do not make it into the last eight of the competition.
Also in action on the opening day are Al-Hilal and this is an important competition for the 18-time Saudi Arabian champions, who have lifted this trophy twice though not yet in this century.
After finishing third in the league last season, the Riyadh giants have strengthened their squad in the past few weeks. In came Kalidou Koulibaly, from English Premier League powerhouse Chelsea, and Ruben Neves, from Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Portuguese midfielder had been linked with moves to Barcelona and Manchester United, who were also interested in Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, along with Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus. Ultimately, the Serbian also opted to join Al-Hilal.
Those new signings are three very talented players who will be looking to help take the Saudi club to the next level — and surely into the knockout phase of this tournament.
The Blues kick off with a clash against Al-Ahli Tripoli and it would be a major shock if the Libyans manage to get a result against Al-Hilal, who have Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus back in charge. Fans will be expecting three points from the opener but also aware of tougher tests to come in the subsequent group games against Moroccan powerhouses Wydad AC and Al-Sadd of Qatar. Jesus knows the importance of getting fans on side early and a good showing here could be the perfect way to do it.
Group C is fascinating as it contains two Saudi teams. Al-Nassr finished second in the league last season but their first-choice squad, including Cristiano Ronaldo, are currently in Japan, where they drew 0-0 with Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday and will take on Inter Milan on Thursday.
The King Salman Club Cup will therefore give some of the fringe and younger players a really useful chance to gain experience. Their opener is against Al-Shabab, and their Riyadh rivals might have a point to prove.
Al-Shabab, who finished fourth in the league last season, have yet to sign any big names and so have been watching from the sidelines while some of their domestic rivals added world-class talents to their squads.
Still, they will be expected to beat this second-string version of Al-Nassr, and if they can go all the way it would be perfect preparation for the season ahead — as well as a reminder that they are one of the giants of Saudi Arabian football.
Indeed, it could be said that Al-Shabab have more motivation to get their hands of this trophy than any of the 16 who will battle it out.
But then again, there are huge incentives for clubs from elsewhere, too. Proud clubs such as Wydad, Tunis and Egyptian side Zamalek, for example, who have big fan bases, have won African titles and are no strangers to competing on a global stage. In recent months and weeks however, they have had to sit back and watch rivals from Riyadh and Jeddah become the focus of the regional football scene. A few wins over Saudi opposition would therefore be considered very satisfactory results in Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Everyone is aware, however, that while the spotlight will largely be on Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal in the coming days, lifting the trophy will not define any team’s season and will not protect coaches from criticism, or worse, if league results go badly.
By the same token, falling at the first hurdle will be quickly forgotten if wins are racked up in the league. Still, early silverware would be a great start for the Saudi-based stars, old and new.
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