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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: Kim Seung-gyu is ready to face Neymar again. The Al-Shabab goalkeeper is looking forward to the Riyadh derby against Al-Hilal on Friday more than most players would be.
It is a chance for the team to continue their recent good form after a poor start to the season as well as an opportunity for the 32-year-old shot stopper to cross swords once more with the Brazilian star who has yet to score in Saudi Arabia since arriving from Paris Saint-Germain in August.
The South Korean No. 1, who has made more than 70 appearances for the Asian giants, faced the South American twice in 2022, first in a Seoul friendly and then in the Round of 16 clash against Brazil at the World Cup.
Neymar scored three penalties against Kim in those two matches — which the five-time world champions won with a combined score of 9-1 — sending him the wrong way each time.
Kim told Arab News: “I didn’t think I would play against him again so soon. I am excited to face him and am ready.
“I hope he doesn’t get a penalty this time, but I will do my best to save it even if it won’t be easy as he is one of the best in the world. Keeping a clean sheet is a priority for me as we want to win the game.”
That was not looking likely a few weeks ago as the six-time champions started the season poorly. Just two points were taken from the first five games, the low point a 4-0 loss at Al-Nassr, but Al-Shabab have won the last three, two in the league and one in the King’s Cup.
Three goals from the last two games from Belgian international and new signing Yannick Carrasco is one reason why the team are heading in the right direction after the slow start and Moroccan captain Romain Saiss has added some stability at the back.
Kim said: “There were some internal changes inside the club that needed to be done.
“We didn’t bring that many players in during the summer and as everyone knows, most of the other teams brought in a lot of players and filled their foreign quota of eight players and we didn’t have that when the season kicked off.
“We then brought in some very good players just before the window closed and we are on the right track. We had a slow start, but we are moving now and let’s see what happens later in the season. We are all feeling confident,” he added.
Kim moved to Riyadh in 2022, coming to Saudi Arabia from the Japanese J1 League where he starred for Vissel Kobe and Kashiwa Reysol. The glovesman who also won the 2012 Asian Champions League with South Korea’s Ulsan Horangi, has witnessed enough in his time in the country to see the changes.
“The standard of play is definitely improving all around the league and now I am playing against players that I only saw on TV before. As a goalkeeper it can be tough, but I am learning a lot and enjoying it.
“The league is getting better and better and that is good for all of us, and we have to keep working hard,” Kim said.
And that goes for the domestic goalkeepers too. There have been concerns expressed that there are few teams among the 18 in the top tier that give minutes to Saudi shot stoppers. At times, it has been left to Al-Nassr’s Nawaf Al-Aqidi and Abdulquddus Atiah at Al-Wehda to fly the flag.
New national team coach Roberto Mancini would surely love to have more Saudi Arabian goalkeepers in action in the league. It has been suggested that the country could follow the example of South Korea where only homegrown No. 1s are allowed between the sticks in the K League. Kim, however, does not think that is the correct path to go down.
“There are more positives for the Saudi Arabian goalkeepers themselves as well as the country. When I was in Japan, there were a lot of foreign goalkeepers and many people raised this same question, but as a professional player, you can’t take a spot in the starting line-up for granted, you must fight for it. You have to challenge your team-mates and then the chance comes, and this is how you develop as a player and then show what you can do on the pitch.
“I think this is a positive, Saudi Arabian goalkeepers have to come and fight for their places, and they will be better players,” he added.
Kim noted that the influx of world-class talent into the league had helped him to improve his game. He also pointed out that when he now reported for international duty, his South Korean team-mates were much more curious about what was going on in Saudi Arabia.
He said: “There are a lot of questions now when we meet up. They ask me about the big players coming in and they want to know what the league is like and what has changed. It is not just the players, but everyone is now much more interested.”
And they will be watching to see if Kim can get the better of Neymar on Friday.
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