RIYADH: ‘Neymar is Blue’. That was the message that lit up the Riyadh sky on Saturday as the superstar was introduced to fans at his new club of Al-Hilal, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world. It was an impressive greeting to an impressive signing but the Brazilian legend, who strolled around the King Fahd International Stadium in that famous shirt, now knows that this is not going to be a walk in the park as his new team was held to a 1-1 draw by Al-Fayha in the second round of games this season.
Neymar’s former club Paris Saint-Germain has dominated French football for much of the last decade but while Al-Hilal are the most successful club in Saudi Arabia with 18 titles and also Asia with four championships, the Roshn Saudi League is nothing if not competitive. Al-Fayha gave as good as they got, defended well, worked hard and cared little about the famous faces on the pitch and those watching from the sidelines.
As most expected, Al-Hilal were on top for much of the game with the talented Ruben Neves pulling the strings in midfield but went in level at the break. That was not expected earlier on. It seemed as if Michael had given the hosts the lead but the Brazilian’s well-taken strike was ruled out for offside. It must have been tight.
After 15 minutes, the visitors took the lead with a piece of individual magic. Fashion Sakala, recently signed from Glasgow Rangers, picked up the ball on the left side. The Zambian then performed a couple of stepovers that Cristiano Ronaldo would have been proud of before smashing the ball into the roof of the net from close range and a narrow angle to score a goal that Neymar would also have been happy to be associated with.
The hosts, whose blue-clad fans were jumping up and down from the first whistle, were stunned but they were soon back on level terms. Five minutes later Abdullah Al-Hamdan, the young forward has had a bright start to the season, shot straight at Vladimir Stojkovic when through on goal but the ball found its way back into the area and the striker was there to fire home from close range. It was a huge relief to the fans crammed into the stadium and was also appreciated by Neymar, who was out of his seat high up in the stands and clapping like crazy.
As the former Barcelona star learns more about Saudi Arabian football, he will know that there is always work to be done. There was more Hilal pressure to come in the first half but it was level at the break. The hosts then made most of the running in the second half but struggled to create clear chances and, in the end, were just unable to find a way through. Not for the first time in Saudi Arabia, goalkeeper Stojkovic made a difference when the pressure was on. At the end, Neymar looked satisfied. It is hard to say whether it was because his new team now had four points from two games, the quality of the league or the fact that he is obviously needed.
In the other big game of the day, Al-Ittihad made it two wins from two with a 2-0 victory over Al-Tai. Abderrazak Hamdallah, who topped the goalscoring charts last time, broke the deadlock with his second in two games so far.
It was a controversial strike however. It looked as if the Al-Tai defence, concerned about a knock to their goalkeeper, were not ready for the right-sided corner but there was the Moroccan marksman to sweep home at the near post. It was a goal reminiscent of the Trent Alexander-Arnold corner that caught Barcelona napping in the UEFA Champions League semi final of 2019 that was then converted by an alert Divock Origi to send Liverpool to the final.
The champions sealed the win in injury time thanks to Saleh Al-Amri, who fired home from the edge of the area. It was a goal that put the Tigers top of the fledgling table.
Al-Hilal are only two points behind and while there will be disappointment as failing to make it two wins from two, with Neymar, there is surely more to come.