Karim Benzema was held scoreless and Cristiano Ronaldo was absent with an injury, but there were still plenty of big names making their mark as the opening round of the Saudi Arabian league wrapped up on Monday.
Benzema had an assist as defending champion Al-Ittihad won 3-0 at Al-Raed while Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr lost 2-1 to Steven Gerrard’s Ettifaq, giving the English coach a winning debut.
Gerrard watched as Al-Nassr took an early lead through another former Liverpool star, Sadio Mane, just one of several big names to arrive in the country ahead of the new season, lured by the massive salaries on offer from the Saudi teams.
Ronaldo started that exodus when he joined Al-Nassr in January, but he picked up a knock on Saturday as his team defeated Riyadh rival Al-Hilal in the final of the Arab Club Champions Cup.
With temperatures in the eastern city of Dammam well over 90 F (32 C) despite an evening kickoff, Mane scored from close range just four minutes into the game.
Swedish forward Robin Quaison and Moussa Dembele scored for Ettifaq, while former Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson played most of the game for Gerrard’s team.
There were plenty of empty seats in the 26,000 capacity Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium but the estimated attendance of around 16,000 was significantly higher than the 5,500 average from last season.
Al-Hilal is reportedly close to signing Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain to bring another superstar to the league, but it was another Brazilian who starred for the team on Monday. Malcom, who joined from Zenit St.Petersburg in July for a reported fee of around $66 million, scored a hat trick to lead the team to a 3-1 win over Abha.
The 18-time champion was without Kalidou Koulibaly and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, signed from Chelsea and Lazio, respectively, and Hilal coach Jorge Jesus is still looking to strengthen his roster.
“We came out with a positive result after working hard,” Jesus said. “It is great to win the first game and I am still waiting for new signings, especially in attack.”
Benzema, who joined the Jeddah club from Real Madrid, created the opening goal for Al-Ittihad teammate Abderrazak Hamdallah. The third was created by N’Golo Kante, the former Chelsea midfielder whose fierce shot was parried by the goalkeeper into the path of Igor Coronado to score his second of the game.
Kante lined up in midfield alongside Fabinho, who joined from Liverpool.
“Alongside Kante, our positioning was excellent and it was a fine team performance,” Fabinho said. “This is my first match and I will improve.”
Fabinho’s former Liverpool teammate Roberto Firmino made an immediate impact on Friday, scoring all three goals as Al-Ahli defeated Al-Hazem 3-1.
The Brazilian was helped by Riyad Mahrez, the winger signed from English and European champion Manchester City and Allan Saint-Maximin from Newcastle United.
“I am very happy to play my first match, score a hat trick and help my team achieve its first victory,” Firmino told Saudi Arabian television. “It is a great start for us, and the most important thing is the win. The team played wonderfully.”
More than 24,000 fans attended the game in Jeddah, 10,000 more than last season’s average.
“The reception from the fans was wonderful,” Firmino said. “I felt goosebumps after hearing the noise they made.” ___
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