Nearly a month after he first touched down in Riyadh to be unveiled as Al Hilal’s major new signing, Neymar is finally set to make his Saudi Pro League bow on Friday.
The 31-year-old Brazilian was still recovering from a long-term ankle injury upon his arrival in the middle of August from Paris Saint-Germain.
The recent international break afforded the €96 million signing some valuable game time with Neymar starting both Brazil’s 2026 World Cup qualifiers against Bolivia and Peru under new coach Fernando Diniz.
A brace in the 5-1 triumph over Bolivia saw Neymar overtake the legendary Pele to become Brazil’s top scorer with 79 goals.
The Brazilian boarded a private jet to Riyadh on Wednesday morning and is expected to take part in training with his Hilal teammates on Thursday evening, fueling the belief that coach Jorge Jesus will include him in his squad for Friday’s home game against local rivals Al Riyadh.
Neymar will don the No 10 shirt at Al Hilal previously worn by another Brazil legend Rivellino, who moved to Riyadh in 1978, spending three seasons at the club having been part of the legendary 1970 World Cup-winning squad alongside the likes of Pele, Jairzinho and Tostao.
Despite the delayed debut their marquee signing, Hilal’s form has been impressive. They top the SPL after five games with 13 points, having only dropped points in the 1-1 draw against Al Fayha on the evening of Neymar’s official presentation to the home fans. Their upcoming opponents, Al Riyadh, have picked up just four points and languish in 15th place, just above the relegation zone in their first season back in the top division since 2004/05.
As he welcomes Neymar into the fold, coach Jorge Jesus will need to tweak the side to fit in his abundance of attacking talent.
So far, the former Fenerbahce and Benfica boss has preferred a 4-3-3 system with Ruben Neves and Sergei Milinkovic-Savic paired up with either Mohammed Kanno at the base or Salem Al Dawsari in a freer attacking role.
The attacking trio of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Malcom and Al Dawsari have flourished – each has four league goals already – while Michael has been exceptional when deployed down either flank. Unfortunately for the former Flamengo winger, he looks the most likely to be jettisoned from the starting lineup to accommodate Neymar.
For Brazil, Neymar has been deployed in the No 10 role, afforded the creative freedom behind Richarlison and flanked by Raphinha and Rodrygo in the absence of the injured Vinicius Junior.
Should he be used in a similar role, Malcom and Al Dawsari are likely to occupy the two wide positions, while Neves is likely to be tasked with more defensive responsibilities in addition to the role he has performed to perfection as a deep-lying playmaker. In turn, Milinkovic-Savic would operate as a box-to-box midfielder, utilising his athleticism and ability to arrive late into the box to pose an additional goal threat.
Alternatively, Jorge Jesus could opt to deploy Neymar on the left side of the three-man attack, while restoring Al Dawsari as the more advanced of a midfield trio.
Whichever way he is used on the pitch, the long-awaited arrival of Neymar to the Saudi Pro League adds to the ever-growing global interest in the competition generated by big name acquisitions such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Riyad Mahrez.
With Brazil already a key market for the SPL, with more players in the competition than any other foreign country and broadcast rights sold to Canal Goat, there will be more eyeballs from the South American nation watching the action in Riyadh than ever before.
Updated: September 15, 2023, 5:39 PM