For Diaz, it is a great opportunity to build on a great start. To knock Al-Nassr out of the King’s Cup would really get the fans, some of whom have expressed doubts about the reappointment of the man who was fired from the same job in 2018, onside. He will be without injured right-back Mohammed Al-Breik as well as midfielder Abdulelah Al-Malki. Meanwhile, Mohammed Kanno and playmaker Matheus Pereira remain suspended.
For Russo, just two months into the job, this is a chance to achieve a famous victory. The league form has been outstanding with nine wins out of the past 10, though the recent 3-0 loss to Al-Ittihad suggests that winning the SPL is beyond the Yellows. Ironically, the former Boca boss has been getting the best out of Pity Martinez. The Argentine was a star for River Plate as they defeated Boca in the final of the 2018 Copa Libertadores, a performance that helped the 28-year-old win the South American Player of the Year award in the same year.
Injuries meant that the playmaker hasn’t played much since his big money signing in September 2020 but now he is looking like the player Al-Nassr thought they were getting almost 18 months ago. His last-minute penalty gave the club a crucial 4-3 win over Al-Batin last Thursday, and if he can do something similar on Monday he would become a hero. Al-Nassr are still smarting from losing to their rivals in the semifinal of the 2021 AFC Champions League, which Hilal went on to win. Serving some revenge would go down well.
There’s more to it than that. While both teams are still officially in the title race — Al-Nassr second and Al-Hilal fourth — leaders Al-Ittihad remain strong favorites to stay in first for the rest of the season. The King’s Cup offers their rivals’ best chance of silverware this year. It is a prestigious prize in its own right but also comes with a ticket to Asia and, at this stage of the season, neither can be sure of qualifying through their league position.
There are other teams with their eye on the cup. Leaders Al-Ittihad saw their 10-game winning streak in the league come to an end last week as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Al-Taawoun, and the two teams meet once again with a place in the last four at stake. Al-Shabab and Al-Ahli face off in what is another big clash. Al-Shabab will be looking to bounce back from that 5-0 loss at the hands of Al-Hilal, which ended their 17-game unbeaten run. The Riyadh club are not yet out of the title race completely, but a first championship since 2012 looks unlikely. Al-Ahli have less in the league to play for. The Jeddah giants have moved clear of the relegation zone to sit in mid-table. To win the King’s Cup for what would be a record 19th time would end a forgettable campaign on a major high. In the fourth tie, one of Al-Batin and Al-Feiha will progress to the semifinal and keep alive their hopes of a rare piece of silverware.