How have Ronaldo, Neymar, Benzema and Saudi Pro League's big stars fared in the AFC Champions League?

Cristiano Ronaldo scored two brilliant goals on Tuesday to help Al Nassr claim a thrilling 4-3 win over Al Duhail and keep them top of Group E in the 2023-24 AFC Champions League. Mohammed Saad/Anadolu via Getty Images

Already Asian football's premier club competition, the AFC Champions League received an unprecedented injection of star power ahead of the 2023-24 season following a hectic summer for some of the Saudi Pro League's powerhouses that saw them procure a plethora of illustrious names.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the first to make the move at the start of the year when he moved to Al Nassr after his unceremonious departure from Manchester United, and that only paved the way for more to follow months on.

Fellow icons Neymar and Karim Benzema are just two that have now trekked a similar path and, in addition to taking the SPL by storm, they will also be looking to lead the Saudi Arabian charge in the ACL.

With the group stage of the new campaign now at its halfway mark, we look at how the tournament's new stars have fared so far.


Karim Benzema

Although Benzema's record of four goals in his eight SPL games is a fairly creditable haul, he has been hampered by niggling injuries that has seen him miss two league ties and yet to play a part in Al Ittihad's continental campaign.

Al Ittihad are currently sitting pretty on top of Group C following two consecutive wins although they have played a game less than most -- after their match day 2 meeting with Sepahan was called off after the Saudi Arabian outfit refused to take to the field, due to a statue of an assassinated Iranian general being placed at the entrance to the pitch.

The reigning Ballon d'Or holder's time at Al Ittihad has been far from smooth and he already has had to refute claims he is planning to return to France, while also suffering the ignominy of cancelling out his opener with an own-goal in his team's last league outing -- a 1-1 draw with Al Taawoun.

N'Golo Kanté

Faring considerably better than Benzema is compatriot N'Golo Kanté, who has featured in both Al Ittihad's continental outings to date.

In trademark style, Kanté played a pivotal role in Monday's dramatic 1-0 win over Air Force Club as he ventured enterprisingly down the right before swinging in a dangerous cross that was expertly trapped and converted by Abderrazak Hamdallah for a 94-minute winner.


Fabinho has been a regular feature for Al Ittihad this season, featurning in nine out of ten SPL matches and also playing the full 90 minutes in their ACL opener against AGMK.

However, he has been missing since the international break having sat out both the draw with Al Taawoun on the domestic front and Monday's clash with Air Force Club.



Just when things were looking on the up for Neymar, it all came crashing back down.

Having failed to make a real impact in Al Hilal's ACL opener - where they needed a equaliser in the 10th minute of injury-time from centre-back Ali Al-Bulaihi to salvage a point against Navbahor -- Neymar then opened his account in Asian continental football by netting in their subsequent 3-0 victory over Nassaji Mazandaran.

It remains his solitary goal in the colours of Al Hilal and it will remain that way for some time now, after the Brazil star suffered a serious anterior cruciate ligament injury during the recent international break that is likely to keep him on the sidelines for at least eight months.

Aleksandar Mitrovic

In the absence of Neymar, it was Aleksandar Mitrovic who rose to the occasion for Al Hilal -- bagging a hat-trick in a 6-0 rout of Mumbai City on Monday that kept them level on seven points with Navbahor on top of Group D.

It was a vintage performance from the Serb as Mumbai City just could not handle his sheer presence in the penalty box with all three of his strikes coming from within ten yards, although they did include a thumping header and a spectacular overhead kick.

Also on the scoresheet against Nassaji Mazandaran, Mitrovic is currently the top scorer in the ACL with four goals while he has also netted seven in eight SPL matches in what has been a dominant start to life in Riyadh.

Rúben Neves

After deciding to leave the Premier League to join the Saudi Arabian football revolution, Rúben Neves has been quiet if unspectacular so far for Al Hilal.

The Portugal international has featured in all of their ten league games so far while only sitting out the continental clash with Nassaji Mazandaran, and does play an influential role in initiating most of Al Hilal's eventual forays out wide -- which has been their primary outlet in creating chances and goals.

Kalidou Koulibaly

For all the attacking talent they pursued in the summer, Al Hilal also made sure to bring in a marquee defensive reinforcement in the form of Kalidou Koulibaly -- who only just 12 months before was making a similar headline-grabbing £33 million move to Chelsea.

The Senegalese has played -- and helped keep clean sheets -- in both the wins over Nassaji Mazandaran and Mumbai City while, on the domestic front, Al Hilal do boast the joint-best defensive record in the SPL with just seven goals conceded.

But the further Al Hilal get in the ACL, they will face tougher tests and that is when Koulibaly will have to come to the fore if his new team are to avoid the similar odd lapse in concentration that ultimately proved costly as they last season's final to Urawa Red Diamonds.

Sergei Milinkovic-Savic

While he may not have been Al Hilal's biggest statement of intent in the summer, the signing of Sergei Milinkovic-Savic still represented a coup given that it was not too long ago when the Serbia international was constantly being linked to some of Europe's biggest clubs.

Still only 28, Milinkovic-Savic has been a dominant presence in the engine room and also opened his ACL account on Monday -- albeit with a header against less-formidable opponents who he quite literally towered over.


It was not too long ago that Malcom was under the bright European lights at Camp Nou for Barcelona and, while it was expected that he would play second fiddle to Neymar at Al Hilal, he has actually arguably been their standout in the attacking third this season.

The Brazilian is the only Al Hilal forward to have featured in every league game, racking up six goals in the process, while also starting in all three of their ACL ties -- highlighting the trust that coach Jorge Jesus has in him.

Yassine Bounou

After some breakout performances in Morocco's brilliant run to the semifinals at last year's FIFA World Cup, there was plenty of anticipation over where Yassine Bounou would venture next before he ultimately decided to sign with Al Hilal on a three-year deal.

As it is increasingly commonplace in Europe, Al Hilal look to have adopted the policy of fielding one goalkeeper in the league and another in cup competitions -- meaning that while Bounou has featured eight times in the SPL, he is yet to even be named in an ACL match day squad, although the competition's limit on foreigners would have also played a part in that.


Sadio Mané

It has been a fine start to life in the SPL for Sadio Mané with six goals in ten outings so far.

The former Liverpool and Bayern Munich man did however have to wait until Tuesday to break his duck in Asia, as he pounced on a loose ball before firing home in Al Nassr's thrilling 4-3 victory over Al Duhail.

Taking no time at all in forming a deadly partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo despite their respective allegiances to bitter rivals Liverpool and Man United, the duo looked primed to take Al Nassr far in the ACL this season.

Aymeric Laporte

Still only 29 and formerly regarded as one of the world's best centre-backs, Aymeric Laporte has started all three of Al Nassr's ACL outings and certainly been a handy addition -- even if the numbers on the domestic front suggest they have not been at their best defensively just yet.

Prior to Tuesday's goal bonanza with Al Duhail, Al Nassr had only conceded once in their previous two outings in the tournament but, in the SPL, they have already let in 13 goals -- a significantly worse record compared to the top two of Al Hilal and Al Taawoun.

Some of that blame has to be attributed to the sheer cavalier football Al Nassr have adopted this season but, if Laporte can just help his backline tighten things up a bit further, they could find themselves in an even stronger position in challenging for silverware on multiple fronts.

Marcelo Brozovic

Having arguably been criminally underrated throughout his career, especially while thanklessly doing the dirty work in order for Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to excel in Croatia's run to the 2018 World Cup final, Marcelo Brozovic has also began his Al Nassr with little fanfare.

Yet, with his rare ability to combine the aggression of a midfield destroyer with the touch and vision of a more advanced playmaker, Brozovic will always be a coach's dream.

That has been the case with Al Nassr boss Luis Castro deploying him in different roles in Al Nassr's first two games in the ACL, before the ex-Inter Milan man missed out this week after picking up a knock while on international duty last week.

Cristiano Ronaldo

If Ronaldo had been quietly motoring along in Al Nassr's first two games, it is safe to say he emphatically announced his arrival this week.

Having gone goalless in their opening 2-0 triumph over Persepolis, the Portuguese living legend that got off the mark in the ACL when he equalised on match day 2 as Al Nassr beat Istiklol 3-1 -- although the main man of that evening was arguably two-goal hero Anderson Talisca.

On Tuesday, there was however to be no preventing Ronaldo from grabbing the headlines as he notched a stunning double which would prove crucial in the win over Al Duhail.

Even before finding the back of the net, Ronaldo had already provided an audacious assist for Talisca's opener with a casual, no-look flick of the heel. Then, he decided to roll back the years even further.

First, he struck an unstoppable piledriver from the edge of the box that had the opposition goalkeeper beaten all ends up and then to put his side 3-0 up and then, when Al Duhail had pulled two goals back to threaten a comeback, he mustered a first-time volley from a looping delivery that found the bottom corner with the unerring accuracy that only he is capable -- which ultimately proved the decider.