Rakitic and Banega, careers intertwined, with Al Shabab latest crosspoint

Without ever playing together, the club careers of Ever Banega and Ivan Rakitic have been inextricably linked.

Rakitic emerged as a hot property after making a name for himself in southwest Spain with Sevilla, winning the UEFA Europa League in 2014 and being named Man of the Match in their penalty shootout victory over Benfica in the final.

Rakitic wins 2014 Europa League

When Barcelona came calling at the end of the 2013-14 season, Rakitic was on his way and Sevilla needed a replacement for their midfield star.

Enter Ever Banega.

The Rosario-born playmaker was the perfect replacement, himself helping Sevilla to another Europa League title in 2014-15 and earning Man-of-the-Match honours in the final as Rakitic did 12 months prior.

While he left for a brief spell in Serie A with Inter Milan, the Argentine star returned to Sevilla in 2017 where he played until he left for Roshn Saudi League side Al Shabab in 2020.

That led to the return of Rakitic to the Andalusian outfit, where he added a second Europa League title to his collection in 2022-23.

Banega, meanwhile, was instrumental for Al Shabab during his four years in Riyadh.

In his first full season with the Lions, he helped them to second place on the table, their highest league position in almost a decade, and qualification to the AFC Champions League.

With six goals and 11 assists - the latter a league best that season - he quickly emerged as one of the RSL’s most dangerous attacking weapons.

And he proved so on the continent as well, helping Al Shabab to the quarter-finals of the 2022 AFC Champions League, with his performance against Uzbekistan’s FC Nasaf in the Round of 16 - Banega scored and assisted in a 2-0 win - a particular standout and a demonstration of his match winning abilities.

After four years in the Saudi capital, Banega bade farewell to the Al Shabab faithful during the winter transfer window, returning to Argentina and one of his former clubs, Newell’s Old Boys.

So, as they had done throughout their decorated careers, when it came to replacing Banega there was only one option for Al Shabab: Rakitic. The midfield star joined the Riyadh club from Sevilla last month.

Rarely have two players had their careers so connected to one another without ever sharing a changing room, but that is the case for Banega and Rakitic.

Only one game into his Al Shabab career and already Rakitic has demonstrated he is here to make an impact, with his goal on debut in black and white helping his new team to an important 1-0 win over Damac in Matchweek 20.

While he may be aged 35, the Croatian international, who played in the FIFA World Cup final in 2018, has made it clear he is not in Saudi Arabia for a holiday.

As Rakitic confirmed upon signing with Al Shabab, he is here to have success and to help the RSL develop into one of the best leagues in the world.

While this is his first experience in the Kingdom, he was aware of the league’s growing profile having seen many former teammates make the move before him.

“Of course, I saw some games,” he said upon his unveiling as an Al Shabab player.“There are many friends and teammates, and many players I played against, and we speak between each other.

“You can really feel it is growing up day-by-day and it’s really feeling like a big league, an important league, and we are to try to help them to take these next steps.

“I think it will be really, really hard to play here but my motivation is at 100 percent.

“So [we will] work together, first of all with my club, Al Shabab, but also with the league to push them to show the whole world we play amazing football.”

As he mentioned, Rakitic will come up against a number of his former teammates and old rivals this weekend when Al Shabab host high-flying Al Nassr in a massive Riyadh derby.

Marcelo Brozovic is a long-time Croatia teammate, while Rakitic and Alex Telles were colleagues at Sevilla last season also.

Defender Aymeric Laporte was a regular combatant as well during his time with Athletic Bilbao, and the two have already got reacquainted in the Saudi capital with the Al Nassr star playing tour guide for Rakitic.

And then there is Cristiano Ronaldo.

Rakitic’s time in the Catalan capital coincided with Ronaldo’s luminous stay with Real Madrid, the two squaring off in numerous El Clásicos during their four-year crossover in Spain.

Back in 2021, Rakitic even revealed Ronaldo had tried to recruit him to Juventus in 2019, before declaring the Al Nassr superstar “is one of the greatest of all time”.

Rather than sharing a changing room, however, they are once again on opposite sides of the divide.

As he has done throughout his career, Rakitic will be looking to deliver when it matters as Al Shabab, 10th in the table, look to turn their season around by claiming the big scalp of second-placed Al Nassr.