With Rakitic returning, Al Shabab and Al Ittihad set for huge clash in Jeddah

Buoyed by a thumping 5-0 win over Abha, Al Shabab received further good news this week with star signing Ivan Rakitic likely to be fit to return to action - just in time for their blockbuster Roshn Saudi League clash with Al Ittihad.

The Croatian great has been sidelined since the end of March with a thigh injury, missing the past three matches, during which time the Riyadh side have won two and drawn one.

Doubt remains, however, over the fitness of his teammate, Yannick Carrasco, after he pulled up sore after their huge victory against Abha in Matchweek 28. It was a match in which the Belgian international scored twice. While the former Atletico Madrid star has resumed training, whether he is fully recovered in time for Friday’s clash remains up in the air.

What’s not in doubt, though, is just how significant the clash is for both sides and their ambitions for the remainder of the season.

Al Shabab, whose chief rivals are Riyadh brothers Al Hilal and Al Nassr, have endured a disappointing season, at one point even sitting in the relegation zone after going winless in their opening five games.

Their current coach, Portuguese Vítor Pereira, a man who is no stranger to the Roshn Saudi League having previously managed Al Ahli, is their fourth manager this season, underlining how disrupted their campaign has been.

But with Pereira’s appointment at the start of February, and Rakitic’s arrival around the same time, there is a greater sense of stability and direction around the club heading into the final stages of the season.

Their recent form, underscored by that thumping win over Abha - defender Romain Saiss described it as one of their most complete performances this season - has Al Shabab bounce into the top 10 for the first time since the opening round.

And, with only five points separating them from Al Fateh in sixth, they can perhaps even target a top-six finish if they can continue their good form with six rounds remaining.

And should Rakitic be fit to feature, he will face off against a familiar foe in Karim Benzema; the two having previously been on either side of arguably football’s biggest rivalry, El Clasico, between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Ivan Rakitic and Karim Benzema El Clasico

Despite competing on opposite sides of the Spanish divide, Rakitic has in the past made no secret of his admiration for the French striker.

"Let me first tell you that I am very happy to have exchanged a jersey with him,” Rakitic told beIN Sports back in 2021.

“It is now on display in my personal museum. What Karim has been doing for years is simply amazing. He's been at Real for so long… and yet he still scores as much, and often important goals. 

"Since Cristiano [Ronaldo's] departure, he has clearly become the leader. He is simply unique, and I would like to congratulate him on that.”

In the same interview, Rakitic also predicted Benzema could win the prestigious Ballon d’Or award, which the Frenchman did a year later in 2022. Indeed, Benzema held the honour when he arrived at RSL champions Al Ittihad last summer.

As the campaign enters its final stretch, Al Ittihad are chasing down Al Ahli for third and the final spot in next year’s newly reformatted AFC Champions League Elite competition.

Like Al Shabab, they too have endured somewhat of a difficult season, unable to back up their dominant title-winning form of 12 months ago. The downturn of results saw manager Nuno Espirito Santo replaced in November by Marcelo Gallardo.

There are signs, though, that the Argentine is slowly imprinting his style on this side. Whether it will be enough to chase down Al Ahli, two points in front, remains to be seen. If Al Ittihad are to do so, a win against Al Shabab feels a must.

It’s what makes Friday’s encounter at King Abdullah Sports City such a tantalising prospect. Both teams are rallying after frustrating campaigns, and both are showing signs of life under new managers.

While six places and 15 points separate the sides, it’s a match that feels much closer than the numbers suggest, especially if Rakitic is pulling the strings in midfield for Al Shabab.

He’ll be wanting to walk away with the three points in his pocket - and perhaps another Benzema jersey for his collection.