United stars to honour Saudi legend
Manchester United's pursuit of global domination will see a squad including Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney land in Saudi Arabia on Sunday for a visit that will see the Premiership champions play in a testimonial game for Saudi legend Sami al-Jaber.
Sir Alex Ferguson's team were due to leave for the oil-rich state immediately after their Premiership clash with Reading at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday, with Ferguson vowing to take a full-strength squad for the game against Al Hilal at Riyadh's King Fahd Stadium on Monday.
Jaber, who enjoyed a brief spell in English football with Wolves during the 2000-01 season, collected a staggering 158 caps for Saudi Arabia during his international career and the game against United is set to mark his official retirement, the player having announced his decision to quit last November.
Ferguson's decision to accept the invitation from Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to play against Al Hilal has raised eyebrows in England, with the fixture coming in the middle of a busy fixture period.
United are understood have to received in the region of one million pounds to play in Monday's match and Ferguson's squad are due to spend a further five days at a training camp ahead of the FA Cup fourth tie against Tottenham at Old Trafford on 27 January.
Due to the tense situation in the region and the anti-Western sentiments of some groups in the Middle East, United have undertaken a comprehensive risk assessment of the trip following warnings of attacks on westerners and western interests in Saudi Arabia.
But United have been assured that they will receive 24-hour security during their stay in the Saudi capital, however, and a 68,000 sell-out crowd is expected on Monday.
Having returned to action in the reserves earlier this month after ten months on the sidelines with calf and ankle injuries, United captain Gary Neville is expected to make his first-team comeback against Al Hilal.
And South Korean midfielder Park Ji-Sung, another recent returnee from a lengthy lay-off, is also likely to be handed ninety minutes by Ferguson to boost his fitness levels.
United's global popularity sees them rival Real Madrid for the title of the world's biggest football club and a recent survey commissioned by United suggested that they have an incredible 333 million supporters worldwide.
Last year's pre-season tour of the Far East, when they visited Japan, South Korea, Macau and China, was a huge success with United playing to sell-out crowds in Tokyo, Seoul and Macau.
And they will once again tour South Africa in July of this year after being treated to similar scenes of adulation in the country on their most recent visit in July 2006.
But Saudi Arabia marks new ground for United and, with future plans to visit India and west Africa, the Old Trafford club are likely to see their popularity spread with every new outpost that they conquer.