LONDON: Pity Martinez paid back a hefty slice of his $18 million fee on Wednesday by helping Al-Nassr FC defeat Al-Ahli Saudi 2-0 to move into the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League.
A first-half strike from the Argentina international, who joined earlier this month from MLS team Atlanta United, put Al-Nassr on top early. Abdulfattah Asiri added a second ten minutes after the restart to give the team from Riyadh a deserved win and a place in the last four of Asia’s premier club competition for the first time in the club’s history.
Al-Nassr will take on either Esteghlal of Iran or Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor on Saturday with a place in the final, scheduled against a team from East Asia on Dec. 19, at stake.
A smart exchange of passes with Khalid Al-Ghannam released Martinez just inside the area and the 2018 South American Player of the Year skipped past a defender to make room and fire a low shot past Mohammed Al-Owais.
The game, taking place in the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, Qatar, should have been over as a contest by the break. Just before the half-hour, Abderrazak Hamdallah somehow managed to head wide from close range. The in-form Moroccan marksman, aiming to make history and become the first player to score in 10 consecutive Champions League games, went close once again seconds later, pulling his shot from the right side of the area just wide of the post.
Al-Ahli, who finished third in the Saudi Pro League, were unable to make the league’s runners-up regret their wastefulness as Al-Nassr extended their lead ten minutes into the second half. Sultan Al-Ghanam’s low cross from the right found Asiri in the area and the midfielder wriggled free to create space, lashing the ball into the net from close range.
The closest Al-Ahli came to getting on the scoresheet was in the last minute as Omar Al-Somah’s shot hit the woodwork, and Hamdallah then missed another chance to make Champions League history as his effort was cleared off the line with goalkeeper former Liverpool goalkeeper Brad Jones beaten.
Al-Nassr now have three days to prepare for one of the biggest games in the club’s history, but coach Rui Vitoria is looking forward to the challenge.
“We did what we had to do today,” the Portuguese tactician said. “We knew it would be a tough game, and it was, but we defended well and looked dangerous going forward as we made a number of chances.
“We have had a lot of games in a short period of time and now we have to think about a big game coming up. We do not mind which team we face as all teams who make it this far are strong. We will be ready.”
The defeat leaves Al-Ahli, who reached the final of the 2012 competition, able to focus fully on the new Saudi Pro League season as the schedule for the opening rounds was released on Tuesday.
Al-Ahli are in action on Oct. 18, a day after the season starts, and host Al-Wehda. Al-Nassr start their campaign against Al-Fateh. Champions Al-Hilal kick-off the day before against newly promoted Al-Ain.