DUBAI: Al-Nassr’s horror season hit new depths on Saturday as the Riyadh club lost 2-1 at home to Al-Ahli in the eighth round of the 2020-21 Saudi Professional League season.
Last season’s runners-up came into the match second from bottom of the table having lost five and won only one of their seven matches so far this season. The result now leaves them stuck on four points and still in 15th position, while Al-Ahli now sit in second place, three points behind Al-Hilal, who have a game in hand.
With pressure on Rui Vitoria and the players growing by the game, it was not surprisingly the first half was initially a cagy affair with neither team willing to overcommit. Al-Nassr had the better of the first half an hour with a few half chances, but the soon the match would explode into life.
When Al-Ahli defender Abdulbasit Hindi fouled Abderrazak Hamdallah on 30 minutes, the referee did not hesitate to point to the spot, and after consultation with VAR, the penalty was confirmed. Hamdallah, having missed and scored two penalties in his last match, wasted the opportunity with Al-Ahli keeper Mohammed Al-Owais saving to his right, and then blocking the rebound for good measure.
Al-Nassr were made to pay for their profligacy only five minutes later when Driss Fettouhi curled a superb left-footed free kick beyond the reach of Bradley Jones.
Almost straight from the restart Al-Nassr hit back when Hamdallah found the excellent 19-year-old Ayman Yahya, who finished from close range past Al-Owais.
Pity Martinez got a good sight of goal ten minutes into the second half after being found by Yahya’s fine pass, but the Argentinian’s shot was blocked. At the other end, Fettouhi’s free kick cleared the crossbar.
Thanks to the trio of Martinez, Nordin Amrabat and Yahya, Al-Nassr began to dominate and with 20 minutes left had another chance to take the lead, but first Hamdallah hesitated and then Khalid Al-Ghanam hit a weak shot into the arms of Al-Owais to leave the match finely balanced going into the final stages.
Nerves were starting to creep in again and Al-Nassr almost snatched victory but the ball was cleared of the line. Then, with five minutes left of the 90, the referee awarded Al-Ahli a penalty when Abdullah Al-Khaibari fouled Marko Marin just inside the penalty area.
Fettouhi converted the penalty for his second of the match, and Al Ahli had a priceless lead. Al Nassr Al Ahli were unable to find a stoppage time equaliser as they had done in their last match against Al Ettifaq.
“This is a tough place to come to,” match-winner Fettouhi said. “To play against Al-Nassr in these circumstances is not easy, but the boys put on a big performance today. It was aggressive, and we knew we were missing Omar (Al-Somah) but we worked on the system throughout the week. We tried to implement it as best we could and thankfully we got the three points. I hope that makes up for the loss against Damac, which upset the players and fans. Today, the belief is back.”
The Moroccan was pleased that his teammates managed to restrict their opponents to one goal after their defensive woes in the 4-3 loss to Damac last week.
“Of course we have discussed this with our coach,” he added. “We have worked hard to eliminate the mistakes. Today it was evident that the players were more focused. Because it’s not right to score three goals and you conceded three or four as well. It’s wasted effort. But we’re working on it in training. When they are at their best, you can count on Al-Ahli’s defence.”
Al-Owasi, hero of several top class saves, praised Al-Nassr for their showing considering the circumstances.
“The three points were huge, we played a great match, as did Al-Nassr,” Al-Ahli’s No. 1 said. “Their league position did not reflect their performance, and they put us under pressure for long periods. We are now challenging (at the top of the table) and hopefully we can continue in that way and grab as many points as we can in ten coming weeks.”
He also revealed that the coronavirus disruptions have affected the team's consistency.
“We’ve had many injuries, the team is constantly changing and you can see the physical toll on the players,” he said. “You can see some players will play two matches then have to quarantine for two weeks, and then return. These things affect the fitness levels. And changing the starting line up facets the rhythm of the team. Hopefully in the future we can overcome this.
Martinez acknowledged that Al-Nassr’s poor finishing is what is at the heart of their problems this season
“We suffered today because we needed a win to kickstart our season,” he said. “We needed more focus, it’s become a matter of belief now. We are creating a lot of chances in all our matches but we are not scoring them. We need more concentration which can give us renewed confidence."
He also explained that he had no issue being withdrawn by Vitoria near the end of the match.
“My annoyance was because of the result, not that substitution,” he confirmed. “In the end it’s the coaches decision and I respect that.”
Having posted a fifth goal involvement in four matches, Yahya, arguably Al-Nassr’s brightest light this season, believes that “hopefully this is just a phase that will pass soon”.
Earlier in the day Abha Club and Al-Taawoun played out a 0-0 draw while Al-Ettifaq got over the disappointment of late dropped points against Al-Nassr in their last match, to comfortably beat Damac 4-2. Finally Al-Batin’s two first half goals were enough to secure a 2-1 win at Al-Fateh.
In Friday’s fixtures, Al-Ain suffered a 2-1 loss at home to Al-Qadisiyah, Al-Faisaly claimed a 2-0 win at Al-Raed, and Al-Shabab and Al-Ittihad drew 1-1in the match of the day.
Round eight of the 2020-21 SPL season will conclude on Monday when champions and leaders Al-Hilal host Al-Wehda at King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh.