LONDON: Three days is a long time in Saudi Arabian football.
On Thursday, Musalli Al-Muammar became the president of Al-Nassr. On Saturday, the former head of the Saudi Pro League (SPL) promised a new era at the club.
“After taking a look at the files, we can see there is a lot of work to do, and it will require time, effort and focus,” he said. Al-Muammar may have been talking about the debts at the club, which have reportedly reached an eye-watering $50 million, and other mismanagement issues, but the new boss could just as well have been talking about the action on the pitch.
Then Sunday came, and the same old problems were there for all to see in the semi-final of the King’s Cup as Al-Nassr lost 1-0 in a game they really should have won. A chance was also missed to give the new era a kick-start.
The 2020 runners-up had long since given up on winning a 10th SPL title and now sit in fifth in the table, 12 points behind leaders Al-Hilal, with six games of the season remaining. A place in the King’s Cup final would have been some consolation and only Al-Faisaly, not having the best of campaigns just three points above the relegation zone, stood in the way.
Al-Nassr were strong favorites, and the game seemed to be almost in the bag after nine minutes as video assistant referees (VAR) intervened to turn a yellow card for Al-Faisaly defender Igor Rossi into a red. Surely 81 minutes against 10 men would be enough? It wasn’t. There was a lot of possession, but not many clear chances were created, and when they were, Ahmed Al-Kassar in goal was equal to everything.
With nine minutes remaining, VAR played a part again, ruling that Abdullah Madu had, in fact, tripped Al-Faisaly’s Julio Tavares in the area. The Cape Verdean stood up to fire past Brad Jones to send the underdogs to the final and within 90 minutes of a first major trophy as well as a place in the 2022 AFC Champions League. The way things are going, Al-Nassr are going to have to win the 2021 edition of the continental tournament in order to qualify for next year’s competition.
That doesn’t look likely even if the Yellows have demonstrated form in patches this season, such as the 7-0 thrashing of Al-Batin in the last league game.
“We really wanted to do well in the cup, and I am sorry to the fans that we didn’t make it to the final,” said Al-Nassr coach Alen Horvat, who replaced Rui Vitoria as head coach in December.
The Croatian tried to put a positive spin on the game and the season in general.
“There are still challenges awaiting us in the coming days in the League and the Asian Champions League, and from tomorrow we will focus on them, and we must look forward.
“I think that if we progress in Asia and climb up the league then, as we have already won the Super Cup, it will be a successful season for us.”
That would not have been the case at the start of the campaign when expectations were high. Al-Nassr were coming off a second-place finish last time around, a full 12 points above Al-Ahli in third. Not only that, they reached the semi-finals of the 2020 AFC Champions League, where they lost on penalties to Esteghlal of Iran.
The 2021 edition starts later this month, and despite all the Group D games taking place in Riyadh, it could still pose difficulties for the club. Xavi’s Al-Sadd are the form team in West Asia at the moment, and Al-Wehdat of Jordan should not be underestimated. The winner of the play-off between former Asian champion Al-Ain of the UAE and Iranian club Foolad will complete the group.
Goals could be the problem. Take the 7-0 thrashing of the struggling Al-Batin out of the equation and Al-Nassr have not been as fluent this season in the final third.
That is perhaps not a surprise given the injuries to Abderrazak Hamdallah. The Moroccan marksman was the league’s top scorer last season with 29 goals and has played only 11 games this time around. While his six goals are an impressive return, other forwards have not stepped up in his absence.
The $18 million signing of 2018 South American Player of the Year Pity Martinez in September was expected to be the missing link. The Argentine has struggled to adapt in Saudi Arabia and while he has improved under Horvat, his undoubted skills have been shown in fits and starts.
Martinez’s inconsistency has symbolized the up-and-down nature of the team itself. The season has never really got going, and perhaps all the negative headlines off the pitch about debts, unpaid salaries and transfer fees, as well as the changing of presidents, have had an effect.
The new president has promised to sort everything out off the pitch but also knows that there need to be improvements on it. A top-three finish is not looking likely, which leaves Asia as the sole hope of turning 2021 into a year to remember. It is a long shot.