Just 24 hours after Al-Hilal defeated Esteghlal 2-0 to head into the last eight of the AFC Champions League, Al-Nassr on Tuesday beat Tractor 1-0 to make it two wins out of two for Saudi Arabian clubs against Iranian opposition.
The only goal of the game came after 11 minutes, when Vincent Aboubakar slotted home from inside the area.
Here are five things we learned from the game in Doha.
Pressure off Menezes — for now
While the scoreline was only 1-0, it was as comfortable a 1-0 win that you will ever see in the knockout stages of a major club competition. There had been a lot of talk in the past couple of weeks that a bad result in Asia would be bad news for coach Mano Menezes. There has been some disquiet over what has been seen as erratic domestic form by the team this season, which seems a little harsh, as the nine-time champions have won two out of their first three games, even if their performances have not been the slickest.
Tuesday’s was a competent performance and a case of job done. Al-Nassr were dominant in the first half and should have sealed the deal earlier. It was only in the last few minutes that the Iranian team caused a few problems for the Riyadh club. When the shots did start to head toward the Saudi net, Waleed Abdullah, who had not had much to do for most of the match, was alert to any danger.
Menezes has saved some of his best moments so far in Saudi Arabia — admittedly the former Brazil boss has not been here too long — for the Champions League. As his team are now in the quarter-finals, there will be growing excitement.
Talisca and Aboubakar linking well
While Tractor were missing a number of their stars, Al-Nassr had three suspended players of their own, including star striker Abderrazak Hamdallah. The Moroccan is always missed, but this was a good game for him to serve his suspension heading into the last eight. There are not many teams in Asia that could be without such a gifted goal-getter and still have a talent like Aboubakar on the pitch, along with a creator like Talisca behind.
The Cameroonian striker was found inside the area by the Brazilian and, with just the goalkeeper to beat, it seemed inevitable that the net was going to bulge and so it did. It was reminiscent of the Al-Hilal opener from the previous day: A simple but perfect pass from a Brazilian and a simple but perfect finish by the forward.
Aboubakar should have had another but his movement and the timing of his runs meant that he was a constant threat to the Iranian defense.
It was always going to be tough for Tractor
The Iranians started brightly but struggled to really get into the game until late on. Given their circumstances, it was always going to be a tough task. A number of injuries and COVID-19 sufferers meant that there had even been a request to postpone the game. This was obviously not granted by the Asian Football Confederation and so it was that an understrength and younger than usual team made the journey to Doha.
Tractor, who finished fourth and well off the pace in the recently finished Iranian season, competed for the whole match but Al-Nassr just had that little bit of extra class. A full team, two legs and 90 minutes in front of their passionate home crowd and it may have been a different story, but the odds were stacked against them even before they arrived in Qatar.
Super September for Saudi Arabia in Asia
The first week of this month saw the national team win their first two qualifiers in the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup to put themselves in a strong position in Group B. And the second week has been just as good, with Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr both winning their Champions League round of 16 clashes to move into the quarter-finals.
Having two teams in the last eight means there is a real chance of another Saudi Arabian triumph in Asia, as both have what it takes to lift the trophy in November. Don’t forget that the rest of the games in the western zone will be held in the Kingdom, including the final. There may never be a better chance for one of the two Riyadh clubs to take the continental title.
Al-Nassr have to use this as a springboard going forward
When you are a team competing on multiple fronts the action never stops and Al-Nassr on Saturday have a huge Saudi Professional League game against the current league leaders Al-Ittihad. Defeat against the resurgent Jeddah club would leave Al-Nassr six points off the pace early in the season and put the pressure back on the shoulders of Menezes.
A decent result would be welcome as there are then three very winnable games against teams in the bottom half of the table before the next international break and then the quarter-finals. These next few weeks could determine just how serious Al-Nassr are about challenging for the league title. If they take their eyes off the domestic ball, then they may find there is suddenly too much to do.