RIYADH: In the last league game before Cristiano Ronaldo is available, Al-Nassr drew 0-0 at Al-Shabab on Saturday to see their lead at the top of the Saudi Professional League cut to two points.
When the Yellows host Ettifaq next weekend, the five-time Ballon D’or winner, whose bombshell transfer was announced on the penultimate day of 2022, should be desperate to get on the pitch and make a difference.
Coach Rudi Garcia will surely be happy too. The Frenchman could have used his new Portuguese megastar in this Riyadh derby as they lacked a cutting edge.
With Al-Ittihad winning earlier in the day to go second, Al-Shabab stay in third, a point behind. Ronaldo is going to be thrust into the middle of what is shaping up to be a thrilling title race with just four points separating the top five as we approach the halfway stage of the season.
Al Shabab, looking to bounce back after three losses from four in all competitions, had the better of the first half and almost took the lead on the half hour with a bit of impudent improvisation that Ronaldo himself would have been proud of. Carlos had the close attention of a defender and his back to goal at the edge of the six yard box when the ball came to his feet but the Brazilian’s smart backheel looked destined for the bottom corner but there was David Ospina getting down well to claw the ball away to safety.
Soon after the visitors came close too. A simple ball over the top from Gustavo freed Sami Al-Najei but the Saudi Arabian international shot just wide from outside the area.
Ospina was the busier of the two ‘keepers and was in action once more just before the break, flying through the air to push a fierce drive from Hussain Al-Qahtani out for a corner. Shabab should have scored from the resultant set piece which fell to Carlos on the left side of the area. With only the Colombian shotstopper to beat, the striker could not quite get the ball out from his feet and his resultant shot was tame and gratefully gathered by his fellow South American. As the whistle sounded for half-time, Al-Nassr were happy just to be level.
On the hour however, they should have taken the lead. A delicious Pity Martinez pass from deep split the home defence and there was Talisca just inside the area. All expected the top scorer in the league to get goal number 12 but instead his low shot was too close to Kim Seung-gyu and the Korean goalkeeper made an easy save. It was as close as Al-Nassr came though the Brazilian headed wide near the end. It was, fans were surely thinking, a chance that Ronaldo would have taken. Soon, they will get a chance to see for themselves though there are other things to worry about as Ospina was stretchered off in the dying seconds.
Earlier in the day, Abderrazak Hamdallah was the hero for Al-Ittihad as they came from behind to win 2-1 at bottom team Al-Batin and move into second. Yousef Al-Shammari put the hosts ahead midway through the first half to set them on their way to what would have been a first win of the season. A second yellow card from Juan Pedroza late in the first half was a huge blow as was the penalty awarded for handball. Hamdallah, who had already missed two good chances, shot high into the net for goal number eight of the season. The Tigers were given a second spot kick five minutes after the restart as Romarinho was brought down by Mudasiru Salifu. The Brazilian stepped up to put his team ahead and give Al-Ittihad a first win in 2023 at their third time of asking.
Al-Feiha climbed up into 12th with a 4-2 win at Al-Raed. Al-Hilal host next to bottom Al-Adalah on Sunday and will move into second, a point behind Al-Nassr, with a win. It is all starting to look very interesting indeed and that is even before what should be an explosive intervention by Cristiano Ronaldo.