It was a landmark weekend for the Roshn Saudi League as Cristiano Ronaldo finally made his debut for leaders Al-Nassr. As the season reaches its halfway stage, here are five things that Arab News learned from the latest round of games.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo looks happy
Ronaldo was active as Al-Nassr defeated Ettifaq 1-0 to move back to the top of the table above Al-Hilal. The Portuguese star did not score but showed his talent and footballing intelligence more than once. He also showed a smile.
Al-Nassr boss Rudi Garcia, said: “It’s up to us to make sure we get him in the best condition. I want him to enjoy playing here — tonight he was happy to play for the first time.”
It was striking that the 37-year-old looked like he wanted to be there. This comes after months of frustration at Manchester United. Ronaldo came close several times and was there pulling a few strings, and whether the moves came off or not, there was a wry smile.
There was also plenty of encouragement for team-mates and the signs are that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will become a leader on the pitch. It bodes well for Al-Nassr’s title challenge as they have a player who has won everything there is to win at club level.
2. Al-Hilal out of spotlight for once but looking ominous
The champions have not been at their best this season so far but earlier on Sunday defeated Abha 2-1 to go top, temporarily, before Al-Nassr returned to the summit.
With all the attention on the debut of Ronaldo, there was something of a low-key feeling in Riyadh with plenty of gaps in the stadium.
It was not a vintage performance on the pitch either, but the other teams will know that as long as Al-Hilal are around in the title race, then nothing can be taken for granted as this is a team that knows how to win titles.
For a while, Al-Hilal will not mind the spotlight being elsewhere as they are quietly going about their business. This is not a game that will live long in the memory but was a solid three points against a solid opponent who scored a fine counter-attack goal from Abdulfattah Adam. It wasn’t enough. Jang Hyun-soo lashed home from close range after a towering Saud Abdulhamid header. A penalty from Salem Al-Dawsari settled the affair.
3. Al-Ittihad’s attacking stars shine
Much is said about Al-Ittihad’s defensive capabilities as they have conceded just six goals so far this season but, as demonstrated in the 3-0 win over Al-Feiha, there is so much attacking talent for Nuno Santo to call upon.
Had Igor Coronado been signed for big money from a team in Europe rather than the UAE, he would be seen as one of the biggest stars in the league. The Brazilian’s free kick midway through the first half was a thing of beauty and set the Tigers on their way. If he stays fit, then Al-Ittihad have a real chance.
Then there is the prolific Abderrazak Hamdallah, brought down in the area after a lovely piece of skill and then stepping up to score from the spot.
There was still time in the first half for a local star to get in on the act. After a fine run from Coronado, Haroune Camara made it three and there was no coming back from that first half attacking display.
4. Al-Shabab starting to slip
After a 1-1 draw with fifth-placed Al-Taawoun, Al-Shabab coach Vicente Moreno knows that he is facing his first real test.
It has been said before, but prior to the World Cup splitting the season, Al-Shabab looked like champions. In the eight games before the tournament, they dropped just two points – a draw with Al-Hilal. Since the action resumed, they have collected only six points from six games.
It is not a surprise then that they have slipped off the summit and are now five points behind the leaders. The goals have dried up and the defence has lost its invulnerability that was in evidence earlier in the season.
Opponents are giving the likes of Cristian Guanca and Ever Banega less space and the Argentines do not look quite as fluid as before. And while Al-Shabab are having plenty of possession, the same quality of chances are not being created.
The one positive, apart from a lovely goal from Moteb Al-Harbi, is that Al-Shabab have had some tough games of late and there are some friendlier-looking teams coming up. They need to get back to winning ways.
5. Title race more exciting than relegation battle
Last season, there was an unbelievable fight to avoid relegation and even late in the campaign, teams in mid-table were not safe from the drop and it went right to the wire.
The title race was a good one but became a tale of Al-Hilal chasing Al-Ittihad.
At the moment, the issues at the bottom seem a little more cut and dried with Al-Batin surely already down after collecting just three points. Al-Adalah also have a lot of work to do.
The top should be more exciting this time around. Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, and Al-Ittihad have the talent to go all the way and push each other until the end. It is impossible to say what is going to happen but with three deep squads and experienced coaches, all have genuine ambitions of lifting the trophy, and there are not many leagues where that can be said.
If Al-Shabab can recover from their current slump than three becomes four and that really will be a treat for the neutrals. Whatever happens, it is hard to see one team pulling away.