RIYADH: When the celebrations die down after an incredible late victory for Al-Nassr on Friday, even Cristiano Ronaldo will surely reflect on just how competitive and dramatic the Roshn Saudi League can be.
An astonishing three goals in stoppage time gave his side a come-from-behind 3-1 win against bottom club Al-Batin, a result that sent them back to the top of the table, two points clear of Al-Ittihad.
As the 90 minutes came to an end, visitors Al-Batin were leading 1-0 and seemed to be heading for an unlikely victory. Three minutes later, Abdulrahman Ghareeb equalized, Mohammed Al-Fatil put his team ahead 10 minutes after that, and then Mohammed Maran sealed the victory in the 105th minute to send a full Mrsool Park wild with delight.
If Al-Nassr go on to win their 10th league title, this game — or more specifically, the added time in this game — will be looked back on as a pivotal moment.
It was all incredibly harsh on Al-Batin, who can at least reflect on the fact they managed to keep Ronaldo quiet. The five-time Ballon D’Or winner had scored eight goals in his previous four games for title-chasing Al-Nassr, but here he cut a frustrated figure against hard-working and disciplined opponents.
Al-Batin remain seven points adrift at the bottom of the league but they have been a different team since Alen Horvat was replaced last month by fellow Croatian Zdravko Logarusic and deserved their half-time lead, which was provided by a Renzo Lopez header.
After failing to taste victory in the first 17 matches of the season, collecting just three points along the way, the players will, after recovering from Friday’s immense disappointment, no doubt feel that they can still stay up.
As fans flooded into the stadium, the fact that Ronaldo almost scored in the opening seconds, with Uruguayan goalkeeper Martin Campana having to get down quickly to deny the Portuguese star a simple tap-in, seemed to suggest it would be an easy three points for Al-Nassr.
It soon became clear, however, that this was not going to be a walkover. With the league’s top scorer, Anderson Talisca, and playmaker Pity Martinez out injured, the Riyadh giants looked a little lacking going forward.
Al-Batin had the ball in the net after 17 minutes, when Lopez headed home a right-sided cross from Andre Bukia. It was initially ruled out for a push by the Uruguayan forward in the back of Sultan Al-Ghannam. But after the referee checked the pitchside monitor, the goal was allowed to stand and suddenly a shock was on the cards.
Al-Nassr struggled to create clear chances against a team that did its utmost to deny Ronaldo any space to run into. That changed just after the half-hour when he ran on to a long ball from Abdullah Madu and skipped past Campana on the edge of the area. Forced a little further left than he would have liked, the 38-year-old sent a low shot toward goal, only to be denied by a fantastic goal-line clearance from Abdullah Al-Yousif.
Rudi Garcia’s men emerged for the second half with renewed vigor but Al-Batin, 45 minutes from a second successive victory, were equally determined. Ronaldo appealed for a penalty early on but there was little in the challenge. Then, after 55 minutes, his low shot was deflected wide but clear chances were still proving hard to come by.
This did not signal the start of domination by the hosts. Quite the opposite. Al-Nassr goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi had to dive smartly, twice, to keep out shots from outside the area. Meanwhile, Madu was forced to stretch to clear the ball, with Lopez lurking behind him waiting to tap it home.
Midway through the second half, Al-Nassr had what was perhaps their best chance of the game so far, only for Luiz Gustavo to head a free-kick straight into the grateful arms of Campana from close range. As the match entered its final 10 minutes, Ronaldo fired two free-kicks just over the bar. The ball would just not go in.
Al-Nassr’s hopes of turning things around were given a boost when the fourth official signaled that there would be at least 12 minutes of stoppage time — and with just a quarter of it gone, Gustavo lifted a fine ball over the packed Al-Batin back line for Ghareeb to slot home.
A similar set piece situation 10 minutes later resulted in Al-Fatil scoring after receiving the ball from a free-kick. A couple of minutes later, Maran fired into the net from inside the area to complete the comeback.
Earlier in the day, Al-Ittihad secured a comfortable 3-0 victory at Al-Khaleej. The newly-promoted side had managed to hold out until the 54th minute, when Abderrazak Hamdallah scored from the spot to claim his 12th goal of the season. Romarinho added a second at the midway point of the second half and the points were sealed 17 minutes from time when Ahmed Sharahili added a third.