RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo has been smiling for much of the time since he arrived in Saudi Arabia in January but there were only scowls and frustrated gestures on Thursday as Al-Nassr lost their first Roshn Saudi League game since the five-time Ballon D’or winner joined the team.
There were bigger ramifications than Ronaldo’s disappointment, however. The clash was far a classic but the 1-0 victory allowed Al-Ittihad to leapfrog Al-Nassr at the top of the league, with 10 games of the season remaining.
The Tigers, who let the title slip through their fingers last season, now have 47 points, one more than Al-Nassr. There is still a long way to go but Nuno Santo’s men certainly made a big statement of intent with the victory, and their fans at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah twice celebrated almost as though they had already won the league: First when Romarinho scored the late winning goal and again when the referee blew for full time.
While the focus was obviously on the top-class international attacking talent on display, it should not be forgotten that heading into today’s game these two teams had conceded a combined total of only 16 goals in their 38 league games. Given this statistic, and what was at stake in the game, it is no surprise that the chances did not flow.
Al-Ittihad made most of the running, with Al-Nassr seemingly more interested in attempting to hit on the counter. As the game progressed, it increasingly looked as if the visitors would be content with a point from the game. It was not to be.
It was, in truth, a forgettable first half with neither goalkeeper really tested. Romarinho received the ball in a good position on the left side of the area but his low shot was much too weak. Al-Ittihad’s top scorer, Abderrazak Hamdallah, had a chance from outside the area but cleared the bar.
Ronaldo looked like he might open the scoring just before the half-hour, his combination with the busy Abdulrahman Ghareeb working to good effect once again. However, his shot was saved and the initial pass caused the referee’s assistant to raise his flag for offside anyway. Overall, though, the Portuguese star, like the other players on the pitch, was simply unable to make things happen.
After the break, everyone was looking for a spark. There was finally a reasonably clear chance 10 minutes into the second half, when Bruno Henrique rose for a header at the near post but could only direct the ball wide of the post.
Soon after Ronaldo sent a free-kick over the bar, Igor Coronado slipped the ball through the Al-Nassr defense and suddenly Hamdallah was free in the area, only for goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi to come out quickly and block. The ball fell to Romarinho but his shot was blocked on the line by Alvaro Gonzalez.
There was a sense of excitement among the fans and the Brazilian forward then found some space around the penalty spot but his header was too close to the goalkeeper.
With 10 minutes remaining, the goal came and the fans, the bench and the players erupted in delight. Ahmed Sharahili crossed from the right to Romarinho just outside the area. The Brazilian’s first touch took him past two defenders and into the box, from where he slotted the ball past Al-Aqidi and inside the post.
Ronaldo shook his head as the roof was raised, perhaps in the knowledge that his team now had to score against a defense that had not conceded a league goal in their previous six games.
Last week, Al-Nassr were a goal down when the 90 minutes were up against Al-Batin, and then scored an amazing three goals in 15 minutes of added time. Now there were only seven minutes from defeat and this time, they were facing Al-Ittihad.
Their best chance of salvaging a point came in the 93rd minute and it fell to Ronaldo. Finally, he had a little space in the area but his fierce shot from the left side was well saved by the in-form Marcelo Grohe. In the end, it was all too little too late.
There will be many more twists and turns in the coming weeks and it remains to be seen who will end up lifting the trophy. Two things are certain though: Al-Ittihad now believe they can do it and Ronaldo knows there is going to be an almighty battle for top spot.