RIYADH: On Saturday night in Riyadh Cristiano Ronaldo punched the air with delight when the fulltime whistle sounded and all of Mrsool Park celebrated with him.
If Al-Nassr do end up lifting the Roshn Saudi League trophy this season, they will look back at this game, and especially Ronaldo’s late free-kick as a crucial moment.
That goal, his ninth in nine games since his January debut, sparked a crucial 2-1 win over Abha to keep Al-Nassr’s title challenge on track.
With 12 minutes remaining, the hosts were a goal down and running out of ideas. With leaders Al-Ittihad picking up an impressive 5-1 win at sixth-place Al-Fateh earlier in the day to go four points clear at the top, the pressure was on Al-Nassr to get the victory. Now they are just a point behind with nine to play.
It was a tough game however. The former Real Madrid, Manchester United and Juventus man got another taste of just how competitive Saudi Arabian football is after a grueling 100 minutes plus of action.
Just four days after his Al-Nassr team defeated the same opposition 3-1 in the quarterfinals of the King’s Cup, they found the league version of Abha a much harder nut to crack.
On Tuesday, Al-Nassr were ahead after 10 seconds and were never in danger of losing but that was not the case on Saturday as they struggled to break down the southwesterners.
They received a warning after just five minutes after the visitors had a goal ruled out by VAR.
Goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi could only parry a Saad Bguir free-kick and while Amine Atouchi reacted quickly to fire home the rebound, the Moroccan was adjudged to have been just offside.
Ronaldo had his first real sight of goal after 17 minutes, running onto a lofted ball and into the area. Just as the Portuguese star was about to pull the trigger, he was well-tackled by Iraqi defender Saad Natiq and claims for a penalty were rightly waved away.
For the third successive league game, Al-Nassr found themselves behind as Abha scored in spectacular fashion after 27 minutes. Abdulfattah Adam, who scored on Tuesday, stepped away from Alvaro Gonzalez on the right side of the area and then sent a thunderous shot into the roof of the net to give the goalkeeper no chance.
The 28-year-old is on loan from Al-Nassr and while his celebration was respectfully muted, it was nonetheless a painful goal to concede.
By the break, Al-Nassr had almost 60 percent possession but had rarely troubled the Abha goal except for the final seconds when Ronaldo headed straight into the arms of Devis Epassy.
Anderson Talisca had their best chance on the hour when his stabbed shot from close range was blocked by the Cameroonian goalkeeper.
Frustrations grew with Ronaldo complaining to the referee about what he saw as excessive time wasting and then exhorting the yellow masses in the stands to raise the noise levels.
Instead it was Abha who had the better chances with Adam shooting just wide with 14 minutes left with only the goalkeeper to beat. He was left to rue that miss moments later as Ronaldo fired home a 30-meter free-kick that found a gap in the wall and ended up in the bottom corner.
It got worse for Abha 11 minutes later as Zakaria Al-Sudani was shown a second yellow card. If the traffic was not already one-way, it was now and the visitors were hanging on for a point.
That was not enough for Al-Nassr as they were awarded a penalty with eight minutes remaining. Talisca stepped up to score goal number 13 and that was that.
The celebrations at the end were tinged with relief but Al-Nassr again found a way to win and are still very much in the hunt.
Elsewhere Al-Hilal made short work of Ettifaq with a 3-0 win. First half goals from Odion Ighalo and Mohamed Kanno put the champions in control and a late goal from Salem Al-Dawsari gave fans even more reason to cheer.
Al-Hilal are still, just about, in the race, 11 points behind Ittihad with two games in hand. Al-Shabab stumbled with a 2-2 draw at Al-Raed and stay in third, but are now six points off the pace.