RIYADH: For the first time since he arrived in Saudi Arabia in January, Cristiano Ronaldo and his Al-Nassr teammates faced a must-win situation on Friday. And when the pressure was on, he, and they, delivered a 4-0 victory over Al-Raed at Mrsool Park.
The result means the Yellows are once again within three points of Saudi Pro League-leaders Al-Ittihad, albeit having played one game more, and still in the running for a 10th league title.
It might not have been a vintage performance from Al-Nassr but, after a goalless draw at Al-Fayha and a 2-0 defeat against Al-Hilal in their previous two league games (as well as a shock King’s Cup semi-final exit at the hands of Al-Wehda on Monday), it was nevertheless a welcome return to winning ways.
A third-successive failure to win would have dealt a major, possibly fatal, blow to their championship hopes. On Thursday, Al-Ittihad had defeated third-placed Al-Shabab, thanks to a late, late penalty, to go six points clear. Everyone was very aware that if Al-Nassr failed to match that result the following day, the Roshn Saudi League trophy would take a big step closer to Jeddah.
In the end, however, it was a comfortable victory for the home side. And although Al-Ittihad is still three points ahead, and has six games left to play compared with Al-Nassr’s five, there is plenty to play for.
Top scorer Anderson Talisca was forced to watch the game from the stands due to suspension. But if their were any nerves because of this, Ronaldo helped to settle them after just four minutes with the kind of goal that fans of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Juventus know very well.
When Al-Raed failed to clear their lines, the ball fell to Sultan Al-Ghannam on the right side of the area and the full-back chipped a beautiful cross toward the far post, where five-time Ballon D’Or winner Ronaldo was waiting. He climbed high and sent the perfect header down, past the diving Silviu Lung and into the net for league goal number 12 since his debut in January.
The crowd went wild and almost did so again soon after, when Ayman Yahya’s shot drifted just wide of the right-hand post.
If the home fans expected that this bright start would signal the start of a crushing victory they were soon disappointed, however. Al-Raed, sitting relatively safely in the upper reaches of the bottom half of the league table, worked hard to limit the supply to the opposition’s star-studded front line.
Just before the break, Ronaldo was set free in the area, only to be forced wide by Lung, and though he managed to pull the ball back, Ali Al-Hassan, who might have been in an offside position, blasted it over. This came just moments after teammate Luiz Gustavo’s shot was saved by the Romanian goalkeeper.
The score remained 1-0 at the break but Al-Raed came very close to an equalizer seconds after the restart when Moroccan forward Karim El-Berkaoui headed a ball delivered from a free-kick just inches over the bar from close range.
In the 55th minute, Al-Nassr made their visitors pay for that miss. Ronaldo headed a Gustavo cross back across goal and Yahya fed the ball to Abdulrahman Ghareeb, who cut inside on the edge of the six-yard box and fired the ball into the back of the net.
While Al-Raed had managed to trouble goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi on occasion, there was no coming back from that and the only real question was whether Al-Nassr could add to their tally. Ronaldo came close with 15 minutes remaining but the 38-year-old’s shot from close range was blocked.
The hosts finally made it 3-0 with just seconds remaining in regulation time, thanks to great work from two substitutes, as Jaloliddin Masharipov pulled the ball back for Mohammed Maran to score from close range.
There was still time after that for Abdulmajeed Al-Sulaiheem to curl a beautiful shot from outside the area into the top corner, ending a perfect evening.
Now Al-Nassr will hope that sixth-place Al-Taawoun, a team who are enduring a poor run of form but have shown this season they are capable of beating the big boys, can do them a favor against Al-Ittihad on Wednesday.
In the meantime, Ronaldo and his teammates did their jobs and reminded their rivals that they are still fighting hard for the title.