RIYADH: The Roshn Saudi League title race was blown wide open on Tuesday night, thanks to the efforts of Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo and a spirited comeback from Al-Hilal.
At half-time, Al-Ittihad were 2-1 ahead in their game against Al-Hilal and provisionally sitting seven points clear of second-place Al-Nassr, who were being held to a goalless draw at Al-Tai.
But thanks to a last-minute strike from Michael Delgado, the league leaders were held to a 2-2 draw. With Ronaldo ultimately inspiring his Al-Nassr teammates to a 2-0 victory, the gap at the top is now down to three points, with three games left to play. For the second time in two seasons, the Tigers are in danger of letting the trophy slip from their grasp just when they were about to get their paws on it.
The late equalizer from Al-Hilal was in stark contrast to the early dominance of Al-Ittihad. On paper, this test at the home of the defending champions was the most difficult for coach Nuno Santo and his men but, for the first 30 minutes or so, they made it look look easy.
The visitors, cheered on by a large contingent of traveling fans, oozed class from the kick-off and Ahmed Hegazi soon headed an early corner just over.
That did not matter as the Tigers went ahead after eight minutes. Igor Coronado entered the left side of the area, swapped passes with Abderrazak Hamdallah and fired home a low shot at the near post. The hosts claimed that the Brazilian had fouled Moussa Marega in the build-up but the referee was not swayed.
The attacks came in waves, with the shell-shocked Riyadh giants unable to get out of their own half, and Coronada almost added a second after 15 minutes with a free-kick that had the goalkeeper in trouble. Soon after, Hamdallah really should have scored after turning into space on the edge of the six-yard box but his shot was saved, as was an effort from Romarinho.
It seemed to be a matter of time before the second came but then a deflected shot from Marega, well-saved by Marcelo Grohe, served as a reminder that Al-Hilal can never be counted out.
Al-Ittihad did move further ahead on the half hour. Hamdallah chested the ball down on the left side of the area and fed the onrushing Ahmed Bamsaud, whose first-time, left-footed shot gave Abdullah Al-Mayouf no chance. It was not only a beautiful team goal but a strike worthy of new champions.
Al-Hilal might have been exhausted after their recent commitments, missing key players and without a coach after Ramon Diaz said goodbye, leaving son Emiliano in charge until the end of the season, but few had expected this.
Just before the break however, they pulled one back. Only Musab Al-Juwayr knows for sure whether his cross from the right was meant as a cross, or he had spotted Grohe off his line and tried to beat the Brazilian at the near post. Regardless, it ended in a goal. The goalkeeper scrambled back to palm the ball away but failed to prevent it crossing the line.
The atmosphere changed. Now the pressure was on the leaders, with Luciano Vietto’s free-kick hitting the post. Al-Ittihad were happy, therefore, when the half-time whistle sounded and happier to learn that Al-Nassr were tied 0-0 at Al-Tai.
Al-Nassr knew they had to win whatever happened elsewhere. Ronaldo should perhaps have broken the deadlock in the 23rd minute but he headed Talisca’s cross straight into the arms of Victor Braga.
Then, just before half-time, the Brazilian flew through the air to push a fierce shot from five-time Ballon D’Or winner Ronaldo away from the top corner.
Soon after the restart however Ronaldo fired home from the spot as Al-Nassr got the goal they so badly needed and, with nine minutes remaining, Talisca sealed the win with a low shot from inside the area.
They then had to hope that Al-Hilal could get one more goal. They certainly did their best, pushing forward at every opportunity and leaving themselves open to Al-Ittihad counterattacks in what was another pulsating half of football.
And then, in the 96th minute, Michael’s header was saved by Grohe but the goalkeeper could not keep out the rebound from inside the six-yard box.
The home fans went mad, and Al-Nassr supporters must surely have been jumping up and down too. Now, anything can happen.