RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo delivered Al-Nassr’s first trophy of the season with both goals in an unforgettable 2-1 victory over Al-Hilal in the final of the King Salman Club Cup on Saturday.
With 15 minutes remaining on the clock and his team a goal and a man down against their bitter Riyadh rivals, the five-time Ballon D’or winner dragged his team into extra-time, victory and then delighted celebrations at the end of over two hours of draining and entertaining football.
The clash in Abha marks the end of the pre-season preparations for both teams who kick off their league campaigns on Monday with Al-Hilal staying in the same city to face Abha and Al-Nassr heading east to take on Ettifaq. Both will take positives from this tournament, previously known as the Arab Club Champions Cup, as well as this encounter.
The first real chance fell to Al-Hilal’s new midfielder Ruben Neves but his smart shot from the edge of the area went just wide of the post, an early warning for the men in Yellow and it looked ominous after six minutes when Salem Al-Dawsari burst through the defense but couldn’t quite keep the ball under control.
After that however, it was Al-Nassr who were on top and should have been ahead at the break and would have been had it not been for Al-Hilal goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais.
Perhaps the best chance was made by Sadio Mane who sent over a perfect cross from the left for the incoming Abdullah Al-Khaibari, unmarked at the far post. The midfielder seemed to have done everything right with a powerful downward header but Al-Owais pulled off a fantastic one-handed save to somehow keep it out.
The half ended with more good play from Al-Nassr. Seko Fofana curled a dangerous pass through the defence from a central position for Ronaldo at the far post but the Portuguese star could only stretch and divert the ball into the arms of the goalkeeper.
Despite being second best, Al-Hilal took the lead early in the second half with a goal made in Brazil. New signing Malcom raced down to the left byline and chipped the perfect cross back for Michael to launch himself and head past Nawaf Al-Aqidi.
Al-Nassr resumed their attacks, this time with more desperation. Ronaldo had a fierce shot fly just over and Anderson Talisca brought another save from the busy Al-Owais.
Al-Hilal were, however, starting to disrupt the rhythm of their Riyadh rivals. It got worse with 18 minutes remaining as Abdulelah Al-Amri was red carded, after a video review, for bringing down Malcom.
Yet just when it seemed as if it was all over, Al-Nassr were level with 15 minutes remaining. For the first time all half, they got behind the defence as Sultan Al-Ghannam burst free down the right and his low cross was perfectly placed for Ronaldo to dart just in front of Al-Owais at the near post to tap home from close range for his fifth goal in successive games.
With five minutes left, Al-Nassr thought they were ahead as Ronaldo beat the defence to score but it was ruled out by VAR. Al-Hilal had been virtually non-existent as an attacking threat since equalising but almost snatched it at the end only for Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to head just wide after beating Al-Aqidi to a cross from Neves.
Early in extra-time, Ronaldo looked to have given his team the lead but while his shot from inside the area beat the ‘keeper, Ali Al-Bulaihi intervened with a spectacular clearance.
No matter, he found the net soon after as he headed home the rebound after a Fofana shot had come back off the bar. There was still time for Al-Nassr boss Luis Castro, upset at what he saw as rough challenges on his players, to be banished from the bench by the referee.
Al-Hilal threw everything in an attempt to force penalties but Al-Nassr defended resolutely. The headlines though will belong to a certain 38 year-old, who picked up a knock and left the pitch before the end. He looked fine however as he danced around the pitch in delight at the final whistle and hugged team-mates and then lifted the trophy, his first in Saudi Arabia. With Ronaldo in this form and attitude, anything can happen in the coming months.