Saudi side Al-Nassr claimed a place in the group stage of the AFC Champions League in sensational style on Tuesday with a 4-2, come-from-behind win over Shabab Al-Ahli in the final moments of their play-off match.
With just two minutes remaining on the clock, the Emirati team were 2-1 ahead and looked to be going through, only for three late goals to put the hosts through. As a result, Saudi Arabia will have four representatives in the tournament when the group stage begins in September, with Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad and Al-Fayha having already claimed their spots.
The game also marked the first win of the season for Al-Nassr, who lost the first two games of their domestic league campaign. A third defeat in a row, and missing out on the Champions League, would have put new coach Luis Castro under some early pressure. As it is, the Portuguese boss will, for a while at least, be able to bask in the glory of such a dramatic end to an exciting clash.
Anderson Talisca gave Al-Nassr the early lead but Yahya Al-Ghassani struck twice, either side of half time, to give the Dubai side the edge. Then those three late, late goals, from Sultan Al-Ghannam, Talisca and Marcelo Brozovic, sealed a win that had appeared so unlikely just moments before.
Had the nine-time Saudi champions failed to fight back, there would have been plenty of controversy to ponder. Cristiano Ronaldo, winner of the UEFA Champions League no fewer than five times, felt he should have been awarded not one but two penalties at the end of the first half. Many would agree that he was right about at least one of them. The referee might therefore be relieved that the late comeback played out the way it did.
The start of the game was almost as perfectly entertaining as the ending. After 11 minutes, Brozovic floated the ball over from a left-side corner and Talisca rose highest to direct a powerful header into the top of the net, giving the goalkeeper little chance.
The hosts continued to push forward but were pegged back just after the half-hour mark. There was some good work from Munas Dabbur on the right side of the area, and after getting to the byline the Israeli midfielder pulled the ball back to Al-Ghassani, who slotted home from close range.
The half ended with Ronaldo attempting a spectacular scissors kick and then appealing for a penalty after the ball appeared to hit the raised hand of a defender. The Portuguese star seemed to have a decent case but the referee was not interested and, with no video assistant referee to consult, the game continued.
There was still time before the break for Ronaldo to go down in the box. Once again, the question of whether or not it was a penalty is a legitimate one but, once again, the referee’s hands remained by his sides.
The Al-Nassr frustration only got worse immediately after the restart, when the visitors took the lead. Al-Ghassani broke free down the left, outpaced the Al-Nassr back line, cut inside and then lifted the ball over the advancing goalkeeper. It showed once again that for all the attacking talent that coach Luis Castro has to call upon, his team remains defensively vulnerable.
Within seconds of his team falling behind, Talisca shot just over from the edge of the area. The pressure from Al-Nassr kept coming, with the likes of Brozovic, Ronaldo and Sadio Mane doing all they could to get that all-important equalizer.
It very nearly came just after the hour and would have been spectacular. A shot from outside the left side of the area from Ghislane Konan beat the goalkeeper but rebounded off the inside of the post. It was starting to look like it just was not going to happen for the nine-time Saudi champions.
But happen it did, with just two minutes of regulation time remaining and from an unlikely source: the head of Al-Ghannam. The right-back was loitering on the right side of the area and had time to prepare for a looping cross from the left. His header took a deflection that helped the ball on its way past veteran goalkeeper Majed Naser.
In the sixth minute of added time, Al-Nassr effectively won the game when Talisca headed his second and his team’s third. To rub salt in the wound, there was still time for Ronaldo to find Brozovic two minutes later at the edge of the area, and the midfielder fired home his first goal for the club since arriving from Inter Milan.
The draw for the group stage of the AFC Champions League will take place on Thursday in Kuala Lumpur, and Al-Nassr will be mighty relieved to be in it.