RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo gave Al-Nassr’s season the kick-start it so desperately needed on Friday, courtesy of a hat trick and an assist in a much-needed 5-0 away victory over at Al-Fateh, in which Sadio Mane bagged a brace.
After two defeats in the first two games of the Roshn Saudi League season, the pressure was most certainly on the Yellows, and new coach Luis Castro, but five-time Ballon D’Or winner Ronaldo and his teammates finally stepped up in style.
They came into the game with zero points and just one goal to show for their efforts so far, but game three featured a very different performance from the nine-time Saudi champions, against a team that had collected four points from their opening two games.
It suggested that despite the slow start, there is much more to come from Al-Nassr. At times the football going forward was sublime and the equal of anything on display anywhere this weekend. Yes, it is only their first league win of the season but things are most definitely looking up for the Riyadh giants, who on Tuesday had come within two minutes of being eliminated from the Asian Champions League by Shabab Al-Ahli, before grabbing three very late goals to secure a 4-2 win and their place in the group stage of the competition.
Despite that incredible comeback, a third successive league defeat would really have put Castro under the microscope, and international scrutiny at that, given the global interest in Saudi football these days. With major rivals Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli claiming maximum points from their first three games of the season, another loss would have left Al-Nassr nine points off the pace with the season barely started and plenty of questions would have been asked.
The players meant business from the kick-off, with Ronaldo in particular causing all sorts of problems and going close. It was no surprise, then, when the Portuguese star played a crucial role in the opening goal, which came after 27 minutes from a move that suggested the attacking talent in the Al-Nassr ranks might finally be starting to get on the same wavelength.
A simple pass from Marcelo Brozovic, in a central position in the Al-Fateh half, was met by a delightful flick from Ronaldo outside the area that left Mane simply to lift the ball over goalkeeper Jacob Rinne and into the net.
Seven minutes before the break, Ronaldo grabbed his first league goal of the season. Sultan Al-Ghannam floated over an inviting cross from the right where the 38-year-old, who was never going to miss from close range, was waiting to head home.
Ten minutes after the restart, Al-Nassr were effectively home and dry. Abdulrahman Ghareeb broke free down the left after some great work from Brozovic. He drew the goalkeeper to the corner of the area and then squared the ball to Ronaldo, who slotted the ball home with a minimum of fuss.
The team were moving the ball around and looking very good indeed, and with nine minutes remaining Mane grabbed his second and his team’s fourth. Ronaldo found Ghareeb on the left and the latter’s cross was met by the former Liverpool star, who directed a powerful header into the opposite corner.
There was just enough time for Ronaldo to complete his first hat trick since arriving in Saudi Arabia in January. Nawaf Boushel found some space at the right corner of the six-yard box and delivered a pass that found Ronaldo at the far post, leaving the former Real Madrid and Manchester United star to simply roll the ball home from close range. His smile was as wide as the margin of victory.
That goal meant that the winning margin exceeded that of the 4-0 victories recorded away from home by Al-Hilal, who sit in third place on seven points, and Al-Ittihad the day before.
This victory alone does not mean that all is now suddenly well again with Al-Nassr but it did offer a hint of what this team might become and the kind of football it capable of.
If it keeps happening, a season that started so badly could yet end in all kinds of wonderful.