TEHRAN: Al-Nassr got their Asian Champions League campaign off to the perfect start on Tuesday with a valuable, and deserved, 2-0 away victory over Persepolis in Tehran.
Abdulrahman Ghareeb gave the Saudi side the lead with a goal just after the hour mark and the contest was effectively decided 10 minutes later by a fine strike from Mohammed Qassem, his first goal for the club.
By that time, the Iranians were a man down but, still, it was a solid performance from Al-Nassr, who were on top from the kick-off at the famous, but empty, Azadi Stadium.
It may have been a quiet night — as the result of a crowd-ban punishment dished out to Persepolis by the Asian Football Confederation after Indian team Goa complained about a social media post that appeared after a 2021 Champions League clash — but there was plenty of noise before the game.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fans turned up at the airport and the hotel at which Al-Nassr’s players were staying, chanting Cristiano Ronaldo’s name and hoping to get a glimpse of him. The five-time Ballon D’or winner responded with a little wave. Later, he was pictured receiving the gift of a Persian carpet.
Persepolis were determined not to be so generous on the pitch and worked hard from the start to cut the supply to Ronaldo. They also had to reckon with Sadio Mane, however, and the former Bayern Munich and Liverpool star came within inches of getting on the end of a delightful curling cross from Sultan Al-Ghannam on the right.
Ronaldo, the leading goalscorer in the Saudi Pro League with seven so far this season, should have given the visitors the lead after 20 minutes, when Al-Ghannam headed the ball to the Portuguese star on the edge of the six-yard box. The Portuguese star’s trademark leap was in full effect but his header was much too close to goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, who made a comfortable save.
Al-Nassr were clearly on top, after getting to grips with a far from ideal playing surface, and soon after, the impressive Al-Ghannam forced another save from the Iranian ’keeper with a low shot from the edge of the area that looked to be creeping in.
Persepolis were not managing to pose much of an attacking threat and things got worse for them when Milad Sarlak picked up a second yellow for a foul on Ronaldo and was sent packing.
Just after the hour mark, the deadlock was finally broken. Ronaldo fed Marcelo Brozovic, who raced down the left and pulled it back for Ghareeb. His shot from inside the area took a deflection but it was a deserved lead nonetheless.
It was always going to be hard for Persepolis to come back from that and the task became almost impossible with 18 minutes left on the clock. Qassem broke into the area from the left side and the left-back lashed a fierce shot from a tight angle into the roof of the net. It was some way to score a first goal for the club.
After that, the only question was whether Ronaldo would mark his full Asian Champions League debut with a goal but, though he tried, it was not to be. Istiklol and Al-Duhail drew 0-0 in the other game in the group, giving Al-Nassr the perfect start in what was a tricky away trip.
It came 24 hours after Al-Ittihad picked up a 3-0 win over AGMK of Uzbekistan. Also on Monday, another team from Uzbekistan gave Al-Hilal quite the scare in Riyadh; Navbahor took the lead early in the second half and, despite great pressure and plenty of possession from the four-time champions, it took a goal in the 100th minute from defender Ali Al-Bulaihi to salvage a point for the Blues and prevent a shock defeat at the hands of a team playing their first-ever game in the tournament.
There was also a disappointing start to the competition for Al-Fayha, who lost 1-0 at the home of Ahal FK, the champions of Turkmenistan, on Tuesday. Elman Tagayew fired home the winning goal early in the second half.
It was the sole defeat among the four Saudi teams in the competition, however, and after one game, Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad sit top of their respective groups.