RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo returns to action for Al-Nassr on Monday with a simple task: rescue the team’s season and lead them to success in the AFC Champions League.
On Monday, the nine-time Saudi Arabia champions will make the short trip to the UAE to take on Al-Ain in the first leg of the quarterfinal in Asia’s biggest club competition. It comes at a crucial time in the season for a team that has never won the continental title.
At the moment, Al-Nassr are in second in the Roshn Saudi League but Ronaldo was on the sidelines last Thursday with head in his hands as Al-Nassr hosted the bottom team Al-Hazem.
Four times the Yellows took the lead and fans and Ronaldo sat back in anticipation of a comfortable win. Yet four times the visitors came back, helped by some dreadful Al-Nassr defending, to draw 4-4 and grab a point.
The 39-year-old had been banned for one game after making an offensive gesture during a Saudi Arabia league match four days earlier. At the end of the 3-2 win over Al-Shabab, video footage appeared to show Ronaldo cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, in a gesture that seemed to be aimed at Al-Shabab fans.
The draw with Al-Hazem leaves Al-Nassr — even at this stage of the season — with a mountain to climb if they are to win the Saudi Pro League.
“Ronaldo strengthens the team and ensures that the opponent respects you more but his absence had nothing to do with the result,” said a visibly frustrated Al-Nassr coach Luis Castro. “The fact is that we are conceding too many goals and the problem is not organizational but due to individual mistakes. At the moment we are now focused on the Asian Champions League.”
Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad on Friday leaves them strong favorites for another league championship. In theory it is not over — Hilal themselves have overturned such deficits in the past to lift the title. But with the leaders winning their last 25 games in all competitions, it is almost unimaginable that they will not win a 19th league title.
So it means that Al-Nassr know that only glory in Asia and winning the continental championship for the first time will save their season. The King’s Cup is always a welcome domestic trophy, but does not quite hold the same gravitas.
The tie against Al-Ain will not be easy. The Emirati club won their group and then got past Nasaf of Uzbekistan in the round of 16. They are going well at home and abroad and are unbeaten in eight, with seven of those ending in victory.
They possess plenty of attacking talent and will have watched Al-Nassr’s defensive issues of late with interest. Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba especially will be looking forward to it. The Togolese international has already scored six goals in Asia this season and has been in fine form domestically.
Al-Ain boss Hernan Crespo will have some sympathy for Al-Nassr. The Argentine legend was in charge of Qatar’s Al-Duhail last year and took the team to the last four where they were hit for seven by Hilal.
“We know how strong Al-Nassr are,” said Crespo. “They are full of talented players and it will be a great challenge for us. You expect to face tough opposition at this stage of the continental championship. We will have to be at our best.”
While Ronaldo’s return is big news, there will also be huge interest in Tuesday’s clash between Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad in Riyadh.
Hilal’s recent SPL win over the Tigers was deserved though, the team from Jeddah could have gone in at the break 2-0 ahead instead of 1-0, and then the rest of the game would have been very different.
The problem for Al-Ittihad, and shared by the rest of the Saudi Arabia teams as well as Asia, is how to stop Al-Hilal.
Now that the Blues are nine points clear at the top of the table, they can almost afford to turn their focus to the Champions League.
Hilal may still have Neymar out, but Aleksandar Mitrovic is in excellent form as are Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
But Al-Ittihad can also save their season. The best they can probably manage at home is to sneak into the top three.
A win in Asia, however, and a third continental title would make what has been a forgettable season into something special. It is the biggest game of their season and Al-Nassr can say the same.