Cristiano Ronaldo faces toughest Al Nassr test against Al Ittihad

Portuguese enjoyed a prolific February as Saudi Pro League leaders face Ittihad in a top-of-the-table clash on Thursday

Cristiano Ronaldo faces his biggest challenge since joining Al Nassr in a top-of-the-table clash against Al Ittihad. AFP
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Cristiano Ronaldo’s introduction at Al Nassr was feted, the fanfare fevered. It felt appropriate.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner represented – quite comfortably – the most prominent name to land not only in Saudi Arabian football, or the game in the Gulf, but in Asian football, too.

But Ronaldo’s debut in late January, delayed by suspension incurred during his previous employment at Manchester United, failed to deliver. He did not get on the scoresheet against Al Ettifaq in front of the thousands at Mrsool Park, his play disjointed, his impact minimal.

Perhaps it was understandable, even for a footballer of such ilk, given the new team, the fresh league, the unfamiliar surroundings. Days later, Nassr lost 3-1 to Al Ittihad in the Saudi Super Cup. Again, Ronaldo did not spark.

Quick to downplay any doubts, Rudi Garcia, the Nassr manager, reminded that his team would take time to mesh with Ronaldo; ditto Ronaldo with them.

Then February felt the forward’s full force. About to turn 38, Ronaldo converted a late, late penalty away to Al Fateh to secure a 2-2 draw and keep Nassr top of the Saudi Pro League (SPL).

In his next game, at Al Wehda, Ronaldo struck all four goals, the quartet coming in a 40-minute spell bridged by half time. He departed with the match ball, another highlight reel soon sweeping across social media, the headlines heard way beyond Saudi. It was the Ronaldo Effect in full flow, worth a reported $200 million per season.

Returning to Mrsool Park, Ronaldo then assisted both goals in the 2-1 win against fifth-placed Al Taawoun, the first a fabulous pass that conveyed a master marksman was settling in sync with his new side. To reinforce the point, a hat-trick followed away to Damak.

Deservedly, after eight goals and two assists in a 23-day stretch, and surely much to the SPL marketing department’s delight, Ronaldo was named the division’s player of the month.

The Portugal captain collected the award just before last Friday’s dramatic 3-1 triumph at home to bottom club Al Batin, when much like Nassr, Ronaldo attempted and attempted again to cancel out Renzo Lopez’s early strike, but could not manage it.

Yet Nassr rallied, with three Ronaldo-less goals during a mammoth period of injury-time to reclaim the summit (Ittihad had earlier in the day jumped ahead in the standings).

The Batin rebound not only spared Nassr’s blushes, but it provided impetus heading into the league leaders' biggest test of the campaign thus far.

On Thursday, Nassr and Ronaldo meet Ittihad at the imposing King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, thrust into enemy territory for a top-of-the-table clash that could go some way to deciding title – irrespective that 11 rounds remain.

Runners-up last season having relinquished a huge lead, Ittihad have responded admirably, their revival mirroring that of manager Nuno Espirito Santo.

Dismissed in November 2021 after five months at English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur, the Portuguese tactician has begun to rebuild his reputation albeit away from the glare of elite European football.

Ittihad, with the dangerous Abderrazak Hamdallah and Romarinho at their tip, and Igor Coronado once more among the league’s principal playmakers, are unbeaten in 10 matches. They have won eight of their past nine. Potent up front, they have not conceded in more than nine hours of football.

Without doubt, Thursday constitutes Ronaldo’s greatest challenge yet at Nassr. The Riyadh club, eight-time Saudi champions, chase a first top-flight crown in four years, keen to seize back domestic bragging rights from cross-city rivals Al Hilal.

In-form Ittihad away, a raucous King Abdullah Sports City, late-season title implications, it is exactly the type of occasion in which Ronaldo is expected to prove the difference.

Clearly, the former United, Real Madrid and Juventus star is used to the big stage; he welcomes it, embraces it, most probably craves it still in his professional dotage.

It would not surprise if Ronaldo, up against a compatriot coach and an obdurate opponent, plays protagonist in Jeddah. The sense is, even now age 38 and far from Europe, he would not want it any other way.

Updated: March 10, 2023, 7:39 AM