Cristiano Ronaldo and Al Nassr face Riyadh derby litmus test against Al Hilal

Portuguese star the leader of group after recent sacking of Rudi Garcia as manager

Al Nassr's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo. AFP
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The build-up to Al Nassr’s marquee match of the season has hardly been ideal.

Most recently, the Riyadh side were held to a goalless draw at Al Feiha, in the process slipping to three points behind leaders Al Ittihad in the Saudi Pro League with only seven matches remaining.

At full-time, and following another frustrating night in front of goal, Cristiano Ronaldo trudged down the tunnel, venting his anger at opposition players. Seemingly teammates, too.

Less than a week later, manager Rudi Garcia had left the club “by mutual agreement”, his final words in public the post-match television interview at Feiha, when the Frenchman placed the blame firmly at the players’ feet.

"The result is definitely bad, and we are not happy," Garcia said. "I don’t feel satisfied with the players' performance. I asked them to play at the same level as the last game [a 5-0 victory against Al Adalah], but this didn’t happen."

The consensus was that his comments did not go down well with an already dissatisfied playing staff. So, five days before Tuesday's Riyadh derby at arch-rivals Al Hilal, Garcia was gone.

Hired last summer and provided with the high-profile foreign recruits of goalkeeper David Ospina, defender Ghislain Konan, midfielder Luiz Gustavo and latterly Ronado - on reportedly the most expensive deal in football history - Garcia was deemed to not be delivering on the seismic investment.

In January, when Ronaldo arrived, Nassr were top of the table with 11 matches played, their superstar addition expected to propel the club to a first top-flight crown in four years.

After a delayed debut, and an underwhelming opening two games, Ronaldo did on the pitch what Ronaldo was brought to do. He scored eight goals in February to be named the league’s Player of the Month.

In all, Ronaldo has found the net 11 times in his 10 league appearances, yet those have come across five matches (he struck four at Al Wehda and three at Damak). When he hasn’t scored, his anger has been evident.

Against Feiha, Ronaldo had chances, but could not covert. Although, to be fair, Brazilian Anderson Talisca, the league's top scorer, endured an off night also.

That said, irrespective of Garcia’s departure and aside from the obvious commercial value of his acquisition, Ronaldo was signed to get Nassr over the line this season. In fact, he is said to be driven primarily by that objective.

At 38, for sure Ronaldo’s best days are long behind him, but the narrowed conviction in adding more titles to an already incredible career sits at the forefront of his mind in Saudi.

His fluctuating performances, should they sustain, would not command as much attention if Nassr next month secure a 10th league trophy (they do contest the semi-finals of the King’s Cup next week as well).

Tuesday’s derby at Hilal will go a considerable way to deciding if Nassr and their Portuguese captain will be placated. Typically, a trip across the capital to King Fahd International Stadium would not be particularly welcome, particularly at the business end of the season and with so much a stake.

Some solace, though, can be gleaned from Hilal’s inconsistent form. The current domestic and Asian champions have not won in three matches, with Friday’s 1-0 defeat to bottom club Al Batin an obvious indictor of their present malaise. They sit fourth in the table, 10 points off the summit.

Hilal’s stutter can be attributed principally to a fixture glut created by February’s historic run to the Fifa Club World Cup final, while focus may have shifted, understandably, to the Asian Champions League final first leg against Japan’s Urawa Reds on April 29. They may even view Sunday’s King’s Cup semi-final against Ittihad as the more important of their two assignments this week.

Still, Ronaldo will take centre stage on Tuesday. With Garcia no longer there and Under-19 manager Dinko Jelicic in situ for now, the team’s leader and lightning rod must conjure a crucial contribution.

Anything less than victory for Nassr, albeit against their fiercest foe, could prove devastating to those long-held title hopes. That, in turn, would undermine significantly Ronaldo’s recruitment.

Updated: April 18, 2023, 2:47 AM