Cristiano Ronaldo, with support of Mane and Co, under pressure to deliver SPL title

Runner-up in his first half-season, the Portuguese superstar will ultimately be judged on if he can lead his club to success this campaign, particularly after receiving impressive reinforcements this summer

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - AUGUST 12: Cristiano Ronaldo of Al Nassr celebrates after scoring the team's second goal during the Arab Club Champions Cup Final between Al Hilal and Al Nassr at King Fahd International Stadium on August 12, 2023 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Yasser Bakhsh / Getty Images)
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Cristiano Ronaldo led the celebrations, aggravated knee suddenly alleviated, collecting the trophy and dancing a little jig towards teammates.

He had guided them, too, to King Salman Club Cup success, the title as much Ronaldo’s as it was Al Nassr’s. Just as he had done throughout the tournament, the Portuguese pulled back his side from the brink in the Saturday’s showpiece, levelling the Riyadh derby with Al Hilal and then deciding it. It was a captain’s contribution.

But, then again, Ronaldo had given as much across two weeks in the mountains to the south of Jeddah. He struck the goal that took Nassr through to the knockouts, then the winner in the semi-final. Ultimately, he grabbed both goals in the 2-1 comeback victory against Hilal in the final in Taif.

Consistently stepping up for his team, Ronaldo concluded the competition as top scorer, striking six times in his final five matches.

Little wonder the cameras at the Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium caught Ronaldo’s reaction, the disbelief clear on his face, when Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was announced as player of the tournament. The Hilal midfielder had two goals in all, and a runners'-up medal to boot.

Ronaldo, 38, knows how that feels. He took silver in his debut half-season in the kingdom when, despite an admirable 14 goals in 16 Saudi Pro League appearances, he could not prevent Nassr from finishing second.

The nine-time champions topped the league by the time Ronaldo debuted, amid the spotlight and the splendour, in January.

But Al Ittihad proved too strong, triumphed in the top-of-the-table clash in March and, from there, never relented. Ronaldo, recruited for a king’s ransom, could not drag Nassr over the line.

Ronaldo leads Al Nassr to King Salman Cup triumph

The feeling was, as disappointing as the 2022/23 campaign ended, that Ronaldo would have help in making amends in the next. As Saudi football set about staking its flag in football’s turf, Nassr brought in Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic, Lens captain Seko Fofana, Manchester United left-back Alex Telles and, most recently, Sadio Mane, the reigning African player of the year.

Yes, others have strengthened significantly, in particular the three fellow Public Investment Fund stablemates: Hilal, Ittihad and Al Ahli.

However, Ronaldo will once more be expected to head Nassr’s charge towards a first top-flight title since 2019. Even now, when the legs don’t carry him as quickly, or past as many opponents, he remains the peacock in the pack.

His career to this point has certified that. Speaking in June, Ronaldo conceded in an interview with the league that “I expected to win something this year, but we didn’t. Next year I’m really positive and confident that things will change”.

It began to change on Saturday. Still, irrespective of his trophy-winning display, Ronaldo will realise he will be judged this season on what he achieves in the league. Nassr kick-start their quest for title No 10 on Monday, when they take on Al Ettifaq in Dammam.

Seventh last season, Ettifaq have been embellished this summer also, with Steven Gerrard as manager, Jordan Henderson the captain, and Moussa Dembele their spearhead.

If Ronaldo recuperates in time from that knee issue, he will no doubt be again leading his team at the Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium, keen to lay down another marker of his still-there might.

Updated: August 14, 2023, 7:28 AM