Asian Champions League: Ronaldo and Al Nassr face Shabab Al Ahli test to reach group stage

UAE champions present stern challenge to Saudi side who have lost their first two league games

Cristiano Ronaldo and his Al Nassr side slumped to a shock defeat to Al Taawoun in the Saudi Pro League on Friday. Reuters
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Cristiano Ronaldo's rollercoaster start to the season faces a fresh challenge when Al Nassr take on UAE champions Shabab Al Ahli in an Asian Champions League play-off clash on Tuesday evening.

The eyes of the football world have been glued on Saudi Arabia this summer as the Saudi Pro League embarked on an unprecedented transfer window which has seen the top clubs recruit some of the biggest names in the game.

Nassr, whom Ronaldo joined last December, have been in the thick of the action as the Riyadh giants set about boosting their squad with the arrival of former Liverpool forward Sadio Mane, midfielders Marcelo Brozovic and Seko Fofana from Inter Milan and Lens respectively, and full-back Alex Telles from Manchester United.

The latest speculation claims Manchester City's treble-winning defender Aymeric Laporte will be the next star to pull on the yellow and blue shirt.

Given their impressive summer of recruitment, Nassr will be expected to make their mark in the Asian Champions League this season. But first they need to earn their place in the tournament alongside Saudi champions Al Ittihad – led by Karim Benzema – 2022 Kings Cup winners Al Fayha, and Al Hilal.

Record four-time Asian champions Hilal, who last won the title in 2021 and fell narrowly short in the final last season, have refreshed their squad with the signing of top-level talent in the form of Brazilian superstar Neymar, Portuguese midfielder Ruben Neves, Serbian midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, Brazilian winger Malcom, Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly, and Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.

Before Nassr can think about joining their Saudi rivals in the Asian Champions League, though, they will need to overcome both a tough challenge from Shabab Al Ahli and their own stuttering form to reach the group stage.

Ronaldo and Nassr started the season with a bang by winning the King Salman Club Cup, defeating Hilal in a dramatic final, but their form has since dipped in the early stages of the league campaign.

After sustaining a knee injury against Hilal, Ronaldo was rested for Nassr's opening-round league defeat to Steven Gerrard's Al Ettifaq 48 hours later. Back in the team for the first home league game on Friday, Ronaldo was unable to inspire his side to victory as Nassr fell to a stunning 2-0 defeat to Al Taawoun.

Shabab Al Ahli, meanwhile, got their Adnoc Pro League title defence under way on Friday with an emphatic 3-0 win away to Ajman despite playing more than 70 minutes with 10 men. The Dubai side also claimed a 3-0 win over Jordanian side Al Wehdat in the preliminary play-off round to set up the meeting with Nassr.

Nassr remain favourites to progress, particularly as the one-off play-off match will be played at their Mrsool Park home, but the challenge Shabab Al Ahli pose cannot be taken lightly.

While Saudi clubs already have three teams automatically entered in the group stage, the UAE are presently represented by one: 2022 league champions Al Ain.

Sharjah, back-to-back President's Cup winners, are competing in the final play-off round alongside Shabab Al Ahli and face Iranian side Tractor in Tabriz on Tuesday aiming to book their place in the groups.

With the Asian Champions League split into two geographic zones until the final, there is some hope for the eastern powers led by defending champions Urawa Red Diamonds.

The Japanese side defeated Hilal in the final in May but need to beat Hong Kong’s Lee Man to progress to the group stage this time.

South Korea’s Incheon United meet Vietnam’s Haiphong, while China will be hoping that both Shanghai Port and Zhejiang will progress to the group stage with victories over Thai opposition, BG Pathum United and Port respectively.

For now though, the focus is on Riyadh and on whether Ronaldo, who won the Uefa Champions League one with Manchester United and four times with Real Madrid, can lead his team towards another continental prize.

Updated: August 23, 2023, 4:56 AM