When Al Nassr found out their fixture list for the 2023/24 season, the last week of November immediately stood out as one where they would need to navigate two tricky fixtures back-to-back. The hope at Al Awwal Park was that they would have already sealed qualification to the AFC Champions League round of 16 before having to play Persepolis in their penultimate match of the group, scheduled just a few days before they take on eternal rivals Al Hilal.
Luis Castro’s side found themselves nearly there, going into Monday’s home encounter against the Iranian giants who had two years earlier eliminated them in an Champions League semi-final. Al Nassr had picked up the maximum 12 points from their first four matches, but that was not yet enough to win the group, with Persepolis having picked up seven points, meaning the Saudi Pro League giants still needed at least a point from their remaining two games.
To further complicate things, Al Nassr lost their first two matches of the SPL season, leaving them to play catch-up on Al Hilal. They have roared back impressively, winning 11 of 12 league games.
With such calculations in mind, Castro had to make a decision about whether to rotate his squad for the game against Persepolis, potentially risking a defeat but preserving his best players for Friday's Riyadh derby, or to go full-strength, risk injuries, but ensure that even a defeat in Dushanbe on the final day of the continental group stage against Istiklol wouldn’t matter.
Eventually, the Portuguese tactician made five changes to the starting XI that beat Al Okhdood 3-0 last weekend, but still started key players such as his two compatriots, Cristiano Ronaldo and Otavio, as well as Abdulrahman Ghareeb and Sultan Al Ghannam.
On the pitch, Castro’s men played a compact game with the primary objective to walk away with the required point, while preserving their energy and staying injury-free for the upcoming derby. But his strategy received a setback as defender Ali Lajami was sent off after 17 minutes, leaving his side to play 10 v 11 for well over an hour.
Ronaldo threatened on multiple occasions, but left Al Nassr fans staring in horror as he fell to the ground holding his neck after an aerial duel with Persepolis goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand. The Portuguese continued for another 30 minutes after the incident before being taken off with 12 minutes remaining. Al Nassr picked up the necessary point to secure safe passage into the round of 16.
Speaking after the match, head coach Castro played down Ronaldo’s injury, saying: “The medical team is looking into the injury, but we expect him to recover and be ready for the next match.
“I only want to get better with every game,” continued the Portuguese boss. “We approached this game keeping in mind the opposition’s qualities and we wanted to remain in control and get the result we wanted, but unfortunately the red card meant we had to put in a lot more effort.”
And while the momentary scare of losing Ronaldo for the biggest match of their season so far could have left Castro regretting his decision to field his talisman, the final result and the subsequent diagnosis of a small neck bruise, served as validation. Al Nassr are now 20 matches unbeaten in all competitions.
“The players now understand that recovery is key to continued success across all competitions," added Castro. "To go 20 unbeaten with only two draws means we are always being brave and showing respect to all opponents.”
Castro has already proven to be an upgrade on his predecessor Rudi Garcia, but the progress of his early days at the club will come under scrutiny when they take on their arch-rivals on Friday at King Fahd Sports City/ Ronaldo's recovery from injury and others overcoming fatigue will be crucial.