Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr lose to Al Ain in first leg of ACL quarter-final

Portuguese superstar and his side go down to first-half goal from Soufiane Rahimi

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Oh, Al Ain, can we have more nights like this? This was an evening when the UAE’s most decorated club welcomed Al Nassr’s galaxy of stars from Saudi Arabia, their Hazza bin Zayed Stadium teeming and trembling, and sent them packing with a deserved defeat.

Sofiane Rahimi grabbed the game’s only goal, Khalid Essa twice somehow repelled Cristiano Ronaldo, Aymeric Laporte saw red late on, and Al Ain seized the upper hand in the Asian Champions League quarter-final.

Nassr, on their longest unbeaten run in the continent’s premier club competition at eight matches, were seen off by a display full of determination and discipline from the 2003 champions. Some devastating play, too.

With the first leg complete, if this full-blooded and forever feisty affair is anything to go by, there remains plenty left in the tie yet.

To think Al Ain did it on Monday without Kodjo Laba, their leading striker, only accentuates their victory. The Togo forward sits as the current top scorer in the 2023/24 Arabian Gulf League. In the Champions League, he has scored six goals in as many matches.

But, with Laba injured, playmaker Rahimi led the line with aplomb. The Moroccan ended a gripping encounter as its man of the match. There could have been many more from his team.

Nassr had their absences, also, namely World Cup finalist Marcelo Brozovic, former Manchester United full-back Alex Telles, and Anderson Talisca, the prolific Brazilian with five goals in his past two matches.

Despite those who had not made the trip, Luis Castro could still call upon Ronaldo, Manchester City treble-winner Laporte, Portugal international Otavio, and Sadio Mane. The latter, a late addition to Nassr’s match day squad, has won Europe’s Champions League, England’s Premier League, and Africa’s Cup of Nations.

With Colombia No 1 David Ospina finally back following last season’s injury, it was hardly Nassr-lite. Ronaldo, though, was always going to play the protagonist.

Such is the Nassr captain's reputation and résumé, that his every move is monitored, his every mistake or misplaced pass greeted with howls of derision from opposing fans. The Al Ain faithful were no different, not early on when the sporting superstar attempted a step over, stumbled on the ball and was unceremoniously cleaned out by a combination of Al Ain’s midfield.

Then, not long after, Ronaldo eyed a looping ball close to the Al Ain goal, shaped for an overhead kick, but spooned his attempt well off target. Not for the first time, chants of “Messi”, that old foe from the days at the pinnacle of world football, reverberated around the stadium.

Close to the half-hour, Al Ain's support was in raptures, thinking their team had taken the lead. Rahimi was sent clear on the right, and his low centre was finished superbly by Kaku. The stadium erupted; so too was the Nassr bench, which led by Castro, ran down the touchline en masse to remonstrate with the referee’s assistant.

Following a VAR review, their protestations were answered. The goal was chalked off for offside.

However, Al Ain would ultimately have the opener to reward their endeavour. In first-half stoppage time, a swift move found its way to Kaku who, roles reversed, slid in Rahimi. This time, he stayed onside, nudging the ball beyond the onrushing Ospina before rolling into the net. Al Ain would not be denied once more; the goal was more than merited.

As the hosts caught their breath, Nassr nearly punished them. But Ronaldo’s rasping half-volley from close-range was saved excellently by Essa.

At the beginning of the second half, Ronaldo had another go, yet he could not keep down Ayman Yahya’s cross. As the five-time Ballon d’Or grew evermore frustrated by those in Al Ain white constantly snapping at his heels, his side looked to have slipped to two down.

Rahimi scored on the counter, but it was ruled out. Replays showed he was quite some way beyond the Nassr backline when the release pass was played.

And then, Essa produced an incredible stop to thwart Ronaldo. For once, Al Ain failed to deal with a Nassr cross, and the ball arrived at the former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus star eight yards out. Leaping across the goal and in the other direction, Essa instinctively threw up an arm to block. Ronaldo threw his head in his hands.

In injury time, Laporte thrust his elbow into Bandar Al Ahbabi’s back, the referee consulted VAR and brandished a straight red.

It rather summed up Nassr’s night. Yes, they can go again in what is sure to be a raucous Riyadh in a week. But the first leg, at least, belonged to a defiant and dazzling Al Ain.

Updated: March 05, 2024, 6:16 AM