Cristiano Ronaldo: Nightmare week for Al Nassr star as trophy hopes fade

Damaging domestic results and ACL humbling by Al Ain leave Portugal forward in danger of finishing season without silverware

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Cristiano Ronaldo proclaimed pre-match with a wide smile, “Remontada, inshallah”, but in the end it was not how he envisioned it.

Al Nassr were 1-0 down halfway through the two-legged Asian Champions League quarter-final with Al Ain, and their captain, perhaps partially playing to the crowd, declared to the gathered media that the comeback was on.

A day later, at a fevered Al Awwal Park in Riyadh, Nassr seemed set to do just that, only even more impressively. Two-nil down in Tuesday’s return match and thus 3-0 behind in the tie, the Saudi Arabian side’s continental hopes were fading fast.

Al Ain, sublime in the first leg last week, had been superb for the majority of the opening half. Sofiane Rahimi, scorer of the only goal in the UAE, got another two in the Saudi capital, Nassr seemingly negated, Al Ain apparently sailing through.

But, deep into additional time at the conclusion of a frantic and frenzied first 45 minutes, goalkeeper Khalid Essa went chasing after Sadio Mane, Abdulrahman Gareeb finished, and Nassr had their lifeline.

Less than half an hour of play later, they had overall parity. Essa deflected Otavio’s cross into his own goal, then failed to deal with Alex Telles’ whipped free-kick. Nassr levelled the quarter-final at 3-3.

When Al Ain profited early in extra-time from another goalkeeping mistake, this time from the hosts’ Raghed Al Najjir, Ronaldo responded with two minutes remaining to seemingly tee up his remontada, the Spanish word for comeback. When all around him people were losing their heads, the Portuguese coolly dispatched a penalty, tying the score at 4-4 on aggregate.

By then, Nassr were down to 10 men, Ayman Yahya receiving a straight red for a two-footed lunge on Bandar Al Ahbabi. Mane could have gone not long before, when he grabbed Saeed Juma around the throat and was fortunate to escape with a yellow.

But Ronaldo provided a captain’s contribution. He did the same in the shoot-out he had secured, although he emerged as the only one to convert of Nassr’s four takers. Essa saved from Marcelo Brozovic, Telles struck the crossbar and Otavio condemned the Saudi side to an exit by blazing wildly off target. Nassr were eliminated.

As Al Ain bodies crashed into one another in celebration, and then clashed with rivals in Nassr yellow as tempers flared, Ronaldo simply watched it all unfold, almost motionless. A five-time Uefa Champions League winner, his bid to add its Asian equivalent had evaporated.

It represented another blow in a period full of them. Second in the Saudi Pro League and trying to cling on to leaders Al Hilal, Nassr drew at home to bottom club Al Hazem and then lost again at Al Awwal Park, to Al Raed, the side one spot above the relegation zone.

Above Nassr, Hilal kept on winning, defeating Al Riyadh 3-1 last Friday to stretch their record-breaking league run to 16 straight victories. In doing so, they extended their lead at the summit to 12 points. With 11 rounds remaining, the top-flight title feels certain to head to Nassr’s crosstown rivals.

So where does that leave Ronaldo? Admittedly, he perches as the league’s top scorer, with 22 goals in 20 appearances this season, but as much as he appreciates the personal awards, he plainly prioritised team success with Nassr this campaign.

However, in the space of four days, his chances of silverware have halved. Out of the Champions League and practically the Pro League title race, too, Ronaldo must refocus now on capturing the King’s Cup and the Saudi Super Cup. The latter is staged next month, for the first time, in Abu Dhabi.

No doubt – and it must be emphasised that the King’s Cup ranks as a hugely prestigious prize – Ronaldo would have set out at the beginning of the season with league and continental glory high on his list of targets.

He joined Nassr midway through the 2022/23 season, when the nine-time Saudi champions were top of the domestic standings and in pole for a first title in four years. Ultimately, Nassr finished runners-up. The sense, now, is that’s the best they can hope for again.

Ronaldo, who goes into the summer with one year left on his contract, had most certainly envisaged more last summer, particularly when Nassr were among the league’s four great recruiters.

Mane, Brozovic, Telles and Otavio joined; Seko Fofana from Lens as well. The Ivory Coast midfielder, who last month helped his country claim the Africa Cup of Nations, has since left on loan to Al Ettifaq. His impact at Nassr was underwhelming.

The fear is that Nassr’s season, and by extension Ronaldo’s, could eventually be viewed as that also.

Updated: March 13, 2024, 4:50 PM