Cristiano Ronaldo fires Al-Nassr to welcome win at Al-Ahli

JEDDAH: Al-Nassr emerged from a tough couple of weeks to win 1-0 at Al-Ahli in the Roshn Saudi League on Friday. Cristiano Ronaldo’s second half penalty was enough to keep the visitors in second and nine points clear of the hosts in third.

A packed crowd at the King Abdullah Stadium saw a finely-balanced game between these two powerhouses of Jeddah and Riyadh. In the end, Al-Nassr picked up a crucial victory that comes after elimination from the Asian Champions League on Monday and recent stumbles in the league that had enabled Al-Hilal to open a double-digit lead at the top. A first clean sheet in ten league games was also welcome.

It was not the most exciting game. There was little goalmouth action in the first half with just two attempts, and neither of those on target, in the entire 45 minutes – plus five added time.

This was partly thanks to some improved defending from Al-Nassr who had been shipping goals left, right and centre in both domestic and international competitions of late, 13 in the past five. Alex Telles for example, dived in to deny Riyad Mahrez a free shot from close range after six minutes.

Al-Nassr had two-thirds of the possession but just could not make it count in an attacking sense and after 37 minutes, the hosts came within a whisker of taking the lead as Merih Demiral climbed high in the six yard-box to head Mahrez’s corner against the crossbar.

Then four minutes from the break, Al-Nassr had their first attempt and scored thanks to an opportunistic finish from Ronaldo.  He ran on to a Sadio Mane pass and while Demiral’s attempted tackle diverted the ball to the right of the area, goalkeeper Edouard Mendy came but didn’t get it and the Portuguese star rolled home from a tight angle. The problem was that VAR found that he had been slightly offside when Mane supplied the pass and so the goal, as well as the Yellows’ first attempt, was wiped from the record.

Ronaldo wasn’t offside just after the break as he latched on to a suicidal backpass but Mendy dived at the feet of the five-time Ballon D’Or winner to push the ball away. 

There was much more urgency about Al-Nassr as they started to get into more and more dangerous positions. This then, was when Al-Ahli put the ball in the net. Allan Saint-Maximin cut the ball inside from the right side of the area and there was Roberto Firmino to guide it home. The celebrations were loud and long, at least until VAR ruled out this strike for offside too.

After VAR had denied two goals, it intervened to produce the opener. Midway through the second half, the referee went over to the pitchside monitor to award a penalty after Roger Ibanez brought down Sami Al-Najei. Ronaldo, who scored twice from the spot on Monday against Al-Ain, made no mistake once more.

Al-Ahli did their utmost to get back on level terms but this was a newly-determined Al-Nassr defence that put bodies on the line to keep the lead intact. The attackers looked more likely to score the next goal too, with Marcelo Brozovic shooting just wide from outside the area after being set up by Ronaldo. 

After a 99th minute header from Fahad Al-Rashidi bounced wide and then Mahrez’s free-kick came to nothing. Al-Nassr knew they had a much-needed win. It does not mean that the title race is back on, Al-Hilal can restore their 12-point advantage on Saturday against Damac, but coach Luis Castro will be breathing a little easier.

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