It was a historic weekend for the premier Saudi league, as Cristiano Ronaldo finally made his debut for Al-Nassr. With the season halfway through, here are five things Arab News learned from the last round of matches.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo looks happy
Ronaldo was energetic as Al-Nassr beat ATIFC 1-0 to return to the top of the table over Al-Hilal. The Portuguese star did not score, but he showed his football talent and intelligence more than once. He also showed a smile.
Al Nasr team boss Rudi Garcia said: “It is up to us to make sure he gets to the best condition. I want him to enjoy playing here – tonight he was happy to play for the first time.”
It was noticeable that the 37-year-old looked like he wanted to be there. This comes after months of frustration at Manchester United. Ronaldo got close a few times and there he was pulling a few strings, and whether the moves were elaborate or not, there was a wry grin.
There has also been plenty of encouragement for his teammates and signs are that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will become a leader on the pitch. This bodes well for the Victory title challenge because they have a player who has won everything there is to win at club level.
2. Al-Hilal has slipped out of the limelight once, but it looks ominous
The champions have not been in their best form this season so far, but earlier on Sunday they beat Abha 2-1 to temporarily lead the way, before Al Nasser returned to the top.
With all the interest in Ronaldo’s debut, there was a sense of weakness in Riyadh with many gaps in the field.
On the pitch, it wasn’t an antique performance either, but other teams will know that as long as Al-Hilal is in the title race, nothing can be taken for granted because this team knows how to win titles.
For a while, the Crescents won’t mind the lights being elsewhere while they quietly go about their business. It’s not a game that will be remembered for long, but it was a strong three-point game against a tough opponent who scored a fine rebound from Abdel Fattah Adam. That wasn’t enough. Jang Hyun-soo scored inside the net from close range, after a header was lifted from Saud Abdul Hamid. And the punishment of Salem Al-Dosari settled the case.
3. Al-Ittihad’s attacking stars shine
Much has been said about Al-Ittihad’s defensive abilities as they have only conceded six goals so far this season, but as evidenced by the 3-0 win over Villa, there is plenty of attacking talent in Nuno Santo.
If Igor Korundo had signed for big money from a team in Europe rather than the United Arab Emirates, he would have been seen as one of the biggest stars in the league. The Brazilian’s free kick midway through the first half was fantastic and put the Tigers on their way. If he keeps his physique, the federation has a real chance.-
Then there is Abdel Razek Hamdallah Al Ghazir, who was brought down in the area after a great skill and then went up to score from the penalty spot.--
There was still time in the first half for a homegrown star to enter the fray. After a great Coronado run, Rona Kamara delivered the three-pointer and there was no coming back from the same offensive display in the first half.
4. Al-Shabaab is beginning to slide
After a 1-1 draw with Altuan, youth coach Vicente Moreno knows he faces his first real test.
It’s been said before, but before the World Cup season, Al Shabab looked like champions. In eight matches before the tournament, they lost only two points – a draw with Al-Hilal. Since play resumed, they have collected just six points from six matches.
It’s no surprise, then, that they fell off the top and are now five points behind the leaders. The goals dried up and the defense lost its strength which was evident earlier this season.
Rivals give less room to the likes of Cristian Genka and Ever Benga and the Argentines are not looking as fluid as before. And although youngsters get a lot of possession, the same quality of opportunities are not being created.
The only positive, apart from the beautiful goal scored by Moetab Al-Harbi, is that Al-Shabab have had some tough matches lately and there are some teams that look friendlier. They need to get back to their winning ways.
5. The title race is more exciting than the relegation battle
Last season there was an incredible battle to avoid relegation and even at the end of the season mid-table teams weren’t safe from relegation and went straight into the net.
The race for the title was good, but it turned into the story of Al-Hilal’s chase for Al-Ittihad.
By now, the problems at the bottom look more decisive and draining with Al Batin already slumping after picking up just three points. The Justice Center also has a lot of work to do.
The top should be more exciting this time around. Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad have the talent to go to the end and push each other to the end. You can’t tell what’s going to happen but with three squads deep and experienced coaches everyone has real ambitions to lift the trophy, and there aren’t many leagues you can say that.
If Young can recover from its current slump, then Three becomes Four and this will be a real treat for the Neutrals. Whatever happens, it’s hard to see one team pull away.