Ronaldo’s return boosts Al-Nassr’s maiden Asian Champions League title hopes

AP , Sunday 3 Mar 2024

Cristiano Ronaldo returns from suspension on Monday to try and save Al-Nassr’s season and guide the Saudi Arabian team closer to a first ever Asian Champions League title.

Al Nassr s Cristiano Ronaldo controls the ball during a friendly soccer match against Paris Saint-Germain in Osaka, western Japan, on July 25, 2023. AP

Last Thursday, the 39 year-old was banned for one game after making an alleged offensive gesture during a Saudi Arabian league match four days earlier. At the end of a 3-2 win over Al-Shabab, video footage appeared to show Ronaldo cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, in a gesture that seemed to be aimed at Al-Shabab fans.

The punishment meant that Ronaldo watched frustrated from the sidelines during Thursday’s domestic league game as Al-Nassr took the lead four times but ended with a 4-4 draw at home to bottom team Al-Hazm. The result leaves the club in second in the Saudi Pro League and nine points behind leader Al-Hilal.

“Ronaldo strengthens the team and ensures that the opponent respects you more but his absence had nothing to do with the result,” said Al-Nassr coach Luis Castro. “The fact is that we are conceding too many goals and the problem is not organizational but due to individual mistakes.”

“The league result will not affect our game in the Asian Champions League as we will be fully focused on that.”

The continental competition offers Al-Nassr the best chance of silverware this season and the team makes the short trip to take on Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates, winner in 2003, in the first leg of the quarterfinal.

On Tuesday, there is an all-Saudi Arabia clash as Al-Hilal, with a record four continental titles, takes on Al-Ittihad, champion in 2004 and 2005.

Neymar is still missing for Al-Hilal, currently top of the Saudi Arabia league, while Al-Ittihad is waiting to see if star striker Karim Benzema recovers from a muscle injury.

The two teams met in the league on Friday. Former Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante put Ittihad ahead but Al-Hilal came back to win 3-1 to record a 25th straight win in all competitions.

“The players are playing with great confidence,” said Al-Hilal coach Jorge Jesus. “This is a good thing because we are facing important matches in a short period, starting with the Asian Champions League and a tough game against Al-Ittihad and we will have to be at our best.”

Al-Ittihad, the defending Saudi Arabian champion is now in fifth in the league and out of the domestic title race.

“We are moving in the right direction and the Asian Champions League quarterfinal is now the most important game of the season for us,” said Ittihad defender Ahmed Hegazy. “We know that it will be tough against Al-Hilal but this is a different game and we are focused on this.”

In the eastern zone, —the tournament is split into two geographic halves until the final — there is an all-South Korean clash as Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors takes on Ulsan HD. Both teams have won two titles each.

In the remaining fixture, Yokohama F. Marinos of Japan meets China’s Shandong Taishan on Wednesday.

The second legs are played the following week.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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