In a pivotal moment for Cristiano Ronaldo and his new team Al Nassr, the Portuguese forward is set to embark on his first major challenge with the Saudi Arabian club. Today, at 19:20h, Al Nassr will vie for their qualification to the next phase of the Asian Champions League, the premier continental tournament in Asia, with its winner earning the coveted spot as the region’s representative in the Club World Cup.
Having finished second in the league last season, Al Nassr did not secure a direct slot in the competition. Instead, they find themselves in a do-or-die situation, facing off against Emirati side Shabab Al Ahli in a one-off match on home soil. A victory would grant them entry into the group stage, while defeat would mean that Cristiano Ronaldo, along with teammates Sadio Mané, Seko Fofana, Marcelo Brozovic, and Alex Telles, will not participate in this season’s continental competition. It’s all or nothing.
This crucial match, which could shape Al Nassr’s entire 2023-24 season, comes at a time when the team is experiencing uncertainties in the early stages of the league. With two defeats in their first two matches, Al Nassr is the only Saudi investment-backed team yet to secure a point.
“The start of the season was excellent, winning the Salmán Cup [Arabian Champions League], but we lost the first two league matches. We still need to improve as a team,” warned Luis Castro, the Portuguese coach of Al Nassr, following their defeat against Al Taawon last Friday.
Furthermore, the eligibility criteria for the Asian Champions League has sparked an internal storm within Al Nassr. Each team can only register five foreign players, along with one player from another Asian nationality. Consequently, Luís Castro had to make a choice, and as a result, left out Talisca, a fan favorite until Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival. This decision may hasten Talisca’s departure from the team.
Despite the lack of recent positive results to bolster their optimism, Al Nassr should, in theory, overcome their opponents today, given the abundance of star power within their squad. With only one Asian Champions League title to their name, dating back to 1995 when the competition was known by a different name, Al Nassr’s most recent appearance in the tournament was in 2021, where they were eliminated in the semi-finals by fellow Saudi club Al Hilal. In the 2020 edition, they reached the penultimate round but were defeated on penalties by Iran’s Persépolis.
Now, with Cristiano Ronaldo, the player with the most appearances (183) and goals (140) in the European Champions League, beginning his journey in the Asian Champions League, Al Nassr’s fate hinges on their ability to overcome Shabab Al Ahli today.