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Saudi Cup: Hilal coach calls Ronaldo great but reveals key in unravelling Nassr

Team work, not big names, did it for Al Hilal, manager Jorge Jesus has said (AFP)
9 Apr 2024 15:00

Kuumar Shyam (Abu Dhabi)

The joy of watching Cristiano Ronaldo in Abu Dhabi was short-lived as Al Nassr lost 2-1 to Al Hilal and made an early exit from the Saudi Cup late on Thursday night. However, the ignominy of a red card for the Portuguese darling for the majority of a packed 36,000-capacity Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium spiced up the post-match interactions.

While Al Nassr coach Luis Castro cried foul over the non-use of Video Assistant Referee (VAR), his Hilal counterpart Jorge Jesus twisted the knife just a little into the wound. 

In the other match of the four-team knockout event, the embattled Karim Benzema ended his four-month drought with the fastest goal in the Saudi Cup when Al Ittihad beat Wehda at Al Nahyan Stadium. Both matches ended with 2-1 scorelines.

Ittihad had an easier run with two first-half goals, including Benzema finding the net through a defensive lapse at the goal mouth, with 55 seconds on the clock.

Al Nassr, with big names such as Ronaldo, Sadio Mane and goalkeeper David Ospina, started on the front foot, got repeatedly exposed on the counter-attack and let the frustration get to them once they went down by a second goal in the 72nd minute.

What happened?

In the 85th minute, an ugly brawl broke out at the sideline over a throw-in claimed by both Ronaldo and Ali Al Bulayhi. Ronaldo appeared to give out an elbow shove but Al Bulayhi went down faking a serious injury, that led to others joining in. Ronaldo got the marching orders and threw a menacing punch gesture at the away-looking referee.

"Ronaldo is one of the most important players in the world and an example for many," said Jesus while answering to questions on his team's preparations against him and thoughts on the red card.

"But he's not used to losing in his career, so it is natural for him to lose his head when he loses, as well as for him to lose emotional and mental focus in defeats.

"It's not easy to play against [Al Hilal's Kalidou] Koulibaly and Al-Bulayhi, they are the best central defenders in Saudi football. Ronaldo is still very strong, he always has been and will continue to be the most important player in the world.

"But we chose to play as a team and credit to our defenders and every one for playing their part for the benefit of the team," the manager said, while also reminding everyone that the team deserved to win by at least 2-3 goals more.

Both sides saw a goal chalked off for offside in the first half, while the second goalscorer Malcolm had a shot hit the upright. Former Arsenal and Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina made three big saves and thwarted some more as Al Hilal took the attack into the Nassr camp in waves.

When the first half ended, the Nassr technical camp also remonstrated with the referee for disallowing their goal earlier. And Castro expressed his displeasure again about the official's non-use of the VAR over Ronaldo's exit.

"It is difficult to talk about the incident in which Ronaldo received the red card," Castro said. "We've seen several clips throughout this season where Ronaldo was provoked and, after seeing some footage, Ronaldo didn't do anything that merited sending off. The rival player [Al-Bulayhi] pretended [to have been hit.]

"There was little contact between Cristiano and the rival defender. He caused a scene and the VAR should have called the referee to review the episode of the sending off."

A cryptic message on Al Nassr's X (formerly Twitter) account said: "You can't change what was already decided before! Thanks to our fans." Al Nassr are out of the Asian Champions League, having lost to Al Ain, and sit 12 points behind Saudi Pro League leaders Al Hilal with seven games left.

The club's exit out of the Saudi Cup leaves the final between Al Hilal and Al Ittihad, with whom Benzema can try to salvage some pride after having a troubled start at the club since his move from Real Madrid. The final will be played at the MBZ Stadium on Thursday at 9.30pm.

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