Sports Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad to clash in King’s Cup semifinals

RIYADH: In then end, after a night full of drama, penalties and eventual heartbreak, it was just not enough for Al-Nassr.

Cristiano Ronaldo and co will have to wait a year for their next shot at continental glory, but at least they gave their fans a performance to be proud of on Monday as well as a sense of what might have been. 

On an epic Riyadh night, the Saudi Arabian club found themselves 3-0 down on aggregate to Al-Ain early in this second leg of this AFC Champions League quarter-final.

What seemed like ages later, and when needed most, Ronadlo kept his cool from the penalty spot late into extra time to give Al-Nassr a 4-3 win on the night (and 4-4 draw on aggregate) and take the game to penalties, when they finally succumbed to the United Arab Emirates powerhouse.

Defensively there were issues once again. In attack Al-Nassr, especially Ronaldo, were wasteful but there can be no complaints about their desire and determination. In the past week or two however, they have dropped out of the title-race in the Saudi Pro League and now have only the King’s Cup to challenge for this season. It may not be enough to save coach Luis Castro.

The hosts tried to make the running after losing the first leg 1-0. There were always going to be chances for the visitors however, especially given Al-Nassr’s defensive issues of late. Al-Ain had the best chance of the opening exchanges in the 15th minute. When Mohammed Al-Baloushi crossed to the left side of the box to find Matias Palacios, the stadium held its breath as the Argentine prepared to pull the trigger but his low shot was well-saved by Raghed Al-Najjar.

He was beaten soon after. Soufiane Rahimi, such a handful in the first leg, ran onto the ball just inside the Al-Nassr half and advanced into the left side of the area to calmly shoot through the legs of Al-Najjar. After an incredibly long VAR check for offside, the goal was given, much to the delight of the travelling support. It was always going to be an uphill struggle after that for the nine-time Saudi Arabia champions.

Ronaldo had his first real sight of goal seven minutes before the break as he had time to size up his shot from just outside the area but Khalid Eisa got down well to make the save.

Rahimi showed how it should be done on the stroke of half-time to make it 2-0 on the night, curling a delightful low shot from the edge of the area into the bottom corner. The euphoric celebrations from the players in white suggested that, with a three-goal advantage now, they knew they were going through to the next stage.

Or were they? There was still time for Eisa to start chasing Sadio Mane around the box and though the shot from the Senegalese star was tame, it fell to Abdulrahman Ghareeb who stabbed home.

The second half started in the same way, with Al-Nassr attacking and they drew level on the night after just six minutes. Otavio drove in from the right byline and whether he meant to shoot or cross did not matter as the ball hit Eisa and then bounced into the roof of the net.

This really was game on and the Yellows continued to push forward with Ronaldo swiveling to shoot just past the post. That was a hard chance but seconds later, he missed one of the easiest of his long career. Eisa palmed a shot out to the star, standing two meters out, but somehow, he put it wide. The shock and disappointment on the player’s face was reflected  around the arena. Shortly after, Mane also missed from a little further out as the pressure continued to build.

And then it was all square after 73 minutes as a right-sided Alex Telles free-kick deceived everyone and then ended up bouncing into the net. There were no more goals in regulation time and things took a turn for the worse in extra-time as Ayman Yahya was dismissed for a wild diving stamp.

Moments later, Al-Ain were back ahead. A cross from Palacios was spilled by Al-Najjar and bounced back off the crossbar for Sultan Al-Shamsi to score.

A goal down and a man down, it looked over but Ronaldo saw a great chance saved after 107 minutes. It looked as if this was not to be his night but he did get his goal in the end, from the spot after 118 minutes to take the game into a shootout.

Ronaldo was the only one to find the net as Marcelo Brozovic, Telles and Otavio all failed and that was that. Al-Nassr’s dreams may have disappeared but this game will be remembered for a long time to come.

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