Cristiano Ronaldo gets his first taste of Asian competition on Tuesday as Al-Nassr meets Shabab Al-Ahli of Dubai in a Champions League preliminary round playoff with the rest of the continent wondering if big-spending Saudi Arabian clubs can be stopped.
Al-Nassr finished second in its domestic league last season but since signing the five-time Ballon d’Or winner in December, has added more stars this summer. Marcelo Brozkovic, Sadio Mane, Alex Telles and Seko Fofana have arrived from Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Lens respectively.
The club has lost its first two games of the new Saudi Professional League season and Shabab Al-Ahli may be the champion of the United Arab Emirates but Al-Nassr is still seen as a strong favourite to progress to the group stage, especially as the single elimination game will take place at its Riyadh home.
“In the past, only Japanese and South Korean clubs could compete with Saudi clubs,” Roel Coumans, who left his position as head coach of Saudi Arabian club Abha in the summer, told the Associated Press. “The gap with Saudi teams will become bigger and bigger.”
During his time with Abha, the Dutch tactician grew accustomed to the underdog role while taking on the likes of Al-Nassr. “Now, from ten games in the Asian Champions League, eight will be won by Saudi teams but it is a matter of preparation and you need a belief that you can achieve your ambition and of course you need a little bit of luck.”
If Al-Nassr defeats Shabab Al-Ahli, it will give Saudi Arabia four teams in the group stage that starts in September and they will present formidable opposition for the rest of the continent’s contenders. Al-Hilal, which has a record four Asian titles, has signed Brazilian superstar Neymar and Fulham striker Aleksander Mitrovic in the past week, with Al-Ittihad adding FIFA Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzama from Real Madrid as well as N’Golo Kante and Fabinho from Chelsea and Liverpool.
Earlier in August, the new strength of the leading Saudi Arabian teams was clear for all to see at the Arab Club Cup as rivals from Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and elsewhere in the region struggled to compete.
Saudi Arabia dominated the 16-team tournament with three of the four representatives reaching the last four. Al-Nassr lifted the trophy, defeating Riyadh rival Al-Hilal in the final with Ronaldo finishing as the tournament’s top scorer.
With the Asian Champions League split into two geographic zones until the final, there is some hope for the Eastern powers.
Urawa Reds of Japan defeated Al-Hilal in the final in May but needs to defeat Hong Kong’s Lee Man to progress to the group stage this time.
South Korea’s Incheon United meets Vietnam’s Haiphong. China will be hoping that both Shanghai Port and Zhejiang will progress to the group stage with victories over Thai opposition, BG Pathum United and Port respectively.
For now, though, the focus is on Riyadh and on whether Ronaldo, who won the UEFA Champions League with Manchester United and four with Real Madrid, can lead his new team towards another continental prize.
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