Heartbreak for Cristiano Ronaldo, World Record for Al-Hilal

Cristiano Ronaldo vs Al Ain
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Al Ain (Source: X)

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The Riyadh-based Al-Hilal are already the most successful side in AFC Champions League history, with four continental titles and five other appearances in the final. That’s alongside 18 domestic league championships, twice as many as their nearest rivals. Now, as they stand on the threshold of title No. 19 and a fifth Champions League, Al-Hilal have also played themselves into football’s history books with a 28th straight win. They eclipsed the previous record, set by The New Saints in Wales in 2016, by thumping Al-Ittihad, one of their biggest rivals, 4-0 on aggregate in the AFC Champions League quarterfinals.

The fans’ joy was exponentially greater since Al-Hilal’s entry into the last four of Asia’s premier competition came 24 hours after Al-Nassr, their cross-town rivals, had been dumped out on penalties by the UAE’s Al-Ain in a remarkable match. The sight of a crestfallen Cristiano Ronaldo walking off the pitch knowing fully well that Al-Hilal are now strong favourites to complete the domestic-continental double will be the emblematic image of a season in which Asia’s most storied team have steamrollered almost every opposition.

Ronaldo may lead the scoring charts in the Saudi Pro League, with 22, but the goals that really matter have come from the boot of Alexsandar Mitrovic, the bull-necked Serb who has contributed 20 in the league and a further eight in the Champions League. Even with Neymar, Al-Hilal’s marquee signing, out with a knee injury since October, they have been unstoppable since a 1-1 draw against Damac in September. With 11 matches remaining, the league has become a procession, with Al-Hilal 12 points clear of Al-Nassr in second. Al-Ittihad, last season’s champions, are an astonishing 25 points back at fourth.

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Cristiano Ronaldo for Al Nassr
Cristiano Ronaldo for Al Nassr (Source: X)

Al-Ittihad’s latest setback in a miserable season came without their two big summer signings, N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema. Benzema’s deteriorating relationship with Marcelo Gallardo, the coach, has been one of the most-debated topics in Saudi football, and fans of the club are incensed that Benzema has been more visible on social media than on the pitch in recent weeks.

As for Ronaldo, the Saudi sojourn may have meant enough money for ten lifetimes, but the results on the pitch haven’t matched the hype. His penalty late in extra time gave Al-Nassr a 4-3 win and a 4-4 aggregate result after they had gone two goals behind in the first half. But with only CR7 finding the net in the shootout, dreams of winning a first Champions League vanished into the Riyadh night.

Gallardo, capped 44 times by Argentina, and Al-Ettifaq’s Steven Gerrard are two of the high-profile coaching appointments, but they and others have been upstaged by Jorge Jesus, the Portuguese coach who led Brazil’s Flamengo to the Copa Libertadores title in 2019. Jesus turns 70 in July, but as his team smashes record after record, he seems intent on proving that Marcelo Bielsa isn’t the wisest old head in the game.

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