It was the best of debuts for coach Pedro Emanuel and the vast majority of the 20,000 fans who cheering for Al-Nassr in Mrsool Park, in Riyadh. However, it was a sad ending for the UAE legend Ismail Matar despite his late goal for Al-Wahda.
On Saturday, Riyadh wore its brightest yellow dress as the 2021 AFC Champions League produced a memorable night for the home side. Jaloliddin Masharipov, Abderazzak Hamdallah and Anderson Talisca were at their scintillating best, leaving Al-Wahda boss Henk ten Cate in no doubt over what had happened as he concluded his post-match press conference with a straightforward message, “They were better than us and that’s a fact.”
A mesmerizing show of the local football culture was produced by the crowd and, while the avalanche of streamers thrown on the bench postponed kick-off by nearly 10 minutes, the Al-Nassr faithful left their new boss gushing.
“In some moments, I just sat on the bench and enjoyed the environment between the fans and the team. This is why I’m a coach, this is why I enjoy football,” said Emanuel.
Seven minutes was all it took for Al-Nassr to get off the mark as a string of quick passes in the attacking third included an exquisite backheel pass from Talisca for Masharipov, who set up Hamdallah to do what he does best and beat goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Shamsi from inside the box for his 16th continental goal for the club.
Al-Wahda did their best but it was not enough. Joao Pedro threatened from distance, Omar Kharbin came close and UAE national team’s rising starlet Abdullah Hamad worked tirelessly throughout.
“It was a real lesson for us. The difference was in the chances, they had six chances and they scored five, we had five chances and we scored only one,” said Ten Cate.
In the second half. Al-Nassr were 3-0 up 10 minutes after the restart as Masharipov curled into the bottom corner from outside the box and Abdulfattah Assiri raced into the six-yards-box to tap in Hamdallah’s cross after the Moroccan had danced around the Emirati defence down the left.
A ruthless finisher at his best, Hamdallah seemed to have discovered a new side to his game under Emanuel, producing another fine assist with a through ball to send Masharipov clear on goal and the Uzbek international buried in the ball, and with it all the pain from the red card he got at the same stage of the competition last year as his former side Pakhtakor crashed out against Persepolis.
Fresh off the bench and with a two-goal man-of-the-match display against China under his belt, youngster Sami Al-Najei capped off a fine move. Talisca fed a diagonal ball to substitute Abdulrahman Al-Obaid, who headed it across goal for Al-Najei to score.
Emanuel, returning to the kingdom for a second spell after leading Al-Taawoun to King’s Cup glory two years earlier, heaped praise on his team.
“I am very happy with the quality, not only of the foreigners, but also the local players as we saw with the national team, and we saw here today. This quality is why I wanted to come back to this country and that is also why I am happy to be back,” said Emanuel.
The game was all settled by the time 38-year-old Matar leapt to head home Mahmoud Khamis’ cross from the left to make it 5-1 seconds before the final whistle, but this was an important moment. The Al-Wahda playmaker, the best player in the 2001 FIFA Youth Championship and one of the finest the UAE has produced, was emotional as he received a standing ovation from the home crowd after his goal. That strike could prove to be his last AFC Champions League memory in a long career. Ten Cate made sure he mentioned his club captain’s legacy.
“He is a big player and he deserved this greeting, he is getting older and there comes a moment when he has to stop because he is almost 40,” said the Dutchman.
“But if you see what he gives to this team, he deserves this standing ovation, and I was happy for him to score. Maybe it was his last Champions League game because next year we are not here, so this was a nice send off for him from the Saudi fans.”
All eyes will be on Mrsool Park on Tuesday as Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr battle it out on the continental stage for the first time, with a place in the final up for grabs. For Al-Wahda, the hard work begins now as they head home thinking of ways to turn around a run of five consecutive draws in the UAE Pro League.