Al-Nassr rested their overseas stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo, but still ended top of Group E in the AFC Champions League, and unbeaten, after a 1-1 draw at Istiklol of Tajikistan on Tuesday night.
The real story however was Al-Fayha which pulled off a stunning 4-1 win at Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan to progress to the round of 16, where Saudi Arabia will have four teams out of four, after Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad progressed on Monday.
Al-Nassr, coming off a 3-0 loss in the Riyadh derby against bitter rivals Al-Hilal on Friday, had already secured top spot before the clash against the already-eliminated team from Dushanbe. It meant that coach Luis Castro fielded an all-Saudi Arabian starting 11 with Sadio Mane, Anderson Talisca, Aymeric Laporte and Seko Fofana on the bench, and Ronaldo rested and back in Riyadh.
With the hosts already out and the visitors through, there was a lack of intensity and cohesion from Al-Nassr in the first half, unsurprising perhaps given the changes made. It was not a surprise when Alisher Dzhalilov opened the scoring just after the half hour to delight a large home crowd, some of whom could be seen wearing the Riyadh team’s yellow shirt.
Abdulrahman Ghareeb, who was to later make amends, gave the ball away in a dangerous position and Dzhalilov took possession, advanced toward the area and then fired a low shot that rolled past the diving Raghed Najjar who perhaps should have done a little better.
It was a poor first half from Al-Nassr but there was an immediate improvement after the break. Four minutes into the second half, the team from Riyadh were level thanks to Ghareeb.
Goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov palmed out a cross from the right into the crowded box and there was the forward, whose first shot came back off a defender and he then fired home the rebound. Soon after, Ghareeb, visibly growing in confidence, shot from the edge of the area to draw a fine save from Yatimov. Just after the hour, the goalkeeper was beaten but Sami Al-Najei’s shot from the left side of the area rolled just past the post.
Ghareeb and Talisca, who came off the bench, went close before the final whistle. All in all, it ended a fine group stage for Al-Nassr.
It was even better for Saudi Arabia as a whole as earlier Al-Fayha recorded the shock result of the day, coming from behind in Uzbekistan to defeat Pakhtakor 4-1.
The Central Asian powerhouse needed a win to progress to the second round and took a 16th minute lead through Khojimat Erkinov.
The goal fired Al-Fayha into action. Fashion Sakala has been in fine form this season since arriving from Scotland and equalized five minutes before the break. Immediately after, Sultan Mandash put the visitors in the lead and Henry Onyekuru sealed the win near the end. There was still time for Sakala to grab his second and Al-Fayha’s fourth.
The win put coach Vuk Rasovic and his men into second in Group A but they had to wait to find out if they were to advance as one of three of five best runners-up in the western zone.
They needed Persepolis of Iran to fail to defeat Qatar’s Al-Duhail.
It started badly as Persepolis took a seventh minute lead through Shahab Zahedi though the visitors soon levelled thanks to Mohammed Muntari.
With nine minutes remaining, the Tehran titans were awarded a penalty but Giorgi Gvelesiani missed and the Georgian and the home fans were left to rue that spurned opportunity just two minutes later as Michael Olunga gave the Qataris the lead.
Persepolis could not get the two goals needed, meaning that Al-Fahya, which lost three of the first four games of the group, will go through to make it four out of four for Saudi Arabia in the knockout stages.