The last-16 draw for the AFC Champions League occurred at the headquarters of the Asian Football Confederation in Kuala Lumpur at the end of last month. It revealed some fascinating knockout matches in pursuit of the continent's most prestigious club football award.
Clubs in East and West Asia are kept apart until the final, but the draw for the last 16 has nevertheless produced some intriguing matchups. The most notable is the all-Saudi Arabian duel between Al Fayha and Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr.
No player netted more goals in 2023 than CR7 but can the former G.O.A.T of European soccer assist Al Nassr in lifting the AFC Champions League trophy this season?
Group E Winners and Round of 16 Opponents
Cristiano Ronaldo will debut in the knockout rounds of the AFC Champions League with Al-Nassr, facing Al-Fayha, a fellow team from the Saudi Pro League.
On February 12, Al-Nassr will attend Al Majma'ah Sports City for the initial match. On February 19, they will host Al-Fayha in the second leg at KSU Stadium.
Cristiano Ronaldo aims to maintain exceptional performance in the tournament, contributing to Castro's team securing first place in Group E. They emerged victorious in four out of six games, thus securing an undefeated record throughout the group stages.
The recipient of the Ballon d'Or award scored three goals on five occasions and provided one assist in four games. Anderson Talisca, his colleague, has had a fantastic performance in the group stage and currently shares the top position in the goalscoring rankings with six goals.
Al-Nassr has already achieved a victory against Al-Fayha this season. In late October, Castro's team earned a 3-1 victory on the road in the Saudi Pro League, which will undoubtedly boost their confidence ahead of this huge clash.
Ronaldo will likely strongly desire to win the AFC Champions League, considering his previous dominance in the UEFA Champions League when playing in Europe. He achieved a remarkable feat by winning Europe's premier club competition on five occasions, making him the first player in history to accomplish this.
What Do the Oddsmakers Think of Al Nassr?
With his track record of winning high-profile competitions combined with his current form, it’s no surprise that the new betting opportunities available for UK punters have Ronaldo and Al Nassr favoured to lift the AFC Champions League in most future betting markets.
That said, the current odds to win the AFC Champions League are closely contested, with Al Nassr and Al Hilal being separated by a mere 0.10 in pricing:
- Al Nassr [4.90]
- Al-Hilal [5.00]
- Al Ittihad [7.00]
- Ulsan Hyundai [11.00]
- Pohang [12.00]
Ronaldo in Saudi: One Year On
It has been a year since Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in Saudi Arabia, causing a significant impact on the world of sports. After a bitter conclusion to his second tenure with Manchester United, the Portuguese icon prioritised financial gain and ultimately relocated to the Middle East.
Ronaldo instantly became the highest-earning athlete in the world at the age of 37, as Al-Nassr offered him an astonishing annual salary of £175 million to join the Saudi Pro League.
Ronaldo and the immense fortune floating around the league exerted a strong influence, attracting other prominent figures to a previously overlooked and average tournament.
Firmino, Benzema, Neymar, Henderson, Mane, and Kante are notable individuals who joined him in the Kingdom.
More importantly, Despite being 38 years old, Ronaldo consistently demonstrated his remarkable ability to score goals, having achieved an impressive 44 goals in 50 matches for Al-Nassr since his arrival in Riyadh.
In addition to his international goals for Portugal, he has scored 53 goals this year and does not indicate decelerating. He is quite likely to qualify for his 11th major event, which will be Euro 2024. However, despite his consistent scoring record, Ronaldo has not been able to win many trophies, which is the primary ambition driving his career.
Joining in the middle of the 2022-23 Pro League season, he failed to motivate Al-Nassr to win the championship, as they ended up five points behind their rivals, Al-Ittihad.
Ronaldo has tasks to do this season. Despite being the leading striker in the league, Al-Nassr is now seven points behind Neymar's Al-Hilal after 18 rounds of the competition.
That said, in August, he became victorious in the Arab Champions Cup, propelled by his two goals in the final, leading Al-Nassr to a 2-1 triumph against Al-Hilal. This achievement serves as evidence that winning the championship in the AFC Champions League is achievable.
Ronaldo and Al Nassr
It isn’t a one-man squad, but with Ronaldo donning the Al Nassr starting XI, their chances of winning the AFC Champions League are dramatically heightened.
Cristiano Ronaldo appears to be more effective this season than any other iteration since the 2016/17 campaign, giving Al-Nassr fans optimism for their first-ever AFC Champions League victory.
In 1995, Al-Nassr was defeated in the final of the premier club championship in Asia by South Korean team Ilhwa Chunma (now known as Seongnam Football Club), with a score of 1-0. The Blue and Yellow team has not advanced to any championships since then, although they have had several noteworthy players in their ranks over the past few decades.
Al-Nassr has been absent from the continental tournament for a considerable period, but they have just returned to participate. In 2019, they advanced to the quarter-final but were defeated by the formidable Qatari team, Al-Sadd, with an overall score of 2-1 in favour of Al-Nassr in Riyadh and 3-1 in favour of Al-Sadd in Doha. Al-Nassr showed resilience in the subsequent year, reaching the semi-finals. However, they were eliminated by Persepolis, a formidable Iranian team, in the penalty shootouts.
In 2021, they maintained their position in the picture and achieved the same semi-final rank. However, their city rivals, Al-Hilal, eliminated them at the same stage in the Riyadh Derby with a score of 2-1. Although they did not participate in 2022, this season, Al-Nassr appears to be performing very well under the guidance of their Portuguese manager, Luis Castro, and with the addition of high-profile players such as Otavio, Alex Telles, Seko Fofana, Sadio Mané, Aymeric Laporte, and Marcelo Brozovic.
Al-Nassr had just equalled their highest winning run in the past ten years, securing triumph in ten consecutive matches across all competitions. Al-Nassr started the season triumphantly by emerging victorious in the final of the Arab Club Champions Cup over their rivals, Al-Hilal. Despite their initial struggles in the league season, suffering two consecutive losses in their first two games, they managed to recover and return to winning form, resulting in an ascent in the SPL rankings and currently occupying the 3rd position.
Ronaldo's ambitions are undeniably abundant, and his family is well-established. Now, he requires the silverware to accompany him, and the AFC Champions League trophy is the perfect fitting.