Al Nassr have season to remember - despite RSL title miss

When you’re competing for a top-flight trophy against a team that hasn’t lost a match all season, to come out on top you need to be near perfect.

That was the case for Al Nassr this season, as they battled with arch-rivals Al Hilal for the Roshn Saudi League crown.

Take out Al Hilal’s eventual success and, for Al Nassr, last champions in the 2018-19 campaign, this RSL season could barely be described as anything other than hugely positive.

Luis Castro’s side have lost only four times, two of which came in the opening two games of the season, when they were still recovering from exertions in winning the King Salman Club Cup late last summer.

The other defeat? That came against Al Hilal in Matchweek 15 in December - a game in which they thought they had equalised late on through a spectacular Cristiano Ronaldo volley, only to see it ruled out for offside. Football really is a game of fine margins.

It’s also been a season in which Al Nassr have broken many club records, including those for most wins (25), most points (77) and most goals (93) in a season. The problem being, so too did Al Hilal.

Al Nassr have scored a remarkable 93 goals for the season, at an average of three per game, and may even break the magical 100 barrier. Individually, Ronaldo looks certain to win the Golden Boot, and may even break the RSL’s single-season goal-scoring record, which currently sits at 34 (achieved by Abderazzak Hamdallah, also while he was at Al Nassr).

Ronaldo, the club captain, has been leading from the front, with 33 goals. He still has three matches remaining.

What’s more, this season saw the introduction of two extra teams in the RSL, meaning four additional matches, making a like-for-like comparison with previous seasons an inexact science.

However, after 30 games this campaign - the same number as in the previous five seasons - Al Nassr had registered 74 points. It’s a tally that would’ve been good enough to win the league in all five of those seasons.

All of this is to say Al Nassr have had a remarkable season by any measure. But, when competing against Al Hilal’s near-perfection, even the smallest misstep can be significant.

A two-week period at the start of March, in hindsight, was one that was costly to Al Nassr’s aspirations of silverware this season. First, Ronaldo earned a one-game suspension that forced him to miss their home game against Al Hazem and, while Anderson Talisca slotted home a hat-trick, Al Nassr were left stunned when Al Hazem scored an equaliser in the ninth minute of stoppage-time.

Then the RSL’s bottom side, the visitors at Al Awwal Park took a share of the points in a thrilling 4-4 draw. Simultaneously, the shock result boosted Al Hazem’s survival hopes while damaging Al Nassr’s title ambitions.

While Talisca starred in Ronaldo’s absence, it would prove the final game he would play this season; he had picked up a quad injury that has sidelined him since.

To that point in the season, the Ronaldo and Talisca double-act was the league’s most dynamic and dangerous, combining for 35 goal contributions: 22 goals and 13 assists.

It was a bitter blow that robbed Al Nassr of one of their most dangerous attacking weapons, forcing Castro into an attacking reshuffle.

Yes, as a result there were more opportunities for up-and-coming talents, such as Meshari Al Nemer and Abdulaziz Al Aliwa, and Ronaldo again upped his game, scoring three hat-tricks in Talisca’s absence.

The disruption caused by losing Ronaldo - albeit only for one game - and then Talisca in quick succession, however, combined to derail any momentum Al Nassr had in their chase of Al Hilal.

In Talisca’s absence, as Al Nassr adjusted to not being able to look to the Brazilian frontman for inspiration alongside Ronaldo, they lost in following matchweek, again at home to a low-ranked team, this time going down 3-1 to 15th-placed Al Raed.

That loss was bookended by Al Nassr’s elimination from the AFC Champions League at the hands of the UAE’s Al Ain; a shock result the Emirati side backed up by also eliminating Al Hilal in the semi-finals a month later.

Going four games without a win across both competitions was considered a mini-crisis for Al Nassr, with their season looking as though it was falling off the rails. Those five points they dropped in the RSL widened the gap above to Al Hilal to 12 points; a deficit they have not been able to narrow.

While Al Nassr steadied the ship – they have won all eight league outings since - that minor blip was enough to throw their title tilt off track.

Luis Castro - Al Nassr coach

As it was, with Al Hilal not losing a match all campaign until now, even without those dropped points they still would have fallen short. Yet it could be argued that, by being closer to Al Hilal, Al Nassr would have put more pressure on their rivals and perhaps forced some different outcomes.

We will never know. Of course, Al Nassr can still finish the season with silverware after making the final of the King’s Cup. But, even despite not getting their hands on the RSL title, this has still been a campaign in which Castro and his squad can be incredibly proud.