RIYADH: When Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Al-Nassr on the last day of 2022, he couldn’t have imagined that his first match in his new home of Saudi Arabia would be against a team that included his great rival Lionel Messi.
But, having missed his new club’s last two matches due to a ban from his time at Manchester United, fate decreed that Ronaldo will make his long-awaited bow in the Riyadh Season Cup, a friendly match between a local select eleven and Paris Saint-Germain.
He did not let his new army of adoring fans down either, scoring twice as the French champions eventually ran out 5-3 winners over the Riyadh Season XI.
Fireworks had greeted the teams as they stepped out onto the field at King Fahd International Stadium on night when the temperatures dipped to low of 8C. On the pitch over the next 90 minutes, there would be plenty of fireworks too.
The early moments, strangely, saw France’s World Cup hero Kylian Mbappe jeered every time he touched the ball. It would not be long before he would have the first laugh.
Only three minutes had passed when Neymar, wide on the left, exchanged passes with Mbappe before clipping a delicious pass for Messi to finish first time with delicate flick of his left boot.
It was a goal worthy on any occasion, and, in the battle of the two legends, first blood to the Argentine.
On six minutes, Ronaldo broke free but his left footed shot was easily saved by Kaylor Navas in PSG’s goal. The new Al-Nassr man was looking lively in the early stages, his every touch cheered by the majority of the crowd.
Minutes later, Navas saved well to his right from Luis Gustavo’s low shot, but it was the French team that looked like scoring almost with every attack, and Neymar should have when he shot tamely at Al-Owais from just outside the six-yard box on 12 minutes.
The teams continued to exchange attacks, with the home team surprisingly cohesive in possession having had limited training time together under the guidance of Argentine coach Marcello Gallardo.
The majority of the danger continued to come from PSG’s left flank, and on 25 minutes Mbappe broke free to finish past Al-Owais, but the effort was rightly ruled out for offside. Two minutes later, Messi’s long range shot was deflected for a corner.
On the half hour, Navas, attempting to fist a freekick away, succeeded only in catching Ronaldo in the face. Penalty to the Riyadh Season XI and though the Portuguese star took a few moments to get to his feet, there was not much doubt who will take the spot kick.
Ronaldo made no mistake, dispatching his shot high into the net and celebrating with in his trade mark manner. “Siu,” chanted the crowd in unison.
Just over half an hour in, it was Riyadh Season XI 1, PSG 1. Ronaldo 1, Messi 1.
Five minutes later, the momentum looked to have swung towards the home team when Juan Bernat was sent off for a wild challenge on Salem Al-Dawsari, scorer of Saudi Arabia’s winner against Argentina at the World Cup.
But that advantage lasted barely seconds as PSG captain Marquinhos tapped home from close range on 43 minutes.
Two could have become three for PSG when a sweeping move saw Messi put yet another chance on a plate for Neymar, but Al-Owais saved smartly at his feet.
As the first half entered is final moments VAR concluded Ali Al-Bulayhi’s tackle on Neymar was a penalty, but the Brazilian’s weak spot kick was comfortably saved by the Saudi No.1.
There was still time for the moment that the locals – indeed everyone with a newly-found interest in Saudi football – had waited for.
As the clock ticked down, Ronaldo’s flicked header struck Navas’s left upright, but the 37-year-old was there to smash home the rebound.
The crowd erupted, again; 2-2, but now Ronaldo 2, Messi 1.
The second half picked up where the first left off, with each team taking a swing at the other.
Mbappe’s low cross was converted by Sergio Ramos to give the visitors the lead once again on 53 minutes. Three minutes later, Jang Hyun-soo headed home the equalized form a corner.
The home crowd’s joy didn’t last long, Mbappe reenacting his World Cup final heroics by converting his side’s second penalty of the night for a 4-3 lead on the hour mark.
Almost immediately, perhaps with an eye on more serious matters in the coming days, Ronaldo was taken off to a massive ovation.
Not to be outdone, Messi was substituted seconds later, the great rivals walking in each other’s steps to the bitter end.
Not surprisingly, the level of excitement dropped a level with exit of the main attractions but no one was leaving early, and on 77 minutes Hugo Ekitike score PSG’s fifth after a fine run and finish into the roof of the net.
Anderson Talisca’s excellent left footed strike from outside the area on 94 minutes mad it 5-4, before the final whistle brought loud cheers as the departed heroes returned to the pitch
All that was left was for Ronaldo to receive the Man of the Match award and Marquinhos to lift the Riyadh Season Cup. A fitting end to a night that saw the two greatest players of this, or any, generation, on the same pitch perhaps for the very last time.
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