Too much should not be read into pre-season friendlies, but few could blame Al-Nassr’s fans for getting excited after their team picked up an impressive 2-1 win over Zaragoza in the Spanish resort of Marbella on Monday, thanks to two goals from Sami Al-Najei.
The victory does not necessarily mean that the title is coming back to the Yellow corner of Riyadh for the first time since 2019, but it does show that the team looks to be on the right track under a new coach and with some major signings.
Certainly fans of the second-tier Spanish side did not take kindly to being beaten by Saudi Arabian opposition. On social media, supporters expressed their outrage, saying that certain players should never wear the shirt of the team that won the 1995 European Cup Winners Cup again. Local media were scathing in their comments, lamenting mistakes at both ends of the pitch.
Little credit was given to Al-Nassr, but that is to be expected. Fans back home will not worry too much since this was a fine performance under new coach Rudi Garcia. The former Lyon and Marseille boss is still getting to grips with life in the Kingdom, as well as his task of trying to steer the team from third last season to first in the coming campaign.
The signs are encouraging. The visitors made it difficult for the Spanish team, worked hard, and for what is still only their second pre-season game (after a 2-2 draw against Las Palmas last Friday), looked relatively cohesive. It was encouraging to see the aggressive intent of Al-Nassr when faced with a European opponent on home soil, and given the players he has at his disposal, there is nothing stopping Garcia building a formidable attacking unit in Riyadh.
Al-Najei opened the scoring with seven minutes remaining in the first half. The midfielder took possession in the center-circle, sent the ball wide and when the Spanish defense failed to clear the cross, he was there to slot the ball home with a low shot.
Then, just after the hour, it was 2-0. Sultan Al-Ghannam’s ball into the area was controlled by Al-Najei, who then turned his defender and beat the goalkeeper at the near post. If one French coach in Garcia would have been happy with the move, so would another — Saudi Arabia boss Herve Renard.
Soon after Garcia made wholesale changes to his team on a warm evening in southern Spain and while Zaragoza pulled a goal back, the Saudi side saw out the game to take the win.
The result will fade in the memory once the season gets up and running, but the confidence that comes from such a win should stand Al-Nassr in good stead. The new signings performed well.
Goalkeeper David Ospina was injured coming out of his area early in the game and the Colombian stayed down for a worrying couple of minutes before carrying on. Just weeks after arriving from Napoli, Ospina barely put a glove wrong and his presence made a difference. As the former Arsenal man spends more time with the defense, the understanding should grow.
Al-Nassr beat off a number of European clubs to sign Ghislain Konan from French club Reims. The Ivory Coast international left-back looked defensively solid against Zaragoza — who had come from behind to defeat Al-Shabab 2-1 on the previous day — but also got forward whenever possible. It is early days, but the 26-year-old could be one of the signings of the season.
There is still more to come. New signing Gustavo has joined the training camp, but the former Bayern Munich and Marseille midfielder has yet to take the field with his team-mates. Talisca, the Brazilian who was one of the stars of last season, arrived in Spain later than the others, but has also started training. Pity Martinez has looked sharp, and after struggling with injuries in the past, having a full pre-season this time should stand the Argentine playmaker in good stead. All in all, the foreign contingent is looking very potent, indeed.
Add that to the solid domestic spine in the team, with Al-Ghannam, Abdullah Madu, Adbulelah Al-Amri, Ali Lajami and match winner Al-Najei all hoping to make the Saudi starting 11 at the World Cup, and Al-Nassr should present a formidable challenge in the coming months.
A pre-season win, even one against a Spanish team in Spain, might not translate into immediate success back home, but it does mean that Al-Nassr fans will have woken up on Tuesday looking forward to the new season a little bit more.