Victory, but with a painful twist for Al Nassr and Pity Martinez.
His tortured start to life in Riyadh, after September’s $18 million switch from Atlanta United, appeared closer to a definitive end after a deflected eighth-minute free-kick versus Al Wehda made it five goals or assists in little more than four Saudi Professional League run-outs. The Argentina winger had notched just one assist in the prior five top-flight matches, as new employers endured a nightmare start and foundations were laid for 2018/19 title winner Rui Vitoria’s eventual departure.
His reported side injury would cause an anguished premature exit before the half-hour mark in Wednesday’s 3-1 triumph, the former crisis club’s fifth in their last six outings. It is vital for hopes of sustaining Nassr’s resurgence under caretaker Alen Horvat that no serious blow has occurred – a correlation is apparent between Martinez’s growing influence and improved results.
The 27-year-old was acquired at a lavish price to break the dependence on Morocco internationals Nordin Amrabat and Abderrazak Hamdallah, plus provide a vital alternative attacking outlet to take the fight to multifaceted holders Al Hilal.
This transition has been more fitful than hoped – or expected. There are early signs, however, that it is finally under way.
Martinez’s “complicated legacy” from Major League Soccer, as detailed by SB Nation, appeared to have travelled with him to the Middle East. Precious little of the bountiful talent exhibited at River Plate by the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year was on show for his top-flight debut, a 2-1 loss to Al Fateh, when an xG (expected goals) of 0.03 was recorded, or just one failed through-ball attempt was made in an invisible 2-0 derby defeat to Hilal.
Hamdallah has barely been around to drag them free from the drop zone. Even when present for 438 minutes, one SPL strike has followed.
A substantial decline from 2019’s global top scorer.
Amrabat has delivered goals at Al Faisaly and Al Batin, though zero assists for a player largely stationed on the wing speaks volumes about shrinking output. So, too, a descent from the division’s leading average of 12.2 dribbles per 90 minutes last term, to this a present figure of 7.8.
Nassr’s early season issues cannot be solely apportioned to their toothless Atlas Lions.
Lashings of blame could be sent Martinez’s way, before weighing up a coronavirus outbreak and the rest.
Martinez has, though, responded as an eight-figure purchase is required. A deft free-kick played in the onrushing Petros to open the scoring in a 2-2 draw with Damac, he had a direct hand in the opening two goals from the 3-0 win versus promoted Al Ain and struck against Wehda.
Only celebrated compatriot Ever Banega (31) of second-placed Al Shabab has produced more through balls than Martinez (30).
Consistency, now, is fundamental. The 2020/21 crown is, surely, already gone for a seventh-placed Nassr, nine points off the leading pace after 13 matches.
There will be, though, a 2021 AFC Champions League to tackle. A King’s Cup quarter-final with Al Ain is scheduled for March.
These are pivotal figures in Nassr’s modern history. Hamdallah has produced 64 goals in 58 SPL run-outs, while Amrabat sits on 11 goals and 21 assists in 66 top-flight fixtures.
Equally dominant foreigners are needed to provide firm foundations for a youthful squad, full of promise.
Martinez is still some way short of those numbers.
He must be that man. Starting now.
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