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Miguel Angel Russo kicks off reign as Al-Nassr boss with unforgiving Riyadh derby against champions Al-Hilal

For a new coach of Al-Nassr, an opening game against city rivals Al-Hilal has the potential to be a blessing as much as a curse, but for Miguel Angel Russo, Thursday’s Riyadh derby could set the tone for the rest of his tenure in one of the most demanding jobs in Asian football.

These are trying times at Al-Nassr. Despite considerable investment in the playing squad in recent years, the club are sitting in seventh in the Saudi Professional League, nine points off the lead as the halfway stage approaches. Defeat at the hands of their bitter rivals would surely mean an end to already slim hopes of a title challenge. 

It would be a bitter disappointment for fans of the club. Al-Nassr supporters are already feeling a little underwhelmed at the arrival of the Argentine boss, as they had their hearts set on a tactician who is better-known, in Europe at least.

Russo’s major prize was winning the Copa Libertadores with Boca Juniors in 2007,

Rudi Garcia, the former Roma and Marseille coach who left Lyon in the summer, was reported to have agreed to take the position before changing his mind.

More successful Argentine coaches, such as Marcelo Gallardo, who has been in charge of River Plate since 2014 and was named South American coach of the year in 2018, 2019 and 2020, were linked with the job, as was former Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde.

Instead, the role has been handed to Russo. “I am looking forward to the challenge of being in charge of such a prestigious club,” said the former Estudiantes midfielder, who arrived in Riyadh last week.

“I am ready to work hard and do all I can to bring success to Al-Nassr.”

Russo has held more than 20 head coach positions in a career spanning more than three decades. Apart from brief periods in Spain and Mexico, however, he has never worked outside South America and, at the age of 65, has a lot to learn — and quickly. 

He surely knows already that Al-Nassr is no place for the faint-hearted. Russo, fired by Boca Juniors earlier this season, is the sixth coach in the past 12 months. It is almost exactly a year since Rui Vitoria was fired. The Portuguese boss was replaced by Croatia’s Alen Horvat, who was replaced by ex-Brazil manager Mano Menezes, who was replaced by Pedro Emanuel in October. The Portuguese tactician lasted just six weeks, with his quick departure meaning that Marcelo Salazar has been in temporary charge until the new coach was in place. 

Russo has been working on fitness, set pieces and defensive organization this week, but has to deal with some absences for the game with Al-Hilal. International center-back Abdullah Madu is out, as is midfielder Abdulfattah Asiri. Khalid Al-Ghannam and Ayman Yahya, who has just returned from the Arab Cup, will have to pass fitness tests.

It makes a tough first game tougher, but while losing to Al-Hilal would be a poor way to start his tenure — set to last until the end of the current season — it does offer opportunity. A win would immediately put the feel-good factor back into the team after a poor result last Friday. Al-Nassr took the lead at relegation-battling Al-Tai, only to lose 2-1, with the hosts winning the game deep into injury time.

Three points would also help the nine-time champions climb back up the table, and would also go some way to avenging the AFC Champions League semifinal loss in September when Al-Hilal won 2-1.

Al-Hilal may be newly crowned continental champions and will move just two points off the summit if they win, but there are concerns for coach Leonardo Jardim.

While Al-Nassr can get some revenge on their rivals for that Asian last-four loss, Al-Hilal need to get their heads back in the domestic game.

After going on to defeat Pohang Steelers of South Korea 2-0 in the final to lift a record fourth Asian championship, the team have drawn both games against Abha and Al-Feiha. The reigning domestic title-holders will want to avoid dropping many more points. 

Right-back Mohammed Al-Breik has tested positive for COVID-19, while Saudi Arabia team-mate Mohamed Kanno will be missing from midfield as he is suspended. Hamad Al-Yami and Gustavo Cuellar are set to step in. Nasser Al-Dawsari, the hero of the AFC Champions League final who scored a spectacular goal from the left-back position, is injured and will be out for two months. 

The Riyadh derby is always a big game, but for Al-Nassr and their new boss, Thursday’s clash is huge. Al-Nassr need this more than Al-Hilal, but it remains to be seen whether that is an advantage.



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