Ronaldo helps Al Nassr to historic Asia Cup win in Iran
Saudi Arabia's Al Nassr Cristiano Ronaldo reacts in a match with Iran's Persepolis during their AFC Champions League football match at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, September 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

TEHRAN, Iran, (AFP) – Cristiano Ronaldo enjoyed a winning debut in the Asian Champions League as he helped Al Nassr to a 2-0 victory against 10-man Persepolis in Iran on Tuesday night.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner, who has five UEFA Champions League titles to his name, captained the Saudi Arabian side to an opening three points in Group E.

The match at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran was played without fans after the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) upheld a one-game ban for Persepolis supporters dating back to 2021.

That clearly helped Nassr, who grabbed both goals in the second half against the two-time runners-up, through a Danial Esmaeilifar own goal and a fine strike by defender Mohammed Qassem.

It marked the first time a Saudi club played in Iran since 2016, after the AFC announced a “ground-breaking agreement” earlier this month between the two countries' federations.

Iran and Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties seven years ago, meaning Asian Champions League matches had been since played at neutral grounds.

Ronaldo, 38, was heavily involved throughout, twice going close in the first half.

His initial chance - a powerful, close-range header - was sent straight at Persepolis goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand which left Ronaldo beating the post in frustration.

Nassr’s hopes grew considerably at the beginning of the second half, when Persepolis midfielder Milad Sarlak was given a second yellow card, this time for appearing to stamp on Ronaldo’s boot.

Replays showed it was unintentional, the contact minimal.

Ronaldo played a key role in Nassr's opener just after the hour, the Portuguese instigating the move that led to Abdulrahman Ghareeb’s blocked shot cannoning off Persepolis full-back Esmaeilifar and nestling in the net.

Ten minutes later, Nassr left-back Mohammed Qassem broke down the left and thumped his shot high past Beiranvand to double the visitors’ advantage and secure the points.

- Incheon win -

In the group’s other match, Iran’s Istiklol were held to a goalless draw in Dushanbe by Qatari heavyweights Al Duhail.

In Group A, 2003 winners Al Ain secured an impressive 3-0 victory at Pakhtakor in Tashkent, while Turkmenistan side Ahal defeated Saudi opponents Al Fayha 1-0 at home to record only a second win in the competition.

In the East Asian side of the draw, South Korea's Incheon United opened their Group G account with a 4-2 win over J.League champions Yokohama F Marinos in Japan.

As a result, Incheon sit on three points alongside Chinese Super League side Shandong Taishan, who were made to work for their 3-1 victory in Manila over Kaya-FC Iloilo of the Philippines.

In Group I, South Korean champions, and 2020 Asian Champions League winners, Ulsan Hyundai won at home over Thailand’s BG Pathum United 3-1, while Japan's Kawasaki Frontale saw off hosts Johor Darul Ta'zim 1-0 in Malaysia.

The group stage, which this year returned to a home-and-away format for the first time since early 2020, runs until mid-December, with the 10 pool winners and the six best second-placed teams advancing to the knockout rounds.

That begins in February with the final taking place across two legs in May.

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