Al-Nassr v Al-Batin, Friday 3rd March 2023, 8.30pm

I’m beginning to get the hang of taxis in Riyadh. Most of the drivers speak little English and my Arabic is non-existent, so I’ll suggest a destination, they will hand me their phone and I’ll enter it into google maps. Occasionally there will be a meter and even more occasionally they might turn it on.

More often than not the drivers originate from abroad, sometimes Pakistan or Afghanistan but frequently from Yemen, as was the case for my journey to Mrsool Park. Despite our lack of a common language, he rang his family back home and had me say hello and wave to them on a video call. He also stopped at a roadside vendor and got us each a bottle of water.

I’d set off early from the afternoon game I’d been at as I was mindful of the extent of the traffic last time I’d been to this stadium. The journey went well this time, perhaps partly because we approached from a different direction but mainly as I was at the ground a good hour and a half before kick-off.

I’d not had anything to eat since lunchtime and so I browsed the options on the concourse. As well as the usual burgers and hot dogs, different concessions sold cake, ice cream, popcorn, pastries, slushes and coffee. There was also a kebab place doing chicken shawarmas, which is what I went for. It was exceptionally good, way better than the ones that were sold at the World Cup.

I also got a coffee from one of the other concessions, but there’s a no drinks policy in the seats and so I had to stay down in the concourse for a while longer. The wi-fi worked fine though and I was able to keep myself occupied until nearer kick-off time.

The expectation around me was for an easy home win, which wasn’t surprising considering that Al-Nassr were top of the table with Al-Batin adrift at the bottom. It doesn’t always go to plan though and the visitors went a goal up early in the first half. The header had initially been disallowed by the ref for a push, but the decision was corrected by VAR. I say corrected, but the two fellas next to me scrutinized it on their phones and were adamant that it shouldn’t have counted.

Ronaldo could have levelled ten minutes before the break after rounding the keeper. His shot was weak though and easily cleared off the line. A-Nassr applied the pressure in the second half, but it seemed like it wouldn’t be their night. Ronaldo put a couple of free-kicks over the bar and then as the clock ran down missed with a header and then a scuffed shot.

The holding up of the board signifying an additional ten minutes finally brought the league leaders and the crowd to life and four minutes into stoppage time Al-Nassr equalized. Twelve minutes in they scrambled the winner and with Al-Batin punch-drunk, immediately added a third. Those home fans who hadn’t slunk away with ninety minutes approaching went home very happy indeed.

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