Al-Hilal's Neymar (R) in frustration during their Asian Champions League clash with Navbahor Namangan at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2023. /CFP
Al-Hilal made waves this summer by investing a stunning $377 million on acquiring new recruits. A significant portion of this mouthwatering sum, $96 million to be precise, was allocated to secure the services of Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain, thus establishing him as the most costly acquisition in the annals of Asian football.
No wonder, then, that the Saudi Arabian powerhouse entered their opening match of this season's Asian Champions League against the underdogs of Navbahor Namangan from Uzbekistan on Monday night as the unequivocal favorites.
However, despite the considerable disparity in resources between the two clubs, Al-Hilal experienced a profound alarm as they were forced to net a goal in the dying moments of injury time to salvage a 1-1 draw on their home turf.
Al-Hilal's Neymar lies on the pitch after being fouled during their Asian Champions League clash with Navbahor Namangan at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2023. /CFP
Neymar, who recently surpassed Pele as Brazil's national team's leading goal scorer, was granted a coveted spot in the starting line-up for the very first time following his big-money transfer. Unfortunately, the highly anticipated occasion proved to be a source of frustration for the football icon, as he failed to make an impact throughout the intense encounter.
The former Barcelona and PSG talisman found himself on the receiving end of some rather forceful challenges from the Navbahor players. His exasperation reached a boiling point just before the hour mark when he was not only brought down but also subjected to a rather unpleasant stomping incident while on the ground.
In a moment of heated emotions, Neymar reacted by pushing an opponent, resulting in a yellow card from the referee. To exacerbate matters, he further vented his anger by vehemently striking the ball towards the opposing player who was still lying on the field.
The referee gestures to Al-Hilal's Neymar (R) during their Asian Champions League clash with Navbahor Namangan at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2023. /CFP
In sharp contrast, Navbahor, who finished as the runners-up in the 2022 Uzbekistan Super League, fearlessly took on the challenge against their favored adversaries. Undeterred by the occasion, they boldly seized the initiative and stunned the crowd at King Fahd International Stadium by securing a surprising lead in the 52nd minute, courtesy of Toma Tabatadze's goal.
Neymar had an opportunity to level the score for Al-Hilal by attempting a close-range header in the injury time. However, his effort lacked the necessary precision as it was directed straight towards Navbahor goalkeeper Utkir Yusupov.
Neymar appeared destined to end the match on the losing side; however, Al-Hilal defender Ali Al Bulaihi emerged as the savior for the four-time champions. In the 100th minute of the enthralling tie, Al Bulaihi capitalized on a moment of defensive lapse from Navbahor, as he rose unmarked within the opposition's territory and directed Michael's corner into the back of the net, thus rescuing a valuable point for his embarrassed team.
Al-Hilal's Neymar shoots a corner kick during their Asian Champions League clash with Navbahor Namangan at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2023. /CFP
In this 40-team competition, it is important to note that only the victors of the 10 groups can secure a spot in the last-16 stage. Al-Hilal, at present, find themselves trailing behind Nassaji Mazandaran in the group.
The Iranian outfit marked their Asian Champions League debut with a convincing 2-0 triumph over Mumbai City from India later in the day, courtesy of well-executed goals from Ehsan Hosseini and Mohammad Reza Azadi, one in each half of the match.