Al-Ettifaq 2-1 Al-Nassr: Cristiano Ronaldo misses through injury as Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson get off to a winning start in Saudi Arabia

About an hour before kick-off, the Islamic call to prayer echoed through a nearby speaker in the compact, bowl-shaped stadium.

Officials drenched in sweat stood on the athletics track waving their arms enthusiastically and rehearsing chants with excited schoolchildren ahead of a game that was expected to have an attendance of about 15,000, with 11,000 seats left unturned.

The nighttime temperature was 36 degrees Celsius, so humid it felt like the last few seconds of a steam bath session, in an environment that resembled an Indian cricket ground more than a Premier League arena.

Cameramen took their places and put wet towels on their heads. Outside, peddlers traded merchandise almost exclusively with the colors of the visiting team, who had nearly as many followers as the hosts indoors.

This was not Liverpool. This was not Anfield. This was not Sunderland. This was the Prince Mohammed bin Fahad bin Abdulaziz Stadium, where Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson took the first steps of their Saudi careers at Al-Ettifaq on a steamy night on the country’s east coast.

Steven Gerrard got off to a winning start with Al-Ettifaq manager with a 2-1 win over Al-Nassr

Just three minutes and thirty-three seconds after kick-off, the magnitude of the task presented itself as the big guns of Riyadh’s Al-Nassr, without an injured Cristiano Ronaldo, took the lead thanks to an old friend.

Sadio Mane’s journey to the Middle East has gone relatively unnoticed in the spending spree and none of Gerrard’s defenders have seen him here, as he snuck in from close range to get home.

The away game, where about 2,000 people gathered, was celebrated, as were big yellow bags in the home sections. This felt like a smaller club against a relative giant.

The first half was low quality. That was understandable for a much changed Al-Nassr, who was involved in an exhausting victory in extra time in the Arab Club Champions Cup final on Saturday night. But Gerrard, hands on hips and dressed in black, seemed frustrated as he patrolled the edge of his equipment room, yelling instructions and clapping his hands to no avail.

At least there was some fame. Twice Henderson tried his air through balls, but here there was no Salah to run towards and the goalkeeper came and rallied on both occasions. He also turned in the area, sent a defender to the shops, but misplaced his cross over the crossbar.

Gerrard had hinted that this was a big job. He is not with a superpower and will have to earn part of his mammoth salary at halftime.

Dammam, the home of Al-Ettifaq, already has an integral place in Saudi history. It was here, in 1938, when a team of drillers from California finally hit the rich oil vein that would change the fate of the country. It’s a city built on that oil, a giant Texas of the desert. But from a football perspective, there have been tough years.

Al-Ettifaq won the league twice in the 1980s, but there has been no title since. Henderson will know that feeling, but it remains to be seen if he can be part of a celebrated team that breaks that run.

But there was luck. Shortly after the restart – in which Gerrard (and his translator) presumably had spoken harsh words – Henderson fired a corner kick into the penalty area and Al-Nassr keeper Nawaf Alaqidi, who appeared to have lost the ability to catch, touched it without any pressure a ball. . The Swede Robin Quaison tapped in.

On 52 minutes Al-Ettifaq had the lead as Alaqidi hit another cross and this time Moussa Dembele, formerly of Celtic, scrambled it home,

The visitors pressed but could not find a response. Henderson, with his shirt taped to his chest, left an ovation after 87 minutes. For a 33-year-old who covers every blade, the rest of the scorching summer will be a tough introduction.

Fourteen minutes were added, enough time for Mane to disallow the equalizer for offside.

It wasn’t pretty, but this was a good start. This was not Liverpool, but it was three points.