Five talking points from the latest round of the AFC Champions League

Al-Hilal's players celebrate their equalizer against Al-Rayyan at the King Saudi University stadium in Riyadh on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 07 March 2018
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Five talking points from the latest round of the AFC Champions League

Arab News picks the bones out of the best of the action from Matchday 3 of the region’s top continental club tournament.

SNEIJDER PUNISHES AL-AHLI, BUT SAUDIS STILL SITTING PRETTY

The Saudi Arabians arrived in Qatar to take on Al Gharafa with a maximum of six points from the opening two game and the confidence was there for all to see.
Al-Ahli were aggressive from the beginning. Their movement with the ball will have pleased coach Sergei Rebrov, but the Ukrainian legend will have been even happier with the work-rate of the men in green without the ball. There were everywhere, closing Al-Gharafa down and denying them space.
A well-worked goal on the hour from Aqeel Al-Sahbi was well-deserved and it could have been more had Qasem Burham not been in fine form for Al-Gharafa between the sticks. Still, a third win was within sight when Al-Ahli’s concentration dropped for the only time of the evening. In injury time, Wesley Sneijder was, for once, given too much space just outside the area and the Dutch master created the equalizer for Rubert Quijada. The point was still a good one for the Saudis, though, and they remain top of Group A.

AL-HILAL LACK CUTTING EDGE

There have been complaints about the parking situation at the Al-Hilal’s new King Saud University Stadium and getting through crowded areas proved a problem for the players on Tuesday.
Some of the fans would have not have taken their seats when Al-Rayyan took the lead with a thunderbolt from Mouhssine Moutouali after just three minutes. A second almost followed soon after. Al-Hilal had failed to muster a goal in their previous two Group D games, so there was much relief when Abdullah Al-Zori scored just before the hour mark. Al-Rayyan were thereafter content to sit back and allow Al-Hilal to have the ball in front of them and it was a tactic that worked. The men from Riyadh enjoyed more than three quarters of the possession, but did not create any more clear chances than the visitors and a draw was another disappointing result. The one positive for Al-Hilal, who are still without a permanent coach, is that they may only have two points from the first three games, but are just a point off second. They still might get out of the group despite not having a win at the halfway stage.

EAST ASIAN TEAMS ARE THE ONES TO BEAT

Whichever team from West Asia makes it to the final, you already feel they are going to have their work cut out to record only a second win over eastern opposition since 2005. Jeonbuk Motors and Guangzhou Evergrande are the two powerhouses from the other side of the draw and they look in ominous form. The South Koreans and the Chinese have some serious firepower and Jeonbuk have already scored 15 goals in the group stage, including six against Tianjin Quanjian on Tuesday. Guangzhou helped themselves to five against Jeju United this week, sensationally recovering from two goals down to win 5-3. Evergrande have declared they want to field an all-Chinese side by 2020, but it was their Brazilians who inspired the turnaround, with Ricardo Goulart scoring four second-half goals and Alan Carvalho getting the other. It was Fabio Cannavaro’s first Champions League win as coach of Evergrande and you suspect it won’t be the last.

REFEREEING STANDARDS UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT AS AL-AIN GET HELPING HAND

The UAE giants hit Esteghlal for six in 2017, but this is a different version of the Tehran titans who defeated Al-Hilal in the previous round and they should have done the same with Al-Ain on Tuesday.
With the score at 1-1, Al-Ain were handed a soft penalty with 16 minutes remaining, but Marcus Berg’s effort was saved excellently by Seyed Hossein Hosseini in the Esteghlal goal.
Soon after, the Iranians retook the lead but were denied all three points by another dubious spot-kick decision. With just four minutes remaining, the Malaysian referee awarded another mystifying penalty and this time it was converted by Ahmed Khalil to give Al Ain a 2-2 draw that was scarcely deserved.
Iranian fans are up in arms — and the anger is understandable when decisions are that bad. Asia’s flagship competition deserves better.

THE CENTRAL ASIAN CHALLENGE SHOULD NOT BE UNDERESTIMATED

Sandwiched between east and west, Central Asia tends to get overlooked. This is especially understandable at club level as a semifinal place is the best ever Central Asian effort.
Uzbekistan’s two teams this year are both in with a chance of progressing. Nasaf Qarshi have six points and picked up an impressive win over Al-Sadd this week. The other Uzbek representative, Lokomotiv Tashkent, may have lost two out of three, but those have been successive and very tricky away fixtures at Zob Ahan and leaders Al-Duhail. At home, the fabulously-named Lokomotiv have the chance of getting the points.
It is unlikely that the region will welcome a champion for the first time in the Champions League, but both Uzbekistan teams will be pushing for the second round.


Jose Mourinho’s sacking leaves the ‘Special One’ at a career crossroads

Updated 18 December 2018
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Jose Mourinho’s sacking leaves the ‘Special One’ at a career crossroads

  • Since the middle of last season, Mourinho had been involved in a power struggle with senior members of the playing squad
  • A string of uninspiring performances since the season started saw Mourinho come in for criticism from all sides

LONDON: Five years after being snubbed for the Manchester United job immediately after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho has once again been unceremoniously rejected by the club after two-and-a-half fractious and tumultuous years at the helm.
And the truth is, it was an inevitable divorce.
Since the middle of last season, Mourinho had been involved in a power struggle with senior members of the playing squad, openly criticized board members for a lack of backing in the transfer window and the majority of fans had started to turn on the so-called “Special One” and his tactics.
And while they would never do so publicly, no doubt several of the players who had fallen foul of Mourinho’s wrath were privately breathing a sigh of relief when the club announced that Mourinho had left the club with “immediate effect” on Tuesday.
Indeed, the player Mourinho clashed with the most — £89 million ($112 million) midfielder Paul Pogba — deleted a controversial social media post of himself smiling after the news broke.
That controversy was a microcosm of the French World Cup winner’s stormy relationship with Mourinho.
But the former Juventus player, who retuned to Manchester United having already been with the club during the Ferguson era, was repeatedly criticized by Mourinho during his reign and Pogba was stripped of the United vice-captaincy earlier this season.
The pair were captured having a frosty exchange on the training ground as Mourinho grew angry with his key midfielder’s lethargic performances, dropping him on several occasions to spark talk he would be sold by the end of the season.
And even on the pitch, the writing has been on the wall for a while.
A string of uninspiring performances since the season started saw Mourinho come in for criticism from all sides, as the Portuguese became more and more embittered and paranoid in his dealings with the media.
The final straw for the club was Sunday’s 3-1 defeat to Liverpool, who United usurped as the biggest club in England under Ferguson’s 27-year reign. And the Scot was seen shaking his head as he watched his dynasty unravel in front of his eyes at the hands of United’s bitterest of rivals.
While the Merseyside club battle it out for the Premier League title with Manchester City and Tottenham — all playing a refreshing, exciting brand of football — United find themselves 19 points adrift of the summit and struggling to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Mourinho’s stagnant, defensive approach jarred with supporters, some of whom have only known the rampant attack-minded approach the club used to such devastating efficacy under Ferguson.
Mourinho was brought in to bring back those glory days after David Moyes and then Dutchman Louis van Gaal struggled to step out of Ferguson’s shadow.
And despite first-season League Cup and Europa League titles, he has failed miserably since. And he has bought himself little good grace with fans and officials, finding new excuses and ways to blame each latest defeat on his players, while ungraciously reminding critics of previous successes at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
But this ignominious end for Mourinho in what he called his “dream job” leaves him at a crossroads in his career. Few clubs will have been inspired by his playing style with a highly-talented team, even fewer will want to deal with the off-field tantrums and constant bickering.
Having arrived in English football as a breath of fresh air, he leaves it (for now) like a foul odor. With the prospect of no club to manage, no trophies to win and no teams to build, Mourinho is now much less the “Special One,” and more and more likely to be the “Tainted One.”