Both Omar Khribin and Al-Hilal at a crossroads after a year of ups and downs

Having won the Asian Player of the Year title Omar Khribin's season was blighted by injury.
Updated 24 April 2018
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Both Omar Khribin and Al-Hilal at a crossroads after a year of ups and downs

  • Asian player of the year just back from injury could follow path walked by Mohamed Salah
  • Despite winning the title Al-Hilal season has been a mixture of good and so-so

DUBAI: In the end, Omar Khribin returned in triumph. But not before a season of ups and downs.
The Syrian forward was named Asia’s best player last November, but there was always the sense that he was not appreciated beyond the Saudi Professional League were he plays for newly crowned champions Al Hilal.
For club and player, this has been a defining season.
Before the league title was wrapped up with a comprehensive 4-1 win over Al-Fateh, thanks to Khribin’s hat-trick, there was a traumatic AFC Champions League campaign to endure. Having reached the final of the continent’s premier competition as recently as November, an exit from the 2018 edition in the group stage has been hard to stomach for supporters dreaming of a third title.
It has been a curious season for the champions, one that saddled contrasting AFC Champions League campaigns, seen a Saudi Arabia World Cup qualification and of course a managerial departure.
Al-Hilal dispensed of the service of Ramon Diaz on February 20, a day after a 1-0 loss to Esteghlal in the AFC Champions League, a seemingly harsh move considering his previous achievements in the competition not to mention a league title last year.
In truth, performances had dipped below what Al-Hilal’s supporters and, crucially, board expect. There was also an exit from the King’s Cup at the hands of Al-Qadisiyah; the loss to Esteghlal in their second Group D fixture (having drawn the first 1-1 at home to Al-Ain) was the final straw.
The incoming interim manager Juan Brown had to do without his side’s most potent weapon, and it is not stretching a point say that Khribin’s absence for three months through injury played a major role in Al-Hilal’s inconsistencies.
The 24-year-old had played a pivotal role in the club reaching the ultimately disappointing final against Urawa Red Diamonds last year, and his leadership and goals have been missed this time around.
In 2017, his 10 goals were a competition high, helping cement his reputation as one of Asia’s most feared strikers and, along with his contribution to Syria’s gallant stab at World Cup qualification, earned him the Asian Player of the Year award.
Suddenly, Khribin was the continent’s hottest property, less than a year after joining Al-Hilal from the UAE’s Al-Dhafra.
So where do Al Hilal and Khribin go from here?
Mohamed Salah’s astonishing first season at Liverpool has rocketed him into the bracket of world’s best players, and is now being held up as an example for other Middle Eastern players.
Khribin, at only 24, is one of the select few who can potentially carve out a career abroad should he choose to. While others like Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout have so far shunned interest from foreign clubs, could Khribin be the next Arab to make a big move to one of Europe’s elite leagues?
So far there has been no indication that the player wants a move, and Al-Hilal will certainly be doing all they can to keep hold of their prized possession as they look to maintain their domestic dominance and reassert their continental credentials in 2019.
First order of business would be to confirm a full time manager, and barring injuries the new man will still be working with the best squad in Saudi Arabia, and one of the strongest in Asia.
The Moroccan Achraf Bencharki has been a successful addition to the ranks of foreign players that include Ali Al-Habsi, the Argentine Ezequiel Cerutti and the Uruguayan Nicolas Milesi, as well as the injured and much-missed Brazilian Carlos Eduardo.
Captain and Hilal stalwart Yasser Al-Qahtani may have announced his retirement after last week’s title triumph, but the club remains home to some of the best local talent around, many of whom will represent their country at the World Cup in Russia.
No doubt more ingoing and outgoing transfers will be conducted during the summer.
The title win has eased the pain of the Champions League exit, and if Al-Hilal can hold on to their best players, above all Khribin, even better things can be expected next season.


Warriors down Rockets, force Game 7 in NBA West finals

Updated 27 May 2018
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Warriors down Rockets, force Game 7 in NBA West finals

OAKLAND, California: Klay Thompson hit nine 3-pointers and scored 35 points, the Warriors held James Harden down in the second half, and Golden State rallied from an early 17-point deficit to stave off elimination with a 115-86 victory over the Houston Rockets on Saturday night to force a deciding Game 7 in the Western Conference finals.
Stephen Curry added 29 points and five 3s on a night Harden dazzled for long stretches with 32 points, nine assists and seven rebounds while backcourt mate Chris Paul sat out sidelined by a strained right hamstring.
Kevin Durant struggled with his stroke at 6 for 17 but still scored 23 points as the defending champions kept their repeat quest alive by thoroughly outplaying Houston in the second half. The Warriors outscored the Rockets 55-20 in the second half before both coaches subbed their key players with 4:28 left.
A dynamic, star-studded series projected to be as captivating and compelling as the actual NBA Finals is going the distance. Game 7 is Monday night back in Houston.
Golden State stymied Harden on consecutive possessions early in the fourth with smothering defense led by Nick Young and several helpers, then Thompson hit a 3-pointer from the left wing at 9:40 for an 89-77 lead. And roaring Oracle Arena went crazy with hopes of even more home games to come if Golden State can get to a fourth straight finals.
Thompson came through with his best performance of these playoffs with the season on the line, just as he did in a 2016 Game 6 of the Western Conference finals at Oklahoma City when he went off for 41 points against Durant and the Thunder to force Game 7.
He was a combined 20 of 32 from 3-point range in those two games.
“I don’t want to go home,” Thompson said. “We worked too hard this season to go home. And this is what we play for.”
The Warriors used another of their signature third quarters to take an 84-77 advantage going into the final 12 minutes, then maintained that dominant level this time down the stretch, unlike their last home game at roaring Oracle Arena when they blew it in Game 4 on Tuesday.
Both teams let it fly from every corner of the court — Golden State hitting 16 3-pointers and Houston 15.
The Warriors outscored Houston 93-47 over the final three quarters.
Thompson’s baseline 3 in transition with 3:35 left in the third put the Warriors up 76-74, then Curry hit from way back the next time down over Gerald Green. Curry did it again moments later from deep.
The Warriors opened the third with an 11-0 burst to go ahead 62-61 on Curry’s 3 at 9:17, also getting a pair of 3s from Thompson and a dunk by Durant. Houston committed four quick turnovers.
Yellow-clad Oracle came alive, too.
Golden State did it playing again without forward Andre Iguodala, who missed his third straight game of the series with a bone bruise in his left knee sustained in Game 3.

TIP-INS
Rockets: The Rockets made 8 of 12 3-pointers in the first and topped the Warriors 19-4 in fast-break points. ... Houston committed 11 first-half turnovers, five early. ... Harden shot 4 for 12 on 3s.
Warriors: Golden State’s 33-point third quarter was its first 30-point period since the third in Game 4. ... The Warriors shot 4 for 18 in the first half from long range. ... Golden State is 4-1 when facing elimination dating to the 2015 championship. ... The Warriors are 16-8 all-time in Game 6 of postseason series. ... Second-year G Patrick McCaw, who had been out since a scary back injury at Sacramento on March 31 when undercut by Vince Carter, received a roaring ovation when he entered the game late. He quickly grabbed a rebound. ... Kerr listed Iguodala as day to day because there’s still pain in the knee when running.

PAUL’S PRESENCE
Paul is receiving treatment “around the clock,” according to coach Mike D’Antoni.
Having him on hand still meant so much.
“He’s devastated. He has to be. We’re all devastated for him. At the same time, we’ll rally and do what’s right,” D’Antoni said. “He’s so integral in what we do and the spirit of the team. And him being here is a big deal, and him being on the bench is a big deal. He’ll will us through, if he can.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr felt terribly for Paul — and others who have gone down.
“More than anything, I feel bad for Chris. The guy is a phenomenal player and competitor, and pretty much willed his team the last two games. He’s just been haunted by these types of injuries in his career, and it’s a shame,” Kerr said.
“I hate when anybody gets hurt. I hate when Andre got hurt. I hate to see Kevin Love last night, Kyrie (Irving). These guys train so hard and they’re here and they’re competing, and you want everybody to be healthy, but just the reality is it usually doesn’t work out that way. So you’ve just got to keep playing with whoever’s there and keep going.”