Saudi Arabia slowly starting to reap benefits of partnership with La Liga

Salem Al-Dawsari (C) celebrates after scoring a goal during the friendly football match between Saudi Arabia and Greece at the Olympic stadium in Sevilla. (AFP)
Updated 16 May 2018
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Saudi Arabia slowly starting to reap benefits of partnership with La Liga

  • Three Saudi players on loan to Spanish clubs
  • 'All three actually return in better shape and in better condition than they were before'

The Saudi Arabia national team arrived back in Riyadh yesterday after 22 days in Spain, yet for three of Juan Antonio Pizzi’s squad, their sojourn in southern Europe has lasted much longer.
Since January, Fahad Al-Muwallad, Salem Al-Dawsari and Yahya Al-Shehri have been living in a different kingdom to that which they are accustomed. The high-profile trio are just three of nine players who moved from the Middle East to the Mediterranean on loan as part of a deal between the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, the country’s General Sports Authority and La Liga.
The deals proved a bone of contention both in Spain and Saudi Arabia. The Spanish footballers’ union claimed at the time that the agreement “prioritises the economic aspect over the sporting one,” while those in the Gulf questioned the timing, asserting that key players would struggle to break into their respective first teams and arrive back lacking match fitness.
In the end, only Al-Muwallad — a speedy winger whose goal in the 1-0 win over Japan last September secured his country’s World Cup qualification — has managed minutes with his first-team. He came off the bench for Levante with 10 minutes remaining of last week’s 3-0 win over Leganés. There is one round of the Spanish season left and Al-Dawsari and Al-Muwallad have returned to their clubs in a bid to be involved.
Question marks surrounding the trio’s fitness have followed them throughout the past five months. While Al-Muwallad’s involvement with Levante meant he missed much of this month’s camp in Marbella, Villarreal’s Al-Dawsari and Leganés’ Al-Shehri were given permission to leave their respective clubs early and join up with the national team. On Tuesday night against Greece, after discussions with the Saudi medical team, both completed 90 minutes for the first time this year.
“First of all, thanks to God that I have had this opportunity to train here in Spain with Leganés,” Al-Shehri told Arab News. “It has been a wonderful experience to have close contact with such a high level of professionalism and train with a top club with European players. Even without playing a game, I am sure it will reflect well on my game, my technical level and I will try to improve more and more this aspect — both physical and technical.”
Al-Dawsari headed the opening goal against Greece on Tuesday, while Al-Shehri — looking notably leaner than he did six months ago — scored in last week’s friendly win over Algeria. The 27-year-old said the crucial lesson he will take back to Saudi with him is the need for dedication.
“The biggest thing for me has probably actually been the routine — the daily routine, the food, the training sessions, it is very organized. I had extra training sessions in the gym to improve my strength, so thanks to God, I think I got the maximum benefit out of it. Now I hope to go on and reach a higher level again and continue this improvement,” he said.
Pizzi, meanwhile, said he could understand concerns regarding three of his key men not playing competitive matches in the run up to the World Cup, but dismissed any doubts that the experiment was badly timed. The Argentine, who played in La Liga for seven years with Tenerife, Valencia and Barcelona, said his players’ fitness has improved since last year.
“I am very glad they have had this experience. It is unfortunate they weren’t able to play with their teams, but we cannot expect a revolution — it was a deal with La Liga. And all three actually return in better shape and in better condition than they were before,” Pizzi said, before adding with a smile, “Plus now they understand a few words of Spanish, too.”


Hardik Pandya sparks England collapse as India take control of third Test

Updated 40 min 40 sec ago
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Hardik Pandya sparks England collapse as India take control of third Test

NOTTINGHAM: Hardik Pandya took five wickets and debutant wicket-keeper Rishabh Pant claimed five catches before India’s batsmen piled on the agony for England in the third Test at Trent Bridge.
India were 124 for two in their second innings at stumps on Sunday’s second day, an already commanding lead of 292 runs in a game where victory would see them keep the series alive at 2-1 down in a five-match contest.
Cheteshwar Pujara was 33 not out and India captain Virat Kohli, whose 97 was key to his side’s first-innings 329, eight not out with three days left in the game.
Earlier, England collapsed to 161 all out in a first innings that lasted a mere 38.2 overs.
All-rounder Pandya took five wickets for 28 runs in six overs, including four for eight in 11 balls, as he revelled in the swing-friendly conditions.
This was the second time this year that England had lost all 10 wickets inside a session of Test cricket following an embarrassing 58 all out against New Zealand in Auckland in March.
The irony was that England enjoyed a solid opening partnership to be 54 without loss.
But the exit of left-handers Alastair Cook (29) and Keaton Jennings (20) on that total sparked a collapse that saw eight wickets lost for 74 runs.
Only Jos Buttler’s 39 kept India at bay and denied Kohli the chance of enforcing the follow-on.
Admittedly, the overcast conditions made batting difficult, but England’s top-order problems run deeper than bad luck with the weather.
When Cook edged Ishant Sharma to give Pant an easy first Test catch it meant England’s all-time leading Test run-scorer had made 252 runs in the format at a meagre average of 19.38 this year.
Next ball, Jennings, one of 12 batsmen to have opened in Tests with Cook since Andrew Strauss retired six years ago, was squared up by the recalled Jasprit Bumrah and nicked to Pant.
New batsman Ollie Pope fell for 10 when a genuine glance off Sharma was well caught down the legside by the 20-year-old keeper.
England captain Joe Root only managed 16 before he edged all-rounder Pandya’s first ball low to KL Rahul at second slip.
The umpires called for a review but made a ‘soft signal’ of out and the on-field call was upheld.
Ben Stokes, recalled just days after being acquitted of an affray charge on Tuesday following an incident outside a Bristol nightclub in September last year, walked out to a few boos from the crowd.
He could only manage 10 before an edge off paceman Mohammed Shami flew waist-high to Rahul.
Chris Woakes had bailed out the top-order with a maiden Test century in England’s innings and 159-run win at Lord’s last week.
But trying to hook Pandya on eight, he got a top edge and Pant, going down the legside, changed direction and lept back to his right before holding a brilliant one-handed catch.
England were now 118 for seven.
The first ball of Pandya’s next over saw Adil Rashid well caught by Pant, two-handed this time.
Stuart Broad survived the hat-trick ball but was still out for a duck, the left-hander plumb lbw to a Pandya inswinger.
At 128 for nine, England still needed two more runs to avoid the follow-on.
They got them when Buttler’s leading edge off Shami just cleared Ajinkya Rahane at cover-point.
Buttler, with just last man James Anderson for company, hooked and drove sixes off Shami and Sharma respectively before he holed out off Bumrah.
India’s openers put on a brisk 60 before Rahul (36) deflected a drive off Stokes onto his stumps and Shikhar Dhawan (44) was stumped by Bairstow off leg-spinner Rashid.
But when play ended in bright sunshine, England needed to surpass the record fourth innings score to win a Test at Trent Bridge, their own 284 for six against New Zealand in 2004, to achieve an improbable success.