WHAT WE LEARNED: La Liga, Borussia Dortmund on fire as Juventus dominate Serie A

Lionel Messi's Barcelona are battling in a four-horse title race in La Liga this season. (Reuters)
Updated 24 December 2018

WHAT WE LEARNED: La Liga, Borussia Dortmund on fire as Juventus dominate Serie A

LONDON: As we reach the turn of a new year, Arab News examines the state of play across Europe’s top leagues and what we can expect in 2019.

While the other teams chasing Barcelona in La Liga would rather be in the Catalans’ position, there is no denying that a genuine title race is emerging in Spain and Atletico Madrid and Sevilla must be delighted with their positions in the table (second and third respectively) as the league stops for the winter break.
Atletico are just three points behind Barca and find themselves in a battle with the Catalonia club for the first time since their improbable title win in 2014, and Sevilla are having their best season for a decade. Throw into the equation that newly-crowned FIFA World Club champions Real Madrid have a game in hand and can close the gap between them and Barcelona to five points, you cannot rule Los Blancos out at any stage. We certainly hope La Liga stays this open in the second half of the season, and we get an exciting title race in Spain again.

Speaking of title races, we wrote on this page before the season began that we had high hopes for a much closer battle between Juventus and Italy’s other top clubs. That has failed to materialize, with “La Vecchia Signora” miles ahead of the pack with 16 victories from their 17 games so far this season. The Turin club are a whopping 16 points clear of Inter Milan in third place and eight points ahead of Napoli in second. The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo has paid dividends for Juventus, the Portuguese has scored 11 goals this season and is only two behind the top-scorer Krzysztof Piatek of Genoa.
Napoli scraped to a 1-0 win over lowly Spal at the weekend to keep their hopes alive of catching Juventus, but it seems inevitable the reigning champions will win an eighth scudetto in a row. The only glimmer of hope for the Neapolitans will be Juve’s obsession with landing a third European crown, which might distract them domestically. But, in truth, they will be clutching at straws.

The German league, like the rest of Europe’s top competitions, has also stopped for the winter break and Borussia Dortmund are in the driving seat. They had built a nine-point gap over eternal rivals Bayern Munich before a shock defeat to Fortuna Dusseldorf last weekend saw that gap close to six points. Borussia Monchengladbach had threatened to muscle their way into contention, but a defeat to leaders Dortmund at the weekend saw them drop nine points back and they will need a small miracle to overhaul the “Big Two” in the second half of the season.

The Dutch league is not usually on most people’s radars given the dominance of PSV Eindhoven and Ajax in recent years, but an epic battle between the two has broken out this season, and it will be a case of who blinks first in the new year. PSV’s near perfect record (just one defeat to Feyenoord) this season has been matched by Ajax who have won 15 of their 17 games to remain two points behind the reigning champions, having scored (60) and conceded (8) exactly the same as PSV. Feyenoord are 10 points back in third, so the rest of the season will be a straight shootout between Eindhoven and Amsterdam’s finest, and it will be fascinating to see how it plays out. Definitely one to watch.

KSA’s martial arts heroine: ‘I got into kickboxing by coincidence, as I just wanted to join a gym’

Updated 19 March 2019

KSA’s martial arts heroine: ‘I got into kickboxing by coincidence, as I just wanted to join a gym’

  • Young Saudi triumphant at Open International Tournament despite just two years of training
  • Zahra Al-Qurashi took the gold in the women’s 70 kg category, beating Jordanian Heba Wasfi

JEDDAH: Zahra Al-Qurashi never expected to be where she is today: A gold medal winner in full contact kickboxing at the Open International Tournament for Clubs aged just 21. What started out as a gym class two years ago soon turned into a passion, leading to her victory in Amman on Sunday.

“I got into kickboxing by coincidence, as I just wanted to join a gym. I found the class and gave it a try, and decided to keep attending the classes,” she said. “A year ago, I joined Flagboxing Gym, and started training with my coach Grethe (Kraugerud). With her help, I developed my style and I am improving every day.”

Full contact is a discipline of kickboxing where punches and kicks must be delivered to legal areas of the body. According to the World Association for Kickboxing Organizations’ rules, it is legal to attack the front of the head and front and side of the torso, using “ankle-level foot sweeps.” It is prohibited to attack the throat, lower abdomen, back, legs, joints, back of the head and top of the shoulders.

A medal at her first international competition, then, speaks volumes about Al-Qurashi’s tenacity. She took the gold in the women’s 70 kg category, beating Jordanian Heba Wasfi.

“As soon as I entered the ring, everything went blank, I couldn’t hear or see anyone but my opponent, so I don’t really recall hearing my name even,” said Al-Qurashi. “I got a couple of really good kicks and punches, but she was a good opponent. I was in my own zone though, following every move and made sure I didn’t make mistakes.”

Zahra Al-Quraishi, 21, is already a gold medal winner at an international event despite being a virtual rookie in the demanding sport of kickboxing. (Supplied photos)

Hala Al-Hamrani, the owner of Flagboxing Gym in Jeddah, said: “I am over the moon. I have dreamt about this happening for 16 years, ever since I started coaching. My goal was to eventually provide the ladies of this country with an opportunity to compete.”

For approximately two months, Kraugerud, from Norway, oversaw Al-Qurashi’s workouts, adding more sparring, interval training and intense ring practice.

“I’ve had Zahra spar with men, who are bigger and stronger than her, to give her a sense of what to expect in the ring, to give her more confidence and make her mentally prepared,” said Kraugerud. “I was very proud of her as she entered the ring, you could see the respect for the sport reflected in her. We did a really good job at Flag, we really pushed for this together as a team. She’s young, but she’s talented and she will go far.”

Al-Hamrani, a member of the Saudi Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Federation, added: “We got her ready by providing her with the right practice and training. It’s a dream come true and it’s very overwhelming because it was such a long process for something like this to happen. Zahra is an up-and-coming athlete who hopefully has a long future and I’m extremely excited to see what that future holds.”

Abdul Aziz Julaidan, chairman of the Saudi MMA Federation, hailed the result after a tough bout between the two competitors, and thanked Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, chairman of the General Sport Authority, for the support he had given to the team.

Upon returning to her hometown of Jeddah, Al-Qurashi was greeted by her mother. “I was hugging her and crying and mom, being mom, asked if I was crying because I got hit,” she laughed. “That was her way of saying: I’m proud of you.”