NFL PLAYOFF PREVIEW: Patriots, Chiefs, Saints and Rams one game away from glory

1 / 4
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) looks to pass against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first quarter in an AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)
2 / 4
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) runs off the field after defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in a NFC Divisional playoff football game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints won 20-14. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)
3 / 4
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (16) passes against Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) in the first quarter in a NFC Divisional playoff football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)
4 / 4
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws a pass against Indianapolis Colts defensive end Margus Hunt (92) during the second quarter in an AFC Divisional playoff football game at Arrowhead Stadium. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Updated 19 January 2019

NFL PLAYOFF PREVIEW: Patriots, Chiefs, Saints and Rams one game away from glory

LONDON: And then there were just four.

The NFL’s conference championship games kick off on Sunday, with the Patriots and Chiefs contesting the AFC side of the draw, the Saints and Rams facing off in the NFC. With just one game standing between the four sides and a shot at Super Bowl glory, Arab News examines why each team can make it to Atlanta for the Feb. 3 showdown.

AFC: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS vs NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Put simply, the Chiefs can win their match-up with the Patriots — and probably the whole thing — because of Patrick Mahomes. If he performs at the scintillating levels he has produced since the very first week, New England will find him too hot to handle.

Mahomes’ first season as a starter has been nothing short of miraculous, it was the second-best single season by a quarterback in NFL history. In a full 16-game season, he managed to complete 66 percent of his passes for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns, with a 113.8 passer rating. He is just the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in a single season, after Peyton Manning’s heroics in 2013.

And Mahomes’ efforts were needed for this Chiefs outfit who managed a 12-4 record in the regular season, despite their defense allowing a whopping 26.3 points per game. The defensive line could be the Chiefs’ downfall, but given the brilliance of Mahomes this season, fans at the Arrowhead could well be celebrating a first Super Bowl appearance since 1970.

Meanwhile, there will come a time when preview pieces such as these will have to stop featuring Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s Patriots. But, despite not being at their metronomic best, that time is not now. The New England juggernaut just keeps rolling on. A win next month in the Big Game would be the Patriots’ sixth title since 2001, and the secret to their success in winning the previous five has been coach Belichick and quarterback Brady’s ability to outsmart any opponent. If the legendary duo can come up with a way to do the same to Andy Reid’s Chiefs, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who thought the Patriots would not go all the way.

In the final weeks of the regular season and first rounds of the playoffs, the Patriots also improved their running game immeasurably. It all clicked into place against the Chargers in the divisional game where Sony Michel looked unstoppable. Couple this with the traditionally blistering pass game of Brady-Gronkowski-Edelman, and that air of invincibility so associated with the Patriots will once again shroud the greatest team of the 21st century.

NFC: NEW ORLEANS SAINTS vs LOS ANGELES RAMS


Outside of Missouri, Boston and California, New Orleans are most people’s pick for Super Bowl glory this year. And aside from the emotional attachment many NFL fans have to the Saints, their performances on the field this year would warrant a second title in a decade. They will need to come out of blocks early, though, as their slow starts in the regular season threatened to lose them games they should have won easily. The Rams have a fantastic offensive line, and if the Saints are asleep in the opening stages, they could find themselves two scores behind in the blink of an eye.

Coach Sean Payton is renowned for taking risks — think the fake punt against Philadelphia in the division game last week — and always seems more comfortable calling plays when ahead. And while usually ruthless at killing games off, it was the Rams who almost pulled off a remarkable comeback in the Superdome earlier this year. The Saints will need that ruthless streak if they are to win it all.

It has been a breathtaking turnaround for the Rams since they appointed head coach Sean McVay— the youngest coach in modern NFL history — in 2017. After years of mediocrity in St. Louis and a poor start after returning to LA, McVay has revolutionized this franchise, which now find themselves one game away from the Super Bowl.

In Jared Goff, too, they have a superstar quarterback — protecting him from the workmanlike defense of the Saints will be key if the Rams are to upset the apple cart and overcome New Orleans. If Goff stays safe in the pocket and the Rams utilize a mixed offensive game, the Rams faithful could be traipsing east for the big one next month, knowing their team has beaten one of the best on the way to a fairytale ending to the season.


The 10 best Arab footballers to play in Europe

Updated 01 June 2020

The 10 best Arab footballers to play in Europe

  • As football takes tentative steps back toward normality, we take a look at some of the best Arab talent to make their mark in Europe’s top leagues

DUBAI: Germany’s Bundesliga is back. Spain’s La Liga, Serie A in Italy and the English Premier League, and maybe even the Champions League, are set to follow soon.

This means the likes of Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez and others will once again be on our screens chasing some of the game’s top prizes.

As football takes tentative steps back toward normality, we take a look at some of the best Arab talent to make their mark in Europe’s top leagues.

10. Ali Al-Habsi

The only player from the Gulf to make the list, and one of a handful to try his luck abroad, Ali Al-Habsi is nothing short of an icon in his native Oman. 

Having started at local club Al-Mudhaiba, his career has seen him play for Norway’s Lyn Oslo before a move to England and stints at Bolton, Wigan (where he won an FA Cup medal despite not playing in the 2013 final against Manchester City), Brighton and Reading. A two-year spell in the Saudi Professional League with Al-Hilal was followed by a return to England and West Brom, where he currently remains at the age of 38.

Admired and loved everywhere he has gone, and a role model and hero in his country and across the Gulf.

9. Mido

Many see this as a career that promised more than it delivered with the much-traveled Egypt international perceived not to have made the most of his undoubted talent during his European journey. Still, he has a track record that few Arab footballers can match, with spells of varying success at Ajax, Marseille, Roma, Tottenham, Middlesbrough and West Ham, among others.

After starting his career in Cairo with Zamalek, Mido made his big move to Europe by joining Genk in Belgium, but really caught the eye at Ajax, where he partnered a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack, and won the Eredivisie title in 2001-02. 

A turbulent international career brought 51 caps, but he will mostly be remembered by European audiences as a maverick talent with a nomadic streak that never truly settled at any of his clubs.

8. Hakim Ziyech

To many football fans, Hakim Ziyech only came to wider attention in the past two years, but at 27 he is already a veteran of eight years of top-flight football in Holland’s Eredivisie. 

After spending two years each at Heerenveen and FC Twente, he truly blossomed after joining Ajax in 2016.

Despite representing the Netherlands at age group levels, the Dutch-born Hakimi eventually chose to play senior international football for Morocco, and in 2018 was part of the team that acquitted itself so well at the World Cup in Russia.

In 2018-29 he delivered some outstanding displays as Ajax progressed to the Champions League semifinal — where they were ultimately beaten in heartbreaking fashion by Tottenham — and also won the Eredivisie title. His performances against Real Madrid and Juventus, as well as his consistency in the Dutch top flight, quickly marked him out as one of  Europe’s hottest prospects. Chelsea emerged as the big winners in the race to sign Ziyech, paying €40 million for his services as of next season.

Holland’s loss is the Premier League’s gain.

7. Achraf Hakimi

Another young superstar on the rise. Achraf Hakimi remains officially on the books of Real Madrid — where he had spent a decade as youth and first team player — but has for the past two seasons proved himself as one of the continent’s finest right-backs with Borussia Dortmund. 

His forays into the opposition half and goal contributions, whether scored or assisted, have invited comparisons to Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold as two of the finest players in their position today.

With his two-season loan deal in Germany about to expire, the Madrid-born 21-year-old is set to return to his parent club where coach Zinedine Zidane could well consider him ready to be starter.

Despite not playing in the 2017-18 Champions League final against Liverpool while still at Madrid, Hakimi claimed a winners’ medal to become the first Moroccan to achieve that feat.

Hakimi was part of Morocco’s squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and with 28 caps to his name already, a long and successful career at club and international level beckons.

6. Abdelkrim Merry (“Krimau”)

A true pioneer in every sense. One of the first Arab footballers to star in Europe, the man nicknamed Krimau played his entire career in France. But unlike many North African footballers who followed in his footsteps, the Casablanca-born forward would end up representing Morocco, rather than his adopted home, fleetingly but to great acclaim.

His meagre international career of only 13 matches included his nation’s memorable participation at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where Morocco topped their group ahead of European heavyweights England, Poland and Portugal.

Against the latter, Krimau captured the imagination of the watching world, scoring once and generally running the Portuguese defense ragged as Morocco ran out 3-1 winners. The result confirmed them as the first African and Arab nation to progress to the knock-out stages of the World Cup, where they narrowly lost to eventual finalists West Germany.

At club level, Krimau started off at Bastia before playing for Lille, Toulouse, Metz, Strasbourg and Saint-Etienne, to name just a few of his clubs. 

5. Noureddine Naybet

Younger fans may not be familiar with Naybet’s career, but the Moroccan international is to this day fondly remembered at Deportivo La Coruna, for whom he won one Spanish La Liga title, one Copa Del Rey and two Spanish Super Cups after joining from Nantes in 1996. 

Naybet, capped 115 times by his country, and a veteran of the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, had joined Portugal’s Sporting Club from Moroccan powerhouse Wydad before moving to France in 1993.

Rounded up his career in Europe in the Premier League with two seasons at Tottenham, but his heroics in Spain is what he will forever be revered for.

4. Mehdi Benatia

Yet another of the string of Moroccan internationals to excel in Europe, with his medal collection the envy of most footballers around the world.

The French-born Mehdi Benatia has spent the entirety of his career in Europe, starting out at Marseille before eventually moving to Udinese and then Roma in Italy.

It was at Bayern Munich and Juventus, however, that he hit the peak of his career, winning two Bundesliga and three Serie A titles respectively as well as enjoying German and Italian cup success.

Capped a wonderful career by leading his country to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, after an absence of 20 years from football’s ultimate stage.

3. Riyad Mahrez

The gifted Algerian winger’s two Premier League titles could not have been in more different circumstances. The first, with Leicester City in 2015-16, is widely regarded as one of football’s most unlikely triumphs, one that to this day stretches credibility. The second, in 2018-19, was part of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City side that claimed the Premier League trophy for the second year running.

All of which makes his relatively modest introduction to English football all the more remarkable.

After joining Leicester from Le Havre at the start of 2014, he helped the club to win the Championship a few months later and, after a difficult first season in the top flight, that miraculous Premier League title as well as the PFA Player’s Player of the Year for good measure.

Remains one of a select group of 10 players to have won English football’s biggest prize with two different clubs.

2. Rabah Madjer

One of the first Arab players to make an impact in Europe. And what an impact it was.

Rabeh Madjer gained worldwide acclaim with the equalizer for Algeria in their stunning 2-1 win over West Germany at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. That proved to be an inspiration for a stellar career.

After seven years at hometown club NA Hussein Dey, Madjer joined Racing Paris in 1983, before moving on two years later to Portuguese giants Porto, where he enjoyed the best and most memorable years of his career. Most famously, he scored a memorable back-heeled equalizer against Bayern Munich in the 1987 European Cup Final, which Porto eventually won 2-1.

Later that year he scored an extra-time winner against Penarol of Uruguay as Porto won the Intercontinental Cup (the predecessor to the FIFA Club World Cup) in Tokyo.

Three Portuguese league titles and 50 goals in six years confirm him as one of his nation’s, and Arab football’s, greatest exports.

1. Mohamed Salah

Arguably the most recognizable and greatest Middle Eastern and Arab footballer of all time. He excelled at Basel in the Swiss Super League, and then struggled to get playing time at Chelsea, before a spell in Italy with Fiorentina and Roma set him on the path for global domination.

Since signing for Jurgen Klopp’s team in the summer of 2017, he has become one of the world’s best players, his move coinciding with, even inspiring, Liverpool’s transformation from contenders to proven winners. In his first season, the man fans call the Egyptian King finished top of the Premier League scoring charts with a record 34 goals and played a leading role in Liverpool’s march to the Champions League final, where he famously was injured and substituted in a 3-1 loss. He also won FIFA’s Puskas award for a solo effort against Everton.

The following season, Salah retained the Golden Boot as Liverpool just missed out on the Premier League title, but made up for it with Champions League success, the forward scoring the opener in the 2-0 win over Tottenham in the final. This season, the 27-year-old Salah finds himself on the verge of winning the Premier League trophy, something Liverpool have not done in 30 years.

Having led Egypt — for whom he has scored 41 international goals — to the 2018 World Cup, his legendary status, at home and for Liverpool, is beyond debate.