Al Hilal kick off defense of SPL title with nervy 1-0 win over newcomers Al Ain

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Al-Hilal beat Al-Ain 1-0 on Saturday at the King Saudi University Stadium in Riyadh. (SPA)
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Al-Taawoun clash with visitors Al-Faisaly in Buraidah on Saturday. (SPA)
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Al-Shabab beat Abha Club 1-0 in the opening match at the Prince Stadium Faisal bin Fahd in Riyadh on Saturday. (SPA)
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Al-Hilal beat Al-Ain 1-0 on Saturday at the King Saudi University Stadium in Riyadh. (SPA)
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Al-Hilal beat Al-Ain 1-0 on Saturday at the King Saudi University Stadium in Riyadh. (SPA)
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Updated 18 October 2020

Al Hilal kick off defense of SPL title with nervy 1-0 win over newcomers Al Ain

  • A goal by defender Ali Al Bulaihi was enough to give Răzvan Lucescu’s team three points after their recent AFC Champions League exertions

Al-Hilal kicked off their defense of the Saudi Professional League (SPL) title with a narrow 1-0 win over promoted Al-Ain at King Saudi University Stadium in Riyadh, but the winners of a record 16th league title only last August had a far-from-easy ride against a team playing their first ever top flight match.

A goalless first half had seen Răzvan Lucescu’s team dominate the majority of the possession, and have a goal by Omar Kharbin ruled out for offside, while Al-Ain patiently sat back and looked to hit the champions on the break from one of their rare counterattacks. 

Al-Ain played commendably in the opening period and Niger international Amadou Moutari in particular stood out for the visitors as they worked diligently to keep a clean sheet against a team many expected to stroll to an easy opening day win.

However, with Al-Hilal clearly the fitter and more technically superior of the two teams, it was only a matter of time that Al-Ain’s defense would be breached.

The breakthrough came only three minutes into the second half, Ali Al-Bulaihi bundling in Sebastian Giovinco’s free-kick from close range. It looked like normal service would be resumed, but Al-Hilal, despite continuing to dominate, struggled to create too many clear cut openings.

On 75 minutes Lucescu introduced the trio of Jang Hyun-soo, Mohammed Al-Breik and the club’s French top goalscorer Bafétimbi Gomis (for Kharbin), and the latter had a chance to double the lead immediately but placed a very presentable chance just the wrong side of the post.

Strangely, that proved to be the prelude to Al-Ain’s best spell of the match, the team with barely any pre-season training to speak of finally throwing caution to the wind and ensuring that the champions would not close out the match with the ease they had been expecting.

But despite getting into a few promising attacking positions, Al-Ain failed to trouble Al-Hilal’s goal and the home team were glad to hear the final whistle.

“This for our fans, we miss them,” match-winner Al-Bulaihi said. “This was a very tough start, but we got the three points so we’re thankful.”

Al-Hilal had spent the latter part of the summer taking part in the AFC Champions League in Qatar, which meant several players were missing through injuries or were being rested.

“Though we missed some players, the replacement players are always ready to take their opportunities when they come,” Al-Bulaihi added. “We might miss two or three players, but we always play with the usual Al-Hilal character.”

Meanwhile, Ahmed Ashraf was pleased to help Al-Hilal to winning start after spending last season on loan at Al-Faisaly.

“We’re happy with our efforts and the first three points of the season,” he said. “We only trained for five days after returning from Qatar. Five days wasn’t enough, but thankfully in the end our efforts produced the result we wanted. If you win the first match, it gives you momentum going forward.”

“The loan to Al-Faisaly was so I could get more playing time,” Ashraf added. “It makes a big difference to play rather than sit on the sidelines. I feel I gained a lot from the experience and I’m glad to be back home. Today I’m glad to be one of the group who got the three points.”

Al-Ain’s Moroccan international Mohamed Nahiri admitted that his team knew exactly what to expect on their debut in the Saudi top flight.

“In truth we are very happy to be playing in the Saudi Professional League,” he said. “You can see the difference in standard here, playing against Al-Hilal is not easy. But we performed well and were up to the task, and hopefully we will make the Al-Ain’s fans proud.”

Earlier Al-Wehda overcame Al-Qadisiyah 2-1 in sensational style at King Abdulaziz Sports City Stadium, Dimitri Petratos and Ahmed Abdoh Jaber scoring in the 90th and 95th minute to break the resilience of the gallant visitors, who had taken the lead through a 31st minute penalty by Hassan Al-Amri.

In the other two matches of the opening day of the SPL season, Al-Shabab defeated Abha Club 1-0 thanks to a first half Makhete Diop goal; and Al-Taawoun and visitors Al-Faisaly shared the points after Iago Acevedo dos Santos’s goal for the home team was cancelled out by Igor Rossi Branco’s 80-minute strike. 

The remainder of match day one fixtures, which will take place on Sunday, will see Al-Nassr host Al-Fateh; Al-Ahli visit Al-Batin; Damac at home to Al-Raed; and Al-Ittihad hosting Al-Ettiofaq.

World Cup winner Rose Lavelle eyes FA Cup glory with Manchester City

Updated 30 October 2020

World Cup winner Rose Lavelle eyes FA Cup glory with Manchester City

  • The American midfielder will face Everton at Wembley just over two months after moving to England
  • On Sunday, Lavelle and her team-mates take on Everton at Wembley in the delayed 2020 FA Cup final

DUBAI: For a second or two, the World Cup winner was left speechless.

“No way, wait really? Your name is my name?” she asks the star-struck little fan standing in front of her just weeks after playing a major role in the US Women’s National Team triumph at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.

Rose Lavelle had just met Rose Lavelle. 

The video of the Manchester City’s new American star meeting her mini-me namesake went viral, confirming her own popularity on the back of the wildly successful World Cup.

“That was so cute, I thought I was being pranked for a second,” Lavelle, preparing for the FA Cup final on Sunday, told Arab News. “It was so cool, and I think it’s so special to be able to give back to the sport that same way that it gave to me. I know how huge it was for me to have role models that I looked up to, that I tried to envision myself being in their shoes one day. So I think it’s so cool now that I’m able to hopefully serve that same inspiration and motivation for younger players to be in my shoes one day.”

(When Rose Lavelle met Rose Lavelle: YouTube video)

Lavelle is being modest, playing down her own astonishing rise over the last few years.

At last year’s World Cup, she scored her nation’s second goal in the final against the Netherlands and was named in the tournament’s best 11. She also claimed the Bronze Ball as the third best player in the tournament. Later she was ranked sixth in the The Best FIFA Football Awards 2019. In August this year, having been transferred from Washington Spirit to NWSL rivals OL Reign, she made the move to Manchester City.

Lavelle joined a team bursting with some of the game’s best players including England captain Steph Houghton, 2019 UEFA Women's Player of the Year Lucy Bronze, England stalwart Jill Scott, former Olympique Lyonnais left-back Alex Greenwood and fellow USWNT World Cup winner Sam Mewis.

“I’ve obviously played against a lot of these girls at international level, but I think coming here I have even more respect for them because I see how talented they are and how much they know the game,” Lavelle said. “It’s been awesome to come here and play with them, and not against them, and also to be able to learn from them every single day. I feel like I’m constantly learning and getting better every day.”

For obvious reasons, the move could not have come at a more complicated time, and Lavelle had to quarantine for two weeks on arriving in England. Still, the 25-year-old has taken the disruptions in her stride.

“It’s been pretty good being on the team and there was definitely a little bit of adjustment,” she said. “To be fair, I still feel like I’m kind of adjusting and learning. But it’s something that’s making me so much better. It’s great to be in this environment, I’m really grateful to have this opportunity especially with everything that’s going on, having this avenue to play every single day.”

Manchester City’s women’s team are now fifth in the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) standings, having won two, drawn two and lost one of their early season matches. They also beat Everton 3-1 in the FA Women’s League Cup, a match in which Lavelle scored a brilliantly kicked equalizer.  All have been played to the backdrop of empty stadiums.

“Obviously the fans make the atmosphere so fun and incredible, and I would love to experience playing in front of an English crowd,” she said. “I’ve never played in front of a crowd in England before. I’ve only ever trained in England, I’d never played a game. But obviously health and safety are the most important things, so it’s understandable. I think whenever sports allow fans again, something that we all know and take for granted, it’ll be a fun time.”

On Sunday, Lavelle and her team-mates take on Everton at Wembley in the delayed 2020 FA Cup final, the competition’s 50th, with Manchester City having beaten West Ham 3-0 in the 2019 edition. There will also be an opportunity to reach the 2021 FA Cup final later this season. 

“One of the reasons I wanted to come here was there were so many different opportunities to win different titles, so it’s so exciting to have this opportunity to play in a final, a final so early in the season,” Lavelle said. “And also, potentially to play in another FA Cup final this [season], that would be unprecedented.” 

A win on Sunday will come just 16 months after the finest moment of Lavelle’s career, a winning role in the USWNT’s triumph at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup in France.

“Winning the World Cup was such an incredible moment, we had put so much work the past three years during that cycle into it,” she said. “So when the whistle blew, oh my gosh, thank God we had a team that accomplished what we set out to do, it was such an amazing thing seeing how hard we worked and how much we pushed each other. It was that much more rewarding because we knew how much we put into that moment. So to see it come to fruition, I don’t even have words for it, it was incredible.”

Winning the World Cup was a big moment in Rose Lavelle's career, but she's too humble to take all the praise. (AFP)

It takes a lot to get Lavelle to talk about her wonderful goal in that final, a run, shimmy and left-footed shot from the edge of the penalty area to seal the 2-0 win on 69 minutes. But when she does, it is typically to shower praise on her colleagues with a forensic description of the team’s move that led to her big moment. 

“Honestly that goal was a testament to our whole team I think,” she said. “When you look at the play, so much had unfolded because of so many other players on the field. It started with Crystal (Dunn) winning a great tackle stopping their transmission, she passed it off to Sam [Mewis] in midfielder, and I was able to take up the space I needed. In the final couple of seconds leading up to that, Alex was holding up their center back the whole time, and I was waiting to slip to her but she was occupying them, so I was able to get a shot in because of that. More than anything it was testament to our team, the relationship we have on the field.”

The USWNT have now won the World Cup a record four times, producing some unforgettable final moments along the way.

Michelle Akers dramatically slicing through Norway’s stumbling defenders in 1991. Brandi Chastain’s iconic celebration in 1999 after scoring the winning penalty in the shootout win over China. Carli Lloyd’s devastating first-half hat-trick against Japan in the 5-2 win in 2015. And now, the image of Lavelle, fists pumping in pure elation after her goal had finally floored the Netherlands.

You’d never hear her say it, but she has now earned the right to be mentioned alongside USWNT heroes like Akers, Chastain, Lloyd, Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan.

“I always say that I was obsessed with the US Women’s National Team growing up,” Lavelle said. “That was the team that I watched religiously, I was just the biggest fangirl. They were such an inspiration to me and I wanted to be in their shoes so bad that it inspired me to keep working and to keep playing.”

On the horizon will be the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, and a chance of a fifth American title, and before that plenty of opportunities to win the trophies Lavbelle craves with Manchester City. In the immediate future, Manchester City face Liverpool in the League Cup three days after the FA Cup final, before a double header of WSL and League Cup matches against local rivals Manchester United later in November.

But for now, the FA Cup final at Wembley, and another winner’s medal, is all that matters.

“Obviously I’ve never played in an FA Cup final, but I think it will be something I’m going to remember forever,” Lavelle said.

The list of unforgettable Lavelle moments is growing by the day.