Recalling Al-Ittihad’s glory days

Recalling Al-Ittihad’s glory days
Al-Ittihad after winning back-to-back Asian Champions League titles in 2005. The Jeddah-based football club marked the 15th anniversary of its successive titles. (Photo courtesy: afc.com)
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Updated 05 November 2020

Recalling Al-Ittihad’s glory days

Recalling Al-Ittihad’s glory days
  • Jeddah team look back on golden era as Asian champions

LONDON: Fifteen years ago today Al-Ittihad defeated Al-Ain of the UAE  to be crowned Asian champions for a second successive year. To be the only team to win back-to-back AFC Champions Leagues remains a unique feat that should be remembered and celebrated.

At the time, all felt that the Tigers would be continental kings for years to come. If the 2004 title win had been a surprise — more of that later — then the second triumph was dominant. In the quarterfinals there was an 8-3 two-legged win over China’s Shandong Luneng, which was followed by a 7-0 thrashing of South Korea’s Busan I’Park (I still remember the haunted post-match look of Busan manager Ian Porterfield, the former Chelsea boss who saw the Asian title as a passport to a bigger job).

Anghel Iordanescu had crafted a fine team with no clear weaknesses. I interviewed the unflappable Romanian, now a politician in his homeland, after the celebrations died down. “The players made it look easy, but they have worked hard, and when you have the talent as well then you always have a chance,” he said. “My job was just to keep it all together.”

The likes of Mohammed Kallon got the headlines, unsurprisingly so as the former Inter Milan striker was on loan from AS Monaco and finished the tournament as top scorer with six goals. There was also Joseph-Desire Job on loan from English Premier League club Middlesbrough. Throw in the classy Brazilian midfielder Tcheco and you had the best foreign contingent in Asia.

“I knew I was joining a big club and Asian champions, but I did not know how good the team was,” Kallon told me. “It has been a real adventure and I have enjoyed every minute. We have great spirit and confidence.”

The Saudi Arabian stars played prominent roles. The incomparable Saud Kariri, who appeared more than 130 times for the Green Falcons, was there as were Marzouk-Al Otaibi, Hamzah Idris and defenders Rehda Tukar and Hamad Al-Montashari, who went on to be named Asian Player of the Year less than a month later.

And then there was Mohammed Noor. The all-action star was one of a top-class quartet of Asian midfielders along with Park of South Korea, Japan’s Shunsuke Nakamura and Javad Nekounam of Iran. Then 27 and at his peak, the "Asian Patrick Vieira" provided the energy, penetration and plenty of goals.

Noor had been the star of the 2004 triumph, one that never looked anything like as inevitable as the second. The final against South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma has passed into Asian legend. Al-Ittihad hosted the first leg and lost 3-1.

Everyone felt that the second leg was done and dusted. The morning of the game in Korea, a mini-van with a loudspeaker drove around the streets of the city just south of Seoul to tell locals to come and see the city’s team lift the trophy.

They did, expecting the sub-zero temperatures to be another advantage — but when the teams emerged it was the Korean players who were wrapped in thick coats with the visitors in shorts and shirts, ready to play. 

It was, as Al-Ittihad’s coach Dragan Talajic confirmed, intentional. “We wanted to send a signal,” the Croatian said. “We had been asked a lot whether we could handle the Korean winter so we decided to show we could. I think the Seongnam players were surprised when they saw us.”

The shock levels rose when Tukar headed the opener after half an hour. Then, deep into first-half injury time, Hamzah Idris changed the tie, sweeping home from close range. It was now 3-3 on aggregate, but still Seongnam were ahead on away goals. 

“Because of that second goal, they did not know what to do,” added Talajic. “They didn’t know whether to sit back and protect the lead or to attack.”

In the end, Seongnam did neither and Noor intervened just before the hour to put Ittihad ahead for the first time in the tie, netting again not long later. 

It set the team up for the domination that followed in 2005 with Iordanescu and, in 2006, everybody expected Al-Ittihad to win again (back then, champions entered at the quarterfinal stage). They were surprisingly defeated by the dark horses of Syria, Al-Karama. 

By that time, Kallon and Tcheco had departed as had Iordanescu, replaced by Bruno Metsu. Even the Frenchman, who had led Senegal to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, could not weave his magic and Al-Ittihad were out. They reached the final in 2009, though Pohang Steelers got some revenge on behalf of South Korea by winning the final in Tokyo.

There has been no third title and fans in Jeddah had to watch as Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal won the 2019 AFC Champions League. That just makes the memories of 2004 and 2005 all the sweeter in Jeddah and the time when Al-Ittihad ruled the continent should not be forgotten.


Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash

Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash
Updated 15 May 2021

Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash

Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash
  • Djokovic and Nadal last played in the 2020 French Open final, which the Spaniard won
  • Djokovic and Nadal have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them

ROME: World number one Novak Djokovic on Saturday battled past Italian Lorenzo Sonego to set up a clash with nine-time winner Rafael Nadal for the sixth time in the Italian Open final.
Defending champion Djokovic won through 6-3, 6-7 (5/7), 6-2 in 2hr 44min against the 33rd-ranked Italian after second seed Nadal earlier swept past American Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4.
Djokovic had earlier survived a three-set battle with Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in their rain-delayed quarter-finals.
The five-time Rome winner had been trailing 6-4, 2-1 when the tie was halted overnight.
But he came back to win through 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 after 3hr 16min.
Djokovic and Nadal, who will be facing each other for the 57th time, last played in the 2020 French Open final which the Spaniard won.
The pair have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them while Nadal leads their head-to-head in finals in the Italian capital 3-2.
Djokovic had two match points in the 12th game of the second set of his semifinal before Sonego forced a third set to the delight of the home crowd in the Foro Italico.
The Serb saved three break points in the first game of the third set, coming back from 0-40 before powering toward his 11th Rome final
“I think I bounced back very well after the second set and 0-40, maybe if he started with a break up in the third it would be different,” said Djokovic.
“I’ve only myself to blame for not closing the match in the second set, I could have and should have.
“First of all I need to recover. I don’t have much time but hopefully I’ll have fresh legs necessary to have against Rafa.”
Djokovic and Nadal have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them with Djokovic leading their overall head-to-head 29-27.
Nadal is looking to equal Djokovic’s record of 36 ATP Masters 1000 titles in his 12th Rome final.


Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0

Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0
Updated 15 May 2021

Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0

Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0
  • After losing four finals, Leicester’s name is finally etched onto the cup of world football’s oldest competition
  • The team from central England is a champion again, five years after Morgan collected the Premier League trophy

LONDON: Youri Tielemans was preparing for the FA Cup final on Saturday when he received a text message with a clear instruction: Aim for the top corner.
When the ball landed at the Leicester midfielder’s feet, 63 minutes into the 140th final, a powerful shot from 30 meters was aimed just where he had been advised.
It was a sensational way to win the FA Cup for the first time in Leicester’s 137-year history, 1-0 against Champions League finalist Chelsea.
Even sweeter than the strike was Leicester being able to celebrate in front of its own fans as Wembley Stadium hosted England’s biggest crowd — more than 20,000 who tested negative for the coronavirus — in 14 months.
“Wow, what a finish,” Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel said. “I didn’t dare to celebrate because there’s always VAR.”
Not that time. Instead, the video assistant review came to Leicester’s rescue in the 89th minute to prevent Wes Morgan from a moment of heartache.
The 37-year-old club captain had been on the pitch for only seven minutes when he accidentally deflected in former teammate Ben Chilwell’s cross. But one of those marginal offsides that so irritate players and fans was detected and the roars of Leicester fans were even louder than the moment Tielemans scored.
After losing four finals — the first in 1949 at the old Wembley — Leicester’s name is finally etched onto the cup of world football’s oldest competition. The team from central England is a champion again, five years after Morgan collected the Premier League trophy.
Players — such as Chelsea duo Chilwell and N’Golo Kante — have left since that improbable 5,000-1 title triumph but Morgan and matchday captain Schmeichel are still there to celebrate again, this time in a moment tinged with sadness.
Inside the jerseys at Wembley were photos of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the club’s Thai owner until he died in 2018 when his helicopter crashed in flames next to King Power Stadium.
“He is always with us, Kun Vichai,” said Schmeichel before handing the FA Cup on the field to Vichai’s son, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, who now runs the club.
Also in tribute to Vichai was a banner covering seats in the closed third tier at Wembley, with his quote, “Our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”
In a game of few chances, Thiago Silva’s slack pass allowed Leicester to score. Ayoze Pérez intercepted the clearance and Luke Thomas passed across to the unmarked Tielemans to drive forward before striking from 30 yards into the top corner.
Saves from Schmeichel as much as VAR helped to preserve the lead; he used one hand to push Chilwell’s shot onto the post in the 78th and blocked Mason Mount’s volley in the 87th.
“I’ve dreamed of this since I was a child,” Schmeichel said. “The performance today — the grit and determination — I’m so proud of everyone.”
It’s far from season over for Leicester. There’s another match against Chelsea to come on Tuesday which could clinch Champions League qualification for the second time ever. Sitting third, Leicester holds a two-point lead over Chelsea.
“Today we enjoy, and tomorrow we dust ourselves down and can’t really think about this anymore,” Schmeichel said. “Chelsea are a top-class side and are going to want revenge.”
The west London club has lost consecutive FA Cup finals, with Thomas Tuchel failing just as Frank Lampard did. But Tuchel can still win the biggest prize in club football against Manchester City in the Champions League final on May 29 in Porto.
“We are disappointed and not angry with our performance,” Tuchel said.
Chelsea was a key early stop in Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers’ coaching career, with the youth team around 15 years ago. While Rodgers has won trophies in Scotland with Celtic, he fell short in English football with Watford, Swansea and Liverpool until Saturday. Now, for the first time since Harry Redknapp with Portsmouth in 2008, a British manager has picked up the FA Cup.
“The success of this team and club is getting to positions like this and competing,” Rodgers said. “The so-called bigger clubs are expected to win but our success is competing and if we can perform like today we can go and win. What a day for everyone involved with Leicester.”

ACTIVISM
Chelsea and Leicester took a knee before kickoff, which has been a feature of games in England since June as part of calls to eradicate racial injustice in society following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But there was some booing by fans against the anti-racism gesture that was largely drowned out by applause and cheers.
In the post-match celebrations, Hamza Choudhury and Wesley Fofana were wrapped in a Palestinian flag amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas in and around Gaza.

PREMIER LEAGUE
Leeds is on for a top-half finish in its first season back in the Premier League after 16 years. A 4-0 victory over Burnley was started by Mateusz Klich curling in the opener before halftime, followed in the second half by Jack Harrison and Rodrigo’s double. Fulham, one the three sides already relegated, lost at Southampton 3-1.


Al-Ittihad settles financial dispute with the Aleksandar Pesic

The financial dispute between Al-Ittihad and  former striker Aleksandar Pešić has been settled. (Arriyadiyah)
The financial dispute between Al-Ittihad and former striker Aleksandar Pešić has been settled. (Arriyadiyah)
Updated 15 May 2021

Al-Ittihad settles financial dispute with the Aleksandar Pesic

The financial dispute between Al-Ittihad and  former striker Aleksandar Pešić has been settled. (Arriyadiyah)
  • Schedule of payments for $2m owed to Serbian striker ensures Jeddah club will not face FIFA sanctions

RIYADH: Saudi Pro League club Al-Ittihad has reached a settlement with former striker Aleksandar Pesic, with the club set to schedule a payment plan of $2 million owed to the player, Arabic language sports daily Arriyadiyah has reported.

The 28-year-old Serbian, who left the club in 2020, filed a formal complaint with FIFA calling for overdue fees to be paid.

According to Arriyadiyah’s sources, the agreement between the two parties is final, ensuring that the Jeddah club will not be hit with sanctions by FIFA.

The first of the player payments is due in the coming months.

Al-Ittihad signed Pesic in July 2018 on a three-year contract, before sending him to South Korean club FC Seoul on loan for 18 months at the beginning of 2019. The player then moved to Maccabi Tel Aviv on free transfer last year.


Gomis stoppage-time penalty miss gives Al-Hilal’s title rivals unexpected reprieve

Gomis stoppage-time penalty miss gives Al-Hilal’s title rivals unexpected reprieve
Updated 15 May 2021

Gomis stoppage-time penalty miss gives Al-Hilal’s title rivals unexpected reprieve

Gomis stoppage-time penalty miss gives Al-Hilal’s title rivals unexpected reprieve
  • hampions wasted opportunity to go six points clear of Al-Shabab at top of SPL table

Leaders Al-Hilal missed a golden opportunity to take decisive step toward a 17th Saudi Professional League (SPL) title after drawing 1-1 with Al-Batin only hours after second-placed Al-Shabab had lost 4-3 in a dramatic match against Ettifaq.

A win would have put the reigning champions six points ahead of Al-Shabab with three matches left, but a stoppage-time penalty miss by French forward Bafetimbi Gomis means that nagging doubts will persist at least until round 28 of the SPL.

While Al-Hilal lead the table by four points, third-place Al-Ittihad could re-enter the title race by going second in the table, one point above Al-Shabab, with a win over Damac on Saturday.

Al-Hilal started strongly at Prince Faisal bin Fahad Stadium and took the lead through top scorer Gomis at 17 minutes.

The expected comfortable evening for Al-Hilal did not materialize, however, and Al-Batin equalized through Mohamed Rayhi in the 29th minute.

Youssef El-Jebli almost gave Al-Batin a first-half lead when his shot just missed Abdullah Al-Mayouf’s goal.

Al-Hilal coach Jose Morais introduced Salem and Nasser Al-Dawsari for Andre Carrillo and Luciano Vietto, but despite sustained pressure could not break down Al-Batin’s defense.

The Riyadh giants were then given a priceless opportunity to win the match with the late penalty, but Gomis struck the bar with the last shot of the match.

Al-Hilal will next host Al-Ahli on Wednesday, while Al-Shabab welcome Al-Ain on the same night and Al-Ittihad travel to Abha the following day.


Al-Arabi end 19-year drought to claim Kuwaiti Premier League title

Al-Arabi end 19-year drought to claim Kuwaiti Premier League title
Updated 15 May 2021

Al-Arabi end 19-year drought to claim Kuwaiti Premier League title

Al-Arabi end 19-year drought to claim Kuwaiti Premier League title
  • Comfortable 3-0 win over Al-Sahel means Al-Arabi cannot be caught by Qadsia, who drew 1-1 with Kazma

Al-Arabi have won the Kuwaiti Premier League for the first time in 19 years after defeating Al-Sahel 3-0 in the 17th and penultimate stage of the season.

Lead by Croatian coach Ante Mise, Al-Arabi now have an unassailable 43 points, with second-placed Qadsia stuck at 36 points after a 1-1 draw with Kazma.

The title is the 17th in Al-Arabi’s history, a record the club now shares with Qadsia. Kuwait SC have 16 titles, in front of Al-Salmiya, Kazma (four each) and Al-Jahra (one).

In what turned out to be a tension-free night for the new champions, Al-Arabi scored three times in the first half through Bander Al-Salamah, Syrian Alaa Al-Dali and Palestinian Oday Dabbagh from a penalty.

The second half ended scoreless, and the final whistle brought ecstatic celebrations from Al-Arabi’s players, management and fans at Sabah Al-Salem Stadium.