Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech joins Premier League and African elite

Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech joins Premier League and African elite
Chelsea's Moroccan midfielder Hakim Ziyech plays during the UEFA Champions League match between Chelsea and Sevilla at Stamford Bridge in London on October 20, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 12 November 2020

Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech joins Premier League and African elite

Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech joins Premier League and African elite
  • The summer signing from Ajax has arguably become Chelsea’s most important player

DUBAI: Riyad Mahrez, Mohamed Salah, and now Hakim Ziyech.

It seems left-footed Arab forwards from North Africa are a must-have if you want to win the English Premier League. Chelsea and manager Frank Lampard are betting on it.

At 27, he is hardly an overnight success, but Ziyech’s transformation from an under-the-radar star into one of Europe’s biggest names has been worth the wait. Although try telling fans of Ajax — where he won the Dutch league title, KNVB Cup and played a pivotal role in the team’s memorable run to the Champions League semi-finals two seasons ago — that he is underrated.

Ziyech was also a key member of Morocco’s squad at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where they impressed without getting the results their play deserved. 

But today’s Ziyech — at least in the sometimes insular world of the English Premier League — is a different prospect to the one that returned from the last international break in October ahead of his Chelsea introduction.

The man who in Casablanca tomorrow will take to the field against Central African Republic in his nation’s colors, has, in less than a month, established himself as arguably Chelsea’s most important signing of the season.

It may have taken the Moroccan international until October 28 to make his first start for his new club, but since then he has scored two goals, set up several more and generally dominated in the four matches he started. Man of the match awards have become almost a forgone conclusion over the last few weeks as Ziyech has weaved his magic, albeit in front of empty stands in the Premier League.

The parallels with Algeria’s Mahrez — a Premier League winner with both Leicester City and Manchester City — and Liverpool’s Egyptian king Mohamed Salah, Champions League and PL winner, are unavoidable. And who would wager against Chelsea’s new star becoming the third Arab footballer from Africa becoming Footballer of the Year?

In style, substance and identity, there will in the coming months inevitably be comparisons — and no doubt one-upmanship — among supporters of the trio’s respective clubs and countries. 

For now, however, Lampard and the Chelsea fans will care little for that. They have found a ready-made superstar.

While all eyes were initially on Chelsea’s big-money signings from Germany — Timo Werner and Kai Havertz — and, to a lesser extent, defenders Thiago Silva and Ben Chillwell, Ziyech had to wait patiently for his Chelsea debut as he recovered from injury.

His first introductions to English football came with 20- and 10-minute cameos in Chelsea’s draws against Southampton (3-3) on October 17 and Manchester United (0-0) on October 24, but it was in the comfortable 4-0 Champions League win over the Russian club FC Krasnodar four days later that Ziyech took center stage.

He scored a fine goal with 10 minutes left and, throughout, Ziyech gave hints of things to come by constantly dropping deep to receive the ball on the right and spreading majestic crossfield passes to the left wing. Already, his signature move looks like it will become one of Chelsea’s main weapons.

As is the case with the likes of Mahrez, Salah and, perhaps most famously, Arjen Robben, defenders know exactly what’s coming but can’t necessarily deal with it. 

Since that game, Ziyech has flourished. He scored his first Premier League goal in a 3-0 win against Burnley at Turf Moor, with a trademark finish with his left foot after starting a move that also included Werner and Tammy Abraham. In another dominant display, he set up Werner for the third in the 70th minute.

Back in the Champions League, Ziyech again starred as Chelsea strolled to a comfortable 3-0 win over Stade Rennais.

Arguably his best performance came in Chelsea’s last outing, the impressive 4-1 win over Sheffield United at Stamford Bridge. Ziyech displayed his full range of skills, with his remarkable assist for Chillwell’s tap-in the highlight of the day.

It would be misleading to say that Ziyech’s presence is solely responsible for four consecutive wins by three-goal margins for the Blues when Thiago Silva and Ben Chillwell have returned from injuries and Werner and Havertz look to be settling into their new surroundings too. But neither is it far-fetched to suggest the team has looked far better and more balanced with him starting on the right side of a front three in Lampard’s favored 4-3-3 system. Having the exceptional Reece James supporting, and often overlapping, from his starting right-back position has no doubt provided Ziyech with the freedom to execute his favorite moves of dropping deeper and cutting onto his left foot, From there, he has wreaked havoc on Premier League defenses. 

Before that, Lampard had tried out several different formations, with Havertz in particular veering from excellent to peripheral as Chelsea struggled for consistency, cohesion and, thanks to the chopping and changing, a recognizable shape.

Now Ziyech’s brilliance has surely solved one of Lampard’s conundrums. The Moroccan will take some shifting from the starting lineup, and with Christian Pulisic or Mason Mount occupying a similar role on the left-hand side, Timo Werner preferred to Tammy Abraham up front, and Havertz potentially a focal number 10, Chelsea look a formidable collective going forward.

The next week will see Morocco in a double-header against the Central African Republic in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifying Group E, where they currently sit in second place behind Mauritania, but with a game in hand. 

With a team that includes the likes of Achraf Hakimi, Nordin Amrabat, Youssef En-Nesyri, Yassine Bounou and, of course, Ziyech, Morocco will be expected to win their group and will ultimately be one of the favorites to win the competition.

For the Chelsea forward, next up in the Premier League will be Newcastle, Tottenham and Leeds. 

One by one, Chelseas’s opponents are being introduced to the Ziyech factor. What they can do about it is another matter.


Dubai teen-led tennis initiative raises awareness for autism 

Dubai teen-led tennis initiative raises awareness for autism 
Updated 22 min 9 sec ago

Dubai teen-led tennis initiative raises awareness for autism 

Dubai teen-led tennis initiative raises awareness for autism 
  • Two-week tournament saw a 32-draw men’s competition and a unisex under-14’s doubles contest
  • The initiative, called ACE FOR GOOD, was set up by high school student Hussein Nada

DUBAI: A tennis initiative set up by a Dubai teen has garnered support for Autism Awareness Month.

The initiative, called ACE FOR GOOD, was set up by high school student Hussein Nada in order to bring together tennis lovers to play in support of a good cause.

The initiative comprised of a tournament organized by Rackets Academy and 17-year-old Hussein.

“I decided to create ACE FOR GOOD’which will allow tennis players to give back to the community through supporting a charitable cause,” she told Arab News. “ACE FOR GOOD’s 2021 Dubai tournament perfectly (suited) Autism Awareness Month, (as did) the willingness of the tennis community to support and … make a difference.”

The two-week tournament saw a 32-draw men’s competition and a unisex under-14’s doubles contest.

It was backed by several sponsors including Brand for Less (BFL) Group, Daoud Group, Loca restaurants, Head, Marina Pharmacy Group and the Flower Co.

“BFL Group is so proud of this sponsorship, as we always strive to work for philanthropic causes, since this reflects our values. Nevertheless, sports and fitness-related activities always get our support as we believe in their key role in maintaining our mental health and wellbeing,” Yasser Beydoun, co-founder and managing partner of BFL Group, said.

“We salute Hussein for his initiative and efforts, which made us so excited to take this sponsorship opportunity and support him in achieving this great cause. He showed us that age is never a barrier for doing good; we can all do something good for the community as long as we believe in the cause and in our abilities,” Beydoun added.

As a result of the positive feedback received from players, sponsors, and the tennis community, ACE FOR GOOD is now set to become an annual event in Dubai, with plans also in the works to take it abroad, with a tournament set to take place in Egypt in August.

Al-Hilal’s new signing Marega has big shoes to fill to replace club legend Gomis

Al-Hilal’s new signing Marega has big shoes to fill to replace club legend Gomis
Updated 10 May 2021

Al-Hilal’s new signing Marega has big shoes to fill to replace club legend Gomis

Al-Hilal’s new signing Marega has big shoes to fill to replace club legend Gomis
  • The Malian striker will join up with the Riyadh club at the start of next season

LONDON: Al-Hilal may go through coaches at a rapid rate but when it comes to recruiting strikers, the Saudi Arabian giants have a far-sighted policy in place. No sooner had Bafetimbi Gomis become the fastest foreign player to score 100 goals for the club, it was announced that a new striker and a potential replacement was on his way to Riyadh. 

Moussa Marega was last seen scoring in the Portuguese league on April 22 to keep FC Porto’s title hopes alive and, from next season, the 30 year old will be an Al-Hilal player. As the French-born Mali international is out of contract at the end of the Primera Liga season and available on a free transfer, it marks a good bit of business from Al-Hilal, who will pay a reported 5 million euros ($6 million) a year over a three-year contract.

“In 1991, I was born in the French city of Les Ulis and in the same year, Al-Hilal won their first continental title,” Marega said as he was unveiled by the three-time Asian champions.

“These two stories continue to excite and they crossed again in 2020 when Al-Hilal won a hat-trick (of trophies) in Saudi Arabia and I did the same in Portugal,” he added, referring to his part in Porto’s triumph in the Portuguese League, Cup and Super Cup. “And now in 2021, my next destination is Saudi Arabia.”

Marega scored 52 league goals in his four seasons with Porto, and a further 10 in domestic cups. He also managed six goals in the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League as he became the joint-third highest scorer that year alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Aguero.

He was welcomed to Riyadh by Gomis, who wrote on Twitter: “Welcome to (the) Al-Hilal family my brother.”

Marega’s arrival is likely to herald the end of Gomis’ time in Riyadh. The French forward has been one of the most successful foreign imports in the history of Saudi Arabian football. His 100th goal on Friday, one of two he scored in the 5-1 win against second placed Al-Shabab, that sent the defending champions three points clear with four games to play, came in only his 126th appearance for the club. Sixty-eight of those goals came in the league, eight in the King’s Cup, 17 in Asia — he was top scorer as Al-Hilal won the tournament in 2019 — five in the Arab Championship and two in the Club World Cup.

Gomis turns 36 in August and the arrival of Marega means speculation the former Lyon and Swansea star will return to Europe will intensify. When he does leave, the striker has said that he wishes to do so as a hero of Al-Hilal, though he refuses to comment specifically on a date.

“One day I will definitely leave but I want to leave when we have won the title,” Gomis said. “I have won many titles and had many historical achievements.”

Gomis helped Al-Hilal to the Saudi title last year and the AFC Champions League the year before and wants more prizes before he departs.

“This will be the best end for me. I would like history to remember that I was one of the leading goalscorers at Al-Hilal.

“It is my duty to give everything to the team and the fans, I know they love me personally so I feel a great responsibility towards them. That is why against Al-Shabab, I tried to do everything I could, both in attack and defence, for the team and especially for those fans,” he added.

The two goals Gomis netted against Al-Shabab were not just typical strikes from the star — and not only meant Al-Hilal are in touching distance of a successive title — but also meant Gomis now has 20 for the season, four more than Abha’s Carlos Strandberg, and is top of the goalscoring charts.

“The game against Al-Shabab is not the most important this season, it is all about the title and success for Al-Hilal but it is true that winning here brings us closer to the title,” he said. “It is something very special and I am delighted to achieve it, but the most important thing is that the team wins.” 

Regardless of how long he has left with Al-Hilal, it is certain that Gomis will get his wish and leave a hero, and if it is in the coming weeks, it is increasingly likely that he will leave as a champion.

Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe

Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe
Updated 10 May 2021

Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe

Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe
  • Madrid-born Moroccan international played a pivotal role in Milan club’s first championship in 11 years

DUBAI: An Egyptian, an Algerian and a Moroccan walk onto a football pitch. The punchline usually involves a curling left-footed shot into the back of the net.

When the topic of best Arab footballers currently playing in Europe comes up, three players inevitably dominate the discussion.

Since joining Liverpool in the summer 2017 Mohamed Salah has attained a level of superstardom that no other Arab footballer had come close to before.

Champions League and Premier League winners’ medals, the Golden Boot - twice, and seemingly countless individual awards, the Egyptian has cleaned up.

Even in a shockingly poor season by Liverpool, he continues to lead the Premier League’s goalscoring charts.

Just over a year before Salah’s move to Anfield, the Algerian Riyad Mahrez had played a heroic role in Leicester City’s sensational title win (which earned him the 2015-16 PFA Player of the Year award), and after joining Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in 2018 would become one of a select group players to win the Premier League title with two different clubs.

In the second half of this season Mahrez has been in stunning form and the coming weeks will surely add another title medal and potentially a Champions League winners medal to his collection.

Standing in his way in the final on May 29 will be Chelsea’s Moroccan playmaker Hakim Ziyech, who, while having a mostly frustrating, inconsistent season, has still managed to score the goal that set Chelsea on their way to a win over Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final and, at the weekend, grabbed the equaliser as the London club again beat Guardiola’s team to ensure that the Premier League coronation, inevitable as it is, will have to wait a little longer.

But it’s one of Ziyech’s international teammates that has a strong claim to being one of the outstanding Arab footballers playing in Europe in 2020-21.

And he has managed it well away from the hype machine that is the English Premier League. He also happens to be a defender, in name at least.

Inter Milan’s first Serie A title win in 11 years, ending a run of nine triumphs by Juventus, has been lit up by the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Stefan De Vrij, Lautaro Martínez and Nicolò Barella.

But one of the standout performers has been the brilliant, Madrid-born Moroccan Achraf Hakimi.

Someone at Real Madrid, Hakimi’s hometown club, will at some point have to explain how arguably the best right back in European football has been allowed to escape the Bernabéu, not once, but twice, over the last three years.

Having, at 18, been part of the squad that won the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool - and earlier collected FIFA Club World Cup, UEFA Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup winners’ medals - Hakimi looked set for long and successful career with the Spanish giants.

But with Spanish defender Dani Carvajal - one of the team’s most trusted and senior performers - Hakimi was often reduced comes from the bench.

That summer, after being part of Morocco’s squad at the World Cup in Russia, Hakimi was loaned to Borussia Dortmund on a two-year deal.

At a club that values and encourages young talent, he flourished.

His marauding runs from defence became a feature of the team’s play, and his assists and goals have since earned comparisons with the likes of Trent Alexander Arnold and Reece James, attacking fullbacks which English football seem to suddenly be specializing in.

He won the German Super Cup in 2019, and his individual performances were increasingly drawing attention as opposition defenders struggled to cope with his speed and his deliveries.

Indeed, in February 2020, Hakimi set a Bundesliga speed record of 36.48 km/h against Union Berlin, beating the old record of 36.2 km/h he himself set earlier that season against RB Leipzig.

Hakimi must have thought he had done enough to have another crack at becoming first choice right back Real Madrid, who despite winning La Liga in the Covid-19-disrupted 2019-20 season, were now a shadow of the Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired team he had left two years earlier.

Instead he was sold to Inter for $48.69 million, and Zinedine’s Zidane’s loss would prove Antonio Conte’s gain.

Hakimi has been inspirational for his new team, scoring seven league goals and helping set up many on the way to the championship.

On May 1, he scored the second goal in a 2-0 win over Crotone to put Inter within touching distance of the coveted Seri A title.

The following day, Atalanta’s failure to win at Sassuolo meant the title was heading to the blue and black half of Milan. At 22, Hakimi was a title champion.

No doubt Hakimi and Inter will have their eyes on Champions League success next season, and the Moroccan will also be eyeing glorying with his country at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations Cup (taking place at the start of 2022) and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Before that, Middle East, Arab and African audiences could well be hoping to see him take part in FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar next November.

He may not have achieved quite what Salah, Mahrez and Ziyech have and will in the near future, yet, but at only 22 he has plenty of time to catch up with that exalted trio with magical left feet.

And he’ll be doing it all with those devastating runs from way back in the defense.

Mansoor feeling ‘amazing’ after making step-up in WWE career

Mansoor feeling ‘amazing’ after making step-up in WWE career
Updated 10 May 2021

Mansoor feeling ‘amazing’ after making step-up in WWE career

Mansoor feeling ‘amazing’ after making step-up in WWE career
  • Last week the Saudi wrestler signed with WWE’s Raw brand

Saudi Superstar Mansoor said he feels “amazing” after being elevated to one of the WWE’s most high-profile and popular brands.

Last week, Mansoor signed to WWE RAW, a weekly show, in what was a huge step in his career to date.

Mansoor’s first match as an official member of the RAW roster saw him face the experienced Irishman Sheamus, and he is now looking forward to taking on some of WWE’s biggest names on a regular basis.

“It feels amazing,” said Mansoor, when asked for his thoughts on being promoted to RAW. “I’ve been on Super ShowDown, I’ve been on Crown Jewel, and those were big shows. But what I wanted most was to be consistent, and to be on a weekly program where I could show the world that I can perform every single week, not just once every few months.”

“Against Sheamus, with it being my first match (on RAW), it was a really good welcoming committee. There is nobody tougher than Sheamus. He’s probably one of the toughest men in the entire business, not just WWE.

“He loves to fight,” he added. “Even when I was hitting him with my elbows, I could feel the pain in my arm. He’s tough, he’s iron, and it’s important that I face people like that to challenge myself, and prove to the world, and the WWE universe, that I belong.”

Having earned a WWE contract after impressing at a tryout event in 2018, Mansoor’s rise to RAW has been rapid, and one which owes so much to the expert training he has received behind the scenes — along with good old-fashioned hard work.

“I’ve been training at the Performance Center in Orlando for about three years, and it’s been invaluable, the most essential experience I’ve ever had, to prepare me for this,” Mansoor said.

“The coaches are amazing, the facilities are amazing. I was lucky enough to be involved in matches on Main Event, wrestling guys like Drew Gulak and Angel Garza, getting experience with them.

“I didn’t know for sure if I was going to move up to RAW, I just knew that they wanted me to wrestle on Main Event to see how I did,” Mansoor said. “And then, on the day itself, I found out I was being signed to RAW. The preparation time was short, but in WWE anything can change at any time, so you always have to be ready.”

Zverev beats Berrettini to win his 2nd Madrid Open title

Zverev beats Berrettini to win his 2nd Madrid Open title
Updated 10 May 2021

Zverev beats Berrettini to win his 2nd Madrid Open title

Zverev beats Berrettini to win his 2nd Madrid Open title
  • Zverev won his first Madrid title in 2018 in a final against Thiem
  • The win on Sunday gave him his fourth Masters 1000 title

MADRID: Alexander Zverev continued his impressive form going into the French Open by winning his second Madrid Open title on Sunday.
After beating top-seeded Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals and fourth-ranked Dominic Thiem in the semifinals, Zverev rallied to defeat Matteo Berrettini 6-7 (8), 6-4, 6-3 for his second title this season. The sixth-ranked German also won the Mexican Open in Acapulco in March.
Zverev won his first Madrid title in 2018 in a final against Thiem. The win on Sunday gave him his fourth Masters 1000 title, and first in three years. Zverev will be trying to improve from his fourth-round exit last year at the French Open.
“To do well at the French Open, you need to be playing well during the clay court season,” the 24-year-old Zverev said. “That is in a way important for me, as well. At the end of the day I won a Masters. There’s really very little in terms of bigger than this one right here. I’m happy with this achievement. Obviously, yeah, I look forward to the next few weeks. I look forward to what’s ahead.”
The 10th-ranked Berrettini won the title in Belgrade last week. The Italian has been gradually returning to form after struggling with an abdominal injury that kept him from playing his quarterfinal match against Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Australian Open. The injury kept Berrettini out until Monte Carlo, where he lost his opening match.
“This was my first (Masters 1000) final. Hopefully it’s not going to be my last,” Berrettini said. “But like I said before, I’m really happy on my level. Today unfortunately I think I didn’t play my best tennis.”
After exchanging a break each in the first set, Berrettini opened the tiebreaker with a 5-0 lead but allowed Zverev to come back. The Italian closed it out on his fourth set point after Zverev also squandered a set point in the back-and-forth tiebreaker. It was the first set dropped by Zverev this week.
Zverev, who finished with seven double-faults, evened the match after breaking Berrettini at 4-4 and serving out to clinch the second set at the Magic Box center court, which had its roof closed because of rain in Madrid.
Berrettini, who ended with 50 unforced errors, squandered a break point early in the third set, and Zverev broke him in the following game to take the lead. He earned another break at the end, converting on his second match point to clinch the victory.
In the men’s doubles final, Marcel Granollers of Spain and Horacio Zeballos of Argentina defeated Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic of Croatia 1-6, 6-3, 10-8.
The Madrid Open was one of the first sporting events in Spain that allowed the presence of a limited number of fans. The tournament was among those canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Local health workers were honored by tournament organizers before the final on Sunday.
In the women’s edition, Aryna Sabalenka beat top-ranked Ash Barty 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 in Saturday’s final.