Late penalty saves Al-Nassr from a disastrous defeat by Al-Ettifaq

Late penalty saves Al-Nassr from a disastrous defeat by Al-Ettifaq
Al-Nassr, in particular, have endured a catastrophic start to the season, losing five and winning only one of their first six games to leave them rooted to the bottom of the 16-team league. (Saudi Professional League - Twitter)
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Updated 08 December 2020

Late penalty saves Al-Nassr from a disastrous defeat by Al-Ettifaq

Late penalty saves Al-Nassr from a disastrous defeat by Al-Ettifaq
  • Despite late escape, Al-Nassr remain rooted to the bottom of the table as rivals Al-Hilal stretch lead at the top

Al-Nassr and Al-Ettifaq played out a remarkable 2-2 draw on Monday as the former managed to narrowly avoid their nightmare campaign hitting a new low.

A very late penalty saved them from what would have been a disastrous sixth defeat out of seven games in the 2020-21 Saudi Professional League (SPL) season.

As they took to the field at King Fahd Stadium, watched by Saudi national team manager Herve Renard, both teams knew that only three points would ease the pressure on their clubs and coaches.

Al-Nassr, in particular, have endured a catastrophic start to the season, losing five and winning only one of their first six games to leave them rooted to the bottom of the 16-team league. After pushing Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal all the way for the SPL title last season, their collapse has been as severe as it was unexpected.

Al-Ettifaq’s start to the campaign has been marginally better, but with only seven points from their first six matches, they were just one point clear of the relegation zone, in 13th place, before Monday’s game.

Looking devoid of all confidence, Al-Nassr performed like they have all season and so it was Al-Ettifaq who started the brighter of the two. Naim Sliti almost gave the visitors the lead on eight minutes but his firm, left-footed strike was tipped over by Brad Jones. It would prove to be a busy half for the Australian goalkeeper.

Although Al-Ettifaq continued to be the better team, Al-Nassr thought they had taken the lead on 19 minutes, only for Abderrazak Hamdallah’s goal to be — correctly — chalked off for offside. Minutes later, Sliti’s deflected shot was superbly saved by Jones to prolong the stalemate.

Abdullah Al-Salem had another chance to put Al-Ettifaq ahead when he was put through on goal but the alert Jones managed to get in a saving tackle just in time.

Al-Ettifaq would get one last chance in the half, deep into injury time. Slovak midfielder Filip Kiss was fouled by Maicon and, after consulting the video assistant referee (VAR), the referee awarded a penalty. Kiss himself took it and sent Jones the wrong way to give Khalid Al-Atwi’s team the lead.

Rui Vitoria rang the changes for Al-Nassr at half time, with Moroccan playmaker Nordin Amrabat and Sami Al-Najei replacing Osama Al-Kahalf and Ali Al-Hassan. Almost immediately the home team looked more energized, with Amrabat twice stretching Al-Ettifaq’s defense down the right flank. It proved to be a mirage.

Only five minutes after the restart, the brilliant Sliti met Mohammed Al-Kwikbi’s cross and struck a stunning volley to give Al-Ettifaq some breathing space and leave Al-Nassr struggling to keep their heads above water.

On 57 minutes Al-Nassr were thrown a lifeline when Kiss elbowed Al-Najei and, again with the input of the VAR, another penalty was awarded. Hamdallah, the SPL’s top scorer in the past two seasons, struck his spot kick wildly over the bar — the pressure had clearly gotten to even the best of the team’s players.

Al-Nassr belatedly took control of the match in the closing stages, however, and with only two minutes remaining, Al-Najei halved the lead to give his team a glimmer of hope — especially when the referee signaled that six minutes of stoppage time would be added.

It proved to be enough, with another VAR-assisted penalty award giving Al-Nassr one last chance to clinch a point. This time Hamdallah converted with a “Panenka strike,” leaving Al-Ettifaq deflated by the late refereeing decisions that went against them, having come so close to a valuable victory.

“Of course it’s better to draw than to lose,” said relieved Al-Nassr defender Abdullah Madu. “The match had some controversial moments but I’d like to congratulate my teammates on the comeback. To be two goals down, it’s tough to recover.

“We promise our fans that we will be doing our best to do even better in the coming matches. We are not happy with what’s going on. All teams go through difficult times but we are capable of overcoming them.”

Man of the match Sliti blamed naivety for his side’s dropped points. “When you’re leading 2-0 and end up drawing, we’re not going to be satisfied,” said Al-Ettifaq’s star man. “Perhaps it was lack of experience that meant we couldn’t maintain the result. I won’t speak about the referee but I can say it was our lack of experience that led to this result.”

He also praised the provider of the assist that led to his spectacular goal.

“It was great play from Al-Kwikbi to provide me with an excellent opportunity and I repaid the favor with the finish,” added Sliti.

Al-Salem struggled to hide his disappointment with the result and the nature of his team’s late collapse.

“I think we deserved the three points today but that’s football,” he said. “I don’t like to comment on certain things but there were some strange incidents. I saw that the equalizer came on 90-plus-10 minutes — I don’t know where that time came from.

“We held out till the 89th minute (before conceding) the first goal — we should have had enough experience and focus to keep possession and defend. Mistakes and the late penalty means a draw is not convincing. But away to a big club, a point is better than nothing.”

Meanwhile Al-Hilal extended their lead over Al-Shabab at the top of the table to five points after an 84th-minute Ali Al-Bulaihi goal gave them a 1-0 win at Al-Raed. Earlier in the day, Al-Fateh lost 3-1 at home to Abha Club.

On Saturday, Damac twice overcame two-goal deficits to record a stunning 4-3 win over Al-Ahli. They scored three goals in the last 15 minutes, including Mazen Abo Shararah’s 92nd-minute winner. Al-Batin and Al-Taawoun drew 1-1, as did Al-Faisaly and promoted Al-Ain at Al-Majmaa Sports City.

On Sunday, Al-Qadisiya produced one of the surprises of the week with a 2-1 home win over second-placed Al-Shabab, while Al-Ittihad continued their improved run of form with a 2-1 victory at Al-Wehda.

Formula 1 teams arrive in Jeddah as the final countdown begins for Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Formula 1 teams arrive in Jeddah as the final countdown begins for Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Updated 17 min 47 sec ago

Formula 1 teams arrive in Jeddah as the final countdown begins for Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Formula 1 teams arrive in Jeddah as the final countdown begins for Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

JEDDAH: The final countdown for the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix began in earnest as Formula One teams arrived to a colorful welcome at Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz International Airport on Nov. 28.

Teams were greeted by Ministry of Sports and Saudi Arabian Automobile and Motorcycle Federation “meet and greet” team, and were assisted with arrival formalities in a specially constructed lounge reception area.

The Formula One event — the Kingdom’s biggest global sporting showcase — will be staged at the specially built Jeddah Corniche Circuit from Dec. 3-5.

More F1 drivers are due to arrive in the coming days as the grand prix countdown continues. The Alpine F1 Team and Scuderia Ferrari are among teams that have already begun preparations in Jeddah.

Airport lounges have been decorated with Formula 1 flags and logos, models of F1 racing cars, and images of competing teams and drivers.

Jeddah Municipality has also decorated the King Road and the Corniche with Formula 1 flags and slogans, including the area surrounding the circuit and the waterfront.

IAF president praises Saudi Arabia’s 2023 World Combat Games preparations during first visit to Riyadh

IAF president praises Saudi Arabia’s 2023 World Combat Games preparations during first visit to Riyadh
Updated 28 November 2021

IAF president praises Saudi Arabia’s 2023 World Combat Games preparations during first visit to Riyadh

IAF president praises Saudi Arabia’s 2023 World Combat Games preparations during first visit to Riyadh
  • Vriesman met with the Chairman of the Saudi Aikido Committee Basem Zare’ and attended workshops

RIYADH: The chairman of the International Aikido Federation, Wilko Vriesman, described preparations for the 2023 World Combat Games as “impressive” during his visit to Riyadh.

Vriesman met with the Chairman of the Saudi Aikido Committee Basem Zare’, and attended the joint workshops of the international and national federations participating in the 2023 World Combat Games hosted by Riyadh.

“What we have seen of interest and work makes us confident of the success of this global event before it is held. The workshop, in the presence of delegates of the 15 international federations for the games, discussed preparations and equipment, in terms of facilities hosting the games, as well as logistical support and services provided during the period of the big event in 2023,” he said.

“There is no doubt that the professionalism at work through planning and setting goals before its establishment, and the capabilities shown by Saudi Arabia, will contribute to the success of the work,” Vriesman addded.

He stressed the importance of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East and the world, and said hosting this global event will improve all international martial arts competitions.

The chairman of the IAF also held a number of meetings alongside Zare’, during which the pair discussed preparations necessary for the event.

Route for 2022 Dakar Rally revealed across the Saudi Arabian desert

Route for 2022 Dakar Rally revealed across the Saudi Arabian desert
Updated 29 November 2021

Route for 2022 Dakar Rally revealed across the Saudi Arabian desert

Route for 2022 Dakar Rally revealed across the Saudi Arabian desert
  • Third edition of race to take place in Kingdom will be contested by bikes and quads, cars and trucks over 12 stages from Jan. 1-14

The route for the 2022 Dakar Rally taking place across the Saudi Arabian desert was announced in a virtual presentation on Sunday afternoon, revealing a challenging terrain that will race over 12 stages from Jan. 1-14.

“For the third year running, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the nation of motorsports and the home of the Dakar Rally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, the minister of sport and president of the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee.

The endurance test will be the third consecutive Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia and the 44th edition of the rally itself, with 1,065 participants aboard 578 vehicles racing across 8,375 km of treacherous routes in the various categories.

“The top motorsports competitions have found a new home in the Kingdom,” Prince Abdulaziz added. “From the Dakar Rally, the toughest rally in the world, to the World Rally Championship, the FIA Formula E, Extreme E and of course the upcoming FIA Formula 1 World Championship.”

The landscape and backdrop of the course are similar to the last edition, and it begins and ends after 12 stages in the port city of Jeddah.

From canyons and cliffs in the NEOM region to stretches of dunes surrounding Riyadh, the race also takes in the Red Sea coastline and the mysterious Empty Quarter.

Hybrid vehicles make their debut with top contenders Stephane Peterhansel, a 14-time winner, and Carlos Sainz, winner in 2010, 2018 and 2020, behind the wheel in the new category.

In the motorbike race, previous champions Toby Price, Sam Sunderland, Matthias Walkner, Ricky Brabec and Kevin Benavides will all also be at the start line.

Motorbike and quad racers will be kitted out with airbag vests, which can minimize the consequences of high-speed impact.

Stage 1A will take place on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, and will run from the starting point of Jeddah to Hail, covering a total of 636 km. The following day will see a 546 km loop that starts and ends in Hail for Stage 1B.

On Monday, Jan. 3, Stage 2 of the rally will take place between Hail and Al-Artawiya over 585 km. Stage 3 takes place the following day on a 554 km-trail from Al-Artawiyah to Al-Qaysumah.

Stage 4 will see the race go from Al-Qaysumah to Riyadh over 707 km on Wednesday, Jan. 5. Thursday and Friday, meanwhile, will see loop races — Stages 5 and 6 — that end in the capital.

After a day’s rest on Saturday, the action returns on Sunday, Jan. 7, with the 700 km Stage 7 from Riyadh to Al-Dawadimi.

Stage 8 sees a further 828 km, the longest of the 2022 Dakar Rally, that takes the race to Wadi Al-Dawasir. On Stage 9 the following day, the competitors will do a loop around Wadi Al-Dawasir over 490 km.

On Wednesday, Jan. 12, Stage 10 will see a 757 km drive from Wadi Al-Dawasir to Bisha. In Bisha, a loop of 500 km on Thursday will cover Stage 11.

Finally, on Friday, Jan. 14, Stage 12 from Bisha back to Jeddah completes the 2022 Dakar Rally.

Greg Norman: Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse via my Asian Tour revamp

Greg Norman: Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse via my Asian Tour revamp
Updated 28 November 2021

Greg Norman: Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse via my Asian Tour revamp

Greg Norman: Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse via my Asian Tour revamp
  • Australian golf legend is spearheading Saudi-backed 10-year plan for 10 annual events from 2022
  • Norman says $200m series could unearth new Tiger Woods in the Kingdom

LONDON: When “the Great White Shark” —  aka Greg Norman —  sinks his teeth into something, success is guaranteed on and off the golf course.

The 66-year-old Australian won 91 professional tournaments, including two Open championships, during a distinguished career that saw him top the world rankings for 331 consecutive weeks.

The pioneering Norman has also become one of the world’s most successful athlete-turned-entrepreneurs, with his global corporation Great White Shark Enterprises boasting more than a dozen companies.

As such, Norman’s bold proclamation to Arab News that Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse under his tenacious tutelage should not dismissed lightly.

Norman last month was named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, a newly formed, Saudi-backed company that will bring a series of 10 new events to the Asian Tour in 2022. 

He is relishing the opportunity to channel “44 years of observation, knowledge and experience” into rousing golf’s “sleeping giant,” Asia, as part of a ground-breaking 10-year deal that will involve tournaments being staged across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

“I first went (to Asia) in 1977 and I’ve been going back every year, except during the pandemic years, as a player, golf course designer or through my business acumen,” Norman said via a Zoom call.

“I’ve seen what golf has done there. I was the first guy to build an 18-hole grass course in Jordan. I was the first guy to do an exhibition match in mainland China. I was one of the first guys to play in the UAE as a professional, so I’ve seen the economic growth, as well as the growth of the game of golf, when it goes into new markets.”

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds with a diverse international investment portfolio, is the majority shareholder in Norman’s new company.

Saudi PIF has committed more than $200 million, one of the single biggest investments in the history of professional golf, to support playing opportunities and prize funds.

The series will add to the Asian Tour’s backbone of established events to comprise a 25-event season, expected to represent a record-breaking combined prize fund in 2022.

The announcement follows hard on the heels of the striking of a new 10-year partnership between the Asian Tour and Golf Saudi, the organizers of the Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers, which will see the event become the flagship tournament on the Asian Tour, featuring an increased prize fund of $5 million.

Norman is hugely impressed with Golf Saudi’s aggressive drive to promote golf as part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 masterplan, which includes multiple golf courses being built in the country.

“Golf Saudi are passionate about the game of golf. If you have that much passion, vision and desire like Vision 2030, then you’re going to accelerate it. I love to see that,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ve seen an investment in the future of a country like what I’ve seen in Saudi Arabia.”

He added: “I’ve seen it in pockets around the world — Vietnam has done a great job in investing in its coastline and building high-end resorts and golf course developments there — but nothing to the magnitude of what Saudi Arabia has done. It’s a knock-on effect, a domino effect, and golf is paving the way for (prosperity). It’s an eye-opener to see how the country is investing into their people and opportunities from a health and wellness perspective, from a sporting perspective, from an education perspective,” he said.

“I would say the citizens of Saudi Arabia should be extremely excited about their future.”

Norman said: “Do I think Saudi Arabia could become a golfing powerhouse? Yes, I do.”

“If you’re going to invest dollars into building new facilities, it will allow people access to the game of golf,” he said. “Then you bolt on a lot of other things like academies and education and the hospitality side of things, so it’s actually a beautiful process to watch.” 

He added: “It’s not just one individual who benefits from it, it’s everybody.”

Norman said the schedule for the new series will be announced shortly, with all full-field events contributing toward the Order of Merit ranking.

He is confident of assembling a stellar line-up of world-renowned golfers, too, which is crucial to his overriding aim of inspiring the next generation.

World No.2 Dustin Johnson, who won the Saudi International in 2019 and 2020, is among those rumored to be interested, although Norman would not discuss potential participants.

“All I can tell you is every day I get a message, whether it’s through my WhatsApp, or through Signal or my IG account, from a player asking: ‘How can I get involved? We love it. Thank you, thank you, thank you’.”

He said: “Obviously creating the ability to bring professional golfers stimulates the interest among the younger generation, who would say: ‘Oh, wow, I want to win that golf tournament that John Smith just won.’ The interest level gets accelerated, the fan level gets accelerated, and the fanbase gets bigger, broader and stronger. The game of golf gets better because of that.

“When the fanbase gets elevated, then (people with) more corporate dollars want to come in because the fans are there. There’s this domino effect that happens from an economic standpoint and also a growth standpoint.”

He added: “Could Saudi Arabia produce the next Tiger Woods? The answer is ‘yes.’ But it’s a long-term ‘yes’ and a generational ‘yes.’,” he said.

“In the mid-1980s, there was a gentleman called Sven Tumba from Sweden, who was an ice hockey player who loved golf. He went on this mission to create an opportunity to grow grassroots golf in Sweden. Look where Sweden is today,. They’ve got a major championship winner (2016 Open champion Henrik Stenson).”

Norman is eager to seize every opportunity to expand the game of golf as part of his landmark initiative.

This includes potentially inviting women to participate, as they did at this month’s Aramco Saudi Ladies International for the second year. Building new golf courses across Asia would also be “a logical next step,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Asian Tour CEO and commissioner, Cho Minn Thant, recently suggested that television broadcasting innovations would be explored, including “putting a 3D camera on some of the players if they allow it, or new graphics.”

Norman agreed, adding: “I’m getting flooded with the best of the best from the technology side of life, from technology corporations, from 5G corporations. Golf is under a linear broadcaster, so there are so many ways to show the sport in so many different aspects with the technology that’s out there today and not being used.”

While Norman is fiercely determined to make the Asian Tour global golf’s premier series, he insists he does not want to antagonize the long-established PGA and European Tours.

“I’m a big believer that we can play in the same sandbox. Why can’t there be others who are creating a separate but similar opportunity for players as independent contractors to go and increase their market value?” he said.

“Competition is the best thing for everyone and everything on this planet,” Norman added. “You can go through everything we do in life and we need a competitor to push us to the next level.”

With a hungry Great White Shark on the prowl, Asian sports fans can expect to feast themselves on some spectacular golf in years to come.

Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup

Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup
Updated 28 November 2021

Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup

Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup
  • At least one of the last two European champions will miss out on a place at Qatar 2022 after the UEFA playoffs in March

When the draw for the UEFA playoffs for the 2022 World Cup was completed on Friday, one thing dominated the headlines: Either Italy or Portugal would not be going to Qatar.

The winners of the last two editions of the European Championship failed to top their World Cup qualifying groups, missing out to Serbia and Switzerland respectively, and now might have to face each other for the right to progress to next year’s finals. That is if they overcome their “semi-final” playoff opponents of North Macedonia (for Italy) and Turkey (for Portugal).

For Italy, the situation is borderline embarrassing.

The Azzurri, less than six months on from their success at the 2020 UEFA European Championship, find themselves having to reach Qatar the hard way, and their fans might be starting to fear the worst if recent history is anything to go by.

After all, their country also failed to secure automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup after losing to Sweden in a two-legged playoff, one of the darkest moments in Italy’s football history.

Italy’s stumble in the qualifiers is all the stranger as Roberto Mancini had sparked a revival that culminated in winning Euro 2020 in July on the back of a long unbeaten run. All looked rosy for the Italians as they returned to World Cup action in the fall.

Italy had started very strongly in Group C but found their path getting complicated after drawing twice in their last three games.

Switzerland took full advantage of this, catching up and overtaking Italy in the standings and qualifying directly for the World Cup.

It was an epilogue that would have been hard to predict a few months ago, and the disappointment after the final whistle in Belfast, after Italy’s 0-0 draw with Northern Ireland, was evident on the faces of the entire team and coaching staff. Among the saddest was Jorginho, who in the dressing room could not hold back his tears, having missed a penalty in each of the two draws with Switzerland in the qualifiers. One successful conversion and it would be the Swiss sweating over progress to Qatar now.

For now, Mancini remains firmly in his post, with the Euro 2020 still fresh in everyone’s minds, and even his few critics have had sympathy for the spate of injuries the squad suffered ahead of the match against Northern Ireland.

The same cannot be said about Portugal.

Fernando Santos, their 67-year-old coach, remains the only one to give Portugal a title, but Euro 2016 grows distant with every passing year and the state of grace will not last forever.

In terms of results, his record is hardly a disaster, but neither has it been outstanding when you consider the talent that the football-crazy nation has at its disposal.

The fog around the coach is almost always based on poor quality football, especially given the caliber of players in the Portuguese squad at the moment.

Portugal’s best players grace some of Europe’s top clubs including Manchester United, Manchester City, Atlético Madrid, Liverpool, PSG, Roma, among others. Many of them are the best players at these clubs. They are therefore the best of the best.

And yet the football played by the national team pales in comparison to their club exploits, and the Portuguese blame their coach for that.

The Luz Stadium was supposed to witness a celebration in front of 65,000 spectators when Serbia came to Lisbon for the final group qualifier, but instead, and at the end of a historic night, the visitors punished Cristiano Ronaldo and his colleagues in the dying meets of the match to win 2-1.

My sources in Portugal tell me that Santos could be approaching the end of his reign as coach of the Portuguese national team.

The Portuguese Football Federation has backed him up to the playoffs, but many supporters and members of the press no longer believe that he can get the best out of this group of players.

This was evident when, at the press conference after the Serbia debacle, a journalist asked Santos: “How do you explain the poor football that the National Team presents, given the talent it has at its disposal?”

Santos looked at the journalist. He swallowed dry, straightened his tie, and said nothing.

Portugal, of course, still possess arguably world football’s greatest trump card.

Whatever lack of confidence there is in the coach, the nation can always count on Ronaldo to inspire his team in such moments.

It would be a shame not to see either Italy or Portugal in the World Cup, but sadly that is now inevitable.

In March we will know which one will miss out, if not, sensationally, both.