AFC Champions League groups to kickoff amid virus threat

AFC Champions League groups to kickoff amid virus threat
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Updated 16 January 2021

AFC Champions League groups to kickoff amid virus threat

AFC Champions League groups to kickoff amid virus threat
  • Saudi Arabia’s Al-Wehda will enter qualification playoffs in March
  • 2021 is set to be the biggest yet with the group stage expanding from 32 to 40 teams

LONDON: The 2021 AFC Champions League group stage is set to start in April, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in line, if necessary, to play host to multiple games as the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) looks for ways to safely complete its flagship tournament in the middle of a global pandemic.

It will be the second successive year that the tournament has been affected by the coronavirus. With the experience gained in 2020 when Qatar stepped in to host the remainder of the group and knockout stage after the competition was postponed earlier in the year, the AFC is confident that all will go smoothly.

Last year’s edition was eventually won by South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai Horangi in December, but 2021 is set to be the biggest yet with the group stage expanding from 32 to 40 teams.

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Wehda will enter qualification playoffs in March, and if successful, will join Al-Nassr, Al-Ahli and 2019 champions Al-Hilal in the first round.

“The playoffs are scheduled to take place in March and the group stage in April,” an AFC official told Arab News. “We would prefer to host games in two or three cities in each region, but that depends on how the coronavirus situation develops. It may be that there are new rules put in place around Asia which mean that we will have to return to a single hub system.”

The continental competition is usually split into two geographic zones until the final. The group stage of the West Asian side of the tournament is set to take place over two weeks in the second half of April.

The eastern zone, which does not yet have a potential host nation and could again take place in the west, will start and finish
a week later.

Given what happened last year, the AFC is staying flexible on when and where the knockout stages will take place, especially as Asian national teams are expected to be busy with 2022 World Cup qualifiers in June. It is likely however that both east and west Asian teams will be mixed together from at least the quarterfinal stage onward.

The Champions League is not the only tournament affected by the global pandemic. On Friday, the Tajikistan Football Association announced that the AFC-U16 and U-19 Championships will be postponed.

The former was originally scheduled to take place in Bahrain last September and October before it was rearranged for March this year. It remains to be seen whether it happens at all, as the tournament was already planned to be the final edition of the U-16 competition, with the AFC moving to an U-17 version from 2023.

Saudi Arabia may have to wait to defend the AFC-U19 Championship that was won in 2018 as the tournament in Uzbekistan is also set to be, at the very least, postponed. Originally scheduled to be held last October, it was rearranged for March.

It is not only Asia that is striving to find ways to complete competitions in difficult circumstances. On Friday, FIFA announced that Auckland City had withdrawn from the Club World Cup that is set to kick off in Qatar in February. The Oceania champions will stay home due to travel restrictions put in place by the New Zealand government.

“FIFA has today been informed by Auckland City FC that, in light of the coronavirus pandemic and related quarantine measures required by the New Zealand authorities, the club will be unable to participate in the FIFA Club World Cup 2020,” the world governing body said in a statement.

“Despite FIFA’s regular exchanges with the club, New Zealand Football and the OFC in recent days, the requirements of the New Zealand authorities in relation to isolation and quarantine go beyond FIFA’s remit and, therefore, it was not possible to reach a solution.”

It means that Oceania’s representatives will miss their opening round showdown with Al-Duhail, representing the host nation, on Feb. 1. The Qataris will receive a bye to the second round and a match-up against either Al-Ahly of Egypt, South Korea’s Ulsan or Tigres of Mexico, the respective champions of Africa, Asia and CONCAFAF.

The draw will be made on Tuesday, with European representatives Bayern Munich and South America’s champions, to be determined on Jan. 30, placed in the semifinals.


Al-Shabab president Al-Baltan hit with two-month ban for his part in racism row

Al-Shabab president Al-Baltan hit with two-month ban for his part in racism row
Updated 27 February 2021

Al-Shabab president Al-Baltan hit with two-month ban for his part in racism row

Al-Shabab president Al-Baltan hit with two-month ban for his part in racism row
  • Al-Baltan also fined $10,660 after dispute with Al-Nassr president Safwan Al-Suwaiket

LONDON: While all is going well for Al-Shabab at the top of the Saudi Pro League, the club have been hit by twin bans following a racism row that erupted at a Feb.13 clash with Al-Nassr and shows little sign of stopping.

On Friday, the Saudi Arabia Football Federation’s (SAFF) Discipline and Ethics Committee issued club President Khaled Al-Baltan with a ban from all sporting activity for two months and a $10,660 fine for his role in an altercation with Al Nassr’s Hussein Abdulghani during a league meeting between the two Riyadh teams that ended 4-0 to Al-Shabab.

While Al-Shabab refused to comment when contacted by Arab News, Al-Nassr president, Safwan Al-Suwaiket quickly made his displeasure known on Friday, complaining that the penalties given to Al-Shabab were too light.

“Verbal abuse, insults, slander and public defamation, damaging personal reputation, inciting public opinion and insulting Saudi sport and in the end a very light penalty,” he wrote on social media, also suggesting that the club may take the matter to the courts.

Reports in Saudi Arabia suggest that Al-Suwaiket could face punishment for his comments as the fallout from the incident looks set to drag on.

The original issue started near the end of the league clash earlier this month.

As the team's Brazilian winger Sebastian Junior was being substituted, an animated Abdulghani could be seen shouting and making gestures at the player, known as ‘Seba’ to go away and the two had to be separated by officials.

While it is unclear what Abdulghani said - the legend of Saudi Arabian football with over 130 international appearances was wearing a mask - as he gesticulates towards the Brazilian, up in the mostly empty stands, television footage showed Al-Baltan shouting, “This is Saudi Arabia, we don’t call people monkeys in this country. Shame on you.”

Al-Nassr quickly released a statement denying that any racist comments had been made.

“We stand behind our executive manager, Hussein Abdulghani, in the face of these false allegations,” the club said.

The match report backed up Al-Nassr’s account according to SAFF despite the evidence given from Al-Shabab players and officials at the hearing. “The report received by the committee from match referee Turki Al-Khudair, and the match observer did not include a recording of a racist utterance from Hussein Abdulghani against Seba,” SAFF said.

Al-Baltan was punished for the language used towards an official from another team and will now miss a vital period in the season as Al-Shabab, five points clear at the top, look to win a first title since 2012.

While Abdulghani was cleared of racism, he also received a ban and a fine for his part in the melee.

To make matters worse for Al-Shabab, Seba was also banned for two games and fined $53,000 for his comments on social media that were seen by the committee, as stirring up public opinion. Al-Shabab were also fined the same amount.

Al-Shabab can take another step towards the championship on Sunday as they travel to take on lowly Damac while Al-Hilal in second take on Al-Fateh.


Arabian Gulf League’s most intriguing season turns Al-Jazira’s way after top-of-the-table win

Arabian Gulf League’s most intriguing season turns Al-Jazira’s way after top-of-the-table win
Updated 27 February 2021

Arabian Gulf League’s most intriguing season turns Al-Jazira’s way after top-of-the-table win

Arabian Gulf League’s most intriguing season turns Al-Jazira’s way after top-of-the-table win
  • A 3-0 loss adds to Sharjah’s woes as Baniyas keep the pressure on in UAE’s heated title race

A few weeks from now, one team will celebrate a historic Arabian Gulf League title. Dates for the final five matchweeks of the remaining eight are yet to be announced, but whenever and wherever the coveted trophy will be lifted, the winning side will look back at the night of Friday, Feb. 26 as one that has reshaped their 2020-21 campaign.

For now, it’s Al-Jazira who are smiling.

First, there is Sharjah’s woes. Despite hitherto leading the table, the reigning champions have looked a shadow of the side that took the UAE by storm to win their first league title in a quarter of a century in 2018-19. The subsequent season was declared null and void, disrupted by the pandemic, keeping the trophy in Sharjah for a further 12 months.

Mastermind Abdulaziz Al-Anbari remains at the helm. A local lad who had pulled the strings in midfield as Sharjah won the 1995-96 title, he returned as manager two decades later to transform a mid-table squad into the most potent counter-attacking unit in the country and become the first man to win the UAE league title as a player and as a manager.

Less than two years on, he was left to watch his legacy crumble in a game he missed through illness. A 3-0 demolition at home by Al-Jazira on Friday made it five games without a win for Al-Anbari’s Sharjah, his side’s poor run culminating in the loss of the top spot that they had made effectively theirs since the beginning of the season.

Momentum cannot be created nor destroyed, but only changed through the action of forces. Isaac Newton might as well have been talking about the 2020-21 Arabian Gulf League title race. For that every bit of momentum lost by Sharjah was picked up by their Friday visitors Al-Jazira.

They may not have been present in the stands on a night to remember for the Pride of Abu Dhabi at Sharjah Stadium, but the Al-Jazira faithful were indeed the most vocal on social media as they felt the tide turning to their side in the pursuit for glory.

The stars finally aligned for manager Marcel Keizer. Young defender Mohammed Rabi powered in an early header for his first senior goal. The Dutchman’s high-press system saw his compatriot Brandley Kuwas, a January recruit from Al-Nasr, win the ball deep into the opposition half and supply talisman Ali Mabkhout who made it 2-0 before the break.

Not even a red card for midfielder Abdullah Ramadan could stop Al-Jazira’s rampant display, and the top spot was signed, sealed and delivered to the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium as Mabkhout slotted home from the spot in added time for his 17th goal of the season.

By all measures, Friday night was telling of the two clubs and their contrasting trajectories. For every time Sharjah’s Caio Lucas and Saif Rashid attempted an outrageous skill only to lose the ball in their own half, there was a spell of swift, intricate passing and coordinated pressing by Al-Jazira’s well-drilled midfield. For every moment of frustrated Igor Coronado solo runs, there was a sharp exchange of positions by Mabkhout and his protege-turned-teammate Zayed Al Ameri.

Then there are the Sky Blues of Baniyas: Quietly going about their business as they have done all season, and in the process creeping into the title conversation with their 36 points placing them at third, just four behind Al-Jazira.

A decade has passed since their best league campaign; a season in which they finished runners-up behind none other than Al-Jazira. Countless managers and foreign players have passed through the revolving door at Al-Shamkha Stadium on the outskirts of the capital Abu Dhabi. There has been relegation then instant promotion, a new ambitious project and finally a season where they flew under the radar, appearing almost out of nowhere to book a place on the table for a game of cards for which they looked the unlikeliest of invitees.

On Friday, Baniyas made light work of relegation strugglers Ajman. Young Palestinian forward Ahmed Abunamous put them in front before Brazilian marksman Joao Pedro kept the pressure on Mabkhout at the top of the scoring charts with his fourteenth goal of the season to secure a third Baniyas win in their last four games.

An extended winning run, as well as other results going their way, could yet see Al-Nasr — leaders earlier in the season but fourth-placed now — make their way into the title charge.

They sit seven points adrift of the top, but realistically it will not be until after the matchweek 23 clash between Sharjah and Baniyas, four games before the curtain falls on the season, that we will have a much clearer picture of who the next champions of the UAE will be in a season where the traditional powerhouses of Al-Ain, Shabab Al-Ahli and Al-Wahda were brushed aside by a brave new contingent of competitors.


The streets of Riyadh to light-up again for race two of the Diriyah E-Prix

The streets of Riyadh to light-up again for race two of the Diriyah E-Prix
Updated 27 February 2021

The streets of Riyadh to light-up again for race two of the Diriyah E-Prix

The streets of Riyadh to light-up again for race two of the Diriyah E-Prix
  • 24 drivers ready to battle again after Dutchman Nyck de Vries won Formula E’s first ever night race

RIYADH: Formula E returns to Riyadh later today for the second leg of the Diriyah-E-Prix double-header in the opening round of season 7, following an electric opening race last night which saw a maiden victory for Mercedes-EQ driver Nyck de Vries.

Completing the podium, Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al Faisal, Chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, was Edoardo Mortara of ROCKiT Venturi Racing, who finished second, and Jaguar Racing’s Mitch Evans in third.

“What an incredible race. Once again Diriyah has made sporting history with another ‘first’ and I’m so pleased Saudi Arabia has proudly opened this wonderful series to start Season 7,” said Prince Khalid.

“It’s a championship that aligns so perfectly with our future vision and commitment to sustainability as a nation. You can tell the drivers love the track and I’ve no doubt millions around the world have been thoroughly entertained.”

Speaking of his podium finish, Mortara revealed the risk in overtaking Pascal Wehrlein of TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team.

“When I am in the car doing these moves my heart stops,” the Swiss driver said.

“Wehrlein moved at the last minute so I had to go on the left as I was quite surprised. It was the key moment of the race and I was really happy to survive the chaos and finish second. It's exciting.”

He also spoke of his third experience of the Diriyah track at the world UNESCO heritage site.

“You can see that the organizers have put in a lot of time to get the track ready and it’s a pleasure coming to race in an historical place like Diriyah,” Mortara added.

“The effort they’ve put in to host the first ever night race is amazing.”

Once again, 24 drivers from 12 teams will take to the track this evening, and while race two, like the first one, will also be held without spectators, fans still can still catch the action live on KSA Sports TV or the channel’s Twitter page @riyadiyatv.

“Due to COVID we have all faced many challenges over the last year.,” Prince Khalid added.

“There have been dark moments and many felt staging the race would be impossible. But tonight, the light has shone bright and it is clear, the Kingdom is not slowing down. It is a sign of hope and a positive step forward that shows what can be achieved if we work together to overcome all obstacles.”

The Diriyah E-Prix signifies a significant milestone in the history of Formula E while building on Saudi Arabia’s continued momentum in hosting motorsport competitions.

Despite the challenges of COVID, 2021is set to see the country host four FIA sanctioned events.

Following the season opener for Formula E this weekend, April will see the first ever Extreme E race take to the breathtaking Al Ula, before the country plays host to its inaugural Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in early December.

Then finally closing out the year with the return of Formula E Season 8.


Mourinho says pressure at Spurs ‘like oxygen’

Mourinho says pressure at Spurs ‘like oxygen’
Updated 27 February 2021

Mourinho says pressure at Spurs ‘like oxygen’

Mourinho says pressure at Spurs ‘like oxygen’

LONDON: Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho said on Friday that being under pressure was “like oxygen” for him as he seeks to turn around the club’s terrible Premier League form.
Mourinho’s job has come under scrutiny after a run of five Premier League defeats in six games left them ninth in the table — nine points outside the top four.
But the Portuguese, whose team topped the table in December, said it was just part of the job.
“The problem is if you don’t have pressure,” he said. “I felt in trouble when I was at home and did not have pressure for a few months.
“That’s the problem. It comes like oxygen, it is our life; I don’t think there is any coach in the world without objectives or any kind of pressure.
“You just get used to it and also used to the way the press is at the time, you just have to adapt to it.”
Mourinho said earlier this week that he was confident he would be remembered for the right reasons at Spurs despite overseeing a collapse in their form during his first full season in charge.
The poor run in the league is unprecedented for the 58-year-old in a long and mostly successful managerial career at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Manchester United.
However, Tottenham’s season could still be saved by success in cup competitions.
Spurs will meet Dinamo Zagreb in the last 16 of the Europa League after completing an 8-1 aggregate win over Austrian side Wolfsberg this week.
Mourinho’s men also face Premier League leaders Manchester City in the League Cup final in April — looking to win their first silverware
in 13 years.
 


Solskjaer wary of Chelsea challenge in battle for top four

Solskjaer wary of Chelsea challenge in battle for top four
Updated 27 February 2021

Solskjaer wary of Chelsea challenge in battle for top four

Solskjaer wary of Chelsea challenge in battle for top four

LONDON: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes the race for the Premier League top four will go down to the wire as Manchester United prepare to face Thomas Tuchel’s revitalized Chelsea on Sunday.
United were knocked off top spot by Manchester City on Jan. 26 and a run of just two wins in six top-flight matches means they are now 10 points behind their rivals.
Second-placed United head to the Etihad Stadium for a Manchester derby clash on March 7 but before then they have back-to-back fixtures away to London clubs, with Sunday’s match against Chelsea followed by Wednesday’s game with Crystal Palace.
“We’ve got Chelsea just behind us, we’ve got City away in front of us,” said Solskjaer.
“Of course we can’t let them run further away if we have ambitions of catching them and we can’t give Chelsea too much hope to catch us either.”
Solskjaer believes United are over their recent wobble ahead of the match at Stamford Bridge, where Tuchel has made an impressive impact since succeeding Frank Lampard last month.
The Blues have yet to lose under the German and can halve the six-point gap to United on Sunday as the race for Champions League qualification spots heats up.
“You can see the results, you can see the stats, the possession they’ve had, they keep teams away from their own goal, keep the possession,” Solskjaer said.
“He’s (Tuchel) done really well ... It’s never easy coming into a season halfway through so he must be pleased as well. Hopefully we can stop that run. That’s my job now.”
The Norwegian predicted a tense battle for Champions League places with a third of the season still to go.
City, United, Leicester and West Ham are currently in the top four but a clutch of teams, including Chelsea and champions Liverpool, harbor ambitions of dislodging them.
“I don’t think the positions will be decided early,” said former United striker Solskjaer.
“With this season as well, it’s unpredictable. We’ve seen teams going through bad phases then a run and then who knows what’s going to happen with injuries, with how players react to the circumstances.”
Solskjaer’s remarks came as Manchester United and AC Milan prepare to meet in the round of 16 of the Europa League, putting 39-year-old forward Zlatan Ibrahimović up against his former English club.
Ibrahimovic played for United for two years, including in the 2016-17 season when United won its only Europa League title.
Milan, a seven-time European Cup champion, has never won the Europa League or its predecessor the UEFA Cup — the only continental title it is missing.
“It’s one of the those draws again that you feel could be a Champions League game,” Solskjaer said on Friday.
United dropped into the Europa League after finishing third in its Champions League group. Milan last played in the top-tier competition in 2014.
Both teams are on track to qualify for the next Champions League, in second place in their domestic leagues trailing crosstown rivals Manchester City and Inter Milan, respectively.
“They’re on the up and have done really well this season,” Solskjaer said of Milan, who are scheduled to visit Old Trafford for the first leg on March 11.
The return leg at San Siro is one week later.
Arsenal will face Olympiakos and go back to Piraeus for its second straight game in the competition.
The London team used Olympiakos’ stadium as a neutral venue on Thursday and beat Benfica 3-2 in the “home” leg in the round of 32.
Arsenal and Olympiakos will be meeting in a European competition for the sixth time in the past 12 seasons. Olympiakos won in the last 32 a year ago.
Two-time UEFA Cup champion Tottenham will face Dinamo Zagreb and play the first leg in Croatia, while 1992 champion Ajax is at home first against Swiss club Young Boys.