Scene set for Hollywood-style twist for Al-Nassr’s star buy

Scene set for Hollywood-style twist for Al-Nassr’s star buy
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Pity Martinez. (Credit: Nassr FC)
Scene set for Hollywood-style twist for Al-Nassr’s star buy
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Al-Nassr have won six of their last eight matches with Martinez providing two goals and three assists and becoming more influential overall. (Supplied)
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Updated 11 February 2021

Scene set for Hollywood-style twist for Al-Nassr’s star buy

Scene set for Hollywood-style twist for Al-Nassr’s star buy
  • $18m Argentine signing Martinez helps kick-start team’s return to form amid transfer rumors

LONDON: Pity Martinez’s Saudi Arabian introduction came Hollywood-style in a dramatic video made in September for social media that announced one of the biggest transfers in the country’s history.

There was a briefcase full of cash, a contract being offered to an unnamed pair of hands, a shiny car arriving at a hotel, officials opening multiple doors, and the outline of an Al-Nassr shirt being pulled on with the Riyadh city lights shining behind. The shirt belonged to Martinez, signed for $18 million from Atlanta United, and the season promised to be a blockbuster.

If that beginning was exciting, by December, the audience was in danger of losing interest amid rumors of the 2018 South American Player of the Year making a swift exit back to Major League Soccer (MLS) or maybe Mexico.

At the time, that may have seemed best for all but in recent weeks the Argentine player and Al-Nassr are starting to suggest that there may be a twist to this tale.

It is still hard to know what to make of this big-money move that shocked fans of Atlanta. Al-Nassr supporters were excited and knew that if this player, who scored for River Plate against bitter rivals Boca Juniors in the final of the 2018 Copa Libertadores, could do something similar in the 2021 AFC Champions League then that hefty transfer fee would be forgotten.

However, Martinez was not bought for his goals, more the mouth-watering prospect of him supplying bullets for Moroccan marksman Abderrazak Hamdallah.

But by mid-December, both star and team were looking lost. Al-Nassr were not battling it out at the top with rivals Al-Hilal, instead, after losing six of their first eight games, were in the relegation zone.

Martinez had been bought to break open defenses with his top-level passing skills and creativity but there was little evidence of that. While the former River Plate star can play anywhere in an attacking midfield position or off the striker, he prefers the right if possible.

Under coach Rui Vitoria, who led the team to the 2019 title, that did not happen as much as he would have liked. There were other issues in the team, but Martinez just was not getting into games and not seeing the ball as much as he wanted. A single assist in his first five league games was evidence of that.

It was inevitable then that, given the investment made in the team and the expectations that always surround the nine-time Saudi champions that Vitoria’s days were numbered, and he left in late December. In came Alen Horvat to take over temporarily and the fortunes of Al-Nassr and Martinez have improved greatly under the Croatian.

“I played in many positions, at the request of the former coach Vitoria,” Martinez told Saudi television after scoring against Al-Ain on Jan. 8.

“But coach Horvat has respected me and put me in the right place on the right side, where I feel comfortable and love to play and I thank him for that.”

Results have improved dramatically, and Al-Nassr have won six of their last eight matches with Martinez providing two goals and three assists and becoming more influential overall.

The team is happy, winning, and growing in confidence. There is more energy and movement going forward and with other players making more runs, it gives Martinez, always an available outlet for a defense under pressure, more space, and more options.

The league title is almost certainly out of sight unless the current run continues all the way to the end of the season, but a top-three finish is certainly not out of the question.

The recent Saudi Super Cup win over Al-Hilal may have been closer than the 3-0 score line suggested but it was a major confidence boost and a professional performance at both ends of the pitch.

The 2021 AFC Champions League starts in April and, on current form, Al-Nassr are one of the favorites and an in-form Martinez can only shorten those odds.

Nevertheless, the jury is still out on the 27-year-old even if, with a possible FIFA-imposed transfer ban hanging over the club due to money reportedly owed to former players, it may be a while before Al-Nassr can replace him. Martinez was not consistently impressive in his short American spell, although he shone in patches, and it has been suggested that he is one of those players who performs best on home soil.

There have been continuing rumors floated that he could be heading closer to Argentina with a return to MLS, this time Cincinnati. Mexico has also been mentioned as a potential destination.

The player denies it all. “My family and I are very happy. Don’t believe all that you read on social media,” Martinez said last week on social media. “I wanted to tell you that I am very happy at Al-Nassr FC.”

Six weeks ago, fans may not have been too upset at losing Pity Martinez but now, things are starting to look a little different. He has yet to live up to the hype but there is still time and that early season blip may just add to the Hollywood-style twist that could be coming.


Liverpool beats Sheffield United 2-0 to end EPL losing run

Liverpool beats Sheffield United 2-0 to end EPL losing run
Updated 01 March 2021

Liverpool beats Sheffield United 2-0 to end EPL losing run

Liverpool beats Sheffield United 2-0 to end EPL losing run
  • The 20-year-old academy graduate Curtis Jones made the breakthrough for Liverpool in the 48th minute when he fired in off Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deflected cross

SHEFFIELD, England: Liverpool halted a run of four defeats in the Premier League as it ended a miserable February with a 2-0 win over last-place Sheffield United on Sunday.
A series of fine first-half saves from Sheffield goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale kept the defending champions at bay in the first half. The 20-year-old academy graduate Curtis Jones made the breakthrough for Liverpool in the 48th minute when he fired in off Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deflected cross. There was a brief check for whether the ball had gone out of play in the buildup but there was no conclusive evidence that it had.
Oliver McBurnie sent a header wide in Sheffield’s best chance of leveling the score before Liverpool made it 2-0 in the 64th. Roberto Firmino weaved through the defense before hitting a shot which took a deflection before going past Ramsdale. The Premier League ruled it was an own-goal for Sheffield’s Kean Bryan, meaning Firmino went a seventh game without a goal in the league and Champions League.
The second goal took the game out of reach for a Sheffield team with just three league wins all season as Liverpool marked its first league game without conceding a goal since a 0-0 draw with Manchester United on Jan. 17.
However, it was not the kind of emphatic victory which might have boosted Liverpool’s confidence further after a miserable recent run which included last week’s defeat to rival Everton and losses to Manchester City and Leicester which buried an already ailing bid to retain the title.
Mohamed Salah missed from close range in the 80th and Liverpool goalkeeper Adrian, standing in for Alisson Becker after his father died, stopped a late attempt from Oliver Burke.


Man Utd frustrated by penalty row in Chelsea stalemate

Man Utd frustrated by penalty row in Chelsea stalemate
Updated 01 March 2021

Man Utd frustrated by penalty row in Chelsea stalemate

Man Utd frustrated by penalty row in Chelsea stalemate
  • United now sit 12 points behind leaders Manchester City as their title hopes fade

LONDON: Manchester United were left frustrated by a VAR penalty controversy in their 0-0 draw at Chelsea, while the revitalised Gareth Bale struck twice in Tottenham’s 4-0 rout of Burnley on Sunday.

Second-placed United had hoped to close the gap on Manchester City with a victory at Stamford Bridge.

But instead they now sit 12 points behind the Premier League leaders as their title hopes fade following a run of one win from four games.

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel is unbeaten in nine matches in all competitions since replacing the sacked Frank Lampard, but the stalemate was a blow to his team’s top-four challenge.

The fifth-placed Blues are one point behind fourth-placed West Ham and four ahead of sixth-placed Liverpool, who visit Sheffield United in Sunday’s late game.

Neither side could claim they deserved to win in a game of few clear-cut chances.

The biggest talking point came in the first half when United’s appeal for a penalty was rejected by referee Stuart Attwell after he consulted the pitchside monitor when Callum Hudson-Odoi appeared to handle in a challenge with Mason Greenwood.

After five defeats in their previous six league games, Tottenham eased the pressure on Jose Mourinho with a significant contribution from Bale, who made just his third league start of the season.

The Wales forward’s most impressive display since his season-long loan move from Real Madrid gave him four goals in his last four appearances.

Bale, who had clashed with Tottenham boss Mourinho over his fitness earlier in February, took just 68 seconds to score with a clinical close-range finish from Son Heung-min’s cross.

In the 15th minute, Bale’s superb long pass picked out Harry Kane’s run and the England captain’s shot deflected off James Tarkowski for his 22nd goal of the season.

Lucas Moura netted with a predatory finish after Sergio Reguilon’s cross was deflected into the Brazilian’s path by Tarkowski in the 31st minute.

Bale, in his second spell with Tottenham after leaving for Madrid in 2013, scored again with a cool strike from Son’s 55th-minute pass.

Tottenham are up to eighth, six points behind the top four with a game in hand.

“Sometimes you (the media) like to say things that are not really true but there is not one single manager in the world that doesn’t play Gareth Bale if Gareth Bale is in very good condition,” Mourinho said.

“There is not one, but now he is better than ever. It’s not just about the two goals he scored, it’s fundamentally about his physical performance.”

Arsenal delivered a hammer blow to Leicester’s faint hopes of winning the title with an impressive 3-1 win.

Mikel Arteta’s side fell behind to Youri Tielemans’ early goal at the King Power Stadium, but David Luiz equalised and Alexandre Lacazette’s penalty gave Arsenal the lead.

Nicolas Pepe’s second-half goal sealed the Gunners’ second win in their last six league games and their first success at a team in the Premier League’s top three since 2015.

Leicester remain in third place and trail City by 13 points with 12 games remaining.

After Thursday’s shock Europa League exit against Slavia Prague, it was a week to forget for Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers.

With Arsenal stuck in mid-table, Arteta has prioritised winning the Europa League as his side’s only hope of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

Having picked his best team for the come-from-behind win against Benfica in the last 32 second leg on Thursday, Arteta left Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka on the bench after the long trip back from the neutral venue in Greece.

After the gamble paid off, Arteta said: “Coming into this game I was concerned. They’re one of the most dangerous teams in the league to play once you go behind against them.

“The reaction was terrific, the team looked really mature.”

Third-bottom Fulham are three points from safety after a 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace.


Ice-master Tanak claims Arctic Rally

Ice-master Tanak claims Arctic Rally
Updated 01 March 2021

Ice-master Tanak claims Arctic Rally

Ice-master Tanak claims Arctic Rally
  • Tanak, who secured his 14th career win in the top category

ROVANIEMI, Finland: Ott Tanak held off Finnish home hope Kalle Rovanpera on Sunday to win the inaugural Arctic Rally.

The Estonian, world rally champion in 2019 when with the Finland-based Toyota team, emerged master of the demanding frozen forest circuit behind the wheel of his Hyundai.

“First, when you come to a new event it’s always a bit unexpected,” he told wrc.com.

“This weekend, we came to the home country of Toyota and we expected them to be very strong.

“The pressure was there and we knew it was going to be very complicated to take the fight. In the end we did a very good weekend — nothing too much, only one mistake yesterday (Saturday).”

Tanak, who secured his 14th career win in the top category, added: “It’s an amazing place — definitely one of the best places to have a winter rally, especially yesterday, it was so demanding.

“I think to come back here a second time would be much more enjoyable, especially when you know where you are going!”

The 33-year-old’s Belgian teammate Thierry Neuville had to settle for third after his battle with Rovanpera, the 20-year-old who takes the early lead in the championship standings.

Tanak’s winning margin after Sunday’s two closing stages, was 17.5 seconds, with Neuville 2.5sec behind Rovanpera, the winner of the Power Stage and for whom this was the best result of his young career.

“It was a superb weekend for me and Jonne (Halttunen, his co-driver), we did all that we could and we’re happy to take second,” said the Finn, claiming his second podium place after Sweden in 2020.

He moved on to 39 points in the championship, four clear of Neuville.

A further four points behind sits France’s reigning champion Sebastien Ogier who trailed in over 10 minutes adrift after driving into a snowbank on the final turn on Saturday.

Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia, climbed back into their Toyota and finished the stage but with their hopes of victory dashed.

Tanak lies fifth in the fledgling rankings, on 27 points, all earned here after retiring with a double puncture from the opening Monte Carlo Rally in January.

This second leg of the championship was held without fans due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The WRC circus next sets up camp in Croatia at the end of April.


Campos tied for lead at home in Puerto Rico Open

Campos tied for lead at home in Puerto Rico Open
Updated 01 March 2021

Campos tied for lead at home in Puerto Rico Open

Campos tied for lead at home in Puerto Rico Open
  • Play was delayed three times for about an hour total in the afternoon because of the short, heavy downpours

RIO GRANDE, PUERTO RICO: Local favorite Rafael Campos took a share of the lead Saturday in the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open, waiting out a series of rain delays to shoot a 5-under 67 at windy Grand Reserve.

The 32-year-old from San Juan followed a birdie on the par-4 17th with a bogey on the par-5 18th to drop into a tie for the lead with Grayson Murray at 14-under 202.

“I know there’s a lot of things that can basically change my life tomorrow,” Campos said. “But truth is, I’m just really happy. I have been playing good golf the last two weeks, and I really want to keep that mindset of the work I have been putting in the last four months, I’m starting to see good results.

“I think I will just focus on that, focus on playing the golf course the way I know how to play it, be aggressive when I have to be aggressive, and be conservative when I obviously don’t feel comfortable. So, yeah, I really don’t want to think about tomorrow. I just want to go out and hopefully play some good golf.”

Murray bogeyed 17 and birdied 18 in a 65. Cameron Percy (67) and Branden Grace (68) were a stroke back.

Play was delayed three times for about an hour total in the afternoon because of the short, heavy downpours. With expected heavy rain overnight and into the morning, the final round will feature threesomes off split tees.

Campos has two top-10 finishes in the event, tying for eighth in 2016 and tying for 10th in 2017. After missing the cuts in seven of eight events to start the PGA Tour season, he tied for seventh last week in Florida’s in a Korn Ferry Tour event. In 2019, he won the Bahamas Great Abaco Classic to become the first Puerto Rican in Korn Ferry Tour history.

The former Virginia Commonwealth player played the front nine in 3 under, with birdies on the par-5 second, par-4 third and par-5 fifth. He also birdied the par-4 10th and 12th.

“I felt today I hit the ball very well, with the exception of the last couple of holes,” Campos said. “But I’m really happy with where I’m standing right now, and I really think can’t be in a better position basically for tomorrow. Hopefully, just kind of keep doing the same thing we’re doing. I really feel comfortable with my swing.”

He won’t get to play in front of many of his fans Sunday because of coronavirus restrictions.

“It feels very weird only seeing them for like three holes out of 18 holes,” Campos said. “So I got my mom, I got my wife, I got family supporting me. So that’s all I really need right now. And, obviously, I feel the great positive energy the fans actually give me, either text messages or out here on the course.”

The tournament is being played opposite the World Golf Championship event in Florida. The winner will get into the PGA Championship in May but not the Masters in April.

Murray won the 2017 Barbasol Championship, also played opposite a WGC event, for the 27-year-old former Arizona State player’s lone tour title.

“It’s been a long time since I have been in a situation like this, but I’m not afraid of the moment,” Murray said. “And at the end of the day, you still got to play good golf, no matter — no matter who’s chasing you or who I’m chasing.”

He birdied five of the first nine holes.

“I had the putter rolling and just kind of kept it rolling throughout the round,” Murray said. “We had to stop and start. We were a little unfortunate, but they were quick. And the PGA Tour did a good job of kind of keeping us out there and not bringing us in each time.”

Second-round leader Brandon Wu (71) was 12 under with Andrew Putnam (67) and Nelson Ledesma (68).

“Had to scramble a little bit harder today,” Wu said. “I think it was playing tougher, the start and the stop, the rain, crazy conditions.”


Man City win 20th straight game to lead by 13 points

Man City win 20th straight game to lead by 13 points
Updated 28 February 2021

Man City win 20th straight game to lead by 13 points

Man City win 20th straight game to lead by 13 points
  • Guardiola’s side are unbeaten in 27 games and their run of 20 successive victories in all competitions is a record for an English top-flight side

MANCHESTER: Pep Guardiola rates Manchester City’s 20-game winning run as one of the greatest achievements of his glittering career.

City moved 13 points clear at the top of the Premier League with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over West Ham at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.

Guardiola’s side are unbeaten in 27 games and their run of 20 successive victories in all competitions is a record for an English top-flight side.

The Spaniard has won 29 trophies as a manager with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City, including consecutive Premier League titles in 2018 and 2019.

But Guardiola believes City’s remarkable winning streak this season, amid a pandemic and despite injuries to Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, is up there with his finest moments.

“It is so difficult. Twenty in this period, in this era, with this situation around the world. To be able to do 20 is maybe one of the greatest achievements we have done together in our careers,” Guardiola said.

“That doesn’t mean we will win titles but we have not had one week’s rest in three months. A game every three days, with the Covid situation, injury situations — to make this winning run shows mental strength.”

City were not at their best against in-form West Ham, but Guardiola was delighted with the way they fought for the points.

“We didn’t paint something nice but there are many of these games during the season,” he said.

“It was obvious to every person who saw the game it was really tough. The opposition is incredible, well composed.

“So, a big compliment to West Ham. After 26 fixtures they were in the Champions League positions. They have everything.

“It was a really tough game but that is good for us for the coming games, to realize what is going to happen.”