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.


UEFA says will ban clubs who take part in breakaway 'European Super League'

UEFA says will ban clubs who take part in breakaway 'European Super League'
Updated 18 April 2021

UEFA says will ban clubs who take part in breakaway 'European Super League'

UEFA says will ban clubs who take part in breakaway 'European Super League'

PARIS: UEFA and English, Spanish and Italian football authorities announced on Sunday that any clubs who take part in a so-called European Super League would be banned from all other domestic and continental competitions.
European football’s governing body said it had learned that some English, Spanish and Italian clubs might announce a breakaway competition.
“The clubs concerned will be banned from playing in any other competition at domestic, European or world level, and their players could be denied the opportunity to represent their national teams,” UEFA said in a statement.
Media reports on Sunday suggested that an announcement on plans to create a Super League could be made later in the day.
Sky Sports reported that Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea were among six Premier League teams set to be part of the plans.
“If this were to happen, we wish to reiterate that we — UEFA, the English FA, RFEF, FIGC, the Premier League, La Liga, Lega Serie A, but also FIFA and all our member associations — will remain united in our efforts to stop this cynical project, a project that is founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever,” read the statement.
UEFA is planning to announce its reforms to the Champions League on Monday, with an expansion to 36 teams from 32 and two ‘wildcard’ slots expected to be among the plans.
There have been no reports that French or German clubs would be part of the Super League.
“We thank those clubs in other countries, especially the French and German clubs, who have refused to sign up to this,” UEFA added.
“We call on all lovers of football, supporters and politicians, to join us in fighting against such a project if it were to be announced.
“This persistent self-interest of a few has been going on for too long. Enough is enough.”
The New York Times reported that at least 12 clubs have signed up for the competition, including Juventus and seven-time European champions AC Milan, who have not played in the Champions League since 2014.


Verstappen wins Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Hamilton second

Verstappen wins Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Hamilton second
Updated 18 April 2021

Verstappen wins Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Hamilton second

Verstappen wins Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Hamilton second
  • Red Bull driver Verstappen muscled past pole sitter Hamilton on the first corner
  • Lando Norris in a McLaren took third ahead of Charles Leclerc for Ferrari

IMOLA, Italy: Max Verstappen kept his cool to claim a chaotic rain-hit Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Sunday as seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton recovered from a rare mistake to sneak in second.
Red Bull driver Verstappen muscled past pole sitter Hamilton on the first corner at Imola to set up his impressive first win of the season.
“I surprised myself. We worked really hard to make that better. In these tricky conditions we did a great job,” Verstappen said.
Lando Norris in a McLaren took third for the Briton’s second successive podium ahead of Charles Leclerc for Ferrari.
The outcome of a compelling second leg of the Formula One season confirmed Verstappen’s stature as a formidable obstacle to Hamilton’s quest for an unprecedented eighth drivers’ crown.
After winning the season-opener in Bahrain and putting in the fastest lap on Sunday Hamilton leads Verstappen by one point ahead of the Portuguese Grand Prix next time out.
A high-speed crash involving Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and George Russell in a Williams forced the race to be suspended as debris was cleared off the Imola circuit.
The pair collided at over 300kmh on lap 34, both drivers shaken as their wrecked cars were lifted off the track.
The red flags appeared a lap after an uncharacteristic slip-up from Hamilton saw the Mercedes world champion hurtle off the circuit into a gravel pit when placed second on a tracherous rain-hit track.
Half an hour after the suspension, a rolling re-start saw Verstappen set off in front of Leclerc and Norris. Hamilton, his car repaired, had work to do from ninth.
As Verstappen calmly reeled in his 11th career victory, but first in Italy, Hamilton weaved his way up to sit third, and then second after passing Norris with three laps remaining.
“First time I’ve made a mistake in a long time, but I’m grateful I could bring he car home,” said a relieved Hamilton.


Gomis thanks Al-Hilal fans ahead of AFC Champions League clash with Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai

Gomis thanks Al-Hilal fans ahead of AFC Champions League clash with Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai
Updated 18 April 2021

Gomis thanks Al-Hilal fans ahead of AFC Champions League clash with Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai

Gomis thanks Al-Hilal fans ahead of AFC Champions League clash with Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai
  • The French striker and his teammates are looking for their first three points of the campaign after a 2-2 draw in Group A opener against AGMK

Ahead of Sunday night’s game against Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai, French striker Bafetimbi Gomis has vowed that Al-Hilal’s players will do all they can to improve their AFC Champions League Group A form.

Al-Hilal recovered from going a goal down to the Uzbek AGMK in their group opener to take the lead by the break, but they had to settle for 2-2 draw after a 70th-minute equalizer from Sanjar Shaakhmedov.

“The last match was really difficult, we were better in the first half and of course we wish to improve,” Gomis said, according to the AFC official website. “It will be the same for the next match, another hard one.”

Gomis played a major part in Al-Hilal’s third Asian title win in 2019, finishing as the competition’s top scorer with 11 goals.

Having failed to retain the title in the disruption of last year, Al-Hilal hope that Gomis will be at his best in Asia’s premier club competition, and the striker has hailed the club’s supporters for their relentless backing.

“I am a very ambitious person and am very lucky to play for a club like Al-Hilal, which always wants to win trophies,” Gomis said. “We have a lot of passionate fans, this year especially because they haven’t been to the stadium in a long time."

“They trust me, and sometimes it can be difficult for me because they love and criticize me. But I’m very lucky to have these fans,” he said. “So, my motivation is the same as when I played for the first time in the AFC Champions League with Al-Hilal, which is to win and to be the best team.”

“Last year we didn’t get to win the championship because of the coronavirus but we are lucky this year to be able to play in Riyadh. We disappointed our fans in the first game, but we are hoping to make them happy.”


Al-Nassr banish troubles with comprehensive AFC Champions League win over Al-Sadd

Al-Nassr banish troubles with comprehensive AFC Champions League win over Al-Sadd
Updated 18 April 2021

Al-Nassr banish troubles with comprehensive AFC Champions League win over Al-Sadd

Al-Nassr banish troubles with comprehensive AFC Champions League win over Al-Sadd
  • Fine 3-1 victory against Qatar champions leaves the Riyadh team top of Group D after two rounds

In a vital 3-1 win over Al-Sadd of Qatar in Group D of the 2021 AFC Champions League Al-Nassr produced the form that took the club to second place in last season’s Saudi Pro League after what has been a chaotic season on and off the pitch.

Both sides went into the tie in the King Saud University Stadium needing the three points after opening their campaigns with disappointing draws. The Riyadh team had only managed a stalemate against group stage debutants Al-Wehdat of Jordan, while Al-Sadd required an 89th minute equalizer against Iran’s Foolad Khouzestan for 1-1 finish.

The win boosts 2020 semi-finalists Al-Nassr’s hopes of advancing to the next stage, while Al-Sadd have it all to do if they are to salvage their campaign.

Both teams starting cautiously and there was little to suggest that A-Nassr, struggling domestically and having endured the upheaval of a new board of directors and the appointment of new coach Mano Menezes, would defeat the Qatari champions in such decisive manner.

Al-Sadd threatened first through Baghdad Bounedjah’s light-footed strike on 34 minutes. The Saudi club responded minutes later as Nordin Amrabat released Sami Al-Najei on the right wing and his cross-hit Al-Sadd captain Abdelkarim Hassan on the arm, leaving the referee no option but to award a penalty.

Abderazzak Hamdallah, last season’s top scorer in the competition, converted from the spot to give Al-Nassr the lead at the break.

Al-Sadd started the second half on the front foot with Mohammed Jade and Nam Tae-hee both missing presentable chances, before Spanish World Cup winner Santi Cazorla beat Brad Jones with a superb 59th minutes free kick.

Al-Nassr slowly regained the upper hand and with just over 10 minutes left Abdulmajeed Al-Sulayhim finished off a fine team move by putting the ball past Meshaal Barsham in Al-Sadd’s goal.

There was still time for Al-Nassr to make it a comprehensive win when Khalid Al-Ghannam struck a stoppage time third goal.

In Group D’s other fixture on Saturday, Foolad Khouzestan of Iran secured their first AFC Champions League group stage win in six years, beating Al-Wehdat 1-0 at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh.

The winner came a minute before the break from a Chimba penalty, the Brazilian scoring his fourth goal in eight days to extend a rich run of form which began with last Saturday’s playoff victory over the UAE’s Al-Ain.

Al-Nassr next face Foolad in a top-of-the-table clash on Tuesday while Al Sadd will look to get back on track against Al-Wehdat.


Sensational Messi scores twice as Barca beat Athletic to win Copa del Rey

Sensational Messi scores twice as Barca beat Athletic to win Copa del Rey
Updated 18 April 2021

Sensational Messi scores twice as Barca beat Athletic to win Copa del Rey

Sensational Messi scores twice as Barca beat Athletic to win Copa del Rey
  • Barca scored four times to clinch an emphatic 4-0 victory, with Messi at his devastating best
  • It remains to be seen if his seventh Copa del Rey triumph is the last trophy Messi lifts in Barcelona colors

MADRID: Lionel Messi scored twice, including a stunning solo goal, as Barcelona blew away Athletic Bilbao to win the Copa del Rey on Saturday, consigning their opponents to a second final defeat in two weeks.
The cup was won and lost in a whirlwind 12 minutes in Seville, which saw Barca score four times to clinch an emphatic 4-0 victory, with Messi at his devastating best.
It remains to be seen if his seventh Copa del Rey triumph is the last trophy Messi lifts in Barcelona colors but if this was to be a final flourish, the 33-year-old crafted a fitting farewell.
“It’s very special to be captain of this team where I have spent my whole life and very special to be able to lift this cup,” Messi said.
His first goal, and Barca’s third, started with the Argentinian in his own half before a charging run down the right and a surge forward into the penalty area gave him the chance for a simple finish.
With the club’s new president Joan Laporta in the crowd, Ronald Koeman’s first title as Barcelona coach should also significantly boost his chances of remaining in charge beyond the summer.
“To win a title is important for me,” Koeman admitted afterwards.
Yet Laporta was noticeably evasive when asked about Koeman’s future.
“He is doing well,” he said.
Koeman took over a team at rock bottom, humiliated by a historic loss to Bayern Munich and wounded by the attempts of Messi to leave the club for free.
But this 31st Copa del Rey success for the club is a testament to progress made and Koeman will hope it not only helps convince Messi to stay but gives Barca momentum now in a neck-and-neck title race in La Liga.
“Despite the changes at the club and the young players, at Barca you have to always fight for trophies,” Koeman said.
“We have the first one and now we are going to fight to the last game in La Liga.”
Gerard Pique said it felt like the club had been “reset.”
“Sometimes you fall down and you have to get up,” Pique said. “It has been a difficult year but the team has turned it around.”
Messi was sent off when Athletic Bilbao beat Barcelona, also at the La Cartuja, in January to win the Spanish Super Cup but they never looked like pulling off a repeat.
After Athletic lost to their Basque rivals Real Sociedad in last year’s postponed final only two weeks ago, lifting themselves for another showpiece in the same stadium and against a tougher opponent was always going to be a big ask.
“In both finals we played well below the level that we’re capable of,” said Athletic coach Marcelino Garcia Toral.
Barcelona were almost ahead after four minutes as Sergio Busquets played in Messi, who rolled back for Frenkie de Jong but his sidefooted finish came back off the far post.
Sergino Dest dragged wide while Inigo Martinez had Athletic’s best chance but as he stretched for the bouncing ball, he could only poke over.
Athletic seemed to have played their way into the match before half-time but Barcelona came out with renewed vigour, with Unai Simon making two brilliant saves to deny Antoine Griezmann and then Busquets, both from close range.
But when the resistance gave way, it became a collapse, with goals scored in the 60th, 63rd, 68th and 72nd minutes to leave Athletic’s hopes in tatters.
First, Messi slipped in Dest down the right and his cross was diverted in by Griezmann before the second came from the opposite flank, Jordi Alba curled in a cross for De Jong to nod in.
The third was a spectacular from Messi, who started the move in his own half, leaping over one challenge and dodging another.
He took the ball back from Dest and drove down the right wing, away from three opponents and inside.
Messi twice played off De Jong, the second time after motoring forward into the penalty area, where he darted between two last Athletic defenders and slid the finish into the far corner.
His second, and Barca’s fourth, was more straight-forward, Alba pulling a cross back for the Argentinian to tuck under a weak right hand from Simon and inside the post. For Athletic, there was no way back.