Al Hilal echo Liverpool’s post-glory struggles

Al Hilal echo Liverpool’s post-glory struggles
Hilal – like Liverpool – has experienced a lull in their success after the triumph of last season. (Photo: Twitter/Al Hilal)
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Updated 13 February 2021

Al Hilal echo Liverpool’s post-glory struggles

Al Hilal echo Liverpool’s post-glory struggles
  • Coach Razvan Lucescu believes dip in form was expected following a historic season
  • In their respective leagues Liverpool have won just two of their last nine with the Riyadh giants recording just two victories in eight

LONDON: Five months after Liverpool became champions of Europe in June 2019, Al-Hilal lifted the Asian Champions League. Three months after Liverpool won the English Premier League, Al Hilal did the same in Saudi Arabia. Now both are struggling to maintain such stellar standards.

In their respective leagues Liverpool have won just two of their last nine with the Riyadh giants recording just two victories in eight. It is perhaps no surprise then that Al-Hilal coach Razvan Lucescu likened his team to the English giants when he was asked on television on Tuesday about recent form following a welcome 5-0 win at Al-Ain.

“I do not follow the media and don’t feel external pressures.” said the Romanian.

“Al Hilal is like any team in the world like Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain.” 

“It is natural for these teams to go through a period of decline after having historic success last season.  This is happening now with Liverpool, Bayern and Paris, who won the league last season.”

Unlike Liverpool, who have been a shadow of their former selves of late, the coach believes that Al-Hilal are playing pretty well.

“Despite the decline in the results, we have produced good performances, kept possession well and controlled the matches but bad luck, fatigue and injuries affected the results.”

Lucescu has a point. Al-Hilal were not quite as dominant in Saudi Arabia last season as Liverpool were in England but won the league by eight points just months after winning the continental championship and some of Liverpool’s issues can be found in Riyadh too.

Injuries have played a part at Anfield and while the situation has not been as serious at the King Fahd International Stadium, Lucescu has been without key players. He lost his captain for the rest of the season with Salman Al-Faraj, also skipper of the Saudi Arabia side, having surgery.

The midfielder picked up a foot injury in the recent 3-0 loss to Al-Nassr in the Super Cup final -another disappointing result - and is likely to be out for the rest of the season.

Star goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, a stalwart in the title campaign, has been absent.

Liverpool have seen stars such as Roberto Firmino and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who have shone brightly for so long, experience an understandable dip in form.

Like Mo Salah, Bafetimbi Gomis tops the scoring charts but is not as devastating as last season when he scored 27 league goals in 29 appearances.

Before his four-goal haul against Al-Ain, the former French international had scored eight in 16. 

Sebastian Giovinco has yet to get forward to the same extent this season and has yet to get on the scoresheet after doing so seven times in the title-winning campaign.

Al-Hilal also miss the creativity and the goals of Carlos Eduardo who went to Shabab Al-Ahli in Dubai last August.

In short, Al-Hilal don’t have the same firepower as last season.

There are differences between the two teams however. There was less time for Al-Hilal to rest between seasons - a month compared to Liverpool’s almost-three.

And then there was the resumption of the 2020 AFC Champions League in September. 

The Saudi Arabians negotiated their way through the group stage but were forced to withdraw after a major coronavirus outbreak infected more than 30 people at the club.

If elimination was the short-term consequence, it is hard to say how much that affected the team in the medium term but it can’t have helped.

There hasn’t been much of a break since with 33 games taking place in the last six months.

The other difference is a positive one. Barring a major turnaround, Liverpool are highly unlikely to win the title as they are stuck 10 points behind Manchester City, a team that has won the title four times inside the last decade. 

Al-Hilal are just two points behind A-Shabab. The current leaders are in good form with five wins from the last six and have just added Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo from Manchester United but they have not been champions since 2012.

While Al-Hilal’s form has seriously dipped and it needs to improve and quick, the team are still very much in the mix. If Al-Shabab fail to beat Al-Nassr on Saturday, a possibility with last season’s runners-up in great form, then Al-Hilal will go top with a win against the struggling Damak.

That is the plan according to Lucescu. “We were working to get out of this difficult stage and we have to work hard to improve ourselves and then the circumstances around us will improve. For now we have to focus on the next challenge against Damak and we will prepare well and do our best to win.”

Instead of Liverpool, he prefers to be compared to the current leaders of the English Premier League who came through a bad patch of their own to become odds on to be champions once again.

"I remember Manchester City were criticized by many in the months of October and November but with the recent results, there is now a lot of praise.”


Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan
Updated 22 April 2021

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan
  • Three goals in 24 minutes saw Abu Dhabi team claim all three points against Qatari opponents

RIYADH: Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate has revealed his delight with his players’ attitude after the Abu Dhabi team on Tuesday recovered from a two-goal deficit to defeat Al-Rayyan SC 3-2 in Group E of the 2021 AFC Champions League.

Fares Juma’s stoppage-time winner secured Al-Wahda their first win of the campaign, taking them to second in the group on four points, five behind leaders Persepolis who defeated FC Goa 2-1 in the other Tuesday match.

Dutchman ten Cate praised his players for the fightback that saw three goals in 24 minutes dramatically defeat their Qatari opponents.

Speaking to the AFC official website, he said: “I’m a proud man. Especially to see where we are coming from. We had to play with a man down in the last 15 minutes and needed some luck. You need to have luck to win games and we had some today.

“I brought in a few players late in the second half and one of them was a 16-year-old (Awadh Mohamed). Then suddenly something changed within the team. Those players changed the way the game was played. They brought some renewed energy to the team and scored one goal.

“I’m extremely proud of my team, I know how much this win means to them. We have injured players, with little rest to restore our strength and I’m really happy with their team effort. Everybody in the UAE should be proud,” he added.

Al-Rayyan were the better side for most of the first half but started to fade after the break, and another collapse followed after a similar one against Persepolis.

After another three goals were conceded having taken the lead, Al-Rayyan find themselves at the bottom of Group E with coach Laurent Blanc admitting that the latest defeat to Al-Wahda has made things more difficult for the club’s progress into the Round of 16.

“It was a disaster. Honestly, I felt we played well. It was incredible the way we played. But we made some mistakes and conceded goals,” Blanc told the AFC website.

“I think both teams wanted to play good football and as you can see it was not a boring match. At the end of the day, to lose the match at this stage of the competition makes things complicated for us.

“If anyone saw us up by two goals, it should be 3-0 and then game over. But instead, we conceded and lost the match. That is football,” the Frenchman said.

Al-Rayyan will have a chance to make amends when the two teams square off again on Friday.


5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark
Updated 22 April 2021

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark
  • Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr edge closer to knockout stages while Al-Ahli finale claimed first win

RIYADH: At the halfway stage of the AFC Champions League plenty has happened for the three Saudi Arabian representatives and all are in with a chance of making the next stage.

In the latest round of matches, Al-Nassr drew 1-1 with Foolad of Iran to stay top of a tight Group D with five points; Al-Hilal defeated Tajikistan’s Istiklol 3-1 to go three points clear at the top of Group A; and Al-Ahli picked up a 3-0 win over Al-Shorta of Iraq and now have four points in Group C.

Here are five things we learned about Matchday Three.

1. There is a danger of recent history repeating itself

It is just a few months since Al-Hilal were forced to withdraw from the group stage of the 2020 AFC Champions League after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tore through the squad and staff.

Al-Nassr are not at that stage yet but the fact that five players and four other members of the club have tested positive is of huge concern to everyone. If it gets worse, then there is a real danger that the nine-time Saudi Arabian champions could be out.

As coach Mano Menezes pointed out, it is not just about the players who have contracted COVID-19, there are psychological effects among those who are still playing. “We must find new ways to compensate for the absence of players due to the coronavirus,” the Brazilian boss said.

“I am concerned about the effect on the players psychologically, and on the group as well and that is something that we have to think about.”

2. From now it is all about fitness and squad depth

Six games in the space of 15 days are going to be a punishing schedule especially given the time of year and the conditions in Saudi Arabia. Now the real tests come.

There is no time for training, just rest, recovery, and preparation. Coaches will have to rotate and will need to use all their experience to get the best out of their squads. Those with the strongest benches will have the best chance of getting through.

Tractor FC head coach Rasoul Khatibi spoke for many after his team’s 0-0 draw with Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.

“After the 70th minute our players were exhausted and both teams had to stay focused to see it through. For the next match, we will make sure we have a quick recovery to avoid this experience of losing energy in the latter part of the game. The team with the better recovery will have a better chance in the next match,” he said.

3. Hattan Bahebri steps forward for Al-Hilal

The encouraging thing for the three-time champions is that various players have stepped forward in the games so far. That was the case in the 3-1 win over Istiklol.

It was always going to be that the Tajikistan powerhouse would sit back and allow the Saudi champions possession, and it was used to very good effect by Hattan Bahebri who set up the opener and then grabbed two goals of his own. Both were delightful finishes. The first saw the winger cut inside on the edge of the area and the second was a cheeky chip that was worthy of winning any game.

A repeat performance against the same team on Saturday will leave Al-Hilal with one foot in the second round and Bahebri an even brighter reputation.

4. Al-Nassr show what they are made of

It was not a surprise that Al-Nassr were not as impressive in their 1-1 draw with Foolad as when defeating Al-Sadd three days earlier.

Injuries and absences took their toll and given that, it was a decent performance, and they were perhaps a little unlucky not to collect three points against solid Iranian opposition.

The goal conceded was a little weak and could have been avoided had usual No. 1 Brad Jones been available.

Once again, coach Mano Menezes looked to hit the opposition on the counter as much as possible and had the finishing been a little better and the Iranian goalkeeper not made a couple of excellent saves, then three points could have been taken.

If Al-Nassr can avoid losing more players due to COVID-19 and continue playing this way, then a place in the second round is very much within reach.

5. Al-Ahli break the streak

After 10 games without a win, a dismal run that included seven defeats, Al-Ahli finally tasted victory with a 3-0 victory over Al-Shorta of Iraq.

The opposition may have been the weakest team in the group but had the Saudi team failed to win it would have been hard to see a way back in the group.

It was a nervy start but once the Jeddah club took the lead, they looked fairly comfortable and saw the game out.

The question is, what happens next? Can Al-Ahli actually make it out of the group? Just challenging would be a step in the right direction. Another win against the same opposition would put the three-time Saudi champions right in the mix.

That would mean they would have to get something against Al-Duhail and Esteghlal, but the confidence would be there and there would be a chance. That is the ideal scenario and gets the team back on track.


Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia
Updated 22 April 2021

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia
  • Earlier this month, franchise owner Javed Afridi challenged the Saudi cricket team to a friendly match

KARACHI: Players from the Pakistan Super League (PSL) franchise, Peshawar Zalmi, have said they were excited to be “the first team from Pakistan” to play a friendly match in Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this month, franchise owner Javed Afridi wished the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation (SACF) the best over its media partnership with Arab News, and challenged the Saudi cricket team to play a friendly match against Peshawar Zalmi. SACF accepted the challenge. A date for the match has yet to be announced.

Peshawar Zalmi have won the title of Pakistan’s hugely popular Pakistan Super League once, and been a runner-up twice since the tournament’s launch in 2016. Arab News Pakistan has been an international media partner for Peshawar Zalmi since 2020.

“This will be the first team of Pakistan to go and play in Saudi Arabia,” Kamran Akmal, a wicket-keeper batsman who opens the innings for the team, told Arab News in an interview last week.

“International players will come (to Saudi Arabia) to play cricket. So, they will also get experience ... This is a good sign when players like Wahab Riaz (Peshawar Zalmi captain) and international players like Saqib (English bowler) will go there ... their young players will get good experience.”

“They (Saudi Arabia) will get to know how to improve cricket, how the environment should be, how other teams play, so it’s a good sign for Saudi cricket,” Akmal added.

Speaking to Arab News, Peshawar Zalmi captain Riaz said a friendly match between his team and the Saudi team would be a “great opportunity.”

“It’s really good that a country like Saudi Arabia is taking interest in cricket, because they are well known for football mostly. So, it’s a great challenge for us as well. And it’s going to be a fun game, honestly, to play against the Saudis, so they will get some experience as well,” Riaz added.

He said he hoped Saudi Arabia would develop a good team in the coming years and that Peshawar Zalmi would have some role to play in their development.

“Because in Peshawar Zalmi, you know, a lot of Pakistan and international players are playing. So that will give them (Saudi team) some confidence, that will give them some experience,” Riaz said. “And then I think with the passage of time, they will start working on their skills and they will become better.”

Sending a message to the around 2.6 million Pakistanis who live in Saudi Arabia, Riaz invited them to come and watch Peshawar Zalmi play Saudi Arabia.

“My message to them is that they should come, they should see us, they should support both of us, even Saudi Arabia team,” the team captain said. “They can take that entertainment and excitement which they have been missing from the last few years. The message is they should always come support both the teams and enjoy the game.”

In March, Pakistan suspended the PSL tournament after seven team personnel tested positive for COVID-19. The series is expected to resume in June.


Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus

Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus
Updated 21 April 2021

Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus

Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus
  • The Super League promised guaranteed entry for its founding clubs and billions of dollars in payments

LONDON: The two Milan giants and Atletico Madrid followed all six English Premier League clubs in pulling out of the European Super League on Wednesday, dealing a fatal blow to the project.

The withdrawals by Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham came just 48 hours after the league’s unveiling late on Sunday following a furious response from fans and officials.

The three Italian clubs involved — Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan — admitted defeat and La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid also pulled out.

Real Madrid and Barcelona  — the last of the initial group of 12 clubs to sign up — have yet to make any comment but the project in its current form is dead in the water.

AC Milan were one of the main drivers behind the plans, having missed out on the Champions League for the past seven seasons.

The seven-time European champions said change was necessary due to the changing football landscape but admitted they “must be sensitive to the voice of those who love this wonderful sport.” 

Italian champions Juventus said they remained “convinced of the soundness of the project’s sport, commercial and legal premises” but accepted it could not go ahead in its original form.

The Super League promised guaranteed entry for its founding clubs and billions of dollars in payments. Most of the clubs have huge debts and wage bills, and suffered a sharp drop in revenues during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the project was vehemently opposed across the football spectrum, from fans to players, coaches, politicians and UEFA and FIFA, the European and world football bodies.

The clubs were threatened with a ban from domestic and European football, while their players could even have been barred from representing their countries.

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin struck a conciliatory tone on Wednesday, saying he wanted to “rebuild the unity” of European football, and described the English clubs as “back in the fold.” 

“I said yesterday that it is admirable to admit a mistake and these clubs made a big mistake,” Ceferin said in a statement.

“But they are back in the fold now and I know they have a lot to offer not just to our competitions but to the whole of the European game.

“The important thing now is that we move on, rebuild the unity that the game enjoyed before this and move forward together.”

Shares in Juventus plunged by more than 13 percent on Wednesday following a slump in the value of Manchester United stocks.

In response to the English pullouts, the Super League had said it was looking for ways to “reshape,”  insisting the “status quo of European football needs to change”.

“We shall reconsider the most appropriate steps to reshape the project,” its statement said.

Liverpool owner John W Henry apologized for his part in the planned Super League after club captain Jordan Henderson said the players did not want it to happen.

“I want to apologize to all the fans and supporters of Liverpool Football Club for the disruption I caused over the last 48 hours,” the American said in a video posted on the club’s Twitter site.


Female board member sets sights on achieving corporate governance with Al-Shabab

Female board member sets sights on achieving corporate governance with Al-Shabab
Updated 21 April 2021

Female board member sets sights on achieving corporate governance with Al-Shabab

Female board member sets sights on achieving corporate governance with Al-Shabab
  • First-ever female board member at Al-Shabab, Reem Al-Zamil, believes clubs should be managed with an investor’s mentality
  • Al-Zamil sees the Saudi sports market as a place of opportunity, which she encourages young women and men to explore

RIYADH: Reem Khalid Al-Zamil, the first-ever female board member at Al-Shabab Football Club, believes that women attaining similar positions should no longer be seen as unusual, adding that Saudi women today are empowered in all fields thanks to the government of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

She thanked Minister of Sports Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal and President of the Al-Shabab Football Club Khalid Al-Baltan for placing their trust in her.

Al-Zamil is a management professional with over 16 years of experience in strategy formulation, PMO set up, E-services and digital platforms, and above all is interested in youth development and working toward a digital economy.

Last month, the Saudi Ministry of Sports approved Al-Zamil’s appointment as a board member of Al-Shabab, a team enjoying a hugely successful Saudi Professional League season in which they are second only to champions Al-Hilal on goal difference.

“Al-Shabab recently launched a strategy, identifying a number of goals it seeks to achieve,” Al-Zamil said. “The goals were translated into several projects. The club has achieved significant accomplishments and is being managed in the same way as a corporation. It aims to be iconic in terms of investment and corporate social responsibility, in addition to its role in sports.”

Al-Zamil said that among the board’s tasks and priorities will be the governance of all aspects of the club to ensure its continued success and foster an environment that helps the team achieve its goals.

She added that with women playing bigger roles in all fields thanks to the support of the government, many have excelled and become leaders in the sports sector.

Al-Zamil also highlighted the spate of legal cases raised overseas, which have seen several Saudi clubs suffer sanctions and fines, saying: “These problems can be resolved if a club is managed with an investor’s mentality and a culture of corporate work is created in the environment. Roles, responsibilities and powers must be clearly defined, and there must be a clear governance framework that can be used to manage risks and prevent any financial or administration problems, or at least set alternative plans to manage and reduce losses as much as possible.”

The Kingdom views the sports sector as playing a vital role in driving social change and contributing to social welfare and economic growth, she explained.

This is evident in the different government initiatives and projects that are focused on creating a sports and entertaining system that is sustainable, Al-Zamil said, adding that today’s sports industry includes electronic gaming and adventure sports. 

“The sports sector is one that can increase national income and have a positive impact in terms of developing the national economy through hosting championships, sports conferences and other events, and holding exclusive rights for broadcasting and sponsorships,” she said. “It is also a part of many other sectors such as health, education, tourism and entertainment.”

Al-Zamil insists that Saudi women are qualified, ambitious and capable, and soon she fully expects some of them to be chairwomen of boards in several sectors and not only of sports clubs.

She also sees the Saudi sports market as a place of opportunity, which she encourages young women and men to explore. According to Al-Zamil, the market needs people, including academics and accelerators, who are specialized in sports to work in sports journalism, marketing, tourism and investment.