‘We achieved a dream,’ says departing Al-Hilal coach Razvan Lucescu

On Monday, the 51-year-old Romanian Razvan Lucescu gave an emotional farewell to his former players at the club’s training ground. (AFP/File Photo)
On Monday, the 51-year-old Romanian Razvan Lucescu gave an emotional farewell to his former players at the club’s training ground. (AFP/File Photo)
Short Url
Updated 16 February 2021

‘We achieved a dream,’ says departing Al-Hilal coach Razvan Lucescu

On Monday, the 51-year-old Romanian Razvan Lucescu gave an emotional farewell to his former players at the club’s training ground. (AFP/File Photo)
  • The coach, who won the 2019 AFC Champions League, the 2019-20 King’s Cup and the 2019-20 Saudi Pro League, was dismissed hours after a 1-0 defeat at struggling Damac

RIYADH: Razvan Lucescu may have left his position as Al-Hilal head coach on Sunday, but the feeling on all sides seems to be amicable, including in the coach’s native Romania, where there is confidence that the country’s special football relationship with Saudi Arabia will continue.

The coach, who won the 2019 AFC Champions League, the 2019-20 King’s Cup and the 2019-20 Saudi Pro League, was dismissed hours after a 1-0 defeat at struggling Damac saw the Riyadh giants in third place in the league, with just two wins in their last nine games.

On Monday, the 51-year-old Romanian gave an emotional farewell to his former players at the club’s training ground. “Together we won the Champions League, the Championship and the Cup. We were a force together and we made history, and I thank you,” Lucescu said.

“Do not think that I am crying here just because of crying, but these are the feelings that I feel,” he said. “We achieved a big dream and experienced beautiful and unforgettable moments. What will remain in our minds for me and my staff is the appreciation from everyone at Al-Hilal.”

The feelings were reciprocated with warm words from the club, while there has been more sadness than anger in Romania. Images of Lucescu hugging his players were widely shared in the country.

“It was a big subject in Romania and all the media covered it,” Romanian football journalist Emanuel Rosu told Arab News. “But it didn’t come as a surprise, as the rumors of his dismissal started a few weeks ago. It’s sad that it finished like this and that he couldn’t end the campaign.”

It is not just Lucescu’s farewell that was big news. Fans and media in Romania have been following every step of the coach’s journey in the Kingdom.

“People have been paying attention ever since he took charge, and after each of Razvan’s games there were reports in the Romanian media,” said Rosu.

Al-Hilal’s AFC Champions League win in 2019 was a huge story in the European country. “It was reported as a big success for Romanian football. In fact, his results in 2020 brought Razvan the award of joint best Romanian manager of the year.”

Lucescu shared the prize with another former Al-Hilal boss, Cosmin Olaroiu, who won the league in China with Jiangsu. There have been other coaches and players that have traveled from Romania to Riyadh and all over Saudi Arabia over the years, something that is symbolic of the two countries’ close football relationship.

“There’s a special connection between Al-Hilal and Romania,” said Rosu. “There have been quite a few players and managers over there in the past 25 years. In fact, there’s a special connection between Romanian and Saudi Arabian football, as we went there in numbers — both coaches and players — to clubs such as Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Ettifaq, and many others.”

Rosu said that the relationship will endure and that coaches from the Romania will not be deterred Lucescu’s dismissal and the high-pressure world of Saudi Arabian football.

“Romanian managers who worked in Saudi Arabia don’t think it is much different than working in Romania, to be honest. Many of them even lasted longer in Saudi Arabia than they did at home.”

The fact that standards are improving at Saudi Arabian clubs also helps. “They now have good players more than ever and they pay good salaries, so I guess coaches are super tempted to go. Lucescu had a great relationship with the management before the end of last year; he always mentioned the support and vision of the club.”

Lucescu is unlikely to be too concerned with losing that support and job. The coach walked away with a contract payout reported to be worth about $2 million, and has already been linked with Italian club Parma.

The two-time UEFA Cup winners are languishing just one place from the bottom of the Serie A table, with just two wins all season and none since November. There is growing speculation that the days of coach Roberto D’Aversa are coming to an end.

Lucescu’s name is already in the mix, not least because he had a short spell in Italy as a player in the 1990s — the same decade that his father, Mircea Lucescu, coached Inter, Pisa, Brescia and Reggiana.

“Razvan Lucescu sounds good in Parma,” Italian coach Cristiano Bergodi told Romanian television. “He is a coach that I consider very good; he is one of the best Romanian coaches. He also speaks Italian well, he has no problem.”

Rosu also expects Lucescu to stay closer to home this time around. “I guess he’s willing to try and become a coach in Europe. He deserves a chance at a decent club. He’s mature enough and it comes after a great time at PAOK and Al-Hilal, so I think he should step into the European scene.”

However, Lucescu’s departure does not mean the end of Romanians heading to Saudi Arabia, as the special relationship will continue to grow.


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.


Chelsea beat Man City to reach FA Cup final

Chelsea beat Man City to reach FA Cup final
Updated 18 April 2021

Chelsea beat Man City to reach FA Cup final

Chelsea beat Man City to reach FA Cup final
  • Damaging day for Guardiola's team as they lose Kevin De Bruyne to ankle injury

LONDON: Chelsea ended Manchester City’s quest for a historic quadruple of trophies as Hakim Ziyech’s goal earned a 1-0 win to take the Blues into the FA Cup final on Saturday.

A damaging day for City also saw them lose Kevin De Bruyne to an ankle injury just over a week away from the League Cup final, where they face Tottenham, and the first leg of their Champions League semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain.

Chelsea were good value for another impressive win under Thomas Tuchel and will be favorites for the German’s first silverware in English football when they face Leicester or Southampton May 15.

Tuchel could land an even bigger prize in the Champions League just months after replacing the sacked Frank Lampard in January.

His side showed they can get the better of City in what could be a dress rehearsal for the Champions League final should the English clubs see off PSG and Real Madrid in the last four.

The physical demands of City’s bid for a clean sweep of trophies was shown as Pep Guardiola made eight changes from the side that beat Borussia Dortmund in midweek with goalscorers Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez among those rotated.

Tuchel made just three changes and Chelsea looked the far less disjointed side in a bright start.

Timo Werner’s cross was swept home by Ziyech after just six minutes, but the goal was ruled out for offside against the German international.

That proved to be the only shot on target of a cagey first 45 minutes that did little to whet the appetite of a potential reunion in Istanbul for European club football’s greatest prize on May 29.

Despite the number of changes, the ease with which Chelsea were able to spring quick counter-attacks will be of concern to Guardiola with the fearsome duo of PSG’s Kylian Mbappe and Neymar to come.

From one slick break, Chelsea’s wing backs combined but Ben Chilwell could only slice Reece James’s cross wide.

City got to half-time without any damage on the score line, but suffered a potentially huge blow to their hopes of still clinching a treble of trophies early in the second half.

Just 11 days before the first leg of the PSG tie, De Bruyne appeared to roll his ankle in a challenge with N’Golo Kante and was replaced by Foden.

City were still reeling from the loss of the Belgium attacker when they were finally caught out by the Chelsea counterattack.

Guardiola’s decision to retain Zack Steffen in goal for domestic cup competitions backfired as the American was caught in no man’s land when Werner raced in behind and once again squared for Ziyech to roll into an empty net.

Steffen made some measure of amends moments later to deny Ziyech a second when the Moroccan was clean through.

City took until the final 20 minutes to get going, but their best chance of sending the game to extra time came from a corner as Ruben Dias headed over from close range.

Instead, it was Chelsea who found the net again through Christian Pulisic in stoppage time only for the offside flag to again come to City’s rescue.

But there was no saving a bid for history for Guardiola’s men as they cannot now better Manchester United’s treble of Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup from 1998/99.


Jurgen Klopp admits Liverpool under pressure

Jurgen Klopp admits Liverpool under pressure
Updated 17 April 2021

Jurgen Klopp admits Liverpool under pressure

Jurgen Klopp admits Liverpool under pressure
  • We have to win games and put pressure on teams. That’s all we know and we will try says Klopp

LONDON: Jurgen Klopp admits Liverpool are under pressure as they try to salvage a troubled season by finishing in the Premier League’s top four.

Klopp’s side have failed to defend the Premier League title they won last term and were knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid on Wednesday.

That quarterfinal exit means Liverpool’s only route back into Europe’s elite club competition next season is via a top-four finish in the league.

The sixth-placed Reds have been outside the top four since early February and they slipped as low as eighth before winning their last three leagues games to get back in the race.

Fourth-placed West Ham’s 3-2 defeat at Newcastle on Saturday was a major boost to Liverpool’s hopes.

With seven pressure-packed games left, they would go above the Hammers on goal difference with a victory at Leeds on Monday.

“We just go for it, go and go and go and play our best football,” Klopp said.

“We are of course under pressure as we want to finish in the top four but we don’t know in the moment if we will. We have seven games to prove that and we will try.”

Leeds are coming off an impressive victory at leaders Manchester City last weekend where they played half the match with 10 men.

Klopp is well aware of the threat posed by Marcelo Bielsa’s side and he said: “We should not forget the opponents we face. We won the last three and that’s why we’re still around, still in the fight for the Champions League spots.

“It’s clear we have to win football games. It would be best to win all of them, but they are tough opponents and we have to respect all of them.

“We have to win games and put pressure on teams. That’s all we know and we will try.”

Injury-plagued Liverpool’s recent strong form domestically has been helped by the developing partnership between center backs Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips.

Liverpool have won the four Premier League games they have started together, offering a solution to the defensive issues triggered by long-term injuries to Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez.

“Using the information you have just given me I’d better start them in the next game as well,” Klopp said.

“These things have to develop. There was never a question about their quality, the boys have quality but you have to bring it together.”