Solskjaer wary of Chelsea challenge in battle for top four

Liverpool’s midfielder Mohamed Salah vies with Manchester United’s defender Luke Shaw during a recent Premier League match at Anfield in northwest England. (AFP/File)
Liverpool’s midfielder Mohamed Salah vies with Manchester United’s defender Luke Shaw during a recent Premier League match at Anfield in northwest England. (AFP/File)
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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.
 


Mo Salah announced as new Egypt captain

Mo Salah announced as new Egypt captain
Updated 19 April 2021

Mo Salah announced as new Egypt captain

Mo Salah announced as new Egypt captain
  • National team head coach Hossam El-Badry has named Mohamed Salah the new captain of Egypt
  • El-Badry said it was vital to introduce more stability to the national team squad, including on the leadership side

Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah has been announced as the new captain of Egypt’s national team by head coach Hossam El-Badry.

The news was posted in a statement on the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) Facebook page. Senior players in the Egypt squad were asked about the decision and gave their full support.

El-Badry said that it was “vital to introduce more stability” to the national team, including on the leadership side.

He added that the main goal for EFA technical teams in the coming months is to ensure that Egypt qualifies for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Salah has been one of Liverpool’s most succesful players since joining in summer 2017. He helped the club secure a sixth Champions League title by scoring the opening goal in the final against Tottenham in 2019.

A year later, he played a key role in the team that won Liverpool’s first English Premier League title in 30 years.

The 28-year-old forward, who has also represented Arab Contractors, Basel, Chelsea, Fiorentina and Roma, helped Egypt qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the country’s first appearance in the competition since 1990.

An infamous shoulder injury in the 2018 Champions League Final against Real Madrid, however, meant that he only played a peripheral role when the World Cup began in Russia. Despite lacking fitness and form, he managed to score Egypt’s only two goals in a disappointing tournament for the African nation.


Mahdi Ali praises Al-Hilal after his injury-hit Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai team suffered AFC Champions League loss

Mahdi Ali praises Al-Hilal after his injury-hit Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai team suffered AFC Champions League loss
Updated 19 April 2021

Mahdi Ali praises Al-Hilal after his injury-hit Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai team suffered AFC Champions League loss

Mahdi Ali praises Al-Hilal after his injury-hit Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai team suffered AFC Champions League loss
  • The Emirati club now finds itself at the bottom of Group A after two rounds of matches

DUBAI: Shabab Al-Ahli coach Mahdi Ali has blamed his team’s long list of absentees for the 3-1 defeat to Al-Hilal, at the same time giving credit to the Saudi team and promising that he and his players will be doing their best to turn around their fortunes in the remaining AFC Champions League group stage matches.

Having drawn 0-0 in the opening match against Istiklol of Tajikistan, Shabab Al-Ahli was comfortably beaten by the Saudi champions at Prince Faisal bin Fahad Stadium in Riyadh and now finds itself bottom of Group A.

"I congratulate Al-Hilal, who played a good match and deserved to win,” Mahdi Ali said.

“For us, we were missing a number of players due to injuries, and we also suffered from a lot of intercepted passes, which made things more difficult for us."

“This is football and we hope that we will make up for that in the next match,” he added.

“We had the desire to compensate and we continued to try until the final minutes, when we wasted two chances. We suffered physically because the team has played a large number of domestic matches over the last month, as we are competing in many competitions, and we were also affected by the circumstances of the month of Ramadan.”

“We must put this match behind us and start thinking about the next one, as our chances (of qualification to the next round) are still alive with four matches remaining for the team, but we must work to avoid the mistakes that happened in the match.”

The third round of group stage matches will be played on Wednesday, when the Shabab Al-Ahli will meet with AGMK of Uzbekistan, while Al-Hilal will take on Istiklol.

On Thursday, the first round had seen Al-Hilal draw 2-2 with AGMK while Istiklol played out a stalemate with Shabab Al-Ahli.

Only the top team from each group is guaranteed progress to the knock-out stages, with the six second-placed teams with the best records joining them.


Tottenham fires manager Jose Mourinho

Tottenham fires manager Jose Mourinho
Updated 19 April 2021

Tottenham fires manager Jose Mourinho

Tottenham fires manager Jose Mourinho
  • Mourinho took over in November 2019
  • His firing comes with seventh-place Tottenham outside the Champions League places but with a League Cup final against Manchester City on Sunday

LONDON: Tottenham has fired manager Jose Mourinho, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press on Monday.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been made public by Tottenham.
Mourinho took over in November 2019. His firing comes with seventh-place Tottenham outside the Champions League places but with a League Cup final against Manchester City on Sunday.


5 talking points from Saudi clubs’ return to form in AFC Champions League group stage

5 talking points from Saudi clubs’ return to form in AFC Champions League group stage
Updated 19 April 2021

5 talking points from Saudi clubs’ return to form in AFC Champions League group stage

5 talking points from Saudi clubs’ return to form in AFC Champions League group stage
  • Second round of matches sees wins for Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr while Al-Ahli recover from mauling to claim first point

RIYADH: Two down and four to go. The group stage of the AFC Champions League is starting to take shape and already there are teams that have an awful lot to do if they are to maintain their presence in the tournament going into the knockout stage.

Some are looking good and the feeling around the Al-Nassr camp has improved massively after a 3-1 win over Al-Sadd, one of the favorites for the competition. Al-Hilal collected three points with a comfortable 2-0 win over Shabab Al-Ahli while Al-Ahli bounced back from their opening game mauling to take a 1-1 draw with Al-Duhail.

Here are five things we learned from the second round of matches.

1. Menezes gives Xavi a coaching lesson

Al-Sadd had not lost for 24 games heading into the clash with Al-Nassr. They won the Qatar Stars League without losing a game and with a goal difference of plus 63, which is incredible enough, but when the season is just 22 games long it really is something special. Yet Al-Nassr fully deserved to win.

Abderrazak Hamdallah scored the opening goal from the spot, but after Santi Cazorla equalized on the hour, the Saudi team’s players kept their nerve, their shape, and their discipline and hit the erratic Qatari team on the counter thanks to the intelligent movement and hard work of their forward line.

With the help of two well-timed substitutions, it was a strategy that bore fruit and two goals followed that put the hosts in with a great chance of the second round.

Al-Nassr coach Mano Menezes has not had much time to work with the players but on this performance, there should be more to come even if fans should not get carried away by being the first team to defeat Al-Sadd this year.

2. Al-Breik stars for clinical Al-Hilal

After a somewhat disappointing opening game, Al-Hilal stepped it up a level against Shabab Al-Ahli.

Star foreign players Bafetimbi Gomis and Andre Carrillo grabbed the headlines with their very well-taken goals in the first half but Mohammed Al-Breik deserves plenty of credit. The Saudi international created both in a perfect example of how a right-back should get forward in the modern game.

The first was a delicious cross that was whipped in behind the Dubai team’s defense with Gomis on hand to sweep home from close range. The second came from deeper but found Carrillo in space just inside the area and the Peruvian international made no mistake with a fine swivel and shot. Both goals were easy on the eye and the defender played a huge part.

3. Al-Owais, Al-Somah give Al-Ahli hope

After seven straight defeats, a 1-1 draw will lift some of the gloom surrounding the Jeddah club. It was snatched in the final minutes against Al-Duhail who had largely dominated proceedings.

The Qataris struggled however to find a way past Mohammed Al-Owais. The goalkeeper dealt with everything that was thrown at him to keep the score line down to a minimum. Shot after shot came in and there he was tipping deflections over the bar and getting down well to push headers around the foot of the post.

It was due to such heroics that Omar Al-Somah’s last-gasp goal, which came after an overhead kick assist from defender Motaz Hawsawi, earned a much-needed point to break that dismal losing streak.

4. Strikers come to the fore

It may well be that none of the Saudi teams are firing on all cylinders at the moment, but it will be pleasing to fans that their star strikers have all scored already.

If Al-Hilal are going to go all the way and get a record fourth title, then they are going to need the goals of Gomis, and the French forward is looking hungry and dangerous.

Hamdallah was one of the stars of the 2020 tournament and while the Moroccan has not looked as lethal this year, to get on the scoresheet will be an immense relief for both player and coach. Al-Nassr need him if they are to get out of a difficult group.

And then there is Al-Somah. There has been a lot written about the Syrian striker this season but whatever has happened behind the scenes, three goals in two games speaks for itself. If one of the best strikers in Asia continues to score, then Al-Ahli have a chance.

5. Next comes the crunch

The next two games can make or break a team’s chances as they come against the same opposition. Al-Nassr are level on four points with Foolad of Iran. If the Riyadh giants can come out on top over these back-to-back clashes, then they really can start to think about the next stage.

Al-Hilal take on Tajikistan powerhouse Istiklol who are going to make things very tough. The new boys in the competition have also managed four points from the opening two games thanks to some solid defending. Al-Hilal have the firepower however and can take control of the group.

And as for Al-Ahli, there are twin games with Al-Shorta of Iraq. These will not be easy, even if Al-Shorta are regarded as the weakest team in the group, but they do offer a perfect chance to pick up a win and start challenging at the top of the table.


European soccer split as 12 clubs launch breakaway Super League

European soccer split as 12 clubs launch breakaway Super League
Updated 19 April 2021

European soccer split as 12 clubs launch breakaway Super League

European soccer split as 12 clubs launch breakaway Super League
  • Real Madrid president Florentino Perez would be the founding chairman of the Super League
  • UEFA has threatened to bar from any competition clubs who join the breakaway league

LONDON: A group of 12 elite English, Spanish and Italian clubs dramatically split European soccer on Sunday by announcing the formation of a largely-closed Super League. They are leaving the existing UEFA-run Champions League structure despite warnings they could be kicked out of their domestic competitions and face legal action.
The seismic move to shake up the world’s biggest sport is partly engineered by the American owners of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United who also run US franchises in closed leagues — a model they are trying to replicate in Europe.
The power-play came after the rebel clubs reneged on a promise on Friday to back the plan by UEFA — European football’s governing body — to expand the Champions League beginning in 2024. The deal was designed to appease their wishes for more games, seemingly because they couldn’t control the sale of rights to the existing competition.
The Super League plan was first leaked in January but re-emerged this weekend.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez would be the founding chairman of the SL, which said it “intended to commence as soon as practicable” as a 20-team competition playing in midweek like the current Champions League and Europa League.
“We will help football at every level and take it to its rightful place in the world,” Perez said in a statement. “Football is the only global sport in the world with more than four billion fans and our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires.”
No evidence was presented that supporters want a Super League. Fan groups across Europe last week criticized even the current Champions League expansion plan as a “power grab.”
Only 12 clubs have signed up for now — with none from France or Germany — but the SL hopes for three more as permanent members. Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are the other founding members, along with Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan. Five slots would be left open to be determined each year based on the previous season’s results.
UEFA warned clubs that joining the “cynical project” based on self-interest would see them banned from playing in any other competition — domestic, European or global. It said their players could be denied the opportunity to represent their national teams.
The statement was issued jointly with the leagues and national governing bodies from England, Spain and Italy.
England has the most clubs with the six including Chelsea and Manchester City, who are due to contest a Champions League semifinals this month. Also included is Tottenham, which is outside of the Premier League’s top four to qualify for the Champions League next season,
“By bringing together the world’s greatest clubs and players to play each other throughout the season, the Super League will open a new chapter for European football, ensuring world-class competition and facilities, and increased financial support for the wider football pyramid,” said Joel Glazer, co-owner of Manchester United and SL vice chairman.
Another vice chairman of the new competition would be Andrea Agenlli who on Sunday night quit his role as chairman of the European Club Association, which was working with UEFA on enlarging the Champions League to 36 teams. Agenlli also resigned as a member of the executive committee of UEFA — rupturing his previously-close friendship with the governing body’s president, Aleksander Ceferin.
The UEFA leader has been determined not to grant more control of the sale of television and commercial rights to the clubs.
“We have come together at this critical moment,” Agnelli said, “enabling European competition to be transformed, putting the game we love on a sustainable footing for the long-term future, substantially increasing solidarity, and giving fans and amateur players a regular flow of headline fixtures.”
The rebel clubs are all members of the ECA which has a working agreement with UEFA, signed in 2019, which commits all its members to take part in and respect the Champions League and other European competitions through the 2023-24 season.
While FIFA issued a statement in January warning that players in a Super League could be banned from the World Cup, the world governing body has not denied that its president, Gianni Infantino, has been involved in the breakaway talks with officials, including Real Madrid’s Perez.
“FIFA can only express its disapproval to a ‘closed European breakaway league’ outside of the international football structures,” the world body said in a statement on Sunday while not answering questions about any role by Infantino.
The Premier League said the Super League would “undermine the appeal of the whole game” by going against the principles of open competition. There was even an intervention by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who warned that a Super League would be “very damaging.”
The Super League confirmed on Sunday that each of the 15 founding members would get a share of at least 3.5 billion euros ($4.2 billion) in initial infrastructure grants.
The AP previously reported that this money would be split among four tiers of clubs, with the top six each getting 350 million euros ($420 million). The competition would begin with two groups of 10 teams, with the top three from each group advancing to the quarterfinals. The teams finishing fourth and fifth would be involved in a playoff to complete the last-eight lineup. The knockout phase would still feature two-legged quarterfinals and semifinals before a single fixture final.
The previously-reported Super League proposal hoped to generate 4 billion euros ($4.86 billion) annually from broadcasters.
In comparison, UEFA said the total commercial revenue was 3.25 billion euros ($3.9 billion) for each of the past three seasons from selling the rights to the Champions League, Europa League and UEFA Super Cup.
For the 2021-24 sales cycle, UEFA is expected to sell around $14 billion in broadcast and sponsor deals for its club competitions, which includes the new third-tier Europa Conference League.
Those sales were completed worldwide on the legal commitment of top clubs to play according to the UEFA-ECA accord. Any breach of the cooperation deal would likely lead to legal threats and suits.
“We will consider all measures available to us, at all levels, both judicial and sporting in order to prevent this happening,” UEFA said of the Super League. “Football is based on open competitions and sporting merit; it cannot be any other way.”