Arabian Gulf League’s most intriguing season turns Al-Jazira’s way after top-of-the-table win

Arabian Gulf League’s most intriguing season turns Al-Jazira’s way after top-of-the-table win
For now, it’s Al-Jazira who are smiling. (Internet)
Short Url
Updated 27 February 2021

Arabian Gulf League’s most intriguing season turns Al-Jazira’s way after top-of-the-table win

Arabian Gulf League’s most intriguing season turns Al-Jazira’s way after top-of-the-table win
  • A 3-0 loss adds to Sharjah’s woes as Baniyas keep the pressure on in UAE’s heated title race

A few weeks from now, one team will celebrate a historic Arabian Gulf League title. Dates for the final five matchweeks of the remaining eight are yet to be announced, but whenever and wherever the coveted trophy will be lifted, the winning side will look back at the night of Friday, Feb. 26 as one that has reshaped their 2020-21 campaign.

For now, it’s Al-Jazira who are smiling.

First, there is Sharjah’s woes. Despite hitherto leading the table, the reigning champions have looked a shadow of the side that took the UAE by storm to win their first league title in a quarter of a century in 2018-19. The subsequent season was declared null and void, disrupted by the pandemic, keeping the trophy in Sharjah for a further 12 months.

Mastermind Abdulaziz Al-Anbari remains at the helm. A local lad who had pulled the strings in midfield as Sharjah won the 1995-96 title, he returned as manager two decades later to transform a mid-table squad into the most potent counter-attacking unit in the country and become the first man to win the UAE league title as a player and as a manager.

Less than two years on, he was left to watch his legacy crumble in a game he missed through illness. A 3-0 demolition at home by Al-Jazira on Friday made it five games without a win for Al-Anbari’s Sharjah, his side’s poor run culminating in the loss of the top spot that they had made effectively theirs since the beginning of the season.

Momentum cannot be created nor destroyed, but only changed through the action of forces. Isaac Newton might as well have been talking about the 2020-21 Arabian Gulf League title race. For that every bit of momentum lost by Sharjah was picked up by their Friday visitors Al-Jazira.

They may not have been present in the stands on a night to remember for the Pride of Abu Dhabi at Sharjah Stadium, but the Al-Jazira faithful were indeed the most vocal on social media as they felt the tide turning to their side in the pursuit for glory.

The stars finally aligned for manager Marcel Keizer. Young defender Mohammed Rabi powered in an early header for his first senior goal. The Dutchman’s high-press system saw his compatriot Brandley Kuwas, a January recruit from Al-Nasr, win the ball deep into the opposition half and supply talisman Ali Mabkhout who made it 2-0 before the break.

Not even a red card for midfielder Abdullah Ramadan could stop Al-Jazira’s rampant display, and the top spot was signed, sealed and delivered to the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium as Mabkhout slotted home from the spot in added time for his 17th goal of the season.

By all measures, Friday night was telling of the two clubs and their contrasting trajectories. For every time Sharjah’s Caio Lucas and Saif Rashid attempted an outrageous skill only to lose the ball in their own half, there was a spell of swift, intricate passing and coordinated pressing by Al-Jazira’s well-drilled midfield. For every moment of frustrated Igor Coronado solo runs, there was a sharp exchange of positions by Mabkhout and his protege-turned-teammate Zayed Al Ameri.

Then there are the Sky Blues of Baniyas: Quietly going about their business as they have done all season, and in the process creeping into the title conversation with their 36 points placing them at third, just four behind Al-Jazira.

A decade has passed since their best league campaign; a season in which they finished runners-up behind none other than Al-Jazira. Countless managers and foreign players have passed through the revolving door at Al-Shamkha Stadium on the outskirts of the capital Abu Dhabi. There has been relegation then instant promotion, a new ambitious project and finally a season where they flew under the radar, appearing almost out of nowhere to book a place on the table for a game of cards for which they looked the unlikeliest of invitees.

On Friday, Baniyas made light work of relegation strugglers Ajman. Young Palestinian forward Ahmed Abunamous put them in front before Brazilian marksman Joao Pedro kept the pressure on Mabkhout at the top of the scoring charts with his fourteenth goal of the season to secure a third Baniyas win in their last four games.

An extended winning run, as well as other results going their way, could yet see Al-Nasr — leaders earlier in the season but fourth-placed now — make their way into the title charge.

They sit seven points adrift of the top, but realistically it will not be until after the matchweek 23 clash between Sharjah and Baniyas, four games before the curtain falls on the season, that we will have a much clearer picture of who the next champions of the UAE will be in a season where the traditional powerhouses of Al-Ain, Shabab Al-Ahli and Al-Wahda were brushed aside by a brave new contingent of competitors.


Liverpool need Klopp to rediscover magic touch to climb out of 3-1 hole

Liverpool need Klopp to rediscover magic touch to climb out of 3-1 hole
Updated 13 April 2021

Liverpool need Klopp to rediscover magic touch to climb out of 3-1 hole

Liverpool need Klopp to rediscover magic touch to climb out of 3-1 hole
  • Klopp has earned icon status on Merseyside for delivering a sixth European Cup and a first league title for 30 years to Liverpool

LIVERPOOL: In need of another famous Champions League fightback, Liverpool cannot rely on a wave of passion, color and noise from the stands at Anfield to inspire a comeback from 3-1 down against Real Madrid on Wednesday.

If the English champions are to reach the semifinals for the third time in four years, they will instead need their manager Jurgen Klopp to conjure the motivation and tactical masterplan to once again eliminate one of Spanish football’s giants.

Klopp has earned icon status on Merseyside for delivering a sixth European Cup and a first league title for 30 years to Liverpool.

But the charismatic German has been unable to halt the Reds’ fall from grace this season.

With seven games to play in the Premier League, it is already mathematically impossible for Liverpool to retain their title as they lie 22 points adrift of Manchester City in fifth.

Hopes the Champions League could prove the salvation of a disappointing season were also dashed as Real ran riot in the first 45 minutes in Madrid last week to open up a commanding first leg lead.

Liverpool’s deficit is not as steep as when Barcelona visited two years ago in the semifinals in what turned out to be arguably the greatest of all the memorable European nights at Anfield.

Depleted by injuries, Klopp’s men still rolled over Barca’s stellar cast of star names 4-0 on their way to winning the trophy. But Klopp hinted that the task may be even greater now in front of the sterile atmosphere of an empty stadium due to coronavirus restrictions.

“If you want to have some emotional memories, then you watch the Barcelona game back and 80 percent of this game was the atmosphere in the stadium, so yes, we have to do it without that,” said Klopp after the first leg.

Liverpool can claim to have suffered more than most from an entire season behind closed doors.

Prior to January, they were unbeaten in 68 home Premier League games. That club-record run was followed by a less treasured one as for the first time Liverpool then lost six consecutive games at Anfield.

A late winner to beat Aston Villa 2-1 on Saturday snapped that streak, but only served to reinforce that Liverpool are not the force of the past two seasons.

On top of empty stadiums, injuries have also played a major role. Virgil van Dijk, Jordan Henderson, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip will again be missing for the visit of Madrid, while Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota’s first season at the club has been disrupted by lengthy layoffs.


Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut

Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut
Updated 13 April 2021

Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut

Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut
  • Jordanian champions Al-Wehdat SC face a baptism of fire in their AFC Champions League debut against Al-Nassr in Riyadh
  • Lebanese international Hassan ‘Soony’ Ali Saad expected to feature prominently for the Green Giants

For most of Al-Wehdat’s existence, they have had to play second fiddle to Al-Faisaly, who have tallied twice as many domestic titles as their fierce Amman rival.

But over the past eight years, the Green Giants have started to turn the tide in their direction, winning five of the last seven league titles.

And it is Al-Wehdat who will make history this week when they become the first Jordanian club to participate in the group stage of the prestigious Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League.

With the expansion of the tournament to 40 teams, up from 32, an extra four teams have been added in both the east and west zones as teams from Jordan, India and Tajikistan will appear for the first time.

Al-Wehdat will face a baptism by fire in their AFC Champions League debut as the Green Giants have been drawn alongside Qatari juggernaut Al-Sadd and last year’s semi-finalist, Al-Nassr, who they will face on Wednesday.

“This is a massive tournament,” Lebanese international Hassan ‘Soony’ Ali Saad, who recently signed with Al-Wehdat, told Arab News from the club’s centralized hub in Riyadh. 

“All eyes are on this tournament in Asia and around the world and it is an opportunity to play good football and show what the champions of Jordan are about.”

Al-Wehdat have trained in Riyadh over the past few days and they know what they are up against.

“We are drawn into a tough group,” Saad said. “We have Al-Sadd and Al-Nassr, but we are the champions of Jordan so we should be able to compete. We should be able to play our style of football to get some results.

“Our expectations are to play the best we can, we want to win as many games as possible. And hopefully, we can get out of this tough group.”

Saad was born and raised in Michigan and rose to the ranks of Major League Soccer, the top-flight league in the US. He has also had professional stints in Thailand, Lebanon and South Korea but this will be his first taste of the AFC Champions League.

The prospect of playing in Asia’s showpiece tournament figured prominently in his decision to join the reigning Jordanian champions.

“When I joined Al-Wehdat, I knew they were in the Champions League and this definitely helped my decision,” the 28-year-old said.

“A big part of my decision was also coach Abdullah Abu Zema, who I had worked with before. I knew him from my time in Lebanon and I liked his approach to dealing with players.”

Al-Wehdat sealed the Jordanian Super Cup with a 2-0 win over Al-Jazeera last week, which was Saad’s first official match with the club. Then they traveled to Riyadh and the reception the club received upon arrival gave the players an extra boost, especially Saad.

“Arriving in the airport and seeing the Al-Wehdat fans was unreal,” he said.

“They followed us to the hotel. To realize we had that kind of support everywhere we go just shows this club is massive in the region and it is a great feeling.”

Saad got an early dose of the dedicated Al-Wehdat fanbase after he arrived in Amman to sign his contract.

“The amount of support I have received on social media has been incredible and it makes you really want to play and give your all for this club,” he added.

“I am still new so hopefully I can show them what I am about. When my restrictions ease up, we can experience the fans and culture that I think this club is very well known for.”

Whatever the next fortnight in Riyadh brings, Saad is just happy to be back playing football again after a spell in South Korea with the second-division Ansan Greeners that he would rather forget.

“I was not enjoying my football in Korea,” Saad said. “I had come off a season in Korea where we were playing a lot of defensive football. The coach really liked to play counter-attack and he liked his Korean players, so I was hungry to play.”

Saad is optimistic his reunion with Abu Zema will be a huge score for Al-Wehdat.

“I knew that Abu Zema has this personality to play attacking football, and that is what I missed most.”


Mahdi Ali reforms the old band for a shot at AFC Champions League glory

Mahdi Ali reforms the old band for a shot at AFC Champions League glory
Updated 13 April 2021

Mahdi Ali reforms the old band for a shot at AFC Champions League glory

Mahdi Ali reforms the old band for a shot at AFC Champions League glory
  • UAE’s Shabab Al-Ahli go into the group stages in Riyadh on a high after winning the 2021 League Cup on Friday

: Mahdi Ali will try, for one last time, to get the old band together.

There’s him, front man Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil, Majed Hassan, Hamadan Al-Kamali, Walid Abbas, Majed Naser, Abdelaziz Sanqour and Abdelaziz Haikal.

On Friday, a penalty shootout win over Al-Nasr saw the 2020-21 League Cup added to the recently won 2020 Super Cup in Shabab Al-Ahli’s trophy cabinet.

And when the Emirati coach leads the Dubai team into the group stages of the AFC Champions League this week, he will be doing so with a squad that’s packed with a group of players that he has known for close on to two decades now.

As coach of various UAE national age group teams from 2003 (U16s), and the senior team from 2012, Mahdi Ali was responsible for overseeing what has become known as the second Golden Generation of Emirati players.

A commendable, eye-catching performance at the 2012 London Olympics, winning the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations in Manama, and finishing third at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.

For a while it seemed the team, or as the coach always called them, “the group”, could do no wrong. Until, suddenly they could do little right.

Mahdi Ali’s rein as UAE coach ended in 2017 as the UAE’s bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in France, a genuine prospect at the time, began to crumble.

Since then, he has only taken charge of Shabab Al-Ahli; first in 2017-18, and then again in 2020.

Back at the club he represented for 15 years in the 1980s and 90s, and which he briefly coached in the 2009-10 season, Mahdi Ali is now overseeing something of renaissance at Shabab Al-Ahli.

In addition to the silverware, a 13-match unbeaten run has seen the team rise to third in the Arabian Gulf League table, though still a significant seven points behind leaders Al-Jazira, and six behind Baniyas.

Still, it showed that the old maestro can still get a tune out of his players.

Except that it is mostly the new faces that have been delivering the high notes, with many of the UAE core reduced to back-up performers.

Leading the charge line for Shabab Al-Ahli in recent months have been the club’s foreign contingent of the Brazilians Igor Jesus and Carlos Eduardo, Federico Cartabia of Argentina and the Uzbeks Jaloliddin Masharipov and Odiljon Hamrobekov.

And while many of the Emirati players continue to play their part, two of country’s leading lights over the last decade, and arguably two of its finest ever, for now remain nowhere to be seen.

Ahmed Khalil, winner of the 2015 Asian Footballer of the Year award for his stellar performances in Australian and for helping then still Al-Ahli to the AFC Champions League final has barely figured in the first team over the last few years.

As occasionally brilliant as he is frustrating, inconsistency and injuries have blighted his career.

Above all, there is still the long shadow of Omar Abdulrahman, the golden boy whose fall from grace could be seen as metaphor for the fading of the golden generation.

The UAE’s most gifted player of all time, Abdulrahman was for long linked with a move to a major European league that never came.

In the summer of 2018, he joined Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia for what turned out to be an ill-fated, injury-disrupted spell.

A move to Abu Dhabi’s Al-Jazira a year later proved similarly unsuccessful, culminating in the previously unthinkable news that shocked Emirati and Middle East football supporters; Abdulrahman being released from his contract by the AGL leaders.

Perhaps it is fitting that a potential redemption arc has been offered at Shabab Al-Ahli under mentor Mahdi Ali, the man who oversaw Abdulrahman’s greatest hits.

But as the 29-year-old continues to recover from injury, Shabab Al-Ahli will go into the Champions League group stage held in Riyadh relying on the firepower of the foreign stars.

The first match against Istiklol, even before a ball has been kicked, has become a must-win match.

The team from Tajikistan will be seen as the group’s weakest link and while 2019 champions Al-Hilal take on AGMK of Uzbekistan, Shabab Al Ahli will be hoping to post three points on the board before the bigger challenges appear.

The second match will be against the hosts Al-Hilal, before a double-header against AGMK precedes the return match against Istiklol.

The last thing Mahdi Ali would want is to go into the final match against an on-form Hilal team needing a win to qualify to the knockout stages.

Still, the team is on a high after the League Cup triumph and perhaps the AFC Champions League fixtures have come at the perfect time for the UAE team - a glorious year remains a tantalizing possibility.

Just when the Emirati stars of the last decade take center-stage remains to be seen.


Al-Ittihad settle FIFA dispute as domestic suspension of Al-Nassr forward is upheld

Al-Ittihad settle FIFA dispute as domestic suspension of Al-Nassr forward is upheld
Updated 13 April 2021

Al-Ittihad settle FIFA dispute as domestic suspension of Al-Nassr forward is upheld

Al-Ittihad settle FIFA dispute as domestic suspension of Al-Nassr forward is upheld
  • Saudi Arabian Football Federation still looking into the alleged altercation between Abderrazak Hamdallah and Waleed Al-Ahmed in the King’s Cup semi-final

DUBAI: Al-Ittihad have settled the FIFA dispute with Esperance Club two weeks ago after the Jeddah club paid $200,000 it owed for last season’s signing of the Tunisian Anis Al-Badri, it has been revealed by Arabic-language newspaper Arriyadiyah.

The daily added that the Tunisian club had lodged its complaint as a result of Al-Ittihad’s failure to pay the second instalment of the sale of Al-Badri, which was due in July last year.

According to unnamed sources, FIFA’s dispute resolution chamber issued its ruling obliging Al-Ittihad to pay the amount together with the delay fine.

The news comes only days after Al-Ittihad dragged themselves back into the Saudi Pro League title race with a 2-0 win over reigning champions Al-Hilal

The club is now looking to similarly settle a case with the Argentine club Rosario Central for the transfer of Leonardo Gil in 2017

It is the latest of domestic and foreign disputes that the Al-Ittihad administration is looking to settle as soon as possible.

Meanwhile on Monday, the appeals committee of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) rejected Al-Nassr's appeal against the discipline and ethics committee's decision regarding its decision to suspend its Moroccan forward Abderrazak Hamdallah.

The committee indicated that while it had formally accepted the appeal, its subject was ultimately rejected, supporting the initial disciplinary decision against the player for his alleged altercation with Al-Faisaly defender Waleed Al-Ahmed in Al-Nassr’s King’s Cup semi-final defeat on April 4.

Last Wednesday, the disciplinary committee had announced that Hamdallah will be temporarily suspended for a period of 15 days, with an option to extend the ban to any matches in which he is illegible, until the completion of the study into what happened during the match.

It was the latest controversy to beset the club in a season turmoil on and off the pitch, however Hamdallah, the league’s top scorer for the last two seasons is free to take part in Al-Nassr’s AFC Champions League group matches starting this week.


Stoffel Vandoorne recovers to claim Rome E-Prix victory for Mercedes-EQ in round four of the Formula E season

Stoffel Vandoorne recovers to claim Rome E-Prix victory for Mercedes-EQ in round four of the Formula E season
Updated 12 April 2021

Stoffel Vandoorne recovers to claim Rome E-Prix victory for Mercedes-EQ in round four of the Formula E season

Stoffel Vandoorne recovers to claim Rome E-Prix victory for Mercedes-EQ in round four of the Formula E season
  • The Belgian driver had suffered a crash in round three on Saturday

JEDDAH: The Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team is celebrating a belatedly successful weekend which saw Stoffel Vandoorne taking first place at the Rome E-Prix, leaving him and team-mate Nyck de Vries fourth and fifth respectively in the drivers’ table after the completion of rounds three and four of the season in Italy.

“What an amazing victory,” Vandoorne said.

“It makes up for what happened (on Saturday). To end the weekend on such a high today feels fantastic.”

The Belgian driver redeemed himself with a win after an unfortunate retirement in first race of the Rome E-Prix double-header the day before.

Things looked bleak for Vandoorne when he spun into the barrier trying to avoid a slowing Lucas di Grassi - however, the team managed to repair the car overnight and Vandoorne was able to qualify third on the grid for the second race.

His win on Sunday means Mercedes-EQ now sit second in the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship standing, building on De Vries’ win at the season-opening Diriyah E-Prix in Riyadh at the end of February.

READ MORE

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was in attendance for the second race of the Formula E Diriyah E-Prix weekend in Riyadh on Saturday. Click here for more.

“I would like to thank everyone in the team and especially my mechanics, who had their work cut out to get the car fixed after the accident,” Vandoorne said.

A few early battles and a late safety car intervention did not stop the Mercedes-EQ driver from securing his second FIA Formula E victory, placing him firmly in contention for the championship.

Vandoorne also “Fanboost” - the voted-for power surge - to thank as well, as he was able to create distance between himself and Alexander Sims on the final lap restart.

“I wasn't sure what to expect during the safety car period just before the end but still had Fanboost, so I could defend my position,” he said.

“It didn’t feel exactly great after comfortably being in the lead, but I didn’t put a foot wrong over the final lap and managed to secure the win, which is what counts in the end.”

NEOM, Principal Partner of the Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team, congratulated Vandoorne on his victory in Rome.

“It’s brilliant to see yet another strong performance from the Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team,” Jan Paterson, Managing Director of Sport at NEOM said.

“NEOM is striving to become a major participant in the world’s sporting landscape and our partnership with the team is providing us with a unique opportunity to tap into an organization which is relentless in their pursuit of excellence.”

During the pre-season in December, the world witnessed the Belgian driver take to the streets of NEOM in the Mercedes-EQ Silver Arrow 02, the first all-electric vehicle driven on the Magna Road.

The partnership between NEOM and Mercedes-EQ - first established in 2020 - will focus on development programs in the region and green mobility efforts to revolutionize electric vehicles, as part of the Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan for a sustainable future.