Mustafa Ali relives WrestleMania dream ahead of WWE’s showpiece event this weekend

Mustafa Ali relives WrestleMania dream ahead of WWE’s showpiece event this weekend
Mustafa Ali says that in the absence of live audiences, the WWE ThunderDome has been a game-changer. (WWE)
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Updated 06 April 2021

Mustafa Ali relives WrestleMania dream ahead of WWE’s showpiece event this weekend

Mustafa Ali relives WrestleMania dream ahead of WWE’s showpiece event this weekend
  • Wrestler tells Arab News of “connection” with Saudi audience during 2019’s WWE Crown Jewel in Riyadh

DUBAI: Mustafa Ali knows the buzz of performing in front of a WrestleMania crowd all too well.

It’s a feeling that he has been chasing ever since he experienced it for the first time in 2018.

But when WWE’s showpiece event returns next weekend, it looks like Ali - just like the homebound crowds - will be watching from his family home’s sofa - and he’s completely at ease with it.

“WrestleMania has been something that turned into an obsession and it has its ebbs and flows for me,” the American wrestler, born to a Pakistani father and an Indian mother, said.

“Relatively early in my WWE career I had this amazing opportunity, although it was on the pre-show, it was still a WrestleMania-featured match for Cruiserweight Championship against one of my closest friends, Cedric Alexander, and we absolutely tore the house down.”

Ali, real name Adeel Alam, lost the fight to Alexander but he had lived out a dream he’d had ever since he was a kid growing up in Chicago with a room-full of, then still, WWF action figures and walls covered with pictures of Kane, Jeff Hardy, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper and many more.

“John Cena was reacting to our match and we got millions of viewers, I remember all the media and the press, and even though we were on pre-show, you felt the pressure of performing on WrestleMania,” said the 35-year-old.

“I’ll never forget walking down that ramp and looking up and seeing my name and the video packages and all the hype. That was one of the coolest moments of my life, and I’ve never quite achieved that level of success again going into WrestleMania.”

Ali who is signed up to WWE’s Raw brand, says he worked tirelessly towards getting into WrestleMania 37 in Tampa, Florida, on April 10-11, and he has a much healthier outlook about missing out than he did last year.

“I was aggressively trying to get on [WrestleMania], and when I found out I wasn’t on the show, I was blaming everybody but me,” he said.

“This year, I looked in the mirror and said I can get upset again, I can get mad at everybody else, but at the end of the day I’ve got to look at myself and realize I have to do something as a performer where they don’t have a choice but to put me on the card.”

Though Ali has missed the visceral reaction of the fans in recent times, he says the introduction of WWE ThunderDome, the virtual videoconferencing crowd system and arena, has been a game-changer.

“Don’t get me wrong, you’re in the ring and there are millions of viewers and there is another man or woman who you’re competing with and they’re trying to take your head off,” he said.

“So the adrenaline is still there, the prep is still there, but I genuinely miss that live feel, there’s nothing in the world like it.”

Ali has particular fond memories of 2019’s Crown Jewel at King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, when he was part of Team Hogan that took on Team Flair in a five-on-five tag team match.

“My favorite thing on my most recent trip to Saudi Arabia, as we’re making our way to the arena, you see these kids running alongside the bus and they’re giving each other RKOs and I was just blown away. And for me specifically, when they announced my name and it popped up on the giant screen, the audiences, despite the fact I’m not from Saudi, I’m not Arab, I’m not Middle Eastern, they see my name and there’s a connection there.”

Ali sensed the crowd identify with him, in the same way they identify with local hero Mansoor.

“It was a cool moment,” he said.

“Because I was that kid in the audience and I would look up and I would never see someone that looked like me performing at such a high level. So I think it’s cool for them to look up and see someone like Mansoor, someone like Mustafa Ali, and they say, ‘oh those guys look like me and they made it’.”

Ali, however, stops short of calling himself a role model, saying that as man a man with many “imperfections” he doesn’t want to let anyone down.

Whenever Ali misses the feeling of being in the ring, he falls back on one of his quirks from when he was traveling the world for the WWE SmackDown live tours, where he would tweet out the schedules of the performances.

“In one weekend I did Manila, Shanghai and Honolulu,” he said.

“These are three places people save their entire lives to go see, and I did that in one weekend. And then I flew back to the US and I did TV, so there is a sense of almost a badge of honor, I’ve earned my stripes. Sometimes I go back and look at these tweets and think I’ve done more, and forgotten more, than I’ll remember and that’s cool.”

Ali says that when the call comes to get back in the ring, he will be more than ready, but acknowledges that the lone bright spot during a very difficult year has been the time spent with his young family.

“I have a three-year-old son and now he actually knows who his dad is. I have a seven-year-old daughter and we get to hang out almost every day, I get to help her with her homework,” Ali said.

“I get to teach them how to ride bikes and play sports. I have beautiful wife that does everything for me, I get to be at home. I’m out there busting my butt, making this money, and now I get to be here with them while they enjoy it. That’s a blessing.”

“They call me baba, ‘baba’s home’. That’s awesome.”


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.”