Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad clash in must-win, season-defining Saudi Classico

Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad clash in must-win, season-defining Saudi Classico
Al-Ittihad haven’t defeated Al-Hilal since 2016, a dismal run that has stretched to 11 games. (Screengrab YouTube)
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Updated 07 April 2021

Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad clash in must-win, season-defining Saudi Classico

Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad clash in must-win, season-defining Saudi Classico
  • Al-Hilal make the trip west as leaders, three points clear of Al-Shabab in second – Al-Ittihad are a further three points back, in third place
  • Al-Ittihad coach Fabio Carille has turned things around impressively, helped immensely by the October arrival of Egyptian international Ahmed Hegazi

LONDON: Few fixtures in Arab football are as big as the Saudi Classico.

And none will be bigger than Friday’s meeting between Al-Ittihad and champions Al-Hilal in Jeddah, a match that will go a long way to deciding the destination of the Saudi Pro League title.

Defeat for Al-Ittihad would virtually end their chances of the title, while defeat for Al-Hilal would likely wipe out their advantage heading into the stage of the season when they are really going to need it.

Al-Hilal make the trip west as leaders, three points clear of Al-Shabab in second. Al-Ittihad are a further three points back, in third place. Wins in matches between the top three really are the proverbial “six-pointers.”

With just five more games to follow, Al-Ittihad can really make the title race a three-way one if they win. If that wasn’t motivation enough, they haven’t won this fixture since 2016, a dismal run that has stretched to 11 games.

The Tigers would have accepted this position after winning just one of their first five games of the season. That start suggested that this campaign would be similar to last time around, when the two-time Asian champions finished in a lowly and unacceptable 11th spot, just three points above the relegation zone.

Coach Fabio Carille has turned things around impressively, helped immensely by the October arrival of Egyptian international Ahmed Hegazi. The problem for the Brazilian is that Hegazi is suspended. 

The defender, perhaps the stand-out performer in the entire league this season, was sent off in the 1-1 draw at Al-Raed in the last round.

With central defensive partner Ziyad Al-Sahafi also serving a suspension, Carille has his work cut out in trying to stop the league’s leading goalscorer Bafetimbi Gomis. Veteran stopper Omar Hawsawi will be drafted in.

“Obviously, we would like to have our full-strength team for such a big game,” Carille said. “We know how dangerous Al-Hilal are, but football is a squad game and we have players who can come into the starting eleven to perform well. We are looking forward to it.”

There is better news elsewhere, in that Serbian forward Aleksandar Prijovic has returned to training. 

The former PAOK star, who has scored six goals this season, had been ill but should be fit to start although winger Garry Rodrigues is on standby if necessary as Al-Ittihad look to supply their star Brazilian striker Romarinho.

With the issues in defense and the importance of taking all the three points, Al-Ittihad are expected to take the game to the visitors - but Al-Hilal are not without issues. 

The champions will be without captain Salem Al-Dawsari who has a ligament injury as well as young striker Abdullah Al-Hamdah, who is still recovering from the effects of coronavirus.

While the champions are in the driving seat, coach Rogerio Micale has plenty to think about. 

After the trip to Jeddah, the next league game is even more crucial as it comes against second-placed Al-Shabab on May 7. 

In the four weeks between the two showdowns, there is the small matter of the group stage of the AFC Champions League and six games against Shabab Al-Ahli of Dubai, Tajikistan’s Istiklol and either Al-Gharafa of Qatar or Uzbekistan’s AGMK.

Earlier this week Micale announced his squad for the continental tournament that Al-Hilal last won in 2019, and the Brazilian knows that success on the both international and home fronts may depend on how he handles the squad.

“When you get to this stage of the season then you hope there are big and important games,” Micale said. “There are none more important than this one against Al-Ittihad and we will go there looking to win, as we always do, though we know it will be a tough game but when you are challenging for the title then all games are tough.”

Whatever happens, Al-Shabab in second need to take all three points on Saturday against relegation strugglers Al-Batin. Soon after the Riyadh team moved impressively to top spot just after the halfway stage of the season, they hit a bump in form. Just one point in the last three games, a run that included defeat against Al-Ittihad, means that there can be no more slip-ups.

Al-Shabab can rest in the coming weeks for their league showdown, while Al-Hilal are busy with Asian commitments. Al-Hilal, sure to be tired, will want some breathing space. 

Three points on Friday will go a long way to defending the title but any slip-ups with a hectic schedule to come, and fans in Saudi Arabia can start looking forward to a thrilling final few weeks of the season.


Slick Man City blow away Brighton

Slick Man City blow away Brighton
Updated 23 October 2021

Slick Man City blow away Brighton

Slick Man City blow away Brighton
BRIGHTON, United Kingdom: Pep Guardiola lauded Brighton for playing like a “top-four” side despite being on the end of a 4-1 thrashing from his Manchester City side on Saturday.
The English champions had the points sealed by half-time as Ilkay Gundogan tapped into an empty net on 13 minutes before Phil Foden finished off two fine team moves.
Alexis Mac Allister’s penalty pulled a goal back for Brighton, before Riyad Mahrez put the seal on a slick City display.
Brighton remain in fourth after an impressive start to the season and Guardiola believes the Seagulls deserve to be in that exalted position in the table.
“It’s really good because I knew which team we face today,” said Guardiola after City moved up to second in the table, two points behind leaders Chelsea.
“They are aggressive and when they have the ball they know what they have to do. They have all the mechanisms of a big team.
“They have courage. I admire them for that. They play like a top-four or five team.”
Guardiola made just two changes to the side that smashed Club Brugge 5-1 in the Champions League in midweek as Gundogan and Gabriel Jesus replaced Kevin De Bruyne and Mahrez.
And Brighton were on the same end of a similar hiding.
Joao Cancelo forced a smart save from Robert Sanchez and Lewis Dunk cleared an effort from Jesus off the line early on.
But Brighton did not help themselves with some disastrous defending for the opening goal as Sanchez dropped the ball under minimal pressure from Jesus.
The Brazilian hooked the ball back across goal and Gundogan turned into an unguarded net.
Bernardo Silva’s scintillating form has made the Portugal midfielder almost undroppable despite the wealth of midfield talent on offer to Guardiola.
Silva was the instigator for the second goal as his defense splitting pass played Jack Grealish in behind and he unselfishly squared for his England teammate Foden to force the ball in.
There was plenty of fortune about Foden’s second as he got in the way of Jesus’ shot and got enough of a deflection to bamboozle Sanchez, who let the ball through his grasp.
Brighton made a far better contest of the second-half as City conserved their energy amid a run of seven games in 22 days.
“It was a good lesson,” added Guardiola. “For 30 minutes they were better than us.”
Graham Potter’s men got their reward with a consolation nine minutes from time when Ederson wiped out Enock Mwepu as he rushed from his goal and Mac Allister slotted home from the penalty spot.
“We suffered a bit in the first half but the second half response was fantastic,” said Potter.
“Of course it’s disappointing to lose. We have to say Manchester City were better but our performance was something to be proud of.”
City still had the final say as Foden rounded off a superb performance by picking out Mahrez to smash the visitors’ fourth high past Sanchez.

Newcastle manager Jones confident form will turn around after Palace point

Newcastle United caretaker Graeme Jones shakes hands with Miguel Almiron after the Premier League match at Selhurst Park. (Reuters/Action Images)
Newcastle United caretaker Graeme Jones shakes hands with Miguel Almiron after the Premier League match at Selhurst Park. (Reuters/Action Images)
Updated 23 October 2021

Newcastle manager Jones confident form will turn around after Palace point

Newcastle United caretaker Graeme Jones shakes hands with Miguel Almiron after the Premier League match at Selhurst Park. (Reuters/Action Images)
  • Jones in charge of his first game since stepping in to replace Steve Bruce
  • Saw Magpies claim a 1-1 draw at Selhurst Park

LONDON: Newcastle United interim manager Graeme Jones believes his players have provided themselves a base on which to build a Premier League revival.

Jones, taking his first game since stepping in to replace Steve Bruce this week, saw United claim a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace, despite conceding 75 percent possession in the Premier League encounter.

Jones, though, knows that Rome was not built in a day and thinks United showed enough in the 90 minutes against a lower top flight rival to prove they are up for the fight to remain in the Premier League.

“We came here to win. That was the intention. So, the next best thing is a point,” said Jones, whose side remains 19th in the table with just four points from nine games. “Off the ball I was pleased with the organization and the standard. We limited Palace to one chance in the first half. In the second half they had two. It is a base, a start.

"I would like us to be better on the ball. But we know it doesn't come overnight - it takes time. We need to tighten up a little bit, not concede as many goals. We have to improve. We have to be better. But I have got to give the lads credit. As I have said, loads of work to do. But at least it is somewhere to start.”

Newcastle-born Jones is a fan as well as a coach of his boyhood club.

He was on the terraces when club legends like Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer were scoring goals for the Magpies.

And, despite seeing goals from legends of days gone by at United, Jones believes the one he witnessed from Callum Wilson on Saturday - an acrobatic overhead kick - was one of the best ever.

Jones said: “It is right up there. With Cal, he is a unique striker. In training he is a good finisher, he works and is a fantastic professional. On a matchday, there is a stimulation, something comes out of him where he has the mentality to perform for Newcastle United. He is the best matchday professional I have worked with. To pull that out of the hat certainly helped us.”

As well as top scorer Wilson's strike, the team's mentality has also pleased Jones.

“You have to respect a point in the Premier League. We needed to start with that base. We needed defensive solidity to give Callum and Allan (Saint-Maximin) a chance. Every game will be treated on its merits - I can't tell you the shape against Chelsea next week. One thing I can't change is the mentality. Everyone fought for each other - that was pleasing.”


Wait for Premier League win goes on for Newcastle after Crystal Palace draw

Crystal Palace's Conor Gallagher, left, and Newcastle's Isaac Hayden battles for the ball during the English Premier League match at Selhurst Park. (AP)
Crystal Palace's Conor Gallagher, left, and Newcastle's Isaac Hayden battles for the ball during the English Premier League match at Selhurst Park. (AP)
Updated 23 October 2021

Wait for Premier League win goes on for Newcastle after Crystal Palace draw

Crystal Palace's Conor Gallagher, left, and Newcastle's Isaac Hayden battles for the ball during the English Premier League match at Selhurst Park. (AP)
  • A new Steve Bruce-less era was heralded on Tyneside, after the head coach was this week shown the St. James’ Park exit door

LONDON: Nine and counting. Newcastle United remain winless from their opening nine Premier League games of the season — however, their Crystal Palace draw definitely feels like a point gained, rather than two dropped.

Christian Benteke opened the scoring for the Eagles, before some Callum Wilson acrobatics ensured the Magpies traveled back north from the capital with a point to show for their efforts.

A new Steve Bruce-less era was heralded on Tyneside, after the head coach was this week shown the St. James’ Park exit door — but again, like last week against Spurs, there was little difference from what had gone before.

Graeme Jones stepped into the dugout for this one, and will do so for the next seven days until United decide on their new manager. United were clearly more organized, yet a whole lot more tentative.

Where gaps at the back were cavernous under Bruce, things appeared a whole lot more solid without him.

United, however, did have to ride their luck.

In a half of football devoid of real opportunities, only two of merit were created. One was wasted by the usually clinical Wilson and another saw Benteke strike Karl Darlow’s post.

United were bright early doors, with a little more defensive shape, which so easily escaped them in the opening game of the Magpies’ Saudi-financed era.

And Wilson went within an inch of setting Newcastle on their way, but could only find the side netting when presented with a chance on a tight angle from just three yards.

Benteke, a threat in the air all day for United’s beefed-up backline, fired a shot across the bows as he beat both Javier Manquillo and Emil Krafth to a floated cross to hit the foot of the post.

Bizarrely, the highlight of the opening half came from an off the field action as United released a statement making a U-turn on their previous decision to encourage fans not to wear Saudi-inspired dress.

It seems the new owners are now in favor of it. The statement read: “Those who wish to support the club by wearing appropriate culturally inspired clothing should feel free to do so as they see fit. We are inclusive to all.

“To reiterate what we said previously, neither the club nor its new owners were offended by attire worn, and appreciate the overt statements of support and acceptance by our great fans.”

Saudi flags and traditional dress were clearly visible across the 2,800-strong away support in south London.

After the break it was one-way traffic — and for United, a backs to the wall job.

Benteke made sure the Eagles’ dominance was rewarded when he nodded home a Tyrick Mitchell cross for 1-0. It was no less than the hosts deserved.

The Belgium international almost put Palace out of sight moments later as United’s resolve began to falter. Another header, this time off the top of the bar.

Against the run of play, however, the Magpies unexpectedly leveled as Wilson redeemed his earlier miss by producing a second-half moment of magic. His overhead kick from a United corner lit up the traveling support as the present Amanda Staveley and Mehrdad Ghodoussi, PCP directors, punched the air in the directors’ box.

Jones’ United continued to ride their luck. Goalscorer Benteke continued his profligacy in front of goal.

A Palace through ball broke the United defensive line and Benteke, with the whole goal to aim at, skewed wide.

Benteke did have the ball in the net again with three minutes left to play and looked to have won it for the Eagles. However, the VAR gods shone down on United as referee Darren England ruled the goal out for an obvious pull of the shirt by Marc Guehi on Clark.

Cue chants of “how much are they paying you?” — Clearly aimed at the man in the middle, England, and United’s new cash-rich owners.

Jealousy and hypocrisy reign supreme in English football when it comes to Newcastle United, of that there is no doubt, now.

But while the green-eyed monster dominates fan perception when it comes to the club’s owners, it does not ring true when it comes to their “on-pitch” product. That will likely have to wait until January and the transfer window.


Bayern wins again without coach Julian Nagelsmann

Bayern wins again without coach Julian Nagelsmann
Updated 23 October 2021

Bayern wins again without coach Julian Nagelsmann

Bayern wins again without coach Julian Nagelsmann
  • Serge Gnabry and Robert Lewandowski were among the scorers as Bayern stayed a point clear of Dortmund at the top of the table
  • The coach has been directing Bayern remotely since he tested positive ahead of a Champions League game at Benfica on Wednesday

MUNICH: Coach Julian Nagelsmann again sent instructions remotely after testing positive for the coronavirus as Bayern Munich beat Hoffenheim 4-0 in the Bundesliga on Saturday.
Borussia Dortmund made do without injured striker Erling Haaland to overcome Arminia Bielefeld 3-1.
Serge Gnabry and Robert Lewandowski were among the scorers as Bayern stayed a point clear of Dortmund at the top of the table in what would have been a routine win if not for Nagelsmann’s absence.
The coach has been directing Bayern remotely since he tested positive ahead of a Champions League game at Benfica on Wednesday which Bayern won 4-0. Assistant Dino Toppmöller deputizes on the touchline and said Nagelsmann is closely involved with the tactics.
Bayern started with intent against Hoffenheim, Lewandowski scuffing a shot wide in the second minute when one-on-one with the goalkeeper, before Gnabry had a goal disallowed over a prior foul by Jamal Musiala.
Gnabry was first to score for Bayern, taking advantage of Hoffenheim’s narrow defensive formation to overlap on the right side of the penalty area in the 16th. Lewandowski added the second on the half-hour on a counterattack. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Kingsley Coman scored late on.
NO HAALAND, NO PROBLEM
A hip muscle injury for Haaland could rule out the Norwegian for weeks and make Dortmund’s bid to dethrone Bayern even harder. Haaland’s teammates appeared not to be affected as they showed off their skills in a 3-1 win over Bielefeld.
Emre Can put Dortmund ahead from the penalty spot after a clumsy tackle, before center back Mats Hummels made a statement with a volley from the edge of the area to make it 2-0. England midfielder Jude Bellingham had his moment in the spotlight in the 72nd, beating three Bielefeld players on his way to scoring a fine solo goal.
LEIPZIG HITS 4
Leipzig took some of the pressure off its American coach, Jesse Marsch, with a 4-1 win over promoted Greuther Fürth. But it wasn’t as simple as the score might indicate.
Fürth had the lead at halftime thanks to Branimir Hrgota scoring from a penalty given for Leipzig’s Nordi Mukiele jumping onto an opponent in an aerial duel. Yussuf Poulsen scored for Leipzig immediately after the break, before goals from Emil Forsberg, Dominik Szoboszlai and Hugo Novoa.
It was a welcome win for Leipzig, whose Champions League campaign is already all but over after a 3-2 loss to Paris Saint-Germain meant Marsch’s team started the group stage with three defeats.
Freiburg stays in a surprise third place after keeping its record as the league’s only unbeaten team in a 2-0 win over Wolfsburg.
Wolfsburg, which started the season brightly under new coach Mark van Bommel, is now on an eight-game winless run in all competitions.


Chelsea hit Norwich for seven

Chelsea hit Norwich for seven
Updated 23 October 2021

Chelsea hit Norwich for seven

Chelsea hit Norwich for seven
  • Mason Mount scored a hat-trick for the Blues at Stamford Bridge
  • Mount had not scored since May and Tuchel welcomed his return to scoring form with Lukaku and Werner expected to be out for some time

LONDON: Chelsea opened up a four-point lead at the top of the Premier League with a 7-0 demolition of Norwich on Saturday.
Mason Mount scored a hat-trick for the Blues at Stamford Bridge as the European champions coped easily without first-choice strikers Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner.
Mount started the rout after just eight minutes and finished it with two more in the closing stages after Ben Gibson had been sent-off for the visitors.
Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James and Ben Chilwell were also on target for Thomas Tuchel’s men, while Max Aarons’ own goal summed up a sorry day for the Canaries.
He had not scored since May and Tuchel welcomed his return to scoring form with Lukaku and Werner expected to be out for some time.
“No matter how satisfied the coach is, the offensive guys need goals to be fully happy,” said Tuchel.
“He waited too long, so it was good that he got some goals. I agree he looked fresh again today.”
Manchester City can close the gap at the top to two points and leapfrog Liverpool into second when they face Brighton later on Saturday.
Claudio Ranieri got his first win as Watford manager as the Hornets twice came from behind to stun Everton 5-2 at Goodison Park.
Josh King failed to score as an Everton player last season, but hit a hat-trick to help move Watford six points clear of the relegation zone.
Juraj Kucka and Emmanuel Dennis were also on target for the visitors, who scored four times in the final 12 minutes.
Leeds needed a stoppage-time penalty to earn a 1-1 draw at home to Wolves.
South Korean international Hwang Hee-chan opened the scoring at Elland Road.
Wolves were set to move up to fifth until Joe Gelhardt was fouled inside the area in the 94th minute and Rodrigo slotted home the penalty.
Burnley remain in the bottom three, but Maxwel Cornet is proving himself a shrewd signing for Sean Dyche’s men as the Ivorian scored twice in a 2-2 draw at Southampton.
Saints turned the game around after Cornet opened the scoring to take the lead with goals from Tino Livramento and Armando Broja.
The former Lyon winger then salvaged a point for the Clarets with a thumping finish on the volley from outside the area.