New Al-Merrikh coach Clark aims for derby and league success with Sudanese club

New Al-Merrikh coach Clark aims for derby and league success with Sudanese club
Lee Clark took charge of legendary Sudanese club Al-Merrikh against African champions Al Ahly and almost pulled off a memorable win. (Facebook El Merreikh SC)
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Updated 08 April 2021

New Al-Merrikh coach Clark aims for derby and league success with Sudanese club

New Al-Merrikh coach Clark aims for derby and league success with Sudanese club
  • Former Newcastle midfielder has already led side to creditable draw against African champions Al Ahly

Lee Clark is no stranger to some of the biggest matches in world football.

The Newcastle native was a regular for his boyhood club in one of England’s most visceral matches, the Tyne-Wear derby against Sunderland.

He was also part of Kevin Keegan’s squad on the day Newcastle United played out arguably the most famous match in the history of the English Premier League, a heartbreaking 4-3 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield on April 3, 1996.

Last Saturday, exactly 25 years later to the day, Clark took charge of legendary Sudanese club Al-Merrikh against African champions Al Ahly and almost pulled off a memorable win. Only another stoppage time goal secured a 2-2 draw for the Egyptian giants. But the marker has been set.

His new team had shown they were capable of mixing with the CAF Champions League’s best.

“It was a fantastic experience for myself and the players, (playing) the most successful club in African football, one of the biggest if not the biggest,” Clark told Arab News. “They have a huge following, fantastic history and really top players, but my team were brilliant from the first whistle.

“They deserved to win the game. Unfortunately we missed a penalty and other opportunities, and then conceded a 94th minute equalizer. But the performance of my players and team gives me great belief for the future.”

Clark says his mission is not only to win the Sudan Premier League title, but to also compete in the African and Arab Champions Leagues. This could well be the challenge he has been seeking for some time.

“I’ve always expressed the desire as a coach to go overseas and experience something new. A new culture, a new way of working,” he said. “A few years ago I had the possibility of going to a club in Europe which I was on the verge of accepting. But my father was poorly at the time and I decided against it. And then just five or six weeks ago I got approached about the possibility of coming to Al-Merrikh and I looked into the club, the history, African football and thought it would be a great challenge for me, so I accepted.”

Al-Merrikh currently sit in second place in the Sudan Premier League table, three points behind their fierce rivals Al-Hilal with a game in hand. Clark said that even before he landed in Sudan he was well aware of the history between the two clubs.

“When I looked into the club, I knew straight away there was this rivalry and since I got into the country, that’s intensified,” he said. “We’re second, we’re three points behind Al-Hilal with game in hand, so it’s important that we win it. When the league restarts this month we play that game in hand, but then on the May 23 we play Al-Hilal. Both teams have been consistent in their results and performances in the league, so this is only going to intensify the rivalry between the two clubs.”

Clark — who also played for Sunderland and Fulham, and managed Huddersfield Town, Birmingham City, Blackpool, Kilmarnock, Bury and Blyth Spartans — is experiencing a whole new lifestyle now, one he is happy to embrace.

“The lifestyle’s obviously different, I am based in a hotel at the moment so I just focus on the football and everything else is taken care of,” he said. “The cultural change is something that’s completely new and different for me coming from the UK. Hopefully I’ve shown the (players and staff) the respect for their own culture and tried to adapt to this.”

In return they seem to have taken immediately to their new coach.

“They’re very respectful, and want to improve,” he said. “They want to do the work that we’re asking of them on the training pitch, which has been hard because we’ve really pushed to improve the physical output of the players. We believe they have fantastic technical ability already so we’re looking to improve in different areas. The response of the players has been really, really impressive.”

With the transfer window in Sudan opening on April 12, Clark says he wants to trim his oversized squad of 30, while also strengthening where needed. He wants two players for every position.

Clark is also aware that with the backing at Al-Hilal, there is renewed interest around the Arab world in Sudanese football, which he sees as on the rise.

“The support our club gets, it’s really passionate,” he said. “The number of fans that usually come into the Red Castle, our home stadium, is 43,000 in the Champions League, and league games anything from 20,000 up to 43,000 again. The passion is there. The players do have a lot of ability and they just need good guidance and good professional standards. I found that out very quickly; they want to learn, which is brilliant. Also the Sudan national team qualifying for the African Nations gave the whole country a boost, and was followed by our performance and result against Al Ahly.”

Despite that heroic performance, Al-Merrikh go into their last Champions League group match against Vita Club of Congo on Friday with only pride to play for.

“We’ll approach it to win, exactly the same as against Al Ahly,” Clark said from his hotel in Kinshasa. “The players know we have to keep building for the future; whether we can qualify or not, it doesn’t matter, this is a game we want to win. We’re competing in the biggest competition in Africa, we want show everybody that Saturday was not a fluke performance, we want to be a team that’s consistent.

“It might not have importance or significance in terms of where we are in any given competition but when we play, we’re playing to build for the future. To get a philosophy for our club and to show how we go about our business.”

The move to Sudan might have taken some by surprise, but his desire to work abroad was there all along for those who were close to him.

“I didn’t tell many people when I accepted the job, and then when it was announced there was quite a bit of shock,” Clark said. “But people who know me wouldn’t have been so shocked because they know I have a real passion and love for football. Wherever football takes me is not an issue. Now that my playing days are over I love to be on the pitch coaching players.

“I’ve enjoyed my first month here in Sudan and at Al-Merrikh because of the response of the players and staff to the way I work and to my methods, and they want to improve also. This is huge for me.”

With the derby, and potential league title, on the horizon, the next few months could prove defining for Clark, even this early into his new adventure.

“To win the league would be fantastic, unbelievable,” Clark said. “I’m really excited about the derby, I love high profile games. Being involved on Saturday against Al Ahly, I respected them so much but I never, ever fear any opponent that I come up against. But certainly the respect is immense and this will be the same for Al-Hilal.”

Extreme E partnership with TikTok draws in 18.5 million viewers for inaugural Desert E-Prix at AlUla

Extreme E partnership with TikTok draws in 18.5 million viewers for inaugural Desert E-Prix at AlUla
Updated 15 April 2021

Extreme E partnership with TikTok draws in 18.5 million viewers for inaugural Desert E-Prix at AlUla

Extreme E partnership with TikTok draws in 18.5 million viewers for inaugural Desert E-Prix at AlUla
  • New electric SUV series acquired 60,000 new fans thanks to activation by digital media giant Little Dot Studios

Extreme E’s Desert E-Prix, the first-ever race in the new electric SUV series, saw 18.5 million organic viewers on TikTok tune in to the action taking place on the desert terrain of AlUla, Saudi Arabia.

Only days before the event took place at the start of April, Extreme E announced an agreement with TikTok to bolster its social media offering, and the results have been staggering, with 17.2 million people checking out #DesertXPrix videos alone.

Extreme E also acquired 60,000 new fans after digital media giant Little Dot Studios activated the new partnership using its vertical video expertise on behalf of the championship.

Rosberg X Racing, the team founded by former Formula 1 champion Nico Rosberg, made history by becoming Extreme E’s first-ever race winner after overcoming Andretti United and Lewis Hamilton’s X44, who finished second and third on the podium.

The organizers of the event were delighted in the interest the event attracted.

“These numbers are phenomenal, and I’m thrilled that in our first weekend we were able to reach so many people with our unique sport for purpose,” Ali Russell, chief marketing officer at Extreme E, said. “As part of the championship’s mission to keep carbon emissions to a minimum, we don’t have spectators on site, and if we did, we would never reach this level of engagement purely from attendees. It just goes to show how important our digital offering is.

“A massive thank you to TikTok, Little Dot Studios and our in-house social team. These numbers are awesome and a testament to the engaging and innovative motorsport series we have created,” he added. 

As part of the ambitious partnership, Extreme E and Little Dot Studios created an exclusive 90-minute production, which aired on Extreme E’s TikTok account on Saturday, April 3. More than 386,000 people watched the show, which gave a behind-the-scenes look at the series and the personalities at the heart of it.

One of the most popular videos was “The Drop,” highlighting a part of the course measuring 100 meters with a 45-degree descent. The on-board video gave a view from the cockpit, and 3.8 million fans tuned in to see exactly what the drivers saw as they took on this challenging element of the course.

There were also a number of hashtags running across the weekend. The first — #XECountdown — was launched by team owner and driver Jenson Button. In total, this had 52.1 million views across the weekend.

The partnership with TikTok covers all five of Extreme E’s events in 2021, with each event highlighting an environment affected by climate change.

After Saudi Arabia and desertification, the series now moves on to Senegal (rising sea levels), Greenland (melting ice caps), Amazon, Brazil (deforestation) and Patagonia, Argentina (glacial recession).  

The remaining full schedule is:

Ocean X Prix: Lac Rose, Senegal 
May 29-30, 2021

Arctic X Prix: Kangerlussuaq, Greenland 
Aug. 28-29, 2021

Amazon X Prix: Para, Brazil 
Oct. 23-24, 2021

Glacier X Prix: Tierra del Fuego, Argentina  
Dec. 11-12, 2021

Dubai Duty Free Spring Trials Weekend returns to Newbury Racecourse with a mark of respect for Prince Philip

Dubai Duty Free Spring Trials Weekend returns to Newbury Racecourse with a mark of respect for Prince Philip
Updated 15 April 2021

Dubai Duty Free Spring Trials Weekend returns to Newbury Racecourse with a mark of respect for Prince Philip

Dubai Duty Free Spring Trials Weekend returns to Newbury Racecourse with a mark of respect for Prince Philip
  • Traditional Saturday races delayed by 24 hours due to funeral of the late Duke of Edinburgh

The Dubai Duty Free Spring Trials Weekend returns to Newbury Racecourse on April 16-18, when seven of the meeting’s 14 scheduled races will be sponsored by the UAE airport retailer.

These races include two of the Group 3 contests on Friday and Sunday — the Dubai Duty Free Finest Surprise Stakes and the Dubai Duty Free Stakes.

The meeting has again attracted the support of many of the sport’s leading owners, with the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II, Shadwell Estate Co., Dubai’s Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum and Godolphin all represented among the entries for Dubai Duty Free (DDF) sponsored races.

Traditionally staged over two consecutive days, the second day of the meeting has been delayed by 24 hours as a mark of respect for Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whose funeral takes place in Windsor on Saturday afternoon.

“We are fully supportive of the Newbury executive’s decision to transfer Saturday’s racing to Sunday, and offer our sincere condolences to Her Majesty the Queen and the British Royal family at this very sad time,” said Colm McLoughlin, executive vice president and CEO of DDF.

Horse racing in the UK continues behind closed doors until May 17 at the earliest, denying the DDF senior management team the opportunity to attend for only the second time in the company’s 26-year history of sponsorship at the Berkshire course.

“We were sad not to be able to attend the DDF International Weekend last September due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions, but once again we will be watching from Dubai and wish all owners and trainers success with their horses at this year’s renewal of the Dubai Duty Free Spring Trials Weekend,” added McLoughlin.

Newbury Racecourse CEO Julian Thick said: “The Dubai Duty Free Spring Trials Weekend heralds the start another exciting season of Flat racing at Newbury and we are very grateful to (DDF) for their continued support.

“It’s disappointing not to be able welcome (their) team to Newbury this time, but through our broadcast partners ITV and RacingTV, we hope they will be able to enjoy a spectacular weekend of racing.”

Al-Ahli look to emerge from rivals’ shadows with AFC Champions League test against Esteghlal

Al-Ahli look to emerge from rivals’ shadows with AFC Champions League test against Esteghlal
Updated 15 April 2021

Al-Ahli look to emerge from rivals’ shadows with AFC Champions League test against Esteghlal

Al-Ahli look to emerge from rivals’ shadows with AFC Champions League test against Esteghlal
  • With spotlight on Al-Nassr’s troubled season, the Jeddah club’s recent ups and downs have gone under radar

RIYADH: Al-Ahli will become the third and last of the Saudi clubs to take to the field in the 2021 AFC Champions League when they face Esteghlal of Iran at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium, and it could just be the perfect setting to get a faltering season back on track.

While Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal seem to be constantly in the spotlight for varying reasons, Al-Ahli seem to have gone somewhat under the radar despite their own ups and downs.

Not necessarily a bad thing when they see the struggles of Al-Nassr, in particular, whose frustrating season continued when they huffed and puffed in the opening match of the AFC Champions League against Al-Wehdat of Jordan but had to settle for a 0-0 draw in Group D on Wednesday.

The Riyadh giants had plenty of possession and shots but just could not find a way through a committed defense.

It was very much the kind of performance and result often seen early in tournaments when strikers are still searching for their shooting boots and the underdogs are desperate to impress.

But with Al-Sadd, the team that Xavi Hernandez led to the Qatar title undefeated earlier this month, up next, there will have to be improvements. After his first game in charge, new coach Mano Menezes has plenty to think about.

For Al-Nassr, Asia is a chance to start again after a season beset by controversies and upheavals off the field and indifferent results on it.

The same is very much true of Al-Ahli.

Perhaps Al-Ahli’s off-field situation has not been quite as newsworthy as that of their Riyadh rivals but on the pitch, the situation is worse. It has become, to say the least, a disappointing season.

Become is the operative word because, until recently, the Jeddah giants were very much in the title race. With 17 games of the season gone, Al-Ahli were in second spot and just two points behind the leaders.

Now, after just two points from the last eight games and six successive defeats — the worst run of form in the illustrious club’s history — even finishing in the top half is in doubt, an unthinkable outcome just weeks ago.

Rumors of poor team spirit have not helped, and there has been a situation with star striker Omar Al-Somah. The Syrian, one of the best foreign strikers in Saudi league history, signed a new deal in January but was soon voicing his discontent about the lack of investment in a team that finished third last season and, he felt, should have kicked on.

Goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais was honest in his assessment after the latest loss, the 3-2 home defeat inflicted by Al-Raed.

“Things are difficult at the moment. They have become out of control, and it is clear to the public that our position in the league has become embarrassing for every player, as these results are now there for all to see and part of our history.

“We all play to win. No player wants to lose. Last season we were consoling the Al-Ittihad players, as they were going through such difficult circumstances,” the international said.

Al-Ittihad flirted with relegation last season, something that has not been on Al-Ahli’s radar. The other Jeddah team have come roaring back in this campaign and are only three points off the top of the table with just five games remaining.

In fact, the team do not even have to wait until next season for a clean break. The AFC Champions League offers a quick opportunity to find some form, recover confidence, and simply start winning again.

“The Asian Champions League will be different. Our situation will change a lot and it is a new beginning for us,” Al-Owais added.

That is the thinking of the club too as, similar to Al-Nassr, a new coach has come in to take charge of the Asian campaign. Vladan Milojevic was dismissed last month, and the Serbian was replaced by Laurentiu Reghecampf. The Romanian took Al-Hilal to the final of the 2014 continental championship and two legs of domination against Western Sydney Wanderers that ended, somehow, in defeat.

The new boss has already talked of how important the tournament is and with Al-Somah returning from injury as well as the likes of Al-Owais, Abdulrahman Ghareeb, Romanian midfielder Alexandru Mitrita, and Driss Fettouhi of Morocco, there is plenty of talent and experience to call upon.

Taking on Esteghlal, Qatar’s Al-Duhail, and Al-Shorta of Iraq is a tough but not impossible group. What is vital however is a good start. If the first game ends in defeat, confidence will dip even more. But victory could change everything.

Results are poor and self-belief is low but then so are expectations. With a new coach there is a great chance to put a nightmare spell to an end and return to winning ways in the league to try and finish the season as high as possible and prepare for next year. For Al-Ahli, similar to Al-Nassr, Asia could be a welcome change.

Newcomers Al-Wehdat hold Al-Nassr on bleak opening day of AFC Champions League

Newcomers Al-Wehdat hold Al-Nassr on bleak opening day of AFC Champions League
Updated 15 April 2021

Newcomers Al-Wehdat hold Al-Nassr on bleak opening day of AFC Champions League

Newcomers Al-Wehdat hold Al-Nassr on bleak opening day of AFC Champions League
  • Four of the six fixtures ended in draws, two of which were goalless, while the other two were settled by a single goal

RIYADH: Al-Wehdat ensured that Al-Nassr’s frustrating season continued on Wednesday, as Group D of the AFC Champions League got underway. The Jordanian side held the struggling Saudi club to a goalless draw at King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh.

The team from Amman, which was playing its first-ever match in Asia’s premier club competition, maintained a fine defensive rearguard throughout the game. They are the first Jordanian club to reach the group stage of the competition, and despite the troubles Al-Nassr have been having on and off the pitch this season the Saudi side was still expected to win this match on home soil.

But while last season’s Saudi Professional League runners-up initially were the more threatening, Al-Wehdat coach Abdullah Abu Zema’s side showed little fear and the 70 percent of the first-half possession Al-Nassr enjoyed rarely led to any clear-cut scoring chances.

An Abdullah Muda header did force a fine save from Al-Wehdat goalkeeper Ahmad Nawwas but this proved to be one of only a handful of occasions on which Al-Nassr’s forward line got a glimpse of their opponent’s goal. The second half proved to be little different. Al-Wehdat almost took the lead after 10 minutes but Brad Jones managed to save Ahmad Zreik’s dangerous strike.

In the same group, Boualem Khoukhi’s 89th-minute equalizer for Qatari side Al-Sadd salvaged a 1-1 draw against Foolad Khuzestan, from Iran, at the King Fahd Stadium just as a shock defeat was starting to look all but certain.

Al-Sadd started dangerously but after withstanding the early assault the Iranian side began to grow in confidence and played themselves back into the tie. After a barren first half, Foolad took the lead on 61 minutes through Brazilian forward Chimba’s header.

Khoukhi almost leveled it for Xavi Hernández’s team with an 81st-minute free-kick but was denied by Foolad goalkeeper Foroozan. With a minute left of normal time, however, he would not be denied a second time.

With all four teams in the group sitting on a point each, in the next round of matches Al-Wehdat will face Foolad Khuzestan, while Al-Nassr take on Al-Sadd in clash that could go a long way to determining who will top the table in two weeks’ time. Both games will be played on Saturday.

In Group E another of the competition’s debutants, FC Goa from India, also managed to record a goalless draw, against Al-Rayyan, from Qatar, at the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

As expected, the visitors started on the front foot and could have taken the lead after five minutes when captain Yacine Brahimi shot wide from the edge of the penalty box. Minutes later, FC Goa goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh saved a close-range strike by Naif Al-Hadhrami.

Coach Laurent Blanc’s team continued to dominate possession, with Yohan Boli spearheading the efforts to make a breakthrough. Minutes before the break, however, it was Goa who almost took a shock lead, only for Alexander Romario’s long-range effort to be palmed away by goalkeeper Fahad Younis.

Having held out until half time, Goa came out with renewed purpose after the break but neither side proved incisive enough to break the deadlock. The shared points will have left Goa’s Juan Ferrando the happier of the two coaches.

The result left the teams joint second in the group, two points behind Iranian side Persepolis FC, who earlier in the day defeated Emirati club Al-Wahda 1-0.

Next up in the group, on Saturday, FC Goa will take on Henk Ten Cate’s Al-Wahda, while Al-Rayyan face last year’s finalists, Persepolis.

In the day’s other matches, in Group B, Emirati side Sharjah FC recorded a 1-0 victory over Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, from Iraq, while Pakhtakor Tashkent, from Uzbekistan, played out dramatic 3-3 draw with Tractor, from Iran.

Roma hope to hold off Ajax in hunt for semifinal spot

Roma hope to hold off Ajax in hunt for semifinal spot
Updated 14 April 2021

Roma hope to hold off Ajax in hunt for semifinal spot

Roma hope to hold off Ajax in hunt for semifinal spot
  • Roma have the advantage going into the second leg of their tie

PARIS: Roma are hoping to reach the semifinals of a European competition for the second time in four seasons as they host continental heavyweights Ajax, while Arsenal hope to avoid humiliation at the hands of Slavia Prague and Manchester United look set for the last four.

Here’s a  look-ahead to the second legs of the Europa League quarterfinals on Thursday.

Roma (ITA) vs. Ajax (NED) (first leg 2-1)

Ajax may be four-time European champions and one of the most exciting sides of recent seasons but it is Roma who have the advantage going into the second leg of their tie at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

Italy’s last remaining representative in Europe came away from the Johan Cruyff Arena with a thrilling come-from-behind 2-1 win after being under the cosh for much of the match and are close to a likely last-four clash with Man United after reaching the semis of the Champions League in 2018.

Roma have had a poor domestic season and sit seventh in Serie A — seven points off the Champion League places — after coming up short in almost all of their fixtures against their rivals for the European spots, so Thursday’s second leg could define their season.

Ajax are almost guaranteed to retain their Eredivisie title and warmed up for their trip to the Italian capital with a 1-0 win over RKC Waalwijk thanks to a goal from club-record signing Sebastien Haller, who cannot play against Roma after being accidentally left off his club’s European squad list.

Slavia Prague (CZE) vs. Arsenal (ENG) (first leg 1-1)

Slavia Prague lived up to their dangerous reputation last week when Tomas Holes headed home a stoppage time leveler to turn their tie with Arsenal in their favor.

Mikel Arteta’s Gunners missed some good chances in the first leg but now have their work cut out for them if they want to win a trophy and qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Slavia are on a run of 23 games without defeat and have already knocked out Leicester City and Rangers in their run to the quarterfinals.

Manchester United (ENG) vs. Granada (ESP) (first leg 2-0)

United are huge favorites to reach the semifinals following their simple win over Granada in Spain last week, which should put an end to the surprise package’s first ever season of European football.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are safely tucked in the Champions League places behind Premier League leaders Manchester City and looked in rude health in sweeping past Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 at the weekend.

Villarreal (ESP) vs. Dinamo Zagreb (CRO) (first leg 1-0)

Gerard Moreno is having the season of his life as Villarreal gun for their first ever major trophy, a Europa League triumph that would continue three-time winner Unai Emery’s strong record in the competition.

Spain forward Moreno is set to record a career-best tally after scoring 24 times in all competitions this season, including the only goal in Zagreb last week which gave the La Liga outfit an away goal and a great chance of reaching the last four.