Trio of Saudi clubs prepare to take on continent’s best as AFC Champions League returns

Trio of Saudi clubs prepare to take on continent’s best as AFC Champions League returns
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Updated 12 April 2021

Trio of Saudi clubs prepare to take on continent’s best as AFC Champions League returns

Trio of Saudi clubs prepare to take on continent’s best as AFC Champions League returns
  • With all matches taking place in the Kingdom, Al-Hilal look to have an easier task than struggling Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli

LONDON: The time for dreaming is over and the football is about to begin — in West Asia at least — as the 2021 AFC Champions League kicks off on Wednesday. With a few changes to the format.

For the first time, the tournament has been expanded from 32 to 40 teams, not great timing in the middle of a global pandemic, but there are still three from Saudi Arabia in the mix.

And while the group stage welcomes eight more teams, only 16, as before, will make it through to the second round.

This means that only the group winners are certain of progression along with the three best runners-up in the five western zone groups.

As before Asia’s premier club competition remains split into two halves, western and eastern, until the final itself brings the two together.

There are other differences. Travel restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic mean each group is taking place in one city over an intensive period of six games in 16 days.

The teams that handle this schedule the best will prosper and that is good news for Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli who are all playing at home. 

READ MORE

Former Brazil coach Mano Menezes tasked with guiding Al-Nassr to AFC Champions League success Read more here.

Al-Hilal have the best chance of all three in Group A with the downside perhaps being that the 2019 champions are in the middle of a fierce domestic title race.

Their last game before the Champions League was last Frida’s defeat against Al-Ittihad in third and the first game after the group finishes comes against Al-Shabab, who are in second, on May 7.

Losing Salem Al-Dawsari to injury is a blow but there is enough talent available to Brazilian coach Rogerio Micale, who has yet to really win over fans since replacing Razvan Lucescu in February.

The Riyadh giants are in an interesting group which features, for the first time ever, two teams from Central Asia.

Tajikistan powerhouse Istiklol have made waves in the AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier competition, and are now making their debut in the big event.

Al-Hilal’s defence will have to keep an eye on prolific striker Manuchekhr Dzhalilov. 

AGMK of Uzbekistan are also making their Champions League debut and while they are not the strongest team in the country, Saudi Arabia are in the same World Cup qualification group as the Uzbeks, and Hilal players will know not to underestimate the opposition.

The group is completed by Shabab Al-Ahli. The Dubai team, runners-up in 2015, is full of talent, led by former UAE national team boss Mahdi Ali and features former Al-Hilal star Omar Abdulrahman.

All in all however, it would be a surprise if the three-time champions didn’t make it out of the group.

Al-Nassr have a tougher-looking proposition. First and foremost is the presence of Al-Sadd. Coach Xavi Hernandez, nailed-on to be a future Barcelona boss, has just led the 2011 continental champions to the Qatar Stars League title and did so without losing a game.

READ MORE

5 talking points from Al-Ittihad’s win over Al-Hilal in Saudi Classico. Read more here.

 

His sights are well and truly set on Asia and with former Arsenal star Santi Cazorla in stunning form, Al Sadd are one of the favorites.

Foolad of Iran will be no pushovers and Jordan’s Al-Wehdat, making a first appearance in the tournament, will be hard to beat.

The Riyadh giants, who reached the last four in 2020, have had an up and down season and are looking to Asia to bring some joy for their fans.

So much so, that last Friday Alen Horvat was fired as head coach and replaced by Mano Menezes in time for the start of the group matches.

The first priority for the former Brazil boss is to take Al-Nassr to the knockout stages.

His clashes with Xavi at Al-Sadd will not just be fascinating but probably pivotal.

Al-Ahli complete the trio and like Al-Nassr are heading into Asia off the back of a disappointing domestic season and have also just appointed a new coach.

Laurentiu Reghecampf led Al-Hilal to the final of the 2014 edition and that infamous loss to Western Sydney Wanderers.

The Romanian now returns to the country to take over the struggling Jeddah club, which have lost its last six games. 

If that wasn’t worrying enough, though Asia offers a chance of a change and a respite from domestic woes, Al-Ahli’s group is a tough one.

Two-time winners Esteghlal of Iran reached the last 16 before being knocked out by Pakhtakor last year and will be hoping to go further this time around.

A strong Al-Duhail team finished second in Qatar to the all-conquering Al-Sadd and while Al-Shorta of Iraq are the outsiders, football in the country is going through a resurgence right now and they can be counted on to cause an upset or two.

For Al-Ahli, finalists in 2012, getting to the second round would be a fine achievement and a great way for the new boss to start his spell.

At the moment, the odds are against it but the AFC Champions League is nothing if not unpredictable.

Despite that, predicting that Al-Hilal will be the best performing Saudi side still seems like a relatively safe forecast to make.


Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video

Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video
Updated 35 min 6 sec ago

Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video

Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video
  • The Brazilian was expected to join the reigning champions, but confirmed his move from Guangzhou FC to AL-Nassr in a clip that will ensure next season’s derby will have added spice

LONDON: Next season’s Riyadh Derby is going to be even more electric than usual.

Reigning Saudi Pro League champions Al-Hilal had spent much of May negotiating with Brazilian star Talisca, but there he was on Tuesday on Al-Nassr’s Twitter channel announcing a quite unexpected move to the Saudi capital.

In a video that showed him watching a video of Al-Hilal in action, and then laughing out loud, the 27 year-old held up that famous yellow shirt to the camera to inform fans that he was joining Al-Nassr from Guangzhou FC.

 

 

It remains to be seen who will be laughing next season.

The player who was hailed as the next big Brazilian star in his teenage years, and despite being linked at one time with Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, still has much to prove.

The move has upset a few people in China as well. The attacking midfielder, who can also play further up the pitch, enjoyed two-and-a-half successful seasons in China with Guangzhou FC and won the Chinese Super League title in 2019.

Fans of the two-time Asian champions feel that their club should have held out for more than the reported fee of one million euros.

With just a year remaining on his contract, the figure should perhaps have been five or six times that.

For a player who scored 39 goals in 65 appearances in China and managed 13 assists, Al-Nassr have got themselves a bargain.

One reason for that is that Al-Nassr’s new star hasn’t played this year.

This was not due to injuries or form, but regulations stopping him from re-entering China.

Talisca has been stuck in Brazil and unable to actually get inside the country to play for Guangzhou.

Club coach Fabio Cannavaro, understood that the time was right to release him.

The concern for Guangzhou is that Talisca’s colleague and compatriot Paulinho has the same travel issues, and the club are now keen not to lose their biggest star.

That is not Al-Nassr’s concern, though they will want to know how to get the best out of the player who moved to Benfica in 2014 for $5.790 million.

He started well in Portugal with eight goals in his first 10 games there and was hailed as one of the brightest young talents in Europe, even compared to the likes of Yaya Toure and Rivaldo.

The talent was there for all to see, the left foot was especially beautiful, he could play anywhere in attack — on the wings, in the middle or as a second striker — and cut an imposing figure.

After two years at Benfica during which he won two Portuguese league titles, he didn’t move to the English Premier League as many had predicted, but was loaned out to Besiktas in Turkey.

There, he won the  Super League and then headed to China in 2018.

There was some disappointment when he chose to head east, but some of the best players in the world were doing the same at the time.

Another league title followed for Talisca in 2019.

Everywhere he has been outside his homeland, Talisca has won league championships which bodes well for Al-Nassr fans.

There has been some criticism in China of a tendency to drift through games especially last season, though 2020 was tough for all, with players confined to their hotel rooms for seven months.

He scored and made goals but rarely took control of games. 

Talisca’s arrival may, however, spell the end of Pity Martinez in Riyadh.

The Argentine made headlines last September when joining the club for around $18 million.

Martinez has since endured something of a difficult first season in Saudi Arabia and while he has shown sporadic flashes of the form that made him the 2018 South American Player of the Year, he did not do so on a consistent basis.

And when injury cut his season short and ruled him out of the AFC Champions League group stage, he wasn’t really missed.

New Al-Nassr coach Mano Menezes came in to replace Alen Horvat and the former Brazilian boss guided the Al-Nassr through a difficult group and into the second round.

There have been regular rumors of Martinez leaving Saudi Arabia for months and with Talisca now in the team and playing a similar role, the route back to South America, or as many think, back to MLS, is now open. 

For Al-Nassr, they have got a player who should be at the peak of his career and still has something to prove.

And, thanks to that welcome video and the fact that he had been talking to Al-Hilal for some time, it means that next season will have even more spice than usual.


With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide

With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide
Updated 17 May 2021

With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide

With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide
  • Last summer, Messi had said he wanted to leave Barcelona after a campaign that finished without a title

BARCELONA: With Barcelona’s season effectively over, Lionel Messi now has a big decision to make.

Should he finish out his career at the club that helped him become an all-time soccer great?

Or have the team’s struggles to keep winning trophies convinced him that he can find more success in Paris or Manchester?

Barcelona were left without any chance of winning the Spanish league on Sunday, bowing out the title race in demoralizing fashion after letting Celta Vigo overhaul a goal by Messi and rally for a 2-1 victory.

Atletico Madrid beat Osasuna 2-1 and can now only be caught by Real Madrid in next weekend’s final round.

Barcelona have one game left on the calendar, but with nothing to play for except third place in the league, the club’s attention is now fully on the future of its inscrutable star.

Last summer, Messi had said he wanted to leave Barcelona after a campaign that finished without a title and a humiliating 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. When that exit was denied by the club, Messi said that he would focus on this season and put off any decision until this summer when his contract expires on June 30.

Since then, Joan Laporta has been elected for a second stint as the club’s president. Laporta ran Barcelona when Messi was just blossoming with the team and maintained a good relationship with the player and his family. Even so, Messi has not confirmed a decision on his future.

“I hope not,” coach Ronald Koeman replied when he was asked if he believed Messi had played his final match at Camp Nou — a stadium still without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He is still the best player in the world and today he showed that it is impossible to play without him,” Koeman said. “He has scored 30 goals this season (in the league) and earned us a lot of points.

“It is up to Messi. For me and the club, we want him to stay with us. Because if Leo is not here, we have doubts about who can score.”

On the same night that Barcelona’s women won the Champions League for the first time by routing Chelsea 4-0, Barcelona’s men’s lineup was again undone by some sloppy defending and failing to converting their scoring chances.

The 33-year-old Messi extended his club-record tally to 672 goals with a header to give Barcelona a first-half lead against Celta. But like too many times in recent weeks, Barcelona’s defense let it down. Celta striker Santi Mina equalized before halftime on a shot that goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen could have done more to try to keep out. Mina then added a second goal in the 88th after defender Clément Lenglet left Barcelona a man down when he earned a second yellow card.

Koeman had succeeded in bringing in some younger players to rejuvenate Barcelona’s squad this season and steering the team to the Copa del Rey title last month.

The former Barcelona defender had also inspired his team to a hot streak in the league that had allowed it to almost erase a double-digit lead by Atletico.

But when Barcelona had the opportunity to move past Atletico and take the lead in late April, it was upset 2-1 by Granada at home. That loss derailed the team. Barcelona drew with Atletico and at Levante before the loss to Celta. If it does not beat the already relegated Eibar in the last round, Barcelona could finish in fourth place.

The late-season collapse of his team that may have put Koeman’s job in danger comes with midfield great Xavi Hernández apparently being groomed to take his place.


Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA

Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA
Updated 17 May 2021

Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA

Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA
  • The 39-year-old American had been given a wild card to play in Parma after her premature exit from the Italian Open

PARMA, Italy: Serena Williams brushed aside the challenge of local teenager Lisa Pigato in the opening round of the WTA tournament in Parma on Monday.

Williams, ranked eighth in the world, beat the 572nd-ranked Pigato, making her WTA debut, 6-3, 6-2 in the first meeting between the two players.

The 39-year-old American had been given a wild card to play in Parma after her premature exit from the Italian Open, where she crashed out in the second round in what was her first match in nearly three months since her semi-final defeat in the Australian Open.

Williams, who had already won five Grand Slam tournaments by the time Pigato was born, made a sluggish start as the 17-year-old came up with three glorious winners to break the 23-time Grand Slam champion in the first game.

The American, however, got into gear and dropped just five more points on her serve, firing down six aces and many more that Pigato could barely reach.

Williams, however, was full of praise for her teenage opponent.

“Lisa played really well,” she said in her on-court interview.

“She told me she was only 17. Her future is super-bright. She handled the moment well, so I look forward to cheering for her in the future.”

The Emilia-Romagna Open is a perfect clay warm-up ahead of the French Open, which kicks off in Paris on May 30.

Williams needs one more Grand Slam title to match Australian great Margaret Court’s record of 24 major trophies.


Adidas Runners community expands across GCC

The adidas Runners community on their first outing in Jeddah earlier this month. (Supplied/adidas Runners)
The adidas Runners community on their first outing in Jeddah earlier this month. (Supplied/adidas Runners)
Updated 17 May 2021

Adidas Runners community expands across GCC

The adidas Runners community on their first outing in Jeddah earlier this month. (Supplied/adidas Runners)
  • Coaching teams offer weekly runs, training plans

DUBAI: Adidas Runners is expanding in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region through newly launched communities in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Doha, with the international running crew currently active in 65 cities and boasting a membership of 500,000.

Adidas Runners brings together people from different backgrounds who want to become better runners and improve their performance.

It hosted a friends and family run during a soft launch earlier this month to mark the expansion, with runners taking part in the three cities.

“I am absolutely delighted to be a part of adidas Runners’ community expansion into Riyadh, Jeddah and Doha,” said Lee Ryan, captain of adidas Runners GCC. “With all the challenges over the last 12 months, it’s great to see people taking part in something that is so empowering for the mind and body. We can’t wait to strengthen and grow the community locally and welcome people of all running abilities to join us.”

There has been a positive response since the launch of the new communities, with one social media message saying: “Last time I ran in Jeddah was two years ago, during Ramadan of 2019. I could have never imagined back then that I would see adidas Runners here one day, although I was running with my AR shirt at the time. Now I have goosebumps seeing this. I am still trying to grasp that this is really happening in Jeddah.”

The first adidas Runners community in the GCC was launched in Dubai in 2016. It now has more than 5,000 runners in Dubai and 2,000 registered in Abu Dhabi.

A diverse coaching team has been recruited in each of the three GCC cities, offering weekly social runs, track sessions, weekend-long runs, training plans, social runs, mobility tips and yoga sessions.


Mansoor and WWE stars recall Jeddah’s ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’

Saudi Arabia’s Mansoor with WWE Superstar Sheamus. (WWE)
Saudi Arabia’s Mansoor with WWE Superstar Sheamus. (WWE)
Updated 17 May 2021

Mansoor and WWE stars recall Jeddah’s ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’

Saudi Arabia’s Mansoor with WWE Superstar Sheamus. (WWE)
  • The 50-man fight at King Abdullah International Stadium was the first major WWE event to take place in the Kingdom, where wrestling’s popularity has surged

With Saudi superstar Mansoor signing for WWE’s Raw brand and now facing the organization’s biggest names on a weekly basis, wrestling’s popularity in the Kingdom continues to rise.

On top of that, Mansoor has also been doing his bit to raise the profile of his homeland among WWE’s global audience.

In three clips that proved very popular with social media audiences, Mansoor, who was born and raised in Riyadh, was seen talking three WWE colleagues — Drew McIntyre, Sheamus and Angel Garza — into supporting each of the clubs fighting it out for the Saudi Pro League title: Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab, respectively.

And now Mansoor and some of the WWE Superstars involved in the “Greatest Royal Rumble,” which took place in Saudi Arabia in 2018, have been looking back on that history-making night.

Held at the King Abdullah International Stadium in Jeddah, thousands of fans were in attendance for the first in a series of WWE events to take place in Saudi Arabia.

On April 27, 2018, the 50-man Royal Rumble was eventually won by Braun Strowman, who looks back on that victory as a significant moment in his career.

“From growing up in a small town in North Carolina, where the population is a couple of thousand, to representing my country at the Greatest Royal Rumble in history in Saudi Arabia, where I outlasted 49 other WWE superstars to hold the title over my head, was an amazing feeling,” he said.

“I never even imagined I’d be able to go to Saudi Arabia in my lifetime. I have the coolest job in the world. I’m living a fairy tale and every day it just gets better and better.”

For Mansoor, the event three years ago represented the first step in a hugely exciting journey.

“I remember having an amazing time at the ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’ in Jeddah,” he recalls. “My family were in the crowd and it was the first time I stood in the ring at a WWE pay-per-view event. Looking at the tens of thousands of people was a surreal experience. It was just after my tryout, so I was elated as I’d been chosen among four men to possibly join WWE. Here I am now, all these years later, trying to make my way, make history and cement my legacy.”

Seth Rollins and Sheamus are two of WWE’s most established performers, and they were hugely impressed by the passion of the Saudi spectators in Jeddah.

“I have a lot of great memories from the event, especially the people of Saudi Arabia and the reception we received,” says Rollins. “The WWE Universe in the Middle East is as strong as anywhere in the entire world, so that was incredible.”

Sheamus, the reigning US Champion, echoed those words, saying: “What a great crowd, the fans were electric.”

“Let me tell everybody in Saudi Arabia, I’m looking forward to the day when I can come back and hold the championship up above my head in front of all the great Celtic Warrior fans, and it won’t be too long,” he added.