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.


Saudi racing star Reema Juffali takes major career strides at end of British F3 Championship season

Saudi racing star Reema Juffali takes major career strides at end of British F3 Championship season
Updated 20 October 2021

Saudi racing star Reema Juffali takes major career strides at end of British F3 Championship season

Saudi racing star Reema Juffali takes major career strides at end of British F3 Championship season
  • 29-year-old Douglas Motorsport driver gains priceless experience, confidence from first season at level

DUBAI: Saudi racing star Reema Juffali has taken plenty of positives from her debut season at the British F3 Championship describing it as a key learning curve in her motorsport career.

In the final round of the championship at Donington Park in the UK, the Jeddah-born driver battled hard and although unable to finish the first race due to a collision, she managed 15th and 18th places respectively in the final two races for her team Douglas Motorsport.

Having come up against some of the sport’s top drivers during the season, which included her best-ever finish of fourth position, Juffali felt she had made significant progress since the first round of this year’s British F3 Championship.

She said: “My driving has improved so much in 2021. My confidence has grown, and I can now adapt faster to changing situations while also understanding what I need to do in the car for optimal on-track performance and the importance of making the right calls whilst competing.

“I’ve gained so much experience this year and of course, the team at Douglas Motorsport has been really supportive, giving me the right help and advice that I needed to take those crucial steps forward in my driving career.”

Juffali competed in seven of the eight rounds of the British F3 Championship, racking up 21 races in total, including six at the iconic Silverstone track.

Although she narrowly missed the podium, Juffali noted that the high level of the competition provided a great learning curve which will help her to become an even better driver in the future.

“During this season, I had my ups and downs and had good races which I can look back on. There were times when I could completely focus on my race and what I needed to do rather than looking behind me.

“Also, learning from my mistakes was crucial. Some were simply unlucky but there were a few where I felt I had made the wrong choice, so I have learned from the good and the bad.

“The tracks were very demanding, and these challenges enabled me to make better decisions. When you have a bad day, which I had plenty of, I now know how to pick myself up and turn it around,” she added.

Juffali, who will fly back to Saudi Arabia in mid-November, admitted that although it would be hard to say goodbye to her team at Douglas Motorsport, that has been a key part in her development this season, she had already started planning for next season.

“It was an emotional end to the season. I spent more time with my team this year than with my friends and family and I really appreciate all the hard work they put in; we made a great team. It was a difficult goodbye, but motorsport is a small world and I’m sure I’ll be bumping into them again.

“For me, the work doesn’t stop as I’m already planning what’s next and what we need to do so there isn’t much rest between seasons. I’m really excited about the future and I’m looking forward to announcing my next challenge soon,” she said.


Riyadh is blue: 5 talking points after Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr to reach 2021 AFC Champions League final

Riyadh is blue: 5 talking points after Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr to reach 2021 AFC Champions League final
Updated 20 October 2021

Riyadh is blue: 5 talking points after Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr to reach 2021 AFC Champions League final

Riyadh is blue: 5 talking points after Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr to reach 2021 AFC Champions League final
  • A dramatic 2-1 win over 10-man Al-Nassr leaves reigning Saudi champions 90 minutes away from a record fourth title

Saudi Arabia’s most decorated club are once again marching toward history.

Al-Hilal defeated Al-Nassr 2-1 on Tuesday in the biggest Riyadh derby in years to book a place in the final of the 2021 AFC Champions League. 

Moussa Marega drew first blood in the first half of this titanic semi, and when Ali Lajami was sent off on the stroke of half-time to reduce Al-Nassr to 10 men, the game looked done and dusted. Early in the second half, however, Talisca equalized, but a goal from Salem Al-Dawsari settled the contest.

It was quite a night for both victors and losers. Below are five things we learned.

1. Rash red card was costly

The game was drifting toward half-time. Al-Nassr had looked nervous for much of the first half with Al-Hilal the first to settle, but as the break approached, the Yellows were on top even if they were 1-0 down. There was enough to encourage the team for the second half.

Then Lajami lunged at Marega, going in dangerously high on the Malian’s ankle with his studs up. It was not only a bad challenge —  Marega did not reappear for the second half — it was a completely unnecessary one in a non-dangerous area of the pitch. 

As the disconsolate 25-year-old finally trudged off, the blue-shirted fans in the stands celebrated as if another goal had been scored.

It didn’t quite turn out to be the easy second half they had predicted, but in the end, Al-Hilal’s fans were celebrating again while those on the other side of the stadium were left wondering what they could have achieved with 11 men.

2. Al-Hilal’s winning mentality shines through

This was a tense game that could have gone either way. Al-Hilal overcame their nerves first and when Bafetimbi Gomis and Marega combined nicely on the counter for the opening goal, it looked ominous for Al-Nassr, especially when they were reduced to 10 before the break.

In the early stages of the second half, however, Al-Hilal were struggling as Al-Nassr equalized and then looked likelier to score the second. Yet Al-Hilal have that winning mentality, were a little more streetwise than their opponents and kept their cool better. Slowly, they regrouped and started to keep the ball better too. 

The experience and composure of Salman Al-Faraj and Al-Dawsari, consistently excellent, slowly started to push Al-Nassr back, and they were rewarded with what turned out to be the winning goal.

When you play against Al-Hilal in the big games, you are playing against their history as well as their stars. 

3. Al-Nassr can be proud

There has been much written about Abderrazak Hamdallah in recent weeks, and when the Moroccan shot straight at the goalkeeper early in the second half from a good position, it seemed as if a golden chance for Al-Nassr had gone. 

From the resultant corner, Talisca scored. The Brazilian always looked the most dangerous of all the men in yellow and has shown his class going forward on numerous occasions this season. He had a couple of fierce shots in the first half and is always a handful for defenders. 

Whatever coach Pedro Emanuel said at half-time, it worked as Al-Nassr had come out and attacked as if they were the team with a man advantage. They were rewarded with a goal and, a man short, they could have been forgiven for settling for the draw and taking the game to penalties. They did not and were always looking to score. They should have done so with virtually the last kick of the game as Abdullah Madu shot just wide.

There isn’t much consolation in losing a second successive semi-final, but Al-Nassr have confirmed their status as a power in Asian football. 

4. It was a great advert for Saudi football

The game itself was engaging from start to very finish when Al-Nassr came within centimeters of getting an equalizer and forcing extra time. There were plenty of talking points, chances and pieces of individual skill.

In the stands of Mrsool Park, this was a spectacular night. With half of the stadium yellow and the other half blue, it took this writer back to past FA Cup finals at Wembley Stadium. Fans of both clubs may have preferred a bigger venue simply because more of them could have squeezed in, but the intimacy of this ground added something special to the atmosphere.

Supporters on both sides got behind their teams, singing and chanting. The noise was non-stop. There were plenty of big games in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday but in terms of atmosphere, intensity and the desperation of the fans to win — and equally not to lose to their rivals — Riyadh was the place to be, and it was a great advert for Saudi football.

5. Al-Hilal are in touching distance of history

Al-Hilal thrive on the big stage and are accustomed to winning. The biggest of stages will be Riyadh next month as the three-time Asian champions have a chance to do what no other club has ever done: achieve number four. 

Playing on home soil in a one-legged final is a huge advantage, and Al-Hilal are going to be favorites against whichever South Korean team, Ulsan Horang-i or Pohang Steelers, make the long trip west. Ulsan are defending champions, Pohang have three titles of their own and Korean teams can never be underestimated in Asia, but with Al-Hilal in such form and with their fans behind them, there will never be a better time to make history.


Steve Bruce leaves Newcastle by ‘mutual consent’ after takeover

Steve Bruce leaves Newcastle by ‘mutual consent’ after takeover
Updated 57 min 43 sec ago

Steve Bruce leaves Newcastle by ‘mutual consent’ after takeover

Steve Bruce leaves Newcastle by ‘mutual consent’ after takeover
  • Newcastle had been sold to a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund
  • Steve Bruce, a lifelong Newcastle fan, was an unpopular choice for some sections of supporters

Steve Bruce has left his position as Newcastle United manager by mutual consent, the Premier League team said in a statement on Wednesday, two weeks after they were taken over by a Saudi Arabian-backed consortium.

Bruce had appeared to be on borrowed time after the Premier League announced earlier this month that Newcastle had been sold to a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).

The 60-year-old had said following the change of ownership that he would understand if he was replaced but he was allowed to take charge of the 1,000th match in his managerial career when Newcastle hosted Tottenham Hotspur in the league, losing 3-2 last Sunday.

The signs were ominous, however, with Newcastle’s new director Amanda Staveley saying “change does not always happen overnight.”

“I’m grateful to everyone connected with Newcastle United for the opportunity to manage this unique football club,” Bruce said in a club statement.

“I would like to thank my coaching team, the players and the support staff in particular for all their hard work. There have been highs and lows, but they have given everything even in difficult moments and should be proud of their efforts.

“This is a club with incredible support, and I hope the new owners can take it forward to where we all want it to be. I wish everyone the very best of luck for the rest of this season and beyond.”

Newcastle said Bruce’s assistant Graeme Jones will lead the team on an interim basis, starting with Saturday’s trip to Crystal Palace, and will be supported by the coaching team of Steve Agnew, Stephen Clemence, Ben Dawson and Simon Smith.

Sky Sports reported that former AS Roma manager Paulo Fonseca, who was on the radar of Tottenham Hotspur earlier this year, was among a number of contenders for the job.

Newcastle’s defeat by Spurs, attended by Staveley and others on the board, spoiled the takeover celebrations at St. James’ Park, with fans also calling for Bruce to be sacked as Newcastle slipped to their fifth league loss of the campaign.

The 60-year-old Bruce, who was appointed Newcastle manager in July 2019, was already on thin ice after a dismal start to the campaign that leaves the club languishing second-from-bottom in the league without a win after eight games.

Bruce, a lifelong Newcastle fan, was an unpopular choice for some sections of supporters following his appointment after Spaniard Rafa Benitez left the club and had said last week that he was pained by some of the criticism and abuse he had received.

He guided Newcastle to 13th and 12th-placed finishes in the league and helped them reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and the League Cup.


Novak Djokovic will need to be vaccinated to defend Australian Open title – minister

Novak Djokovic will need to be vaccinated to defend Australian Open title – minister
Updated 20 October 2021

Novak Djokovic will need to be vaccinated to defend Australian Open title – minister

Novak Djokovic will need to be vaccinated to defend Australian Open title – minister
  • World number one says he is unsure if he will defend his Australian Open crown

CANBERRA: Novak Djokovic will not be able to enter Australia to defend his Australian Open title unless he is fully vaccinated for COVID-19, the country’s immigration minister said on Wednesday, putting the Serb’s Grand Slam record bid in doubt.
World number one Djokovic, who is level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 Grand Slam titles, has declined to reveal his vaccination status, and said he is unsure if he will defend his Australian Open crown.
Clarifying Australia’s visa requirements, Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke said foreign players would need to have had two vaccination shots to play the Grand Slam at Melbourne Park in January.
“You’ll need to be double vaccinated to visit Australia. That’s a universal application, not just to tennis players. I mean that every visitor to Australia will need to be double vaccinated,” Hawke told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.
“I don’t have a message to Novak. I have a message to everybody that wishes to visit Australia. He’ll need to be double vaccinated.”
Apart from Serbian Djokovic, who has won nine of his Grand Slam titles at the Australian Open and the last three in succession at Melbourne Park, the rule could exclude scores of players from the tournament.
More than a third of professional players remain unvaccinated, according to recent media reports.
Both the men’s ATP and women’s WTA tours have urged players to get vaccinated but some have voiced reservations.
Russian men’s US Open champion Daniil Medvedev and German world number four Alex Zverev have expressed skepticism, although their vaccination status remains unknown.
Greek world number three Stefanos Tsitsipas said in August he would only get vaccinated if it became mandatory, though later said he planned to have shots by the end of the year.
Tennis Australia, which organizes the Grand Slam, said it was working with authorities on conditions for players, fans and tournament staff.
“Our understanding is that the details around international visitors entering the country are yet to be decided and we hope to have more information soon,” the governing body said.
Australia’s health minister Greg Hunt said the country’s rules were about protecting Australians.
“They apply to everyone without fear or favor. It doesn’t matter whether you are number one in the world or you are anything else,” he told a media conference on Wednesday.
Australia has shut its international borders to non-citizens and non-permanent residents for 18 months, though there have been some high-profile exceptions.
International travel is expected to begin for Australian citizens within weeks, but non-citizens are expected to be shut out until early-2022.
Authorities in Victoria state, which hosts the Australian Open, said they would not make special deals with unvaccinated athletes to allow them to compete even if they secured visas.
Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, has been locked down since August due to an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant but will begin to open up on Friday, when 70 percent of the adult population in Victoria is expected to be fully vaccinated.


Shakib Al-Hasan stars as Bangladesh thrash Oman to stay afloat in T20 World Cup

Shakib Al-Hasan stars as Bangladesh thrash Oman to stay afloat in T20 World Cup
Updated 20 October 2021

Shakib Al-Hasan stars as Bangladesh thrash Oman to stay afloat in T20 World Cup

Shakib Al-Hasan stars as Bangladesh thrash Oman to stay afloat in T20 World Cup
  • The Oman bowlers kept picking up wickets and could have limited Bangladesh to a far lower score with better catching

MUSCAT: Star all-rounder Shakib Al-Hasan took three wickets and scored 42 as Bangladesh hammered hosts Oman by 26 runs on Tuesday to stay alive in the Twenty20 World Cup.
World number six Bangladesh came into the game in Muscat needing a win to stay in the hunt for the Super 12 stage.
They elected to bat and were bowled out for 153.
Left-hand opener Mohammad Naim, who smashed 64 off 50 balls, and Shakib set up the victory for Bangladesh with a key second-wicket stand of 80 after the Tigers lost two early wickets.
Mustafizur Rahman, who returned figures of 4-36, and Shakib then shared seven wickets to keep Oman to 127-9 as Bangladesh bounced back from their opening Group B loss to Scotland.
“We’ll take this win, but I think there are a lot of areas we need to improve,” skipper Mahmudullah Riyad said after the win.
“Shakib and Naim batted brilliantly, they had a good partnerships and that took us to 150-plus. But we should have done better with the new ball. Bowled a lot of wides.”
Oman opener Jatinder Singh smashed 40 off 33 balls before falling to Shakib’s left-arm spin and it seemed the wicket deflated Oman.
Shakib struck with successive balls but Mohammad Nadeem prevented the hat-trick and went on to make 14 not out.
Mahedi Hasan was impressive impressively economical with figures of 1-14 from his four overs of finger spin.
Oman fast bowlers Bilal Khan and Fayyaz Butt took three wickets each to peg back Bangladesh after the big partnership between Naim and Shakib.
Naim, who replaced Soumya Sarkar for the key match, survived two dropped catches on 18 and 26 to go on and raise his third T20 half-century.
The Oman bowlers kept picking up wickets and could have limited Bangladesh to a far lower score with better catching as Kashyap Prajapati dropped two chances and Jatinder spilled another.
“It is not acceptable the way we are fielding right now,” skipper Zeeshan Maqsood told reporters.
He added, “Oman is confident of a good show in the last game and a win will help us boost our cricket as we will meet the top nations and learn from them.”
Earlier in the day, Scotland beat Papua New Guinea in the first match to record their second successive win and are now on the verge of making the next stage.
Oman, who hammered Papua New Guinea in the tournament opener on Sunday, have two points with one win and stay second in the group above Bangladesh.