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
Al-Ahli will become the third and last of the Saudi clubs to take to the field in the 2021 AFC Champions League. (Twitter: @ALAHLI_FC)
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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.


La Liga fever pitch, Bayern on brink and French derby — what to watch in Europe

La Liga fever pitch, Bayern  on brink and French derby — what to watch in Europe
Updated 28 min 46 sec ago

La Liga fever pitch, Bayern on brink and French derby — what to watch in Europe

La Liga fever pitch, Bayern  on brink and French derby — what to watch in Europe
  • Protagonists Barcelona, Atletico seek momentum needed to go on and claim title

PARIS: Barcelona host Atletico Madrid while Real Madrid face Sevilla as La Liga’s title race enters the final straight; Bayern Munich can secure a ninth consecutive Bundesliga crown while Ligue 1 leaders Lille should expect no favors from northern rivals and European hopefuls Lens.

Here’s some of the standout action in Europe this weekend:

Barcelona vs.Atletico Madrid, Saturday 1415 GMT

Atletico may have the two-point cushion at the top in Spain, but Diego Simeone’s side have been limping towards the finish line in their bid to break up the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly.

Atletico’s lead was spared only by a missed penalty at the end of a 1-0 win over Elche, coming days after Barcelona missed a chance to dislodge them following a shock home loss to Granada.

While it might not be a winner-takes-all clash like the 2014 showdown at Camp Nou on the final day of the season, when a 1-1 draw handed Atletico the trophy, victory could give either club the momentum needed to go on and claim the title.

Real Madrid vs. Sevilla, Sunday 1900 GMT

Madrid’s shortcomings were laid bare in a subdued Champions League semifinal defeat at Chelsea, signaling the end for an ageing team clearly in need of rejuvenation.

Images of Eden Hazard joking with former teammates have, predictably, irked Madrid fans. An anonymous display at Stamford Bridge was simply another forgettable chapter in the Belgian’s miserable spell with the Spanish giants.

All is not lost though for Zinedine Zidane’s old guard, as the reigning Spanish champions could still retain their domestic crown. But they have the toughest run-in, starting with the visit of a Sevilla side desperate to keep their flickering title hopes alive.

Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Moenchengladbach, Saturday 1630 GMT

Julian Nagelsmann will take over at Bayern next season, but the job isn’t quite finished yet for outgoing coach Hansi Flick in Bavaria.

The summer promises to be one of sweeping changes for Bayern, with Jerome Boateng and David Alaba both out of contract in the summer and long-serving midfielder Javi Martinez departing the Allianz Arena as well.

Before then, however, Bayern will look to seal a ninth successive German title with victory at home to Borussia Moenchengladbach.

They could even be crowned before kicking off if RB Leipzig lose at Borussia Dortmund, in a dress rehearsal for the German Cup final on May 13.

Lens vs. Lille, Friday 1900 GMT

Lille are three wins from a first French title since 2011, and fourth overall. Of their three remaining games, the clash against neighboring Lens appears the most testing.

“It’s much important than just a regular derby for us. Lens have ambitions but so do we. We must not put pressure on ourselves, and take the three games left one after another,” said Lille’s Turkish striker Burak Yilmaz, hardened by the experience of numerous Istanbul derbies.

Lens are out for revenge after a 4-0 humbling in the reverse fixture as they try to stay ahead of the contenders for the final European place.

“We can’t say our goals have been met because we want to reach higher,” said Gael Kakuta, Lens’ top scorer with 11 goals this term. “And if we can rob Lille of the title, that would be good too!”

Juventus vs. AC Milan, Sunday 1845 GMT

Juventus, with their nine-year reign ended, and AC Milan, whose title pursuit fizzled out following a considerable downturn in 2021, find themselves fighting to secure a place in the Champions League.

Both clubs are level on 69 points with second-placed Atalanta, with Napoli on 67 and Lazio, who have a game in hand, on 64 going into the last four rounds.

Former Milan and Juventus coach Fabio Capello believes a loss for either side in Turin would see them miss out on Europe’s top club competition.

“I think the psychological repercussions of a defeat would be very heavy,” he told Corriere della Sera.


Hamilton tops second practice in Spanish Grand Prix

Hamilton tops  second practice in  Spanish Grand Prix
Updated 42 min 34 sec ago

Hamilton tops second practice in Spanish Grand Prix

Hamilton tops  second practice in  Spanish Grand Prix
  • Hamilton will be aiming for his 100th career pole on Saturday

MONTMELO, Spain: Lewis Hamilton looked poised to continue his dominance of the Spanish Grand Prix after clocking the fastest time during the second practice session on Friday.

Formula One leader Hamilton had a flying lap of 1 minute, 18.170 seconds. Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas was .139 seconds behind Hamilton after the Finn set the fastest time in the first practice session. Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, seen as the main challenger to Hamilton’s reign as world champion, finished only ninth fastest at .615 off the pace. Verstappen missed some time on the track while his team worked on the car, and his last lap was cut short when he damaged the right tip of his front wing.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc had the third-best time, followed by Alpine pair Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso, who is back in Spain for his first race since 2018.

Only eight points separate Hamilton from Verstappen at the top of the standings after they finished 1-2 in the first three races.

Hamilton won the season-opener in Bahrain and last week’s race in Portugal. Verstappen won the season’s second race in Italy.

On Saturday, Hamilton will be aiming for his 100th career pole.

On Sunday, he will be looking to equal Michael Schumacher’s six wins in Montmelo.


Zverev beats Nadal in straight sets at Madrid Open

Zverev beats Nadal in straight sets at Madrid Open
Updated 49 min 18 sec ago

Zverev beats Nadal in straight sets at Madrid Open

Zverev beats Nadal in straight sets at Madrid Open
  • Zverev will next face Dominic Thiem in a rematch of the 2018 final
  • Thiem, who lost to Zverev in straight sets three years ago, defeated John Isner 3-6, 6-3, 6-4

MADRID: Rafael Nadal’s bid to reach a 75th semifinal at a Masters event ended Friday with a 6-4, 6-4 loss to Alexander Zverev.

The sixth-ranked German beat Nadal for the first time on clay and for the third time in a row overall. Zverev broke Nadal’s serve twice in the first set and once in the second. His previous two wins over Nadal were on indoor hard courts.

Zverev will next face Dominic Thiem in a rematch of the 2018 final. Thiem, who lost to Zverev in straight sets in the Spanish capital three years ago, defeated John Isner 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Nadal, who is preparing to play for a 14th title at the French Open, had been improving after a slow start to his clay season. He lost to Andrey Rublev in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals before beating Tsitsipas in the Barcelona Open final.

Nadal played well in his first two matches in Madrid, comfortably defeating youngsters Carlos Alcaraz and Alexei Popyrin in straight sets.

In the early match, Thiem capitalized on two of his four chances to break Isner’s serve, and that was all he really needed.

Thiem broke the tall American on his first chance in the second set and then once more in the third to reach the semifinals in Madrid for the fourth straight time.

“He is one of the best servers in history, especially here in the altitude. His serve is bouncing so high and it’s so difficult to return,” Thiem said. “I really stayed focused, with a good fighting spirit. Against guys like him, a few points decide and that’s when I saved the break points in the beginning of the second set.”

Thiem saved four break points in the fifth game of the second set, then broke Isner’s serve in the next game to take the match to a third set. The Austrian squandered another break chance in the first game of the deciding set but capitalized again at 4-4. He then served out the match.

Isner served more than 100 aces in his four matches in the Spanish capital, where the high altitude adds speed to the balls and makes the clay courts faster.


Anti-Olympics campaign gains traction online in Japan

Anti-Olympics campaign gains traction online in Japan
Updated 07 May 2021

Anti-Olympics campaign gains traction online in Japan

Anti-Olympics campaign gains traction online in Japan
  • Opinion polls in Japan have found a majority of the public is opposed to the Games, which are due to open on July 23

TOKYO: An online petition calling for the Tokyo Olympics to be canceled has garnered almost 200,000 signatures in the past few days, as public concerns mount over holding the Games in a pandemic.
With less than three months to go before the start of the summer Olympics, already postponed for a year due to the coronavirus, questions still remain over how Tokyo can hold the global event and keep volunteers, athletes, officials and the Japanese public safe from COVID-19.
In two days since its launch, an online campaign https://www.change.org/p/cancel-the-tokyo-olympics-to-protect-our-lives-stoptokyoolympic called “Stop Tokyo Olympics” has gathered more than 187,000 signatures, nearing its 200,000 goal and underscoring public concerns over holding the massive sporting event in Japan’s capital.
Battling a fourth wave of the pandemic and struggling with a sluggish vaccination campaign, the Japanese government is seeking to extend states of emergency in Tokyo and three other areas until the end of May, the economy minister said on Friday.
Opinion polls in Japan have found a majority of the public is opposed to the Games, which are due to open on July 23.
“We strongly call for the prevention of spread of coronavirus and protection of lives and livelihood by using available resources to stop the Olympics,” Kenji Utsunomiya, the online petition organizer, wrote on his website. Utsunomiya is a lawyer who has run several times for Tokyo governor.
But, organizers have repeatedly said the Games will go ahead, unveiling detailed Covid-19 protocols for athletes and officials.
Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech SE said on Thursday they had agreed to donate their vaccine to help inoculate those participating in the Games.


Man City eye Premier League title in Champions League final curtain raiser

Man City eye Premier League title in Champions League final curtain raiser
Updated 07 May 2021

Man City eye Premier League title in Champions League final curtain raiser

Man City eye Premier League title in Champions League final curtain raiser
  • City can wrap up a fifth Premier League title in 10 years with victory
  • Chelsea’s transformation under Thomas Tuchel has taken them to a third Champions League final

LONDON: Manchester City and Chelsea will play off for the biggest prize in European club football later this month, but there is plenty on the line for both clubs when they meet in a prelude to the Champions League final on Saturday.
City can wrap up a fifth Premier League title in 10 years with victory, cementing their place as the dominant force in English football over the past decade since money began flowing in from Abu Dhabi to build a dynasty on the field.
Chelsea’s transformation under Thomas Tuchel has taken them to a third Champions League final since their own transformational takeover when Roman Abramovich bought the Blues in 2003.
However, the Blues are still paying for a slow start to the season under Frank Lampard with their place in next season’s Champions League far from guaranteed.
Tuchel’s men are fourth in the Premier League, three points clear of surprise top-four challengers West Ham.
But should City seal the title in style and lay down a marker for Istanbul, Tottenham and Liverpool are also not out of the running for the top four.
Chelsea ended City’s quest for a quadruple of trophies when they last met just three weeks ago in the FA Cup semifinals
However, that 1-0 win at Wembley was against a shadow City side as Pep Guardiola prioritized progressing in the Champions League.
A key to both clubs’ success has been their strength in depth and both managers could make several changes this weekend after the exertions of seeing off Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid in midweek.
A trip to City is only the start of a tough run in for Chelsea, who also face Arsenal and third-placed Leicester in their final four league games of the campaign, with another meeting against Leicester in the FA Cup final in between.
Gareth Bale gave Tottenham a taste of what they have been missing with the Wales forward on the bench for most of the campaign under Jose Mourinho, prior to the Portuguese coach’s sacking, as he scored his first Premier League hat-trick in a 4-0 demolition of already-relegated Sheffield United last weekend.
Victory for Spurs in Saturday’s early game at Leeds would take Ryan Mason’s men to within two points of Chelsea.
Liverpool are seven points off fourth, but have a game in hand after their clash at Manchester United was called off due to fan protests last weekend.
Last season’s title winners host struggling Southampton at Anfield on Saturday needing a win to keep their chances of Champions League football next season alive.
West Ham have arguably the easiest run in of the top-four contenders, which begins with the visit of Everton to the London Stadium on Sunday.
“It would be an incredible achievement,” said David Moyes, who succeeded in just keeping the Hammers up last season. “We’re not far away from the Champions League positions. We’ve got to keep believing.”
The battle to beat the drop is far less competitive and could be decided this weekend if Fulham and West Brom fail to win.
West Brom boss Sam Allardyce admitted his side need a “magic miracle and some fairy dust” to avoid the drop as they are 10 points adrift of safety with just 12 left to play for.
Allardyce has never previously been relegated from the Premier League in spells with Bolton, Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Everton, but the great escape has been beyond him at the Baggies.
West Brom’s fate could be sealed at Arsenal on Sunday, while Fulham host Burnley on Monday.

Fixtures (all times GMT):
Friday: Leicester v Newcastle (1900)
Saturday: Leeds v Tottenham (1130), Sheffield United v Crystal Palace (1400), Manchester City v Chelsea (1630), Liverpool v Southampton (1915)
Sunday: Wolves v Brighton (1100), Aston Villa v Manchester United (1305), West Ham v Everton (1530), Arsenal v West Brom (1800)
Monday: Fulham v Burnley (1900)