5 talking points from uninspiring start for Saudi clubs in AFC Champions League group stages

5 talking points from uninspiring start for Saudi clubs in AFC Champions League group stages
The jury is still out on new coach Rogerio Micale and while there remains a long way to go, Al-Hilal need to get the basics right. (AFP)
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Updated 16 April 2021

5 talking points from uninspiring start for Saudi clubs in AFC Champions League group stages

5 talking points from uninspiring start for Saudi clubs in AFC Champions League group stages
  • Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ahli failed to register win between them on home soil

RIYADH: The first round of games in the AFC Champions League is over. Al-Nassr got the ball rolling for Saudi Arabian teams on Wednesday night with a disappointing 0-0 against a hard-working Al-Wehdat from Jordan.

The following evening, Al-Hilal drew 2-2 with AGMK of Uzbekistan while struggling Al-Ahli went down 5-2 to Iran’s Esteghlal.

There was plenty to talk about, but here are five things we learned.

1. Sloppy Al-Hilal need to get back to basics

It is often best not to read too much into opening games but playing the Uzbekistan debutants in the first match at home should have given Al-Hilal a winning start. The problem is that the three-time champions seemed to think that it would come easily.

AGMK may not be the strongest of teams in the tournament but there was no doubt that they were going to work hard, fight for every ball, and be well-organized. If Al-Hilal wanted three points they would have to fight for them.

Yet it was a lackluster performance from the Riyadh giants who were sloppy at the back, lacked concentration, and allowed the opposition to grow in confidence.

The jury is still out on new coach Rogerio Micale and while there remains a long way to go, Al-Hilal need to get the basics right.

The next game against Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai on Sunday should be a different affair and may suit Al-Hilal more. Under Mahdi Ali, the visitors have plenty of options in attack and there should be more space and more opportunities to score but if the backline is not tightened up, the 2019 champions will not be going very far in 2021.

2. Stop Hamdallah and it is possible to stop Al-Nassr

Abderrazak Hamdallah was the tournament’s golden boot winner last year with seven goals that helped Al-Nassr reach the semi-finals, when only a penalty shootout loss to Persepolis prevented a place in the final. The Moroccan marksman was also the top scorer in the Saudi Pro League with a magnificent 29 goals.

This year has not been quite so prolific, though injuries have not helped. Yet Al-Wehdat worked hard and defended deep and in numbers to deny the 30-year-old time and space anywhere near their goal.

With Argentine playmaker Pity Martinez missing through injury, Hamdallah did not quite have the support he needed, and it was clear that if the north African can be prevented from scoring, then Al-Nassr can struggle to find a way through. Hamdallah barely had a sniff of goal, a weak second-half header apart, and without his cutting edge, the Saudis never really looked like scoring.

3. It already looks like damage limitation for Al-Ahli

After six straight defeats in the league, there was hope — rather than expectation — that Asia would offer a respite for last year’s quarterfinalists. It was not to be as they lost 5-2. Esteghlal of Iran were always going to present a tough challenge and so it proved to be.

Newly appointed coach Laurentiu Reghecampf was full of excuses after the dismal showing and talked about referees, Ramadan, injuries, and a lack of time with the squad. There is no doubt that there are issues with the team that will need time to sort but the basic problem was that Al-Ahli were second-best all over the pitch.

With only the group winner sure of a place in the next round, it is already looking tough for Al-Ahli. What they do not want to happen is for Asia to be a continuation of home form. It may not be about getting to the knockout stage but just stopping the rot.

There is another tough game on Sunday against Al-Duhail of Qatar and by whatever means necessary, the Jeddah giants have to avoid defeat.

4. Expansion already vindicated

This year, the tournament has expanded from 32 to 40 teams, opening it up to more countries. There was some dissent that widening the net would weaken the standard but that has not been the case.

Debutants FC Goa of India, AGMK, and Tajikistan’s Istiklol all pulled off good results against teams with much more history and pedigree in the competition. And then there was Al-Wehdat of Jordan keeping the talented Al-Nassr at bay.

Long may this continue as all of Asia benefits when standards rise and if one of the new boys can sneak into the last 16, that really would be an encouraging sign.

5. Xavi now stands in the way

While Al-Wehdat were making their first appearance in the competition and may prove to be a tough nut to crack, there was a sense that Al-Nassr carelessly dropped two points in the opening game with the next two opponents providing tougher tests.

The first is Al-Sadd. The dominant Qatari champions, who went through their domestic season undefeated under coach Xavi Hernandez, are tipped as one of the favorites for the trophy. Yet they were second best for much of their match against Foolad as they came back late to snatch a 1-1 draw.

New Al-Nassr boss Mano Menezes would have had mixed feelings watching the game. Al-Sadd did not look as impressive as many expected but Foolad would have deserved their win had they not let in an 89th-minute equalizer.

Xavi said: “I talked about how difficult this group was. This is the AFC Champions League, and we are playing against the best teams in Asia, this is the reality. We are going to improve, recover, and keep going.”

That is the worry. Foolad look good while Al-Sadd will surely improve. Al-Nassr need to up their game and quick.


5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League round as top teams stumble

5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League round as top teams stumble
Updated 16 May 2021

5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League round as top teams stumble

5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League round as top teams stumble
  • Al-Hilal remain in pole position despite draw; Al-Shabab and Al-Ittihad fading; relegation battle hotting up

It was another action-packed weekend in the Saudi Pro League as the season draws close to the end. There were thrilling clashes, dropped points and shocking defeats. Most teams have just three games remaining, but there is still plenty to play for at both ends of the table. Here are five things we learned from the latest action.

1. Al-Shabab are spent

There seems to be no other way to say it. The team, vibrant and full of attacking ideas just a few weeks ago, seemed set for the title. But you cannot lose four out of five games at this stage of the season and still expect to get your hands on the trophy. They are now four points behind leaders Al-Hilal with a far inferior goal difference and there does not seem to be any way back. 

The 5-1 loss to Al-Hilal last week could have been written off as an aberration, especially as a red card had a major effect. But to lose 4-3 to Al-Ettifaq on Friday suggests that there is no way back even with what seems to be a gentle run-in. It was not a bad performance, but it was not the performance of champions.

It started well though. Former Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo had the Riyadh club 2-0 up by the midway point of the first half and all was looking good, but then it all went wrong.

There was no secret about the defeat, no turning point: Al-Shabab missed chances and then made mistakes at the back. Coach Carlos Inarejos lamented his team’s luck, and while the young Spaniard did have a point, losing four out of five when the trophy is in sight is not just about luck. 

2. Wonder goal trips up Al-Hilal but champs still on course

Jose Morais’s first game on the sidelines as boss of Al-Hilal was something of a disappointment. Had the champions defeated Al-Batin — a team fighting relegation that had picked up just two points from the previous six games — instead of drawing 1-1, the players would have been close enough to the trophy to see their reflection. 

Al-Hilal took the lead thanks to another fine example of finishing from the league’s leading goal-scorer Bafetimbi Gomis, a wonderful rising volley. But that was nothing compared to Mohammed Rayhi’s strike on the half-hour. 

The Dutch attacker picked up the ball inside his own half as Al-Batin counterattacked, ran to the edge of the Al-Hilal area and unleashed an unstoppable shot. You will not see a better goal all season. It looks like being a significant strike at both ends of the table has not only slowed down Al-Hilal’s march to the title, but could end up saving Al-Batin.

Al-Hilal had a number of chances to win the game, but it was fitting that these were wasted. Rayhi did not deserve to be on the losing side after what he did. Still, the champs are four points clear and looking good.

3. Relegation battle hotting up

Al-Ain became the first team to be relegated this season, though this had been coming for a while. As a newly promoted team, they had started the season with four straight defeats, and while there were occasional rallies, it always looked doomed.

However, others at the bottom are putting up more of a fight. Al-Batin did their survival chances no harm by picking up a point against Al-Hilal, and after eight successive defeats in all competitions, Al-Wehda finally returned to winning ways with an impressive 3-2 win at Al-Fateh.

There is often one team that comes back almost from the dead, and this season it is Damac. Coming off the back of three wins and two draws from the previous five games, the clash against Al-Ittihad was a big one, and it shows how much improved the team are that they were disappointed to draw 1-1.

4. Al-Ittihad in danger of missing out on Asia

The Tigers should be thankful that they have rallied after a slow start to even think about being in the title race, but that dream is surely over. The 1-1 draw with an in-form Damac means they are now five points behind Al-Hilal. More importantly, it means Al-Ittihad have slipped into fourth place behind Al-Taawoun on goal difference.

The focus is now on getting back into the top three and clinching a place in the 2022 AFC Champions League. The Jeddah club have a game in hand over Al-Taawoun and a decent run-in, but with just one win in the last five games, they need to get their house in order and not squander the hard work of recent weeks. 

5. Al-Ahli breathe sigh of relief

It was perhaps fitting that this 1-0 win over Al-Qadisiyah was settled by a second-half penalty from (who else?) Omar Al-Somah. It was a forgettable game but a big result. Officials at Al-Ahli had been talking of the need just to get a win, however possible, to end a seven-game losing streak.

There have been rumors that the stay in Saudi Arabia of recently appointed coach Laurentiu Regencampf was going to be a short one, and while the win does not mean that the Romanian is safe or that all is now well in the green corner of Jeddah, it does mean that perhaps a corner has been turned. At least the narrative has changed, for now.


Saudi table tennis star set for final preparation ahead of Tokyo Olympics

Saudi table tennis star set for final preparation ahead of Tokyo Olympics
Updated 16 May 2021

Saudi table tennis star set for final preparation ahead of Tokyo Olympics

Saudi table tennis star set for final preparation ahead of Tokyo Olympics
  • Ali Al-Khadrawi’s training will be overseen by the Saudi Table Tennis Federation

Saudi Arabia’s top table tennis player Ali Al-Khadrawi is set for a third and final training camp ahead of his participation in the Tokyo Olympics in July, the Arabic sports daily Arriyadiyah has reported.

With Tokyo 2020 approaching fast, the last stage of his preparation will be approved in the coming days then overseen by the Saudi Table Tennis Federation in the weeks that follow.

Al-Khadrawi’s first training took place in Al-Ahsa region, where he was joined by other members of the Saudi national table tennis team. The second phase was completed last Tuesday in Dammam.

The third stage of his preparation is expected to be abroad, with the place and time to be announced on Tuesday.


Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash

Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash
Updated 15 May 2021

Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash

Djokovic and Nadal set up sixth Italian Open final duel and 57th career clash
  • Djokovic and Nadal last played in the 2020 French Open final, which the Spaniard won
  • Djokovic and Nadal have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them

ROME: World number one Novak Djokovic on Saturday battled past Italian Lorenzo Sonego to set up a clash with nine-time winner Rafael Nadal for the sixth time in the Italian Open final.
Defending champion Djokovic won through 6-3, 6-7 (5/7), 6-2 in 2hr 44min against the 33rd-ranked Italian after second seed Nadal earlier swept past American Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4.
Djokovic had earlier survived a three-set battle with Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in their rain-delayed quarter-finals.
The five-time Rome winner had been trailing 6-4, 2-1 when the tie was halted overnight.
But he came back to win through 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 after 3hr 16min.
Djokovic and Nadal, who will be facing each other for the 57th time, last played in the 2020 French Open final which the Spaniard won.
The pair have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them while Nadal leads their head-to-head in finals in the Italian capital 3-2.
Djokovic had two match points in the 12th game of the second set of his semifinal before Sonego forced a third set to the delight of the home crowd in the Foro Italico.
The Serb saved three break points in the first game of the third set, coming back from 0-40 before powering toward his 11th Rome final
“I think I bounced back very well after the second set and 0-40, maybe if he started with a break up in the third it would be different,” said Djokovic.
“I’ve only myself to blame for not closing the match in the second set, I could have and should have.
“First of all I need to recover. I don’t have much time but hopefully I’ll have fresh legs necessary to have against Rafa.”
Djokovic and Nadal have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them with Djokovic leading their overall head-to-head 29-27.
Nadal is looking to equal Djokovic’s record of 36 ATP Masters 1000 titles in his 12th Rome final.


Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0

Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0
Updated 15 May 2021

Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0

Leicester wins FA Cup for first time beating Chelsea 1-0
  • After losing four finals, Leicester’s name is finally etched onto the cup of world football’s oldest competition
  • The team from central England is a champion again, five years after Morgan collected the Premier League trophy

LONDON: Youri Tielemans was preparing for the FA Cup final on Saturday when he received a text message with a clear instruction: Aim for the top corner.
When the ball landed at the Leicester midfielder’s feet, 63 minutes into the 140th final, a powerful shot from 30 meters was aimed just where he had been advised.
It was a sensational way to win the FA Cup for the first time in Leicester’s 137-year history, 1-0 against Champions League finalist Chelsea.
Even sweeter than the strike was Leicester being able to celebrate in front of its own fans as Wembley Stadium hosted England’s biggest crowd — more than 20,000 who tested negative for the coronavirus — in 14 months.
“Wow, what a finish,” Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel said. “I didn’t dare to celebrate because there’s always VAR.”
Not that time. Instead, the video assistant review came to Leicester’s rescue in the 89th minute to prevent Wes Morgan from a moment of heartache.
The 37-year-old club captain had been on the pitch for only seven minutes when he accidentally deflected in former teammate Ben Chilwell’s cross. But one of those marginal offsides that so irritate players and fans was detected and the roars of Leicester fans were even louder than the moment Tielemans scored.
After losing four finals — the first in 1949 at the old Wembley — Leicester’s name is finally etched onto the cup of world football’s oldest competition. The team from central England is a champion again, five years after Morgan collected the Premier League trophy.
Players — such as Chelsea duo Chilwell and N’Golo Kante — have left since that improbable 5,000-1 title triumph but Morgan and matchday captain Schmeichel are still there to celebrate again, this time in a moment tinged with sadness.
Inside the jerseys at Wembley were photos of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the club’s Thai owner until he died in 2018 when his helicopter crashed in flames next to King Power Stadium.
“He is always with us, Kun Vichai,” said Schmeichel before handing the FA Cup on the field to Vichai’s son, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, who now runs the club.
Also in tribute to Vichai was a banner covering seats in the closed third tier at Wembley, with his quote, “Our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”
In a game of few chances, Thiago Silva’s slack pass allowed Leicester to score. Ayoze Pérez intercepted the clearance and Luke Thomas passed across to the unmarked Tielemans to drive forward before striking from 30 yards into the top corner.
Saves from Schmeichel as much as VAR helped to preserve the lead; he used one hand to push Chilwell’s shot onto the post in the 78th and blocked Mason Mount’s volley in the 87th.
“I’ve dreamed of this since I was a child,” Schmeichel said. “The performance today — the grit and determination — I’m so proud of everyone.”
It’s far from season over for Leicester. There’s another match against Chelsea to come on Tuesday which could clinch Champions League qualification for the second time ever. Sitting third, Leicester holds a two-point lead over Chelsea.
“Today we enjoy, and tomorrow we dust ourselves down and can’t really think about this anymore,” Schmeichel said. “Chelsea are a top-class side and are going to want revenge.”
The west London club has lost consecutive FA Cup finals, with Thomas Tuchel failing just as Frank Lampard did. But Tuchel can still win the biggest prize in club football against Manchester City in the Champions League final on May 29 in Porto.
“We are disappointed and not angry with our performance,” Tuchel said.
Chelsea was a key early stop in Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers’ coaching career, with the youth team around 15 years ago. While Rodgers has won trophies in Scotland with Celtic, he fell short in English football with Watford, Swansea and Liverpool until Saturday. Now, for the first time since Harry Redknapp with Portsmouth in 2008, a British manager has picked up the FA Cup.
“The success of this team and club is getting to positions like this and competing,” Rodgers said. “The so-called bigger clubs are expected to win but our success is competing and if we can perform like today we can go and win. What a day for everyone involved with Leicester.”

ACTIVISM
Chelsea and Leicester took a knee before kickoff, which has been a feature of games in England since June as part of calls to eradicate racial injustice in society following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But there was some booing by fans against the anti-racism gesture that was largely drowned out by applause and cheers.
In the post-match celebrations, Hamza Choudhury and Wesley Fofana were wrapped in a Palestinian flag amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas in and around Gaza.

PREMIER LEAGUE
Leeds is on for a top-half finish in its first season back in the Premier League after 16 years. A 4-0 victory over Burnley was started by Mateusz Klich curling in the opener before halftime, followed in the second half by Jack Harrison and Rodrigo’s double. Fulham, one the three sides already relegated, lost at Southampton 3-1.


Al-Ittihad settles financial dispute with the Aleksandar Pesic

The financial dispute between Al-Ittihad and  former striker Aleksandar Pešić has been settled. (Arriyadiyah)
The financial dispute between Al-Ittihad and former striker Aleksandar Pešić has been settled. (Arriyadiyah)
Updated 15 May 2021

Al-Ittihad settles financial dispute with the Aleksandar Pesic

The financial dispute between Al-Ittihad and  former striker Aleksandar Pešić has been settled. (Arriyadiyah)
  • Schedule of payments for $2m owed to Serbian striker ensures Jeddah club will not face FIFA sanctions

RIYADH: Saudi Pro League club Al-Ittihad has reached a settlement with former striker Aleksandar Pesic, with the club set to schedule a payment plan of $2 million owed to the player, Arabic language sports daily Arriyadiyah has reported.

The 28-year-old Serbian, who left the club in 2020, filed a formal complaint with FIFA calling for overdue fees to be paid.

According to Arriyadiyah’s sources, the agreement between the two parties is final, ensuring that the Jeddah club will not be hit with sanctions by FIFA.

The first of the player payments is due in the coming months.

Al-Ittihad signed Pesic in July 2018 on a three-year contract, before sending him to South Korean club FC Seoul on loan for 18 months at the beginning of 2019. The player then moved to Maccabi Tel Aviv on free transfer last year.