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.


Riyadh Season announce Paris Saint-Germain’s participation in Riyadh Season Cup

Riyadh Season announce Paris Saint-Germain’s participation in Riyadh Season Cup
Updated 17 September 2021

Riyadh Season announce Paris Saint-Germain’s participation in Riyadh Season Cup

Riyadh Season announce Paris Saint-Germain’s participation in Riyadh Season Cup
  • Riyadh hosts one of the biggest global festivals featuring over 500 events across Saudi Arabia’s capital
  • The match will be held during the third week of January of 2022

RIYADH: Riyadh Season has announced that Paris Saint-Germain’s (PSG) will participate in the Riyadh Season Cup in January 2022.

A one-match tournament will feature PSG prestigious roster play the stars of Al Hilal SFC and Al Nassr FC, the region’s two biggest clubs as a part of a series of amazing events planned for Riyadh Season.

PSG will come to Riyadh during the most-awaited Riyadh Season, which attracted more than 10 million visitors in during its first edition in 2019.

The match will be one of the top and most exciting events of Riyadh Season and held during in the third week of January of 2022.

Paris Saint-Germain is one of the most glamorous football clubs in the world today with its splendid list of superstars. PSG is the first French football club ever to play in Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh Season returns this fall as one of the biggest global entertainment festivals spread across 5.4 millions sqm in the Saudi capital with 14 different zones featuring a diverse selection of different events and experiences from October 2021 to March 2022 attracting visitors from across the globe.


Guardiola defends his plea for ‘more fans’ at Man City game

Guardiola defends his plea for ‘more fans’ at Man City game
Updated 17 September 2021

Guardiola defends his plea for ‘more fans’ at Man City game

Guardiola defends his plea for ‘more fans’ at Man City game
  • A clash has broken out between City’s esteemed manager and a section of the team’s followers after Guardiola’s plea for “more people” to attend City’s Premier League home match against Southampton
  • The attendance against Leipzig was 38,062 and the Etihad’s capacity is about 55,000

MANCHESTER: For Pep Guardiola, it was a rallying cry ahead of what he expects to be a tough game.
For some Manchester City supporters, it was an ill-timed comment that questioned the loyalty of the club’s fan base.
A clash has broken out between City’s esteemed manager and a section of the team’s followers after Guardiola’s plea for “more people” to attend City’s Premier League home match against Southampton on Saturday — three days after a hard-fought 6-3 win over Leipzig in the Champions League at Etihad Stadium.
The attendance against Leipzig was 38,062. The Etihad’s capacity is about 55,000.
One of the people unhappy with Guardiola’s remarks was Kevin Parker, general secretary of City’s official supporters’ club, who accused the Spaniard of failing to understand the difficulties of attending games on a midweek evening and playing into the hands of opposition teams’ fans who often taunt City for not having capacity crowds at some matches.
“He’s absolutely the best coach in the world but, in the nicest possible way, I think maybe he should stick to that,” said Parker, who described Guardiola’s comments were “disappointing and uncalled for.”
Guardiola responded to Parker on Friday in a news conference ahead of the Southampton game, saying he would “definitely not” be apologizing for his comments and that there had been a “misunderstanding.”
“Don’t misunderstand or put words in my mouth that I didn’t say,” Guardiola said. “That’s what I don’t like. I never will be a problem for my fans. If I am a problem for my fans, I will step aside. Not a problem for me.”
Guardiola said he had seen his players look “exhausted” in the locker room after the end-to-end game against Leipzig and quickly realized they would need fans to get behind them against Southampton, given the quick turnaround of the games and Southampton’s pressing game and energetic style.
“When you play in the Champion League, it’s so demanding on your physicality, and mentally, when they (Southampton) have a long week to prepare the game,” Guardiola said. “So that’s why we need to be all together — the players, the supporters, everyone, to help us to do our best. I know exactly our fans will be there tomorrow to support, and hopefully Mr. Parker can come to watch us.
“Mr. Parker,” Guardiola added, should “review his comments.”
City has struggled to fill the Etihad for some home games in the Champions League, especially in the first one of each season’s group stage. It has led to some rivals fans using the nickname “the Emptyhad.”
There are some reasons given for the lower European attendances — some fans’ disaffection with the tournament organizer, UEFA, for what they perceive as unfair sanctions handed to, or affecting, City in the Champions League; City being involved in games in so many competitions that fans pick and choose matches; the pandemic affecting fans’ finances; a digital ticketing system that doesn’t allow fans to transfer tickets to others if they can’t attend a midweek game.
The fan bases of City’s main rivals in English soccer, including Manchester United and Liverpool, are far bigger globally.
“We are who we are. We are proud of who we are,” Guardiola said. “I know the history, I learned about the history of this club when it was in the lower division, and what it means to travel and follow the team. I respect it a lot.”
City has had near-capacity crowds for its first two home matches of the Premier League season — 5-0 wins over Norwich and Arsenal.


Juventus reports 210 million euros in losses amid pandemic

Juventus reports 210 million euros in losses amid pandemic
Updated 17 September 2021

Juventus reports 210 million euros in losses amid pandemic

Juventus reports 210 million euros in losses amid pandemic
  • Revenue from player registration rights (transfer market) dropped 129 million euros from 2019-20
  • Ticket sales fell more than 41 million euros from the year before

TURIN, Italy: Juventus reported a loss of 210 million euros ($250 million) for the 2020-21 financial year on Friday, attributed mainly to the pandemic’s effect on the transfer market and ticket sales.
Revenue from player registration rights (transfer market) dropped 129 million euros (more than $150 million) from 2019-20, while ticket sales fell more than 41 million euros ($48 million) from the year before.
While the drops were offset in part by a rise in TV rights income, overall losses were still more than twice as much as in 2019-20.
Meanwhile, Juventus said it was still clinging to the European Super League project promoted by club president Andrea Agnelli, despite the quick collapse of the plan unveiled in April when nine of the 12 teams involved withdrew after a public backlash.
“As at today, it is not possible to predict with certainty the outcome and future development of the Super League project, of the legitimacy of which Juventus remains confident,” the team said.
Juventus’ legal case with fellow Super League rebels Real Madrid and Barcelona challenging what they say is UEFA’s monopoly control of competitions is with the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. A deadline for submissions to the court is next month.


Dubai Racing Club announces new races for 2022 Dubai World Cup Carnival

Dubai Racing Club announces new races for 2022 Dubai World Cup Carnival
Updated 17 September 2021

Dubai Racing Club announces new races for 2022 Dubai World Cup Carnival

Dubai Racing Club announces new races for 2022 Dubai World Cup Carnival
  • Additions increase total prize money for horseracing season to more than $40m

DUBAI: Dubai Racing Club has announced an enhanced calendar for the 2021-22 season and 2022 Dubai World Cup Carnival which will now include a four-race Jumeirah Series on turf launched for the Classic generation, plus a new race for Super Saturday next year, Emirates News Agency WAM reported.

The announcement was made under the directives of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

The addition of new races increases the total prize money for the racing season to more than $40 million.

Sheikh Rashid bin Dalmook, chairman of Dubai Racing Club, said: “The introduction of new races within the framework of the Dubai World Cup Carnival is part of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum’s efforts to continually improve Dubai’s equestrian offering and also to support racing both within the UAE and overseas.”

The Dubai World Cup Carnival, which begins on Jan. 13 at Meydan Racecourse, has added several more races to its calendar. The popular Super Saturday card, sponsored by Emirates airline and scheduled for March 5, will welcome the addition of a new race in the form of the $300,000 Ras Al Khor over 1,400 meters on turf.

Sheikh Rashid added: “The 1,400 meters or seven furlongs is one of the most popular distances in thoroughbred racing, yet it has very few high-valued feature events run over the trip. We believe the Ras Al Khor will eventually become a global fixture that will be promoted to our Dubai World Cup meeting.

“Moreover, the Classic generation are well catered for on both turf and dirt in the upcoming season. Longstanding three-year-old dirt events such as the UAE 2000 Guineas, Al-Bastikaya, and the UAE Derby have all been given prize money increases.

“We have also introduced the Jumeirah Series of turf races which is a significant addition to the program. The series features the $150,000 Jumeirah Classic Trial over 1,400 meters, the $75,000 Jumeirah Derby Trial over 1,800 meters, the $150,000 Jumeirah Classic over 1,600 meters, and the $200,000 Jumeirah Derby over 2000 meters.”

Meanwhile, the prize money for the Dubai World Cup, which includes a card of six Group 1 and three Group 2 contests, has been enhanced to a value of $30.5 million. Due to take place on Saturday, March 26, all races will be run for at least $1 million.

Dubai Racing Club also announced that the Longines Dubai Sheema Classic will have a $6 million purse, moving it back to its pre-coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic value. The Group 1 Dubai Turf, sponsored by DP World, is being increased to $5 million, while the flagship event – the Dubai World Cup, sponsored by Emirates airline – is maintaining the highest purse of the night at $12 million.


Saudi clubs kept apart in AFC Champions League quarter-final draw

Saudi clubs kept apart in AFC Champions League quarter-final draw
Updated 17 September 2021

Saudi clubs kept apart in AFC Champions League quarter-final draw

Saudi clubs kept apart in AFC Champions League quarter-final draw
  • Al-Hilal face Iran’s Persepolis and Al-Nassr take on UAE’s Al-Wahda in the last eight

The road to an all Saudi Arabian semi-final in the AFC Champions League was left wide open as Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr avoided each other in Friday’s draw for the quarter-finals.

Al-Hilal face Iranian giants Persepolis, while their neighbours play Al-Wahda of the UAE on Oct. 16.

In the eastern zone (the tournament is divided into two until the final) there is an all South Korean affair between defending champions Ulsan Horang-I and Jeonbuk Motors and a meeting between Pohang Steelers, also South Korean, and Nagoya Grampus of Japan.

Saudi Arabian fans will be thinking about a potentially titanic semi-final clash. Both teams would be favourites to win their quarter-final ties even if they were in the usual two-legged format. With the global pandemic however, the remaining ties will be single-game affairs and in the western zone they will all take place in Riyadh. There will never be a better chance of seeing Saudi hands on the trophy on Nov 23.

Al-Nassr will be especially happy, on paper at least, at meeting the weakest team in their half of the draw. After losing to Persepolis on penalties in the semi-final last year, there may have been some thoughts of revenge but the Iranian giants are a tough nut to crack. Al-Hilal know that, too, but have happier recent memories with a 6-2 aggregate win over the Reds in the 2017 semi-final.

October’s meeting should be just as memorable, however, and fit for any final. With the Asian Football Confederation suggesting that fans will be back in the stadiums for the quarter-finals, it should be quite an atmosphere. The one regret is that the Riyadh club will not be able to go to Tehran for the second leg with 100,000 fans in attendance at the legendary Azadi Stadium. Just having one game to play at home may increase Al-Hilal’s chances of progressing but the players are missing out on an incredible football experience.

Persepolis, bitter rivals of Esteghlal, the team Al-Hilal defeated 2-0 on Monday, will be hard to beat. The Reds have won the last five Iranian league titles, reached two of the last three Champions League finals and conceded just 14 goals last season. However, October’s match could favour Al-Hilal’s as the new Iranian season is yet to start and Persepolis may be a little rusty.

If that quarter-final is between Asian royalty, the other in the western zone is between two teams that have yet to be champions. The best Al-Nassr have managed is a runners-up spot in 1995 with Al-Wahda making the last four back in 2007. The Saudi side will be strong favourites against a team that finished mid-table in the UAE Pro League last year and have not set this tournament alight — so far at least. Al-Nassr have some of the best attacking talent in Asia and if coach Mano Menezes can get the team playing to its potential, then Henk ten Cate, his opposite number at Al-Wahda, will find it very difficult indeed.

Looking to the final and the likely Eastern zone opposition, many believe the winner of the Ulsan-Jeonbuk tie will make it through. Ulsan are the defending champions, on top of the K-League and a well-balanced outfit with a pleasing mixture of talented veterans and exciting youngsters. Jeonbuk, winners in 2006 and 2016, have lifted the K-League title in six of the past seven years and are still very much in this year’s race.

Pohang Steelers have, like Al-Hilal, three continental championships sitting in their trophy cabinet and would love to make it a record four. Unlike the Korean trio, with seven titles between them, Nagoya have yet to triumph in Asia. Hard to beat with a fine defence and an Australian goalkeeper in Mitch Langerak who breaks clean sheet records on a regular basis, they should not be underestimated in a knock-out format.