The UAE Pro League risks dropping to second tier of Asian football

The UAE Pro League risks dropping to second tier of Asian football
Al-Ain FC celebrate winning the 2017/18 Arabian Gulf League title. (Al-Ain FC)
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Updated 21 April 2021

The UAE Pro League risks dropping to second tier of Asian football

The UAE Pro League risks dropping to second tier of Asian football
  • Al-Ain’s fall from grace symptomatic of wider struggles for Emirati teams in AFC Champions League
  • Al-Ain FC missed out on the group stage altogether in 2021 after an embarrassing 4-0 play-off defeat to Iran’s Foolad Khouzestan

It was a chilly November night and the noise from the brightly lit Hazza bin Zayed Stadium could be heard from miles away in the quiet of the oasis town of Al-Ain on the UAE-Oman border as a full house of 25,000 home fans unveiled a giant TIFO with the words “One Dream” separated by two stars and painted in the colours of the UAE flag.

The home team, Al-Ain FC, were looking to turn around a 2-1 defeat from the first leg of the 2016 AFC Champions League final against South Korean giants Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors as they pursued the dream of a second continental title. The two sides had just joined Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad in becoming the only Asian clubs to appear in three finals since the inception of the AFC Champions League in 2002-03 when Al-Ain were crowned inaugural winners.

There was a certain familiarity to the scenes that night. A year before, 150 km away in Dubai, Al-Ain’s domestic rivals Al-Ahli had been in the same position, contesting the 2015 AFC Champions League final against China’s Guangzhou Evergrande.

In the end, both UAE sides lost their finals and settled for silver medals, but for a moment, despite the disappointment, it felt like UAE football had really established itself as a genuine powerhouse on the continental level. Back-to-back finals, local stars Ahmed Khalil and Omar Abdulrahman earning Asia’s Player of The Year Award in consecutive years, the UAE Pro League topping the AFC’s domestic competitions rankings and the national team taking Asia by storm to finish third in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia; their best-ever result away from home.

Fast forward a few years and the picture could not be more different. Despite much-needed wins by Sharjah and Al-Wahda in their latest AFC Champions League groups matches, the overall picture remains deeply worrying.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the woes of Al-Ain, going from the very summit of continental football to its nadir, finishing bottom of their AFC Champions League group in 2019 and 2020 and missing out on the group stage altogether in 2021 after an embarrassing 4-0 play-off defeat to Iran’s Foolad Khouzestan.

It was the third time Al-Ain had lost 4-0 in their last seven Champions League games. With the club languishing in sixth place in the league at the time of writing, chances are they will be out of the Champions League for two consecutive years for the first time since 2008.

It is not only Al-Ain that has struggled. In 2019, Al-Wasl also finished bottom of their group, conceding 18 goals over six games, more than any other team in the competition, while their Dubai rivals Al-Nasr were eliminated in the play-off stage. Out of the four clubs in the competition, only Al-Wahda managed to get into the knock-out stages, before exiting at the round of 16.

A year later, it was the same story; there were two UAE clubs at the foot of their respective groups, Al-Ain and Sharjah. Al-Wahda failed to participate due to an outbreak of Covid-19 within the club and again one side, Shabab Al-Ahli, finalists five years earlier, scraped into the round of 16 before bowing out.

The result of all this? The UAE Pro League’s continental ranking has dropped from first to seventh, closer in points to the Uzbek League in 10th place than they are to the Iranian League in sixth. The country already lost a seat in the group stage despite the expansion of the competition to 40 teams and losing one more spot in subsequent editions of the competition is a real possibility.

A move by the UAE Pro League to incentivize local clubs based on their results in the continental competition does not seem to have produced the desired outcome. Three Matchdays into the 2021 edition, the three participating Emirati clubs – Al-Wahda, Sharjah and Shabab Al-Ahli – have collected 12 points from 24 on offer. Saudi and Iranian clubs have stolen a march on them.

Those nights of glamour in 2015 and 2016 now look a distant memory, and if this downward spiral is to be arrested, then something needs to change soon. Otherwise, we could see the UAE Pro League, one of the region’s most financially endowed domestic competitions, fall behind the likes of the Thai, Iraqi and Uzbek leagues and, most dangerously, the country could soon find its clubs competing in the AFC’s second-tier competition, the AFC Cup, alongside clubs from semi-professional and non-professional leagues from North Korea, Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh.

An unprecedented low for what was once Asia’s best football league.


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)


Saudi wrestling favorite Mansoor convinces fellow WWE stars to pick a winner in SPL title race

Saudi wrestling superstar Mansoor has used his first appearance on the WWE RAW show to educate some of his fellow wrestlers about the Saudi Pro League. (WWE)
Saudi wrestling superstar Mansoor has used his first appearance on the WWE RAW show to educate some of his fellow wrestlers about the Saudi Pro League. (WWE)
Updated 06 May 2021

Saudi wrestling favorite Mansoor convinces fellow WWE stars to pick a winner in SPL title race

Saudi wrestling superstar Mansoor has used his first appearance on the WWE RAW show to educate some of his fellow wrestlers about the Saudi Pro League. (WWE)
  • Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab and Al-Ittihad are separated by only two points with five rounds of the Saudi league remaining

RIYADH: Having signed to WWE’s RAW brand earlier this week, Saudi superstar Mansoor has used his first appearance on the show to educate some of his fellow wrestlers about the Saudi Pro League as it enters its last five rounds.

With little between the three teams at the top of the table — Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab and Al-Ittihad  — it is all still to play for going into the final stages of the season.

Al-Hilal currently lead the table on goal diffrence from Al-Shabab, and the two will meet on Friday in a potential title-deciding clash, while Al-Ittihad are further two points behind.

Mansoor took the opportunity to assign each club to three of his football-loving colleagues, and here is out how it played out.

First, Mansoor talks Glasgow’s Rangers fan Drew McIntyre into backing Al-Ittihad’s quest for a late championship charge

 

Here, Mansoor sells Riyadh favorites and reigning champions Al-Hilal to Liverpool-supporting Seamus ahead of crucial SPL match-up against Al-Shabab

 

Mansoor convinces Angel Garza to support second-placed Al-Shabab as they make one last bid to win the Saudi Pro League

 


Yazeed Racing team without injured Michael Orr for Andalucia Rally

Yazeed Racing team without injured Michael Orr for Andalucia Rally
Updated 06 May 2021

Yazeed Racing team without injured Michael Orr for Andalucia Rally

Yazeed Racing team without injured Michael Orr for Andalucia Rally
  • Saudi star Yazeed Al-Rajhi returns fit from recent accident but Irish co-driver still recovering

DUBAI: Yazeed Racing team will be missing Irish co-driver Michael Orr at the Andalucia Rally in the opening round of the 2021 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies.

Orr will not be fully fit to take part in the May 12 to 16 Spanish competition as he continues with physical therapy sessions following a crash in March.

Saudi rally driver Yazeed Al-Rajhi and Orr were involved in an accident in the second special stage of the Sharqiyah Baja event and both suffered minor neck injuries.

Orr said: “I’m really disappointed that I can’t participate in the Andalucia Rally. I was hoping to be ready to return quickly but my doctors have not given me the green light yet to jump into the car.

“I haven’t completely recovered, and I still have to complete my physiotherapy program. But I’m sure I will come back stronger than before.”

Al-Rajhi’s medical team gave him the go-ahead to return to racing after he made a complete recovery, and although Orr will miss the Spanish rally, he is expected to make Rally Kazakhstan in June.

The Yazeed Racing team pairing has achieved major results since participating in the World Rally Championship and several local and international events. The duo’s last win came at the Dubai International Baja two months ago.

“Yazeed and I made a fantastic start together this season when we won the Dubai International Baja, but unfortunately we had an accident in the Sharqiyah Baja.

“I am very happy that Yazeed has achieved a full recovery and that he will return to racing. I wish the team good luck and I’m sure they will fight to win the Andalucia Rally,” Orr added.

Al-Rajhi said: “I wish Michael a speedy recovery and return to the races as soon as possible. We were supposed to continue our journey together, but unfortunately he will not be able to participate with me in the Andalucia Rally because he is not ready to co-drive yet, but I expect him to return in the next rally.”


5 things to look out for ahead of potential title decider between Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab

5 things to look out for ahead of potential title decider between Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab
Updated 06 May 2021

5 things to look out for ahead of potential title decider between Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab

5 things to look out for ahead of potential title decider between Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab
  • Al-Hilal lead their Riyadh rival only on goal difference with five rounds of the Saudi Pro League left

LONDON: Friday sees the biggest match of the 2020-21 Saudi Pro League season so far.

With 25 games of the 30 played, the top two teams, level on points, meet when leaders Al-Hilal travel to the home of Riyadh rivals Al-Shabab.

Victory could prove decisive for either team though Al-Ittihad in third, two points behind and having played a game more, will be hoping for a draw.

Here are five things to look forward to ahead of the big clash. 

1. Al-Hilal’s new coach faces baptism of fire

There is no doubt that changing your coach in the days before a huge potential season-defining game is a gamble but that is what Al-Hilal have done.

Brazilian coach Rogerio Micale didn’t last long after failing to impress during his brief period, despite the team squeezing through the group stage of the AFC Champions League.

Coming in is Jose Morais, the former assistant to Jose Mourinho at Inter, Real Madrid, Porto and Chelsea.

The Portuguese boss knows about Al-Shabab as he led the team to the Super Cup back in 2015.

It is unlikely that such experience will help him on Friday as he has had little to no time to get to know his new players.

He was last seen winning the South Korean title last November with Jeonbuk Motors but there is more pressure in the Saudi Arabian capital than a provincial Korean city.

Al-Hilal fans will expect immediate success and starting a tenure with a big loss would be a major minus.

2. Which is better? Rest or rhythm

Al-Hilal last played in the Saudi Pro League on April 9, losing to another title rival in Al-Ittihad.

The next day, Al-Shabab were in action, winning 4-1 at Al-Batin.

In the four weeks since, Shabab have rested, leaving time for injuries to clear up and batteries to recharge.

In contrast, Al-Hilal have had six highly-charged competitive matches in the AFC Champions League.

With qualification to the second round uncertain to the final second of the final game, there was little opportunity to rest or rotate.

Not only that, but with a new coach coming in and keen to get to know his players, this week has been busier than expected too.

Al-Shabab will be fresh but have they lost their rhythm despite a friendly game with Al-Taawoun last Saturday?

Al-Hilal should have plenty of match sharpness but may run out of steam.

3. Injuries may play a part

It is not a surprise that Al-Hilal have lost a couple of key players due to injury.

Captain Salem Al-Dawsari was injured, returned briefly in the AFC Champions League and then quickly picked up a knock and the winger was out again.

Games coming thick and fast also run the risk of hamstring injuries.

That is what has reportedly happened to key center-back Jang Hyun-soo in training on Tuesday.

The South Korean does not make many headlines but he does not make many mistakes either.

His experience and cool head are appreciated by coaches as is his ability to play in midfield.

New coach Jose Morais has some thinking to do.

Meanwhile, Al Shabab are likely to be without captain Ahmed Sharahili in defense, a big loss for them too.

4. Argentina can make the difference

Asian football fans know that Al-Hilal’s French forward Bafetimbi Gomis is capable of contributing a goal even when he looks out of sorts.

Yet Al-Shabab have the Argentine duo of Ever Banega and Cristian Guanca in top form.

Banega is 32, but you don’t need pace when you sit behind the forward line, have the kind of close control that is rarely seen in football and have the skills to make things happen.

The former Inter and Sevilla star has excelled this season and if he can link up once again with the prolific Guanca — with 15 goals just three behind leading scorer Gomis — then Al-Shabab have what it takes to cause problems for the best defense in Saudi Arabia.

5. Don’t forget Al-Ittihad

Mohammed Noor knows a thing or two about Al-Ittihad lifting the league title, after all, the midfielder got his hands on the trophy seven times during an illustrious career at the club, the last of which came in 2009.

Noor said on social media this week that the 2021 title was going to the yellow and black side of Jeddah for the first time since then.

It is a bold claim with his former team two points behind with one game more played, Al-Ittihad need Friday’s clash to end in a draw to stay just three points off the pace.

A long shot then but possible with four games remaining.

The run-in looks relatively comfortable with three of those in the bottom half of the table and, like Shabab, Ittihad have been able to rest and regroup.

Whatever happens, fans of all clubs in Saudi Arabia should be tuning in and appreciative of what has been a fantastic title race.

These are never guaranteed and when they happen, should be appreciated.