5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark
Al-Hilal defeated Tajikistan’s Istiklol 3-1 to go three points clear at the top of Group A. (Twitter: @Alhilal_EN)
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Updated 22 April 2021

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark
  • Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr edge closer to knockout stages while Al-Ahli finale claimed first win

RIYADH: At the halfway stage of the AFC Champions League plenty has happened for the three Saudi Arabian representatives and all are in with a chance of making the next stage.

In the latest round of matches, Al-Nassr drew 1-1 with Foolad of Iran to stay top of a tight Group D with five points; Al-Hilal defeated Tajikistan’s Istiklol 3-1 to go three points clear at the top of Group A; and Al-Ahli picked up a 3-0 win over Al-Shorta of Iraq and now have four points in Group C.

Here are five things we learned about Matchday Three.

1. There is a danger of recent history repeating itself

It is just a few months since Al-Hilal were forced to withdraw from the group stage of the 2020 AFC Champions League after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tore through the squad and staff.

Al-Nassr are not at that stage yet but the fact that five players and four other members of the club have tested positive is of huge concern to everyone. If it gets worse, then there is a real danger that the nine-time Saudi Arabian champions could be out.

As coach Mano Menezes pointed out, it is not just about the players who have contracted COVID-19, there are psychological effects among those who are still playing. “We must find new ways to compensate for the absence of players due to the coronavirus,” the Brazilian boss said.

“I am concerned about the effect on the players psychologically, and on the group as well and that is something that we have to think about.”

2. From now it is all about fitness and squad depth

Six games in the space of 15 days are going to be a punishing schedule especially given the time of year and the conditions in Saudi Arabia. Now the real tests come.

There is no time for training, just rest, recovery, and preparation. Coaches will have to rotate and will need to use all their experience to get the best out of their squads. Those with the strongest benches will have the best chance of getting through.

Tractor FC head coach Rasoul Khatibi spoke for many after his team’s 0-0 draw with Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.

“After the 70th minute our players were exhausted and both teams had to stay focused to see it through. For the next match, we will make sure we have a quick recovery to avoid this experience of losing energy in the latter part of the game. The team with the better recovery will have a better chance in the next match,” he said.

3. Hattan Bahebri steps forward for Al-Hilal

The encouraging thing for the three-time champions is that various players have stepped forward in the games so far. That was the case in the 3-1 win over Istiklol.

It was always going to be that the Tajikistan powerhouse would sit back and allow the Saudi champions possession, and it was used to very good effect by Hattan Bahebri who set up the opener and then grabbed two goals of his own. Both were delightful finishes. The first saw the winger cut inside on the edge of the area and the second was a cheeky chip that was worthy of winning any game.

A repeat performance against the same team on Saturday will leave Al-Hilal with one foot in the second round and Bahebri an even brighter reputation.

4. Al-Nassr show what they are made of

It was not a surprise that Al-Nassr were not as impressive in their 1-1 draw with Foolad as when defeating Al-Sadd three days earlier.

Injuries and absences took their toll and given that, it was a decent performance, and they were perhaps a little unlucky not to collect three points against solid Iranian opposition.

The goal conceded was a little weak and could have been avoided had usual No. 1 Brad Jones been available.

Once again, coach Mano Menezes looked to hit the opposition on the counter as much as possible and had the finishing been a little better and the Iranian goalkeeper not made a couple of excellent saves, then three points could have been taken.

If Al-Nassr can avoid losing more players due to COVID-19 and continue playing this way, then a place in the second round is very much within reach.

5. Al-Ahli break the streak

After 10 games without a win, a dismal run that included seven defeats, Al-Ahli finally tasted victory with a 3-0 victory over Al-Shorta of Iraq.

The opposition may have been the weakest team in the group but had the Saudi team failed to win it would have been hard to see a way back in the group.

It was a nervy start but once the Jeddah club took the lead, they looked fairly comfortable and saw the game out.

The question is, what happens next? Can Al-Ahli actually make it out of the group? Just challenging would be a step in the right direction. Another win against the same opposition would put the three-time Saudi champions right in the mix.

That would mean they would have to get something against Al-Duhail and Esteghlal, but the confidence would be there and there would be a chance. That is the ideal scenario and gets the team back on track.


No more beer bottles in front of Muslim Euros players: Officials

No more beer bottles in front of Muslim Euros players: Officials
Updated 24 June 2021

No more beer bottles in front of Muslim Euros players: Officials

No more beer bottles in front of Muslim Euros players: Officials
  • Players will now be allowed to decide whether they object to having a beer bottle in front of them

LONDON: Officials running the European Football Championship have announced that they will stop placing bottles of beer in front of Muslim players.

The decision comes after French star Paul Pogba moved the tournament’s sponsor drink during a press conference last week.

Pogba, a devout Muslim, removed the Heineken bottle from in front of him during a post-match press conference after his French national team defeated Germany.

Teams, managers and players will now be asked beforehand whether they object to having a bottle of Heineken 0.0 — an alcohol-free variant of the popular Dutch beer — on the podium on religious grounds, the Daily Telegraph reported.

It is forbidden in Islam to consume alcohol.


Arkan Sports and Punjab Green face off in national cricket final

Arkan Sports and Punjab Green face off in national cricket final
Updated 24 June 2021

Arkan Sports and Punjab Green face off in national cricket final

Arkan Sports and Punjab Green face off in national cricket final
  • The grand finale of Saudi Arabian cricket will be played between Arkan Sports and Punjab Green
  • The two teams reached the final having played nine league matches, quarter-finals and semi-finals

RYADH: Arkan Sports Club and the Punjab Green Cricket Club will meet in the final of the National Cricket Championship 2021 on Friday at the NOFA Resort.

The final of the competition, which was launched by the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation (SACF) in partnership with the Sports For All Federation (SFA), is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. It will be followed by the awards ceremony.

“The National Cricket Championship, conducted in the middle of the pandemic, has been a huge success; and its vibrations have been heard across Saudi Arabia and beyond and this is just the beginning” Prince Saud bin Mishaal, SACF Chairman, told Arab News.

The final will mark the culmination of the biggest tournament of its kind ever held in the Kingdom.

“This final to be played at the NOFA Resort, a new cricket ground established with the support of the NOFA management, is part of the National Cricket Championship which is played in grounds all over Saudi Arabia,” SACF general manager Nadeem Nadwi said.

“This is the grand finale which will be played between Arkan Sports and Punjab Green, two teams that have reached the final having played nine league matches, the quarter-finals and the semi-finals.”

The championship was launched on Jan. 29 and matches were spread across 11 cities. More than 6,800 players from 369 teams, representing 15 cricket associations, took part in the biggest tournament of its kind in the Kingdom.

The matches were in the T20 format and took place every Friday on 106 pitches in Riyadh, Dammam, Jubail, Jeddah, Madinah, Yanbu, Tabuk, Abha, Jazan, Qassim and Najran.

“Together with our partners the Saudi Cricket Federation, and with the support and guidance of the Ministry of Sports, we are excited to be wrapping up what was a riveting and competitive season in the Kingdom,” said SFA president Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal. “The Quality of Life program, consistent supporters of our healthy and active community, joins us in looking at the national championship as a moment that reflects wellness, physical fitness, and fraternal spirit amongst players.”

Prince Fahd bin Jalawi, president of the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, is expected to attend the final alongside Prince Saud and Prince Khaled, as will ambassadors from cricket-playing countries such as the UK, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

There will also be more than 250 other guests present at the close of the cricket season.

“We have made arrangements for them to enjoy the grand finale at this beautiful resort in the middle of the desert,” Nadwi added.


UEFA abolishes away-goals rule in club competitions

UEFA abolishes away-goals rule in club competitions
Updated 24 June 2021

UEFA abolishes away-goals rule in club competitions

UEFA abolishes away-goals rule in club competitions
  • Games now tied on aggregate score after 90 minutes, goes directly to extra time then penalty shootout
  • UEFA president said the rule outlived its usefulness and inhibited home teams from attacking

NYON, SWITZERLAND: The away-goals rule was abolished Thursday by UEFA after 56 years as a fundamental way of deciding matches in its European club competitions.
The move was often proposed in recent years by club coaches who felt an idea from the 1960s was no longer relevant.
Games now tied on aggregate score after the regulation 90 minutes in the second leg will go direct to extra time and then to a penalty shootout.
UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin cited the “unfairness, especially in extra time, of obliging the home team to score twice when the away team has scored.”
UEFA cited several factors that “blurred the lines between playing at home and away” including more television coverage to better understand opponents’ styles, comfortable travel and better playing surfaces.
Čeferin said the rule outlived its usefulness and inhibited home teams from attacking “because they fear conceding a goal that would give their opponents a crucial advantage.”


‘All or nothing’ Germany out to prolong England’s 55 years of hurt in KO games

‘All or nothing’ Germany out to prolong England’s 55 years of hurt in KO games
Updated 24 June 2021

‘All or nothing’ Germany out to prolong England’s 55 years of hurt in KO games

‘All or nothing’ Germany out to prolong England’s 55 years of hurt in KO games
  • Germany's nail-biting 2-2 draw with Hungary in Munich on Wednesday set up a mouthwatering clash with England at Wembley
  • Since England beat Germany 4-2 in 1966 World Cup final, Germans have won all four knockout meetings in major tournaments

MUNICH: Germany wants to extend their dominance of England’s Three Lions at the knockout stage of international tournaments to 55 years when the powerhouses meet again in the last 16 of Euro 2020 on Tuesday.
Germany’s nail-biting 2-2 draw with Hungary in Munich on Wednesday set up a mouthwatering clash with Gareth Southgate’s England at Wembley for a place in the quarter-finals.
“That will be an absolute highlight, now it’s all or nothing,” said Germany head coach Joachim Loew, who will step down after 15 years in charge following the tournament.
Since England beat Germany 4-2 after extra-time to win the 1966 World Cup final when Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick at Wembley, the Germans have won all four knockout meetings since at major tournaments.
That tally includes the semifinal of Euro ‘96, also at Wembley, when Southgate, the current England coach, missed the crucial penalty in a nail-biting penalty shootout.
That followed Paul Gascoigne’s famous tears in Turin before Germany again beat England in a penalty shootout in the semifinals of the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Overall, Germany have only won 13 of 36 games compared to England’s 16 victories, while there have been seven draws.
Yet when it comes to knockout football, the 1966 triumph is England’s sole success against the Mannschaft.
Germany right-back Joshua Kimmich said “there is almost no nicer game” than playing England at Wembley.
The national side’s fortunes are being watched closely in Germany where 25.74 million viewers, 71 percent of the market, were glued to their television sets for the draw with Hungary.
The figure is sure to be surpassed when the Mannschaft plays England.
Having equalized twice in Munich, the Germans keep alive their dreams of a record fourth European crown.
“Yes!!!!!!!! Wembley calling!” wrote Leon Goretzka on Twitter after the Bayern Munich star came off the bench to smash home the crucial 84th-minute equalizer.
“We have no doubts and are full of self-confidence,” he continued.
The rest of the German squad were more down to earth.
“That was one of the most difficult games ever, you have to say,” admitted Loew, who was six minutes away from finishing his tenure with a humiliating defeat.
“What the team showed was an extremely good mentality and morale, we didn’t let it get to us.”
The Germans know that against England they have to better across the board.
“Wembley suits us,” said captain Manuel Neuer, “but we needed a more dominant and confident performance to go into the game (against England) with a top feeling.”
Kimmich echoed that sentiment, saying the Germans can ill afford to “compete” at Wembley “like we did today.”
Sloppy German defending — which has been a factor all season — allowed Hungary captain Adam Szalai to header the visitors ahead.
Germany equalized through Kai Havertz, but conceded another goal almost immediately when midfielder Andras Schaefer ghosted between two defenders to put Hungary 2-1 up before Goretzka spared Germany’s blushes.
A defeat to world champions France in their opening Group F game was followed by a stunning 4-2 win of holders Portugal on Saturday, yet Germany came perilously close to losing to Hungary.
Erratic German results have been a feature since their 2018 World Cup debacle when they finished bottom of their group, but the current side has the talent and potential to reach the Euro 2020 final.
“We know that if we play to our potential” at Wembley” we’ll be strong,” insisted Loew.
“But if we don’t implement a few things, we’ll be in trouble.
“The English have to play going forward at home.
“It will be an open game, more open than against Hungary.
“We have to correct a few things and be fully on our guard, there will be no quarter given there now.
“We have to do better, absolutely.”


New Zealand defy India, and English weather, to claim inaugural cricket World Test Championship

New Zealand defy India, and English weather, to claim inaugural cricket World Test Championship
Updated 24 June 2021

New Zealand defy India, and English weather, to claim inaugural cricket World Test Championship

New Zealand defy India, and English weather, to claim inaugural cricket World Test Championship
  • Reserve day needed after rain disrupts new competition’s playoff Test at Southampton

LONDON: How typical that English summer rain and murky conditions should conspire to influence the passage of the inaugural World Test Championship at Southampton over its five days. Were it not for the prescience of the International Cricket Council in deciding to allocate a reserve day, the match would have ended in a draw, with no outright champion.

As it was, the rain relented on the sixth day and the sun came out of hiding, allowing a full day’s play in which New Zealand triumphed in a tense atmosphere when their bowlers made good use of a helpful pitch and experienced batsmen saw them home with a mature and patient  display. They are worthy winners of the trophy, which earned them $1.6 million and India $800,000.

This was a welcome outcome for an event, first proposed in 2009, that has been dogged by a chequered launch, with previous attempts to introduce it having been abandoned in 2011 and 2014.

These two teams vying to become outright Test match champions earned that status through a points-based system which measured the performance, since August 1, 2019, of nine Test match-playing teams, in a specified number of series.

The intention of the ICC was for the teams to play eight Test series, but the crowded cricketing calendar, coupled with political considerations, would allow only six. This created a framework with each team scheduled to play three home and away series, involving 72 matches and 27 series. The pandemic struck part way through the cycle and not all teams were able to play six series.

A total of 120 points has been on offer for all series, irrespective of the number of games scheduled within the series, with the 120 divided by the number of scheduled matches. Thus, a five-match series carried 24 points for a win and a two-match series carried 60 points for a win. The two teams with the highest number of points are eligible to contest for the title of world champions in a play-off Test.

In November 2020, when the impact of the pandemic was apparent, the ICC adopted a percentage of points system, whereby the number of points that a team accrues is divided by the total that it contests. On this basis, India emerged with 72.5 percent and New Zealand with 63.6 percent.

Somewhat confusingly, the ICC also produces a rating of Test teams over a three-to-four-year cycle, using a different points system, by which the number of points obtained is divided by the number of matches to generate an average, called a rating. Fortunately, New Zealand and India are the top-rated teams at present, so there can be little argument about their respective rights to be at Southampton.

The aim of the ICC in devising the World Test Championship points system that applied between 2019 and 2021, was to encourage teams to place more emphasis on winning matches and to revive bilateral Test cricket.

However, the system is far from perfect. While it is out of the ICC’s control that India and Pakistan have not played a Test series against each other since 2007, current and past cricketers, such as Michael Holding, have criticized the fact that a win in a five-match series counts for less than a win in a two-match series.

In addition, there was criticism well before the match about pinning the title of world test champions on a single match, which is vulnerable to local conditions, as was illustrated in Southampton. The Indian head coach is not alone in expressing a view that a three-match series would be more appropriate, but the ICC says that there is no time to fit this into the calendar.

It has listened to the criticism of the points system. The next cycle, due to begin on August 1, 2021, starting with England v India, will see each match being worth the same number of points, reported to be a maximum of 12 per match, with teams ranked on the percentage of points system. This simplified system will allow teams to be compared at any point in time, considering that they are likely to have played a different number of series and matches.

The attempt to bolster bilateral men’s Test cricket has some limitations. In addition, the three other men’s Test-playing countries — Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe — are keen to test themselves at the highest level, but do not play enough of the longer form of the game for this to be possible in the near future.

The establishment of an outright winner in this inaugural WTC final will give impetus to its status and acceptance, taking away several of the criticisms that have been levelled at it. Future debates are likely to focus on the points system, where the final should be played and pathways for expanding the number of teams, rather than whether it should exist at all.

Indian captain Virat Kohli, a fervent supporter of Test cricket, was applauded by spectators for saying this at the presentation ceremony. India is a titan in the world of cricket, but despite this the holders of the ICC’s three pinnacles of cricket trophies are the West Indies, England and New Zealand. We will discover if this order changes in the next cycle.