Saudi Arabia’s footballers to take on Brazil, Germany, Ivory Coast at Tokyo Olympics

Saudi Arabia’s footballers to take on Brazil, Germany, Ivory Coast at Tokyo Olympics
For Saudi Arabia, the first place to check out the history of their opponents is to watch the final of the 2016 Olympics as both teams are in their group. (Twitter: @SaudiNT_EN)
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Updated 23 April 2021

Saudi Arabia’s footballers to take on Brazil, Germany, Ivory Coast at Tokyo Olympics

Saudi Arabia’s footballers to take on Brazil, Germany, Ivory Coast at Tokyo Olympics
  • Only other Arab team involved, Egypt, will face Argentina, Spain, Australia

RIYADH: If Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not at their best this summer, then their stay at Tokyo 2020 will not be a long one.

When there are only 16 teams at an international tournament then there can be no room for error — Wednesday’s draw for the upcoming Olympic football tournament was evidence of that.

There are three possible reactions for fans in Cairo and Riyadh and throughout the two countries: Fear, excitement, or a heady mix of both.

For Saudi Arabia, the first place to check out the history of their opponents is to watch the final of the 2016 Olympics as both teams are in their group. Brazil beat Germany in the gold-medal match in Rio and both will take on the young Green Falcons in Japan.

Saad Al-Shehri’s team is probably going to have to win the opening game against Ivory Coast. Three points on July 22 in Yokohama will provide hope going into the game against Germany three days later.

That will be easier said than done but there is hope for Saudi Arabia, a team that has no players in Europe and does not have to worry about the Copa America that takes place from June 13 to July 10.

After the most hectic and physically punishing season in the history of modern football in Europe, clubs there may not automatically release all the players that national team coaches want — there is sure to be some negotiation.

Ivory Coast are there because of their performances at the 2019 Africa U-23 Cup of Nations. They may not have won the tournament, but they came as close as it is possible to get. The final against Egypt was all square after 90 minutes but the Young Pharaohs got the all-important goal in extra-time. The preliminary squad chosen by Les Petits Elephants is full of European-based players.

But it is Germany next for a Saudi team that has not appeared at the Olympics since 1996.

There is a wealth of talent available to the team that finished runners-up at the 2019 European U-21 Championships. Suffice to say that whoever goes to Japan, there will be a team with the kind of top-level international experience that Saudi Arabia cannot match. Most, or almost all, of the squad, will be Bundesliga-based.

There had been suggestions that Thomas Muller might be one of the squad’s overage players, but the Bayern Munich star has ruled himself out. Mats Hummels of Borussia Dortmund and Christoph Kramer of Borussia Monchengladbach should be there.

German coach Stefan Kuntz is under no illusions as to the tough task ahead.

He said: “Eighty to 90 percent of the players in the Ivory Coast play in Europe. I saw Saudi Arabia at the Asian Championships in Thailand; the team has an unusual style and a special mentality.

“And you don’t really have to say much about Brazil — we all remember great duels between the senior national teams and the final of the 2016 Olympic Games.”

Brazil’s players certainly remember. The gold-medal winners from 2016 usually take the tournament seriously but then there is the Copa America that finishes just before the Olympics start. What can be said for sure is that the country has an embarrassment of riches at home and at big clubs in Europe’s big leagues. Coach Andre Jardine is going to find it hard deciding who to leave out.

If Saudi Arabia have been grouped with the runners-up of South America and Europe, then Egypt are not going to have much sympathy as they find themselves with the champions of both continents.

The African titleholders, who reached the quarterfinals in 2012 in their first appearance at the Olympics since 1992, will take on Argentina, Spain, and Australia.

Argentina are two-time gold medalists and last year finished above Brazil in South America’s qualification tournament, winning six games out of seven. Co-hosting Copa America may complicate things, especially in terms of overage choices but coach Fernando Batista has lots of talent to call upon. This is likely to include Brighton and Hove Albion midfielder Alexis Mac Allister, New York City’s Valentin Castellanos, Julian Alvarez of River Plate, and Granada’s Nehuen Perez.

Spain need no introduction. Even if the likes of Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba will not, as have been discussed, head east as overage players, there will be some top-class talent from the big leagues. Stars such as RB Leipzig’s Dani Olmo, a standout in the 2019 European U-21 win; Ansu Fati is just 18 but has already played for Barcelona; and Ferran Torres, the winger who joined Manchester City for around £20 million ($27.7 million) last year. Also on City’s books, and perhaps the plane to Tokyo, is center-back Eric Garcia.

And Australia? The Olyroos will not get many headlines ahead of the tournament but are not just there to make up the numbers and they will be competitive.

It all adds up to a formidable challenge for the Arab nations.


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.


Chelsea dominate Real Madrid to set up all-English Champions League final

Chelsea dominate Real Madrid to set up all-English Champions League final
Updated 06 May 2021

Chelsea dominate Real Madrid to set up all-English Champions League final

Chelsea dominate Real Madrid to set up all-English Champions League final

LONDON: Chelsea set up an all-English Champions League final against Manchester City as goals from Timo Werner and Mason Mount beat Real Madrid 2-0 in a dominant display on Wednesday to seal a 3-1 aggregate victory at Stamford Bridge.
If anything, the scoreline flattered Madrid as the 13-time European champions had no response to Chelsea's greater strength and speed.
The Blues should have ran out far more convincing winners as they toyed with the tired visitors in the second half.
However, Werner's cushioned header into an empty net on 28 minutes after Kai Havertz's initial effort came back off the crossbar and Mount's tap-in five minutes from time were enough to seal their place in Istanbul on May 29.
"To never lose the concentration, focus and positive energy on the pitch -- it was a huge performance and well deserved," said Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel, who has masterminded a huge turnaround in Chelsea's season since replacing the sacked Frank Lampard in January.
Backed by Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, Chelsea's £220 million spending spree last summer has been rewarded with a first Champions League final since they lifted the trophy for the only time in 2012.
"We never lost the hunger, the desire to defend," added Tuchel. "In the second half we had even better structure to defend and it was a fantastic performance.
"We could have scored so much earlier and more to be safe, but it's no time for criticism now. It's a fantastic achievement and big congratulations to the team."
Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane welcomed back captain Sergio Ramos for the first time in six weeks, while Eden Hazard was handed a rare start in an injury-hit season on his return to Stamford Bridge.
But the Belgian was again a peripheral figure as Madrid's over-reliance on Karim Benzema to provide a goal threat was exposed.
"We needed to be better going forward," said Zidane. "We didn't have any clear chances. They made a number of them and that's football.
"We fought and tried but they deserved to win and go through."
Madrid's only serious threat came from a quick turn and shot from the edge of the box from Benzema that Edouard Mendy did brilliantly to turn behind midway through the first half.
Moments later they were behind as Werner scored just his fourth goal in his last 39 games.
N'Golo Kante and Havertz did the hard work as the French midfielder fed Havertz, whose audacious chip over Thibaut Courtois bounced invitingly off the crossbar for Werner to head into an empty net.
Chelsea have now kept 18 clean sheets in 24 games since the appointment of Tuchel turned their season around.
However, a failure to take their chances at the other end means they are still far from guaranteed a place in the Champions League next season.
That lack of a killer touch was exposed after the break as Havertz saw a free header come back off the bar before Mount blasted over with just Courtois to beat.
The former Chelsea 'keeper, who controversially forced a move back to Spain in the summer of 2018, kept his current employers in the tie as he then saved one-on-ones with Havertz and Kante, with the Blues' speed on the break too much for Madrid's ageing midfield to cope with.
Tuchel was growing increasingly frustrated with his side's inability to put the tie to bed, but could finally relax five minutes from time.
Substitute Christian Pulisic left Courtois on the floor and from his cut-back, Mount slid in to finish from close range.
Fired by Paris Saint-Germain on Christmas Eve after leading the French champions to their first ever final in this competition last season, Tuchel is headed back to the Champions League showpiece match for a second consecutive season, unlike his former club, who were beaten 4-1 on aggregate by City in the other semi-final.


Saudi superstar wrestler Mansoor signs with WWE RAW

The elevation to RAW, one of WWE’s most high-profile and popular brands, represents a huge milestone in the career of Mansoor. (WWE)
The elevation to RAW, one of WWE’s most high-profile and popular brands, represents a huge milestone in the career of Mansoor. (WWE)
Updated 05 May 2021

Saudi superstar wrestler Mansoor signs with WWE RAW

The elevation to RAW, one of WWE’s most high-profile and popular brands, represents a huge milestone in the career of Mansoor. (WWE)
  • Move will see wrestlers from Riyadh regularly take on WWE’s most experienced stars

RIYADH: Saudi superstar Mansoor has signed up to WWE’s (World Wrestling Entertainment) RAW brand in one of the biggest steps of his career.

The 25-year-old’s move was announced in a segment of this week’s show, with Mansoor going on to face Irishman Sheamus in his first official match as part of the RAW roster.

The elevation to RAW, one of WWE’s most high-profile and popular brands, represents a huge milestone in the career of Mansoor, who signed for world wrestling’s most famous organization in 2018 after impressing during a tryout event.

The highlight of his early WWE career was winning a 51-man Battle Royal during the Super ShowDown event in Jeddah in 2019, where he overcame some of WWE’s biggest stars in front of his friends and family who were in the crowd.

Mansoor also performed at two other live events in Saudi Arabia – Crown Jewel in 2019 and last year’s Super ShowDown – where he defeated Swiss wrestler Cesaro and American fighter Dolph Ziggler, respectively.

He has continued to catch the eye with a string of high-energy displays, performing consistently well on WWE shows such as 205 Live and Main Event and securing victories against the likes of Mexican, Angel Garza, and Drew Gulak from the US.

The move to RAW, a weekly show, will ensure Mansoor competes against some of WWE’s most experienced stars on a regular basis.

The RAW roster includes the likes of current WWE champion Bobby Lashley, from the US, Scotland’s Drew McIntyre, and Americans A.J. Styles, Braun Strowman, and Randy Orton.

What awaits Mansoor on RAW remains to be seen, but his journey promises to be an exciting one. For now, he will simply be delighted to have made the step up.


Al-Ahli’s new president promises fans a fresh start

Al-Ahli’s new president promises fans a fresh start
Updated 05 May 2021

Al-Ahli’s new president promises fans a fresh start

Al-Ahli’s new president promises fans a fresh start
  • Majed bin Ayed Al-Nefaie: We have many challenges ahead of us and we will surely achieve them
  • The Jeddah club is currently ninth in the Saudi Pro League table and last week exited the 2021 AFC Champions League at the group stage

JEDDAH: Al-Ahli’s newly elected president has promised fans a fresh start on and off the pitch after securing the position for a second time.

Majed bin Ayed Al-Nefaie, who was club president in 2018 for less than a year, convincingly beat Zyad Al-Yousef to the role. He also holds a golden membership on Al-Ahli’s general assembly.

Following his victory, Al-Nefaie said: “We have many challenges ahead of us and we will surely achieve them. Because of the desire of Al-Ahli fans who are close to myself, I am back.”

The election was called after former Al-Ahli president, Abdul-Ilah Muamina, and his board resigned in early April in the wake of a no-confidence vote by club members and angry fans over the team’s poor season and several humiliating defeats.

The Jeddah club is currently ninth in the Saudi Pro League table and last week exited the 2021 AFC Champions League at the group stage. Recent financial and administrative difficulties at the club led to the resignation of Muamina and the holding of a new election by the Ministry of Sports.

The returning president will hope to bring back stability to Al-Ahli on the pitch after such an inconsistent season and will also be seeking to reconnect with disgruntled supporters ahead of next season.

Fans took to social media to comment on Al-Nefaie’s election win, with many delighted at the news.

In a tweet, Abu Rayan, who calls himself The Royal Fan, said: “We trust Al-Nefaie and we hope he will return our team to its rightful position and lead the team to win more titles.”

Another supporter, Abdul Aziz Al-Aqeel, congratulated Al-Ahli fans and said that with such a strong president the club would soon be back among the titles.