5 things we learned after another inconsistent AFC Champions League matchday from Saudi clubs

The penultimate round of the AFC Champions League group stages is over, and it was, once again, a mixed bag for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli. (AFC/the-afc.com)
The penultimate round of the AFC Champions League group stages is over, and it was, once again, a mixed bag for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli. (AFC/the-afc.com)
Short Url
Updated 28 April 2021

5 things we learned after another inconsistent AFC Champions League matchday from Saudi clubs

The penultimate round of the AFC Champions League group stages is over, and it was, once again, a mixed bag for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli. (AFC/the-afc.com)
  • Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Ahli require wins in Matchday 6 to guarantee progress to knockout stages

RIYADH: The penultimate round of the AFC Champions League group stages is over, and it was, once again, a mixed bag for Saudi Arabia’s three teams.

Al-Nassr had the last 16 in sight but stumbled on Monday, losing 2-1 to Al-Wehdat of Jordan to slip down into second in Group D, a point behind leaders Al-Sadd.

On Tuesday, Al-Hilal bounced back from their 4-1 loss at the hands of Istiklol to ease past Uzbekistan’s AGMK 3-0 to stay in second in Group A, level on 11 points with their recent conquerors.

Al-Ahli stayed in the hunt in Group C after a battling 0-0 draw with Esteghlal of Iran to leave three teams on eight points.

Only the group winners are guaranteed progress to the second round, where they will be joined by three of the best five runners-up in the western zone. All three Saudi sides are in with a chance but all three could still miss out.

1. Al-Ahli’s best performance to date

The game with Esteghlal may have ended 0-0 but it was still a solid performance from Al-Ahli, the best of the five they have managed so far.

It was impressive firstly because the Jeddah giants lost 5-2 to the same Iranian opposition in the opening game. That result suggested that the six-game losing streak from the domestic league was going to continue in Asia.

Under new coach Laurentiu Reghecampf, however, Al-Ahli have turned things around in impressive style and whatever happens in the final game, the team will return to domestic duties in a different frame of mind, or they should. Had Syrian striker Omar Al-Somah, who has looked dangerous all tournament, been wearing his shooting boots then Al-Ahli would have won and gone top of the group.

Regardless of what happens against Al-Duhail in the final game, Tuesday showed that Al-Ahli are heading in the right direction.

2. Al-Nassr only have themselves to blame

Fans must be tearing their hair out over Al-Nassr who did the hard work to put themselves in sight of the second round only to slip up again, losing 2-1 to Al-Wehdat.

The Riyadh club has dropped five points against the bottom team of the group and if the Yellows fail to progress, this will be the reason why. Beating Al-Sadd and Foolad is all well and good but taking just one point from the Jordanians may turn out to be a crucial failure.

It would be easy to say that Al-Nassr underestimated their unfancied opponents but in truth, they were just second best almost from start to finish.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, Al-Wehdat were already out of contention but that seemed to give the team some freedom and while the victory was unexpected, it was also deserved. The men from Amman were full of running and kept their shape in contrast to the tired-looking Al-Nassr whose attacks were plodding and lacking in penetration.

Coach Mano Menezes has shown that he can conjure victories against the stronger teams in the group and that is what he needs to do in the final fixture against Al-Sadd.

3. Al-Hilal do not look like champions ... yet

After losing 4-1 to Istiklol of Tajikistan three days earlier, another defeat to Central Asian opposition was unthinkable. It never looked like happening as the Saudi champions were just too powerful for AGMK of Uzbekistan and attacked with purpose from the get-go.

The headlines will go to Bafetimbi Gomis for his perfect header that put clear daylight between the two games and Luciano Vietto for his opener and perfect assist for the third. But Abdullah Otayf was also quietly effective in midfield and used the ball with intelligence and vision.

Al-Hilal have not yet found their groove in this tournament and do not carry the air of champions but they do look like a team heading into the knockout stage and that is enough for now.

4. Teams starting to look tired

It would be strange if there was not some major fatigue in all the teams given that they have played five games in less than two weeks.

What is a little surprising is that there has not been that much rotation coming from the coaches, and wholesale changes from game to game have not materialized as much as expected.

In the last 15 to 20 minutes against Esteghlal, Al-Ahli were dead on their feet. Al-Nassr, too, could not match Al-Wehdat for energy in their defeat and the physical condition of the players is sure to have a major impact in the final 90 minutes of the group stage.

5. The situation now is clear for all

If all three Saudi teams win, all three will go through.

Al-Nassr’s task is now clear. Only victory against Al-Sadd in the final game will guarantee a place in the last 16. It is not outside the realms of possibility, after all, the Riyadh giants beat the same opposition just days ago.

Al-Sadd, however, have improved since then and are looking more like the team that went through the Qatari season unbeaten. A draw may be enough for Al-Nassr, but they will have to wait and see.

For Al-Hilal, a win against Shabab Al-Ahli will be enough whether it means they finish first or second and that is the same for Al-Ahli. If they defeat Al-Duhail of Qatar, then they will be sure to finish above either Al-Nassr or Al-Sadd as one of the best three runners-up. Saudi Arabian fans should strap themselves in.


Dakar Rally to take place across Saudi desert in first week of January 2022

The Dakar Rally will be raced in Saudi Arabia for the third time in January 2022. (Supplied/Dakar/SAMF)
The Dakar Rally will be raced in Saudi Arabia for the third time in January 2022. (Supplied/Dakar/SAMF)
Updated 11 May 2021

Dakar Rally to take place across Saudi desert in first week of January 2022

The Dakar Rally will be raced in Saudi Arabia for the third time in January 2022. (Supplied/Dakar/SAMF)
  • The 44th edition of the world’s most famous rally, and the third to take place in the Kingdom, will start in Ha’il and conclude in Jeddah

DUBAI: The 2022 Dakar Rally will take place across the deserts of Saudi Arabia between January 2 and 14, it was been announced by Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) and the Saudi Arabian Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF) in a virtual presentation on Tuesday night.

“Welcome for the third time to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the home of the Dakar Rally, the most famous and toughest rally in the world,” Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al Abdullah Al-Faisal, Chairman of SAMF, said. “Thanks first and foremost to our wise leadership, and guidance of his highness the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the goal of his Vision 2030, the Kingdom was able to attract and host the Dakar Rally for the first time in 2020, after many years when it moved between Africa and South America.”

David Castera, director of Dakar, discussed the main points regarding the 44th edition of the race, which included the start, finish and rest day cities, in addition to the number of stages the competitors will face in January 2022.

He also spoke of the difficulties of organizing the rally in the middle of the pandemic.

“The 2021 Dakar was complicated to organize,” Castera said. “In the middle of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Dakar was one of the few major events that were held at the beginning of the year. All thanks to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “To all the Saudis who have mobilized with us so that the Dakar can happen, this Dakar allowed you to discover new tracks, new deserts, new dunes and all that gave us quite an incredible show. Suspense in the bike race until the last days when we didn’t know who would win. In the car race as well, until two or three stages from the finish, it was very tight.”

The 2021 edition of the race produced 2,300 hours of television action which were broadcast in more than 190 countries, with 4.5 million also following on social media.

The 2022 Dakar promises some new and unexplored routes.

“It will be an edition with a taste of sand, taste of dunes and wide open spaces,” said Castera. We will head south to the Empty Quarter. We had a first little taste of it in 2020, but this time we’ll go deep down in the Empty Quarter and its ocean of dunes.”

May 17 will see the opening of registration for the race, with the course announcement coming at the end of November. The vehicles will be boarded at Marseille harbor in the second week of December, arriving in Jeddah on Dec. 26-28.

On Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, scrutineering will take place in Ha’il.

“Ha’il will be the start city of this 2022 edition, where all the technical and administrative scrutineering will take place as well as the shakedown,” Castera said. “This year will have three for the three classes — bikes, cars and trucks. Then a prologue on (Jan.) 1st, and the real start of this Dakar will be on the 2nd of January in the morning and will head south towards the Empty Quarter.

“We’ll have three stages with 100 percent sand and dunes, including a marathon stage in the middle of the dunes, like in the good old days,” he added. “And then comes a novelty — we’ll go up to Riyadh for a rest day. During that rest day their will be transfer of vehicles that will be put on trucks, and transfer of competitors in planes.”

Week two will introduce four rather difficult stages, and, according to Castera, a lot of navigation, and more dunes.

“We have based this Dakar on mainly sand and dunes,” he said. “Once you’ve gone through all these obstacles, you’ll arrive in the city of Jeddah, which will welcome the podium ceremony before the vehicles board the ship to head back to Europe.”

The director also confirmed that the second running of the Dakar Classic will take place after its launch last year.

“The Dakar Classic was born last January for its first edition,” he said. “We wanted to pay a tribute to the pioneers of the Dakar, to its founder Thierry Sabine. It was way for us all to see those cars that made us dream in the 1980s and in the 1990s. I can already tell you that we have over 60 crews waiting to take part in an edition that promises to be fantastic."

Prince Khalid also said that preparations by SAMF and the organizers will ensure a spectacular viewing for motorsports fans.

“Today, as we edge closer to hosting the rally for the third successive year, our focus is fixed on the future as we call ups the extensive experience we have gained over the last two years, to arrange another exciting edition of the Dakar Rally,” he said.

“We are blessed with magnificent landscape that few countries can rival. This varied and challenging terrain is the perfect location for the Dakar Rally.

“One of the most special things about the Dakar Rally is that it introduces visitors and spectators alike to the true essence of our nation, with its tolerant culture, striking landscape and welcoming people.”


Dimitrov stunned by Spanish qualifier in Rome

Dimitrov stunned by Spanish qualifier in Rome
Updated 12 May 2021

Dimitrov stunned by Spanish qualifier in Rome

Dimitrov stunned by Spanish qualifier in Rome
  • Tenth seed Roberto Bautista Agut booked his place in the second round with a comfortable 6-3, 6-4 win over American Tommy Paul

ROME: Sixteenth seed Grigor Dimitrov crashed out of the Italian Open in the first round on Tuesday when he was beaten in straight sets by Spanish qualifier Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

The world No.  48 saved two set points in the second set as he dismissed the 2014 semifinalist Dimitrov 6-4, 7-6 (7/2) to win in one hour and 43 minutes.

Tenth seed Roberto Bautista Agut booked his place in the second round with a comfortable 6-3, 6-4 win over American Tommy Paul.

On the women’s side, Argentinian Nadia Podoroska, ranked 44 in the world, assured herself of a second round meeting with Serena Williams, playing her first event since the Australian Open, when she came from a set down to beat German Laura Siegemund 2-6, 7-6 (7/3), 6-1.Madison Keys won the battle of the Americans when she overcame Sloane Stephens 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.

Meantime, two-time Olympic champion Rafael Nadal on Tuesday became the latest top tennis
player to admit that he had not yet decided whether he would participate in the Tokyo Games this summer, still giving himself time to decide according to “circumstances.” 

The 34-year-old Spaniard won gold in the singles in Beijing in 2008, adding another gold in the doubles with Marc Lopez in Rio de Janeiro five years ago.

“In a normal world I would never consider missing the Olympics. There is no doubt about that,” he said at a press conference ahead of his opening match at the Italian Open.

“Everybody knows how important the Olympics are for me.”

“Under these circumstances, I don’t know. Let’s see what’s going on in the next couple of months. But I need to organize my schedule.

“I don’t know yet. Honestly I can’t give you a clear answer because I don’t know.”

“In a normal year, I know my schedule almost 100 percent from January 1 until the end of the season. This year is a little bit different, no?

“We need to be flexible. We need to adapt to the things that are happening. I don’t know, I can’t give you an accurate answer. Sorry.”

Nadal is the latest top tennis star to voice his concerns about the Tokyo Games.

On Monday, Serena Williams said she was undecided about going to the Olympics while Japanese stars Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori have both raised concerns about whether Tokyo should be hosting the Games at all.

“I’m an athlete, and of course my immediate thought is that I want to play in the Olympics,” Osaka told the BBC.

“But as a human, I would say we’re in a pandemic, and if people aren’t healthy, and if they’re not feeling safe, then it’s definitely a really big cause for concern.”

The Olympics, postponed from 2020 because of the coronavirus, are due to run from July 23 to Aug. 8.


Manchester City clinch third Premier League title in four seasons

Manchester City clinch third Premier League title in four seasons
Updated 11 May 2021

Manchester City clinch third Premier League title in four seasons

Manchester City clinch third Premier League title in four seasons
  • Ending Liverpool's reign as champions gives Pep Guardiola a third Premier League title in four seasons
  • “This has been a season and a Premier League title like no other — this was the hardest one," Guardiola said

MANCHESTER: Manchester City reclaimed the Premier League title with three games to spare after closest challengers Manchester United lost 2-1 to Leicester on Tuesday.
Ending Liverpool’s reign as champions gives Pep Guardiola a third Premier League title in four seasons, adding to the trio of domestic titles he won at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich as coach.
And he could yet complete the season by ending his 10-year wait to win the Champions League again if City can beat Chelsea in the club’s first European Cup final.
Where once United dominated English football, now City are the force with five titles in 10 seasons since first lifting the Premier League trophy in 2012.
It was the influx of Abu Dhabi investment from 2008 that transformed a City side that was playing in the third tier until 1999 and whose only previous English titles were in 1937 and 1968.
It was Caglar Soyuncu’s header that clinched the victory for Leicester that ended United’s faint hopes of catching its neighbor.
City have built up an unassailable 10-point lead in the league and added a second trophy of the season to the League Cup won last month.
In a congested pandemic-impacted season that stretched the resources of teams, City were eight points from the lead in November languishing in 11th place after eight games. But Guardiola turned City’s campaign around.
“This has been a season and a Premier League title like no other — this was the hardest one,” Guardiola said in a statement. “To come through this season — with all the restrictions and difficulties we’ve faced — and show the consistency we have is remarkable. It is relentless. Every single day, they are there, fighting for success, trying always to be better. They have been so, so resilient.”
Unlike last season when Liverpool ended a 30-year title drought, 10,000 fans will be able to see City collect the trophy after the final game of the Premier League season against Everton on May 23 at the Etihad Stadium.
“We have missed the fans so much,” City captain Fernandinho said. “We wanted to do this for them. We will enjoy this moment and we hope the fans do too. Rest assured we will continue to do everything we can to bring the Champions League home this season.”


Saudi driver Al-Rajhi back behind the wheel at Andalucia Rally

Saudi driver Al-Rajhi back behind the wheel at Andalucia Rally
Updated 11 May 2021

Saudi driver Al-Rajhi back behind the wheel at Andalucia Rally

Saudi driver Al-Rajhi back behind the wheel at Andalucia Rally
  • Fully recovered from a crash last March, Al-Rajhi is back and will be joined by co-driver Dirk von Zitzewitz
  • Their itinerary includes a timed super special race over eight kilometers on Wednesday before the four-stage, off-road odyssey with a total distance of 1,473 km

The first round of the 2021 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies starts on Wednesday with the Andalucia Rally and Saudi driver Yazeed Al-Rajhi of the Yazeed Racing team has returned from a neck injury he suffered at the Sharqiya Baja Rally last March.

While Al-Rajhi’s medical team has given him the green light to return to racing after a full year of recovery, co-driver Michael Orr, who suffered injuries in the same accident, is not expected back until the Kazakhstan Rally in June.

So Al-Rajhi will get back behind the wheel alongside German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz for the Andalucia Rally, which runs through Sunday. Their Toyota Hilux is powered by the Belgian Overdrive Team.

The Saudi motorsport star, who is participating in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies for the eighth year in a row, is grateful for his recovery from a race touched by tragedy.

“Accidents are part of racing and drivers cannot predict them so we are very lucky that we both walked away,” Al-Rajhi said. 

“I wish a speedy recovery for my colleague and navigator, Michael, who cannot participate with me because he has to complete his treatment sessions, but I expect him to return in the next rally.”

At the Andalusia Rally, Al-Rajhi and von Zitzewitz have an itinerary that includes a timed super special race over eight kilometers on Wednesday before the four-stage, off-road odyssey with a total distance of 1,473 km.

“The time I was recovering gave me a short break to recharge all my mental and physical strength for a new season of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies,” Al-Rajhi said. “I am really excited to take up the challenge behind the wheel again.”

As a pair, Al-Rajhi and von Zitzewitz have achieved some strong results in several cross-country rallies since 2019.

“Dirk is back on board with me and we had a great collaboration the last time we were together,” Al-Rajhi said. “So we are looking forward to winning this rally.”

Al-Rajhi and von Zitzewitz won two stages on home soil at the Dakar Rally in January.

“I am very excited to be back alongside Yazeed on the Toyota Hilux,” von Zitzewitz said. 

“I am looking forward to a very intense and challenging race, as the competition will be strong at the Andalucía Rally. I am happy and looking forward to a great race.”


Joshua set to fight Fury in Saudi Arabia in August, says promoter Eddie Hearn

The all-British fight between Anthony Joshua (L) and Tyson Fury for the undisputed world heavyweight title will take place in Saudi Arabia, according to promoter Eddie Hearn. (AFP/File Photos)
The all-British fight between Anthony Joshua (L) and Tyson Fury for the undisputed world heavyweight title will take place in Saudi Arabia, according to promoter Eddie Hearn. (AFP/File Photos)
Updated 11 May 2021

Joshua set to fight Fury in Saudi Arabia in August, says promoter Eddie Hearn

The all-British fight between Anthony Joshua (L) and Tyson Fury for the undisputed world heavyweight title will take place in Saudi Arabia, according to promoter Eddie Hearn. (AFP/File Photos)
  • Hearn, who represents Joshua, said the fight is likely to take place on Aug. 7 or Aug. 14

LONDON: The all-British fight between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury for the undisputed world heavyweight title will take place in Saudi Arabia, promoter Eddie Hearn said on Tuesday.

Hearn, who represents Joshua, said the fight is likely to take place on Aug. 7 or Aug. 14. He said Aug. 14 is his preferred date because the Olympic Games in Tokyo will have finished, making the Joshua-Fury fight a bigger “global spectacle.”

Saudi Arabia staged Joshua's rematch against Andy Ruiz, when the Briton regained his WBA, IBF and WBO titles in December 2019, putting him on a collision course with Fury, who became the WBC champion shortly afterwards.

“August 7, August 14,” Hearn said on Sky Sports when asked about a date for Joshua-Fury. “It's a very bad secret that the fight is happening in Saudi Arabia. I don't mind giving that information, Bob Arum's already done it.

“It's the same people we did the deal with for Andy Ruiz, that event was spectacular. As partners, they were fantastic as well, so we're very comfortable.

“We're very comfortable. Anthony's comfortable, he knows those people. They delivered on every one of their promises last time -- we're ready to go.”

Hearn has yet to respond to AP requests to confirm the details of the fight.

READ MORE

On a rainy night in Diriyah in 2019, Anthony Joshua regained his world heavyweight titles after a unanimous points decision from the judges over Andy Ruiz Jr in an epic night of boxing in Saudi Arabia. Read how it happened here.

Joshua’s only fight since his bout in the Kingdom saw him retain his titles by knocking out Kubrat Pulev in December.

Fury hasn’t fought since beating Deontay Wilder in February last year to capture the WBC title.

Fury and Joshua have called each other out over Twitter over the last 24 hours, both urging the other to finalize terms for the fight.

Hearn said the “deal is done” but there was frustration on both sides that the fight had not been officially announced.

“From our perspective and AJ’s perspective, we’re ready to go,” he said. “From Tyson Fury’s perspective, they’ve got a couple of lawyers across it from their point.

“We have to nail this,” Hearn added, “and I’m not going to stop until I nail it, and everyone has just got to move forward collectively. We’re ready to go from our side. We’re not far away from their side and it is inevitable.”