5 talking points after final AFC Champions League group matchday as two Saudi teams qualify

5 talking points after final AFC Champions League group matchday as two Saudi teams qualify
(Twitter: @Alhilal_EN)
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Updated 01 May 2021

5 talking points after final AFC Champions League group matchday as two Saudi teams qualify

5 talking points after final AFC Champions League group matchday as two Saudi teams qualify
  • Dramatic conclusion to two weeks of action means Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr can look forward to the Round of 16 in September

LONDON: So the group stage of the AFC Champions League is over and, as expected, there is plenty to talk about. Two of the Saudi teams made it through to the second round that will be held in September, one did not.

On Thursday evening in Riyadh, Al-Nassr had to defeat Al-Sadd to progress and did so, winning 2-1 to top Group D.

On Friday, it was the turn of Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli. Al-Hilal lost 2-0 to Shabab Al-Ahli to finish second in Group A but squeezed through to the last 16 as the third best runners-up.

Al-Ahli are out after drawing 1-1 with Al-Duhail, finishing in third place in Group  C with nine points.

1. Al-Nassr give Xavi’s reputation a hit

Al-Sadd’s failure in the AFC Champions League does not mean that Xavi Hernandez will not get that Barcelona job at some point, as widely expected, but it does mean that the Spaniard's coaching reputation is not as pristine as it was. Just last month, the 2010 World Cup winner led the team to the Qatar Stars League title without losing a single game.

The team were one of the favourites for the continental title, especially with former Arsenal star Santi Cazorla and a number of Qatar national team players to call upon. Yet Al-Sadd disappointed, with Xavi struggling to get the best out of his players. In the games with Al-Nassr, Mano Menezes gave the Barca legend a bit of a lesson on how to organise a team and introduce substitutions at the right time.

2. Job done for Al-Hilal but only just

Al-Hilal only just managed to get through the group stage of the competition but the margins could not have been tighter. With the three best placed runners-up going to the knockout stages, Al-Hilal were the third team, ahead of Al-Sadd only by scoring more goals.

Losing 4-1 to Istiklol of Tajikistan could be written off as one of those things, especially given the fact that the Riyadh giants had 73 percent possession, but the final 2-0 loss against Shabab Al-Ahli was disappointing. Again, there were missed chances and a dubious refereeing decision but there was a lack of focus throughout the team against the Dubai club that was already eliminated. This will all be forgotten the further Al-Hilal progress but there can be no more slip-ups when they take on Iranian giants Esteghlal in September’s Round of 16 game.

3. Al-Ahli can be disappointed but encouraged

Coming into Asia after six straight defeats in the league, Al-Ahli fans feared the worst as the first game ended with a 5-2 loss against Esteghlal. Yet despite eventual elimination, there were no more defeats in the following five games and Al-Ahli were still alive in the tournament going into the final minutes of the final group game. Against Al-Duhail of Qatar, both teams knew that only a win would send them through and it was an entertaining clash that either could have won.

Al-Hilal will be glad that it ended 1-1 as that was the only result that sent them through. In a tough group, Al-Ahli were competitive — that would not usually have been enough but given their form beforehand, it will do for now.

4. Al-Nassr’s win came at a price

It was an impressive victory for Al-Nassr as they reached the knockout stage for the third year in a row. But three of the team’s star players picked up yellow cards that will rule them out of the second-round game against Tractor of Iran in September. Star striker Abderrazak Hamdallah scored four goals in the group stage, yet a 95th minute booking, almost the last act of the match, rules him out. Abdullah Madu and Ali Lajami will also be on the sidelines.

Otherwise, this was a fine performance from Al-Nassr. In a tough group with a new coach in Mano Menezes, it could have all gone wrong but, despite a couple of slip-ups, they came through when the pressure was on and took first place. While players may be missing next time, if they can show the same kind of spirit there is a good chance of a place in the last eight.

5. Asia’s over for now, but the action continues

It has been a hectic two weeks in Asia but there is little time to rest, especially for Al-Hilal. Next Friday the league leaders meet second-placed Al-Shabab. The two teams are level on points with five games remaining. A win for either team is a major step towards the title. Whether the six games in 15 days will mean that Al-Hilal are exhausted or whether they will be energised by squeezing through remains to be seen.

Al-Nassr can focus on finishing as high as possible in the league — a top four finish is possible — after a disappointing campaign at home but there is more at stake for Al-Ahli. Before the Champions League, the Jeddah club had lost their last six games. That’s unacceptable for a giant of Saudi Arabian football and results in Asia should, at least, have given them back some self-belief.


UAE’s Arabian Gulf League set for dramatic conclusion on Tuesday

UAE’s Arabian Gulf League set for dramatic conclusion on Tuesday
Updated 09 May 2021

UAE’s Arabian Gulf League set for dramatic conclusion on Tuesday

UAE’s Arabian Gulf League set for dramatic conclusion on Tuesday
  • UAE Pro League: All matches will take place at 10 p.m. local time to avoid favoring any club

The UAE Pro League has announced that the final round of matches of the 2020-21 Arabian Gulf League season will kick off at 10 p.m. local time on Tuesday, the Emirates News Agency (WAM) reported.

The 25th and penultimate round left Al-Jazira, 2-0 victors over Al-Ain, leading the GAL table by only one point from Bani Yas, which had run out comfortable 5-0 winners at Al-Dhafra.

On Tuesday, the 26th round sees Al-Jazira welcome 10th-placed Khorfakkan to Abu Dhabi, while Bani Yas will host Al-Wahda in eighth.

The UAE Pro League also confirmed that the trophy presentation ceremony will be held at the winner’s home stadium.

The decision to play all matches at the same time was taken to ensure that no club gains any advantage over its rivals, whether in the fight for the title, AFC Champions League places or against relegation.


Rib injury forces Saudi rower out of Olympic qualifying contention

Rib injury forces Saudi rower out of Olympic qualifying contention
Updated 09 May 2021

Rib injury forces Saudi rower out of Olympic qualifying contention

Rib injury forces Saudi rower out of Olympic qualifying contention
  • Husein Alireza had competed training camp at Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center near San Diego

Saudi rower and Olympic hopeful Husein Alireza on Saturday suffered a devastating injury that has left his chances of qualifying for Tokyo 2020 in ruins, Arabic sports daily Arriyadiyah reported.

There had been high hopes that Alireza would join the Saudi under-23 football team and table tennis player Ali Al-Khadrawi at the games, which kick off in July.

But an injury to his ribcage meant he had to withdraw from the qualifying competition that took place in Tokyo over the weekend.

Three days before the Tokyo 2020 competition, Husein Alireza felt pain in his ribs but decided to participate anyway. (Instagram: @saudirowing)

Under the watchful eye of Daniel Janes, director of rowing at the Saudi Rowing Federation, Alireza had ahead of the qualifying campaign taken part in a successful three-month training camp at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center near San Diego, California.

Three days before the competition, Alireza felt pain in his ribs but decided to participate anyway. Unfortunately for him and the Saudi team, he could not complete the race

Following his withdrawal, he was set to leave for Britain, where he is expected to receive treatment at a specialized center for sports injuries.

Rower Husein Alireza part in a successful three-month training camp at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center near San Diego, California. (Instagram: @saudirowing)


Sabalenka wins Madrid Open; Zverev faces Berrettini in final

Sabalenka wins Madrid Open; Zverev faces Berrettini in final
Updated 09 May 2021

Sabalenka wins Madrid Open; Zverev faces Berrettini in final

Sabalenka wins Madrid Open; Zverev faces Berrettini in final
  • It was the second title for Sabalenka this year after winning the season-opener in Abu Dhabi
  • Zverev defeated Dominic Thiem and No. 10-ranked Berrettini beat Casper Ruud in their semifinal matches

MADRID: Aryna Sabalenka is glad she changed her mind about playing at the Madrid Open.
Two weeks after nearly withdrawing from the tournament because of a muscle injury, Sabalenka was standing on center court with the winner’s trophy in her hands on Saturday.
Sabalenka defeated top-ranked Ash Barty 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 for her 10th WTA title — and first on clay.
In the men’s final on Sunday, 2018 champion Alexander Zverev will face eighth-seeded Matteo Berrettini.
Sabalenka’s victory, coming two weeks after she was hurt in a loss to Barty in the Stuttgart final, will move the Belarus player to No. 4 in the world next week.
“To be honest, after the final in Stuttgart I was injured, I couldn’t even move, I really wanted to withdraw from here,” she said. “And I don’t know how, but my team ... the recovery was really good. In four days they made me feel much better. Somehow I’m here standing as the champion of this tournament.”
Sabalenka injured an adductor muscle in the three-set loss in Germany to Barty, who had won all of her three previous finals this year.
It was the second title for Sabalenka this year after winning the season-opener in Abu Dhabi. She also lost to Barty in the Miami quarterfinals.
In the men’s semifinals, Zverev followed his triumph over Rafael Nadal with a win over Dominic Thiem to reach another Madrid Open final. He will face No. 10-ranked Berrettini, who beat Casper Ruud 6-4, 6-4.
No. 6 Zverev defeated No. 4 Thiem 6-3, 6-4 to reach the final again after beating Thiem for the 2018 title. He will be trying to win his second title this year after triumphing in Acapulco in March.
Zverev broke Thiem’s serve once in the first set and twice in the second on the Magic Box center court.
The German has yet to drop a set, including against Nadal in the Friday quarterfinals.
“They’re probably the two clay-courters that you think of right now when you’re thinking about Roland Garros and the biggest chances of winning,” Zverev said of Nadal and Thiem. “Rafa is the favorite no matter what. Probably Novak (Djokovic) second, Dominic a close third. It’s been so far a good week for me. The job is not done yet.”
Berrettini didn’t face a break point as he defeated Ruud to return to a final after winning Belgrade two weeks ago. He will be trying to win his first Masters 1000 final.
“The key today was putting pressure on his serve,” Berrettini said. “I was always trying to get the momentum and attacking even his first serve. I know that he likes to have time, run around the forehand. I tried to do that. It worked out pretty well.”
Thiem was playing in his first tournament since March after consecutive losses in Dubai and Doha. He has mostly struggled since winning the US Open for his first grand slam title.
“In general I’m super happy with the week,” Thiem said. “I would have never expected to be in the semifinals, to play in the semifinals a player like him. I cannot complain about anything. Just, of course, there are many things to improve.”
In the women’s doubles final, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, both from the Czech Republic, defeated Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada and Demi Schuurs of France 6-4, 6-3.


Chelsea beat Man City to delay Premier League title party

Chelsea beat Man City to delay Premier League title party
Updated 09 May 2021

Chelsea beat Man City to delay Premier League title party

Chelsea beat Man City to delay Premier League title party
  • Tuchel’s in-form team score 2-1 victory as Alonso bundles in the winner in dying seconds

LONDON: Chelsea forced Manchester City to put their Premier League title party on hold on Saturday, winning 2-1 to strengthen their grip on a top-four place as Liverpool kept their Champions League qualification hopes alive.
Victory for City in a rehearsal for the Champions League final would have confirmed them as English champions for the third time in four years but they must wait for their inevitable coronation.
Hundreds of City fans had gathered outside the empty Etihad Stadium hoping to spur their team on to victory.
As supporters spilled into the road and blue flares were lit, the coaches carrying the players needed to slow down to get through the crowds as they made their way to the ground.
Pep Guardiola's men were on the right track when Raheem Sterling gave them the lead but Hakim Ziyech levelled in the second half and Marcos Alonso grabbed the winner in the dying seconds.
Sergio Aguero could have made his side's task much easier on the stroke of half-time but saw his casual Panenka spot-kick easily saved by Edouard Mendy, with Guardiola turning away in frustration.
The win lifts the Londoners into third spot above Leicester and six points clear of fifth-placed West Ham with just three games left for Thomas Tuchel's side.
Outgoing champions Liverpool beat Southampton 2-0 in the late kick-off to stay in the mix for the top four but a 3-1 defeat at Leeds was a hammer blow for managerless Tottenham.
Guardiola was frustrated at the manner of his side's defeat -- just their fifth loss of the season -- but they have a huge 13-point lead over second-placed Manchester United.
"We missed our chance in the last minute of the first half for the penalty, but we were in a good position," he told Sky Sports.
"We conceded a goal, suffered for 15 minutes, then reacted well, but in the end they scored."
On the missed spot-kick, Guardiola said: "I have always said to him (Aguero), take one decision and take it full convincing, so he decided to do it this way. I have nothing to add."
Tuchel's in-form team ended City's dreams of a historic quadruple by beating them in the FA Cup semi-final last month and they once again proved tricky opponents.
Guardiola made nine changes from the side that saw off Paris Saint-Germain in midweek while Chelsea made five changes following their triumph over Real Madrid.
Sterling broke the deadlock shortly before half-time, tucking home after a poor touch from Aguero following a pass from Gabriel Jesus.
City should have gone into the break two goals in front after Jesus won a spot-kick when he was bundled over by Billy Gilmour but Argentine striker Aguero squandered the chance.
As the second half wore on the visitors started to establish a foothold and they equalised just after the hour mark when Cesar Azpilicueta picked out Ziyech, who drilled home from the edge of the area.
The finish was frantic. Chelsea substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi had a goal ruled out for a marginal offside before Sterling had a penalty appeal turned down.
Alonso slotted home the winner in stoppage time after Timo Werner pulled the ball back to complete the turnaround but City could be crowned champions as early as Sunday, if Aston Villa beat United.
Tuchel admitted the match would have had a different complexion if Aguero had converted from the spot.
"If they score the penalty maybe it is over before it starts -- at 2-0 you have no chance to come back," the Chelsea boss said.
"I was impressed by the reaction and the performance in the second half. If you want to steal all three points here after being down, you need a bit of luck, decisions from the referee."
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was delighted to see his team back to winning ways following two costly draws, with Sadio Mane and Thiago Alcantara both finding the net at Anfield.
Speaking about his side being in the race for the top four, he told the BBC: "We are, kind of. It's not impossible but it's difficult. We will give it a try and see where we get to."
Earlier, Crystal Palace beat already relegated Sheffield United 2-0.


Stalemate between Atletico and Barca hands advantage to Real Madrid

Stalemate between Atletico and Barca hands advantage to Real Madrid
Updated 09 May 2021

Stalemate between Atletico and Barca hands advantage to Real Madrid

Stalemate between Atletico and Barca hands advantage to Real Madrid
  • Four wins from their last four games will now be enough for Zinedine Zidane's side to retain their La Liga crown, with a crunch game at home to fourth-placed Sevilla up first on Sunday

MADRID: Barcelona and Atletico Madrid knew victory could fire them towards the La Liga title but Saturday's 0-0 draw at Camp Nou handed Real Madrid the chance to go top.
Four wins from their last four games will now be enough for Zinedine Zidane's side to retain their La Liga crown, with a crunch game at home to fourth-placed Sevilla up first on Sunday.
The first part of a blockbuster weekend in the Spanish title race pitched first against third but neither could take a decisive step forward, despite the best attempts of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, who faced each other for the first time since Suarez departed last summer.
A point each leaves Atletico three points clear of Real Madrid, who have a game in hand and also the superior head-to-head over both Atleti and Barcelona.
Barca remain two points off the top but their chances took the biggest hit, given they now need both Atletico and Real Madrid to slip up in the final stretch.
Anything can still happen because of what we've seen so far," said Gerard Pique. "If Madrid wins their four games they will be champions, but it is difficult for the big teams to be consistent. If we win all our three games, I think we'll have a chance."
Atletico will be disappointed too, given they spurned a number of chances in during a dominant first half, before Ronald Koeman's side recovered in the second.
Jan Oblak had to deny Messi after a vintage run forward from the Argentine, who then had a well-placed free-kick in the last minute, only for Atletico to watch the ball spin inches wide.
"We started better and they finished a little better," Oblak said. "Real Madrid has four games left but for sure they are going to be tought games. We have to keep going."
Diego Simeone said on Friday Suarez had been "vindicated" since being forced to leave Barcelona, his 19 goals making him top scorer for the team.
Koeman admitted it would be "strange" for everyone, including Messi, who sent a heartfelt open letter to his former team-mate, neighbour and best friend last year.
The pair shared a few words in the centre circle before kick-off after the Camp Nou stadium announcer had already beamed that Suarez "will always be welcome".
But, in truth, the Uruguayan was not at his ruthless best as a handful of openings went unconverted in a contest full of chances but that lacked precision when it mattered most.
Messi was repeatedly knocked over in the opening few minutes before Gerard Pique went through the back of Suarez, both teams scrapping for control.
Atletico slowly took charge, helped by the departure of Sergio Busquets, who was replaced by Ilaix Moriba after a clash of heads that meant he had to be taken to hospital for tests.
Without Busquets, Barcelona were rudderless for a while and the Atletico chances came thick and fast.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen had to palm away Marcos Llorente's shot and then stick out a foot to deny Suarez from the angle.
Suarez then tried to nod in the rebound after a winding run from Yannick Carrasco before claiming a penalty after feeling a flick of Ter Stegen's hand across his head.
Barcelona were rattled, the usually steady Ter Stegen booting one ball straight into the stands, only for Messi to give Atletico a reality check, his driving run past six chasers opening the space for a shot, but Oblak tipped it wide.
Felipe fired over from a well-worked Atleti short corner before half-time but Barca were better after the break, with both Ilaix and Pique going close shortly after the hour.
Both coaches made changes, hoping to inspire a winner. Ousmane Dembele was one of them and he should have grabbed it with six minutes left but headed over from six yards in perhaps the best chance of the game.
Messi could have won it at the end, standing over the ball with a free-kick placed centrally and 25 yards out. Atletico held their breath, the ball whistling just wide of Oblak's post.