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.


Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video

Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video
Updated 17 min 31 sec ago

Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video

Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video
  • The Brazilian was expected to join the reigning champions, but confirmed his move from Guangzhou FC to AL-Nassr in a clip that will ensure next season’s derby will have added spice

LONDON: Next season’s Riyadh Derby is going to be even more electric than usual.

Reigning Saudi Pro League champions Al-Hilal had spent much of May negotiating with Brazilian star Talisca, but there he was on Tuesday on Al-Nassr’s Twitter channel announcing a quite unexpected move to the Saudi capital.

In a video that showed him watching a video of Al-Hilal in action, and then laughing out loud, the 27 year-old held up that famous yellow shirt to the camera to inform fans that he was joining Al-Nassr from Guangzhou FC.

 

 

It remains to be seen who will be laughing next season.

The player who was hailed as the next big Brazilian star in his teenage years, and despite being linked at one time with Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, still has much to prove.

The move has upset a few people in China as well. The attacking midfielder, who can also play further up the pitch, enjoyed two-and-a-half successful seasons in China with Guangzhou FC and won the Chinese Super League title in 2019.

Fans of the two-time Asian champions feel that their club should have held out for more than the reported fee of one million euros.

With just a year remaining on his contract, the figure should perhaps have been five or six times that.

For a player who scored 39 goals in 65 appearances in China and managed 13 assists, Al-Nassr have got themselves a bargain.

One reason for that is that Al-Nassr’s new star hasn’t played this year.

This was not due to injuries or form, but regulations stopping him from re-entering China.

Talisca has been stuck in Brazil and unable to actually get inside the country to play for Guangzhou.

Club coach Fabio Cannavaro, understood that the time was right to release him.

The concern for Guangzhou is that Talisca’s colleague and compatriot Paulinho has the same travel issues, and the club are now keen not to lose their biggest star.

That is not Al-Nassr’s concern, though they will want to know how to get the best out of the player who moved to Benfica in 2014 for $5.790 million.

He started well in Portugal with eight goals in his first 10 games there and was hailed as one of the brightest young talents in Europe, even compared to the likes of Yaya Toure and Rivaldo.

The talent was there for all to see, the left foot was especially beautiful, he could play anywhere in attack — on the wings, in the middle or as a second striker — and cut an imposing figure.

After two years at Benfica during which he won two Portuguese league titles, he didn’t move to the English Premier League as many had predicted, but was loaned out to Besiktas in Turkey.

There, he won the  Super League and then headed to China in 2018.

There was some disappointment when he chose to head east, but some of the best players in the world were doing the same at the time.

Another league title followed for Talisca in 2019.

Everywhere he has been outside his homeland, Talisca has won league championships which bodes well for Al-Nassr fans.

There has been some criticism in China of a tendency to drift through games especially last season, though 2020 was tough for all, with players confined to their hotel rooms for seven months.

He scored and made goals but rarely took control of games. 

Talisca’s arrival may, however, spell the end of Pity Martinez in Riyadh.

The Argentine made headlines last September when joining the club for around $18 million.

Martinez has since endured something of a difficult first season in Saudi Arabia and while he has shown sporadic flashes of the form that made him the 2018 South American Player of the Year, he did not do so on a consistent basis.

And when injury cut his season short and ruled him out of the AFC Champions League group stage, he wasn’t really missed.

New Al-Nassr coach Mano Menezes came in to replace Alen Horvat and the former Brazilian boss guided the Al-Nassr through a difficult group and into the second round.

There have been regular rumors of Martinez leaving Saudi Arabia for months and with Talisca now in the team and playing a similar role, the route back to South America, or as many think, back to MLS, is now open. 

For Al-Nassr, they have got a player who should be at the peak of his career and still has something to prove.

And, thanks to that welcome video and the fact that he had been talking to Al-Hilal for some time, it means that next season will have even more spice than usual.


With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide

With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide
Updated 17 May 2021

With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide

With Barcelona out of title race, Messi has future to decide
  • Last summer, Messi had said he wanted to leave Barcelona after a campaign that finished without a title

BARCELONA: With Barcelona’s season effectively over, Lionel Messi now has a big decision to make.

Should he finish out his career at the club that helped him become an all-time soccer great?

Or have the team’s struggles to keep winning trophies convinced him that he can find more success in Paris or Manchester?

Barcelona were left without any chance of winning the Spanish league on Sunday, bowing out the title race in demoralizing fashion after letting Celta Vigo overhaul a goal by Messi and rally for a 2-1 victory.

Atletico Madrid beat Osasuna 2-1 and can now only be caught by Real Madrid in next weekend’s final round.

Barcelona have one game left on the calendar, but with nothing to play for except third place in the league, the club’s attention is now fully on the future of its inscrutable star.

Last summer, Messi had said he wanted to leave Barcelona after a campaign that finished without a title and a humiliating 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. When that exit was denied by the club, Messi said that he would focus on this season and put off any decision until this summer when his contract expires on June 30.

Since then, Joan Laporta has been elected for a second stint as the club’s president. Laporta ran Barcelona when Messi was just blossoming with the team and maintained a good relationship with the player and his family. Even so, Messi has not confirmed a decision on his future.

“I hope not,” coach Ronald Koeman replied when he was asked if he believed Messi had played his final match at Camp Nou — a stadium still without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He is still the best player in the world and today he showed that it is impossible to play without him,” Koeman said. “He has scored 30 goals this season (in the league) and earned us a lot of points.

“It is up to Messi. For me and the club, we want him to stay with us. Because if Leo is not here, we have doubts about who can score.”

On the same night that Barcelona’s women won the Champions League for the first time by routing Chelsea 4-0, Barcelona’s men’s lineup was again undone by some sloppy defending and failing to converting their scoring chances.

The 33-year-old Messi extended his club-record tally to 672 goals with a header to give Barcelona a first-half lead against Celta. But like too many times in recent weeks, Barcelona’s defense let it down. Celta striker Santi Mina equalized before halftime on a shot that goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen could have done more to try to keep out. Mina then added a second goal in the 88th after defender Clément Lenglet left Barcelona a man down when he earned a second yellow card.

Koeman had succeeded in bringing in some younger players to rejuvenate Barcelona’s squad this season and steering the team to the Copa del Rey title last month.

The former Barcelona defender had also inspired his team to a hot streak in the league that had allowed it to almost erase a double-digit lead by Atletico.

But when Barcelona had the opportunity to move past Atletico and take the lead in late April, it was upset 2-1 by Granada at home. That loss derailed the team. Barcelona drew with Atletico and at Levante before the loss to Celta. If it does not beat the already relegated Eibar in the last round, Barcelona could finish in fourth place.

The late-season collapse of his team that may have put Koeman’s job in danger comes with midfield great Xavi Hernández apparently being groomed to take his place.


Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA

Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA
Updated 17 May 2021

Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA

Serena sails past teenager Pigato in Parma WTA
  • The 39-year-old American had been given a wild card to play in Parma after her premature exit from the Italian Open

PARMA, Italy: Serena Williams brushed aside the challenge of local teenager Lisa Pigato in the opening round of the WTA tournament in Parma on Monday.

Williams, ranked eighth in the world, beat the 572nd-ranked Pigato, making her WTA debut, 6-3, 6-2 in the first meeting between the two players.

The 39-year-old American had been given a wild card to play in Parma after her premature exit from the Italian Open, where she crashed out in the second round in what was her first match in nearly three months since her semi-final defeat in the Australian Open.

Williams, who had already won five Grand Slam tournaments by the time Pigato was born, made a sluggish start as the 17-year-old came up with three glorious winners to break the 23-time Grand Slam champion in the first game.

The American, however, got into gear and dropped just five more points on her serve, firing down six aces and many more that Pigato could barely reach.

Williams, however, was full of praise for her teenage opponent.

“Lisa played really well,” she said in her on-court interview.

“She told me she was only 17. Her future is super-bright. She handled the moment well, so I look forward to cheering for her in the future.”

The Emilia-Romagna Open is a perfect clay warm-up ahead of the French Open, which kicks off in Paris on May 30.

Williams needs one more Grand Slam title to match Australian great Margaret Court’s record of 24 major trophies.


Adidas Runners community expands across GCC

The adidas Runners community on their first outing in Jeddah earlier this month. (Supplied/adidas Runners)
The adidas Runners community on their first outing in Jeddah earlier this month. (Supplied/adidas Runners)
Updated 17 May 2021

Adidas Runners community expands across GCC

The adidas Runners community on their first outing in Jeddah earlier this month. (Supplied/adidas Runners)
  • Coaching teams offer weekly runs, training plans

DUBAI: Adidas Runners is expanding in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region through newly launched communities in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Doha, with the international running crew currently active in 65 cities and boasting a membership of 500,000.

Adidas Runners brings together people from different backgrounds who want to become better runners and improve their performance.

It hosted a friends and family run during a soft launch earlier this month to mark the expansion, with runners taking part in the three cities.

“I am absolutely delighted to be a part of adidas Runners’ community expansion into Riyadh, Jeddah and Doha,” said Lee Ryan, captain of adidas Runners GCC. “With all the challenges over the last 12 months, it’s great to see people taking part in something that is so empowering for the mind and body. We can’t wait to strengthen and grow the community locally and welcome people of all running abilities to join us.”

There has been a positive response since the launch of the new communities, with one social media message saying: “Last time I ran in Jeddah was two years ago, during Ramadan of 2019. I could have never imagined back then that I would see adidas Runners here one day, although I was running with my AR shirt at the time. Now I have goosebumps seeing this. I am still trying to grasp that this is really happening in Jeddah.”

The first adidas Runners community in the GCC was launched in Dubai in 2016. It now has more than 5,000 runners in Dubai and 2,000 registered in Abu Dhabi.

A diverse coaching team has been recruited in each of the three GCC cities, offering weekly social runs, track sessions, weekend-long runs, training plans, social runs, mobility tips and yoga sessions.


Mansoor and WWE stars recall Jeddah’s ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’

Saudi Arabia’s Mansoor with WWE Superstar Sheamus. (WWE)
Saudi Arabia’s Mansoor with WWE Superstar Sheamus. (WWE)
Updated 17 May 2021

Mansoor and WWE stars recall Jeddah’s ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’

Saudi Arabia’s Mansoor with WWE Superstar Sheamus. (WWE)
  • The 50-man fight at King Abdullah International Stadium was the first major WWE event to take place in the Kingdom, where wrestling’s popularity has surged

With Saudi superstar Mansoor signing for WWE’s Raw brand and now facing the organization’s biggest names on a weekly basis, wrestling’s popularity in the Kingdom continues to rise.

On top of that, Mansoor has also been doing his bit to raise the profile of his homeland among WWE’s global audience.

In three clips that proved very popular with social media audiences, Mansoor, who was born and raised in Riyadh, was seen talking three WWE colleagues — Drew McIntyre, Sheamus and Angel Garza — into supporting each of the clubs fighting it out for the Saudi Pro League title: Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab, respectively.

And now Mansoor and some of the WWE Superstars involved in the “Greatest Royal Rumble,” which took place in Saudi Arabia in 2018, have been looking back on that history-making night.

Held at the King Abdullah International Stadium in Jeddah, thousands of fans were in attendance for the first in a series of WWE events to take place in Saudi Arabia.

On April 27, 2018, the 50-man Royal Rumble was eventually won by Braun Strowman, who looks back on that victory as a significant moment in his career.

“From growing up in a small town in North Carolina, where the population is a couple of thousand, to representing my country at the Greatest Royal Rumble in history in Saudi Arabia, where I outlasted 49 other WWE superstars to hold the title over my head, was an amazing feeling,” he said.

“I never even imagined I’d be able to go to Saudi Arabia in my lifetime. I have the coolest job in the world. I’m living a fairy tale and every day it just gets better and better.”

For Mansoor, the event three years ago represented the first step in a hugely exciting journey.

“I remember having an amazing time at the ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’ in Jeddah,” he recalls. “My family were in the crowd and it was the first time I stood in the ring at a WWE pay-per-view event. Looking at the tens of thousands of people was a surreal experience. It was just after my tryout, so I was elated as I’d been chosen among four men to possibly join WWE. Here I am now, all these years later, trying to make my way, make history and cement my legacy.”

Seth Rollins and Sheamus are two of WWE’s most established performers, and they were hugely impressed by the passion of the Saudi spectators in Jeddah.

“I have a lot of great memories from the event, especially the people of Saudi Arabia and the reception we received,” says Rollins. “The WWE Universe in the Middle East is as strong as anywhere in the entire world, so that was incredible.”

Sheamus, the reigning US Champion, echoed those words, saying: “What a great crowd, the fans were electric.”

“Let me tell everybody in Saudi Arabia, I’m looking forward to the day when I can come back and hold the championship up above my head in front of all the great Celtic Warrior fans, and it won’t be too long,” he added.