Romanian Cosmin Contra the latest coach to seek return to glory days at Al-Ittihad

Romanian Cosmin Contra the latest coach to seek return to glory days at Al-Ittihad
Former Dinamo Bucharest coach Cosmin Contra takes over Al-Ittihad just three matches into 2021-22 Saudi Pro League season. (Twitter: @ittihad)
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Updated 30 August 2021

Romanian Cosmin Contra the latest coach to seek return to glory days at Al-Ittihad

Romanian Cosmin Contra the latest coach to seek return to glory days at Al-Ittihad
  • Former Dinamo Bucharest coach takes over from sacked Brazilian Fabio Carille just three matches into 2021-22 Saudi Pro League season

It wouldn’t be the Saudi Professional League if there wasn’t a Romanian coach somewhere on the sidelines, and on Sunday, Al-Ittihad appointed Cosmin Contra.

The 45-year-old replaces Fabio Carille, who was fired after losing the final of the Arab Club Champions Cup on Aug. 21. The Brazilian has since said that he should not have been fired and does not understand why the decision was made. Many fans would probably agree but, as is the case in football, they are already looking to the future.

Contra is not the kind of big-name coach that rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr have with Leonardo Jardim and Mano Menezes respectively, but there is still plenty of experience there. His two years in charge of the Romanian national team ended in 2019 after he failed to reach Euro 2020, finishing behind Spain, Sweden and Norway in the qualifying group.

What he will bring to Jeddah is a hunger for success and desire to put recent events — more of that later — behind him. The appointment gives the former Getafe boss, and his Spanish staff, a chance to test his coaching wits in the competitive environment that is Saudi Arabia. Known as an offensive-minded tactician who takes care of his players and demands much of them, the coach has impressed those in charge of the two-time Asian champions. 

Al-Ittihad CEO Hamed Al-Balawi told local radio on Sunday that the club have done plenty of research on the new boss, who has been a free agent since leaving Dinamo Bucharest in December.

“We have met with Cosmin more than 10 times, and he is familiar with the team,” Al-Balawi said. “Former coach [Anghel] Iordanescu also participated in his selection.”

The contact with Iordanescu is fitting as he remains one of the best coaches the Jeddah club have ever had, the silver-haired mastermind delivering the most dominant Asian Champions League win in the competition’s history in 2005. There was an 8-3 aggregate win over Shandong Luneng of China, then a 7-0 thrashing of South Korea’s Busan I’Park and a 5-3 final triumph over UAE powerhouse Al Ain.

Al-Ittihad had also won the continental title in 2004 but had to come back from a 3-1 home defeat in the first leg of the final. There were no such dramas in 2005, and the Tigers looked set to dominate Asian football for some time to come. That it did not happen is another story, and now the focus is on whether Contra can get the team back to something approaching former glories.

The former Milan and Atletico Madrid player arrives in Jeddah at what is probably a good time. With just three games of the season gone, Al-Ittihad are in fourth with two wins, just a point off the top. With the international break starting, there is some time to get to know the players as he arrives on Tuesday and crucially, Igor Coronado, the big signing of the summer, is now cleared to play and already looking impressive. Contra’s first game comes against Abha on Sep.11, but there will be many already thinking of a huge clash against Al-Nassr a week later.

It will be a return to club management after leaving Dinamo Bucharest in December. His second spell at the club was a short one, and he left after four months due to financial problems.

“Dear Dinamo fans, I am leaving Romania with great pain in my soul. I never imagined that the project I believed in the most in my life is a big lie. Please forgive my naivete,” he wrote on social media. “I vouched for some people I didn’t know and I was wrong. It was the hardest 4 months of my coaching career, because of problems, lies, promises…

“I am not a coward! Those who really know me know how many sacrifices and compromises I made for Dinamo. In 4 months, I saw my family once. I was body and soul for Dinamo. Because of the stress, I had medical problems that affected my family a lot,” he added.

“I am a fighter and I would have found the strength to continue, but it is no longer about me, but about the peace and balance of my family. I would have remained for you, the Dinamo fans, the only ones who were next to the team at this moment. With you, Dinamo can never die!”

Such passionate words will go down well with fans of Al-Ittihad, a club that are no strangers to financial issues of their own. There are lots of questions that will be answered over the coming months, but if Contra can adapt to Saudi Arabian football, then the future could be bright for Al-Ittihad and their latest coach from Romania.

Abu Dhabi Showdown Week underway ahead of Jan Blachowicz’s bout with Glover Teixeira at UFC 267

Abu Dhabi Showdown Week underway ahead of Jan Blachowicz’s bout with Glover Teixeira at UFC 267
Updated 25 sec ago

Abu Dhabi Showdown Week underway ahead of Jan Blachowicz’s bout with Glover Teixeira at UFC 267

Abu Dhabi Showdown Week underway ahead of Jan Blachowicz’s bout with Glover Teixeira at UFC 267
  • Fatima Saeed Al-Baloushi, deputy director, Abu Dhabi Events Bureau, tells Arab News about the activities leading up to Saturday’s main event at the Etihad Arena on Yas Island

Abu Dhabi Showdown Week is underway with MMA fans invited to take part in a series of interactive events and classes that will culminate with UFC 267 on Saturday night, when Jan Blachowicz will defend his light-heavyweight title against the division’s No.1 contender Glover Teixeira.

Fatima Saeed Al-Baloushi, deputy director, Abu Dhabi Events Bureau, said that the success of previous UFC events in the UAE capital in the wake of the pandemic had paved the way for holding the week-long festival in the presence of fans again.

“In January, Abu Dhabi took a major step forward with the return of live events and over a period of seven days, we made it possible for fans to return to live events, not once but three times,” Al-Baloushi said. “UFC Fight Island Triple Header was a momentous achievement for the capital and raised the bar for all live events amid the ongoing global situation.”

Being one of the first live events open to the public, stringent health and safety protocols were put in place as crowds of up to 2,000 were allowed into the newly opened Etihad Arena on yas Island.

“We organized a dedicated ‘safe spectator journey’ to ensure all fans could enjoy three nights of top-class Octagon action,” she said. “Learning from all the previous events, Abu Dhabi Showdown Week will be another one for the history books. It’s definitely not to be missed.”

The First Fight Island at Yas Island took place behind closed doors in July of 2020, and its success led to high praise from UFC President Dana White, paving its return in September and January, when limited crowds were allowed back.

“We showed during the three editions of Fight Island that we were capable of giving global fighters a platform to come together and fight when much of the world was still closed,” Al-Baloushi said. “That really resonated with the athletes and the fact they could come here and just focus on their job, and enjoy some downtime.”

“We always strive to bring the best fighters to Abu Dhabi, fighters we know will appeal to our fervent fanbase. They appreciate the level of support they get here.”

Abu Dhabi Showdown Week is now underway with a series of city-wide activities, including fan events and fitness showcases. The week-long festival of MMA and lifestyle events will culminate in UFC 267 on Oct. 30.

Throughout the week fans can take part in open workouts as well as “Escape & Evolve,” an immersive experience at the W Abu Dhabi. Guests who attend this event get access to UFC 267, an overnight stay at W Abu Dhabi — Yas Island as well as mixed martial arts training sessions with Firas Zahabi, head coach of Tristar Gym. In addition, there will be be fitness workshops with the likes of Tunisian UFC fighter Mounir Lazzez.

“We are always keen to bring the best fighters to Abu Dhabi, and that was shown in the previous UFC events on Fight Island, which included Khabib Nurmagomedov, Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Israel Adesanya, Kamaru Usman,” Al-Baloushi said.

On Saturday night, Jan Blachowicz’s bout with Glover Teixeira will top the card, with the co-main event seeing former bantamweight belt-holder Petr Yan taking on Cory Sandhagen in an interim title fight.

Blachowicz in particular has become an Abu Dhabi fan favorite following his impressive victory over then-champion Dominick Reyes to claim the light-heavyweight title on UFC Fight Island last September, becoming Poland’s first UFC champion in the process.

The card will also see Islam Makhachev look to extend his winning streak to 10 fights when he faces contender Dan Hooker, himself coming off an impressive victory at UFC 266 in Las Vegas recently. Meanwhile Sweden’s Khamzat Chimes, who will fight Li Jingliang, returns to Abu Dhabi following his successful UFC debut at Fight Island in July 2020.

Al-Baloushi says that Yas Island is becoming a favored venue for many of the fighters such as Blachowicz.

“Khamzat is another of those fighters,” she said. “He made his UFC debut on Fight Island last year and impressed everybody with his victories, so is sure to have a lot of support when he steps into the Octagon again in Abu Dhabi.”

In the long term, Al-Baloushi is hoping that Abu Dhabi’s standing as a UFC hub will open the door for higher participation from the region.

“Yes, the sport is growing quite rapidly in the region,” she said. “Viewership has increased drastically over the past few years but even the number of youngsters chosen to follow the sport and immerse themselves in it has escalated.”

 “There are an increasing number of Arab fighters in UFC and as the sport continues to grow in the region, we are looking forward to seeing more and more Arab and Emirati representation in the sport,” Al-Baloushi said.

European Tour to swing by Al-Hamra Golf Club in Ras Al-Khaimah for first time next year

European Tour to swing by Al-Hamra Golf Club in Ras Al-Khaimah for first time next year
Updated 24 October 2021

European Tour to swing by Al-Hamra Golf Club in Ras Al-Khaimah for first time next year

European Tour to swing by Al-Hamra Golf Club in Ras Al-Khaimah for first time next year
  • Inaugural Ras Al-Khaimah Championship presented by Phoenix Capital to be played at Troon International venue in February

RAS AL-KHAIMAH: The inaugural Ras Al-Khaimah Championship presented by Phoenix Capital is set to take place at Al-Hamra Golf Club next year and will form part of a five-week “Middle East swing” during the early stages of the 2022 European Tour season.

Troon has confirmed that the European Tour will visit one of its UAE courses for the first time from Feb. 3 to 6, 2022.

Al-Hamra will host the third of five consecutive events in the region, with total prize money of $2m up for grabs. The tournament will take place after back-to-back Rolex Series events in the UAE: The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and the Dubai Desert Classic.

“The Peter Harradine-designed course at Al-Hamra Golf Club will be a fitting challenge to those playing in the inaugural Ras Al-Khaimah Championship presented by Phoenix Capital,” said Troon International President Mark Chapleski. “Since coming under the management of Troon International in 2018, Al-Hamra has gone from strength to strength. The fact that we have been selected to host such a significant event underlines the impact our talented team has had on this facility. In addition, the international recognition that this tournament brings will deliver visibility to a broad audience and showcase the fantastic experience that Al-Hamra Golf Club provides.”

Based in the northernmost Emirate in the UAE, Al-Hamra Golf Club has risen to prominence thanks to the course’s renowned condition and welcoming winter climate, with the 18-hole championship course situated within a series of interlinked water features and set against a desert landscape.

“We are delighted to be working with all of the key stakeholders — the European Tour, Phoenix Capital, RAKTDA, Al-Hamra, and Marjan — to showcase the wonderful emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah,” said Al-Hamra Golf Club General Manager Paul Booth. “The long-term strategic goal is to make the Ras Al-Khaimah Championship presented by Phoenix Capital a steadfast tournament on an expanding Middle East swing. These are exciting times for Al-Hamra Golf Club and Ras Al-Khaimah.”

Al-Hamra previously hosted the European Challenge Tour over three consecutive years from 2016 to 2018. It was initially the venue for the Ras Al-Khaimah Golf Challenge in 2016 and 2017, before hosting the Ras Al-Khaimah Challenge Tour Grand Final as the final stop on the Road to Ras Al-Khaimah in 2018.

At the Ras Al-Khaimah Challenge Tour Grand Final, Spaniard Adri Arnaus finished one shot clear of France’s Victor Perez, with the pair ending the season in second and third position, respectively, on the 2018 Challenge Tour rankings behind Denmark’s Joachim B. Hansen. All three players are now firmly established on the European Tour.


Damac top, Ighalo on fire: Five things we learned from the latest round of Saudi Pro League matches

Damac top, Ighalo on fire: Five things we learned from the latest round of Saudi Pro League matches
Updated 24 October 2021

Damac top, Ighalo on fire: Five things we learned from the latest round of Saudi Pro League matches

Damac top, Ighalo on fire: Five things we learned from the latest round of Saudi Pro League matches
  • With Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr preoccupied with the AFC Champions League, this season is shaping up to be one of the most open in years

The Saudi Professional League resumed at the weekend and the latest round of games could turn out to be one of the most significant of the 2021-22 season. Here are five things we learned from the action as we approach the campaign’s one-third mark.

1. The title race is shaping up to be a classic

The focus of late has been on the national team and the AFC Champions League, but there is plenty going on for followers of the SPL. The title race is shaping up to be something special. It has all the elements of a classic. There is a surprise leader in the shape of Damac, who have just overtaken Al-Ittihad at the top.

There are other elements too. The two Riyadh giants, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, are a few places back but have games in hand due to their AFC Champions League commitments and that adds an extra dimension. If they win those, then both could potentially go first, but a fixture pile-up may change everything. Al-Shabab have come from nowhere to challenge and on Friday defeated Al-Ittihad, who will now be keen to get back to winning ways.

There are currently five or six teams in the running. Long may that last.

2. Al-Ahli are doing Saudi Arabian football a service

The record books will show Al-Ahli won 2-1 at Al-Tai this matchday, but that does not tell the full story. In the middle of October, the talk was not about if coach Besnik Hasi was going to be fired, but when he would go and who should replace him. That was because the Jeddah giants had failed to win any of their first seven games and were in the bottom three.

The public votes of confidence kept coming and the expected dismissal did not. Now Al-Ahli have won their last two games and are suddenly looking up, not down. This does not mean that the pressure is off, but it does mean that another good result against Al-Hilal this week would really give the boss some breathing space.

Whatever happens, fans across the country (perhaps except for city rivals Al-Ittihad) should be cheering Al-Ahli on. For so long, the common reaction in the boardroom to a run of poor results has been a dismissal. We have seen this already this season. It would be really refreshing, however, if there could be an example of patience bringing success in Saudi Arabia. It would be great if a club was rewarded for not pulling the trigger.

3. Odion Ighalo is on fire

Al-Shabab’s celebrations after their fine 2-0 win over Al-Ittihad must have felt particularly sweet as it doesn’t seem long since they were near the bottom of the table and there was talk of coach Pericles Chamusca’s time in Riyadh being very short indeed. Yet here are last season’s runners-up right back in the title race, just three points behind first place.

When you have a striker in such a rich vein of form as Odion Ighalo, then you are always going to have a chance to win games, especially when there is a little more solidity and organization at the back. Compared to earlier this season, Al-Shabab have become harder to beat, while they have a sharp shooter in attack whose brace took him to the top of the goalscoring charts with eight.

Defeating league leaders Al-Ittihad was quite the statement. Ighalo got both and they were simple but classic. The first was just a well-timed run to side-foot home from close range. The second was a fine give-and-go and another side-foot finish from close range to seal the game. 

4. Damac need to wrap Zelaya in cotton wool

For the first time ever, Damac are at the top of the table thanks to a 1-0 win over Al-Hazem. This is no fluke. Since Croatian coach Kresimir Rezic took over at the start of 2021, they have lost just once in 18 games and have won 10. 

That is an impressive run and the latest victory put the team in uncharted territory. Defensively they are solid and only one team has conceded fewer goals.

And then there is Emilio Zelaya in attack. The 34-year-old has scored seven goals so far this season and, crucially, that magnificent haul has come in seven separate games.

The problem may come if the Argentine gets injured or fatigued, as Damac don’t have the strength in depth that many of the others at the top of the table can boast. But with a little luck and more solid performances from Algerian goalkeeper Moustapha Zeghba, then there is no reason why Damac can’t finish much higher than last season’s 11th.

5. Al-Hilal need to tighten up

Champions Al-Hilal defeated Al-Raed 3-2 on Saturday, but it was a very tight game indeed. For the third time in seven matches this season, they needed an injury-time winner and, while the team’s commitment to keep going until the end is to be commended, the fact that the Riyadh giants have conceded seven goals in their last four games will concern coach Leonardo Jardim.

Al-Hilal were cruising at 2-0 with six minutes remaining, but then conceded two goals in quick succession. The first was a beauty from outside the area and the second a well-worked close-range effort, but on both occasions too much space and time were given. 

If they are to defend their title in what is shaping up to be a competitive season, Al-Hilal’s defense needs to stay switched on for the full 90 minutes, as the attack will not always be able to turn things around.

Wild card Zizou Bergs triumphs at inaugural Tie Break Tens in Dubai

Wild card Zizou Bergs triumphs at inaugural Tie Break Tens in Dubai
Updated 24 October 2021

Wild card Zizou Bergs triumphs at inaugural Tie Break Tens in Dubai

Wild card Zizou Bergs triumphs at inaugural Tie Break Tens in Dubai
  • Belgian overcomes Taylor Fritz in final after top tennis players compete at Coca-Cola Arena for $136,000 winner-takes-all prize
  • Rosaleen Ali Yousef takes girls’ title and Raed Rizvi becomes boys’ champion in the TB10s Dubai Grassroots Junior Tournament

Zizou Bergs claimed the inaugural Tie Break Tens Dubai tennis tournament at the weekend with a victory over Taylor Fritz at the Coca-Cola Arena in Dubai.

The 22-year-old Belgian was neck and neck with Fritz on almost every point before sealing the final 11-9 with a smash. The win gave Bergs the championship trophy and $136,000 (AED 500,000) in prize money.

The culmination of the tournament saw wild card Bergs power his way past Dustin “Dreddie” Brown in his first match and then Gael Monfils in the semifinal. Indian Davis Cup representative Ramkumar Ramanathan was knocked out by Dan Evans in the first round. Evans then lost to Fritz.

“It’s actually unbelievable,” said Bergs. “I didn’t know much about Tie Break Tens — we’re used to playing long matches, which can be a little tense sometimes at the end, but this is tense all the time. It’s fantastic for the crowds and a great part of the process of becoming a great tennis player as well.”

The first Tie Break Tens tournament to visit the Middle East was organized with the support of Dubai Sports Council and title sponsor Zone, an online electronic sports and cryptocurrency platform.

“These things don’t come about without a lot of hard work and I’d like to thank our partners, Dubai Sports Council, our title sponsor Zone, Coca-Cola Arena and all the players who took time out of their schedule along with everyone who played a part in making this happen,” Tournament Director Jimmy Poon said.

“Once again Dubai has hosted tennis of the very highest quality, and Zizou Bergs proved to be a worthy winner. The excitement generated by the fast-paced Tie Break Tens format has created a real buzz here tonight, and is something everyone is looking forward to building on in the future.”

Taking place alongside the main event, the Tie Break Tens Dubai Grassroots Junior Tournament featured some of UAE’s rising talent, who made it to the competition via a series of qualifier events. In the U18 boys’ final, Raed Rizvi, 14, beat 15-year-old Henri Mikael 12-10 to become champion. In the girls’ U18 tournament, Rosaleen Ali Yousef, 16, emerged victorious 10-8 over Coumba Niangadou, 17.

The Tie Break Tens format is the only officially recognized short form of tennis, with matches comprised solely of tie breaks.

Full results:

Match 1 Dan Evans v Ramkumar Ramanathan 10-7; match 2 Taylor Fritz v Simon Roberts 10-3; match 3 Zizou Bergs v Dustin Brown 10-6; match 4 Gael Monfils v Benjamin Hassan 10-8.

Semifinals: Match 1 Taylor Fritz v Dan Evans 10-7; match 2 Zizou Bergs v Gael Monfils 10-8.

Final: Zizou Bergs v Taylor Fritz 11-9.

Slick Man City blow away Brighton

Slick Man City blow away Brighton
Updated 23 October 2021

Slick Man City blow away Brighton

Slick Man City blow away Brighton
BRIGHTON, United Kingdom: Pep Guardiola lauded Brighton for playing like a “top-four” side despite being on the end of a 4-1 thrashing from his Manchester City side on Saturday.
The English champions had the points sealed by half-time as Ilkay Gundogan tapped into an empty net on 13 minutes before Phil Foden finished off two fine team moves.
Alexis Mac Allister’s penalty pulled a goal back for Brighton, before Riyad Mahrez put the seal on a slick City display.
Brighton remain in fourth after an impressive start to the season and Guardiola believes the Seagulls deserve to be in that exalted position in the table.
“It’s really good because I knew which team we face today,” said Guardiola after City moved up to second in the table, two points behind leaders Chelsea.
“They are aggressive and when they have the ball they know what they have to do. They have all the mechanisms of a big team.
“They have courage. I admire them for that. They play like a top-four or five team.”
Guardiola made just two changes to the side that smashed Club Brugge 5-1 in the Champions League in midweek as Gundogan and Gabriel Jesus replaced Kevin De Bruyne and Mahrez.
And Brighton were on the same end of a similar hiding.
Joao Cancelo forced a smart save from Robert Sanchez and Lewis Dunk cleared an effort from Jesus off the line early on.
But Brighton did not help themselves with some disastrous defending for the opening goal as Sanchez dropped the ball under minimal pressure from Jesus.
The Brazilian hooked the ball back across goal and Gundogan turned into an unguarded net.
Bernardo Silva’s scintillating form has made the Portugal midfielder almost undroppable despite the wealth of midfield talent on offer to Guardiola.
Silva was the instigator for the second goal as his defense splitting pass played Jack Grealish in behind and he unselfishly squared for his England teammate Foden to force the ball in.
There was plenty of fortune about Foden’s second as he got in the way of Jesus’ shot and got enough of a deflection to bamboozle Sanchez, who let the ball through his grasp.
Brighton made a far better contest of the second-half as City conserved their energy amid a run of seven games in 22 days.
“It was a good lesson,” added Guardiola. “For 30 minutes they were better than us.”
Graham Potter’s men got their reward with a consolation nine minutes from time when Ederson wiped out Enock Mwepu as he rushed from his goal and Mac Allister slotted home from the penalty spot.
“We suffered a bit in the first half but the second half response was fantastic,” said Potter.
“Of course it’s disappointing to lose. We have to say Manchester City were better but our performance was something to be proud of.”
City still had the final say as Foden rounded off a superb performance by picking out Mahrez to smash the visitors’ fourth high past Sanchez.