Al-Ain top, Sharjah heroic: 5 things we learned from the third round of the 2021-22 UAE Pro League season

Al-Ain top, Sharjah heroic: 5 things we learned from the third round of the 2021-22 UAE Pro League season
Moroccan international Soufiane Rahimi produced an excellent cross for goal machine Laba Kodjo to score the winner against Baniyas. (@AGLeague_EN)
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Updated 12 September 2021

Al-Ain top, Sharjah heroic: 5 things we learned from the third round of the 2021-22 UAE Pro League season

Al-Ain top, Sharjah heroic: 5 things we learned from the third round of the 2021-22 UAE Pro League season
  • Al-Jazira march on despite Ali Mabkhout’s goal drought, while Al-Wahda head into AFC Champions League with doubts

After a disappointing international break for the UAE in which they drew against Lebanon and Syria, attention turned to club football as the UAE Pro League resumed with seven matches over the weekend, and there was plenty to talk about in matchweek three.

1. Al-Jazira march on despite Mabkhout drought

Three games into the 2021-22 UAE Pro League season and last season’s top scorer Ali Mabkhout is yet to get off the mark. A concern for Al-Jazira’s all-time top scorer? Perhaps, but it did not feel like an issue for the reigning champions on Saturday as coach Marcel Keizer’s men extended their unbeaten run with a comfortable 2-1 win over Al-Nasr.

Teenage winger Oumar Traore, a revelation in the second half of last season after joining in January from his native Mali, opened the scoring with a well-placed finish and new arrival from Sporting Lisbon Abdoulay Diaby demonstrated what he adds to the side with a pacey run down the left and a pinpoint drilled cross for Zayed Al-Ameri to tap in home the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s second of the night.

Sebastian Tagliabue halved the deficit with 10 seconds to go, but his goal will have more significance for him personally than to the team as he edges ever closer to Mabkhout in the race to become the UAE top division’s all-time top scorer, now sitting on 166 goals, just five behind the goal-shy Al-Jazira forward’s 171.

Seven points from nine mean that Al-Jazira’s title defense is off to a solid start and their faithful will find further solace in the fact that Mabkhout had also failed to find the back of the net in the first three matches of last season, then went on to finish as top scorer with 25 goals.

2. Al-Anbari deserves recognition after 10-man Sharjah comeback

The result of this matchweek belonged to Sharjah. The team produced a heroic second-half display against Al-Wasl to come from two goals down and continue their perfect start of the season despite playing with 10 men for all of 80 minutes.

Fabio de Lima opened Al-Wasl’s account 10 minutes in from the spot after Al-Hassan Saleh was sent off for the foul on him. The Brazilian-born UAE international then forced Sharjah defender Abdulla Ghanim to fire into his own net just before the break following a deft cross into the corridor of uncertainty.

An hour into the game, all looked to have been decided, but Sharjah coach Abdulaziz Al-Anbari had other plans. The former club captain shuffled his side, introducing striker Ben Malango for right-back Khalid Al Dhanhani and bringing Luan Pereira for a box-to-box role in midfield.

The result? Pereira made a darting run into the box minutes later, winning a penalty that was converted by Caio Lucas. The substitute then produced an assist of the season contender merely four minutes later, backheeling for Malango to power home the equalizer.

With momentum on their side, Al-Anbari’s men left it late, but delivered the goods with seconds to play after former Everton midfielder Bernard fed Malango on the counter and the Congolese drilled into the bottom corner from 30 yards out for a winner that will live long in the memory of Sharjah fans, all to the credit of their league-winning manager, who further cemented his legendary status at the Sharjah Stadium.

3. Al-Ain rebuild job nearly complete

It might be early days, and a lot will certainly change between now and the end of the season, but for the first time in a very long time, Al-Ain are top of the table and look good value for it, too.

The 13-time league champions and the UAE’s only Asian champions have struggled to find their identity over the past few seasons, slipping as low as sixth in the table by the end of last season, but things seem to have finally changed at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

Intelligent recruitment saw enforcements across the pitch, with Tunisian international defender Yassine Meriah arriving from Greek side Olympiacos and Argentine playmaker Cristian Guanca brought on loan from Saudi Arabia’s Al-Shabab, among others.

In the absence of their top assist maker last season, Bandar Al-Ahbabi, it was one of the new recruits, Moroccan international Soufiane Rahimi, who produced an excellent cross for goal machine Laba Kodjo to score the winner against Bani Yas, ending a four-game losing run against their Abu Dhabi rivals and maintaining a perfect record in three games for coach Sergei Rebrov’s men.

4. Alarm bells ring at Al-Wahda before continental clash

While Sharjah will go into the AFC Champions League round of 16 buoyed by their victory over Al-Wasl, concern will be the order of the day at Al-Nahyan Stadium as Al-Wahda failed to win for the second game in a row.

Head coach Henk ten Cate opted to leave out the likes of solid defender Lucas Pimenta as he fielded a lineup featuring only the four foreigners registered for the continental competition in preparation for facing domestic rivals Sharjah on Tuesday.

Away at lowly Khorfakkan, playing only their third-ever season in the top division, Al-Wahda looked lackluster, needing as long as 73 minutes to get their first effort on target, a tame Joao Pedro header.

Yes, Al-Wahda remain unbeaten after three games, but their only win came against newly promoted Al-Orooba on the latter’s top flight debut, and their back-to-back draws against Bani Yas and Khorfakkan will send the alarm bells ringing ahead of arguably the biggest game of their season.

5. Bahrain’s Madan an inspired signing for Al-Orooba

Now sitting at the bottom end of the UAE Pro League table are newly promoted Emirates Club and Al-Orooba, the latter appearing in the top division for the first time in their history. It was a steep learning curve for the Fujairah-based side, who lost their opening two games 4-0 and 5-0 against Al-Wahda and Al-Nasr, respectively.

But by gameweek three, Al-Orooba looked more confident in themselves, like they had finally got the hang of what playing at this level is all about. They collected their first-ever Pro League point with a 1-1 draw against star-studded Shabab Al-Ahli.

One man who excelled on Saturday is Bahraini international midfielder Ali Madan. In the summer, Madan became the first Bahraini to play in the UAE Pro League, and it is proving to be an inspired signing already.

In Al-Orooba’s low block and counterattack system, Madan’s mazy runs and pace are a perfect fit, so much so that after three games, he tops the league charts in terms of dribbles completed. Against Shabab Al-Ahli, he delivered an end product, too, with his cross from the right resulting in Ahmed Moosa Saqer’s equalizer late in the first half. The early signs are good for Madan, and now it is time to see whether he can kick on from there and continue to impress.


360VUZ to bring football action to fans’ mobile phones

360VUZ has partnered with the Saudi Professional League to bring top tier football action to fans’ mobile phones. (Supplied/360VUZ)
360VUZ has partnered with the Saudi Professional League to bring top tier football action to fans’ mobile phones. (Supplied/360VUZ)
Updated 24 sec ago

360VUZ to bring football action to fans’ mobile phones

360VUZ has partnered with the Saudi Professional League to bring top tier football action to fans’ mobile phones. (Supplied/360VUZ)
  • Under agreement with Saudi Professional League a new dedicated channel will allow users to navigate easily on the app and watch the top tier Saudi clubs in action

RIYADH: 360VUZ, the immersive virtual mobile app has partnered with the Saudi Professional League to offer a fuller experience to football fans, enabling them to watch highlights of the SPL games, behind the scenes videos and exclusive interviews with players all in 360 degrees.

The new partnership will play a major role in engaging 360VUZ users with the Saudi league, making it one of the first major leagues in the world to bring an immersive football content to screens.

Khaled Zaatarah, founder and Chief Executive Officer of 360VUZ, said: “We are happy to team up with Saudi Professional League to show spectacular videos of the league on our platform. In 360VUZ we strive to offer an immersive experience with vital content for all our users just through using their phones.”

360VUZ will offer a dedicated channel for SPL, which will allow the users to navigate easily on the app and watch the top tier Saudi clubs in action. The app includes KBW Ventures — founded by Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz, President of Saudi Sports For All Federation — as one of its investors.

“Seeing 360VUZ ink this partnership with the Saudi Professional League is really exciting for me as an investor,” Prince Khaled said. “During their initial pitch, I could see how well their immersive experience would work for Saudi sports enthusiasts, and now with SPL the app can bring these moments to fans both in and outside of the Kingdom.”

Abdul Aziz Al Afaleq, Chairman of the Board at Saudi Pro League, said: “We are keen on adopting the latest trends and technologies around the world, and featuring our league on 360VUZ app makes us the first league to present exclusive and immersive video content to our fans.”

“This partnership aims at enhancing our connection with the league’s fans by offering a one-of-a-kind experience to watch the league’s stars and the latest highlights of our matches,” he said.


Faf du Plessis stars as Chennai Super Kings down Kolkata Knight Riders to win fourth IPL title in Dubai

Chennai, winners in 2010, 2011 and 2018, remain one of the most successful IPL franchises after five-time champions Mumbai Indians. (Twitter: @IPL)
Chennai, winners in 2010, 2011 and 2018, remain one of the most successful IPL franchises after five-time champions Mumbai Indians. (Twitter: @IPL)
Updated 16 October 2021

Faf du Plessis stars as Chennai Super Kings down Kolkata Knight Riders to win fourth IPL title in Dubai

Chennai, winners in 2010, 2011 and 2018, remain one of the most successful IPL franchises after five-time champions Mumbai Indians. (Twitter: @IPL)

DUBAI: Faf du Plessis smashed an attacking half-century to help Chennai Super Kings thrash Kolkata Knight Riders by 27 runs and clinch their fourth Indian Premier League title on Friday.
Du Plessis’ 86 off 59 balls guided Chennai to 192-3, a total their bowlers defended by restricting Kolkata to 165-9 in the final in Dubai.
Opener Venkatesh Iyer hit a 32-ball 50 but the knock was not enough to stop Chennai’s M.S. Dhoni from a landmark win in his 300th match as T20 skipper.
“We had match winners coming game after game and doing really well,” said Dhoni who also praised Kolkata for reviving their fortunes in the tournament’s second leg.
“Every final is special, if you look at the stats, we may say we’re the most consistent team to lose the final too. I feel it’s important to come back strong, especially in the knockouts.”
Chennai, winners in 2010, 2011 and 2018, remain one of the most successful IPL franchises after five-time champions Mumbai Indians who failed to defend their title this season.
Shardul Thakur took three wickets including twin strikes in one over to hurt two-time champions Kolkata who came into the final on the back of four successive wins.
Spinner Ravindra Jadeja and pace bowler Josh Hazlewood took two wickets each.
Eoin Morgan’s Kolkata won the toss and elected to field but their bowlers failed to get a wicket until the ninth over and took a hammering in Dubai.
Ruturaj Gaikwad fell for 32 off spinner Sunil Narine but Du Plessis kept up the charge to raise his fifty with a six amid raucous support for Chennai at a nearly packed stadium.
The South African veteran smashed seven fours and three sixes and put on key partnerships with Robin Uthappa, who made 31, and Moeen Ali, who hit an unbeaten 37 off 20 balls.
“That was a great day. It was also my 100th game in the IPL,” said man of the match Du Plessis who scored 600 runs this season.
“I have loved my time here. I have done almost ten years here — two seasons were a bit of a break. Number four in the trophy cabinet is really good.”
Du Plessis was all praise for his opening partner Gaikwad who topped the season’s batting chart with 635 runs and named emerging player of the tournament.
Du Plessis was out on the final ball off pace bowler Shivam Mavi. Narine was Kolkata’s best bowler with figures of 2-26.
Kolkata started strongly with Iyer and Shubman Gill, who made 51, putting on a quickfire opening stand of 91.
But Chennai hit back with Thakur’s twin strikes in one over including Iyer’s key wicket as wheels came off the Kolkata chase.
“We are extremely proud of the fight we have shown. The character and fight is trademark,” Morgan said of his side that bounced back from a seventh place in the first leg to storm into the playoffs and then the final.
The tournament was halted midway due to a surging pandemic in India in may and resumed in the United Arab Emirates last month.


Infantino says biennial World Cup gives countries chance to ‘dream’

Infantino says biennial World Cup gives countries chance to ‘dream’
Updated 15 October 2021

Infantino says biennial World Cup gives countries chance to ‘dream’

Infantino says biennial World Cup gives countries chance to ‘dream’
  • The biennial World Cup project has come in for heavy criticism from continental federations UEFA and CONMEBOL
  • "Our job as FIFA is to constantly think about how we can improve football in the world, to make football truly global," Infantino said in Caracas

CARACAS: FIFA president Gianni Infantino on Friday defended his plan to hold the World Cup every two years during a visit to Venezuela, a country that has never qualified for the global showpiece.
The biennial World Cup project, which has the backing of former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, has come in for heavy criticism from continental federations UEFA and CONMEBOL, as well as coaches and pundits.
“Our job as FIFA is to constantly think about how we can improve football in the world, to make football truly global,” Infantino said during an event in the Venezuelan capital Caracas.
“The FIFA president is president of the 111 countries and all those countries have the right to dream, a dream like the Vinotinto (Venezuela’s national team) dream.
“They also have to be able to achieve that dream because if you have to dream for eternity, in the end you prefer to do other things.”
Infantino insisted that a biennial World Cup would increase the chances for smaller nations to qualify.
“When it was decided to organize a World Cup every four years, more or less 100 years ago, FIFA had 40 countries. It’s time to re-analyze the issue.”
Infantino said South American sides were often at a disadvantage due to the amount of travel they have to do compared to European sides.
Europe has hosted the World Cup more than twice as often (11 times) than any other continent.
South America have welcomed the tournament five times. Africa and Asia have only hosted it once each, although the next one is in Qatar.
“If Messi has to travel 350,000 kilometers to play a World Cup and Cristiano Ronaldo 50,000 to play ... I think it’s normal that in June the South Americans are a bit more tired than the Europeans,” said Infantino.
“Since 2002, Brazil have not won a single World Cup knock-out match against a European side ... Not for 20 years, and that’s Brazil!“


The joy is back for Neymar in World Cup qualifying

The joy is back for Neymar in World Cup qualifying
Updated 15 October 2021

The joy is back for Neymar in World Cup qualifying

The joy is back for Neymar in World Cup qualifying

SAO PAULO: Neymar started the week facing criticism after a poor performance in a World Cup qualifying match and his suggestion that the next tournament in Qatar might be his last.
But the striker helped erase many of those thoughts by providing key elements in all of the Brazil goals in Thursday’s 4-1 win against Uruguay.
The 29-year-old Neymar, who had a disappointing performance in Sunday’s 0-0 draw at Colombia in the previous round, arrived in the northwest Brazilian city of Manaus on Monday with dozens of fans in front of the team’s hotel. That would be the usual, were it not for a wave of criticism he has faced at home for months.
Neymar scored the opening goal against Uruguay after dribbling past goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. He then took the shot that allowed Raphinha to add the second. And then he provided two assists; one in a through pass to Raphinha and a cross that landed on the head of Gabriel Barbosa.
Midfielder Fred, who assisted Neymar on his goal, said Brazil players felt the difference in atmosphere since they arrived in Manaus. And that includes the team’s star.
“These fans gave us support every day in the stadium, in the hotel. They bought all the tickets and it was an extra strength for us,” he said, referring to the attendance of 12,500, the maximum allowed by COVID-19 protocols in Brazil. “We want them to be here supporting us, giving this great energy again in the next matches,” he added.
Raphinha praised Neymar’s performance on Thursday.
“Playing with Ney was very easy. I am a big fan of his, I take a lot of inspiration from him, in the way he plays and dribbles the opposition,” Raphinha said. “I watch a lot of his videos. To have played alongside is a dream coming true.”
Neymar also showed his reinvigorated happiness on social media.
On Instagram, he posted pictures celebrating his goal with teammate Lucas Paquetá, a montage to mark his 70th goal for Brazil and also a video of himself hugging his friend and Uruguay striker Luis Suárez.
“A giant by nature,” Neymar said in the caption of a picture of himself celebrating.
The Brazil star, who has been overshadowed by Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi’s arrival at his club Paris Saint-Germain, once again dribbled past defenders with a smile on his face.
Before Neymar’s showing against Uruguay, local fans were still accusing him of being in poor shape, failing in delivering the latest Copa America, focusing too much on his events off the pitch and, finally, of remaining mostly silent about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil.
Brazil coach Tite agreed that the first match in front of home fans boosted the team’s morale after two lackluster performances. Neymar did not play in the 3-1 win against Venezuela due to a suspension.
“Thank you, Manaus. You had extraordinary human warmth with us,” Tite said at a media conference. “With fans back in the stadium . . . celebrating when our bus arrived. It was beautiful. Maybe today’s showing had to do a little with all this love, being welcome here.”
Neymar will return to action with Brazil in November, when his team will qualify for the World Cup if it scores a home win over Colombia in the next round. A few days later he will face Messi’s Argentina in San Juan.
Brazil leads qualifiers with 31 points in 11 matches, six ahead of second-place Argentina.


Pedri signs new deal with ‘greatest club’ Barcelona

Pedri signs new deal with ‘greatest club’ Barcelona
Updated 15 October 2021

Pedri signs new deal with ‘greatest club’ Barcelona

Pedri signs new deal with ‘greatest club’ Barcelona
  • Pedri has been one of the very few bright spots for Barcelona over the past year
  • “My desire was to remain here for many years,” the 18-year-old Pedri said after signing

BARCELONA: Barcelona midfielder Pedri González signed a new contract through 2026 on Friday, with the club hoping the teenager can help it recover from the traumatic departure of Lionel Messi.
Pedri has been one of the very few bright spots for Barcelona over the past year, during which a president has resigned and its debt has skyrocketed. Barcelona had to let Messi walk away when it could not pay his wages. Painful losses on the field have followed.
“My desire was to remain here for many years,” the 18-year-old Pedri said after signing. “It is true that we are going through a difficult moment, but we are the greatest club in the world and we are going to work this out.”
Pedri is coming off a breakout season, his first with Barcelona after joining from Las Palmas. The playmaker led Barcelona with 53 appearances, helping it win the Copa del Rey.
Pedri also became a key player for Spain, helping the national team reach the semifinals of the European Championship and winning a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
His salary was not made public but Barcelona president Joan Laporta thanked Pedri for making “an effort” to reach an agreement that the cash-strapped club could afford. An exultant Laporta, who at one point in their joint news conference accidently called Pedri “Messi,” said re-signing the teenager was “of those days when it pays to be Barça’s president.”
In a sign of the expectations Barcelona has placed on Pedri, his contract includes a release clause of 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion), the highest in club history. Barcelona director of football Mateu Alemany said Pedri’s release clause “means he will be off the market for several years.”
Pedri signed for Barcelona in 2019 from Las Palmas, a second-division club on his native Canary Islands. The transfer fee of 5 million euros ($5.8 million) proved a steal. At Barcelona, Pedri quickly convinced coach Ronald Koeman that he should be his central playmaker in a similar role to former great Andrés Iniesta.
Spain coach Luis Enrique took note and gave Pedri a starting spot in the European Championship, where his precision passing and ball control earned him the award for the tournament’s best young player.
With Messi gone and no money to make big signings, Pedri forms part of a youth movement at Barcelona along with forward Ansu Fati and Gavi Páez, who recently became the youngest player to debut for Spain at age 17.
Pedri is currently recovering from a left thigh injury. He said that he did not believe the injury was due to the staggering total of 74 matches he played for country and club last season.
“I am eager to get back out there and make good on the trust that (the club) has placed in me,” Pedri said.