Al-Ittihad top, Al-Hilal in the groove: 5 things we learned from latest run of Saudi Pro League matches

Al-Ittihad top, Al-Hilal in the groove: 5 things we learned from latest run of Saudi Pro League matches
Al-Ittihad are very much the form team at the moment. (Twitter: @ittihad)
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Updated 19 September 2021

Al-Ittihad top, Al-Hilal in the groove: 5 things we learned from latest run of Saudi Pro League matches

Al-Ittihad top, Al-Hilal in the groove: 5 things we learned from latest run of Saudi Pro League matches
  • Al-Nassr coach Mano Menezes under pressure after AFC Champions League success was followed by 3-1 loss to leaders Al-Ittihad

It was another action-packed program in the Saudi Professional League with goals galore. Below are five things we learned from the fifth round of the 2021-22 season.

1. Moussa Marega and Bafetimbi Gomis look dangerous

The two strikers scored all Al-Hilal’s goals in their 3-2 win over Al-Ettifaq amid signs that the champions are starting to get into their domestic groove. There is more to it than that, however, as the pair are starting to link up well together.

In the league so far this season, the Riyadh giants have developed a habit of leaving it late, but not this time. In the 17th minute, Marega slipped Gomis through and the Frenchman’s shot came back off the post, but soon after Marega made no mistake from a similar position. Then it was the turn of Gomis, who added two more in the second half. If one doesn’t get you, the other will.

This week, instead of Al-Hilal in search of late goals, they were left hanging on as Al-Ettifaq scored twice against the tiring hosts. As coach Leonardo Jardim said, it was a wake-up call and a reminder that even with such striking talent, if you take your foot off the pedal in this league you run the risk of being punished.

2. Mano Menezes is on the brink

Fresh after reaching the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League on Tuesday, Al-Nassr were brought back down to earth with a bump, losing 3-1 at home to Al-Ittihad in this week’s big game.

It means that the pressure is well and truly back on coach Mano Menezes after a second league defeat this season, and the Brazilian cut a forlorn figure as he left the Marsool Park pitch.

He will point to the missed penalty by Abderrazzak Hamdallah, which would have brought back the scoreline to 2-2, as well as the chances missed by his team, but the former Brazil boss will know why his team lost. The problems were at the back. Three times the Tigers, roared on by their traveling supporters, cut through the Al-Nassr backline with relative ease.

If Menezes is still in a job next Thursday, the home game against Al-Batin is simply a must-win.

3. Al-Ahli coach under pressure after nightmare start

Al-Ahli’s 1-1 draw with Al-Fateh is not, on the face of it, a terrible result against a team going well, but for the Jeddah giants it was in reality a poor result. In fact, the fifth draw in five matches so far this season marks the second-worst start in the club’s history.

The team started brightly and took the lead, but have struggled with concentration in discipline in recent games and the same happened again just five minutes later. There were six white-shirted defenders in the area when Sofiane Bendebka’s shot bounced back off the bar and was headed in by Firas Al-Buraikan, but nobody was alert enough to either danger.

With expectations high going into the season, it is no surprise that there is pressure on coach Besnik Hasi. The former Anderlecht, Legia Warsaw and Olympiacos boss, now without the departed Paulinho, has to find solutions, and quickly. Al-Ahli have looked decent so far but obviously there is something missing, and if Hasi doesn’t find it soon he will be looking for a new job.

4. Al-Ittihad looking like title challengers

The game at Al-Nassr was always going to be a test of Al-Ittihad’s title credentials, and the 3-1 win meant they passed with flying colors. With Igor Coronado oozing class in attack and Abdulrahman Al-Obod having an excellent game on the left, the Tigers always carried a goal threat, especially on the counter.

After the opening-day defeat, there have been four successive wins with 14 goals scored and just three conceded in that time. Al-Ittihad are very much the form team at the moment and with no Asian commitments until next year, are looking to get plenty of points on the board to put the pressure on Al-Hilal, who are going to be desperate to win the Champions League with the quarterfinals and the semifinals both taking place within a few days of each other next month. Al-Ittihad will be hoping Al-Hilal reach the final and will be looking forward to their next game against the struggling Al-Taawoun.

5. We may have seen the game of the season…

Or at least the half of the season. Al-Taawoun have had huge problems this season in throwing away substantial leads, and did so to amazing effect at home to Al-Raed to lose 5-3.

Al-Taawoun scored three goals between the 52nd and 57th minute to come back from a goal down to lead 3-1 and, surely, even this team was not going to throw this lead away. The visitors, who have had a great start to the season, had other ideas, however, and soon scored three goals in seven minutes to make it 4-3. There was still time to add a fifth.

It was a roller-coaster second-half full of entertainment and twists and turns. Talking of roller-coasters, it left Al-Taawoun languishing at the bottom and put Al-Raed, for a day at least, at the top.


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.


Under-fire Bruce vows to fight for Newcastle job

Under-fire Bruce vows to fight for Newcastle job
Updated 15 October 2021

Under-fire Bruce vows to fight for Newcastle job

Under-fire Bruce vows to fight for Newcastle job
  • Bruce will reach 1,000 matches as a manager this weekend
  • The Magpies have been linked with former Chelsea boss Frank Lampard, ex-Borussia Dortmund manager Lucien Favre and Villarreal chief Unai Emery among many others

NEWCASTLE: Steve Bruce has dismissed suggestions he was hanging on as Newcastle United manager for a big pay-off, instead insisting he was focused on convincing the club’s new Saudi owners he was the man for the job.

The under-fire boss is winless in the Magpies’ first eight games of the 2021/22 campaign and has been the target of fan chants calling for him to go since the start of the season.

Calls for him to stand down have grown among supporters, seen as one of the most loyal set of fans in English football, since the Saudi Public Investment Fund, Reuben Brothers, and PCP Capital Partners completed a recent buyout of the Premier League club.

Bruce is thought to have a clause in his deal that ensures he will walk away from Newcastle United with around £8 million ($11 million).

However, with the hunt for a new manager understood to be underway, PCP’s Amanda Staveley said via a club statement that Bruce would oversee his 1,000th professional game as a manager on Sunday when Tottenham Hotspur are the visitors to St. James’ Park.

The 60-year-old former Manchester United skipper said he was determined to stay at the club, and not just for the money.

“That’s a really awful question to start with. It’s not all about money with me. Not at all. I want to be the manager of Newcastle, that’s not going to change. Who wouldn’t want to be, especially now? So, all I’m trying to do is focus on Sunday, get a result, see what happens after that,” he added.

Bruce met with Staveley, and her husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi, at the club’s Benton training ground on Monday, and revealed that there had been no mention of his future during their talks, only that the PCP directors had told him to, “do your job, do the best you can.”

He said: “We talked about the team, injuries, the training ground, it was very informal. I was told to carry on until I was told otherwise. And that’s what I have done.

“There were no discussions on me (future at the club) whatsoever. Certain discussions need to be private. It was very informal. They were very good people — it was good to see them, it is a great thing that has happened.

“I was told on Monday to carry on as normal. No matter what you guys (the media) have been saying and writing. I don’t need an assurance (about job security). Some very good people, who were sitting in front of me, told me to carry on. Business as usual.

“I am not going to give up the hold of it (the manager’s job) — hundreds will want to manage Newcastle United. It is exciting times for the club. I will have a crack. I will try my utmost. Who wouldn’t want this opportunity? I will make a fist of it and try my best for the club,” he added.

Vowing to carry on despite a poor run of results which have seen the team crash out of the Carabao Cup at the first hurdle and left sitting next to bottom of the Premier League table in 19th place, Bruce said: “If you are in the bottom six or seven, very quickly you come under pressure. When the criticism becomes personal, you cry out for respect.

“I will take results on the chin, that goes for all managers, we all know the job, if you don’t get results you are going to be criticized.”

A number of high-profile Premier League managers have already ruled themselves out of the running for the Newcastle job.

Former manager Rafa Benitez was lined up to replace Bruce, had the deal gone through prior to him accepting the Everton job. His advisers Owen Brown and Frank McParland are acting as football consultants to the new owners; however, Benitez will not follow them east.

“I have a very good relationship with the Newcastle United fans, the city and everyone and it’s not fair for me to talk about that. I’m Everton manager now, I’m focused on that, and I wish them all the best,” the Spaniard said on Friday.

“I prefer to stay away from that and wish them all the best. I can tell you I have a lot of friends and they were asking me the same question.

“But from day one, I was talking to the board here and they did not need to worry about that as I decided to stay. I’m really happy and trying to improve everything I can here and focus. When I decided to stay here, I kept my word and continued to work here,” Benitez added.

Leicester City’s Brendan Rodgers, believed to be a target of the club’s new football executive, along with Graham Potter of Brighton and Hove Albion, have both distanced themselves from the Newcastle role.

Another rumored candidate, Glasgow Rangers boss Steven Gerrard, said: “I think it’s interesting, what’s happening at Newcastle. I think if anyone deserves a break it’s the Geordie fans. So, I’m sure that excitement levels are very high down on the Toon.”