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.


Why clubs will welcome biggest shakeup in decades for AFC Champions League

Why clubs will welcome biggest shakeup in decades for AFC Champions League
Updated 01 December 2021

Why clubs will welcome biggest shakeup in decades for AFC Champions League

Why clubs will welcome biggest shakeup in decades for AFC Champions League
  • Continent’s premier club competition set for autumn-spring schedule switch in 2023, increase in number of foreigners allowed in squads

RIYADH: Only days after Al-Hilal may have just made history by winning a record fourth Asian title, the AFC Champions League’s future is set to look very different as there are some significant changes already in place for the 2023 edition.

The Asian Football Confederation, which operates the competition that expanded from 32 to 40 teams this year, is set to officially approve a shift in the tournament’s calendar for the first time in almost two decades.

Instead of running from spring to autumn, the event will soon mirror its European equivalent by switching to an autumn start and a spring finish.

On Nov. 21, AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, said: “I am pleased to note that the AFC competitions continue to grow. There will be changes to the rules on foreign players, as well as to our competitions calendar. These are all part of the strategy to improve our players, clubs, and national teams on the world stage.”

The calendar change, expected to be rolled out in 2023, will return the tournament to its original schedule that was mapped out 20 years ago.

“The AFC Champions League was launched in 2002 and the inaugural season kicked off in August 2002 with its scheduled completion by May 2003,” the AFC said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that the outbreak of the respiratory illness SARS in Asia forced a postponement.

“Following this setback, the competition was relaunched in 2004 and the calendar was changed to February to December 2004, while the AFC Cup in 2004 took place from February to November 2004, leading to an adoption of the spring-autumn season,” the AFC said.

Ever since that initial change, there have been repeated requests for another look at the schedules and with a recent feasibility study being well-received, it all means that the changes will be agreed upon next year.

East Asian nations are especially happy with the change. Under the present format, the knockout stages come toward the end of the busy domestic seasons in China, South Korea, and Japan. Had Korean powerhouse Ulsan Hyundai won their semi-final against Pohang Steelers in October, the defending Asian champions would have had to travel to Riyadh for the final during the climax of the K-League title race and at the end of a grueling year.

A spring final would mean fresher eastern squads who would be just two or three months into their seasons as opposed to eight or nine.

For clubs in West Asia, it may present more of a challenge as domestic campaigns reach their zenith around the same time.

Until the final, the tournament is split into two geographic zones, east and west. That means that for much of the schedule, teams in each zone are in similar positions but the timing of the final, especially if it returns to a two-legged affair, tends to favor teams from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and elsewhere as they are just two or three months into their domestic seasons and approaching peak condition.

There are reasons for a switch that should benefit all. The AFC is confident that aligning the Asian calendar with much of the rest of the world, especially Europe, will make a difference financially, “for AFC Champions League and AFC Cup matches in terms of TV audiences and media interest with respect to the calendar structures of UEFA club competitions and European leagues.”

There are other changes that Saudi Arabia have pushed through. As reported by Arab News in November, the proposal from Riyadh to increase the number of foreign players that are allowed to play in the tournament has been accepted, only the precise format remains to be discussed.

At present, each team in the continental competition can register just four foreign players in its squad under the 3 plus 1 rule which means three imports can come from anywhere in the world and one from a fellow Asian nation. With 11 leagues around the continent allowing more imports for their domestic competition — including the Saudi Professional League, which has a full quota of seven — the AFC rule has increasingly become a point of contention.

“The current 3 plus 1 foreign player rule under which a club can field a maximum of four international players at any given point in time during a match is set to make way for a more augmented combination,” the AFC said.

“The proposed new combinations — 4 plus 2, 5 plus 1, or 5 plus 2 — have received wide support from both the AFC competitions committee and the AFC technical committee, with the decision imminent in early 2022 for implementation from 2023 onwards.” The changes will be confirmed early next year.

For major countries in Asian football, a revamped AFC Champions League should benefit all and help lift the tournament to the next level.


Fight, passion and magnificent support — but still no three points for Newcastle

Fight, passion and magnificent support — but still no three points for Newcastle
Updated 01 December 2021

Fight, passion and magnificent support — but still no three points for Newcastle

Fight, passion and magnificent support — but still no three points for Newcastle
  • A 1-1 draw against fellow relegation battlers Norwich had plenty of positives for Eddie Howe’s 10 men, but still fell short of the desperately needed win

NEWCASTLE: The unmentionable, what neither the fans nor the new owners dare think about, gets ever nearer for Newcastle United.

And, this time, it feels more self-inflicted than ever.

Eddie Howe’s black and white army — urged on continuously by a vociferous crowd from minute one to minute 90 (+6) at St. James’ Park — showed fight and commitment. Pain, passion, bodies on the line.

They had it all. They even scored, went into the lead — and had a VAR decision go in their favor.

Three points, though? That remains as elusive as ever.

And while they can explain away yet another two points dropped on home turf against a newly promoted struggler, mainly due to Ciaran Clark’s still inexplicable decision-making in his ninth-minute sending off, facts do not lie. This was yet another two points dropped. Yet another game ticked off without a win. Yet another opportunity gone begging.

Howe, in his assessment of the game-altering red, said: “It wasn’t the ideal start to the game, that’s for sure.

“I think that was a really difficult moment so early in the match to be down to 10 men,” he said. “In the cold light of day, I think Ciaran would have taken a different decision, but in that moment (it was) probably an impulse has just made him stop the striker.

“These things happen in the game. My immediate reaction was to not focus on that, it was to figure out very quickly what we had to do and try to find a solution to the problem,” Howe said. “Last thing I wanted to do was take Ryan Fraser off the pitch, but I felt I needed to do that for the team. Fede (Federico Fernandez) came on and I thought he was absolutely magnificent.

“Apologies to Ryan but Fede came in and made a big difference.”

Sadly, stepping into reality for a second here, Newcastle’s opportunities will soon run out. The “R” word has never been so glaringly in focus on Tyneside as it appears this year. Things didn’t get this bad in 2009, nor in 2016, the only two times the Magpies have been relegated from the English Premier League.

Never has a team, in Premier League history, risen from a 14-game winless start to the season to remain in the division a year later. United and Howe will have to write their own little piece of history this campaign if they are to break that record, which has stood for nearly 30 years.

Callum Wilson, United’s newly appointed captain, looked to have lifted the gloom on Tyneside — which now stretches to 15 games in all competitions — with his 61st-minute penalty, awarded after a handball was picked out by VAR. However, a Teemu Pukki volley, with about 12 minutes remaining, punctured what was building into a crescendo at SJP.

That goal, excellently taken by the flying Finn, was everything Irishman Clark deserved, but not one of the teammates he left out there, who to a man ran themselves into the ground for the cause.

Joelinton, Javier Manquillo and Jonjo Shelvey, so often criticized by fans, left their heart and soul out on the park. Fernandez, whose year has been massively impacted by a bout of COVID-19, was imperious.

“I thought the players responded magnificently. They gave everything, I can’t fault any of them for the effort and commitment they’ve given in the match,” said Howe.

“It was hugely disappointing we couldn’t get over the line and win the game, but I think we saw a really positive sign in terms of resilience and collective spirit, which we’re going to need for what lies ahead.”

Barrel loads of positives, yet only one more point on the board. Two less than was needed. Howe’s words, not mine.

The gap at the bottom of the table remains six points, but a late, late Leeds United win against Crystal Palace was another moment that felt like a nail in the coffin.

It now feels like a win against Burnley on Saturday or bust for Newcastle United’s season.

What remains in the afterlife for the Magpies is not set in stone. But their day of reckoning is upon them, it feels. And anything short of three points against the traditionally tough, physical, Sean Dyche-driven Clarets, who sit one place and two points better off than Newcastle ahead of their trip to Wolves on Wednesday night, would surely see a wave of realization sweep the banks of the Tyne, if it hasn’t already. Although a point would feel like an emotional stay of execution in many ways.

Relegation is the word no one wants to utter, but it is staring everyone square in the face.

The releasing of the Mike Ashley shackles, the arrival of the Public Investment Fund and Amanda Staveley with their belief, their understanding and their riches, the binning of the old regime’s neglectful, apologist Steve Bruce and the coming of a manager, Howe, with fresh ideas, impetus and vigor. It was all meant to see change. It was all meant to see a lift. None of it has. Improvement, yes. Three points, no.

And so United flounder. Their worst start in history and then some. Gone are the bounds of Mr. Sports Direct, but the remnants born of his derelict near-15 years in charge live on. This is PIF’s world we now live in, but it too is counting the cost of Ashley’s painful decade and a half. No amount of riches can seemingly save United now, not with January still a long month away.


Gerrard hopes Grealish gets warm welcome on Villa return

Gerrard hopes Grealish gets warm welcome on Villa return
Updated 30 November 2021

Gerrard hopes Grealish gets warm welcome on Villa return

Gerrard hopes Grealish gets warm welcome on Villa return
  • Grealish moved for a Premier League record £100 million in August
  • "Jack very much deserves a warm welcome and I have no doubt he'll get that," said Gerrard

LONDON: Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard said on Tuesday Jack Grealish has earned the right to a warm reception when he returns to Villa Park for the first time as a Manchester City player this week.
Grealish moved for a Premier League record £100 million ($133 million) in August after making over 200 appearances for his boyhood club since making his debut aged 18.
The England international has been sidelined in recent weeks, but returned to training on Monday and could feature against his former club.
“Jack very much deserves a warm welcome and I have no doubt he’ll get that,” said Gerrard, who has made a perfect start to his Premier League coaching career with two wins from two games.
“This is his club and it will be when his career is over, because he was here as a little boy and he has come through the academy.
“The club have benefited a lot from what Jack has given and we very much wish him well moving forward for the remainder of his career. Obviously not for 90 minutes tomorrow,” he added before Wednesday’s fixture.
Back-to-back wins over Brighton and Crystal Palace have propelled Villa seven points clear of the relegation zone.
However, Gerrard is well aware of the step up in class his side face when the champions come calling.
“The two wins have helped in terms of the feel-good factor around the place,” said the former Liverpool captain.
“But we’re aware that a real good side is coming into town and this will be a big acid test for us.”


Rory McIlroy eyes 3rd Dubai Desert Classic in 2022

Rory McIlroy eyes 3rd Dubai Desert Classic in 2022
Updated 30 November 2021

Rory McIlroy eyes 3rd Dubai Desert Classic in 2022

Rory McIlroy eyes 3rd Dubai Desert Classic in 2022
  • 4-time Major winner last took part in tournament at Emirates Golf Club in 2018

DUBAI: Four-time Major winner Rory McIlroy will return to Emirates Golf Club in January aiming to win his third Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic title.

The Northern Irishman will be looking to add to his impressive record in Dubai at what will be the second Rolex Series event of the 2022 DP World Tour season.

The 32-year-old will be back at the event for the first time since 2018 when he came close to adding to the titles he won in 2009 and 2015, finishing just one shot behind winner Li Haotong. McIlroy has an enviable record over the Majlis course with a further six top-10 finishes in 11 previous appearances.

And he has enjoyed many other memorable moments in Dubai throughout his illustrious career, winning the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in 2012 and 2015 and topping the season-long DP World Rankings three times – in 2012, 2014, and 2015.

McIlroy adds further star power to a strong field at the 2022 Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic, which will include world No. 2 and newly crowned DP World Rankings winner Collin Morikawa, fellow Major winner and 2017 Dubai Desert Classic winner Sergio Garcia, and defending champion Paul Casey.

It will also be the first year that the Dubai Desert Classic has been elevated to Rolex Series status, becoming part of the DP World Tour’s premium series of events, and also the first time it has been sponsored by logistics technology provider Slync.io.

The 2022 Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic will be the second of back-to-back Rolex Series events in the region, following the season opener in Abu Dhabi in January, and it will form part of the traditional Desert Swing.

McIlroy said: “I’m looking forward to getting back to Emirates Golf Club for the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic in 2022.

“I have so many wonderful memories from playing in Dubai over the years, and particularly over the Majlis course, where I’ve been able to win twice. I look forward to coming back to Dubai and aiming to get my hands on that incredible trophy again.”

Chris Kirchner, chairman and chief executive officer of Slync.io, said: “As a fan of golf, it’s important that we bring a field that other fans will enjoy. Rory is one of my favorite players and I’m thrilled to have him as part of the inaugural title partnership for Slync.io.”

Simon Corkill, Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic executive tournament director, said: “The addition of Rory McIlroy to an already strong field emphasizes the pedigree of the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic.

“As one of the most talented golfers in the world he brings plenty of energy and excitement to the tournament. We look forward to seeing Rory battle it out with Collin Morikawa, Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey and others in a truly world-class field at this year’s event.”

The tournament’s organizers have also confirmed that entry to the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic will be free to all.

Corkill added: “With the UAE set to celebrate its Golden Jubilee, we are delighted to announce that entry will be free for all golf fans over the four days of the tournament.

“This decision was made in recognition of this special moment in the UAE’s history, while also giving something back to sports fans following the challenges that have been faced in 2020 and 2021.

“What better way to celebrate than through a truly global sporting event on our doorstep which everyone can enjoy?”

Celebrating its 33rd edition in 2022, the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic has been won by some of golf’s greatest names, including Major champions Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Fred Couples, Jose Maria Olazabal, Mark O’Meara, Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson, McIlroy, Danny Willett, Garcia, and Bryson DeChambeau.

The winner’s circle over the past 32 years has also featured Ryder Cup stars Mark James, the inaugural champion in 1989, Eamonn Darcy, Colin Montgomerie, David Howell, Thomas Bjorn, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, and Stephen Gallacher.


Formula E and FIA introduce ‘Gen3’ car to push racing boundaries

Formula E and FIA introduce ‘Gen3’ car to push racing boundaries
Updated 30 November 2021

Formula E and FIA introduce ‘Gen3’ car to push racing boundaries

Formula E and FIA introduce ‘Gen3’ car to push racing boundaries
  • New car to debut in Season 9 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship
  • It will be the electric series’ fastest, lightest and most powerful racing car yet

VALENCIA: Formula E and the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile have shared a first look at the third-generation all-electric racing car that will race in Season 9 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship.

The car was presented under top-security conditions to an exclusive group of Formula E manufacturers, teams, drivers and partners in Valencia, Spain, where pre-season testing is underway for Season 8 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, which begins in January.

“The new Gen3 Formula E single-seater is a car created at the intersection of high performance, efficiency and sustainability,” said Jean Todt, FIA president. “The work accomplished by the FIA’s teams together with Formula E, since the launch of the discipline eight seasons ago, tirelessly seek to drive innovation and further the development of sustainable mobility. I have no doubt that this new single-seater will elevate Formula E to the next level.”

While Formula E manufacturers are set to take delivery of Gen3 cars in spring 2022 following further intensive development testing on and off the track, the briefing in Valencia disclosed a series of design, performance, and sustainability innovations in the Gen3 car, among them being the world’s most efficient racing car with at least 40 percent of the energy used within a race being produced by regenerative braking.

Lighter and smaller than the Gen2, the new car will also to enable faster, more agile wheel-to-wheel racing.

“In designing the Gen3 car, we set out to demonstrate that high performance, efficiency and sustainability can co-exist without compromise,” said Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle, adding: “Together with the FIA, we have built the world’s most efficient and sustainable high performance race car.

“The Gen3 is our fastest, lightest, most powerful and efficient racing car yet.”

Reigle said: “It is a creature designed for its habitat: Racing on city streets in wheel-to-wheel combat. We look forward to witnessing it inspire and excite the next generation of motorsport fans in cities around the world from Season 9 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship.”

The Gen3 is the first formula car aligned to “Life Cycle Thinking” with a clear path towards second life and end of life for all tyres, broken parts and battery cells.

This innovation means that the car will be net-zero on carbon emissions, maintaining the championship’s status as the first sport to be certified as net-zero carbon since inception.

All carbon fibre broken parts will be recycled by an innovative process from the aviation and aerospace industry into new fibres reusable for other applications.

A pioneering process will deliver 26 percent sustainable materials into the composition of tyres.

The Gen3 is powered by highly efficient electric motors that can convert over 90 percent of the electrical energy into mechanical energy, a jump up from 40 percent in Gen2 cars.