Al-Ahli and Besnik Hasi in crisis mode as wins become distant memory

Al-Ahli's players gather in a huddle ahead of their AFC Champions League match against Al-Duhail on April 18, 2021, at the King Abdullah Sport City stadium. (AFP/File Photo)
Al-Ahli's players gather in a huddle ahead of their AFC Champions League match against Al-Duhail on April 18, 2021, at the King Abdullah Sport City stadium. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 23 September 2021

Al-Ahli and Besnik Hasi in crisis mode as wins become distant memory

Al-Ahli's players gather in a huddle ahead of their AFC Champions League match against Al-Duhail on April 18, 2021, at the King Abdullah Sport City stadium. (AFP/File Photo)
  • The Jeddah club’s last victory in any competition came in April making Thursday’s clash with Al-Fayah a must-win match

JEDDAH: This season was supposed to be different to the last, but after just five games in the Saudi Professional League, Al-Ahli are in crisis mode.

Management at the four-time champions must have been thankful that at least Al-Nassr’s dismissal of Mano Menezes last weekend took the bulk of the attention, but now the focus is very much moving westwards towards Jeddah. 

There are must-win games and then there are must-win games and Thursday’s league meeting with Al-Fayha is crucial for the club and especially the boss.

Al-Ahli have drawn seven matches in a row in all competitions, and their last win came in April against Iraq’s Al-Shorta in the AFC Champions League group stages.

With only five points this season, the club now sits 10th in the Saudi pro League table.

If the five-time champions do not return from Al Majma’ah with three points, then coach Besnik Hasi is in line to become coaching casualty number five this season. With the Jeddah Derby against league leaders Al-Ittihad looming eight days later, it is likely the bullet will be fired if there is no victory. Al-Ahli and Hasi know well that after Al-Ittihad fired their coach with just one league game played, they have won every game since.

Al-Ahli finished eighth last season, just four points above the relegation zone, in a season dominated by reports of problems in the team and salaries that came late. Whatever happened off the pitch, what happened on it — the club’s worst finish since 2008 — was not good enough for a genuine Saudi Arabian giant.

Hasi was not the biggest name coach available, but boasts a solid European CV in charge of Anderlecht, Legia Warsaw and Olympiacos. He impressed in the Saudi Professional League with Al-Raed. It was no surprise then that the management felt in June that the 49-year-old was the right man to build something more substantial. 

His recruitment seemed decent. The addition of Ezgjan Alioski from Leeds United was a solid move. Star striker Omar Al-Somah, who often cut a forlorn figure last season, seemed happier. After former Barcelona star and Brazilian international Paulinho arrived, the signs were promising.

But after five games, Al-Ahli have just five points from five draws, their second-worst start to the season ever. There looks to be a distinct lack of leadership on the pitch. There has been major possession in most of those games but the team have been guilty of not taking their chances and switching off at the back. This is something that Hasi knows needs to stop against Al-Fayha who have said that they will let fans in for free in a bid to create that all-important 12th man. 

To make matters worse for Al-Ahli, on paper it has been a fairly gentle start and they have yet to play one of the big boys. The pressure is well and truly on — and now Paulinho has gone. The star player departed suddenly last weekend and Al-Ahli have been trying this week to show that the 33-year-old leaving had nothing to do with any issue at the club or anything related to football at all. The player said that it was due to “emergency circumstances” and the official line is the same.

“Paulinho showed us a picture of his family house two weeks ago,” said an Al-Ahli board member. “We met with him and confirmed that he needed to return home and we offered him the chance to have leave but he insisted that he needed to stay a long time. The player was happy here and had ambition and his departure was down to family circumstances only and nothing else.”

The football family in Brazil expects that he will be playing back in South America before too long. “It's up to Paulinho whether he wants to play for Corinthians or not,” said former Corinthians president Andres Sanchez. “He knows everything about Corinthians and how much he can be paid, it is up to him.” That is no longer an issue for Hasi, who may turn to powerful Saudi international midfielder Ali Al-Asmari to play the Paulinho role. 

The European coach is not the only manager under pressure.

Al-Shabab finished second last season but have been struggling so far this year under new boss Pericles Chamusca. Like Al-Ahli, Shabab have five points, though a win and a draw in the last two games has kept the Brazilian in the Riyadh hotseat so far. Defeat against Al-Hilal — the champions are not the team you want to face in such a situation — on Thursday could see Shabab drop into the relegation zone and Chamusca drop out of a job.

Al-Nassr have just fired Menezes and know that a failure to defeat Al-Batin will increase pressure on the board. Assistant Marcelo, also a Brazilian, will take temporary charge of the Riyadh club. That coaching change in Riyadh was not the first this season and will not be the last, but Besnik Hasi needs a result to avoid being the next.


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.”


Guardiola unable to give Sterling assurances about game time

Guardiola unable to give Sterling assurances about game time
Updated 15 October 2021

Guardiola unable to give Sterling assurances about game time

Guardiola unable to give Sterling assurances about game time
  • Sterling said he would assess opportunities “to go somewhere else” after falling down the pecking order at City
  • The England winger made the comments at the FT Business of Sport US Summit on Thursday and that came as a surprise to Guardiola and City

MANCHESTER, England: Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said Friday he cannot give assurances to Raheem Sterling about more regular playing time after the winger said he was open to leaving the Premier League champion.
Sterling said he would assess opportunities “to go somewhere else” after falling down the pecking order at City and only starting two of the team’s seven games of its title defense this season.
The England winger made the comments at the FT Business of Sport US Summit on Thursday and that came as a surprise to Guardiola and City.
Asked for his reaction, the City manager said: “I cannot assure (players) and they know it. I spoke many times about this. I cannot assure how many minutes every player is going to play. Always they have to speak on the grass, on the pitch. That is the best moment.”
“What I want,” Guardiola said, “for Raheem and everybody is to be happy. They have to be satisfied to be here, they have to be delighted to be at this club. If that is not the case, they are free to take a decision that is best for them, for the family, for all the people who love them.”
Sterling is in competition for a spot in City’s front three with five players: Phil Foden, Gabriel Jesus, Riyad Mahrez, Ferran Torres and Jack Grealish.
Sterling’s chances of seeing more minutes in the short term have improved after Torres returned from international duty with Spain with a right foot injury.
Guardiola said that would keep the forward out for up to three months.
It rules Torres out of Spain’s crucial World Cup qualifiers next month against Greece and Sweden.


Tunisia’s Jabeur to become first Arab player to crack top 10

Tunisia’s Jabeur to become first Arab player to crack top 10
Updated 15 October 2021

Tunisia’s Jabeur to become first Arab player to crack top 10

Tunisia’s Jabeur to become first Arab player to crack top 10
  • Jabeur, currently ranked 14th, reached the final of the Chicago Fall Tennis Classic earlier this month
  • She became the first Arab player to win a WTA title at the Birmingham Classic in June

LONDON: Ons Jabeur will become the first Arab player to crack the top 10 of the world rankings after reaching the Indian Wells semi-finals on Thursday and the Tunisian said she is just getting started.

Jabeur, currently ranked 14th, reached the final of the Chicago Fall Tennis Classic earlier this month and became the first Arab player to win a WTA title at the Birmingham Classic in June.

The 27-year-old defeated Estonia's Anett Kontaveit 7-5 6-3 in Thursday's quarter-final in the California desert, converting five of her 12 break-point chances on the way to her 48th match win of the season, the most of any player on the Tour this season.

"Like this is a dream coming true. This is something that I've been wanting... when I was 16," Jabeur said.

"Top 10 is the beginning. I know I deserve this place for a long time since I was playing well. But I want to prove that I deserve to be here."

Jabeur, who will face Spain's Paula Badosa in her first WTA 1000 semi-final on Friday, said she faced many obstacles in her career because of her background.

"I've been rejected by sponsors because of where I come from, which is so not fair," she said. "I didn't understand why before, I accepted it. I am really proud of the person I became today, just not relying on others.

"Everybody probably had a difficult career. I'm not saying I have the most difficult one.

"I didn't want to depend on a sponsor or someone who doesn't even care about tennis or sport in general. It gave me the courage to continue and achieve my goals, and I'm in top 10 today."


All eyes on Newcastle’s match against Tottenham as new power prepares to challenge EPL’s Big Six

The Newcastle v. Tottenham match will also be intensely scrutinized by the rest of the English Premier League clubs to assess the initial effects of the takeover. (AFP/File Photos)
The Newcastle v. Tottenham match will also be intensely scrutinized by the rest of the English Premier League clubs to assess the initial effects of the takeover. (AFP/File Photos)
Updated 14 October 2021

All eyes on Newcastle’s match against Tottenham as new power prepares to challenge EPL’s Big Six

The Newcastle v. Tottenham match will also be intensely scrutinized by the rest of the English Premier League clubs to assess the initial effects of the takeover. (AFP/File Photos)
  • Sunday’s clash will be scrutinized by the rest of the Premier League to see initial effects of Saudi-led takeover

DUBAI: Anticipation is building ahead of Newcastle United’s first game under the ownership of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund this weekend, and not just among fans of the club and of their opponents, Tottenham Hotspur.

The match will also be intensely scrutinized by the rest of the English Premier League clubs to assess the initial effects on the famous old club of its takeover by the Saudi-led consortium last week, and for any signs of a new approach.

Interest will be keenest among the Premier League’s so-called Big Six clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham (in alphabetical order). They are the ones with most at stake in maintaining the status quo that the new-look Newcastle is determined to challenge.

The protracted nature of the negotiations that led to the club’s eventual sale by former owner Michael Ashley to the PIF-led consortium — which also includes financial entrepreneur Amanda Staveley and the billionaire Reubens Brothers — has already demonstrated the anxiety the Big Six feel at the prospect of their informal control of the EPL being diluted.

They made their opposition to the Saudi-led takeover obvious in a series of behind-the-scenes briefings and lobbying of the football authorities, which was one of the reasons the EPL was able to stall for so long on final approval for the deal.

Even since the deal finally went through, there have been rumblings in the English media that the rest of the league — led by the Big Six — are still unhappy about it and are looking for ways to obstruct the benefits that will inevitably flow to Newcastle and their long-suffering fans.

Tottenham — Newcastle’s opponents on Sunday — are reported to be the most aggrieved at the idea that Newcastle will have the resources to be able to compete with them and the rest of the Big Six. (Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Tottenham fan.)

A look at the ownership structure of the Big Six tells us a lot about their reasons for apprehension at the Newcastle deal.

Two of them — Chelsea and Manchester City — are owned by wealthy foreign entities in the shape of Russian businessman Roman Abramovich and the government of the UAE respectively. For them, money would appear to be no object, and both have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve the success they have enjoyed in domestic and European football in recent years.

The next grouping — Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United — are owned or controlled by American businessmen with one eye firmly on the bottom line. You get the feeling that the Kronke organisation, the Fenway Sports Group and the Glazier family (respective owners of the three) are as happy with big profits and dividends as they are with trophies.

Tottenham’s ownership falls between the two models. Multi-billionaire Joe Lewis (estimated net worth around $6 billion) is the ultimate owner, which would appear to give Tottenham plenty of resources to challenge the others.

But because of the profit-oriented philosophy of both Lewis and his protege Daniel Levy, the club chairman, Tottenham’s only major trophy this millennium remains the relatively insignificant League Cup.

Of the Big Six, Tottenham and Arsenal have most reason to fear the entry of a super-charged Newcastle into the pack, adding to the rivalry in the EPL and for the limited places in lucrative European competition. Both have struggled to get into the money-spinning continental cups in recent years.

So while the game at St James’ Park on Sunday will be a simple football match involving 22 players on the pitch, it will also be a test of rival financial structures in the football world.

It is probably too early to judge what effect the Saudi injection will have on Newcastle’s business model. The new owners have a lot of work to do to identify specific investment requirements.

On the other hand, a new owner is likely to electrify the Newcastle crowd and incentivize the players to go all out, something they have been accused of not doing during the Ashley years.

Whatever the result, may the best business model win.