Plenty of intrigue left in unique 2021 tennis calendar as Daniil Medvedev eyes top spot

Plenty of intrigue left in unique 2021 tennis calendar as Daniil Medvedev eyes top spot
Daniil Medvedev has a chance of becoming the first player outside the “Big Four” to be ranked No.1 on the ATP tour since Andy Roddick in 2003. (AFP)
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Updated 27 September 2021

Plenty of intrigue left in unique 2021 tennis calendar as Daniil Medvedev eyes top spot

Plenty of intrigue left in unique 2021 tennis calendar as Daniil Medvedev eyes top spot
  • Pandemic leaves the rest of the season a mash-up of events in locations stretching from Chicago to Turin

The tennis grand slam season may be over, but the calendar is far from finished, with several storylines to keep an eye on over the next couple of months.

Post-US Open action typically revolves around Asia, but since tournaments in China and Japan have been canceled due to the pandemic, the upcoming schedule on both the women’s and men’s tours is a unique and possibly confusing mash-up of big and small events taking place at any location prepared to host them.

If you are experiencing tennis withdrawal symptoms since the US Open and are not sure what to follow, here is a guide to help you through the next few weeks.

WTA Finals back on the calendar

The WTA Finals were canceled last year, but the tournament has found a new and temporary home in Guadalajara, Mexico, for this season and will return to its original host city of Shenzhen in China from 2022.

The top eight women in the race will qualify for the prestigious season finale, which will be a held in a later-than-usual slot on the schedule, from Nov. 10-17.

Three players — Ashleigh Barty, Aryna Sabalenka and Barbora Krejcikova — have already booked their tickets to Guadalajara, and the fight for the five remaining spots might go down to the wire, with just 1,000 points separating the players ranked between 7 and 24 in the race.

Tunisian Ons Jabeur is looking to become the first Arab in history to qualify for the WTA Finals. Ranked No.9 in the race, the 27-year-old will ignite her campaign to secure a place in Guadalajara when she takes to the court at the WTA 500 tournament in Chicago this week. She is also entered in Indian Wells and Moscow.

Others in the running for qualification spots include Karolina Pliskova, Maria Sakkari, Iga Swiatek, Naomi Osaka, Garbine Muguruza and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

ATP Finals set for Turin debut

After 12 successful years at London’s O2 Arena between 2009 and 2020, the ATP Finals will move to Turin, which will host the men’s season-closer from 2021 to 2025.

With the exception of last year when the event was held behind closed doors due to the pandemic, the ATP Finals witnessed near sellout crowds for every single session during its tenure in London, and it will be interesting to see whether Turin will be able to attract similar attention for the top-eight showpiece.

A trio of ATP Finals champions has already qualified for Turin, in the form of Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, with five places yet to be scooped up. Rafael Nadal is No.7 in the race but the Spaniard has ended his season prematurely to rehab his ailing foot.

Italian Matteo Berrettini is looking to qualify on home soil, while Casper Ruud, Hubert Hurkacz and Felix Auger-Aliassime are hoping to make their ATP Finals debut.

Tennis returns to Indian Wells

Arguably everyone’s favorite destination on the tennis calendar, Indian Wells is back on the schedule following a lengthy absence. The tournament was the first to get the axe in March last year when the world went into lockdown, and it was moved from its regular spring slot to Oct. 6-17 this season, much to the delight of both players and fans.

Notable absentees from the field include Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and defending champion Dominic Thiem.

With 1,000 points on the line in the California desert, Indian Wells might prove crucial in the race to Turin and Guadalajara.

Medvedev’s bid for the top ranking

It is a long shot, and will require Daniil Medvedev to win the majority of his matches until the end of the season, but the Russian has a chance of becoming the first player outside the “Big Four” to be ranked No.1 on the ATP tour since Andy Roddick in 2003.

Medvedev is currently just over 1,500 points behind Novak Djokovic in the rankings and the reigning US Open champion can unseat the Serb if he successfully defends his Paris Masters and ATP Finals titles, while also enjoying a strong run at Indian Wells.

The world No.2 has the option to add the St. Petersburg tournament to his schedule (starts Oct. 25) should he feel he has a legitimate chance of ending the season at the summit of the rankings.

Djokovic has around 500 points to defend for the rest of the season, and has more opportunities to add to his tally, compared with Medvedev.

Legends on the comeback trail

Four-time major champion Kim Clijsters kicked off her comeback attempt in Dubai in February 2020, shortly before the tour was suspended due to the pandemic. The Belgian had spent nearly eight years off tour before returning to competition last season, but ended up just playing three matches in total in 2020.

The 38-year-old will resume her comeback this week in Chicago, where she opens her campaign against Hsieh Su-Wei, with the winner of that clash taking on Ons Jabeur in round two.

Meanwhile, on the men’s side, former world No.1 Andy Murray continues his search for form and is edging closer to a place in the top 100, thanks to his recent quarterfinal run in Metz.

The Scot, who has undergone multiple hip surgeries, is playing in San Diego this week, where he faces Kei Nishikori in his opening round.

“I’ve not played this many tournaments in a while and my body feels good. I’m gaining confidence and seeing the points develop and how I want to play them again. The results are coming and my tennis is getting better,” Murray said after reaching his first quarterfinal in two years.

National duty beckons

Both the Billie Jean King Cup Finals (formerly Fed Cup) and the Davis Cup finals have been confirmed on the calendar, with the former taking place in Prague from Nov. 1-6 and the latter being staged across three cities — Madrid, Turin and Innsbruck — from Nov. 25 to Dec. 5.

The BJK Cup Finals will follow the single-venue format for the first time, as 12 teams, split among four round-robin groups, will gather in the Czech capital.

Considering how hectic and long this season has been, especially factoring in the Olympics, it is hard to imagine too many teams turning up to these events with full-strength squads.

Winter action in the Gulf

Before we bid farewell to 2021, tennis will come to the UAE in various forms over the next couple of months.

Dubai’s Coca-Cola Arena will host a fun Tie Break Tens event on Oct. 22, featuring Gael Monfils and Dan Evans among others.

The Habtoor Tennis Challenge, a popular $100,000 women’s ITF tournament, is scheduled for Nov. 22-28 in Dubai, while the Mubadala World Tennis Championship returns to Abu Dhabi from Dec. 16-18.

Riyadh Season kicks off with a bang as WWE Crown Jewel returns to Saudi Arabia

Riyadh Season kicks off with a bang as WWE Crown Jewel returns to Saudi Arabia
Updated 22 October 2021

Riyadh Season kicks off with a bang as WWE Crown Jewel returns to Saudi Arabia

Riyadh Season kicks off with a bang as WWE Crown Jewel returns to Saudi Arabia
  • The sports entertainment group brought a stacked card to the Mohammed Abdu Arena on the Boulevard in Riyadh

RIYADH: WWE returned to Saudi Arabia on Thursday evening for the 2021 edition of Crown Jewel.

The sports entertainment group brought a stacked card to the Mohammed Abdu Arena on the Boulevard in Riyadh as part of the ongoing Riyadh Season. 

The event had major matches taking place, including the return of some of the organization's biggest superstars, none bigger than Brock Lesnar, who was back in a championship match against Roman Reigns.

Three more championship matches, including a “No Holds Barred” match as well as the finals for King of the Ring and Queen's Crown also took place. 

After taking a beating under Hell in a Cell match conditions, the WWE veteran Edge managed to defeat Seth Rollins capping off their long fued.

Mansoor and Mustafa Ali faced off again with a swift win for the WWE wrestler hailing from Riyadh, Mansoor pinned Mustafa Ali in under minutes. Ali did not take the his defeat on the chin and attacked Mansoor from behind, this move was followed by a surprise appearance and WWE debut for Tarek Hamdi, karate silver medalist for Saudi Arabia in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. 

Next was the Raw Tag Team Championship where champions RK-Bro took on the  dynamic duo of AJ Styles & Omos. The champions retained their titles and are still on their RK-Bro path as tag champions. 

Next was the finals for the first ever Queen's Crown finals between Doudrop and Zelina Vega which saw Vega become the first ever Queen of WWE’s ring.

Up next was Bobby Lashley and Goldberg in the “No Holds Barred” contest where pin falls could happen anywhere in the arena. Everywhere in the arena is exactly where these two battled it out as the two bulls pulled out all the stops for the bout and Goldberg scored the win.

Goldberg unleashed his full power on Lashley, giving him no moment to grasp what was happening, as the much anticipated fight began. 

The victory for Goldberg will taste all the sweeter as he wanted revenge against Lashley for hurting his son in Summer Slam earlier this year.

The finals of the “King of the Ring” proved to be a stellar match between Finn Balor and Xavier Woods, the crowd awed at the spectacle Balor and Woods put on. Chants, screams and applause filled the auditorium after Woods pinned Balor in what was a lengthy and worthy match-up between the two warriors, in which Woods was crowned the winner.

Elsewhere, Big E retained the championship against Drew McIntrye in one of the nine major matches. After losing to Lashley, McIntyre faced Big E as his first non-Lashley challenger.

A rowdy triple header saw Becky Lynch victorious over Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair retaining her belt in the Smackdown Women's Championship.

Free agent Brock Lesnar, the Beast Incarnate, faced the tribal chief Roman Reigns in the main event of the evening and the most anticipated fight yet.

Fighting his heart out wasn’t enough as the Usos helped the universal champion by knocking Lesnar out leaving him immobile for their cousin Roman Reigns to easily pin and win the championship. 

With heavy hearts, Lesnar fans gave a standing ovation, thanking him for his first match back in in the WWE.

Why Steve Bruce built narrative that left Newcastle United fans exasperated with his club management

Why Steve Bruce built narrative that left Newcastle United fans exasperated with his club management
Updated 21 October 2021

Why Steve Bruce built narrative that left Newcastle United fans exasperated with his club management

Why Steve Bruce built narrative that left Newcastle United fans exasperated with his club management
  • Divisive coach departed St. James’ Park with club sat 19th in table, winless in 8 Premier League games, having division’s worst defensive record

NEWCASTLE: Thirteen days. Having waited 27 months for new beginnings at Newcastle United, manager Steve Bruce hung onto his job for less than two weeks of the Saudi-financed era at St. James’ Park.

The club’s new owners — the Saudi Public Investment Fund, RB Sports and Media, and PCP Capital Partners — have confirmed Bruce as the first major casualty of a fresh era of hope on Tyneside.

It was a decision roundly welcomed, even celebrated by the Newcastle faithful. Not quite as vociferously as the takeover itself, of course.

Bruce, who took charge of his 1,000th professional game as a manager last Sunday, is one of the most experienced coaches in the history of English football but has proven a divisive figure at United.

Why? Arab News spoke to prominent Newcastle United fan Alex Hurst, a True Faith fanzine podcast host, organizer of the pre-takeover 1892 Pledge supporter fighting fund scheme to buy a percentage of the club, and board member of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust, to find out.

He said: “Bruce is very much seen as a Mike Ashley (Newcastle United’s former owner) apologist. He’s built this picture, a narrative that he’s never been wanted or accepted at Newcastle United — but that’s just not true. People did not think it was a positive move replacing (former Newcastle manager) Rafa Benitez with Bruce, but no one wanted him to fail.

“He should have seen this as an opportunity to manage this great football club but instead he painted a picture of it being the impossible job. And it proved to be that way for him, but that has nothing to do with fan criticism or expectation. Bruce built this view of himself — that he was unpopular — and he let it fester,” he added.

For Bruce, the facts do not lie.

United sit 19th in the table, with no wins from eight Premier League games, and have the worst defensive record in the division with 19 goals conceded.

The former Manchester United skipper, who managed Sheffield Wednesday prior to working at hometown club Newcastle, left the Magpies with a win percentage of just 27.4 percent in the top flight.

The low point of his spell came last season when he oversaw a run of just two wins in 21 matches between December and February, but somehow held onto his job.

“Newcastle were a team with one of the best defensive records when he took over — now they are the worst,” Hurst said.

“The style of football is worse. Players have regressed, no one has improved. He talked fans down, players down. He then talked opposition players up at every opportunity.

“On a number of occasions Bruce had the chance to use his time at Newcastle as an opportunity. Each time he failed. In the summer of 2020, the FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester City, a chance of a first semi-final since 2005, it was a surrender at home, and yet he smiled ear to ear after the game,” he added.

Hurst highlighted the Carabao Cup quarter-final loss against Brentford last year as a huge, missed opportunity when Bruce played a weakened team against an also weakened Championship side.

He said: “But the thing that sticks with me from Bruce’s time is when he called criticism from fans ‘mass hysteria.’ He seemed to conflate criticism with abuse. Genuine criticism from fans was labelled abuse as he didn’t seem big enough to take it.

“Bruce could not rise above any of this, and it defined his time as head coach.”

Meanwhile, the club have confirmed assistant boss Graeme Jones, who acted as one of Gareth Southgate’s coaches for England’s run to the Euro 2020 final in the summer, will face the media on Friday ahead of Newcastle’s trip to Crystal Palace the following day.

Jones was a surprise appointment to the Newcastle coaching setup in February, as the club’s hierarchy attempted to kick-start an ultimately successful fight against relegation.

However, it is not expected that Jones will remain in the role for too long, as United’s football recruitment working group continues to press on with plans to appoint Bruce’s successor.

Paulo Fonseca is the bookmakers’ favorite for the job, and Arab News understands the Portuguese coach has been in negotiations with Newcastle chiefs since before the confirmation of Bruce’s departure.

Swiss former Borussia Dortmund boss Lucien Favre is another understood to have been spoken to, as is Eddie Howe, formerly of AFC Bournemouth. Howe has been a regular visitor to northeastern England in recent months and is understood to have been on Tyneside this week.

Howe turned down the chance to manage Scottish Premiership giants Glasgow Celtic last summer, despite weeks of negotiations with the Hoops’ chiefs.

Belgium boss Roberto Martinez is also thought to be a candidate, while Glasgow Rangers’ Steven Gerrard, and former Chelsea manager Frank Lampard, are reportedly liked by key figures within the new United hierarchy.

Newcastle are also keen to appoint a sporting director, with Luis Campos and Ralf Rangnick believed to be under consideration. Netherlands and Arsenal hero Marc Overmars is another name in the frame.

The end of the road for Bobby Lashley and Goldberg at the WWE Crown Jewel

The end of the road for Bobby Lashley and Goldberg at the WWE Crown Jewel
Updated 21 October 2021

The end of the road for Bobby Lashley and Goldberg at the WWE Crown Jewel

The end of the road for Bobby Lashley and Goldberg at the WWE Crown Jewel
  • The rivalry between Goldberg and Bobby Lashley has been brewing ever since they first met at SummerSlam

RIYADH/JEDDAH: Bill Goldberg will be looking for revenge when he goes head to head with Bobby Lashley in a “No Holds Barred” match headlining WWE Crown Jewel at Mohammed Abdo Arena in Riyadh on Thursday night.

Fueled by the images of his son unable to escape the clutches of Bobby Lashley at SummerSlam in August, passionate fans are flocking in to see the spectacle that is Goldberg who is on a mission of redemption, to finally settle the score and end his personal rivalry with Lashley. 

Earlier this year at SummerSlam, Lashley defeated Goldberg to retain the WWE Championship but the animosity between the two wrestlers spilled over post match when Lashley attacked Goldberg’s son, who had come to the aid of his defeated father.

Coming into the match in Riyadh, Goldberg revealed on the CarCast podcast that he is not 100 percent fit to compete as he is still recovering from a knee injury, but on Thursday morning he told Arab News that this will not stop him going after his rival in the ring.

“I’m at peace, because in a matter of hours I’m gonna get my hands around the throat of some guy who dared to touch my son. It’s a pretty simple equation,” Goldberg said. "If somebody goes after you family, they need to pay.”

Goldberg is accustomed to the atmosphere at the Crown Jewel, and this is his fourth visit to the Kingdom. After the disruptions of the pandemic saw many WWE events take place behind closed doors, he is delighted to be back performing in front of a live audience. 

“The feeling of the people, period, end of story,” he said. “It’s hard to go out and perform if nobody's watching in person, you don’t have the direct connection with the fan, you don’t have the immediate gratification of listening to them cheer or boo.”

“It’s like doing a match in your closet,” Goldberg added.

The success of Crown Jewel means it is now one of WWE’s marquee events and with this comes high expectations.

The rivalry between Goldberg and Bobby Lashley has been brewing ever since they first met at SummerSlam, and the unfinished business between the two looks set to be settled in front of a packed crowd in Riyadh.

Why the increasing dominance of T20 format looks set to shape cricket’s future

Why the increasing dominance of T20 format looks set to shape cricket’s future
Updated 21 October 2021

Why the increasing dominance of T20 format looks set to shape cricket’s future

Why the increasing dominance of T20 format looks set to shape cricket’s future
  • The economics of world cricket have become highly skewed thanks largely to the phenomenal success of T20 in India

The Indian Premier League concluded on Oct.15 without any apparent major hitches caused by the coronavirus disease or mental health issues.

The T20 World Cup opened on schedule, rather romantically, with Papua New Guinea appearing for the first time only to be soundly beaten by Oman.

England announced their squad to tour Australia, only to be condemned by parts of the press as unimaginative, not good enough and likely to be trounced, a view shared gloatingly down-under.

Unimaginative was also the verdict passed on the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB)’s decision to restore its domestic four-day County Championship to a two divisional structure, comprising teams in the positions in which they ended the 2019 season.

Taken together, these outcomes provide the impression that normality has been restored to the world of cricket. However, dig a little deeper and some shifting plates may be discerned under the landscape. The most obvious one is the influence of the T20 format.

Whilst the IPL is its glittering epitome, the delayed return of the scheduled 2020 World Cup, hard on the heels of the IPL, will extend T20’s exposure for longer than normal. It will also supply a benchmark for its progress since the 2016 World Cup in terms of skills and tactics. Prior to the pandemic, nine countries/regions held International Cricket Council recognized T20 competitions, and three more are planned to start in 2022. Since 2016, both the Pakistan Super League and the Big Bash in Australia have grown in quality and appeal. 

Apart from the format, these tournaments share two common features — the ability to attract money and, partly because of this, the ability to attract players from a wide range of countries, based upon a bidding system that values each player according to perceived ability. The rewards are now staggering.

The total prize money for the T20 World Cup is $5.6 million. There will be $1.6 million for the winning team and $0.8 million for the runners-up. The losing semi-finalists will receive $0.4 million each, with the balance of $2.4 million being shared between group stage winners and those who are knocked out along the way.

In the 2021 IPL, the winners received around $2.65 million, the runners-up $1.69 million, and the third and fourth placed teams $1.16 million. On top of this, the players receive salaries with the top five being in a range of $2-2.4 million in 2021. The stark conclusion is that the top players in the IPL earn more than the winning team in the T20 World Cup, and that the financial reward for winning the IPL is greater than for winning the T20 World Cup. Taken together, the rewards on offer are a bonanza.

Contrast these riches, for example, to the financial state of English cricket. The ECB’s income is generated via broadcast rights deals, sponsorship from commercial partners, ICC distributions, ticket sales and sundry income. In the year ending Jan. 31, 2021, it reported an income of $290 million and a pandemic-induced loss of $22.6 million, which dramatically reversed the previous year’s profit of $9.1 million, causing a sharp fall in its cash reserves to $3.1 million.

As a non-profit-making organization, the ECB distributes its income in pursuit of its mission to manage and develop every form of cricket for men and women, boys and girls, from the playground to the Test arena. Almost 44 percent of the income goes directly to cricket organizations, including the 18 first-class counties. Fourteen percent is spent in supporting each of four areas — the running and growth of cricket from the grassroots up; running the England Men’s, Women’s and Disability teams; central activities, such as marketing and, in the current cycle, its new competition, The Hundred, which has been explored in previous columns. 

Professional cricket is organized through the County Championship structure. The counties have the responsibility for developing talent, ultimately producing cricketers who can perform at the highest level across the various formats.

A review of the finances of the 18 counties would show that, for most, there is a heavy dependency on the ECB distribution for survival. There is also a clear divergence between the financial health of those counties who host international matches and those who do not. The structure of county cricket and its dependence on central funds to maintain its current state has attracted much criticism, particularly in terms of the way in which the counties use the money to develop both the game and alternative income sources within their boundaries.

How enviously must English cricket cast its eyes at the wealthy, independent Board of Control of Cricket in India. Although it, too, has suffered a loss of income because of the pandemic, the completion of the IPL will ensure a recovery to previous levels and beyond. In 2019–2020, the BCCI’s annual income is thought to have been some $535 million. Almost two-thirds of this comes from the IPL, a quarter from bilateral cricket with other nations and 10 percent from its annual share of ICC revenues, which are derived from the ICC’s own media and sponsorship income streams. In 2022, two more franchises will be added to make a 10 team IPL tournament, creating further wealth.

The economics of world cricket have become highly skewed and look set to become even more so. This is largely because of the phenomenal success of T20 in cricket-mad India that has generated previously unseen revenue. This has allowed India’s cricketing ambitions to become more expansionary and has encouraged copycat tournaments to emerge.

In turn, the lure of high rewards and the attraction of the format in emerging countries that have a dearth of either facilities, resources or time, such as Papua New Guinea, is leading T20 to assume an increasingly prominent position in cricket’s landscape. This powerful position, coupled with the financial clout of India, can only lead, surely, to further changes in the way that the game is structured and financed.

Favorites Al-Hilal must beware of Pohang Steelers in AFC Champions League final as both clubs seek record 4th title

Favorites Al-Hilal must beware of Pohang Steelers in AFC Champions League final as both clubs seek record 4th title
Updated 21 October 2021

Favorites Al-Hilal must beware of Pohang Steelers in AFC Champions League final as both clubs seek record 4th title

Favorites Al-Hilal must beware of Pohang Steelers in AFC Champions League final as both clubs seek record 4th title
  • South Korean team will be underdogs against Saudi champions after shock semi-final defeat of compatriots Ulsan Horang-i

RIYADH: It is destiny. Al-Hilal, the star-studded Saudi Arabian powerhouse, will meet Pohang Steelers, the South Korean team with no stars, in the final of the AFC Champions League on Nov. 23.

Of all the hundreds of clubs around the world’s biggest continent and the 40 that started out in the tournament at the start of this year, only two teams have been champions of Asia three times — these two.

Twenty-three years after they met in a bad-tempered Asian Club Championship semi-final, with Pohang Steelers running out 1-0 winners in Hong Kong, their paths will cross again. Once they both reached their respective semi-finals on the opposite ends of Asia, a new showdown seemed certain.

What is guaranteed is that one of them will be able to put a fourth star on their shirts and officially become Asia’s most successful club ever.

While Al-Hilal’s 2-1 win over Al-Nassr on Tuesday was somewhat expected, Pohang’s penalty shootout triumph, after a 1-1 draw, the following day over fellow K League team Ulsan Horang-i was not and, on paper, the Saudi Arabian team will be strong favorites next month.

This is partly because of home advantage with the final held in Riyadh when there will be just a smattering of South Korean fans at Mrsool Stadium.

The other reason is that Pohang are not as good as the South Korean team Al-Hilal could have faced. Ulsan are defending Asian champions and are currently on top of the K League as it heads into the final stretch of the season.

They cannot match Al-Hilal in terms of stars but there are well-respected Korean talents in the Ulsan side such as Lee Chung-yong, who spent years in the English Premier League with Bolton Wanderers and Crystal Palace, Yoon Bitgaram, another experienced former international, as well as young talents including Lee Dong-gyeong and Won Du-jae. The 2018 World Cup goalkeeping hero Jo Hyeon-woo is there too as is talented Georgian midfielder Valeri Qazaishvili.

Pohang Steelers, on the other hand, do not have any South Korean internationals apart from defender Kang Sang-woo who has 18 minutes of national team experience that came against Sri Lanka in June.

The team, owned by steel giant POSCO, is largely made up of experienced veterans, along with young players, with this season’s top scorer, on 15 goals in all competitions, being 33-year-old Lee Sang-hyub.

The foreign contingent is a physically powerful one. There is Australian defender Alex Grant, who headed home the last-minute equalizer against Ulsan that took the semi-final into extra time and ultimately into a victorious penalty shootout. Borys Tashchy is a 1.92-meter-tall forward with some experience in Germany, and Colombian Manuel Palacios also plays in attack.

Pohang’s problem this season has been goals. In 2020, they finished third in the league, without being in the title race, but this time around they are struggling in lower mid-table and currently have a negative goal difference. Losing the 2020 Young Player of the Year Song Min-kyu in July was a blow as was the departure of Stanislav Iljutcenko. Pohang have long struggled to keep hold of their best players.

Al-Hilal fans will look at that and then look at the 12-team K League table and see Pohang in the bottom half, in seventh, a full 22 points behind Ulsan and breathe a sigh of relief at avoiding the league leaders and current continental champions. Not just that, but the Pohang team lacks Asian experience as this is a first appearance in five years.

It does not mean that the final is going to be a walkover. Had Ulsan been in the final, they may well have been distracted by a tight title race. Pohang can focus on the Champions League final and nothing else. And this is a team that has a habit of confounding the critics in Asia.

Cerezo Osaka of Japan were the first to be eliminated in the knockout round but most expected that Nagoya Grampus would end Pohang’s run at the quarter-final stage. Instead, the Koreans ran out 3-0 winners and then went on to defeat Ulsan, though were a goal down and struggling until Ulsan captain Won Du-jae was shown a straight red card for a rash tackle.

It leaves Pohang as the underdog, a no-pressure position they will be happy to occupy in Riyadh. They did, after all, defeat Al-Ittihad in the AFC Champions League final in Tokyo in 2009 and South Korean teams believe they can go anywhere in Asia and win, with a collective 12 club championships equal to the tally won by Japan and Saudi Arabia, in second and third, combined.

Al-Hilal will be happy that they are not facing Ulsan Horang-i, defending champion and South Korea’s best team, but should not get too carried away. Pohang will be a tough nut to crack, have nothing to lose, and this team with no stars wants a fourth star on their shirt.