Harsh lesson for Al-Wahda as five-star Al-Nassr cruise to AFC Champions League semi-final

Harsh lesson for Al-Wahda as five-star Al-Nassr cruise to AFC Champions League semi-final
AL-Nassr's players celebrate reaching the 2021 AFC Champions League semifinals after beating Al-Wahda of the UAE 5-1. (Basheer Saleh)
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Updated 17 October 2021

Harsh lesson for Al-Wahda as five-star Al-Nassr cruise to AFC Champions League semi-final

Harsh lesson for Al-Wahda as five-star Al-Nassr cruise to AFC Champions League semi-final
  • A dream debut for new coach Pedro Emanuel means the Saudi club face Al-Hilal in a high stakes Riyadh Derby on Tuesday

It was the best of debuts for coach Pedro Emanuel and the vast majority of the 20,000 fans who cheering for Al-Nassr in Mrsool Park, in Riyadh. However, it was a sad ending for the UAE legend Ismail Matar despite his late goal for Al-Wahda.

On Saturday, Riyadh wore its brightest yellow dress as the 2021 AFC Champions League produced a memorable night for the home side. Jaloliddin Masharipov, Abderazzak Hamdallah and Anderson Talisca were at their scintillating best, leaving Al-Wahda boss Henk ten Cate in no doubt over what had happened as he concluded his post-match press conference with a straightforward message, “They were better than us and that’s a fact.”

A mesmerizing show of the local football culture was produced by the crowd and, while the avalanche of streamers thrown on the bench postponed kick-off by nearly 10 minutes, the Al-Nassr faithful left their new boss gushing.

“In some moments, I just sat on the bench and enjoyed the environment between the fans and the team. This is why I’m a coach, this is why I enjoy football,” said Emanuel.

Seven minutes was all it took for Al-Nassr to get off the mark as a string of quick passes in the attacking third included an exquisite backheel pass from Talisca for Masharipov, who set up Hamdallah to do what he does best and beat goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Shamsi from inside the box for his 16th continental goal for the club.

Al-Wahda did their best but it was not enough. Joao Pedro threatened from distance, Omar Kharbin came close and UAE national team’s rising starlet Abdullah Hamad worked tirelessly throughout.

“It was a real lesson for us. The difference was in the chances, they had six chances and they scored five, we had five chances and we scored only one,” said Ten Cate.

In the second half. Al-Nassr were 3-0 up 10 minutes after the restart as Masharipov curled into the bottom corner from outside the box and Abdulfattah Assiri raced into the six-yards-box to tap in Hamdallah’s cross after the Moroccan had danced around the Emirati defence down the left.

A ruthless finisher at his best, Hamdallah seemed to have discovered a new side to his game under Emanuel, producing another fine assist with a through ball to send Masharipov clear on goal and the Uzbek international buried in the ball, and with it all the pain from the red card he got at the same stage of the competition last year as his former side Pakhtakor crashed out against Persepolis.

Fresh off the bench and with a two-goal man-of-the-match display against China under his belt, youngster Sami Al-Najei capped off a fine move. Talisca fed a diagonal ball to substitute Abdulrahman Al-Obaid, who headed it across goal for Al-Najei to score.

Emanuel, returning to the kingdom for a second spell after leading Al-Taawoun to King’s Cup glory two years earlier, heaped praise on his team.

“I am very happy with the quality, not only of the foreigners, but also the local players as we saw with the national team, and we saw here today. This quality is why I wanted to come back to this country and that is also why I am happy to be back,” said Emanuel.

The game was all settled by the time 38-year-old Matar leapt to head home Mahmoud Khamis’ cross from the left to make it 5-1 seconds before the final whistle, but this was an important moment. The Al-Wahda playmaker, the best player in the 2001 FIFA Youth Championship and one of the finest the UAE has produced, was emotional as he received a standing ovation from the home crowd after his goal. That strike could prove to be his last AFC Champions League memory in a long career. Ten Cate made sure he mentioned his club captain’s legacy.

“He is a big player and he deserved this greeting, he is getting older and there comes a moment when he has to stop because he is almost 40,” said the Dutchman.

“But if you see what he gives to this team, he deserves this standing ovation, and I was happy for him to score. Maybe it was his last Champions League game because next year we are not here, so this was a nice send off for him from the Saudi fans.”

All eyes will be on Mrsool Park on Tuesday as Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr battle it out on the continental stage for the first time, with a place in the final up for grabs. For Al-Wahda, the hard work begins now as they head home thinking of ways to turn around a run of five consecutive draws in the UAE Pro League.


Arsenal brush aside Newcastle as Howe suffers first defeat

Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli celebrates with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after scoring against Newcastle United, Emirates Stadium, London, England, Nov. 27, 2021. (Reuters)
Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli celebrates with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after scoring against Newcastle United, Emirates Stadium, London, England, Nov. 27, 2021. (Reuters)
Updated 27 November 2021

Arsenal brush aside Newcastle as Howe suffers first defeat

Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli celebrates with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after scoring against Newcastle United, Emirates Stadium, London, England, Nov. 27, 2021. (Reuters)
  • Second half goals from Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli at the Emirates Stadium made it four wins for Arsenal from their last five league games
  • Eddie Howe was in charge of Newcastle in person for the first time after missing last weekend’s 3-3 draw against Brentford due to a positive COVID test

LONDON: The battle to find balance between attack and defence has been a five-year struggle on Tyneside — and is so far proving the impossible conundrum for Newcastle United head coach Eddie Howe.

It was an issue first flagged up by now Everton boss Rafa Benitez under the ownership of Mike Ashley. It’s an argument so often referred to as the “short blanket.”

The concept is a simple one. Pull the short blanket up at one end, your feet are open to the elements at the other, and vice versa. With limited resources, it is tough to provide quality and consistency at both ends.

Steve Bruce, never as eloquent as Benitez, suffered from the same problems. And just 180 or so minutes into his tenure at Newcastle, Howe knows that issue firsthand.

A defensively disciplined display at the Emirates, much more so than at St James’ Park last week, saw the Magpies blunted in attack and ultimately beaten by two moments of real quality.

Second-half goals by Bukayo Saka and his replacement off the bench Gabriel Martinelli ensured United remained at the foot of the Premier League, without a win in 13 in the top flight and with the worst goals against column as well as just six points to show for their early season “efforts.”

Making his debut in the United dugout after a bout of Covid, Howe made three changes from the side that drew with Brentford seven days previously.

Out went Ciaran Clark, Jacob Murphy and Karl Darlow, with Emil Krafth, Ryan Fraser and Martin Dubravka returning to the starting XI.

United were open and expansive against the Bees, but it was more a case of disciplined and compact at the home of the Gunners, as Howe made some tactical tweaks to the side who looked defensively suspect last time out.

And it’s fair to say — for 45 minutes at least — it worked, as United largely frustrated the home side, keeping them at arm’s length.

United’s record against Arsenal home and away is by Premier League standards awful.

They’ve won just once in 20 outings, and have to go back to 2010 for a victory in the red half of North London.

And to get a result against a traditionally difficult foe you have to ride your luck, or hope for players to stand up in the key moments. Luckily, as mentioned previously, Howe decided to make the crucial call to bring back Slovak Dubravka, and United needed their reinstated No.1 to produce a number of crucial stops to keep things equal at the break.

His first stop was to palm away a curling Martin Odegaard free-kick, which skirted over the heads of the United wall. The second, as incredibly reactive as it was, was followed by a miss of biblical proportions by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Some excellent work by Saka down the Arsenal left opened things up for Emile Smith-Rowe, whose header was cleared by Dubravka, only to fall to Aubameyang. But with the goal at his mercy, the Gunners’ skipper clipped on to the United post.

While the hosts were the better side, this wasn’t one-way traffic, however. United had some chances of their own.

A Callum Wilson break down the right unleashed Fraser, whose cross deflected into the path of Jonjo Shelvey, but his 25-yard shot was excellently tipped on to the bar by the outstretched arm of goalkeeping man-of-the-moment Aaron Ramsdale.

It wasn’t until added time in the first-half that Arsenal began to up the ante — and it was this increased intensity that carried through into the opening exchanges of the second-half, which bore fruit on 55 minutes.

The tempo upped, Saka linked up with Albert Sambi Lokonga, then on to Smith-Rowe who found Saka again as he rolled off the back of Emil Krafth and guided the ball into the bottom corner from the angle on the left for 1-0.

As resolute as United had looked, it was no less than the hosts deserved.

Then came some controversy — but as typically has been the case this season for the Magpies, it went against the Premier League strugglers. In fact, within seconds they were two goals down and with yet another top flight mountain to climb.

A direct ball over the top for Wilson split the Arsenal backline and just as he appeared certain to pull the trigger in the area, the slightest of shoves from Nuno Tavares was enough to see the United striker lose his balance but not enough to convince the referee or the VAR officials of a foul.

Almost instantaneously, a direct ball at the other end saw the home side’s lead doubled.

A pin-point pass in behind by Takehiro Tomiyasu picked out the freshly introduced Martinelli, who, with his first touch, guided the ball past the helpless Dubravka.

And despite some light sparring at both ends, the Brazilian’s strike was enough to end this encounter as a contest, ensuring the gloom remains on Tyneside.

No one expected a result at Arsenal, a place United lose at on an annual basis, but results are exactly what the Magpies need. Their predicament at the foot of the table is starting to look a little desperate, despite the signs of improvement under Howe.

What the manager needs to work out is whether he is going to try and play his way out of the situation, or solidify a creaking defensive unit and do it the “boring” way.

At the moment, it feels like this is neither.

Fellow relegation battlers Norwich City and Burnley come to St James’ Park in the next seven days — and it is starting to feel like this week is make or break for Newcastle’s Premier League future.

Michael Vaughan ‘sorry’ for Azeem Rafiq hurt in cricket racism case

Michael Vaughan ‘sorry’ for Azeem Rafiq hurt in cricket racism case
Updated 27 November 2021

Michael Vaughan ‘sorry’ for Azeem Rafiq hurt in cricket racism case

Michael Vaughan ‘sorry’ for Azeem Rafiq hurt in cricket racism case
  • “It hurts deeply that a player has been treated so badly at the club that I love”
  • Broadcaster has been removed from BBC’s Ashes coverage

LONDON: Former cricketer and sports broadcaster Michael Vaughan has apologized for the hurt Azeem Rafiq has experienced amid his former Yorkshire teammate’s allegations of racism.

Rafiq told a parliamentary committee earlier this month about the “inhuman” treatment he endured while playing for the county, with former England captain Vaughan named among several figures implicated in the tussle. 

Vaughan has denied claims that he said there were “too many of you lot, we need to do something about it” to Rafiq and three other Asian players before a match in 2009.

But while the allegations and investigations continue, the BBC has jettisoned Vaughan from its upcoming coverage of England’s Ashes tour of Australia due to a potential “conflict of interest.”

In an interview with the BBC following the decision, Vaughan said: “I’m sorry for the hurt (Rafiq has) gone through. Time I don’t think can ever be a healer in the situation that he’s gone through.

“But hopefully time can be a way of us making sure that Yorkshire County Cricket Club never goes through this situation again and never puts themselves in a position of denial that they treated a player so badly.

“It hurts deeply, hurts me that a player has gone through so much (and) been treated so badly at the club that I love.

“I have to take some responsibility for that because I played for Yorkshire County Cricket Club for 18 years and if in any way shape or form I’m responsible for any of his hurt, I apologise for that.”

Rafiq’s testimony to MPs has been supported by former Pakistan bowler Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and England leg-spinner Adil Rashid, who said they heard Vaughan’s “you lot” comment.

When asked by the BBC if they were lying about the allegation, Vaughan said: “The problem with this situation is that we’ve got too much ‘he said, he said, she said, did they say’ and I think we’ve got to move on from accusations of conversations from many years ago. There’s a bigger picture here.”

The 47-year-old added that the alleged incident occurred during “my last few games and I just remember it clearly that I was proud as punch that we had four Asian players representing Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

“Nothing but a proud, senior, old pro just about to retire and absolutely delighted that Yorkshire had come so far in my time at the club.”

His apology also included regret for a series of tweets from a similar time, which included comments on the lack of English speakers in London and suggesting that England colleague spin bowler Moeen Ali should ask fellow Muslims that he was not acquainted with if they are terrorists.

“I apologise deeply to anyone that I’ve offended with those tweets,” Vaughan said. “Times have moved on and I regret those tweets. We all make mistakes and in my life I’ve made quite a few mistakes on Twitter, I apologise for that.”

The former England skipper accepted the BBC’s decision to ditch him from the Ashes coverage, which kicks off on Dec. 8. 

“I won’t be doing the Ashes which I understand, the editorial at the moment is all about Azeem Rafiq and racism in the game of cricket. I get that,” he said.

“I just hope in time I get that chance to come back. The one thing I love more than anything since I retired is talking cricket. I love being on Test Match Special and hopefully in time I get that chance to do it again.”

Outrageous 5-5 draw between Damac and Al-Fateh shows star quality extends beyond Saudi Pro League’s elite

Outrageous 5-5 draw between Damac and Al-Fateh shows star quality extends beyond Saudi Pro League’s elite
Updated 27 November 2021

Outrageous 5-5 draw between Damac and Al-Fateh shows star quality extends beyond Saudi Pro League’s elite

Outrageous 5-5 draw between Damac and Al-Fateh shows star quality extends beyond Saudi Pro League’s elite
  • Two days after Al-Hilal’s AFC Champions League triumph, the highest scoring match in SPL history played out between two of its less successful teams

Al-Hilal defeated Pohang Steelers 2-0 on Tuesday to win the AFC Champions League. It was a record fourth title for the Riyadh club and a feather in the cap of Saudi Arabian football, which is going through something of a purple patch at the moment in both club and international football. It was a comfortable win without the drama of some past continental finals.

Only a day later, however, two Saudi teams played to a match that left those who saw it rubbing their eyes in disbelief?

Alex Ferguson was famously exasperated after Manchester United scored twice in the dying moments of the 1999 UEFA Champions League final to come from behind to defeat Barcelona 2-1. He stunned the reporters with his direct quip.

But what would the Scot have said if he’d seen the breathtaking 5-5 draw between Damac and Al-Fateh on Thursday? Not only was it the highest scoring match in the history of the Saudi Professional League, but it arguably must be ranked among one of the best too. What is for certain is that it is the most exciting match of the season so far.

OK, some of the defending may not be studied in the upper echelons of world football anytime soon, even if the backlines were better than you may expect from looking at the scoreline, but it was a game that showed the strength in depth in the top tier of Saudi Arabian football. It also revealed the range of entertainment on offer in the league. Some of the attacking play was thrilling, plenty of the goals were out of the top drawer.

As a spectacle, it was astonishing. Al-Fateh were a team that had lost the previous three games and were sitting firmly in the bottom half of the table and concerned with not getting sucked into a relegation battle. They came up against a team in second but one that was only in their third ever season in the top tier with the first two being battles against relegation.

But first, let’s look at the game, though this may take some time with all the goals. In just the third minute, Carlos Cueva was given the freedom of the Damac area after a fantastic run and pass from right-back Nawaf Boushal and the Peruvian forward stabbed home the opener for Al-Fateh. Just 13 minutes later, the visitors were ahead thanks to two goals from Hillel Soudani. The Algerian cut in from the right, twisted and turned defenders on the edge of the area and then fired a precise left-footed shot into the corner. Soon after, he shot home a rebound with more power and Damac were ahead.

Within moments however, the hosts had equalised thanks to Ali Al-Zaqan. The initial goal had been ruled offside but VAR rightly overturned the decision. On the stroke of half-time, Damac struck again to go in at the break with a 3-2 advantage. It was another impressive strike. The ball fell to Felipe Augusto about 30 meters away from goal and the Brazilian’s low shot was fired into the bottom corner. Both teams continued to have excellent chances but when Mijo Caktas extended Damac’s lead just after the hour, it looked as if that was that. The Croatian skipped past a challenge outside the area and scored with another long-range shot that perhaps the goalkeeper, who was partially unsighted, should have kept out.

Al-Fateh had always looked dangerous however and pulled a goal back after 69 minutes after another Croatian made the scoresheet. Ivan Santini knew little about his strike as the goalkeeper’s save bounced off his chest and in. With 15 minutes remaining it was 4-4. A Damac hand in the box gave Al-Fateh a penalty and Cueva got his second.

Within seconds, amazingly, Al-Fateh were ahead thanks to Firas Al-Buraikan. The Saudi Arabian international could not miss from close range after a perfect cross from Murad Batna and so the hosts had come back from 4-2 down to be 5-4 ahead. This was surely one of the greatest comebacks and games in the league’s history.

But Damac were not finished. With 11 minutes still on the clock it was 5-5 as Emilio Zelaya scored another goal from outside the area.

“It was a very strange game,” said Al-Fateh president Saad Al-Afaliq. “We even could have won it late on had Firas Al-Buraikan had scored late in the game. We have had a few injuries but are now getting up to the right levels of fitness and condition.”

The point initially put Damac on top of the league but just two hours later, Al-Shabab defeated Al-Raed 3-0 to go into pole position. A first half goal from Moteb Al-Harbi was added to in the second half by Ever Banega and Carlos Carvalho. It is quite a turnaround for a club that won just one of their first six games of the season and were rumored to be thinking about firing coach Pericles Chamusca.

Now they are top and the title race is going to be something special. Al-Ittihad can return to the summit on Sunday and then Al-Hilal have several games in hand but are in fourth place. The season is shaping up to be an exciting one, but whatever happens, there won’t be a more exciting game than the 10-goal thriller witnessed on Thursday.

Djokovic helps Serbia past Austria at Davis Cup Finals

Djokovic helps Serbia past Austria at Davis Cup Finals
Updated 26 November 2021

Djokovic helps Serbia past Austria at Davis Cup Finals

Djokovic helps Serbia past Austria at Davis Cup Finals
  • Djokovic beat Dennis Novak 6-3, 6-2 to give Serbia a 2-0 lead over host Austria
  • The victory extended Djokovic's winning streak in Davis Cup singles matches to 15

DUBAI: Top-ranked Novak Djokovic secured a victory for Serbia, 40-year-old Feliciano Lopez got defending champion Spain off to a solid start.
And a young Italian team rolled past the 32-time champion United States in the Davis Cup Finals on Friday.
Djokovic beat Dennis Novak 6-3, 6-2 to give Serbia a 2-0 lead over host Austria in Innsbruck after Dusan Lajovic had defeated Gerald Melzer in three sets to open the best-of-three series in Group F.
The victory extended Djokovic's winning streak in Davis Cup singles matches to 15.
“It feels great to play for Serbia again," said Djokovic, who helped his country win the Davis Cup in 2010 but more recently failed to win a medal in either singles or mixed doubles at the Tokyo Olympics. “It’s been a long year but you always find motivation playing for your country."
Djokovic won seven consecutive games from 3-3 in the first set to take control.
“I’m really pleased with the way I ended the match today,” he said.
Djokovic had also been scheduled to play in a potentially decisive doubles match but then was replaced by Nikola Cacic after winning his singles match.
Lopez gave Spain an early lead over Ecuador in Group A with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Roberto Quiroz at home in Madrid. Then Pablo Carreno Busta edged Emilio Gomez 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (5).
Lopez was thrust into singles action when Carlos Alcaraz had to be dropped from the team after testing positive for the coronavirus on Thursday, as Spain was already without injured Rafael Nadal and Roberto Bautista Agut.
The United States, meanwhile, got off to a rough start against host Italy in Turin. Lorenzo Sonego beat Reilly Opelka 6-3, 7-6 (4) in his home city in Group E and then Jannik Sinner dominated against John Isner 6-2, 6-0.
Each matchup on indoor hard courts is a best-of-three series featuring two singles and one doubles match. The six group winners plus the two second-place teams with the best records based on sets and games will advance to the quarterfinals.
The semifinals and final will be played in Madrid.
Lopez, who was once ranked as high as No. 12, has fallen outside the top 100 in both singles and doubles. His career has gone on for so long that he has already started his post-playing career, having been named the Madrid Open tournament director.
“I still have the passion for the game. This is obvious,” Lopez said. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this. I didn’t expect to be playing but many things happened this week. … I ended up playing a great match.”
The big-serving Opelka double-faulted to hand Sonego the only break of their match and then made a few more errors in the tiebreaker as the Italian closed it out with a volley winner on his first match point.
Isner held serve only twice against the 20-year-old Sinner, a new top-10 entrant.

FIFA says opponents of 2-year World Cup fear losing top spot

FIFA says opponents of 2-year World Cup fear losing top spot
Updated 26 November 2021

FIFA says opponents of 2-year World Cup fear losing top spot

FIFA says opponents of 2-year World Cup fear losing top spot
  • “Those who are against are those who are at the top,” Infantino told officials

GENEVA: Opponents of FIFA’s push for World Cups every two years seem scared of being toppled from the top of world soccer, its president Gianni Infantino said on Friday.
Infantino’s speech to African soccer leaders was a clear criticism of Europe and South America which have dominated every World Cup and are threatening a boycott of biennial men’s tournaments.
“Those who are against are those who are at the top,” Infantino told officials from the 54-nation Confederation of African Football meeting in Cairo.
“It happens in every sector of life, when there are reforms and changes, those who are at the top don’t want anything to change,” said Infantino, who was a long-time senior official at UEFA until being elected FIFA president in 2016. “They are afraid, maybe, that if something changes their leadership position is at risk.”
Europe and South America have provided every team to play in all 21 World Cup finals since the first in 1930, and their historical strength has earned them at least 18 of the 32 entries at the 2022 edition in Qatar.
“We understand that and we compliment and applaud them for having been so successful in reaching the top,” Infantino said. “This is fantastic and they are an example for everyone. But at the same time we cannot close the door (to others).”
No African team has reached a men’s World Cup semifinal and the continent has just five of the 32 entries. That rises to at least nine when the 48-team tournament debuts in 2026.
Infantino has pushed for biennial World Cups to help other regions develop and close the gap — by giving nations more chances to qualify and players more chances to perform on the biggest stage.
An extra men’s World Cup in a four-year cycle would likely add around $3 billion at current levels to FIFA income and increase funding to its 211 member federations and six continental bodies.
“It is our responsibility to keep the dream open to give opportunities to everyone,” the FIFA leader said.
Still, the backlash from all levels of European soccer since FIFA formally detailed its biennial plan in September led Infantino to say last month that any changes must be reached by consensus without doing harm to the game.
European and South American soccer officials see threats to the status of their own continental and domestic competitions, and an increased workload for players.
Infantino hinted again on Friday that a modified tournament could be a solution to getting wider support.
“Will it be with the World Cup or will it be in another way?” he told members of CAF, which is currently the continental body most closely aligned with FIFA. “We have to study, of course, all this.”
Annual 48-team youth tournaments, instead of the two-yearly World Cups for men and women at under-20 and under-17 level, are also part of FIFA’s plan to develop soccer.
It was detailed in Cairo by Arsène Wenger, the former Arsenal coach who is FIFA director of global development.
Infantino warned of losing a generation of youth players whose birth year falls at the wrong time in the current cycle of tournaments.
FIFA has organized an online summit of its 211 members on Dec. 20 to discuss a strategy for future tournaments.
No vote on biennial World Cups is expected then amid the current opposition, which includes a show of unity by UEFA and South American soccer body CONMEBOL. They have created a shared office in London that opens next month.