Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr

Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr
Al-Nassr’s Abderrazak Hamdallah in action during his team’s 5-1 win over Al-Wahda of the UAE in the AFC Champions League semifinal. (Photo: Basheer Saleh)
Short Url
Updated 18 October 2021

Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr

Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr
  • Teams meet in the most high profile Riyadh Derby in years on Tuesday with a place in Asia’s premier club competition up for grabs against either Pohang Steelers or Ulsan Horang-i from South Korea

On Tuesday, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal meet in the semifinal of the AFC Champions League in Riyadh. Thanks to the fallout from the coronavirus disease pandemic, the game will be a one-legged affair instead of the usual two legs. This means the last four tie will be over on the night, and with the final also being held in the capital next month (against Pohang Steelers or Ulsan Horang-i from South Korea), this is a great opportunity for the continental championship to return to Saudi Arabia.

Here are five talking points ahead of this eagerly-awaited game:

1. Al-Nassr need to beat history to beat Al-Hilal

While this is a first ever meeting in Asia, there have been a number of knockout clashes between the two rivals over the years and Al-Hilal have usually come out on top.

One of the biggest non-league meetings between these two teams came back in the final of the 2015 King’s Cup. On that June day, Riyadh decamped to Jeddah and there were more than 60,000 packed into the newly-built King Abdullah Sports City Stadium. 

It was a tense affair that ended goalless after 90 minutes. Early in extra-time, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi put Al-Nassr ahead, and the Yellows were on course for the cup with the 120 minutes almost up. But then came a last-gasp equalizer from Mohammed Jahfali to send the Al-Hilal fans wild.

Both teams scored their first six penalties in the shootout. Salman Al-Faraj, the current Al-Hilal skipper, scored number seven but then Shaye Sharahili missed his, and that was that. Al-Hilal also beat their rivals in the 2020 King’s Cup final.

The pair have met in the Crown Prince Cup final twice, with one victory each. Al-Hilal also defeated Al-Nassr at the semifinal of the 1995 Arab Champions League and the final of the 2000 Arab Cup Winners Cup.

2. A Portuguese battle of wits and emotion

There has already been plenty of attention in Portugal paid to the quarterfinals of the Champions League due to the fact that two of their coaches are in charge of the Saudi pair. Al-Hilal hired Leonardo Jardim in June and Al-Nassr appointed Pedro Emanuel, a lesser-known coach, at the start of this month. 

It means a Portuguese head-to-head in the semifinal. Jardim has started to get to grips with this Al-Hilal team and is trying to get all of his attacking talent into a balanced line-up. Emanuel just has one game under his belt — though it was an impressive 5-1 thrashing of Al-Wahda of the UAE.

There is a strong streak of pragmatism among some Portuguese coaches and the key to this tie may well rest on which boss can instil a sense of normality and calm among his players. The atmosphere is sure to be frenetic and loud. The team that settles first may end up triumphant at the last.

3. It could be the Talisca vs Pereira show

There will be plenty of top-class talent on display on Tuesday but mouths around Asia will be watering at the prospect of two attacking midfielders, Al-Nassr’s Talisca and Al-Hilal’s Matheus Pereira, lining up against each other.

Both have made their mark in the league season so far and have established themselves as two of the best players in Asia, never mind the Saudi Professional League. Talisca has been a little more flamboyant, with blond hair, physical presence and delicious goals from outside the area. Pereira’s influence is not quite as spectacular but he pulls the strings in attack and increasingly sets the tempo of all the games he appears in.

The pair are both potential match-winners, and whichever one shines the brightest could end up being the one that pushes his team towards victory. 

4. It is hard to say who wants this more

Both sets of fans will be desperate to win this match — that goes without saying — but it is harder to say who are more desperate to lift the trophy.

You cannot talk to any Al-Hilal fan for more than a minute or two before being reminded that the club have won three Asian championships, more than any other on the continent except Pohang Steelers. There is a huge amount of pride at the record in Asia and fans would love nothing more than to become the only team on the continent to have won four championships. Asia is woven into Al-Hilal’s DNA.

Al-Nassr have yet to win one, though they reached the final back in 1995. That failure rankles more when your neighbours have been so successful. For the Yellows, winning the Champions League will mean many things and not just defeating their rivals along the way. It will mean being the best in Asia and moving out of the shadow of Al-Hilal’s continental exploits. And it will also mean that whatever happens for the rest of this season, it will already be a success.

5. It should be remembered that this is not the final

It is tempting to see this as a clash for the ages, a semifinal between bitter city rivals, but whoever wins will not get a trophy. There will still be a game left to play and that will come against a battle-hardened South Korean team.

Saudi Arabia has a fine record in Asian club competitions but cannot match the exploits of its counterparts from the K-League. In the other semifinal Ulsan Horang-i, defending champions and winners in 2012 (against Al-Ahli in the final), will take on Pohang Steelers, three-time champions who defeated Al-ittihad in the 2009 final. Ulsan beat Jeonbuk Motors, another Korean team, in the quarterfinals, who lifted the trophy in 2006 and 2016.

These are teams that are used to winning in Asia and will not bat an eyelid at playing in front of a passionate Riyadh crowd on Nov. 23. After the semifinal, there will still be work to do.


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.


Covid cases force Nagelsmann into a reshuffle at Bayern Munich

Covid cases force Nagelsmann into a reshuffle at Bayern Munich
Updated 26 November 2021

Covid cases force Nagelsmann into a reshuffle at Bayern Munich

Covid cases force Nagelsmann into a reshuffle at Bayern Munich
  • Bayern head coach Julian Nageslmann still has plenty of talent available against second-from-bottom Bielefeld
  • Midfielders Michael Cuisance, Serge Gabry and Jamal Musiala are quarantining as contact cases but defenders Niklas Suele and Josip Stanisic returned to training

BERLIN: Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich must reshuffle their starting side — with five players in quarantine — before hosting struggling Arminia Bielefeld on Saturday in a final tune-up ahead of their top-of-the-table clash at Dortmund.
Bielefeld earned a 3-3 draw when the clubs met in Munich last February and have picked up four points from their last two league games.
Yet even with a host of stars sidelined, Bayern head coach Julian Nageslmann still has plenty of talent available against second-from-bottom Bielefeld.
“We are concentrating on the players who are there — the four World Cup winners and nine Champions League winners,” Bielefeld coach Frank Kramer quipped drily.
Bayern are missing midfielder Joshua Kimmich and back-up striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who also miss next weekend’s clash at second-placed Dortmund after both tested positive for Covid-19.
Midfielders Michael Cuisance, Serge Gabry and Jamal Musiala are also quarantining at home as contact cases, but defenders Niklas Suele and Josip Stanisic returned to training on Wednesday after previously testing positive.
A shock defeat at Augsburg trimmed Bayern’s lead in the table to just a single point ahead of Dortmund.
Record numbers of coronavirus cases in Germany this week means a tightening of hygiene rules at Bundesliga stadiums.
Bayern’s Allianz Arena will be at 25 percent capacity — up to 18,745 — on Saturday.
There will be reduced capacity at all grounds, apart from RB Leipzig, who must play behind closed doors against Leverkusen on Sunday due to restrictions in Saxony.
A crowd of 13,000 is expected at Wolfsburg, who host a Dortmund side licking their wounds after their mid-week Champions League exit.
A 3-1 loss at Sporting Lisbon was Dortmund’s third straight European defeat, blocking their route to the knock-out stages and consigning them to the Europa League.
Failing to reach the Champions League’s last 16 will cost Dortmund around 9.5 million euros ($11 million).
“It’s not only a setback financially, but it also hurts from a sporting perspective and image,” said sports director Michael Zorc.
Dortmund still have star forward Erling Braut Haaland sidelined by a hip injury, but hope Youssoufa Moukoko, 17, can return after missing nine of their last ten games with knocks.
Belgium winger Thorgan Hazard is out after testing positive for Covid last Monday.
Fresh from thrashing Brugge 5-0 in the Champions League, RB Leipzig can break into the top six with a home win Sunday against fourth-placed Leverkusen.
Leipzig are missing Spanish playmaker Dani Olmo, 23, who tore a thigh muscle last weekend, a latest injury setback for the Spain midfielder who has been blighted by knocks since playing in both this summer’s Euro 2020 finals and Tokyo Olympics.
Leizpig’s erratic form this season has not affected the 24-year-old whose 13 goals and 11 assists means he must soon be knocking on the door of selection for France.
Usually a winger, Nkunku, 24, shone with two goals and an assist in the thrashing of Brugge after moving across to attacking midfield.


Italy and Portugal drawn in same World Cup playoffs bracket

Italy and Portugal drawn in same World Cup playoffs bracket
Updated 26 November 2021

Italy and Portugal drawn in same World Cup playoffs bracket

Italy and Portugal drawn in same World Cup playoffs bracket
  • Italy will face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semifinal next March
  • The winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot in the World Cup

ZURICH: European champion Italy and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal were drawn in the same World Cup qualifying playoffs bracket Friday, meaning at least one of them will miss next year’s tournament in Qatar.
Italy will face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semifinal next March, and the winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot in the World Cup.
Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — losing in the playoffs to Sweden — and now will likely have to beat Ronaldo and Portugal to avoid missing the tournament for a second straight time. Portugal has always qualified during Ronaldo’s career. He first played at the 2006 World Cup.
Also in the 12-team draw, Scotland will face Ukraine at home, and the winner will play at Wales or Austria in the final of their bracket.
Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic in their bracket final. Russia or Poland will host the final.
The six playoff semifinals will be played as single-leg elimination games March 24. The three finals are played five days later.
The three winners will complete Europe’s entry of 13 nations in the 32-team lineup in Qatar.
FIFA will make the tournament draw on April 1 in Doha.
The playoffs feature the 10 teams who finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams — Austria and the Czechs — who won Nations League groups last year.


New Covid variant throws sport in South Africa into turmoil

New Covid variant throws sport in South Africa into turmoil
Updated 26 November 2021

New Covid variant throws sport in South Africa into turmoil

New Covid variant throws sport in South Africa into turmoil
  • Two rounds of matches in the United Rugby Championship were postponed
  • Golfers playing in a professional tournament withdrew in order to fly home, while a Netherlands cricket tour of South Africa was in jeopardy

JOHANNESBURG: Sports events in South Africa were thrown into turmoil on Friday following the announcement on travel bans following the discovery of a new strain of coronavirus in the country.
Two rounds of matches in the United Rugby Championship were postponed, golfers playing in a professional tournament withdrew in order to fly home, while a Netherlands cricket tour of South Africa was in jeopardy.
The British government announced on Thursday that South Africa had returned to the ‘red list’ because of the spread of the new strain of the virus, B.1.1.529. Travelers from South Africa, including returning nationals, will face a mandatory two-week quarantine period, while flights have been halted.
This was followed on Friday by a travel ban by several European Union countries.
Two Welsh rugby teams, the Cardiff Blues and the Llanelli Scarlets, announced that they were withdrawing from scheduled fixtures in the United Rugby Championship and were making plans to return home as soon as possible.
The United Rugby Championship (URC) later announced that all four matches scheduled for South Africa on Saturday and Sunday had been postponed, as well as fixtures for the following weekend.
Munster from Ireland and Italian team Zebre had also arrived in South Africa and the URC said arrangements were being made for all four of the visiting teams to return home as soon as possible.
Sixteen British players withdrew after the first round of the Joburg Open golf tournament, the first event of the new DP World Tour, and were expected to fly back to Britain to avoid having to spend time in quarantine.
A spokesman for the Sunshine Tour, which co-sanctions the South African leg of the World Tour, said officials of the two bodies were meeting to discuss the latest developments and expected to issue a statement later on Friday.
Two further tournaments, the South African Open and the Alfred Dunhill Championships, are scheduled in South Africa over the next two weeks and the spokesman said at this stage the tournaments were due to go ahead.
The Netherlands cricket team played the first of three scheduled one-day internationals against South Africa in Centurion on Friday but a joint statement from the boards of the two countries indicated that the touring team would return home as soon as possible.
But the fate of the tour had not yet been decided because it was “highly unlikely that the visiting team will be able to fly out of South Africa over the weekend.”
This opened the possibility that the planned second match, at the same venue on Sunday, might take place.
The third match was scheduled for Johannesburg on Wednesday.
The statement said a final decision on the remaining matches was expected “in the next 24 to 48 hours.”