Riyadh is blue: 5 talking points after Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr to reach 2021 AFC Champions League final

Riyadh is blue: 5 talking points after Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr to reach 2021 AFC Champions League final
Al-Hilal's players celebrate reaching the 2021 AFC Champions League final after beating Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr. (Basheer Saleh)
Short Url
Updated 20 October 2021

Riyadh is blue: 5 talking points after Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr to reach 2021 AFC Champions League final

Riyadh is blue: 5 talking points after Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr to reach 2021 AFC Champions League final
  • A dramatic 2-1 win over 10-man Al-Nassr leaves reigning Saudi champions 90 minutes away from a record fourth title

Saudi Arabia’s most decorated club are once again marching toward history.

Al-Hilal defeated Al-Nassr 2-1 on Tuesday in the biggest Riyadh derby in years to book a place in the final of the 2021 AFC Champions League. 

Moussa Marega drew first blood in the first half of this titanic semi, and when Ali Lajami was sent off on the stroke of half-time to reduce Al-Nassr to 10 men, the game looked done and dusted. Early in the second half, however, Talisca equalized, but a goal from Salem Al-Dawsari settled the contest.

It was quite a night for both victors and losers. Below are five things we learned.

1. Rash red card was costly

The game was drifting toward half-time. Al-Nassr had looked nervous for much of the first half with Al-Hilal the first to settle, but as the break approached, the Yellows were on top even if they were 1-0 down. There was enough to encourage the team for the second half.

Then Lajami lunged at Marega, going in dangerously high on the Malian’s ankle with his studs up. It was not only a bad challenge —  Marega did not reappear for the second half — it was a completely unnecessary one in a non-dangerous area of the pitch. 

As the disconsolate 25-year-old finally trudged off, the blue-shirted fans in the stands celebrated as if another goal had been scored.

It didn’t quite turn out to be the easy second half they had predicted, but in the end, Al-Hilal’s fans were celebrating again while those on the other side of the stadium were left wondering what they could have achieved with 11 men.

2. Al-Hilal’s winning mentality shines through

This was a tense game that could have gone either way. Al-Hilal overcame their nerves first and when Bafetimbi Gomis and Marega combined nicely on the counter for the opening goal, it looked ominous for Al-Nassr, especially when they were reduced to 10 before the break.

In the early stages of the second half, however, Al-Hilal were struggling as Al-Nassr equalized and then looked likelier to score the second. Yet Al-Hilal have that winning mentality, were a little more streetwise than their opponents and kept their cool better. Slowly, they regrouped and started to keep the ball better too. 

The experience and composure of Salman Al-Faraj and Al-Dawsari, consistently excellent, slowly started to push Al-Nassr back, and they were rewarded with what turned out to be the winning goal.

When you play against Al-Hilal in the big games, you are playing against their history as well as their stars. 

3. Al-Nassr can be proud

There has been much written about Abderrazak Hamdallah in recent weeks, and when the Moroccan shot straight at the goalkeeper early in the second half from a good position, it seemed as if a golden chance for Al-Nassr had gone. 

From the resultant corner, Talisca scored. The Brazilian always looked the most dangerous of all the men in yellow and has shown his class going forward on numerous occasions this season. He had a couple of fierce shots in the first half and is always a handful for defenders. 

Whatever coach Pedro Emanuel said at half-time, it worked as Al-Nassr had come out and attacked as if they were the team with a man advantage. They were rewarded with a goal and, a man short, they could have been forgiven for settling for the draw and taking the game to penalties. They did not and were always looking to score. They should have done so with virtually the last kick of the game as Abdullah Madu shot just wide.

There isn’t much consolation in losing a second successive semi-final, but Al-Nassr have confirmed their status as a power in Asian football. 

4. It was a great advert for Saudi football

The game itself was engaging from start to very finish when Al-Nassr came within centimeters of getting an equalizer and forcing extra time. There were plenty of talking points, chances and pieces of individual skill.

In the stands of Mrsool Park, this was a spectacular night. With half of the stadium yellow and the other half blue, it took this writer back to past FA Cup finals at Wembley Stadium. Fans of both clubs may have preferred a bigger venue simply because more of them could have squeezed in, but the intimacy of this ground added something special to the atmosphere.

Supporters on both sides got behind their teams, singing and chanting. The noise was non-stop. There were plenty of big games in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday but in terms of atmosphere, intensity and the desperation of the fans to win — and equally not to lose to their rivals — Riyadh was the place to be, and it was a great advert for Saudi football.

5. Al-Hilal are in touching distance of history

Al-Hilal thrive on the big stage and are accustomed to winning. The biggest of stages will be Riyadh next month as the three-time Asian champions have a chance to do what no other club has ever done: achieve number four. 

Playing on home soil in a one-legged final is a huge advantage, and Al-Hilal are going to be favorites against whichever South Korean team, Ulsan Horang-i or Pohang Steelers, make the long trip west. Ulsan are defending champions, Pohang have three titles of their own and Korean teams can never be underestimated in Asia, but with Al-Hilal in such form and with their fans behind them, there will never be a better time to make history.


Newcastle need to overcome ‘crisis of confidence’ to avoid Premier League relegation: Howe

Newcastle need to overcome ‘crisis of confidence’ to avoid Premier League relegation: Howe
Updated 9 sec ago

Newcastle need to overcome ‘crisis of confidence’ to avoid Premier League relegation: Howe

Newcastle need to overcome ‘crisis of confidence’ to avoid Premier League relegation: Howe
  • New manager has stated he has faith in this group at United, but also underlined the importance of claiming that first three points

LONDON: Newcastle United have the quality to claw back their Premier League relegation battle deficit but are suffering from a crisis of confidence, according to head coach Eddie Howe.

United suffered yet another Premier League defeat at the hands of the Gunners at the Emirates, with Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli’s second-half strikes proving the difference.

The results kept the Magpies at the foot of the top-flight table, without a win in any of their opening 13 games. For perspective, only one team in Premier League history has ever won a relegation battle — Derby County — having made such a poor start.

But Howe has stated he has faith in this group at United, but also underlined the importance of claiming that first three points.

“I do not agree with that,” said Howe, when asked about whether there is a lack of quality in his ranks. “I have seen the dressing room — we have some very good players here.

“We are lacking in confidence, naturally, as we have not won a game this season.

“We will get criticism. We have to take that and have broad shoulders but I think if we stay committed like we did today — it would have been easy to give up with the game at 2-0, and we were good in that last period — the attitude of the players was good. 

“We can only do our talking on the pitch and fight back.” Safety, even with just a third of the season completed, looks a long, long way off for United. Waiting on results elsewhere, the gap to fourth bottom is five points.

Howe continued: “It is difficult enough in the Premier League when you are scraping for points, but when you are at a deficit it becomes very difficult.

“I think everyone connected with the club wants to get that first win as soon as possible.

“We have to look at our next games as an important one and try to give everything to win it.

“Luck often favors the brave and that’s maybe what United are lacking at the moment — a flashpoint in the game that highlights that lay between the Gunners’ two strikes.

Callum Wilson, clean through on goal, is shoved from behind by Nuno Tavares. It was close, but they have been given before. Such is United’s way this campaign, it wasn’t.

Just seconds later Martinelli’s sublime finish ended the encounter as a contest. And Howe sees it as a real turning point, even if he thinks his players let their standards drop either side of half-time.

“I thought we could break the game into thirds. I thought the first third of the game was very good. The middle third, not so good and the final third very good,” he said.

“The key moment for me is Callum Wilson going clean through with a chance to equalize, but the penalty is not given.

“I don’t think Callum would go down there if he is not shoved.”

United take on fellow strugglers Norwich City at St. James’ Park on Tuesday evening, and will have to do so without skipper Jamaal Lascelles and Matt Ritchie, after the experienced duo picked up their fifth bookings of the season at the Emirates.


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.


Winners crowned on final day of women’s Taekwondo championship in Riyadh

Winners crowned on final day of women’s Taekwondo championship in Riyadh
Updated 25 min 26 sec ago

Winners crowned on final day of women’s Taekwondo championship in Riyadh

Winners crowned on final day of women’s Taekwondo championship in Riyadh
  • Prince Fahd bin Jalawi bin Abdul Aziz was in attendance on final day of the competition to give winners medals

RIYADH: The podium finishers at the World Taekwondo Women's Open Championships in Riyadh were presented with their medals on Saturday by the vice president of the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee.

Prince Fahd bin Jalawi bin Abdul Aziz was in attendance on the final day of the competition to give the winners their medals at the Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Olympic Complex.

South Korea took the gold and Russia was awarded silver with Portugal and Morocco taking a shared bronze medal.

The ceremony was also attended by the president of World Taekwondo federation, Choue Chung-won, as well as the president of the Saudi Taekwondo Federation, Brig. Gen. Shaddad Al-Omari, and undersecretary of planning and development at the Ministry of Sports Adwa Al-Arifi.


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.