Damac top, Ighalo on fire: Five things we learned from the latest round of Saudi Pro League matches

Damac top, Ighalo on fire: Five things we learned from the latest round of Saudi Pro League matches
Two-goal hero Odion Ighalo, center, takes a shot during Al-Shabab’s 2-0 win over Al-Ittihad. (Abdullah Al-Faleh)
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Updated 24 October 2021

Damac top, Ighalo on fire: Five things we learned from the latest round of Saudi Pro League matches

Damac top, Ighalo on fire: Five things we learned from the latest round of Saudi Pro League matches
  • With Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr preoccupied with the AFC Champions League, this season is shaping up to be one of the most open in years

The Saudi Professional League resumed at the weekend and the latest round of games could turn out to be one of the most significant of the 2021-22 season. Here are five things we learned from the action as we approach the campaign’s one-third mark.

1. The title race is shaping up to be a classic

The focus of late has been on the national team and the AFC Champions League, but there is plenty going on for followers of the SPL. The title race is shaping up to be something special. It has all the elements of a classic. There is a surprise leader in the shape of Damac, who have just overtaken Al-Ittihad at the top.

There are other elements too. The two Riyadh giants, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, are a few places back but have games in hand due to their AFC Champions League commitments and that adds an extra dimension. If they win those, then both could potentially go first, but a fixture pile-up may change everything. Al-Shabab have come from nowhere to challenge and on Friday defeated Al-Ittihad, who will now be keen to get back to winning ways.

There are currently five or six teams in the running. Long may that last.

2. Al-Ahli are doing Saudi Arabian football a service

The record books will show Al-Ahli won 2-1 at Al-Tai this matchday, but that does not tell the full story. In the middle of October, the talk was not about if coach Besnik Hasi was going to be fired, but when he would go and who should replace him. That was because the Jeddah giants had failed to win any of their first seven games and were in the bottom three.

The public votes of confidence kept coming and the expected dismissal did not. Now Al-Ahli have won their last two games and are suddenly looking up, not down. This does not mean that the pressure is off, but it does mean that another good result against Al-Hilal this week would really give the boss some breathing space.

Whatever happens, fans across the country (perhaps except for city rivals Al-Ittihad) should be cheering Al-Ahli on. For so long, the common reaction in the boardroom to a run of poor results has been a dismissal. We have seen this already this season. It would be really refreshing, however, if there could be an example of patience bringing success in Saudi Arabia. It would be great if a club was rewarded for not pulling the trigger.

3. Odion Ighalo is on fire

Al-Shabab’s celebrations after their fine 2-0 win over Al-Ittihad must have felt particularly sweet as it doesn’t seem long since they were near the bottom of the table and there was talk of coach Pericles Chamusca’s time in Riyadh being very short indeed. Yet here are last season’s runners-up right back in the title race, just three points behind first place.

When you have a striker in such a rich vein of form as Odion Ighalo, then you are always going to have a chance to win games, especially when there is a little more solidity and organization at the back. Compared to earlier this season, Al-Shabab have become harder to beat, while they have a sharp shooter in attack whose brace took him to the top of the goalscoring charts with eight.

Defeating league leaders Al-Ittihad was quite the statement. Ighalo got both and they were simple but classic. The first was just a well-timed run to side-foot home from close range. The second was a fine give-and-go and another side-foot finish from close range to seal the game. 

4. Damac need to wrap Zelaya in cotton wool

For the first time ever, Damac are at the top of the table thanks to a 1-0 win over Al-Hazem. This is no fluke. Since Croatian coach Kresimir Rezic took over at the start of 2021, they have lost just once in 18 games and have won 10. 

That is an impressive run and the latest victory put the team in uncharted territory. Defensively they are solid and only one team has conceded fewer goals.

And then there is Emilio Zelaya in attack. The 34-year-old has scored seven goals so far this season and, crucially, that magnificent haul has come in seven separate games.

The problem may come if the Argentine gets injured or fatigued, as Damac don’t have the strength in depth that many of the others at the top of the table can boast. But with a little luck and more solid performances from Algerian goalkeeper Moustapha Zeghba, then there is no reason why Damac can’t finish much higher than last season’s 11th.

5. Al-Hilal need to tighten up

Champions Al-Hilal defeated Al-Raed 3-2 on Saturday, but it was a very tight game indeed. For the third time in seven matches this season, they needed an injury-time winner and, while the team’s commitment to keep going until the end is to be commended, the fact that the Riyadh giants have conceded seven goals in their last four games will concern coach Leonardo Jardim.

Al-Hilal were cruising at 2-0 with six minutes remaining, but then conceded two goals in quick succession. The first was a beauty from outside the area and the second a well-worked close-range effort, but on both occasions too much space and time were given. 

If they are to defend their title in what is shaping up to be a competitive season, Al-Hilal’s defense needs to stay switched on for the full 90 minutes, as the attack will not always be able to turn things around.


Al-Ittihad reclaim SPL lead ahead of international break for FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar

Al-Ittihad reclaim SPL lead ahead of international break for FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar
Updated 8 sec ago

Al-Ittihad reclaim SPL lead ahead of international break for FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar

Al-Ittihad reclaim SPL lead ahead of international break for FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar
  • Jeddah club leapfrog Al-Shabab to top spot with 1-0 win over Al-Tai before next round of matches on Dec. 25

Al-Ittihad have reclaimed top spot in the Saudi Professional League after defeating visitors Al-Tai 1-0 at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah in the 13th round of 2020-21 season.

The only goal of the match came from Brazilian striker Romarinho in the 27th minute.

After the conclusion of this round with the visit of newly crowned Asian champions Al-Hilal to Abha Club tonight, the SPL will take a break until Dec. 25 to accommodate the FIFA Arab Cup taking place in Doha from Nov. 30.

The victory is the eighth for Al-Ittihad this season, taking their SPL points tally to 26 points and and leapfrogging Al-Shabab into top spot, while Al-Tai remain at the bottom of the table with 10 points.


Palmeiras retains Copa Libertadores title after extra time

Palmeiras retains Copa Libertadores title after extra time
Updated 28 November 2021

Palmeiras retains Copa Libertadores title after extra time

Palmeiras retains Copa Libertadores title after extra time
  • Palmeiras beat fellow Brazilian rivals Flamengo 2-1
  • Sao Paulo-based club gain their third title

Palmeiras successfully defended the Copa Libertadores title after beating Flamengo 2-1 in an all-Brazilian final that went to extra time on Saturday.
The third title from the Sao Paulo-based club kicked off street parties in the metropolis, regardless of new concerns about COVID-19.
The champion opened the scoring at Centenario Stadium in Montevideo through Raphael Veiga early. Flamengo, which started the final as favorite, levelled in the second half thanks to Gabriel Barbosa. Substitute Deyverson netted the winner in the first half of extra time.
Palmeiras became the first team in 20 years to win back-to-back titles. Boca Juniors won in 2000 and ‘01, the first of those titles against Palmeiras in the final prevented the Brazilian side from retaining its first Copa title.
A counterattack started by defender Gustavo Gomez found right back Mayke free and onside thanks to Flamengo defender David Luiz. Mayke’s low cross reached Raphael Veiga, and he put it past goalkeeper Diego Alves in the sixth minute.
Flamengo wasted opportunities in the second half, and didn’t level until the 72nd, courtesy of its its top scorer Gabriel Barbosa. Assisted by Giorgian de Arrascaeta, the man nicknamed Gabigol scored from close range against goalkeeper Weverton, who was not quick enough to block the shot.
Barbosa scored both Flamengo goals in the 2-1 final win against River Plate in its second and last Copa triumph in 2019.
The 1-1 looked fair at the end of regular time. But it didn’t take long for Palmeiras to regain the upper hand.
A slip by Flamengo midfielder Andreas Pereira in the 95th made the difference. Deyverson, who replaced a fatigued Veiga minutes before, carried the ball all by himself and calmly beat goalkeeper Alves.
Deyverson returned to Palmeiras in June after a loan to Alaves, and was in tears after his first goal in this Copa.
“I had ups and downs here, I made many mistakes, but I never stopped working,” the striker, once again in tears, said.
Deyverson signed a five-year contract with Palmeiras in 2017, but problems on and off the pitch led him to being loaned to Getafe in 2020 and Alaves shortly later. Many Palmeiras fans did not enjoy the news of his return.
Deyverson surprised fans and players alike near the final whistle when he fell to the ground after being lightly touched on the back by Argentine referee Nestor Pitana. Pitana laughed at the player’s reaction and told him to stand up. Deyverson’s rolls on the pitch went viral on social media.
Flamengo goalkeeper Alves said they must congratulate Palmeiras and keep their heads up.
“It hurts a lot to lose it like this. We didn’t give many opportunities to Palmeiras. They played in their style, we played in ours. It wasn’t meant to be,” Alves said, adding midfielder Pereira should not be blamed for the defeat.
Brazil also contributed both finalists in the Copa Sudamericana, won by Athletico. This year marked the first time all four finalists of both Copas came from the same country. Palmeiras’ success was the eighth since 2010 for a Brazilian club.
Palmeiras eliminated local rival Sao Paulo in the quarterfinals and advanced to the final on the away goal rule after drawing at Atletico Mineiro. This week, CONMEBOL scrapped the away goals rule for all future competitions.


Virus-hit Portuguese team plays soccer with 9 men

Virus-hit Portuguese team plays soccer with 9 men
Updated 28 November 2021

Virus-hit Portuguese team plays soccer with 9 men

Virus-hit Portuguese team plays soccer with 9 men

LISBON, Portugal: Portuguese club Belenenses started a league match against Benfica with just nine players after an outbreak of coronavirus in its squad on Saturday. It was later called off just after halftime.
With two fewer players, Belenenses was soon trailing. Benfica scored all goals in the 7-0 win in the first half.
The referee called the match off just after the start of the second half. Only seven players took the field for Belenenses, which soon lost another player when one dropped to the turf, leaving them with only six.
The laws of soccer allow for games to be played as long as each team has seven players, including a goalkeeper.
Club president Rui Pedro Soares said that despite having a decimated squad his club did not ask for the game to be postponed.


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

Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe applauds fans after the match with Arsenal. (Reuters)
Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe applauds fans after the match with Arsenal. (Reuters)
Updated 27 November 2021

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

Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe applauds fans after the match with Arsenal. (Reuters)
  • 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.