5 talking points after UAE Pro League returned to action after month-long break

5 talking points after UAE Pro League returned to action after month-long break
Al-Wahda put on an emphatic attacking display to thrash newly promoted Emirates Club 4-1 at Al-Nahyan Stadium. (Twitter: @AlWahdaFCC)
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Updated 24 October 2021

5 talking points after UAE Pro League returned to action after month-long break

5 talking points after UAE Pro League returned to action after month-long break
  • Al-Ain cruise past Al-Wasl to top the table, Shabab Al-Ahli beat champions Al-Jazira to go second

The UAE Pro League returned over the weekend after a month-long hiatus that saw disappointments for the national team in its 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and for Al-Wahda in the AFC Champions League quarter-final.

But continental frustrations were forgotten for a while as matchday 7 produced some thrilling encounters, including two head-to-head clashes between teams in the top five, while the competition’s most successful sides, Al-Ain and Al-Wasl, also locked horns.

1. Contrasting fortunes for Lima and Caio as Al-Ain cruise past Al-Wasl

Under the watchful eye of their former boss Rodolfo Arruabarrena, who was present in the stands at Zabeel Stadium, Brazilian-born UAE internationals Fabio Lima and Caio Canedo faced off as Al-Wasl went down 2-0 to Al-Ain.

Two years after the Argentine’s departure from Al-Wasl, the club looked a shadow of the side that finished second in 2016-17 and third the season after, when it also reached the President’s Cup final. Since then, the Cheetahs have finished ninth for two consecutive seasons.

On the night of his return to his old stomping ground, Caio’s curled effort into the top corner 12 minutes from time sealed the victory for Al-Ain, after Ivorian defender Kouame Autonne had put them in front just after the half-hour mark. The former Al-Wasl man refused to celebrate and was met with a roaring standing ovation from the home crowd, even as he sent them down to that dreaded ninth place.

While Lima remains a fan favorite and club captain at Al-Wasl, he must have been left wondering “what if” as his former strike partner headed back east to Al-Ain with the three points and top spot in the UAE Pro League secured.

2. Mendes masterclass consigns former boss Al-Anbari to the sack

Another man downing his former club this weekend was former Sharjah winger Ryan Mendes — and the consequences of his Al-Nasr side’s 3-0 triumph at Sharjah Stadium were dire for the man who had first brought Mendes to the UAE Pro League.

The Cape Verdean winger combined with Dia Saba to devastating effect as the Blues cruised to a 3-0 away victory. Mendes set up the opener in added time at the end of the first half and then rifled into the top corner with 20 minutes to go. His apologies to his former fan base would have meant little for Sharjah boss Abdulaziz Al-Anbari, who was axed in the aftermath of the defeat.

Four years after his appointment at the club he captained for the best part of a decade, Al-Anbari was dismissed with the club sitting fifth in the table, following a run of one win in their last seven games in all competitions, including elimination from the AFC Champions League round of 16 at the hands of Al-Wahda and the League Cup at the hands of Ittihad Kalba.

Al-Anbari, however, leaves with his head held high, having transformed a side that was languishing in the relegation zone when he took over halfway through the 2016-17 season. He led them to the league title in 2018-19 — their first championship since 1995-96, when Al-Anbari himself was a rising star in the club’s midfield — before adding the 2019 Super Cup and finishing fourth last term.

3. Turkish referee Cakir on the spot as Shabab Al-Ahli down Al-Jazira

In what was a heated top-four clash between reigning champions Al-Jazira and their hosts Shabab Al-Ahli, all eyes were on a new import to the league. Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir became the first foreigner to officiate a UAE Pro League match since the UAE Football Association announced a controversial change to the rule that required all domestic competitions to be officiated by Emirati referees.

The 2015 UEFA Champions League final referee made a strong case for foreign referees on his debut as Shabab Al-Ahli beat Al-Jazira 2-1 in Dubai.

Abdullah Ramadan found the net at Rashid Stadium for the second season running after a sublime through pass from poacher-turned-creator Ali Mabkhout.

Having been denied an opener due to an offside decision — the first major call by Cakir and his team of officials — Brazilian youngster Yuri Cesar brought Shabab Al-Ahli level before the break, driving in at the far post after an Azizjon Ganiev corner.

The pick of the goals arrived after 72 minutes, with Iranian international Ahmad Nourollahi settling the game with a fine strike into the top corner after a solo run from midfield, ensuring his side overtook Al-Jazira in second place.

4. Four-star Al-Wahda send pointless Emirates Club closer to unwanted record

Fresh off their AFC Champions League quarter-final elimination at the hands of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr, Al-Wahda put on an emphatic attacking display to thrash newly promoted Emirates Club 4-1 at Al-Nahyan Stadium — a win that could be seen from two contrasting angles.

Coach Henk ten Cate’s men extended their unbeaten run since the start of the league season to seven games, but they remain in mid-table. The reason? The victory on Saturday night was their first since beating the other promoted side, Al-Urooba, 4-0 on the opening weekend. Since then, Al-Wahda have drawn each of their five games, so questions remain as to whether the Abu Dhabi side can replicate their attacking displays against teams of higher quality.

Emirates may have already been down to 10 men when Al-Wahda’s Khalil Al-Hammadi canceled out Joseph Gnadou’s opener early in the second half, but Ten Cate will without a doubt be encouraged by the fact that all of his front four got on the scoresheet, with Joao Pedro heading in the second, Fabio Martins applying a composed finish to make it three and Omar Kharbin rounding off the scoring with a brilliant free-kick under the wall.

For the Ras Al-Khaimah-based side, a swift return to the First Division seems inevitable but, even worse, coach Tarik Sektioui’s men run the risk of becoming the worst performers in the competition’s history. Emirates Club are yet to collect a single point, a quarter of the way through the season. They will need at least nine points to better the unwanted record of Ajman Club, who went down in 2009-10 with just eight.

5. Centenarian Diop breaks Gyan’s record

Back where it all started a decade ago, 34-year-old Al-Dhafra forward Makhete Diop rolled back the years as he bagged a brace against Ajman to become the UAE Pro League’s all-time top foreign scorer with 101 goals, breaking the 100-goal record set by Ghanaian legend Asamoah Gyan in Al-Ain and Shabab Al-Ahli’s colors.

After arriving from Syrian side Al-Karamah in the summer of 2011, Diop established himself as Al-Dhafra’s finest scorer of all time, striking up a deadly partnership with current Al-Wahda forward Kharbin over five years.

The Senegalese striker then departed to Shabab Al-Ahli for two successful seasons, before short stints in China with Beijing Renhe and Saudi Arabia with Al-Shabab. Al-Dhafra came calling again in January and Diop was back doing what he does best: Scoring goals for fun in the league he knows so well. His latest two were classic well-taken finishes from inside the box to cement his legacy as one of the most-feared forwards in the history of the UAE Pro League.


LIVE: Verstappen tops final Saudi Arabian Grand Prix practice, qualifying to follow

LIVE: Verstappen tops final Saudi Arabian Grand Prix practice, qualifying to follow
Updated 7 min 11 sec ago

LIVE: Verstappen tops final Saudi Arabian Grand Prix practice, qualifying to follow

LIVE: Verstappen tops final Saudi Arabian Grand Prix practice, qualifying to follow

JEDDAH: The second day of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix got underway on Saturday, with the drivers completing one final practice session on the Jeddah Corniche circuit ahead of qualifying at 8 p.m. local time.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen topped the final practice, ahead of world championship title rival Lewis Hamilton in second, with fellow Red Bull driver Sergio Perez finishing third.

The next fastest drivers were Yuki Tsunoda for AlphaTauri in fourth and followed by teammate Pierre Gasly.

Mercedes driver Hamilton dominated the first day of practice, finishing ahead of Verstappen in the first session and extending his lead over the rest of the pack, including teammate Valtteri Bottas in the second session.

Stay tuned below for updates of Saturday's action... (All times GMT)

18:05 - Red Bull’s Max Verstappen finally broke Lewis Hamilton's practice dominance by setting the pace in final practice. The Dutchman was 0.214 seconds quicker than his title rival, who appeared to be struggling with his tyres - something the Mercedes team will want to address ahead of qualifying later.

Fellow Red Bull driver Sergio Perez finished third, and it was a fantastic session for the Alpha Tauri team as both their drivers - Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly - closed out the rest of the top five.

 

17:40 - Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was full of praise for the Jeddah Corniche circuit this weekend, admitting it was both unforgiving and dangerous, but also that it was a drivers’ circuit and one with plenty of opportunity. 

“In for a penny, in for a pound. This championship has had everything. This track is a real drivers’ circuit. It’s unforgiving, it’s fast, it’s dangerous, it’s going to bite if you make a mistake. How many safety cars are there going to be? Are there going to be VSCs. It can go both ways. It’s a race that has jeopardy and opportunity.”

17:20 - Lewis Hamilton has a small run-off in Sector One of the track after a front wheel lock-up, but the scare doesn't last long as he spins back into the action. Meanwhile, Max Verstappen is running in sixth with with 1:29.8...work to do for the championship leader.

17:15 - In case you missed it earlier, the team behind the Grand Prix released footage of Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal getting behind the wheel of the famous Williams FW07 car from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Watch below...

17:00 - The third and final practice session of the weekend is now up and running. The drivers will have an hour to iron out any issues with their cars as well as gaining more experience of the brand new Jeddah Corniche circuit ahead of the qualifying session later this evening.

READ MORE

ICYMI: Hamilton seals practice double, LeClerc crashes out on day one of historic Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Click here for more.


Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch

Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch
Updated 04 December 2021

Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch

Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch
  • As 16 Arab nations battle it out on the pitch, FIFA’s resident and other officials are in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup dress rehearsal, with readiness of stadiums and new offside technology on the agenda

Just a few days into the 2021 Arab Cup in Qatar, there are already several intriguing talking points emerging, both on and off the pitch.

An emotional opening ceremony, the first round performances, young players to keep an eye on, and the new technology under the watchful eye of FIFA’s leadership.

The organizers attempted to showcase the cultures of the 16 participating Arab nations at an opening party that lasted for 30 minutes in front of a large crowd at Al-Bayt Stadium.

It was a worthy start for this 10th edition of the tournament, and for the first time since its launch in Lebanon in 1963, it is under the FIFA umbrella. And for the first time ever, it comes as a replacement for the FIFA Confederations Cup, that traditionally precedes the World Cup by a year.

That this Arab Cup is a dress rehearsal for the 2022 World Cup was given even more weight by the presence of FIFA President Gianni Infantino and other major sports leaders in the stands.

And the officials are not there for merely ceremonial reasons, but to also make sure all is going to plan, from checking the readiness of the stadiums to keeping a watchful eye on the new VAR technology for offside that is under testing with view to being implemented officially at the World Cup next year.

The matches are taking place at six of the eight stadiums that will be used at the World Cup.

The showpiece opening between Qatar and Bahrain was held in front of 60,000 spectators at Al-Bayt Stadium, and the tournament is being played across Al-Janoub Stadium, Ras Abu Aboud Stadium (974 Stadium), Al-Thumama Stadium, Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium, and Education City Stadium, and Al-Ebdaa Stadium.

The new VAR addition, the so-called semi-automated offside technology based on artificial intelligence, tracks the players’ movements, giving signals on 29 points in their bodies at 50 times every second; this is picked up in the control room, then sent to the on-field official who will give his decision, as was explained by the chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee, Pierluigi Collina.

The technology has already been tested behind closed doors at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester and the Allianz Arena in Munich.

This particular improvement to the VAR system — which aims to have speedier decisions with higher accuracy — is to be welcomed, as matches continue to suffer from lengthy, confusing offside cases.

The 16 teams are made up of 10 Arab nations from the Asian continent and six from Africa, and it’s the latter that caught the eye in the first round with victories for Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s 1-0 victory over a youthful Saudi Arabian team was particularly impressive, Iraq equalized in the 98th minute against Oman, hosts Qatar beat Bahrain, and the UAE overcame Syria.

With World Cup qualification still a priority for several teams, some have decided to compete with squads made up of home-based players only, such as Egypt, or even with a second string, such as Saudi Arabia.

Herve Renard’s focus is firmly on Qatar 2022, and the Saudi national team was chosen from players born after 1999. In the circumstances, they performed well against Jordan despite the eventual defeat.

With assistant Laurent Bonadei leading the team, Renard watched from the stands as the senior players took a well-earned rest and the younger ones — many of whom played in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games — staked a claim for the remainder of the World Cup qualifiers. 

This reminded me of what Renard did with the Moroccan national team in the African Cup of Nations in 2018. They went on to lift the trophy.

Of particular interest to Renard will be the Al-Ahli goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Rubaie, Al-Shabab leftback Moteb Al-Harbi, highly rated Al-Hilal forward Abdullah Al-Hamdan and the brilliant Al-Fateh striker Firas Al-Buraikan.

On the other hand, Carlos Queiroz’s Egypt team have been criticized for their lacklustre performance against Lebanon, though they played without Mohamed Salah or Mohamed Elneny.

With the start of the second round, things are starting to take shape.

Qatar’s late, late 2-1 win over the luckless Omanis leaves them top of Group A with six points while their opponents sit in third with just one. Meanwhile, Iraq and Bahrain — who drew 0-0 — are second and fourth respectively.

In Group B, the UAE’s 1-0 win over Mauritania took them to the top of the standings with maximum points from two matches, three points ahead of second-placed Syria, who recorded an impressive 2-0 win over Tunisia.

It’s too early to draw conclusions from the early stages of the 2021 Arab Cup, but the second round of matches in the group stages are slowly giving an indication of which teams will challenge for the title.

For the fans, as much as the watching FIFA officials, there is much at stake in the coming days.


Aston Martin team principal, Saudi athletes talk F1 ahead of Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Aston Martin team principal, Saudi athletes talk F1 ahead of Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Updated 04 December 2021

Aston Martin team principal, Saudi athletes talk F1 ahead of Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Aston Martin team principal, Saudi athletes talk F1 ahead of Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
  • The race taking place this upcoming Sunday is Saudi Arabia's inaugural Formula One Grand Prix with Jeddah hosting the race

JEDDAH: Fans all over the world eagerly await Saudi Arabia’s inaugural Formula One Grand Prix, taking place this Sunday, including some notable professional Saudi athletes.

“It’s a momentous event for the country,” said Husein Alireza, the Saudi professional rower. “Everyone’s flown in, there’s a real buzz in the air, you know? We haven’t had this buzz in a very long time.

“I think we’re used to hosting people from all over the world — Jeddah has been the social capital for a long time, it’s a tourist hotspot. We’ve got the Red Sea, and the people of Jeddah are very laid back and welcoming.” 

“I think for any tourist, a way to experience a new location for the first time — to do it through the world of sports is a great way,” said Dania Akeel, professional Saudi race driver. “You get action, you get the social aspect, you get entertainment and you get to witness excellence at the highest level.”

The Aston Martin Vantage F1 Edition launched in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for the first time. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)

At the launch of the Aston Martin Vantage F1 edition in Jeddah, Arab News had the opportunity to talk with some Saudi pro athletes, along with Otmar Szafnauer, Aston Martin F1 team principal, about some of their predictions before the long-awaited Jeddah race. 

“I think we will do a really good job in Jeddah, the track looks amazingly fast and like nothing else on the calendar, so it should be good fun,” Szafnauer said. “Lance (Stroll) progresses year-on-year. He’s in the steep part of the learning curve, and he had a great race in Doha.” 

Szafnauer, a Romanian-American engineer, was received at the launch of the Aston Martin car by Ali Alireza who gifted Szafnauer a special sword, which the team principal thanked him for and jokingly said: “This will come in handy for future negotiations with drivers.”

Ali Alireza, Managing Director of Haji Husein Alireza & Co., gifts a sword to Otmar Szafnauer, Aston Martin F1 team principal. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)

“Sebastian (Vettel) has brought a lot of winning experience to the team and know-how of what it takes to win — not just races, but also world championships, and he’s lifted our game quite a bit, but because of the rule change, we really did take a step backwards.” 

Due to COVID-19, F1 race cars from 2020 were carried over to this season with very little technical adjustments. There were, however, aerodynamic rule changes set by the FIA that stripped performance away from Aston Martin’s low-rake car, hindering their performance this year.

“It was too late, and that’s not a driver thing, that’s more of a car development issue,” Szafnauer said. “Once those rule changes were upon us, we couldn’t really do anything.”

As a result, Aston Martin have had to use some of their resources for 2022 on this year’s car to try and remedy what’s left of the season, to no avail.

“But next year is a whole new year, all the rules (will) even the playing field for everybody,” he added.

Dania Akeel, professional Saudi race driver, talks with Arab News about Sunday's big race in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)

Akeel said many factors currently in play will determine the champion of this season, saying that no matter what changes have been done to the engine to make it perform better, the human element in the driver is always a key factor.

“You know, the truth is, I don’t favor any driver, but I favor incredible driving skills. Each driver delivers a certain finesse, technique, a certain decision-making process that you can’t compare to each other,” she said.

“One driver will blow you away in the rain, another driver will come from the back of the grid all the way to the front, another driver will show you their resilience in defending their position. Each driver behaves differently on corners, on overtakes, on straights. And of course, that's not to say, the team as well has such a massive influence.”

Dania Akeel made history when she became the first Arab female to win the T3 title at the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas event this year. She completed a remarkable comeback from a serious injury suffered earlier this year.

Akeel told Arab News that despite sustaining three pelvic fractures while participating in the Bahrain Rally Season, she was still planning to compete in the 2022 Dakar Rally which will take place in Saudi Arabia next January.

Husein Alireza, professional Saudi rower, talks with Arab News about Sunday's Formula One race taking place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)

Alireza, who took part in the men’s rowing in 2020 Tokyo Olympics, competed with a damaged lung. Mid-competition, a new ad hoc strategy was devised by his team that had allowed him to manage injury-hit races, with the 28-year-old unable to perform at full capacity.

On F1, Alireza had his own take on who the crown of this season will go to.

“I always go for the underdog and you know, seven years of Hamilton — I love the guy, I supported him at the start, but I would love to see Verstappen win the race. He’s such an exciting, dynamic driver, I love the way he drives, extremely aggressive. And it would be nice to see him win it here in Jeddah, that would be cool. 

“We’ll see what happens but I think I’m on Team Verstappen on this one,” he concluded. 


Sebastian Vettel invited Saudi women to karting event to learn about their lives

Sebastian Vettel invited Saudi women to karting event to learn about their lives
Updated 04 December 2021

Sebastian Vettel invited Saudi women to karting event to learn about their lives

Sebastian Vettel invited Saudi women to karting event to learn about their lives
  • The German Formula 1 driver said wanted to hear their first-hand accounts of recent changes in the country what life is like for them in the Kingdom

JEDDAH: In an effort to learn more about life in Saudi Arabia and recent changes in the country, and as an activist for equality, Formula 1 driver Sebastian Vettel said that he organized a special karting event this week for women in Saudi Arabia.

In comments shared on social media, the German driver, who races for Aston Martin, said he hired a karting track in Jeddah on Thursday and invited some Saudi women to race so that he could hear their first-hand accounts of what life is like for them in the Kingdom.

Vettel said: “It’s true that some things are changing here. There are a lot of questions that have been asked and I have asked myself. So I was thinking of what I can do. I really tried to think of the positive side.

“And so I set up my own karting event today, under the hashtag Race for Women, and we had a group of seven or eight girls and women on the track.

“I was trying to pass on some of my experiences in life and, obviously, on the track; to do something together to grow their confidence. Some of them had a (driving) license, others they did not. Some of them were huge Formula 1 enthusiasts, others had nothing to do with Formula 1 or racing before today.

“It was a good mix of women from different backgrounds and a great event. Everybody was extremely happy,” he continued. “And I was, I have to say, very inspired by their stories and their backgrounds, their positivity about the change in the country.

“It was important to get to know some of these women. And I think it was a very, very memorable and inspiring day and a great way to kick-off the weekend by focusing on the positive.”

Vettel will compete in the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on Sunday, Dec. 5.


Hamilton seals practice double, LeClerc crashes out on day one of historic Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

All eyes will be on Jeddah on Sunday for the race, but for a fully focused Hamilton and Verstappen, Friday was all about finding an early edge. (AN/AFP)
All eyes will be on Jeddah on Sunday for the race, but for a fully focused Hamilton and Verstappen, Friday was all about finding an early edge. (AN/AFP)
Updated 03 December 2021

Hamilton seals practice double, LeClerc crashes out on day one of historic Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

All eyes will be on Jeddah on Sunday for the race, but for a fully focused Hamilton and Verstappen, Friday was all about finding an early edge. (AN/AFP)
  • Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points — with nine wins to seven — and is looking for points in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi to seal a maiden world title

JEDDAH: History was made on Friday as Formula One drivers took to the streets of Jeddah to get to grips with the circuit during the opening practice sessions ahead of the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday.

Months of hard work and planning came to fruition as Lewis Hamilton pipped his title rival Max Verstappen by five hundredths of a second in the first session, and stretched the margin further ahead of the pack in the second evening session. 

The two world championship title contenders were clear of their rivals and well on top during the first two sessions, to the delight of the crowds in the grandstands.

All eyes will be on Jeddah on Sunday for the race, but for a fully focused Hamilton and Verstappen, Friday was all about finding an early edge in one of the tightest F1 championship battles for years.

Teams wasted no time getting drivers out on track to collect data on the championships’ newest circuit, and it was a good first run out for the drivers, with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas claiming third in the first session — while the honor of first F1 driver round the record-breaking Jeddah Corniche went to Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr.

Grip was expected to be at a premium given the new asphalt, but drivers reported it was better than expected. 

“Grip seems pretty high in general,” Esteban Ocon said over team radio. “I think it’s a big surprise, everywhere, traction through the mid-corner.”

First impressions of the track appeared positive from the rest of the field with Bottas declaring the circuit “cool,” and Mercedes’ sporting director, Ron Meadows, complimenting Race Director Michael Masi at how well circuit personnel had prepared the track surface overnight.

Hamilton continued his on-track dominance over his rivals as he led the second session by six-hundredths of a second over Bottas, with Verstappen nearly two-tenths back in fourth.

The session was a calamitous one for Ferrari driver Charles LeClerc, who crashed heavily with five minutes remaining, his car suffering considerable damage.

The Monaguesque lost control at turn 22, already pinpointed by teams and drivers as one of the hardest corners on the circuit.

With two sessions under their belt, one at sunset and another under the lights in the evening, the drivers will be looking to push their times down even further when the final practice and qualifying sessions get underway on Saturday.

Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points — with nine wins to seven — and is looking for points in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi to seal a maiden world title.