Saudi Arabia face formidable task against Australia in World Cup Asian qualifier

Saudi Arabia face formidable task against Australia in World Cup Asian qualifier
Herve Renard with Saudi squad during a training session in Sydney. (SAFF)
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Updated 08 November 2021

Saudi Arabia face formidable task against Australia in World Cup Asian qualifier

Saudi Arabia face formidable task against Australia in World Cup Asian qualifier
  • Herve Renard’s team will have to overcome a strong home team, returning fans and jetlag if they are to stay top of Group B in the race for Qatar 2022

On Friday’s flight to Australia, Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard had plenty of time to think about how qualification for the 2022 World Cup is going.

The Frenchman will be delighted with the four wins from four in the final round to sit three points ahead of Thursday’s opponents and six ahead of Japan. As it stands, the Green Falcons are very well placed to take one of the top two automatic qualification spots from the six-team Group B.

In the final round of qualification every game is big, with every three points a massive step toward the promised land.

There is more this week, however, as this is surely the biggest test that the Green Falcons have faced under Herve Renard since he took the job in the middle of 2019.

Let us count the reasons why. The first, most obvious point, is that Australia are one of Asia’s top teams, ranked 34 in the world, 15 places higher than Saudi Arabia. The 2015 continental champions have qualified for the last four World Cups, and as well as that history there is the present form.

Ahead of last month’s 2-1 loss in Japan, a defeat that was sealed with three minutes left thanks to an own goal, the Socceroos had won 11 World Cup qualifiers in succession — an impressive record and a world record.

Even more impressive was the fact that all those games took place away from home. The global pandemic and the decision of the government in Canberra to seal the international borders forced Graham Arnold’s men to play all their football a long way from home.

And that means there is another hurdle for Saudi Arabia to deal with. This is the first game since 2019 that will take place in Australia. On home soil, the Socceroos have a formidable record in qualification — one of the best on the planet.

Instead of facing them in Qatar or the UAE as could have happened, Saudi Arabia will have to make the mammoth journey all the way Down Under. It is hard enough at the best of times, but there will be more excitement in the country and especially among the 22,5000 fans at the Sydney stadium at the rare sight of their stars back playing in Australia. 

There is more. The defeat to Japan means that Australia cannot afford to lose to another rival for the top two spots. The hosts are aggressive at home as a matter of course, and the intensity will be at the highest level this week. Win this and Australia will go top at the halfway stage. A draw would likely leave them just a point above Japan, assuming the Samurai Blue win in Vietnam, and a loss could see them drop out of the top two.

While Saudi Arabia finished above Australia in the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, they have to overcome a poor record against the team. Since the 1-0 victory at the 1997 Confederations Cup in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia have drawn one and lost four of the meetings, all of which have taken place since 2011.

So there is plenty for the visitors to deal with: History, form, home advantage and jetlag. Throw in a few absences and the task becomes that little bit harder.

Goalkeeper Mohammad Al-Owais was injured during the 3-2 win over China in October and his absence was felt immediately as a mistake by replacement Fawaz Al-Qarni gifted Team Dragon a goal and a way back into the game that could have cost his team two points. Left-back Yasser Al-Shahrani is also injured and his crosses, as well as defensive work, will be missed. Center-back Abdullah Madu leaves another hole to fill.

Yet, so far under Renard in qualification Saudi Arabia have been able to overcome all that has been thrown at them.

Salem Al-Dossari was out last month and while the star attacker will always be missed, up stepped Sami Al-Najei to score two goals against China. Saul Abdulhamid came in at left-back and did not look out of place. Under Renard, the squad has become more settled and every player knows what they have to do, whether they have to do it every game or just now and again.

The good news is that Al-Dossari is back to full fitness and is in the form of his life. There have been some pundits and ex-players in Saudi Arabia who have said of late, as the winger has helped Al-Hilal to another AFC Champions League final, that he is currently the best player in Asia. That is debatable but on current form, the 30-year-old, who scored against Australia in qualification for the 2014 and 2018 tournaments, is not far away.

With Renard at the wheel and the fact that Saudi Arabia have been steadily improving under the coach who led two different teams to African Nations Cup success, there is no reason to fear this test Down Under, the toughest of the past two years.

Instead, the group leaders should embrace this as an opportunity to show just how far they have come and how far they can go.

Hate ‘alive and well’ within football, anti-racism charity says

Hate ‘alive and well’ within football, anti-racism charity says
Updated 16 May 2022

Hate ‘alive and well’ within football, anti-racism charity says

Hate ‘alive and well’ within football, anti-racism charity says
  • Two men arrested for making ‘discriminatory gestures’ at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
  • Brentford players report racial abuse against family members during game at Goodison Park

LONDON: An anti-racism charity has said “hate is alive and well within football,” after incidents were reported during Premier League matches this weekend.

Two supporters were arrested on suspicion of racially aggravated public order offenses following “discriminatory gestures” at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday.

London’s Metropolitan Police said the two men were ejected from the Burnley section of the ground during the Clarets’ 1-0 defeat.

Meanwhile, two Brentford players reported to police that their family members were racially abused at Goodison Park during their away match with Everton, with the Merseyside club confirming they were working with police.

“There is no place in football — or society — for racism, we are assisting Merseyside Police to ensure the individual is identified and dealt with appropriately,” it said in a statement.

Defender Rico Henry, who scored the winning goal for Brentford in a 3-2 victory, tweeted: “I never usually speak out on things that don’t physically harm me or my family but to see my mom upset after being racially abused by a few Everton fans brought fire to my stomach.”

Ivan Toney also took to Twitter to call out a supporter, whom he alleged was racially abusing his family members, saying: “And for the man that racially abused my family I’ll do everything I can to get you the punishment you deserve!”

Troy Townsend, head of player engagement at charity Kick It Out, praised the swift action of the clubs involved and said he hoped anyone found guilty of using racially aggravated language or gestures would be punished.

“We have been made aware of a spate of new alleged anti-Semitic and racist comments and gestures linked to several clubs over the weekend,” he said.

“While investigations are ongoing, we cannot comment on the specifics of cases, however, the events of the weekend once again highlight the fact that hate is still alive and well within football.

“Everton, Burnley and Tottenham all acted swiftly and we commend their energy in addressing these incidents. We hope appropriate and decisive action is taken against all those involved.”

King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title

King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title
Updated 16 May 2022

King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title

King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title
  • The reigning Saudi champions could be emotionally and physically drained by the time they face leaders Al-Ittihad four days after Thursday’s showpiece final

The latest round of games in the Saudi Professional League was postponed as a mark of respect to UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan who passed away on Friday.

It meant that the Saudi Classico, the big clash between leaders Al-Ittihad and second-placed defending champions Al-Hilal, will have to wait a little longer.

The dates have changed and this could cast a different light on the title race. Now the rivals from Jeddah and Riyadh will meet on May 23. As a reminder, the gap between the two is six points with four games remaining. If Hilal win, then the pressure will be on Al-Ittihad for the first time since they went top of the league and started pulling away. Then the fight would really be on for the final three games of the campaign.

That can still happen, but now with a difference. Before the rescheduled title decider, Al-Hilal will first have to take on Al-Feiha in Thursday’s King’s Cup final.

This adds an extra dimension to the title race. The champions would surely have preferred to face Al-Ittihad first, cut the lead to three points and then let the leaders deal with that. Now however, they have to play a prestigious — as well as emotionally and physically draining — cup final just four days earlier and then go straight into the biggest league game of the season.

And the King’s Cup final is sure to be a big deal. It is the first chance for Al-Feiha to win a major trophy. The club are in sixth place in the league and are not going to finish any higher than that. Relegation is not an issue so they can focus all their energies on the game.

“If you look at how we play then you can see that we are a difficult opponent for the big teams,” said Al-Feiha coach Vuk Rasovic. “We will do our best to make our fans happy. The King’s Cup final is a very special match for us.”

Rasovic’s men are not to be underestimated and showed that by defeating Al-Ittihad in the semi-final. The Tigers, who are aiming to win the league for the first time since 2009, may now be quite happy with that elimination. Al-Hilal are favorites to emerge victorious but it is going to be a battle and extra-time and penalties are certainly not out of the question. There is also the risk of more injuries to a team that already has a number of players in the treatment room as the league campaign reaches a climax.

For Al-Hilal, the situation is now a little similar to Liverpool’s in England. The Reds have been chasing Manchester City at the top of the English Premier League, but on Saturday had to play the FA Cup final against Chelsea. They ended up winning that game but it was a grueling and hard-fought 90 minutes, followed by extra-time and then an emotional penalty shootout triumph. Liverpool are now scheduled to play Southampton on Tuesday in a game that they have to win if they are going to keep their league ambitions alive. They then end the season at home to Wolves on Sunday. This congested fixture list is made more difficult by Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk leaving the Wembley pitch with injuries on Saturday. But while the knocks don’t seem too serious, they were worrying moments for coach Jurgen Klopp and the fans.

All of these issues leave Ramon Diaz with plenty to think about. Had the final come after the Al-Ittihad game, then the Argentine would have a clear vision on his team’s chances for the title. Now, he needs to do all he can to win the King’s Cup and hope that this does not derail Al-Hilal’s slim chances of the league.

In some ways, having so many big games is a reflection of Al-Hilal’s success but Al-Ittihad will be much the fresher of the two teams when they meet in Jeddah next week and that could make a huge difference, especially in the closing stages of the match.

There are pressures at the bottom of the table too. The relegation battle is fierce, with the bottom half of the table all in danger. Al-Taawoun will be happy they played before the postponement came into effect and won their crucial six-pointer against Al-Batin. That dragged Al-Ettifaq into the bottom three but they are expected to defeat Al-Hazem, the only team adrift at the bottom. Al-Faisaly lost on Thursday and will be watching other results anxiously. The extra days have given teams a little more time to rest ahead of a crucial few weeks — all except Al-Hilal, who have big game after big game.

What was already a long season has become a little longer and will now run from August to June. There have been plenty of stops and starts with breaks for the successful World Cup qualification campaign and various Asian Champions League games. It can’t have been easy for the players but there is still plenty of excitement for the fans, starting with the King’s Cup final on Thursday and a potential title decider just four days later.

Futsal teams kick off Saudi Arabia’s participation at third GCC Games

Futsal teams kick off Saudi Arabia’s participation at third GCC Games
Updated 16 May 2022

Futsal teams kick off Saudi Arabia’s participation at third GCC Games

Futsal teams kick off Saudi Arabia’s participation at third GCC Games
  • Both men and women’s teams will take the field, as will Kingdom’s athletics squads at the tournament in Kuwait

Saudi Arabia’s men’s and women’s futsal teams will on Monday kick off the Kingdom’s bid for glory at the third Gulf Games in Kuwait, which will run until May 31.

The Saudi national athletics team for men and women will also be part of the action on the opening day, with runner Abdullah Abkar joining the 100m qualifiers, while Youssef Masrahi, Mazen Al-Yassin and Mohammed Daoud compete in the 400m qualifiers.

In the women’s athletics, runner Ruaa Al-Sulaimani is a finalist in the 400m, Saja Jalal will compete in the long jump and shot put competitions, and her colleague Lojien Al-Hamid will run in the 100m.

Hussain Al-Hizam and Ahmed Al-Yassin will be looking for podium finishes in the pole vault final on Monday evening, and at the same time Mohammed Tolo will be aiming for gold in the final of the shot put competition. Hammoud Al-Alwani and Mohammed Al-Yami, meanwhile, will compete in the long jump.

Eddie Howe looking to finish Newcastle United’s season on a high

Eddie Howe looking to finish Newcastle United’s season on a high
Updated 16 May 2022

Eddie Howe looking to finish Newcastle United’s season on a high

Eddie Howe looking to finish Newcastle United’s season on a high
  • The Magpies welcome Arsenal to St. James’ Park knowing a win would improve their points tally on previous two campaigns

NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe is determined to make sure Newcastle United finish their campaign on a high, despite the Magpies already securing Premier League safety.

Newcastle take on Arsenal at St. James’ Park this evening looking to take their tally to 46 points, which would beat last season’s mark of 45 and 2019-20’s, which was 44.

The Gunners’ visit to Tyneside is followed up by a trip to relegation-threatened Burnley on the final day — and Howe is hopeful his players will not let their season, as well as all of their hard work, go to waste.

“Any target or objective we can pass is a good thing,” Howe said.

“The most important thing for me is we finish the season well and are professional right until the end and we show our best selves in the next two games.

“The previous two games have been difficult as we know, we’ve played two world-class teams. (It has been) Great for us in terms of knowing where we are and where we have to improve. These next two are slightly different, still tough games, but we want to go out well this season.”

That’s definitely a sentiment that seems to be echoed in the dressing room, too, with Kieran Trippier wanting to send the fans away happy for the summer, in what is the final home encounter of the season.

The England international said: “It’s a massive occasion, the last home game of the season. The fans have been unbelievable since I arrived.

“We need to look back, to criticize ourselves, but we look back to January and the steps we’ve taken since then, the results that we’ve had, we’re building,” Trippier said. “We’ve played back-to-back two of the best teams in the world so we’ve got to be proud of our performances before the last two results. We need to forget about Man City (5-0 loss), two big games coming up, two different teams fighting for different reasons so we need to match that.

“Arsenal are fighting to get in the top four, I want to help Tottenham obviously and then Burnley staying up.

“It’s two different types of matches and they’re going to be up for it so we’ve got to make sure we match that.”

Having taken over the club when it was at the foot of the Premier League table and needing to break top-flight records to stay up, things looked bleak for Howe and Newcastle on arrival.

However, things now look rosy at the club with co-owner Mehrdad Ghodoussi taking to social media to publicly thank the head coach for his efforts, after Leeds United’s loss to Chelsea meant the Magpies could no longer drop to the Championship.

On Twitter, Ghodoussi said: “When all odds were against us, when everyone doubted us, we united and forged ahead. Tonight is the result of that hard work.Thank you Eddie, you have been incredible, thank you to the coaching staff, our squad and everyone at the club, and of course our fans.”

Has Howe been thanked privately, too?

“Yes, I’ve had contact with the owners but I have contact with the owners regularly, especially at this time of year as we build and plan for lots of different things — the training ground and transfer windows etc,” he said.

“They’re happy with what has been achieved. The main goal we had when coming in has been done, so everyone connected with the club, the owners included, deserve a huge amount of credit for what’s happened. It’s very much a team success and I’m very keen to point out that everyone has contributed to that.”

Meanwhile, Howe is expecting positive progress in relation to the new deal negotiations between Newcastle and midfielder Sean Longstaff.

“I expect a positive resolution for Sean, yeah,” said the head coach.

“Fingers crossed. It’s very close to being done. I’m actually day-to-day in charge of that but fingers crossed we can get it over the line.”

Asian pole vault king Obiena sets SEA Games record

Asian pole vault king Obiena sets SEA Games record
Updated 16 May 2022

Asian pole vault king Obiena sets SEA Games record

Asian pole vault king Obiena sets SEA Games record
  • Obiena eclipsed his own previous Southeast Asian Games record 5.45m he set in winning gold in 2019
  • The 26-year-old Filipino is ranked sixth-best men’s pole vaulter in the world

HANOI, Vietnam: Asia’s top pole vaulter Ernest John Obiena set his sights on the World Athletics Championships in July after retaining his SEA Games title by easily clearing a Games-record 5.46m on Saturday.
The 26-year-old Filipino, ranked the sixth-best men’s pole vaulter in the world, eclipsed his own previous Southeast Asian Games record 5.45m he set in winning gold in 2019.
But in hazy conditions at My Dinh National Stadium in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, Obiena fell short of bettering his Asian-record 5.93m.
“I wanted to beat the Asian record. You never know how many chances I get, I wanted, I really wanted it today,” he told reporters afterwards, having failed three times at 5.94m.
But he was nevertheless feeling “positive” about the World Championships in Oregon in two months’ time.
“The first battle is I need to make sure I get in there. (First) I get selected to compete and the next one is perform well,” said Obiena, who was joint 11th at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
“That’s why I’m here. I’m preparing.”