‘Beautiful days for Saudi football’: Al-Hilal’s Abdullah Al-Mayouf looking to cap stellar 2021 with the AFC Champions League title

Al-Hilal’s veteran goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf will play in his fourth AFC Champions League final this week when he pulls on the gloves to face South Korea’s Pohang Steelers. (AFP/File Photos)
Al-Hilal’s veteran goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf will play in his fourth AFC Champions League final this week when he pulls on the gloves to face South Korea’s Pohang Steelers. (AFP/File Photos)
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Updated 22 November 2021

‘Beautiful days for Saudi football’: Al-Hilal’s Abdullah Al-Mayouf looking to cap stellar 2021 with the AFC Champions League title

Al-Hilal’s veteran goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf will play in his fourth AFC Champions League final this week when he pulls on the gloves to face South Korea’s Pohang Steelers. (AFP/File Photos)
  • The 34-year-old goalkeeper will play in his fourth final when the Riyadh club takes on South Korea’s Pohang Steelers on Tuesday

RIYADH: Some players would dream of playing in the final of the AFC Champions League just once in their career — to experience the buzz, the pressure and excitement that comes with playing on such a stage.

Those that are very fortunate will get the opportunity to play in two, such is the luck of those that play for the continent’s biggest clubs.

But to play in four is simply mind-blowing.

That is exactly what Al-Hilal’s veteran goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf will achieve this week when he pulls on the gloves to face South Korea’s Pohang Steelers at the cauldron that is Riyadh’s King Fahd International Stadium.

Remarkably, the 34 year old is still young enough to feature in even more finals given the dominance of Al-Hilal in this competition over the past half-decade, with Tuesday marking their third final in the past five years.

“As a football player, it’s important to have ambition to win each title,” he told Arab News.

“I want to keep playing for another four or five years and my target is to play in the final every year.”

Having only won one of his previous three encounters, he will be hoping Tuesday evening’s match will turn out differently to the last time he faced a Korean team in the final.

That was in 2011. Having made his Al-Hilal debut back in 2004 as a fresh-faced 17 year old, the Riyadh native opted for a sea change after three years of limited opportunities, joining Jeddah’s Al-Ahli in 2007, and five years later making his first appearance in the final of Asia’s showpiece club competition.

On that occasion, the Saudi giants were no match for a slick Ulsan Hyundai side, captained by a certain Kwak Tae-hwi who would go on to play for three years with Al-Hilal, leaving Riyadh to return to Seoul in 2016 at the same time as Al-Mayouf returned to play for his boyhood club.

Another final, back with Al-Hilal in 2017, resulted in another loss, this time against Japan’s Urawa Reds, before Al-Mayouf and his Al-Hilal teammates got their revenge on the Japanese heavyweights with a dominant 3-0 win in the 2019 final.

Speaking exclusively to Arab News just days before this year’s final, which takes on extra significance for both clubs as they seek to become the first club to win four continental club championships to become Asia’s most successful club side, Al-Mayouf said those losses earlier in his career acted as extra motivation come 2019.

“Of course, the first two finals helped (motivate) me for the third final in 2019,” he admitted.

“The first final, I was very young, and for the second final we faced some ‘conditions’ against Urawa, but for sure the experience helped for the third final.”

Reflecting on that 2019 triumph, Al-Mayouf said that he knew weeks before the final that Al-Hilal would break their ACL title drought.

“I felt that we would win after we defeated Al-Sadd in the semifinal,” he said.

“There was such a positive atmosphere within the team when we traveled from Riyadh to Tokyo with a 1-0 win from the first leg.

“We faced a lot of pressure from their fans. It’s not easy to play in that atmosphere, but we succeeded in winning the title.”

With this being Al-Hilal’s third final in five years, and with a handful of players having played in all three, they come into this game with the big game experience across the board that Pohang lack, and that holds them in good stead, according to Al-Mayouf, who said that they know they must approach the match as they would any regular season game.

“We will prepare ourselves as we would any other important match,” he said.

“It’s just one of the matches during the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League. We will prepare just like any other important match.”

Should Al-Hilal finish 2021 with another continental title, which would set them apart as Asia’s most dominant and successful football club, it would cap what has been a remarkable year for Saudi football.

For the first time since 2012, two Saudi clubs made the semifinal of the AFC Champions League — with Al-Hilal defeating Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr in a classic encounter last month — while the national team will finish 2021 undefeated in the final round of Asian Qualifiers for Qatar 2022, sitting four points clear on top of Group B with one foot already in Qatar.

With his international career behind him, having retired in 2019, Al-Mayouf said that this is a “golden period” for Saudi football.

“We have talented players, and every year we have new talented players coming through,” he said.

“The national team has done very well in qualification. They are very good tactically thanks to the coach, and my dream is for the Saudi national team to qualify for the World Cup and for Al-Hilal to win the AFC Champions League.

“These are beautiful days for Saudi football.”


Formula E champion Nyck de Vries recalls last season’s triumps and looks forward to another win in Diriyah E-Prix

Nyck de Vries - who won the first of February 2021’s season-opening double-header in Diriyah - was one of many that were left captivated by Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)
Nyck de Vries - who won the first of February 2021’s season-opening double-header in Diriyah - was one of many that were left captivated by Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)
Updated 17 sec ago

Formula E champion Nyck de Vries recalls last season’s triumps and looks forward to another win in Diriyah E-Prix

Nyck de Vries - who won the first of February 2021’s season-opening double-header in Diriyah - was one of many that were left captivated by Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)
  • Dutchman debuted as an ABB FIA Formula E driver back in 2019
  • Clinch a dramatic maiden championship for both himself and his team in 2021

RIYADH: Diriyah will always hold a special place in Nyck de Vries’ heart.

It was here, in the north-west of Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh, that the Dutchman debuted as an ABB FIA Formula E driver back in 2019.

Then, in 2021, he broke another duck in Diriyah, this time the first of his two E-Prix victories to date - one that set the course for De Vries to eventually clinch a dramatic maiden championship for both himself and his team.

Last year, under lights for the first time in the series’ history, and swaying between the 21 turns that sweep the street circuit of the UNESCO World Heritage site, there was a real romance to the races in Saudi Arabia.

And De Vries - who won the first of February 2021’s season-opening double-header - was one of many that were left captivated.

“It’s probably unfair to ask a driver what their favourite track is because we’re biassed, but Diriyah is definitely my favourite track on the calendar,” said De Vries on the eve of the 26-year-old’s first defence of his world title.

“It treated me well last year and also in my first Formula E race back in 2019. I really like the layout because it’s twisty but fast at the same time, the slowest corner is not actually considered a slow-speed corner according to Formula E metrics.

“I enjoy racing there and competing at night makes it a bit more special and unique, at night everything becomes a bit more intense and there’s more emotion.”

In ABB FIA Formula E, all of that intensity, all of that emotion, is played out at speeds of up to 280 km/h and Diriyah’s third year on the E-Prix circuit set the tone for a thrilling championship in 2021.

De Vries, who also emerged victorious in Valencia two stops later, eventually held out on the final race of the year to secure the drivers’ championship by just seven points.

His efforts helped his Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team seal the double by an even finer margin, with four points all the separated Mercedes and Jaguar Racing by the time the chequered flag fell on the final race in Berlin last August.

De Vries and Mercedes are now well-polished outfits going into the 2022 championship, but the same couldn’t be said when they entered ABB FIA Formula E hand-in-hand with Diriyah three years ago.

“In 2019, I started my Formula E season before I could end my Formula 2 season so there was very little time for me to adapt and get ready,” De Vries reflected. “I did a test in the summer but I remember that we didn’t have a lot of time. It was still a very new team. Not only was I very much a rookie, but I felt like we all were as a team.”

Clearly, both driver and team have come a long way since and there has been no let up for either since becoming the first ABB FIA Formula E winners under the FIA’s banner.

After the final race in Berlin last year, De Vries went on to contest two rounds of the European Le Mans Series before the year was out and produced fastest times in testing for both IndyCar and FIA Formula One in December.

Having described his team’s pre-Christmas testing in Valencia as going “very smoothly”, De Vries - one of the most sought-after drivers in motorsport - says the variety of his packed personal schedule helps ensure the Uitwellingerga-native remains razor sharp behind the wheel.

“The only way to keep myself on my toes is to continue to race,” he explained. “I certainly want to stay in Formula E, no doubt about it. I personally believe that it’s important for a driver to stay active and continue practising racing skills in different disciplines.”

Despite heading to Saudi Arabia as champion, De Vries isn’t feeling any extra pressure as he moves from being the hunter to the hunted.

He added: “I’m very much looking forward to a new season and a new championship. We’re the reigning champions and I’m looking forward to being in a position to defend those championships. We have a lot of positivity and excitement in our team, we’re growing as a family and I’m very much looking forward to a new season.

“There’s always pressure, I’m always nervous and I’m always stressed on race days because I care and I want to do well and I want to deliver. But being the reigning champion doesn't change anything. I’m very grateful that I was privileged enough to experience winning the championship and everything that comes with it but there’s no added pressure.”

With that being said, all eyes will be on De Vries when he returns to Diriyah for the first E-Prix of the new campaign from 28-29 January.

He will no doubt be looking to write another memorable chapter of his career at the circuit he loves and, with fans back in the grandstands, De Vries was quick to share some advice for any young Saudis looking to take a leaf out of his book and pursue a career in motorsport.

“Follow your passion and your dreams,” said De Vries. “No one has the right to take courage away from you or say something is impossible.

“It’s a tough journey if you set yourself a goal and you always keep that in mind and work towards that then hard work pays off and further down the line you will get to where you want to be. It’s not always that straight forward but I’d say follow your passions and your dreams and believe in them.”


Premier League clubs agree changes to Covid postponement rules

Premier League clubs agree changes to Covid postponement rules
Updated 26 January 2022

Premier League clubs agree changes to Covid postponement rules

Premier League clubs agree changes to Covid postponement rules
  • The change comes after criticism of the way some clubs were perceived to be exploiting the previous rules
  • If a club could not field 13 outfield players and a goalkeeper either from their squad list or appropriately experienced under-21 players, the match would be postponed

LONDON: Premier League clubs must have at least four positive coronavirus cases in their squad before a match can be called off under new guidance issued Wednesday following a number of controversial postponements.
The change comes after criticism of the way some clubs were perceived to be exploiting the previous rules.
If a club could not field 13 outfield players and a goalkeeper either from their squad list or appropriately experienced under-21 players, the match would be postponed.
But that rule included absences unrelated to Covid-19, such as injury or international duty.
There was a growing belief that teams hit by absences of key players were using the flexibility in the rules to have matches called off.
There have been 22 postponements in the Premier League under the Covid criteria since the omicron variant led to a surge in cases among players and staff in December.
Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow recently said the rules were not fit for purpose, while Tottenham were furious at the league’s decision to grant a postponement request to Arsenal for the north London derby.
“Following a club meeting today, the Premier League’s Covid-19 match postponement guidance has been updated to include a Covid-19 impact threshold,” a Premier League statement said.
“From now on, if a club applies to postpone a match on the grounds of insufficient players due to Covid-19, they must have a minimum of four positive cases within their squad.”
The league said the new rules would take effect before the next Premier League fixture, the rearranged match between Burnley and Watford on February 5.
Some top-flight managers had complained that changing the rules mid-season could force them to play weakened teams if four players had Covid, while other sides had benefited from postponements.
But it was reported that no clubs spoke out against the change at Wednesday’s meeting.
“Throughout the pandemic, the Premier League has adapted its guidance in response to the wider public health situation. The guidance was last updated in December in response to the emergence of the omicron variant,” the statement added.
“Club applications will continue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”


Martial: I can hit the ground running at Sevilla

Martial: I can hit the ground running at Sevilla
Updated 26 January 2022

Martial: I can hit the ground running at Sevilla

Martial: I can hit the ground running at Sevilla
  • Martial has only started two Premier League games for United this season
  • "I'm ready to play," said Martial at his official presentation in Seville on Wednesday

SEVILLE: Anthony Martial said on Wednesday he is fit and ready to play immediately for Sevilla after joining on a six-month loan deal from Manchester United.
Martial has only started two Premier League games for United this season and the 26-year-old forward has made just one appearance this year, after coming off the bench against West Ham last weekend.
“I’m ready to play,” said Martial at his official presentation in Seville on Wednesday.
“I have trained hard to be ready. If the coach wants me to play, I can do it now. My objective is to play, to help the team, to score goals, give assists. That’s my goal for these months.”
Martial told United’s interim coach Ralf Rangnick he wanted to leave in January due to a lack of playing opportunities.
The French international could be given a fresh start if, as expected, Rangnick is replaced in the summer but Martial kept the door open to staying longer at Sevilla.
“At the moment it is for 5 months, but we never know what the future may hold,” Martial said.
He will join Sevilla’s title challenge in Spain, with the team sitting second in La Liga, four points behind Real Madrid.
The team have the best defensive record in the league but have been less impressive in attack.
Martial said he was persuaded to join Sevilla by the club’s coach Julen Lopetegui and sporting director Monchi.
“What convinced me to come was the conversations with the sporting director and with the coach,” Martial said.
“They showed me that they wanted me here. I wanted to come, I wanted to play more and prove my worth at a club like Sevilla.”


Diriyah E-Prix two-time winner Sam Bird sets his sights on more Formula E success in Riyadh

Diriyah E-Prix two-time winner Sam Bird sets his sights on more Formula E success in Riyadh
Updated 26 January 2022

Diriyah E-Prix two-time winner Sam Bird sets his sights on more Formula E success in Riyadh

Diriyah E-Prix two-time winner Sam Bird sets his sights on more Formula E success in Riyadh
  • The 35-year-old British driver won last year under the lights on his debut for Jaguar and is the only driver to win multiple times in Saudi Arabia
  • Sam Bird: Jaguar TCS Racing are going to be at the sharp end – I firmly predict that – I think that we’re going into it as strong as we possibly can

RIYADH: British driver Sam Bird says he is “chomping at the bit” for the 2022 ABB FIA Formula E season to get underway in Saudi Arabia, ahead of the season-opening Diriyah E-Prix on Friday and Saturday.

Bird’s Jaguar TCS Racing debut ended in glory on the streets of Diriyah for the second time of his career in 2021 — to go with his 2019 victory with Virgin-Audi — making the 35-year-old the only driver to claim multiple E-Prix wins in Saudi Arabia.

And the Briton is hoping to replicate those previous successes when the lights go out on the first two races of the year at Diriyah’s double-header under lights.

“I’m coming into season 8 with a lot of excitement,” Bird said. “I’m chomping at the bit to get started. I think Jaguar TCS Racing have done a great job over the break to ensure we’re in the best possible position going forward into the season. The plan is to do what I’ve been able to do in the past two seasons in Diriyah, which is to start with a win.”

Considering Bird’s previous in Saudi Arabia, it is little wonder that he finds Diriyah’s street circuit — that last February became the first ABB FIA Formula E E-Prix to be held under lights — a joy to drive.

“The Diriyah circuit itself is in my opinion one of, if not the most fun to drive. It’s really quite quick for Formula E; fast and flowing the middle sector; you’re never in a straight line, always changing direction,” he said.

“It’s really cool to drive especially when you get it right but if you get it wrong it can really bite you because when it’s one corner after another, if you get the first one wrong you’ll get the next one wrong and so on and so on and it’s like a concertina effect. Also, racing at night is a really cool spectacle, it doesn’t really change too much for me but certainly on the TV it looks great.”

Bird, who also has a soft spot for the circuit in New York, revealed to Arab News some of the more challenging tracks he has experienced.

“I’ve never won in Berlin. I’ve been on the podium in Berlin, but I’ve never won there,” he said. “I’ve never won in Mexico although last time we were there I should have done better, in Mexico City. I crashed out of second with two laps to go. My teammate Mitch Evans actually won that race. I was with a different team back then.

“There’s a couple of tracks that maybe I haven’t done well at historically, but it’s not that I can’t be quick there,” Bird added. “I know that I can be quick there and I believe that Jaguar TCS will give me the tools in order to be quick at those places.”

Part of an ABB FIA Formula E initiative, Bird visited the Kingdom in December to share his knowledge with local drivers and found it an enriching experience.

“It was great to meet some young aspiring drivers,” he said. “What I would say to them is if you’ve got a dream, if you aspire to be anything in life, if you put your heart and soul into it and never give up, you can achieve whatever you want in life.”

There are few drivers in the sport who could offer more valuable insight than the only man in history to win an E-Prix in all seven of the sport’s previous editions.

No other driver has more races than Bird’s 84 under their belt in ABB FIA Formula E, while the Briton sits third on the all-time list for most E-Prix wins, with 11. He has also accumulated the fourth-highest amount of points (690) in ABB FIA Formula E history, and ranks fourth for most podiums (22) and fastest laps (six).

The only thing missing is a first ABB FIA Formula E championship, with Bird finishing sixth in the standings last year and his Jaguar team missing out on the teams’ title by just four points in one of the closest run championships in history.

But Bird goes into his second year with Jaguar TCS Racing confident that he, teammate Mitch Evans and their team will be at the business end of both championships come the end of the season.

“Jaguar TCS Racing are going to be at the sharp end,” Bird said. “I firmly predict that. I think that we’re going into it as strong as we possibly can. We have an incredibly determined team and a fast Jaguar I-TYPE 5 race car and I’m confident that we can get some great results.”


X44 retains Loeb, Gutierrez for championship challenge in Extreme E Season 2

X44 retains Loeb, Gutierrez for championship challenge in Extreme E Season 2
Updated 26 January 2022

X44 retains Loeb, Gutierrez for championship challenge in Extreme E Season 2

X44 retains Loeb, Gutierrez for championship challenge in Extreme E Season 2
  • Duo narrowly missed Season 1 title in electric SUV series while driving for team founded by Lewis Hamilton

LONDON: Extreme E Season One runners-up X44 have retained their driver lineup for the forthcoming campaign, with Sebastien Loeb and Cristina Gutierrez back behind the wheel for the team founded by seven-time Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton.

Loeb and Gutierrez were narrowly denied championship honors in the inaugural season of Extreme E, when victory at the Jurassic X Prix in December saw them finish level on points with overall winners Rosberg X Racing, but lose out after a countback of victories (three to one).

X44 finished as the fastest qualifier at all five X Prix raced in 2021, and they will be determined to maintain that imperious form on course as they bid for title glory in the second season of Extreme E, which begins next month in NEOM, Saudi Arabia, from Feb. 19.

Loeb is one of the greatest rally drivers of all time with a record nine World Rally Championships and 80 race wins to his name. His 26-year career in motor sports has seen him achieve podium finishes in races as varied as the Dakar Rally, World Rallycross and 24 Hours of Le Mans.

He has also achieved three Race of Champions wins in which he competed against the world’s best racing and rally drivers. The Frenchman has already had a busy start to 2022, finishing second overall in the Dakar Rally before taking his 80th WRC win last weekend with victory in the season-opening Rallye Monte-Carlo.

“I’m very happy to be driving for X44 again in Season Two of Extreme E,” Loeb said. “Last year was very challenging for us. We had a lot of struggles with the car and some bad luck too, but we came top of qualifying at every race and finished the year with a win and level on championship points — so we are feeling optimistic!

“I think the other teams are very strong, but Cristina and I have shown that we know how to win races in some of the toughest terrains in the world, so we will give our all to secure more podiums. Our fans have been very supportive ever since our first race, so I hope we can repay them with a championship win in 2022.”

Gutierrez is a promising talent who is rewriting the rulebook for women racers. In addition to finishing the notoriously difficult Dakar Rally six times, she made history as the first woman to ever win the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies, the second to win a stage in the Dakar Rally (2021) and the third to stand on a podium in the Dakar Rally (2022). Gutierrez has all the hallmarks of a great driver, showing grit and a natural talent, and has had a huge passion for the sport since she started racing aged four.

“I’m so excited to be returning to race for X44. We came very close to winning the championship last year and now we’re even more motivated and excited to drive well and push to take first place in 2022,” she said.

“Since I first joined the team, I have learned so much and feel stronger and faster with every race, so I’m excited to get back in the car and show what I can do. I’m also looking forward to exploring the planet and learning more about the places where we are racing,” she added.

“By highlighting the climate change challenges faced by the remote environments where we race, I hope to further educate myself on what we can do to help.”