Why clubs will welcome biggest shakeup in decades for AFC Champions League

Why clubs will welcome biggest shakeup in decades for AFC Champions League
Al-Hilal claimed a record fourth AFC Champions League title after beating Pohang Steelers 2-0 last week in Riyadh. (AFP)
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Updated 01 December 2021

Why clubs will welcome biggest shakeup in decades for AFC Champions League

Why clubs will welcome biggest shakeup in decades for AFC Champions League
  • Continent’s premier club competition set for autumn-spring schedule switch in 2023, increase in number of foreigners allowed in squads

RIYADH: Only days after Al-Hilal may have just made history by winning a record fourth Asian title, the AFC Champions League’s future is set to look very different as there are some significant changes already in place for the 2023 edition.

The Asian Football Confederation, which operates the competition that expanded from 32 to 40 teams this year, is set to officially approve a shift in the tournament’s calendar for the first time in almost two decades.

Instead of running from spring to autumn, the event will soon mirror its European equivalent by switching to an autumn start and a spring finish.

On Nov. 21, AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, said: “I am pleased to note that the AFC competitions continue to grow. There will be changes to the rules on foreign players, as well as to our competitions calendar. These are all part of the strategy to improve our players, clubs, and national teams on the world stage.”

The calendar change, expected to be rolled out in 2023, will return the tournament to its original schedule that was mapped out 20 years ago.

“The AFC Champions League was launched in 2002 and the inaugural season kicked off in August 2002 with its scheduled completion by May 2003,” the AFC said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that the outbreak of the respiratory illness SARS in Asia forced a postponement.

“Following this setback, the competition was relaunched in 2004 and the calendar was changed to February to December 2004, while the AFC Cup in 2004 took place from February to November 2004, leading to an adoption of the spring-autumn season,” the AFC said.

Ever since that initial change, there have been repeated requests for another look at the schedules and with a recent feasibility study being well-received, it all means that the changes will be agreed upon next year.

East Asian nations are especially happy with the change. Under the present format, the knockout stages come toward the end of the busy domestic seasons in China, South Korea, and Japan. Had Korean powerhouse Ulsan Hyundai won their semi-final against Pohang Steelers in October, the defending Asian champions would have had to travel to Riyadh for the final during the climax of the K-League title race and at the end of a grueling year.

A spring final would mean fresher eastern squads who would be just two or three months into their seasons as opposed to eight or nine.

For clubs in West Asia, it may present more of a challenge as domestic campaigns reach their zenith around the same time.

Until the final, the tournament is split into two geographic zones, east and west. That means that for much of the schedule, teams in each zone are in similar positions but the timing of the final, especially if it returns to a two-legged affair, tends to favor teams from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and elsewhere as they are just two or three months into their domestic seasons and approaching peak condition.

There are reasons for a switch that should benefit all. The AFC is confident that aligning the Asian calendar with much of the rest of the world, especially Europe, will make a difference financially, “for AFC Champions League and AFC Cup matches in terms of TV audiences and media interest with respect to the calendar structures of UEFA club competitions and European leagues.”

There are other changes that Saudi Arabia have pushed through. As reported by Arab News in November, the proposal from Riyadh to increase the number of foreign players that are allowed to play in the tournament has been accepted, only the precise format remains to be discussed.

At present, each team in the continental competition can register just four foreign players in its squad under the 3 plus 1 rule which means three imports can come from anywhere in the world and one from a fellow Asian nation. With 11 leagues around the continent allowing more imports for their domestic competition — including the Saudi Professional League, which has a full quota of seven — the AFC rule has increasingly become a point of contention.

“The current 3 plus 1 foreign player rule under which a club can field a maximum of four international players at any given point in time during a match is set to make way for a more augmented combination,” the AFC said.

“The proposed new combinations — 4 plus 2, 5 plus 1, or 5 plus 2 — have received wide support from both the AFC competitions committee and the AFC technical committee, with the decision imminent in early 2022 for implementation from 2023 onwards.” The changes will be confirmed early next year.

For major countries in Asian football, a revamped AFC Champions League should benefit all and help lift the tournament to the next level.

Al-Hilal handed kind draw in 2022 AFC Champions League group stages

Al-Hilal handed kind draw in 2022 AFC Champions League group stages
Updated 7 sec ago

Al-Hilal handed kind draw in 2022 AFC Champions League group stages

Al-Hilal handed kind draw in 2022 AFC Champions League group stages
  • Asian, Saudi champions will get chance to avenge only defeat on way to last year’s record 4th continental title, while Al-Shabab, Al-Faisaly will face UAE, Qatari powerhouses

RIYADH: When Al-Hilal lifted a record fourth Asian title in November to spark celebrations among millions of fans, there was one slight tinge of regret.

The Saudi Arabian giants lost 4-1 to tournament debutants Istiklol in the group stage and only made it to the last 16 by the narrowest of margins.

The draw for the 2022 AFC Champions League, made on Monday in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, has given the Saudi champions a chance for revenge against the Tajikistan powerhouse.

Al-Hilal, who defeated Pohang Steelers of South Korea in November’s final, have been placed in Group A of this year’s edition along with Istiklol as well as Al-Rayyan of Qatar. The lineup will be completed by the winner of the play-off between Sharjah of the UAE and Iraq’s Al-Zawraa. All six group games will take place between April 7 and 27 at a yet to be disclosed venue.

It is a draw that will likely be welcomed by coach Leonardo Jardim as continental powerhouses have been avoided – the recent expulsion of Iranian giants Persepolis and Esteghlal is a shame for the tournament but does make things easier for the others.

Istiklol will not be underestimated, however. They ended 2021 with another dominant win in the Tajikistan Higher League, finishing a full 13 points clear of their closest challenger. Al-Hilal fans will remember Manuchekhr Dzhalilov who scored twice in that 4-1 win and the veteran striker ended as top scorer once more in his home league with 18 goals.

The top two teams in Qatar, Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail, have been avoided with Al-Rayyan finishing 25 points behind the former and 12 behind the runners-up. In fact, Laurent Blanc’s men were closer to relegation than the title. Al-Hilal would have few fears of facing either of the play-off winners.

Al-Shabab return to Asia for the first time since 2015 and will also be in the hunt for top spot in Group B. Last season’s Saudi Pro League runners-up will be looking at Al-Jazira of the UAE as their main rivals. The Abu Dhabi club, fifth in the current league season, are UAE champions and have one of Asia’s most feared strikers in Ali Mabkhout, although Al-Shabab, currently in second in Saudi Arabia, have plenty of attacking talent of their own in Odion Ighalo and Ever Banega.

There will be an interesting clash with Mumbai City. The Indian debutants are part of the City Football Group, are coached by Englishman Des Buckingham, and are currently fourth in the Indian Super League. Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya complete a group that Al-Shabab will be looking to get out of.

Al-Faisaly may currently be preoccupied with a relegation battle at home but that may mean a first-ever Asian campaign will come as a welcome respite. A meeting with Qatari powerhouse Al-Sadd, who won their local league by 13 points last season (in a league that has just 22 games) will be tough but Al-Faisaly have shown in winning the King’s Cup that they are a match for any team on their day.

They will be joined by Jordanian giants Al-Wehdat and the winner of the play-off between UAE team Baniyas and Nasaf Qarshi of Uzbekistan. It should be an interesting challenge for Daniel Ramos’ men especially if they can pull away from the drop zone at home before the continental tournament starts.

Al-Taawoun are also fighting against the drop but will move into the group stage if they win a play-off against Syria’s Al-Jaish. If so, a tough campaign awaits with Al-Duhail of Qatar, Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor, and Sepahan of Iran.

Only the top team from each of the five groups in the western zone — the tournament is divided into two geographic halves until the final — are sure of a place in the second round where they will be joined by the three best-performing runners-up.

There are also other issues to be decided. The Asian Football Confederation ruled last week that each of the groups will be held in one centralized venue. The host cities have yet to be announced.

The timings have been changed too, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the 2022 World Cup that will take place in November and December. After the group stage ends on April 27, teams will have to wait until February 2023 to start the knockout rounds. The two-legged final is scheduled to take place on Feb.19 and 26.

Saudi Arabia bags nine medals at 2022 Asian Rowing Virtual Indoor Championships

Saudi Arabia bags nine medals at 2022 Asian Rowing Virtual Indoor Championships
Updated 17 January 2022

Saudi Arabia bags nine medals at 2022 Asian Rowing Virtual Indoor Championships

Saudi Arabia bags nine medals at 2022 Asian Rowing Virtual Indoor Championships
  • Winners book their places at world rowing indoor titles in February

RIYADH: Saudi rowers have bagged nine medals, including two golds, at the 2022 Asian Rowing Virtual Indoor Championships to qualify for the upcoming world championships.

Mohammed Al-Matrood and Faten Mirza clinched gold in the 2,000m and 500m races in the masters category, while Khaled Shaker won silver in the 500m masters category and Iman Rafiq finished second in the open category in the 500m.

Bronze medals were claimed by Omar Al-Sayed in the men’s under-16 2,000m race, Khaled Shaker in the 2,000m masters event, and Kariman Abu Al-Jadayel in the open women’s 2,000m race.

The Saudi medalists have now qualified for the 2022 World Rowing Indoor Championships on Feb. 25-26.

Ali Hussein Ali Reda, chairman of the Saudi Rowing Federation, congratulated the Saudi team as well as technical and administrative staff.

“We are proud of this achievement and we look forward to more hard work to achieve the best results at the upcoming championships, within the strategic plan that we have set,” he said.

Youssef Wael Julidan, the federation’s executive director, said that the medals were the result of hard work by competitors and coaches in recent months.

Morocco progress, Algeria stumble: 5 things we learned from Arab nations’ second round of matches at 2021 Africa Cup of Nations

Morocco progress, Algeria stumble: 5 things we learned from Arab nations’ second round of matches at 2021 Africa Cup of Nations
Updated 17 January 2022

Morocco progress, Algeria stumble: 5 things we learned from Arab nations’ second round of matches at 2021 Africa Cup of Nations

Morocco progress, Algeria stumble: 5 things we learned from Arab nations’ second round of matches at 2021 Africa Cup of Nations
  • Mohamed Salah’s goal gives Egypt a much-needed win, while Tunisia recovers from controversial defeat to Mali to thrash Mauritania

The second round of matches at the delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations saw the tournament get into gear, with redemption and mouth-watering final group games awaiting. Here are five things we learned from the latest round of action.

1. Algeria lose record chance, but have bigger issues

Algeria’s 1-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea is the shock of the tournament so far. This was the game when the defending champions were expected to extend their unbeaten record to 36, one short of Italy’s world record. That chance has gone, but coach Djamel Belmadi has bigger problems as his team are bottom of the group with one point and need a win against leaders Ivory Coast on Thursday.

The Desert Foxes were awful on Sunday and it is no surprise that they have yet to score a goal. After winning the Arab Cup with the “A” team in December, it was expected that when the big European stars arrived, they would go to the next level. But this was a disjointed and plodding performance. The best team in Africa were reduced to launching long balls in the direction of Islam Slimani.

Just as worrying was the body language of the players. There is a lot of work to do before a huge game against Ivory Coast, the biggest of the final round of matches. 

2. Egypt deserve their first win, but still a little lucky

After a hugely disappointing defeat against Nigeria in the opener, Egypt needed a win against Guinea-Bissau for all kinds of reasons. The 1-0 victory was deserved — the Pharaohs created plenty of chances and hit the woodwork on three occasions — but it came with some fortune.

The good news is that Mohamed Salah, ineffectual almost to the point of invisibility in the first game, scored. The Liverpool star was much busier here and volleyed home what turned out to be the winner at the far post in the second half.

But Egypt were almost left to rue their wastefulness and had VAR to thank for the points. Guinea-Bissau’s shooting had been a little wayward, but with eight minutes remaining Mama Balde cut into the box from the left side and curled home a beauty. The referee went to check a possible foul in the build-up and the goal was ruled out.

It was the kind of win that will not be long remembered, but one that can get a team’s tournament up and running. 

3. Morocco in a great position, but need to take chances

Morocco defeated Comoros 2-0 in the second game to become the second team, after hosts Cameroon, to book a place in the round of 16. The Atlas Lions have yet to concede a goal, and a draw in the final game against Gabon, who will also be sure of second place with a point, and first place is assured.

While the challenges have not been especially serious yet, Vahid Halilhodzic’s men are looking solid defensively, but need to become more clinical in the final third. The coach was visibly frustrated as his team missed chance after chance against the tournament debutants, though Morocco are unlikely to come up against a goalkeeper as impressive as Salim Ben Boina very often.

Despite the kinks that need to be ironed out, Morocco are exactly where they want to be — preparing for the group stage with a game to spare.

4. Tunisia take Mali frustration out on Mauritania

The big talking point of the first round was the referee blowing for full-time before the 90 minutes was up as Tunisia lost 1-0 to Mali. The Carthage Eagles channelled their anger in the right way and were two goals up inside the first 10 minutes as they defeated Mauritania 4-0.

There was never any doubt as to the outcome once Tunisia were ahead, and the winning margin would have been bigger had substitute Youssef Msakni not hit the post with a late penalty. 

Coach Mondher Kebaier will be delighted that captain and talismanic forward Wahbi Khazri scored twice and looked lively. There will be tougher tests to come for Tunisia, but at least the team look to be moving through the gears. The initial target is to avoid unnecessarily tough opposition in the knockout round, and that means finishing in the top two in the group to avoid a possible meeting with Morocco. Defeat surprise group leaders Gambia and all will be well.

5. Sudan still fighting

A 3-1 loss to Nigeria was not unexpected as the Super Eagles were on top from start to finish. Sudan asked a few questions, however, and can take confidence from their performance against a team that has been perhaps the most impressive in the tournament so far. 

Nigerian star Moses Simon was impressed with the Secretary Birds, and agreed that the game with Sudan was harder than the previous win over Egypt. 

“We knew they were more difficult for us, but we expected it and we were ready for them,” he said.

Sudan may be bottom of the group with one point along with Guinea-Bissau, but still have the chance for glory.

If the Secretary Birds can defeat neighbors Egypt in the final game, a big if to be sure, then they will go through to the next stage and pick up one of their biggest results since winning the title in 1970.

5 burning questions to be answered at the 2022 Australian Open

5 burning questions to be answered at the 2022 Australian Open
Updated 17 January 2022

5 burning questions to be answered at the 2022 Australian Open

5 burning questions to be answered at the 2022 Australian Open
  • Novak Djokovic’s controversial deportation has overshadowed what will be yet another intriguing tournament in Melbourne

Novak Djokovic has been deported, the world’s top tennis players are in position and the Australian Open officially kicks off its main draw action on Monday. Here are some burning questions we could get answered in the upcoming fortnight in Melbourne.  

1. Will we have a new men’s world No.1 by the end of the Australian Open?

Djokovic’s absence means world No.2 Daniil Medvedev is the highest-ranked player in the tournament draw and the in-form Russian will be seen as the main contender for the title at Melbourne Park.

Medvedev, a finalist at the Australian Open to Djokovic 11 months ago and a maiden major champion at the US Open last September, is bidding to become the first man in the open era to win a second grand slam title on his next grand slam appearance.

The 25-year-old is also looking to become only the sixth man in the open era to win the Australian Open after winning the US Open in the previous season.

But, more importantly, should Medvedev manage to lift the trophy on Rod Laver Arena in two weeks’ time, he will replace Djokovic as the new world No.1 and become the first player outside the “Big Four” (Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray) to reach the summit of the rankings since Andy Roddick last occupied the top spot in February 2004.

World No.3 and German reigning ATP Finals champion Alexander Zverev also has a shot at dethroning Djokovic if he clinches the Australian Open crown.

2. Can Nadal break the men’s all-time grand slam record?

Nadal is the only former champion in the men’s singles draw at this Australian Open and the Spaniard has a golden chance to claim an all-time men’s record 21st grand slam title this fortnight, with Djokovic and Federer — the two players he shares the record with — both missing the tournament.

The sixth-seeded Nadal, who opens his campaign against American Marcos Giron on Monday, is contesting his first major since his semifinal exit at Roland Garros last June.

The Mallorcan has been dealing with a foot injury that forced him to miss Wimbledon and the US Open and is coming off a bout of COVID-19 but has made a reassuring return to the tour by winning the Melbourne Summer Set ATP 250 tournament in the build-up to this Australian Open.

The question remains whether his body will allow him to compete in a best-of-five format over the next two weeks.

“One day we’re going to see it. I can’t tell you a clear or accurate answer because I didn’t play best-of-five since Roland Garros,” Nadal said on Saturday.

“I just want to go day by day. Of course, I’m going to keep trying my best to improve. But every day I spend on court, I think it’s positive. Every match that I am able to win, it’s very important for my confidence, it’s important for my physical performance, and you never know what can happen later.”

3. Can Osaka defend a title for the first time?

World No.14 Naomi Osaka lifted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup in both 2019 and 2021, and has won 22 of her last 23 matches in Melbourne.

The four-time major champion and seven-time titlist overall has never successfully defended a title and will be looking to change that at the Australian Open.

The Japanese former world No.1 returned to the tour a couple of weeks ago after a four-month absence and reached the quarterfinals of the Melbourne Summer Set tournament in her first event back. She retired ahead of her semifinal with an abdominal injury but is not too concerned ahead of her Australian Open first round against Colombian Camila Osorio on Monday.

“I heal quite fast. I’m as good as I can be in this current moment,” she said on Saturday.

4. Can Muguruza keep up her momentum from last season?

Two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza finished 2021 with a bang, clinching the WTA Finals in Guadalajara to move back up to No.3 in the world rankings.

The Spanish former world No.1 lost the Australian Open final to Sofia Kenin two years ago and has some unfinished business at Melbourne Park.

Muguruza had a long 2021 season that ended mid-November in Mexico,  which could serve her well when it comes to maintaining form and momentum.

“I think I really focused on getting the necessary rest because you’re not losing your tennis. I think you prioritize getting back the energy, refresh the mindset and everything,” the 28-year-old said.

5. Will Barty keep her No.1 streak going?

Reigning Wimbledon champion Ash Barty will kick off her 104th consecutive week at No.1 entering this Australian Open, the fifth-longest streak in WTA history.

Two players could potentially unseat Barty at the top of the rankings: No.2 Aryna Sabalenka and No.4 Barbora Krejcikova.

Sabalenka needs to reach at least the final to have a chance of gaining the summit, but also needs Barty to lose before the title decider.

Meanwhile, Krejcikova will need to reach the final to have a chance of clinching the top spot.

If Barty reaches the third round or Sabalenka makes it to the final, then Krejcikova would move to No.1 only by winning the title. If Barty advances to the semis, Krejcikova cannot overtake the Australian.

Instead of playing center court in Australia, Djokovic poses for selfies in Dubai airport

Instead of playing center court in Australia, Djokovic poses for selfies in Dubai airport
Updated 17 January 2022

Instead of playing center court in Australia, Djokovic poses for selfies in Dubai airport

Instead of playing center court in Australia, Djokovic poses for selfies in Dubai airport
  • The world number one flew out of Melbourne late on Sunday
  • Djokovic was escorted to Melbourne Airport by Australian Border Force officials

DUBAI: On the first day of the Australian Open, the world’s best male tennis player was taking selfies with fans at a Dubai airport arrivals gate.
Instead of warming up for his first scheduled match on center court at Melbourne Park in front of thousands, Novak Djokovic was 11,600 km (7,200 miles) away, agreeing to photos with a handful of fellow travelers.
“Hey mate, sorry about what’s happened,” one man said as he lowered his face mask for a snap with Djokovic, who kept his own mask on as he waited just off the airbridge for his entourage to exit the plane.
The world number one flew out of Melbourne late on Sunday after the Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa, capping days of drama over the country’s COVID-19 entry rules and his unvaccinated status.
The ruling dealt a final blow to Djokovic’s hopes of chasing a record 21st Grand Slam win at the Australian Open, which started on Monday.
Djokovic was escorted to Melbourne Airport by Australian Border Force officials, who formed a guard around the player in an airport lounge before taking him to the door of the plane.
While his coach Goran Ivanizevic and two others in his entourage were seated in business class, Djokovic was afforded the privacy of first class for the overnight 14-hour Emirates flight.
His arrival in Dubai early in the morning was far more low key. Djokovic stood alone, wearing a blue tracksuit top, jeans and trainers, carrying a tennis bag and holding his passport, as he waited for his three companions to also exit the plane.
The player agreed to a handful of fan photos before demurring and allowing airport officials to move people along.
A few hours later, instead of gearing up for his scheduled first round match against compatriot and world number 77 Miomir Kecmanovic, Djokovic was escorted by airline staff on a terminal buggy to the departure gate for a flight to Belgrade, where he checked in alone.
While he was in the air from Melbourne to Dubai, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison left the door open for him to compete at next year’s Australian Open despite an automatic three-year ban from entering the country.
Morrison noted there was scope for that three-year ban to be waived “in the right circumstances.”
Djokovic, however, did not appear to be in the mood to contemplate a return to Australia, ignoring a shouted question in Dubai about whether he planned to attempt a return Down Under.