2021 Review: The best of Arab football

2021 Review: The best of Arab football
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah celebrates scoring. (Reuters)
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Updated 25 December 2021

2021 Review: The best of Arab football

2021 Review: The best of Arab football
  • The brilliance of Mohamed Salah, continental success of Al-Ahly and return of the Arab Cup were among the highlights of a spectacular year for Arab football

It has been another busy year for football in the Arab world and there is no better time to look back at the best of 2021.

 

Player of the Year: Mohamed Salah

 

Where to start with the Liverpool star? After a number of memorable years in Europe, he had another one. The forward’s consistency is as impressive as some of the goals he has scored as season after season he produces on the biggest stages of all. This year he has netted 23 goals in the English Premier League as the Reds end 2021 in a position to challenge for another title. There have also been 10 goals in the UEFA Champions League.

Many have felt, and not just in the Arab world, that the 29-year-old should have won the Ballon D’Or instead of Lionel Messi. Finishing seventh is nothing to be sniffed at but is not a true reflection of how Salah performed in England and Europe. This season especially, he can claim to be the best player anywhere on current form and if he plays as well in 2022 then Liverpool as well as Egypt could have another year to remember.

 

Team of the Year: Al-Ahly

 

The Cairo club made history in the CAF Champions League. Real Madrid had to wait 12 years for their 10th continental title but Al-Ahly won nine and 10 in just 12 months, defeating Kaizer Chiefs in the final. Then there was a third place at the FIFA Club World Cup and victory over South American champions Palmeiras.

The Egyptian giants lost out on the domestic title to their deadly rivals Zamalek, but given their commitments elsewhere, it was not surprising. In the end, they had just too much ground, in terms of points and games, to make up as Zamalek could focus on the league. Al-Ahly gave their all and at one point, had the leaders in their sights. It wasn’t to be, though the new season has gone well with an already-famous 5-3 victory over Zamalek.

 

Game of the Year: Japan 0-1 Oman

 

Oman are a team that don’t often make headlines in the world of football but they came up with a fantastic result in September. Going to the home of Asia’s best team, nobody gave the Reds a chance against the Samurai Blue especially as this was the first game in the final round of qualification for the World Cup.

Organized Oman were not just there to make up the numbers. They produced a mature performance of counter-attacking football that deserved to take all three points. It should have caused a bigger wave around the world but it was certainly noticed in Asian football. It announced that Oman were a force to be reckoned with in the Arab world and that was reinforced by a solid performance in the Arab Cup.

 

Coach: Pitso Mosimane

 

It is predictable to choose the coach who was in charge of the team that won the CAF Champions League but Mosimane has achieved history. There’s more to the triumph than simply taking a good team to a big prize.

The South African has had plenty of hurdles to jump over. Al-Ahly have had coaches from outside Egypt before but they have come from Europe. Here, however, was a man from elsewhere in Africa coming into the one of the hottest seats in the world of football. There were plenty of barbs from former players and other club legends but Mosimane kept his dignity and delivered a huge prize.

 

Controversy of the Year: 19 minutes

 

In December, Qatar and Algeria met in the semi-finals of the FIFA Arab Cup. As the 90 minutes ended, Algeria were leading the hosts 1-0. Then the fourth official displayed a board that displayed nine minutes of added time.

There were gasps around the stadium followed by cheers from the home fans as they realised Qatar had ample time to get the equaliser and there were looks of disbelief on the Algerian bench. There had been stoppages but no major injury and five, perhaps a maximum of six minutes were expected. That was only half the story.

Qatar scored after 97 minutes, spawning instant conspiracy theories online that the hosts were being helped. They were rewritten when Algeria were given a penalty and scored it 10 minutes later. Nobody, except the Polish referee, knows where the 19 minutes came from.

 

Goal of the Year: Youcef Belaili

 

It was not only the best goal of the FIFA Arab Cup but possibly the best goal of the year anywhere.

In the quarter-final of the tournament between Morocco and Algeria, a goal kick from Algeria was headed on from just inside the Moroccan half. Youcef Belaili chested the ball down, turned and then fired a looping half-volley from around 40 meters that flew over the goalkeeper’s head and into the far corner.

It was simply stunning. That it came on a big stage just made it all the better. In the semi-final, Algeria went on to eliminate the hosts Qatar. A day later his club Qatar SC cancelled his contract, though there is no suggestion his goal and his departure are connected.

“Thank you very much to Qatar SC for the moments spent by your side and a huge thank you to the fans and the management,” he said on social media. “Now I am a free agent.”

 

Young Player of the Year: Hannibal Mejbri

It is hardly a secret when a player is on the books of Manchester United, but 18-year-old Mejbri showed the Arab world in December why there are high hopes at Old Trafford that the Tunisian can become a big star. The midfielder made his international debut against DR Congo in June, just weeks after making his first English Premier League appearance for the Red Devils in a 2-1 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers. At the Arab Cup however, the former Monaco prospect won two man of the match awards, helping Tunisia to the final.


Newcastle United find new hope from the old guard

Newcastle United find new hope from the old guard
Updated 23 January 2022

Newcastle United find new hope from the old guard

Newcastle United find new hope from the old guard
  • Jonjo Shelvey’s free-kick injects could be turning point in Newcastle’s fight against relegation as defense holds firm against off-color Leeds

LEEDS: It’s the sort of goal that exemplifies a season turning point: A scruffy set piece late in the game that, through a combination of indecisive goalkeeping and the hint of a deflection, squirms its way into the far corner. Whether it’s a slice of good fortune or a helping hand, they all count – and this one might count more than most.

Jonjo Shelvey’s late free-kick proved enough to seal all three points for Newcastle United against a strangely off-color Leeds at Elland Road and, although still deep in the relegation mire, it might well represent the first rung on the Tyneside club’s climb to safety. 

The gap to 17th is now down to a single point and next up is an Everton side without so much as one of those in five weeks. As the season heads into its latest international break, the ladder is beginning to look a little shorter.

Shelvey certainly understood the importance of the goal. As the net billowed almost apologetically in front of the home fans, he sprinted 60 meters down the pitch to greet the explosion of noise from the two-tiered away end. The delirium was repeated at the final whistle with players, many now shirtless, celebrating the three points as though they’d be presented by the queen.

“It’s massive,” Shelvey said after the game. “We will keep going and we believe we have enough to stay up. Everyone is in this together.”

Not that the omens before kick-off were particularly auspicious. The Newcastle fans being herded into the stadium through a concrete walkway from the coach park might have sung “Eddie Howe’s black and white army,” but it was hard to disguise the growing unease about his reign. The manager had presided over a solitary Premier League win since his November appointment – against fellow strugglers Burnley seven weeks ago - and had never previously emerged victorious from Elland Road.

Norwich’s win the previous evening, their second in succession, added its own pressure, as did news of Watford’s decision to part company with Claudio Ranieri after just 14 games in charge. It was difficult to understate the stakes for both club and manager.

The early phase of the game reflected the tensions. Leeds, shorn of several key players and far from safe themselves, immediately pressed Newcastle back and, finding joy out wide, fizzed a number of balls across the box. Their lack of an orthodox center-forward blunted their threat, however, and gradually Newcastle emerged from their low block to gain a toehold in the game.

The second half offered increasing promise. Newcastle were now dominating midfield, cutting the supply lines to the dangerous Raphinha and, although rarely fluid, countering in greater numbers. On 74 minutes, one such breakaway down the right resulted in Diego Llorente’s ungainly tug on Javier Manquillo 20 yards from goal and Shelvey did the rest.

Unlike the Watford game a week earlier, there were no late surprises and Newcastle were able to close out the game with minimal alarm and register a first clean sheet of the season.   

A very good day’s work, then, and perhaps significantly one that owed as much to the players Howe inherited from predecessor Steve Bruce as January’s expensive recruits.

As compact and composed as Kieran Trippier was, Shelvey, now in his seventh season at St. James’ Park, was the outstanding player on the pitch, gradually wresting control of the central areas and dictating play with smart, unfussy distribution. Jamaal Lascelles and Fabian Schar, with close to 300 appearances between them, provided a central wall that Leeds rarely looked like penetrating, and Martin Dubravka, first choice since his arrival from Sparta Prague in 2018, made a crucial block to stem the early Leeds tide.

There remains considerable work to do at Newcastle on and off the park to turn one result into a season-saving sequence. 

With 17 games remaining, it’s clear old faces will  be required to make just as important a contribution as new blood. On that front, encouragement was in ready supply at Elland Road.


Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages

Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages
Updated 23 January 2022

Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages

Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages
  • Riyad Mahrez and Algeria in surprise exit amid mixed results for Arab teams and individuals

The group stages of the delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations ended with two big surprises — the exit of defending champions Algeria and another of the favorites, five-time title-holders Ghana.

A record seven Arab nations started the tournament, but only four have booked a place in the round of 16: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and, most surprisingly, Comoros.

Morocco’s was perhaps the cleanest of qualifications, winning group C with seven points from two wins and a draw. The team looked to be on song and were led with distinction by Achraf Hakimi, who scored what may well be the best goal of the tournament so far against Gabon.

The Paris Saint-Germain player has been ably backed by Yassine Bounou, the excellent Sevilla goalkeeper,  especially in the opening match of the campaign against Ghana.

It was a match settled by a winning goal from substitute Sofiane Boufal, who plays for French Ligue 1 side Angers. Despite being benched in all three group matches, Boufal has shown his worth for coach Vahid Halilhodzic’s team.

Seven-time winners Egypt got off to a poor start with an awful performance in the 1-0 loss to Nigeria and after that scraped two narrow wins to progress to the knockouts stages.

Star forward Mohamed Salah, fresh from being nominated for the best FIFA men’s player award alongside Lionel Messi and eventual winner Robert Lewandowski, has often looked isolated and scored just one of Egypt’s paltry two goals at the tournament.

There seems to be a lack of understanding between the Liverpool star and fellow forward Mustafa Mohamed and Omar Marmoush, an issue that needs to be resolved before Wednesday’s clash with a formidable Cote d’Ivoire team.

Egypt recently took part in the FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar without any of their European-based stars, but the return of the players does not look to have improved the team visibly.

Another that has disappointed is Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny, and he and Salah have rarely been subjected to this much criticism from their own fans and media. Coach Carlos Queiroz has yet to find the right formula despite the two wins over Guinea-Bissau and Sudan.

Tunisia also were far from impressive, missing three penalties against Mali, Mauritania and Gambia on their way to scraping through the group stages by finishing as one of the best third-placed teams.

The missed kicks came from Zamalek’s Seif El-Din Al-Jaziri, Saint-Etienne’s Wahbi Al-Kharazi — who both partially redeemed themselves with one and two goals, respectively --  and captain Youssef Al-Masakni, who plays for Al-Arabi Club in Qatar and had recently recovered from testing positive for COVID-19.

The young Manchester United star Hannibal Mejbri, one of the standout players at the Arab Cup, was again expected to take center-stage, but has so far failed to replicate his performances in Doha.

The biggest shock of the tournament has been the exit of champions Algeria. Manchester City star and talisman Riyad Mahrez entered the tournament with expectations of becoming the historical top scorer for his country at the AFCON, equaling Lakhdar Belloumi’s tally of six goals.

However, Mahrez and his colleagues were humiliated in the group stage, gathering only one point from a draw and two losses. Algeria’s star man even missed a penalty in the comprehensive  3-1 loss to Cote d’Ivoire.

Lack of preparation for most teams has been a feature of the early part of the tournament, and Mahrez and rest of coach Djamel Belmadi’s squad have failed to adapt to the pace of the competition, perhaps due to their late arrival in Cameroon.

Incredibly Algeria’s defeat in their final group match, coupled with other results, helped unheralded Comoros become the fourth Arab nation to qualify for the knockout stages.

The scenes of celebrations that followed their sensational 3-2 win over Ghana — one of the results of the competition so far — will live long in the memory, and showed just what this tournament means to fans and players.

While the Pharaohs’ clash with Cote d’Ivoire is the pick of the round-of-16 matches, Morocco will have a somewhat easier confrontation against Malawi, while Tunisia, with a host of players missing after testing positive for COVID-19, will face a thankless task against Nigeria, arguably the tournament’s best team.

For Comoros, the party continues against hosts Cameroon on Monday. Whatever happens from now on, it has been an unforgettable experience for them.

Individually, stars such as Salah and Mahrez rarely caught then eye in the group stage. Instead, it is the Cameroonian Vincent Aboubakar, who plays for Al-Nassr in the Saudi Professional League, who has been one of the stars, grabbing five goals in the three matches to top the goal-scoring table.

But teams and individuals have a habit of strongly emerging throughout a tournament. A slow start often ends up being a prelude to a star turn in the knockout stages.

We await Salah and co catching fire in the coming days.


Algeria and Ghana handed tough World Cup playoff ties

Algeria and Ghana handed tough World Cup playoff ties
Updated 23 January 2022

Algeria and Ghana handed tough World Cup playoff ties

Algeria and Ghana handed tough World Cup playoff ties

DOUALA: Algeria and Ghana, smarting after humiliating defeats at the Africa Cup of Nations this week, were on Saturday handed tough draws for the African World Cup playoffs in March.

Algeria were drawn against Cameroon while Ghana must take on near-neighbours Nigeria in a mouth-watering west African derby.

Algeria and Ghana went home after finishing last in their opening round Nations Cup groups after shock setbacks against tiny Equatorial Guinea and the Comoros Islands respectively and must now bounce back against difficult opponents to redeem themselves and qualify for the World Cup in Qatar in November.

Egypt and Senegal, who are still competing at the Cup of Nations in Cameroon, were drawn together in the World Cup playoffs, pitting two of the five countries who represented the continent at the last finals in Russia against each other.

Morocco were drawn against the Democratic Republic of Congo, who did not qualify for the Nations Cup in Cameroon thereby missing out on valuable practice ahead of March’s two-legged ties.

Mali have a chance to qualify for the World Cup for the first time after being paired with Tunisia. Both teams are also through to the last 16 in Cameroon, although Tunisia lost two of their three opening round matches, including an embarrassing 1-0 loss to debutants Gambia on Thursday.

However, Mali face staging their home game on neutral territory after not having any fit stadia to use when they won their World Cup group last year. They played their home games in Morocco.

The 10 countries in Saturday’s draw were all winners of their groups in the second round of African World Cup qualifiers played between September and November.

They now meet over two legs in March to determine a spot at the finals. The exact dates of the matches will be announced in the next days, said the Confederation of African Football.


New qualifying format among standout changes for Formula E season-opening at Diriyah E-Prix

New qualifying format among standout changes for Formula E season-opening at Diriyah E-Prix
Updated 23 January 2022

New qualifying format among standout changes for Formula E season-opening at Diriyah E-Prix

New qualifying format among standout changes for Formula E season-opening at Diriyah E-Prix
  • Ex-F1 driver Antonio Giovinazzi will join rookies Dan Ticktum and Oliver Askew on the grid at the double header of night races in Riyadh

RIYADH: With just under a week to go until the highly anticipated return of the 2021-22 ABB FIA Formula E World Championship there will some significant changes from previous years in the opening races at Diriyah.

The Diriyah E-Prix has been held three times in the historic desert surroundings of the UNESCO World Heritage site at At-Turaif, and a double-header of evening races will take place for the second year running on Jan. 28-29.

Changes that fans can expect this season include the qualifying process, which will feature a first round of two groups with each driver able to make multiple attempts at fastest laps within their allocated time. The new format maintains the possibility of any driver starting on pole. The top four fastest-lap drivers in each group will progress into head-to-head duels on a knockout basis in quarter-finals and semi-finals. Pole-position will be decided in a final head-to-head duel, with all grid positions based on either success in the head-to-head duels, or lap times depending on which stage of qualifying drivers reach.

As part of the new sporting regulations, Formula E races can now have additional race time of up to a maximum of 10 minutes added when incidents result in a Safety Car or Full Course Yellow neutralisations during the standard 45-minute + 1 Lap race.

Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal, Chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF), said: “Once again Diriyah is making sporting history with another ‘first’ and I’m so pleased Saudi Arabia has proudly opened this wonderful series. It’s a championship that aligns perfectly with our future vision and commitment to sustainability as a nation. We look forward to another thrilling season of racing, and we’re ready to welcome fans from all over the world.”

Ex-Formula 1 driver Antonio Giovinazzi (Dragon / Penske Autosport) will join Dan Ticktum (NIO 333 Racing), and Oliver Askew (Avalanche Andretti Formula E) on the grid for the first time, as the three rookies take part in the 22-driver line-up racing for the trophy.

Race and music fans can also look forward to entertainment both on and off track with concerts returning across the weekend. On Friday, Jan. 28 James Blunt, Craig David and Wyclef Jean take to the stage while following day’s line-up includes Two Door Cinema Club and The Script.

Jerry Inzerillo, Group CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority said: “I am delighted to welcome Formula E back to Diriyah for its fourth year. The E-Prix is one of the most important highlights in our sporting events calendar and is the perfect opportunity to showcase Diriyah’s position as an urban pedestrian city of the future, anchored on its past as the birthplace of the Kingdom. We are also proud to share Formula E’s sustainability vision to accelerate change towards an electric future, raise awareness of sustainable practices and contribute to reducing global carbon emissions. We can’t wait to once again light up the night sky with this event and see the fans here in person next weekend.”

Tickets start from SAR 150 ($40) and are available at www.diriyah-eprix.com


Newcastle ‘not dead and buried’ in Premier League battle: Howe

Newcastle ‘not dead and buried’ in Premier League battle: Howe
Updated 23 January 2022

Newcastle ‘not dead and buried’ in Premier League battle: Howe

Newcastle ‘not dead and buried’ in Premier League battle: Howe

NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe believes Newcastle United have proven to the Premier League that they are not “dead and buried’ in their fight to avoid relegation.

The Magpies ran out deserved winners at Elland Road as a Jonjo Shelvey strike was enough to see Howe’s men claim a precious three points — only their second top-flight victory of the season.

Howe is of the belief that his players proved a point to those around them with the Leeds United win — and is hopeful the result can spark a late-season transformation.

“I think you always learn things about your players, win lose or draw,” said the United head coach.

“We showed there is resilience in the team, we are fighting for each other. They are fighting for the club. They have belief they are not dead and buried. There is more to come.

“I am so, so pleased for everyone connected with Newcastle that we won the game. Hopefully it can transform our season.”

One criticism levelled at United in recent weeks has been their inability to see out a football match.

In fairness, it is a stance backed up by the statistics. No other Premier League team has lost more points from winning positions — 21 — this campaign.

While they faltered at home to Watford seven days earlier, they were in no mood to do so in Yorkshire.

Howe added: “Everyone to a man contributed to that win. An incredible intensity to the game, but there always is when you play Leeds.

“We had to really be very good physically and we suffered some injuries. It was an heroic effort in the sense that we committed everything to the game. I thought the players were outstanding.

“I am massively impressed with the players. That was a big test after last week (1-1 draw with Watford). I think the pleasing thing was, we had a 1-0 lead and it wasn’t backs to the wall. We looked the most likely team to score.

“We counterattacked very, very well and I did think we looked a threat in the second half. We did not surrender possession in space, we kept looking to attack.”

Goalscorer Shelvey has also faced criticism from fans for his below-par performances in the St. James’ Park defeats to Cambridge United and the Hornets in recent weeks.

However, Howe thinks he answered his critics with his match-winning show at Leeds.

Howe said: “He is hugely important. He is the central player, the supplier in possession. He started a lot of our attacks and has a creative eye. He has a really good range of passes.

“Shelvey intercepted the ball a number of times and I think that is a really good marker. He stopped a lot of their attacks. I was really pleased with him. I’m sure if you ask him he will admit that’s the hardest part of his game.”