Al-Hilal strengthen squad as Saudi Pro League title hopes become more distant

 Saudi Arabia right-back Abdulrahman Al-Obaid signed for Al-Hilal from Al-Nassr. (Twitter: @AlHilal_EN)
Saudi Arabia right-back Abdulrahman Al-Obaid signed for Al-Hilal from Al-Nassr. (Twitter: @AlHilal_EN)
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Updated 10 January 2022

Al-Hilal strengthen squad as Saudi Pro League title hopes become more distant

 Saudi Arabia right-back Abdulrahman Al-Obaid signed for Al-Hilal from Al-Nassr. (Twitter: @AlHilal_EN)
  • Reigning champions 11 points behind leaders Al-Ittihad

RIYADH: Saudi Arabian champions Al-Hilal have moved quickly at the start of 2022 to strengthen their overworked squad, although it remains to be seen whether it comes early enough to save their title defense.

The defending champions have signed international goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais from Al-Ahli and then former Saudi Arabia right-back Abdulrahman Al-Obaid from Al-Nassr. These additions may not make the kind of headlines that the big-name foreign arrivals command, but they will stand the Riyadh giants in good stead going forward.

It is understandable that coach Leonardo Jardim is looking to add players as there are plenty of demands on his squad in the coming weeks and months. 

Next month there is the FIFA Club World Cup and a chance for the Saudi Arabian powerhouse to take on Chelsea in the semi-final, as long as they defeat probable quarter-final opponents Al-Jazira of the UAE.

Al-Hilal fans say theirs is the biggest club in Asia and, with a record four continental championships and a social media following of over 10 million, one that even some of Europe’s top teams can’t match, it is a persuasive argument. It means, however, that the 17-time champions will, and should, take the Club World Cup seriously. If they could become the first Asian representative to defeat Europe's, it would make headlines around the world and be a great advert for Saudi Arabian and Asian football.

And then there is the AFC Champions League. 

Al-Hilal, once again correctly, always set great store by performing well in Asia’s flagship tournament. There are going to be tough games in May and with only the top team in each group certain of a place in the knockout stages, there are unlikely to be many opportunities to rest players or take things easy. 

And then there are four very important World Cup qualifiers in January, February and March for the national team with good results securing a place in Qatar. Al-Hilal will be providing a healthy proportion of the Green Falcons for the climax of the qualification campaign.

It all means lots of demands on the Al-Hilal squad and the addition of more players will be welcomed by fans. The team already has good goalkeepers and full-backs, but Al-Owais and Al-Obaid should get their chance to show what they can do in the famous blue shirt sooner or later.

It is looking increasingly unlikely, however, that the new signings will be collecting a championship medal come the end of the season. While Al-Hilal were lifting the Super Cup last Thursday, after a hard-fought win over Al-Faisaly that went to a penalty shootout, it can’t have escaped the attention of fans and media that this was another week in which the champions were in action in a cup competition while their rivals for the Saudi title were chalking off another game in the league season.

The day following that entertaining Super Cup clash, Al-Ittihad were defeating Al-Feiha 2-0 to make it six wins out of six in the league. 

That run has taken the Tigers onto 35 points after 15 games, exactly halfway through the season. One place and three points behind are Al-Shabab, who have played a game more, with a resurgent Al-Nassr three points further back. And Al-Hilal? They are in fifth and, while there is a game in hand over the leaders, the gap is a massive 11 points.

Is the club’s title defense over? Not quite, not yet, but it means that the Riyadh giants can’t afford any slip-ups. It could well be that another defeat means it is pretty much all over. Just look at Tuesday’s clash against Al-Tai, the all-important game in hand and one that Al-Hilal need to win. To be 10 or 11 points behind Al-Ittihad just looks to be too much to overcome.

If the champions were in great form there would be more confidence, but the 3-2 win over Al-Faisaly in the league, just a week before their Super Cup meeting, came after just two points from the previous four games and involved the team coming back from 2-0 down. Al-Hilal are just not playing that well and are relying on moments of magic from their big name stars, like the stunning overhead kick from Salem Al-Dawsari last week, rather than team fluency or organization.

To make matters worse, the top three are going very well at the moment and have fewer demands on their squads. 

From the last five games, Al-Hilal have taken five points. Al-Nassr in third have collected 12, Al-Shabab 11 and Al-Ittihad the maximum of 15. In short, Al-Hilal are now in a situation where they need to get back into top gear and go on a winning run. This is at a time when they have two major international tournaments to look forward to, as well as a huge King’s Cup quarter-final tie against local rivals Al-Nassr next month.

Al-Hilal are not out of the title race yet, but with their rivals in good form and with plenty of games to think about, they can’t afford to make any more mistakes or they will be handing over the league trophy over to one of Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr or Al-Shabab this May.


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 42 sec ago

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.”


Celtics eliminate NBA defending champion Bucks in Game 7

Celtics eliminate NBA defending champion Bucks in Game 7
Updated 16 May 2022

Celtics eliminate NBA defending champion Bucks in Game 7

Celtics eliminate NBA defending champion Bucks in Game 7
  • Boston face top seeds Miami in game one of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday, in a rematch of their 2020 series

BOSTON: Grant Williams scored 27 points as the Boston Celtics eliminated the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday with a 109-81 game seven victory in their NBA Eastern Conference series.
Celtics forward Williams produced a deadly display of scoring from three-point range at the TD Garden as Boston advanced to a conference finals showdown with the Miami Heat with a 4-3 series win.
Williams’s red-hot shooting from beyond the arc was emblematic of Boston’s superiority from the field as the Bucks missed a slew of wide open looks.
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 25 points 20 rebounds and nine assists for Milwaukee.
But the Celtics’ three-point shooting accuracy proved the difference between the two teams as Boston completed a comeback from 3-2 down in the best-of-seven series.
Boston dropped 22 of 55 from downtown, in stark contrast to Milwaukee, who converted just four of 33 attempts from beyond the arc.
Williams led the three-point blitzkrieg with seven threes in his 27-point haul. Jayson Tatum made five-of-nine threes to finish with 23 points.

Grant Williams of the Boston Celtics in action during Game Seven of their semifinals playoff against the Milwaukee Bucks on May 15, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Getty Images/AFP)

Payton Pritchard also got in on the act, with four three-pointers from the bench in a tally of 14 points.
Only one Milwaukee player — Bobby Portis — made multiple three-pointers. Portis finished with two in his 10-point haul.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka revealed he had encouraged Williams to shoot more aggressively, suggesting the Bucks had “disrespected” the forward by allowing him so much room to operate.
“I told him let it fly. I said ‘They’re disrespecting you more tonight than earlier in the series,’” Udoka said.
“He missed a few and got hesitant and I basically said ‘shoot the ball, what else can you do?’“
Williams said he was only too happy to accept the challenge from Udoka and the rest of his Celtics team-mates.
“Everyone kept saying ‘Let it fly, keep shooting’. So I thought ‘All right, they’re encouraging it, might as well take advantage.’ As time went on each one got more comfortable. It was fun. It was just great that we got a win,” Williams said.
“I’ve worked on my shot enough to be confident enough to knock those down.
“My team-mates know that if I get 18 looks I’ll make 40 percent of them at least. It was just a matter of continuing to do what we wanted to do and keep getting those open looks.
“We hadn’t put a full game together this entire series. So we said, why not now? We just did what we were supposed to do.”
Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer made no excuses for the defeat, saying Boston had been the better team over the series.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our team,” Budenholzer said. “We’ve had a lot of success together, and tonight we hit a wall and met our end.”
Boston face top seeds Miami in game one of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday in a rematch of their 2020 series.
Miami won that series 4-2 to advance to the NBA Finals.


Mortara and Di Grassi keep up good momentum for ROKiT Venturi in second Berlin E-Prix

ROKiT Venturi soared to back-to-back podiums at the 2022 Berlin E-Prix on Sunday, with Edoardo Mortara taking second place in Ra
ROKiT Venturi soared to back-to-back podiums at the 2022 Berlin E-Prix on Sunday, with Edoardo Mortara taking second place in Ra
Updated 15 May 2022

Mortara and Di Grassi keep up good momentum for ROKiT Venturi in second Berlin E-Prix

ROKiT Venturi soared to back-to-back podiums at the 2022 Berlin E-Prix on Sunday, with Edoardo Mortara taking second place in Ra
  • The second-placed finish on Sunday, following his race win on Saturday, puts Mortara into second in the World Drivers’ Championship

LONDON: ROKiT Venturi soared to back-to-back podiums at the 2022 Berlin E-Prix on Sunday, with Edoardo Mortara taking second place in Race Two after starting from pole position.

After his victory in the first race of the weekend double-header, the Monegasque team continued to show promise on Sunday morning by topping both practice sessions in the German capital.

Mortara and teammate Lucas di Grassi carried this momentum forward into qualifying and both drivers advanced from their respective groups to contest the duel stages.

In the Quarter-Finals, Di Grassi lost out to Nyck de Vries by only 0.270 seconds to qualify sixth while, by beating Nick Cassidy, Mortara faced the Dutchman in the second Semi-Final.

By defeating the Mercedes-EQ driver, then cemented his place in the Final and vanquished another Dutchman Robin Frijns by 0.498 seconds to secure a second consecutive pole position and three points.

At the start of the race, Mortara successfully defended from fellow front row starter Frijns but slipped to second following a diving move from De Vries into Turn One.

Di Grassi, meanwhile, made steady progress from the third row by immediately moving into the top five, overtaking Antonio Felix da Costa.

As the race progressed and strategy evolved, ROKiT's Swiss-Italian driver regained the lead and Di Grassi moved into third when De Vries and André Lotterer and Frijns activated Attack Mode with 34 minutes remaining.

In favor of the overcut strategy, however, the duo fell to fifth and sixth upon activating their sole Attack Mode of the E-Prix in the 16th minute.

With a power advantage over all other drivers ahead, the ROKiT drivers carved through the field, clearing Lotterer, Stoffel Vandoorne and da Costa to hold second and third on the road.

Despite posting the fastest lap of the race, Mortara was unable to close in on and pass De Vries but secured second place when the chequered flag waved in the German capital.

In the closing moments, Brazilian Di Grassi lost track position to Vandoorne and finished fourth overall to score 12 points.

The second-placed finish on Sunday, following his race win on Saturday, puts Mortara into second in the World Drivers’ Championship while, by scoring a total of 62 points in one weekend, ROKiT Venturi Racing moved to second in the Teams’ Standings, now holding 148 points from eight races.

“This weekend has been phenomenal and I’m extremely proud of the entire team for what we have been able to achieve, team principal Jerome D'Ambrosio said.

“One win, two podiums, two pole positions, two fastest laps and 62 points from two races is an incredible achievement and in a championship as close and competitive as Formula E, is one that doesn’t happen very often at all,” he added.

“Today’s race was more difficult in comparison to yesterday’s, Mortara said. “Both the ambient and track temperatures were much higher and this meant that there was more management to do, both for the energy and the tyresm and Nyck’s pace was very strong today and realistically, I think he was just out of reach for us.”

And Di Grassi was disspointed to miss out on a podium finish so late in the race.

“It was frustrating to miss out on the podium today, especially so close to the finish, but overall, I’m happy with this result. After yesterday it was clear that we had the pace to be at the front and we made the most in qualifying to start inside the top eight,” he said.

Formula E’s Season 8 campaign will resume on June 4 for the inaugural Jakarta E-Prix in Indonesia.


Penalty save denies City victory, keeps Premier League title race alive

Penalty save denies City victory, keeps Premier League title race alive
Updated 15 May 2022

Penalty save denies City victory, keeps Premier League title race alive

Penalty save denies City victory, keeps Premier League title race alive
  • City are now four points clear of Liverpool, who head to Southampton on Tuesday needing at least a point to take the title race to the final day
  • Leeds scored in the second minute of stoppage time to salvage a 1-1 draw against Brighton and move out of the relegation zone

LONDON: A dramatic penalty save might have kept the Premier League title race alive.
When Riyad Mahrez stepped up to take an 86th-minute spot kick for Manchester City, he knew that converting it would virtually secure another league championship for his team.
It was saved, though, by West Ham goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski and City had to settle for a 2-2 draw at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday — albeit from 2-0 down at halftime — to leave Liverpool still with hope.
City are now four points clear of Liverpool, who head to Southampton on Tuesday needing at least a point to take the title race to the final round next Sunday.
A win is probably required at Southampton, though, given City have a superior goal difference of 7 compared to Liverpool.
City finish at home to Aston Villa, managed by Liverpool great Steven Gerrard, who was never able to win the league for Liverpool. He still could — but as a coach.
Liverpool host Wolverhampton in their last game.
City manager Pep Guardiola hardly flinched when Fabianski dived to his left and clawed away Mahrez’s penalty. After a few seconds, Guardiola scratched the side of his head and rubbed his face, and didn’t appear too disheartened at the final whistle as he shared an embrace with Mark Noble — West Ham’s long-serving midfielder who is retiring at the end of the season and was making his final home appearance for the club.
Mahrez had converted his previous seven penalties this season. His most high-profile miss from the spot was in the 2018-19 season — another City vs. Liverpool title race — when he skied a penalty late in the game in a 0-0 draw at Anfield.
It’s just as tense at the other end of the standings.
Leeds scored in the second minute of stoppage time to salvage a 1-1 draw against Brighton and move out of the relegation zone at Burnley’s expense.
Pascal Struijk headed in the goal for Jesse Marsch’s Leeds, though it owed so much to a brilliant piece of skill on the byline by Joe Gelhardt before he crossed the ball over to Struijk to score at the back post.
Burnley lost 1-0 at Tottenham a few hours earlier — Harry Kane scored the winner from the penalty spot — and lie in third-to-last place, one point behind Leeds.
Burnley do have two games remaining while Leeds have one.
Everton will be safe from relegation by beating Brentford later Sunday.
Watford’s season is coming to a messy end under departing manager Roy Hodgson, a 5-1 home loss to Leicester leaving his team a point above last-place Norwich, who drew 1-1 at Wolves.
Norwich and Watford have already been relegated.
Aston Villa and Crystal Palace drew 1-1.
The race for Champions League qualification is also heading for the final day, too, with Tottenham climbing into fourth place — two points ahead of north London rivals Arsenal.
Arsenal have two games remaining compared to Tottenham’s one, the first coming at Newcastle on Monday.