Saudi Arabia hosting first official ‘El Clasico’ match outside Spain

Carlo Ancelotti, first team manager of Real Madrid F.C., speaks to reporters at a press conference held in Riyadh on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 ahead of the Spanish Super Cup semi-final against Barcelona. (Saudi Ministry of Sport)
Carlo Ancelotti, first team manager of Real Madrid F.C., speaks to reporters at a press conference held in Riyadh on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 ahead of the Spanish Super Cup semi-final against Barcelona. (Saudi Ministry of Sport)
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Updated 11 January 2022

Saudi Arabia hosting first official ‘El Clasico’ match outside Spain

Carlo Ancelotti, first team manager of Real Madrid F.C., speaks to reporters at a press conference held in Riyadh on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 ahead of the Spanish Super Cup semi-final against Barcelona. (Saudi Ministry of Sport)
  • Matches taking place between Jan. 12-16
  • We are here to win, says Real’s Toni Kroos

RIYADH: The Spanish Super Cup is being held in Saudi Arabia for the second time as part of a blockbuster deal between the Royal Spanish Football Federation and the Kingdom.

It will host the champions and runners up of La Liga and the Copa Del Rey every year until 2029 in Saudi Arabia. Fans worldwide will witness history as it will be the first official “El Clasico” match to be held outside of Spain.

Kicking off with the first of two semi-finals on Wednesday, Barcelona and Real Madrid face off at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh.

“El Clasico” is considered the most anticipated and heated spectacle in football, with Real and Barca having faced each other on seven prior occasions in this format. Real have bested their rivals in five out of their seven meetings, despite Barca being the most decorated team in the Spanish Cup’s history.

In 2020, Saudi fans were deprived of a showdown between the two footballing giants when Barca crashed out in the semis of the Spanish Super Cup at the hands of Atletico Madrid, ending fans' hopes of an “El Clasico” final.

At a press conference held in Riyadh on Tuesday, Real’s Toni Kroos told reporters of his team’s desire to win all the competitions they were participating in.

“The objective is to win tomorrow (Jan. 12). We will train to know the conditions, but I am clear we are here to win.”

The two sides come into this contest on two completely different trajectories.

Real are still competing for all major honors, whereas Barca are looking to salvage an already disappointing campaign that has seen them knocked out from the group stages of the Champions League and set adrift in La Liga by table-toppers Real at the midway point of the season.

The beauty of cup competitions is the unpredictability as, regardless of a team’s current form, all it takes is 90 minutes to determine who advances. As Real manager Carlo Ancelotti said: “It’s always going to be an even game, the numbers in the league do not count. It is a semi-final of the Super Cup and it starts 0-0.”

It will be Xavi’s first “El Clasico” as manager of Barca, and fans will be hoping that their team musters up a performance worthy of their heritage as a reminder to their rivals that their best days are ahead of them.

“We will strive to use everything in our arsenal to get to the final and win,” said Sergio Busquets, holding midfielder for Barca. “It’ll be easy for us to get there, it’s one game and then a shot at the cup.”

Real, on the other hand, will look to continue their momentum and will be depending on their prolific duo of Benzema and Vinicius Jr., who have a combined 35 goals and 17 assists this season to help them beat their rivals for a second time this campaign.

New faces, different circumstances, and another chapter in this illustrious footballing rivalry.


5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad in Saudi Classico

5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad in Saudi Classico
Updated 21 sec ago

5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad in Saudi Classico

5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad in Saudi Classico
  • Reigning Saudi and Asian champions developing into mentality monsters while leaders Al-Ittihad lacked the firepower to put the Saudi Pro League title to bed

Al-Hilal won the Classico against Al-Ittihad 3-1 on Monday night, coming back from a goal down in Jeddah. Romarinho opened the scoring for the hosts with a first-half penalty with Michael equalizing for the visitors just before the break. The Brazilian scored his second later in the game after Salem Al-Dawsari had put Al-Hilal ahead. The result means that Al-Ittihad are now just three points ahead of Al-Hilal with just three games to go. 

Here are five things we learned.

1. Forget Liverpool, Al-Hilal are the real mentality monsters

Jurgen Klopp has used the phrase more than once to describe his almost all-conquering Liverpool team, but Al-Hilal deserve similar praise. They are a team that have been playing big game after big game for the last few weeks. The last one was painful, a defeat in the King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha last Thursday. Even worse, it came after two hours of football and a penalty shootout.

Yet somehow Al-Hilal seemed full of energy. This was a game that they had to win; if they didn’t, then their title was going to Jeddah, but they seemed to relish the pressure. The Blues have a knack for pulling out a result in a big game. Before Monday, the Tigers had lost just one league game since October — a period of seven months — and that loss was also against Al-Hilal in March. This is what champions do, produce something special when they have to. There could have been many excuses for Al-Hilal had they failed to win, but they were not needed as the holders showed they are not giving up without a fight.

2. Al-Ittihad not clinical enough

The major difference between the two teams was that Al-Hilal had seven attempts on goal and scored three while the hosts had 13 but managed to find the back of the net on just one occasion. The likes of Romarinho, Abderrazak Hamdallah and Igor Coronado have all had great seasons in the yellow and black but could not make a difference in attack this time.

Perhaps the banned winger Fahad Al-Muwallad could have made a difference as the chances came and went. One that sticks in the mind came early in the second half when Hamdallah took the ball past goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf outside the area. His goal-bound shot was cleared in impressive fashion by Al-Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulaihi.

Perhaps the Moroccan could have taken the ball a little further, and he will look back and think that he should have scored. Other chances came and went, but not long after Hamdallah missed that opportunity, Al-Hilal took the lead and were soon 3-1 ahead. It was a major turning point in the game and perhaps the title race.

3. Al-Ittihad now have to fight for the title

There are two major positives for Al-Ittihad to take from this game. The first is that they are still three points clear at the top of the table with three games remaining, and that is a position they would have loved if it had been offered at the start of the season.

Then there is the fact that they don’t have to play Al-Hilal again this season. The Tigers’ remaining opponents are all in the bottom half of the table, and there is no reason why they can’t get the required seven points to get their hands on that trophy. But it remains to be seen how the team bounce back from this defeat.

A first title in 13 years was within their reach. Now, it is likely to go down to the wire, and that is when the pressure can produce strange outcomes. The Jeddah giants have yet to really be placed under any serious pressure since moving into pole position, and now they can feel Al-Hilal just behind them. Now Al-Ittihad are going to have to fight for the title.

4. Al-Dawsari and Michael rise above

Salman Al-Faraj and Abdullah Otayf offered a cool presence in the middle for Al-Hilal but as often happens, the headlines go to the people who scored.

Michael had his best game since making his debut in February. The Brazilian forward from Flamengo was a lively presence in attack with his running and pace causing all kinds of problems for the Al-Ittihad defense, not allowing them to get a moment’s rest. His two goals were both extremely well-taken. The first was a volley from the edge of the area, and the second was a low shot from a similar distance in the second half.

And there was Al-Dawsari. His goal that gave Al-Hilal the lead was a thing of beauty. It could almost be described as a running semi-bicycle kick from the edge of the area. The celebration upset the home fans, but they could not deny that they had seen a moment of real quality.

5. The result is great for the neutral

If Al-Ittihad had won, the title race would have been over a month early. Attention would have had to switch to the fierce relegation battle. Now, however, there is the promise of more drama to come, and the talk from both sides after Monday’s game has been about three cup finals left in the season.

Fans around the world watched the final day of the English Premier League action with Manchester City and Liverpool providing plenty of action and excitement. On June 23, there could be something similar in the Saudi Professional League.

The focus now switches to next weekend when Al-Hilal take on Abha and Al-Ittihad travel to Al-Tai. Both sets of fans will be keeping an eye on what happens in the other game, and the country will also be watching. Whatever happens, Saudi Arabia now has a genuine title race after for so long it looked as if the trophy was going to Jeddah. It probably still will be now there is doubt, and where there is doubt there is excitement and drama.


Tatum, Celtics blow away Heat to square series at 2-2

Tatum, Celtics blow away Heat to square series at 2-2
Updated 24 May 2022

Tatum, Celtics blow away Heat to square series at 2-2

Tatum, Celtics blow away Heat to square series at 2-2
  • Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said his team had never been able to recover from a poor start
  • The series now swings back to Florida, with top seeds Miami hosting Game 5 on Wednesday

BOSTON: Jayson Tatum rediscovered his scoring touch with 31 points as the Boston Celtics thrashed the Miami Heat 102-82 to level their NBA Eastern Conference finals series on Monday.

Two days after dropping their opening home game of the best-of-seven finals, Boston came roaring back at the TD Garden with a one-sided Game 4 blowout that squares the series at 2-2.

Tatum also finished with eight rebounds and five assists, with support coming from Payton Pritchard (14 points) and Derrick White (13). Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams added 12 points apiece.

Al Horford led a hard-nosed Boston defensive effort with 13 rebounds and four blocks.

Victor Oladipo led the scoring for Miami with 23 points from the bench.

None of Miami’s starting lineup made double figures, making a paltry 18 points in total.

“We just came and redeemed ourselves,” Tatum said.

“We knew this was a game that we really needed, to protect home court. After the last game we were just ready to play, to get back out here and play better.

“It’s been a back and forth series so far. It’s best of three now, we’ll just go away now for game five and get ready.”

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said his team had never been able to recover from a poor start.

“They came out and jumped on us,” Spoelstra said. “I think more than anything our offense hurt us at the beginning. We just weren’t purposeful.

“But we’re not making any excuses. They outplayed us tonight for sure. We never could get any kind of a grip on the game.”

Spoelstra insisted that his team would mount a response in Game 5.

“This is part of the playoffs. There’s a lot of extreme highs and extreme lows, and a lot of emotion,” said Spoelstra. “You just have to stay the course and stay together.

“And it’s a great series. You have to embrace that.”

The game was effectively won in the first two quarters as Boston punished a strangely subdued start by Miami to race into a 29-11 lead in the first quarter.

Tatum, who had been restricted to just 10 points in Saturday’s Game 3 defeat, was back to his sharp-shooting best with 12 points in the first quarter alone.

With Miami’s offense unable to penetrate a Boston defense bolstered by the return of Williams, the Celtics kept the pressure on in the second quarter, extending the lead to 27 points at one stage.

There was no better illustration of Miami’s offensive impotence than the first-half points haul of their starting lineup.

With Jimmy Butler contributing just six points, the Heat’s starters totalled 10 points in the first half, with only Oladipo’s 18 points off the bench preventing a total humiliation.

Miami made just 11-of-40 attempts from the field in the first half, a shooting percentage of just 27.5 percent.

Any hopes Miami had of mounting a second-half fightback were quickly snuffed out in the third quarter.

Boston outscored the Heat 12-4 immediately after the interval to pull clear by a whopping 32 points with the lead at 69-37.

The departure of Williams with what appeared to be left knee soreness midway through the third quarter helped Miami reduce the deficit to 23 points at 73-50, but it was only a temporary reprieve.

Boston continued to score steadily at the start of the fourth quarter and were sitting on a 31-point lead at 88-57 with just under nine minutes remaining before closing out a wire-to-wire win.

The series now swings back to Florida, with top seeds Miami hosting Game 5 on Wednesday.


Man City title miracle all part of Pep’s plan

Man City title miracle all part of Pep’s plan
Updated 24 May 2022

Man City title miracle all part of Pep’s plan

Man City title miracle all part of Pep’s plan
  • Guardiola kept his post-match promise by puffing on a cigar as he took to the stage at the end of the parade
  • City have now four titles in the last five years under Guardiola and six in the last 11 seasons

MANCHESTER, United Kingdom: Pep Guardiola joked it had been part of his plan for Manchester City to come from 2-0 down to beat Aston Villa 3-2 and claim the Premier League title as his side paraded the trophy through Manchester on Monday.

Needing to win to hold off Liverpool by a point to win the title, City were trailing 2-0 with 15 minutes remaining before three goals in five-and-a-half manic minutes at the Etihad.

Guardiola kept his post-match promise by puffing on a cigar as he took to the stage at the end of the parade.

City have now four titles in the last five years under Guardiola and six in the last 11 seasons.

“It was the plan, 0-2, calm, calm,” Guardiola said with a laugh. “And after we scored it was a great night.

“Everybody knows what has happened is an incredible achievement. This is the toughest league, in six years since we arrived we had four.

“The happiness on all the faces is the greatest reward we can get.”

Despite their domestic dominance, the Champions League has remained beyond City despite the billions spent amassing a stellar squad.

Another heartbreaking exit to Real Madrid in the semifinals earlier this month could have derailed their Premier League title charge, but they bounced back to take the necessary 10 points from the final four games.

“There was a lot of tension in the last month after (the defeat to Madrid) and a lot of difficult games.

“We never give up and we have to be so proud of the group.”

Many of the City squad looked to have spent most of the past 24 hours celebrating their triumph.

Ederson sprayed more than one of the fans clinging to lamp posts with champagne, while Jack Grealish offered to buy everyone on the roadside a shot if they wanted to meet him out in the city later on.

Kevin De Bruyne was far from alone in sporting dark glasses, admitting to being a “little bit drunk.”

The Belgian was named the club’s player of the year amid the celebrations.

Asked if he thought it was all over at 2-0, De Bruyne said: “For about 10 seconds. Then we just go and we did it. We did it the City way, I would say. Now it feels very sweet.”

The event also became a farewell party for club captain Fernandinho, who will return to his native Brazil this summer after nine years and 12 trophies with the club.

“When I came here for the first time and met someone from City they said, ‘Listen, we want you to be one of the leaders, we want you to be a champion’,” the 37-year-old said.

“When I look back all of the titles we won are really special.”


Djokovic backs ATP, laments Wimbledon ‘lose-lose situation’

Djokovic backs ATP, laments Wimbledon ‘lose-lose situation’
Updated 24 May 2022

Djokovic backs ATP, laments Wimbledon ‘lose-lose situation’

Djokovic backs ATP, laments Wimbledon ‘lose-lose situation’
  • The All England Club said last month it would not allow players from Russia or Belarus to compete when its Grand Slam tournament begins on June 27

PARIS: Novak Djokovic intends to defend his title at Wimbledon and supports the decision by the ATP men’s tour to withhold ranking points from that tournament as a show of unity among players — even though the move will negatively affect his hold on the No. 1 spot.

In response to a reporter’s question after his first-round victory at the French Open on Monday night, Djokovic called the All England Club’s ban of players from Russia and Belarus over the invasion of Ukraine “a mistake” and criticized Wimbledon organizers for their lack of communication.

“They haven’t discussed it with anybody from ATP or any individual players — or, for that matter, Russian or Belarusian players — to just communicate and understand whether there is a common ground where both sides could be making a compromise and something could work out,” Djokovic said about the All England Club. “So I think it was a wrong decision. I don’t support that at all.”

He called it a “lose-lose situation for everyone.”

Russia, with help from Belarus, began attacking Ukraine in late February. The All England Club said last month it would not allow players from Russia or Belarus to compete when its Grand Slam tournament begins on June 27; the ATP and the WTA women’s tour responded by announcing Friday they would not award ranking points to any players for results at Wimbledon.

Djokovic said he heard there might have been other options available to All England Club decision-makers than has been revealed, such as the possibility of exhibition matches to raise money to help Ukrainians in need.

Djokovic has had his run-ins with ATP management in the past, and even worked to create a separate players’ association, but on this matter he said he backs the tour.

“Collectively, I’m glad that players got together with the ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, and showed to the Grand Slam that when there is a mistake happening — and there was, from the Wimbledon side — then we have to show that there’s going to be some consequences,” Djokovic said.

The ATP says that all players who earned ranking points at Wimbledon in 2021 (Djokovic earned the maximum 2,000 for taking the championship) will have those erased from their record as part of the usual 52-week system that counts someone’s best 19 tournaments over that span.

Whatever happens at the tournament in 2022 will have no bearing on a player’s standing.

“For me, or for the guys that did well last year, we are not only not going to have a chance to earn points, but we can’t defend them,” Djokovic said. “And there are some guys, obviously, who are not going to have a chance to earn points, of course. It’s a very unique and weird situation, I must say.”

Earlier in the day, four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka said she was leaning toward skipping Wimbledon with no points on offer.

But Djokovic’s view was different.

“A Grand Slam is still a Grand Slam,” said the owner of 20 such titles, one shy of Rafael Nadal’s men’s record. “Wimbledon, for me, was always my dream tournament when I was a child. So I don’t look at it through the lens of points or of prize money. For me, it’s something else.”


Tug-of-war over: With Mbappe staying, PSG lay first brick in rebuild

Tug-of-war over: With Mbappe staying, PSG lay first brick in rebuild
Updated 24 May 2022

Tug-of-war over: With Mbappe staying, PSG lay first brick in rebuild

Tug-of-war over: With Mbappe staying, PSG lay first brick in rebuild
  • In addition to the colossal sums of money reportedly promised to the 23-year-old forward — financial terms of Mbappe’s new deal have not been disclosed — the France star has received guarantees that things will change in a big way

PARIS: Kylian Mbappe’s decision to reject Real Madrid and commit to Paris Saint-Germain for three more seasons marks the start of a large rebuilding project at the French league champion.

Since Qatari investors took over in 2011, PSG have been a dominant force in France but have consistently failed to replicate that success on the European stage despite spending massive amounts on star players.

Club officials hope Mbappe’s decision to snub the Spanish giant will finally lead to the conquest of club soccer’s biggest trophy, the Champions League.

In addition to the colossal sums of money reportedly promised to the 23-year-old forward — financial terms of Mbappe’s new deal have not been disclosed — the France star has received guarantees that things will change in a big way, with a new coach and a new sporting director likely to be appointed.

“The project has changed,” Mbappe told a news conference on Monday. “The club wants to change a lot of things on the sports side, so it gives me this desire to continue. My story here is not over.”

New players will also join this summer to boost a project that will be centered around the World Cup-winning forward. PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi said last week that Mbappe will become “the cornerstone of the club’s project for the years to come, both on and off the pitch,” but the striker is adamant he has not requested the full powers.

“I am a soccer player, well anchored in a collective,” Mbappe said. “Even if, of course, players have different status in a team. I remain a soccer player, and I will not go beyond this role.”

Sitting next to his star player, Al-Khelaifi did not give many details about PSG’s reorganization but acknowledged he promised to sign new players if Mbappe stayed.

“Because he really deserves it,” Al-Khelaifi said, adding that money was not crucial in convincing Mbappe to reject Madrid’s offer and extend his glitzy partnership with Neymar and Lionel Messi at Parc des Princes.

“The most important thing for Kylian was the sporting project,” he said, insisting that clubs in Spain were in a position to offer more money than PSG.

In an interview with media relayed by Le Parisien newspaper, Mbappe said he received some guidance from French President Emmanuel Macron.

“Let’s just say it was good advice,” Mbappe said. “He wanted me to stay, that’s part of the negotiations. He is one of the different people I talked to.”

The first collateral victim of Mbappe’s prolonged stay in the French capital has been sports director Leonardo. The former Brazil international, who returned to the club three years ago, was fired over the weekend following intense discussions.

According to L’Equipe newspaper, his departure was crucial in the negotiations with Mbappe, who pushed for an overhaul of the hierarchy following PSG’s exit in the last 16 of the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid in March.

Luis Campos has been tipped as a replacement for Leonardo. The Portuguese is a renowned talent scout with connections in Europe and South America and has been enjoying an excellent relationship with Mbappe and his family. Campos, who previously worked at Lille and Monaco, played an influential role when Mbappe signed his first professional deal with the Principality side in 2016.

One thing that won’t immediately change at PSG, though, is their habit of frequently changing coaches. Mauricio Pochettino, who sealed PSG’s record-equaling 10th league title but could not avoid another Champions league failure, is unsure about his future at the helm of the Parisian team amid reports in the French media that he will be replaced soon. Speculation over the potential appointment of Zinedine Zidane has been growing in recent days.

To strengthen their squad, PSG officials have also discussed with Mbappe the prospect of recruiting a versatile full back and new midfielders. L’Équipe reported on Monday that PSG made a priority of signing Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni, with Ousmane Dembele also targeted.

Mbappe joined PSG from Monaco in 2017 when he was still a teenager. He has 171 goals in just 217 appearances for PSG and won three consecutive player of the season awards, and topped the French scoring charts in each of the last four seasons.

Mbappe has often said that playing for Madrid was his childhood dream, and the Frenchman did not rule out making the move one day.

“I am really focused on this new contract. What will happen in the future, I don’t know,” he said.