Saudi snowboarder aspires to reach Beijing Winter Olympics

Saudi snowboarder aspires to reach Beijing Winter Olympics
Saudi Snowboarding Olympic hopeful Yousif Kurdi. (Supplied)
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Updated 15 January 2022

Saudi snowboarder aspires to reach Beijing Winter Olympics

Saudi snowboarder aspires to reach Beijing Winter Olympics
  • Yousif Kurdi reflects on his incredible journey as captain of the newly formed Saudi Winter Sports Federation

Attempting to inspire a six-man squad from Saudi Arabia to next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing after less than a year of training is ostensibly an unachievable quest. Yousif Kurdi, captain of Saudi Arabia’s first Winter Olympics squad, is also in the process of setting up his own business while undergoing eight hours of intense snowboarding training a day.

When you add in his near-death experience after a horrifying accident last month — and the fact that Kurdi has only one chance to fulfill his ambition tomorrow — then you have the epitome of an “impossible dream.”

Yet the US-born 28-year-old, who is flying the flag for his father’s native land as a snowboarder, has embraced his Herculean challenge with gusto.

“For me, what’s so inspiring about this is the fact that Saudi Arabia is a desert country, without the opportunities and options to be on snow,” he told Arab News of the incredible odyssey that began only last May when the Saudi Winter Sports Federation was formed. “But we are defying the odds in every single way.”

Kurdi is aiming for a top-three finish in his last chance of Olympic qualification in a race at Baqueira-Beret, near Barcelona in Spain, on Sunday.

But even if he achieves this, he says he would need an unlikely wildcard from Olympic chiefs on account of a pandemic-ravaged season and Saudi Arabia’s status as a fledgling winter sports body.

Whatever happens, Kurdi is simply grateful to be alive and able to participate in such a life-affirming and inspirational adventure for Saudi Arabia.

He is bidding to compete in boardercross, which involves four to six competitors per heat hurtling down a winding, undulating course that includes jumps.

“Boardercross is arguably the scariest of all the snowboarding events with the highest injury rate,” Kurdi said.

He can testify to this from a terrifying personal experience, which severely hampered his Olympic dream and could have cost him his life.

Kurdi had been training for four “super-intense” months when, the day before his first competition of a four-race series in Moninec, Czech Republic, a practice run ended disastrously.

Attempting a trick on a boardercross feature at high speed, Kurdi lost his alignment.

“My snowboard flew up, almost to the point where my body was parallel to the floor,” he said.

“I went down really hard on the back of my ankle and my face slammed into the snow. I was unconscious for a minute. Then I remember this warm feeling and someone rubbing my back. I heard my coach saying, ‘Yousif! Yousif! You’ve had a concussion. Just breathe.’

“Then I opened up my eyes, and it was like almost waking up from a dream, kind of foggy in the beginning and blurry. All of a sudden, I thought, ‘I’m alive, I’m alive.’”

Mercifully, X-rays and a CT scan showed no lasting damage, and Kurdi was discharged from the hospital the next day.

“It was super frustrating as I had been training for these four events all season, and I was absolutely ready. I was feeling great and that training day, I was actually doing fantastically, but life is the way it is. You can’t change it.”

Kurdi believes miscommunication with his coach partly contributed to his accident. He subsequently hired a replacement in Romanian snowboarding guru Kinda Geza, whom he met by chance in a sauna in the wake of his accident.

Revitalized under his new mentor, Kurdi returned to the snow with renewed vigor and a remarkably philosophical acceptance of fear.

“I think the near-death experience is the greatest thing to have ever happened to me. The appreciation I have for life is so great now. I have accepted that there’s so much out of my own control.

“I still was afraid a few times after my injury, for example when I was running my bike in Amsterdam. For some reason, I could visualize myself falling and getting really hurt. It also happened a couple of times when I saw a car approaching and experienced a fight or flight instinct.

“But now I am back on the snow, and I am with Geza. He’s the real deal, and we connect on a human level.”

Kurdi has also forged strong relationships with his fellow Saudi Olympic hopefuls and members of the SWSF, describing them as being “like one big family.”

Kurdi says two downhill skiers on the Saudi team, Fayik Abdi and Salman Al-Howaish, have already accrued enough qualification points for Beijing 2022 — although only the highest scorer of the two will eventually compete.

Another snowboarder, Faisal Al-Rasheed, and two cross-country skiers, Talal Al-Akeel and Rakan Alireza, make up the Kingdom’s contingent.

Of the squad’s camaraderie, Kurdi said: “Ahmed Shaher Al-Tabbaa, president of the federation, Rabab Mahassen, the vice president, and myself — we’ve been like the Three Musketeers. We always want to solve problems, always want to do things more efficiently, and are always trying to help other athletes whenever we can.

“I have so much respect for people who try to do things differently and go against the grain. They obviously made all of this possible, which has been life-changing for me, and I’m so happy that this program is going to be successful and the Saudi flag is going to be there in Beijing.”

The journey to Beijing began when he responded to an SWSF social media post inviting nationals with skiing or snowboarding experience to apply for a place on the Kingdom’s Olympic team.

The Amsterdam-based entrepreneur fancied a new challenge and duly applied by submitting video footage of his days competing with UCLA’s boardercross team.

Kurdi, born to a Saudi father and Mexican mother in Florida, grew up mostly in Lebanon, where he developed a passion for snowboarding.

But he stopped competing after graduating in 2015, so it was a significant leap of faith from the SWSF to select him.

“I couldn’t believe it was actually happening,” Kurdi recalled of the stunning moment he learned he had been successful. “When I first broke the news to my father Ibrahim, he was extremely happy.”

But Kurdi’s father, an extremely successful businessman, was also concerned about how his son would fit in snowboard training with his work commitments.

A former McKinsey consultant, Kurdi has started a new venture in YourKitchen, a company that acquires real estate and transforms it into private commercial kitchens that are tailor-made for food delivery and collection.

“This has been really one of my biggest challenges as an athlete and as an entrepreneur. How do I split my time in such a way so I can be the most productive in all the things I am doing, whether in sports or business?

“We are reinventing restaurant real estate; it’s kind of like a food hall,” he added, stressing that he plans to donate much of the millions he expects to make to philanthropic causes.

For now, however, he is fully focused on the richness of the trailblazing journey he and his fellow aspirants have navigated.

What would it mean for him to represent Saudi Arabia at the global extravaganza, which takes place Feb. 4-20?

“It has never been about me,” he replied. “This has been about a journey of outsiders persevering through challenges, overcoming difficulties and doing the impossible, which we have already done. Saudi Arabia has already qualified and will be waving the flag at the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

“That’s mission accomplished for me and has been my dream since I became the captain of the team.”

The intrepid Kurdi also harbors another Olympic ambition.

He plans to set up an organization that would “democratize access to the Olympics and drive much higher participation from under-represented countries.”

In Kurdi’s universe, the word “impossible” does not figure.

Gladbach in crisis after 2-1 loss to Union, Dortmund wins

Gladbach in crisis after 2-1 loss to Union, Dortmund wins
Updated 7 sec ago

Gladbach in crisis after 2-1 loss to Union, Dortmund wins

Gladbach in crisis after 2-1 loss to Union, Dortmund wins
BERLIN: Max Kruse scored twice for Union Berlin to leave Borussia Mönchengladbach in crisis on Saturday after a 2-1 defeat in the Bundesliga.
It was Gladbach’s fourth straight league loss at home, just days after their German Cup exit to second-division Hannover. The latest defeat piles the pressure on coach Adi Hütter, who was already under scrutiny after losing six of the last eight games across all competitions.
“Union scored with their only chances," Hütter said. “There's no way we deserved to lose.”
Gladbach are only three points above the relegation zone and Hütter said before Union's visit that his team will be “several weeks” without captain Lars Stindl, who injured his knee in training on Friday.
Union, which were only promoted to the Bundesliga in 2019, moved fourth, the last qualification place for the Champions League.
“Today we had a bit of luck, but it can't be just luck that we have 34 points after 20 rounds. It's hard work that's paying off,” Kruse said. “For that you have to compliment the whole club for what we've delivered in the last years.”
Kruse opened the scoring in the 18th minute with a penalty awarded through VAR for a hand ball from Denis Zakaria on his comeback. Zakaria’s arm was high as Andreas Voglsammer’s cross grazed his hand.
Gladbach struck back five minutes before the break, when Breel Embolo played the ball between Robin Knoche’s legs and then found Jonas Hofmann, who waited before playing the ball in to Kouadio Koné. The French midfielder let fly inside the right post for his first Bundesliga goal.
Luca Netz had Gladbach's best chance for a winner, but fired over from close range.
Kruse made no mistake with Union’s only chance of the second half, squeezing the ball inside the far post in the 84th after Niko Gießelmann played him in.
Borussia Dortmund bounced back after their German Cup exit to second-division St. Pauli with a clinical display in Sinsheim, where the visitors scored three goals with two shots on target.
Donyell Malen set up the three as his team edged Hoffenheim 3-2 and cut the gap on Bayern Munich to three points. Bayern visits struggling Hertha Berlin on Sunday.
Erling Haaland, who scored the opening goal for Dortmund, went off in the second half with an apparent groin injury.
Haaland got the visitors off to a great start in the sixth minute after a fine one-touch move from his teammates. Raphaël Guerreiro played the ball back with his heel for Malen, who had a one-two with Jude Bellingham before crossing for Haaland to score his 16th goal of the season.
But Dortmund failed to press their advantage. American defender Chris Richards hit the crossbar and Hoffenheim missed several other chances before Andrej Kramarić scored a deserved equalizer before the break.
Malen set up Marco Reus to score with Dortmund’s second shot on goal in the 58th. Hoffenheim had had 11 goal efforts by then.
Malen set up Dortmund's next goal, too. The Dutch winger crossed for Davin Raum to turn the ball inside his own net in the 67th.
Hoffenheim’s Munas Dabbur set up Georginio Rutter in the 77th for an exciting finale, but Dortmund held on.
The 18-year-old Florian Wirtz starred, and Moussa Diaby scored a hat trick, as Bayer Leverkusen routed Augsburg 5-1 to consolidate third place.
Freiburg moved fifth with a 2-0 win over relegation candidate Stuttgart, and last-place Greuther Fürth claimed their second win of the season with a 2-1 victory over Mainz.
Midfielder Takuma Asano salvaged a 2-2 draw for Bochum against visiting Cologne in the late game.

Rangnick savours ‘best’ win as Rashford takes Man Utd into top four

Rangnick savours ‘best’ win as Rashford takes Man Utd into top four
Updated 22 January 2022

Rangnick savours ‘best’ win as Rashford takes Man Utd into top four

Rangnick savours ‘best’ win as Rashford takes Man Utd into top four
  • Victory lifts United a point above the Hammers and sees the Red Devils leapfrog Tottenham and Arsenal
  • A drone hovering above the field, suspended the Brentford and Wolverhampton match for 20 minutes

MANCHESTER, United Kingdom: Marcus Rashford struck with virtually the last kick of the game to take Manchester United into the Premier League top four at West Ham’s expense with what Ralf Rangnick described as a “massive” 1-0 win on Saturday.
United were insipid as an attacking force for 93 minutes at Old Trafford, but found the breakthrough at the death as all three of Rangnick’s substitutes combined when Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani teed up Rashford for a tap in at the back post.
“The atmosphere (in the dressing room) is amazing. Quite rightly the boys were celebrating, they know what a massive win this was,” said Rangnick. “Those are the best kind of wins when the other team has no time to come back.”
Victory lifts United a point above the Hammers and sees the Red Devils leapfrog Tottenham and Arsenal in the battle for Champions League football next season.
The winner was also a huge moment for Rashford, who has looked devoid of confidence in recent months.
The England international scored for the first time since October in a 3-1 win at Brentford on Wednesday and was in the right place at the right time for what could be a decisive moment in United’s desperation not to miss out on the riches and prestige of Champions League football next season.
Rashford was again left out of Rangnick’s starting line-up in favor of 19-year-old Anthony Elanga.
However, he was the first of three changes made by the German after the break, who all played a part in the winning goal.
Rangnick claimed that Martial had refused to be part of his squad for last weekend’s 2-2 draw at Aston Villa as he looks for a move away from the club for more game time.
The Frenchman publicly denied that accusation and was given his first minutes under the interim boss when he was introduced along with Cavani in the final 10 minutes.
Martial played in Cavani on the left of the box and the Uruguayan’s cross just required a touch from Rashford at the back post.
The wild celebrations survived a VAR check against Cavani for offside and there was barely time for West Ham to kick-off in what could be a fatal blow to their outside hopes of reaching the Champions League for the first time.
“We had to take some risks in the last 15 minutes but in the end I wanted to show the players it is about winning this game and I’m more than happy we scored the goal in the last minute,” added Rangnick.
“I am very pleased the three subs prepared the goal and scored the goal.”
Rangnick has lost just one of his 10 games since taking temporary charge till the end of the season, but once again the result was more impressive than the performance from United.
Alphonse Areola was drafted in to the West Ham goal in the absence of Lukasz Fabianski due to a positive test for coronavirus, but the Frenchman was forced into just one serious save when he turned Fred’s driven shot behind early in the second half.
West Ham also did little to test David de Gea, bar a late long-range effort from Declan Rice that nearly caught the Spaniard napping.
But David Moyes still believed his side had done more than enough to earn at least a point.
“It’s not easy when you lose a goal in the last second. It was certainly avoidable,” said Moyes.
“A draw would have been a good result as we hadn’t played well enough to score goals, but we certainly kept Man Utd out enough to get the draw.”
Meanwhile, play was suspended for nearly 20 minutes in the first half of a Premier League match between Brentford and Wolverhampton on Saturday because a drone was hovering above the field.
The referee instructed players to leave the field in the 34th minute at Brentford Community Stadium in west London.
The teams re-emerged and briefly warmed up before play resumed with 19 minutes remaining in the first half, which ended scoreless and 71 minutes after the match had started.
There had already been a long stoppage in play following a sickening clash of heads between Brentford teammates Mathias Jensen and Rico Henry, which left both bleeding heavily. They were both replaced by concussion substitutes.
Wolves went on to win 2-1.

Newcastle United beat Leeds for second win of Premier League season

Newcastle United's English midfielder Jonjo Shelvey (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring the opening goal of the English Premier League football match between Leeds United and Newcastle United at Elland Road. (AFP)
Newcastle United's English midfielder Jonjo Shelvey (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring the opening goal of the English Premier League football match between Leeds United and Newcastle United at Elland Road. (AFP)
Updated 51 min 24 sec ago

Newcastle United beat Leeds for second win of Premier League season

Newcastle United's English midfielder Jonjo Shelvey (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring the opening goal of the English Premier League football match between Leeds United and Newcastle United at Elland Road. (AFP)

NEWCASTLE: Lift off Newcastle United! Eddie Howe's Magpies warmed up for their mid-season trip to Saudi Arabia by recording just their second win of the Premier League campaign against Leeds United.Jonjo Shelvey's second half strike - a low, curling free-kick - was enough for United to claim all three points at Elland Road, and close the gap to safety to just one point.

It was a result which sparked wild celebrations among the loud United faithful on the terraces and saw a relieved Howe let his emotions spill over, as he fist-pumped and screamed in joy at the travelling Magpies army.

The win and clean sheet, their first away from home this season, sees United climb to 18th in the top flight table, just below Norwich City, who climbed to 17th win their second successive win against Watford on Friday night.

Head coach Howe made just the one change to the side who let two points slip last time out against the Hornets, with Joe Willock making his first United start since mid-December in place of Sean Longstaff.

As expected from a Marcelo Bielsa side, the hosts burst out of the blocks and there was a pace and a purpose to their play, lacking from Newcastle's for so long.

Despite that, United did carve open the first opportunity of the game with form striker-turned-midfielder Joelinton scooping wide when well placed.

At the other end, the movement, speed of passing and obvious want to exploit the flanks began to cause the Magpies all kinds of problems.

Raphinha down the United left was a constant sense of annoyance for Paul Dummett and even Trippier found Jack Harrison down the other side a real headache.

It was the Brazilian who opened up space down that Leeds right for Dan James in the opening quarter, only for Martin Dubravka to pull off an excellent stop to deny the Welshman the opener.

Anything Dubravka can do, so can Illan Meslier.

A sharp left-footed volley from Jonjo threatened to break the deadlock only for the flying Frenchman to palm away the effort.

As good as Leeds were early doors, the game shifted in United's favour as the half wore on. Some consistent pressure, with Shelvey instrumental, saw the Magpies pin the hosts back, without really carving open anything of note. Even a groin issue which forced Joelinton off before the break didn't blunt United's improvement.

Having been a relatively tight, compact game of football in the opening 45, this one really opened up in the second - and that couldn't be explained away by an injection of quality.

Mistakes created spaces and opportunities for both sides as Raphinha and Allan Saint-Maximin began to come to prominence, the former more so than the latter, it must be said.

The spaces allowed United's midfield, given a tough time in recent weeks, to shine, with Willock, substitute Longstaff and Shelvey stamping their authority on an increasingly fading Leeds unit.

Another substitute Javier Manquillo, on for the injured Paul Dummett, saw his lung-busting run halted on the edge of the Whites' area and that allowed Shelvey, ushering away free-kick specialist Trippier, to deliver what proved to be the killer blow.

At the left corner of the area, the midfielder spun across a ball between keeper and onrushing attackers, at the perfect angle to unsight Meslier - and with the help of the keeper, the ball nestled in the back of the net.

Given confidence was so low, it would have been understandable to see United retreat into their shell, much like they did seven day previous. However, they did anything but. In fact, they looked more like scoring at 1-0 than they did with the scoreline goalless.

Longstaff went close with a fizzing shot wide, Fraser put past the post when it looked easier to score and Saint-Maximin was chopped down in the area but VAR was inexplicably not called for, despite his protestations, as Leeds eventually ran out of steam.

Willock had the chance to put the icing on the cake at the end but saw Meslier deny him with a quite brilliant save - and Howe's men had to settle for one goal.

In truth one goal was all they needed.

They'd have settled for a point before kick-off, so to take three is a welcome boost ahead of jetting off to Jeddah this weekend.

Can United pull themselves to safety? Well, for now, it's too early to say.

But, where doubt reigned supreme following the last two games, hope now springs eternal for United.

And, of course, there's still nine days to go in the transfer window, with United set to be the busiest team in the division between now and January 31.

Medvedev wins over Aussie crowd in win over Dutch opponent

Medvedev wins over Aussie crowd in win over Dutch opponent
Updated 22 January 2022

Medvedev wins over Aussie crowd in win over Dutch opponent

Medvedev wins over Aussie crowd in win over Dutch opponent
  • Medvedev reached 4th round for the fourth straight year at Melbourne Park with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 win over Botic van de Zandschulp
  • The 25-year-old Russian was a conspicuous fan favorite on Margaret Court Arena

MELBOURNE, Australia: As Daniil Medvedev sat courtside trying to re-hydrate during a changeover, an image of nine-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic flashed up in the stadium behind him.
It was in the third set Saturday, and it was like the absent No. 1 was looking over the shoulder of the player who is effectively the No. 1 seed at the year's first Grand Slam tournament.
Medvedev, who lost last year's Australian Open final to Djokovic but avenged that with a victory over the Serb for the U.S. Open title, reached the fourth round for the fourth straight year at Melbourne Park with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 win over Botic van de Zandschulp.
The 25-year-old Russian was a conspicuous fan favorite on Margaret Court Arena, too, two days after being unsettled by the boos and jeers of a parochial crowd on Rod Laver Arena when he ended the run of mercurial Aussie Nick Kyrgios.
He was critical of a lack of respect in that match — mostly about the noise between first and second serves — and this time offered some relationship advice to the crowd.
“Every good relationship must have its ups and downs," he said in his on-court TV interview, explaining that he planned to be back on court quite often. "I hope it’s going to be more good times than bad times, otherwise it doesn’t work.”
Medvedev later clarified that he didn't have a problem with the Australian crowds and had been fully expecting to have them against him when he played Kyrgios — just not while he was in his service motion.
“The other night I was playing against an Australian player, very electric Australian player,” he said. “After the match, I think it was, yeah, straightaway pretty actually fun for everybody. That's how I felt.” Medvedev avoided a showdown with Djokovic after the world's top-ranked player was deported on the eve of the tournament for failing to meet Australia's strict COVID-19 vaccination criteria.
He also avoided another match against an Australian in the fourth round when wildcard entry Chris O'Connell lost to Maxime Cressy 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-2.
Cressy's win means there's two 24-year-old Americans who'll be in the fourth round of a major for their first time.
No. 70-ranked Cressy is in his fourth Grand Slam tournament. No. 20-ranked Taylor Fritz finally made it in his 22nd attempt, with a 6-0, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over No. 15 Roberto Bautista Agut, and said it “means a ton.”
“I was almost close to like tearing up a bit,” Fritz said. “It seems stupid, because so many people have made the second week of Slams but it’s just, like, eluded me for so long.
“I never doubted it would happen, but I definitely was getting sick of playing, you know, Top 4 player for the opportunity every time."
Fritz next plays French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas, who fended off Benoit Paire 6-3, 7-5, 6-7 (2), 6-4.
No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime progressed with a 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 win over No. 24 Dan Evans, winning 14 of the last 16 games, and will next face 33-year-old Marin Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open champion and a runner-up in Australia in 2018.
Cilic upset fifth-seeded Andrey Rublev 7-5, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-3 just before midnight in the last singles match completed on Day 6.
On the women's side, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep is into Week 2 at Melbourne Park for the fifth consecutive year after a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Danka Kovinic.
She'll be joined by second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka, who advanced 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 over No. 31 Marketa Vondrousova.
A contender for the No. 1 ranking — Sabalenka can potentially overtake Ash Barty depending on results here — the 23-year-old from Belarus admits her serve is still a work in progress.
The match started ominously, when Sabalenka had two double-faults and was broken in the first game.
But unlike the previous round, when she had nine double-faults in her first two service games and 19 in the match, Sabalenka managed to almost halve that glaring statistic.
“I’m really happy right now," Sabalenka said, laughing, in her on-court TV interview. “Mostly I’m happy I made only 10 double-faults.”
She'll work on that ahead of her showdown against No. 115-ranked Kaia Kanepi, who has reached the quarterfinals six times at Grand Slam events — but only once since 2013 and never in Australia.
In other third-round matches, 27th-seeded Danielle Collins of the U.S. rallied from a set and a break down to beat 19-year-old Clara Tauson 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. She'll next meet No. 19 Elise Mertens, who advanced 6-2, 6-2 over Zhang Shuai.
No. 7 Iga Swaitek beat No. 25 Daria Kasatkina 6-2, 6-3. The 2020 French Open champion will next play Sorana Cirstea, who had a 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 win over 10th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who reached the French Open final last year and has been an Australian Open quarterfinalist in three of the last six years.
None of the other players remaining the women’s draw has won as many tour-level titles as Halep’s 23.
Halep’s next opponent will be Alize Cornet, who is playing in her 60th consecutive major and celebrated her 32nd birthday with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory over 2021 French Open semifinalist Tamara Zidansek.
Cornet followed up her upset of No. 3 Garbiñe Muguruza by reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time since 2009.

Al-Ittihad march on, Al-Hilal’s struggles continue: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League action

Al-Ittihad march on, Al-Hilal’s struggles continue: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League action
Updated 22 January 2022

Al-Ittihad march on, Al-Hilal’s struggles continue: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League action

Al-Ittihad march on, Al-Hilal’s struggles continue: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Pro League action
  • Leonardo Jardim under pressure as Asian and Saudi champions draw with Al-Batin, while Al-Shabab can’t afford any more dropped points

Every round of games is crucial now in the Saudi Professional League and here are five things Arab News learned from the latest action.

Attackers get the headlines but defence is driving Al-Nassr’s challenge

Al-Nassr’s 1-0 win over Al-Taawoun was their sixth victory in a row and moves the team into second above Al-Shabab. The arrival of Miguel Angel Rosso as new coach has taken the team to a new level, or at least got them playing at the level they should have been at already. What the Argentine has done also is made the eight-time champions hard to beat.

After the 4-0 win over Faisaly, this was a tougher test against another relegation battler. Al-Taawoun caused problems and it was difficult for Talisca and Pity Martinez to get their creative juices flowing. When you have a defence as increasingly solid as Al-Nassr’s, however, the forwards can afford to have the occasional off day. Ramiro Mori and Abdulelah Al-Amri are developing a fine partnership in the middle of the backline.

Al-Nassr have not conceded a goal in 393 minutes of league football and that is laying the foundations for this winning streak. Now Rosso’s team is the one that leaders Al-Ittihad will be most worried about.

Forget Hamdallah, Romarinho is making the difference

The game itself was not one that will live long in the memory but the last few minutes will as Al-Ittihad defeated Al-Faisaly 1-0. It was an eighth successive win that increased their lead at the top to six points with a game in hand.

This was heading for a 0-0 draw when a corner fell to Romarinho at the far post with two minutes of regulation time remaining. The Brazilian was unmarked and had time to control the ball but surely he was also thinking what scoring would mean in the title race. He kept his nerve to fire into the roof of the net for what he said is one of his most vital goals in the yellow and black.

“This goal has a special feeling and it came thanks to the support of the fans,” said Romarinho. “We expected a tough game and that is what happened. Al-Faisaly are a well-organised team.”

It was not just a crucial goal that could have a major say in where the title ends up this season but it was the eighth in eight games for Romarinho.

There has been much said and written about the big signing of Abderrazak Hamdallah at the start of this month -and rightly so as the Moroccan marksman is a goal machine – but it is the Brazilian who has been banging them in.

Time is ticking for Jardim at Al-Hilal

It was just two months ago that Leonardo Jardim was lifting the AFC Champions League trophy in Riyadh after leading Al-Hilal to a record fourth continental title, but that felt a long time ago on Friday following a 1-1 draw at relegation strugglers Al-Batin.

Al-Hilal’s league form suffered following that Asian win, with just two points coming from the following four games and that has put Jardim under pressure. Nine points from the next three games suggested that a corner had been turned, even if the points came against struggling teams.

But with Al-Ittihad winning six in a row, Al-Hilal’s trio of wins did not dent the deficit and now they find themselves 10 points behind the leaders. It is going to take something special for the defending champions to catch up. At the moment, the champs don’t seem to have it and are less than the sum of their talented parts,

Next comes the FIFA Club World Cup. There are not going to be any coaching changes before then but Jardim can’t afford too many more missteps.

Relegation teams are tough nuts to crack

You have to feel a little sorry for Al-Faisaly. The King’s Cup winners have picked up just two points from the last seven games and it is no surprise that they are in danger of the drop, one place off the bottom.

Yet Al-Faisaly are a decent team and deserved a point from their trip to Jeddah to take on the leaders. In the last four games they have met Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal. That is a punishing schedule. It is not a surprise that they collected just a point though deserved a little more.

Those at the top know that there are no easy games and no easy points. Al-Taawoun gave Al-Nassr a real test and were left feeling that they should have come away from that clash with a point and Al-Batin did get a point against Saudi Arabian and Asian champions Al-Hilal.

Al-Shabab can’t afford to keep dropping points

On the first day of 2022 Al-Shabab were just a point off the top but Thursday’s 1-1 draw at home to Al-Fateh was the third in succession for last season’s runners-up. Those six dropped points are a problem when Al-Ittihad, the team in first place, keep winning.

There were complaints about the refereeing again but, while it is easy for the title-chasers to blame the officials, there was a simpler explanation for the result.

Al-Shabab had the chances to put the game to bed before Al-Fateh’s late, lovely, curling equaliser. They missed the suspended Ever Banega, however. The Argentine’s craft and guile makes a difference, creates space and upsets defences. At least Odion Ighalo returned to the scoresheet. If the Nigerian, who broke the deadlock with a shot from outside the area, can provide a cutting edge then Al-Shabab have a chance, but after dropping six points it is now a slim one.