Abderrazak Hamdallah’s move to Al-Ittihad adds spice to SPL title race with former club Al-Nassr

Abderrazak Hamdallah’s move to Al-Ittihad adds spice to SPL title race with former club Al-Nassr
The title battle between Al-Ittihad in first and Al-Nassr in second is going to be that bit spicier thanks to Abderrazak Hamdallah. (Twitter: ittihad)
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Updated 25 January 2022

Abderrazak Hamdallah’s move to Al-Ittihad adds spice to SPL title race with former club Al-Nassr

Abderrazak Hamdallah’s move to Al-Ittihad adds spice to SPL title race with former club Al-Nassr
  • Moroccan forward recently joined league leaders in Jeddah after being released from his contract by Riyadh club

The Saudi Pro League has seen so many twists and turns already this season that it would be a brave person who predicts anything with confidence.

Al-Shabab turned a poor start into a championship challenge, usual relegation-battlers Damac led the standings for a while, and reigning champions Al-Hilal have hovered on the fringes of the title race without truly getting involved.

One thing that is certain however, is that the title battle between Al-Ittihad in first and Al-Nassr in second is going to be that bit spicier thanks to Abderrazak Hamdallah.

The two-time Saudi Pro League golden boot winner started the season in Riyadh, but after being released from his contract in November, made his debut — a goal-scoring one, naturally — for Al-Ittihad on Jan.14.

Hamdallah, who spent three-and-a-half years with Al-Nassr, can be a controversial figure. He had clearly not been happy for a while in the capital, and after starting his final game for the club in October, his departure became inevitable.

Last season Al-Nassr became exasperated by his behavior, and there were reports of the player feigning injury to miss games, going on unauthorized trips to Morocco and criticizing coaches. Whatever happened, there is little doubt that if Hamdallah goes on to play a part in the title race then fans back in Riyadh may find it hard to stomach. That is because he scored lots and lots of goals — 115 in 110 games — and no supporter can fail to love a striker who finds the target so regularly.

Al-Nassr initially protested against their former star going to Jeddah, but in the end could do little to stop the move and a begrudging acceptance was the only course to take.

The situation has been made easier thanks to the Yellows’ recent form, as wins remove worries, stress and all kinds of bad feelings. Few teams in Asia would be able to lose such a guarantor of goals and barely notice, but the nine-time champions, who started the season slowly, have won their past six games to move into second behind their Jeddah rivals.

The Riyadh faithful have new heroes now. The arrival of Anderson Talisca has been a huge plus for the team and hugely entertaining for the league. The Brazilian could not get inside China to play for Guangzhou FC due to the country’s travel restrictions which led to his departure, but he has had few problems opening up defenses in Saudi Arabia since making his debut last August.

It is not only his blond hair and ungainly running style that have caused the former Benfica star to stand out. Some of his goals have been spectacular, too. Last week, he was called the best player in the league by Pity Martinez who may be a teammate, but this season there have not been many better (though Talisca declared that such a title actually belongs to Al-Hilal maestro Salem Al-Dawsari) .

Martinez, almost the forgotten man of Saudi Arabia and South American football, is also playing a part. The Argentine arrived in 2020 amid a lot of fanfare, international headlines and with a transfer fee reported to be around SR67 million ($18 million).

The playmaker was expected to lead the team to Asian glory and never really got going before a serious injury kept him out of action for almost a year. Now returning to fitness, the 28-year-old is like a new signing and has been showing glimpses of the talent that had him named as the 2018 South American player of the year. The former River Plate star looks more settled in Saudi Arabia and also has a fellow Argentine as coach. Miguel Angel Rosso may have been seen as an underwhelming choice to take over early in December, but the former Boca Juniors boss has looked very comfortable.

The same is true of Al-Ittihad. The leaders have followed the perceived wisdom and strengthened when at their best, at the top of the league and winning games. Now Hamdallah has come in as the main striker. He has yet to really gel with his teammates, but as soon as talented Brazilians such as Bruno Henrique, Romarinho and the impressive Igor Coronado (when he returns from injury) start to create the chances, then the Moroccan will surely start banging them in. That is what he does.

Not too many, though, the neutrals will hope. With Al-Ittihad six points clear, they will want a title race and will be cheering on Al-Nassr as a team in great form and looking like the only obstacle between the Tigers and a first win title since 2009.

However, Al-Nassr, who will welcome in-form striker Vincent Aboubaker back from the African Nations Cup where he has been on hot scoring streak for hosts Cameroon, want more than to challenge — they want the big prize.

And if they can stop their former hotshot from lifting the trophy then it will make victory all the sweeter. Hamdallah could make the title race very interesting, indeed.

Newcastle deal heavy blow to Arsenal’s Champions League hopes

Newcastle deal heavy blow to Arsenal’s Champions League hopes
Updated 17 May 2022

Newcastle deal heavy blow to Arsenal’s Champions League hopes

Newcastle deal heavy blow to Arsenal’s Champions League hopes
  •  A 2-0 win at celebratory St James’ Park means Eddie Howe’s team ended their home campaign on high note

NEWCASTLE: “Something special is stirring at St. James’ Park. Strap yourselves in. Howay the Lads.”

The message was simple but stirring, beautiful while charged with steely intent.

This was a club tweet to follow a statement performance that will have alarm bells ringing from London to Liverpool and Manchester and back.

Newcastle United weren’t meant to stay up this season. They weren’t meant to dazzle and delight. At Christmas the Championship was beckoning. And while the depths of winter despair thaw into spring then summer, pain has been replaced with hope and joy. The sleeping giant of English football is stretching its legs and readying itself for battle.

Having failed to lay a glove on Liverpool then Manchester City, Newcastle United, at the 14th attempt this campaign, beat a side in the Premier League top seven.

And while Eddie Howe’s United look light years away from the top two, they were head and shoulders above shell-shocked Arsenal, who looked like a rabbit in the headlines at an electrically charged St. James’ Park.

Champions League contenders? On this evidence, and playing at this level, it will be Newcastle featuring heavily in the conversation next season, not just Arsenal.

“Brilliant way for us to sign off here,” said Howe.

“I was very, very pleased with our performance, it was probably our best performance by some distance since I’ve been at the football club. The most pleasing thing was we were dominant in the first-half, but I’ve seen that so many times where the dominant team then drop off in terms of energy levels and intensity levels and the game totally changes.

“I’ve got to give my players big credit that we didn’t. We were probably better in the second-half. Full credit to the group and a great way to finish off here.”

Howe’s United put the Gunners on the ropes from minute one. Pressing high and forcing errors, Miguel Almiron and Callum Wilson, starting his first game since December, were instrumental in setting a frenetic pace that the visitors could not live with.

Aaron Ramsdale, as shaky as he’s looked all season, had to be at his best to palm away an Allan Saint-Maximin effort, while Ben White was on hand to deny Wilson his seventh of the season.

That pair’s battle was one of the most intriguing on the pitch, with Wilson playing on the shoulder and running in behind at will — and it was one such second-half run that brought the opener.

A bursting Joelinton drive down the left saw the big Brazilian, a colossus in midfield all evening, cut across to Wilson and just as he was about to turn in, White got a boot on it to beat Ramsdale at the front post.

Cue a sonic boom that will send shockwaves into the Tyneside night, reverberating across the English game — rarely, if ever, has St. James’ been this loud.

And United, putting in their best performance of the campaign, weren’t finished there.

Goal-thirsty Wilson came close twice more as he went in hunt of one of his own and it was from his tenacity that No.2 was born.

His challenge at the feet of Ramsdale saw the ball squirt out to Bruno Guimaraes, who netted his fifth of the season.

Beating Arsenal, whose Champions League dream looks to have gone up in smoke, feels like a real move in the right direction.

“Yeah, it feels like a step forward, definitely,” said Howe.

“That was a challenge we poised — could we get a positive result against one of the top six? I felt we were capable of it but we needed to see it. That was the challenge we responded to really well. The way we started the game, the intensity in our play, our pressing was very good.

“I thought you saw tonight a progression and evolution in terms of the football we played. How we handled the ball I thought we were creative, we looked like we could score, maybe not so much in the first-half but definitely in the second. We’re seeing an improvement in all areas.”

Is this a window into the future of Newcastle United? It certainly felt as such.

While this was the end of United’s home season, it very much feels like only the start.

This Newcastle is united. This Newcastle means business. Watch out English football, a new contender is sharpening its tools. Newcastle United are back, and no longer around to simply make up the numbers.

Howe said: “I’m very, very proud to be connected with the club. An incredible thanks from me to the supporters for how they have handled a very difficult situation this year.

“When you think back to Cambridge and Watford, how they reacted after those games was absolutely magnificent and I think that paved the way for us to build some confidence, some unity and the spirit that we needed to go on the brilliant run we’ve been on.

“The support tonight was absolutely incredible. The atmosphere around the stadium was something I’ve not really experienced before. A big thank you to them.”

Frankfurt, Rangers try to end title drought in their Europa League final clash

Frankfurt, Rangers try to end title drought in their Europa League final clash
Updated 16 May 2022

Frankfurt, Rangers try to end title drought in their Europa League final clash

Frankfurt, Rangers try to end title drought in their Europa League final clash
  • Both clubs have huge fan bases, and tens of thousands are expected to swarm into southern Spain this week to try to see their team succeed again

LONDON: Eintracht Frankfurt and Rangers will get a chance to end decades of despair when they meet in the Europa League final on Wednesday.

For Frankfurt, it will be an opportunity to win their first European trophy in more than 40 years. For Rangers, a chance for their first continental title in 50 years.

Triumph in the second-tier competition in the Spanish city of Seville will also guarantee the winner an automatic spot in the group stage of next season’s Champions League.

“For Eintracht, for the fans, for the club, for the players, (winning again after 42 years) would be the most important thing ever,” Frankfurt coach Oliver Glasner told UEFA.com. “It has extraordinary significance, great significance, and that’s why we’re going to try our best so that we come home with the trophy and spend one or two nights celebrating with our fans.”

It will be Frankfurt’s first European final since beating Borussia Mönchengladbach in 1980 in an all-German matchup in the UEFA Cup, the predecessor to the Europa League.

Rangers were close to European glory when they played in the UEFA Cup final in 2008, but they lost to Zenit St. Petersburg. The Scottish club is looking for their first European trophy since earning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1972.

Both clubs have huge fan bases, and tens of thousands are expected to swarm into southern Spain this week to try to see their team succeed again, prompting concern from local authorities and UEFA.

There had been fan violence involving visiting fans in Seville when local clubs Sevilla and Real Betis hosted matches earlier in the competition. Before the semifinals between Frankfurt and West Ham in Germany, more than 30 arrests were made after supporters of both clubs clashed in several locations in Frankfurt.

Fans of the German club also attracted headlines when more than 30,000 made their way into the Camp Nou in Barcelona for the second leg of the quarterfinals.

UEFA has asked for fans without tickets not to travel to Spain for Wednesday’s final, and warned about the dangers of purchasing tickets on the secondary market.

More than 40,000 seats will be available at Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán Stadium, but only about 10,000 tickets were allocated to each club. Seville city officials planned to open fan zones to accommodate those not able to make it to the game.

The match will pit two physical and high-intensity teams with impressive runs to the final.

Rangers, led by captain and top scorer James Tavernier, lost their first two group games but eventually gained momentum. It will be boosted by having already eliminated two German clubs — Borussia Dortmund in the first knockout round and Leipzig in the semifinals.

“When you’re in the knockout stages, it’s all or nothing, and the character of my players has been outstanding,” said Rangers coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who was hired in November after Steven Gerrard joined Aston Villa. “To be able to win against those strong opponents is really good, so we have the character to play this final, we have the qualities, and we also have the belief. That’s the most important thing, to have the belief that you can achieve.”

Frankfurt, led by veteran goalkeeper Kevin Trapp, made it to the final unbeaten after eliminating some strong opponents — Real Betis in the round of 16, Barcelona in the quarterfinals and West Ham in the semifinals. Frankfurt are trying to become the third unbeaten team to win the title in the Europa League era, after Chelsea in 2019 and Villarreal in 2021.

“Every team that gets to the final has earned it because it’s a long road. You have to win a lot of matches,” Glasner said. “Rangers eliminated two top teams from the Bundesliga over two legs. That shows they’re very good and also shows they’re well equipped for German football, so I’m expecting a very even, hard-fought contest.”

The last encounter between the two clubs was painful for Rangers. The Scottish club conceded six goals in each of the two legs of the European Cup semifinals in 1960, being deprived of an opportunity to play a home final in Glasgow. Frankfurt went on to lose the final to Real Madrid 7-3.

Frankfurt have not made it back to Europe’s top club competition since that final, while Rangers made their last appearance in the group stage of the Champions League in the 2010-11 season.

The last time the UEFA Cup final was played in Seville, in 2003, Rangers’ Scottish rival Celtic lost the title to José Mourinho-coached Porto.

Ali Abdulghani wins javelin gold on successful first day for Saudi Arabia at GCC Games in Kuwait

Ali Abdulghani wins javelin gold on successful first day for Saudi Arabia at GCC Games in Kuwait
Updated 16 May 2022

Ali Abdulghani wins javelin gold on successful first day for Saudi Arabia at GCC Games in Kuwait

Ali Abdulghani wins javelin gold on successful first day for Saudi Arabia at GCC Games in Kuwait
  • Kingdom’s Mohammed Daoud Tolo and Abdullah Abkar both take silver in shot put and 100 meters
  • There were also bronze medals for Muzna Al-Nassar in the women’s 10,000m and Hammoud Al-Awani in the men’s long jump

Ali Abdulghani claimed Saudi Arabia’s first gold medal of the third GCC Games in Kuwait by winning the javelin competition on Monday.

Abdulghani took top spot on the podium with a throw of 71.15 meters.

Abdullah Abkar took the silver medal in the men’s 100 meters with a time of 10.21 seconds, while compatriot Mohammed Daoud came fourth in a time of 10.32 seconds.

Mohammed Daoud Tolo also claimed a silver for the Kingdom in the shot put after a throw of 20.49 meters, while Hammoud Al-Alwani took bronze in the long jump with a distance of 7.15 meters.

There was another silver for Saudi Arabia as Mazen Al-Yassin finished second in the men’s 400 meters with a time of 45.83 seconds.

The first medal for the women’s team came in the 10,000 meters, with Muzna Al-Nassar claiming bronze with a time of 45:32.05 minutes.

In the women’s 100 meters, the Kingdom’s Yasmine Al-Dabbagh finished fifth with a time of 12.90 seconds, while Lojien Al-Hamid came seventh in 13.72 seconds.

Saudi runner Ruaa Al-Sulaimani finished fifth in the women’s 100-meter hurdles with a time of 18.83 seconds.

Saja Jalal, who was taking part in two events, finished sixth in the women’s shot put with a distance of 6.84 meters and fifth in the long jump with leap of 3.98 meters.

In the men’s futsal competition, the Kingdom’s team kicked off with 3-1 win over Bahrain with goals from Mohsen Fakihi, Fahad Al-Rudaini and Moaz Asiri.

But the women’s futsal team did not fare so well, going down 4-1 to Bahrain in their first match.

Hate ‘alive and well’ within football, anti-racism charity says

Hate ‘alive and well’ within football, anti-racism charity says
Updated 16 May 2022

Hate ‘alive and well’ within football, anti-racism charity says

Hate ‘alive and well’ within football, anti-racism charity says
  • Two men arrested for making ‘discriminatory gestures’ at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
  • Brentford players report racial abuse against family members during game at Goodison Park

LONDON: An anti-racism charity has said “hate is alive and well within football,” after incidents were reported during Premier League matches this weekend.

Two supporters were arrested on suspicion of racially aggravated public order offenses following “discriminatory gestures” at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday.

London’s Metropolitan Police said the two men were ejected from the Burnley section of the ground during the Clarets’ 1-0 defeat.

Meanwhile, two Brentford players reported to police that their family members were racially abused at Goodison Park during their away match with Everton, with the Merseyside club confirming they were working with police.

“There is no place in football — or society — for racism, we are assisting Merseyside Police to ensure the individual is identified and dealt with appropriately,” it said in a statement.

Defender Rico Henry, who scored the winning goal for Brentford in a 3-2 victory, tweeted: “I never usually speak out on things that don’t physically harm me or my family but to see my mom upset after being racially abused by a few Everton fans brought fire to my stomach.”

Ivan Toney also took to Twitter to call out a supporter, whom he alleged was racially abusing his family members, saying: “And for the man that racially abused my family I’ll do everything I can to get you the punishment you deserve!”

Troy Townsend, head of player engagement at charity Kick It Out, praised the swift action of the clubs involved and said he hoped anyone found guilty of using racially aggravated language or gestures would be punished.

“We have been made aware of a spate of new alleged anti-Semitic and racist comments and gestures linked to several clubs over the weekend,” he said.

“While investigations are ongoing, we cannot comment on the specifics of cases, however, the events of the weekend once again highlight the fact that hate is still alive and well within football.

“Everton, Burnley and Tottenham all acted swiftly and we commend their energy in addressing these incidents. We hope appropriate and decisive action is taken against all those involved.”

King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title

King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title
Updated 16 May 2022

King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title

King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title
  • The reigning Saudi champions could be emotionally and physically drained by the time they face leaders Al-Ittihad four days after Thursday’s showpiece final

The latest round of games in the Saudi Professional League was postponed as a mark of respect to UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan who passed away on Friday.

It meant that the Saudi Classico, the big clash between leaders Al-Ittihad and second-placed defending champions Al-Hilal, will have to wait a little longer.

The dates have changed and this could cast a different light on the title race. Now the rivals from Jeddah and Riyadh will meet on May 23. As a reminder, the gap between the two is six points with four games remaining. If Hilal win, then the pressure will be on Al-Ittihad for the first time since they went top of the league and started pulling away. Then the fight would really be on for the final three games of the campaign.

That can still happen, but now with a difference. Before the rescheduled title decider, Al-Hilal will first have to take on Al-Feiha in Thursday’s King’s Cup final.

This adds an extra dimension to the title race. The champions would surely have preferred to face Al-Ittihad first, cut the lead to three points and then let the leaders deal with that. Now however, they have to play a prestigious — as well as emotionally and physically draining — cup final just four days earlier and then go straight into the biggest league game of the season.

And the King’s Cup final is sure to be a big deal. It is the first chance for Al-Feiha to win a major trophy. The club are in sixth place in the league and are not going to finish any higher than that. Relegation is not an issue so they can focus all their energies on the game.

“If you look at how we play then you can see that we are a difficult opponent for the big teams,” said Al-Feiha coach Vuk Rasovic. “We will do our best to make our fans happy. The King’s Cup final is a very special match for us.”

Rasovic’s men are not to be underestimated and showed that by defeating Al-Ittihad in the semi-final. The Tigers, who are aiming to win the league for the first time since 2009, may now be quite happy with that elimination. Al-Hilal are favorites to emerge victorious but it is going to be a battle and extra-time and penalties are certainly not out of the question. There is also the risk of more injuries to a team that already has a number of players in the treatment room as the league campaign reaches a climax.

For Al-Hilal, the situation is now a little similar to Liverpool’s in England. The Reds have been chasing Manchester City at the top of the English Premier League, but on Saturday had to play the FA Cup final against Chelsea. They ended up winning that game but it was a grueling and hard-fought 90 minutes, followed by extra-time and then an emotional penalty shootout triumph. Liverpool are now scheduled to play Southampton on Tuesday in a game that they have to win if they are going to keep their league ambitions alive. They then end the season at home to Wolves on Sunday. This congested fixture list is made more difficult by Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk leaving the Wembley pitch with injuries on Saturday. But while the knocks don’t seem too serious, they were worrying moments for coach Jurgen Klopp and the fans.

All of these issues leave Ramon Diaz with plenty to think about. Had the final come after the Al-Ittihad game, then the Argentine would have a clear vision on his team’s chances for the title. Now, he needs to do all he can to win the King’s Cup and hope that this does not derail Al-Hilal’s slim chances of the league.

In some ways, having so many big games is a reflection of Al-Hilal’s success but Al-Ittihad will be much the fresher of the two teams when they meet in Jeddah next week and that could make a huge difference, especially in the closing stages of the match.

There are pressures at the bottom of the table too. The relegation battle is fierce, with the bottom half of the table all in danger. Al-Taawoun will be happy they played before the postponement came into effect and won their crucial six-pointer against Al-Batin. That dragged Al-Ettifaq into the bottom three but they are expected to defeat Al-Hazem, the only team adrift at the bottom. Al-Faisaly lost on Thursday and will be watching other results anxiously. The extra days have given teams a little more time to rest ahead of a crucial few weeks — all except Al-Hilal, who have big game after big game.

What was already a long season has become a little longer and will now run from August to June. There have been plenty of stops and starts with breaks for the successful World Cup qualification campaign and various Asian Champions League games. It can’t have been easy for the players but there is still plenty of excitement for the fans, starting with the King’s Cup final on Thursday and a potential title decider just four days later.