Saudi Arabia take giant step towards 2022 World Cup with tense win over Oman

After their victory over Oman, a win against Japan at Saitama Stadium will now take Saudi Arabia to Qatar 2022. (Reuters)
After their victory over Oman, a win against Japan at Saitama Stadium will now take Saudi Arabia to Qatar 2022. (Reuters)
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Updated 27 January 2022

Saudi Arabia take giant step towards 2022 World Cup with tense win over Oman

After their victory over Oman, a win against Japan at Saitama Stadium will now take Saudi Arabia to Qatar 2022. (Reuters)
  • The 1-0 win victory means Green Falcons top Group B on 19 points, with only 3 matches left

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia stayed on course for the 2022 FIFA World Cup with a hard-fought 1-0 win over a spirited Oman in Jeddah on Thursday, with Firas Al-Buraikan getting the all-important goal for the under-par hosts early in the second half.

With Group B rivals Japan defeating China 2-0 and Australia breezing past Vietnam with a 4-0 win earlier in the day, the pressure was on, but victory keeps the Green Falcons four points clear of the Samurai Blue, next Tuesday’s opponents, and five above Australia with just three games left to play. Qatar is getting closer and closer.

A win against Japan at Saitama Stadium will now take Saudi Arabia to Qatar 2022.

Those earlier results may have put pressure on Saudi Arabia, but the team’s first half performance was the worst 45 minutes in the whole third round of qualification. Oman, missing several players due to COVID-19, were well organized and looking to deny the group leaders any space, so chances were always going to be at a premium early in the game. What was less expected was that the visitors would look likelier to score.

Midway through the first half, the Reds had the best opportunity of the game so far. Rabia Al-Alawi, always a busy and dangerous presence in attack, cut inside Ali Al-Bulaihi on the edge of the area and produced a low diagonal shot from the right that rolled just centimeters wide of the left hand post, with Mohammed Al-Owais in goal unable to do anything but stand, watch and hope.

In the absence of injured Salman Al-Faraj in the middle, the Saudis were not only giving the ball away far too often, but looked short of urgency and intensity. Coach Renard, who cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines and was continually signaling to his players to wake up, had seen enough by the half-hour and withdrew the anonymous and ineffectual Sami Al-Najei from the middle to bring in Hattan Bahebri.

Yet Oman continued to ask the questions. Right-back Amjad Al-Harthi’s low shot was almost turned in by Al-Alawi.

In the final five minutes of the first half, Saudi Arabia finally got home fans on their feet, though there were still no clear chances created. Al-Buraikan challenged the Omani goalkeeper for a Yasser Al-Shahrani cross and the volume rose soon after as the hosts appealed for a penalty for what they felt was a kick on Sultan Al-Ghannam. The half ended with a long-range half-volley from Abdulelah Al-Maiki and a shot from Al-Shahrani.

The one positive going into the break was that the second half could only get better, and so it seemed when Saudi Arabia took the lead three minutes after the restart. Befitting the performance, it was not the prettiest of goals, but nobody cared.

Omani goalkeeper Faiyz Al-Rashidi could only palm a low Al-Ghannam shot into the path of Al-Buraikan, and the 21-year-old was not going to miss from such close range.

That did not mean that the game opened up, as Saudi Arabia still struggled to impose any control and Oman still asked questions. Just past the midway point of the half, Al-Alawi had a header from close range fall straight into the arms of Al-Owais and soon after the same striker was turning in the area and firing just over.

Hearts were in mouths right at the end. Arshad Al-Alawi’s long-range effort was tipped over by Al-Owais and from the resultant corner, the same player somehow headed over from close range with the goal at his mercy.

That was the last action of what was, in truth, an ugly win — a fourth 1-0 victory out of seven games so far, but that will not bother anyone but the few Omanis in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia have taken another huge step towards a successive World Cup appearance and, with that vital cushion of four points still in place, the Green Falcons’ focus turns to Japan and a huge game on Tuesday.


Al-Fayha shock Al-Hilal in King’s Cup final to claim first-ever major trophy

Al-Fayha shock Al-Hilal in King’s Cup final to claim first-ever major trophy
Updated 15 sec ago

Al-Fayha shock Al-Hilal in King’s Cup final to claim first-ever major trophy

Al-Fayha shock Al-Hilal in King’s Cup final to claim first-ever major trophy
  • The underdogs took the Saudi and Asian champions to extra time after holding them to a 1-1 draw in normal time, before winning 3-1 on penalties

Al-Fayha defeated Al-Hilal 3-1 in a penalty shootout on Thursday to claim the King’s Cup, the first major trophy in the club’s history.

After two hours of football ended 1-1 at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, the men from Al-Majma’ah were the ones celebrating after Panagiotis Tachtsidis fired home the decisive spot-kick.

It was a stunning ending to the game, during which a Salem Al-Dawsari goal deep into first-half stoppage time broke the deadlock and put Al-Hilal ahead, before Ramon Lopes equalized for the underdogs midway through the second half.

The Riyadh giants had more of the game in terms of possession and chances but nevertheless found it hard going against determined opponents who have the best defensive record in the country. Had Al-Hilal been a little more clinical during the opening exchanges it might have been a very different evening.

It was a breathless opening by the favorites. Coach Ramon Diaz had talked before the game about how his team needed to take their chances because Al-Fayha have the tightest defense in the country, and had they heeded those words Al-Hilal could have almost put the game beyond reach within the first 10 minutes.

With less than five minutes on the clock, the men in blue almost took the lead when Nasser Al-Dawsari burst through onto a loose ball in the area and lifted his shot over the goalkeeper. It was heading toward the back of the net when, almost out of nowhere, Hussein Al-Shuwaish appeared and hooked the ball clear. Soon after, Al-Fayha goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic got down low at his near post to save well from Odion Ighalo.

Five minutes later, Al-Hilal again came close. Moussa Marega sent over a perfect cross from the right side for Al-Dawsari, who arrived unnoticed and unmarked. Somehow, the winger managed to head wide with the goal at his mercy.

Al-Fayha weathered this early storm during the first 20 minutes, during which they did not even manage to secure one fifth of the possession, before finally starting to venture into opposition territory. At the midway point of the first half, Ahmed Bamsaud sent a header over the bar. By that time, the game had settled into a scrappy affair and it looked likely that the two teams would go in goalless at the break.

But with virtually the last kick of the half, Al-Dawsari struck. Collecting the ball from Salman Al-Faraj just inside the left side of the area, the 30 year old took a touch and, with the goalkeeper perhaps expecting a curler into the top corner, fired a low shot with his right foot that beat the diving Stojkovic at the near post.

The half-time show lasted more than 30 minutes and after the restart it took a little time for the game to rediscover its rhythm but Al-Fayha were noticeably more aggressive. After 66 minutes, the underdogs were back on level terms.

It was not a great goal to concede, from Al-Hilal’s viewpoint. Defender Ali Al-Bulaihi completely missed a cross from the right and Lopes got to the ball ahead of Jang Hyun-soo around the penalty spot. His shot on the turn should have been saved by Abdullah Al-Mayouf, who instead could only palm the ball onto the underside of the bar on its way into the net.

Al-Fayha could have gone on to win the game in normal time but were unable to take their chances. The pace slowed in extra time and the play became cagey once more.

After 98 minutes, Al-Hilal’s two Al-Dawsaris combined down the left but the goalscorer pulled his shot just wide. As you might expect, the Asian champions made almost all the running in the 30 minutes of extra time but were just not able to find a way through.

And so to penalties. The shootout started well for the favorites as Al-Mayouf saved the first spot kick but Ighalo failed to capitalize, hitting the bar. After Al-Fayha got off the mark by scoring their second penalty, Al-Faraj blasted his attempt wide and it was all uphill from there for Al-Hilal, especially after Stojkovic then saved well from Abdullah Al-Hamdan.

In the end, it was left to Tachtsidis to fire home with his left foot, giving Al-Fayha the win and the first major trophy in club history.

Al-Hilal are now left to focus on the league, starting with a massive clash against leaders Al-Ittihad on Monday.


Exclusive: Floyd Mayweather Jr talks life in Dubai ahead of Don Moore exhibition fight on top of Burj Al-Arab

Few boxers can match Mayweather’s remarkable unbeaten career in the ring. (AFP)
Few boxers can match Mayweather’s remarkable unbeaten career in the ring. (AFP)
Updated 21 min 9 sec ago

Exclusive: Floyd Mayweather Jr talks life in Dubai ahead of Don Moore exhibition fight on top of Burj Al-Arab

Few boxers can match Mayweather’s remarkable unbeaten career in the ring. (AFP)
  • Only a select group of VIPs will be at the bout, which was postponed from last week after the passing of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan

DUBAI: For most of his career as one of the greatest boxers of all time, Floyd Mayweather Jr, was used to being on top of the world.

This weekend, he will, in a very literal sense, return to the summit.

On Saturday, Mayweather Jr will step into the ring in Dubai at the helipad of Burj Al-Arab, although only a select group of Sheikhs and VIPs will see the legendary 45-year-old American fighter take on Don Moore. 

The event will be the world’s first NFT Sporting event, with Mayweather earning a reported amount of $25 million.

Currently, he is spending time with celebrity friend, Tamer Hassan, renowned British Hollywood actor and humanitarian, and Hassan’s close friend, celebrity publicist and real estate power broker, Kas Syed for Espace Real estate alongside friend and American footballer, Antonio Brown.

Mayweather was due in the ring last weekend but the fight was postponed due to the passing of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa.

"I am saddened by the passing of HH Sheikh Khalifa and will continue to support this amazing country, I love coming here and will continue to invest and broaden my business into Dubai" He told Arab News.

Few boxers can match Mayweather’s remarkable unbeaten career in the ring. From 1996 until his retirement in 2017, he won 15 world titles, ranging from super featherweight to light middleweight.

Like Hassan and Syed, Floyd now retired and a boxing promoter himself, still misses being in the ring. For many boxing experts and fans, he is the greatest pound for pound boxer of modern times.

Mayweather seems to be enjoying his time in Dubai, in and outside the gym.

The boxer has spent the week skiing in the mall of the Emirates, splashing out in Dubai mall, visited the Museum of the Future and topped it off with a luxury cruise on a yacht hosted by Espace Real Estate and Superfly Yachts DXB. Mayweather also treated his closest friends and family to a whopping 150 burgers and 150 pizzas.

Asked if he has any plans to bring his talent elsewhere in the region, Mayweather told Arab News: “The Middle East is always welcoming and combat sports is growing fast in the region. As the name says, Money May, if it makes sense, I am there.”


Everton seal Premier League survival after epic escape, Burnley out of bottom three

Everton seal Premier League survival after epic escape, Burnley out of bottom three
Updated 33 min 41 sec ago

Everton seal Premier League survival after epic escape, Burnley out of bottom three

Everton seal Premier League survival after epic escape, Burnley out of bottom three
  • Their thrilling comeback was a microcosm of Lampard’s reign since he took over in January, with Everton staring disaster in the face before pulling back from the brink
  • Thursday’s drama was only an appetizer for what will be a thrilling final day of the season

LONDON: Everton staged a dramatic fightback from two goals down to preserve their Premier League status with a 3-2 win against Crystal Palace, while Burnley climbed out of the relegation zone after a 1-1 draw at Aston Villa on Thursday.

Frank Lampard’s side recovered from conceding twice in the first half as Michael Keane and Richarlison netted after the break before Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s late winner sparked wild celebrations at Goodison Park.

After a nerve-jangling battle to avoid playing outside the top-flight for the first time since 1954, Everton can finally relax with one game to play.

Their thrilling comeback was a microcosm of Lampard’s reign since he took over in January, with Everton staring disaster in the face before pulling back from the brink.

Everton are four points above the relegation zone, leaving fourth-bottom Burnley and third-bottom Leeds scrapping for survival.

“It is the character of this club, the fans and the players that dragged us through,” Lampard said.

“The players to a man were incredible. The fans lifted them and we created a special night in Everton’s history.

“The spirit of the club was immense. I’m overwhelmed.”

Burnley, who host Newcastle in Sunday’s final round of fixtures, climbed above Leeds on goal difference thanks to their point at Villa.

They will be safe if they match Leeds’ result at Brentford on the last day.

Whatever happens at the weekend is unlikely to surpass the emotion at Goodison, where fans wept tears of joy during a frenzied post-match pitch invasion.

The celebrations turned nasty when supporters taunted Palace boss Patrick Vieira, who responded by kicking one fan.

Palace had silenced the boisterous crowd with their 21st minute opener.

Vitalii Mykolenko allowed Jean-Philippe Mateta to get in front of him and the Palace forward headed in Eberechi Eze’s free-kick.

Several bottles were thrown toward Mateta and the atmosphere turned even more toxic in the 36th minute when Jordan Ayew poked home after Abdoulaye Doucoure failed to clear.

But Lampard had labelled the game “all or nothing” and Michael Keane gave Everton a vital 54th minute lifeline, the defender applying the finishing touch from Mason Holgate’s header.

Revitalized, Everton laid seige to the Palace goal and Richarlison hooked the equalizer past Jack Butland in the 75th minute.

With Goodison at fever pitch, Dominic Calvert-Lewin completed the comeback in the 85th minute with a clinical header that sparked a jubilant pitch invasion.

At Villa Park, Burnley’s Maxwel Cornet won a penalty on the stroke of halftime when he was bundled over by Emiliano Buendia.

Ashley Barnes sent Emiliano Martinez the wrong way with a cool strike for his first goal since February 2021.

In the 48th minute, Buendia volleyed Villa’s equalizer, with Burnley protesting that a foul throw should have been given in the buildup.

Burnley finished with 10 men after Matt Lowton was sent off for a high tackle on Calum Chambers in stoppage-time.

“Terrific point for us. We’re at home on the last day and it’s in our hands,” Burnley interim boss Mike Jackson said.

Chelsea effectively guaranteed a third place finish with a 1-1 draw against Leicester at Stamford Bridge.

Given their vastly superior goal difference advantage over fourth placed Tottenham, who sit three points behind them, the FA Cup runners-up will not be caught.

James Maddison gave Leicester a sixth minute lead from the edge of the area before Marcos Alonso volleyed home in the 35th minute.

Thursday’s drama was only an appetizer for what will be a thrilling final day of the season.

Manchester City will be crowned champions for a fourth time in five seasons if they beat Villa at the Etihad Stadium.

But second placed Liverpool, one point behind Pep Guardiola’s team, would steal the title if City drop points and they defeat Wolves at Anfield.

In the battle to qualify for next season’s Champions League, Tottenham need to win at Norwich to be certain of pipping Arsenal, who host Everton and are two points behind their north London rivals.

Manchester United can qualify for the Europa League with a win at Palace, although they would drop into the Europa Conference League with a defeat and a West Ham victory at Brighton.


Cricket adapts to changing post-pandemic landscape

Cricket adapts to changing post-pandemic landscape
Updated 19 May 2022

Cricket adapts to changing post-pandemic landscape

Cricket adapts to changing post-pandemic landscape
  • An easing of COVID-19 constraints has led to an abundance of play in recent months, as tournaments, particularly ICC World Cup qualifiers, catch up on a backlog of fixtures

Throughout cricket, when the person batting has scored 50 runs, it is normally the cue for applause, the strength of which will be according to the manner and style of the innings. In former days of league cricket in northern England, when the professional reached 50, it was customary for a club official to go around the spectators with a box asking for small change to be proffered in recognition of the feat.

This is my 50th column for the Arab News. In recognition of this, I organized my own collection — that of recurring topics which have emerged during the compilation of these columns. Too many emerged to be discussed in one column. Hence, I will focus on those which have material implications for the future of the game.

Acting as a backdrop to the whole year has been the impact of COVID-19. It is easy to forget that, at this stage of 2021, preparations were being made in England for international matches to be staged at biosecure venues in front of a restricted number of spectators. This method of “keeping the show on the road” worked for a time, but players began to feel the pressure, leading to concerns for their mental well-being. These are now being taken more seriously.

Another lasting impact of the pandemic on cricket has been the way it has been forced to adapt its products and revenue streams. The Indian Premier League could not be played in India in March/April 2020. It was later switched to the UAE, taking place between mid-September and mid-November, thus preserving its media and sponsorship income streams. In 2021, the IPL began in India but was suspended halfway through, resuming in the UAE in September.

Apart from ensuring that the tournaments were completed, the switches also provided the UAE with enhanced exposure within the cricketing world.

This was further highlighted to a broader audience when the delayed men’s 2020 T20 World Cup, due to be hosted by India, was played in the UAE, plus Oman, in October/November 2021. Additional stimulus has been provided by positive performances from both men’s and women’s teams in the UAE and Oman, plus Bahrain, in World Cup qualifying 20 and 50-over competitions. All of this points to a real advance in competitiveness within these countries, on and off the field.

Emergence from the constraints imposed by the pandemic has led to an abundance of cricket in recent months, as tournaments, particularly ICC World Cup qualifiers, catch up on a backlog of fixtures.

Into this mix, new tournaments have been added or existing ones expanded. In 2021, The Hundred was introduced in England and Wales, a format played nowhere else in the world, designed to appeal to a younger spectator.

In the same year, a T20 minor League Cricket Championship was introduced in the US, consisting of 27 teams from four regions. This is a developmental league for the US major Cricket League, planned for six cities in 2023.

In 2022, the IPL was expanded from eight to 10 franchises, necessitating an extension in its duration. Within the last year, the direction of travel for cricket, in terms of a focus on the T20 format, has been reaffirmed, especially in emerging countries.

What has also been reaffirmed is the dominance of Australian cricket in both men’s and women’s cricket. This is based on its men’s team winning the T20 World Cup in November in the UAE, its crushing of England in the 2020/21 Ashes. The women’s team won the 50-over ODI World Cup in April, and beat England in a combined Test and short format series in January/February. For the time being, India’s bid to dominate has been halted in recent months, partly because of a hiatus caused by changes of coach and captain.

One of the most significant developments in the last 12 months has been the increased support for women’s cricket. This has taken the form of increased funding, increased audiences, both in person and on media channels and increased remuneration, although gender parity has not yet been reached. Most women’s cricket is played to the shorter formats and cricket’s authorities seem reluctant to increase the opportunities for women’s Test cricket.

It is in India where women’s cricket has the greatest latent potential, but the Board of Control for Cricket in India has been slow to provide the platforms for its realization. Even recently, it expressed the view that, at this stage, there is not enough depth in the women’s game in India to justify further investment. This has been accompanied by vague talk about a women’s IPL.

Despite the current president of the MCC being a woman, as well as holding the post of managing director of women’s cricket for the England and Wales Cricket Board, cricket remains a game dominated by male administrators.

By way of example, only one of the 18 professional county cricket clubs in England and Wales currently has a woman in the post of either chair or CEO. Somewhat bucking the fashion, one county had a woman in both positions in 2019. Neither are still in post. The chair, herself a woman of color, stepped down in November 2021, apparently saddened by the high-profile allegations of racism within the domestic game.

My column of Nov. 24, 2021 covered those revelations. They rocked cricket, especially in Britain, where inquiries, sackings and recriminations ensued.

These have died down, but the problem cannot have dissipated overnight. Out of the key recurring topics of the last year — coping with the impact of the pandemic, recognition of mental health issues, continuing growth of T20 competitions, surge in support for women’s cricket, limelight for the UAE and Oman, and Australia’s resurgence — racism is the most concerning one.

Work is underway within the game to counter its impact and bring about behavioral change. However, progress is not always obvious and needs monitoring. Time is required to educate and develop the willingness to change among those who remain in doubt.


Favorites Al-Hilal wary of upset against Al-Feiha in King’s Cup final

Favorites Al-Hilal wary of upset against Al-Feiha in King’s Cup final
Updated 19 May 2022

Favorites Al-Hilal wary of upset against Al-Feiha in King’s Cup final

Favorites Al-Hilal wary of upset against Al-Feiha in King’s Cup final
  • Saudi, Asian champions expected to add to 9 cup wins but recent exertions in 3 competitions may open door for underdogs

RIYADH: It is no surprise that Al-Hilal are favorites to defeat Al-Feiha in Thursday night’s King’s Cup final.

It is a team with more than 60 titles and trophies to its name, taking on an opponent that has none. Yet the nine-time winners — only Al-Ahli with 13 have won more — will not have it all their own way at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah.

This is the biggest game in the history of underdogs Al-Feiha, and it is going to be a right royal battle, one fitting of this tournament. Al-Hilal have had plenty of big games this season and have a few more to come but there is something special about Saudi Arabia’s premier cup competition.

If years and decades of history are against Al-Feiha then past weeks and months are not. After all, they have taken four points from Al-Hilal already this season, more than most. There was a hard-fought 0-0 draw in December in Riyadh and then, on May 3, a famous 1-0 victory for the Orange at home to delight their fans.

Such results have helped to take Vuk Rasovic’s men into a comfortable sixth place in the table which means that they can fully focus on the final. It has already been a great season for the club, but it could get a great deal better.

The Serbian boss, who led Al-Faisaly to the 2018 final where they lost to Al-Ittihad, is ready.

Rasovic said: “We know our opponents well and we know that they are the best team in Asia. We also know that we deserve to be here, and we will be ready both physically and technically. I can say however that while we know that we have to be at our best defensively against Al-Hilal, we will be playing to win.”

The odds may be against Al-Feiha, but they have in their line-up Aleksandar Trajkovski, the attacker who caused a sensation in March when he scored the goal for North Macedonia that ended the hopes of Italy, European champions, of appearing at the 2022 World Cup. Few know better that anything can happen on the pitch. His exploits were well-noted in Europe as is the fact that the team have a Serbian coach and a Serbian goalkeeper in Vladimir Stojkovic. The former Red Star Belgrade and Nottingham Forest No. 1 has had an excellent season between the posts and the club’s decision to sign the veteran star in 2021 has been vindicated.

“You can imagine I am sure that, a year ago, it was not easy to convince the administration to sign a 38-year-old goalkeeper, but I did it as I know him well, know his quality, and how he is very professional and works very hard in training,” added Rasovic, who took Partizan Belgrade to the 2013 Serbian league championship.

Just a few days before came another example of how Al-Feiha can mix it with the best as they defeated league leaders Al-Ittihad 1-0 in the semi-final. Both games showed that they can take their chances and can keep the best attackers in Saudi Arabia, probably the best attackers in Asia, at bay.

“Of course, it is not easy to play against those two teams but if you analyze what we have done this season, you can see that we are a stubborn opponent when we play against the big teams,” Rasovic said.

That is borne out by the fact that Al-Feiha have conceded just 22 goals in the league this season, fewer than any other team.

Such defensive strength means that it could be a frustrating night for the league champions. When the two teams met earlier this month, Al-Hilal were kept at bay while Sami Al-Khaibari volleyed home a corner after 33 minutes to score the only goal of the game. Al-Feiha believe that their opponents are vulnerable to crosses into the box.

With that in mind, at least opposite number Ramon Diaz will be delighted that central defender Ali Al-Bulaihi has had an extra few days to recover from injury following the postponement of the last round of league games at the weekend. That meant the huge top of the table Classico against Al-Ittihad will have to wait until Monday but did buy a tired team some time.

Full-back Yasser Al-Shahrani should also be fit. There are still some absences but with attacking players such as Odion Ighalo, Moussa Marega, and Matheus Pereira fit and raring to go, Al-Hilal should have the firepower to test the miserly opposition defense to win another major trophy.

“I am very happy for the rest we got before playing this final,” Diaz said, adding that there were no such things as weak teams when it comes to a final. “The game will be decided by what happens on the pitch and not with expectations.”

The Argentine boss was understandably keen to dismiss the league results between the two teams this season.

“We lacked focus in that meeting but now we want to win the cup for our fans. In the final you either win or you get nothing, and we have to be at our best and focus more and reduce mistakes made.”

In what is likely to be a tight game, the team that makes the fewest mistakes may just end up with their hands on the trophy. Al-Hilal have dozens of those but Al-Feiha are looking for a first King’s Cup.