Champions Al-Hilal lead Saudi, Arab success in AFC Champions League’s longest season

Champions Al-Hilal lead Saudi, Arab success in AFC Champions League’s longest season
With Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab, and Al-Faisaly all winning their groups, it was a successful stage for Saudi Arabia with only Al-Taawoun missing out. (File/AFP)
Short Url
Updated 29 April 2022

Champions Al-Hilal lead Saudi, Arab success in AFC Champions League’s longest season

Champions Al-Hilal lead Saudi, Arab success in AFC Champions League’s longest season
  • West zone group stages all played in Kingdom, tournament to resume early 2023 after calendar season format ditched

RIYADH: Twenty teams started the group stage of the 2022 Asian Champions League earlier in April and by the end of the month, 12 had fallen by the wayside.

Of the eight that are standing and heading to the knockout stages next February, there are three from Saudi Arabia, two from Qatar, and one team each from Uzbekistan, the UAE, and Iran.

With Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab, and Al-Faisaly all winning their groups, it was a successful stage for Saudi Arabia with only Al-Taawoun, just a point clear of the relegation zone at home, missing out.

All games were played on home turf. The two Riyadh teams played in the capital, Al-Faisaly were in Dammam, and Al-Taawoun in Buraidah. It is not called home advantage for nothing, and it surely helped as did the absence of Iranian giants Esteghlal and Persepolis, expelled in January, but it was, nonetheless, a stage to remember for teams from the Saudi Professional League.

Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab were the standout performers in the stage, along with Al-Duhail of Qatar.

In Group A, Al-Hilal, the defending champions, were never in danger of not going through, winning their first four games. In each match, coach Ramon Diaz was able to call upon different players and they all did their bit with the 11 goals scored by nine different players.

The fact that just one point was collected from the last two games should not cloud a fine record, the four-time champions were already through by that point and have some crucial clashes coming up at home in the next few weeks. These continental tests may be perfect preparation, a chance for Diaz to give game time to many of his squad but without any travel needed.

In short, the 17-time Saudi champions showed the rest of Asia that they are, once again, the team to beat. The one downside is perhaps that the knockout stage will not start for over nine months, as the tournament follows switches from a calendar-year format. Surely, Al-Hilal would love to go straight into it and clinch a third continental crown in four years.

Their biggest challenge may not come from Doha, South Korea, or Japan but their home city of Riyadh. Al-Shabab have never been champions of Asia, but they caught the eye by dominating Group B, collecting 16 points, scoring 18 goals, and conceding just one.

The White Lions have had a decent record in the Champions League reaching semi and quarter finals, but this was their first appearance since 2015 and, if nothing else, they have reminded the rest of the continent that Al-Shabab may not quite have Al-Hilal’s strength in depth but are still a force to be reckoned with.

And no wonder. Ever Banega has been so consistent in an attacking sense, setting the tempo, creating chances, and scoring himself, that the Argentine does not perhaps get the credit he deserves. Brazilian striker Carlos enjoyed himself with five goals to be the third top scorer in the stage with Nawaf Al-Abed, Turki Al-Ammar, and Hattan Bahebri all scoring from deeper positions and impressing. It is not all about the attacking talent.

Goalkeeper Fawaz Al-Qarni was well-protected but made some crucial saves when needed with defenders Hassan Tambakti, Faraz Al-Saqour, and others stepping forward. With Marius Sumudica taking the head coach job in late March, the six games have been a great opportunity for the Romanian to get to know his players ahead of the final weeks of the domestic season. The league is now out of reach but there is still a chance for a top-three finish.

Al-Faisaly complete the successful trio and to finish top of their group was a fine achievement especially with them playing in Asia for the first time. There was some luck involved for a team that only won two of the six games, befitting a tight group — with just three points separating first and fourth — and a team that does not score many in the league either.

In fact, the Dammam men netted just five times, the fewest of the quartet but taking seven points from the first three games put them in control. Martin Boyle, who arrived from Scottish team Hibernian shortly before the group stages started, impressed in attack, and combined well with Julio Tavares. At the other end, veteran goalkeeper Mustafa Malayekah used his experience well to marshal a tight defense. Whatever happens, finishing two places above a star-studded team such as Al-Sadd, one that was expected to challenge for the title, should sustain the easterners as they return home to avoid relegation.

Closer to the trap door to the Saudi second tier are Al-Taawoun who were the only one of the four to miss out. They did finish second, but seven points was never going to be enough. This was no disgrace. Al-Duhail were runaway winners, and the Qataris have the firepower, though maybe not the defense, to go all the way, and Iran’s Sepahan and Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan both have proud records in Asia.

A tendency to concede late in games cost the Buraidah team points and ultimately a place in the next stage. Still, as they return home just a point above the relegation zone, Al-Taawoun should have gained confidence as well as more cohesiveness over six games in a short period of time under Dutch coach John van den Brom. The former Anderlecht boss at least knows his players better for the tasks ahead.

The four teams can all take positives from April. They return home to challenge for titles, the top three, or to try and avoid relegation a little tired but sharp and match-fit after competitive tests.

The 2022 Asian Champions League continues early next year but its influence will be seen over the coming weeks too. We have seen that Saudi Arabia’s teams are among the best in Asia, but it is now time to see who can shine at home.


Korda sisters set for sun-drenched showdown at the $1m Aramco Team Series Sotogrande

Korda sisters set for sun-drenched showdown at the $1m Aramco Team Series Sotogrande
Updated 05 July 2022

Korda sisters set for sun-drenched showdown at the $1m Aramco Team Series Sotogrande

Korda sisters set for sun-drenched showdown at the $1m Aramco Team Series Sotogrande
  • Nelly and Jessica Korda to compete at La Reserva Club, Aug. 18-20
  • First time the pair will have played in Spain; their second Aramco Team Series event

JEDDAH: American sisters Nelly and Jessica Korda are heading to Spain for the first time, with both confirmed for next month’s $1 million Aramco Team Series Sotogrande.

The siblings will tee off in front of their maiden Spanish crowd at La Reserva Club, Aug. 18-20, in what will be their second Aramco Team Series event presented by the Public Investment Fund.

Both Nelly and Jessica were part of history when they played in last year’s debut Aramco Team Series New York, the first-ever Ladies European Tour event to be played on US soil.

For older sister Jessica — a six-time LPGA-winner — that was just the start of a history-making week, as she captained her team to victory in the event’s unique four-ball format.

Former world No. 1 and US Olympic gold medalist Nelly was one shot shy of bagging the same tournament’s concurrent solo contest. 

Nelly Korda at the Aramco Team Series New York. (Supplied)

Now, both will return to battle it out against the biggest and best names on the Ladies European Tour under the Sotogrande sun this summer.

“I’m so excited to be heading to play in Spain for the first time,” said major-winner Nelly, currently ranked world No. 3.

“It’ll actually be my first ever time visiting Spain, so I’m really looking forward to getting there and seeing and experiencing what I’ve always imagined to be this amazing culture. The golf course at La Reserva looks incredible too so it should be a great week.

“Jess and I both played in the Aramco Team Series event in New York last year and loved the format. It’s something different having the separate team-individual formats going on at the same time which is fun,” she continued. “With the Solheim Cup taking place just round the corner from Sotogrande next year, this will also be the perfect opportunity for me and some of the other Americans in the field to get a bit of a lay of the land and a feel for playing in Spain, with the hope of being back there 12 months later. I’m excited to get out there and can’t wait to see what Sotogrande has in store for us.”

Jessica — who has finished in the top 10 in all five women’s majors — said: “New York’s Aramco Team Series was a great event. Having won the team side of it was a lot of fun. I am looking forward to getting a chance to play that same format again.

“I’ve never actually played in Spain — this will be my first time. Spain has had such a massive influence on golf, from big name players like Seve (Ballesteros), Sergio Garcia and Jon Rahm to Carlota Ciganda and the many Spanish girls making an impact on both the LPGA and LET.

“The Spanish fans are known to have some fiery passion too, so I can’t wait to tee it up in front of them for what should be a pretty special atmosphere in Sotogrande.”

The pair will be joined by a host of big-name Spanish golfers, including Solheim Cup hero Ciganda, rising talent Ana Pelaez Trivino, Nuria Iturrioz and Carmen Alonso, as part of a field packed with global stars, more of whom will be announced in due course.

To secure tickets — which start at just €5 ($5.14) — or to find out more, visit aramcoteamseries.com or follow the event on social media @aramco_series.


Jabeur makes history as 1st Arab woman to qualify to Grand Slam’s last four

Jabeur makes history as 1st Arab woman to qualify to Grand Slam’s last four
Updated 50 min 19 sec ago

Jabeur makes history as 1st Arab woman to qualify to Grand Slam’s last four

Jabeur makes history as 1st Arab woman to qualify to Grand Slam’s last four
  • Jabeur will next face close friend and mother-of-two Tatjana Maria
  • Djokovic said he had to give himself a talking to after going two sets down

LONDON: Ons Jabeur has become the first Arab woman to book a place in the last-four of a Grand Slam after the world number two, of Tunisia, defeated Marie Bouzkova on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, defending champion Novak Djokovic battled back from two sets down to reach an 11th Wimbledon semifinal.
Djokovic triumphed 5-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 over Italian 10th seed Jannik Sinner, recovering from a two-set deficit for the seventh time in his career.
The Serb will face Britain’s Cameron Norrie, who also needed five sets to get past David Goffin of Belgium, 3-6, 7-5, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5.
As for Jabeur, she defeated Bouzkova 3-6, 6-1, 6-1.
She will next face close friend and mother-of-two Tatjana Maria, who defeated fellow unseeded German Jule Niemeier, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
Djokovic, a 20-time major winner, said he had to give himself a talking to after going two sets down.
“The first two sets compared to the next three were like two different matches,” he said.
“But at the end of the second set I took a toilet break, gave myself a little pep talk, tried to gather my thoughts.
“I broke early in the third set. I saw a little bit of doubt start to come into his movement. I have many years’ experience of playing on these courts and coping with the pressure.”
Djokovic is no stranger to Grand Slam adversity, having twice come back from two sets down as recently as last year’s French Open.
The second of those stunning recoveries was in the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas.
After Tuesday’s bathroom break, he returned to court and grabbed a break in the fourth game of the third set as he trimmed his quarter-final deficit.
In control, the 35-year-old levelled the tie with a double break in the fourth set as Sinner took a worrying tumble on his ankle scrambling to the Center Court net.
Djokovic carved out two more breaks in the decider, the second off the back of a stunning, cross-court backhand on the stretch to go to 5-2 before calmly serving it out.
“I played well but he raised his level,” said Sinner, who had never won a grass-court match before Wimbledon.
Ninth seed Norrie got the better of 58th-ranked Goffin to make the last four of a Slam for the first time.
Left-hander Norrie said he was struggling at the start of the match, admitting he was forced to dig deep.
“It was all just adrenaline, using my legs and trying to put the ball in the court, and it’s great to get over the line,” he said.
Norrie, the first British man to reach the Wimbledon semifinals since Andy Murray in 2016, said he was going to “take it” to top seed Djokovic.
The result was tough on Goffin, who made the quarter-finals on his last appearance at Wimbledon in 2019.
The Belgian hit more winners, 49 to 38, and won more points, with his 151 trumping Norrie’s 145.
Jabeur, the only top 15 seed to make the last-eight in the women’s tournament, battled back to see off 66th-ranked Bouzkova of the Czech Republic.
The Tunisian was broken twice as she lost the first set but lost only two games after that to power to a 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 win.
Jabeur described semifinal opponent Maria as her “barbecue buddy.”
“It’s going to be tough to play her, she is a great friend,” she said.
“I am really happy she is in a semifinal — look at her now, she is in a semifinal after having two babies. It is an amazing story.”
Maria, 34, who saved two match points in the previous round against Jelena Ostapenko, made her Grand Slam debut in 2007 and had never progressed beyond the third round at a major before this year’s Wimbledon.
“I have goosebumps everywhere,” said the world number 103, who returned from maternity leave just under a year ago.
“My two little girls, it’s a dream to live this with my family, to live this with my two girls. Almost one year ago I gave birth, it’s crazy.”
The remaining quarter-finals take place on Wednesday.
In the men’s event, Rafael Nadal faces Taylor Fritz of the United States while Nick Kyrgios takes on Chile’s Cristian Garin.
Simona Halep, the 2019 women’s champion, tackles Amanda Anisimova of the United States while Ajla Tomljanovic takes on big-serving Elena Rybakina.


Wimbledon quarterfinalist Kyrgios due in court in Australia

Wimbledon quarterfinalist Kyrgios due in court in Australia
Updated 05 July 2022

Wimbledon quarterfinalist Kyrgios due in court in Australia

Wimbledon quarterfinalist Kyrgios due in court in Australia
  • Attorney Pierre Johannessen wrote that “the allegations are not considered as fact” by the court
  • The Canberra Times reported that Kyrgios is supposed to appear in court on Aug. 2

WIMBLEDON, England: Wimbledon quarterfinalist Nick Kyrgios is due in court back home in Australia next month.
A lawyer representing him said Tuesday the “precise nature of” the allegations “is neither certain at this moment nor confirmed by either the prosecution or” the 27-year-old professional tennis player.
“While Mr. Kyrgios is committed to addressing any and all allegations once clear, taking the matter seriously does not warrant any misreading of the process Mr. Kyrgios is required to follow,” attorney Pierre Johannessen wrote in a statement emailed to the media.
Johannessen wrote that “the allegations are not considered as fact” by the court, and Kyrgios is not “considered charged” with an offense until a first appearance in court.
The Canberra Times reported that Kyrgios is supposed to appear in court on Aug. 2. The newspaper cited local police as saying that a 27-year-old Australian man is involved in a case about “common assault following an incident in December 2021.”
Canberra police did not immediately respond to an after-hours request for comment emailed by The Associated Press.
Kyrgios is scheduled to play Cristian Garin at Wimbledon on Wednesday. It’s the third Grand Slam quarterfinal of the Australian’s career — he is 0-2 in the others — and first in 7 1/2 years.
An ATP spokesperson said: “The ATP is aware of the Australian case involving Nick Kyrgios but as legal proceedings are ongoing it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”


Christophe Galtier latest coach to try his hand at PSG job that Zidane shunned

Christophe Galtier latest coach to try his hand at PSG job that Zidane shunned
Updated 05 July 2022

Christophe Galtier latest coach to try his hand at PSG job that Zidane shunned

Christophe Galtier latest coach to try his hand at PSG job that Zidane shunned
  • The former Real Madrid coach was most people's first choice to replace Mauricio Pochettino

It’s official, Christophe Galtier is the new PSG coach. The latest man tasked with bringing home the club’s Holy Grail, the Champions League.

The former Nice coach will arrive in the French capital for around $10m, meaning the club has made loss of $20m euros on their managerial change after Mauricio Pochettino’s $10m compensation.

Galtier has been a thorn in PSG’s side in the last two years. In 2021, the 55-year-old took away the Ligue 1 title from the Parisians after a spectacular season with Lille.

This year, PSG were eliminated by Nice in the round of 16 of the Coupe de France, in addition to drawing in Ligue 1 at Parc des Princes and losing 1-0 in the return match played at Allianz Rivera.

The former Lille manager has gone five straight games without conceding a goal against PSG in what is a record since Qatar took over the team's management in 2011.

Paris Saint-Germain is not an easy club to coach, arguably the toughest in the world considering the expectations. Just winning the French title is not enough and failure in the Champions League almost certainly gets you fired.

Just look at Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentinian was able to win a Coupe de France title and a Ligue 1 title, but was still sacked despite still having a year on his contract.

Before Galtier became the latest chosen one, one man’s shadow was ineveitably cast over proceedings; Zinedine Zidane

And despite Nasser Al-Khelaifi having told “Le Parisien” newspaper several weeks ago that “we never spoke to him, either directly or indirectly”, Zidane was the primary choice from the start to replace Pochettino. The former Real Madrid coach, however, doesn't see the Paris Saint-Germain bench as an ideal place to work and develop his methods, having witnessed the fate other coaches who came before him.

They needn’t have bothered talking to him. They already knew the answer.

Zidane is very clear about where he wants to be, where he can feel fulfilled, free and happy. And right now, that is not PSG.

With a star-filled squad that includes Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar at his disposal, it would have been easy for Zidane to accept the job. But the financial riches  - both for himself and to spend on the team - is no longer the sweet deal it was. As Pochettino found out, you often seem to be managing an unmotivated group of players who only have eyes for the Champions League.

Winning Ligue 1 at canter does not guarantee a club that is united and committed, that tactical discipline. Pochettino is another one who will leave with a feeling of failure that is arguably not his fault. It is yet another case of a coach overcome by the power that the players have, and especially the team’s biggest stars.

This project is not, for now, the right one for Zidane. Several coaches passed through the club, some of them his friends, and all have left unsatisfied, unfulfilled and very often unloved.

The list is long. Laurent Blanc, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Thomas Tuchel, and now Pochettino. All arrived with the illusion and ambition of building a solid and lasting project and left disenchanted.

Zidane's profile - calm, charismatic and French - fits the criteria  for the management of PSG perfectly. It’s PSG's profile that doesn’t fit.

Unlike Christophe Galtier, Zidane has urgent desire to be European champion. He remains the coach who won three consecutive Champions Leagues, and in very recent memory.

Any new coach at PSG knew he would be surrounded by by Messi, Neymar, Mbappé, Sergio Ramos, Marco Verratti and many others. All very good players, but many of them worn out, and Zidane hardly needs the headache of managing the decline of some of those stars.

Zidane knows all of this, so it's really not the time for him to try his hand at football’s poisoned chalice. Not yet at least.

For now, the burden is all Galtier's.

 


Police probe racism claims after fan abuse at England-India Test

Police probe racism claims after fan abuse at England-India Test
Updated 05 July 2022

Police probe racism claims after fan abuse at England-India Test

Police probe racism claims after fan abuse at England-India Test
  • The Bharat Army said "many" of its members at the Edgbaston ground had been targeted by "a very small minority" in Monday's fourth day of play
  • Inquiries are being made to identify an alleged offender whose image was circulated on social media

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom: Police have launched an investigation after India fans claimed they were racially abused during England’s fifth Test victory in Birmingham.
The Bharat Army, the official India supporters’ club, said “many” of its members at the Edgbaston ground had been targeted by “a very small minority” in Monday’s fourth day of play.
A post on the group’s Twitter account read: “Sad to say many of our members experienced racist abuse from a very small minority of individuals. We will work with @Edgbaston to share all your feedback.
“Thank you to those England fans who stood by us.”
West Midlands Police on Tuesday said they were liaising with officials at Edgbaston to understand what happened.
Inquiries are being made to identify an alleged offender whose image was circulated on social media.
The England and Wales Cricket Board said: “We are very concerned to hear reports of racist abuse at today’s Test match. We are in contact with colleagues at Edgbaston, who will investigate. There is no place for racism in cricket.”
Stuart Cain, chief executive at Edgbaston, added: “I’m gutted by these reports as we’re working hard to make Edgbaston a safe, welcoming environment for all.
“Having seen the initial tweets, I’ve spoken personally to the gentleman who raised them and we’re now speaking to the stewards in this area to establish what happened.
“Nobody should be subject to any form of abuse at Edgbaston. So, once we’ve got all the facts, we will make sure this issue is addressed swiftly.”
Former Yorkshire spinner Azeem Rafiq retweeted a thread detailing some of the alleged incidents along with the comment: “Disappointing to read.”
His evidence to a parliamentary select committee last year sparked an investigation into his claims of institutional racism at Yorkshire which resulted in ECB charges and major reforms.
England won the fifth Test on Tuesday’s final day after centuries from Yorkshire pair Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow.