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)
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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.


Popovici on top of the word after record-setting effort in 100m freestyle

Popovici on top of the word after record-setting effort in 100m freestyle
Updated 6 sec ago

Popovici on top of the word after record-setting effort in 100m freestyle

Popovici on top of the word after record-setting effort in 100m freestyle
  • The 17-year-old Romanian double world champion swam 46.86sec to slice 0.05sec off the old world record set by Brazilian Cesar Cielo in the 2009 World Championships, also in Rome, in the era of buoyant body suits

ROME: David Popovici reacted with “euphoria” after swimming the “best race I ever did” to break the men’s 100m freestyle world record at the European Championships in Rome on Saturday.

“It’s nice being able to say that I am the fastest to ever do it,” Popovici said.

The 17-year-old Romanian double world champion swam 46.86sec to slice 0.05sec off the old mark set by Brazilian Cesar Cielo in the 2009 World Championships, also in Rome, in the era of buoyant body suits.

“It was great and it’s very special to break this record that was set here in 2009 by Cesar Cielo,” Popovici added.

Popovici clearly enjoyed the moment.

“That was euphoria just kicking in. Simply that.”

“There’s not really a lot of adjectives I can give on how I’m feeling. I’m simply just happy,” said Popovici, who speaks faultless and exuberant English.

The fastest time in a textile suit had been 46.96 set by American Olympic champion Caeleb Dressel at the 2019 World Championships.

“I planned to go very fast and I planned to have fun and that was really about it,” said Popovici.

“It hurt, but it’s still worth it and I feel good now.”

Hungary’s Kristof Milak, the world record holder in the 200m butterfly, was second in 47.47 with Italy’s Alessandro Miressi third 47.63.

“Right now, I’m in the world record club,” Popovici said.

“Just after I finished, Kristof Milak said to me welcome to the club.”

Asked if he had swum the perfect race, Popovici replied: “I think so, yeah.”

But then he added: “Well my coach has to decide that but for the moment I think it’s probably the best race I ever did.

Popovici had eased into the final on Friday with a new European record of 46.98 seconds.

“Yesterday I said that the European record was just a step in the right direction, and I was right,” Popovici said.

In June, Popovici became the first man to complete the 100-200m freestyle double at the World Championships in nearly 50 years.

In Rome, he is also entered in the 200m which starts on Sunday and 400m which begins on Wednesday but refused to predict any more world records.

“I think I still like the 200 more but I have to get a little bit closer to the world record maybe not tomorrow, maybe not the day after tomorrow but I have a lot of time, so there is no rush,” said Popovici, who is expected to compete in the world junior championships in Peru starting at the end of August.

Another 17-year-old world champion also added European gold on Saturday.

Italian Benedetta Pilato won the women’s 100m breaststroke in 1:05.97, more than a second-and-half outside the world record set by American Lilly King in 2017.

Pilato was followed home by compatriot Lisa Angiolini and Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte, the 50m world champion.

Swedish veteran Sarah Sjostrom won the women’s 50m butterfly gold for the fifth time in 24.96. The 28-year-old is the only woman to go under 25 seconds in the event in a 50m pool.

France’s Marie Wattel won silver with Maaike de Waard of the Netherlands third.

Frenchman Yohann Ndoye Brouard won the opening final of the evening when he took the men’s 200m backstroke in 1 min 55.62 sec.

He beat Hungary’s Benedek Kovacs and England’s Luke Greenbank.

Viktoria Milhalyvari-Farkas, an 18-year-old, led a Hungarian one-two in the women’s 400m individual medley ahead of Zsuzsanna Jakabos with Freya Colbert of Britain third.

Italian Gregorio Paltrinieri dominated the men’s 800m freestyle ahead of German Lukas Martens and a second Italian Lorenzo Galossi.

The British ended the evening by edging the Swedes and the Dutch to win the women’s 400x100m freestyle relay.


New-look Barcelona held 0-0 by Rayo in Lewandowski’s debut

New-look Barcelona held 0-0 by Rayo in Lewandowski’s debut
Updated 46 min 54 sec ago

New-look Barcelona held 0-0 by Rayo in Lewandowski’s debut

New-look Barcelona held 0-0 by Rayo in Lewandowski’s debut
  • Fittingly, given their poor finish to the match, Barcelona ended with 10 men after Sergio Busquets got a second booking in stoppage time when he swung his arm into the face of Rayo substitute Radamel Falcao

BARCELONA, Spain: Barcelona mortgaged its financial future to give Xavi Hernández the talent he wanted.
But Rayo Vallecano showed Xavi he still has work to do to forge a winning team after his new-look Barcelona was held to a 0-0 draw on Saturday in their Spanish league opener.
The modest club from Madrid frustrated Robert Lewandowski and his fellow Barcelona newcomers by defending well and producing the most dangerous scoring threats. As the minutes ticked by, the energy drained from the 81,000-strong Camp Nou crowd that had turned out to cheer the team that was only made possible by the constroversial decision by club president Joan Laporta to sell off television rights and other assets in exchange for some much needed cash.
The biggest applause Lewandowski heard from the crowd was to show their appreciation for his hustle on defense late in the match with Barcelona stymied in attack. The closest the former Bayern Munich star went to scoring was a header flicked well over the bar in the first half.
Fittingly, given its poor finish to the match, Barcelona ended with 10 men after Sergio Busquets got a second booking in stoppage time when he swung his arm into the face of Rayo substitute Radamel Falcao. Busquets’ explusion will rule him out of Barcelona’s visit to Real Sociedad. Falcao then had what looked to be a winner waived away for offside as Rayo went close to claiming a third straight win over Barcelona after it stunned the Catalan club twice last season.
“It is too bad because we wanted to show our fans that we are on the right path,” Xavi said. “We had generated a lot of expectations, but this is just the beginning. Today is disappointing for every Barcelona supporter, but we have to keep our faith in this way of playing as being the right one to win titles.”
Lewandowski, winger Raphinha and defender Andreas Christensen, who also joined Barcelona this summer, all made Xavi’s starting 11. The three players along with fellow newcomer Franck Kessié and the recently re-signed Ousmane Dembélé and Sergi Roberto were only declared eligible to play by the Spanish league on Friday after Barcelona sold yet another stake in its in-house production company to improve its troubled financial balance.
The delicate state of Barcelona’s finances meant that it was unable to register Jules Koundé, its top defensive signing, in time for the season opener.
Xavi had said the demands placed on him and his team were higher this season because of the effort the club had made to give him a lot more talent after Barcelona won nothing last campaign following the exit of Lionel Messi.
But Xavi still has a way to go to create a team as well-honed as Andoni Iraola’s Rayo, which for a third meeting in a row held Barcelona without a goal. Iraola’s team, led by midfielders midfielders Isi Palazón and Óscar Trejo, erased all the passing lanes for Lewandowski. Barcelona was unable to find the answer through Raphinha and Dembélé, who both wasted the one good chance they each got.
Barcelona’s best chance came from late substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose goal-bound shot was saved by defender Alejandro Catena in the 85th.
Previously, Barcelona had needed goalie Marc-Andre Ter Stegen to keep the game scoreless.
Ter Stegen closed out quickly to block Álvaro García’s point-blank shot after the forward had streaked away down the left flank and cut back past the sliding Ronald Araújo just before halftime.
Barcelona had another scare early in the second half when Sergio Camello pounced on a ball lost by Araújo. Again Ter Stegen came to the rescue, forcing Camello into taking a shot from a narrow angle that trickled just past the far post.
“My team played tense and with nerves. I had tried to tell them that the pressure was on me,” Xavi said. “But Rayo played well and closed off our passing game. They executed their game plan.”
Iraola, a former Athletic Bilbao player who has impressed as a coach, said his team played well enough to claim another victory at Camp Nou.
“I think we played a great match. I am not satisfied because we wanted a win. It is too bad we couldn’t take the three points,” he said. “Maybe they had more chances, but we had three or four clear opportunities. I am happy for the effort of my team and for having neutralized a great rival.”


Neymar nets 2 as PSG beats Montpellier 5-2 in French league

Neymar nets 2 as PSG beats Montpellier 5-2 in French league
Updated 14 August 2022

Neymar nets 2 as PSG beats Montpellier 5-2 in French league

Neymar nets 2 as PSG beats Montpellier 5-2 in French league
  • Neymar scored twice to take his tally to three goals in two league games for the defending champion on a night when Lionel Messi was held scoreless

PARIS: Neymar and Paris Saint-Germain’s high-powered attack put on another impressive display in a 5-2 win over Montpellier in the French league on Saturday as Kylian Mbappe opened his account but missed a penalty in his return from a groin injury.
Neymar scored twice to take his tally to three goals in two league games for the defending champion on a night when Lionel Messi was held scoreless. The Brazil striker was also PSG’s best player in preseason friendlies as he looks to find his peak form for the World Cup in Qatar, which starts in November.
PSG also netted five goals in its league opener and Montpellier opted for a low defensive block to deny space for the hosts. But the pressure was too much for center back Falaye Sacko, who diverted Mbappe’s off-target shot into his own net in the 39th minute.
Sacko then handled the ball in the 42nd when Lionel Messi juggled the ball on a dribbling run. Neymar wrongfooted Jonas Omlin to convert the subsequent penalty for a 2-0 lead.
PSG capitalized on another blunder to add a third goal in the 51st. Mbappe blocked Omlin’s pass and found Achraf Hakimi, whose deflected cross was headed home by Neymar.
Far from his best level, Mbappe still found the net with a flick from a corner in the 69th.
“(Mbappe) is a competitor, he wants to be good, and he wants to be good quickly,” PSG coach Christophe Galtier told Canal Plus. “He needs a bit of time to be 100 percent fit. He will make even more difference when he will be 100 percent fit.”
In his PSG debut, Portugal midfielder Renato Sanches rounded off the scoring with a first-time effort in the 88th.
Omlin pulled off some outstanding saves to frustrate PSG for more than 30 minutes. The Swiss goalkeeper saved a penalty from Mbappe in the 23rd after Jordan Ferri had handled the ball. He then turned around the post a curling free kick from Messi in the 26th.
Montpellier scored with a close-range effort from Wahbi Khazri in the 58th and a half-volley from Enzo Tchato in stoppage time.
Earlier, Rennes’ defensive issues were exposed as it squandered the lead to draw 1-1 with 10-man Monaco.
In a clash between two contenders for European spots, Monaco forward Breel Embolo pounced on a heavy touch from goalkeeper Dogan Alemdar to equalize with a sliding effort in the 73rd.
Rennes striker Gaetan Laborde opened the scoring by converting a rebound in the 59th.
Monaco was down to 10 men in the 15th when midfielder Youssouf Fofana was red-carded for a stamp on Martin Terrier’s ankle.
“We are extremely disappointed,” Laborde said. “When you play with 11 men against 10 almost the entire game, you must come away with three points. It was tense in the dressing room.”
Despite its numerical superiority, Rennes looked shaky at the back. Embolo proved a magnet for fouls and Joe Rodon and Arthur Theate were booked for holding the forward in the 21st and the 23rd, respectively.
Steve Mandanda also received a yellow card in the 31st for catching Embolo in the face while attempting to punch the ball away. The Rennes goalkeeper made amends by stopping the subsequent penalty taken by Axel Disasi before denying Krepin Diatta in the 36th.
However, Mandanda picked up a knock and was replaced by Alemdar at halftime.
Monaco goalkeeper Alexander Nubel helped salvage a point by turning Baptiste Santamaria’s long-range strike around the post in the 27th and parrying a close-range header from Terrier in the 28th.


Lukaku nets seconds into Inter return at Lecce

Lukaku nets seconds into Inter return at Lecce
Updated 13 August 2022

Lukaku nets seconds into Inter return at Lecce

Lukaku nets seconds into Inter return at Lecce
  • Belgium forward Lukaku nodded home from close range with just 81 seconds gone to give Inter the lead
  • The 29-year-old had the easiest task to open his account for the campaign

LECCE, Italy: Romelu Lukaku made a dream start to his return to Inter Milan on Saturday after scoring less than two minutes into the Serie A club’s season opener at Lecce.
Belgium forward Lukaku nodded home from close range with just 81 seconds gone to give Inter the lead at the Stadio Via del mare as they begin their bid to reclaim the Scudetto from local rivals AC Milan, 4-2 winners over Udinese earlier on Saturday.
The 29-year-old had the easiest task to open his account for the campaign after Matteo Darmian knocked Federico Dimarco’s cross straight into his path.
Lukaku reportedly took a pay cut to 8.5 million euros for the coming campaign to get out of Chelsea.
He performed poorly in England and enraged Chelsea fans by saying in an interview with Sky Sport Italia that he wanted to return to Inter, where he won the Serie A title in 2021 and scored 64 times in 95 games over two years.
That move came sooner than expected, with Inter paying an initial eight million euros plus a potential three million in bonuses for the loan.
Italian media report that Inter and Chelsea have a gentleman’s agreement that the loan could be extended for another season should the move work out.
After the deal was done his lawyer Sebastien Ledure said that “anything can happen” between now and the end of next season.


’Emotional’ Werner scores for Leipzig on Bundesliga return

’Emotional’ Werner scores for Leipzig on Bundesliga return
Updated 13 August 2022

’Emotional’ Werner scores for Leipzig on Bundesliga return

’Emotional’ Werner scores for Leipzig on Bundesliga return
  • Leipzig played the majority of the game with 10 men
  • Leipzig's record goal-scorer Timo Werner put his side ahead in the 36th minute

BERLIN: Former Chelsea striker Timo Werner found the back of the net on an emotional return to Leipzig, but it was not enough to secure their first win of the season as Cologne snatched a 2-2 draw on Saturday.
Leipzig played the majority of the game with 10 men, after Hungary midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai received a straight red card for an elbow to the throat of Cologne’s Florian Kainz just before half time.
Werner left Leipzig for London in 2020 before returning earlier this week in a £25 million ($30.2 million, 29.5 million euros) deal.
Leipzig’s record goal-scorer put his side ahead in the 36th minute, when goalkeeper Marvin Schwaebe let Werner’s long-distance strike dip under his body and trickle across the line.
Cologne equalized just four minutes later however, when striker Florian Dietz dinked in from close range to chalk up his first ever Bundesliga goal.
French forward Christopher Nkunku gave the home side the lead in the 56th minute, but Cologne were able to equalize with 20 minutes to go through a clumsy own goal from Leipzig’s Josko Gvardiol.
After the game, Werner — who was subbed off to warm applause in the 68th minute — said he was “very emotional” to return.
“It was something special for me, to return after two years.”
“Leipzig is always a part of me. I grew up here and I got my first Germany call up here.”
The 26-year-old, however, was less enamoured of the result which means Leipzig have drawn their opening two matches.
“When you see how we’ve lost points this season, it’s really bitter.
“Considering we were playing with a man down for so long, 2-2 is acceptable, but for our aims (this season), it’s far from satisfactory,” he said.
In Saturday’s late game, Schalke secured a last-minute 2-2 draw with Borussia Moenchengladbach when Marius Buelter converted a penalty in injury time.
Schalke opened the scoring in the 29th minute thanks to a stunning solo goal from Rodrigo Zalazar, who dribbled the ball from halfway before scoring via a long-range strike from the edge of the penalty box.
Jonas Hofmann — fresh off a midweek contract extension — skidded the ball over the line in the 27th minute, before France’s Marcus Thuram put Gladbach in front just six minutes later.
Gladbach winger Patrick Herrmann was adjudged to have handballed in the penalty area in injury time, giving Buelter the chance to convert from the spot.
Schalke striker Simon Terodde summed up his side’s emotional full-time celebrations.
“The people here — they’ve missed us,” he said.
“It’s beautiful that we could give them a point in the 93rd minute.”
Werder Bremen snatched a late point at home against Stuttgart through a 95th minute goal from Scottish winger Oliver Burke.
Bremen’s two-pronged attack of Niclas Fuellkrug and Marvin Ducksch again combined, putting the home side in the fourth minute.
Stuttgart equalized in the 38th minute through Wataru Endo and took the lead with just over ten to play through Silas Katompa Mvumpa, before Burke won a point for Bremen late.
Augsburg won 2-1 away at Bayer Leverkusen thanks to an 82nd minute goal from Andre Hahn, deepening the winless Leverkusen’s woes after their early German Cup exit.
In the German capital, under pressure Hertha Berlin drew 1-1 with Eintracht Frankfurt. Frankfurt had a late penalty overturned on VAR and Hertha held on to pick up their first point of the season.
In Sinsheim, Hoffenheim came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against an impressive Bochum, thanks to goals from former Liverpool defender Ozan Kabak, Christoph Baumgartner and an 88th minute header from Munas Dabbur.
On Friday, Dortmund scored three goals in the last 15 minutes away at Freiburg to win 3-1.
On Sunday, Wolfsburg travel to Bayern Munich while Mainz are at home to Union Berlin.