5 things to look out for as Saudi Pro League returns to action

5 things to look out for as Saudi Pro League returns to action
It goes without saying that after losing earlier in the week Al-Hilal have to win at home to have even the slimmest chance of catching Al-Ittihad. (File/AFP)
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Updated 06 May 2022

5 things to look out for as Saudi Pro League returns to action

5 things to look out for as Saudi Pro League returns to action
  • After a quiet April due to AFC Champions League action and Ramadan break, there are plenty of issues to be resolved at the top and bottom of the league table

It has been a stop and start season in the Saudi Professional League but it got moving again on Thursday as Al-Ahli drew 2-2 with Al-Batin and Al-Ettifaq climbed out of the bottom three by thrashing Al-Taawoun in a relegation six pointer. There is still plenty of action to come in the next few days and here are five talking points.

Only Al-Ittihad can stop Al-Ittihad winning title

With 14 wins out of their 16 last games, it is no surprise that Al-Ittihad are in control of the title race. There were eyebrows raised in Jeddah on Tuesday evening as their closest challengers, Al-Hilal, slipped up and lost to Al-Feiha — one of the defending champions’ two games in hand. It means that the Tigers have to collect just eight points from their remaining five games regardless of what Al-Hilal do. A first title since 2009 is within reach and defeating Al-Fateh will be a massive step towards the championship.

While Al-Hilal have been busy in Asia, Al-Ittihad have played a couple of friendlies and should be fit and raring to go. Long-time absentee Ahmed Hegazi is finally back. The Egyptian centre-back, perhaps the best in the league, hasn’t played since picking up an injury in the African Cup of Nations in January, but is fit again. With the cushion that the leaders have, coach Cosmin Contra may not bring the 31-year-old straight into the team and can afford to be patient. He also has a wealth of attacking options.

It is looking very good and the only team that can stop Al-Ittihad is Al-Ittihad. They are almost there and just have to keep their nerve against a team that theoretically is not safe from relegation on paper but in practice does not have much to play for.

Al-Faisaly need to bring Asian form to the league

The men from Dammam took a break from their relegation scrap to finish top of their Asian Champions League group last month, finishing above big guns such as Al-Sadd. It was an impressive achievement and should boost their confidence as they look to preserve their top-flight status. Their league form had improved with seven points coming from the last three games but they are just two points above the drop zone and need to be careful.

New signing Martin Boyle impressed in Asia and the Australian winger provides another outlet for a team that sometimes has problems finding the target. If Boyle can maintain his early promise and the backline, which conceded just four times in six Asian games, can stay tight, then all should be well.

The Riyadh derby is a big one

It is hard to know which is better preparation for the final few games of the season. Is it better to do what Al-Shabab did and play six games in the Asian Champions League? Or to rest and play some friendlies, as Al-Nassr have done? As things stand Al-Nassr are third and Al-Shabab fourth, just a point behind. After Al-Hilal’s defeat, the winner of this game will go into second place.

Al-Shabab’s form at home prior to the continental action was a little patchy, but under new coach Marius Sumudica they return to league action full of confidence after collecting 16 points out of 18, more than any other in the group stage. That should stand the team in good stead heading into this major clash.

Al-Nassr are likely to provide a tougher test than the recent Asian ones, however. They may be without star striker Vincent Aboubakar due to injury and there are doubts as to whether Uruguayan forward Jonathan Rodriguez will be fit but there is still plenty of talent in the yellow ranks. It should be quite a game.

Big game for Al-Hilal and Damac

It goes without saying that after losing earlier in the week Al-Hilal have to win at home to have even the slimmest chance of catching Al-Ittihad. The clash is not all about the Asian champions, however. It is a massive one for Damac who will want to end an amazing season on a high. They are going to finish at least fifth and achieve their highest finish in the league, though they are not going to match those heady days a third of the way through the season when they were top.

A run of just two wins in 10 saw the team slide out of the top four but they have recovered to win four of the last five with the one defeat coming against the leaders. There is still a faint chance of getting back into the top four as they are only five points behind Al-Shabab. But the important thing is to end the season with a good run of form and start building for the next campaign.

Relegation scrap is one of the fiercest ever

There are plenty of leagues around the world that are approaching the final stretches of the season. Few though can have the kind of intense bottom half battle that is going on in Saudi Arabia.

With most teams having five games left, it is theoretically possible for any outside the top five to go down. That is unlikely but any of the eight teams in the bottom half of the table could be in for the dreaded drop. Al-Raed are in ninth and just four points clear of trouble. They can’t relax. Only Al-Hazm are cut adrift at the bottom. It would be a brave person indeed who predicted which two of the other seven clubs will join them in the second tier. The great thing for the neutral is that a lot of these teams are playing each other in the coming games so the drama should continue right until the end.


Gabaski contract dispute places Al-Nassr in spot of bother

Gabaski contract dispute places Al-Nassr in spot of bother
Updated 16 sec ago

Gabaski contract dispute places Al-Nassr in spot of bother

Gabaski contract dispute places Al-Nassr in spot of bother
  • Al-Nassr risk transfer ban if Egyptian goalkeeper takes legal action
  • Rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad currently cannot sign players

The Saudi Professional League may currently be between seasons but the big clubs in the competition are never far away from the headlines.

Defending champions Al-Hilal are unable to sign new players in the current transfer window. Al-Ittihad are not only preparing for the new season and trying to improve on their second place in the league, but must do so with the knowledge that they will be unable to add players in January’s transfer market.

The common denominator in those two situations is Al-Nassr, the team that finished third last season. Al-Hilal midfielder Mohamed Kanno was found to have signed a contract with both Riyadh clubs, hence the punishment. Al-Ittihad’s ban came in early August after a dispute over Abderrazak Hamdallah. He was found guilty of, among other things, of conspiring to leave Al-Nassr who cancelled his contract in November. In January he joined Al-Ittihad and is now banned for four months.

It all meant that Al-Nassr were having an excellent time. Not only are their rivals dealing with issues, the nine-time champions have been busy this summer, starting with the appointment of former Lyon, Roma and Marseille boss Rudi Garcia, and signing stars such as Ivorian international Ghislane Konan, Luiz Gustavo of Brazil and David Ospina, the Colombian goalkeeper, from Napoli.

That last signing could be the reason behind the potentially tricky situation that Al-Nassr now find themselves in. It is the kind of situation that could end up in a similar transfer punishment coming their way.

It started at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon last January, all because of an injury to Egypt’s first choice goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy. The replacement for the Al-Ahly star was Mohamed Abou Gabal. The Zamalek glovesman, also known as Gabaski, went on to become one of the stars of the tournament and played a major role as the Pharaohs reached the final. His performance in the penalty shootout victory over Cameroon in the semifinal — including sticking information about the hosts’ kickers on his water bottle — made headlines around the world.

The 33-year-old also excelled in the final, though this time Senegal triumphed on penalties. As soon as he returned back to Cairo, there were reports of interest with Al-Nassr making the strongest enquiries, so much so that Gabaski believes that a deal was done and a contract was signed.

“The player was keen on joining Al-Nassr’s pre-season preparations as he repeatedly asked through his lawyer to obtain an entry visa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and issue travel tickets to join the team,” Echo Content Sports, which represents the goalkeeper, said in a statement released last weekend.

“However, he was surprised by the official response that the club does not recognize the contract concluded between the two parties and that it is invalid for reasons we deem as illogical.”

The agency called Al-Nassr’s proposed settlement deal as being “insufficient.”

Now it seems that unless the situation changes, the player is ready to take his grievance to the world governing body.

“Accordingly, we will refer the matter to FIFA’s relevant court, demand the full payment stipulated in the contract and demand compensation because of the damages caused by Al-Nassr club.”

Sources close to the player believe that the arrival of Garcia changed Al-Nassr’s plan. With former Arsenal goalkeeper Ospina now between the sticks, the Egyptian, whose form since the Africa Cup of Nations has been erratic enough that he has lost his club spot to Mohamed Awad, was no longer seen as necessary.

Al-Nassr, however, dispute that a valid deal was ever made.

“Both parties agreed on a contract starting from August 1, based on the information provided by the player and his agent that his contract with Zamalek ended on July 1, 2022,” the club said in a statement, in reply to Gabaski’s claims.

“The information received by the club meant that the player cannot join us on a free transfer on the aforementioned date and that he will remain bound to a contract with Zamalek club until August 30, 2022.

“The player and his agent were contacted and they were asked to provide evidence that the player is available on a free transfer and is not bound to any other contract on that date but no proof was sent, and insisted that the information they provided was correct.

“After giving the player and his agent sufficient time to amend his legal status, Al-Nassr notified the player that what had been agreed upon is void and has no legal effect. Al-Nassr Football Club cannot be tied to a contract with any player that results in a serious legal violation.”

At present, the two camps have differing versions of events. It is expected that, unless Al-Nassr make an improved offer, then Gabaski will turn to FIFA.

Nobody knows what the outcome would be but if it results in Al-Nassr being unable to register new players for a while, they would at least be in good company. Officials at Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad will surely be taking a close interest.


Gamers8 launches $3m PUBG MOBILE World Invitational

Gamers8 launches $3m PUBG MOBILE World Invitational
Updated 33 min 25 sec ago

Gamers8 launches $3m PUBG MOBILE World Invitational

Gamers8 launches $3m PUBG MOBILE World Invitational
  • Hopes high for hometown heroes Team Falcons to reach final

RIYADH: Gamers8 enters the fifth and final phase of its calendar as the second annual PUBG MOBILE World Invitational gets underway on Thursday live from Boulevard Riyadh City.

First introduced in 2018 by world-famous video game developer Lightspeed & Quantum, PUBG MOBILE has since gone on to become a global gaming phenomenon. It is published in over 200 countries and downloaded over a billion times, with 50 million daily active users and an envious status as the most watched mobile esports game on the planet.

Over the next nine days, elite PUBG MOBILE teams will enter the state-of-the-art arena and battle it out for their share of the $3 million prize pool. Split into two parts, the main tournament — running for three days beginning today — welcomes 17 regional champions and one homegrown representative, with $2 million in waiting for the victors. The objective is to parachute onto the remote island and remain as the last player or team standing — competing alone or in teams of two or four to secure victory and glory.

Ahmed Albishri, chief operating officer of the Saudi Esports Federation, said: “Gamers8 thus far has been nothing short of remarkable, captivating attendees, inspiring audiences, crowning new champions, and making dreams come true for the latest generation of world-class Esports competitors. This journey has, however, by no means reached its conclusion because, as promised, PUBG Mobile has made its way to Riyadh for the biggest esports and gaming event on the planet.

“Expectations are understandably high among players, teams, and fans alike, not least due to the unprecedented success of the competitions held recently. And crucially, all the foundations are in place for the second PMWI to emulate the success of late while etching its place in esports history.”

Heading into week one of the main tournament, hopes will be high for hometown heroes Team Falcons, who have regularly competed throughout Gamers8 — reaching the final of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege — and now go up against 17 of the world’s best. Meanwhile, the Afterparty Showdown — the week two tournament taking place from Aug. 18 to 20 — will see teams competing for the remaining $1 million on offer. The Afterparty Showdown lineup will comprise the top five teams from week one, alongside six teams chosen from different regions, and one given a special invitation to compete.

James Yang, director of PUBG MOBILE, Global Esports, commented: “This year’s PUBG MOBILE World Invitational is set to be the biggest and best yet. This is our second annual world invitational, and we are excited to bring a new format of the event to the region which showcases the unique community spirit that PUBG MOBILE Esports and its talented teams have created.”

With the world’s best teams set to compete in front of a live crowd at the PMWI, fans around the world are excited for the event kickoff. Fans in Saudi will be able to enjoy the thrilling gameplay and electric atmosphere live and in-person from Boulevard Riyadh City. Alternatively, the event is being live streamed on official Gamers8 channels.


Saudi sports minister meets with OIC's Secretary General in Turkey

Saudi sports minister meets with OIC's Secretary General in Turkey
Updated 11 August 2022

Saudi sports minister meets with OIC's Secretary General in Turkey

Saudi sports minister meets with OIC's Secretary General in Turkey

TURKEY, Konya: Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal has met with the secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on the sidelines of the 5th Islamic Solidarity Games where Saudi athletes are representing the Kingdom in Turkey, state news agency (SPA) reported.

The prince discussed preparations for the next session of the Conference of Ministers of Youth, which will be hosted in Jeddah in September with Hissein Brahim Taha.

They reviewed ways to enhance bilateral cooperation between the OIC, the Saudi Ministry of Sports and the Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation (ISSF).

Taha praised efforts of the ISSF, under the leadership of Al-Faisal, in enhancing the capabilities of youth and sports in the Islamic world.


Serena says goodbye to Canada after defeat by Bencic

Serena says goodbye to Canada after defeat by Bencic
Updated 11 August 2022

Serena says goodbye to Canada after defeat by Bencic

Serena says goodbye to Canada after defeat by Bencic
  • Williams didn’t specify an actual retirement date but is expected to compete next week in Cincinnati before traveling to the US Open, which starts on Aug. 29

TORONTO: Serena Williams, who said this week she will soon call time on her storied tennis career, departed the WTA Toronto Masters for the last time Wednesday with a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Belinda Bencic.

The second-round defeat by Switzerland’s reigning Olympic gold medallist was hardly unexpected, with the 40-year-old Williams competing in only her third match of 2022.

Bencic fired eight aces and broke Williams twice in the first set and once in the second, advancing on her first match point after 78 minutes.

But as Bencic herself said in the post-match interview on court: “Tonight is about her.”

Williams’s farewell on-court interview was threaded with emotion.

“I love playing here, I’ve always loved playing here,” she said, choking up as fans who cheered her throughout the match called out their appreciation.

“I wish I could have played better tonight, but Belinda was playing so well.”

Williams, who turns 41 next month, had beaten Spain’s Nuria Parrizas Diaz on Monday for her first singles victory since the 2021 French Open, 14 months ago.

But it sent shockwaves through the sport when she revealed in an essay in Vogue magazine and an Instagram post on Tuesday that “the countdown has begun” to her retirement from the sport.

Williams didn’t specify an actual retirement date but is expected to compete next week in Cincinnati before traveling to the US Open, which starts on Aug. 29.

She has lifted the US Open title six times, including her first Grand Slam triumph at the age of 17 in 1999.

“It’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours,” said Williams, who remains one shy of the all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles won by Margaret Court.

“Like I said in my article, I’m terrible at goodbyes,” she said, her voice breaking.

“But, goodbye,” she said, then adding with a laugh “Toronto.”

“I’ve always had an amazing time here on and off the court,” Williams said. “I’ve had some really good matches and some really cool wins.

“It’s been a joy playing here all of those years.”

Williams’s match was preceded by a video tribute played for fans. Before she left the court she was presented with jerseys from the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs — and with a child’s version of the same for daughter Olympia.

In explaining that she was “evolving away” from tennis in the Vogue article, Williams said she wanted to focus on family life and new business ventures.

Her appearance highlighted a day that saw US teenager Coco Gauff — who says Williams was “the reason why I play tennis” — overcome 13 double-faults to battle past Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and into the third round.

Gauff beat Rybakina 6-4, 6-7 (8/10), 7-6 (7/3) while world No. 1 Iga Swiatek — who beat Gauff in the French Open final this year — sailed past Australian Ajla Tomljanovic 6-1, 6-2 in 55 minutes.

Gauff lost out on four chances to close out a straight-sets victory as a quartet of match points came and went.

Kazakhstan’s Rybakina, aided by Gauff’s service struggles, had looked as if she might pull off another marathon victory after squeezing past Marie Bouzkova in the first round only for Gauff to finally prevail.

Swiatek, in contrast, needed just 55 minutes to advance. The top-seeded Pole, with six titles this season, saved six of the nine break points she faced.

“From the first practice I played here I felt really good,” Swiatek said.

Defending champion Camila Giorgi made it to the third round with a 6-3, 7-5 defeat of Belgian Elize Mertens. Spanish fourth seed Paula Badosa lasted for just 13 games before retiring as she trailed 7-5, 1-0 against Kazakh Yulia Putintseva.


Kyrgios stuns top-ranked Medvedev at Montreal Masters, Alcaraz ousted

Kyrgios stuns top-ranked Medvedev at Montreal Masters, Alcaraz ousted
Updated 11 August 2022

Kyrgios stuns top-ranked Medvedev at Montreal Masters, Alcaraz ousted

Kyrgios stuns top-ranked Medvedev at Montreal Masters, Alcaraz ousted
  • Both players were coming off weekend title wins, Kyrgios at the Washington 500 on Sunday and Medvedev at Los Cabos, Mexico, on Saturday

MONTREAL: Nick Kyrgios broke twice in the final set as he rallied to topple world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev in the second round of the ATP Montreal Masters on Wednesday.

Australia’s Wimbledon finalist beat Medvedev 6-7 (2/7), 6-4, 6-2 to produce his second career upset of a reigning No. 1 after ambushing Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014.

Kyrgios produced his usual on-court antics, complaining about a high bounce, hitting a ball into the stands to draw a warning and bickering with his player box in moments of tension.

But after gathering his formidable resources, the 27-year-old ranked 37th finished off the match in exactly two hours.

“This is our fourth meeting and we know each other well,” Kyrgios said. “I don’t go in looking at the rankings, just the guy in front of me.

“I had a clean objective today — play a lot of serve and volley and execute better.

“Hopefully I can keep this rolling and keep on winning. Medvedev is a machine — he’s No. 1 for a reason.”

Both players were coming off weekend title wins, Kyrgios at the Washington 500 on Sunday and Medvedev at Los Cabos, Mexico, on Saturday.

Kyrgios has won 14 of his last 15 matches to improve to 29-7 for 2022.

Medvedev lost for the 11th time in 2022, but by reaching the final at Los Cabos — where he lifted his first trophy of the season — he is assured of taking the No.1 ranking into his US Open title defense later this month.

He was barred from Wimbledon as the tournament excluded Russian and Belarussian players over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Second-seeded Carlos Alcaraz, who like Medvedev enjoyed a first-round bye, fared no better in his opening match.

American Tommy Paul spoiled the Spaniard’s Canadian debut with a 6-7 (4/7), 7-6 (9/7), 6-3 victory.

The unseeded American converted his fifth match point to seal the second-round victory in three hours and 20 minutes.

Alcaraz came into the event with two prestige Masters 1000 titles from Miami and Madrid and holding a 42-7 record this season.

But the 34th-ranked Paul claimed victory on a volley winner after holding off the Spaniard’s charge from 5-2 down in the third set. The American stayed in the match as he rallied from a 4-1 deficit in the second set to start his comeback surge.

“It was nice to finish this match at the net,” said Paul, who fired 36 winners to Alcaraz’s 33. “I did a lot of things well today.

“I played a good level of tennis, comfortable tennis. I’m happy to get through and now have to recover for tomorrow.”

Fourth seed Casper Ruud backed up his defeat earlier this season of Alex Molcan, beating the Slovakian 7-6 (7/3), 6-3 in just under two hours.

The Norwegian with three trophies so far in 2022 had to work to win the opening set after dropping serve as he tried to close it out leading 5-4.

It eventually took a tiebreaker for Ruud to prevail. He sealed his third-round place in straight sets for his 36th win of the season.

“It’s always a tough fight against him,” Ruud said.

“He’s very fast and can give everyone problems,” he added of the player coached by Novak Djokovic’s former mentor Marian Vajda.

Elsewhere, Italian Jannik Sinner needed three sets to get past Adrian Mannarino 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 while Alex de Minaur lined up an all-Aussie Thursday match against Kyrgios by defeating Grigor Dimitrov 7-6 (7/4), 7-5.