Saudi Pro League title race on again as Al-Hilal set up a crunch clash with Al-Ittihad

Saudi Pro League title race on again as Al-Hilal set up a crunch clash with Al-Ittihad
If Al-Hilal can go to Jeddah and win then anything could happen in the ensuing three games. (File/AFP)
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Updated 12 May 2022

Saudi Pro League title race on again as Al-Hilal set up a crunch clash with Al-Ittihad

Saudi Pro League title race on again as Al-Hilal set up a crunch clash with Al-Ittihad
  • A 2-0 win over Al-Ettifaq means the reigning champions can cut the gap to the leaders to three points when the top two meet on Sunday

It’s on. For a few days at least, Saudi Arabia has a title race. Al-Hilal defeated Al-Ettifaq 2-0 on Wednesday to close the gap behind long-time leaders Al-Ittihad to six points with four games of the season remaining.

In most cases that wouldn’t be cause for too much excitement but the top two meet on Sunday in a Classico that should be an occasion to remember. If Al-Hilal can go to Jeddah and win then anything could happen in the ensuing three games. If Al-Ittihad take the points then they will be virtually assured of a first title since 2009 and even a draw would surely leave the defending champions with much to do.

Wherever the trophy ends up, Jeddah or Riyadh, at the end of this month this game will not be long remembered by fans. It was a win that sets up the Classico, it was also a deserved and necessary win but there was little drama with the visitors having more than 70 percent possession and the hosts, who are fighting relegation and still just one point clear of the drop zone, looking to hit on the counter.

The first goal came on the half-hour from an unlikely source. Jang Hyun-soo headed a corner into the direction of the top corner and there was central defensive partner Ali Al-Bulaihi to nod home from close range for his second of the season. The delighted celebrations of the pair were probably the highlight of the game. Five minutes after the restart, Michael took a tumble in the area and Odion Ighalo fired home from the spot to record his 21st goal of the season and that was that.

“We controlled the match as we wanted to do,” Diaz said. “The players were tired and fatigued but stepped up when it was needed. It is an important win in the race for the league title and we will fight for that, as well as the cup until the last minute of the season.”

The Argentine was right to praise his players. Compared to Al-Ittihad’s six games in April and May, Al-Hilal have no less than 14. For such a schedule to come at the end of the season has placed demands on the team.

Missing midfielders Abdulellah Al-Malki, Mohamed Kanno, Gustavo Cuellar and Matheus Pereira, the coach went with two strikers with Ighalo and Abdullah Al-Hamdan in attack and Moussa Marega and Michael out wide. 

At least captain Salman Al-Faraj returned to the middle after missing the 4-2 win at Damac four days earlier and with long-term injury absentee Abdullah Al-Otayf coming off the bench before the hour mark, Al-Hilal were able to show their strength in depth.

“With all the absences, the coach has worked hard to prepare the substitutes,” said goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, who kept his ninth clean sheet of the season. “At Al-Hilal, everyone in the squad has to be ready to come in and do a job at any time and we showed that tonight.”

That will be tested again on Sunday. There may be some good news about the midfield but there is some bad news about the defense. Al-Bulaihi went off injured in the second half and is a serious doubt for the weekend. With Muteb Al-Mufarrij also injured, it leaves coach Diaz short on center-backs. It could be that Cuellar could slot in alongside Jang as the Colombian midfielder has played in that position at times in the past.

Al-Ittihad have the opposite issue. Their star center-back is ready to return after almost four months out. Ahmed Hegazi has not played since January’s African Cup of Nations quarter-final against Morocco when the Egyptian star went off at half-time after sustaining an abductor muscle strain. The former West Bromwich Albion star has been back in full training and is set to start the game to try and keep out some of Al-Hilal’s attacking talent, including fellow Africans Ighalo and Marega. He may well be needed after Al-Ittihad drew 4-4 with Al-Fateh last week.

Ittihad have plenty of attacking talent of their own in Romarinho, Igor Coronada and Abderrazak Hamdallah and with Al-Hilal’s absences in midfield and defense as well as home advantage, will probably start the match as favorites. For a team that has not lifted the league trophy for 13 years, it remains to be seen how that affects the Tigers. Al-Hilal have been here before, last year for example, and know what is needed to win the title. Al-Ittihad may be about to find out. Whatever happens, however, neutral fans owe the Riyadh giants their thanks for providing the league with a genuine title race — though it remains to be seen if it is still alive after Sunday.


Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz leads LIV Golf Portland Invitational

Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz leads LIV Golf Portland Invitational
Carlos Ortiz watches his tee shot on 15th hole during the first round of the LIV Golf Portland Invitational tournament. (AP)
Updated 40 min 18 sec ago

Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz leads LIV Golf Portland Invitational

Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz leads LIV Golf Portland Invitational
  • Two-time major winner Dustin Johnson, one of the series’ most prized catches, was a stroke back on 68, capping his round with an unlikely par save with a shot through the trees on his final hole, where he was well right off the tee

LOS ANGELES: The first US event in the Saudi-backed LIV Golf series teed off in Oregon on Thursday.

Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz, making his LIV Golf debut, took the lead in the 54-hole event, firing seven birdies with two bogeys in a 5-under par 67 at Pumpkin Ridge near Portland, Oregon.

Two-time major winner Dustin Johnson, one of the series’ most prized catches, was a stroke back on 68, capping his round with an unlikely par save with a shot through the trees on his final hole, where he was well right off the tee.

South Africa’s Branden Grace and Japan’s Hideto Tanihara could have joined Johnson at 4-under par, but late bogeys dropped them to tied third place alongside another LIV Golf debutant, Pat Perez.

Bannered by Johnson and Perez, the Four Aces led the team championship in the LIV Golf Portland Invitational by two shots at seven-under par. The champion team in London, the all-South African squad of Stinger, were second at -5.

Aussie Wade Ormsby was the best placed Asian Tour member, tied sixth at two-under par alongside four-time major champion Brooks Koepka and South African Hennie du Plessis.

“I hit a few of them close on my first nine, but that is the difficult half of the golf course. I just played steady and made a few birdies coming in,” said Ormsby, captain of the all-Australian Punches team this week and winner of three titles on the Asian Tour, including two Hong Kong Opens.


5 players, $1.1 billion: NBA free agency starts with a bang

5 players, $1.1 billion: NBA free agency starts with a bang
Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets agreed Thursday to a $264 supermax extension. (AP)
Updated 01 July 2022

5 players, $1.1 billion: NBA free agency starts with a bang

5 players, $1.1 billion: NBA free agency starts with a bang
  • Five players — Jokic, Beal, Towns, Booker and Morant — had more than $1.1 billion in money committed to them in their new deals, highlighting the moves made Thursday when the NBA’s annual free-agent negotiating window opened

NEW YORK: The NBA generated more basketball-related income than ever this past season, the total number coming up just short of $9 billion.

Business is good. The first night of free agency underscored how good.

Nikola Jokic agreed to the biggest contract in NBA history, Bradley Beal agreed to a deal worth a quarter-billion dollars, and the money just kept flowing. 

Shortly after midnight Friday in the Eastern time zone, three more players — Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker and Ja Morant — also agreed to huge-money extensions.

Towns and Booker agreed to four-year deals that will commence in 2024 and are worth at least $224 million, their agent, Jessica Holtz of CAA, said. Morant will sign his first rookie extension, one that’ll be worth at least $193 million and could reach the $230 million range, according to Tandem Sports, which represents him.

Those five players — Jokic, Beal, Towns, Booker and Morant — had more than $1.1 billion in money committed to them in their new deals, highlighting the moves made Thursday when the NBA’s annual free-agent negotiating window opened.

Jokic agreed to a supermax extension to remain with the Denver Nuggets, the two-time reigning MVP guaranteeing himself at least $264 million over five seasons starting with the 2023-24 campaign. The final number may go up slightly depending on what the league’s salary cap is going into the ‘23-24 season and if it exceeds current projections.

Beal will make $251 million over the next five seasons after re-signing with Washington, one day after turning down $37 million for this coming season from the team with whom he’s spent the entirety of his 10-year career.

Towns and Booker got their deals not long afterward, as did Morant. More big-money extensions are coming at some point, particularly rookie extensions — Miami’s Tyler Herro and New Orleans’ Zion Williamson among the names on that list.

All those moves, even the biggest-money ones, were overshadowed by a piece of non-free-agent news that came earlier Thursday when Kevin Durant, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation, told the Brooklyn Nets that he wanted a trade. That undoubtedly had some sort of an impact on the decisions some teams were making, or were considering, with the surprise development that one of the world’s elite players is looking for a new place to play.

Jokic and Beal have signed lucrative contracts before. For some, the ones they get this summer will be their first.

Jalen Brunson, as had been widely speculated given his deep ties to the Knicks — his father played there, for starters — agreed to sign with New York, on a deal that ESPN reported would be worth $104 million over four years. He had earned about $6 million, total, in his four seasons with the Dallas Mavericks and saw his value soar by averaging 21.6 points in 18 playoff games this past season.

Anfernee Simons, who had a breakout season for the injury-plagued Portland Trail Blazers last year — taking advantage of his opportunity, and then some — agreed to a four-year, $100 million contract to remain with that club. And Lu Dort, undrafted three years ago and someone who made about $4 million combined in his three seasons with Oklahoma City, will stay with the Thunder for the next five years on a deal worth nearly $88 million.

 

NBA NUMBERS

The NBA set the new salary cap, luxury tax and other numbers that will be used this coming season and go into effect Friday.

The cap is $123.655 million, the tax level is $150.267 million. The minimum team salary level is $111.29 million and the exceptions were set as wel. The non-taxpayer mid-level is $10.49 million, taxpayer mid-level is $6.479 million, and the mid-level for a team with room under the cap is $5.401 million.

TUCKER TO PHILADELPHIA

P.J. Tucker is reuniting with Philadelphia general manager Daryl Morey and — assuming he re-signs, as planned — James Harden as well. Tucker agreed Thursday to a three-year deal with the 76ers for $33 million. Morey, Tucker and Harden were together with the Houston Rockets; Harden declared free agency Wednesday with the intention of coming back to Philadelphia. Tucker won a title with Milwaukee in 2021 and helped Miami to the Eastern Conference finals in 2022.

MCGEE CHOOSES MAVERICKS

Dallas and JaVale McGee — a three-time NBA champion and an Olympic gold medalist as well — agreed on a contract for two seasons and a third at McGee’s option worth about $20 million. McGee has played for eight NBA teams and is heading to Dallas for a second time; he played 34 games there in 2015-16.

PORTIS, INGLES TO BUCKS

Bobby Portis (four years, $49 million) is returning to Milwaukee, and the Bucks are adding veteran guard Joe Ingles as well. Ingles is signing a one-year deal, according to his wife, Renae Ingles, who tweeted that “CEO of the house, Renae Ingles, is thrilled for Joe and their family.”

HEAT DECISIONS

Miami will retain Victor Oladipo on a one-year, $11 million deal and Dewayne Dedmon on a two-year deal for about $9 million, though the second year has conditional protections.

MAGIC KEEPING HARRIS

Gary Harris signed with the Orlando Magic, the team said, with the sides agreeing on two years for $26 million for the guard. The Magic are also keeping center Mo Bamba on a two-year deal.

RAPTORS MOVES

Toronto is keeping forward Chris Boucher (three years, $36 million) and Thaddeus Young (two years, $16 million).

BAGLEY STAYING

Detroit moved quickly to lock up restricted free agent Marvin Bagley III, agreeing to keep him with a three-year, $37 million deal.

WRIGHT TO WIZARDS

In addition to keeping Beal, the Wizards also agreed to a two-year, $16 million deal with guard Delon Wright.


Pogacar, Copenhagen buzzing ahead of Tour de France opener

Pogacar, Copenhagen buzzing ahead of Tour de France opener
Updated 01 July 2022

Pogacar, Copenhagen buzzing ahead of Tour de France opener

Pogacar, Copenhagen buzzing ahead of Tour de France opener
  • The sport’s greatest race attracts up to 15 million roadside fans per year and the opening three days in cycling-obsessed Denmark on the 109th edition will provide the same festive atmosphere so beloved to the French
  • The first of the 21 stages is a short, fast, technically and psychologically challenging 13.2km individual time trial around downtown Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN: Fans and riders were buzzing with excitement as the Tour de France’s Grand Depart arrived on Friday while globally over a billion television spectators are also expected to tune in over the 21 days.

When the fresh-faced 23-year-old champion Tadej Pogacar said he was thrilled with the Danish public and could not wait to get started, the sentiment was widely shared.

The sport’s greatest race attracts up to 15 million roadside fans per year and the opening three days in cycling-obsessed Denmark on the 109th edition will provide the same festive atmosphere so beloved to the French.

“I’m ready personally and my team is ready too, and you can only be happy with the kind of reception we have had here,” said UAE Team Emirates leader Pogacar.

Belgian powerhouse Wout Van Aert, winner of a time-trial, a sprint and a mountain stage at the 2021 Tour, was also buzzing after two editions impacted by COVID-19.

“I was surprised by the amount of people on the road sides. After two years, we can finally have a Grand Depart with huge crowds,” he said.

The first of the 21 stages is a short, fast, technically and psychologically challenging 13.2km individual time trial around downtown Copenhagen.

Contestants compete on specialized bikes for the time-trial that would be too dangerous for any casual cyclist to ride.

They also wear tailored aerodynamic outfits that cost up to and above €4,000 ($4,161).

Frenchman Jeremy Lecroq will be the first rider down the starters ramp at 1600 (1400GMT) outside the Tivoli theme park and next to Copenhagen’s eye-catching central train station with its gothic wooden balustrades and tiled interior.

The 176 riders embark at one-minute intervals with UAE Emirates’ Marc Soler the last to go at 1855 (1655GMT).

Ineos’ world champion time-triallist Filippo Ganna accepted his favorite tag to win the opener and thereby don the overall race leader’s jersey.

“It would be nice to wear the yellow jersey, nothing is easy but I want to try and put that in my museum,” the Italian said.

Saturday’s second stage runs 202.5km from Roskilde to Nyborg along verdant roads adjacent to fjords and it culminates with a 20km crossing of the Great Belt Bridge.

Sunday’s final day in Denmark is a 182km run from Vejl to Sonderborg.

The Tour de France caravan transfers to France next Monday for a treacherous week featuring old, cobbled mining roads.

The race then heads across the Alps, including an epic climb up the legendary Alpe d’Huez, and into the Pyrenees where the equally fearsome Hautacam summit awaits.

If those mountains have not been enough to produce a winner, the 40.7km individual time-trial ending in Rocamadour on the penultimate stage should do the trick.

While Pogacar is the best rider, Dutch outfit Jumbo-Visma appear to be the strongest team, and the once mighty Ineos have promised to race aggressively to wrestle back the title.


Nadal, Swiatek survive wobbles to progress at Wimbledon

Nadal, Swiatek survive wobbles to progress at Wimbledon
Updated 01 July 2022

Nadal, Swiatek survive wobbles to progress at Wimbledon

Nadal, Swiatek survive wobbles to progress at Wimbledon
  • The 22-time Grand Slam champion, who has not played at Wimbledon since reaching the 2019 semifinals, admitted he needed to step up his game as he prepares to face Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego
  • Swiatek surpasses Monica Seles’ 36-match winning streak from 1990 and matches Martina Hingis’s 37-match winning run from the beginning of the 1997 season

LONDON: Rafael Nadal was again forced to dig deep to reach the Wimbledon third round on Thursday as women’s top seed Iga Swiatek survived a stumble to win her 37th match on the spin.

The Spanish second seed, chasing a calendar Grand Slam, recovered from losing the third set for the second straight match to beat Lithuanian journeyman Ricardas Berankis 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

Earlier, Spanish 17th seed Roberto Bautista Agut became the third potential dangerman in Nadal’s half of the draw to pull out with coronavirus, following the withdrawals of 2021 runner-up Matteo Berrettini and 2017 finalist Marin Cilic.

Nadal has also benefited from a shock first-round exit for Canada’s sixth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, who took him to five sets at the French Open.

Nadal looked comfortable in the first two sets against Berankis but was broken in his first service game of the third set and could not claw his way back.

But the Spaniard regrouped and raced into a 3-0 lead in the fourth set, sealing the match with an ace after it resumed under the roof following a sharp rain shower.

The 22-time Grand Slam champion, who has not played at Wimbledon since reaching the 2019 semifinals, admitted he needed to step up his game as he prepares to face Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego.

“I didn’t play much on grass in three years,” he said. “It gives me the chance to keep going, so very happy for that.

“I need to improve. The fourth set was much better.... I have to keep working, be humble, even when things are not going well.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas and Australian maverick Nick Kyrgios remain two of Nadal’s biggest challenges and they will meet in a mouthwatering contest on Saturday.

Kyrgios was on his best behavior on court as he steamrollered Serbian 26th seed Filip Krajinovic 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 in just 85 minutes.

The 27-year-old, who made the quarter-finals on debut at the All England Club in 2014, did not face a single break point.

“I just wanted to remind everyone that I am pretty good,” he said. “I was nowhere near my best in the first round but today I was in my zone.”

Kyrgios’s five-set opening win over Paul Jubb of Britain was marred by his admission that he spat in the direction of fans, accusing them of being disrespectful.

“There was just nothing the media possibly could tell me I did wrong today,” he said. “I just know that you can’t possibly ask me anything and stir anything up.”

Late Thursday, Kyrgios was fined $10,000 for Tuesday’s incidents.

Fourth seed Tsitsipas had few problems in defeating Australia’s Jordan Thompson 6-2, 6-3, 7-5.

“I feel like everyone here knows who Nick is,” said the Greek player.

“We have had many great matches against each other. I respect him for his game and the way he fights when he wants to.”

Poland’s Swiatek needed just over two hours to see off Dutch lucky loser Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

Swiatek was in early trouble before winning four games in a row to take the first set but went down a break in the second and could not recover.

In the end, though, Swiatek took charge in the decider, breaking for a 3-1 lead and closing out the match.

She surpasses Monica Seles’ 36-match winning streak from 1990 and matches Martina Hingis’s 37-match winning run from the beginning of the 1997 season.

“I would say the grass is pretty tricky for me, I’m not going to lie,” said Swiatek, who faces France’s Alize Cornet next.

“I guess you can see that I’m not playing maybe as efficiently as on other surfaces.

“Basically my confidence is getting better overall. But this tournament is tricky and I’m still feeling out how to play the best game here.”

British wildcard Katie Boulter shocked 2021 finalist Karolina Pliskova 3-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-4 before dedicating her win to her late grandmother, who died this week.

Fourth seed Paula Badosa set up a clash against two-time champion Petra Kvitova after both had straightforward wins.

Coco Gauff eased past Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-2, 6-3 — hammering the fastest serve of the women’s tournament, a screamer clocked at 122 miles (192 kilometers) per hour — and will next meet fellow American Amanda Anisimova.


Duplantis soars to outdoor pole vault record, Olympic champion Jacobs in late withdrawal

Duplantis soars to outdoor pole vault record, Olympic champion Jacobs in late withdrawal
Updated 01 July 2022

Duplantis soars to outdoor pole vault record, Olympic champion Jacobs in late withdrawal

Duplantis soars to outdoor pole vault record, Olympic champion Jacobs in late withdrawal
  • In yet another dominant pole vaulting display in the final major meet before the July 15-24 worlds in Eugene, Oregon, Duplantis had the competition wrapped up after his third effort at 5.83m

STOCKHOLM: Armand Duplantis warmed up for next month’s world championships in perfect style at Stockholm’s Diamond League meet on Thursday, delighting home fans by setting an outdoor pole vault record.

While Olympic champion Marcell Jacobs was a late withdrawal from track’s blue riband event, the men’s 100m, Duplantis ensured there was drama guaranteed to the end in the field.

In yet another dominant pole vaulting display in the final major meet before the July 15-24 worlds in Eugene, Oregon, Duplantis had the competition wrapped up after his third effort at 5.83m.

The US-born vaulter then nailed 5.93 and 6.03m before clearing 6.16 on his second attempt, the best-ever performance outdoors that bettered by 1cm his previous outdoor best set in Rome in September 2020.

“I feel like I am definitely in shape to win my title and maybe to do something special in Eugene,” said the 22-year-old Olympic champion who holds the overall world record of 6.20m, set at the world indoor championships in Belgrade in March.

The outdoor record, Stockholm-based Duplantis said, felt “quite amazing... but really wasn’t that much of a surprise for me.”

“There’s better things that I can do. I felt really good jumping today but it wasn’t like I did everything so perfect that I don’t think I can do any better.

“It’s extra special when you’re jumping on the track where you train. I live about 10 minutes away so you want to defend your home territory first and foremost!“

With little time to fine-tune preparations ahead of the Eugene worlds, Jacobs— a shock gold winner at the Tokyo Olympics last year — pulled out of the 100m in another blow to his injury-hit season.

His coach Paolo Camossi, however, played down the latest setback for his sprinter, who kicked off the season with world 60m indoor gold in Belgrade before a thigh injury in mid-May disrupted track plans.

“The situation is under control,” Camossi said. “He has a little pain in his glute muscle.

“It would have been too risky to run today, that’s why we decided to withdraw him from the 100m. The risk is just too high with the eye on the world championships in Eugene next month.”

In the absence of Jacobs, South African Akani Simbine clocked a season’s best of 10.02sec to win the 100m ahead of the fastest European this year, Britain’s Reece Prescod (10.15).

World champion Dina Asher-Smith of Britain edged Switzerland’s Mujinga Kambundji, the world indoor 60m champion, in a photo-finish in the women’s 200m, both sprinters credited with 22.37sec.

Femke Bol ensured that, come Eugene, there will be anything but a smooth ride for American Sydney McLaughlin, who set a new world record of 51.41sec in winning the women’s 400m hurdles at the US trials last weekend.

The Dutch hurdler won in Stockholm in a Diamond League record of 52.27sec and her clash with Olympic champion McLaughlin and US teammate and reigning world champion Dalilah Muhammad will undoubtedly be one of the track highlights of the world champs.

“I am still hoping to do something very special also in Eugene,” Bol said. “It was a good race today but not perfect. In the end, I am very glad for this time.

“I am so excited for Eugene. When you see the results from the Hayward Field stadium, I am so excited to go there and I have some great competitors out there.”

India’s Olympic javelin champion Neeraj Chopra threw a national record of 89.94m, but that was only good enough for second place behind Anderson Peters of Grenada (90.31).

“I thought I could throw even over 90m today,” said Chopra, whose gold in Tokyo was India’s first ever Olympic track and field triumph.

“I am close to 90m now and I can throw it this year. Despite the fact that I did not win tonight, I feel very good because I did my best.”

Brazil’s Alison Dos Santos bested Karsten Warholm’s meet record as he set a world lead of 46.80sec in the men’s 400m hurdles.

“I am so proud about this performance. My preparations went well and this result shows it,” said the Brazilian who won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics.

“I think about the world record every day, every night, the Japanese capital.