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.


Eddie Howe: No Newcastle United signings lined up yet

Eddie Howe: No Newcastle United signings lined up yet
Updated 21 May 2022

Eddie Howe: No Newcastle United signings lined up yet

Eddie Howe: No Newcastle United signings lined up yet
  • Recent rumors have linked the Magpies with Manchester United goalkeeper Dean Henderson, Lucas Paqueta of Lyon

NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe has revealed that Newcastle United are “not close” to signing anyone, despite reports across the UK to the contrary.

It is expected to be a busy summer at St. James’ Park, nonetheless.

The Magpies were reported to be close to adding Manchester United and England goalkeeper Dean Henderson to their squad, however Howe has poured cold water on it.

A deal for Lucas Paqueta of Lyon has also been rumored, but Arab News understands that is not a transfer Newcastle are pursuing at present.

On Henderson, and the summer ahead, Howe said: “We’re not close to signing anybody at this moment in time. We’re not at any advanced stage with that.

“It’s very difficult for me to comment on individual players because I’d be giving you an answer on every target. But no, that’s far from the truth.”

Another player who, at this stage, is not being actively pursued is Burnley’s James Tarkowski. The defender, who is out of contract at Turf Moor this summer, does remain on a long list of central defensive targets, though.

Outgoings are going to be as important as incomings for Newcastle if they do not want to encounter Financial Fair Play rules similar to those currently being worked through by Premier League rivals Everton.

And Arab News understands one player who is close to a move is Ciaran Clark.

The Republic of Ireland international was omitted from the club’s 25-man Premier League squad in January, despite the 32-year-old making 14 appearances in the first half of the campaign.

And with Clark likely to be cut out of the first-team picture again, former United boss Steve Bruce is understood to be keen on the player.

Bruce is currently manager of English Championship side West Bromwich Albion. Middlesbrough are also thought to be keen.

“I won’t speak about individual players at this time. I’ll do that at a later date. But at this time, I think it’s difficult for me to comment," said Howe.

“I’ll be speaking with players in the next few days linking it around the game. Obviously, I won’t be speaking to any of the players involved in the match before the game —I’ll be speaking to them afterwards — but players who are potentially injured and not involved in the game.”

With decisions still to be made, confusion and uncertainty reign supreme for many in the Newcastle ranks.

This is most prevalent when assessing Matt Targett’s United situation.

Targett has been one of United’s best performers in the second half of the season but is only on loan from Aston Villa.

Villains’ boss Steven Gerrard this week stated he would be happy to take the player back to the Midlands if Newcastle do not arrive with a bid to make things permanent.

When asked about the player, Howe said: “I’ll be sitting down with all my players at the end of the season and discussing futures; I’ll be doing the same with Matt. I think it’s only right we get the season out the way first and concentrate on the games and the football before discussing things.

“He’s been outstanding. The biggest compliment I can pay any loan player, I view him as an integral member of the squad. His attitude, conduct, performance and consistency have been of the highest level.

“We really, really like him. I think he’s jelled really well with the squad, and he’s very popular within the building here. I can’t speak highly enough of him.”


Wimbledon on collision course with ATP, WTA over Russia, Belarus ban

Wimbledon on collision course with ATP, WTA over Russia, Belarus ban
Updated 21 May 2022

Wimbledon on collision course with ATP, WTA over Russia, Belarus ban

Wimbledon on collision course with ATP, WTA over Russia, Belarus ban
  • Wimbledon stripped of ranking points over Russia, Belarus ban
  • Decision by ATP, WTA reduces Wimbledon to exhibition event

The world’s most prestigious tennis tournament was on Friday set on a collision course with the sport’s global governing bodies after Wimbledon had its ranking points stripped by the ATP and WTA Tours over excluding players from Russia and Belarus.
The move by the men’s and women’s tours will reduce Wimbledon to an exhibition event but the AELTC, organizers of the Grand Slam, repeated their stance that the ban was the only viable option under British government guidance.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) also said it will not grant ranking points to Wimbledon this year for junior and wheelchair tennis events.
The AELTC decision to impose the suspension on Russian and Belarusian players at this year’s championships due to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine is the first time players have been excluded on grounds of nationality since the immediate post-World War Two era when German and Japanese players were banned.
The AELTC on Friday said they were considering their options and were in discussions with their Grand Slam colleagues.
“In addition, we remain unwilling to accept success or participation at Wimbledon being used to benefit the propaganda machine of the Russian regime,” the AELTC said in a statement.
“We therefore wish to state our deep disappointment at the decisions taken by the ATP, WTA and ITF in removing ranking points for The Championships.
“We believe these decisions to be disproportionate in the context of the exceptional and extreme circumstances of this situation and the position we found ourselves in, and damaging to all players who compete on Tour.”

Ranking integrity
The ATP and WTA have themselves banned Russia and Belarus from international team competitions following the invasion, which Moscow calls a ‘special operation’, but allowed players from the two countries to compete as neutrals.
“The ability for players of any nationality to enter tournaments based on merit, and without discrimination, is fundamental to our Tour,” the ATP said in a statement.
“The decision by Wimbledon to ban Russian and Belarusian players from competing in the UK this summer undermines this principle and the integrity of the ATP Ranking system. It is also inconsistent with our Rankings agreement.
“Absent a change in circumstances, it is with great regret and reluctance that we see no option but to remove ATP Ranking points from Wimbledon for 2022.”
WTA chief Steve Simon said the tour believes athletes participating in an individual sport “should not be penalized or prevented from competing solely because of their nationalities or the decisions made by the governments of their countries.”
“The recent decisions made by the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) and the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) to ban athletes from competing in the upcoming UK grass court events violate that fundamental principle,” Simon said.
“As a result of the AELTC’s position that it will not honor its obligation to use the WTA Rankings for entry into Wimbledon and proceed with a partial field not based on merit, the WTA has made the difficult decision to not award WTA ranking points for this year’s Wimbledon Championships.”

Ban slammed
Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian competitors has been slammed by top players such as 21-times Grand Slam champion Rafa Nadal who labelled it unfair, while world number one Novak Djokovic said he did not support the decision.
“Our rules and agreements exist in order to protect the rights of players as a whole. Unilateral decisions of this nature, if unaddressed, set a damaging precedent for the rest of the Tour,” the ATP added.
“Discrimination by individual tournaments is simply not viable on a Tour that operates in more than 30 countries.
“We remain hopeful of further discussions with Wimbledon leading to an acceptable outcome for all concerned.
“More broadly, we believe this matter again highlights the need for a united governance structure across professional tennis so that decisions of this nature can be made in a joint manner.”

Tune-up events
Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) also reciprocated the Wimbledon ban by excluding players from the two countries from its tune-up tour events.
However, the WTA said its tournaments at Nottingham, Birmingham, and Eastbourne would go ahead with ranking points on offer as “alternative and comparable playing and ranking point opportunities exist in the same weeks.”
The ATP had also said earlier this week that its events at Queen’s and Eastbourne will proceed as normal, offering full ATP ranking points.
While the LTA tournaments will continue to offer full ranking points, the British governing body is under review for sanctions from the ATP and WTA.
The ITF justified its decision not to award ranking points to Wimbledon this year for junior and wheelchair tennis events by saying it undermines the integrity of the competition.
“The ITF has determined that Wimbledon’s entry criteria banning Russians and Belarusians compromises the integrity of its international competition, in particular its ranking system, as there is a lack of alternative equivalent opportunities for players to compete for ranking points and prize money,” the ITF said.


Injury concerns for Newcastle trio ahead of Burnley clash

Injury concerns for Newcastle trio ahead of Burnley clash
Updated 20 May 2022

Injury concerns for Newcastle trio ahead of Burnley clash

Injury concerns for Newcastle trio ahead of Burnley clash
  • Chris Wood, Fabian Schar and Ryan Fraser could all miss final game of season

NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe has concerns about three key first-team players ahead of Newcastle United’s final day trip to Burnley.

The Magpies head to Turf Moor knowing a win could have a huge say in the Premier League relegation battle — but not in the way many predicted when Howe took over.

United looked set to be right in the midst of the fight to remain in the top flight, but a remarkable run since January, which has seen the Magpies climb from 19th to 12th, has turned around their fortunes.

Their hosts, however, still need points to guarantee they will be a Premier League side come next season.

While Howe has said he will pick his strongest team and show the fixture the respect it deserves, he could well be without three key players, one of whom is former Clarets frontman Chris Wood, signed for $31 million in January.

“We’re going to try him in training and see how he looks,” the manager said. “At the time, we didn’t think it was a serious injury so fingers crossed he gets through training today.”

Another player who is touch-and-go for the encounter is Fabian Schar.

The Switzerland international, who signed a two-year extension to his United deal earlier this month, was forced off, having been knocked unconscious in the 2-0 home win over Arsenal on Monday.

And head injury protocols mean the player might have to sit out Sunday’s match.

“Fabian we haven’t seen,” Howe said. “We’re following concussion protocols. I believe he is going to do something outside but we’ll follow the protocols closely. I think there will be a late decision on Fabian.”

A player who was visibly upset as the squad circled the St. James’ Park pitch to say thank you to fans after the Gunners win was Ryan Fraser.

It left many wondering why — and now Howe has explained why.

“Ryan Fraser might be out of the game,” he said. “He came on but had slight awareness in his hamstring, I don’t think it’s a re-injure but there is awareness in his hamstring again.”

Meanwhile, Callum Wilson looks set to end the campaign leading the United line, a place he was so sorely missed for a large chunk of the season.

And Howe admits it has been a relief to have his top scorer and talisman back available.

“An immense performance when you consider how long he’s been out and the type of injury he had,” he said of Wilson on Monday night.

“To deliver that first game back, I can’t say enough positive words about that. When you see behind the scenes and you see how he’s conducted himself and how he’s worked, it doesn’t surprise me because I’ve seen it many times before but then you’ve got to back it up with the performance and I thought he gave a very good display that really helped the team. Full credit to him.”


PSG coach Pochettino in the dark over Mbappe future

PSG coach Pochettino in the dark over Mbappe future
Updated 20 May 2022

PSG coach Pochettino in the dark over Mbappe future

PSG coach Pochettino in the dark over Mbappe future
  • Mbappe is expected to reveal in the coming days whether he will join Real Madrid or accept a lucrative offer to stay at PSG
  • "I don't know what his decision is. I think it's a personal matter for Kylian and for the club," Pochettino said

PARIS: Paris Saint-Germain coach Mauricio Pochettino insisted Friday he has no idea where Kylian Mbappe will play his club football next season as the striker’s contract in the French capital comes to an end.
Mbappe is expected to reveal in the coming days whether he will join Real Madrid or accept a lucrative offer to stay at PSG, with an announcement potentially being made in the hours after the French champions play their final game of the Ligue 1 season at home to Metz on Saturday.
“I don’t know what his decision is. I think it’s a personal matter for Kylian and for the club,” Pochettino said at a press conference ahead of the Metz match.
“There are lots of rumors going around but the player is the one who will have to talk about this.
“If I knew what his decision was I wouldn’t be the one to talk about it.”
Mbappe, who joined PSG from Monaco in 2017, last week won the Ligue 1 Player of the Year prize and comes into the final weekend of the season as the division’s top scorer with 25 goals.
Rumours are swirling in France and in Spain about when he will confirm where his next contract will be.
“Mbappe, end of the suspense on Sunday,” claimed the headline in French sports daily L’Equipe on Friday.
Pochettino said he hoped the 23-year-old would remain at PSG even if uncertainty surrounds the coach’s own future despite the Argentine and his staff having a year left on their own deals.
“I hope Kylian is still here for many years to come but I also can’t lie. I don’t know what is going to happen,” he said.
“We have a year left on our contracts so we will potentially be here next season. I just hope tomorrow (Saturday) we can enjoy celebrating the club’s 10th league title.”
One player who is definitely expected to move on is Angel di Maria, with the 34-year-old Argentine winger’s own contract expiring and PSG understood to be happy for him to leave.
PSG have cantered to the Ligue 1 title, equalling Saint-Etienne’s French record for most league championships, but their season has been soured by defeat against Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16 in early March.
The Parisians were 1-0 up away to Madrid an hour into the second leg thanks to a Mbappe goal, and led 2-0 on aggregate, only to implode and go out to a Karim Benzema hat-trick.
“I hope the best is still to come. I think everyone at Paris Saint-Germain wants to win the Champions League. That has become an obsession for this club and I hope we can win it,” Pochettino added.
“That spell in the second half in Madrid saw us not get the result we wanted and created lots of questions and emotions that we have not been able to control in recent months.
“Despite that the players deserve to be congratulated because they have shown the ability to lift themselves and finish the season.”


5 things we learned from Al-Feiha’s stunning defeat of Al-Hilal in King’s Cup final

5 things we learned from Al-Feiha’s stunning defeat of Al-Hilal in King’s Cup final
Updated 20 May 2022

5 things we learned from Al-Feiha’s stunning defeat of Al-Hilal in King’s Cup final

5 things we learned from Al-Feiha’s stunning defeat of Al-Hilal in King’s Cup final
  • Despite falling behind in the first half, the underdogs’ spirit and organization ensured they came back to make history by defeating the Saudi and Asian champions on penalties

The King’s Cup final between Al-Hilal and Al-Feiha on Thursday was a dramatic and tense encounter. After 90 minutes it was 1-1, with Salem Al-Dawsari putting Al-Hilal ahead on the stroke of halftime and Ramon Lopes equalising midway through the second half. The scoreline remained the same after extra time and Al-Feiha triumphed in the penalty shootout. There were plenty of talking points and here are just five:

1. Hard-working Al-Feiha make history

Al-Feiha had to fight for everything and were rewarded with a first major trophy in their history. They were second best in terms of possession and chances, but were always in the game and made it hard going for the league champions. Perhaps the game started more openly than coach Vuk Rasovic would have liked with Al-Hilal having chances early but then Al-Feiha settled and kept it tight for most of the two hours.

Despite falling behind, the men from Al Majma’ah kept calm, got back on level terms and then defended as if their lives depended on it. It remains to be seen whether this marks the start of a new era for the victorious team, but whatever happens, it is a night that will go down in Al-Feiha’s history.

This was a real team performance achieved through hard work, organization and fierce defending. Rasovic obviously knows how to play against Al-Hilal and his players followed his instructions to the letter, at least after the opening 10 minutes when the Riyadh giants had some good chances.

From then, it became a battle. Al-Feiha have played Al-Hilal three times this season and have conceded just one goal. Despite the loss, the champions will be happy that they will not have to face this opponent for a while.

 
2. Al-Ittihad will be delighted

While this game was always going to define the season for Al-Feiha, that was never going to be the case for Al-Hilal, who lifted a record fourth Asian title last November. Casting a shadow over the encounter was next Monday’s Classico against Al-Ittihad, which will go a long way to deciding where the Saudi Pro League title ends up. And this was the perfect situation for the Tigers, who were able to sit back and watch their closest challengers have a tough match and then go into extra time. 

Al-Hilal’s squad may be the best in Asia, but it was already stretched due to injuries and suspensions. Now there is an extra layer of fatigue that has been added and you could see the demands of a long season taking its toll.

As befits the King’s Cup final, the team from Riyadh picked their strongest possible team and it is a team now more tired than ever. At some point on Monday, it is quite possible that the Al-Hilal players will start to feel the effects of Thursday. Al-Ittihad in contrast have had more than two weeks in which to rest. Perhaps the best sight of the night for the league leaders was Salem Al-Dawsari going down with cramp in the second period of extra time. The smiles must have been very wide all over Jeddah.

 

3. Al-Feiha were right about Al-Hilal’s weakness

Before the game, Al-Feiha boss Rasovic rightly spoke at some length about the attacking talent that Al-Hilal have at their disposal and how it was going to be the toughest of games. The Serbian did, however, point to what he saw as the champions’ vulnerability: A problem dealing with crosses from wide. That was certainly the case for the equalising goal when a simple low ball into the area from the right side caused panic in Al-Hilal’s defence. Ali Al-Bulaihi fell over and Jang Hyun-soo was slow to react, which gave Ramon Lopes the second he needed to get a shot off.

Even so, the Brazilian’s effort was straight at Abdullah Al-Mayouf and, it seemed, at catchable height. However, the goalkeeper could only push the ball up and into the net. The Blues continued to look uncomfortable whenever the ball was sent into the area. It would not be a surprise to see Al-Ittihad doing something similar on Monday.

 

4. Al-Hilal’s tired stars have to dust themselves down

There was no doubt that Al-Hilal’s big names are feeling the effects of a long season and multiple competitions, but they have no rest before the huge title decider on Monday against Al-Ittihad. The likes of Matheus Pereira looked a little flat.

There was plenty of fanfare last summer when Al-Hilal beat a host of European clubs to the signature of the Brazilian playmaker, but while he has had his moments, he has yet to really take a big game by the scruff of the neck, and against such a determined and organised opponent, the final was crying out for a touch of class.

Moussa Marega worked hard, but neither he nor Ighalo could find a breakthrough. Abdullah Otayf was taken off early in the second half as coach Ramon Diaz tried to find a way through. It just did not happen in the end, but there is no time to dwell on the defeat as the big games keep on coming. Now Al-Hilal have to find a way to bounce back and take on their rivals in a title decider.

 

5. Al-Feiha continue positive trend

From 1986 to 2018, only five clubs lifted the King’s Cup: Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, Al-Shabab, Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli. Yet, the domination of the big clubs, which is also the case elsewhere such as in England, has started to erode of late. Al-Taawoun won in 2019, Al-Faisaly lifted the trophy in 2021 and now it is the turn of Al-Feiha. It shows that the so-called smaller teams are improving, and while they still may struggle to live with the big boys over the course of a long season, in one-off encounters they have what it takes to win.

This is a positive development for Saudi Arabian football. When there is a path to glory then there is incentive for everyone to aim as high as possible and this helps raise the standard all over the country. And then there is the Asian Champions League. Al-Faisaly and Al-Taawoun have enjoyed their experiences on the continent which can only stand them in good stead for the future. Next year it will be the turn of Al-Feiha to cross swords with international rivals. They have what it takes to shine in a tournament setting.