5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad in Saudi Classico

5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad in Saudi Classico
Al-Hilal won the Classico against Al-Ittihad 3-1 on Monday night, coming back from a goal down in Jeddah. (Twitter)
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Updated 24 May 2022

5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad in Saudi Classico

5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad in Saudi Classico
  • Reigning Saudi and Asian champions developing into mentality monsters while leaders Al-Ittihad lacked the firepower to put the Saudi Pro League title to bed

Al-Hilal won the Classico against Al-Ittihad 3-1 on Monday night, coming back from a goal down in Jeddah. Romarinho opened the scoring for the hosts with a first-half penalty with Michael equalizing for the visitors just before the break. The Brazilian scored his second later in the game after Salem Al-Dawsari had put Al-Hilal ahead. The result means that Al-Ittihad are now just three points ahead of Al-Hilal with just three games to go. 

Here are five things we learned.

1. Forget Liverpool, Al-Hilal are the real mentality monsters

Jurgen Klopp has used the phrase more than once to describe his almost all-conquering Liverpool team, but Al-Hilal deserve similar praise. They are a team that have been playing big game after big game for the last few weeks. The last one was painful, a defeat in the King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha last Thursday. Even worse, it came after two hours of football and a penalty shootout.

Yet somehow Al-Hilal seemed full of energy. This was a game that they had to win; if they didn’t, then their title was going to Jeddah, but they seemed to relish the pressure. The Blues have a knack for pulling out a result in a big game. Before Monday, the Tigers had lost just one league game since October — a period of seven months — and that loss was also against Al-Hilal in March. This is what champions do, produce something special when they have to. There could have been many excuses for Al-Hilal had they failed to win, but they were not needed as the holders showed they are not giving up without a fight.

2. Al-Ittihad not clinical enough

The major difference between the two teams was that Al-Hilal had seven attempts on goal and scored three while the hosts had 13 but managed to find the back of the net on just one occasion. The likes of Romarinho, Abderrazak Hamdallah and Igor Coronado have all had great seasons in the yellow and black but could not make a difference in attack this time.

Perhaps the banned winger Fahad Al-Muwallad could have made a difference as the chances came and went. One that sticks in the mind came early in the second half when Hamdallah took the ball past goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf outside the area. His goal-bound shot was cleared in impressive fashion by Al-Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulaihi.

Perhaps the Moroccan could have taken the ball a little further, and he will look back and think that he should have scored. Other chances came and went, but not long after Hamdallah missed that opportunity, Al-Hilal took the lead and were soon 3-1 ahead. It was a major turning point in the game and perhaps the title race.

3. Al-Ittihad now have to fight for the title

There are two major positives for Al-Ittihad to take from this game. The first is that they are still three points clear at the top of the table with three games remaining, and that is a position they would have loved if it had been offered at the start of the season.

Then there is the fact that they don’t have to play Al-Hilal again this season. The Tigers’ remaining opponents are all in the bottom half of the table, and there is no reason why they can’t get the required seven points to get their hands on that trophy. But it remains to be seen how the team bounce back from this defeat.

A first title in 13 years was within their reach. Now, it is likely to go down to the wire, and that is when the pressure can produce strange outcomes. The Jeddah giants have yet to really be placed under any serious pressure since moving into pole position, and now they can feel Al-Hilal just behind them. Now Al-Ittihad are going to have to fight for the title.

4. Al-Dawsari and Michael rise above

Salman Al-Faraj and Abdullah Otayf offered a cool presence in the middle for Al-Hilal but as often happens, the headlines go to the people who scored.

Michael had his best game since making his debut in February. The Brazilian forward from Flamengo was a lively presence in attack with his running and pace causing all kinds of problems for the Al-Ittihad defense, not allowing them to get a moment’s rest. His two goals were both extremely well-taken. The first was a volley from the edge of the area, and the second was a low shot from a similar distance in the second half.

And there was Al-Dawsari. His goal that gave Al-Hilal the lead was a thing of beauty. It could almost be described as a running semi-bicycle kick from the edge of the area. The celebration upset the home fans, but they could not deny that they had seen a moment of real quality.

5. The result is great for the neutral

If Al-Ittihad had won, the title race would have been over a month early. Attention would have had to switch to the fierce relegation battle. Now, however, there is the promise of more drama to come, and the talk from both sides after Monday’s game has been about three cup finals left in the season.

Fans around the world watched the final day of the English Premier League action with Manchester City and Liverpool providing plenty of action and excitement. On June 23, there could be something similar in the Saudi Professional League.

The focus now switches to next weekend when Al-Hilal take on Abha and Al-Ittihad travel to Al-Tai. Both sets of fans will be keeping an eye on what happens in the other game, and the country will also be watching. Whatever happens, Saudi Arabia now has a genuine title race after for so long it looked as if the trophy was going to Jeddah. It probably still will be now there is doubt, and where there is doubt there is excitement and drama.


Boost for embattled Iraq football as host of Gulf Cup 2023

Boost for embattled Iraq football as host of Gulf Cup 2023
Iraq is one of Asia’s biggest football nations. (File/AFP)
Updated 8 sec ago

Boost for embattled Iraq football as host of Gulf Cup 2023

Boost for embattled Iraq football as host of Gulf Cup 2023
  • Many delays to 25th edition of the 8-team tournament now set for next January

The 25th Gulf Cup that was scheduled to take place in December 2021 will be held in the Iraqi city of Basra in January 2023, the Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation announced on Thursday. The body voted unanimously to return the competition to the country for the first time since it was staged in Baghdad back in 1979.

That was also the first time Iraq won the title and the team repeated the feat in 1984 and 1988. But the last time the eight-nation biennial tournament took place was in December 2019 in Qatar when Bahrain lifted the trophy. The 2021 version was postponed as facilities including stadiums and hotels in the southern Iraqi city were not ready. It was expected to take place in 2022 but that proved to be impossible due to a crowded international schedule, which included World Cup qualifiers, Asian Cup qualifiers and the Arab Cup, not to mention the World Cup itself.

Basra has been working hard to improve its sporting facilities and general infrastructure and after inspection by AGCFF officials, the go-ahead was given to stage the first major football competition in the country since the US-led invasion in 2003. FIFA has been concerned about the security situation in the country for a while, due to the Iran-Iraq war in the eighties and the first Gulf War in the following decade.

The prospect of eight teams — Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Yemen —coming to the southern port city is thus a big deal for the host nation.

“Congratulations to Iraq and the dear Basra for hosting the 25th Gulf Championship,” said the country’s president Barham Salih, adding “it is a merit worthy of Iraq and its people after more than four decades deprived of that.”

Salih paid tribute to “all the governmental and popular efforts and our sports fans that contributed to achieving this achievement, which embodies the Iraqis’ ethos of generosity and hospitality.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi was also delighted and promised that Basra would put on a great show.

“We congratulate our beloved Iraq and Basra after this long-awaited tournament (has been awarded to us). We promise our people and our brothers in the Gulf that this football event will be a model in football circles.”

In the almost two decades since Iraq was invaded, only in 2011 have World Cup qualifiers been held in the country due to FIFA concerns over security. There was disappointment earlier this year as the world governing body, which had originally allowed Baghdad to host March’s qualifier against the UAE, switched the game to Saudi Arabia just days before kick-off after missile attacks in the north of the country.

This latest decision could mark the beginning of a new era for Iraqi football on and off the pitch. For as long as anyone, around the age of 50 remembers, Iraq’s home games have usually taken place in third countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But once the Gulf Cup, which is not a FIFA-sanctioned competition, is done and dusted, then it is hoped that Iraq will be given the green light to play competitive games in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Iraq is one of Asia’s biggest football nations and won the 2007 Asian Cup despite the chaotic situation back home. The country has only appeared at one World Cup, back in 1986, and it is likely that there would have been other appearances had the team been allowed to play qualifiers on home soil. With the 2026 World Cup expanding to include eight automatic berths from Asia, doubling the current total of four, if the Gulf Cup leads to a change in FIFA’s stance, then Iraq will have a great chance of going to North America.

First though, there is a need to perform well off the field in January.

“We are now facing a great challenge, as we are only six months away from the start of the tournament,” said Adnan Dirjal, the president of the Iraq Football Association. “This requires everyone to do a great deal of work and to double their efforts.”

“We are looking forward to the challenge however and to welcoming the Gulf Cup to our country and putting on a great event.”


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 01 July 2022

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.