5 things learned as Al-Hilal continue stunning pursuit of Al-Ittihad in Saudi Pro League title race

5 things learned as Al-Hilal continue stunning pursuit of Al-Ittihad in Saudi Pro League title race
Al-Hilal have reduced Al-Ittihad’s lead from six points to none. (Twitter)
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Updated 30 May 2022

5 things learned as Al-Hilal continue stunning pursuit of Al-Ittihad in Saudi Pro League title race

5 things learned as Al-Hilal continue stunning pursuit of Al-Ittihad in Saudi Pro League title race
  • Having looked out of running, reigning Saudi, Asian champions now on same points as faltering Jeddah club with only 2 matches left

RIYADH: The unthinkable has happened, with once runaway leaders Al-Ittihad being reeled in by reigning champions Al-Hilal. Round 28 out of 30 in the Saudi Professional League season was a stunner and means that fans are in for a real treat when the campaign resumes in June.

1. Al-Hilal now the favorites

There has been an amazing turnaround at the top. In less than a week, Al-Hilal have reduced Al-Ittihad’s lead from six points to none. They also share the same goal difference.

On Sunday, the defending champions defeated Abha 2-0. Both the goals came in the second half with center-back Ali Al-Bulaihi opening the scoring 10 minutes after the break and Odion Ighalo, a much more regular goal scorer, sealing the win 10 minutes from the end.

At this stage of the season, it is not about performances but just about getting the points on the board. This was the kind of game that will not be remembered too long by fans except for the fact that it finally closed the gap. Now Al-Hilal have the momentum.

The loss to Al-Feiha at the start of May looked to have ended their title hopes but four straight wins since, including the victory over Al-Ittihad last week, means that the momentum is in Riyadh. Despite the schedule and the injuries, they are now favorites.

2. Al-Ittihad stumble once more

The leaders lost 1-0 at relegation battlers Al-Tai, who now look safe from the drop, but the headlines will be focused on how the team from Jeddah are close to throwing away what would be a first title win since 2009.

It was all looking fine a short while ago but just one point from the last three games has thrown everything up in the air.

This was not a smash-and-grab win from the hosts. Al-Ittihad struggled to get going and caused coach Cosmin Contra to call it the worst performance he had seen since taking over at the start of the season.

The Tigers should have taken the lead midway through the first half. A blistering shot from outside the area from Abdulaziz Al-Bishi was saved and the rebound came out to Muhannad Al-Shanqeeti, but his effort came back off the post. Then five minutes into the second-half, Amir Sayoud broke free and his low shot sent the home fans wild.

The worried looks from Contra and all those on the sidelines said it all. Al-Ittihad have forgotten how to win just as the trophy was in touching distance and they now have over two weeks to think about how to get back on track.

3. Relegation battle goes from intense to epic

Al-Hazem became the first team to be relegated last week but the rest of the battle to escape the trapdoor is becoming legendary. Almost the entire bottom half of the table can still feel the heat of the relegation zone. There are just three points that separate Al-Taawoun in 10th and Al-Batin in 15th and two of those six teams are going down. Nobody can predict who it will be.

Many desperate teams are picking up points as the intensity of the fight has moved up a notch. Al-Taawoun looked almost doomed but have now won their last two games. Ettifaq have bounced back under new coach Patrice Carteron. Al-Batin are still in serious trouble but have taken seven points from their last four games and now have a fighting chance. Al-Ahli have drawn their last three but that means they are now unbeaten in three while Al-Tai beat the leaders and look to be safe.

The title race may get most of the headlines, but the bottom half is no place for the faint-hearted.

4. Firas Al-Buraikan flying the flag for locals

It is rare to see a Saudi Arabian striker make the top 10 of goal scorers in the league but with two games of the season remaining, Firas Al-Buraikan is there.

The 22-year-old became frustrated about a lack of playing time at Al-Nassr and a move to Al-Fateh is now looking like an inspired one.

His hat-trick against Damac means that he now has 11 for the season and is in the top 10. This is especially welcome to national team coach Herve Renard. His other striker Saleh Al-Shehri is injured and is unlikely to be back before the summer ends, at best.

Another Al-Hilal forward Abdullah Al-Hamdan’s time on the pitch is stop and start at the club. It puts a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Al-Buraikan, but on current form, he looks like he can handle it and is starting to thrive. It can only be good news for fans of the national team ahead of the World Cup.

5. International break adds an extra dimension

There are so many talking points as the season enters its last two rounds.

There is the battle for the top three with Al-Nassr hitting form at the right time and are just two points clear of Al-Shabab. When Al-Shabab let Ighalo join Al-Hilal in January, they were above their Riyadh rivals in the table. That is no longer the case, but Al-Shabab have Carlos. The Brazilian scored twice in a vital 2-0 win at Al-Raed and now has 13 for the season. Such goals mean that they are still in the hunt for a top-three finish.

There are also the fortunes of Al-Ahli. The Jeddah giants just cannot pull away from that relegation trapdoor, but the focus is going to be on the title race and while Al-Hilal are now favorites, there is still time for more twists to come.

Now there are no games for almost three weeks and the teams that handle this period best will be rewarded. There is still time for coaches to earn their salaries and get the results that will mean the title or avoiding relegation.


Chastened Man United back in Europa League action

Chastened Man United back in Europa League action
Updated 58 min 24 sec ago

Chastened Man United back in Europa League action

Chastened Man United back in Europa League action
  • United flew to Cyprus on Wednesday after Ten Hag held a summit with his players
  • He encouraged them to speak openly about their failures against City

DUBAI: Erik ten Hag says Manchester United will learn lessons from Sunday’s humiliating 6-3 loss to Manchester City.
The healing process begins with a trip to Omonia Nicosia for the third round of matches in Europe’s second-tier competition.
United flew to Cyprus on Wednesday after Ten Hag held a summit with his players where he encouraged them to speak openly about their failures against City.
Ten Hag said he was grateful to City manager Pep Guardiola for bringing his team down to earth after four straight wins in the Premier League had seen spirits rise at United.
“It was a reality check, so we have to learn from it and carry on,” he said. “But we can get a lot of confidence about this theory, when you beat Arsenal, you beat Liverpool and now we get a reality check with Man City — so we know we have to step up.”
In other standout matches, Roma have the chance to move level on points with Group C leader Real Betis when they meet in Italy, while Arsenal can go top of Group A with a win at home to Norwegian team
EUROPA CONFERENCE LEAGUE
West Ham go for a third straight win in their group as the English team head to Anderlecht for a repeat of the 1976 final of the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup.
West Ham, which have beaten Romanian club FCSB and Danish club Silkeborg, are one of five teams on a maximum six points — along with FC Basel, AZ Alkmaar, Villarreal and Istanbul Basaksehir


Leipzig beats Celtic 3-1 for 1st win in Champions League

Leipzig beats Celtic 3-1 for 1st win in Champions League
Updated 05 October 2022

Leipzig beats Celtic 3-1 for 1st win in Champions League

Leipzig beats Celtic 3-1 for 1st win in Champions League
  • The win came at a cost as influential goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi had to be carried off early with an apparent right knee injury
  • Nkunku showed his class in the 27th when he went past Hart and finished from a narrow angle

LEIPZIG, Germany: Leipzig earned their first win of the Champions League season by beating Celtic 3-1 on Wednesday thanks to two late goals from André Silva and a defensive error from visiting goalkeeper Joe Hart.
The outstanding Christopher Nkunku also scored as Leipzig finally got off the mark in Group F after losses to Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Madrid. But the win came at a cost as influential goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi had to be carried off early with an apparent right knee injury.
Janis Blaswich replaced him for his Champions League debut.
Nkunku had a goal ruled out through VAR for offside shortly afterward, but the French player showed his class in the 27th when he went past Hart and finished from a narrow angle.
Kyogo Furuhashi had just gone close for the visitors, who suffered a further blow when captain Callum McGregor had to go off injured in the 37th.
Portuguese winger Jota equalized in the 47th when Furuhashi sent him through for a one-on-one with Blaswich. Jota sidefooted a low shot inside the far post for his first Champions League goal.
Dominik Szoboszlai struck the post in response, then thought he scored with a shot from 20 meters (yards) inside the far post. But VAR again ruled it out as André Silva had blocked Hart’s view.
The Celtic goalkeeper then gifted Leipzig their second goal when he passed straight to Szoboszlai, who teed up Silva to put the host ahead in the 64th.
Then Nkunku shone again with a brilliant ball for Mohamed Simakan to tee up Silva to seal the result in the 77th.
Celtic dropped to the bottom of Group F with one point.


Leverkusen fires coach Gerardo Seoane, appoints Xabi Alonso

Leverkusen fires coach Gerardo Seoane, appoints Xabi Alonso
Updated 05 October 2022

Leverkusen fires coach Gerardo Seoane, appoints Xabi Alonso

Leverkusen fires coach Gerardo Seoane, appoints Xabi Alonso
  • Seoane’s last game in charge was a 2-0 loss at Porto in the Champions League on Tuesday

LEVERKUSEN, Germany: Bayer Leverkusen have fired coach Gerardo Seoane and replaced him with Xabi Alonso.
The Bundesliga club said Wednesday that they had “parted ways” with the Swiss coach and appointed the 40-year-old former Spain midfielder, who was to be given a contract through June 2024.
Seoane’s last game in charge was a 2-0 loss at Porto in the Champions League on Tuesday, days after his team were routed 4-0 at Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga.
Leverkusen are second from bottom in the German league with just five points from the opening eight rounds. Seoane’s team were also knocked out in the first round of the German Cup by third-division team SV Elversberg.
Seoane led Leverkusen to third place in the Bundesliga last season after joining from Swiss team Young Boys in 2021.
Leverkusen said they would present Alonso at a news conference on Thursday.


Paris joins big screen boycott of World Cup games from Qatar

Paris joins big screen boycott of World Cup games from Qatar
Updated 05 October 2022

Paris joins big screen boycott of World Cup games from Qatar

Paris joins big screen boycott of World Cup games from Qatar
  • It follows similar moves by other French cities, despite France going in as the defending champion
  • The move comes despite the city's football club, Paris Saint-Germain, being owned by Qatar Sports Investments

PARIS: Paris will not broadcast World Cup matches on giant screens in public fan zones amid concerns over rights violations of migrant workers and the environmental impact of the tournament in Qatar.
It follows similar moves by other French cities, despite France going in as the defending champion. Some other European teams or federations are also looking at ways to protest.
Pierre Rabadan, deputy mayor of Paris in charge of sports, told reporters in the French capital that the decision against public broadcasting of matches is due to “the conditions of the organization of this World Cup, both on the environmental and social level.”
He said in an interview with France Blue Paris that “air-conditioned stadiums” and the “conditions in which these facilities have been built are to be questioned.”
Rabadan stressed that Paris is not boycotting the soccer tournament, but explained that Qatar’s “model of staging big events goes against what (Paris, the host of the 2024 Olympics) wants to organize.”
The move comes despite the city’s football club, Paris Saint-Germain, being owned by Qatar Sports Investments.
“We have very constructive relations with the club and its entourage yet it doesn’t prevent us to say when we disagree,” Rabadan said.
Denmark is staging its own protest: Its team jerseys at the World Cup will include a black option to honor migrant workers who died during construction work for the tournament. And several European soccer federations want their captains to wear an armband with a rainbow heart design during World Cup games to campaign against discrimination.
A growing number of French cities are refusing to erect screens to broadcast World Cup matches to protest Qatar’s human rights record.
The mayor of Strasbourg, the seat of the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights, cited allegations of human rights abuses and exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar as the reason for canceling public broadcasts of the World Cup.
“It’s impossible for us to ignore the many warnings of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers by non-governmental organizations,” Jeanne Barseghian said in a statement. “We cannot condone these abuses, we cannot turn a blind eye when human rights are violated.”
And then, there’s the impact on the environment, Barseghian said.
“While climate change is a palpable reality, with fires and droughts and other disaster, organizing a soccer tournament in the desert defies common sense and amounts to an ecological disaster,” she said.
Arnaud Deslandes, a deputy mayor of Lille, said that by canceling public viewing of matches, the northern city wanted to send a message to FIFA about the irreparable damage of the Qatar tournament to the environment.
“We want to show FIFA that money is not everything,” Deslandes told The Associated Press in an interview.
As for residents’ reactions to the city’s decision, he added: “I have yet to meet a person in Lille who was disappointed by our decision.”
The gas-rich emirate has been fiercely criticized in the past decade for its treatment of migrant workers, mostly from south Asia, who were needed to build tens of billions of dollars’ worth of stadiums, metro lines, roads and hotels.
Qatar has been equally fierce in denying accusations of human rights abuses, and has repeatedly rejected allegations that the safety and health of 30,000 workers who built the World Cup infrastructure have been jeopardized.
Qatar has also said that it is mindful of environmental concerns and has committed to offsetting some of the carbon emissions from the World Cup events through creating new green spaces irrigated with recycled water and building alternative energy projects.
Environmental activists across France have supported the cancelation of public broadcasting in fan zones because outdoor viewing of the Nov. 20-Dec. 19 tournament would use energy that the country has been storing for winter.


Ukraine to join Spain and Portugal in 2030 World Cup bid

Ukraine to join Spain and Portugal in 2030 World Cup bid
Updated 05 October 2022

Ukraine to join Spain and Portugal in 2030 World Cup bid

Ukraine to join Spain and Portugal in 2030 World Cup bid
  • “Now the Ukrainian delegation will unite with us,” the Spanish football association’s president said
  • Portugal held the 2004 European Championship while Ukraine was a joint host with Poland of Euro 2012

NYON, Switzerland: War-torn Ukraine will join Spain and Portugal in a bid to host the 2030 World Cup, presidents from the three countries’ football associations announced on Wednesday.
The original proposal was made public two years ago but has been given a political impetus by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The institutional headquarters are in Madrid, the administrative headquarters are in Lisbon. Now the Ukrainian delegation will unite with us,” the Spanish football association’s (RFEF) president Luis Rubiales said.
“In the coming months, we will come to work on practicalities,” he added.
RFEF, which organized the 1982 edition, said in a statement the idea was backed by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin.
“The Royal Spanish Football Federation and the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) have incorporated the Ukrainian Football Association (UAF) into the Iberian Bid to organize the 2030 World Cup,” RFEF said.
“With the full support of Aleksander Ceferin, the Iberian bid incorporates the federation chaired by Andriy Pavelko in order to build bridges and project a message of unity, solidarity and generosity from all of European football,” it added.
Portugal held the 2004 European Championship while Ukraine was a joint host with Poland of Euro 2012.
“The example of tenacity and resilience set by the Ukrainian people is inspiring,” the FPF said.
The FPF added that the joint bid “aims to contribute through the power of football to the recovery of a country undergoing reconstruction.”
It added the terms of Ukraine’s role in the bid “will be discussed and defined in due course.”
It follows the announcement last month from an Egyptian official that Egypt, Greece and Saudi Arabia are in talks to jointly host the 2030 World Cup.
In August, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Paraguay launched their bid to host the event — which is the centenary of the first World Cup, held in Uruguay — with the hope of bringing the global showpiece back to its first home.
The 2026 edition has already been awarded to three countries — Canada, Mexico and the United States.
More than half of the 21 World Cup finals already staged have been in Europe but later this year Qatar will host the finals, the first time they have been played in the Middle East.