Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal enter penultimate round of Saudi Pro League season with title up for grabs

Special Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal enter penultimate round of Saudi Pro League season with title up for grabs
Al-Hilal’s Michael celebrates scoring his team’s third goal in their 3 -1 defeat of Al-Ittihad in May. (Twitter: @Alhilal_FC)
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Updated 22 June 2022

Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal enter penultimate round of Saudi Pro League season with title up for grabs

Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal enter penultimate round of Saudi Pro League season with title up for grabs
  • The reigning Saudi and Asian champions trailed leaders Al-Ittihad by 16 points, but an equal points finish will see them retain title due to better head-to-head record
  • If Al-Hilal take six points against Al-Fateh on Thursday and then Al-Faisaly next Monday, then they will finish first regardless of how Al-Ittihad fare against Al-Ettifaq and Al-Batin

Back in February when Al-Ittihad were 16 points clear of Al-Hilal, not even the most optimistic fans of the team from Riyadh and their most pessimistic counterparts in Jeddah would have imagined that there would be a genuine title race, let alone a battle that had them neck and neck with two games to go.

Not only has that scenario become reality, but the trophy is very much in the court of the defending champions. If Al-Hilal take six points against Al-Fateh on Thursday and then Al-Faisaly next Monday, then they will finish first regardless of how Al-Ittihad fare against Al-Ettifaq and Al-Batin.

It could be decided sooner. If Al-Hilal win the penultimate game and the Tigers lose to Al-Ettifaq (the two games take place at the same time on Thursday), then the Blues will be champions for the 18th time on Thursday. Both teams have 61 points from 28 games, but if they finish level, goal difference will not come into it. League rules state that head-to-head results come first, and that means that Al-Hilal are champions as they beat their rivals in March and then again in May.

Those two results have gone a long way to giving neutrals a title race to get excited about, but there is more to it than that. Ramon Diaz took over from Leonardo Jardim in February and while fans may not have been thrilled at the return of the Argentine, he and the team embarked on a quite remarkable run of 11 wins from the next 12 league games. With Al-Ittihad taking just seven points from the last six, it is not hard to see why it has become so tight.

Al-Hilal deserve plenty of plaudits. Despite the punishing commitments of the FIFA Club World Cup and the Asian Champions League, they are now in pole position. It was thought that Al-Ittihad would have the advantage with just 16 games to play this year compared to their rival’s 27, but it has not worked out what way.

Both teams have had a break since the last league action at the end of May, and both should be close to full strength, barring the long-term injuries Al-Hilal have with striker Saleh Al-Shehri and midfielder Abdulelah Al-Malki. Playmaker Matheus Pereira, captain Salman Al-Faraj and defensive lynchpin Jang Hyun-soo are fit to face Al-Fateh. The South Korean will have to handle Firas Al-Buraikan, one of the stars of the victorious U-23 team that lifted the Asian Cup on Sunday.

On paper, Al-Hilal’s game is easier. Al-Fateh are in sixth and cannot finish any higher and are not going down. They have little to play for, though coach Georgios Donis has pledged that they will give their all. 

“This is an important match for us,” Donis said. “The players will be motivated, and we will come out and play our best. We will play the way that befits the name of Al-Fateh.”

Still, the former Greek international who took APOEL of Cyprus into the UEFA Champions League knows it will not be easy. 

“Al-Hilal are a fine team with star players, but I am not scared of them. I have coached in big matches against Barcelona and stars such as Neymar, Suarez and Messi, so I do not fear Al-Hilal.”

Al-Ittihad’s opponents Al-Ettifaq may be further down the table than Al-Fateh but are desperately fighting to avoid relegation. Since appointing Frenchman Patrice Carteron in March, results have improved with the Dammam team taking 11 points from seven games. As things stand, Al-Ettifaq are just a point above relegation and a win would enable everyone to breathe much easier heading into the final day.

“We have been working hard to prepare for this game,” said coach Carteron. “We know it won’t be easy but are ready for the challenge.”

Cosmin Contra, Al-Ittihad boss, will be happy with the news that midfielder Andre Felipe and defender Muhannad Al-Shanqeeti are available and Brazilian star Igor Coronado should be fit to play after missing training earlier in the week. Al-Ittihad have been working hard in training with a focus on eliminating the kind of defensive errors that have seen them drop crucial points in recent games.

Even off the training pitch, the Romanian has much to think about. Al-Ittihad last won the title in 2009 and have come close since but not this close. Having a double-digit lead in the final weeks of the season and throwing it away would be hugely embarrassing as well as disappointing. In the longer term, it could also be psychologically damaging for a club that was already starting to fret about a dry run without a title that is in danger of becoming a drought.

The Tigers only have themselves to blame however with just one point from the last three games. It started with a 4-4 draw with Al-Fateh, which saw a 3-1 lead thrown away. Then came a 3-1 loss to their rivals and a 1-0 defeat to struggling Al-Tai last time around. That is a serious wobble. Yet despite the talk of Al-Hilal now being favorites, this season has shown that you never know. There is still plenty of time for more twists and turns and anything could happen.

This has been a great week for Saudi Arabian football, indeed a great year. The national team topped their World Cup qualification group to reach a sixth World Cup. The women played their first ever international game and the U-23 team are champions of Asia. Now the title race is on a knife edge.


‘All lights green’ for 2024 Paris Olympics opening ceremony: official

‘All lights green’ for 2024 Paris Olympics opening ceremony: official
Updated 28 September 2022

‘All lights green’ for 2024 Paris Olympics opening ceremony: official

‘All lights green’ for 2024 Paris Olympics opening ceremony: official
  • The opening ceremony on July 26, 2024, is not set to take place as is customary in the athletics stadium
  • The original plan was for an armada of 200 boats and some 600,000 spectators

PARIS: Organizers of the 2024 Paris Olympics intend to press ahead with an ambitious opening ceremony on the river Seine despite security concerns, a senior official said Wednesday.
“All the lights are green to organize this ceremony in good security conditions,” an aide to President Emmanuel Macron told reporters ahead of a top-level meeting to discuss preparations.
There had “never been a question” of abandoning the idea which was first announced by Macron himself, the aide added.
The French president is to chair a meeting with ministers, security forces, sports officials and the heads of Paris local authorities on Thursday to review the plans.
The opening ceremony on July 26, 2024, is not set to take place as is customary in the athletics stadium, but be celebrated with a flotilla down the river Seine.
The original plan was for an armada of 200 boats and some 600,000 spectators, but organizers are under pressure to scale down these ambitions.
Paris’ Olympics also face financial pressure, with the cost of energy and inflation rising sharply and Macron insisting “the Games must finance the Games.”
The aide confirmed that France was still discussing with the International Olympic Committee “if savings could be made” on some events and sites.
Paris was aiming to be the most energy-efficient and cost-effective possible, creating a “new model” for the competition, the aide added.


San Siro demolition on table as Milan and Inter’s stadium dream put to public

San Siro demolition on table as Milan and Inter’s stadium dream put to public
Updated 28 September 2022

San Siro demolition on table as Milan and Inter’s stadium dream put to public

San Siro demolition on table as Milan and Inter’s stadium dream put to public
  • AC Milan and Inter Milan both insist that they can no longer stay in the current, city-owned San Siro
  • Should it go ahead the project is scheduled to be completed in 2030

MILAN, Italy: A crucial step toward the demolition of the iconic San Siro begins on Wednesday when Milan hosts the first of a series of meetings with the public necessary for the new stadium proposed by the city’s two footballing giants.
AC Milan and Inter Milan both insist that they can no longer stay in the current, city-owned San Siro and have drawn up plans for a new 60,000-capacity ground flanked by sport and leisure facilities on the same site, which will be completely remodelled.
Should it go ahead the project is scheduled to be completed in 2030, with 1.3 billion euros ($1.24 billion) being jointly invested in the development by both clubs, who say they cannot afford to build separate new grounds and need the increased revenue this project would bring.
Over three years after presenting their initial project the public will now be able to scrutinize it and have their say at 10 meetings held over a month, after which a report will be presented to the city by the meetings’ independent organizers in mid-November.
The city can then decide whether to insist on further changes to a project which has had 50,000 square meters of development cut from it since it was first proposed, or proceed with approval.
The project is divided into two main sections: construction of the new stadium in the area immediately west of the San Siro currently occupied by car parking and a local park, which the clubs want finished by September 2027.
After that is built the current stadium, set to host the opening ceremony of the 2026 Winter Olympics, will then be demolished before the new facilities — including shopping, convention and sports centers, are built around a new public park.
It’s these facilities and the destruction of a symbolic stadium which have attracted the ire of some Milan residents and a sizeable portion of the city council, who are also angry at the granting of public land to private investors for a fraction of the rent the pair currently pay.
Other criticisms include the significant reduction in the number of seats — of which over 10,000 could be reserved for hospitality — way down not just on the San Siro’s capacity but also the number of fans currently packing the ground.
Both Inter and Milan have been regularly getting crowds of over 70,000 as a post-pandemic wave of enthusiasm among fans has led to supporters flocking back to stadiums in big numbers across Serie A.
Some pressure groups are pushing for the renovation of the current ground and dismiss Milan CEO Paolo Scaroni’s claims on Tuesday that it would be “impossible and dangerous to get 50,000 fans into a building site,” citing the redevelopment of the San Siro ahead of the 1990 World Cup which added a whole new tier to the stadium.
However, Milan mayor Giuseppe Sala has repeatedly asked critics what local authorities would be able to do with a massive, unused football stadium on the outskirts of the city should the project not be approved and the clubs decide to move in order to get the new ground built.
A source at Inter told AFP in the summer that any more bureaucratic bumps in the road would lead to the project being moved to the site of a former factory in Sesto San Giovanni, a town just outside Milan which is on the city’s metro network.
The teams abandoning the area wouldn’t just leave the city with a clubless football stadium, it would also have an impact on neighborhoods which have for a long time been some of the city’s most problematic.
Two stops down the ‘lilac’ metro line which takes fans to the San Siro is Piazzale Segesta, which flanks a troubled council housing estate — one of several in the area.
Laura Guardini, a former journalist at the daily Corriere Della Sera and volunteer at the local neighborhood association, says that of the 6,000 homes on the estate almost 1,000 are squatted in, often by people involved in drug dealing and other serious criminal activities.
She says that residents in the legally occupied apartments refuse holidays and sometimes even hospital treatment as once word is out that their flat is empty squatters “kick in the doors and take over.”
Silvia Cavagnari, who runs a local Italian language school for foreigners, says “the people in this area couldn’t care less about the stadium project, they have much bigger problems.”
And Laura Mariani, a teacher at the language school, hopes that Milan and Inter manage to get the project approved.
“I hope that the clubs do manage to build it,” she says. “Because if they leave it would be a disaster for this area.”


Colleagues DeChambeau and Lahiri embracing LIV Golf’s debut in Asia

Colleagues DeChambeau and Lahiri embracing LIV Golf’s debut in Asia
Updated 28 September 2022

Colleagues DeChambeau and Lahiri embracing LIV Golf’s debut in Asia

Colleagues DeChambeau and Lahiri embracing LIV Golf’s debut in Asia
  • LIV Golf Invitational Bangkok takes place Oct. 7-9 at all-new Stonehill
  • A new 14-tournament LIV Golf League will launch in 2023 with 48 players, 12 franchises

BANGKOK: LIV Golf makes its eagerly awaited Asian debut in Thailand next week, and Crushers GC captain Bryson DeChambeau and teammate Anirban Lahiri have spoken of their excitement in bringing the fresh format to a new audience.

Forty-eight of the world’s best golfers, including 12 major champions and four former world No. 1s, are set to tee off at the all-new Stonehill, the first stop in Asia this season ahead of a trip to Saudi Arabia for the LIV Golf Invitational Jeddah, the seventh of eight events this year.

The LIV Golf Invitational Bangkok takes place Oct. 7-9.

“The game of golf is global, that is first and foremost,” said 2020 US Open Champion and Crushers GC Captain Bryson DeChambeau. “As I have traveled to Dubai, and won overseas, and played in the UK and did well — even as an amateur at college, I played the World Amateur Championship in Japan, I played the Australian Masters and Australian Open as an amateur. And playing those events, you realize that golf is not just this small little thing in the States. You realize it is a global game.”

This summer, LIV Golf announced that the LIV Golf League will officially launch in 2023 with 48 players and 12 established team franchises competing in a 14-tournament schedule. The full slate of events, to be announced in the future, is expected to expand LIV Golf’s global footprint across North and Latin America, Asia, Australia, the Middle East and Europe.

LIV Golf has also made a $300 million, 10-year investment in the Asian region through the creation of The International Series — a program of events with larger prize purses on the Asian Tour in venues such as Thailand, Singapore, Korea, Egypt and Morocco, as well as England so far this season.

The Crushers GC roster has featured a broad range of international stars such as England’s Paul Casey and Richard Bland, India’s Anirban Lahiri, South African stars Shaun Norris and Justin Harding, and Australian Travis Smyth.

DeChambeau believes that this approach will appeal to more markets and improve the game.

“I looked at this opportunity. I got Anirban on the team and Paul Casey on the team, and it is great to have international players on the team so we can grow internationally and that’s my goal,” said DeChambeau. “So many people don’t know this great game and having created amazing relationships, I want to provide that opportunity moving forward and that’s what I think team Crushers and LIV Golf can do, and that is what we are trying to accomplish and expand, and grow this opportunity to the max.”

Lahiri, a star in his native India, finished second in his LIV Golf debut in Boston following a dramatic three-way playoff with Chile’s Joaquin Niemann and the eventual victor, Johnson. He spoke about the excitement that has already picked up in his home country and across Asia after being onboard with LIV Golf for just one month.

“One perception from back home is that people are looking at the golf and they are excited about having one of their own playing on this stage. People are excited about LIV going to Asia,” said Lahiri. “At least 20 people I know from India are flying to Bangkok and that’s just from India, not Singapore or Malaysia and everywhere. Golf is huge in Asia.

“People are viewing this as something that could be a lifeline going forward. Not just what they are doing with the Asian Tour, but they are going to get to see the players they want to see. They are loving the broadcasts and it is overwhelmingly positive. I’m very happy that so many people are positive about what is going on.”

Lahiri explained how the new format and the broadcast on YouTube will enable fans to see more of the action.

“Even if I’m in middle of the field, you are still going to see me hit a few shots, and there is still a narrative if you follow my team,” Lahiri added. “The people who follow me will also follow (the team) because it affects me. And that’s where the team aspect builds the fan base. The whole dynamic works well, especially in the countries where golf is growing. People are still trying to get interested and involved with the sport, and this platform does a lot more for engagement.”


e& partners with Manchester City to support young UAE footballers

e& partners with Manchester City to support young UAE footballers
Updated 28 September 2022

e& partners with Manchester City to support young UAE footballers

e& partners with Manchester City to support young UAE footballers
  • The Talented Player Program looks to develop those aged 11-16

ABU DHABI: The company e&, formerly known as Etisalat Group, announced on Wednesday its continued partnership with Manchester City’s Football Schools to support the development of young players.

First launched in 2019, the Talented Player Program provides a platform for those aged 11 to 16 across Abu Dhabi and Dubai to fulfil their potential under the guidance of expert coaches from City Football Schools. The TPP has seen over 50 players transition in the last three years into elite environments.

With the support of e&, the technology and investment conglomerate, the program will help young players travel for training at partner clubs around the world.

“Since the Manchester City Football School launched in 2011 in Abu Dhabi, it has seen over 10,000 players take part in around 50,000 sessions and the Talented Player Program has been a hugely successful part of our delivery in the UAE,” said Simon Hewitt, senior manager football education MENA.

“Through the program, players have signed for professional academies in the UAE, UK, Italy, Spain and Egypt, including one player at our very own Manchester City,” said Hewitt.

“We are excited that this platform opens new horizons for players to excel and with the support of e&, we are confident that we will see more success stories in the years to come.”

Etisalat has been the Official Telecommunications Partner of Manchester City since 2009, with the agreement recently extended for a sixth term.


Room for improvement: 5 things learned as Arab teams have mixed results in World Cup warm-up matches

Room for improvement: 5 things learned as Arab teams have mixed results in World Cup warm-up matches
Updated 28 September 2022

Room for improvement: 5 things learned as Arab teams have mixed results in World Cup warm-up matches

Room for improvement: 5 things learned as Arab teams have mixed results in World Cup warm-up matches
  • Tunisia suffer against Brazil, Qatar remain consistent, lack of Saudi goals becoming concern

RIYADH: The last international break before the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Doha on Nov. 20 has just wrapped with the four Arab qualifiers of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Tunisia continuing to have mixed results in what could be their final warm-up matches.

Meanwhile, Egypt, who will miss out on the party in Qatar, are already looking ahead to the future.

Here are five things learned from the latest action.

1. If Saudi Arabia can score, they have a chance in Qatar

An obvious point, but the 0-0 draw with the US in Spain did mean a fourth straight friendly without a goal for the Green Falcons. However, the performance was an improvement on the 0-0 draw with Ecuador on Friday, and the two 1-0 losses to Colombia and Venezuela in June.

The defense prevented the US, with plenty of talented players, from creating clear chances and it was a hard-working display all around. The Saudis did not create too many clear-cut scoring opportunities, but there was an improvement in their overall attacking display.

None of the chances that did come along were taken and while there are absences such as Salem Al-Dawsari and Salman Al-Faraj that make a difference, it is a concern.

Coach Herve Renard does not have a Robert Lewandowski or a Lionel Messi to score at will, and he needs his stars fit if there is to be a chance against Argentina, Poland, and Mexico.

Taken in isolation, however, and not after three blank returns, the result and the performance against the Americans were encouraging and with more preparation games to come (unlike some other teams at the World Cup) there is still a little time to get firing in an offensive sense.

2. It could have been worse for Tunisia

Losing to Brazil is no disgrace for any team but it is never nice to be hit with a  5-1 defeat. However, Tunisia were simply blown away by the in-form five-time champions.

There was much to cheer about in the 18th minute as Montassar Talbi equalized Raphinha’s opener but within seconds, Richarlison had restored the lead and soon after Neymar scored from the spot. By 40 minutes it was 4-1 and when Dylan Bronn was red carded before the break, it looked really bleak for the Carthage Eagles.

Brazil eased off in the second half and it was a chastening experience for Tunisia who were coming off the back of some positive results of late.

They had their moments going forward and saw a goal disallowed which could have changed things but, in the end, Brazil were just too good. At least it is unlikely that the North Africans will face such a talented team in Qatar even against defending champions France, or Denmark and Australia.

3. Qatar improve against Chile but need more

After losing to Canada in a poor performance last week, Qatar improved to draw 2-2 with Chile. Their first-half performance was a continuation of the previous match, lacking energy, invention, and focus as Alexis Sanchez’s well-worked goal gave the South Americans a deserved lead at the break.

In the second half, Qatar took advantage of a defensive mistake to equalize through Akram Afif and then a thunderbolt from Hassan Al-Haydos gave them a lead that they could not hang on to.

At this stage of preparation, it was another concerning performance overall.

This is not the well-drilled and fluid Qatar team that strolled to the 2019 Asian Cup title. That is now three poor halves out of four and the goals against Chile came from mistakes and a moment of brilliance rather than sustained pressure.

It could be that the Maroons are so focused on the tournament and games against Ecuador, Senegal, and the Netherlands that are less than two months away that it is hard to perform in friendlies, but it is time to find the old intensity.

4. Morocco and Ziyech moving forward

The second game in charge for coach Walid Regragui ended in a 0-0 draw with Paraguay but the tactician will not be too concerned as his team did enough to win but just could not quite find the goal in a high-tempo clash.

At the back, the defense was tested by the lively Miguel Almiron of Newcastle United but held firm to keep a second clean sheet in four days following their 2-0 win over Chile.

Hakim Ziyech, recalled to the side after his fall-out with the previous coach, was the standout. The Chelsea winger hit the inside of the post with a curling shot from outside the area and put a couple of chances on a plate for team-mates. He also created Ryan Mmaee’s goal that was narrowly ruled out for offside.

Overall, it was a fine performance from the Atlas Lions who are feeling much better about their national team than a couple of months ago and will be looking forward to Belgium, Croatia, and Canada.

5. Egypt looking good for 2026

It cannot be easy for Egypt as they watch their rivals prepare for the first World Cup in the region, but fans are feeling happier than before.

New coach Rui Vitoria has promised that there will be qualification for the 2026 tournament and while it is obviously very early days, the signs are good with two 3-0 wins in the first two games in charge for the Portuguese boss.

Supporters were delighted to see Mohamed Salah score twice in the first win over Niger and while the Liverpool man withdrew from the second game, the same score line was recorded against Liberia. There are tougher tests to come but it seems that a small corner has been turned.

It has been a roller-coaster year for the national team with penalty shootout defeats in the Africa Cup of Nations final and World Cup qualification under Carlos Queiroz and a new coach Ehab Galal, who was quickly fired after a 4-1 loss to South Korea in June.

Some stability and progress are needed and while this is just a start, it is a good one. Missing out on the 2022 World Cup was tough to take but the road to 2026 has already begun.