Uncertain times for Al-Ahli as reality of relegation sinks in

Al-Ahli are dealing with something that has never happened before in their illustrious history: Relegation. (Twitter/Al-Ahli)
Al-Ahli are dealing with something that has never happened before in their illustrious history: Relegation. (Twitter/Al-Ahli)
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Updated 03 July 2022

Uncertain times for Al-Ahli as reality of relegation sinks in

Uncertain times for Al-Ahli as reality of relegation sinks in
  • Shocked fans will worry that star players will leave and who will be the coach next season as they take part in Saudi second-tier football for the first time

LONDON: Monday, June 27, 2022 will live long in the memory of Jeddah football fans. It was a bad day for clubs in the city but it could actually have been worse for fans of Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli.

Followers of the former may be devastated as their team threw away a double-digit lead at the top of the Saudi Professional League and a perfect chance to win a first title since 2009, but as bad as that was, at least they can see their bitter local rivals have it worse. That is because Al-Ahli are dealing with something that has never happened before in their illustrious history: Relegation.

Experiencing that unprecedented event would have been even more painful if their fans could have heard their Ittihad neighbors celebrating becoming champions of Saudi Arabia.

That there have been no such celebrations won’t be a comfort for too long however. Al-Ittihad have become used to not winning the title but this is new territory for Al-Ahli as they enter the second tier for the first time.

There is still shock as to how it came to this. From 2013 to 2020, the Jeddah giants didn’t finish outside the top four and won the title in 2016 and finished second in the following two seasons. The warning signs were there though, with an eighth-place finish last time around. There were reports of dressing room unrest; too many foreign players came in who did not make the difference and the quality of the local talent was not what it was. After goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais moved to Al-Hilal in January, there are no Al-Ahli players who are regular starters for the national team.

Coaches have come and gone too, without making much of an impact. There were high hopes for Besnik Hasi. The Kosovan-Albanian had done a great job with Al-Raed and came in last summer. Despite a slow start to the season, the management persevered with the former Legia Warsaw, Anderlecht and Olympiakos boss in the belief that he would turn things around. It was a rare show of patience by a big Saudi Arabian club but it didn’t work. Despite a fairly gentle start in terms of opponents, Al-Ahli did not win any of their first seven. There were just two clean sheets in their first 16 games but the 2012 Asian Champions League runners-up were still clear of the drop zone in early March when Hasi was finally fired. 

The replacement came out of left-field but Robert Siboldi was unable to offer anything different. In fact it was worse. The Uruguayan won the first game against Al-Tai but four points from the final six matches, at a time when relegation rivals were starting to collect points, meant that it all ended in disaster. Even so, had they scored just once against Al-Shabab in the final game then top-flight status would have been preserved.

What now? As well as the humiliation, the worst thing is the uncertainty. Nobody can say for sure when Al-Ahli will be back. If all goes well, the time spent out of the big time will be short but for every Newcastle United who bounce back stronger, there are teams such as Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday who spend years and years down before returning, if they return at all.

Former club president Abdullah Al-Batraji wondered if there was a chance that the planned expansion of the league from 16 to 18 teams might somehow take place this summer instead of next, thereby keeping Al-Ahli in the top flight. Such hopes are understandable but the route back to the top may be a little more traditional. Like any team that gets relegated, there are questions as to who will go and who will stay — especially as funding may be reduced.

One who fans will want to stay is star striker Omar Al-Somah. The Syrian striker still managed 10 goals in a struggling team and despite being 33, is very much in demand. There are links with clubs in Egypt, Qatar and elsewhere. The forward could also stay where he is, his current club would love that to happen, but a move does seem the likeliest and Al-Ahli are reluctant to see him move to another club in Saudi Arabia. It is also going to be hard to keep hold of Ezgjan Alioski, the other big success of the season after arriving from Leeds United last year. The Macedonian has been one of the standouts in the entire league, scoring six goals and assisting in nine. Many of the other foreign players did not impress.

There may be a shake-up in the management of the club but the big question is the coach. Siboldi was put in a difficult position in his first job in the region. The Uruguayan was not the right man to save Al-Ahli and is certainly not the right one to take them back to the big time. The question of who that may be has to be resolved, and the quicker the better.

The same can be said of Al-Ahli’s top-tier status. The quicker they return the better for football in Saudi Arabia, and even Al-Ittihad fans may agree with that.


Usyk and Joshua hold public workouts ahead of big showdown

Usyk and Joshua hold public workouts ahead of big showdown
Updated 17 August 2022

Usyk and Joshua hold public workouts ahead of big showdown

Usyk and Joshua hold public workouts ahead of big showdown
  • The Ukrainian and British fighters hit the pads with their trainers and spoke to the media

JEDDAH: Fight Week preparations for the Rage on the Red Sea stepped up a gear on Tuesday night when 12 fighters from the card held public workouts at Jeddah’s Saudi Airlines Club.

Main event boxers Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua, who meet for the second time, at the King Abdullah Sports City Arena on Saturday, gave fans and the media a first glimpse of how they’re shaping up going into their heavyweight showdown.

Usyk, who defends the unified world heavyweight titles, said: “I’m very pleased that I’m going to fight very soon. I’ve been watching Anthony Joshua for years already, so I’ve learned a lot and look forward to the fight.”

Commenting on everybody in his homeland of Ukraine being able to watch the bout for free, Usyk added: “I’m also very pleased about this as we all worked hard to ensure this outcome.”

Usyk and Joshua hit the pads with their trainers and interacted with members of the public and media during their 10-minute sessions, teasing what’s to come when they go head-to-head on fight night.

“Previous experiences are helpful, but ultimately, it’s all about what you do on the night. Whoever throws and lands the most punches wins,” said Joshua. “I’m focused, ready to do my best, and get the job done.”

“Saudi Arabia’s been very good to me, shout out to everyone here (in the Kingdom),” he continued. “I’ve had a good time, everyone at the hotel and gym has been looking after me, and it’s been like a second home,” he added. “I’ve good memories of here from last time out (against Andy Ruiz Jr. in 2019) and it’s time to create new ones.”

Also on show was Zhang Zhilei ahead of his bout with Filip Hrgovic, rivals Callum Smith and Mathieu Bauderlique, as well as Badou Jack, Andrew Tabiti, Rashed Belhasa, and Bader Samreen.

Rounding out the dozen boxers were Ziyad Al-Maayouf and Ramla Ali, who were given huge support from those in attendance.

They will both make history at the Rage on the Red Sea as the first Saudi and female fighters, respectively, to feature on an international professional card in the Kingdom.


UAE president heaps praise on Emirate’s first woman to win World Games medal

UAE president heaps praise on Emirate’s first woman to win World Games medal
Updated 17 August 2022

UAE president heaps praise on Emirate’s first woman to win World Games medal

UAE president heaps praise on Emirate’s first woman to win World Games medal
  • Shamma Al Kalbani was Emirate’s first woman to win a medal at World Games

DUBAI: UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has congratulated Shamma Al Kalbani for becoming the first Emirati woman to win a medal during the World Games.

The president met Kalbani – who scooped bronze in the 63kg category women’s jiu-jitsu at the Birmingham World Games in July - alongside the other Emirati winners of the jiu-jitsu competition at the games on Monday.

The competition, which took place in Birmingham, Alabama, is one of the most important global multi-sport events in the world.

The UAE grapplers won five medals at the championship, with Faisal Al-Ketbi winning gold in the 85 kilogram and open weight categories, and Mohammed Al-Suwaidi taking home silver in the 69 kilogram division. Shamma Al-Kalbani became the first Emirati female athlete to clinch a medal at the World Games, winning two bronze medals in the 63 kilogram and open weight categories.

 

 

He also congratulated the board of directors of the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation and commended their efforts in developing the martial art.

In response the delegation thanked the president for his support of the sport in the country.


Saudi Arabia take football silver at Islamic Solidarity Games after 1-0 loss to Turkey

Saudi Arabia take football silver at Islamic Solidarity Games after 1-0 loss to Turkey
Updated 17 August 2022

Saudi Arabia take football silver at Islamic Solidarity Games after 1-0 loss to Turkey

Saudi Arabia take football silver at Islamic Solidarity Games after 1-0 loss to Turkey
  • The defeat in Konya ends a run of 10 consecutive victories for the Kingdom’s U-23 team

Saudi Arabia’s footballers fell short of gold in the football competition at the Islamic Solidarity Games after a 1-0 defeat to hosts Turkey in Konya on Tuesday.

The loss ends the team’s run of 10 straight victories, stretching back to the triumphant AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan in June, for the young Green Falcons.

The winning goal was scored by Metehan Altunbas, of Turkish club Adanaspor, in the 27th minute of the match.

Saudi’s players received their silver medals from President of the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, who is also the president of the Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation.

The podium finish is Saudi’s second in the Islamic games across its five editions.

The team’s coach, Saad Al-Shehri, had previously won the competition as a player with Saudi Arabia in 2005.


Brazil-Argentina World Cup qualifier definitively canceled

Brazil-Argentina World Cup qualifier definitively canceled
Updated 17 August 2022

Brazil-Argentina World Cup qualifier definitively canceled

Brazil-Argentina World Cup qualifier definitively canceled
  • Even if the match were replayed, its result could not affect the outcome of qualifying, with Brazil topping the group and Argentina finishing second

RIO DE JANEIRO: Last year’s aborted World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina will not be replayed, the two South American countries’ football associations said on Tuesday.

The original fixture, in September last year, was halted when Brazilian health officials stormed onto the pitch after seven minutes in Sao Paulo, alleging COVID-19 quarantine breaches by the visitors.

But with nothing riding on the match as both countries have already qualified for the World Cup, which begins in Qatar on Nov. 20, they had pleaded with world football’s governing body FIFA to cancel the match definitively.

“The Brazil-Argentina match will not be played,” the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) and Argentine Football Association (AFA) said in a joint statement.

“AFA, CBF and FIFA have resolved the dispute at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).”

Both countries argued that playing the match as scheduled on Sept. 22 would adversely affect their World Cup preparations.

FIFA ruled in February that the game must be replayed and in May it rejected an appeal by both federations to have the match canceled, while also hitting them with fines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The two federations then took their case to CAS, which was due to rule this month.

Both countries qualified for the World Cup with several matches to spare in the single South American qualifying group.

Even if the match were replayed, its result could not affect the outcome of qualifying, with Brazil topping the group and Argentina finishing second.

Brazil have won the World Cup a record five times while reigning Copa America holders Argentina are twice champions.


Serena Williams gets door from Raducanu in Cincinnati opener

Serena Williams gets door from Raducanu in Cincinnati opener
Updated 17 August 2022

Serena Williams gets door from Raducanu in Cincinnati opener

Serena Williams gets door from Raducanu in Cincinnati opener
  • Raducanu broke Williams at the start of both sets to claim victory in what was her first and likely last meeting with the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion

CINCINNATI: Serena Williams bowed out of the WTA/ATP Cincinnati Masters at the first hurdle on Tuesday, losing in straight sets to US Open champion Emma Raducanu as the end of her glittering career looms ever closer.

Williams, who last week indicated that she is planning to retire after this month’s US Open, was no match for British teenager Raducanu, who romped to a 6-4, 6-0 win.

The 40-year-old Williams left the court swiftly after the defeat without speaking to television reporters and did not hold a press conference.

Raducanu broke Williams at the start of both sets to claim victory in what was her first and likely last meeting with the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion.

“I was nervous from the first point to the last,” Raducanu said. “Serena is dangerous and can come back from any situation.

“I had to stay focused. I’m so pleased I managed to keep my composure.”

Williams, winner of titles here in 2014 and 2015, was competing in only her fourth match of 2022 after starting her season at Wimbledon due to injury.

Raducanu announced her intentions from the start with a break to love of Williams and never let up.

The young Briton improved to 14 wins, 17 defeats since winning the Open last September from a qualifying start.

Raducanu meanwhile said she was honored to be part of the spectacle on Tuesday in what was one of Williams’ final games as a professional.

“We all need to honor Serena and her amazing career,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the experience of playing her and for the fact that our careers have crossed.

“All she has achieved is inspirational. It’s a true honor to share the court with her.”

Raducanu never let Williams into the match.

The young Londoner seeded 10th took a 4-1 lead in the opening set and completely swept the second, advancing on her first match point, an unreturnable serve.

Raducanu committed a single unforced error in the opening set compared to a dozen for Williams.

Williams’ elder sister Venus took a 7-5, 6-1 loss earlier in the day, losing to 2016 champion Karolina Pliskova.

In the men’s draw of the joint event, Nick Kyrgios began the last major US Open tuneup with a 7-5, 6-4 win over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

The Australian marched through with 29 winners — including 10 aces — and three breaks of the Spaniard’s serve to reach the second round.

The 28th-ranked Kyrgios has won all 11 of his first-round matches this season and won his 22nd match since returning to the ATP in June after skipping the clay season.

He now faces good friend Taylor Fritz after the American crushed Sebastian Baez 6-1, 6-1.

“Physically, I didn’t feel the best, but you have to keep pushing, keep trying,” Kyrgios said.

“Alejandro’s a hell of a player, he’s got a lot of shots at his disposal. I had to serve well and dictate,” the Montreal quarter-finalist added. “It was tricky conditions out there, the courts are a lot more lively than Montreal, it was harder to control the ball.”

It marked a happy return to Cincinnati for Kyrgios, who was fined a record $113,000 during a spectacular meltdown at the tournament in 2019

“I’ve played some amazing tennis here and had some crazy outbursts,” he said. “It’s a flip of the coin as to which Kyrgios shows up here.”

Elsewhere, Spanish third seed Carlos Alcaraz advanced in his tournament debut, defeating American Mackenzie McDonald 6-3, 6-2.

Italian 10th seed Jannik Sinner celebrated his 21st birthday by beating Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-7 (9/11), 6-4, 7-6 (8/6).