Spurs face uncertain future despite Conte return for AC Milan clash

Spurs face uncertain future despite Conte return for AC Milan clash
Tottenham Hotspur manager Antonio Conte during the Champions League round of 16 first leg match against AC Milan at the San Siro, Milan, on Feb. 14. (Reuters file photo)
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Updated 07 March 2023

Spurs face uncertain future despite Conte return for AC Milan clash

Spurs face uncertain future despite Conte return for AC Milan clash
  • Tottenham need Conte to lift their spirits ahead of a defining night in their season

LONDON: Antonio Conte’s uncertain future threatens to ruin Tottenham’s spluttering season as the Italian returns to the bench for Wednesday’s decisive Champions League showdown against AC Milan.

Conte is set to be back in charge of Tottenham after missing the last four games as he recovered from gallbladder surgery.

Watching on television back home in Italy while remaining in contact with his assistant Cristian Stellini, Conte saw Tottenham endure a choppy period that encapsulated the club’s inconsistent form throughout his reign.

A pair of 2-0 wins against West Ham and Chelsea suggested Tottenham were on course to clinch a top four place in the Premier League with a flourish.

But that optimism was punctured by a dismal 1-0 loss at second tier Sheffield United in the FA Cup fifth round and another drab league defeat by the same score at Wolves on Saturday.

Conte has walked back into Tottenham’s plush training complex this week to find a club not exactly in crisis — they still sit fourth in the Premier League for now — but once again drifting seemingly without direction toward an anti-climactic end to the season.

The north Londoners haven’t won a major trophy since 2008 and even a manager of Conte’s pedigree has been unable to break the drought.

While Jurgen Klopp memorably referred to his Liverpool players as “mentality monsters” during the peak of their success under the German, Tottenham’s often limp response to pressure has made them look more like “mentality midgets.”

Conte has portrayed Tottenham’s problems as beyond his control, subtlely hinting at frustration with the transfer policy of chairman Daniel Levy without completely condemning him in public.

But the 53-year-old is taking his share of the blame from Tottenham fans, who have grown tired of his conservative tactics and questionable substitutions.

Stellini’s run of three successive wins prior to the FA Cup defeat made some Tottenham devotees wonder what the future would look like without Conte.

The former title winner at Chelsea, Inter Milan and Juventus has yet to sign an extension to a contract that expires at the end of this season and would surely be in demand from Serie A clubs if he was available.

Even if Tottenham finish in the top four to guarantee a return to the Champions League, it would be little surprise if Conte and Levy decided a parting of the ways was the only option in May.

Against that troubled backdrop, Tottenham host Milan in the last 16 second leg looking to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first meeting at the San Siro.

Tottenham need Conte to lift their spirits ahead of a defining night in their season.

Crashing out against a mediocre Milan would be another sign of Tottenham’s malaise, but victory could serve as the springboard for a more uplifting finale.

Tottenham defender Ben Davies acknowledged the significance of Conte being present for the Milan clash.

“It’s been a while now but we have a huge game on Wednesday and it is very important he is with us,” he said.

Conte has cut a disgruntled figure on the touchline this season, but Stellini echoed Davies’s hope that Tottenham can be revived by their manager’s return.

“Antonio will be a massive boost for us until the end of the season,” Stellini said.

“It is important that Antonio is back. The team show to Antonio it is alive. They want to win, they want to dominate the game.”

Newcastle sign off remarkable season with battling draw at Chelsea

Newcastle United’s Anthony Gordon celebrates scoring their first goal with Elliot Anderson. (Reuters)
Newcastle United’s Anthony Gordon celebrates scoring their first goal with Elliot Anderson. (Reuters)
Updated 28 May 2023

Newcastle sign off remarkable season with battling draw at Chelsea

Newcastle United’s Anthony Gordon celebrates scoring their first goal with Elliot Anderson. (Reuters)
  • Magpies earn a point in London as the Premier League season comes to a close

LONDON: Football, at its best, is able to tell a fairy-tale like no other game on the planet. The story of Eddie Howe, Jason Tindall and Newcastle United is near Oscar-worthy.

As the sun beat down from the crystal-clear London skies, to light up the Stamford Bridge dugouts, Eddie Howe, flanked by partner-in-crime Jason Tindall cut like shadowed, dream-like, movie stars, who'd just played a major role in this season's Premier League contender for performance of the year.

From clearing out dressing rooms and helping clean kits at Bournemouth, as the club sat in 92nd place out of 92 teams in the English Football League, days from going out of business, to strolling to the mega-bucks big leagues of Europe’s premier club competition.

All in a decade and a half's work for Howe & Co. It’s been some journey. Maybe, one day someone will make a film about their progress. I suppose, in many ways, Amazon already are. And what a watch it will be, with almost unrivalled success, the like of which has not been seen on Tyneside since the days of Sir Bobby Robson and Kevin Keegan.

This Newcastle team, and Howe with Tindall, deserve to be talked about in that company. They've earned that right. And in truth, it still feels like they're only just getting started.

This was one will not go down in the annals of history, it was very much an end-of-season affair in West London, but that mattered little. Nothing was on the line, the hard work already done. It's not often things have meant to little, of late.

With that in mind, and injuries biting, Howe made four changes to the line-up with Martin Dubravka and Anthony Gordon the key inclusions. One won man of the match, the other scored Newcastle’s only goal in the 1-1 draw. Very little Howe touches these days doesn't turn to gold. Long may it continue for Mr Midas.

Alexander Isak, a signing of the year contender, rattled the limbs of Kepa in the Blues’ goal before Gordon rippled it with as easy a finish as he's ever likely to get.

Allan Saint-Maximin, who hugged the left-hand side touchline, was set free by the impressive Fabian Schar, the combining with Elliot Anderson, who squared for ex-Everton man Gordon to tuck in his first Newcastle goal. It was also young Geordie Anderson's first ever senior Newcastle assist.

That was really as good as it got for United, who could, and should have doubled and trebled their goals registered on the day but for the bizarrely profligate Miguel Almiron.

Chelsea didn't need a much of an invite to get in on the act, although their strike felt like a gift. With Saint-Maximin lacking in defensive work Chelsea had the run of their right and as Matt Targett was turned inside and out by Raheem Sterling, the England man found his international teammate Kieran Trippier, who turned into his own net when tracking back.

After the break it was all Chelsea, with Dubravka having to withstand a Blues' siege. Sterling went close before substitutes Joao Felix and Christian Pulisic wasted two gilt-edged opportunities to nick it late on.

It was too little, too late for Chelsea, whose damage was long done before the final day. For their opponents, it feels like the foundations are already being put in place for a changing of the guard at the very top of English football.

Three thousand-odd Geordies went through their full range of musical hits at the death, including a new tune for Howe and Tindall, and partied long after the home fans left the building.

Howe even attempted to emulate newly formed rival Jurgen Klopp with a fist pump towards the Geordie faithful. The roar he got back would rival any in world football.

Those fans know pain - and they also know real talent when they see it. In Howe, United have a manager the envy of the English footballing world. Europe will know that, too, soon enough.

Nuno banishes memories of recent disappointments as he leads Al-Ittihad to Roshn Saudi League glory

Al-Ittihad players and coach Nuno Santo celebrate the club's first league title in 14 years. (Twitter/@ittihad_en)
Al-Ittihad players and coach Nuno Santo celebrate the club's first league title in 14 years. (Twitter/@ittihad_en)
Updated 28 May 2023

Nuno banishes memories of recent disappointments as he leads Al-Ittihad to Roshn Saudi League glory

Al-Ittihad players and coach Nuno Santo celebrate the club's first league title in 14 years. (Twitter/@ittihad_en)
  • Jeddah club claim first championship in 14 years after missing out to Al-Hilal last season

JEDDAH: In November 2021, Nuno Espirito Santo lost his job as head coach of Tottenham Hotspur following defeat to Manchester United.

Eighteen months later, with the London club struggling and without a coach, he lifted the Roshn Saudi League trophy after Al-Ittihad won 3-0 at Al-Fayha on Saturday.

It has been a long and hard season for the Jeddah giants who have waited 14 years to get their hands on this particular prize, but hiring the Portuguese boss last summer was a turning point in that journey.

Rivals such as Al-Nassr, who will have to settle for second after a 1-1 draw with Ettifaq, have signed world-class stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, but having a coach who has worked at the top levels of the global game proved to be exactly what Al-Ittihad needed.

“The players have worked very hard,” said Santo after the final whistle as the celebrations started.

“Al-Ittihad has suffered from many problems since last season, and we faced important absences, and the effort had to be collective in order to be able to win the title.”

The biggest problem was getting over last season itself. Fans will never forget how, in February, Al-Ittihad were 16 points clear of Al-Hilal, but still managed to slip up and had to watch in horror disbelief as their bitter rivals from Riyadh took the title.

After missing out more than once since 2009, there was a feeling that while Hilal were a winning machine, Ittihad had forgotten what was necessary to stay the course over a league season.

Enter the former Porto, Valencia and Wolverhampton Wanderers boss.

“I am happy when I see the team organized and balanced on the pitch,” the 49-year-old said. “For me, work, organization and commitment are the basic pillars of any team and are not up for negotiation.”

That is obvious to anyone who has watched the Tigers, who have lived up to the spirit of their name this season.

In 29 games, they have conceded just 13 goals. The defense has been rock solid. Goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe has been one of the unsung heroes and the Brazilian has already managed a record 18 clean sheets this season.

It helps that in front of him is one of the best central defenders in Asia, as well as his home continent of Africa. Ahmed Hegazi has been a revelation since arriving from West Bromwich Albion in October 2020. The Egyptian is a leader and inspiration to his team-mates and, like his defensive partner Ahmed Sharahili, who scored an early opener on Saturday to calm any nerves, chips in with vital goals. 

Hegazi’s fellow Egyptian Tarek Hamed is a more recent addition, and the defensive midfielder has added bite, weight and experience to the middle since arriving in pre-season. Not only does he protect the backline, but the 34-year-old is always available to receive the ball, relieve pressure and keep possession.

It is not just about a rock-solid defense, either. Al-Ittihad still score plenty, with attackers knowing that a goal or two will almost certainly be enough to win. The Brazilians are always a threat. Bruno Henrique has been as steady as always, with Igor Coronado one of the more creative presences in the entire league and along with his six goals, having provided two assists in the vital 3-0 win at the weekend to take his season total to 13. 

Romarinho has had another excellent season. He may not get the plaudits he deserves, but is almost sure to score on the rare occasions that Abderrazak Hamdallah fails. The Moroccan is an exceptional goalscorer and, with 20 so far this season, is on course for a third golden boot in Saudi Arabia which would be a major achievement.

It is, of course, not just about the foreign players. Haroune Camara has been a willing assistant in attack, Ahmed Bamsaud has improved at left-back under Santo, and on the right side of defense, Madallah Al-Olayan has also been a steady presence.

Santo has brought all this together with his watchwords of organization, hard work and balance. There is also mentality. When Al-Shabab were impressing early in the season, Ittihad just plugged away and did the same when Al-Nassr were top. At the halfway point, they were third, but like the best long-distance runner were dangerously on the shoulder of the leaders and ready to make their move.

And this is what happened. As Al-Shabab dropped off, and Al-Nassr blew a little hot and cold up in Riyadh, down in Jeddah Al-Ittihad just kept going. They lost only two games all season, and a big difference between this campaign and last was how they bounced back from unfortunate results. An early season loss against Al-Hilal and then a draw with Al-Shahab were setbacks that could have raised concerns, but the Jeddah club then picked up 34 points from the next 36 games — a run that the other teams were unable to live with. 

The second loss was 2-1 to Al-Taawoun with five games to go. Last season’s Ittihad may well have crumbled, but any hope rivals may have had that this version was faltering were dashed with the subsequent 4-0 win at home to Abha. Even when the performances were not great, they found a way to win and that, as Al-Hilal fans know, is what champions do. 

And, after 14 years, Al-Ittihad fans know it, too. They have waited a long time for this success, as has Nuno. They all deserve it.

Chelsea must ‘build step by step’ to get back among challengers, says Sterling

Chelsea must ‘build step by step’ to get back among challengers, says Sterling
Updated 28 May 2023

Chelsea must ‘build step by step’ to get back among challengers, says Sterling

Chelsea must ‘build step by step’ to get back among challengers, says Sterling
  • The London club will end a torrid season with home clash against Champions League-bound Newcastle United

Raheem Sterling casts his mind back to the start of his Manchester City career to reflect on a turbulent debut season at Chelsea.

“My first two years at City, it was not all beauty,” he says. “We had to build step by step and that’s exactly what we have to do here at Chelsea.”

From his arrival in 2015 until 2017, a League Cup triumph in 2016 was City's sole trophy and all they had to show for their exertions in four competitions.

They came fourth and third too in a Premier League they have since dominated.

That latter placing came in Pep Guardiola’s eagerly-awaited first season as they finished empty-handed and the Spaniard came under intense scrutiny as he tried to shape their transformation.

It was way below the expectations of the club and their supporters - something six-time league champions Chelsea can relate to now as they endure their worst campaign in the Premier League era.

The Blues, who host Newcastle in Sunday’s final day of fixtures, are in 12th place with a 43-point tally after spending £600 million on 16 new signings under new owner Todd Boehly.

Their fall - in contrast to the rise of Eddie Howe's side as they secured Champions League football next season after previously battling relegation - has been astonishing.

Just 15 months ago Chelsea were crowned World Club champions in Abu Dhabi - following on from their 1-0 victory in Porto over Sterling’s City side in the 2021 Champions League final.

Critics and fans have savaged them for their under-achievement since, with Sterling among the main targets following last summer’s £50m arrival from City, where he won four league titles and six domestic cups.

“It’s been hard, but it’s a transitional period for the club and I know, like everything, how things can be,” the 28-year-old tells Arab News exclusively.

“There’s an expectation of a certain level for clubs and players, and if you don’t match that, then you are going to get that criticism.

“But that’s what you want at this top level, because that’s what drives you to build, to get better and have a better season than the one we have had this season.

“And I have got no doubt that once we get the organisation right, once we get the personnel right, then we will be challenging.”

And Sterling, who was left out of England’s squad for the Euro 2024 qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia in June after talks with boss Gareth Southgate amid injury concerns, is ready to accept the challenges ahead.

He has faced hardships and vitriol before. Whether it was his acrimonious departure from Liverpool to City, leading the fight against racism or having to constantly prove his worth for England, for whom he has 20 goals in 82 appearances.

As a two-year-old, Jamaica-born Sterling’s father was murdered and his mother Nadine moved to England to provide a better life for the family.

Setbacks only serve as a driving force for the forward to respond and succeed.

So too does watching former club City lift this season’s title for a fifth time in six seasons - and after a 1-0 loss at the Etihad where the Chelsea players formed a guard of honour for the champions beforehand.

"That’s what I want, that’s the level I want to be at, that’s the motivation for me," adds Sterling, who has scored nine goals for Chelsea but struggled to find consistency in a side unsettled by managerial changes and the influx of new faces.

“It’s not been hard at all for me personally. I don’t hear the criticism. I keep working, keep going and that’s it.

“I’ve got the ambition to do well. This is one season and you just have to brush it off and go again.

“Sometimes these tough times are what gets you to go to the next level. That’s why you use this fuel, you use this motivation of seeing City, my old club, win the title, right in front of me, and go again. It’s simple.

“That’s the level I’ve been at for the past seven years and that’s the level I want to stay at. I won’t accept this season and we just build now.”

Chelsea’s rebuild will begin with the imminent arrival of Argentine Mauricio Pochettino to take charge.

He will be the club’s fifth manager since September, following the departures of Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter and interim bosses Bruno Saltor and Frank Lampard, who will lead them for the last time against Newcastle.

Sterling believes Pochettino, who managed Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-Germain, can restore the good times at Chelsea.

“From his time before at Tottenham, I heard a conversation about him and he’s the exact person that we need,” he says.

“He will bring leadership, he will challenge players physically and mentally and I think he is going to come here and he is going to have the personality that everyone is going to respect. That’s what we need, someone in charge.”

Sterling adds: “We have a good squad, the quality is there. We will add some players and some will leave, I get it, but there’s no doubt in my mind we will be challenging again very soon.

“From the start of this season we have not had our best XI out. The majority of it, we have had 11, 12 players out injured so it was an unfair start. 

“But then again, these are the challenges that happen at the top football clubs and it will get us the consistency we need.

“It’s been hard work, it’s been a tough season, but I always believe after tough times there will be good times if you keep working hard. 

“No matter how this season has gone, good, bad or indifferent, I’ve tried to keep the same focus, the same work-rate and believe you will see the shadow pass.”

Al-Ittihad champions as Al-Nassr and Ronaldo stumble

Al-Ittihad champions as Al-Nassr and Ronaldo stumble
Updated 28 May 2023

Al-Ittihad champions as Al-Nassr and Ronaldo stumble

Al-Ittihad champions as Al-Nassr and Ronaldo stumble

Al-Ittihad are Saudi Arabian champions for the first time since 2009 after defeating Al-Fayha 3- 0 on Saturday in the penultimate round of fixtures in the Roshn Saudi League. Second-placed Al-Nassr came back to draw 1-1 at Ettifaq but it was not enough as Ittihad’s win ended an exciting title race. It is a well-deserved triumph for coach Nuno Santo and his players who saw off the challenge of Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Nassr to lift a hard-fought and deserved prize.

At kick-off, Al-Ittihad knew that a win would be enough for title number nine but they also knew that they had been in good positions before and failed to finish the job such as last season when a 16-point advantage over Al-Hilal did not prove to be enough. Any nerves were, however,  reduced after three minutes as Ahmed Sharahili sent the Jeddah giants on their way. Igor Coronado floated over a deep free-kick and Sharahili reacted to stab the ball home from close range and the celebrations in Jeddah started to bubble under the surface.

(Twitter: @ittihad)

That early strike was a blow for Al-Nassr who hit the post in the first half thanks to a shot from Luiz Gustavo from close range.but three minutes before the break, the Yellows fell behind.Saeed Al-Mowalad crossed from the right and Youssouf Niakate swept home from close range to finish a perfect move. It was harsh on Al-Nassr who had dominated possession and had the better of the chances but they could feel that their chances of league title number ten were slipping away.

Ronaldo and his team continued to work hard but received another body blow just before the break as Al-Ittihad extended their lead thanks to another set piece. Coronado floated over a free-kick once again and this time Romarinho – the Brazilian has been one of the players of the season – headed home. It prompted wild celebrations among the travelling fans who knew that their 14-year wait was almost over.

Al-Nassr were not about to give up without a fight however. After 56 minutes Abdulrahman Ghareeb passed back to the onrushing Gustavo who unleashed a rocket of a shot into the top corner of the Ettifaq goal from outside the area. It was a spectacular effort. With ten minutes remaining, it looked as if the game was won as Ghareeb pulled the ball back for Gustavo to fire an unstoppable shot into the Ettifaq net. It was ruled out by VAR, which spotted an offside in the build up. In the end, it didn’t really matter as Al-Ittihad rarely looked like losing their two-goal lead and their grip on the league trophy. Soon after, the Tigers made it 3-0 as Romarinho broke free to slot the ball home from just inside the area.


It meant that the celebrations could start in earnest as Al-Ittihad took the points before the end of the Al-Nassr game. It has been a deserved triumph.

Elsewhere, defending champions Al-Hilal moved into third place with a 3-0 win at Abha. Mohammed Al-Qahtani opened the scoring after 11 minutes and Odion Ighalo extended that lead a minute before the break. Abdullah Al-Hamdan added a third.

The relegation battle is hotting up. In the battle of the two teams at the bottom of the table, Al-Batin, who are already relegated, drew 2-2 with next to bottom Al-Adalah who are a point behind safety and Al-Khaleej who drew 0-0 with  Al-Raed. Al-Wedha are now safe after defeating Al-Tai 2-1.

The headlines however belong, for once, not to Criistiano Ronaldo, but to the new champions of Al-Ittihad.

Luton gains promotion to Premier League after beating Coventry in penalty shootout

Luton gains promotion to Premier League after beating Coventry in penalty shootout
Updated 27 May 2023

Luton gains promotion to Premier League after beating Coventry in penalty shootout

Luton gains promotion to Premier League after beating Coventry in penalty shootout
  • Coventry's Fankaty Dabo sent his spot kick high and wide to give Luton a 6-5 win in the shootout following a 1-1 draw
  • It marks Luton's first return to England's top division since 1991-92 — the year before it was rebranded as the Premier League

LONDON: Luton will play in the Premier League for the first time next season after beating Coventry following a penalty shootout in the Championship playoff final at Wembley on Saturday.
Coventry’s Fankaty Dabo sent his spot kick high and wide to give Luton a 6-5 win in the shootout following a 1-1 draw after extra time in what is usually dubbed the most lucrative match in world soccer. The winner is expected to get in excess of $200 million in future earnings for gaining promotion to the Premier League, the richest league in world soccer.
It marks Luton’s first return to England’s top division since 1991-92 — the year before it was rebranded as the Premier League.
Coventry were trying to return for the first time since being relegated in 2001 following a 34-year stint in the first division.
Luton had a scary start to the game as captain Tom Lockyer fell to the ground untouched and then remained down for several minutes while he received medical attention. Lockyear was carried off on a stretcher and taken to a hospital for further medical checks, with Luton saying he was conscious and responsive.
Despite that setback, Luton largely dominated the first half and took the lead in the 23rd minute through Jordan Clark, who received a cutback from Elijah Adebayo and took one touch to go past a defender and rifle home a left-foot shot high into the net.
Luton also had two goals disallowed before the break, but Coventry were much improved in the second half and got back into the game in the 66th.
Viktor Gyokeres ran down the left flank and teed up Gustavo Hamer, who slotted in a low shot from the edge of the area to send the sky-blue half of Wembley into a frenzy.
Luton substitute Joe Taylor thought he had scored the winner 25 minutes into extra time but it was ruled out by VAR as he handled the ball after robbing defender Jonathan Panzo of possession.
In the shootout, the first 11 penalty takers all scored their spot kicks before Dabo sent his off target.