Al-Hilal’s title chances dealt huge blow after shock home defeat to Al-Fateh

Al-Hilal’s title chances dealt huge blow after shock home defeat to Al-Fateh
Al-Hilal suffered a shock 2-1 home loss to Al-Fateh on Monday night (Twitter/@Alhilal_FC)
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Updated 07 March 2023
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Al-Hilal’s title chances dealt huge blow after shock home defeat to Al-Fateh

Al-Hilal’s title chances dealt huge blow after shock home defeat to Al-Fateh
  • 2-1 loss leaves reigning champions 13 points behind Roshn Saudi League leaders Al-Nassr

Riyadh: Al-Hilal have had an amazing few weeks on the global and continental stages but were brought down to earth in Riyadh on Monday, losing 2-1 at home to Al-Fateh.

More than that, however, the surprise defeat may just have ended the champions’ chances of successfully defending their Roshn Saudi League title.

That loss means that the Blues are now 13 points behind leaders Al-Nassr. Optimistic fans and coach Ramon Diaz will point to the two games in hand as evidence that it is not all over.

They will also talk about last season.

Then, as the team returned home from the FIFA Club World Cup, they were 16 points behind Al-Ittihad and ended up winning their games in hand, defeating their rivals, and taking title No. 18, a third in succession and one of their most famous triumphs to date.

Yet this year feels different. For one, Al-Nassr do not look like slipping up in the way that Al-Ittihad did last year. From October 2021 to March 3, 2022, the Jeddah club collected 37 out of a possible 39 points and were strolling to a first title since 2009, but then managed just 11 out of the final eight games allowing Al-Hilal to slip in.

Al-Nassr have won their last four, and while they may not always be as fluid as coach Rudi Garcia would like, they look to have found a way to win. They also have a certain Cristiano Ronaldo who has scored eight goals in the last five games.

More than that, however, he brings a winning mentality to a team with a tight defence. At home to bottom team Al-Batin on Friday, they were 1-0 down as the 90 minutes were up but still managed to come back in added time to win 3-1.

More importantly, Al-Hilal are not playing especially well.

Defensively, they are looking vulnerable and nervous. Three times they took the lead, the third in injury time, at newly-promoted Al-Wehda last Thursday — their first since returning from overseas — and three times they were pegged back. And against Al-Fateh there was a lack of energy and passion, and it was the visitors who played with discipline and aggression. The game was over before a late, late consolation from Saleh Al-Shehri.

In some ways, Al-Hilal cannot be blamed as there are three major international competitions that must be considered.

The 2022 World Cup was a tournament to remember, especially Saudi Arabia’s famous 2-1 win over Argentina. The two goals were scored by Al-Shehri and Al-Hilal clubmate Salem Al-Dawsari. In all, there were 12 Al-Hilal players who went to Qatar.

It is perhaps understandable that the world’s biggest sporting event has been disruptive, and they have dropped 11 points in the nine games since, not terrible but not the return of a team that needs to keep pace with an in-form league leader.

Then in February came the FIFA Club World Cup where the Riyadh giants were simply sensational. In the opening game, they went toe-to-toe with African champions Wydad AC on their home soil of Morocco in front of a partisan crowd of 50,000. It was two hours of intense football followed by an emotional penalty shootout win. Then they collected one of the best results in their history, defeating South American champions Flamengo.

That earned a final against the mighty Real Madrid where Al-Hilal may have lost 5-3 but won even more respect and admiration around the globe. It was a physically and mentally draining week.

Almost immediately however they were heading to Qatar for the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League and three games in the space of six days.

Shabab Al-Ahli were quite comfortably disposed of in the second-round match though Foolad of Iran proved to be difficult opponents in the quarter-final. Then came a historic semi. Playing Qatar league leaders Al-Duhail in their own backyard looked to be a very difficult task indeed but Al-Hilal ran out 7-0 winners. It was a stunning result.

Given those foreign exertions, a domestic hangover is to be expected. Al-Hilal may be a winning machine but cannot keep going forever.

Defender Ali Al-Bulaihi said: “We have played every two or three days. Other teams rest for five days, and we have been away for more than a month, but we do not make this an excuse. The league is not over yet.”

Not officially, but it is slipping away. A year ago, Al-Hilal had the extra benefit of a lacklustre Club World Cup and the subsequent new coach bounce as Diaz came in. They then won 12 of the remaining 13 games. A similarly spectacular run will be needed this time if there is to be a fourth successive championship, but it does not look likely, and they should not be blamed for that.

Whatever happens, it has been a good season. The Club World Cup will live long in the memory and there is also the final of the Asian Champions League coming in April.

Al-Hilal have done amazing things overseas this year but coming from so far from behind for a second successive time at home is looking to be beyond even this team.


First La Liga Futures competition in Saudi Arabia kicks off March 1

First La Liga Futures competition in Saudi Arabia kicks off March 1
Updated 29 February 2024
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First La Liga Futures competition in Saudi Arabia kicks off March 1

First La Liga Futures competition in Saudi Arabia kicks off March 1
  • The U-14 tournament, hosted at Mahd Sports Academy in Riyadh, will feature 8 La Liga and 4 international teams

MADRID: La Liga FC Futures U-14, a flagship tournament featuring the youth academies of top-tier Spanish clubs, and being held in Saudi Arabia for the first time, kicks off on March 1.

The matches, to be played at Mahd Sports Academy in Riyadh, has been organized in collaboration with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sports. For the first time, the players making up the competing sides will be in the under-14 category and will play 11-a-side matches.

The tournament will feature 12 clubs, eight EA Sports La Liga teams, plus AS Roma (Italy), SL Benfica (Portugal), Olympique de Marseille (France) and Mahd Academy (Saudi Arabia).

La Liga’s leadership chose Saudi Arabia as the host because of the country’s emergence as a hub for sporting and cultural activities in recent years. The most popular sport in the Kingdom is football, with the highest level of participation among those under the age of 30.

For the past 15 years, La Liga matches have been followed by millions of football fans across the Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia now has six official supporter clubs.

The 12 teams will be divided into three groups: Mahd Academy, FC Barcelona, AS Roma and Cadiz CF (Group A); Atletico de Madrid, Olympique de Marseille, Sevilla FC and Villarreal CF (Group B); and Real Betis, Valencia CF, SL Benfica and CA Osasuna (Group C).

Matches will kick off on March 1 at 9:30 a.m. (Saudi Arabia time) and March 2 at 10 a.m., with the quarterfinals being played on Saturday at 5 p.m. The semifinals will kick off at 10 a.m. on Sunday, with the final at 5 p.m.


Saudi Paralympic weightlifters participate in Dubai’s Fazza Para powerlifting championships

Saudi Paralympic weightlifters participate in Dubai’s Fazza Para powerlifting championships
Updated 28 February 2024
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Saudi Paralympic weightlifters participate in Dubai’s Fazza Para powerlifting championships

Saudi Paralympic weightlifters participate in Dubai’s Fazza Para powerlifting championships
  • Saudi participants who win gold, silver or bronze qualify for Paris 2024 Olympics
  • Mohammed Al-Harbi, president of the Saudi Weightlifting Federation, heads 12-player team

DUBAI: The Saudi Paralympic weightlifting team hopes taking part in the Fazza 13th Para Powerlifting 2024 World Cup will mean qualification for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
The championships, which started on Wednesday, are being held in Dubai until Mar. 6. Saudi participants who win gold, silver or bronze medals are automatically eligible for the 2024 Olympics.
Mohammed Al-Harbi, president of the Saudi Weightlifting Federation, heads a 12-strong team that comprises Adnan Bousaid, Talal Al-Balawi, Asil Hausawi, Tariq Balghaith, Saeed Hausawi, Khalid Al-Najim, Sulaiman Al-Shaddoukhi, Abbad Hausawi, Fajr Al-Sumairy, Shareefa Al-Amari, Hassna Al-Najm, and Maha Al-Rashidi.


UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl continue to set pace at the top of the table

UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl continue to set pace at the top of the table
Updated 26 February 2024
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UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl continue to set pace at the top of the table

UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl continue to set pace at the top of the table
  • Reigning champions Shabab Al-Ahli return to winning ways, while Al-Ain stay in second with win over Baniyas

Al-Wasl’s searing pace at the top of the standings continued, champions Shabab Al-Ahli returned to winning ways and there was more misery for promoted clubs during the ADNOC Pro League’s matchweek 14.

A first full schedule since late December — a lengthy pause for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup was extended by multiple weather postponements — began with bottom-placed Emirates Club and second-bottom Hatta suffering 10th defeats of the season.

Goals for Raniel, on 10 seconds, and Uzbekistan midfielder Azizbek Amonov helped Khor Fakkan prevail 2-0 against the latter, while rampant Wasl breezed past the former via the same scoreline thanks to efforts from nine-goal UAE forward Fabio De Lima and prolific South Korea center-back Jung Seung-hyun. They now lead the table by eight points.

Shabab Al-Ahi, meanwhile, had a trio of Brazil-born scorers to thank when they ended a two-match winless streak in their comfortable 3-0 victory versus 12th-placed Ajman. Also, a 94th-minute tap-in from promising youngster Josna Epifani Loulendo kept the 2023-2024 AFC Champions League quarterfinalists Al-Ain in the hunt with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Baniyas.

There was drama in Abu Dhabi when Mirel Radoi’s league bow for Al-Jazira ended in a 3-2 defeat to Alfred Schreuder’s rapidly improving Al-Nasr, featuring iconic striker Ali Mabkhout’s 96th-minute saved penalty. Also, Caio netted when Sharjah beat Ittihad Kalba 1-0 and Al-Wahda came from behind to down Al-Bataeh 2-1.

Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.

Player of the week: Igor Jesus (Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club)

It has been an eventful few weeks for Shabab Al-Ahli’s prodigiously talented, but injury impacted, youngster.

Months of speculation about a return to Brazil or a move to Europe’s major leagues looked to have been ended by this month’s announcement that Igor Jesus had gained Emirati citizenship. It has put the 22-year-old on a fast track to eventually represent the UAE senior side, which is a major boost following January’s disappointing round-of-16 exit at the Asian Cup.

On the pitch, the ex-Coritiba attacker has been rarely seen this term. Yet more knee problems had restricted him to just five league run-outs across 201 minutes, prior to Sunday’s visit of Ajman.

If anyone needed a reminder about Jesus’ residual ability, it came versus the Orange Brigade.

A precision-guided seventh-minute corner from UAE prospect Harib Abdalla was nodded home. Jesus would add an assist to his name in the second half when he played in Guilherme Bala, another naturalized Emirati/Brazilian, who did the rest with an adroit turn and impudent low finish.

The ice pack applied to Jesus’ leg showed caution when he was called off to the bench which included an instant debut for prominent Iran center midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi.

There is such youth and electricity among Shabab Al-Ahli’s attacking options. They must regularly spark to stand any chance of hauling back Wasl.

Goal of the week: Ahmad Nourollahi (Al-Wahda)

Ahmad Nourollahi’s garlanded career has contained many standout moments.

From representing his nation at the 2022 World Cup, to hoarding trophies with Persepolis and adding last season’s ADNOC Pro League crown to his resume at Shabab Al-Ahli.

Acrobatic scissor kicks, however, were not associated with him. That is, before, Sunday’s comeback triumph at Bataeh.

A hopeful cross from right-back Abdullah Al-Karbi was hung up towards the penalty box. There appeared little danger, at this point.

Nourollahi’s lethal combination of athleticism and imagination then sent the ball arrowing into the bottom corner, at the start of the second half. This would propel fifth-placed Wahda to victory, earned through impressive Uzbekistan winter recruit Khojimat Erkinov.

Coach of the week: Alfred Schreuder (Al-Nasr)

UAE football’s sleeping giant is showing signs of stirring.

Nasr have had the history, glamorous Dubai location and outstanding Al-Maktoum Stadium, plus a list of stellar previous players that includes Yohan Cabaye, Alvaro Negredo and Luca Toni. Yet even the hint of glory has eluded them for so long.

This might be changing under Schreuder. The former Ajax and Al-Ain tactician inspired a third win from their last five league run-outs at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.

It came through a blend of ex-Benfica maestro Adel Taarabt, plus young stars Abdoulaye Toure and Moussa Ndiaye.

Nasr are now comfortably midtable in seventh, after flirting with relegation under Goran Tufegdzic.

It is now up to the club to provide Schreuder with the order required to create sustained success. With six permanent managers since October 2019, this is not guaranteed.

Assessing Al-Ain’s Asian outlook

Al-Ain are flying the flag for their nation in next month’s AFC Champions League quarterfinals.

No less than Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr await on March 4 and 11, in a West Asia side of the draw packed by three heavyweight Saudi Arabian challengers.

The task is a stern one if The Boss are to add to their 2002-2003 continental title. Certainly, it will require improvement from their last-gasp victory at Baniyas Stadium.

Those three points, however, came at a cost with leading 11-goal marksman Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba being removed through injury. There is no natural replacement for the Togo star within their ranks.

South Korea anchorman Park Yong-woo has gone deep into this tournament before at Ulsan Hyundai.

Steady progress under legendary ex-Argentine, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Chelsea striker Hernan Crespo has seen six wins accrued from their last seven matches in all competitions. The Boss are also second domestically, with a game in hand.

Crucially, Crespo must learn lessons from the February 2023 7-0 blitzing of his Al-Duhail side by holders Al-Hilal.


Riyadh to host leg of Global Champions Arabians Tour

Riyadh to host leg of Global Champions Arabians Tour
Updated 25 February 2024
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Riyadh to host leg of Global Champions Arabians Tour

Riyadh to host leg of Global Champions Arabians Tour
  • Along with Riyadh, events will be held in Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Cannes, Valkenswaard in the Netherlands, and in Rome and Paris 

LONDON: Riyadh will host a leg of the Global Champions Arabians Tour later this year, it was announced on Sunday.

The event, whose date has yet to be confirmed, will be hosted by the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation.

Doha has already hosted the first event of the GCAT circuit and, along with Riyadh, events will be held in Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Cannes, Rome, Paris, and Valkenswaard in the Netherlands. 

SAEF President Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd thanked King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for their support for equestrian sports in Saudi Arabia. 

“The great advancement we are witnessing today in the equestrian sector is a result of the unlimited support from our wise leadership,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

“This has made the Kingdom a global focal point for all equestrian sports, resulting in great successes in high-level organization, event diversity, and a clear vision that positions Saudi Arabia as the foremost global destination.

“I extend my sincere thanks to Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, minister of sports, for his support and continuous follow-up.”

The SAEF hopes that hosting the event will provide competitive opportunities for local talent, attract new audiences and encourage investment in the sport. 

In April, Saudi Arabia will also host the FEI Jumping World Cup, which will be a first for the Middle East. And in 2026, the Kingdom is slated to host the World Challenge Championship.


US and local glory as Senor Buscador wins $20m Saudi Cup main race

US and local glory as Senor Buscador wins $20m Saudi Cup main race
Updated 24 February 2024
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US and local glory as Senor Buscador wins $20m Saudi Cup main race

US and local glory as Senor Buscador wins $20m Saudi Cup main race
  • 6-year-old, owned by Saudi Sharaf Mohammed S. Al-Hariri and American Joe R. Peacock Junior, won the race by a head

LONDON: Senor Buscador came from a long way back to win a dramatic Saudi Cup race on Saturday under jockey Junior Alvarado, beating Ushba Tesoro and Saudi Crown.

The 6-year-old, owned by Saudi Sharaf Mohammed S. Al-Hariri and American Joe R. Peacock Junior, won the race by a head to make up for a second-placed finish at the GI Pegasus World Cup Invitational last month.

The winning team take home half of the $20 million pot, with $3.5 million going to the Ushba Tesoro team and $2 million to the locally-owned Saudi Crown team.

“The plan, as of now, is Dubai,” winning trainer Todd Fincher said after the race at King Abdulaziz Racecourse, referencing the Dubai World Cup race set to run on March 30.

“I don’t have the words to put it all together that express how pleased and grateful I am for this victory and for representing my country and winning this race, I still don’t have the right words,” Alvarado told Arab News.

“He (Senor Buscador) had more speed just because some horses broke from different positions, I never like to change the style of the horse.

“I was in a good spot in the back just looking at everything just biding my time, letting him get his feet under, and he’s a horse that when he’s ready he will start letting you know, he will start picking up (pace) and after that you just start riding along with him,” he added.

Alvarado was full of praise for his charge and the King Abdulaziz track.

“It was a very exciting race, I think the best of the horses was running today, mine was one of the best horses and he proved it today that he was one of the top performers and one of those horses in the world,” he said.

“It’s definitely a different track, a different feeling, but the horses move out very well on it and it feels like probably top three one of the best tracks I’ve rode in the world for sure,” he added.

The first edition of the Saudi Cup race was held in 2020 and the event attracts the world’s finest thoroughbreds and jockeys for the biggest prize in world racing.