Tough group but Saudi Arabia have what it takes in Asian Cup

Saudi Arabia are in a 2023 AFC Asian Cup group with Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman. (Twitter/@SaudiNT)
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Saudi Arabia are in a 2023 AFC Asian Cup group with Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman. (Twitter/@SaudiNT)
Saudi Arabia are in a 2023 AFC Asian Cup group with Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman. (Twitter/@SaudiNT)
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Saudi Arabia are in a 2023 AFC Asian Cup group with Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman. (Twitter/@SaudiNT)
Saudi Arabia are in a 2023 AFC Asian Cup group with Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman. (Twitter/@SaudiNT)
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Saudi Arabia are in a 2023 AFC Asian Cup group with Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman. (Twitter/@SaudiNT)
Saudi Arabia are in a 2023 AFC Asian Cup group with Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman. (Twitter/@SaudiNT)
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Saudi Arabia are in a 2023 AFC Asian Cup group with Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman. (Twitter/@SaudiNT)
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Updated 11 May 2023
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Tough group but Saudi Arabia have what it takes in Asian Cup

Tough group but Saudi Arabia have what it takes in Asian Cup
  • The Group F favorites are still searching for a replacement for Herve Renard

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s name was last out of the hat in the draw for the Asian Cup on Thursday, which meant that even before it all finished, those watching in Doha and at home knew that the destination was Group F.

It is debatable whether Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman equal the “Group of Death” but it is certain that the Green Falcons will need to be at their best next January as there will be no easy games.

The ultimate target is, of course, to win a first continental title since 1996, a wait that has been too long.

The best route is through winning the group — in 2019 Saudi Arabia finished second which meant an early meeting with Japan and early elimination. A good start is crucial, though the opener may be the toughest of the lot against Oman. At least there will be few surprises against a familiar opponent.

On the face of it, with Saudi Arabia finishing first in their final 2022 World Cup qualification group and Oman in fourth, there should not be too many nerves in Riyadh, especially as the gap in points between the two teams was nine.

Yet there is more to it than that. The Reds were competitive in all of their games, finishing just one point below Australia. Compact, well-organized and quick in the attack, Oman won in Japan, defeated China and Vietnam and also drew with the Socceroos.

Their twin games with Saudi Arabia were close-run affairs and were both 1-0 wins. However, Oman felt they should have gone home with a point after missing late chances in Jeddah last year, and the same was the case in the first game in September 2021. The words “hard fought” were used on several occasions to describe the two victories.

On the plus side, no one in Saudi Arabia will be taking their fellow Arab nation lightly, especially as Branko Ivankovic is still in charge. The Croatian will be well aware of Saudi Arabia’s qualities.

Frenchman Herve Renard, who led the Green Falcons to the World Cup, has returned home to take the women’s team to the World Cup in July. His replacement has yet to be announced.

Opening games in major tournaments are frequently cagey and low-scoring affairs, but whatever happens in the all-West Asian affair, the following clash against Kyrgyzstan will be seen as a must-win by whoever is in charge.

The Central Asians, ranked 96 in the world, made their continental debut last time around in the UAE and performed well in losing narrowly to China and South Korea before defeating the Philippines to make it to the knockout stage. They then took the UAE to extra-time before losing 3-2.

In qualification for the World Cup, they missed out on the final round, finishing third behind Japan and Tajikistan. Trying to establish themselves as a mid-ranking Asian power, Saudi Arabia should have enough for three points, provided they stay focused.

It all ends against Thailand. Saudi Arabia have a good record against Southeast Asian teams, especially in their own backyard. The War Elephants, ranked 114 in the world, have plenty of talent and were last seen winning the AFF Championships, their regional football festival, defeating Vietnam in the final.

However, Thailand have tended to struggle against the top teams in Asia and few of their most fervent fans will be expecting a win in the final game against the three-time champions. They will, though, be hoping to get through to the knockout stages and given that three of the four teams in the group can make it, there is every chance. 

One advantage that Saudi Arabia’s opponents have — though this could change over the coming months — is that they know who their boss will be. The Group F favorites are still searching for a replacement for Renard and there has been talk that he will be appointed in July, once the European season has finished and contracts end.

The first task of the new boss will be to prepare for the Asian Cup and it will come at the perfect time: six months after taking the reins and just as qualification starts for the 2026 World Cup.

The continental tournament is an opportunity for the new boss to get to know his team in a competitive environment and to get to grips with Asian football. More importantly, it is a chance to bring home a record-equaling fourth title after a gap of more than 25 years. 


Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad

Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad
Updated 23 February 2024
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Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad

Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad
  • After a scare when they fell behind to Sepahan of Iran, Al-Hilal rallied to win the game 3-1 and go through 6-2 on aggregate
  • With Al-Nassr winning on Wednesday and Al-Ittihad successful earlier on Thursday, Saudi Arabia has three teams in the last eight of the competition

Al-Hilal defeated Sepahan of Iran 6-2 on aggregate on Thursday to book a mouth-watering Asian Champions League quarter-final tie against Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad.

After winning the first leg 3-1 away from home last week, the four-time winners of the competition survived a scare in the second leg before comfortably clinching victory by the same scoreline.

This was a bit harsh on the visitors, who played their part in an entertaining and open clash during which both sides created plenty of chances. In the end, however, as Neymar watched from the stands, the Saudis progressed comfortably, helped along the way when Sepahan were reduced to 10 men while ahead in the second half.

Salem Al-Dawsari, making his 400th appearance for the club, got the equalizer in the 76th minute, after Farshad Ahmadzadeh put the visitors in front nine minutes after the break. With just seven minutes left on the clock, Ruben Neves came up with a spectacular strike that gave Al-Hilal the lead, and there was still time for Aleksandar Mitrovic to add a third.

In the end, it was a more comfortable result for Al-Hilal than looked likely in the 54th minute, when Ali Aarabi swung over a cross from the left and Ramin Rezaeian headed the ball back across the face of goal for Ahmadzadeh to bundle home from close range.

The sparked plenty of nerves among the home fans in the Kingdom Arena but they were able to breathe a little easier when, with 19 minutes remaining, the visitors were reduced to 10 men. Siavash Yazadni brought down Malcom as the Brazilian was running through on goal and, after a check with the video assistant referee, he was shown a straight red card.

Al-Hilal quickly took advantage of the one-man advantage when, five minutes later, Ali Al-Bulaihi found Al-Dawsari outside the area and the winger turned to beat two defenders, then stroked the ball home. At that point, the home fans could rest easy in the knowledge that their team were as good as through to the last eight.

It was a fine goal by Al-Dawsari but just six minutes later, Neves pulled something even more special out of the hat. The ball fell to the Portuguese star outside the area, he chested it down and volleyed home a curling shot that flew into the top corner.

In the final moments of added time, Mitrovic scored a goal that might not live as long in the memory but showed his killer instinct as he swept home a smart pass from Malcom to make it 3-1.

With Al-Nassr winning on Wednesday and Al-Ittihad successful earlier on Thursday, Saudi Arabia has three teams in the last eight of the competition. The showdown between Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal is the quarter-final tie that many fans, inside and outside the country, will be most looking forward to. The first leg is scheduled for March 5.


Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal

Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal
Updated 22 February 2024
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Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal

Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal
  • The Jeddah giants leave it late but progress after a hard-fought 2-1 home victory over Navbahor of Uzbekistan

Saudi Pro League side Al-Ittihad squeezed into the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah on Thursday thanks to a hard-fought 2-1 home victory over Navbahor of Uzbekistan, following a goalless draw in the first leg last week.

The Jeddah giants recovered from a Karim Bemzema own goal midway through the first half to take control of the game, level the score and eventually go through thanks to a late Navbahor own goal. It was no less than the Saudis deserved as they made most of the running and created the bulk of the chances.

Fabinho had the earliest opportunity to open the scoring but the former Liverpool midfielder fired just over the bar from outside the box.

The opening goal came from a familiar source but not in the way fans expected. The home crowd was silenced in the 25th minute when Jamshid Iskanderov floated over a free-kick from the right, and former Real Madrid star Benzema met it on the edge of the six-yard box to send a powerful header into his own net past a startled Abdullah Al-Mayouf.

The goal came out of nothing, against the run of play, but Al-Ittihad quickly regrouped, refocused their efforts and continued to dominate the game.

Benzema redeemed himself on the stroke of half-time, nodding down a corner to the near post where Abderrazak Hamdallah was waiting to sweep the ball home from close range.

The second half unfolded in much the same fashion, with Al-Ittihad enjoying most of the possession and creating more of the chances. Midway through the period, however, they were reminded of Navbahor’s goal threat when Filip Ivankovic fired just wide from the right side of the area.

With 15 minutes remaining, Benzema had the ball in the net, the correct one this time, when he fired home after some good work from Ahmed Hegazy. After a lengthy intervention, however, the video assistant referee ruled it out.

This only delayed the celebrations of the home fans, though, as three minutes from time the Tigers took a decisive lead, thanks to another own goal.

Substitute Saleh Al-Amri’s corner from the right failed to clear the first man but, in swinging a boot, Toma Tabatadze sliced his attempted clearance and the ball looped over the keeper into the far corner of the net.

Navbahor did their utmost to get back on level terms but time was against them and it was not to be. As a result, Al-Ittihad, back-to-back winners of the competition in 2004 and 2005, remain in the hunt for a third continental crown.


Saudi Arabia continue fine form with ICC World Cup Challenge League win over Kuwait

Saudi Arabia continue fine form with ICC World Cup Challenge League win over Kuwait
Updated 22 February 2024
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Saudi Arabia continue fine form with ICC World Cup Challenge League win over Kuwait

Saudi Arabia continue fine form with ICC World Cup Challenge League win over Kuwait
  • The 50-over competition serves as a preliminary qualifier for the World Cup
  • The Greens went into the opening Group B match full of confidence, having recently won the 20-over ACC Challenger Cup in Thailand

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s cricketers beat Gulf rivals Kuwait on Thursday in the ICC Cricket World Cup Challenge League play-off in Kuala Lumpur.
The 50-over competition serves as a preliminary qualifier for the World Cup, which is to be held in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia in 2027.
The Greens went into the opening Group B match full of confidence, having recently won the 20-over ACC Challenger Cup in Thailand as well as a quadrangular T20 series in Bangkok against the hosts, Maldives and Bhutan.

Saudi Arabia posted a solid total of 231 all over off the back of valuable contributions from Kashif Siddique, who scored 71 runs, star batter Abdul Waheed (40) and captain Hisham Shaikh (40).
Mohamed Shafeeq was best with the ball for Kuwait, finishing his innings with three wickets for 37 runs from his six overs.
In response, Kuwait’s batting line-up had little to offer in the face of efficient bowling from the Saudi attack.
Kuwaiti captain Mohammad Aslam showed some mettle and grit by batting for a 57-run half-century from 84 balls, but he was the only one to offer any resistance as Kuwait were bowled out for just 134 runs, some 97 runs short of the Saudi total.
Usman Najeeb was the pick of the Saudi bowlers as he picked up three wickets and conceded only 23 runs, while Ishtiaq Ahmad and skipper Shaikh claimed two wickets apiece.
In their next Group B encounter, Saudi Arabia face an Italian side riding high after beating one-time World Cup participants Bermuda by a commanding 157 runs.


Milan and Benfica book spots in Europa League last 16

Milan and Benfica book spots in Europa League last 16
Updated 22 February 2024
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Milan and Benfica book spots in Europa League last 16

Milan and Benfica book spots in Europa League last 16
  • Benjamin Bourigeaud scored a hat-trick for Rennes, including a pair of penalties
  • Benfica also saw off French opposition as a 0-0 draw away to Toulouse

PARIS: AC Milan overcame a spirited Rennes 5-3 on aggregate despite a 3-2 loss in Thursday’s second leg to reach the Europa League last 16, where they will be joined by fellow former European champions Benfica.
Benjamin Bourigeaud scored a hat-trick for Rennes, including a pair of penalties, but goals from Luka Jovic and Rafael Leao ensured Milan were never really in danger of blowing a 3-0 lead from the first leg.
Benfica also saw off French opposition as a 0-0 draw away to Toulouse was enough to send the Portuguese side through following their 2-1 victory in last week’s first leg in Lisbon.
Marseille host Shakhtar Donetsk later in Jean-Louis Gasset’s first match at the helm following the exit of Gennaro Gattuso. The tie is level at 2-2 after the opening match in Hamburg.
Last season’s runners-up Roma take on Feyenoord in the Italian capital after a 1-1 draw in the first leg.
Sporting Lisbon are 3-1 up on Swiss champions Young Boys going into the return fixture, while Galatasaray have a 3-2 edge over Sparta Prague.
The draw for the last 16 will be made at UEFA headquarters in Nyon on Friday.


Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop

Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop
Updated 22 February 2024
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Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop

Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop
  • The Clarets are on course for relegation after a 5-0 hammering at home to Arsenal left them in 19th place
  • Offering an emotional account of his inner drive, Kompany said on Thursday: “It’s a deep answer, it’s about where you come from”

LONDON: Burnley boss Vincent Kompany has revealed his father’s experiences as a political refugee give him the drive and determination to lead the club’s fight for Premier League survival.
The Clarets are on course for relegation after a 5-0 hammering at home to Arsenal left them in 19th place with just three wins this season, but Kompany’s resolve has roots far beyond the football pitch.
Explaining his hunger to succeed, the former Manchester City captain cited his father Pierre, who fled what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo for Belgium as a dissident in 1975 having protested against the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko.
He put his son on the path to a glittering sporting career and later became Belgium’s first black mayor.
Offering an emotional account of his inner drive, Kompany said on Thursday: “It’s a deep answer, it’s about where you come from.
“Where I come from is my dad, who was a political refugee. He had to flee a country not just at war, but as a dictatorship where he was getting whipped in his twenties because he was against the regime over there.
“It’s fleeing from one part of the country to the other, it’s losing family members, it’s everything you’ve experienced. It’s where I come from.
“You say where does the drive and desire come from? I have so many reasons to have that fire in me every single day. So many reasons why I can’t ever do less.
“It’s bigger than one result, or a bad month, or anything like that.”
Kompany, whose side face fellow strugglers Crystal Palace on Saturday, also pushed back against the notion that this season’s struggles were a new experience for someone more accustomed to lifting silverware than fighting the drop.
“That’s the bulk of the known experiences, yeah. But a gambler never tells you about his losses, right?” he said.
“That (a serial winner) is what you see, but my experiences feel different. I do feel I’ve had to overcome and do a lot to get where I was.”