UAE Pro League: Champions Shabab Al-Ahli sign off with win, Dibba relegated

Champions Shabab Al-Ahli wrapped the season with a win over Ajman. (Twitter/@Shabab_AlAhliFC)
Champions Shabab Al-Ahli wrapped the season with a win over Ajman. (Twitter/@Shabab_AlAhliFC)
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Updated 14 May 2023

UAE Pro League: Champions Shabab Al-Ahli sign off with win, Dibba relegated

UAE Pro League: Champions Shabab Al-Ahli sign off with win, Dibba relegated
  • Al-Ain’s Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba’s grabs two goals to finish as season’s top scorer with 28 goals

DUBAI: Relegation heartbreak befell Dibba Al-Fujairah and champions Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club finished with victory as an engrossing 2022-23 ADNOC Pro League wrapped up with matchweek 26.

Dibba, starting the day in 13th, and fellow promoted outfit Al-Bataeh, entered the final round in the knowledge one would be safe and the other would return to First Division League. It would be 12th-placed Al-Bataeh who clung on to their top-flight status when a 5-2 defeat at dethroned champions Al-Ain – in which Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba’s double ensured he finished as top scorer with 28 — went unpunished, as Dibba, needing a win, could only draw 1-1 against bottom-placed Al-Dhafra.

Brazilian prospect Igor Jesus, meanwhile, slotted home the only goal as title-winning Shabab Al-Ahli defeated 10-man Ajman, whose sixth-placed finish represented their best of the professional era. Third-placed Al-Wahda drew 1-1 with Baniyas, and fourth-placed Al-Wasl thrashed Khor Fakkan 5-1.

Legendary striker Ali Mabkhout grabbed a goal and an assist as fifth-placed Al-Jazira downed Ittihad Kalba 2-0 in what was likely coach Marcel Keizer’s final outing. Mercurial Morocco midfielder Adel Taarabt struck as Al-Nasr edged seventh-placed Sharjah 1-0.

Here are Arab News’ top picks, and a talking point from the season finale.

Player of the Week – Ali Mabkhout (Al-Jazira)

Strikers are cast as ruthless protagonists, zoning in on finding the back of the net and zoning out from their team-mates when poised to strike.

This is, undoubtedly, a facet of Ali Mabkhout’s character. You do not become the UAE’s record scorer on 81 strikes, net 27 times in 2022-23 and a benchmark 208 times in the UAE top flight without knowing when to put the blinkers on.

The 32-year-old is, however, not made like all strikers. His supreme all-round game and laudable sporting spirit was exemplified in a commendable moment when the correct choice was made, but one which ultimately denied him this term’s Golden Boot.

“(We) created so many chances,” said enamoured Al-Jazira boss Keizer. “The last phase was not the best, but luckily we have Ali Mabkhout.

“Ali scores the penalty and then you also see what a good sportsman Ali is.

“He could have gone for his second goal, for the top scorer of the league, but he took the right decision to pass it to (Ahmed) Al-Attas.”

Mabkhout entered matchweek 26 in a shootout with Al-Ain’s prolific Laba to be the division’s leading marksman. A spot-kick put him — and Al-Jazira on the night — in the lead.

Little else followed until second-half injury time. Mabkhout would latch onto a ball over the top and charge into the penalty area.

This was a presentable one-on-one opportunity dispatched numerous times throughout a garlanded career. Yet a pass was unselfishly rolled across to unmarked team-mate Al-Attas — recording his first minutes of the season after a serious knee injury — to net.

A special call from a special player. Al-Jazira must continue to cherish this icon, for club and country.

Goal of the Week — Jaja Silva (Dibba Al-Fujairah)

It seemed unfair such a sublime goal could be rendered utterly futile.

This was the case for Dibba’s Jaja Silva. Again, the Brazilian winger stood out as a beacon of quality when relegation was sealed in shattering circumstances.

Dibba made it eight games without defeat down the stretch with their draw against already doomed Al-Dhafra. Silva earned this hollow point when he chested down a hopeful punt towards the penalty area, spun into position and — within a heartbeat — sent his searing half volley arrowing away into the top corner when off-balance.

There would be 50 minutes game-time left from this point. But a Dibba side who finished the division’s lowest scorers could, characteristically, not build on this leveller and strike again to secure safety, with Al-Bataeh losing heavily at Al-Ain.

This might not be the last we see of Silva in the top flight. A return of three goals and one assist from 19 run-outs may pique the interest of parent club Al-Nasr, who underwhelmed so unquestionably throughout 2022/23.

Coach of the Week — Serhiy Rebrov (Al-Ain)

If this was Al-Ain and Rebrov’s final ADNOC Pro League fixture, it was a fitting one.

It is widely expected the 48-year-old will assume Ukraine’s head-coach role when his deal in the Garden City expires at the end of next month. A tweet from the Ukrainian Association of Football confirmed as much in late February.

There appeared little to play for on Friday, with their league crown already ceded to Shabab Al-Ahli in matchweek 25. This is not, however, how Rebrov operates.

A carnival of attacking football followed, helping Laba to attain top scorer in both of Rebrov’s campaigns, and countryman Andriy Yarmolenko to finish with a brace.

Al-Ain netted 14 more goals than anyone else in an oscillating 2022/23 and six more than in all-conquering 2021/22.

Rebrov will be much missed, when the inevitable occurs.

Summing up a season

There can be few doubts about the quantum leaps taken by ADNOC Pro League throughout the season.

A phalanx of star recruits in the summer inspired a notable rise in playing standards, increased media attention and, most importantly, booming fan attendance.

The likes of Miralem Pjanic, Yarmolenko and Jason Denayer did not play in a vacuum, like stellar buys have done during previous campaigns. Intriguingly as well, these headline-grabbing additions did not have it all their own way.

It was Leonardo Jardim’s faith in attacking youth and trust in veteran defenders at Shabab Al-Ahli which defined the season.

It is now up to the league at large to ensure hard-earned momentum is not squandered. There remains plenty to achieve in 2023/24.

Messi leaves door open to 2026 World Cup

Messi leaves door open to 2026 World Cup
Updated 02 December 2023

Messi leaves door open to 2026 World Cup

Messi leaves door open to 2026 World Cup
  • Messi: I’m not thinking about the World Cup and I’m not saying 100 percent that I won’t be there because anything can happen. Because of my age, the most normal thing is that I won’t be there. Then we’ll see.

BUENOS AIRES: Lionel Messi is not ruling out another bid for World Cup glory with Argentina in 2026 despite acknowledging that time is working against him.

Messi, who recently won his eighth Ballon d’Or, raised the World Cup almost a year ago after starring for Argentina in the final against France in Doha.

The 36-year-old had suggested at the time that the tournament in Qatar would be his last and that he wouldn’t be around for the next tournament which will be co-hosted by the US, Canada and Mexico.

But having moved to Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami and continued performing for the national team in qualifiers for 2026, he says the door remains open.

“I’m not thinking about the World Cup and I’m not saying 100 percent that I won’t be there because anything can happen. Because of my age, the most normal thing is that I won’t be there. Then we’ll see,” said Messi in an interview with Argentina’s Star.”

The Argentina captain said his focus is on June’s Copa America which will be held in the US.

“Maybe we’ll do well at the Copa America and everything will work out for us to continue. Maybe not. Realistically it’s difficult,” he said of the chance of a sixth consecutive appearance in the World Cup.

Messi said he would be “the first to know when I can be there and when I can’t. I’m also aware that I’ve gone to a lesser league. But it’s all about the personal side of things and the way you deal with it and how you compete.

“As long as I feel I’m well and can continue to contribute, I’m going to do it. Today all I’m thinking about is getting to the Copa America. After that, time will tell if I’m there or not.

“I’m going to arrive at an age that, normally, doesn’t allow me to play in the World Cup. I said I don’t think I’m going to be there. It looked like after the World Cup I was retiring and it was the opposite. Now I want to be there more than ever,” he added.

Jorge Jesus hails ‘showcase for Saudi football’ after Al-Hilal derby win

Jorge Jesus hails ‘showcase for Saudi football’ after Al-Hilal derby win
Updated 02 December 2023

Jorge Jesus hails ‘showcase for Saudi football’ after Al-Hilal derby win

Jorge Jesus hails ‘showcase for Saudi football’ after Al-Hilal derby win

Al-Hilal coach Jorge Jesus believes his side’s 3-0 victory over Al-Nassr in the Riyadh derby on Friday was a perfect advert for the new-look Saudi Pro League.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic opened the scoring for Al-Hilal in the second-half before a late brace from Aleksandar Mitrovic put the result beyond doubt in an often-fiery encounter at the King Fahd Stadium.
“I want to pass a message to the fans that this game was a very good spectacle for the Roshn Saudi League,” Jesus said. “It was broadcast all over the world and was a great showcase for Saudi football.
“It was a high-quality game with high quality players. The game, until right at the end, was of the highest competitive level between the two teams.”
It appeared Cristiano Ronaldo had grabbed an equalizer for Al-Nassr with a smart back-post finish, but it was ruled out for offside, leading to vociferous protestations from the visitors’ players and coaching staff. Al-Nassr coach Luis Castro was particularly irate, something Jesus feels is to be expected.  
“It’s natural that Luis look at the game differently because he ended up losing 3-0,” Jesus added. “I wouldn’t like to comment on the referee’s decisions and on any of his criticisms of referee’s decisions.
“We won 3-0 because we were the better team individually and collectively. In the first 30 minutes we could already have been two or three goals up. In the second half we positioned ourselves a little differently on the field while still transitioning well between defense and attack. At the end we were better and could have won by more.”
Jesus praised the continued resilience of his players in the face of Neymar’s season-ending injury, with the Portuguese coach suggesting Al-Hilal will de-register their star forward to free up a spot in their squad.
“We are used to playing without him… the whole team has grown stronger together,” Jesus said. “I wouldn’t like to imagine Al-Nassr without Cristiano, Al-Ahli without Mahrez or Al-Ittihad without Benzema – how would they be with the loss of those influential players?
“We lost a player that today we could say would have made us much stronger with the presence of Neymar. Without him we are still doing well as a group.
“January we will add, and a player is going to replace Neymar. Neymar is going to go out and for sure a player is going to come. He should be replaced. It’s not a reinforcement, more an adjustment.”
Al-Hilal are now seven points clear at the top of the Saudi Pro League table, though Jesus insists his leaders are taking nothing for granted.
“In my experience, seven points doesn’t guarantee anything. Yes, we have had a good season but there are no guarantees in football.
“We have to prepare ourselves for difficult moments to come because the league is very competitive. I’m happy with the three points today but I want to say to the fans that nothing has been achieved yet.”
Losing Al-Nassr coach Castro admitted the seven-point deficit will be tough to make up, saying: “It will be difficult. For every team in the championship, it will be difficult. But we push and we keep going. We keep applying pressure because it’s still a long way to go in the championship. We are going to compete.”

Newcastle demand UEFA apology as Eddie Howe shuts down discussion of Mbappe comments

Newcastle demand UEFA apology as Eddie Howe shuts down discussion of Mbappe comments
Updated 02 December 2023

Newcastle demand UEFA apology as Eddie Howe shuts down discussion of Mbappe comments

Newcastle demand UEFA apology as Eddie Howe shuts down discussion of Mbappe comments
  • The coach said the club has asked for clarity about a controversial late penalty decision against PSG that cost them 2 Champions League points
  • But he refused to be drawn on Mbappe’s post-match assertion that the Magpies ‘have nothing,’ which many considered disrespectful

NEWCASTLE: Newcastle United head coach Eddie Howe on Friday demanded an apology from UEFA and called for fewer calls to be made by the video assistant referee after the club’s Champions League heartbreak this week.

The Magpies are still reeling from the injustice in France when a penalty was wrongly awarded to opponents Paris Saint-Germain and duly dispatched by Kylian Mbappe, robbing Howe’s men of two crucial points in Group F.

They will be looking to put that disappointment behind them on Saturday when Manchester United visit St. James’ Park for a Premier League fixture steeped in history, excitement and needle. Erik ten Hag’s men will be well aware of Newcastle’s capabilities and the threat they pose, having endured defeats on both occasions the sides have met since February’s Carabao Cup final.

PSG star Mbappe was unimpressed, however, and in his post-match comments said he knew the Magpies would offer “nothing” in their Parc des Princes showdown.

Howe had no interest in validation or otherwise from Mbappe, or anyone else outside the NUFC bubble for that matter. He does, however, want a response from UEFA about the refereeing error that could cost his side a place in the Champions League last 16.

“We have asked for clarity but the moment has gone … but obviously you’re trying to help the game reach better decisions,” said the coach, who this weekend will once again have to go into a match without the services of at least 10 first-teamers.

“But I think any football fan watching that — unless you’re from the PSG perspective — would probably say that’s not a penalty. You want the correct decision for the football match being given in most circumstances.

“I don’t think an apology would be meaningless. If there is an acknowledgment that there was a mistake, that this was why the mistake happened, I think that’s a good thing for the game. We all make mistakes.”

He added: “I don’t think we can look at football as if we’re robots. I make mistakes. The players make mistakes. Referees make mistakes. It’s part of the game. If I make a mistake, to a player or any situation, I’ll always apologize and hold my hand up to that mistake. I think that’s important. That’s the process we go down and I think that’s healthy. But then it’s about trying to improve the processes and trying to improve the decision-making to make sure they improve long term.”

After the match, having scored the controversial stoppage-time equalizer that rescued a point at home for PSG, many observers thought Mbappe was disrespectful toward the Magpies when he said: “They have nothing. We knew it was their game to have nothing.”

Howe was quick to shut down any discussion of that.

“We’re not seeking that validation of our performances from opponents,” he said. “We’ll seek it from ourselves and our own supporters and people based in Newcastle. That’s fine. I think everyone has got an opinion, everyone will have an opinion; it’s of no relevance to us what that is.”

Howe was praised for the respectful manner in which he conducted himself in the face of the injustice in Paris, which contrasts with examples from many other Premier League managers through the years who have been much more emotional in similar circumstances.

Mikel Arteta was the a recent example at St. James’ Park, and Ten Hag has tried to get under the skin of the Newcastle boss in previous clashes.

“It’s not an act, it’s my personality,” he said of his of his typically calm demeanor. “I can’t change my personality. I can’t change to be more angry ... I am angry but I might not necessarily show it.

“I try to keep my expressions and my emotions to me, unless I need to bring them out for a positive reason, which I will behind the scenes. I’ve always had the same mindset to these things, that’s just my character.

“I’ve also had criticism for it the other way. I remember someone telling me that unless you’re more demonstrative on the bench you’ll never manage in the Premier League. That was very early in my management career. I said I’m not going to change who I am, I’m not going to become someone else because that’s what I ‘need’ to do.

“I can only be myself, otherwise I’m going to turn into an act. It’s been used against me, negatively. I’m sure other people will have a different viewpoint (on) whether it’s a strength or a weakness. It’s not me trying to prove any point. I can only be myself.”

Newcastle will face Man United without a raft of key players. Sandro Tonali, who is serving a 10-month ban for violating betting regulations, is joined on the unavailable list by Sven Botman, Harvey Barnes, Callum Wilson, Sean Longstaff, Joe Willock, Elliot Anderson, Dan Burn, Jacob Murphy, Matt Targett and Javier Manquillo.

As a result, the same starting XI who defeated against Chelsea 4-1 last Saturday, had to put in 98-plus minutes in Paris in midweek. Squad rotation is not really an option at present.

“We want to get through the month, we want to do well,” he said. “I still think we’ve got a very good team on the pitch. I’ve said that all through this injury position we’re in. Yes we have some youth in it but we still have a very good team.

“We’re trying to manage the squad as best we can and not pick up any new injuries. That would really hurt us, so we’re trying to rest the players between games and get players back who are injured. I don’t see any fatigue in the group, mentally. I think sometimes the mental fatigue is underestimated, because of the emotion the players give.

“I think we’re in a good place and, certainly, good results help that. At the moment, everything is positive but, certainly, we could do with more players back.”

Carlo Nohra: Interest in Saudi Pro League is testament to the quality of players recruited in the summer

Carlo Nohra: Interest in Saudi Pro League is testament to the quality of players recruited in the summer
Updated 02 December 2023

Carlo Nohra: Interest in Saudi Pro League is testament to the quality of players recruited in the summer

Carlo Nohra: Interest in Saudi Pro League is testament to the quality of players recruited in the summer
  • The SPL’s chief operating officer says the ‘Ronaldo factor’ has accelerated the journey

RIYADH: In front of a packed King Fahd Stadium, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr played out a Riyadh derby that radiated significance well beyond Saudi Arabia’s capital city on Friday night.

The top-of-the-table Saudi Pro League clash brought together two clubs whose profile is now growing well beyond the Kingdom’s borders.

While Al-Hilal claimed a 3-0 victory that extended their lead at the summit to seven points, this was an opportunity to showcase Saudi football to a wider audience.

The media center brimmed with international representatives sampling the Kingdom’s football culture for the first time and though injured Al-Hilal star Neymar was absent, the home fans created a carnival atmosphere at the King Fahd.

Among those watching in Riyadh was Carlo Nohra, the Saudi Pro League’s chief operating officer, who since June has been plotting the next steps in the league’s growth.

What began with Cristiano Ronaldo’s marquee signing by Al-Nassr in January evolved into a summer influx of new talent and a host of global broadcast rights deals.

“We said at the very least we needed to go out and distribute the broadcast rights through the world,” Nohra told Arab News at the King Fahd Stadium.

“We couldn’t predict what the appetite would be so the fact that people have both taken and paid for them is testament to the quality of players we’ve brought into the league.

“Did we expect to be here at this stage? No. But the Ronaldo factor has contributed to the acceleration of our journey.”

More eyes are on the league than ever before and Nohra believes the next steps are vital in creating a sustainable, self-sufficient product that is not perennially reliant on investment.

He said: “Over time we know we have to be revenue-generating and move from where we are today with 100 percent dependence on government money to exactly the opposite end, where we are fully independent financially.

“It’s a historic time and such a rare opportunity and great privilege to be here but we know this is a massive project and undertaking and it will take us a long time to achieve those objectives.

“We’ve taken the first early steps. We’re where the J-League was in 1993 and MLS in 1996. It’s a long journey ahead but we definitely still have major aspirations.”

Among those objectives for Nohra — the former CEO of Emirati clubs Al-Jazira and Al-Ain, as well as the UAE Football League — is a desire to revolutionize the relationship between players and fans.

Nohra’s most recent role before the Saudi Pro League was a seven-year stint as vice president and general manager of WWE Asia Pacific and he feels that football can learn a lot from wrestling.

He said: “Stepping out of football and seeing what happens elsewhere was such a valuable experience. It helps you understand that there is a different, and perhaps better, way of doing things.

“Right now, our athletes are not performers, but they should be. We need to better connect them with the fans because there is that great divide between the player and the fan that adores them. WWE is great at this and I hope we can develop a new environment that fosters this.”

It is just one of Nohra’s lofty ambitions for the Saudi Pro League, but more pressing are a series of fundamental infrastructure challenges. Providing a better fan experience is central to Nohra’s manifesto.

“Almost everywhere you turn, there is something that needs to be improved but it is impossible to do everything at the same time,” he said. “At the moment the customer journey for Saudi football needs to be of a much higher quality.

“We are working on the access to the stadium, getting tickets in a more regulated fashion through new platforms. These are some of the pain points right now because what is the point in having a good product on the pitch if people can’t get to the stadium to watch it?”

Despite the teething problems in the Saudi Pro League’s development, the attention given to Friday’s Riyadh derby is indicative of the potential that the division has to capture the imagination of a wider audience.

“Football will always be the real product and it has existed in this country for a long time,” Nohra says.

“We know we can put on good football matches, that’s not the issue. We just want to put on more of these matches that are meaningful for the rest of the world to watch.

“Sometimes we wonder if we should have focused on infrastructure first before the players but there is no question that the presence of these players has triggered the attention and investment to deal with these other areas.

“Bringing the players was key and it’s wonderful to see the interest that we’ve generated.”

Mitrovic turns Riyadh blue as Al-Hilal go 7 points clear

Mitrovic turns Riyadh blue as Al-Hilal go 7 points clear
Updated 02 December 2023

Mitrovic turns Riyadh blue as Al-Hilal go 7 points clear

Mitrovic turns Riyadh blue as Al-Hilal go 7 points clear
  • Second-half header from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and two goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic enough for Al-Hilal in Riyadh derby

RIYADH: The endless line of cars, thousands of people walking the streets dressed in yellow as well as blue, and the Friday night lights beaming out of King Fahd International Stadium could only mean one thing: the Riyadh derby, the most eagerly awaited in years.

Most of the cars heading back home were filled with happy fans as Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr 3-0 thanks to a second-half header from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and two goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic.

It was a deserved win, although with a slightly flattering scoreline, that sent the victors, still unbeaten, seven points clear at the top, above their beaten rivals.

It was not a classic by any means, and it was tight and tense right until the last few minutes when Mitrovic bagged his brace.

Any meeting between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr is always a huge game but the Saudi Arabian capital was throbbing with anticipation ahead of this meeting as it had a little extra: It marked the halfway point of the season, it saw the top two teams in the Roshn Saudi League, and it showcased a whole host of stars, both international and domestic.

The three points were more important, though. Al-Hilal knew that a win would give them, a team with 18 domestic championships under their belt, a huge advantage going into the second half of the season. Al-Nassr were desperate to close the gap to a single point.

Al-Hilal should have been ahead early on. After just 120 seconds, Mitrovic made room for himself on the left side of the area but pulled his shot just wide. Then it was the turn of Salem Al-Dawsari to go close on a couple of occasions.

Yet it was not a complete blue wave. As the home fans booed Cristiano Ronaldo, Anderson Talisca, with his back to goal, lifted the ball over his own head, his lob being just a little too high. It would have been a goal-of-the-season contender.

Four minutes later, Nawaf Al-Aqidi’s clearance was blocked by Mitrovic and fell to Michael whose tame shot was gratefully gathered by the goalkeeper.

Ronaldo’s first real sight of goal came midway through the first half, a low shot on the run that was comfortably saved by Yassine Bounou.

The rest of the half was a tighter affair with neither team really able to create the chances needed. It all became a little niggly with fouls, free-kicks and yellow cards.

The period ended in controversy with Al-Nassr appealing for a penalty after Seko Fofana went down under a Kalidou Koulibaly challenge, but neither referee nor video assistant was interested.

Defenses again had the upper hand after the break and the final pass was not quite good enough to produce the breakthrough.

That is, until the 64th minute when Milinkovic-Savic, from near the penalty spot, headed home into the bottom right corner past the outstretched hand of Al-Aqidi.

It brought the fans and the game to life. Ronaldo told his teammates to stay calm and focused and, soon after, his low shot flew just outside the near post.

With 17 minutes remaining, he volleyed hard into the roof of the net but had been adjudged to have strayed offside. It was close, coach Luis Castro complained for minutes, but soon after Hilal got the all-important second with Mitrovic heading home. There were huge complaints from Al-Nassr who claimed that the former Fulham forward had pushed Ronaldo to the ground.

But the goal stood and moments later Mitrovic added his second and his team’s third.

It was harsh on Al-Nassr and their fans, who started to leave, overwhelmed by the sea of blue and a wave of noise.

Al-Hilal will take some stopping from here. There is a long way to go, but on Friday night Riyadh was blue and the cars honked their horns in delight.