As first season with Al-Nassr draws to a close, Cristiano Ronaldo reiterates support for rising Saudi football

As first season with Al-Nassr draws to a close, Cristiano Ronaldo reiterates support for rising Saudi football
It is very likely that there will be an influx of top-class foreign talents coming into the Roshn Saudi League this summer, partly because Ronaldo. (Twitter: @AlNassrFC_EN)
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Updated 25 May 2023
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As first season with Al-Nassr draws to a close, Cristiano Ronaldo reiterates support for rising Saudi football

As first season with Al-Nassr draws to a close, Cristiano Ronaldo reiterates support for rising Saudi football
  • It is not the first time that the Portuguese star has claimed Roshn Saudi League can be one of the world’s top five

Cristiano Ronaldo made headlines on and off the pitch on Tuesday. Firstly, he scored a spectacular goal that proved to be the decisive strike in a dramatic come-from-behind 3-2 win over Al-Shabab that kept his team three points behind Al-Ittihad, and their title dreams alive.

It was the kind of goal that fans in Spain, Italy, England and Portugal have cheered for years and one that will rank alongside the many hundreds the 38-year-old has scored in an illustrious career, and surely the best of the 14 netted so far in the yellow of Al-Nassr.

Secondly, not much more than 30 minutes later, he gave a short interview that followed his goal, to be talked about around the world.

“We are much better and the Saudi league is getting better and the next year will be even better,” he told Saudi Arabian sports channel SSC. “Step-by-step I think this league will be among the top five leagues in the world, but they need time, players and infrastructure. But I believe that this country has amazing potential, they have amazing people and the league will be great in my opinion.”

It was not the first time that Ronaldo has made such comments after arriving in the country in January. During his first international break with Portugal in March, he said something similar for a foreign audience. The reaction was one of disbelief in Europe and the comments were dismissed. This time he was talking to a domestic audience and the message is the same. He means what he is saying.

He did stress potential and point out the need for three things — players, infrastructure and time.

The presence of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will help with the first. It is very likely that there will be an influx of top-class foreign talents coming into the Roshn Saudi League this summer. This is partly because Ronaldo, one of the best in the history of the game, is already there. When Lionel Messi was linked with a move to Al-Hilal recently, the possibility of the Argentine in Saudi Arabia was taken seriously because Ronaldo is already there. Whether the seven-time Ballon D’Or winner comes or not, the league is now seen as a place where the very best can go and play.

More players will come and with Ronaldo present, there has to be a certain commitment and mentality from the foreign imports. The likes of Carlos Tevez not only saw a move to China as a holiday, but openly said that was the case. Ronaldo sets such high standards for himself and others that he can’t help but make a difference and other clubs will, or should, demand similar levels of dedication from their new signings. The star has shown that, regardless of talent, there can be no excuse for anything less than 100 percent at all times.

Ronaldo can be seen talking to team-mates, cajoling and encouraging and sometimes expressing his frustration when the right pass or move is not made. Yet his greatest ire is directed toward himself. When he misses a chance, heads over or is dispossessed, his annoyance is there for all to see.

Here is a player who is as good as he can possibly be. His Al-Nassr team-mates must have found training a different experience in the past few months. There have been hundreds, thousands, of foreign players, in Saudi Arabia over the years but few, if any, have shown such dedication and professionalism. Such is his commitment, you can be sure that he means what he says.

So more of the same from other top-class foreigners can only improve standards in training, preparation and games. And then, as Ronaldo mentioned, comes the infrastructure. This is an ongoing project but there are an increasing number of top-class stadiums and training facilities are also improving. There is no point signing world-famous players and developing domestic talent and then providing substandard facilities. 

If the players and infrastructure improve, the third element is time. In football, this is something that has often been in short supply around the world and the lifespan of coaches at Saudi Arabian is not a long one. Off the field however, there is longer-term planning, strategy and enough patience for change to come.

In some ways, it does not matter if the Roshn Saudi League becomes one of the top five in the world.

The journey and ambition is more important than the destination and the crucial point is that the league and all in Saudi Arabian football aim to never be satisfied, to seek to constantly improve and keep developing. So far, Ronaldo is playing his part but there is more to come.


UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl maintain 8-point lead over Al-Ain at top of table

Al-Wasl have an 8-point lead over Al-Ain at the top of the ADNOC Pro League. (@AlWaslSC)
Al-Wasl have an 8-point lead over Al-Ain at the top of the ADNOC Pro League. (@AlWaslSC)
Updated 03 March 2024
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UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl maintain 8-point lead over Al-Ain at top of table

Al-Wasl have an 8-point lead over Al-Ain at the top of the ADNOC Pro League. (@AlWaslSC)
  • Walter Zenga’s Emirates endure another defeat, look set for drop

DUBAI: Relentless leaders Al-Wasl heaped pressure on Cosmin Olaroiu’s underperforming Sharjah, Spain icon Andres Iniesta’s sinking Emirates Club looked doomed, and Farhad Majidi’s inconsistent Ittihad Kalba-reign was brought to an ignominious end during ADNOC Pro League’s matchweek 15.

Friday’s grandstand clash in Dubai witnessed goals from Abdulrahman Saleh and outstanding UAE attacker Ali Saleh to maintain Al-Wasl’s grip on their first title since 2006-07 with a 2-0 triumph, while pushing star-studded Sharjah 13 points off the pace.

On the same evening, Tunisia playmaker Haykeul Chikhaoui’s ferocious opener sent improving Ajman on their way to a 2-0 win which moved them nine points away from danger and pushed Walter Zenga’s bottom-placed Emirates – enduring a 10-match losing streak – eight points from safety.

Fellow promoted outfit Hatta showed fight in a 5-3 reversal at AFC Champions League quarter-finalists Al-Ain and third-placed holders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club required an instant brace by substitute Yuri Cesar in an eventual 3-0 victory at 10-man Khor Fakkan.

Shambolic defending caused 13th-placed Kalba’s 2-1 loss to Al-Bataeh and was followed by the exit of former Iran under-23 and Esteghlal boss Majidi after almost two years at the helm. Ex-Brazil and Napoli defensive midfielder Allan netted an unlikely pair to hand Al-Wahda the Abu Dhabi Derby spoils in a pulsating 3-2 defeat for Mirel Radoi’s unconvincing Al-Jazira, while Alfred Schreuder’s flourishing Al-Nasr rose to sixth with a 1-0 triumph versus Baniyas – their fourth in five top-flight fixtures.

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

Player of the week: Allan (Al-Wahda)

Al-Wahda supporters could have been tricked into thinking they had landed Kaka, instead of Allan.

Their skipper’s granite reputation was earned via winning countless midfield battles in Serie A and the Premier League, rather than through artfully dispatched doubles.

Saturday’s unexpected turn, however, made all the difference on home soil when they welcomed floundering near-neighbors Al-Jazira to Al-Nahyan Stadium.

It was quite the way to open his ADNOC Pro League account, after being recruited back in September 2022.

A deft dummied shot and incisive strike through numerous flailing Pride of Abu Dhabi-defenders made it 2-0 on 41 minutes. The 33-year-old had also clipped in the 17th-minute free-kick from which on-form Iran midfielder Ahmad Nourollahi eventually back-heel half-volleyed the opener.

Even better was to come past the hour mark. By that point, a frantic derby had swung back toward the Pride of Abu Dhabi after ex-Fulham player Neeskens Kebano struck twice to make it 2-2.

Allan’s stepover at pace on the edge of the penalty box sent retreating Moroccan youngster Mohammed Rabii off balance, prior to lashing into the roof of stranded UAE goalkeeper Ali Khaseif’s net. It was a fitting winner for a high-quality and high-drama clash.

For fourth-placed Al-Wahda, January’s call to draft in former Ajman miracle-worker Goran Tufegdzic has been rewarded with seven points from nine. Al-Jazira, meanwhile, are yet to ignite since snaffling ex-Romania boss Radoi from Bataeh and slipped to seventh.

Goal of the week: Ali Saleh (Al-Wasl)

Whatever challenge is put in front of Al-Wasl, they have got the firepower to overcome it.

Their ninth win from their last 10 top-flight outings was sealed by homegrown hero Saleh.

The 24-year-old collected UAE colleague Caio Canedo’s flicked header, composed himself and then curled past helpless Sharjah goalkeeper Adel Al-Hosani from 20 yards. It was a beautiful way to produce a seventh goal contribution in 14 matches.

Al-Wasl remain in control of their title destiny, eight-points ahead of Al-Ain with a game extra played. It also feels increasingly perplexing why Saleh was handed just 210 minutes on the way to the UAE’s dispiriting round-of-16 exit at 2023 Asian Cup.

Coach of the week: Daniel Isaila (Ajman)

A fine rescue job is being performed by Daniel Isaila at 11th-placed Ajman.

Last season’s dark horses in sixth spot had rapidly declined to relegation certainties under Caio Zanardi. Friday’s consummate win against Emirates featured 13 attempts on target to the visitors’ three, even with Iniesta starting in the league for the first time since Dec. 1.

Isaila has transformed horizons since October’s hire. The acumen which evolved outsiders Baniyas into shock 2020/21 runners-up has been transplanted at Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Stadium.

What to do with Olaroiu?

It is not unfair, or unkind, to expect far more from fifth-placed Sharjah.

Their third league loss of a befuddling campaign has kept The King far away from the crown. A points deficit counted in double digits with 11 matches still to play was not expected when the 2023-24 season kicked off.

It is an unbalanced team which is performing below the sum of their parts. Worryingly, serial trophy hoarder Olaroiu’s once-golden touch appears to be waning.

“I am not the one who makes the decisions regarding contracts with players,” was the Romanian’s pointed comment post-match, according to Dubai Sports.

What happens next is the glaring question.

Sharjah’s 11 at Zabeel Stadium contained ex-Barcelona and Juventus superstar Miralem Pjanic, ex-Porto and Al-Hilal attacker Moussa Marega, 184-goal UAE veteran Sebastian Tagliabue, and South Korea’s World Cup 2022 performer Cho Yu-min. They boasted more possession (55 percent/45 percent) and attempts (14/12), yet Al-Wasl’s greater desire proved crucial.

Last season’s disappointing seventh-place finish was forgiven, amid an unprecedented sweep of four domestic trophies. This term, however, has been stained by group-stage collapse in the AFC Champions League, quarter-final elimination in the ADIB Cup, a 6-2 humiliation to Shabab Al-Ahli in the UAE Super Cup, and failure to threaten in the ADNOC Pro League.

Schreuder’s ascendant Al-Nasr and Al-Ain await, either side of the international break. This could be a situation careering toward breaking point.


Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves
Updated 03 March 2024
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Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

Newcastle: Criticism, at this level, is only ever just around the corner. One year you may be returning a club to the Champions League after two decades, the next some may be calling for change at the top.

That is the situation that has recently faced Eddie Howe at Newcastle United.

A one-trick pony. The lack of a plan B. Howe has faced up to some tactical criticism from certain sections of the Newcastle fanbase in a drift from top four contenders to the fringes of the bottom half of the division in what has turned into a winter of discontent on Tyneside.

And in fairness, some of that criticism has been justified.

However, when a tactical tweak was needed, Howe delivered, landing a blow to his critics by producing a compact, robust Newcastle setup that was far too much for opposite number Gary O’Neil — transforming a resurgent, on-the-rise Wolverhampton Wanderers’ bark into a whimper at St. James’ Park.

Alexander Isak gave the hosts the lead on the break, while another counter goal by Anthony Gordon had the Magpies cruising at half-time. A late wondergoal from youngster Tino Livramento added a flourish in the dying embers.

Famed for their transition play, Wolves have torn teams apart in the Premier League on their rise. And getting caught by teams on the transition, has been Howe and Newcastle’s kryptonite during their winter struggles.

Answering that, Howe tweaked it, as Newcastle sat deeper, invited the pressure and surrendered possession wilfully. It worked wonders.

After recording the Magpies’ first home win since Dec. 16, Howe said: “We changed things tactically today. It was a big win.

“We knew, being back at home, that we hadn’t won here for quite a while, certainly in 2024. Our home form has always been so good. Ever since I’ve come to the football club, even in the season when we stayed up and then making the top four in the following one, the home form was really the bedrock of all our success.

“So, to have our first wobble here was a concern. We’re delighted to win; it was a massive game for us.

“It was a slight tweak from our normal way of playing. We analyze our opposition, like we do always, and I know there’s a lot of people that say we play the same way every week, but I can assure you that’s not the case.

“There’s always tweaks and little things we try to do to help us in our performance, and that was one today, to try to maybe play a slightly more transitional game.

“I still think we’re not quite where we were at times last year, and also at times this year, but I thought it was better. I thought we had a better physical look about us, with really good running capacity, highlighted by our first goal, which was really transitional.

“There were players running the full length of the pitch, with a real desire to score. I thought, individually, we looked better as well in that respect.

“As I’ve said many times, confidence can ebb and flow, from individuals and the team. But I thought toward the end of the game, we started to see the confidence flow back into the group, and the last 10 to 15 minutes was really good,” he added.

Newcastle have so often been starved of options when they have needed them, and injuries to key players at key times has limited what the head coach can do off the bench.

With just 12 games left, that situation is clearly easing — and it is no surprise to see Newcastle put in arguably their most impressive, coherent performance in 2024.

Turning to goalscorer Livramento as well as summer signing Harvey Barnes, coupled with Miguel Almiron, Lewis Miley, and Elliot Anderson off the subs bench is as strong a group as Howe has been able to name for months.

Arguably, the biggest impact of all, however, was getting Joe Willock back into the starting 11.

After 12 months of struggles, this was the first match the former Arsenal man has started since November. And what a difference his energy and legs gave to a United midfield that has lacked anything like it for so long.

Howe said: “Naturally, I think our midfield does have a different complexion with Willock in the team. I think he has different qualities, although I have to compliment Lewis Miley when he came on because that’s a difficult game situation for someone so young, but I thought he did really well.

“Joe does add a running and an athleticism that maybe we don’t have without him. I was delighted with his contribution. Yes, we’ve managed his game minutes, but it’s great that he’s come through three games and done really well.

“I thought he (Bruno Guimaraes) was very good and had moments where he really showed his class. When he’s at the top of his game, for me, there’s no one better in playing the role that he does. I was really pleased with his impact in the first goal because it’s a full length of the pitch counterattack and he’s had to make up a lot of yards to get a vital contribution to that goal.

“That lets me know that, mentally, he’s in a good place and, physically, he’s in a good place too after a three-game week with extra-time. I was really pleased with that part of his game,” Howe added.


Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers

Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers
Updated 03 March 2024
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Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers

Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers
  • Details of the trial were believed to have been close to publication by the International
  • Football Association Board (IFAB) last month Stronger enforcement on time-wasting goalkeepers was the major development to emerge from the meeting

LONDON: A controversial sin bin trial featuring blue cards was absent from the latest changes made by football’s lawmakers to improve player behavior on Saturday.
It was reported in February that blue cards were set to be part of a trial of sin bins at higher levels of the professional game.
Details of the trial were believed to have been close to publication by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) last month.
But the negative response to the proposal from Premier League managers like Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and Tottenham’s Ange Postecoglou played a role in the trial details being delayed.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino said on Friday that he “wasn’t aware” blue cards were intended to be used in the trial and said his organization was “completely opposed” to the idea.
Sin-bin yellow cards will continue to be trialled at grassroots level instead.
“If the trials at the lower levels work, of course the conversation continues throughout the pyramid,” said the English Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham after IFAB’s annual general meeting near Loch Lomond, Scotland.
“I don’t think that was ever the intention for the trial to start in the Premier League.”
Stronger enforcement on time-wasting goalkeepers was the major development to emerge from the meeting.
Fans could be encouraged to join in countdowns on goalkeepers holding on to the ball too long.
In competitions taking part in the trial, goalkeepers will be able to hold onto the ball for eight seconds and the sanction for holding on too long would be a corner or a throw-in in line with the penalty spot, rather than an indirect free-kick.
Under current guidelines, ‘keepers are supposed to only hold onto the ball for a maximum of six seconds, but the rule is rarely strictly enforced.
The other two trials approved by IFAB are designed to help referees regulate player behavior.
Referees now have the option to create captain-only zones and cooling-off areas in the event of mass confrontations.


Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner

Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner
Updated 02 March 2024
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Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner

Klopp dismisses Forest complaints over Nunez winner
  • Nunez marked his return from injury by heading home nine minutes into stoppage-time at the City Ground
  • “It happened exactly the same in the first half didn’t it? Exactly the same, just the other way round,” Klopp said

NOTTINGHAM, United Kingdom: Jurgen Klopp claimed Darwin Nunez’s controversial late winner against Nottingham Forest was legitimate as Liverpool moved four points clear at the top of the Premier League on Saturday.
Nunez marked his return from injury by heading home nine minutes into stoppage-time at the City Ground.
But the Uruguay forward’s decisive contribution left Forest furious after referee Paul Tierney had stopped play before the build-up to the goal for an apparent head injury to Liverpool defender Ibrahima Konate.
Tierney blew with Forest in possession on the edge of Liverpool’s area and after Konate had quickly recovered, the official dropped the ball to Reds goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher, who then started the move that led to Nunez’s goal.
“It happened exactly the same in the first half didn’t it? Exactly the same, just the other way round,” Klopp said.
“I accepted it would happen like that because it happened in the first half. If it didn’t happen in the first half, I would have asked the question as well.
“I would assume that’s the rule, I don’t know. But because it happened twice and got handled exactly the same, I don’t really see their reasons for a discussion.”
Earlier in the game, Tierney halted a Liverpool attack after Forest captain Ryan Yates was felled by Harvey Elliott’s shot and play resumed with goalkeeper Matz Sels taking possession.
“I understand 100 percent the excitement and the anger of Nottingham, of course, they fought for everything. But it happened twice the same and was consistent,” Klopp said.
Nunez’s winner secured Liverpool their first league victory at the City Ground in almost 40 years.
The priceless success by the banks of the River Trent piled pressure on second-placed Manchester City and third-placed Arsenal, who play on Sunday and Monday against Manchester United and Sheffield United respectively.
Klopp admitted it had been a huge effort from his injury-hit squad, who have registered six straight wins in all competitions, including last Sunday’s League Cup final win over Chelsea.
“Four games in 11 days, come on. Five in 15,” Klopp said. “It’s really tough. With our squad situation it’s super-tough and how the boys fought through that is really special.
“The fourth game was the toughest. It was an unbelievable effort the boys put in. A proper, proper shift.
“If you had asked me 12 days ago if it was possible to win all four games, I’d have said no.”


Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved

Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved
Updated 02 March 2024
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Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved

Chelsea fans turn on Pochettino during draw at Brentford. The Argentine says he doesn’t feel loved
  • “I’ve been told — I didn’t hear, to be honest. It’s difficult for me to understand,” the Argentine coach said
  • Chelsea rescued a point on Pochettino’s 52nd birthday when Axel Disasi headed home Cole Palmer’s cross

LONDON: Chelsea fans turned on Mauricio Pochettino as they watched their team labor to draw at west London rival Brentford 2-2 in the English Premier League on Saturday.
The Blues were leading through Nicolas Jackson’s 35th-minute header but were pegged back by Mads Roerslev’s close-range strike in the 50th.
When Yoane Wissa put Brentford ahead with a spectacular overhead kick in the 69th, the away fans began singing the name of former manager Jose Mourinho as well as calling for Pochettino to go.
“I’ve been told — I didn’t hear, to be honest. It’s difficult for me to understand,” the Argentine coach said.
“But it’s normal, we were losing the game 2-1 and they expressed their frustration. I am one of the ones responsible, I’m the coach.”
Chelsea rescued a point on Pochettino’s 52nd birthday when Axel Disasi headed home Cole Palmer’s cross.
The point left Chelsea languishing in 11th place in another dismal league campaign and the first season under Pochettino.
“I was asked before if I feel the love from the fans — no,” Pochettino said. “I’m not worried — we need to accept this relationship. You win your relationship through winning games.
“I will continue to work and try to change this perception. We need to manage some reality. We are working really hard to try to win games, the team is fighting. If it doesn’t work and the fans are disappointed, I need to respect their opinion.”