Impact of Neymar’s move to Al-Hilal will rival that of Ronaldo to Al-Nassr

Special Impact of Neymar’s move to Al-Hilal will rival that of Ronaldo to Al-Nassr
Neymar celebrates scoring for Paris St. Germain against Olympique de Marseille, Parc des Princes, Paris, France, Oct. 16, 2022. (Reuters)
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Updated 14 August 2023
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Impact of Neymar’s move to Al-Hilal will rival that of Ronaldo to Al-Nassr

Impact of Neymar’s move to Al-Hilal will rival that of Ronaldo to Al-Nassr
  • Brazilian superstar is joining the former Saudi and Asian champions on two-year deal
  • Signing signals Al-Hilal’s intent to regain the supremacy they lost to Al-Ittihad last season

Even considering the remarkable recent influx of players to the Saudi Pro League, it was difficult to imagine one individual deal emulating Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al-Nassr at the end of last year.

But Neymar Jr. joining Al-Hilal is just a mouth-watering prospect and perhaps the most exciting of the deals that have been made in what has been an unforgettable summer.

Al-Hilal are the most successful team in the history of Saudi Arabian football. The Blues have also been Asian champions more than any other and have a strong case of being the biggest club on the continent.

And now they have Neymar and they are the subject of conversation for football fans around the world. It would be wrong, after all that has happened in recent weeks and months and all the big names that have arrived in the country, to say that this is a massive surprise and an unbelievable move, but it is still a huge deal.

Given the rivalry that exists between the club and Al-Nassr, it is perhaps also a natural step that, after Ronaldo signed for the Yellows in December to send genuine shockwaves around the world, Al-Hilal were always going to respond with one of the other names at the very top of the global football tree. 

Neymar is a global superstar; there is no other way of putting it. Of all the players that have come to Saudi Arabia — and there have been genuine stars such as Karim Benzema, Ruben Neves, N’Golo Kante, Jordan Henderson, Sadio Mane and a growing list of others — there is only Ronaldo who could be said to have a bigger status in the game, and the Brazilian is seven years younger than the Portuguese star.

Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 is still a world record for a transfer fee that was €222 million ($240 million). The forward is an icon of the game and would be on the wish list of any club in the world that had the funds.

When he is on the pitch, there is a sense that anything can happen. I have seen him take such serious punishment from opposition players but in the end, he has a habit of punishing teams with a piece of magic and a couple of goals. A game against Japan in Singapore in 2014 stands out when he scored all four goals in that victory and he was just immense.

Many thought that he would head back to Barcelona as he left Paris, so it is a real coup for Al-Hilal to get his signature. It just means that there is going to be even more attention and interest in the Roshn Saudi League. In terms of star power on display, Ronaldo vs. Neymar ranks alongside any in the world. When you think that in the Riyadh derby there will also be names such as Mane, Brozkovic, Neves, Milinkovic-Savic, Koulibaly, Fofana and others on the pitch, it shows that the league really is going places.

There will also be huge interest in how he performs in Brazil and the rest of South America as well as the rest of the world. The biggest star in the biggest football nation in the world is now playing in Saudi Arabia.

Neymar has scored 77 goals for Brazil, equaling Pele’s tally (though that is disputed by Pele and the Brazilian federation who claim he scored 92). Neymar’s every move is followed closely back home and that is going to be the case now he is wearing the increasingly famous blue shirt — and it will also be fascinating to see who wins the shirt battle. Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr top is a common sight now in cities around the world and it is soon to be followed by Neymar’s Al-Hilal shirt. 

And on the pitch, there are going to be consequences. Al-Hilal lost to Al-Nassr in the final of the King Salman Club Cup, and it was apparent that they lacked a little in attack. Al-Nassr had Ronaldo as a focal point, one who drove the team on. It was something that Hilal did not have — until now. With Neves and Savic behind him as well as Salem Al-Dawsari, Michael and Malcom, Neymar really could lead Al-Hilal to the next level and that means the title at home and in Asia. That is always the expectation at the club and even more so now.

The pressure will be on, but Neymar is no stranger to that. He has had issues with injuries of late, but the stage is set for him to come to Riyadh and do what he does best. This season was already a mouth-watering one in terms of talent, attention and all the storylines. Now it has moved up to the next level with Neymar and we all will be watching.


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.”