Ronaldo and big-spending Saudi clubs primed to dominate Asian Champions League

Ronaldo and big-spending Saudi clubs primed to dominate Asian Champions League
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Al-Nassr's Croatian midfielder Marcelo Brozovic fights for the ball with Taawoun's Spanish midfielder Alvaro Medran during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Nassr and Al-Taawoun at King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh on August 18, 2023. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)
Ronaldo and big-spending Saudi clubs primed to dominate Asian Champions League
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Al-Nassr's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo attempts a shot during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Nassr and Al-Taawoun at King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh on August 18, 2023. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)
Ronaldo and big-spending Saudi clubs primed to dominate Asian Champions League
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Brazilian superstar Neymar enters the pitch during his unveiling ceremony at Al-Hilal in Riyadh on August 19, 2023. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)
Ronaldo and big-spending Saudi clubs primed to dominate Asian Champions League
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Al-Hilal coach Jorge Jesus talks to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ruben Neves during the team's Saudi Pro League match with Al-Feiha at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh on August 19, 2023. (REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri)
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Updated 21 August 2023
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Ronaldo and big-spending Saudi clubs primed to dominate Asian Champions League

Ronaldo and big-spending Saudi clubs primed to dominate Asian Champions League
  • An Al-Nassr victory over Shabab Al-Ahli will give Saudi Arabia four teams in the group stage that starts in September and they will present formidable opposition for the rest of the continent’s contenders

SEOUL, South Korea: Cristiano Ronaldo gets his first taste of Asian competition on Tuesday as Al-Nassr meets Shabab Al-Ahli of Dubai in a Champions League preliminary round playoff with the rest of the continent wondering if big-spending Saudi Arabian clubs can be stopped.
Al-Nassr finished second in its domestic league last season but since signing the five-time Ballon D’Or winner in December, has added more stars this summer. Marcelo Brozkovic, Sadio Mane, Alex Telles and Seko Fofana have arrived from Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Lens respectively.
The club has lost its first two games of the new Saudi Professional League season and Shabab Al-Ahli may be champion of the United Arab Emirates but Al-Nassr is still seen as a strong favorite to progress to the group stage, especially as the single elimination game will take place at its Riyadh home.
“In the past, only Japanese and South-Korean clubs could compete with Saudi clubs,” Roel Coumans, who left his position as head coach of Saudi Arabian club Abha in the summer, told Associated Press. “The gap with Saudi teams will become bigger and bigger.”
During his time with Abha, the Dutch tactician grew accustomed to the underdog role while taking on the likes of Al-Nassr. “Now, from ten games in the Asian Champions League, eight will be won by Saudi teams but it is a matter of preparation and you need a belief that you can achieve your ambition and of course you need a little bit of luck.”
If Al-Nassr defeats Shabab Al-Ahli, it will give Saudi Arabia four teams in the group stage that starts in September and they will present formidable opposition for the rest of the continent’s contenders. Al-Hilal, which as a record four Asian titles, has signed Brazilian superstar Neymar and Fulham striker Aleksander Mitrovic in the past week, with Al-Ittihad adding FIFA Ballon D’Or holder Karim Benzama from Real Madrid as well as N’Golo Kante and Fabinho from Chelsea and Liverpool.
Earlier in August, the new strength of the leading Saudi Arabian teams was clear for all to see at the Arab Club Cup as rivals from Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and elsewhere in the region struggled to compete.
Saudi Arabia dominated the 16-team tournament with three of the four representatives reaching the last four. Al-Nassr lifted the trophy, defeating Riyadh rival Al-Hilal in the final with Ronaldo finishing as tournament top scorer.
With the Asian Champions League split into two geographic zones until the final, there is some hope for the eastern powers.
Urawa Reds of Japan defeated Al-Hilal in the final in May but needs to defeat Hong Kong’s Lee Man to progress to the group stage this time.
South Korea’s Incheon United meets Vietnam’s Haiphong. China will be hoping that both Shanghai Port and Zhejiang will progress to the group stage with victories over Thai opposition, BG Pathum United and Port respectively.
For now though, the focus is on Riyadh and on whether Ronaldo, who won the UEFA Champions League with Manchester United and four with Real Madrid, can lead his new team toward another continental prize.
 


Yokohama take a 2-1 lead into the 2nd leg of the Asian Champions League final against Al-Ain

Yokohama take a 2-1 lead into the 2nd leg of the Asian Champions League final against Al-Ain
Updated 24 May 2024
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Yokohama take a 2-1 lead into the 2nd leg of the Asian Champions League final against Al-Ain

Yokohama take a 2-1 lead into the 2nd leg of the Asian Champions League final against Al-Ain
  • If the Japanese team win they will participate in the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup where they could face their English stablemate as the English team qualified for the tournament
  • Despite the first-leg lead from the opener in Japan, getting past Al-Ain won’t be easy. The 2003 Asian champions also reached the final in 2005 and 2016

DUBAI: There will be celebrations in the UAE on Saturday regardless of whether Yokohama F. Marinos can protect their 2-1 lead in the second leg of the Asian Champions League final or Al-Ain come back to take the title.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayad is not only president of UAE but has been club president of Al-Ain, based near the country’s border with Oman, since 1979.

His vice president Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed is the owner of Manchester City, the founding member of the City Football Group, a worldwide stable of 13 clubs which became a minority shareholder in Yokohama in 2014.

If the Japanese team win they will participate in the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup where they could face their English stablemate as the English team qualified for the tournament, which will be expanded from seven to 32 teams, after becoming European champions in 2023.

Despite the first-leg lead from the opener in Japan, getting past Al-Ain won’t be easy. The 2003 Asian champions also reached the final in 2005 and 2016. The second loss is still fresh in the memory and serves as motivation.

“That’s why everybody wants this trophy so bad,” Al-Ain defender Khalid Al Hashemi said on the Asian Football Confederation’s official website. “I hope from the bottom of my heart that we can give happiness to everybody in our country.”

Al-Ain, coached by former Argentina striker Hernan Crespo, took an early lead through Mohammed Al-Baloushi at the Nissan Stadium on May 11 only for two late goals from Asahi Uenaka and Kota Watanabe to give Yokohama a slender advantage.

“We lost against great opponents who played very well but we did have chances which we didn’t put away,” Crespo said. “We have another opportunity at home and I hope it will be different,” said the ex-Milan, Inter and Chelsea forward.

“What we need is a little bit more quality in front to be dangerous. We had some chances, but it wasn’t enough and that is credit to Yokohama as they didn’t give us much space.”

Neither finalist has been able to transfer strong Asian form into domestic results. Al-Ain are in third in the league, 16 points behind leader Al-Wasl. Yokohama have won the J-League five times but currently sit 13th in the standings. The Japanese team have never been in the Champions League final.

Harry Kewell has been in charge since December and the former Leeds and Liverpool winger is close to achieving something that neither of his Australian predecessors Ange Postecoglou and Kevin Muscat managed at Yokohama.

“I’ve never been afraid of a challenge and I’m going to make sure my team’s not afraid of this challenge,” Kewell said. “It’s going to be tough . . . nothing’s given for free, you have to pay for it, you have to work for it. We have to suffer if we want to pick up this title.”


Beaten Leverkusen hope to ‘find themselves’ in German Cup final

Beaten Leverkusen hope to ‘find themselves’ in German Cup final
Updated 24 May 2024
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Beaten Leverkusen hope to ‘find themselves’ in German Cup final

Beaten Leverkusen hope to ‘find themselves’ in German Cup final
  • A loss will recall the club’s infamous ‘Neverkusen’ season in 2002, when they somehow emerged empty-handed
  • Leverkusen were without a trophy despite being five points clear in the league with three games remaining, while also qualifying for the German Cup and Champions League finals

BERLIN: Bayer Leverkusen face second-division Kaiserslautern in Saturday’s German Cup final licking their wounds after a first loss in almost a year.

Xabi Alonso’s side were thoroughly outclassed in a 3-0 loss to Atalanta in the Europa League final on Wednesday, their first defeat in any competition since May 2023 — a run of 51 games.

Energetic and dynamic this season with a taste for late goals, Leverkusen looked a shadow of the team which thundered past Bayern Munich to win their first ever Bundesliga title this season.

In a year when Alonso pledged to stick around with the club despite reported interest from Liverpool and Bayern, Leverkusen looked on track for a remarkable three trophies.

Now they need to rebound to stop their underdog opponents, who flirted with relegation to the third division for much of the campaign, spoiling what has been an incredible season.

A loss will recall the club’s infamous ‘Neverkusen’ season in 2002, when they somehow emerged empty-handed despite being five points clear in the league with three games remaining, while also qualifying for the German Cup and Champions League finals.

Leverkusen’s unbeaten run, which broke a 59-year-old record set by Portuguese giants Benfica in 1965, was bound to end sometime but it was the manner in which the club capitulated which will concern Alonso the most.

The Germans were outmuscled by a determined Atalanta, with the reliable Florian Wirtz and Granit Xhaka, so important this season, having off nights.

Winger Jonas Hofmann summed up the club’s struggles on Wednesday night, lamenting “many mistakes, individual mistakes, bad passes and simple technical errors,” saying the performance was “not Bayer-like.”

“We weren’t confident in the buildup,” Hofmann said, explaining Leverkusen had given Atalanta the feeling “they could stand up to us and win the title.”

For a side which has made a habit of scoring late goals — they have scored 15 times after the 90-minute mark this season — Leverkusen were not able to turn the tide.

Alonso was self-critical after the match, saying “we weren’t at our best, including me” and explained the system he chose “did not work,” urging his side to “transform our pain into positive energy.”

Despite the disappointment, beating Kaiserslautern would make Leverkusen just the sixth side in German football history to do the double — an incredible achievement for a team which had two major trophies to their name before this season started.

Xhaka told reporters on Wednesday the result was “not easy” but “we will not let it destroy us.”

“If we don’t win the triple, then we will win the double.”

Center-back Jonathan Tah, captain on Wednesday night, said “the show must go on.”

“We’ve got a very important game ahead of us — we can’t afford to talk ourselves down too much.”

Their opponents may now face a wounded Leverkusen hoping to make amends, but also understand Alonso’s side are vulnerable after Wednesday’s surprise loss.

Despite their run to the final, Kaiserslautern only played one top-division side in the Cup — beating Cologne, who were relegated to the second division at the end of the season.

Kaiserslautern striker Ragnar Ache told AFP he had been cheering for Leverkusen in Wednesday’s final in the hope Alonso’s side “would maybe party a little bit” into the night.

Ache however said Leverkusen “have a very big squad with high quality players — and they’re used to it.”

“It’s still not going to be easy for us. We have to look at ourselves and what we are going to do.”


Saudi squad announced for the upcoming World Cup, Asian Cup qualifiers

Saudi squad announced for the upcoming World Cup, Asian Cup qualifiers
Updated 24 May 2024
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Saudi squad announced for the upcoming World Cup, Asian Cup qualifiers

Saudi squad announced for the upcoming World Cup, Asian Cup qualifiers

RIYADH: Saudi national team boss Roberto Mancini announced the 31-player list in preparation for the fifth and sixth games of the 2026 World Cup and the 2027 Asian Cup qualifiers.


The Green Falcons will play Pakistan on June 6 in Islamabad and host Jordan on June 11 in Riyadh.

A preparation camp will be held in Riyadh next Thursday, except for Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr players, who will join their teammates on June 2, after the King’s Cup final between the two Riyadh giants.

Saudi National Team Squad for World Cup & Asian Cup Qualifiers

Goalkeepers: Mohammed Al-Owais, Ahmed Al-Kassar, Raghed Najjar, Mohammed Al-Yami, and Mohammed Al-Absi.

Defenders: Mutib Al-Harbi, Hassan Kadesh, Ali Al-Bulaihi, Aoun Al-Saluli, Ali Lagami, Hassan Al-Tumbakti, Saud Abdulhamid, and Mohammed Al-Buraik.

Midfielders: Mukhtar Ali, Abdullah Al-Khaibari, Musab Al-Juwair, Mohammed Kanno, Rayan Hamed, Sultan Al-Ghannam, Nasser Al-Dawsari, Faisal Al-Ghamdi, and Abbas Al-Hassan.

Attackers: Salem Al-Dawsari, Sami Al-Najai, Ayman Yahya, Marwan Al-Sahafi, Abdulrahman Gharib, Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, Abdullah Radif, Abdullah Al-Hamdan, and Firas Al-Burikan.

Al-Nassr’s Sultan Al-Ghannam returns to the squad after he and five other Saudi internationals were hit with punishments for disciplinary violations before the AFC Asian Cup held in Qatar.

The wing-back took to X and said he was happy to return to the squad.

“Representing the national team is an unparalleled honor. I thank those in charge of the team, including the administrative and technical bodies, and I hope that I, along with the rest of my teammates, will provide a level that is worthy of the reputation of Saudi football,” he added.


Ten Hag vows to save Man Utd project by winning FA Cup

Ten Hag vows to save Man Utd project by winning FA Cup
Updated 23 May 2024
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Ten Hag vows to save Man Utd project by winning FA Cup

Ten Hag vows to save Man Utd project by winning FA Cup
  • Ten Hag is battling to save his job amid mounting speculation that United’s new co-owner Jim Ratcliffe plans to axe him after a turbulent season
  • Asked on Thursday if the final could be his last match as United manager, Ten Hag laughed and told reporters: “I have nothing to say. I’m just focusing on the job I have to do”

LONDON: Erik ten Hag has vowed to win the FA Cup and carry on with his Manchester United project as the under-fire boss prepares for Saturday’s final against Manchester City.
Ten Hag is battling to save his job amid mounting speculation that United’s new co-owner Jim Ratcliffe plans to axe him after a turbulent season.
United finished eighth in the Premier League — their lowest final position since 1990 — and crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage.
The Dutch coach, who led United to their first trophy in six years when they won the League Cup last season, also clashed with Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, reportedly creating a rift in the dressing room.
United have been linked with England boss Gareth Southgate, former Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino, departing Bayern Munich boss Thomas Tuchel and Ipswich chief Kieran McKenna.
But Ten Hag is convinced he can turn the tide by securing United’s first FA Cup triumph since 2016, in the process avenging last season’s loss to City at the same stage of the competition and ensuring his club qualify for Europe.
Asked on Thursday if the final could be his last match as United manager, Ten Hag laughed and told reporters: “I have nothing to say. I’m just focusing on the job I have to do.
“That is first to win the game on Saturday and then we are in the project. Keep going in the project.
“After every season you review it and see where you are in the project and what things may need to change.
“We spoke lately about it. There are players developing and values going up.”
City were crowned Premier League champions for an unprecedented fourth successive season last weekend, giving them six titles in seven years.
Pep Guardiola’s men have beaten United twice already this season and Ten Hag knows a surprise win for underdogs United would be a well-timed feather in his cap.
“It’s all about trophies. We have a huge opportunity to win a trophy. In the last 10 years there has not been so many trophies at the club but we have the opportunity to win two in two years,” he said.
“The FA Cup final, it’s a big event. Even in a season that is not in our way, we are there. We know we have an opportunity.
“It won’t be easy but we must go for it. We have to believe it. We know often against good opposition we play our best football and that must be the same on Saturday.”
Ten Hag has been hampered by injuries to key players throughout the season, but his fitness issues have eased ahead of the final.
Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane have returned, with Victor Lindelof, Mason Mount and Anthony Martial pictured in training this week, although Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw will be sidelined.
Ten Hag insisted Maguire, who has been named in England’s provisional Euro 2024 squad despite his muscle injury, had not suffered a setback.
“I don’t think so, no. It’s just he didn’t make it, didn’t heal as we expected,” he said.
Marcus Rashford was left out of England’s Euro squad after a poor campaign and Ten Hag challenged the United forward to prove his worth in the final.
“He looks good and that is a career, ups and downs,” Ten Hag said.
“So, a down can also be fuel, that is what I see in training. He will be highly motivated. Speak with your feet, he is highly talented.”


West Ham’s Paqueta charged over alleged betting breaches

West Ham’s Paqueta charged over alleged betting breaches
Updated 23 May 2024
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West Ham’s Paqueta charged over alleged betting breaches

West Ham’s Paqueta charged over alleged betting breaches
  • Paqueta has been charged with four breaches of FA rules in relation to his conduct in West Ham’s Premier League matches
  • The 26-year-old has also been charged with two further breaches in respect of alleged failures to “comply pursuant to FA Rule F2“

LONDON: West Ham midfielder Lucas Paqueta has been charged with alleged breaches of Football Association betting rules after a probe into claims the Brazilian deliberately earned yellow cards.
Paqueta has been charged with four breaches of FA rules in relation to his conduct in West Ham’s Premier League matches against Leicester in November 2022, Aston Villa in March 2023, Leeds in May 2023 and Bournemouth in August 2023.
The 26-year-old has also been charged with two further breaches in respect of alleged failures to “comply pursuant to FA Rule F2.”
Paqueta was interviewed by the FA in September and gave the English game’s governing body access to his phone.
The FA investigation started after suspicious betting patterns surrounding Paqueta’s booking for shoving Bournemouth’s Illia Zabarnyi in the closing minutes of a 1-1 draw on the opening day of this season.
“West Ham United’s Lucas Paqueta has been charged with misconduct in relation to alleged breaches of FA Rules E5 and F3,” an FA statement said on Thursday.
“It’s alleged that he directly sought to influence the progress, conduct, or any other aspect of, or occurrence in these matches by intentionally seeking to receive a card from the referee for the improper purpose of affecting the betting market in order for one or more persons to profit from betting.”
Paqueta has until June 3 to respond to the charges, subject to any request for an extension to the deadline.
Writing on his Instagram page, Paqueta was quick to deny the charges.
“I am extremely surprised and upset that the FA has decided to charge me,” he said.
“For nine months, I have co-operated with every step of their investigation and provided all the information I can.
“I deny all the charges in their entirety and will fight with every breath to clear my name. Due to the ongoing process, I will not be providing any further comment.”
In their own statement, West Ham said: “The club acknowledges receipt of the FA charge received by Lucas Paqueta for alleged breaches of their Rules.
“Lucas categorically denies the breach and will continue to robustly defend his position.
“The club will continue to stand by and support the Player throughout the process and will make no further comment until the matter is concluded.”