UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl maintain perfect start after win over Baniyas

UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl maintain perfect start after win over Baniyas
Al-Wasl are joint top leaders of the ADNOC Pro League after beating Baniyas. (Twitter/@AlWaslSC)
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Updated 25 September 2023
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UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl maintain perfect start after win over Baniyas

UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl maintain perfect start after win over Baniyas
  • The Dubai club joined Shabab Al-Ahli and Al-Ain on 9 points at the top of the table

Switzerland striker Haris Seferovic’s star power told when his Al-Wasl joined holders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club and dethroned champions Al-Ain in maintaining 100 percent starts as the ADNOC Pro League resumed after the international break.

The Dubai club beat resilient Baniyas 3-2 on Sunday, with the ex-Benfica, Eintracht Frankfurt and Galatasaray hitman claiming a goal and assist.

This followed usual suspects Fede Cartabia and Yahya Al-Ghassani leading the way for Shabab Al-Ahli in their commanding 2-0 win at 10-man Al-Bataeh, plus Al-Ain blitzing sorry Ajman 6-0.

In other games, UAE center-back Khalifa Al-Hammadi channeled Zinedine Zidane with an astounding volley during fourth-placed Al-Jazira’s 4-0 thumping of Ittihad Kalba; Sharjah extended bottom-placed Al-Nasr’s miserable beginning with a 1-0 defeat; and 2017 AFC Player of the Year Omar Khrbin edged Al-Wahda beyond promoted Hatta — also without a point — via the same scoreline.

New-signing Paco Alcacer netted on Saturday when Andres Iniesta’s Emirates Club rose to seventh, courtesy of a 2-0 triumph against unwinding Khor Fakkan.

Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from matchweek three.

Player of the Week — Haris Seferovic (Al-Wasl)

Great expectations followed July’s arrival of Seferovic in Dubai.

His was the kind of globally recognized name not seen at Zabeel Stadium since the tumultuous reign of Diego Maradona, more than a decade ago.

Seferovic cannot match “El Pibe de Oro” for on-field ability, or off-field drama. No one can.

The 93-cap center-forward does, however, provide substantial ballast to his employer’s hopes of ending a title drought which stretches back to 2006-07.

Instincts honed at three World Cups and two European Championships witnessed him perfectly positioned to tap-in from a Baniyas defensive error. His imposing stature then meant he could stretch to keep a corner alive which resident “Golden Boy” Ali Saleh scrambled home.

Zabeel Stadium has been club-great Fabio De Lima’s stage. The club’s fortunes have rested on the shoulders of the UAE top flight’s fourth-highest scorer.

It was too much weight for one star, no matter how gloriously talented, to carry. Fast forward to 2023/24 and third-placed Wasl boast envious options everywhere.

Seferovic and Saleh exchanged assists versus Baniyas, with highly promising Ivorian youngster Adama Diallo netting a fifth ADNOC Pro League goal in 380 minutes via an assist from UAE forward Caio Canedo — back at his beloved club following four, mixed seasons at Al-Ain.

Tireless Malian midfielder Siaka Sidibe, again, shone off the bench; beguiling ex-Baniyas playmaker Nicolas Gimenez shimmered in a first run-out versus former employers; and there was even an 89th-minute cameo from exalted 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman.

Red Star Belgrade double winner Milos Milojevic’s stellar support cast ensured De Lima’s blank on the night mattered little.

More momentum should be gained in meetings versus strugglers Khor Fakkan, Ajman and Hatta. If Seferovic aides in putting those teams to the sword, anything is possible.

Goal of the Week — Khalifa Al-Hammadi (Al-Jazira)

Frank de Boer had much to admire in Jazira’s ruthless restart.

A typical preponderance of possession — 62 percent/38 percent — at expected dark horses Kalba translated into a comprehensive triumph, despite losing the attempts count 17/7.

Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo was hugely influential; former Fulham flyer Neeskens Kebano netted an opening goal in pride of Abu Dhabi colors; and club favorite Al-Hammadi conjured a strike of ethereal quality.

Football fans of long memory cherish France icon Zidane’s glorious volley, sent on its way from behind his head, in the 2001-02 UEFA Champions League final. It is not impudent to suggest Al-Hammadi’s effort was of a similar ilk.

With the match already wrapped up at 3-0, an out-swinging corner from substitute Richard Akonnor floated, harmlessly, away from the penalty spot. UAE regular Al-Hammadi, however, had different thoughts.

The 33-cap center-back — who was the youngest performer from his nation’s 2019 AFC Asian Cup semifinalists — skipped into the air. Facing away from goal, this delivery was met first time with a delicate sweep past the despairing grasp of Eisa Hooti.

A staggering effort from one of Asia’s outstanding defenders.

Coach of the Week — Alfred Schreuder (Al-Ain)

In a weekend stained by shameful behavior from Ajax supporters in “De Klassieker,” a maligned former coach continues to excel in foreign lands.

Alfred Schreuder lasted only eight unsettled months at Johan Cruyff Arena, up to January 2023. A fresh start at UAE football’s most-decorated outfit has produced results of rich promise.

The 50-year-old’s sixth victory from six matches was inspired by the creative abilities of Al-Ain recruits Kaku and Omer Atzili.

A flurry of 21 goals have come in the ADNOC Pro League, ADIB Cup and AFC Champions League, to the concession of just three. They roar into Thursday’s heavyweight contest at Sharjah.

UAE football is in fine fettle

An early season repeat, in the league, of last term’s ADIB Cup, President’s Cup and UAE Super Cup showpiece finals between Sharjah and Al-Ain whets the appetite.

The grandstand event — taking place on Thursday, Sept. 28 — represents another staging post for an upwardly mobile UAE game.

Meanwhile, ex-South Korea tactician Paulo Bento debuted as UAE national team coach this month with a 4-1 friendly win against Costa Rica, providing ample encouragement ahead of World Cup 2026 qualifying and the winter’s Asian Cup.

Renewed depth at international level was hallmarked by the UAE Olympic team advancing on the same day, as group winners ahead of China, into the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup.

In the 2023-24 AFC Champions League, Sharjah’s and Al-Ain’s return of four points on Matchday 1 was, also, the most of any west Asian nation.

That competition has provided a plethora of chastening experiences in the previous seven years. Little hope had been engendered internationally under successive regimes.

Such successes, allied with a burgeoning domestic scene, add to UAE football’s sense of anticipation. Another golden cycle may be underway.


Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group

Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group
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Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group

Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group
  • From Aspire Academy, UEFA Champions League football with Anderlecht, Nigerian flourishing in new Saudi home

RIYADH: It has been a challenging AFC Champions League debut for Al-Fayha. The 2022 King’s Cup winners, who beat Al-Hilal on penalties to lift their first ever major trophy 18 months ago, have lost three of their first four games and face a must-win clash with Turkmenistan’s Ahal in Riyadh on Tuesday.

Realistically, Al-Fayha need to beat both Ahal and reigning Uzbekistan champions Pakhtakor to stand a chance of qualifying for the knockout stage.

Aiming to help them advance is Nigeria forward Henry Onyekuru, who has impressed for Vuk Rasovic’s side since arriving from Turkish club Adana Demirspor in August.

Onyekuru told Arab News: “It’s a little tight for us, we know, but we know we need to just win on Tuesday, that is the most important thing. Then we will have to wait for the other results to see, and yes, we might have a lesser chance, but it can happen. This is football and of course we hope we can play in the next round.”

The 26-year-old has plenty of experience of elite-level continental competition to call upon, having played every game of Anderlecht’s 2017 to 2018 UEFA Champions League campaign in a tough group that included PSG, Bayern Munich, and Celtic. The fleet-footed player also featured in several games for Galatasaray in the competition.

He is not alone at Al-Fayha, with teammates Fashion Sakala and Anthony Nwakaeme having represented Rangers in the Champions League and Trabzonspor in the Europa League, respectively. The three African players have forged a valuable friendship at Al-Fayha and Onyekuru has been happy to have them alongside him.

He said: “It is always a little bit difficult at the beginning when you move to a new country, but they helped me adapt very fast.

“We have really bonded and apart from football, they are such great guys. They are there for me on the pitch and outside it,” he added.

Al-Fayha go into their crunch AFC Champions League encounter after a morale-boosting 1-0 Saudi Pro League victory over Al-Fateh but it has been a frustrating season for Onyekuru and his teammates, who have a league-high seven draws so far. While there were positive ties with Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad, there have also been many opportunities missed.

Onyekuru said: “We threw a lot of points away, games we should have won, but we ended up drawing 0-0 or 1-1. We feel good as a team so it hasn’t been easy but there is a lot of the season left so I think we can definitely climb higher.

“Our coach is the kind of guy who really understands his players — he knows when you’re tired, he knows when you’re worried, and he’s open with everybody, which is very important. He is always very clear — if you work, you play; if you don’t work, you don’t play.

“I think we’re on a good track at this moment; we just have to keep working and the results will start coming.

“This is a very tough league now and it has surprised me how good it has been. There has been a big increase in quality, and you see that every team has better players who can make a difference. It will only get better, and it is great to be a part of Saudi football right now,” he added.

Onyekuru’s move to Al-Fayha has been a return to the Gulf of sorts. As a teenager, he was selected for the Aspire Academy’s Football Dreams initiative, an African talent identification process that saw him make it through a series of trials to be one of just three Nigerians selected.

“I feel lucky to have been among these players. It was a five-year scholarship of football and school. We travelled to play the Barcelona and Real Madrid youth teams and many others in tournaments — it was a great experience,” he said.

Onyekuru travelled regularly to the Aspire Academy in Qatar and represented the institution in competitions around the world before signing for their pathway club Eupen in the Belgian Second Division.

“When I got there, it was really difficult for me because I arrived in winter, and it was very cold in Belgium. We were down the bottom of the league and we only just avoided relegation.

“But the next season was great. The coach Jordi Condom was the first to move me from a No. 9 to the wing – the team played well, and we were promoted.”

Onyekuru’s performances led to interest from Arsenal, the club at which his childhood hero Nwankwo Kanu made his name, though the young winger eventually signed for Everton. Hampered by visa issues, he failed to make a Premier League appearance for the Toffees, though impressed on loan at Anderlecht and Galatasaray before moving on to Monaco.

“I remember very well I spoke to Arsene Wenger, and my dream was to play Premier League. I always wanted to be there. Eupen were also talking to PSG because of the Qatar connection but then they wanted to focus on (Kylian) Mbappe.

“I spoke to some people like (ex-Inter Milan and Nigeria striker) Obafemi Martins and decided in the end on Everton. It was a shame that things didn’t work out because I hadn’t played enough games for Nigeria,” he added.

While Onyekuru’s move to Saudi Arabia has generally been a positive experience, it has been tempered by him falling out of favor with the Nigeria national team.

Onyekuru, whose mother named him after 1980 Africa Cup of Nations-winning player Henry Nwosu, noted that the SPL deserved to be more respected by those selecting the squad. He hoped that he may still be able to represent the Super Eagles at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.

He said: “I was there at the last AFCON in Cameroon, and I am really pushing to be there again. In Nigerian football there is still this negative mentality about the Saudi league – they don’t think it is as intense.

“But I think they should be able to see that now, the players who play here make it competitive. I am not giving up and anything can happen.”


Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga

Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga
Updated 28 November 2023
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Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga

Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga
  • Girona trail league leaders Real Madrid on goal difference after dropping points for just the third time this season, while Athletic climbed to fifth spot
  • Williams, who started on the opposite wing from his brother Nico, equalized from a counter-attacking move that started in Athletic’s own box

MADRID: Surprise package Girona failed to return to the top of La Liga on Monday after they were held to a 1-1 draw at home by Athletic Bilbao.

Winger Viktor Tsygankov put the hosts ahead 10 minutes after half time but Inaki Williams scored 12 minutes later to claim a point for the away side.

Girona trail league leaders Real Madrid on goal difference after dropping points for just the third time this season, while Athletic climbed to fifth spot.

Athletic had the better of the first half and their best chance fell to Gorka Guruzeta but the striker poked his shot straight at Girona goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga.

Girona had early chances of their own including an Aleix Garcia volley, which he skied over the crossbar, but did not find the rhythm they have found so often this season.

After the break, the hosts broke the deadlock when Tsygankov rifled home.

Williams, who started on the opposite wing from his brother Nico, equalized from a counter-attacking move that started in Athletic’s own box.

The wide man finished smoothly for his sixth league goal of the season as the Basques went looking for their third straight win.

With 10 minutes left Inaki Williams came close to finding the winner as he cut in from the left but his shot was parried by Gazzaniga.

Inaki Williams was replaced in the final minute of normal time for youngster Adu Ares, but both sides were forced to settle for a point.

On Sunday, Rodrygo sent Real Madrid top with a double in 3-0 win at Cadiz.

Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid are four points clear of fourth-placed Barcelona, who drew 1-1 at Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.


Man City boss Guardiola salutes ‘incredible’ Venables

Man City boss Guardiola salutes ‘incredible’ Venables
Updated 28 November 2023
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Man City boss Guardiola salutes ‘incredible’ Venables

Man City boss Guardiola salutes ‘incredible’ Venables
  • Venables led Barcelona to their first La Liga title in 11 years in 1985 and took them to the European Cup final a year later before a shock defeat to Steaua Bucharest on penalties
  • Guardiola might not have played for Venables, who went on to manage Tottenham and England, but he is well aware of the charismatic coach’s impact on his old club

MANCHESTER: Pep Guardiola paid tribute to “incredible” Terry Venables on Monday as the Manchester City manager responded to the death of the boss responsible for revitalizing his former club Barcelona.

After Venables died on Sunday aged 80, a picture emerged on social media showing Guardiola gazing up in admiration at him on the pitch at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Guardiola was a wide-eyed 15-year-old learning his trade in Barca’s youth academy back then, with the photo capturing him during his role as a ball boy for his club’s European Cup semi=final victory over Gothenburg in 1986.

Guardiola has his arms raised in celebration while Venables soaks in the acclaim of the crowd as he is carried on the shoulders of two Barca players.

“As a Barcelona fan he gave us first La Liga after 11 years. His impact there was incredible,” Guardiola told reporters on Monday.

“He introduced something that had never been before, especially a certain type of pressing and the set pieces. I remember how many goals our central defender scored. It’s a big loss to English football.”

Guardiola went on to captain Barca and is regarded one of their greatest managers, but the Spanish giants were not so dominant when Venables took charge in 1984.

Venables led Barcelona to their first La Liga title in 11 years in 1985 and took them to the European Cup final a year later before a shock defeat to Steaua Bucharest on penalties.

Guardiola might not have played for Venables, who went on to manage Tottenham and England, but he is well aware of the charismatic coach’s impact on his old club.

“I was only a ballboy but the impact in that time on the way they played. I remember talking to friends of mine who played with him and their words for him not just as a manager but as a person,” Guardiola said.

“He was so funny, singing Frank Sinatra on Catalan shows. He was a proper, proper man.”

Guardiola was speaking on the eve of City’s Champions League clash with RB Leipzig at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday.

City need just one point from their last two games to be sure of finishing top of Group G, which allows them the advantage of playing their last 16 second leg at home.

The holders won their first four group matches and have already secured a place in the knockout stages, as have Leipzig.

“It is important to finish first We believe that when we play the last 16, having the second leg at home is not decisive but is a little bit of an advantage and we have to take it,” Guardiola said.

After winning the treble last season, successive draws against Chelsea and Liverpool have seen Arsenal knock City off the top of the Premier League, but Guardiola is happy with his players’ hunger.

“We are performing really well, we must continue that. I’m very pleased with our performances in general,” he said.

“The only game we conceded a lot of chances and goals was Chelsea. Our averages in other games are similar to last season.”

Asked if City’s relentless appetite for success would persuade him to extend his stay at the club beyond his current contract, which expires in 2025, Guardiola said: “I have energy. Of course it’s a possibility.

“One year and a half is a long time in football. I arrived eight years ago with hair and look what happened!“

City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, who has been out since hamstring surgery in August, said over the weekend he hopes to return to action early in the new year.

“He has had a tough injury and surgery. He has to recover well,” Guardiola said.

“He’s said end of December, new year, so it will be a happy new year for everyone.”


Willian converts two penalties including stoppage-time winner as Fulham win amid VAR controversy

Willian converts two penalties including stoppage-time winner as Fulham win amid VAR controversy
Updated 28 November 2023
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Willian converts two penalties including stoppage-time winner as Fulham win amid VAR controversy

Willian converts two penalties including stoppage-time winner as Fulham win amid VAR controversy
  • After a long video review, the on-field decision to not award a penalty was changed and Willian stepped up to send his kick into the bottom-left corner, giving Fulham a third league win
  • It was only the second time a league game has had three second-half penalties scored — after Everton vs. Newcastle in September 2003 — and all three calls were up for debate

LONDON: Willian converted two of the game’s three second-half penalties — including the winner in the fourth minute of stoppage time — to help Fulham defeat Wolverhampton 3-2 in another English Premier League match dominated by VAR calls on Monday.

The former Brazil winger’s first spot kick in the 59th minute made it 2-1, only for Hwang Hee-chan to win and then convert his own penalty in the 75th to leave an end-to-end game at Craven Cottage heading for a draw.

There was a late twist as Wolves midfielder Joao Gomes miscontrolled the ball in his own area and stuck out his leg, which brushed against Fulham substitute Harry Wilson as he nipped in to take possession.

After a long video review, the on-field decision to not award a penalty was changed and Willian stepped up to send his kick into the bottom-left corner, giving Fulham a third league win.

Fulham held the lead three times in the match, firstly after Alex Iwobi steered in a cross by Antonee Robinson in the seventh minute. That was canceled out by Brazil striker Matheus Cunha’s header in the 22nd.

It was only a second loss in their last eight games for Wolves, whose other defeat in that period — at struggling Sheffield United — also came after conceding a contentious stoppage-time penalty.

Wolves manager Gary O’Neil has lamented his team’s misfortune from refereeing decisions this season, starting in the first round in August when Wolves was denied a late penalty against Manchester United for what appeared to be a clear foul by goalkeeper Andre Onana. O’Neil received an apology on that occasion and has been aggrieved at penalties given against his team in draws against Newcastle and Luton.

His post-match media duties at Fulham were delayed while he spoke to the match officials. When he did emerge, O’Neil said referee Michael Salisbury “pretty much admitted that they made a mistake” in awarding the first penalty.

“It’s six-to-seven points now that’s gone against us,” O’Neil said. “The difference (refereeing decisions) are making to my reputation, the club’s progression up the league, people’s livelihoods, is huge.

“Things need to get better, because I can’t accept us being on the wrong end of decisions as much as we are.”

The relegation picture in the league has been made more interesting this season by Everton getting docked a league-record 10 points for financial mismanagement, plunging the Merseyside team into next-to-last place just as it was picking up wins and potentially ready to enjoy a rare nerve-free campaign.

Fulham have benefitted from that ruling, which is under appeal, and are 10 points clear of the bottom three after a first win in five matches.

“We showed very good spirit, a winning spirit to score for 2-1 and then for 3-2,” Fulham manager Marco Silva said. “It was a close game — we were trying to win the game more than Wolves.”

It was only the second time a league game has had three second-half penalties scored — after Everton vs. Newcastle in September 2003 — and all three calls were up for debate.

The first one was the most contentious, with replays showing little contact as Wolves right back Nelson Semedo planted his foot near that of Tom Cairney.

Willian displayed calmness with both of his spot kicks. He is yet to miss any of the seven he has taken in the Premier League.


Goalless draw enough for 10-man Al-Nassr to reach last 16 of Asian Champions League

Goalless draw enough for 10-man Al-Nassr to reach last 16 of Asian Champions League
Updated 28 November 2023
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Goalless draw enough for 10-man Al-Nassr to reach last 16 of Asian Champions League

Goalless draw enough for 10-man Al-Nassr to reach last 16 of Asian Champions League
  • Saudis down a man for three quarters of their game against Iranian side Persepolis after defender Ali Lajami was shown a red card for a dangerous tackle on Milad Sarlak
  • There was concern for the home fans when Ronaldo seemed to hurt his neck in a coming together with the goalkeeper and was forced to leave the pitch 12 minutes from the end

Al-Nassr joined Al-Ittihad in the last 16 of the Asian Champions League on Monday after a goalless draw at home to Iranian side Persepolis.

The Saudis had to play more than three quarters of the game with just 10 men and then saw Cristiano Ronaldo leave the pitch with a neck injury 12 minutes from the end.

Luis Castro’s men had won all four of their previous games in Group E to put themselves in a very strong position, safe in the knowledge that a point would guarantee top spot. And that is exactly what happened.

Things could have been even better for them, however, as Ronaldo seemed to be in after just two minutes but went down under a challenge from Soroush Rafiei inside the area. The Portuguese star seemed to inform the referee that it had not been a foul. Whatever happened, the referee did not point to the spot and the game continued.

Persepolis knew a win would go a long way to securing their own place in the last 16 and looked to attack whenever they could. Goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi was the hero for Al-Nassr after 16 minutes when he got down well to save from Danial Esmaeilifar inside the box.

Seconds later, the Riyadh side’s night took a huge turn for the worse when defender Ali Lajami was shown a red card for a dangerous tackle on midfielder Milad Sarlak. This put the home team, who have been in fantastic form, with 18 wins from 19 games in all competitions, on their heels and it took time for them to get going again.

Eight minutes after the restart, the Tehran titans thought they had broken the deadlock when Shabab Zahedi produced a smart, low finish from near the penalty spot. However, he was adjudged to have been offside.

Three minutes before the hour mark, Ronaldo reminded the visitors that they could not afford to lose concentration, as he spun inside the area and fired a shot just wide of the left-hand post with the goalkeeper scrambling to get near.

As the game fizzled out toward the end, there were concerns among the home fans when Ronaldo seemed to hurt his neck in a coming together with the goalkeeper. The 38 year old left the pitch in what appeared to be some pain but it is hoped he will be fit for Friday’s Riyadh derby against league leaders Al-Hilal.

His presence is likely to be needed. The five-time Ballon D’or winner has been in amazing form and his 15 league goals so far this season have helped put Al-Nassr in second place in the Roshn Saudi League, just four points behind the leaders.

Al-Hilal, meanwhile, have a big Asian Champions League game on Tuesday against Uzbek side Navbahor. The two teams top Group D on 10 points, with the Saudis ahead on goal difference. Meanwhile, Al-Nassr can now focus solely on the big game on Friday.