UAE Pro League review: New Al-Ain boss Crespo starts with emphatic win over champions Shabab Al-Ahli

UAE Pro League review: New Al-Ain boss Crespo starts with emphatic win over champions Shabab Al-Ahli
Argentina legend Hernan Crespo enjoyed an emphatic winning debut as Al-Ain boss. (X: @alainfcae)
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Updated 27 November 2023
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UAE Pro League review: New Al-Ain boss Crespo starts with emphatic win over champions Shabab Al-Ahli

UAE Pro League review: New Al-Ain boss Crespo starts with emphatic win over champions Shabab Al-Ahli
  • Al-Wasl remained in top spot after a 4-2 win over De Boer’s 8th-placed Al-Jazira

Argentina legend Hernan Crespo enjoyed an emphatic winning debut as Al-Ain boss, Andres Iniesta’s sinking Emirates Club fell into the drop zone and Frank de Boer felt frustration at Al-Jazira during ADNOC Pro League’s memorable resumption.

The result of the round was saved for last, Crespo witnessing eight-goal leading scorer Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba net twice in Sunday’s commanding 3-0 victory at then-unbeaten champions Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club.

Al-Wasl remained top, however, after more influential displays from UAE forward Fabio De Lima and naturalized playmaker Nicolas Gimenez imposed Saturday’s 4-2 defeat on De Boer’s eighth-placed Al-Jazira.

Thursday’s recommencement after the international break saw a masterclass from ex-Roma, Juventus and Barcelona midfielder Miralem Pjanic, who helped Sharjah salvage an unforgettable 3-3 derby draw with Al-Bataeh, from 3-0 down. Elsewhere in matchweek eight, Al-Wahda — post Pitso Mosimane’s swift removal — inflicted a 4-1 thrashing on now-second-bottom Emirates, and Albania forward Taulant Seferi slotted home the 94th-minute clincher in Baniyas’ heart-breaking 1-0 defeat of 14th-placed Hatta.

Tunisia midfielder Haykeul Chikhaoui’s second-half effort ended Ajman’s 10-match winless opening to the season in all competitions, with this 2-1 triumph against fellow strugglers Khor Fakkan also propelling them out of the bottom two.

Managerless Al-Nasr — for whom ex-Ajax supremo Alfred Schreuder is tipped to make an instant return to the dugout after exiting Al-Ain — drew 0-0 with ADIB Cup semifinalists Ittihad Kalba.

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

Player of the week: Miralem Pjanic (Sharjah)

Elite performers have the ability to impose their will on a fixture.

Thursday’s frantic derby was such an occasion for Sharjah superstar Pjanic.

An ADNOC Pro League season-high eight key passes, according to statisticians SofaScore, were delivered by the heralded Bosnia and Herzegovina center midfielder. This output was essential to turning the tide on a game that had appeared far beyond once-insipid Sharjah’s reach.

Experienced visiting manager Cosmin Olaroiu was outthought and outfought by “apprentice” Mirel Radoi — the ex-Romania defensive midfielder excelled under him at Steaua Bucharest, Al-Hilal, Al-Ain and Al-Ahli in his playing days — when much-improved Bataeh raced into a 3-0 advantage by 35 minutes. Coveted Malian youngster Sekou Gassama netted the opener and added two assists, moving onto six goal contributions in eight league run-outs.

Sharjah required inspiration. Especially with recriminations still fresh from this month’s ADIB Cup quarterfinal exit to Kalba, as holders.

They found it through Pjanic.

An assist followed for UAE midfielder Mohammed Abdulbasit’s deflected drive, which made it 3-1 on 39 minutes, and he was involved in the move winger Luan Pereira completed with a clinical header to reduce the deficit to 3-2 in first-half injury time.

Determination from Pjanic after the interval was exemplified by a shot that hit ex-Ivory Coast youth midfielder Ulrich Meleke’s outstretched arm for the spot-kick converted by six-goal Brazilian forward Caio to level up.

Sharjah could not find another, this epic stalemate dropping them to fifth. But Pjanic’s belief should be vital in defining AFC Champions League Group B clashes to come versus Qatar’s Al-Sadd and Jordan’s Al-Faisaly.

Goal of the week: Taulant Seferi (Baniyas)

A quiet return to form is being recorded by Baniyas.

Little was expected after the departure of Gimenez to Wasl in the wake of descending ninth and 11th-placed finishes, following a surprise run to second in 2020-21.

This last-gasp victory versus Hatta, however, sent the Sky Blues up to a solid sixth spot. Seferi’s nerveless, late finish — with 17 seconds left of four minutes added time — made it 10 points from the last-available 15, a figure only bettered by pacesetting Wasl.

A poised low pass from substitute left-back Khalaf Al-Hosani sent Seferi in behind Hatta’s dangerously high defensive line. There was still plenty to do for the Albanian when he swiveled, 30 yards out from goal.

The Vorskla Poltava loanee smartly kept onside with a checked run, took two touches to steady himself and then found the bottom corner on 93:43.

Coach of the week: Hernan Crespo (Al-Ain)

Eyebrows were raised when Schreuder departed Al-Ain, despite Nov. 7’s victory against Saudi Arabia’s Al-Fayha returning Al-Ain to the AFC Champions League knockouts after a five-year absence.

The intransigent Dutchman had, though, made more enemies than friends in his brief stint at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

A call was swiftly made to amiable former Al-Duhail coach Crespo. The ex-Lazio, Internazionale, Chelsea and AC Milan center forward passed this first test, in purple and white, with flying colors.

Outcasts Matias Palacios and Omer Atzili provided goal contributions upon their comebacks to the starting XI. Al-Ain also registered a gargantuan 24 attempts to Shabab Al-Ahli’s 14, plus edged possession percentage 54-46.

A two-point gap in second to first-placed Wasl appears tantalizing for record 14-time champions.

Pressure builds ahead of decisive December

A breathless run awaits in ADNOC Pro League.

International breaks in October and November, allied with an imminent AFC Asian Cup, have produced a bottleneck. This congested run of four top-flight matchweeks until late December’s lengthy pause — plus, for those eligible, an AFC Champions League group-stage finale and remaining ADIB Cup quarterfinal, second legs — has created an intense pressure of its own.

Downturns in form can soon become deadly in a division that has already seen eight managerial changes. This is one more than Roshn Saudi League, despite that competition boasting four more clubs.

The same can be applied to ADNOC Pro League’s foreign players, ahead of the opening of the winter transfer window on Jan. 22.

Strong performances should negate the desire for change. Underwhelm, however, and clubs may find an urge to shake things up impossible to resist before Feb. 16’s preliminary restart.


Al Ain beat Yokohama F-Marinos to win Asian Champions League

Al Ain beat Yokohama F-Marinos to win Asian Champions League
Updated 8 sec ago
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Al Ain beat Yokohama F-Marinos to win Asian Champions League

Al Ain beat Yokohama F-Marinos to win Asian Champions League
  • The hosts trailed 2-1 from the away fixture

AL-AIN, UAE: Hernan Crespo’s Al Ain steamrollered 10-man Yokohama F-Marinos 5-1 in the Asian Champions League final second leg to lift the trophy for the second time in their history on Saturday.
The hosts trailed 2-1 from the away fixture but two goals from Soufiane Rahimi, a Kaku penalty and Kodjo Laba’s late double ensured a 6-3 aggregate victory after Yokohama goalkeeper William Popp saw red just before half-time.


Man United win the FA Cup after stunning Man City 2-1 in the final

Man United win the FA Cup after stunning Man City 2-1 in the final
Updated 25 May 2024
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Man United win the FA Cup after stunning Man City 2-1 in the final

Man United win the FA Cup after stunning Man City 2-1 in the final
  • United’s first silverware of the season deprived crosstown rival City of the first back-to-back English league-cup doubles
  • United also qualified for the Europa League next season

LONDON: Manchester United won the FA Cup after stunning defending champion Manchester City 2-1 in the final at Wembley on Saturday.
United’s first silverware of the season deprived crosstown rival City of the first back-to-back English league-cup doubles. United also qualified for the Europa League next season.
The final was a repeat of last year’s which City won 2-1, and Pep Guardiola’s team did not give up their trophy without a fight.
Alejandro Garnacho opened the scoring in the 30th minute after mistakes from City defender Josko Gvardiol and goalkeeper Stefan Ortega.
Kobbie Mainoo then added a second goal in the 39th to spark passionate celebrations from manager Erik ten Hag, whose job was under intense scrutiny going into the final.
United were in control at halftime but City piled the pressure on in the second half and eventually got back into the game through substitute Jeremy Doku’s long range shot into the bottom corner in the 87th.
By that point Erling Haaland had hit the bar, Kyle Walker had forced goalkeeper Andre Onana into two outstretched saves, and substitute Julian Alvarez missed the target from close range with only the keeper to beat.
It is United’s 13th FA Cup, one behind Arsenal’s record of 14. And it is Ten Hag’s second trophy in as many years at the club after winning the League Cup last year.
Players and staff embraced him on the field after the final whistle as the Dutchman managed to end a troubled campaign on a high.
Watching on were the United co-owners, Americans Joel and Avram Glazer and British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe.
Speculation about Ten Hag’s future dominated the buildup, and it was widely anticipated he would lose his job regardless of the result after overseeing United’s worst league season in 34 years.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the team and winning the cup,” he said before kickoff.
It was a very different story for City. After becoming the first English team to win four titles in a row, they were aiming to set a new benchmark by completing back-to-back doubles. City’s parade in Manchester on Monday to celebrate the historic league success will not include the FA Cup.
City dominated possession in the first half but United posed the more threatening attacks and took the lead through Garnacho.
The Argentine winger sparked panic in City’s defense when chasing onto a hopeful punt from Diogo Dalot deep in his half. Gvardiol was quicker to the ball, but his headed back pass went over the onrushing City goalkeeper Ortega to leave Garnacho with an open net to tap home.
If that goal benefited from luck, United’s second came from a slick attack, with Garnacho at the heart of it again when cutting in from the right wing and playing in Bruno Fernandes.
The United captain hit a first-time no-look pass to Mainoo, who coolly slotted past Ortega.
“It’s been a tough season with ups and downs. This is the only thing we’ve had to look forward to,” Mainoo said. “We knew we had to come together. The preparation for this game has been amazing. We’ve shown we can compete and win games.”


Xavi says Barcelona president will have to explain why he won't continue as coach

Xavi says Barcelona president will have to explain why he won't continue as coach
Updated 25 May 2024
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Xavi says Barcelona president will have to explain why he won't continue as coach

Xavi says Barcelona president will have to explain why he won't continue as coach
  • “These have obviously been tough days, but my conscience is clear,” head coach Xavi said
  • The 44-year-old said that he will now “take a break” from coaching

BARCELONA: Xavi Hernández said Saturday that he is leaving Barcelona with “a clear conscience” that he did his best after the club decided to part ways with the former player, but that it will be up to president Joan Laporta to explain why he is going.
“These have obviously been tough days, but my conscience is clear,” head coach Xavi said.
“I have been here two-and-a-half years. It has not been easy. But I think that we can feel proud of the work we have done.”
In his first news conference since Barcelona announced on Friday that Xavi would not finish the final year of his contract, the 44-year-old said that he will now “take a break” from coaching.
His last game in charge will be at Sevilla on Sunday.
Xavi’s departure comes just one month after he had walked back a previous decision he made in January to leave the club this summer. In April, he said that he had changed his mind because the team was playing better, and he believed it could bounce back from a trophy-less campaign.
Laporta had publicly celebrated Xavi’s commitment to stay at that time. But last week the president was reportedly displeased when the head coach spoke openly about how the club’s poor finances would impede them from competing with fierce rival Real Madrid.
Neither Laporta nor any club official has said why they wanted Xavi to leave, and the head coach did not shed any light on the circumstances of his exit either.
“The president told me his reasons for why he thinks the club needs a change, and I can only respect that. I am a club man,” Xavi said. “We shook hands, hugged and wished one another the best. From now on I will be just another fan.
“He will have to explain his motives.”
Xavi’s only previous coaching job was at a Qatari club before Laporta brought him back to take over at Barcelona in November 2021. He led the team to the Spanish league title last year, their first major trophy since Lionel Messi left, and signed a one-year contract extension in September.
But Barcelona struggled to compete this campaign and they will finish the league a distant second to champion Madrid.
Spanish and German media speculated that former Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick would become Xavi’s replacement.
Whoever arrives will inherit a team with young talents Lamine Yamal, Pau Cubarsí and the injured Gavi Páez but with very limited financial resources to sign new players.


Former Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney appointed Plymouth manager

Former Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney appointed Plymouth manager
Updated 25 May 2024
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Former Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney appointed Plymouth manager

Former Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney appointed Plymouth manager
  • Move to Argyle is the fourth managerial role of Rooney’s coaching career
  • Former football star was sacked after just 83 days in charge of Birmingham earlier this year

LONDON: Former England and Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney was appointed as the new manager of Championship side Plymouth on Saturday.
A move to Argyle is the fourth managerial role of Rooney’s coaching career, which has so far failed to live up to his stellar playing days.
“Taking this role at Plymouth Argyle feels like the perfect next step in my career,” said Rooney in a club statement.
“This is an opportunity to be part of an exciting project. I look forward to helping to build a squad of players to play expansive football — and to entertain the Green Army.”
The 38-year-old was sacked after just 83 days in charge of Birmingham earlier this year.
Rooney won just two of his 15 matches in charge of the Blues, which contributed to their relegation to League One.
He previously had a short spell with former club DC United in Major League Soccer.
But United’s all-time record goalscorer did thrive in difficult circumstances during his first job at Derby as the club entered administration.
“Throughout the interview process, Wayne showed himself to be a passionate, intelligent, and knowledgeable candidate with an appetite to prove himself and develop his managerial career,” said Plymouth chairman Simon Hallett.
“His ambitions and aims match ours perfectly and we feel he is the perfect candidate to provide the exciting and attacking brand of football that we all like to see and help us achieve the club’s mission.”
Plymouth narrowly avoided relegation in their first season back in English football’s second tier for 14 years, finishing 21st in the Championship.


Barcelona seek their first win against Lyon in Women’s Champions League final

Barcelona seek their first win against Lyon in Women’s Champions League final
Updated 25 May 2024
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Barcelona seek their first win against Lyon in Women’s Champions League final

Barcelona seek their first win against Lyon in Women’s Champions League final
  • The titleholders from Spain have a shot at a statement victory by finally overcoming the storied French club and winning their third European title
  • Lyon won five titles in a row from 2016-20, and hold nearly every Women’s Champions League club record

BILBAO, Spain: Barcelona have to find a way past the most successful club in women’s soccer if they want to build on their recent dominance.

Barcelona will play in their fourth straight Women’s Champions League final on Saturday in Bilbao against record eight-time champion Lyon, the nemesis they have never been able to beat.

The titleholders from Spain have a shot at a statement victory by finally overcoming the storied French club and winning their third European title — all within a four-season span.

Lyon, meanwhile, will be hoping to reclaim the trophy after not getting out of the quarterfinals last season and seeing the hype grow about Barcelona and their star players Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí, who have won back-to-back world player of the year awards.

“We are a team that has won a lot in the past. But we remain really ambitious,” Lyon coach Sonia Bompastor, the first woman to win the league as a player and coach, said on Friday.

“For me we are the best team in the world and will continue to be no matter what happens tomorrow. I trust my players. I know there is all the individual and collective talent needed to achieve this goal.”

Bompastor, who can become the first woman to win two titles as a coach, said it’s natural for rivals to be extra motivated to try to bring down Lyon, which will be playing in its 11th European final in 15 seasons.

Lyon won five titles in a row from 2016-20, and hold nearly every Women’s Champions League club record. The French side has won all four of its matches against Barcelona, including 4-1 in the 2019 final in Hungary and 3-1 in the 2022 final in Italy.

“This Barça is different from the one we faced in the final two years ago,” Bompastor said. “They have made new signings and each final brings with it a different story. It will be a totally different game tomorrow.”

Bonmatí said Barcelona have “grown a lot” since the first final against Lyon.

“I would say that we didn’t have any kind of experience, and physically, we were far off the big teams,” she said. “Now, we are probably one of the teams to beat out of anyone.”

Barcelona beat Chelsea for their first European title in 2021, and Wolfsburg for their second in 2023.

“We’ve had a fantastic season, playing great football, and the recent weeks have seen us on a great dynamic,” said Barcelona coach Jonatan Giraldez, who will leave at the end of the season to join US club Washington Spirit. “It’ll be a great final because I have no doubt at all that these are the two best teams in the world right now. To have the chance to add another Champions League means we can try to show we are still the best team in Europe.”

The club had nine players in the Spain squad that broke through with the nation’s first Women’s World Cup title last year. Barcelona also sent eight players to the semifinals of the inaugural Women’s Nations League, which Spain won in February.

Barcelona are trying to become the third team to win three European titles, after the eight by Lyon and four by Eintracht Frankfurt. They reached the final by overcoming a 1-0 first-leg loss to Chelsea at home in the semifinals. Lyon eliminated French rival Paris Saint-Germain.

Lyon have lost two of their goal scorers from the 2022 final in Turin — Amandine Henry and Catarina Macario. The other, Ada Hegerberg, had been nursing a injury but was expected to be fit to play on Saturday.

“Ada has resumed normal team training,” Bompastor said. “She could be available tomorrow.”