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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Nigeria forward Henry Onyekuru has impressed for Vuk Rasovic’s side since arriving from Turkish club Adana Demirspor in August. (X: @henryconyekuru)
Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group
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Nigeria forward Henry Onyekuru has impressed for Vuk Rasovic’s side since arriving from Turkish club Adana Demirspor in August. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 28 November 2023
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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.”


Luka Modric comes off the bench to give Spanish leader Real Madrid 1-0 win over Sevilla

Luka Modric comes off the bench to give Spanish leader Real Madrid 1-0 win over Sevilla
Updated 26 February 2024
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Luka Modric comes off the bench to give Spanish leader Real Madrid 1-0 win over Sevilla

Luka Modric comes off the bench to give Spanish leader Real Madrid 1-0 win over Sevilla
  • Madrid’s victory kept them eight points above Barcelona and nine clear of Girona, who play Rayo on Monday
  • Darwin Machis’ goal deep in injury time snatched Cadiz a 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo in a meeting of two teams in danger of relegation

BARCELONA: Luka Modric leapt atop the advertising board, pumped his arms and joined the collective roar of the Santiago Bernabeu.

The veteran Real Madrid star, who has seen his minutes shrink this season, had just become the hero for the Spanish league leaders with a scorching winner after coming off the bench in a 1-0 win over Sevilla on Sunday.

The normally calm Croat was possibly shouting for more than joy as he celebrated just his second goal of the season. Perhaps there was a bit of vindication, of showing everyone — Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti included — that he could still decide games even in an increasingly young Madrid squad.

The 38-year-old Modric collected a deflection with one touch before unleashing a powerful strike from outside the area that grazed the post before finding the net in the 81st minute. Modric had gone on just six minutes before with the leaders stymied in attack without injured top scorer Jude Bellingham.

“It is what always happens. We never give up. We have shown it many times, that this is a part of Real Madrid’s DNA,” Modric said about his goal. “We knew that today it was important not to let points get away because Barcelona would have closed the gap and we couldn’t allow that. Our insistence throughout all the game bore its fruit.”

Modric has helped Madrid win five Champions League titles and the player won the 2018 Ballon d’Or award. This season, with Bellingham replacing him in the starting 11, he has mostly been the subject of speculation about whether his playing days in Madrid’s all-white are nearing their end.

“It is very difficult to leave (Modric) on the bench, but every day he is an example for the entire squad,” Ancelotti said. “It is in Luka’s hands to decide what he does next season, and we are just waiting for his decision. It is difficult to manage (a situation like his) and I understand perfectly what Modric may be thinking when he does not play because I went through it as a player.”

Madrid was heading toward a second straight draw after being held 1-1 at Rayo Vallecano in the last round of games. Another stumble would have given Barcelona reason to hope that it might just be able to mount a challenge after it overtook Girona for second place on Saturday.

Madrid’s victory kept them eight points above Barcelona and nine clear of Girona, who play Rayo on Monday.

This was the third game that Bellingham, the league’s top scorer with 16 goals, has missed with a left ankle sprain.

NICO SENT OFF

Nico Williams was sent off with two quick yellow cards to leave Athletic Bilbao with 10 players just before halftime in their 3-1 loss at Real Betis.

The Spain winger got his first card for a foul and compounded that by earning a second booking for his apparently sarcastic applause of the referee.

The loss meant Athletic failed to take advantage of Atletico Madrid’s 2-2 draw at bottom side Almeria on Saturday. Athletic remained in fifth place at three points behind fourth-place Atletico. Betis moved into sixth, seven points behind Athletic.

Chimy Ávila scored his first goal for Betis since joining from Osasuna in the winter transfer window to take the 13th-minute lead. Yuri Berchiche added an own-goal before Williams was sent off in the 40th.

Gorka Guruzeta’s goal gave Athletic some hope in the 52nd, but Betis midfielder Johnny Cardoso added a third with a strike from the edge of the area in the 67th.

In the first half, an assistant referee had to leave the match after she ran into a television camera and cut her head.

LAST-GASP EQUALIZER

Darwin Machis’ goal deep in injury time snatched Cadiz a 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo in a meeting of two teams in danger of relegation.

Iago Aspas and Williot Swedberg gave Celta a 2-0 advantage before Juanmi Jimenez pulled one back for the hosts in the 66th. Rafa Benitez’s side was still eyeing a victory until Machis curled a shot in from the corner of the area just before the final whistle.

Celta, in 17th, remained the last team clinging to safety while 18th-place Cadiz was in the drop zone at three points behind.

“You think you have it in the bag, you are up 2-0, and they score two goals on plays we could have stopped, so it is obvious we missed an opportunity,” Benítez said. “We didn’t know how to manage those final minutes.”


Klopp savors his ‘most special trophy’ as Liverpool win English League Cup

Klopp savors his ‘most special trophy’ as Liverpool win English League Cup
Updated 26 February 2024
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Klopp savors his ‘most special trophy’ as Liverpool win English League Cup

Klopp savors his ‘most special trophy’ as Liverpool win English League Cup
  • Klopp: It is in my more than 20 years, easily the most special trophy I ever won. It is absolutely exceptional
  • Van Dijk might have produced the decisive moment but it was the efforts of a string of young players that had Klopp so enthused

LONDON: Jurgen Klopp just couldn’t keep the smile from his face.

It was deep into extra time at Wembley on Sunday and the English League Cup final against Chelsea was locked at 0-0. A penalty shootout loomed.

Yet, with tensions running high, Klopp turned to the Liverpool fans, savored the moment and produced that trademark toothy grin.

Perhaps he knew what was coming. That Virgil van Dijk was about to score a 118th-minute winner to finally break down Chelsea’s resistance and secure a record-extending 10th League Cup trophy for Liverpool.

Perhaps not.

“That would be cool if I could see goals coming. That would relax a lot of moments in my life,” Klopp said afterward — his voice hoarse, likely from the wild celebrations that greeted his eighth trophy as Liverpool manager.

Klopp is stepping down at the end of the season and this may well be his last Wembley final with the club.

He said he was simply taking it all in and enjoying watching a new generation of Liverpool players that may turn out to be his lasting legacy after he goes.

“I loved it ... What I see today is so exceptional, we might never see it again. Not because I am on the sidelines but because these things don’t happen in football.

“It is in my more than 20 years, easily the most special trophy I ever won. It is absolutely exceptional.”

Van Dijk, Liverpool’s 32-year-old captain, might have produced the decisive moment but it was the efforts of a string of young players, called upon to help ease Liverpool’s extensive injury list, that had Klopp so enthused.

Seven of his winning team were aged 21 or under.

Jayden Danns, aged 18, came on for only his second senior performance. Bobby Clark and James McConnell are both 19.

Their efforts meant that even without the injured Mohamed Salah, Darwin Nunez, Diogo Jota, Trent Alexander-Arnold and more, Liverpool still triumphed.

“I got told outside there is an English phrase, ‘You don’t win trophies with kids,’” Klopp said. “I didn’t know that. Yeah right.

“Sometimes I’m asked if I am proud of this, proud of that. I don’t know. I wish I could feel pride more often. Tonight was an overwhelming feeling of ‘Oh my God, what is going on here?’ I was proud of everybody involved.”

Victory keeps Klopp on track for a quadruple of trophies in his final year with Liverpool as he looks determined to go out on a high.

His team is currently top of the Premier League and still in contention to win the FA Cup and Europa League. But even if Klopp cannot add those trophies to the full set he has already delivered, he provided Liverpool with another memorable day at Wembley.

Mauricio Pochettino, meanwhile, must wait for his first piece of silverware in English soccer after failing to lift trophies with Southampton and Tottenham before taking charge at Chelsea.

While he won three trophies including the French league title with Paris Saint-Germain, he is still to taste glory in England.

A first trophy at Chelsea would have eased the pressure after a troubled season in the league.

“If you ask the players how they feel, I feel the same. (It is) so disappointing, so painful,” Pochettino said. “I am a guy that (has) less time to win titles (than the players). They are younger than me, they have time. In football it is always about when you have the opportunity (you take it).

PREMIER LEAGUE

Sheffield United’s players showed the wrong kind of fight after suffering a 19th loss of the season to stay at the foot of the Premier League.

Pablo Sarabia’s 30th-minute header secured a 1-0 win for Wolves at Molineux in the league’s only game Sunday, but perhaps the most notable incident in the match was a clash between Sheffield United players Jack Robinson and Vinicius Souza.

The teammates pushed each other in a heated exchange that led to a VAR review.

Not that Blades manager Chris Wilder seemed too concerned.

“That happens at every club up and down the country, three or four times a year,” he said. “They were told about their responsibilities at halftime. We talked to the boys and they are fine and cool.”

Defeat left Sheffield United eight points off safety.

West Ham host Brentford on Monday.


Eddie Howe calls for Newcastle United ‘unity’ as Premier League struggles continue with Arsenal hammering

Eddie Howe calls for Newcastle United ‘unity’ as Premier League struggles continue with Arsenal hammering
Updated 25 February 2024
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Eddie Howe calls for Newcastle United ‘unity’ as Premier League struggles continue with Arsenal hammering

Eddie Howe calls for Newcastle United ‘unity’ as Premier League struggles continue with Arsenal hammering
  • The 4-1 loss sees the Magpies fall further behind in the race for European qualification
  • ‘There’s only one way for success, and that’s for the club to be as one,’ said Howe

LONDON: Eddie Howe has called for unity as Newcastle United’s Premier League struggles continue to derail their season.

The Magpies suffered a 4-1 hammering at the hands of Arsenal at the Emirates, with a Sven Botman own goal, Kai Havertz, Bukayo Saka and Jakub Kiwior sealing all three points for the title-chasing Gunners. Newcastle scored a late consolation via former Arsenal man Joe Willock.

The result sees them fall further behind in the race to try and qualify for Europe again next season. And while criticism is building — the Magpies’ form since December is bottom six, rather than top six — head coach Howe has called for everyone to stick together, saying that is the only route to success.

“We need to stick together. There’s only one way for success, and that’s for the club to be as one,” said Howe.

“We know that our run of form has not been as consistent as we want it to be. Coming here I think we were unbeaten in five, so I don’t think it was all bad, but this defeat, we’ll have to take on the chin and we’ll have to come back stronger for it.

“I think Joe’s (Willock) cameo was excellent and I think again he showed exactly what we’ve missed from him and his qualities of attacking the box late and getting goals. Alex’s (Isak) return was a huge positive and hopefully improved for that 60 minutes. Apart from that I’m struggling to find too many more.”

Just the Premier League bottom three plus Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth have conceded more goals than the Magpies this season. The 45 goals already conceded this campaign, far outstretches the 33 they let in for the whole of the 38-game Premier League season in 2022/23.

Newcastle’s defensive record is a continuing concern for Howe, who says his coaches and his players are working to turn things around.

Howe said: “I mean, with every game that goes by and we concede goals, it’s a concern.

“Of course, we’re working on lots of things behind the scenes to try and improve that, but that probably wasn’t evident in the performance.

“I keep saying the same thing regarding conceding goals. It’s collective. Last year, we had that collective mentality that we weren’t going to concede. Even the game coming here last year, we were magnificent in collective defending from the front to the back. I don’t think we’ve lost the desire to do that. We’re just not as competent at the moment at doing it than we were. We need to refind that solidity.

“Of course, it comes from work on the training ground. I think it comes from a collective responsibility, really, and a focus to make that your priority. I think we have attacking players. I think we’ll have players always that will score goals and create moments for us that could win us games, but at the moment we’re sort of taking that away from ourselves by not defending properly.”

With European hopes hanging by a thread, attention now turns to the FA Cup, Newcastle’s only remaining hope for silverware. Howe’s men travel to Championship outfit Blackburn Rovers in the fifth round of the competition on Tuesday evening.

“As I said, in really, really challenging situations, the players have really stuck together. We have to do that now for Blackburn,” said Howe.

“We have to look at this as the biggest game of our season. And, yeah, there’s a lot resting on this next game.”


Foden strikes as title chasing Man City beat Bournemouth

Foden strikes as title chasing Man City beat Bournemouth
Updated 24 February 2024
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Foden strikes as title chasing Man City beat Bournemouth

Foden strikes as title chasing Man City beat Bournemouth
  • With Liverpool in League Cup final action against Chelsea on Sunday, City took advantage to close the gap in their game in hand on Jurgen Klopp’s side
  • Foden netted in the first half at Dean Court and City survived a rocky second half to win for the 13th time in their last 14 games in all competitions

BOURNEMOUTH, UK: Phil Foden fired Manchester City to a 1-0 win against Bournemouth as the Premier League title chasers moved within one point of leaders Liverpool on Saturday.
With Liverpool in League Cup final action against Chelsea on Sunday, City took advantage to close the gap in their game in hand on Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Foden netted in the first half at Dean Court and City survived a rocky second half to win for the 13th time in their last 14 games in all competitions.
Chasing an unprecedented fourth succesive Premier League title, Pep Guardiola’s men weren’t at their best on the south coast but displayed the resolve required to grind out a vital victory.
While Liverpool remain in pole position, City are hot on their heels after extending their unbeaten run in all competitions to 17 games since losing at Aston Villa in December.
City head to Luton in the FA Cup fifth round on Wednesday before hosting Manchester United in a crucial league game next weekend.
Guardiola left Kevin De Bruyne on the bench, but City were quickly into their stride.
Foden flicked a pin-point pass to Erling Haaland, who swept toward goal only to misfire with a drive that whistled wide.
Bournemouth almost made Haaland pay for that miss when Milos Kerkez’s well-struck effort forced a fine save from Ederson.
But City were quickly back on the offensive as the live-wire Foden brought Bournemouth keeper Neto into action for the first time with a long-range blast.
It was a warning Bournemouth failed to heed as Foden put the visitors ahead in the 24th minute.
Haaland muscled his way into the penalty area and drilled a shot that Neto could only push out to Foden, who had the simple task of tapping into the empty net.
Foden’s 16th goal in all competitions this season was almost followed by a Bernardo Silva moment of magic when the City midfielder curled narrowly wide.
Bournemouth are without a league win in seven games since Boxing Day, but they recovered to give City a genuine scare.
Ederson saved well from Ryan Christie’s strike just before half-time and the Brazilian was called into action again immediately after the interval.
Justin Kluivert was given too much time and space outside the City area and the Bournemouth forward’s low drive was repelled by Ederson at full stretch.
After another narrow win against Brentford in midweek, Guardiola was again shifting uneasily on the touchline as Bournemouth grew in confidence.
Marcus Tavernier wasted a chance to equalize with a poor finish from Antoine Semenyo’s cross.
Tavernier was guilty of an even worse miss moments later, scuffing wide from 10 yards with the goal at his mercy.
Usually so unruffled, City were reeling for once, but Ederson preserved their lead with a superb save from Dominic Solanke’s header.
In his last action before being replaced by Julian Alvarez, Haaland’s powerful surge ended with a good save by Neto.
City were nervous right up to the final whistle, but Bournemouth’s Dango Ouattara squandered a good chance before Enes Unal’s header crept inches wide.


Kane’s injury time goal saves Bayern against Leipzig

Kane’s injury time goal saves Bayern against Leipzig
Updated 24 February 2024
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Kane’s injury time goal saves Bayern against Leipzig

Kane’s injury time goal saves Bayern against Leipzig
  • Bayern had lost three matches in a row for the first time in nine years
  • The win reduced the gap to leaders Bayer Leverkusen to eight points with 11 games left

BERLIN: Harry Kane scored two goals in the second-half, including an injury time winner, to snatch Bayern Munich a 2-1 home win over RB Leipzig on Saturday, ending the side’s worst run since 2015.
Bayern had lost three matches in a row for the first time in nine years before the club announced this week that coach Thomas Tuchel would leave in the summer.
Bayern captain Manuel Neuer told Sky “it might seem a bit like the good old Bayern luck, but we deserved to win today.”
The win reduced the gap to leaders Bayer Leverkusen to eight points with 11 games left.
Neuer said Tuchel’s exit “cast a bad light on us as players, that we weren’t able to make it work with a top coach like Thomas Tuchel.
“It’s our mistake. We want to keep things going professionally until the end.”
Kane broke the deadlock midway through the first half but Leipzig hit back with 20 remaining minutes, Benjamin Sesko equalising for the visitors.
With Bayern in danger of conceding further ground to Leverkusen in the title race, Kane stepped up and scored in the first minute of injury time, his 27th league goal of the season.
Kane had a golden chance to release the pressure on the home side just five minutes in but his point-blank header was pushed onto the post by Janis Blaswich.
The England captain went close once more just before half-time but a bicycle kick was directed straight at Blaswich.
Kane finally broke through after 56 minutes, slamming a low shot into the Leipzig goal, his 26th strike in 23 games.
Leipzig, who had not lost to Bayern in the league in two years, pressured the German champions, breaking through after 70 minutes through Sesko.
Sesko collected a short Dani Olmo pass and drove his shot low, with the ball deflected by Leon Goretzka and rolling into the net.
The match looked set for a stalemate until Kane latched onto a pass from Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, before volleying past Blaswich to seize a valuable win.
Stuttgart were held to a 1-1 draw at home by Cologne.
Stuttgart were without injured Brighton loanee Deniz Undav, who had scored five goals in his past four league games, picking up the slack from striker Serhou Guirassy, who has only recently returned to club action after the Africa Cup of Nations.
Stuttgart took the lead in the 53rd minute, Enzo Millot finishing off the type of well-worked team move which has become the hallmark of Sebastian Hoeness’ side this season.
Cologne drew level nine minutes later, though, Eric Martel tapping in after being left unmarked at the far post from a free-kick.
After needing to win a two-legged relegation play-off to stay in the top division last campaign, Stuttgart have been this season’s Bundesliga surprise packages and stay third as they bid to return to the Champions League for the first time since 2010.
A disappointed Stuttgart captain Waldemar Anton said: “If you want to play international football you have to come out on top in games like this.”
Elsewhere, Union Berlin drew 2-2 at home to Heidenheim.
The visitors forged ahead through Nikola Dovedan on just three minutes thanks to a defensive blunder.
Germany left-back Robin Gosens drew Union level in the 44th minute, sending an ungainly shot across the face of goal and into the net, moments before Andras Schafer gave the hosts the lead.
Heidenheim, who are surprisingly within touching distance of the European placings in their first top-flight season, equalized through Jan-Niklas Beste, who chipped the ball home after a counter-attack.
Borussia Moenchengladbach thumped Bochum 5-2 at home, picking up a crucial three points to move eight clear of the relegation play-off spot.
Darmstadt went within inches of a third win of the season, having two goals chalked off in the dying stages for offside and handball in a 1-1 draw at Werder Bremen.
The result keeps Darmstadt last on 13 points.