‘Calm’ Mancini different from expected, admits Saleh Al-Shehri

Exclusive ‘Calm’ Mancini different from expected, admits Saleh Al-Shehri
Saleh Al-Shehri has has been on a hot streak of form for Saudi Arabia and Al-Hilal ahead of Friday’s Riyadh Derby against Al-Nassr. (SPL)
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Updated 29 November 2023

‘Calm’ Mancini different from expected, admits Saleh Al-Shehri

‘Calm’ Mancini different from expected, admits Saleh Al-Shehri
  • The Italian’s faith in the Al-Hilal forward was rewarded with 4 goals in the recent international break
  • Al-Shehri looking to continue recent form in Friday’s Roshn Saudi League Riyadh derby against Al-Nassr

RIYADH: Ask Saleh Al-Shehri how he found working with Roberto Mancini on international duty and the answer is not what you might expect.

Al-Shehri has much for which to thank the coach of the Saudi Arabian national team. With playing time limited at Al-Hilal, current leaders of the Roshn Saudi League, the Italian raised eyebrows by selecting the striker ahead of Al-Ahli’s Firas Al-Buraikan for the recent FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifying victories over Jordan and Pakistan.

Mancini’s decision, however, not only proved astute but has reinvigorated Al-Shehri. His national “double double” — a brace in the 4-0 triumph over Pakistan followed by both goals in the 2-0 win in Jordan — preceded his first Al-Hilal league goal of the season in his team’s 9-0 thumping of Al-Hazem.

Following his own playing career, Mancini achieved title victory in Serie A with Inter Milan and took the Premier League crown with Manchester City. He then managed the Italian national team to Euro 2020 glory. But what was Al-Shehri’s impression of the highly successful manager following Mancini’s first two competitive matches in charge of Saudi Arabia?

“Honestly, a bit surprising,” replied the striker, who famously scored Saudi Arabia’s equalizer in the historic 2-1 victory over Argentina in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

“I had it in my mind that he was a tough manager, maybe someone who shouted a lot. But he’s a very calm manager. He sees things that usually no-one sees and he’s very intelligent in the way he speaks. He provides short details, but they’re the things he needs to deliver to you.”

The return to club duty has seen Al-Shehri, who turned 30 at the beginning of November, play more minutes in two games than during the rest of the season so far. His tap-in goal at Al-Hazem came in 21 minutes after coming off the bench, while he started the 2-0 AFC Champions League win in Uzbekistan against Navbahor on Tuesday and played just short of 70 minutes.

Previously, injuries and the incredible form of his Al-Hilal teammate Aleksandar Mitrovic had restricted Al-Shehri to two short substitute appearances in the Roshn Saudi League and three in the Champions League.

Talking to him, it is obvious how much confidence he has taken from finding his scoring form with the national team.

“They were a very good few days for me,” he said of the Pakistan and Jordan matches. “I scored four goals in two games and of course when you start scoring for your country it gives you a lot of confidence. I hope this continues, scoring more for my club and my country, and it helps in reaching my goals for the season.”

The Jeddah-born former Al-Ahli striker, who speaks fluent English and joined Al-Hilal in 2020 after five years at Al-Raed, added: “Unfortunately, I had a big injury at the beginning of the season, and you have to start from scratch to get back into the team. I guess only time will give me this opportunity. I’ll still continue training in the best way and try to get my minutes and do the best until I get my position in the first (11).”

Even if they do come from the bench, minutes in Al-Hilal’s next game will be precious. The much-anticipated Riyadh derby at the King Fahd International Stadium on Friday will see Al-Hilal take on Al-Nassr with a four-point advantage over their capital city rivals. Kickoff is at 9 p.m. Saudi time and Al-Shehri cannot wait for the next big game in his distinguished career. He has no doubts how important a fixture it is.

“It’s the biggest derby in Saudi Arabia, maybe the Middle East,” said Al-Shehri. “This is the first derby with all these international stars coming, so it’s going to be a big game — but in the end it’s a three-point game.

“I know it’s very important for the fans, but we will still be top of the table (regardless of the result) and the important thing is winning the league in the end. We promise to do our best for the fans, as we have done over the past few seasons, and keep our heads up and give them trophies to enjoy.”

Saudi Arabia fall short in 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship opener against Jordan

Saudi Arabia fall short in 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship opener against Jordan
Updated 20 February 2024

Saudi Arabia fall short in 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship opener against Jordan

Saudi Arabia fall short in 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship opener against Jordan
  • Despite the 3-1 loss, Kingdom can still progress from Group A with matches against Lebanon and Guam up next

Saudi Arabia’s women’s national team lost 3-1 to Jordan in their 2024 West Asian Football Federation opener at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah on Monday night.

Despite a spirited performance throughout the 90 minutes from Lluis Cortes’ side, Jordan took control of Group A. Saudi Arabia can still qualify for the knockout stage with matches against Lebanon and Guam to come on Wednesday and Friday respectively.

Jordan took the lead through Mai Sweilem in the 24th minute before Leen Mohammed equalized for the Green Falcons nine minutes later (33).

Jordan regained the lead through Maysa Jbarah on 61 minutes, with Ayah Al-Majali confirming victory with a third goal for the visitors from the penalty spot after 72 minutes.

Taking place in Jeddah until Feb. 29, the 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship is the first official 11-a-side women’s tournament held in Saudi Arabia. This year’s eighth edition welcomes seven nations alongside the hosts, including Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Guam and Nepal.

The WAFF Women’s Championship is the latest international football tournament in Jeddah, where both the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup and 2022 WAFF Women’s Futsal Championship have been held.

Injured Neymar to miss Copa America in June

Injured Neymar to miss Copa America in June
Updated 19 February 2024

Injured Neymar to miss Copa America in June

Injured Neymar to miss Copa America in June
  • Al-Hilal’s Brazilian star was injured playing for his country in October and is not expected to return until next season

Al-Hilal star Neymar is certain to miss the 2024 Copa America in the US, a spokesman for the Brazil national team has told Arriyadiyah.

Rodrigo Pavia said the 32-year-old star will not join the Selecao squad despite the fact that the Brazilian team will not play their first match until June 24, against opponents yet to be confirmed.

“Neymar will not participate in the Copa America,” he told Arriyadiyah on Sunday. “This is something that has become certain, as his recovery will not be completed by that time.”

“We might expect him to return for the World Cup qualifiers next September, I think he may be ready by then.”

Neymar’s personal fitness trainer and compatriot Ricardo Rosa is currently overseeing the third stage of the player’s rehabilitation, private sources revealed to Arriyadiyah.

Neymar suffered a rupture in the cruciate ligament of his left knee during his country’s 2-0 loss to Uruguay in the 2026 World Cup qualifiers on Oct. 18, and later underwent surgery at the Hospital Mater Dei in Belo Horizonte at the hands of Rodrigo Lasmar, the Brazilian national team doctor.

Lasmar has insisted he will not rush Neymar back to action and that he expects the player to return at the start of next season, specifically during August.

Mighty Mitrovic continues fine scoring form as Al-Hilal win again

Mighty Mitrovic continues fine scoring form as Al-Hilal win again
Updated 18 February 2024

Mighty Mitrovic continues fine scoring form as Al-Hilal win again

Mighty Mitrovic continues fine scoring form as Al-Hilal win again
  • Win also extended Al-Hilal’s winning streak to amazing 21 games in all competitions

RIYADH: Aleksandar Mitrovic’s two goals sent Al-Hilal on their way to a 3-1 win over Al-Raed on Sunday, restoring the side’s seven-point lead at the top of the Roshn Saudi League above local rivals Al-Nassr.

The win also extended Al-Hilal’s winning streak to an amazing 21 games in all competitions.

Less than 24 hours after Cristiano Ronaldo gave Al-Nassr the lead against Al-Fateh for his 21st league goal of the season, Mitrovic, second in the goalscoring standings, scored his 18th after just two minutes. It signaled the start of a dominant performance from the Riyadh giants.

The Serbian striker was on hand at the near post as Salem Al-Dawsari galloped down the left, skipping past defenders, only for the ball to spill to Mitrovic to hook from close range. It was the first official goal to be scored at the newly built Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, the stadium that is now Al-Hilal’s new home.

Al-Dawsari certainly looked comfortable already in these state-of-the-art surroundings and continued to cause all kinds of problems down that side with his direct running and tricky football. He tried to set up Mitrovic more than once to no success but the next clear chance came after 19 minutes when the Asian Player of the Year found Malcom in the middle but the Brazilian fired just over the bar.

The second goal was not far away. After 27 minutes, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was brought down in the area by Mohammed Al-Dossary and Mitrovic stepped up to find the back of the net for the 19th time this season.

There seemed to be little chance of the visitors, who had won their last two league games, taking anything back to Buraidah as they barely threatened to get on the scoresheet. Any possibility was officially extinguished seven minutes after the restart. Ruben Neves floated over a free-kick from the right for Kalidou Koulibaly to head into the bottom corner for the Senegalese defender’s second goal since arriving from Chelsea last summer.

The points were then all but sealed, leading to a drop in intensity. Al-Raed, who stay in 14th, got their consolation in added time. Julio Tavares broke free and then, as he arrived in the area, slipped a pass to his right for Amir Sayoud to lift over goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.

It did not dampen the spirits of the Al-Hilal fans. The team are next in action on Thursday when they can book a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League if they avoid a two-goal defeat at home to Sepahan of Iran.

Ronaldo strikes again as Al-Nassr best Al-Fateh

Ronaldo strikes again as Al-Nassr best Al-Fateh
Updated 18 February 2024

Ronaldo strikes again as Al-Nassr best Al-Fateh

Ronaldo strikes again as Al-Nassr best Al-Fateh
  • Victory puts Al-Nassr just four points behind leaders Al-Hilal

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo wasted no time in getting back among the goals after the mid-season break on Saturday as Al-Nassr defeated Al-Fateh 2-1.
The win, in what was an entertaining and open game — a fifth league victory in a row — puts Al-Nassr just four points behind leaders Al-Hilal.
The opening goal came after 17 minutes in a simple but clinical fashion. Sultan Al-Ghannam’s low pass from the right found the Portuguese star in the area and Ronaldo, who scored in the Asian Champions League midweek, coolly slotted the ball into the bottom corner for his 21st league goal of the season so far.
Al-Fateh were on level terms just before the half-hour thanks to Salem Al-Najdi. The Yellows failed to clear a free kick, and the ball fell to the 21-year-old arriving at the edge of the area to shoot into the top corner though goalkeeper Waleed Abdullah, who had just been introduced to the action to replace Raghed A-Najjar, who had picked up an injury.
Al-Najjar was only in the team as Nawaf Al-Aqidi is serving a ban handed down by the Saudi Football Federation after national team coach Roberto Mancini questioned his commitment.
It means that Al-Nassr have something of a goalkeeping crisis as Colombian David Ospina is also injured. There are also concerns over Al-Ghannam and Otavio, who went off late in the game.
Somehow early in the second half, Al-Fateh missed a chance to move ahead. Djaniny shot against the post from close range leaving the rebound for Lucas Zelarayan, who had the goal at his mercy. Somehow, the Argentine hit his shot straight at Al-Najjar when it seemed easier to score.
Al-Fateh were on top, and soon after the visitors thought they had a penalty after Murad Batna was brought down in the area by Aymeric Laporte, but VAR did not agree.
Just before the hour, and the lively Cristian Tello cut inside from the left and forced another save from the stand-in stopper.
Ronaldo almost got his second with a shot from the edge of the area that was saved by Jacob Rinne.
All of a sudden the hosts were looking more dangerous, then Al-Ghannam broke down the right and sent over another perfect cross, and there was Otavio, diving in the area to head Al-Nassr back into the lead.
This time there was no coming back for Al-Fateh, who continued to try and push forward but came up empty-handed and stay in seventh.
Al-Hilal can extend their lead at the top with a win at home against Al-Raed on Sunday.

Ivan Rakitic announces Saudi Pro League arrival in style

Ivan Rakitic announces Saudi Pro League arrival in style
Updated 17 February 2024

Ivan Rakitic announces Saudi Pro League arrival in style

Ivan Rakitic announces Saudi Pro League arrival in style
  • Rakitic finish was a goal not just worthy of winning any game, it was worthy of kicking off the final third of the season

Ivan Rakitic achieved instant hero status among Al-Shabab fans on Friday with a stunning goal to give his new team a 1-0 win at Damac.

The former Barcelona star joined the Riyadh club from Sevilla at the end of January to instantly become one of the stars of the Roshn Saudi League.

And the Croatian did not disappoint on Friday as he oozed class and composure every time he took possession and always looked to make things happen

After 82 minutes the scoreline was 0-0 and substitute Musab Al-Juwayr touched the ball to his right outside the area. It was perfectly set for Rakitic to hit a shot first time that was straight as an arrow and still rising when it hit the back of the Damac net.

It was a goal not just worthy of winning any game, it was worthy of kicking off the final third of the season as the league got going again after the seven-week break for the Asian Cup.

As well as scoring the memorable winner, the 35-year-old touched the ball more and had more passes than any other player. There were also promising signs of link-up play with Yannick Carrasco.

The goal ended a solid debut on a high with the star giving his new club what was only their second win in the last eight games.

The six-time champions have uncharacteristically struggled this season but the win puts them into 10th place and clear of the relegation zone.

Rakitic’s passing and composure ensured that Al-Shabab had more of the possession and control, although the team were helped by the dismissal of Damac’s Sanousi Al-Hawsawi midway through the second half. The defeat leaves Damac in sixth place with 30 points, one behind Al-Ittihad.

“I promised the club’s president that I would score my first goal against Damac and it was great to succeed,” Rakitic said after the game. “I dedicate this victory to the fans.”

He added: “I know that the club had struggles in the first half of the season but we are looking for a new start now.”

It was also a winning start for coach Vitor Pereira as the former Porto boss, who coached Al-Ahli a decade ago, was appointed earlier this month.

He will be hoping that the revival continues against local rivals Al-Nassr next week.

Rakitic added: “We have a full week before we face Al-Nassr and will prepare in the best way possible.”

There was excitement elsewhere as Al-Okhdood defeated Al-Ahli 3-2.

Alex Collado gave the hosts the lead after 25 minutes, though an own goal from Solomon Kvirkvelia evened things up. The advantage was restored by Hamad Al-Mansour after 43 minutes but there was still time before the break for Roberto Firmino to make it 2-2 from the spot.

Leandre Tawamba put Al-Okhdood back in front on the hour and although the Jeddah giants had chances, they could not get back on level terms.

Al-Ahli, who had Roger Ibanez sent off in added time, stay in third, six points behind Al-Nassr.

In the day’s other fixture, Al-Wehda drew 1-1 with Al-Tai.

Al-Nassr are in action on Saturday at home to Al-Fateh while leaders Al-Hilal face Al-Raed on Sunday.