Al-Ittihad look to Al-Hilal’s example at FIFA Club World Cup

Karim Benzema will lead Al-Ittihad at the FIFA Club World Cup 2023. (@ittihad)
Karim Benzema will lead Al-Ittihad at the FIFA Club World Cup 2023. (@ittihad)
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Updated 11 December 2023
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Al-Ittihad look to Al-Hilal’s example at FIFA Club World Cup

Karim Benzema will lead Al-Ittihad at the FIFA Club World Cup 2023. (@ittihad)
  • Reigning Saudi champions can take heart from fierce rivals’ march to last year’s final as they look to put poor form behind them

RIYADH: If Al-Ittihad are looking for a positive spin on their patchy form heading into the FIFA Club World Cup, which kicks off in Jeddah this week, they need look no further than their fierce Saudi rivals, Al-Hilal.

It was only earlier this year that the Riyadh giants embarked on their own Club World Cup campaign, and they did so on the back of a run of form domestically that saw them win only three of their seven matches before the tournament began, and included a shock loss to Al-Fayha in their penultimate match before jetting off for Morocco.

But wins over Wydad Casablanca and Flamengo saw them become only the third Asian club to make it through to the final, where they put in an impressive showing in a 5-3 defeat to Real Madrid.

On the scoresheet that night for the Spanish giants was a certain Karim Benzema, who will headline the star names for Al-Ittihad as they open their campaign against Oceania champions Auckland City on Tuesday.

That will give comfort to Marcelo Gallardo after his side suffered a shock 3-1 defeat at the hands of mid-table Damac over the weekend, a loss that has seen them fall 16 points behind Al-Hilal and drop to fifth place in the Roshn Saudi League.

Having won four of their previous five after parting ways with last season’s title-winning coach Nuno Espirito Santo, it is a loss that might also have shaken some of the confidence in the Ittihad side as they come to terms with life under Argentine Gallardo.

Despite the apparent gulf between the two sides, Gallardo knows there is no room for any complacency against the New Zealand side, who are no strangers to this stage, this being their 11th appearance.

They have also proved to be giant-killers in the past as well, finishing third at the 2014 tournament in Morocco.

“Any game in the Club World Cup is always very tough,” Gallardo is quoted as saying on the FIFA website.

“The first game always has the nervousness factor too. It’s one game only, a knockout match, you need to win to stay alive in the competition. We know Auckland will be tough to beat.”

Goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe also chooses to toe the party line, while saying the side are taking it one game at a time, but does admit: “It costs nothing to dream.”

With the talent they now have at their disposal — the likes of Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Fabinho, Igor Coronado, and Romarinho to name just a few — there is no reason Al-Ittihad should not be dreaming big and looking to match what Al-Hilal did last year.

But they enter the tournament carrying a far heavier burden than their Riyadh rivals did earlier this year.

Such has been the transformation in Saudi football over the past 12 months, it is no stretch to say Al-Ittihad are carrying the entire reputation of Saudi football on their shoulders.

While the investment is about far more than just results at the Club World Cup, it offers the first opportunity for Saudi football to show its wares on the international stage, and a good performance will go a long way to showing that Saudi football is indeed heading in the right direction.

A poor performance, however, and the critics will very quickly, and only too happily, rush to judge the Saudi splurge as an expensive flop.

While Al-Ittihad will attract most of the attention over the first week, it is worth remembering they come to the tournament merely as hosts rather than Asian champions.

That title belongs to Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds, making their third appearance at the Club World Cup after third (2007) and fifth-placed (2017) performances previously.

Like Al-Ittihad, they arrive in Jeddah on the back of a run of poor form that saw them not only slip from the top three on the final day of the J. League season, but also crash out of the AFC Champions League in the group stage after a shock defeat to Vietnam’s Hanoi FC last week.

Then there is the rather peculiar situation with the position of head coach.

Poland’s Maciej Skorza has already announced his departure after just one season in Japan, with Norwegian Per-Mathias Hogmo announced last week as his replacement.

Skorza will still take the reins in Jeddah, however, despite the fact he has already tendered his resignation and his successor has been appointed.

Should either Al-Ittihad or Urawa make the final, they will become the fourth team from Asia to do so in the last eight years — a nice feather in the cap for football in this region, in what is the last tournament to be played under the existing seven-team format.

By the time the next Club World Cup rolls around, to be played in the US in 2025 with 32 teams, we could see multiple Saudi clubs competing. It is just Al-Ittihad this time, but the whole world will still be watching.


Ronaldo back in action for Al-Nassr but cannot prevent defeat by Al-Ain in Asian Champions League

Ronaldo back in action for Al-Nassr but cannot prevent defeat by Al-Ain in Asian Champions League
Updated 04 March 2024
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Ronaldo back in action for Al-Nassr but cannot prevent defeat by Al-Ain in Asian Champions League

Ronaldo back in action for Al-Nassr but cannot prevent defeat by Al-Ain in Asian Champions League
  • The 1-0 defeat in the first leg of the quarter-finals leaves the Saudi side with a lot to do in the home leg next Monday
  • Rahimi cut in from the left, latched onto Alejandro Romero’s beautiful pass into the area, and skipped past Ospina to shoot into an empty net

AL-AIN: Cristiano Ronaldo was back in the Al-Nassr lineup on Monday, after serving a one-game Saudi Pro League suspension for gesturing toward opposing fans during a recent game, but could not prevent his team falling to a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Al-Ain in the first leg of their Asian Champions League quarter-final.

It means they have much work to do at home next Monday if they are to progress to the semi-finals, where they would face one of their domestic rivals: Al-Hilal or Al-Ittihad.

Monday’s game was a far-from-vintage performance from Al-Nassr, who lacked fluidity and rhythm and struggled to create clear chances, despite having more possession than the 2003 champions. A late red card for Aymeric Laporte did not help matters.

Al-Nassr, who are looking for their first Champions League title, started brightly, however, with Sadio Mane testing goalkeeper Khalid Eisa in the second minute. Four minutes later, fans had a glimpse of Ronaldo’s ability but the Portuguese star’s spectacular overhead kick bounced wide.

Midway through the half, Al-Ain, led by Hernan Crespo, very nearly took the lead when the lively Soufiane Rahimi turned outside the area to unleash a first-time shot that was creeping into the far corner until David Ospina got down well to turn it away for a corner.

There was nothing the former Arsenal goalkeeper could do in the 28th minute, however, when Al-Ain got the ball in the net and the 22,000 fans in the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on their feet. The goalkeeper delivered a long kick to the right wing where Rahimi was waiting to send a low cross into the six-yard box for Kaku to convert from close range. Fortunately for Al-Nassr, the video assistant referee ruled that Rahimi had strayed just offside.

He made amends for this just before the break when he cut in from the left, latched onto Alejandro Romero’s beautiful pass into the area, and skipped past Ospina to shoot into an empty net.

Ronaldo replied almost immediately with a stinging half-volley from the right of the area, which brought a great save from the goalkeeper. Early in the second half, he had another good chance but could not quite get hold of a right-sided cross from Ayman Yahya and his shot bounced over. Soon after, Yahya attempted a low shot that was saved by Eisa.

Al-Nassr grew increasingly frustrated and their night almost got worse when, with 20 minutes remaining, Rahimi broke free to put the ball in the net. But for the second time, he was ruled to have strayed offside and the goal was disallowed.

With 12 minutes remaining, Al-Nassr had one of their better chances of the night when Mane headed the ball back across goal from the far post, but Sami Al-Najei fired his low shot wide.

Then Ronaldo came even closer. A low cross from the left found its way to him just outside the six-yard box and everyone expected the net to bulge. Instead, Eisa, who was going the wrong way, stuck out a hand to make a top-class save.

Things then started to get scrappy and bad-tempered, which suited Al-Ain a lot more than their visitors, but there was always a sense that there would be at least one more big chance before the end, especially when the referee added 11 minutes of stoppage time.

Unfortunately for Al-Nassr, the most notable event of this added time was the red card for Laporte. The former Manchester City defender bundled over Bandar Al-Ahbabi as they jostled for position in the area and, after checking the pitch-side monitor, the referee ruled it was violent conduct.

This summed up a miserable evening for Al-Nassr, who almost equalized late on through an attempted lob by Ronaldo from the halfway line. They will be be without Laporte for the second leg in Riyadh next Monday and improvement is needed if they are going to keep their Asian dreams alive.


Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory

Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory
Updated 04 March 2024
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Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory

Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory
  • 9 points behind Al-Hilal in the SPL title race, Al-Nassr’s best chance of success this season could be in the Asian competition

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo returns to action for Al-Nassr on Monday with a simple task: rescue the team’s season and lead them to success in the AFC Champions League.

On Monday, the nine-time Saudi Arabia champions will make the short trip to the UAE to take on Al-Ain in the first leg of the quarterfinal in Asia’s biggest club competition. It comes at a crucial time in the season for a team that has never won the continental title.

At the moment, Al-Nassr are in second in the Roshn Saudi League but Ronaldo was on the sidelines last Thursday with head in his hands as Al-Nassr hosted the bottom team Al-Hazem.

Four times the Yellows took the lead and fans and Ronaldo sat back in anticipation of a comfortable win. Yet four times the visitors came back, helped by some dreadful Al-Nassr defending, to draw 4-4 and grab a point.

The 39-year-old had been banned for one game after making an offensive gesture during a Saudi Arabia league match four days earlier. At the end of the 3-2 win over Al-Shabab, video footage appeared to show Ronaldo cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, in a gesture that seemed to be aimed at Al-Shabab fans.

The draw with Al-Hazem leaves Al-Nassr — even at this stage of the season — with a mountain to climb if they are to win the Saudi Pro League.

“Ronaldo strengthens the team and ensures that the opponent respects you more but his absence had nothing to do with the result,” said a visibly frustrated Al-Nassr coach Luis Castro. “The fact is that we are conceding too many goals and the problem is not organizational but due to individual mistakes. At the moment we are now focused on the Asian Champions League.”

Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad on Friday leaves them strong favorites for another league championship. In theory it is not over — Hilal themselves have overturned such deficits in the past to lift the title. But with the leaders winning their last 25 games in all competitions, it is almost unimaginable that they will not win a 19th league title.

So it means that Al-Nassr know that only glory in Asia and winning the continental championship for the first time will save their season. The King’s Cup is always a welcome domestic trophy, but does not quite hold the same gravitas.

The tie against Al-Ain will not be easy. The Emirati club won their group and then got past Nasaf of Uzbekistan in the round of 16. They are going well at home and abroad and are unbeaten in eight, with seven of those ending in victory.

They possess plenty of attacking talent and will have watched Al-Nassr’s defensive issues of late with interest. Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba especially will be looking forward to it. The Togolese international has already scored six goals in Asia this season and has been in fine form domestically.

Al-Ain boss Hernan Crespo will have some sympathy for Al-Nassr. The Argentine legend was in charge of Qatar’s Al-Duhail last year and took the team to the last four where they were hit for seven by Hilal.

“We know how strong Al-Nassr are,” said Crespo. “They are full of talented players and it will be a great challenge for us. You expect to face tough opposition at this stage of the continental championship. We will have to be at our best.”

While Ronaldo’s return is big news, there will also be huge interest in Tuesday’s clash between Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad in Riyadh.

Hilal’s recent SPL win over the Tigers was deserved though, the team from Jeddah could have gone in at the break 2-0 ahead instead of 1-0, and then the rest of the game would have been very different.

The problem for Al-Ittihad, and shared by the rest of the Saudi Arabia teams as well as Asia, is how to stop Al-Hilal.

Now that the Blues are nine points clear at the top of the table, they can almost afford to turn their focus to the Champions League.

Hilal may still have Neymar out, but Aleksandar Mitrovic is in excellent form as are Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.

But Al-Ittihad can also save their season. The best they can probably manage at home is to sneak into the top three.

A win in Asia, however, and a third continental title would make what has been a forgettable season into something special. It is the biggest game of their season and Al-Nassr can say the same.


Saudi Arabian Football Federation launches platform to broadcast local competition matches across the Kingdom

Saudi Arabian Football Federation launches platform to broadcast local competition matches across the Kingdom
Updated 04 March 2024
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Saudi Arabian Football Federation launches platform to broadcast local competition matches across the Kingdom

Saudi Arabian Football Federation launches platform to broadcast local competition matches across the Kingdom
  • SAFF+ will initially deliver coverage of 15 men’s and women’s competitions utilizing cloud broadcast technology and cameras in 62 stadiums
  • Platform also set to house player database to support clubs, coaches, scouts and national youth teams with talent technical analysis

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian Football Federation has unveiled SAFF+, an AI-assisted multi-purpose digital platform that will air all local competition matches that do not have exclusive broadcast rights.

The SAFF+ platform will begin streaming matches on a trial basis through its dedicated website, with a smartphone application set to be launched next week, the federation said in a release on Monday.

The platform will initially broadcast live coverage of 15 competitions held across 62 stadiums, with more to follow. Utilizing cloud broadcasting technology alongside the high-quality multi-angle cameras fitted in stadiums, SAFF+ will deliver coverage with a Riyadh-based broadcast center overseeing and managing production.

Yasser Al-Misehal, president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, said: “The launch of SAFF+ is the realization of a dream to help take Saudi football to the next level and provide fans with instantaneous access to matches being held throughout the Kingdom. By embracing digital transformation and technology integration, we’re excited to enhance fan access to various levels of our national football ecosystem while simultaneously delivering benefits to clubs, coaches, scouts, and our national youth team set-ups through this innovative digital-first platform.”

Besides broadcasting a wide range of men’s and women’s matches across Saudi Arabia, the SAFF has revealed that the platform will also become home to an extensive player database. This is for clubs and national youth teams to access player statistics and data for technical analysis and performance evaluation. Furthermore, this feature is intended to assist coaches and scouts in their talent discovery endeavors.

The new channel is the latest step in the SAFF’s long-term, football transformation strategy, launched in 2021 to help elevate Saudi Arabia to elite status in world football.

The platform will also feature digital content related to the federation’s activities and events, serving as a hub where fans can keep updated on the country’s latest football news, and access behind-the-scenes content.


Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone

Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone
Updated 01 March 2024
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Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone

Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone
  • Goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, Malcom, and Saud Abdulhamid made sure 18-time champions now nine points clear of Riyadh rivals in second

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo watched from the stands in disbelief on Thursday as Al-Nassr were held to a 4-4 draw at home against bottom team Al-Hazm. Neymar on Friday watched in delight as Al-Hilal came from behind to defeat Al-Ittihad 3-1 to take a giant step toward a 19th Saudi Pro League trophy.

Thanks to goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, Malcom, and Saud Abdulhamid, the 18-time champions are now nine points clear of their Riyadh rivals in second, and as Al-Hilal have now won their last 25 games in all competitions and a record 15 in the league, few would now bet against the Blues.

It was an entertaining Saudi Classico, but once Al-Hilal took the lead in the second half, there was always likely to be just one outcome and it was a deserved win.

Al-Ittihad, the defending champions, had opportunities but against the runaway leaders more than one needed to be taken.

But the visitors, who were missing star striker Karim Benzema through injury, started strongly and took the lead in the 12th minute. With all the attacking talent on the pitch, it was a little surprising that N’Golo Kante opened the scoring with his first goal for almost six months. It was a cracker too.

The former Chelsea midfielder started the move and after laying the ball off, sprinted for the penalty area. He was there just in time to meet the left-sided cross from Zakaria Al-Hawsawi and no one was prepared for the sight of Kante flying through the air to send a header past Yassine Bounou and into the net. It stunned fans in the Kingdom Arena and probably those watching around the world. 

A few minutes later it was almost 2-0 as Faisal Al-Ghamdi shot just wide from outside the area with Bounou scrambling to get across. Al-Ittihad have been in good form and were seemingly growing in confidence.

But slowly Al-Hilal began to wake up and six minutes before the break were level. Abdullah Al-Mayouf punched a Salem Al-Dawsari corner clear but it fell to Ruben Neves just outside the area and while the Portuguese star’s shot was blocked, there was Al-Shehri, in the starting lineup to replace the suspended Aleksandar Mitrovic, to pounce and fire home.

Almost immediately, the visitors thought they had a penalty as Kalidou Koulibaly was judged by the referee to have been tugging the shirt of Ahmed Hegazy. VAR thought differently, however.

Both teams continued to push forward and just before the hour the hosts took the lead. It came shortly after Al-Ittihad had claims for a penalty waved away, and Al-Hilal broke. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic chipped over a perfect cross from the left for Malcom — who was given far too much space on the edge of the six-yard box — to head home.

Kante almost equalized within minutes, firing a low shot just wide of the post. It was a great chance and, had it been taken, the game could have turned out very differently.

As it was, midway through the second half, Abdulhamid netted a third. Milinkovic-Savic slipped a pass into the right side of the area for the full-back to twist and turn past two defenders before shooting home at the near post. Not for the first time in the evening, Neymar, still recovering from his serious injury, was on his feet.

Unlike Al-Nassr, who four times threw the lead away against Al-Hazm, Al-Hilal were not going to be denied and the celebrations at the end reflected an unstoppable winning machine.

There is a quick chance for revenge for Al-Ittihad as the two giants meet in the first leg of the Asian Champions League quarter-final next week, but Al-Hilal surely know that with the domestic title almost sewn up, they can now turn their full attention to continental concerns.

For Al-Ittihad, now 25 points below the leaders in fifth, their season now depends on the clash.


SAFF launches formal FIFA World Cup 2034 host campaign

SAFF launches formal FIFA World Cup 2034 host campaign
Updated 02 March 2024
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SAFF launches formal FIFA World Cup 2034 host campaign

SAFF launches formal FIFA World Cup 2034 host campaign
  • Logo, website and short film released under slogan ‘Growing Together’
  • Federation chief Yasser Al-Misehal: ‘Our bid is an open invitation to the world to join us on this exciting journey’

JEDDAH: The Saudi Arabian Football Federation on Friday launched its formal bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2034 under the slogan “Growing Together.”
In October last year, the Kingdom said it intended to bid to host the tournament, before the SAFF submitted an official letter of intent and declaration to FIFA.
The campaign proved a formality when the Kingdom became the only country to enter the contest to host the tournament.
The federation, as part of its formal bid, has unveiled a bid logo, website, as well as a short film that celebrates the passion, spirit and diversity of football in the Kingdom.
SAFF President Yasser Al-Misehal said: “Telling our football story to the world is of massive importance. And we believe ‘Growing Together’ is the perfect, yet simple description of our approach to hopefully hosting the tournament in 10 years’ time.”
Bidding to host a FIFA World Cup has been made possible by the rapid transformation taking place in the Kingdom, the SAFF chief said.
“We’ve made unprecedented progress in both the men’s and women’s game and our bid is an open invitation to the world to join us on this exciting journey. As we proved when we welcomed over 100 nationalities to the FIFA Club World Cup Saudi Arabia 2023 in Jeddah, the future is bright when we grow together,” Al-Misehal added.
As one of the fastest and most exciting growth stories in world football, Saudi Arabia, through its bid, seeks to capture the parallel between the Kingdom’s rapid transformation and the positive impacts of hosting FIFA’s flagship event.
Aspiring to become the first single host nation of a 48-team FIFA World Cup, the three pillars underpinning the bid are “Growing People Together,” “Growing Football Together” and “Growing Connections Together.”
Over the last six years, Saudi Arabia has hosted more than 100 international events across almost 40 sports, and is in active football partnerships with more than 100 countries.
The campaign slogan aims to capture the spirit of bonds between the Kingdom and football communities in countries around the world.
The bid logo — made up of intertwined rows of multi-colored ribbons displaying iconic football and cultural symbols — aims to promote Saudi Arabia’s status as a young nation with rich heritage.
It also features five colors reflecting natural diversity across the Kingdom: Desert amber, oasis green, radiance red, rich lavender and sunrise yellow.
The short film released for the bid was filmed across the country, exploring the passion for football in all sections of Saudi society.
It features players from the Saudi under-17 women’s national team and 22-year-old Saudi women’s national team midfielder Layan Jouhari. Background music was composed by powerhouse Saudi platform MDLBEAST.
SAFF recently launched a dedicated bid unit, in line with FIFA regulations, to lead the charge for the Saudi 2034 bid, which will last up until the end of the year.
The unit’s chief, Hammad Al-Balawi, said: “This campaign is powered by the hopes and dreams of 32 million people in Saudi Arabia. Our responsibility is to submit the best possible bid to FIFA, make our country proud and fulfill the trust placed upon us by more than 130 member associations across the world who supported our bid.”
The bid’s website is Saudi2034bid.com. Fans can celebrate the launch of the campaign using the hashtags #Saudi2034bid and #GrowingTogether.