Girona make a genuine title contender statement with 4-2 win at Barcelona to go top in Spain

Girona make a genuine title contender statement with 4-2 win at Barcelona to go top in Spain
Girona's Valery Fernandez, left, scores his side's third goal past Barcelona's goalkeeper Inaki Pena during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Girona at the Olimpic Lluis Companys stadium in Barcelona Sunday. (Reuters)
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Updated 11 December 2023
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Girona make a genuine title contender statement with 4-2 win at Barcelona to go top in Spain

Girona make a genuine title contender statement with 4-2 win at Barcelona to go top in Spain
  • The statement win moved Girona two points ahead of Madrid, who drew 1-1 with Real Betis on Saturday
  • The game between Granada and Athletic Bilbao was suspended after a fan suffered a cardiac arrest and died in the stands

MADRID: Girona made their strong case to be considered a genuine contender for the Spanish league title by beating Catalan rivals Barcelona 4-2 on Sunday and overtaking Real Madrid at the top of the standings.

Ukraine forward Artem Dovbyk and Viktor Tsygankov teamed up for Girona’s opener, and Miguel Gutierrez, Valery Fernandez and Cristhian Stuani scored a goal each to seal the away victory against the defending league champions. Robert Lewandowski and Ilkay Gundogan scored Barcelona’s goals.

The statement win moved Girona two points ahead of Madrid, who drew 1-1 with Real Betis on Saturday. Barcelona dropped to fourth place, seven points behind their regional rival and five behind Madrid. Atletico Madrid regained third place with a 2-1 win over last-place Almeria to extend their winning streak at home in the league to 17 matches. Atletico hae the same 34 points as Barcelona with a game in hand.

Barcelona had never lost in six matches against Girona in the league, with four wins and two draws.

“Girona deserves a lot of credit. It has a great team,” Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez said. “It was an even match, it could have gone either way. It also would have been a fair result if we had won it.”

Girona, partly owned by Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi ownership, never looked like the minnow club against Barcelona on Sunday, showing maturity and poise from the start at the Lluis Companys Olympic Stadium.

The team coached by Míchel Sanchez, sporting a white and blue uniform with similar colors to Man City, has been playing some of the best soccer in Spain and holding on to its position near the top from the start of the season.

“It’s a special victory, it gives us the lead,” Michel said. “Very happy with the result because we faced a great Barça team.”

Girona had won 12 of their first 15 league matches, though it had failed in their first big test when they lost 3-0 to Real Madrid at home in September.

There was no problem against Barcelona, though.

The visitors opened the scoring in a breakaway in the 12th minute. Dovbyk found the net from close range after completing a low cross by his countryman Tsygankov. Barcelona equalized with a header by Lewandowski off a corner kick taken by Raphinha in the 19th, but Girona retook the lead in the 40th with a nice shot by Gutierrez into the top corner from inside the area.

Fernandez scored Girona’s third in the 80th before Barcelona pulled closer with Gundogan’s goal two minutes into stoppage time. Stuani restored Girona’s two-goal advantage five minutes into injury time.

FAN DEATH

The game between Granada and Athletic Bilbao was suspended after a fan suffered a cardiac arrest and died in the stands.

Granada said the fan had been a season ticket holder for 16 years. No further details were given about the fan’s identity.

The match will restart on Monday night from the 17th minute with Athletic leading 1-0. Iñaki Williams had put the visitors ahead in the sixth minute.

17 IN A ROW

Atletico won their 17th consecutive match at home to extend their biggest winning run in the competition as a host.

Alvaro Morata and Angel Correa scored a goal each in the first half before Almeria pulled one back through Leo Baptistao after halftime.

Atletico will have a game in hand after the weekend’s round. Diego Simeone’s team were coming off a 1-0 loss at Barcelona in the previous league round. They had won 11 of their last 13 matches in all competitions before that defeat in Barcelona.

“We know there’s still a long way to go. We lost the other day but it wasn’t the end of it,” Atletico forward Antoine Griezmann said. “We have to keep playing like this.”

Atletico’s last setback at home in the league was a 1-1 draw with Getafe in February.

Morata opened the scoring in the 17th minute after dribbling past a defender and then the goalkeeper inside the area. Correa added to the lead five minutes later from close range after a low cross by Marcos Llorente.

The assist for Morata’s goal came from Griezmann, who had a goal disallowed for offside in the fifth minute. The France forward remains three goals shy of the 173 scored by Luis Aragonés, the club’s all-time leading scorer.

Baptistao scored from close range for Almeria in the 62nd.

It was the 12th league loss for the club from southern Madrid, who remain the only team without a win this season. They stayed on four points from four draws. The Saudi-owned club this week was eliminated by fourth-division team Barbastro in the second round of the Copa del Rey.

Also Sunday, relegation-threatened Cadiz saw their winless streak in all competitions reach 14 matches after a 1-1 draw with Osasuna at home.


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.


UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl maintain 8-point lead over Al-Ain at top of table

Al-Wasl have an 8-point lead over Al-Ain at the top of the ADNOC Pro League. (@AlWaslSC)
Al-Wasl have an 8-point lead over Al-Ain at the top of the ADNOC Pro League. (@AlWaslSC)
Updated 03 March 2024
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UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl maintain 8-point lead over Al-Ain at top of table

Al-Wasl have an 8-point lead over Al-Ain at the top of the ADNOC Pro League. (@AlWaslSC)
  • Walter Zenga’s Emirates endure another defeat, look set for drop

DUBAI: Relentless leaders Al-Wasl heaped pressure on Cosmin Olaroiu’s underperforming Sharjah, Spain icon Andres Iniesta’s sinking Emirates Club looked doomed, and Farhad Majidi’s inconsistent Ittihad Kalba-reign was brought to an ignominious end during ADNOC Pro League’s matchweek 15.

Friday’s grandstand clash in Dubai witnessed goals from Abdulrahman Saleh and outstanding UAE attacker Ali Saleh to maintain Al-Wasl’s grip on their first title since 2006-07 with a 2-0 triumph, while pushing star-studded Sharjah 13 points off the pace.

On the same evening, Tunisia playmaker Haykeul Chikhaoui’s ferocious opener sent improving Ajman on their way to a 2-0 win which moved them nine points away from danger and pushed Walter Zenga’s bottom-placed Emirates – enduring a 10-match losing streak – eight points from safety.

Fellow promoted outfit Hatta showed fight in a 5-3 reversal at AFC Champions League quarter-finalists Al-Ain and third-placed holders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club required an instant brace by substitute Yuri Cesar in an eventual 3-0 victory at 10-man Khor Fakkan.

Shambolic defending caused 13th-placed Kalba’s 2-1 loss to Al-Bataeh and was followed by the exit of former Iran under-23 and Esteghlal boss Majidi after almost two years at the helm. Ex-Brazil and Napoli defensive midfielder Allan netted an unlikely pair to hand Al-Wahda the Abu Dhabi Derby spoils in a pulsating 3-2 defeat for Mirel Radoi’s unconvincing Al-Jazira, while Alfred Schreuder’s flourishing Al-Nasr rose to sixth with a 1-0 triumph versus Baniyas – their fourth in five top-flight fixtures.

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

Player of the week: Allan (Al-Wahda)

Al-Wahda supporters could have been tricked into thinking they had landed Kaka, instead of Allan.

Their skipper’s granite reputation was earned via winning countless midfield battles in Serie A and the Premier League, rather than through artfully dispatched doubles.

Saturday’s unexpected turn, however, made all the difference on home soil when they welcomed floundering near-neighbors Al-Jazira to Al-Nahyan Stadium.

It was quite the way to open his ADNOC Pro League account, after being recruited back in September 2022.

A deft dummied shot and incisive strike through numerous flailing Pride of Abu Dhabi-defenders made it 2-0 on 41 minutes. The 33-year-old had also clipped in the 17th-minute free-kick from which on-form Iran midfielder Ahmad Nourollahi eventually back-heel half-volleyed the opener.

Even better was to come past the hour mark. By that point, a frantic derby had swung back toward the Pride of Abu Dhabi after ex-Fulham player Neeskens Kebano struck twice to make it 2-2.

Allan’s stepover at pace on the edge of the penalty box sent retreating Moroccan youngster Mohammed Rabii off balance, prior to lashing into the roof of stranded UAE goalkeeper Ali Khaseif’s net. It was a fitting winner for a high-quality and high-drama clash.

For fourth-placed Al-Wahda, January’s call to draft in former Ajman miracle-worker Goran Tufegdzic has been rewarded with seven points from nine. Al-Jazira, meanwhile, are yet to ignite since snaffling ex-Romania boss Radoi from Bataeh and slipped to seventh.

Goal of the week: Ali Saleh (Al-Wasl)

Whatever challenge is put in front of Al-Wasl, they have got the firepower to overcome it.

Their ninth win from their last 10 top-flight outings was sealed by homegrown hero Saleh.

The 24-year-old collected UAE colleague Caio Canedo’s flicked header, composed himself and then curled past helpless Sharjah goalkeeper Adel Al-Hosani from 20 yards. It was a beautiful way to produce a seventh goal contribution in 14 matches.

Al-Wasl remain in control of their title destiny, eight-points ahead of Al-Ain with a game extra played. It also feels increasingly perplexing why Saleh was handed just 210 minutes on the way to the UAE’s dispiriting round-of-16 exit at 2023 Asian Cup.

Coach of the week: Daniel Isaila (Ajman)

A fine rescue job is being performed by Daniel Isaila at 11th-placed Ajman.

Last season’s dark horses in sixth spot had rapidly declined to relegation certainties under Caio Zanardi. Friday’s consummate win against Emirates featured 13 attempts on target to the visitors’ three, even with Iniesta starting in the league for the first time since Dec. 1.

Isaila has transformed horizons since October’s hire. The acumen which evolved outsiders Baniyas into shock 2020/21 runners-up has been transplanted at Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Stadium.

What to do with Olaroiu?

It is not unfair, or unkind, to expect far more from fifth-placed Sharjah.

Their third league loss of a befuddling campaign has kept The King far away from the crown. A points deficit counted in double digits with 11 matches still to play was not expected when the 2023-24 season kicked off.

It is an unbalanced team which is performing below the sum of their parts. Worryingly, serial trophy hoarder Olaroiu’s once-golden touch appears to be waning.

“I am not the one who makes the decisions regarding contracts with players,” was the Romanian’s pointed comment post-match, according to Dubai Sports.

What happens next is the glaring question.

Sharjah’s 11 at Zabeel Stadium contained ex-Barcelona and Juventus superstar Miralem Pjanic, ex-Porto and Al-Hilal attacker Moussa Marega, 184-goal UAE veteran Sebastian Tagliabue, and South Korea’s World Cup 2022 performer Cho Yu-min. They boasted more possession (55 percent/45 percent) and attempts (14/12), yet Al-Wasl’s greater desire proved crucial.

Last season’s disappointing seventh-place finish was forgiven, amid an unprecedented sweep of four domestic trophies. This term, however, has been stained by group-stage collapse in the AFC Champions League, quarter-final elimination in the ADIB Cup, a 6-2 humiliation to Shabab Al-Ahli in the UAE Super Cup, and failure to threaten in the ADNOC Pro League.

Schreuder’s ascendant Al-Nasr and Al-Ain await, either side of the international break. This could be a situation careering toward breaking point.


Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves
Updated 03 March 2024
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Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

Eddie Howe answers Newcastle United tactics critics as Magpies outwit rivals Wolves

Newcastle: Criticism, at this level, is only ever just around the corner. One year you may be returning a club to the Champions League after two decades, the next some may be calling for change at the top.

That is the situation that has recently faced Eddie Howe at Newcastle United.

A one-trick pony. The lack of a plan B. Howe has faced up to some tactical criticism from certain sections of the Newcastle fanbase in a drift from top four contenders to the fringes of the bottom half of the division in what has turned into a winter of discontent on Tyneside.

And in fairness, some of that criticism has been justified.

However, when a tactical tweak was needed, Howe delivered, landing a blow to his critics by producing a compact, robust Newcastle setup that was far too much for opposite number Gary O’Neil — transforming a resurgent, on-the-rise Wolverhampton Wanderers’ bark into a whimper at St. James’ Park.

Alexander Isak gave the hosts the lead on the break, while another counter goal by Anthony Gordon had the Magpies cruising at half-time. A late wondergoal from youngster Tino Livramento added a flourish in the dying embers.

Famed for their transition play, Wolves have torn teams apart in the Premier League on their rise. And getting caught by teams on the transition, has been Howe and Newcastle’s kryptonite during their winter struggles.

Answering that, Howe tweaked it, as Newcastle sat deeper, invited the pressure and surrendered possession wilfully. It worked wonders.

After recording the Magpies’ first home win since Dec. 16, Howe said: “We changed things tactically today. It was a big win.

“We knew, being back at home, that we hadn’t won here for quite a while, certainly in 2024. Our home form has always been so good. Ever since I’ve come to the football club, even in the season when we stayed up and then making the top four in the following one, the home form was really the bedrock of all our success.

“So, to have our first wobble here was a concern. We’re delighted to win; it was a massive game for us.

“It was a slight tweak from our normal way of playing. We analyze our opposition, like we do always, and I know there’s a lot of people that say we play the same way every week, but I can assure you that’s not the case.

“There’s always tweaks and little things we try to do to help us in our performance, and that was one today, to try to maybe play a slightly more transitional game.

“I still think we’re not quite where we were at times last year, and also at times this year, but I thought it was better. I thought we had a better physical look about us, with really good running capacity, highlighted by our first goal, which was really transitional.

“There were players running the full length of the pitch, with a real desire to score. I thought, individually, we looked better as well in that respect.

“As I’ve said many times, confidence can ebb and flow, from individuals and the team. But I thought toward the end of the game, we started to see the confidence flow back into the group, and the last 10 to 15 minutes was really good,” he added.

Newcastle have so often been starved of options when they have needed them, and injuries to key players at key times has limited what the head coach can do off the bench.

With just 12 games left, that situation is clearly easing — and it is no surprise to see Newcastle put in arguably their most impressive, coherent performance in 2024.

Turning to goalscorer Livramento as well as summer signing Harvey Barnes, coupled with Miguel Almiron, Lewis Miley, and Elliot Anderson off the subs bench is as strong a group as Howe has been able to name for months.

Arguably, the biggest impact of all, however, was getting Joe Willock back into the starting 11.

After 12 months of struggles, this was the first match the former Arsenal man has started since November. And what a difference his energy and legs gave to a United midfield that has lacked anything like it for so long.

Howe said: “Naturally, I think our midfield does have a different complexion with Willock in the team. I think he has different qualities, although I have to compliment Lewis Miley when he came on because that’s a difficult game situation for someone so young, but I thought he did really well.

“Joe does add a running and an athleticism that maybe we don’t have without him. I was delighted with his contribution. Yes, we’ve managed his game minutes, but it’s great that he’s come through three games and done really well.

“I thought he (Bruno Guimaraes) was very good and had moments where he really showed his class. When he’s at the top of his game, for me, there’s no one better in playing the role that he does. I was really pleased with his impact in the first goal because it’s a full length of the pitch counterattack and he’s had to make up a lot of yards to get a vital contribution to that goal.

“That lets me know that, mentally, he’s in a good place and, physically, he’s in a good place too after a three-game week with extra-time. I was really pleased with that part of his game,” Howe added.


Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers

Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers
Updated 03 March 2024
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Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers

Blue cards absent from latest changes by football’s lawmakers
  • Details of the trial were believed to have been close to publication by the International
  • Football Association Board (IFAB) last month Stronger enforcement on time-wasting goalkeepers was the major development to emerge from the meeting

LONDON: A controversial sin bin trial featuring blue cards was absent from the latest changes made by football’s lawmakers to improve player behavior on Saturday.
It was reported in February that blue cards were set to be part of a trial of sin bins at higher levels of the professional game.
Details of the trial were believed to have been close to publication by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) last month.
But the negative response to the proposal from Premier League managers like Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and Tottenham’s Ange Postecoglou played a role in the trial details being delayed.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino said on Friday that he “wasn’t aware” blue cards were intended to be used in the trial and said his organization was “completely opposed” to the idea.
Sin-bin yellow cards will continue to be trialled at grassroots level instead.
“If the trials at the lower levels work, of course the conversation continues throughout the pyramid,” said the English Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham after IFAB’s annual general meeting near Loch Lomond, Scotland.
“I don’t think that was ever the intention for the trial to start in the Premier League.”
Stronger enforcement on time-wasting goalkeepers was the major development to emerge from the meeting.
Fans could be encouraged to join in countdowns on goalkeepers holding on to the ball too long.
In competitions taking part in the trial, goalkeepers will be able to hold onto the ball for eight seconds and the sanction for holding on too long would be a corner or a throw-in in line with the penalty spot, rather than an indirect free-kick.
Under current guidelines, ‘keepers are supposed to only hold onto the ball for a maximum of six seconds, but the rule is rarely strictly enforced.
The other two trials approved by IFAB are designed to help referees regulate player behavior.
Referees now have the option to create captain-only zones and cooling-off areas in the event of mass confrontations.