Al-Ittihad all to play for in FIFA Club World Cup

Al-Ittihad all to play for in FIFA Club World Cup
Al-Ittihad, playing on home soil, have much to live up to in terms of Saudi Arabian history in the tournament as well as global expectations. (X: @ittihad)
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Updated 11 December 2023
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Al-Ittihad all to play for in FIFA Club World Cup

Al-Ittihad all to play for in FIFA Club World Cup
  • Expectations high as Saudi team enjoy home advantage
  • Saudi Arabian sides have proud history in tournament

RIYADH: Saudi Arabian teams have a good record in the FIFA Club World Cup but for the first time it will take place on home soil. That gives Al-Ittihad extra support, incentive as well as pressure.

The first Saudi team to participate was Al-Nassr who went to Brazil for the old FIFA Club World Championship. In a tough group, the Riyadh team finished third, losing to Real Madrid, beating Raja Casablanca, and then going down to local team Corinthians.

Al-Ittihad played at the first tournament in its current format in 2005 as they went to Japan as Asian champions.

It started with a 1-0 win over Al-Ahly (the Egyptians lay in wait on Friday, assuming Al-Ittihad beat Auckland City on Tuesday). On a cold Japanese evening, talismanic midfielder Mohammed Noor got the only goal of the game with 12 minutes remaining, getting to a cross before goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary and then belting the loose ball home from close range.

That was enough to book a semi-final against Sao Paulo. It was always going to be difficult against the South American champions and in front of more than 30,000 fans in Tokyo, Al-Ittihad gave it a real good go. Most of the crowd were there to support the Brazilians but the Saudis got a standing ovation at the end.

It was 1-1 at the break as Amoroso put Sao Paulo ahead before Noor equalized. Amoroso and then Rogerio Ceni, the highest-scoring goalkeeper in the history of football, netted from the penalty spot.

Asian player of the year Hamad Al-Montashari made it 3-2 midway through the second half to set up an exciting finish but Al-Ittihad just could not get the equalizer and then went on to lose to Costa Rica’s Saprissa in the third and fourth place play-off by the same 3-2 margin.

Saudi Arabia then had to wait until 2019 for their next appearance as Al-Hilal ended the drought in the Asian Champions League by defeating Urawa Reds of Japan. In many ways for Saudi Arabia, the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup was a mirror of what happened in 2005, though it took place in Qatar and not Japan.

It started with a 1-0 win over the African champions, this time Esperance de Tunis. Bafetimbi Gomis got the all-important goal. That earned a semi-final against a giant from Brazil. Salem Al-Dawsari put the Blues ahead to send thousands of fans in Doha wild with delight. But it was not to last as Flamengo hit back to win 3-1. The Riyadh giants outshot the South Americans but just could not get the goal needed.

That meant a match for third place with Monterrey. After the game ended 2-2, with Carlos Eduardo and Gomis scoring, it went to penalties with the Mexican team winning 4-3. Eduardo and Mohammed Kanno failed to convert.

It once again demonstrated that Saudi Arabian teams could compete on the global stage and Al-Hilal had another chance in 2021 in a tournament.

That started with a 6-1 thrashing of hosts Al-Jazira of the UAE. There was plenty of attacking talent on display on that day in Abu Dhabi with Odion Ighalo, Matheus Pereira, Kanno, Al-Dawsari, Moussa Marega, and Andre Carrillo all getting on the scoresheet.

Instead of South American semi-final opposition, the Blues of Riyadh faced the Blues of London. Chelsea ended up winning 1-0 but it was a fine performance from Al-Hilal who more than matched the European champions. Romelu Lukaku scored just after the half-hour.

If that was impressive, the match for third place was a disaster and it ended in a 4-0 loss to Al-Ahly. By the half-hour mark, Al-Hilal were two goals down and two men down as Pereira and Kanno were dismissed. Also dismissed soon after was head coach Leonardo Jardim. It was a low point but under his replacement Ramon Diaz, the team then went on a winning spree at home and won an unlikely league title.

Al-Hilal were back for the 2022 edition held in 2023, to deliver a truly memorable performance.

In February, it started with a tricky game against African champions Wydad Casablanca, in front of 44,000 fans in Rabat. It was a fighting display. Going a goal behind early in the second half, Al-Hilal looked to be on their way out. Yet, with seconds remaining Kanno scored to take the game into extra time and almost as soon as it started, the midfielder was sent off.

Despite that, the Saudi Arabians took the game to penalties when young midfielder Musab Al-Juwayr scored the decisive penalty.

Then came the usual semi-final against Brazilian royalty but this time the result was anything but usual. Al-Hilal won 3-2 against Flamengo. Al-Dawsari scored twice from the spot in the first half, a brace that sandwiched a Pedro goal. Luciano Vietto then extended the Asian champions’ lead with 20 minutes remaining and they held out for a famous 3-2 win.

That earned a first Saudi Arabian final against Real Madrid when Al-Hilal gave as good as they got, losing 5-3 in a wildly entertaining game against the mighty European champions.

It meant that Al-Hilal returned home with their heads held high –though it came at a cost in terms of fatigue in their later domestic form.

Just three months after Saudi Arabia’s World Cup win over Argentina, it showed once more that the country was a football force. There has been more attention since with all the big-name signings and headlines.

It means that Al-Ittihad, playing on home soil, have much to live up to in terms of Saudi Arabian history in the tournament as well as global expectations.


Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture

Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture
Updated 29 February 2024
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Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture

Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture
  • The Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Ethics and Discipline Committee also ordered the Portuguese star to pay an additional SR20,000 to Al-Shabab, as compensation for the Riyadh club’s complaint filing fees

RIYADH: Al-Nassr striker Cristiano Ronaldo has been suspended for one match and fined SR10,000 ($2,666) after making an offensive gesture following his team’s victory over Al-Shabab in the Saudi Pro League on Sunday.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Ethics and Discipline Committee also ordered the Portuguese star to pay an additional SR20,000 to Al-Shabab, as compensation for the Riyadh club’s complaint filing fees.

Following the game on Sunday, videos posted on social media showed Ronaldo cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, seemingly aimed at rival Al-Shabab supporters.

In the background, chants of “Messi” could be heard, referring to Ronaldo’s longstanding football rival from Argentina.

The committee called in the five-time Ballon d’Or winner to hear his response to the complaint filed by Al-Shabab, and asked the official broadcaster to provide footage of the incident in question.

The committee said in a statement that the decision is non-appealable.

This is not the first time that the Portuguese legend has been at the heart of fan controversy.

Earlier this month, the star was seen putting a scarf down his shorts before throwing it back at Al-Hilal fans after Al-Nassr loss in the Riyadh Season Cup. In the same game, the striker reacted angrily to Al-Hilal fans chanting the name of Lionel Messi.

Last year, the 39-year-old attacker grabbed his crotch after Al-Hilal fans taunted him by again invoking the name of the Argentine World Cup winner.


Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars

Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars
Updated 28 February 2024
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Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars

Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars
  • The Moroccan international was expected to exit the reigning SPL champions but has ended up being their most consistent forward this season

Al-Ittihad’s defense of the Saudi Pro League title has largely been one to forget.

Despite some early season promise that had them top for the first month, the wheels quickly fell off culminating in a disappointing showing in December’s FIFA Club World Cup and speculation that star signing Karim Benzema wanted out.

As recently as round seven they were still top of the table, but just 14 matches later they are now fifth and a whopping 22 points behind league leaders Al-Hilal. Any notion of going back-to-back has long since disappeared.

Their mission now is to simply try to close the gap on third-placed Al-Ahli, their crosstown Jeddah rivals, in the hope of securing what is still an unlikely spot in next season’s reformed AFC Champions League Elite competition.

Whereas last season they had one of the best defenses in the league — and one of the best on record in Saudi Pro League history — this season they have the equal worst of the top six.

Nuno Espirito Santo, meanwhile, who spearheaded that drought-breaking title triumph, has been moved on for hotshot Argentine manager Marcelo Gallardo.

But as bad as it has been, it could have been so much worse were it not for the goals of Moroccan international Abderrazak Hamdallah, who has 15 from 17 games this season.

The veteran striker has made a name for himself in the Kingdom since joining Al-Nassr after an equally fruitful stint in Qatar with El-Jaish and Al-Rayyan.

Scoring a league record 34 goals in his debut season with Al-Nassr, and 29 in his second season, he transferred to Al-Ittihad during the 2021-2022 season and has registered double digits in each of his five SPL seasons before the current campaign, making him one of the SPL’s all-time leading scorers.

It has also won him the hearts of Ittihad’s large and fervently faithful fanbase.

But after Al-Ittihad’s stunning capture of Benzema, regarded as one of the best strikers of the modern era, questions were naturally asked as to what the future held for the 33-year-old Hamdallah.

It seems inconceivable that the title-winning team would move on their leading striker who had just won the league’s golden boot, but that is what almost eventuated.

It is understood that the plan inside the walls of Al-Ittihad was to move the striker on — after all, they had Benzema now — only relenting after growing fan pressure against the move, giving the Moroccan a reprieve.

While running your recruitment based on the wishes of the fans is perhaps not the smartest strategy, it could be argued it was their best management decision of the summer.

Still only 33 and with plenty of years ahead of him, Hamdallah is what every team craves — a natural and reliable goalscorer. And as Al-Ittihad’s title defense has faltered, it is largely the goals from Hamdallah that is keeping their campaign alive.

His brace in their come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Al-Wehda on the weekend was further proof of his importance to Gallardo’s side.

Looking back, it seems incredulous that he could have been moved on. He will know how close he was and you get the sense he is playing with that chip on his shoulder, that every time he steps foot on the pitch, he has a point to prove.

And boy is he proving it.

His form this season also serves as a timely reminder that the SPL did not begin with the influx of headline signings in the most recent off-season.

Before the arrival of Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, Neymar and even before Cristiano Ronaldo, the SPL still attracted elite talent.

While Hamdallah may not possess the profile of those recent arrivals, his quality cannot be questioned. The same can be said for Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr teammate, Anderson Talisca.

After Ronaldo’s arrival in Riyadh there was speculation that the Brazilian would be moved on; deemed surplus to requirements at a club that had to shed a foreign player to make way for Ronaldo.

Talisca remained and this season he and Ronaldo have combined for 35 of Al-Nassr’s 60 goals.

Write these guys off at your peril.

As Al-Ittihad prepare for a season-defining fortnight, which will feature three Saudi Clasico’s against the high-flying Al-Hilal — one in the league and home-and-away ties in the AFC Champions League — they will do so grateful to have the Moroccan leading the line.

Having scored in eight consecutive league matches dating back to November, his form is imperious. His five goals in three games since the league resumed from its winter break make him the league’s most in-form striker.

While their title defense may be over, that does not mean they cannot impact where the silverware goes this season. Not to mention there is still silverware of their own to play for in the form of the AFC Champions League, where he has registered a further four goals.

Staring down this Al-Hilal side is a daunting prospect — their winning streak currently stands at 24 across all competitions (26 if you include friendly wins over Inter Miami and Al-Nassr). Their undefeated streak is now at 34 games.

And as good as his scoring record is, Hamdallah has only scored once against Al-Hilal since joining Al-Ittihad two years ago; that coming in their 4-3 loss earlier this season. It is a wrong he will be determined to right over the next fortnight.

In a season to forget for Al-Ittihad, Hamdallah could still deliver moments to remember and that starts with this week’s trip to Riyadh’s Kingdom Arena.


Al-Hilal too strong for Al-Ettifaq, stretch winning run to 24 matches

Al-Hilal too strong for Al-Ettifaq, stretch winning run to 24 matches
Updated 26 February 2024
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Al-Hilal too strong for Al-Ettifaq, stretch winning run to 24 matches

Al-Hilal too strong for Al-Ettifaq, stretch winning run to 24 matches
  • Victory restored Riyadh club’s seven-point lead above Al-Nassr at top of Roshn Saudi League

RIYADH: Al-Hilal won 2-0 at Al-Ettifaq on Monday to restore their seven-point lead above Al-Nassr at the top of the Roshn Saudi League.

It was also the club’s 24th successive victory in all competitions and showed the eighth-placed home team what was required to challenge at the summit of the table.

Al-Ettifaq had the busiest winter transfer window of any team in the top tier and collected a welcome win last week at Al-Khaleej. Al-Hilal are, however, a very different proposition and while the team from Dammam fought hard, the 18-time champions were just too strong.

Al-Hilal should have taken the lead in the 16th minute, but Kalidou Koulibaly’s low shot on the turn inside the area was well-saved by Paulo Victor. Soon after, Renan Lodi made a marauding run forward, though his fierce shot from outside the area just cleared the bar.

With around eight minutes of the half remaining, however, Al-Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard must have been quietly satisfied. The champions may have made most of the running, but it was goalless, and the hosts had given themselves a platform to build on in the second half.

But then Al-Hilal struck twice before the break. The first goal was from a simple though well-executed corner from the right. It came from the boot of Ruben Neves and while it seemed as if the green shirts massing around the near post would be able to deal with it, in ran Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to send a bullet header into the back of the net for his ninth league goal of the season.

It was only one goal and still possible for the English tactician to get his men back in the dressing room to regroup. But Salem Al-Dawsari had other ideas.

Once again, Al-Ettifaq will be asking questions of themselves defensively, especially Mohammed Abdulrahman. The right-back first gave the ball away and was then beaten too easily by the Asian player of the year who cut in from the left, advanced toward the near post, and slipped the ball past Victor for his 10th league goal of the season.

The half ended on a high of sorts with Gini Wijnaldum testing Yassine Bounou with a shot from outside the area.

Al-Ettifaq tried their utmost after the break but still struggled to create clear chances.

The game was almost settled just after the hour as Milinkovic-Savic whipped in a wicked shot from 20 meters out which beat Victor but came back off the inside of the post and, despite the best efforts of Malcom, eventually out to safety.

With eight minutes remaining, Al-Ettifaq came close to making it a very interesting final stage. Karl Toko-Ekambi advanced toward the Al-Hilal box and, flanked by blue shirts, sent a low shot from the right side that rolled just past the post.

With it went the home team’s chances of getting anything from the game and, in fact, the Blues looked likelier to get a third with Michael coming close in the final seconds.

In the end, Al-Hilal had to settle for 2-0 while Al-Ettifaq, who stay in eighth, and coach Gerrard know that there should be easier tasks ahead.

Right now, it would seem no team can stop Al-Hilal.


Furor erupts over Ronaldo’s apparent obscene taunt in Saudi league match

Furor erupts over Ronaldo’s apparent obscene taunt in Saudi league match
Updated 26 February 2024
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Furor erupts over Ronaldo’s apparent obscene taunt in Saudi league match

Furor erupts over Ronaldo’s apparent obscene taunt in Saudi league match
  • Critcism of the 39-year-old Portuguese has been swift and media reports say that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) has opened an investigation
  • Portuguese star scored a first half penalty, before Brazilian Talisca’s late brace, including a goal four minutes from time, secured the win for Al-Nassr

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo has come under heavy criticism after seemingly making an offensive gesture following Al-Nassr’s 3-2 victory over Al-Shabab in a Saudi Pro League match on Sunday.
The Portuguese star scored a first half penalty, before Brazilian Talisca’s late brace, including a goal four minutes from time, secured the win for Al-Nassr.
After the final whistle, videos posted on social media showed the five-time Ballon d’Or winner cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, seemingly aimed at rival Al-Shabab supporters.
In the background, chants of “Messi” could be heard, referring to Ronaldo’s longstanding football rival from Argentina.
While the incident was not captured by television cameras, critcism of the 39-year-old Portuguese has been swift and media reports say that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) has opened an investigation.
Ronaldo, who completed a lucrative move to the Riyadh-based club in December 2022, has a league-leading 22 goals this season. Al-Nassr trail fellow big-spending rivals Al-Hilal by four points, having played a game more.
Al-Nassr is also in contention for the Asian Champions League — a tournament it has never won — and will play Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates in the quarterfinals next month.


Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab

Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab
Updated 26 February 2024
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Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab

Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab

RIYADH: It was the Ronaldo and Talisca show on Sunday as Al-Nassr moved to within four points of Al-Hilal at the top of the Roshn Saudi League with a hard-fought 3-2 victory over Riyadh rivals Al-Shabab.

Three times Al-Nassr took the lead, once through Cristiano Ronaldo and twice through Anderson Talisca. Twice Al-Shabab — who will feel they did enough to earn at least a point — equalized, but they were unable to do so for a third time.

Al-Nassr started brightly with Al-Shabab goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Absi, in for the injured Kim Seung-gyu, having to push a Marcelo Brozovic shot over the bar in the sixth minute.

Al-Shabab’s new star signing Ivan Rakitic tried his luck from outside the area after 10 minutes, but Waleed Abdullah was equal to the attempt from the former Barcelona star.

Sadio Mane then netted before being adjudged to have been offside when making his run.

Abdullah then had to make a more difficult save, getting down quickly to stop a Yannick Carrasco effort that was creeping in at the near post.

Al-Nassr were then awarded a penalty. A corner resulted in Mane shooting from the edge of the area and it struck the hand of Romain Saiss. Up stepped Ronaldo and he made no mistake. The visiting fans paid tribute to their hero and the chant of “Cristiano Ronaldo” could be heard ringing around for some time.

Al-Shabab equalized with a penalty of their own after Carlos Junior was brought down in the area. Just as Ronaldo did, Carrasco converted and the two teams went in at the break on equal terms.

Al-Nassr were back in front within two minutes of the restart. Otavio found Talisca on the edge of the area and, despite the close attention of defenders, the Brazilian made room for himself to find the bottom corner, though Al-Absi did manage to get a hand on it.

His opposite number Abdullah then had to get down to save an awkward shot from Nader Al-Sharari.

Just after the hour Brozovic should have given the visitors a welcome cushion. Freed by Otavio, the Croatian bore down on goal from a central position but, on the edge of the area, he shot tamely into the arms of Al-Absi with Talisca to his right screaming for the ball.

Al-Shabab then equalized for the second time. The goal had been coming and was deserved as Habib Diallo found space on the right of the area and sent over a perfect pass to the opposite post where Carlos Junior was on hand to score from close range.

Al-Shabab were on top and looked dangerous, but with three minutes remaining, Talisca won it for the visitors. A beautiful through ball from Abdullah Al-Khaibari released the Brazilian who slotted home from just inside the area to maintain Al-Nassr’s title challenge.

There was still time for Shabab’s Abdullah Radif to pick up two yellow cards and receive his marching orders to complete a frustrating afternoon for the hosts.

Earlier in the day, Al-Feiha defeated relegation strugglers Abha 3-2 to move above Al-Shabab into 10th.