Hamdallah outshines Benzema as Al-Ittihad win

Hamdallah outshines Benzema as Al-Ittihad win
The win keeps the Tigers in fifth, a point behind Al-Taawoun in fourth and six behind local rivals Al-Ahli in third. (X:@ittihad)
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Updated 19 February 2024
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Hamdallah outshines Benzema as Al-Ittihad win

Hamdallah outshines Benzema as Al-Ittihad win

Superstar Karim Benzema may have returned to action for Al-Ittihad on Sunday, but it was Abderrazak Hamdallah who grabbed the goals and the headlines in a 2-0 win over Al-Riyadh in Jeddah.

The Moroccan marksman, who ended up as the top scorer in the Roshn Saudi League last season, struck in each half to give the defending champions a second successive win that was much-needed after three league defeats in a row. 

The win keeps the Tigers in fifth, a point behind Al-Taawoun in fourth and six behind local rivals Al-Ahli in third.

It was a top-class showcase of striking ability from Hamdallah. He opened the scoring in fine fashion after just 12 minutes, after being found in the corner of the area by Madallah Al-Olayan. 

There was still much to do for the 33-year-old, who then curled home a beauty that struck the inside of the far post and ended up in the back of the net. It was the kind of goal scored by a striker full of confidence.

Benzema came close midway through the first half with a fierce shot from just inside the area that was pushed away by Riyadh’s Uruguayan goalkeeper Martin Campana.

Hamdallah came even closer just after the half hour, volleying over from close range following a perfectly lifted pass into the box from Fabinho. 

Al-Riyadh, who stay in 15th after the loss and just a point above the relegation zone, offered little threat in the first half and almost fell further behind before the break as Benzema’s free kick looked to be creeping in at the bottom corner before Campana clawed it away.

In the second-half, Al-Ittihad continued to have the better chances, but slowly the visitors from the capital started to look more threatening and came close to an equalizer with 12 minutes remaining from a free kick that was headed just over the bar. 

Al-Riyadh almost snatched a point in the 90th minute as Knowledge Musona headed Mohammed Al-Aqel’s cross just wide.

Hamdallah settled the game as a contest in the 97th minute with a fine goal. With Campana in the Al-Ittihad half from a corner, the striker lobbed the ball into an empty net from the halfway line and that was that.

Al-Ittihad are next in action on Thursday against Navbahor in the Asian Champions League. After a 0-0 draw last week in Uzbekistan in the round of 16 clash, any victory will send the Tigers into the quarterfinals.


Ronaldo sets Saudi Pro League season scoring record while Al-Hilal finishes unbeaten

Ronaldo sets Saudi Pro League season scoring record while Al-Hilal finishes unbeaten
Updated 28 May 2024
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Ronaldo sets Saudi Pro League season scoring record while Al-Hilal finishes unbeaten

Ronaldo sets Saudi Pro League season scoring record while Al-Hilal finishes unbeaten

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia: Cristiano Ronaldo finished the Saudi Pro League by setting the season goal-scoring record on Monday.
Ronaldo scored twice in Riyadh as Al-Nassr defeated Al-Ittihad 4-2 and lifted his league tally to 35, one more than the record in 2019 by Abderrazak Hamdallah.
In the final seconds of the first half, Ronaldo, who had already had two goals ruled out for offside, chested down a long pass from Mohammed Al-Fatil and opened the scoring with a low shot from the left side of the area.
With 21 minutes remaining, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner celebrated wildly after heading home a corner from Marcelo Brozovic. He was substituted off the field five minutes later to a standing ovation from the home fans.
It ended an action-packed season for Ronaldo, who scored four hat tricks and collected one red card. He was also suspended for an obscene gesture in February at Al-Shabab fans who had been chanting the name of Lionel Messi, Ronaldo’s longstanding soccer rival.
Al-Nassr finished second in the league, 14 points behind local rival Al-Hilal, which won the championship more than two weeks ago and completed the 34-round league unbeaten on Monday.
Al-Hilal was too strong even without Neymar, who joined the club in August from Paris Saint-Germain but suffered a season-ending ACL injury in October.
Aleksandar Mitrovic stepped in and ended the season with a goal in the final seconds to clinch a 2-1 win over Al-Wehda. The Serbian striker, signed from London club Fulham last summer, reached 27 league goals, second only to Ronaldo.
On its way to the title, Al-Hilal went on a 34-game winning streak in all competitions, a new world record for a top tier team.
“This season has been truly exceptional for the team, arguably our best ever,” coach Jorge Jesus said. “The credit goes to the immense talent within the squad and the incredible sense of unity that transcends both on and off-field interactions.”
Al-Ittihad’s defeat at Al-Nassr ended a disappointing season for the defending champion. Karim Benzema, signed from Real Madrid, struggled with injuries and even with N’Golo Kante and Fabinho in midfield, signed from Chelsea and Liverpool respectively, the team from Jeddah could manage only fifth place.
Poor results cost Nuno Santo his job as coach in November, and the Portuguese tactician returned to the English Premier League a month later to take over Nottingham Forest.
Al-Ahli, the fourth of the ‘Big Four’ clubs taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund last June, finished third, 17 points behind Al-Nassr. Al-Ahli beat Al-Fayha 1-0 thanks to a late goal — his ninth of the season — from former Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino.
Ronaldo took the headlines, however, and the 39-year-old still had one more chance to end the season with a trophy when Al-Nassr meets Al-Hilal in the King’s Cup final on Friday.


Ancelotti has ‘really difficult’ decision to make in goal for Madrid ahead of Champions League final

Ancelotti has ‘really difficult’ decision to make in goal for Madrid ahead of Champions League final
Updated 27 May 2024
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Ancelotti has ‘really difficult’ decision to make in goal for Madrid ahead of Champions League final

Ancelotti has ‘really difficult’ decision to make in goal for Madrid ahead of Champions League final
  • Lunin was nursing a fever and was the only Madrid player who didn’t train on Monday as Madrid began its final week of preparations

MADRID: Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti knows he will have a tough decision to make in goal for the Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday.
Will he pick Andriy Lunin, who has played in goal nearly the entire season, or Thibaut Courtois, the veteran who has won the Champions League before but has just returned from injury?
“It’s really difficult,” Ancelotti said Monday. “Of course it’s really difficult, because both of them deserve to play this final. Lunin because he did a fantastic season, and Courtois because he is back from his injury and everyone knows the quality of Courtois. It’s a difficult decision but I think I’m going to take into the game this decision, no doubt.”
Lunin was nursing a fever and was the only Madrid player who didn’t train on Monday as Madrid began its final week of preparations. But Ancelotti said the 25-year-old Ukrainian was expected to be available for Saturday’s final in London.
The illness surely doesn’t help Lunin’s chances, though, and many had already expected Ancelotti to go with the more experienced Courtois despite his lack of minutes this season.
Courtois ruptured a left-knee ligament in August, just two days before the start of the season. The 32-year-old Belgian then also ruptured the meniscus in his right knee in March, when he was close to making a comeback.
He was sidelined until the beginning of this month, when he started in a 3-0 win over Cadiz, a victory that secured Madrid’s 36th Spanish league title.
Lunin was back in goal as Madrid beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals. He had saved two penalties in the decisive shootout win over Manchester City in the quarterfinals.
Lunin had earned the starting position over Kepa Arrizabalaga, the former Chelsea player who is Madrid’s other reserve goalkeeper. Ancelotti said Lunin was the best goalkeeper in the world right now.
Courtois has proven experience in finals, though, having won the 2022 Champions League with Madrid, the FA Cup with Chelsea, the Europa League with Atletico Madrid, and two Copa del Rey titles (one for Madrid, one for Atletico), among several other titles.
“Both deserve to play for various reasons,” Ancelotti said.
Ancelotti joked that he will wait as long as possible to announce the starting goalkeeper because otherwise the debate would be over, and “I like the debate.”


Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League

Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League
Updated 26 May 2024
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Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League

Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League
  • A victorious end to this AFC Champions League-era was earned by the UAE’s Al-Ain after a 5-1 win over Yokohama Marinos at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium

DUBAI: Al-Ain are kings of Asia after a remarkable AFC Champions League campaign culminated in a 5-1 win over Yokohama Marinos in the second leg of the final on Saturday night.

Morocco phenomenon Soufiane Rahimi helped gain a richly deserved second continental crown for Hernan Crespo’s troops, sparking wild celebrations at a jubilant Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in the Garden City.

The Boss’ 6-3 aggregate finals triumph over Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos was enriched by consecutive knockout-stage eliminations of red-hot Saudi Arabian favorites Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr and came with added poignancy as they go down in history as the first and last victors throughout 21 editions of this format ahead of next season’s sweeping changes for AFC Champions League Elite/AFC Champions League Two/AFC Challenge League.

Here, Arab News takes a look at the talking points for the Middle East’s competitors after this unforgettable — and unrepeatable — 2023-24 campaign:

Crespo and Rahimi make difference for unstoppable Al-Ain

Al-Ain’s curious campaign gained a fittingly glorious conclusion.

The Boss looked well off the pace domestically to a rampant Al-Wasl yet were the undisputed class of the continental field. That is, in part, attributable to the searing drive of Rahimi and Crespo’s charisma.

They swept through the group stage under the unpopular Alfred Schreuder, before their celebrated Argentine supremo orchestrated a tight victory versus Uzbekistan’s Nasaf and then two modern classics against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal.

A Marinos similarly prone to drama awaited in the decider. Al-Ain would only trail for 14 regulation minutes across the two legs, with a 2-1 away defeat being followed by a dominant 5-1 home victory.

There would be no repeat of the showpiece suffering caused by Douglas’ missed penalty in 2016 or Al-Ittihad’s inexorable 2005 second-leg display.

Crespo learned from the 2022 semifinal embarrassment inflicted upon him by Al-Hilal when in charge of Qatar’s Al-Duhail. His reintroduction of compatriot Matias Palacios — mystifyingly shunned by Schreuder — was influential.

Other heroes included Yahia Nader, Kaku, the ceaseless Mohammed Abbas and skipper Bandar Al-Ahbabi.

But the final words must go to Rahimi. The top scorer’s 13 goals were five more than anyone else, including three goals in two legs versus Al-Nassr and a first-leg hat-trick against Al-Hilal.

In the final’s second stanza, he leveled the tie on eight minutes, won the penalty for Kaku, which put them back ahead, and a supremely intelligent arching run kept him onside before being felled by goalkeeper William Popp for the red card. There was even time to link back up with gregarious Togo hit man Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba, who raised the roof via a late brace despite being continually ignored by Crespo.

In a sign of what awaits, however, links to a Saudi Arabian summer move will not abate.

Saudi Arabia’s time should come again

Shock and disappointment are the prevailing emotions for Saudi Arabia’s heavyweights as they look back on a 2023-24 campaign derailed by neighbors Al-Ain.

A quarterfinal double-header for the ages witnessed Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr eliminated on penalties, with a Rahimi-inspired Al-Ain then inflicting more pain on Al-Hilal in the subsequent round. Such early exits were far from the commentariat’s minds when Roshn Saudi League’s revolutionary summer 2023 spending spree was conducted.

There are multiple reasonable to believe, however, that a seventh AFC Champions League trophy will be won by a club from the Kingdom in a year’s time.

The AFC’s decision to scrap their own foreign quota from 2024-25 should exponentially benefit Saudi clubs.

This season’s limit to six foreign players — of whom one must be Asian-qualified — was two more than Saudi clubs are permitted domestically, or three if they did not possess an Asian foreigner. Hence Nassr’s panicked January acquisition of little-used Australia left-back Aziz Behich.

In comparison, only five open-age foreigners were allowed in this season’s ADNOC Pro League of the UAE and Qatar’s Expo Stars League.

The rule unduly disrupted the chemistry within Saudi squads, leading to consequential selection calls such as esteemed Senegal center-back Kalidou Koulibaly sitting out Al-Hilal’s last-four decider with Al-Ain.

There is also an undeniable home-soil advantage baked into the 2024-25 and 2025-26 Elite editions with the quarterfinals, semifinals and final being played in one-leg ties within the Kingdom.

Roshn Saudi League clubs can also look forward to another ambitious summer recruitment spree to further bolster already fearsome rosters. Jeddah giants Al-Ahli’s return to Asia’s premier club competition for the first time since 2021 will see the likes of Franck Kessie and Riyad Mahrez compete for glory.

In time, 2023-24 may just be looked upon as an unwelcome blip for Saudi Arabia’s strongest.

More middling Qatar performances

Another AFC Champions League passed by with no telling impact from Qatari clubs, despite an abundance of star quality and the national team’s second successive Asian Cup success this winter.

It is now 13 years and counting since Al-Sadd defeated South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the final. This is also the nation’s last showpiece appearance.

This season, Al-Arabi and Al-Wakrah exited in the play-offs to unfancied Uzbekistani opposition. It got little better in the competition proper, with Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail failing to make the knockouts.

It feels like a window of opportunity in the AFC Champions League has permanently closed for Qatar, without reward.

Focus on COVID-19 and the World Cup 2022 has shifted to Saudi Arabia’s AFC Champions League Elite “Final Stage” hosting rights for 2024-26, plus lengthy run-ups to the 2027 Asian Cup and World Cup 2034.

Shifting balance?

Change to the direction of travel from east to west within Asian football was notable, throughout 2023-24.

The question, now, is whether this is permanent.

Western supremacy seemed pre-determined in 2023/24, from the imposing strength of Saudi Arabia’s clubs to Al-Ain appearing as the only opponent with a realistic retort. It had, resolutely, not been this way for much of the recent past.

Al-Hilal (2019, 2021) and Al-Sadd (2011) were the only western-zone teams to prevail from 2006 to 2022.

With the financial might of the Chinese Super League continuing to emphatically wane and K League 1 and J1 League outfits remaining exporters of outstanding talent rather than importers, AFC Champions League Elite may have a drastically different roll of honor.


Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League

Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League
Updated 26 May 2024
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Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League

Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League
  • The defending champions had never beaten the French giants, losing in the 2019 and 2022 finals against them, but finally succeeded in Bilbao
  • Securing their third Champions League trophy from five final appearances, Barcelona demonstrated that they are the new powerhouse of the women’s game

BILBAO, Spain: Aitana Bonmati and Alexia Putellas struck to earn Barcelona their third women’s Champions League trophy, securing a 2-0 triumph over record eight-time winners Lyon on Saturday.

The defending champions had never beaten the French giants, losing in the 2019 and 2022 finals against them, but finally succeeded in Bilbao to compete a spectacular quadruple this season in coach Jonatan Giraldez’s last match in charge.

Bonmati pounced after 63 minutes and substitute Putellas finished the job in stoppage time to avenge Barcelona’s prior defeats by Sonia Bompastor’s side.

Securing their third Champions League trophy from five final appearances across the last six seasons, Barcelona demonstrated that they are the new powerhouse of the women’s game.

“(It’s) a dream day, it is difficult to explain with words the feeling I have now. It is a special moment,” said Giraldez.

“It is one of happiest days of my life.”

Barca’s stars had insisted that this time they were capable of beating Lyon, adding experience and mental strength to their undoubted talent, and so it proved at a packed San Mames.

Backed by the vast majority of a 51,000 record crowd at a women’s Champions League final, Bonmati and her side completed one of the few challenges remaining to them.

“It’s the first time we’ve beaten Lyon. I’m proud of the team, and we know that with these fans we have, we can’t fail,” Bonmati told DAZN.

“It’s incredible what we’re living through as a team, I’m so lucky... to see we’re creating that for so many people, the historic amount of fans we’ve brought, it’s the proudest I’ve felt, I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Giraldez started Mariona Caldentey in attack and moved Fridolina Rolfo to left-back, dropping Ona Batlle to the bench alongside two-time Ballon d’Or winner Putellas.

Lyon left Ada Hegerberg started on the bench too, with the all-time top scorer in the competition’s history struggling for form after injury.

Lucy Bronze deflected a ball onto her own crossbar and Lyon’s towering captain Wendie Renard hit the outside of the post as Barcelona suffered a couple of early jitters.

After going four goals down by half-time in the 2019 final and three down in 2022, this time the Catalans dug deep to hold it together at the back.

Barca threatened increasingly at the other end. Patri Guijarro, who scored twice in last year’s final against Wolfsburg, broke in for their first big chance after half an hour.

Christiane Endler saved and Selma Bacha cleared the ball off the line after it rebounded back toward goal.

Barca’s Caroline Graham Hansen, in sparkling form this season, gave left-back Bacha a torrid time and had 11-time finalist Renard backpedalling fearfully near the end of the first half, but dragged her shot wide.

Barcelona made their quality count after the hour mark when Bonmati sent them ahead.

The Ballon d’Or winner had been quiet but arrived to collect Caldentey’s clever pass and burst into the area.

Bonmati’s low shot deflected off Vanessa Gilles and flew over the helpless Endler, for her sixth goal of the tournament.

Champions League top goalscorer Kadidiatou Diani curled agonizingly over for Lyon as Bompastor’s side tried to fight back. Hegerberg headed off target as Lyon’s chances ebbed away.

“We have to recognize Barcelona had a great match and deserved to win even though it’s hard to accept it,” said Bompastor, tipped to join Chelsea next season, although she stayed tight-lipped on her future.

“We lacked attacking efficiency, we should have scored a goal.”

Eventually Putellas, on as a late substitute, put on the captain’s armband and settled the game by rifling into the top corner to get Barcelona’s celebrations started early.

“Obviously it’s a dream come true, what we have achieved,” said Putellas after her goal locked in Barcelona’s quadruple.

Bronze who won the competition for the fifth time — including three times with Lyon — praised Putellas.

“She’s the captain of the team, she’s the ‘queen’ of Barcelona for a reason,” said Bronze.

“She’s got the quality to do that in the last minute of the Champions League final when we were up against it at the end and just sealed the win for us.”
 


Bayer Leverkusen win the German Cup and complete undefeated domestic double

Bayer Leverkusen win the German Cup and complete undefeated domestic double
Updated 26 May 2024
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Bayer Leverkusen win the German Cup and complete undefeated domestic double

Bayer Leverkusen win the German Cup and complete undefeated domestic double
  • Leverkusen won the Bundesliga unbeaten, a historic feat
  • The only blip on the record of Xabi Alonso’s team this season was losing the Europa League final to Atalanta 3-0 on Wednesday in Dublin

BERLIN: Granit Xhaka’s early strike was enough for Bayer Leverkusen to win the German Cup final 1-0 over Kaiserslautern for an unbeaten domestic double on Saturday.

Xhaka fired the ball in under the crossbar from distance in the 16th minute. It proved to be enough against second-division Kaiserslautern despite losing defender Odilon Kossounou to a second yellow card just before the break.

Leverkusen won the Bundesliga unbeaten, a historic feat. The only blip on the record of Xabi Alonso’s team this season was losing the Europa League final to Atalanta 3-0 on Wednesday in Dublin. That ended Leverkusen’s record 51-game unbeaten run across all competitions. It was their only loss in 53 games this season.

“The whole journey, the whole season was wonderful,” the Spanish coach said after doubling Leverkusen’s trophy haul in just one season. “What we did this season is unbelievable.”

Alonso and his players ran to their fans after the whistle on Saturday in Berlin’s Olympiastadion. They had supported the team loudly throughout, though were drowned at times by the even more vociferous Kaiserslautern supporters.

They displayed a spectacular tifo of a red devil grasping the trophy in front of a hellish background of fire and brimstone before the game. Flares sending red smoke into the sky embellished the effect – and gave an inkling of what was to come.

The stadium announcer’s repeated requests to stop the pyrotechnics were met with continued indifference. The second half began to a huge fireworks display from the Leverkusen fans.

Despite the smoke above, there was little fire on the field after a long hard season. Kossounou was booked for stopping Kenny Prince Redondo’s break in the third minute, then issued another yellow for a foul on Boris Tomiak in the 44th.

It didn’t stop the Leverkusen machine from grinding out the win. Jeremie Frimpong should have made it 2-0 in the 75th after going past the goalkeeper.

It’s Leverkusen’s second German Cup title after beating Hertha Berlin’s reserve team in the 1993 final. Leverkusen’s other trophy is the 1988 UEFA Cup.