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
Al-Ain’s AFC Champions League triumph this season marks the club’s second continental title. (X: @alainfcae_en)
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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.


UEFA says it will improve Frankfurt field after turf cuts up in England-Denmark game at Euro 2024

UEFA says it will improve Frankfurt field after turf cuts up in England-Denmark game at Euro 2024
Updated 21 sec ago
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UEFA says it will improve Frankfurt field after turf cuts up in England-Denmark game at Euro 2024

UEFA says it will improve Frankfurt field after turf cuts up in England-Denmark game at Euro 2024
  • Frankfurt has had steady rainfall this week and the Waldstadion roof was closed for 24 hours before kickoff

FRANKFURT: After an England-Denmark game at the European Championship played on a field that cut up following days of rain, UEFA said Friday it was working on “specific issues” to improve the quality.
Frankfurt has had steady rainfall this week and the Waldstadion roof was closed for 24 hours before kickoff, and during the game Thursday, to protect the field that was used all season by host club Eintracht Frankfurt.
Chunks of turf were kicked up during England’s 1-1 draw with Denmark and several players slipped on the greasy grass in humid conditions on a 23-degree (73 F) day.
“A detailed maintenance plan is in place to address specific issues and further improve quality ahead of the upcoming fixtures at the venue,” UEFA said in a statement.
Germany plays Switzerland in the stadium Sunday in a 9 p.m. local (1900 GMT) kickoff. Frankfurt also hosts Slovakia-Romania on Wednesday and a round of 16 game on July 1 for the Group F winner, that could be Portugal.
UEFA has replacement fields ready to bring in when needed. The playing surface at Switzerland’s training stadium was relaid this week after a formal complaint.
England coach Gareth Southgate said he noticed the Frankfurt field break up when Belgium played there Monday and lost 1-0 to Slovakia.
“I’ve been a defender, when you play on a pitch like that it puts you on edge because you are not sure of your footing,” Southgate said after Thursday’s game.
UEFA said its expert field consultants “have seen the overall pitch rating improve consistently over the course of the previous season.”
Persistent rain in Germany during Euro 2024 has added to issues with fields that were relaid before the competition. In Hamburg, the Poland and Netherlands could not practice on the surface before the opening game at Volksparkstadion on Sunday.
Playing surfaces have been relaid during previous tournaments with turf brought from the Netherlands: During Euro 2016 at Lille, France, and Euro 2008 at Basel, Switzerland.


Argentina begin Copa title defense with 2-0 win over Canada

Argentina begin Copa title defense with 2-0 win over Canada
Updated 21 June 2024
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Argentina begin Copa title defense with 2-0 win over Canada

Argentina begin Copa title defense with 2-0 win over Canada
  • Messi produced another clinical, defense-splitting pass and this time Lautaro made no mistake, slipping past the advancing Crepeau to make it 2-0

ATLANTA: World champions Argentina opened their bid for back-to-back Copa America titles with a 2-0 win over Canada in front of a crowd of 70,564 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday.
Julian Alvarez put Argentina ahead in the 49th minute but a combination of inspired goalkeeping from Canada’s Max Crepeau and Lionel Messi’s surprising lack of precision in front of goal ensured that the underdogs were in the game until Lautaro Martinez settled the contest in the 88th minute.
Backed by a huge support decked out in light blue and white striped shirts, Argentina fully deserved their victory but Canada, ranked 48th in the world, can take plenty of credit for the way they fought with the 15-time Copa America winners.
Alvarez, preferred to Lautaro as Messi’s strike partners in attack, had the first opportunity when he charged down an attempted clearance from Ismael Kone and broke away.
But the Manchester City striker took a heavy touch as he bore down on Canada keeper Max Crepeau, who was able to smother the ball.
Messi, who became the most capped player in Copa America history, making his 35th appearance in what is his seventh tournament, then went close to an opener himself but his angled shot from the left flashed just wide of the far post.
While the Argentines were exploiting gaps in the Canadian defense, Jesse Marsch’s team were nonetheless competing in midfield and creating some half-chances for themselves.
Alphonso Davies and Liam Millar both had shots blocked inside the box and Tajon Buchanan screwed an effort from a tight angle wide in the 30th minute.
The first true save of the game came in the 40th minute, though, when Alexis Mac Allister’s stooping header from an Angel Di Maria cross was well dealt with by Crepeau.
But Argentina needed their goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez, to be at his very best to ensure they went in on level terms at the interval.
Cyle Larin’s cross from the right wing was met with a powerful header from close-range from Stephen Eustaquio but Martinez’s sharp reaction save kept the game goalless.
But it took less than four minutes of the second half for Argentina to break the deadlock — Messi threaded a pass through to Mac Allister, who was brought down by Crepeau, but before the referee could blow his whistle Alvarez had slotted home the loose ball.
Within moments, there was another chance for Alvarez, but this time denied by the diving Crepeau and Canada could live to fight on.
They did so with more urgency and a little more risk after coach Jesse Marsch introduced winger Jacob Shaffelburg and switched to an attacking 4-3-3 formation.
Suddenly the Argentine defense was under pressure and didn’t look at all comfortable as Canada got men forward and exploited the wide areas.
But they were almost caught out with a classic counter-attack as Martinez launched a quick long ball toward Messi, who broke way goalwards but with the crowd expecting to see the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner on target he made a hash of the chance.
His initial effort was parried by Crepeau and although Messi latched on to the loose ball and sought to go round the keeper, his shot was easily cleared by the covering Derek Cornelius.
Incredibly there was another great opportunity for the former Barcelona star to find the target and again he was unable to convert — cutting in from the right with only Crepeau to beat, Messi opened up his body but slid his shot wide of the post.
Crepeau was at his best again to keep out substitute Lautaro as Argentina struggled to put the game to bed but with two minutes of normal time remaining they did just that.
Messi produced another clinical, defense-splitting pass and this time Lautaro made no mistake, slipping past the advancing Crepeau to make it 2-0.


Dominant Spain brush past Italy to reach Euro 2024 knockouts

Dominant Spain brush past Italy to reach Euro 2024 knockouts
Updated 21 June 2024
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Dominant Spain brush past Italy to reach Euro 2024 knockouts

Dominant Spain brush past Italy to reach Euro 2024 knockouts
  • For Italy Thursday’s deserved defeat was a reality check as vibrant Spain peppered the brilliant Gianliugi Donnarumma’s goal throughout the match while the Azzurri failed to have a single attempt on target

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany: Spain qualified for the last 16 of Euro 2024 with a match to spare on Thursday after beating Italy 1-0 in a dominant display which ensured that La Roja would go through as Group B winners.
Riccardo Calafiori’s own goal nine minutes after half-time was the difference between the two sides at Gelsenkirchen in the biggest match to date at the tournament in Germany.
But the slender margin of victory didn’t reflect a statement performance from Spain who completely nullified Italy and should have had the game won by half-time, as they did in their opening round thumping of Croatia.
Nico Williams was the star for Spain as he ran Napoli right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo ragged and supplied the cross from which the unfortunate Calafiori poked the winning goal into his own net.
Luis de la Fuente’s team have a perfect six points at the top of the group and take on Albania on Monday knowing that they are already in the knockout rounds and playing like potential champions.
For Italy Thursday’s deserved defeat was a reality check as vibrant Spain peppered the brilliant Gianliugi Donnarumma’s goal throughout the match while the Azzurri failed to have a single attempt on target.
It was a performance reminiscent of the Euro 2012 final between the two teams when Spain crushed Italy 4-0 in the last international hurrah for tiki-taka football.
However all is not lost for Luciano Spalletti’s team, who are second on three points, as a draw with Croatia on Monday will be enough to guarantee qualification behind Spain.
Spain could have been ahead twice in the first 10 minutes but squandered two great headed chances.
Less than two minutes were on the clock when an unmarked Pedri nodded Williams’ pinpoint cross straight at Donnarumma.
And then Williams, who had a field day against Di Lorenzo, was the guilty party by somehow heading wide Alvaro Morata’s superbly delivered, inswinging ball from the left flank.
Spain were clearly on top as Italy struggled to get out of their half, Gianluca Scamacca toiling on his own up front with little support and wasting possession when it did come his way.
Donnarumma had to be at his best twice within a matter of seconds when he first stuck out a foot to deny Morata and then pulled off a superb fingertip save which kept out Fabian Ruiz’s powerful drive from distance.
Meanwhile at the other end of the pitch Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon was a virtual spectator as Italy’s sole shot in the first half came just before the break when Federico Chiesa blazed a poor effort over from a difficult position.
The same pattern of Spanish possession and Italian defending continued after half-time and Pedri again wasted a great chance in the 51st minute, slamming wide after Marc Cucurella pulled back a perfect low cross.
But Spain got the breakthrough soon after and it came through more sensational play from Williams on the left, who made mincemeat of Di Lorenzo before fizzing across a ball which Calafiori couldn’t help but divert into his own goal.
La Roja went close to doubling their lead with two distance strikes from Morata and teen sensation Lamine Yamal, before the superb Williams smashed an effort past Donnarumma which came crashing out off the crossbar in the 71st minute.
Italy pushed forward in hope of an equalizer after Mattia Zaccagni and Mateo Retegui replaced the ineffective Chiesa and Scamacca.
But in the dying moments Donnarumma again made two superb saves to twice stop Ayoze Perez making the scoreline better reflect a one-sided contest.


Lacklustre England held by Denmark at Euro 2024

Lacklustre England held by Denmark at Euro 2024
Updated 20 June 2024
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Lacklustre England held by Denmark at Euro 2024

Lacklustre England held by Denmark at Euro 2024
  • Harry Kane had given the Three Lions an early lead as England pounced on a Danish defensive error
  • Hjulmand’s rocket from outside the box levelled before half-time and Denmark were left to rue missing late chances to secure a famous victory

FRANKFURT: England failed to guarantee their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2024 after Morten Hjulmand’s spectacular strike earned Denmark a 1-1 draw on Thursday.
A point was the least the Danes deserved as England again flattered to deceive in Frankfurt after an underwhelming 1-0 win over Serbia to open their tournament.
Harry Kane had given the Three Lions an early lead as England pounced on a Danish defensive error.
Hjulmand’s rocket from outside the box levelled before half-time and Denmark were left to rue missing late chances to secure a famous victory.
England remain on top of Group C, two points clear of Slovenia, who they face in Cologne on Tuesday, and Denmark.
Serbia’s late equalizer in a 1-1 draw with Slovenia earlier on Thursday also keeps their destiny in their own hands.
England boss Gareth Southgate said on Wednesday that he avoids media coverage during tournaments to escape negative stories.
But will be braced for more criticism after another flat display from one of the pre-tournament favorites.
Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel claimed on the eve of the game they would not be fueled by revenge for their Euro 2020 semifinal heartbreak to England three years ago.
However, the Danes were a different beast from the side that disappointed at the 2022 World Cup and in drawing against Slovenia to open their tournament in Germany.
Denmark had made the brighter start as both sides struggled to cope with a bobbly pitch in Frankfurt that cut up badly in just its second game of five at Euro 2024.
Yet, England capitalized on a howler from Hjulmand’s men to take the lead on 18 minutes.
Victor Kristiansen was caught unaware of Kyle Walker’s run down the right and his deflected low cross fell perfectly for Kane to roll in his 13th goal at major tournaments.
Failing to build on early 1-0 leads has been a consistent criticism of England under Southgate.
In the 2018 World Cup semifinal and final of Euro 2020, Croatia and Italy were able to wrestle away momentum from the Three Lions.
This time Denmark were not deterred by conceding, although it took a spectacular strike to bring them level.
Hjulmand was given far too much room by the England midfield to take aim but he took full advantage form long range with a blistering shot that clipped the inside of the post on its way in.
Southgate made no changes at the break, but the future of his experiment of playing Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold in a midfield role is in doubt after he was hooked for Conor Gallagher on 55 minutes.
Phil Foden’s form for England had been a source of much debate after he again failed to shine at international level against Serbia.
The Manchester City playmaker looked much more like the man that won Premier League player of the year awards this season and was inches away from restoring England’s lead with a low drive that came crashing back off the post.
Southgate’s caution has been criticized in the past, but he was bold with his changes in the search for a winner as Kane, Foden and Bukayo Saka were sacrificed for Eberechi Eze, Ollie Watkins and Jarrod Bowen.
Watkins nearly made an immediate impact as he was denied by Schmeichel after a brilliant through ball from Jude Bellingham.
Yet, it was Denmark who had the better chances to take all three points in the closing stages.
Andreas Christensen spooned over when unmarked from a corner before Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg curled inches wide.


Ukraine seek to bounce back against Slovakia after surprise opening loss

Ukraine seek to bounce back against Slovakia after surprise opening loss
Updated 20 June 2024
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Ukraine seek to bounce back against Slovakia after surprise opening loss

Ukraine seek to bounce back against Slovakia after surprise opening loss
  • Ukraine had a shock 3-0 loss to Romania that included costly errors from Real Madrid goalkeeper Andriy Lunin
  • Another loss could mean elimination for Ukraine, which were a quarterfinalist in 2021

DUESSELDORF, Germany: Slovakia face Ukraine on Friday in Duesseldorf in their second Group E match at the European Championship.

Slovakia are second to Romania on goal difference, and Ukraine are last. Romania and Belgium play on Saturday.
Ukraine had a shock 3-0 loss to Romania that included costly errors from Real Madrid goalkeeper Andriy Lunin. Another loss could mean elimination for Ukraine, which were a quarterfinalist in 2021.
Ukrainian players apologized to their fans for the Romania loss, and held a team meeting in the locker room after that game without coach Serhiy Rebrov present to work out what went wrong. That was “absolutely normal,” the coach said Thursday.
Slovakia are riding high after surprising Belgium 1-0 but needed two video reviews to overturn Belgium goals. One was deemed offside and a sensor in the ball detected a handball on the second.
The Slovakians know not to get too excited by an opening win. At the last European Championship they beat Poland but then lost to Sweden and Spain and didn’t advance. That meant there was only “a bit of euphoria for a few short hours” when Slovakia beat Belgium this time, coach Francesco Calzona said.
Ukraine coach Rebrov indicated he will make changes to the lineup which lost to Romania and said some unnamed players were carrying “micro-injuries.”
Defender Vitaliy Mykolenko sustained severe bruising in a pre-tournament friendly with Moldova and was an unused substitute against Romania but was expected to train with the team Thursday evening, Rebrov said.
One option for Rebrov could be to replace 34-year-old captain Taras Stepanenko with the 22-year-old Volodymyr Brazhko in defensive midfield. Brazhko debuted for the team only in March as Ukraine qualified for Euro 2024 through the playoffs.
Slovakia coach Calzona says his players are all available but he has yet to decide on his starting lineup.
The average age of Slovakia’s starting lineup in the win over Belgium was over 30 as the team relied on the experience of two 37-year-olds, defender Peter Pekarik and Juraj Kucka, and the 35-year-old goalkeeper Martin Dubravka. Ukraine’s players against Romania were on average four and a half years younger.
The teams have a fairly even record, with three wins for Slovakia, two for Ukraine and three draws. Slovakia won their last game 4-1 in 2018.
A second win would make history for Slovakia, which have never won more than one game in any tournament they’ve played as an independent nation. As part of Czechoslovakia, they did win the 1976 European Championship, though.
“We want to turn the page and concentrate 100 percent on the Slovakia game... (The Romania game) is a very painful result for us but we need to learn the lessons and get ready for tomorrow’s game,” said Ukraine left back Oleksandr Zinchenko.
“I think our greatest quality is humility. We know that we always need to give 110 percent because we’re a small nation and we always want to put a big smile on the faces of our fans and our people,” said Calzona.
Slovak defender David Hancko said: “Ukraine has wonderful, young, talented players. They have a good system, they’re strong on the ball. ... We must play to the best of our abilities to be able to beat them.”