The African Cup of Nations has already seen Ghana out, defending champions Algeria finish bottom of their group and now Nigeria eliminated at a relatively early stage after a shock loss at the hands of a COVID-19-ridden Tunisia on Sunday. That result really showed that the trophy could go anywhere, and as unimpressive as Egypt have been so far, coach Carlos Queiroz’s words after the group stage ended are looking increasingly accurate. “Now the real work begins, and now the real competition will begin,” he said. It was the kind of thing that you would expect such an experienced campaigner to say. After all, Egypt had not impressed in the group stage with a poor, to say the least, performance in a 1-0 loss to Nigeria in the opener. It was followed by two unconvincing victories by the same scoreline against Guinea-Bissau and then Sudan. With criticism at home, it was understandable, then, that Queiroz, who took the job in September, wanted to look forward rather than back. Yet the 68-year-old former Real Madrid manager has taken four teams through successful World Cup qualification campaigns and knows what he is talking about. Nigeria were perhaps the best team in the group stage and were certainly the only one to take maximum points. Drawn against Tunisia then in the second round, the Super Eagles, newly installed as tournament favorites, were expected to win. Not only had they been impressive in the first round, with winger Moses Simon a real standout, but Tunisia had been anything but. The North Africans had limped through to the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams, winning just one game and losing against Mali and Gambia, the latter an embarrassing defeat. All their goals had come in the 4-0 win over Mauritania. The odds were against the Carthage Eagles flying any higher in the tournament. A serious outbreak of COVID-19 in the Tunisia camp lengthened the odds of a win considerably. The federation announced that as many as 12 players out of the 28-man squad had tested positive, including star striker Wahbi Khazri. By the time the Nigeria game rolled around, at least seven players were unavailable. Coach Monhder Kebaier had also tested positive and his duties were taken over by assistant Bilal Kadri. But the Tunisian coaching staff did not use the infections as an excuse at any point. Despite all the problems, or perhaps because of them, Tunisia gave everything, working harder than their opponents, who gave the impression that they expected a comfortable evening. In what was a highly disciplined performance, Tunisia gave Simon no time or space, doubled up on the Nantes star and tried to cut off the supply to the forwards. Nigeria, who had looked the most creative of all the teams in the group stage (though admittedly the bar had been set pretty low by the rest), seemed to have few ideas and only started to come alive after Tunisia took the lead early in the second half thanks to a fierce long-range shot from Youssef Msakni. But a red card given to Alex Iwobi handed the initiative back to Tunisia, and in the end, they recorded a shock but deserved win. The 2004 champions now move into the quarter-finals and a winnable tie against Burkina Faso on Saturday. The extra six days should mean that coach Kebaier can field his strongest team, and hopes are now high. If Egypt can take some inspiration from Tunisia when they meet Ivory Coast on Tuesday, then the Arab world will have more than one team to cheer for when the quarter-finals kick off. With Queiroz a big fan of discipline, organization and shape, he will not have that much to learn defensively, but in terms of mood and confidence, Tunisia put the mediocrity of the group stage behind them and went out to win and, importantly, took their chances. It does not matter now how Egypt performed last week. They have a chance to reset, but they must start to take their chances after scoring only two goals in 270 minutes so far. “Look, I promise you, starting from tomorrow they are going to be doing finishing exercises from the morning until the afternoon,” Queiroz said at the weekend. “They just need to score more goals. To only play good football is not enough — we need to build up more goals and with that be more relaxed in the game.” Tunisia’s win over Nigeria serves as a perfect reminder that not only does the tournament start here, but that it is wide open. Ghana are out, Algeria are out and now Nigeria are out. It really is up for grabs.
Salah staying at Liverpool ‘for sure’ next season
Saudi favorites to reach U-17 and U-20 Asian Cups in 2023 after draw in Kuala Lumpur Defending champions Saudi Arabia have been handed a favorable draw in their qualification group for the U-20 Asian Cup in 2023, and while the U-17 team look to have a more difficult path to their continental championships next year,…
Saudi favorites to reach U-17 and U-20 Asian Cups in 2023 after draw in Kuala Lumpur Defending champions Saudi Arabia have been handed a favorable draw in their qualification group for the U-20 Asian Cup in 2023, and while the U-17 team look to have a more difficult path to their continental championships next year, they will also be confident about their prospects. The draw for qualification for both tournaments took place at AFC House in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday. In order to get a ticket to appear at the U-20 tournament, which will take place in Uzbekistan next year, Saudi Arabia will have to find some of the form that took them to the title back in 2018, when it was an U-19 competition. That was when the young Green Falcons defeated South Korea 2-1 in the final in Indonesia to be crowned continental champions. It is still their title to defend as the global pandemic ensured that the 2020 edition never took place, though Saudi Arabia had already booked a berth by winning their group in qualification back in November 2019. Then they just managed to finish above Uzbekistan and have been grouped with the Central Asians once again in Group A, which will take place in September. This time, however, results against the White Wolves will not matter as they are already assured of a place in the tournament as host nation. That means that Saudi Arabia will just have to finish above China, Myanmar and the Maldives to guarantee a spot, though the five best-performing runners-up in the 10 groups will also go through. It would be a surprise if that did not happen and not least because all the games will be held in the eastern city of Dammam. Playing in front of their own fans in one of the country’s most passionate football cities will be a major advantage. China will be expected to provide the main test but with football going through a terrible time at the moment in the East Asian country, youth tournaments may not be the priority they once were. Chinese Super League clubs are going out of business, the country has given up hosting the 2022 Asian Games and the 2023 Asian Cup, and the future is very uncertain. With the political situation in Myanmar, there has not been too much football played in recent months, and the young White Angels may be struggling for match fitness. Even when the Southeast Asians are at their best, a trip to Saudi Arabia is tough. And last but not least are the Maldives. The South Asians can be difficult opponents but should be no match for the defending champions, especially on their home patch. The U-17 tournament, which has been rebranded from the past U-16 championships, will be held much closer to home, in neighboring Bahrain. Once again, the group, this time Group D, will be held in Dammam, and while it looks a little more challenging for the two-time champions, Saudi Arabia will again be strong favorites to progress with the format the same: the 10 group winners go through along with the five best runners-up to join the hosts Bahrain. The 2020 tournament did not go ahead thanks to the pandemic, but Saudi Arabia had booked their berth before it was called off by finishing above Oman, Pakistan and Syria in September 2019. The cancelation was a bitter pill to swallow for the boys from Riyadh, Jeddah and elsewhere as they had failed to qualify for the 2018 edition, losing out to Jordan. This group does not look quite so difficult as that. Interestingly, Myanmar and the Maldives are also opponents, and the same points apply to this age category as to the slightly older one. Neither will be expected to finish in the top two spots. India have ambitions in this regard and will relish the chance to test themselves against one of the continent’s big boys but maybe do not quite have the strength in depth to challenge in West Asia. Kuwait may be tricky. After suffering at the hands of Jordan in September 2017, the hosts will be wary of the Blues in October 2022. But given the opposition, home advantage and where Saudi Arabian football is currently at, both the U-17 and U-20 teams are strongly expected to make it to both Uzbekistan and Bahrain in 2023 and once there, will be expected to challenge for the big prize.
Champions League final ball to be auctioned for UN refugee body
Al-Hilal won the Classico against Al-Ittihad 3-1 on Monday night, coming back from a goal down in Jeddah. Romarinho opened the scoring for the hosts with a first-half penalty with Michael equalizing for the visitors just before the break. The Brazilian scored his second later in the game after Salem Al-Dawsari had put Al-Hilal ahead.…
Al-Hilal won the Classico against Al-Ittihad 3-1 on Monday night, coming back from a goal down in Jeddah. Romarinho opened the scoring for the hosts with a first-half penalty with Michael equalizing for the visitors just before the break. The Brazilian scored his second later in the game after Salem Al-Dawsari had put Al-Hilal ahead. The result means that Al-Ittihad are now just three points ahead of Al-Hilal with just three games to go. Here are five things we learned. 1. Forget Liverpool, Al-Hilal are the real mentality monsters Jurgen Klopp has used the phrase more than once to describe his almost all-conquering Liverpool team, but Al-Hilal deserve similar praise. They are a team that have been playing big game after big game for the last few weeks. The last one was painful, a defeat in the King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha last Thursday. Even worse, it came after two hours of football and a penalty shootout. Yet somehow Al-Hilal seemed full of energy. This was a game that they had to win; if they didn’t, then their title was going to Jeddah, but they seemed to relish the pressure. The Blues have a knack for pulling out a result in a big game. Before Monday, the Tigers had lost just one league game since October — a period of seven months — and that loss was also against Al-Hilal in March. This is what champions do, produce something special when they have to. There could have been many excuses for Al-Hilal had they failed to win, but they were not needed as the holders showed they are not giving up without a fight. 2. Al-Ittihad not clinical enough The major difference between the two teams was that Al-Hilal had seven attempts on goal and scored three while the hosts had 13 but managed to find the back of the net on just one occasion. The likes of Romarinho, Abderrazak Hamdallah and Igor Coronado have all had great seasons in the yellow and black but could not make a difference in attack this time. Perhaps the banned winger Fahad Al-Muwallad could have made a difference as the chances came and went. One that sticks in the mind came early in the second half when Hamdallah took the ball past goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf outside the area. His goal-bound shot was cleared in impressive fashion by Al-Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulaihi. Perhaps the Moroccan could have taken the ball a little further, and he will look back and think that he should have scored. Other chances came and went, but not long after Hamdallah missed that opportunity, Al-Hilal took the lead and were soon 3-1 ahead. It was a major turning point in the game and perhaps the title race. 3. Al-Ittihad now have to fight for the title There are two major positives for Al-Ittihad to take from this game. The first is that they are still three points clear at the top of the table with three games remaining, and that is a position they would have loved if it had been offered at the start of the season. Then there is the fact that they don’t have to play Al-Hilal again this season. The Tigers’ remaining opponents are all in the bottom half of the table, and there is no reason why they can’t get the required seven points to get their hands on that trophy. But it remains to be seen how the team bounce back from this defeat. A first title in 13 years was within their reach. Now, it is likely to go down to the wire, and that is when the pressure can produce strange outcomes. The Jeddah giants have yet to really be placed under any serious pressure since moving into pole position, and now they can feel Al-Hilal just behind them. Now Al-Ittihad are going to have to fight for the title. 4. Al-Dawsari and Michael rise above Salman Al-Faraj and Abdullah Otayf offered a cool presence in the middle for Al-Hilal but as often happens, the headlines go to the people who scored. Michael had his best game since making his debut in February. The Brazilian forward from Flamengo was a lively presence in attack with his running and pace causing all kinds of problems for the Al-Ittihad defense, not allowing them to get a moment’s rest. His two goals were both extremely well-taken. The first was a volley from the edge of the area, and the second was a low shot from a similar distance in the second half. And there was Al-Dawsari. His goal that gave Al-Hilal the lead was a thing of beauty. It could almost be described as a running semi-bicycle kick from the edge of the area. The celebration upset the home fans, but they could not deny that they had seen a moment of real quality. 5. The result is great for the neutral If Al-Ittihad had won, the title race would have been over a month early. Attention would have had to switch to the fierce relegation battle. Now, however, there is the promise of more drama to come, and the talk from both sides after Monday’s game has been about three cup finals left in the season. Fans around the world watched the final day of the English Premier League action with Manchester City and Liverpool providing plenty of action and excitement. On June 23, there could be something similar in the Saudi Professional League. The focus now switches to next weekend when Al-Hilal take on Abha and Al-Ittihad travel to Al-Tai. Both sets of fans will be keeping an eye on what happens in the other game, and the country will also be watching. Whatever happens, Saudi Arabia now has a genuine title race after for so long it looked as if the trophy was going to Jeddah. It probably still will be now there is doubt, and where there is doubt there is excitement and drama.
Pure Hollywood ending to Premier League race as Manchester City are pushed to the limits by Liverpool
When Manchester City won the Premier League title a decade ago in iconic fashion through Sergio Aguero’s injury-time winning goal against Queens Park Rangers, the saying “We’re Man City, we’ll fight ’til the end” was born — and subsequently became the club’s mantra. Never was it more evident again than on Sunday as the Etihad…
When Manchester City won the Premier League title a decade ago in iconic fashion through Sergio Aguero’s injury-time winning goal against Queens Park Rangers, the saying “We’re Man City, we’ll fight ’til the end” was born — and subsequently became the club’s mantra. Never was it more evident again than on Sunday as the Etihad Stadium witnessed yet another emotional, unbelievable, unscripted finale that was pure Hollywood with all the sub-plots and twists. While not quite as definitive and dramatic as Aguero’s magical moment that sealed a 3-2 comeback victory on a similarly unforgettable final day of the 2011-12 campaign, the crucial contributions of Ilkay Gundogan to this season’s triumph will be enshrined too in footballing folklore. Needing victory to confirm a fourth league title in five seasons, Pep Guardiola’s City overturned a 2-0 deficit to an Aston Villa side managed by Liverpool hero Steven Gerrard with three goals in the last 14 minutes — and in the space of just five minutes and 36 seconds. With Liverpool beating Wolves 3-1, Gundogan’s close-range finish in the 81st minute proved decisive to deny Jurgen Klopp’s Reds by a point. It was his second goal after heading in the first, while Rodri leveled with a precise low drive. “It’s definitely got to be up there with Sergio’s moment,” said Phil Foden. “It just shows the incredible character of us as a team, how much we want it and how much we fight for each other — and for everything involved at this club. “The team that Pep has built, we always keep believing until the end. Not many teams could do that.” Foden is right and, arguably, only Liverpool and Real Madrid come close currently. With such belief, City can exude brilliance even when behind or below par. With spirit allied to style, they have the attributes for success. Guardiola used words such as “legends” and “special” to describe his side — and there should be no doubt or debate about that. City are serial winners, dominating the Premier League in the manner of Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. Relentless and ruthless, racking up 93 points and 99 goals this season, their greatness needs to be recognized and respected, especially in how they once more staved off Liverpool’s ferocious challenge under pressure to claim a sixth title since 2012. City’s Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez, whose fourth title put him level with Didier Drogba for the most by an African player, said: “Liverpool are a superb team. I know they hate us. They’re sick of us because if we weren’t here, they would’ve won everything every year. “But we’re here and we’re never letting go — and we’ll be here next year too.” “Never in my life have I found a team like Liverpool,” added Guardiola, who shed tears after his 10th career domestic title triumph with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City. “They make us a better team, make us think more, work harder and handle the quality they have.” Midfielder Gundogan, whose memorable week also saw him get married, played under Klopp at Borussia Dortmund. And he said: “If Liverpool didn’t play the incredible football they’ve been playing, I don’t think this league would have been that attractive. We pushed each other to the limits. We need to appreciate what they have done.” In congratulating the Abu Dhabi-owned team, owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan described them as “distinguished,” and Guardiola said, “We will defend our crown again and again.” It is that mindset, ambition and willingness to further improve that makes City an exceptional team in the current era. While some critics may never accept this due to their spending or be appeased until they win a Champions League, their domestic achievements — 14 major trophies since Sheikh Mansour bought them in 2008 — should not be belittled by the struggles in Europe. The same applies to Liverpool and their extraordinary efforts in this campaign, despite failing to secure a 20th top-flight title. Klopp said they played an “insane season,” and it seems difficult to envisage a team getting this close to a historic quadruple of trophies again. Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal and Saudi Arabia-backed Newcastle will no doubt have a greater say in the future. There may be disappointment for Liverpool in finishing second after their FA Cup and League Cup successes, but no shame after a titanic battle for top spot. When they lost the title to City by a single point three years ago on the final day, they went on to lift a sixth European Cup by beating Tottenham. “Of course, losing the league increased the desire to put it right next week,” said Klopp, whose side face Real Madrid in the Champions League final on Saturday. If history is repeated — and a treble completed — in Paris, it would be equally deserved. It would also again highlight how Liverpool and City have raised the bar in European club football over the past five years through their rivalry and desire for honors. Others should strive to match that quality, not condemn it. “What I learned about life is if you stay on track, if you keep going, you get the reward,” added Klopp. “The only thing you can do in this league is you have to constantly develop. We have to carry on and will be an even more difficult team to play against. Playing in a league with Man City that’s crazy, difficult, but that will not stop us trying next season again.” The contest promises to be just as enthralling and intriguing, especially with Guardiola — like Liverpool forwards Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane — not yet committed to extending his contract beyond next season. And there is also the arrival of goalscoring phenomenon Erling Haaland to the Etihad and the Premier League. Excited already?