Saudi Professional League’s long-awaited return leaves Al-Ittihad in relegation trouble

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Action on opening day of the resumed Saudi Professional League (SPL) football season on August 4, 2020. (Photos by Basheer Alzain Saleh)
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Scenes on the opening day of the resumed Saudi Professional League (SPL) football season on August 4, 2020. (Photos by Basheer Alzain Saleh)
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Updated 04 August 2020

Saudi Professional League’s long-awaited return leaves Al-Ittihad in relegation trouble

  • All sporting activities in Saudi Arabia were indefinitely suspended on March 14 after the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic globally

DUBAI: After an absence of almost five months, Saudi Professional League (SPL) football returned with a priceless win for Al-Fateh over Al-Fayha, an alarming loss for giants Al-Ittihad at Abha and comfortable run-out for Al-Raed against Damac all having a significant impact on the relegation battle.

All sporting activities in the Saudi Arabia were indefinitely suspended on March 14 after the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic globally, but on June 12 the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) announced the SPL will resume on August 4 with the season set to be completed by September 9.

Sixteen minutes into the match that kicked off the league’s 23rd match day, Al-Fateh’s Moroccan midfielder Marwane Saadane converted a penalty for a lead the home team would hold until the break, despite the efforts of the Al-Fayha’s 34-year-old Chilean Carlos Villanueva in particular.

Three minutes into the second half, Al-Fayha thought they had equalized, but Admilson de Barros’s fine finish was overturned after VAR deemed an offside had taken place in the buildup.

There would be more disappointment for the team in 11th place. On the hour, a firm header from Abdulkareem Al-Qahtani looked to have squared the match, but after consulting VAR the referee once again chalked off the goal, the ball having struck the Al-Fayha player’s arm before crossing the line.

Al-Fateh’s Algerian midfielder Sofiane Bendebka settled the match on 75 minutes with a left-foot strike from Mohammed Fuhaid’s low cross. The goal moved Al-Fateh onto 22 points and renewed hope of beating the drop.

“Today the team was very focused,” match winner Bendebka said. “We needed to win as it was the first match after the break. It was difficult, but the three points will allow to compete in the coming weeks.”

“The remaining matches will be like a marathon, “ he added. “ We have eight matches in 35 days. With five allowed, that helps as well.”

Al-Fayha’s Portuguese coach Jorge Simão couldn’t hide his irritation at losing in such a manner.

“First, it’s good to be back, second I am very proud of my players,” Today the better team didn’t win, we did everything that we could to win this match. We fought, we created chances to score,

“Of course I don’t want to talk about the referee,” he added when asked about the two disallowed goals. “This is football, we start with a loss, but we have seven matches till the end, we will fight till the end.”

At Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Stadium, troubled visitors Al Ittihad took a 20th-minute lead against Abha Club through Brazilian star Romarinho, but were pegged back six minutes into the second half thanks to Mehdi Tahrat’s equaliser. With only five minutes left, Ammar Al Najjar scored to give Abha a win and leave Al-Ittihad, on 23 points, only a point above the relegation zone.

In the third match, taking place at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium, sixth placed Al-Raed recorded a comfortable 3-0 win over Damac, who remain second bottom on 16 points, six from safety and favorites for relegation.

“In the two late matches, Al-Faisaly beat Al-Taawoun 2-1, while Al-Ahli overcame Al Hazem 4-2. “ 

The 23 round  is set to be completed on Wednesday when second-placed Al-Nassr host leaders Al-Hilal — currently six points ahead — in a match that could go a long way to deciding the destination of the title, while Al-Wehda face Al-Shabab at home and Al-Ettifaq visit Al-Adalh.

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Guardiola under pressure as City chase elusive crown

Updated 20 October 2020

Guardiola under pressure as City chase elusive crown

  • Despite all their domestic success in recent years, City have never gone beyond the semifinals of the Champions League

LONDON: Pep Guardiola starts his latest bid to lead Manchester City to Champions League glory with the shadows of past failures casting doubt on his ability to secure that elusive title.

City host Porto in their opening Champions League group match on Wednesday with Guardiola's failing in the tournament weighing heavily on both the Spanish boss and his club.

Despite all their domestic success in recent years, City have never gone beyond the semifinals of the Champions League and Guardiola has found the competition equally vexing for much of the last decade.

Since he won the Champions League as Barcelona boss for the second time in 2011, Guardiola has failed to return to the final of Europe's elite club competition.

That nine-year drought includes four years of frustration since he took charge at City in 2016.

In that time, Guardiola has seen City beaten by Monaco in the last 16 and Liverpool, Tottenham and Lyon in the quarterfinals.

He also lost in three semifinals during his time as Bayern Munich manager before moving to City.

Last season's shock 3-1 defeat against Lyon in Lisbon was especially galling as City were heavy favorites against the French side.

Guardiola deserved a large portion of the blame for that letdown after his tactical tinkering appeared to unsettle his players and did nothing to tilt the tie in City's favor.

Interpreted by Guardiola's critics as further proof that his Champions League success at Barcelona was due to the presence of the great Lionel Messi's presence, the only bright side of the Lyon loss was that it was not their farewell to Europe for a while.

For several months last season, it appeared City would not even be competing in the Champions League this term after UEFA gave them a two-year ban from European competitions for Financial Fairplay breaches.

City's legal dream team won that battle and the suspension was eventually thrown out on appeal.

Whether Guardiola can be as successful in Europe as City's Abu Dhabi-based owners were in the court room remains far from certain.

Adding to the unease around City ahead of their European campaign is the unresolved issue of Guardiola's future.

Guardiola is out of contract at the end of the season and has yet to agree on a new deal amid speculation that he may decide to leave the Etihad Stadium in 2021.

For now, Guardiola will focus on Porto's visit to Manchester rather than entertaining questions about his long-term plans.

The 49-year-old insists he has to earn a prolonged stay at City by improving on last season's disappointment, which saw them surrender the Premier League to Liverpool and win only the League Cup.

There have been some worrying signs already as Leicester thrashed City 5-2, while Saturday's 1-0 win against Arsenal was far from convincing.

Significantly, Guardiola was able to welcome back Sergio Aguero last weekend as City's record goalscorer made his first appearance for four months after knee surgery.

City have lacked a cutting edge in Aguero's absence and Guardiola's hopes of a serious Champions League challenge hinge on the Argentine striker staying fit.

"The important thing is that Sergio comes back in good physical condition, starts to get his rhythm, doesn't get more injuries and plays good," Guardiola said.

"We know what he means for us, we know how we appreciate him, but now he has to show like every one of us, me first, that we deserve to continue here and playing good and winning games."