Scene set for Hollywood-style twist for Al-Nassr’s star buy

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Pity Martinez. (Credit: Nassr FC)
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Al-Nassr have won six of their last eight matches with Martinez providing two goals and three assists and becoming more influential overall. (Supplied)
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Updated 11 February 2021

Scene set for Hollywood-style twist for Al-Nassr’s star buy

  • $18m Argentine signing Martinez helps kick-start team’s return to form amid transfer rumors

LONDON: Pity Martinez’s Saudi Arabian introduction came Hollywood-style in a dramatic video made in September for social media that announced one of the biggest transfers in the country’s history.

There was a briefcase full of cash, a contract being offered to an unnamed pair of hands, a shiny car arriving at a hotel, officials opening multiple doors, and the outline of an Al-Nassr shirt being pulled on with the Riyadh city lights shining behind. The shirt belonged to Martinez, signed for $18 million from Atlanta United, and the season promised to be a blockbuster.

If that beginning was exciting, by December, the audience was in danger of losing interest amid rumors of the 2018 South American Player of the Year making a swift exit back to Major League Soccer (MLS) or maybe Mexico.

At the time, that may have seemed best for all but in recent weeks the Argentine player and Al-Nassr are starting to suggest that there may be a twist to this tale.

It is still hard to know what to make of this big-money move that shocked fans of Atlanta. Al-Nassr supporters were excited and knew that if this player, who scored for River Plate against bitter rivals Boca Juniors in the final of the 2018 Copa Libertadores, could do something similar in the 2021 AFC Champions League then that hefty transfer fee would be forgotten.

However, Martinez was not bought for his goals, more the mouth-watering prospect of him supplying bullets for Moroccan marksman Abderrazak Hamdallah.

But by mid-December, both star and team were looking lost. Al-Nassr were not battling it out at the top with rivals Al-Hilal, instead, after losing six of their first eight games, were in the relegation zone.

Martinez had been bought to break open defenses with his top-level passing skills and creativity but there was little evidence of that. While the former River Plate star can play anywhere in an attacking midfield position or off the striker, he prefers the right if possible.

Under coach Rui Vitoria, who led the team to the 2019 title, that did not happen as much as he would have liked. There were other issues in the team, but Martinez just was not getting into games and not seeing the ball as much as he wanted. A single assist in his first five league games was evidence of that.

It was inevitable then that, given the investment made in the team and the expectations that always surround the nine-time Saudi champions that Vitoria’s days were numbered, and he left in late December. In came Alen Horvat to take over temporarily and the fortunes of Al-Nassr and Martinez have improved greatly under the Croatian.

“I played in many positions, at the request of the former coach Vitoria,” Martinez told Saudi television after scoring against Al-Ain on Jan. 8.

“But coach Horvat has respected me and put me in the right place on the right side, where I feel comfortable and love to play and I thank him for that.”

Results have improved dramatically, and Al-Nassr have won six of their last eight matches with Martinez providing two goals and three assists and becoming more influential overall.

The team is happy, winning, and growing in confidence. There is more energy and movement going forward and with other players making more runs, it gives Martinez, always an available outlet for a defense under pressure, more space, and more options.

The league title is almost certainly out of sight unless the current run continues all the way to the end of the season, but a top-three finish is certainly not out of the question.

The recent Saudi Super Cup win over Al-Hilal may have been closer than the 3-0 score line suggested but it was a major confidence boost and a professional performance at both ends of the pitch.

The 2021 AFC Champions League starts in April and, on current form, Al-Nassr are one of the favorites and an in-form Martinez can only shorten those odds.

Nevertheless, the jury is still out on the 27-year-old even if, with a possible FIFA-imposed transfer ban hanging over the club due to money reportedly owed to former players, it may be a while before Al-Nassr can replace him. Martinez was not consistently impressive in his short American spell, although he shone in patches, and it has been suggested that he is one of those players who performs best on home soil.

There have been continuing rumors floated that he could be heading closer to Argentina with a return to MLS, this time Cincinnati. Mexico has also been mentioned as a potential destination.

The player denies it all. “My family and I are very happy. Don’t believe all that you read on social media,” Martinez said last week on social media. “I wanted to tell you that I am very happy at Al-Nassr FC.”

Six weeks ago, fans may not have been too upset at losing Pity Martinez but now, things are starting to look a little different. He has yet to live up to the hype but there is still time and that early season blip may just add to the Hollywood-style twist that could be coming.


Trae Young shines as Hawks rally past Sixers, Clippers rout Jazz

Updated 15 June 2021

Trae Young shines as Hawks rally past Sixers, Clippers rout Jazz

  • Hawks and 76ers now tied at 2-2 in their best-of-seven 2nd round playoff series
  • Clippers and Jazz are also tied 2-2 and Game five is Wednesday at Salt Lake City

LOS ANGELES: Trae Young poured in 25 points and added 18 assists as the Atlanta Hawks rallied Monday to beat the Philadelphia 76ers in game four of their second-round Eastern Conference playoff series.
Young shot eight of 26 from the floor and drained three threes but he had plenty of help from his supporting cast as all five Hawks starters finished in double figures to level the best-of-seven series at 2-2.
His 18 assists equalled a career high but he also busted out from under the watchful eye of Philadelphia’s defensive specialist Ben Simmons, who was given the task of guarding him. Simmons finished second this year in NBA defensive player of the year voting to Utah’s Rudy Gobert.
The fifth-seeded Hawks overcame an 18-point first-half deficit then traded leads with the Sixers down the stretch but managed to hold on for the victory.
“This team never gives up, no matter what the score is,” Young said. “I love the way we fight and I’m proud of our team tonight.”
Game five is Wednesday night.
Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 22 points, John Collins finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds, and Clint Capela had 12 points and 13 rebounds for Atlanta.
Tobias Harris had 20 points and Joel Embiid recorded 17 points and 21 rebounds for the top-seeded 76ers, who were outscored 54-38 in the second half. Simmons delivered 11 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists and two blocks.
Embiid, who averaged 35.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists over the first three games of this series, is playing with a tear in his right lateral meniscus.
He spent time in the locker room in the second quarter and was zero-for-12 from the floor in the second half.
“Even before I went back to the locker room I felt like I didn’t have it,” Embiid said.
“I guess it’s already known,” Embiid said of the wonky knee. “There’s no need to explain myself anymore. I’m just trying to do the best I can.”
Young and Bogdanovic combined for seven threes as the Hawks improved their scoring from beyond the arc. Atlanta committed just four turnovers, compared with 12 for the 76ers.

Elsewhere, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for 62 points as the Los Angles Clippers breezed to a 118-104 win over the top-seeded Utah Jazz in game four of their Western Conference series.
They each scored 31 points, and George added nine rebounds as the Clippers leveled the best-of-seven series at 2-2.
“We are both being aggressive and our teammates are finding us for open shots,” said Leonard.
Marcus Morris scored 22 of his 24 points during a first half in which the Clippers led by as much as 29 points.
Donovan Mitchell answered the bell by scoring a team-high 37 points in the loss. Mitchell tied the Utah franchise playoff record of six straight 30-point outings held by former all-star Karl Malone.
Game five is Wednesday at Salt Lake City.
“We did a great job of making shots and getting stops when we needed to,” said Leonard. “Everybody was helping each other.”
Leonard left the contest with 4:35 remaining after grabbing his knee, and did not return. He exited after being bumped by Jazz’s Joe Ingles. Leonard said he would be ready to go in game five.
Utah’s Mike Conley (hamstring) sat out and has missed all four games of the series.

 

 


Global golf superstars confirmed for $1 million Aramco Team Series — London

Updated 15 June 2021

Global golf superstars confirmed for $1 million Aramco Team Series — London

  • The new format, created by Golf Saudi, pairs amateur golfers with seasoned professionals from the Ladies European Tour

RIYADH: Some of the biggest names in women’s golf will tee off in the inaugural Aramco Team Series event in London next month.

The groundbreaking three-day event, which has a $1 million total prize pool, is the first of four over the coming months in a new format that gives amateur golfers the chance to play alongside professional stars of the Ladies European Tour (LET). It is part of series of initiatives by the Saudi energy company to support sport and diversity

“To the LET, the Aramco Team Series — London and the subsequent team events are a massive moment of elevation for the women’s game, and to have a field as strong as we do in London is fantastic,” said LET CEO Alexandra Armas.

“As a tour, we are always more than happy to do things a little differently: take risks, try new things, mix up the way we play and experience golf. That’s certainly what the Aramco Team Series — London promises to do.”

The new format, created by Golf Saudi, proved hugely popular with players during a trial run at the Saudi Ladies Team International in November last year. It is the only format in world golf where amateur players will contribute to the final result.

This year, 36 captains will lead teams of four players assembled through a draft system in which they can choose one player and are assigned another at random. An amateur golfer will complete the quartet. The prize money for the winning team after 54 holes will be split by the professional players.

In addition to the team competition, the professionals will compete for a $200,000 prize for the lowest individual score, along with world and Solheim Cup ranking points.

High-profile names taking part in the inaugural event include: US golfer Lexi Thompson, making her only appearance in England this year; Georgia Hall, the English winner of the 2018 Women’s Open; double-major winner Anna Nordqvist from Sweden; and Emily Kristine Pedersen, the Danish winner of the 2020 Aramco Saudi Ladies International. They are part of a field of more than 100 professionals who will tee off at Centurion Club in St Albans, near London, on July 8.

Former major champion Thompson, who in 2010, at age 12, became the youngest golfer to compete in the US Open, said: “It is really exciting to have not only a brand new format of event to look forward to, but to have another big event on the LET schedule in the UK. It’s a place I love to visit and play golf, so I can’t wait to get going in July.”

Hall, a European Solheim Cup hero, said: “It’s a really great addition to the tour that I think most of us can’t wait to get playing in. It’s a new format and it’s different — and will only be a force for good in women’s golf.

“Investment like this is fantastic to see, and to be able to take the game to new venues around the world and inspire the next generation of young golfers is a really wonderful thing to be part of. Starting in London will, for me, make it extra special.”

The tournament in England will be followed by Aramco Team Series events in Sotogrande, Spain (Aug. 5-7), New York (Oct. 14-16) and Jeddah (Nov. 10-12). Events in Asia are also being planned.

The Jeddah event will tee off just days after the second Aramco Saudi Ladies International, which is scheduled to take place from Nov. 4 to 7. The inaugural event last year was the first professional women’s golf competition to take place in Saudi Arabia, and its success paved the way for Aramco and Golf Saudi to provide additional support to the women’s game.

“We are thrilled to be backing events that have the potential to elevate women’s golf internationally and spur its growth in Saudi Arabia,” said Ahmed Al-Subaey, vice-president of marketing, sales and supply planning at Aramco.

“Participation by the sport’s top golfers in the Aramco Team Series highlights its innovative nature and the exciting opportunities it presents.

“When the team concept was first introduced to us, we saw it as a natural fit for our investment into world sport, particularly our continued support of women’s sport and golf.”


Szczesny’s own-goal continues his run of bad luck at Euros

Updated 14 June 2021

Szczesny’s own-goal continues his run of bad luck at Euros

  • Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny sent off in 2012, injured in 2016, now an own-goal at Euro 2020
  • He was also left helpless for Slovakia's winner by Milan Skriniar

ST. PETERSBURG: Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny doesn’t have much luck in his opening game at European Championships.
Sent off in 2012. Injured in 2016. Now an own-goal at Euro 2020.
The Juventus player became the first goalkeeper to score an own-goal at the tournament in Poland’s 2-1 loss to Slovakia on Monday.
Not that he could do much about it.
Szczesny had already committed himself to a dive in an attempt to save a shot from Slovakia winger Robert Mak in the 18th minute when the ball rebounded off his near post, onto his outstretched arm as he lay on the ground, and back into the net.
He was also left helpless for Slovakia’s winner by Milan Skriniar, barely moving as the center back hit a fierce, low shot into the corner in the 69th minute.
Szczesny has established himself as one of the most reliable goalkeepers in Europe, his reputation having soared since joining Juventus from Arsenal in 2017. Poland has long been well-stocked with keepers, with Lukasz Fabianski also a solid option, but Szczesny is the regular No. 1.
Major tournaments are not his friend, though.
In 2012, he was shown a red card in the opening game of a European Championship co-hosted by Poland, punished for a professional foul on Greece player Dimitris Salpingidis in the second half.
In 2016, and again in Poland’s opening match, Szczesny damaged a thigh muscle against Northern Ireland and wound up missing the rest of the tournament.
The pain isn’t just restricted to the European Championship.
In Poland’s opening match of the 2018 World Cup, Szczesny gifted M’Baye Niang a goal for Senegal, which went on to win 2-1.


Scotland stunned by Czechs’ Schick on Euro return

Updated 14 June 2021

Scotland stunned by Czechs’ Schick on Euro return

  • Schick headed the Czechs in front before the break and then doubled the lead on 52 minutes with an incredible strike from just inside the Scotland half
  • After a 23-year wait to qualify for a major tournament, Scotland’s hopes of making more history by getting out of the group for the first time now look slim

GLASGOW: Scotland’s long-awaited return to a major international tournament was ruined by Patrik Schick’s slick finishing as the Czech Republic won 2-0 at Hampden on Monday to move top of Euro 2020 Group D.
Schick’s header just before half-time opened the scoring, but it was his stunning strike from just inside the Scotland half after the break that will live in the memory as one of the all-time great European Championship goals.
After a 23-year wait to qualify for a major tournament, Scotland’s hopes of making more history by getting out of the group for the first time now look slim.
Steve Clarke’s men face England next on Friday at Wembley before hosting World Cup finalists Croatia at Hampden on June 22.
Playing in front of fans at Hampden for the first time since November 2019 with 12,000 in attendance, Scotland made a nervous start.
David Marshall was the hero of penalty shootout wins over Israel and Serbia to qualify and was needed early on to turn Schick’s powerful effort at the near post behind.
The hosts were desperately missing the driving runs and poise on the ball normally provided by Kieran Tierney on the left side of a back three.
Clarke has settled on a 3-5-2 to make way for two of the Premier League’s best left-backs in the same team.
Without the Arsenal defender, Liverpool’s Andy Robertson was his side’s biggest threat with a series of rampaging runs.
His cross was turned narrowly wide by Lyndon Dykes at the near post before the Scotland captain was denied a moment to remember by Tomas Vaclik.
Robertson burst onto Ryan Christie’s pass but his shot that was headed for the top corner was tipped over by the Sevilla goalkeeper.
A cagey game of few chances burst into life after Schick’s towering leap put the visitors in front three minutes before half-time.
Scotland were slow to react after initially clearing a corner and the Bayer Leverkusen forward rose highest to flick home Vladimir Coufal’s cross.
Marshall was called into action to make two quick saves from Schick and Vladimir Darida in an explosive start to the second-half.
But twice Scotland were inches away from levelling when Jack Hendry’s dipping effort came back off the crossbar before Vaclik clawed away a mishit clearance from Tomas Kalas.
However, the home side were stunned by a moment of brilliance from Schick on 52 minutes as he spotted Marshall off his line from halfway and bent in an incredible shot from just inside the Scotland half.
Chances continued to come and go for Scotland as Stuart Armstrong’s shot was deflected onto the roof of the net and Vaclik’s outstretched leg denied Dykes from close range.
But it was Schick who had the best opportunity late on to complete a memorable hat-trick when he fired too close to Marshall.
Beating old rivals England would more than make amends for the Tartan Army’s disappointment, but Scotland now have a mountain to climb if they are to prevent their long-awaited adventure ending in familiar fashion.


Eriksen’s collapse creates ‘national shock’ in Denmark

Updated 14 June 2021

Eriksen’s collapse creates ‘national shock’ in Denmark

  • Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen: Rarely has it been less important whether a football match was won or lost
  • Eriksen, widely regarded as Denmark’s best player, was resuscitated with a defibrillator and is in a stable condition in a Copenhagen hospital

COPENHAGEN, Denmark: Interest in CPR and defibrillators has been pulling the attention of Danes away from soccer’s European Championship since the collapse of Christian Eriksen.
The tournament, with the national team playing all three of its group games at home in Copenhagen, was supposed to create a two-week party in the capital — with many hoping Denmark would be able to repeat its improbable triumph from the 1992 tournament.
But Eriksen fell face-forward onto the field with cardiac arrest during the team’s opening game against Finland on Saturday. And suddenly a large portion of Denmark’s 6 million people were watching live on TV as one of the country’s best-known athletes was given emergency CPR, his teammates standing around him with tears in their eyes.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called it “a national shock.”
“Rarely has it been less important whether a football match was won or lost,” Frederiksen wrote on Facebook.
Eriksen, widely regarded as Denmark’s best player, was resuscitated with a defibrillator and was in a stable condition in a Copenhagen hospital on Monday.
But the national shock hasn’t quite dissipated.
Eriksen’s collapse remains the talk of the nation. Many wonder how it could happen to such a healthy player. And a debate is still raging over whether the game should have been called off. It was suspended for about 90 minutes before resuming, having been stopped near the end of the first half. Finland went on to score in the second half and won 1-0.
The interest among Danes in learning CPR and how to use a defibrillator has skyrocketed. A national organization that puts up defibrillators across the country said more than 640 people have volunteered to learn how to use one since Saturday — compared to 90 the previous weekend.
There also has been widespread anger in Denmark toward European soccer governing body UEFA for only giving the players the option of either finishing the game on Saturday evening or resuming on Sunday at noon instead.
The players themselves on Monday said they didn’t want to resume but thought it was better to finish Saturday than to come back the next day.
“It was not our wish to play,” Denmark forward Martin Braithwaite said. “We had two options and would have liked a third option. But we were told we had to make a decision. ... There were many players who weren’t in a condition to play the match. We were in a completely different place.”
Another much-debated topic has been the impact on young viewers, who watched one of their sporting idols lying unconscious on the ground.
For unprepared children, seeing such pictures equals “a slap in the face,” said Ane Lemche, a psychologist with the Danish chapter of Save the Children.
“And children can also get confused, because he looks quite lifeless and that is uncomfortable for a child,” she told Danish broadcaster DR.
Boerns Vilkaar, a child counselling organization, posted advice for parents on its website, saying many children who watched were “scared, insecure and sad.”
The Danish soccer federation also tweeted a link to the organization’s advice.
“Those kinds of pictures can be hard to get out of your head,” the organization wrote. “Some children may think about it a lot and be affected by it for a long time.”