Hegazi move from English Premier League may be decisive in SPL title race: Rhys Williams

Ahmed Hegazi in the colors of West Brom shadows Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, Anfield, Liverpool, December 13, 2017. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 March 2021
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Hegazi move from English Premier League may be decisive in SPL title race: Rhys Williams

  • Al-Qadisiyah’s Australian defender Williams faces leaders Al-Hilal on Saturday after recent Al-Ittihad, Al-Shabab tests
  • It is, according to Williams, no coincidence that the Jeddah giants have become resurgent after the arrival of Hegazi from West Bromwich Albion in late October

RIYADH: While Bafetimbi Gomis and Odion Ighalo get the goals and the headlines for Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab, respectively, it may be Al-Ittihad defender Ahmed Hegazi who makes the difference in Saudi Arabia’s title race this season.

That is the opinion of Rhys Williams, and he should know. Al-Qadisiyah’s Australian center-back has faced both Al-Ittihad and Al-Shabab in recent weeks and is gearing up to take on Al-Hilal on Saturday.

The battle for the Saudi Pro League (SPL) title is now a three-way race thanks to the form of Al-Ittihad who have come up along the rails to third place and within striking distance of top spot.

Last week, defending champions Al-Hilal won 4-2 at Al-Wehda to go above Al-Shabab on goal difference after the long-term leaders lost 2-1 at Al-Ittihad.

That win means that Al-Ittihad, who were almost relegated last season and won just three of the first 10 games this time around, are just four points off pole position and in great form after collecting 12 points from the last five games.

It is, according to Williams, no coincidence that the Jeddah giants have become resurgent after the arrival of Hegazi from West Bromwich Albion in late October, a decision that Slaven Bilic, then coach of the English Premier League team, publicly disagreed with.

“Hegazi has come in and made a massive difference,” Williams, who played under England coach Gareth Southgate at Middlesbrough, told Arab News. “He has a big presence in defense and provides the stability and leadership that they needed. You can see the quality he has, and the team has.”

Williams saw it first-hand on Feb. 28 as Al-Ittihad traveled to Al-Qadisiyah and won 4-1. It was an impressive performance and result, given that the hosts had not lost in 2021.

Williams said: “They came along and beat us well and that was our first defeat in 12 or 13 games. It was a big loss at home, and we could see that they have come along leaps and bounds since the start of the season.”

With seven games remaining, Al-Ittihad have hit form at the right time.

“Al-Ittihad are a dark horse. They also beat Al-Shabab last weekend and that has really opened things up. In this league you never know what will happen and any team can drop points.”

Williams has already spent three years in Saudi Arabia and noted that he and his family love life in the eastern city of Alkhobar. With the team safely in mid-table, though with an outside chance of a top-four finish, the former Australian international can focus on enjoying the last quarter of the season and what is shaping up to be a classic title race.

“It has been great, and it is hard to say what will happen. It has been cat and mouse for a while between Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab and both have their strengths,” he added.

Williams has first-hand experience of facing some of the most talented strikers in Asian football. Al-Shabab were already going well when they loaned striker Odion Ighalo from Manchester United in February.

“Al-Shabab are well-suited to do well and bringing in Ighalo gives them something extra. They have been impressive this season and are a very tactical and technical team.”

Argentine star Ever Banega has caught the eye with his playmaking abilities. “He is threading passes through for Ighalo and others.”

Last week Al-Qadisiya hosted Al-Shabab and after taking a first-half lead were on course for a famous win until Turki Al-Ammar earned a point for the Riyadh club in the final seconds. Williams was not too down-hearted, however.

He said: “It was a tough game for us. We started well in the first half but in the second half we had our backs to the wall. We held out until the 92nd minute when they scored but we will take the draw against a strong team like that.”

Al-Hilal may have just gone into first place but have not been as dominant this time around as was the case last season.

Last month the champions fired head coach Razvan Lucescu and replaced the Romanian with Brazilian boss Rogerio Micale. There have been reports in South America however that Al-Hilal want to tempt Marcelo Gallardo from Argentina’s River Plate to Riyadh.

Amid such instability, the fact that the team are now in first place is impressive.

“They haven’t been at their best this year and recently got rid of their manager, but they still have Bafetimbi Gomis. He is always capable of scoring,” Williams said.

It will be up to the Al-Qadisiyah defender to stop the former French international this weekend.

“It will be a big challenge for us against such a strong team. We have to put our best foot forward and if we play to our best then we are capable of getting a result. We are looking to finish as high in the table as possible.”

The next few weeks are set deliver a three-way race to the finish line that the SPL has not seen for some time.


Portugal breeze past Turkiye and into Euro 2024 knockout stage

Updated 6 sec ago
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Portugal breeze past Turkiye and into Euro 2024 knockout stage

Portugal looked every inch a team aiming to win their second European Championship
Cristiano Ronaldo will have at least two more tries to become the oldest goalscorer at a European Championship

DORTMUND: Portugal swept into the last 16 of Euro 2024 on Saturday after comfortably seeing off Turkiye 3-0 and guaranteeing first place in Group F.
Bernardo Silva’s fine finish in the 21st minute, a comical Samet Akaydin own goal shortly afterwards and Bruno Fernandes’s second-half tap-in gave Portugal a straightforward win in front of swathes of passionate Turkish fans in Dortmund.
Portugal looked every inch a team aiming to win their second European Championship after triumphing in 2016, their star-studded line-up easily dealing with Vincenzo Montella’s enthusiastic but limited Turkiye team.
Cristiano Ronaldo will have at least two more tries to become the oldest goalscorer at a European Championship as Martinez said on Friday that the 39-year-old is in the right shape to play every four days.
It was Ronaldo who unselfishly set up Fernandes for a simple goal in the 56th minute after springing through Turkiye’s offside trap, and he then had time to pose for a selfie with a child fan who invaded the pitch midway through the second half.
Martinez’s side, on a perfect six points, will face one of the four best third-place finishers in the next round and go into their final group game against Georgia without any pressure for a result.
The same cannot be said for Turkiye who need a draw against the Czech Republic on Wednesday to ensure second place.
Turkiye’s passionate support again flocked to the Westfalenstadion in huge numbers, with long tailbacks on the roads leading to the ground several hours before the 6:00 p.m. (1600 GMT) kick-off.
Some fans sat on the top of cars leading chants among the thousands of supporters who crawled toward their destination.
Once inside what was effectively a home crowd let out a deafening chorus of whistles and jeers when Portugal jogged out for their pre-match warm-up.
However, once the match got underway there was a clear gap in class between the two sides and Portugal went deservedly ahead through Silva as the Manchester City midfielder confidently smashed in Nuno Mendes’s deflected low cross.
Soon after, Akaydin gifted Portugal a two-goal lead with his sloppy backpass which turned into an own goal as Zeki Celik and goalkeeper Altay Bayindir tried in vain to prevent the ball crossing the line.
Those two goals and the dominance of the Portuguese players quietened down the partisan crowd and the result was sealed when Fernandes stroked home his former Manchester United teammate Ronaldo’s present of a pass.
The Portugal fans then turned up the volume to celebrate their country reaching the last 16.
And cheers then rang around the ground from both sets of supporters as a pint-sized fan ran onto the pitch midway through the second half, just as the game was stopped to allow Nelson Semedo to replace Joao Cancelo for Portugal.
The youngster was cool enough to grab an amused Ronaldo for a photo and then dashed off on a mazy run his hero would have been proud of, dropping his shoulder on security staff before eventually being carted away from the pitch.
Ronaldo was less amused when five much larger fans then made copycat bids for selfies, only to be showered with boos and refused a photo before annoyed stewards reached them.

Southgate and England team under fire after lackluster display at Euro 2024

Updated 47 min 52 sec ago
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Southgate and England team under fire after lackluster display at Euro 2024

  • After Thursday’s uninspiring 1-1 draw with Denmark, the coach acknowledged “we understand what that will mean for the next few days”
  • former England captain Gary Lineker said: “I can’t imagine anybody, who is English, that would have enjoyed England’s performance because it was lethargic, it was dour...”

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany: Gareth Southgate said he knew it was coming. He was right.
Negativity surrounds the England team — despite leading their group after two games at Euro 2024 and likely to advance to the knockout phase.
After Thursday’s uninspiring 1-1 draw with Denmark, the coach acknowledged “we understand what that will mean for the next few days.”
Indeed, it has fueled concern among fans, English media and former players.
“We have to reflect the mood of the nation,” former England captain Gary Lineker said on his podcast, The Rest is Football. “I can’t imagine anybody, who is English, that would have enjoyed England’s performance because it was lethargic, it was dour...
“You can think of all sorts of words and expletives if you like,” he added, before using one himself.
Lineker’s political opinions have upset the UK government in the recent past — now he has delivered a brutal assessment of the England team.
His comments about England appear to have summed up the mood of many fans.
Southgate’s team were a pre-tournament favorite and beaten finalists at the last Euros.
BBC pundit Alan Shearer described the second half against Denmark as “awful.”
Southgate’s handling of a squad that includes Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden has been brought into question.
“We have world class players so it’s the manager’s job to get the best out of those players,” said Shearer, a former England striker.
Southgate has transformed England’s fortunes since he was appointed in 2016 — leading the country to the semifinals of the World Cup in 2018.
England missed out on a first trophy since winning the 1966 World Cup when they lost on penalties to Italy in the final of the last Euros three years ago.
The 2022 World Cup was England’s worst performance under Southgate when they lost to defending champion France in the quarterfinals.
England were unconvincing in their opener — a 1-0 win over Serbia — and have a few days off before their final Group C game Tuesday against Slovenia.
So, what has gone wrong in Germany?
Expectation
It has been a longstanding complaint that too much is expected of England at international tournaments. Despite having the most popular league in the world — the Premier League — and some of the most successful clubs, England’s sole success on the international stage remains the World Cup it won in 1966. The last Euros was England’s best performance at any tournament since then when finishing runner-up.
Southgate
Ahead of the tournament, Southgate said this would likely be his last in charge of England if he failed to deliver a trophy.
“I’ve been here for almost eight years now and we’ve come close. So, I know that you can’t keep standing in front of the public and saying ‘please do a little more’, because at some point people will lose faith in your message,” he said before the Euros began.
No left side
The England team are looking unbalanced because they essentially have no left side. Luke Shaw is the only designated left back in the squad, but he is still not fully fit after a long-term injury, leaving Kieran Trippier — a right back — to play on the left. Foden is playing as a nominal left winger, but he prefers to drift inside. England are essentially attacking down the right or down the middle, hugely restricting their options and making the team easier to defend against.
Midfield dilemma
England’s longtime midfield issue has not gone away. In fact, it might be worse than ever. Southgate has admitted to doing an “experiment” by selecting right back Trent Alexander-Arnold as a central midfielder alongside Declan Rice. Alexander-Arnold was substituted early in both games. Quite apart from the oddness of Southgate experimenting in such a key position at a major tournament, he is also overlooking three midfielders who finished the English domestic season strongly — Kobbie Mainoo, Adam Wharton and Conor Gallagher.


Georgia get their 1st point but miss a win in 1-1 draw with Czech Republic at Euro 2024

Updated 22 June 2024
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Georgia get their 1st point but miss a win in 1-1 draw with Czech Republic at Euro 2024

  • Georgia took the lead with a Georges Mikautadze penalty given for handball by Czech defender Robin Hranec
  • The Czech team got back into the game when a header rebounded off the post and Patrik Schick scored with his chest

HAMBURG: Georgia earned their first-ever point at a major tournament in a 1-1 draw with the Czech Republic at Euro 2024 on Saturday. It was nearly a win.
Midfielder Saba Lobjanidze fired his shot narrowly over the bar with the last kick of the game as Georgia’s promising three-on-one counterattack came to nothing.
Lobjanidze — who plays for Atlanta United in the US state of Georgia — seemed to be in tears after the final whistle and was comforted by coach Willy Sagnol.
Earlier, video reviews were in the spotlight.
The Czech team dominated the opening stages and celebrated the opening goal in the 23rd minute when Adam Hlozek bundled the ball into the net at the far post off a long throw.
Replays, however, showed Hlozek’s shot had bounced back off goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili and in off the Czech forward’s face and arm.
The situation was reversed when Georgia defender Guram Kashia shot straight at the goalkeeper just before halftime. Georgia’s fans rued the missed chance but celebrated when a video review found the ball had come off Czech defender Robin Hranac’s arm a couple of seconds earlier.
Georgia, the only team making their debut at Euro 2024, then took the lead with a Georges Mikautadze penalty given for handball by Czech defender Robin Hranec.
The Czech team got back into the game when a header rebounded off the post and Patrik Schick scored with his chest for his sixth career goal at the European Championships, ranking him joint-sixth on the all-time list.
Schick limped off soon after and applied ice to his calf, potentially a major concern for the Czech Republic given the Bayer Leverkusen striker’s importance to the team and his long record of previous injuries.
VAR didn’t intervene later in the game when the Czech team appealed for players being pushed by Georgian defenders in the penalty area, perhaps because the contact on both occasions was relatively slight.
The draw means that both teams almost certainly require a win in their last group games to qualify for the knockout stages.
Türkiye and Portugal are the other two teams in Group F. They play later Saturday.


Norris shrugs off McLaren fire to nab Spanish pole after ‘best ever lap’

Updated 22 June 2024
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Norris shrugs off McLaren fire to nab Spanish pole after ‘best ever lap’

  • Lewis Hamilton will start on the second row alongside his Mercedes teammate George Russell
  • Norris produced his one minute 11.383 seconds of magic after a “stressful” day when the McLaren hospitality unit caught fire before third practice

BARCELONA: Lando Norris brushed aside the drama of his McLaren team’s hospitality unit catching fire to produce “the best lap of my life” and deprive Max Verstappen of pole for the Spanish Grand Prix in qualifying on Saturday.
Lewis Hamilton will start on the second row alongside his Mercedes teammate George Russell.
Verstappen looked sure to set off for Sunday’s 10th round of the season from the front of the grid.
But in the last throw of the top-10 shoot-out Norris denied the Red Bull ace by a mere two hundredths of a second.
“Today was the perfect lap,” said Norris after only his second career pole.
“My best lap by a long way, I knew I had to do something perfect, it was probably my best lap ever.”
Norris produced his one minute 11.383 seconds of magic after a “stressful” day when the McLaren hospitality unit caught fire before third practice.
McLaren team boss Zak Brown told Sky Sports one staff member had to go to hospital but had been discharged, adding: “Happy to report everyone is fine.”
“I lost my shoes. It’s all been a bit messy,” said Norris.
“I like to listen to my music loud beforehand, but didn’t have that this time. But it’s not the end of the world. I’m not going to complain about it.”
Turning back to a vintage qualifying session, Norris, whose only other pole came in Russia in 2021, reflected: “It’s been a while since Sochi!
“Max seemed a bit stronger today, but we made some changes,” added the Briton who won his maiden Grand Prix in May in Miami.
“I’m super happy to be on pole, it’s going to be tough but we’re here to win!“
Verstappen, targeting a fourth straight world title, leads the championship by 56 points from Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who starts Sunday’s race in fifth, with Norris seven points back in third.
“I think the whole of qualifying was better than practice for me,” said Verstappen, who won his maiden Grand Prix in Barcelona in 2016 and is on a hat-trick after wins in Catalonia in 2022 and 2023.
“It all clicked much better. The other teams are catching up, we need to bring more performance to the car.”
Ferrari-bound Hamilton was happy to be toward the front of the grid as he out-qualified his teammate Russell for only the second time this year.
“It’s good to be back up here, great to see we are progressing,” he said.
“We are slowly climbing closer to the guys in front, it’s really on a knife edge.
“I’m really happy to be in P3 with that long straight to turn one.”
Joining Leclerc on the third row will be his Ferrari teammate and home favorite Carlos Sainz.
Next came the Alpine of Pierre Gasly, the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez, who has a three-place grid penalty from Canada, Esteban Ocon in the other Alpine and Oscar Piastri in the second McLaren.
After only a tenth of a second had covered the top four in final practice earlier the stage was set for an intriguing pole battle.
Complicating matters was a sizeable drop in temperature, with morning sunshine giving way to heavy cloud cover with the wind picking up.
The action on track though was anything but cool, as drivers scrambled to eke out every last ounce of performance for a Grand Prix won from pole in 24 of 33 races run at the circuit.
After clipping the McLaren of Norris at the end of final practice Leclerc tuned up for qualifying with a trip to the FIA’s headmaster’s study as the race stewards investigated the incident.
Leclerc was arguably fortunate to escape with only a reprimand rather than a grid penalty, announced just before qualifying got under way.
Hamilton grabbed the honors in the first qualifying run, jumping from 14th to first, with Verstappen leading the Mercedes duo after the second session.
Verstappen came alive when it counted most — after a quietish time in the three practice sessions he led Q3 after the first flurry of laps.
All the drivers pitted to prepare for one last attempt at depriving the Red Bull ace from Sunday’s pole, with Norris nailing it to end a trying day on a high.
This is the 10th round of the 24-race season and the first of a triple header with Austria and Silverstone coming up over the next two weekends.


Germany face Switzerland with both teams unbeaten and eyeing top spot in Group A

Updated 22 June 2024
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Germany face Switzerland with both teams unbeaten and eyeing top spot in Group A

  • Both teams impressed in their first games as Germany routed Scotland 5-1 and Switzerland beat Hungary 3-1
  • The Euro 2024 host have already reached the round of 16 and with just a draw will finish top of Group A

FRANKFURT: Germany go for a third straight win in Group A against a Switzerland team that also are unbeaten. Germany have advanced to the knockout stage and Switzerland look sure to confirm their place Sunday.
The kickoff in Frankfurt, at the same time as group rivals Hungary and Scotland meet in Stuttgart, is 9 p.m. local (1900 GMT).
Both teams impressed in their first games as Germany routed Scotland 5-1 and Switzerland beat Hungary 3-1. Germany sustained their form by beating Hungary 2-0, while the Swiss less so in a 1-1 draw with Scotland.
The Euro 2024 host have already reached the round of 16 and with just a draw will finish top of Group A. That would send Germany to Dortmund for a knockout game next Saturday against the runner-up of Group C, which is currently Denmark.
Switzerland will top the group if they win. Thereafter that would send Germany to Berlin to play the runner-up in Group B, which likely will be Italy or Croatia.
Only freakish results could drop Switzerland to third place in the standings. The Swiss start Sunday three points ahead of Scotland, which play Hungary also at 9 p.m. local time in Stuttgart. Switzerland have a huge goal-difference advantage over Scotland.
The rain-soaked Frankfurt field have been a problem, even with a stadium roof that has been closed to protect the turf from the worst of persistent downpours this week.
Moreover, the Germans had a full squad of 26 players in training Saturday morning. Coach Julian Nagelsmann has picked the same starting lineup for both games so far.
Switzerland’s coach Murat Yakin is making changes in style and tactics. Though Kwadwo Duah scored against Hungary, he was dropped to face Scotland in favor of veteran Xherdan Shaqiri on the left side of attack, who duly delivered a standout goal.
Kylian Mbappe’s nose is not the only damaged one at Euro 2024, as Swiss defender Fabian Schär also got a bloodied and fractured nose, though he played on against Scotland and should be available.
The two team captains at Euro 2024, Granit Xhaka and Ilkay Gundogan, both played in a strange game 12 years ago. In a warmup for Euro 2012, which Germany qualified for and Switzerland didn’t, the Swiss gave their neighbors a beating in Basel. It was a rough debut for a 20-year-old German goalkeeper, Marc-André ter Stegen, then as now the backup to Manuel Neuer.
Teams that win all three games in a Euros group have an up-and-down history. At the last edition, Italy swept through their group in Rome en route to the title. At Euro 2008 a vibrant Netherlands team romped through a tough group then lost next in the quarterfinals to Russia. Germany won all three group games in 2012 before losing in the semifinals to Italy and Mario Balotelli.
“It’s often been the case that the grass there isn’t so firm and that players have had problems with it,” said Germany and Stuttgart midfielder Chris Führich on the Frankfurt playing surface.
Fellow midfielder Toni Kroos said: “We’re happy that we’re in the round of 16. Nevertheless, it will be about finishing first in the group.”