5 things to look out for as Saudi Pro League returns to action

It goes without saying that after losing earlier in the week Al-Hilal have to win at home to have even the slimmest chance of catching Al-Ittihad. (File/AFP)
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Updated 06 May 2022

5 things to look out for as Saudi Pro League returns to action

  • After a quiet April due to AFC Champions League action and Ramadan break, there are plenty of issues to be resolved at the top and bottom of the league table

It has been a stop and start season in the Saudi Professional League but it got moving again on Thursday as Al-Ahli drew 2-2 with Al-Batin and Al-Ettifaq climbed out of the bottom three by thrashing Al-Taawoun in a relegation six pointer. There is still plenty of action to come in the next few days and here are five talking points.

Only Al-Ittihad can stop Al-Ittihad winning title

With 14 wins out of their 16 last games, it is no surprise that Al-Ittihad are in control of the title race. There were eyebrows raised in Jeddah on Tuesday evening as their closest challengers, Al-Hilal, slipped up and lost to Al-Feiha — one of the defending champions’ two games in hand. It means that the Tigers have to collect just eight points from their remaining five games regardless of what Al-Hilal do. A first title since 2009 is within reach and defeating Al-Fateh will be a massive step towards the championship.

While Al-Hilal have been busy in Asia, Al-Ittihad have played a couple of friendlies and should be fit and raring to go. Long-time absentee Ahmed Hegazi is finally back. The Egyptian centre-back, perhaps the best in the league, hasn’t played since picking up an injury in the African Cup of Nations in January, but is fit again. With the cushion that the leaders have, coach Cosmin Contra may not bring the 31-year-old straight into the team and can afford to be patient. He also has a wealth of attacking options.

It is looking very good and the only team that can stop Al-Ittihad is Al-Ittihad. They are almost there and just have to keep their nerve against a team that theoretically is not safe from relegation on paper but in practice does not have much to play for.

Al-Faisaly need to bring Asian form to the league

The men from Dammam took a break from their relegation scrap to finish top of their Asian Champions League group last month, finishing above big guns such as Al-Sadd. It was an impressive achievement and should boost their confidence as they look to preserve their top-flight status. Their league form had improved with seven points coming from the last three games but they are just two points above the drop zone and need to be careful.

New signing Martin Boyle impressed in Asia and the Australian winger provides another outlet for a team that sometimes has problems finding the target. If Boyle can maintain his early promise and the backline, which conceded just four times in six Asian games, can stay tight, then all should be well.

The Riyadh derby is a big one

It is hard to know which is better preparation for the final few games of the season. Is it better to do what Al-Shabab did and play six games in the Asian Champions League? Or to rest and play some friendlies, as Al-Nassr have done? As things stand Al-Nassr are third and Al-Shabab fourth, just a point behind. After Al-Hilal’s defeat, the winner of this game will go into second place.

Al-Shabab’s form at home prior to the continental action was a little patchy, but under new coach Marius Sumudica they return to league action full of confidence after collecting 16 points out of 18, more than any other in the group stage. That should stand the team in good stead heading into this major clash.

Al-Nassr are likely to provide a tougher test than the recent Asian ones, however. They may be without star striker Vincent Aboubakar due to injury and there are doubts as to whether Uruguayan forward Jonathan Rodriguez will be fit but there is still plenty of talent in the yellow ranks. It should be quite a game.

Big game for Al-Hilal and Damac

It goes without saying that after losing earlier in the week Al-Hilal have to win at home to have even the slimmest chance of catching Al-Ittihad. The clash is not all about the Asian champions, however. It is a massive one for Damac who will want to end an amazing season on a high. They are going to finish at least fifth and achieve their highest finish in the league, though they are not going to match those heady days a third of the way through the season when they were top.

A run of just two wins in 10 saw the team slide out of the top four but they have recovered to win four of the last five with the one defeat coming against the leaders. There is still a faint chance of getting back into the top four as they are only five points behind Al-Shabab. But the important thing is to end the season with a good run of form and start building for the next campaign.

Relegation scrap is one of the fiercest ever

There are plenty of leagues around the world that are approaching the final stretches of the season. Few though can have the kind of intense bottom half battle that is going on in Saudi Arabia.

With most teams having five games left, it is theoretically possible for any outside the top five to go down. That is unlikely but any of the eight teams in the bottom half of the table could be in for the dreaded drop. Al-Raed are in ninth and just four points clear of trouble. They can’t relax. Only Al-Hazm are cut adrift at the bottom. It would be a brave person indeed who predicted which two of the other seven clubs will join them in the second tier. The great thing for the neutral is that a lot of these teams are playing each other in the coming games so the drama should continue right until the end.

Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo

Updated 30 min 25 sec ago

Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo

  • “I pray to God to make this dream come true and meet Ronaldo”

JEDDAH: A Cristiano Ronaldo superfan has arrived in Riyadh after a grueling walk from Dubai hoping to meet the Al-Nassr star.

After 1,200 km and 36 days of travel mostly across the arid landscape separating the cities, Civin KP arrived in the Saudi capital.

“Finally, I am here in front of Al-Awal Park where Al-Nassr plays (their) official games and I hope I can meet Ronaldo,” he said.

He posted images of himself on Instagram at the stadium where he managed to take a seat at the home team’s bench and walked pitch-side at the 25,000-capacity venue.

“I came all the way from Dubai on foot and crossed all this distance just to pay respect and show my love to the best player in the world,” said Civin, who is originally from the state of Kerala in India.

Ronaldo is one of the most recognizable faces of international football and has fans across the world who enjoy his skills and passion for the game. He signed for the Riyadh club in 2022 after years of playing in Europe’s top leagues.

Civin feels proud to have completed the journey but still awaits the biggest prize.

“The unexpected moment is always sweeter,” he wrote, “hopefully waiting for more.”

A photo with the Portuguese great and an autograph would be a moment of a lifetime, Civin told MBC as he visited the ground.

“I pray to God to make this dream come true and meet Ronaldo,” he said. “I will cherish this moment, if it happens, for the rest of my life.”

On Friday, Civin was able to secure a ticket to watch Al-Nassr beat Al-Fayha 3-1, but unfortunately his hero did not feature as he is serving a suspension.

KL Rahul shines as Lucknow Super Giants beat Chennai Super Kings in IPL

Updated 20 April 2024

KL Rahul shines as Lucknow Super Giants beat Chennai Super Kings in IPL

  • Innings played key role in pushing Lucknow past Chennai’s 176-6 with six balls to spare.

LUCKNOW: KL Rahul’s solid 82 runs off 53 balls helped Lucknow Super Giants comfortably beat Chennai Super Kings by eight wickets in the IPL on Friday.
Rahul’s time at the crease, which saw him smash nine fours and three sixes, played a key role in pushing Lucknow past Chennai’s 176-6 with six balls to spare.
“I felt that if we bat well, we could chase it down... when your partnership goes on, you can take a few more chances. Glad that it happened,” said Rahul.
Chennai got off to a slightly jittery start after being invited to bat first, losing Rachin Ravindra (zero) and skipper Ruturaj Gaikwad (17) in the first five overs. Ajinkya Rahane looked to steady the side, with the help of Ravindra Jadeja, but fell in the ninth over after racking up a respectable 36 runs off 24 balls.
Lucknow’s clinical bowling restricted Chennai in the middle overs, with Shivam Dube (three) not being able to pop off.
But Jadeja soldiered on for the rest of the game, getting his half-century in the seventeenth over.
Reliable warhorse M.S. Dhoni, who smacked 28 runs off 9 balls, helped Chennai turn up the heat in the last three overs and pushed the team to 176-6.
Lucknow openers Quinton de Kock and KL Rahul set up the chase with a superb 134-run partnership, before de Kock, who hit five fours in his 43-ball 54, fell in the fifteenth over.
Rahul went onto smash an incredible 82 runs off 53 balls before being dismissed in the eighteenth over. A final push by Nicholas Pooran (23) helped seal the victory for Lucknow.
“We lost wickets regularly and were 10-15 short,” said Gaikwad.
“Good to play them again soon, will come back with homework done.”

Saudi Arabia’s PIF signs sponsorship deal with Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament

Updated 19 April 2024

Saudi Arabia’s PIF signs sponsorship deal with Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament

  • Agreement is latest in wider partnership with the ATP

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund announced on Friday it had agreed a multi-year deal to sponsor the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament.

The deal is the latest in PIF’s wider tennis partnership with the Association of Tennis Professionals as a Platinum Partner and as the official naming partner of the PIF ATP Rankings.

The fund said the agreement marked its continued investment in growing tennis globally, along with a wider focus on its four sponsorship pillars: inclusivity, sustainability, youth, and technology.

As part of the partnership, PIF will develop a platform to allow tennis fans new and old to engage and train with legendary players and coaches on the ground in Madrid, and youth-focused fan zones.

A statement said: “PIF is committed to providing opportunities for young players across all levels of the game, inspiring participation, enhancing talent discovery and developing new pathways for future generations of tennis players around the world.

“As part of this priority, PIF is engaging local tennis academies in Spain and supporting future players through the PIF tennis bootcamp.”

PIF has also partnered with ATP Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells, Miami and the Nitto ATP Finals, in addition to the Beijing ATP 500 event, and the Next Gen ATP Finals presented by PIF, to be hosted in Jeddah until 2027.

John Catlin sets himself up for victory going into final round of Saudi Open in Riyadh

Updated 19 April 2024

John Catlin sets himself up for victory going into final round of Saudi Open in Riyadh

  • American shoots men’s course-record 62

RIYADH: John Catlin continued his dominance at the 2024 Saudi Open on Friday as he shot a men’s course-record 62 to open up an eight-shot lead at the top of the leaderboard at Riyadh Golf Club.

The American began the third round one shot ahead of Scott Hend and Haotong Li and signaled his intentions early with two birdies in his first five holes.

It was a special back nine that saw him pull away from the field as six birdies, including two in his final two holes — which also earned him the PIF Moment of the Day — put him in the driving seat for a sixth Asian Tour victory.

Thai favorite Kiradech Aphibarnrat made the biggest move of the chasing pack and will head out with Catlin in the final group on Saturday.

His round of 67 moved him into second place with Wade Ormsby, David Puig, Hend and Li one further back.

If he is victorious on Saturday it will mark back-to-back wins on the Asian Tour for Catlin after he lifted the International Series Macau trophy in March, but the 33-year-old is taking nothing for granted ahead of the final round.

He said: “My game has felt in good shape. Today was just one of those days where the putter just gets hot and it’s like you can’t miss. I kept going and tried to make as many birdies as I could because there are so many good players out here and there are plenty of birdies to be made tomorrow. I knew I had to keep the pedal to the metal.

“Nothing changes tomorrow: the job is not finished. David (Puig) has shown he can shoot some really low numbers and there are a lot of other guys very capable of doing that here.”

It is Catlin’s second trip to Saudi Arabia but his first to Riyadh, and after his record-breaking day he admitted he will be back in the Kingdom whenever he gets the chance.

“I’ve loved it here. The people have been so friendly to me, the facilities are really good and I love the course. I will be back whenever there is a tournament here,” he said.

South African Jaco Ahlers produced the day’s second-best round with his 65 moving him to 7 under par, while LIV Golf star Peter Uihlein catapulted himself up the leaderboard after four birdies in four holes to start his back nine took him to the same score. Uihlein is looking forward to an attacking final round.

He said: “You’ve got to shoot 10 under tomorrow to win — I’m going to try. Hopefully my caddie will let me hit the driver on some holes where I probably shouldn’t, and just have a go.

“I played nicely on the front, but it was a different wind. I felt like the back nine, with the way the wind was, is easier than the first couple of days, so I thought I could make some birdies. I didn’t birdie the 15th or 18th hole, which is disappointing.”

Moroccans Othman Raouzi and Ayoub Lguirati, the two invited Arab golfers who managed to make the cut, endured difficult days and both sit over par heading into the final round.

FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem receives Arab and MENA backing

Updated 19 April 2024

FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem receives Arab and MENA backing

  • Statement condemns “false allegations” of interference in sporting decisions during 2023 Formula One season

DUBAI: The FIA Members for Sport for MENA region and Arab Council of Touring and Automobile Clubs sub-region have released a statement of support for FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem against what they see as “false allegations” of interference in sporting decisions during the 2023 Formula One season.

“Knowing that Mr. Mohammed Ben Sulayem has been committed to promoting transparency within the FIA since he was elected president of the FIA, his full co-operation with the FIA Ethics Committee and the Compliance department during the 30 days of investigations is highly regarded,” the statement said.  

“The Ethics Committee were unanimous in their determination that there was no evidence to substantiate allegations of interference of any kind involving the FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem and strong evidence beyond any reasonable doubt was presented to support the determination of the FIA Ethics Committee.” 

The statement said that the FIA president was cleared of any wrongdoing over allegations he interfered with the stewards’ decision at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix 2023, and cleared of any wrongdoing regarding allegations that he attempted to interfere with the track certification process for the Las Vegas Grand Prix 2023.

The statement continued: “The FIA Members for Sport for MENA Region and ACTAC Sub-Region condemn, and at the same time are profoundly disappointed with the unjust and relentless attempt to undermine the integrity of the FIA Leadership by such unfaithful allegations to serve narrow personal agendas, and we strongly encourage the FIA administration to initiate legal actions against those responsible for those allegations against the FIA President. 

“We are confident that Mr. Mohammed Ben Sulayem will continue to serve the FIA and its Members in a transparent manner implementing the FIA Code of Ethics as top priority.

“We also would like to assert our support to Mr. Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s leadership of the FIA and will continue our co-operation with him in his efforts to serve and develop the FIA and its Members,” it said.