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
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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.


Saudi boxing champions set to shine at Arab Rising Stars 3 in Abu Dhabi

Emirati boxer Fahad Al-Baloushi celebrates his victory. supplied
Updated 25 February 2024
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Saudi boxing champions set to shine at Arab Rising Stars 3 in Abu Dhabi

  • The event’s main highlight is a heavyweight showdown between Moroccan Jawad Belmehdi and the undefeated Ghanaian Alfred Lamptey

Riyadh: Saudi boxing champions are gearing up to make their mark at the highly anticipated Arab Rising Stars 3 boxing event, slated to kick off on March 2 in Abu Dhabi.

The tournament, held at Yas Links Abu Dhabi Golf Club, is being promoted by AAM Seddiqi Sports in collaboration with the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi.

With a focus on showcasing Arab boxers to a global audience, the event’s main highlight is a heavyweight showdown between Moroccan Jawad Belmehdi and the undefeated Ghanaian Alfred Lamptey.

Alongside top-tier boxers from Iraq and Egypt, elite Saudi fighters will elevate the competition, joined by three Emirati boxers including the acclaimed Fahad Al-Baloushi, boasting the most professional fights for an Emirati boxer, as well as promising talents Sultan Al-Nuaimi and Fahd Khouri.

Through this collaboration, the third edition aims to celebrate the skills and determination of Arab boxers, providing them with invaluable professional opportunities and fostering the growth of boxing culture both locally and internationally.

Broadcasting live on DAZN, ESPN Knockout, and Abu Dhabi Sports TV, the event promises an electrifying showcase of talent starting at 8 p.m. UAEST on Saturday.


Renan Ferreira dominates Ryan Bader in Riyadh to set up Ngannou showdown

Updated 25 February 2024
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Renan Ferreira dominates Ryan Bader in Riyadh to set up Ngannou showdown

  • Johnny Eblen, Jason Jackson, AJ McKee also victorious in inaugural PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions event
  • Abdullah Al-Qahtani, the first fighter to represent Saudi Arabia in the PFL, defeated India’s Edukondal Rao in featherweight contest

RIYADH: Renan Ferreira defeated Ryan Bader in the main fight of the evening as the Professional Fighters League staged the first-ever MMA event in Saudi Arabia,  PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh.

The 11-fight card featured four bouts for the newly minted Super Belt, with additional action from the biggest names in combat sports taking place inside the PFL SmartCage.

In the highly anticipated main event, 2023 PFL heavyweight Ferreira seized the throne, scoring a TKO of Bellator heavyweight Champion Bader 21 seconds into round one. Ferreira hoisted his Super Belt flanked by boxing icon Mike Tyson, and is now set to face combat sports superstar Francis “The Predator” Ngannou, who will make his PFL debut when they meet.

In the co-main event of the evening, 2023 PFL Light Heavyweight Champion Impa Kasanganay challenged undefeated Bellator middleweight champion Johnny Eblen. The back-and-forth affair went the three-round distance, with Eblen taking the victory via narrow split decision and a Super Belt.

“Tonight the Professional Fighters League and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were at the center of the MMA world,” said PFL CEO Peter Murray.

“PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions was the first-ever PFL PPV Super Fight global event and delivered electrifying action from the best fighters in MMA. The PFL remains committed to delivering premium MMA experiences to our fans around the globe.”

In the fourth fight of the PPV main card, two-time PFL welterweight champion Ray Cooper III defeated current Bellator welterweight champion Jason Jackson via a second-round TKO to claim the Super Belt while improving his career record to 18-4.

The 2021 PFL heavyweight champion Bruno Cappelozza and former Bellator light heavyweight champion Vadim Nemkov went toe-to-toe in a heavyweight bout, with the former coming out on top to take his first Super Belt in the process.

Also on the main card, Yoel Romero defeated Thiago Santos in a light heavyweight matchup via a unanimous decision victory.

The main PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions action began with a lightweight affair which saw former Bellator featherweight champion AJ McKee defeat PFL lightweight runner-up Clay Collard after one minute of action.

Henry Corrales and Aaron Pico went toe-to-toe in a lightweight rematch which closed out the early card. Corrales was no match for the offensive onslaught of Pico, who came out with a flurry of elbow strikes. Pico won his third consecutive bout with an opening round TKO.

In lightweight action, Biaggio Ali Walsh, the grandson of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, stepped into the PFL SmartCage for the first time as a professional against Argentina’s Emmanuel Palacio and proceeded to dominate his opponent with his grappling to claim a unanimous decision win.

Further action on the early card featured the return of two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields, who weathered the early submission attempts from the powerful Kelsey De Santis to win a closely contested split decision.

Abdullah Al-Qahtani, the first fighter to represent Saudi Arabia in the PFL, stepped back into the PFL SmartCage to face Edukondal Rao in a featherweight contest. Al-Qahtani stopped Rao by TKO in the third round of a fight that featured exciting stand-up exchanges.

Kicking off the action in the early card, Saudi Arabia’s Malik Basahel defeated Brazil’s Vinicius Pereira via unanimous decision in an amateur flyweight showcase bout. Basahel’s victory improves his amateur record to 18-2-1.

Main card results:

Renan Ferreira (13-3) def. Ryan Bader (31-8) via 1st round TKO (:21)

Johnny Eblen (15-0) def. Impa Kasanganay (15-4) via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)

Jason Jackson (18-4) def. Ray Cooper III (25-10-1) via 2nd round TKO (:23)

Vadim Nemkov (18-2) def. Bruno Cappelozza (15-7) via 2nd round submission (2:13)

Yoel Romero (16-7) def. Thiago Santos (22-11) via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)

AJ McKee (22-1) def. Clay Collard (24-12) via 1st round submission (1:10)

Early Card Results:

Aaron Pico (13-4) def. Henry Corrales (21-8) via 1st round TKO (4:53)

Biaggio Ali Walsh (1-0) def. Emmanuel Palacio (1-1) via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)

Claressa Shields (2-1) def. Kelsey De Santis (1-3) via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)

Abdullah Al-Qahtani (8-1) def. Edukondal Rao (4-2) via 3rd round TKO (0:23)

Malik Basahel (18-2-1 AM.) def. Vinicius Pereira (5-1 AM.) via unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 30-27)


Professional Fighters League extends global reach with launch of PFL MENA after inaugural Riyadh event

Updated 25 February 2024
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Professional Fighters League extends global reach with launch of PFL MENA after inaugural Riyadh event

  • Top MMA fighters from the region will compete in a sport-season format across 4 live events in the Middle East starting in April

RIYADH: The Professional Fighters League has announced the launch of PFL MENA, the promotion’s second international league, which will make its debut in April 2024.

The official announcement was made following the PFL Champions vs Bellator Champions event in the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, the first-ever MMA event in Saudi Arabia.

PFL MENA will introduce a thrilling four-event sport-season format featuring the region’s top fighters and a groundbreaking initiative with PIF-owned SRJ Sports Investments. The full roster of the league will be revealed in March.

CEO of SRJ Sports Investment, Danny Townsend, said: “The launch of the PFL MENA League is another incredible milestone for the sport of MMA, and one we are delighted to play a role in. Saudi Arabia is quickly emerging as the international home of combat sports; bringing world-class talent here and to the wider MENA region remains at the core of SRJ’s investment mandate.

“With the launch of a new PFL MENA League, we’re backing the development of the region’s exceptional talent, helping provide new pathways to the top. We are confident that investments like these will continue inspiring even more young people to take up sport and help grow the MMA fanbase on a global scale.”

PFL CEO Peter Murray announced the brand’s second international league with partners SRJ.

“Driven by the strategic importance of mixed martial arts in burgeoning markets, SRJ’s investment underscores the immense potential of the sport in the region,” he said. “PFL MENA expands the PFL brand and MMA footprint in the Middle East bringing events to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the wider region.

“We’re very excited to be launching PFL MENA and providing up-and-coming athletes from The Middle East a global platform for them to be able to showcase their skills and potentially compete for a life-changing opportunity at a PFL Championship and a million-dollar purse,” Murray added.

Jerome Mazet, general manager of PFL MENA, said: “Through PFL MENA, we hope to be able to not only find and develop the next Middle Eastern MMA star, but we also want to be able to put the spotlight on MMA in the region and give it the attention and the exposure that it deserves.”

Ahead of the launch of PFL MENA, the PFL organized the first-ever international MMA event in Riyadh — PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions — which featured world champions and some of the biggest names in combat sports.

To further highlight the launch of the PFL’s newest international league, selected fighters from the Middle East were in attendance in Riyadh, including Ahmed Amir, Mostafa Rashed Neda, Jarrah Al-Silawi, Abdullah Saleem, and Omar El-Dafrawy.

Abdullah Al-Qahtani, the first fighter to represent Saudi Arabia in the PFL, defeated India’s Edukondal Rao in a featherweight contest on the night.

The inaugural PFL MENA season will feature 32 fighters competing across four weight classes in a sports-season format, with a regular season, playoffs, and championship.

The league will also host showcase fights to develop local and regional talents, such as Hattan Alsaif, the first female fighter from Saudi Arabia to sign a contract with a major global MMA promotion. She will be making her amateur PFL debut in showcase bouts on the PFL MENA cards.


Jasmine Paolini ends Anna Kalinskaya fairytale to win Dubai Tennis Championship

Updated 25 February 2024
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Jasmine Paolini ends Anna Kalinskaya fairytale to win Dubai Tennis Championship

  • Italian battles back from a set and a break down to beat the Russian qualifier and claim her first WTA 1000 title

DUBAI: Italian Jasmine Paolini battled back from a set and a break down in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships to win 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, secure her first WTA 1000 title, and spoil qualifier Anna Kalinskaya’s fairytale week.

Kalinskaya had already written her name into the history books, beating world No.1 Iga Swiatek in the semifinals on Friday to become the first qualifier to reach the Championship match at the Dubai Tennis Stadium. And the 25-year-old looked on course to go one step further when she took the first set under the lights and broke Paolini in the first game of the second set.

Paolini, however, had been in the same position earlier in the week. In her opening match of the tournament against Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia on Sunday, she also lost the opening set and opening game of the second, before rallying back strongly to close out the win. And against Kalinskaya, she repeated the trick.

“It’s so special; I’m really happy and really surprised — I don’t know what to say,” an emotional, smiling Paolini said on court after securing the biggest win of her career.

“I’m just happy that I believed I could win every match. I remember my first match this week: It was second set, I’d lost the first and was a break down, yet now I’m here winning the title. It’s unbelievable.”

Speaking directly to the vocal fans who increasingly cheered for her throughout the match, Paolini added: “It’s great to play in front of so many people — you are crazy, guys. Thank you very much for supporting me.”

Qualifier Kalinskaya had produced some of the biggest shocks of the week as the world No.40 overcame 2022 winner Jelena Ostapenko in the Round of 16, edged world No.3 Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals and beat four-time Grand Slam winner Swiatek in straight sets. And as a capacity crowd filed into their seats to watch two players contesting their first WTA 1000 final, it was Kalinskaya — making her Main Draw debut in Dubai this week after coming through two rounds of qualifying — who settled first, breaking a nervous Paolini in the first game.

The Italian, ranked No.26 in the world, gradually grew into the match, breaking back in the fourth to take the set to 2-2 before the pair, who met last month at the Australian Open with Kalinskaya coming out on top, exchanged successive breaks. In the ninth game, Kalinskaya broke serve once more to take a 5-4 lead and after serving her first ace of the match — a 172 kph thunderbolt — she served out for the first set.

The second set started similar to the first, with Kalinskaya breaking in the first game with a thunderous winner. Yet once more she let her lead slip, this time in the sixth. And with the crowd baying for a third set, Paolini found herself in the ascendancy, pulling her opponent around the court, forcing errors, and eventually breaking in the 12th to take the set 7-5.

Kalinskaya took the lead once more in the third set, but again failed to pull away, seeing her own service game broken immediately by a fired up Paolini. Undeterred, the qualifier broke again to take the outright lead and this time held it for much of the deciding set. Yet, serving for the championship, Kalinskaya’s game evaporated as she double-faulted, started overcooking forehands, and found the net with an unnecessary drop shot that allowed Paolini to stay in the match with a crucial break.

After serving for the match, Kalinskaya found herself needing to break her opponent, but Paolini was unaccommodating, showing ferocity to close out the match and take her first title since October and first above WTA 250 level. The win is expected to project her into the top 15 when the WTA’s latest rankings are released next week.

“I have to say at the end of the match maybe she missed some balls that she never missed all the match,” Paolini said. “It’s tough; tennis is tough mentally. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I’m happy that this time I was able to win.”

Kalinskaya, who conceded Paolini “totally deserved it and (fought) for every ball,” told the fans during the prize cermony: “I’ve never played so much tennis in one week, but it was a pleasure playing in front of you. You make it very special and give a lot of energy and support, so hopefully see you all next year.”

Meanwhile, the doubles final saw No.4 seeded Storm Hunter and Katerina Siniakova triumph over No.3 seeds Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez 6-4, 6-2. Attention now turns to the ATP 500 men’s tournament, which starts on Monday and features six of the world’s top 20, including three previous winners in Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, and Andy Murray.


Eddie Howe calls for Newcastle United ‘unity’ as Premier League struggles continue with Arsenal hammering

Updated 25 February 2024
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Eddie Howe calls for Newcastle United ‘unity’ as Premier League struggles continue with Arsenal hammering

  • The 4-1 loss sees the Magpies fall further behind in the race for European qualification
  • ‘There’s only one way for success, and that’s for the club to be as one,’ said Howe

LONDON: Eddie Howe has called for unity as Newcastle United’s Premier League struggles continue to derail their season.

The Magpies suffered a 4-1 hammering at the hands of Arsenal at the Emirates, with a Sven Botman own goal, Kai Havertz, Bukayo Saka and Jakub Kiwior sealing all three points for the title-chasing Gunners. Newcastle scored a late consolation via former Arsenal man Joe Willock.

The result sees them fall further behind in the race to try and qualify for Europe again next season. And while criticism is building — the Magpies’ form since December is bottom six, rather than top six — head coach Howe has called for everyone to stick together, saying that is the only route to success.

“We need to stick together. There’s only one way for success, and that’s for the club to be as one,” said Howe.

“We know that our run of form has not been as consistent as we want it to be. Coming here I think we were unbeaten in five, so I don’t think it was all bad, but this defeat, we’ll have to take on the chin and we’ll have to come back stronger for it.

“I think Joe’s (Willock) cameo was excellent and I think again he showed exactly what we’ve missed from him and his qualities of attacking the box late and getting goals. Alex’s (Isak) return was a huge positive and hopefully improved for that 60 minutes. Apart from that I’m struggling to find too many more.”

Just the Premier League bottom three plus Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth have conceded more goals than the Magpies this season. The 45 goals already conceded this campaign, far outstretches the 33 they let in for the whole of the 38-game Premier League season in 2022/23.

Newcastle’s defensive record is a continuing concern for Howe, who says his coaches and his players are working to turn things around.

Howe said: “I mean, with every game that goes by and we concede goals, it’s a concern.

“Of course, we’re working on lots of things behind the scenes to try and improve that, but that probably wasn’t evident in the performance.

“I keep saying the same thing regarding conceding goals. It’s collective. Last year, we had that collective mentality that we weren’t going to concede. Even the game coming here last year, we were magnificent in collective defending from the front to the back. I don’t think we’ve lost the desire to do that. We’re just not as competent at the moment at doing it than we were. We need to refind that solidity.

“Of course, it comes from work on the training ground. I think it comes from a collective responsibility, really, and a focus to make that your priority. I think we have attacking players. I think we’ll have players always that will score goals and create moments for us that could win us games, but at the moment we’re sort of taking that away from ourselves by not defending properly.”

With European hopes hanging by a thread, attention now turns to the FA Cup, Newcastle’s only remaining hope for silverware. Howe’s men travel to Championship outfit Blackburn Rovers in the fifth round of the competition on Tuesday evening.

“As I said, in really, really challenging situations, the players have really stuck together. We have to do that now for Blackburn,” said Howe.

“We have to look at this as the biggest game of our season. And, yeah, there’s a lot resting on this next game.”