Haaland picks up Premier League player and young player prizes

Manchester City’s Erling Braut Haaland in action during their Premier League match against Brighton & Hove Albion at The American Express Community Stadium, Brighton on May 24, 2023. (Reuters)
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Updated 27 May 2023

Haaland picks up Premier League player and young player prizes

  • The 22-year-old has taken just 35 appearances to set a new Premier League record of 36 goals in a single season to help Manchester City retain the title
  • "I am honoured to have become the first player to win both awards in the same season," said Haaland

LONDON: Erling Haaland became the first man to win both Premier League player and young player of the year awards in the same season on Saturday.
The 22-year-old has taken just 35 appearances to set a new Premier League record of 36 goals in a single season to help Manchester City retain the title.
“I am honored to have become the first player to win both awards in the same season — thank you to everyone who voted for me,” said Haaland in a City statement.
“It has been an incredible first season in the Premier League and lifting the trophy last weekend in front of our fans at the Etihad was a very special moment for me.”
The Norwegian, who was also named the football writers’ player of the year this week, has scored 52 goals in all competitions as City close in on a treble.
Pep Guardiola’s men face Manchester United in the FA Cup final and Inter Milan in the Champions League final next month.
“These awards would not have been possible without my amazing teammates, the manager and all of the staff at the club who help me perform on the pitch,” added Haaland.
“Now we have two more finals to go and we want to finish the season strong.”

Top Saudi clubs expanding into community-building programs

Updated 13 sec ago

Top Saudi clubs expanding into community-building programs

  • Al-Hilal FC, Al-Nassr, Ittihad and Ahli are leading the push in corporate social responsibility

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development announced this month the launch of its first Corporate Social Responsibility Awards 2024, marking a new age of sustainable development and community involvement in the Kingdom.

The CSR initiative recognizes and inspires private-sector firms corresponding to Saudi Vision 2030’s social responsibility objectives. It promotes local initiatives to implement international standards, encourage competition, and set exemplary corporate practices.
Saudi Arabia’s sports clubs, traditionally focused on sports, entertainment, and culture, are now expanding to include community-building programs. The CSR Awards 2024 will focus on these efforts, recognizing initiatives that promote social development and local progress outside of sports.
Teams including Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Ittihad and Ahli are leading the push in CSR. They are making significant progress in youth development, health promotion, and environmental sustainability. From grassroots football programs for poor children to scholarships for promising young players from disadvantaged backgrounds, these efforts are consistent with Vision 2030’s emphasis on economic diversification and social transformation.
Furthermore, European and Asian examples demonstrate how sports clubs advocate sustainability programs with broad reach and impact. Forest Green Rovers of England is the world’s first UN-certified carbon-neutral football team. Their environmentally friendly methods, such as an organic pitch and solar-powered facilities, have spurred others to pursue greener strategies.

FC Bayern Munich in Germany exemplifies how clubs may incorporate sustainability into their operations, with efforts such as the Allianz Arena’s energy-efficient architecture and recycling programs setting a high bar for environmental care.
Japan’s Kashima Antlers have introduced innovative sustainability techniques, such as rainwater harvesting and LED lighting systems, to reduce their environmental imprint in Asia.

Also, China’s Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC has conducted large tree-planting projects to help with reforestation and ecological conservation.
The ministry hopes to develop a culture in which social impact is synonymous with financial success, resulting in a more socially responsible economic landscape in Saudi Arabia.
The award criteria include community engagement, environmental sustainability, and ethical governance, emphasizing the organizational benefit of CSR activities. Sports clubs, as role models for other businesses, have a unique power to promote social ideals and effect constructive change.
Furthermore, communication and social media are essential in promoting CSR efforts, raising awareness, and mobilizing support. Platforms such as X, Instagram, and Facebook let clubs promote their sustainability efforts, communicate with followers, and increase their impact, resulting in a more inclusive and sustainable future.
With good communication, CSR programs in sports teams can indirectly enhance profitability by improving brand recognition, increasing fan engagement, attracting sponsorship, and lowering costs through energy efficiency and regulatory compliance.

All while offering access to funds and grants, these additional financial resources can help the club’s operations and allow for more investment in CSR efforts, promoting long-term sustainability.
Embracing Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s sports clubs are helping to reshape the country and pave the road for a more socially responsible and sustainable society.

These clubs demonstrate sports’ transformative ability to generate positive social change through their persistent dedication to CSR activities. As they continue on this journey, they will inspire others and set new standards for CSR excellence, paving the way for future generations.

Ronaldo sets Saudi Pro League season scoring record while Al-Hilal finishes unbeaten

Updated 28 May 2024

Ronaldo sets Saudi Pro League season scoring record while Al-Hilal finishes unbeaten

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia: Cristiano Ronaldo finished the Saudi Pro League by setting the season goal-scoring record on Monday.
Ronaldo scored twice in Riyadh as Al-Nassr defeated Al-Ittihad 4-2 and lifted his league tally to 35, one more than the record in 2019 by Abderrazak Hamdallah.
In the final seconds of the first half, Ronaldo, who had already had two goals ruled out for offside, chested down a long pass from Mohammed Al-Fatil and opened the scoring with a low shot from the left side of the area.
With 21 minutes remaining, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner celebrated wildly after heading home a corner from Marcelo Brozovic. He was substituted off the field five minutes later to a standing ovation from the home fans.
It ended an action-packed season for Ronaldo, who scored four hat tricks and collected one red card. He was also suspended for an obscene gesture in February at Al-Shabab fans who had been chanting the name of Lionel Messi, Ronaldo’s longstanding soccer rival.
Al-Nassr finished second in the league, 14 points behind local rival Al-Hilal, which won the championship more than two weeks ago and completed the 34-round league unbeaten on Monday.
Al-Hilal was too strong even without Neymar, who joined the club in August from Paris Saint-Germain but suffered a season-ending ACL injury in October.
Aleksandar Mitrovic stepped in and ended the season with a goal in the final seconds to clinch a 2-1 win over Al-Wehda. The Serbian striker, signed from London club Fulham last summer, reached 27 league goals, second only to Ronaldo.
On its way to the title, Al-Hilal went on a 34-game winning streak in all competitions, a new world record for a top tier team.
“This season has been truly exceptional for the team, arguably our best ever,” coach Jorge Jesus said. “The credit goes to the immense talent within the squad and the incredible sense of unity that transcends both on and off-field interactions.”
Al-Ittihad’s defeat at Al-Nassr ended a disappointing season for the defending champion. Karim Benzema, signed from Real Madrid, struggled with injuries and even with N’Golo Kante and Fabinho in midfield, signed from Chelsea and Liverpool respectively, the team from Jeddah could manage only fifth place.
Poor results cost Nuno Santo his job as coach in November, and the Portuguese tactician returned to the English Premier League a month later to take over Nottingham Forest.
Al-Ahli, the fourth of the ‘Big Four’ clubs taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund last June, finished third, 17 points behind Al-Nassr. Al-Ahli beat Al-Fayha 1-0 thanks to a late goal — his ninth of the season — from former Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino.
Ronaldo took the headlines, however, and the 39-year-old still had one more chance to end the season with a trophy when Al-Nassr meets Al-Hilal in the King’s Cup final on Friday.

Ancelotti has ‘really difficult’ decision to make in goal for Madrid ahead of Champions League final

Updated 27 May 2024

Ancelotti has ‘really difficult’ decision to make in goal for Madrid ahead of Champions League final

  • Lunin was nursing a fever and was the only Madrid player who didn’t train on Monday as Madrid began its final week of preparations

MADRID: Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti knows he will have a tough decision to make in goal for the Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday.
Will he pick Andriy Lunin, who has played in goal nearly the entire season, or Thibaut Courtois, the veteran who has won the Champions League before but has just returned from injury?
“It’s really difficult,” Ancelotti said Monday. “Of course it’s really difficult, because both of them deserve to play this final. Lunin because he did a fantastic season, and Courtois because he is back from his injury and everyone knows the quality of Courtois. It’s a difficult decision but I think I’m going to take into the game this decision, no doubt.”
Lunin was nursing a fever and was the only Madrid player who didn’t train on Monday as Madrid began its final week of preparations. But Ancelotti said the 25-year-old Ukrainian was expected to be available for Saturday’s final in London.
The illness surely doesn’t help Lunin’s chances, though, and many had already expected Ancelotti to go with the more experienced Courtois despite his lack of minutes this season.
Courtois ruptured a left-knee ligament in August, just two days before the start of the season. The 32-year-old Belgian then also ruptured the meniscus in his right knee in March, when he was close to making a comeback.
He was sidelined until the beginning of this month, when he started in a 3-0 win over Cadiz, a victory that secured Madrid’s 36th Spanish league title.
Lunin was back in goal as Madrid beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals. He had saved two penalties in the decisive shootout win over Manchester City in the quarterfinals.
Lunin had earned the starting position over Kepa Arrizabalaga, the former Chelsea player who is Madrid’s other reserve goalkeeper. Ancelotti said Lunin was the best goalkeeper in the world right now.
Courtois has proven experience in finals, though, having won the 2022 Champions League with Madrid, the FA Cup with Chelsea, the Europa League with Atletico Madrid, and two Copa del Rey titles (one for Madrid, one for Atletico), among several other titles.
“Both deserve to play for various reasons,” Ancelotti said.
Ancelotti joked that he will wait as long as possible to announce the starting goalkeeper because otherwise the debate would be over, and “I like the debate.”

Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League

Updated 26 May 2024

Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League

  • A victorious end to this AFC Champions League-era was earned by the UAE’s Al-Ain after a 5-1 win over Yokohama Marinos at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium

DUBAI: Al-Ain are kings of Asia after a remarkable AFC Champions League campaign culminated in a 5-1 win over Yokohama Marinos in the second leg of the final on Saturday night.

Morocco phenomenon Soufiane Rahimi helped gain a richly deserved second continental crown for Hernan Crespo’s troops, sparking wild celebrations at a jubilant Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in the Garden City.

The Boss’ 6-3 aggregate finals triumph over Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos was enriched by consecutive knockout-stage eliminations of red-hot Saudi Arabian favorites Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr and came with added poignancy as they go down in history as the first and last victors throughout 21 editions of this format ahead of next season’s sweeping changes for AFC Champions League Elite/AFC Champions League Two/AFC Challenge League.

Here, Arab News takes a look at the talking points for the Middle East’s competitors after this unforgettable — and unrepeatable — 2023-24 campaign:

Crespo and Rahimi make difference for unstoppable Al-Ain

Al-Ain’s curious campaign gained a fittingly glorious conclusion.

The Boss looked well off the pace domestically to a rampant Al-Wasl yet were the undisputed class of the continental field. That is, in part, attributable to the searing drive of Rahimi and Crespo’s charisma.

They swept through the group stage under the unpopular Alfred Schreuder, before their celebrated Argentine supremo orchestrated a tight victory versus Uzbekistan’s Nasaf and then two modern classics against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal.

A Marinos similarly prone to drama awaited in the decider. Al-Ain would only trail for 14 regulation minutes across the two legs, with a 2-1 away defeat being followed by a dominant 5-1 home victory.

There would be no repeat of the showpiece suffering caused by Douglas’ missed penalty in 2016 or Al-Ittihad’s inexorable 2005 second-leg display.

Crespo learned from the 2022 semifinal embarrassment inflicted upon him by Al-Hilal when in charge of Qatar’s Al-Duhail. His reintroduction of compatriot Matias Palacios — mystifyingly shunned by Schreuder — was influential.

Other heroes included Yahia Nader, Kaku, the ceaseless Mohammed Abbas and skipper Bandar Al-Ahbabi.

But the final words must go to Rahimi. The top scorer’s 13 goals were five more than anyone else, including three goals in two legs versus Al-Nassr and a first-leg hat-trick against Al-Hilal.

In the final’s second stanza, he leveled the tie on eight minutes, won the penalty for Kaku, which put them back ahead, and a supremely intelligent arching run kept him onside before being felled by goalkeeper William Popp for the red card. There was even time to link back up with gregarious Togo hit man Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba, who raised the roof via a late brace despite being continually ignored by Crespo.

In a sign of what awaits, however, links to a Saudi Arabian summer move will not abate.

Saudi Arabia’s time should come again

Shock and disappointment are the prevailing emotions for Saudi Arabia’s heavyweights as they look back on a 2023-24 campaign derailed by neighbors Al-Ain.

A quarterfinal double-header for the ages witnessed Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr eliminated on penalties, with a Rahimi-inspired Al-Ain then inflicting more pain on Al-Hilal in the subsequent round. Such early exits were far from the commentariat’s minds when Roshn Saudi League’s revolutionary summer 2023 spending spree was conducted.

There are multiple reasonable to believe, however, that a seventh AFC Champions League trophy will be won by a club from the Kingdom in a year’s time.

The AFC’s decision to scrap their own foreign quota from 2024-25 should exponentially benefit Saudi clubs.

This season’s limit to six foreign players — of whom one must be Asian-qualified — was two more than Saudi clubs are permitted domestically, or three if they did not possess an Asian foreigner. Hence Nassr’s panicked January acquisition of little-used Australia left-back Aziz Behich.

In comparison, only five open-age foreigners were allowed in this season’s ADNOC Pro League of the UAE and Qatar’s Expo Stars League.

The rule unduly disrupted the chemistry within Saudi squads, leading to consequential selection calls such as esteemed Senegal center-back Kalidou Koulibaly sitting out Al-Hilal’s last-four decider with Al-Ain.

There is also an undeniable home-soil advantage baked into the 2024-25 and 2025-26 Elite editions with the quarterfinals, semifinals and final being played in one-leg ties within the Kingdom.

Roshn Saudi League clubs can also look forward to another ambitious summer recruitment spree to further bolster already fearsome rosters. Jeddah giants Al-Ahli’s return to Asia’s premier club competition for the first time since 2021 will see the likes of Franck Kessie and Riyad Mahrez compete for glory.

In time, 2023-24 may just be looked upon as an unwelcome blip for Saudi Arabia’s strongest.

More middling Qatar performances

Another AFC Champions League passed by with no telling impact from Qatari clubs, despite an abundance of star quality and the national team’s second successive Asian Cup success this winter.

It is now 13 years and counting since Al-Sadd defeated South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the final. This is also the nation’s last showpiece appearance.

This season, Al-Arabi and Al-Wakrah exited in the play-offs to unfancied Uzbekistani opposition. It got little better in the competition proper, with Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail failing to make the knockouts.

It feels like a window of opportunity in the AFC Champions League has permanently closed for Qatar, without reward.

Focus on COVID-19 and the World Cup 2022 has shifted to Saudi Arabia’s AFC Champions League Elite “Final Stage” hosting rights for 2024-26, plus lengthy run-ups to the 2027 Asian Cup and World Cup 2034.

Shifting balance?

Change to the direction of travel from east to west within Asian football was notable, throughout 2023-24.

The question, now, is whether this is permanent.

Western supremacy seemed pre-determined in 2023/24, from the imposing strength of Saudi Arabia’s clubs to Al-Ain appearing as the only opponent with a realistic retort. It had, resolutely, not been this way for much of the recent past.

Al-Hilal (2019, 2021) and Al-Sadd (2011) were the only western-zone teams to prevail from 2006 to 2022.

With the financial might of the Chinese Super League continuing to emphatically wane and K League 1 and J1 League outfits remaining exporters of outstanding talent rather than importers, AFC Champions League Elite may have a drastically different roll of honor.

Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League

Updated 26 May 2024

Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League

  • The defending champions had never beaten the French giants, losing in the 2019 and 2022 finals against them, but finally succeeded in Bilbao
  • Securing their third Champions League trophy from five final appearances, Barcelona demonstrated that they are the new powerhouse of the women’s game

BILBAO, Spain: Aitana Bonmati and Alexia Putellas struck to earn Barcelona their third women’s Champions League trophy, securing a 2-0 triumph over record eight-time winners Lyon on Saturday.

The defending champions had never beaten the French giants, losing in the 2019 and 2022 finals against them, but finally succeeded in Bilbao to compete a spectacular quadruple this season in coach Jonatan Giraldez’s last match in charge.

Bonmati pounced after 63 minutes and substitute Putellas finished the job in stoppage time to avenge Barcelona’s prior defeats by Sonia Bompastor’s side.

Securing their third Champions League trophy from five final appearances across the last six seasons, Barcelona demonstrated that they are the new powerhouse of the women’s game.

“(It’s) a dream day, it is difficult to explain with words the feeling I have now. It is a special moment,” said Giraldez.

“It is one of happiest days of my life.”

Barca’s stars had insisted that this time they were capable of beating Lyon, adding experience and mental strength to their undoubted talent, and so it proved at a packed San Mames.

Backed by the vast majority of a 51,000 record crowd at a women’s Champions League final, Bonmati and her side completed one of the few challenges remaining to them.

“It’s the first time we’ve beaten Lyon. I’m proud of the team, and we know that with these fans we have, we can’t fail,” Bonmati told DAZN.

“It’s incredible what we’re living through as a team, I’m so lucky... to see we’re creating that for so many people, the historic amount of fans we’ve brought, it’s the proudest I’ve felt, I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Giraldez started Mariona Caldentey in attack and moved Fridolina Rolfo to left-back, dropping Ona Batlle to the bench alongside two-time Ballon d’Or winner Putellas.

Lyon left Ada Hegerberg started on the bench too, with the all-time top scorer in the competition’s history struggling for form after injury.

Lucy Bronze deflected a ball onto her own crossbar and Lyon’s towering captain Wendie Renard hit the outside of the post as Barcelona suffered a couple of early jitters.

After going four goals down by half-time in the 2019 final and three down in 2022, this time the Catalans dug deep to hold it together at the back.

Barca threatened increasingly at the other end. Patri Guijarro, who scored twice in last year’s final against Wolfsburg, broke in for their first big chance after half an hour.

Christiane Endler saved and Selma Bacha cleared the ball off the line after it rebounded back toward goal.

Barca’s Caroline Graham Hansen, in sparkling form this season, gave left-back Bacha a torrid time and had 11-time finalist Renard backpedalling fearfully near the end of the first half, but dragged her shot wide.

Barcelona made their quality count after the hour mark when Bonmati sent them ahead.

The Ballon d’Or winner had been quiet but arrived to collect Caldentey’s clever pass and burst into the area.

Bonmati’s low shot deflected off Vanessa Gilles and flew over the helpless Endler, for her sixth goal of the tournament.

Champions League top goalscorer Kadidiatou Diani curled agonizingly over for Lyon as Bompastor’s side tried to fight back. Hegerberg headed off target as Lyon’s chances ebbed away.

“We have to recognize Barcelona had a great match and deserved to win even though it’s hard to accept it,” said Bompastor, tipped to join Chelsea next season, although she stayed tight-lipped on her future.

“We lacked attacking efficiency, we should have scored a goal.”

Eventually Putellas, on as a late substitute, put on the captain’s armband and settled the game by rifling into the top corner to get Barcelona’s celebrations started early.

“Obviously it’s a dream come true, what we have achieved,” said Putellas after her goal locked in Barcelona’s quadruple.

Bronze who won the competition for the fifth time — including three times with Lyon — praised Putellas.

“She’s the captain of the team, she’s the ‘queen’ of Barcelona for a reason,” said Bronze.

“She’s got the quality to do that in the last minute of the Champions League final when we were up against it at the end and just sealed the win for us.”