Al-Hilal’s signing of Sergej is less flashy than some but could be the key to renewed success

The 18-time champions Al-Hilal jumped back into the transfer market to sign Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, the club announced on Wednesday evening. (Twitter: @Alhilal_EN)
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Updated 11 August 2023
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Al-Hilal’s signing of Sergej is less flashy than some but could be the key to renewed success

  • The 28-year-old Serbian international’s versatility in midfield is as important as his towering physical presence, he is gifted technically and is a potential leader in the center of the field

Saudi Pro League side Al-Hilal’s preparations for the new season are really shifting into top gear. Less than two weeks after announcing that Jorge Jesus, who managed the club in 2018-19, had been reappointed as head coach, the 18-time champions jumped back into the transfer market to sign Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, the club announced on Wednesday evening.

The Serbian international is perhaps not the biggest name among those who have made the move to Saudi Arabia of late but it is an intriguing move nonetheless and could prove to be an excellent addition as the Blues look to reclaim the league trophy they see as being rightfully theirs.

After eight seasons with Lazio in Serie A, 28-year-old Sergej is now ready for a new challenge, it appears, and has the potential to become a real leader for Al-Hilal, who could have done with his services last season.

If the 6ft 4in Serbian, who has a former professional footballer for a father and former professional basketball player for a mother, had been around in midfield during the previous campaign, when the team had to contend with injuries to Salman Al-Faraj and the earlier absence of Mohammed Kanno, perhaps the Riyadh giants, who finished a distant third in the league, would have provided more of a challenge to champions Al-Ittihad, and perhaps even overcome Urawa Reds of Japan in the final of the AFC Champions League.

Given the physical demands of competing in several competitions — including the league, the Champions League, the King’s Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup — a player such as Sergej might have proved worth his weight in gold. He still might.

His versatility in midfield is as important as his towering physical presence. In short, he is the complete package of a modern midfielder and can do almost anything. Technically, he is excellent and can hold his own in that regard against the very best in the world.

More than that, though, he is a potential leader in the middle of the field. Sergej is not only capable of protecting the defense, he can also play the role of holding midfielder to help stabilize things when required. In short, he has the ability to help out anywhere he is needed and do a great job.

As a real box-to-box midfielder, he really offers a huge amount going forward and usually manages a goal tally in double figures each season. This is hugely impressive in a top-class league such as Serie A, and he often contributes a similar number of assists.

Whoever plays up front for Al-Hilal in the new season, they will love having a player such as Sergej behind them. He is also excellent in the air and will add to the threat his team his team poses in set pieces, as well as improving their ability to defend aerial assaults. If he was able to score regularly in Italy then he should be able to do the same in Saudi Arabia.

All of this explains why he has been in such demand. Manchester United were previously linked with him (they were reportedly ready to pay considerably more for him than Al-Hilal are said to have agreed), and this summer there were reports that Chelsea wanted to bring him to London. There have also been whispers from elsewhere; at some point or another in the past few years, he has been on the shopping lists of many a team in England, Spain and elsewhere.

It is also notable that in signing him, Al-Hilal have plumped for a much younger player than some of the other big names who have arrived in the country of late. At 28, Sergej is at his peak and still has a number of good years ahead of him.

He should love playing with Ruben Neves, who at 26 is two years younger and brings creativity and guile to the middle of the field. Then there is the pleasant thought of Kalidou Koulibaly behind them both in the center of defense.

The Al-Hilal midfield is starting to have a great all-round look, featuring creativity, energy, physicality, technique and leadership. It certainly looks very exciting on paper and it will be interesting to see what happens and whether it all comes together on the field.

It does not seem long since last season ended and it is still relatively early in the summer break but with Al-Hilal now at their Austrian training camp, there is a sense that the new campaign is just around the corner. Preparations are clearly moving quickly and the Blues are starting to look very dangerous indeed.


Al-Shabab crowned inaugural Saudi Women’s U-17 football champs after defeating Al-Hilal in final

Updated 29 February 2024
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Al-Shabab crowned inaugural Saudi Women’s U-17 football champs after defeating Al-Hilal in final

  • Their success in the knockout phase follows a group stage in which they were unbeaten, racking up 9 wins and a draw while scoring 116 goals and conceding just 2
  • Event serves as showcase for talent and potential of young female players and the rapid development of women’s football in the Kingdom, officials say

JEDDAH: Deem Saud scored the decisive goal as Al-Shabab defeated Al-Hilal 1-0 in the final of the inaugural Saudi Arabian Football Federation Women’s U-17 tournament.
The road to the final, which was played on Wednesday at Noon Academy in Jeddah, began in November with the group stages of the tournament, in which 18 teams from the Women’s Premier League, the First Division and SAFF regional training centers were split into four groups.
Al-Shabab were unbeaten in Group 1, topping the table with 28 points from nine wins and a draw, scoring 116 goals along the way and conceding just two.
In the knockout phase, they defeated Jeddah 2-1 in the quarter-finals, and Eastern Flames 2-0 in the semis.
Adwa Al-Arifi, the assistant minister for sport affairs at the Ministry of Sport, Lamia Bahian, the vice president of SAFF, and Aalia Al-Rasheed, the head of the women’s football department at SAFF, watched the final.
Officials said the competition offered a showcase for the talent and potential of young female players in the Kingdom, illustrating the rapid recent development of women’s football across the country. The players and clubs were praised for their skill, team spirit and passion for the sport.
SAFF congratulated Al-Shabab for their success, commended all of the clubs that took part, and thanked the players, coaches and fans for their enthusiastic support, which they said had helped make the championship a great success.


PSG coach Luis Enrique promises ‘much better team’ next season

Updated 29 February 2024
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PSG coach Luis Enrique promises ‘much better team’ next season

  • “If everything goes well I am convinced we will have a much better team than this year,” the Spaniard said
  • “I am convinced, as much in defense as in attack, in the midfield, tactically, physically”

POISSY, France: Paris Saint-Germain coach Luis Enrique on Thursday promised that the French giants will have a stronger team next season despite the impending departure of Kylian Mbappe when the superstar forward’s contract expires.
“If everything goes well I am convinced we will have a much better team than this year,” the Spaniard said after refusing to name specific targets when asked if AC Milan forward Rafael Leao was on the club’s shopping list.
“I am convinced, as much in defense as in attack, in the midfield, tactically, physically,” added the former Barcelona and Spain coach.
His comments came after he took Mbappe off with PSG trailing in last week’s 1-1 draw against Rennes.
Luis Enrique later said the Ligue 1 leaders needed to become accustomed to life without Mbappe, who recently informed PSG of his decision to leave at the end of the current campaign.
“Sooner or later, when it happens, we are going to have to get used to playing without Kylian,” he said after that game.
PSG are 11 points clear at the top of Ligue 1 before going to Mbappe’s former club Monaco on Friday, when they will be without captain Marquinhos due to a calf injury.
They then travel to Spain to face Real Sociedad in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie next Tuesday, defending a 2-0 lead from the first meeting.
“Obviously we are entering into a difficult period. The players really want to win things and this is the key point in the season, the best time,” Luis Enrique said.
“It is all or nothing, and that is a nice feeling.”


‘Heartbroken’ Pogba to appeal four-year doping ban at CAS

Updated 29 February 2024
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‘Heartbroken’ Pogba to appeal four-year doping ban at CAS

  • “I am sad, shocked and heartbroken that everything I have built in my professional playing career has been taken away from me,” Pogba said
  • “As a consequence of the decision announced today I will appeal this before the Court of Arbitration for Sport"

ROME: Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba’s career hung in the balance on Thursday after he was handed a four-year doping ban but the France international said he would try to clear his name by appealing the decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Pogba was provisionally suspended by a tribunal of Italy’s national anti-doping organization (NADO Italia) in September after testing positive for testosterone — a banned substance and hormone that increases athletes’ endurance.
Juventus did not comment on the ban, but a source confirmed the club was notified about the decision and would assess the next steps.
The 30-year-old Pogba, who has a contract at Juve until June 2026, said he had been informed of the decision but denied any wrongdoing and believed the verdict to be incorrect.
“I am sad, shocked and heartbroken that everything I have built in my professional playing career has been taken away from me,” Pogba said in a statement.
“As a professional athlete I would never do anything to enhance my performance by using banned substances and have never disrespected or cheated fellow athletes and supporters of any of the teams I have played for, or against.
“As a consequence of the decision announced today I will appeal this before the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” he added, referring to sport’s highest court.
Italy’s national anti-doping organization (NADO Italia) declined to comment on Pogba’s case citing privacy rules.
The doping test, performed after Juve’s 3-0 Serie A season-opening victory at Udinese on Aug. 20, detected testosterone, with the tribunal saying the results were consistent with an ‘exogenous’ (external) origin of the substance.
Pogba was an unused substitute in that game but he later made two appearances off the bench against Bologna and Empoli before he was handed a provisional suspension.
Pogba’s positive doping test was also confirmed in a counter-analysis on a second sample in October.
The ban could effectively end Pogba’s career at the highest level.
The Frenchman was among the sport’s highest-earning players at his peak after he completed a then-world record transfer of over 100 million euros ($108.42 million) in 2016 to Premier League giants Manchester United.

MINIMUM WAGE
According to a source, Juve are currently paying Pogba a minimum wage of 2,000 euros ($2,169.80) per month.
If the ban is upheld by CAS, Pogba’s contract could be terminated while he will not be able to return to action until September 2027 — when he will be 34.
“When I am free of legal restrictions the full story will become clear, but I have never knowingly or deliberately taken any supplements that violate anti-doping regulations,” Pogba added.
Pogba has had a torrid second spell with Juve due to injuries since he returned to the Turin-based club following his departure from United on a free transfer in 2022.
The 2018 World Cup winner barely featured last season due to knee and hamstring injuries as well as knee surgery, which prevented him playing for France at the World Cup in Qatar.


First La Liga Futures competition in Saudi Arabia kicks off March 1

Updated 29 February 2024
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First La Liga Futures competition in Saudi Arabia kicks off March 1

  • The U-14 tournament, hosted at Mahd Sports Academy in Riyadh, will feature 8 La Liga and 4 international teams

MADRID: La Liga FC Futures U-14, a flagship tournament featuring the youth academies of top-tier Spanish clubs, and being held in Saudi Arabia for the first time, kicks off on March 1.

The matches, to be played at Mahd Sports Academy in Riyadh, has been organized in collaboration with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sports. For the first time, the players making up the competing sides will be in the under-14 category and will play 11-a-side matches.

The tournament will feature 12 clubs, eight EA Sports La Liga teams, plus AS Roma (Italy), SL Benfica (Portugal), Olympique de Marseille (France) and Mahd Academy (Saudi Arabia).

La Liga’s leadership chose Saudi Arabia as the host because of the country’s emergence as a hub for sporting and cultural activities in recent years. The most popular sport in the Kingdom is football, with the highest level of participation among those under the age of 30.

For the past 15 years, La Liga matches have been followed by millions of football fans across the Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia now has six official supporter clubs.

The 12 teams will be divided into three groups: Mahd Academy, FC Barcelona, AS Roma and Cadiz CF (Group A); Atletico de Madrid, Olympique de Marseille, Sevilla FC and Villarreal CF (Group B); and Real Betis, Valencia CF, SL Benfica and CA Osasuna (Group C).

Matches will kick off on March 1 at 9:30 a.m. (Saudi Arabia time) and March 2 at 10 a.m., with the quarterfinals being played on Saturday at 5 p.m. The semifinals will kick off at 10 a.m. on Sunday, with the final at 5 p.m.


World Cup champion Spain beats France 2-0 to win inaugural edition of Women’s Nations League final

Updated 29 February 2024
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World Cup champion Spain beats France 2-0 to win inaugural edition of Women’s Nations League final

  • Bonmati, named the player of the match, volleyed in a low cross in the first half and Caldentey doubled the lead shortly after the break in a dominant performance by the hosts
  • Spain also hold the men’s Nations League title, having beaten Croatia in the final in June

SEVILLE, Spain: Spain have not lost momentum since winning their first World Cup title, defeating France 2-0 on Wednesday to also win the inaugural edition of the Women’s Nations League.

Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmati and Mariona Caldentey scored a goal each for Spain in front of 32,657 fans at La Cartuja Stadium in southern Spain. It was a record crowd for Spain’s women’s team in the country.

Spain also hold the men’s Nations League title, having beaten Croatia in the final in June.

“We have a very good present and a very good future,” women’s team coach Montse Tome said. “I have a group with very experienced players and with new young players coming up. It’s a very positive mix. They have a winning mentality. France haven’t had a shot on goal and that’s also a credit to all of the players.”

Bonmati, named the player of the match, volleyed in a low cross in the first half and Caldentey doubled the lead shortly after the break in a dominant performance by the hosts.

“Happy to win another title,” Bonmati said. “It may seem that what we have achieved is easy, that we have an obligation to win everything, but this is not something easy. And here we are lifting another trophy.”

It was Spain’s first victory over France.

“They’ll be the team to beat at the Olympics, it won’t be easy,” France coach Herve Renard said. “We are going to have to keep improving, learn lessons and keep moving forward. Let’s say we have taken one step but we haven’t taken the second. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

Spain had their breakthrough tournament at the World Cup in New Zealand and Australia, winning the title in their third appearance.

The celebrations were marred by one of the country’s worst crises, though, as the then-president of the Spanish soccer federation, Luis Rubiales, kissed player Jenni Hermoso on the lips during the awards ceremony to spark an outrage in soccer and Spanish society in general. Rubiales eventually resigned, and prosecutors later accused him of sexual assault.

“Today we get to celebrate again. We deserve it,” Hermoso said. “We try to enjoy ourselves but we also have the responsibility that there are so many people behind us who want to follow in our footsteps. We are so proud that there are so many girls who want to be champions in the future.”

Spain defeated the Netherlands 3-0 in last week’s semifinal, a result that also secured the team a place in the Paris Olympics.

France were already qualified for the Olympics as the host country.

“We didn’t play a good game against a team that are world champions and flying high in women’s football,” Renard said. “You have to be aggressive and keep the ball when you get it, but we lost it again straight away.”

Spain scored a competition-high 28 goals, seven more than any other team. It also had the most total attempts at 131.

Alexia Putellas, the former Ballon d’Or winner, did not enter the match for Spain. She hasn’t played for club or country since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her left knee last year.