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.


Silva strikes late as Man City sink Chelsea to reach FA Cup final

Updated 20 April 2024
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Silva strikes late as Man City sink Chelsea to reach FA Cup final

  • Pep Guardiola’s side were second best for long periods of the semifinal
  • Chelsea wasted a string of chances before Silva delivered the knockout blow six minutes from full-time

LONDON: Bernardo Silva fired Manchester City back into the FA Cup final as the Portugal midfielder’s late strike sealed the holders’ 1-0 win against Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday.
Pep Guardiola’s side were second best for long periods of the semifinal, but Chelsea wasted a string of chances before Silva delivered the knockout blow six minutes from full-time.
Shaken by their Champions League quarter-final loss against Real Madrid on penalties in midweek, City took a while to shake off the gloom from the end of their treble bid.
They were hampered by the absence of Norway striker Erling Haaland after he suffered a knock against Real, with Julian Alvarez unable to make an impact as his replacement.
City were bailed out by Chelsea striker Nicolas Jackson’s profligacy and Guardiola will hope the hard-fought success provides a timely lift as they chase a Premier League and FA Cup double.
City face Manchester United or Coventry, who meet on Sunday, in the final on May 25 and will retain the Premier League title if they win their last six games.
It will be City’s 13th final in the competition and potentially a repeat of last year’s 2-1 win over United in the Wembley Manchester derby.
Beaten by Liverpool in the League Cup final in February, Chelsea’s wait to win their first domestic trophy since the 2018 FA Cup goes on for another season.
It was a bitter blow for Blues boss Mauricio Pochettino, who has endured a difficult first season in charge and remains without silverware in England.
The semifinal was billed as in-form Chelsea forward Cole Palmer’s chance to punish his old club for selling him to the Blues in September.
Guardiola said Palmer was asking to leave City for two years before he eventually joined Chelsea, where he has scored 23 goals in all competitions this, including 11 in his last six games.
Palmer, who scored four times in Monday’s 6-0 rout of Everton, was a constant threat for Chelsea, but ultimately it was his team’s lack of killer instinct that proved decisive.
Palmer’s pin-point pass sent Jackson racing into the City area early on, but his strike lacked the accuracy to beat Stefan Ortega in a miss that foreshadowed Chelsea’s fate.
Jackson wasted a golden opportunity to give Chelsea the goal their dominance deserved.
Enzo Fernandez’s pass split the City defense, but Jackson opted to go around Ortega rather than shoot and the chance was gone as Nathan Ake scurried back to clear.
Playing with more purpose and quality than City, Pochettino’s team threatened again as Palmer cleverly shimmied past Rodri for a low drive from 12 yards that was well saved by Ortega.
It was the first time lethargic City had failed to muster a first half shot on target since a game against Everton in February.
Jackson, in the midst of a terrible debut season, was put clean through on goal by Conor Gallagher immediately after the interval.
But the much-maligned striker’s shot was palmed away by Ortega, who clawed away a close-range header from Jackson seconds later.
City finally tested Djordje Petrovic through Phil Foden’s snap-shot, but the Serbian was equal to his powerful strike.
Chelsea appealed in vain for a penalty when Jack Grealish’s arm blocked Palmer’s free-kick, while Moises Caicedo was fortunate to escape a second booking for a crunching tackle that forced Grealish to limp off.
Grealish’s replacement Jeremy Doku drew an immediate save from Petrovic with a near-post blast.
Doku’s presence lifted City and the Belgian played a part as they stole the victory in the 84th minute.
Advancing with intent toward the Chelsea area, Doku slipped a pass to Kevin de Bruyne, whose low cross was pushed out by Petrovic to Silva for a close-range finish that deflected home as Guardiola punched the air in relief.


Mueller bags brace, Kane hits goal 33 as Bayern thump Union

Updated 20 April 2024
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Mueller bags brace, Kane hits goal 33 as Bayern thump Union

  • Just a week after Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen broke Bayern’s 11-year title run, the visitors were dominant and clinical in the German capital
  • Mueller, playing his 470th Bundesliga game for Bayern, scored both of his goals in the second half, either side of a strike from Tel

BERLIN: Harry Kane claimed his 33rd league goal of the season and Thomas Mueller scored twice as Bayern Munich hammered Union Berlin 5-1 away in the Bundesliga on Saturday.
Just a week after Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen broke Bayern’s 11-year title run, the visitors were dominant and clinical in the German capital.
Kane blasted in an excellent free-kick and laid on a second-half goal for Mathys Tel and has now 51 goal involvements in all competitions this season, his best-ever mark.
In the Bundesliga, the England captain is eight shy of Robert Lewandowski’s single season record with four games remaining.
Bayern rested star attacking midfielder Jamal Musiala after Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Arsenal sent them through to the final four of the Champions League but they had no difficulty creating chances against the Union defense.
Handed a rare start, French teenager Tel set up Leon Goretzka’s 29th-minute opener, with Kane scoring a superb free-kick in first-half stoppage time.
Mueller, playing his 470th Bundesliga game for Bayern, scored both of his goals in the second half, either side of a strike from Tel.
Union, who faced Real Madrid and Napoli in the Champions League this season, pulled one back late through Yorbe Vertessen, have now won just one of their past eight and sit three points clear of the relegation places.
Earlier , RB Leipzig tightened their grip on fourth place, the final guaranteed Champions League spot, with a 2-1 win at Heidenheim as Lois Openda scored his 23rd goal of the season.
Leipzig striker Benjamin Sesko opened the scoring shortly before half-time, pouncing on some disorganized defending from the home side for his 10th league goal this term.
Heidenheim, who have beaten Bayern Munich and drawn with Dortmund twice in their first season in the top division, struck back with 20 minutes remaining, Nikola Dovedan heading in following a free-kick.
Leipzig, who are in a battle with Champions League semifinalists Dortmund for fourth place and host them next week, grabbed the winner with five minutes remaining when Openda tapped in a Mohamed Simakan pass.
Leipzig sit three points clear of Dortmund who host champions Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday. Fourth place is guaranteed to play Champions League but fifth could also qualify due to the strong performances of German sides in the competition this season.
RB captain Willi Orban was pleased his side made it through an “incredibly difficult match,” telling Sky “plenty of top sides have dropped points here, but we’ve taken all three — it was deserved.”
Elsewhere, a hat-trick from Borussia Moenchengladbach’s Robin Hack was not enough as his side lost 4-3 at Hoffenheim.
Hoffenheim led 3-1 midway through the second half before Hack scored twice in 11 minutes to level the score with just a minute remaining, but Anton Stach scored in stoppage time for the home side to snatch victory.
Bottom side Darmstadt won their first league match since October, beating second-last Cologne 2-0 thanks to goals from Oscar Vilhelmsson and Cristoph Klarer.
Despite the win, Darmstadt remain 10 points from safety with four games remaining.
Cologne’s chances of beating the drop are falling fast. They are five points away from 15th-placed Bochum, the final safe spot.
Bochum lost 1-0 at Wolfsburg, with Ralph Hasenhuettl’s side winning thanks to a goal from Jonas Wind.
Wind’s goal deepened Bochum’s woes a week after sacking coach Thomas Letsch, with the side just one point clear of the relegation spots.


Leicester go top of Championship as Southampton stumble

Updated 20 April 2024
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Leicester go top of Championship as Southampton stumble

  • Leicester had lost three of their previous five league games to put their return to the Premier League in jeopardy
  • Leicester move two points ahead of Ipswich and four clear of third-placed Leeds

LONDON: Jamie Vardy scored and missed a penalty as Leicester beat West Brom 2-1 to return to the top of the Championship on Saturday.
However, Southampton’s automatic promotion push may be over after conceding in the 95th minute to lose 2-1 at Cardiff.
Leicester had lost three of their previous five league games to put their return to the Premier League in jeopardy.
However, they could now seal promotion as early as Tuesday when Southampton visit the King Power if Leeds lose at Middlesbrough on Monday.
Leicester’s wobble could have continued had West Brom made the most of their early chances.
Hamza Choudhury made three clearances off his own line, but defeat for the Baggies makes them wait to seal a playoff place.
“It was a crazy game. We need still two wins,” said Leicester boss Enzo Maresca.
“Every time you win, you see yourself closer and you celebrate. But it’s not over, we have to finish the job. It was only 12 months ago that we were relegated, it’s not easy to come back.”
Wilfred Ndidi calmed the home side’s nerves midway through the first half, but Vardy missed the chance to give his side a 2-0 half-time lead when his spot-kick came back off the post.
Vardy made amends when he headed in Abdul Fatawu’s cross 25 minutes from time.
Jed Wallace pulled a goal back but West Brom could not find an equalizer.
Leicester move two points ahead of Ipswich and four clear of third-placed Leeds.
Southampton had taken advantage of a sudden loss of form by all the top three to reignite their chances of finishing in the top two.
However, Saints remain five points behind Ipswich with three games to play after blowing an early lead at Cardiff.
Joe Aribo fired the visitors in front after 12 minutes.
Southampton were left to rue not building on that lead as Cardiff goalkeeper Ethan Horvath’s heroics kept his side in the game.
Cardiff levelled against the run of play when Famara Diedhiou slotted home Raheem Conte’s cross.
Cian Ashford’s deflected strike then snatched all three points for the home side deep into stoppage time.
Norwich edged toward securing their place in the playoffs despite being held 1-1 at home by Bristol City.
Hull remain six points behind both West Brom and Norwich with just nine left to play for after a 0-0 draw at Watford.
At the bottom, Huddersfield’s 4-0 thrashing at home to Swansea left them rooted in the bottom three.
Birmingham missed the chance to pull clear of the drop zone after a 0-0 draw at already-relegated Rotherham.
Stoke secured survival with a 3-0 win over Plymouth.
Millwall also ensured their second-tier status with a 1-0 victory at Sunderland.


Barca coach Xavi hails rivals Madrid ahead of Clasico

Updated 20 April 2024
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Barca coach Xavi hails rivals Madrid ahead of Clasico

  • “When you have won so many times you play with more calm, less desperation, more confidence, they are a very good team,” Xavi said
  • “In the end people say it’s luck, I don’t believe much in luck — I think it’s effort, defensive work, the solidarity they showed, everyone working so hard”

MADRID: Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez praised rivals Real Madrid ahead of their Clasico showdown in La Liga on Sunday.
Los Blancos lead the Spanish top flight by eight points with champions Barcelona needing a victory at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday to stand any chance of retaining the trophy.
After Barcelona crashed out of the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain and Madrid beat holders Manchester City in midweek, Xavi acknowledged the record 14-time winners’ quality.
“When you have won so many times you play with more calm, less desperation, more confidence, they are a very good team,” Xavi told a news conference Saturday.
“In the end people say it’s luck, I don’t believe much in luck — I think it’s effort, defensive work, the solidarity they showed, everyone working so hard.
“The three up front worked harder than ever, Man City missed some clear chances but that’s football, it’s not luck that Madrid have knocked out the best team in the world twice in three years.”
Xavi said he was not throwing in the towel in La Liga despite Madrid’s significant advantage.
“For us it’s the most important game of the season, we have to win to put pressure on the leader,” he added.
“We have enormous respect for Real Madrid, they’ve lost just one game out of 31, their numbers are extraordinary.
“We don’t have bad numbers in La Liga, we’ve got four points less than when we were leaders last season (at this stage).”
Xavi’s counterpart at Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti, said his team could strike a killer blow in the title race.
“It’s a great chance for us to get closer to winning La Liga, but we know it’s hard because Barcelona are a very competitive side,” said the Italian.
“We are very close if we are capable of winning ... it will be the usual Clasico, a hard-fought, equal game.”
Ancelotti said defender Ferland Mendy was tired after the win over City and was given an extra day of rest, but the rest of his squad was fit, beyond the long-term absentees.
Madrid are aiming to win a league and Champions League double for the fifth time in their history.
“The cake is prepared and we have to put the cherry on top this month,” said Ancelotti. “We’re very well positioned.”


Saudi Arabia beat Thailand to edge closer to AFC U-23 Asian Cup quarterfinals

Updated 20 April 2024
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Saudi Arabia beat Thailand to edge closer to AFC U-23 Asian Cup quarterfinals

  • The 5-0 win leaves the Green Falcons top of Group C of the tournament, which acts as qualification for this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris

DOHA: Saudi Arabia on Friday night thrashed Thailand 5-0 to edge closer to the quarterfinals of the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup.

The win at Khalifa International Stadium leaves the Green falcons top of Group C with a maximum of six points from three two matches.

Iraq, who defeated Tajikistan 4-2 later on Friday, sit in second with three points, with Thailand third on goal difference. Tajikistan, with two defeats, are bottom of the group with no points.

A win or draw for Saudi Arabia against Iraq on Monday will secure top spot in the group and progress to the last eight.

Saudi took the lead against Thailand after four minutes through Ayman Yahoo’s third goal of the tournament, before Ahmed Al-Ghamdi and Abdullah Radif scored in first-half stoppage time to all but end the match as content.

Radif went on to complete his hat trick with strikes in the 52nd and 73rd minutes.

The U-23 Asian Cup, which runs until May 3, also provides a pathway to the men’s football competition at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

The tournament sees 16 nations split into four groups of four teams, with the top two from each progressing to the quarterfinals. The competition also serves as a route to the Olympic Games in Paris this summer, with the winners of the two semifinals both securing automatic qualification.

The two losing semifinalists will contest third place, with the winners also booking a place in Paris, while the fourth-place finishers have a final chance with a play-off against an African qualifier.