Neymar and Al-Hilal suffer scare in Asian Champions League, Al-Ittihad cruise to win

Al-Hilal’s Neymar in action with Navbahor Namangan’s Igor Golban at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh. (Reuters)
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Updated 19 September 2023

Neymar and Al-Hilal suffer scare in Asian Champions League, Al-Ittihad cruise to win

  • Neymar was making his first start for the record Asian champions having debuted on Friday as a substitute in the Saudi Pro League
  • Saudi champions Al-Ittihad began their quest for a third Champions League title with a comfortable 3-0 victory at home

RIYADH: Brazil star Neymar endured an Asian Champions League debut to forget as Al-Hilal had to score deep into injury-time to salvage a 1-1 at home to Uzbekistan’s Navbahor in Riyadh on Monday.
Neymar, signed last month from Paris Saint-Germain for a reported €90 million, was making his first start for the record Asian champions having debuted on Friday as a substitute in the Saudi Pro League victory at home to Al Riyadh.
Runners-up in last year’s Champions League, Al-Hilal were fortunate not to lose their Group B opener having gone behind on 52 minutes at King Fahd International Stadium to Toma Tabatadze’s expert finish. Navbahor, the 2022 Uzbekistan Super League runners-up, were competing in the Champions League for the first time.
However, Al-Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulaihi rescued a point for the four-time champions in the 100th minute, rising unmarked in the Navbahor area to head home Michael’s corner.
Neymar, who earlier this month became Brazil’s all-time lead goalscorer, had largely a night to forget. The forward was subjected to some particularly robust treatment from Navbahor, and was incensed just before the hour when he was trod on after being dragged to the ground.
Moments later, Neymar was booked for pushing over an opponent and then angrily kicking the ball at the player as he lay on the pitch.
Neymar did have a chance get Hilal back into the game three minutes from time, but his close-range header was straight at Navbahor goalkeeper Utkir Yusupov. Yusupov then made a spectacular save in injury-time to deny Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, although he could do nothing to prevent Al-Bulaihi’s leveller.
Also in Group D, Iranian debutants Nassaji Mazandaran won 2-0 away to India’s Mumbai City.
Meanwhile, Saudi champions Al-Ittihad began their quest for a third Champions League title with a comfortable 3-0 victory at home to Uzbekistan’s AGMK in Jeddah.
Al-Ittihad, back-to-back winners in 2004 and 2005, went into the Group C opener without Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema, who was injured, but struck twice in six minutes early in the first half.
Haroune Camara, starting in Benzema’s absence, opened the scoring at the Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium on 10 minutes before Romarinho soon doubled the hosts’ advantage.
The Brazilian got his second of the night four minutes before half-time, as Nuno Espirito-Santo’s side eased to the three points.
In the group’s other fixture, Iraq’s Air Force Club held 2007 runners-up Sepahan, of Iran, to a 2-2 draw in Irbil.
In Group B, two-time Asian champions Al-Sadd drew 0-0 at home with UAE side Sharjah — Algeria’s Baghdad Bounedjah missed a second-half penalty for the hosts — while Jordan’s Al-Faisaly sunk to a 1-0 defeat in injury-time to Uzbekistan’s Nasaf in Amman.
The group stage, which this year returned to a home-and-away format for the first time since early 2020, runs until mid-December, with the 10 pool winners and the six best second-placed teams advancing to the knockout rounds. That begins in February. The final takes place, across two legs, in May.

Spain’s World Cup winners return to action after sexism scandal with 3-2 win in Sweden

Updated 23 September 2023

Spain’s World Cup winners return to action after sexism scandal with 3-2 win in Sweden

  • Athenea del Castillo:They have been difficult days for everyone
  • Putellas was captain for the game in a Spain team containing seven starters from the World Cup final against England

GOTHENBURG, Sweden: Spain’s World Cup-winning women’s team got back to being soccer players on Friday.

A 3-2 victory over Sweden in Gothenburg — secured by a penalty with virtually the last kick of the game — was Spain’s first match since capturing the biggest prize in women’s soccer last month in Australia. That achievement ultimately was tarnished by a sexism scandal sparked by the former Spanish soccer federation president, Luis Rubiales, kissing player Jenni Hermoso on the lips during the World Cup awards ceremony.

The fallout has been far-reaching, remaining high up the global news agenda and continuing right up to the eve of the match when a deal was reached between the players, federation and government mediators that Spain’s players believe will lead to real reform inside the beleaguered federation and mark a turning point in the fight for equality.

To get to that point, the players were engaged in through-the-night meetings and constant telephone calls, all the while staying under massive external scrutiny that hardly provided the best preparation for a Nations League match against the world’s top-ranked team.

Still, the Spanish showed the kind of battling qualities that have characterized the off-the-field fight against their federation by coming from behind at the Ullevi stadium, clinching the win when Mariona Caldentey converted a spot kick in the sixth minute of second-half stoppage time. The final whistle blew immediately after the resulting restart and Spain’s players celebrated wildly.

“They have been difficult days for everyone,” said Athenea del Castillo, who scored Spain’s first goal, “but we have shown that we are a true team that wants to represent its country and that is what it is about — fighting until the end.”

A 23rd-minute opener by captain Magdalena Eriksson gave Sweden the lead but Spain replied through Del Castillo’s equalizer in the 37th, when her shot from outside the area squirmed out of goalkeeper ZeCira Musovic’s grasp and bounced into the net.

Spain went ahead in the 77th through Eva Navarro, who curled a left-footed shot into the top corner, only for Lina Hurtig to make it 2-2 five minutes later.

The penalty was awarded with seconds left of added-on time when Amanda Ilestedt pulled back Amaiur Sarriegi in the area, a foul that earned the center back a red card.

“I told them that it is a day in which they have dignified the profession that they enjoy so much and I felt happy,” newly appointed Spain coach Montse Tomé said. “It has been a special debut in a complicated week, but I felt like we could use that energy and focus it on football.”

Before the match, players from both teams got together and held aloft a banner containing the words “Se Acabo” — Spanish for “this is over” – followed by “Our fight is the global fight.” There was applause around the stadium.

The “Se Acabo” slogan was started by Hermoso’s teammate Alexia Putellas, Spain’s star player, and has been a rallying call amid the scandal.

Putellas was captain for the game in a Spain team containing seven starters from the World Cup final against England. Hermoso wasn’t one of them because she wasn’t called up “as a way to protect her,” in the words of Tome.

Spain returns to action on Tuesday against Switzerland in its first home game as world champion.

Meanwhile, three national team players have been summoned as witnesses by the judge investigating Rubiales for the kiss. The players, who were not named, are expected to testify next week.

The federation earlier Friday announced that it fired its integrity director, Miguel García Caba. The announcement came a few days after it said secretary general Andreu Camps was relieved of his duties. The changes were part of the demands made by the players who boycotted the national team after the kiss by Rubiales.

Morgan joins Sergio Garcia in five-way tie for lead, Stinger lead team race

Updated 23 September 2023

Morgan joins Sergio Garcia in five-way tie for lead, Stinger lead team race

  • While the four other co-leaders are assured of returning in 2024, the 23-year-old Morgan is one of four players currently in the Drop Zone  

SUGAR GROVE, Illinois: Ripper GC’s Jediah Morgan, fighting to retain his spot in the LIV Golf League for next season, opened with a 5-under 66 to share the first-round lead Friday at LIV Golf Chicago.
Morgan is tied with Fireballs GC captain Sergio Garcia, Stinger GC captain Louis Oosthuizen, Crusher GC’s Anirban Lahiri and Torque GC’s Sebastián Muñoz on a packed leaderboard in which 19 other players ­are within two shots of the lead. Among those pursuers are team captains Brooks Koepka (Smash GC), Dustin Johnson (4Aces GC) and Bryson DeChambeau (Crushers), who each shot 68, and Joaquin Niemann (Torque), who shot 67.
While the four other co-leaders are assured of returning in 2024, the 23-year-old Morgan is one of four players currently in the Drop Zone who face relegation at the end of the season. He ranks 46th with just three points but a big result this week at Rich Harvest Farms could move him above the Drop Zone.
 Non-captains ranked 45th or worse will be relegated but have a chance to play their way back in later this year at the promotion tournament.
“I know where I am and everyone keeps reminding me where I am, so it’s pretty hard to get away from it,” said Morgan, who posted the low round in the field on Sunday at the previous LIV Golf event in Bedminster last month.“So, there’s no point in me trying to act like it’s not there in my head. It’s obviously there.
“But I know if I play well enough, put myself in the position I think to make putts for birdie, then that’s really all you can do.”

Team counting scores

Here are the standings and counting scores for Friday’s opening round of the team competition at LIV Golf Chicago. The three best scores from each team count in every round for their total team score. The team with the lowest cumulative score after three rounds wins the team title.

1. STINGER GC (-13): Louis Oosthuizen 66, Charl Schwartzel 67, Dean Burmester 67

2. FIREBALLS GC (-12): Sergio Garcia 66, Carlos Ortiz 67, Eugenio Chacarra 68

3. CRUSHERS GC (-12): Anirban Lahiri 66, Charles Howell III 67, Bryson DeChambeau 68

4. RIPPER GC (-11): Jediah Morgan 66, Marc Leishman 67, Cameron Smith 69

5. 4ACES GC (-10): Patrick Reed 67, Peter Uihlein 68, Dustin Johnson 68

6. TORQUE GC (-10): Sebastián Muñoz 66, Joaquin Niemann 67, David Puig 70

7. SMASH GC (-10): Jason Kokrak 67, Brooks Koepka 68, Matthew Wolff 68

8. RANGEGOATS GC (-9): Thomas Pieters 67, Talor Gooch 68, Bubba Watson 69

9. MAJESTICKS GC (-6): Sam Horsfield 69, Ian Poulter 69, Lee Westwood 69

10. IRON HEADS GC (-3): Scott Vincent 67, Kevin Na 70, Danny Lee 73

11. HYFLYERS GC (-2): Cameron Tringale 68, Brendan Steele 69, James Piot 74

12. CLEEKS GC (-1): Graeme McDowell 70, Richard Bland 71, Bernd Wiesberger 71

Ronaldo magic inspires Al-Nassr to epic win over Al-Ahli

Cristiano Ronaldo led Al-Nassr to a thrilling 4-3 win over Al-Ahli in the Saudi Pro League. (X/@AlNassrFC)
Updated 23 September 2023

Ronaldo magic inspires Al-Nassr to epic win over Al-Ahli

  • Portuguese talisman leads from the front as Riyadh club claims fifth straight victory

RIYADH: There is not much more that can be said about Cristiano Ronaldo at the moment except that he scored two more on Friday, leading Al-Nassr to a thrilling 4-3 win over Al-Ahli.

The victory gave the Riyadh club its most significant result of the season so far, even if it did get a bit tense at the end.

After two defeats in the opening two games, Al-Nassr have won their last five and are now in fifth place, just three points behind leaders Al-Ittihad.

With Ronaldo scoring for fun, grabbing nine goals in seven league games, Al-Nassr are on fire.

Al-Nassr’s attacking talent looks capable of scoring almost every time the team crosses the halfway line, and perhaps that explains the nervousness in Al-Ahli’s backline.

There were only four minutes on the clock when Sadio Mane, on the same pitch as his former Liverpool teammate Roberto Firmino, pounced on some hesitant defending to feed Ronaldo just outside the box.

Goalkeeper Edouard Mendy may blame the green smoke that had enveloped the area, but Ronaldo’s finish was perfect. In the manner of a player with over 850 goals under his belt, the 38-year-old simply stroked the ball into the net.

Moments later, the Portuguese international hit the upright as Al-Nassr, roared on by their delirious home fans, threatened to run riot.

The second goal came after 16 minutes courtesy of Anderson Talisca. Aymeric Laporta headed a right-sided free-kick back across goal and the Brazilian popped up at the far post to nod the ball home.

Al-Ahli are eying a title challenge of their own and would have gone second with a win and level on points with Al-Ittihad. They showed what they are capable of on the half-hour.

Mohammed Al-Majhad slipped a perfect pass over the top of the yellow defense, and there was Franck Kessie to run on goal and pick his spot from the edge of the area. 

Both teams continued to push forward, but just as the visitors were preparing to head in at the break just a goal behind, they reckoned without Talisca. Marcelo Brozovic’s crossfield pass from the left was cleared only as far as the blond-haired attacker loitering with intent on the corner of the area, and he cut inside to send an unstoppable shot high into the net, giving Mendy no chance.

The action did not let up in the second half as Riyad Mahrez reduced the arrears once more, shooting home from the spot after Talisca followed his two fine goals with a clumsy foul in the box.

Just two minutes later, however, Ronaldo restored his team’s two-goal cushion with another top-class finish. Fed by Talisca on the edge of the area, the former Real Madrid man took a touch and then drilled a left-foot shot past Mendy and into the bottom corner. It was another example of deadly finishing.

Three minutes from the end, it was time for a local striker to get in on the act. Mahrez squared a perfect pass across the six-yard box and Firas Al-Buraikan converted for his first goal since his recent big-money move from Al-Fateh. The goal ensured a tight finish, but Al-Nassr hung on for the win.

It was an exciting match for the neutral and an exhibition of some impressive attacking play, with Ronaldo showing once again that he means business and that Al-Nassr are looking very dangerous, indeed.

Europe fight back after USA sweep Solheim Cup foursomes

Updated 23 September 2023

Europe fight back after USA sweep Solheim Cup foursomes

  • The previous best start for the US was 3 1/2-1/2 in Wales in 1996
  • Former Spain great Jose María Olazabal brought on the trophy to the first tee and lauded what he called “one of the most important tournaments in women’s golf”

CASARES, Spain: The European team started to fight back on Friday afternoon as they edged fourballs to trail the US 5-3 at the end of the first day of the Solheim Cup.

The US swept the morning foursomes 4-0 at Finca Cortesin in Spain, but Europe collected two wins and two halves in taking the afternoon fourballs 3-1 to revive their hopes of an unprecedented third win in a row.

Europe received a huge fillip from Leona Maguire in the second match. All square and with American Lexi Thompson on the fringe of the green in two at the par five 18th, the Irish star chipped in for birdie.

Clearly rattled, Thompson half shanked her chip and could only manage a par and the Europeans, Maguire and Georgia Hall, claimed a first full point.

“it was a great win,” said Maguire, who won four and half points out of five on her debut two years ago. “Georgia kept it together on the front nine and then I made some birdies on the back nine.

“It’s been a long, tiring day but it was a good comeback in the afternoon.”

Spaniard Carlota Ciganda, who had sat out foursomes, carried on the home charge in the afternoon, joining rookie Linn Grant in a 4 and 2 victory over Ally Ewing and Angel Yin in the final foursome.

The other matches swung back and forth.

In the top tie, rookie Gemma Dryburgh and Madelene Sagstrom shared the spoils with US rookie Rose Zhang and Megan Khang.

A highlight was Dryburgh’s chip in for birdie at the 16th — but Zhang followed her in with a 20-foot putt to keep the match all square.

The third match was also a well-earned half. US Open Champion Allizen Corpuz holed a long putt for birdie at the 18th, but rookie Maja Stark followed her in from around the same range.

In the same match, Emily Pedersen claimed the shot of the day with a hole in one at the 178-yard 12th.

“It was a tough morning, but good to fight back in the afternoon,” said European Captain, Suzann Pettersen.

“I think my team was almost trying too hard in the morning but I was confident they could come back.”

The morning was all about the US. Thompson and Khang set the tone in the top match, winning the opening three holes against European rookies Grant and Stark.

The Americans went on to win by 2 and 1 and their next two matches claimed victory on the final green.

In a one-sided final match, Ewing and rookie Cheyenne Knight trounced Charley Hull and Pedersen by 5 and 4.

Hull, playing in her sixth Solheim, was struggling with neck and upper back pain and was worked on by the physiotherapist on the practice range.

But she was out spectating in the afternoon and expects to be fit for final two days.


How Ronaldo’s arrival turned Riyadh into top footballers’ favored destination

Updated 22 September 2023

How Ronaldo’s arrival turned Riyadh into top footballers’ favored destination

  • Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Shabab among Saudi clubs reshaping global football landscape
  • The announcement that top clubs would be privatized ushered in a new, golden era

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo opened the door and the rest followed.

What was a one-man mission to put the Saudi Pro League on the world map just a few months ago, has become a full-blown revolution.

So much so that when Brazilian superstar Neymar joined Al-Hilal from Paris Saint-Germain in August, it felt more like the apogee of a project rather than the scarcely believable.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s announcement that Saudi Arabia’s top clubs would be privatized has ushered in a new, golden era for football in the Kingdom, with Riyadh’s clubs leading the way.

When Ronaldo was first linked with a move to Al-Nassr, the reports were dismissed as fanciful across the world. On Dec. 31, 2022, the perception of Saudi football changed overnight.

Suddenly, a move to the SPL was not just attractive, but almost irresistible for some of the world’s top players.

Al-Hilal were not going to take lightly losing their Saudi Pro League and AFC Champions League titles last season. A major rebuilding operation has seen Portugal’s Reuben Neves join from Wolves and Serbia’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic arrive from Lazio; two players at the peak of their careers. This put to rest the argument that leagues in the Middle East and GCC were retirement homes for players nearing the end of their careers.

Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea, and Brazil’s Malcom from Zenit Saint Petersburg, had already joined the Blues, before Neymar’s landmark announcement was followed by the arrival of Moroccan goalkeeper Yasine Bounou (Sevilla) and Serbian forward Alexander Mitrovic (Fulham).

At Al-Nassr, the club that started the deluge of foreign imports, Sadio Mane (Senegal) from Bayern Munich, Marcelo Brozovic (Croatia) from Inter Milan, Seko Fofana (Ivory Coast) from RC Lens, and Alex Telles (Brazil) from Manchester United, have made the move to Riyadh as bona fide stars and not just Ronaldo’s supporting cast.

The late summer transfer window additions of Spanish international defender Aymeric Laporte from Manchester City, and Portuguese midfielder Otavio from Porto, will only bolster the Yellows’ bid to become champions this season.

Rounding up Riyadh’s trio of iconic clubs are Al-Shabab which in 2022-2023 finished fourth in the SPL and for long periods of the season were seen as genuine title contenders.

Belgium’s Yannick Carrasco joined from Atletico Madrid and will forge a midfield partnership with Ever Banega, the Argentinian who has already enjoyed a fine career with Shabab since 2020.

Meanwhile Colombian midfielder Gustavo Cuellar has made the move across to Riyadh after spending four trophy-laden years at rivals Al-Hilal.

Keeping goal behind this international trio is Kim Seung-gyu of South Korea, who joined Al-Shabab last year.

Last season, when Ronaldo said that within a few years the Saudi Pro League would be ranked in the world’s top five competitions, cynics scoffed at the pronouncement.

It seems his words could become true even quicker than he might have anticipated because global broadcasters are now screening live matches from the SPL on a weekly basis, and international players are increasingly looking to make Riyadh their new home.