Al-Kholood boss Fabiano Flora eyes Al-Ittihad giant-killing in King’s Cup

“Of course, this is one of the biggest matches of my coaching career, Fabiano Flora said ahead of the King’s Cup clash. (File/@AlkholoodClub)
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Updated 24 September 2023

Al-Kholood boss Fabiano Flora eyes Al-Ittihad giant-killing in King’s Cup

  • Sharing the spotlight with Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho will give the second-tier club belief in its quest for promotion, says coach

Among a host of fascinating King’s Cup ties this week is the visit of star-studded Saudi Pro League leaders Al-Ittihad to second-tier side Al-Kholood on Tuesday.

While there is every chance that Nuno Espirito Santo will rest some of his big players, opposite number Fabiano Flora is hoping that the likes of Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Fabinho and Jota will take to the field at Al-Kholood’s modest 8,000-capacity ground, which they share with Saudi Pro League side Al-Hazem.

“Of course, this is one of the biggest matches of my coaching career, Flora told Arab News ahead of the King’s Cup clash.

“Al-Ittihad is not just the biggest team in Saudi Arabia as the champions last season. This is a club that is one of the most important in Asia, too, and has the capacity to win the AFC Champions League.

“It is a tough game against Nuno because they have a great team with high-quality players. We know all of them — Benzema, Fabinho, Kante. It’s a big team and a big challenge, but at the same time it is a great experience for me and my players.”

Flora has admired the work done at Al-Ittihad by fellow Portuguese coach Nuno.

“Nuno has obviously had a great career now, working with big clubs and with big experience,” Flora said. “He has clear principles in the way he wants his team to play and from what I see, he tries to keep things simple for his players.

“Al-Ittihad are adaptable to different formations and tactics, but the football they play is not complex — they play effectively with simple processes. We know this will be a difficult game.”

Flora has been in charge of Al-Kholood for just three weeks, but has made an immediate impact, leading the club to three successive wins in the Saudi First Division since his arrival. Al-Ittihad will represent a different challenge entirely, but the 38-year-old insists his side are primed to cause a cup upset.

“It is still early days for me, but I think the team is improving and we feel ready to compete,” he said. “In the league we have beaten Al-Batin, who came from the Saudi Pro League last season, and also Al-Arabi, who have spent a lot of money to try to get promotion this year.

“We are in a good moment so let’s see. Everything is possible in football; with good organization, with a good mentality, I think we can play a very good match and we can compete with Al-Ittihad.”

Flora hopes that the experience of playing against the reigning Saudi Pro League champions will give Al-Kholood players the belief that they can gain promotion this season, although he recognizes that the Saudi First Division is hugely competitive.

“I came here because I believe we can do some something important. We know it is difficult for us because there has been some big investment from four or five teams this season, but we also know that there is quality in our team.”

Flora’s coaching career has been a globetrotting adventure that began in traditional surroundings at the academy of Serie A side Lazio, but has also taken in less-traditional footballing nations, including Myanmar, Madagascar and Timor-Leste.

“Working in different places gives you such a rich experience as a coach — you are not just learning about the tactical and technical side of the game but about society and culture, too. You become more adaptable as a coach.”

Managers such as Arrigo Sacchi, Jose Mourinho and Carlos Alberto Parreira have demonstrated that you do not need to have a professional football career to become a successful coach, and it is a blueprint that Flora is trying to follow.

“Of course, when you are a player and have lived inside the group, you understand the feelings players have in certain moments.

“But when you don’t play, you have more time to learn. This is a big difference. You start to think early on about football — how you can improve players, how you can improve as a coach — and you can study the game in more depth. As a player, you just don’t have this time.”

Flora spent a number of years at Lazio before working at Juventus when Antonio Conte was first-team coach.

“I learned a lot in in Italy; I think they stay one step in front of all coaches in the world in terms of their tactical approach,” Flora said.

“When you work in the youth leagues with these big clubs with a great history, of course I was able to connect with people like Filippo Inzaghi and Paolo Negro — important players who have had valuable experience. You learn from them and the way they think about football.”

Just 15 months ago, Flora’s colorful coaching career had taken him to Latvia, but on Monday he will test his tactical acumen against a world-class coach and a team bursting with talented players. It is an opportunity he is relishing.

“It’s a good feeling, of course, when you play against a big club with big players. When you are young or early in your career, you are always thinking about the future and whether these moments might come.

“You want to believe it will happen so when it does, this feels like a great reward for the decisions you have made, the places you have coached, the challenges you have taken. Really, I feel a great satisfaction and I am looking forward to this match.”

Goalless draw enough for 10-man Al-Nassr to reach last 16 of Asian Champions League

Updated 28 November 2023

Goalless draw enough for 10-man Al-Nassr to reach last 16 of Asian Champions League

  • Saudis down a man for three quarters of their game against Iranian side Persepolis after defender Ali Lajami was shown a red card for a dangerous tackle on Milad Sarlak
  • There was concern for the home fans when Ronaldo seemed to hurt his neck in a coming together with the goalkeeper and was forced to leave the pitch 12 minutes from the end

Al-Nassr joined Al-Ittihad in the last 16 of the Asian Champions League on Monday after a goalless draw at home to Iranian side Persepolis.

The Saudis had to play more than three quarters of the game with just 10 men and then saw Cristiano Ronaldo leave the pitch with a neck injury 12 minutes from the end.

Luis Castro’s men had won all four of their previous games in Group E to put themselves in a very strong position, safe in the knowledge that a point would guarantee top spot. And that is exactly what happened.

Things could have been even better for them, however, as Ronaldo seemed to be in after just two minutes but went down under a challenge from Soroush Rafiei inside the area. The Portuguese star seemed to inform the referee that it had not been a foul. Whatever happened, the referee did not point to the spot and the game continued.

Persepolis knew a win would go a long way to securing their own place in the last 16 and looked to attack whenever they could. Goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi was the hero for Al-Nassr after 16 minutes when he got down well to save from Danial Esmaeilifar inside the box.

Seconds later, the Riyadh side’s night took a huge turn for the worse when defender Ali Lajami was shown a red card for a dangerous tackle on midfielder Milad Sarlak. This put the home team, who have been in fantastic form, with 18 wins from 19 games in all competitions, on their heels and it took time for them to get going again.

Eight minutes after the restart, the Tehran titans thought they had broken the deadlock when Shabab Zahedi produced a smart, low finish from near the penalty spot. However, he was adjudged to have been offside.

Three minutes before the hour mark, Ronaldo reminded the visitors that they could not afford to lose concentration, as he spun inside the area and fired a shot just wide of the left-hand post with the goalkeeper scrambling to get near.

As the game fizzled out toward the end, there were concerns among the home fans when Ronaldo seemed to hurt his neck in a coming together with the goalkeeper. The 38 year old left the pitch in what appeared to be some pain but it is hoped he will be fit for Friday’s Riyadh derby against league leaders Al-Hilal.

His presence is likely to be needed. The five-time Ballon D’or winner has been in amazing form and his 15 league goals so far this season have helped put Al-Nassr in second place in the Roshn Saudi League, just four points behind the leaders.

Al-Hilal, meanwhile, have a big Asian Champions League game on Tuesday against Uzbek side Navbahor. The two teams top Group D on 10 points, with the Saudis ahead on goal difference. Meanwhile, Al-Nassr can now focus solely on the big game on Friday.

Hamdallah double sends Al-Ittihad into last 16 of AFC Champions League

Updated 27 November 2023

Hamdallah double sends Al-Ittihad into last 16 of AFC Champions League

  • Moroccan’s double gives Marcelo Gallardo first win as head coach
  • Victory over Uzbekistan’s AGMK ensures progress from Group C

Two goals from Abderrazak Hamdallah gave Al-Ittihad a 2-1 win at AGMK of Uzbekistan on Monday, ensuring their passage to the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League.

Defeat in this continental competition ended up costing Nuno Santo his job as head coach a month ago, not long after the Portuguese boss had delivered the Tigers’ first Saudi league title in 14 years.

The same tournament has now given Marcelo Gallardo his first win as coach of the Jeddah giants after the Argentine tactician was appointed earlier this month.

It was not a classic performance by the visitors on what was a chilly evening in Uzbekistan but that was not a problem for their Moroccan marksman, who also scored in Friday’s 1-1 draw with Al-Ettifaq.

Two goals in the space of four first-half minutes were enough for the two-time continental titleholders to move onto 12 points from five games in Group C.

On the half hour, there seemed to be little danger when Fabinho had the ball around the center circle, but the former Liverpool midfielder then sent a long ball over the top of the Central Asian defense into the path of Hamdallah. He muscled Dilshod Akhmadaliev off the ball on the edge of the area and then fired home a fierce left-footed rocket that flew through the legs of the goalkeeper to give Al-Ittihad a valuable lead.

Four minutes later and the lead was doubled. Muhannad Al-Shantaqi had the ball on the right side of the area and his pass across the box was blocked, but there was Hamdallah to fire home his second. It was another poacher’s goal from the man who has won the golden boot in the 2020 AFC Champions League and twice in the SPL.

Soon after, Benzema drew a good save from Valijhon Rakhimov with a low shot from the right side of the area, but it was far from one-way traffic.

On the stroke of halftime, Khurshid Giyosov curled a ball just wide of Al-Ittihad’s left-hand post to remind the visitors there was still work to do in the second half.

Benzema did his utmost to extend the lead but his attempts either went wide or were blocked. Hamdallah also was not far away from his hat trick.

AGMK, making just their third appearance on this continental stage this season, tried hard to get back into the game but struggled to create any clear-cut chances. Then, with 12 minutes remaining, the deficit was halved.

On the left side of the area, Sanzhar Tursunov’s low drive across the goalkeeper ended up at the feet of Martin Boakye and the Italian striker could not miss from close range.

The goal meant nerves and tension for the fans that had made the journey to Central Asia and for those watching back in Jeddah.

AGMK, who had lost all four group games previously, where roared forward by their fans but they were unable to get back on level terms. In the end, Al-Ittihad took the points and a place in the knockout stage.

Al-Shabab women’s football team sign sponsorship agreement with Swiss drink brand KA-EX

Updated 27 November 2023

Al-Shabab women’s football team sign sponsorship agreement with Swiss drink brand KA-EX

  • Deal will help attract international players, develop Saudi talent: Princess Reem bint Abdullah bin Mosaad

RIYADH: Al-Shabab Club FC have signed a sponsorship contract with Swiss sports drink company KA-EX for the remainder of the 2023 to 2024 Saudi Women’s Premier League season.

The deal was inked on Sunday by the Executive Director of the Women’s Football Department at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation Princess Reem bint Abdullah bin Mosaad, and the CEO of KA-EX Pedro Schmidt.

Princess Reem told Arab News: “I think bringing in sponsorships, not just nationally, but internationally, is very important. (First) to advocate for women’s football in Saudi, but also to provide opportunities for female players around the world to come and play here in Saudi.”

Al-Shabab women’s football team sign sponsorship agreement with Swiss drink brand KA-EX. (Huda Bashatah/AN)

Schmidt said that Al-Shabab was the first club in the Middle East and North Africa region to sign a sponsorship deal with KA-EX.

“Saudi Arabia is the first Middle Eastern country to collaborate with KA-EX … if you think of it, it’s not a surprise. Just looking at what kind of talents you have attracted over the last few years. So, it probably makes sense that you also attracted maybe the best recovery drink out there,” he added.

KA-EX is considered one of the leading companies in the field of sports drinks, using a patented formula to relieve physical exhaustion.

Al-Shabab women’s football team sign sponsorship agreement with Swiss drink brand KA-EX. (Huda Bashatah/AN)

“What it actually does is to accelerate recovery, especially within athletes, but also the general public. By improving the recovery of those athletes, they can obviously go from training day to training day more to their limits, also, thereby mitigating the risk of injuries.”

Princess Reem pointed out that with sponsorships and governmental support, the future of football in the Kingdom was bright.

She said: “We are developing football. Some might say we’re still in the beginning. But I think the pace that we’re going, the support that we’ve been receiving from the Ministry (of Sport) and from our government is going to help us reach our goals.”

Al-Hilal’s 9-0 thrashing of Al-Hazm sees Riyadh giants restore four-point lead atop SPL

Updated 26 November 2023

Al-Hilal’s 9-0 thrashing of Al-Hazm sees Riyadh giants restore four-point lead atop SPL

  • Al-Hilal are still unbeaten in the league after 14 games and have won 12

RIYADH: Al-Hilal sent a message to the rest of Saudi Arabia with the biggest-ever win in the Roshn Saudi League, a 9-0 thrashing of Al-Hazm that restored their four-point lead over Al-Nassr in second. They meet next Friday, and mouths are already starting to water.

It all means that Al-Hilal are still unbeaten in the league after 14 games and have won 12 and drawn just two. It was a devastating demonstration of firepower at the home of the bottom club with goals spread throughout six players with Malcom managing a hat-trick.

It was no surprise that the first fell to Aleksandar Mitrovic after 14 minutes, and it was a real striker’s goal. Mohammed Al-Breik swung in an inviting cross from deep, and it cleared the defense and looked to be heading into the arms of goalkeeper Aymen Dahmen, but Mitrovic stretched out a leg to volley home from close range. It was the start of what was going to be a very long afternoon for the hosts.

Mohamed Kanno added a second just after the half-hour. There seemed to be little danger when the midfielder picked up possession 30 meters from goal but he let fly with a shot that flew into the top corner to extend Al-Hilal’s lead. Mohammed Al-Qahtani made it three two minutes before the break, reacting quickly to fire home the rebound after Mitrovic’s low shot had been palmed away by the Tunisian goalkeeper who was having an increasingly busy evening.

It meant that the teams headed in at the break with few fans watching in any doubt as to where the points were heading — they were going back to Riyadh, but nobody could have predicted that there were still many more goals to come.

Malcom scored twice in three minutes early after the restart. Mitrovic was involved again, slipping the ball through the backline for the Brazilian winger to enter the area, skip past the ‘keeper with his first touch and then slide home. 

Then Michael got to the byline on the left and pulled the ball back for Malcom to score from close range and it was all getting very painful indeed for Al-Hazm. Almost immediately, however, they scored, but Mohamed Al-Thani’s precious strike was ruled out for offside and there was to be no respite. 

The visiting fans had to wait until the 79th minute for No. 6 and it came from Saleh Al-Shehri who returned to club action after scoring four goals in two World Cup qualifiers for Saudi Arabia, who defeated Pakistan and Jordan.

His goal was a simple tap-in after Michael had again reached the right byline this time and rolled the ball across the goal for the in-form Al-Shehri. Two minutes later, Al-Breik made a rare appearance on the scoresheet. The full-back entered the area and his low shot, if it was a shot and not an attempt at a low ball across the area, hit Dahmen and rolled in.

Malcom got his hat-trick with five minutes remaining, pouncing on a loose ball near the penalty spot and firing home a low drive. Then came No. 9 from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic inside injury time.

History was made but more importantly, Al-Hilal are once again clear at the top. It is looking increasingly like only Al-Nassr can stop them. The Riyadh Derby next week is going to be something special.

Cristiano Ronaldo brace in victory over Al-Akhdoud keeps Al-Nassr juggernaut rolling

Updated 25 November 2023

Cristiano Ronaldo brace in victory over Al-Akhdoud keeps Al-Nassr juggernaut rolling

  • Portuguese at the double as in-form Yellows climb to a point behind leaders Al-Hilal 

RIYADH: It was the Cristiano Ronaldo show once again as the megastar scored two more memorable goals to steer Al-Nassr to a 3-0 win over Al-Akhdoud on Friday. The victory, an 18th in the last 19 games in all competitions, put Al-Nassr just a point behind the leaders Al-Hilal.  

The in-form Yellows started strongly against the relegation strugglers. After only a minute, Anderson Talisca shot over from just inside the area, and three minutes later, Ronaldo cut inside from the left and fired a shot that drifted past the post. 

Al-Nassr took the lead after 13 minutes. From the right byline Sultan Al-Ghannam calmly rolled the ball across for Sami Al-Naji to pick his spot and fire home.

The visitors tried to get back in the game and around the half-hour thought that VAR was going to award a penalty after a clear Mohammed Al-Fatil handball in the area, but as they were discussing who was going to take the spot kick, the replays discovered an offside in the build-up. 

It was a wake-up call. As half-time approached, it was the men from Narjan who were looking more dangerous, with Al-Nassr’s early fire and promise having almost disappeared. 

Ten minutes after the restart, coach Luis Castro tried to inject more urgency into the proceedings. On came former Inter Milan skipper Marcelo Brozovic, Ayman Yahya and Abdulmajeed Al-Sulaiheem.

The changes almost paid off immediately, with Ronaldo, from a tight angle on the left side of goal, shooting wide.  The angle was just as tight, though he was further out, moments later as he made space for himself down the left, cut inside and shot just over.

Ronaldo was looking like his team’s most potent threat, but Al-Akhdoud, with Hussain Al-Zabdani almost catching out goalkeeper Raghed Najjar with a long-distance flighted shot, were never out of the game.  

That changed with 13 minutes remaining. Paulo Vitor pushed a cross to the feet of Ronaldo on the right side, but there was still a lot of work to do in the shape of a number of defenders. It was no problem as the 38-year-old fired home at the near post for his 14th league goal of the season. 

A better one came three minutes later. Vitor had rushed out of his area to block as far as Ronaldo more than 30 meters out. The Portuguese chested the ball down and despite the close attention of the goalkeeper, lobbed the ball over three defenders and into the net. It was a spectacular finish.

There was no coming back from that. Once again, Ronaldo gets the headlines — and deserves them.

Al-Hilal are in action at Al-Hazm on Saturday.