Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group

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Nigeria forward Henry Onyekuru has impressed for Vuk Rasovic’s side since arriving from Turkish club Adana Demirspor in August. (X: @henryconyekuru)
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Nigeria forward Henry Onyekuru has impressed for Vuk Rasovic’s side since arriving from Turkish club Adana Demirspor in August. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 28 November 2023
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Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group

  • From Aspire Academy, UEFA Champions League football with Anderlecht, Nigerian flourishing in new Saudi home

RIYADH: It has been a challenging AFC Champions League debut for Al-Fayha. The 2022 King’s Cup winners, who beat Al-Hilal on penalties to lift their first ever major trophy 18 months ago, have lost three of their first four games and face a must-win clash with Turkmenistan’s Ahal in Riyadh on Tuesday.

Realistically, Al-Fayha need to beat both Ahal and reigning Uzbekistan champions Pakhtakor to stand a chance of qualifying for the knockout stage.

Aiming to help them advance is Nigeria forward Henry Onyekuru, who has impressed for Vuk Rasovic’s side since arriving from Turkish club Adana Demirspor in August.

Onyekuru told Arab News: “It’s a little tight for us, we know, but we know we need to just win on Tuesday, that is the most important thing. Then we will have to wait for the other results to see, and yes, we might have a lesser chance, but it can happen. This is football and of course we hope we can play in the next round.”

The 26-year-old has plenty of experience of elite-level continental competition to call upon, having played every game of Anderlecht’s 2017 to 2018 UEFA Champions League campaign in a tough group that included PSG, Bayern Munich, and Celtic. The fleet-footed player also featured in several games for Galatasaray in the competition.

He is not alone at Al-Fayha, with teammates Fashion Sakala and Anthony Nwakaeme having represented Rangers in the Champions League and Trabzonspor in the Europa League, respectively. The three African players have forged a valuable friendship at Al-Fayha and Onyekuru has been happy to have them alongside him.

He said: “It is always a little bit difficult at the beginning when you move to a new country, but they helped me adapt very fast.

“We have really bonded and apart from football, they are such great guys. They are there for me on the pitch and outside it,” he added.

Al-Fayha go into their crunch AFC Champions League encounter after a morale-boosting 1-0 Saudi Pro League victory over Al-Fateh but it has been a frustrating season for Onyekuru and his teammates, who have a league-high seven draws so far. While there were positive ties with Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad, there have also been many opportunities missed.

Onyekuru said: “We threw a lot of points away, games we should have won, but we ended up drawing 0-0 or 1-1. We feel good as a team so it hasn’t been easy but there is a lot of the season left so I think we can definitely climb higher.

“Our coach is the kind of guy who really understands his players — he knows when you’re tired, he knows when you’re worried, and he’s open with everybody, which is very important. He is always very clear — if you work, you play; if you don’t work, you don’t play.

“I think we’re on a good track at this moment; we just have to keep working and the results will start coming.

“This is a very tough league now and it has surprised me how good it has been. There has been a big increase in quality, and you see that every team has better players who can make a difference. It will only get better, and it is great to be a part of Saudi football right now,” he added.

Onyekuru’s move to Al-Fayha has been a return to the Gulf of sorts. As a teenager, he was selected for the Aspire Academy’s Football Dreams initiative, an African talent identification process that saw him make it through a series of trials to be one of just three Nigerians selected.

“I feel lucky to have been among these players. It was a five-year scholarship of football and school. We travelled to play the Barcelona and Real Madrid youth teams and many others in tournaments — it was a great experience,” he said.

Onyekuru travelled regularly to the Aspire Academy in Qatar and represented the institution in competitions around the world before signing for their pathway club Eupen in the Belgian Second Division.

“When I got there, it was really difficult for me because I arrived in winter, and it was very cold in Belgium. We were down the bottom of the league and we only just avoided relegation.

“But the next season was great. The coach Jordi Condom was the first to move me from a No. 9 to the wing – the team played well, and we were promoted.”

Onyekuru’s performances led to interest from Arsenal, the club at which his childhood hero Nwankwo Kanu made his name, though the young winger eventually signed for Everton. Hampered by visa issues, he failed to make a Premier League appearance for the Toffees, though impressed on loan at Anderlecht and Galatasaray before moving on to Monaco.

“I remember very well I spoke to Arsene Wenger, and my dream was to play Premier League. I always wanted to be there. Eupen were also talking to PSG because of the Qatar connection but then they wanted to focus on (Kylian) Mbappe.

“I spoke to some people like (ex-Inter Milan and Nigeria striker) Obafemi Martins and decided in the end on Everton. It was a shame that things didn’t work out because I hadn’t played enough games for Nigeria,” he added.

While Onyekuru’s move to Saudi Arabia has generally been a positive experience, it has been tempered by him falling out of favor with the Nigeria national team.

Onyekuru, whose mother named him after 1980 Africa Cup of Nations-winning player Henry Nwosu, noted that the SPL deserved to be more respected by those selecting the squad. He hoped that he may still be able to represent the Super Eagles at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.

He said: “I was there at the last AFCON in Cameroon, and I am really pushing to be there again. In Nigerian football there is still this negative mentality about the Saudi league – they don’t think it is as intense.

“But I think they should be able to see that now, the players who play here make it competitive. I am not giving up and anything can happen.”


Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo

Updated 20 April 2024
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Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo

  • “I pray to God to make this dream come true and meet Ronaldo”

JEDDAH: A Cristiano Ronaldo superfan has arrived in Riyadh after a grueling walk from Dubai hoping to meet the Al-Nassr star.

After 1,200 km and 36 days of travel mostly across the arid landscape separating the cities, Civin KP arrived in the Saudi capital.

“Finally, I am here in front of Al-Awal Park where Al-Nassr plays (their) official games and I hope I can meet Ronaldo,” he said.

He posted images of himself on Instagram at the stadium where he managed to take a seat at the home team’s bench and walked pitch-side at the 25,000-capacity venue.

“I came all the way from Dubai on foot and crossed all this distance just to pay respect and show my love to the best player in the world,” said Civin, who is originally from the state of Kerala in India.

Ronaldo is one of the most recognizable faces of international football and has fans across the world who enjoy his skills and passion for the game. He signed for the Riyadh club in 2022 after years of playing in Europe’s top leagues.

Civin feels proud to have completed the journey but still awaits the biggest prize.

“The unexpected moment is always sweeter,” he wrote, “hopefully waiting for more.”

A photo with the Portuguese great and an autograph would be a moment of a lifetime, Civin told MBC as he visited the ground.

“I pray to God to make this dream come true and meet Ronaldo,” he said. “I will cherish this moment, if it happens, for the rest of my life.”

On Friday, Civin was able to secure a ticket to watch Al-Nassr beat Al-Fayha 3-1, but unfortunately his hero did not feature as he is serving a suspension.


Qatar beat Jordan to reach last eight of 2024 AFC U23 Asian Cup

Updated 19 April 2024
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Qatar beat Jordan to reach last eight of 2024 AFC U23 Asian Cup

  • A last-gasp 2-1 win leaves the hosts on six points from two matches in Group A of the tournament

DOHA: A stoppage time winner saw hosts Qatar defeat Jordan 2-1 on Thursday night to advance to the quarterfinals of the 2024 AFC U23 Asian Cup.

Qatar took the lead through Abdulla Al-Yazidi on 40 minutes, but Jordan equalized seven minutes into the second half thanks to Aref Al-Haj’s spot kick.

The match looked to be heading for a draw when Mohamed Al-Manai scored 14 minutes into stoppage time to break Jordanian hearts. The win Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Al-Rayyan made Qatar the first team to secure a spot in the last eight.

Qatar now sit top of Group A with a maximum six points from two matches. Earlier in the day, Indonesia beat Australia 1-0 at Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium in Doha and are currently second in the table with three points. Jordan and Australia are third and fourth respectively with one point apiece.

Saudi Arabia return to action against Thailand on Friday before facing Iraq in their final Group C match on Monday (April 22).

The U23 Asian Cup, which runs until May 3, is also a route to this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris.

The competition sees 16 nations split into four groups of four teams, with the top two from each progressing to the quarterfinals. The winners of both semifinals automatically qualify for the Olympics, regardless who wins the final.

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


Liverpool out of Europa League as Leverkusen advance to semis

Updated 19 April 2024
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Liverpool out of Europa League as Leverkusen advance to semis

LONDON: Liverpool crashed out of the Europa League after a 1-0 win against Atalanta that wasn’t enough to overturn their quarter-final deficit, while Bayer Leverkusen’s 1-1 draw at West Ham took the German champions into the last four on Thursday.
In Jurgen Klopp’s last season as Liverpool boss, the Reds were hoping to give the German a memorable farewell in the final in Dublin.
But Liverpool had suffered a stunning 3-0 loss in the first leg against Atalanta at Anfield last week.
And although Liverpool have authored some of European football’s greatest comebacks down the years against the likes of St. Etienne, AC Milan and Barcelona, there would be no miracle escape this time.
Mohamed Salah converted a seventh minute penalty in the second leg in Bergamo after Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross hit Matteo Ruggeri’s arm.
However, Klopp’s men couldn’t breach the stubborn Atalanta defense again.
It has been a brutal week for Liverpool, whose Premier League title challenge was damaged by a shock home defeat against Crystal Palace on Sunday.
“It’s mixed emotions. We are out but I’m happy with the game,” Klopp said.
“It was clear we gave ourselves a massive hurdle. We wished we could have gone to Dublin but that hasn’t happened.”
While Klopp contemplates his failure to land the one major trophy to elude him during nine years with Liverpool, Atalanta can dream of winning the second silverware in their 116-year history after the 1963 Coppa Italia.
Bidding to reach their maiden European final, Gian Piero Gasperini’s team will face Marseille in their first European semifinal since the 1988 Cup Winners’ Cup.
Fresh from clinching their first Bundesliga title last weekend, Leverkusen survived a scare from West Ham before advancing 3-1 on aggregate.
In the semifinals, Xabi Alonso’s side will play Roma, who saw off Italian rivals AC Milan 3-1 on aggregate.
Leverkusen won the first leg 2-0 but West Ham made the perfect start in east London when Michail Antonio met Jarrod Bowen’s pin-point cross with a close-range header in the 13th minute.
West Ham eventually ran out of steam and Jeremie Frimpong struck in the 89th minute with a shot that deflected in off Aaron Cresswell.
“The momentum was with West Ham. To be honest, we were not at our best in the first half. I’m happy to go through. In the Europa League you always have tough moments,” Alonso said.
Leverkusen are into their second successive Europa League semifinal, while West Ham’s exit means for only the third time in the 21st century, England will have no teams in the Champions League and Europa League last four.
Leverkusen’s 44-game unbeaten run in all competitions has taken them to the brink of an incredible treble, finally ridding the club of the ‘Neverkusen’ tag that mocked their decades of underachievement.
Alonso’s team, who face second tier Kaiserslautern in the German Cup final on May 25, beat Werder Bremen 5-0 on Sunday to win the Bundesliga title.
At the Stadio Olimpico, Gianluca Mancini put Roma head from close-range in the 12th minute and Paulo Dybala doubled their advantage in the 22nd minute with a blistering strike.
Daniele De Rossi’s side were reduced to 10 men in the 31st minute when Zeki Celik was dismissed for a foul on Milan forward Rafael Leao.
Matteo Gabbia got one back in the 85th minute, but his header was little consolation for Milan.
After losing last season’s Europa League final against Sevilla, Roma are one step closer to finally winning the competition for the first time.
Roma, who won the Europa Conference League in 2022, are into their fifth European semifinal in the last seven seasons.
In the south of France, Marseille were 4-2 winners in a penalty shoot-out against Benfica following the French side’s 1-0 victory in a tie that finished 2-2 on aggregate.
Faris Moumbagna struck in the 79th minute, heading in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s cross to force extra-time.
In the shoot-out, Luis Henrique scored the winner for Jean-Louis Gasset’s side after Benfica duo Angel Di Maria and Antonio Silva missed their kicks.


Juventus ordered to pay Ronaldo $10.4 million in back salary

Cristiano Ronaldo was the world’s highest-paid sportsman in 2023. AFP
Updated 18 April 2024
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Juventus ordered to pay Ronaldo $10.4 million in back salary

  • The five-time Ballon d’Or winner was the world’s highest-paid sportsman in 2023, with $136 million, including $46 million in wages

Rome: Juventus must pay Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo 9.7 million euros ($10.4 million) in back wages for the 2020-21 season, the Italian courts announced on Wednesday.
The Court of Arbitration, to which Ronaldo appealed, “orders Juventus Turin to pay the sum of 9,774,166.66 euros,” plus interest and procedural costs, it stated in its decision.
The sum equates to the difference between the salary actually received by Ronaldo and that which he should have received after tax and other deductions.
Ronaldo, who spent three seasons in Italy with Juventus (2018-21) before joining Manchester United (2021-22) and then the Saudi club Al Nassr, was claiming 19.5 million euros but the arbitration panel reduced that by 50 percent.
Contacted by AFP, Juventus declined to comment, but said it would be issuing a statement “shortly.”
According to the rankings drawn up by the American business magazine Forbes, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner was the world’s highest-paid sportsman in 2023, with $136 million, including $46 million in wages.
Juventus, who are listed on the stock exchange, recorded losses of 123.7 million euros in the 2022-23 financial year, which ran to the end of June, it announced in October.
No provision has been made in the accounts of Italian football’s most successful club, currently third in Serie A, for the payment of this wages backlog.


Kuwait fall to Vietnam in 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup

Updated 18 April 2024
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Kuwait fall to Vietnam in 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup

  • Uzbekistan beat Malaysia 2-0 in the same group as the first round of matches concludes

DOHA: Vietnam defeated Kuwait 3-1 in the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup as Group D games got underway in Qatar on Wednesday night.

The result meant Vietnam took the early lead in the fourth and final group of the 16-team tournament, with Uzbekistan, who beat Malaysia 2-0, sitting second in the table on goal difference. Kuwait and Malaysia, with zero points, are third and fourth respectively. 

The second round of matches kick off in Group A on Thursday (April 18), with hosts Qatar taking on Jordan and Indonesia facing Australia.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia will return to action against Thailand on Friday before facing Iraq in their final Group C match on Monday (April 22).

The 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup 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.