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.”


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.


Man United and Chelsea grab late winners in FA Cup. Youngsters deliver again for Liverpool

Updated 29 February 2024
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Man United and Chelsea grab late winners in FA Cup. Youngsters deliver again for Liverpool

  • Casemiro stooped to head in an 89th-minute goal to seal United a 1-0 win at Nottingham Forest and a last-eight meeting with great rival Liverpool
  • Wolverhampton beat Brighton 1-0 in an all-Premier League matchup and will be at home to Championship team Coventry in the quarterfinals

LONDON: Manchester United and Chelsea kept alive their hopes of silverware this season by scoring late winners in the FA Cup on Wednesday.

Liverpool also advanced to the quarterfinals, with their youngsters coming through big again for Jurgen Klopp.

Casemiro stooped to head in an 89th-minute goal to seal United a 1-0 win at Nottingham Forest and a last-eight meeting with great rival Liverpool, whose youthful team beat second-tier Southampton 3-0 thanks to goals by 18-year-olds Lewis Koumas and Jayden Danns.

Chelsea — fresh off a loss to Liverpool in the English League Cup final — left it even later than United to secure their progress, with Conor Gallagher coming off the bench to score in the 90th minute for a 3-2 victory over Leeds. Chelsea will play another second-tier team, Leicester, in the last eight.

Wolverhampton beat Brighton 1-0 in an all-Premier League matchup and will be at home to Championship team Coventry in the quarterfinals.

PRESSURE OFF

Winning the FA Cup could salvage disappointing seasons for United and Chelsea. Who knows, it could also keep their under-pressure managers in their jobs.

Neither team put in a convincing display in the fifth round, but they are still alive in the famous old competition and have home draws to look forward to after late winners from midfielders.

Casemiro got between two defenders and stuck out his head to divert a low free kick that had been whipped in from the left wing by Bruno Fernandes. The Brazil international got a kick in the face for his efforts — blood was seen pouring down his cheek afterward — but, more importantly, a crucial goal.

After a morale-sapping loss to Fulham in the league on Saturday, another defeat would have left United in a mess heading into Sunday’s Manchester derby against City. Instead, United manager Erik ten Hag was quick to point out that his team has now won seven of its nine games in all competitions in 2024.

“This team, what they showed today, they have to show it every game,” Ten Hag said. “We found a way to win.”

Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino has come under renewed pressure in the wake of his expensively assembled team’s loss in the League Cup final. Now he is one game away from a return to Wembley Stadium, this time for the FA Cup semifinals.

Gallagher ran onto Enzo Fernandez’s pass, span his marker and converted a rising shot to put out a spirited effort from a Leeds team whose priority this season is securing an immediate return to the Premier League.

Despite fielding a weakened starting team, Leeds took the lead in the eighth minute at Stamford Bridge through Mateo Joseph, who also equalized to make it 2-2 after goals for Chelsea by Nicolas Jackson and Mykhailo Mudryk.

“In the context of the week, I am happy,” Pochettino said. “It is about building our confidence again.”

KLOPP’S KIDS

Jurgen Klopp’s kids have done it again.

Amid an injury crisis, the Liverpool manager turned to a bunch of academy products to help beat Chelsea in the League Cup final and he kept faith in them for the match against Southampton three days later at Anfield.

The average age of Liverpool’s team on Wednesday was 23 years, 128 days after Klopp made six changes to the lineup, including giving a debut to Koumas and starting 19-year-old midfielders James McConnell and Bobby Clark after their starring roles off the bench at Wembley. There were six players aged 21 or younger in the team.

Koumas squeezed home a shot in the 44th minute to mark the biggest game of his fledging professional career and make it 1-0. Danns came off the bench, like he did in the League Cup final, and scored in the 73rd and 88th minutes for his first senior goals.

Liverpool, who lead the Premier League and are into the round of 16 in the Europa League, stayed on course for a quadruple of trophies in Klopp’s final season.


Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture

Updated 29 February 2024
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Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture

  • The Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Ethics and Discipline Committee also ordered the Portuguese star to pay an additional SR20,000 to Al-Shabab, as compensation for the Riyadh club’s complaint filing fees

RIYADH: Al-Nassr striker Cristiano Ronaldo has been suspended for one match and fined SR10,000 ($2,666) after making an offensive gesture following his team’s victory over Al-Shabab in the Saudi Pro League on Sunday.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Ethics and Discipline Committee also ordered the Portuguese star to pay an additional SR20,000 to Al-Shabab, as compensation for the Riyadh club’s complaint filing fees.

Following the game on Sunday, videos posted on social media showed Ronaldo cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, seemingly aimed at rival Al-Shabab supporters.

In the background, chants of “Messi” could be heard, referring to Ronaldo’s longstanding football rival from Argentina.

The committee called in the five-time Ballon d’Or winner to hear his response to the complaint filed by Al-Shabab, and asked the official broadcaster to provide footage of the incident in question.

The committee said in a statement that the decision is non-appealable.

This is not the first time that the Portuguese legend has been at the heart of fan controversy.

Earlier this month, the star was seen putting a scarf down his shorts before throwing it back at Al-Hilal fans after Al-Nassr loss in the Riyadh Season Cup. In the same game, the striker reacted angrily to Al-Hilal fans chanting the name of Lionel Messi.

Last year, the 39-year-old attacker grabbed his crotch after Al-Hilal fans taunted him by again invoking the name of the Argentine World Cup winner.


Jordan, Nepal to contest WAFF Women’s Championship final in Jeddah

Updated 28 February 2024
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Jordan, Nepal to contest WAFF Women’s Championship final in Jeddah

  • Match will take place at Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium on Thursday

JEDDAH: Jordan and Nepal will face off in the final of the West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship after completing victories in their respective semi-finals on Tuesday evening in Jeddah.

Jordan booked their place in Thursday’s final at Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium in Jeddah after beating Palestine 5-0, with goals coming from Maysa Jbarah (on 27 and 83 minutes), Lana Feras (34), Sarah Abu Sabbah (59), and Enas Al-Jamaeen (86).

In the other semi, Lebanon took the lead in the 37th minute through an own goal by Puja Rana, but Nepal equalized 15 minutes from the end through star striker Sabitra Bhandari before Preeti Rai snatched victory with a goal in stoppage time.