UAE Pro League: Crespo’s Al-Ain suffer damaging derby defeat to Al-Wahda

Russian winger Zelimkhan Bakaev scored his first goal for Al-Wahda in the 2-0 win over Al-Ain. (X/@AlWahdaFCC)
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Updated 17 December 2023
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UAE Pro League: Crespo’s Al-Ain suffer damaging derby defeat to Al-Wahda

  • 10-man Al-Wasl maintain lead after a hard-fought victory over Ittihad Kalba

A damaging Abu Dhabi Clasico continued Hernan Crespo’s mixed start at Al-Ain, leaders Al-Wasl weathered a stringent title test and spiralling Emirates Club’s misery extended in ADNOC Pro League’s matchweek 11.

Saturday’s finale pitted “the Boss” against bitter-rivals Al-Wahda, who prevailed 2-0 on enemy territory despite gaining just 26-per-cent possession courtesy of ruthless strikes by on-song Syria forward Omar Khrbin and Russia winger Zelimkhan Bakaev.

A sublime free-kick and selfless assist earlier in the evening from outstanding summer recruit Nicolas Gimenez edged 10-man Wasl past dogged Ittihad Kalba 2-1, in a fiery contest.

Al-Jazira, meanwhile, began life minus the dismissed Frank de Boer with a 1-0 win at Emirates, who slumped to bottom after a seventh-successive defeat and fellow-promoted outfit Hatta’s goalless stalemate against Al-Bataeh.

Former Flamengo teenager Mateusao got both goals when reigning champions Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club rebounded from ADIB Cup quarter-final elimination with a 2-1 triumph at Baniyas and ex-Porto attacker Moussa Marega also doubled up during rejuvenated Sharjah’s 4-1 thrashing of lowly Khor Fakkan.

A breakthrough week for Alfred Schreuder at Al-Nasr culminated in a dominant 3-0 victory at Ajman, highlighted by goals from Morocco maverick Adel Taarabt and ex-Italy forward Manolo Gabbiadini (two).

Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.

Player of the week: Zelimkhan Bakaev (Al-Wahda)

A fan favorite is emerging.

Eyebrows were raised this summer when Wahda secured Bakaev’s loan. The senior international had netted twice from 33 appearances at Zenit St. Petersburg in a successful debut campaign, containing Russian Premier League and Super Cup successes.

This acumen, however, was clear for all to see at a febrile Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

The 27-year-old wide man’s first ADNOC Pro League goal in nine run-outs was netted with a flourish, controlling a 40-yard pass at pace and serenely slotting low past UAE No1 Khalid Essa to double Wahda’s lead.

Such quality is no surprise. It is, however, the incessant attacker’s all-round game and application that stands out.

Questions are always asked about commitment levels from big-name loanees. Bakaev has long since answered them.

A tally of three tackles, according to SofaScore, equalled tigerish team-mate Allan, plus bettered combined totals for center-backs Lucas Pimenta and Alaeddine Zouhir (one each). Bakaev also won five of seven ground duels.

Such competitiveness, allied with decisive ability, was essential for Arno Buitenweg’s cagey game plan to succeed.

Wahda are now unbeaten in seven fixtures, sit fourth and are into ADIB Cup’s last four. Bakaev has played a big role in their turnaround.

Goal of the week: Luan Pereira (Sharjah)

Sharjah wasted no time conjuring some magic against Khor Fakkan.

Within 33 seconds of kick-off, their naturalized winger Luan Pereira applied the decisive touch to a flowing move.

His left-footed half-volley at the edge of the penalty box followed from an imaginative, volleyed back-heel assist by prodigious Guinean starlet Ousmane Camara.

Smiles are returning to third-placed Sharjah faces. Pinched thoughts of ADIB Cup and AFC Champions League exits have dissipated amid consecutive 4-1 top-flight triumphs.

They now head into Wednesday’s rescheduled heavyweight clash with Shabab Al-Ahli.

Coach of the week: Alfred Schreuder (Al-Nasr)

Schreuder had appeared an awkward fit at the Middle East football’s sleeping giant.

A winless opening two outings contained curious substitutions and frustrating results for the coach who’d suffered high-profile 2023 sackings at Ajax and Al-Ain. Gratifying ADIB Cup progress against the latter has been, however, further bolstered by emphatic victory at Ajman.

It featured a brace for Gabbiadini, plus goal and assist from Taarabt.

Order has been long absent at Nasr, the UAE’s oldest club who boast one of Asia’s grandest arenas in the heart of Dubai.

An expected victory versus Emirates Club next weekend would build momentum ahead of the winter transfer market and belief his philosophy can be inculcated during a lengthy Asian Cup break.

Crespo already feeling Al-Ain’s inherent pressure

The buck stops with you, when you’re “the Boss.”

An iconic playing career has been no shield to strident early criticism for Crespo in the Garden City. Dissenting voices only grew louder after a pained defeat to Wahda, the side “Ainawi” were least like to be beaten by.

The ex-River Plate, Parma, Inter Milan and Chelsea center forward must swiftly show last month’s merciless call to dismiss Schreuder was justified. He’s at the helm of a club who, clearly, will not hang about waiting for results to turn.

But, what judgments can be made at this stage?

Saturday’s was a peculiar reversal. Al-Ain boasted 74-per-cent possession, won the attempts count 14-8, endured a rash moment by naturalized center-back Kouame Auton for Khrbin’s opener and were hit on the counter via Iran midfielder Ahmad Nourollahi’s visionary pass from deep for Bakaev’s superb second.

Under Crespo, Al-Ain have thrashed champions Shabab Al-Ahli then dropped points in a draw at Kalba and a loss versus Wahda, sliding from third to fifth. In the cups, three points were accrued in two AFC Champions League dead rubbers and his predecessor inflicted undoubtedly satisfying ADIB Cup last-eight elimination.

The previous regime won 12 of 14 matches in all competitions, prior to a shock removal.

Crespo has been in management since 2014. The highs of leading Defensa y Justicia to their opening international trophy by winning the 2020 Copa Sudamericana and Al-Duhail’s 2022-23 treble are matched by lows, such as 7-0 humiliation by Al-Hilal in the AFC Champions League semifinals and exiting Sao Paulo when 13th in Brazil’s Serie A.

Imposing consistency is key. Al-Ain have demonstrated their patience can be in short supply.


UEFA picks Budapest to host 2026 Champions League final, delays 2027 decision on San Siro

Updated 3 min 17 sec ago
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UEFA picks Budapest to host 2026 Champions League final, delays 2027 decision on San Siro

  • The Puskás Arena and San Siro were the only two candidates for the two finals scheduled to be awarded
  • The next final on June 1 is at Wembley Stadium in London and Bayern Munich’s home will host next year

DUBLIN: UEFA picked Budapest on Wednesday to host the men’s Champions League final in 2026 and delayed giving the 2027 game to Milan amid uncertainty over the future of San Siro.
The Puskás Arena and San Siro were the only two candidates for the two finals scheduled to be awarded. The next final on June 1 is at Wembley Stadium in London and Bayern Munich’s home will host next year.
The iconic San Siro, formally known as Stadio Giuseppe Meazza and owned by the city of Milan, has been under long-term threat of demolition. Its shared tenants AC Milan and Inter Milan have looked for new homes they can own.
UEFA put off a decision until a September meeting of its executive committee subject to the Italian soccer federation “submitting information on refurbishment plans” for San Siro.
Earlier Wednesday, uncertainly increased in Milan as ownership of Inter switched from Chinese corporation Suning to United States investors Oaktree because of failure to repay debts.
The 75,000-seat San Siro still could host the European Cup or Champions League final for the fifth time, one year after staging the opening ceremony of the 2026 Winter Olympics.
The 70,000-seat Puskás Arena opened five years ago and has been a go-to venue for UEFA, hosting a Europa League final last year and replacement games during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a big fan of soccer and billionaire banker Sándor Csányi is a FIFA vice president representing UEFA.
UEFA’s executive committee also sent the Women’s Champions League final in 2026 to Oslo, Norway.
Istanbul will host the 2026 Europa League final in the downtown stadium of Besiktas and the 2027 game is going to Eintracht Frankfurt’s home. The 2025 Europa final is in Athletic Bilbao’s stadium, which also hosts the Women’s Champions League final next week.
The third-tier Conference League final in 2026 will also go to Germany, in Leipzig, and in 2027 to Istanbul, potentially also at the Besiktas stadium though that could change.
The Turkish soccer federation said it hopes the 2027 final can move to the new stadium being built in the capital Ankara ahead of the country co-hosting the men’s European Championship with Italy in 2032.
Turkiye gets to host European finals in back-to-back years while the Romanian national stadium in Bucharest, which last hosted a Europa League final in 2012, lost in votes to bring that title match back.
The Israeli soccer federation had originally entered the Conference League bidding contest last year proposing Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.
In other UEFA executive committee business ahead of the Europa League final, trials of safe standing areas for fans at European club competition games was extended next season to Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal and Scotland.
The UEFA-recognized Football Supporters Europe group has run a “Europe Wants to Stand” campaign and welcomed the new additions to consent for trials over the last two seasons in England, France and Germany. Also on the permitted list are Italy and Spain.
“Standing at matches positively contributes to the atmosphere of games enormously, is a significant element of fan culture across the continent, and helps to lower the pricing for these games generally,” FSE executive director Ronan Evain said in a statement.


‘September or October’: Al-Hilal coach reveals timeline for Neymar’s return to action

Neymar could be back in action in 'September or October' according to Al-Hilal coach Jorge Jesus. (File/Getty Images)
Updated 22 May 2024
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‘September or October’: Al-Hilal coach reveals timeline for Neymar’s return to action

  • No. 10 is at ‘a crucial phase’ in his injury recovery, says the Roshn Saudi League champions’ manager Jorge Jesus
  • Al-Hilal teammate Kalidou Koulibaly is eagerly awaiting the return of Neymar: ‘I call him the magician because he has so much magic in his feet’

RIYADH: Neymar is working to make his comeback from injury in the first few months of next season, Al-Hilal manager Jorge Jesus has revealed.
The Brazilian superstar playmaker, a record signing for Al-Hilal last summer, suffered a season-ending cruciate ligament injury while on international duty in October.
Neymar, however, was a big part of Al-Hilal’s recent Roshn Saudi League title celebrations in Riyadh and declared himself as “feeling good” and “impatient to be back on the pitch.”
With the No. 10’s rehabilitation in full swing, Jesus is eagerly anticipating having the world-class attacker back in his plans for the upcoming campaign.
“He’s currently in a crucial phase of treatment, and we’re hopeful he might be ready to rejoin the team and start practicing by September or October,” Jesus said. “He’s a star player, he possesses exceptional talent. Unfortunately, I can’t provide a definitive answer at this point. Injuries like Neymar’s typically require 10 to 12 months for recovery.”
As someone who knows exactly what it is like to both play with and against Neymar, his Al-Hilal teammate Kalidou Koulibaly will be delighted to have the 32-year-old back in action. The Senegalese defender, a key part of the club’s world record-winning run earlier in the campaign, believes the re-addition of Neymar will only make Al-Hilal even better next season — as well as himself.
“It will be really important. Neymar is a really important player for us. I call him the ‘Magia’ — magician — because he has so much magic in his feet,” Koulibaly said. “When he touches the ball, he is incredible. We are waiting for him to be fit and to play with us and to make us happy and to make the supporters happy. Also to play with him — to play with someone of that level — you can only increase your own level and become better. Neymar is really important for us, and I hope that next year he will play all season and that we can win some trophies with him.”
Speaking at the recent title celebrations following Al-Hilal’s 4-1 victory over Al-Hazem, which clinched the Riyadh club’s 19th Saudi Arabian league crown, Neymar said: “I am very happy obviously. Winning titles is always good. The best thing would have been being on the pitch, but I am so happy for my teammates.
“I am fine. I am feeling good. I am impatient to be back on the pitch. The fans are unbelievable. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to give them the happiness they deserve, but you can be sure that next season we are going to have a lot of fun.”
Unbeaten domestically this season, Al-Hilal clinched the Roshn Saudi League title with three matches to spare and have won 29 of their 32 games thus far. Nearest challengers Al-Nassr, who are captained by Cristiano Ronaldo, are 12 points behind. Al-Hilal’s next match is at home to Al-Tai on Thursday in the Roshn Saudi League.
Al-Hilal created top-flight world football history this season by winning 34 matches in succession between September and April across all competitions. The incredible run saw them overtake Welsh club The New Saints’ winning streak of 27 games in season 2016-17. Prior to that, the record stood for 44 years following Dutch giants Ajax’s 26-game winning stretch between 1971 and 1972.


Al-Shabab crowned winners of Women’s Futsal Tournament 2024 in Riyadh

Updated 22 May 2024
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Al-Shabab crowned winners of Women’s Futsal Tournament 2024 in Riyadh

  • Al-Shabab defeated Najmat Jeddah in the final to earn their second futsal title
  • The national tournament featured 18 women’s teams from across the Kingdom in the knock-out tournament from May 8-20

RIYADH: After a sensational 25-match tournament that saw 339 goals, Al-Shabab FC captured their second women’s futsal title on Monday in thrilling fashion to conclude the 2024 edition of the Women’s Futsal Tournament.

With 18 of Saudi Arabia’s top women’s futsal sides competing in the second edition of the tournament, the final saw goals galore as Al-Shabab ran out winners, beating Najmat Jeddah 22-2 in the final to earn their second domestic honor.

The competition aims to inspire the growth of women’s futsal in the Kingdom, with the Saudi National Women’s Futsal team set to meet later this month in Bosnia for a training camp until June 15.

Aalia Al-Rasheed, head of the Women’s Football Department at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, said: “The Women’s Futsal Tournament has demonstrated the incredible talent that lies within the women’s game in Saudi Arabia. The skill on display has been remarkable, and we congratulate all clubs for their participation in the competition.

“The unprecedented growth we are seeing in the women’s game across all levels is exciting, and we look forward to seeing how this supports our national program to continue to develop in the coming months.”


Ronaldo leads Roshn Saudi Pro League stars set to boost their nations at Euro 2024

Updated 22 May 2024
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Ronaldo leads Roshn Saudi Pro League stars set to boost their nations at Euro 2024

  • Aleksandar Mitrovic and N’Golo Kante among 15 players expected in Germany at end of the SPL season

RIYADH: Several Roshn Saudi Pro League players are preparing to join their nations for the Euro 2024 tournament taking place from June 14 to July 14 in Germany.

The 24-team tournament kicks off at Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena and ends with the final at the Olympiastadion.

As things stand, and fitness permitting, this year’s edition will have 15 players from seven SPL teams taking part.

According to the Transfermarkt website, these SPL players, most of whom moved to the Kingdom last summer, are valued at an estimated total of $267 million. The collective market value of all players participating in Euro 2024 stands at an impressive $12 billion.

Leading the pack is Al-Nasser with four players expected to compete at Euro 2024, led by superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Joining him in the Portuguese squad will be Otavio, while Aymeric Laporte will represent Spain, and Marcelo Brozovic will run out for Croatia. The four players have a combined market value of $96 million.

Two Saudi Arabia clubs will have three players representing their countries at Euro 2024.

The newly crowned SPL champions Al-Hilal will provide the Serbian duo of Aleksander Mitrovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, while midfielder Reuben Neves joins Portugal. The three stars are worth $112 million.

Al-Okhdood, somewhat surprisingly considering the number of foreign talent at the top four clubs, are the other team to have three players heading to the European showcase. The Romania pair of Andrei Burca and Florin Tanase, as well as Georgia’s center-half Solomon Kvirkvelia, are valued at $7.7 million.

Al-Ettifaq will have the Netherlands’ Georginio Wijnaldum and Scotland’s Jack Hendry who are valued at $8.3 million. Al-Ahli center-half Merih Demiral, valued at $19.4 million, is expected to join Turkiye’s squad, while Damac’s midfielder Nicolae Stanciu, valued at $5.4 million, will represent Romania.

Rounding out the roster is Al-Ittihad’s French midfield star and World Cup winner N’Golo Kante with a market value of $10.8 million.


Pochettino leaves Chelsea after just one season in charge

Updated 21 May 2024
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Pochettino leaves Chelsea after just one season in charge

  • “Chelsea FC can confirm that the club and Mauricio Pochettino have mutually agreed to part ways,” Chelsea said in a statement
  • “Thank you to the Chelsea ownership group and sporting directors for the opportunity to be part of this football club’s history,” said Pochettino

LONDON: Mauricio Pochettino has left Chelsea after just one season in charge by mutual consent, the English club announced on Tuesday.
The Blues finished sixth in the Premier League thanks to a fine run toward the end of the season but missed out on Champions League qualification and a trophy.
“Chelsea FC can confirm that the club and Mauricio Pochettino have mutually agreed to part ways,” Chelsea said in a statement.
In just two years under the ownership of an American consortium fronted by LA Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly and private equity group Clearlake Capital, Chelsea have spent over £1 billion ($1.3 billion) on new players.
The vast majority of that was spent on rising stars and Pochettino pointed to a lack of experience and a lengthy injury list for failing to achieve consistent results.
Chelsea lost the League Cup final 1-0 to Liverpool after extra-time and pushed Manchester City all the way before losing in the FA Cup semifinals by the same score.
But there had been signs that Pochettino’s project was coming together in a run of five consecutive wins to end the campaign that ensured Chelsea will be in Europe next season.
They will qualify for the Europa League if Manchester United lose to City in the FA Cup final and the Conference League if the Red Devils shock the English champions.
“Thank you to the Chelsea ownership group and sporting directors for the opportunity to be part of this football club’s history,” said Pochettino.
“The club is now well positioned to keep moving forward in the Premier League and Europe in the years to come.”
Chelsea sporting directors Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley said: “On behalf of everyone at Chelsea, we would like to express our gratitude to Mauricio for his service this season.
“He will be welcome back to Stamford Bridge any time and we wish him all the very best in his future coaching career.”
Pochettino is the fourth manager to depart under Boehly’s regime after Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter and Frank Lampard.
According to the Daily Telegraph, Pochettino met Boehly for dinner on Friday before his departure was confirmed after an end-of-season review with Stewart and Winstanley.
The 52-year-old arrived in west London with the task of getting Chelsea back on track after they finished 12th in the 2022/23 Premier League season.
The Argentine had to bed in another influx of new signings as Chelsea broke the British transfer record to buy Moises Caicedo for £115 million.
He suffered a difficult start as they won just three of their opening 10 Premier League games.
But led by the stunning form of Cole Palmer, only City, Arsenal and Liverpool picked up more points than Chelsea in the second half of the season.
According to reports Stuttgart’s Sebastian Hoeness, Girona boss Michel, Ipswich Town’s Kieran McKenna and Enzo Maresca of Leicester are among those in contention to be next in the Stamford Bridge hot seat.
Pochettino began his coaching career at Espanyol before shining in a short spell at Southampton.
That earned him a move to Tottenham, where he established Spurs as regulars at the top end of the Premier League and took the club to a first ever Champions League final in 2019.
Pochettino was sacked by Tottenham just months later before joining Paris Saint-Germain in 2021, where we won one Ligue 1 title and French Cup in 18 months in charge.