Mitrovic ready to take on ‘father’ Rasovic as Al-Hilal travel to Al-Fayha

Aleksandar Mitrovic has been one of Al-Hilal's most influential players as thgey lead the SPL table going into 2024. (SPL)
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Updated 29 December 2023

Mitrovic ready to take on ‘father’ Rasovic as Al-Hilal travel to Al-Fayha

  • Serbian coach gave ‘merciless’ striker his professional debut in 2012
  • Former Fulham hit man has scored 24 times in 25 games since joining Saudi League

A huge smile lights up the face of Aleksandar Mitrovic as he lovingly calls Vuk Rasovic his footballing father.

But on Friday night in the Roshn Saudi League nothing will stop the Al-Hilal striker trying to break the heart of the man who gave him his professional debut for Teleoptik, an affiliate club of Partizan Belgrade, in 2012.

The following year Rasovic and Mitrovic helped guide Partizan to the Serbian SuperLiga title, and while the duo then went their separate ways, the bond remains.

“I always say to him, he’s a little bit shy, but I always say to him he’s my father of football. He’s the guy that brought me up and gave me a chance to come from the youth and who believed in me,” Mitrovic said.

“He’s a very important person to me, not only in football but in my life. He was like a father to me and still is.”

The duo have both enjoyed success since they left Serbian club football. For Mitrovic — his nation’s record goalscorer with 57 from 87 caps — Belgium, England and now Saudi Arabia called.

Be it at Anderlecht, Newcastle United, Fulham or Al-Hilal, goals have followed the 29-year-old, who has netted 24 times in 25 games for the Riyadh club since signing in the summer.

He is a huge part of the reason Al-Hilal, unbeaten this season, top the league by seven points from Al-Nassr and why club manager Jorge Jesus dubbed him “merciless.”

Al-Fayha coach Vuk Rasovic. (SPL)

For Rasovic, who has played in Bulgaria, Russia and the US and coached in Belarus and UAE among other places, his most successful achievement is guiding Al-Fayha to the King’s Cup in 2022. Victory in a penalty shootout over Al-Hilal, which marked a wonderful conclusion to the Serbian manager’s first season in the city of Al-Majma’ah, earned the club their first major trophy.

Rasovic, who turns 51 on Wednesday, is equally fond of Mitrovic, but ahead of such an important game for Al-Fayha is understandably keener to focus on his club than reminisce.

Al-Fayha sit 11th in the league going into the game, which kicks off at 6 p.m. on Friday at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh.

But seeing his fellow Serbians — midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic moved to Al-Hilal from Lazio in the summer — succeeding does give Rasovic, who led Al-Fayha to AFC Asian Champions League football this season, great satisfaction.

“It is very good to see Serbians doing well in Saudi Arabian football,” he said. “We are trying to show our country in a good light. Mitro and Sergej, they are keeping Hilal on top, especially Mitro, and I wish them all the best. But not against us.”

This is not the first time Al-Hilal and Al-Fayha have gone head-to-head this season. On Aug. 19, just before Mitrovic’s introduction to Saudi football, the teams drew 1-1 at the King Fahd International Stadium, with goals from Abdullah Al-Hamdan for the hosts and former Rangers striker Fashion Sakala for the visitors.

“They played the game before I came. I saw them draw here, so hopefully we will win the game this time,” Mitrovic said.

“It will be nice to play against (Rasovic) … he’s a great coach and it’s going to be a nice game. Hopefully we will win.”

When asked how he planned to stop Mitrovic from scoring, Rasovic said: “Wait till the game and you will see.”

Al Ain knock out Al Hilal to reach Asian Champions League final

Updated 24 April 2024

Al Ain knock out Al Hilal to reach Asian Champions League final

  • Hernan Crespo’s Al Ain will face either Yokohama F-Marinos or Koreans Ulsan Hyundai in the final in May

RIYADH: Al Ain reached the Asian Champions League final for the first time since 2016 with a 5-4 aggregate victory over four-time winners Al Hilal, despite a 2-1 second-leg defeat in Riyadh on Tuesday.
Trailing 4-2 after their record 34-match winning run was ended in last week’s first leg, Al Hilal quickly cut the deficit through Ruben Neves’ fourth-minute penalty.
Brazilian Erik drew Al Ain level on the night, though, to leave runaway Saudi Pro League leaders Al Hilal with a mountain to climb in the second half.
But Salem Al Dawsari scored a rebound less than six minutes after the restart to give the hosts renewed hope.
Brazilian Michael and former Lazio star Sergei Milinkovic-Savic both went close as Al Hilal piled on the pressure, the latter seeing his effort cleared off the line.
Al Ain goalkeeper Khalid Eisa enjoyed a fine evening, making six saves, including from Michael and Mohamed Kanno late on.
The Emirati visitors clung on desperately through nine minutes of added time, with Eisa keeping out a Michael header in the 98th minute.
Hernan Crespo’s Al Ain will face either Yokohama F-Marinos or Koreans Ulsan Hyundai in the final in May as they bid for a second triumph in the competition and first since 2003.
Japanese club Yokohama trail 1-0 on aggregate heading into their semifinal second leg on Wednesday.

New Al-Tai boss Ramos believes dream debut win could boost SPL relegation fight

Updated 23 April 2024

New Al-Tai boss Ramos believes dream debut win could boost SPL relegation fight

  • Uruguayan coach, whose side travel to Al-Fayha on Thursday, achieved dramatic last-gasp win over fellow relegation battlers Al-Riyadh at the weekend

RIYADH: Leonardo Ramos, the new Al-Tai manager, believes the club’s victory in his debut match could be vital to secure Roshn Saudi League football next season.

Ramos oversaw a dramatic 2-1 win for the Hail club at 10-man Al-Riyadh on Friday in the capital courtesy of a Khalid Al-Shuwayyi own goal 12 minutes into injury time.

The win lifted Al-Tai, who had gone four games without victory prior to the Uruguayan’s arrival, out of the relegation zone and into 14th place in the 18-team league.

“I know that every player in the team needs to bring his best abilities on the field, so the reason for my presence is my experience in ensuring this happens,” Ramos said. “Certainly, the ultimate goal is to play with greater performances and to improve the level and position of the club in the table. The win benefits this.

“The league is definitely approaching the end faster than I would have liked, but I think we can help the players a lot,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of games before I came here, and game by game we’ll have more vision. We were so happy because this was our first game together — and we are happy to have improved our position in the table. We have gone up in the table and that’s important.”

Al-Tai’s opener on Friday night at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh came from Bernard Mensah in first-half injury time. Al-Riyadh saw Abdullah Al-Khairbari red-carded just after the interval but equalized through Abdulhadi Al-Harajin. This came before Al-Shuwayyi watched in horror as a cross ball trundled into the net off his shoulder deep into stoppage time.

Ramos, 54, who earned eight caps for his country as a player, previously managed Al-Ettifaq in Saudi Arabian football in 2018 and was most recently in charge of Montevideo City Torque in his home country. He replaced Romanian national Laurentiu Reghecampf as Al-Tai manager.

Next up for Ramos and Al-Tai is a trip to Al-Fayha on Thursday, with kickoff at 6 p.m. The club then conclude their campaign with matches versus Al-Khaleej, Al-Raed, Al-Fateh, Al-Hilal and a final-day-of-the-season clash with fellow relegation battlers Al-Okhdood.

The Roshn Saudi League bottom five spots has Al-Hazem last on 16 points, followed by Al-Okhdood on 24, Abha and Al-Riyadh on 25 — with the former in the drop zone due to a considerably inferior goal difference — and then Al-Tai on 26 points. With the standings so tight, Ramos knows exactly what is needed now.

“For sure we need to continue working on improving performances,” the Uruguayan said. “I believe we played an outstanding match (against Al-Riyadh), although there were times that we lacked the rhythm, team spirit, and overall performance. Most of the time, we played on the sides and at the back, and we did not move progressively enough towards the opponent’s goal.

“However, we showed determination and desire to win, and we made some changes in the second half of the match to improve the result and achieve the victory, which we succeeded in at the end. I am very happy to work with the players, and the club overall, and achieving the victory was a great result.”


Ivan Rakitic: Luka Modric moving to Saudi Arabia would be ‘amazing’

Updated 22 April 2024

Ivan Rakitic: Luka Modric moving to Saudi Arabia would be ‘amazing’

  • Al-Shabab midfielder would waste no time in promoting the Kingdom to his former Croatia teammate if he decides to leave Real Madrid

LONDON: Ivan Rakitic hopes his strong brotherly bond with his former Croatia team-mate Luka Modric can persuade the timeless maestro to join him at Al-Shabab in the Saudi Pro League.

Modric may be 38 but Rakitic said that his enduring class was something his fellow Real Madrid midfielder, the free-scoring tyro Jude Bellingham, could learn from.

Modric’s Real Madrid contract expires in the summer, and rumors of a move to Saudi Arabia have been swirling. Rakitic, eager to reunite with his former teammate, would be delighted to help facilitate it.

“If you come to Saudi but don’t come to Al-Shabab, you’re going to have some problems with me,” Rakitic told Arab News with a laugh when asked what he would tell Modric, whom he has said “is like a brother to me.”

Rakitic suffered an injury inlets month’s 4-3 home defeat to Al-Hilal and was absent from Al-Shabab’s 5-0 win over Abha on Thursday, a result that sees them sit ninth in the Saudi Pro League table.

The 36-year-old joined the Riyadh club from La Liga side Sevilla in January and told Arab News over Zoom that he would be thrilled to share a pitch again with Modric, with whom he played for Croatia for 12 years until his international retirement in 2019.

The pair’s midfield majesty helped to propel Croatia to the 2018 World Cup final, which they lost 4-2 to France.

“If he decides to move, it would be amazing. I would call him directly after two minutes to try to do everything for Al-Shabab, for Saudi, to bring him to the Saudi Pro League, or give him all the information that maybe he needs.

“If he decides to stay in Madrid for one more year, I think enjoying Luka at the highest level would also be amazing.”

A renowned playmaker after trophy-laden spells at Barcelona and Sevilla, Rakitic is well-placed to assess the merits of other leading midfielders.

Of the credentials of England’s Bellingham, who, at only 20, has enjoyed a marvelous debut season with Real Madrid and scored a stoppage time winner in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Barcelona, Rakitic said: “Of course, (there are many talented young players) and Jude is one of the first we look for but I like the old generation. I like Luka, (Kevin) De Bruyne, Bernardo. I have (so much) respect for Real Madrid because they were able to understand they had to do this change of generation step by step by giving the opportunity to big talents like Bellingham, (Federico) Valverde, (Eduardo) Camavinga. But there are still many things to learn from Luka and Toni (Kroos).”

Bellingham, Camavinga, Modric and Kroos are all set to appear at Euro 2024 in the summer and Rakitic expects “a really special” tournament. He said there would be “surprises for sure” and cited hosts Germany, France, and Portugal as his top contenders.

Rakitic also believes Croatia and the evergreen Modric can have “a big tournament” — despite being in a tough group with Spain and Italy.

He is similarly enthusiastic about Saudi Arabia hosting the 2034 World Cup.

“I think it will be the best World Cup because if the Saudis are at the top in something it is in organization and motivation,” he said.

An interview with Rakitic would not be complete without mentioning the iconic triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez with whom Rakitic enjoyed halcyon days at Barcelona.

“Why not? I think we can do many, many, many important things together,” Rakitic said when Arab News mooted the dream scenario of him and the legendary trio joining forces in Saudi Arabia.

Messi may have rejected Al-Hilal’s $399 million-a-year deal last summer in favor of joining Inter Miami in the US but remains the Kingdom’s tourism ambassador.

Xavi has vowed to quit as Barcelona manager in the summer and has significant experience in the Middle East, having played for and managed Al-Sadd in Qatar between 2015 and 2021.

Iniesta is already in the region after joining Emirates Club in the UAE on a one-year deal in August.

“I think the season we did together, 2014-2015, I think (we were) the best team in the history of football,” Rakitic said.

Barcelona won La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and the Champions League, becoming the first European team to secure the treble twice — a feat Bayern Munich emulated in 2020.

“(We achieved) the perfect Champions League that season (beating) the French champions (Paris Saint-Germain), the English champions (Manchester City), the German champions (Bayern Munich) and the Italian champions (Juventus). It was the best season possible.”

Messi reportedly asked the Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham to persuade Rakitic to join his club last year.

But Rakitic said he “never spoke” to the former England, Real Madrid and Manchester United star.

“Hopefully I can speak to him because I’m a big fan,” he said.

“I wear my (Adidas) Predators because I saw him taking his free-kicks with (those boots). If David would like to meet and even take some free-kicks together, it would be amazing.”

Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo

Updated 20 April 2024

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.

Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain

Updated 18 April 2024

Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain

  • Morocco striker Soufiane Rahimi was the star of the show after he scored a first-half hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Al-Ain in their semifinal first leg
  • Al-Hilal, the four-time Asian champions, last failed to win a game in September last year when they drew a Saudi Pro League match

AL-AIN: Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal saw their record run of 34 successive victories end on Wednesday at the hands of UAE’s Al-Ain in the Asian Champions League.
Morocco striker Soufiane Rahimi was the star of the show after he scored a first-half hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Al-Ain in their semifinal first leg.
Al-Hilal, the four-time Asian champions, last failed to win a game in September last year when they drew a Saudi Pro League match.
Wednesday’s game had been postponed 24 hours after torrential rain swamped the UAE and the record-setting Saudis must have wished it had kept raining.
Rahimi opened the scoring after just six minutes from a pass by Yahia Nader and added a second from the penalty spot 20 minutes later after he was brought down by goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais who was yellow carded for his troubles.
Rahimi completed his hat-trick in the 40th minute, again from a penalty after Ali Al-Bulayhi chopped down Brazilian defender Erik in the area.
Al-Hilal reduced the deficit early in the second period when Malcom scored from a pass by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
However, the Saudis conceded yet another penalty just before the hour mark with Kalidou Koulibaly bringing down Rahimi.
This time Paraguayan star Alejandro Romero took over spot-kick duties to make it 4-1 for Al-Ain, the inaugural winners of the Asian Champions League in 2003.
Salem Al-Dawsari kept Al-Hilal in the tie ahead of next Tuesday’s return leg by scoring his team’s second goal of the night in the 78th minute.
Earlier Wednesday, South Korea’s Ulsan claimed a slender lead in their semifinal with a 1-0 first leg win over Japan’s Yokohama F-Marinos.