Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone

Neymar on Friday watched in delight as Al-Hilal came from behind to defeat Al-Ittihad 3-1 to take a giant step toward a 19th Saudi Pro League trophy. (X/@AlHilal_FC)
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Updated 01 March 2024
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Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone

  • Goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, Malcom, and Saud Abdulhamid made sure 18-time champions now nine points clear of Riyadh rivals in second

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo watched from the stands in disbelief on Thursday as Al-Nassr were held to a 4-4 draw at home against bottom team Al-Hazm. Neymar on Friday watched in delight as Al-Hilal came from behind to defeat Al-Ittihad 3-1 to take a giant step toward a 19th Saudi Pro League trophy.

Thanks to goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, Malcom, and Saud Abdulhamid, the 18-time champions are now nine points clear of their Riyadh rivals in second, and as Al-Hilal have now won their last 25 games in all competitions and a record 15 in the league, few would now bet against the Blues.

It was an entertaining Saudi Classico, but once Al-Hilal took the lead in the second half, there was always likely to be just one outcome and it was a deserved win.

Al-Ittihad, the defending champions, had opportunities but against the runaway leaders more than one needed to be taken.

But the visitors, who were missing star striker Karim Benzema through injury, started strongly and took the lead in the 12th minute. With all the attacking talent on the pitch, it was a little surprising that N’Golo Kante opened the scoring with his first goal for almost six months. It was a cracker too.

The former Chelsea midfielder started the move and after laying the ball off, sprinted for the penalty area. He was there just in time to meet the left-sided cross from Zakaria Al-Hawsawi and no one was prepared for the sight of Kante flying through the air to send a header past Yassine Bounou and into the net. It stunned fans in the Kingdom Arena and probably those watching around the world. 

A few minutes later it was almost 2-0 as Faisal Al-Ghamdi shot just wide from outside the area with Bounou scrambling to get across. Al-Ittihad have been in good form and were seemingly growing in confidence.

But slowly Al-Hilal began to wake up and six minutes before the break were level. Abdullah Al-Mayouf punched a Salem Al-Dawsari corner clear but it fell to Ruben Neves just outside the area and while the Portuguese star’s shot was blocked, there was Al-Shehri, in the starting lineup to replace the suspended Aleksandar Mitrovic, to pounce and fire home.

Almost immediately, the visitors thought they had a penalty as Kalidou Koulibaly was judged by the referee to have been tugging the shirt of Ahmed Hegazy. VAR thought differently, however.

Both teams continued to push forward and just before the hour the hosts took the lead. It came shortly after Al-Ittihad had claims for a penalty waved away, and Al-Hilal broke. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic chipped over a perfect cross from the left for Malcom — who was given far too much space on the edge of the six-yard box — to head home.

Kante almost equalized within minutes, firing a low shot just wide of the post. It was a great chance and, had it been taken, the game could have turned out very differently.

As it was, midway through the second half, Abdulhamid netted a third. Milinkovic-Savic slipped a pass into the right side of the area for the full-back to twist and turn past two defenders before shooting home at the near post. Not for the first time in the evening, Neymar, still recovering from his serious injury, was on his feet.

Unlike Al-Nassr, who four times threw the lead away against Al-Hazm, Al-Hilal were not going to be denied and the celebrations at the end reflected an unstoppable winning machine.

There is a quick chance for revenge for Al-Ittihad as the two giants meet in the first leg of the Asian Champions League quarter-final next week, but Al-Hilal surely know that with the domestic title almost sewn up, they can now turn their full attention to continental concerns.

For Al-Ittihad, now 25 points below the leaders in fifth, their season now depends on the clash.


T20, cricket’s fast and furious format, in spotlight as World Cup looms

Updated 28 sec ago
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T20, cricket’s fast and furious format, in spotlight as World Cup looms

  • First cricket World Cup to be hosted on US soil starts June 1
  • T20 cricket is completed in just over three hours, unlike Tests or ODIs

The first cricket World Cup to be hosted on US soil starts June 1 and will be shared with countries in the Caribbean, represented by the two-time champion West Indies.

Fear not. It won’t drag on.

This World Cup is in the Twenty20 format, the fastest and most action-packed version of cricket.

Unlike test cricket matches, which started out as timeless before being shortened to five days, T20 doesn’t require any breaks for tea or lunch and is completed in just over three hours — roughly the same as a Major League Baseball game.

Players wear colorful uniforms, unlike the all-white test cricket kits, and venues have a party vibe.

The 20 competing teams have been divided into four groups in the league stage, which kicks off with the US against Canada in Dallas. The top two teams in each group advance to the knockout rounds. The final is set for Bridgetown, Barbados on June 29.

WHEN DID TWENTY20 CRICKET START?

T20 was first played at franchise level in England in 2003. That makes it a baby in terms of cricket, which has been played in one form or another for at least 400 years.

Within four years, T20 had its own World Cup and it has spawned far-flung leagues in traditional and new cricket markets. The most lucrative franchise cricket competition by far is the Indian Premier League.

Major League Cricket, which attracts players from around the world, made its debut in the US last year. Season 2 will launch July 4.

SPEED AND ENTERTAINMENT

The two important factors with the T20 format: It hurries the game up, meaning, generally, much more excitement. The game is also shortened time-wise and is easier to consume for young or new fans or — and this is key — TV programming.

While the format leads to high-tempo action on the field, T20 has also sparked an evolution in off-field entertainment in cricket. Cheerleaders dancing on podiums, DJs sitting behind decks spinning tunes and fancy dress themes are all part of the T20 game for crowds, bringing a colorful new twist for those at the stadium and broadcast viewers.

RULES

Cricket’s main rules still apply in T20 games, meaning there might still be a steep learning curve for new fans unfamiliar with the leg before wicket law, or “lbw” for short — when a batter is called out for using his protective leg pads to block a delivery from hitting the stumps.

At least there will be no ties. Test cricket has two ways for a game to have no winner, even if it’s been going on for five days.

But in T20, even if the teams get exactly the same number of runs — 150 runs is an average score and more than 200 is a good score — then there is a “Super Over” to decide the game. That means each team faces one over of six balls to smash as many runs as it can and whoever wins that tie-breaker wins the game.

THE FINER DETAILS

Like test and one-day international cricket, it’s a game between two teams of 11. Each team gets to bat for 20 overs (a series of six deliveries from the same bowler) which translates to 120 deliveries, excluding extras, per inning. Hence the name Twenty20.

The leather ball is white and similar in appearance to a baseball.

Bowlers run to the crease and use a rotating arm action to bowl the ball and try to knock the bails off three 28-inch stumps from the opposite end of the 22-yard pitch. Batters try to protect the stumps while scoring runs as quickly as possible by hitting the ball over or between fielders.

And so, at least in the T20 format, they regularly hit the ball out of the ground, not unlike a home run.

PAST WINNERS

Unlike the traditional Cricket World Cup, which was first contested in 1975, has been played mostly in the 50-over format, and has been dominated by six-time champion Australia, success in the global T20 tournament has been more evenly shared.

Only West Indies, representing the Caribbean nations, and England have won it twice. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia have one T20 title each.

THE STARS

Virat Kohli, India: A feisty and formidable batter who has set records in the Indian Premier League and over a long career with the national team. There’s an array of high-profile stars in the India squad but none has a bigger following than the 35-year-old former captain.

Rashid Khan, Afghanistan: The 25-year-old leg-spinner has been the top-ranked T20 bowler in international cricket and is still very much in the Top 10. He’s a star in the IPL and for the Afghan national team.

Jofra Archer, England: If he’s fit, he’s super fast. The Barbados-born paceman hasn’t played a lot of cricket in the last few years because of injury but has been rushed back into the squad for the defending champions because of his intimidating bowling and experience in Caribbean conditions.

Mitch Marsh, Australia: A big, burley “allrounder” — meaning he bats and bowls — Marsh can get an innings away to a blazing start and also bowl with pace. He has been recovering from a hamstring problem which curtailed his IPL season and isn’t likely to bowl at the start of the World Cup but will play as captain regardless. He was the player of the final when Australia clinched its first T20 world title in 2021.


West Ham name Julen Lopetegui as new boss

Updated 23 May 2024
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West Ham name Julen Lopetegui as new boss

LONDON: West Ham named former Real Madrid and Spain boss Julen Lopetegui as their new manager on Thursday after David Moyes’ departure from the London Stadium.
The 57-year-old Spaniard had been out of work since leaving Wolves on the eve of the just-concluded Premier League season.
Lopetegui will officially begin work with the Hammers on July 1, replacing Moyes after the Scot’s exit at the end of this season.
“We came here with the idea and the thought to make a big, big noise,” he said. “That’s why we came here, and we are excited by this challenge.
“Of course, we are going to do our best to help the club and the team to achieve the best level and to achieve our aims.
“I assure the fans that they are going to be key in all our achievements.”
West Ham joint-chairman David Sullivan said Lopetegui’s appointment would “ensure a strong opportunity to build on the positive progress made in recent seasons.”
The Hammers finished ninth in the Premier League in the 2023/24 season.


Cricket’s rising demands are impacting physical and mental health

Updated 23 May 2024
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Cricket’s rising demands are impacting physical and mental health

  • Against a background of outstanding achievements are cries for help by professional cricketers who want to reduce their workload

Fred Trueman of Yorkshire and England was long regarded as his nation’s greatest fast bowler. In his prime, he bowled a thousand overs for Yorkshire during a summer.

This was an era when the only cricket matches on view, apart from Tests, were three-day county championships between 17 counties. In 1964, Trueman was the first bowler to claim 300 wickets in Test matches. When asked if he thought his achievement would be beaten, his response — typical of the man — was: “Aye, but whoever does it will be very tired.”

Since then, 36 bowlers have beaten Trueman’s record. Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan claimed 800, followed by Australia’s Shane Warne with 708, and then there is England’s James Anderson, who has 700 and is due to play his last Test this year.

Anderson’s longevity and fitness is truly remarkable. He has sent down almost 40,000 deliveries in Test matches alone, the fourth highest among those taking more than three hundred wickets. He is not admitting to any tiredness and is regarded by some as having claim to be England’s finest quick bowler, rather than Trueman. Both their achievements, in different eras, are extraordinary. Trueman’s feat was accompanied by a bowling average of 21.57, only bettered by Malcom Marshall (20.94) and Curtly Ambrose (20.99). Anderson’s is 26.52.

It is against the background of these achievements that current cries for help by professional cricketers to reduce their workload should be gauged. Another of Yorkshire’s finest players is Joe Root who, in 140 Tests for England so far, has scored 11,626 runs. This puts him 10th on the all-time list of top Test run scorers. His workload has been intense for years, even more so when he captained England in 64 Tests, yet he rarely complains. Last week, however, he called for a major rethink of English cricket’s crowded schedule.

This was accompanied by the Professional Cricketers Association calling for change “before something disastrous happens.”

Based on a survey of professional male cricketers, the PCA revealed that key concerns are physical heath (81 percent), travel conditions (75 percent) and mental health (62 percent). Long-distance driving late at night, whether moving between matches or traveling home, is a particular worry. It is argued that player welfare and performance are compromised by the lack of time to recover, prepare and practice.

Professional cricket in England and Wales has a particular issue in that there are four men’s competitions shoe-horned into a window between mid-April and the end of September, with August given over entirely to The Hundred. Last year, proposals to reduce the amount of four-day county cricket and T20 cricket were rejected by the counties. Effectively, the 50 over competition has been downgraded because so few of the top players appear in it. According to Root, the objective should be to get “the standard of first-class and county cricket as close as you can to the international game.”

Professional cricketers in England and Wales have raised the issue of congested schedules and travelling pressure before. The explosion of T20 cricket in the last 20 years has increased this congestion and turned it into a more international concern. In India and Australia, for example, the distances between venues are much greater, with flying and its attendant risks additional factors.

In November 2023, during the announcement of India’s ODI squad for a series against Australia, India’s captain, Rohit Sharma, blamed excessive travel for injured players across the teams. It is in the interests of all cricket boards to narrow the gap between the standard of the breeding ground of first-class cricket and international cricket. Each one has different ways of doing so, a reflection of relative resources, geography and historic structures.

In India, reform is proposed for 2024-25. It seems likely that the Ranji Trophy, the country’s state-based long format game and the equivalent of the English county championship, will be split into two halves. White ball tournaments would be held in between. The main drivers behind this are to address variable winter weather conditions in the north and to allow longer gaps between matches to facilitate travel and recovery. This is similar reasoning to that aired by Joe Root and the PCA.

More forgiving schedules may release pressure on mental health, an often-overlooked facet of professional sport. There have been a number of high-profile cases in recent years in cricket. Azeem Rafiq’s experience of racism at Yorkshire was one. Another was Jonathan Trott, who played 52 Tests for England between 2009 and 2015. He left England’s tour of Australia in November 2013, unable to cope with the demands at that level. A man with very high levels of concentration lost them and referred to the impact of social media, saying: “People don't look you in the face and have a conversation and ask you how you are.”

Rohit Sharma, in the aftermath of India’s defeat in the 2023 ODI World Cup Final, was mentally shattered. He eschewed social media and opted out of ODI and T20I assignments against South Africa. Men’s cricket is a tough environment that appears not to appreciate that mental health issues are real. The growth of women’s cricket has brought about a change in approaches to mental health within the game. A webinar which I joined this week promoted by the Cricket Research Network discussed the different physiological challenges which women face in advancing in the game.

Quite what Fred Trueman would have made of this is an open question. He was an un-constituted menacing quick bowler who bullied opponents. It is not unreasonable to assume he would have been aghast at the notion of women playing professional cricket.

After his playing days were over, he became a pundit and commentator. His catch line was: “I don’t know what is going on.” He would be even more at a loss in today’s world of social media and Bollywood-style cricket.


Sami Zayn reflects on Saudi Arabia’s role in his journey to WrestleMania glory

Updated 23 May 2024
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Sami Zayn reflects on Saudi Arabia’s role in his journey to WrestleMania glory

  • He defends his Intercontinental Title this weekend in a triple threat match against Chad Gable and Bronson Reed at the WWE King and Queen of the Ring event in Jeddah
  • It comes 11 years after he signed with WWE and 10 years after he first visited the Kingdom to compete in an event
  • ‘If you’re an Arab kid … with a dream of chasing this, becoming a wrestler or the WWE or whatever it is, it’s much more attainable than it’s ever been,’ he says

RIYADH: Amid the expansive global reach of the WWE, few wrestling stars embody the spirit of international connectivity quite as completely as Sami Zayn. His journey from pre-WWE days to competing in Saudi Arabia for the first time a decade ago and then glory at WrestleMania surely reflects the transformative power of sports entertainment.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, he shared some insights into the evolution of his career, his aspirations, and the effects the partnership between WWE and Saudi Arabia has had on him personally and wrestling in general.

It came as Zayn prepared to defend his Intercontinental Title this weekend in a triple threat match against Chad Gable and Bronson Reed at the WWE King and Queen of the Ring event in Jeddah.

As he reflected on his journey, Zayn, who signed with WWE in 2013, reminisced about his first visit to Saudi Arabia the following year, in the early days of WWE’s partnership with sports authorities in the Kingdom.

Though Zayn is not of Saudi descent — he was born in Canada to Syrian parents — he expressed a profound sense of belonging in Saudi Arabia and the wider region because it resonates with him on a cultural level and he appreciates its familiar characteristics.

“You know, with your culture, your language, your people, the food, the smells, the sounds, I don’t know, there’s something about it,” he said. “It just feels like home, even though it’s not home, you know?”

Discussing his victory over Gunther in April at WrestleMania 40 to claim the Intercontinental Title, which his opponent had held for a record-breaking 666 days, Zayn said he achieved something many people thought was impossible, and it was a pivotal moment marked the end of a significant chapter in Gunther’s illustrious career.

“I think just being in the ring with Gunther — who obviously has shown that he’s one of our top superstars now and, you know, probably the best Intercontinental Champion we’ve ever had — to beat him at the biggest show of the year, I mean, I think it’s very, very memorable. And I think that’s one of the hardest things to do right now.”

Zayn did his best to articulate the indescribable thrill of competing on WWE’s grandest stage. Amid the deluge of content in modern wrestling, he said it is particularly significant if one can craft memorable moments that will endure beyond the duration of the event itself.

“I feel like the hardest thing to do nowadays is to have a memorable match and memorable moments that people will remember, oh, two, three, four, five, maybe even 10 years down the road,” he said.

“And I feel like that match (against Gunther) was good, if nothing else because of how long he held the title. I feel like it’ll be very well remembered. So I’m very proud of that.”

As Saudi Arabia continues to evolve and open up to the world, the rapid pace of developments in the country over the past few years has made sport and entertainment accessible to all and opened up ever-greater opportunities, which means that the prospects have never been better for aspiring Arab wrestlers to follow in Zayn’s footsteps.

He acknowledges that what not so long ago was a distant dream for Saudis is now a realistic possibility, and he credits the long-established presence of WWE in the Kingdom for helping to foster a sense of connectivity and inspiration. He also stressed the importance of encouraging emerging talents to show determination and perseverance as they pursue their dreams.

“Now, because of the fact that we run shows in Saudi and we have this partnership with Saudi Arabia and we’re more connected to the region, if you’re an Arab kid or a young man with a dream of chasing this, becoming a wrestler or the WWE or whatever it is, it’s much more attainable than it’s ever been,” he said.

“If you have that goal, look, it’s not easy, it’s never easy, but it’s more achievable now than it’s ever been … for somebody from anywhere here in the Middle East.”

As for his own future, Zayn has a pragmatic but optimistic view. While harboring ambitions for world championship glory, he said he prioritizes the art of storytelling and emotional engagement as his guiding principles. He remains committed to making a lasting impact on fans as he continues to evolve as a performer and storyteller.

“I would just like to keep doing what I’m doing now, which is to continue to tell good stories, prominent stories,” he said.

“I want to be an important part of the television show. And I think what I bring to the table, just as much as anybody if not more than most, is the emotional component of the stories that I tell in the ring or, you know, leading up to these matches.”

Still, he acknowledged that he would love to win the world championship before he steps out of the ring for the final time.

“But hopefully that’s not for another few years, you know, God willing, inshallah, at least five more years or something. But you don’t know what life has for you.”

Looking back on into his formative years, and his journey from wrestling fan to superstar, Zayn pays tribute to his own childhood idols and inspirations. From Hulk Hogan and Bret Hart to the Hardy Boyz, Mick Foley and Eddie Guerrero, they all left an indelible mark and influenced his journey.

He said the Hardy Boyz and Mick Foley in particular had a big impact on him “because they had stories that, in some ways, I could really relate to: They started in their backyard and then they got trained. It just seemed like a more attainable route to get there. I think they kind of opened my eyes in that way.”

WWE returns to Saudi Arabia this weekend with the double-header of SmackDown and then King and Queen of the Ring at Jeddah’s Superdome. The action begins on May 24 with the Kingdom’s inaugural SmackDown event, which will be broadcast live globally and include the second semifinals of the King and Queen of the Ring championships. The finals of those competitions will take place at the main event on May 25, along with Zayn’s battle and two other championship bouts.


Doncic leads strong close by Mavericks for 108-105 win over Wolves in Game 1 of West finals

Updated 23 May 2024
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Doncic leads strong close by Mavericks for 108-105 win over Wolves in Game 1 of West finals

  • Doncic was relatively quiet until he scored seven straight points over 63 seconds early in the fourth quarter
  • Minnesota host Game 2 on Friday night

MINNEAPOLIS: Luka Doncic had 15 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter to lift the Dallas Mavericks to a 108-105 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday night.

Kyrie Irving scored 24 of his 30 in the first half for the Mavericks, who trailed 102-98 after a 3-pointer by Anthony Edwards with 3:37 left before an 8-0 run the Wolves didn’t stop until a tip-in with 10.5 seconds to go.

Jaden McDaniels had his third straight 20-plus-point game with 24 points for the Wolves, but Edwards — who earned his first All-NBA selection prior to the game, on the second team — was stifled for 19 points in a team effort from the Mavericks. Karl-Anthony Towns needed a late burst to get to 16 points and finished 6 for 20 from the floor.

The star power in this series is strong, and for the first night at least the Mavericks got what they needed from their leading duo while the Wolves largely struggled to run the offense around theirs.

Dallas had a 62-38 advantage in points in the paint to offset a 6-for-25 shooting performance from deep.

Towns came to life with a long jumper, a lob to Rudy Gobert for a slam and a 3-pointer on a 2-minute burst to give the Wolves the lead back with 4:39 to go on the way to a 10-0 run that Doncic ended with a 3-pointer. P.J. Washington, who had 13 points and seven rebounds, hit from deep to put the Mavericks back in front with 1:56 to go.

Towns thought he tied the game with a putback dunk on the next possession, but that was waved off for basket interference.

Edwards, who went scoreless in the third quarter, added 11 rebounds and eight assists.

Neither team led by more than nine. Minnesota host Game 2 on Friday night.

Doncic was relatively quiet until he scored seven straight points over 63 seconds early in the fourth quarter, and the Mavericks stretched that to a 13-0 run for a 97-89 lead that Edwards finally ended with a 3-pointer after another helter-skelter possession.

The Wolves had two days off after dethroning defending champion Denver with a Game 7 comeback from a 20-point deficit to win the second-round series, and the transition was sharp from the Nuggets and NBA MVP Nikola Jokic’s deliberate and powerful style to the pick-and-roll-heavy Mavericks.

Irving’s stunning burst on the break and on the drive presented a unique challenge the Wolves and their league-leading defense didn’t face in the last round, when they held the Nuggets to an average of 85 points over their four wins. The Mavericks frequently sprung loose off screens for wide-open dunks.

McDaniels, who played his usual relentless defense on the perimeter, was the catalyst on the other end of the court too with five 3-pointers in the first half, but Towns had trouble getting shots to fall and Edwards found his driving lanes constantly clogged. The Mavericks have cranked up their defense since adding Daniel Gafford and Washington at the trade deadline, as top-seeded Oklahoma City can attest after losing in six games in the last round.

The Wolves have had the superior depth in each round so far, and Kyle Anderson gave them a vital 11 points in the first half. Naz Reid had 15 points, including a fast-break layup followed by a steal from Doncic to set up a 3-pointer by Edwards at the end of the first quarter that put the Wolves up 33-27 and had the crowd roaring.

The Wolves and these long-frustrated fans have reached unfamiliar territory with this team that has given the franchise just its second Western Conference finals appearance ever. The Mavericks were here just two years ago, but before Irving arrived. He’s the only player of significance in this series with a championship ring, having helped Cleveland win it all in 2016.