Barca coach Xavi hails rivals Madrid ahead of Clasico

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti with FC Barcelona coach Xavi before their Copa del Rey — Semi Final — Second Leg match at Camp Nou, Barcelona, on Apr. 5, 2023. (Reuters/File)
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Updated 20 April 2024
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Barca coach Xavi hails rivals Madrid ahead of Clasico

  • “When you have won so many times you play with more calm, less desperation, more confidence, they are a very good team,” Xavi said
  • “In the end people say it’s luck, I don’t believe much in luck — I think it’s effort, defensive work, the solidarity they showed, everyone working so hard”

MADRID: Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez praised rivals Real Madrid ahead of their Clasico showdown in La Liga on Sunday.
Los Blancos lead the Spanish top flight by eight points with champions Barcelona needing a victory at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday to stand any chance of retaining the trophy.
After Barcelona crashed out of the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain and Madrid beat holders Manchester City in midweek, Xavi acknowledged the record 14-time winners’ quality.
“When you have won so many times you play with more calm, less desperation, more confidence, they are a very good team,” Xavi told a news conference Saturday.
“In the end people say it’s luck, I don’t believe much in luck — I think it’s effort, defensive work, the solidarity they showed, everyone working so hard.
“The three up front worked harder than ever, Man City missed some clear chances but that’s football, it’s not luck that Madrid have knocked out the best team in the world twice in three years.”
Xavi said he was not throwing in the towel in La Liga despite Madrid’s significant advantage.
“For us it’s the most important game of the season, we have to win to put pressure on the leader,” he added.
“We have enormous respect for Real Madrid, they’ve lost just one game out of 31, their numbers are extraordinary.
“We don’t have bad numbers in La Liga, we’ve got four points less than when we were leaders last season (at this stage).”
Xavi’s counterpart at Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti, said his team could strike a killer blow in the title race.
“It’s a great chance for us to get closer to winning La Liga, but we know it’s hard because Barcelona are a very competitive side,” said the Italian.
“We are very close if we are capable of winning ... it will be the usual Clasico, a hard-fought, equal game.”
Ancelotti said defender Ferland Mendy was tired after the win over City and was given an extra day of rest, but the rest of his squad was fit, beyond the long-term absentees.
Madrid are aiming to win a league and Champions League double for the fifth time in their history.
“The cake is prepared and we have to put the cherry on top this month,” said Ancelotti. “We’re very well positioned.”


Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League

Updated 26 May 2024
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Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League

  • A victorious end to this AFC Champions League-era was earned by the UAE’s Al-Ain after a 5-1 win over Yokohama Marinos at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium

DUBAI: Al-Ain are kings of Asia after a remarkable AFC Champions League campaign culminated in a 5-1 win over Yokohama Marinos in the second leg of the final on Saturday night.

Morocco phenomenon Soufiane Rahimi helped gain a richly deserved second continental crown for Hernan Crespo’s troops, sparking wild celebrations at a jubilant Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in the Garden City.

The Boss’ 6-3 aggregate finals triumph over Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos was enriched by consecutive knockout-stage eliminations of red-hot Saudi Arabian favorites Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr and came with added poignancy as they go down in history as the first and last victors throughout 21 editions of this format ahead of next season’s sweeping changes for AFC Champions League Elite/AFC Champions League Two/AFC Challenge League.

Here, Arab News takes a look at the talking points for the Middle East’s competitors after this unforgettable — and unrepeatable — 2023-24 campaign:

Crespo and Rahimi make difference for unstoppable Al-Ain

Al-Ain’s curious campaign gained a fittingly glorious conclusion.

The Boss looked well off the pace domestically to a rampant Al-Wasl yet were the undisputed class of the continental field. That is, in part, attributable to the searing drive of Rahimi and Crespo’s charisma.

They swept through the group stage under the unpopular Alfred Schreuder, before their celebrated Argentine supremo orchestrated a tight victory versus Uzbekistan’s Nasaf and then two modern classics against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal.

A Marinos similarly prone to drama awaited in the decider. Al-Ain would only trail for 14 regulation minutes across the two legs, with a 2-1 away defeat being followed by a dominant 5-1 home victory.

There would be no repeat of the showpiece suffering caused by Douglas’ missed penalty in 2016 or Al-Ittihad’s inexorable 2005 second-leg display.

Crespo learned from the 2022 semifinal embarrassment inflicted upon him by Al-Hilal when in charge of Qatar’s Al-Duhail. His reintroduction of compatriot Matias Palacios — mystifyingly shunned by Schreuder — was influential.

Other heroes included Yahia Nader, Kaku, the ceaseless Mohammed Abbas and skipper Bandar Al-Ahbabi.

But the final words must go to Rahimi. The top scorer’s 13 goals were five more than anyone else, including three goals in two legs versus Al-Nassr and a first-leg hat-trick against Al-Hilal.

In the final’s second stanza, he leveled the tie on eight minutes, won the penalty for Kaku, which put them back ahead, and a supremely intelligent arching run kept him onside before being felled by goalkeeper William Popp for the red card. There was even time to link back up with gregarious Togo hit man Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba, who raised the roof via a late brace despite being continually ignored by Crespo.

In a sign of what awaits, however, links to a Saudi Arabian summer move will not abate.

Saudi Arabia’s time should come again

Shock and disappointment are the prevailing emotions for Saudi Arabia’s heavyweights as they look back on a 2023-24 campaign derailed by neighbors Al-Ain.

A quarterfinal double-header for the ages witnessed Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr eliminated on penalties, with a Rahimi-inspired Al-Ain then inflicting more pain on Al-Hilal in the subsequent round. Such early exits were far from the commentariat’s minds when Roshn Saudi League’s revolutionary summer 2023 spending spree was conducted.

There are multiple reasonable to believe, however, that a seventh AFC Champions League trophy will be won by a club from the Kingdom in a year’s time.

The AFC’s decision to scrap their own foreign quota from 2024-25 should exponentially benefit Saudi clubs.

This season’s limit to six foreign players — of whom one must be Asian-qualified — was two more than Saudi clubs are permitted domestically, or three if they did not possess an Asian foreigner. Hence Nassr’s panicked January acquisition of little-used Australia left-back Aziz Behich.

In comparison, only five open-age foreigners were allowed in this season’s ADNOC Pro League of the UAE and Qatar’s Expo Stars League.

The rule unduly disrupted the chemistry within Saudi squads, leading to consequential selection calls such as esteemed Senegal center-back Kalidou Koulibaly sitting out Al-Hilal’s last-four decider with Al-Ain.

There is also an undeniable home-soil advantage baked into the 2024-25 and 2025-26 Elite editions with the quarterfinals, semifinals and final being played in one-leg ties within the Kingdom.

Roshn Saudi League clubs can also look forward to another ambitious summer recruitment spree to further bolster already fearsome rosters. Jeddah giants Al-Ahli’s return to Asia’s premier club competition for the first time since 2021 will see the likes of Franck Kessie and Riyad Mahrez compete for glory.

In time, 2023-24 may just be looked upon as an unwelcome blip for Saudi Arabia’s strongest.

More middling Qatar performances

Another AFC Champions League passed by with no telling impact from Qatari clubs, despite an abundance of star quality and the national team’s second successive Asian Cup success this winter.

It is now 13 years and counting since Al-Sadd defeated South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the final. This is also the nation’s last showpiece appearance.

This season, Al-Arabi and Al-Wakrah exited in the play-offs to unfancied Uzbekistani opposition. It got little better in the competition proper, with Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail failing to make the knockouts.

It feels like a window of opportunity in the AFC Champions League has permanently closed for Qatar, without reward.

Focus on COVID-19 and the World Cup 2022 has shifted to Saudi Arabia’s AFC Champions League Elite “Final Stage” hosting rights for 2024-26, plus lengthy run-ups to the 2027 Asian Cup and World Cup 2034.

Shifting balance?

Change to the direction of travel from east to west within Asian football was notable, throughout 2023-24.

The question, now, is whether this is permanent.

Western supremacy seemed pre-determined in 2023/24, from the imposing strength of Saudi Arabia’s clubs to Al-Ain appearing as the only opponent with a realistic retort. It had, resolutely, not been this way for much of the recent past.

Al-Hilal (2019, 2021) and Al-Sadd (2011) were the only western-zone teams to prevail from 2006 to 2022.

With the financial might of the Chinese Super League continuing to emphatically wane and K League 1 and J1 League outfits remaining exporters of outstanding talent rather than importers, AFC Champions League Elite may have a drastically different roll of honor.


Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League

Updated 26 May 2024
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Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League

  • The defending champions had never beaten the French giants, losing in the 2019 and 2022 finals against them, but finally succeeded in Bilbao
  • Securing their third Champions League trophy from five final appearances, Barcelona demonstrated that they are the new powerhouse of the women’s game

BILBAO, Spain: Aitana Bonmati and Alexia Putellas struck to earn Barcelona their third women’s Champions League trophy, securing a 2-0 triumph over record eight-time winners Lyon on Saturday.

The defending champions had never beaten the French giants, losing in the 2019 and 2022 finals against them, but finally succeeded in Bilbao to compete a spectacular quadruple this season in coach Jonatan Giraldez’s last match in charge.

Bonmati pounced after 63 minutes and substitute Putellas finished the job in stoppage time to avenge Barcelona’s prior defeats by Sonia Bompastor’s side.

Securing their third Champions League trophy from five final appearances across the last six seasons, Barcelona demonstrated that they are the new powerhouse of the women’s game.

“(It’s) a dream day, it is difficult to explain with words the feeling I have now. It is a special moment,” said Giraldez.

“It is one of happiest days of my life.”

Barca’s stars had insisted that this time they were capable of beating Lyon, adding experience and mental strength to their undoubted talent, and so it proved at a packed San Mames.

Backed by the vast majority of a 51,000 record crowd at a women’s Champions League final, Bonmati and her side completed one of the few challenges remaining to them.

“It’s the first time we’ve beaten Lyon. I’m proud of the team, and we know that with these fans we have, we can’t fail,” Bonmati told DAZN.

“It’s incredible what we’re living through as a team, I’m so lucky... to see we’re creating that for so many people, the historic amount of fans we’ve brought, it’s the proudest I’ve felt, I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Giraldez started Mariona Caldentey in attack and moved Fridolina Rolfo to left-back, dropping Ona Batlle to the bench alongside two-time Ballon d’Or winner Putellas.

Lyon left Ada Hegerberg started on the bench too, with the all-time top scorer in the competition’s history struggling for form after injury.

Lucy Bronze deflected a ball onto her own crossbar and Lyon’s towering captain Wendie Renard hit the outside of the post as Barcelona suffered a couple of early jitters.

After going four goals down by half-time in the 2019 final and three down in 2022, this time the Catalans dug deep to hold it together at the back.

Barca threatened increasingly at the other end. Patri Guijarro, who scored twice in last year’s final against Wolfsburg, broke in for their first big chance after half an hour.

Christiane Endler saved and Selma Bacha cleared the ball off the line after it rebounded back toward goal.

Barca’s Caroline Graham Hansen, in sparkling form this season, gave left-back Bacha a torrid time and had 11-time finalist Renard backpedalling fearfully near the end of the first half, but dragged her shot wide.

Barcelona made their quality count after the hour mark when Bonmati sent them ahead.

The Ballon d’Or winner had been quiet but arrived to collect Caldentey’s clever pass and burst into the area.

Bonmati’s low shot deflected off Vanessa Gilles and flew over the helpless Endler, for her sixth goal of the tournament.

Champions League top goalscorer Kadidiatou Diani curled agonizingly over for Lyon as Bompastor’s side tried to fight back. Hegerberg headed off target as Lyon’s chances ebbed away.

“We have to recognize Barcelona had a great match and deserved to win even though it’s hard to accept it,” said Bompastor, tipped to join Chelsea next season, although she stayed tight-lipped on her future.

“We lacked attacking efficiency, we should have scored a goal.”

Eventually Putellas, on as a late substitute, put on the captain’s armband and settled the game by rifling into the top corner to get Barcelona’s celebrations started early.

“Obviously it’s a dream come true, what we have achieved,” said Putellas after her goal locked in Barcelona’s quadruple.

Bronze who won the competition for the fifth time — including three times with Lyon — praised Putellas.

“She’s the captain of the team, she’s the ‘queen’ of Barcelona for a reason,” said Bronze.

“She’s got the quality to do that in the last minute of the Champions League final when we were up against it at the end and just sealed the win for us.”
 


Bayer Leverkusen win the German Cup and complete undefeated domestic double

Updated 26 May 2024
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Bayer Leverkusen win the German Cup and complete undefeated domestic double

  • Leverkusen won the Bundesliga unbeaten, a historic feat
  • The only blip on the record of Xabi Alonso’s team this season was losing the Europa League final to Atalanta 3-0 on Wednesday in Dublin

BERLIN: Granit Xhaka’s early strike was enough for Bayer Leverkusen to win the German Cup final 1-0 over Kaiserslautern for an unbeaten domestic double on Saturday.

Xhaka fired the ball in under the crossbar from distance in the 16th minute. It proved to be enough against second-division Kaiserslautern despite losing defender Odilon Kossounou to a second yellow card just before the break.

Leverkusen won the Bundesliga unbeaten, a historic feat. The only blip on the record of Xabi Alonso’s team this season was losing the Europa League final to Atalanta 3-0 on Wednesday in Dublin. That ended Leverkusen’s record 51-game unbeaten run across all competitions. It was their only loss in 53 games this season.

“The whole journey, the whole season was wonderful,” the Spanish coach said after doubling Leverkusen’s trophy haul in just one season. “What we did this season is unbelievable.”

Alonso and his players ran to their fans after the whistle on Saturday in Berlin’s Olympiastadion. They had supported the team loudly throughout, though were drowned at times by the even more vociferous Kaiserslautern supporters.

They displayed a spectacular tifo of a red devil grasping the trophy in front of a hellish background of fire and brimstone before the game. Flares sending red smoke into the sky embellished the effect – and gave an inkling of what was to come.

The stadium announcer’s repeated requests to stop the pyrotechnics were met with continued indifference. The second half began to a huge fireworks display from the Leverkusen fans.

Despite the smoke above, there was little fire on the field after a long hard season. Kossounou was booked for stopping Kenny Prince Redondo’s break in the third minute, then issued another yellow for a foul on Boris Tomiak in the 44th.

It didn’t stop the Leverkusen machine from grinding out the win. Jeremie Frimpong should have made it 2-0 in the 75th after going past the goalkeeper.

It’s Leverkusen’s second German Cup title after beating Hertha Berlin’s reserve team in the 1993 final. Leverkusen’s other trophy is the 1988 UEFA Cup.


PSG win the French Cup and the double in Kylian Mbappe’s last game

Updated 26 May 2024
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PSG win the French Cup and the double in Kylian Mbappe’s last game

  • Mbappe: Now, I have nothing left with PSG. But I’m very happy to have been able to finish with a trophy
  • PSG won the league and cup for the first time since 2020 when they achieved a domestic treble by also lifting the now defunct League Cup

VILLENEUVE D’ASCQ, France: Paris Saint-Germain beat Lyon 2-1 in the French Cup final and completed the domestic double in Kylian Mbappé’s last game for the club on Saturday.

France winger Ousmane Dembele and Spain midfielder Fabian Ruiz scored for PSG in the first half.

Lyon defender Jake O’Brien got a consolation goal in the second half.

PSG won the league and cup for the first time since 2020 when they achieved a domestic treble by also lifting the now defunct League Cup.

Mbappe celebrated with a big roar after the final whistle. With an equally big smile on his face, he hugged and high-fived his teammates. The ecstatic PSG staff lifted Mbappe and threw him in the air.

“You feel a bit more the weight of things because you realize that it’s really over,” Mbappe told broadcaster beIN Sports. “When I said goodbye to the Parc des Princes, there were still some games left, so you are still focused on what awaits you. Now, I have nothing left with PSG. But I’m very happy to have been able to finish with a trophy.”

Despite losing in the final, Lyon still qualified for the Europa League by finishing sixth in the league.

Dembélé opened the scoring in the 22nd minute by heading home a cross from Nuno Mendes.

Ruiz doubled the lead by converting a rebound in the 34th after his header was blocked by O’Brien.

Lyon goalkeeper Lucas Perri pulled off some outstanding saves in the opening minutes, denying Bradley Barcola and Warren Zaire-Emery, but misjudged the flight of the ball when Mendes made the cross for the opener.

O’Brien cut the deficit to 2-1 by heading in a corner in the 55th.

PSG has struggled in the air this season and nearly conceded from another corner in the 64th, but goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma tipped a header from Lyon left back Nicolas Tagliafico over the bar.

“The players are disappointed but let’s not forget that we must also be proud of what we have done,” Lyon coach Pierre Sage told broadcaster beIN Sports.

Lyon was bottom of the league in December but racked up more points than any other club in the second half of the season to finish sixth.

Mbappe tried hard to find the net in his last outing for PSG. A curling shot from the edge of the box didn’t trouble Perri in the 20th and he volleyed over the bar in the 41st.

In seven seasons with PSG, Mbappe has won 15 trophies, including four French Cups.

Although Mbappe did not add to his tally, he leaves as PSG’s all-time top scorer in all competitions with 256 in 308 appearances.

“I’m happy to have been part of its history and to have made it a bit,” Mbappe said.

The French Cup final was marred by violence as Lyon and PSG supporters clashed on a highway leading to the venue a few hours before kickoff.

Supporters threw flares and windows were smashed on buses full of supporters. Some buses were set on fire.

The match was relocated to Stade Pierre Mauroy in the north of France because of preparations for the Olympic Games.

Villeneuve d’Ascq became the first city outside the Greater Paris area to host the French Cup final since the competition’s inception in 1917.


Violence mars French Cup final as Lyon and PSG ultras clash before game

Updated 26 May 2024
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Violence mars French Cup final as Lyon and PSG ultras clash before game

  • Lyon and PSG ultras have a long-standing rivalry and were expected to travel to Villeneuve d’Ascq for the final

VILLENEUVE D’ASCQ, France: Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain supporters clashed on a highway leading to the venue of the French Cup final a few hours before kickoff on Saturday.
Supporters threw flares and windows were smashed on buses full of supporters. Some buses were set on fire.
The final was deemed a very high security risk by the national police division for the fight against hooliganism, which put the threat level at five on a scale of five, according to RMC Sport.
Lyon and PSG ultras have a long-standing rivalry and were expected to travel to Villeneuve d’Ascq for the final.
PSG supporters also caused trouble in the youth French Cup final, a curtain-raiser to the French Cup final, by throwing projectiles at Marseille Under-19 goalkeeper Aboubaka Dosso. The game was suspended for about 10 minutes in the second half before resuming. Marseille beat Nancy 4-1.
The French Cup final was relocated to Stade Pierre Mauroy in the north of France because of preparations in Paris for the Olympic Games. PSG beat Lyon 2-1.
Violence has stained French football all season.
A Nantes supporter was stabbed to death by a driver whose vehicle was carrying Nice supporters before a league game in December.
A league game between Montpellier and Clermont was abandoned in October after a Montpellier supporter threw onto the field a firecracker which exploded near Clermont goalkeeper Mory Diaw.
Also in October, a league game between Marseille and Lyon was postponed after then Lyon coach Fabio Grosso suffered a serious head injury when the team bus was hit by thrown objects on the way to Stade Velodrome, shattering some windows. Grosso’s deep cut above his left eye required stitches and he wore a large bandage around his head. Inside the stadium, Lyon supporters were also seen making Nazi salutes and monkey gestures.
Last month, a violent street brawl involved dozens of ultras before a game between Rennes and Toulouse. French media reports said one Toulouse fan needed hospital treatment for head trauma.
Ultras have been targeting buses carrying supporters and there have been more than a dozen attacks this season.