Saudi Arabia giants Al Hilal’s dream of an unprecedented clean sweep of trophies was dramatically ended in the 91st minute of Thursday’s Zayed Champions Cup final when substitute Mohammad Methnani swept Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel to a memorable 2-1 success.
Watched on by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, flamboyant Saudi Arabian adviser Turki Al Sheikh, former Crescent boss Jorge Jesus and Brazil legend Ronaldo at Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, a drab match of few chances burst into life at the death. A swift move down the right wing saw Tunisia veteran Maher Hannachi produce a second assist of the night, his low cross being superbly swept in first time by Methnani.
Etoile had gone ahead upon the half-hour mark when Algerian striker Karim Aribi rose highest to nod in a corner. Weary Hilal – who are now more than halfway through a punishing April fixture list that contains nine matches in four different competitions – failed to shine, requiring a questionable penalty from ex-France striker Bafetimbi Gomis to level on 64 minutes.
Here are the talking points:
HILAL’S MARATHON MEN
Hilal’s all-encompassing plan to conquer the Saudi Super Cup, Saudi Professional League, King’s Cup, 2019 AFC Champions League and the ZSC is, definitively, over.
The onus now rests on head coach Zoran Mamic to ensure more trophies don’t go by the wayside.
That is if he gets the chance to advance. Less than three months since being poached from Al Ain, the 47-year-old’s position is under severe threat even though the top flight’s lead was reclaimed last weeks.
Regrets and recriminations could sweep him aside – fairly or unfairly – in the coming days.
The ex-Croatia international handed a watching brief to the likes of Australia defender Milos Degenek and Italy forward Sebastian Giovinco, amid different foreign eligibility rules.
A strong side that contained the likes of Brazilian talisman Carlos Eduardo, Al Dawsari, first-choice full-backs and Gomis dominated possession (70 per cent/30 per cent) without turning this into any opportunities of note.
Their pot shot from midfielder Mohammed Kanno was the best of a dreary first half.
After the interval, Gomis forced a brave block from goalkeeper Walid Kridene and there was the utterly bizarre sight of a free-kick deep into added time being passed back to unmarked Hilal shot stopper Abdullah Al Mayouf to weakly connect with.
Could Hilal be running out of steam, or was the ZSC sacrificed for wider ambitions?
وصول راعي المباراه صاحب السمو الشيخ محمد بن زايد آل نهيان ولي عهد ابو ظبي إلى استاد هزاع بن زايد .. وكان في استقبال سموه معالي الأستاذ تركي بن عبدالمحسن ال الشيخ رئيس الاتحاد العربي لكرة القدم وعددا من أصحاب السمو والسعادة. pic.twitter.com/l0txoFtIic— الاتحاد العربي لكرة القدم (@UAFAAC) April 18, 2019
Etoile have ruefully taken a back seat to rivals Esperance de Tunis this season.
They sit a distant third – 10 points behind the pacesetters – in the 2018/19 Tunisian Ligue Professionnelle 1, while they’ve had to settle for a deep run in the CAF Confederations Cup at the same time as their rivals look to claim successive CAF Champions League crowns.
In Thursday’s match, the guidance of 77-year-old Euro 2000 winner Roger Lemerre was key as they, largely, contained Hilal’s threat in the second half.
Mali centre-back Mohamed Konate was both a rock and unlucky to see a penalty conceded for his challenge on Saudi Arabia winger Salem Al Dawsari, plus rangy skipper Yassine Chikhaoui utilised all his experience to threaten on the counter-attack.
This resolute win in the Garden City could now reset the recent order in Tunisian football.
The $6 million winners’ prize is both the biggest-ever awarded to an Arab side, plus represents a figure close to their annual budget.
Spend this windfall wisely and a first top-flight crown since 2015/16 could be theirs next term.
An exciting round of league fixtures await us this weekend from across Europe as title races are, potentially, decided and battles against relegation rage.
Paris Saint-Germain will be eager to finally seal the Ligue 1 crown, while Stuttgart will hope for salvation in the Bundesliga.
Man City v Tottenham
When: Saturday, April 20
Kick-off: 15:30 (UAE)
Familiar foes meet for the second time in four days – and third time, overall, this month – when Premier League holders Manchester City welcome top-four hopefuls Tottenham Hotspur.
Fresh from Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final decider, the sides will run-out once again at Etihad Stadium.
Hosts City should need a perfect four wins from their remaining four top-flight fixtures to retain their crown. Wednesday’s derby at United further complicates matters.
Spurs hold only one point more than fifth-placed Chelsea, meaning they equally can’t slip. Tension defines this clash.
Getafe v Sevilla
When: Sunday, April 21
Kick-off: 16:00 (UAE)
Clubs moving in opposite directions meet on Sunday at Coliseum Alfonso Perez.
Hosts Getafe looked certainties for a debut Champions League campaign, before winning just one of their last five La Liga matches to slump into fifth.
Sevilla looked dead and buried when their excellent start to the campaign unravelled. But Joaquin Caparros’ decision last month to ditch Pablo Machin and promote himself to head coach from director of football has led to an emboldening surge back into fourth.
His third stint in charge reached its, early, apotheosis with last week’s 3-2 derby win versus Real Betis. They’ll now take some stopping.
Inter Milan v Roma
When: Saturday, April 20
Kick-off: 22:30 (UAE)
The time is now for Roma if they are to hold any pretensions of pipping one of the Milan giants to Champions League qualification.
A trip to third-placed Inter awaits on Saturday, opponents they sit six points and – critically – two places behind.
Claudio Ranieri’s troops have found some form, winning their last two games 1-0.
They now face a side who’ve weathered the furore that surrounded star – and wayward – striker Mauro Icardi.
The Argentina striker has scored just once in 11 previous clashes with the Giallorossi. Now would be an opportune moment to improve on this, surprisingly, dismal record.
Paris Saint-Germain v Monaco
When: Sunday, April 21
Kick-off: 23:00 (UAE)
Are we finally going to see Paris Saint-Germain enjoy a title party?
Wednesday’s 3-1 loss at lowly Nantes meant Thomas Tuchel’s men blew a third-successive chance to seal a sixth Ligue 1 crown since 2012/13.
It’s hardly panic stations. A 17-point gap to second-placed Lille remains, despite the ignominy and hubris of recent weeks caused by much-changed sides slipping up.
They should now relish a chance to prevail on home soil against fallen giants Monaco.
Leonardo Jardim’s men, however, won’t make it easy. The Portuguese has lost one of 10 Ligue 1 games upon his return.
Augsburg v Stuttgart
When: Saturday, April 20
Kick-off: 17:30 (UAE)
If five-time Bundesliga champions Stuttgart are to avoid the vagaries of a relegation play-off, they need to start winning matches – fast.
A meeting with 14th-placed Augsburg provides an invaluable opportunity to make up ground. Just a second triumph in 17 matches, in all competitions, could propel Markus Weinzierl’s troops to within one victory of safety.
Augsburg, however, scored three unanswered goals to defeat high-flying Eintracht Frankfurt 3-1 last time out. Forward Marco Richter got a double last weekend to end his drought for the season and he’ll be eager to extend this run versus the division’s second-worst defence.
While the Champions League has kept us at the edge of our seats on the weekdays, some tasty fixtures across the top five European leagues await us this weekend.
While the title race is all but over in Spain, Italy and France, it could go down to the wire in England and Germany. Also, the European spots are up for grabs in all the top five leagues and the teams will be looking to step on the accelerator in the last stretch of games.
Here we take a look at the top fixture in each of the five leagues.
Fixture: Sevilla v Real Betis
Where: Ramon Sanchez Pizuan
When: April 13, Saturday; 10:45 PM GST
The fight for the fourth and last Champions League spot is most interesting in Spain. Getafe are currently on fourth position with 50 points. Sevilla are breathing down their necks with 49 points. With just 43 points, Betis have an outside chance for fourth place and it’s likely that they will find themselves fighting for a Europa League spot.
The El Gran derby could shape the top-four race as Betis look to get an important win over Sevilla and do Getafe a favour in the process.
Quique Setien’s men have enjoyed the better head-to-head record of late. They are unbeaten in three derbies, emerging victorious on two occasions. However, Sevilla are in better dynamics and are favourites to clinch the tie.
Pablo Sarabia and Giovani Lo Celso are the players to watch for in this fixture that promises to produce a cracker.
Fixture: Liverpool v Chelsea
When: April 14, Sunday; 7:30 PM GST
The title race is now closer in England than it has been for the past few seasons. Liverpool are on top after 33 games, having managed to collect 82 points. Manchester City are just two points behind and have a game in hand. Chelsea are in third position but their Champions League spot is under threat as they could slip to fifth if Tottenham and Arsenal win their game in hand.
Liverpool have never gotten the better of the London Club since their 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in 2016.But the momentum is in their favour as they look to inch closer to the title, knowing any slip-up can be punished by City. Meanwhile, Chelsea are in desperate need of a win to keep their top-four hopes alive.
Will Sadio Mane inspire the Reds to a crucial win or will Eden Hazard steal the show like he did against West Ham on Monday night?
Fixture: AC Milan v Lazio
Where: San Siro
When: April 13, Saturday; 10:30 PM GST
The battle for the fourth place has reached the climax in Serie A and this tie could make a huge difference in the race for the Champions League spot. Just three points separate fourth placed AC Milan and eight placed Lazio and the latter have a game in hand.
Milan have lost three of their last four games in the league. They enter this tie after a 2-1 defeat to table-toppers Juventus. Lazio will be looking to better their result against Sassuolo where they played out a 2-2 draw.
No goals were scored in the reverse fixture earlier this season, but one can expect a great clash on Saturday given what’s at stake.
Krzysztof Piatek and Ciro Immobile are the players who are most likely to determine the outcome of this game.
Fixture: RB Leipzig v Wolfsburg
Where: Red Bull Arena
When: April 13, Saturday; 5:30 PM GST
Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund will be kept busy by Fortuna Dusseldorf and Mainz 05 this weekend. Our attention shifts to the battle for Champions League spots as RB Leipzig look to secure theirs while Wolfsburg test their luck for an unlikely berth in the top four.
Ten points separate the two teams and it’s the visitors who are in greater need of a win as a defeat could push them to as deep as the ninth position and dent their Europa League hopes.
This tie has been contested equally in recent times, with both teams winning two games each in their last five meetings. Both teams are coming back from two-goal wins – Wolfsburg defeated Hannover 3-1, while Leipzig impressed with a 4-2 win away from home against Bayer Leverkusen.
Leipzig will turn to Timo Werner to take them home and Wolfsburg will be hoping that Wout Weghorst will be at his best to hand them a crucial win.
Fixture: Lille v Paris Saint-Germain
Where: Stade Pierre-Mauroy
When: April 14, Sunday; 11:00 PM GST
It’s a table-toppers clash as LOSC Lille host Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday. PSG are one win from claiming yet another Ligue 1 title and at this point, it’s only a matter of time. Lille will do everything to ensure that it does not happen on their turf. Also, a defeat to PSG will mean that Lyon can reduce the gap between Lille to just two points and hence threaten their position in the Champions League qualification spot.
Lille have not defeated PSG in the league for seven years now and it’s unlikely that they will delay PSG’s title celebrations on Sunday.
Both teams drew in their previous outing – Reims and Lille played out a 1-1 draw whereas PSG were held at home by Strasbourg.
Kylian Mbappe has a lot of catching-up to do with Lionel Messi in the race for the European golden boot. Nicolas Pepe can increase his transfer value by inspiring his team to an unlikely win against the French giants.