Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad clash in must-win, season-defining Saudi Classico
World News

Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad clash in must-win, season-defining Saudi Classico

Lee Clark is no stranger to some of the biggest matches in world football.

The Newcastle native was a regular for his boyhood club in one of England’s most visceral matches, the Tyne-Wear derby against Sunderland.

He was also part of Kevin Keegan’s squad on the day Newcastle United played out arguably the most famous match in the history of the English Premier League, a heartbreaking 4-3 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield on April 3, 1996.

Last Saturday, exactly 25 years later to the day, Clark took charge of legendary Sudanese club Al-Merrikh against African champions Al Ahly and almost pulled off a memorable win. Only another stoppage time goal secured a 2-2 draw for the Egyptian giants. But the marker has been set.

His new team had shown they were capable of mixing with the CAF Champions League’s best.

“It was a fantastic experience for myself and the players, (playing) the most successful club in African football, one of the biggest if not the biggest,” Clark told Arab News. “They have a huge following, fantastic history and really top players, but my team were brilliant from the first whistle.

“They deserved to win the game. Unfortunately we missed a penalty and other opportunities, and then conceded a 94th minute equalizer. But the performance of my players and team gives me great belief for the future.”

Clark says his mission is not only to win the Sudan Premier League title, but to also compete in the African and Arab Champions Leagues. This could well be the challenge he has been seeking for some time.

“I’ve always expressed the desire as a coach to go overseas and experience something new. A new culture, a new way of working,” he said. “A few years ago I had the possibility of going to a club in Europe which I was on the verge of accepting. But my father was poorly at the time and I decided against it. And then just five or six weeks ago I got approached about the possibility of coming to Al-Merrikh and I looked into the club, the history, African football and thought it would be a great challenge for me, so I accepted.”

Al-Merrikh currently sit in second place in the Sudan Premier League table, three points behind their fierce rivals Al-Hilal with a game in hand. Clark said that even before he landed in Sudan he was well aware of the history between the two clubs.

“When I looked into the club, I knew straight away there was this rivalry and since I got into the country, that’s intensified,” he said. “We’re second, we’re three points behind Al-Hilal with game in hand, so it’s important that we win it. When the league restarts this month we play that game in hand, but then on the May 23 we play Al-Hilal. Both teams have been consistent in their results and performances in the league, so this is only going to intensify the rivalry between the two clubs.”

Clark — who also played for Sunderland and Fulham, and managed Huddersfield Town, Birmingham City, Blackpool, Kilmarnock, Bury and Blyth Spartans — is experiencing a whole new lifestyle now, one he is happy to embrace.

“The lifestyle’s obviously different, I am based in a hotel at the moment so I just focus on the football and everything else is taken care of,” he said. “The cultural change is something that’s completely new and different for me coming from the UK. Hopefully I’ve shown the (players and staff) the respect for their own culture and tried to adapt to this.”

In return they seem to have taken immediately to their new coach.

“They’re very respectful, and want to improve,” he said. “They want to do the work that we’re asking of them on the training pitch, which has been hard because we’ve really pushed to improve the physical output of the players. We believe they have fantastic technical ability already so we’re looking to improve in different areas. The response of the players has been really, really impressive.”

With the transfer window in Sudan opening on April 12, Clark says he wants to trim his oversized squad of 30, while also strengthening where needed. He wants two players for every position.

Clark is also aware that with the backing at Al-Hilal, there is renewed interest around the Arab world in Sudanese football, which he sees as on the rise.

“The support our club gets, it’s really passionate,” he said. “The number of fans that usually come into the Red Castle, our home stadium, is 43,000 in the Champions League, and league games anything from 20,000 up to 43,000 again. The passion is there. The players do have a lot of ability and they just need good guidance and good professional standards. I found that out very quickly; they want to learn, which is brilliant. Also the Sudan national team qualifying for the African Nations gave the whole country a boost, and was followed by our performance and result against Al Ahly.”

Despite that heroic performance, Al-Merrikh go into their last Champions League group match against Vita Club of Congo on Friday with only pride to play for.

“We’ll approach it to win, exactly the same as against Al Ahly,” Clark said from his hotel in Kinshasa. “The players know we have to keep building for the future; whether we can qualify or not, it doesn’t matter, this is a game we want to win. We’re competing in the biggest competition in Africa, we want show everybody that Saturday was not a fluke performance, we want to be a team that’s consistent.

“It might not have importance or significance in terms of where we are in any given competition but when we play, we’re playing to build for the future. To get a philosophy for our club and to show how we go about our business.”

The move to Sudan might have taken some by surprise, but his desire to work abroad was there all along for those who were close to him.

“I didn’t tell many people when I accepted the job, and then when it was announced there was quite a bit of shock,” Clark said. “But people who know me wouldn’t have been so shocked because they know I have a real passion and love for football. Wherever football takes me is not an issue. Now that my playing days are over I love to be on the pitch coaching players.

“I’ve enjoyed my first month here in Sudan and at Al-Merrikh because of the response of the players and staff to the way I work and to my methods, and they want to improve also. This is huge for me.”

With the derby, and potential league title, on the horizon, the next few months could prove defining for Clark, even this early into his new adventure.

“To win the league would be fantastic, unbelievable,” Clark said. “I’m really excited about the derby, I love high profile games. Being involved on Saturday against Al Ahly, I respected them so much but I never, ever fear any opponent that I come up against. But certainly the respect is immense and this will be the same for Al-Hilal.”

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