Ten Hag wants Man Utd sporting director on ‘same page’

Ten Hag wants Man Utd sporting director on ‘same page’
Ten Hag wants Man Utd sporting director on ‘same page’

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Riyadh: Damac FC may be named after nearby mountain Jabal Damac, but the club is currently scaling unusual heights in the Saudi Pro League.

Sitting in sixth place ahead of Friday’s return to league action against Al-Shabab, the team are now closer to the Kingdom’s football summit than most observers would have expected this season.

Going into the final match before the winter break against Al-Riyadh, Damac were on an eight-match unbeaten streak in the league and had recorded five successive victories, including a famous 3-1 win over champions Al-Ittihad at the Damac Stadium in Khamis Mushait.

Defeat to Al-Riyadh was a disappointing final outing of 2023 for Damac but Cosmin Contra’s side have still begun 2024 with a positive feeling according to Croatian midfielder Domagoj Antolic, who is about to enter his fourth year with the club.

“It was disappointing of course for us because we broke our nice winning run,” Antolic, who arrived from Polish outfit Legia Warsaw in 2021, told Arab News.

“It is especially frustrating before a big break but there is also no doubt that we have done a great job so far this season.

“We have brought in very good players with good quality and good character. We have a winning mentality at this moment, and the coach and his staff are preparing us well; when you connect all these things, that is how Damac is now in the position we are.

“I don’t think anyone would expect Damac to be in the place we are right now, so as a team we are very satisfied with what we have achieved until now and we are looking forward to the rest of the season.”

Missing from Damac’s line-up in that surprise loss was their undisputed star of the 2023-2024 season so far. Former Marseille and Tottenham Hotspur winger Georges-Kevin N’Koudou has been in sensational form for the club, contributing 14 goals and four assists in 17 Saudi Pro League games this season.

Antolic recognizes that the Cameroon international has been vital to Damac’s ascent up the table.

He said: “Georges has had a huge, huge impact. He’s a player who makes the difference when you need him, he can score a goal or assist, and he makes it easier for his teammates. We are here for him and want to help him achieve even more.

“He is also a very positive guy to have in the dressing room, a good character who is always smiling and gives this good morale for the team. I really hope he will stay healthy for us.”

Despite his impressive campaign for Damac, N’Koudou was not called up by Cameroon for January’s Africa Cup of Nations, a decision that will likely benefit his club side.

Damac’s squad reunited on Jan. 18 in Abu Dhabi, where the players had a mid-season training camp until Feb. 7.

On the break, Antolic added: “I’m definitely the sort of guy who switches off completely. I just want to clear my head from the football to be with my family, with my friends.”

One of those friends is Marcelo Brozovic, the Al-Nassr midfielder who has impressed since arriving in the Kingdom from Inter Milan in the summer. Brozovic and Antolic played together for both Dinamo Zagreb and the Croatia national team.

“He’s a brilliant player and I was so happy to see him come into our league. Since Cristiano Ronaldo moved, we have more players like this in Saudi Arabia.

“From when I first came to Saudi Arabia to now everything in the league has improved but mainly the mentality of the players is different now.

“He (Ronaldo) has made a big difference and when you play against him, you see the speed, the movement, the way he talks to his teammates. He’s still at the highest level,” Antolic said.

During the past couple of transfer windows, a former teammate of both Ronaldo and Antolic has been among the players strongly linked with a move to the Kingdom. Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric was reportedly a target of Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr last summer but stayed with Real Madrid. However, with his game time at the Bernabeu more limited this season, rumors resurfaced in January.

“I hope (Modric comes to Saudi Arabia) as he is the best player I have played with. I remember when I was a kid coming into the first team at Dinamo Zagreb, Modric was maybe 22 or 23 and already showing that he was special.

“I don’t think anyone believed he would go on to win the Ballon d’Or and achieve everything he has. I’m so proud that he’s a Croatian and doing all these things. Modric is my idol, all of Croatia is proud of him and it would be a big thing if he comes to Saudi Arabia,” Antolic added.

For now, Antolic is focused on helping Damac try to emulate their best SPL season in recent memory. In the 2021-2022 season, the club celebrated its 50th year of existence with a fifth-place finish behind Al-Shabab, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, and champions Al-Hilal.

Damac are in great shape to achieve that again this season, but could they even go a step further and qualify for the AFC Champions League for the first time?

Antolic said: “I think everything is possible, but we don’t think about this because we are trying to go step by step. We’ve shown we are a serious team, and we can compete with all of the big clubs – we won against Al-Ittihad, we were ahead against Al-Nassr (before losing 2-1), and drew with Al-Hilal.

“This is the real picture of Damac, and I hope we will achieve a good position in the end; we won’t put too much pressure on ourselves because there are a lot of big clubs with big budgets, but we are certainly here to fight,” he added.

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