Football: Atkinson profits from Arabian adventure

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DALIAN ATKINSON is ready to end his self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia and return to Europe - but says his time in the Middle East may well have saved his career.

The former Ipswich Town, Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday striker helped his Jeddah-based club, Al-Ittihad, win the Asian Cup-Winners' Cup by beating South Korea's Chunnam Dragons 3-2 in the final in Tokyo on Sunday. He then said he wanted to return to Europe when his eight-month contract expires at the end of the season.

Atkinson, 31, joined the Saudi club on the recommendation of the former Liverpool and Tottenham striker, Ronny Rosenthal, after relations with his previous club, Turkey's Fenerbahce, turned sour.

"I only played about 10 times in two years." Atkinson said of his time in Turkey. "They refused to pay money that was owed to me and I refused to go back to them at the end of my first season." He won his freedom from his contract only by appealing to Fifa, world football's ruling body.

Atkinson has scored 10 goals in his last 11 games for Al-Ittihad. "Saudi's been good for me because there are no bars to go out to," he said. "There are no distractions, I can just train and relax. But I want to go back to Europe. You always think that you might have lost it but I realise that I've still got it and the more I play the better I will get. I've just turned 31 so I'm not an old man."


JOSEP GUARDIOLA, the Barcelona captain, yesterday warned his team-mates not to start celebrating until the Spanish title was actually won.

Barcelona's 2-1 victory over Real Mallorca on Saturday, followed by a draw for Celta Vigo and a defeat for Valencia on Sunday, left the Catalan club nine points clear at the top of the table with just eight games to play.

That commanding lead has left several Barcelona players in celebratory mood. "The league is practically decided," Frank de Boer said after the victory over Mallorca. His fellow Dutch international, Michael Reiziger, said: "We'll be champions with three or four games to spare."

However, Guardiola, in his ninth season with the club, told his colleagues to guard against complacency. "My team-mates are making a mistake," he said. "They don't know what happens when you lose two successive games and the doubts start to set in. Strange things happen in the league. We're still not champions and we have to keep on working."


THE MAYOR of Kerkrade has called off tomorrow's Dutch First Division match between Roda JC Kerkrade and the leaders, Feyenoord, because of fears that Feyenoord supporters would cause trouble in his town. The Rotterdam club are just one win away from the title.

Feyenoord have a home game on Sunday against the bottom club, NAC Breda, who have objected to tomorrow's postponement because they feel the leaders will play harder against them with the title still at stake.


ST PAULI, the Hamburg-based Second Division side, have had their professional licence withdrawn for financial reasons.