Saudi Arabia's Green Falcons fly in under the radar

Saudi Arabia will have to scrap for every ball in Russia next summer, but they also know that a lot of pressure will be placed on the hosts when the two sides do battle on Jun. 14 at the Luzhniki Stadium. (AP)
Updated 05 December 2017
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Saudi Arabia's Green Falcons fly in under the radar

LONDON: About the nicest thing anyone said about Saudi Arabia after the 2018 World Cup draw on Friday in Moscow came from the coach of opening game opponents Russia.
Stanislav Cherchesov said of his Group A opponents Egypt, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia. “We’ve never played any of these teams and I’ve never seen them.” He went on to list players he knew from the North Africans and the South America but didn’t say anything about the Green Falcons.
When live-blogging the draw, the BBC was not enthusiastic about the prospect of a Russia vs Saudi Arabia curtain-raiser, saying that rival British terrestrial broadcaster ITV could have that game. Associated Press led with “Beleaguered World Cup gets dreary opener.”
It is hard to claim the opener between the two lowest-ranked teams (65 for the hosts and 62 for the opposition) is going to be the most glamorous game on offer next summer. The fact is the paucity of international knowledge when it comes to Saudi Arabian football is only matched by the lack of respect. Some more informed observers know that there have been three coaches of the Green Falcons in as many months. Fewer think that there is a chance of progressing to the knockout stage.
This may understandably annoy Green Falcons fans. The national team goes ignored for years by the international community and when it finally returns to the biggest stage of all, it is either ignored or dismissed.
So much the better. Being under-rated and unknown may just be one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest weapons. At the very least, being written off as no-hopers before the tournament starts should serve as motivation for the players, not that any should be needed before the World Cup. In sport, there are few incentives stronger than the desire to prove others wrong.
New coach Juan Antonio Pizzi may not know much about Saudi Arabia at the moment but has seven months to become familiar. One good thing for the Argentine is that nobody else knows anything about the team either and while that will change over the coming months as analysts start to earn their money, the fact that there is a new coach looking at new players and possible systems means that there will be an air of mystery and unpredictability about Saudi Arabia next summer. Having all players on the books of Saudi clubs — at the moment at least — also makes the mist surrounding the team a little thicker.
It means that the pressure will be on Russia, Egypt and Uruguay for those Group A games. All will be expecting to win and will be expected to win by their passionate fans and an impatient media.
That is especially the case with Russia. There is no pressure like that on the hosts of the World Cup in the opening game. The country remains a controversial host and all know how much stock, time and money has been invested in the tournament.
There will be 80,000 fans packed into the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Jun. 14 to provide an intimidating atmosphere for the the Green Falcons, but one that can quickly become a weight of expectation that stifles and suffocates rather than inspires.
The Russians are better going forward than they are defending and if the Saudis can frustrate for a while, not only will they get chances at some point, they may just turn the fans from being the hosts’ biggest advantage to the exact opposite.
Opening games have thrown up surprises before. In 1990, Cameroon kicked Argentina all over the San Siro Stadium and won 1-0 against the defending champions, and the mighty France side containing Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram and Patrick Veira lost in the curtain-raiser against Senegal in Seoul 12 years later. While Saudi Arabia may not be Cameroon or Senegal — who both reached the last eight and could have gone further — Russia are certainly no Argentina or France either.
The test will be tough for Saudi Arabia, this is the World Cup after all, but the draw is a good one and the opening game is a perfect one in which to make a huge statement.  That Saudi Arabia have already been written off only makes everything a little easier.


Petra Kvitova positive ahead of Dubai final against Belinda Bencic

Updated 22 February 2019
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Petra Kvitova positive ahead of Dubai final against Belinda Bencic

  • World No. 4 wins third three-setter of the week beat Hsieh Su-wei and claim place in the final.
  • Swiss star Bencic deals a forehand smash to Svitolina's chances of unprecedented hat-trick.

LONDON: If Petra Kvitova does get her hands on the Dubai trophy against Belinda Bencic on Saturday, she will be quick to admit she did it the hard way.
The two-time Wimbledon champion was once again made to toil at the Aviation Club as she finally overcame Hsieh Su-Wei 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. It was her third three-setter in four days and came about as much through sheer grit and determination as any superior groundstrokes or serves.
“Yeah, it was (tough),” the Czech said.
“It was a tough one, for sure. She really didn’t give me anything for free.
“It was a tough first set. I’m glad that I was able to came back in the second. Anyway I didn’t play great at the end of the first.”
Coming into the event the world No. 4 admitted she was undercooked and in need of some game time. While, in hindsight, the three-setters against Katerina Siniakova and Jennifer Brady in the first two rounds probably did her some good, another match that went the distance was probably not in the ideal script for the 2013 Dubai champion.
But Hsieh is a tricky opponent and she proved it once again on Centre Court. The world No. 31 hits two-handed shots off both sides and was trying to beat her fourth top-10 seed of the week. That included wins over Angelique Kerber in the third round and Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals.

Bencic will try to upset Kvitova in Saturday's final at the Aviation Club (AFP) 


She started off in much the same vein as she had finished against Kerber and Pliskova, hurrying Kvitova around the court and making life as uncomfortable as possible under the hot Dubai sun.
“She’s very tricky,” Kvitova said about Hsieh, who grabbed five games in a row to take the opening set and go up 1-0 in the second.
“I didn’t really play the best at the end of the first set. But I calmed down afterwards a little bit,” Kvitova said.
“With Hsieh, I need to be a little bit patient. ... It’s not really that easy to make those winners against her.”
While she has 
not consistently displayed her A-game this week it should come as no shock that Kvitova has made today’s final. It was the second seed’s 17th victory of 2019 — a feat bettered by no one — and it will be her third final of the season and 35th of her career. She revealed that her presence in the showdown is thanks to her mental toughness and she admitted that after a long week she will have to draw on that a lot today.
“I think I’m pleased with my kind of mental focus after losing the first set, that I was more calmer when I came back and played from the beginning of the second set,” Kvitova said.
“I still kind of felt that I can do that somehow — it was something weird.
“I’m a bit tired right now, to be honest. I have a final, so I don’t know how I going to recover. Hopefully I have a few hours to do something with me.”
Of her sparkling form so far this year she said: “It’s a bit weird, to be honest. I didn’t really expect anything like that. Well, to be honest, I didn’t expect anything, which I already achieved this year. For me, everything is just bonus.
“As I mentioned, the tennis, it’s a bit like escape this week. This is unbelievable to be in the final when I’m escaping from something. Yeah, very interesting.”
In the other semifinal Bencic once again upset the odds to overcome world No. 6 Elina Svitolina 6-2, 6-3, 7-6. The Swiss went into the clash as the underdog, but from the off the world No. 45 was aggressive and deservedly won.
In doing so she ended Svitolina’s 12-match winning streak in Dubai and ended the two-time defending champion’s hopes of becoming the first woman to win three Dubai titles in a row.