Juan Antonio Pizzi and Saudi Arabia have work to do before World Cup opener

Salem Al-Dawsari looked in fine form during his side's 2-0 win against Greece.
Updated 17 May 2018
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Juan Antonio Pizzi and Saudi Arabia have work to do before World Cup opener

  • Tuesday's victory over Greece was the Green Falcons' third in six matches under Pizzi.
  • Saudi Arabia dominated possession but Greece had more shots on goal.

SEVILLE: The tackle was late and the decision correct, but the dismissal of Greece defender Dimitrios Giannoulis in Tuesday night’s friendly with Saudi Arabia hurt both teams. The Europeans, down to 10 men and fielding an experimental side, tired quickly and showed little ambition going forward. Meanwhile, the Green Falcons, keen to gauge their level ahead of the World Cup, ended up playing in a manner that looked like a low-intensity training session.
When Salman Al-Dawsari opened the scoring midway through the first half, the match was nicely poised. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men were controlling possession but had to work hard to fashion any sort of opportunity in the final third. Al-Dawsari, a peripheral figure in the victory over Algeria last week, was playing like his seat on the flight to Russia depended on it.
He harried and hustled, showing a determination unseen in recent weeks. He drove through the center at pace, skipping past defenders. He chased down every loose ball. And his reluctance to let Greece settle helped spark the move that led to the red card. It was the type of first-half performance Pizzi demands — intensity, desire and attacking intent — but after the sending off, Saudi Arabia relaxed, with Al-Dawsari fading and the team losing its drive.
Yahya Al-Shehri was prominent, drifting in from the right, but with the match being played at a lower tempo, he too often passed sideways rather than probing the backline.
Full-back Yasser Al-Shahrani, excellent throughout, continued to find plenty of space on the left flank, yet consistently had a shortage of options in the final third.
Saudi Arabia may have dominated possession, but it was Greece who finished with both more shots at goal and more shots on target. Only the post stopped Efthimios Koulouris from equalising in the 79th minute.
Moments later, having been stirred by the scare, the Green Falcons added their second through a well-taken volley from Mohammed Kanoo. The strike was their only shot on target in the second half.
Asked by Arab News if he was disappointed by his side’s performance against 10 men, Pizzi dismissed any concerns and insisted it is often harder to play against a numerically weaker opponent who are unwilling to take risks.
“No, no, no,” he said. “We controlled possession even before the sending off, so I’m happy with the performance.”
The Argentine said he expects further improvement as the squad travels to Switzerland next week for their final phase of preparation.
“During this training camp, we were implementing our philosophy and it is a day-by-day, game-by-game process,” he said.
“The players are getting the main idea. This was our second-last training camp before the World Cup, so it was important. Now the players are getting the tactics and philosophy to improve their level of performance.”
Against Greece, it felt more like a missed opportunity to improve their confidence in front of goal. After all, there will be no more easy games for Pizzi’s side. Next up is Italy on May 28, then Peru and Germany. And then the small matter of the World Cup, starting June 14.


Djokovic wins Cincinnati title to complete Masters matched set

Updated 20 August 2018
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Djokovic wins Cincinnati title to complete Masters matched set

  • Novak Djokovic finally lifted the Cincinnati trophy after five prior Cincinnati finals losses
  • Roger Federer, meanwhile, lost a final in the hardcourt US Open tuneup for the first time

CINCINNATI: Novak Djokovic ended a career-long jinx, lifting the trophy in Cincinnati at last to complete a matched set of Masters 1000 titles.
Djokovic, who came up empty in five prior Cincinnati finals, defeated seven-time winner Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4 in the final.
The former world number one became the first man to win all nine of the ATP’s Masters 1000 events in the elite series’ current configuration.
Federer, meanwhile, lost a final in the hardcourt US Open tuneup for the first time.
“I played five finals (here) before, and most of those finals I lost to this great man, Roger ... thank you for letting me win here once in Cincinnati,” Djokovic joked.
“This is a dream come true,” Djokovic said. “I finally won Cincinnati after six finals, some against the greatest ever, Roger.”
Federer, a 20-time Grand Slam winner, said his game wasn’t sharp — but he didn’t want to take anything away from Djokovic’s achievement.
“Novak is a great champion,” Federer said. “This is about him making history.”
Federer’s streak of 100 straight unbroken service games in Cincy was ended by Djokovic in the seventh game of the first set.
The 37-year-old Swiss had been aiming for a 99th career trophy, but was unable to get over the line due in part to four double-faults at the most inopportune of times, but he said his return game was also lacking.
“It was definitely not my best day on the return — it was just awful,” Federer said. “Missing every second serve on the forehand side, I don’t know what that was about.
“But I don’t even want to look for reasons why it happened,” he added. “Novak totally deserved to win today. This (effort) was not good enough.
“Good week, but I’m happy it’s over and I need to rest,” added Federer, his eye on the US Open starting in New York in eight days.
Djokovic claimed the opening set in 37 minutes and came back from an early break in the second to overhaul his longtime rival as they played for the 46th time.
The Serb now leads Federer 24-22 and has won their last three encounters.
The pair had not played since the 2016 Australian Open semifinals more than two and a half years ago.
Wimbledon champion Djokovic claimed his Masters record on his first match point and now heads to the US Open as a title favorite after a string of sub-par seasons and an elbow injury which required surgery.
“It’s a wonderful feeling. it’s been a couple of tough months for me with an injury and then winning Wimbledon and Cincinnati,” Djokovic said.
Federer started the match with three aces in the opening game, then added a pair of love games for a 3-2 lead.
But it began to unravel as the Swiss double-faulted to yield a break point, dropping serve as Djokovic moved ahead 4-3.
Djokovic took advantage for a 5-3 lead and closed out the set after 37 minutes.
Federer broke for a 2-0 lead in the second set but gave the break back immediately as he double faulted to give Djokovic a break point which the Serb promptly converted.
Djokovic broke again to lead 4-3, and after Federer held to close the gap to 4-5 Djokovic ended the afternoon in the next game on his first match point.