Neymar misses the chance to steal a march on Mohamed Salah

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Neymar spent much of the game against Switzerland lying on the ground. (AFP)
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Brazil's forward Neymar reacts in front of referee Cesar Ramos during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group E football match between Brazil and Switzerland at the Rostov Arena in Rostov-On-Don on June 17, 2018 (Jewel Samad / AFP)
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Brazil's forward Neymar (C) falls during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group E football match between Brazil and Switzerland at the Rostov Arena in Rostov-On-Don on June 17, 2018. (Joe Klamar / AFP)
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Switzerland's defender Manuel Akanji (C) tackles Brazil's forward Neymar during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group E football match between Brazil and Switzerland at the Rostov Arena in Rostov-On-Don on June 17, 2018. (Joe Klamar / AFP)
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Switzerland's defender Michael Lang tackles Brazil's forward Neymar during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group E football match between Brazil and Switzerland at the Rostov Arena in Rostov-On-Don on June 17, 2018. (Joe Klamar / AFP)
Updated 19 June 2018
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Neymar misses the chance to steal a march on Mohamed Salah

  • The pair are jostling for the spot behind Ronaldo and Messi
  • But Neymar was underwhelming against Switzerland as he bids to find top form following injury

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia: It is a decade since neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Lionel Messi won the Ballon d’Or, so it is no surprise that naming the world’s best two players is as easy as both make the beautiful game appear. 
Yet naming the third-best is not so simple. While there are solid arguments for players such as Andres Iniesta, Kevin de Bruyne or Manuel Neuer, most people would likely agree that the two most prominent contenders for accolade are Neymar and Mohamed Salah. 
The World Cup provides the pair a chance to cement their position in the footballing hierarchy and possibly even threaten to dismantle the duopoly. A stand-out tournament — especially one in which their team surpasses expectations — and a Golden Ball battle would not be out of the question. After all, you have to go back to 1994 to find a Ballon d’Or trio that does not include a member of that year’s World Cup-winning side.
“Salah doesn’t play for a big national team, but he can have a good World Cup,” Neymar said recently when asked who he thought could shine aside from Ronaldo and Messi.
The two wide-men could hardly appear more contrasting. One is a Muslim with no tattoos and has sported the same hairstyle for almost his entire career; the other has passages from the Bible inked on his body and is being roundly mocked this week for his new “spaghetti-head” haircut. 
It is a similar story on the pitch: While Neymar’s game is all about the aesthetics — filled with flicks and tricks and typical Brazilian swagger — Salah is more subtle and direct, using pace and intelligence to pop up in dangerous positions and hurt the opposition. However, although both are key figures for their team’s fortunes and clinical in front of goal, both are also returning from injury. Salah missed the Pharoahs’ defeat to Uruguay and Neymar looked far from 100 percent in Brazil’s clash with Switzerland on Sunday night.
Ronaldo had on Friday made clear his intentions for the month with a splendid, headline-grabbing hat-trick for Portugal against Spain. Messi had missed a penalty for Argentina and slammed a free-kick into an Icelandic wall from a similar position to where Ronaldo had curled his past David De Gea 24 hours earlier. Against the Swiss it was supposed to be the turn of Neymar, but, metaphorically and literally, his free-kick also hit the wall.
The Brazilian’s initial quest to elevate himself above the Egyptian and make a trinity of that exclusive two-player bracket did not go to plan. Despite Brazil starting the match in Rostov strongly and making penetrative, incisive passes, Neymar was too often a peripheral figure. After 30 minutes and with his side leading through a magnificent Philippe Coutinho striker, Neymar had completed only nine passes. By the end, he had made fewer successful passes than any other outfield teammate who played 90 minutes.
At 26 years old, Neymar is only now reaching his peak, but has already scored 55 goals in 85 appearances for his country, a record bettered only by Ronaldo (62) and Pelé (77). Yet while he may well go on and eclipse the two legends, both were two-time World Cup winners by their 26th birthdays. He will never be their equal without at least a winners’ medal.
In the 1-1 draw against the Swiss, Neymar too often sapped the pace out of his side’s attack, holding the ball and trying to invite a challenge rather than releasing a teammate. In doing so, not only did Brazil fail to create much of note — from their 20 shots at goal, only four hit the target — but Neymar also ended up spending much of the match lying on the ground.
At the 1966 World Cup, Pele was cruelly kicked off the field and resultantly out of the tournament. There were echoes of that as Neymar time and again was shoved or scythed, yet no protection was provided by the referee. When the final whistle sounded, the former Barcelona forward was the most-fouled player in a World Cup game for 20 years. Having only recently returned from a broken metatarsal, the site of his ripped socks suggest this was not play-acting either, even if his limping gait did become more pronounced only after the match.
“I was hit and it was aching, but (it’s) nothing to worry about,” he said. “After your body is cold, it aches a little more, but that’s OK. I have nothing to say (about the number of fouls). All I have to do is to play football, or try to do it. It’s for the referee to see it. I guess that will be normal (to be fouled regularly). We have to pay attention to it, but that’s something normal in football.”
Next up for Neymar and Co. will be Costa Rica on Friday, a match that now represents a must-win for the five-time champions. Before that though, the World Cup may get a glimpse of his contender to the throne — Egypt meet hosts Russia tomorrow. Mohamed Salah is expected to start. 


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.