Young Falcons are only just getting started, says coach Khalid Al-Atawai as Saudi Arabia U-19s make World Cup

The Young Falcons beat Australia 3-1 to make it to the last-four. (AFC)
Updated 30 October 2018
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Young Falcons are only just getting started, says coach Khalid Al-Atawai as Saudi Arabia U-19s make World Cup

  • Saudi Arabia U-19s beat young Socceroos to get to last four of U-19 Asian Championships.
  • Young Falcons set to face Japan in last four on Thursday.

LONDON: The scenes on the Saudi Arabia team bus as it left the Patriot Candrabhaga Stadium in Bekasi, Indonesia, on Monday night were those of pride and patriotism as the country’s Under-19s celebrated the execution of an ambitious plan. This month’s ultimate mission, however, is not yet complete.
The Kingdom’s Under-19 side had defeated Australia 3-1 in the quarterfinals of the age-group Asian Championships to confirm their place at next May’s U20 World Cup as one of the continent’s four best teams. On the journey back to the team hotel, players — with camera phones in hand — sang “We are all Salman” as they drummed their palms on whatever surfaces they could find.
It was a rare moment of release for a group of teenagers who had arrived in Jakarta with the weight of expectation to at least emulate the previous generation, which had qualified for the global championship by way of reaching the regional final. The convincing victory against the Young Socceroos allowed them to relax, but their focus must quickly return if they are to end a 26-year drought and bring the Asian trophy back to the Kingdom.
Hazem Al-Zahrani, the Al-Ittihad defender who was an unused substitute, said he and his teammates “strive to go to the World Cup as heroes,” while goalkeeper Abdulrahman Al-Shamrani said the feeling of qualification was “indescribable,” adding “we promise the masses to return to the country as heroes of Asia”.
Coach Khalid Al-Atawi, formerly of Al-Najoom, conceded his side had arrived with the objective of World Cup qualification. “We played to reach this goal, and we reached it,” he said. “I’m very happy that we will now participate in the World Cup. I congratulate the Saudi people and we are very fortunate to have the honor of representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Tomorrow’s semifinal opponents, however, are Japan, a country that is quickly becoming a thorn in the side of a Saudi Arabia team desperate for tangible success. In 2016, Sami Al-Najei and Abdulrahman Al-Yami shared the Golden Boot at the U19 Asian Championships, but it was the Japanese who lifted the trophy, beating the Young Falcons on penalties after a 120-minute stalemate in the final.
At August’s Asian Games, which is open to U23s, Saudi Arabia registered a squad made up entirely of players aged under-21. It is a tactic long adopted by Japan, who use the Asian Games as preparation for the U23 Asian Championships, which offer direct qualification to the Olympics. The Young Falcons impressed on route to the quarterfinals, yet it was the Blue Samurai again who ended their participation, beating them 2-1 in the last-eight.
Victory tomorrow would mean more than simply a place in the final. 
Although South Korea and Qatar have also reached the semis, it is Japan and Saudi Arabia who are generally regarded as the two best teams at this month’s 16-nation tournament. Neither have dropped a point yet this month, recording a perfect record of four wins from four games, although free-scoring Japan’s goal difference is substantially more impressive. Al-Atawi nonetheless believes his team can go all the way.
“We are trying to do our best in every game,” he said. “In any game, we want to do more than the game before. In this competition, the team is improving from game to game, so we are looking forward to achieving the highest level we can. We are preparing these players for this competition. We hope we can perform well, and we are building step by step. The sky is our limit.”
The Young Falcons have reached the semifinals on four occasions since they beat South Korea 2-0 in the 1992 final, but have yet to claim the ultimate prize. This year’s squad have frightening pace and are technically excellent, with Al-Shabab’s Turki Al-Ammar in particular gaining attention with a series of eye-catching displays. Al-Atawi, however, refuses to single out players for praise, insisting instead on the importance of the collective.
“Turki is one of 23 players and I treat them all equally, but I think he will be a star in the future,” said Al-Atawi of the midfielder who opened the scoring against Australia to claim his second goal of the tournament. “I can guarantee though that we will see more stars come from these 23 players in the future.”


Maria Sharapova looks back to her best as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal show no signs of slowing down

Updated 18 January 2019
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Maria Sharapova looks back to her best as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal show no signs of slowing down

  • Sharapova dumps out defending champion Caroline Wozniacki.
  • Rafa and Roger brush aside young guns in straight sets victories.

LONDON: It is coming up to the end of the first week of the Australian Open, so we thought we would take a look and see how some of the big names fared on day five of the year’s first Grand Slam.

MARIA SHARAPOVA

Maria Sharapova warned she is in the sort of form to win the Australian Open after she dumped Carolina Wozniacki out with an impressive 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win. It was the Russian’s best win since her return from a drugs ban and she looked like a winner-in-waiting.
“I thought the level was quite high. I knew I’d get a tough match — she (Wozniacki) is the defending champion,” the five-time Slam champion said.
“I haven’t played many matches in the last year against top players so it was really rewarding to win that last set. These are the kinds of matches I train for.”



ROGER FEDERER

Ageless Roger Federer marked his 100th Rod Laver Arena match Friday by storming past Taylor Fritz, then looked forward to a “high quality” last-16 clash against another young gun, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion continued his quest for a record seventh Australian Open title with a 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 third-round demolition of 21-year-old American Fritz in just 88 minutes of flawless tennis.
Next up is 14th seed Tsitsipas. And the 37-year-old Federer is looking forward to taking on the fiery young Greek, who is 17 years his junior.
Federer played him in the recent mixed teams Hopman Cup, winning a closely contested singles 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (7/4), and said he was impressed.
“I think he played really well there. I actually did too. I thought it was really high quality tennis,” Federer said.
“This is obviously a different type of match, it being best of five, it being a fourth round of a Slam.”



RAFAEL NADAL

Rafael Nadal declared “everything is a step forward” after brutally brushing aside Alex de Minaur at the Australian Open Friday in just the Spaniard’s third match since the US Open.
The world No. 2 was in ominous form as he continued his quest for an 18th Grand Slam by punishing the Australian teenager in a third-round tennis masterclass 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
“In general terms, everything is a step forward. So that’s positive news for me,” said the man who won the Aussie Open in 2009.
“I’m very happy for the victory against someone who had won seven matches in a row, winning a tournament.”
On his fitness Nadal added: “Probably 10 years ago it would have been difficult not playing much tennis in the build-up but now I have been in this situation many times with the injuries I have had.
“I have to deal with the ups and downs of my body but I try to enjoy any moment on the court.”



MARIN CILIC

The former US Open champions was made to work for his place in the last 16 as he struggled to beat Fernando Verdasco 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-3. Verdasco showed glimpses of the form that once made him a top-10 player and had a match point, one he frittered away with a double fault.
I was just slightly luckier in those crucial moments,” the sixth-seeded Cilic said.
“(It is) unbelievable. Emotions were up and down,” Cilic said.
“When I was down two sets to none, it was a big hill to climb.”
It’s the seventh time in Cilic’s career that he has emerged to win a match after dropping the opening two sets.



ANGELIQUE KERBER

Second seed Kerber received a gift ride into the Australian Open fourth round for her 31st birthday when she overpowered local wildcard Kimberly Birrell 6-1, 6-0.
The Wimbledon champion swept world No. 240 Birrell aside in just 58 minutes to set up a last-16 clash with unseeded American Danielle Collins.
Kerber, a winner at Melbourne Park in 2016, said she was used to celebrating her birthday on the road at the season-opening Grand Slam.
“I think it’s the 12th time in a row,” she said. “I’m getting older but I have the best time here and I’ll never forget my birthdays here in Australia.”
Kerber reached the semifinals last year but lost to Simona Halep in a tight three-setter.