LONDON: This year is now all but over and it is fair to say that on a sporting level, both regionally and globally, we have been spoiled rotten. For the first time we saw four Arab nations pit their wits against the best footballing countries at last summer’s World Cup and later on in the year Saudi Arabia won its first Olympic gold at any level as Mohammed Al-Assiri grabbed karate glory in Buenos Aires at the Youth Games. But ever the kind of people that look forward rather than get misty-eyed dwelling on the past, we are going to move on from 2018’s fantastic feats and predict what might happen over the next 12 months in the sporting world.
AFC ASIAN CUP
The year gets off to an epic start with the Asian Cup.
Taking place in the UAE, there is considerable Arab interest with 10 Arab nations taking part. A last year’s World Cup success was always going to be difficult for the four Arab nations — Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia — but in the UAE there are at least three Arab sides who can approach the big kick-off with designs on winning the tournament.
The Green Falcons’ time in Russia last summer swung from the sorry — an opening-day 5-0 thrashing at the hands of the hosts — to the sublime, with a first win at the showpiece (2-1 over Egypt) since 1994. They head into the Asian Cup as one of the favorites. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men last lifted the trophy in 1996 which, as luck would have it, was also the last time the tournament was held in the UAE. Can history repeat itself?
The coach certainly thinks it can and is looking for his players to carry on the momentum gained at the World Cup.
“We believe we have selected the best players for the squad and the focus now is on making sure we are ready. In terms of preparation, the squad is exactly where we wanted them to be at this stage,” Pizzi said earlier this week.
“I think these players are in their best technical and physical form at the moment. We are determined to show an outstanding level and we having had a good preparation process, I am sure we can do well at the AFC Asian Cup.”
If the Green Falcons are to have their wings clipped before achieving glory next year then another Arab nation that may well fancy their chances are the hosts.
The UAE failed to qualify for the World Cup and while they have the considerable help of home advantage, The Whites will likely struggle to make an impression. They are without their talisman, Omar Abdulrahman out injured, and their record heading into the tournament is not one to inspire much confidence. In 16 matches under coach Alberto Zaccheroni the UAE have won just four times, losing five and drawing seven.
A Syrian triumph would be a surprise but after their heartbreak at not making the World Cup — a playoff defeat to Australia putting paid to their hopes of an appearance in Russia — few would begrudge Omar Khribin and Co. a decent run next month.
But as well as teams looking for ultimate glory, there are those for whom just being there is triumph in itself. Lebanon have qualified for their first ever Asian Cup, as have Yemen. Palestine are about to play their second Asian Cup having exited at the group stage four years ago. Lumped in a group with Syria and Australia they could find it tough to make it to the second round.
Of the favorites South Korea will be buoyed by the brilliant form of Son Heung-min for Tottenham, and Australia, Iran and Japan will all fancy their chances.
ARAB NEWS PREDICTS:
South Korea to win whole thing. Saudi Arabia to make the semis.
Just one look at the second-round match-ups is enough to thrill anyone with a passing interest in football. Manchester United vs. PSG, Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich, Ajax vs. Real Madrid just three of eight mouth-watering ties. The past three years have seen Real lift the trophy. What was significant about two of those titles was that Real were far from impressive domestically — the Champions League has become a competition more suited to Cup sides rather than those dominant over a season. That may not bode well for Liverpool who are unbeaten in the Premier League and look in dominant form. The Reds only just scraped into the last 16 and may find that their focus on capturing their first English top-flight title since 1990 gets in the way of European glory. Barcelona are looking good in La Liga but their brittle defense will put paid to any chances of a sixth European Cup.
This is as open a Champions League as we can remember. There are at least nine sides that have a reasonable chance of ultimate glory. We cannot wait for it all to kick off.
ARAB NEWS PREDICTS:
Juventus to claim a third title with the last four consisting of Manchester City, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund.
CRICKET WORLD CUP
While we might be purists here at Arab News and prefer the longer, more challenging form of cricket — the Test arena — even we are looking forward to six weeks of swashbuckling batting and electric bowling in next year’s one-day bonanza in England and Wales. Reigning champions Australia will believe they can put a terrible 2018 behind them and take a fifth world title on the home turf of their nemesis England, while South Africa will be hoping to claim a maiden World Cup victory. Meanwhile, Virat Kohli and his India side have been in very impressive form over the past 12 months, and will be confident of winning back the trophy they won in 2011, which would be their third title.
Hot favorites and current world No. 1 team England — hosting the tournament for a sixth time since the inaugural event in 1975 — have everything going for them to finally land the tournament that has always eluded them, with home support and the final being held at Lord’s. Watch out, though, for dark-horses New Zealand and Pakistan. Kane Williamson’s charges will hope to avenge 2015’s final defeat to Australia while Sarfraz Ahmed will want to channel the spirit of Imran Khan and the victorious team of 1992.
ARAB NEWS PREDICTS:
England to beat India at the “Home of Cricket” in the final after both sides vanquish Australia and Pakistan in the semifinals.
With all due respect to India and Pakistan’s epic battles, the most hotly anticipated series in Test cricket returns next summer as Australia travel to England to defend the Urn they won so convincingly in 2018. With the series following immediately after the World Cup, it is going to be a fantastic summer for cricket fans. Ashes series rarely need anything to stoke the rivalry between the two sides, but given the ball-tampering scandal that rocked Australian cricket this year, expect England players and fans to give their eternal enemies some stick on and off the pitch. It will be a hard series to call, and with no Alastair Cook at the top of England’s order getting the batting line-up sorted will be key for Joe Root. Meanwhile, Australia have been woeful in English conditions in recent series, and have not won the Ashes on English soil since 2001, so they will be hoping their new tougher, more resilient brand of cricket will be enough to rise above the cauldron of abuse and keep their hands on the most famous trophy in cricket.
ARAB NEWS PREDICTS:
A drawn series after the fifth and final Test at The Oval, meaning Australia retain the Ashes.
RUGBY WORLD CUP
Rugby union’s showpiece tournament is back next year after 2015’s thrilling edition, and will be held in Asia for the first time as Japan take on the mantle of hosts. Since their shock, history-making win over South Africa in Brighton at the last tournament, rugby has exploded in popularity in the country and visitors to the host cities are in for a warm welcome and a carnival atmosphere. On the pitch, once again New Zealand will be the team to beat. The All Blacks are seeking their third straight title and a fourth overall. Many challengers from both the northern and southern hemispheres will want to knock them off their perch, but Ireland appear to be the team most likely to do so having beaten Steve Hansen’s side in Dublin earlier this year. Of course, Australia, South Africa, England, Wales and France will have something to say about that. It promises to be something new for the sport of rugby and an enthralling watch for the fans around the world.
ARAB NEWS PREDICTS:
If they can avoid each other in the quarterfinals, expect a rematch between New Zealand and Ireland in the final, with the Boys in Green edging a classic for their first world title.