Al-Rajhi wins at Sharqiya Baja, seals Saudi Toyota Desert Series title

Yazeed Al-Rajhi scores an emphatic victory in the third stage of the Sharqiya Baja. (Twitter photo)
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Updated 15 December 2019

Al-Rajhi wins at Sharqiya Baja, seals Saudi Toyota Desert Series title

  • Drivers welcome Saudi race as good preparation for upcoming Dakar Rally

HALF MOON BAY, Eastern Province: Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi scored an emphatic victory in the third stage of the Sharqiya Baja when he carded the quickest time, in spite of a change in the overnight timings that had put him three seconds behind his Spanish rival Carlos Sainz.

Al-Rajhi and co-driver Michael Orr guided their Toyota Hilux to a time of 1hr 08min 56sec on the 171.25km stage, which was enough to seal a winning margin of 1min 17sec and confirm the Saudi Toyota Desert Championship title in superb style.

Sainz had been handed the outright lead on Friday evening by Baja officials after a three-minute timing discrepancy for Al-Rajhi was corrected and he slipped to second overall. Numerous other competitors saw their times for the stage changed and Mishal Alghuneim found himself leading the motorcycle category.

“It is a nice feeling to win the new Baja and the new Saudi Toyota Desert Championship,” said Al-Rajhi. “It has been an enjoyable few weeks competing here and it has given us a chance to prepare well for the Dakar Rally, which is coming up very quickly.”

Sainz and fellow Spaniard Lucas Cruz used the last round of the new Saudi series as a useful shakedown for the Dakar Rally in January and pushed the winners all the way across the deserts of the Eastern Province in their X–raid MINI JCW Buggy.

They finished 8min 54sec in front of third-placed Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi, the Peugeot 2008 driver, who overhauled ED Racing’s Essa Al-Dossari to snatch the final podium spot on the last day.

List of the top 10 finishers in the car race. (Sharqiyah Baja 2019 website)

Sainz said: “I am generally happy with the shakedown and the test. I think it was good to have a taste of the temperature and learn a little bit about what we are going to find in a couple of weeks. Regarding today, after what happened yesterday (Yasir’s crash), I took it very easily because this is our race car and it was not the moment to take any risks. I am happy we learned things with the car, even if the conditions were not the best, especially with the rain yesterday. No problems. Everything was positive.”

Following Yasir Seaidan’s retirement after his high-speed roll on Friday, Czech driver Miroslav Zapletal was left to finish the event in an unchallenged fifth with his Ford F-150 Evo.

Zapletal finished over 42 minutes in front of sixth-placed Farhan Al-Muharib, who clinched a 2min 57sec win over Khalid Al-Hamzani in a Nissan-dominated T2 section for series production cross-country vehicles. Hamzani also finished in seventh overall, while Yousef Al-Suwaidi was eighth and third in T2.

Omar Allahim was classified in ninth in his Nissan Patrol. Saleh Al-Saif lost over 10 minutes in the final stage, but still managed to round off the top 10 and seal the win in the T3 category with a Can-Am after nearest rival Conrad Rautenbach of Zimbabwe ceded over an hour in the day’s stage and slipped to 20th overall in his PH Sport Can-Am Zephyr.

Yousef Al-Dhaif had already sealed the Saudi NUTV Championship before the final round and the Can-Am driver wrapped up a successful campaign with another category win. Second place for Majed Al-Tuwaijri ensured that he finished as series runner-up at the expense of Fahad Al-Naim.

Ibrahim Al-Muhanna, Osama Al-Sanad and Raed Abo Theeb completed their pre-Dakar Rally preparations with a solid finish in a T4 Mercedes.

Mishal Alghuneim maintained the advantage in the motorcycle category that he had been awarded when a timing error was corrected and the KTM rider held on to seal a winning margin of 6min 14sec over Haysham Al-Haysham.

Anas Al-Ruhyni finished third, but Emirati rider Othman Al-Ghufeli retired on the stage.

Abdulmajeed Al-Khulaifi confirmed victory in the Saudi Quad Championship with a third victory of the season to follow his successes at the Qassim and AlUla-Neom rallies.

The Yamaha rider finished an unofficial fourth on the stage, but did enough to see off the challenge of runner-up and main series rival Riyadh Al-Oraifan. Sufiyan Al-Omar came in third after incurring a five-minute time penalty.

The event was organized by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF), under the chairmanship of Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal and the supervision of former FIA Middle East champion Abdullah Bakhashab.

The new Baja enjoyed the support of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, the General Sport Authority, Abdul Latif Jameel Motors (Toyota), the MBC Group, Al-Arabia outdoors and the Saudi Research and Marketing Group.

Barcelona look for a Hollywood ending from Messi in Champions League showdown

Updated 13 August 2020

Barcelona look for a Hollywood ending from Messi in Champions League showdown

  • While it is hard to imagine that Barcelona will not improve next season, it’s harder to imagine they will improve sufficiently to win the Champions League next year

DUBAI: The faded film star was taken aback by the suggestion she was past her best, that she “used” to be big.

“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” Norma Desmond, the character played by Gloria Swanson, famously responded in Billy Wilder’s 1950s Hollywood classic “Sunset Boulevard.”

There’s no suggestion that Lionel Messi is in any way not still a big, indeed the biggest, star in the world of football. But it is tempting to imagine a similar thought must occasionally drift through his mind: I’m still big, it’s the Barcelona team that just got small.

Where he once played the leading role in a superlative cast that included Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, Luis Suarez and one of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, David Villa and Neymar, he is now very much a one-man show.

Barcelona’s football, not long ago the envy of the football world, isn’t what it used to be, their tactics often little more than an echo of Argentina’s over the last decade or so: Give the ball to Messi and hope for the best.

It’s been a bad season for Barcelona Football Club.

In a campaign that saw coach Ernesto Valverde replaced by Quique Setien in January, and then disrupted by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Barca’s La Liga title was eventually lost with a whimper to an equally dysfunctional Real Madrid side.

Barcelona’s saving grace as ever, and increasingly in the last few years, has been the Argentine genius. And this Champions League run, for now.

Last week, Messi scored a quite stunning goal as Barcelona beat Napoli 3-0 at the Not Camp, and 4-1 on aggregate, in the round of 16. It had all the hallmarks of his greatness, a reminder that at 33 he remains a peerless footballer. Positioning, control, skill, speed, refusal to be taken down, and a stunning finish. A microcosm of Messi’s career.

The win earned Barcelona a quarter-final against Bayern Munich on Friday night, a one-off tie in Lisbon that not many people seem to think the Catalan giants will negotiate successfully. But where there is Messi, there is hope.

One of Cristiano Ronaldo’s last genuine shots at winning the Champions League may have disappeared with Juventus’s exit last week, but Messi could yet pull a rabbit out of hat in this most narrative-bending season. If he does lead Barcelona to a sixth Champions League title, it could go down as his greatest trick yet. And possibly his last great act.

While it is hard to imagine that Barcelona will not improve next season, it’s harder to imagine they will improve sufficiently to win the Champions League in around nine months from now.

For Messi, time is running out. It’s a case of now or never.

Barcelona fans quite rightly rage that, over the last nine years, the greatest footballer of all time between the ages of 24 and 33 has managed only one Champions League win, to add to the two collected as part of Pep Guardiola’s incomparable team in 2009 and 2011. And they are not wrong.

Messi, and the fans, deserve better. The club, however, has been a case study of bad management and recruitment. It’s not that there have been no good players at the club or that money has not been spent. It’s that the money has been spent mindlessly, and the players have not been integrated into a coherent system under the managers that have followed Luis Enrique, who left the club two years after achieving the treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League in 2014-15.

That season, with the dream frontline of Messi, Neymar and Suarez conquering all before them, goes down as the club’s last truly great campaign.

Enrique's final season, 2016-17, saw the club’s greatest-ever European comeback, the scarcely believable 6-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain, which overturned a 4-0 first-leg loss in the round of 16. But the fabled “remontada” proved a mirage, Barcelona losing to Juventus in the quarter-final 3-0 on aggregate.

Valverde did manage two La Liga titles, but it was the Champions League that Barcelona fans, and above all Messi, really craved, and watching Real Madrid claim three titles since their own last win has been excruciating.

The Champions League collapses against Roma, in 2017-18, and Liverpool the following season, will stand out as Barcelona’s greatest failures on the pitch, but the decline and mismanagement had already set in off it after Luis Enrique’s departure.

The big money signings of Ousmane Dembele at €105 ($124) and Philippe Coutinho at €120 have been, respectively, disappointing and disastrous. Other incoming players, like Paulinho, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Arturo Vidal and Yerry Mina, have not been of the required standard. And those who have, like Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong, joined the party just as the drinks had run out.

Barcelona will certainly need some sort of overhaul in the brief close season before the start of the 2020-21 La Liga season, in terms of playing staff and, in all likelihood, on the management side too.

But long-term planning will have to wait. 

For now, it’s all about Friday’s shootout against an excellent Bayern Munich side and the desperate attempt to salvage this season.

Should Barcelona overcome the German champions, they will most likely face club legend Guardiola’s formidable Manchester City team in the semi-final, and after that potentially Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain and Neymar in the final.

This story could yet have an unexpected happy ending. But it’s going to need an Oscar-winning performance from you know who.