Messi, Neymar aim for World Cup qualifying amid pandemic

Messi, Neymar aim for World Cup qualifying amid pandemic
Lionel Messi will once again lead Argentina on their way to the World Cup 2022, the South American qualification round. (File/AFP)
Short Url
Updated 08 October 2020

Messi, Neymar aim for World Cup qualifying amid pandemic

Messi, Neymar aim for World Cup qualifying amid pandemic
  • Games will be played between Thursday and Tuesday in empty stadia due to coronavirus restrictions

SAO PAULO: Lionel Messi and Neymar return to national team duty this week to launch World Cup qualifying campaigns that the South American superstars hope will lead to glory in Qatar in 2022.

If Messi leads Argentina to their third world title and first since 1986, it would finally win him a place in the hearts of Diego Maradona’s faithful. At odds with Barcelona, the 33-year-old Messi will be the key for his team, beginning when they host Ecuador on Thursday.

Though younger than Messi, Neymar could also be approaching his final opportunities to lead Brazil to a sixth World Cup. Neymar will be 30 when Qatar hosts the tournament in November and December of 2022.

Neymar, celebrated at Paris Saint-Germain after a Champions League runner-up campaign but still criticized by local fans, has a chance to start regaining their love when they host Bolivia on Friday. Brazil last won a World Cup in 2002.

“We need to play every match as if this was already the World Cup,” Brazil midfielder Bruno Guimaraes said.

Games will be played between Thursday and Tuesday in empty stadia due to coronavirus restrictions. The South American Soccer Confederation convinced most local authorities to lift quarantine measures for incoming players.

Ten teams are battling for four direct berths. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia, in that order, start as favorites for those spots. The fifth-best team can earn qualification through an intercontinental playoff, with Peru and Chile as strong contenders. The qualifying phase ends in March 2022.

Argentina vs. Ecuador

Messi will have more liberty under Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni than he has had at Barcelona with new coach Ronald Koeman. He was not expected to play due to a red card during the 2019 Copa America, but the punishment was erased because it was supposed to be carried out within one year.

Lautaro Martínez, who is in great form at Inter Milan, and Sevilla's Lucas Ocampo will play supporting roles to Messi. Manchester City's Sergio Aguero is injured.

Messi has not played for Argentina since Nov. 18, in a 2-2 draw with Uruguay.

Gustavo Alfaro of Argentina will make his debut as Ecuador's coach in the match at the historic La Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires.

Brazil vs. Bolivia

Brazil's first training with the full squad Tuesday suggests an old partnership will be revived. Philippe Coutinho, a European champion with Bayern Munich and an improving player at Barcelona, looked set to be back in the starting lineup for Friday's clash in Sao Paulo.

Coutinho and Neymar have played together since Brazil's youth teams, but the midfielder had struggled to get a place since the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Cesar Farias of Venezuela will be in charge of Bolivia for the first time, as an institutional crisis continues following the death of Cesar Salinas, the president of the Bolivian Soccer Federation, in July. Salinas died from complications linked to COVID-19.

Players Ronaldo Sanchez, Ferddy Roca and Mateo Zoch left Bolivia's training ground because their club, Oriente Petrolero, refuses to acknowledge Marcos Rodríguez as the new president of the federation.

Uruguay vs. Chile

The most balanced first round match will be played in Montevideo. Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez said the lack of home support could impact the result.

“Today in top European leagues, in these circumstances, the big teams lose points," Tabarez said. "The attendance is an important part.”

Veteran striker Edinson Cavani, who signed for Manchester United after leaving Paris Saint-Germain, was not called.

Chile's soccer body said Tuesday that right-back Mauricio Isla will not play against Uruguay due to COVID-19.

Colombia vs. Venezuela

James Rodríguez is set to lead Colombia against Venezuela on Friday after scoring three goals in four matches for Everton.

“Now he arrives to this team playing regularly, with more confidence and fewer injuries. That will be good for all of us," coach Carlos Queiroz said Tuesday.

Colombia won't have Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina, who did not travel because of COVID-19 contagion in the Italian team.

Venezuela, the only South American team that has never qualified for the World Cup, now has Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro in charge.

Paraguay vs. Peru

Peru's coach, Ricardo Gareca, is excited about traveling to Asuncion for the clash against Paraguay. Gareca, who is Argentinian, hasn't left Peru for seven months, since the pandemic hit.

“Some other day I saw my daughter, but it has been a while since I last saw my wife and my kids, only doing that online,” Gareca said Tuesday.

Peru won't have injured striker Paolo Guerrero.


Quartararo wins Portuguese GP; Márquez 7th in 1st race back

Quartararo wins Portuguese GP; Márquez 7th in 1st race back
Updated 19 April 2021

Quartararo wins Portuguese GP; Márquez 7th in 1st race back

Quartararo wins Portuguese GP; Márquez 7th in 1st race back
  • Márquez had a lackluster race in his return after breaking his right arm at the Spanish GP last summer

PORTIMÃO, Portugal: Fabio Quartararo won the Portuguese Grand Prix from pole position on Sunday, with six-time MotoGP champion Marc Márquez finishing seventh in an emotional return after nine months.

Quartararo finished ahead of Francesco Bagnaia and defending MotoGP champion Joan Mir. The Frenchman moved into the championship lead with the victory at the Algarve circuit. Quartararo’s celebration after the race included an imitation of Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal celebration.

“It’s good to be back in this mindset, I feel like I’m full of confidence,” Quartararo said. “We did an amazing job. Yesterday we were first in all the sessions, and today we won. This is a great way to start the celebrations for my birthday in two days.”

Márquez had a lackluster race in his return after breaking his right arm at the Spanish GP last summer. He missed the rest of last season and the first two races this year.

“I’m relieved,” Márquez said. “Not only about finishing the race, but about being back on a motorcycle, about feeling like a rider again, even though I couldn’t ride the way I wanted to. But this weekend wasn’t about where I finished.”

The Spaniard jumped to fourth at the start and was as high as third during the first lap, but he made contact with another rider on the second lap and eventually dropped to ninth place. He kept a decent pace but could only make up a few positions, finishing just ahead of brother Álex Márquez.

Marc Márquez couldn’t hold back his emotions as he received a round of applause from the members of his team after the race.

“I’m the kind of person who likes to keep things inside and not express my emotions, but I broke down when I returned to the box,” Marc Márquez said. “It was tough.”

Quartararo lost ground early on but was back in front by the halfway point of the race in southern Portugal, holding on for his fifth MotoGP win. He was coming off a win in Qatar two weeks ago.

Jack Miller and Miguel Oliveira crashed early in the race, while Álex Rins fell later when he was near the front. Veteran Valentino Rossi also crashed to add to his struggles at the start of the season, while Johann Zarco — the championship leader coming into the Portuguese GP — went down with six laps to go while fighting at the top.

Zarco had finished second in the first two races of the season, both in Qatar. Maverick Viñales won the season-opener.

It was the third straight win for Yamaha this season.


UEFA says will ban clubs who take part in breakaway 'European Super League'

UEFA says will ban clubs who take part in breakaway 'European Super League'
Updated 18 April 2021

UEFA says will ban clubs who take part in breakaway 'European Super League'

UEFA says will ban clubs who take part in breakaway 'European Super League'

PARIS: UEFA and English, Spanish and Italian football authorities announced on Sunday that any clubs who take part in a so-called European Super League would be banned from all other domestic and continental competitions.
European football’s governing body said it had learned that some English, Spanish and Italian clubs might announce a breakaway competition.
“The clubs concerned will be banned from playing in any other competition at domestic, European or world level, and their players could be denied the opportunity to represent their national teams,” UEFA said in a statement.
Media reports on Sunday suggested that an announcement on plans to create a Super League could be made later in the day.
Sky Sports reported that Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea were among six Premier League teams set to be part of the plans.
“If this were to happen, we wish to reiterate that we — UEFA, the English FA, RFEF, FIGC, the Premier League, La Liga, Lega Serie A, but also FIFA and all our member associations — will remain united in our efforts to stop this cynical project, a project that is founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever,” read the statement.
UEFA is planning to announce its reforms to the Champions League on Monday, with an expansion to 36 teams from 32 and two ‘wildcard’ slots expected to be among the plans.
There have been no reports that French or German clubs would be part of the Super League.
“We thank those clubs in other countries, especially the French and German clubs, who have refused to sign up to this,” UEFA added.
“We call on all lovers of football, supporters and politicians, to join us in fighting against such a project if it were to be announced.
“This persistent self-interest of a few has been going on for too long. Enough is enough.”
The New York Times reported that at least 12 clubs have signed up for the competition, including Juventus and seven-time European champions AC Milan, who have not played in the Champions League since 2014.


Verstappen wins Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Hamilton second

Verstappen wins Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Hamilton second
Updated 18 April 2021

Verstappen wins Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Hamilton second

Verstappen wins Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Hamilton second
  • Red Bull driver Verstappen muscled past pole sitter Hamilton on the first corner
  • Lando Norris in a McLaren took third ahead of Charles Leclerc for Ferrari

IMOLA, Italy: Max Verstappen kept his cool to claim a chaotic rain-hit Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Sunday as seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton recovered from a rare mistake to sneak in second.
Red Bull driver Verstappen muscled past pole sitter Hamilton on the first corner at Imola to set up his impressive first win of the season.
“I surprised myself. We worked really hard to make that better. In these tricky conditions we did a great job,” Verstappen said.
Lando Norris in a McLaren took third for the Briton’s second successive podium ahead of Charles Leclerc for Ferrari.
The outcome of a compelling second leg of the Formula One season confirmed Verstappen’s stature as a formidable obstacle to Hamilton’s quest for an unprecedented eighth drivers’ crown.
After winning the season-opener in Bahrain and putting in the fastest lap on Sunday Hamilton leads Verstappen by one point ahead of the Portuguese Grand Prix next time out.
A high-speed crash involving Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and George Russell in a Williams forced the race to be suspended as debris was cleared off the Imola circuit.
The pair collided at over 300kmh on lap 34, both drivers shaken as their wrecked cars were lifted off the track.
The red flags appeared a lap after an uncharacteristic slip-up from Hamilton saw the Mercedes world champion hurtle off the circuit into a gravel pit when placed second on a tracherous rain-hit track.
Half an hour after the suspension, a rolling re-start saw Verstappen set off in front of Leclerc and Norris. Hamilton, his car repaired, had work to do from ninth.
As Verstappen calmly reeled in his 11th career victory, but first in Italy, Hamilton weaved his way up to sit third, and then second after passing Norris with three laps remaining.
“First time I’ve made a mistake in a long time, but I’m grateful I could bring he car home,” said a relieved Hamilton.


Gomis thanks Al-Hilal fans ahead of AFC Champions League clash with Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai

Gomis thanks Al-Hilal fans ahead of AFC Champions League clash with Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai
Updated 18 April 2021

Gomis thanks Al-Hilal fans ahead of AFC Champions League clash with Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai

Gomis thanks Al-Hilal fans ahead of AFC Champions League clash with Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai
  • The French striker and his teammates are looking for their first three points of the campaign after a 2-2 draw in Group A opener against AGMK

Ahead of Sunday night’s game against Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai, French striker Bafetimbi Gomis has vowed that Al-Hilal’s players will do all they can to improve their AFC Champions League Group A form.

Al-Hilal recovered from going a goal down to the Uzbek AGMK in their group opener to take the lead by the break, but they had to settle for 2-2 draw after a 70th-minute equalizer from Sanjar Shaakhmedov.

“The last match was really difficult, we were better in the first half and of course we wish to improve,” Gomis said, according to the AFC official website. “It will be the same for the next match, another hard one.”

Gomis played a major part in Al-Hilal’s third Asian title win in 2019, finishing as the competition’s top scorer with 11 goals.

Having failed to retain the title in the disruption of last year, Al-Hilal hope that Gomis will be at his best in Asia’s premier club competition, and the striker has hailed the club’s supporters for their relentless backing.

“I am a very ambitious person and am very lucky to play for a club like Al-Hilal, which always wants to win trophies,” Gomis said. “We have a lot of passionate fans, this year especially because they haven’t been to the stadium in a long time."

“They trust me, and sometimes it can be difficult for me because they love and criticize me. But I’m very lucky to have these fans,” he said. “So, my motivation is the same as when I played for the first time in the AFC Champions League with Al-Hilal, which is to win and to be the best team.”

“Last year we didn’t get to win the championship because of the coronavirus but we are lucky this year to be able to play in Riyadh. We disappointed our fans in the first game, but we are hoping to make them happy.”


Al-Nassr banish troubles with comprehensive AFC Champions League win over Al-Sadd

Al-Nassr banish troubles with comprehensive AFC Champions League win over Al-Sadd
Updated 18 April 2021

Al-Nassr banish troubles with comprehensive AFC Champions League win over Al-Sadd

Al-Nassr banish troubles with comprehensive AFC Champions League win over Al-Sadd
  • Fine 3-1 victory against Qatar champions leaves the Riyadh team top of Group D after two rounds

In a vital 3-1 win over Al-Sadd of Qatar in Group D of the 2021 AFC Champions League Al-Nassr produced the form that took the club to second place in last season’s Saudi Pro League after what has been a chaotic season on and off the pitch.

Both sides went into the tie in the King Saud University Stadium needing the three points after opening their campaigns with disappointing draws. The Riyadh team had only managed a stalemate against group stage debutants Al-Wehdat of Jordan, while Al-Sadd required an 89th minute equalizer against Iran’s Foolad Khouzestan for 1-1 finish.

The win boosts 2020 semi-finalists Al-Nassr’s hopes of advancing to the next stage, while Al-Sadd have it all to do if they are to salvage their campaign.

Both teams starting cautiously and there was little to suggest that A-Nassr, struggling domestically and having endured the upheaval of a new board of directors and the appointment of new coach Mano Menezes, would defeat the Qatari champions in such decisive manner.

Al-Sadd threatened first through Baghdad Bounedjah’s light-footed strike on 34 minutes. The Saudi club responded minutes later as Nordin Amrabat released Sami Al-Najei on the right wing and his cross-hit Al-Sadd captain Abdelkarim Hassan on the arm, leaving the referee no option but to award a penalty.

Abderazzak Hamdallah, last season’s top scorer in the competition, converted from the spot to give Al-Nassr the lead at the break.

Al-Sadd started the second half on the front foot with Mohammed Jade and Nam Tae-hee both missing presentable chances, before Spanish World Cup winner Santi Cazorla beat Brad Jones with a superb 59th minutes free kick.

Al-Nassr slowly regained the upper hand and with just over 10 minutes left Abdulmajeed Al-Sulayhim finished off a fine team move by putting the ball past Meshaal Barsham in Al-Sadd’s goal.

There was still time for Al-Nassr to make it a comprehensive win when Khalid Al-Ghannam struck a stoppage time third goal.

In Group D’s other fixture on Saturday, Foolad Khouzestan of Iran secured their first AFC Champions League group stage win in six years, beating Al-Wehdat 1-0 at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh.

The winner came a minute before the break from a Chimba penalty, the Brazilian scoring his fourth goal in eight days to extend a rich run of form which began with last Saturday’s playoff victory over the UAE’s Al-Ain.

Al-Nassr next face Foolad in a top-of-the-table clash on Tuesday while Al Sadd will look to get back on track against Al-Wehdat.