Champions League knockout stages begin under Covid cloud and with wind of change blowing

Champions League knockout stages begin under Covid cloud and with wind of change blowing
A giant banner reading "From L1 to the LDC (Champions League: we will support you until the final victory! Go Paris!" is displayed before the French L1 football match between Paris-Saint Germain (PSG) and Nice at The Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris on February 13, 2021. (AFP / FRANCK FIFE)
Updated 14 February 2021

Champions League knockout stages begin under Covid cloud and with wind of change blowing

Champions League knockout stages begin under Covid cloud and with wind of change blowing

PARIS: This week the glamor of a tie between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain heralds the dawn of the Champions League knockout phase, but the world’s most lucrative and compelling club competition returns still overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis as well as by looming changes to the tournament itself.
Four years ago, when PSG last visited the Camp Nou, they arrived with a 4-0 first-leg advantage and left eliminated after a 6-1 defeat on a night the 96,000 spectators present will never forget.
On Tuesday Neymar, now with the Parisians, will miss the return to his old home due to injury. The fans will be missing too, yet the spectacle of a huge European game going ahead behind closed doors due to Covid-19 restrictions is no longer so unusual.
What is new is the extent to which travel bans are creating havoc and have already forced UEFA to switch several ties to neutral venues.
RB Leipzig have been denied home advantage in their first leg against Liverpool on Tuesday due to a ban by German authorities on travelers from the UK.
That game now goes ahead in Budapest, which will also host Borussia Moenchengladbach against Manchester City the following week.
Similar restrictions on travelers from Britain entering Spain have forced Atletico Madrid’s first leg at home to Chelsea to be moved 3,000 kilometers to Bucharest.
“A last-16 Champions League tie is a huge event for Borussia Moenchengladbach, which we now cannot play in our own ground or with any fans in attendance,” admitted Gladbach CEO Stephan Schippers.
“Nevertheless, we’re pleased that we can play the game at all and we are of conscious of the overall situation.”
It may be football in an empty stadium, often on neutral ground, but the Champions League knockout stages remain the absolute pinnacle of the club game, the theater in which so many memorable matches have been played in recent times.
Even last year’s ‘Final Eight’ behind closed doors in Lisbon produced Bayern Munich’s stunning 8-2 mauling of Barcelona and Manchester City’s shock loss to Lyon.
But this time it is impossible to ignore the spectre of change hanging over the Champions League, with UEFA clearly prepared to cede more and more ground to the continent’s biggest clubs in order to prevent a breakaway ‘Super League’ coming to fruition.
There is widespread support for plans to revamp the group stage from 2024, as has been reported across the continent in recent days.
It is understood those plans would see the number of clubs taking part in the group stage increase from 32 to 36, with teams playing 10 group games instead of six in a so-called ‘Swiss system’ — one pool of 36 teams, with nobody playing anyone else more than once.
Teams will have to play as many as 19 games to win the trophy, compared to 13 now.
The proposals are backed by the European Leagues organization, which last week said “the so-called ‘Swiss Model’ is an improvement compared to the more radical proposals that emerged in 2019,” of four groups of eight.
The changes have been championed by Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli in his role as head of the European Club Association.
“Everything should be based on sporting merit, but we should remember where our fans of the future are. It is our strong view that more European matches are welcome,” Agnelli said recently.
“Do we want to approach the future with a nostalgic or a progressive view,” he pondered. “I think it is our duty to think ahead and guarantee that football remains the best sport in the world.”
A reformed Champions League is, in reality, the lesser of two evils compared to the possibility of a Super League.
For despite the talk of sporting merit, Agnelli’s Juventus and Europe’s other financial heavyweights want to entrench a system that guarantees them access to the biggest competition there is.
That is already the case.
The only club from outwith the so-called ‘Big Five’ leagues involved in this season’s last 16 is Porto, twice European champions and still the last club from outwith that elite to win the Champions League, in 2004.
It would be a considerable surprise if they eliminated Agnelli’s Juventus, for whom Cristiano Ronaldo is still the leading light aged 36.
So much about the Champions League is predictable, but so much remains unpredictable, especially as the aging Ronaldo and Lionel Messi approach the end of their glittering careers.


Germany brush aside holders Portugal to resurrect Euro 2020 hopes

Germany brush aside holders Portugal to resurrect Euro 2020 hopes
Updated 54 min 55 sec ago

Germany brush aside holders Portugal to resurrect Euro 2020 hopes

Germany brush aside holders Portugal to resurrect Euro 2020 hopes
  • Ronaldo scores first but Germans romp back to put away 4 goals

MUNICH: Germany got their Euro 2020 campaign back on track — and blew Group F wide open — with a 4-2 romp against Portugal in Munich on Saturday.
France’s 1-1 draw with Hungary earlier in Budapest and Germany’s win mean there is all to play for in Wednesday’s final group games when the Germans host Hungary and the French meet holders Portugal.
“Overall, it was a great performance: great attitude and great morale,” said Germany coach Joachim Loew.
“We rightly won by that amount and created many chances.”
After Cristiano Ronaldo claimed his 107th international goal, leaving him two short of Ali Daei’s all-time record, to give Portugal an early lead, the Germans roared back with four unanswered goals.
German pressure forced own goals by Ruben Dias and Raphael Guerreiro to put the hosts 2-1 up at half-time.
A Kai Havertz goal underlined Germany’s dominance before left-back Robin Gosens capped his man-of-the-match display by heading in Germany’s fourth to add to his two assists.
Portugal hit back when Diogo Jota tapped in Ronaldo’s hooked volley to make it 4-2 with 23 minutes left.
Germany continued their domination of Portugal, who they have now beaten five consecutive times at World Cup or European Championship finals since Euro 2000.
“Germany were the better team and I take responsibility for this (defeat), but whether we progress now is up to us and how we respond,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos.
Germany created a huge amount of chances compared to Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat by France, while Portugal lacked the composure of their 3-0 win over Hungary the same day.
The match began at a frantic pace amid sweltering conditions in the Bavarian capital.
The Germans had a goal disallowed after five minutes when VAR spotted Serge Gnabry was offside as Gosens hit a spectacular volley.
However, sloppy Germany defending saw Portugal take the lead.
With only Gosens and Havertz defending at a German corner, Bernardo Silva started a counter-attack, then picked out Jota in the area with a world-class pass.
The Liverpool forward squared to Ronaldo, who sprinted into the box to slot the ball past Germany captain Manuel Neuer with less than 15 minutes gone.
It was Ronaldo’s first goal against Germany to extend his record tally to 12 goals at five European Championship finals.
However, two own goals inside four minutes turned the game.
Germany drew level when another Gosens volley was flicked toward the net by Havertz, with Dias getting the final touch as the ball flew past Rui Patricio on 35 minutes.
The second goal soon followed when Guerreiro turned Kimmich’s cross into his own net while trying to stop the ball reaching the on-rushing German forward.
Gosens caused Portugal problems all afternoon on the left flank.
His low cross was tapped in by Havertz six minutes after the break.
The Atalanta player then capped a superb display by powering in a close-range header from Kimmich’s cross on the hour mark.
German fans sang their approval, with “Oh, wie ist das schoen” (oh, is that beautiful) echoing around the Allianz Arena.
Gosens was substituted soon after with his name being chanted.
Portugal pulled a goal back when Guerreiro’s free-kick was hooked back by Ronaldo and turned in by Jota.
Germany nearly claimed a late fifth goal when Havertz’s replacement Leon Goretzka fired over after another surging attack by the hosts.
This is the first time Portugal have conceded four goals since losing 4-0 to Germany at the 2014 World Cup.


Griezmann rescues draw for France against Hungary

Griezmann rescues draw for France against Hungary
Updated 23 min 52 sec ago

Griezmann rescues draw for France against Hungary

Griezmann rescues draw for France against Hungary
  • World champions miss the chance to clinch a place in Euro 2020 last 16

BUDAPEST: Antoine Griezmann salvaged a 1-1 draw for France against Hungary in Budapest as the world champions missed the chance to clinch a place in the Euro 2020 last 16 on Saturday.

Hungary threatened to blow Group F wide open when Attila Fiola gave the hosts a shock lead in first-half stoppage time after catching out the France defense.

But Griezmann, the Golden Boot winner at Euro 2016, equalized on 66 minutes as an unconvincing France avoided a first competitive defeat since June 2019.

“It’s a point, it’s not what we were hoping for, but given the context we’ll take it all the same,” France coach Didier Deschamps said

“After a first half in which we should have led, we found ourselves trailing after their only chance.

“Obviously playing in front of their fans and that support, it gave them strength.”

Deschamps’ side top the section with four points. 

Hungary earned their first point and the Germans are bottom after losing to France in their opener.

“This is one of the best days of my life, even the best,” said Fiola.

“We got a great result, I am proud of the team, and the fans who created an amazing atmosphere today, we showed that we could play braver, more attacking football than versus Portugal, it’s been an incredible day.”

France stay in Budapest for their final game against Portugal, while Hungary travel to Munich to take on Germany, still hoping to qualify for the knockout phase for a second straight tournament.

Contending with stifling temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and a crowd approaching 60,000 at the Puskas Arena, the only Euro 2020 venue without capacity restrictions due to COVID-19, France controlled much of the first half.

Having lived up to their billing as tournament favorites in a 1-0 win over Germany, France dominated Hungary early on, creating numerous chances against a side that held out for 84 minutes before losing 3-0 to Portugal.

Peter Gulacsi clawed away Karim Benzema’s low drive, reacting sharply to keep out Griezmann’s follow-up, despite the Barcelona star being flagged for offside.

Lucas Digne, brought into the side for Lucas Hernandez as the only change made by France coach Deschamps, then picked out an unmarked Kylian Mbappe whose glancing header flashed narrowly wide.

Hungary lost captain Adam Szalai to injury midway through the first half, and the hosts were living dangerously as Benzema sliced badly from a superb flick by Mbappe before the Paris Saint-Germain forward dragged
wide himself.

France captain Hugo Lloris had warned of over confidence against a team expected to finish bottom of the group, and Les Bleus were punished for a brief lapse just before half time. Fiola collected Adam Nagy’s crossfield ball and played a one-two with Roland Sallai, outpacing Benjamin Pavard and holding off Raphael Varane to side-foot beyond Lloris at his near post.

Deschamps had waited until the 89th minute before making a substitute in the opener against Germany, but the introduction of Ousmane Dembele for Adrien Rabiot on the hour nearly brought an immediate equalizer as the Barcelona forward rattled the post.

France pulled level when a long kick upfield by Lloris sailed over the head of Nagy, with Mbappe latching onto it ahead of Hungary’s Paris-born Loic Nego.

His ball across goal was deflected into Griezmann’s path by Willi Orban as he attempted to clear, allowing the forward to slam in his seventh European Championship goal.

Gulacsi produced a fine save to turn away a fierce shot from Mbappe as France pressed for a victory that would have sent them through to the knockout phase. Instead, they must wait until Wednesday’s clash with Portugal.


Verstappen edges Hamilton for pole at French Grand Prix

Verstappen edges Hamilton for pole at French Grand Prix
Updated 28 min 21 sec ago

Verstappen edges Hamilton for pole at French Grand Prix

Verstappen edges Hamilton for pole at French Grand Prix
  • Verstappen leads Hamilton by just four points in the Formula One world championship ahead of the seventh race of the season

LE CASTELLET: Max Verstappen claimed pole on Saturday for the French Grand Prix with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes alongside the Red Bull driver on the front row to lay the foundations for another gripping installment in this season’s delicately poised title battle.

Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes starts on the second row with Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez.

Verstappen leads Hamilton by just four points in the Formula One world championship ahead of the seventh race of the season at the Circuit Paul Ricard on Sunday.

Hamilton won from pole the last two races staged at Le Castellet in 2018 and 2019, but Verstappen had approached qualifying as the man to beat after dominating the final two practice sessions.

Verstappen, claiming his first pole since the season-opener in Bahrain, is anxious to translate pole into a win after a shredded tire robbed him of almost certain victory in Baku last time out.

“So far it’s been a really positive weekend, on a track that is normally difficult for us. To get pole position was really nice.

“Great day for us but we have to finish it off tomorrow and get 25 points — which we lost in Baku. Great promise from our side.”

After struggling to keep tabs with his Red Bull rival in practice Hamilton was relieved to narrow the gap between them to 0.258s.

“We’ll keep pushing, keep fighting and giving it everything. Their long-run pace is a tenth or two quicker than us, but the car’s in a much different place now,” said the seven-time world champion.

“We’re going to fight for a chance into turn one and there could be some interesting strategy tomorrow, and I think there could be some rain, so a chance to see a rain master,” he added.

Carlos Sainz for Ferrari posted the fifth quickest time in qualifying to seal a third row spot with Pierre Gasly’s Alpha Tauri joining him.

Then came Sainz’s teammate Charles Leclerc and McLaren’s Lando Norris with Fernando Alonso (Alpine) and Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) completing the top 10.

With qualifying watched by a 15,000-strong crowd allowed in after the easing of coronavirus restrictions, Q1 was only four minutes old when it was red-flagged after Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda lost control of his Alpha Tauri coming out of turn one, his car pirouetting gracefully into the safety barrier.

This was the fourth time out of seven Tsunoda has failed to progress to Q2.

With 22 seconds left of Q1 Mick Schumacher’s Haas crashed into a barrier, cruel luck for the German after making it into Q2 for the very first time in his fledgling F1 career but unable to take part with his car requiring repairs.

Verstappen topped Q1 with Hamilton, Perez and Bottas closest.

The Mercedes duo rose to the top of the times in Q2, with Bottas edging Hamilton who was much punchier than he had been in practice. Perez and Verstappen were next, setting up an intriguing Q3 skirmish for the Provencal pole.

After the first throw of the Q3 dice it was Verstappen on provisional pole with Hamilton alongside him, and that is how it ended after the final flurry of flying laps.

Hamilton and Mercedes were thankful to return to a traditional circuit after disastrous performances on the streets of Monaco and Baku.

But on the evidence of this qualifying the two teams’ cars are pretty equally matched.

One man relishing the compelling contest is Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff who said: “I think it’s fantastic what has been thrown at us (this season). No year is easy but this year? It’s awesome.”


Babar Azam becomes PSL's all-time top scorer during tournament's Abu Dhabi leg

Babar Azam becomes PSL's all-time top scorer during tournament's Abu Dhabi leg
Updated 19 June 2021

Babar Azam becomes PSL's all-time top scorer during tournament's Abu Dhabi leg

Babar Azam becomes PSL's all-time top scorer during tournament's Abu Dhabi leg
  • As the PSL's top scorer with 2,000 runs, Azam is followed by Peshawar Zalmi's Kamran Akmal with 1,763 runs
  • Azam on Saturday also became the first player to score 500 runs in a single edition of PSL

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan captain Babar Azam became the first player to cross the 2,000-run mark in the Pakistan Super League (PSL) during a Karachi Kings vs Quetta Gladiators faceoff in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.
During the same match, Azam also became the first player to score 500 runs in a single edition of PSL, as he scored 23 off 25 against Quetta Gladiators, taking his PSL6 tally to 501.
"#King #BabarAzam the 1st batsman in the history of #HBLPSL to score 2000 runs," Karachi Kings celebrated its batsman in a tweet.

 

 

The sixth edition of Pakistan’s flagship cricket super league tournament resumed at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on June 9. It was postponed in March after a string of positive coronavirus cases among players and officials.
As the PSL's top scorer, Azam is followed by Peshawar Zalmi's Kamran Akmal who has scored 1,763 runs.
Born in Lahore, the 26-year-old right-hand, top-order batsman was 12 when he already played serious tape-ball cricket. At age 15, he was declared Pakistan's best Under-15 batsman and made his List A debut.  
By 16, he was a first-class cricketer for Zarai Taraqiati Bank Limited (ZTBL) cricket team. By the time he received his first ODI cap, he already had six centuries and more than 2,000 List A runs at an average of 47.88 to his name.
In September 2018, Azam passed 2,000 runs in ODI cricket, reaching the milestone in just 45 innings. Only one player has ever gotten there quicker and that is South African great Hashim Amla. Amla took just 40 innings.
In the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup, Azam made history, scoring 474 runs at 67.61 to break Javed Miandad’s 1992 record for the most runs by a Pakistan batsman in a Cricket World Cup campaign.
In April, he ended Virat Kohli’s long reign at the top of the MRF Tyres ICC Men’s ODI Player Rankings, becoming only the fourth batsman from his country to attain number one position in the rankings.


Clippers rally to oust top seeded Jazz, Sixers set stage for game 7

Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers drives against Clint Capela #15 and John Collins #20 of the Atlanta Hawks. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/AF)
Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers drives against Clint Capela #15 and John Collins #20 of the Atlanta Hawks. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/AF)
Updated 19 June 2021

Clippers rally to oust top seeded Jazz, Sixers set stage for game 7

Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers drives against Clint Capela #15 and John Collins #20 of the Atlanta Hawks. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/AF)
  • Los Angeles Clippers advanced to their first NBA semifinals in franchise history
  • Playoff series begins Sunday with Phoenix Suns, who eliminated the Denver Nuggets

LOS ANGELES: Terance Mann poured in a career-high 39 points as the Los Angeles Clippers advanced to their first NBA semifinals in franchise history, rallying to beat the top seeded Utah Jazz 131-119 on Friday.
The fourth seeded Clippers won their four straight match after losing the first two in Salt Lake City to take the Eastern Conference series in six games.
They stormed back in the second half on Friday after being down by 25 points in the third quarter to reach the league’s final four, ending years of playoff frustration including a string of NBA quarter-final exits.
The 24-year-old Mann was electric in just his second career playoff start, shooting 15-of-21 from the field and draining seven of 10 three pointers in front of a crowd of 17,100 at Staples Center arena in downtown Los Angeles.
“I just trust my work,” said Mann. “Everybody was telling me to shoot the ball and that is what I did.”
They next face the Phoenix Suns in game one of the Western Conference finals on Sunday.
Second year player Mann got plenty of help from the veterans on the team. Paul George scored 28 points and added nine rebounds and seven assists for the Clippers, who won despite missing their top player Kawhi Leonard.
“It feels great,” said George. “They wrote us off when Kawhi went down.
“He is one of the best young players I have been around,” George said of Mann, whose previous regular season high was 25 points. “He reminds me a lot of myself.”
The Clippers made history without star Leonard, who missed his second straight game with a sprained right knee.
Reggie Jackson added 27 points and 10 assists. Nicolas Batum contributed 16 points and Patrick Beverley had 12 points in the win.
The Jazz got star guard Mike Conley back on Friday but it wasn’t enough to salvage their series. Conley finished with five points in 26 minutes of playing time.
Donovan Mitchell, who was playing with a sore ankle, scored a team high 39 points, dished out nine assists and had nine rebounds for the Jazz.
“At the beginning of the third we started turning the ball over and that got them going,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “We were late on our rotations and they took advantage of that.”

'Fight and grit'
In Atlanta, Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers played with more urgency, using a collective offensive effort to come from behind and force a game seven in their second-round NBA playoff series.
Tobias Harris and Seth Curry each scored 24 points and Embiid tallied 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds as the Sixers overcame a double-digit first-half deficit to beat the upstart Atlanta Hawks 104-99. Curry also had six threes.
“You saw the fight and grit of a whole group,” said Harris.
Game seven will be Sunday at the home arena of the top-seeded 76ers.
Philadelphia’s win means both Eastern Conference semifinal series will go to a game seven after the Milwaukee Bucks won game six against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday night.
The 76ers pushed the best-of-seven series to the limit after the heartbreak of letting two potential wins in games four and five slip through their fingers.
“It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun,” Curry said. “You’ve just got to weather the storm and come back at them at the other end.”
Tyrese Maxey added 16 points and seven rebounds off the bench for the 76ers, who rebounded after blowing a 26-point lead at home in game five.
Trae Young finished with 34 points and 12 assists for Atlanta, who are seeking to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in six years.
Philadelphia led 80-76 at the end of the third quarter.