Saudi squad heads to Oman in the third round of Asian Qualifiers for 2022 World Cup

Saudi squad heads to Oman in the third round of Asian Qualifiers for 2022 World Cup
Herve Renard oversees Saudi squad's training session in Riyadh ahead of trip to Oman for World Cup qualifier. (File/Basheer Saleh)
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Updated 05 September 2021

Saudi squad heads to Oman in the third round of Asian Qualifiers for 2022 World Cup

Saudi squad heads to Oman in the third round of Asian Qualifiers for 2022 World Cup
  • Herve Renard’s men beat Vietnam in their opening Group B fixture but will come against a team boosted by its defeat of Japan in Tokyo

Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard held an intensive training session in Riyadh on Saturday evening before his squad flies to Muscat today ahead of Tuesday’s Asian qualifier for the 2022 World Cup against Oman.

On Thursday the Frenchman watched his team come back from a goal down to beat 10-man Vietnam 3-1 in Riyadh. Earlier that day, Oman shocked the continent with an 1-0 away win against Japan, and they will be no pushover when the Gulf neighbours meet.

A win for Saudi Arabia would give the team a maximum six points from two matches ahead of next month’s double header of home matches against Japan (Oct. 7) and China (Oct. 12).


Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages

Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages
Updated 23 January 2022

Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages

Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages
  • Riyad Mahrez and Algeria in surprise exit amid mixed results for Arab teams and individuals

The group stages of the delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations ended with two big surprises — the exit of defending champions Algeria and another of the favorites, five-time title-holders Ghana.

A record seven Arab nations started the tournament, but only four have booked a place in the round of 16: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and, most surprisingly, Comoros.

Morocco’s was perhaps the cleanest of qualifications, winning group C with seven points from two wins and a draw. The team looked to be on song and were led with distinction by Achraf Hakimi, who scored what may well be the best goal of the tournament so far against Gabon.

The Paris Saint-Germain player has been ably backed by Yassine Bounou, the excellent Sevilla goalkeeper,  especially in the opening match of the campaign against Ghana.

It was a match settled by a winning goal from substitute Sofiane Boufal, who plays for French Ligue 1 side Angers. Despite being benched in all three group matches, Boufal has shown his worth for coach Vahid Halilhodzic’s team.

Seven-time winners Egypt got off to a poor start with an awful performance in the 1-0 loss to Nigeria and after that scraped two narrow wins to progress to the knockouts stages.

Star forward Mohamed Salah, fresh from being nominated for the best FIFA men’s player award alongside Lionel Messi and eventual winner Robert Lewandowski, has often looked isolated and scored just one of Egypt’s paltry two goals at the tournament.

There seems to be a lack of understanding between the Liverpool star and fellow forward Mustafa Mohamed and Omar Marmoush, an issue that needs to be resolved before Wednesday’s clash with a formidable Cote d’Ivoire team.

Egypt recently took part in the FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar without any of their European-based stars, but the return of the players does not look to have improved the team visibly.

Another that has disappointed is Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny, and he and Salah have rarely been subjected to this much criticism from their own fans and media. Coach Carlos Queiroz has yet to find the right formula despite the two wins over Guinea-Bissau and Sudan.

Tunisia also were far from impressive, missing three penalties against Mali, Mauritania and Gambia on their way to scraping through the group stages by finishing as one of the best third-placed teams.

The missed kicks came from Zamalek’s Seif El-Din Al-Jaziri, Saint-Etienne’s Wahbi Al-Kharazi — who both partially redeemed themselves with one and two goals, respectively --  and captain Youssef Al-Masakni, who plays for Al-Arabi Club in Qatar and had recently recovered from testing positive for COVID-19.

The young Manchester United star Hannibal Mejbri, one of the standout players at the Arab Cup, was again expected to take center-stage, but has so far failed to replicate his performances in Doha.

The biggest shock of the tournament has been the exit of champions Algeria. Manchester City star and talisman Riyad Mahrez entered the tournament with expectations of becoming the historical top scorer for his country at the AFCON, equaling Lakhdar Belloumi’s tally of six goals.

However, Mahrez and his colleagues were humiliated in the group stage, gathering only one point from a draw and two losses. Algeria’s star man even missed a penalty in the comprehensive  3-1 loss to Cote d’Ivoire.

Lack of preparation for most teams has been a feature of the early part of the tournament, and Mahrez and rest of coach Djamel Belmadi’s squad have failed to adapt to the pace of the competition, perhaps due to their late arrival in Cameroon.

Incredibly Algeria’s defeat in their final group match, coupled with other results, helped unheralded Comoros become the fourth Arab nation to qualify for the knockout stages.

The scenes of celebrations that followed their sensational 3-2 win over Ghana — one of the results of the competition so far — will live long in the memory, and showed just what this tournament means to fans and players.

While the Pharaohs’ clash with Cote d’Ivoire is the pick of the round-of-16 matches, Morocco will have a somewhat easier confrontation against Malawi, while Tunisia, with a host of players missing after testing positive for COVID-19, will face a thankless task against Nigeria, arguably the tournament’s best team.

For Comoros, the party continues against hosts Cameroon on Monday. Whatever happens from now on, it has been an unforgettable experience for them.

Individually, stars such as Salah and Mahrez rarely caught then eye in the group stage. Instead, it is the Cameroonian Vincent Aboubakar, who plays for Al-Nassr in the Saudi Professional League, who has been one of the stars, grabbing five goals in the three matches to top the goal-scoring table.

But teams and individuals have a habit of strongly emerging throughout a tournament. A slow start often ends up being a prelude to a star turn in the knockout stages.

We await Salah and co catching fire in the coming days.


Algeria and Ghana handed tough World Cup playoff ties

Algeria and Ghana handed tough World Cup playoff ties
Updated 23 January 2022

Algeria and Ghana handed tough World Cup playoff ties

Algeria and Ghana handed tough World Cup playoff ties

DOUALA: Algeria and Ghana, smarting after humiliating defeats at the Africa Cup of Nations this week, were on Saturday handed tough draws for the African World Cup playoffs in March.

Algeria were drawn against Cameroon while Ghana must take on near-neighbours Nigeria in a mouth-watering west African derby.

Algeria and Ghana went home after finishing last in their opening round Nations Cup groups after shock setbacks against tiny Equatorial Guinea and the Comoros Islands respectively and must now bounce back against difficult opponents to redeem themselves and qualify for the World Cup in Qatar in November.

Egypt and Senegal, who are still competing at the Cup of Nations in Cameroon, were drawn together in the World Cup playoffs, pitting two of the five countries who represented the continent at the last finals in Russia against each other.

Morocco were drawn against the Democratic Republic of Congo, who did not qualify for the Nations Cup in Cameroon thereby missing out on valuable practice ahead of March’s two-legged ties.

Mali have a chance to qualify for the World Cup for the first time after being paired with Tunisia. Both teams are also through to the last 16 in Cameroon, although Tunisia lost two of their three opening round matches, including an embarrassing 1-0 loss to debutants Gambia on Thursday.

However, Mali face staging their home game on neutral territory after not having any fit stadia to use when they won their World Cup group last year. They played their home games in Morocco.

The 10 countries in Saturday’s draw were all winners of their groups in the second round of African World Cup qualifiers played between September and November.

They now meet over two legs in March to determine a spot at the finals. The exact dates of the matches will be announced in the next days, said the Confederation of African Football.


New qualifying format among standout changes for Formula E season-opening at Diriyah E-Prix

New qualifying format among standout changes for Formula E season-opening at Diriyah E-Prix
Updated 23 January 2022

New qualifying format among standout changes for Formula E season-opening at Diriyah E-Prix

New qualifying format among standout changes for Formula E season-opening at Diriyah E-Prix
  • Ex-F1 driver Antonio Giovinazzi will join rookies Dan Ticktum and Oliver Askew on the grid at the double header of night races in Riyadh

RIYADH: With just under a week to go until the highly anticipated return of the 2021-22 ABB FIA Formula E World Championship there will some significant changes from previous years in the opening races at Diriyah.

The Diriyah E-Prix has been held three times in the historic desert surroundings of the UNESCO World Heritage site at At-Turaif, and a double-header of evening races will take place for the second year running on Jan. 28-29.

Changes that fans can expect this season include the qualifying process, which will feature a first round of two groups with each driver able to make multiple attempts at fastest laps within their allocated time. The new format maintains the possibility of any driver starting on pole. The top four fastest-lap drivers in each group will progress into head-to-head duels on a knockout basis in quarter-finals and semi-finals. Pole-position will be decided in a final head-to-head duel, with all grid positions based on either success in the head-to-head duels, or lap times depending on which stage of qualifying drivers reach.

As part of the new sporting regulations, Formula E races can now have additional race time of up to a maximum of 10 minutes added when incidents result in a Safety Car or Full Course Yellow neutralisations during the standard 45-minute + 1 Lap race.

Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal, Chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF), said: “Once again Diriyah is making sporting history with another ‘first’ and I’m so pleased Saudi Arabia has proudly opened this wonderful series. It’s a championship that aligns perfectly with our future vision and commitment to sustainability as a nation. We look forward to another thrilling season of racing, and we’re ready to welcome fans from all over the world.”

Ex-Formula 1 driver Antonio Giovinazzi (Dragon / Penske Autosport) will join Dan Ticktum (NIO 333 Racing), and Oliver Askew (Avalanche Andretti Formula E) on the grid for the first time, as the three rookies take part in the 22-driver line-up racing for the trophy.

Race and music fans can also look forward to entertainment both on and off track with concerts returning across the weekend. On Friday, Jan. 28 James Blunt, Craig David and Wyclef Jean take to the stage while following day’s line-up includes Two Door Cinema Club and The Script.

Jerry Inzerillo, Group CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority said: “I am delighted to welcome Formula E back to Diriyah for its fourth year. The E-Prix is one of the most important highlights in our sporting events calendar and is the perfect opportunity to showcase Diriyah’s position as an urban pedestrian city of the future, anchored on its past as the birthplace of the Kingdom. We are also proud to share Formula E’s sustainability vision to accelerate change towards an electric future, raise awareness of sustainable practices and contribute to reducing global carbon emissions. We can’t wait to once again light up the night sky with this event and see the fans here in person next weekend.”

Tickets start from SAR 150 ($40) and are available at www.diriyah-eprix.com


Newcastle ‘not dead and buried’ in Premier League battle: Howe

Newcastle ‘not dead and buried’ in Premier League battle: Howe
Updated 23 January 2022

Newcastle ‘not dead and buried’ in Premier League battle: Howe

Newcastle ‘not dead and buried’ in Premier League battle: Howe

NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe believes Newcastle United have proven to the Premier League that they are not “dead and buried’ in their fight to avoid relegation.

The Magpies ran out deserved winners at Elland Road as a Jonjo Shelvey strike was enough to see Howe’s men claim a precious three points — only their second top-flight victory of the season.

Howe is of the belief that his players proved a point to those around them with the Leeds United win — and is hopeful the result can spark a late-season transformation.

“I think you always learn things about your players, win lose or draw,” said the United head coach.

“We showed there is resilience in the team, we are fighting for each other. They are fighting for the club. They have belief they are not dead and buried. There is more to come.

“I am so, so pleased for everyone connected with Newcastle that we won the game. Hopefully it can transform our season.”

One criticism levelled at United in recent weeks has been their inability to see out a football match.

In fairness, it is a stance backed up by the statistics. No other Premier League team has lost more points from winning positions — 21 — this campaign.

While they faltered at home to Watford seven days earlier, they were in no mood to do so in Yorkshire.

Howe added: “Everyone to a man contributed to that win. An incredible intensity to the game, but there always is when you play Leeds.

“We had to really be very good physically and we suffered some injuries. It was an heroic effort in the sense that we committed everything to the game. I thought the players were outstanding.

“I am massively impressed with the players. That was a big test after last week (1-1 draw with Watford). I think the pleasing thing was, we had a 1-0 lead and it wasn’t backs to the wall. We looked the most likely team to score.

“We counterattacked very, very well and I did think we looked a threat in the second half. We did not surrender possession in space, we kept looking to attack.”

Goalscorer Shelvey has also faced criticism from fans for his below-par performances in the St. James’ Park defeats to Cambridge United and the Hornets in recent weeks.

However, Howe thinks he answered his critics with his match-winning show at Leeds.

Howe said: “He is hugely important. He is the central player, the supplier in possession. He started a lot of our attacks and has a creative eye. He has a really good range of passes.

“Shelvey intercepted the ball a number of times and I think that is a really good marker. He stopped a lot of their attacks. I was really pleased with him. I’m sure if you ask him he will admit that’s the hardest part of his game.”


Gladbach in crisis after 2-1 loss to Union, Dortmund wins

Gladbach in crisis after 2-1 loss to Union, Dortmund wins
Updated 22 January 2022

Gladbach in crisis after 2-1 loss to Union, Dortmund wins

Gladbach in crisis after 2-1 loss to Union, Dortmund wins
  • It was Gladbach’s 4th straight league loss at home, just days after their German Cup exit
  • Borussia Dortmund bounced back after their German Cup exit to second-division St. Pauli with a clinical display in Sinsheim

BERLIN: Max Kruse scored twice for Union Berlin to leave Borussia Mönchengladbach in crisis on Saturday after a 2-1 defeat in the Bundesliga.
It was Gladbach’s fourth straight league loss at home, just days after their German Cup exit to second-division Hannover. The latest defeat piles the pressure on coach Adi Hütter, who was already under scrutiny after losing six of the last eight games across all competitions.
“Union scored with their only chances," Hütter said. “There's no way we deserved to lose.”
Gladbach are only three points above the relegation zone and Hütter said before Union's visit that his team will be “several weeks” without captain Lars Stindl, who injured his knee in training on Friday.
Union, which were only promoted to the Bundesliga in 2019, moved fourth, the last qualification place for the Champions League.
“Today we had a bit of luck, but it can't be just luck that we have 34 points after 20 rounds. It's hard work that's paying off,” Kruse said. “For that you have to compliment the whole club for what we've delivered in the last years.”
Kruse opened the scoring in the 18th minute with a penalty awarded through VAR for a hand ball from Denis Zakaria on his comeback. Zakaria’s arm was high as Andreas Voglsammer’s cross grazed his hand.
Gladbach struck back five minutes before the break, when Breel Embolo played the ball between Robin Knoche’s legs and then found Jonas Hofmann, who waited before playing the ball in to Kouadio Koné. The French midfielder let fly inside the right post for his first Bundesliga goal.
Luca Netz had Gladbach's best chance for a winner, but fired over from close range.
Kruse made no mistake with Union’s only chance of the second half, squeezing the ball inside the far post in the 84th after Niko Gießelmann played him in.
DORTMUND RELIEF
Borussia Dortmund bounced back after their German Cup exit to second-division St. Pauli with a clinical display in Sinsheim, where the visitors scored three goals with two shots on target.
Donyell Malen set up the three as his team edged Hoffenheim 3-2 and cut the gap on Bayern Munich to three points. Bayern visits struggling Hertha Berlin on Sunday.
Erling Haaland, who scored the opening goal for Dortmund, went off in the second half with an apparent groin injury.
Haaland got the visitors off to a great start in the sixth minute after a fine one-touch move from his teammates. Raphaël Guerreiro played the ball back with his heel for Malen, who had a one-two with Jude Bellingham before crossing for Haaland to score his 16th goal of the season.
But Dortmund failed to press their advantage. American defender Chris Richards hit the crossbar and Hoffenheim missed several other chances before Andrej Kramarić scored a deserved equalizer before the break.
Malen set up Marco Reus to score with Dortmund’s second shot on goal in the 58th. Hoffenheim had had 11 goal efforts by then.
Malen set up Dortmund's next goal, too. The Dutch winger crossed for Davin Raum to turn the ball inside his own net in the 67th.
Hoffenheim’s Munas Dabbur set up Georginio Rutter in the 77th for an exciting finale, but Dortmund held on.
LEVERKUSEN FLYING
The 18-year-old Florian Wirtz starred, and Moussa Diaby scored a hat trick, as Bayer Leverkusen routed Augsburg 5-1 to consolidate third place.
Freiburg moved fifth with a 2-0 win over relegation candidate Stuttgart, and last-place Greuther Fürth claimed their second win of the season with a 2-1 victory over Mainz.
Midfielder Takuma Asano salvaged a 2-2 draw for Bochum against visiting Cologne in the late game.