Perfect starts for Saudi Arabia, Australia: 5 things we learned form Group B matchday 2 of Asian World Cup qualifiers

Perfect starts for Saudi Arabia, Australia: 5 things we learned form Group B matchday 2 of Asian World Cup qualifiers
Saudi players celebrate Saleh Al-Shehri's goal against Oman in Muscat. (Arriyadiyah)
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Updated 08 September 2021

Perfect starts for Saudi Arabia, Australia: 5 things we learned form Group B matchday 2 of Asian World Cup qualifiers

Perfect starts for Saudi Arabia, Australia: 5 things we learned form Group B matchday 2 of Asian World Cup qualifiers
  • With Japan returning to winning ways, the fight for the top two automatic places for Qatar 2022 already looks a three-way race

Two down, eight to go. 

There were three 1-0 wins in Group B of the Asia qualifiers for Qatar 2022 on Thursday. Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia downed their respective opponents Vietnam, Oman and China by a single goal in matchday 2 of the third round of AFC qualification.

Saudi Arabia is sitting pretty with two wins out of two, level on points with Australia. Japan and Oman have three each, with China and Vietnam yet to get off the mark. If the first round was exciting, the second was intriguing. Here are five things we learned.

1. Concentration and discipline see Saudi Arabia past Oman

Saudi Arabia’s 1-0 win in Oman was a big result and came from a fine team performance. The Reds, fresh after that 1-0 win in Japan, have improved and asked plenty of questions in Muscat, but it was almost a perfect away performance from the visitors. The Green Falcons did what they had to do in getting the all-important first goal and then tried to slow the game down, invite Oman forward and hit on the break. 

It was an intelligent performance and showed the progress made under coach Herve Renard, with the team keeping its shape well, and the players remaining focused and disciplined. It was not flawless, of course — a one goal lead is always vulnerable, and Oman should have snatched a point right at the end when Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali shot over from yards out with the goal at his mercy. For Saudi Arabia, however, it was a real team effort.

2. Al-Shehri stakes his striking claim

Fahad Al-Muwallad is one of the most exciting players to watch in Asia when on form and his backheel to set up the Saudi goal was a thing of beauty. In fact, the whole move is worthy of praise. A perfectly weighted floated pass into the right side of the area from Salman Al-Faraj, the instinctive touch from the Al-Ittihad star that found Saleh Al-Shehri who, despite the close attention of four defenders, produced a first-time finish low into the Omani goal. Easy on the eye.

It is no secret that the striker’s position has been a problem for Saudi Arabia in recent years, especially as the team plays with one up front. But being a problem position also means that it is up for grabs. Abdullah Al-Hamdan was the anointed one (or number nine, at least), but has failed to make the spot his own. With a strike rate that has now reached seven goals in 10 games, Al-Shehri has moved to the top of the list and should be safe in the knowledge that the shirt is his for the next few games at least. 

3. It already looks like a three-way race for top two spots

It might be a little early to make that call, but with China and Vietnam losing both of their opening games, it is difficult to imagine that these two teams — which have one World Cup finals appearance between them — can take one of the automatic spots for Qatar 2022. If they can bounce back to impressive effect then perhaps third place and the play-offs are possible, but finishing in the top two is already off the agenda.

Oman impressed with the win in Japan and caused problems against Saudi Arabia. The Reds will take points in this stage of the road to Qatar and will be in the running for third. But it looks as if the top two places will be contested by Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia. 

Australia have not been in top form but look ominous. Opening games against China and Vietnam in Hanoi looked tricky for the Socceroos, but they took six points without really impressing, while Japan returned to winning ways. These three powerhouses are going to fight it out.

4. Japan bounce back

After the shocking loss to Oman in the opening game, the pressure was on Japan to beat China and they did just that with a 1-0 win. Failure to do so may have cost coach Hajjime Moriyasu his job.

While the scoreline was narrow, Japan dominated and should have won by more against a team that had little possession and no shots on target. There was more of the fluid passing game that is expected of the East Asians, though the lack of goals in the first two games will be something of a worry.

Japanese fans hope it will be a repeat of the same stage of qualification last time. On the road to Russia, the UAE won the first game of the group in Japan, but the Samurai Blue bounced back to win six games and draw two of the next eight and, in the end, qualified with ease.

5. Tough tests still to come

It seems an obvious thing to say but the next game will reveal a lot about whether Saudi Arabia are going to finish in the top two. Two tricky games so far have resulted in six points: Obviously a perfect return, but the two opponents were, on paper at least, the weakest two teams in the group. Now it gets difficult.

Next up is Japan. The Samurai Blue may have lost 1-0 to Oman in the opening game but are still Asia’s best team. It is to be hoped that there is a full house in Riyadh as Saudi Arabia will need all the help they can get to get a result.

If the Green Falcons can draw against Japan, they keep that three-point cushion. A win would open up a six-point gap and bring Qatar into sight. With four weeks to go, coach Renard has time to show why he is one of the best working in Asia. It would be a famous win.

With Australia facing Oman in Sydney and expecting to emerge victorious, the top two could start to pull away, and that would put huge pressure on Japan.


Football’s five-substitutes option to be made permanent

Football’s five-substitutes option to be made permanent
Updated 11 sec ago

Football’s five-substitutes option to be made permanent

Football’s five-substitutes option to be made permanent
LONDON: Football competitions can decide to make the originally temporary five-substitutes rule permanent, the sport’s rule-making body IFAB recommended on Wednesday.
“FAP-TAP (football and technical advisory panels) today recommended that competitions should be able to decide on increasing the number of substitutes according to the needs of their football environment,” read an IFAB statement.
The decision to permanently amend football’s laws came at a virtual FIFA-chaired IFAB meeting following requests from different confederations, associations and leagues.
The option of using five replacements was introduced in May 2020 to alleviate the strain on players as the coronavirus pandemic upended sporting calendars and congested fixture lists, raising fears for player welfare.
Only three substitutes were previously allowed but coaches argued the more onerous physical demands on players competing in condensed competition formats or time periods justified the change.
Earlier this year IFAB’s board of directors extended the temporary amendment to football’s laws allowing domestic and international competitions to use five substitutes to December 31, 2022.
Teams can make five substitutes in UEFA competitions like the Champions League but England’s Premier League rejected the innovation being reintroduced last season.
Critics had said making the change permanent would disproportionately benefit wealthier clubs with larger squads.

’Dead in its tracks’ — FIFPro chief convinced biennial World Cup won’t happen

’Dead in its tracks’ — FIFPro chief convinced biennial World Cup won’t happen
Updated 27 October 2021

’Dead in its tracks’ — FIFPro chief convinced biennial World Cup won’t happen

’Dead in its tracks’ — FIFPro chief convinced biennial World Cup won’t happen
  • Opposition has been so widespread from leagues, players and supporters groups that the chances of a biennial World Cup actually happening appear remote
  • "There has been a lot of pushback. They have realised that," FIFPro's general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann told AFP about FIFA's proposals

BRUSSELS: The head of global footballers’ union FIFPro is confident a plan to hold the men’s World Cup every two years is “dead in its tracks” and insists FIFA should do more to promote the women’s version instead.
FIFA will hold a summit in December with president Gianni Infantino still hoping to find consensus on plans to stage the men’s tournament more often than the current four-year cycle.
However, opposition has been so widespread from leagues, players and supporters groups that the chances of a biennial World Cup actually happening appear remote.
“There has been a lot of pushback. They have realized that,” FIFPro’s general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann told AFP about FIFA’s proposals.
“It is quite clear that if you try to push this through against the interests of all these other stakeholders, and without their agreement, it is probably dead in its tracks.”
FIFPro, comprised of national member associations from 64 countries, is one of several organizations within football that has expressed unhappiness at a lack of consultation on the issue.
The proposals were put forward by Arsene Wenger, FIFA’s head of global development.
Baer-Hoffmann questioned whether holding more frequent World Cups would be sustainable economically, but said there is already a solution in place.
“When we met with FIFA for the first time, we asked them for the economic analysis, we haven’t seen that yet. I don’t think a second World Cup would just mean the current revenue times two. It’s not like you just double the value in sponsorship etcetera.
“The truth is also that there are two World Cups in every four-year cycle already. We should make the women’s one more of a priority. That is your second World Cup.”
The World Cup is expanding regardless in another way — the men’s version to 48 teams from 2026 and the women’s to 32 teams from 2023.
Other competitions like the UEFA Champions League are also expanding to feature more games, but FIFPro is concerned that footballers beyond the men’s elite do not play enough.
“If you are playing in a market that doesn’t have the economic means like the big European markets then of course you are looking at innovation in competitions, club or country, that puts more meaningful and economically viable games in your schedule,” said Baer-Hoffmann.
“We do need reforms, no question. If we just carry on like this football in many parts of the world will not evolve.”
In Brussels FIFPro announced a joint manifesto with the European Leagues organization, which represents over one thousand clubs from 30 countries.
It called for greater influence over decisions affecting the future of the sport, especially important in the wake of the failed breakaway Super League project.
That project may only be lying dormant. Three of the 12 rebel clubs — Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus — remain attached to it.
UEFA opened disciplinary proceedings against the remaining clubs but backed down after a commercial court in Madrid ruled any punishment would represent an infringement of European free trade laws.
The ruling was referred to the European Court of Justice.
“The factors that motivated this attempt to break away have not actually drastically changed,” Baer-Hoffmann said.
The plan was torpedoed in April following widespread opposition.
“But I think we have to be realistic. This is not dead, and I think this will come back, and football had better get ready to confront it again.”


'Get vaccinated' top German minister tells Kimmich

'Get vaccinated' top German minister tells Kimmich
Updated 27 October 2021

'Get vaccinated' top German minister tells Kimmich

'Get vaccinated' top German minister tells Kimmich
BERLIN: Bayern Munich star Joshua Kimmich has been told to get vaccinated against Covid-19 by Germany's acting interior minister.
This happened after the footballer sparked a lively debate by revealing he had opted out of receiving jabs against the coronavirus.
"Think again and get vaccinated," Horst Seehofer, a senior figure in Angela Merkel's outgoing government, told Bild in a message aimed directly at Kimmich.
"You are a personality with exemplary character. And if you get vaccinated, other people will say, 'then I'll do it too.'"
Kimmich, who captained Germany in a recent World cup qualifier, sparked a fierce debate in Germany at the weekend when he revealed he opted not to get vaccinated, because of "personal concerns".
Medical experts have criticised his stance, accusing Kimmich of neglecting his duty as a role model in football-mad Germany.
"Joshua Kimmich is an expert in football matters, not of vaccination and vaccines," fumed Thomas Mertens, chairman of Germany's Standing Vaccination Commission (Stiko).
In a video interview for German daily Bild on Wednesday, Seehofer urged Kimmich to rethink his position as "vaccination is the main weapon in the fight against the pandemic".
Germany has seen a sharp rise in numbers of those testing positive for the coronavirus with 23,212 new cases reported Wednesday.
Of Germany's population of 83 million, around 66 percent are fully vaccinated.
Kimmich appears to be in the minority as more than 90 percent of footballers and backroom staff in Germany's top two leagues are vaccinated, according to figures released Tuesday by the German Football League (DFL).
Bayern head coach Julian Nagelsmann is currently isolating at home after testing positive for the coronavirus last week.
Bayern Munich team-mates Thomas Mueller and Manuel Neuer have made it clear they feel Kimmich should get vaccinated and the midfielder has not ruled out doing so in the future.
"There is a very good chance that I will still get vaccinated," Kimmich said Saturday, "It's simply that I still have concerns."
Bayern president Herbert Hainer has said he would be happy if Kimmich gets vaccinated, but pointed out there is no compulsory vaccination in Germany.

Pakistan’s Shadab, Rauf say wins ‘much needed’ in World Cup

Pakistan’s Shadab, Rauf say wins ‘much needed’ in World Cup
Updated 27 October 2021

Pakistan’s Shadab, Rauf say wins ‘much needed’ in World Cup

Pakistan’s Shadab, Rauf say wins ‘much needed’ in World Cup
  • Fast bowler Rauf anchored Pakistan’s five-wicket win against New Zealand in Sharjah
  • Pakistan romped home in the 18.4 overs after early hiccups

SHARJAH, UAE: Vice captain Shadab Khan and fast bowler Haris Rauf said Pakistan’s two wins in as many matches as “much needed” at the start of the Twenty20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
Fast bowler Rauf anchored Pakistan’s five-wicket win against New Zealand in Sharjah on Tuesday, as the 2009 champions followed Sunday’s impressive victory over arch-rivals India.
Rauf, who took 4-22, said he bowled to a plan.
“I was given a plan and I am happy that I executed that well and got four wickets,” said Rauf whose effort restricted New Zealand to 134-8 in 20 overs.
Pakistan romped home in the 18.4 overs after early hiccups with veteran Shoaib Malik (26) and Asif Ali (26) saw them off during an unbroken 48 run stand in 3.5 overs.
Rauf said he has been learning the trade of taking wickets, having featured in the 2019 Big Bash in Australia.
“It is a learning process for me,” said Rauf who took 20 wickets for Melbourne Stars. “Big Bash and Pakistan Super League were the first platforms from where I have learnt a lot.”
Pakistan, who now have four points in Group 2 of the Super 12 Stages, next play Afghanistan in Dubai on Friday.
Shadab termed the win as “clinical.”
“We needed these two wins for a head start in the Twenty20 World Cup and through some good bowling and fielding we have achieved that,” said Shadab.
Shadab said Malik’s experience was “invaluable.”
“Malik took the game to the final overs and that shows how much experience he has and with him anchoring the innings we were sure that we will cross the target.
“The confidence is very high and we want to take this momentum in our next matches as the first target is to reach the semifinals.”


State holding Australian Open says no to unvaccinated players

State holding Australian Open says no to unvaccinated players
Updated 27 October 2021

State holding Australian Open says no to unvaccinated players

State holding Australian Open says no to unvaccinated players
  • Nine-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic is one of many players who have refused to share their vaccination status

MELBOURNE: Unvaccinated players will not get special dispensation for the Australian Open, the top official in the state holding the Grand Slam said Wednesday, potentially ruling out reigning men’s champion Novak Djokovic.
A leaked email earlier this week suggested that players who were not inoculated against the coronavirus would be able to take part as long as they completed 14 days’ quarantine.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison then said that unvaccinated players would be permitted to enter the country if they received an exemption, which the host state Victoria would need to apply for on behalf of players.
But Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews quickly ruled that out.
“We are locking people who are unvaccinated out of pubs, cafes, restaurants and the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) and all sorts of other events,” he said.
“We’re not going to be applying for an exemption. Therefore, the issue is basically resolved.”
Australia’s federal government controls the country’s border and issues visas.
But during the pandemic state governments have run quarantine facilities and imposed vaccine mandates, making it unclear who will get the final say on the Australian Open rules.
Nine-time Australian Open champion Djokovic is one of many players who have refused to share their vaccination status, casting doubt over whether he will defend his title at Melbourne Park in January.
This year’s Australian Open was hit hard by the pandemic with all players going through two weeks of quarantine, while crowds were restricted and a five-day snap lockdown called mid-event.
A leaked WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) email on Monday had suggested unvaccinated players will be allowed to compete at the 2022 event if they complete hotel quarantine and submit to regular coronavirus testing.
Fully vaccinated players are expected to be able to enter Australia without quarantining or being confined to bio-secure bubbles, the email added.
Tennis Australia said earlier this week it was working with both the Victorian and federal governments on conditions for players, saying it was “optimistic that we can hold the Australian Open as close to pre-pandemic conditions as possible.”