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.


Qatari rally driver Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah boosts FIA World Cup hopes with Hail stage win

Qatari rally driver Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah boosts FIA World Cup hopes with Hail stage win
Updated 17 sec ago

Qatari rally driver Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah boosts FIA World Cup hopes with Hail stage win

Qatari rally driver Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah boosts FIA World Cup hopes with Hail stage win
  • The Toyota Gazoo Racing duo steered their Toyota Hilux to a time of 3hr 20min 01sec

HAIL: Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and French navigator Matthieu Baumel comfortably won the opening 258.14 km selective section of the Hail Cross-Country Rally early on Wednesday.

The Toyota Gazoo Racing duo steered their Toyota Hilux to a time of 3hr 20min 01sec and finished 6min 05sec in front of stage runner-up Denis Krotov.

Al-Attiyah’s stage performance boosted his already overwhelming odds of clinching the FIA World Cup title and, heading into the night halt in Hail, the Qatari found himself 22min 16sec ahead of Toyota team-mate and title rival Lucio Alvarez.

“We started first of the T1 cars, but the T1 2022 specification cars started before us,” Al-Attiyah’s co-driver Baumel said.

“We passed all three of them during the day and we opened the road half the way. It was not an easy stage. The first part was more navigation and off-track and the second part was faster. It was a nice day and we had a good result. We need to win two stages to get the World Cup. That is the goal for this rally.”

The X-raid Mini Buggies of Jakub Przygonski and Sebastien Halpern were third and fifth, sandwiching Vladimir Vasilyev’s BMW X3 in fourth.

“It was quite a nice stage with a lot of camel grass and it was quite soft,” said Przygonski. “We made a navigation mistake and got lost, but we enjoyed it. It was nice.”


Sixth Saudi Open golf championship gets underway

Sixth Saudi Open golf championship gets underway
Updated 09 December 2021

Sixth Saudi Open golf championship gets underway

Sixth Saudi Open golf championship gets underway
  • Saudi participants include professional player Othman Almulla, along with national team members Abdulrahman Al-Mansour, Faisal Salhab and Saud Al-Sharif
  • Chief Operating Officer of Golf Saudi Ed Edwards: Our vision and the goal of the mass participation programme is the training of Saudi youth to transform the golfing landscape

RIYADH: The sixth Saudi Open golf tournament tees off today at Riyadh Golf Club.

Prince Khalid bin Saud Al-Faisal, advisor to the Saudi Golf Federation, and Mohammed Al-Issa, Executive Manager of the Saudi Golf Federation, oversaw the launch of the championship at a press conference yesterday. The tournament will finish on Dec. 11.

During the briefing reporters were told that participation in the tournament is open to all professional and amateur golf players in the Middle East and North Africa who are registered with any golf club.

Al-Issa said: “We are proud to announce the launch of the sixth Saudi Open, which will give Saudi and Arab golf players the opportunity to participate in sports competitions of this kind. The events are a great opportunity for players to develop their skill levels and interact with players from different countries in the Middle East and North Africa in a competitive environment.”

The tournament is expected to attract wide interest from golf fans inside and outside the Kingdom. The Saudi Open will see the participation of leading players from the Gulf states and other Arab countries.

Saudi participants, who have all gone from strength to strength in recent years, as golf gains popularity in the Kingdom, include the only Saudi professional player Othman Almulla, along with national team members Abdulrahman Al-Mansour, Faisal Salhab and Saud Al-Sharif.

All four players will be in strong contention following their performances on the Asian Tour in Thailand last week, where they were in action at the Blue Canyon Phuket Championship and the Laguna Phuket Championship.

A lot will be at stake as the Saudi Open also represents a qualification opportunity for the 2022 Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers, which will be held next February. 

In a reply to Arab News, Ed Edwards, Chief Operating Officer of Golf Saudi, said: “Our vision and the goal of the mass participation programme is the training of Saudi youth to transform the golfing landscape. Saudi Arabia will be a regional sports hub.”

The Saudi Open is one of the events that Golf Saudi holds annually to raise awareness of the game in the Kingdom and to develop home-grown future talent. By working with other sports federations and the Ministry of Sport, Golf Saudi, which is the commercial development arm of the Saudi Golf Federation, is looking to underline the wider benefit of sports participation more generally as part of Saudi Arabia’s progress towards its Vision 2030 goals to improve its citizens quality of life.

Combined with grass roots training and education programmes that introduce people to the game at the earliest opportunity and with the greatest ease, Golf Saudi is committed to delivering a dynamic national development programme that transforms the golfing landscape.


Conte says 8 Spurs players, 5 staff members have coronavirus

Conte says 8 Spurs players, 5 staff members have coronavirus
Updated 08 December 2021

Conte says 8 Spurs players, 5 staff members have coronavirus

Conte says 8 Spurs players, 5 staff members have coronavirus
  • “Every day we are having people with COVID,” Conte said at a news conference
  • UEFA rules state a game must go ahead as long as a club has at least 13 senior players available

LONDON: Eight Tottenham players and five members of staff at the club have tested positive for the coronavirus, manager Antonio Conte said Wednesday.
“Every day we are having people with COVID,” Conte said at a news conference a day before a match against French team Rennes in the Europa Conference League.
Conte said he has 11 players available for the game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
UEFA rules state a game must go ahead as long as a club has at least 13 senior players available, including at least one goalkeeper.
Conte said “everyone is a bit scared” at the club because people are coming into contact with others who have tested negative but who later test positive.
“At the end of the training session today, again one player is positive, another member of staff is positive,” he said. “Tomorrow, who? Me? Another player? Another member of staff? We continue in this way but the situation is serious.”
Conte said he is concerned players and staff members at Tottenham might be passing on the virus to their loved ones.
“We have families, we have contact with our families when we come back home,” a visibly emotional Conte said. “It is a situation that makes me upset.
“Now for sure we are bit scared, because tomorrow we don’t know what happens.”
It has been reported in the British media that Tottenham has asked for its Premier League game against Brighton on Sunday to be postponed. Conte did not confirm that at the news conference.
Six Premier League matches were postponed last season because of virus outbreaks at clubs.
Tottenham is in second place in its group in the Conference League — the third-tier European competition — and is tied on points with third-place Vitesse. Rennes has already won the group with one game left to play.
The runner-up qualifies for a playoff for the last 16 against a team that will drop down from the Europa League.


Tickets go on sale for Formula E season opener in Diriyah

Tickets go on sale for Formula E season opener in Diriyah
Updated 08 December 2021

Tickets go on sale for Formula E season opener in Diriyah

Tickets go on sale for Formula E season opener in Diriyah
  • The first and second rounds of the eighth season of the electric car championship, in January 2022, will again be night races
  • 22 drivers, including Sam Bird, reigning world champion Nyck de Vries, and new drivers Antonio Giovinazzi, Dan Ticktum and Oliver Askew will tackle the fast and technical circuit

RIYADH: Tickets have gone on sale for the season-opening Diriyah Formula E night-race double header in January. The Kingdom is once again hosting the first and second rounds of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship.

The ticket-sales announcement was made by the Saudi Ministry of Sports during an event in At-Turaif, in historic Diriyah, that also featured Alberto Longo, the co-founder and chief championship officer of Formula E, Carlo Boutagy, the founder and CEO of event promoter CBX, and British driver Sam Bird, who won the round two race in Diriyah last year.

“We are pleased to announce the launch of tickets for the Formula E race in its first and second rounds, which will start at the end of January 2022,” said Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation.

“We look forward to doing what is required to ensure the event runs in the best possible way, to host sports fans from all over the world, and to welcome them to our country to enjoy the strong competition and the events accompanying the race.”

Tickets for the races, which will take place on January 28 and 29, start from SR150 ($40), with 10,000 grandstand tickets available.

Twenty-two drivers, including Bird, reigning world champion Nyck de Vries, and new drivers Antonio Giovinazzi, Dan Ticktum and Oliver Askew will tackle the fast and technical circuit which, like last year, will be illuminated by LED lights during the only night races of the Formula E season.

“Racing under the lights of the Diriyah E-Prix is unique and provides challenges unlike any other race in the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship,” said Bird, who drives for Jaguar TCS Racing.

“The Diriyah Circuit is technical, fast and challenging all at the same time and I look forward to returning for the races in January 2022.”

Longo described the Diriyah E-Prix as “the perfect opening race” for the eighth season of the Formula E World Championship, and said it will inspire new generations to “embrace” the electric car series.

Boutagy added: “We’re thrilled to work alongside the Ministry of Sport and Formula E to host the opening rounds of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship in January 2022.

“We will soon be announcing the international music artists who will headline our post-race concerts, and encourage fans to buy tickets on sale now to ensure best views of the racing and post-race entertainment.”

Visit diriyah-eprix.com for tickets and more information.


Farida Osman inspires a generation of Arab female athletes as she eyes glory at FINA World Swimming Championships in Abu Dhabi

Farida Osman inspires a generation of Arab female athletes as she eyes glory at FINA World Swimming Championships in Abu Dhabi
Updated 08 December 2021

Farida Osman inspires a generation of Arab female athletes as she eyes glory at FINA World Swimming Championships in Abu Dhabi

Farida Osman inspires a generation of Arab female athletes as she eyes glory at FINA World Swimming Championships in Abu Dhabi
  • The 26-year-old Egyptian, who is one of the ambassadors of the competition, has firmly established herself as the fastest female swimmer in Africa and the Arab world
  • From an early age, the 26-year-old realized she was swimming for more than just herself, as she made history for an entire region with every new milestone she hit in the pool

The first time I saw Farida Osman in action, she was 16 years old and was obliterating the field at the 2011 Pan Arab Games in Doha, clinching seven gold medals in the pool and making it look easy in the process.

A decade later, the Egyptian has firmly established herself as the fastest female swimmer in Africa and the Arab world and is the only athlete from her nation to ever make the podium at the FINA World Swimming Championships, snagging bronze in both 2017 and 2019 in the 50m butterfly.

The three-time Olympian holds the African record in the 50m freestyle and 50m butterfly in long course, as well as the 50m freestyle and 50m and 100m butterfly in short course.

A trailblazer for women’s sports in the region, Osman arrives in Abu Dhabi next week as one of the faces of the upcoming FINA World Swimming Championships (25m), set to take place at Etihad Arena from Dec. 16-21.

Inspiring a region

From an early age, the 26-year-old realized she was swimming for more than just herself, as she made history for an entire region with every new milestone she hit in the pool.

“Honestly, I think my main purpose is just to inspire people, especially women at a young age, to pursue not only swimming but sports in general,” Osman told Arab News in a phone interview last week.

“I feel like swimming and sports give you so much more than just medals and achievements. They give you a healthy lifestyle. You learn stuff about yourself like strengths and weaknesses, discipline, and all these things will help you eventually in your life.

“Our region isn’t really big on swimming for females, so I personally want to defy those odds and break the stereotype that says that women, when they reach a certain age, cannot do sports or cannot swim.

“I want to always inspire others to do that and hopefully my journey, with its ups and downs, will show that while it’s not an easy road, it’s worth it.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Farida Osman (@farida_osman)

Whatever it takes

It certainly has not been an easy road for Osman. The Cairene went to great lengths to fulfill her dreams, starting with her move to the US as a teenager to study and swim at the University of California, Berkeley.

Sharing a Cal Bears roster with the likes of five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin, Osman thrived during her university years, setting school records, clinching NCAA titles and putting Egypt on the world swimming map along the way.

Her successful college experience, coupled with her history-making performances at global meets, sparked a swimming revolution back home, as scores of swimmers decided to follow suit and accept athletic scholarships for top swimming programs at universities in the US.

“I think just by going there, being myself and showing that I could still be an Egyptian girl even living away from home is what encouraged other Egyptians, men and women, from a young age to go to the US for university because, honestly, it does give you the best of both worlds,” explained Osman.

“In Egypt, when we reach a certain age, unfortunately, we have to choose either sports or academics because it’s so hard to balance both. But the best thing in the US is that everything is on campus, everything is tailored toward you, and you have the resources to help you to perform your best in both swimming and academics.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Farida Osman (@farida_osman)

‘Toughest two years of my life’

After spending five years training at Berkeley, Osman felt like she needed a change and wanted to make the most out of the two-year period in the build-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

With the main goal of improving her 100 fly, Osman moved to Blacksburg, Virginia to train under Spanish coach Sergio Lopez. She was warned it would be a difficult transition, leaving sunny California behind and the relationships she built there in favor of training under Lopez in a relatively remote setting, but Osman was willing to do whatever it took to be ready for the Olympic Games.

“Mentally, I wasn’t really prepared for how challenging it was going to be outside of swimming,” admitted Osman, who described her time ahead of Tokyo as the “toughest two years” of her life in swimming.

The Egyptian explained how the postponement of the Games due to the pandemic hit her hard, and the challenge of having no social life in Virginia that would help her recharge between training was not easy to navigate.

Traveling to new places and meeting new people at competitions, which she said was the fun thing about being a professional swimmer, was not possible because of the pandemic, and she was mentally drained by the time the postponed Olympics came along. A glitch during the taper before the Games also did not help.

“The build-up — physical, mental, emotional — means that you’re ready to perform, you’re literally like a machine ready to explode. Up to 2020, everything in my life was on hold and I was just focusing on swimming,” said Osman.

“I personally recharge from being social, going out with my friends, having a nice dinner. Because there was nothing to do during the two years in Virginia, I felt like I was always on low battery. I wasn’t even mentally recharging.

“So, I think that was the hardest part. Instead of mentally preparing to compete then, in 2020, I had to extend it for another year in a location that was really hard to be at in the first place. And with the pandemic, there were no breaks; I was just stuck in one place.”

Returning to her roots

The Tokyo Olympics did not go according to plan, and Osman took a month off upon returning to Cairo in August to recover and reset. It was the longest break she had ever taken from swimming, and it allowed her to reconnect with family and friends.

Instead of returning to the US, Osman decided she needed to stay at home after eight years of living abroad. She has been training solo in Cairo, working with Egyptian coach Sherif Habib with some consultation from her coaches in the US.

“I just wanted to be home, especially after a really hard two years,” said Osman.

Training in Egypt naturally has its pros and cons. Besides being close to family, Osman is benefitting from having practices that are tailored to her needs as opposed to those of a larger group of swimmers. But her current situation can also feel like a lonely experience at times.

“That’s the worst part. If I stay here, I have to be okay with the fact that I’m going to train alone. Sadly, there isn’t anyone I can actually train with here, girls or boys,” she said.

‘I’m really honored’

When she got the call from FINA about being named an ambassador for the World Championships in Abu Dhabi, Osman was reminded of how much she has given the sport and the role she has played in vitalizing swimming in the region.

“I’m really honored. It was really nice, especially given that it came after Tokyo. It reminded me that what happened in Tokyo does not define your whole career,” said Osman.  

“I’ve done so much for this sport and so much for Egypt, Africa, the Middle East, this region, and I feel like being an ambassador was just proof that I’m so much more than what happened in Tokyo.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by FINA (@fina1908)

Reigniting the spark

Osman is approaching these championships “pressure-free” and is on a journey to rediscover her passion for the sport more than a decade after she was crowned a junior world champion in the 50m butterfly in Lima, Peru.

“I’m just doing this for myself. I know I can do so much better than what I did in Tokyo, so I feel like this is a way to prove to myself that it was a mishap and something just went wrong and it’s not like I’m no longer a good swimmer. So, this is something that I’m excited about,” she said.

“I’m taking this year to just focus on myself. I want to just swim for myself. I want to enjoy it again. I want to feel happy that I’m swimming again.”

Osman’s biggest crowning moments were her World Championship medals in Budapest 2017 and Gwangju 2019. On both occasions, she shared the 50 fly podium with Olympic and world champions Sarah Sjostrom and Ranomi Kromowidjojo and proved she belonged among the very best on one of the sport’s grandest stages.

“I feel like 2019 was definitely harder for me. Emotionally, I just felt the pressure of the expectation,” she recalled.

“It was a moment for me just to remember that now I’ve become part of something bigger than myself. It’s not just me swimming for myself; now I feel like there’s a whole world behind me. In 2019, as happy as I was to get the medal again, it was twice as hard.”

Looking ahead, Osman is hoping to get back to swimming personal best times as she builds toward next year’s long course FINA World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. She is not contemplating retirement just yet but feels like she wants to end her career on a high.

“I feel like I haven’t swum best times in a really long time. So, I think just getting there would definitely be an achievement for me. And obviously, when I go a best time, I’m looking at medals and finals and stuff like that. But I think once you focus on your time, the rest just takes care of itself,” she concluded.

Farida Osman will be swimming the 50m and 100m butterfly and freestyle events in Abu Dhabi.