Saudi and Japan cross swords, UAE under pressure: 5 things to look out for as Arab nations resume Asian World Cup qualifiers

Saudi and Japan cross swords, UAE under pressure: 5 things to look out for as Arab nations resume Asian World Cup qualifiers
Herve Renard’s team will take part in the final round of qualifications. (Twitter)
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Updated 06 October 2021

Saudi and Japan cross swords, UAE under pressure: 5 things to look out for as Arab nations resume Asian World Cup qualifiers

Saudi and Japan cross swords, UAE under pressure: 5 things to look out for as Arab nations resume Asian World Cup qualifiers
  • Thursday sees Matchday 3 of 10 in final round of AFC qualification for Qatar 2022; Saudi Arabia looks to maintain 100 percent record

The final round of qualification for the World Cup resumes on Thursday and it is safe to say that, Saudi Arabia and perhaps Oman apart, it could have gone better for the Arab teams so far. 

With just the top two from both six-team groups receiving automatic places in Qatar, there is not much room for slip-ups. With Matchday 3 of the 10 games about to start, here are five things to look out for in Thursday’s matches.

1. Saudi Arabia should learn from Oman against Japan

You can’t do better than win two out of two, and Saudi Arabia are looking very good after what were, in the end, deserved victories over Vietnam and Oman. Now, however, come Japan, the team that have been Asia’s best over the past few years. 

Salem Al-Dawsari may be missing through injury, but this is no reason for the Green Falcons to sit back and hope for the best even against a team that is packed full of European-based talent. Japan are the ones under pressure after losing the opening game to Oman and can’t afford to lose in Jeddah. 

That Oman triumph gives Herve Renard his blueprint: Give Japan as little time and space as possible and counter-attack at speed and with conviction. 

Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu is under pressure after the uncertain start, and it remains to be seen if he will stick to his criticized cautious style or take the handbrake off. Regardless, Saudi Arabia’s recent intensity and increasing fluidity under Renard should cause the East Asians problems.

2. Pressure on UAE

It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the Whites. After Bert van Marwijk returned for his second spell in charge, the team looked increasingly impressive in the second round of qualification, and hopes were high that a return to the global stage for the first time since their 1990 debut was a real possibility. It still is, but results must improve.

Two games against Lebanon and Iraq, two of the weaker members of the group, have brought just two points. It means that Thursday’s home game against Iran, Asia’s highest-ranked team at 22 and the only one in Group A with maximum points from the first two games, is almost a must-win and certainly a must-not-lose. 

Should the UAE crash to defeat then they will already be seven points behind Iran, and first place will be a long shot. Should South Korea defeat Syria, then even second spot will be five points away. There have been good moments so far from the UAE, but against Iran, the team has to produce a solid performance over the full 90 minutes. 

3. Syria should take the game to South Korea

So far, Syria have flown under the radar, though performances have been decent with a narrow loss in Tehran and a 1-1 draw with the UAE. Next is another trip to Ansan in South Korea. The Koreans are not looking forward to taking on a team they do not enjoy playing against. Last time around, Syria played defensively in two games against the Taeguk Warriors, and they were dreadful and frustrating affairs. 

Korea have four points from the opening two games at home but have not impressed, and there is growing criticism of coach Paulo Bento and his seeming inability to get the best out of a bunch of talented players. The likes of Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan are impressing in the English Premier League, but the European-based players only arrived in Seoul 48 hours before kick-off after a long journey across seven or eight time zones. They are unlikely to be at their best. With the likes of Omar Kharbin and Omar Al-Somah ready to link up in attack, there is no reason why Syria can’t get something from Korea — if they show ambition.

4. Iraq against Lebanon has massive significance

While only the top two places in the group offer automatic qualification, there is also another route. Finish third and there is a play-off against the team in the same position in the other group. Win that and then there is an intercontinental playoff, usually against a Concacaf nation, with a place at the World Cup at stake.

Iraq were always unlikely to finish in the top two despite going for the big-name foreign coach option in Dick Advocaat. The Lions of Mesopotamia have always had lots of talent but have long lacked the consistency to return to the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Third is possible and should be the target.

One point from the first two games does not sound great but it did come against the top two teams: South Korea in Seoul, which brought a hard-working goalless draw, and then a 3-0 loss against Iran, which was not a true reflection of how competitive the game was. 

Now though, Iraq have to win against the lowest-ranked team in the group in Lebanon. There are suggestions that some players are less than happy with Advocaat’s strict regime, but now is the time to start picking up points. With the UAE taking on Iran, a win for Iraq could well see them in third.

For Lebanon, there has also been a point and the target for the Cedars is to be competitive in every game and then see what happens.

5. Oman can make lightning strike twice

On paper, defeating Japan in Japan is a much tougher task than taking on Australia in Qatar so there is no reason why Oman can’t give the Socceroos a real game. Coach Branko Ivankovic will be delighted that he doesn’t have to take his team all the way down under, a place where Australia have a fantastic record in World Cup qualification.

Australia are in great form generally, having won their last 10 games, and are full of confidence. But the same can be said of Oman, the only Arab team apart from Saudi Arabia to taste victory so far in this round of games. Against Japan, they were the better team: brave and proactive. History is, however, against the men from Muscat, with just one win in nine against Australia. The last two encounters ended in a combined 9-0 scoreline. 

Oman will hope that this means Australia, like Japan probably did, are a little complacent but whatever happens, The Reds are not here to make up the numbers but to challenge. 


Badosa outlasts Azarenka to win Indian Wells in her debut

Badosa outlasts Azarenka to win Indian Wells in her debut
Updated 18 October 2021

Badosa outlasts Azarenka to win Indian Wells in her debut

Badosa outlasts Azarenka to win Indian Wells in her debut
  • Badosa joins Bianca Andreescu in 2019 and Serena Williams in 1999 in winning the title in her first appearance
  • Azarenka, the two-time major champion and former top-ranked player, was seeking just her second title since 2016

INDIAN WELLS, California: Paula Badosa edged Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (5), 2-6, 7-6 (2) on Sunday to win the BNP Paribas Open in her debut in the Southern California desert, where the tournament returned after a 2 1/2-year absence because of the coronavirus.
She joined Bianca Andreescu in 2019 and Serena Williams in 1999 in winning the title in her first appearance. It was Badosa’s second title of her career, having won in Belgrade earlier this year.
Cameron Norrie played Nikoloz Basilashvili in the men’s final later.
Badosa and Azarenka struggled for over three hours, trading back-to-back service breaks five times. The last time Azarenka broke for a 5-4 lead in the third, and Badosa broke right back for a 5-all tie.
“We were both going for our shots, really pushing each other to the max,” Azarenka said.
Badosa missed a backhand that allowed Azarenka to hold at 6-all.
Badosa dominated the tiebreaker, racing to a 6-2 lead. Azarenka dumped a forehand into the net to give Badosa match point.

Paula Badosa poses with the trophy and a flag after defeating Victoria Azarenka at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament on Oct. 17, 2021, in Indian Wells, California. (AP Photo/John McCoy)

Badosa cracked a forehand winner, then collapsed at the baseline. She lie face down, crying and shaking, before getting up. Azarenka came around the net and hugged the 23-year-old Spaniard.
“I remember when I was 14, 15 years old seeing you,” Badosa told Azarenka after raising the crystal trophy. “I told my coach, ‘One day I hope I can play like her.’“
Azarenka, the two-time major champion and former top-ranked player, was seeking just her second title since 2016. She last won in 2020 at Cincinnati. The 32-year-old from Belarus came up short in her bid to become the first woman to win Indian Wells three times, having taken the title in 2012 and 2016.
Azarenka’s season was interrupted by injuries and she made early exits in the Grand Slam events. Her best result was making the fourth round at the French Open.
“This year has been challenging a bit,” she said, “but finishing on a strong note, not necessarily with the result I wanted but with the progress I wanted to seek, that’s really positive.”
Azarenka noted her 4-year-old son, Leo, was watching on TV.

Paula Badosa kisses her trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament on Oct. 17, 2021, in Indian Wells, California. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) 

“I’m not bringing home the biggest trophy,” she said, “but it’s still a trophy and I’m sure he’ll enjoy playing with it.”
In the first-set tiebreaker, Badosa had leads of 4-0 and 5-3. Azarenka tied it 5-all on Badosa’s netted forehand. Azarenka missed a backhand to give Badosa a set point and the Spaniard cashed in with a backhand winner to take the set.
“It was like a roller coaster mentally, emotionally,” Badosa said.
She beat fifth-seeded Barbora Krejcikova in the fourth round, No. 15 Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals and No. 14 Ons Jabeur in the semifinals — all in straight sets — to reach the final.
“The first thing I learned this week is that nothing is impossible,” Badosa said.
Badosa earned $1.2 million, more than her previous prize money for the year of just over $1 million.
She came into the tournament ranked 27th in the world; a year ago, she was 87th. Badosa is projected to rise to a career-best 13th in Monday’s WTA Tour rankings.
“I never thought that would happen that fast,” she said.
Badosa may not be done this year, either. By winning the title, she overtook Ons Jabeur for the eighth and last qualifying spot in the race to the WTA Finals, to be held next month in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The combined ATP and WTA tour event was one of the first major sporting events canceled in March 2020 when the coronavirus took hold in the US It will return to its usual March slot next year.


Newcastle fans urge new owners to axe Steve Bruce

Newcastle fans urge new owners to axe Steve Bruce
Updated 17 October 2021

Newcastle fans urge new owners to axe Steve Bruce

Newcastle fans urge new owners to axe Steve Bruce
  • Long-suffering manager refuses to be drawn on whether talks on his future are imminent

NEWCASTLE: Newcastle United head coach Steve Bruce has refused to be drawn on whether he will have more crunch talks with the Magpies’ new owners this week.

Almost two weeks into the reign of the Saudi-led consortium, Bruce continues to hang on to his job, despite vociferous calls from fans for him to be sacked.

And following the Magpies 3-2 home loss to Tottenham Hotspur, watched from the directors’ box by non-executive chairman Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, Bruce stonewalled any questions on his future.

When asked whether fresh talks with the owners were planned, he said: “I’ve got to wait, until they see fit. You need to ask somebody else that one.

“Look, the owners have been very respectful in the last week to 10 days. It is going to take time and patience, of course. But to have the supporters back on side is a positive.”

Bruce is understood to be hanging by a thread as the club’s manager following a run of nine games without a win in 2021/22, eight of those in the Premier League.

Speculation about his future has grown since the club was purchased by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), RB Media & Sports and PCP Capital Partners.

Bruce met with NUFC board member Amanda Staveley and her husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi, of PCP, on Monday last week - but has been backed to continue in the role, for now, at least.

On Friday, Staveley was quoted in a club statement discussing Bruce’s future.

The statement read: “We have had an extremely busy week reviewing the business and getting to know people and it is imperative that we continue to be patient and considered in our approach. Change does not always happen overnight, it demands time and that we follow a carefully considered plan and strategy.

“We met Steve and the players on Monday and have given them the time and space this week to focus on preparing for what is a very important game on Sunday.

“Steve has been very professional in our dealings with him and he and his coaching team will take the team on Sunday. If we make any changes going forward, Steve will be the first to know but, in the meantime, we wish him the best of luck in his 1,000th match as a manager and will be joining you in getting right behind the team.”

Meanwhile, Bruce admits he was disappointed his side did not build on their positive early start against Spurs.

Following Callum Wilson’s goal, United conceded three first-half goals, which ultimately saw them condemned to yet another top flight loss, despite Eric Dier’s late own goal.

“It is pretty obvious we haven’t defended well after a great start. Unfortunately we have done too much of that this season for my liking,” said Bruce. “With Tottenham’s first attack they score, their second it is two.

“We are trying to be a bit more attacking but defensively, we just haven't defended well enough.”

When asked whether he thinks his 19th-placed side are in a relegation battle, he said: “Have we not been in that for the last five or six years? I would think so.

“We have finished 12th and 13th - I found that very respectable, for where we are at this moment. I am convinced we would win a relegation battle. But when you are in the bottom half, people will say you’re in a relegation battle, yes.”

 


Tottenham spoil party after Newcastle welcomes new owners

Tottenham spoil party after Newcastle welcomes new owners
Updated 18 October 2021

Tottenham spoil party after Newcastle welcomes new owners

Tottenham spoil party after Newcastle welcomes new owners
  • While hope has returned to Tyneside, the situation on the pitch remains the same
  • Callum Wilson headed Newcastle in front 107 seconds into the match before hosts collapsed to lose 3-2 to Tottenham

NEWCASTLE: So much has changed at Newcastle United in the last 10 days, but much remains the same.

While hope has returned to Tyneside — heart strings pulled, fires rekindled, new owners, new vision and renewed passion — the situation on the pitch remains the same.

A first-half three goal show from Tanguy Ndombele, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min was enough to cancel out a Callum Wilson opener and deflate the Magpies’ takeover party. A late Eric Dier own goal reduced the arrears, but United’s fate was sealed as they continued their poor start to the season — they are now nine games without a win in 2021/22, have conceded the most goals in the Premier League and sit second bottom of the table.

Injuries have hamstrung United in the opening months of the campaign, and at least Steve Bruce, handed an unexpected reprieve to manage his 1,000th game as a professional coach, could boost his beleaguered side with the return of frontman Wilson and skipper Jamaal Lascelles.

Spurs are light-years ahead of United in terms of quality, and it would take a monumental effort from the crowd to lift Newcastle from their early season malaise.

But with positivity flooding down from the terraces at a packed St James’ Park, the Magpies did take the lead — much to the delight of the new owners in the directors box.

As Javier Manquillo clipped on to the head of Wilson, who netted his third in four top flight games this season, PCP Capital Partners’ Mehrdad Ghodoussi straddled a row seats high in the Milburn Stand to embrace wife Amanda Staveley and PIF’s Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the new non-executive chairman of the club.

The action on the pitch was all too familiar for Newcastle's long-suffering fans. (AP)

It was a sight so many had waited so long for, after two years of legal deal wrangling and nearly 15 years of turmoil under previous owner Mike Ashley. It was not to last, however.

Nuno Espirito Santo’s Spurs were in no mood, and were soon level as Ndombele, free in acres of space on the edge of the Gallowgate box, guided past Karl Darlow in the United goal, leaving him rooted to the spot.

If the first could not pop the atmosphere, the second did.

A searching ball by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg saw Kane break the offside trap — after a very close VAR check — and guide over the advancing Darlow.

Spirit unwavered, Newcastle looked for a leveller, and Allan Saint-Maximin came within a whisker of making it 2-2. Joelinton’s through ball set goalscorer Wilson free, but this time, looking to turn provider, he passed inches beyond the frenchman’s reach.

In truth, this was as good as it got for United as Spurs began to open up gaps across their backline.

A Son corner picked out Lucas Moura, who beat Lascelles in the air and nodded off the crossbar.

It was another warning Bruce’s men did not heed, and soon, they paid for it as Kane, previously without a goal or assist for his club this season, laid the ball on a plate from right to left, leaving partner-in-crime Son with the easiest of finishes.

A flowing encounter had a lengthy juncture just before half-time when a medical emergency in the East Stand saw a Newcastle fan stretchered out of the ground, stabilized by medical staff including club doctor Paul Catterson.

But for the speedy work of Spurs’ Dier and Sergio Reguilon, who called for Andre Marriner to halt proceedings and get a defibrillator across to treat the supporter in need, the outcome may have been much worse.

The second half, much like the end of the first, became formulaic, with waves of Spurs attacks rarely punctuated with United possession.

Newcastle's Callum Wilson, centre and Jamaal Lascelles react to their defeat at St. James' park. (AP)

Ndombele, buoyed from his goal, whipped one over Darlow’s upright as the North London club looked to put the final nail in United’s coffin.

The hosts, down to 10 men when substitute Jonjo Shelvey picked up a second booking, rarely looked like turning things around, as their possession statistics dropped to 15 percent for long periods of the final stages.

If new owners did not know the scale of the task facing them, they no doubt do now. With the eyes of the world on them, United produced a joyous atmosphere off the pitch, but little spark on it.

The first major decision of the new regime, deciding Bruce’s future, hangs like a cloud over the club — and time must be running out for the 60-year-old.

Newcastle fans have embraced the Saudi flag since the takeover. (AN_Photo)

Fans made their feelings clear. “We want Brucey out” chants became more prevalent as theme slipped away. After Shelvey’s red, they became raucous.

A huge banner unfurled by fan group Wor Flags pre-kick-off read: “‘Cause this is a mighty town, built upon a solid ground — and everything they’ve tried so hard to kill, we will rebuild.”

These words, uttered by old-time Geordie actor and crooner Jimmy Nail in the famous local song “Big River,” ring truer now than they did pre-game.

Newcastle is a mighty town, built on solid ground — a supporter base the envy of the footballing world. However, a rebuild is what is needed — the damage may prove tough to shake, short-term.


Indian Davis Cup player Ramkumar Ramanathan joins Tie Break Tens in Dubai

Indian Davis Cup player Ramkumar Ramanathan joins Tie Break Tens in Dubai
Updated 17 October 2021

Indian Davis Cup player Ramkumar Ramanathan joins Tie Break Tens in Dubai

Indian Davis Cup player Ramkumar Ramanathan joins Tie Break Tens in Dubai
  • A new TB10s Dubai Grassroots Junior Tournament will culminate with final on the evening of the main event at the Coca-Cola Arena on Oct. 22

Indian Davis Cup representative Ramkumar Ramanathan is the latest player to join the Tie Break Tens Dubai Presented by Zone, joining Taylor Fritz, Dustin Brown, Dan Evans and Gaël Monfils at the tournament being held on Oct. 22 at City Walk’s Coca-Cola Arena.

Ramkumar is the first Indian player to reach an ATP world tour singles final since Somdev Devvarman in 2011. He plays both singles and doubles games and is well known for his attacking serve, which will come in handy in the Tie Break Tens short-form of the sport.

“Ramkumar is a great addition to the inaugural Dubai TB10s line-up, and is sure to be a particularly big attraction for the UAE’s passionate Indian sports fans. He has a very aggressive style on the serve and second shot, so he is another player that promises to do well with the tie breaker format. Whoever he is pitted against, one thing is for sure: It’ll be quick and dramatic,” said Jimmy Poon, the tournament director.

As the build-up to the Middle East’s first ever TB10 tennis tournament continues, the organizers have also announced the launch of the inaugural TB10s Dubai Grassroots Junior Tournament. This new competition will culminate in some of the UAE’s best young players battling it out in the finals ahead of the main tournament itself on the evening of Oct. 22 at Dubai’s Coca-Cola Arena.

Qualifying rounds are taking place each Friday, leading up to the main event at the Coca-Cola Arena in Dubai’s City Walk. The TB10s Dubai Grassroots Junior Tournament will further support young Emirati talent in the sport, with the finals for the under-18 competitors set to take place in front of the international stars and a packed arena on the night of the main event.

The TB10s format is the only officially recognised short form of tennis. It is already proving popular among the participating youngsters, and up to 16 players of ages ranging from 12 to 18 are competing in each of the Friday tournaments, drawn from tennis academies and schools across Dubai. The finals will be played between the players who accrue the most points across the three weeks.

As well as the Friday competitions, a tennis clinic will be held the day before the main TB10s evening for competition winners from schools in Dubai.


Harsh lesson for Al-Wahda as five-star Al-Nassr cruise to AFC Champions League semi-final

Harsh lesson for Al-Wahda as five-star Al-Nassr cruise to AFC Champions League semi-final
Updated 17 October 2021

Harsh lesson for Al-Wahda as five-star Al-Nassr cruise to AFC Champions League semi-final

Harsh lesson for Al-Wahda as five-star Al-Nassr cruise to AFC Champions League semi-final
  • A dream debut for new coach Pedro Emanuel means the Saudi club face Al-Hilal in a high stakes Riyadh Derby on Tuesday

It was the best of debuts for coach Pedro Emanuel and the vast majority of the 20,000 fans who cheering for Al-Nassr in Mrsool Park, in Riyadh. However, it was a sad ending for the UAE legend Ismail Matar despite his late goal for Al-Wahda.

On Saturday, Riyadh wore its brightest yellow dress as the 2021 AFC Champions League produced a memorable night for the home side. Jaloliddin Masharipov, Abderazzak Hamdallah and Anderson Talisca were at their scintillating best, leaving Al-Wahda boss Henk ten Cate in no doubt over what had happened as he concluded his post-match press conference with a straightforward message, “They were better than us and that’s a fact.”

A mesmerizing show of the local football culture was produced by the crowd and, while the avalanche of streamers thrown on the bench postponed kick-off by nearly 10 minutes, the Al-Nassr faithful left their new boss gushing.

“In some moments, I just sat on the bench and enjoyed the environment between the fans and the team. This is why I’m a coach, this is why I enjoy football,” said Emanuel.

Seven minutes was all it took for Al-Nassr to get off the mark as a string of quick passes in the attacking third included an exquisite backheel pass from Talisca for Masharipov, who set up Hamdallah to do what he does best and beat goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Shamsi from inside the box for his 16th continental goal for the club.

Al-Wahda did their best but it was not enough. Joao Pedro threatened from distance, Omar Kharbin came close and UAE national team’s rising starlet Abdullah Hamad worked tirelessly throughout.

“It was a real lesson for us. The difference was in the chances, they had six chances and they scored five, we had five chances and we scored only one,” said Ten Cate.

In the second half. Al-Nassr were 3-0 up 10 minutes after the restart as Masharipov curled into the bottom corner from outside the box and Abdulfattah Assiri raced into the six-yards-box to tap in Hamdallah’s cross after the Moroccan had danced around the Emirati defence down the left.

A ruthless finisher at his best, Hamdallah seemed to have discovered a new side to his game under Emanuel, producing another fine assist with a through ball to send Masharipov clear on goal and the Uzbek international buried in the ball, and with it all the pain from the red card he got at the same stage of the competition last year as his former side Pakhtakor crashed out against Persepolis.

Fresh off the bench and with a two-goal man-of-the-match display against China under his belt, youngster Sami Al-Najei capped off a fine move. Talisca fed a diagonal ball to substitute Abdulrahman Al-Obaid, who headed it across goal for Al-Najei to score.

Emanuel, returning to the kingdom for a second spell after leading Al-Taawoun to King’s Cup glory two years earlier, heaped praise on his team.

“I am very happy with the quality, not only of the foreigners, but also the local players as we saw with the national team, and we saw here today. This quality is why I wanted to come back to this country and that is also why I am happy to be back,” said Emanuel.

The game was all settled by the time 38-year-old Matar leapt to head home Mahmoud Khamis’ cross from the left to make it 5-1 seconds before the final whistle, but this was an important moment. The Al-Wahda playmaker, the best player in the 2001 FIFA Youth Championship and one of the finest the UAE has produced, was emotional as he received a standing ovation from the home crowd after his goal. That strike could prove to be his last AFC Champions League memory in a long career. Ten Cate made sure he mentioned his club captain’s legacy.

“He is a big player and he deserved this greeting, he is getting older and there comes a moment when he has to stop because he is almost 40,” said the Dutchman.

“But if you see what he gives to this team, he deserves this standing ovation, and I was happy for him to score. Maybe it was his last Champions League game because next year we are not here, so this was a nice send off for him from the Saudi fans.”

All eyes will be on Mrsool Park on Tuesday as Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr battle it out on the continental stage for the first time, with a place in the final up for grabs. For Al-Wahda, the hard work begins now as they head home thinking of ways to turn around a run of five consecutive draws in the UAE Pro League.