Saudi face China, UAE must win: 5 things to look out for in Tuesday’s Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022

Saudi face China, UAE must win: 5 things to look out for in Tuesday’s Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022
Saudi Arabia will be looking for a perfect start of 12 points from four matches when they take on China in Jeddah on Tuesday. (Mohammed Al-Mana)
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Updated 11 October 2021

Saudi face China, UAE must win: 5 things to look out for in Tuesday’s Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022

Saudi face China, UAE must win: 5 things to look out for in Tuesday’s Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022
  • Herve Renard’s Saudi team could take big step toward World Cup with 3 points on Matchday 4

RIYADH: World Cup qualifiers are coming thick and fast at the moment and Tuesday brings six massive games in the Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2020.

It will be Matchday 4 out of 10, a time when groups are taking shape. There are already some must-win or at least must-not-lose games, and here are five things to look out for.

1. Concentration will be key in Jeddah

It is all very obvious but Saudi Arabia will kick themselves if after defeating Japan they go on to drop points against China.

The visitors arrived in Jeddah — staying at the same hotel as Japan where the Samurai Blue’s training schedule can still be seen on whiteboards around the building — on a high after defeating Vietnam in the 95th minute to pick up their first points of the stage. Getting one more in Jeddah would be a good result and keep hopes of third place alive.

Third spot is not on Saudi minds at the moment as they have won all three games so far and are looking in good shape for automatic qualification. The Chinese are going to sit back and look to counter, and they are not going to throw men forward — the first goal against Vietnam came from the first shot on target in the group stage.

So Saudi Arabia are going to have a lot of the ball and are not going to have to defend too much which makes concentration key. The defense needs to stay alert and especially watch Wu Lei, the Espanyol winger with an eye for goal.

2. Saudi Arabia’s left side will be crucial

China can be vulnerable down the right side, meaning that the Saudi left has a big part to play.

It is fortunate that Yasser Al-Shahrani is in such great form for club and country. The full-back was excellent against Japan in defense, and though he did not get forward as much as he usually does for Al-Hilal, he should be regarded as what he is: One of the best full-backs in Asia. There should be more chances to attack against China and some of his expert delivery into the penalty area could make the difference.

One of the few questions about the nature of what is an increasingly settled team is who plays in front of the 29-year-old? Against Japan, it was Abdulrahman Ghareeb who got the nod and the Al-Ahli star had a solid game and almost scored in the second half, though his finish lacked a little conviction. Abdulrahman Al-Aboud is the other option and has been in great form for Al-Ittihad though lacks international experience. It is a call that Renard needs to get right.

3. Time for Ali Mabkhout’s team-mates to step forward

Two points from three games is not the stuff that World Cup dreams are made of. The UAE are really going to have to up their game against Iraq in Dubai. It is a must-win for Bert van Marwijk if he wants one of those two automatic qualification spots. Already, the UAE are five points behind second-placed South Korea, but there is hope.

Korea are in Tehran, a place where they have never won, losing five and drawing two of their seven visits to the Iranian capital. The east Asians are not exactly in sparkling form at the moment, and it would be a surprise if they won at the Azadi Stadium. This means there is a chance for the UAE to get back within touching distance of the Taeguk Warriors ahead of November’s meeting.

Three points on Tuesday are essential then. Iraq are not going to come to Dubai and attack from the get-go. Clear chances will be hard to come by and the UAE need someone other than Ali Mabkhout, the scorer of the only goal in the three games so far, who can put the ball in the net.

4. Iraq need to show their ambition

Hiring Dick Advocaat does not seem to be working for Iraq. The 2007 Asian champions have yet to score a goal and have not looked like doing so very often. There have been concerns about the Dutchman’s team selections, the time he has actually spent watching Iraqi football, and whether his strict methods are suited to the team’s talented but inconsistent players.

Familiar faces such as Ali Adnan, who is currently without a club, and Humam Tariq have not been at their best and without their influence the team has been lacking in direction and conviction.

It remains to be seen if Advocaat can shake things up or whether he has any back-ups in mind. It also remains to be seen what Iraq’s ambitions are but hiring a big-name coach such as Advocaat suggests that the ambition is a place at the World Cup. If so, defeat in Dubai would be a huge blow. It is time for some more aggression.

5. Syria and Lebanon can kick start their campaign

This game between the two lowest-ranked teams in Group A should not be overlooked. For Lebanon, the stage is about getting as many points as possible and seeing where the team can finish.

While Lebanon will struggle to finish in third, Syria have more realistic ambitions and were not so far away from reaching Russia 2018 last time around. There is still talent in the team and the sight of Omar Al-Somah linking up with Omar Khribin in South Korea was a heartening one. Again, had Syria showed a little more ambition in east Asia then they may have come away with something.

Now comes a much shorter trip to Amman. It is time to start winning. The talent is there to challenge but there also has to be conviction.


Saudi, GCC entrants set to dominate in Hail

Saudi, GCC entrants set to dominate in Hail
Updated 07 December 2021

Saudi, GCC entrants set to dominate in Hail

Saudi, GCC entrants set to dominate in Hail
  • Twenty-six bikes and 10 quads will tackle the four desert sections laid on by the Saudi Arabian Motor and Motorcycle Federation

HAIL: Saudi Arabian and Gulf Cooperation Council country riders dominate the motorcycle and quad entry for this week’s Hail Cross-Country Rally, the four-day finale to the world’s 2021 off-road season.

While most attention this week in the north-central region of Saudi Arabia turns to the battle for FIA World Cup glory and the duel between Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Argentina’s Lucio Alvarez for the drivers’ title, the two-wheel protagonists will be looking for their own success in the absence of the world’s top cross-country riders.

Austria’s Matthias Walkner clinched the 2021 FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship on a KTM and, as teams such as Honda, KTM, Sherco, Husqvarna, Yamaha and GasGas make their final preparations for the Dakar Rally, the stage is left open for regional riders to shine. 

Twenty-six bikes and 10 quads will tackle the four desert sections laid on by the Saudi Arabian Motor and Motorcycle Federation. 

The 2019 Sharqiya Baja winner Mishal Al-Ghuneim heads the two-wheel section on his Husqvarna FR 450 Rally and faces competition from the likes of fellow countrymen Fawaz Al-Toimi, Abdulhalim Al-Mogheera and Mohammed Al-Khater. 

Qatar is represented by Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani (Honda), Mohammed Al-Kaabi (Beta), Abdulrahman Al-Sheeb (Beta) and Ali Mubarak Al-Badi (Yamaha). 

Sarah Khuraibet finished fourth in the women’s category of the FIM Bajas World Cup and represents Kuwait on her Husqvarna, while Salman Farhan is the sole representative from Bahrain, also on a Husqvarna. 

With Mohammed Al-Balooshi missing the Hail event to finalize his Dakar preparations, Othman Al-Ghefeli leads the Emirati challenge on a Honda CRF. He is joined by Hamdan Al-Ali and Abdullah Lanjawi. Lebanon’s Ehab Al-Hakeem and Italy’s Mauro Torrini round off the international two-wheel contingent. 

Abdulmajeed Al-Khulaifi won the quad category in Hail on six occasions between 2014 and 2019 and the Yamaha Raptor 700 rider heads nine Saudi rivals that include Sultan Al-Masoud, 2021 Sharqiya Baja winner Hani Al-Noumesi, and Haitham Al-Tuwaijri, the 2021 FIM Bajas World Cup quad champion. 

Scrutineering and technical checks take place at the rally headquarters in Hail on Monday and Tuesday in advance of the ceremonial start at Maghwat, scheduled from 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Competitors will then tackle four desert stages from Dec. 8 to 11.


Euro final review finds England fans endangered lives

Euro final review finds England fans endangered lives
Updated 07 December 2021

Euro final review finds England fans endangered lives

Euro final review finds England fans endangered lives
  • Some 100,000 fans gathered around the north London stadium for the match despite pandemic curbs capping the 90,000-seat Wembley’s capacity at 67,000

LONDON: Aggression by England fans at the European Championship final exposed an “embarrassing” part of the national culture that endangered lives and should lead to fans being barred from stadiums if they are chanting abuse and under the influence of drugs or alcohol, an investigation into the disorder has concluded.

The review found that around 2,000 ticketless supporters stormed into Wembley on July 11 after 17 “mass breaches” of the stadium gates, with many forcing their way through disabled access entrances by punching and kicking stewards before England lost to Italy in the country’s first men’s final since winning the 1966 World Cup.

“The behavior of a large minority of England supporters was not just disgraceful, it recklessly endangered lives,” Louise Casey, an experienced former government official, said in a 129-page report published Friday.

“The appalling behavior of supporters on Euro Sunday should be a wake-up call for us all. For too long, the actions of a minority of England fans have been tolerated as a part of our national culture (albeit an embarrassing one), rather than confronted head-on.”

The review said had England won the game, a ticketless group of 6,000 people were thought to be preparing to storm the stadium to see the trophy presented.

Casey blamed the ability for the rampage to take place on a “collective failure” and said she did not want to “scapegoat” anyone.

“A minority of England supporters turned what should have been a day of national pride into a day of shame,” Casey said.

Casey recommended that the English Football Association leads a campaign to bring about a “sea-change in attitudes” by fans.

Some 100,000 fans gathered around the north London stadium for the match despite pandemic curbs capping the 90,000-seat Wembley’s capacity at 67,000.

“The threats, aggression, violence, smoke and flare use, throwing of missiles — including faeces — excessive consumption of alcohol and cocaine all combined to fuel a febrile atmosphere,” Casey said. “A loss of experienced stewards as a result of the pandemic left Wembley’s stewarding operation vulnerable when confronted with the most aggressive and disorderly crowd Wembley had ever seen.”

Casey condemned fans who “targeted disabled supporters in a predatory fashion” to gain entry.

“In one appalling incident,” she said, “a ticketless fan tried to impersonate a steward and hijack a disabled child and separated him from his father, in order to trick his way through a pass gate.”

The insufficient enforcement of the ban on drinking alcohol on public transport in London was highlighted in the report.

“The FA and Wembley, working with others, should step up action on eradicating such behaviors from football ... refusing to allow entry to fans who arrive chanting foul abuse and/ or are clearly under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs,” she said.

Casey said tailgating should become a criminal offense.

“The existing enforcement mechanisms available to the police and other enforcement officers do not offer enough deterrent against those determined to use the cover of football matches to commit criminal offenses,” she said.

Players’ families were caught up in the unrest, with England defender Harry Maguire’s father injuring ribs.

UEFA has already punished England, with a home Nations League game in June having to be played in an empty stadium. A second empty-stadium game was deferred for a two-year probationary period.

“The review makes clear that the circumstances leading up to the match led to a perfect storm of lawlessness,” FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said in a statement. “No event is set up to deal with such disgraceful behaviour from thousands of ticketless fans. Collectively we must never allow this to happen again.”


Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive

Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive
Updated 06 December 2021

Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive

Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive
  • After Palestine draw, young Saudi team must get all 3 points and hope Jordan falter
  • Abdullah Al-Hamdan: We will play our game, and our goal is to take the three points and move forward to the next stage

Abdullah Al-Hamdan’s late equalizer on Saturday against Palestine kept Saudi Arabia’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages of the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup alive.

It means that the mission against Morocco on Tuesday in the final Group C game is a simple one: Win and hope Jordan lose.

It will be far from easy as Morocco have been the best team in the tournament so far. The Atlas Lions have won both of their games 4-0. In contrast, Saudi Arabia started the campaign with a 1-0 defeat against Jordan and then drew 1-1 with Palestine. It leaves Morocco top of the group with six points, Jordan second with three, and Saudi Arabia and Palestine with one each.

The spine of the Moroccan team has looked very solid indeed. Badr Benoun has taken the captain’s armband and has been leading from the center of defense in impressive fashion. The midfield of Yahya Jabrane, Abdelilah Hafidi and Wallid El Karti has worked well and worked hard together with Ismail El Haddad and Achraf Bencharki (the Zamalek forward has been a standout). They have looked good in attack, and goals have flowed.

If Morocco won so convincingly against a Jordan team that should have defeated Saudi Arabia by more than one goal, then what chance does this young Saudi team, essentially an under-23 side, have?

There is always hope and, in this case, there is some positive news. One is that goal difference may help. Should the Green Falcons win, then a draw will not be enough for Jordan against Palestine. They will have to win.

Also, the fact that Morocco have been so good means at least that they have already secured a place in the last eight and almost certainly taken first place. It is a talented lineup, but with the quarter-final coming on Saturday, it is likely that players will be rested.

Even so, Moroccan goalkeeper Abdelali Mhamdi has warned the Asian powerhouse that the North Africans are not about to take it easy, especially as the team will also be roared on by a healthy contingent of fans at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Qatar.

“We want to end the group stage with another victory that will enhance our confidence,” the 30 year old, who plays his club football for Saudi Arabian club Abha, said. “We will not take things easy, but we will play with the same energy and intensity that we did in the first two games.”

Whatever the opposition, there is a lot to do for Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen what the lineup is, given that eight changes were made for the 1-1 draw with Palestine. Abdullah Al-Hamdan did not start, but came off the bench to score the vital goal that means that this game is not a dead rubber. It has turned the Arab Cup campaign around, potentially, and many in Saudi Arabia will be hoping that it ends up doing the same with the striker’s career.

At the very least, it will be a confidence boost for the former Al-Shabab striker. His big move to Al-Hilal in February looked significant for the then 21 year old. He has, however, struggled for playing time at the Asian champions with the likes of Bafetimbi Gomis and Moussa Marega ahead of him in the domestic pecking order.

His instincts were on display on Saturday as he steered the ball home.

“I do not care whether I score or my teammates score as we just want to win. The team comes first,” he said.

Al-Hamdan knows what needs to be done against Morocco.

“We made the task difficult for ourselves, but there is nothing impossible in football,” he said. “We know very well that the Moroccan national team is strong, but we will play our game, and our goal is to take the three points and move forward to the next stage.”

It will also be a test for Laurent Bonadei. The assistant coach of the senior team is in the dugout while Herve Renard watches from the stands. Bonadei has already invoked the spirit of the 2019 Gulf Cup when Saudi Arabia recovered from an opening game loss to reach the final of the tournament.

If the number two can steer what is a young and inexperienced team into a similar position, then it will be a fine achievement for all and another sign that Saudi Arabian football is heading in the right direction. It will all be decided against Morocco on Tuesday.


Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub

Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub
Updated 06 December 2021

Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub

Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub
  • Royal Commission for AlUla, La Dolfina partnership agreement will see sporting legend become advocate for heritage site

RIYADH: The Royal Commission for AlUla and the famous La Dolfina Polo Team have announced a long-term partnership deal aimed at turning the Saudi heritage site into a regional hub for equestrian activities and a destination for horse enthusiasts from around the world.

As part of the agreement, Adolfo Cambiaso, founder of La Dolfina and widely regarded as the world’s greatest ever polo player, will also become a destination advocate for AlUla.

The team also said it would be returning to AlUla to compete in the 2022 Desert Polo event after a successful debut at the inaugural competition in January last year, the country’s first official polo tournament.

AlUla Desert Polo (slated for Feb. 11 to 12 next year) will take place in the unique, purpose-built desert arena in the shadows of the ancient site of Hegra.

Cambiaso said: “When we travelled to AlUla for the first Desert Polo, we were blown away by the breathtaking landscape of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the stunning desert of AlUla.

“We learnt that the relationship of the Arabian Peninsula and horses extends for thousands of years as found in the archaeological inscriptions on the rocks in and around AlUla.

“Through the stunning intricately carved tombs at Hegra and the open-air library of Jabal Ikmah, we can understand how humans began to tame these magnificent creatures, and the role of the horse in the development of civilized human beings,” he added.

The linkup, supported by the Saudi Polo Federation, plans to bring together expertise from both sides through a new model of sport partnership built around the three main cornerstones of cultural and equestrian synergies, a shared commitment to excellence, and the development of the sport of polo in the Kingdom.

The Argentine-based team, described as “a perfect team” due to its 40-goal handicap, made history by winning three consecutive Triple Crowns (the Tortugas Open, Hurlingham Open, and Argentine Open in 2013, 2014, and 2015). La Dolfina is the only team in polo history to hold the record.

“We were very lucky to be amongst the first to experience these sites before it was an open destination throughout the full year, and now we look forward to returning.

“Desert Polo was an incredible event that not only introduced polo to Saudi Arabia but also helped the polo world discover Saudi with new eyes through AlUla. Seeing the commitment and passion to develop in polo, and sports in general, is a mission we share and want to help with,” Cambiaso said.

Phillip Jones, the RCU’s chief destination management and marketing officer, said: “Our role is to preserve and develop AlUla as a global destination for cultural heritage and eco-tourism with a long-term plan that preserves the area’s natural and historic heritage, while establishing AlUla as an attractive location to live, work, and visit.

“Aligning with the No. 1 polo player in the world allows us to fuse our history of horsemanship and Adolfo’s expertise in polo to preserve our heritage and promote equestrian sports in the nation.

“The horse heritage story is real and rich and deep in AlUla, and we look forward to our role in raising the profile of the sport in the country,” he added.

Amr Zedan, chairman of the Saudi Polo Federation, said it was an “honor” to be partnering with La Dolfina.

“We have had great support from Adolfo and all the La Dolfina players and look forward to continuing our collaboration to build the world’s most successful polo team,” he added.


Lewis Hamilton keeps title dream alive with victory in thrilling, stop-start Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)
Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)
Updated 07 December 2021

Lewis Hamilton keeps title dream alive with victory in thrilling, stop-start Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)

JEDDAH: Lewis Hamilton won a thrilling, topsy-turvy Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday after an epic battle with title rival Max Verstappen to ensure his title challenge remained alive going into the final race in Abu Dhabi next weekend.

The victory for the British driver in an incident-heavy race means the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers are now level on points in the world championship standings ahead of the finale in the UAE.

Hamilton got off to a perfect start off the line, while Verstappen appeared to be struggling to get power down in the early stages. But the momentum shifted toward the Dutchman when Haas driver Mick Schumacher hit a barrier, which eventually red-flagged the session after an initial safety car.

Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas were called into the pits under the safety car but Verstappen stayed out and took the lead of the race once the red flags waved, allowing him to pit and change tires still out in front.

On the restart, Hamilton retook the lead amid a close encounter with Verstappen, who the seven-time champion claimed forced him off the track.

Just a few laps later, there was another red flag after Sergio Perez, George Russell and Nikita Mazepin all collided at the rear of the field.

The battle between the two title hopefuls had heated up even more when Verstappen received a five-second penalty due to a controversial move on Hamilton, who accused the Dutchman of “brake-testing’” him.

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Race officials decided that Verstappen’s move was illegal, which after some negotiation between FIA race director and the teams put Alpine’s Esteban Ocon into the lead for the third start of the race, with Hamilton in second and Verstappen in third.

Verstappen then took the lead again with Hamilton following through, and tempers in the garages were fraying when they collided late in the race.

Bottas kept the pressure on a slowing Ocon and snatched the third and final podium spot on the final lap in what was his penultimate race for Mercedes.

Hamilton was full of praise for the efforts of his team after the race, while saying he “did not understand” why Verstappen had braked and that the incident was “confusing.”

“I’ve been racing a long time and that was incredibly tough,” he said. “I tried to be as sensible and tough as I could be and with all my experience just keeping the car on the track and staying clean.

“It was difficult. We had all sorts of things thrown at us so I’m just really proud of everyone and great with the crowd.

“Red Bull have some raw pace, it was hard to overtake them, we’ve done an amazing job and Valtteri did a great job for the team and this is for all the guys and girls back in the factory.

“It has been an amazing event I felt very welcome here and people have been lovely here. The track is phenomenal, very difficult physically and mentally but you would not want it any other way.”

Verstappen was in a more philosophical mood, calling into question some of the decisions made by officials

“It was quite eventful, a lot of things happened, which I don’t fully agree with, but it is what it is,” he said.

“I tried to give it my all, I don’t think the tires were lasting, I was lacking a bit of rubber at the end, nevertheless, still second.

“I slowed down, I wanted to let him by, I was on the right but he didn’t want to overtake and we touched. I don’t really understand what happened there.

“It will be decided (at Abu Dhabi), hopefully we have a good weekend.”