Saudi Arabia edge closer to 2022 World Cup with narrow victory over Vietnam

The win leaves Saudi Arabia in a fantastic position, three points clear of Australia at the top of Group B, and on course for the World Cup in Qatar. (Twitter: @Saudi_NT)
The win leaves Saudi Arabia in a fantastic position, three points clear of Australia at the top of Group B, and on course for the World Cup in Qatar. (Twitter: @Saudi_NT)
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Updated 16 November 2021

Saudi Arabia edge closer to 2022 World Cup with narrow victory over Vietnam

The win leaves Saudi Arabia in a fantastic position, three points clear of Australia at the top of Group B, and on course for the World Cup in Qatar. (Twitter: @Saudi_NT)
  • 1-0 win in Hanoi leaves the Green Falcons three clear at the top of their qualifying group, with every right to feel confident they can finish the job

LONDON: For Saudi Arabia, the so-called “group of death” is proving to be anything but, as manager Herve Renard’s men on Tuesday edged ever closer to a place at the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar.

The day before, England thrashed San Marino 10-0 to record their biggest win in a competitive match in a century and a half of international football. It sparked a familiar debate about whether two teams at opposite ends of FIFA’s rankings should be sharing the same pitch at all, and laments about how tedious it all was.

There are no such debates in the Asian qualifying groups, as the road to world football’s showpiece event is rarely a smooth one for teams on its biggest continent, especially in the final round.

Yet Saudi Arabia are making it look relatively easy, and Tuesday’s victory over Vietnam in Hanoi was as comfortable as a 1-0 win is ever likely to be. For the most part, the Green Falcons held the Golden Stars at arm’s length and, except for a couple of minutes in the first half and a slightly nervy last five minutes, as you might expect in a game in the final stage of World Cup qualifiers, it was all fairly straightforward for the Saudis. Fans watching back home might not have had much to get excited about in this particular game but they should be starting to feel very good about what is happening on the road to Qatar.

It was not a pretty game but then that is true of many World Cup qualifiers. This is not a match that will live long in anyone’s memory, except perhaps that of Saleh Al-Shehri, who headed home the only goal after 30 minutes.

As a spectacle, this stop-start affair was not anything to write home about, as it became the kind of game that just has to be negotiated safely. Sometimes in international football the journey is enjoyable and thrilling but sometimes it is simply all about getting to where you need to go — and this was definitely a case of the latter.

It leaves the team in a fantastic position, three points clear of Australia at the top of Group B, which few would have predicted as recently as the start of September. Remember, this was dubbed the group of death. Under Herve Renard, however, the Saudis have dropped just two points from their first six games. There have been all kinds of performances so far in the group: a thriller against China, a battle against Australia and a solid win over Oman.

Tuesday’s game was a little different, again: a tough trip to Vietnam to face a team that had lost five out of five and were desperate to end a dismal run. But in the past few months the Saudi fans have seen a team that can defend when it has to, has plenty of options going forward and, when the need arises, can grind out a win.

It looked early on like this one might be an exciting game as the Green Falcons started brightly but the quick breakthrough never quite came. Yet there is a mental strength in this team and, just when Vietnam started to threaten around the half-hour mark, Al-Shehri’s looping header from a fabulous Fahad Al-Muwallad cross took the wind out of their sails.

As against Australia in the goalless draw in Sydney last week, the defense once again looked solid enough despite injuries to key players. Mohammed Al-Yami impressed once more as the understudy to injured first-choice goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais, and the holes left by the absent Abdullah Madu and Yasser Al-Shahrani were also filled well.

The only real cause for concern was the inability to kill the game off against opponents clearly low on confidence. When Al-Muwallad had the ball in the net with 15 minutes remaining, the game looked to be finished but it was ruled out by the video assistant referee, somewhat fortuitously from a Vietnamese point of view, for a foul during the build-up by Firas Al-Buraikan. That decision gave the home fans and team a lift but the visitors held firm.

There were a few signs of nerves in the final moments that came from the fact that one slip, one mistake at the back would cost the team two vital points, because a one-goal cushion was always going to feel a little uncomfortable at some point.

In the end, however, it was a deserved win for the Saudis and it means that they can relax for a little while until the qualification campaign resumes in January. Next up is a home game against Oman. It will be far from easy but offers a great opportunity to move onto 19 points, which after seven games would match the team’s total haul from 10 games on the road to Russia.

After that there are away games against Japan and China, before the group stage concludes with a home game against Australia. Most fans would have settled at this stage for just being in the top two, so to be three points clear at the top is impressive indeed.

Renard will be at pains to remind his players, the press and the fans that there is still work to do to reach Qatar. There is — but actually not as much as there might have been at this stage.


‘This is motivation for us to keep going,’ Ancelotti says after Real Madrid’s Super Cup victory

‘This is motivation for us to keep going,’ Ancelotti says after Real Madrid’s Super Cup victory
Updated 17 January 2022

‘This is motivation for us to keep going,’ Ancelotti says after Real Madrid’s Super Cup victory

‘This is motivation for us to keep going,’ Ancelotti says after Real Madrid’s Super Cup victory
  • Madrid’s 12th Super Cup title moves the club only one behind Barcelona
  • Madrid went without a trophy for the first time in more than a decade last season under Zinedine Zidane

MADRID: Real Madrid won’t be going a second consecutive season without a title.
After failing to lift a trophy under Zinedine Zidane last season, Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid secured the Spanish Super Cup with a 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday in Saudi Arabia.
Luka Modric and Karim Benzema scored a goal in each half of the final as Madrid comfortably defeated the defending champions to reinforce its status as the top team in Spain this season.
Madrid has already beaten Barcelona twice — including in the Super Cup semifinals — and Atlético Madrid once, and is more than 15 points ahead of both rivals halfway through the Spanish league season. Ancelotti has also led Madrid to the knockout stage of the Champions League.
Madrid went without a trophy for the first time in more than a decade last season under Zidane.
“This is motivation for us to keep going,” Ancelotti said. “We have to keep competing like this.”
Madrid’s 12th Super Cup title moves the club only one behind Barcelona, the competition’s most successful team. Athletic was seeking its fourth Super Cup trophy.
It was Madrid’s second Super Cup title since the competition was moved to Saudi Arabia in 2020. It had won the first edition of the tournament in the Middle East country by beating Atlético in the final.
The Super Cup returned to Spain in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. 
Athletic was seeking its second consecutive title after defeating Barcelona in last year’s final. It beat Atlético in this year’s semifinal in the revamped “Final Four” format.
Modric opened the scoring with a curling shot into the top corner after being set up by forward Rodrygo just inside the area in the 38th minute. Benzema added to the lead by converting a 51st-minute penalty kick after a handball determined by video review.
Athletic had a chance to move closer in the final minutes but Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois saved Raúl García’s penalty kick with his left foot. Madrid defender Éder Militão was sent off for the handball that prompted the penalty.
“We could have gotten back into the game but Courtois ended our chances with that save,” Athletic defender Óscar de Marcos said. “It’s a shame but we have to be proud. It’s not easy to make it to these finals. We competed against great teams.”
Madrid’s triumph gave veteran Brazil defender Marcelo a record-tying 23rd title with the club since he arrived in 2006, joining Paco Gento. It moved him ahead of former central defender Sergio Ramos, who is now with Paris Saint-Germain. It is Marcelo’s fifth Spanish Super Cup title. He entered the match as a substitute in the 86th and lifted the trophy as team captain.
Madrid was without defender Dani Carvajal because of a positive coronavirus test.
There was a limited crowd at the 62,000-capacity King Fahd Stadium because of the pandemic.

Suspended match
Sergio Canales scored in the 73rd as Real Betis beat Sevilla 2-1 in a Copa del Rey match which resumed a day after a Sevilla player was hit in the head by a piece of PVC thrown from the stands at Betis’ Benito Villamarín Stadium. Betis advanced to the quarterfinals. The game was suspended at 1-1 on Saturday.

Valencia advances
Marcos André scored a minute into the match as Valencia beat Atlético Baleares 1-0 to advance to the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey. Atlético was the last third-division club still in the competition.

Elche wins again
In the only Spanish league game on Sunday, Elche beat Villarreal 1-0 at home with a 78th-minute goal by Lucas Boyé to win its third straight match in all competitions.
 


Sports ministry announces details of Saudi Tour 2022 in AlUla

Sports ministry announces details of Saudi Tour 2022 in AlUla
Updated 17 January 2022

Sports ministry announces details of Saudi Tour 2022 in AlUla

Sports ministry announces details of Saudi Tour 2022 in AlUla
  • 16 international teams will participate over a total distance of 831.3 km in five stages

RIYADH: The Ministry of Sports and the Saudi Cycling Federation revealed new details of the upcoming Saudi Tour 2022, which is set to be held from Feb. 1 to 5.
16 international teams will participate in the second edition of the cycling tour over a total distance of 831.3 km in five stages, the ministry and the federation said in a joint press conference at the Maraya hall, AlUla on Sunday.
A presentation on the details of the track was given, including the start and end points for each of the five stages. The event is one of the activities of the “Quality of Life” program, which is part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 initiatives.

The Ministry of Sports and the Saudi Cycling Federation hold a joint press conference at the Maraya hall in AlUla. (SPA)

The first stage will be launched from Winter Park and is 198 km long, the second starts from Taibah University and reaches Abu Rakah with a distance of 163.9 km. The third route starts from Hadaj Well, Tayma, to AlUla Old Town covering 181.2 km.
The fourth stage begins from Winter Park to Skyviews of Harrat Uwayrid and is 149.3 km long, and the race will conclude in the fifth stage from AlUla Old Town with a distance of 138.9 km.
Abdulrahman Al-Trairi, spokesman for the Royal Commission for AlUla, said the city has been associated with bicycles since ancient times, which can be seen in the many inscriptions in the area, especially in the direction of Tabuk.


He added that AlUla is characterized by its ancient civilization and unique mountainous landscape, which is what makes the Saudi Tour special.
Al-Trairi said that AlUla is preparing to host many sports tournaments in the coming period, in order to contribute to raising the quality of life in the region.
The race is accompanied by a number of sports events and races, including the mass-participation race, the women’s race, and the junior race organized by the Saudi Cycling Federation, as well as a race dedicated to children.


Reigning champions Algeria beaten by Equatorial Guinea at Africa Cup of Nations

Reigning champions Algeria beaten by Equatorial Guinea at Africa Cup of Nations
Updated 17 January 2022

Reigning champions Algeria beaten by Equatorial Guinea at Africa Cup of Nations

Reigning champions Algeria beaten by Equatorial Guinea at Africa Cup of Nations
  • Esteban Obiang’s 70th-minute goal gave Equatorial Guinea the victory and brought Algeria’s 35-game unbeaten record crashing to an end
  • An Equatorial Guinea side ranked 114th in the world and 28th in Africa are now well placed to reach the knockout stages for the third time

DOUALA: Reigning champions Algeria are in danger of an early exit from the Africa Cup of Nations after a shock 1-0 defeat at the hands of outsiders Equatorial Guinea in Douala on Sunday.
Esteban Obiang’s 70th-minute goal gave Equatorial Guinea the victory and brought Algeria’s 35-game unbeaten record crashing to an end.
The 2019 Cup of Nations winners could only draw 0-0 with Sierra Leone in their opening game in Cameroon and are now left needing to beat Ivory Coast in their final Group E outing on Thursday if they are to advance to the last 16.
The Ivorians, who were last continental champions in 2015, were held 2-2 by Sierra Leone earlier and the group remains wide open but with Algeria bottom on just one point.
Meanwhile an Equatorial Guinea side ranked 114th in the world and 28th in Africa are now well placed to reach the knockout stages for the third time.
The two previous occasions came when they were hosting the tournament, in 2012 and in 2015, but this time many of the fans in the crowd of almost 12,000 in Douala were supporting the ‘National Thunder’.
Equatoguinean capital Malabo, on the island of Bioko, is a short hop over the Gulf of Guinea from Cameroon’s economic capital.
Few of their fans could have foreseen this result against an Algerian side captained by Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and almost entirely the same as that which won the 2019 AFCON final against Senegal.
Yet Algeria struggled to break down the opposition defense, while both Baghdad Bounedjah in the first half and Youcef Belaili late on had goals disallowed for offside.
The outstanding Iban Edu Salvador came close from long range for Equatorial Guinea in the first half and also created a chance that Luis Nlavo could not finish shortly after the break.
They again came close on a breakaway midway through the second half but it was from the corner that followed that their goal arrived — the delivery from the left was flicked on to the back post where the Spanish-born Obiang tucked it in before running to celebrate with the crowd.


Real Madrid defeat Athletic Bilbao to win Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia

Real Madrid defeat Athletic Bilbao to win Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia
Updated 16 January 2022

Real Madrid defeat Athletic Bilbao to win Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia

Real Madrid defeat Athletic Bilbao to win Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: Real Madrid won the Spanish Super Cup by beating Athletic Bilbao 2-0 on Sunday as Luka Modric and a Karim Benzema penalty secured a comfortable victory in Saudi Arabia.
Modric's curling finish towards the end of the first half and Benzema's strike early in the second sealed the win for Madrid, who claimed their first trophy in Carlo Ancelotti's second spell as coach.


Liverpool beat Brentford to move up to second in the table

Liverpool beat Brentford to move up to second in the table
Updated 16 January 2022

Liverpool beat Brentford to move up to second in the table

Liverpool beat Brentford to move up to second in the table
  • Reds cope without the absence of key players Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane

LIVERPOOL: Liverpool kept their slim hopes of reeling in Manchester City at the top of the Premier League alive by seeing off Brentford 3-0 at Anfield to move up to second in the table on Sunday.

Fabinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Takumi Minamino scored the goals as the Reds coped without the absence of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Victory lifts Jurgen Klopp’s men to within 11 points of the runaway leaders, but they also have a game in hand on City.

Liverpool failed to take advantage of an extra man for over an hour as Thursday’s League semifinal, first leg against Arsenal ended 0-0, sparking fears of how they will cope for the rest of the month without two of their main sources of goals.

But a Brentford side that have not won a league game away from home since early October never threatened to cause an upset.

Klopp made just two changes from the Arsenal stalemate as Curtis Jones and Oxlade-Chamberlain were recalled to add extra creativity and dynamism to the midfield.

He was rewarded with a bright start as Diogo Jota headed over, Trent Alexander-Arnold flashed a shot just off target and Alvaro Fernandez made a brilliant save to deny Virgil van Dijk.

However, the crowd were growing restless until Brentford allowed Alexander-Arnold’s corner to bounce inside the area and Fabinho headed in at the back post. The Bees went toe-to-toe with Liverpool in a pulsating 3-3 draw when the sides last met in September.

But the visitors only created one big chance to get back in the game when Bryan Mbuemo turned Joel Matip and shot inches wide.

Jota hit the post and then should have scored when firing too close to Fernandez in a one-on-one.

There was no doubt over the outcome, though, once Oxlade-Chamberlain’s diving header turned Andy Robertson’s perfect cross into the bottom corner.

Brentford were architects of their own downfall for the third goal as Fernandez’s pass out from the back was seized upon by Roberto Firmino and he teed up Minamino to slot home from close range. The home fans could relax for the final 15 minutes and pointedly took the chance to chant the name of former manager Rafael Benitez, who was sacked by rivals Everton on Sunday.

The Toffees are in danger of falling into a relegation battle after one win in 13 league games.

Brentford, by contrast, still enjoy a 10-point cushion over the bottom three in their first season in the top-flight for 74 years but remain in 14th.