Emirati reprieve, Iraqi woe: 5 things learned from latest Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022

Emirati reprieve, Iraqi woe: 5 things learned from latest Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022
Ali Mabkhout saved the UAE from further disappointment, as Arab nations continued to struggle on the road for next year’s World Cup final. (File/Shutterstock)
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Updated 17 November 2021

Emirati reprieve, Iraqi woe: 5 things learned from latest Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022

Emirati reprieve, Iraqi woe: 5 things learned from latest Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022
  • Ali Mabkhout saved UAE from further disappointment, probably Bert van Marwijk’s job, as Arab nations continued struggle along road to next year’s World Cup

RIYADH: Asia moved past the halfway stage in World Cup qualification on Tuesday and the picture is becoming clearer by the game.

Here are five things learned from the latest action involving the Arab nations.

1. Ali Mabkhout saves UAE’s World Cup dreams and more

It could be that next November in Qatar the team will look back at this 1-0 win over Lebanon and see it as a turning point on their journey to a second-ever World Cup appearance. It could happen, but looking back on this game, the referee’s decision five minutes from the end was crucial.

Lebanon were on top, certainly in terms of chances created, but the official judged that defender Abbas Asi had made a dangerous tackle in the area and awarded the UAE a penalty — one that looked soft. Nobody in white cared as it was coolly stroked home by Ali Mabkhout.

At this stage, the points are by far the most important thing for a team that had collected a measly three from the first five games.

The UAE had more possession but did little with it. Had the home team taken just one of their chances and won then it would have surely been curtains for the visitors and probably for coach Bert van Marwijk given the two-month gap before the next round of games.

Even a draw may have led to the same outcome but now, suddenly, the UAE are third, and while South Korea and automatic qualification are eight points clear, the play-offs are very much in sight and with players returning from injury for January’s games then there may yet be brighter times just around the corner.

2. Late drama costs Lebanon again but there is still hope

Had the last few minutes gone a little differently against Iran on Thursday and against the UAE on Tuesday then Lebanon could be sitting on nine points (or even 11) and still just about be in touch for second spot. As it is, they have lost 2-1 and now 1-0 and have just five.

The Cedars will point to the soft penalty given to the visitors late on, a spot kick for handball that was not awarded even later, and an earlier free kick that crashed off the crossbar, but in the end, it came to nothing.

The team continues to be spirited, hard to play against, and well-organized but the points total does not reflect those performances, yet.

There is still time and hope as third place is only a point away, and with Sonny Saad increasingly energetic and dangerous in attack, anything can happen.

Three of the four games remaining are at home and Lebanon have shown that with a little more focus, concentration and, perhaps, fitness, there is no reason why they cannot pick up the necessary points to take third. That was always the target and remains a realistic one.

3. Oman dropping out of the race but can be proud

It was going to be difficult for Oman to repeat their shock 1-0 win over Japan in the opening game of the group and so it proved as they fell to a defeat by the same score in Muscat. Third place, always a long shot, is now slipping out of view.

The Samurai Blue were determined not to underestimate the Reds, and they were always going to want revenge for that loss. The first half was a fairly tepid affair, but Japan really started to pile the pressure on after the break. Oman goalkeeper Fay Al-Rashidi did his best and the rest of the team never stopped trying to keep the Asian giants, with all their European-based stars, at bay.

In truth, there was little more that Oman could have done. They can be proud, not only of beating Japan in September, but giving them a real good game once more.

4. The question is why Iraq didn’t ask South Korea any questions

After this tepid 3-0 loss to South Korea, Iraq may well look to those final moments against the UAE, when they let what would have been a vital victory slip in the final moments, as a turning point. But in truth, they have just not done enough in the group.

It was evident on Tuesday. The Lions of Mesopotamia played in Doha five days earlier while Korea were in action on the other side of the continent, yet it was Iraq who seemed to lack energy and intensity.

There has not been enough intensity or ambition. That was the case again against the Taeguk Warriors and there was some debate over Dick Advocaat’s selections once again, especially with Ali Adnan. The full-back has barely played any club football of late and looked slow and off the pace. Giving away the penalty that extended South Korea’s lead to two goals just added insult to injury.

That ended the game as a contest, but it never really started.

5. Almost the end of the road for Syria

Syria made third place last time around and pushed Australia all the way in the play-offs but the same spirit from that team seems to have gone as was evident in a 3-0 loss to Iran. It leaves the Qasioun Eagles grounded with just two points from six games.

There is still talent but at the back against Iran, who were not at their best, Syria were poor and simply sought to stop the opposition playing without really providing any kind of platform to build a meaningful attack.

Just after the half-hour, a simple ball over the top caught out the defense and Sardar Azmoun did not need asking twice. That was the goal the Iranians needed, and Syria had to come out more than they wanted. The contest was over with a penalty that came before the break.


Saudi Arabia progress to last 8 in Asian Handball Championship despite loss to Iran

Saudi Arabia progress to last 8 in Asian Handball Championship despite loss to Iran
Updated 11 sec ago

Saudi Arabia progress to last 8 in Asian Handball Championship despite loss to Iran

Saudi Arabia progress to last 8 in Asian Handball Championship despite loss to Iran
  • Host nation will take on South Korea, Qatar, Uzbekistan in 2nd round

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia suffered their first loss of the 20th Asian Handball Championship, going down 24-20 to Iran at the Ministry of Sports Hall in Dammam, but still progressed to the last eight of the competition by finishing second in Group B.

The top five finishers in the competition will qualify for the 2023 World Handball Championship taking place in Poland and Sweden.

The Saudi team had ended the first half leading 13-9 lead, but the Iranians took advantage of a drop in intensity by the host nation during the second period to run out winners by four points and top the group.

Both nations qualified for the quarterfinals while in the same group Australia beat India 27-26 to finish third.

Despite the loss to Iran, the Saudi team achieved its best scoring performance in the group stages of the last five editions of the competition, notching 108 goals in three matches, at an average of 36 per game.

In the 2014 edition, the Saudi team averaged 26 goals per match, and followed that up with 27 in 2016, 30 in 2018, and 33 in 2020.

In the second round, Saudi Arabia have been placed in the same group as South Korea, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, while the second group includes Kuwait, Iran, Bahrain, and Iraq.

The top two from each group will play in the semi-finals, while the third-place teams will contest a playoff for fifth spot and a place in next year’s World Handball Championship.


Formula E reigning champion Nyck De Vries looking for repeat of Diriyah E-Prix season-opening victory

Formula E reigning champion Nyck De Vries looking for repeat of Diriyah E-Prix season-opening victory
Updated 21 January 2022

Formula E reigning champion Nyck De Vries looking for repeat of Diriyah E-Prix season-opening victory

Formula E reigning champion Nyck De Vries looking for repeat of Diriyah E-Prix season-opening victory
  • The 26-year-old Dutchman won the opening race in Riyadh last February before going on to claim overall victory in Season 7 of the all-electric championship

RIYADH: Dutch driver Nyck De Vries insists he is not fazed by the pressure of being the defending champion and is looking forward to his “favorite” race of the calendar in Saudi Arabia when the new season begins later this month.

The 26-year-old will line up for Mercedes in the eighth edition of the all-electric  championship, which will begin with the Diriyah E-Prix double-header in Riyadh on Jan. 28-29. The upcoming season will feature 16 rounds across 10 countries including the UK, Germany, the US and Italy.

De Vries — who won Season 7’s opening race at Diriyah last February — will be among 22 drivers who will be in action in the season-opener and while he is hoping to impress, he is fully aware of the strong competition he faces to replicate his title victory.

“There is always pressure and I’m always nervous and a little stressed on race days and sometimes have that different feeling because I do care and want to do well,” said De Vries. “Being the reigning champion doesn’t really change things as that was last year. Now, all of us begin equally and we have to prove ourselves again. So for me, I’m looking forward to the new season and performing better than I did in the past.”

De Vries has happy memories of racing in Saudi Arabia. In last year’s championship, he won the race, setting the platform to secure his first world ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, and admits competing under the lights will make the event even more special.

“Diriyah was good to me last year and it is my favorite event of the calendar because I do enjoy the layout,” he said. “It’s the fastest track on the calendar and doesn’t have any low-speed corners. It’s a great track and with it being a night race, it gives it an extra bit of touch and the organizers have made great use of the lighting to make it a cool race.

“There is not a huge difference compared to racing during the day, but during the night the emotions are all a bit greater. Everything looks a bit faster and intimidating and I think there’s a lot more emotion so I personally like the idea of a night race.”

The driver also outlined his ambition to continue racing in the championship, and the importance of participating regularly to become the best driver he can be.

He said: “I believe that it’s important to stay active and continue practicing your racing skills in different disciplines. When you are racing, there is always the different pressure to testing — so I am someone who would prefer to race than test as I believe testing is effective in certain stages of your career and will give you experience. However, it doesn’t put you in the situation where you get those unique, different feelings from racing. Hence, I want to be racing as much as possible and hope to continue racing in the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship and endurance racing.”


End of an era for champions Algeria as they suffer sad exit from Africa Cup of Nations

End of an era for champions Algeria as they suffer sad exit from Africa Cup of Nations
Updated 21 January 2022

End of an era for champions Algeria as they suffer sad exit from Africa Cup of Nations

End of an era for champions Algeria as they suffer sad exit from Africa Cup of Nations
  • Only a few weeks ago the newly crowned FIFA Arab Cup champions were chasing Italy’s world record of 37 unbeaten matches, but a disastrous campaign in Cameroon sees them head home after the group stages

Riyad Mahrez’s penalty against Ivory Coast in the final group game of the 2021 African Nations Cup on Thursday summed up Algeria’s campaign.

With his team 3-0 down in a game the 2019 victors needed to win, Algeria were handed an undeserved spot kick. The Manchester City star, who had been anonymous for much of the group stage, hit the post. And that was the end of one of the worst tournament defenses you will see for a long time — right up there with France’s shambolic effort at the 2002 World Cup.

That global jinx has come to the African Cup of Nations with the champions crashing and burning in the first round. It is barely believable that Algeria are out and even less so that the early exit was completely deserved. All of the continent kept waiting for the team to get going but it never happened. The likes of Manchester City, Milan, Napoli, West Ham United, Lyon and Villarreal will be surprised and delighted at getting their players back almost three weeks earlier than expected while everyone else is just surprised that the likes of Mahrez, Ismael Bennacer and Aissa Mandi, who play at the  top of the European club game, could not even inspire their team to finish third in a group containing Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast. 

Where to start? Well, in the beginning there was a team that arrived in Cameroon with a 34-game unbeaten run — just three short of Italy’s world record — and genuine ambitions of a second successive title. The second string had won the Arab Cup in December and coach Djamel Belmadi, who had been in place since August 2018, led the team to continental glory in 2019 and is hugely popular. 

The opening 0-0 draw against Sierra Leone, a team ranked 118 in the world, 78 places below Algeria, was a surprise but such things can happen in the first game. The Leone Stars defended as if their lives depended on it and the North Africans were guilty of missing chances with 18 attempts and two-thirds possession. Not to worry, there were two games to go and time to locate shooting boots. And not just that with four of the six best-performing third-placed teams in the group stage going through; there was surely little danger.

Then came a 1-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea ranked at 114 and making just a third appearance at the tournament. This was awful, without urgency or creativity, and there is a suspicion that star-studded Algeria seriously underestimated a national team representing a country of only 1.4 million. The champs could barely string a pass together and Mahrez, this season’s top scorer at Manchester City — a team thought by many to be the best in the world — was ineffective to the point of invisibility.

There was still another chance in the final game. Victory over Ivory Coast could even see Algeria finish top of the group. There was no danger of that as the champions were second best for most of the game. A lack of discipline, concentration and basic marking at the back allowed Ivory Coast to collect what was ultimately a comfortable win. At times, Algeria looked like they could get back in the game but never really had the conviction that they could do it. From the get-go, the body language was a concern and heads seemed to drop as soon as the first goal went in. Algeria were outworked and outfought.

Mahrez was the symbol and his performances, or lack of, came in for questions in the post-match inquest. Belmadi can be as combative as a coach as he was as a player for Marseille and Manchester City and hit back at journalists.

“Don’t go and point the finger at players who have given you so much happiness,” Belmadi said. “When things are not going well you start to point the finger at him or me. Did you want me to drop him to the bench? I didn’t change things. I left him in the team.”

For Belmadi, it is an unwelcome reminder of the 2015 Asian Cup. In Australia, he was in charge of Qatar and they arrived in good form and with high hopes. Then they lost all three games Down Under but this was worse as Algeria were the title-holders. In 2015, he didn’t last long as Qatar boss, but has enough credit in the bank to survive this time — however now it all comes down to the final World Cup qualification play-off in March.

“We will have to pick ourselves up, digest this, analyze it and lift our heads up. The World Cup awaits and we will need to do better,” Belmadi said.

The 2021 African Cup of Nations will forever be a painful memory for Algeria. It remains to be seen if it marks the start of a dark period or serves as a wake-up call and inspires the team to qualify for Qatar and then go on to show the world what they are made of. 

For now though, Algeria, who basked in the glory of their 2019 success, will have to deal with a very different feeling.

“This is something we have to swallow,” said Belmadi. “It is hard for us because we are not used to losing. It is a bitter taste. It is horrible.”


Barca crash out of cup after extra-time defeat by Athletic Bilbao

Barca crash out of cup after extra-time defeat by Athletic Bilbao
Updated 21 January 2022

Barca crash out of cup after extra-time defeat by Athletic Bilbao

Barca crash out of cup after extra-time defeat by Athletic Bilbao
  • Barca won the Copa del Rey last season and defending their title was probably their best chance of silverware this term

MADRID: Barcelona were dumped out of the Copa del Rey on Thursday as Ferran Torres’ first goal for the club failed to prevent a dramatic 3-2 defeat after extra-time by Athletic Bilbao.
Disappointment for Barca was compounded by the sight of a visibly upset Ansu Fati going off injured in the second half of normal time at San Mames.
Fati only returned earlier this month after two months out with a hamstring problem, having also come back in September following 10 months out with a knee injury.
Another spell on the sidelines for Fati would be a huge blow to Barca’s hopes of making La Liga’s top four. Pedri also asked to go off in extra-time.
Real Madrid needed an extra 30 minutes as well to defeat Elche 2-1, with Eden Hazard scoring the winner after Marcelo’s red card forced La Liga’s leaders to come from behind with 10 men.
Barca were hoping to join them in the last eight but instead it is Athletic who advance, joining Madrid, Real Sociedad, Mallorca, Rayo Vallecano, Cadiz, Valencia and Real Betis in Friday’s draw for the last eight.
Madrid will be firm favorites, particularly after Sevilla crashed out at the hands of Real Betis, who are now perhaps the greatest threat to Carlo Ancelotti’s side winning their first Copa del Rey since 2014, during Ancelotti’s first tenure as coach.
Barca won the Copa del Rey last season and defending their title was probably their best chance of silverware this term.
They are out of sight in La Liga and were beaten by Madrid in last week’s Spanish Super Cup, with the Europa League now their only realistic remaining route to a trophy.
Only 102 seconds had passed when Iker Muniain sent San Mames apoplectic by collecting Nico Williams’ cross at the back post, before turning and bending into the far corner.
But Barcelona were level in the 20th minute, and from a similar angle, as Torres shifted right, inside Oscar De Marcos, and whipped a stunning shot into the net.
Inaki Williams hit the bar with a long-range effort late on but the real drama was still to come. Athletic thought they had won it in the 86th minute when Inigo Martinez prodded in at the back post ahead of the sliding Gerard Pique.
Barcelona, though, found a way back in the 93rd, as Dani Alves bicycle-kicked Jordi Alba’s cross back into the area and Pedri’s hit on the stretch was too powerful for Julen Agirrezabala’s right hand.
Barca celebrated like it was the winner but there was extra-time to come and injuries. Fati went off and then Pedri asked to depart.
Then in the 103rd minute, a sliding Alba stopped Nico Williams’ cross with his right arm and after consulting the replay, Jose Munuera pointed to the spot. Ter Stegen dived right, Muniain shot left.


Barty, Osaka on collision course as Nadal faces Khachanov

Barty, Osaka on collision course as Nadal faces Khachanov
Updated 21 January 2022

Barty, Osaka on collision course as Nadal faces Khachanov

Barty, Osaka on collision course as Nadal faces Khachanov
  • Osaka, who won at Melbourne Park in 2019 and 2021, will simultaneously be playing Amanda Anisimova on the adjacent Margaret Court Arena
  • Nadal faces dangerous Russian 28th seed Karen Khachanov in the late match

MELBOURNE: Top seed Ashleigh Barty and defending women’s champion Naomi Osaka can set up a mouth-watering last-16 clash as the Australian Open reaches the third round on Friday, with Rafael Nadal also in action as he targets a 21st Slam title.
World number one Barty, who has been in dominant form in 2022, faces the experienced Italian 30th seed Camila Giorgi to begin the night session on Rod Laver Arena.
Osaka, who won at Melbourne Park in 2019 and 2021, will simultaneously be playing Amanda Anisimova on the adjacent Margaret Court Arena.
Nadal faces dangerous Russian 28th seed Karen Khachanov in the late match, with the Spaniard warning that his best is still to come as he works his way back to peak form after an injury-hit 2021.
Barty, chasing a first title at her home Slam, has barely broken sweat so far, dropping only three games in two matches.
The Wimbledon champion won the warm-up Adelaide International with a serve that was untouchable, and it has been flawless so far in Melbourne as well.
“Just continually trying to make it a weapon,” she said of her serve, which has not been broken for 48 straight games stretching over five matches.
“I’m not the biggest girl out there, but I know I’ve got a sound technique and I know if I can get my rhythm right and use it effectively, it can be a weapon.”
Four-time Grand Slam champion Osaka says she has been taking unlikely inspiration during the first Slam of the year from maverick Australian Nick Kyrgios and Brit Andy Murray, who tweeted that he was enjoying watching her.
“Definitely means a lot. For me it was a really cool moment,” she said of Murray’s message.
Nadal’s path to become the first man to win 21 Grand Slams — he is tied on 20 with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic who are both absent — could see him meet Olympic champion Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals.
But first he needs to despatch Khachanov — with the prospect of another Russian, last year’s semifinalist Aslan Karatsev, awaiting in the last 16.
“I think playing against Khachanov is going to be a big challenge,” said Nadal, who said he was not looking beyond Friday’s match.
“I never think that far. Just staying focused on my daily work, on what’s coming, and that’s it. One moment in time, that’s it.”
Third seed Zverev faces Moldovan qualifier Radu Albot out on “party court” John Cain Arena, while Italian seventh seed Matteo Berrettini takes on Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz in the men’s draw.
The women’s action on Rod Laver begins with Belarusian former two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka taking on Ukrainian 15th seed Elina Svitolina.
They will be followed by the French Open champion and fourth seed Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic against Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko.