Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup

Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, left, with Serbia's Dusan Tadic during the World Cup 2022 group A qualifying football match in Lisbon, Nov 14, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 28 November 2021

Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup

Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup
  • At least one of the last two European champions will miss out on a place at Qatar 2022 after the UEFA playoffs in March

When the draw for the UEFA playoffs for the 2022 World Cup was completed on Friday, one thing dominated the headlines: Either Italy or Portugal would not be going to Qatar.

The winners of the last two editions of the European Championship failed to top their World Cup qualifying groups, missing out to Serbia and Switzerland respectively, and now might have to face each other for the right to progress to next year’s finals. That is if they overcome their “semi-final” playoff opponents of North Macedonia (for Italy) and Turkey (for Portugal).

For Italy, the situation is borderline embarrassing.

The Azzurri, less than six months on from their success at the 2020 UEFA European Championship, find themselves having to reach Qatar the hard way, and their fans might be starting to fear the worst if recent history is anything to go by.

After all, their country also failed to secure automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup after losing to Sweden in a two-legged playoff, one of the darkest moments in Italy’s football history.

Italy’s stumble in the qualifiers is all the stranger as Roberto Mancini had sparked a revival that culminated in winning Euro 2020 in July on the back of a long unbeaten run. All looked rosy for the Italians as they returned to World Cup action in the fall.

Italy had started very strongly in Group C but found their path getting complicated after drawing twice in their last three games.

Switzerland took full advantage of this, catching up and overtaking Italy in the standings and qualifying directly for the World Cup.

It was an epilogue that would have been hard to predict a few months ago, and the disappointment after the final whistle in Belfast, after Italy’s 0-0 draw with Northern Ireland, was evident on the faces of the entire team and coaching staff. Among the saddest was Jorginho, who in the dressing room could not hold back his tears, having missed a penalty in each of the two draws with Switzerland in the qualifiers. One successful conversion and it would be the Swiss sweating over progress to Qatar now.

For now, Mancini remains firmly in his post, with the Euro 2020 still fresh in everyone’s minds, and even his few critics have had sympathy for the spate of injuries the squad suffered ahead of the match against Northern Ireland.

The same cannot be said about Portugal.

Fernando Santos, their 67-year-old coach, remains the only one to give Portugal a title, but Euro 2016 grows distant with every passing year and the state of grace will not last forever.

In terms of results, his record is hardly a disaster, but neither has it been outstanding when you consider the talent that the football-crazy nation has at its disposal.

The fog around the coach is almost always based on poor quality football, especially given the caliber of players in the Portuguese squad at the moment.

Portugal’s best players grace some of Europe’s top clubs including Manchester United, Manchester City, Atlético Madrid, Liverpool, PSG, Roma, among others. Many of them are the best players at these clubs. They are therefore the best of the best.

And yet the football played by the national team pales in comparison to their club exploits, and the Portuguese blame their coach for that.

The Luz Stadium was supposed to witness a celebration in front of 65,000 spectators when Serbia came to Lisbon for the final group qualifier, but instead, and at the end of a historic night, the visitors punished Cristiano Ronaldo and his colleagues in the dying meets of the match to win 2-1.

My sources in Portugal tell me that Santos could be approaching the end of his reign as coach of the Portuguese national team.

The Portuguese Football Federation has backed him up to the playoffs, but many supporters and members of the press no longer believe that he can get the best out of this group of players.

This was evident when, at the press conference after the Serbia debacle, a journalist asked Santos: “How do you explain the poor football that the National Team presents, given the talent it has at its disposal?”

Santos looked at the journalist. He swallowed dry, straightened his tie, and said nothing.

Portugal, of course, still possess arguably world football’s greatest trump card.

Whatever lack of confidence there is in the coach, the nation can always count on Ronaldo to inspire his team in such moments.

It would be a shame not to see either Italy or Portugal in the World Cup, but sadly that is now inevitable.

In March we will know which one will miss out, if not, sensationally, both.


Jake Dennis keen to face fellow Brit in new Formula E head-to-head qualifying format

Jake Dennis keen to face fellow Brit in new Formula E head-to-head qualifying format
Updated 28 January 2022

Jake Dennis keen to face fellow Brit in new Formula E head-to-head qualifying format

Jake Dennis keen to face fellow Brit in new Formula E head-to-head qualifying format
  • The eighth season of the all-electric championship begins this weekend with a double-header of night races in Diriyah on Friday and Saturday

DIRIYAH: Avalanche Andretti’s Jake Dennis said he looks forward to the possibility of facing his long-time friend, Mahindra driver Oliver Rowland, in a head-to-head battle under Formula E’s new “dueling qualifier” format.

Dennis said he and Rowland have been friends for 15 years and recalled his fond memories of the pair coming up in the sport together, as he told Arab News he would love to take him on in the championship’s new knockout qualifying format.

“I’d like to go against Oliver Rowland,” he said. “He’s a fellow Brit and a good friend of mine and we never went head-to-head in qualifying. I’d pick Ollie — it would be quite cool to see that.”

The championship’s eighth season gets underway this weekend with a double-header of night races in Diriyah on Friday and Saturday. This year the all-electric series has introduced a new qualifying format that uses a knockout system to determine who takes pole position.

In the first round of qualification the drivers are split into two groups of 11, and each driver can make multiple attempts at a fast lap within a 10-minute session. The four fastest in each group progress to head-to-head duels in a knockout format featuring quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final, the winner of which secures pole-position. The other grid positions will be based on the results of the head-to-head duels or lap times depending on what stage of qualifying the drivers managed to reach.

“The competition was tough last year; I think Formula E is just becoming more challenging in terms of difficulty and I think it’s just going to be even tighter this year,” Dennis said.

Last year, he proved himself to be a title-contender during a stunning rookie season in which he took third place in the ABB FIA Formula E 2020-21 Driver’s Championship, after a DNF (did not finish) in the season finale Berlin left Mercedes-EQ driver Nyck de Vries to claim victory in the overall championship.

“I think people’s expectations of me are definitely different this year,” said Dennis. “People see me as a proper title contender going into the new season. There’s always that added pressure but I’m looking forward to it.”

Considered the most successful rookie the championship has yet seen, Dennis now has his sights set on becoming the first British driver to win it. His confidence is evident, after his successes last season when he clinched his first win in Valencia then another in London. No rookie, other than drivers in Formula E’s first season, has won more races than the 26-year-old managed, and nobody led more laps than he did last season. This season he aims to achieve even more.

“I’m coming in this year with a lot more experience,” he said. “I think I’m a faster driver than what I was last year and that’s what it ultimately comes down to. It’s been a really busy winter for us and we ended up pretty competitive in Valencia (during pre-season testing).

Avalanche, known for being an eco-friendly blockchain company, took over from BMW last October to sponsor Andretti in what both parties hope will be a long partnership committed to sustainability.

Dennis said minor difficulties presented themselves in the beginning, as dealing with new team members can be challenging, but he feels the team are now prepared for the season ahead.

“Working with Andretti feels like a big family environment and I’ve got a new teammate this year as well, Oliver (Askew), and we’re going to do the best job we can for the team.”


‘A fairer chance to fight at the front:’ Stoffel Vandoorne

‘A fairer chance to fight at the front:’ Stoffel Vandoorne
Updated 28 January 2022

‘A fairer chance to fight at the front:’ Stoffel Vandoorne

‘A fairer chance to fight at the front:’ Stoffel Vandoorne
  • The Diriyah E-Prix gets underway on Friday with fans returning to the UNESCO World Heritage site for the first time since the pandemic

DIRIYAH: Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne seeks to redeem himself in Diriyah this weekend after the title eluded him last season, and the opportunity may take for the Mercedes-EQ driver in what he called a “fairer chance to fight at the front” under the championship’s new qualifying format.

The Diriyah E-Prix gets underway on Friday with fans returning to the UNESCO World Heritage site for the first time since the pandemic. The double-header race weekend kicks off the eighth season of the all-electric racing championship, with reigning team world champions Mercedes-EQ stepping into their final season in Formula E.

Vandoorne, who is embarking on his fourth campaign with Mercedes-EQ, is heading into this weekend having finished ninth in last season’s championship with a victory in the Berlin finale, three poles and three podiums to his name. 

“Last year was a very close season between a lot of the competitors, I remember getting into the final race with 17 drivers still able to win the championship,” Vandoorne told Arab News. “Maybe I didn’t have luck on my side, but with the changes to qualifying we’ll have fairer chance to fight at the front.” 

For this season, the championship introduced a new qualifying method that uses a knockout format to determine who will take pole position for the race.

The format changes feature a first round of two 11-driver groups, each driver able to make multiple attempts at fastest laps within their allocated time in a 10-minute session. The top four fastest-lap drivers in each group will progress into head-to-head duels on a knockout basis in quarter-finals and semifinals. Pole-position will be decided in a final head-to-head duel.

“I think this will equalize the field a little bit more and qualifying now won’t be decided purely on track evolution,” he said. “It’s still going to be hard but I think the way the system is right now should be a lot fairer and I think we’ll generally see more of the same faces at the front, rather than having some sort of mixed-up grid — or when if you found yourself in group one last year, you basically had no chance to be in the top 15.

“I think it will change in a good way, but it’s so competitive that we’ll still see some some crazy weekends or some unexpected things that will happen,” Vandoorne said.

Vandoorne’s teammate, De Vries, qualified on pole for the first race of last season’s opening Diriyah E-Prix, leading every lap thereafter en route to his first victory in the series, ending the campaign with two wins, four podiums and 99 points, becoming the first official FIA Formula E World Champion, following the series’ long-awaited FIA sanctioning.

“Obviously you know me and Nick have some good competition and we always want to be better than the other every time we get to get out on track,” the Belgian driver said. “So far it’s been a very healthy relationship, we get on really well and we do it in a constructive way. It’s been a good collaboration. And, you know, for sure, once we get out on track, we always want to want outdo one another and that’s no different this year.”

The Diriyah E-Prix Season 7 opener hosted the first all-electric night race as part of the 2020-21 calendar. The spectacular double-header in the dark used renewable lights with the latest low-consumption LED technology, which reduced energy consumption by up to 50 percent compared to non-LED technologies, which all fits into the racing ethos of sustainability the championship embodies.


Aston Villa add Arsenal’s Chambers to January splurge

Aston Villa add Arsenal’s Chambers to January splurge
Updated 27 January 2022

Aston Villa add Arsenal’s Chambers to January splurge

Aston Villa add Arsenal’s Chambers to January splurge
  • The 27-year-old joins Philippe Coutinho, Lucas Digne, Robin Olsen and Kerr Smith at Villa Park
  • Chambers made 122 appearances for Arsenal after joining from Southampton in 2014

LONDON: Aston Villa signed versatile defender Calum Chambers from Arsenal on Thursday to take their tally of new recruits this month to five.
The 27-year-old, who can play in both central defense and at right-back, joins Philippe Coutinho, Lucas Digne, Robin Olsen and Kerr Smith at Villa Park as manager Steven Gerrard reshapes his squad.
Chambers has signed a three-and-a-half year contract after an undisclosed fee was agreed between the clubs.
He made 122 appearances for Arsenal after joining from Southampton in 2014, also spending time on loan at Middlesbrough and Fulham.
However, he has struggled for game time this season following the arrivals of Ben White and Takehiro Tomiyasu, making just five appearances, only two of which came in the Premier League.
“It’s a very exciting place to be and everyone can see that from the outside. Things are happening here and it’s definitely moving in the right direction,” said Chambers.
“For me, it was a no-brainer to join a great club. It was the right thing for me to do.”
Villa have moved up to 11th in the Premier League table since the arrival of Gerrard, who has won five of his 11 games in charge.


Meet the drivers who will battle for glory at the 2022 Diriyah E-Prix

Meet the drivers who will battle for glory at the 2022 Diriyah E-Prix
Updated 28 January 2022

Meet the drivers who will battle for glory at the 2022 Diriyah E-Prix

Meet the drivers who will battle for glory at the 2022 Diriyah E-Prix
  • 22 drivers from 11 teams will fight for the win at the launch of Formula E season 8 in Riyadh

RIYADH: The all-electric championship is back. The Diriyah E-Prix returns in the historic desert surroundings of the UNESCO World Heritage site for its season-opening double-header on Jan. 28-29.

Twenty-two of the best drivers in the world will race for eleven teams and only one trophy in season eight of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship.

Here are the heroes behind the helmets:

Mercedes EQ

Reigning team world champions Mercedes-EQ return for their final season in Formula E with another stellar lineup, bringing back season seven champion Nyck de Vries and Belgian star Stoffel Vandoorne.

The flying Dutchman De Vries qualified on pole for the first race of last season’s opening Diriyah E-Prix, leading every lap thereafter en route to his first-ever victory in the series.

His second victory came soon after, in Valencia. De Vries ended the campaign with two wins, four podiums and 99 points, becoming the first official FIA Formula E World Champion, following the series’ long-awaited FIA sanctioning. Vandoorne heads into his fourth season on the circuit, having finished ninth in last season’s championship with victory in the Berlin finale, three poles and three podiums to his name.

Jaguar TCS Racing

Jaguar race into season eight off the back of their best year yet, and led by a duo of strong, proven race winners: Kiwi Mitch Evans, and Britain’s Sam Bird. With two wins and 10 podiums last season, Evans returns as a serious challenger in 2022. A race winner in every season of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship to date, Bird bagged first place in both Diriyah and New York last year.

Avalanche Andretti Formula E

It’s a new look for the Andretti team in 2021, as Avalanche replaces BMWi as title partner. On the driving side, Jake Dennis returns alongside the rookie US driver Oliver Askew.

Dennis had a spectacular start to his Formula E career last year, becoming the most successful rookie in championship history, in terms of podium visits, with victories in Valencia and London.

Dragon / Penske Autosport

Dragon showed real signs of improvement last season, and have now added the Italian Antonio Giovinazzi from Formula 1’s Alfa Romeo. He joins forces with teammate Sergio Sette Camara, who had his best drive in Diriyah last year — finishing fourth in the opening race.

TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team

The German team return to battle in season eight with Andre Lotterer once again alongside Pascal Wehrlein. Both Wehrlein and Lotterer — the latter a three-time Le Mans winner and five-year Formula E veteran — scored consistently through a strong second half of the season last year.

Mahindra Racing

A stunning victory in London on home soil for driver Alex Lynn was the highlight, but he departed at the end of the season. Fellow Brit Oliver Rowland replaces him, racing alongside another British driver, Alexander Sims, for 2021-22.

Sims has a race win and podiums to his name in Formula E, and Rowland joins the team having made the move from Nissan e.dams.

Nissan e.dams

Nissan e.dams are heading into season eight with one of the most promising talents on the grid, Maximilian Guenther, who proved himself with a win in New York last year. He joins one of the most experienced drivers on the grid in 2015-16 champion, Sebastian Buemi, a multiple winner at Le Mans and in sportscar racing.

Envision Racing

Envision kick off season eight with a striking new green design for their cars, while retaining their driver pairing of Nick Cassidy and Robin Frijns.

After returning to Formula E in 2018-19, Frijns is now embarking on his fourth season with Envision, while Japanese Super Formula and Super GT champion Cassidy joined the Envision team last year and recorded two podium finishes in Mexico and New York.

NIO 333 Racing

NIO 333 retain veteran Oliver Turvey, who joined them just before the 2014-15 season finale in London, and add rookie Dan Ticktum for season eight.

Ticktum was a successful Formula 2 racer, winning his home event at Silverstone in his rookie season, and securing three further podiums.

ROKiT Venturi Racing

After three podium finishes, including two wins, last year, the 2016-17 champion Lucas di Grassi, who spent seven years with Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler, has joined Venturi. Edoardo Mortara finished second in the standings last year — his fourth campaign with Venturi, narrowly missing out to Nyck De Vries in dramatic fashion in the finale in Berlin.

DS TECHEETAH

DS TECHEETAH had their streak of back-to-back teams and drivers’ championships halted last season when they finished third by just a single point.

Jean-Eric Vergne and Antonio Felix da Costa return and could arguably be regarded as the strongest pairing on the grid. Both are past title winners — Vergne twice — with seven seasons of Formula E experience to their names.


Saudi Arabia take giant step towards 2022 World Cup with tense win over Oman

After their victory over Oman, a win against Japan at Saitama Stadium will now take Saudi Arabia to Qatar 2022. (Reuters)
After their victory over Oman, a win against Japan at Saitama Stadium will now take Saudi Arabia to Qatar 2022. (Reuters)
Updated 27 January 2022

Saudi Arabia take giant step towards 2022 World Cup with tense win over Oman

After their victory over Oman, a win against Japan at Saitama Stadium will now take Saudi Arabia to Qatar 2022. (Reuters)
  • The 1-0 win victory means Green Falcons top Group B on 19 points, with only 3 matches left

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia stayed on course for the 2022 FIFA World Cup with a hard-fought 1-0 win over a spirited Oman in Jeddah on Thursday, with Firas Al-Buraikan getting the all-important goal for the under-par hosts early in the second half.

With Group B rivals Japan defeating China 2-0 and Australia breezing past Vietnam with a 4-0 win earlier in the day, the pressure was on, but victory keeps the Green Falcons four points clear of the Samurai Blue, next Tuesday’s opponents, and five above Australia with just three games left to play. Qatar is getting closer and closer.

A win against Japan at Saitama Stadium will now take Saudi Arabia to Qatar 2022.

Those earlier results may have put pressure on Saudi Arabia, but the team’s first half performance was the worst 45 minutes in the whole third round of qualification. Oman, missing several players due to COVID-19, were well organized and looking to deny the group leaders any space, so chances were always going to be at a premium early in the game. What was less expected was that the visitors would look likelier to score.

Midway through the first half, the Reds had the best opportunity of the game so far. Rabia Al-Alawi, always a busy and dangerous presence in attack, cut inside Ali Al-Bulaihi on the edge of the area and produced a low diagonal shot from the right that rolled just centimeters wide of the left hand post, with Mohammed Al-Owais in goal unable to do anything but stand, watch and hope.

In the absence of injured Salman Al-Faraj in the middle, the Saudis were not only giving the ball away far too often, but looked short of urgency and intensity. Coach Renard, who cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines and was continually signaling to his players to wake up, had seen enough by the half-hour and withdrew the anonymous and ineffectual Sami Al-Najei from the middle to bring in Hattan Bahebri.

Yet Oman continued to ask the questions. Right-back Amjad Al-Harthi’s low shot was almost turned in by Al-Alawi.

In the final five minutes of the first half, Saudi Arabia finally got home fans on their feet, though there were still no clear chances created. Al-Buraikan challenged the Omani goalkeeper for a Yasser Al-Shahrani cross and the volume rose soon after as the hosts appealed for a penalty for what they felt was a kick on Sultan Al-Ghannam. The half ended with a long-range half-volley from Abdulelah Al-Maiki and a shot from Al-Shahrani.

The one positive going into the break was that the second half could only get better, and so it seemed when Saudi Arabia took the lead three minutes after the restart. Befitting the performance, it was not the prettiest of goals, but nobody cared.

Omani goalkeeper Faiyz Al-Rashidi could only palm a low Al-Ghannam shot into the path of Al-Buraikan, and the 21-year-old was not going to miss from such close range.

That did not mean that the game opened up, as Saudi Arabia still struggled to impose any control and Oman still asked questions. Just past the midway point of the half, Al-Alawi had a header from close range fall straight into the arms of Al-Owais and soon after the same striker was turning in the area and firing just over.

Hearts were in mouths right at the end. Arshad Al-Alawi’s long-range effort was tipped over by Al-Owais and from the resultant corner, the same player somehow headed over from close range with the goal at his mercy.

That was the last action of what was, in truth, an ugly win — a fourth 1-0 victory out of seven games so far, but that will not bother anyone but the few Omanis in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia have taken another huge step towards a successive World Cup appearance and, with that vital cushion of four points still in place, the Green Falcons’ focus turns to Japan and a huge game on Tuesday.