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)
Short Url
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.


Justin Thomas wins 2nd PGA title in playoff after 7-shot rally

Justin Thomas wins 2nd PGA title in playoff after 7-shot rally
Updated 26 sec ago

Justin Thomas wins 2nd PGA title in playoff after 7-shot rally

Justin Thomas wins 2nd PGA title in playoff after 7-shot rally
  • Thomas now has a PGA Tour victory in each of his last eight years and moves to No. 5 in the world
  • In eight majors at Southern Hills, it was first time a player rallied from any margin to win, and it was only the second playoff

TULSA, Oklahoma: Justin Thomas is a major champion when he least expected it.

Thomas matched a PGA Championship record Sunday when he rallied from a seven-shot deficit at Southern Hills, and then saved his most exquisite shot-making for a three-hole playoff to defeat Will Zalatoris.

He closed with a 3-under 67, matching the low score of a final round made difficult more by nerves than the wind. He seized control in the playoff with a 3-wood to 35 feet on the 301-yard 17th hole for a two-putt birdie.

He tapped in for par and stood erect with a smile, a mixture of joy and disbelief.

“I was asked early in the week what lead is safe and I said, ‘No lead,’” Thomas said. “I can’t believe I found myself in a playoff.”

Thomas needed plenty of help, and Mito Pereira provided it in a tragic finish. The 27-year-old from Chile, playing in only his second major, took a one-shot lead to the final hole and drove into a creek to make double bogey.

It was the first time since Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot in the 2006 US Open that a player lost a one-shot lead in the final hole to lose a major.

Zalatoris looked like he had thrown away his chances for a first major — and first PGA Tour victory — when he three-putted from just outside 20 feet on the 16th hole. But he responded with a birdie from the bunker at the 17th and holed an 8-foot par putt on the 18th for a 71.

He joined Thomas at 5-under 275, and they played on when Pereira faltered.

Thomas, who had gone 14 months since his last victory at The Players Championship last year, now has a PGA Tour victory in each of his last eight years and moves to No. 5 in the world.

John Mahaffey in the 1978 PGA Championship at Oakmont was the other player to come from seven shots behind on the final day. He also won in a playoff over Tom Watson and Jerry Pate.

Thomas was still seven shots behind when he made his remarkable run, a mixture of key birdies and keeping mistakes off his card. It started with a 65-foot birdie putt from just short of the green to a back pin on the par-3 11th. He edged closer with an 18-foot birdie on the next hole.

He was lurking, while the leading pack behind him was leaking oil.

Zalatoris and Cameron Young each caught Pereira, ever so briefly. All of them found trouble in the rough and in the sand. Thomas nearly holed a long bunker shot on the 16th, made birdie from a left bunker on the reachable 17th and had a 10-foot birdie putt he thought he needed at the end.

He missed, and got a reprieve.

Pereira was on the cusp of becoming Chile’s first major champion, and giving South America the career Grand Slam.

Even after five bogeys, he never lost the lead and delivered clutch par saves from the bunker left of the ninth green and from well behind the 10th green. None was bigger than his 12-foot putt on the 16th to stay one shot ahead.

It all came undone with one swing.

His sawed-off swing with the driver, so effective on the previous hole, peeled to the right and into the creek down the right side of the 18th fairway. After a penalty drop, his approach up the hill started left and never cut back, landing in the rough. His chip rolled off the back edge of the green.

His double bogey gave him a 75, a hard-luck end to such a promising week.

“On Monday, I just wanted to make the cut. On Sunday, I wanted to win,” Pereira said. “I’ll take this to learn for the future.”

Young, whose father is a longtime PGA professional, also will look back at missed chances. Playing with Zalatoris, a former roommate at Wake Forest, Young was in the mix all day and was briefly tied for the lead. His hopes ended on he 16th went he found a bunker right of the green, blasted out weakly to 30 feet and three-putted for a double bogey. He closed with a 71.

Matt Fitzpatrick of England, who played in the final group with Pereira, also stayed in range, two shots behind until his sloppy bogey on the 17th. He shot 73 and tied for fifth with Tommy Fleetwood (67) and Chris Kirk (68).

Rory McIlroy made a brief run with four straight birdies on the front nine, putting him at 4-under par for the tournament. He was 2 over the rest of the way and finished eighth.

In eight majors at Southern Hills, it was first time a player rallied from any margin to win, and it was only the second playoff. Retief Goosen won the other in the 2001 US Open after he three-putted from 12 feet on the final hole. At least he got another chance, unlike Pereira.

Six of the seven previous major champions at Southern Hills are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. The 29-year-old Thomas, now with two majors among his 15 career PGA Tour victories, is surely headed there one day.


Dixon seizes 5th Indy 500 pole with second-fastest qualifying time ever

Dixon seizes 5th Indy 500 pole with second-fastest qualifying time ever
Updated 23 May 2022

Dixon seizes 5th Indy 500 pole with second-fastest qualifying time ever

Dixon seizes 5th Indy 500 pole with second-fastest qualifying time ever
  • Dixon’s pole position time was the second-fastest four-lap qualifying run ever behind the 236.986 posted by Arie Luyendyk back in 1996

WASHINGTON: New Zealand’s Scott Dixon earned his fifth Indianapolis 500 pole position in sensational style on Sunday, clocking the second-fastest four-lap qualifying run ever at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Dixon topped the final Fast Six section of qualifying with a four-lap run that averaged 234.046 (376.66 Km/h) — featuring two laps of the 2.5-mile oval at more than 234 mph.

Dixon put his Honda-powered Chip Ganassi team car on pole for the second straight year, but with just one victory, in 2008, to show for his prior four pole positions the Kiwi veteran was already looking ahead to next Sunday’s 106th running of the fabled race.

“Obviously, it doesn’t mean a thing next Sunday,” he said. “So we’re starting in the right spot. We havent’ had a good record keeping it in the right spot but we’ll definitely be trying come next Sunday.”

Despite that pragmatic stance, Dixon was clearly exhilarated by the day’s activities, which featured the fastest 12 finishers in Saturday’s opening qualifying competing in Top 12 qualifying and the top six from that coming back to set pole position and the first two rows of the grid.

With the final Fast Six run, Dixon pushed Ganassi teammate Alex Palou of Spain (233.499 mph) into second on the grid.

Ed Carpenter Racing’s Dutch driver Rinus Veekay claimed the third spot on the first row with a run at 233.385 mph.

Team chief and sometime driver Ed Carpenter (233.080 mph) claimed the fourth spot ahead of Swedish Ganassi driver Marcus Ericsson (232.764), and Ganassi’s Brazilian veteran Tony Kanaan (232.372).

“That’s what this place is about,” Dixon said. “So amazing — the ups and downs that you have just in one day — it’s crazy. Just so happy for everybody to get five of our cars into the fast 12 and then four into the Six. I hope Chip’s got a smile on his face.”

Dixon’s pole position time was the second-fastest four-lap qualifying run ever behind the 236.986 posted by Arie Luyendyk back in 1996.

It was actually the fastest ever run to claim pole, breaking Scott Brayton’s mark of 233.718 from 1996.

VeeKay had moved into second on the all-time qualifying chart behind Luyendyk on Saturday with a run at 233.655, but the 21-year-old settled for second-fastest behind Dixon in the Top-12 session before coming up third-quickest in the final shootout.

When the day’s action was complete, Mexico’s Pato O’Ward led the third row of the grid alongside Sweden’s Felix Rosenqvist and France’s Romain Grosjean.

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato of Japan, former champion Will Power of Australia and NASCAR great Jimmie Johnson, an Indy 500 rookie, made up row four.

The remaining 13th-33rd spots on the grid had been set on Saturday.

Reigning Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves — one of just four four-time winners — starts from the 27th spot on the ninth row.

Johnson enlivened Sunday’s qualifiers with a big wobble on his Top-12 run that ended his hopes of making the Fast Six.

“These guys are so good at what they do,” said Johnson, who moved into IndyCar racing last year but didn’t opt to tackle the oval tracks until this season. “I just need more experience.”

Grosjean, who moved to IndyCar last season after his Formula One career ended with a frightening fiery crash, is also a newcomer to the Indianapolis 500.

He admitted that he’d found oval racing more “complicated” than he anticipated. And at the speeds reached at Indianapolis, with the wind changing and track surface temperature fluctuating this weekend, Grosjean said Sunday “was scary.”

“Track conditions changed a lot from the morning,” he said. “We tried everything we had to get some speed ... I’m glad it’s behind me.”


Dominic Thiem out of sync, out of French Open with 10th loss in row

Dominic Thiem out of sync, out of French Open with 10th loss in row
Updated 23 May 2022

Dominic Thiem out of sync, out of French Open with 10th loss in row

Dominic Thiem out of sync, out of French Open with 10th loss in row
  • Thiem's quick departure was not the only noteworthy development on a cloudy, occasionally drizzly Day 1 at the year’s second major tennis tournament, which welcomed back pre-pandemic sights and sounds of full attendance and no masks in the stands

PARIS: It all used to come so easily for Dominic Thiem on a tennis court — his powerful forehand, his elegant backhand, his hit-which-shot-when calculations, all fine-tuned to the point of a title at the US Open and three other Grand Slam final appearances, including two at Roland Garros.

Nowadays, even though the pain from last year’s torn tendon in his right wrist is no longer there, the strokes and, most disconcertingly, the wherewithal, are not what they once were, to the extent that his first-round exit at the French Open on Sunday was his 10th consecutive loss.

The situation has become dire enough that Thiem, a 28-year-old Austrian once ranked No. 3 but now No. 194, acknowledged after being beaten 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 by Hugo Dellien that perhaps it’s time for him to head to the lower-level Challenger Tour to get a win and gain some confidence.

After lamenting his forehand, his backhand and a too-low first-serve percentage, Thiem got to the bigger issue: “Sometimes, I do really stupid decisions during the rally, drop shots or down-the-line (groundstrokes) at the wrong moment. (In) match match situations, I’m not playing well. ... Then, for example, there was one game today where I did four or five forehand return mistakes in a row, where I’m thinking, ‘What the heck is happening?’”

His quick departure was not the only noteworthy development on a cloudy, occasionally drizzly Day 1 at the year’s second major tennis tournament, which welcomed back pre-pandemic sights and sounds of full attendance and no masks in the stands.

Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old from Spain who is seeded No. 6 and a popular pick to win his first Grand Slam trophy, advanced just as cleanly and quickly as expected against “lucky loser” Juan Ignacio Londero 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 in the day’s last match at Court Philippe Chatrier. Another teen, 18-year-old American Coco Gauff, also moved on, beating Canadian qualifier Rebecca Marino 7-5, 6-0.

Given Thiem’s troubles — sure, he was the runner-up to Rafael Nadal in Paris in 2018 and 2019, and to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open in 2020, but his last victory came in May 2021 — there were other results that probably were more surprising.

Chiefly in that category would be No. 6 seed Ons Jabeur’s 3-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5 loss to 56th-ranked Magda Linette of Poland.

Jabeur, a Tunisian who is the first Arab woman to win a WTA title and first to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal, acknowledged: “I was expecting myself to go far in this tournament.”

As were others. That’s because Jabeur began the day with a tour-leading 17 wins on clay this season, including taking the title at the Madrid Open and reaching the final of the Italian Open.

Another top-10 women’s seed — and the 2016 champion at the place — was sent home when Garbiñe Muguruza was defeated 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 by 46th-ranked Kaia Kanepi of Estonia. Muguruza beat Serena Williams in the final at Roland Garros six years ago and Venus Williams in the final at Wimbledon in 2017, but she now has lost her opening match in Paris two straight years.

Avoiding that sort of result was the men’s No. 9 seed, Felix Auger-Aliassime, who took care of two missing items on his resume in one afternoon: He picked up a French Open victory for the first time in three tries and he won a match after dropping the opening two sets.

The 20-year-old Canadian came back to eliminate Juan Pablo Varillas, a qualifier from Peru making his Grand Slam debut, by a score of 2-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3.

Other winners included 2017 US Open champion and 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens, No. 23 Jil Teichmann and No. 26 Sorana Cirstea among the women; No. 3 Alexander Zverev, No. 18 Grigor Dimitrov, No. 23 John Isner and No. 26 Botic Van de Zandschulp among the men.

Dellien, a Bolivian ranked 87th, entered his contest against Thiem with a 2-7 career record in Grand Slam matches. But from the get-go, he was able to hold his own in lengthy baseline exchanges.

On the very first point, which lasted 24 strokes, Thiem landed a backhand passing shot in the net and shook his head. On the next, he tried a drop shot that floated wide. Not really close at all. Again, a head shake. On the sixth point, a forehand return sailed well long. That initial set ended with Thiem putting a forehand into the net, followed by a backhand into the net.

“Today, he wasn’t at his top level of the past, but I still needed to beat him,” Dellien said. “It’s an important step in my career.”


Barcelona finish with defeat by Villarreal, Granada relegated after goalless draw

Barcelona finish with defeat by Villarreal, Granada relegated after goalless draw
Updated 23 May 2022

Barcelona finish with defeat by Villarreal, Granada relegated after goalless draw

Barcelona finish with defeat by Villarreal, Granada relegated after goalless draw
  • Defeat by Villarreal means Barcelona lost four of their last nine games in all competitions while Real Madrid won La Liga at a canter

MADRID: Barcelona finished 13 points behind La Liga champions Real Madrid after ending their turbulent season with a whimper on Sunday by losing 2-0 at home to Villarreal.

Atletico Madrid secured third place by winning 2-1 away at Real Sociedad, retaining their one-point lead over Sevilla, who won 1-0 at home to Athletic Bilbao.

Athletic’s defeat, combined with Villarreal’s excellent victory at Camp Nou, means Villarreal beat Athletic into seventh and qualify for the Europa Conference League.

Villarreal’s season was lit up by their sensational run to the semifinals of the Champions League but Unai Emery’s team have suffered from inconsistency against the lower sides in La Liga and will be demoted to Europe’s third-tier competition next term.

Athletic finish eighth while Real Sociedad held onto sixth and Europa League qualification, despite their loss at home to Atletico Madrid.

At the other end of the table, Granada joined Alaves and Levante in being relegated.

Granada were held to a goalless draw by Espanyol, allowing Cadiz, who won 1-0 away at Alaves, to survive. Mallorca also stayed up by beating Osasuna 2-0.

Barca already had second place and a spot in the top four wrapped up but Xavi Hernandez will be concerned heading into the summer about how his team has faded.

“We feel a bit sad about today’s result,” Dani Alves told Barca TV. “We have to reflect, change our mentality next season and put more effort on the pitch because we are representing this great club and we cannot reach the end of the season again without competing for anything.”

Defeat by Villarreal means Barcelona lost four of their last nine games in all competitions while Real Madrid won La Liga at a canter.

After being appointed in November, with the team lying ninth, Xavi revived the team and achieved the most important objective of qualifying for the Champions League.

But going out to Frankfurt in the Europa League semifinals and Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey was disappointing while the drop-off during the run-in suggests there is still a lot of work to do.

Villarreal’s two goals came either side of half-time as Alfonso Pedraza scored in the 41st minute after latching onto a Dani Parejo through-ball before Moi Gomez made it two in the 55th.

Adama Traore was at fault, his attempted clearance across his own box falling straight to Gomez, who fired in, with Traore substituted immediately after.

Atletico’s victory over Real Sociedad came after Rodrigo de Paul and Angel Correa scored goals in the second half before Jon Guridi grabbed a consolation for the hosts late on.

Rafa Mir’s smart finish inside the post in the 68th minute proved enough for Sevilla to overcome Athletic Bilbao at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

Cadiz began the day a point behind both Granada and Mallorca as the three clubs scrapped to avoid the final relegation spot, with Alaves and Levante already down.

Anthony Lozano proved the hero, his finish securing victory away at Alaves for Cadiz, while Granada were held to a stalemate at home to Espanyol.

Jorge Molina had the best chance to win it for Granada but sent his penalty agonizingly wide of the post in the 72nd minute, before Cadiz took the lead at Mendizorrotza in the 76th.

By then, Mallorca were already one up away at Osasuna after Angel Rodriguez had put them in front. Clement Grenier added another as Mallorca won 2-0 away at El Sadar to avoid the drop.


Salah and Son share Premier League Golden Boot

Salah and Son share Premier League Golden Boot
Updated 23 May 2022

Salah and Son share Premier League Golden Boot

Salah and Son share Premier League Golden Boot
  • South Korea’s Son netted twice in Tottenham’s 5-0 win at Norwich to move to 23 goals — one clear of Salah, but the Egypt forward struck late in Liverpool’s 3-1 win at home to Wolves

LONDON: Mohamed Salah and Son Heung-min shared the Premier League Golden Boot on Sunday after both forward scored on the final day of the season.
South Korea’s Son netted twice in Tottenham’s 5-0 win at Norwich to move to 23 goals — one clear of Salah, but the Egypt forward struck late in Liverpool’s 3-1 win at home to Wolves.
Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo finished third with 18 goals in his first season back in the Premier League.
Salah’s goal was ultimately in vain as Jurgen Klopp’s team finished one point behind Manchester City, who scored three goals in five minutes to beat Aston Villa 3-2.
Tottenham’s win secured a fourth-place finish, meaning they qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Son, 29, said it was “incredible” to have the award.
“I can’t believe it,” he told the BBC. “I got really emotional. I dreamed of it as a child. Literally it’s my in hands. I can’t believe it.
“Until my goal I was really frustrated that I missed big chances. I told the players I missed the easiest chances and scored one of the toughest ones.
“I didn’t give up. I wanted to score today. The team helped me a lot at half-time. They wanted to help me, you could see it today.”
Spurs manager Antonio Conte was delighted to see club and individual ambitions realized with the rout of the Canaries at Carrow Road.
“This was our target,” he told the BBC.
“First to get in the Champions League but then when there was a chance to help Sonny reach the top scorer, we enjoyed it,” the Italian added.
“I have seen his team-mates try to help him. The award is for Son but it’s for the whole team. They helped him reach this big achievement.”