Morocco ominous, Qatar on march: 5 things learned from conclusion of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup group stages

Morocco ominous, Qatar on march: 5 things learned from conclusion of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup group stages
Saudi Arabia was eliminated from 2021 FIFA Arab Cup after losing to Morocco. (AFP)
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Updated 08 December 2021

Morocco ominous, Qatar on march: 5 things learned from conclusion of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup group stages

Morocco ominous, Qatar on march: 5 things learned from conclusion of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup group stages
  • African nations have excelled in 16-team tournament as it reaches quarter-final stage

RIYADH: The group stage of the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup is over with the quarterfinals starting on Friday.

Saudi Arabia’s young, experimental team has been eliminated, and here are five things we learned from the performances of some of the other teams involved.

1. At half-time it is Africa 1, Asia 0

With the last eight made up of four Asian teams and four from Africa, it may look like continental honors were even in the group stage. That is not quite the case.

Six African teams started the competition and a maximum of five could have progressed (three were drawn in the same group). Four managed to do so, with Mauritania failing.

Asia had 10 representatives, and were guaranteed three places in the last eight, but could have had a maximum of seven. In the end, only four went through. In terms of direct confrontations, it was Africa 7 Asia 3.

Too much can be read into this. Saudi Arabia sent an under-23 team, and the weaker Asian teams had the better of their African counterparts in qualification. However, the likes of Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria often looked to be playing at a higher level and all three progressed without any fuss.

There is still time for Asia to turn the tables and show their African rivals what they are made of.

2. Egypt and Algeria cannot be separated

The record books will show Algeria 1 — Egypt 1 and in the end, only the fact that Algeria collected four yellow cards to Egypt’s three meant that the Pharaohs finished top due to fair play rules. That may be significant as they play Jordan next instead of Morocco.

But to have these two great north African rivals in the same group as Lebanon and Sudan is like putting Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain together with Club Brugge and RB Leipzig. There is talent in the other two teams, but they are just not good enough to challenge the powerhouses.

At least in the Champions League, one of the two meetings between the titans is a competitive and meaningful one, but by the time Algeria and Egypt met, they were both through to the last eight.

No doubt both would have wanted to finish first to avoid Morocco in the last eight but had there been a chance of the loser being eliminated then it would have been a titanic clash. As it is, there are still questions to be answered with both teams resting players. The real tests are about to come.

3. Qatar’s deadly duo strike again

Africa may be on top but the Asian champions, who beat Iraq 3-0 to make it nine points from three games, should be a match for anyone in the knockout stage on home soil and should be able to get past the UAE in a rerun of the 2019 Asian Cup semi-final.

Akram Afif was the standout player in Asia in 2019 as was confirmed by the Asian Football Confederation in that year’s awards. The winger has had his ups and downs since but looks to be returning to his best form for his country and his late cameo in the second half made a big difference.

Even more encouraging is that Almoez Ali also got on the scoresheet. Afif and Ali struck fear into the hearts of Asian defenses in 2019 and also linked up well in the Concacaf Gold Cup in the summer. If Qatar are going to go all the way on home soil, these two need to be at their best not just individually but together. The signs are encouraging.

4. Morocco look ominous

Much has been made of the fact that Morocco have scored nine goals in their three wins so far, ending in that 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia. What has been impressive is that the goals have been spread around the team, coming from all directions.

Yet, despite that offensive threat, it was striking that against Saudi Arabia in the final game, one that Morocco did not have to get anything from as they were already through, the team worked so hard to keep a clean sheet. It worked and has left the goals against column remaining blank.

Nine changes were made from the team that defeated Jordan three days earlier but there was still an organization in the team with the replacements fitting snugly into the system. They were fresh and worked just as hard as the first teamers on and off the ball.

Morocco have the strength in depth, the talent, the team ethic, and the organization to go all the way.

5. Iraq’s woe continues

The 3-0 loss to Qatar looked bad but it was goalless with 10 minutes left. That sums up Iraq’s year.

In the first half of 2021, Iraq were the form team in Asia. The 1-0 win over Hong Kong in June in the previous round of World Cup qualification, made it 19 games unbeaten (including a 2-2 draw with Bahrain in the 2019 Gulf Cup which ended with a penalty shootout defeat).

Then Srecko Katanec left after a salary dispute and the team has not won any of the last nine. Dick Advocaat has come and gone and now his former assistant Zeljko Petrovic looks to be struggling.

The Arab Cup was a chance for a reset, but it did not quite happen. A late equalizer against Oman could have been a springboard for a strong finish but then came the 0-0 draw with Bahrain, a game that Iraq had to win as Qatar came next.

The Asian champions were always going to be tough but had Yaser Kasim’s lovely first-half shot not hit the inside of the post and had Mohammed Qasim’s strike not hit the outside of the post with 11 minutes remaining when the scoreline was still goalless, then it could have been an Iraq win instead of a 3-0 loss.


Simona Halep battles service demons to stay alive at Australian Open

Simona Halep battles service demons to stay alive at Australian Open
Updated 20 sec ago

Simona Halep battles service demons to stay alive at Australian Open

Simona Halep battles service demons to stay alive at Australian Open
  • Error-strewn clash with Poland’s Magdalena Frech which saw 11 service breaks
  • Both players struggled to hold serve in the opening set
MELBOURNE: Former world number one Simona Halep labored into the Australian Open second round Tuesday after an error-strewn clash with Poland’s Magdalena Frech which saw 11 service breaks.
The fit-again Romanian 14th seed came into the Grand Slam full of confidence after her first title in 16 months at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament this month.
But she struggled to find her groove against the 102nd-ranked Pole before banking the win 6-4, 6-3 on Margaret Court Arena to keep her dreams of a third major title alive.
“I found it so difficult today, I was unsure if I could play good tennis,” she said.
“But in the end I won and that makes me very happy. Hopefully this week I can play better and better.”
Halep, the runner-up in 2018 to Caroline Wozniacki and semifinalist two years later, is on her way back after a truncated 2021 season when she struggled with calf and knee injuries.
And it was a far from convincing performance, with both players struggling to hold serve in the opening set, with Frech broken three times and Halep twice.
Ultimately, the Romanian was stronger in the rallies and she finally sealed the set on serve with a trademark backhand down the line.
Neither player’s serve improved in the second set with Halep immediately breaking before Frech went on a three-game win streak as the error-count mounted.
Halep then reeled off five games in a row to ensure victory and a second round clash with either American qualifier Katie Volynets or Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia.

Nadal, Barty impress but Djokovic looms over Australian Open

Nadal, Barty impress but Djokovic looms over Australian Open
Updated 17 January 2022

Nadal, Barty impress but Djokovic looms over Australian Open

Nadal, Barty impress but Djokovic looms over Australian Open
  • Osaka successfully opens title defense but Gauff an early big-name casualty

MELBOURNE: Rafael Nadal and Ashleigh Barty made devastating starts to their Australian Open title campaigns on Monday as the Grand Slam attempted to move on from the Novak Djokovic visa saga.

Naomi Osaka launched the defense of her women’s crown with victory but Coco Gauff was an early big-name casualty. The American 17-year-old dumped out in straight sets by Wang Qiang, who is ranked outside the top 100.

The only Australian Open champion in the men’s draw after nine-time winner Djokovic’s deportation, Nadal started his quest to become the first male to win 21 Grand Slams by sweeping aside 66th-ranked Marcos Giron, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2.

The draw has opened up for the Spanish great with defending champion Djokovic out of the picture and the other member of the “Big Three,”  Roger Federer, not at Melbourne Park because of injury.

But the 35-year-old Nadal said he was just relieved to be playing tennis after Djokovic’s refusal to get vaccinated against COVID overshadowed the first Grand Slam of the year right up until the last moment.

Although Djokovic’s absence is good news for Nadal’s tilt at men’s tennis history, he said he would rather the world No. 1 from Serbia was playing.

“The ideal situation in the world of sport is that the best players are on court,” said Nadal, who plays Germany’s Yannick Hanfmann in the second round.

He may not be there, but Djokovic still looms over the tournament.

Nadal was all guns blazing at Rod Laver Arena, showing no apparent ill effects from a foot injury he suffered last year and then being “very sick” with COVID in December.

“Today is one victory in the first Grand Slam. Happy for that. One month ago situation had been different — looks very ugly in some way,” he said.

Other winners in the men’s draw on day one of the so-called “Happy Slam,” where crowds have been capped at 50 percent because of the pandemic, included seventh seed Matteo Berrettini.

The Italian defeated American Brandon Nakashima in four sets despite tummy trouble.

Also through was third seed Alexander Zverev in the night match, but 12th-seeded Briton Cameron Norrie lost in three sets to Sebastian Korda, the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda.

There was to be no fairytale run for “lucky loser” Salvatore Caruso.

The Italian had earned a place in the main draw when Djokovic was deported but he fell at the first hurdle.

In the women’s draw, top seed and world No.1 Barty made a real statement of intent, crushing qualifier Lesia Tsurenko in 54 minutes, 6-0, 6-1.

The 25-year-old faces Lucia Bronzetti of Italy next as the pre-tournament favorite and home hope chases a maiden Australian Open title.

“There’s always something special about playing on a Monday night in the Australian Open,” said Barty, who will need to deal with high expectations from the home fans.

Japan’s former world No. 1 Osaka, the reigning champion, was also largely untroubled with a 6-3, 6-3 win against Colombia’s Camila Osorio.

Seeded 13 after a disrupted 2021 in which she said she had suffered “long bouts of depression,”  Osaka cruised through in 68 minutes.

“I would say I feel more comfortable in my skin, if that makes sense,” said the 24-year-old, who won the title at Melbourne Park in 2019 and 2021. She will play American Madison Brengle next.

Also through are French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, Greek fifth seed Maria Sakkari and reigning Olympic champion Belinda Bencic.

But there was heartbreak for Tunisian ninth seed Ons Jabeur, who did not even make it onto court and withdrew because of injury before her match.

Also out was the 18th-seeded prodigy Gauff, surprisingly losing 6-4, 6-2 to China’s Wang.

“I think just everything disappointed me about today,” said Gauff.

“I feel like in the pre-season, I worked really hard, and I felt like I was ready to have a good run here.

“Today I just didn’t perform well.”


Two Saudi skiers make history by qualifying for Winter Olympics

Saudi skiers, Salman Al-Howaish and Fayik Abdi have qualified to compete in Alpine skiing races at the Beijing Games. (Twitter/@saudiolympic)
Saudi skiers, Salman Al-Howaish and Fayik Abdi have qualified to compete in Alpine skiing races at the Beijing Games. (Twitter/@saudiolympic)
Updated 17 January 2022

Two Saudi skiers make history by qualifying for Winter Olympics

Saudi skiers, Salman Al-Howaish and Fayik Abdi have qualified to compete in Alpine skiing races at the Beijing Games. (Twitter/@saudiolympic)
  • Salman Al-Howaish qualified for the slalom and Fayik Abdi for the giant slalom, according to the international skiing federation (FIS) website

RIYADH: You might be forgiven for thinking the Beijing Winter Olympics next month might not be the kind of event at which to expect athletes from Saudi Arabia. But think again.

Saudi skiers, Salman Al-Howaish and Fayik Abdi have qualified to compete in Alpine skiing races at the Beijing Games, according to Saudi Press Agency.

The giant slalom has attracted competitors from countries with no medal-winning record in the sport — such as violinist Vanessa Mae who competed for Thailand at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Al-Howaish qualified for the slalom and Abdi for the giant slalom, according to the international skiing federation (FIS) website.

Final places are yet to be assigned by the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee, but Saudi Arabia, where temperatures can hit 52 degrees Celsius, has overcome the first hurdle in its quest to participated in its first Winter Olympics.

Other nations currently on the list to compete against Alpine skiers from countries such as Austria and Norway in Beijing include India, Brazil, Ghana, Haiti and the Philippines.

The Games run from Feb. 4-20.


Super Cup deal with Spain ‘will boost Saudi football’: Spanish soccer chief Luis Rubiales

Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)
Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)
Updated 17 January 2022

Super Cup deal with Spain ‘will boost Saudi football’: Spanish soccer chief Luis Rubiales

Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)
  • Spanish Super Cup deal underlines Kingdom’s footballing ambitions with plans to lift national team ‘to next level’

RIYADH: The deal between the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and its Spanish counterpart to host the Spanish Super Cup competition until 2029 will mean more to the country than just hosting games.

The exchange of knowledge, supporting initiatives and collaborations will open new horizons for the Kingdom’s national team and Saudi football as a whole.

“We have seen the Saudi football team and they have a good chance of qualifying for the World Cup. I think they are doing a good job, and it is not all due to the help they receive from federations such as the Spanish one, but also because they have people who are working very well in this country,” said Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation.

Rubiales supports efforts by Saudi footballing authorities to call on other federations around the world in order to maximize the benefits on all fronts, and acknowledges the commitment shown by the Saudi federation and its president, Yasser Al-Misehal.

Managers and coaches of both countries have been exchanging visits, developing powerful programs to create stronger homegrown players and agendas that will help lift the Saudi national team to the next level.

“We are collaborating in referee training and coach training,” said Rubiales.

The Saudi federation has also been sending players to Spain on one-year camps as part of a grassroots approach to the development of young players in the Kingdom.

A similar initiative in the 2017/2018 season followed an agreement between La Liga and SAFF, with nine Saudi players sent on loan having the opportunity to meet and train with players from La Liga.

Among those who took part were Salem Al-Dossary and Fahad Al-Muwallad, two of the key players in the Saudi national team.

Rubiales said that the two federations also have collaborated on the exchange of knowledge and development of Saudi female players in the national team.

Female players made an official visit to Spain where they met Spanish football players and federation members.

The agreement between the Saudi and Spanish federations highlights working with the latest infrastructure, including stadiums.

“It is very important to work with the best tools and best stadiums, and in that aspect there has been tremendous evolution,” Rubiales said.

King Fahd International Stadium has received an extensive upgrade, and the Saudi Ministry of Sports is committed to encouraging key investments in sports infrastructure and athletes’ development.

Rubiales said that a working formula implemented under the agreement will benefit both federations and players in the long term.

“There will be Saudi players who will go to the European league, I have no doubt,” he added.


2022 Diriyah E-Prix gives fans a shot at free tickets as all-electric racing series returns to Saudi Arabia 

2022 Diriyah E-Prix gives fans a shot at free tickets as all-electric racing series returns to Saudi Arabia 
Updated 17 January 2022

2022 Diriyah E-Prix gives fans a shot at free tickets as all-electric racing series returns to Saudi Arabia 

2022 Diriyah E-Prix gives fans a shot at free tickets as all-electric racing series returns to Saudi Arabia 
  • Formula E season eight will light up with night race doubleheader on Jan. 28-29

RIYADH: Formula E makes its return to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 28-29 with the streets of Diriyah coming alive under lights for the all-electric grid’s opening weekend of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship’s eighth season.

Racing fans have the chance to win free tickets for the doubleheader of races following the launch of experiential activation booths across Riyadh.

Booths at four popular locations in the Saudi capital — UWalk, Panorama Mall, Riyadh Park and Al-Nakheel Mall — will be open for visitors from 4 p.m. till 11 p.m. daily until Jan. 27, the eve of the first race.

Fans will be able to learn more about how Formula E is redefining motorsports through the a fusion of entertainment, sustainability, technology and innovation.

In an effort to raise awareness about environmental protection and the importance of recycling, visitors will be able to enjoy branded basketball shooting challenges in buckets of specific recycled items for an opportunity to win tickets for the race weekend. They will also be able to pose for pictures next to a condensed structure of Formula E’s Gen-2 car.

The doubleheader race has cemented its place on the Formula E calendar as it returns to the Kingdom for the fourth year running. It comes as part of a 10-year partnership between Formula E and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sport and the Saudi Automobile and Motorsports Federation.

The internationally renowned street racing track around the Diriyah UNESCO World Heritage site will come alive under the floodlights again as 11 teams and 22 drivers representing 11 nations from the US to New Zealand and Brazil to France battle it out for the first points of the new season.

Visitors will also be able to buy tickets directly from the booths, with prices starting at SR150 ($40) for grandstand access. Tickets are also available online via diriyah-eprix.com.