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.


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.

 


Al-Hilal handed kind draw in 2022 AFC Champions League group stages

Al-Hilal handed kind draw in 2022 AFC Champions League group stages
Updated 17 January 2022

Al-Hilal handed kind draw in 2022 AFC Champions League group stages

Al-Hilal handed kind draw in 2022 AFC Champions League group stages
  • Asian, Saudi champions will get chance to avenge only defeat on way to last year’s record 4th continental title, while Al-Shabab, Al-Faisaly will face UAE, Qatari powerhouses

RIYADH: When Al-Hilal lifted a record fourth Asian title in November to spark celebrations among millions of fans, there was one slight tinge of regret.

The Saudi Arabian giants lost 4-1 to tournament debutants Istiklol in the group stage and only made it to the last 16 by the narrowest of margins.

The draw for the 2022 AFC Champions League, made on Monday in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, has given the Saudi champions a chance for revenge against the Tajikistan powerhouse.

Al-Hilal, who defeated Pohang Steelers of South Korea in November’s final, have been placed in Group A of this year’s edition along with Istiklol as well as Al-Rayyan of Qatar. The lineup will be completed by the winner of the play-off between Sharjah of the UAE and Iraq’s Al-Zawraa. All six group games will take place between April 7 and 27 at a yet to be disclosed venue.

It is a draw that will likely be welcomed by coach Leonardo Jardim as continental powerhouses have been avoided – the recent expulsion of Iranian giants Persepolis and Esteghlal is a shame for the tournament but does make things easier for the others.

Istiklol will not be underestimated, however. They ended 2021 with another dominant win in the Tajikistan Higher League, finishing a full 13 points clear of their closest challenger. Al-Hilal fans will remember Manuchekhr Dzhalilov who scored twice in that 4-1 win and the veteran striker ended as top scorer once more in his home league with 18 goals.

The top two teams in Qatar, Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail, have been avoided with Al-Rayyan finishing 25 points behind the former and 12 behind the runners-up. In fact, Laurent Blanc’s men were closer to relegation than the title. Al-Hilal would have few fears of facing either of the play-off winners.

Al-Shabab return to Asia for the first time since 2015 and will also be in the hunt for top spot in Group B. Last season’s Saudi Pro League runners-up will be looking at Al-Jazira of the UAE as their main rivals. The Abu Dhabi club, fifth in the current league season, are UAE champions and have one of Asia’s most feared strikers in Ali Mabkhout, although Al-Shabab, currently in second in Saudi Arabia, have plenty of attacking talent of their own in Odion Ighalo and Ever Banega.

There will be an interesting clash with Mumbai City. The Indian debutants are part of the City Football Group, are coached by Englishman Des Buckingham, and are currently fourth in the Indian Super League. Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya complete a group that Al-Shabab will be looking to get out of.

Al-Faisaly may currently be preoccupied with a relegation battle at home but that may mean a first-ever Asian campaign will come as a welcome respite. A meeting with Qatari powerhouse Al-Sadd, who won their local league by 13 points last season (in a league that has just 22 games) will be tough but Al-Faisaly have shown in winning the King’s Cup that they are a match for any team on their day.

They will be joined by Jordanian giants Al-Wehdat and the winner of the play-off between UAE team Baniyas and Nasaf Qarshi of Uzbekistan. It should be an interesting challenge for Daniel Ramos’ men especially if they can pull away from the drop zone at home before the continental tournament starts.

Al-Taawoun are also fighting against the drop but will move into the group stage if they win a play-off against Syria’s Al-Jaish. If so, a tough campaign awaits with Al-Duhail of Qatar, Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor, and Sepahan of Iran.

Only the top team from each of the five groups in the western zone — the tournament is divided into two geographic halves until the final — are sure of a place in the second round where they will be joined by the three best-performing runners-up.

There are also other issues to be decided. The Asian Football Confederation ruled last week that each of the groups will be held in one centralized venue. The host cities have yet to be announced.

The timings have been changed too, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the 2022 World Cup that will take place in November and December. After the group stage ends on April 27, teams will have to wait until February 2023 to start the knockout rounds. The two-legged final is scheduled to take place on Feb.19 and 26.


Saudi Arabia bags nine medals at 2022 Asian Rowing Virtual Indoor Championships

Saudi Arabia bags nine medals at 2022 Asian Rowing Virtual Indoor Championships
Updated 17 January 2022

Saudi Arabia bags nine medals at 2022 Asian Rowing Virtual Indoor Championships

Saudi Arabia bags nine medals at 2022 Asian Rowing Virtual Indoor Championships
  • Winners book their places at world rowing indoor titles in February

RIYADH: Saudi rowers have bagged nine medals, including two golds, at the 2022 Asian Rowing Virtual Indoor Championships to qualify for the upcoming world championships.

Mohammed Al-Matrood and Faten Mirza clinched gold in the 2,000m and 500m races in the masters category, while Khaled Shaker won silver in the 500m masters category and Iman Rafiq finished second in the open category in the 500m.

Bronze medals were claimed by Omar Al-Sayed in the men’s under-16 2,000m race, Khaled Shaker in the 2,000m masters event, and Kariman Abu Al-Jadayel in the open women’s 2,000m race.

The Saudi medalists have now qualified for the 2022 World Rowing Indoor Championships on Feb. 25-26.

Ali Hussein Ali Reda, chairman of the Saudi Rowing Federation, congratulated the Saudi team as well as technical and administrative staff.

“We are proud of this achievement and we look forward to more hard work to achieve the best results at the upcoming championships, within the strategic plan that we have set,” he said.

Youssef Wael Julidan, the federation’s executive director, said that the medals were the result of hard work by competitors and coaches in recent months.


Morocco progress, Algeria stumble: 5 things we learned from Arab nations’ second round of matches at 2021 Africa Cup of Nations

Morocco progress, Algeria stumble: 5 things we learned from Arab nations’ second round of matches at 2021 Africa Cup of Nations
Updated 17 January 2022

Morocco progress, Algeria stumble: 5 things we learned from Arab nations’ second round of matches at 2021 Africa Cup of Nations

Morocco progress, Algeria stumble: 5 things we learned from Arab nations’ second round of matches at 2021 Africa Cup of Nations
  • Mohamed Salah’s goal gives Egypt a much-needed win, while Tunisia recovers from controversial defeat to Mali to thrash Mauritania

The second round of matches at the delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations saw the tournament get into gear, with redemption and mouth-watering final group games awaiting. Here are five things we learned from the latest round of action.

1. Algeria lose record chance, but have bigger issues

Algeria’s 1-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea is the shock of the tournament so far. This was the game when the defending champions were expected to extend their unbeaten record to 36, one short of Italy’s world record. That chance has gone, but coach Djamel Belmadi has bigger problems as his team are bottom of the group with one point and need a win against leaders Ivory Coast on Thursday.

The Desert Foxes were awful on Sunday and it is no surprise that they have yet to score a goal. After winning the Arab Cup with the “A” team in December, it was expected that when the big European stars arrived, they would go to the next level. But this was a disjointed and plodding performance. The best team in Africa were reduced to launching long balls in the direction of Islam Slimani.

Just as worrying was the body language of the players. There is a lot of work to do before a huge game against Ivory Coast, the biggest of the final round of matches. 

2. Egypt deserve their first win, but still a little lucky

After a hugely disappointing defeat against Nigeria in the opener, Egypt needed a win against Guinea-Bissau for all kinds of reasons. The 1-0 victory was deserved — the Pharaohs created plenty of chances and hit the woodwork on three occasions — but it came with some fortune.

The good news is that Mohamed Salah, ineffectual almost to the point of invisibility in the first game, scored. The Liverpool star was much busier here and volleyed home what turned out to be the winner at the far post in the second half.

But Egypt were almost left to rue their wastefulness and had VAR to thank for the points. Guinea-Bissau’s shooting had been a little wayward, but with eight minutes remaining Mama Balde cut into the box from the left side and curled home a beauty. The referee went to check a possible foul in the build-up and the goal was ruled out.

It was the kind of win that will not be long remembered, but one that can get a team’s tournament up and running. 

3. Morocco in a great position, but need to take chances

Morocco defeated Comoros 2-0 in the second game to become the second team, after hosts Cameroon, to book a place in the round of 16. The Atlas Lions have yet to concede a goal, and a draw in the final game against Gabon, who will also be sure of second place with a point, and first place is assured.

While the challenges have not been especially serious yet, Vahid Halilhodzic’s men are looking solid defensively, but need to become more clinical in the final third. The coach was visibly frustrated as his team missed chance after chance against the tournament debutants, though Morocco are unlikely to come up against a goalkeeper as impressive as Salim Ben Boina very often.

Despite the kinks that need to be ironed out, Morocco are exactly where they want to be — preparing for the group stage with a game to spare.

4. Tunisia take Mali frustration out on Mauritania

The big talking point of the first round was the referee blowing for full-time before the 90 minutes was up as Tunisia lost 1-0 to Mali. The Carthage Eagles channelled their anger in the right way and were two goals up inside the first 10 minutes as they defeated Mauritania 4-0.

There was never any doubt as to the outcome once Tunisia were ahead, and the winning margin would have been bigger had substitute Youssef Msakni not hit the post with a late penalty. 

Coach Mondher Kebaier will be delighted that captain and talismanic forward Wahbi Khazri scored twice and looked lively. There will be tougher tests to come for Tunisia, but at least the team look to be moving through the gears. The initial target is to avoid unnecessarily tough opposition in the knockout round, and that means finishing in the top two in the group to avoid a possible meeting with Morocco. Defeat surprise group leaders Gambia and all will be well.

5. Sudan still fighting

A 3-1 loss to Nigeria was not unexpected as the Super Eagles were on top from start to finish. Sudan asked a few questions, however, and can take confidence from their performance against a team that has been perhaps the most impressive in the tournament so far. 

Nigerian star Moses Simon was impressed with the Secretary Birds, and agreed that the game with Sudan was harder than the previous win over Egypt. 

“We knew they were more difficult for us, but we expected it and we were ready for them,” he said.

Sudan may be bottom of the group with one point along with Guinea-Bissau, but still have the chance for glory.

If the Secretary Birds can defeat neighbors Egypt in the final game, a big if to be sure, then they will go through to the next stage and pick up one of their biggest results since winning the title in 1970.


5 burning questions to be answered at the 2022 Australian Open

5 burning questions to be answered at the 2022 Australian Open
Updated 17 January 2022

5 burning questions to be answered at the 2022 Australian Open

5 burning questions to be answered at the 2022 Australian Open
  • Novak Djokovic’s controversial deportation has overshadowed what will be yet another intriguing tournament in Melbourne

Novak Djokovic has been deported, the world’s top tennis players are in position and the Australian Open officially kicks off its main draw action on Monday. Here are some burning questions we could get answered in the upcoming fortnight in Melbourne.  

1. Will we have a new men’s world No.1 by the end of the Australian Open?

Djokovic’s absence means world No.2 Daniil Medvedev is the highest-ranked player in the tournament draw and the in-form Russian will be seen as the main contender for the title at Melbourne Park.

Medvedev, a finalist at the Australian Open to Djokovic 11 months ago and a maiden major champion at the US Open last September, is bidding to become the first man in the open era to win a second grand slam title on his next grand slam appearance.

The 25-year-old is also looking to become only the sixth man in the open era to win the Australian Open after winning the US Open in the previous season.

But, more importantly, should Medvedev manage to lift the trophy on Rod Laver Arena in two weeks’ time, he will replace Djokovic as the new world No.1 and become the first player outside the “Big Four” (Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray) to reach the summit of the rankings since Andy Roddick last occupied the top spot in February 2004.

World No.3 and German reigning ATP Finals champion Alexander Zverev also has a shot at dethroning Djokovic if he clinches the Australian Open crown.

2. Can Nadal break the men’s all-time grand slam record?

Nadal is the only former champion in the men’s singles draw at this Australian Open and the Spaniard has a golden chance to claim an all-time men’s record 21st grand slam title this fortnight, with Djokovic and Federer — the two players he shares the record with — both missing the tournament.

The sixth-seeded Nadal, who opens his campaign against American Marcos Giron on Monday, is contesting his first major since his semifinal exit at Roland Garros last June.

The Mallorcan has been dealing with a foot injury that forced him to miss Wimbledon and the US Open and is coming off a bout of COVID-19 but has made a reassuring return to the tour by winning the Melbourne Summer Set ATP 250 tournament in the build-up to this Australian Open.

The question remains whether his body will allow him to compete in a best-of-five format over the next two weeks.

“One day we’re going to see it. I can’t tell you a clear or accurate answer because I didn’t play best-of-five since Roland Garros,” Nadal said on Saturday.

“I just want to go day by day. Of course, I’m going to keep trying my best to improve. But every day I spend on court, I think it’s positive. Every match that I am able to win, it’s very important for my confidence, it’s important for my physical performance, and you never know what can happen later.”

3. Can Osaka defend a title for the first time?

World No.14 Naomi Osaka lifted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup in both 2019 and 2021, and has won 22 of her last 23 matches in Melbourne.

The four-time major champion and seven-time titlist overall has never successfully defended a title and will be looking to change that at the Australian Open.

The Japanese former world No.1 returned to the tour a couple of weeks ago after a four-month absence and reached the quarterfinals of the Melbourne Summer Set tournament in her first event back. She retired ahead of her semifinal with an abdominal injury but is not too concerned ahead of her Australian Open first round against Colombian Camila Osorio on Monday.

“I heal quite fast. I’m as good as I can be in this current moment,” she said on Saturday.

4. Can Muguruza keep up her momentum from last season?

Two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza finished 2021 with a bang, clinching the WTA Finals in Guadalajara to move back up to No.3 in the world rankings.

The Spanish former world No.1 lost the Australian Open final to Sofia Kenin two years ago and has some unfinished business at Melbourne Park.

Muguruza had a long 2021 season that ended mid-November in Mexico,  which could serve her well when it comes to maintaining form and momentum.

“I think I really focused on getting the necessary rest because you’re not losing your tennis. I think you prioritize getting back the energy, refresh the mindset and everything,” the 28-year-old said.

5. Will Barty keep her No.1 streak going?

Reigning Wimbledon champion Ash Barty will kick off her 104th consecutive week at No.1 entering this Australian Open, the fifth-longest streak in WTA history.

Two players could potentially unseat Barty at the top of the rankings: No.2 Aryna Sabalenka and No.4 Barbora Krejcikova.

Sabalenka needs to reach at least the final to have a chance of gaining the summit, but also needs Barty to lose before the title decider.

Meanwhile, Krejcikova will need to reach the final to have a chance of clinching the top spot.

If Barty reaches the third round or Sabalenka makes it to the final, then Krejcikova would move to No.1 only by winning the title. If Barty advances to the semis, Krejcikova cannot overtake the Australian.