Six storylines to look out for at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Six storylines to look out for at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Max Verstappen, winner of nine races so far this season, believes he has been unfairly treated by the stewards. (AP)
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Updated 10 December 2021

Six storylines to look out for at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Six storylines to look out for at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
  • Drivers hope season finale will be a clean race as both championships go down to the wire

All eyes will be on Yas Marina Circuit this weekend as the fierce Formula One battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen reaches its climax with the closing Grand Prix of the season. Here are six storylines to to look out for.

1. Drivers hope for clean race as both championships come down to the wire

With the top two drivers arriving to Abu Dhabi equal on points in the standings, and their teams, Mercedes and Red Bull, also battling to the end for the constructors’ title, everything is on the line in the UAE capital.

Given how intense the rivalry between Hamilton and Verstappen has grown these past few months, many expect the championship to be decided by a collision rather than an incident-free race on Sunday, but the title contenders played down such thoughts.

“Just going into the weekend, I don’t put any energy towards that sort of thing,” Hamilton said on Thursday. “At the end of the day I do believe that everyone here racing comes to win; I’d like to believe everyone wants to do it the right way, so I don’t even let that creep into my mind.”

Verstappen, winner of nine races so far this season, believes he has been unfairly treated by the stewards during recent events and said it is clear that “for me there are different rules, compared to some other drivers out there.”

He added: “We’re both here to win. I will do, of course, everything to win and win the championship ultimately, whatever is necessary in terms of points.

“I think we’ve raced really well together already the whole year and I think we put on a great show for everyone at the end of the day, so hopefully we can do that again here.”

The duo have indeed injected a great deal of excitement into Formula One this year and even their fellow drivers are intrigued by what might unfold in Abu Dhabi.

AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly said that when he returned his hotel after the race in Jeddah last Sunday he immediately watched the highlights.

“I was like, woah, that was a great race to watch in terms of the battles they give us and how close it gets between the two and how far they’re pushing the limits between each other,” said the Frenchman.

“It’s just an amazing time for the entire F1 community, and our sport in general, and mostly I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen this weekend.

“I think Max will have the edge in the end. I’m not sure they’re going to finish the race but I think Red Bull and Max will get it.”

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso also tipped Verstappen for the title, saying the Dutchman has had the better year overall.

“Max is driving, in my opinion, one step ahead of all of us,” he said. “We saw the lap in Jeddah: until he touched the wall in the last corner, that lap was coming from Max, not from the Red Bull.

“In a way, but that’s my opinion, Mercedes deserve the constructors’ championship because the car is superior and Max, maybe overall in the year, was driving one step ahead of everyone.”

Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen said if he had to pick a winner, it would be “the Red Bull to win it, just something different, you know.” Williams driver George Russell, meanwhile, said he backs fellow Brit Hamilton.

“I’d love to see Lewis win,” said Russell. “What he’s achieved, especially recently, has been pretty exceptional, and to even be in the fight (at all) when Red Bull had such a far superior car at the start of the year... when you look back at the start, Max won three of the first four races when Red Bull were clearly the quickest package out there.

“Max has done an exceptional job — you can argue that they both deserve to win for different reasons but hopefully it’s a clean and fair race and the best man wins.”

2. History on the line

Should Hamilton win this weekend, the 36-year-old will become the first driver to claim eight F1 World Championship titles, breaking the record he currently shares with Michael Schumacher.

The Mercedes driver, who has won six of the last seven championships, has surpassed several of Schumacher’s records, including the German’s mark for most pole positions and most grand prix victories, and now has another within his reach.

“At the moment it just feels like another championship for me, I don’t look at it as a multiple,” Hamilton said on Thursday.

“I always look at every season and every year as you start from ground zero, and you’re the hunter and you’re fighting from the moment you start training, the moment you get into the new year and you’re training and focused on winning.

“I don’t turn up with No.1 in my car, I turn up with No.44 and I don’t consider myself the champion that year, I consider myself the one that’s fighting for the championship.”

3. Kimi’s swansong

Alfa Romeo’s Raikkonen will bid farewell to F1 for a second time after his 349th and final race this weekend in Abu Dhabi.

A man of few words, the “Iceman” gave one of his famous one-liners during his drive to victory at Yas Marina Circuit in 2012.

“Just leave me alone, I know what to do,” he said over the team radio after receiving instructions during the race. Clearly, he sis indeed know what he was doing.

The 2007 world champion, who quit F1 for two years before returning in 2012, said he doubts he will feel emotional on Sunday, “but you never know.” He added that he expects his wife, Minttu, will feel it for the both of them.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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4. Last race for Bottas in a Mercedes, Russell bids farewell to Williams

Another Finn getting ready to say goodbye this weekend, not to F1 but to his team of five years, is Valtteri Bottas, who will race for Mercedes for the last time on Sunday before jumping ship to Alfa Romeo next season.

The 32-year-old, who secured the 67th podium of his career on the final corner of the last lap in Jeddah, said he has “mixed feelings” about his time with the Silver Arrows, with whom he claimed 10 race victories but was unable to fulfill his dream of clinching the World Championship.

Having already bagged third place in the 2021 championship, Bottas said he is willing to do what is necessary to help Hamilton and Mercedes walk away from Abu Dhabi with two titles.

“Of course I’ll try to qualify in pole position, that’s my goal for Saturday, and then I will try to win the race,” he said. “It will depend on the situation because Lewis doesn’t actually need to win the race, he needs to finish ahead of Max, so let’s see how it goes.

“But I’m definitely willing to play it as a team because I’ve secured my third place. As long as we can get the constructors’ (title), hopefully, I’d rather have my teammate win than opposition, so it will depend on the situation but he’s got my support.”

Meanwhile, Russell, who will take the seat vacated by Bottas at Mercedes next year, had some warm words for Williams, the team for which he has driven in F1 since 2019.

“They gave me my first opportunity in Formula One, which I’ll forever be grateful for,” said the 23-year-old.

“They helped mold me into a better all-round driver, helped me learn the technical side of this sport much more and to develop my skills. Above all, you build these bonds and friendships with people, especially through good times, and even the tough times; you grow closer together with so many of your core group of people and that will last forever.

5. Close battle for fifth place

Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz take their three-way battle for fifth place in the drivers’ championship into the final race weekend.

Ferrari’s Leclerc leads McLaren’s Norris by a mere four points in the standings, while Sainz, driving the other Ferrari, is 4.5 points further back.

Norris’ last two appearances at Yas Marina Circuit ended with fifth place in 2020 and eighth in 2019. Leclerc’s best finish in the UAE was two years ago when he finished third.

Norris believes the fight with Ferrari will greatly help him and his McLaren team next season when they’re in a position to battle with cars further up the grid.

“Just being with that mentality of them keeping us on our toes, them keeping us pushing, trying to find the smallest bits of lap time,” he said.

“I think it’s easy at times to get complacent and start to take your mind off this, especially if you’re on your own. If there’s no one ahead of you and no one behind you, there’s definitely ways to fall into that trap.

“So I think it’s been good for us, probably the same for them, that it’s not been an easy year for them, so I think it’s definitely benefited both of us.”

Sainz has finished sixth twice in Abu Dhabi and will be looking to beat his teammate this weekend after being passed by Leclerc on the final corner in Jeddah.

6. New layout could make for ‘fun’ race

After stops at new tracks in Doha and Jeddah, for the season finale the drivers return to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit, which made its F1 debut in 2009 and will remain on the calendar for at least another 10 years.

It might be a place they are familiar with but some key changes have been made to the circuit layout this year, in an effort to improve the race experience.

Historically, it has been difficult for drivers to overtake at Yas Marina but the renovations, including shortening the length of the circuit to make for shorter and faster laps, could result in a more exciting race on Sunday.

“From what I’ve seen in the simulator, it’s fun,” said Leclerc. “It’s obviously quite different, especially turn 5 and turn 10, and the last sector also is quite a bit quicker, with different types of corners, which I think will be easier to follow.

“Whether that will make us a bit more competitive or not, I have no idea.”

Alonso said he is curious to see how the changes will affect the racing and hopes the title will be decided on a circuit that provides ample overtaking opportunities.


Chicherit takes victory in Morocco, Loeb responds with stage win for Bahrain Raid Xtreme

Chicherit takes victory in Morocco, Loeb responds with stage win for Bahrain Raid Xtreme
Updated 7 sec ago

Chicherit takes victory in Morocco, Loeb responds with stage win for Bahrain Raid Xtreme

Chicherit takes victory in Morocco, Loeb responds with stage win for Bahrain Raid Xtreme
  • Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi took fourth place overall in another Toyota Hilux, while Qatar’s Al-Attiyah now leads in world title race

AGADIR: Guerlain Chicherit took his Prodriver Hunter to a milestone victory in the Rallye Du Maroc today as Sebastien Loeb produced a brilliant last-stage win for Bahrain Raid Xtreme.

Partnered by fellow-Frenchman Alex Winocq, Chicherit extended his overnight lead to reach the finish in Agadir with a 10-minute, 55-second margin over Orlando Terranova and Alex Haro in their BRX Prodrive Hunter.

After being forced to retire from the penultimate leg with steering problems, BRX star Loeb produced the perfect response alongside co-driver Fabian Lurquin, setting the fastest time on the final leg to keep alive his title hopes in the World Rally-Raid Championship, or W2RC.

Second fastest on the day, having led the rally since the end of Tuesday’s third stage, Chicherit went into the record books by securing a maiden rally victory — surely the first of many — for the impressive Hunter.

Significantly, all three Prodrive Hunters completed the rally running on sustainable Eco-Power fuel, which reduces CO2 emissions by 80 percent.

Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah is the new W2RC leader after finishing third overall in his Toyota Hilux, just over 29 minutes adrift of Chicherit and almost 19 mins away from runner-up Terranova. Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi took fourth place overall in another Toyota Hilux.

Loeb had been firmly on course to extend his lead in the W2RC when he started the previous day’s stage, lying third overall, with a lead of almost 23 minutes over Al-Attiyah.

But 127 km into the stage, he was halted by steering problems, which eventually forced his retirement for the day, with the BRX team working through the night to put the Prodrive Hunter back in action today.

The final leg, which returned the Rallye Du Maroc to Agadir, was as challenging as it was spectacular: 185 km of special stage and 189 km of liaison, all along the Atlantic coast, finishing with a 10 km beach run along the famous Plage Blanche.

From the start, Loeb had his sights on maximum W2RC points as the stage winner, setting the pace on the first 30 km and gradually increasing his lead over Chicherit at 93 km, 249 km and 274 km, before cruising home along the white beach with 1 minute, 8 seconds to spare.


High-flying Saudis face Kuwait, test 2023 Asian U-17 Championship

High-flying Saudis face Kuwait, test 2023 Asian U-17 Championship
Updated 8 min 29 sec ago

High-flying Saudis face Kuwait, test 2023 Asian U-17 Championship

High-flying Saudis face Kuwait, test 2023 Asian U-17 Championship
  • A couple of big wins over Myanmar and Maldives leave the young Green Falcons top of their group and on course for next year’s finals

Saudi Arabia’s young footballers continue to set high standards and are once again eyeing an age group tournament success.

The Young Falcons thrashed Maldives 9-0 on Wednesday in the second qualification game of the 2023 Asian U-17 Championship to stay on top of Group D and on course for a place at next year’s tournament.

Following the 6-0 defeat of Myanmar in the opening round two days previously, the most recent win keeps the Saudis three points ahead of India in second and Kuwait in third, the opponents in the next two games. Only the 10 group winners are guaranteed qualification, along with the six best-placed runners-up. With the start Saudi Arabia have made — as well as the advantage of playing all four group games in their home city of Alkhobar — the odds are looking good.

Perhaps the result of the team coming off a two-week training camp in the eastern city of Dammam, scoring goals has been no problem with 15 in two games so far, a strike rate that clocks in at a goal every 12 minutes. They have been spread around the team nicely too. Ramiz Al-Attar has contributed three with Talal Haji, Nawaf Al-Jadaani and Nawaf Al-Janahi all managing two each.

It has been the perfect start, but the real tests come on Friday and Sunday. The first is against Kuwait who lost 3-0 to India on Wednesday. It was a disappointing performance from the Blues who defeated Maldives and Myanmar before their loss and will almost certainly be out of the running, even for second place, if they lose to Saudi Arabia.

If coach Adbulwahab Nasser Al-Harbi’s men can take the three points on Friday, then a draw will almost certainly be enough against an improving India to take top spot. Given Saudi Arabia’s goal difference, it is also likely that just one win from the final two games will earn the youngsters at least a place in the tournament as one of the best runners-up.

Al-Harbi will be looking for four wins out of four, however. There is some pressure to do so. Saudi Arabia’s U-23 team won the Asian Championship in June, and the U-20 team lifted the Arab Cup in August, defeating Egypt in the final, and then went on to finish top of their group in qualification for the 2023 Asian Championships. The ambitions of the U-17 team are not just to qualify for the continental event but to win it wherever it takes place (the host has not yet been named).

Saudi Arabia have lifted the trophy, in its former guise as the Asian U-16 Championships in the inaugural meeting in 1985, and then repeated the feat in 1988. The best showing since then was a place in the semifinals in 1992, a record that is not good enough for one of the continent’s powerhouses. Other Arab winners are Oman, who have managed to do so twice, with Qatar champions in 1990 and Iraq triumphant in 2016. These teams, and others from the region, are all in action in the coming days.

In Group A, Japan look set for first place, leaving hosts Jordan, Syria and Turkmenistan fighting it out for that coveted second-placed spot. With Syria facing the impressive Japanese next, Jordan have a chance to move clear if they can defeat Turkmenistan. The UAE won their first two games in Group B, including a thrilling come-from-behind 4-3 win over a struggling Palestine team, but a 3-2 defeat to Indonesia leaves the situation looking uncertain heading into Friday’s crunch clash with Malaysia.

Group C is an all-Arabian affair. Oman are currently top as the only team with maximum points. Yet the next game is against Qatar in second, a meeting of two past champions, and this will go a long way to determining who qualifies. If Oman win, the group will likely be theirs. Lebanon are bottom with one point from the first three games, and Bahrain and Iraq both need to win their remaining games if they are to have a chance.

There is still a long way to go in Group E, though Yemen had a great start with an 8-0 demolition of Bhutan and face a big task against Singapore. Yet it could be the following game against hosts Bangladesh that decides what happens. A win there and Yemen should join Saudi Arabia in next year’s U-17 Championships, though Kuwait and India will still have something to say about that.


Adebayo, Cain lead Heat over Durant, Simmons and Nets

Adebayo, Cain lead Heat over Durant, Simmons and Nets
Updated 07 October 2022

Adebayo, Cain lead Heat over Durant, Simmons and Nets

Adebayo, Cain lead Heat over Durant, Simmons and Nets
  • Both sides seemed to stretch their stars for some extra minutes in the shortened NBA preseason

NEW YORK: Bam Adebayo scored 17 points, undrafted rookie Jamal Cain added 15 points and 11 rebounds and the Miami Heat beat the Brooklyn Nets 109-80 on Thursday night.

Kevin Durant led Brooklyn with 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting in 26 minutes. Ben Simmons had four points and 10 rebounds for the Nets.

Miami star Jimmy Butler played for the first time in the preseason, scoring two points in the first half and then sitting in the second half. Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo didn’t play for the Heat.

The Nets were minus Joe Harris, who was resting an ankle that left him out most of last season, and Kyrie Irving, who had the night off after the birth of his child. Seven Heat players scored in double figures.

Kyle Lowry had 15 points and Dru Smith, Duncan Robinson and Jamaree Bouyea each added 12 for Miami. Cain signed with the Heat in July after playing for Marquette and Oakland University.

Cam Thomas scored 13 points and Markieff Morris had 10 for the Nets.

Through the first half, the teams tried various combinations, mixing the starters with some key bench players. Both sides seemed to stretch their stars for some extra minutes in the shortened NBA preseason.

Durant played 19 minutes in the first half and scored 18 points, making six of seven shots. Simmons and backcourt mate Royce O’Neale each played 18 minutes.

TIMBERWOLVES 114 LAKERS 99

In Las Vegas, Rudy Gobert, making his first preseason appearance after an offseason trade to Minnesota, had five points and 12 rebounds in a 17-minute stint in Minnesota’s victory over Los Angeles.

Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and Jaylen Nowell had 13 points each for Minnesota. Nathan Knight scored 11 points in 10 minutes.

Thomas Bryant, who started at center for Los Angeles, led the Lakers with 18 points and seven rebounds. Cole Swider scored 17 and Scotty Pippen Jr. added 14 points.

The Lakers starting lineup looked much different than Wednesday night’s loss to the Suns in Las Vegas. Los Angeles was without LeBron James and Russell Westbrook as Los Angeles played on the second night of a back-to-back. Anthony Davis missed another game with a lower back tightness.

Karl-Anthony Towns was not available for Minnesota, still ramping up after an illness led to hospitalization.

MAGIC 102 SPURS 99

Paolo Banchero, the overall No. 1 pick in the June draft, had nine points and five rebounds to help Orlando win in San Antonio.

Wendell Carter Jr. had 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Magic. He shot 8 of 13 as most of the Orlando starters played between 20 and 23 minutes. Franz Wagner had 12 points and Moritz Wagner added 10.

Doug McDermott led the Spurs with 14 points, and Keita Bates-Diop added 12.

HAWKS 123 BUCKS 113

Dejounte Murray scored 25 points in his Atlanta debut and the Hawks beat Milwaukee in the NBA’s first game in the UAE and the Arabian Gulf.

The teams will play another preseason game on Saturday at Etihad Arena.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 19 points. Jevon Carter added 17.

Hawks star Trae Young had 22 points.

The game featured the NBA’s three Holiday brothers. Aaron Holiday had 16 points and Justin Holiday added nine for the Hawks. Jrue Holiday had 12 for the Bucks.

THUNDER 131 ADELAIDE 36ERS 98

Tre Mann scored 26 points, including hitting 8 of 10 on 3s and Oklahoma City beat a team from the Australian National Basketball League.

Lindy Waters III scored 23 points and Eugene Omoruyi added 19 points for the Thunder.

Craig Randall II, who had 35 points in the 36ers’ 134-124 win over the Phoenix Suns, led Adelaide with 27 points. Robert Franks scored 20 points and Antonius Cleveland had 19 points.

Adelaide used torrid 3-point shooting, hitting 56 percent from beyond the arc, to defeat the Suns in the opening game of their preseason tour. But the accuracy was not the same against Oklahoma City as the 36ers went 11 of 36 from distance.

TRAIL BLAZERS 138 MACCABI RA’ANANA 85

Shaedon Sharpe, the seventh overall pick from Kentucky in last summer’s draft, scored 27 points, connecting on 10 of 13 shots to lead the Portland past Maccabi Ra’anana.

Keon Johnson added 18 points for Portland. Norris Cole led Maccabi with 19 points and six assists.


Bellingham, Musiala headline new-look Dortmund-Bayern rivalry

Bellingham, Musiala headline new-look Dortmund-Bayern rivalry
Updated 07 October 2022

Bellingham, Musiala headline new-look Dortmund-Bayern rivalry

Bellingham, Musiala headline new-look Dortmund-Bayern rivalry
  • The now 19-year-olds played together in multiple England youth teams growing up before Musiala opted to play senior international football for Germany

BERLIN: Borussia Dortmund host Bayern Munich on Saturday with arguably the two sides’ most important players, Jude Bellingham and Jamal Musiala, boasting a combined age of only 38.

Recent meetings of Germany’s two most successful clubs have often been billed as clashes between since-departed strikers Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski.

Instead this weekend, Bellingham, who has captained Dortmund in their last two matches, will go up against good friend and former teammate Musiala at Signal Iduna Park.

The now 19-year-olds played together in multiple England youth teams growing up before Musiala opted to play senior international football for Germany, making his debut last year.

Musiala has nailed down a place in Bayern’s starting XI this season, repaying coach Julian Nagelsmann’s faith with team-leading tallies in the Bundesliga of five goals and three assists.

Bellingham’s rise, to the extent he has worn Dortmund’s captain’s armband, has maybe been even more impressive — and more crucial to his team.

The England international netted for a third straight Champions League match in midweek during a 4-1 thumping of Sevilla in Spain.

The youthful complexion of the teams goes beyond Bellingham and Musiala, however, with Dortmund’s Karim Adeyemi and Giovanni Reyna and Bayern pair Mathys Tel and Ryan Gravenberch also nominated for this year’s Golden Boy award, won two years ago by Haaland while he was at Dortmund.

On Thursday, Dortmund sporting director Sebastian Kehl suggested 17-year-old striker Youssoufa Moukoko could start on Saturday ahead of the struggling Anthony Modeste.

“He was very agile, very energetic (and) very dedicated. He played a really good game,” Kehl said on Thursday of Moukoko’s performance against Sevilla.

The teams go into the game level on points, two points behind early leaders Union Berlin and Freiburg.

Questions were being asked about Bayern’s chances of winning an 11th straight Bundesliga title after a four-game winless run in the league.

But they bounced back with a 4-0 thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen last weekend before putting five past Viktoria Plzen in Europe.

“It’s a special game in Germany and a special game for us,” said Dortmund coach Edin Terzic.

“You all know what has happened in Germany in the last 10 years.”

Bayern coach Nagelsmann faces concerns about two of the most experienced players, with both Thomas Mueller and Joshua Kimmich in COVID isolation.

Speaking on Tuesday, Nagelsmann said the duo were “basically doing well” and “should be there if their health doesn’t deteriorate.”

A decision on the pair’s availability will be made late on Friday.

The Suriname international has been a driving force behind Union’s surprise charge to the Bundesliga summit, scoring six goals in eight league appearances, having previously mustered only seven in 59 in the German top flight.

Becker also got off the mark in the Europa League on Thursday, scoring the winner as Union got their first points in Group D by beating Malmo 1-0 in a game which was marred by crowd trouble in Sweden.

Union will be hoping Becker can continue his red-hot streak at Stuttgart on Sunday, by when they could have been passed by Dortmund or Bayern and Freiburg in the table.

8 — Successive victories over Dortmund for Bayern.

27 — The number of goals Robert Lewandowski scored for Bayern against Dortmund before leaving for Barcelona.

60 years — New Bayer Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso took Real Sociedad B to the Spanish second division in 2021-22 for the first time in six decades.

4 — Dortmund have won 1-0 four times in eight Bundesliga matches this season. They only won by that scoreline twice in the league last term.

 

Fixtures (1330 GMT unless stated)

Friday

Hoffenheim vs. Werder Bremen (1830)

Saturday

Augsburg vs. Wolfsburg, Bayer Leverkusen vs. Schalke, Bochum vs. Eintracht Frankfurt, Mainz vs. RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich (1630)

Sunday

Borussia Moenchengladbach vs. Cologne, Hertha Berlin vs. Freiburg (1530), Stuttgart vs. Union Berlin (1730)


Brazil coach Tite will stick to attack at World Cup

Brazil coach Tite will stick to attack at World Cup
Updated 07 October 2022

Brazil coach Tite will stick to attack at World Cup

Brazil coach Tite will stick to attack at World Cup
  • The Selecao may need plenty of goals in Qatar as Tite doesn’t have nearly as many options in defense

RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazil coach Tite has so many attacking options for the World Cup that he can hardly fit half of them into his team.

He promises to use as many of his forward as he can in Qatar, though, no matter the opponent.

“There will be opportunities for all (Brazil’s forward),” Tite said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Whoever is in will be deciding the match, all have to be prepared. Every match might require a different characteristic.”

Tite and his coaching assistants Cleber Xavier and Cesar Sampaio spoke to the AP for about one hour at the headquarters of the Brazilian soccer confederation on Thursday, taking a break from their heated private discussions about how to put the final touches on their squad for the tournament. Their final team announcement is scheduled for Nov. 7.

The only Brazil forward who may be sure of a starting place in Qatar is Neymar, while the list of Tite’s other options includes the likes of Vinicius Jr., Raphinha, Richarlison, Antony and Gabriel Jesus.

In the team’s most recent games, two friendly wins over African teams Ghana and Tunisia in September, Tite fielded lineups that were so attack-minded that critics back home wondered if that would be a realistic strategy against some of the other title contenders at the World Cup, which starts next month.

Tite, who is leaving his job after the tournament, insisted he won’t shy away from his aggressive playing style in Qatar, regardless of who Brazil is playing. Brazil is in Group G at the World Cup with Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon.

“We will make adjustments, we will not change our game plan,” Tite said. “We will impose our way of playing.”

The Selecao may need plenty of goals in Qatar as Tite doesn’t have nearly as many options in defense. Brazil has few top-class fullbacks at the moment, while starting centerback Thiago Silva is 38 years old. Defensive midfielder Casemiro also has yet to fully adjust to his new surroundings at Manchester United after leaving Real Madrid.

Tite doesn’t think his defense will be a problem, though, as long as his players do one thing.

“Play your best at your club,” said Tite, adding he doesn’t pay much attention to criticism his players receive. “We listen very little to any noise coming from outside. What is outside remains outside.”

Neymar, like Argentina’s Lionel Messi, is facing huge pressure to deliver his first World Cup title — especially after being criticized for sub-par performances at the 2018 tournament in Russia.

Tite thinks the 30-year-old Neymar has matured both as a player and a person since then, and the striker has been in top form this season with Paris Saint-Germain.

“When Neymar says that at a given time he made a mistake it is beautiful. What an example. He is no superman, he is telling kids that at some moment they will also make mistakes, feel weak, have a stomachache, a headache. It is only human,” Tite said. “Some people know how to grow and evolve. And they are brave to say it when they make mistakes. That’s his maturity.”

The coach tried to shield his star player from the pressure by downplaying comparisons to Pelé, as Neymar approaches the Brazil great’s record of 77 goals for the national team.

“He must leave that noise for others to speak about. There is no comparison. It is unreal, inhuman to compare different generations,” Tite said. “You can’t compare Pelé to any other. We can argue about who was the second best.”

Tite’s assistant coaches have spent plenty of time over the last few years studying what the last three World Cup winners — France, Germany and Spain — did to prepare for the tournament. Many view Brazil and Argentina among the biggest favorites this time, as France is struggling with injuries while Germany and Spain are going through a rebuilding phase.

But Xavier said Brazil can’t worry too much about their rivals.

“We are spending most of our energy on our work, our process,” Xavier said. “We know Argentina has a somewhat finalized team, and Brazil too. We see England, France, Germany and Spain with some changes. We will only know for sure what those look like after the World Cup’s group stage.”

As the World Cup nears and reports pile up on his desk, Tite’s schedule is dominated by meetings with assistants while media requests come by the minute. The 61-year-old coach is doing his best to carry on without much anticipation, as if these were just normal working days.

“I only get anxious when people ask me how many days are still left for our first match,” Tite said. “That happens every day.”