Eddie Howe hits out at ‘unfair’ Premier League schedule

Eddie Howe hits out at ‘unfair’ Premier League schedule
Eddie Howe’s Magpies are one of only a small band of clubs who have been forced to play every game so far in the traditionally hectic period. (AFP)
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Updated 24 December 2021

Eddie Howe hits out at ‘unfair’ Premier League schedule

Eddie Howe hits out at ‘unfair’ Premier League schedule
  • Despite COVID-19 call-offs, Newcastle is one of the few teams to have played every fixture this month

NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe has hit out at the “unfair” nature of Premier League football in December amid various COVID-19 cancellations.

The Magpies are one of only a small band of clubs who have been forced to play every game so far in the traditionally hectic period, with postponements due to the spread of the omicron variant wreaking havoc on the fixture calendar.

And while Howe has no issues with his side potentially having to play six games in 22 days — if the Magpies’ next three against Manchester United, Everton and Southampton all get the go ahead — he does think questions must be asked about the fairness of that scenario.

That is especially in focus when others in the Premier League will have played half the amount of games in the same period — and will have enjoyed breaks of up to two weeks between games.

Howe said: “I don’t think there is an ideal situation, but I think it is questionable whether it has been fair for everybody.”

The January transfer window adds a totally different dynamic into the equation, with some clubs potentially not playing December games until after they have had a chance to strengthen in the winter window — which opens on Jan. 1.

United will, of course, not have been handed that luxury.

“You have January to think about when teams have a backlog of fixtures that get moved to February and March. They then have the benefit of having those new players for those games, which we won’t,” said Howe. “I think all of these things come into it, but I do understand the difficulty of it because the league needs to be completed.

“We are just following guidelines, not necessarily having too many opinions on what should happen,” he added. “I think that is the way it should be, as we have enough to be getting on with, without getting involved in the political side of things.”

There has been plenty of talk of circuit-breaker stoppages, halting Premier League football until cases within top flight club bubbles can be brought under control. However, at this stage, the league looks set to soldier on in an attempt to fulfill the festive fixture calendar as much as the pandemic allows.

While Howe is unhappy about the unfairness of things this month on that front, he does not want to see games stopped.

“It would be the least preferential route for us, because we know how important the supporters are for us,” he said.

“Since I have come in, they have been absolutely magnificent in every game. I can’t speak highly enough of their support in good and bad moments.

“We would hate to play in front of an empty stadium, but I am obviously aware that the health and safety of everyone connected to football has to come first.

“I have always said I want to play — that’s what we are here to do.

“We are in a desperate fight for points and we want to collate them as quickly as possible.”


Djokovic backs ATP, laments Wimbledon ‘lose-lose situation’

Djokovic backs ATP, laments Wimbledon ‘lose-lose situation’
Updated 24 May 2022

Djokovic backs ATP, laments Wimbledon ‘lose-lose situation’

Djokovic backs ATP, laments Wimbledon ‘lose-lose situation’
  • The All England Club said last month it would not allow players from Russia or Belarus to compete when its Grand Slam tournament begins on June 27

PARIS: Novak Djokovic intends to defend his title at Wimbledon and supports the decision by the ATP men’s tour to withhold ranking points from that tournament as a show of unity among players — even though the move will negatively affect his hold on the No. 1 spot.

In response to a reporter’s question after his first-round victory at the French Open on Monday night, Djokovic called the All England Club’s ban of players from Russia and Belarus over the invasion of Ukraine “a mistake” and criticized Wimbledon organizers for their lack of communication.

“They haven’t discussed it with anybody from ATP or any individual players — or, for that matter, Russian or Belarusian players — to just communicate and understand whether there is a common ground where both sides could be making a compromise and something could work out,” Djokovic said about the All England Club. “So I think it was a wrong decision. I don’t support that at all.”

He called it a “lose-lose situation for everyone.”

Russia, with help from Belarus, began attacking Ukraine in late February. The All England Club said last month it would not allow players from Russia or Belarus to compete when its Grand Slam tournament begins on June 27; the ATP and the WTA women’s tour responded by announcing Friday they would not award ranking points to any players for results at Wimbledon.

Djokovic said he heard there might have been other options available to All England Club decision-makers than has been revealed, such as the possibility of exhibition matches to raise money to help Ukrainians in need.

Djokovic has had his run-ins with ATP management in the past, and even worked to create a separate players’ association, but on this matter he said he backs the tour.

“Collectively, I’m glad that players got together with the ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, and showed to the Grand Slam that when there is a mistake happening — and there was, from the Wimbledon side — then we have to show that there’s going to be some consequences,” Djokovic said.

The ATP says that all players who earned ranking points at Wimbledon in 2021 (Djokovic earned the maximum 2,000 for taking the championship) will have those erased from their record as part of the usual 52-week system that counts someone’s best 19 tournaments over that span.

Whatever happens at the tournament in 2022 will have no bearing on a player’s standing.

“For me, or for the guys that did well last year, we are not only not going to have a chance to earn points, but we can’t defend them,” Djokovic said. “And there are some guys, obviously, who are not going to have a chance to earn points, of course. It’s a very unique and weird situation, I must say.”

Earlier in the day, four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka said she was leaning toward skipping Wimbledon with no points on offer.

But Djokovic’s view was different.

“A Grand Slam is still a Grand Slam,” said the owner of 20 such titles, one shy of Rafael Nadal’s men’s record. “Wimbledon, for me, was always my dream tournament when I was a child. So I don’t look at it through the lens of points or of prize money. For me, it’s something else.”


Tug-of-war over: With Mbappe staying, PSG lay first brick in rebuild

Tug-of-war over: With Mbappe staying, PSG lay first brick in rebuild
Updated 24 May 2022

Tug-of-war over: With Mbappe staying, PSG lay first brick in rebuild

Tug-of-war over: With Mbappe staying, PSG lay first brick in rebuild
  • In addition to the colossal sums of money reportedly promised to the 23-year-old forward — financial terms of Mbappe’s new deal have not been disclosed — the France star has received guarantees that things will change in a big way

PARIS: Kylian Mbappe’s decision to reject Real Madrid and commit to Paris Saint-Germain for three more seasons marks the start of a large rebuilding project at the French league champion.

Since Qatari investors took over in 2011, PSG have been a dominant force in France but have consistently failed to replicate that success on the European stage despite spending massive amounts on star players.

Club officials hope Mbappe’s decision to snub the Spanish giant will finally lead to the conquest of club soccer’s biggest trophy, the Champions League.

In addition to the colossal sums of money reportedly promised to the 23-year-old forward — financial terms of Mbappe’s new deal have not been disclosed — the France star has received guarantees that things will change in a big way, with a new coach and a new sporting director likely to be appointed.

“The project has changed,” Mbappe told a news conference on Monday. “The club wants to change a lot of things on the sports side, so it gives me this desire to continue. My story here is not over.”

New players will also join this summer to boost a project that will be centered around the World Cup-winning forward. PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi said last week that Mbappe will become “the cornerstone of the club’s project for the years to come, both on and off the pitch,” but the striker is adamant he has not requested the full powers.

“I am a soccer player, well anchored in a collective,” Mbappe said. “Even if, of course, players have different status in a team. I remain a soccer player, and I will not go beyond this role.”

Sitting next to his star player, Al-Khelaifi did not give many details about PSG’s reorganization but acknowledged he promised to sign new players if Mbappe stayed.

“Because he really deserves it,” Al-Khelaifi said, adding that money was not crucial in convincing Mbappe to reject Madrid’s offer and extend his glitzy partnership with Neymar and Lionel Messi at Parc des Princes.

“The most important thing for Kylian was the sporting project,” he said, insisting that clubs in Spain were in a position to offer more money than PSG.

In an interview with media relayed by Le Parisien newspaper, Mbappe said he received some guidance from French President Emmanuel Macron.

“Let’s just say it was good advice,” Mbappe said. “He wanted me to stay, that’s part of the negotiations. He is one of the different people I talked to.”

The first collateral victim of Mbappe’s prolonged stay in the French capital has been sports director Leonardo. The former Brazil international, who returned to the club three years ago, was fired over the weekend following intense discussions.

According to L’Equipe newspaper, his departure was crucial in the negotiations with Mbappe, who pushed for an overhaul of the hierarchy following PSG’s exit in the last 16 of the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid in March.

Luis Campos has been tipped as a replacement for Leonardo. The Portuguese is a renowned talent scout with connections in Europe and South America and has been enjoying an excellent relationship with Mbappe and his family. Campos, who previously worked at Lille and Monaco, played an influential role when Mbappe signed his first professional deal with the Principality side in 2016.

One thing that won’t immediately change at PSG, though, is their habit of frequently changing coaches. Mauricio Pochettino, who sealed PSG’s record-equaling 10th league title but could not avoid another Champions league failure, is unsure about his future at the helm of the Parisian team amid reports in the French media that he will be replaced soon. Speculation over the potential appointment of Zinedine Zidane has been growing in recent days.

To strengthen their squad, PSG officials have also discussed with Mbappe the prospect of recruiting a versatile full back and new midfielders. L’Équipe reported on Monday that PSG made a priority of signing Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni, with Ousmane Dembele also targeted.

Mbappe joined PSG from Monaco in 2017 when he was still a teenager. He has 171 goals in just 217 appearances for PSG and won three consecutive player of the season awards, and topped the French scoring charts in each of the last four seasons.

Mbappe has often said that playing for Madrid was his childhood dream, and the Frenchman did not rule out making the move one day.

“I am really focused on this new contract. What will happen in the future, I don’t know,” he said.


Hertha Berlin keep Bundesliga status with playoff victory at Hamburg

Hertha Berlin keep Bundesliga status with playoff victory at Hamburg
Updated 24 May 2022

Hertha Berlin keep Bundesliga status with playoff victory at Hamburg

Hertha Berlin keep Bundesliga status with playoff victory at Hamburg
  • After nine straight seasons in the Bundesliga, Hertha avoided their first relegation since 2011/12

BERLIN: Hertha Berlin secured their place in the Bundesliga for next season with a 2-0 away win at Hamburg on Monday to take the promotion/relegation playoff 2-1 on aggregate.

“That is a huge relief. What the boys did was outstanding,” said Hertha sports director Fredi Bobic.

An early headed goal by Hertha captain Dedryck Boyata and a speculative second-half free kick from Marvin Plattenhardt saw Hertha turn their fortunes around in Monday’s return leg.

Hertha had lost the first leg 1-0 in Berlin last Thursday, but the visitors flew out of the traps in Hamburg when Boyata smashed in a header after just four minutes.

Falling behind subdued the hosts, who lacked the composure of the first leg.

Only a superb save by Hamburg goalkeeper Daniel Fernandes blocked a fierce shot by Hertha striker Ishak Belfodil with half-time approaching.

Hamburg rallied after the break with rightback Moritz Heyer testing Hertha goalkeeper Oliver Christensen with a long-range shot.

At the other end, Fernandes pulled off a brilliant save at the near post to block a shot by Plattenhardt, but the dead-ball specialist who was not to be denied.

The Germany defender launched a stunning free-kick from the left flank to the far post which curled over Fernandes and into the net on 63 minutes.

The goal put Hertha ahead on aggregate for the first time in the play-off tie as the visitors hung on despite increasing desperation from the Hamburg team.

Hertha finished with 10 men when Lucas Tousart was shown a second yellow card just before the final whistle as tempers flared in stoppage time.

After nine straight seasons in the Bundesliga, Hertha avoided their first relegation since 2011/12.

The aggregate defeat denied Hamburg a return to Germany’s top flight after four seasons since their 2018 relegation.

Hertha’s caretaker coach Felix Magath, 68, who won Bundesliga titles in charge of Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg, has kept the Berlin club up despite winning just three of his nine games in charge.

“We are massively grateful for what Felix has done, striking the right key to get the best out of the team,” added Bobic.

As a player, Magath scored Hamburg’s winning goal in the 1983 European Cup final win over Juventus and won three Bundesliga titles with the north German club.

Hamburg qualified for the playoff by finishing third in the second division while Hertha ended up third from bottom of the Bundesliga.


Al-Hilal overcome Al-Ittihad to blow Saudi Pro League title race wide open

 Al-Hilal overcome Al-Ittihad to blow Saudi Pro League title race wide open
Updated 24 May 2022

Al-Hilal overcome Al-Ittihad to blow Saudi Pro League title race wide open

 Al-Hilal overcome Al-Ittihad to blow Saudi Pro League title race wide open
  • The 3-1 victory in Jeddah means the Saudi and Asian champions are only three points behind the leaders with three games left

Al-Hilal defeated Al-Ittihad 3-1 on Monday evening to keep the Saudi Professional League title race well and truly alive.

Two goals from Michael and a Salem Al-Dawsari stunner gave the visitors a come-from-behind victory in this crucial Saudi El Clasico, reducing Al-Ittihad’s lead at the top to just three points with three games of the season remaining.

It was truly a champions’ performance from the title-holders, who lost the King’s Cup final to Al-Fayha in a penalty shootout at the same venue, King Abdullah Sport City Stadium, just four days ago.

Despite the disappointment of that setback, and the fatigue, they managed to prevent the Tigers from claiming a victory that would have all but guaranteed a first league title since 2009. Now, for the first time in this run-in, the pressure is really on Al-Ittihad and it is coming from Al-Hilal.

Played out in front of a packed and passionate crowd — and featuring a pre-match tiger tifo from the home fans that was truly world class — the game was a fantastic, breathless advert for Saudi Arabian football, featuring two top teams both desperate to win. Al-Hilal needed victory to remain in the title chase while Al-Ittihad had a chance to go nine points clear with three games to go.

The first half was a tale of two penalty claims, one of which was denied after a video assistant referee intervention and one that was not. The game started at a breakneck pace to the delight of an appreciative crowd that provided the perfect atmosphere for such a big game. Every touch by a man in blue was greeted by jeers, with the cheers reserved for the heroes in yellow and black.

The roof was almost blown off in anger when the referee pointed to the spot after 12 minutes when Al-Hilal’s Michael was hacked down by Abdulrahman Al-Obud on the edge of the area. There was no doubt at all that it was a foul but the home players protested that it had happened outside the area. The VAR agreed and the free-kick came to nothing.

There was controversy at the other end after 28 minutes when a shot from Igor Coronado hit Jang Hyun-soo’s arm and the referee awarded a penalty. This time there was no intervention by the VAR, though the official did take a good long look at replays on the monitor. Up stepped Romarinho, who coolly sent Abdullah Al-Mayouf the wrong way to give his side the lead.

It was canceled out three minutes before the break. Al-Ittihad goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe came out to punch a cross clear but the ball fell on the edge of the area to Michael, who volleyed it through a crowded area and past the prone shot stopper, injured by a collision, to equalize.

(Twitter: @Alhilal_FC)

There was no let up in pace in the second half. Both teams continued to push forward but just could not find the final ball to create clear chances, with defenders making important interceptions.

The most crucial of these came just before the hour mark and kept Al-Hilal level. Al-Mayouf came out of his area to clear a long ball from the Al-Ittihad half but was beaten to it by Abderrazak Hamdallah. The Moroccan’s low shot was heading for the back of the net until Ali Al-Bulaihi somehow managed to slide in and clear it to keep the scoreline at 1-1.

It did not remain that way for much longer before the champions showed their class with a stunning goal. Salman Al-Faraj’s cross from the right was headed by Odion Ighalo from the six-yard box back to the edge of the area where the onrushing Al-Dawsari jumped into the air and directed the bouncing ball into the top corner. It was a world-class finish. There were a couple of minutes of uncertainty while the VAR checked to make sure that Ighalo had been onside. It turned out he was, just.

Al-Ittihad were still recovering from that setback when they suddenly found themselves 3-1 down. It was another fabulous goal: Al-Dawsari’s pass from the right side split the defense but there was still plenty left for Michael to do. The Brazilian picked up the ball on the left edge of the area, cut inside and, despite the close attention of defenders in yellow and black, fired a low shot into the bottom corner.

(Twitter: @Alhilal_FC)

That really knocked the stuffing out of the hosts and from then, of the two teams it was Al-Hilal who looked much more likely to score. With eight minutes left, Michael, who was having his best game since joining the club, again came close.

The visitors returned to Riyadh with three priceless points and, perhaps, a new-found belief in themselves that the title race is far from over.


Osaka, Krejcikova bomb out as Swiatek extends run

Osaka, Krejcikova bomb out as Swiatek extends run
Updated 23 May 2022

Osaka, Krejcikova bomb out as Swiatek extends run

Osaka, Krejcikova bomb out as Swiatek extends run
  • The unseeded Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, was knocked out 7-5, 6-4 by Amanda Anisimova

PARIS: Former world No. 1 Naomi Osaka and defending champion Barbora Krejcikova lost in the first round of the French Open on Monday, while women’s title favorite Iga Swiatek stretched her winning streak to 29 matches.

The unseeded Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, was knocked out 7-5, 6-4 by Amanda Anisimova — the same player who ended the Japanese star’s title defense at the Australian Open this year.

An error-plagued Osaka served up eight double faults and committed 29 unforced errors on her return to Roland Garros, after withdrawing in 2021 when she refused to honor mandatory media commitments before revealing she had been suffering from depression.

“I thought I tried really hard, and I just feel like it was a bit unfortunate because I wasn’t able to play as many matches leading into this tournament,” said Osaka.

Anisimova, the 27th seed, reached the semifinals in Paris three years ago.

“It’s tough to see Naomi Osaka in the first round so I knew it wouldn’t be easy,” said the American.

“I knew I had to play my best tennis and the conditions were not easy.”

As rain stopped on the outside courts for two hours, Krejcikova followed Osaka in making an early exit, going down 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 to 19-year-old Frenchwoman Diane Parry in her first match since February following injury.

The Czech world No. 2 had yet to play on clay this season after being sidelined by an elbow problem.

“It’s really a dream for me,” said Parry, spurred on by the home support under the roof on Court Philippe Chatrier.

“I’m just the happiest right now.”

With Krejcikova, Osaka and Madrid champion Ons Jabeur all going out in round one, Swiatek required just 54 minutes to dispatch Ukrainian qualifier Lesia Tsurenko 6-2, 6-0.

The 20-year-old Swiatek, who took over as world No. 1 following Ashleigh Barty’s shock retirement, has won her last five tournaments and is bidding for a second French Open in three attempts.

“Today was a pretty good match,” said Swiatek.

“I love playing here even though the last couple of days it’s been raining and pretty dark.”

Swiatek is unbeaten since February and has the longest winning streak on the WTA tour since Serena Williams won 34 matches in a row in 2013.

“I’m pretty sure that it can end, but I just want to keep going. I’m sure someday my streak will stop.”