Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages

Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages
Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah. (AP)
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Updated 23 January 2022

Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages

Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages
  • Riyad Mahrez and Algeria in surprise exit amid mixed results for Arab teams and individuals

The group stages of the delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations ended with two big surprises — the exit of defending champions Algeria and another of the favorites, five-time title-holders Ghana.

A record seven Arab nations started the tournament, but only four have booked a place in the round of 16: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and, most surprisingly, Comoros.

Morocco’s was perhaps the cleanest of qualifications, winning group C with seven points from two wins and a draw. The team looked to be on song and were led with distinction by Achraf Hakimi, who scored what may well be the best goal of the tournament so far against Gabon.

The Paris Saint-Germain player has been ably backed by Yassine Bounou, the excellent Sevilla goalkeeper,  especially in the opening match of the campaign against Ghana.

It was a match settled by a winning goal from substitute Sofiane Boufal, who plays for French Ligue 1 side Angers. Despite being benched in all three group matches, Boufal has shown his worth for coach Vahid Halilhodzic’s team.

Seven-time winners Egypt got off to a poor start with an awful performance in the 1-0 loss to Nigeria and after that scraped two narrow wins to progress to the knockouts stages.

Star forward Mohamed Salah, fresh from being nominated for the best FIFA men’s player award alongside Lionel Messi and eventual winner Robert Lewandowski, has often looked isolated and scored just one of Egypt’s paltry two goals at the tournament.

There seems to be a lack of understanding between the Liverpool star and fellow forward Mustafa Mohamed and Omar Marmoush, an issue that needs to be resolved before Wednesday’s clash with a formidable Cote d’Ivoire team.

Egypt recently took part in the FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar without any of their European-based stars, but the return of the players does not look to have improved the team visibly.

Another that has disappointed is Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny, and he and Salah have rarely been subjected to this much criticism from their own fans and media. Coach Carlos Queiroz has yet to find the right formula despite the two wins over Guinea-Bissau and Sudan.

Tunisia also were far from impressive, missing three penalties against Mali, Mauritania and Gambia on their way to scraping through the group stages by finishing as one of the best third-placed teams.

The missed kicks came from Zamalek’s Seif El-Din Al-Jaziri, Saint-Etienne’s Wahbi Al-Kharazi — who both partially redeemed themselves with one and two goals, respectively --  and captain Youssef Al-Masakni, who plays for Al-Arabi Club in Qatar and had recently recovered from testing positive for COVID-19.

The young Manchester United star Hannibal Mejbri, one of the standout players at the Arab Cup, was again expected to take center-stage, but has so far failed to replicate his performances in Doha.

The biggest shock of the tournament has been the exit of champions Algeria. Manchester City star and talisman Riyad Mahrez entered the tournament with expectations of becoming the historical top scorer for his country at the AFCON, equaling Lakhdar Belloumi’s tally of six goals.

However, Mahrez and his colleagues were humiliated in the group stage, gathering only one point from a draw and two losses. Algeria’s star man even missed a penalty in the comprehensive  3-1 loss to Cote d’Ivoire.

Lack of preparation for most teams has been a feature of the early part of the tournament, and Mahrez and rest of coach Djamel Belmadi’s squad have failed to adapt to the pace of the competition, perhaps due to their late arrival in Cameroon.

Incredibly Algeria’s defeat in their final group match, coupled with other results, helped unheralded Comoros become the fourth Arab nation to qualify for the knockout stages.

The scenes of celebrations that followed their sensational 3-2 win over Ghana — one of the results of the competition so far — will live long in the memory, and showed just what this tournament means to fans and players.

While the Pharaohs’ clash with Cote d’Ivoire is the pick of the round-of-16 matches, Morocco will have a somewhat easier confrontation against Malawi, while Tunisia, with a host of players missing after testing positive for COVID-19, will face a thankless task against Nigeria, arguably the tournament’s best team.

For Comoros, the party continues against hosts Cameroon on Monday. Whatever happens from now on, it has been an unforgettable experience for them.

Individually, stars such as Salah and Mahrez rarely caught then eye in the group stage. Instead, it is the Cameroonian Vincent Aboubakar, who plays for Al-Nassr in the Saudi Professional League, who has been one of the stars, grabbing five goals in the three matches to top the goal-scoring table.

But teams and individuals have a habit of strongly emerging throughout a tournament. A slow start often ends up being a prelude to a star turn in the knockout stages.

We await Salah and co catching fire in the coming days.


King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title

King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title
Updated 41 sec ago

King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title

King’s Cup final against Al-Feiha could derail Al-Hilal’s pursuit of SPL title
  • The reigning Saudi champions could be emotionally and physically drained by the time they face leaders Al-Ittihad four days after Thursday’s showpiece final

The latest round of games in the Saudi Professional League was postponed as a mark of respect to UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan who passed away on Friday.

It meant that the Saudi Classico, the big clash between leaders Al-Ittihad and second-placed defending champions Al-Hilal, will have to wait a little longer.

The dates have changed and this could cast a different light on the title race. Now the rivals from Jeddah and Riyadh will meet on May 23. As a reminder, the gap between the two is six points with four games remaining. If Hilal win, then the pressure will be on Al-Ittihad for the first time since they went top of the league and started pulling away. Then the fight would really be on for the final three games of the campaign.

That can still happen, but now with a difference. Before the rescheduled title decider, Al-Hilal will first have to take on Al-Feiha in Thursday’s King’s Cup final.

This adds an extra dimension to the title race. The champions would surely have preferred to face Al-Ittihad first, cut the lead to three points and then let the leaders deal with that. Now however, they have to play a prestigious — as well as emotionally and physically draining — cup final just four days earlier and then go straight into the biggest league game of the season.

And the King’s Cup final is sure to be a big deal. It is the first chance for Al-Feiha to win a major trophy. The club are in sixth place in the league and are not going to finish any higher than that. Relegation is not an issue so they can focus all their energies on the game.

“If you look at how we play then you can see that we are a difficult opponent for the big teams,” said Al-Feiha coach Vuk Rasovic. “We will do our best to make our fans happy. The King’s Cup final is a very special match for us.”

Rasovic’s men are not to be underestimated and showed that by defeating Al-Ittihad in the semi-final. The Tigers, who are aiming to win the league for the first time since 2009, may now be quite happy with that elimination. Al-Hilal are favorites to emerge victorious but it is going to be a battle and extra-time and penalties are certainly not out of the question. There is also the risk of more injuries to a team that already has a number of players in the treatment room as the league campaign reaches a climax.

For Al-Hilal, the situation is now a little similar to Liverpool’s in England. The Reds have been chasing Manchester City at the top of the English Premier League, but on Saturday had to play the FA Cup final against Chelsea. They ended up winning that game but it was a grueling and hard-fought 90 minutes, followed by extra-time and then an emotional penalty shootout triumph. Liverpool are now scheduled to play Southampton on Tuesday in a game that they have to win if they are going to keep their league ambitions alive. They then end the season at home to Wolves on Sunday. This congested fixture list is made more difficult by Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk leaving the Wembley pitch with injuries on Saturday. But while the knocks don’t seem too serious, they were worrying moments for coach Jurgen Klopp and the fans.

All of these issues leave Ramon Diaz with plenty to think about. Had the final come after the Al-Ittihad game, then the Argentine would have a clear vision on his team’s chances for the title. Now, he needs to do all he can to win the King’s Cup and hope that this does not derail Al-Hilal’s slim chances of the league.

In some ways, having so many big games is a reflection of Al-Hilal’s success but Al-Ittihad will be much the fresher of the two teams when they meet in Jeddah next week and that could make a huge difference, especially in the closing stages of the match.

There are pressures at the bottom of the table too. The relegation battle is fierce, with the bottom half of the table all in danger. Al-Taawoun will be happy they played before the postponement came into effect and won their crucial six-pointer against Al-Batin. That dragged Al-Ettifaq into the bottom three but they are expected to defeat Al-Hazem, the only team adrift at the bottom. Al-Faisaly lost on Thursday and will be watching other results anxiously. The extra days have given teams a little more time to rest ahead of a crucial few weeks — all except Al-Hilal, who have big game after big game.

What was already a long season has become a little longer and will now run from August to June. There have been plenty of stops and starts with breaks for the successful World Cup qualification campaign and various Asian Champions League games. It can’t have been easy for the players but there is still plenty of excitement for the fans, starting with the King’s Cup final on Thursday and a potential title decider just four days later.


Futsal teams kick off Saudi Arabia’s participation at third GCC Games

Futsal teams kick off Saudi Arabia’s participation at third GCC Games
Updated 16 May 2022

Futsal teams kick off Saudi Arabia’s participation at third GCC Games

Futsal teams kick off Saudi Arabia’s participation at third GCC Games
  • Both men and women’s teams will take the field, as will Kingdom’s athletics squads at the tournament in Kuwait

Saudi Arabia’s men’s and women’s futsal teams will on Monday kick off the Kingdom’s bid for glory at the third Gulf Games in Kuwait, which will run until May 31.

The Saudi national athletics team for men and women will also be part of the action on the opening day, with runner Abdullah Abkar joining the 100m qualifiers, while Youssef Masrahi, Mazen Al-Yassin and Mohammed Daoud compete in the 400m qualifiers.

In the women’s athletics, runner Ruaa Al-Sulaimani is a finalist in the 400m, Saja Jalal will compete in the long jump and shot put competitions, and her colleague Lojien Al-Hamid will run in the 100m.

Hussain Al-Hizam and Ahmed Al-Yassin will be looking for podium finishes in the pole vault final on Monday evening, and at the same time Mohammed Tolo will be aiming for gold in the final of the shot put competition. Hammoud Al-Alwani and Mohammed Al-Yami, meanwhile, will compete in the long jump.


Eddie Howe looking to finish Newcastle United’s season on a high

Eddie Howe looking to finish Newcastle United’s season on a high
Updated 16 May 2022

Eddie Howe looking to finish Newcastle United’s season on a high

Eddie Howe looking to finish Newcastle United’s season on a high
  • The Magpies welcome Arsenal to St. James’ Park knowing a win would improve their points tally on previous two campaigns

NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe is determined to make sure Newcastle United finish their campaign on a high, despite the Magpies already securing Premier League safety.

Newcastle take on Arsenal at St. James’ Park this evening looking to take their tally to 46 points, which would beat last season’s mark of 45 and 2019-20’s, which was 44.

The Gunners’ visit to Tyneside is followed up by a trip to relegation-threatened Burnley on the final day — and Howe is hopeful his players will not let their season, as well as all of their hard work, go to waste.

“Any target or objective we can pass is a good thing,” Howe said.

“The most important thing for me is we finish the season well and are professional right until the end and we show our best selves in the next two games.

“The previous two games have been difficult as we know, we’ve played two world-class teams. (It has been) Great for us in terms of knowing where we are and where we have to improve. These next two are slightly different, still tough games, but we want to go out well this season.”

That’s definitely a sentiment that seems to be echoed in the dressing room, too, with Kieran Trippier wanting to send the fans away happy for the summer, in what is the final home encounter of the season.

The England international said: “It’s a massive occasion, the last home game of the season. The fans have been unbelievable since I arrived.

“We need to look back, to criticize ourselves, but we look back to January and the steps we’ve taken since then, the results that we’ve had, we’re building,” Trippier said. “We’ve played back-to-back two of the best teams in the world so we’ve got to be proud of our performances before the last two results. We need to forget about Man City (5-0 loss), two big games coming up, two different teams fighting for different reasons so we need to match that.

“Arsenal are fighting to get in the top four, I want to help Tottenham obviously and then Burnley staying up.

“It’s two different types of matches and they’re going to be up for it so we’ve got to make sure we match that.”

Having taken over the club when it was at the foot of the Premier League table and needing to break top-flight records to stay up, things looked bleak for Howe and Newcastle on arrival.

However, things now look rosy at the club with co-owner Mehrdad Ghodoussi taking to social media to publicly thank the head coach for his efforts, after Leeds United’s loss to Chelsea meant the Magpies could no longer drop to the Championship.

On Twitter, Ghodoussi said: “When all odds were against us, when everyone doubted us, we united and forged ahead. Tonight is the result of that hard work.Thank you Eddie, you have been incredible, thank you to the coaching staff, our squad and everyone at the club, and of course our fans.”

Has Howe been thanked privately, too?

“Yes, I’ve had contact with the owners but I have contact with the owners regularly, especially at this time of year as we build and plan for lots of different things — the training ground and transfer windows etc,” he said.

“They’re happy with what has been achieved. The main goal we had when coming in has been done, so everyone connected with the club, the owners included, deserve a huge amount of credit for what’s happened. It’s very much a team success and I’m very keen to point out that everyone has contributed to that.”

Meanwhile, Howe is expecting positive progress in relation to the new deal negotiations between Newcastle and midfielder Sean Longstaff.

“I expect a positive resolution for Sean, yeah,” said the head coach.

“Fingers crossed. It’s very close to being done. I’m actually day-to-day in charge of that but fingers crossed we can get it over the line.”


Asian pole vault king Obiena sets SEA Games record

Asian pole vault king Obiena sets SEA Games record
Updated 16 May 2022

Asian pole vault king Obiena sets SEA Games record

Asian pole vault king Obiena sets SEA Games record
  • Obiena eclipsed his own previous Southeast Asian Games record 5.45m he set in winning gold in 2019
  • The 26-year-old Filipino is ranked sixth-best men’s pole vaulter in the world

HANOI, Vietnam: Asia’s top pole vaulter Ernest John Obiena set his sights on the World Athletics Championships in July after retaining his SEA Games title by easily clearing a Games-record 5.46m on Saturday.
The 26-year-old Filipino, ranked the sixth-best men’s pole vaulter in the world, eclipsed his own previous Southeast Asian Games record 5.45m he set in winning gold in 2019.
But in hazy conditions at My Dinh National Stadium in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, Obiena fell short of bettering his Asian-record 5.93m.
“I wanted to beat the Asian record. You never know how many chances I get, I wanted, I really wanted it today,” he told reporters afterwards, having failed three times at 5.94m.
But he was nevertheless feeling “positive” about the World Championships in Oregon in two months’ time.
“The first battle is I need to make sure I get in there. (First) I get selected to compete and the next one is perform well,” said Obiena, who was joint 11th at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
“That’s why I’m here. I’m preparing.”


Celtics eliminate NBA defending champion Bucks in Game 7

Celtics eliminate NBA defending champion Bucks in Game 7
Updated 16 May 2022

Celtics eliminate NBA defending champion Bucks in Game 7

Celtics eliminate NBA defending champion Bucks in Game 7
  • Boston face top seeds Miami in game one of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday, in a rematch of their 2020 series

BOSTON: Grant Williams scored 27 points as the Boston Celtics eliminated the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday with a 109-81 game seven victory in their NBA Eastern Conference series.
Celtics forward Williams produced a deadly display of scoring from three-point range at the TD Garden as Boston advanced to a conference finals showdown with the Miami Heat with a 4-3 series win.
Williams’s red-hot shooting from beyond the arc was emblematic of Boston’s superiority from the field as the Bucks missed a slew of wide open looks.
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 25 points 20 rebounds and nine assists for Milwaukee.
But the Celtics’ three-point shooting accuracy proved the difference between the two teams as Boston completed a comeback from 3-2 down in the best-of-seven series.
Boston dropped 22 of 55 from downtown, in stark contrast to Milwaukee, who converted just four of 33 attempts from beyond the arc.
Williams led the three-point blitzkrieg with seven threes in his 27-point haul. Jayson Tatum made five-of-nine threes to finish with 23 points.

Grant Williams of the Boston Celtics in action during Game Seven of their semifinals playoff against the Milwaukee Bucks on May 15, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Getty Images/AFP)

Payton Pritchard also got in on the act, with four three-pointers from the bench in a tally of 14 points.
Only one Milwaukee player — Bobby Portis — made multiple three-pointers. Portis finished with two in his 10-point haul.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka revealed he had encouraged Williams to shoot more aggressively, suggesting the Bucks had “disrespected” the forward by allowing him so much room to operate.
“I told him let it fly. I said ‘They’re disrespecting you more tonight than earlier in the series,’” Udoka said.
“He missed a few and got hesitant and I basically said ‘shoot the ball, what else can you do?’“
Williams said he was only too happy to accept the challenge from Udoka and the rest of his Celtics team-mates.
“Everyone kept saying ‘Let it fly, keep shooting’. So I thought ‘All right, they’re encouraging it, might as well take advantage.’ As time went on each one got more comfortable. It was fun. It was just great that we got a win,” Williams said.
“I’ve worked on my shot enough to be confident enough to knock those down.
“My team-mates know that if I get 18 looks I’ll make 40 percent of them at least. It was just a matter of continuing to do what we wanted to do and keep getting those open looks.
“We hadn’t put a full game together this entire series. So we said, why not now? We just did what we were supposed to do.”
Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer made no excuses for the defeat, saying Boston had been the better team over the series.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our team,” Budenholzer said. “We’ve had a lot of success together, and tonight we hit a wall and met our end.”
Boston face top seeds Miami in game one of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday in a rematch of their 2020 series.
Miami won that series 4-2 to advance to the NBA Finals.