Benzema, De Bruyne put on masterclasses as clamor for Ballon d’Or starts early

Benzema, De Bruyne put on masterclasses as clamor for Ballon d’Or starts early
Benzema has reached his greatest of heights this season with Real Madrid and looks to be getting even better. (File/AFP)
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Updated 27 April 2022

Benzema, De Bruyne put on masterclasses as clamor for Ballon d’Or starts early

Benzema, De Bruyne put on masterclasses as clamor for Ballon d’Or starts early
  • Frenchman Benzema’s two goals kept Real Madrid in Champions League semi-final 1st leg which Manchester City threatened to run away with as Belgian De Bruyne conducted play for home team

RIYADH: It almost defies belief that Karim Benzema is producing remarkable goalscoring statistics and setting historic landmarks aged 34.

It is an age where footballers in the modern era have often found it harder to maintain peak performance at a brutally challenging level — and are subsequently linked with moves to the Middle East or the US.

Lionel Messi is also 34 but, while many feel the Argentine legend has declined since his summer move to Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona, Benzema has reached his greatest of heights this season with Real Madrid and looks to be getting even better as he gets older.

Validation, should it be required, of the French striker’s current lofty standing among the world’s best players came in Real’s 4-3 loss at Manchester City on Tuesday in their Champions League semi-final first-leg tie.

Without Benzema’s inspiration and impact — and wasteful City finishing — the 13-time winners would have likely faced an insurmountable task in next week’s home return against the English champions.

Three times they had a two-goal deficit to overcome, yet they responded through Benzema twice and Vinicius Junior.

“I can’t explain how good he is,” said the Brazil striker, 21, of Benzema after he recorded his 41st goal this season and 13th in 10 Champions League games — nine in the last four. “He is my mentor and inspiration, helps me so much and I hope he ends up winning three titles; La Liga, the Champions League, and the Ballon d’Or.”

The first of those trophies will be confirmed on Saturday if Real claim a point against Espanyol. The second is in the balance, but the third is in Benzema’s grasp.

According to former Real team-mate Mesut Ozil, there should be no doubt. In a tweet, he said: “Give my boy Benzi the Ballon d’Or.”

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane — instrumental in Liverpool’s drive for a historic quadruple of trophies this season — and Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski may well disagree, but Benzema is a deserved favorite.

Labelled arrogant and lazy in the past while trying to establish himself at Real and in the French national team, the Lyon-born forward has endured battles to prove his worth — and salvage his reputation too after an unsavory blackmail court case involving former France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena that dated back to 2015.

Benzema has appealed a suspended one-year jail sentence and remained focused on football, where his growing maturity has been reflected through his performances.

The only arrogance he displayed on the pitch at the Etihad was an impudent “Panenka” penalty to deny City the two-goal advantage their efforts merited.

It followed two missed spot-kicks in a La Liga game against Osasuna last week.

Benzema, a Muslim of Algerian descent, said: “All the goalkeepers have studied my penalties and I had to change. The penalty by me was cold-blooded.

“I always have it in my head that if you don’t take a penalty, you will never miss a penalty. That’s mental confidence.

“We lacked a bit of everything in this game – ambition, pressure, confidence. The most important thing is we never lay down our arms, we are all in this until the end. This is the highest level. We fell 2-0 down but were mentally strong to fight back.

“Now we have to go to the Bernabeu (Stadium), and we are going to do something magical,” he added.

Where Cristiano Ronaldo once proved Real’s savior, now it is Benzema as he has filled the frontline role admirably since the Portuguese icon departed for Juventus in 2018.

He is no longer the support act to Ronaldo or Gareth Bale in Madrid, but the headliner as he pursues a fifth personal Champions League title.

The game at City was Benzema’s 600th for Real since his arrival from Lyon in 2009 – putting him eighth in the all-time appearance list – and he now has 320 goals, just three shy of Raul as the second-highest scorer in the club’s history behind Ronaldo.

Wearing the captain’s armband, Benzema has become a leader, lethal and legend and perhaps finally getting respect for his footballing feats.

Yet there was also another worthy Ballon d’Or candidate on show as Real and City produced a spectacular goal-fest that was gripping from the very moment Riyad Mahrez’s hip-swaying and quick feet created space for a sumptuous curling cross that Kevin De Bruyne headed in for the opener after just 94 seconds – the fastest ever in a semi-final.

The Belgian then set up Gabriel Jesus for the second in the 11th minute before Benzema’s hooked finish gave Real hope. Phil Foden headed in City’s third, but Vinicius Junior raced clear for a fine solo strike.

Back came Pep Guardiola’s side with Bernardo Silva’s blast into the top corner before Benzema’s audacious penalty eight minutes from time after Aymeric Laporte handled.

City captain Ruben Dias said: “Everyone is thinking ‘it could’ve been better, it could’ve been this, it could’ve been that’ but we just need to take the win.”

And with full-backs Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker in line for returns after suspension and injury, they will go for the win in Madrid too, playing with the same swashbuckling style, rather than the more cautious approach seen at Atletico Madrid in the previous round.

Guardiola said: “You have to be yourself and really be truly yourself otherwise you’ve got no option to win.

“That’s what I want to tell my players to do – don’t think about anything else, think about going to the Bernabeu and putting on a good show which could give you a victory.”

City’s greatest showman is currently De Bruyne – and if the criterion for the Ballon d’Or is individual brilliance, then he has to be in the frame too. The 30-year-old midfielder is the complete player, a prototype for perfection with his vision and adept both in attack – with assists and goals – as well as defense.

If he can lead City to their first Champions League title, De Bruyne may stand a stronger chance of recognition.

It is often argued the award does not always go to the right man – as was the case with Lewandowski in 2021 after the 2020 edition was abandoned due to the coronavirus pandemic – and to those at more illustrious clubs such as Real Madrid or Barcelona.

With Messi and Ronaldo out of the picture this year, De Bruyne’s ability and contribution to City’s exploits should be lauded in the same manner as Benzema and his peers.


Edoardo Mortara wins Marrakesh E-Prix in round 10 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship

Edoardo Mortara wins Marrakesh E-Prix in round 10 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship
Updated 03 July 2022

Edoardo Mortara wins Marrakesh E-Prix in round 10 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship

Edoardo Mortara wins Marrakesh E-Prix in round 10 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship
  • Antonio Felix da Costa finished in second place, with Mitch Evans third
  • ROKiT Venturi Racing driver Mortara tops podium for the third time this season with victory in Marrakesh, and takes lead in drivers’ championship

MARRAKESH: Edoardo Mortara hit the top of the Drivers’ World Championship with victory in the Marrakesh E-Prix round 10 as the ROKiT Venturi Racing driver fended off pressure from DS TECHEETAH teammates Antonio Felix da Costa and Jean-Eric Vergne throughout.

Da Costa started on pole position and, after falling behind Mortara during the early stages, he clung to the back of the Swiss driver’s car as the race reached its climax. But the Season 6 champion couldn’t make it past the Venturi driver who remained unflustered on the way to the top step and his third win of the season, as well as the standings lead.

“I must admit after Free Practice 2, we had a lot of issues and I was not thinking we could turn this thing around, but I have an incredible team behind me and they managed to do an incredible job already in quali,” said Mortara. “Then during the race, they had a plan, they had a strategy, we executed it and it was perfect.”

“You have the guys putting you under a lot of pressure. I was trying to be intelligent, trying to manage,” he said. “There was a lot to manage today — tires obviously, but also battery temperatures, energy. It was very difficult. I had some issues with the car today, I was a little bit by myself, let’s say, but we did that and I’m extremely happy.”

Mercedes-EQ’s Stoffel Vandoorne was top of the Drivers’ World Championship going into the race but a braking glitch in qualifying left him down in 20th on the grid. He recovered to finish eighth but with just four points on the day, Mortara stands tall at the end of Round 10 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship.

Vergne had found himself in second heading into the closing stages with 2 percent of usable energy available before he slipped back behind da Costa to an eventual fourth position. Fellow title challenger Mitch Evans (Jaguar TCS Racing) fought from sixth on the grid to the podium with a final lap lunge on Vergne for silverware and a handful of extra, crucial World Championship points.

In the searing 33-degree heat, drivers and engineers elected to jump early for their two mandatory Attack Mode boosts with the school of thought being that it would be more efficient and effective in the long run to ply that extra 30kW through the batteries and powertrain. In the mix was Lucas di Grassi (ROKiT Venturi Racing), who battled to fifth and vital points for the Monegasque team.

Reigning World Champion Nyck de Vries (Mercedes-EQ) clambered to sixth and Jake Dennis (Avalanche Andretti) would have to settle for seventh. Vandoorne did make up an impressive 12 spots to finish eighth in the end after his qualifying disappointment. Sam Bird wound up ninth for Jaguar TCS Racing, and Oliver Rowland — who ran as high as second spot early on — rounded out the points-paying positions in 10th.

All that saw Mortara jump to an 11-point Drivers’ World Championship lead, with Vergne second and Vandoorne now third, having led heading into this Marrakesh E-Prix race weekend. Evans finds himself just 15 points shy of Mortara, with the top four breaking well clear of the chasing pack to set up a four-driver shootout over the final six races.

Next time out is the New York City E-Prix on July 16 to July 17 for rounds 11 and 12 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship. The much-anticipated double-header takes place on the streets of the Red Hook district of Brooklyn against the spectacular backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. 

Two more double-headers close out Season 8, with the London E-Prix weekend on July 30 to July 31 before the championship climaxes with a first visit to Korea and the Seoul E-Prix weekend on Aug. 13 to Aug. 14.


Riyadh to host Italian Super Cup between Inter and AC Milan next year

Riyadh to host Italian Super Cup between Inter and AC Milan next year
Updated 03 July 2022

Riyadh to host Italian Super Cup between Inter and AC Milan next year

Riyadh to host Italian Super Cup between Inter and AC Milan next year
  • The showpiece match between Italy’s league and cup winners was last held in Saudi Arabia in 2019

The Italian Super Cup match between league champions AC Milan and cup winners Inter is set to take place in Riyadh on Jan. 18, 2023, Italy’s national professional league, Serie A, has confirmed.

No stadium has yet been assigned for the return of the showpiece match to Saudi Arabia.

The Italian Super Cup, or Supercoppa Italiana, has often been played abroad and was last hosted outside of Italy in Riyadh in 2019, when Lazio beat Juventus 3-1 at the King Saud University Stadium.

The competition has for the last two years taken place on home soil due to COVID-19 restrictions, with Juventus beating Napoli 2-0 in Reggio Emilia in 2020 and Inter beating Juventus 2-1 last year at Milan’s San Siro Stadium.

 


Saudi Arabia to play France, Poland and Slovenia at 2023 Handball World Championship

Saudi Arabia to play France, Poland and Slovenia at 2023 Handball World Championship
Updated 03 July 2022

Saudi Arabia to play France, Poland and Slovenia at 2023 Handball World Championship

Saudi Arabia to play France, Poland and Slovenia at 2023 Handball World Championship
  • The Saudi team has faced all three Group B opponents in previous competitions

The draw for the 2023 IHF Men’s World Championship on Saturday placed Saudi Arabia’s handball national team in Group B alongside France, Slovenia and co-hosts Poland.

The tournament, organized by Sweden and Poland, will run from Jan. 12 to Jan. 29 in 2023.

The Saudi team has faced all three rivals in previous versions of the competition, having twice taken on Slovenia and Poland, while facing France once.

The first meeting against Slovenia was in 2001, ending in a 35-22 defeat for Saudi Arabia, while the second meeting in 2013 resulted in a 32-22 loss.

In 2003, Saudi Arabia faced France for the first time, in a match that ended in a 33-22 loss for the Green Falcons.

Poland, too, have won both of their encounters with Saudi Arabia — with a result of 28-14 in 2013, and 32-13 in 2015.

This will be the 10th time the Saudi national team has taken part in this competition, with the first of nine previous participations taking place in 1997, and the last in 2019. The team’s highest position was 10th in the 2003 competition played in Portugal.


UAE jiu-jitsu clubs top medals table as AJP Tour Fujiarah International Pro Championship kicks off

UAE jiu-jitsu clubs top medals table as AJP Tour Fujiarah International Pro Championship kicks off
Updated 03 July 2022

UAE jiu-jitsu clubs top medals table as AJP Tour Fujiarah International Pro Championship kicks off

UAE jiu-jitsu clubs top medals table as AJP Tour Fujiarah International Pro Championship kicks off
  • Commando Group took the top position on day one, with AFNT and Sharjah Self-Defense Sports Club in second and third place

FUJAIRAH: The AJP Tour Fujairah International Pro Championship kicked off at Zayed Sports Complex on Saturday with stellar performances from Emirati fighters in the teens, youth, and men’s masters categories.

Commando Group came in first on the opening day of the championship while AFNT and Sharjah Self-Defense Sports Club took second and third places respectively.

About 800 athletes from 50 countries are competing in the championship, which is organized by the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation in partnership with AJP. The first day’s competitions were held across seven mats with the top finisher in each category receiving 600 ranking points under the AJP-approved ranking.

The AJP Tour Fujairah International Pro Championship is the third event of the AJP Championships, which consists of five legs held in different regions of the country.  The opening day saw the UAE take first place in the country rankings, ahead of Colombia and Brazil.

Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al-Zeyoudi, minister of state for foreign trade, was presented with two commemorative shields at the event by the UAEJJF and the Fujairah Martial Arts Club in appreciation of his support for jiu-jitsu and other martial arts competitions.

“The UAE continues to excel and solidify its position as a home for jiu-jitsu,” Al-Zeyoudi said. “The strongest evidence of our country’s excellence in hosting and managing the largest sporting events and championships is the fantastic performance we saw in the Zayed Sports Complex today and the great response by the public to the competitions.”

Mohammed Salem Al-Dhaheri, on behalf of the board of directors of the federation, extended his thanks to Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Sharqi, crown prince of Fujairah, for his support for jiu-jitsu.

“The biggest assurance for the tournament’s success and achievements was his highness’ support,” he said. “The primary tenet of the nation’s leadership in this sport on a global scale is the support of our wise leadership.”


Ronaldo wants to leave Man United — reports

Ronaldo wants to leave Man United — reports
Updated 03 July 2022

Ronaldo wants to leave Man United — reports

Ronaldo wants to leave Man United — reports
  • United’s international players are due to report for training in the coming days ahead of flying to Thailand on Friday

LONDON: Cristiano Ronaldo wants to leave Manchester United this summer if the Premier League club receive an appropriate offer, according to multiple reports on Saturday.
The 37-year-old Portugal forward returned to Old Trafford from Juventus last summer but despite being United’s top scorer last season, and third in the Premier League, the campaign was overall disappointing.
United finished sixth in the Premier League, missing out on Champions League qualification, leaving the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, who has a year left on his contract plus an optional year, facing the prospect of playing in the Europa League for the first time.
Manchester United are adamant Ronaldo, who scored 24 goals in all competitions, is not for sale, according to reports, with new manager Erik ten Hag keen to work with him.
Ronaldo won three Premier League titles and the Champions League during six trophy-laden years with United before leaving for Real Madrid in 2009 and Juventus in 2018, collecting more trophies at both clubs.
United’s international players are due to report for training in the coming days ahead of flying to Thailand on Friday for the start of their pre-season tour.