Champions League is a group-stage sprint; marathon to final

Champions League is a group-stage sprint; marathon to final
Pep Guardiola’s Man City currently look a juggernaut, fueled by new signing Erling Haaland’s 10 goals in his first six Premier League games, and are favored by many for a first Champions League title. (Reuters/File)
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Updated 05 September 2022

Champions League is a group-stage sprint; marathon to final

Champions League is a group-stage sprint; marathon to final
  • The schedule offers little time to put things right but plenty of time to reflect later during a midseason pause for the competition that will last more than three months

GENEVA: In this unusual season for European soccer, the World Cup in Qatar has split the Champions League into a sprint and a marathon.

The group stage kicks off Tuesday and squeezes six rounds of games into eight full weeks, with the last group matches on Nov. 2.

The congestion is caused by the shutdown of top-tier European soccer during a World Cup being played from Nov. 20-Dec. 18 in Qatar’s cooler months.

In a normal season, teams never play Champions League games in consecutive weeks and the group stage would run into mid-December.

This time, Champions League games come thick and fast in three separate sets of back-to-back midweeks to get the groups done before many players are called to national-team duty.

For teams off to a poor start in domestic leagues, the Champions League offers no respite with two games by Sept. 14 to set the tone in each of the eight groups.

“You can only enjoy the Champions League when things are going well in the (domestic) league,” said Leipzig coach Domenico Tedesco on Saturday after his team lost 4-0 at Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga. Leipzig hosts Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday in Group F and goes to defending champion Real Madrid next week.

Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen — which has lost four of its five Bundesliga games – and Sevilla, winless and 16th in the Spanish league, all start Champions League play from the bottom half of their domestic standings. Sevilla have it toughest, hosting Manchester City in Group G on Tuesday. Leverkusen go to Club Brugge in Group B on Wednesday.

The schedule offers little time to put things right but plenty of time to reflect later during a midseason pause for the competition that will last more than three months. On Feb. 14, the Champions League resumes with a knockout phase lasting almost four months.

The final on June 10 is the latest ever scheduled — excluding the COVID-19 pandemic-delayed 2020 season — since the inaugural European Cup title was decided on June 13, 1956.

It all adds up to a 59-day group stage then a 220-day wait for the trophy to be awarded in Istanbul.

How a team can sustain form between the two phases is among the special challenges of this unprecedented schedule.

Man City currently look a juggernaut, fueled by new signing Erling Haaland’s 10 goals in his first six Premier League games, and are favored by many for a first Champions League title.

Still, an unknown is the impact on the Norway forward of an enforced six-week break from competitive games while most of Haaland’s club teammates play at a physically and emotionally taxing World Cup.

Even in a normal season, when the Champions League round-of-16 pairings would be made in mid-December, club executives at the draw at UEFA headquarters would refuse to crow about being paired with an opponent then under-achieving domestically. The accepted wisdom is that the version of the opponent you see in December might not be the one you get when the two-leg series is played in February and March.

That is even more true this time when the last-16 draw will be made Nov. 7 at UEFA’s lakeside headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.

The World Cup is a huge midseason commitment for many key players, and the January transfer window when teams can reload their rosters is set to be more volatile. The first trading period after a World Cup often is fueled by demand for less-heralded players who stood out on the global stage.

Whichever stories the Champions League tells in this group stage from Tuesday, seeing the bigger picture feels a long way off.


Shane Lowry to compete in Dubai Desert Classic

Shane Lowry to compete in Dubai Desert Classic
Updated 7 sec ago

Shane Lowry to compete in Dubai Desert Classic

Shane Lowry to compete in Dubai Desert Classic
  • Elite field expands for the Rolex Series event taking place from 26th to 29th January
  • Held at the iconic Emirates Golf Club, free general admission and hospitality tickets are now available on www.dubaidesertclassic.com Dubai Desert Classic
Shane Lowry, the 2019 Open Champion, has announced that he will compete in the Dubai Desert Classic.

Lowry joins the top-ranked player in the world Rory McIlroy and DP World Tour stars Tommy Fleetwood, Ryan Fox and Tyrrell Hatton in January’s Rolex Series event.

Irishman Lowry’s career highlight so far came when he lifted the Claret Jug at Royal Portrush, winning by an impressive six strokes. A four-time winner on the DP World Tour, and twice on the PGA TOUR, Lowry secured his second Rolex Series title at the BMW PGA Championship in September, in a season that also included a top three finish at The Masters.

On the prospect of teeing off at Emirates Golf Club from 26th to 29th January — as he aims to add more silverware in the UAE following his 2019 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship title — Lowry said: “I always enjoy going to Dubai and I am delighted to be returning to Emirates Golf Club for the Dubai Desert Classic in January.

“I’ve had success in the UAE in the past, and it would be great to add my name to the impressive list of players who have lifted this trophy.”

Fleetwood ended the 2022 season in style, securing his sixth DP World Tour title when he successfully defended his Nedbank Golf Challenge title in November. The former European Number One has also tasted success in the UAE with two wins in Abu Dhabi, and was runner-up to Ryder Cup team-mate and fellow fan favorite Lowry at the 2019 Open. It is his joint best Major outing to date, having also finished second at the US Open the previous year.

New Zealand’s Fox has had a stunning 2022, finishing second behind McIlroy in the season-long DP World Tour Rankings after winning the Ras Al Khaimah Classic in February and the prestigious Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October. With a further eight top tens throughout the season, including a narrow playoff loss at the Dutch Open, the Kiwi, will be looking to take that impressive form into 2023 and his appearance in Dubai.

Englishman Hatton is another tournament addition with considerable pedigree, who has experienced recent success in the region following his 2021 triumph in Abu Dhabi. The two-time Ryder Cup star has six DP World Tour victories to his name, including four Rolex Series titles. After a runner-up finish at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship, he will be aiming to carry on that form when he returns to Dubai in January.

The four will join two-time winner of the Dubai Desert Classic, four-time Major winner and current World Number 1 McIlroy, who has already confirmed his participation.

Simon Corkill, Executive Tournament Director of Dubai Desert Classic, said: “The latest player announcement shows the strength of the Dubai Desert Classic and its ability to attract the very best players in the world. Over the years we have been proud to assemble stellar line-ups for fans to enjoy some scintillating golfing action — and the 2023 edition will be no exception.”

“To add the 2019 Open Champion Shane Lowry, Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton to the field guarantees that we have a world class field. Ryan Fox will come to us on the back of a brilliant 2022, his best career year to date and will be another excellent addition to our line-up.” added Corkill.

Japan target fifth Asian title after World Cup heartbreak

Japan target fifth Asian title after World Cup heartbreak
Updated 13 min 4 sec ago

Japan target fifth Asian title after World Cup heartbreak

Japan target fifth Asian title after World Cup heartbreak
  • The Blue Samurai were eliminated from the World Cup on penalties by Croatia
  • The defeat did not stop hundreds of fans from travelling to an airport near Tokyo to welcome the players and coach Hajime Moriyasu

NARITA, Japan: Japan will put their World Cup heartbreak behind them and focus on becoming Asian champions for a fifth time, captain Maya Yoshida said after the team returned home on Wednesday.
The Blue Samurai were eliminated from the World Cup on penalties by Croatia in the last 16 on Monday, denying them a first-ever place in the quarter-finals.
But the defeat did not stop hundreds of fans from traveling to an airport near Tokyo to welcome the players and coach Hajjime Moriyasu back from Qatar.
“We won’t stop here,” Yoshida said at a news conference after arriving.
“We will aim to become the best in Asia,” he added.
“Our fight will continue. As long as we keep playing football, we must keep fighting.”
The Asian Cup will also be held in Qatar after original host China dropped out due to its strict anti-Covid policies.
The tournament was set to be held in June and July 2023 but is now likely to be postponed until early 2024 to avoid Qatar’s fierce summer heat.
Japan won the most recent of their four Asian Cup titles the last time Qatar hosted the tournament, in 2011.
The Blue Samurai could not find a way past Croatia in the last 16 of the World Cup, but they stunned former champions Germany and Spain to top their first-round group.
“We couldn’t reach new heights but my players showed us a new era, and this is just the beginning,” said Moriyasu.
Among the crowd of fans waiting to welcome the team home at the airport was 55-year-old Takamichi Masui.
He said the wins over Germany and Spain were proof that “Japan has become a soccer powerhouse.”
Another fan, 37-year-old Takahiro Ichikawa, said that like captain Yoshida, he is only looking ahead.
“For now, I hope the national team will focus on pulling off a solid performance in the Asian Cup in Qatar,” he said.


Eddie Howe and Newcastle United chiefs hold transfer summit in Riyadh

Eddie Howe and Newcastle United chiefs hold transfer summit in Riyadh
Updated 49 min 13 sec ago

Eddie Howe and Newcastle United chiefs hold transfer summit in Riyadh

Eddie Howe and Newcastle United chiefs hold transfer summit in Riyadh
  • Club likely to strengthen the squad in the January window
  • The Magpies are in the Saudi capital for a training camp that includes a friendly against Al-Hilal

RIYADH: Towering palms, the tinkling of ivories, clinking of coffee cups and a warm winter sun hue about the Saudi skies, is not your usual location for a Newcastle United transfer summit.

It’s a far cry from the inner bowels of St James’ Park, where head coach Eddie Howe, along with the club’s minority owners, thrashed out a summer raid for one of the hottest prospects in the game, Sweden international Alexander Isak. Not since the Vikings have the European elites been so unsettled by a force from the north.

But Howe, meeting with club chiefs and the money men at the Public Investment Fund, spent his Tuesday evening in the Kingdom talking transfers with Al-Olaya the backdrop, the Four Seasons an opulent frame.

Beyond the ostentatious surrounds lies a steely determination, one funded in the Gulf, but driven with North East grit. A goal not publicly admitted, but privately discussed. A want to take Newcastle United into the promised land, the UEFA Champions League, a feat the club has not achieved on Tyneside in two decades.

Lying third in the Premier League, which is beyond even the wildest of Newcastle fans’ expectations, the prospect is not out of the realms of possibility.

But will that be boosted by another Magpies’ January transfer window raiding party? Howe says talks have started.

“I have had half an eye on January and the squad and how it looks,” he said, confirming the transfer talks with Newcastle chiefs.

“We need to be adaptable and prepared for what is always a difficult window. But if there is something we can do to improve the team, I, naturally as the manager, would like to look at that.”

Expectation may be that Newcastle will be bold in their moves with the likes of England international James Maddison, however such a switch has been played down by those in the know.

More likely is movements for players more in the Isak or Sven Botman mold, ready to attack the Premier League, but not at an English topflight premium. And key to this January regeneration will be the right players, at the right price and for the right reasons, if at all.

“Me, sitting here now, I am not expecting too much business, whether incoming or outgoing, but it is football and it is January so it’s unpredictable,” Howe told Arab News.

“We can’t predict what is going to happen with our own squad at times, in terms of fitness and availability, so we do need to be ready to act if we need to. The need for that will be minimized by keeping a fit and healthy squad of players.

“We look like, on paper, we have a very strong squad when everyone is fit. Everyone is not fit currently, and that has a bearing on what you look to do in January.

“Probably the squad, in my eyes, looks different to what it did in the summer because of how well players have done — and from my perspective, I can’t ignore that.”

On the level of those who may arrive, Botman and Isak have set the blueprint but financial fair play rules, until United’s commercial revenues are boosted significantly, will always be the elephant in the ever-expanding room.

Howe continued: “In my position you are keen to sign the best players you can — but those players come at a premium, as you know. Botman wasn’t cheap, Alex wasn’t cheap. Those are players who can influence the starting 11. Do we have the finances for that? I do not know. That might impact our options on that one.

“As a manager I am always looking to improve the team. I will never sit here and be content — I don’t think that is the right way to manage. My way to take the team to new heights is to improve through the training of the players we have. If we can’t get to a certain level then we need to find that in the transfer market. And, of course, you have to work within the guidelines of the club.”

Meanwhile, United’s trip, which started on Sunday and ends on Saturday, is being officially supported by, it’s been announced, Saudi telecommunications giant stc.

In a further boost to club revenues, stc have been named as the official digital partner of the tour and the news follows hot on the heels of Saudi Airlines’ sponsorship of the tour to the Middle East.

A club statement confirmed: “The partnership will provide stc with a digital presence at the Al-Hilal versus Newcastle United fixture, as well as an ongoing presence at St. James’ Park throughout the 2022/23 Premier League campaign, and supporters will have exclusive opportunities to win memorabilia and tickets.”

The NUFC’s chief commercial officer, Peter Silverstone, said: “Our ambition is to grow our supporter base in Saudi Arabia, a country whose young population includes a large, passionate and highly engaged football community.

“We are delighted to welcome stc to our growing family of partners and have them on board as our second strategic partner for the club’s visit to Saudi Arabia this December.

“stc digitally connects millions of individuals and businesses throughout the Middle East and their market knowledge, expertise and experience in sport partnerships will complement our drive to reach and engage with more people across one of our key markets. We look forward to working closely with stc.”


’No small teams anymore’, FIFA chief hails best group stage

’No small teams anymore’, FIFA chief hails best group stage
FIFA President Gianni Infantino gives thumbs-up during Qatar 2022 World Cup Group G match between Brazil and Switzerland. AFP
Updated 07 December 2022

’No small teams anymore’, FIFA chief hails best group stage

’No small teams anymore’, FIFA chief hails best group stage
  • “Fantastic atmosphere, great goals, incredible excitement, surprises, small teams beating big teams,” he said in comments released by FIFA on Wednesday

DOHA: FIFA President Gianni Infantino has hailed the group stage of the Qatar World Cup as the “best ever” and said the number of upsets and geographic breadth of the teams progressing indicated that football was becoming ever more global.
Former champions Argentina, Spain, Germany and Brazil all suffered shock group-stage losses and Africa, Asia and North America were represented in the last 16 along with traditional powerhouses South America and Europe.
Infantino said the matches — “played in beautiful stadiums” — had already attracted a TV audience in excess of two billion viewers.
“Fantastic atmosphere, great goals, incredible excitement, surprises, small teams beating big teams,” he said in comments released by FIFA on Wednesday.
“Well, there are no more small teams and no more big teams. The level is very, very equal.
“For the first time as well, national teams from all continents going to the knock-out phase, for the first time in history. This shows that football is really becoming truly global.”
Infantino has pushed through the expansion of the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 for the next edition, which will be held across 16 cities in the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2026.
Infantino on Wednesday said he had been delighted with the number of fans crowding into the stadiums and fanzones in the country and thought the final TV viewership figures would exceed five billion.
“At the end [of the day], we simply want to give some joy and some smiles to people all over the world,” he added.
“That’s what football is about, that’s what the World Cup is about, and that’s what should also happen from now until the end.
“We have already seen some great action on the field, which, (ultimately), is the most important part of what you do.”


Belgium star Hazard quits international football

Belgium star Hazard quits international football
Belgium's national football team forward Eden Hazard gives a press conference ahead of the upcoming Fifa World Cup. AFP
Updated 07 December 2022

Belgium star Hazard quits international football

Belgium star Hazard quits international football
  • The Real Madrid forward, 31, made the announcement on social media, saying “a page turns today"

DOHA: Belgium star Eden Hazard announced his retirement from international football on Wednesday, days after the team crashed out of the World Cup in the group stage.
The Real Madrid forward, 31, made the announcement on social media, saying “a page turns today.”
“Thank you for your unparalleled support,” he posted on Instagram. “Thank you for all this happiness shared since 2008. I have decided to put an end to my international career. The succession is ready. I will miss you.”
The Belgium team tweeted: “All the best, captain.”
Hazard, who played as an attacking midfielder or winger, made his Belgium debut in 2008 as a teenager and collected a total of 126 caps, scoring 33 goals.
He was the standard-bearer of Belgium’s much-vaunted “golden generation,” which reached the semifinals at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The team are still ranked second in the world by FIFA but many of their players are in their 30s and they finished third in Group F behind Morocco and Croatia.
Hazard, who was the team’s skipper, made a surprise admission during the tournament in Qatar, saying the team’s best chance to win the World Cup had come and gone.
The forward moved from French club Lille to Chelsea in 2012 and became one of the standout stars in the Premier League, winning the trophy twice.
He sealed a big-money move to Real Madrid in 2019 but, hampered by injury, has struggled to repeat the form he showed in England.
Belgium were stalked by rumors of in-fighting in Qatar and a number of the country’s other stars including Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois have likely played their final World Cup matches.
In the aftermath of their exit, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez announced he was leaving his job.