Miralem Pjanic joins Sharjah from Barcelona in UAE Pro League’s biggest coup in years

Miralem Pjanic joins Sharjah from Barcelona in UAE Pro League’s biggest coup in years
Miralem Pjanic holds a Sharjah FC shirt with his name on it. (@SharjahFC)
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Updated 07 September 2022

Miralem Pjanic joins Sharjah from Barcelona in UAE Pro League’s biggest coup in years

Miralem Pjanic joins Sharjah from Barcelona in UAE Pro League’s biggest coup in years
  • The Bosnia and Herzegovina midfielder joins on a two-year deal as the 2018-19 champions send a warning to their title rivals
  • This move is a tier above that of fellow Sharjah recruit Paco Alcacer and champions Al-Ain’s standout pre-season addition, Andriy Yarmolenko

SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates: Another day, another eye-catching ADNOC Pro League addition.
It is not hyperbole, however, to describe Miralem Pjanic’s decision to swap Barcelona for Sharjah as the division’s boldest move in a decade.
The cultured Bosnia and Herzegovina midfielder’s switch — on a lucrative two-year contract, with a one-year option to extend — is a statement of intent designed to reverberate far beyond the UAE’s borders.
Fabio Cannavaro, Luca Toni and David Trezeguet were the last imports of similar prestige to the four-time Serie A winner.
This move is a tier above that of fellow Sharjah recruit Paco Alcacer and champions Al-Ain’s standout pre-season addition, Andriy Yarmolenko.
Such is its profile, that football transfer doyen Fabrizio Romano chronicled Pjanic’s journey to feverish reaction on social media. Regulation ADNOC Pro League rumors do not usually register on the unremitting Italian’s radar.

Domestic opponents Al-Ain and Al-Jazira have been put on notice that being a runner-up is not enough for The King. So, too, have Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s finest if they make it into the reformatted 2023-24 AFC Champions League.
This is the kind of limitless ambition required to justify last November’s lavish hire of relentless title winner Cosmin Olaroiu to manage Sharjah. The administration has truly produced a premium replacement for Otabek Shukorov.
It would be naive to paint the entire picture as positive.
Pjanic, who was bombed out of Barcelona a year ago by unimpressed head coach Ronald Koeman, has been an unused substitute in all four La Liga games this term and last registered a league goal in October 2019.
The subsequent struggles in the UAE of the aforementioned World Cup winning trio also point to potential pitfalls which await both club and their 32-year-old veteran signing.
But there is ample reason to believe this scenario could play out differently.
Pjanic landed in the emirate in midweek with a ringing endorsement freshly provided by Camp Nou supremo Xavi, someone uniquely positioned to comment on midfield acumen and not inclined to deliver hollow praise.
“Pjanic has decided to leave for more opportunities,” the Catalan icon commented. “He has been a great professional, so I think he had chances here.
“But everyone chooses their own path.”
This is a distinctively different setting to Lyon, Roma or Juventus. Also to Besiktas in 2021-22, where Pjanic registered four assists in 26 matches and won the Turkish Super Cup lifted while on loan.
In Istanbul, Pjanic was used during his time at the Vodafone Park as a deep-lying playmaker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, traditionally favored by future boss Olaroiu.
At Sharjah Stadium, he can expect to either sit alongside all-action UAE international — and fellow new signing — Majed Hassan. He could also be pushed into an attacking midfield role behind Spanish poacher Alcacer, with either the sprightly Majed Surour or Majid Rashid providing added energy at the base with Hassan.
This duo are not the only youngsters set to be inspired by Pjanic’s presence.
Guinean prospect Ousmane Camara began the campaign with both assists in the agenda-setting 2-0 victory at Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club. Witnessing Pjanic’s lofty standards at close range can only lift the 21-year-old further, and faster.
Regular hamstring complaints in Turkey must be astutely managed by Sharjah’s medical staff to get the best out of Pjanic. The club will also have to delicately deal with the weight of expectation understandably generated by an arrangement of such standing.
The Bosnian also operates in a part of the pitch rarely appreciated by squads constrained by foreign quotas.
It is difficult to quantify the contribution of someone who does not weigh in with goals up front, tee up plentiful assists out wide or deliver crunching tackles and clean sheets from central defense.
Portugal’s Hugo Viana rarely received the copious praise his consistently elite displays deserved while at the subsumed Al-Ahli and Al-Wasl.
This situation has been exacerbated by the fact Emirati academies are able to regularly produce center midfielders capable of excelling in Asian football. But this season’s move to five open-age, non-Emirati slots alleviates the problem of perception.
Where Pjanic can take responsibility, however, is in his own output.
Big names have logged mixed performances in the UAE’s professional era.
Cannavaro, Toni and Trezeguet were all signed at an older age than the Bosnian. They contributed a combined 33 forgettable UAE Pro League appearances, at a level far below their gargantuan reputations.
Former France, Paris Saint-Germain and Newcastle United battler Yohan Cabaye was deregistered by Al-Nasr midway through a mediocre 2018-19 season. Ryan Babel faced demotion to Al-Ain’s reserves in 2015 and Lassana Diarra lasted mere months at Jazira in 2017.
Yet Ghana superstar Asamoah Gyan plundered 95 goals in 83 top-flight appearances for Al-Ain from 2011-15. Brazil forward Grafite delivered on his rarefied status at Ahli in the same period, Alvaro Negredo left Nasr as a beloved ADIB Cup-winning legend and Thulani Serero frequently showcases Ajax-honed skills in midfield at Jazira.
The 2022-23 season has been preceded by tales of further Al-Ain domination after they retained inspirational head coach Serhiy Rebrov, attracted fellow Ukraine icon Yarmolenko and purchased Golden Boy nominee Matias Palacios.
Chasers Sharjah moved at slower pace in the transfer window.
Now their patience has been rewarded with spectacular free transfers for Alcacer and Pjanic which threaten to tip the balance in this campaign’s hotly anticipated title race.
Ominously, they remain the only challenger with a final foreign spot to fill ahead of the Oct. 4 deadline. Links to Corinthians forward Roger Guedes have been widely reported this week in Brazilian media.
Sharjah stunned Middle East football in 2018-19 when they rebounded from years of relegation worries and stormed to an unexpected Pro League-success.
There are no surprises this time. Sharjah, with Pjanic in the ranks, mean business.


Messi and Lewandowski’s World Cup dreams hang in the balance

Messi and Lewandowski’s World Cup dreams hang in the balance
Updated 30 November 2022

Messi and Lewandowski’s World Cup dreams hang in the balance

Messi and Lewandowski’s World Cup dreams hang in the balance
  • Either one of two of the biggest stars of European club football could fail to qualify for the knockout stages in Qatar

DOHA: Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski head into Wednesday’s showdown between Argentina and Poland with the futures of what could be their final World Cup adventures hanging in the balance.

Either one of two of the biggest stars of European club football could fail to qualify for the knockout stages in Qatar and end their careers without tasting glory at the most prestigious tournament of all.

Messi has already netted twice in his last attempt to emulate Diego Maradona and win the World Cup for Argentina and is trying to drag the Albiceleste out of Group C after they were stunned by Saudi Arabia in their opening match.

Argentina beat Mexico 2-0 to salvage their campaign and sit second, level on three points with the Saudis and one behind leaders Poland and only a win will guarantee that 35-year-old Messi’s Qatar campaign continues into December.

An Argentine exit would devastate fans back home and a worldwide army of Messi fans desperate to see him lift the World Cup.

It would also be a fitting climax to the career of one of football’s greatest ever players, but coach Lionel Scaloni sees such histrionics as unnecessary.

“It’s hard to make people understand that the sun will rise tomorrow, win or lose,” he said after his side beat Mexico to get their challenge back on track.

“What matters is how you do things.”

Lewandowski was brought to tears by fulfilling his “childhood dream” of scoring his first ever World Cup goal in what was his fifth match at the finals, a 2-0 win over the Saudis.

The Barcelona forward knows he might not get another chance on this stage should the Poles exit the tournament on Wednesday.

“I’m aware it might be my last World Cup and I wanted to be able to say that I’ve played and scored at World Cups,” said the 34-year-old.

Lewandowski is a safer bet to make the last 16 as Poland will be through with a win or a draw, and even if they lose they are only sure to be knocked out if the Saudis beat Mexico.

Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz insisted it wasn’t simply a contest between the forward despite the inevitable focus on the two big stars.

“It’s not only a match between Lewandowski and Messi, it’s not tennis,” he said.

On Tuesday, the US reached the knockout phase by beating Iran 1-0 in a battle of geopolitical foes, earning a second round meeting with the Netherlands.

Christian Pulisic’s winner in the 38th minute of an absorbing contest in Doha eliminated the Iranians.

The meeting of the bitter ideological rivals had been marked by a bad-tempered buildup, with Iran’s Football Federation demanding on Sunday that FIFA punish US Soccer for posting a modified version of their country’s flag on social media.

The defeat ended a fraught campaign for Iran, whose every move in Qatar has been scrutinized for signs the players are showing support for mass anti-government protests that have shaken the Islamic republic.

“The dream is over,” coach Carlos Queiroz said. “Unfortunately football always punishes the team that doesn’t score.”

The Americans finished two points behind England in Group B after Gareth Southgate’s team cruised past Wales 3-0 in a one-sided ‘Battle of Britain’ decided by a Marcus Rashford brace and another strike from Manchester City star Phil Foden.

Rashford said his double, which included a stunning free-kick to open the scoring in the 50th minute at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, was “what I play football for.”

“I have massive ambition for this team and think we can play even better than we showed today,” added Rashford.

England will face Senegal on Sunday after Chelsea defender Kalidou Koulibaly snatched a 2-1 win over Ecuador to finish second behind the Dutch in Group A and knock out the South Americans.

Koulibaly said he would give late Senegalese icon Papa Bouba Diop’s family his man-of-the-match award after firing the Lions of Teranga into the last 16 for the second time in their history.

Cody Gakpo his third goal of the tournament as the Netherlands booked their place last 16 as group winners with a straightforward 2-0 victory over hosts Qatar.

Qatar, which has spent $200 billion to host the World Cup, bow out of their own tournament with the worst ever performance by a host nation — zero points and just one goal scored.


’We deserve to be here,’ says coach Gregg Berhalter after US sink Iran

’We deserve to be here,’ says coach Gregg Berhalter after US sink Iran
Updated 30 November 2022

’We deserve to be here,’ says coach Gregg Berhalter after US sink Iran

’We deserve to be here,’ says coach Gregg Berhalter after US sink Iran
  • The win avenged America’s defeat to Iran at the 1998 World Cup
  • Berhalter expressed particular satisfaction that his team held the line despite a second half onslaught by Iran

DOHA: US coach Gregg Berhalter said his team belonged in the last 16 of the World Cup on Tuesday after defeating Iran 1-0 to set up a second round showdown with the Netherlands.

Five years after the Americans suffered the shock of failing to qualify for the 2018 finals in Russia, Berhalter has led a youthful US team into knockout rounds of the tournament.

Draws against Wales and England were followed by Tuesday’s nailbiting 1-0 win over arch-rivals Iran to seal qualification.

But while Sunday’s last 16 clash with the Netherlands promises to be a step up in class, Berhalter said his team would have no trace of an inferiority complex.

“It’s a great opportunity, but it’s not something that we’re going into it thinking it’s an honor,” Berhalter said.

“We deserve to be in the position we’re in. And we want to keep going. We don’t want to be going home next Wednesday.

“So for us it’s how we recover from this game, and how to play a very good Dutch team. We have to come up with an idea of how to beat them.”

Asked how far the US could go in Qatar, Berhalter replied: “Coming into the tournament we had two goals, the first was to advance through the group stage.

“And from here anything can happen. All we need to do is play one game at a time. There’s no need to even project how far this team can go.”

The former US international defender expressed particular satisfaction that his team held the line despite a second half onslaught by Iran.

The Americans finished the group phase with only one goal conceded — a penalty against Wales — and back-to-back clean sheets.

“That’s the first time in 92 years that we’ve got two shutouts at a World Cup so the boys are doing something right,” Berhalter said.

“The end of the game is really what I’m most proud of because it was the mark of determination, an extreme amount of effort and a lot of resiliency to hang in there and get the win and not buckle.”

The win avenged America’s defeat to Iran at the 1998 World Cup.

Berhalter spoke before the game about his dismay at that loss, complaining that Iran’s team had been more motivated 24 years ago.

“I talked yesterday in the press conference about the 1998 game and the guys not having the appropriate intensity to compete against Iran — and today we had it,” Berhalter said. “It was clear from the opening whistle.”

Berhalter added that Tuesday’s result was the sort of performance that would make US sports fans take the team to its heart.

“We’ve talked about defining this group, and it starts to take shape based on these performances,” he said.

“You see how resilient this group is, you see how unified this group is, and what type of energy they put into every single game.

“And along the way there’s some pretty good soccer. That’s the American spirit the way this group plays.”


Neymar to miss Brazil’s last group game at World Cup

Neymar to miss Brazil’s last group game at World Cup
Updated 30 November 2022

Neymar to miss Brazil’s last group game at World Cup

Neymar to miss Brazil’s last group game at World Cup
  • Lasmar did not give a timetable on Neymar’s return, and did not say if the player would return at all

DOHA: Neymar will miss Brazil’s last group game at the World Cup because of his right ankle injury, the team doctor said Tuesday.

Rodrigo Lasmar said the Brazil forward will not recover in time to face Cameroon in the Group G game on Friday.

Neymar missed Monday’s game against Switzerland, when Brazil won 1-0 to secure ther spot in the round of 16. A draw against Cameroon will be enough to give Brazil first place in the group.

Lasmar did not give a timetable on Neymar’s return, and did not say if the player would return at all. Brazil’s coaching staff, though, reiterated Tuesday that the Paris Saint-Germain forward was expected to play again at the tournament in Qatar.

Neymar, who damaged ligaments in his ankle during Brazil’s opening match against Serbia, was the only player who didn’t go to Stadium 974 to watch the match against Switzerland. He stayed at the team hotel for physiotherapy treatment.

Lasmar said Neymar also had a fever on Monday, which “was under control” and would not affect his ankle treatment.

Lasmar said right back Danilo, who also is nursing an ankle injury, and left back Alex Sandro, who had to leave Monday’s match with a muscle injury, also won’t play against Cameroon.

Danilo got injured in the team’s opener last week and also missed the game against Switzerland. Alex Sandro got hurt in the final minutes of Brazil’s win against the Swiss and was replaced by Alex Telles. Tests on Tuesday showed that he as a muscle injury in his left hip. Lasmar also did not provide the expected recovery time for Danilo and Alex Sandro.

Tite replaced Neymar with Fred and Danilo with Éder Militão in Monday’s starting lineup. 

The coach was yet to announce who would play on Friday, but was expected to rotate players considering a draw against Cameroon would be enough to secure first place. If Brazil finishes first, the last-16 match would take place only three days later. Brazil’s opponents would come from Group H, which includes Portugal, Uruguay, South Korea and Ghana.

Neymar, trying to win his first major title with Brazil, is two goals shy of Pelé’s all-time record of 77 with the national team.

His right ankle also kept him from playing in the 2019 Copa América in Brazil. Five years earlier, he was taken out of the World Cup in Brazil after hurting his back in the quarterfinals against Colombia.

On Tuesday, Brazil complained about the field conditions at Stadium 974, where they could be back for the round of 16 if they finishes first in its group. The team said it would ask FIFA to act and make sure the grass conditions improved at the venue.


Saudi Arabia has not put in a formal bid to host the Fifa World Cup: tourism ministry

Saudi Arabia has not put in a formal bid to host the Fifa World Cup: tourism ministry
Updated 22 min 4 sec ago

Saudi Arabia has not put in a formal bid to host the Fifa World Cup: tourism ministry

Saudi Arabia has not put in a formal bid to host the Fifa World Cup: tourism ministry

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has not submitted an official bid to host the FIFA World Cup, the tourism ministry said on Wednesday.

“Saudi Arabia is always considering to host a number of large sporting events, as part of promoting sport and tourism in the Kingdom in line with Saudi Vision 2030,” the ministry tweeted.

The Kingdom has hosted a number of major sporting events in Saudi Arabia including Formula 1, football and heavyweight boxing title fights.

Saudi Arabia was chosen in October to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games at Trojena, a year-round winter sports complex being built in the northwest of the Kingdom as part of the futuristic NEOM megacity. 

Trojena, which is due to be completed in 2026, is in an area of NEOM where winter temperatures drop below zero and year-round temperatures are generally 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the region.

Saudi Vision aims to reform the Kingdom on a number of fronts including in tourism, culture and innovative technologies with a view to reorient the country’s economy away from a dependence on oil exports.


Bale makes early exit for Wales against England at World Cup

Bale makes early exit for Wales against England at World Cup
Updated 30 November 2022

Bale makes early exit for Wales against England at World Cup

Bale makes early exit for Wales against England at World Cup
  • Bale had been largely ineffective in the opening half, with only seven touches as England dominated possession

AL RAYYAN, Qatar: If it was Gareth Bale’s final game for Wales, it ended rather unceremoniously.
The Wales captain was substituted at halftime of the team’s match against England at the World Cup on Tuesday because of an injury.
While it was unclear when Bale was hurt, it appeared he was struggling late in the first half of the team’s final Group B match. He was replaced by Brennan Johnson.
Wales crumbled once Bale went off. England scored about five minutes into the second half and added another goal a minute later, finishing with a 3-0 victory.
Wales went into the match at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium needing a victory for a chance to advance to the knockout round in the team’s first World Cup appearance since 1958. Instead, the Welsh are headed home.
Bale had been largely ineffective in the opening half, with only seven touches as England dominated possession.
The 33-year-old Bale, who made his senior debut with Wales in 2006, leads the team in all-time appearances with 111 and in goals with 41.
The forward came to Qatar dogged by questions about whether his time with the national team was coming to an end. Asked a day before the match, Bale curtly replied “Nope.”
Following the World Cup, the next match for Wales is a European Championship qualifier against Croatia in March.
Bale’s World Cup had started with promise. In a 1-1 draw with the United States to open the tournament, Bale pulled Wales even with a late penalty. A 2-0 loss to Iran put Wales in danger of elimination.
But time seems to be catching up with Bale, who won five Champions League trophies over nearly a decade at Real Madrid. He now plays for Los Angeles FC.
Bale helped Wales reach the semifinals at the 2016 European Championship before the team lost to eventual champion Portugal. Wales qualified for last year’s pandemic-delayed Euro 2020, where it lost to Denmark in the round of 16.
After nine years with Real Madrid, Bale came to the United States this past season to play for LAFC in Major League Soccer, signing a deal worth just under $2.4 million.
He was limited to only two starts because of injuries but helped LAFC win the MLS Cup when he scored the game-tying goal deep into stoppage time of extra time against the Philadelphia Union. LAFC prevailed in a penalty shootout for its first championship.
It was Bale’s third goal with LAFC and his first since Aug. 6 against Real Salt Lake. At 128 minutes, it was also the latest goal scored in MLS’ 27 seasons.