Morocco make history and reach World Cup Round of 16 for second time

Special Morocco make history and reach World Cup Round of 16 for second time
Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech celebrates with teammates after scoring his side’s opening goal against Canada. (AP Photo)
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Updated 02 December 2022

Morocco make history and reach World Cup Round of 16 for second time

Morocco make history and reach World Cup Round of 16 for second time
  • Atlas Lions reached the knockout stages in 1986 and are the only Arab team to do so at Qatar 2022

Morocco made history on Thursday, defeating Canada 2-1 to top Group F and become the sole Arab team to make the second round of the 2022 World Cup and also the first from the region to do so for a second time, 36 years after doing so back in 1986.

This time was more impressive. After that famous 2-0 win over Belgium on Sunday, the Atlas Lions needed just a point against the already-eliminated North Americans and raced into a 2-0 lead by the midway point of the first half.

They spent much of the second half on the backfoot but can now look forward to playing in the last 16 against Germany, Spain or Japan.

It was almost a perfect group stage with seven points collected. The opening game against the talented Croatians ended goalless, a solid result that provided the platform for the victory over Belgium, the team ranked second in the world. It meant that, barring slip-ups, Morocco could start to think about the last 16.

Going through was not just celebrated by the many thousands of fans at the Al-Thumama Stadium and millions back home, but it was vindication for the decision to dismiss Vahid Halilhodzic as head coach in August. In came Walid Regragui who has not only restored Hakim Ziyech to the team but tightened up the defense to an impressive degree.

The own goal that came off the boot of Nayef Aguerd just before the break that gave the Canadians a chance to get back in the game was the first that Morocco had conceded in seven games under Regragui. Paris Saint-Germain star Achraf Hakimi may get many headlines, but Romain Saiss has been a rock in the middle and Sofyan Amrabat adept at spotting opposition danger. The positioning and commitment of the backline and those sitting just in front have been excellent.

Welcoming Ziyech back into the fold may not exactly have been a difficult decision for Regragui, but the wideman has grown more influential in every game in Qatar, and his fourth-minute goal was harder than it looked.

Poor Canadian defending left goalkeeper Milan Borjan stranded outside his area, and a first-time chip from Ziyech from around 30 meters out found the net with the kind of cool finish that only a player at the top of his game can produce.

It took the sting out of the game and Morocco were well on top, extending the lead as Youssef En-Nesyri fired home emphatically. The game looked to be as good as over, but just before the break came Aguerd’s own goal, a low cross diverted past Yassine Bounou in goal. If that was frustrating, so was a disallowed goal moments later as Aguerd was ruled to have been in the line of the goalkeeper’s vision from an offside position as En-Nesyri shot home. 

So, instead of 2-0 or 3-1, it was a little closer. It was not time for panic stations, but the scoreline did give Canada, playing for pride after two defeats and looking for a first-ever World Cup point, hope.

They came firing out of the traps in the second half and spent a great deal more time in the Moroccan half. After 72 minutes, a Canadian header hit the bar and bounced right on the goal line. In some ways, this was the Africans’ toughest game, and the pressure they were put under in the second half may stand them in good stead for the tests ahead.

It meant that instead of thinking about which of his players to bring off and rest ahead of the second-round clash, coach Regragui had to stay focused on ensuring that his team did not do anything silly and kept their focus.

Yet thoughts of the next stage were surely never that far away. Winning the group is welcome symbolically, is good for confidence and means a second-round game on Tuesday as opposed to Monday. Their opponents remain to be seen, but after their first stage performance, there is no reason to fear Spain, Germany, Japan or anyone else. 

It should be remembered that this group was seen as a tricky one. It contained the runner-up and third-placed team from Russia 2018, and Canada finished top of CONCACAF’s qualification stage. 

Morocco deserved to finish top of the standings and to take all the plaudits. History has been made, but there is surely more to come from this talented team especially now that they are flying the flag for Arab football.

Barcelona exploit Madrid’s stumble to open 8-point lead

Barcelona exploit Madrid’s stumble to open 8-point lead
Updated 30 min 44 sec ago

Barcelona exploit Madrid’s stumble to open 8-point lead

Barcelona exploit Madrid’s stumble to open 8-point lead
  • Alba, Gavi and Raphinha scored a goal each in the second half to give Barcelona their fifth straight victory in the league

MADRID: Barcelona took advantage of Real Madrid’s stumble to kick off the second half of the season with another win and enjoy their biggest lead so far at the top of the Spanish league.

After Madrid’s 1-0 loss at Mallorca, Barcelona extended their 10-game winning streak in all competitions with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Sevilla on Sunday to open an eight-point lead over Madrid after 20 of 38 rounds.

It is the biggest lead by any team this season, putting the Catalan club in firm control as they chase their first league title since 2018-19.

“We are having a great season. We have been playing well, not giving many chances for our opponents,” Barcelona defender Jordi Alba said. “It’s eight points. There’s a lot of league left, but it’s a good gap.”

Alba, Gavi and Raphinha scored a goal each in the second half to give Barcelona their fifth straight victory in the league.

The last game Barcelona failed to win was a 1-1 league draw against Espanyol last year.

Sevilla, who got off to a surprisingly awful start to the season, were coming off two straight league wins that had helped it move further away from the relegation zone. They dropped to 16th place with the loss, two points from the drop zone.

Marco Asensio missed a penalty kick in Madrid’s loss at Mallorca in their last match before traveling to Morocco to play at the Club World Cup.

Madrid were depleted by injuries and rested some players ahead of the Club World Cup,

“We already expected a very tough match,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “We had our chances but couldn’t take advantage of them.”

Ancelotti couldn’t count on several injured starters, including striker Karim Benzema, defender Eder Militao and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who was dropped from the squad at the last minute after getting injured during the warmup. Ancelotti also rested midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who came on in the second half.

Asensio missed a chance to equalize when his 60th-minute penalty kick was saved by Mallorca goalkeeper Pedrag Rajkovic after Madrid forward Vinicius Junior had been fouled. Madrid’s last chance was a header by Antonio Rüdiger that went narrowly wide deep into stoppage time.

The hosts got on the board with an own-goal by Nacho Fernandez, who was replacing Militao in defense. Nacho went for a high cross and deflected the ball into his own net over goalkeeper Andriy Lunin, who started in place of Courtois.

“I hit the ball with my head and unfortunately it went into the top corner,” Nacho said. “It was a complicated match, against a team that is having a good season. It’s a pity that we let three points get away.”

Madrid were coming off a win against Valencia after being held by Real Sociedad. Its opponent in the semifinals of the Club World Cup on Wednesday will be Egyptian club Al Ahly.

It was the second win in three league matches for Mallorca, and the fourth straight at home. They remained midtable with 28 points from 20 matches.

“It’s a good result, moves us further away from the relegation zone,” Mallorca’s Mexican coach Javier Aguirre said. “But there are many matches left, we can’t relax.”

Vinicius was shown a yellow card and will be suspended for Madrid’s next league game against last-place Elche.

Real Sociedad missed a chance to move within three points of Madrid after losing 1-0 to Valladolid at home.

It was the third winless game for the Basque Country club after a nine-game winning streak in all competitions. Sociedad was coming off a 1-0 loss to Barcelona in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey, and a 0-0 draw at Madrid in the league.

Newly signed Canadian forward Cyle Larin scored a second-half winner for 13th-place Valladolid, who have won two in a row after five straight losses in all competitions.

Valencia’s struggles continued with a 1-0 defeat at Girona, a result that extended their losing streak to five matches in all competitions.

Valencia have only one win in its last 12 league matches and is sitting just outside the relegation zone.

Girona moved to 11th place.

Martinez scores again as Inter beat Milan in Serie A derby

Martinez scores again as Inter beat Milan in Serie A derby
Updated 06 February 2023

Martinez scores again as Inter beat Milan in Serie A derby

Martinez scores again as Inter beat Milan in Serie A derby
  • It was Martinez’s 12th league goal of the season, putting him four behind leading Serie A goalscorer Victor Osimhen

MILAN: World Cup winner Lautaro Martinez continued his roaring start to the year as he set Inter Milan on their way to a 1-0 victory over AC Milan in the Derby della Madonnina on Sunday.

Martínez has been in fantastic form since helping Argentina win the World Cup in December and he netted his seventh goal in his last eight matches as Inter consolidated second spot in Serie A with a second win over their fierce rival in less than three weeks.

It was Martinez’s 12th league goal of the season, putting him four behind leading Serie A goalscorer Victor Osimhen, who scored another two on Sunday to help runaway leader Napoli win 3-0 at lowly Spezia.

Inter are 13 points behind Napoli and three points above third-place Roma. They are five points above Lazio, Atalanta and Milan, which has slipped to sixth after a woeful start to the year.

The Rossoneri’s winless run extended to seven matches. That streak included elimination from the Italian Cup and a 3-0 loss to Inter in the Super Cup.

Before the derby, Milan had also conceded an unprecedented nine goals in their past two Serie A matches.

With that perhaps playing in their minds, the Rossoneri defended deep from the start and rarely got out of their own half. Milan had to wait almost an hour for its first shot, and that was off target.

Inter almost took the lead in the 10th minute but Martínez headed just wide of the right upright.

Martinez did better in the 34th as he got away from Simon Kjær at the near post to get his head to a corner and it took a deflection off the Milan defender on the way in.

Romelu Lukaku thought he had scored his first league goal since August, late on, but the whistle had already gone for a foul by him on Malick Thiaw.

Martínez also had a goal ruled out for offside.

Osimhen appears to be firing Napoli to the Serie A title as the Nigeria forward netted for the fifth straight league match.

Spezia had defended well against Napoli’s stellar attack but gifted the visitors a penalty less than 10 seconds after the break when defender Arkadiusz Reca was trying to hold off Matteo Politano but didn’t anticipate that the bounce of the ball would take it onto his outstretched arm.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia converted the penalty, prompting the game to open up.

Osimhen had a goal ruled out in the 62nd for pulling back Mattia Caldara but he headed in his first in the 68th and doubled his tally five minutes later following another assist from Kvaratskhelia.

Spezia remained five points above the relegation zone.

Torino beat Udinese 1-0 to leapfrog their opponent into the Europa Conference League qualifying spot.

Torino are one point above Udinese and Bologna, who won 2-1 at Fiorentina for its first victory in Florence in 13 years.

Ancer closes out unique victory at PIF Saudi International

Golf Saudi CEO Noah Alireza hands Abraham Ancer the trophy. (Golf Saudi)
Golf Saudi CEO Noah Alireza hands Abraham Ancer the trophy. (Golf Saudi)
Updated 05 February 2023

Ancer closes out unique victory at PIF Saudi International

Golf Saudi CEO Noah Alireza hands Abraham Ancer the trophy. (Golf Saudi)
  • Mexican matches 19-under tournament record in first ever pillar to post win
  • American Cameron Young finishes second ahead of Australian Lucas Herbert

JEDDAH: Abraham Ancer completed the first ever pillar to post victory in the $5 million PIF Saudi International powered by Softbank Investment Advisers on Sunday, closing with a 68 to card a record equaling 19 under par for the tournament, two ahead of American Cameron Young.

The 31-year-old Mexican conducted a masterclass in front running at the Asian Tour’s season-opening event, adding the title to his WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational win in 2021.

“That was my first ever wire-to-wire win,” said Ancer, whose steadiness at the helm was made possible by a solid, repeatable golf swing and sound putting stroke.

“I just didn’t think about where I was on the leaderboard. I just felt like I just want to do that again. I played really good the first round, and I just felt like I wanted to keep that going.

“I kept telling myself, just imagine if I was in like 20th place and just got to go out there and shoot a low one. It worked out. I stayed in the moment, didn’t really think too much about the previous shots or what was coming after. So, I’m really happy with my frame of mind during these four rounds.”

Ancer led by two from Young at the start of the day and was caught by the American on the seventh. But by the turn he had moved one ahead.

A closely fought contest was expected over the closing holes but Young made a bogey on the par four 13th, where he found the water with his approach shot, then doubled the par four 15th, after chipping short and taking three on the green.

Although Young rallied with birdies on 16 and 18 it was not enough to stop Ancer becoming only the second ever Mexican winner on the Asian Tour, after Carlos Espinosa took the 1995 Canlubang Classic in the Philippines.

Remarkably, despite the windy conditions during the week at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, Ancer dropped just two shots over the four rounds: on the ninth on Sunday and 17th on Friday.

Young, who matched Ancer’s 68 on Sunday, said: “It’s always disappointing but I think I played pretty well, and I’m playing a bunch the next few weeks. I think I’m in a nice place moving forward.

“He (Ancer) played some really nice golf. He just didn’t make really any mistakes. I think he maybe made two bogeys this whole week, and with all the wind blowing as hard as it was, that’s, one, tremendous control of your golf ball, and two, I think just a lot of mental toughness.”

The result was Young’s eighth top-three finish since last year, following a second in The Open and joint third in the PGA Championship.

“I’m proud of all those finishes,” he said. “There’s nothing I’ve thrown away, I don’t think. If one or two of them was a four-shot lead that I didn’t finish off, that’s a bummer, but I’ve been beat a lot. I haven’t thrown any of them away.”

Australian Lucas Herbert carded a 65 on Sunday to finish third, with Thailand’s Sadom Kaewkanjana shooting a 66 to secure fourth spot and cement his place as one of Asia’s rising stars.

It was also a significant week for Arab golfers, with nine taking part in the PIF Saudi International. Saudi Arabia’s Saud Al-Sharif and Faisal Salhab made their professional debuts at the event, where amateurs Issa Abou El-Ela from Egypt and El Mehdi Fakori from Morocco both made the cut.

Sports For All launches 2nd edition of Riyadh International Marathon

Event marks the latest step taken by SFA to encourage more people across Saudi Arabia to get fit and active. (Riyadh Marathon)
Event marks the latest step taken by SFA to encourage more people across Saudi Arabia to get fit and active. (Riyadh Marathon)
Updated 05 February 2023

Sports For All launches 2nd edition of Riyadh International Marathon

Event marks the latest step taken by SFA to encourage more people across Saudi Arabia to get fit and active. (Riyadh Marathon)
  • Event organized with Ministry of Sports, Quality of Life Program and Saudi Arabian Athletics Federation takes place on Feb. 11

RIYADH: The Saudi Sports for All Federation has launched the second Riyadh International Marathon, set to take place on Feb. 11.

Organized in collaboration with the Ministry of Sports, the Quality of Life Program and Saudi Arabian Athletic Federation, the event marks the latest step taken by SFA to encourage more people and communities across the country to get fit and active, stepping outdoors and participating in daily physical activities.

Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al-Saud, president of SFA, said: “We are delighted to be bringing the Riyadh Marathon back, giving people another fantastic opportunity to challenge themselves while safeguarding their health. The success of the first-ever Riyadh Marathon was a major milestone for SFA, Riyadh and the Kingdom as a whole, setting an exciting benchmark for what we can achieve as an active and sporting nation. Attracting more than 10,000 participants from various nationalities, the event showcased Saudi Arabia’s potential as a sports hub, and this upcoming edition of the event will only add to the Kingdom’s burgeoning reputation.”

Open to people of all ages — from youngsters to seniors — the marathon will give community members the chance to take part in races of varying distances, including 42 km, 21 km, 10 km, and 4 km races, catering to people of different abilities, including athletic and non-athletic contestants.

For elite participants, the 42 km track starts at 6:25 a.m. local time, and the 21 km track starts at 8:00 a.m. For mass participants, the 42 km track will kick off at 6:30 a.m., and at 8:05 a.m. for the 21 km. The 10 km track starts at 9:45 a.m. and the 4 k.m. track starts at 11:00 a.m. for younger participants.

Over the course of the event, participants will cross some of Riyadh’s notable sites and monuments, including Digital City and Diriyah. Individuals can register and access more information through the SFA app.

Prince Khaled added: “This year’s event will build on the success of our previous events, providing an enhanced quality of experience for all — no matter their age or ability. Our aim is to reach 15,000 participants, catering to different people’s needs and capabilities — for instance, with walking activities.”

To reward people for taking part in the event, a range of financial prizes worth 1 million riyals ($266,517) will also be awarded to a selection of first-place winners. Meanwhile a marathon village will be launched and open to guests from Feb. 10, and will provide live entertainment along with food and refreshment outlets.

In addition to the marathon village, participants will also be able to make the most of several customized pre-marathon training programs. These programs will be scheduled and announced through the marathon website and its social media platforms.

The second edition of Riyadh Marathon is sponsored by a range of leading entities including Roshn, NEOM, SABIC, and Sports Boulevard; as well as Visit Saudi. The official event supporters being are Chery Pro, Right Bite, and Acwa Power. The event is also sponsored by Jeeny, Nova, Delta Sports, ORS, Tawuniya Vitality, MDL Beast and Al-Arabiya.

Al-Hilal send out timely reminder that they remain Saudi Arabia’s premier club on the big stage

Al-Hilal send out timely reminder that they remain Saudi Arabia’s premier club on the big stage
Updated 05 February 2023

Al-Hilal send out timely reminder that they remain Saudi Arabia’s premier club on the big stage

Al-Hilal send out timely reminder that they remain Saudi Arabia’s premier club on the big stage
  • Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Nassr may have stolen the spotlight in recent weeks, but the reigning Asian champions’ FIFA Club World Cup semifinal spot reinforces an unmatched legacy on the pitch

LONDON: Al-Hilal are into the FIFA Club World Cup semifinals for the third time in four years.

Yes, Al-Hilal. Remember them? Four-time Asian champions and three-time defending Saudi Pro League champions. That Al-Hilal. Ring a bell?

For those just tuning their antennae to Saudi football for the first time over the past few months, there was only one club dominating the headlines, and it was not the reigning AFC Champions League winners.

It was, of course, Al-Nassr after their headline-grabbing signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, which catapulted them into the international consciousness like no club from Saudi Arabia had ever achieved. Not even Al-Hilal.

To highlight just how much the yellow half of Riyadh was dominating the narrative, one UK-based pundit even claimed Al-Nassr were the most successful Saudi side in recent years — despite Al-Hilal winning five of the past six Saudi Pro League titles.

Al-Hilal? They were cast as a mere footnote to the Al-Nassr-Ronaldo storyline. The Ronaldo-shaped shadow cast not just over Al-Hilal but every other Saudi club was hard to escape.

All that global attention on their Riyadh rivals, while they were still serving a transfer ban and unable to counter the signing of Ronaldo with a move of their own, would have stung a club that has made the AFC Champions League final in three of the past four seasons — something Al-Nassr has not yet managed to achieve even once.

While the world has been busy occupying itself with every exploit of Al-Nassr and Ronaldo — and clips of his first goal for his new club were shown in all corners of the globe over the past few days — Al-Hilal have served a timely reminder that, not only do they still exist, but that they do their best talking on the pitch and have no intention of ceding anything to their crosstown rivals.

Their dramatic win over Wydad Casablanca at the Club World Cup in Rabat on Saturday was a huge statement from Ramon Diaz’s side: “Don’t forget about us.”

The win was all the more impressive given that they are still missing a number of their best players through injuries sustained in Saudi Arabia’s stunning win over Argentina in Qatar just over two months ago.

Talisman and midfield maestro Salman Al-Faraj and energetic full-back Yasser Al-Shahrani both remain sidelined and were absent from the team that silenced the parochial Wydad fans inside the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium.

But while the veteran duo were absent, there were a host of other World Cup stars on show, including Saud Abdulhamid, Ali Al-Bulayhi, Mohammed Kanno and star man Salem Al-Dawsari.

The only sour note in an otherwise historic win was the red card for Kanno, whose absence from midfield against Brazil’s Flamengo on Tuesday could be sorely felt, especially with Al-Faraj already missing.

Al-Hilal’s passage to the semifinals continues a golden period for Saudi football, with the national team’s heroics in Qatar fresh in the memory and Ronaldo’s signing generating international attention for the domestic league the likes of which has never been seen before.

But for a club like Al-Hilal, playing at the pinnacle of the club game is not just where they want to be, it is where they expect to be. On both previous occasions they have played at the Club World Cup, they have also advanced to the semifinals; losing to Flamengo in 2019 before coming up short against Chelsea in the 2021 edition.

They will be hoping it is third time lucky in Morocco, but standing in their way again will be Flamengo.

Such is the belief and mindset of the club that, when players like Odion Ighalo and Al-Dawsari mention they are not just playing to make up the numbers but have ambitions of winning the Club World Cup, it is not just hubris.

Do not rule them out from becoming just the third Asian club to make the final of the Club World Cup because Al-Hilal does not just expect success, it demands it. The name carries an aura right around the continent. They are the top dogs and, more importantly, they know it. Not just that, they revel in it; being the center of attention, the envy of all others, is what they crave most.

“The club has to be at the top, always, to meet our fans’ hopes, to win the most trophies,” club legend Nawaf Al-Temyat, who retired in 2008, told Arab News in 2021.

“Any player who can’t play under pressure won’t be a superstar. Playing under pressure is a key factor to show the real personality of the player. This is what the young players must learn,” he added.

One player who mastered playing under pressure is arguably the club’s greatest player, Sami Al-Jaber. During a glittering career that spanned almost 20 years, he played and won everything for Al-Hilal.

“Al-Hilal is not just a football club, Al-Hilal is a legacy, it’s a very big legacy in Saudi Arabia and the region,” he told Arab News back in 2017.

“(It’s) just like my family, just like home and my family. It’s a club that has a legacy and it’s more than just a football club. You can see the history, and in Asia I would say it’s No. 1.

“I can’t say any more than the club is more than a football club, it’s a community.”

While the Club World Cup may not generate the same emotion as its international counterpart, it still comes with significant international exposure and Al-Hilal will bask in taking the spotlight away from Al-Nassr, even if just momentarily.

How could anyone forget Al-Hilal?