Pass-masters Spain fail World Cup test, face identity crisis

Pass-masters Spain fail World Cup test, face identity crisis
Spain's players react during a penalty shootout at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 match against Morocco. AFP
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Updated 07 December 2022

Pass-masters Spain fail World Cup test, face identity crisis

Pass-masters Spain fail World Cup test, face identity crisis
  • The north African side made history by reaching the quarter-finals for the first time, while Spain gazed forlornly back at theirs and must now wonder if it is time to move on

DOHA: Spain arrived in Qatar with grand dreams of winning a second World Cup, fully convinced in their style of play, but departed early Wednesday, ruminating on an identity crisis.
La Roja last lifted a major trophy a decade ago at Euro 2012, while they have not won a single knockout game at the World Cup since triumphing in South Africa in 2010.
Luis Enrique’s side huffed and puffed but could not blow Morocco’s sturdy house down in the last 16 on Tuesday, falling 3-0 on penalties after 120 goalless minutes.
The north African side made history by reaching the quarter-finals for the first time, while Spain gazed forlornly back at theirs and must now wonder if it is time to move on.
They attempted over 1,000 passes against Morocco but ended up with nothing to show for it, forcing Yassine Bounou into only one save before the shootout.
There he made two more and Spain were eliminated in the last 16 again, just as they were in Russia four years ago.
“We dominated the game but we lacked a goal,” lamented Luis Enrique.
“We could have been more effective in the final third, but I am more than satisfied with what my players did.
“They represented perfectly what my idea of football is.”
When Xavi and Andres Iniesta ruled the world, opponents were largely still too naive to know to stop them, and they had too much quality to be fended off for long.
Now only truly elite club sides like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City can succeed by dominating the ball entirely — with perhaps the world’s best striker, Erling Haaland, as the spearhead.
Against Morocco, Luis Enrique left his top scorer Alvaro Morata on the bench, opting instead for Marco Asensio, whom he trusts more not to lose the ball.
The coach buys “the complete pack” when it comes to possession football, for better or for worse.
That means there is no Plan B, with Nico Williams’s pace and directness on the right flank as much of a nod as Luis Enrique will give to other ideas.
Players he left at home like strikers Iago Aspas and Borja Iglesias might have been able to offer more of a challenge to Morocco’s excellent rearguard.

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An element of Spain’s plan may be borne of necessity.
As good as midfielders Pedri and Gavi are, they still lack a decisive, regular match-winner.
In the absence of a Kylian Mbappe, a Lionel Messi, a Neymar, or even a Harry Kane, the coach might believe ball domination and associative play is his team’s best weapon, even if it misfired in the desert.
Luis Enrique showed at Barcelona that when he had two of those forward, plus Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, he was willing to play in a different way, relinquishing control and allowing the forward to wreak havoc as his side rolled with the punches.
“We had agreed not to take possession — not out of fear,” said Morocco coach Walid Regragui, looking back at his side’s victory.
Instead he made sure his midfield trio cut passing lines and left Spain with soft domination, which rarely resulted in danger for his side.
Spain’s 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica at the start of the World Cup was long forgotten by the end, one of the rare occasions where everything falls into place that perhaps keeps La Roja believing in their method.
The coach’s contract expires in the coming weeks and he will discuss his future with Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales next week. 
Whether the 52-year-old stays or leaves will be an indication of Spain’s path ahead.
If Luis Enrique is still the coach for Euro 2024, expect him to double down on his strategy, while hoping players like Ansu Fati can step up to become the decisive weapon in the final third the team is lacking.
Should he depart, Spain might start looking at other strategies, at least against opponents savvy enough to keep from being enveloped by La Roja’s passing web.


US backs Russians competing as neutrals in Olympics

US backs Russians competing as neutrals in Olympics
Updated 9 sec ago

US backs Russians competing as neutrals in Olympics

US backs Russians competing as neutrals in Olympics
  • The US position adds to a growing debate over the status of athletes from Russia and Belarus at the 2024 Paris Games

WASHINGTON: The US backs moves to allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to take part at the 2024 Olympics as neutral athletes provided they are prevented from displaying their national flags or emblems, the White House said Thursday.

“The United States has supported suspending Russia and Belarus’ sport national governing bodies from international sports federations,” Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

However, if athletes are invited to an international event, such as the Olympics, “it should be absolutely clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarussian states,” she said.

“The use of official state Russian, Belarussian flags, emblems and anthems should be prohibited as well.”

The US position adds to a growing debate over the status of athletes from Russia and Belarus at the 2024 Paris Games.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky staunchly opposes any participation by Russian and Belarussian athletes, and has called for Russia to be banned over its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia is pushing for all restrictions to be lifted, arguing that the Olympics should not be politicized.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said it is examining a “pathway” for Russians to take part in the summer Games, probably as neutral athletes.

Writing on Twitter shortly after the White House remarks on Thursday, Zelensky described the IOC’s stance as a “legitimization of the criminal aggression against Ukraine.”

“We won’t allow sport to be used against humanity & for war propaganda!” Zelensky tweeted.

The IOC’s willingness to allow Russian and Belarussian athletes in Paris has divided the sporting and diplomatic world.

On Wednesday, two UN rights experts applauded the IOC’s moves to allow athletes from the two countries to compete, arguing that no athlete should be “discriminated against on the basis of their nationality.”

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has also backed the IOC’s moves to create a pathway for Russian and Belarussian athletes.

In a conference call in December, USOPC chairwoman Susanne Lyons warned that the “fabric” of the Olympic movement was at risk if athletes were not given the chance to compete as neutrals.

Barring Russian and Belarussian athletes from Paris risked a return to the Olympic boycotts of the 1970s and 1980s.

“There are conflicts around the world every day, countries at war every day, and if people decide they want to boycott things, tit-for-tat, — ‘You didn’t come to our games, so we won’t come to your games’ — very quickly the fabric of the Olympic and paralympic movement falls apart,” Lyons said.

US Olympic officials are adamant however that athletes would only be able to participate in “strictly neutral” uniforms.

Similar words of support have come from the Olympic Council of Asia and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo.

But Britain, Poland and Baltic nations have all condemned the IOC’s position.

Writing on Twitter after a meeting with his counterparts from the Baltics and Poland in Riga earlier this week, Latvia’s foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics said allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes at the Olympics was “immoral and wrong.”

British Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said the IOC’s plans were “a world away from the reality of war being felt by the Ukrainian people.”

“We will strongly condemn any action taken that allows President Putin to legitimize his illegal war in Ukraine — a position the IOC previously shared,” Donelan said.

“We, and many other countries, have been unequivocal on this throughout, and we will now work urgently across like-minded countries to ensure that solidarity continues on this issue.”


Vinicius scores, escapes injury after hard hit in Real Madrid win

Vinicius scores, escapes injury after hard hit in Real Madrid win
Updated 34 min 21 sec ago

Vinicius scores, escapes injury after hard hit in Real Madrid win

Vinicius scores, escapes injury after hard hit in Real Madrid win
  • Vinicius scored his goal after a long run on a breakaway in the 54th

MADRID:  Vinicius Junior had more than his goal to celebrate in Real Madrid’s 2-0 win over Valencia in the Spanish league on Thursday.

Vinicius also was glad to escape serious injury after a vicious foul by Gabriel Paulista in the second half, which ignited a brawl and earned the Valencia defender a straight red card.

Paulista struck a hard kick at Vinícius’ legs after the Brazil forward got past him with the ball in the 72nd minute, sending the Brazil forward hard to the ground. Vinicius quickly got up and went to confront Paulista, shoving him from behind as other players arrived to join the scuffle.

Madrid defender Éder Militao, who had been taken off earlier in the match, confronted Paulista as he made his way to the tunnel after being sent off.

Vinicius scored his goal after a long run on a breakaway in the 54th, two minutes after Marco Asensio had given the hosts the lead with a shot from outside the area.

Vinícius endured a tumultuous period last week after his effigy was hanged off a bridge in a hate attack before Madrid’s game against city rival Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey.

Thursday’s win put Madrid back within five points of league leader Barcelona at the halfway point of the season. The Catalan club won 2-1 at Real Betis on Wednesday.

Both games were postponed from January because of the teams’ participation in the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia, where Madrid beat Valencia in the semifinals after a penalty shootout before losing to Barcelona in the final.

Madrid, who hadn’t won in two matches in all competitions, lost two of their key players because of injuries — Militão had to be replaced in the first half and Karim Benzema early in the second.

Madrid have one last league game — at Mallorca on Sunday — before traveling to Morocco to play in FIFA’s Club World Cup next week, when it will seek a record-extending eight title.

It was Valencia’s first game without coach Gennaro Gattuso, whose contract was terminated by mutual agreement amid the team’s poor run. It was under the command of Voro Gonzalez, a club director who often acts as an interim manager.

Valencia have won only one of its last 11 league games and is one point from the relegation zone. Its only two wins this year came in the Copa del Rey, though it failed to get past the quarterfinals.

Defender Antonio Rüdiger thought he had put Madrid ahead with a header off a corner kick three minutes into first-half stoppage time, but the goal was disallowed after video review saw a foul by Benzema away from the ball.

Madrid, the defending league champions, are six points in front of third-place Real Sociedad.


Tennis star Kyrgios to contest Australian assault charge

Tennis star Kyrgios to contest Australian assault charge
Updated 46 min 50 sec ago

Tennis star Kyrgios to contest Australian assault charge

Tennis star Kyrgios to contest Australian assault charge
  • The charge reportedly relates to an incident involving his former girlfriend

CANBERRA, Australia: Tennis star Nick Kyrgios was due to appear in an Australian court Friday to apply to have an assault charge stemming from events two years ago dismissed on mental health grounds.
His lawyer Michael Kukulies-Smith appeared in a court in Kyrgios’ hometown of Canberra in October and asked for an adjournment so forensic mental health reports could be prepared.
Magistrate Glenn Theakston adjourned the case until Friday, when lawyers for the 27-year-old Australian are expected to apply to have the charge dismissed under a section of the local crimes law.
Kyrgios, a Wimbledon finalist last year, is set to appear in court in person for the first time since he was charged by police by summons in July last year.
His hearing was listed to start at 2:15 p.m. local time (0315 GMT).
The law gives magistrates the power to dismiss a charge if they are satisfied an accused person is mentally impaired, and if dealing with an allegation in such a way would benefit the community and the defendant.
The common assault charge, which has a potential maximum sentence of two years in prison, relates to an incident in January 2021 that was reported to local police in December that year.
The charge reportedly relates to an incident involving his former girlfriend.
Kukulies-Smith told the court his client’s mental health history since 2015 made the application appropriate, citing a number of public statements made by Kyrgios.
In February last year, Kyrgios opened up about his performance at the 2019 Australian Open, saying what appeared to be a positive time in his life had been “one of my darkest periods.”
“I was lonely, depressed, negative, abusing alcohol, drugs, pushed away family and friends,” he wrote on Instagram. “I felt as if I couldn’t talk or trust anyone. This was a result of not opening up and refusing to lean on my loved ones and simply just push myself little by little to be positive.”
Kyrgios made further references to his mental health struggles during his runs to the final at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals at the US Open.
After ending Daniil Medvedev’s US Open title defense in September last year to reach the quarterfinals, Kyrgios expressed pride at lifting himself out of “some really tough situations, mentally” and “some really scary places” off the court.
Theakston questioned whether Kyrgios would need to appear in court for Friday’s hearing, but Kukulies-Smith said his client wanted to attend.
Kyrgios had a career setback last month when he withdrew from the Australian Open because of an injured left knee that required arthroscopic surgery.
He was the runner-up to Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon last year in singles and teamed with good friend Thanasi Kokkinakis to claim the men’s doubles championship at the 2022 Australian Open.
Kyrgios was considered the host country’s strongest chance to win a title at Melbourne Park last month before he had to pull out of the tournament. Djokovic went on to win the Australian Open singles championship for the 10th time.


Injured Mbappé out for 3 weeks, will miss Bayern 1st leg

Injured Mbappé out for 3 weeks, will miss Bayern 1st leg
Updated 02 February 2023

Injured Mbappé out for 3 weeks, will miss Bayern 1st leg

Injured Mbappé out for 3 weeks, will miss Bayern 1st leg
  • PSG said in a statement Thursday that tests revealed a tear in his left thigh
  • The injury comes at a bad time for PSG as it enters a hectic period this month

PARIS: Kylian Mbappé has been ruled out for three weeks with a left-thigh tear and will miss the first leg of Paris Saint-Germain’s round-of-16 game against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Mbappé sustained the injury in the first half of PSG’s game at Montpellier on Wednesday and limped off the field. TV cameras also showed him rubbing the back of his left thigh as he walked to the dressing room.
PSG said in a statement Thursday that tests revealed a tear in his left thigh.
The injury comes at a bad time for PSG as they enter a hectic period this month. PSG play away at bitter rival Marseille in the French Cup and in the league, either side of the home game against Bayern on Feb. 14. They also have a league game at fourth-place Monaco.
Mbappé faces a race to be fit in time for the league game at second-place Marseille on Feb. 26. The return leg against Bayern is on March 8.
His injury also raises questions about his recent workload. Mbappé played and scored for PSG just 10 days after playing in the World Cup final for France on Dec. 18 — where he became only the second player to score a hat trick in the final.
PSG coach Christophe Galtier selected him to face Strasbourg on Dec. 28 and away to Lens on Jan. 1. The decision was taken in full agreement with Mbappé, who wanted to play in both games.


Ancer flies flag for Mexico on day one of PIF Saudi International

Ancer flies flag for Mexico on day one of PIF Saudi International
Updated 02 February 2023

Ancer flies flag for Mexico on day one of PIF Saudi International

Ancer flies flag for Mexico on day one of PIF Saudi International
  • Abraham Ancer sets the pace with a 7-under 63 to lead by one at Royal Greens
  • Saudi golfers Faisal Salhab and Saud Al-Sharif make professional debuts

JEDDAH: Mexico’s Abraham Ancer made an impressive start to the $5 million PIF Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers on Thursday, shooting a first-round 7-under-par 63 to take the clubhouse lead at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club.

Colombian Sebastian Munoz returned a 64 to hold second place, while Spain’s Sergio Garcia, South African Louis Oosthuizen and Cameron Young from the US shot 65s to sit in a tie for third in the star-studded opening event of the Asian Tour season, which features 12 Major winners.

Ancer was in imperious form. He started on the 10th and made four birdies on the back nine, including three on the trot from hole 13 along with three additional birdies on his back nine.

Ancer said: “Obviously very happy. I felt like I was in control of the golf ball for the most part. Took advantage at the beginning when there was very little wind.

“On the turn it started pumping pretty good. Once it starts getting that way, you try to hold on, and being able to make a couple of birdies coming in was definitely nice.”

The 31-year-old is looking for his third professional win after success at the 2018 Australian Open and the 2021 WGC-Fedex St. Jude Invitational in 2021. His chances of victory will be helped by the fact he has an impressive track record at Royal Greens, where he has played 15 times before and is 23 under par in total.

Unlike Ancer, it was Munoz’s first time competing in the Saudi International, and the Colombian went in with a blank slate.

“It’s really good,” said Munoz. “Coming in, I didn’t know what to expect. Never been here. Never seen photos of it. It’s beautiful. I liked it. The setup was nice, and the course was good.”

Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion, also made the most of the easier conditions in the morning. “It was actually calmer than I thought at the beginning,” he said.

“Then obviously it got windy like it always happens here. I feel like I played well, gave myself a lot of good chances, a lot of good patience because on the front nine, which was 10 to 18 for me, I had some good opportunities that didn’t go in, good putts that didn’t go in. But I kept my patience, and then on the back nine I was able to make a couple of nice putts for birdie and a couple of decent saves. Very happy with the round.”

In the blustery afternoon conditions, Americans Patrick Reed and Jason Kokrak led the way with matching 3-under-par rounds.

After a slow start on the front nine, Reed came home with four birdies and no blemishes on the back nine to sit in a tie for ninth after the first round. The Major champion said after the round: “It was just really windy out there, and early on I didn’t really get that comfortable.

“I just really didn’t make any putts on the front nine. Had two three-putts and turned at 1-over par, and then on the back nine I just kept hitting the ball solid and gave myself more opportunities and made the putts when I needed to.”

It was an important day for golf in Saudi Arabia, with two of the country’s top amateurs playing their first rounds as professionals, marking their transition to the professional ranks at their home tournament and the flagship Asian Tour event.

Faisal Salhab, 2-over-par Thursday, and Saud Al-Sharif, 9-over-par, became the second and third Saudi professionals, joining compatriot and friend Othman Almulla.

Salhab, who has placed himself in a strong position to make the cut tomorrow, said after his round with David Puig and Justin Harding: “Today was a very special day for me. I’m happy with my birdies and I’ll try to replicate that tomorrow, but at the same time make sure to avoid the mistakes I’ve done along the way.”