Ronaldo, Portugal look to end Morocco’s World Cup run

Ronaldo, Portugal look to end Morocco’s World Cup run
Morocco’s Bilal el Khannous, Sofyan Amrabat, Romain Ghanem Saiss, Badr Benoune and Sofiane Boufal warm up ahead of their World Cup round of 16 match against Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan on December 6, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 09 December 2022

Ronaldo, Portugal look to end Morocco’s World Cup run

Ronaldo, Portugal look to end Morocco’s World Cup run
  • Ronaldo has again managed to steal the spotlight in his inimitable way
  • Will he start, or won’t he? That’s the big question being asked about Ronaldo

DOHA: These really are pinch-yourself times for Morocco: A first-ever spot in the quarterfinals of a World Cup — the first to take place in the Arab world, no less — and now a meeting with Portugal and their superstar striker, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Well, maybe.
Because Ronaldo has again managed to steal the spotlight in his inimitable way, even bumping Morocco’s historic run to the last eight off the top of the agenda before Saturday’s narrative-laden match.
Will he start, or won’t he? That’s the big question being asked about Ronaldo after he was dropped by Portugal coach Fernando Santos for the 6-1 win over Switzerland in the round of 16 on Tuesday.
Not only was the five-time world player of the year relegated to the bench, his replacement — 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos — scored a hat trick to leave Santos with quite the selection dilemma against Morocco.
“I hope he won’t (play),” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said Friday of Ronaldo. “As a coach I know he’s one of the best players in history and so I’d be delighted if he didn’t play.”
The announcement of Portugal’s team about 90 minutes before the game at Al Thumama Stadium is keenly awaited as Ronaldo prepares to play in the quarterfinals of the World Cup for just the second time in his glittering career.
Santos declined to share selection thoughts Friday for what he said would be a different kind of game to the one against Switzerland, while noting that “90 percent of the questions” are about Ronaldo at Portugal’s pregame news conferences.
One inevitable question Santos faced was about reports in national media that Ronaldo threatened to leave the World Cup after being told he was benched. Not true, the coach said.
“He has never told me that he wanted to leave the national team,” Santos said through an interpreter. “Cristiano obviously wasn’t very happy about it. He told me ‘Do you really think it’s a good idea?’”
Portugal are at this stage for only the third time after 1966 and 2006, perhaps surprising given the talent to have come from the country down the years.
Four years ago, Portugal lost in the round of 16 to Uruguay, though a group-stage game against Morocco was “possibly the most difficult match” the team faced, Santos said Friday.
“We won 1-0 but we had to suffer a lot to win that match,” he said. “My players know that.”
As for Morocco, the nation is in uncharted territory after becoming only the fourth African country to reach the quarterfinals at soccer’s biggest tournament, after Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010). None of them reached the semifinals.
Morocco are also the only team from outside Europe or South America to make it to the last eight in Qatar.
The team’s penalty-shootout victory over Spain in the last 16 sparked wild celebrations not just among its many fans in Qatar and at home.
The excitement extended to the Moroccan diaspora of around 5 million people spread mostly around Europe, which has united behind the World Cup run of the team nicknamed the “Atlas Lions.”
Morocco fans poured into the streets of European cities to celebrate the team’s passage to the quarterfinals, which came after Morocco advanced from a group containing second-ranked Belgium and 2018 runner-up Croatia.
“We haven’t got carried away by the euphoria,” Regragui said. “We’ve just surprised a few people and surprised a few algorithms who expected Belgium to get through ... and expected Spain to get through. We are not satisfied with where we have come so far.”
Regragui, who was born in France, and 14 of the 26 players in the squad were born abroad — the highest proportion for any team at a World Cup being held in the Middle East for the first time in the tournament’s 92-year history.
The Arab world’s standard bearer, Morocco are in the quarterfinals on merit, too. The team have only conceded one goal — and that was an own-goal against Canada — and are proving so well-organized, with a sturdy back four headlined by Achraf Hakimi, a dedicated midfield anchored by Sofyan Amrabat, two mercurial wingers in Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal, and a striker in Youssef En-Nesyri, who occupies defenses with his relentless work rate.
Three key players might be struggling to be healthy enough to play against Portugal, though. Amrabat said he played with a back injury requiring painkilling injections in the match against Spain, during which captain Romain Saiss finished the game with his leg bandaged up after treatment, and fellow center back Nayef Aguerd hobbled off in tears with an apparent thigh injury.
“Yes, they are tired, yes, we have injuries. We are not going to hide it and we are not going to complain,” Regragui said. “We are here on a mission.”
Portugal doesn’t appear to have such problems, with Santos’ squad depth so impressive that he could afford to leave players like Ronaldo, João Cancelo and Rúben Neves on the bench against Switzerland after they started every group game.
Even if he is among the substitutes again, Ronaldo — playing in what is likely his last World Cup — is expected to see some time on the field. Given the drama constantly surrounding him, he’s sure to be a talking point whatever happens.

Big-spending Chelsea set for busy end to transfer window

Updated 7 sec ago

Big-spending Chelsea set for busy end to transfer window

Big-spending Chelsea set for busy end to transfer window
DUBAI: Chelsea have already spent more in the January transfer window — around $225 million — than every club in the top leagues in Spain, Italy, Germany and France combined.
The London team might not be finished.
The final day of the window could be another busy one for Chelsea and their new American ownership, with the club linked with a move for Benfica midfielder Enzo Fernandez and potentially looking to balance the books by offloading Jorginho and Hakim Ziyech.
Seven players have arrived at Stamford Bridge this month, including Ukraine winger Mykhailo Mudryk in a deal worth around $108 million and France center back Benoît Badiashile for $40 million.
This comes after Chelsea spent almost $300 million in Europe’s summer transfer window, the first under the new ownership fronted by Todd Boehly following the purchase of the club for $2.5 billion in May.
Chelsea have handed new players long contracts — as much as 8 1/2 years for Mudryk, for example — to allow the club to spread the cost of the signings over the length of the deal and comply with financial fair-play regulations.
British media reported Monday that Chelsea were willing to pay a British record fee of 105 million pounds ($130 million) to bring in the 22-year-old Fernandez, a World Cup winner with Argentina in December.
Jorginho has been linked with a move to Premier League leader Arsenal and Ziyech is reportedly close to joining Paris Saint-Germain on loan.
Chelsea will hope their latest spending spree helps the team climb the Premier League standings — they are currently in 10th place, 10 points off the top four — in a late attempt to qualify for the Champions League.
Other clubs that could be active are Tottenham, which appear set to sign Spain wing back Pedro Porro from Sporting in Portugal, and Nottingham Forest, with Newcastle midfielder Jonjo Shelvey and Atletico Madrid center back Felipe both pictured at the club’s training ground ahead of sealing moves.
Manchester City sent Joao Cancelo on loan to Bayern Munich for the rest of the season, with the Portugal fullback having fallen out of favor with manager Pep Guardiola since the World Cup.
The German champions have the option to make the transfer permanent for a fee of 70 million euros ($76 million).
Cancelo was one of City’s key players last season but Guardiola feels the team can do without the attacking, versatile defender after a recent tactical switch and the emergence of 18-year-old right back Rico Lewis.
Arsenal loaned out 19-year-old Brazilian Marquinhos midway through his first season at the league leaders. He has joined second-tier Norwich to get more first-team action.

Mekkonen returns to Dubai Marathon’s ‘life-changing’ streets

Mekkonen returns to Dubai Marathon’s ‘life-changing’ streets
Updated 31 January 2023

Mekkonen returns to Dubai Marathon’s ‘life-changing’ streets

Mekkonen returns to Dubai Marathon’s ‘life-changing’ streets
  • Former champion confirmed for Feb. 12 race after winning in 2014, finishing third in 2016

DUBAI: Former winner and unofficial junior world record holder Tsegaye Mekonnen will return to the scene of his greatest triumph when he lines up at the start of the 2023 Dubai Marathon on Feb. 12.

On his official marathon debut nine years ago, Mekonnen clinched first place as he clocked the fastest time by an 18-year-old runner in two hours, four minutes and 32 seconds, nine seconds shy of the course record and 69 seconds off the world record — a time he was on course to beat at the half-way split.

Twelve months earlier, the young Ethiopian had taken part in Dubai as a pacemaker so the whirlwind start to his marathon career was as unexpected as it was explosive. Two years later he was back running over the streets he described as “life-changing”, finishing third in the 2016 Dubai Marathon.

Still the youngest winner in the history of the Middle East’s oldest Marathon, Mekonnen has an impressive CV as a young runner with his 2014 Dubai victory being the third fastest time in history by an athlete making his full marathon debut.

Held under the aegis of the Dubai Sports Council, the 2023 Dubai Marathon will see the World Athletics Gold Label race finally return to the sporting calendar after a three-year absence.

By his own admission, victory in Dubai was a life-changing experience for the now 27-year-old. “Winning in Dubai meant I was able to buy a house in Addis Ababa and I bought a car to be able to go to training,” he said. “I was also able to stop school and concentrate fully on running. It is definitely a completely different life for me now.”

Since that mercurial debut, Mekonnen scored a fifth-place finish at the 2014 London Marathon (two hours, eight minutes and six seconds), won the 2017 Hamburg Marathon (two hours, seven minutes and 26 seconds) and finished runner-up in the 2018 Shanghai International Marathon (two hours, nine minutes and 18 seconds).

Over the past few years, he has had to deal with injury as well as a lack of race opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the runner will return to Dubai eager to rekindle old memories on the flat and fast course that changed his life and had him dreaming of a future world record.

Farah says 2023 London Marathon will be his last

Farah says 2023 London Marathon will be his last
Updated 31 January 2023

Farah says 2023 London Marathon will be his last

Farah says 2023 London Marathon will be his last
  • Farah last ran in London in 2019, coming fifth, having finished third the year before

British athletics great Mo Farah has said this year's London Marathon will likely be his last as he contemplates the end of a brilliant career.
The 40-year-old is best known for his success on the track winning gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres at both the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games, as well as several world titles across both distances.
And while his marathon career has reached nothing like the same heights, Farah is keen to run in London again after missing last year's edition even though he will be 40 by the time of the April 23 race
"It's been an amazing career and taking part in the London Marathon is a very big deal," he said in a statement issued by event organisers.
"I was gutted not to race last year and I just want to give it one more shot.
"It depends on my body. I just want to get to the start line and see what I can manage. I'm just taking one race at a time."
He added: "I'm not a spring chicken any more. You can't keep coming back in the right shape and, for me, I'd love to be able to finish it at home."
Farah has ruled out competing at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but may yet try to finish his time as a British international at this year's World Championships in Budapest.
"I'm not going to go to the Olympics and I think 2023 will be my last year," he added.
"But if it came down to it towards the end of the year and you did get picked for your country, I'd never turn that down."
Farah last ran in London in 2019, coming fifth, having finished third the year before.
"So it's been a little while," he said. "But I'll be preparing well, I'll head out to Ethiopia and put in a lot of solid training and see what I can do when it comes to April."

Defending champions Varner III, Hall praise sporting equality at Saudi golf events

Defending champions Varner III, Hall praise sporting equality at Saudi golf events
Updated 31 January 2023

Defending champions Varner III, Hall praise sporting equality at Saudi golf events

Defending champions Varner III, Hall praise sporting equality at Saudi golf events
  • Equal prize funds on offer at PIF Saudi International (Feb. 2-5) and Aramco Saudi Ladies International (Feb. 16-19)

RIYADH: The equal prize funds available for the upcoming men’s and women’s golf tournaments in Saudi Arabia are creating a powerful statement about equality in sport, reigning champions Harold Varner III and Georgia Hall said as they prepare to defend their titles in the Kingdom over the coming weeks.

Varner and Hall were visiting Riyadh ahead of the PIF Saudi International powered by Softbank Investment Advisers (Feb. 2-5) and the Aramco Saudi Ladies International presented by PIF (Feb 16-19), to help spread the sport among a new generation of golfers at a special school clinic with boys and girls from Trbiyah Namouthajiyah School.

Hall, the 2018 Women’s British Open Champion, said: “Massive credit to Golf Saudi and the sponsors for raising the prize fund to match the men’s tournament now. It’s a massive step for the Ladies European Tour, for women’s golf, and hopefully that will help raise the bar for other tournaments and companies to do the same in the future.”

Meanwhile, Varner said: “Growing up I played golf so I can provide for my family. When players have the chance to make more money, I am happy for them. The women work so hard and commit everything to the game, so they are more than deserving of the opportunity. I’m thrilled for them and for the likes of Golf Saudi and the sponsors who do good things when they’re able to do good things.”

Talking about the growth of golf in Saudi Arabia, Varner III added: “To grow the game as professional golfers, the best thing we can do is be the best golfer. I holed that really long putt last year and people in Saudi Arabia know more about golf. Also, a cool part was being with the kids today — they’ll remember playing with Georgia and myself for a long time, they’ll be attached and hopefully carry on playing with the right opportunities.”

The PIF Saudi International, taking place at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, has been a major draw for the world’s best players, with a prize fund of $5 million up for grabs. Varner III faces stiff competition from a strong field featuring major winners such as Cameron Smith, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau at this year’s Saudi International, the opening event of the 2023 Asian Tour season in King Abdullah Economic City.

Hall has just as tough a challenge ahead as she prepares to defend her title at the same venue, with notable challengers including world No.1 Lydia Ko, No.4 Atthaya Thitikul, Ireland’s Leona Maguire and other big names in a field which features several of the world’s top 20 players.

WWE SuperStar Cody Rhodes emerges victorious at 2023 Royal Rumble

WWE SuperStar Cody Rhodes emerges victorious at 2023 Royal Rumble
Updated 31 January 2023

WWE SuperStar Cody Rhodes emerges victorious at 2023 Royal Rumble

WWE SuperStar Cody Rhodes emerges victorious at 2023 Royal Rumble
  • ‘The American Nightmare’ dispatched Logan Paul to be last man standing in the 30-wrestler match
  • Rhea Ripley won the women’s title after overcoming Becky Lynch, Liv Morgan and Bayley

With the Road to WrestleMania 39 underway, the 2023 Royal Rumble rocked the WWE Universe to its core with an unexpected win for Cody Rhodes.

With the Road to WrestleMania 39 underway, Cody Rhodes claimed an unexpected win at the 2023 Royal Rumble after dispatching Logan Paul to be the last man standing.

Fight Night kicked off with the Men’s Rumble as Intercontinental Champion Gunther and his fierce rival Sheamus entered at No. 1 and 2, respectively. Down to a head-to-head fight against Paul, “The American Nightmare” Rhodes emerged the winner of the 30-man Royal Rumble match.

Meanwhile, the women’s match saw Rhea Ripley as the last woman standing in a record-setting Royal Rumble win, defeating WWE Superstars Becky Lynch, Liv Morgan, and Bayley to earn a Women’s Championship Match at WrestleMania 39 in April.

In the championship matches, Bianca Belair defeated Alexa Bliss to retain the Raw Women’s title, while Roman Reigns defended the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship, destroying Kevin Owens in a brutal collision.

Elsewhere, the first-ever Mountain Dew Pitch Black Match proved to be a bizarre but captivating battle as Bray Wyatt triumphantly took on LA Knight in what was his first match since his return to the ring.

Match Results:

Cody Rhodes won the 2023 Men’s Royal Rumble Match to earn a World Title opportunity at WrestleMania.

Rhea Ripley won the Women’s Royal Rumble Match to earn a Women’s Championship Match at WrestleMania.

Bianca Belair defeated Alexa Bliss to retain the Raw Women’s Championship.

Roman Reigns defeated Kevin Owens to retain Undisputed WWE Universal Championship.

Bray Wyatt defeated LA Knight in Mountain Dew Pitch Black Match.