History beckons with England, Spain one win from World Cup glory

History beckons with England, Spain one win from World Cup glory
Spain players pose for a photo during a team training session in Sydney ahead of the Women's World Cup final against England. (AP)
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Updated 18 August 2023
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History beckons with England, Spain one win from World Cup glory

History beckons with England, Spain one win from World Cup glory
  • About 75,000 fans will pack Stadium Australia in Sydney for the final of a World Cup that began with 32 teams
  • The exploits of the lower-ranked sides are evidence that the gap has closed significantly, but in the end, it is two of the leading sides who will contest the final

SYDNEY: A Women’s World Cup that has broken records on and off the pitch will reach a suitable climax on Sunday when England or Spain are crowned champions for the first time.

About 75,000 fans will pack Stadium Australia in Sydney for the final of a World Cup that began with 32 teams, compared to 24 four years ago, and saw many of the favorites fall early.

Germany bowed out in the group phase together with Brazil, Italy and Olympic champions Canada, then holders the United States followed them out the trapdoor in the last 16 — their earliest exit ever.

South Africa, Jamaica and Morocco all reached the last 16 for the first time, and Colombia made a maiden quarterfinal appearance before a 2-1 defeat to England.

The exploits of the lower-ranked sides are evidence that the gap has closed significantly in international women’s football, but in the end, it is two of the leading sides who will contest the final.

Sarina Wiegman’s England are European champions and came into the World Cup as favorites along with the US.

But like Spain, England have never reached the World Cup final before.

The two teams met in the quarterfinals of last year’s European Championship, with Wiegman’s Lionesses winning 2-1 in extra time and going on to beat Germany in the final for their first major title.

On that occasion, England had the backing of fervent home support, a luxury they will not have this time. If anything, Australian fans at the final are likely to cheer for Spain.

The anticipated sellout crowd at Stadium Australia will bookend a tournament that is the best-attended in Women’s World Cup history.

Wiegman has a world-class squad to call upon, but it is the coach herself who is arguably England’s biggest asset.

She is the standard-bearer for woman coaches, having won the Euros with her native Netherlands and then repeating the feat with England.

Described by her players as calm but direct, Wiegman took the Dutch to the World Cup final four years ago, where they lost 2-0 to the United States.

“Having the chance as a coach or a player to make it to two finals is really special,” the 53-year-old said after her side defied a partisan crowd to defeat co-hosts Australia 3-1 in Wednesday’s semifinal.

“I never take anything for granted, but it’s like I’m living in a fairytale or something.”

Wiegman is already hugely respected in her adopted country but now she is one victory away from joining Alf Ramsey, who took England to the men’s title in 1966, in winning a World Cup for England.

Spain have defied turmoil off the pitch to make their own history.

Their preparations were clouded by a dispute with 15 players who last year said they no longer wanted to be considered for selection.

Coach Jorge Vilda and his strict personality were chief among a litany of complaints, but here they are, missing 12 of the 15 but on the cusp of world domination.

England have not been perfect in reaching the final and needed penalties to see off Nigeria in the last 16, before more convincing displays in defeating Colombia and Australia.

But Spain have also had their challenges at this tournament.

They were thumped 4-0 by Japan in their final group game, the caveat being that both teams had already qualified for the knockout rounds.

Spain then thrashed Switzerland 5-1 and squeezed past the Netherlands and Sweden by identical 2-1 scorelines, the victory over the Dutch coming in extra time.

Vilda says that the turmoil that once threatened to torpedo their World Cup “made all of us stronger.”

“Now we can file it away and put it behind us and think about the future, and think that we deserve to be where we are,” he said after Olga Carmona’s sumptuous 89th-minute strike propelled them past Sweden in the semifinals.

It is proof of Spain’s depth of resources that they have hardly missed the players who refused to play under Vilda.

On top of that, reigning two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas has been reduced to a bit-part role as she struggles to regain form and fitness after injury.

In her place, Barcelona playmaker Aitana Bonmati — who had been part of the protesting 15 — has emerged as Spain’s creative force and the player England must stop.


Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group

Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group
Updated 28 November 2023
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Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group

Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group
  • From Aspire Academy, UEFA Champions League football with Anderlecht, Nigerian flourishing in new Saudi home

RIYADH: It has been a challenging AFC Champions League debut for Al-Fayha. The 2022 King’s Cup winners, who beat Al-Hilal on penalties to lift their first ever major trophy 18 months ago, have lost three of their first four games and face a must-win clash with Turkmenistan’s Ahal in Riyadh on Tuesday.

Realistically, Al-Fayha need to beat both Ahal and reigning Uzbekistan champions Pakhtakor to stand a chance of qualifying for the knockout stage.

Aiming to help them advance is Nigeria forward Henry Onyekuru, who has impressed for Vuk Rasovic’s side since arriving from Turkish club Adana Demirspor in August.

Onyekuru told Arab News: “It’s a little tight for us, we know, but we know we need to just win on Tuesday, that is the most important thing. Then we will have to wait for the other results to see, and yes, we might have a lesser chance, but it can happen. This is football and of course we hope we can play in the next round.”

The 26-year-old has plenty of experience of elite-level continental competition to call upon, having played every game of Anderlecht’s 2017 to 2018 UEFA Champions League campaign in a tough group that included PSG, Bayern Munich, and Celtic. The fleet-footed player also featured in several games for Galatasaray in the competition.

He is not alone at Al-Fayha, with teammates Fashion Sakala and Anthony Nwakaeme having represented Rangers in the Champions League and Trabzonspor in the Europa League, respectively. The three African players have forged a valuable friendship at Al-Fayha and Onyekuru has been happy to have them alongside him.

He said: “It is always a little bit difficult at the beginning when you move to a new country, but they helped me adapt very fast.

“We have really bonded and apart from football, they are such great guys. They are there for me on the pitch and outside it,” he added.

Al-Fayha go into their crunch AFC Champions League encounter after a morale-boosting 1-0 Saudi Pro League victory over Al-Fateh but it has been a frustrating season for Onyekuru and his teammates, who have a league-high seven draws so far. While there were positive ties with Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad, there have also been many opportunities missed.

Onyekuru said: “We threw a lot of points away, games we should have won, but we ended up drawing 0-0 or 1-1. We feel good as a team so it hasn’t been easy but there is a lot of the season left so I think we can definitely climb higher.

“Our coach is the kind of guy who really understands his players — he knows when you’re tired, he knows when you’re worried, and he’s open with everybody, which is very important. He is always very clear — if you work, you play; if you don’t work, you don’t play.

“I think we’re on a good track at this moment; we just have to keep working and the results will start coming.

“This is a very tough league now and it has surprised me how good it has been. There has been a big increase in quality, and you see that every team has better players who can make a difference. It will only get better, and it is great to be a part of Saudi football right now,” he added.

Onyekuru’s move to Al-Fayha has been a return to the Gulf of sorts. As a teenager, he was selected for the Aspire Academy’s Football Dreams initiative, an African talent identification process that saw him make it through a series of trials to be one of just three Nigerians selected.

“I feel lucky to have been among these players. It was a five-year scholarship of football and school. We travelled to play the Barcelona and Real Madrid youth teams and many others in tournaments — it was a great experience,” he said.

Onyekuru travelled regularly to the Aspire Academy in Qatar and represented the institution in competitions around the world before signing for their pathway club Eupen in the Belgian Second Division.

“When I got there, it was really difficult for me because I arrived in winter, and it was very cold in Belgium. We were down the bottom of the league and we only just avoided relegation.

“But the next season was great. The coach Jordi Condom was the first to move me from a No. 9 to the wing – the team played well, and we were promoted.”

Onyekuru’s performances led to interest from Arsenal, the club at which his childhood hero Nwankwo Kanu made his name, though the young winger eventually signed for Everton. Hampered by visa issues, he failed to make a Premier League appearance for the Toffees, though impressed on loan at Anderlecht and Galatasaray before moving on to Monaco.

“I remember very well I spoke to Arsene Wenger, and my dream was to play Premier League. I always wanted to be there. Eupen were also talking to PSG because of the Qatar connection but then they wanted to focus on (Kylian) Mbappe.

“I spoke to some people like (ex-Inter Milan and Nigeria striker) Obafemi Martins and decided in the end on Everton. It was a shame that things didn’t work out because I hadn’t played enough games for Nigeria,” he added.

While Onyekuru’s move to Saudi Arabia has generally been a positive experience, it has been tempered by him falling out of favor with the Nigeria national team.

Onyekuru, whose mother named him after 1980 Africa Cup of Nations-winning player Henry Nwosu, noted that the SPL deserved to be more respected by those selecting the squad. He hoped that he may still be able to represent the Super Eagles at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.

He said: “I was there at the last AFCON in Cameroon, and I am really pushing to be there again. In Nigerian football there is still this negative mentality about the Saudi league – they don’t think it is as intense.

“But I think they should be able to see that now, the players who play here make it competitive. I am not giving up and anything can happen.”


Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga

Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga
Updated 28 November 2023
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Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga

Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga
  • Girona trail league leaders Real Madrid on goal difference after dropping points for just the third time this season, while Athletic climbed to fifth spot
  • Williams, who started on the opposite wing from his brother Nico, equalized from a counter-attacking move that started in Athletic’s own box

MADRID: Surprise package Girona failed to return to the top of La Liga on Monday after they were held to a 1-1 draw at home by Athletic Bilbao.

Winger Viktor Tsygankov put the hosts ahead 10 minutes after half time but Inaki Williams scored 12 minutes later to claim a point for the away side.

Girona trail league leaders Real Madrid on goal difference after dropping points for just the third time this season, while Athletic climbed to fifth spot.

Athletic had the better of the first half and their best chance fell to Gorka Guruzeta but the striker poked his shot straight at Girona goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga.

Girona had early chances of their own including an Aleix Garcia volley, which he skied over the crossbar, but did not find the rhythm they have found so often this season.

After the break, the hosts broke the deadlock when Tsygankov rifled home.

Williams, who started on the opposite wing from his brother Nico, equalized from a counter-attacking move that started in Athletic’s own box.

The wide man finished smoothly for his sixth league goal of the season as the Basques went looking for their third straight win.

With 10 minutes left Inaki Williams came close to finding the winner as he cut in from the left but his shot was parried by Gazzaniga.

Inaki Williams was replaced in the final minute of normal time for youngster Adu Ares, but both sides were forced to settle for a point.

On Sunday, Rodrygo sent Real Madrid top with a double in 3-0 win at Cadiz.

Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid are four points clear of fourth-placed Barcelona, who drew 1-1 at Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.


Man City boss Guardiola salutes ‘incredible’ Venables

Man City boss Guardiola salutes ‘incredible’ Venables
Updated 28 November 2023
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Man City boss Guardiola salutes ‘incredible’ Venables

Man City boss Guardiola salutes ‘incredible’ Venables
  • Venables led Barcelona to their first La Liga title in 11 years in 1985 and took them to the European Cup final a year later before a shock defeat to Steaua Bucharest on penalties
  • Guardiola might not have played for Venables, who went on to manage Tottenham and England, but he is well aware of the charismatic coach’s impact on his old club

MANCHESTER: Pep Guardiola paid tribute to “incredible” Terry Venables on Monday as the Manchester City manager responded to the death of the boss responsible for revitalizing his former club Barcelona.

After Venables died on Sunday aged 80, a picture emerged on social media showing Guardiola gazing up in admiration at him on the pitch at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Guardiola was a wide-eyed 15-year-old learning his trade in Barca’s youth academy back then, with the photo capturing him during his role as a ball boy for his club’s European Cup semi=final victory over Gothenburg in 1986.

Guardiola has his arms raised in celebration while Venables soaks in the acclaim of the crowd as he is carried on the shoulders of two Barca players.

“As a Barcelona fan he gave us first La Liga after 11 years. His impact there was incredible,” Guardiola told reporters on Monday.

“He introduced something that had never been before, especially a certain type of pressing and the set pieces. I remember how many goals our central defender scored. It’s a big loss to English football.”

Guardiola went on to captain Barca and is regarded one of their greatest managers, but the Spanish giants were not so dominant when Venables took charge in 1984.

Venables led Barcelona to their first La Liga title in 11 years in 1985 and took them to the European Cup final a year later before a shock defeat to Steaua Bucharest on penalties.

Guardiola might not have played for Venables, who went on to manage Tottenham and England, but he is well aware of the charismatic coach’s impact on his old club.

“I was only a ballboy but the impact in that time on the way they played. I remember talking to friends of mine who played with him and their words for him not just as a manager but as a person,” Guardiola said.

“He was so funny, singing Frank Sinatra on Catalan shows. He was a proper, proper man.”

Guardiola was speaking on the eve of City’s Champions League clash with RB Leipzig at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday.

City need just one point from their last two games to be sure of finishing top of Group G, which allows them the advantage of playing their last 16 second leg at home.

The holders won their first four group matches and have already secured a place in the knockout stages, as have Leipzig.

“It is important to finish first We believe that when we play the last 16, having the second leg at home is not decisive but is a little bit of an advantage and we have to take it,” Guardiola said.

After winning the treble last season, successive draws against Chelsea and Liverpool have seen Arsenal knock City off the top of the Premier League, but Guardiola is happy with his players’ hunger.

“We are performing really well, we must continue that. I’m very pleased with our performances in general,” he said.

“The only game we conceded a lot of chances and goals was Chelsea. Our averages in other games are similar to last season.”

Asked if City’s relentless appetite for success would persuade him to extend his stay at the club beyond his current contract, which expires in 2025, Guardiola said: “I have energy. Of course it’s a possibility.

“One year and a half is a long time in football. I arrived eight years ago with hair and look what happened!“

City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, who has been out since hamstring surgery in August, said over the weekend he hopes to return to action early in the new year.

“He has had a tough injury and surgery. He has to recover well,” Guardiola said.

“He’s said end of December, new year, so it will be a happy new year for everyone.”


Willian converts two penalties including stoppage-time winner as Fulham win amid VAR controversy

Willian converts two penalties including stoppage-time winner as Fulham win amid VAR controversy
Updated 28 November 2023
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Willian converts two penalties including stoppage-time winner as Fulham win amid VAR controversy

Willian converts two penalties including stoppage-time winner as Fulham win amid VAR controversy
  • After a long video review, the on-field decision to not award a penalty was changed and Willian stepped up to send his kick into the bottom-left corner, giving Fulham a third league win
  • It was only the second time a league game has had three second-half penalties scored — after Everton vs. Newcastle in September 2003 — and all three calls were up for debate

LONDON: Willian converted two of the game’s three second-half penalties — including the winner in the fourth minute of stoppage time — to help Fulham defeat Wolverhampton 3-2 in another English Premier League match dominated by VAR calls on Monday.

The former Brazil winger’s first spot kick in the 59th minute made it 2-1, only for Hwang Hee-chan to win and then convert his own penalty in the 75th to leave an end-to-end game at Craven Cottage heading for a draw.

There was a late twist as Wolves midfielder Joao Gomes miscontrolled the ball in his own area and stuck out his leg, which brushed against Fulham substitute Harry Wilson as he nipped in to take possession.

After a long video review, the on-field decision to not award a penalty was changed and Willian stepped up to send his kick into the bottom-left corner, giving Fulham a third league win.

Fulham held the lead three times in the match, firstly after Alex Iwobi steered in a cross by Antonee Robinson in the seventh minute. That was canceled out by Brazil striker Matheus Cunha’s header in the 22nd.

It was only a second loss in their last eight games for Wolves, whose other defeat in that period — at struggling Sheffield United — also came after conceding a contentious stoppage-time penalty.

Wolves manager Gary O’Neil has lamented his team’s misfortune from refereeing decisions this season, starting in the first round in August when Wolves was denied a late penalty against Manchester United for what appeared to be a clear foul by goalkeeper Andre Onana. O’Neil received an apology on that occasion and has been aggrieved at penalties given against his team in draws against Newcastle and Luton.

His post-match media duties at Fulham were delayed while he spoke to the match officials. When he did emerge, O’Neil said referee Michael Salisbury “pretty much admitted that they made a mistake” in awarding the first penalty.

“It’s six-to-seven points now that’s gone against us,” O’Neil said. “The difference (refereeing decisions) are making to my reputation, the club’s progression up the league, people’s livelihoods, is huge.

“Things need to get better, because I can’t accept us being on the wrong end of decisions as much as we are.”

The relegation picture in the league has been made more interesting this season by Everton getting docked a league-record 10 points for financial mismanagement, plunging the Merseyside team into next-to-last place just as it was picking up wins and potentially ready to enjoy a rare nerve-free campaign.

Fulham have benefitted from that ruling, which is under appeal, and are 10 points clear of the bottom three after a first win in five matches.

“We showed very good spirit, a winning spirit to score for 2-1 and then for 3-2,” Fulham manager Marco Silva said. “It was a close game — we were trying to win the game more than Wolves.”

It was only the second time a league game has had three second-half penalties scored — after Everton vs. Newcastle in September 2003 — and all three calls were up for debate.

The first one was the most contentious, with replays showing little contact as Wolves right back Nelson Semedo planted his foot near that of Tom Cairney.

Willian displayed calmness with both of his spot kicks. He is yet to miss any of the seven he has taken in the Premier League.


Howe eyes Newcastle ‘defining moment’ in Champions League, with young star set for huge role

Howe eyes Newcastle ‘defining moment’ in Champions League, with young star set for huge role
Updated 28 November 2023
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Howe eyes Newcastle ‘defining moment’ in Champions League, with young star set for huge role

Howe eyes Newcastle ‘defining moment’ in Champions League, with young star set for huge role
  • Defeat ‘not an option,’ coach says, when Magpies take on Paris Saint-Germain at Parc des Princes on Tuesday after two disappointing defeats in a row by Borussia Dortmund
  • 17-year-old Lewis Miley, who impressed against Chelsea on Saturday, is likely to feature and Howe backs the youngster to deal with the pressure of a big European occasion

PARIS: With Newcastle United’s Champions League hopes hanging by a thread, boss Eddie Howe said defeat is not an option when they face Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday.

Should Newcastle leave Parc des Princes empty-handed, they will be out of the competition. A draw might keep some faint hope alive, depending on the outcome of AC Milan’s game against Borussia Dortmund. A win, however, would revive the campaign after two disappointing defeats by Dortmund on the bounce.

Howe is hoping his injury-depleted squad can conjure up some more European magic, just like they did with their 4-1 victory over the Parisians at St. James’ Park in October, and in the process create a defining moment for the club.

“It is good to have a mixture of emotions going into the match,” he said. “I think we need to play on the edge; that’s when we are at our best. Every team is at their best when they have that emotion running through them. I expect that from the players.

“We are going to need every ounce of motivation and energy to get a result. This is a defining moment in our Champions League campaign; we are well aware of where we sit in the group and what can happen tomorrow, so we are going to give it everything.

“It is difficult to predict football matches and permutations. We try not to lose energy doing that. We are going to try to prepare for this game and then worry about Milan afterwards. We are certainly not in a strong position. We are not where we wanted to be but we are where we are. We need to focus on this game. It is imperative we don’t lose.”

In their four Champions League games to date, the Magpies have managed to score only four goals, all of which came against Luis Enrique’s side last month. The other three matches were disappointing, particularly away from home, where they struggled to impose themselves in the San Siro and at Signal Iduna Park.

In an attempt to improve fortunes on the road, Howe has changed what has been the usual pre-match routine of training at home before away games and brought his players to train at the Parc des Princes.

Howe said the reason was a “change of feel, just a different routine. You never know how these things affect you or how you perform. Results you can never guarantee, but we are looking for an improved performance from our last two away games — that’s why we have done what we have.”

He added: “Some players might look at that and feel they might need or want it. For us, it gave us more recovery time. Gave the players a little bit longer with their families this morning and allowed us to travel a little bit later. It was quite important for us, with the schedule, to maybe pinch a little bit more time with their families before they leave.

“The fear of failure is a motivating factor for me. The thought of losing doesn’t sit comfortably with me (in) any game or competition. Everything, to me, is geared toward avoiding that feeling of losing and the adulation of winning. Of course, that applies to this game; it is not a bigger motivation, as I am always motivated.

“The motivation and hunger couldn’t be any bigger for us. There is a real motivation to create an incredible season for ourselves and we can still do that in this competition.”

Another change after the Champions League flop in Germany has been the introduction of Lewis Miley in midfield.

The 17-year-old was asked to fill the considerable boots of suspended Sandro Tonali, in the absence of injured Sean Longstaff, and he was one of the stand-out performers in the 4-1 victory over Chelsea at the weekend. Howe is backing the teenager to deal with the pressure of a big European occasion if handed the chance.

“There is every chance he will be involved,” Howe said. “He is ready. The thing I loved about him after the game is it was as if he hadn’t done anything — he was just the same old Lewis. It was just another game for him.

“Sometimes the more you build up a game, the worse your performance can be. He has got a great temperament for these occasions.”

A lot of the talk internationally in the build-up to Tuesday’s game has been about the form of PSG’s Kylian Mbappe, but it is a Newcastle man, recently overlooked for an England call-up, who has been grabbing the headlines in the UK.

“Anthony Gordon has been great for us,” said Howe. “He has been in great form for us. We knew when we signed him we were getting a player of huge potential and ability, pace, technical ability. The big thing for him is he’s been adding goals and assists.

“You look at his last game, he scored a brilliant goal when moving to the striker role, and his cross for Jamaal Lascelles’ goal was probably the key moment in getting us three points. His work off the ball has always been at a really high level throughout his time here but we keep encouraging him to add the valuable goal contributions.

“He is a unique player. He has played games and been robust for us. That is something we are putting more and more focus on, players who can continue to play every two or three days — that is a skill in itself. He has done really well for us because of the output he gives the team. It is extremely high every week but he still manages to recover and play again.

“He is on the edge. A fierce competitor. I am delighted with his progress; he has become a massive player for us.”