In Euro 2024 qualifying, Bellingham and Mbappe thrill on the field as war and terrorism impact games

In Euro 2024 qualifying, Bellingham and Mbappe thrill on the field as war and terrorism impact games
France's forward Kylian Mbappe shoots and scores his team's third goal on a penalty during the friendly football match between France and Scotland at Pierre-Mauroy stadium, in Villeneuve-D'Ascq, northern France, on Tuesday. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 19 October 2023
Follow

In Euro 2024 qualifying, Bellingham and Mbappe thrill on the field as war and terrorism impact games

In Euro 2024 qualifying, Bellingham and Mbappe thrill on the field as war and terrorism impact games
  • On the field, England and France were the standout teams with Jude Bellingham and Kylian Mbappe the most thrilling talents in Europe
  • Nine of the 24 places are now confirmed ahead of the final rounds of group-stage games next month and qualifying playoffs in March

GENEVA: Eight teams advanced to the 2024 European Championship in a week when qualifying games were disrupted by war in the Middle East and terrorism on the streets of Brussels.

Belgium and Sweden did not complete their game Monday so as to ensure the safety of visiting fans, and Israel could not play either of their scheduled games after the surprise attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 and conflict since.

On the field, England and France were the standout teams with Jude Bellingham and Kylian Mbappe the most thrilling talents in Europe. Both teams sealed their places at Euro 2024.

Host Germany also werejoined by Austria, Belgium, Portugal, Scotland, Spain and Turkiye. Nine of the 24 places are now confirmed ahead of the final rounds of group-stage games next month and qualifying playoffs in March.

Israel are close to reaching their first finals since joining UEFA for political and security reasons 30 years ago.

Politics and player safety have weighed heavily on Euro 2024 qualifying even before Israel’s games — hosting Switzerland and at Kosovo — were postponed.

Ukraine have not played a home game since the February 2022 invasion by Russia, which is still banned from international soccer because of waging the war.

Ukraine’s four “home” games this year were scheduled in four different countries: Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic capital Prague to beat North Macedonia 2-0 last week and a key Nov. 20 game against Italy in Leverkusen, Germany.

Russia’s military ally Belarus has had to play in empty stadiums in neutral Hungary and Serbia.

Uncertainty remains for Israel and Belgium. Israel and Switzerland try again in Tel Aviv on Nov. 15 to start a triple-header week of games for both.

Before then, UEFA aims to find a spare date in the packed calendar to schedule Kosovo-Israel so that all group standings are final before the 12-team playoffs draw on Nov. 23.

Belgium-Sweden paused at halftime at 1-1 and it is unclear if the game must be completed. Belgium look set to top the group. Sweden were already unsure of a playoffs entry and neither team seems keen to resume.

TICKETS BOOKED

France and England still look like Europe’s best as they did last December in a World Cup quarterfinals game that France won 2-1.

France’s 2-1 win in the Netherlands on Friday was clinched by Mbappé’s majestic curling shot early in the second half. He had also opened the scoring.

England eased to a 3-1 win over Italy on Tuesday after trailing early to the defending champion at Wembley Stadium.

Like France, Portugal has a perfect record and made it eight straight wins with a 5-0 victory in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Belgium, like England, is unbeaten with one draw.

Romelu Lukaku scored nine of Belgium’s 16 goals in qualifying before the Sweden game and Cristiano Ronaldo has nine of Portugal’s 32 goals in their group.

They are tied as top scorers in qualifying after having forgettable World Cups in Qatar and moving clubs in 2023. Lukaku is at Roma, on another loan from Chelsea, and Ronaldo is famously in Saudi Arabia with Al-Nassr.

NEARLY THERE

Italy are still favored to advance with England, and hosts North Macedonia — which won their World Cup qualifying playoff in March 2022 — before facing Ukraine on Nov. 20.

The Netherlands will join France if they beat Ireland at home on Nov. 18. A stoppage-time penalty by Virgil van Dijk in Greece on Monday lifted the 1988 champion to a valuable 1-0 win over the 2004 title winner.

Hungary and Serbia are on course to qualify from their group. Slovenia still surprisingly edge Denmark in Group H and they meet in Copenhagen on Nov. 17. Slovenia have played at only one Euros — in 2000.

SURPRISE STUMBLES

Croatia, a World Cup finalist and semifinalist in the past two editions, lost back-to-back games at home to Turkiye and at Wales.

Croatia have to play Group D’s two weakest teams — Latvia and Armenia — next month but Wales holds the head-to-head tiebreaker and controls its destiny before going to Armenia and hosting Turkiye.

In Group E led by Albania, Poland are third and only one point ahead of Moldova, which is still in contention. Poland hosts the second-place Czechs on Nov. 17. Albania can qualify if they win their last game at home against the Faeroe Islands.

PLAYOFF PICTURE

Even after 20 teams advance from the 10 qualifying groups next month, 12 more teams have a second chance next March in the playoffs. That leaves hope for countries like Kazakhstan or Georgia, which have never qualified.

Three places will be offered to the winner of each of three brackets of four teams, playing single-leg semifinals and finals.

Entry to the playoffs is based on rankings in the Nations League group played one year ago. The draw is made Nov. 23, two days after the qualifying groups finish.


Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone

Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone
Updated 12 sec ago
Follow

Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone

Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone
  • Goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, Malcom, and Saud Abdulhamid made sure 18-time champions now nine points clear of Riyadh rivals in second

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo watched from the stands in disbelief on Thursday as Al-Nassr were held to a 4-4 draw at home against bottom team Al-Hazm. Neymar on Friday watched in delight as Al-Hilal came from behind to defeat Al-Ittihad 3-1 to take a giant step toward a 19th Saudi Pro League trophy.

Thanks to goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, Malcom, and Saud Abdulhamid, the 18-time champions are now nine points clear of their Riyadh rivals in second, and as Al-Hilal have now won their last 25 games in all competitions and a record 15 in the league, few would now bet against the Blues.

It was an entertaining Saudi Classico, but once Al-Hilal took the lead in the second half, there was always likely to be just one outcome and it was a deserved win.

Al-Ittihad, the defending champions, had opportunities but against the runaway leaders more than one needed to be taken.

But the visitors, who were missing star striker Karim Benzema through injury, started strongly and took the lead in the 12th minute. With all the attacking talent on the pitch, it was a little surprising that N’Golo Kante opened the scoring with his first goal for almost six months. It was a cracker too.

The former Chelsea midfielder started the move and after laying the ball off, sprinted for the penalty area. He was there just in time to meet the left-sided cross from Zakaria Al-Hawsawi and no one was prepared for the sight of Kante flying through the air to send a header past Yassine Bounou and into the net. It stunned fans in the Kingdom Arena and probably those watching around the world. 

A few minutes later it was almost 2-0 as Faisal Al-Ghamdi shot just wide from outside the area with Bounou scrambling to get across. Al-Ittihad have been in good form and were seemingly growing in confidence.

But slowly Al-Hilal began to wake up and six minutes before the break were level. Abdullah Al-Mayouf punched a Salem Al-Dawsari corner clear but it fell to Ruben Neves just outside the area and while the Portuguese star’s shot was blocked, there was Al-Shehri, in the starting lineup to replace the suspended Aleksandar Mitrovic, to pounce and fire home.

Almost immediately, the visitors thought they had a penalty as Kalidou Koulibaly was judged by the referee to have been tugging the shirt of Ahmed Hegazy. VAR thought differently, however.

Both teams continued to push forward and just before the hour the hosts took the lead. It came shortly after Al-Ittihad had claims for a penalty waved away, and Al-Hilal broke. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic chipped over a perfect cross from the left for Malcom — who was given far too much space on the edge of the six-yard box — to head home.

Kante almost equalized within minutes, firing a low shot just wide of the post. It was a great chance and, had it been taken, the game could have turned out very differently.

As it was, midway through the second half, Abdulhamid netted a third. Milinkovic-Savic slipped a pass into the right side of the area for the full-back to twist and turn past two defenders before shooting home at the near post. Not for the first time in the evening, Neymar, still recovering from his serious injury, was on his feet.

Unlike Al-Nassr, who four times threw the lead away against Al-Hazm, Al-Hilal were not going to be denied and the celebrations at the end reflected an unstoppable winning machine.

There is a quick chance for revenge for Al-Ittihad as the two giants meet in the first leg of the Asian Champions League quarter-final next week, but Al-Hilal surely know that with the domestic title almost sewn up, they can now turn their full attention to continental concerns.

For Al-Ittihad, now 25 points below the leaders in fifth, their season now depends on the clash.


Verstappen’s Bahrain pole delivers relief to Red Bull and Horner

Verstappen’s Bahrain pole delivers relief to Red Bull and Horner
Updated 30 min 20 sec ago
Follow

Verstappen’s Bahrain pole delivers relief to Red Bull and Horner

Verstappen’s Bahrain pole delivers relief to Red Bull and Horner
  • Verstappen clocked a fastest lap of one minute and 29.179 seconds to beat Leclerc by 0.228 seconds in the final seconds of the session
  • “It was a lot of fun,” said Verstappen

SAKHIR, Bahrain: Max Verstappen delivered some much-needed relief for his Red Bull team on Friday when he resisted Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc to claim pole position for Saturday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
The defending three-time world champion picked up where he left off last year by topping the times in a closely-contested qualifying session at the Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir.
His success, which he admitted was “a little bit unexpected” arrived after another day of speculation and pressure for team boss Christian Horner, following the anonymous leaking of a cache of alleged private messages and photographs between him and a female member of the team.
This came 24 hours after an internal investigation led by an independent London lawyer had resulted in Horner being cleared of all claims of inappropriate behavior.
Verstappen clocked a fastest lap of one minute and 29.179 seconds to beat Leclerc by 0.228 seconds in the final seconds of the session, securing his third Bahrain pole and the 33rd of his career.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Verstappen.
“The track had a lot of grip, but with the wind over the last few days, it’s been quite tricky to get a whole lap together and it was the same in qualifying.
“In Q1 and Q2 you go a bit faster, with the track ramping up, but to really get everything out of it in Q3 was a little bit difficult. So I’m very happy to be on pole.”
He added: “To be honest, it was a little bit unexpected, but I think the car came to us and I felt happier with the whole car.”
He forecast a close race on Saturday.
“We look good for the race and that’s the most important, but we will see tomorrow. I’m confident we can have a strong race.”
Ferrari’s Leclerc missed pole by only two-tenths of a second as he finished second ahead of Mercedes’ George Russell, Carlos Sainz of Ferrari and Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull.
Two-time champion Fernando Alonso qualified sixth for Aston Martin, ahead of the McLarens of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri with seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton ninth for Mercedes and Nico Hulkenberg 10th for Haas.
“I’m a bit disappointed,” admitted Leclerc.
“But we had a good qualifying and this offers us a good start to the year.”
Russell praised Mercedes for producing a car that he could build on. “P3 is a good place to start,” he said.
Qualifying got under way with Horner, who has always categorically denied any wrongdoing, under renewed pressure despite being cleared in Red Bull’s investigation led by a London lawyer.
Horner, who turned up at the track on Thursday to oversee the start of the new season, said: “I won’t comment on anonymous speculation, but to reiterate, I have always denied the allegations.”
Verstappen ensured events on the track went more smoothly and he will be favorite to emulate last year’s result when he won the first of 19 races as he swept to his third title.
The session began in cool conditions as temperatures fell under the floodlights at Sakhir’s International Circuit where Bahrain’s maiden race took place 20 years ago.
The air temperature was 18, the track 21.
The first qualifying segment ended with Sainz on top as the Alpines made an early exit along with both Saubers and Williams’ Logan Sargeant.
After topping Thursday’s opening practice, Hamilton squeezed through in 15th place.
Leclerc topped the times on the second runs of Q2 and Sainz was third, sandwiching Verstappen in second, while Hamilton was fourth with a late lap.
In the final seconds of the top 10 shoot-out Verstappen improved to 1:29.179, enough to resist Leclerc by 0.228 seconds to launch his 2024 season in ominous fashion.
Exceptionally the Bahrain race and next weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix are being staged on Saturdays to accommodate the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.


Alonso feeling great after hinting at retirement

Alonso feeling great after hinting at retirement
Updated 53 min 14 sec ago
Follow

Alonso feeling great after hinting at retirement

Alonso feeling great after hinting at retirement
  • “I feel great now, but I know it’s a demanding calendar and in 2026 there are a different set of regulations as well,” said Fernando Alonso
  • “I feel great. I didn’t expect we would be that competitive, to be honest”

SAKHIR, Bahrain: Fernando Alonso on Friday qualified in sixth place for Saturday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix and declared he felt “great” two days after hinting at retirement.
The 42-year-old Aston Martin driver said he had not expected to be so competitive, but added that he hoped he might be in contention to repeat his surprise podium finish last year.
The two-time world champion on Wednesday said he would decide his future after the “first few weeks or races” because of the demands of this year’s unprecedented 24-race calendar.
“Well, first of all, I need to decide if I want to keep racing and that will be the first thing that I need to decide — in a few weeks or a few races,” he said when asked if he was interested in joining Mercedes to succeed Lewis Hamilton next year.
“I feel great now, but I know it’s a demanding calendar and in 2026 there are a different set of regulations as well, which maybe are tempting or maybe not, I don’t know.”
After qualifying, however, the evergreen Spaniard, who has adopted a new diet and fitness schedule, said: “I feel great. I didn’t expect we would be that competitive, to be honest.
“Winter testing was ok, but I think we are not in the pace of the leaders.
“Free practice was competitive, but we found also last year that sometimes in free practice we are running in a different engine mode and in qualifying everything is a bit more realistic.
“It’s going to be difficult in the race, very tight in a group which will damage the tires even more when you are in traffic. So, I think it’s going to be a question mark for everyone. Let’s see.”
He made no further comments about his future, having declared that 24 races is “well over the limit.”
“When I started, we had 16 races, then it was 18 and then I think Liberty (the American owners of F1) came and we had 20 in a season and that was the limit, 20 races, but now we are up to 24.
“It isn’t sustainable for the future, I think, not for anyone.”


Hong Kong beat Saudi Arabia to end Greens’ U19 Cricket World Cup dream

Hong Kong beat Saudi Arabia to end Greens’ U19 Cricket World Cup dream
Updated 01 March 2024
Follow

Hong Kong beat Saudi Arabia to end Greens’ U19 Cricket World Cup dream

Hong Kong beat Saudi Arabia to end Greens’ U19 Cricket World Cup dream
  • The young Greens scratched their way to 133 all out thanks to a last wicket partnership of 52
  • Hong Kong chased down their target with ease in 25.4 overs with only three wickets down

BANGKOK: Saudi Arabia’s young cricketers lost their do-or-die ICC U19 Cricket World Cup clash with Hong Kong on Friday as their campaign to progress to the next stage ended in heartbreak.

The young Greens scratched their way to 133 all out thanks to a last wicket partnership of 52, but Hong Kong chased down their target with ease in 25.4 overs with only three wickets down.

Saudi Arabia had won the toss and elected to bat first at Terdthai Cricket Ground in the winner-takes-all contest after both sides had beaten Bhutan and lost to Oman earlier in Group B.

Captain Rayyan Khan started confidently with two cover drives for four off Daniel Mapp to begin the innings, but the Saudis never settled and found themselves on 50 for the loss of four wickets within 20 overs.

Four overs later, they were 60 for seven and were staring down the barrel of a thrashing when they lost their penultimate wicket with just 81 runs on the board.

Fahad Munir, who came in at number seven, had got underway with a four and a six and was looking to hit out with nine wickets down. He managed to strike a second six and two more fours to bring up the Saudi Arabia 100 in the 32nd over.

He became a menace for Hong Kong as he hit two more boundaries and got five runs after four overthrows. Another big hit took him to 48 before a straight drive for four brought up his half-century from 35 deliveries.

Munir was finally dismissed on 59 from 42 balls, as the Saudis set Hong Kong 134 to win, and he looked to do some damage with the ball after the changeover.

But Hong Kong had little to worry about as they reached 108 for the loss of three after 20 overs and number three batter Shiv Mathur reached his 50 from 49 balls, to put his side only 21 runs from victory, and ended up carrying his bat with 63 runs off as many balls.

Hong Kong reached their target to win by seven wickets and will face Malaysia in the first semi-final on Sunday at the TCG.

Also on Friday, Oman held off Bhutan to win by three wickets and they will face Kuwait for a place in the next stage of qualification.


Pollard could be key to Mumbai Indians’ IPL success, says head coach Boucher

Pollard could be key to Mumbai Indians’ IPL success, says head coach Boucher
Updated 01 March 2024
Follow

Pollard could be key to Mumbai Indians’ IPL success, says head coach Boucher

Pollard could be key to Mumbai Indians’ IPL success, says head coach Boucher
  • Experience and inspirational qualities come to the fore as MI players chase club’s first IPL title since 2020

LONDON: West Indies legend Kieron Pollard can play a big role in ensuring Mumbai Indians win the Indian Premier League this year, according to head coach Mark Boucher.

Pollard, who is now batting coach at the IPL giants, had a glittering career as a player with the franchise, winning five titles over eight seasons, including four as captain.

His experience and nous will be crucial in helping the current crop of MI players win the club’s first IPL title since 2020, said South African Boucher, who has been head coach since last season.

“(Pollard) is fantastic. He’s got so much character in the changing room; he’s a strong person and a lot of the players trust him and look up to him,” Boucher told sport news website SportsBoom.com.

“Whenever Polly opens his mouth in the dressing room, people listen. Not because he is going to hold them up against the side of the wall, but because they know what he’s done.

“Having him in the dressing room has a calming effect on the batting. You have a look at our stats in the batting, the aggressive nature we went about things (last year), the calmness in the dugouts, all that type of stuff. I think a lot of that can be attributed to Polly as well because of his way that he is and his whole demeanour and understanding that he’s got.

“He’s still playing in franchises around the world he’s in the know about who’s playing good crickets and we feed off that,” he added.

Boucher said the team had high expectations for the coming season, which starts on March 22 and will end, if successful in the grand final, on May 26.

“I think anytime you join Mumbai Indians, there’s a lot of expectation and the expectation is to win at all times. We have won the championship quite a few times. Once the owners and the fans get a sniff of that, then they want to do it every time,” he said.

He particularly praised the team’s batting display and its positive style of cricket last season, acknowledging the challenges faced in the bowling unit as a result of injuries. Although the Indians finished third, falling short of the intended win, Boucher said he viewed it as a commendable effort given the situation.

“Our bowling was a little bit shy because of the injuries that we picked up. The third position is not what we wanted; we wanted to win, but third was not a bad effort, judging what we had to go through last season. But a catch maybe taken here or there could have  put ourselves into a final and then who knows what happens in the final,” he said.

“We do believe in the spinners that we have in the side already. Piyush (Chawla) had a fantastic season last time around. No one really thought that he would probably have that kind of impact that he had. We are backing him to do something similar,” he added.

Boucher also played up the importance of getting results at the team’s home stadium at Wankhede, but also the ability of his team to adapt to different conditions at away grounds.

“In our home games at Wankhede spin doesn’t play a major part in the game. So our side is very much sort of geared toward our home conditions, but we do feel that we’ve got enough cover if we do go into a different venue and the ball is turning and gripping; we do feel that we do have the guys to sort of consolidate those conditions,” he said.