5 talking points ahead of AFC Asian Cup knockout stages

5 talking points ahead of AFC Asian Cup knockout stages
Roberto Mancini's Saudi team will meat South Korea in the Round fo 16 of the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar. (X/@SaudiNT)
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Updated 28 January 2024
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5 talking points ahead of AFC Asian Cup knockout stages

5 talking points ahead of AFC Asian Cup knockout stages
  • Eight of 10 Arab teams qualified to the Round of 16, with Saudi Arabia’s clash against South Korea arguably the standout tie

After a two-day break, the AFC Asian Cup 2023 in Qatar returns to action as the knockout stages start on Sunday.

Here are five talking points ahead of all the action.

How will Mancini’s Saudi team counter South Korea?

Saudi Arabia versus South Korea is, on paper, the biggest clash of the second round. The group stage started badly for Saudi Arabia with Oman taking an early lead but since then, the Green Falcons have not conceded a single goal in 256 minutes of action (and the lengthy injury times can be added).

While this is encouraging, it should be pointed out that Kyrgyzstan had 10 men for almost all the game and nine men for almost half and were never going to mount many attacks, while Thailand had two goals ruled out for offside. Still, Roberto Mancini will be pleased.

Now the question is what to do against South Korea. The Koreans will look to attack as much as possible, and this is a team stronger going forward than it is at the back. Mancini’s team are going to have to do plenty of defending but will also have to make use of counterattacks.

The wing-backs Saud Abdulhamid and Mohammed Al-Breik have been perhaps the team’s most impressive performers so far, and they are going to be crucial in this game — at both ends of the pitch.

Eight of 10 Arab teams ready for action

Sixteen of the 24 teams that started still survive — a two-thirds survival rate. For Arab teams, that rate is 80 percent with only Lebanon and Oman, surprisingly so, not making it through.

It has been impressive. Bahrain won their group, finishing above South Korea, and will give Japan a good game. Jordan also looked solid, despite a poor build-up with a number of poor results.

Syria are there for the first time ever despite only scoring one goal. Now that the Qasioun Eagles are in the knockout stage with Hector Cuper in charge, they are going to be hard to beat and will be ready for extra time and penalties even if Iran will be a very difficult opponent.

Qatar also looked good and won all three games with Hassan Al-Haydos volleying what could become the goal of the tournament.

The UAE have yet to impress, but there is still time for that to change and Paulo Bento’s men will fancy their chances against Tajikistan in what is the first knockout game for the Central Asians.

Nothing to lose for Palestine

Palestine take on hosts Qatar in what is likely to be their last game in the tournament, but it has already been unforgettable. It may have started badly with a 4-1 loss to Iran, but they recovered in impressive fashion. Next came a 1-1 draw against the UAE and then followed a first-ever win at the Asian Cup. That dramatic 3-0 victory over Hong Kong sent the team into the knockout stage for the first-ever time on a wave of emotion.

Qatar have impressed so far, and it would be a major surprise if Palestine can get through; even getting to extra time would be a victory of sorts. The players have already made the Palestinian people, who are going through so much right now, proud and have presented a different face to the world. Everyone expects defeat, which means that Palestine can go for it.

There is nothing to lose in this game.

Japan and Korea need to step up

Coming into the tournament, everyone — including this writer — said that the two East Asian giants were the teams to beat. That could still be the case but so far, neither Japan nor South Korea have done anything to write back to Tokyo or Seoul about.

Japan arrived on the back of 10 straight wins but did not look convincing in a 4-2 win over Vietnam. A goalkeeping error from Zion Suzuki was at fault for one goal and then the same happened in the 2-1 loss to Iraq when Japan looked rattled. All in all, they conceded five goals. Korea let in six and were overly reliant on the class and creativity of Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain. Fans are turning against the perceived laissez-faire attitude of Jurgen Klinsmann, and Son Heung-min had to plead for a stop to nasty comments on social media.

There is still time for improvement, but all is not well.

Iraq can continue evoking memories of 2007

Iraq against Jordan could be a classic. The Lions of Mesopotamia have won all three games including the already famous 2-1 victory over Japan. It was a fine mix of skill, strength and teamwork. It also helps that Aymen Hussain scored two headers that came straight out of the Younis Mahmoud playbook. That is not the only thing reminiscent of 2007. Seventeen years ago, Iraq arrived in Bangkok with few expectations and something similar was the case earlier this month in Qatar.

Jordan will be no pushovers, however. The build-up may have been terrible in terms of results, but Hussein Ammouta has his team well-organized and there is the hugely talented Mousa Al-Taamari on the wing. Jordan were disappointed to concede a last-minute own goal that cost them a win against South Korea.


Haaland ruled out of Man City’s crucial trip to Brighton

Haaland ruled out of Man City’s crucial trip to Brighton
Updated 24 April 2024
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Haaland ruled out of Man City’s crucial trip to Brighton

Haaland ruled out of Man City’s crucial trip to Brighton
  • Haaland missed City’s 1-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley
  • City boss Pep Guardiola insisted Haaland’s injury was not serious

LONDON: Manchester City’s Premier League title bid has suffered a blow after Norway striker Erling Haaland was ruled out of Thursday’s crucial clash at Brighton.
Haaland missed City’s 1-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Saturday due to a muscle injury sustained in the Champions League quarter-final exit against Real Madrid last week.
City’s leading scorer, who has 20 Premier League goals this season, is yet to recover and will not make the trip to the Amex Stadium as the champions look to close the gap on leaders Arsenal.
City boss Pep Guardiola insisted Haaland’s injury was not serious, and he could come back into contention in time for Sunday’s game against Nottingham Forest.
While Haaland is sidelined, Guardiola was boosted by England internationals Phil Foden and John Stones getting the green light to face Brighton after their own fitness concerns.
“Erling is not ready for tomorrow, the other two, they are ready,” Guardiola told reporters on Wednesday.
“I know it is not a big issue, but he is not allowed for this game.”
As a gripping title race approaches the final furlong, third placed City are four points behind leaders Arsenal, who thrashed Chelsea 5-0 on Tuesday.
Guardiola’s men have two games in hand on Arsenal and have played one match less than second placed Liverpool, who face Merseyside rivals Everton at Goodison Park on Wednesday.


Five-star Arsenal thrash Chelsea to open up Premier League lead

Five-star Arsenal thrash Chelsea to open up Premier League lead
Updated 24 April 2024
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Five-star Arsenal thrash Chelsea to open up Premier League lead

Five-star Arsenal thrash Chelsea to open up Premier League lead
  • The destiny of the title remains in Man City’s hands as the defending champions have two games in hand

LONDON: Kai Havertz and Ben White scored twice as Arsenal thrashed Chelsea 5-0 on Tuesday to surge ahead in the Premier League title race and ramp up the pressure on Liverpool and Manchester City.
Leandro Trossard was also on target in a record win over Chelsea for the Gunners, who move three points clear of Liverpool and four of Manchester City.
The destiny of the title remains in City’s hands as the defending champions have two games in hand.
Liverpool have also played one fewer game than Arsenal and are in action at Everton in the Merseyside derby on Wednesday.
However, Mikel Arteta’s men’s goal difference advantage now looks unassailable should it become decisive in the title race.
“We have made our people very proud, it is a big derby for us and I know what it means,” said Arteta.
“We started the game really well but didn’t convert all our chances — we were a bit sloppy in certain areas of the pitch.
“In the second half we were much more disciplined and created chances and were ruthless in front of goal.”
Chelsea and Arsenal’s title rivals were dealt a huge blow before kick-off as the Blues’ danger man Cole Palmer was ruled out due to illness.
Palmer has scored or assisted nearly 50 percent of Chelsea’s Premier League goals this season and his presence was badly missed by the visitors.
Despite enduring a disappointing first season under Mauricio Pochettino, Chelsea had been unbeaten in eight consecutive league games prior to their FA Cup semifinal defeat to Manchester City on Saturday.
But they were blown away by an Arsenal side keen to reaffirm their title credentials after losing their last home game to Aston Villa.
“So difficult (a) result and performance (to accept) because it is not nice to see your team playing like this from the beginning of the game,” said Pochettino.
“Today we didn’t compete against a team fighting for the Premier League. We need to be aware we need to compete in a different way.”
The hosts flew out of the blocks and were in front inside five minutes.
Trossard only ended up at the Emirates after Arsenal were gazumped by Chelsea in the battle to sign Mykhailo Mudryk in January 2023.
The Belgian has proved to be a far more productive signing and smashed in his 15th goal of the season at Djordje Petrovic’s near post.
Petrovic redeemed himself for a mistake at the opening goal with two brilliant saves to turn away Havertz’s low effort and a deflected shot by Trossard to keep his side in the game before half-time.
The Serbian briefly held Arsenal at bay early in the second period with saves from Declan Rice and Havertz.
However, the floodgates opened once White curled in Arsenal’s second after Chelsea failed to clear a corner on 52 minutes.
Havertz scored the winning goal in a Champions League final for Chelsea during his three years in west London, but he never performed consistently to the level he has found in recent months under Arteta.
Martin Odegaard’s stunning through ball was met with the finish it deserved as Havertz smashed high past Petrovic.
His next finish was more subtle as the German international fired in off the post from Bukayo Saka’s pass for his seventh goal in his last 14 club games.
A night for forget for Chelsea was summed up when White’s attempted cross flew into the top corner from another sensational Odegaard pass.
Defeat leaves Chelsea still in ninth, three points adrift of the European places.
Next up for Arsenal is what appears their toughest hurdle remaining away to Tottenham in Sunday’s north London derby.
Should Arteta’s side prevail at the home of their fiercest rivals, City will likely need to be perfect in their final six games to retain the title.


Three top clubs need a new coach, Emery off the market after Aston Villa extension

Three top clubs need a new coach, Emery off the market after Aston Villa extension
Updated 23 April 2024
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Three top clubs need a new coach, Emery off the market after Aston Villa extension

Three top clubs need a new coach, Emery off the market after Aston Villa extension
  • “We are enjoying our way together with Villa fans, the club owners, management and this great group of players that we are proud of,” Emery said Tuesday
  • The field of candidates for the jobs at Barcelona, Liverpool and Bayern is shrinking

DUBAI: Ahead of a summer when three of the biggest jobs in world soccer are up for grabs, Unai Emery became the latest top coach to decide to stay put.
The Aston Villa manager extended his contract until 2027 on Tuesday to stay in Birmingham at a time when Barcelona, Liverpool and Bayern Munich all have looming vacancies.
In recent weeks, candidates Xabi Alonso and Julian Nagelsmann took themselves off the market by committing their futures to Bayer Leverkusen and Germany, respectively.
Emery was reportedly on the radar of Bayern and Barcelona after establishing himself as one of the shrewdest coaches in the sport with his work at Villa over the past two seasons.
Having taken over a team that were in danger of relegation in October 2022, he has guided Villa to fourth in the Premier League and into the semifinals of the Europa Conference League.
“We are enjoying our way together with Villa fans, the club owners, management and this great group of players that we are proud of,” Emery said Tuesday.
“Ambition already is, and must always be, the motto of this project.”
The field of candidates for the jobs at Barcelona, Liverpool and Bayern is shrinking.
Alonso was the favorite for Liverpool and Bayern, having played for both teams during a storied career. But he announced last month that he would remain at Leverkusen, the team he has gone on to lead to their first German title at the expense of Bayern.
“This is the right place for me to be, to develop as a coach,” Alonso said.
Nagelsmann, fired by Bayern last season, was a contender to return to the German giant until last week when he extended his contract with the national team through to the 2026 World Cup. He was also considered a possibility for Liverpool, which faces the daunting task of replacing Jurgen Klopp at the end of the season.
Klopp said in January he would step down after a trophy-laden spell of more than eight years on Merseyside.
Alonso seemed like a natural fit as an ex-player who has made a remarkable start to his coaching career with Leverkusen.
Sporting Lisbon coach Ruben Amorim replaced Alonso as the favorite for the Liverpool job, while Roberto De Zerbi has impressed at Brighton.
Bayern need a replacement for Thomas Tuchel, who is stepping down at the end of the season. His reputation has taken a hit after failing to win the title this year, but he could yet walk away a Champions League winner after leading Bayern to the semifinals of European club soccer’s elite competition.
The Champions League trophy could yet see Tuchel in the running for one of the other two top jobs available this summer.
Barcelona need a new coach after Xavi Hernández said in January that this would be his last season.
Speculation that Emery was on the Catalan club’s radar had increased in recent days.
Emery’s reputation has only grown since taking over from Steven Gerrard when Villa was above the relegation zone only on goal difference.
Emery, who joined from Villarreal, led Villa to a seventh-place finish and qualified the team for Europe for the first time since 2010. Villa did not say at the time of his appointment in 2022 how long his original contract would run.
The 52-year-old Emery has won four Europa League trophies — three times with Sevilla and once with Villarreal — and won the French league title with Paris Saint-Germain.
He previously coached in England with Arsenal from 2018-19.
“We are thrilled and are building a sporting operation around Unai to support him with a view of returning Aston Villa, a co-founder of the English Football League as we prepare to celebrate our 150th anniversary, to its historic levels of greatness,” club chairman Nassef Sawiris said.


Soccer agent ‘threatened’ Chelsea director over Zouma fee, UK court hears

Soccer agent ‘threatened’ Chelsea director over Zouma fee, UK court hears
Updated 24 April 2024
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Soccer agent ‘threatened’ Chelsea director over Zouma fee, UK court hears

Soccer agent ‘threatened’ Chelsea director over Zouma fee, UK court hears
  • The arrests took place in the Paris region and in southern France, the PNAT anti-terror unit said
  • French prosecutors suspect the eight of preparing and financing terrorist acts

LONDON: A soccer agent sent a threatening email to a senior director at Premier League club Chelsea FC, demanding a six-figure commission over the transfer of French defender Kurt Zouma, prosecutors told a London court on Tuesday.
Saif Rubie sent an email to Marina Granovskaia, Chelsea’s director of football under former owner Roman Abramovich, in May 2022 after Zouma’s transfer to West Ham from Chelsea the previous year.
The 45-year-old has pleaded not guilty to one charge under the Malicious Communications Act and his trial at Southwark Crown Court began on Tuesday.
Prosecutor Arizuna Asante said Rubie – whose name appeared on court lists as Saif Alrubie – told Granovskaia that he and his partners were owed 300,000 pounds ($373,000) over the deal.
Granovskaia gave evidence on Tuesday that Chelsea received a total of 29.1 million pounds, which included 4.1 million pounds that was paid to Zouma as a “termination payment.”
In an email to Granovskaia, Rubie said: “I’m sure you’ve heard the story about your other friend Kia when he owed me money for a year and how he ended up paying it.
“Wouldn’t want you to be in the same situation just because you have a personal issue with me.”
Asante told jurors that was a reference to an incident involving soccer agent Kia Joorabchian, who was allegedly accosted in a restaurant and had his watch taken before he was faced with demands for money at his office in 2008.
Granovskaia said on Tuesday that she had a “vague recollection” of having previously heard of the alleged incident involving Joorabchian when she received Rubie’s email.
Asked how Rubie’s email made her feel, Granovskaia said: “It made me feel very nervous, it made me worry and it made me feel threatened.” She added that she thought “I might be faced with some people demanding money from me.”
Granovskaia said in response to questions from Rubie’s lawyer Matthew Radstone that, before the email, Rubie “never threatened me, either on paper or in person.”
She also said she was not aware that Joorabchian had not mentioned Rubie’s name when he reported the alleged incident to the police.
The trial is expected to conclude next week.


Ten Hag says reaction to Man Utd FA Cup win a ‘disgrace’

Ten Hag says reaction to Man Utd FA Cup win a ‘disgrace’
Updated 23 April 2024
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Ten Hag says reaction to Man Utd FA Cup win a ‘disgrace’

Ten Hag says reaction to Man Utd FA Cup win a ‘disgrace’
  • Ten Hag admitted after the match his team had “got away with it” but played down any notion of embarrassment
  • “The comments are a disgrace“

LONDON: Erik ten Hag says the media reaction to Manchester United’s performance in the FA Cup semifinal against Coventry was “a disgrace,” robustly defending his side’s achievement in reaching a second straight final.
United surrendered a 3-0 lead at Wembley on Sunday and were saved from a humiliating exit in extra time only by a VAR intervention, which ruled out a goal for offside in the final moments.
They eventually scraped through against the Championship side on penalties to set up a re-match of last year’s final against City.
Ten Hag admitted after the match his team had “got away with it” but played down any notion of embarrassment.
But he has been widely criticized, adding to speculation he is on borrowed time at Old Trafford.
Former Premier League striker Chris Sutton said the performance would “cement his sacking.”
But Ten Hag was in defiant mood on the eve of United’s Premier League match against bottom side Sheffield United on Wednesday.
“You asked the question: ‘Is it embarrassing?’ No, the reaction from you was embarrassing,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
“It is the comments. Top football is about results. We made it to a final and we deserved it not only by this game but also the other games.
“We lost control for 20 minutes, we also had bad luck, 3-2, 3-3. We were very lucky in the end, it is clear. Penalties was very good and we made it to the final, it is a huge achievement. Twice, in two years, is magnificent. For me as a manager, four cup finals in four years.
“The comments are a disgrace.”
United, winless in their past four Premier League games, are in danger of missing out on a European spot next season after a poor campaign.
They are already realistically out of the race to qualify for the lucrative Champions League but still have the Europa League and the Europa Conference League to aim for.
“We have to win every game, we know that,” said Ten Hag. “That’s what United stands for and that is our approach, go from game to game but we have to qualify for Europe and we now have two opportunities — in the league and the FA Cup final.”
Ten Hag said he would work closely with newly appointed technical director Jason Wilcox to determine the future direction of the club.
Wilcox, 53, has left second-tier Southampton to take up the job at Old Trafford with immediate effect.
“We have to form a partnership, which is very important,” said Ten Hag. “We are a little bit behind in the process so we have to catch up and we will go and speed up the process.”