Mancini faces fierce backlash as he turns back on players, fans and potentially his job

Mancini faces fierce backlash as he turns back on players, fans and potentially his job
Saudi FA President Yasser Al-Meshal was less scathing but made his displeasure clear: “Mancini’s early departure is unacceptable, however, the coach met with the players and thanked them. (X.com SCREENGRAB)
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Updated 31 January 2024
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Mancini faces fierce backlash as he turns back on players, fans and potentially his job

Mancini faces fierce backlash as he turns back on players, fans and potentially his job
  • As Saudi Arabia exited the AFC Asian Cup on penalties, the Italian coach had symbolically already departed the arena
  • Across social media platforms, angry supporters accused Mancini of cowardice and arrogance for his actions

It may end up being the defining moment of Roberto Mancini’s managerial career. At least of his time in charge of Saudi Arabia.

The symbolism of his behavior was hard to miss.

When the Italian coach walked down the tunnel at Education City Stadium before the penalty shootout loss to South Korea had even been confirmed, Mancini had not only turned his back on his players, the supporters and the nation, but very likely his job as well.

Condemnation in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s exit from the AFC Asian Cup was immediate and came from many quarters.

One fan on X summed up many angry supporters’ sentiments.

“A cowardly coach who does not take responsibility and does not stand with his players. He started the tournament with a strange statement that affected the team and the fans and ended it with an ugly escape that only a coward can do!”

Saudi Arabia’s football association President Yasser Al-Meshal was less scathing but made his displeasure clear: “Mancini’s early departure is unacceptable, however, the coach met with the players and thanked them.”

It could have been so different for the Green Falcons and their coach.

If 90 minutes is a long time in football then 90 seconds was an age on Tuesday. That was the difference between Saudi Arabia securing a famous win over South Korea and moving to the quarterfinals, and conceding a 99th minute equalizer before losing on penalties. That was the difference between delight and despair; between praise for a winning coach and the backlash that is raging online.

The last-minute equalizer and shootout loss were hard enough for the thousands of Saudi Arabia fans who raised the roof at the Education City Stadium and the millions watching at home.

But the sight of Mancini leaving the pitch — where he had minutes earlier linked arms with his coaching staff — to head down the tunnel before the final penalty had been taken, would have been hard to stomach.

The image will be a lasting one whether he stays in charge or not.

At the post-match press conference, the Italian apologized, saying that he did not know the shootout had finished. True or not — and it seems a strange claim — it is hard to say which looks worse; leaving early or thinking a game had finished when it had not. One Korean commentator assumed Mancini had been sent off as he could think of no other explanation.

The damage had already been done. The immediate reaction online in Saudi Arabia was bitter. “The match was handed to the Koreans from the 75th minute with the wrong changes,” one fan commented on X. “There is no need for his departure. The least he can do is to appreciate the players, and console them and encourage them.”

Anger was mixed with disappointment and heartbreak.

“I challenge him to do this in Italy … arrogant arrogant,” said another poster. “He accused national team players of desertion and stripped them of their chance to represent their country. He was the first to escape.”

The comment refers to an explosive press conference at the start of the tournament. After Mancini had controversially left out Salman Al-Faraj, Sultan Al-Ghannam and Nawaf Al-Aqidi, he claimed that these established international stars, who play for the big Riyadh clubs Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, wanted to pick and choose their games.

Such actions could only be forgotten or forgiven if success follows, and for a time that looked possible. Two late goals produced a dramatic 2-1 win over Oman in the opening game. Then there was a comfortable 2-0 win over Kyrgyzstan, but not much more could be read into that as the Central Asians had two men sent off. The group stage ended with a 0-0 draw against Thailand, but then both teams were already through.

It was not bad, but neither was it inspiring. Saudi Arabia had at least topped their Group F.

Last night’s round of 16 clash with South Korea could have been a turning point. For much of the game, the star-studded East Asians created nothing, but as Saudi Arabia, ahead 1-0 thanks to Abdullah Radif, sat deeper and deeper, the Red attacks started with about 10 minutes remaining and they never really stopped.

Mancini’s conservative substitutes would have looked wise had the team held out but Cho Gue-song’s 99th minute header put paid to that. And in the end, it was a deserved goal. The Green Falcons had no answer and Mancini’s much-vaunted tactical acumen, which had taken Italy to the European Championship glory in 2021, failed him. Or rather, it fell short by about 90 seconds.

Then came his shocking stage exit, and the fierce backlash it sparked is unlikely to abate any time soon.

Said one person online: “There is no commander of a battle who escapes while his soldiers are on its ground ... For many years in the sports community, we have never seen a coach leave the field while his team was playing ... When Mancini felt the loss, he ran away!”

Whether he returns remains to be seen.


Nadal returns to action with easy win over Cobolli in first round of Barcelona Open

Nadal returns to action with easy win over Cobolli in first round of Barcelona Open
Updated 17 April 2024
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Nadal returns to action with easy win over Cobolli in first round of Barcelona Open

Nadal returns to action with easy win over Cobolli in first round of Barcelona Open
  • Nadal, a 12-time champion at the clay-court tournament, said he was never at full strength at the center court named after him, especially when serving
  • World No. 8 Andrey Rublev smashed his racket to the ground several times after a 6-4, 7-6 (6) loss to American Brandon Nakashima

BARCELONA, Spain: Taking it easy after months away from competitive tennis, Rafael Nadal was good enough to earn a comfortable first-round win at the Barcelona Open on Tuesday.

Nadal looked injury-free in a 6-2, 6-3 win over Flavio Cobolli to advance to the second round in his first tournament in more than three months.

Nadal converted on his second match point to seal the victory over the 21-year-old Italian ranked 62nd in the world. The Spaniard will next face Alex de Minaur, who had a first-round bye.

“Taking everything into consideration, it was a good first round,” Nadal said. “I played the kind of match that I needed to play. I’m happy for the victory and happy to be playing at home again.”

Nadal, a 12-time champion at the clay-court tournament, said he was never at full strength at the center court named after him, especially when serving.

“I’m not going to do anything that doesn’t make sense right now,” he said. “I’m not going to go out there and serve like crazy. I have to take it easy because that’s what’s needed at the moment.”

Nadal broke serve twice in each set. He finished with eight winners and 22 unforced errors.

Nadal was returning from yet another injury layoff and hadn’t played since an exhibition match against Carlos Alcaraz in March. The 22-time Grand Slam champion had last played a tournament in Brisbane in January, when he played only three matches before skipping the Australian Open.

He withdrew from Monte Carlo saying he his body wasn’t ready yet. Nadal is a 14-time winner at the French Open, which begins next month.

The 37-year old Nadal said it will likely be his last time playing the Barcelona Open. The Spaniard had hip surgery last summer and said 2024 will probably be his last year playing on tour.

FRUSTRATED RUBLEV

World No. 8 Andrey Rublev smashed his racket to the ground several times after a 6-4, 7-6 (6) loss to American Brandon Nakashima.

It was the third consecutive first-round defeat for the second-seeded Rublev, who also lost in straight sets in Monte Carlo and Miami. He also lost in straight sets in the second round in Indian Wells.

It was only the second win over a top-10 opponent for the 22-year-old Nakashima, and the first on clay. The world No. 87 had beaten Holger Rune in Shanghai last October.

“I’m still out here competing as hard as I can,” said Nakashima, who reached No. 43 in the world in 2022. “I’m happy with getting my level back to where it was. Playing in front of these crowds and on this court was super special.”

OTHER RESULTS

Also Tuesday, Facundo Diaz Acosta defeated 15th-seeded Borna Coric 6-2, 7-5. Tomas Machac beat Shang Juncheng 6-4, 6-4 to set up a meeting with 11th-seeded Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

Roberto Carballes Baena defeated Hugo Grenier 6-2, 6-4, while Jaume Munar cruised past Yoshihito Nishioka 6-3, 6-1.


Mbappe’s PSG punish 10-man Barca to reach Champions League semis

Mbappe’s PSG punish 10-man Barca to reach Champions League semis
Updated 17 April 2024
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Mbappe’s PSG punish 10-man Barca to reach Champions League semis

Mbappe’s PSG punish 10-man Barca to reach Champions League semis
  • The visitors started with determination and penned Barcelona back in their own territory, but it was the hosts who took the lead

BARCELONA: Kylian Mbappe struck twice as Paris Saint-Germain battled back to beat 10-man Barcelona 4-1 and book a place in the Champions League semifinals with a 6-4 aggregate triumph on Tuesday.
Raphinha fired Barcelona ahead early on but Ronald Araujo’s 29th-minute red card turned the tide in PSG’s favor, despite the Spanish champions leading by two goals following a 3-2 quarter-final first-leg win.
Ousmane Dembele and Vitinha levelled the tie for PSG and the deadly Mbappe hit a brace to put them into the final four for the first time since 2021.
The French champions have never won the trophy despite huge investment but demonstrated they have the attacking weapons in their squad to do so.
Five-time winners Barcelona were dreaming of a first semifinal return since 2019 but Araujo’s red card for pulling down the relentless Bradley Barcola undermined their grip on the tie.
PSG coach Luis Enrique, who led Barca to the 2015 Champions League, said he believed his team would turn things around despite never having managed to after a first-leg defeat, and so it proved.
The visitors started with determination and penned Barcelona back in their own territory, but it was the hosts who took the lead.
Explosive 16-year-old starlet Lamine Yamal ripped past Nuno Mendes and crossed to the near post where Raphinha turned home despite pressure from Achraf Hakimi.
It was the Brazilian winger’s third goal of the tie after his brace in Paris.
Robert Lewandowski fired another chance over the top for Barcelona before Barcola tilted the tie in PSG’s favor. The winger was a nightmare for his French compatriot Jules Kounde to handle.
Barcola teed up Mbappe but Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen denied him well, before Araujo was sent off for bringing him down.
The Uruguayan center-back pulled Barcola back as he burst into the area, leaving Barca with 10 men.
Dembele whizzed the resulting free-kick narrowly over, but soon found the net, as he did in the first leg.
The former Barcelona winger struck after 40 minutes from another Barcola cross, which raked across the area to the back post where Dembele was arriving to fire into the roof of the net.
Barcelona sacrificed Yamal for defender Inigo Martinez after Araujo’s red card and it left them with few outlets in attack.
With PSG controlling the game Barcelona soon paid the price for their inability to keep possession.
Vitinha was given far too much space on the edge of the box and he drilled into the bottom corner to put PSG ahead on the night.
Ilkay Gundogan hit the post at the other end for Barcelona before their coach Xavi was sent off for a show of dissent on the touchline.
The Catalans were losing their heads and Joao Cancelo clumsily fouled Dembele to hand PSG a penalty.
Mbappe, who had been kept quiet in the first leg, hammered it into the top corner for his 40th goal across all competitions.
The striker’s future may lie in Spain, with Real Madrid aiming to sign him in the summer at the end of his contract, and he made no friends in Barcelona by hopping the advertising hoardings and running toward fans to celebrate.
Another member of Barcelona’s backroom staff was dismissed after Gundogan had a penalty appeal waved away and it became clear the hosts had no response.
Mbappe wrapped up the win in the 89th minute after a fine Ter Stegen double save, leaving Barcelona the victims of another bitterly disappointing night in Europe.


Dortmund sink Atletico to reach Champions League semifinals

Dortmund sink Atletico to reach Champions League semifinals
Updated 17 April 2024
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Dortmund sink Atletico to reach Champions League semifinals

Dortmund sink Atletico to reach Champions League semifinals
  • Former winners Dortmund, fifth in the German top flight and struggling to qualify for next season’s Champions League, will next face PSG for a place in the final at Wembley on June 1

DORTMUND, Germany: Borussia Dortmund fought back to beat Atletico Madrid 4-2 in their quarter-final second leg on Tuesday, securing a 5-4 aggregate victory and a first Champions League semifinal since 2013.
Trailing 2-1 from the first leg, goals from Julian Brandt and Ian Maatsen had Dortmund 2-0 up at half-time.
Visiting coach Diego Simeone made three changes at half-time including bringing on Angel Correa and his energy told immediately, Mats Hummels conceding a poor own goal before the Argentine netted to put Atletico back ahead in the tie.
But those goals brought a sluggish Dortmund back to life, with Niclas Fuellkrug and Marcel Sabitzer each scoring in a three-minute period to send the Bundesliga club through.
Former winners Dortmund, fifth in the German top flight and struggling to qualify for next season’s Champions League, will next face Paris Saint-Germain for a place in the final at Wembley on June 1.
The home side should have been level in the tie after three minutes but Sabitzer took an extra touch with the goal beckoning, allowing Atletico to cover.
Just moments later, Atletico had a major chance of their own, as Alvaro Morata raced through one-on-one with the goalkeeper but chipped the ball well wide of the post.
Buoyed by an 80,000-strong home crowd trying to one-up last week’s atmosphere in the Spanish capital, Dortmund pushed and prodded, with Karim Adeyemi blasting straight at Jan Oblak.
Dortmund broke through after 34 minutes, Brandt collecting a Hummels chip and shooting on the turn, the ball bouncing through Oblak’s hands.
The home side were ahead in the tie just five minutes later, Maatsen threading in from an acute angle after he was given space to run in the Atletico box.
With Simeone sensing his chances of qualifying for the semis for a fourth time as Atletico boss slipping away, he shuffled his deck at half-time, making three changes including hooking the ineffective Morata for Correa.
Dortmund’s wobbles suddenly returned, letting the visitors back into the tie.
Hummels turned Mario Hermoso’s header into his own net from an Atletico corner under little pressure and with goalkeeper Gregor Kobel waiting to save.
Atletico smelt blood and could have levelled when Correa dragged the ball just wide.
The World Cup winner made up for his miss on 64 minutes when he cut through a penalty area crowded with yellow shirts and smacked the ball in, sending Atletico in front on aggregate.
The goal jolted Dortmund back into action and Edin Terzic’s men scored twice in three minutes to retake the overall lead.
Fuellkrug headed in a Sabitzer cross and the Austrian midfielder then got a goal of his own, shooting through the Atletico defense and into the bottom corner from the edge of the box, grabbing Dortmund a famous victory.


Riyadh Season becomes official partner of World Snooker Championship

Riyadh Season becomes official partner of World Snooker Championship
Updated 17 April 2024
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Riyadh Season becomes official partner of World Snooker Championship

Riyadh Season becomes official partner of World Snooker Championship

RIYADH: Riyadh Season will become the official partner of the  World Snooker Championship, Saudi entertainment chief Turki Alalshikh announced on Tuesday.

Riyadh Season and the World Snooker Tour signed an agreement to expand and develop the game in the Middle East and bring in more fans.

Additionally, Ronnie O’Sullivan, who has won a record 23 Triple Crown titles, will serve in an ambassadorial role in a three-year deal, announced on Tuesday. As part of this agreement guarantees that O’Sullivan will play in all WST events in Saudi Arabia and will also make special trips to the Kingdom to coach and foster aspiring talent.

Saudi Arabia hosted its first-ever WST event last month — Riyadh Season World Masters in Snooker — which was won by O’Sullivan.

That tournament will return as part of the next Riyadh Season this winter and will feature the world’s top ten players, and two others as wild cards.

The event will again feature the innovative golden ball, known as the Riyadh Season ball, which will give players a chance to score a world record break of 167 if they pot it at the end of a maximum 147.

Alalshikh, the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority, confirmed that the prize for the ‘super maximum’ will be doubled to $1 million should anyone succeed in achieving the milestone.

“Riyadh Season is delighted to be a partner of the World Snooker Championship, which will start next Saturday and continues until May 6th at Crucible in Sheffield,” said Alalshikh.

WST Chairman Steve Dawson said: “We are honoured to work with HE Turki Alalshikh on his visionary plans for progress. We share his ambition of bringing snooker to many more fans across the Middle East, and to foster new talent and develop grassroots structures.


Erolcevik claims gold for Turkiye at Junior World Fencing Championships in Riyadh

Erolcevik claims gold for Turkiye at Junior World Fencing Championships in Riyadh
Updated 17 April 2024
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Erolcevik claims gold for Turkiye at Junior World Fencing Championships in Riyadh

Erolcevik claims gold for Turkiye at Junior World Fencing Championships in Riyadh
  • Ukraine’s Anna Maksymenko won the women’s U-17 Epee after defeating America’s Sharika Gajjala in the final
  • Algeria’s Ferial Salehi: ‘I did not have the opportunity to compete in Saudi Arabia, but it is a great honor to attend this championship in an official capacity’

RIYADH: Turkiye’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia Emrullah Isler crowned the men’s winners on the fifth day of the Junior World Fencing Championships at King Saud University’s Arena Hall in Riyadh.

Turkiye’s Doruk Erolcevik won the U-17 Epee gold medal, defeating Egypt’s Islam Osama in the final. America’s Alexander Bezrodnov and Italy’s Federico Varone claimed bronze medals.

Ukraine’s Anna Maksymenko won the women’s U-17 Epee after defeating America’s Sharika Gajjala in the final. Ukraine’s Emily Conrad and China’s Huishuang Jiang won bronze medals.

The Epee team competition concludes tomorrow. In the men’s event Saudi Arabia is represented by Ahmed Al-Fihani, Hassan Abid, Ahmed Hazazi and Yousef Albinali, while Fawzia Al-Khaybari, Dhay Alamiri, Yasmin Al-Saleh, and Dana Al-Saeed will represent Saudi fencing in the women’s event.

Algeria’s Ferial Salehi, a member of the executive board of the International Fencing Federation, said that Saudi Arabia, represented by the Saudi Fencing Federation, has impressed everyone with their organization of the event.

“I did not have the opportunity to compete in Saudi Arabia during my career, but it is a great honor to attend this championship in an official capacity.”