UAE Pro League preview: Wasl march on, Iniesta strike not enough to save Emirates

UAE Pro League preview: Wasl march on, Iniesta strike not enough to save Emirates
Siaka Sidibe's goal sealed a 3-0 win for leaders Al-Wasl against Khor Fakkan (X/@AlWaslSC)
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Updated 31 March 2024
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UAE Pro League preview: Wasl march on, Iniesta strike not enough to save Emirates

UAE Pro League preview: Wasl march on, Iniesta strike not enough to save Emirates
  • Fourth-placed Al-Wahda and third-placed Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club share stoppage time goals in an unforgettable 3-3 draw

DUBAI: Spain legend Andres Iniesta’s strike was not enough to quiet deafening alarm bells at relegation-threatened Emirates Club, results strengthened Al-Wasl’s grip on the title and Morocco striker Walid Azaro hit a “super hat-trick”’ for an appreciative Ajman during ADNOC Pro League’s consequential matchweek 17.

An early Iniesta tap-in upon Thursday’s restart after the international break boosted second-bottom Falcons’ hopes of consecutive wins, but this was soon shattered by Baniyas’ come-from-behind, 2-1 win. Hatta remained bottom when ex-Portugal youth forward Iuri Medeiros struck in a 1-0 victory for swiftly improving Al-Nasr, pushing them sixth.

Fourth-placed Al-Wahda and third-placed Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club shared goals past the 90-minute mark in an unforgettable 3-3 stalemate in the capital, which does little for either club’s shrinking title aspirations. A 1-1 draw between second-placed AFC Champions League semi-finalists Al-Ain and Sharjah also had the same effect.

These slips were welcomed by relentless leaders Al-Wasl, for whom second-half goals from Fabio De Lima, Nicolas Gimenez and Siaka Sidibe in their 3-0 triumph versus Khor Fakkan earned a 10-point buffer.

Morocco center forward Azaro, meanwhile, sensationally netted all four goals at 10-man Ittihad Kalba, securing a 4-2 victory, which moved them nine points from danger. Mirel Radoi and Al-Jazira suffered a 3-2 defeat late on at the manager’s former employers Al-Bataeh.

Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.

Player of the week: Walid Azaro (Ajman)

A high watermark, for club and player, this term.

Azaro was unstoppable during a rollercoaster contest on the east coast. His domineering talents fit perfectly with the brutal game plan applied by Daniel Isaila.

Ajman sought destruction and distraction whenever they received possession. That all four of the bullish center forward’s goals came from crosses — three headers, one devastating low finish — spoke volumes.

Kalba’s defenders had no answer. A parlous situation accentuated by Abdulaziz Al-Hamhami’s dismissal prior to the hour mark.

Within a season of struggle in the wake of last term’s club-record sixth-placed finish, Azaro can feel individually content. That is now nine top-flight goals for the campaign.

Only competition icons (De Lima, 10 goals; Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba, Omar Khrbin, 11 goals) sit ahead of him. Ajman’s next-highest scorer (Ali Madan) has four.

Without their Moroccan hit man, the 11th-placed outfit would be in the relegation mire.

Goal of the week: Ismail Matar (Al-Wahda)

It takes a special player to influence matches into their fifth decade.

This is exactly what the timeless Ismail Matar managed in Friday evening’s epic match between Al-Wahda and Shabab Al-Ahli.

Passes within the tightest of confines, central and 30 yards from goal, were exchanged with impactful Iran midfielder Ahmad Nourollahi. The pair’s beguiling play was followed by the cleanest of drives from one of UAE football’s great technicians.

With zero back lift, the ball just flew past stand-in goalkeeper Adel Fadaq, appearing to pick up pace as it went.

Matar, 40, has looked a natural since making his Maroon debut back in 2001 and being named FIFA U-20 World Cup Player of the Tournament in 2003.

Fast forward more than two decades and there are precious few performers able to deliver such elevated moments.

Coach of the week: Cosmin Olaroiu (Sharjah)

It is never simple when Cosmin Olaroiu returns to the Garden City.

The manager who endured the most acrimonious of splits in 2013 found himself back at Al-Ain amid a run of one victory in six ADNOC Pro League runouts. Not good enough for a team of Sharjah’s strengths and resources, plus Olaroiu’s peerless reputation.

The King showed character to swiftly respond at this season’s AFC Champions League semifinalists to Laba’s opener via fitful Tunisia playmaker Firas Ben Larbi. So, too, Olaroiu who started with Bosnia and Herzegovina superstar Miralem Pjanic on the bench.

It is still only one win, one defeat and five draws in seven for the fifth-placed side, but this one felt more fulfilling.

Changing face of UAE football

A quick scan of March’s international break sees an expected pair of victories against minnows Yemen send the UAE into the third round of 2026 World Cup qualifying, with two games to spare.

So far, so normal.

Something seismic, however, happened in the 74th minute of Tuesday’s 3-0 triumph. It saw manager Paulo Bento hand a debut to naturalized Ajman midfielder Isam Faiz and herald the beginning of a new era.

The Morocco-born battler became the first resident player eligible to represent the UAE, since the revolutionary scheme’s domestic launch in 2019.

This continuing program has witnessed promising U-23 players recruited from across the globe who become eligible for Emirati citizenship after three years of residence and to play for the national team via FIFA rules after five years.

Faiz is the first. Many more should become available throughout the grueling third round from September.

These include Al-Ain’s exceptional 23-year-old center-back Kouame Autonne, reputed to have repeatedly rejected overtures from Africa Cup of Nations holders Ivory Coast. Outstanding club-mate Erik, electric Shabab Al-Ahli forward Igor Jesus, refined Nasr center-back Glauber and his former Botafogo academy teammate Lucas Pimenta — now of Wahda — are nearing the end of their waits.

This is in addition to the concurrent possibility for senior stars to become eligible. Wasl’s lead assist maker Nicolas Gimenez and Shabab Al-Ahli stalwart Federico Cartabia could be among those to follow in the footsteps of De Lima, Caio Canedo and Sebastian Tagliabue.

Something different is required to propel the UAE back to the World Cup, for just the second time. The squad, which underwhelmed under Bento at the Asian Cup, is set for the kind of upheaval capable of enacting change.


Young Afghan side ‘among the favorites’ for T20 World Cup

Young Afghan side ‘among the favorites’ for T20 World Cup
Updated 29 May 2024
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Young Afghan side ‘among the favorites’ for T20 World Cup

Young Afghan side ‘among the favorites’ for T20 World Cup
  • Afghanistan celebrated their stunning eight-wicket victory against Pakistan in the ODI World Cup in October last year 
  • They finished sixth, ahead of defending champions England who they also beat, stoking hopes for T20 tournament

KABUL: A young Afghan side with an average age of just 25 have vowed to give audiences back home rare cause for jubilation at the T20 World Cup after a breakthrough performance at the 50-over showpiece.
Kabul’s skies were raked with fireworks when Afghanistan celebrated their stunning eight-wicket victory against Pakistan in the ODI World Cup in October.
They finished sixth, ahead of defending champions England — who they also beat — stoking hopes for the T20 tournament in the United States and West Indies starting on Saturday.
“In the past when we would defeat a bigger team, our victory was tagged as an ‘upset’,” 22-year-old Sediqullah Atal told AFP on the phone from their training camp in the West Indies.
“The word ‘upset’ is no longer in the dictionary and we are ranked among the favorites,” the left-handed opening batsman said, insisting his team is “no less than anyone.”
Afghanistan has been through decades of war, but the country’s passion for cricket has never gone away.
“When you have the support of 40 million people and they motivate you, it is a feeling of absolute delight,” said 20-year-old all-rounder Nangeyalia Kharote.
It’s “a matter of great joy” to represent his country, though they must now “match the high expectations” of supporters, he told AFP in Kabul ahead of his departure for the Caribbean.
“The love from the Afghans both at home and abroad is remarkable,” Sediqullah Atal added.
The Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB), which manages the men’s team, has the full backing of the country’s Taliban government, which forced the United States and its allies out of the country before seizing power in 2021.
The Taliban rulers, yet to be recognized by any country, have effectively banned women from sports however under their austere interpretation of Islam.
Afghanistan’s participation in the World Cup therefore comes with some controversy, skirting the International Cricket Council’s rules which stipulate all Test-playing nations must have a women’s side.
The ICC has previously said the matter is “pending,” allowing Afghanistan to compete — although England and Australia have refused to play them outside the World Cup.
Despite decades of war and poverty Afghan cricket has strengthened, with new academies, sponsorship deals and tournament financing.
Their first match at the 2024 World Cup is on June 4 against Uganda in Guyana.
“Our team has arrived and are playing at a very high level in a short space of time,” cricket enthusiast Afzal Khan, who trains at the Rashid Khan Cricket Academy in Kabul, told AFP.
“They are our heroes, they will have a place in my heart forever,” said the 19-year-old, who hopes to fill the shoes of Afghan captain and ace spinner Rashid Khan.
“They have struggled through lots of difficulties to bring the team and our cricket to this level.”
In an interview published by the ACB last week, Khan pledged: “We will shine well in this World Cup too, and match the expectations of our compatriots.”
Back home in Kabul, another young cricketer in training made those expectations very clear. Naseem Khan told AFP “this will be the best World Cup for Afghanistan.”


T20 warmup match between England and Pakistan abandoned due of rain

T20 warmup match between England and Pakistan abandoned due of rain
Updated 29 May 2024
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T20 warmup match between England and Pakistan abandoned due of rain

T20 warmup match between England and Pakistan abandoned due of rain
  • The first match of the series was also wiped out, before England won the second T20 by 23 runs
  • The weather condition in England has jeopardized the T20 World Cup preparations for both teams

CARDIFF, Wales: The T20 World Cup preparations of England and Pakistan were further hurt after the third match of their warmup series was abandoned Tuesday without any play possible in Cardiff because of rain.
The first match of the series was also wiped out, before England won the second T20 by 23 runs in Edgbaston on Saturday.
The fourth and final match of the series is at The Oval in London on Thursday. Bad weather is forecast then, too.
The T20 World Cup begins on Saturday in the United States and the Caribbean, with England’s opening match against Scotland in Barbados on June 4 and Pakistan playing for the first time on June 6 against the US.


US looking for wins in T20 World Cup debut

US looking for wins in T20 World Cup debut
Updated 29 May 2024
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US looking for wins in T20 World Cup debut

US looking for wins in T20 World Cup debut
  • US earned debut spot at T20 World Cup as a result of co-hosting the tournament with the West Indies next month 
  • Cricket has curious history in US, lingering influence of colonial-era game faded as baseball gained prominence

FORT LAUDERDALE, United States: The US will make their debut in the T20 World Cup and while they earned the spot as a result of co-hosting the tournament with the West Indies, they are determined to show they can make an impact among the big boys.
Cricket has a curious history in North America — the first ever international match featured the US against Canada in 1844 but the lingering influence of the colonial-era game faded as baseball gained prominence.
The US has been an associate member of the International Cricket Council since 1965 and frequently competed in the tournaments for non-Test nations.
But the Americans have never featured in either the T20 World Cup or the ODI version, with their only appearance in a major tournament at the 2004 Champions Trophy, where they were roundly beaten by New Zealand and Australia in the group stage.
Grassroots participation has grown over recent years though with thriving local leagues and the T20 format has been used to develop a stronger base with Minor League Cricket and Major League Cricket emerging in the past few years.
It is too soon for those structures to have had an impact on the national side but smart use of the qualification criteria has seen the side become increasingly competitive.
The team coached by Australian Stuart Law head into the tournament on the back of a 2-1 T20I series win over Bangladesh that has provided them with real belief.
The Americans won the opening two games before resting several key starters to provide some opportunity for their back-ups.
The US, captained by Monank Patel, will have to face giants India and Pakistan along with Ireland and Canada in the group stage.
The addition of former New Zealand all-rounder Corey Anderson has introduced some World Cup experience and top-class quality into the squad.
Anderson moved to the US in 2020 playing domestic cricket and — as his last game for New Zealand was in 2018 — he was able to switch in 2022 due to the ‘four year rule’ which applies in these cases.
Vice-captain Aaron Jones, who was born in New York but grew up playing in Barbados, says the American team is determined to make a statement in the tournament.
“We want to show everybody in the world that US can actually be a cricketing country and obviously be role models for the kids coming up,” he told AFP.
Jones is one of a number of players with experience of playing cricket outside the US and he has been impressed by the standard of the associate level nations.
“It’s just about getting the opportunity and obviously grasping that opportunity. Afghanistan is a really good team right now and they came through from associate. Ireland obviously came from associate. So the opportunity is there and we just need to really and truly take it and showcase our talent to the world,” he added.
Law has been able to work with a fixed core of players including pace bowler Ali Khan, who grew up in Pakistan and has played in the Caribbean Premier League.
Left-arm spinner Harmeet Singh represented India in the Under-19 World Cup in 2012 while Miami-born Steven Taylor has extensive experience in Caribbean cricket.
Jones, who was persuaded by Taylor to join the US team, rejects any idea that the US is in the tournament just to make up the numbers.
“We want to win games. We want to bring as much competition as any other team in the tournament,” he said.
The shortest form of the game does create the opportunity for more surprises and Jones believes his team are capable of producing some.
“We are a very good team. Obviously we showed that against Bangladesh, one of the best teams in the world,” he said.
“I wouldn’t call it an upset if we beat Pakistan or India. I will just say that we played better cricket on the day. It is a game of cricket. The bigger teams can lose as well.”


Towns, Edwards lift Wolves over Mavs 105-100 to avoid sweep in West finals

Towns, Edwards lift Wolves over Mavs 105-100 to avoid sweep in West finals
Updated 29 May 2024
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Towns, Edwards lift Wolves over Mavs 105-100 to avoid sweep in West finals

Towns, Edwards lift Wolves over Mavs 105-100 to avoid sweep in West finals
  • The Wolves avoided being the 16th team out of 21 to get swept after losing the first three games of a series that started at home
  • Luka Doncic had 28 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in his sixth triple-double of these playoffs, but he and co-star Kyrie Irving were just 13 of 39 from the field

DALLAS: Karl-Anthony Towns scored 20 of his 25 points in the second half and the Minnesota Timberwolves held off the Dallas Mavericks 105-100 on Tuesday night to avoid a sweep in the Western Conference finals.

Anthony Edwards had 29 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists as the Wolves stayed alive in their first trip to the conference finals in 20 years, and just the second in the franchise’s 35 seasons.

Towns, who was shooting 28 percent from the field in the series coming in, was 9 of 13 from the field, including four of five from deep.

“He got himself going by going to the hoop,” coach Chris Finch said. “Played quick off the catch. Stayed confident. He didn’t really look much for his 3 until the second half. He just had his feet set. He was ready. And they were huge.”

Now third-seeded Minnesota head home for Game 5 on Thursday night to see if they can make the series even more interesting against No. 5 seed Dallas.

Luka Doncic had 28 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in his sixth triple-double of these playoffs, but he and co-star Kyrie Irving were just 13 of 39 from the field. Irving, who was 14-0 in his career in closeout games coming in, finished with 16 points.

“That game’s on me. Just didn’t give enough energy,” said Doncic, who was 7 of 21 from the field, including 1 of 5 in the fourth when he and Irving had combined as closers to build the 3-0 series lead. “They won one game. We’ve just got to focus on the next one.”

The Wolves have led in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter of every game in the series, and this time they finished.

Towns, who picked up his fifth foul midway through the third quarter, put the Wolves ahead for good on a 3-pointer with 5:41 remaining, then hit another from deep the next time down.

Edwards put the Wolves up five with a jumper just inside the arc with 39 seconds left, and Minnesota hung on despite Edwards fouling Doncic on a made 3-pointer for a three-point Dallas deficit with 12 seconds to go.

Doncic missed the free throw, and Naz Reid hit a bucket to push the margin back to five with 11 seconds remaining.

Towns appeared to be finding a rhythm, scoring 10 points in the first seven minutes of the third quarter before picking up his fifth foul for elbowing P.J. Washington Jr. in the face as Towns went up for a shot.

The call against Towns prompted a technical foul against Finch from the second row, where he’s been confined since the start of the second round of the playoffs because of a knee injury that required surgery. Assistant Micah Nori has been roaming the sidelines.

Finch flirted with a second technical, which would have meant an ejection, a few minutes later when Edwards was called for his fourth foul going for a steal against Daniel Gafford.

Towns fouled out in the final two minutes, while Edwards and Rudy Gobert finished with five apiece.

“We weathered a lot of foul trouble out there, which was frustrating to say the least,” Finch said. “Credit to our guys. They found a way to win the game. It was a lot like Games 1 and 2, and we were able to get it done tonight.”

The Wolves avoided being the 16th team out of 21 to get swept after losing the first three games of a series that started at home. Now they’ll try to be just the fourth to force at least six games.

Mike Conley scored 14 points for Minnesota, and Rudy Gobert had 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Jaden Hardy scored 10 of his 13 points in a 3:38 stretch that spilled into the first bucket of the fourth quarter, a corner 3 that pulled Dallas within two. Four of the game’s 11 lead changes came in the fourth.

The Mavs were without rookie center Dereck Lively II, who injured his neck when Towns accidentally kneed him in back of the head in Game 3.

Maxi Kleber, who has been out since May 3 with a separated shoulder, returned to give Dallas another option inside. But Daniel Gafford didn’t have his regular tag team partner as a rim protector at center, and the Wolves shot series-best 53 percent from the field.


Former Olympic pole vault champion Thiago Braz banned for doping: AIU

Former Olympic pole vault champion Thiago Braz banned for doping: AIU
Updated 29 May 2024
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Former Olympic pole vault champion Thiago Braz banned for doping: AIU

Former Olympic pole vault champion Thiago Braz banned for doping: AIU
  • The 30-year-old had protested his innocence saying he had consumed it “through sports supplements containing the banned substance“
  • Braz, who was provisionally suspended by the AIU on 28 July 2023, will be barred from competing until 27 November, 2024

PARIS: Brazil’s 2016 Olympic champion Thiago Braz will not be able to attempt to regain his title in Paris this year having been banned for 16 months for doping on Tuesday by the Athletics Integrity Unit.
“The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) has banned Rio 2016 Olympic champion Thiago Braz for 16 months for the presence of ostarine glucuronide,” read an AIU statement.
The 30-year-old had protested his innocence saying he had consumed it “through sports supplements containing the banned substance.”
Braz — who took bronze in the COVID-delayed Tokyo Games three years ago — has got off lightly as the AIU had sought a four-year ban “contending in particular that he was ‘reckless’ and acted with ‘indirect intent’.”
His lawyers said in a statement they had appealed the decision, in order to overturn the sanction or further reduce the period of ineligibility, so that Braz can “freely participate in the Paris 2024 Olympics.”
However, they described the reduced ban as “extremely positive.”
The AIU has said it will consider appealing the shortened period of ineligibility.
“Athletes from Brazil, including Mr.Braz, have been specifically educated about the dangers surrounding the use of supplements from compound pharmacies in Brazil,” said AIU Head Brett Clothier.
“This has occurred via AIU online forums and AIU athlete advisory notices. In the light of these very clear warnings, it is disappointing to be dealing with such a case.”
The Disciplinary Tribunal ruled that, while Braz had been “personally informed” about the high risk of contamination involved in using the supplements and had consequently “ignored this risk,” he was not deemed to have manifestly disregarded the risk because he had relied on his medical team for advice.
A majority of the panel determined he was not at “significant fault or negligence.”
Braz, who was provisionally suspended by the AIU on 28 July, 2023 after returning a positive result following an in-competition test at the Diamond League meeting in Stockholm on 2 July, will be barred from competing until 27 November, 2024.