UAE vs. Saudi Arabia friendly gives both chance to press reset button ahead of World Cup qualifiers

It may just be a friendly but Thursday's match could set the tone for both sides heading into their respective new eras. (AFP)
Updated 21 March 2019

UAE vs. Saudi Arabia friendly gives both chance to press reset button ahead of World Cup qualifiers

  • New era for both the Whites and the Green Falcons after Asian Cup.
  • World Cup qualifiers start in September.

LONDON: That the UAE-Saudi Arabia clash today is a friendly is apt. With Bert van Marwijk now confirmed as the new UAE boss, and in the stands for the clash, the match will be a meeting of old mates.
The Dutchman memorably guided the Green Falcons to last year’s World Cup — their first appearance at the showpiece for 12 years — before contract talks stalled and he left. Now, 18 months on from his exit, Saudi Arabia are again looking for another manager following Juan Antonio Pizzi’s departure after the Asian Cup. And for both sides there is a distinct feeling of limbo.
The Asian Cup promised much for Pizzi’s players. Two comfortable opening wins over North Korea and Lebanon were followed up with defeats to eventual winners Qatar and a second round exit at the hands of Japan. It was the opposite of how their World Cup went. While the team got better with every match in Russia, at the Asian Cup the Green Falcons’ form petered out and utimately they exited with a whimper.
This match is the perfect chance for Salem Al-Dawsari and Co. to recover the form they showed in the latter half of Pizzi’s reign with the World Cup qualifiers set to start in September.
For the UAE there is the same sense of ennui, even with Van Marwijk set to become the new boss. Under Alberto Zaccheroni the Whites played a brand of football that would have challenged a sleeping tablet as a cure for insomnia. Too defensive, too risk averse, it was ultimately no surprise when the hosts failed to win the Asian Cup on home soil at the start of the year.
They may have reached the semifinals, but the UAE failed to inspire confidence, and this clash offers the chance of a fresh start on and off the pitch.
The UAE’s “Golden Generation” ultimately failed to achieve World Cup qualification or Asian Cup success when at least one of them seemed, at one point, like a sure thing. The next year or two will likely see that stable of players slowly ushered out. However, the chance of an early sighting of the young guns that will replace them has been kicked into touch due to the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship qualification commitments of the UAE’s young players. Friday’s Arabian Gulf Cup final also means that interim coach Saleem Abdelrahman will not be able to call on the Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club and Al-Wahda.
Both teams will not be at full strength tonight and it will be hard to read anything into the result. But this match offers up a great chance to press the reset button ahead of World Cup qualifying later this year.


Formula One in brave new world as Verstappen seeks repeat Austria triumph

Updated 03 July 2020

Formula One in brave new world as Verstappen seeks repeat Austria triumph

  • Teams are cut to a maximum of 80 staff, all in protective equipment

SPIELBERG, South Africa: Max Verstappen will seek a hat trick of home wins for Red Bull and an early lead in the drivers championship at this weekend’s delayed and somewhat surreal season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.

For everyone involved, the race will be an unprecedented experience — the calendar is unknown beyond the first eight races in Europe in 10 weeks, all to be run behind closed doors and severe limitations introduced with a new paddock protocol forbidding meetings.

As racing returns, the COVID-19 virus remains in circulation, which requires all participants to be tested before travel to Austria on private chartered jets, ongoing tests, the separation of teams and car crews into “bubbles” and controlled hotels.

Teams are cut to a maximum of 80 staff, all in protective equipment, there will be no sponsors, no guests and only a limited number of accredited broadcast and written news media.

Journalists, limited to a dozen instead of 300 or more, have to pass a test within 72 hours in advance of arrival and will not be allowed to leave the media center.

All interviews and news conferences will take place by video.

The teams will be kept isolated, based in tents with awnings instead of their usual grand motorhomes — and there is expected to be a synchronized taking the knee by the drivers on the grid, to support Black Lives Matter, ahead of Sunday’s race.

Afterwards, there will be no podium ceremony.

When the race begins, it will end the longest gap between races in the sport since 1962, but with two successive races in Austria and then one in Hungary, the pressure will be immediate and intense.

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said: “There’s been a long drought. We all do this because we love it. We’ve missed it, so we can’t wait to start.”

“It’s going to be exciting and intense. The races come thick and fast.”

Dutch driver Verstappen, who bullied his way past Ferrari rival Charles Leclerc to triumph in front of a mass of his “orange army” of fans last year, says he is unfazed by high expectations or the absence of spectators at the Red Bull Ring, a remote and compact circuit in the Styrian Alps.

“I am not thinking about a hat trick,” he said.

“The most important thing for me is to have a competitive car and to perform at my best.

“I never consider myself as a favorite because, actually, when you look at the track, it’s not even our best one, but last year it was very warm and we were good at keeping the engine cool.

“So I don’t expect an easy win. I think Mercedes will be very strong again and they are the ones to beat.”

Verstappen, who has kept a low profile during the lockdown, delivered three wins and eight podiums last year as Lewis Hamilton claimed his sixth title with Mercedes, who this year seek an unprecedented seventh constructors’ and drivers’ double in succession.

Verstappen and teammate Alex Albon will have an upgraded Honda engine package, developed since the coronavirus lockdown ended, to boost them at the contest in the Styrian Alps where the 800-meter altitude can affect engine performance.

Mercedes will also have an updated package while Ferrari, struggling to match them in pre-season testing, announced Tuesday that they are updating their cars for the third race in Hungary.

Hamilton this year bids for a record-equalling seventh drivers title as he campaigns passionately for greater diversity, and against racism, in the sport.

“We are preparing the best way we can for what is going to be the most difficult season that F1 and all of us have experienced,” he said in a video from the team, which — at his prompting — is running black livery this year to support equality and diversity.