Norwegian winger relishes Saudi challenge

Gustav Wikheim left FC Midtjylland to sign for Al-Fateh in 2019. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 12 November 2020

Norwegian winger relishes Saudi challenge

LONDON: Gustav Wikheim could be forgiven for having mixed feelings when he watched FC Midtjylland take on Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League on Oct. 27.

The Norwegian winger left the Danish giants to sign for Al-Fateh in 2019 but seeing his former teammates take on the English powerhouse merely increased his motivation to help his Saudi Arabian team into Asia’s equivalent competition.

It would be quite a jump for the club based in the football-mad east of the country to return to the continent’s flagship club tournament for only a third time but it is at least heading in the right direction.

A solid start to the new season is reflected in its current position of joint fifth.

Two wins from the opening three games, including an opening day victory over the big-spending Al-Nassr, came as a relief, as much of the 27-year-old’s first season in Saudi Arabia was spent in the relegation zone.

“It was a new experience for me, the first time to be in this position as a player,” Wikheim, who won the 2018 Danish league title, told Arab News.

“It was very stressful and it is not something we want to go through again. To be honest, last season we felt we had a decent team and played quite well but just didn’t get the results we wanted. There was a lot of pressure around and to go down with this team would have been a big disappointment.”

Al-Fateh climbed out of the dropzone in the final weeks of the season. The trajectory has continued upward.

“We have a better team now though we haven’t changed too many players. We are happy with how the season has started and want to keep moving forward.”

Yannick Ferrera, a young Belgian coach, took over in October 2019, and, like Wikheim, has had time to adapt to Saudi Arabian football.

“The coach came in and put his mark on the team. He has done a good job and was a part of the saving operation last season. He has a new contract now and he is looking to the future, we all are.”

According to the attacker, the club’s official priority this season is not just to survive but to steer clear of any kind of relegation battle.

“With 10 games of the season left, we want to have no worries at all about going down and then we can see where we can finish in the table.”

It could be a high position. With seven points from the first three games the sky seemed to be the limit but a 3-1 loss to Al-Shabab ensured that Al-Fateh entered the international break with feet safely on the ground. The former Norway U-23 international was impressed with how the 2012 champions kept the pressure on.

“Al-Shabab looked very good and have a great team ethic but, for me, Al-Hilal are the standout team. They are really professional with great players and have almost a European feel from a tactical point of view.”

Overall, the Norwegian has been impressed by the standard in the country.

“The football has surprised me as the level was higher than I expected. It is good and I would compare it to Denmark and say it is about the same. It is different in that there is less focus on tactical play here and more on the individual quality that can win matches when compared to Europe but that side is improving too.”

Being a winger offers a chance to get a close look at Saudi Arabian full-backs and Wikheim laughs at the thought.

“They are intense! A lot of them are fast and quick and take more chances than those in Europe in terms of trying to get the ball as well as positioning.  They always present an interesting challenge.”

It is one that, as a foreign player, he is keen to show others that he can overcome.

“I do feel a responsibility to be as good as I can be. We come from overseas and we have to show a different kind of football, though of course I know that people here know how to play. I just want to be one of the best.”

It helps that there are a number of European players at the club, such as Mitchell te Vrede of the Netherlands, Ukrainian goalkeeper Maksym Koval and Serbian striker Sasa Jovanovic.

“We help each other and we talk and speak about how we can take the next step for the team and it helps some guys who have been here longer and can help you get settled.”

Overall though, despite missing out on games like Liverpool, there are no regrets from the forward about his move from Scandinavia.

“I won the title and the cup in Denmark and I was there for three years and was ready for something new. When the chance came, I talked to people who had been before and did some research with the family. We wanted a new experience and so far, it has been a very positive one for all of us and I can’t wait for the rest of the season.”

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France face Germany as Portugal begin title defense on Super Tuesday at Euro 2020

Updated 12 min 14 sec ago

France face Germany as Portugal begin title defense on Super Tuesday at Euro 2020

  • Puskas Arena the only one of European Championship’s 11 venues with no Covid-19 limits on allowed number of fans
  • Les Bleus [France] come into the tournament as firm favourites thanks to their status as World Cup holders

PARIS: Reigning champions Portugal begin their defense of the trophy against Hungary at Euro 2020 in Budapest on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, World Cup holders France take on Germany in a hotly-anticipated clash between two of the continent’s heavyweights.
Action on the pitch on day five of the tournament was preceded by a heartwarming “I’m fine” social media post from Christian Eriksen, the Danish midfielder recovering from Saturday’s shocking cardiac arrest.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal are set to have the honor of a full house in the Hungarian capital, with the Puskas Arena the only one of the 11 venues at this European Championship where there are no Covid-19 limits on the number of fans allowed.
“It’s perfect. I wish every single venue could host a full house. It’s great for viewers and players, but sadly it’s not up to us to decide,” said Ronaldo of the prospect of a crowd of up to 68,000 watching the first of Tuesday’s two matches at the tournament in Group F.
Ronaldo is 36 now and aiming to score in a fifth different European Championship finals.
He needs just one more goal to become the outright top scorer in the tournament, and is just five goals away from equalling the all-time international scoring record of 109 held by Iran’s Ali Daei.
But, from Ruben Dias to Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix, there is also an outstanding team behind him and Portugal are hopeful of retaining the title they won at Euro 2016 in France.
“Right now we think we have what it takes to win the cup,” said coach Fernando Santos.
Hungary are the rank outsiders in the group but are hoping to make the most of their home advantage.
That game will be followed by the mouthwatering showdown in Munich as the world champions face a Germany side eager to make up for their desperate showing at the World Cup in Russia, when they were knocked out in the group stage.
Les Bleus come into the tournament as firm favorites thanks to their status as World Cup holders and after coach Didier Deschamps decided to recall Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema from a five-and-a-half-year international exile.
France lost 1-0 to Germany in the 2014 World Cup quarter-finals in Rio de Janeiro but are unbeaten in the five meetings between the sides since, including a 2-0 win in the Euro 2016 semifinals.
“This fixture brings back happy memories and not so happy memories,” said France goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris. “It is one of the all-time great major tournament fixtures.”
Germany are under pressure to perform in front of a home support at Munich’s Allianz Arena as they come into their final tournament under coach Joachim Loew, who will stand down after the finals following 15 years in charge.
“The spirit is very good and the team is hungry for success. That makes me confident and allows me to sleep peacefully,” Loew said.
In stark contrast to Budapest, authorities in Munich are only allowing around 14,500 fans into the Allianz Arena for games, equivalent to about 20 percent of capacity.
On Monday Spain got off to a stuttering start as Luis Enrique’s side — playing Group E games at home in Seville — were held to a 0-0 draw by Sweden.
European champions in 2008 and 2012, Spain were without captain Sergio Busquets, still isolating after testing positive for coronavirus, and paid for wasteful finishing by much-criticized Alvaro Morata.
In stark contrast Patrik Schick scored one of the championship’s greatest goals, a high, curling shot from just inside the halfway line in the Czech Republic’s 2-0 win over Scotland.
Schick had earlier headed in the opener as the Czechs ruined Scotland’s long-awaited first game at a major tournament in 23 years and went top of Group D.
“The ball bounced back, the goalkeeper was quite high, I took a look, I saw he was out there so I slammed it in,” said Bayer Leverkusen striker Schick of his stunner.
Also on day four, Slovakia edged out 10-man Poland 2-1 in Saint Petersburg in Group E.
In Copenhagen meanwhile Eriksen continues his recovery following his collapse in the game against Finland.
“I’m fine — under the circumstances, I still have to go through some examinations at the hospital, but I feel okay,” wrote the Denmark player on Instagram accompanied by a photo of him smiling and giving a thumbs-up while lying in bed.
Instagram was also the place where Austria’s Marko Arnautovic penned his apology after insulting North Macedonia players in Sunday’s victory, but despite his mea culpa UEFA have opened disciplinary proceedings into his behavior in Bucharest.


Eriksen sends public thank you message from hospital

Updated 48 min 25 sec ago

Eriksen sends public thank you message from hospital

  • Eriksen remains in hospital after suffering cardiac arrest during Denmark’s game against Finland
  • “Big thanks for your sweet and amazing greetings and messages from all around the world,” Eriksen said via Twitter

COPENHAGEN: Christian Eriksen sent his first public message from the hospital on Tuesday, thanking supporters for their “sweet and amazing” well-wishes after his collapse at the European Championship.
Eriksen remains in the hospital after suffering cardiac arrest during Denmark’s game against Finland on Saturday, when he had to be resuscitated with a defibrillator on the field.
“Big thanks for your sweet and amazing greetings and messages from all around the world. It means a lot to me and my family,” Eriksen wrote in a message that was shared by the Danish soccer association on Twitter.
The message was accompanied by a photo of the 29-year-old Eriksen giving a thumbs up from his hospital bed.
“I’m fine – under the circumstances,” he added. “I still have to go through some examinations at the hospital, but I feel okay. Now, I will cheer on the boys on the Denmark team in the next matches. Play for all of Denmark.”
Eriksen and the rest of the Denmark players have received an outpouring of support from all over the world since Saturday’s incident, including from fans of rival teams.
Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand said the flood of messages shows that “football is the biggest social phenomenon in the world.”
“It’s the one thing that can unite most people in the world,” Hjulmand said at a news conference on Tuesday. “It brings friendship across nations, race, gender, everything. Football is one big family. ... And we see this with all this recognition we get from people all over the world.”
Denmark, which lost to Finland 1-0 after the game was resumed, next plays Belgium on Thursday in Group B. On Monday, Eriksen’s teammates said the midfielder had told them to re-focus on the tournament.
And Hjulmand said he can tell that his players are gradually getting back the right mindset to play again. But he acknowledged that returning to Parken Stadium again, where the players formed a ring around Eriksen as he was getting emergency medical treatment that saved his life, will be emotionally challenging.
“I don’t think they’re afraid to play,” Hjulmand said. “But the normal reaction to a trauma like this, you should know, it’s not only yourself. It’s also your family, maybe your kids, your wife, your parents. So the box of emotions has been opened. I think we took a big step yesterday and I think we’ll take another one today.
“Of course the time until the kickoff will be emotional, and we have to prepare ourselves for that, for entering the stadium again. Getting back to see our great fans. And up to kickoff there’ll be a lot of emotions we have to handle, and then prepare ourselves for when the referee whistles his first whistle. We will be ready to go and fight and play well and do everything for Denmark.”


Trae Young shines as Hawks rally past Sixers, Clippers rout Jazz

Updated 15 June 2021

Trae Young shines as Hawks rally past Sixers, Clippers rout Jazz

  • Hawks and 76ers now tied at 2-2 in their best-of-seven 2nd round playoff series
  • Clippers and Jazz are also tied 2-2 and Game five is Wednesday at Salt Lake City

LOS ANGELES: Trae Young poured in 25 points and added 18 assists as the Atlanta Hawks rallied Monday to beat the Philadelphia 76ers in game four of their second-round Eastern Conference playoff series.
Young shot eight of 26 from the floor and drained three threes but he had plenty of help from his supporting cast as all five Hawks starters finished in double figures to level the best-of-seven series at 2-2.
His 18 assists equalled a career high but he also busted out from under the watchful eye of Philadelphia’s defensive specialist Ben Simmons, who was given the task of guarding him. Simmons finished second this year in NBA defensive player of the year voting to Utah’s Rudy Gobert.
The fifth-seeded Hawks overcame an 18-point first-half deficit then traded leads with the Sixers down the stretch but managed to hold on for the victory.
“This team never gives up, no matter what the score is,” Young said. “I love the way we fight and I’m proud of our team tonight.”
Game five is Wednesday night.
Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 22 points, John Collins finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds, and Clint Capela had 12 points and 13 rebounds for Atlanta.
Tobias Harris had 20 points and Joel Embiid recorded 17 points and 21 rebounds for the top-seeded 76ers, who were outscored 54-38 in the second half. Simmons delivered 11 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists and two blocks.
Embiid, who averaged 35.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists over the first three games of this series, is playing with a tear in his right lateral meniscus.
He spent time in the locker room in the second quarter and was zero-for-12 from the floor in the second half.
“Even before I went back to the locker room I felt like I didn’t have it,” Embiid said.
“I guess it’s already known,” Embiid said of the wonky knee. “There’s no need to explain myself anymore. I’m just trying to do the best I can.”
Young and Bogdanovic combined for seven threes as the Hawks improved their scoring from beyond the arc. Atlanta committed just four turnovers, compared with 12 for the 76ers.

Elsewhere, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for 62 points as the Los Angles Clippers breezed to a 118-104 win over the top-seeded Utah Jazz in game four of their Western Conference series.
They each scored 31 points, and George added nine rebounds as the Clippers leveled the best-of-seven series at 2-2.
“We are both being aggressive and our teammates are finding us for open shots,” said Leonard.
Marcus Morris scored 22 of his 24 points during a first half in which the Clippers led by as much as 29 points.
Donovan Mitchell answered the bell by scoring a team-high 37 points in the loss. Mitchell tied the Utah franchise playoff record of six straight 30-point outings held by former all-star Karl Malone.
Game five is Wednesday at Salt Lake City.
“We did a great job of making shots and getting stops when we needed to,” said Leonard. “Everybody was helping each other.”
Leonard left the contest with 4:35 remaining after grabbing his knee, and did not return. He exited after being bumped by Jazz’s Joe Ingles. Leonard said he would be ready to go in game five.
Utah’s Mike Conley (hamstring) sat out and has missed all four games of the series.

 

 


Global golf superstars confirmed for $1 million Aramco Team Series — London

Updated 15 June 2021

Global golf superstars confirmed for $1 million Aramco Team Series — London

  • The new format, created by Golf Saudi, pairs amateur golfers with seasoned professionals from the Ladies European Tour

RIYADH: Some of the biggest names in women’s golf will tee off in the inaugural Aramco Team Series event in London next month.

The groundbreaking three-day event, which has a $1 million total prize pool, is the first of four over the coming months in a new format that gives amateur golfers the chance to play alongside professional stars of the Ladies European Tour (LET). It is part of series of initiatives by the Saudi energy company to support sport and diversity

“To the LET, the Aramco Team Series — London and the subsequent team events are a massive moment of elevation for the women’s game, and to have a field as strong as we do in London is fantastic,” said LET CEO Alexandra Armas.

“As a tour, we are always more than happy to do things a little differently: take risks, try new things, mix up the way we play and experience golf. That’s certainly what the Aramco Team Series — London promises to do.”

The new format, created by Golf Saudi, proved hugely popular with players during a trial run at the Saudi Ladies Team International in November last year. It is the only format in world golf where amateur players will contribute to the final result.

This year, 36 captains will lead teams of four players assembled through a draft system in which they can choose one player and are assigned another at random. An amateur golfer will complete the quartet. The prize money for the winning team after 54 holes will be split by the professional players.

In addition to the team competition, the professionals will compete for a $200,000 prize for the lowest individual score, along with world and Solheim Cup ranking points.

High-profile names taking part in the inaugural event include: US golfer Lexi Thompson, making her only appearance in England this year; Georgia Hall, the English winner of the 2018 Women’s Open; double-major winner Anna Nordqvist from Sweden; and Emily Kristine Pedersen, the Danish winner of the 2020 Aramco Saudi Ladies International. They are part of a field of more than 100 professionals who will tee off at Centurion Club in St Albans, near London, on July 8.

Former major champion Thompson, who in 2010, at age 12, became the youngest golfer to compete in the US Open, said: “It is really exciting to have not only a brand new format of event to look forward to, but to have another big event on the LET schedule in the UK. It’s a place I love to visit and play golf, so I can’t wait to get going in July.”

Hall, a European Solheim Cup hero, said: “It’s a really great addition to the tour that I think most of us can’t wait to get playing in. It’s a new format and it’s different — and will only be a force for good in women’s golf.

“Investment like this is fantastic to see, and to be able to take the game to new venues around the world and inspire the next generation of young golfers is a really wonderful thing to be part of. Starting in London will, for me, make it extra special.”

The tournament in England will be followed by Aramco Team Series events in Sotogrande, Spain (Aug. 5-7), New York (Oct. 14-16) and Jeddah (Nov. 10-12). Events in Asia are also being planned.

The Jeddah event will tee off just days after the second Aramco Saudi Ladies International, which is scheduled to take place from Nov. 4 to 7. The inaugural event last year was the first professional women’s golf competition to take place in Saudi Arabia, and its success paved the way for Aramco and Golf Saudi to provide additional support to the women’s game.

“We are thrilled to be backing events that have the potential to elevate women’s golf internationally and spur its growth in Saudi Arabia,” said Ahmed Al-Subaey, vice-president of marketing, sales and supply planning at Aramco.

“Participation by the sport’s top golfers in the Aramco Team Series highlights its innovative nature and the exciting opportunities it presents.

“When the team concept was first introduced to us, we saw it as a natural fit for our investment into world sport, particularly our continued support of women’s sport and golf.”


Szczesny’s own-goal continues his run of bad luck at Euros

Updated 14 June 2021

Szczesny’s own-goal continues his run of bad luck at Euros

  • Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny sent off in 2012, injured in 2016, now an own-goal at Euro 2020
  • He was also left helpless for Slovakia's winner by Milan Skriniar

ST. PETERSBURG: Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny doesn’t have much luck in his opening game at European Championships.
Sent off in 2012. Injured in 2016. Now an own-goal at Euro 2020.
The Juventus player became the first goalkeeper to score an own-goal at the tournament in Poland’s 2-1 loss to Slovakia on Monday.
Not that he could do much about it.
Szczesny had already committed himself to a dive in an attempt to save a shot from Slovakia winger Robert Mak in the 18th minute when the ball rebounded off his near post, onto his outstretched arm as he lay on the ground, and back into the net.
He was also left helpless for Slovakia’s winner by Milan Skriniar, barely moving as the center back hit a fierce, low shot into the corner in the 69th minute.
Szczesny has established himself as one of the most reliable goalkeepers in Europe, his reputation having soared since joining Juventus from Arsenal in 2017. Poland has long been well-stocked with keepers, with Lukasz Fabianski also a solid option, but Szczesny is the regular No. 1.
Major tournaments are not his friend, though.
In 2012, he was shown a red card in the opening game of a European Championship co-hosted by Poland, punished for a professional foul on Greece player Dimitris Salpingidis in the second half.
In 2016, and again in Poland’s opening match, Szczesny damaged a thigh muscle against Northern Ireland and wound up missing the rest of the tournament.
The pain isn’t just restricted to the European Championship.
In Poland’s opening match of the 2018 World Cup, Szczesny gifted M’Baye Niang a goal for Senegal, which went on to win 2-1.