AFC Champions League groups to kickoff amid virus threat

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Updated 16 January 2021

AFC Champions League groups to kickoff amid virus threat

  • Saudi Arabia’s Al-Wehda will enter qualification playoffs in March
  • 2021 is set to be the biggest yet with the group stage expanding from 32 to 40 teams

LONDON: The 2021 AFC Champions League group stage is set to start in April, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in line, if necessary, to play host to multiple games as the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) looks for ways to safely complete its flagship tournament in the middle of a global pandemic.

It will be the second successive year that the tournament has been affected by the coronavirus. With the experience gained in 2020 when Qatar stepped in to host the remainder of the group and knockout stage after the competition was postponed earlier in the year, the AFC is confident that all will go smoothly.

Last year’s edition was eventually won by South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai Horangi in December, but 2021 is set to be the biggest yet with the group stage expanding from 32 to 40 teams.

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Wehda will enter qualification playoffs in March, and if successful, will join Al-Nassr, Al-Ahli and 2019 champions Al-Hilal in the first round.

“The playoffs are scheduled to take place in March and the group stage in April,” an AFC official told Arab News. “We would prefer to host games in two or three cities in each region, but that depends on how the coronavirus situation develops. It may be that there are new rules put in place around Asia which mean that we will have to return to a single hub system.”

The continental competition is usually split into two geographic zones until the final. The group stage of the West Asian side of the tournament is set to take place over two weeks in the second half of April.

The eastern zone, which does not yet have a potential host nation and could again take place in the west, will start and finish
a week later.

Given what happened last year, the AFC is staying flexible on when and where the knockout stages will take place, especially as Asian national teams are expected to be busy with 2022 World Cup qualifiers in June. It is likely however that both east and west Asian teams will be mixed together from at least the quarterfinal stage onward.

The Champions League is not the only tournament affected by the global pandemic. On Friday, the Tajikistan Football Association announced that the AFC-U16 and U-19 Championships will be postponed.

The former was originally scheduled to take place in Bahrain last September and October before it was rearranged for March this year. It remains to be seen whether it happens at all, as the tournament was already planned to be the final edition of the U-16 competition, with the AFC moving to an U-17 version from 2023.

Saudi Arabia may have to wait to defend the AFC-U19 Championship that was won in 2018 as the tournament in Uzbekistan is also set to be, at the very least, postponed. Originally scheduled to be held last October, it was rearranged for March.

It is not only Asia that is striving to find ways to complete competitions in difficult circumstances. On Friday, FIFA announced that Auckland City had withdrawn from the Club World Cup that is set to kick off in Qatar in February. The Oceania champions will stay home due to travel restrictions put in place by the New Zealand government.

“FIFA has today been informed by Auckland City FC that, in light of the coronavirus pandemic and related quarantine measures required by the New Zealand authorities, the club will be unable to participate in the FIFA Club World Cup 2020,” the world governing body said in a statement.

“Despite FIFA’s regular exchanges with the club, New Zealand Football and the OFC in recent days, the requirements of the New Zealand authorities in relation to isolation and quarantine go beyond FIFA’s remit and, therefore, it was not possible to reach a solution.”

It means that Oceania’s representatives will miss their opening round showdown with Al-Duhail, representing the host nation, on Feb. 1. The Qataris will receive a bye to the second round and a match-up against either Al-Ahly of Egypt, South Korea’s Ulsan or Tigres of Mexico, the respective champions of Africa, Asia and CONCAFAF.

The draw will be made on Tuesday, with European representatives Bayern Munich and South America’s champions, to be determined on Jan. 30, placed in the semifinals.


Azam, Nabi cruise Kings to victory over Peshawar Zalmi

Updated 03 March 2021

Azam, Nabi cruise Kings to victory over Peshawar Zalmi

  • Afghan allrounder Muhammad Nabi declared man of the match for his impressive inning
  • In Wednesday's second match, Multan Sultans are taking on Quetta Gladiators

KARACHI: Pakistan’s star batsman Babar Azam and Afghan allrounder Muhammad Nabi cruised the Karachi Kings to victory over table toppers Peshawar Zalmi, defeating them by six wickets at the national stadium in Karachi on Wednesday.

Karachi Kings won the toss, invited Peshawar Zalmi to bat first and completed a chase of 189 runs with three balls to spare, making it 13 consecutive wins for a chasing team since the start of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) 2021.

Azam, who scored 77 out of 47 with the help of six fours and three sixes, fell one run short of scoring his 6,000 runs in the Twenty20 cricket career but ensured a win for his side and a place on the top of the points table. Nabi, who was dropped at 20 by Amad Butt, scored 67 of 35 with the help of eight fours and four huge sixes. He made a partnership of 118 runs with Azam, earning victory for his team. 

Nabi was declared man of the match for his impressive inning.

Kings lost their early wickets in their chase of 189 runs. Sharjeel Khan was caught out at the duck, Joe Clarke and Colin Ingram scored only 17 and three runs. Dan Christian, who came to bat after Nabi, scored16 of nine, including the winning shot.

Batting first, Zalmi’s inning started well but debutant Abbas Afridi sent back openers Kamran Akmal and Tom Kohler-Cadmore to the pavilion back-to-back in the fifth over. Akmal scored 21 of 17 and Kohler-Cadmore made 10 of 11. Shoaib Malik, who captained the team in the absence of injured Wahab Riaz, was the third to go in the next over after facing just two balls and making one run. Haider Ali, who batted well in previous innings, could score just nine out of 12 balls and was caught by Afridi on the ball of Christian in the tenth over.

Partnership of 83 runs between Sherfane Rutherford (46 of 32) and Ravi Bopara (58 of 40 not out) provided Zalmi a chance to score a defendable total, but this was Amad Butt’s blitzing 27 on seven balls that made the match interesting. Butt hammered the last over by Christian which turned a treat for the opposition. The Kings’ Australian bowler gave away 32 (almost 17 percent of Zalmi's total) runs in his last year.

Afridi remained the most successful bowler and grabbed two wickets by conceding 27 in his four overs. Muhamad Ilyas took two wickets in his four by giving away 27 runs. Imad Waseem and Arshad Iqbal proved expensive and conceded 16 and 10 respectively in their one and two overs. Christian who took the wicket of dangerous hitter Haider Ali and conceded 13 in first two remained the most expensive due to his over, which provided Peshawar Zalmi a good chance to fight for a win.

In the day's second match, Multan Sultans are taking on Quetta Gladiators which so far have lost all four matches they have played this season.


Documentary highlights Saudi Greens’ tournament run in 2019

Updated 03 March 2021

Documentary highlights Saudi Greens’ tournament run in 2019

  • All-female team competed in New York City while also promoting environmental causes

RIYADH: The profile of women’s football in Saudi Arabia continues to rise.

The first Women’s Football League was established in the Kingdom last year and now a new film documenting the historic appearance of the Saudi Greens at the 2019 Global Goals World Cup (GGWCup) is being released by the Saudi Sports for All Federation (SFA).

Launched across the SFA website, its YouTube channel and social media accounts last week, the documentary chronicles the all-women Saudi football team’s journey at the GGWCup in New York City.

It was the first time a female sports team from the Kingdom had ever competed in the US, but the team’s involvement went beyond just a sporting achievement.

The tournament framed the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a sport, as 30 teams worldwide competed to create the kind of world they would like to see. Each team created an action plan with a particular global goal and strived to achieve it in their own country while also competing in five-a-side football tournaments.

Regional qualifying rounds determined which teams progressed to the finals in New York, where the winner was decided based on the impact of its activism and performance on the pitch.

In 2019, the Greens focused on SDG 15 “Life on Land,” bringing attention to the effects of single-use plastics on the environment. Prior to the tournament, team members hosted community events and campaigns across the Kingdom, helping to educate people on the impact of plastics and the wider SDGs in general.

The team distributed reusable bags, collected litter, held awareness talks, and collaborated with local schools and sports clubs to collect plastic bottles and teach children about the importance of recycling.

After they progressed through qualifiers in Copenhagen, the Greens joined 14 other teams at the 2019 finals, where they finished in second place. 

The documentary highlights the team’s experience in New York, but not just in footballing terms. The film also reflects on the team’s social development, international bridge-building and the Greens’ role in boosting female empowerment within Saudi Arabia.

The Greens were formed in 2018 with support from the SFA, the Saudi Ministry of Sports and the country’s Olympic Committee. Less than three year later, the team has come to symbolize progress and female empowerment in the Kingdom.

Since the tournament, the team has hosted virtual workout sessions for the GGWCup Clubhouse, contributed to SFA events and initiatives, and paved the way for the Women’s Football League, which was launched last February.

The latest role for the team will be as ambassadors for the upcoming GGWCup Saudi Arabia – the Kingdom’s first qualifying round of the global competition – due to take place this year.


Islamabad beats winless Quetta by 6 wickets in PSL 

Updated 02 March 2021

Islamabad beats winless Quetta by 6 wickets in PSL 

  • Paul Stirling smashed 56 off 33 balls as Islamabad eased to 157-4 with three balls to spare 
  • Peshawar Zalmi, Islamabad and Lahore Qalandars share a three-way tie atop the leaderboard 

KARACHI: All-rounder Faheem Ashraf and Paul Stirling starred in Islamabad United’s emphatic six-wicket victory over winless Quetta Gladiators in the Pakistan Super League on Tuesday.
Fast bowler Ashraf’s 3-11 limited Quetta to 156-7 and then Stirling smashed 56 off 33 balls as Islamabad eased to 157-4 with three balls to spare.
The match was rescheduled for Tuesday after Islamabad’s leg spinner Fawad Ahmed tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. Two more foreign cricketers, including one unidentified Islamabad player, tested positive Tuesday before the Pakistan Cricket Board decided to go ahead with country’s premier Twenty20 tournament.
Quetta’s fourth successive loss at the toss continued a trend, as all 12 preliminary round matches have been won by teams chasing with all six captains opting to field first after winning the toss.
Peshawar Zalmi, Islamabad and Lahore Qalandars share a three-way tie atop the leaderboard after the conclusion of fourth round matches, with each having won three of their four games.
Quetta skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed (54) hit his second successive half century that featured four consecutive sixes off spinner Iftikhar Ahmed.
But Islamabad always looked ahead after fast bowlers Hasan Ali (2-23) and Ashraf picked up four wickets inside the first six overs of Quetta’s batting powerplay.
Ashraf sent Cameron Delport’s offstump cartwheeling off his first delivery before trapping Sarfaraz leg before wicket in his return spell as Quetta could score only one six and a four in their last seven overs.
Stirling took the game away from Quetta within the first three overs by propelling the total to 44-0. The prolific Irish batsman hammered South Africa’s Dale Steyn for four boundaries in one over after smashing leftarm spinner Mohammad Nawaz for two boundaries and a six in the first over.
Legspinner Zahid Mahmood (2-29) clean bowled Stirling in the 10th over off a sharp googly, but Rohail Nazir (34), playing his first PSL game this season, and captain Shadab Khan (21) made useful contributions to take the two-time champion home. 


Two more foreign cricketers positive for virus in Pakistan 

Updated 02 March 2021

Two more foreign cricketers positive for virus in Pakistan 

  • They bring to four the number of known infections in Pakistan Super League 
  • Pakistan Cricket Board official says league will continue with testing every three days 

KARACHI: Two more foreign cricketers and one staffer tested positive for the coronavirus in the Pakistan Super League on Tuesday. 
One unnamed player was from Islamabad United, while the other two’s names and teams were not identified by Pakistan Cricket Board media and communications director Sami Ul Hasan.

They bring to four the number of known infections in the league after Australian leg spinner Fawad Ahmed tested positive on Saturday. His Islamabad side had its scheduled game against Quetta Gladiators on Monday postponed to Tuesday.

Hasan said that game will go ahead, and the league will continue with testing every three days. Spectators will also continue to be allowed.

All four people who tested positive are in 10-day isolation. 


Sister act as Korda romps to Gainbridge LPGA win

Updated 02 March 2021

Sister act as Korda romps to Gainbridge LPGA win

  • Three birdies in her opening six holes gave her a healthy cushion at the top of the leaderboard, leaving her five shots clear at one stage

MIAMI: Nelly Korda produced a flawless final round to claim a three-shot victory at the Gainbridge LPGA tournament in Florida on Sunday.

Korda — whose elder sister Jessica won the LPGA Tour’s previous event, the season-opening Tournament of Champions in January — fired a three-under-par 69 to finish on 16 under.

The 22-year-old, whose father is former Czech tennis star Petr Korda, had opened up a one-shot lead on Saturday with a four-under-par 68.

On Sunday at Orlando’s Lake Nona Golf and Country Club, she picked up where she left off in the third round.

Three birdies in her opening six holes gave her a healthy cushion at the top of the leaderboard, leaving her five shots clear at one stage.

She then reeled off 12 consecutive pars to remain in control and close out the fourth LPGA Tour victory of her career with her parents and sister Jessica rushing to congratulate her on the 18th green.

“Honestly I did not play very good golf today,” Korda told a television interviewer moments after clinching her first career win on US soil.

“I just stayed really solid. I honestly don’t know how I did it. It was definitely very stressful.

“Winning in front of my parents was a first too, so that was really nice.”

Korda’s 72-hole aggregate 272 left her three clear of Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko who finished tied for second on 13 under.

Thompson had closed to within three of Korda with a brilliant eagle three at the par-five 11th, but a bogey on the following hole stymied her chances of mounting a charge down the stretch. Thompson finished with a four-under-par 68.

New Zealand’s former world No. 1 Ko stormed up the leaderboard at the start of the back nine with four consecutive birdies starting on the 12th hole, eventually carding a three-under-par 69.

World number one Ko Jin-young meanwhile finished five off the lead in fourth place on 11 under. Ko posted a one-under-par-71 after an erratic final round that included four birdies and three bogeys.

There was disappointment for Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit, who had started the day one off the lead.

The 21-year-old rookie faded with a two-over-par 74, with two bogeys and a double bogey on the front nine dropping her out of contention.

Tavatanakit finished on 10 under alongside Australia’s Sarah Kemp, who shot a three-under-par 69.

Meanwhile, LPGA great Annika Sorenstam, who parred her final hole on Friday to make the cut in her first tour start since 2008, closed with a four-over-par 76, propping up the leaderboard on 13 over.