Koeman hopeful on Messi fitness for Super Cup final

Barcelona's Dutch coach Ronald Koeman gestures during the Spanish Super Cup semi final match against Real Sociedad on January 13, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 17 January 2021

Koeman hopeful on Messi fitness for Super Cup final

  • Messi is the club’s leading scorer this season with 14 goals in all competitions

SEVILLE: Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman says he is optimistic Lionel Messi will be fit for Sunday’s Spanish Super Cup final against Athletic Bilbao after injury forced him to miss the semifinal.

The Argentina forward was left out of the squad for Wednesday’s penalty shootout victory over Real Sociedad after complaining of discomfort during last week’s 4-0 La Liga win over Granada.

“He trained on his own yesterday (Friday). We have a session this evening, he wants to train, so we’ll see how he feels afterwards and if he wants to play or not,” Koeman told a news conference on Saturday in Seville.

“Tomorrow morning we’ll see how his body reacts to the session, but we have high hopes that he’ll be there for the match.”

Messi was pictured with strapping on his left thigh as he watched the semifinal from the stands in Cordoba. Barca won 3-2 on penalties following a 1-1 draw after extra time.

“Every player needs to be 100 percent to start the game, it’s not the last game of the season, we still have a lot of games after this one,” said Koeman. “The final
decision will be the player’s.”

Messi is the club’s leading scorer this season with 14 goals in all competitions, his return to form of late coinciding with Barca’s nine-game unbeaten run after a poor start under the Dutchman.

“It’s always important to win things to prove that you are on the right track,” said Koeman.

“It’s not the most important title as a player but it’s a title. “Each title you win, it’s another line on your list of honors. It’s important for the players and for the club.”

Medical panel to investigate spread of coronavirus in Pakistan Super League

Updated 07 March 2021

Medical panel to investigate spread of coronavirus in Pakistan Super League

  • Infectious disease experts will explore why the PSL players’ and staff’s bio-secure bubble failed
  • The hugely popular PSL was postponed mid-league after six players and a staff member tested positive for COVID-19

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Cricket Board has formed a two-member fact-finding panel to investigate how players were infected with coronavirus in the bio-secure bubble, leading to the postponement of the country’s premier Twenty20 league.
The Pakistan Super League was indefinitely postponed on Thursday after six players and a support staff member — including Australian legspinner Fawad Ahmed — tested positive for COVID-19.
The two-member panel is made up of Pakistan’s infectious disease experts Dr. Syed Faisal Mahmood and Dr. Salman Mohammad Abbas, who will review the bio-secure bubble protocols put in place for the PSL. They will submit a report to PCB chairman Ehsan Mani by March 31.
The PCB said in a statement on Sunday that the independent panel has also been tasked with identifying shortcomings of the bio-secure bubble and “advise as to the reasons why the bio-secure environment did not remain COVID-19 free.”
Mani said that both doctors will also speak with all the relevant PSL stakeholders, including players, event and hotel staff as well as medical and compliance officers attached to all six teams.
“The independent panel of two distinguished experts has been appointed with the sole purpose of an honest, constructive and objective review,” Mani said.

Djokovic takes Federer’s world number one record, eyes Grand Slam history

Updated 07 March 2021

Djokovic takes Federer’s world number one record, eyes Grand Slam history

  • Djokovic reclaimed the top ranking from Nadal in February 2020 and finished as year-end number one for the sixth time
  • He made his top 100 debut in July 2005, just weeks after Nadal had won his first Roland Garros

PARIS: Novak Djokovic will on Monday set a new landmark of 311 weeks as world number one, surpassing Roger Federer whose hold on a record-equalling 20 Grand Slam titles is now firmly in the Serb’s sights.
The 33-year-old Djokovic, already the winner of 18 majors, has time on his side with Federer turning 40 in August.
He is also a year younger than Rafael Nadal who also has 20 majors.
“Now that I’ve become the historic No.1, I’m relieved,” said Djokovic after sweeping to a ninth Australian Open last month which guaranteed his extended stay at the top.
“Now, I’m going to be able to focus mainly on the Grand Slams.”
Djokovic reclaimed the top ranking from Nadal in February 2020 and finished as year-end number one for the sixth time, tying the mark set by Pete Sampras.
He is currently in his fifth different spell atop the rankings.
Nadal, currently at number two, has been at the top for ‘only’ 209 weeks in total although the 13-time Roland Garros champion can boast being a top 10 ever-present since April 2005.
He will, however, lose his world number two spot to Daniil Medvedev a week on Monday.
Federer, who returns to action in Doha next week after more than a year out of action to recover from two knee surgeries, will slip out of the top five on Monday.
Djokovic made his top 100 debut in July 2005, just weeks after Nadal had won his first Roland Garros.
He was top 50 in June 2006, top 20 for the first time in October 2006 and top 10 by March 2007.
He first became world number one at the age of 24 on July 4, 2011, the day after winning Wimbledon for the first time, beating Nadal in the final.
Only a six-month injury absence in 2017 saw his ranking plunge, all the way to 22 the following summer.
It was just a blip — Djokovic was back at number one again by November and with the exception of November 2019 until January last year, when Nadal reclaimed pole position, he has been rock solid.
Few would bet against Djokovic, who in 2016 was the first man to break the $100 million prize money barrier, ending his career with more Slams than Federer and Nadal.
In head-to-heads, he leads Federer 27-23 and has won all six of their last meetings at the majors, including 2019’s epic Wimbledon final where he saved two match points.
Federer hasn’t beaten Djokovic at the Slams since Wimbledon in 2012.
Against Nadal, he has a 29-27 lead and is still one of only two men to have beaten the Spaniard at Roland Garros since 2005.
At least Nadal, however, can boast comfortably seeing off Djokovic in the 2020 Roland Garros final, denying the Serb the opportunity to become the first man in half a century to win all four Slams more than once.
Djokovic, whose lone French Open title came in 2016, has comfortably more Australian Opens than Federer (six) and Nadal (one).
His Wimbledon total stands at five to Federer’s eight and Nadal’s two.
At the US Open, he has three to Federer’s five and Nadal’s four.
“Obviously I have in my mind to win more Grand Slam titles and to break records.
“Until I retire from the tour, I will be devoting most of my attention and energy to winning the other major titles,” Djokovic said.

Time-traveler Messi sets up goals in Barça 2-0 win v Osasuna

Updated 07 March 2021

Time-traveler Messi sets up goals in Barça 2-0 win v Osasuna

  • Barcelona extended its undefeated run to 16 league matches to keep the pressure on Atlético

BARCELONA, Spain: Lionel Messi linked up with two generations of teammates to ensure that Barcelona will gain ground on at least one of its two Spanish league title rivals this weekend.
Barcelona won 2-0 at Osasuna on Saturday as Messi undid the hosts’ disciplined defense on the half-hour mark when he repeated a pass that has led to plenty of goals over his career — sending the ball behind the defensive line to meet a darting run by Jordi Alba.
The 31-year-old left back, who has made a career of returning that initial through-ball back to Messi, this time sought his own shot and drilled a powerful strike right past the head of goalkeeper Sergio Herrera.
Messi then fast-forwarded to Barcelona’s future with seven minutes left in the match when he served as the link between two of the team’s 18-year-old talents. After receiving the ball from Pedri González, Messi quickly laid it off for substitute Ilaix Moriba to cut back to his left foot and curl a shot into the corner of the net.
Barcelona extended its undefeated run to 16 league matches to keep the pressure on Atlético a day before it hosts third-place Real Madrid in a Spanish capital derby. Atlético will also have one more game to play after this round.
Ilaix thanked Messi for the pass, and coach Ronald Koeman for the chance to play, after scoring his first goal for the team two weeks after his debut.
“From the first game, Koeman told me to look to score and that is what I did,” said Ilaix. “Messi gave me the pass and I don’t know how I cut back ... but I shot and it went in. I will never forget this. I will take this to my grave.”
Koeman arrived last summer to overhaul a team that had looked old and worn out when it finished the season without a title and capitulating 8-2 to Bayern Munich. Instead of promising immediate titles, he lowered expectations and focused on rejuvenating the team for years to come.
And that he has done.
Ilaix is the latest of a number of young players that Koeman has nurtured along, including Pedri, the injured Ansu Fati, Frenkie de Jong, Ousmane Dembele, Ronald Araújo, Óscar Mingueza, and Sergiño Dest.
“We are proud to give opportunities to the young players” Koeman said. “They are demanding a chance because they are the future of the club. It is important to bring some fresh air into the team. Playing for Barcelona, you are obligated to win, but if we can do so while introducing young players and the changes we are making, then even better.”
The win comes before Barcelona’s club members vote on Sunday for a new president, who will inherit a club with a ballooning debt and the task of convincing Messi to stay on when his contract expires this summer.
Barcelona’s good form in Spain will face an extremely tough test on Wednesday when it visits Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. PSG won 4-1 in the first leg of the round of 16 with a hat trick by Kylian Mbappe at Camp Nou.
Before kickoff at El Sadar Stadium, Barcelona’s players wore shirts with “8M” — March 8 — to commemorate International Women’s Day on Monday.

After losing both games of its league-cup doubleheader against Barcelona in the last week, Sevilla was upset 2-1 by Elche.
Raúl Guti and Guido Carrillo scored for Elche in the 70th and 76th minutes, before Luk de Jong pulled one back for Sevilla.
Sevilla remained in fourth place and in control of Spain’s last Champions League spot. Elche escaped the relegation zone.
“I am angry with our game,” Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui said. “We were completely out of the match. We lacked heart. (But) there is no need to search for someone to blame. When a team is not playing well, the first one to blame is the coach.”

Valladolid beat Getafe 2-1 to end an eight-round winless streak, while Cádiz edged Eibar 1-0 to end a seven-round winless run.
Eibar’s loss left it in in the relegation zone.

Man City face Manchester United test on march toward history

Updated 07 March 2021

Man City face Manchester United test on march toward history

  • Pep Guardiola's side, unbeaten in 28 games, will set new club record if they avoid defeat on Sunday

LONDON: Manchester City have history in their sights as the runaway leaders bid to take a huge step toward the Premier League title in Sunday’s showdown with fading challengers Manchester United.

City are 14 points clear of United with 11 games left and victory in the derby would effectively end their second placed rivals’ faint hopes of catching them.

Pep Guardiola’s side have been so dominant since the end of last year that it is the landmarks they can shatter on the way to a third title in four seasons that now hold the greatest interest.

They are unbeaten in 28 games and will set a new club record if they avoid defeat this weekend.

That could be the first of many milestones to fall for City, who are on an English top-flight record run of 21 successive wins in all competitions.

The only teams from the top five European leagues ever to record longer winning streaks in all competitions are Bayern Munich (23) and Real Madrid (22).

City can edge closer to Bayern’s tally if they clinch a 16th successive Premier League victory this weekend, which would also take them to the brink of their own record of 18 consecutive Premier League wins, a mark shared with Liverpool.

Guardiola’s team are six wins short of equaling the world record for consecutive victories in all competitions by a top-flight side — set by Welsh team The New Saints in 2016.

City’s incredible run is all the more remarkable given their troubled start to the season.

When they were held to a 0-0 draw at United in December, they were a point behind their rivals in ninth place and the death knell was ringing for their title hopes.

But, aided by some clever tactical tweaks from Guardiola, including the use of fullbacks Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker as auxiliary attackers, they have been perfect since then.

City have not trailed in a league fixture for 19 games despite being without the injured Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne for long periods.

While United’s inconsistencies and the collapse of champions Liverpool have contributed to City’s surge to the top, the leaders’ supremacy has not been restricted to the league.

An unprecedented quadruple is within City’s reach, but Guardiola is determined to keep his players from getting complacent.

“To do what we have done in these four years, still winning, these guys have something special like my time at Barcelona and Bayern Munich,” he said.

“We are in a really good position. I did not expect to be in this position two or three months ago but we need to be calm.”

United have stumbled recently, drawing four of their past five league games, and their title ambitions faded into the south London fog during Wednesday’s goalless stalemate at Crystal Palace.

Even so, United are unbeaten in their past 21 away league games and Guardiola is well aware of the threat they could pose.

United are the only side in any of the top five European leagues yet to lose an away league match this season, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has won on both of his visits to the Etihad since taking charge in 2019.

“I know how difficult United are,” said Guardiola. “More than one year not losing away and they have good results at the Etihad.”

Realistically United, who are five points clear of fifth-placed Everton, have to focus on qualifying for the Champions League, either via a top-four finish or winning the Europa League.

“Our focus is just on this one game and not where we’re going to end up,” Solskjaer said.

“They’re ahead of us by a fair distance at the moment, so Sunday is a chance to test ourselves against a very good team.”


Yasir Seaidan eases to victory in Sharqiyah International Baja Toyota

Updated 07 March 2021

Yasir Seaidan eases to victory in Sharqiyah International Baja Toyota

  • After poor visibility forced the cancellation of Friday’s stage, the weather was ideal and visibility was normal on Saturday morning

DAMMAM: Yasir Seaidan won the remaining two desert selective sections of a weather-modified Sharqiyah International Baja Toyota to secure a start-to-finish victory by the margin of 13min 38sec on Saturday. It was the Saudi national’s first ever FIA event victory.

With competitors tackling two timed stages on the final day — following the cancellation of Friday’s itinerary because of sand storm conditions — Seaidan and Russian co-driver Alexey Kuzmich were never troubled in their Mini John Cooper Works Rally once early morning pace-setter and pre-event favorite Yazeed Al-Rajhi crashed his Toyota Hilux after 82km of the first stage. 

He and co-driver Michael Orr were taken to hospital for medical examinations with both complaining of back pain.

“Finally we finish this rally,” said Seaidan. 

“It was not an easy rally. We had a lot of situations. The first leg was canceled so we had to do all the rally in one day. It was difficult but we had a strategy to finish without any problems because we have another round in two weeks. I am so happy to win. The car was okay and we finished without any problems.”

To ensure that at least 350 competitive kilometers were available to guarantee the event qualified for full FIA championship points — as per the sporting regulations for FIA Bajas — officials decided to replace Saturday’s scheduled stage with a run through Friday’s canceled section of 217.50km and then repeat the first 138.50km to the second passage control point after the bikes and national cars had completed their first and only pass.

After poor visibility forced the cancellation of Friday’s stage, the weather was ideal and visibility was normal on Saturday morning. Helicopters were permitted to fly as usual to fulfil all safety requirements with route amendments and an accurate and precise road book fully approved by both FIA and FIM representatives present before the restart.

Saleh Al-Saif duly led the 11 FIA cars into an early morning start, with Seaidan starting in 10th on the road and Al-Rajhi slotting into eighth. Al-Saif duly dominated the FIA T4 category in his Can-Am Maverick X3 and reached the finish in third overall with Czech veteran Miroslav Zapletal overhauling the Saudi to take second place in his Ford F-150.

A navigational error cost Erik Van Loon valuable time and the Dutchman finished fourth in the second of the Belgian-built Toyota Hiluxes, only for a late time penalty to push him down to seventh in the provisional results.