Guardiola wary of ‘difficult’ United ahead of Manchester derby

Manchester United’s goalkeeper Dean Henderson saves a shot from Crystal Palace’s defender Patrick van Aanholt during a recent English Premier League match in London. (AFP)
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Updated 06 March 2021

Guardiola wary of ‘difficult’ United ahead of Manchester derby

  • City are on a run of 21 successive wins in all competitions — a record for an English top-flight team

LONDON: Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola says Manchester United will be “difficult” opponents despite a huge gulf in form between the two sides ahead of Sunday’s derby.
City are on a run of 21 successive wins in all competitions — a record for an English top-flight team.
They are top of the Premier League table, 14 points clear of second-placed United, who have won just one out of their past five league matches and are struggling to score goals.
But the City boss said he was wary of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team, who are unbeaten away from home in the league for more than a year.
“I know how difficult United are,” he said on Friday.
“Every year they get better from the previous season. They (have gone) more than one year not losing away and they have good results at the Etihad.
“We have the good opportunity to increase the distance. We spoke in training about what we have to do to beat them.”
Guardiola has been impressed by the hunger of his players, who are red-hot favorites to win a third Premier League title in four seasons.
“It comes from themselves,” said the Catalan. “It comes from inside, try to win. The smell when we win is so beautiful but, when we lose, the perspective will be calm.
“Today we trained incredibly well, tomorrow will be the same.”
“I had incredibly hungry teams in my career in Barcelona and Bayern Munich,” he said.
“To do what we have done in these four years, still winning, to be there at the end, these guys have something special like in Barcelona and Bayern Munich.”
Solskjaer, meanwhile, said he did not agree with the “narrative” that Manchester United’s form has dipped alarmingly as he prepares his team to face Manchester City.
The Norwegian manager admitted his team, who were top of the table in late January, were lacking a “spark” in front of goal but was bullish about their form.
“We have had a week without scoring a goal, not six weeks of bad form,” he said on Friday. “We beat Real Sociedad 4-0 (in the Europa League last-32 first leg) and Southampton 9-0.
“The amount of games can have an effect. I am not buying into the narrative that we have had such a dip in form. We have defended well but we have lacked a little spark to score a goal.”
The 48-year-old United boss hailed City’s “fantastic” run but said his focus was on winning a trophy.
United have lost four semifinals under Solskjaer, most recently to City in the League Cup in January but are still in the Europa League and FA Cup.
“Our focus is just on this one game and not where we’re going to end up,” he said.
“We just have to be the best possible Man United and try to improve on last season. That means moving up the table, getting more points, hopefully challenge or get to a final, win a trophy,” he added.
“What other teams do we can’t control, so we have to just keep at it ourselves, challenge ourselves. They’re ahead of us by a fair distance at the moment so Sunday’s a chance to test ourselves against a very good team.”


Newcomers Al-Wehdat hold Al-Nassr on bleak opening day of AFC Champions League

Updated 15 April 2021

Newcomers Al-Wehdat hold Al-Nassr on bleak opening day of AFC Champions League

  • Four of the six fixtures ended in draws, two of which were goalless, while the other two were settled by a single goal

RIYADH: Al-Wehdat ensured that Al-Nassr’s frustrating season continued on Wednesday, as Group D of the AFC Champions League got underway. The Jordanian side held the struggling Saudi club to a goalless draw at King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh.

The team from Amman, which was playing its first-ever match in Asia’s premier club competition, maintained a fine defensive rearguard throughout the game. They are the first Jordanian club to reach the group stage of the competition, and despite the troubles Al-Nassr have been having on and off the pitch this season the Saudi side was still expected to win this match on home soil.

But while last season’s Saudi Professional League runners-up initially were the more threatening, Al-Wehdat coach Abdullah Abu Zema’s side showed little fear and the 70 percent of the first-half possession Al-Nassr enjoyed rarely led to any clear-cut scoring chances.

An Abdullah Muda header did force a fine save from Al-Wehdat goalkeeper Ahmad Nawwas but this proved to be one of only a handful of occasions on which Al-Nassr’s forward line got a glimpse of their opponent’s goal. The second half proved to be little different. Al-Wehdat almost took the lead after 10 minutes but Brad Jones managed to save Ahmad Zreik’s dangerous strike.

In the same group, Boualem Khoukhi’s 89th-minute equalizer for Qatari side Al-Sadd salvaged a 1-1 draw against Foolad Khuzestan, from Iran, at the King Fahd Stadium just as a shock defeat was starting to look all but certain.

Al-Sadd started dangerously but after withstanding the early assault the Iranian side began to grow in confidence and played themselves back into the tie. After a barren first half, Foolad took the lead on 61 minutes through Brazilian forward Chimba’s header.

Khoukhi almost leveled it for Xavi Hernández’s team with an 81st-minute free-kick but was denied by Foolad goalkeeper Foroozan. With a minute left of normal time, however, he would not be denied a second time.

With all four teams in the group sitting on a point each, in the next round of matches Al-Wehdat will face Foolad Khuzestan, while Al-Nassr take on Al-Sadd in clash that could go a long way to determining who will top the table in two weeks’ time. Both games will be played on Saturday.

In Group E another of the competition’s debutants, FC Goa from India, also managed to record a goalless draw, against Al-Rayyan, from Qatar, at the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

As expected, the visitors started on the front foot and could have taken the lead after five minutes when captain Yacine Brahimi shot wide from the edge of the penalty box. Minutes later, FC Goa goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh saved a close-range strike by Naif Al-Hadhrami.

Coach Laurent Blanc’s team continued to dominate possession, with Yohan Boli spearheading the efforts to make a breakthrough. Minutes before the break, however, it was Goa who almost took a shock lead, only for Alexander Romario’s long-range effort to be palmed away by goalkeeper Fahad Younis.

Having held out until half time, Goa came out with renewed purpose after the break but neither side proved incisive enough to break the deadlock. The shared points will have left Goa’s Juan Ferrando the happier of the two coaches.

The result left the teams joint second in the group, two points behind Iranian side Persepolis FC, who earlier in the day defeated Emirati club Al-Wahda 1-0.

Next up in the group, on Saturday, FC Goa will take on Henk Ten Cate’s Al-Wahda, while Al-Rayyan face last year’s finalists, Persepolis.

In the day’s other matches, in Group B, Emirati side Sharjah FC recorded a 1-0 victory over Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, from Iraq, while Pakhtakor Tashkent, from Uzbekistan, played out dramatic 3-3 draw with Tractor, from Iran.

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Roma hope to hold off Ajax in hunt for semifinal spot

Updated 14 April 2021

Roma hope to hold off Ajax in hunt for semifinal spot

  • Roma have the advantage going into the second leg of their tie

PARIS: Roma are hoping to reach the semifinals of a European competition for the second time in four seasons as they host continental heavyweights Ajax, while Arsenal hope to avoid humiliation at the hands of Slavia Prague and Manchester United look set for the last four.

Here’s a  look-ahead to the second legs of the Europa League quarterfinals on Thursday.

Roma (ITA) vs. Ajax (NED) (first leg 2-1)

Ajax may be four-time European champions and one of the most exciting sides of recent seasons but it is Roma who have the advantage going into the second leg of their tie at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

Italy’s last remaining representative in Europe came away from the Johan Cruyff Arena with a thrilling come-from-behind 2-1 win after being under the cosh for much of the match and are close to a likely last-four clash with Man United after reaching the semis of the Champions League in 2018.

Roma have had a poor domestic season and sit seventh in Serie A — seven points off the Champion League places — after coming up short in almost all of their fixtures against their rivals for the European spots, so Thursday’s second leg could define their season.

Ajax are almost guaranteed to retain their Eredivisie title and warmed up for their trip to the Italian capital with a 1-0 win over RKC Waalwijk thanks to a goal from club-record signing Sebastien Haller, who cannot play against Roma after being accidentally left off his club’s European squad list.

Slavia Prague (CZE) vs. Arsenal (ENG) (first leg 1-1)

Slavia Prague lived up to their dangerous reputation last week when Tomas Holes headed home a stoppage time leveler to turn their tie with Arsenal in their favor.

Mikel Arteta’s Gunners missed some good chances in the first leg but now have their work cut out for them if they want to win a trophy and qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Slavia are on a run of 23 games without defeat and have already knocked out Leicester City and Rangers in their run to the quarterfinals.

Manchester United (ENG) vs. Granada (ESP) (first leg 2-0)

United are huge favorites to reach the semifinals following their simple win over Granada in Spain last week, which should put an end to the surprise package’s first ever season of European football.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are safely tucked in the Champions League places behind Premier League leaders Manchester City and looked in rude health in sweeping past Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 at the weekend.

Villarreal (ESP) vs. Dinamo Zagreb (CRO) (first leg 1-0)

Gerard Moreno is having the season of his life as Villarreal gun for their first ever major trophy, a Europa League triumph that would continue three-time winner Unai Emery’s strong record in the competition.

Spain forward Moreno is set to record a career-best tally after scoring 24 times in all competitions this season, including the only goal in Zagreb last week which gave the La Liga outfit an away goal and a great chance of reaching the last four.


Virus surges fuel fears 100 days before Tokyo Olympics

Updated 14 April 2021

Virus surges fuel fears 100 days before Tokyo Olympics

  • Cancellation is “certainly not” on the table, International Olympic Committee (IOC) Vice President John Coates told reporters on Wednesday

TOKYO: A western Japanese city canceled the Tokyo Olympics torch relay over spiking coronavirus cases on Wednesday, fueling fresh fears about whether the pandemic-postponed Games should go ahead with just 100 days until the opening ceremony.

Even as Tokyo unveiled installations featuring the Olympic rings and mascots to celebrate the 100-day milestone, organizers face monumental challenges as virus surges.

Organizers have barred overseas fans and postponed test events, but they insist preparations are on track.

Cancellation is “certainly not” on the table, International Olympic Committee (IOC) Vice President John Coates told reporters on Wednesday.

“The Tokyo Games will be the light at the end of the tunnel.”

For organizers, there are some causes for optimism.

The Olympic torch is on its way across Japan, despite being forced off public roads in the Osaka region where it was being carried around a closed circuit Wednesday with the general public kept away.

And vaccination programs are ramping up in many countries, with some athletes already inoculated.

Japan won’t require Olympic participants to be vaccinated, but the IOC is encouraging jabs and has secured Chinese-made doses for athletes in countries without access to them.

In Japan, sports events are still on, with crowd numbers capped, and fans have become used to virus rules that will be implemented at this summer’s Games, including a ban on cheering.

North Korea’s decision to skip Tokyo 2020 over virus concerns has not prompted a rush for the exits, with athletes mostly seeming impatient for a return to the international stage.

“These past 14 months have been very motivating for all of us,” five-time Olympic gold medallist swimmer Katie Ledecky said last week.

“Once we get there we really want to show the world all the work that we’ve put in.”

In Japan, a historic golf Masters win by Hideki Matsuyama and swimmer Rikako Ikee’s comeback, just two years after being diagnosed with leukemia, are offering a feel-good factor.

But there’s no disguising the challenges more than a year after the historic postponement.

COVID-19 surges across Japan have forced the government to tighten restrictions only weeks after they were lifted and on Wednesday, the head of Tokyo’s Medical Association warned the rising infections could make holding the Games “really difficult.”

The governor of western Ehime region announced the public torch relay will be scrapped in the city of Matsuyama, citing the “extreme pressure” on local medical services from rising cases.

Coates acknowledged the situation, but insisted organizers and Olympic officials have prepared for “the worst possible scenarios.”

“Of course we’re concerned, of course safety remains our priority, but we believe that we’re prepared for the worst situations.”

Organizers have released “playbooks” outlining anti-virus measures, which will be updated later this month.

Tens of thousands of athletes and other Olympic participants arriving from overseas will be able to skip quarantine, and are not required to show proof of vaccination.

But athletes will be asked to limit their movements, stay only at the Olympic village during their events and face regular virus testing.

Overseas fans have already been barred from the Games, and a decision on domestic spectator numbers could come in April.

Still, the atmosphere will be far from the usual rowdy celebrations, and it remains unclear how strong demand for tickets will be when they finally go back on sale.

Polls show most Japanese back either a further postponement or cancellation, but the numbers in favor of holding the Games this summer have crept up, to around 27 percent in March, from just 11 percent in January.

In Tokyo, residents expressed mixed feelings about the prospect of the Games.

“In these dark times, anything that will brighten up the day, like getting a gold medal, or anything that can energise will be appreciated,” 27-year-old Kenzo Tanaka told AFP.

But Midori Hinamoto, 65, said she felt “the situation is uncertain.”

“I think the Olympics should be cancelled, if that’s possible.”

Olympic organisers acknowledge the mood, but said they expect it to shift once athletes take the stage.

“Every time, we are inspired by their strength and resilience, and that will be truer than ever this year,” they said in response to questions from AFP.


Babar hits 122 as Pakistan defeat South Africa by nine wickets

Updated 14 April 2021

Babar hits 122 as Pakistan defeat South Africa by nine wickets

  • He aslo dethroned Virat Kohli as the world’s top batsman in one-day cricket
  • Pakistan took a 2-1 lead in the four-match series

Centurion, South Africa: Pakistan captain Babar Azam gave a batting masterclass to lead Pakistan to a nine-wicket win in the third Twenty20 international against South Africa at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Wednesday.

Babar hit 122, his first T20 international century, as Pakistan chased down a challenging target of 204 with two overs to spare.

Babar, who earlier Wednesday dethroned Indian maestro Virat Kohli as the world’s top batsman in one-day cricket, hit 15 fours and four sixes in an exhibition of superb timing and placement before he was out with only seven runs needed.

Mohammad Rizwan scored an unbeaten 73 in a Pakistan record first wicket partnership of 197.

Pakistan took a 2-1 lead in the four-match series.


Pakistan bowl in third T20 international against South Africa 

Updated 14 April 2021

Pakistan bowl in third T20 international against South Africa 

  • Batsman Fakhar Zaman recovered from illness and is back on the pitch
  • The four-match series is tied at 1-1 

Centurion, South Africa: Pakistan won the toss and decided to bowl in the third Twenty20 international against South Africa at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Wednesday.
The four-match series is tied at 1-1.
Leading batsman Rassie van der Dussen had recovered from a quad muscle injury and replaced the inexperienced Wihan Lubbe that won the second match in Johannesburg by six wickets on Monday.
Pakistan made three changes. Hard-hitting batsman Fakhar Zaman had recovered from illness and replaced Sharjeel Khan, while batsman Asif Ali came in for leg-spinner Usman Qadir in what captain Babar Azam said was a move to strengthen the middle-order batting.
Haris Rauf replaced fellow fast bowler Mohammad Hasnain.
South African captain Heinrich Klaasen said he would also have chosen to bowl if he had won the toss.
“It looks a good wicket. If there is anything in it, it will be up front,” he said.