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

Barcelona's Lionel Messi, second left, tries to score during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Osasuna and FC Barcelona at El Sadar stadium in Pamplona, Spain, on March 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)
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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.

SEVILLA SLIPS
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.”

LONG-AWAITED WINS
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.


Tokyo Olympics must be ‘reconsidered’ due to Japan’s failure to contain pandemic — health experts

Updated 16 April 2021

Tokyo Olympics must be ‘reconsidered’ due to Japan’s failure to contain pandemic — health experts

  • A survey of more than 1,000 Japanese doctors last month showed that 75% believed it was better to postpone the Games
  • Japan began its inoculation push in February, later than most major economies

TOKYO: Japan’s inability to contain the COVID-19 pandemic means that plans to hold the Olympics in Tokyo should be reconsidered, health experts wrote in a commentary.
The 2020 Games, already delayed by one year, are due to begin in fewer than 100 days, even as Japan expands quasi-emergency measures to halt a fourth wave of infections.
Japan has exhibited “poor performance” in containing virus transmission, along with limited testing capacity and a slow vaccination rollout, according to the commentary published in the British Medical Journal on Wednesday.
“Plans to hold the Olympic and Paralympic games this summer must be reconsidered as a matter of urgency,” wrote lead author Kazuki Shimizu of the London School of Economics.
“Holding Tokyo 2020 for domestic political and economic purposes — ignoring scientific and moral imperatives — is contradictory to Japan’s commitment to global health and human security.”
The commentary adds to a drum beat of doubt among medical professionals that the Olympics can be carried out safely this summer. A survey of more than 1,000 Japanese doctors last month showed that 75% believed it was better to postpone the Games, according to physician referral company Ishinotomo.
Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, an adviser to the government’s pandemic response, urged in a magazine commentary this week that authorities postpone the Olympics one year to allow for more time to vaccinate the public.
Japan began its inoculation push in February, later than most major economies. Only 0.9% of the Japanese public have received their first shot so far, compared with 2.5% in South Korea, and 48% in the United Kingdom.
Olympic and government officials have said further postponement of the Games is out of the question.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Thursday the government would do “everything possible” to prevent further contagion ahead of the Games, after a ruling party official said canceling the event remained an option.


City star Foden on course to reach status of Mbappe, Haaland

Updated 2 min 42 sec ago

City star Foden on course to reach status of Mbappe, Haaland

  • Foden was widely expected to eventually fill the shoes of now-departed midfield playmaker David Silva at City

LONDON: Phil Foden had just finished his latest post-match chat with Erling Haaland when a message from the Manchester City forward’s Twitter account made its way to another of the world’s top soccer players.

“Are you ready,” read the post to Kylian Mbappe, alongside a handshake emoji.

Ignoring who actually sent the tweet — it has since been deleted, suggesting Foden might not have been behind the brazen calling-out of Mbappe — it is a sign of the lofty circles this outstanding English talent is currently mixing in.

Away from social media, Foden is letting his feet do the talking. With winning goals in both legs, the 20-year-old nicknamed the “Stockport Iniesta” — after a town near Manchester where he was born and the former Spain and Barcelona midfielder — was the difference-maker as City beat Haaland’s Borussia Dortmund to reach the Champions League semifinals for only the second time.

Next up: Mbappe’s Paris Saint-Germain, pitching together the only two players to have scored in both legs of a Champions League quarterfinal when under the age of 21. Mbappe did so also against Dortmund, when playing for Monaco in the 2016-17 season, and has gone on to become one of the world’s best players.

Foden appears to be on that path.

“We knew it from the beginning and how he grew up,” said City manager Pep Guardiola, who described Foden’s talent as “unique” after inviting the then-17-year-old player to train with City’s senior squad for the first time in 2016.

City are reaping the rewards of Guardiola’s careful nurturing of Foden over the last few years. Many criticized the Spanish coach’s reluctance to play Foden more — he had a total of 36 appearances in all competitions in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons combined — but Guardiola repeatedly said his time would come and that Foden still needed to learn his trade.

That time is now, in big matches in the Premier League and now on the grandest stage of all in club soccer: the Champions League.

He is sure, too, to play a big role for England at this summer’s European Championship, having seemingly established himself in the preferred front three of his national team.

Foden was widely expected to eventually fill the shoes of now-departed midfield playmaker David Silva at City — they have similar characteristics with their touch, technical qualities, low center of gravity and left-footedness — but it appears his future lies closer to goal, in a wide-forward role.

At least in the opinion of Guardiola, who shared a warm embrace with Foden after his 75th-minute goal that sealed City’s 2-1 win on Wednesday, and a 4-2 victory on aggregate.

Guardiola described Foden as “dynamic offensively” and someone who “always creates something” but, tellingly, added that his all-round game had matured.

“He is learning right now not to take just one touch. He is able to make more touches when making decisions,” said Guardiola, one of the deeper thinkers about the game.

“In the quarterfinal of the Champions League, he was the important player to go through.”

With Foden flourishing, he is somehow managing to cover the offseason departures of both Silva and Leroy Sane, a mercurial winger who City decided to sell to Bayern Munich.

Silva will forever hold a special place in the hearts of City fans — to many, he is the club’s greatest player. But Foden’s development along with the prolific scoring this season of Ilkay Gundogan, who has assumed Silva’s attacking-midfield role, has ensured Silva hasn’t really been missed.


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.