Roma hope to hold off Ajax in hunt for semifinal spot

Roma’s Roger Ibanez, left, in action against Dusan Tadic of Ajax during the Europa League first leg quarterfinal match on April 8. (File/AP)
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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.


New protocols for public entry to stadiums, sports facilities

Updated 13 May 2021

New protocols for public entry to stadiums, sports facilities

  • People recorded in the Tawakkalna as "immune" from COVID-19 can now be admitted in sports arenas

JEDDAH: The Saudi Ministry of Sports on Wednesday issued new guidance for mass entry to stadiums and sports facilities, which included a number of important precautionary measures.

The protocols included social distancing and the wearing of masks, in addition to the mechanism for crowd entry and preventing gatherings inside the stands or at the doors.

The new guidance specified the categories of people that will be allowed to attend sports matches, according to what appears in the Tawakkalna app. 

People can be admitted if they are “immune” (having completed both doses of the vaccine), “immune after infection” (having recovered from the virus within the last six months), or “immune by the first dose” (having received the first dose of the vaccine).

Entry will also be permitted for people over seven and under 18, provided that their condition on Tawakkalna app is not “infected.” 

The new list of protocols follows an announcement on March 20, which limited sports match crowds to 40 percent of their total capacity from May 17.

The ministry said it had taken the necessary measures with sports federations and clubs to implement the protocols to ensure the health and safety of everyone. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia reported 13 more COVID-19-related deaths on Wednesday. The death toll now stands at 7,111.

The Ministry of Health reported 1,020 new cases, meaning that 429,389 people have now contracted the disease. There are 9,268 active cases, 1,352 of which are in critical condition.

According to the ministry, 342 of the newly recorded cases were in Riyadh, 276 in Makkah, 133 in the Eastern Province and 56 in Madinah.

In addition, 908 patients had recovered from the disease, bringing the total to 413,010 recoveries.

Saudi Arabia has so far conducted 17,740,919 PCR tests, with 71,040 carried out in the past 24 hours.

Saudi health clinics set up by the ministry as testing hubs or treatment centers have helped hundreds of thousands of people around the Kingdom since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Among those testing hubs are Taakad (make sure) centers and Tetamman (rest assured) clinics.

Taakad centers provide COVID-19 testing for those who show no or mild symptoms or believe they have come into contact with an infected individual, while the Tetamman clinics offer treatment and advice to those with virus symptoms, such as fever, loss of taste and smell and breathing difficulties.

Appointments to either service can also be made through the ministry’s Sehhaty app.

Saudis and expats in the Kingdom continue to receive their COVID-19 jabs, with 11,075,209 people inoculated so far.

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Serena, playing her 1,000th career match, crashes out of Italian Open

Updated 13 May 2021

Serena, playing her 1,000th career match, crashes out of Italian Open

  • The early exit is a blow three weeks before the French Open in Paris on May 30

ROME: Serena Williams, playing the 1,000th WTA match of her career, lost on her return after nearly three months away to Nadia Podoroska in the second round of the WTA Italian Open on Wednesday.

The 39-year-old eighth seed fell 7-6 (8/6), 7-5 in under just two hours to the 44th-ranked Argentine, a surprise semifinalist at last year’s Roland Garros.

Williams, a four-time Rome winner and 23-time Grand Slam champion, had not played since her semifinal defeat in the Australian Open this year.

The early exit is a blow three weeks before the French Open in Paris on May 30 where the American continues her bid to equal Australia’s Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam trophies.

Despite a battling performance Williams could not wear down the 24-year-old Argentine who broke the American twice in the first set. Podoroska forced a tiebreak with an ace and squandered three set points before sealing the set.

In the second, Williams was trailing 5-2 but held and broke the Argentine to love while she served for the match to level at 5-5.

Podoroska held her nerve to earn three match points to secure just her third career win over a top-10 player, all in the last eight months.

For Williams it was her 149th defeat, with 851 wins over the course of a WTA career covering 1,000 matches.

But she will not get to celebrate with the Rome public, with spectators only allowed from Thursday’s third round at the Foro Italico while limited to a 25 percent capacity.

Podoroska next meets Croatia’s Petra Martic, who earlier beat France’s Kristina Mladenovic 7-5, 6-3. 


UEFA begins legal battle with Super League holdouts Real, Barca and Juve

Updated 13 May 2021

UEFA begins legal battle with Super League holdouts Real, Barca and Juve

  • The maximum punishment under UEFA’s disciplinary pathway is a two-year ban from European competition

LAUSANNE: UEFA on Wednesday initiated disciplinary proceedings against Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, the three clubs yet to renounce the aborted European Super League project.

European football’s governing body has appointed disciplinary inspectors to conduct an investigation regarding a potential violation of UEFA rules by the clubs “in connection with the so-called ‘Super League’ project,”  it announced.

“Further information regarding this matter will be made available in due course.” 

UEFA last week said it would take “appropriate action” against the three clubs who still support the proposed Super League, a competition that would guarantee its founding members involvement every season, instead of having to qualify.

It did not specify the violations that may have been committed, although its statutes prohibit “combinations or alliances” between clubs without the body’s permission.

The maximum punishment under UEFA’s disciplinary pathway is a two-year ban from European competition, while club officials could be banned from any football-related activity.

However, UEFA’s options are clouded by a ruling from a commercial court in Madrid on April 20.

The court banned UEFA and FIFA from making any moves to block a Super League or taking any disciplinary measures against the clubs, players or officials involved.

It is also unclear what penalties the clubs that have withdrawn may owe to the remaining clubs for breaking their agreement to join the Super League.

The Super League was announced on April 18 but two days later it collapsed as the six Premier League clubs withdrew after angry protests from supporters and under pressure from the British government.

Nine of the original 12 clubs have now dropped out.

Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan were on Friday given a financial penalty by UEFA for their involvement.

They committed to taking “all steps within their power” to end their involvement in the breakaway league and agreed to participate in UEFA competitions for which they qualify. They also agreed to pay fines of 100 million euros ($121 million) if they ever seek to play in an “unauthorized” competition.

In response, Real, Barca and Juventus continued to defend the Super League proposal and condemned what it termed “threats” from UEFA.

The clubs issued a joint statement that said “the founding clubs have suffered, and continue to suffer, unacceptable third-party pressures (and) threats.”

“This is intolerable under the rule of law,” they added.

The trio said the Super League had been launched “with the aim of providing solutions to the current unsustainable situation in the football industry.”


Gerd Mueller would be happy if Lewandowski equals goal record, says wife

Updated 12 May 2021

Gerd Mueller would be happy if Lewandowski equals goal record, says wife

  • Lewandowski hit a hat-trick on Saturday as Bayern were crowned Bundesliga champions before thrashing Borussia Moenchengladbach 6-0
  • Mueller’s wife Uschi says the former Bayern and West Germany star, who suffers dementia, would be happy for Lewandowski if his record is finally matched

BERLIN: The wife of Gerd Mueller says the former Bayern Munich legend would be happy to see Robert Lewandowski equal — but not break — his 49-year-old Bundesliga goal record with the Poland striker just one short.
Lewandowski hit a hat-trick last Saturday as Bayern were crowned Bundesliga champions for the ninth season in a row before their 6-0 thrashing of Borussia Moenchengladbach.
He is now on 39 league goals this season — tantalisingly close to Mueller’s record of 40 scored in the 1971/72 Bundesliga season.
Lewandowski, 32, has two games left to reach Mueller’s milestone — away to mid-table Freiburg on Saturday and home to Augsburg the weekend after on the final day of the season.
Mueller, 75, is currently in poor health and suffering from dementia.
However, his wife Uschi says the former Bayern and West Germany star would be happy for Lewandowski if his record is finally matched.
During his stellar career, Mueller scored a total of 365 goals in 427 Bundesliga games, but has been in a care home since November 2015.
“Gerd would be happy for him,” Uschi Mueller told magazine Sport Bild.
“He would be the first to congratulate him.
“He was always surprised that someone hadn’t caught up with him long ago.
“I am firmly convinced that Lewandowski will do it. He has played a great season, is a hard worker.”
Mueller, nicknamed ‘The Bomber’, scored his 40 goals in 34 games during an incredible season in which he claimed four Bundesliga hat-tricks, as well as scoring four goals in an 11-1 mauling of Borussia Dortmund and five goals in a 7-0 drubbing of Oberhausen.
Lewandowski’s tally of 39 goals is all the more remarkable as he has only played 27 of Bayern’s 32 league games so far this season.
His superb hat-trick on Saturday was his fifth in the league this season, which includes the four goals he netted for Bayern in a nervy 4-3 home win against Hertha Berlin last October.
Lewandowski, voted FIFA’s best male player of 2020, is one of the world’s top strikers having scored 275 goals in 348 Bundesliga matches for Bayern and former club Dortmund.
Mueller’s wife says comparisons between her husband and Lewandowski are pointless as they come from such different eras.
“You can’t compare the two at all. Robert is an athlete, Gerd was an artist,” added Uschi Mueller.
“He was like a rubber ball. Gerd always had two men practically standing on his feet (marking him).
“That is impossible with Lewandowski and his athletic build.”
However, Uschi Mueller also kindly requested that Lewandowski equal, not break, her husband’s record.
“As a wife, I’d rather Gerd kept it,” she laughed.
“Dear Robert Lewandowski, 40 goals is enough.”


Dimitrov stunned by Spanish qualifier in Rome

Updated 12 May 2021

Dimitrov stunned by Spanish qualifier in Rome

  • Tenth seed Roberto Bautista Agut booked his place in the second round with a comfortable 6-3, 6-4 win over American Tommy Paul

ROME: Sixteenth seed Grigor Dimitrov crashed out of the Italian Open in the first round on Tuesday when he was beaten in straight sets by Spanish qualifier Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

The world No.  48 saved two set points in the second set as he dismissed the 2014 semifinalist Dimitrov 6-4, 7-6 (7/2) to win in one hour and 43 minutes.

Tenth seed Roberto Bautista Agut booked his place in the second round with a comfortable 6-3, 6-4 win over American Tommy Paul.

On the women’s side, Argentinian Nadia Podoroska, ranked 44 in the world, assured herself of a second round meeting with Serena Williams, playing her first event since the Australian Open, when she came from a set down to beat German Laura Siegemund 2-6, 7-6 (7/3), 6-1.Madison Keys won the battle of the Americans when she overcame Sloane Stephens 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.

Meantime, two-time Olympic champion Rafael Nadal on Tuesday became the latest top tennis
player to admit that he had not yet decided whether he would participate in the Tokyo Games this summer, still giving himself time to decide according to “circumstances.” 

The 34-year-old Spaniard won gold in the singles in Beijing in 2008, adding another gold in the doubles with Marc Lopez in Rio de Janeiro five years ago.

“In a normal world I would never consider missing the Olympics. There is no doubt about that,” he said at a press conference ahead of his opening match at the Italian Open.

“Everybody knows how important the Olympics are for me.”

“Under these circumstances, I don’t know. Let’s see what’s going on in the next couple of months. But I need to organize my schedule.

“I don’t know yet. Honestly I can’t give you a clear answer because I don’t know.”

“In a normal year, I know my schedule almost 100 percent from January 1 until the end of the season. This year is a little bit different, no?

“We need to be flexible. We need to adapt to the things that are happening. I don’t know, I can’t give you an accurate answer. Sorry.”

Nadal is the latest top tennis star to voice his concerns about the Tokyo Games.

On Monday, Serena Williams said she was undecided about going to the Olympics while Japanese stars Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori have both raised concerns about whether Tokyo should be hosting the Games at all.

“I’m an athlete, and of course my immediate thought is that I want to play in the Olympics,” Osaka told the BBC.

“But as a human, I would say we’re in a pandemic, and if people aren’t healthy, and if they’re not feeling safe, then it’s definitely a really big cause for concern.”

The Olympics, postponed from 2020 because of the coronavirus, are due to run from July 23 to Aug. 8.