Barcelona closing in on Xavi to rescue falling giants

Barcelona’s players warm up before the start of the Spanish League football match between Rayo Vallecano de Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Vallecas stadium in Madrid on Wednesday. (AFP)
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Updated 28 October 2021

Barcelona closing in on Xavi to rescue falling giants

  • Barca president Joan Laporta was reportedly in talks with Xavi about the vacant position on Thursday morning
  • Xavi is currently coach of Al Sadd but prising him away from the Qatari club is not expected to be a problem, with the Spaniard eager to complete a sensational returnBarcelona

MADRID: Barcelona are close to finalizing Xavi Hernandez’s long-anticipated return as coach, according to various reports in the Catalan press on Thursday.
Yet the club’s former superstar remained reluctant to discuss his likely coronation as successor to the sacked Ronald Koeman.
Barca president Joan Laporta was reportedly in talks with Xavi about the vacant position on Thursday morning.
Xavi is currently coach of Al Sadd but prising him away from the Qatari club is not expected to be a problem, with the Spaniard eager to complete a sensational return.
The 41-year-old left Barcelona in 2015 on the back of winning the treble, which took his career tally to eight titles in La Liga and four in the Champions League.
He is widely considered one of the club’s greatest ever players and there is huge excitement about his potential as a coach, after his influence on the iconic Barca team managed by Pep Guardiola.
However, Xavi insisted that he was thinking only of his current job.
“I am currently focused on my work with Al Sadd, and I cannot talk about anything else,” Xavi told a press conference ahead Saturday’s match with Al Ahli in the Qatar Stars League.
Barcelona’s scheduled morning training session on Thursday was put back to 5pm (1500GMT) and was taken by B team coach Sergi Barjuan who will be in charge for the game at home to Alaves on Saturday.
Barca have three games to negotiate before the international break, against Alaves and Celta Vigo in La Liga, as well as a crucial Champions League trip to Dynamo Kiev in between.
Barca had won only two of their last seven league games under Koeman, a run that included losing to Real Madrid in Sunday’s Clasico at Camp Nou.
A poor start to the season has raised the possibility of the team even failing to qualify for next season’s Champions League, which would have enormous consequences for the club’s already dire financial situation.
Koeman spent six years at Barcelona as a player and is considered a club legend after scoring the winning goal in the 1992 European Cup final against Sampdoria.
He was appointed coach by Barca’s previous president Josep Maria Bartomeu in August 2020 and enjoyed some success in his first season, winning the Copa del Rey and bringing a disillusioned Lionel Messi back onside.
But a disappointing finish in La Liga and a heavy defeat by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16 cast doubt over Koeman’s ability to navigate the biggest games, a criticism that was aimed at him again last weekend following the loss to Real Madrid.
Laporta was re-elected as president in March and while he allowed Koeman to continue as coach, there was never much trust between the pair.
Laporta told Koeman in the summer he wanted two weeks to look for a replacement for the Dutchman while Koeman reacted badly last month to Laporta suggesting coaches do not have all the power.
“He spoke too much,” Koeman said.
No replacement was found or could be persuaded to take over, perhaps in part because of Barcelona’s perilous financial problems.
The club is 1.35 billion euros in debt and had to watch Messi join PSG in August after failing to renew the Argentine’s contract.
Other key players like Antoine Griezmann also departed without being adequately replaced as Sergio Aguero and Memphis Depay both arrived on free transfers and Luuk de Jong came from Sevilla on loan.
“In recent years other clubs have strengthened every season and we haven’t,” said Koeman after his last game in charge against Rayo.
Youngsters like Pedri, Gavi, Nico Gonzalez, Sergino Dest and Ronald Araujo have all benefited from Koeman’s faith, but more established players have suffered a drop in form.
Koeman’s honest approach was largely accepted and even appreciated last season, but his downbeat assessment of his squad this term was seen by many as counter-productive and not befitting of a Barcelona coach.
There was criticism of Koeman’s style of play, which became increasingly direct, while the board were reportedly irritated by his straying from the club’s traditions of playing 4-3-3.
But results were the key factor, as consecutive 3-0 defeats by Bayern Munich and Benfica in the Champions League were followed by losses against Atletico and Real Madrid in the league.
Laporta said before the international break that Koeman “deserved the benefit of the doubt,” moving to end speculation that he would lose his job after the defeat by Atletico earlier this month.
But faced with an early exit in the Champions League and the possibility of failing to make the top four in La Liga, Laporta decided to act.


In Maradona’s shadow, Messi strives for Argentina’s forever love

Updated 15 sec ago

In Maradona’s shadow, Messi strives for Argentina’s forever love

  • Adoring Argentines give Messi fantastic backing in Qatar
  • Argentines traditionally more ambivalent to Messi than Maradona
BUENOS AIRES/DOHA: Lionel Messi’s passionate performances at the Qatar World Cup are earning him oodles of love from Argentines, but their old favoritism for Diego Maradona may resurface unless he brings home the trophy on his final attempt.
The two diminutive and brilliant No. 10s have dazzled the world with their prolific goalscoring and strikingly similar styles, relying on low center of gravity to swerve and slalom their way past defenses, ball glued to flashing feet.
Yet only Maradona, who died two years ago, has won the biggest trophy. He dragged a mediocre team behind him in 1986 when his “Hand of God” goal against England became a symbol of national defiance after the shame of the Falkands War defeat.
For years, Argentine fans said that no matter how many Ballons d’Or and trophies Messi won with Barcelona, he could never match Maradona until he too lifted a World Cup.
And why, they asked, was he so shy and introverted whereas their lovable rascal Maradona had entertained them so richly with jokes, songs and expletive-laden tirades against authority?
Was Messi even a true Argentine anyway, some grumbled, especially older fans. After all, he left for Spain at 13 while Maradona was more one of their own, born in a slum and working his way up through local clubs including Boca Juniors.
Messi has, of course, enjoyed more success in sheer numbers of goals and honors than Maradona, even surpassing his national appearances this week as he drove Argentina into the last 16 of the World Cup. And he has kept himself in great shape whereas Maradona succumbed to drugs and wild living in ways that frustrated and saddened even his most loyal fans.
Those close to Messi say that though his shyness may have disguised it in the past, there was always nothing he longed for more than to bring glory to Argentina. That passion was laid bare when he broke down in tears after leading Argentina to the Copa America in 2021, their first major trophy in 28 years.
“Argentines always had a love-hate relationship with Messi,” said 44-year-old fan Gustavo Franchini in Buenos Aires.
“We always compare him with Maradona, who won the World Cup 36 years ago, since when we haven’t won again ... Everyone says he has to win the World Cup to achieve Maradona’s stature and many, like me, think that even then he doesn’t match him,” he added, noting how Maradona carried the 1986 team almost solo.
In Qatar, on Messi’s fifth and final quest, he has been the beating heart of the squad and Argentina appear to have as good a chance as any to lift the trophy on Dec. 18.
Packing out stadiums in Qatar and bars and parks back home, fans have backed Messi throughout, cheering his two goals, encouraging him after a penalty miss, and parading his image proudly on myriad flags and banners.
Many of the banners show Messi and Maradona together, some depicting the late No. 10 smiling down from heaven at his heir. And Messi himself has opened up emotionally to rally the team and nation after their shock defeat to Saudi Arabia. He has celebrated goals wildly with fans and lead celebratory songs on the pitch and in the changing room after they beat Mexico and Poland.
“After the Copa America he seems to have eased up, he’s more relaxed, enjoying it,” said another fan Facundo Moreno, 39, also in the Argentine capital.
“For me, Messi has always felt and done his all for the national team, from his first game until now. He’s my idol,” he added. “Maradona and he have totally different personalities but on the pitch they both do the same.”
Marcelo Sottile, a sports journalist and author of a book about Messi, said that while his clean-cut image and polite persona mirrored the sort of person Argentines aspired to be, the rebellious Maradona reflected more of who they really were.
However, there is a generation gap among those who remember and revere Maradona most and younger fans less prejudiced against Messi, he told Reuters.
“I have an 18-year-old son who never questioned Messi, who never said ‘you play well for Barcelona but not for Argentina’,” he said. “Messi has suffered from being a venerated star in Barcelona but often under attack here in Argentina.”

England pile up mammoth 657 against Pakistan in first Test

Updated 02 December 2022

England pile up mammoth 657 against Pakistan in first Test

  • England became the first team to score 500 runs on the opening day of a Test match
  • Leg-spinner Zahid Mahmood conceded 235 for his four wickets, the most by a bowler on a Test debut

RAWALPINDI: England piled up a mammoth 657 runs before being all out Friday on the second day of the first Test against Pakistan in Rawalpindi.
Resuming at 506-4, the tourists added 151 runs in 125 minutes, with Harry Brook taking his overnight score of 101 to 153 -- one of four centurions in the innings.
Skipper Ben Stokes (41), debutant Liam Livingstone (nine), and Brook -- were all dismissed by pacer Naseem Shah, who finished with 3-140.
Leg-spinner Zahid Mahmood conceded 235 for his four wickets -- the most by a bowler on a Test debut.
On Thursday England became the first team to score 500 runs on the opening day of a Test match, bettering Australia's 112-year-old record of 494-6 against South Africa in Sydney.
Zak Crawley (122), Ollie Pope (108), and Ben Duckett (107) were the other centurions in the innings.
The three-match Test series is England's first in Pakistan for 17 years.


In Pakistan’s southwest, two Pashtun women footballers score against taboos

Updated 02 December 2022

In Pakistan’s southwest, two Pashtun women footballers score against taboos

  • Rozi Bakht and Masnoora Kakar are the first female footballers in Balochistan from ethnic Pashtun families
  • The young sports women want to serve as an inspiration for other girls from their impoverished towns

QUETTA: Two women footballers in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province are shooting for greater inclusion for women from their ethnic Pashtun community, hoping that they can become an example for other girls from their impoverished hometowns who want to pursue sports.

Meet Rozi Bakht, 23, and Mansoora Kakar, 22, who are the only women footballers in Balochistan who hail from the conservative ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

“In my village, there are meager educational facilities for girls, so how can a girl even think about playing football or any other sport?” Bakht, who hails from the remote town of Tuba Kakari in Balochistan’s backward Pishin district told Arab News, outlining her battles against both poverty and the conservative values of her community.

This undated file photo shows Pakistani woman footballer Mansoora Kakar in action. (AN photo)

But the hurdles did not dampen Bakht’s enthusiasm and passion for the sport and she began to regularly attend practice sessions at the Balochistan Women’s Football Academy (BWFA).

For the last three years, she has been the captain of her team, whose coach is a man.

“It was very challenging for me to seek permission from my parents but despite negative criticism, including attacks on my character, my father allowed me to play because he trusted me,” Bakht said during a practice session with more than a dozen other girls at a small futsal ground in Quetta on a chilly evening last week.

Bakht is the only woman from her district who plays football at the provincial level, and hopes to be a source of encouragement for other girls in her village who have a passion for sports.

Just like Bakht, Kakar, another Pashtun girl who belongs to Kuchlak, a town on the outskirts of  Quetta, is also the first women footballer from her home district. She joined the Balochistan Women’s Football Academy two years ago.

Dressed in a black tracksuit that she paired with a red head scarf, Kakar cheered along with her teammates after scoring a goal during a practice match last Saturday. Now a forward player in the team, she too spoke about the hardships she had to face when she initially expressed her desire to join sports.

“I had a passion for football since my childhood, I used to play in my home but when I enrolled myself in college, I started playing there,” Kakar told Arab News. “But when I came to know that there is a football club [for females], I came here. Now it's been two years that I am in this team.”

“When I asked for permission to play football, my family refused because it was very difficult for me to commute for practices as the ground was 30km away from my home,” Kakar added.

“I come for my regular practice matches via a local bus which is the only affordable source of transportation for me because my father and brothers have their own work and can’t provide me pick and drop services.”

This undated file photo shows footballers Rozi Bakht, second left, and Mansoora Kakar, left, during a practice session in Quetta, Pakistan. (AN photo)

Many girls in Kuchlak, Kakar said, had a passion for sports, particularly football, but couldn’t play due to familial and cultural barriers.

But Muhammad Yasir Khan, 22, the head coach at the women's academy, hoped more girls would join the football club.

“The presence of sportswomen from the Pashtun belt,” he said, “is very limited which needs to be increased.”


Germany crash out of World Cup despite 4-2 defeat of Costa Rica

Updated 02 December 2022

Germany crash out of World Cup despite 4-2 defeat of Costa Rica

  • Germany took an early lead but briefly fell behind in the second half as coach Hansi Flick made a flurry of changes, reacting to the live score of the Japan v Spain game
  • Costa Rica led 2-1, but Germany hit back with a brace from Kai Havertz before Fuellkrug added another in the 89th minute to bring the score to 4-2

AL KHOR: Germany crashed out of the World Cup at the group stage for the second time in succession despite a 4-2 win against Costa Rica on Thursday.
The four-time World Cup winners came into the match needing a win but were also relying on the result of Japan’s game with Spain to progress.
But the Germans were eliminated due to goal difference as Japan followed up their defeat of Germany with another shock result by beating Spain 2-1.
Germany took an early lead but briefly fell behind in the second half as coach Hansi Flick made a flurry of changes, reacting to the live score of the Japan v Spain fixture.
The Germans started positively, with Flick’s all-Bayern Munich front line turning the screws early, battering the Costa Rica defense before Serge Gnabry got his head to a curling cross from Leipzig defender David Raum after 10 minutes to open the scoring.
Midfielder Leon Goretzka almost doubled Germany’s lead just five minutes later but his header was directly at Keylor Navas.
Complacency began to creep into Germany’s game. Keysher Fuller, Costa Rica’s goal-scoring hero in a 1-0 win against Japan, forced Manuel Neuer into a fingertip save after some half-hearted defending from Raum and Antonio Ruediger.
Flick moved Kimmich back to his familiar defensive midfield position at half-time, bringing on Lukas Klostermann at the expense of Goretzka, who like Kimmich started the match on a yellow.
Just seven minutes into the second half, word crept around the vast Lusail Stadium that Japan had scored two quick goals to take the lead against Spain, a result which would force Germany out of the tournament.
Flick reacted immediately, bringing on Niclas Fuellkrug and taking off another midfielder in Ilkay Gundogan.
Germany appeared disjointed as Costa Rica went on the counter on the 58-minute mark, the ball rebounding off Neuer and into the path of Yeltsin Tejeda, who slammed it home.
Flick continued to chase the game, making more changes but it was Costa Rica who scored next when Juan Pablo Vargas tapped a free kick past Neuer to put his side past Spain and into the Round of 16. The goal was later recorded as an own goal.
Germany hit back minutes later through Chelsea forward Kai Havertz to draw level.
Havertz scored again in the 86th minute and Fuellkrug added another in the 89th minute to bring the score to 4-2, but the side’s focus remained nervously fixed on the group’s parallel fixture.
The night ended with Germany losing out to second-placed Spain on goal difference.
It means Germany, who had not missed out on the knockout stages of a World Cup for 80 years until the 2018 tournament in Russia, have been bundled out in the group stage for the second World Cup in a row.


Japan in stunning 2-1 win over Spain as both teams reach last 16

Updated 02 December 2022

Japan in stunning 2-1 win over Spain as both teams reach last 16

  • Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka’s goals saw Japan mount a sensational comeback to win 2-1
  • Alvaro Morata had sent Spain ahead early on with a towering header

DOHA: Spain staggered through to the World Cup last 16 on Thursday despite a 2-1 defeat by Japan, who remarkably won Group E on a rollercoaster night which saw four-time champions Germany eliminated.
Japan secured another incredible triumph after beating Germany in their opening game, with their progression from the “group of death” one of the greatest achievements in the country’s footballing history.
For a few heart-stopping minutes Spain were poised to head out when Costa Rica were leading in the other game, but the 2010 champions squeezed through after Germany did them a favor by coming back to beat Los Ticos.
Spain and Germany ended on four points each, but La Roja progressed on goal difference.
Alvaro Morata sent Spain ahead early on with a towering header, but Japan dramatically struck back at the start of the second half.
Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka’s goals saw them mount a sensational comeback, just as they did against Germany.
Tanaka’s goal was highly controversial after the officials relied on VAR to decide Kaoru Mitoma had kept the ball in play by a hair’s breadth to set him up.
Spain struggled to create chances against a staunch Japanese defense in the final stages, with the Asian side aware that conceding another goal would see them eliminated.
Japanese players collapsed at full-time in celebration, exhausted and elated, while the substitutes raced on to celebrate.
Spain face Morocco in the last 16, while Japan play Croatia.
Both sides made five changes, with Luis Enrique bringing in Morata to lead the line, and handing Alejandro Balde and Nico Williams their full debuts.
Japan started with five at the back, hoping to keep Spain at bay, but pressed high in attack to try and capitalize on any mistakes.
Spain are sometimes guilty of glaring defensive errors and Pau Torres exemplified that with a sloppy touch which led to Japan’s first chance, fired into the side-netting by Junya Ito.
Morata sent La Roja ahead in the 12th minute with a towering header from Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross, rekindling the connection which occasionally worked at Chelsea after the striker’s arrival in 2017.
Japan coach Hajjime Moriyasu replaced the ineffective Takefuso Kubo and Yuto Nagatomo at the break with Mitoma and Doan, and it paid instant dividends.
Balde lost the ball under pressure and from the edge of the box winger Doan hammered past Unai Simon, who might have done more to keep it out.
Three minutes later and Japan had turned the game on its head, Tanaka bundling home from on the goalline after Mitoma had miraculously kept the ball in play as he crossed it — according to VAR.
Spain were shellshocked and struggled to react, with Luis Enrique making a raft of substitutions to try and regain control.
The coach, alone and perched on the edge of his technical area, was unaware that for a few moments his team faced elimination, when Costa Rica took the lead against Germany in the other game to go 2-1 ahead.
Spain survived, progressing thanks to their superior goal difference, on a night that was far more terrifying than they had anticipated — and Japan secured a hugely unlikely achievement.