The UAE’s second ‘Golden Generation’ dream of Qatar qualification miracle

There's one more chance for the UAE's national football team to replicate what the nation's first Golden Generation did in 1990, but it would have to be done the hardest possible way. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 24 March 2022

The UAE’s second ‘Golden Generation’ dream of Qatar qualification miracle

  • Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s team, who meet Iraq on Thursday, must qualify through the playoff route
  • The Emiratis must finish third in Group A, defeat Group B’s counterpart and then overcome CONMEBOL’s fifth-place nation

The sun is setting on the UAE’s second “Golden Generation” of footballers.

Ismail Matar, Ali Khaseif, Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout thrilled the world at the London 2012 Olympics, won the Gulf Cup in 2013 and then, as arguably one of the continent’s best teams, captured hearts as they reached the last four of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.

But the coveted place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia never materialized and the team’s performances plateaued.

Now there is one more chance.

Can the UAE pull off a miracle, just as the nation’s first Golden Generation did in 1990, and qualify to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar?

They’ll have to do it the hard way, indeed the hardest possible way.

As we reach the last two rounds of matches of the Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022, no Arab team has yet secured a seat to Doha, though Saudi Arabia are within touching distance — or three points — of confirming their place. A win against China in Sharjah on Thursday, or simply matching Australia’s performance against Japan, will do the trick.

For the other Arab teams, the long and risky play-off route awaits.

In the Group A, three Arab teams — the UAE, Lebanon and Iraq — are still in with a mathematical chance of finishing third, while Syria has lost all hope.

The UAE, in third place with nine points, are best-placed to qualify, followed by Lebanon with six points and Iraq comes in fifth place with five points.

The third-placed teams in Groups A and B will meet in a play-off, with the winner earning the thankless task of trying to get past the fifth-placed team in the CONMEBOL qualification group — currently Peru — in a one-off match to reach Qatar.

New UAE coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena will not be looking that far ahead at this stage.

The Emirati team has a golden opportunity to secure third place after FIFA and the AFC decided to move Thursday’s clash with Iraq from Baghdad to Riyadh, giving the away team the huge boost of playing on a neutral ground.

The two nations do have World Cup history. The UAE’s first Golden Generation agonizingly lost out to Iraq in the playoffs for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

But four years later, the likes of Adnan Al-Talyani, Mohsin Musabah and the brothers Nasser and Fahd Khamis did it the hard way, drawing four matches and winning only one in the final six-team group stage, to join South Korea at Italia 90. It remains the UAE’s only World Cup appearance to date.

This represents the last chance for this group of players to emulate the stars of the 1980s and 1990s.

Long-time captain and talisman Matar has returned to the squad after some brilliant performances for his club Al-Wahda this season, and, at 38, this is surely his swansong.

Goalkeeper Majed Nasser, who is 37, has also made a comeback, while Walid Abbas is 36. Naturalized Argentine Sebastián Lucas Tagliabúe is 37 and ruled out due to injury.

Fabio De Lima and Caio Canedo have come into the fold in recent years and could be seen as quick fixes.

Perhaps no three players epitomize the Emirati Golden Generation of the last 15 years more than Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout, who all starred in Australia seven years ago.

The 31-year-old Mabkhout remains the qualification campaign’s highest scorer across all continents with 14 goals, though he has been woefully out of form for the UAE in his most recent appearances.

Injuries and lack of form, meanwhile, have seen golden boy Abdulrahman, “Amoori,” and 2016 Asian Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil — both 30 — slowly slip out of contention.

The current UAE squad is a mix of heroes from the Mahdi Ali-inspired group, established stars like Khalfan Mubarak and a batch of promising youngsters that include Alio Saleh and Yahya Al-Ghassani.

After Iraq on Thursday, Arruabarrena’s team will meet South Korea at home in their final Group A fixture next Tuesday. Finish third and thoughts of a miracle qualification can cautiously be entertained.

Awaiting them, potentially, would be the likes of Australia and Peru.

But miracles are rare in football. Sadly, we could be seen seeing the last of the UAE’s second Golden Generation once and for all.

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England remove centurions Shafique and Haq as Pakistan reach 298-3

Updated 03 December 2022

England remove centurions Shafique and Haq as Pakistan reach 298-3

  • Will Jacks dismissed Shafique for 114, while left-armer Jack Leach had Haq for 121
  • Pakistan still need 160 runs to avoid follow-on after England finished with 657 Friday

RAWALPINDI: England spinners removed Abdullah Shafique and Imam-ul-Haq after they scored centuries Saturday as Pakistan reached 298-3 at lunch on the third day of the opening Test in Rawalpindi. 

Off-spinner Will Jacks dismissed Shafique for 114, while left-armer Jack Leach had Haq for 121. 

Pakistan still need another 160 runs to avoid follow-on after England finished with 657 Friday, their highest total ever against the home team. 

Despite three wickets falling in Saturday's first session, the much-criticised Rawalpindi Stadium pitch offered little to the bowlers. 

At the break, skipper Babar Azam was on 28 and Saud Shakeel yet to score. 

Azhar Ali was trapped leg-before by Leach on 27, but he could have gone more cheaply had Zak Crawley not dropped a sharp chance to his left at leg slip from pacer James Anderson's first over of the morning. 

The centuries by Shafique and Haq meant for the first time in 146 years of Test cricket the openers of both teams reached three figures in the first innings. 

Their 225-run opening stand -- a Pakistan record against England -- is also the first time in Test history that two 200-plus opening partnerships were made, following Crawley and Ben Duckett's 233-run partnership for the visitors. 

Pakistan started the day on 181 without loss and Shafique, 89 overnight, was the first to three figures with a sharp single off Joe Root. 

Haq, who started the session on 90, followed with a boundary off the same bowler to complete his century. 

They both now have three Test centuries and successive hundreds at the venue, having also reached three figures against Australia in March this year. 

The three-match series is England's first in Pakistan for 17 years. 


Scheffler makes a late bid to return to No. 1 

Updated 03 December 2022

Scheffler makes a late bid to return to No. 1 

  • Scheffler spent more weeks at No. 1 than anyone this year, which earns him the Mark H. McCormack Award

NASSAU, Bahamas: The degree Masters champion Scottie Scheffler earned from the McCombs School of Business at Texas did not equip him with the skills to figure out the new formula for the Official World Golf Ranking.

He is No. 2 in the world. He can go back to No. 1 if he wins the Hero World Challenge, simple as that.

“I don’t like being No. 2,” he said. “I don’t like finishing second.”

Scheffler took a step in that direction in the relentless wind at Albany. He ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine for a 4-under 68, leaving him in the group one shot behind defending champion Viktor Hovland.

Hovland knows a little about wind. The Norwegian saw enough of it during his amateur days across Europe, and then he starred at Oklahoma State.

Hovland made eagle for the second straight day — the other 19 players have combined for one eagle this week — had three straight birdies on the back nine and had a 70. He was at 5-under 139.

Scores typically are much lower in the holiday event Tiger Woods hosts for a 20-man field of elite players in the Bahamas. The course was soaked and played long on Thursday. It dried out in 30 mph wind on Friday.

Xander Schauffele leaned on exquisite wedge play for a 68 and joined Scheffler, Cameron Young (69) and Collin Morikawa (71) in the group one shot behind.

Tom Kim dropped two shots on the final three holes and that gave him a 72, leaving him two shots behind. That’s not the reason the 20-year-old South Korean raised both arms after he had signed his card. Scrolling through his phone, he learned South Korea had advanced to the knockout stage in the World Cup.

“Goose bumps,” Kim said as he stretched out his arms.

Scheffler spent more weeks at No. 1 than anyone this year, which earns him the Mark H. McCormack Award. That was a product of four wins against strong fields in the spring, including his first major. The Masters was his last win.

Rory McIlroy replaced him with a win in South Carolina in October, and now Scheffler has a chance to grab it back, even if for a short time. McIlroy is expected to be No. 1 when the year ends regardless of what happens in the Bahamas.

The model went from rating the top 200 players in a field based on their world ranking to rating everyone in the field using the “strokes gained” formula, which measure actual scores and adjusts for relative difficulty of each round.

It favors deeper fields, regardless of how many of the top players are there. And it won’t be fully integrated until next August.

But there has been no shortage of complaints, with even Woods weighing in this week that it’s a flawed system. Some of the criticism stems from the new formula not giving as much credit to smaller fields compared with full fields.

“I think now I would say the top players are not bringing as much weight to events as they should,” Scheffler said.

The Hero World Challenge has 15 of the top 20 in the world. It also has only 20 players, and so the winner will get slightly fewer points than the winner of the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland.

“But it’s also really tough to rank golfers when they’re not playing the same schedule,” Scheffler said. “So I think as we all start to play together more often and you get the best players playing together more often, it’s going to be much easier to rank those guys.

“It’s a tough system. It’s not something that’s easy to get right,” he said. “In other sports, you have a record and golf is not necessarily a record. It’s a challenging system. I think they went from one extreme to the other, and we’ll meet in the middle, hopefully, and find something that’s a little bit better.”

The ultimate measure remains the low score, and that belongs to Hovland. Woods, who is not playing this week because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot, is the only player to have won the World Challenge in consecutive years.

He’s not sure how he’s getting it done, especially in this wind.

“It’s kind of strange, like I knew it was windy and I feel like I missed so many putts,” Hovland said. “And I still don’t feel like I’m hitting it very good. I’m not comfortable over the ball, but the ball’s going straight and I’m giving myself looks.”
 


Cameroon beat Brazil 1-0 in final group game at World Cup

Updated 03 December 2022

Cameroon beat Brazil 1-0 in final group game at World Cup

  • Aboubakar was sent off with a second yellow card for taking off his shirt during his celebration
  • Brazil finished with six points, the same as Switzerland

LUSAIL, Qatar: Vincent Aboubakar scored with a header two minutes into stoppage time in Cameroon’s 1-0 win over Brazil at the World Cup on Friday, a result that still allowed the five-time champions to win the group and eliminated the Africans.
Aboubakar was then sent off with a second yellow card for taking off his shirt during his celebration.
Brazil, which had already reached the knockout stage after victories over Serbia and Switzerland, will face South Korea in the round of 16.
Brazil finished with six points, the same as Switzerland but the South Americans had a better goal difference. The Swiss also advanced and will face Portugal. Cameroon ended with four points and Serbia one.
Coach Tite rested nearly all of his regular starters and made 10 changes from the win against Switzerland on Monday.
Brazil was still without the injured Neymar, but the star forward was at Lusail Stadium to watch the match with his teammates.


Switzerland beat Serbia 3-2 to reach last 16 of World Cup

Updated 03 December 2022

Switzerland beat Serbia 3-2 to reach last 16 of World Cup

  • Remo Freuler scored the winning goal just after halftime as the Swiss secured second place in Group G
  • They will next face Portugal on Tuesday at Lusail Stadium

DOHA: Switzerland advanced to the last 16 of the World Cup for the third tournament in a row after a 3-2 win over Serbia on Friday.
Remo Freuler scored the winning goal just after halftime as the Swiss secured second place in Group G. They will next face Portugal on Tuesday at Lusail Stadium.
Xherdan Shaqiri put Switzerland ahead early in the first half before Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic responded for Serbia. Breel Embolo evened the score just before halftime.
Switzerland needed a win to guarantee themselves a place in the knockout round after beating Cameroon and losing to Brazil in their opening two games. The team reached the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and again four years later in Russia. They lost 1-0 in both matches, to Argentina and Sweden, respectively.
Against Portugal, the Swiss will be looking to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since hosting the competition in 1954.


Ronaldo ‘insulted’ by South Korean player in World Cup loss

Updated 02 December 2022

Ronaldo ‘insulted’ by South Korean player in World Cup loss

  • The 37-year-old skipper looked miffed and ambled off slowly when his number went up in the 65th minute
  • "He was angry with the player from Korea and everyone saw that," Santos said

DOHA: Cristiano Ronaldo was “insulted” by a South Korean player as he was substituted during Portugal’s 2-1 World Cup defeat on Friday, coach Fernando Santos said.
The 37-year-old skipper looked miffed and ambled off slowly when his number went up in the 65th minute.
Santos denied that was because he was upset at being hooked.
“He was angry with the player from Korea and everyone saw that,” Santos said after his side topped Group H despite conceding in injury time to fall to defeat for the first time in Qatar.
“The player was insulting him, telling him to go away (get off the pitch) so that’s why he was angry and everyone saw that.
“I saw the interaction with the Korean player and have no doubt about it.”
Becoming irritated by the line of questioning, Santos added: “He (the Korean player) was not aggressive, he was verbally aggressive.
“He was speaking in English to Cristiano and Cristiano said, ‘Well, perhaps he did not have a good day.’“
South Korean midfielder Hwang In-beom attempted to play down the controversy.
“I didn’t see it, I was too tired,” he said. “I was looking at the ground, so I didn’t see it and I have nothing to say.”