Courtois keeps faith in Lukaku despite ‘strange’ problems at Chelsea

Real Madrid's Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois during a press conference at Stamford Bridge in London on April 5, 2022, on the eve of the of their UEFA Champions League first leg quarterfinal football match against Chelsea. (AFP)
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Updated 06 April 2022

Courtois keeps faith in Lukaku despite ‘strange’ problems at Chelsea

  • Madrid remain hopeful Ancelotti will test negative and join up with the squad on Wednesday - but Courtois said the players can cope without the Italian

LONDON: Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said on Tuesday Romelu Lukaku's lack of playing time at Chelsea is "strange" but believes his Belgian compatriot will come good under Thomas Tuchel.

Lukaku has fallen out of favour under Tuchel this season, with Kai Havertz expected to lead the line in Wednesday's first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals against Real Madrid.

"I know Romelu is a really great striker. Obviously, it is a bit strange not to see him play that much lately," Courtois said in a press conference ahead of the first leg.

"He is a guy with an enormous quality. He finds the goal easily.

"Obviously, there are other great strikers at Chelsea. I understand it is not always easy when the team is winning, obviously, the manager keeps playing the same players.

"But I'm sure he will get through it. Sometimes you just need a little adaptation. I had the same thing in my first season at Real Madrid, it wasn't easy. I'm sure he will come through."

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has not travelled with the squad to London as he is still isolating at home due to his positive test for COVID last week.

Madrid remain hopeful Ancelotti will test negative and join up with the squad on Wednesday - but Courtois said the players can cope without the Italian.

"We know how he is, how he wants us to train and he participated in a chat with us by video call," saif Courtois. "Obviously there is a difference if he is on the bench and can participate more, but in Celta Vigo (on Saturday) the technical team did very well."

Madrid were outplayed by Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals last year when they were beaten 3-1 on aggregate, before Chelsea went on to beat Manchester City in the final.

"That was different, it was without fans, in the semifinal, later in the season, it's a new season and another game," said Courtois.

Tuchel said Chelsea want to "prove a point" at Stamford Bridge as they seek to bounce back from their shock 4-1 defeat by Brentford.

The European champions lost for the first time at the weekend since owner Roman Abramovich announced he was selling the club last month, collapsing after taking the lead in their Premier League match.

Tuchel suggested 13-times winners Madrid were not the powerhouse they once were when they won three consecutive Champions League titles from 2016 to 2018, but said they still had bags of experience.

"I think it's normal that cycles like this change at some point and this is what... happened to them," he said at his press conference on the eve of Wednesday's match.

"But we should be very aware that teams with this kind of experience, this kind of flair and this kind of quality can produce special performances and special nights and special occasions.

"For us it's also a pretty special occasion to play against Real Madrid in a quarter-final. That's why we feel also pretty excited and we don't lose too much sleep to think about where they are in Europe.

"We want to prove a point tomorrow again. We want to prove it to ourselves and that's the target and the occasion is special and the opponent is special."

Tuchel said he did not have concerns over the commitment of defender Andreas Christensen, who is understood to be close to completing a free-transfer move to Barcelona.

"Maybe it is a bit more challenging for him than normal, in a moment where everything is clear or where you are fully committed to your club you play for at the moment, which is obvious, but maybe he cleared his future," said the Chelsea boss. "I don't know it yet."

He added: "He is our player and we want to have the most of him and he needs to be focused. This is his job. He needs to be determined and this is what we expect from him and I think we can expect it."


Brazil’s Haddad Maia to face Halep for Canadian WTA title

Updated 17 sec ago

Brazil’s Haddad Maia to face Halep for Canadian WTA title

  • The first Brazilian to get to the final of a WTA Masters event has now won 17 matches since June, when she won grasscourt titles in Birmingham and Nottingham

TORONTO: Simona Halep will bid for a third Canadian title at the WTA Toronto Masters on Sunday against determined Brazilian outsider Beatriz Haddad Maia.

Haddad Maia stunned 2021 finalist Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 7-6 (9/7) in the semifinals while Halep put years of big-match experience to good use in a 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over seventh-seeded American Jessica Pegula.

Halep, the former world No. 1 from Romania who won 2016 and 2018 trophies in Canada, showed her definitive return to form with the victory after dropping from the top 10 in the rankings a year ago due to injury.

“We never played against each other,” Halep said. “So I didn’t really know what to expect.

“But it was a great fight. I’m really happy that I went through.

“Of course, I can improve,” Halep added. “But I’m building the confidence, I’m building the game, and I’m really happy that I’m in this position.”

Haddad Maia, who stunned world No. 1  Ita Swiatek in the third round, blunted the noted serving attack of Czech Pliskova, who fired nine aces in defeat.

The first Brazilian to get to the final of a WTA Masters event has now won 17 matches since June, when she won grasscourt titles in Birmingham and Nottingham.

The South American, ranked 24th in the world, is guaranteed to breach the Top 20 next week.

Her match was a rollercoaster, with Haddad Maia fighting off Pliskova while leading 5-1 in the opening set.

Pliskova then seized a 4-1 lead in the second only for Haddad Maia to claw her way back.

Halep, who will return to the top-10 thanks to her victory, needed two and a quarter hours to knock out American Pegula, who was the highest seed left in the field.

The 30-year-old winner of Roland Garros and Wimbledon titles could return to sixth in the world if she beats Haddad Maia on Sunday.

She will again have experience on her side as she competes in her 18th career Masters final in search of her ninth title at the elite level.

Halep lost the opening set against Pegula in 35 minutes but levelled at a set apiece thanks to an early break in the second.

Halep missed two match points on her opponent’s serve and swiped her racquet angrily on the cement as Pegula held for 4-5 in the third.

“The fire is back, it’s a good sign if I do that,” said the Romanian, who was supported by a sizeable number of compatriots in the stands.

Halep clinched the win on her third opportunity as Pegula hit the net with a return.

“I changed a little bit the tactics,” Halep said. “In the first set, it was a little bit too fast.

“She was hitting super strong and I didn’t feel the rhythm. Then I just calmed down and I tried to just push her back a little bit more.”

Halep saved 12 of the 17 break points she faced as she earned her 37th victory this season while playing in her seventh semifinal of 2022.


Popovici on top of the word after record-setting effort in 100m freestyle

Updated 14 August 2022

Popovici on top of the word after record-setting effort in 100m freestyle

  • The 17-year-old Romanian double world champion swam 46.86sec to slice 0.05sec off the old world record set by Brazilian Cesar Cielo in the 2009 World Championships, also in Rome, in the era of buoyant body suits

ROME: David Popovici reacted with “euphoria” after swimming the “best race I ever did” to break the men’s 100m freestyle world record at the European Championships in Rome on Saturday.

“It’s nice being able to say that I am the fastest to ever do it,” Popovici said.

The 17-year-old Romanian double world champion swam 46.86sec to slice 0.05sec off the old mark set by Brazilian Cesar Cielo in the 2009 World Championships, also in Rome, in the era of buoyant body suits.

“It was great and it’s very special to break this record that was set here in 2009 by Cesar Cielo,” Popovici added.

Popovici clearly enjoyed the moment.

“That was euphoria just kicking in. Simply that.”

“There’s not really a lot of adjectives I can give on how I’m feeling. I’m simply just happy,” said Popovici, who speaks faultless and exuberant English.

The fastest time in a textile suit had been 46.96 set by American Olympic champion Caeleb Dressel at the 2019 World Championships.

“I planned to go very fast and I planned to have fun and that was really about it,” said Popovici.

“It hurt, but it’s still worth it and I feel good now.”

Hungary’s Kristof Milak, the world record holder in the 200m butterfly, was second in 47.47 with Italy’s Alessandro Miressi third 47.63.

“Right now, I’m in the world record club,” Popovici said.

“Just after I finished, Kristof Milak said to me welcome to the club.”

Asked if he had swum the perfect race, Popovici replied: “I think so, yeah.”

But then he added: “Well my coach has to decide that but for the moment I think it’s probably the best race I ever did.

Popovici had eased into the final on Friday with a new European record of 46.98 seconds.

“Yesterday I said that the European record was just a step in the right direction, and I was right,” Popovici said.

In June, Popovici became the first man to complete the 100-200m freestyle double at the World Championships in nearly 50 years.

In Rome, he is also entered in the 200m which starts on Sunday and 400m which begins on Wednesday but refused to predict any more world records.

“I think I still like the 200 more but I have to get a little bit closer to the world record maybe not tomorrow, maybe not the day after tomorrow but I have a lot of time, so there is no rush,” said Popovici, who is expected to compete in the world junior championships in Peru starting at the end of August.

Another 17-year-old world champion also added European gold on Saturday.

Italian Benedetta Pilato won the women’s 100m breaststroke in 1:05.97, more than a second-and-half outside the world record set by American Lilly King in 2017.

Pilato was followed home by compatriot Lisa Angiolini and Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte, the 50m world champion.

Swedish veteran Sarah Sjostrom won the women’s 50m butterfly gold for the fifth time in 24.96. The 28-year-old is the only woman to go under 25 seconds in the event in a 50m pool.

France’s Marie Wattel won silver with Maaike de Waard of the Netherlands third.

Frenchman Yohann Ndoye Brouard won the opening final of the evening when he took the men’s 200m backstroke in 1 min 55.62 sec.

He beat Hungary’s Benedek Kovacs and England’s Luke Greenbank.

Viktoria Milhalyvari-Farkas, an 18-year-old, led a Hungarian one-two in the women’s 400m individual medley ahead of Zsuzsanna Jakabos with Freya Colbert of Britain third.

Italian Gregorio Paltrinieri dominated the men’s 800m freestyle ahead of German Lukas Martens and a second Italian Lorenzo Galossi.

The British ended the evening by edging the Swedes and the Dutch to win the women’s 400x100m freestyle relay.

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New-look Barcelona held 0-0 by Rayo in Lewandowski’s debut

Updated 14 August 2022

New-look Barcelona held 0-0 by Rayo in Lewandowski’s debut

  • Fittingly, given their poor finish to the match, Barcelona ended with 10 men after Sergio Busquets got a second booking in stoppage time when he swung his arm into the face of Rayo substitute Radamel Falcao

BARCELONA, Spain: Barcelona mortgaged its financial future to give Xavi Hernández the talent he wanted.
But Rayo Vallecano showed Xavi he still has work to do to forge a winning team after his new-look Barcelona was held to a 0-0 draw on Saturday in their Spanish league opener.
The modest club from Madrid frustrated Robert Lewandowski and his fellow Barcelona newcomers by defending well and producing the most dangerous scoring threats. As the minutes ticked by, the energy drained from the 81,000-strong Camp Nou crowd that had turned out to cheer the team that was only made possible by the constroversial decision by club president Joan Laporta to sell off television rights and other assets in exchange for some much needed cash.
The biggest applause Lewandowski heard from the crowd was to show their appreciation for his hustle on defense late in the match with Barcelona stymied in attack. The closest the former Bayern Munich star went to scoring was a header flicked well over the bar in the first half.
Fittingly, given its poor finish to the match, Barcelona ended with 10 men after Sergio Busquets got a second booking in stoppage time when he swung his arm into the face of Rayo substitute Radamel Falcao. Busquets’ explusion will rule him out of Barcelona’s visit to Real Sociedad. Falcao then had what looked to be a winner waived away for offside as Rayo went close to claiming a third straight win over Barcelona after it stunned the Catalan club twice last season.
“It is too bad because we wanted to show our fans that we are on the right path,” Xavi said. “We had generated a lot of expectations, but this is just the beginning. Today is disappointing for every Barcelona supporter, but we have to keep our faith in this way of playing as being the right one to win titles.”
Lewandowski, winger Raphinha and defender Andreas Christensen, who also joined Barcelona this summer, all made Xavi’s starting 11. The three players along with fellow newcomer Franck Kessié and the recently re-signed Ousmane Dembélé and Sergi Roberto were only declared eligible to play by the Spanish league on Friday after Barcelona sold yet another stake in its in-house production company to improve its troubled financial balance.
The delicate state of Barcelona’s finances meant that it was unable to register Jules Koundé, its top defensive signing, in time for the season opener.
Xavi had said the demands placed on him and his team were higher this season because of the effort the club had made to give him a lot more talent after Barcelona won nothing last campaign following the exit of Lionel Messi.
But Xavi still has a way to go to create a team as well-honed as Andoni Iraola’s Rayo, which for a third meeting in a row held Barcelona without a goal. Iraola’s team, led by midfielders midfielders Isi Palazón and Óscar Trejo, erased all the passing lanes for Lewandowski. Barcelona was unable to find the answer through Raphinha and Dembélé, who both wasted the one good chance they each got.
Barcelona’s best chance came from late substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose goal-bound shot was saved by defender Alejandro Catena in the 85th.
Previously, Barcelona had needed goalie Marc-Andre Ter Stegen to keep the game scoreless.
Ter Stegen closed out quickly to block Álvaro García’s point-blank shot after the forward had streaked away down the left flank and cut back past the sliding Ronald Araújo just before halftime.
Barcelona had another scare early in the second half when Sergio Camello pounced on a ball lost by Araújo. Again Ter Stegen came to the rescue, forcing Camello into taking a shot from a narrow angle that trickled just past the far post.
“My team played tense and with nerves. I had tried to tell them that the pressure was on me,” Xavi said. “But Rayo played well and closed off our passing game. They executed their game plan.”
Iraola, a former Athletic Bilbao player who has impressed as a coach, said his team played well enough to claim another victory at Camp Nou.
“I think we played a great match. I am not satisfied because we wanted a win. It is too bad we couldn’t take the three points,” he said. “Maybe they had more chances, but we had three or four clear opportunities. I am happy for the effort of my team and for having neutralized a great rival.”


Neymar nets 2 as PSG beats Montpellier 5-2 in French league

Updated 14 August 2022

Neymar nets 2 as PSG beats Montpellier 5-2 in French league

  • Neymar scored twice to take his tally to three goals in two league games for the defending champion on a night when Lionel Messi was held scoreless

PARIS: Neymar and Paris Saint-Germain’s high-powered attack put on another impressive display in a 5-2 win over Montpellier in the French league on Saturday as Kylian Mbappe opened his account but missed a penalty in his return from a groin injury.
Neymar scored twice to take his tally to three goals in two league games for the defending champion on a night when Lionel Messi was held scoreless. The Brazil striker was also PSG’s best player in preseason friendlies as he looks to find his peak form for the World Cup in Qatar, which starts in November.
PSG also netted five goals in its league opener and Montpellier opted for a low defensive block to deny space for the hosts. But the pressure was too much for center back Falaye Sacko, who diverted Mbappe’s off-target shot into his own net in the 39th minute.
Sacko then handled the ball in the 42nd when Lionel Messi juggled the ball on a dribbling run. Neymar wrongfooted Jonas Omlin to convert the subsequent penalty for a 2-0 lead.
PSG capitalized on another blunder to add a third goal in the 51st. Mbappe blocked Omlin’s pass and found Achraf Hakimi, whose deflected cross was headed home by Neymar.
Far from his best level, Mbappe still found the net with a flick from a corner in the 69th.
“(Mbappe) is a competitor, he wants to be good, and he wants to be good quickly,” PSG coach Christophe Galtier told Canal Plus. “He needs a bit of time to be 100 percent fit. He will make even more difference when he will be 100 percent fit.”
In his PSG debut, Portugal midfielder Renato Sanches rounded off the scoring with a first-time effort in the 88th.
Omlin pulled off some outstanding saves to frustrate PSG for more than 30 minutes. The Swiss goalkeeper saved a penalty from Mbappe in the 23rd after Jordan Ferri had handled the ball. He then turned around the post a curling free kick from Messi in the 26th.
Montpellier scored with a close-range effort from Wahbi Khazri in the 58th and a half-volley from Enzo Tchato in stoppage time.
Earlier, Rennes’ defensive issues were exposed as it squandered the lead to draw 1-1 with 10-man Monaco.
In a clash between two contenders for European spots, Monaco forward Breel Embolo pounced on a heavy touch from goalkeeper Dogan Alemdar to equalize with a sliding effort in the 73rd.
Rennes striker Gaetan Laborde opened the scoring by converting a rebound in the 59th.
Monaco was down to 10 men in the 15th when midfielder Youssouf Fofana was red-carded for a stamp on Martin Terrier’s ankle.
“We are extremely disappointed,” Laborde said. “When you play with 11 men against 10 almost the entire game, you must come away with three points. It was tense in the dressing room.”
Despite its numerical superiority, Rennes looked shaky at the back. Embolo proved a magnet for fouls and Joe Rodon and Arthur Theate were booked for holding the forward in the 21st and the 23rd, respectively.
Steve Mandanda also received a yellow card in the 31st for catching Embolo in the face while attempting to punch the ball away. The Rennes goalkeeper made amends by stopping the subsequent penalty taken by Axel Disasi before denying Krepin Diatta in the 36th.
However, Mandanda picked up a knock and was replaced by Alemdar at halftime.
Monaco goalkeeper Alexander Nubel helped salvage a point by turning Baptiste Santamaria’s long-range strike around the post in the 27th and parrying a close-range header from Terrier in the 28th.


Lukaku nets seconds into Inter return at Lecce

Updated 13 August 2022

Lukaku nets seconds into Inter return at Lecce

  • Belgium forward Lukaku nodded home from close range with just 81 seconds gone to give Inter the lead
  • The 29-year-old had the easiest task to open his account for the campaign

LECCE, Italy: Romelu Lukaku made a dream start to his return to Inter Milan on Saturday after scoring less than two minutes into the Serie A club’s season opener at Lecce.
Belgium forward Lukaku nodded home from close range with just 81 seconds gone to give Inter the lead at the Stadio Via del mare as they begin their bid to reclaim the Scudetto from local rivals AC Milan, 4-2 winners over Udinese earlier on Saturday.
The 29-year-old had the easiest task to open his account for the campaign after Matteo Darmian knocked Federico Dimarco’s cross straight into his path.
Lukaku reportedly took a pay cut to 8.5 million euros for the coming campaign to get out of Chelsea.
He performed poorly in England and enraged Chelsea fans by saying in an interview with Sky Sport Italia that he wanted to return to Inter, where he won the Serie A title in 2021 and scored 64 times in 95 games over two years.
That move came sooner than expected, with Inter paying an initial eight million euros plus a potential three million in bonuses for the loan.
Italian media report that Inter and Chelsea have a gentleman’s agreement that the loan could be extended for another season should the move work out.
After the deal was done his lawyer Sebastien Ledure said that “anything can happen” between now and the end of next season.