Real Madrid hope stability breeds success as La Liga kicks off

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti with his players during training on Tuesday for the UEFA Super Cup clash against Eintracht Frankfurt at Helsinki Olympic Stadium. (Reuters)
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Updated 10 August 2022

Real Madrid hope stability breeds success as La Liga kicks off

  • There have been no dramatic changes at the Santiago Bernabeu, and no hint of a superstar signing to reinforce the attack after Kylian Mbappe turned them down in favor of a new contract at Paris Saint-Germain

MADRID: Real Madrid are hoping a summer of stability sets them up for a successful defense of the Spanish title as the season kicks off in La Liga this weekend, despite some eye-catching moves in the transfer market from Barcelona.

Madrid set the ball rolling on Wednesday against Eintracht Frankfurt in the UEFA Super Cup, as they target another trophy-laden campaign under Carlo Ancelotti following their league and Champions League double last season.

There have been no dramatic changes at the Santiago Bernabeu, and no hint of a superstar signing to reinforce the attack after Kylian Mbappe turned them down in favor of a new contract at Paris Saint-Germain.

Yet there have been no significant departures either, with the influence of Gareth Bale, Isco and Marcelo having dramatically declined before they were all released.

That means Karim Benzema and Luka Modric, who turns 37 in September, will remain hugely influential.

Ancelotti can also expect the influence of the likes of Vinicius — whose goal won May’s Champions League final against Liverpool — Rodrygo and Eduardo Camavinga to increase this season.

And two significant signings have arrived.

France midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni, 22, has joined from Monaco for a fee of up to €100 million ($102m), while Germany center-back Antonio Rudiger, 29, joins on a free from Chelsea.

“I believe we’ve got two players who are among the best in the world in their role,” Ancelotti told UEFA.com.

“Their quality increases the team’s physical and technical ability.”

Real were champions by 13 points from Barcelona, and it would have been more had the Catalans not improved enormously in the second half of last season.

Xavi Hernandez has already made a big impact as coach at the Camp Nou and a raft of new recruits headed by Robert Lewandowski could help them bridge the gap to their bitter rivals.

Leeds United winger Raphinha and AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessie have also joined, while the defense should be greatly improved by the signings of Jules Kounde and Andreas Christensen.

The problem is that, by the start of this week, Barca had still not been able to register their new recruits because they had not raised enough money to comply with spending restrictions imposed on the club by La Liga.

That is despite Barcelona’s board selling off assets, including 25 percent of Barca Studios, which manages the club’s digital business and audiovisual productions, to Socios.com for 100 million euros.

Twenty-five percent of their domestic television rights for quarter of a century have been sold to US investment fund Sixth Street for 400 million euros.

Those deals are on top of a sponsorship agreement with Spotify, and on Tuesday it was reported in Spain that Barcelona would sell another 25 percent of Barca Studios to an investment fund for 100 million euros in a bid to satisfy La Liga.

The club have also been pressuring midfielder Frenkie de Jong to leave in order to dispose of his salary.

There may be concerns about the long-term consequences of these deals for a club with reported debts of 1.3 billion euros, but if they can register the new recruits then they could also be a real force to be reckoned with.

“We have generated a lot of hopeful anticipation. We have lots of hope too,” admitted Xavi. “Our objective this year is to win titles and play good football.”

If Barcelona cannot close the gap to Real then it appears unlikely anyone else can, with Atletico Madrid not looking significantly stronger than last year, when they finished third.

Luis Suarez has returned to his native Uruguay and Antoine Griezmann’s form is uncertain, although Axel Witsel reinforces their midfield and Argentine international Nahuel Molina adds quality at right-back.

On top of that, they still have Diego Simeone.

Sevilla came fourth last season, securing Champions League qualification at the expense of city rivals Real Betis, who won the Copa del Rey.

While Sevilla have signed Isco, they have lost two outstanding center-backs, with Kounde departing and Diego Carlos going to Aston Villa.

It was notable that the latter preferred to join a mid-table Premier League club rather than stay and play in the Champions League.

That reflected English football’s pulling power, while Goncalo Guedes, Valencia’s top scorer last season, has gone to Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Saudi-owned Almeria are back in La Liga after seven years, with Real Valladolid and Girona the other newly-promoted teams.


After latest milestone, Ronaldo eyes World Cup glory

Updated 28 November 2022

After latest milestone, Ronaldo eyes World Cup glory

  • A win against Uruguay would secure Portugal’s qualification from Group H to the knockout stages with a game to spare

DOHA: Another game, another personal milestone. For all the turmoil that has surrounded Cristiano Ronaldo ahead of what is likely to be his final World Cup, the Portugal great is still making his mark.

On Thursday, he became the first man to score in five World Cups.

Earlier this season, he registered the 700th club goal of his career.

Not bad for a 37-year-old, who doesn’t know where he will be playing beyond Qatar after having his Manchester United contract terminated in the wake of his incendiary interview criticizing manager Erik ten Hag and the club’s owners.

A win against Uruguay on Monday would secure Portugal’s qualification from Group H to the knockout stages with a game to spare after their opening 3-2 win against Ghana.

“This is just the beginning,” Ronaldo said in an Instagram post, adding that “there are no impossibilities.”

But if soccer’s ultimate numbers man is to achieve his ambition of lifting the one major trophy that eludes him, he can’t do it by himself.

That much was clear against Ghana, when Portugal also needed goals from Joao Félix and Rafael Leao to hold on for victory.

Felix is the likeliest heir to Ronaldo’s throne as Portugal’s inspiration-in-chief — and has even been linked with a potential move to United.

If Qatar is Ronaldo’s last World Cup dance, the moves aren’t quite as fluid as they once were.

His goal against Ghana came from the penalty spot, rather than a moment of the type of individual brilliance on which his career has been built.

That being said, FIFA Technical Study Group member Sunday Olizeh still described as “total genius” his ability to win a disputed foul from Mohammed Salisu that led to it — and Ghana coach Otto Addo insisted shouldn’t have been awarded.

Ronaldo’s celebrations suggested he doesn’t care where the goals come from, so long as they keep on coming. But Portugal can’t solely rely on such moments — and amid the noise that surrounds its most celebrated player, it can be forgotten how much talent coach Fernando Santos has at his disposal.

Not least Atletico Madrid forward Felix, United midfielder Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva of Manchester City.

“We have players that are more visible than others and they need to deal with that, with the high priority and pressure,” Santos said at a news conference Sunday before the game at the Lusail Stadium. “They express themselves in one particular way. There are players who are more extroverted, those more introverted, the most important thing is they play as a group, play together as one team.”

Portugal will be without Danilo Pereira, who suffered a rib injury in training.

Pepe, the 39-year-old center back, could replace him.

Uruguay drew 0-0 with South Korea in their first game of the tournament.

Like Portugal, Uruguay are blending the old and the new. Ronaldo’s long-time rival from their time at Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, Luis Suarez, is in an attack that also features the country’s new generation of talent in Darwin Nunez and Facundo Pellistri.

At 35, Suarez is no longer the force he once was and he was substituted just after an hour against South Korea. Another 35-year-old in Edinson Cavani replaced him, but Uruguay still couldn’t find a goal.

“I said that we had not been able to perform at our best,” Uruguay coach Diego Alonso said. “However, we had six chances to score against their one in the first half — we hit South Korea’s post, we had six, and two that hit the post.”

Ghana exposed vulnerabilities in Portugal’s defense — but Uruguay will need to be much more clinical if the South American team is to capitalize on Monday.


Fullkrug strikes late to salvage Germany World Cup draw with Spain

Updated 28 November 2022

Fullkrug strikes late to salvage Germany World Cup draw with Spain

  • Niclas Fullkrug — on only his third international appearance — lashed home an 83rd-minute equalizer
  • Alvaro Morata’s deft touch from Jordi Alba’s cross had put Spain ahead

AL KHOR; Qatar: Niclas Fullkrug’s late equalizer snatched Germany a morale-boosting 1-1 draw with Spain in a heavyweight World Cup clash on Sunday, leaving both sides’ hopes of qualifying for the last 16 still in the balance.
Alvaro Morata’s flicked finish had Spain on course to secure qualification from Group E, but the electric Jamal Musiala and Fullkrug combined to foil La Roja and restore some German pride.
Costa Rica’s surprise win over Japan earlier eased some pressure on Germany after their shock loss to the Asian side, but they were unable to capitalize for large periods in a battle for the ball against Spain.
The four-time world champions suffered a humiliating group-stage exit in Russia four years ago, and Morata’s strike at Al Bayt Stadium had them on the ropes, but Werder Bremen striker Fullkrug finished brilliantly to divide the points.
Spain lead Group E on four points, from Japan and Costa Rica on three each, while Germany have one, with a final round of matches to come.
The only World Cup group-stage clash to pit two former champions against each other lived up to its top billing in intensity and tactical intrigue, with both sides set on trying to dominate possession and press extremely high.
Germany coach Hansi Flick rejected suggestions his side had been distracted in their shock opening defeat by Japan because of their pre-game protest against FIFA “silencing teams” and the taut opening exchanges quickly ensured all focus was on the football.
Flick cut Kai Havertz from his line-up and deployed Thomas Mueller up front after their shocking opening-day capitulation, hoping for a quick reaction.
However, Spain almost took the lead in the seventh minute when Manuel Neuer palmed Dani Olmo’s powerful drive from range onto the woodwork.
It seemed like they were picking up where they left off after their 7-0 demolition of Costa Rica, but Germany steeled themselves, keeping Luis Enrique’s side at bay.
Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon relied on his footwork under pressure as La Roja sought to dominate possession.
One mistake handed Serge Gnabry an opportunity, but he fired wide.
Neuer erred with the ball at his feet too, with Germany similarly looking to build from the back, but Ferran Torres could not capitalize.
Antonio Ruediger powered home a header from a free-kick, but his celebration was cut short after VAR caught him half a step ahead of the Spanish defense, leaving the teams tied at the break.
Germany nearly struck after Joshua Kimmich won the ball back pressing extremely high, but Simon produced a fine save to deny him.
Just when Luis Enrique’s side seemed to have lost their grip on the game, they broke the deadlock.
Morata, on for Torres, finished clinically at the near post from an inviting low cross from Jordi Alba after 62 minutes.
It looked like it was enough for the 2010 champions, but Fullkrug — on only his third international appearance — decided otherwise, sneaking in behind substitute Alejandro Balde and lashing past Simon with seven minutes remaining.
Leroy Sane, on as a substitute after injury, might have won it late on for Germany but was forced extremely wide as he rounded Simon and could not find a finish or produce a cutback.
Spain face Japan on Thursday, while Germany play Costa Rica, needing to win and hoping La Roja do not lose.


Brazil confident Neymar will be back to lead championship bid

Updated 27 November 2022

Brazil confident Neymar will be back to lead championship bid

  • Doubts have even been raised in some quarters that Neymar might struggle to feature again at the tournament, which finishes with the final in Doha on Dec. 18. Defender Marquinhos, who is also a teammate of the forward at Paris Saint-Germain, said Neymar

DOHA: Brazil are confident that Neymar will return to lead their bid to win a sixth World Cup despite the world’s most expensive player suffering an ankle injury in their opening match in Qatar.

The Brazil captain came off late on in Thursday’s 2-0 win over Serbia with what was later diagnosed as a sprained ankle and has since been ruled out of their second Group G outing against Switzerland on Monday.

Doubts have even been raised in some quarters that he might struggle to feature again at the tournament, which finishes with the final in Doha on December 18.

But defender Marquinhos, who is also a teammate of the forward at Paris Saint-Germain, said Neymar has since been spending his days undergoing intensive physiotherapy in an attempt to recover full fitness as soon possible.

“At the time it was difficult for him and after the game he was sad which I think is normal given how much he has dreamt of this,” center-back Marquinhos said at a press conference in the Qatari capital on Sunday.

“Now, after the tests and the treatment, he is doing physiotherapy 24 hours a day which shows how much he wants to be back with us.

“We don’t know when, but we hope it’s as soon as possible.”

Brazil coach Tite insisted in the immediate aftermath of the win over Serbia that the 30-year-old Neymar would definitely play again at the tournament, but this time he was rather more measured when pressed on the subject of the superstar’s fitness, as well as that of right-back Danilo.

“I believe that Neymar and Danilo are going to play again at this World Cup. I do. But medically, clinically, I am in no position to say anything,” he admitted.

“I will keep doing so, not just for Neymar but also Danilo. I believe we are going to be able to use them again.”

A Brazil win against Switzerland at Doha’s Stadium 974 could be enough for them to secure a place in the last 16 with one group game to spare, depending on the result of the earlier Group G match between Cameroon and Serbia.

They would then play a last-16 tie on either December 5 or 6.

Danilo, the 31-year-old Juventus full-back, also suffered an ankle injury against Serbia and is expected to be replaced against the Swiss by either Real Madrid’s Eder Militao or the 39-year-old Dani Alves.

Yet it is the injury to Neymar that dominates all the talk in Brazil, a country which has become used to hanging on the fitness of its creative inspiration at the World Cup.

In 2014 he suffered a fractured bone in his back as Brazil beat Colombia in the quarter-finals and so missed the semifinal as the host nation went down 7-1 to Germany.

Four years ago he had to race to be fit in time for the World Cup in Russia and his impact on the tournament was

limited as the Selecao lost in the quarter-finals to Belgium.

This time he is the leader of a Brazil side that is nevertheless packed with quality in attack and who won their opening game thanks to a brace from the Tottenham Hostpur forward Richarlison.

“Obviously we wanted to have Neymar and Danilo. The coach wanted all 26 players available for the World Cup. But we are ready and confident that we can show how strong the squad is, that we are well trained and ready for whatever the tournament throws at us,” said Marquinhos.

“In a World Cup the team that starts the tournament is not always the team that finishes it, because of injuries or because some are playing better than others.

“Everyone has an important role to play.”


Tehran slams US football body after modified Iran flag posts

Updated 27 November 2022

Tehran slams US football body after modified Iran flag posts

  • US Soccer media officer Michael Kammarman: The intent of the posts was to show ‘support for women in Iran fighting for basic human rights’
  • Iran’s state-affiliated Tasnim News Agency said that the Iranian Football Federation will file a complaint against US Soccer to the FIFA Ethics Committee for ‘disrespecting the national flag’

TEHRAN: Tehran on Sunday slammed the US Soccer Federation after it briefly displayed the Iranian national flag on social media platforms without the country’s emblem in a show of support for anti-government protesters.

Iran’s government accused the American organization of removing the name of God from its flag and called for it to be “held responsible” for breaking FIFA rules.

The row has erupted in the run up to the two nations’ clash in a decisive World Cup match on Tuesday.

The USSF decision has added yet another political firestorm to the Middle East’s first World Cup which organizers had hoped would be spared off-the-field controversies.

Iran has been rocked by months of demonstrations against Tehran’s regime which have seen protesters from all walks of life burning pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and calling for the downfall of Iran’s theocracy.

Khamenei’s niece, a well-known rights activist, has called on foreign governments to cut all ties with Tehran over its violent crackdown on popular unrest.

A video of a statement by Farideh Moradkhani, an engineer whose late father was a prominent opposition figure married to Khamenei’s sister, was being widely shared online after what activist news agency HRANA said was her arrest on Nov. 23.

In the video, Moradkhani said: “Free people, be with us and tell your governments to stop supporting this murderous and child-killing regime.

“This regime is not loyal to any of its religious principles and does not know any rules except force and maintaining power.”

The clip was shared on YouTube by her brother, France-based Mahmoud Moradkhani on his Twitter account, and then by prominent Iranian rights activists.

In a statement on Sunday morning, the USSF said it had decided to forego the official Iranian flag on social media accounts to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.”

The Twitter account of the US men’s team displayed a banner with the squad’s matches in the group stage, with the Iranian flag only bearing its green, white, and red colors.

The same was seen in a post on its Facebook and Instagram accounts laying out the point totals so far in its group.

By Sunday afternoon, the normal flag with the emblem had been restored in the Twitter banner and the Facebook and Instagram posts with the altered flag had been removed.

The federation said: “We wanted to show our support for the women in Iran with our graphic for 24 hours.”

Its spokesman Neil Buethe would not say if the original decision had been cleared by USSF President Cindy Parlow Cone, a former national team player.

“This was a decision within the federation. I’m not going to get into who knew and who didn’t,” he said.

On whether there had been discussions with diplomatic entities, Buethe added: “There have been at certain times. I’m not going to talk about those, but, again, this is our decision not anyone else’s or pressure from anyone else.”

The USSF displayed the official Iranian flag in a graphic showing the World Cup Group B standings on its website.

The demonstrations challenging Iran’s government were sparked by the Sept. 16 death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the country’s morality police.

Protests have since seen at least 450 people killed and more than 18,000 arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, an advocacy group following the demonstrations.

Iran’s ISNA news agency quoted Safiollah Fagahanpour, an adviser to the Iranian Football Federation, saying that the “measures taken regarding the Iran flag are against the law” of FIFA competitions.

“They must be held responsible. Obviously, they want to affect Iran’s performance against the US by doing this,” Fagahanpour added.

Iran’s flag has become a point of contention at the World Cup.

Apparent pro-government supporters have waved it, shouting at those demonstrating over Amini’s death.


Belgium slip to shock World Cup defeat by Morocco

Updated 27 November 2022

Belgium slip to shock World Cup defeat by Morocco

  • Abdelhamid Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhlal’s late goals secured a surprise 2-0 triumph in Doha
  • Belgium produced another insipid display after their fortunate opening win over Canada

DOHA: Morocco jeopardized Belgium’s World Cup hopes as Abdelhamid Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhlal’s late goals secured a surprise 2-0 triumph in Doha on Sunday.
Belgium, third in Russia four years ago, could have qualified for the last 16 with victory but instead produced another insipid display after their fortunate opening win over Canada.
Substitute Sabiri was the hero thanks to a 73rd-minute free-kick which Thibaut Courtois allowed to bounce in at his near post, before Aboukhlal grabbed a second in stoppage time.
The tens of thousands of Morocco supporters responded by cheering their team home at a raucous Al Thumama Stadium.
Morocco replace Belgium at the top of Goup F and know they will qualify for the knockout phase for the first time since 1986 if they can avoid defeat against Canada on Thursday.
Belgium, the world’s second-ranked side, will have to beat 2018 runners-up Croatia to be sure of going through.
Roberto Martinez’s aging side have reached at least the quarter-finals of each of the past four major tournaments.
Belgium, whose captain Eden Hazard has admitted are not as good as in 2018, lacked spark and were made to pay by inspired opposition.
Morocco were dealt a blow after the national anthems when goalkeeper Yassine Bounou appeared to gesture he would not be able to play.
The experienced Munir El Kajoui was sent out in his place.
The Atlas Lions fans vastly outnumbered their Belgian counterparts and breathed a sigh of relief when the Europeans almost grabbed a fourth-minute lead.
Hazard played in Michy Batshuayi whose effort from a tight angle was kept out by Munir.
Belgium dominated the early exchanges but Morocco did manage a shot at goal when Hakim Ziyech fired over from distance.
The African side continued to grow into the contest and Selim Amallah, who was born in Belgium, volleyed into the stands before Achraf Hakimi blazed a presentable chance off target.
The crowd erupted in raucous celebration when Ziyech’s free-kick flew all the way into the net in first-half injury time.
But the goal was ruled out after a VAR check, as Romain Saiss was leaning just offside and the former Wolves defender was in ‘keeper Courtois’ eyeline.
Both teams started the second period brightly, with Ziyech shooting straight at Courtois and Hazard bringing a save from Munir at his near post.
Sofiane Boufal almost broke the deadlock in the 57th minute after a jinking run but bent the ball narrowly wide of the far post.
Martinez made two changes on the hour mark, replacing the ineffective Hazard with Dries Mertens and bringing on Youri Tielemans for Amadou Onana in midfield.
Mertens almost made an immediate impact when his strike from just outside the area was beaten away by Munir.
The deadlock was finally broken with 17 minutes remaining as Sabiri’s free-kick from near the touchline, much like for Ziyech’s ruled out goal, caught out a flat-footed Courtois.
Martinez threw on Romelu Lukaku, expected to miss the game injured, in a desperate attempt to get back into the match.
But Belgium had long since run out of ideas and it was Morocco who scored the second goal of the game.
Brilliant play by Ziyech created space in the area for Aboukhlal to lash the Chelsea winger’s pull-back into the roof of the net.
Any tension in the stands was lifted and the Morocco fans were able to celebrate their first World Cup win in 24 years.