Injury-hit Barcelona visits Mallorca with hole in defense

Barcelona’s Spanish coach Xavi gestures during their Spanish League against Mallorca at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona in May 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 29 September 2022

Injury-hit Barcelona visits Mallorca with hole in defense

  • After a spate of injuries that has decimated Barcelona over the international break, Xavi may have a huge hole in his defense ahead of Sunday’s game at Mallorca
  • Barcelona will also be without midfielder Frenkie de Jong and forward Memphis Depay

BARCELONA, Spain: When Xavi Hernández oversaw the remodeling of Barcelona’s squad this summer, the coach made sure he was so well covered at right-back that his club could afford to loan out US defender Sergiño Dest to AC Milan.
But after a spate of injuries that has decimated Barcelona over the international break, Xavi may have a huge hole in his defense ahead of Sunday’s game at Mallorca.
Jules Koundé, Ronald Araújo and Héctor Bellerín, who have played at right back this season, are all out for an undetermined period of time. Koundé and Araújo, who can play at center back as well, were hurt while playing for France and Uruguay, respectively, in games to prepare for the World Cup in November. Bellerín hurt his left leg while training for Barcelona.
That leaves Barcelona waiting to see if veteran Sergi Roberto can recover from a muscle problem that has sidelined him for three weeks in time for the trip to the Balearic Islands.
If not, Xavi may be forced to shoehorn a player with little or no experience at right back into the position, draft a player from Barcelona’s youth team, or opt to play with three centerbacks and two wing backs.
Barcelona will also be without midfielder Frenkie de Jong and forward Memphis Depay after they were both hurt while playing for the Netherlands. Neither has been a first-choice player for Xavi this season.
Of the injuries, Araújo’s appears to be the most serious. The 23-year-old defender underwent surgery this week in Finland to repair an abductor muscle in his right thigh that he damaged in Uruguay’s 1-0 loss to Iran on Friday.
Over the next three weeks, Barcelona face two Champions League group games against Inter Milan and a clásico against Real Madrid on Oct. 16.
The only good news for Xavi is that Robert Lewandowski returned in perfect shape from his stint with Poland. The striker leads the Spanish league with eight goals in six games.
Mallorca, coached by Mexican Javier Aguirre, has lost 12 of the last 13 visits by Barcelona to their stadium. Their only win during that stretch came in 2009 with Barcelona already crowned the league champion.
BENZEMA BACK
Karim Benzema is back for Real Madrid after recovering from a tendon injury and a strained muscle in his right thigh that had kept him off the field for over three weeks.
Benzema led Madrid to the Champions League and Spanish league double last season after scoring 44 goals in all competitions.
But his team have not missed him much and have kept up their perfect record this season of nine wins in as many games in all competitions.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side leads the league by two points ahead of Barcelona before they host fifth-placed Osasuna on Sunday.
“I’m feeling very good, comfortable. I’m looking forward to the game on Sunday,” Benzema said. “We’ve got a great team, although it could be said that we’ve got two teams. There’s no difference between those who start the game and those who come on.”
Meanwhile a struggling Sevilla faces a tough test when they visit Atlético Madrid on Saturday. Pressure is growing on coach Julen Lopetegui and the club’s leadership, which sold off talented players this summer, after the team have won just once in eight games overall.
Third-place Real Betis play at Celta Vigo on Sunday, while fourth-place Athletic Bilbao host Almería on Friday.


World Cup frenzy puts strain on Qatar’s camels

Updated 53 min 13 sec ago

World Cup frenzy puts strain on Qatar’s camels

  • World Cup fans coming in droves want perfect Instagram moment, riding a camel in the desert
  • Since the World Cup started, the animals are taken for 15 to 20, even 40 rides, without a break

MESAIEED, Qatar: Shaheen stretched out on the sand and closed his eyes, but there was little time to rest for the camel. World Cup fans coming in droves to the desert outside Doha were ready for their perfect Instagram moment: riding a camel on the rolling dunes.

As Qatar welcomes more than a million fans for the monthlong World Cup, even its camels are working overtime. Visitors in numbers the tiny emirate has never before seen are rushing to finish a bucket list of Gulf tourist experiences between games: ride on a camel’s back, take pictures with falcons and wander through the alleyways of traditional markets.

On a recent Friday afternoon, hundreds of visitors in soccer uniforms or draped in flags waited for their turn to mount the humpbacked animals. Camels that did not rise were forced up by their handlers. When one camel let out a loud grunt, a woman from Australia shrieked, “it sounds like they’re being violated!” Nearby, a group of men from Mexico dressed in white Qatari thobes and headdresses took selfies.

“It’s really an amazing feeling because you feel so tall,” 28-year-old Juan Gaul said after his ride. The Argentine fan was visiting Qatar for a week from Australia.

A man takes a selfie while riding camels in Mesaieed, Qatar on November 26, 2022. (AP)

Cashing in on the opportunity are the animals’ handlers who, thanks to the World Cup, are making several times more than they normally would.

“There’s a lot of money coming in,” said Ali Jaber al Ali, a 49 year-old Bedouin camel herder from Sudan. “Thank god, but it’s a lot of pressure.”

Al Ali came to Qatar 15 years ago but has worked with camels since he was a child. On an average weekday before the World Cup, Al Ali said his company would offer around 20 rides per day and 50 on weekends. Since the World Cup started, Al Ali and the men he works with are providing 500 rides in the morning and another 500 in the evening. The company went from having 15 camels to 60, he said.

“Tour guides want to move things fast,” Al Ali said, “so they add pressure on us.”

As crowds formed around them, many camels sat statue-like with cloth muzzles covering their mouths and bright saddles on their bodies. The smell of dung filled the air.

Like other Gulf cultures, camels once provided Qataris a vital form of transport and helped in the exploration and development of trade routes. Today, the ungulates figure into cultural pastimes: camel racing is a popular sport that takes place on old-school tracks outside the city.

Al Ali said he knows when an animal is tired — usually if it refuses to get up or sits back down after rising to its feet. He can identify each camel by its facial features.

“I am a Bedouin. I come from a family of Bedouins who care for camels. I grew up loving them,” Al Ali said.

But the sudden rise in tourists means there’s less time to rest between rides, he said. A short ride lasts just 10 minutes while longer ones run 20 to 30 minutes long.

Normally, Al Ali said a camel can rest after five rides. “Now, people are saying we can’t wait ... because they have other plans they need to go to in the middle of the desert,” he said.

A woman looks at her photo while riding a camel in Mesaieed, Qatar, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP)

Since the World Cup started, the animals are taken for 15 to 20 — sometimes even 40 rides — without a break.

Al Ali’s day starts around 4:30 a.m., when he feeds the animals and gets them ready for customers. Some tourists have been arriving at dawn, he said, hoping to get the perfect sunrise shot, “so we have to work with them and take photos for them.”

From midday until 2 p.m, both handlers and camels rest, he said. “Then we start getting ready for the afternoon battle.”

But not every visitor has been taken by the experience.

Pablo Corigliano, a 47 year-old real estate agent from Buenos Aires, said he was hoping for something more authentic. The excursions start on a stretch of desert by the side of a highway, not far from the industrial city of Mesaieed and its vast oil refineries.

“I was expecting something more wild,” said Corigliano. “I thought I would be crossing the desert, but when I arrived, I saw a typical tourist point.”

Soon after, Corigliano and a group of friends looked for a dune buggy to race into the desert.


US Soccer briefly removes emblem from Iran flag to show support for protesters

Updated 28 November 2022

US Soccer briefly removes emblem from Iran flag to show support for protesters

  • Federation says posts was intended to show “support for women fighting for basic human rights”
  • Iranian Football Federation says to file complaint against US Soccer to FIFA Ethics Committee

AL RAYYAN, Qatar: The United States Soccer Federation temporarily displayed Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic as a show of solidarity with protesters in Iran ahead of the two teams’ World Cup clash on Tuesday.

A now-deleted graphic of the Group B standings posted on Saturday across US Soccer’s official Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts displayed the Iranian flag only bearing its green, white and red colors.

Iran has been gripped by protests since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death in September while in police custody after she was arrested for flouting the country’s strict Islamic dress code.

The intent of the posts was to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights,” US Soccer media officer Michael Kammarman told a news conference on Sunday. Players were not consulted on the decision to alter the flag.

“We didn’t know anything about the posts but we are supporters of women’s rights, we always have been,” US defender Walker Zimmerman said.

“We’re focused a lot on Tuesday and the sporting side as well... but at the same time we’re firm believers in women’s rights and support them.

“And we know that it’s a lot of difficulties and a lot of heartbreak and in a very disturbing time.”

The banner on US Soccer’s Twitter page was also changed on Saturday to feature the flag without the emblem. It was changed back 24 hours later to the banner they had been using during the tournament.

Iran’s state-affiliated Tasnim News Agency said the Iranian Football Federation will file a complaint against US Soccer to the FIFA Ethics Committee for “disrespecting the national flag” of the Islamic Republic.

Iranian leaders have accused the United States and other foreign adversaries of fomenting the protests in which Iranians from all walks of life have mounted one of the boldest challenges to the theocracy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Washington has imposed sanctions on Iranian officials over the crackdown on protesters. Activist news agency HRANA said 450 protesters had been killed as of Nov. 26, including 63 minors, and over 18,000 have been arrested.

Iran’s players declined to sing the national anthem in their first game against England in an apparent show of solidarity with protesters. They sang quietly on Friday before their 2-0 win over Wales, where boos and jeers were heard from Iran supporters.

“We can’t speak for them and their message. We know that they’re all emotional,” Zimmerman said. “They’re all going through things right now, they’re human. Again, we empathize with that human emotion and completely feel for them.”

The United States and Iran will face off in a decisive Group B clash with their place at the World Cup on the line, in a match which was already freighted by decades of enmity between the nations.

With England sitting top of Group B with four points and facing bottom side Wales in their final group game on Tuesday, the Iran-US contest will determine which team goes through to the last 16.

Their eagerly awaited meeting is a rematch of the 1998 World Cup group stage contest — which Iran won 2-1 — when relations between the two nations had also been hostile.


Shaheen a 'big loss' for Pakistan, says England coach McCullum

Updated 28 November 2022

Shaheen a 'big loss' for Pakistan, says England coach McCullum

  • The left-arm pacer was left out of series following a knee injury
  • The 22-year-old also had his appendix removed earlier this month

ISLAMABAD: The absence through injury of fast bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi is a "big loss" to Pakistan in the three-match Test series starting this week, England head coach Brendon McCullum said Monday. 

The lanky left-arm pacer -- Pakistan's main wicket-taker in all three formats -- was left out of the series following a knee injury sustained during the Twenty20 World Cup final in Australia earlier this month. 

The 22-year-old also had his appendix removed earlier this month. 

England practised for the first time at Rawalpindi stadium on Monday, a day after arriving in Pakistan on their first Test tour since 2005. 

The first Test starts on Thursday. 

McCullum said Shaheen had made huge progress since he played with and then coached the fast bowler during the first two editions of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) in 2016 and 2017. 

"I know him pretty well. He's a wonderful bowler and he's turned into a fine leader for Pakistani cricket," McCullum told a press conference. 

"Shaheen's obviously a big loss." 

In his absence, Pakistan will rely on young Naseem Shah as well as Mohammad Wasim Junior and Haris Rauf -- who haven't played at Test level. 

But McCullum praised Pakistan's fast-bowling talent. 

"You look at their team sheet and you see talent... you see some that might not be developed talent, but it's talent. 

"You need to respect that, and you need to find a way to be able to be well-researched and well-planned about what's going to come at you." 

England were due to visit Pakistan last year but pulled out a week after New Zealand abandoned their limited-over series on security grounds minutes before the first match. 

They then re-scheduled the tour in two phases, having visited Pakistan for a Twenty20 series two months ago. 

McCullum, who took over as England coach last year, admitted Pakistan would be strong at home. 

"It's a very good Pakistan squad, it's well-rounded," said McCullum, under who England have won six out of seven Tests. 

"It's got some experience and some youth -- with both batting and bowling -- and they'll be a tough challenge. 

"We know we'll have to play well if we're going to be successful." 

The second Test is in Multan (December 9-13) and the third in Karachi (December 17-21). 


Netherlands on cusp of advancing at World Cup

Updated 28 November 2022

Netherlands on cusp of advancing at World Cup

  • If the Dutch advance it will put more focus on 71-year-old coach Louis van Gaal
  • Van Gaal stepped out of retirement just over a year ago to take over the national team

DOHA: The Netherlands is on the verge of reaching the knockout stage at the World Cup and an overwhelming favorite in its final Group A match on Tuesday against host nation Qatar.
If the Dutch advance it will put more focus on 71-year-old coach Louis van Gaal, who stepped out of retirement just over a year ago to take over the national team while being treated for aggressive prostate cancer.
Host nation Qatar has lost its first two matches and already missed its chance to move on from the group stage.
For the Netherlands a draw will suffice to advance and put the Netherlands into contention again in a World Cup after failing to qualify four years ago. The Dutch could even get through with a loss if Ecuador beats Senegal in the other Group A match.
In the round of 16, the Netherlands would face one of the top two teams from Group B, where England is the favorite with Iran, Wales, and the United States scrambling for a spot.
Van Gaal said before the World Cup that the Netherlands can win it all, although few see this as one of the country’s best teams.
No powerful soccer nation has come up short at the World Cup as often as the Dutch, who have been the runners-up three times: in 1974 against West Germany, in 1978 facing Argentina, and in 2010 vs. Spain.
The Dutch also finished third in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after losing a shootout against Argentina in the semifinals.
After being out of the game for several years, Van Gaal came out of retirement and replaced Frank de Boer in August of 2021. He said he did it out of duty.
“Because, simply, no one else was available at that time,” Van Gaal said.
Van Gaal’s matter-of-fact courage has to be a motivator for the Dutch. But he might also stir up Qatar.
Earlier this year the outspoken Van Gaal said it was “ridiculous” holding the World Cup in Qatar, a tiny country of 3 million. Qatar’s vast wealth is fueled by natural gas and oil.
“It’s ridiculous that we’re going to play in a country to — what does FIFA say? — — to develop football there,” Van Gaal said, adding that Qatar is too small and lacks a soccer culture.
“But it doesn’t matter. It’s about money, commercial interests. That’s what matters to FIFA,” Van Gaal added.


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.