Ronaldo, Portugal look to end Morocco’s World Cup run

Morocco’s Bilal el Khannous, Sofyan Amrabat, Romain Ghanem Saiss, Badr Benoune and Sofiane Boufal warm up ahead of their World Cup round of 16 match against Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan on December 6, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 09 December 2022

Ronaldo, Portugal look to end Morocco’s World Cup run

  • Ronaldo has again managed to steal the spotlight in his inimitable way
  • Will he start, or won’t he? That’s the big question being asked about Ronaldo

DOHA: These really are pinch-yourself times for Morocco: A first-ever spot in the quarterfinals of a World Cup — the first to take place in the Arab world, no less — and now a meeting with Portugal and their superstar striker, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Well, maybe.
Because Ronaldo has again managed to steal the spotlight in his inimitable way, even bumping Morocco’s historic run to the last eight off the top of the agenda before Saturday’s narrative-laden match.
Will he start, or won’t he? That’s the big question being asked about Ronaldo after he was dropped by Portugal coach Fernando Santos for the 6-1 win over Switzerland in the round of 16 on Tuesday.
Not only was the five-time world player of the year relegated to the bench, his replacement — 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos — scored a hat trick to leave Santos with quite the selection dilemma against Morocco.
“I hope he won’t (play),” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said Friday of Ronaldo. “As a coach I know he’s one of the best players in history and so I’d be delighted if he didn’t play.”
The announcement of Portugal’s team about 90 minutes before the game at Al Thumama Stadium is keenly awaited as Ronaldo prepares to play in the quarterfinals of the World Cup for just the second time in his glittering career.
Santos declined to share selection thoughts Friday for what he said would be a different kind of game to the one against Switzerland, while noting that “90 percent of the questions” are about Ronaldo at Portugal’s pregame news conferences.
One inevitable question Santos faced was about reports in national media that Ronaldo threatened to leave the World Cup after being told he was benched. Not true, the coach said.
“He has never told me that he wanted to leave the national team,” Santos said through an interpreter. “Cristiano obviously wasn’t very happy about it. He told me ‘Do you really think it’s a good idea?’”
Portugal are at this stage for only the third time after 1966 and 2006, perhaps surprising given the talent to have come from the country down the years.
Four years ago, Portugal lost in the round of 16 to Uruguay, though a group-stage game against Morocco was “possibly the most difficult match” the team faced, Santos said Friday.
“We won 1-0 but we had to suffer a lot to win that match,” he said. “My players know that.”
As for Morocco, the nation is in uncharted territory after becoming only the fourth African country to reach the quarterfinals at soccer’s biggest tournament, after Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010). None of them reached the semifinals.
Morocco are also the only team from outside Europe or South America to make it to the last eight in Qatar.
The team’s penalty-shootout victory over Spain in the last 16 sparked wild celebrations not just among its many fans in Qatar and at home.
The excitement extended to the Moroccan diaspora of around 5 million people spread mostly around Europe, which has united behind the World Cup run of the team nicknamed the “Atlas Lions.”
Morocco fans poured into the streets of European cities to celebrate the team’s passage to the quarterfinals, which came after Morocco advanced from a group containing second-ranked Belgium and 2018 runner-up Croatia.
“We haven’t got carried away by the euphoria,” Regragui said. “We’ve just surprised a few people and surprised a few algorithms who expected Belgium to get through ... and expected Spain to get through. We are not satisfied with where we have come so far.”
Regragui, who was born in France, and 14 of the 26 players in the squad were born abroad — the highest proportion for any team at a World Cup being held in the Middle East for the first time in the tournament’s 92-year history.
The Arab world’s standard bearer, Morocco are in the quarterfinals on merit, too. The team have only conceded one goal — and that was an own-goal against Canada — and are proving so well-organized, with a sturdy back four headlined by Achraf Hakimi, a dedicated midfield anchored by Sofyan Amrabat, two mercurial wingers in Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal, and a striker in Youssef En-Nesyri, who occupies defenses with his relentless work rate.
Three key players might be struggling to be healthy enough to play against Portugal, though. Amrabat said he played with a back injury requiring painkilling injections in the match against Spain, during which captain Romain Saiss finished the game with his leg bandaged up after treatment, and fellow center back Nayef Aguerd hobbled off in tears with an apparent thigh injury.
“Yes, they are tired, yes, we have injuries. We are not going to hide it and we are not going to complain,” Regragui said. “We are here on a mission.”
Portugal doesn’t appear to have such problems, with Santos’ squad depth so impressive that he could afford to leave players like Ronaldo, João Cancelo and Rúben Neves on the bench against Switzerland after they started every group game.
Even if he is among the substitutes again, Ronaldo — playing in what is likely his last World Cup — is expected to see some time on the field. Given the drama constantly surrounding him, he’s sure to be a talking point whatever happens.


Farah says 2023 London Marathon will be his last

Updated 19 sec ago

Farah says 2023 London Marathon will be his last

  • Farah last ran in London in 2019, coming fifth, having finished third the year before
British athletics great Mo Farah has said this year's London Marathon will likely be his last as he contemplates the end of a brilliant career.
The 40-year-old is best known for his success on the track winning gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres at both the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games, as well as several world titles across both distances.
And while his marathon career has reached nothing like the same heights, Farah is keen to run in London again after missing last year's edition even though he will be 40 by the time of the April 23 race
"It's been an amazing career and taking part in the London Marathon is a very big deal," he said in a statement issued by event organisers.
"I was gutted not to race last year and I just want to give it one more shot.
"It depends on my body. I just want to get to the start line and see what I can manage. I'm just taking one race at a time."
He added: "I'm not a spring chicken any more. You can't keep coming back in the right shape and, for me, I'd love to be able to finish it at home."
Farah has ruled out competing at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but may yet try to finish his time as a British international at this year's World Championships in Budapest.
"I'm not going to go to the Olympics and I think 2023 will be my last year," he added.
"But if it came down to it towards the end of the year and you did get picked for your country, I'd never turn that down."
Farah last ran in London in 2019, coming fifth, having finished third the year before.
"So it's been a little while," he said. "But I'll be preparing well, I'll head out to Ethiopia and put in a lot of solid training and see what I can do when it comes to April."

World’s top cyclists begin long-awaited Saudi Tour 2023

Updated 31 January 2023

World’s top cyclists begin long-awaited Saudi Tour 2023

  • Saudi Tour, featuring 112 Saudi and international cyclists, is scheduled to end on February 3
  • Riyadh hosting such events increases culture of sports in Kingdom, says Saudi cycling federation

RIYADH: A total of 112 leading local and top international cyclists representing 16 teams are participating in the long-awaited Saudi Tour that started today and ends on Feb. 3.

The announcement of the field was made at a press conference on Sunday in AlUla, in the presence of several of the riders and officials from the Ministry of Sports and the Saudi Arabia Cycling Federation.

Present at the event was the SACF’s spokesperson Abdulaziz Al-Shahrani, spokesperson for the Royal Commission for AlUla Philip Jones, spokesperson for the Amaury Sports Organization Gion Marino, Saudi national team cyclist Hassan Al-Jumaa, Dutch cyclist Dylan Groenewegen and German cyclist John Degenkolb.

“Saudi Arabia’s hosting of such sporting events increases the culture of practicing sports, especially since the mass base for cycling is large and growing,” said Al-Shahrani. He said this would serve as a massive boost for the sport domestically.

Jones said he was pleased to host the Saudi Tour for the second time in AlUla, which would consolidate the region’s spectacular growth of the past few years. He commended the partnership between AlUla Governorate, the Ministry of Sports, and the SACF.

“If you haven’t been to AlUla in the past year, you really haven’t been (anywhere),” Jones told Arab News. “This destination has undergone significant change, and if you look around, you will find new hotels, restaurants, several new visitor assets, and we are adding a new district called Al-Jadida. Hosting an event like the Saudi Tour allows us to invite international media so they can witness the changes for themselves.”

Commenting on the Australian Jayco AlUla team, sponsored by the RCU, Jones said: “They have great chances in the race, and I am a fan of it, especially since we sponsor this team, and it bears the name of the city that we aspire to be the most civilized city in the world.”

Amaury’s Marinon said the five new routes of the race, over a total distance of 830 kilometers, with new areas and locations, would provide an ideal platform for the contestants to perform.

“The countries of the world are following with enthusiasm the course of the race this year,” said Marinon. “There are many different programs allocated in different countries to cover the event.”

Dutch cyclist Groenewegen said: “I am excited about this race, and I came to AlUla to win. And I also feel very proud to be in the 2023 Saudi Tour.”

During the inauguration ceremony of the Saudi Tour, Deputy Minister of Sports Badr Al-Qadi spoke to Arab News about the importance of the race, which he said was demonstrating the “leadership” of the nation’s sports sector.

“His Highness Minister of Sports Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal leads the sector and has an integrated strategy (developed). This strategy aims to increase the percentage of sports practice, improve the performance of elite athletes, and discover talent. This event aims to discover talent and diversify sports, including cycling.”

Many eyes will be on the Kingdom’s national team, and the athletes have been encouraged to embrace the experience.

Haider Al-Essa, head of the SACF delegation, said: “We assembled the Saudi squad and advised them to enjoy themselves, let go of any tension, and join the tournament in good spirits. We noted that simply competing against top-tier international cyclists was an enormous accomplishment.”


McIlroy comes out on top of bitter rival Reed in Dubai

Updated 30 January 2023

McIlroy comes out on top of bitter rival Reed in Dubai

  • McIlroy had fallen behind arch-rival Reed after a bogey on the 15th hole
  • The Northern Irishman bounced back with birdies on the 17th and 18th to prevail over Reed by a single shot

DUBAI: Rory McIlroy prevailed in a nail-biting finish over Patrick Reed, the man he “prefers not to acknowledge” after a spat between the two, in the rain-delayed $9 million Dubai Desert Classic on Monday.
It was the first time McIlroy has won the first start of his new season and is his 15th DP World Tour victory in 231 starts.
It was also his third Dubai Desert Classic victory in 13 appearances.
He will remain world number one, after Spaniard Jon Rahm failed to win the Farmers Insurance Open on the PGA Tour on Saturday.
McIlroy and Reed went into the tournament after a row when Reed reportedly threw a tee toward McIlroy on the practice range in Dubai.
The two have been at odds since McIlroy criticized players, including Reed, who joined the rival Saudi-backed LIV Golf circuit.
McIlroy, who lost this tournament last year on the final hole when his second shot found the water and he ended up making a bogey, had fallen behind Reed after a bogey on the 15th hole.
However, the Northern Irishman made amends with birdies on the 17th and 18th in a round of four-under par 68.
McIlroy finished on 19-under par, while Reed, starting the day four shots behind the Northern Irishman, made a crucial bogey on the 16th and a par on the drivable par-4 17th hole in his round of 65.
Australian Lucas Herbert, champion in 2019, closed with a six-under par 66 to take solo third place at 16-under par 272.
England’s Callum Shinkwin, who started with three bogies in his first six holes playing in the lead group with McIlroy, made six birdies after that to shoot a 69 and take solo fourth place at 273.
The DP World Tour stays in the UAE for a fourth consecutive week and will head to the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah this week for the $2 million RAK Championship.

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Al-Ittihad beat Al-Feiha 2-0 in Saudi Super Cup Final

Updated 30 January 2023

Al-Ittihad beat Al-Feiha 2-0 in Saudi Super Cup Final

  • Although Al-Feiha had defeated defending league champions Al-Hilal 1-0 on Thursday, they were the underdogs against Al-Ittihad

Two goals from Abderrazak Hamdallah gave Al-Ittihad a 2-0 win over Al-Feiha on Sunday in the Saudi Super Cup Final in Riyadh to hand the Jeddah giants their first major piece of silverware in five years.

The victory also gave former Tottenham Hotspur and FC Porto boss Nuno Santo his first trophy in Saudi Arabia.

Although Al-Feiha had defeated defending league champions Al-Hilal 1-0 on Thursday, they were the underdogs against Al-Ittihad.

The victory handed the Jeddah giants their first major piece of silverware in five years. (SPA)

And Hamdallah, who featured for Morocco in the World Cup, struck early in each half to give the Tigers a big win against their 10-man opponents.

The first goal came in the third minute. Al-Ittihad’s Romarinho picked up the ball just outside the Al-Feiha half and the Brazilian’s pass fed Hamdallah who took one touch on the edge of the area and then coolly lifted the ball over Vladimir Stojkovic.

It was a great start for the Jeddah giants and it got better for them midway through the first half as Al-Feiha were reduced to 10 men. Abdulrahman Al-Safari went in high with his studs on Egyptian midfielder Tarek Hamed and was shown a straight red card from the referee.

Five minutes before the break it looked as if the in-form Romarinho had extended his side’s lead but the Brazilian, who finished smartly from close range, was adjudged by the referee’s assistant — and also VAR — to have been offside.

Al-Ittihad had a chance to tighten their grip on the trophy just before the break as Stojkovic was penalized for bringing down Hamdallah inside the penalty area and the referee pointed to the spot. However, Abdulrahman Al-Oboud dragged his shot wide.

An Al-Feiha player comforts a forlorn colleague after the Al Majma'ah-based club's loss to Al-Ittihad. (SPA)

The frustration for watching fans in Jeddah did not last long as Hamdallah doubled Al-Ittihad’s lead three minutes after the restart, much to the dismay of Stojkovic. The Serbian goalkeeper came a long way off his line in an attempt to punch away a free-kick from deep, and Hamdallah’s head got there first to send the ball looping into the net.

Al-ittihad were on top for much of the second half and worked hard to ensure that they stayed in front.

Boss Santo said: “It was a good performance from us and we worked hard. It was a tough game and we are delighted that we ended up winning.”

Santo, who arrived last summer after spells with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Spurs, looked delighted as his players collected the trophy.

There is still the challenge of becoming champions of Saudi Arabia for the first time since 2009, but Santos is pleased with the progress his side have made so far.

He said: “We know that there is still a long way to go this season.

“The most important thing is that we stay together and work hard. If we can do that then who knows what can happen?

“It is great to lift this trophy but we hope that this is just the beginning.”


Madrid frustrated by Sociedad, loses ground to Barcelona

Updated 30 January 2023

Madrid frustrated by Sociedad, loses ground to Barcelona

  • Vinícius played well overall and created some good opportunities for himself, but in the end was thwarted by a great performance from Sociedad goalkeeper Álex Remiro

MADRID: Vinícius Júnior had his share of chances to break the deadlock. More than once, the Brazil forward was in front of the opposition goal with only the ‘keeper to beat.
But Vinicius and his teammates couldn’t get the job done on Sunday as Real Madrid was held to a 0-0 draw at home by third-place Real Sociedad to lose ground to Barcelona at the top of the Spanish league.
The result left defending champion Madrid five points behind the Catalan rival, which won 1-0 at Girona on Saturday. Sociedad stayed three points behind Madrid, and eight behind Barcelona. Both Madrid and Barcelona have a game in hand.
Vinícius played well overall and created some good opportunities for himself, but in the end was thwarted by a great performance from Sociedad goalkeeper Álex Remiro. He made three key saves against close-range attempts by Vinícius, and also saw the Brazilian send the ball wide in a one-on-one situation.
“Vinícius played a good match, if he had scored it would have been a spectacular one,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “He has been playing well. Sometimes he will miss, but he is always trying.”
Karim Benzema and Rodrygo also couldn’t break through the Sociedad defense as Madrid was held scoreless for the first time this season despite more than 20 attempts against Sociedad, which also had its opportunities in an intense match at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
“We played a very complete game but couldn’t score,” Ancelotti said. “We were close. I’m satisfied with the draw because we played well.”
Madrid, coming off a home win in the derby against Atletico Madrid in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey, remains unbeaten against Sociedad since a 4-3 home loss in the quarterfinals of the Copa in 2020, a competition the Basque Country side won.
Sociedad was coming off a 1-0 loss at Barcelona in the Copa quarterfinals, a result that ended its nine-game winning streak in all competitions. It had been one of the hottest teams in Spain until the consecutive setbacks against the powerhouses.
ATLETICO REBOUNDS
Atletico Madrid bounced back from its Copa elimination against Madrid with a 1-0 win at seventh-place Osasuna.
Substitute Saúl Ñíguez scored the winner less than 10 minutes after he had entered the match in the 65th.
Atletico relinquished a late 1-0 lead against Madrid to lose 2-1 in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey on Thursday. The cup was the only competition Atletico realistically had a chance to win as it had already been eliminated from the Champions League and the Europa League, and it currently trails league leader Barcelona by 13 points.
“We are out of the Champions (League) and the Copa, but the motivation to play for Atletico remains,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said. “I’ll always demand that from my players.”
It was the third win in four games in all competitions for Simeone’s team, while struggling Osasuna remained winless in four straight.
Osasuna has only one victory in eight matches overall, though it hadn’t lost since last year.
Atletico hadn’t won an away match in the league since October at Real Betis.
WILLIAMS’ RUN ENDS
Iñaki Williams’ absence in Athletic Bilbao’s 1-0 loss at Celta Vigo ended his record of 251 consecutive league appearances. He did not play in Vigo because of injury.
Williams had played in every league match for Bilbao since April 2016.
Veteran striker Iago Aspas scored Celta’s winner in the 71st. The result moved Celta to 16th place, while Bilbao remained eighth.
Bilbao is winless in five league games, since a 3-0 home victory against Valladolid before the World Cup.
VALENCIA’S STRUGGLES
Valencia’s struggles continued with a 1-0 loss at Valladolid, adding pressure on coach Gennaro Gattuso.
Valencia has only one win in its last 10 league games, against Real Betis before the World Cup. It dropped to 14th place and one point above the relegation zone.
Canadian forward Cyle Larin scored a 90th-minute winner for 17th-place Valladolid, which ended its five-game losing streak across all competitions.