Asian heavyweights win big to launch World Cup qualifying in style

South Korea’s forward Cho Gue-sung (R) fights for the ball with Singapore’s goalkeeper Hassan Abdullah Sunny during their 2026 World Cup qualification match in Seoul on Nov. 16, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 16 November 2023
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Asian heavyweights win big to launch World Cup qualifying in style

  • Australia hammered Bangladesh 7-0 in Melbourne
  • In Group B, Ayase Ueda also scored a hat-trick as Japan got their bid to reach an eighth straight World Cup off to an emphatic start with a 5-0 win over Myanmar

HONG KONG: Asia’s footballing heavyweights made fast starts to World Cup qualifying on Thursday with Australia, Japan and South Korea plundering 17 goals between them in big wins on home soil.
The long road to the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico began in earnest in Asia with 36 teams in action Thursday.
Australia, who reached the last 16 at the Qatar 2022 World Cup before bowing out 2-1 to Lionel Messi and eventual champions Argentina, hammered Bangladesh 7-0 in Melbourne.
It was Australia’s biggest victory since 2019 and the perfect present for Graham Arnold, who took charge for the 59th time, a record for a Socceroos coach.
Substitute Jamie Maclaren hit a second-half hat-trick in front of nearly 21,000 and it could have been even worse for Bangladesh but Massimo Luongo missed a late penalty.
“Seven goals, but it could have been more, for me too, but three points and we move on,” said Melbourne City striker Maclaren.
“I’m not even sure (goalkeeper) Maty (Ryan) had a save to make so proud of the team, but we obviously know the next games are going to be harder.”
Australia are in Group I alongside Palestine and Lebanon, who meet in Sharjah.
In Group B, Ayase Ueda also scored a hat-trick as Japan got their bid to reach an eighth straight World Cup off to an emphatic start with a 5-0 win over Myanmar.
The hosts were missing injured Brighton winger Kaoru Mitoma but Feyenoord striker Ueda picked up the slack with a ruthless display of finishing in Osaka.
Daichi Kamada and Ritsu Doan also got on the scoresheet as Japan took early control of a qualifying group that also includes North Korea and Syria.
Japan coach Hajjime Moriyasu demanded even more from his side despite their handsome victory.
“We had chances to score more goals,” said Moriyasu, who took Japan to the last 16 at the Qatar World Cup following stunning wins over Germany and Spain.
Not to be outdone, Jurgen Klinsmann went a little way toward silencing the doubters in South Korea as his side strolled to a 5-0 thumping of Singapore in Seoul.
Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min was among the goal-scorers, and it was a cracker, bending the ball left-footed into the top corner from outside the box.
Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers earlier headed home for his second goal in as many matches for his country.
“A huge compliment to the team, a very professional performance,” German legend and South Korea coach Klinsmann said.
“Five-nil is a nice scoreline to read but it doesn’t really show you the energy and effort you have to invest in order to get to that scoreline,” he added.
Also in Group C, Wang Shangyuan scored 16 minutes from time to give China a 2-1 win in Thailand and join South Korea at the top of the early standings.
China host South Korea on Tuesday.
In Group F, Vietnam beat the Philippines 2-0 away.
A record eight direct spots and one intercontinental playoff berth are at stake for 2026 for Asian Football Confederation sides, from nine groups of four.
The top two from each group go through to the final qualifying round in Asia.
Among games later Thursday, Saudi Arabia host Pakistan, Iran take on Hong Kong and Qatar play Afghanistan.


Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars

Updated 28 February 2024
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Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars

  • The Moroccan international was expected to exit the reigning SPL champions but has ended up being their most consistent forward this season

Al-Ittihad’s defense of the Saudi Pro League title has largely been one to forget.

Despite some early season promise that had them top for the first month, the wheels quickly fell off culminating in a disappointing showing in December’s FIFA Club World Cup and speculation that star signing Karim Benzema wanted out.

As recently as round seven they were still top of the table, but just 14 matches later they are now fifth and a whopping 22 points behind league leaders Al-Hilal. Any notion of going back-to-back has long since disappeared.

Their mission now is to simply try to close the gap on third-placed Al-Ahli, their crosstown Jeddah rivals, in the hope of securing what is still an unlikely spot in next season’s reformed AFC Champions League Elite competition.

Whereas last season they had one of the best defenses in the league — and one of the best on record in Saudi Pro League history — this season they have the equal worst of the top six.

Nuno Espirito Santo, meanwhile, who spearheaded that drought-breaking title triumph, has been moved on for hotshot Argentine manager Marcelo Gallardo.

But as bad as it has been, it could have been so much worse were it not for the goals of Moroccan international Abderrazak Hamdallah, who has 15 from 17 games this season.

The veteran striker has made a name for himself in the Kingdom since joining Al-Nassr after an equally fruitful stint in Qatar with El-Jaish and Al-Rayyan.

Scoring a league record 34 goals in his debut season with Al-Nassr, and 29 in his second season, he transferred to Al-Ittihad during the 2021-2022 season and has registered double digits in each of his five SPL seasons before the current campaign, making him one of the SPL’s all-time leading scorers.

It has also won him the hearts of Ittihad’s large and fervently faithful fanbase.

But after Al-Ittihad’s stunning capture of Benzema, regarded as one of the best strikers of the modern era, questions were naturally asked as to what the future held for the 33-year-old Hamdallah.

It seems inconceivable that the title-winning team would move on their leading striker who had just won the league’s golden boot, but that is what almost eventuated.

It is understood that the plan inside the walls of Al-Ittihad was to move the striker on — after all, they had Benzema now — only relenting after growing fan pressure against the move, giving the Moroccan a reprieve.

While running your recruitment based on the wishes of the fans is perhaps not the smartest strategy, it could be argued it was their best management decision of the summer.

Still only 33 and with plenty of years ahead of him, Hamdallah is what every team craves — a natural and reliable goalscorer. And as Al-Ittihad’s title defense has faltered, it is largely the goals from Hamdallah that is keeping their campaign alive.

His brace in their come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Al-Wehda on the weekend was further proof of his importance to Gallardo’s side.

Looking back, it seems incredulous that he could have been moved on. He will know how close he was and you get the sense he is playing with that chip on his shoulder, that every time he steps foot on the pitch, he has a point to prove.

And boy is he proving it.

His form this season also serves as a timely reminder that the SPL did not begin with the influx of headline signings in the most recent off-season.

Before the arrival of Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, Neymar and even before Cristiano Ronaldo, the SPL still attracted elite talent.

While Hamdallah may not possess the profile of those recent arrivals, his quality cannot be questioned. The same can be said for Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr teammate, Anderson Talisca.

After Ronaldo’s arrival in Riyadh there was speculation that the Brazilian would be moved on; deemed surplus to requirements at a club that had to shed a foreign player to make way for Ronaldo.

Talisca remained and this season he and Ronaldo have combined for 35 of Al-Nassr’s 60 goals.

Write these guys off at your peril.

As Al-Ittihad prepare for a season-defining fortnight, which will feature three Saudi Clasico’s against the high-flying Al-Hilal — one in the league and home-and-away ties in the AFC Champions League — they will do so grateful to have the Moroccan leading the line.

Having scored in eight consecutive league matches dating back to November, his form is imperious. His five goals in three games since the league resumed from its winter break make him the league’s most in-form striker.

While their title defense may be over, that does not mean they cannot impact where the silverware goes this season. Not to mention there is still silverware of their own to play for in the form of the AFC Champions League, where he has registered a further four goals.

Staring down this Al-Hilal side is a daunting prospect — their winning streak currently stands at 24 across all competitions (26 if you include friendly wins over Inter Miami and Al-Nassr). Their undefeated streak is now at 34 games.

And as good as his scoring record is, Hamdallah has only scored once against Al-Hilal since joining Al-Ittihad two years ago; that coming in their 4-3 loss earlier this season. It is a wrong he will be determined to right over the next fortnight.

In a season to forget for Al-Ittihad, Hamdallah could still deliver moments to remember and that starts with this week’s trip to Riyadh’s Kingdom Arena.


Eddie Howe reveals Newcastle shootout hero almost missed FA Cup win as Magpies eye Wembley return

Updated 28 February 2024
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Eddie Howe reveals Newcastle shootout hero almost missed FA Cup win as Magpies eye Wembley return

  • Keeper Martin Dubravka was ‘playing slightly ill,’ deserves ‘huge credit’
  • Coach is hoping tide is turning for the team as injured players return

BLACKBURN: Eddie Howe has revealed Newcastle United penalty shootout hero Martin Dubravka almost missed the Magpies’ FA Cup win through illness.

The Slovak keeper was Newcastle’s matchwinner, not only keeping the Magpies in the fifth-round encounter with some goal-saving stops in the 1-1 draw stretched across 120 minutes, but also with two spot-kick saves in the deciding shootout, which the visitors won 4-3.

Anthony Gordon had given Newcastle the lead in the second half before Sammie Szmodics popped up with a late equalizer to take the match to extra time, then eventually penalties. Fabian Schar, Bruno Guimaraes, Elliot Anderson and Gordon all netted in the shootout, with only Harvey Barnes seeing one saved. Dubravka pulled off two remarkable stops, from Szmodics and Blackburn Rovers’ skipper Dominic Hyam to seal a place in the last eight.

Dubravka missed the 4-1 loss at Arsenal at the weekend, with stand-in Loris Karius coming into the side — and Howe says his goalie was not 100 percent fit for the encounter, which makes his performance even more remarkable.

“It was (touch and go), it wasn’t clear. He was nowhere near fit for the weekend against Arsenal so he hasn’t been 100 percent for quite a long period of time and has been playing slightly ill and he deserves huge credit for doing that,” said Howe.

“The two penalty saves were huge for us. In open play he (Dubravka) really performed well today and (we) needed him to because they had a few big moments.

“I thought the best save he probably made was in the build-up to their goal which I thought was a magnificent save to tip it onto the bar but unfortunately he scored the rebound.

“That was probably the most disappointing thing on the night because we worked so hard to lead but to let them back into the game was a kick at that time.”

Newcastle might have got back to winning ways but this was far from vintage for Howe’s men. The Magpies labored to beat a team that have won just one of their last 13 encounters in the championship, the second tier of English football.

“We got better as we got on. I don’t think the first half was particularly good, the second half was better and extra time was our best spell of the game by a long way and we shouldn’t have allowed it to go to penalties with the chances we had in extra time,” said Howe.

“I thought generally our attitude was much better. We were fighting, we were giving everything. We weren’t perfect in our performance but our spirit was there and our spirit has been there, since I’ve been here, bar two games and it has to be there in every game.

“We spoke honestly after the Arsenal game and our performance probably, there was a hangover (from the Arsenal game) whether that be a little dent in our confidence but hopefully that will be back for the next game.

“I can’t overanalyze things. I’m doing the job to the best of my ability, I’ll always do that for every second I’m here. As for the season, I don’t know what the future hold but what it does is keep us in a competition we’re desperate to do well in with the carrot of Wembley.”

One thing which has plagued the Magpies’ campaign to date has been the lack of squad options created by a lengthy injury list. Every time one player gets back fit, it seems another drops out injured. At times, Howe has been able to call on just 12 senior outfield players.

However, that tide appears to be turning now, with options off the bench to freshen things up, something which proved crucial in this encounter, with Tino Livramento and Miguel Almiron making significant contributions off the bench in open play, before Anderson struck one of the crucial spot-kicks.

“You need the tools to win games and without our bench today and without Elliot, he was a late decision today to take him with us and if we need to use him we can use him but I didn’t want to use him for more than 10 minutes,” said the head coach.

“Even having him available and I was always going to trust him with a penalty and, who knows, the importance of having him available and that’s through the squad. I was able to take Joe Willock off early because I had quality players to bring on and having to look after him and Alex (Isak) is crucial because we need them both to stay fit. They’re both getting their fitness and their sharpness in games which isn’t ideal but that’s where we’ve been all season.”


Mallorca beat Real Sociedad on penalties to return to Copa del Rey final two decades later

Updated 28 February 2024
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Mallorca beat Real Sociedad on penalties to return to Copa del Rey final two decades later

  • Mallorca goalkeeper Dominik Greif saved the opening penalty by Mikel Oyarzabal, then Sergi Darder converted the decisive kick to put Mallorca in the final
  • Mallorca will play the April 6 final in Seville against either Atletico Madrid or Athletic Bilbao, who will play the second leg of the other semifinal on Thursday in Bilbao

MADRID: More than two decades later, Mallorca are back in the Copa del Rey final.

The Spanish club partly owned by Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and former NBA great Steve Nash defeated Real Sociedad 5-4 in a penalty shootout on Tuesday to make it to the final 21 years after they won the competition for the only time.

Mallorca goalkeeper Dominik Greif saved the opening penalty by Mikel Oyarzabal, then Sergi Darder converted the decisive kick to put Mallorca in the final. The teams drew 1-1 in regulation and were scoreless in extra time at Sociedad’s Reale Arena.

The teams had drawn 0-0 in the first leg in Mallorca on Feb. 6.

Mallorca will play the April 6 final in Seville against either Atletico Madrid or Athletic Bilbao, who will play the second leg of the other semifinal on Thursday in Bilbao. Athletic won the first leg 1-0 in Madrid.

It will be the fourth Copa final for Mallorca, which hadn’t made it the title game since it won the tournament in 2003 against Recreativo Huelva. Its other final appearances were in 1991 and 1998. It hadn’t made it to the semifinals since 2009.

Mallorca’s Mexican coach Javier Aguirre had taken Osasuna to the 2005 final, when it lost to Real Betis.

Sociedad was trying to return to the Copa final for the first time since it beat rival Athletic to lift the trophy in the 2019-20 season.

Vedat Muriqi, Manu Morlanes, Omar Mascarell and Nemanja Radonjic also scored for Mallorca in the penalty shootout. Beñat Turrientes, Jon Ander Olasagasti, Martín Zubimendi and Sheraldo Becker scored for Sociedad.

Mallorca took the lead in the 50th with a header by Gio Gonzalez into the far corner in what was the visitors’ only attempt on target during regulation. There was a long delay before the goal was confirmed as video review looked for a possible offside in the buildup.

The hosts, who had nearly 30 attempts throughout the match, equalized in a breakaway in the 71st with Oyarzabal finding the net with a low shot after a nice through ball by Brais Méndez.

Mallorca, who sit just outside the relegation zone in the Spanish league, had won only one of their last six games.

Sociedad, seventh after 26 league rounds, had one win in its last seven matches across all competitions. The Basque Country club is in the round of 16 of the Champions League, having lost the first leg against Paris Saint-Germain 2-0 in France.


Haaland scores five goals in Man City’s 6-2 rout of Luton in the FA Cup

Updated 28 February 2024
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Haaland scores five goals in Man City’s 6-2 rout of Luton in the FA Cup

  • Haaland now has 27 goals in all competitions for the season after scoring 52 in his first year at the club

Erling Haaland looks determined to make up for lost time.
The Norway striker scored five goals to power Manchester City into the quarterfinals of the FA Cup in a 6-2 win against Luton on Tuesday.
It was his eighth hat trick in a season-and-a-half with City and the second time he has scored five in a single game for the club.
Perhaps more significantly, it was evidence that Haaland is fully back up to speed after recently returning from a foot injury that ruled him out for more than a month between December and January.
“My fitness is getting back to its best finally,” he said. “I feel good. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Haaland had scored only three goals in seven appearances since making his comeback on Jan. 31.
By his remarkable standards, that represented a relative drought, but he looked back to his devastating best at Kenilworth Road with a first-half hat trick and two more after the break. Four of those goals came from assists by Kevin De Bruyne, who has also missed large parts of the season through injury.
“It’s a pleasure playing with him,” Haaland said. “I think we know what we both want from each other, we look at each other and it clicks well.”
Mateo Kovacic added a sixth for City, while Jordan Clark struck twice for Luton.
Haaland was denied a possible double hat trick when he was replaced by Julian Alvarez in the 77th minute. It was the second time City manager Pep Guardiola substituted the striker after scoring five goals, having taken him off during the 7-0 rout of RB Leipzig in the Champions League last year.
Haaland now has 27 goals in all competitions for the season after scoring 52 in his first year at the club.
His performance and linkup play with De Bruyne will also fuel the belief City can emulate last season’s treble of trophies when it won the Premier League title, FA Cup and Champions League.
“We’re coming. Exciting times (are) ahead,” Haaland said.
The forward completed his hat trick after 40 minutes, having opened the scoring in the third and adding a second in the 18th.
Clark pulled one back for Luton in the 45th and made it 3-2 with another seven minutes after halftime.
But Haaland quickly extended City’s lead with further goals in the 55th and 58th.
Kovacic completed the scoring with a long range effort in the 72nd.


Liverpool’s injury list worsens after Ryan Gravenberch is ruled out

Updated 28 February 2024
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Liverpool’s injury list worsens after Ryan Gravenberch is ruled out

  • Gravenberch sustained an ankle injury in the first half of Sunday’s English League Cup final
  • Endo left Wembley Stadium on crutches and wearing a protective boot

LIVERPOOL, England: Liverpool's injury crisis keeps on getting worse.
Ryan Gravenberch is the latest name to be added to an ever-lengthening list of players unavailable to the Premier League leader, while Wataru Endo is a doubt for Wednesday's FA Cup fifth round match against Southampton.
Gravenberch sustained an ankle injury in the first half of Sunday’s English League Cup final triumph against Chelsea and was taken off on a stretcher.
Endo left Wembley Stadium on crutches and wearing a protective boot.
“We need miracles with a few players,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said Tuesday. “I don’t want to rule them out for too long. But it is touch and go with a lot of players who were not available for the final: Darwin (Nunez), Mo (Salah), Dom (Szoboszlai) — we have to see what they can do."
Gravenberch has ligament damage that will keep him out for at least two games, Klopp said.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, Thiago Alcantara and goalkeeper Alisson Becker are other key players Klopp has had to do without in recent weeks.
Yet Liverpool remain in contention for a quadruple of trophies after Sunday's 1-0 win against Chelsea.
The Merseyside club are one point ahead of Manchester City at the top of the table and still competing for the FA Cup and the Europa League.