Girona make a genuine title contender statement with 4-2 win at Barcelona to go top in Spain

Girona's Valery Fernandez, left, scores his side's third goal past Barcelona's goalkeeper Inaki Pena during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Girona at the Olimpic Lluis Companys stadium in Barcelona Sunday. (Reuters)
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Updated 11 December 2023
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Girona make a genuine title contender statement with 4-2 win at Barcelona to go top in Spain

  • The statement win moved Girona two points ahead of Madrid, who drew 1-1 with Real Betis on Saturday
  • The game between Granada and Athletic Bilbao was suspended after a fan suffered a cardiac arrest and died in the stands

MADRID: Girona made their strong case to be considered a genuine contender for the Spanish league title by beating Catalan rivals Barcelona 4-2 on Sunday and overtaking Real Madrid at the top of the standings.

Ukraine forward Artem Dovbyk and Viktor Tsygankov teamed up for Girona’s opener, and Miguel Gutierrez, Valery Fernandez and Cristhian Stuani scored a goal each to seal the away victory against the defending league champions. Robert Lewandowski and Ilkay Gundogan scored Barcelona’s goals.

The statement win moved Girona two points ahead of Madrid, who drew 1-1 with Real Betis on Saturday. Barcelona dropped to fourth place, seven points behind their regional rival and five behind Madrid. Atletico Madrid regained third place with a 2-1 win over last-place Almeria to extend their winning streak at home in the league to 17 matches. Atletico hae the same 34 points as Barcelona with a game in hand.

Barcelona had never lost in six matches against Girona in the league, with four wins and two draws.

“Girona deserves a lot of credit. It has a great team,” Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez said. “It was an even match, it could have gone either way. It also would have been a fair result if we had won it.”

Girona, partly owned by Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi ownership, never looked like the minnow club against Barcelona on Sunday, showing maturity and poise from the start at the Lluis Companys Olympic Stadium.

The team coached by Míchel Sanchez, sporting a white and blue uniform with similar colors to Man City, has been playing some of the best soccer in Spain and holding on to its position near the top from the start of the season.

“It’s a special victory, it gives us the lead,” Michel said. “Very happy with the result because we faced a great Barça team.”

Girona had won 12 of their first 15 league matches, though it had failed in their first big test when they lost 3-0 to Real Madrid at home in September.

There was no problem against Barcelona, though.

The visitors opened the scoring in a breakaway in the 12th minute. Dovbyk found the net from close range after completing a low cross by his countryman Tsygankov. Barcelona equalized with a header by Lewandowski off a corner kick taken by Raphinha in the 19th, but Girona retook the lead in the 40th with a nice shot by Gutierrez into the top corner from inside the area.

Fernandez scored Girona’s third in the 80th before Barcelona pulled closer with Gundogan’s goal two minutes into stoppage time. Stuani restored Girona’s two-goal advantage five minutes into injury time.

FAN DEATH

The game between Granada and Athletic Bilbao was suspended after a fan suffered a cardiac arrest and died in the stands.

Granada said the fan had been a season ticket holder for 16 years. No further details were given about the fan’s identity.

The match will restart on Monday night from the 17th minute with Athletic leading 1-0. Iñaki Williams had put the visitors ahead in the sixth minute.

17 IN A ROW

Atletico won their 17th consecutive match at home to extend their biggest winning run in the competition as a host.

Alvaro Morata and Angel Correa scored a goal each in the first half before Almeria pulled one back through Leo Baptistao after halftime.

Atletico will have a game in hand after the weekend’s round. Diego Simeone’s team were coming off a 1-0 loss at Barcelona in the previous league round. They had won 11 of their last 13 matches in all competitions before that defeat in Barcelona.

“We know there’s still a long way to go. We lost the other day but it wasn’t the end of it,” Atletico forward Antoine Griezmann said. “We have to keep playing like this.”

Atletico’s last setback at home in the league was a 1-1 draw with Getafe in February.

Morata opened the scoring in the 17th minute after dribbling past a defender and then the goalkeeper inside the area. Correa added to the lead five minutes later from close range after a low cross by Marcos Llorente.

The assist for Morata’s goal came from Griezmann, who had a goal disallowed for offside in the fifth minute. The France forward remains three goals shy of the 173 scored by Luis Aragonés, the club’s all-time leading scorer.

Baptistao scored from close range for Almeria in the 62nd.

It was the 12th league loss for the club from southern Madrid, who remain the only team without a win this season. They stayed on four points from four draws. The Saudi-owned club this week was eliminated by fourth-division team Barbastro in the second round of the Copa del Rey.

Also Sunday, relegation-threatened Cadiz saw their winless streak in all competitions reach 14 matches after a 1-1 draw with Osasuna at home.


Liverpool to face Sparta Prague in Europa League last 16

Updated 23 February 2024
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Liverpool to face Sparta Prague in Europa League last 16

  • Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool will be strong favourites to reach the quarter-finals
  • Leverkusen, led by Xabi Alonso, are unbeaten in 32 matches in all competitions this season, and will again face Qarabag

NYON, Switzerland: Three-time winners Liverpool were drawn to face Sparta Prague in the Europa League last 16 on Friday, while unbeaten Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen will take on Azeris Qarabag.
Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool will be strong favourites to reach the quarter-finals as they bid for a quadruple in the German's final season before stepping down as manager.
The first leg will be played in the Czech capital on March 7, with Anfield hosting the return game a week later.
Leverkusen, led by Xabi Alonso, are unbeaten in 32 matches in all competitions this season, and will again face Qarabag, having already seen off the Azeri champions twice in the group stage.
Also renewing acquaintances will be last year's Europa Conference League winners West Ham and Freiburg, after David Moyes' side's brace of victories against the Bundesliga club in Group A.
"It's kind of stupid that you can come back against your group opponents in the round of 16," said Freiburg captain Christian Guenter.
"You could already tell that some of us were upset."
Seven-time European champions AC Milan continue their bid to win a maiden Europa League title against Slavia Prague after their knock-out round play-off win over Rennes.
Scottish Premiership leaders Rangers, losing finalists in 2022, take on Portuguese Primeira Liga pace-setters Benfica, still chasing a first European trophy since 1962.
Premier League club Brighton continue their first ever European adventure at last season's runners-up Roma.
First legs to be played on March 7, second legs to be played on March 14.

Full last-16 draw
Sparta Prague (CZE) v Liverpool (ENG)
Marseille (FRA) v Villarreal (ESP)
Roma (ITA) v Brighton (ENG)
Benfica (POR) v Rangers (SCO)
Freiburg (GER) v West Ham (ENG)
Sporting Lisbon (POR) v Atalanta (ITA)
AC Milan (ITA) v Slavia Prague (CZE)
Qarabag (AZE) v Bayer Leverkusen (GER)


Palestine beat Syria to reach semifinals of 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship

Updated 23 February 2024
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Palestine beat Syria to reach semifinals of 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship

  • A 1-0 win secured maximum 6 points from 2 matches in Group B and spot in the last 4

JEDDAH: Palestine on Thursday night advanced to the semifinals of the West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship after defeating Syria 1-0 at the reserve pitch of King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah.

Miral Qassis scored the winner in the 85th minute with a powerful shot from outside the penalty area, leaving Palestine with a maximum of six points from two matches, and second in Group B only on goal difference to Nepal.

Palestine had won their opener 3-0 against Iraq and will now face the group leaders on Saturday. With no points, Syria and Iraq sit in third and fourth respectively, and meet each other in a dead rubber on the same day.


Chelsea’s Sterling eyes history against Liverpool in Carabao Cup final

Updated 23 February 2024
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Chelsea’s Sterling eyes history against Liverpool in Carabao Cup final

  • England international is seeking a record 6th winner’s medal alongside former teammates Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho

Raheem Sterling is targeting a personal piece of history in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final.

The England forward won the competition five times in seven years at Manchester City before he joined Chelsea for $63 million (£50 million) in 2022.

And if he can help the London side overcome former club Liverpool at Wembley, he will join former City teammates Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho with a record tally for most wins at six.

“It would be a massive achievement to do that,” said the 29-year-old, who spent five years at Anfield. “But I think you have to always keep going. Once it comes, you have to try to get another one.

“When you’ve had that taste for it, you always want more, and this game will be the exact same thing.

“We’ve got a great test this week against Liverpool. It’s a good challenge against one of the most dominant teams in the last few years. For sure, it would mean a lot to win that trophy again. But competing for it, I think that’s the most important thing.”

It has been struggle to get to this stage for Sterling and Chelsea since he became the club’s first signing following the takeover by a consortium led by US businessman Todd Boehly.

Chelsea were Champions League and Club World Cup winners only three years ago, and lost both the FA Cup and Carabao Cup finals to Liverpool in 2022 on penalties, but this will be their first chance of silverware under the new ownership.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side will be underdogs against the side that beat them 4-1 at Anfield last month and have a record nine League Cup wins compared with Chelsea’s five.

But despite inconsistent performances this season, the Blues are in the FA Cup quarterfinals, and also have gained an impressive 4-1 league win at Tottenham and drawn with title hopefuls Liverpool and Arsenal at home, and twice held defending champions Manchester City.

Sterling scored his eighth goal of the campaign in the 1-1 draw at City last weekend and believes his side can upset the leading teams.

“I wanted to show myself against City and we were unlucky we couldn’t get the win against them,” he told Arab News exclusively.

“We’re a young group and that performance will build confidence going forward.

“But I’ve always said these are the challenges that we need to step up to. Against some of the top-four teams this season we have shown ourselves.

“Liverpool away was obviously a disappointing one, but against Tottenham, Arsenal and City we have shown ourselves — and we have to keep building.

Sterling admitted the defeat at Anfield “hurt,” and said the players are looking to redeem themselves in the final.

“I think that first trophy would definitely build the belief for the group. If you win that one trophy, it gives you that sniff, that feeling and you want more.

“I think we’re getting stronger and the most important thing is to try to compete — and this week we have a great opportunity to do that and I’m looking forward to it.”

Reports suggested Sterling rejected a move to a Saudi Arabian club last summer, and he is determined to stay and prove his worth.

The iconic venue would be the perfect stage for him to do that after having grown up near Wembley and won 82 caps for his country.

“That’s my home,” said Sterling with a smile. “I’m really looking forward to it. When I go to Wembley, I get a different feeling; I can’t wait to get on the field.”


Messi impact: Apple boss urges MLS clubs to sign more stars

Updated 23 February 2024
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Messi impact: Apple boss urges MLS clubs to sign more stars

  • Miami’s recruitment of big-name international players is unprecedented in MLS with Messi having been joined initially by two former Barcelona team-mates in Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquet
  • Apple TV chief Eddy Cue said he had been surprised by just how big a difference Messi had made to the numbers

Miami’s recruitment of big-name international players is unprecedented in MLS with Messi having been joined initially by two former Barcelona team-mates in Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets. (USA TODAY Sports)

 

FORD LAUDERDALE, Florida: The head of Apple TV’s collaboration with Major League Soccer has urged clubs in the league to follow the example of Inter Miami’s deal with Lionel Messi and sign more top stars.

Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of services, told reporters at Inter Miami’s 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Wednesday that Messi had made a huge impact on subscriptions bringing in new viewers from Europe and South America as well as North America.

“I’m excited that there are teams that are definitely pushing hard. Obviously what Inter Miami has done is an example of that and I think there needs to be more teams doing that and I think there will be,” Cue said.

“At least I’ve seen it enough now that there’s a level of excitement... when anybody asks what do I want from anybody, any of the teams, I’m like, sign some more players!” he said.

Miami’s recruitment of big-name international players is unprecedented in MLS with Messi having been joined initially by two former Barcelona team-mates in Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets.

In December, Miami added another top international with the acquisition of former Barca and Liverpool striker Luis Suarez.

Getting MLS clubs to open up their wallets to spend big on international talent would require a shift from clubs that have focused mainly in recent years on bringing in lower cost, young talent from South America.

MLS commissioner Don Garber, speaking earlier, said he was aware of reports suggested changes could be coming to the league’s salary cap and roster rules that could make it easier to bring in big players but said the league was aware it had to remain smart in how it approaches growth.

However, he acknowledged that Inter Miami had been able to generate what are widely expected to be record revenues from the Messi deal.

“If we thought every team could deliver that by signing players, I can assure you that MLS would adapt its rules to be able to deliver that,” he said.

“Our thinking in terms of strategic player spending — we will do whatever we need to do to grow our fan base, to grow the competitiveness of our league, and to grow our revenues and ultimately the credibility and viability of MLS on a global stage,” he added.

“Nothing is going to stop us from doing that. We just want to be thoughtful about it,” he said.

Cue suggested there may be different views among the 29 club owners in the league.

“There’s a lot of owners, there’s a lot of teams and so in life when you have that many, it’s always hard to move everybody in the same direction. (Don Garber) does that very well but it’s a tough job and so I try to help because I bring a sort of either different or at least another perspective on it,” he added.

But Garber did paint a positive picture of MLS’s growth.

“Season tickets are up, our overall ticket sales are up, our sponsorship is up, social media and our media coverage is up. All of that is bringing global recognition to the league,” he said.

Apple have not released subscription numbers for their first season of their subscription broadcast service MLS Season Pass but Sports Business Journal reported this month that they had reached two million — with the numbers doubling after Messi signed for Miami in July.

MLS season ticket holders are given free access to the service while there were a number of special offers available for fans. The report did not state what proportion of the two million subscribers had paid the full fee.

Cue said he had been surprised by just how big a difference Messi had made to the numbers.

“I was shocked. I had no idea because I knew it would make a difference but I thought it would take time. He just moved the needle really fast on a global perspective and the US perspective,” he said.

“So, no, I did not appreciate the power and the reach that he had... it’s amazing to see,” he added.

Cue said Messi had also managed to attract an audience for MLS games from outside the United States and Canada.

“I won’t give you the exact number but I will tell you pre-Messi it was very US top. Post-Messi it was it changed materially because he added a significant number of subscribers from South America and from Europe, so it was a big change,” he said.


Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal

Updated 22 February 2024
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Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal

  • The Jeddah giants leave it late but progress after a hard-fought 2-1 home victory over Navbahor of Uzbekistan

Saudi Pro League side Al-Ittihad squeezed into the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah on Thursday thanks to a hard-fought 2-1 home victory over Navbahor of Uzbekistan, following a goalless draw in the first leg last week.

The Jeddah giants recovered from a Karim Bemzema own goal midway through the first half to take control of the game, level the score and eventually go through thanks to a late Navbahor own goal. It was no less than the Saudis deserved as they made most of the running and created the bulk of the chances.

Fabinho had the earliest opportunity to open the scoring but the former Liverpool midfielder fired just over the bar from outside the box.

The opening goal came from a familiar source but not in the way fans expected. The home crowd was silenced in the 25th minute when Jamshid Iskanderov floated over a free-kick from the right, and former Real Madrid star Benzema met it on the edge of the six-yard box to send a powerful header into his own net past a startled Abdullah Al-Mayouf.

The goal came out of nothing, against the run of play, but Al-Ittihad quickly regrouped, refocused their efforts and continued to dominate the game.

Benzema redeemed himself on the stroke of half-time, nodding down a corner to the near post where Abderrazak Hamdallah was waiting to sweep the ball home from close range.

The second half unfolded in much the same fashion, with Al-Ittihad enjoying most of the possession and creating more of the chances. Midway through the period, however, they were reminded of Navbahor’s goal threat when Filip Ivankovic fired just wide from the right side of the area.

With 15 minutes remaining, Benzema had the ball in the net, the correct one this time, when he fired home after some good work from Ahmed Hegazy. After a lengthy intervention, however, the video assistant referee ruled it out.

This only delayed the celebrations of the home fans, though, as three minutes from time the Tigers took a decisive lead, thanks to another own goal.

Substitute Saleh Al-Amri’s corner from the right failed to clear the first man but, in swinging a boot, Toma Tabatadze sliced his attempted clearance and the ball looped over the keeper into the far corner of the net.

Navbahor did their utmost to get back on level terms but time was against them and it was not to be. As a result, Al-Ittihad, back-to-back winners of the competition in 2004 and 2005, remain in the hunt for a third continental crown.