Beaten Leverkusen hope to ‘find themselves’ in German Cup final

Bayer Leverkusen's Spanish head coach Xabi Alonso, left, with UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin after the UEFA Europa League final between Atalanta and Bayer Leverkusen at the Dublin Arena stadium, in Dublin, on May 22, 2024. Atalanta won 3-0. (AFP)
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Updated 24 May 2024
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Beaten Leverkusen hope to ‘find themselves’ in German Cup final

  • A loss will recall the club’s infamous ‘Neverkusen’ season in 2002, when they somehow emerged empty-handed
  • Leverkusen were without a trophy despite being five points clear in the league with three games remaining, while also qualifying for the German Cup and Champions League finals

BERLIN: Bayer Leverkusen face second-division Kaiserslautern in Saturday’s German Cup final licking their wounds after a first loss in almost a year.

Xabi Alonso’s side were thoroughly outclassed in a 3-0 loss to Atalanta in the Europa League final on Wednesday, their first defeat in any competition since May 2023 — a run of 51 games.

Energetic and dynamic this season with a taste for late goals, Leverkusen looked a shadow of the team which thundered past Bayern Munich to win their first ever Bundesliga title this season.

In a year when Alonso pledged to stick around with the club despite reported interest from Liverpool and Bayern, Leverkusen looked on track for a remarkable three trophies.

Now they need to rebound to stop their underdog opponents, who flirted with relegation to the third division for much of the campaign, spoiling what has been an incredible season.

A loss will recall the club’s infamous ‘Neverkusen’ season in 2002, when they somehow emerged empty-handed despite being five points clear in the league with three games remaining, while also qualifying for the German Cup and Champions League finals.

Leverkusen’s unbeaten run, which broke a 59-year-old record set by Portuguese giants Benfica in 1965, was bound to end sometime but it was the manner in which the club capitulated which will concern Alonso the most.

The Germans were outmuscled by a determined Atalanta, with the reliable Florian Wirtz and Granit Xhaka, so important this season, having off nights.

Winger Jonas Hofmann summed up the club’s struggles on Wednesday night, lamenting “many mistakes, individual mistakes, bad passes and simple technical errors,” saying the performance was “not Bayer-like.”

“We weren’t confident in the buildup,” Hofmann said, explaining Leverkusen had given Atalanta the feeling “they could stand up to us and win the title.”

For a side which has made a habit of scoring late goals — they have scored 15 times after the 90-minute mark this season — Leverkusen were not able to turn the tide.

Alonso was self-critical after the match, saying “we weren’t at our best, including me” and explained the system he chose “did not work,” urging his side to “transform our pain into positive energy.”

Despite the disappointment, beating Kaiserslautern would make Leverkusen just the sixth side in German football history to do the double — an incredible achievement for a team which had two major trophies to their name before this season started.

Xhaka told reporters on Wednesday the result was “not easy” but “we will not let it destroy us.”

“If we don’t win the triple, then we will win the double.”

Center-back Jonathan Tah, captain on Wednesday night, said “the show must go on.”

“We’ve got a very important game ahead of us — we can’t afford to talk ourselves down too much.”

Their opponents may now face a wounded Leverkusen hoping to make amends, but also understand Alonso’s side are vulnerable after Wednesday’s surprise loss.

Despite their run to the final, Kaiserslautern only played one top-division side in the Cup — beating Cologne, who were relegated to the second division at the end of the season.

Kaiserslautern striker Ragnar Ache told AFP he had been cheering for Leverkusen in Wednesday’s final in the hope Alonso’s side “would maybe party a little bit” into the night.

Ache however said Leverkusen “have a very big squad with high quality players — and they’re used to it.”

“It’s still not going to be easy for us. We have to look at ourselves and what we are going to do.”


Euro 2024 final: Spain goes for record 4th title, England looks to end 58-year wait for major trophy

Updated 14 July 2024
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Euro 2024 final: Spain goes for record 4th title, England looks to end 58-year wait for major trophy

BERLIN: Spain and England meet in the final of the European Championship on Sunday. Spain is seeking a record fourth title at the Euros to break a tie with Germany/West Germany, while England is bidding for a first major trophy in men’s soccer since the 1966 World Cup. Kickoff is at 9 p.m. local (1900 GMT) in Berlin. Here’s what to know about the match:
Match facts
— Spain will start as the favorite after winning all six of its matches at Euro 2024 and being widely regarded as the best team at the tournament. Winning the title would continue a strong period of success for Spanish national teams, with the men having captured the UEFA Nations League in June last year and the women following that up by winning the World Cup two months later.
— Lamine Yamal is Spain’s new star having set up three goals before the semifinals, where he scored a spectacular long-range strike in the victory over France — all at the age of 16. He turned 17 on Saturday, the day before the final. It is a breakthrough major tournament for Yamal, much like it was for a 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé at the 2018 World Cup and a 17-year-old Pelé at the 1958 World Cup.
— Spain last appeared in a final at a major tournament in 2012, when the team won the third of its European Championship titles by beating Italy 4-0. England played in the final of Euro 2020, which was played in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and lost in a penalty shootout to Italy.
— England has shown resilience by coming from behind in all three of its knockout-stage matches at Euro 2024. Jude Bellingham scored an equalizer from an overhead kick in the fifth minute of stoppage time in the extra-time win over Slovakia in the last 16, Bukayo Saka equalized in the 80th minute against Switzerland in the quarterfinals before England won a penalty shootout, and substitute Ollie Watkins scored a winner almost exactly on 90 minutes against the Netherlands in the semifinals.
— England coach Gareth Southgate is often criticized for his in-game management but he has changed the culture inside the squad and is regularly getting the team deep at major tournaments. In Southgate’s tenure that started in 2016, England has reached the World Cup semifinals in 2018 and now back-to-back European Championship finals.
Team news
— Spain coach Luis de la Fuente said on Saturday that the injured Pedri and Ayoze Pérez are the only players unavailable, meaning captain Alvaro Morata can play. Morata was limping after the semifinal win over France when he was knocked to the ground in the post-match celebrations by a steward trying to stop a pitch invader. Right back Dani Carvajal returns from suspension, leaving de la Fuente’s only selection dilemma at center back, with Nacho or Robin Le Normand vying to partner Aymeric Laporte. Dani Olmo will likely fill in again for Pedri as Spain’s attacking central midfielder.
— Southgate has to decide who to play at left back — or left wing back — out of Kieran Trippier or Luke Shaw. Shaw is a natural on that side but has only made two appearances as a second-half substitute at Euro 2024 after recovering from an injury that had sidelined him since February. Otherwise, Southgate will choose the same players, with the 19-year-old Kobbie Mainoo having nailed down the problematic spot in central midfield alongside Declan Rice.
By the numbers
— Spain’s previous European Championship titles came in 1964, 2008 and 2012.
— There are six players on a tournament-high three goals at Euro 2024 and two are playing in the final: England captain Harry Kane and Spain playmaker Dani Olmo. The others are Georges Mikautadze of Georgia, Cody Gakpo of the Netherlands, Ivan Schranz of Slovakia and Jamal Musiala or Germany.
— It has been six years since Spain and England met in a senior men’s international. In 2018, they played a Nations League double-header, with Spain winning 2-1 at Wembley Stadium and England winning 3-2 in Sevilla a month later.
What they’re saying
— “I don’t say it becomes run of the mill but it’s a little bit more normal for us. That statement in itself is probably ridiculous given our history.” — England coach Gareth Southgate on reaching a second straight final at the Euros.
— “I would like him to work with the same humility, keep his feet on the ground in order to keep improving, learning with the same kind of attitude and that professionalism, that maturity that he shows on the pitch. He looks like a much more experienced player, to be honest.” — Spain coach Luis de la Fuente on Lamine Yamal.
 

 


De la Fuente calls on Spain players to make history in Euros final

Updated 14 July 2024
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De la Fuente calls on Spain players to make history in Euros final

  • “It’s a brilliant generation, many of them have come through successful youth levels and that usually bodes well for success,” De la Fuente told reporters Saturday

BERLIN: Spain coach Luis de la Fuente called on a “brilliant” generation of players to make history for their country in the Euro 2024 final against England on Sunday.
La Roja are aiming to win a record fourth European Championship 12 years after they last lifted the trophy.
With Rodri Hernandez pulling the strings in midfield and explosive young wingers Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams in attack, Spain have been the tournament’s great entertainers on the road to Berlin.
“It’s a brilliant generation, many of them have come through successful youth levels and that usually bodes well for success,” De la Fuente told reporters Saturday.
“We want to start to make history — and we have made history already in the run to (the final)... I trust in a great future, there’s both present and future.”
Spain won the 2008 and 2012 Euros and the 2010 World Cup with many star players from Barcelona and Real Madrid, including Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Ramos and David Villa.
The current side has fewer stars but consider that one of their strong points, with the squad on an even footing and “unity” has been a key word among Spain players at the tournament.
Despite Spain shining en route to the final while England have scraped through, De la Fuente said the clash at the Olympiastadion will be “extremely balanced.”
“Whichever team manages to impose their strengths, whoever makes less errors (will win),” said the coach.
“But you can win a one-off game, even playing far worse (than your opponent).
“We need to have maximum concentration, not make any mistakes and take advantage of the chances we have — put them away.”
The coach thanked injured duo Pedri and Ayoze Perez, who will not be available to face England, and said Barcelona midfielder Gavi will travel to join the team for the final.
The 19-year-old missed most of the season with a knee injury but was an important player for Spain before sustaining it in November.
De la Fuente said it was no challenge to keep Barcelona’s Yamal, who turned 17 on Saturday, and Athletic Bilbao’s Williams, 22, calm ahead of the biggest game of their careers.
“It’s not at all hard, they have such joy, and incredible maturity for such young players, they understand the sport very well and they are well accompanied by more experienced players,” explained the coach.
“We’re a team, it’s not about hailing individuals, and this makes us stronger.”
At the other end of the age spectrum is 38-year-old Sevilla defender Jesus Navas, who started the semifinal win over France in direct confrontation with Kylian Mbappe.
Navas won the 2010 World Cup, 2012 Euros and the 2023 Nations League with Spain and said he would love to lift another trophy with his country.
“To still be enjoying myself with my national team at 38 is incredible,” said the right-back.
“In (Spain’s golden years) we were such a close-knit group, and you could feel it. Now it’s the same, there’s an incredible group. I’m delighted by everything that’s happening to us.
“We know the excitement and hope that we all have and I hope we can win it.”


‘I’m a believer in dreams’: Southgate wants Euro 2024 glory so England get respect of soccer world

Updated 13 July 2024
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‘I’m a believer in dreams’: Southgate wants Euro 2024 glory so England get respect of soccer world

  • “I’m not a believer in fairy tales,” England coach Gareth Southgate said on Saturday, “but I’m a believer in dreams”
  • Southgate has played a central role in England’s painful journey of agonizing exits, near-misses and national angst down the years

BERLIN: For the English, it’s largely self-deprecating banter.
For pretty much everybody else, it’s a sign of arrogance and entitlement.
“Football’s Coming Home” — the England team soccer anthem — have been sung on the streets of cities throughout Germany over the past month, and will be roared with even more gusto in Berlin in the next 24 hours.
England are in the European Championship final against Spain on Sunday, a chance for the underachieving birthplace of soccer to capture a major men’s title for the first time since the 1966 World Cup on home soil.
A chance, it is being said by England, for football to come home.
“I’m not a believer in fairy tales,” England coach Gareth Southgate said on Saturday, “but I’m a believer in dreams.”
Southgate has played a central role in England’s painful journey of agonizing exits, near-misses and national angst down the years.
It was Southgate, England’s coach since 2016, who led the team to a first major final since 1966 only to lose to Italy in a penalty shootout in the 2021 Euro final.
Twenty-five years earlier, it was Southgate — then a defender of modest ability — who missed what proved to be a decisive penalty in England’s shootout defeat to Germany in the Euro 1996 semifinals.
The “Football’s Coming Home” anthem is born from the “Three Lions” song that was released before Euro 1996.
One of its lines spoke of “30 years of hurt.” It is now 58 years of hurt, and the fans are still singing it.
“It has been going on for years and years,” said England fan Justin Tucknott, a 54-year-old business analyst who was grabbing a drink at a bar near Olympiastadion in a sun-kissed evening in the German capital.
“We’re going to keep singing it until it does come home. And when it does, the words will be changed slightly.”
England’s chances of ending that men’s title drought approaching nearly 60 years have improved under Southgate, with the team reaching back-to-back Euro finals and getting to the World Cup semifinals in 2018.
He has had to change the mentality and culture in a squad that are regularly full of some of the top players in the English Premier League, the most popular and watched domestic league in the world.
Famous and rich, the players maybe thought they had a divine right to win titles at international level as often as they do at club level.
Southgate quickly drummed it into them that they don’t.
“We have tried to change the mindset from the start, tried to be more honest about where we were as a football nation,” Southgate said. “I traveled to World Cups and European Championships as an observer and watched highlights reels of matches that were on the big screens — and we weren’t in any of them.
“They only showed the finals and big games. We needed to change that. We had high expectations but they didn’t match where we were, performance-wise. … We’ve come through a lot of big nights now, a lot of records have been broken, but we know we have to get this trophy to really feel the respect of the rest of the football world.”
England started slowly — very slowly — at Euro 2024, relying on big moments from big players to get them through to the semifinals. There, the team produced their best performance so far, but still needed a goal exactly on 90 minutes from Ollie Watkins to get past the Netherlands.
“It builds resilience and belief,” England captain Harry Kane said.
It’s an increasingly confident England heading into the final. And much of that comes from the coach.
“Tomorrow, I don’t have any fear what might happen,” Southgate said, “because I have been through everything. I want the players to feel that fearlessness.
“If we are not afraid to lose, it gives us a better chance of winning.”


Soccer-In humble Spanish suburb, wonderkid Lamine Yamal embodies hope

Updated 13 July 2024
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Soccer-In humble Spanish suburb, wonderkid Lamine Yamal embodies hope

  • Lamine Yamal was born in Spain from a Moroccan father and an Equatorial Guinea mother, joined Barcelona’s academy when he was six and moved to live in the city aged 11

MATARO: In the working-class, multi-ethnic Barcelona suburb where Lamine Yamal grew up, the stunning rise of Spain’s soccer wonderkid in the European Championship generates both intense pride and hope.
The Barcelona winger, who turns 17 on Saturday, celebrates his goals gesturing 304 with his fingers in a nod to the 08304 postal code of the Rocafonda neighborhood, in the coastal city of Mataro, where he grew up and where his father and grandmother live.
“My son is like any other kid. He has fought for a dream and has had the opportunity to achieve it,” said his jubilant father, Mounir Nasraoui, 38, dressed with Lamine Yamal’s Spanish national jersey at a local bar where people took selfies and embraced him.
He forecasts Spain will beat England 3-0 in Sunday’s Euro 2024 final in Berlin, which he will attend.
The El Cordobes bar, with a framed signed jersey of Lamine Yamal hung on a wall, witnessed the family’s early financial struggles.
Nasraoui would be given his coffee for free so he could instead use his money for a train ride to take his son for training at Barcelona’s academy, said the bar’s owner Juan Carlos Serrano.
“This jersey is the pride of the neighborhood, man!,” said Serrano.
“Lamine is the prototype of a kid who has had to work hard, who has been a good student and just graduated from secondary school,” he added. “For this reason, he is a mirror for children.”
Rocafonda is among Mataro’s neighborhoods with the lowest household income and most residents were born outside the Catalonia region and Spain, primarily in Morocco.
Lamine Yamal was born in Spain from a Moroccan father and an Equatorial Guinea mother, who lives in a nearby town. He joined Barcelona’s academy when he was six and moved to live in the city aged 11, his father said.
On Tuesday, he became the youngest player to score in a World Cup or Euros with a sublime 25-meter strike against France.
He also lifted Rocafonda’s self-esteem.
“People used to be ashamed of saying they are from here. This is a very humble neighborhood where people make 1,000 euros a month,” said 28 year-old Sufian, born from Moroccan parents. “Now people that are not even from Rocafonda or Mataro, say: I am from 304!.”
At Rocafonda’s asphalt pitch where Yamal used to play soccer, young people from Moroccan and Senegalese origin say they dream of following in his footsteps, echoing the humble neighborhoods where other stars grew up such as Argentina’s Lionel Messi and France’s Kylian Mbappe.
Lamine Yamal, who is Black, also represents how Spain has become more ethnically diverse in recent decades due to migration from Africa and Latin America.
His success also comes at a significant political moment. Spain’s far-right party Vox, with a strong anti-migration rhetoric, on Thursday announced it would break five regional government coalitions with the center-right People’s Party over disagreements on the shelter policy for under-18 migrants.
“Lamine’s goal (on Tuesday) was not only a goal, it also sent the message that racism is over and that we are all the same,” said Sufian.


Riyadh to host African Super Cup between Egyptian rivals Al Ahly, Zamalek

Updated 13 July 2024
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Riyadh to host African Super Cup between Egyptian rivals Al Ahly, Zamalek

RIYADH: Riyadh will host the CAF Super Cup between two of Africa’s top teams in September, organizers announced on Friday.

The head-to-head will see the current African Champion League holders Al Ahly take on fellow Egyptian side Zamalek, who are the current African Confederation champions.

Confédération Africaine de Football President Patrice  Motsepe said: “The partnership between CAF and Saudi Arabia is based on the excellent relationship and mutual commitment of both parties.”

Turki Alalshikh said: "We are delighted to host the African Super Cup at Riyadh Season, which represents one of the most important tournaments on the African continent.”

The match will take place on Sept. 27, but the venue and kick-off time are yet to be announced.

Both teams clashed in the Egypt Cup in the Saudi capital in March, with Al Ahly beating their city rivals 2-0 and winning the trophy for the 39th time.

Al Ahly finished third in the Saudi-hosted FIFA Club World Cup in December, with English champions Manchester City defeating Brazil’s Fluminense in the final.