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 Yash Mudgal
Yash Mudgal
Yash Mudgal is a Senior Editor at Gulf Times sports section. Prior to joining Gulf Times in 2012, he was with a leading daily in India. At Gulf Times, Yash mostly covers Olympic sports although his interests include tennis and cricket too.
Qatar Olympic Committee President HE Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad al-Thani crowns the winners of menu2019s +100kg category of the Doha Masters judo tournament at the Lusail Multipurpose Hall yesterday. PICTURES: Jayan Orma
Judo star Riner ‘back on top’ after Doha Masters win

Judo legend Teddy Riner is back again after a surprise 2020 season, which included two defeats. The double Olympic champion easily beat Inal Tasoev to win the Doha Masters and opened his season on a high ahead of the Olympics. The rejuvenated Frenchman was looking confident throughout the men’s +100kg final against the world No 3 Russian, who received three shido penalties. “It’s good to be back on top after a long gap and qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games. I was very focused on getting the win in Doha and I’m so happy I succeeded,” Riner said. Riner’s decade-long winning streak, which spanned 154 bouts, was ended in February 2020 on home soil at the Paris Grand Slam by Kageura Kokoro of Japan. “The opponent was strong, but I managed to outdo him. The venue was absolutely fantastic and I really enjoyed fighting here. I always kept my focus and was intent only on winning the gold medal here,” he said. Riner’s gold was the third of the day for France that finished at the top of the table with overall five golds, one silver and one bronze. The other two gold of the day for France was won by Madeleine Malonga, who defeated Shori Hamada of Japan in the women’s -78kg category. “I am very happy. It was a difficult competition. It is the start of the year and it was important to win for me. It is the year of the Olympics and since I am the world and European champion I wanted to win this event so I am now targeting the Olympic Games. It was a big break during events because of the virus and was difficult to prepare but I trained daily for this event,” said Malonga. Romane Dicko in +78kg category won the other gold for France. She defeated Iryna Kindzerska of Azerbaijan. The current World Champion in men’s -90kg category, Noel Van T End won the gold medal. He had difficult contests throughout the preliminary rounds, but Noel found the necessary energy to go through to the final. In a high pressure final Gerogia’s Beka Gviniashvili dominated the bout, but he was too late to avoid Van T End’s waza-ari score. In the end the champion applied a lightning fast strangle for an ippon finish almost at the bell to win the first gold for the Netherlands. “This is the first tournament of the year and I am very happy to win a gold medal here. It is a big achievement in this Olympic year. I was in top form and with these points which I got today I think I am safe and will go for the Olympics for sure. This is a very nice tournament with a few problems with the coronavirus but hospitality is very good and the weather here is very nice. The organisation is very good and I am happy to perform here again. I look forward to coming here again for the World Championships in 2023,” T End said. RESULTS Men’s +100kg Gold: Teddy Riner (France) Silver: Inal Tasoev (Russia) Bronze: Yakiv Khammo (Ukraine) and Henk Grol (Netherlands) Men’s -100kg Gold: Varlam Lipartelini (Gerogia) Silver: Zelym Kotsoiev (Aze) Bronze: Peter Latchik (Israel) and Arman Adamian (Russia) Men’s -90kg Gold: Noel Van T End (Netherlands) Silver: Beka Gviniashvili (Gerogia) Bronze: Eduard Trippel (Germany) and Lasha Bekauri (Georgia)   Women’s +78kg Gold: Romane Dicko (France) Silver: Iryna Kindzerska (Aze) Bronze: Nihel Cheikh Rouhou (Tun) and Kayra Sayit (Turkey) Women’s -78kg Gold: Madeleine Malonga (France) Silver: Shori Hamada (Japan) Bronze: Guusje Steenhuis (Netherlands), Loriana Kuka (Kosova) Best female athlete: Dlcko Romane (FRANCE) – 4 ippon – 9 minutes and 3 seconds. Best male athlete: Grigalashvili Tato (GEORGIA) – 4 ippon – 16 minutes and 33 seconds.

Clarisse Agbegnenou of France (in white) in action against Nami Nabrkura of Japan in the 2021 Doha Masters at the Lusail Multipurpose Hall yesterday. Pictures: Jayan Orma and agencies
World champ Agbegnenou starts new season with gold

Reigning world and European champion Clarisse Agbegnenou of France started the new season on a winning note at the International Judo Federation’s 2021 Doha Masters at the Lusail Multipurpose Hall yesterday. Agbegnenou, who won her fifth European title in Prague on November 20, defeated Nami Nabrkura of Japan in the final to win the -63kg category gold. “I am very happy because it was really tough. It is nice to start (the season) like that but I would keep in mind that I need to do a lot of work and to be ready for the Olympic Games,” Agbegnenou said. Agbegnenou, the silver medallist at the Rio Games in 2016, is getting ready for the Tokyo Games. “I am already qualified for Olympics. I wanted this competition to see myself what I can do and assess myself to know what I need to work on. This event gave me confidence that I can put up my level and I can work on other things. I have good motivation and power so I have to stay like this. Definitely, I have to improve a lot and work on new techniques,”Agbegnenou said. The four-time world champion Frenchwoman praised Qatar for hosting the event successfully during the coronavirus pandemic. “It is really hard what is happening to the world, but Qatar is organizing this event really well. We wanted to see this country more and I hope we can see it in good times because it seems really beautiful.” The bronze medals of the category went to winner of the Tbilisi Grand Prix Sanne Vermeer of the Netherlands and Andreja Leski of Slovania. In the -70kg women’s category, Yoko Ono of Japan claimed the gold medal. She defeated Russian Madina Taimazova. In the final, Taimazova resisted well during regulation time, but the golden score period was too much for the young Russian, who had to suffer a defeat by hold down. In the men’s -81kg category, reigning European champion Tato Griglashvili, from Georgia, defeated Frank De Wit of the Netherlands. The final seemed rather balanced for most of regulation, but following a slight injury, De Wit seemed slightly distracted. It helped Grigalashvili take advantage of the situation to throw him before applying an unstoppable arm lock. 2018 world champion South Korean Changrim An claimed the gold medal in the -73kg category. He defeated Soichi Hashimoto of Japan in a tough final.   At the end of regular time no point was scored and the athletes entered golden score, where they continued to neutralize each other’s moves. It was only after three minutes and 43 seconds of extra time that Hashimoto applied a dangerous technique - for which he received a Hansoku-make (defeat by grave infringement) - and An won the third gold medal for Korea in the event. Both of Qatar’s judokas crashed out yesterday morning. Khalil Rabahi and Morad Zemouri, both participated in the men’s -81kg event, but failed to get past their rivals in the first and second round respectively. The 28-year-old Zemouri, who represented Qatar at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and had a first-round bye, lost to Dominic Ressel of Germany in the second round. The 23-year-old Rabahi lost to experienced opponent world No 19 Anri Egutidze of Portugal. The men’s under-100kg and over-100kg, and women’s under-78kg and over-78kg bouts will be held today.   RESULTS Men’s -73kg Gold: Changrim An (Korea) Silver: Soichi Hashimoto (Japna) Bronze: Igor Wandtke (Gewrmany), Turave Khikmatillokh (Uzbekistan) Men’s -81kg Gold: Tato Griglashvili (Georgia) Silver: Frank De Wit (Netherlands) Bronze: Ivaylo Ivanov (Bulgaria), Sagi Muki (Israel) Women’s -63kg Gold: Clarisse Agbegnenou (France) Silver: Nami Nabrkura (Japan) Bronze: Sanne Vermeer (Netherlands) Andreja Leski (Slovania)   Women’s -70kg Gold: Yoko Ono (Japan) Silver: Madina Taimazova (Russia) Bronze: Kim Polling (Netherlands), Giovanna Scoccimarro (Germany)

Al Arabi coach Heimir Hallgrimsson (left) and Al Sadd coach Xavi Hernandez during the press conference ahead of the Ooredoo Cup final on Wednesday. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Al Arabi hope to end title drought against Al Sadd today

It has been almost a decade since Al Arabi won a title and their coach Heimir Hallgrimsson has been forthright about their ambition to end that drought against a weakened Al Sadd side in the 2019-2020 Ooredoo Cup final at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium in Al Duhail today. “The Ooredoo Cup final is an important milestone for us as it has been a really long time since Al Arabi won a trophy. It is also a good opportunity for us to turn things around. We need to win the trophy,” Hallgrimsson said at the pre-match press conference. Trophies have been rare for The Dream Team in the recent past; they won their last title in 1997 — the Sheikh Jassim Cup. However, the seven-time Qatar league champions, whose last league title was also in 1997, is full of motivation against Al Sadd , whose preparations are marred by the absence of their several senior players. Ten Sadd players are away with the Qatar team preparing to play Ghana in the international friendly on October 12 and some of their foreign players are also on national duty for their friendlies. “I had watched Al Sadd play Qatar SC the other day in round two of the 2020-21 Ooredoo Cup. They had some 10 players in the Qatar national team camp, yet they had depth in their squad. Al Sadd is always a tough team,” said the Icelander. “We had a good pre-season camp, even though a brief one. Chances are same for both teams in this match. We must be playing at our best. We will also be missing some players due to national duty and injuries. But that’s not important. We will play to our capabilities.” Though Al Sadd is not fielding their top team, the 14-time league champions also have the motivation to complete the title hat-trick of the season after their triumph in Sheikh Jassim Cup and Qatar Cup this season. Wolves coach Xavi Hernandez admitted his team would miss the top players but felt it is a great opportunity for the young players to make their presence felt. “We are very happy to be playing in this final. To be honest, I did not expect that we would qualify for this game. We have to play with a group of players who are not on national team duty. The final is a big opportunity for the young players. I’ve told them to take advantage of it. These youngsters are the future of the club, I hope they enjoy the occasion and prove themselves,” Xavi said. The former champions (2010-2011) will have the experience of midfielders Rodrigo Tabata and Santi Cazorla. “This final is a good chance for our young players in particular. We have plenty of experienced players as well. I hope we will be successful and emerge as champions,” Tabata said. Al Arabi’s striker Sebastian Soria also feels that they have a big opportunity today. “We had more than a month to work and prepare for the final after we qualified for it. We’ve trained well. We had played some good games last season. I am happy that I am a part of Al Arabi this season. I already played two matches in this season’s Ooredoo Cup and have confidence in our abilities. We have a big chance,” Soria said. Taking about Sadd’s inexperienced side, Soria said, “The most important thing is the attitude. We must have a strong mentality. Al Sadd may be without many top players, but we are focusing on our game and winning the Cup. We are in the final because we played well in the games prior to it.” In the semi-finals, Al Arabi defeated Al Rayyan 2-1 and Al Sadd beat Al Ahli 2-0.

Al Gharafa coach Kosay Hatem (second from left) and Al Shamal coach Hassan Hached (second from right) pose with the officials and players during a press conference ahead of todayu2019s Qatar Menu2019s Basketball League final. PICTURES: Anas Khalid
Gharafa look to regain title, while Shamal aim to retain

Al Gharafa are eager to regain the Qatar Men’s Basketball League title after a gap of six years, as they will take on defending champions Al Shamal in the final at the Al Gharafa Indoor Hall today at 6:15pm. Al Gharafa had last won the title in 2014 when their current captain Abdulrahman Saad was still a teenager. Saad believes his team is ready to win the title again. “We have played the season very well. I have full confidence in my team, if we are injury free and play to our potential, we have a very good chance to win the title,” Saad told Gulf Times. Al Gharafa defeated Al Arabi 88-83 and Al Shamal beat Al Wakrah 79-63 for their spots in the decider. In the last couple of years Gharafa has had a roller-coaster ride, having lost to Al Rayyan, the most successful team in the history with 15 titles, in the 2016 final, but winning the prestigious Amir Cup and Qatar Cup in 2017. Saad, after returning from an injury he suffered during his stint with the national team, played well to score 16 crucial points in the semi-finals against Al Arabi. This is the second time Saad will be playing the league final in his long career with Gharafa. “I played my first season with Gharafa in 2013-2014 and we won the title that year. Now this is my ninth season in the senior league and we are again in the final. This time I am captain of the team and this is a big thing for me,” the 23-year-old guard said. Talking about his team’s composition, he said: “Naddem is supposed to be back for the game from injury and he is a very important player for us. I think as a team we are ready or the final.” Gharafa’s coach Kosay Hatem said his team had overcome many hardships to reach the final. “This final is important because of the setbacks we faced over the past two seasons. We last won the league way back in 2014. We haven’t done well after winning the Qatar Cup-Amir Cup double in 2017. We have faced many adversities sometimes, we had to play with only junior players, but we have managed,” Hatem said. The Iraqi coach also feels that it wasn’t all luck that his side reached final despite finishing fourth in the league phase. “We were late entrants to the semi-finals stage, but I don’t think we are lucky to reach final. We have defeated round-robin phase leaders Al Arabi in the semi-final and it gives us confidence. We are a deserving finalist,” he said. On the other hand, Shamal’s Moroccan coach Hassan Hached aims to win back-to-back titles.  Shamal have finished second after the double round-robin first phase, however, Hached admitted the final would be not an easy game. “Playing against an experienced team like Gharafa is always difficult. We won the title last year and want to retain it. But it’s easier said than done. Unlike before, the final is limited to a single game and it’ll make things more complicated,” he said. “We’ve been consistent throughout the season and I’m hopeful it’ll stand us in good shape for the final,” he said. The final was originally scheduled for March 3, but the QBF postponed the match as two players from each side, who had travelled to Iran with the national team to participate in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, were placed under precautionary quarantine by the country’s health authorities. The players have been declared fit by the authorities concerned.  Al Arabi defeated Al Wakrah 82-75 on March 3 to finish third in the league.

Heartbreak for Drysdale as Campillo wins epic playoff

No rest for the weary, they say. David Drysdale knows that all too well. A struggle of nearly 21 years and almost 500-odd tournaments continues for the Scot as, in fading light at the Education City Golf Club, Spain’s Jorge Campillo prevailed over Drysdale in an epic five-hole playoff to win the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters yesterday. Campillo had a two-shot lead going into the final two holes, despite a bogey on the 16th. But a double bogey on the 17th and a par on the final hole meant that he was tied with Drysdale at 13-under to push the matters into a playoff for the second time in as many weeks. Last week, Sami Valimaki of Finland overcame difficult conditions to win the Oman Open after beating South African Brandon Stone in a playoff in the third edition of the European Tour event. Yesterday, Campillo found sand off the tee on the first playoff hole but a 25-foot putt brought a birdie which Drysdale matched from six feet. Another 20-footer brought another birdie for the Spaniard, with Drysdale even closer to the hole than his previous effort. The duo could not be separated as they made routine pars on the third and fourth. Continuing to play the 513-yard 18th for the fifth time, another putt from beyond 20 feet brought Campillo a birdie. But the 44-year-old Scot, whose wife Vicky caddies for him, missed from similar range for a heart-breaking end to his campaign around ECGC. It was the fourth time Drysdale had finished runner-up. “I’m just so proud right now of the way I played in the playoff,” an elated Campillo said. It is Campillo’s second title, having won his first European Tour title after 229 events at the Trophee Hassan II in 2019. “I played not so good on the first few holes and then in the middle of the round I played okay. Apart from 17, I was solid. You know how the mind works, I wasn’t expecting to make a bogey on 16, on that tee shot I was comfortable, but I was a little bit scared of the driver on 17. I missed it there and then I hit a bad putt, I don’t normally hit bad putts from off the green. “You have to be patient, you have to try hard. I knew I was going to make some putts. It was a tough win but I’m glad I pulled it off,” the 33-year-old said. “It’s a great par four, 18, a tough hole. David was hitting some great shots into the hole and I had to make some putts. Three birdies out of six on 18 to win is something to be proud of.” Earlier, Dane Jeff Winther bogeyed the 16th and 17th to finish one shot out of the play-off alongside Swede Niklas Lemke and Finn Kalle Samooja. Lemke made birdies on the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, 11th, 13th and 14th to surge up the leaderboard but made two late bogeys in a 65. Samooja holed very long putts on the ninth and 11th in a 69 containing four birdies and two bogeys. Swede Alexander Bjork was at 11-under, a shot clear of countryman Marcus Kinhult, Italy’s Nino Bertasio, South African George Coetzee, Spaniard Pablo Larrazabal and England’s Chris Paisley. India’s SSP Chawrasia, a four-time European Tour winner, finished tied 28th. LEADING FINAL ROUND SCORES 271: Jorge Campillo (ESP) 66-66-67-72, David Drysdale (SCO) 67-69-64-71 Campillo wins on fifth play-off hole 272: Niklas Lemke (SWE) 68-69-70-65, Kalle Samooja (FIN) 70-67-66-69, Jeff Winther (DEN) 66-69-65-72 273: Alexander Bjork (SWE) 70-63-69-71 274: Nino Bertasio (ITA) 72-69-67-66, George Coetzee (RSA) 70-68-69-67, Marcus Kinhult (SWE) 68-65-73-68, Pablo Larrazabal (ESP) 72-67-63-72, Chris Paisley (ENG) 69-70-67-68 275: Marcus Armitage (ENG) 67-71-66-71, Lorenzo Gagli (ITA) 66-70-69-70, Gavin Green (MAL) 70-69-71-65, Scott Jamieson (SCO) 67-68-69-71, Adrien Saddier (FRA) 69-70-67-69

Spainu2019s Jorge Campillo on his way to a four-under 67 during the third round of the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters at Education City Golf Club in Doha yesterday. PICTURES: Jayaram
Spain’s Campillo grabs lead despite late glitches

Jorge Campillo kept his momentum going in the third round to emerge as the sole leader going into the decider at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters at the Education City Golf club yesterday. Looking for his second European Tour title, Campillo played a third round 67 to take a one-shot lead over title-less veteran Scot David Drysdale and Dane Jeff Winther into the final day of the tournament. The Spaniard started the day in a share of the lead and picked up five shots in six holes around the turn to move three ahead and into a commanding position. However, his 44-hole bogey-free streak came to an end on the 12th. Campillo’s sixth birdie of the day too was cancelled out by a bogey on the 15th, as he came home in level par for a 14-under total. “It was tough, especially the last four holes into the wind, so it wasn’t playing easy at all. The front nine wasn’t windy, it was playing easy, and the back nine was tough. I missed a few short putts but overall a good last three holes,” Campillo said. “I am in a good position for tomorrow but still 18 holes to go. It is going to be a tough day tomorrow, but I am glad with the position I am in right now because I wasn’t playing good, so being leader after three days after the last few weeks is nice,” the 33year-old said. Campillo won his maiden title Trophee Hassan II in April 2019 and is hopeful of another good day today. “If I had not won a golf tournament already I would have been a little bit nervous coming into tomorrow, but since I have won, it is a little bit more familiar, so I will still be a little nervous but hopefully tomorrow I can play as good as today and win.” England’s Andy Sullivan began the third round in a tie for the lead with Campillo, but three bogeys and a double-bogey on the 18th meant that he carded a disappointing 72 to fall five shots off the pace. On the other hand, Drysdale is aiming for his first title in his 498th European Tour event while a win for Winther would come at his 97th attempt. “We had good fun, good playing partners are always good to have and you can lean on your caddie as well. We just enjoyed it and played very well. I putted very well as well and that’s a big factor,” Winther said. “It’s wide and I like it. I need a bit of help off the tee at the moment but otherwise than that I really like it. The greenkeepers have done very well this week, it’s phenomenal to putt on. I’ll keep doing the same. I’m going to try not to think about it and it’ll be exciting. I look forward to it.” Pablo Larrazabal, the other Spaniard, also came up with a fine round yesterday. He carded an eight-under 63 with two eagles and six birdies, the lowest of the day to finish tied fifth with Swede Alexander Bjork at 11-under overall with three birdies and a bogey. “The pin positions are super tough and very tricky. I felt that I played well with some good putts including a 15-metre one on the 13th. Another 18 holes to go… let’s see what happens,” the five-time champion on the European Tour said. The 37-year-old Spaniard ended his four-year wait for a European title in December 2019 when he won the Alfred Dunhill Championship. Finn Kalle Samooja and England’s Jack Senior were at ten-under, a shot clear of two more Englishmen in Marcus Armitage and Andy Sullivan, India’s SSP Chawrasia, Belgian Thomas Detry and Scotland’s Scott Jamieson. Leading round III scores 199 — Jorge Campillo (ESP) 66 66 67 200 — David Drysdale (SCO) 67 69 64, Jeff Winther (DEN) 66 69 65 201 — Benjamin Poke (DEN) 68 67 66 202 — Alexander Bjork (SWE) 70 63 69, Pablo Larrazabal (ESP) 72 67 63 203 — Kalle Samooja (FIN) 70 67 66, Jack Senior (ENG) 69 66 68 204 — Marcus Armitage (ENG) 67 71 66, Andy Sullivan (ENG) 66 66 72, S.S.P Chawrasia (IND) 67 69 68, Thomas Detry (BEL) 72 66 66, Scott Jamieson (SCO) 67 68 69 205 — Lorenzo Gagli (ITA) 66 70 69

Indiau2019s SSP Chawrasia plays a shot during the third round yesterday. PICTURE: Jayaram
Chawrasia within striking distance of best Indian finish at Qatar Masters

India’s SSP Chawrasia looks set for a strong finish in the 2020 Commercial Bank Qatar Masters after carding a three-under par 68 to finish the third round at 9-under. Chawrasia, who shot 67 and 69 on the first two days, had four birdies on the front and one more on the back, and a bogey on either side to finish tied ninth alongside England’s Andy Sullivan and Marcus Armitage, Belgium’s Thomas Detry and Scotland’s Scott Jamison. “It was a good day for me. I have been playing good over the last three days and now looking forward to the fourth day. I am really enjoying my game after a long time… 18 more holes to go,” Chawrasia said. If Chawrasia finishes higher than seventh, it would be the best Indian performance at the event in its 23-year history. Jyoti Randhawa’s tied seventh in 2008 is the best by any Indian in Doha. He also had a shared 12th in 2005. Having finished 47th as his best result in previous eight appearances and after missing cuts for three successive years since 2017 at the Doha Golf Club, the 41-year-old golfer from Kolkata managed to play well over the last 36 holes this time at the new venue — the Education City Golf Club. The four-time winner on European Tour Chawrasia had his best start with four shots saved in the first seven holes. But he suffered a bogey on the ninth – something which he did on the first two days as well, before regaining a stroke. He was looking steady and parred the next three holes. However, a blip in concentration led to another bogey on the 15th. However, he regrouped himself and carded par on the remaining three holes. Talking about the conditions, he said: “When I came here, it was so windy. I was wondering how I would play. It is so tough to play in windy conditions, but I managed good scores and I hope for a better day tomorrow,” the two-time Indian Open champion said. Chawrasia had carded a 67 at last week’s final round in Oman and has now shot four successive rounds in 60s. Another good one could see him finish with a flourish. The Indian, who twice touched double figures under par, is still five behind leader Jorge Campillo, who carded a third round 67 to take a one-shot lead into the final day. Chawrasia was a bit lucky at the end of the day as he got a free drop when his approach shot landed in stands at the 18th hole and he finished the hole at par four with a fine chip shot. “Luckily I got the free drop, and I had a good chip and parred the final hole to complete a satisfactory round considering the conditions,” said Chawrasia, who is going to play in Indian Open next. Chawrasia, who missed the cut last year at the Doha Golf Club (DGC), said “I like this course too. It is beautiful, but I think Doha Golf Club is a tough course to play in windy conditions.”

Bjork hits the sweet spot with a fantastic 63

Sweden’s Alexander Bjork carded the lowest round of his European Tour career and of the tournament so far, shooting a 63 to sit at 9-under at the halfway mark in the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters yesterday. Bjork is a shot off the lead alongside compatriot Marcus Kinhult and three others. It was a bogey-free round for Bjork, who had just one top-ten in 2019, as he carded an eight-under, the lowest round at Education City Golf Club. “I have been struggling a lot lately but I have been starting to feel last week that the game was getting a bit better,” Bjork said. “I played quite good yesterday but did not get the putts to drop,” he said. Bjork was on a high feet after claiming his maiden European Tour win at the Volvo China Open in 2018 en route to finishing in Europe’s top 20 at the end of the campaign. The next year, he only had one top-ten finish. However, he has felt recently that his game is returning to him and that certainly showed in Doha. “I just got into a really good flow from the start today, hitting almost every fairway, kind of firing at the pins, so it just felt really good,” the 29-year-old said. Bjork took full advantage of a wind-free morning to put himself in contention. “I took advantage of the really calm weather and when you feel like the swing is really there and there is no wind, you can aim at the pins and I got a lot of good chances. “Like I said, I have been coming off quite a tough stretch, so it was a lot of fun to actually feel the flow again and maybe my best round tee to green since I won two years ago. It was fun to get that feeling again because it was a long time ago,” he said. His countryman Kinhult also had an eventful 65 with an eagle, six birdies and two bogeys. Kinhult revealed he had been to the Qatar Open table tennis as part of his preparations. “I played practise rounds as always and I went to the table tennis actually, it is about ten minutes away, so that was my preparation for the week,” the reigning British Masters champion said. Kinhult is in Qatar with his father and coach Martin, who is still a big influence on his son. “My dad will always be and he is here this week,” he said. “It’s his first tournament of the year and we are staying together, so it’s nice to have him out here,” the 23-year-old Swede said.

Denmarku2019s Nicolai Hojgaard tees off on the 18th hole during the first round of the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters at Education City Golf Club in Doha yesterday. PICTURES: Jayaram
Teenager Nicolai Hojgaard rains birdies for lead

Young gun Nicolai Hojgaard stole the limelight from past champions and his identical twin brother Rasmus on the first day of the 2020 Commercial Bank Qatar Masters yesterday. And the 18-year-old first-timer in Qatar feels that they are all beatable. “If you play good golf you can beat them,” a confident Hojgaard said. The Danish teenager lit up the back nine. He hit the turn in 35, then birdied seven of the next eight holes followed by a second bogey in an impressive opening round to emerge the leader at seven-under after a 64. “It was a good day. I started out slow, was playing really bad on the first four, five, six holes — I was still two-under at that point but I was just playing it all over the place. My putter was just on fire today, that’s the difference,” he said. “When I came to the back nine I was hitting fairways, hitting it close and rolling the putter. You just hit the button and you keep going. My putter was just the difference today. I was playing okay with the long game but I was just holing everything. The back nine is a bit trickier off the tee so I would say it was more of a three wood on the back nine,” the Dane, runner-up behind Sergio Garcia at the KLM Open last season, said. His brother Rasmus, who is the third youngest winner in European Tour history with a dramatic play-off triumph at the AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open in just his fifth Tour start, will start his second round six shots behind his twin brother. Rasmus closed out a one-under 70 with a disappointing double-bogey at the last hole. Dutchman Joost Luiten, who dropped just one shot at the eighth, is hot on Hojgaard’s heels after signing for a six-under 65. Defending champion Justin Harding and last week’s winner in Oman, Sami Valimaki, are six strokes adrift of Hojgaard. “I am absolutely pleased. Seven birdies and one dropped shot… that dropped shot came out of the middle of the fairway. But on a golf course like this, where it is really tricky on and around the greens, I was out of position, so sometimes you just have to accept the bogey. All in all, I am happy with my game,” Luiten said. Former World No.1 Martin Kaymer, who has gone six years without a major win, finished the day at tied 101. India’s SSP Chawrasia put up a good show finishing tied 9th after the first round. His compatriot, Shubhankar Sharma, who teed off with Nicolai Hojgaard, finished the day with a par round. “The conditions were not that tough today in the morning. It was quite calm compared to what I had felt on the two days of practice and the Pro-Am. It was quite scoring to be honest; a little bit disappointed,” Sharma said. “Nicolai played very well today. We both had a similar starts.... then I dropped a few shots and he kept making birdies. I have to stay in the zone and see what I can do tomorrow.” LEADING ROUND I SCORES 64: N Hojgaard (Den) 65: J Luiten (Ned) 66: J Campillo (Esp), T Pieters (Bel), L Gagli (Ita), A Sullivan (Eng), C Pigem (Esp), J Winther (Den) 67: M Armitage (Eng), S Jamieson (Sco), S Chawrasia (Ind), D Fichardt (RSA), D Drysdale (Sco), B Hebert (Fra), K Moon (Kor) 68: M Siem (Ger), S Heisele (Ger), N Lemke (Swe), M Kinhult (Swe), B Poke (Den), R Macintyre (Sco), G Havret (Fra), Y Touhami (Mar), R Fisher (Eng), W Nienaber (RSA), D Coupland (Eng) 69: R Paratore (Ita), C Paisley (Eng), F Zanotti (Par), O Fisher (Eng), D Horsey (Eng), M Korhonen (Fin), D Burmester (RSA), A Rozner (Fra), J Senior (Eng), A Saddier (Fra), M Kieffer (Ger), R Langasque (Fra), M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra), J Smith (Eng)

Indiau2019s Shubhankar Sharma in action during the Pro-Am competition ahead of the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters at Education City Golf Club yesterday. PICTURE: Jayaram
Young Sharma looking to climb the highs yet again

Shubhankar Sharma has seen highs and lows of golf in a short span of two years. Sharma became the youngest Indian to win on the European Tour — by more than six years — when he claimed the tri-sanctioned Joburg Open title in December 2017 as a 21-year-old. He won his second title — Maybank Championship in Malaysia — in February 2018 to become the Race to Dubai leader. He was ranked 64th in the world, but his form left him in the second half of the 2018, pushing him down to 330th spot. Sharma, currently ranked 279, sounded confident on the eve of the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters. “I am still working on a few things and I feel it will take some time for everything to settle in. The season has just started. I am very happy to be back here after a year,” Sharma told Gulf Times yesterday. Sharma had five top-10 finishes in 2018 but could not sustain the momentum and managed only four top-20 finishes in the past year. He is trying to learn something each day, he said yesterday. “The (three-year) journey on the European Tour has been nice. It is obviously a journey I love. This is what I always dreamt of doing. It is a kind of game you keep learning something every day.” The 23-year-old, who has spent six years as a pro, sounded determined to improve on the joint 59th that he secured in the 2018 Qatar Masters. “I have played all four events in the region this year. This is the last event in the desert. We all look forward to it. Hopefully I can finish it off on a good note and then move to the next part of the season. “The last year was okay but the year before last was very good. Hopefully I can put up a few good performances and do better this season,” Sharma said. “I did not play here last year, but it is a new course here and I am looking forward to playing the first round,” he added. Comparing the Education City Golf Club, the new venue of the tournament, with the Doha Golf Club, he said, “I played at the Doha Golf Club two years ago. I feel this course is much windier than DGC. I played on this course on the past two days. I am playing Pro-Am today. It is a nice course and the conditions are very nice and I really liked it. “Obviously it is very windy here. Everything will be kind of affected. It is going to be tough test here so everyone will have to play really well here (to survive),” he said. Sharma will play his first two rounds with Denmark’s Nicolai Hojgaar and Finland’s Kalle Samooja.

Justin Harding returns to defend his title.
Kaymer, Harding headline acts at Qatar Masters

Two-time Major winner Martin Kaymer and defending champion Justin Harding will lead a strong field for the 2020 edition of Commercial Bank Qatar Masters that will tee off today at the Education City Golf Club. The $1.75mn event has moved across the Qatari capital from Doha Golf Club for the first time in its 23-year history to Education City Golf Club — a landmark project for Qatar that offers a revolutionary and holistic approach to growing the game. Designed by two-time Masters Champion Jose Maria Olazabal, the venue comprises 33 holes split into three courses — 18 holes, nine holes and six holes. The Championship Course, which plays 7,307 yards, is set up to be a terrific test for the players with sizeable bunkers and green-side water hazards on more than half the holes. Kaymer last played the event in 2014 is hoping to turn his recent consistency into a long-awaited win at the new venue of the event where the conditions are expected to be challenging. “I’ve been playing well,” Kaymer said. “I’m working a lot on the short game, trying to get that putter in the right momentum.” The German is a former European No. 1 with 11 European Tour wins, including two Major Championships. But the last of those victories came nearly six years ago at the 2014 US Open. He recently said that he felt he had maybe lacked focus for the last couple of years. However, after changing his trajectory to gain some length off the tee and working hard on his short game, he has started his 2020 campaign with four consecutive top 20s. “I’m very happy with the way I hit fairways, the way I hit greens, I’m playing very consistently and those top-16 finishes, it would be nice to make a couple more putts to actually have a chance to win,” the 35-year-old said. Last year’s winner Harding hopes that memories of his victory in Doha last year can fuel his challenge for more success at the Qatar Masters. The South African lifted his maiden European Tour title in dramatic fashion at last year’s event after some last day heroics saw him hold off a big chasing pack at Doha Golf Club. He fired five birdies on the back nine — including at the 15th, 17th and 18th — to earn a two-shot victory from a group of nine players who tied for second. To defend a title in Doha is a tough task as South African Branden Grace is the only player to win back-to-back (2015, 2016) Qatar Masters titles in its 23-year-old history. And according to Harding, wind will be a big factor again this week. “It’s a good golf course, I’ve played nine holes and I think the wind’s going to blow,” said Harding. “It’s going to make it challenging for scoring.” Harding is also joined in the field by 2018 winner Eddie Pepperell, last week’s Oman Open winner Sami Valimaki and Kaymer’s 2012 Ryder Cup teammate Nicolas Colsaerts. Colsaerts ended his seven-year winless run in the autumn at the Open de France and after a top-20 in Oman last week, he too is feeling confident in the desert. “Everything kind of falls into place. I think I’ve been playing well since my first round of the year. If you look at the results you always want to get a bit more out of your weeks, I probably wasn’t really efficient enough on the greens,” Colsaerts said. “I thought I had a good chance last week, I had a putt on 13 on Sunday that would have got me two shots off the lead and I was feeling pretty good. I went for the win for a long time and thought I had a pretty good sniff so I’m pretty happy about everything.” The 144-player field at the popular European Tour tournament also includes former Open and two-time Qatar champion Paul Lawrie along with other former champions Jeunghun Wang of South Korea, Spain’s Alvaro Quiros, and South Africa’s Darren Fichardt, besides prominent young stars like Denmark’s Rasmus Hojgaard and Australia’s Min Woo Lee. At 18 years and 271 days old, Hojgaard is the third youngest winner in European Tour history after a dramatic play-off triumph last December at the AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open in just his fifth European Tour start. Lee had a disappointing Oman Open last week – missing the cut with rounds of 77 and 76 – but will be looking to match or improve upon his share-of-20th at this event last year. The 21-year-old will still be high on confidence after his Vic Open title win on February 7 and should be right in the mix if he plays anywhere near his best.

European Tour tournament director Mikael Ericsson (second from left), Commercial Banku2019s EGM, Chief Marketing Officer Hussein al-Abdulla (fifth from left) and officials of the Qatar Golf Association pose after the official Commercial Bank Qatar Masters press conference at the Education City Golf Club yesterday. At bottom, a view of the Education City Golf Club course with the Education City World Cup 2022 stadium in the background. PICTURE: Jayaram
Strong field sets the stage for thrilling action at ECGC

The 2020 Commercial Bank Qatar Masters has an “exciting” field in its 23nd edition, with several past champions and many upcoming stars lining up at the newest golf course on the European Tour, the Education City Golf Club (ECGC). The 144-player field at the popular European Tour tournament is headed by two-time major winner Martin Kaymer, former Open champion and two-time champion in Doha Paul Lawrie, defending champion Justin Harding from South Africa along with former champions Jeunghun Wang from South Korea, Spain’s Alvaro Quiros and South Korean Darren Fichardt. “It’s a very exciting field this week. It’s a strong field having a lot of past winners with upcoming stars,” European Tour tournament director Mikael Ericsson said at a pre-event press conference yesterday. The $1.75mn event is being held from March 5-8 for the famous Mother of Pearl Trophy at the new venue where the conditions will be challenging. |“It’s a great course, but it will be a tough task for the players this week as it will be pretty windy on the first day and we will make it more challenging with tough pin placements and firmer, faster greens,” Ericsson said. The event has moved across the Qatari capital from Doha Golf Club for the first time in its 23-year history to Education City Golf Club — a landmark project for Qatar — which offers a revolutionary and holistic approach to growing the game. Designed by two-time Masters Champion Jose Maria Olazabal, the venue at Education City comprises of 33 holes split into three courses; 18 holes, nine holes and six holes. The exciting new venue expects to not only challenge the European Tour stars but to entertain local and international spectators with its unique views of the Doha skyline and the 2022 Education City World Cup Stadium. The highly-anticipated event is organised by Qatar Golf Association (QGA), the Qatar Olympic Committee (QOC), Education City Golf Club and long-term title sponsor, Commercial Bank. Commercial Bank’s EGM, Chief Marketing Officer, Hussein al-Abdulla said they have been supporting the tournament keeping Qatar National Vision 2030 in mind. “We have been reaching out to school students through our campaign. We have been supporting Qatar National Vision 2030, which basically aims to spread sport and education. We have done a lot of education awareness among the schools, malls, social media,” said al-Abdulla. “Every year, Commercial Bank tirelessly works to deliver the best golf experience for participants and players, as well as spectators and enthusiasts, which is why we have organised and scheduled in cooperation with the Education City Golf Club visits to various schools and universities in Doha to raise awareness on this sport amongst students.  “The main goal of this campaign was to raise awareness about this fascinating game and to educate the public in Qatar, in particular community members aged between three and 25, in order to make them more familiar with the game, its techniques and values. We are pleased to announce that we have succeeded in educating around 9,000 students from several schools and universities in the country,” he said. “This year marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the Commercial Bank, in addition to being the fifteenth year of the bank organising the Qatar Masters tournament. The bank’s organisation of this tournament as the title sponsor is a solid indication of the success of this event over the years, and it is something we are proud of,” said al-Abdulla. Speaking on the occasion, Qatar Golf Association president Hassan Nasser al-Naimi said it is a proud moment for Qatar that the event is being held at a new venue. “Qatar Golf Association and Doha Golf Club are proud to host the 2020 Commercial Bank Qatar Masters at Education City Golf Course. I would like to thank out title sponsors Commercial Bank for their continued sponsorship. Hope we will continue it here for the coming few years,” he said.  Two of Qatar’s most promising players – Saleh al-Kaabi and Ali al-Shehrani – will also rub shoulders with the elite of the European Tour during the event.

American Sofia Kenin addresses a press conference at the Qatar Total Open. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Comfortable with spotlight, Kenin focussed on job at hand

Sofia Kenin has sauntered into the limelight after becoming the youngest Australian Open champion since Maria Sharapova in 2008 and faces heightened expectations in her career. She is the new American No 1 – eclipsing Serena Williams – and the World No 7. She moves comfortably in the space occupied by next-gen players like Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty, Bianca Andreescu and, in fact, has become a threat to all of them and there’s no doubt that the 21-year-old’s life has changed forever. She has to deal with attention from multiple angles and the past has shown that it is not easy to deal with, with many players admitting to difficulty in coping up with such expectations. The Moscow-born American, however, is relishing her new-found fame in a positive way. “I obviously want to keep it going. I like all the attention and everything, but, I try to at least focus on the match. That’s what I got to figure out, how to manage the expectations and people talking from the outside,” Kenin said ahead of the start of her singles campaign at Qatar Total Open today. Being thrust into the spotlight after winning a Grand Slam is one thing, but being looked up to by millions around the world as a by-product is quite another and Kenin, who defeated Serena Williams in the third round of the 2019 French Open and has twice reached round two at Wimbledon, has kept her feet firmly on the ground. Asked how things have changed for her since Melbourne, she said: “Yeah, I just feel like a lot of people are watching and like obviously talking from the outside. I mean, obviously the racket doesn’t feel that heavy, it’s still the same, but, I feel like I really want to start off well and keep my momentum going forward. So hopefully I can do that this week and more weeks to come,” Kenin, who is seeded sixth at the Qatar Total Open and has a first-round bye, said. After winning her maiden major title, the American headed straight to Everett to represent the United States at Fed Cup, where she went 1-1 in singles. In Dubai last week, she lost to eventual runners-up Kazakhistan’s Elena Rybakina. Kenin wants to keep her momentum going in the first Premier 5 event of the season in Doha. “Before Australia and everything there was different kind of pressure, but I did have like expectations, I was hard on myself. I want to do well in every tournament, so it’s not a surprise. And nothing’s changed from my side the way I am, because I hate losing.” Sofia had some success in doubles too and she plans to play doubles in some events. “For sure I will play doubles in some tournaments, but I’m a singles player, so obviously some tournaments I’m not going to play doubles. But of course all the Premier 5s, all the Grand Slams, it’s definitely an option to play doubles there.” She is playing doubles with Swiss Star Belinda Bencic in Doha. Kenin also has an Olympic dream in her sights. “That was the goal at the start of the year. Yes, Olympics were among my goals for the year,” she said. Kenin has a unique ball toss while serving but feels it’s natural. “Yes it’s natural, it’s just happened like that when I was little. And we tried to change it, it didn’t work. I have done it like that, I won a Grand Slam, so I think I can live with that and do the same thing.”

German golfer Marcel Siem plays a bunker shot during the first round of the Qatar Open Amateur Championship 2020 at the Doha Golf Club yesterday. PICTURE: Jayaram
Siem makes promising start in Tour card quest

German golfer Marcel Siem, who lost eligibility to play on the European Tour last season, made a fine start at the Qatar Open Amateur Championship yesterday. At the Doha Golf Club, the 39-year-old played well to hit the top of the Pro leaderboard with an 8-under par 64, comprising nine birdies and a bogey on the first day of the championship. England’s Brandon Robinson Thompson was two strokes behind him with six-under. American Kevin Esteve is third at four-under and another German, Max Schmitt, is fourth at three-under. South African Bryce Easton and Swedish golfer Niklas Lemke are tied for fifth at two-under with four others at the end of the first round. “It was little windy in the afternoon, but it was calmer in the morning. Overall the conditions were very nice here today,” Siem told Gulf Times.  Siem last playd in Qatar Masters in 2018 and finished  joint 28th. “Usually greens are little firmer during the Qatar Masters, but here they were a bit softer. Roughs are also not as high as usual… it played little easier today. So overall it was bit easier.” Siem disqualified himself from the French Open last October after he assumed that ‘preferred lies rule’ was in place for the opening round. The German lifted, cleaned and placed his ball five times on the front nine at Le Golf National, incurring a two-shot penalty for each infraction and can not retain his Tour card. Prior to the penalty strokes, he had shot one-over 37 across the opening nine holes. “I am happy with my score. But I don’t know what’s coming. I had a good finish at last few holes. I am happy with the score. But as we all know, this course is always difficult to play and still we have two days to go, so we have to be little careful,” said the four-time European Tour winner Siem, who is aiming to earn back his card. Siem’s biggest victory came in China at the 2014 BMW Masters, which propelled him to a career-high seventh place finish in the Race to Dubai. He also has a World Cup win on his CV after partnering fellow German Bernhard Langer to glory in Barbados in 2006. Talking about his disqualification and his fight to be back on the tour, he said: “It was a costly mistake. It was hard unfortunately. That was a little too much for me as I disqualified myself.” This year his best finish in three events on the European Tour has been a tied 49th at the South African Open. “I am feeling felling more confident with couple of good starts this year. Playing challenge after 18 years is not nice. It’s like when you miss one class in school, you have to go back. I have to go through the season with playing 10-12 challengers or invitation events on the tour. I have to fight through this year and I hope 2021 will be good again,” he said. France’s Tom Santa, who carded two-under and is joint fifth on the overall leaderboard, is leading the amateur section of the championship.  Qatar’s Ali al-Shahrani carded two-over to finish the day at joint 5th spot, while 2017 runner-up Saleh al-Kaabi was four-over in joint 10th.

Al Sadd players take part in a training session ahead of their Qatar Cup final against Al Duhail. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Xavi’s Al Sadd has ‘extra’ motivation against Duhail

Al Sadd coach Xavi Hernandez insisted his side have “extra motivation” for the Qatar Cup final against arch-rivals Al Duhail. Xavi’s boys perhaps played their best match of the season to defeat Al Rayyan 4-1 in the semi-final and are now aiming to clinch their second title of the season at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium. “This is the final and we as a team are eyeing our second title of the season,” said Xavi, whose team won the Sheikh Jassim Cup with a win over the same opponents. The season-opening trophy victory was also Xavi’s maiden title as coach. In the ongoing season of the QNB Stars League, Duhail are the table toppers with 30 points, while Al Sadd are third with 21 points and one match in hand. The Wolves lost 1-4 to Al Duhail when the teams last met in the QNB Stars League in November, and it is payback time for them. “Yes… we lost 1-4 to Duhail and that is an extra motivation for us,” said Xavi. “But this is the final. This time we will be playing for the title and that’s what makes it different. It will be a tough match but we are ready. It will be an exciting match, we will put in our 100 per cent and will fight to win the title,” said Xavi. Barcelona legend also praised “friend” Rui Faria and his side Al Duhail. “Duhail is one of the best Asian teams. They have won several domestic titles. We have to play at our best to beat them and I am confident of doing that, but we need our fans’ support as well. “Faria is a great coach technically and I respect him a lot. He is doing a great job, he has a lot of experience having worked with Jose Mourinho. My relationship with him is good and we are friends,” said Xavi. Al Sadd captain and striker Hassan al-Haydos also echoed his coach’s views. “The match will be difficult because we will face one of the best teams in Asia. It is certain that reaching a high level is difficult, but it is tougher to maintain that. We hope we maintain the level that we showed in our last two games and our target is to put in all our efforts to win the title to make our fans happy,” Al-Haydos said. The Red Knights, who defeated Al Sailiya 2-0 in the first semi-final, are also confident of a win. “It is a final. As everyone knows, it is one game that gives you the opportunity to win the title. We know that small details will be of importance, we have to be at the highest level of readiness technically and collectively, and also focused,” Faria said. Under Faria, who joined Duhail last January after assisting Jose Mourinho for 17 years at some of the world’s biggest clubs, Duhail have performed quite well to remain unbeaten in the league. The Red Knights had an eight-match winning run which ended in a goalless draw with Qatar SC at the start of the month. “We have prepared well and we know that we are facing a strong team, so our target is collective display, which should help us win. We have full confidence in our ability.” Talking about new faces in his team, the Portuguese said: “The new players have played and we hope they will soon settle into their stride, but certainly, when you bring new players, they need time to gel well because the players get to know each other after many games. That will, in turn, help the coach implement his ideas fully, so we need more time to get to that stage.” Duhail’s Karim Boudiaf felt they have to be well organised against Al Sadd. “It is not the first time that we face Al Sadd in the final. I agree with the coach that small details will be important, but if we avoid mistakes, we will be close to winning. Generally, the team that controls the midfield wins. I know Al Sadd players as I have played with them in national team and know that this team prefers to take possession of the ball. My advice to my teammates is to be well organised and also to play with our distinctive style,” the 29-year-old midfielder said. Commenting on Mario Mandzukic inclusion, he said: “Mario is wonderful. He has rich experience, but it is difficult for a player to get adapted quickly when he joins a new team. We expect him to give us an additional value in the coming games.”

Al Duhail coach Rui Faria (centre) and striker Ismail Mohamed (left) address a press conference on the eve of Qatar Cup semi-final against Al Sailiya. (Below) Al Sailiya coach Sami Trabelsi (centre) and midfielder Mubarak Boussoufa (left) during the press conference. PICTURES: Anas Khalid
Duhail up against determined Sailiya in Qatar Cup today

Al Duhail are confident going into the first semi-final of 2020 Qatar Cup against Al Sailiya at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium today, and coach Rui Faria feels his side is ready for the opponents, who are very much capable of staging an upset. “We’re facing a team that we know well. They have stability at the technical level as their coach has been with them for long. We know the philosophy with which they will be playing and we will be ready for them,” Faria said on the eve of the match.  Al Duhail, who qualified for the sixth edition of the tournament by virtue of finishing second in the 2018-19 QNB Stars League, start favourites due to their unbeaten run in the QNB Qatar Stars League and the arrival of Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic. However, they were held by Qatar SC to a goalless draw in Mandzukic’s opening match. “We know the value of our new recruit (Mario) Mandzukic, but we focus on the team as a whole. In the last game, we had an organised opponent who worked seriously to get that point, but we depend on the team as a whole and not on one player. “Our new North Korean player Han Kwang-Song is training with the team, which is an additional option for us,” said Faria. Faria joined Duhail last January after assisting Jose Mourinho for 17 years at some of the world’s biggest clubs. “When I came here, I knew the history of our club and its ambitions. When the administration has provided us with all the facilities, our target is to compete for all titles. After all, this is football and I always focus on the next match,” the 44-year-old Portuguese coach said. Al Duhail striker Ismail Mohamed promised his teammates will give their best in the match. “Our preparations went off well. We know that the cup games are different from league games. It requires high concentration and we must bring out our best and we will do it in order to qualify for the final. There is no easy match. We as a team is always are a tough opponent,” Mohamed said. Talking about his fitness, the 29-year-old forward said, “I always try to implement the coach’s instructions. After my return from injury, I have been working intensely to get back to my actual level.” On the other hand, Sailiya would be hoping that they come back strongly from their 1-2 defeat to Al Khor in the league last week. “We are focusing completely on the Qatar Cup now, especially the semifinal against Al Duhail,” said coach Sami Trabelsi. “This is a tournament where we are honoured to compete in. They are looking to reach the final, they have a team full of stars, with great experience in European and Arab leagues. “There is always great seriousness when we face Al Duhail. They have outstanding players, especially in attack. Ours is a more collective effort. In the last game, we were closer to winning had it not been for our mistakes. We hope not to repeat them and target victory and reaching the final,” the 51-year-old said. Talking about his side’s performance, which finished third in the league last season, he said: “For me in terms of players’ quality, we are much better than last season. Our results may have been better last season. This time, we could not start the season in a good way because there are players who joined us late. That has affected our results, we hope to be in a better position in the second leg.” “We know that there are many obligations for the Qatar national team. From my point of view, this date is a result of calendar pressure. All matches we currently play are part of our preparations for the AFC Champions League. We will focus on getting a positive result,” the Tunisian, who has been with the club since 2013, said. Sailiya’s Moroccan midfielder Mubarak Boussoufa also feels it will be a good game and was confident of his team’s show. “We have to be at the top of our readiness. We will play against Al Duhail, who are considered as the best side in the league this season, and we will be ready to offer our best level,” Boussoufa said. “We have a strong motivation especially since we are playing a very special team. In such cases, we always want to spring a surprise. In the league, you have opportunities to compensate because it is a long tournament. But in Cup, you should be at your best in order every time to achieve victory,” the 35-year-old player said. Al Sailiya made it to the elite tournament by finishing a creditable third in the league, behind reigning champions Al Sadd and Al Duhail. In the ongoing season of the QNB Stars League, Duhail are the table toppers with 30 points, while Al Sailiya is in sixth with 17 points. The other unbeaten team in the league, Al Rayyan, will take on Al Sadd in the second semi-final tomorrow.

Oman head coach Erwin Koeman and captain Ahmed Kano address a press conference on the eve of their 24th Arabian Gulf Cup match against Bahrain. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Holders Oman hope to ride momentum vs Bahrain

Buoyed by some good performances in the recent past, Oman have made the trip to Qatar looking to defend their Gulf Cup title. Ranked 77, Oman registered two victories — against Bangladesh and India — in the last few days at the joint qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and AFC Asian Cup 2023. The World Cup qualification matches have helped the ‘Red Warriors’ to shape their readiness for the prestigious regional tournament which is expected to be a tough competition. Oman head coach Erwin Koeman is confident of a good performance from his boys in the tournament. “Expectations are always high especially if you are defending champions, but that’s not a problem for us. We are well-prepared. I think the boys are capable of a good show in the tournament,” Koeman said yesterday. The two-time champions will kick-start their campaign against Bahrain today at the Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium in Al Duhail. “We had our last training today in the morning and like every team we will need a little bit of luck as well – there’s not a lot of difference between teams here as this is a special tournament for all teams. We are looking forward to it,” the 57-year-old Dutchman said. Having enjoyed a long run as assistant coach to famous Dutch player and younger brother Ronald, Erwin Koeman has stepped up to become a first-team coach, replacing compatriot Pim Verbeek as manager of Oman in February 2019. So far, Koeman has overseen an impressive run, where the team has only one defeat from last eight outings. Central to Oman’s success has been a resolute backline, with the defending Gulf Cup champions only conceding five goals in Koeman’s tenure. Talking about the improvement in the team’s performance Koeman stressed the need to increase the fitness levels. “We try to increase our fitness levels. That’s the area where we have need work. Our facilities are not at the same level as Qatar, but we are dealing well with that. We have to find solutions to increase players’ fitness level as professionals. “We have some issues. I have led the team for nine months and I am not complaining about the fitness level. Boys are trying to increase their level, they are determined to achieve their goals,” he said. Captain and veteran midfielder Ahmed Kano, who guided Oman to their second title win in 2017, will again be the key man for the Red Warriors and he is looking to go all the way again in Doha. “To defend the title is a big challenge for us, but we are ready for it. Actually, after the World Cup qualifier game against India we are totally concentrating on the Gulf Cup, which has its own charm,” Kano said. Kano is no stranger to playing football in Qatar having enjoyed several spells in the second division. The captain will have to be at his very best if Oman is to become the first side since Saudi Arabia to win back-to-back Gulf titles. “We have harmony in the team as we won four games and we are on the right path. Even against Qatar in the World Cup qualifier we played well, missed a lot of chances,” the 34-year-old midfielder said. Talking about the game against Qatar the captain said we have to take one game at a time. “We will play Bahrain first. We can’t think about Qatar now. We are preparing game-by-game and we’ll fight to defend the title.” Oman have won the Gulf Cup on two occasions so far, having first lifted the trophy when they beat Saudi Arabia on penalties in Muscat in 2009, followed by another penalty shootout win against the United Arab Emirates in Kuwait in 2017.

Yemen coach Sami Hasan al-Hadi (left), and captain and goalkeeper Salem Awad address a press conference on the eve of their Gulf Cup match against the UAE. PICTURE: Shemeer Rasheed
Yemen hopeful in quest of maiden Gulf Cup victory

Yemen have had their “fingerprints” on the Gulf Cup tournament but are now hoping for a “fruitful” outing in the 24th edition of the prestigious regional tournament, coach Sami Hasan al-Hadi said ahead of their campaign opener. Yemen has never won a Gulf Cup match despite having played 27 times in the tournament, but al-Hadi seemed confident on the eve of their first group match against former champions the United Arab Emirates (UAE). “Our goal is to register our maiden victory in the Gulf Cup this time to make it a fruitful affair,” said al-Hadi at the press conference yesterday. His confidence stems from the two victories and four draws that the 141st ranked team registered in their qualification campaign for the 2019 Asian Cup. “We have our fingerprints in the tournament as a participating team and as hosts. We have played some good games in previous editions of the tournaments, we have some good drawn matches and some good memories, but we are still looking for our maiden win in the tournament and we are fully ready for it this time. We aim to provide a good level of football and achieve the first victory that delights everyone in our country.” Yemen, who are with hosts Qatar, former champions Iraq and the UAE in Group A, will start their campaign against the UAE at the Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium today. “We are suffering. There is no football league for the last five years due to the war. This has affected our performance and preparations but with the emergence of some young players, we have coped well. Our ambitions are big and we are looking for a positive result,” the coach said. “We have been benefited from participating in the West Asian Championship and the Asian qualifiers, and I expect a positive participation and this is what we all hope. My team has played 10 games and it is in a developing stage,” the 62-year-old Yemeni said. Talking about playing in a tough group, he said: “We know we are against some good teams. We have played against some strong teams in the Asian qualifiers and in the West Asia tournament, and we respect all the teams. We are quite well prepared and ready for the first victory here.” “I believe we have a good team, with a handful of young promising players breaking through, that can be a platform to build on for the future,” the coach said. Yemen were first to arrive in Doha on November 21 from Bahrain, where they played in an Asian Qualifiers group D tie against Singapore, suffering a 2-1 defeat. Yemen team will feel the absence of their two key players – striker Mohsen Qarawi and defender Ammar Homsan – who were ruled out of tournament before the team had their first training session at the Qatar University Stadium. However, Yemeni captain and goalkeeper Salem Awad also echoed his coach’s views as he said his teammates are well prepared this time. “We hope to achieve our first win in the tournament. We are in this tournament for the ninth time. We have learned from the past participation and we are well prepared mentally and physically for the tournament,” Awad said. “We were so happy to make history for the right reasons by qualifying for the last Asian Cup, and we hope we can start this campaign well to bring cheer to our country by qualifying for Asian Cup 2023 in China.” Talking about the match against 67th ranked UAE, who have lost two World Cup qualifier matches against Thailand and Vietnam recently, Awad said: “As a team we respect them, they are two-time champions. The UAE team has gone through some ups and downs in the recent period, but they are a good side. We also have our ups and downs, but it did not affect us adversely. We are a young side and ready for the show.” On the presence of the Yemeni public in Qatar, coach al-Hadi said: “I welcome everyone here in Doha. We hope we have a big presence of fans and it is a pleasure to play in front of our fans in Qatar. I hope our fans come and support us and help us put pressure on our opponents.” He also praised the atmosphere surrounding the tournament in terms of accommodation and training fields, stressing that it is the best. Yemen has not only played in the Gulf Cup but has also hosted the 20th edition in 2010 which was won by Kuwait with a 1-0 extra time win over Saudi Arabia. It was Kuwait’s 10th title and the edition celebrated the 40th anniversary of the cup.