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Wednesday, November 30, 2022 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
 Sahan Bidappa
Sahan Bidappa
Sahan Bidappa is a sports writer with Gulf Times. He joined Gulf Times after having worked for more than 10 years with leading newspapers in India. Sahan misses covering cricket in Qatar but has adeptly channelized his talents towards tennis, football and
Argentina’s Lionel Messi (second right) gestures next to teammates during a training session at the Qatar University in Doha yesterday, on the eve of the World Cup Group C match against Poland. (AFP)
Sport
Messi, Lewandowski carry Argentina and Poland hopes

Czeslaw Michniewicz reminded today’s decisive clash between Poland and Argentina was not a tennis match but a football contest between two sides vying for a place in the last 16 of the World Cup.Despite Poland coach’s desperate plea, there is little doubt the two team’s future in the tournament will hinge on their star players’ performances at Stadium 974.Argentina’s left-footed magician Lionel Messi, vying for that elusive title in what most likely is his fifth and final World Cup, will be up against Robert Lewandowski, the Polish scoring-machine plotting an upset against the Group C favourites. The two players may vary in style but are worth their weight in gold for their teams and will have to play a crucial role if Argentina or Poland need to qualify for the last 16.Poland, who have not reached the knockout stage since 1986, they go through with a win or a draw against Argentina. A loss would still keep them in fray, if Saudi Arabia doesn’t beat Mexico. Argentina, on the other hand, must beat Poland to be sure of going through, while a draw will be enough if Saudi Arabia and Mexico draw.“It’s not Messi vs Lewandowski — it’s not tennis, it’s not one-on-one. They’re not serving to each other,” Michniewicz said, offering other sports as a reference in his press conference at the Qatar National Convention Centre yesterday. “Robert needs his teammates, like Leo does. They rely on their teammates. They can’t do this alone, although these individual players can do a lot themselves.”Michniewicz then switched to skiing and compared Messi to Alberto Tomba, the Italian skier from the 1980s and ’90s who won Olympic gold medals in slalom and giant slalom. It was an impressive rhetoric from the Polish coach, who was just highlighting his team’s mammoth task of keeping Messi quiet in today’s game.“Messi behaves on the pitch like Alberto Tomba on the slopes,” Michniewicz said. “He is able to avoid everyone, like Alberto Tomba was able to get around everything. So we need to put players around Messi. If he is able to ride through everyone, we won’t be able to stop him.”Like Messi, the 34-year-old Lewandowski is also his nation’s all-time top scorer, on possibly his last mission at a World Cup. He uncharacteristically missed a penalty in Poland’s opening draw with Mexico before scoring his first ever World Cup goal in their 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia. “He is a top player and it will be a privilege and pleasure to see him from up close as a football fan,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said. “Is he at the same level as Messi? You just have to enjoy such a good player. Why compare one player with another? That’s not helpful.”Argentina have won six out of their 11 games against Poland, while the Poles won the last time the sides met in 2011 in a friendly. But 35-year-old Messi and his teammates have huffed and puffed to stay alive in the competition, having come into Qatar on an unbeaten 36-game run. After suffering one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history at the hands of Saudi Arabia in their opening game, the two-time champions beat Mexico thanks largely to Messi’s goal and his assist for Enzo Fernandez.Scaloni has been under attack in his home country for his team selection. The 44-year-old coach has been criticised for not playing Juventus midfielder Leandro Paredes against Mexico, where Scaloni made five changes.“Leandro has always been with us and the consideration is the highest, we love him a lot. He’s always been involved, just because he doesn’t play at times doesn’t mean we don’t trust him,” said Scaloni, before adding he had complete confidence in his 26-man squad regardless of who he decides to start.Scaloni said he is yet to decide his final line-up for today’s match. “We’re expecting a difficult match. Poland are a team that at times close well in the box and also create situations for you in the box. We have to see who is playing. It’s different depending on who is there. Our idea is quite clear. We’ll try to defend set pieces with concentration.”Scaloni said their stuttering World Cup campaign was now in the past and all that mattered was the match against Poland and a spot in the last 16. “For us the most important game is the one we are about to play. Whatever happened is in the past and remains there.”Meanwhile, defender Lisandro Martinez said Argentina was yet to peak in the tournament. “We know what we are capable of. We can play better and we know we have not reached our best level yet. But we are trying,” said Martinez.“We have to be well organised so they don’t get us on the counter-attack,” added the Manchester United defender on the threat Lewandowski’s poses.FACTBOXARGENTINA vs POLANDWhen: Today, 6pmWhere: Stadium 974Capacity: 44,089Key stats:• Poland have kept a clean sheet in their last three World Cup matches, including both in 2022.• Poland won four of their first seven World Cup games against South American sides (L3) but lost each of their last three in the competition without scoring a single goal.• Argentina lost their last two World Cup games against European nations – Croatia (3-0) and France (4-3) in 2018.• Poland will advance with at least a draw, while Argentina may also advance with a draw depending on the result of the other group game.Previous meetings:• This is the third time Poland and Argentina will meet at the World Cup. Poland won 3-2 in 1974 and Argentina won 2-0 four years later. Argentina have won six of their 11 meetings overall, with Poland winning three. The teams last played an international friendly in June 2011, which Poland won 2-1.Mexico captain Guardado defends Messi after Alvarez threatDoha: Mexico captain Andres Guardado has defended Lionel Messi after boxer Canelo Alvarez issued a threat to the Argentine having taken offence at a video appearing to show the striker nudging away a Mexico jersey on the floor with his foot.Messi scored in Argentina’s 2-0 win over Mexico at the World Cup on Saturday and Mexican Alvarez, who has around 2.2mn followers on Twitter, said the striker “should ask God that I don’t find him” having taken offence at the video. But the 36-year-old Guardado, who is playing in his fifth World Cup, said he saw nothing out of the ordinary himself.“It’s an agreement with the props: when you leave everything sweaty on the floor it’s all to wash,” Guardado told reporters. “I’ve had the fortune and the privilege of facing Messi for many years in Spain... I know the person he is. Unfortunately, maybe Canelo doesn’t understand what it’s like in a dressing room.”Mexico must win their final Group C match against Saudi Arabia today to have any chance of reaching the last 16 in Qatar.

Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly (left) celebrates scoring their second goal against Ecuador with teammates at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha yesterday. (Reuters)
Sport
Koulibaly sends Senegal into Round of 16, breaks Ecuador hearts

Ecuador, who had been so impressive in their first two matches, were dealt a harsh reality by Senegal yesterday. The South Americans had cruised past Qatar in the tournament opener, when the hosts suffered a stage fright, and then came mighty close to upset the Netherlands in the next game, with Gonzalo Plata hitting the post.If that had gone in, then Ecuador would have reached the last 16 – equalling their previous best finish from 2006 – with a game to spare against Senegal.But as it turned out, the African champions made Ecuador pay for a lifeless first-half display to enter the last 16 of the Qatar World Cup for the first time in 20 years at the Khalifa International Stadium yesterday.Senegal will take on England in the knockouts and even without their talisman Sadio Mane and Idrissa Gueye, they are going to be a tough opponent for the European heavyweights. A draw would have ensured Ecuador’s passage into knockouts, but an insipid and nervous start to their final Group A game gave Senegal the momentum and the latter never looked back.Ismaila Sarr’s penalty, which he won after being ploughed into by defender Piero Hincapie, had put Senegal in front at the end of first half, before Ecuador recovered somewhat in the second half as Moises Caicedo found the equaliser in the 67th minute.However, Ecuador’s celebration was short-lived as two minutes and 30 seconds later Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly slotted home after a corner came off Hincapie, who had a forgettable outing.Koulibaly’s strike was a hammer blow to Ecuador’s hopes even as Senegal players, backed by the non-stop drumming and dancing of their passionate fans, celebrated wildly. At the final whistle, the Ecuador players dropped to their knees and were inconsolable later. “I am in pain over this defeat. We all are,” Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro said.“It is a hard blow. It is a big frustration that we are feeling. We knew that details could make all the difference and unfortunately that’s what happened in this match.”An emotional Koulibaly, meanwhile, dedicated his goal to late Senegal great Papa Bouba Diop and said he would give his man of the match trophy from yesterday’s game to the deceased’s family.The defender also paid tribute to Senegal’s 2002 World Cup hero by having Diop’s number 19 written on his captain’s armband. Diop scored the winning goal in the stunning 1-0 triumph over France in the opening game of that tournament 20 years ago, helping Senegal reach the quarter-finals. “Today is the anniversary of his death, I will give his family the trophy in his honour,” Koulibaly said.“We knew the anniversary of his death was something very important, for his family. We wanted to pay homage to him, he made me dream when I was a boy. Now we know we need to rest up, keep a cool head, yes we’ve qualified, and yes we can savour the win, but now we need to concentrate. We need to show why we are the champions of Africa. We need to rest up and get the best from ourselves in the knockout stages,” the defender, who plays for Chelsea in the Premier League, said.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group G - Brazil v Switzerland - Stadium 974, Doha, Qatar - November 28, 2022
Brazil's Casemiro celebrates after the match REUTERS/Marko Djurica     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Sport
Late Casemiro strike sends sloppy Brazil into last 16

It was a relief more than joy for Brazil players, who converged behind the goal after the game, where Casemiro had struck the winner earlier. They made a little jig with the fans before disappearing into the tunnel, even as the large travelling Brazilian contingent made out of Stadium 974 to celebrate their team’s qualification into the last 16 of the World Cup in Qatar.Yesterday’s 1-0 win over Switzerland was far from comfortable for Brazil, the pre-tournament favourites. The Group G match was a dull affair in the first half as five-time champions failed to find the spark in the absence of their injured captain Neymar, with Switzerland sitting deep in defence but not posing any attacking threat either.But Casemiro’s well-taken half volley – seven minutes from full time – broke Swiss’ resistance, just when it looked like the Europeans would take a well-deserved point. Brazil are now unbeaten in a record 17 World Cup group games, a run going back to 1998, when they lost 2-1 to Norway. They can top the group if they draw against Cameroon on Friday. For Switzerland, they need to beat Serbia or a draw would see them through to knockouts if Cameroon lose to Brazil.All the pre-match buzz of Neymar’s importance to this Brazil side was laid bare as Tite’s men struggled to carve out a meaningful chance against a well-drilled Switzerland defence. This was a match calling out for Neymar’s dazzling pyrotechnics as Swiss coach Murat Yakin’s defensive structure frustrated the Brazilians.Switzerland had an eventful day even before they reached Stadium 974 from their hotel, after being involved in a minor road traffic accident. The bus carrying the players had rammed into the police escort car in slow-moving traffic, while another car travelling behind hit the bumper of the bus. The collision was a minor one and it didn’t seem to affect Switzerland players when they took the field.The last two times both teams had clashed at the World Cup, the most recent being in Russia in 2018, Switzerland had managed to hold Brazil to a draw. It looked for most of yesterday’s game, this too would meander into a stalemate.This was after Tite had called upon all his attacking talent from the bench to break the deadlock. But it was Brazil’s ‘invisible man’ Casemiro, who showed up at the right time to carry his team to victory.The Manchester United defensive midfielder curled a gorgeous right footer into the top of the right corner after receiving a pass from Rodrigo. The strike brushed defender Manuel Akanji’s backside slightly, but even then the ball was destined to beat goalkeeper Yann Sommer, who remained unmoved.Despite their struggles on the night, Brazil have made their best start to a World Cup campaign since 2002, the last time they won the World Cup. But against teams that offer more attacking threat in the later stage of the tournament, Brazil will need to step up if they have to end their 20-year title drought.“Thank God we scored that goal,” Casemiro said. “We were patient...it was an annoying game. The first aim was to qualify. That was really important in a group as difficult as ours. It was always going to be decided by little details but we knew we would have plenty of possession and thankfully we managed to get the goal,” the 30-year-old would admit later.Casemiro believes despite Neymar’s absence, Brazil are a more complete team now than four years ago, when they crashed out of the World Cup in Russia in the quarter-finals. “Four years have gone by and there are new players,” said the former Real Madrid star.To be fair, Brazil had been knocking at the door in the second period with Vinicius Jr the most likely to score or create a chance. The Real Madrid forward was a constant threat in the left flank and was unfortunate not to have a goal to his name.The 22-year-old is destined for bigger things and he showed exactly why. For the Casemiro goal, Vinicius Jr had drawn three desperate defenders onto him, which allowed half-time substitute Rodrigo to create an opening.At the hour march, Vinicius Jr had put the ball into the net only for VAR to rule it offside after Richarlison had wandered back from an offside position.On the other hand for Switzerland, the lack of cutting edge in front of goal sealed their fate. Switzerland had six shots in total yesterday but none of them were on target, with midfielder Djibril Sow coming closest. In fact, Brazil led by two experienced centre-halves Marquinhos and Thiago Silva gave Switzerland striker Breel Embolo barely a sniff, with goalkeeper Alisson not having to make a single save at this World Cup yet. The 11 shots from Switzerland and Serbia have all been off target or blocked.“We are competitive against bigger teams. I think we have proven that time and time again,” said Swiss coach Yakin, who left out his most creative spark Xherdan Shaqiri and replaced him with Fabian Rieder.“We lacked a bit of courage going forward but there are a lot of good things to take from this,” he added.

Spain's forward Alvaro Morata scores his team's opening goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group E match against Germany at the Al Bayt Stadium yesterday. (AFP)
Sport
Super-subs strike as Germany-Spain clash ends in thrilling draw

The day started on an anxious note for Germany, but it got better by mid-noon as Costa Rica stunned Japan.By the time Hansi Flick’s men trooped into the majestic Al Bayt Stadium at night, their Group E clash against Spain was no more a must-win game for the four-time champions, but a defeat would have left them vulnerable for early exit.Germany, smarting from their shock opening loss to Japan, needed to salvage something from the Spain game and a point yesterday kept their World Cup hopes alive.The thrilling 1-1 draw between the two teams in front of 68,895 spectators – majority in Spain colours, felt like a victory for Germany. The die Mannschaft went through many emotions last night – that of despair, nervousness, joy and finally a relief as they managed to hold out a brilliant Spain side, who are looking like a real threat for the title.Substitute Alvaro Morata’s clever flick in the 62nd minute gave Spain a well-deserved lead and as the game threatened to slip out of Germany’s grasp, another sub Niclas Fullkrug smashed into the top corner in the 83rd minute, much to the relief of Flick.Germany stay bottom for now in the group, but a win over Costa Rica and a Spanish victory over Japan will see Germany through to the last 16.However, it gets a little bit trickier for Germany if Spain and Japan draw. Then they’d need to beat Costa Rica by at least two goals, or by a single-goal margin providing they score more goals than Japan do against Spain. For Luis Enrique’s Spain, who swept past Costa Rica 7-0 in the opener, they need just a draw to secure their spot into the knockouts.Last night, Germany had more attempts on goal and on target, but it was the Spanish who looked the better side. The 2010 champions got off to a flying start with Manuel Neuer keeping out Dani Olmo’s powerful strike in the eighth minute that tipped the bar after the save from the German goalkeeper.The Germans took time to get into the game and when they did they looked threatening every time they had a set piece. Against the run of play, Rudiger thought he had put Germany in front after brilliantly nodding in Joshua’s Kimmich free kick, but the VAR immediately ruled the goal out for offside.On the eve of the game, Enrique had claimed both teams are similar in nature with their possession based style. But at half-time, Spain had enjoyed over 65% of possession with Germany needing to dig deeper, with their apparent lack of No. 9 making them toothless in front of goal.Enrique understood that earlier than Flick as he introduced Morata in 54th minute and eight minutes later he justified his coach’s decision after a brilliant near-post goal to Jordi Alba’s cross. Germany, desperate for an equaliser, put more men forward, with Sane’s introduction in the 70th minute – one of the three substitutions – proving to be a game changer.Sane, who has just recovered from a knee strain, made a clever pass into the box to Musiala, who laid into Fullkrug for a rocket strike that gave no chance for Spain keeper Unai Simon to save.In the stoppage time, Sane had the chance to steal it for Germany but he could not get his shot on time as the ball was cleared.Goal-scorer Morata said the match was worthy of a semi-final or final at a World Cup. “It was a tough game because Germany have an amazing team. It was a really good game. Two teams that could be in a semi-final or final of the World Cup,” said Morata, who has now scored six goals in his last nine appearances for Spain.“The most important thing is to win, but they scored an amazing goal and it was unlucky we didn’t have the victory. We will keep training with good, positive vibes. Japan is a tough team, they run a lot and are good tactically. It’s another hard game. We are in the World Cup and everyone can see that the games are crazy,” the Atletico Madrid striker said.Ilkay Gundogan, who made way for Sane in the 70th minute, said the result was fair for Germany. “We needed that! Probably it was meant to be that way. We could have scored earlier. We scored but unfortunately it was disallowed. We had a couple of really good chances as well. Maybe if you look just at the chances, we were a little bit better, but I think at the end, the result is fair against a very tough Spanish side,” the Manchester City midfielder said.“Now it’s all about the last game of the group stage. It’s crazy. A competition like the World Cup, you already know before it that it’s going to be dramatic, that some games are going to be full of different momentums, ups and downs. I was on the bench talking to Thomas Muller and we felt there was still a goal for us in the game. Then Niclas (Fullkrug) scored, the finish was unbelievable. A typical striker, a typical number nine, and he really stepped up when we needed him. We are very happy about that,” he added.

From left: Brazil’s forward  Raphinha, defenders Thiago Silva, Marquinhos and midfielder Casemiro attend a training session with teammates at the Al Arabi SC in Doha yesterday, on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup match against Switzerland. (AFP)
Sport
Neymar-less Brazil set for Swiss challenge

Midfielder Casemiro feels sorry for Brazil’s rivals. Rich in resources, the record five-time champions are no short of new exciting talents.“We, those who play in the back end, often joke that we feel sorry for our rivals because we can replace Raphinha for Antony, Richalison for Gabriel Jesus. We have Rodrygo, Gabriel Martinelli...,” the list goes on, says Casemiro.But there is one man who holds the centre stage whether he is playing or not for Brazil.Neymar is ruled out of South Americans second Group G match of the Qatar 2022 against Switzerland today, after suffering an ankle injury in their win over Serbia. Yet, the focus was entirely on the Paris Saint-Germain star on the match eve, with the striker a polarising figure in his home country. Reports state that some Brazilians celebrated their captain’s unavailability for the next game, or for the entire World Cup. Neymar has 75 goals in 122 games for his country, but fans believe Brazil are more balanced and effective in his absence.Yesterday, Brazil coach Tite, his assistant Cesar Sampaio and defender Marquinhos were bombarded with questions over Neymar’s absence and his positive or negative influence on the squad in the 45-minute pre-match press conference at the Qatar National Convention Centre. Brazil will also be without reliable full back Danilo, also suffering from ankle injury, and there are question marks over Lucas Paqueta’s availability after the midfielder missed training at the Al Arabi Stadium due to illness.“We’ve already decided the starting players but we will only be communicating that right before the game,” said Tite, holding his selection cards close to his chest.The manager would not be drawn into the time frame on Neymar’s return, but insisted that it was not the end of the World Cup for his talisman. “Brazil is dependent on every great talent, and Neymar is an extraordinary talent,” he said.“I believe that Neymar and Danilo will play again in the World Cup. Medically, clinically, I have no place to speak. But I do have our doctor’s opinion, the sensations talking to the players and seeing how hard they are working day and night to recover. I believe we will be able to count on them in the World Cup again,” he added.Tite’s side put together the best-ever campaign in the South American qualifiers, recording 14 wins, three draws and no defeats and scoring 40 goals in total and conceding just five. Against Serbia, Brazil were loaded with attacking talent, however, Tite might be slightly conservative against the Swiss, who are likely to pose a bigger challenge today at the Stadium 974.Real Madrid forward Rodrygo would be the first option if Tite decides to use the same system with four men up-front alongside Vinicius, Richarlison – who starred with a brace against Serbia – and Raphinha. The 21-year-old forward played in Neymar’s position in three Brazil practice games in Turin in the week prior to the World Cup. Tite also could pair Manchester United teammates Casemiro and Fred in the midfield. For Danilo,versatile centre back Eder Militao or veteran Dani Alves could come in.Meanwhile, Switzerland’s manager Murat Yakin said Neymar’s absence will have no bearing in his side’s preparation and planning against one of the World Cup favourites. Today’s match will be the third time that Switzerland have played Brazil at the World Cup. The teams last met in the group stage of the 2018 tournament in Russia, where they drew 1-1. “I think Brazil has enough excellent players to build three teams,” Yakin said. “The challenge is not going to get easier for us.”Switzerland edged Cameroon 1-0 in their opening match, and a win against Brazil would see them through to the round of 16 if Serbia fail to win against Cameroon in another match today. Midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, who has represented Switzerland in four consecutive World Cups, said his teammates are capable of getting a better result against Brazil this time. “That was a positive outcome,” Shaqiri said of the 2018 draw. “We are aware of what we can do and I think we have made progress. We have more experience and have been challenged by greater teams since.”FACTBOXBrazil vs SwitzerlandWhen: Today, 7pmWhere: Stadium 974Capacity: 44,089Key stats:Brazil, unbeaten in qualifying for Qatar, have won the World Cup five times and are favourites to win a record-extending sixth title.Switzerland have reached the knockout stage in three of their last four World Cups - in 2006, 2014 and 2018 - but crashed out at the group stage in 2010.Switzerland have reached the knockout stage in three of their last four World Cups - in 2006, 2014 and 2018 - but crashed out at the group stage in 2010.Switzerland were unbeaten through qualifying, topping a group that included European champions Italy.Previous meetings:Today’s match will be the third time Brazil will have played Switzerland at the World Cup.The teams last met in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where they drew 1-1. They also drew 2-2 at the 1950 World Cup.In nine matches against Switzerland, Brazil have recorded three wins, four draws and two losses.

Germany players take part in a training session at Al Shamal Stadium yesterday. (AFP)
Sport
For Flick, ‘focus is football’ as Germany brace for Spain clash

Germany coach Hansi Flick fronted the media alone yesterday. As per the FIFA rules, every team needs to send a coach and player to speak to reporters a day before the match at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. But a defiant Flick sat alone in the press conference at the Qatar National Convention Centre yesterday, even as his players trained 105km away at their Al Shamal training base.Flick was unperturbed by the FIFA fine that will follow. It’s desperate times for Flick and his German team as they face a second successive group stage World Cup elimination if they lose to Spain at the Al Bayt Stadium today.“We can’t expect a player to come along and drive for three hours. It’s a very important match so I told them I’m going to come and do it on my own,” Flick said nonchalantly.“Every player in the 26 is important so I asked them not to come along because it is important they devote energy to the training session. We are disappointed. We have a very good media centre at the training ground and it would have been possible for a player to come if the press conference had been held closer,” he added, after FIFA refused Germany’s request to conduct the pre-match press conference at their training base.At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Germany finished bottom of a group containing Sweden, Mexico and South Korea – in what was their earliest exit from the football showpiece in 80 years. And Flick is determined his team would not suffer another embarrassment.Tonight’s match at Al Bayt is a blockbuster, even if it did not carry the weightage of a do-or-die clash for Germany. There is no ‘Group of Death’ at this World Cup, but this was the standout fixture when the draw was made on April 1. Japan and Costa Rica – the other teams in Group E – were never meant to pose much of a trouble for the European giants.While Spain swept past Costa Rica in a seven-goal rout, Germany fell to a shock 1-2 defeat to Japan after having dominated in the first half making it a decisive clash. If Japan draw or beat Costa Rica earlier today at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, a defeat for Germany later against Spain will send the four-time world champions crashing out.The recent result between the two teams does not augur well for Germans, so does their record against Spain in big tournaments. Spain thrashed Germany 6-0 when they last met in November 2020 in the UEFA Nations League, while Flick was assistant to Joachim Low when Die Mannschaft lost to Spain in the 2008 Euros final and the 2010 World Cup semi-final.Flick said ‘past doesn’t matter anymore’ but conceded their reputation was at stake. “This will be answered on Sunday. Maybe we have another answer to that question, the right answer. Tomorrow is the first final for us in this World Cup. This is what it’s all about. We want to prevent going out,” he noted.Germany’s defence faltered in their opener against Japan, and with a young Spanish team filled with world’s enviable emerging talents in Gavi and Pedri showing their ruthlessness against Costa Rica, Flick’s men need to find a way to shut their European counterparts.“For me the focus is football,” Flick said. “I am convinced of the idea of how we want to play. If we are not on 100% then we give the opponent space. We did it against Japan. Such a defeat and how it came about is very bitter because it was avoidable. But we will continue down our road because we believe in the quality of the team and that it can apply the things we want. We have courage and belief going into the game,” said the German.For Spain, without the burden of being considered as one of the title favourites in Qatar, seemed to have given them freedom to express themselves on the field. A win tonight, will seal La Roja’s qualification into the last 16.In Luis Enrique, they have a coach who behaves and talks like he is under least pressure among the 32 managers in the tournament. Besides plotting Spain’s first World Cup title since 2010, Enrique has been live streaming from his twitch channel from Qatar. He also embraced technology in his training methods, using it to explain positional play and retaining possession to his players.While the dominating win over Costa Rica has lightened the mood in Spain’s camp, it’s against Germans they will find their equal match. Enrique called it a ‘beautiful challenge’ of two teams who like to dominate possession.“Without a doubt, they are the team that is most similar to Spain in terms of dominating the play and controlling it. That is a beautiful challenge for us,” Enrique said yesterday. “I think it will be an open game. A big win like that (against Costa Rica) creates confidence but we can’t go into the game over confident. Will Germany be more dangerous because they need the win more? You never know in football,” the former Barcelona coach said.“They are world champions, when you look there are four stars on their shirt,” said Enrique, when asked if he considers his team as favourites for the match. “I played in 1994 against them, there was a big physical difference in that era, and a footballing one. I think that Spain are at that level now – in fact in the FIFA rankings we’re above them – but if anyone knows how to fight, it’s Germany. I have a lot of respect for their players, they are world class, and their history is there to see. But we have the conviction that we have to beat Germany.”FACT BOXSpain vs GermanyWhen: Today, 10pmWhere: Al Bayt StadiumCapacity: 60,000Key stats:Spain were World Cup winners in 2010 - their one success to date - while Germany have won the trophy four times, most recently in 2014 in Brazil.Spain thrashed Germany 6-0 in their last meeting in November 2020 in the UEFA Nations League.Spain will qualify for the knockout stage with a win. Defeat for Germany would mean elimination if Japan take at least a point from their match against Costa Rica.Germany failed to clear the group stage at the last World Cup in Russia in 2018 when they lost matches to Mexico and South Korea. It was their earliest exit in the competition in decades.Previous meetings: The two sides have met 25 times previously, withGermany winning on nine occasions, Spain on eight and eight draws.

Qatar’s Mohamed Muntari (second right) scores during the FIFA World Cup match against Senegal at the Al Thumama Stadium. (Reuters)
Sport
Qatar make earliest exit after defeat to Senegal

Six days into their home World Cup, Qatar bowed out of the tournament on a whimper. What’s worse, they also became the first host nation to crash out of the football showpiece in the group stage with a game to spare. South Africa in 2010 were alive till their third and final first round match.The 1-3 defeat to Senegal at Al Thumama Stadium yesterday was strictly a respectable performance from Qatar, but nonetheless a disappointing one for the Asian champions. Substitute Mohamed Muntari’s towering header in the 74th minute brought some life back into Qatari fans, but substitute Bamba Dieng scored a third for Senegal six minutes later to silence the crowd.For the second game running, home fans could not bear to watch their team’s misery till the end, taking the exit route after the third goal. In fact, there were swathes of empty seats after Famara Diedhiou fired Senegal into a two-goal lead in the 48th minute with Boulaye Dia earlier having opened the scoring in the 41st minute.There were many similarities for Felix Sanchez’s side from their opening night defeat to Ecuador. Sanchez had admitted his players were nervous making their World Cup debut last Sunday, but yesterday’s performance too was sloppy and lacking in creativity.The Al Annabi were a much-improved side after the break but only after Diedhiou had found the net via header three minutes into the second half. Senegal were far from impressive themselves, which allowed Qatar a chance to get back into the game.Having at least scored a goal in the tournament, Qatar will now hope to salvage some pride when they take on the Netherlands in their final game on Tuesday at the Al Bayt Stadium.“Today we showed what we are able to do. We were competitive and we played well,” Qatar manager Sanchez said. “Obviously the result is key but we showed a better performance. We have to get ready to play against the Netherlands. We know that it’s going to be an even tougher game against them.”Sanchez, who has been at the helm of Qatar side since 2017 and led them to their maiden Asian Cup title two years later, said his side should not be branded a “failure and disappointment.”“I do think we played a good game. When you come here you need to know where you’re coming from (as a country). If this is a failure and disappointment, that depends on expectations,” Sanchez said.“Our goal was to be competitive... We’ve been working for so many months to be able to give a good performance. But sometimes the match does not play out as you expect. It also depends on the opponents’ performance. We didn’t play at our top level. We were competitive but didn’t improve. Qatar is a small country, not a very large population. The local league is not a very competitive one. It’s our first time at the World Cup. If we can take part again, that would be great. It’s always useful to get more experience,” the 46-year-old added.Sanchez dropped goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb – who had a horror game against Ecuador – with Meshaal Barsham replacing him, but the latter did not inspire much confidence either. Defender Isamil Mohamed and midfielder Assim Madibo were also brought in for Bassam Hisham and Abdulaziz Hatem but the home side failed to find the possession and looked nervy every time Senegal launched an attack.Barsham was caught flapping like al-Sheeb did in the first game when defending the corner with Senegal coach Aliou Cisse’s attacking 4-4-2 formation causing trouble. However, without injured Sadio Mane the African champions have lacked the firepower which proved them costly in their defeat to Dutch side earlier.Ismaila Sarr, Nampalys Mendy, Idrissa Gana Gueye and Youssouf Sabaly also squandered chances to score before Qatar gifted them one. A routine clearance in the box was messed up by Boualem Khoukhi, as the defender slipped and fell on his back, which allowed Dia to fire low past Barsham.A few minutes earlier, Qatar’s call for penalty was waived off by referee Antonio Lahoz after forward Akram Afif was brought down by Sarr with VAR not changing the decision.To make matters worse, Qatar were two goals down just three minutes into the second half. Qatar defenders were caught napping when Diedhiou had acres of space as he nodded a header in from Ismail Jakobs’ corner.With three points seemingly in the bag, the Lions of Teranga took the foot of the pedal as Qatar created a flurry of chances. Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy had to be alert when Almoez Ali launched a long-range effort, tipping it over. Mendy was then forced to a sensational reflex save, diving to his right to stop a point-blank effort from Ismail Mohamed.With time running out, Muntari gave Qatar hope with a powerful header Mendy could do nothing about. Cisse’s decision to make all five substitutions by the 77th minute looked to be risky. However, substitute Dieng swept the ball into the net to calm the nerves in Senegal camp and crush Qatar’s slim hopes of rescuing a point and staying alive in their own World Cup.Key stats• Qatar have become the 75th different country to score a goal in FIFA World Cup history.• Mohammed Muntari is the first-ever player to score for Qatar in the World Cup.• The 3-1 victory for Senegal signals the first win for an African team in this tournament.• The two-goal win represents Senegal’s biggest-ever margin of victory in a World Cup match.• Famara Diedhiou has become Senegal’s oldest-ever World Cup goalscorer at the age of 29 years and 345 days.• This is the second time that Senegal have scored three goals in a World Cup match – the previous occasion was a 3-3 draw with Uruguay in 2002.

Qatar's players take part in a training session at Aspire Training Site in Doha on November 24, 2022, on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football match between Qatar and Senegal. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)
Sport
Qatar seek inspiration from Saudi to avoid early exit

Ismail Mohamed’s eyes lit up when it was mentioned to him yesterday about Saudi Arabia’s stunning win over Argentina at the World Cup. The Qatar midfielder admitted he and his teammates were ‘a little bit jealous’ of their neighbours, before adding it was a huge motivating factor for the team.Qatar, who will get knocked out of the World Cup today if they fail to beat Senegal at the Al Thumama Stadium, are no short of inspiration.The Arab teams, barring hosts, have punched above their weights after the first round of matches. Tunisia and Morocco put in a spirited display to hold Denmark and Croatia respectively.Qatar may be the reigning Asian champions, but it was Japan who played like one when they came back from goal down to upset four-time Germany on Thursday.“We want to give it our all tomorrow,” declared Mohamed. Easier said than done though for Qatar, especially when the World Cup debutants were soundly beaten by Ecuador in the tournament opener. If the host’s nervy performance on Sunday was put down to stage fright, they are in for no less pressure against African champions Senegal today.Felix Sanchez’s men stare at an unwanted record as they are hoping to avoid becoming only the second hosts to be eliminated in the group stage at the World Cup. In 2010, South Africa also went out in the first round, but were still alive heading into their third match.For Qatar, a defeat today to Senegal would make it an unceremonious early departure. On Sunday, disheartened Qatar fans made a beeline for exit as the players overwhelmed by the pressure of all the razzmatazz after the opening ceremony crumbled without a fight against Ecuador. Sanchez said his team have a ‘point to prove’, urging his players today to bring in their ‘A’ game.“We did not provide the joy to the fans, but we tried to avoid a negative vibe in the past days. Hopefully we can play freely and without pressure and be better than what happened in the first game, this team has a point to prove,” the Spaniard said.“Matches are controlled by many factors, but the most important thing is to give our best, in the World Cup if you don’t give your best you will be punished. I hope we can compete and bring our ‘A’ Game’ and show that we can be more competitive than we were the other day. We are playing a very high-level team so we need to prove ourselves, play our game and see what happens.”Al Annabi had one of the longest preparations for the World Cup by any team, spending six months in Europe for isolated training camps. The decision to pull out players from Qatar Stars League and make them play low-intensity friendlies has also been questioned.Sanchez, though, stuck to his guns saying the long training camp was ideal for his players to build a cohesion ahead of the high-pressure World Cup at home. The 46-year-old dismissed any doubts over the long-term future of Qatari football, regardless of how the team performs in the remaining two matches.“We are a small country, the smallest to host the World Cup. We prepared ourselves for the possibility of an early exit, but this does not mean the end of the project. One of the things that Qatar has proved so far, which is not common in the world of football, is that there was a long-term plan to prepare. I am confident that Qatar will continue their project to maintain a strong team, compete and qualify for the upcoming tournaments,” he said.In Senegal they have a strong opponent, who are hurting from their defeat to Group A heavyweights the Netherlands in the opener. The Africans, who are without their star striker Sadio Mane, dominated the Dutch side until the 84th minute before goalkeeper Edouard Mendy’s misjudgment proved costly. A second goal followed in stoppage time with Mendy again at fault, leaving Senegal to do it all against Qatar and Ecuador. A wounded Senegal return to Al Thumama Stadium to stay alive in the competition.“We have our backs against the wall but we are Lions, the Lions of Teranga,” said centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly yesterday. “We will give everything to continue with the dream and to let the Senegalese people dream. We don’t want to disappoint the Senegalese population. What is certain is that the behaviour and mentality tomorrow will be that of warriors.”Senegal coach Aliou Cisse backed Mendy, saying the Chelsea goalkeeper has a steely resolve and was a certain starter against Qatar. He is likely to make few changes to his starting line-up though after midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate picked up a thigh muscle tear, while defender Abdou Diallo has a thigh strain.“Edouard (Mendy) is doing very well, he has got a steely resolve. Edouard’s qualities speak for themselves, I don’t think that anyone is doubting him, sometimes he has highs, and sometimes he has lows. He has my full trust, my blind trust, and that of his team mates. Tomorrow he will be on the pitch,” said Cisse.Knocked out in the first round at Russia 2018, Senegal will be hoping they can do the same to Qatar today.

Richarlison scores his second goal in the Group G - Brazil v Serbia match at the Lusail Stadium, yesterday
Qatar
Brazil cruise past Serbia; Ronaldo breaks record

Richarlison scored a spectacular overhead kick as his brace helped five-time champions Brazil to a convincing 2-0 win over Serbia in their FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 opener yesterday. But it was again Cristiano Ronaldo, who hogged the limelight as the Portuguese legend became the first player to score in five men’s World Cups as he helped his team to a 3-2 victory over Ghana at Stadium 974.The forward surpassed the great Pele, Uwe Seeler and Miroslav Klose to stand on his own by scoring at five different editions of the tournament – starting from 2006’s edition in Germany.The 37-year-old is the third player to be both a country’s oldest and youngest goalscorer at the World Cup, along with Croatia’s Ivica Olic and Denmark’s Michael Laudrup. Including World Cups and Euros, Ronaldo has now scored at 10 consecutive major tournaments.“It’s a beautiful moment in my fifth World Cup,” Ronaldo told reporters. “We won. We started on a good foot. It’s a very important win. We know in these competitions the first match is fundamental. It’s another record too. That makes me very proud. I am very happy for the team to have put on excellent performance. It was difficult but we deserved to win.”Later at the Lusail Stadium, Richarlison opened the scoring with an easy tap-in for Brazil before doubling the lead with his acrobatic effort. The South Americans, seeking a record sixth title, showed their silky game as coach Tite went in four forwards – Neymar, Vinicius Jr., Raphinha and Richarlison. The attacking nature of the game paid off handsomely as Selecao dominated the match and made Serbia work hard every time they went forward.PSG star Neymar was substituted with concern over his fitness. But it was later reported he was taken off as a precaution after receiving one kick too many in the match. Brazil are top of Group G, with Switzerland second after they beat Cameroon 1-0 and Serbia are bottom.Meanwhile, Football legend Pele gave Brazil a virtual pre-match pep talk before the national team prepared to make their World Cup debut, telling them: “Bring this trophy home.”The 82-year-old icon posted a series of photos of his past World Cup glories on Instagram, telling Neymar and his teammates: “Today we start writing a new story.” Sport Pages 1-8

Saudi Arabia's Salem al-Dawsari celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates (REUTERS)
Sport
Saudi Arabia land ‘heavy blow’ on Messi’s Argentina

On the eve of Argentina’s opening match of the World Cup, there was so much focus on Lionel Messi that there was hardly a mention of their opponents Saudi Arabia.Qatar 2022 is Messi’s fifth and almost certainly the last one and there has been talk of how the left-footed magician could lead Argentina to their first title since 1986, adding the most important and the last piece of silverware to his trophy-laden career. But there was a gentle reminder from Saudi’s French coach Herve Renard a day before the match, when he said on Monday: “We haven’t come to this World Cup just for a jolly. We have come here to be the best we can.”Yesterday, the Saudi players proved Renard right, creating one of the greatest upsets of all time by stunning Messi led-Argentina 2-1 at a packed Lusail Stadium, a result described by Messi as a “heavy blow”. At the end of the Group C match, the Argentine fans – who made most of the 88,012-record crowd – were left distraught as the Saudi fans could not stop jumping with joy. It was a game of two halves literally, with Argentina failing to capitalise on numerous openings they had in the first half and only led 1-0 through Messi’s 10th-minute penalty.In the second half, Saudi shredded the script dramatically. The Green Falcons equalised through Saleh al-Shehri in the 48th-minute before their most influential player Salem al-Dawsari produced a superb strike five minutes later to send the delirious crowd into a frenzy.The shell-shocked Argentina team – one of the pre-tournament favourites – did not know how to react as Saudi defended heroically for one of the biggest shocks in the 92-year World Cup history. It was a courageous and brilliant performance from Renard’s men. Left to guard their lead for 51 minutes – including 14 minutes of stoppage time – the Saudi players led by goalkeeper Mohamed al-Owais and central defender Hassan al-Tambakti threw their body on the line. Al-Owais rightly won the man of the match for his commanding display in which he made five spectacular saves, two claims and 14 accurate passes, while also playing the role of a sweeper-keeper at times and clearing long balls from the midfield.Saudi’s performance had the combination of pressing, energy and passion in equal measure. Whether they could sustain it till the final whistle was a big question mark and when they did, the tireless players, substitutes and support celebrated wildly and so did the Saudi fans.“All the stars in the sky were aligned for us, but don’t forget Argentina are still a fantastic team,” said Renard after the pulsating clash. The Saudi coach warned his players not to celebrate for too long, saying: “This is football, sometimes totally crazy things can happen.”Charismatic Renard, who has previously led Zambia and the Ivory Coast to Africa Cup of Nations glory was also sacked after a few matches in charge of Cambridge United in 2004 – was a calming influence on the pitch side and deserves credit for Saudi’s unlikely victory. “We needed to get this result, it will be one for the (history) books, but as a coach I’m always asking for more from my players, so let’s stay humble,” he said.The 54-year-old’s tactic to play high line was fraught with danger but on the day it was hugely rewarding. Saudi are ranked 51st in the world, ironically one above hosts Qatar, and they had to take their chances and be more clinical upfront against third-ranked Argentina.Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina came into the tournament among the favourites on the back of a 36-game unbeaten run that included winning the 2021 Copa America. There was no sign of the streak ending as Messi converted a penalty for his seventh goal in 20 World Cup appearances to put his side ahead after Saud Abdulhamid had pulled Leandro Parades to the ground in the box. The 35-year-old became the first Argentinian to score in four World Cups – 2006, 2014, 2018 and 2022 – and the fifth man in history to achieve the feat. There was a feeling he would add even more yesterday.And he did find the net but only for the goal to be ruled out by off-side. Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez too had two of his goals called off side, with the second one being extremely unlucky after VAR ruled the tip of his shoulder was a fraction ahead of Abdulhamid. Saudi’s high line was working as Argentina had committed seven off-sides in the first half as the South Americans had just a goal to show for all their dominance and they paid heavily for their profligacy in front of the goal.Saudi, meanwhile, came out with renewed energy despite losing captain Salman al-Faraj to injury at the end of first half. Renard’s half-time talk created wonders as they turned the game upside down with an attacking display. Cristian Romero was clearly ripe to be picked off as the Tottenham defender struggled in the opening 45 minutes and was uncomfortable after the restart too. The equaliser came soon for Saudi after al-Shehri collected a pass from Feras al-Brikan and then beat Romero on the left, as the ball bounced past goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez’s outstretched hands.As Argentina panicked with Scaloni making triple substitution, Saudi went for the kill with al-Dawsari producing a moment of magic. His sensational right-footer came after he evaded a lunging Parades as the forward beat Martinez to land the ball into the top corner.As the rattled Argentina players went to fetch the ball, Messi gestured to his players not to drop their shoulders.The captain came close to bringing his side back into the game but before he could latch onto a loose ball in the box, al-Tambakti made an outstanding last-ditch tackle. Argentina did win many corners but were unable to make use of it as al-Owais was alert to any danger.As the Slovenian referee Slavko Vincic blew the final whistle after a never-ending stoppage time, the Saudi players breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed to the ground in absolute joy. The biggest win of their lives will make them believe they can enter the last 16 of the World Cup for only the second time.Hervard’s men take on Poland on Saturday, while a bruisedArgentina face Mexico and aim for a victory needed to keep their World Cup hopes alive.

Saudi Arabia's midfielder #10 Salem Al-Dawsari (2R) celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C football match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail. AFP
Sport
Saudi Arabia stun Messi's Argentina in one of the greatest victories

Saudi Arabia sent the Arab world into a frenzy with a stunning comeback victory over tournament contenders Argentina at the FIFA World Cup Qatar at the imposing Lusail Stadium Tuesday.Superstar Lionel Messi and the thousands of Argentina fans were left shell- shocked as second-half goals from Saleh al-Shehri and Salem al-Dawsari helped Saudi to a 2-1 win in their Group C match in front of a record 88,012-record audience.It was a brave and brilliant performance from Saudi – ranked 51 in the world to Argentina’s third – as they silenced critics who have questioned the football culture in the Middle East. The Green Falcon’s victory Tuesday will rank as one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history along with England's loss to the United States in 1950 and West Germany losing to Algeria in 1982.According to an analysis by Nielsen Gracenote, Saudi stood just 8.7% of registering a victory against two-time champions Argentina. But Tuesday, they ripped the predictions to pieces with a heroic second half show that kept their chance of reaching the last 16 for the first time since 1994 World Cup.King Salman bin Abdulaziz Salman declared a public holiday in Saudi Arabia today to mark the achievement, a feather in the cap of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who recommended the royal order, the state media said.Messi, playing his fifth and most likely last World Cup, stroked home an early penalty to give Argentina the lead in the 10th minute. But he was kept at bay by Saudi defenders for the rest of the half.Saudi then remerged with attacking intent in the second half as al-Shehri equalised in the 48th minute before al-Dawsari’s rocket gave them an unimaginable lead. Unlike Argentina's squad, which boasts players from top leagues in the world, the Saudi side is made up entirely of domestic players.Tuesday, Saudi XI had nine players from Al Hilal, with some lion-hearted performances from goalkeeper Mohamed al-Owais and Hassan al-Tambakti.Saudi's coach Herve Renard said the "stars were aligned" for his team. "We made history for football," he added. "It will stay forever, this is most important. But we also have to think about looking forward. We still have two difficult games before us."Goal-scorer al-Shehri said the team had never doubted they could topple the two-time champions. "We don't care about the other team, if you believe in yourself you can achieve anything," he said.Messi, who in Qatar is gunning for his only trophy missing from his illustrious career, called the result a "heavy blow" to his team. The 2021 Copa America champions Argentina had come into the match on a 36-match unbeaten streak. "It's a very heavy blow, a defeat that hurts, but we must continue to have confidence in ourselves," said Messi. "This group is not going to give up. We will try to beat Mexico."Argentina coach Lucas Scaloni insisted his team had not taken their opponents lightly. "What comes ahead is to rise up, to face Mexico," he said."They will be tough, as everyone is at the World Cup. Now we need to win two games to move on. Of course this is difficult, but regardless of the result today, we would anyway try to win all the games."Later, Poland played out a goalless draw with Mexico in the other Group C match, with Robert Lewandowski missing a second-half penalty. The Barcelona striker was denied a maiden World Cup goal when his 58th-minute spot-kick was saved by veteran goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.Meanwhile, Olivier Giroud became France's joint all-time top scorer when his double helped the holders start the defence of their World Cup title in style with a 4-1 comeback Group D win against Australia Tuesday.Giroud found the net before and after the break to take his tally to 51 goals, matching Thierry Henry's mark, either side of a Kylian Mbappe goal after Adrien Rabiot had levelled following Craig Goodwin's shock early opener.Les Bleus are the first defending champions to win their opening match since Brazil in 2006, which has already put them in good position to advance from the group phase, something Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018 failed to do.Denmark drew 0-0 with Tunisia in the other match in Group D, with talisman Christian Eriksen appearing in his first match in a major tournament since suffering a cardiac arrest during the European Championship last year.

Argentina’s forward Lionel Messi (centre) and teammates take part in a training session at the Qatar University Training Site on Monday. (AFP)
Sport
Messi ‘feels very good’ in his last World Cup hurrah

On Saturday, a rumour had swirled around the Qatar University ground over Lionel Messi’s fitness as the Argentina captain missed the start of the team’s training session. At the World Cup in Qatar, the football governing body FIFA allows the world’s media only 15 minutes to watch a team’s training session.There was a collective gasp by those present as Messi did not turn up for training, even as his teammates practised. Post that, it was anybody’s guess whether Messi had trained or not.Yesterday, though, the superstar striker dismissed ‘rumours’ about his fitness as he announced himself to be ready for Argentina’s opening match against Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium. The pictures from yesterday’s training session too later confirmed Messi indeed would be in action today.The 35-year-old will be playing in his fifth and last World Cup, with Messi confirming yesterday that he is unlikely to appear in the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2026. It would be a travesty, if the Paris Saint-Germain forward had to miss out due to injury.Messi had arrived in Qatar carrying a niggle in his Achilles tendon, which he seemed to have picked up during a friendly against the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi last week.“I’m feeling well,” Messi told reporters yesterday. “I am very well physically and I feel in good condition. I think I come here in really good form, both personally and physically. There are no issues whatsoever. I heard there were rumours of having to miss part of training or be away from the team because of a blow but it’s nothing out of the ordinary,” he added.There is a lot riding for Messi in Qatar, with his greatest-ever-to-play-the-game tag hinging on his ability to fill the glaring gap in his resume and win a World Cup title. Along with perennial favourites Brazil, Argentina are tipped for the title by the pundits and Messi would be hoping he would return to Lusail on November 18 for the final.The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has had a strong start with PSG this season and like he has done in the past decade carries Argentina’s hopes of first World Cup title since 1986. “I’m aware it’s a very special moment,” Messi said, reiterating it will be the last time he will feature at a World Cup.“It’s most likely my last World Cup and the last opportunity to make my dream a reality. I’m really happy and really excited and I want to try to enjoy this World Cup. I think age as well makes you see things differently. Maybe now I give more importance to small details because before I didn’t do it. I’ll try now to focus more on the details and today enjoying it is more important,” he added.Having endured a heartbreaking loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil, Messi finally lifted his first trophy with Argentina at the 2021 Copa America title. It was Albiceleste’s first trophy in 28 years and since then they have gone on an unbeaten World Cup qualifying campaign, which many suggest is what makes them title contenders in Qatar.The 2014 run aside, Messi has had a disappointing time at the World Cup with Argentina crashing out in the 2002 group stage, 2006 and 2010 quarter-finals and 2018 round of 16. Messi knows this could very well be his best chance at securing his legacy, which many in his home country believes pales in comparison to the late Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup.Messi said the burden of winning a trophy for Argentina has reduced after the Copa America title, but said the similarities between current squad and the 2014 one gives him a hope of triumphant last hurrah on the global stage. “Having won decompresses you a lot, it gives you peace of mind,” said Messi.“This allows the people to be less anxious and fretting over results. I’m not sure we feel better (than before other World Cups) but we just won a competition and that is very reassuring. It helps you work in a different way and you don’t feel as anxious. You don’t put as much pressure on yourself so we focus on enjoying ourselves. The squad reminds me of 2014, very united and clear about what we have to do on the pitch and the way we have to play. It’s great to be here in good form because it gives you so much confidence,” he noted.Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s French coach Herve Renard is looking forward to testing his team against Messi having led Morocco against Portugal and Ronaldo at the last World Cup in Russia.“It’s an honour to come up against the best players on the planet. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are football legends and thanks to them, football has changed,” said the much-travelled 54-year-old, an Africa Cup of Nations winner with both Zambia and Ivory Coast.“It’s an honour to be here and an honour to play against them but when you compete you have to put all your energy and motivation into trying to topple the best, that’s what’s beautiful about sport, sometimes you get surprises.”

Qatar and Ecuador players in action during their FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group A match at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor on Sunday. PICTURE: Shaji Kayamkulam
Sport
Valencia shines as Ecuador beat Qatar in opening clash

It was always going to be a tall order for Qatar but the manner in which they crumbled against Ecuador would have disappointed the home fans, who were among the 67,372 in attendance at the Al Bayt Stadium for the FIFA World Cup opener on Sunday.The 0-2 defeat to Ecuador was a respectable score for Qatar, who looked second best throughout the match against the South Americans. Ecuador – 44th in the FIFA rankings – are only six places above Qatar, but last night they showed they are miles ahead of the Asian Champions.This was supposed to be Qatar’s easiest fixture in Group A, where they also face the Netherlands and Senegal, but Ecuador were too hot to handle for the World Cup debutants.Ecuador captain Enner Valencia should have had a hat-trick on the night. His header in the third minute was ruled out for the tightest of offside by VAR, but the 33-year-old striker was not to be denied in the 16th minute and again found the net in the 31st minute to silence the partisan crowd.As the Qatar players failed to impose themselves on the game, coach Felix Sanchez stared at the roof of the tent-shaped architecture marvel Al Bayt Stadium, wondering what he or his players could have done differently on the night. In reality, not much.“Our nerves betrayed us, we started really badly,” admitted a visibly disappointed Sanchez after the game. “We were unable to string together four passes in a row. Also many defensive gaps. The team was not balanced and that hurt us a lot. When you play against a team of this level... you pay for it,” the Spaniard added.Ecuador were physically stronger and technically superior than the home side. They barely gave a sniff to Qatar’s attacking pair Almoez Ali and Akram Afif, who were outmuscled by the Ecuador defence.Gustavo Alfaro’s men had kept a clean sheet in each of their last six matches, last conceding a goal against Argentina back in March. They also held five-time World champions Brazil to draws in the last two outings, as they came through the tough South American qualifiers in fourth place to qualify for the World Cup.Ecuador, though, had the most stressful build-up to the football showpiece, holding off legal battles to keep their place after Chile and Peru had lodged appeals with FIFA over the eligibility of Byron Castillo’s involvement in qualifying games.Alfaro took the tough decision of not bringing Castillo to Qatar to avoid the risk of sanctions. They also had to face a host nation in the opening game of a World Cup. Ecuador could not have asked for a tougher start to their campaign.Qatar, on the contrary, have had the longest possible preparation by a team for a World Cup in history. Since their breakthrough Asian Cup triumph in 2019, Sanchez’s men have travelled to three continents, taking part in the 2019 Copa America, 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup and the European qualifiers earlier this year.They have also sat out of the Qatar Stars League this season, spending six months in Europe for training and playing countless practice matches. The reason to train outside of Qatar was to make them play as a unit and improve their technical and mental aspects of the game.But on the biggest stage of their nights, Qatar players looked frozen, clearly overawed by the historic occasion. This was a nervous and disjointed performance.Their defeat yesterday was the first time a host nation has lost the opening match in the World Cup’s 92-year history. Now they face the ignominy of becoming the second host country, after South Africa in 2010, to crash out of the World Cup in the group stage.After a spectacular, but short opening ceremony, Valencia found the net with a lunging close-range header to silence the crowd. But the home fans were up on their feet again, as VAR disallowed the goal for a marginal side. It was a huge let off for Qatar goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb, who looked uncomfortable guarding the goal, as did the defence.Valencia sensed an opportunity and al-Sheeb did Ecuador a favour by catching the shin of their captain in the box resulting in a penalty.Valencia took the spot kick and took two steps before putting the ball in the net, even as al-Sheeb had dived to his right early. The hosts’ night took for the worse as Valencia was to haunt them again.The Fenerbahce forward was left unmarked as he lunged into Angelo Preciado’s cross to head past al-Sheeb again.“I dreamt so many times about winning this opening match. This was a dream that I managed to score and help my team get the three points,” Valencia said yesterday.“We managed to score a couple of quick goals which helped us to get control of the game and win the three points... We think we can go very far and perform well,” the captain added.Qatar had a chance to stay in the game in the last minute of added time off the first half, but Ali sent his header wide, even as many in the crowd called it a night early.That was the only meaningful chance Qatar had as the game petered out in the second half. Qatar did well to not concede any more goals, while Ecuador played within themselves and still had a couple of decent scoring opportunities.For Qatar, it’s African Champions Senegal up next on November 25 at the Al Thumama Stadium. Senegal are without injured Sadio Mane, but even in the absence of their star striker they pose a bigger challenge to Qatar than Ecuador.

Qatar and Ecuador players in action during their FIFA World Cup Group A match at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor. PICTURE: Shaji Kayamkulam
Qatar
Valencia shines as Ecuador beat Qatar in opening clash

It was always going to be a tall order for Qatar but the manner in which they crumbled against Ecuador would have disappointed the home fans, who were among the 67,372 in attendance at the Al Bayt Stadium for the FIFA World Cup opener Sunday.The 0-2 defeat to Ecuador was a respectable score for Qatar, who looked second best throughout the match against the South Americans. Ecuador – 44th in the FIFA rankings are only six places above Qatar, but last night they showed they are miles ahead of the Asian Champions.This was supposed to be Qatar’s easiest fixture in Group A, where they also face the Netherlands and Senegal, but Ecuador were too hot to handle for the World Cup debutants.Ecuador captain Enner Valencia should have had a hat-trick on the night. His header in the third minute was ruled out for the tightest of offside by VAR, but the 33-year-old striker was not to be denied in the 16th minute and again found the net in the 31st minute to silence the partisan crowd.As the Qatar players failed to impose themselves on the game, coach Felix Sanchez stared at the roof of the tent-shaped architecture marvel Al Bayt Stadium, wondering what he or his players could have done differently on the night. In reality, not much."Our nerves betrayed us, we started really badly," admitted a visibly disappointed Sanchez after the game. "We were unable to string together four passes in a row. Also many defensive gaps. The team was not balanced and that hurt us a lot. When you play against a team of this level... you pay for it," the Spaniard added.Ecuador were physically stronger and technically superior than the home side. They barely gave a sniff to Qatar’s attacking pair Almoez Ali and Akram Afif, who were outmuscled by the Ecuador defence.Gustavo Alfaro’s men had kept a clean sheet in each of their last six matches, last conceding a goal against Argentina back in March. They also held five-time World champions Brazil to draws in the last two outings, as they came through the tough South American qualifiers in fourth place to qualify for the World Cup.Ecuador, though, had the most stressful build-up to the football showpiece, holding off legal battles to keep their place after Chile and Peru had lodged appeals with FIFA over the eligibility of Byron Castillo's involvement in qualifying games.Alfaro took the tough decision of not bringing Castillo to Qatar to avoid the risk of sanctions. They also had to face a host nation in the opening game of a World Cup. Ecuador could not have asked for a tougher start to their campaign.Qatar, on the contrary, have had the longest possible preparation by a team for a World Cup in history. Since their breakthrough Asian Cup triumph in 2019, Sanchez’s men have travelled to three continents, taking part in the 2019 Copa America, 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup and the European qualifiers earlier this year.They have also sat out of the Qatar Stars League this season, spending six months in Europe for training and playing countless practice matches. The reason to train outside of Qatar was to make them play as a unit and improve their technical and mental aspects of the game.But on the biggest stage of their nights, Qatar players looked frozen, clearly overawed by the historic occasion. This was a nervous and disjointed performance.Their defeat Sunday was the first time a host nation has lost the opening match in the World Cup's 92-year history. Now they face the ignominy of becoming the second host country, after South Africa in 2010, to crash out of the World Cup in the group stage.After a spectacular, but short opening ceremony, Valencia found the net with a lunging close-range header to silence the crowd. But the home fans were up on their feet again, as VAR disallowed the goal for a marginal side. It was a huge let off for Qatar goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb, who looked uncomfortable guarding the goal, as did the defence.Valencia sensed an opportunity and al-Sheeb did Ecuador a favour by catching the shin of their captain in the box resulting in a penalty.Valencia took the spot kick and took two steps before putting the ball in the net, even as al-Sheeb had dived to his right early. The hosts’ night took for the worse as Valencia was to haunt them again.The Fenerbahce forward was left unmarked as he lunged into Angelo Preciado's cross to head past al-Sheeb again."I dreamt so many times about winning this opening match. This was a dream that I managed to score and help my team get the three points," Valencia said Sunday."We managed to score a couple of quick goals which helped us to get control of the game and win the three points... We think we can go very far and perform well," the captain added.Qatar had a chance to stay in the game in the last minute of added time off the first half, but Ali sent his header wide, even as many in the crowd called it a night early.That was the only meaningful chance Qatar had as the game petered out in the second half. Qatar did well to not concede any more goals, while Ecuador played within themselves and still had a couple of decent scoring opportunities.For Qatar, it’s African Champions Senegal up next on November 25 at the Al Thumama Stadium. Senegal are without injured Sadio Mane, but even in the absence of their star striker they pose a bigger challenge to Qatar than Ecuador.

Qatar's Spanish coach Felix Sanchez (L) and Qatar's forward Hassan Al-Haydos attend a press conference at the Qatar National Convention Center (QNCC) in Doha on November 19, 2022 on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football match between Qatar and Ecuador. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)
Sport
Qatar’s moment to shine

When the Qatar players and long-serving coach Felix Sanchez step on to the Al Bayt Stadium pitch for their World Cup opener against Ecuador tonight, there will be a few tears of joy streaming down their faces.The players, Sanchez and their families have all dreamt of the night of November 20, 2022 – when the small nation with mighty ambitions takes the spotlight on the global stage.Qatar has been subjected to a deluge of criticism since it won the rights to host the football’s showpiece event in 2010, but the players have stayed away from the unwanted distraction – keeping their eyes firmly on the ball. In the past decade Qatar football has taken a giant leap, with their emphatic maiden Asian Cup title in 2019 showing they are on the right track.Tonight, years of planning will reach a full circle when they take on Ecuador – the South Americans with a ranking of 44, just six places above Qatar.But as Sanchez rightly admitted yesterday, Ecuador will start as favourites at least on paper with Gustavo Alfaro’s men possessing a trio of players with Premier League experience. Their physicality too will put Qatar’s home-grown players under stern test.But more than anything, Qatar team’s fortunes on the night will depend on how they tackle the expectations of the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium filled with celebrities, former stars and their loved ones and the billions watching via live broadcast. Months and days ahead of the biggest match of their lives, Al Annabi players have spoken about the childhood dream of playing at the World Cup. In a matter of hours, that will come true.“It’s a very important day for us, it’s a historic moment,” said Sanchez yesterday, flanked by captain Hassan al-Haydos, under the glare of huge international media. “It’s a very happy day for us, for the players and the staff. It’s an extraordinary day... We have made a huge investment in this country. I hope we can enjoy football, our sport, and do our talking on the pitch. I hope all the countries in the world can come together to enjoy this,” the Spaniard added.Sanchez, a former Barcelona youth coach, arrived in Qatar in 2006 and has since seen the rapid rise of the country. The 46-year-old too has risen from the ranks – from managing Aspire Academy teams to becoming the senior team coach in 2017. Just like his players, Sanchez too has dared to dream.“After so many years, this is the end of a cycle – 16 years working in this country. I’ve been in a project, growing and following the steps of players in the national team. It’s a huge source of pride. I will try to enjoy the moment,” he said.Ecuador could most likely be their least difficult opponent in Group A. The Maroon also face African champions Senegal, who even without Bayern Munich star Sadio Mane are lethal and then there is three-time World Cup runners-up the Netherlands, who have come to Qatar determined to prove a point under Louis van Gaal.“We know it’s three (group) games, we know the potential of our opponents. They are national teams that, due to their history and individual talent, they’re ahead of us. On paper they should get the three points, maybe they count on winning all three points. But we’re here to show that we can be a competitive team. We will bring our A game,” Sanchez candidly admitted.The Qatar coach, however, would have been pleased if the World Cup had arrived at least two winters ago. After the Asian Cup high in 2019, there has been a visible dip in performances of key players.The squad has been richer by the experience of playing in the 2019 Copa America, 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup – where they reached the semi-finals – and the European qualifiers earlier this year. But there is concern that Qatar has passed their peak.With an eye on the World Cup, the players – mainly consisting of domestic heavyweights Al Sadd and Al Duhail – were pulled out of the Qatar Stars League and trained in Europe since June. But the performances have failed to inspire much as the team now boast a worst defensive record among the 32 teams at the World Cup by a good margin.“Obviously everything we’ve done in the past three years is to have a very competitive team in the World Cup. Every country’s situation is different and we’re a small country. All our players play in the local league, so we decided one of the ways to strengthen the national team was to... make massive sacrifices and spend long periods abroad. This shows the commitment of our players. All the time spent abroad training and competing is for tomorrow, so we can start the competition well,” Sanchez said.Sanchez has injected some fresh blood into the squad, but will be hoping that 15 players from the Asian Cup squad will play a key role in avoiding the fate of South Africa, who remain the only host country in 2010 to be eliminated in the group stage.The attacking pair of Almoez Ali and Akram Afif will have to play a crucial role for Qatar, who like to sit back and counter attack. Ecuador barely eked out a positive goal differential in South American qualifying – undoubtedly the toughest continent to qualify from.Ecuador boast some more recognisable names than the Qataris, including Brighton midfielder Moises Caicedo and veteran striker Enner Valencia but have struggled to find the net of late.Ecuador coach Alfaro said Qatar will prove a tough opponents tonight, suggesting the hosts are better prepared having played together for several months.“Qatar is Qatar and they have been preparing for this match for over 12 years,” said Alfaro. “They’ve been preparing for five, six months playing friendlies that means they are a very good organised and well prepared team,” the Argentine added.Qatar vs Ecuador FACTBOXWhen: Today, 7pmWhere: Al Bayt StadiumCapacity: 60,000Key stats and factsWorld Cup hosts have never lost their opening game.Qatar automatically qualified as hosts but the Gulf country also proved their worth by winning the Asian Cup in 2019.Striker Almoez Ali was Qatar’s top scorer at the Asian Cup with nine goals but he has scored only once in 2022.This is Ecuador’s fourth World Cup but they have qualified for the knockout stages only once in 2006, where they were eliminated in the last-16.Ecuador’s top scorer in the CONMEBOL South American World Cup qualifiers was Michael Estrada (six goals).Ecuador did not pick Byron Castillo for the World Cup after the country’s football federation decided not to include himfollowing Chile’s claim at the Court of Arbitration for Sport that he was ineligible to play in qualifying matches.Previous meetingsQatar and Ecuador have played each other three times, with both teams winning once and one game ending in a draw.The last time they played each other was in October 2018 when Qatar beat Ecuador 4-3 in a friendly in Doha.

A sea of humanity at the FIFA Fan Festival which opened Saturday in Doha, ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 kick-off Sunday. PICTURE: Shaji Kayamkulam.
Qatar
FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 kickoff Sunday

Twelve years after it won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2022, Qatar's moment to shine is finally here. Over the next 29 days, Qatar’s gleaming, eight magnificent architectural venues and the country’s world class infrastructure will welcome fans from all parts of the world for the football extravaganza.Fittingly, it will be Qatar players who will walk into the Al Bayt stadium – a 60,000-seat venue meant to resemble a tent historically used by nomadic people in Qatar – to take on Ecuador in the opening game. Before that, His Highness the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani will declare the tournament open after the opening ceremony, which promises to be both spectacular and a mix of entertainment and display of Qatar’s rich cultural heritage. A number of heads of states and heads of delegations of brotherly and friendly countries will be present.The opening ceremony is scheduled to begin at 5pm, with the Qatar-Ecuador clash taking place two hours later. The gates to the Al Bayt Stadium will open at 2pm as the organisers urged the fans to reach the venue early to avoid the congestion.The line-up of artists has been kept under wraps with only confirmation being Jungkook, one of seven members of South Korea's popular BTS boy band, set to perform a track titled "Dreamers" along with Qatari singer Fahad al-Kubaisi at the ceremony.The celebrations, however, have already begun weeks ahead with the residents and fans from outside the country flocking Qatar’s important landmarks as they wait for the tournament to kick-start.Organisers say that 2.9mn of the 3.1mn tickets have been sold, with a sell-out crowd expected Sunday. Also, it is estimated more than 5bn people around the world will watch the World Cup, surpassing the 3.5bn who tuned in to watch the 2018 tournament in Russia.FIFA president Gianni Infantino Saturday called on teams to "focus on football" and accused critics in western countries of "hypocrisy" and “racism” towards Qatar.

Gulf Times
Sport
Qatar opt for closed door training ahead of historic debut

With the spotlight firmly on them ahead of tomorrow’s World Cup opener against Ecuador, it wasn’t a surprise Qatar chose to have a closed door training session yesterday.A wise move, considering players and coach Felix Sanchez are bracing up for the biggest moment of their lives at the grandest stage of all.One would think the mood in the Qatar camp would be filled with anxiety, but the pictures released by Qatar Football Association on social media painted a different picture – that of exuberance.The players seemed to be in high spirits at training as they enjoyed practising with each other, which bodes well ahead of their historic World Cup debut. If anything, Qatar would need to play as a team as they seek avoid the fate of South Africa, who remain the only host country in 2010 to be eliminated in the group stage.Experienced midfielder Ismaeel Mohamed said the team is focused and ready to give his 100 percent.“We have been preparing over the years. The last few months we had very good preparation for the World Cup. Every member of the team is focused and ready to give his 100 percent. We want to win against Ecuador to make history,” the 32-year-old said.The Qatar squad arrived back home only on Monday after a month-long training camp in Spain. The Asian Champions have notched five successive wins – albeit against lowly-ranked teams Albania, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama in Marbella.“These victories before the World Cup are important. They were good sides and importantly these last few games helped us to prepare for Ecuador better,” said Ismaeel, who plays for Al Duhail in the Qatar Stars League. “We will take one match at a time. The team will play every match to win so we can march into the knockout stage. We are well prepared and I think we have the ability to reach Round of 16.”Ismaeel called on the fans to get behind the team. “Our fans are like a key player of the team. They helped us claim third position in the FIFA Arab Cup and we will wait for them in our matches. Their support will be the key to us,” he said.“The feeling cannot be described in words. It’s like a dream come true, playing the first-ever World Cup to be held in the Middle East and the Arab world. I am looking forward to playing my part in getting desired results,” the midfielder added.Qatar will play their second match against Senegal on November 25 at Al Thumama Stadium and will return to Al Bayt Stadium to face the Netherlands in their last group match four days later.Italian Orsato to referee Qatar 2022 opener**media[681]**Italy’s Daniele Orsato has been selected as the referee for the opening match of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 between Qatar and Ecuador at the Al Bayt Stadium tomorrow.At 46 years of age, he is one of Europe’s most experienced referees, having been officiating the game since 2010. He was a video assistant referee at the 2018 edition of the FIFA World Cup.

England’s Aaron Ramsdale (also left) during a press conference at the Al Wakrah Sports Complex on Friday. (Reuters)
Sport
From relegation to table topper: Ramsdale relishes ‘pinch yourself moment’

Still only 24, Aaron Ramsdale has seen it all. The goalkeeper suffered back-to-back relegations from the Premier League with Bournemouth and Sheffield United, but a switch to Arsenal in 2021 has turned things around for him.Ramsdale has gone on to become first-choice goalkeeper for Arsenal, with the Gunners enjoying a five-point advantage at the top in the English first division this season.His seven clean sheets – on level with England teammate Nick Pope for Newcastle – have also helped Arsenal concede just 11 goals in 14 matches, propelling Ramsdale into starting XI contention when England open their World Cup campaign against Iran on Monday at the Khalifa International Stadium.Three years ago though, a World Cup appearance looked like a long distant dream with Sheffield sending him on loan to AFC Wimbledon. Before that he had a short spell with Chesterfield in 2018 when the club were relegated from the fourth tier as Ramsdale watched England make it to their first World Cup semi-final since 1990 at a bar in Spain.“There are times when it is a pinch yourself moment,” he said at the Al Wakrah Sports Complex yesterday, perhaps still reminiscing the difficult moments he has had in his short career.“I speak to my parents or my wife and I’m in a really good place, especially after the first few years of my career learning my trade in difficult situations. It is really enjoyable at the moment and that hard work - you reap your rewards. I’m here now but that does not mean anything. I have to get my head down to try and get into the team,” he added.Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has been Gareth Southgate’s No 1 choice for the last two years and is still the favourite to start against Iran on Monday, but Ramsdale knows he is not far off from taking that spot. “Fair. I see as it is,’ he said, when asked about competition for places among the England goalkeepers.“Jordan (Pickford) has done extremely well for England and he is in fine form for Everton. And so is Popey (Nick Pope) with Newcastle. I’m not the only one racking up the clean sheets. We have a great bond between the goalkeepers and Martyn Margetson (goalkeeping coach) looks after us really well. You need three goalkeepers to train properly to get the No 1 to his best. We are all training as a No. 1 and it will be difficult for the other two to flip the switch. But it is something me, Popey and to a lesser extent Jordan have done before. So whoever gets that first game will have our full support. But you never know with tournament football. You always have to be ready to be called upon,” he noted.Ramsdale was part of England squad at the delayed Euro 2020 last year, where they lost to Italy in the final on penalties, although he did not play a single minute at the tournament. He has only made three appearances for Three Lions, making his debut in the 10-0 win over San Marino in November. He has since made two appearances in the UEFA Nations League, playing in the goalless draw with Italy in June before conceding four to Hungary three days later.Ramsdale’s family – especially his father — have had a huge imprint in his development with the goalkeeper joking that his dad “might have a heart attack” if he starts for the Three Lions at the World Cup.“There were definitely a few tears shed from him,” said Ramsdale, when asked how his dad reacted to his World Cup call-up. “If I actually make it on the pitch he might not return home. He might have a heart-attack! It’s special for my family and especially my parents who have driven me up and down the country and around the world. He won’t have any nails left,” he chuckled.England – who also face USA and Wales in Group B – go into the World Cup under the radar with Brazil and Argentina being labelled as favourites.Southgate’s men have quality all over the pitch but their recent performances have been underwhelming as they are going into the football’s grandest stage having not won any of their past six games and were relegated to the Nations League second tier for the first time following defeat by Italy in September.Ramsdale said England’s poor recent results have not damaged their confidence. “No, confidence has not been affected. If anything, it’s given us extra motivation. We have added motivation to turn our form around and put those results behind us. We’re going into this full of confidence knowing how good we are,” he said.