Wednesday, February 21, 2024 | 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 Olympic sports.

Jordan’s players celebrate after their win over South Korea in the semi-final of the AFC Asian Cup at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium. (AFP)
Jordan stun South Korea to reach historic Asian Cup final

South Korea’s style of play at the Asian Cup, which had been christened ‘zombie football’ by their faithful back home, met a fateful end at the hands of Jordan on Tuesday.It felt like Jordan’s 70,000 expatriate population in Qatar had descended into Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, creating a raucous atmosphere as the West Asian side made history to reach their first Asian Cup final.The 2-0 win against highly-fancied South Korea in the semi-finals was a deserving one for Jordan, who according to their Moroccan coach Hussein Ammouta “delivered a heroic performance”.After a goalless first half in which they outthought and outfought South Korea, ‘The Chivalrous Ones’ stormed into the Saturday’s title clash – with Iran or holders Qatar waiting for them – after Yazan al-Naimat and Musa al-Taamari struck in the second half,South Korea, who had made a habit of coming from the dead after stoppage time goals against Saudi Arabia and Australia and hence dubbed as ‘zombie football’ by their fans, were completely outplayed on the night by a Jordan team ranked 64 places lower than them.Jurgen Klinsmann’s men were left shell-shocked as the former German forward was left fuming. “I am disappointed, I am angry,” said Klinsmann. “We did not exist in the first 20-30 minutes.”South Korea were gunning for their first Asian Cup title since 1960 but Jordan’s desire for a maiden continental showpiece trophy showed in their performance. It was a dominant display from start to finish from Jordan with South Korea having no answer to their determined rivals.Taegeuk Warriors’ talisman Son Heung-min, who endured a frustrating night, encouraged his teammates not to give up after al-Naimat had put Jordan ahead in the 53rd minute. But when al-Taamari doubled the lead 13 minutes later, the Tottenham Hotspur star was in disbelief as the writing was very much on the wall for South Korea.Son and his teammates had been in a losing position in four of their matches in Qatar, but there was no way back this time for them as they lacked the desire and energy of Jordan.“It is very disappointing. I am devastated about this result. Jordan are having an amazing journey this tournament,” said Son. “They are incredible and they deserve it. They have been fighting until the end but, for us, it was very disappointing”Into the last four for the first time, Jordan were missing central defender Salem al-Ajalin and forward Ali Olwan through suspensions. They also were without their record goalscorer Hamza al-Dardour, who had been sent home last week after a touchline altercation with Ammouta.But Ammouta, who had spoken about the importance of getting his tactics right against South Korea, was given a passionate and brave performance from his men.“The players delivered a heroic performance. The X-factor was we didn’t need to give South Korea more respect than needed,” said Ammouta after the match. “Based on their record in their last few games, they conceded goals and we knew it was possible to score against them and that was the turning point.”Star forward al-Taamari, who started after having recovered from a minor knock in Jordan’s win over Tajikistan in the quarter-finals, was too hot to handle for South Korea along with al-Naimat.“Actually I was dreaming about this tournament before when I was in France,” said the 26-year-old Tamari, who plays for Montpellier in France and was named man of the match.“It means everything to me to be in the final and I hope we can do it in the final,” he added, having also set al-Naimat up for the first goal. “It’s also good to be in the final because it will make everyone speak about my country in France and this is very emotional for me.”Jordan wasted no time asserting dominance, launching into a fast-paced attack that nearly caught their opponents off guard. In the fourth minute, al-Naimat’s swift strike from just inside the area forced goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo into a diving save.Throughout the match, Jordan looked threatening whenever they transitioned into attack. Al-Taamari showcased his skill by manoeuvring past three defenders before setting up Noor al-Rawabdeh, who tested Jo with a strong shot.While South Korea gradually found their rhythm, with Son Heung-min and Lee Kang-in attempting shots, Jordan remained dangerous in their offensive plays. Despite several opportunities, including chances for al-Naimat and al-Tamari, they couldn’t convert.In the dying moments of the first half, al-Naimat’s powerful drive was saved by Jo, and al-Rawabdeh’s follow-up attempt too was blocked by the South Korean goalkeeper. Although South Korea had their share of opportunities, notably a penalty call overturned by VAR and Lee Jae-Sung’s shot hitting the upright, they failed to capitalise. Jordan’s relentless pressure paid off early in the second half when al-Taamari took advantage of a defensive error to set up al-Naimat for the opening goal.Despite South Korea’s efforts to equalise, Jordan extended their lead with another goal from al-Taamari. Klinsmann brought in Cho Gue-sung to bolster his attack, but South Korea couldn’t find a way back as Jordan held firmly to securing their place in the final.

South Korea’s German coach Klinsmann says his team is determined to prove the doubters wrong and urged them to ‘relax’ in Tuesday’s semi-final.
South Korea determined to spoil Jordan’s historic bid

A team that refuses to die will clash against a team that is determined to make history. South Korea and Jordan will lock horns in the Asian Cup semi-final on Tuesday at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, aiming to take one step closer to that elusive title. For the first time semi-finalist Jordan, who have been the surprise element of the tournament, it’s a chance to write history. For South Korea, it’s time to banish the bitter memories of six decades of pain of not winning the Asian crown jewel. Without an iota of doubt it will be Jurgen Klinsmann’s men, who will be under immense pressure against the lowest-ranked team left in the competition Jordan, who have risen to the occasion under Hussein Ammouta. South Korea, despite carrying a team with proven stars in the European leagues led by captain Son Heung-min, have failed to fire so far. They finished second behind Jordan in the group stage, and had to stage late fightbacks to win against fellow Asian powers Saudi Arabia and Australia in the knockout matches, which has been dubbed “zombie football” by their fans for the way they keep coming back from the dead. It’s a moniker coach Klinsmann is happy with, but the former German forward will be hoping that his players can win the match inside 90 minutes and seal a spot in the final for the first time since 2015. On Monday, Klinsmann – who has faced severe criticism from the South Korean media and fans – said his team is determined to prove the doubters wrong and urged them to ‘relax’ in Tuesday’s semi-final. “We are very excited for this semi-final match, a huge compliment to Jordan. We emerged from the same group, which only highlights our strong team dynamics. However, our hunger for success drives us to go further. We are fit, optimistic and eagerly looking forward to advancing all the way to the final. The mood within the team is very positive,” said Klinsmann, who won the 1990 World Cup as a player for Germany. “The team needs to stay relaxed, focus on the upcoming challenge and eliminate distractions that are not important right now. I believe this group of players are experienced and our goal is to reach the final and we are entering the match against a very strong Jordan team fully prepared to play 120 minutes and even face a penalty shootout if needed,” added the 59-year-old. South Korea and Jordan drew 2-2 in the group phase with the Koreans salvaging a point with an injury-time own goal. On Tuesday, the Taeguk Warriors will be favourites to beat Jordan and reach Saturday’s final, with Iran or holders Qatar awaiting them. Klinsmann believes that his team has matured throughout the tournament. “The expectations and pressure at the beginning are always challenging for every nation but as things progress, you build confidence, and now, being in the last-four, it boosts that confidence. Similar to how Argentina overcame their defeat against Saudi Arabia in their 2022 FIFA World Cup opener, they faced pressure in their subsequent game against Mexico. “Once you get the first couple of games out of the way and the confidence builds after navigating through all the challenging matches, having the whole nation behind you becomes a positive factor. A team needs plenty of mental strength to play in a tournament and you have to be prepared for the marathon. Now, we just have to finish strong and secure that gold.” South Korea’s bid for second final in three editions, however, will have to be attained without Kim Min-jae, with the Bayern Munich centre-back suspended for the semi-final. Jordan will miss key players too with Ali Olwan and Salem al-Ajalin ruled out of the semi-final through suspension. However, Ammouta sounded upbeat about his team’s chances against South Korean and is confident he has enough quality in his squad to compensate for the absence of the suspended players. “It’s going to be a very challenging match for both teams. It will be tough for us as we will be missing two key players. This match will be more difficult than the ones we had in the group stage. But we are placing plenty of emphasis on our preparation,” said the 54-year-old Ammouta. The Jordan coach believes he has to get his tactics right to strengthen his team’s chances of advancing into the final. “Everyone in this competition is mentally prepared, and that’s why we have to focus on improving the tactical aspects of our game. We need to make improvements when playing at this stage of the tournament and the tactical aspects should be well covered. Making tactical decisions involves avoiding or pressuring strong teams and ensuring that every player gets what they deserve. Each team needs thorough preparation, both mentally and physically, to endure playing for 120 minutes.” Ammouta said his side they must be prepared to fight to the end given their opponents’ ability to stay alive in matches. “The focus has to be big, it is going to be tiring,” said the Moroccan, whose team beat debutants Tajikistan 1-0 in the quarter-finals to reach the semi-finals for the first time. “We have to struggle and fight until the very last minutes.”

A dejected Japan players after their loss to Iran in the quarter-finals. (Reuters)
Iran surge into semis with comeback win over Japan

Iran needed something special to record their first victory against Japan in 19 years, and Team Melli did just that with a courageous second-half performance that took them to the Asian Cup semi-finals against hosts Qatar.Despite falling behind in the first half, the three-time champions Iran came back after the interval with much more desire than Japan to emerge as 2-1 winners in the quarter-final contest, keeping alive their hopes of a first title since 1976.When captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh converted a penalty in stoppage time at Qatar’s Education City Stadium, it sparked emotional scenes in the stands and on the pitch. Sardar Azmoun, who was excellent in the second half, was in tears as he spoke to the broadcasters.The Roma forward had led Iran’s fight back 10 minutes after the break when his sublime pass was slotted into the bottom corner by Mohamed Mohebi.Following that, only one team showed heart and belief, while Japan – who had led through Hidemasa Morita’s first-half strike – lost the physical and mental battle. Despite the introduction of Kaoru Mitoma and Takumi Minamino, Japan barely threatened the goal, succumbing to Iran’s relentless attacks. And when Ko Itakura brought down Hossein Kanani in the box in the 94th minute, the referee immediately pointed to the spot, with Jahanbakhsh sending a fierce strike into the top corner.The victory extended coach Amir Ghalenoei’s unbeaten streak to 16 matches since he took charge in March. Ghalenoei said his players were “fantastic” in the second half. “They gave everything for the Iranian people,” he said. “This can be a turning point for Iranian football.”Ghalenoei, whose side squeezed through on penalties over Syria in the last 16, took a potshot at critics of him and his side back home. “I am not saying criticism is not good, but some people in the last 11 months tried to ruin the national team,” he said.Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said his side must improve “in many aspects” and took full responsibility for the defeat. Japan, who were runners-up in 2019 and are four-time champions came into the tournament as favourites, but were never really convincing and failed to keep a clean sheet as they conceded eight goals during the tournament.“Iran put us under a lot of pressure and we could not resist their pressure,” said Moriyasu, whose side were beaten 2-1 by Iraq in the group phase. “Against strong opponents we cannot concede goals like we did today. We should have scored a second, and if we had, the game would have been different.”With players from both teams featuring in Europe’s best leagues, the match was not short of top-tier talent. But Iran were without suspended Porto forward Mehdi Taremi, while they had previously lost the services of defenders Sadegh Moharrami and Majid Hosseini through injury.The history between these two teams, notably Japan’s 3-0 victory in the previous edition’s semi-finals, added extra significance to the match. Captaining Team Melli in the absence of Ehsan Hajsafi, Jahanbakhsh nearly opened Iran’s account in the 13th minute with a curling shot down the left flank, narrowly missing the target.Suzuki’s first significant test came after 18 minutes when Hidemasa Morita lost possession, but Ezatolahli’s subsequent shot was dealt with ease by the Japanese goalkeeper. Morita redeemed himself 10 minutes later with a solo run as the defender beat three defenders to drill a shot past goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand and into the net. Despite Saman Ghoddos’ half-volley chance, Iran couldn’t equalise before halftime.Iran restored parity soon after the second half began as Azmoun supplied a through pass to Mohebi, who slipped past his marker and calmly slotted the ball into the bottom corner. Iran believed they had completed their comeback in the 64th minute, when Azmoun dribbled past two defenders and struck into the neat post. But the forward’s and his teammates’ celebration was cut short as he was ruled marginally offside.Suzuki – who has had a nightmare tournament – made crucial saves to deny a spectacular Ezatolahi volley and another attempt with just six minutes left in normal regulation. But deep into added time, Itakura made a mess of a clearance and as he tried to recover, he tripped Kanani in the box in what was a clear penalty.Jahanbakhsh stepped up and emphatically dispatched the penalty into the top corner, securing Ghalenoei’s men a famous victory and taking them one step closer to a first Asian Cup crown in 48 years.

Brighton winger Kaoru Mitoma returned from injury as a second-half substitute against Bahrain on Wednesday.
Mitoma returns as Japan ease into quarters

The sight of Kaoru Mitoma coming in as a substitute against Bahrain must have thrilled the Japan fans. The Brighton winger made a much-awaited Asian Cup appearance in Samurai Blue’s 3-1 win at the Al Thumama Stadium on Wednesday, which sent the four-time champions cruising into quarter-finals against Iran on Saturday.Goals from Ritsu Doan, Takefusa Kubo and Ayase Ueda was enough for Japan to ease past Bahrain, who were beneficiaries of an own goal from error-prone goalkeeper Zion Suzuki but lacked the bite to trouble their East Asian rivals.Against Bahrain, Japan never seemed at risk of falling victim to an upset but it wasn’t a standout performance that was expected of them. There was wobble midway through the second half that would have concerned Hajime Moriyasu but a 20-minute sparkling cameo by Mitoma must have brought relief to the coach.Moriyasu took a gamble when he brought Mitoma to Qatar, but early signs suggest that he was right in trusting the 26-year-old – who had injured his ankle on December 21 playing for Brighton against Crystal Palace in the Premier League – to get fit for the knockout stages.From his introduction in the 68th minute, Mitoma troubled Bahrain defenders with his guile and pace to show why he is now one of the Premier League’s most-exciting attackers. There was a moment of magic in the 84th minute when he skipped past two defenders and perfectly set up for Takuma Asano to make it 4-1, but the VfL Bochum forward slipped in the box with only goalkeeper Ebrahim Lutfalla to beat.With Mitoma operating at left wing, Japan were constant threat in the box and is the man Moriyasu will hope can lift his team’s performance and guide them to record fifth Asian title.Captain Wataru Endo though warned that Japan’s rivals will ‘exploit’ their weaknesses, with Iran waiting for them in the quarter-finals at the Education City Stadium on Saturday.Midfielder Endo, who has been impressive for Premier League leaders Liverpool this season, felt their quarter-final opponents might not be as forgiving as toothless Bahrain.“In football, teams are analysing you and trying to find out where there are gaps that they can exploit,” he said. “Teams have looked at us at the tournament so far and it’s not easy to defend against. It’s important that we don’t let our concentration drop for the full 90 minutes.”The pre-tournament favourites are yet to keep a clean sheet in four games in Qatar, with goalkeeper Suzuki looking vulnerable in all the matches. Against Bahrain, the 21-year-old misjudged a punch before getting tangled up with Ueda and fumbling the ball over the line.Moriyasu, though, blamed the goal on a lack of communication. “It wasn’t all perfect and next we will play Iran. They have a lot of talent up front and we will have to play better than today,” he said. “We have to reflect on the goal we conceded.”Bahrain bowed out of the tournament after winning Group E ahead of South Korea. Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi acknowledged that “Japan were better than us tactically and physically”.“Japan have had the same coach for five years and every substitute they brought on had the same level of quality,” said Pizzi, who won the 2016 Copa America with Chile.

Iraq coach Jesus Casas Garcia reacts during the match on Friday.
Iraq stun Japan to bolster title contender status

Iraq coach Jesus Casas wasn’t just making empty statements when he declared, on the eve of the Asian Cup, that his team was a genuine contender for the title. And the Lions of Mesopotamia made a roaring statement to back their coach’s claim as they stunned tournament favourites Japan 2-1 and qualified for the knockout stage at the Education City Stadium on Friday.Aymen Hussein with two first-half headers was the hero for Iraq, who condemned four-time champions Japan to a first Asian Cup group-stage defeat in 26 matches. It was also Iraq’s first victory over Japan in 42 years, with the Blue Samurai unbeaten against the West Asian side in their last nine games.While a victory or draw over Vietnam would ensure Iraq top Group D, Hajime Moriyasu’s Japan have three points and need at least a draw against Indonesia in the final match to progress into the last 16. Indonesia too have three points after posting a 1-0 win over Vietnam in the other game on Friday.While Casas called his team’s performance ‘close to perfect’ the 38,000 partisan Iraqi crowd rose to their feet in approval as the West Asian side showed remarkable physicality and composure on the ball to frustrate the Japanese.Iraq – ranked 63 in the world to Japan’s 17 – were rarely intimidated by their rivals, who went into the game on the back of a 10-game winning streak in which they had scored 43 goals. Moriyasu also had overseen his side beat European heavyweights Spain and Germany to reach the last 16 of the 2022 Qatar World Cup.Japan failed to break Iraq’s resolve until the third of eight minutes of stoppage time when Liverpool’s Wataru Endo headed in to reduce the deficit. But they ran out of time as Iraq held on resolutely for a famous win.“Today is a great day for Iraqi people but for us it’s just a win. We have six points, but the players must now think of Vietnam (in the last group game) and they need to rest,” Casas said.“I’m very proud of my players. All Iraqi players should be proud...The perfect match is impossible, but we were close to the perfect match I wanted.”Iraq had overcome tremendous odds to emerge Asian champions in 2007, but since then their best performance has been a semi-final finish in 2015. But Casas – who took charge in November 2022 on a four-year contract – has carefully reshaped the squad with the Spaniard’s ultimate aim is to guide Iraq to 2026 World Cup qualification.Casas, a 49-year-old former assistant coach of Spain under Luis Enrique, guided Iraq to its first Gulf Cup title in 35 years after having been in charge for just two months. Iraq Football Federation’s decision to include expatriate players into the team has also paid dividends with Casas having handed debuts to players based in Sweden, Denmark and Germany. While Japan were too slow to start, Iraq hit the ground running straight away and had their first chance in the fourth minute with Ali Jasim’s long range effort palmed away by goalkeeper Zion Suzuki.But they did not had to wait for long as Suzuki failed to handle a cross, inadvertently parrying the ball to Hussein, who skillfully headed it into the top corner.While Japan players, who primarily ply their trade in big European leagues, settled into the game and used their speed on the wings, they could not breach Iraq’s defence. And a second goal from Iraq just before half-time deflated them further. Ahmed al-Hajjaj delivered a cross that Hussein converted perfectly from point-blank range.While Hussein did not take the field in the second half after sustaining an injury before the break, his teammates kept the Japanese at bay. They also breathed a sigh of relief when the referee overturned his initial decision to award a penalty to Japan after a VAR check. In the second half, Moriyasu made five substitutions yet the Samurai Blue struggled to test the Iraqi goalkeeper until the 94th minute when Endo finally scored with a header from a corner. The match’s final moments were tense as Japan desperately sought an equaliser, but Iraq managed to hold on.“The atmosphere was like an away game and conceding early hurt us,” said Moriyasu. “Conceding at the end of the first half hit us hard and made it a very difficult game. We need to learn from our mistakes. We analysed before the game and knew how Iraq would play at the start, they did play very aggressively. Unfortunately we couldn’t handle it, I know we need to do more.”While the result in its entirety is not disastrous for Japan. But a second-place finish in the group could set them on a potential collision course with South Korea in the last 16.

Uzbekistan’s midfielder Abbosbek Fayzullaev scores past India’s goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu during the AFC Asian Cup 
Group B match at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan on Thursday. (AFP)
Uzbekistan too good as India’s last 16 hopes fade

India’s coach Igor Stimac had urged his players to play without fear, but all he got was ‘silly mistakes’ as the Blue Tigers slumped to their second successive loss at the Asian Cup on Thursday.Uzbekistan romped to a routine 3-0 win on the night and were too good for India, who have miles to go before they can go up against Asia’s best. The 38,000 crowd at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, mainly made up of Indian expatriates, had barely settled into their seats when India went behind after some lacklustre defending in the fourth minute.What followed was more clueless defending from the men in blue as Uzbekistan added two more goals without much sweat before half time to kill the contest. Uzbekistan, who extended their unbeaten record over India to seven games – their fifth in a row against the south Asian side, will only need a draw against already-qualified Australia on Tuesday to enter the last 16.For India, they need to beat Syria on Tuesday and require a host of other results to go in their favour, for a chance to qualify for the round of 16 as one of the third-best placed teams among all groups. And that will be nothing short of a miracle for those who witnessed India’s two matches in Qatar, including their 0-2 loss to Australia in the opener.“If we take the goals out of the game – which were caused by silly mistakes – I could be happy with the performance,” said India coach Stimac. After the Australia game, Stimac had wanted his players to adopt an aggressive approach against Uzbekistan.But in their pursuit of aggression against 68th-ranked Uzbekistan, the 102nd-ranked India forgot how to defend on Thursday and now sit bottom of the group with zero points and no goals. Stimac left out Lallianzuala Chhangte, who was one of the few bright spots against Aussies, after he felt discomfort in his groin two days ago paving the way for Mahesh Naorem Singh. Anirudh Thapa was also included in place of Deepak Tangri, while Akash Mishra was brought in for Subhashish Bose.But India were on the back foot straight away after the defenders were caught napping and failed to react to a slow lopping ball from Otabek Shukurov. But Abbosbek Fayzullaev, the 20-year-old CSKA Moscow winger, was alert inside the box as he looped a header over goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. The second goal came 14 minutes later, with more chaotic defending from India as a sliding Sandesh Jhingan unintentionally chipped the ball against his own crossbar, allowing Igor Sergeev to capitalise on the rebound. Any hopes of an Indian comeback were dashed during first-half stoppage time when Sherzod Nasrullaev took advantage of static India defending to score the third goal.India had their moments in both halves but lacked the conviction to find the back of the net. Winger Rahul K P, who came in at the start of second half, struck the crossbar while skipper Sunil Chhetri failed to even guide a couple of golden opportunities towards the goal.Mahesh Naorem also tried his luck from outside the box but Uzbek goalkeeper Utkir Yusupov had little trouble in blocking it.While Indians huffed and puffed to create scoring opportunities, Uzbeks rarely had to raise their game. Stimac replaced veteran striker Chhetri, who toiled to no avail, with 20 minutes remaining as India failed to threaten their rivals.Fayzullaev, named player of the tournament as Uzbekistan won the under-20s Asian Cup on home soil last year, said they had nothing to fear against Australia in their final group game.The Socceroos are already into the last 16 thanks to a 1-0 win over Syria. “Australia may be favourites, but this game is 11 versus 11,” he said. “I don’t think we are an inferior team to Australia because I have full confidence in our guys.”

Qatar’s Akram Afif (also right) celebrates with Almoez Ali after scoring a goal against Tajikistan in their Asian Cup match at the Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Afif strike fires Qatar into last 16

Asian Cup newcomers Tajikistan put on a brave front but hosts Qatar became the first team to reach the knockout stages of the continental showpiece at the Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday. And it was their star forward Akram Afif who once again delivered, netting a crucial strike in the 17th minute as Al Annabi kept their hopes of defending the title alive with a slender 1-0 win over Tajikistan. It was far from a convincing victory for Al Annabi, but coach Marquez Lopez will be pleased to have progressed to the last 16 as Group A toppers, with a game to spare against China. Considering the tumultuous build-up for Qatar, who sacked Carlos Queiroz early last month and replaced the Portuguese veteran with Marquez, this will come as a relief for the hosts. Qatar faced embarrassment as they suffered defeats in all three matches during their home World Cup in 2022, making it the poorest showing by any host in the tournament’s history. So, anything similar to that at the Asian crown Jewel would have been catastrophic. But the real test awaits them in the knockout stages, when they go up against Asian giants Japan, South Korea or Iran. Qatar will hope Afif continues to fire like he has done so far in the last two matches. After scoring a brace against Lebanon last Friday, the Al Sadd forward slotted home when Almoez Ali won the ball and played a through pass to his teammate, whose burst of speed and accuracy was too much for goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov. Afif hoped ‘the best is still yet to come’ as he spoke about his special partnership with strike partner Almoez Ali. “Almoez is one of my best friends and we understand each other very well,” Afif said of his partnership with Ali, who scored a record nine goals as Qatar won the title for the first time in 2019. “We have been playing together for a long time so we understand what each other is going to do just with a look. We hope the best is still yet to come.” Lopez made five changes to the Qatar starting XI, bringing in Tarek Salman and Bassam Al Rawi to replace Pedro Miguel and Almahdi Ali in defence. The Spaniard also overhauled his midfield as he relegated captain Hassan al-Haydos to bench, with Ismail Mohamed taking the armband while Moustafa Mashal and Jassem Gaber slotted in. It all made up for a nervy start from the hosts as Tajikistan started aggressively, with Rustam Soirov forcing Qatar goalkeeper Meshaal Barsham into making an early save. Qatar, however, started making inroads with Ahmed Fathy’s cross in the 17th minute finding Tarek Salman but the centre-back failed to get his header on target. But Afif calmed the nerves in the hosts’ camp 30 seconds later as he sped past defender Vahdat Hanonov and dinked the ball above Yatimov for his third goal of the tournament. In the 33rd minute, Qatar believed they had earned a penalty after an altercation between Ali and Manuchehr Safarov. However, following a VAR check, Japanese referee Kimura Hiroyuki Kimura opted to award Tajikistan a free-kick instead. Shortly before halftime, Qatar had another scoring opportunity when Yatimov spilled Afif’s shot. Despite the goalkeeper’s error, defender Zoir Dzhuraboev made a remarkable goal-line clearance to thwart Ali’s attempt on the rebound. Qatar faced a moment of concern three minutes into the second half as Alisher Dzhalilov engaged in a foot race with Barsham. Although Dzhalilov reached the ball first, a heavy first touch cost him the chance with the goalmouth wide open. Just before the hour mark, Qatar missed two chances, with Ahmed al-Ganehi sending his shot over from just inside the box, and Ali being denied by Yatimov’s imposing frame. Tajikistan’s time to equalise was running out fast before it took a further hit in the 81st minute as Amadoni Kamalov saw his yellow card upgraded to a red following a VAR review. The forward had kicked out at al-Ganehi, as the latter was brought down by Mohamed al-Bayati. “I’m very pleased to qualify after two matches,” said Qatar coach Marquez. “It was a difficult game but we always knew it would be. We played against a tough, strong team, but we didn’t give them the chance to score. Every match is difficult and you are talking about the Asian Cup. The opposition started with high pressure but we were able to handle that. We had a problem with possession at the start but we controlled the match and achieved what we wanted to achieve.” While Qatar will look for their 10th consecutive Asian Cup win when they face China on Monday, Tajikistan will have to defeat Lebanon on the same day if they are to stand a chance of advancing. Coach Petar Segrt said his team’s final group game against Lebanon is “all or nothing”. “Everybody makes compliments to me, you can give compliments to Tajikistan, but at the end, the result is important,” he said.

South Korean fans turned out in huge numbers at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium.
Lee steps up in style to help South Korea beat Bahrain

Not long ago, South Korea’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann had urged Lee Kang-in to keep his feet firmly on the ground after what he perceived as ‘pop star treatment’ given to the midfielder at home.Based on Monday’s evidence, the 22-year-old has heeded the former German forward’s words of wisdom. The Paris St Germain starlet showed why he is emerging as his country’s next big hope, after slamming a second-half brace in South Korea’s 3-1 win over Bahrain in their Asian Cup opener.At the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, Taeguk Warriors – seeking their first Asian title in 64 years – had struggled to justify their favourite status in the stop-start encounter, with Chinese referee Ma Ning taking the centre stage after he dished out yellow cards to three South Korean players the first half hour.The partisan South Korean crowd at the 15,000-capacity arena – the home of Qatar giants Al Sadd – were getting jittery before Hwang In-beom put them ahead in the 38th minute. But six minutes into the second half Abdulla al-Hashash drew level for Bahrain. However, Lee struck twice in 13 minutes to seal three points for the two-time champions. Lee’s first goal was a sublime strike from 25 yards in the 56th minute, before he put the game to bed 21 minutes later, stroking a clinical finish into the bottom corner past goalkeeper Ebrahim Lutfalla.With spotlight on Tottenham Hotspur’s forward Son Heung-min ahead of the tournament, Lee has announced his arrival in style, stealing the thunder from his captain, who struggled throughout the game on Monday and was even shown a yellow card for diving.Lee is considered one of South Korea’s most promising prospects after he moved to Spain as a child to join Valencia’s academy and played 62 times for them in La Liga. Later, in 2021, he switched to Real Mallorca. He played in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar four times, with three appearances as a substitute. During the summer, Lee signed with PSG for 22mn euros. In September, he played a crucial role in South Korea winning the gold medal at the Asian Games – which earned him an exemption from the country’s mandatory military service.After his brace on Monday, Lee said he was “learning a lot” and said it was “a privilege” to play with his star team-mates for club and country.“I’m learning a lot, but it’s not just about football - I’m learning a lot off the field as well,” he said. “I try to learn as much as possible and develop into a better person and a better football player.”“No one on our team, be it players or coaches, thought this was going to be an easy match. We had some good moments and not-so-good moments in this one. Whether we concede a goal or score a goal, we always try to keep playing our game. After giving up that goal, we just wanted to get one right back. I am just happy to have helped the team. Everyone in the locker room and people back home are waiting for this trophy we haven’t won in 64 years. We’re motivated, but it’s still too early to talk about winning the championship,” Lee observedLee was a peripheral figure under previous coach Paulo Bento but Klinsmann has made him central to his plans since taking over last year. The German, a World Cup winner in 1990 as a player, said Lee had provided a touch of class in an otherwise “scrappy” game that saw five South Korean players – including Bayern Munich defender Kim Min-jae – booked.“He scored two goals in the opening game and he deserves to be man of the match, he had a very good performance,” said Klinsmann. “It was a tricky game. That had a lot to do with the referee giving too many yellow cards early.”Klinsmann left Wolverhampton Wanderers forward Hwang Hee-chan out of his match-day squad. Hwang, who has scored 10 goals in the Premier League so far this season, has been struggling with a hip injury. “We are very pleased to start with three points in the tournament,” said Klinsmann. “This is the really important thing, to get three points in game one, and then you look forward to the next game.”South Korea will meet Jordan next on Saturday while Bahrain will attempt to revive their fortunes against Malaysia.

Australia and India fans cheer for their teams on Saturday.
Spirited India undone by sloppy errors against Australia

DohaMuch wasn’t expected of India against Australia in their Asian Cup opener on Saturday. The gulf in class between the two sides apparent – India ranked a lowly 102nd to Australia’s 25th – but that did not deter the Indian fans, mostly made up of expatriates in Qatar, flooding into the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.And the Men in Blue put in a brave-hearted performance in the first half before a couple of sloppy moments allowed Australia to a 2-0 win in the Group B clash.But there is no doubt India, which has been forever labelled as the ‘sleeping giant in football’, has miles to go before they can challenge the top teams of Asia, let alone of the world’s best.The last time India had faced Australia was in the 2011 Asian Cup and the Socceroos had won 4-0. Saturday’s scoreline, though respectable, does not reveal the complete story of where Indian football stands.The 35,253 spectators’ eyes were firmly perched on one side of the pitch as Australia parked themselves on the Indian half. Igor Stimac’s ploy was for his men to attack on the counter but barring one attempt from captain Sunil Chhetri – who failed to make the best use of a cross from Nikhil Poojary in the 16th minute – India hardly troubled Australia’s goalkeeper Mat Ryan.The Aussies themselves were far from their best and were frustrated by the stoic defence from Sandesh Jhingan, Nikhil Poojary, and Deepak Tangri. For all their dominance and possession, Australia lacked the cutting edge in the first half.India, though, were clearly overcooked as the half time was blown by Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita, who became the first woman to officiate at an Asian Cup. Even as a couple of India’s players fell to the ground in exhaustion at half time, it was always going to be difficult for them to keep their focus and discipline in the second half.But Australia were given an opening from an unlikely source as goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu – usually the safest pair of hands – flapped at a cross from the right by Martin Boyle. His light touch fell perfectly to Jackson Irvine, who calmly chested the ball down and tapped home in the 50th minute.With relief on his face, Australia’s coach Graham Arnold opted to go for a more attacking approach and his two substitutes combined to increase the lead.Jordan Bos put 2015 champions firmly in control as the 21-year-old, who had only been on the pitch a matter of seconds, knocked home from the back post to finish off a slick low cross from fellow substitute Riley McGree.Despite Australia’s dominance in the match where they had 28 shots taken and 71% possession, coach Graham Arnold said his side – considered among the favourites for the tournament – had room for improvement.“I can honestly say that we have got to improve a lot more than that,” said Arnold, who took Australia to the knockout phase of the World Cup in Qatar, where they lost 2-1 to eventual champions Argentina. “One disappointment was set’s something we need to improve on, and we will.”Stimac on the other hand was pleased with his team’s performance and blamed the defeat on sloppy errors.“We expected a very difficult match for us, with the physicality of Australia and all these corners which were coming, especially from the right side. But I am not so happy with the result at the end because both goals came out of our sloppy reactions,” Stimac said.“These goals didn’t come out of Australia’s brilliant display but because of our irresponsibility at a certain point in time,” the Croatian added.Australia will play Syria next on Thursday while India will have to rebound against Uzbekistan.

Qatar players train at the Aspire Academy yesterday, on the eve of their match against Lebanon. (Reuters)
Lopez unfazed by pressure as Qatar begin title defence

DohaMarquez Lopez seems unperturbed despite a daunting task ahead of him over the next one month. The Spaniard was airlifted to coach the Qatar football team as a last-minute replacement after veteran manager Carlos Queiroz was shockingly fired last month.Lopez – who has coached Qatar Stars League side Al Wakrah since 2018 – assumed the charge of the national team with little over a month to go for Qatar’s Asian Cup title cup defence. Now ahead of the hosts opener against Lebanon at the Lusail Stadium today, the 62-year-old said ‘pressure doesn’t faze him much’ as he prepares to revitalise a Qatar side that has unperformed in recent times.The Al Annabi have barely reached the heights of their historic 2019 Asian Cup triumph in UAE, despite the core team from that side remaining as the mainstays.In fact, the disastrous World Cup debut at home in 2022, where they lost all three of their group matches has only fuelled discussions about the need for significant changes within the team. But with not many youngsters rising through the ranks, Lopez will need to rely on the likes of captain Hassan al-Haydos and strikers Almoez Ali and Akram Afif as they also hope to handle the weight of expectations of playing in front of home fans.Lopez, though, was upbeat about the team’s chances and said the aim is ‘ultimate goal is to reach the final’.“We have undergone extensive preparation and certainly, it’s not an easy task especially with the limited time available,” Lopez said yesterday.“I commenced training in the final week of December but despite the short duration, I am familiar with the players and their title ambitions. Working under pressure is something I’ve grown accustomed to over the years and it doesn’t faze me much. Leading a team that clinched the title in 2019 is an honour. When entering a competition, the ultimate goal is to reach the final. My players are well aware of my approach as head coach and our aim remains the same since the day I took over this role. The 2019 title provides us with an advantage, offering an additional positive to strive for – lifting the trophy once again,” the former Espanyol midfielder said.Qatar should have little difficulty in emerging from the group which also has China and Tajikistan. But their real test will come up against Asian powerhouses Japan, South Korea and Iran in the knockout stages.Qatar defeated Lebanon 2-0 at the same stage in UAE in 2019 and Lopez said he will instruct his players to adopt an aggressive approach today. “My primary philosophy revolves around attacking style, a principle I honed during my time at QSL side Al Wakrah. We must be bold, create chances and secure victories while maintaining that essential equilibrium.”“Lebanon’s Hassan Maatouk is a key player, and they have a strong selection with 10 other skilled players supporting him. We won’t dwell on their weaknesses, instead, we hold great respect for the Lebanese team,” he observed.Captain al-Haydos said they are not ready to relinquish their hold on the trophy. “It is a relatively good group where all the teams have very similar levels and tomorrow we are starting a new challenge for us,” the Al Sadd star said.“I think the 2019 generation raised our levels and ambitions. We are always required to win in any game and championship we partake in. But challenges are part of football and I hope we can deal with this stress and pressure in a positive manner. We are playing the Asian Cup as title holders and in our own home, so we have to perform and show to the fans that we mean business,” he added.Lebanon face a daunting task against a Qatar side they have not beaten in seven previous encounters (W6 D1) but head coach Miodrag Radulovic said his side are well prepared. “In football, progress takes time, it’s not an overnight achievement,” said Radulovic. “I know many of the players in this group, a combination of experience and youth. The results of the recent friendlies have indicated that we are on the right track. We are expecting a high-quality game against Qatar.“Our goal is to fight for each point to advance to the next round. We have the potential, and I am optimistic about our chances. Tomorrow, we need to be psychologically prepared from the start. My message to the players is that we are playing for the three points.”TEAM FACTBOXQATARFIFA Ranking: 58Best finish: Champions (2019)Coach: Tintin Marquez (Spain)Prospects: Qatar, led by Marquez since Carlos Queiroz was sacked in December, will be looking to bury the memory of their winless World Cup campaign as hosts in 2022.The core of the young team that won the continental title in fine style in 2019 remains but recent results suggest they might struggle to replicate their fairytale run in the United Arab Emirates.LEBANONFIFA Ranking: 107Best finish: Group stage (2000, 2019)Coach: Miodrag Radulovic (Montenegro)Prospects: Lebanon achieved their first Asian Cup finals victory with a 4-1 win over North Korea in 2019 but lost out on a place in the knockouts as one of the best third-placed teams because of their fair play rating.Radulovic returned for a second spell as coach in December and has brought a string of experienced players back into the squad.

Jose Luis Rodriguez (second right) poses with the Liverpool players Sadio Mane (second left), Naby Keita (right) and Divock Origi after the Premier League side won the FIFA Club World Cup at the Khalifa International Stadium on December 21, 2019.
Rodriguez: From Aspetar to Liverpool and back to Qatar’s Asian Cup quest

Jose Luis Rodriguez has so many fond memories of Qatar that the physiotherapist did not think twice when an opportunity presented itself to come back to a country where he started his career. From a young man walking into the corridors of Aspetar Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Hospital in Doha in 2009, the Spaniard has come a long way. After spending nine years with Aspetar, Rodriguez moved to Liverpool and was part of the successful years of the Premier League giants.He went on to form part of the support structure that helped Jurgen Klopp’s side win four major trophies and was a popular figure among foreign players in the squad due to his ability to speak four languages.At Liverpool, he developed a close bond with players like Senegal star Sadio Mane, for whom he served as a personal physio for five years. Rodriguez also had stints with the national teams of Senegal and Libya before becoming a physiotherapy consultant in Dubai. Now he is back in Qatar, albeit for a short three-month term as the physio of the Qatar national team, ahead of the Asian Cup, which will kick off at the Lusail Stadium from Friday.The Seville native, though, is longing for a longer run in Qatar, where he says he feels ‘more connected to than my home country Spain.’ Rodriguez spoke to the Gulf Times about his attachment with Qatar, his time at Liverpool and the role of a physiotherapist in football. ExcerptsQ. You spent almost a decade at Aspetar, can you shed light on your early years in Qatar?My experience in the Middle East and particularly in Qatar taught me a lot of good things. I moved to Qatar in 2008. I was tired of what I was doing in Spain, working with a rugby team.My father was a famous bullfighter from the 1970s in Spain, so I spent a lot of time around that too.I decided to explore a new opportunity in the Middle East and Aspetar caught my eye. I sent them my CV, which they liked, but I was told to improve my English. I asked them for two months’ time, in which I spent time in England without any Spanish people around me. I took classes there in English and spoke to local people. After two months I gave an interview at Aspetar and I got the job. I am a very determined person, when I put something in my head, I don’t stop until I achieve it.Absolutely. My experience in Qatar has been transformative. I got married here, became a Muslim, and now feel more connected to Qatar than my home country, Spain. The safety, quality of life and job opportunities make Qatar a place I identify with and feel comfortable in.Q. How did you end up joining Liverpool in 2018?What marks me the most is that I spent a crucial time of my life in Qatar. I met my wife and we had a baby too while we were here. After close to 10 years in Aspetar, I decided to experience new things and so joined Liverpool. It was a dream, especially as it was the golden times of Liverpool club and I had enjoyed it most.As my family could not familiarise with the weather in England, we decided to move to the Middle East, specifically Dubai, as my wife has family there. Now I am back in Doha and hope to spend many more years.Q. How did you get a call to join the Qatar team for the Asian Cup?I was in Dubai doing consultancy when this opportunity came up. It’s a great chance, especially because the coach Marquez Lopez is someone I worked with before with Iraq. Two other former staff members from Liverpool are also part of the Qatar team. It’s like reuniting with close friends. The preparation has been very good for the Asian Cup. It’s challenging, especially with limited time since the coach has just joined. The pressure is high, but we’re confident that with a good performance, we can go far.Q. Is the primary focus of a physiotherapist in football centred around preventing injuries?Yes, in football, prevention and treatment of injuries are crucial. The focus is on the daily maintenance of players to avoid injuries. Football demands resilience, and players have to maintain their health as the main investment. The high demands of the sport require a 24/7 commitment to fitness, nutrition, and overall well-being.Q. Football is a contact sport and the calendar is packed and they play numerous matches. How do you think a player should maintain his fitness?Players like Salah invest a significant amount of time and effort in maintaining their fitness. It’s not just about the time spent at the club; they focus on nutrition, sleep, personal training, and even pilates. The short career span requires a substantial sacrifice, but the commitment is essential.Q. Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries are severe and involve lengthy rehabilitation. What do you tell players like Qatar forward Mohamed Muntari, who suffered a similar injury recently and was ruled out of the Asian Cup?For players facing ACL injuries, the mental aspect is crucial. The physical rehabilitation can be managed, especially with top facilities like Aspetar. Supporting them mentally and providing positive examples is essential to help them overcome the mental challenges associated with such injuries.Q. Can Injuries, like ACL tears, happen without any apparent reason? Is it just bad luck or is there any particular reason for it?While some injuries are labelled as bad luck, it’s essential to be honest and humble. There is always a reason, even if we don’t fully understand it. More research and innovation are needed to address non-contact injuries like hamstring issues, which, despite advancements, remain a challenge.

Qatar Olympic Committee President HE Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad al-Thani presents the winner’s trophy to Max Verstappen of Red Bull after his win in Formula 1 Qatar Airways Qatar Grand Prix 2023 at Lusail International Circuit Sunday. Reuters
Verstappen wins 14th race in a row at Qatar Grand Prix

A night after clinching his third consecutive world title, Max Verstappen was in no mood to take the foot off the gas as the Red Bull driver sauntered to his 14th win of the season at the Formula One Qatar Grand Prix.On a night when the high humidity level forced the drivers to wear ice vests, fans at the Lusail International Circuit released a loud gasp of shock as seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton crashed out of the race in the very first lap after colliding with team-mate George Russell.But Verstappen, like so often this season, was oblivious to the drama behind as he dominated the 57-lap race to stay on course to break his own record (15) for most wins in a single season. With five races to go, the Dutchman needs just two wins to set a new mark.Sprint race winner Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris finished second and third respectively, rounding off a good weekend for the McLaren team, rising from their P6 and P10 grid slots after losing lap times over track limits violations in qualifying.“I think what made the race was my first stint,” said Verstappen, who finished 4.8 seconds clear of Piastri. “After that I could just manage my pace, making sure that my tyres were always in a good window. But the McLarens were quick again today, I had to push for it, so it was definitely a tough race out there. It was a bit close for comfort I think in that last stint. But the pace was OK. Another win, unbelievable,” added the 26-year-old.The race became an intense and complicated one as the drivers were mandated for three pit stops due to tyre safety reasons after Pirelli warned of the risk of blowouts.There was a change in the grid too with Red Bull’s second driver Sergio Perez starting from pit lane after changing several power unit components and making significant repairs – including the preparation of a new chassis – after the Mexican’s crash in the sprint.Ferrari too suffered a blow as Carlos Sainz was ruled out of the race due to a fuel system issue developing on his car, meaning the Scuderia would only be represented by Charles Leclerc.More drama awaited at the start and it was heartbreak for Hamilton. The Brit tried to go round the outside in the first corner, but in turn rammed into compatriot Russell, who himself was looking to make a move on Verstappen.Hamilton was immediately out of the race, finding his Mercedes beached in the gravel on three wheels, while Russell dropped down the field and had to pit for a new front wing. While Hamilton, in frustration, blamed his younger team-mate for the incident, he later accepted his fault and apologised to Russell.Russell had started second on the grid with Hamilton third and looking likely to increase the 26-point gap between them and third-placed Ferrari in the constructors’ standings.“I just feel really sorry for my team, there was an opportunity today to get some good points,” Hamilton later said. “I felt the tag from behind but I don’t think George had anywhere to go. I’m happy to take responsibility. It’s massively gutting, it’s rare this happens to me.”To Russell’s credit, the 25-year-old ended up fourth after having to make four pit stops in total. Ferrari’s Leclerc was fifth and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso came sixth. Esteban Ocon was seventh for Alpine with the Alfa Romeo pair of Valtteri Bottas and Guanyu Zhou eighth and ninth and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez demoted to 10th after a five-second post-race penalty for exceeding track limits multiple times.Verstappen, meanwhile, was untroubled on the night with team boss Christian Horner lauding his champion over the radio by saying: “That was a proper quality drive.”At one point he had a 25-second advantage over Piastri, but the Australian rookie crawled back in the final stint. But it was not enough to put pressure on Verstappen, who set the fastest lap and cruised to his 49th career victory.The only thing that troubled him was the Lusail heat, which touched 37 degrees on track at one point, with humidity making it worse. Verstappen later labelled the Qatar Grand Prix as “one of the toughest ‘’ races of his career as drivers struggled throughout in hot and tricky conditions. Alonso asked for water to be poured over him at a pit-stop, while Williams’ Logan Sargeant retired with dehydration as Verstappen and Piastri both laid on the floor of the cool-down room while waiting for the podium.“[It is] one of [the toughest races of my career], and in the top five probably,” Verstappen said. “I am already sweating quite a bit, but we will enjoy it quite a bit, but there are still a few races [in the season] that we want to try and win.”

Red Bull Racing’s Dutch driver Max Verstappen celebrates winning his third world title on Saturday. (AFP)
Verstappen joins triple champs, with more to come

Having sewn up his third successive world title with six rounds to go, the general opinion on the paddock and among pundits is that Max Verstappen will get only better from here on.While the Red Bull driver’s hapless rivals would not be happy with that view, it is certain Verstappen will not stop at winning three titles, especially having the fastest car at his disposal.The Dutchman’s dominance has been such that he has put seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton, not long ago his fierce rival, chasing shadows on his underperforming Mercedes car.While Verstappen’s first title came under acrimonious circumstances on the last lap of the 2021 season on a wild night in Abu Dhabi, his next two have been smooth sailing. The 26-year-old won his second title last year in Japan with four races to spare, and this time he has gone one better.He has already won 13 races out of 16 this season and will start as outright favourite for today’s Qatar Grand Prix at the Lusail International Circuit, where he is in pole position.With five races to go after Qatar, Verstappen is on course to break his own record for most races won (15) in a single season, which he achieved in 2022. Such has been his domination, he went on a record 10 successive victories in a single season between Miami in May to Monza in September.After his second place finish in the sprint race on Saturday took Verstappen to his third title, he joined an elite club of Formula 1 drivers, namely Sir Jack Brabham, Sir Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna.Asked, meanwhile, whether he was already eyeing up future titles, Verstappen replied on Saturday: “We’ll just see what happens. I’m enjoying the moment and hopefully of course we can keep this momentum going for a while.”As he soaked in all the emotions, Verstappen later went on to admit that his latest title is the “best” of the lot. “This one is the best one,” Verstappen told the post-sprint press conference.“I think the first one was the most emotional one because that’s when your dreams are fulfilled in F1, but this one definitely has been my best year [with] consecutive wins and stuff like that. The car itself has probably been in the best shape as well, so for me this one is probably [what] I’m the most proud of in a way, because of consistency,” he added.His boss at the Red Bull, Christian Horner, has no doubt his star driver – dubbed as “Super Max” – will dominate F1 in the years to come. “He’s the most competitive driver that I’ve ever met,” Horner said on Saturday.“I think the determination that he drives with, the passion, the heart, the commitment and of course there’s the abundance of skill that he has. He’s up there with the very best, some of the greatest the sport has seen. This season has just surpassed anything we’ve ever seen,” the Red Bull team principal added.Horner singled out Verstappen’s self-confidence to win from any position as his greatest attribute. “I just think the self-belief, there’s the self-confidence he has in himself, to go out and nail it, to go out and deliver,” the Brit said when asked about Verstappen’s best trait. “He’s only 26, I think he’s still going to get better, he’s still going to evolve and I think he’s still going to grow as a driver.”The son of Jos, a former journeyman Formula One driver, and Belgian world-class kart racer Sophie, Verstappen sped to multiple titles as a boy and almost won the F3 title at his first attempt aged 15. Verstappen graduated to the F1 fast lane in 2015 with Red Bull’s junior team, then known as Toro Rosso.Aged just 17 years and 166 days, he was the youngest ever F1 driver in the sport at a time when he still had not passed his regular driving test. Eight years later and at the age of just 26, Verstappen is on course to be counted among greats.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen celebrates after winning the championship.
Verstappen seals third crown as Piastri wins Qatar sprint

Rookie Oscar Piastri announced himself in style by clinching the sprint race at the Formula One Qatar Grand Prix Saturday, but it was Max Verstappen who celebrated the most as the Dutchman secured his third straight world title at the Lusail International circuit.With the floodlights on, Qatar’s renovated and refreshed motorsport venue glittered as the grandstands filled in huge numbers. The fast and flowing track only made it more spectacular on the night.The 19-lap or 100km long dash provided enough adrenaline rushing moments for the fans as safety cars were deployed three times due to collision and retirements. While the 22-year-old Piastri, starting from pole, kept his cool to take his maiden win on his McLaren, Red Bull’s Verstappen followed him home just under two seconds adrift to seal his domination of the season.The 26-year-old joins an exclusive group of drivers with three F1 crowns, including Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, leaving quadruple champions Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel next up on the all-time list. Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher share the outright record with seven titles each."Of course it's a fantastic feeling, it's been an incredible year and lots of great races,” said Verstappen, moments after jumping out of his car and launching himself into the waiting arms of his family and crew. “I feel super proud and super proud of the job of the team. It's been so enjoyable to be part of that group of people and to be three time world champion is just incredible," he added.Last night’s fourth sprint of the year offered Verstappen a first chance to score the three points he needed to wrap up the championship. But with his closest rival and team-mate Sergio Perez crashing out on the 12th lap, Verstappen had already become a world champion during the mid-race.Now Verstappen would want to mark his championship win in style as he starts from pole position for Sunday’s main Qatar Grand Prix. Having won 13 out of 16 races this season, it would be hard to bet against the Red Bull driver.Piastri and his McLaren team-mate Lando Norris, though, could pose the toughest challenge for Verstappen. While the 22-year-old Piastri made full use of McLaren’s reinvigorated MCL60 car to top the shootout first and then win the sprint, Norris overcame a dreadful start to finish third last night.Mercedes rival George Russell jumped into the lead, but having gone in with softer tyres he was easily overtaken by Piastri, Norris and Verstappen, who were all driving with medium rubber.Former champion Hamilton finished fifth after starting 12th and cashing in on the collisions ahead of him. Ferrari's Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc were sixth and seventh with Williams' Alex Albon taking the final point of the night.“It was a very stressful race,” said a relieved Piastri. “When all the drivers with soft tyres came through at the beginning I thought we were in trouble, but then they fell away pretty quickly. I think we did a very good job. First sprint win sounds pretty cool.”Off the track, there were plenty of things to look forward to for the fans as a host of celebrities, including football legends Ronaldinho and David Beckham were present at the Lusail Circuit.The fan zone too was a hive of activity, blending cultural and entertainment pursuits suitable for all age groups. Highlights included captivating visual narratives of F1's journey in Qatar, mesmerising LED Light shows, and immersive events echoing Qatar's rich heritage.Spectators also got a chance to test their skills on F1 simulators, while Swedish DJ Alesso rounded up the night with his world-renowned brand of music.

Red Bull Racing's Dutch driver Max Verstappen drives during the qualifying session ahead of the Qatar Formula One Grand Prix at the Lusail International Circuit on Friday.
Qatar Grand Prix: Lusail Circuit comes alive as Verstappen takes pole

The twisty and fast Lusail International Circuit track provided a great spectacle on Friday, even as champion-in-waiting Max Verstappen took the pole position for Sunday’s Qatar Grand Prix.Thousands of fans flocked the renovated circuit for the free practice and qualifying session on Friday. And they were in for a treat as Verstappen produced a masterful lap on his Red Bull to take his 10th pole position of his remarkable season in a time of 1 minute 23.778 seconds.The Dutch rider may not even have to wait until Sunday’s Grand Prix to be crowned as champion for the third time in a row. The 26-year-old can seal the title if he out-scores his teammate Sergio Perez by three points in the 19-lap sprint race on Saturday.While Verstappen was at his best on Friday, mistakes crept in from other drivers as they struggled to find grips with the Lusail track’s high-speed layout and its new asphalt, with the dust coming from the desert terrain making it even harder on a windy night.McLaren drivers Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri were second and third fastest on the night, but their lap times were wiped out post-qualifying for exceeding track limits. The duo’s nightmare proved to be a blessing for Mercedes’ George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, who will start behind Verstappen on Sunday in second and third place respectively.“Great start to the weekend,” said Verstappen, who will bid for this 14th win of the season on Sunday. “It's quite tricky out there, but I'm very happy to be on pole. It's been a good day for us. Let's make sure on Sunday we have a good day as well,” he added.With all that has happened in the qualifying, the sprint race under the lights promises to be a spicy one as driver’s will be keen to make up for their mistakes. With no pit stops allocated, points are awarded to the top eight finishers in the sprint and Verstappen is in a prime position to wrap up the title.Off the track, fans were impressed by the redesigned Lusail circuit. The introduction of Lusail Hill – a dedicated elevated viewing area at the end of Turn 1 – proved a hit as the spectators had more viewing options of the track. The new grandstands added at Turn 2, 3 and 16 were also packed as the crowd enjoyed the action-packed qualifying session.The circuit's new pits and paddock complex also came in for praise from the drivers, with the added tunnels making it easier for officials and fans to move around. Former Renault and Haas driver Romain Grosjean, who races now in the IndyCar in the US, said he was impressed by the infrastructure in Qatar.“It looks amazing. I have never come here before, so it's my first time. But it's a very impressive infrastructure. I have not driven on this track, so it's difficult for me to judge. But it looks fun and very fast,” said the Frenchman , whose F1 career came to an end in spectacular circumstances as he picked up burn injuries in a dramatic and terrifying accident in Bahrain in 2020.“It's good news that Qatar will host the F1 at least until 2032. There's such a warm welcome here from the airport to the hotel and at the circuit,” Grosjean added.

From Left: Alpine’s Pierre Gasly, Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, Haas’ Nico Hulkenberg and Alfa Romeo’s Guanyu Zhou during a press conference at the Lusail International Circuit yesterday, ahead of the Formula One Qatar Grand Prix. (Reuters)
Lusail Circuit wows drivers as Qatar gears up to host F1 Grand Prix 2023

Qatar opened its door of the renovated Lusail International Circuit to the Formula One jamboree on Thursday, as the drivers and team officials were in awe of the state-of-the art venue.Starting from today until Sunday, all eyes will be on the Lusail Circuit, which will be hosting Qatar’s second F1 Grand Prix. There was excitement and admiration in equal measure at the paddock yesterday as the drivers and fans had first-hand view of the redesigned circuit complex.While the fast-flowing popular circuit remains the same, the facilities have been upgraded to meet Formula 1’s standards, with new pits and paddock complex while the spectator capacity has been beefed up to 52,000.This year’s Grand Prix will mark the first in a 10-season deal between Formula 1 and Qatar, sealing Lusail’s place on the calendar for the long run. While Red Bull have wrapped up the constructors title already, its driver Max Verstappen is on the cusp of winning his third straight title even before the main race on Sunday. The Dutchman, who has been relentlessly dominant this season, will secure the title with six rounds remaining if he finishes sixth or higher in the sprint race tomorrow.Sergio Perez is the only driver that can mathematically still beat his teammate, but even if he wins the Sprint and Verstappen fails to score, the 26-year-old will still clinch the title with a top-eight finish on Sunday.Still there are plenty of variables to look out for at the Lusail Circuit this weekend, with its demanding and twisty track allowing the possibility of throwing up a surprise or two. The shootout is going to be a challenge as it takes place in the daytime conditions, before the Sprint itself under the lights. This is the first Sprint weekend to feature a day-night setting, so it should add another element into the mix for the teams to get to grips with.Verstappen, who has had the fastest car with Red Bull, though will be outright favourite to win a remarkable 14th Grand Prix out of the 17 this season. To Page 12 Sport Page 4

Qatar’s Nasser al-Attiyah (centre), Masoud al-Athba (left) and Rashid al-Athba celebrate after winning skeet team silver medal at the Hangzhou Asian Games on Wednesday.
Al-Attiyah’s heroics gives Qatar silver and bronze in Hangzhou

Nasser al-Attiyah added another chapter to his long list of achievements on Wednesday, as the legendary sports star helped Qatar to open its medals tally at the Hangzhou Asian Games.Al-Attiyah first led the men’s skeet team – also consisting of Masoud al-Athba and Rashid al-Athba – to the silver medal, before he returned to win bronze in the individual final.It needed something special to stop al-Attiyah from winning gold on Wednesday and Kuwait’s Abdullah al-Rashidi did just that as the 60-year-old veteran shota perfect 60 shots to equal the world record and win his fourth Asian Games gold medal in skeet shooting. India’s Anantjeet Singh Naruka was also equally brilliant on the day as the 25-year-old missed only two targets to secure silver aheadof al-Attiyah, who shot 46 from50 targets.Five-time Dakar Rally champion al-Attiyah’s exploits in motorsports is such that his achievements in shooting is often underplayed. Wednesday’s medals was his fifth at the Asian Games – having been part of Qatar’s team that won the skeet team event at the 2002 and 2010 Asian Games in Busan and Guangzhou, respectively. He also won a bronze medal in the individual event at Guangzhou 2010.A veteran of six Olympics, al-Attiyah’s biggest achievement came at the 2012 London Games, where he won a bronze medal. Before that he had agonisingly fell short of securing a medal as he finished fourth at 2004 Athens Games and sixth at 2000 Sydney Games.Now he has set his sights on qualifying for a seventh Olympic Games appearance at Paris next year at the age of 53. “These medals are a huge boost for me ahead of the qualifiers for Paris Olympics, which is now my next target,” al-Attiyah said on Wednesday, with two medals draped around his neck.“It was a tough competition as seen throughout the event. We are delighted to clinch a silver and a bronze medal in skeet and I want to thank the Qatar Olympic Committee for all their support. My target was to win gold in individual skeet but hats off to Abdullah al-Rashidi who was outstanding in the event,” he added.On Wednesday, al-Attiyah made it to the six-man final by finishing third with a total of 122 shots after the qualifications, which was spread over two days. But more importantly it ensured a silver medal for Qatar. Masoud al-Athba narrowly missed out on the final spot after scoring 119 from five rounds but his seventh-place finish and his sibling Rashid’s 14th place finish too played a part in Qatar winning its first medal in Hangzhou. China took the gold with a score of 362 points, while India took home bronze with 355.In the event where the shotgun wielding shooters attempt to shoot and break clay targets fired into the air at high speeds and varying angles, al-Attiyah’s hands seem to tremble before he fires his shot. But he often hit the bull’s eye on Wednesday as he looked in no mood to stop his shooting career, which he has juggled successfully with his driving career.And al-Attiyah need not look elsewhere for inspiration after witnessing al-Rashidi’s record-equalling feat from close quarters on Wednesday. The 60-year-old – who has bronze medals from the Rio and Tokyo Olympics – said the secret to his longevity and his sharp vision is staying away from the phone and social media.To put al-Rashidi’s age in perspective, India’s silver medallist Naruka was born in 1998 – the same year the veteran Kuwaiti shooter won his third world title.“I am happy to win a fourth gold medal because I am over 60 years old. On ThursdayI only missed one target out of 110 targets. This happens when you play every day, you exercise, go swimming, and eat well,” al-Rashidi said.When asked about his training regime, he said: “You keep your body strong. I don’t look at the phone or Twitter, because this is not good for your eyes. I look after my body and my health, and I go to sleep early and wake up early. I make a good but difficult training programme, to look to the future.”With the Paris Olympics around the corner in 2024, al-Rashidi said he still has a long way to go before he decides to call it a day.Meanwhile, Qatar’s women shooter Reem al-Sharshani missed out on a medal on Wednesday after finishing fifth in the final. Al-Sharshani, who took the sixth and final spot for the medal round after two days of qualification, made 27 hits out of 30. In the team’s competition, which also consisted of Hajar Mohamed and SarahMohamed, Qatar finished fifth.

Mutaz Barshim holds his son as he acknowledges the crowd after winning the bronze in Budapest. (AFP)
Emotional Barshim proud of ‘amazing’ career

Doha: Mutaz Essa Barshim was far from downhearted after his reign as world high jump champion came to an end in Budapest on Tuesday night. Not since the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 has anyone been able to finish higher than the Qatari icon in an outdoors global high jump competition.But at the National Athletic Centre on Tuesday, Barshim’s good friend Gianmarco Tamberi, with whom he shared the gold medal at the Tokyo Games two years back, had dethroned him to win his maiden world title.Yet, Barshim sported a smile like a true champion he is. Why wouldn’t he!? The 32-year-old’s bronze in Budapest was his fifth Worlds medal of his career, which includes three consecutive gold and one silver – making him the first man to achieve the feat in high jump.Barshim even joined Tamberi and his Italian fans in the stands as the duo celebrated with Qatari legend’s toddler son joining them. Later as the disappointment of not winning yet another gold had settled in, Barshim reflected on his illustrious career and brimming with pride at what he had achieved.“I came here with three world gold medals and one silver and managed to add a bronze tonight,” said Barshim, who has had to contend with back and knee problems in recent years.“Look at my career. It is really amazing. If it was not me that did this, but someone else, I would like to be that someone. Today I look at my CV and I am the only high jumper with such a medal count. This almost brings tears to my eyes. I just need to give myself credit. Having my son here only makes it more memorable. It is very emotional to have all my family and friends out here,” he added.Yesterday, in an emotional post on Instagram Barshim, opened up more about his career as he dedicated his bronze medal to people who have stood behind him. He also said representing Qatar was a huge responsibility that he takes ‘very seriously’“It’s very sentimental for me to think of how far I’ve come from my very first World Championship in Daegu in South Korea in 2011. As a young high jumper pursuing my passion I was looking up to the all-time high jump greats. I remember wanting to be up there so badly. Looking at myself today, I realise that I am now on top of that list becoming the most decorated high jumper in World Championships history, collecting five medals. One silver, three consecutive gold and now one bronze medal,” he wrote.“If I’m allowed to say it, I’m really proud of myself for never giving up, for putting in the hard work, for sacrificing what matters most to me and having my team, my family, my country & my supporters stand behind me no matter what. I realise that I have a huge responsibility by carrying the flag of my country on my back and I take that responsibility very seriously. This medal is for all of you who have been standing behind me for more than a decade,” he added.Barshim paid tribute to Tamberi and the young American JuVaughn Harrison, who won silver on Tuesday, but said he was up for the fight at the Paris Olympics next year, even though he indicated that could be his farewell event.“The atmosphere on the field was electric. The rivalry between all the jumpers was incredible. I enjoyed every moment of it. I am happy that Tamberi won the gold. It was a medal he was missing from his CV and he added it tonight,” Barshim said.“He deserved to be on the top of the podium. He has been working really hard and it is time for him to celebrate. The Paris Olympics is my next goal but it will be my last. It will be more like a contest, not revenge.”Barshim, who has the second best jump in history – 2.43 behind Cuban great Javier Sotomayor (2.45 in 1993) – looked in for a rough night when he missed his first attempt at 2.25. He had looked calm before the event started as he lay down on a towel on the infield for a good 20 minutes. Barshim passed the opening height, 2.20m, but the lack of preparation showed in a rusty first attempt at 2.25m that sent the bar tumbling. Barshim then cleared 2.33 for bronze, but missed all three attempts at 2.36, leaving Tamberi and Harrison to fight for the gold.Tamberi, who had scraped through to the final with a last-gasp clearance at 2.28m in qualifying, entered the competition with a first-time failure at 2.25m, but as his raucous supporters rooted for him from the stands, the Italian grew in confidence and pocketed his first world title.Tamberi now has a full collection of golds, having also captured world indoor, European and Diamond League titles. But with Barshim still not done yet, the Italian will have a fight on his hand at the Paris Olympics.Barshim FactfileBorn: 24 June 1991, Doha Height: 1.90m (6 ft 3 in) Weight: 65kg Achievements and titlesWorld Championships: 2011 Daegu: 7th2013 Moscow: Silver2015 Beijing: 4th2017 London: Gold2019 Doha: Gold2022 Eugene: Gold2023 Budapest: BronzeOlympics 2012 London: Silver2016 Rio de Janeiro: Silver2020 Tokyo: GoldHighest world ranking No. 1 (weeks 23)Personal best(s) Outdoor: 2.43m in Brussels (2014)Indoor: 2.41m in Athlone (2015)