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Wednesday, June 26, 2024 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
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 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.

In the men’s long jump, Jamaican Carey McLeod’s monster leap of 8.52m helped him beat Olympic champion Miltiadis Tentoglou’s 8.36m.
Sports
Vadlejch pips Chopra; Bednarek, dos Santos break meet records

DOHA: Two of the reigning Olympic and World champions – Neeraj Chopra and Miltiadis Tentoglou – had to contend for the second place at the Doha Diamond League on Friday. Jakub Vadlejch – the runner-up in Doha for the past two years – got the better of India’s golden boy Chopra in javelin by just two centimetres, while Jamaican Carey McLeod stunned Tentoglou in long jump with a massive 8.52m leap in his fourth attempt. Not all favourites had an off day last night though at the Qatar Sports Club Stadium, with Alison dos Santos and Kenny Bednarek breaking meet records with dominant performances. Brazilian dos Santos broke his own record in Doha, setting two years to win the 400m hurdles in 46.86 secs – the fifth fastest time ever. The 23-year-old former world champion – who struggled with injuries last year – won by more than one-and-a-half seconds from USA’s CJ Allen (48.39) with France’s Wilfried Happio further back in third (49.10). “This is a very good way to start things – I’m very excited,” said Dos Santos. “It’s going to be a tough year, so to start in this fashion is very positive.” America’s Bednarek, meanwhile, scorched to a world-leading 19.67sec in 200 metres. The 2022 world silver medallist crossed the line a clear winner, smashing Noah Lyles’ six-year-old meeting record by 0.15. His compatriot Courtney Lindsey was a distant second in 20.01 and Kyree King made it a US clean sweep by placing third in 20.21. “I feel great about the race. I knew I was in this shape, I just had to put it down on the track,” said Bednarek, who finished second to Canada’s Andre De Grasse at the Tokyo Olympics. “I’m healthy, I’m stronger than ever and I’m ready to go.” Olympic champion Steven Gardiner was a comfortable winner of the men’s 400m. The 28-year-old, who won the world title in Doha in 2019, finished 0.31 ahead of Muzala Samukonga of Zambia. The most enthralling contest, however, came in the men’s javelin – where Chopra was a clear fan favourite. The affable 26-year-old – who was inundated with selfie requests from Qatar’s large Indian diaspora an hour after the event had ended – nearly overcame a foul start to snatch victory from Czech Republic’s Vadlejch. In the final round, Chopra sent his spear flying well beyond the 85-metre line. But he fell just 2cms shy of 88.38m thrown by Vadlejch in round three. “It was a little bit revenge for last year,” said Vadlejch, who lost out to Chopra by four centimetres in Doha last year. “I think it’s a good rivalry and it’s good for the spectators,” the Diamond League champion added. Chopra, who again missed out on joining the elite 90m club, felt he could have done better. “I’m satisfied with the result but I’m not satisfied with my effort,” he said. “I think I can do something about this and maybe next competition I will throw far.” Meanwhile, world indoor bronze medallist McLeod upset the small Greece contingent rooting for Tentoglou as the Jamaican wind-assisted leap of 8.52m gave him long jump honours. It was the longest jump of his career in any conditions, but 5.2m tailwind meant it wouldn’t count as a personal or meeting record for McLeod. “It is a great feeling, in order to win I have to jump something amazing. It was not windy, so it was wonderful. I will just go back home to see how well I can prepare for the next competition. 8.52 is amazing,” he said. Tentoglou’s best was 8.36m on the night and the 26-year old said: “It was my first competition and I was feeling kind of rusty at the beginning. But every time I was getting better.” Swiss Simon Ehammer was third with a wind-assisted 8.30m. Kenyan fans, who poured in large numbers, were dancing in delight after world title-holder Mary Moraa held off Britain’s Jemma Reekie to win the women’s 800m by half a second in 1:57.91, her season’s best. Moraa was pushed all the way by Reekie, the world indoor silver medallist. Benin’s Noelie Yarigo was third in 1:58.70. “I can say it was a hard race, all of us were in good shape,” said Moraa. Another Kenyan Beatrice Chebet was similarly impressive in the women’s 5000m. In the high-quality field – which featured the likes of Ejgayehu Taye and her fellow Ethiopians Medina Eisa and Melknat Wudu – Chebet unleashed a burst of speed with 200m to go to win in a world-leading 14:26.98. Kenya’s Brian Komen came out narrowly ahead of compatriots Timothy Cheruiyot – the former world champion and Tokyo 2020 silver-medallist – and Reynold Kipkorir Cheruiyot with 3:32.43 in the men’s 1,500m. In the women’s pole vault, Britain’s world indoor champion Molly Caudery won on countback against reigning world champion Nina Kennedy of Australia after they both cleared 4.73. Meanwhile, European bronze medallist Ditaji Kambundji came from behind to win the 100m hurdles. The Swiss 21-year-old came off the final hurdle well to propel herself past USA’s Tonea Marshall, winning in 12.49. In a race where 0.05 separated the top four finishers, Marshall was second in 12.51 and Poland’s Pia Skrzyszowska was third in 12.53. In the women’s 100m flat, Britain’s Darryl Neita edged ahead of USA’s Tamari Davis to win by 0.01 in a season’s best of 10.98. Celera Barnes was a close third in 11.02. And in the final race of the night, Ethiopia’s Samuel Firewu was locked in a fierce sprint with world bronze medallist Abraham Kibiwott in the closing stages of the men’s 3000m steeplechase, eventually emerging with victory in a PB of 8:07.25. Serbian teenager Angelina Topic, the youngest in the field by five years, won the women’s high jump with 1.94m, clearing all of her bars up to and including that height on her first attempt.

From Left: Athletes Steven Gardiner of Bahamas, Neeraj Chopra of India, Nina Kennedy of Australia and Miltiadis Tentoglou of Greece pose after the press conference on Thursday, on the eve of the Doha Diamond League.
Sports
Chopra wants to throw 90m, but says consistency is key

An hour or so after the pre-event press conference for the Doha Diamond League was over, Neeraj Chopra was still giving interviews to journalists, seeking exclusive quotes from India’s javelin superstar. While others who attended the media conference – Steven Gardiner, Nina Kennedy and Miltiadis Tentoglou – had long left the venue and were taking much-needed rest before Friday’s event at the Suhaim Bin Hamad Stadium, Chopra was in no hurry to leave.Among many amazing qualities that the reigning Olympic, World and Asian champion possesses, it’s his rare ability to handle every situation with composure and always sport a smile and pose for pictures for anyone who walks up to him.But there is one question that has followed him ever since – by his own admission – he threw 88.06m at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, en route to winning the gold medal. When will he cross the 90m mark?“I really want to break this barrier,” Chopra said on Thursday, as he launches himself towards what he hopes will be a successful title defence at the Olympic Games in Paris this August.Fellow Olympic and World long jump Champion Tentoglou, who was seated two seats away from Chopra, chipped in: “I will be very happy if Neeraj throws 90m tomorrow, truly happy.”The Greek echoed what everyone in the athletics world would want. The 90m throw is a magic mark for a javelin thrower and Chopra – who set his personal best of 89.94 in 2022 – has never shied away from acknowledging that he needs to cross it one day. For an athlete, who has won all that needs to be won, the distance should not matter. But here is Chopra, who continues his quest for excellence despite having gone the distance no Indian has dared to achieve.“I am stuck between 88 and 90 metres,” said Chopra in a lighter vein on Thursday. “This question has followed me ever since I threw 88.06 at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. But I had elbow surgery soon after, which forced me to miss the 2019 season.“But I really want to break the barrier this year. Even last year, I had said that Doha is famous for 90m. But, we were not lucky due to too much headwind. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have a good day. Obviously, it is the Olympics year and India is a big country and everyone always expects gold. My focus is to just stay healthy and concentrate on my technique. And yes, if I stay healthy everything will be good,” the 26-year-old added.Chopra, however, insisted remaining consistent has been his key to success in big events. “Maybe it is my greatest weapon. I will throw over 90, but consistency is more important for me,” he pointed out.Chopra enjoys immense popularity in India but downplayed his celebrity status saying his decision to train in South Africa, Turkiye recently and in Europe later this year, was motivated by the need to focus on the Paris Olympics.On Friday, Chopra will face competition from Jakub Vadlejch, to whom he finished second at the Diamond League final in Eugene last September but ended his season with victory at the Asian Games.They will be joined by Grenada’s two-time world champion Anderson Peters, who finished third behind Chopra and Vadlejch in Doha last year, plus 2015 world champion Julius Yego and world finalist Oliver Helander.The women’s pole vault features the indoor and outdoor world champions, as Australia’s Nina Kennedy opens her Diamond League campaign against Britain’s Molly Caudery, who competes for the first time since her world indoor triumph in Glasgow.Kennedy said she was confident of adding Olympic gold later this year as she begins her season in Doha.“The last two years in my career have been a huge step up. Two world medals and a Diamond League final winner. I will be going to this Olympics with a good shot. It’s these new nerves and new feelings, which is all new to me. I am trying to approach it exactly like last year. I am excited but I am trying to enjoy this pressure,” the Australian said.In the men’s long jump, world and Olympic champion Tentoglou makes his Doha Diamond League debut as part of a field also featuring Carey McLeod, Tajay Gayle and Simon Ehammer.The 26-year-old athlete – who retained his world indoor title with victory in Glasgow in March – boasts a personal best of 8.60m from 2021 and is so far unbeaten this year. In recent years he has gained a reputation for being an exceptional championship performer and in particular, for his final jump heroics. “I keep myself motivated because I love the event and love to jump,” said Tentoglou, when asked about what motivates to keep going.“I plan to get better every time and every year. This year is very special because of the Olympics in Paris. There are European Championships too next month. I am doing more quality training. It’s going to be a difficult year but I am excited. I am definitely one of the best and other guys know that I can jump very well anytime so I think I put pressure on them,” the Greek said.

First placed Italian MotoGP rider Francesco Bagnaia of Ducati Lenovo Team, second placed South African MotoGP rider Brad Binder of Red Bull KTM Factory Racing and third placed Spanish MotoGP rider Jorge Martin of Prima Pramac Racing celebrate on the podium after the MotoGP race of the Motorcycling Grand Prix of Qatar at the Losail International Circuit in Doha yesterday. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Sports
Bagnaia begins title defence with Qatar MotoGP victory

Doha: Francesco Bagnaia is still the man to beat in the new MotoGP season after the reigning champion’s commanding victory at the Grand Prix of Qatar. Under the lights at the Lusail International Circuit, the factory Ducati rider was untroubled after he shot past pole-sitter and sprint winner Jorge Martin, who managed to cling on to third spot on the podium.Brad Binder repeated his Saturday’s sprint heroics as the KTM rider finished second, but was a whopping +1.329 secs behind Bagnaia, who barely gave a sniff to his rivals last night.After finishing fourth in the sprint, it was a statement of sorts from Bagnaia, who had won his second successive title last year after a close battle with Martin.Marc Marquez went one better than sprint to finish fourth on his Gresini Grand Prix debut. The eight-time champion was involved in a fascinating tussle with rookie Pedro Acosta, who justified the hype around him with an impressive debut before railing off to end ninth.Bagnaia, starting from fifth on the grid, slotted into second behind Martin before the Italian scythed past Prima Ducati rider up the inside into Turn 4 to snatch the lead straight away. There was going to be only one winner on the night thereafter as Bagnaia steadily built the gap between him and the rest of the pack en route to his 19th MotoGP victory.The 27-year-old later said the changes made to his Desmosedici GP24 after the woes in sprint, worked perfectly in the Grand Prix. “We work in silence. We knew our potential, we tried to do the maximum yesterday, knowing that it was important to change something for today’s race. And what we did this morning in the warm-up was important,” he said.“The race was completely different compared to yesterday. I tried to manage in a different way and it worked. So I’m very happy and now we move on to Portimao (for the Portugal GP) with another step in front we did with the new bike,” he said.Binder and Martin battled for the second spot for much of the night, switching positions on a number of occasions before the South African had the better of tussle when the Spaniard ran wide at Turn 1 on lap 11.“I’m super stoked with the result today,” said Binder. “When we were going in we knew it was going to be tough to get the tyres to the end, I’m surprised we managed to do it so well to be honest. I tried to get close to Pecco (Bagnaia) but he did an unreal job, not making one single mistake during the entire race. Hats off to him. Thank you to my team, they did an incredible job and my bike was next level today compared to yesterday again. If we get this going we will get it right eventually.”Martin ended up 0.5s down at the finish after picking up his pace on the penultimate lap of the race to ward off a late push for podium from Marquez.“Today was a difficult race. I started quite well, but then straight away I was trying to manage the tyre a bit and Pecco was pushing a bit more at that point,” Martin said.“P3 and yesterday’s win, with a lot of points for the weekend, so I’m pleased and I’m really looking forward to the next one,” he added.Marquez, who got to within four tenths of Martin at one point, later said he abandoned his pursuit for podium spot after struggling with the front tyre.“We analysed with the team a lot of things to try to manage the start, it was better today,” the Gresini rider said.“I did attack in the last eight laps, and when I did it was when I started to push more with the front and my front tyre was finished, and the last two laps I gave up because I saw the chance to crash and the chance to take two more points, three more points... I preferred to finish fourth and wait for two weeks in Portimao.”Marquez, meanwhile, was put under pressure by Tech3 GasGas’s Acosta. The KTM-backed rookie moved into fourth position at Turn 1 on lap 12 after a stunning move. But as his tyres began to wear off, he ran wide two laps later, which handed the spot back to Marquez.Acosta’s pace dropped significantly in the final quarter of the race, with both Gresini’s Alex Marquez and factory Ducati’s second rider Enea Bastianini breezing past him.Earlier, the race was reduced from 22 to 21 laps after Trackhouse rider Raul Fernandez experienced a technical issue on the starting grid.Fernandez’s bike was taken back to the pits. He was due to begin from 12th on the grid, but instead he started from the back of the grid, giving up 10 positions.Fernandez’s miserable night ended with four laps to go when he retired into the pits – making him the only rider not to complete the season-opening Grand Prix.

Jorge Martin (centre) celebrates on the podium after winning the sprint race alongside runner-up Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s Brad Binder (left) and third-placed Aprilia Racing’s Aleix Espargaro on Saturday.
Sports
Martin secures Qatar Grand Prix sprint victory from pole

Doha: In his own words, Jorge Martin came ‘really close to crashing in a lot of corners’. But to the naked eye, the Prima Pramac rider was in firm control at the Lusail International circuit, as he eased into Saturday’s sprint victory at MotoGP’s season-opening Grand Prix of Qatar.Martin, who lost the championship title agonisingly to Francesco Bagnaia last year, had issues with rear chatter on his GP24 Ducati – which had also plagued him throughout pre-season testing. But the Spaniard expertly steered himself to victory from start to finish – his 10th Sprint win since the format was introduced last year.KTM’s Brad Binder was 0.548s behind in second, while Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro burst past Bagnaia in the closing stages to take the final podium spot. Eight-time grand prix world champion Marc Marquez finished fifth on his Gresini Ducati debut, after a late mistake allowed Espargaro to overtake him.After pocketing the first 12 points of the season, Martin though was less optimistic about his chances in Sunday’s Grand Prix if Pramac cannot find an answer to persistent chatter problems. “I was fast, but the rear chatter is still there,” Martin said.“So, we need to work on it. I think today I was really close to crashing in a lot of corners. So, I was struggling a lot. Today we achieved the win, but for sure tomorrow if we keep it like this (the chatter problem) it will be impossible. So, let’s work on it. I feel confident, I feel fast. The only thing is the bike, so we’re going to work on it tonight and let’s see if we can enjoy a big one,” the 26-year-old added.Martin had earlier broken the lap record in qualifying to clinch pole position. When the lights went out, he was put under pressure by Binder – who had qualified fourth but was behind Martin’s rear wheel in no time. The two quickly built up a half second gap from the rest of the pack led by Espargaro.Binder got extremely close to passing Martin into Turn 1 at the start of lap two, but that was South African’s only opportunity to take the lead as Pramac rider stayed in control till the chequered flag.Factory Ducati’s Bagnaia, who started from fifth, was up a place by the end of the first lap. But he slipped a place after Espargaro powered past him at Turn 15 on the penultimate lap.Espargaro himself had dropped behind Marquez at one point, but the latter ran wide at Turn 14 on lap eight, which allowed the Aprilia ride to move back into fourth.Bagnaia’s teammate Enea Bastianini was sixth, while Alex Marquez got the better of Pedro Acosta at the line, beating the rookie to seventh position. Maverick Vinales (Aprilia Racing) came across the line to score the final point of the night after coming home to finish in ninth position.Fabio di Giannantonio, the surprise winner of the grand prix in Qatar last year, took a thumping fall from his VR46 Ducati bike on lap eight.Meanwhile, Marquez was all smiles despite finishing fifth after at one point he was in contention for the podium. Making his debut for Gresini Racing in a Ducati after 11 years at Honda, the Spaniard seemed to have made adjustments to the new manufacturer.Later, the 31-year-old said his decision to quit Honda was correct when asked if his sprint result in Lusail validated his decision for him. “When I took the decision I was fully convinced and I’m still convinced. And what I said on Thursday, my target is to try to fight in those top six positions,” Marquez said.When asked how it felt to race a Ducati compared to the Honda, he added: “Easier. You overtake on the straight and then it’s easier. Especially when you arrive at the brake points a bit closer. So, yeah, I was able to overtake two, three riders today and I was able to be in that fight. But of course you need the speed. Speed means lap time, and still at that point I need two, three tenths that for example Jorge Martin, Francesco Bagnaia, Aleix Espargaro had.”Sprint result1. Jorge Martin (ESP/Ducati-Pramac) 20min 41.287sec, 2. Brad Binder (RSA/KTM) at 0.548s, 3. Aleix Espargaro (ESP/Aprilia) 0.729, 4. Francesco Bagnaia (ITA/Ducati) 1.625, 5. Marc Marquez (ESP/Ducati-Gresini) 1.872, 6. Enea Bastianini (ITA/Ducati) 2.322, 7. Alex Marquez (ESP/Ducati-Gresini) 3.154, 8. Pedro Acosta (ESP/GasGaS-Tech3) 4.431, 9. Maverick Vinales (ESP/Aprilia) 6.738, 10. Jack Miller (AUS/KTM) 12.670, 11. Marco Bezzecchi (ITA/Ducati-VR46) 12.835, 12. Fabio Quartararo (FRA/Yamaha) 12.863, 13. Miguel Oliveira (POR/Aprilia-Trackhouse) 13.095, 14. Raul Fernandez (ESP/Aprilia-Trackhouse) 13.795, 15. Joan Mir (ESP/Honda) 14.096, 16. Johann Zarco (FRA/Honda-LCR) 14.840, 17. Alex Rins (ESP/Yamaha) 15.629, 18. Augusto Fernandez (ESP/GasGaS-Tech3) 17.711, 19. Takaaki Nakagami (JPN/Honda-LCR) 22.733, 20. Franco Morbidelli (ITA/Ducati-Pramac) 23.267, 21. Luca Marini (ITA/Honda) 25.553DNF: Fabio Di Giannantonio (ITA/Ducati-VR46)Championship standings1. Jorge Martin (ESP/Ducati-Pramac) 12, 2. Brad Binder (RSA/KTM) 9, 3. Aleix Espargaro (ESP/Aprilia) 7, 4. Francesco Bagnaia (ITA/Ducati) 6, 5. Marc Marquez (ESP/Ducati-Gresini) 5, 6. Enea Bastianini (ITA/Ducati) 4, 7. Alex Marquez (ESP/Ducati-Gresini) 3, 8. Pedro Acosta (ESP/GasGaS-Tech3) 2, 9. Maverick Vinales (ESP/Aprilia) 1

MotoGP riders pose for a picture at the Lusail International Circuit on Thursday, ahead of the season-opening Qatar Airways Grand Prix of Qatar. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Sports
Marquez in ‘no rush’ to regain glory after switch to Gresini

Not since Valentino Rossi’s switch to Yamaha from Honda in 2004 has there been as much excitement in the MotoGP paddock as Marc Marquez’s move from Honda to Gresini Ducati ahead of this season.The eight-time world champion was offered a big-money contract to extend his trophy-laden 11-year stay at Honda. However, the Spaniard – who is winless since 2021 and has had a wretched luck with injuries – opted to join his brother Alex at the satellite Gresini team this season.The 31-year-old will ride a year-old version of the title-winning Ducati Desmosedici, and he couldn’t have asked for a better place to start the second innings of his MotoGP career. At the Lusail International Circuit – which will host the season-opening Grand Prix of Qatar this weekend – the Gresini team has won the last two races courtesy of former riders Enea Bastianini (2022) and Fabio di Giannantonio (2023).However, Marquez has sought to temper expectations as he expects battle for the championship to remain between two-time defending champion Francesco Bagnaia of Ducati and runner-up Jorge Martin of Pramac Racing.Marquez is the last rider to win three titles in a row, while Bagnaia is the clear favourite to match that record this year, the man he looks to emulate may himself be a dark horse this time.Marquez finished fourth-fastest in pre-season testing in Qatar last month, but having had to adapt his riding style with the Desmosedici GP23 bike, he has a point to prove. “My target is to try to feel competitive again, then I’ll smile and have the motivation to push and keep going,” Marquez said at a press conference on Thursday.“Expectations are super high, but I know what I’ve been through in the last four years. I need time. No rush. I don’t pretend to win from the beginning because it would be a huge mistake, especially because I haven’t won a single race (since 2021). And now I arrive in a manufacturer where there are two-three guys, especially Pecco, Martin and Bastianini, who are riding this bike superfast, super good. I need to learn from them and adapt,” he added.Marquez’s cautious approach is pragmatic. In the last four seasons, he has crashed numerous times while often attempting to push Honda’s bike beyond its limits and thus had to undergo four surgeries on his arm.Marquez’s last title came in 2019, and he is now bidding to become the oldest premier class World Champion in the MotoGP era. Marquez said he is feeling “comfortable” on the Gresini Ducati, but is “not ready to fight for the podium“Of course, it was a completely different pre-season because I was used to riding, just trying things for the bike and developing a bike,” Marquez said. “But this winter was the complete opposite. I was focused on myself, trying to adapt my riding style to the new bike, and from the beginning I was not feeling bad. Still, there are many things to learn and many things to improve, especially learning from the top guys inside Ducati. At the moment I feel comfortable, not ready to fight for the podium, not ready to fight for the victory, but step by step we need to create the base and try to understand during the race weekends where we are.”He also admits that he is now at a stage in his career that he must start to ‘learn’ from the younger riders around him to remain competitive. “We cannot forget that every athlete has his moment and then starts to drop. Then you need to work harder and harder to keep flat. Young guys arrive, like Fabio in his first year, now Pedro, Pecco, Martin that are riding faster. So I need to learn from the younger riders and try to keep that level as long as possible,” he said.Meanwhile, Alex Marquez – who is in his second season with Gresini Racing – says he is excited to share the garage with his more illustrious older brother. “You have to take things as a joke and even more so when it’s your brother,” Alex said on Thursday.“There’s a healthy rivalry. I arrive prepared and with a lot of enthusiasm, very positive. Then during a 21-race season there will be problems and there will be better and worse moments. But to start well is a big step. So we are ready, I feel very good every day being competitive and above all having the bike much more in my hand. It’s going to be a special weekend, the first race with Marc and for the whole team.”

Gulf Times
Sports
Button ‘hungry to succeed’ in his first full WEC season

Jenson Button says his ‘expectations are high’ but called his team as ‘underdog that is hungry to succeed’ as the former Formula One champion embarks on a new chapter with a full-time Porsche Hypercar ride in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) with Team JOTA.The Brit will team up with Phil Hanson and Oliver Rasmussen at this weekend’s season opener, the Qatar 1812km at the Lusail International Circuit.A bumper crop of 26 WEC rookies are on the grid at the Qatar 1812km, of which eight are entered in Hypercar and 18 in the new-for-2024 LMGT3 class. And Button is ready to lead JOTA’s charge in their debut season with two Hypercars, setting their sights on more than just the FIA World Cup for Hypercar Teams title.Button’s return to the forefront of endurance racing marks his first full-time race programme since 2019, following a podium finish at the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona with WTR Andretti. And Button is going full tilt to make it a memorable season.“Expectations are always high,” said Button on Wednesday. “You don’t go into a season hoping to finish second or third in the championship. But you have to be realistic because we are racing against mighty manufacturers. We are, I would say, an underdog. But an underdog hungry to succeed and that’s what is exciting about it. It reminds me of my 2019 F1 season, when I raced for Brawn and won the World Championship. So hopefully history will repeat itself,” the 44-year-old said.Button’s experience in diverse racing categories should help him and his team transition to prototype racing. Button said he enjoyed his first experience of driving at Lusail in the Prologue test on Monday and Tuesday.“There’s something about the asphalt that’s very tricky,” said the British driver. “It’s very edgy, and it’s easy to lose the car on corner entry. It makes it difficult to push aggressively, but it also makes it fun, because you can drive the car in a manner that you can’t at most circuits. It kind of feels like driving a go-kart, when you see the steering inputs. It’s a challenging but fun circuit to drive.”Button, who won 15 races and finished on the podium 50 times in 300 races in his 17-year long F1 career, was excited with the challenge of endurance racing.“It’s good. Unlike F1, we get to test all week, so we’ve been doing a prologue. It’s basically our test before the season. So we’ve been driving on track and it’s been really good. The championship is in a really good place. There’s 19 cars in hypercars, and then you’ve also got the GT3 cars racing. So, endurance racing is in a really good place right now and it’s such an exciting championship with many different manufacturers involved as well as privateer teams like Team Jota,” he said.Unlike the cutthroat competition within F1 teams where teammates are often viewed as adversaries, endurance racing demands a unified effort. And Button relished the prospect of teamwork with his teammates Rasmussen and Hanson“In terms of teamwork, it’s very similar to Formula 1 in terms of you need to work closely with your engineers and strategists and what have you. And it’s obviously on a slightly smaller scale, but still very, very professional,” Button observed.“The difference here is that you actually work with your teammates to succeed rather than fighting your teammate. You know, in F1 the most important person for you to beat is your teammate, whereas here you’re working with your teammates because you’re all driving the same car. So it’s almost a 10-hour race, I think we’ll have it under the lights here in Doha. So, yeah, it’s a busy week, but a fun week and really good gelling with my teammates, Oliver Rasmussen and Phil Hanson,” he added.After the stint in Qatar, Button will have a chance to tackle some of the most famous endurance races in motorsport, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, while also visiting some of the venues that he raced at during his F1 career such as Imola, Spa, Interlagos, Austin, Fuji and Sakhir.Button said he feels energised ahead of the season and is ready for more. “From 2019 to now I’ve had two kids, but they’re a little older now. It makes it easier now when I’m travelling,” he explains. “During Covid we all felt like we lost years, and I would have been racing in something full time, I think, but it didn’t work out.“So I did NASCAR, Le Mans, Petit Le Mans. I enjoyed it, but jumping in and out, you don’t get the best out of yourself. I want to dig deep into the details and technology. I’m excited about competing in a full season. I don’t see this as a one-year deal. I don’t want to be jumping around now. I am 44, I won’t be racing for many more years. I’m fully on it in wanting to achieve over the next couple of years. I don’t want to be switching championships. I think I’ll be doing WEC for the next couple of years.”

Swedish rider Malin Baryard-Johnsson and her mare H&M Indiana clear a hurdle during the CHI Al Shaqab Grand Prix CSI5* 1.60m on Saturday.
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Baryard-Johnsson gallops to CHI Al Shaqab Grand Prix win

Malin Baryard-Johnsson and her mare H&M Indiana share a special relationship and that was on display in abundance on Saturday as the pair worked in tandem to clinch the CHI Al Shaqab Grand Prix.Baryard-Johnsson and her 16-year-old horse H&M Indiana have been partners for nine years, with the Sweden rider calling the mare the ‘best horse I’ve ever had’. On Saturday, under the lights of the magnificent Al Shaqab arena, the pair showed their class to win the CSI5* 1.60m class, the marquee event of the 11th edition of the prestigious competition.Only 12 out of nearly 40 combinations made it into the jump-off, in which Baryard-Johnsson steered to a clear round aboard H&M Indiana in 43.19 seconds. Just 0.04 second adrift was Spain’s Eduardo Alvarez Aznar, who was in the saddle of the 19-year-old Rokfeller de Pleville Bois Margot.Belgium’s Wilm Vermeir also had quite some experience under his saddle with the 16-year-old Iq van het Steentje but the pair had to settle for third place in time of 43.88 seconds.After her triumph, Baryard-Johnsson could not stop singing the praise of her horse H&M Indiana, who has played a big role in the life of the 48-year-old rider.With her mare, Baryard-Johnsson became team Olympic champion in Tokyo and team World Champion last year, after winning silver with the team at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon four years earlier. The pair turned clear rounds for Sweden in countless Nation prizes, and when they compete in the Global Champions Tour, they are usually placed in the top ten.“When you have a horse like H&M Indiana, you can’t do anything wrong,” said a delighted Baryard-Johnsson as she was Cleary emotional. “She is jumping her heart out. I am really emotional, because she is so good. For the second day in a row – the jump off yesterday and two rounds today – she just keeps trying harder. It’s so nice to ride her and she really deserves this win. Of course, having partnered with her for a long time helps. We know each other inside out. Every win is a great win. It’s great to win here too. My mare really deserves this win,” she added.Meanwhile, Jose Daniel Martin Dockx emerged triumphant Dressage CDI5* Grand Prix Freestyle. The Spaniard astride 14-year-old stallion Malagueno LXXXIII rode to victory with 79.300%. The pair had finished second in the Grand Prix with 72.283% on Friday.France’s Morgan Barbancon took second place with the twelve-year-old KWPN member Habana Libre A with 76.055%. Justina Vanagaite of Lithuania came third with the eleven-year-old BWP rider Nabab with 75.745%.Portuguese rider Maria Caetano, with her horse Horizonte, won the dressage Grand Prix Special, one day after finishing third in the Grand Prix. The combination scored 70.021% to finish ahead of USA’s Lina Uzunhasan (69.319%), in Furst Fabelhaft Uzn, and the Netherlands’ Laurens van Lieren (68.234%), in Dutch Design.ResultsCSI5* • CHI Al Shaqab Grand Prix; Prize money €410.000(Ranking, Rider, Nationality, Horse, Penalty, Time)1) Malin Baryard-Johnsson, SWE – H&M Indiana, 0, 43.19 secs2) Eduardo Alvarez Aznar, ESP – Rokfeller de Pleville Bois Margot, 0, 43.23 secs3) Wilm Vermeir, BEL – Iq van het Steentje, 0, 43.88 secsCSI5* • Faults & Time (LR) • 1.50m; Prize money €56.8001) Max Kuhner, AUT – Eic Julius Caesar, 0, 55.55 secs2) Michael Duffy, IRL – Dublin, 0, 56.04 secs3) Christian Ahlmann, GER – Otterongo Alpha Z, 0, 56.16CSI3* • Grand Prix - Jump Off 1.50m; Prize money €105.5001) Janne Friederike Meyer-Zimmermann, GER – Messi Van ‘T Ruytershof, 0, 35.03 secs2) Abdullah Alsharbatly, KSA – Atome des Etisses, 0, 35.10 secs3) Ali al-Khorafi, KUW – I, 0, 36.79 secsCSI1* • Grand Prix - Jump Off • 1.25m; Prize money €100001) Saad Ahmed al-Saad, QAT – Irschi, 0, 33.53 secs2) Abdalmalik Alqahtani, KSA – Edwin, 0, 37.05 secs3) Hussain Alkharafi, KUW – Miss’s Blue S Z, 4, 35.53 secsCSI3* • Faults & Time • 1.35m; Prize money €5.0001) Faleh Suwead al-Ajami, QAT – Steyburn, 0, 52.78 secs2) Roberto Previtali, ITA – Hachiko, 0, 53.73 secs3) Hussain Said Haidan, QAT – D Saucedo, 0, 54.74 secsDressage CDI5* Grand Prix Freestyle(Ranking, Rider, Nationality, Horse, Percentage)1) Jose Daniel Martin Dockx, ESP – Malagueno LXXXIII, 79.300%2) Morgan Barbancon, FRA – Habana Libre A, 76.055%3) Justina Vanagaite, LTU – Nabab, 75.745%Dressage CDI5* • Grand Prix Special1) Maria Caetano, POR – Horizonte, 70.021%2) Lina Uzunhasan, USA – Furst Fabelhaft Uzn, 69.319%3) Laurens van Lieren, NED – Dutch Design 68.234%Para Dressage CPEDI3* • Para Grand Prix Freestyle IV1) Kate Shoemaker, USA – Vianne, 77.208%2) Melissa Janssen, NED – Royal Rubinstein, 74.334%CPEDI3* • Para Grand Prix Freestyle I1) Claire Overweg, NED – Jackson B, 73.389%2) Michail Kalarakis, GRE – Eros CS, 68.944%CPEDI3* • Para Grand Prix Freestyle II1) Fiona Howard, USA – Jagger, 77.723%2) Sho Inaba, JPN – Huzette BH 70.000%3) Pepo Puch, AUT – Vis Viva 67.222%CPEDI3* • Para Grand Prix Freestyle III1) Maud Haarhuis, NED – Baron, 75.278%2) Lotte Krijnsen, NED – Rosenstolz N.O.P., 72.611%3) Adib El Sarakby, EGY – Life’s Good Astola 66.889%


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)
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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.
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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)
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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.
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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.
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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)
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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)
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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.
Sports
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.
Sports
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 pieces...it’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)
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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.
Sports
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.