Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
Subscribe now for Gulf Times
Personalise your news and receive Newsletters!
By signing up with an email address, I acknowledge that I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy .
Your email exists
 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.
Serbiau2019s Jelena Jankovic in action against Bulgariau2019s Tsvetana Pironkova during their qualifying singles match at Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha yesterday.  PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Jankovic targets top-10 finish in 2017

Having plummeted to 50th in the world rankings, it almost feels unreal that Jelena Jankovic was once ranked No.1. The Serbian was a major force in 2008, when she reached the summit of women’s tennis. Jankovic was once touted as the challenger to Serena Williams; in fact she then led the rivalry with the American 3-2. That year, Jankovic became the first player to top the world rankings without reaching a Grand Slam final. However, later that year, she made a maiden appearance in the US Open final, but went down against Williams. At 22, the world was at her feet. But in the next nine years, Jankovic’s fortunes nosedived as she neither made it to another major final, nor back to No.1. Last year was even more frustrating for Jankovic, as she battled poor form and two ruptures in her shoulder muscles. Now 31, the Serbian is keen to mount back in the circuit as she targets a top-10 finish in 2017. And she will be hoping her fortune changes in Doha. Playing in the qualifiers for the first time since 2004, Jankovic sealed her place in the main draw of the Qatar Total Open, which began yesterday. The Serbian rolled back years at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in chilly conditions as she beat Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova 6-1, 6-7, 6-4 in a match lasting over two and a half hours. As rain threatened to interrupt the proceedings and extreme wind made it uncomfortable for the players and spectators alike, Jankovic held her nerve to get past a plucky Pironkova, who saved two match points in the second set. Jankovic came into the match boasting an impressive 6-0 head-to-head record against Pironkova, and she began the match in a dominating fashion. She wrapped up the first set in quick time, breaking three times while Pironkova, with 13 unforced errors, struggled to find her range and timing. But Pironkova broke first in the second set to jump into a 4-1 lead, before Jankovic regained her focus. The Serb got back on level terms and forced a tiebreak and looked to be firmly on course for the main draw. But she squandered two match points at 5-4, to lose the next four points and with it the set. Jankovic, however, come out on top of a topsy-turvy final set and notch a seventh win over Pironkova. In her first round match today, Jankovic will take on Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who has a 5-2 advantage over the Serb, having also won their last two matches. “I am glad I was even able to play in the qualifiers because I was not even in the draw as I got a wild card. I am thankful for that opportunity and luckily I was able to win the three rounds and here I am in the main draw again,” said Jankovic, who lost in the second round in Doha last year. “It’s been a long time (2004) since I have played in the qualifiers. I had a tough last year with lot of injuries. Now, I need to make a comeback and get my ranking up,” she added. Three other qualifiers were decided yesterday, with Americans Christina McHale, Madison Brengle and Lauren Davis sealing their spots in the main draw. McHale beat Sweden’s Johanna Larsson 7-6, 6-4 in the final round of qualifying. In her opening round today, the American will play sixth seed Elena Vesnina of Russia, who is ranked No. 15 in the world. Brengle brushed aside Chinese Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-1 to make it into the main draw. She will take on Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia next. Davis had an easy passage as her opponent Camila Giorgi of Italy was forced into retirement with the score at 7-5, 2-5. Davis is set to face veteran Roberta Vinci of Italy. The top four seeds — Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova and Agnieszka Radwanska — will not in been in action today, having received a first round bye. Order of Play Centre Court (Starting at 2pm) * Q-Jelena Jankovic (SRB) vs Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) * Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) vs Kiki Bertens (NED) * 5-Garbine Muguruza (ESP) vs WC-Cagla Buyukakcay (TUR) * 8-Barbora Strycova (CZE) vs WC-Fatma al-Nabhani (OMA) Not before 8pm * Laura Siegemund (GER) vs Monica Puig (PUR) Court 1 (Starting at 2pm) * Roberta Vinci (ITA) vs Q-Lauren Davis (USA) * Q-Madison Brengle (USA) vs Caroline Garcia (FRA) * Yulia Putintseva (KAZ) vs 7-Timea Bacsinszky (SUI) Court 2 (Starting at 2pm) * Irina-Camelia Begu (ROU) vs Daria Kasatkina (RUS) * Q-Christina McHale (USA) vs 6-Elena Vesnina (RUS) Not before 5pm (TBA after suitable rest) * Katerina Bondarenko (UKR)/Elena Vesnina (RUS) vs Gabriela Dabrowski (CAN)/Darija Jurak (CRO)

Angelique Kerber poses after her press conference yesterday.
Kerber aims for Doha bounce

A star-studded field is in attendance at the Qatar Total Open which begins today at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha. The line-up boasts five of the top-seven players, and each one of them will be eager to bounce back from the agony of their failure at the Australian Open. It was a disappointing start to the year for the likes of Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Garbine Muguruza – as Serena Williams swept to her 23rd Grand Slam title in Melbourne. At 35, Serena showed how it’s done as she marched on to the history books as her title challengers fell by the wayside, failing to even make it to the semi-finals. Now after a well-earned break, the stars of the Doha field will be hoping to recapture their form in the Middle East swing. No one more than Kerber will be keen to reassert herself as the one to beat. The German, top seed in Doha, endured a double disappointment last month. The 29-year-old was knocked out in the fourth round at the Australian Open by American Coco Vandeweghe and then saw Serena dethrone her from the World No.1 ranking. Kerber will get back to top spot if she reaches the final in Doha and Dubai in the next two weeks, or if she wins in Dubai. But the German is eager to get back to winning ways, than worry about the number one ranking. “For me it’s really important to play good tennis, to try to improving my tennis. This is actually my goal always,” Kerber said yesterday. “I will do my best in the next few weeks, few months. If you play good tennis, then you have results. This is actually for me the most important thing, to win matches again, getting the confidence back, and then we will see what’s happen in the next few months,” she added. Kerber, who arrived in Qatar last week to acclimatise to the conditions here, has been given a first round bye. The top seed awaits the winner of the match between Russian teen Daria Kasatkina and Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania’s. If Kasatkina does prevail through, it will set up an interesting duel with Kerber. The talented Kasatkina, ranked 28th, shocked Kerber in Sydney last month and could be a major threat again. Last year Kerber lost in the second round in Doha in straight sets to China’s Zheng Saisai. And also playing this week in Doha are the world numbers three, five, six and seven – Pliskova, Cibulkova, Radwanska and Muguruza. Out of the four, Radwanska is handed a tough draw. The Polish No. 6 will be playing her first match since her shock Australian Open second round exit and the road to the final will not be easy for her. Radwanska will either face former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki or Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens in the second round. “Of course, is not easy draw. We’ll see after that match who’s going to win. Caroline is playing good tennis at the moment. She’s definitely starting to be more confident. Playing really better than before. I guess it’s going to be her. Yes, we played couple times the end of the last year. That was really three good, long matches. So we’ll see,” said Radwanska. One player to watch out is Elena Vesnina. The Russian was ranked outside the top 100 just over a year ago, but is currently career-high 15. The 30-year-old will play a qualifier today and could possibly face Radwanska in the quarters.

Tennis players and officials at the Qatar Total Open draw yesterday. At right, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.
Radwanska gets tough draw, may face Wozniacki in second round

Agnieszka Radwanska had a wry smile on her face when her possible second round opponent at the Qatar Total Open was revealed yesterday. The fourth seed from Poland will have a Monday off when the tournament begins at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex, as she has been given a bye in the first round. But on Tuesday, she is all set to run in to close friend and former World No.1 Caroline Wozniacki in the second round. Of course, Denmark’s Wozniacki has to first win her opening round match against Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, with not much separating the two in the rankings. Wozniacki has slipped to World No.18, while Bertens is 24th, but the Dane is fancied to get through. Over the last few years, Radwanska and Wozniacki’s close friendship has gone through many testing times. The duo has faced each other 15 times, with Wozniacki coming out triumphant on nine occasions. However, Radwanska has had the better of her buddy in the last two matches and will be hoping, if she has to face Wozniacki again, she can make it a hat-trick of wins. “It’s really tough draw for me,” said Radwanska after the draw ceremony yesterday. “Probably I will face Caroline in the second round and I am expecting a tough one. But will see how it goes.” Last year in Doha, Radwanska made it to the semi-finals before being knocked out by eventual winner Carla Suarez Navarro, who has withdrawn from this year’s tournament due to injury. But this year, Radwanska will have to be in much better form than she has shown so far, to test the likes of No.1 seed Angelique Kerber, second seed Karolina Pliskova and Dominika Cibulkova, who is seeded third. Radwanska began 2017 looking for answers, switching racquets with the hope of adding a more powerful dimension to her off-court game. The Pole reached the semis and the final in Shenzhen and Sydney respectively, but was knocked out in the second round at the Australian Open, falling to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. The 27-year-old is looking to make amends in Doha this week. “I think every tournament is different, the conditions are different. We all know what happened at the Australian Open. So there is no point in looking backwards,” said Radwanska. “I think it’s too early to talk about 2017. I reached the WTA final in Sydney, which was good. Obviously it was disappointing when you lose in the first week at the Grand Slam. I am just looking forward to do well in Doha and in Dubai next week, playing more matches and getting more points. Play some good tennis as well,” she said. Meanwhile, Germany’s Kerber, who lost her World No. 1 ranking to Serena Williams when the American won the Australian Open last month, will await the winner of the match between Camelia-Irina Begu of Romania or Daria Kasatkina of Russia, in the second round. Interestingly, if Kerber comes through as expected she could face Olympic champion Monica Puig in the Quarter-finals. Puig, who will take on Laura Siegemund of Germany in her opening match in Doha, shocked the tennis world when the Puerto Rican beat Kerber to win gold at the Rio Olympics last year. And Kerber will be hoping for a revenge for the heartbreak she suffered last August. In the bottom-half of the draw, Pliskova of Czech Republic will face either Carloine Garcia or a qualifier in the second round. The second seed is most likely to face fifth seed Garbine Muguruza of Spain in the quarters. Pliskova has been on the ascendancy since last summer. The 24-year-old’s start to the year has been near-perfect as she has lost just one match under new coach David Kotyza. She blew away the field to win in Brisbane in January without losing a set and came within a few games of booking her spot in yet another major semi-final at the Australian Open. With the form that she is in, Pliskova will fancy her chances in Doha. Meanwhile, third seed Cibulkova will face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia or a qualifier in the second round. The Slovak could face former World No. 4 Samantha Stosur of Australia or eighth seed Barbora Strykova of Czech Republic in the quarters. The reigning WTA Finals champion has had an unprecedented success last year. Now at a career-high ranking of No.5, Cibulkova is one of the favourites in a star-studded field in Doha. Her best result in Qatar came in her first visit in 2008, when she reached the quarter-finals before being beaten in three sets by Radwanska. The tournament has already seen withdrawals from Suarez Navarro, the 2016 champion, and World No.8 Svetlana Kuznetsova, due to injuries. But with five of the top-10 in attendance, Qatar Open will have no dearth of star quality.

Bayern Munich manager Carlo Ancelotti speaks at a press conference at Aspire Academy yesterday. PICTURE: Othman Iraqi
Bayern stronger now than in summer, says boss Ancelotti

‘I think the second half of the campaign will be better than the first’ By his own standards, Carlo Ancelotti has not had a spectacular start at Bayern Munich. In his 20-year managerial career, the Italian is well travelled, and has managed and played for some of Europe’s biggest clubs. His impressive resume boasts coaching Juventus and AC Milan in his native Italy, Chelsea in the Premier League, Paris Saint-Germain in French Ligue 1, Real Madrid in Spanish La Liga and now with Bayern Munich, the last four years’ German champions. However, the 57-year-old Ancelotti, who took over from Pep Guardiola, has not had a smooth reign so far at Bayern, with the Germans struggling for consistency in the Bundesliga. Just before the winter break, they did cruise to a 3-0 home victory over title rivals RB Leipzig in their last match of 2016, opening up a three-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga. But Bayern have not hit their peak this season, like they usually do. They also finished second to Atletico Madrid in their Champions League group. But Ancelotti is hoping a week-long training camp in Doha will help Bayern to get back to his best. There are just ten days to go before Bayern’s first competitive game of 2017 against SC Freiburg, and the coach believes his squad is well-prepared. “We’re stronger than in the summer. We know each other better after six months working together. That’s why I think the second half of the campaign will be better than the first,” said Ancelotti, after his team’s last training session at the Aspire Zone, yesterday. “Our expectations are to play better than we did in the first half of the season. We want to be up there until the end. We have three important competitions and we want to do well in all those.” Doha has been second home for the Germans, having opted to train at Aspire in the last few years. Ancelotti was full of praise for his players for making use of the excellent facilities on offer. “The week has been very good – we’ve trained with real intensity. Our confidence is high. I am very pleased with the approach of the team. The weather has helped us a lot. You can’t train with this sort of workload when it’s freezing,” he said. Manuel Neuer was missing in action yesterday at training. The goalkeeper had flown to Zurich on Monday for the FIFA awards, where he was once again voted into the FIFA FIFPro World XI for the fourth year in a row. Ancelloti showered praise on Neuer. “Everyone is really pleased for Manu. He is the best keeper in the world. He always concentrates and helps the team to be better. His attitude towards training makes him the best,” said Ancelotti. The Bayern coach also dismissed any immediate threat of Chinese Super League clubs prising his best players away from Bavaria. The Chinese clubs have been attracting footballers playing in Europe, offering them huge wages, which has concerned the European clubs. Bayern’s star striker Robert Lewandowski also had interest from Far East before he committed to a new deal with the Bundesliga champions. But Ancelotti was not worried about his players following the likes of Oscar, Carlos Tevez, Axel Witsel, and John Obi Mikel in moving to China. “It’s true that a lot of players are going to China at the moment,” he said. “But, for the moment, European clubs are safe because the best competitions and most competitive football are in Europe. “Players don’t just play for the money, but also to be at the top and play the biggest games in the world. For this reason, European clubs are safe in the future,” he added. On the expansion to 48 teams from 2026 World Cup onward, Ancelotti preferred to wait and watch, hoping it would not lead to playing more matches in what is already a packed schedule.   “In general, I’m against more matches because the calendar is already so full. But FIFA is saying there will be no extra games in the World Cup, so let’s wait and see what happens,” he said. Ancelotti also insisted Holger Badstuber will not be sold, hours before the Schalke signed the defender on loan for the second half of the 2016-17 season. The German centre-back played only 28 minutes since October. Badstuber has only made 40 league appearances over the last four and a half seasons through a combination of injury and falling out of favour at the club. Badstuber’s contract with Bayern is coming to an end in June and reports suggest he has extended his contract with Bayern until 2018 before agreeing the loan move. “I said if he decided to leave because he wanted to play we can deal with it for six months,” Ancelotti said before the loan move was announced. “We can speak about this with him. There is no chance he will be sold. The idea of the club is to renew the contract. If he wants to go to play, it will be to go on loan.”

Sheikh Ali al-Thani gestures as he rides Carolina to victory in the feature event of the Al Rayyan International Show Jumping Championship yesterday. At right, Sheikh Ali with family members on the podium.
Qatar’s Sheikh Ali steals the show

The ace Qatari rider’s victory was so clinical that the runner-up, Kamal Abdullah Bahamdan of Saudi Arabia, finished almost three seconds behind Qatar’s Sheikh Ali al-Thani and his phenomenal 10-year-old mare Carolina 31 clinched the feature event of the Al Rayyan International Show Jumping Championship yesterday. It was a night of dreams for Sheikh Ali, as he lifted his arms in triumph once he crossed the line, even as the home crowd erupted in joy. Under lights at the Qatar Equestrian Federation’s Main Arena, Sheikh Ali and Carolina 31 were in sync as the pair combined to win the 160cm class, which carried a total prize money of QR650,000. The pair flew around the track and stopped the clock at an impressive 43.58 seconds to the delight of the crowd. Sheikh Ali was joined by his family on the podium as the Qatari rider picked up QR162,500 for the triumph. The victory was so clinical that the runner-up, Kamal Abdullah Bahamdan of Saudi Arabia, finished almost three seconds behind with his 15-year-old mare Delphi. The duo came home in 46.37 seconds as the Saudi rider got richer by QR130,000. The third place went to Athina Onassis of Greece in Cinsey, as they stopped the clock in 53.35 seconds. Onassis took home QR97,500. Qatar’s Bassem Mohamed put in a splendid show with Argelith Squid but a pair of faults meant they had to settle for fourth spot. Another home rider Ali Yousuf al-Rumaihi (Gunder) was fifth. The 160cm two round class saw 20 contenders take on the tough course, with many top riders picking up faults all over the track. Only six of them made it to the second round. Turkey’s Derin Demirsoy astride Harry K had topped the field in the first round with Sheikh Ali a close second. But the Qatari switched gears in the second round and was class above rest of the field. Earlier, Jordan’s Ibrahim Hani Bisharat and his impressive 10-year-old mare Brown Sugar won the 1.45m class. Only 10 out of 25 competitors made it to the jump-off, with many top riders picking up faults all over the track. But Bisharat and Brown Sugar put in a clinical round as they finished faultless in 39.94 seconds. “I’m really happy with my horse Brown Sugar. He put in a top performance tonight. It is not easy to win in this  championship. The top international riders are here. We have the best riders from this region and from Europe,” said Bisharat, who took home QR30,525 for his victory. Qatar’s Nasser al-Ghazali and Delloren came second, with the pair crossing the finish line in 40.45 seconds. The third place went to Saudi Arabia’s Bader Mohammed Alfard and Fulla, who timed 41.69.  Australia’s Edwina Tops Alexander, 2016’s Global Champions Tour runner-up, was fourth aboard the Selle Français Sirius du Granit. Tops stopped the time in 41.72 seconds. The top five was completed by Rakan al-Hasawi of Kuwait and the 8-year-old Dennis. Only the top five rode a double clear round. The final day’s opening event was won by Kuwait’s Sheikh Yousuf al-Sabah, riding under the FEI flag. Al-Sabah cantered to victory with his seven-year-old mare Enjoy as the pair came home in 54.42 seconds to clinch the top spot in the One round against the clock 130/135 cm class. Al-Sabah won QR10,000 for his efforts.   Results Table A, Two rounds - Art. & 273.4.3 + 273.2.2 + Annex D - 140-160cm - Prize: QR650,000 1. Sheikh Ali al-Thani (Qatar) Carolina 31. Time: 43.58 seconds. Prize money: QR162,500. 2. Kamal Abdullah Bahamdan (Saudi Arabia) Delphi. 46.37. QR130,000. 3. Athina Onassis (Greece) Cinsey. 53.35. QR97,500.00  One Round + Winning Round, Art. 276.2.1, 2.3 - 145cm - Prize: QR122,100 1. Ibrahim Hani Bisharat (Jordan) Brown Sugar. Time: 39.94 seconds. Prize money: QR30,525.00 2. Nasser al-Ghazali (Qatar) Delloren 40.45. QR24,420.00 3. Bader Mohammed Alfard (Saudi Arabia) Fulla. 41.69. QR18,315.00  Table A, One round against the clock Art. 238.2.1 -130/135cm - Prize: QR40,000 1. Sheikh Yousuf al-Sabah (FEI) Enjoy. Time: 54.42. Prize money: QR10,000 2. Ali al-Khorafi (FEI) Ungarin 4. 55.10. QR8,000 3.  Abdulrahman Alhamazani (Saudi Arabia) Birgitta. 56.84. QR6,000

Turkeyu2019s Derin Demirsoy (astride Narazo De Nyze Z) gets his trophy from Qatar Equestrian Federation president Hamad bin Abdulrahman al-Attiyah yesterday.
Demirsoy storms to solid victory with phenomenal time of 62.61 seconds

Turkey’s Derin Demirsoy stormed to a stunning victory on the second day of the Al Rayyan International Show Jumping Championship yesterday. In an thrilling finish at the Qatar Equestrian Federation’s Main Arena, the 22-year-old Demirsoy and his 13-year-old grey gelding Narazo De Nyze Z put in a phenomenal time of 62.61 seconds, throwing down the gauntlet to the remainder of the field competing in the 145cm class, the feature event of the night which carried a total prize money of QR270,000. Ramzy Hamad al-Duhami looked set to grab the top spot when he galloped around the arena with his 10-year-old black stallion Garlic Vh Kapelhof. But the pair missed out by a mere three seconds as they finished the course in 62.64 and had to settle for a runner-up spot. This is the second time in a week that al-Duhami has finished behind Demirsoy. Last week, Demirsoy had won the feature event at the Qatar International Show Jumping Championships with Harry K. Demirsoy once again marshalled his horse perfectly to outwit al-Duhami and walk away with the top prize of QR67,500. Al-Duhami had to be content with QR54,000. Saudi’s Kamal Abdullah Bahamdan came third with Lacasino as the duo stopped the clock at 63.30. Bahamdan was richer by QR40,500 for the podium finish. Earlier, Qatar’s Rashid Towaim al-Marri continued his fine form on the second day of the Championship, by emerging triumphant once again. Qatar’s al-Marri on top The Qatari rider had won on the opening day of the event with his 13-year-old mare Dolce Vita M in the 130/135cm class. Yesterday, al-Marri was at his best again as he guided Beyonce to victory in the One round against the clock with jump-off 135cm class. The 10-year-old grey mare, Beyonce, galloped around the arena and stopped the clock in an impressive 37.10 seconds to claim the top spot. Al-Marri took home QR11,250 for his efforts. The second place went to Saudi Arabia’s Bader Mohammed Alfard, who guided Fulla clear in 37.32 seconds. The Saudi Rider won QR9,000. Qatar’s Hamad Ali al-Attiyah took the second spot, in his nine-year-old gelding Clinton, the pair completing their hurdles in 39.01, which fetched the local rider QR6,750. A total of 38 riders were in the field, of which only 10 made it to the jump-off. In the day’s opening event, one round against the clock with jump-off 120 cm class, Saad Alajmi of Saudi Arabia finished first. Alajmi and Risohorse Emilia crossed the line in 33.92 for the top prize, which made the Saudi rider richer by QR 8,750. Qatar’s Hussain Said Haidan looked set for a home turf win after a blinding round with his 12-year-old gelding Casanova but failed to beat Alajmi’s time by 0.8 seconds. The pair’s time of 34.04 was good enough for second spot. Haidan won QR7,000 for his efforts. Qatar also took the third spot, with Salmeen Sultan A M al-Suwaidi impressing with Cascano as they jumped clear in 34.76 seconds to finish on the podium. Al-Suwaidi pocketed QR5,250.   Results Table A, One round against the clock Art. 238.2.1 - 145cm, Prize: QR270,000 1. Derin DEMIRSOY (Turkey) Narazo De Nyze Z. Time: 62.61 seconds. Prize money: QR67,500 2. Ramzy Hamad al-Duhami (Saudi Arabia) Garlic Vh Kapelhof. 62.64. QR54,000 3. Kamal Abdullah BAHAMDAN (Saudi Arabia) Lacasino. 63.30. QR40,500 Table A, One round against the clock with jump-off - Art. 238.2.2 - 135cm - Prize: QR45,000 1. Rashid Towaim al-Marri (Qatar) Beyonce. Time: 37.10. Prize money: QR11,250.00 2. Bader Mohammed Alfard (Saudi Arabia) Fulla. 37.32. QR9,000.00 3. Hamad Ali al-Attiyah (Qatar) Clinton. 39.01. QR6,750.00.     Table A, One round against the clock with jump-off - Art. 238.2.2 - 120 cm - Prize: QR35,000 1. Saad Alajmi (Saudi Arabia) Risohorse Emilia. Time: 33.92 seconds. Prize money: QR8,750.00 2. Hussain Said Haidan (Qatar) Casanova. 34.04. QR7,000.00 3. Salmeen Sultan A M al-Suwaidi (Qatar) Cascano. 34.76. QR5,250.00.

AC Milanu2019s players celebrate winning against Juventus during the Italian Super Cup final match between AC Milan and Juventus in Doha yesterday at the Al Sadd stadium.
Milan win title as Juventus leave empty handed, again

For the second time in three years, Juventus players leave Doha heartbroken after suffering yet another loss in the penalty shootout. This time, despite the heroics of skipper Buffon, AC Milan pip them to the post and win the Italian Super Cup For the second time in three years, Juventus players left Doha heartbroken. The Serie A champions of last five years have somehow failed to find lady luck smiling in their favour in the Qatar capital. At the Al Sadd Stadium last night, 2014 came back to haunt Juventus as they lost the Italian Super Cup — on penalties once again. Back then, the Juventus were pipped to the post by Napoli, this time AC Milan had the last laugh against the Old Lady of Turin. Truth be told, Milan were the better team on the night and deserving winners. The San Siro side had numerous chances to score the winner during the regulation time and then in extra time too, but were undone by Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon’s mastery. Buffon, playing in his 600th match for Juve, however, was helpless when Mario Pasalic sent him the wrong way to seal a pulsating clash 4-3 (1-1 in regulation time) in Milan’s favour. It was another Gianluigi, though, who was the hero last night. The 17-year-old Milan goalkeeper Donnarumma, who shares his first name with Buffon, showed the composure of a veteran when he flung to his left to save Paulo Dybala’s kick one-handed, which proved decisive in the shoot-out. Giacomo Bonaventura had cancelled out a Giorgio Chiellini’s opener as both teams were locked in 1-1 at full time. This Italian Super Cup triumph was Milan’s first piece of silverware, since Rossoneri’s won the same trophy in 2011. Back then Massimiliano Allegri was in charge of Milan, but he was in the opposite camp this time, as current Milan coach Vincenzo Montella savoured his first trophy. Milan also equalled Juventus record of seven Italian Super Cup trophies. “It’s a nice feeling to win. The lads have to see this as a good starting point for the future, as we played on a par with a great side like Juventus,” said a delighted Montella. “We did everything to avoid penalties. We have lost twice in Doha and hopefully the third one will go better. I have to compliment Milan, as they put in a strong performance,” Juventus coach Allegri said. This is traditionally a clash between the Scudetto winners and Coppa Italia holders, but as Juve had won both those trophies in 2016, their opponents were Milan, the beaten Coppa finalists. Milan started the game on nervous note as Juventus were all over them in the first 15 minutes. Montella’s men, who had beaten Juventus in the league game as recently as October, started out playing too deep. And Juventus took advantage of that. The Turin side almost went ahead after seven minutes, but Mario Mandzukic’s fierce shot was blocked by Donnarumma. The Milan goalkeeper was once again called into action on Stefano Sturaro’s strike, but on the resulting corner Giorgio Chiellini volleyed in with his shin-pad to give Juventus the lead in the 18th minute. That goal woke up Milan from their slumber, as they started to play a high pressing game from then on. Milan’s best player on the night, Fernadez Suso went close to scoring the equaliser, but shot wide. Juventus then received a setback when the impressive winger Alex Sandro limped off with a muscular problem and was replaced by Patrice Evra. The equaliser came in the 39th minute for Milan when Suso whipped in a cross from the right and Bonaventura ducked slightly to steer his glancing header into the far top corner. Juventus were lucky not to be a man less after Stephan Lichtsteiner escaped being sent off. The Swiss defender, who was already on a yellow, elbowed Bonaventura but referee Antonio Damato failed to spot that. In the second half, Milan began from where they had left in the first half. They had more possession and looked the most likely to take the lead. But Chiellini deflected a Suso effort and on the corner Alessio Romagnoli’s header looped onto the crossbar. For Juventus, their 90mn Euro signing Gonzalo Higuain was off-colour on the big occasion. Though he came close a couple of times, but was unable to get past Donnarumma. Sami Khedira had a couple of chances, but Donnarumma was in the act again, flying to his left to stop a screamer from the German midfielder. Carlos Bacca had the opportunity to seal it for Milan but could not tap in a Juraj Kucka’s cross. Bacca’s heart must have been in his mouth, when Dybala, who replaced Miralem Pjanic in the 67th minute, had an golden opportunity to become Juventus’ hero . But the Argentine striker inexplicably missed his target. In extra time, Buffon was at his best as he kept out a Bacca header, which bounced off the ground but was heading into the net. Juventus picked up their intensity and thought they had done the job when Evra found the net in the 111 minutes. But the Frenchman was clearly offside. Evra was in action when he found an unmarked Dybala in the box with three minutes left on the clock. Dybala, however, once again ballooned over the bar from 12 yards. There was drama in the end when Juventus appealed for a handball on Milan defender Mattia De Sciglio’s arm, which was the last touch of the match. But the referee would have none of it. In penalties, it was advantage Juventus when Buffon saved a soft kick from Gianluca Lapadula. But Mario Mandzukic hit the bar and parity was restored. With Milan converting the next three, Dybala was under pressure to score. And the Argentine messed up again, as Donnarumma produced a sensational one-handed save. Pasalic still had to score and he kept his cool to convert and trigger emphatic scenes among his Milan teammates. “I cannot describe what I’m feeling and I don’t even know what was going through my head! We knew that we had to give it our all, we played on level terms with Juventus,” said the young Donnarumma as he joined his teammates for a long night of celebration.

Juventus and Italian goalkeeping legend Gianluigi Buffon in a happy mood while speaking to the media in Doha yesterday.
Legend Buffon keen to keep the show going

For someone, who battled depression in his mid-twenties, Gianluigi Buffon has come a long way. There was a time in Buffon’s career, when on the outside everything appeared normal, but on the inside he felt sick. Even going to a normal training session was filled with fear. That he managed to fight his inner demons with the support from his family and play for Italy and Juventus for such a long time makes the legendary Italian goalkeeper special. The ‘dark periods’ he had been through in 2003 and 2004 is just a bad dream now. With 167 caps, Buffon is the most capped player in the history of the Italian national team, the joint sixth-most capped international footballer in history, and the joint most capped European international player ever. Tonight, he will scale another milestone. When Buffon leads Juventus out against AC Milan in the Super Cup clash at the Al Sadd stadium, the soon-to-be 39-year-old will be making his 600th appearance for the Old Lady of Turin. Last week Buffon had said he has no plans to retire and could foresee himself playing on for another 10 or even 15 years.  Buffon has already said he will quit international football with Italy following the 2018 World Cup, when he will be 40, but he is unable to put a timescale on his club career. “I’m glad someone is counting,” he said with a smile yesterday on his 600th match . “I’m definitely happy, I don’t think it’ll be my last and it won’t be my last. There’s still a little something to give, starting tomorrow where there’s a trophy to be won. Like all trophies, like all one-off matches and finals, we’ll do everything to win tomorrow,” he added. Buffon moved to the Bianconeri from Parma for a world-record fee of €53mn in 2001. He has gone on to win seven Serie A titles – including in each of the past five seasons, with only the Champions League trophy missing from his cabinet. And he is gunning for another title tonight against AC Milan. But he warned that it will not be easy against a fast-improving young Milan side, who beat Juventus in the league in October. “They’re definitely very dangerous. We really respect Milan because we’ve already lost to them at San Siro this season. “Even in recent years, where we’ve taken all three points more often than not, they’ve always caused us problems, so we have high levels of for them,” he added. The Juve captain said he doesn’t want to lose for the second time in Qatar, having lost the 2014 final to Napoli. “I haven’t thought about losing twice in a row, it being the same place doesn’t change much. It’s a good thing not to get used to defeat and instead get used to winning,” Buffon insisted. The Italian believes Qatar will a host ‘extraordinary’ World Cup in 2022. “As far as the World Cup in 2022 goes, it will be something extraordinary and completely different to what we’re used to. It’s also true that the world is evolving and chances have to be given to those who have the strength, energy and innovation to a higher quality and possibly better product. And Qatar has the potential to stage a highly successful World Cup,” Buffon said.

Juventusu2019 coach Massimiliano Allegri and his AC Milan counterpart Vincenzo Montella  pictured at their press conferences yesterday ahead of todayu2019s Italian Super Cup match at the Al Sadd Stadium in Doha. The match will begin at 7.30pm.
Scontro tra Titani

Fans in Qatar are in for a treat as one of football’s celebrated rivalries play out in Doha with AC Milan taking on Juventus for the Italian Super Cup at Al Sadd stadium The last time the Italian Super Cup was played in Doha, in December 2014, Juventus were the favourites. It was manager Massimiliano Allegri’s first year in charge of the Bianconeri, but he had wait for another five months for his first trophy with them. The match at the Al Sadd stadium went to penalties and Napoli managed to keep their nerves to upset the odds. That defeat must have hurt Allegri and his boys. But since then they have recouped in style. Juventus’ dominance in Italian football is such that they are yet to lose a trophy at home in two seasons and have won the Serie A five times in succession. They won the 2015 Italian Super Cup too, played in Shanghai, beating Lazio 2-0. Now cut to 2016, Juventus are back in Doha. This time their opponents in tonight’s Super Cup final are AC Milan and this time too the odds are heavily in their favour to lift the trophy. But Allegri would know a thing or two about being complacent and is aware that a moment of lapse in concentration would mean their night would turn up the same way it did in 2014. Adding spice to tonight’s title clash is Milan’s win over Juventus in the league in October. Manuel Locatelli’s goal helped the San Siro side beat the champions for the first time since November 2012. The victory then had closed the gap at the top of Serie A to two points. However, Vincenzo Montella’s side have gone off the radar a bit and now occupy fifth position in the table, nine points behind leaders Juventus, who are favourites to lift the Scudetto for sixth successive time. Milan also lost in April in the league and were defeated in last season’s Italian Cup final, which Juventus won 1-0 after extra time. The gap in experience between the two teams is vast. Not only does Milan have a much younger team, but they also aren’t used to winning trophies. The players likely to start the match for Milan have only 10 titles between them, while Juventus’ probable starting line-up boasts 97 titles between them. It is a similar situation with the coaches: Montella has never won a trophy, while Allegri — who was fired by Milan in January 2014 — has seven. Allegri, however, was wary of Milan and warned his players not to let their guard down. “We know how important this match is,” Allegri said yesterday. “We’re coming from a very positive period in the league and the risk is that we face this match with a bit of complacency. But we can’t let that happen because this is the first trophy (of the season) we can win and we set it as one of our objectives. So far the lads have been very good at achieving those, we are top of the league in Christmas and also topped out group in the Champions League,” the Italian said. Then there is Gonzalo Higuain factor too. Back in 2014, the Argentine was the villain for Juventus. Higuain was playing for Napoli then as he twice cancelled out goals from his Argentinian compatriot Carlos Tevez and also converted a penalty. Tonight, though, Higuain will turn out for Juventus. Since his €90mn move to the Old Lady at the start of the season, Higuain has justified the high price tag. He has scored 10 goals this season and his goal on Saturday against Roma showed his class. The striker bulldozed through Roma midfield and defence and drilled a left-footed finish into the bottom corner of the net. Paulo Dybala, another Argentine stiker in Juventus ranks, will also be the one to watch out for. In Gianluigi Buffon, Sami Khedira and Patrice Evra, they have other big names, who can come handy in a high-pressure match. Midfielder Miralem Pjanic has declared himself fit for the match, whereas Andrea Barzagli and Marko Pjaca have also joined the squad. The likes of Leonardo Bonucci, Daniel Alves and Rolando Mandragora, however, continue to miss out through injury. Milan may lack the big name stars of the past but have young hungry players like 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, 18-year-old midfielder Manuel Locatelli and forward M’Baye Niang, a relative veteran at 22. Montella, who is in his first year at Milan, has fully embraced a youth movement. If they can show the intensity and desire, Milan can cause an upset on the night and lift their first piece of silverware since 2011. Milan, however, had some off field issues to deal with before they could land in Doha. They were scheduled to arrive in the Qatar capital on Tuesday night, the same day as Juventus, but their flight from London was delayed by 24 hours due to technical problems. Montella wants Milan to forget about their flight issues and focus on the match. “There was a misunderstanding but it’s a closed chapter now,” Montella said. “Juventus have a winning mentality, and that’s the hardest thing to maintain over time. That has to be our objective and we’re on course to achieve that mentality,” he said. Juventus squad: Gianluigi Buffon, Chiellini, Benatia, Pjanic, Khedira, Cuadrado, Marchisio, Higuain, Hernanes, Alex Sandro, Barzagli, Mandzukic, Lemina, Pjaca, Dybala, Asamoah, Rugani, Neto, Lichtsteiner, Sturaro, Audero, Evra, Coccolo, Andersson AC Milan squad: Gianluigi Donnarumma, Ignazio Abate, Gabriel Paletta, Alessio Romagnoli, Luca Antonelli, Juraj Kucka, Andrea Bertolacci, Mario Pasalic, Suso, Gianluca Lapadula, Giacomo Bonaventura, Gabriel, Mattia De Sciglio, Luiz Adriano, Keisuke Honda, M’Baye Niang, Gustavo Gomez, Andrea Poli, Cristian Zapata, Jose Sosa, Alessandro Plizzari, Carlos Bacca, Manuel Locatelli.

Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini (second left) during training yesterday.
‘Qatar capable of hosting great World Cup’

Unlike his fearsome personality on the football pitch, Giorgio Chiellini is soft-spoken off the field. The Juventus and Italy centre-back has a well-earned reputation as a football bully, brute and brawler but there is a huge discrepancy between his on and off-pitch personas. The 32-year-old will be a key figure for Juventus in the Italian Super Cup final against AC Milan at Al Sadd stadium tomorrow night. And one can expect Chiellini to get back to his brutal best. But yesterday, the Italian at the Aspire Zone was all smiles as he blended in, posed for selfies with the local fans while also taking part in a training session with his Juventus teammates. It’s the Italian’s second time in Doha and he enjoys coming to the Qatar capital, especially with weather this time of the year here far less cold than in Turin. “It is my second time in Qatar and the atmosphere now is very good for players and the weather is wonderful for football. Aspire is something wonderful, the facilities are just first class,” Chiellini said. With Qatar hosting the World Cup in 2022, Chiellini said he won’t hang around playing football till then but expected the tournament to be a huge success. “I hope we can have a very good World Cup in 2022. We feel the passion for football among the locals here. Qatar is capable of hosting a great World Cup,” the defender, who has played 90 times for Italy, said. Chiellini whose Juventus contract will come to end next year, ruled out any move to Chinese Super League, currently world football’s most lucrative market. “I cannot talk about my future now. It is impossible to talk about China, Australia, Qatar and the MLS. I wish the best for the players who decide to play in China,” is all he would say. Earlier this year Chiellini was among those said to be on the Chelsea’s transfer radar, with the 32-year-old having previously worked with Blues’ manager Antonio Conte in Turin and with the Italy national side. Chiellini also said he would not follow in the footsteps of former Real Madrid and Barcelona greats Raul Gonzalez and Xavi Hernandez to play professional football in Qatar. In the absence of fellow key defenders Leonardo bonucci and Dani Alves, Chiellini will have to play an even bigger role tomorrow against Milan and the left-back expects a tough test from San Siro side. “Historically Milan is a strong team and it will be a good match. We expect a high level competition between the two teams. This season they are in the top level of the league; we expect a highly competitive match and we have full respect for them because they are contenders for the championship this season,” Chiellini said.

Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio (R) during a training session at the Aspire Arena yesterday. Juventus will play AC Milan in the 2016 Super Coppa tomorrow. PIC: Noushad Thekkayil
Juve’s Marchisio looking to end 2016 on a high

For Claudio Marchisio, 2016 has been a year to forget. The Juventus midfielder was laid low most of the year by injuries, with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament forcing him to miss the Euro 2016 and the start of the Serie A season. The Italian, who got himself injured while playing for Juventus in April, only made a comeback in the last week of October. While Juventus have continued to dominate the Italian football, Marchisio underwent a painful recovery process for six months and is yet to regain his best form. “This year I missed a lot of things because the injury came at the end of the season,” Marchisio said yesterday in Doha. “It wasn’t easy to recover. I was working in the morning and afternoon. It wasn’t easy, and I’m still not at 100 per cent,” he added. However, the 30-year-old is looking at the future and wants to end 2016 on a high by winning the Italian Super Cup in Doha tomorrow. The Bianconeri face AC Milan at the Al Sadd stadium, aiming to win the trophy for the fourth time in five seasons. And it’s a perfect opportunity for Marchisio to banish the personal troubles, while winning his third title of the year with Old Lady of Turin. “I’m a guy who doesn’t deal with it well when I’m out, I wanted to be strong and on the pitch. My 2016 was bittersweet, but I look at the positives. I won two major trophies and now I can take a third, the first of the season,” he said. Marchisio, who has 263 caps with Juventus, is wary of Milan and believes they will be desperate to make amends for last year’s Coppa Italia final defeat at the hands of Juventus. “It won’t be an easy match against Milan, who have already beaten us in the league,” Marchisio said. “We will have to be very careful because they are a team with a lot youngsters, who will want to show what they can do and want to confirm what they are doing. We want to end this year as we started it though, and make it perfect,” the midfielder added. It is the ninth time the Italian Super Cup will be played outside Italy, and Milan only qualified for the match as Italian Cup runner-up after Juventus won both the league title and cup last season. But Milan has turned things around this season under new coach Vincenzo Montella, fully embracing a youth movement. They are only two points behind second-place Roma. Juventus, however, is seemingly on an unstoppable march to a record sixth Serie A title. Juventus held their training session at Aspire yesterday, with Milan only making their way to Doha last night after their flight from London was delayed by 24 hours due to technical problems. Marchisio believes that the preparation will be key ahead of Friday’s encounter. “Our focus at the moment is on preparing ourselves as best we can by getting used to the playing surface and the climate here in Doha. Finals always come down to the smallest details. “Our league defeat to Milan taught us that we must not underestimate anyone. If you are not at your best against any side at this level, you always risk losing, not least in a game like this where one mistake can cost you the trophy,” the Italian noted.

TOP PHOTO: Barcelona players.  BOTTOM PHOTO: Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker (L) hands over the trophy to Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta yesterday. Pic: Noushad Thekkayil
Where hearts were won & the score didn’t matter

It was all about entertainment and thrills as a vociferous crowd enjoyed watching the legendary Barcelona in action Entertainment was in abundance at the Al Gharafa stadium last night, as Barcelona and Al Ahli provided enough thrills for the raucous crowd that filled the stands. Billed as the ‘Match of Champions’, the friendly encounter between Barcelona and Al Ahli had everything one could have asked for — stars, goals and an atmosphere that was nothing short of electrifying. The final scoreline was in favour of Barcelona, the Spanish giants registering a comfortable 5-3 win over Saudi champions Al Ahli, to clinch the Qatar Airways Cup trophy, cast in 18-carat gold. But none at the stadium cared for result on the night! Both the teams received equal support, with Al Ahli fans making their presence felt, having crossed the border to watch their stars in action. All eyes were, of course, on Lionel Messi, the Barcelona captain, drew a huge roar from the official attendance of 18, 126 spectators, every time he touched the ball. There was a special moment ahead of the match, involving Messi and a six-year-old Afghan boy Murtaza Ahmadi, which showed the essence of why the match is being played. Earlier this year in January, Ahmadi became an online hit after wearing a homemade striped blue plastic bag shirt bearing Messi’s famous number 10. The video had become so popular that he ended up receiving a signed shirt from the Barcelona striker. After having spent a considerable time with Messi off the pitch, little Ahmadi was the mascot for last night’s match. Having walked on to the pitch with Messi, Ahmadi placed the ball on the centre of the pitch as both the team’s players stood arms around each other, waiting for the kick-off. Ahmadi at the moment drew peals of laughter from the players and spectators, when he ran straight to Messi as he held his idol’s hand, making himself the 12th man of Barcelona. Ahmadi had to be persuaded off the pitch by Messi, even as referee Fahad Jaber al-Marri carried him over the line. It was a nice little moment that will stay in the memory forever. As the action began on the pitch, the famed ‘MSN’ trio took little time in producing some sublime skills. The fearsome strike trio of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar scored a goal each as Barcelona took a 3-0 lead in just the 16th minute. The first one came through Suarez in the eighth minute. Messi played a delicious scoop to the centre of the box, which Suarez managed to brush his shoulder past Al Ahli goalkeeper Yasser al-Mosailem. Messi himself added Barcelona’s second two minutes later, as he slotted home through his left foot from just outside the box. The ‘MSN’ show was complete with just 16 minutes into the match as Neymar latched on to a pass from Rafinha, as the Brazilian forward found the net. Al Ahli players were shell-shocked but found their feet as tempo of the match slowed down. The Saudi team’s captain Taisir al-Jassim wasted few opportunities to open his team’s account, often shooting wide of the post. Barca’s frontline threatened to score a couple of times, but Al Ahli’s back managed to thwart the threat. In the 31st minute, they were handed a reprieve after Barcelona coach Luis Enrique substituted Messi, Suarez, Neymar and defender Gerard Pique. The crowd stood on their feet to give them the standing ovation as the Paco Alcacer, Arda Turan, Denis Suarez and Samuel Umtit took the field. As the nerves seemed to settle down, Al Ahli was more comfortable with ball, the Saudi team’s passing more accurate and they had possession too. However, the goal eluded them as they trailed 0-3 at half-time. Post the interval, Al Ahli took just six minutes to open their account. Barcelona goalkeeper Jordi Masip, who replaced Jasper Cillessen at half-time, brought down Mohammad Aman in the box and referee al-Marri was quick to point to the spot. Al Ain and UAE star Omar Abdulrahaman, playing for Al Ahli as a invitee, took the penalty and in the most nonchalant fashion dinked the ball down the middle of the goal to make it 3-1. Abdulrahman is the current Asian player of the year and is popularly known as Amoory. Barça increased their advantage in the 55th minute as Alcacer scored his first goal for the club. Rafinha made it 5-1 in the 58th minute. The Saudi side, scored two more goals through Muhannad Assiri, the substitute finding the net in the 61st and 65th minute.

Barcelonau2019s Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez celebrate their teamu2019s goal against Osasuna in the La Liga on Saturday. The Catalan giants will be at their full strength when they take on Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia in Doha today.
Barca arrive in Qatar to take on Saudi’s Ahli

Spanish football giants Barcelona are finally making their way to Doha. It was a trip that was long in the making, but kept getting postponed. Since the time Qatar Airways tied up with Barcelona to become their shirt sponsor in 2013, the ‘Blaugranas’ were always expected to come to Qatar to play a match. Tonight that will become a reality. One of the world’s best to have played the game, Lionel Messi will be in action at the Al Gharafa Stadium as he leads Barcelona to a ‘Match of Champions’ friendly against Saudi side Al Ahli at 7pm. The teams are playing for the Qatar Airways Cup since they are both sponsored by the country’s national carrier. Usually friendlies are expected to be low-intensity affairs but with the fixture being a sell-out, about 25,000 supporters are expected to throng the stadium. It’s no secret that all eyes will be on Messi. To see the Argentinian in flesh, with all his mesmerising skills, is one of the purest joys of watching football. But Barcelona are not just about Messi, with several stars in their line-up who can conjure up some magic of their own. Their potent forward line popularly referred as ‘MSN’ has Messi partnering Uruguayan Luis Su?rez and Brazilian Neymar, both world class strikers in their own right. It will be interesting to see whether coach Luis Enrique will play them all together against Al Ahli. Enrique is bringing a strong squad to Doha, with French defender Jérémy Mathieu the only absentee due to injury. But with an important match against Espanyol to be played on Sunday in the La Liga, where they trail leaders Real Madrid by six points, Enrique is expected to rotate his players during the match, which will have unlimited substitutions. Barcelona arrived in Doha last night after a training session at their home base Ciutat Esportiva before their departure. The Catalans have never faced a team from Saudi Arabia before. However, it will not be the first time Barcelona will be playing against a team from the GCC. The only time Barca faced a GCC team was when they took on Qatar’s Al Sadd in the 2011 Club World Cup in Yokohama. Barca won that game 4-0 win which took them into the final against Neymar’s Santos. On the other hand, for Al Ahli players this will be a once-in-a-life opportunity to play against Barcelona. Al Ahli, coached by Swiss Christian Gross, are currently in third place in the Saudi Arabian first division. The foreign imports in the squad are Mohamed Abdelshafi (Egypt), Luiz Carlos Martins (Brazil), Giannis Fetfazidis (Greece) and Omar al-Soma (Syria). Interestingly, Al Ain and UAE star Omar Abdulrahman will take the unusual step of playing for another Gulf club. The Asian player of the year, popularly known as Amoory has been given special permission by Al Ain to play for Al Ahli against Barca.  The playmaker, who supports Barcelona and cites Andres Iniesta as his favourite player, will also use the trip for his annual medical check-up at the Aspire Academy. Barcelona squad: Ter Stegen, Cillessen, Masip, Piqué, Rakitic, Busquets, Denis Su?rez, Arda, Iniesta, Luis Su?rez, Messi, Neymar Jr, Rafinha, Mascherano, Paco Alc?cer, Jordi Alba, Digne, Sergi Roberto, André Gomes, Aleix Vidal, Umtiti, Ale?? and Borja L?pez.   Schedule 5:30pm: Performance from world champion freestyler Pawel Skora 5:50pm: Barcelona and Al-Ahli teams warm-up 6:25pm: Opening ceremony begins with the Pheonix Performance Group 6:45pm: Musical performance from special guest 7pm: ‘Match kick-off

Winners of ITTF World Tour Grand Finals pose with officials and delegates after the conclusion of the event in Doha yesterday. Ma Long won the menu2019s crown, with Zhu Yuling taking the womenu2019s title.  (BOTTOM PHOTO) Action from the menu2019s title clash between Chinau2019s Ma Long and his compatriot Fan Zhendong. Long won 4-2 (11-5, 11-4, 11-9, 7-11, 12-14, 11-9). (RIGHT) Long with womenu2019s winner Zhu Yuling, who beat Germanyu2019s Han Ying 11-9, 12-10, 12-10, 11-3.   PICS: Noushad Thekkayil
Ma Long, Yuling win titles to reassert Chinese supremacy

‘I’m very happy to win my fifth Grand Finals title. I was in quite good form in this tournament’ There was no stopping Ma Long yesterday as the Chinese legend won his fifth ITTF World Tour Grand Finals, in Doha. It capped off a memorable year for Ma Long, who won his first Olympic gold in Rio in August. The lanky, muscular 28-year-old from the northeastern province of Liaoning is a different beast compared to his other Chinese counterparts. Many say he is the best to have played the game. His technical skills are second to none, and is renowned for his scorching serve and deceptive spin. All that was on display at the Ali Bin Hamad al-Attiyah arena yesterday, as the defending champion beat his closest-rival Fan Zhendong in an entertaining title clash 4-2 (11-5, 11-4, 11-9, 7-11, 12-14, 11-9). This is the second consecutive year that the 19-year-old highly-rated Zhendong has lost to Ma Long in the final. Last year in Lisbon, Portugal, Ma Long needed seven games to beat his rival. While he saved himself the strain of playing an extra game, yesterday’s final, however, reaffirmed the belief that Zhendong will be the best bet to stop the Ma Long juggernaut in coming years. After sweeping past the first two games, Ma Long was given a stiff test by his younger opponent. Zhendong used his deceptive backhand spin shot to good effect. But World champion Ma Long won the third game as well, before Zhendong fought valiantly. Trailing 7-10 and 11-12 in the fifth game Zhendong saved four match points and then one more in the sixth at 8-10. However, Ma Long eventually sealed the title, ironically when Zhendong’s backhand spin missed the table. “I’m very happy to win my fifth Grand Finals title. I think was in quite good form during this tournament, especially in the final. “Against Zhendong, I played well at the start but I did not deal with crucial points well enough, even though I was leading comfortably. But still it was good enough to be able to win the match,” said Ma Long.   “I think it’s common for any athlete to become impatient when you reach match point and I made that mistake today. The good thing is I won the sixth game. Of course I feel it was a shame to lose the fifth game with four match points on hand. “But in the match, I have to control my emotions as much as possible,” the champion paddler added. Ma Long ‘s fifth title means his nearest challenger is the now-retired compatriot Wang Liqin, who won the coveted trophy three times. This was also the 14th all Chinese men’s final, and 16th time a Chinese player has won in 21 editions of the tournament. Unsurprisingly, the women’s title also went to China, with third seed Zhu Yuling proving to be too good for Germany’s Han Ying as she won 4-0 (11-9, 12-10, 12-10, 11-3) in a one sided final. This was the first title of the year for the 21-year-old Yuling, who benefitted from compatriot Ding Ning’s withdrawal midway through the tournament. The Olympic champion was laid low by a high temperature and had to pull out from her quarterfinal match against Han Ying. Yesterday, the No.11 seed Ying had no answer to Yuling’s trademark consistency as her own defensive game faltered on the big occasion. Yuling, who started the year with three ITTF World Tour titles to her name, finally ended an 18-month wait to win another winner’s trophy. “I was anxious because this was the first time I was playing in the final of the World Tour Grand Finals. I was eager to win. Luckily, I could stay calm at crucial points,” Yuling said. “This triumph is mainly due to my experience of playing on the tour in the past few years. “Winning this tournament at the end of this year is a small step for me. I hope I can play well in the next year. Now, I will spare no effort to prepare for 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” she added. Like men, Chinese women too have ruled the tournament, with Yuling becoming the tenth player from the Asian powerhouse to win the title. The Chinese-born Han Ying did have the consolation of becoming the first player representing a national association from outside Asia to reach the final of the women’s singles event at the Grand Finals. There were no Chinese victories in the doubles or under-21 events, though. Hina Hiyata of Japan beat Hong Kong’s Doo Hoi Kem 4-1 in the under-21 women’s singles final before partnering Yui Hamamoto to success against Doo and Lee Ho Ching in the women’s doubles. South Korea’s Jeoung Youngsik and Lee Sangsu beat Japan’s Masataka Morizono and Yuya Oshima 4-2 in the men’s doubles final. Taiwan’s Liao Cheng-Ting beat Yuto Muramatsu of Japan in four straight games to secure the men’s under 21 title.

Chinau2019s Ma Long (left) in action during his semi-final against Jeoung Youngsik of South Korea. Long won 4-0.
Long sets up all-Chinese title clash against Zhendong

The women’s final will be contested between Germany’s Han Ying and China’s Zhu Yuling Ma Long has been in a class of his own for some time now. The World No. 1 Chinese paddler has been dominating the table tennis circuit and yesterday in Doha he showed a glimpse of that. The Rio Olympic and world champion cruised into the final of the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals after another commanding victory, a 4-0 (11-9, 11-8, 11-8, 14-12) rout of Jeoung Youngsik of South Korea, in the semi-finals. A little later, China’s Fan Zhendong beat compatriot Xu Xin 4-2 (11-5, 5-11, 11-5, 6-11, 11-6, 11-9) to set up another all-Chinese title clash against Ma Long. No. 12 seed Youngsik has been the surprise element of the tournament so far, having defeated higher seeds Vladimir Samsonov and Chuang Chih-Yuan. But yesterday, the Korean was up against a different class of player in Mo Long, the top seed. To his credit Youngsik did put up a fight, but never looked like winning any of the first three games. With his back to the wall, Youngsik came out firing in the fourth set, even managing a game point. But Ma Long won the decisive moments in the game to seal the match. “I think both Jeoung and I played at a high level during the match tonight. I won four-nil but the score in all four games was very close. Today my handling of crucial points was also quite good and I think Jeoung played well,” said Ma Long. “He’s grown and improved a lot over the past two years. In the previous matches, he had to recover from two-nil down to win, so it shows that he has very strong skills and is very capable. Tonight I was in control of the match overall,” the defending champion added. For Zhendong though, it was a test of his temperament and fatigue. In the quarterfinals played in the afternoon, the Chinese No. 2 seed had recovered from a two-game deficit to beat Germany’s Dimitrij Ovtcharov, the No. 8 seed, 4-2 (9-11, 10-12, 15-13, 11-8, 11-8, 11-5). Zhendong, however, showed little effect of that stressful match as he took the opening game in no time. Third seed Xu Xin won the second and fourth games, but Zhendong unleashed some spectacular shots to clinch the fifth and sixth games and close out the match. Xu Xin played some powerful forehand top spin returns, but Zhendong anticipated well and blocked every shot to leave his countryman stunned. In the quarters, Xu Xin had overpowered Japan’s Yuto Muramatsu, the No. 10 seed, in straight games (11-2, 11-6, 11-5, 11-4). The women’s final will be contested between Germany’s Han Ying and China’s Zhu Yuling. Both the paddlers snuffed out any chances off an all-Japanese final. Third seed Yuling beat second seed Kasumi Ishikawa, winner two years ago in Bangkok, 4-0 (16-14, 11-3, 11-8, 11-7). The highly-rated Miu Hirano was the other Japanese to bow out in the semis. The 16-year-old teen, seeded No. 10 here, lost to Germany’s Han Ying, the No. 11 seed, 0-4 (2-11, 4-11, 3-11, 5-11). Hirano had shocked World No. 6 and fourth seed Feng Tianwei of Singapore in the round of 16, but yesterday she had no answer to Ying’s defensive game. Ying relies more on technique, with the 33-year-old German possessing a solid backspin return. And Hirano’s aggressive approach fell flat against the experienced Ying. The two had met earlier this year in Kuwait, where Ying needed full seven games to secure victory. But yesterday Ying controlled the game from start, as Hirano committed plenty of unforced errors. “Today I had a good balance between attack and defence. I felt confident. Last time when we played in Kuwait, I won the first three games but then Hirano played much stronger. I was prepared for a tough match, I’m surprised that I won so easily,” a delighted Ying said. Hirano also seemed to suffering from fatigue, having arrived in Doha after playing the World Junior Championships last week. The other Japanese on the night, Ishikawa, was always going to struggle against Yuling, having just won once against the Chinese in eight attempts. The first game was a close affair, with Yuling employing defence and attack in equal measure. After Yuling managed to snatch the opener in 16-14, she cruised through the next three games to book her place in the final.

Zhu Yuling of China beat Chinese Taipeiu2019s Cheng I-Ching in the quarter-finals of the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals at the Ali Bin Hamad Al Attiyah Arena yesterday. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Yuling in pole position after Ning pullout; Ma Long cruises through

The women’s field at the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals was thrown wide open after defending champion Ding Ning of China withdrew from the event in Doha yesterday. Ning was scheduled to play Germany’s Han Ying in the quarter-finals at the Ali Bin Hamad Al Attiyah Arena, but the world and Olympic champion was forced to pull out as she suffered from a high temperature. The absence of Ning very much opens up the top half of the draw, with Zhu Yuling, also of China, now the highest ranked player in the tournament. The world No. 4, who is in other half of the draw, yesterday sealed her spot in the semis. The 21-year-old is seeded third in Doha and the Chinese hopes firmly rest on her. Yuling, however, was given a stern test in the quarters by Chinese Taipei’s Cheng I-Ching before she won 4-2 (8-11, 10-12, 12-10, 11-8, 11-8, 11-7). The No. 6 seed Ching won the first two games but dropped her level, giving Yuling a chance to make a recovery. And the Chinese needed no second initiation as she won four games on the trot to clinch the match.    Ching is one of the most improved players on the circuit, having jumped from No.22 to No. 7 in the world rankings. Against Yuling, she unleashed her strong forehand game to take a 2-0 lead but Yuling made some tactical changes to make a comeback. “She made many changes after the second game; especially with her service. She served short and I made mistakes. I am pleased with my level but disappointed to lose,” said Ching. Yuling on the other hand was relieved to have got through. “It was a hard match having to come back from two-nil down. Ching played very well today, the scores were tight and even in the third game, I could only take the game after 10-10,” the Chinese said. “I think winning the silver medal at the World Cup definitely was a big step in her career; she’s more confident on court, more experienced and is able to handle crucial points better. One reason why I lost in the first two games was because I wasn’t executing my strategy as planned. After that I was thinking of those points and how I could play those points to my favour,” Yuling added. Meanwhile, Han Ying will play the winner of the quarter-final match between Japanese teen Miu Hirano and Hong Kong’s Tie Yana, which is scheduled for today afternoon. Yesterday, world No. 11 Hirano, the ninth seed in the tournament upset world No. 6 and fourth seed Feng Tianwei of Singapore in the round of 16. Tianwei made a bright start but eventually lost 3-4 (11-6, 11-4, 9-11, 6-11, 11-7, 5-11, 4-11) Tianwei was one of the fancied players in the tournament, having defeated Ding Ning in the Chinese Super League last weekend. The 30-year-old was expected to make a strong bid for the sport’s biggest prize but fizzled out against Hirano in the last two games. Tianwei, the 2010 champion, had come out firing in her match against the Japanese teenager, claiming the first two games 11-6, 11-4. But the 16-year-old proved to be no walkover, as she clawed back to win the next two games 11-9, 11-6. While Tianwei looked ready to claim victory after winning the fifth game (11-7), the veteran player could not fend off the challenge from her plucky young opponent, as Hirano turned on the heat to level the score at 3-3 before winning the seventh and final game 11-4. With her victory over three-time Olympic medallist Feng in Doha, Hirano looks set to cement her reputation as a player to watch out for in the future. In the last quarter-final today, Yang Haeun of South Korea will take on Japan’s Kasumi Ishikawa.   Meanwhile, men’s defending champion Ma Long cruised into the semis yesterday. The Chinese was in supreme form as he dispatched Wong Chun Ting of Hong Kong 4-0 (11-4, 11-3, 11-6, 11-5). The World No. 1 Ma Long, also the Olympic champion in Rio, hardly put a foot wrong not even giving Chun Ting a sniff. Up next for Ma Long in the semifinal today is Jung Young-sik of Korea. In the last eight, Young-sik beat Chuang Chih-Yuan of Chinese Taipei 4-2 (11-13, 10-12, 11-6, 11-7, 12-10, 11-1). The other two spots in the semis will be decided today, when Xu Xin of China takes on Japan’s Yuto Muramatsu, while Germany’s Dimitrij Ovtcharov meets Fan Zhendong of China. Earlier, the No.8 seed Ovcharov had beaten Hong Kong’s Tang Peng, the No.14 seed, in five games (11-9, 11-5, 13-15, 14-12, 11-6) to reserve his place in the quarter-finals. The second seed Zhendong accounted for Japan’s Koki Niwa, the No.15 seed 4-1 (11-6, 11-7, 11-7, 9-11, 11-4) and Xu Xin, the No.3 seed, defeated 11th seeded Chinese Taipei’s Chen Chien-An 4-0 (11-8, 11-11, 11-6, 11-8).

Japanu2019s Yuto Maramatsu goes for a forehand against Belarusian Vladimir Samsonov in the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals in Doha yesterday. At right, womenu2019s top seed Ding Ning of China in action against Hong Kongu2019s Lee Ho Ching. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Muramatsu knocks out Samsonov in opener

Qatar’s Li Ping crashes out to world and Olympic champion Ma Long of China Veteran Vladimir Samsonov was knocked out in the first round by Japan’s Yuto Muramatsu at the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals in Doha yesterday. At the Ali bin Hamad al-Attiyah Arena, the Belarusian World No. 8 lost 3-4 (11-5, 11-7, 5-11, 6-11, 1-11, 11-9, 11-6) to Muramatsu. For the 40-year-old Samsonov, playing for the 20th straight year on the tour, it was always going to be a tough test against the much-improved Muramatsu. Samsonov had beaten Muramatsu earlier this year in the European league, but the 10th ranked Japanese has been in fine form lately, having won titles in Germany and the Czech Republic besides finishing runner-up in China. The 20-year-old Japanese started off on a bright note, winning the first two games but the experienced Samsonov fought right back taking the next three games to jump into a 3-2 lead. However, Muramatsu find his groove at the right time to win the last two games and clinch the match. Meanwhile, it was end of the road for Qatar too as the hosts’ only representative in the tournament, Li Ping, lost to World and Olympic champion Ma Long of China 2-4 (11-4, 9-11, 11-7, 3-11, 6-11, 8-11) in the last 16 match. Ma Long is the overwhelming favourite to defend his title, which he won last year in Lisbon, Portugal. Yesterday surprisingly, Ping took the opening and the third game to take a 2-1 lead but it was all Ma Long from then on as the Chinese pocketed the match quite easily. The 28-year-old Long, will meet Wong Chun Ting of Hong Kong in the quarter-final today. Chun Ting overcame Kenta Matsudaira of Japan in a tight encounter 4-3 (6-11, 12-14, 8-11, 13-11, 11-9, 14-16, 11-8). The draw is in favour of Ma long too this time. The Chinese won the ITTF title in Qatar early this year and he is not expected to meet his countrymen world number two Fan Zhendong and number three Xu Xin until the final. In the women’s Zhu Yuling of China, put in a flawless performance as the third seed ousted Japan’s Hitomi Sato, the no.16 seed, 4-0 (11-2, 11-6, 11-5, 11-3). Yuling, the twice World Junior champion, was never seriously threatened by Sato. But Kasumi Ishikawa, the no.2 seed Japanese, was extended to full seven games by 15th seed Korean Suh Hyowon before she prevailed 4-3 (8-11, 2-11, 11-9, 11-4, 11-8, 6-11, 11-5). Hyowon put Ishikawa to test in the first game, with the Korean’s service proving difficult to handle for the Japanese. However, Ishikawa recovered and won the third and fourth game, before Hyowon needed medical help after suffering a small cut on the little finger of her playing hand. The next two games were shared with the tentative Ishikawa making errors to lose the sixth. In the decider, Ishikawa won five points on the trot to seal the match in her favour. “I was nervous receiving her service. I made mistakes. In the third game when she took the injury break, it enabled me to calm myself and focus,” said a relived Ishikawa after the match. Hong Kong’s Tie Yana, the No.5 seed ,also had to dig deep into her reserves before she beat No. 9 Yuka Ishigaki of Japan 4-3 (9-11, 7-11, 12-10, 11-6, 6-11, 11-7, 11-4). However, top seed Ding Ning of China had no such problems as the reigning Olympic and World champion beat Hong Kong’s Lee Ho Ching, the no.12 seed, in four straight games (14-12, 11-7, 11-5, 11-6).   Last 16 results Men’s singles Ma Long (China) bt LI Ping (Qatar) 4-2 (4-11, 11-9, 7-11, 11-3, 11-6, 11-8) Wong Chun Ting (Hong Kong) bt Kenta Matsudaira (Japan) 4-3 (6-11, 12-14, 8-11, 13-11, 11-9, 14-16, 11-8) Jung Young-Sik (South Korea) bt Jun Mizutani (Japan) 4-3 (7-11, 10-12, 12-10 11-8, 11-13, 11-7, 11-9) Yuto Muramatsu (Japan) bt Vladimir Samsonov (Belarus) 4-3 (11-5, 11-7, 5-11, 6-11, 1-11, 11-9, 11-6)   Women’s singles Ding Ning (China) bt Lee Ho-Ching (Hong Kong) 4-0 (14-12, 11-7, 11-5, 11-6) Tie Ya Na (Hong Kong) bt Yuka Ishigaki 4-3 (9-11, 7-11, 12-10, 11-6, 6-11, 11-7, 11-4) Zhu Yuling (China) bt Hitomi Sato (Japan) 4-0 (11-3, 11-6, 11-5, 11-3) Kasumi Ishikawa (Japan) bt Suh Hyowon (South Korea) 4-3 (8-11, 2-11, 11-9, 11-4, 11-8, 6-11, 11-5)

Former World No. 1 Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus has played in six straight Olympics, from 1996 to 2016, but the medal he most covets still eludes him.
Samsonov shows age is no barrier

Samsonov has been ranked among the world’s top 10 for much of the last 20 years For Vladimir Samsonov, age is just a number. At 40, the table tennis star from Belarus is the oldest man on the circuit but quite clearly the exuberant of the lot. In a sport, where Chinese have dominated at every level, from Olympics to World Championships to Tour level in the last three decades, the former World No. 1 Samsonov has carved a place for himself. He has been ranked among the world’s top 10 for much of the last 20 years, and also holds the distinction with most ITTF ProTour titles — a whopping 26. In Doha for the season-ending ITTF World Tour Grand Finals, Samsonov is one of the season’s top 16 performers invited for the lucrative tournament, which starts today at the Ali bin Hamad al-Attiyah arena. In his own words, 2016 has been an interesting year for Samsonov. He almost realised a long-cherished dream at the Rio Games, when he was at the doorstep of winning a medal, only to lose in the bronze medal play-off to Japan’s Jun Mizutani. But that hasn’t stopped him from dreaming as he chases his first World Tour Grand Finals crown in Doha. “It has been an interesting year, with so many positive things happening for me,” said Samsonov. “I started the year really well. I was second in the German Open. I have played quite well for the rest of the year. At the Rio Olympics, I reached the semi-finals for the first time. It was my sixth Olympics and it was the first time I had managed to reach the last four. It was really special, I played some crazy matches, especially in the quarter-finals but I suffered an injury in that match,” he added. As fate would have it, the Belarusian suffered a serious rib injury during his quarter-final win over Dimitrij Ovtcharov of Germany. He struggled to move freely, which severely hampered his chances of beating his semi-final opponent, China’s Zhang Jike. “I fell and damaged my ribs in the quarters. Though I won that match, I had problems to continue. Of course beating Zhang is always tough but after my injury I couldn’t play a strong forehand top spin. I had to change something, tactically I had to play a bit slower and more passively,” said Samsonov. He also failed to recover in time for the bronze medal play-off, leaving his dream in tatters. From the 1996 to the 2012 Olympic Games, he has fallen at either the fourth round or the quarter-final hurdles, going the distance in each match only to lose in the deciding game. After six straight Olympics, the medal he most covets still eludes him. Not one to look back, Samsonov has not ruled out playing at his seventh Olympics, in Tokyo in four years’ time. “I want to win an Olympic medal. One way it was very disappointing not to win a medal. Few times I was very close to reaching the semi-finals, and this time I did qualify. On the other hand, if I had won an Olympic medal, I wouldn’t have played for such a long time. There are two sides to it,” said Samsonov. On the tour, he has been asked many times about his long playing career and Samsonov credited his family for the support. “There are many things that matter. My family is very important to me. My wife and children give me a lot of positive energy. Of course, I love playing table tennis. There are some goals I have not achieved yet. You also have to be lucky, meeting the right people at the right time,” said Samsonov, the father of two sons aged 15 and 10. In Doha, first up for the Belarusian is Yuto Muramatsu of Japan, with a clash against No. 3 three Xu Xin of China a likely prospect in the quarter-finals. Samsonov knows he will have to be at his best to finish the year on a high. “Only top players are playing here and everyone is difficult to beat. I won against Muramatsu in the European league earlier this year. But it’s a different competition, so I should not let my guard down here. “Against Xu Xin, it’s been a long time since I won against him. It was in 2012. But after that I played him in the quarters last year and it was a close match. I lost 4-2 but I was leading in the sixth set 10-7. Of course now I have to concentrate in the first round then will see what happens,” Samsonov said. Ever since he took the game, table tennis has evolved a lot. Balls, for one thing, have become bigger in a bid to slow the game down and make it more spectator-friendly. They are now made using plastic instead of celluloid, while games are played to 11 points instead of 21 points. The sport now favours aggressive players and required players like Samsonov, who has a more passive style, to adjust quite a bit. But it’s the never-give-up attitude that has helped the now 40-year-old not just survive but also shine amongst the competition. Age is indeed a number.