Thursday, February 02, 2023 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
 Sahan Bidappa
Sahan Bidappa
Sahan Bidappa is a sports writer with Gulf Times. He joined Gulf Times after having worked for more than 10 years with leading newspapers in India. Sahan misses covering cricket in Qatar but has adeptly channelized his talents towards tennis, football and Olympic sports.
Qataru2019s midfielder Karim Boudiaf greets fans during a training session at the Jassim Bin Hamad stadium yesterday. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Sanchez says Qatar will be at their best at World Cup

              Doha   • Thousands of fans throng the hosts’ training session at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium Head coach Felix Sanchez believes Qatar will play their best football during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 at home. Sanchez and his players got a sneak peek of what they will encounter during the World Cup as thousands of fans – young and old – thronged the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Al Sadd on Sunday to watch the team’s open training session. Qatar players only returned last week after a four-month training camp in Europe. They are here for a few more days before they travel to Marbella, Spain for the final phase of preparatory camp for the World Cup, which will begin with hosts taking on Ecuador at Al Bayt Stadium on November 20. They also play Senegal and the Netherlands in Group A. Yesterday, the players were given a rousing reception as they took the field at reigning QNB Stars League champions Al Sadd’s home ground. Captain Hassan al-Haydos and star striker Akram Afif were much in demand for selfies and autographs and the duo and rest of the team obliged the fans duly. The fans stayed back as the Asian Champions took the field for a training session. Sanchez, meanwhile, said he expected Qatar to put in a much better performance than they have done in the recent past. The Al Annabi put in a below-par show in the two recent friendly matches. They lost tamely to Canada 0-2 on September 23 at Villa Park in Vienna, before holding Chile to a 2-2 draw at the same venue four days later. Sanchez said the intense and closed-door training sessions in Spain and Austria is just what the team needs ahead of their World Cup debut at home. “It’s very nice to be back in Qatar. Yeah, it’s been a long time, but I think that’s what we had planned. And I think that was what was best for us, to be able to train in good weather conditions. So we are quite confident that it was a good preparation,” the Spaniard said. “Every day we were preparing, trying to improve and hopefully we’re going to have a good last few days of preparation before the World Cup. And hopefully we’re going to be at our best level on November 20. The last two friendly games were obviously a test for us. Not every game you can perform at the level that you wish for, but I think in the second game we showed some improvements. When you play these competitive games, if you don’t start at your best level or you concede then it’s hard to come back into the game. So we need to learn from that. Hopefully we will not make that kind of mistake at the World Cup. We are confident to play at our best level,” the Qatar coach added. Sanchez on Saturday named a 27-member Qatar squad for the third and final preparatory camp. While there are no more International friendlies scheduled, Qatar will play a few matches against local teams as they aim to be in the best shape for the World Cup. “We’re going to keep training harder and try to improve on things that are not working. We need to always analyse our games and see what we can do to improve,” Sanchez, who led Qatar to maiden Asian Cup title in 2019, said. The Spaniard also called on Qatar fans to rally behind their team during the World Cup. “I think it will be a big occasion for the country. I hope people will enjoy the World Cup in Qatar. First time Qatar will play in the World Cup and it will be at home, so I think it’s unique. People have to enjoy these moments and I hope they will support us and cheer for the team and players. The players are going to appreciate that and give it their all to make the fans happy,” he said. Qatar’s head coach Felix Sanchez takes a selfie with a fan. Qatar’s forward Akram Afif (centre) interacts with children during a training session. Fans wave Qatar flags during the training session.

Qatar players train in Vienna yesterday, on the eve of their friendly against Canada.
Qatar face Canada as World Cup preparations enter final stretch

Doha   • Qatar will probably be the most prepared team going in to the World Cup, says Canada coach John Herdman Qatar will most likely play their last two friendlies against tough opponents in the next five days, before they embark on a historic World Cup appearance at home in two months’ time. The Asian champions will face Canada today at 8pm at the Viola Park in Vienna, before taking on Chile on Tuesday. These two matches will give coach Felix Sanchez an idea of his 26-member squad to select for the World Cup. It’s been four months since Sanchez and his 30-member probable squad set sail to Europe to prepare for their World Cup debut. After a physical training camp in Marbella, Spain, Qatar are camped right now in Austria, with the players missing the Qatar Stars league matches back home. The Maroons have played few behind-the-door friendly matches against clubs and second string national teams as their preparations have been kept well-guarded secret. Finally, they will emerge from four months in near-lockdown as they take fellow World Cup qualifiers Canada. Having spent tens of billions of dollars preparing for the first World Cup in an Arab nation, Qatar is desperate to see the national side get past the first round where they are grouped with Netherlands, Senegal and Ecuador. But they lost 3-0 to a Croatia under-23 team behind closed doors on Tuesday. And while public games in Vienna against Canada and Chile are only friendlies, they will still be seen as a key test of how much steel Sanchez has put into the side. Post the friendlies, Sanchez and the players will briefly return to Qatar in early October and will hold an open training session before returning to Spain for more isolation before the World Cup starts. Today, Canada will offer Qatar their toughest test in recent times in the first meeting between the two sides. The Canucks, ranked five places above Qatar at 43, topped the CONCACAF qualifiers to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Coach John Herdman has called these upcoming friendlies (Canada also play Uruguay on Sunday) a measuring stick for his side, who will be facing teams outside of their region for the first time in over four years. “Being our first trip outside of Concacaf and first games against non-Concacaf nations since the journey started back in 2018, we will learn a lot in these moments,” said Herdman. “Both opponents present different types of tests and with the quality of Uruguay we will see and feel first-hand the intensity of that next level opponent.” Herdman is expecting a well-drilled opponent in the World Cup host. “Qatar will probably be the most prepared team going in to the World Cup,” said Herdman. “The investment that’s gone into them is pretty unique — being able to use all of the opportunities that they have as a country to centralise their players and pretty much play like a club team.” Herdman noted Qatar played club sides in Italy’s Lazio and Fiorentina during the summer and is coming off a game against the Croatian under-23 team this week. “They’re a team that is well organised, very disciplined, a good footballing team. And you can tell they know each other inside-out. So this is going to be a real challenge for Canada.” In the absence of the injured Atiba Hutchinson, David Hoilett will captain Canada. The 39-year-old Hutchinson, Canada’s all-time men’s caps leader with 97 senior appearances, has been sidelined by a bone bruise suffered in pre-season with Turkey’s Besiktas. The 32-year-old Hoilett takes over the captain’s armband in his 48th appearance for Canada. “He’ll lead the team out,” Herdman said yesterday. “He’s in wonderful form at his club at Reading near the top of the Championship (England’s second-tier).” Canada’s squad will be spearheaded by Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies and Lille’s Jonathan David. Two players –Montreal’s centre back Joel Waterman and Blackpool FC forward Theo Corbeanu – have been called up for the first time as the rest of the squad features returning players from the CONCACAF qualifiers. The Canadians’ meteoric rise in over the past couple of years has not gone unnoticed by the big clubs around Europe, as numerous players chosen by Herdman ply their trade with some of those prominent teams, many of whom are playing significant roles domestically.

Gulf Times
Favourites falter among strong wind, Barshim finishes second

On a day of high wind at the Qatar Sports Club Friday, the favourites fell by the wayside at the Diamond League season opener. The windy conditions did not spare even home favourite and Olympic champion Mutaz Essa Barshim as the Qatari finished second in front of a vociferous packed crowd. South Korea’s Sanghyeok Woo, the world leader coming into season’s opening event, cleared 2.33m to pip Barshim into first, while joint Olympic gold medallist Gianmarco Tamberi bowed out after three failures at 2.24m. There were surprises galore as the US sprinter Gabrielle Thomas and Brazilian hurdler Alison Dos Santos claimed victories with meet records in women’s 200m and men’s 400m hurdle respectively. Olympic silver medallist Marileidy Paulino also grabbed an impressive win in women’s 400m with Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo finishing a disappointing third. There was heartbreak for the crowd who had come to watch pole vault superstar Armand Duplantis as the event fell victim to high winds and was cancelled. But the javelin throwers thrived as the weather conditions caused their spears to fly huge distances as Grenada’s Anderson Peters smashed his personal best with a stunning 93.07m to claim victory. On an action packed day, all eyes were on Barshim in the far right corner of the stadium as the two-time world champion was competing for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics. The 30-year-old cleared 2.16 and 2.20m without much ado, before stumbling at 2.24. But he regrouped quickly and cleared 2.30 before coming unstuck at 2.33. A couple of attempts to clear 2.35 also did not materialize as Barshim settled for second spot. Sanghyeok, who was fourth at the Olympics last year, had soared over 2.33 as the South Korean finished on top. Tamberi, meanwhile, had a poor night as the Italian finished only seventh. Barshim, who is gunning for a hat-trick of world titles in Eugene, US, in July, was not unhappy with a second-place finish. “This year is different because I have not been jumping since Tokyo, but you have to be smart and take your goals step by step. Anyways it is a good start in front of an amazing crowd. The atmosphere gave us strong competition, I produce my best when it is crowded with fans,” he said. Meanwhile, Olympic champion Andre De Grasse of Canada finished fourth in the men’s 200m, with American Noah Lyles sprinting to victory in 19.72 secs after a close battle with compatriot Fred Kerley (19.75). De Grasse completed the race in 20.15 seconds and finished just behind Jereem Richards of Trinidad and Tobago, who also posted the same time. The 24-year-old Lyles, aiming to bounce back from a disappointing 2021 when he managed only a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, led from start to finish. But with finishing line sight, Kerley closed the gap but Lyles had enough power to claim victory, though none of the meeting times would count because of the wind. “I came here to get my energy for the season. I perform under pressure, it helps me to get excited about the season,” said Lyles who expressed optimism for the season but added that rivals should expect “trouble” if he does not reclaim his world title in Eugene in July. “When I lose I come for blood,” he joked. De Grasse said he was not concerned but admitted that he will have to go home and “work on some things”. Britain’s world champion Dina Asher-Smith managed only third in her first 200 metres of the year as Olympic bronze medallist Gabrielle Thomas stormed to victory as Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson came second. “This was a big one to start the season, there was a lot of competition,” Thomas said. “I have a will to win, I fight to the end.” Anderson Peters, the reigning world champion at the World Championships in Qatar in 2019, went to No 5 on the world all-time lists after a wind-assisted throw of 93.07m. Olympic silver medallist Jakub Vadlejch of Czech Republic also broke the 90-metre mark but Peters took victory with a huge, last-gasp effort. Only world record-holder Jan Zelezny with 98.48m plus Germans Johannes Vetter (97.76m) and Thomas Röhler (93.90m) and Finland’s Aki Paviainen (93.09m) have ever thrown further. “I came here twice. I love to be here in Doha trying to get better and to be more in shape,” said the 24-year-old winner. The men’s 1,500m also saw an upset, with three-time Diamond Trophy winner and reigning champion Timothy Cheruiyot coming second behind fellow Kenyan Abel Kipsang.

Qataru2019s Mutaz Essa Barshim (right) and Italyu2019s Gianmarco Tamberi pose after a press conference at the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum on Thursday, ahead of Friday's Doha Diamond League. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Barshim, Tamberi aim for World title after Tokyo Olympics high

Since that magical night at Tokyo Olympics when they both stood on top of the podium with gold medals draped around their necks, Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi have been inseparable. The two high jumpers have been friends for long, but after their act of sportsmanship in Tokyo when they decided to share gold, their bond has become even stronger. Italian Tamberi has even spent a lot more time in Qatar, having trained here in March and April. Ahead of Friday's Doha Diamond League, the two shared the space again on the podium as they spoke about that historical moment at Olympics and their camaraderie since. But once they step onto the field at the Qatar Sports Club today, both Barshim and Tamberi reminded on Thursday they will mean business. It’s the first time the two will compete against each other since their iconic joint victory at the Tokyo Games and the high jump stars insisted they will not repeat the gesture if they are tied again. “We already talked about it, it is not going to happen again,” said Tamberi, as the Barshim sitting beside nodded in agreement at the press conference on Thursday. “We will look at each other (If we are tied again), we will say OK let’s go” to jump off. For myself, I will never go back in the past and change what we have done. We will forever remember as brothers ... friends,” the Italian added. “We both won because we both deserved that gold medal. When they ask us will you share again we say ‘no’ because we have done it once. But it does not mean we are not proud of it. I will never change the past even if you paid me or guaranteed me that I will be the one who wins that gold medal, I will share with him because I know he deserves, I know I deserve.” Both Barshim and Tamberi have set their targets on World Championships in Eugene, US, later this July. Tamberi has never won a world championship medal, while Barshim is gunning for greatness aiming to become the first athlete to win three straight high jump titles. “At the 2019 Worlds in Doha, someone asked me how I’d feel defending my world title and becoming the first male high jumper to do so. That stuck with me. Now I’m motivating myself by saying it’ll be even better to be the only guy to win three in a row. It keeps me going. It is not easy to find motivation after such a big year, such a big success,” said Barshim. The Doha Diamond League will be the Qatari’s first meeting since last August but the 30-year-old has lined up few events before the world championships, including GCC Games in Kuwait next week and Diamond League event in Rome on June 9. And he will be hoping he can hit the ground running today in front of home fans. But it will be difficult to gauge the form of an athlete who hasn’t competed for more than nine months and Barshim hinted that he is not yet at his physical best. “Honestly, if it wasn’t at home, I probably wouldn’t have jumped. But Doha is home and my people will be out there, my family and friends, cheering for me. That’s always a special feeling. I took my first steps in the sport I love here and it’ll always be special,” Barshim said. “Normally, people start with small events and move on to tougher events. That way, competing in the Diamond League straightaway may be risky. But I’m experienced and know what to do. Since it’s very early in the season, I may not be able to jump impressive heights. But my focus is different, I want to see where I’m at the moment, set a mark and start working from there,” he added. Tamberi, meanwhile, after his Olympic gold went on to win the Diamond League title last year and made a last-minute decision to compete at the World Indoor Championships two months ago, leaving Belgrade with a bronze medal. Today, both Barshim and Tamberi will have their task cut out. If recent form is anything to go by, then world indoor champion Woo Sanghyeok will start as the marginal favourite. The Korean was fourth at the Olympics last year, cleared a world-leading 2.36m earlier this year and then won the world indoor title. He opened his outdoor season last month with a 2.30m win in Daegu. Other contenders include Commonwealth champion Brandon Starc, world indoor bronze medallist Hamish Kerr of New Zealand and US jumps talent JuVaughn Harrison.      

Qatar to face Ecuador in FIFA World Cup opener

The opening match of the FIFA World Cup 2022 will see hosts Qatar play against Ecuador at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor on November 21. Qatar, who will be making their World Cup debut at home, will also face African champions Senegal and three-time runner-up The Netherlands in other Group A matches. The Final draw was held at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Centre yesterday after a short but dazzling live performances, which showcased a mix of Qatar’s culture and modern development. As the coaches and representatives of the 29 qualified teams took their seats and waited anxiously to find out their opponents for Middle East’s first World Cup, their nerves would have eased, albeit temporarily, as Qatar put on a glittering ceremony. There was references to the Arab culture and surprising acts that included the unveiling of the official mascot La’eeb and the launch of the Official Soundtrack, with the first live performance of the single Hayya Hayya (Better Together), a reggae and R&B influenced track by Qatari artist Aisha and American singers Trinidad Cardona and Davido. The stage – which resembled the swing and lightness of the dhow boat – was set on fire with an audiovisual performance of the traditional musical art of fijiri, followed by a motivational speech from one of the Arab world’s most well-known actresses Sherihan from Egypt. With just over 230 days to go for the football’s showpiece event, yesterday’s Final draw has set the path for the 29 teams that have qualified so far, along with the eight teams that remain in contention, three of whom will seal the last spots up for grabs in June. Asian Champions Qatar, who will be backed by a vociferous home crowd, could not have asked for a relatively easier start to their campaign as they take on South Americans Ecuador. Felix Sanchez’s men then will have to brace for tougher opponents as they face Senegal and the Netherlands – a shock victory in any one of the two matches holding key to their knockout hopes. If Qatar do make it to the last 16 as Group A winners or runner-up, they could run into any of England, US and Iran, who are all in Group B. One of Wales, Scotland or Ukraine will take up the last spot in the Group B after the European play-offs in June. The 2010 champions Spain will face 2014 winners Germany in a tough Group E with Japan and the winner of the Costa Rica versus New Zealand playoff in June. Four-time champions Germany were in Pot Two, making them the obvious team to avoid for the top seeds in the draw. They were knocked out of the 2018 tournament in Russia in the group stage. Defending champions France will face Denmark, Tunisia and the winner of the intercontinental playoff between Peru and Australia in Group D. Record five-time winners Brazil will play Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon in Group G, while two-time champions Argentina drew Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Robert Lewandowski’s Poland in Group C. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, who needed a play-off win against North Macedonia last week to qualify for Qatar 2022, are placed in Group H with Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea in Group H. Croatia, runners-up in 2018, were drawn with Belgium and Morocco in Group F, which was completed by a Canada side returning to the World Cup for the first time in 26 years. For the first time, to optimise specific match details for the benefit and comfort of supporters and teams, the match schedule will be confirmed in due course by FIFA after games have been assigned to a stadium and kick-off time for each match. Before the draw was held, FIFA president FIFA president Gianni Infantino promised the event would “simply be the best tournament ever”. “What an emotion it is to be here. Now we know that it is for real and that’s why I wish you all welcome for the draw of Qatar 2022. This World Cup will simply be the best World Cup ever. The World will be united in Qatar. My first thanks goes to the people of Qatar, to the people of the Gulf and the people of Arab.  This will be the World of unity and the World Cup of Peace,” Infantino said. Yesterday’s draw was attended by 2,000 guests, and featured former World Cup winners Cafu of Brazil and Germany’s Lothar Matthaeus among the draw assistants. They were joined by Adel Ahmed MalAllah (Qatar), Ali Daei (Iran), Bora Milutinovic (Serbia/Mexico), Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria), Rabah Madjer (Algeria) and Tim Cahill (Australia). They were supported by a conducting team comprised of Women’s World Cup two-time champion Carli Lloyd, football pundit and former England player Jermaine Jenas and British-Jamaican sports presenter Samantha Johnson. The draw ceremony was presented by award-winning British actor Idris Elba and broadcaster Reshmin Chowdhury. FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 groups Group A: Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands Group B: England, Iran, USA, Wales or Scotland or Ukraine Group C: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland Group D: France, Peru or UAE or Australia, Denmark, Tunisia Group E: Spain, Costa Rica or New Zealand, Germany, Japan Group F: Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia Group G: Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon Group H: Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea * World Cup to be played from Nov 21 to Dec18 * Intercontinental playoffs to be contested on June 13-14 in Qatar: i) Winner of United Arab Emirates v Australia face Peru ii) New Zealand v Costa Rica -- European playoffs to be held in June on dates to be announced

Qataru2019s coach Felix Sanchez arrives for the draw for the FIFA World Cup 2022 at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center yesterday. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Sanchez says Qatar aim to be competitive in the World Cup

Doha • Qatar will play against Ecuador on November 21 at the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor Coach Felix Sanchez said Qatar will aim to be competitive in the FIFA World Cup, after the hosts were drawn to play Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands in Group A yesterday. Qatar will make their World Cup at home and they will undoubtedly be under huge pressure as they take the field for the first game against Ecuador on November 21 at the 60,000 -capacity Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor. Their biggest challenge, however, will come against African champions Senegal and three-time World Cup runners-up the Netherlands. Sanchez, who led Qatar to its maiden Asian title in 2019, felt Qatar could have been drawn in any group against any team and it would still have been tough for them. “To be honest any group, any team will be very, very tough for us,” Sanchez said after the draw ceremony at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center yesterday. “You have to see the FIFA ranking or the history of each of the teams that are here. We are proud to be here today in the draw ceremony. We now know our opponents, so now we’re going to start preparing for these three games in our best way and try to be as competitive as we can,” the Spaniard added. The last time Qatar faced Ecuador in a friendly on October 12, 2018 at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, they won a thriller 4-3. It was just a year since Sanchez had taken charge of Qatar. Twelve players who took part in that match are key members of the current Qatar squad. However, Ecuador have been in terrific form lately, having finished fourth in the hugely competitive South American qualifiers to seal a place for the World Cup.   Sanchez said Qatar team will try to put their best foot forward in front of the home fans. “We have played Ecuador before. So we’re going to try to prepare and to show our best level in front of our people. I think that’s the most important. The first game in a tournament is always the most important because it gives you the feeling how the team will perform during the competition,” Sanchez said. Provided Qatar get off to a decent start, their passage to the knockout stage could pivot on their final game of the group. And that will come against the power of the Netherlands on November 29. Meanwhile, Ecuador will be playing at their fourth World Cup. After missing out on the 2018 World Cup in Russia, they were indebted to Coach Gustavo Alfaro for taking them back to the global stage. “I am excited we are playing against Qatar in the opening match. I am happy Ecuador will be competing at the biggest stage of football after missing out from the last World Cup in Russia” Alfaro said yesterday.    My past experience in coaching Saudi Arabia has helped understand GCC football better, which will be useful for our World Cup preparations. Qatar has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure it’s ready to host the World Cup, whether in terms of hotels or the infrastructure in general,” added the  Argentine, who picked Belgium, Brazil, The Netherlands and France as the top contenders for the title. Meanwhile, Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal said the Dutch had received a kinder World Cup draw than their last appearance in the finals in 2014. In 2014, the Dutch won a group containing Chile, Spain and Australia and went on to reach the semi-finals. “It is a better draw than 2014, but that means nothing,” the Dutch coach told the NOS public broadcaster. “We will still prepare ourselves well.” Van Gaal had predicted before the draw that the Dutch would face the host nation. “It was a gamble, but of course it’s nice when a gamble becomes true,” he said. “I haven’t been to Qatar or Senegal that often... so I don’t know these countries that well. But we have very good scouts that will look into things. They will analyse our opponents and until now they have done fantastic work,” the former Manchester United manager added. “In 2014 we ended up in the toughest group, with world champions Spain, Chile, which was the number three in South America at the time, and Australia’s fighting team. The duel with Australia (a 3-2 Dutch win) ended up being our most difficult match. Compared to then, this draw is more favourable, even if this time we have to play against the champions of Africa,” Van Gaal said. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil

A miniature model of the Lusail Stadium for the upcoming FIFA 2022 World Cup in soccer later this year is seen.
Qatar 2022 set for key milestone with final draw ceremony on Friday

Qatar will step an inch closer to hosting the FIFA World Cup later this year, with the draw for the football’s showpiece event to be held on Friday. The who’s who of the football world will converge at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center, where the show will start at 7pm, with 29 qualified teams set to know their opponents. The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy has promised few surprises on the sidelines of the event, but the teams will be hoping they do not have to draw tough opponents in the group stages to begin with. Qatar, who will be making their World Cup debut, have been seeded along with the seven top-ranked teams. As hosts, Qatar are in Pot 1 and will be represented by a different-coloured ball and pre-assigned to position A1. The Asian Champions will avoid facing new World No.1 Brazil, Belgium, defending champions France, Argentina, England, Spain and Portugal until the knockout rounds. Pot 2 is populated by the next eight highest-ranked qualifiers and includes the United States, Mexico, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Uruguay, Switzerland and Croatia while Pot 3 is made up of next eight best-ranked qualified teams: Senegal, Iran, Japan, Morocco, Serbia, Poland, South Korea and Tunisia. For the first time in the World Cup's 92-year history, three of the 32 entries in the draw will be placeholders because the three-year qualifying program was delayed due to Covid-19 pandemic, and is still ongoing. It means 37 nations will be involved in the draw today, including five which will ultimately not play when the first World Cup kicks off on November 21. One of the balls being drawn from pot 4 of low-ranked teams will represent Peru or Australia or the United Arab Emirates. Another is Ukraine or Wales or Scotland and Costa Rica or New Zealand. The rest of Pot 4 includes Cameroon, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia and Ghana along with Canada. The full line-up will not be known until at least June 14, with three qualification spots still to be contested, with one European and two Intercontinental Play-Offs still to be played. No country from the same confederation can be drawn against each other with two exceptions. As Europe has 13 teams in the draw and there are only eight groups, some groups will contain more than one nation from the UEFA qualifiers. The same applies to any team coming from the intercontinental playoffs. Each four-team group is a round-robin of six games in total. The order each team plays the other is decided by another draw within the ceremony. After each team is drawn, a subsequent ball – numbered 1, 2, 3 or 4 – is picked to place that country in the fixture grid. This unpredictability means the two highest-ranked teams in a group could meet in any of the three rounds. The top two teams in each group – where goal difference is the first tiebreaker – advance to the round of 16. A team’s path through to the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final is set in the bracket. If Qatar advances as the Group A winner, it must then play the Group B runner-up. Teams which advance from the same group cannot meet again until the final. The draw will be attended by 2,000 guests and will be hosted by former US international and FIFA Women’s World Cup winner Carli Lloyd, former footballer and English television presenter Jermaine Jenas and anchor Samantha Johnson. The trio will be assisted by the likes of former footballers Cafu (Brazil), Lothar Matthaus (Germany), Adel Ahmed MalAllah (Qatar), Ali Daei (Iran), Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria), Rabah Madjer (Algeria), Tim Cahill (Australia) and Bora Milutinovic (Serbia), who as coach steered five different teams to consecutive World Cups – Mexico (1986), Costa Rica (1990), United States (1994), Nigeria (1998) and China (2022). The draw will serve as a giant milestone for Qatar, which has left no stone unturned to host the Middle East’s first FIFA World Cup. Since winning the historic bid in 2010, Qatar has always been ahead of the progress in terms of getting the infrastructure ready. Seven of the eight stadiums that will host the matches are already operational with Lusail Stadium, which will host the final on December 19 waiting to be inaugurated. At the FIFA Congress yesterday, the global governing body’s President Gianni Infantino said Qatar would host ‘a fantastic World Cup because it would be a unique tournament.’ "It will be a great celebration, a great celebration of humanity, bringing the world together, an opportunity for the Arab world to present itself to the entire world, and an opportunity for the entire world to come and meet the Arab world, its culture, its history, and to celebrate all together," Infantino said.    

Al Duhail players celebrate with the trophy after winning the Amir Cup at the Khalifa International Stadium yesterday. Duhail won the prestigious title for the fourth time after they outplayed Al Gharafa 5-1 in the final. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Duhail outplay Gharafa to emerge Amir Cup champions

Doha Al Duhail saved their best for the big occasion as the Red Knights’ sealed an empathic 5-1 win over Al Gharafa in the final to clinch the 50th edition of the Amir Cup yesterday. At the Khalifa International Stadium, there were five different scorers for Duhail, but it was Edmilson Junior who stole the spotlight, putting on a brilliant performance worthy of a marquee clash. The Belgian midfielder started the goal rush with a sixth-minute strike before setting it up for Michael Olunga (18’) and Almoez Ali (52’). Ferjani Sassi (58’) and substitute Abdelrahman Mohamed Moustafa (85’) also found the net with Duhail deservedly claiming their fourth Amir Cup title.   For Al Gharafa, it was a night to forget with their only moment of hope coming in when Ahmed Alaaeldin struck in the 53rd minute. The Cheetah’s – seeking their eight Amir Cup title and first in 10 years – pushed hard after conceding the fourth goal, but with too much to do they could not get past a determined Duhail. Yesterday’s triumph not just helped Duhail overcome a disappointing QNB Stars League campaign, where they were a distant second to champions Al Sadd, but it also gave a perfect parting gift to their coach Luis Castro. Under Portuguese Castro, Duhail won 18 times and lost just thrice in 26 games, but none of the victories would have tasted better than yesterday’s victory over Gharafa. Duhail, who had edged past bitter rivals Sadd in the semi-finals, were in control throughout. Duhail captain Alomez Ali dedicated the title to departing coach Castro and fans of the club. “We had faced Al Gharafa on two occasions this season and they troubled us a lot. But this time we studied them well and were more than ready to take them on. We were clinical tonight,” the Qatari said. Before the kick-off, a small ceremony marked the golden jubilee of the Amir Cup with the flags of the past winning teams and previous trophies paraded. With His Highness the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani watching, a video tracing the history of the tournament was played on the big screen. Many stars of Qatari football also lined up on the pitch when a medal was presented to the Amir to mark the occasion. As the crowd barely settled into their seats after a brief ceremony, Duhail could have gone ahead. With just 30 seconds after the start, Olunga shot wide with just goalkeeper Yousuf Hassan Ali to beat. But Edmilson did not take long to put Duhail on board. The 27-year-old playmaker met a long ball from Toby Alderweireld and slotted in. Once Edmilson made the breakthrough for Duhail there was no way back for Gharafa, as Castro’s men looked dangerous in every attack. Alderweireld’s long range passes troubled Gharafa all night with the former Tottenham Hotspur defender finding Edmilson and Olunga regularly. In the 18th minute, Olunga doubled the lead after he slid in a perfect cross from Edmilson for his third Amir Cup goal for the season.   Alderweireld on the other half also put in a brilliant effort, as the Belgian cleared off the line to keep Gharafa’s Sofiane Hanni at bay. That was the closest Gharafa came to scoring as Duhail went into the halftime with a comfortable 2-0 lead. Post the break, Duhail increased the lead after some dazzling play by Edmilson. The midfielder cut inside three Gharafa players before sending it far post to Ismaeel Mohamed, who pulled it back to unmarked Almoez as the Duhail captain found the net with ease. Gharafa, however, pulled on back in the next minute after Hanni’s clever back flick finding Alaaeldin, who found the bottom right corner with a good finish. Gharafa’s small hopes for a fight back were nipped in the bud as semi-final hero Sassi restored Duhail’s three-goal lead. With a steep hill to climb, Gharafa gave it their all but Duhail goalkeeper Salah Zakaria was equally up to the task as he made some crucial saves. The match was all but over after Moustafa came off the bench to dink one past Ali in the 85th minute. “We played our best football in the final,” said Olunga, who scored his 25th goal of the season yesterday. “It’s a special golden jubilee trophy for us and a great way to end the season in which we played very well. We dedicate this title to all Al Duhail fans who have been supporting us. It’s a good moment for us all, the management and players who have put in a lot of hard work,” the Kenyan striker said. Perfect farewell for me at Al Duhail: Coach Castro Doha: Al Duhail coach Luis Castro said he could not have asked for a fitting farewell after his side won the Amir Cup title with a clinical 5-1 win over Al Gharafa at the Khalifa International Stadium yesterday. Castro left Duhail after Amir Cup triumph yesterday in what was a dream farewell for the Portuguese. “It is a perfect farewell for me at Al Duhail,” an elated Castro said yesterday.   “This Amir Cup victory was very important for us after we missed the league title due to injuries and absences of players. But, overall I achieved a lot here, perhaps I will return one day,” he added. “The match was not easy as Al Gharafa played with all their strength. But we controlled the match and managed to score goals,” he added. Duhail defender Karim Boudiaf said: “We were the best team today, but Gharafa played a good match too. We are happy to win the Amir Cup and also it coincides with the 50th edition of the tournament. The final match was not that easy as the scoreline suggests and we had to make every effort to win. Duhail coach Luis Castro (right) and captain Almoez Ali pose with the trophy

Al Duhail and Al Gharafa will step out of Al Saddu2019s absolute dominance in recent years, when the two sides clash in the final of the 50th edition of Amir Cup on Friday.
Determined Al Duhail up against youthful Al Gharafa

Al Duhail and Al Gharafa will step out of Al Sadd’s absolute dominance in recent years, when the two sides clash in the final of the 50th edition of Amir Cup on Friday. For once, on Friday at the Khalifa International Stadium, the spotlight won’t be on Sadd, who had won the Amir Cup and QNB Stars League title in the last two seasons. Duhail snuffed Sadd’s hopes of a hat-trick of Amir Cup titles, when they edged out their arch-rivals in the semi-finals on Monday and will start as a firm favourite to win their fourth title. With coach Luis Castro also bidding adieu to Duhail after the final, the players will be no short of inspiration for the high stakes contest. Having said that, Al Gharafa’s youthful brigade could spring a surprise with a special atmosphere of the Amir Cup final spurring them on. Both sides have been inconsistent this season, but Duhail, having finished second behind Sadd in the league, possess the firepower. Their attacking trio Michael Olunga, Edmilson and Qatari star Almoez Ali will be difficult to stop for a wobbly Gharafa defence. Olunga, in particular, has been in sensational form since the Kenya striker joined Duhail two seasons ago. The 27-year-old was the top scorer at the recently-concluded QNB Stars League with 24 goals and was the key reason Duhail finished second in the top flight. Edmilson, Olunga’s main assist provider from the wings, said no team is a favourite in a Cup final. “In Cup games, no team has more chances of winning. It's completely different from league games,” the Belgian said yesterday. “The chances are the same, for us and for Al Gharafa. We will try our best to win this trophy for our club, our fans, and as a farewell gift for our coach. Playing at a FIFA World Cup venue is a big honour. Tomorrow's final will be a sporting carnival, and not just any normal game,” he added. Castro, in his last match in charge of Duhail, believes his players will need to cut down on minor mistakes if they want to emerge victorious today. “Al Gharafa deserves to be in the final. They have shown a different level in the Amir Cup as compared to the QSL. In order to win the final, we need to avoid all errors, major and minor. I have a great group of players and I have full confidence in them,” the Portuguese coach said. Gharafa, who beat Al Wakrah 4-1 in the semis, will be aiming for their eighth Amir Cup title and first since 2012. They finished fifth in the league, with their defence frailties being exposed on numerous occasions. Gharafa lost to Duhail both times they faced them in the league and it will take a mighty effort for them to beat their fancied rivals today. Gharafa’s hopes hinge on Sofiane Hanni, with the Algerian midfielder posing the biggest threat in attack. They also have Cheick Diabate and Ahmed Alaaeldin, who could provide them goals. Coach Andrea Stramaccioni said his side ‘deserved’ to be in the final and will have an uphill task against Duhail. “We deserve to reach the Amir Cup final because we displayed strong performances in every game that we played in the tournament,” the Italian said yesterday. “We will face one of the best clubs in Qatar, and also in Asia. We have the character of champions, although our club hasn't won a title recently. I am happy with my work at Al Gharafa. We are working hard to reach the point we wish to go, and I hope all our fans will be there tomorrow to support us,” he added. Gharafa left-back Homam El Amin was excited to play in his first Amir Cup final. “Our goal is to win the trophy after a long gap. We hope we can make it up to our fans by winning the title. We have overcome the disappointment of losing out on fourth place in the QSL. All the players are excited for tomorrow's game. We will go into the game with all our strength. I am excited to play in my first final,” he said.    

From left: Second-placed Gresini Racingu2019s Enea Bastianini, pole-sitter Pramac Ducatiu2019s Jorge Martin and third-placed Hondau2019s Marc Marquez pose on the podium following the qualifying session for the MotoGP Grand Prix of Qatar at the Losail International Circuit on Saturday. Photo by: Noushad Thekkayil
Martin claims Qatar pole, Marquez also in front row

Jorge Martin stormed into his second Grand Prix of Qatar pole and fifth of his career after posting a scintillating lap at the Losail International Circuit on Saturday. The Pramac Ducati rider made the best use of 2022-spec engines as he took a surprise front row for Sunday's race. The Spaniard had also taken the pole last year in one of the two Grand Prix’s Qatar hosted last year but had to eventually settle for third spot. Martin will be hoping to stand on top of the podium this time and his qualifying performance yesterday suggests he will be one of the contenders. Martin will be joined on the front row by Italian Enea Bastianini for Gresini, which has switched to Ducati bikes this season, and six-times world champion Marc Marquez of Honda. Reigning champion Fabio Quartararo was only 11th on his Yamaha, with the Frenchman’s underwhelming pre-season testing performance laid bare in qualifying yesterday. The 24-year-old Martin has become somewhat of a qualifying specialist, having taken four pole positions last year in his rookie MotoGP season, where he finished ninth in the championship. It was a creditable performance from a rider, who had to miss five races after a serious accident during practice in Portugal. The Spaniard, however, unleashed his potential after his comeback as he claimed the Styrian GP to become only the third rider in the modern 1,000cc era to win a race in his rookie season, after Marquez in 2013, and Brad Binder in 2020. Martin wasn’t too optimistic of his victory in today’s race, clearly concerned by the lack of race pace. “I feel good always to be on pole position,” he said. “But I am not 100 percent happy because I lack a bit of race pace.” Martin concurred with the popular opinion in the paddock as he labelled Suzuki as pre-race favourites. Heading into qualifying as the first and third quickest riders on combined times, Alex Rins and Joan Mir had a very disappointing Q2 as they finished eighth and tenth respectively. Martin felt Suzuki’s sub-par qualifying performance won’t matter much on the race day. “I bet on Rins and Mir because I feel they are the strongest ones. I hope to be there and fight with them. Here we are saying all the same; I think Suzuki has been very strong. They have more power for sure,” he noted. In the windy and dusty conditions, Marquez threw the gauntlet down as the factory Honda rider set a 1m53.566 secs on his opening lap, as he ducked out of Mir’s slipstream on the straight to take over top spot. Racing with a hybrid 2021/2022 engine, Ducati’s Jack Miller edged ahead of Marquez but the latter set the fastest time again after Francesco Bagnaia. Martin, who was under Marquez’ time through the first three sectors of his penultimate lap, got a perfect slipstream from Pol Espargaro to eventually set a 1:53.011s – three tenths quicker. There was a late scare for Martin as Enea Bastianini looked set to beat his time, however, without a slipstream to aid him, the Gresini rider had to settle for second – his best qualifying result in MotoGP. Behind the front row of Martin, Bastianini and Marquez will be Miller and both Espargaro brothers – Aleix ahead of Pol. Marquez, who missed the start of last season still rehabbing a badly broken right arm and sat out the end of the campaign with double vision after a crash, said he ‘can fight’ for victory in today’s race but doesn’t feel he has the pace ‘for winning.’ “For me, the most important thing was FP4, where I ride alone, I had a consistent pace, and the lap time was coming in a good way. So, let’s see tomorrow. It’s true that we need to manage many factors; it’s the first race, the tyres, fuel, the track, all these things. But the butterflies in the stomach will be there, so let’s see how we can manage,” the 29-year-old said. “This morning I was still too far from the top guys, but this afternoon I was very close. This is enough for me and I’m happy with that pace because it’s true that I’m not the fastest guy out there but I can fight for top positions – not for winning. It depends on the conditions because, for example, Suzuki was fast all weekend and tonight struggled a lot, but tomorrow will be different. My main challenge is to understand 22 laps in a row. I feel OK, I don’t feel pain, so this is something that makes me happy,” he added. Meanwhile, Quartararo said he was ‘not super angry’ after qualifying a disappointing 11th, one row behind his closest rival last season Italian Bagnaia, who is in ninth place. The defending champion only sneaked into the final session after being forced into the first qualifying and finishing second fastest to grab the last place in the 12-rider shootout for pole position. “Well, to be honest I feel great on the bike. I just put myself on the limit, but I’m not an engineer. I give my 100% every time I go on track and today, tomorrow and until the end of the season. But it was tough,” Quartararo said. “I’m just a rider that is on the bike, I push myself 100%. Coming into Qatar I expected much better, but like always on the pace I’m fast. But looking at the practice, qualifying practice, I’m not super angry because I know I did my best and I could not do much better. So, to be honest I don’t know what to say,” he added. In Moto2 and Moto3, the first poles of the season went to Italy’s Celestino Vietti (Kalex) and Spain’s Izan Guevara (GASGAS). The Grand Prix of Qatar is the first of a record 21-race season climaxing in Valencia, Spain, on November 6. Grids for Qatar Grand Prix MOTOGP FRONT ROW 1. Jorge Martin (ESP/Ducati-Pramac) 1min 53.011sec, 2. Enea Bastianini (ITA/Ducati-Gresini) 1:53.158, 3. Marc Marquez (ESP/Honda) 1:53.283 2ND ROW 4. Jack Miller (AUS/Ducati) 1:53.298, 5. Aleix Espargaro (ESP/Aprilia) 1:53.319, 6. Pol Espargaro (ESP/Honda) 1:53.346 3RD ROW 7. Brad Binder (RSA/KTM) 1:53.350, 8. Joan Mir (ESP/Suzuki) 1:53.407, 9. Francesco Bagnaia (ITA/Ducati) 1:53.411 4th ROW 10. Alex Rins (ESP/Suzuki) 1:53.481, 11. Fabio Quartararo (FRA/Yamaha) 1:53.635, 12. Franco Morbidelli (ITA/Yamaha) 1:53.982 MOTO2 1. Celestino Vietti (ITA/Kalex) 1min 59.082sec, 2. Tony Arbolino (ITA/Kalex), 1:59.194, 3. Sam Lowes (GB/Kalex) 1:59.226 2ND ROW 4. Filip Salac (CZE/Kalex) 1:59.287, Ai Ogura (JPN/Kalex) 1:59.302, Augusto Fernandez (ESP/Kalex) 1.59.339 MOTO3 1. Izan Guevara (ESP/GasGas) 2:04.811, Ayumu Sasaki (JPN/Husqvarna) 2:04.896, 3. Jaume Masia (ESP/KTM) 2:05.023 2ND ROW 4. Andrea Migno (ITA/Honda) 2:05.174, 5. Dennis Foggia (ITA/Honda) 2:05.536, 6. Ryusei Yamanaka (JPN/KTM) 2:05.536 

Italian Enea Bastianini crosses the finish line to win the Grand Prix of Qatar at the Losail International Circuit yesterday. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Bastianini claims emotional maiden victory for Gresini

There wasn’t a dry eye left in the Gresini Ducati garage as Enea Bastianini secured a maiden MotoGP win at the Grand Prix of Qatar on Sunday. The Italian’s victory at the Losail International Circuit was an emotional one for Gresini after team founder Fausto Gresini – a double 125cc world champion in the 1980s – died in February last year after a lengthy battle with Covid-19. After Fausto’s passing away, his wife Padovani took charge of the independent team and partnered with Ducati to field 2021-spec bikes for the new season. As Bastianini took the chequered flag yesterday, team principal Padovani broke down in tears as she was mobbed by the crew. Bastianini himself was emotional as the rider celebrated wildly and later dedicated his first victory in motorcycling's premier class to former team boss Fausto. "I think now it's incredible," said Bastianini, the Moto2 champion in 2020 who rejoined Gresini Racing this season after beginning his career with the team in Moto3. "I dedicate this victory to Fausto. He pushed me a lot from the skies, and it's fantastic for all the team. I think we've all been crying," the 24-year-old added. After overtaking Honda's Pol Espargaro on lap 19, Bastianini – who started from second – had to stave off a late challenge from Red Bull KTM's Brad Binder. The South African Binder, who made a blistering start from seventh on the grid, ran out of laps to challenge Bastianini to finish ahead of Espargaro. Spaniard Espargaro led for most of the race, before he was out-dragged by Bastianini, with the Honda rider’s hopes of fighting back ending at Turn 1 when he ran out wide and let Binder through. Espargaro’s mistake allowed Bastianini to put 1.3s between himself and the rest of the pack, though Binder would come back towards him on the final lap. But Bastianini would keep it clean to get to the chequered flag 0.346s clear of Binder, while Espargaro gave the radically revised 2022 Honda its first podium in third. "At the end Pol was really close to me. I understood that now I could try to win the race, and I overtook Pol on the first corner after he went out," said Bastianini. Espargaro’s brother Aleix on an Aprilia was fourth ahead of Honda's six-time MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez. Suzuki duo Joan Mir and Alex Rins failed to replicate their success from practice, crossing the line in sixth and seventh respectively. Reigning champion Fabio Quartararo of France finished ninth after a challenging weekend on his Yamaha. Pole-sitter Jorge Martin made a horror start and slid to eighth on the opening lap, before the Pramac Ducati was taken out by factory Ducati’s Francesco Bagnaia on lap 12. After Martin’s terrible start, it was Pol Espargaro who shot into the lead with Honda teammate Marquez second. While Espargaro kept Marquez at bay the latter ran wide at Turn 1 to allow Binder ahead. Meanwhile, further back Bagnaia’s factory Ducati teammate Jack Miller had to retire at the end of lap seven with a technical issue as the Australian stormed out of the paddock after going in. The nightmare for Ducati continued on lap 12 when Bagnaia crashed trying to overtake Martin at Turn 1 and took the Pramac rider with him. Espargaro, meanwhile, extended his lead to more than a second on lap 13, with Binder coming under intense pressure from Bastianini and Marquez. A lap later, Bastianini – in his second season in MotoGP –cleared Binder at Turn 1 and began to close in on Espargaro’s lead. The pressure paid off when Bastianini overtook Espargaro with four laps to go, using the Honda rider's slipstream before he went wide in an attempt to defend his position and dropped to third. After a humbling start to his title defence, Quartararo said he was “worried” about his title defence. “Well, knowing that last year we won both races in Qatar and now we finish basically behind, quite far back, of course I’m worried,” the Frenchman said. “I will not say I’m confident. We made the fourth row, going to Q1 in Qatar. So, I will say I cannot be super confident. But I’ll always say, I am not an engineer. My job is to give 100% and focus for every race, and I give my 100% in every condition; if I’m fighting for the victory, P3, P5, P9, I give my 100%,” he said. Martin, who clinched pole in Saturday’s qualifying, was more concerned about his pace than being taken out of the race by Bagnaia. "I didn't start well, anyway I was still top three, but I got close to Enea and had to close the throttle. A lot of riders overtook me and from then everything went wrong," Martin said. "Actually, it was the first time I had a fear about my life because I was really fast into the gravel between both bikes and I think I pushed one bike, Pecco's bike, with my hand," he added. Meanwhile, Celestino Vietti of Kalex emerged winner in the Moto2 race while Andrea Migno claimed Moto3 victory on his Honda. The Grand Prix of Qatar was the first of a record 21-race season, with the next race scheduled for March 20 in Indonesia. Grand Prix Qatar results MotoGP: 1. Enea Bastianini (ITA/Ducati-Gresini) 42min 13.198sec, 2. Brad Binder (RSA/KTM) at 0.346sec, 3. Pol Espargaro (ESP/Honda) 1.351, 4. Aleix Espargaro (ESP/Aprilia) 2.242, 5. Marc Marquez (ESP/Honda) 4.099, 6. Joan Mir (ESP/Suzuki) 4.843, 7. Alex Rins (ESP/Suzuki) 8.810, 8. Johann Zarco (FRA/Ducati-Pramac) 10.536, 9. Fabio Quartararo (FRA/Yamaha) 10.543, 10. Takaaki Nakagami (JPN/Honda-LCR) 14.967 World championship standings 1. Enea Bastianini (ITA/Ducati-Gresini) 25 pts, 2. Brad Binder (RSA/KTM) 20, 3. Pol Espargaro (ESP/Honda) 16, 4. Aleix Espargaro (ESP/Aprilia) 13, 5. Marc Marquez (ESP/Honda) 11, 6. Joan Mir (ESP/Suzuki) 10, 7. Alex Rins (ESP/Suzuki) 9, 8. Johann Zarco (FRA/Ducati-Pramac) 8, 9. Fabio Quartararo (FRA/Yamaha) 7, 10. Takaaki Nakagami (JPN/Honda-LCR) 6    

Qatari rider Hamad al-Sahouti receives his trophy from Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation and Lusail Circuits Sports Club president Abdulrahman al-Mannai at the Losail International Circuit on Sunday.
Qatar’s al-Sahouti bags second place at Asia Talent Cup

Qatari rider Hamad al-Sahouti finished an impressive second in Race 2 of the opening leg of the Idemitsu Asia Talent Cup (ATC) at the Losail International Circuit on Sunday. Japan’s Amon Odaki was able to break clear in the latter stages and take his maiden ATC win, with wildcard and local hero al-Sahouti taking second ahead of Veda Ega Pratama of Indonesia in third. Al-Sahouti covered 14 laps and a distance of 75.32 kilometres in 30 minutes and 52.033 seconds, 1.313 behind Odaki. The promising al-Sahouti is the current leader of the Qatar Superstock Championship in the 300cc category and his latest podium finish comes as a significant achievement following his participation in competitions in European. Off the line, Odaki got a better start but didn’t quite keep the holeshot, with Malaysian Hakim Danish scything through to lead. As ever, it remained a group battle at the front though, with nine riders able to break away and fight it out. As the laps ticked down, it was duel between Odaki vs Pratama before al-Sahouti made the move. The Qatari rider put in a few fastest laps over the line, and the scene was set for a showdown to the wire. While Odaki pulled away to victory, Pratama, tucked in behind, suffered a huge moment – and pulled off an incredible save. The Indonesian stayed on but was shuffled back in the group, and in the wake of the incident a gap opened up between Odaki and the chasing pack. It was a slipstream showdown won by al-Sahouti as the wildcard took second and his first podium. Pratama, despite having dropped back after his moment, completed the podium.      

Marc Marquez
Returning Marquez betting on himself for season opener

On the eve of the MotoGP season-opening Grand Prix of Qatar, six riders were asked about their championship predictions at the Lusail International Circuit on Thursday. While most of them, unsurprisingly, had put their money on themselves, Marc Marquez also held a placard with his name on it before saying it with a chuckle: “I always bet on myself. Even if I’m injured, I will bet on myself!” The Spaniard has endured a nightmare last couple of seasons but chose to see the funny side of it. The Honda rider suffered a broken arm from a crash, which cut short his 2020 season, before he was forced to miss the final two rounds of 2021 and sit on the sidelines for three months when a concussion suffered in a training accident left him with double vision issues due to nerve damage. During a period of uncertainty – in which he has three wins in 15 races out of a possible 32 starts – the 29-year-old also thought of calling it quits. But after a sufficient rest and a successful pre-season testing last month, Marquez is ready to challenge for the crown, which was won by Frenchman Fabio Quartararo in Yamaha last season. Marquez is also chasing retired Italian legend Valentino Rossi’s record of seven top-flight world titles. The Spaniard has six and if he can keep himself fit and avoid crashing his Honda often, he can fight for the title. “Yeah of course I’m happy to be here,” said Marquez yesterday. “It’s already better than last year and that’s important. After the winter it wasn’t clear but it was important to test in Malaysia and Mandalika, after Mandalika I felt a step with my physical condition and that’s important. Let’s see how to start the first race, for 2022 I want to fight all these guys for the title of course, maybe for the Qatar GP I’m not ready, during the weekend we will understand where we are,” he added. Marquez will be racing for the first time since 2019 in Qatar, a track where he has traditionally struggled and has won just once. While he is unsure of his victory this weekend at the Lusail International Circuit, he is hoping the revamped and much-improved RC213V can put him among the title challengers. “They took a big step on the bike,” said Marquez. “Honestly it feels like I changed the brand because it’s a completely different bike. Since I arrived in Honda there was always improvement but the character of the bike was always similar, but now it’s a big change. In Malaysia I struggled a bit but I felt the potential because in one lap the lap time was coming, but in Mandalika I was bringing the bike to my riding style already and I felt a step. During the first races we will find small things, but the base is nice, it’s good, and yeah let’s see in qualifying and race conditions where we are,” he said. Meanwhile, reigning champion Fabio Quartararo will head into the new season with a whole set of uncertainties. The 22-year-old became the first Frenchman to win the title last season, but things have been far from ideal in pre-season testing as he cut a dispirited figure due to the new bike’s lack of pace. Quartararo finished on the podium 10 times last year, with five race wins, to lift the title but he is worried about the lack of improvement in the Yamaha YZR-M1’s top speed. The signs were there last season when Quartararo struggled to keep up with the accelerating Ducatis as Italian Francesco Bagnaia won four of the last six races. To add to his problems on track, Quartararo is also out of contract at Yamaha at the end of this season as he chooses to keep his options ‘wide open.’ “To be honest it’s great to be back and when the season is over, the weeks are going quickly, but when you’re close to riding in Qatar, the last week was long and it’s great to be here. I think pre-season was good, we expected a bit more top speed. It is what it is, we need to give 100% in any case. I’m ready and looking forward to starting tomorrow,” said Quartararo. With his rivals, especially Ducati, showing signs of improvement in pre-season testing, Quartararo braces for the toughest challenge to defend his world title. “It’s so difficult. Last year you could say five or six riders but now I could say anyone. Of course the guys that are here today, but it’s difficult to say a few. We will need to wait a little bit more to see the clear opponents,” he said. The strongest contender by sheer pace on the bike is Ducati’s Bagnaia. The last year’s runner-up is fresh off a new two-year deal that will take Bagnaia and Ducati to the end of the 2024 season. The 25-year-old will be aiming for Ducati’s first riders’ championship title since Casey Stoner dominated the grid in 2007. The Italian heads into round one at Lusail with Ducati’s all-new GP 22 bike possessing more power than its predecessor that was untouchable on the straights last year. “It’s always that Ducati looks the best but the last time they won was in 2007. It’s very difficult to say if another bike is better,” said Bagnaia. “I’m not saying Yamaha was better last year because Quartararo won. I think my bike and the bike in the last part of the season was the best one I tried, but I don’t know if it’s the best because I haven’t tried Suzuki, Yamaha, KTM or Honda. For me it’s the best bike, but I don’t know if it’s the best one (on the grid),” he said. As for Suzuki, the ever-consistent 2020 champion Joan Mir finished third last year and the Spaniard will be in the mix for the title once again.       

Algeriau2019s players celebrate winning the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 final at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor Saturday. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Algeria claim maiden Arab Cup title

  • Two extra-time goals give Algeria the crown in front of 60,456 fans at Al Bayt Stadium Amir Sayoud’s stunning strike in the first half of the extra time led Algeria to their maiden Arab Cup title after a pulsating final against Tunisia Saturday. The magnificent Al Bayt Stadium was a perfect backdrop for the North African derby, with 60,456 crowd attendance creating a terrific atmosphere as both teams went full tilt for the title. In the end, it was Algeria who showed more mental resolve as Tunisians faded after a bright start. After it ended goalless in regulation time, substitute Sayoud silenced the majority Tunisian support with a sublime strike in the ninth minute of the extra time. The 30-year-old midfielder picked up a clever back-heel pass from Baghdad Bounedjah, made two touches before firing it into the left top corner. With all the Tunisia players camped in Algerian half in search for an equaliser, Yacine Brahimi had all the time in the world to score one minute before the final whistle to send his teammates into frenzy. Tunisia players with their silver medals “I present this victory to the Algerian people,” said Sayoud. “I missed other scoring chances but I finally managed to find the net to give the victory to my team,” he added. Algeria, who won the Africa Cup of Nations title in 2019, — their first since 1990 — have achieved a rare feat of being the Arab Cup champions too. Tunisia were aiming for their second Arab title, after having won the inaugural edition in 1963, but The Eagles of Carthage ran out of energy as final progressed. Algeria received a whopping $5mn for becoming champions, while runner-up Tunisians took home $3 million. “I am proud of my players’ achievement,” Algeria coach Bougherra said. “I said before the tournament if you want to claim the title you have to beat the topflight teams,” he added. Golden ball winner Algeria’s Yacine Brahimi (centre), silver ball winner Algeria’s Mohamed Belaili and bronze ball winner Qatar’s Akram Afif (left) pose on the podium. Throughout the tournament, Algeria have shown a knack of delivering at key moments and that was once again pivotal to their title triumph Saturday. The Desert Warriors had won their quarter-final against Morocco in penalties before inflicting a heartbreaking defeat on hosts Qatar with a goal in the 17th minute of stoppage time. Against Tunisia, their never-give-up attitude and determination helped them lay hands on the Arab Cup title. Madjid Bougherra’s men took a little time to get going yesterday. The crowd at Al Bayt Stadium were predominantly Tunisian and that may have played on their minds as they were subjected to a barrage of attacks from their rivals. The Fennecs, though, were right in the contest after absorbing the initial Tunisian pressure. But their hearts were in the mouth as Tunisia’s young midfielder Hanibal Mejbri went down theatrically after a being clipped by Ilyes Cheti in the 11th minute. A VAR check, though, ruled out a penalty, but three minutes later, Tunisia went closer after Bilel Ifa’s header off a free kick came off the crossbar. It was one-way traffic for Tunisia, till Algeria carved out a chance in the 21st minute, Tayeb Meziani was wide open in front of goal from less than six yards, but inexplicably failed to hit the target. Bougherra made a tactical change to thwart Tunisian dominance, with Meziani moving to the left wing, while Youcef Belaili switched to the right. But Tunisia still found the opening, as Naim Siliti’s striker was tipped just over the bar by Les Vert’s captain Rais M’Bolhi. The engaging opening 20 minutes turned into more of an ugly affair, with constant bickering by both set of players and fouls leading to break in plays as German referee Daniel Siebert dished out yellow cards like freebies.   Al Said star Bounedjah was in the thick of the action in the first half. Just before picking up a card, the striker played in a perfect cross for Meziani who sprayed his shot wide and to the relief of Algeria the offside flag was up. With half-time approaching, it all went a bit awry on the field as Tunisia’s Yusef Msakni and Seifeddine Jaziri were shown yellow cards along with Bounedjah for getting into fracas. Algeria came out more confident in the second half and it was them who were looking for a penalty after a headwall on Tunisian defender Ghaylène Chaalali. But after a quick VAR check, the ball was rightly ruled out to have hit Chaalali’s shoulder. Bougherra’s men controlled the play with domination as the Tunisians dropped in intensity, while they also missed the services of defender Yassine Meriah. There was another penalty call — this time from Tunisia after Mohamed Drager was brought down the box. Tunisians, who were looking to score on the counter, could have put the game to bed with extra time approaching. But tournament’s top-scorer Seifeddine Jaziri missed the net by inches as the intriguing clash went to extra time. The fresh legs of substitutes always play a key role in extra time and Sayoud proved it for Algeria in the 99th minute with a sublime strike. Desperate to take the game into penalties, Tunisia went all out but could not find the killer punch after a series of relentless attacks. The Tunisians had one final chance in the last minute of extra time, but once the corner was cleared by Algeria’s deep block, Brahimi sprinted to tap into open goal. Brahimi, who collected the Golden Ball award later, wheeled away in celebration and was mobbed by jubilant teammates with the referee’s final whistle lost in all the celebratory noise.

Algerian players look relaxed at a training session on the eve of their FIFA Arab Cup final against Tunisia Saturday.
North African derby for Arab glory

Two teams with attacking flair will clash in the final of the FIFA Arab Cup Saturday, in what should be a thriller at Al Bayt Stadium. While it’s tough to predict a winner, Algeria and Tunisia should provide a fitting final to the Arab world. Both the teams have taken a dramatic semi-final route to reach the final stage. Algeria inflicted a heartbreaking loss to Qatar, with Youcef Belaili scoring the winner in the 17th minute of stoppage time, while a 95th-minute own goal from Egypt captain Amr El-Sulaya gifted Tunisia a place in the final. Tunisia will rely on Captain Youssef Msakni (left) and Seifeddine Jaziri for goals against Algeria in the final Saturday. The last-gasp victories have shown Algeria and Tunisia are worthy finalists – a tribute in no small measure to their determination. Algeria will be aiming for their maiden Arab Cup title, with Tunisia aiming for their second after winning the inaugural tournament in 1963. Neither team are at full strength, but Algeria will be happier of the two going into the final. The Desert Warriors came to Qatar without international stars such as Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani, but have barely missed them. The African champions will rely once again on their lethal trio of Youssef Belaili, Yacine Brahimi and Baghdad Bounedjah. The Tunisian camp, meanwhile, wore a grim look Friday after they lost the services of Yassine Meriah. The defender tore his cruciate ligament during their semi-final clash with Egypt, in what is a big blow for coach Mondher Kebaier, as the 28-year-defender was one of the mainstays of the Tunisian defence and ever present until the injury. In Meriah’s absence, Kebaier will be forced to switch to back four to counter the threat of Belaili, Brahimi and Bounedjah. The Al Sadd star Bounedjah in Algeria’s danger man. The 30-year-old forward troubled the Qatari defence throughout his 68-minute stay against Qatar, before limping out with a muscle strain. Having said that, history is one Tunisia’s side. The Eagles of Carthage have not lost to Algeria in a competitive match at the senior level in 34 years. Their last defeat to North African neighbours was in the Africa Cup qualifiers in 1987. However, the last time these two sides met in a friendly on June 11 this year, Algeria prevailed with goals from Mahrez and Bounedjah. Algerian coach Madjid Bougherra did not make much of the past results, but said the history between the two sides meant it will be a tough match. “It’s a North African derby and both teams know each other well. It’s an open game and the team which will be best on the pitch will win,” Bougherra said Friday. “Since the day we have arrived in Qatar, we have just one goal, to win every match we play. We are only thinking about winning the trophy. Tunisia have a lot of experience and they deserved to be in the final. It will be like a match against Morocco as it is another North African derby. The team which will show better fighting spirit will win. We played very hectic matches without getting much time to recover and I hope the players will be fit and go into the match with fresh legs. We need to be very focused against Tunisia,” he added. Tunisian coach Mondher Kebaier will be hoping striker Seifeddine Jaziri and captain Youssef Msakni will match the threat of Algerian forwards. Jaziri with four goals is the tournament top scorer, while Msakni has netted two. But it’s the talented young midfielder Hannibal Mejbri, who has been named man of the match in the Carthage Eagles’ last three outings, who will hold key to his team’s title hopes. Manchester United midfielder Mejbri says winning the Arab Cup would mean ‘so much’ for the football-obsessed country of Tunisia. “Of course, I’m really, really excited for the final against Algeria. After all, it’s the final. We’re going to give absolutely everything and concentrate on our game,” he said. “It would mean so much, not just for the players but for the country as a whole. Everyone knows what it’s like in Africa and in Tunisia: we live, eat and sleep football. So if we were to win then it’d bring us even closer to our people, moving in the right direction together and it would give us so much strength to go on and achieve even more,” the 18-year-old said, Meanwhile, Tunisian coach Kebaier said his team will play against Algeria with full force with an aim to win the title. “We will use all our experience and talent to get the victory in the final. We want to win the title for our fans and injured Yassine Meriah. It will be a balanced match as both teams will enter with equal chance. We faced a lot of injuries and missed players due to Covid-19. We have to overcome the absence of Yassine Meriah also,” he said.

Qatar's Mohammed Muntari scores the team's first goal in the FIFA Arab Cup Semi Final match against Algeria at the Al Thumama Stadium, Doha,Wednesday. Algeria won 2-1 , setting up a final with Tunisia on Saturday
Late penalty breaks Qatar hearts as Algeria enter final

In a night of extraordinary scenes, Qatar bowed out of contention for the FIFA Arab Cup title after a dramatic 1-2 defeat to Algeria in the semi-finals Wednesday. The crowd at the Al Thumama stadium were treated to emotional rollercoaster ride after a stoppage time drama, in which Qatar’s substitute Mohamed Muntari headed home an equaliser in the seventh minute of stoppage time, but 10 minutes later – with stoppage time still in play – Algeria’s Youcef Belaili tapped the rebound into the net after goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb had saved the penalty. Djamel Benlamri had earlier handed Les Verts a deserved opener in the 59th minute. Algeria's Mohamed Belaili celebrates after scoring against Qatar in the FIFA Arab Cup semi-final at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha Wednesday. PICTURE Noushad Thekkayil It‘s the third successive time Qatar has lost in the semi-finals of a tournament, after ending with the same fate in the 2019 Arabian Gulf Cup at home and earlier this year in the Gold Cup in the United States. Algeria's players celebrate after winning However, this defeat will sting the Asian Champions more after they had staged a remarkable fight back late in the second half. Now Felix Sanchez’s men will have to do with a consolation third-place play off against Egypt on Saturday, as Algeria take on Tunisia in the final at Al Bayt Stadium on Qatar National Day. Qatar's Mohamed Muntari celebrates with teammates after scoring against Algeria FIFA president Gianni Infentino and Qatar Football Association president H.E. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmad al-Thani during the Qatar-Algeria FIFA Arab Cup semi-final at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha “I cannot say what happened but we gave our best,” a disappointed Abdelkarim Hassan said after the loss. “We wanted to reach the final and gave everything. I want to apologise to the fans for not winning this match but congratulations to Algeria,” the Qatar defender added. Once the Qatari players will come to terms with the heart-breaking loss to African champions Algeria, they will know in their hearts they put on an admirable show. On the eve of the tournament, Qatar were on a barren run of eight-match winless streak which also included some heavy losses to the European teams. In the group stage they won all the matches despite not being at their best and came into their own in the knockout stages – including a 5-0 thrashing of the United Arab Emirates in the quarter-finals. Against a superior Algeria team, though, it would have always taken something more special for Qatar to prevail. And they were not far from it. In fact, the hosts started on a bright note, creating two chances in the opening 15 minutes. Almoez Ali’s ambitious shot on the turn landed on top of the net, while Ismail Mohamad skied his shot from a tight angle. Sanchez continued to employ a high press game, but once the Algerians got the hang of it, they were in total control. The Desert Warriors had the fit-again Baghdad Bounedjah back in the XI and the Al Sadd star looked threatening every time he went into the box. He narrowly missed a whipped cross but provided Algeria’s best chance in the first half. In the 35th minute, Bounedjah played a perfect through pass to Brahimi but the Al Rayyan striker shot straight to al-Sheeb, who palmed the ball upwards before clutching on to it the second time. Algeria started the second half strongly and could have been 2-0 with Brahimi curling his shot wide and Bounedjah rattling the woodwork but was flagged offside. Boundjah came close yet again, this time the striker’s shot just wide of the far post. Algeria’s opener arrived in the 59th minute. After al-Sheeb came comes out of the six yard box to punch the ball away, it landed on the feet of Houcine Benayada, who volleyed a powerful shot which brushed of Djamel Benlamri and into the net With a goal behind and crowd on their side, Qatar upped their tempo as Algerian sat back defending their one-goal advantage. The hosts nearly had an equaliser after Boualem Khoukhi’s header was pushed away by a diving Rais M'Bolhi. Inexplicably, nine minutes were added after the full time and the tired Qatar players found one last bit of energy with Muntari’s towering header beating goalkeeper M'Bolhi. But as the clock ticked down to the last minute of extra time, Yacine Brahimi won a penalty in the box after a foul from Abdulaziz Hatem. Al-Sheeb dived to his right to save the penalty off Belaili, but cruelly the goalkeeper saw the Algerian tap in the rebound to send the Les Verts' fans into frenzy.

One standout feature of this Qatar squad is that they donu2019t get bogged down by fancied opponents or any external pressure. And, much of that credit goes to head coach Felix Sanchez.
Qatar face Algeria in battle of continental champions

One standout feature of this Qatar squad is that they don’t get bogged down by fancied opponents or any external pressure. And, much of that credit goes to head coach Felix Sanchez. The Spaniard, among many things, has instilled fearlessness, discipline and hunger among the current players – who many call as the golden generation of Qatar football. Most of them have played under Sanchez in the junior teams and they trust him completely, which obviously has helped them transition into senior stage and become Asian champions in 2019. As they go into the FIFA Arab Cup semi-final against Algeria at the Al Thumama today, Sanchez will be issuing a rallying cry to his players to believe in themselves that they can beat the African champions. Undoubtedly, despite the exclusion of international stars such as Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani, this Algerian team is still a force to be reckoned with. But a full strength Qatar side at home can beat anyone on their day. Qatar have played four games and won four of those, the only team with an all-win record among four Arab Cup semi-finalists. After struggling past Oman and Bahrain, they have beaten Iraq and the UAE with breeze. The 5-0 quarter-final thumping of the UAE, with all goals coming in the first half, showed how ruthless the Maroons can be. But Sanchez will know very well the high press and the pace upfront of Almoez Ali and Akram Afif, which troubled the UAE players will not faze the Algerians. Ahead of the game, Sanchez sounded upbeat, terming the match as another ‘opportunity’. “We have gone through four real tests so far and tomorrow is going to be another real test for us. We will have another opportunity and we will go with the ambition to reach the final,” Sanchez said yesterday. “We are champions of Asia because we deserve it and Algeria are the champions of Africa because they really deserve it. So it’s going to be a game in which both the teams have one objective. We will give all our efforts,” he added. There will be a sense of familiarity as the players take the pitch today. While all Qatari players ply their trade at home, Algeria’s key personnel such as Baghdad Bounedjah, Yacine Brahimi, Youcef Belaili, Mehdi Tahrat and Djamel Benlamri also play in Qatar Stars League. Sanchez was quick to admit that the home team will have no extra benefit for knowing the Algerian players or vice versa. “It doesn’t give us or them any advantage. We are facing an African side, which is the best in their continent. They have a strong team that has a clear idea how to play with high rhythm,” added the 46-year-old. Both the teams have no injury concerns with the Desert Foxes happier of the two after Belaili and Bounedjah were passed fit for the semi-final. Qatar SC winger Belaili resumed training yesterday despite needing hospital treatment for a head injury after the quarter-finals against Morocco, in which he scored a stunning volley from half line. Al Sadd forward Bounedjah will also be available after completing the six-day concussion protocol that followed his injury in the group match against Egypt. Yassine Titraoui returns from his suspension as he missed their quarter-final match after getting sent off against Egypt. It will be a selection boost for manager Madjid Bougherra, who might recall Benlamri and Tahrat into the XI. Bougherra said his boys are ‘raring to go’ against the hosts. “We started preparing for Qatar the next morning after our win over Morocco,” Bougherra said. “Since the beginning we have been preparing for every match as a final. We are lucky to have players who are competitive in their mindset. They know exactly what they need to do. They are raring to go,” he added. Bougherra believes Qatar will feel the baggage of pressure, having to play in front of a home crowd in a packed stadium. “Qatar is the host country and they are playing in front of home fans. They have a slight pressure but it is normal. We take every game as a final. My team will be giving 200 percent tomorrow to win this challenge,” the Algerian coach said. “As a coach, it’s always great to know the players and know things about the opponents. But it is the same for Qatar, who know our players as well. It’s an important factor because football is about small details, knowing players, their weaknesses and strong points,” he added. Interestingly, the most recent encounter between Qatar and Algeria was a friendly that Qatar won 1-0 in 2018. The Algerian Djamel Belmadi was then the coach of Qatar, while Christian Gourcuff was at the helm of Les Fennecs.      

Algeriau2019s goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi dives to save a penalty from Moroccou2019s Karim El Berkaoui during the FIFA Arab Cup quarter-final at Al Thumama Stadium yesterday. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
Algeria into semis after shootout win over Morocco

Doha Morocco came back from a goal down twice but could not deny Algeria from entering the semi-finals of the FIFA Arab Cup yesterday. The two North African rivals put on a breathtaking attacking display of football at the Al Thumama Stadium, with a penalty shootout required to decide the quarter-final contest after it had ended 2-2 after extra-time. In the penalties, Algeria’s veteran goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi dived to his right to save Karim El Berkaoui’s spot kick. Then the 21-year-old Mohamed Tougai showed the calmness of a veteran to bury the ball into the centre of the post to send Algeria into the semis with a 5-3 scoreline in the shootout. The Desert Warriors, who extended their unbeaten run to 37 games, will take on hosts Qatar in the semi-finals at the Al Thumama Stadium on Wednesday. Defending champions Morocco were attempting to extend their own unbeaten streak of 32 but fell short in a thrilling tie. Algeria had opened the scoring in the 62nd minute with Yacine Brahimi converting a penalty, after Youcef Belaili had won a penalty for being fouled by Mohamed Chibi. The Brazilian referee Wilton Sampaio did not give it a foul at first but changed his decision after VAR review. Algeria’s lead stood only for a minute as Mohamed Nahiri equalised for Morocco after heading the ball in the net from an Abdelilah Hafidi cross. With the match going into extra time, it needed something special for Algeria to go into the lead again and the impressive Belaili provided one in the 102nd minute. The Qatar SC striker unleashed a stunning right-footed shot from more than 35 yards with Morocco goalkeeper Anas Zniti scrambling back in vain to stop the ball. But Morocco were not going down without a fight with captain Badr Bannoun equalising in the 111th minute. The defender scored his third goal of the tournament after connecting a header off a cross from Mohamed Chibi. Both teams’ players tired towards the end with the inevitability of penalties the only way to decide the winner. Algeria missed prolific scorer Baghdad Bounedjah yesterday, with the Al Sadd striker recovering from a concussion suffered against Egypt in the last group game. Madjid Bougherra’s side were anxious to avoid a repeat of their last outing against Morocco, when they lost by four goals, and yesterday’s nerve-wracking win should make them top contenders for the Arab Cup title.