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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
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 Sahan Bidappa
Sahan Bidappa
Sahan Bidappa is a sports writer with Gulf Times. He joined Gulf Times after having worked for more than 10 years with leading newspapers in India. Sahan misses covering cricket in Qatar but has adeptly channelized his talents towards tennis, football and Olympic sports.
From left: Argentina’s Enzo Fernandez, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Argentina’s Emiliano Martinez and France’s Kylian Mbappe pose after being awarded the Best Young Player, Golden Ball, Golden Glove and Golden Boot, respectively. (Reuters)
Sports
Messi the hero as Argentina win World Cup Qatar 2022

Lionel Messi finally has his Diego Maradona moment and make a claim to be the greatest ever to play the game. The Argentina superstar laid his hand on his holy grail – a World Cup title – that had eluded him until last night, which came after a dramatic 4-2 shootout victory in the final against France in what was a fitting end to the Qatar 2022.On an epic night at the Lusail Stadium there were plenty of twists and turns – not least from Messi and Kylian Mbappe – with arguably the finest World Cup final ever decided on penalties.When it was finally over after Gonzalo Montiel had converted the winning penalty to give Argentina its third title and first since 1986, Messi had lived through many emotions.It was a fairytale end to Messi’s World Cup Odyssey. Clearly, it was written in the stars for Messi, even after the most stunning of France comebacks inspired by a terrific Mbappe.As France, bidding to become the first team to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil achieved the feat in 1962, made a laboured start, Argentina played with passion and intensity. Messi put his side in front in the 23rd minute scoring a penalty with ease before contributing to a second goal which was a team creation of a beauty finished off by Angel Di Maria.As Argentina dominated with no sign of France fightback, Messi ambled across the pitch for most of the match. The 35-year-old’s memory must have wandered to his time at Rosario, his hometown in Argentina, where he grew up dreaming of winning a World Cup medal.But a double whammy in the space of 97 seconds from Mbappe after 80th minute – a penalty followed by a thunderous volley – changed the complexion of the game and put Messi’s lifelong dream in threat.Les Bleus manager manager Didier Deschamps made two substitutions before half-time, replacing Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembele with Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani and both young stars provided the fuel for Mbappe to fire.Suddenly, Argentina were in danger of losing a final which they pretty much had under control as Mbappe looked unstoppable. But it needed an intervention from French captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to take the game to extra time after he tipped a Messi shot over the bar.It would have been a perfect ending to the final if Messi’s magical left foot had curled the ball into the net, but it was his least admired right foot that gave Argentina the spark in the extra time.After substitute Lautaro Martinez’s strike was saved by Lloris, Messi pounced on the rebound with a desperate last-ditch save from a France defender in vain.In the 1986 final, Maradona had made an assist to Jorge Burruchaga for the winning goal against West Germany and Messi looked to have gone one better than his legendary compatriot in what looked like a winning strike.But the drama extended after Mbappe’s fierce shot was blocked by the arm of Montiel to win another penalty in the 117th minute. Messi looked the other away as his Paris Saint-Germain teammate calmly dispatched to secure an hat-trick – the first in a World Cup final since Sir Geoff Hurst did it for England against West Germany in 1966 – and a tournament-topping eighth goal.It set up a wild finish in front of a 88,966 spectators, mostly made up of Argentina’s blue and white stripes, as both sides came agonisingly close. Lautaro Martinez was denied by last-ditch Dayot Upamecano interventions, while Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez made a stretching save of his life after a one-on-one from Kolo Muani. Mbappe then made an outrageous dribble past two defenders in the box before he was stopped by the third.And so it went to penalties, with Mbappe and Messi converting theirs. Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez – who had made two stunning saves against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals – palmed away Kingsley Coman’s spot kick, before Aurelian Tchouameni shot wide.Then it was left for Montiel to seek a redemption after extra-time handball and the left-back kept his nerves to put the ball to Lloris’ right. As Montiel heaved a huge sigh of relief, Messi collapsed to his knees in the centre circle and was engulfed by his jubilant teammates.After the weight of the world visibly lifted off his shoulders, Messi, joined by his wife and three sons, celebrated with the trophy and his second Golden Ball award for best player of the tournament, before vowing to continue playing for his country despite realising his lifetime ambition.“I want to keep experiencing a few more matches as world champion,” Messi told an Argentine television.Later France boss Deschamps suggested that the virus which laid low several of his players in the run-up to the final was partly to blame for their poor performance over the first hour.“There were many reasons which explained why we were not as good. Several important players had less energy but bringing on younger players with less experience but plenty of freshness and quality allowed us to keep dreaming.“But unfortunately the dream did not come true,” said Deschamps, who was in his third World Cup final after he won it in 1998 as Les Bleus’ captain and then four years ago as their coach.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi during a training a session at Qatar University Training Site 3 in Doha yesterday, on the eve of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 final against France. (Reuters)
Sports
Messi seeks elusive glory as France target encore

In 2016, Lionel Messi was left a broken man. The comparison to his legendary compatriot Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to the World Cup title in 1986, had followed him like a shadow ever since he burst onto the scene and the burden of it was clearly showing on him.But it was the defeat to Chile in the 2016 Copa America final on penalties – where he missed the target – had left Messi deflated. By then he had already played in three World Cups, lost twice in the quarter-finals and once in the final. Then came the sucker punch against Chile, which was his fourth consecutive failure at the Copa America. Being a beaten finalist for a third time in South America’s premier competition, he couldn’t take it anymore as he tearfully announced his retirement from Argentina duties.But, five days later, when the raw emotions had dissipated he reversed his impulsive decision upon reflection. Six years later, that change of heart from Messi – one of the greatest to have ever played the game – has taken him to the cusp of a World Cup title that he has craved for his entire life.When he finally won his maiden title with Argentina – the nation’s first trophy since 1993 – beating Brazil in the Copa America last year, a huge weight seemed to have lifted from Messi’s shoulders. At Qatar 2022, in what surely is his last World Cup, the 35-year-old has dazzled like only he can as he has taken Argentina to their sixth final, where they will face holders France at the Lusail Stadium today.Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni and his French counterpart Didier Deschamps insisted yesterday that the final was not about Messi himself or his battle with PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe, who at 23 could become the youngest player to win two World Cups since Pele achieved the feat at the age of 21.But it’s hard to ignore the impact the two have had over their respective teams at this World Cup, particularly Messi. The Argentina superstar has played six games in Qatar and he has been man of the match in four of them, having scored five times and made three assists.Argentina’s shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening match on November 22 at the very stadium where they will play the final today seems a distant memory. Messi has played like a man liberated of any pressure, while his teammates have played for him – even belting out a celebratory song in his honour on the team bus after each victory.Former Argentina centre-back Mauricio Pochettino and Messi’s former coach at PSG said in a column yesterday that his country’s run to the final has one important characteristic. “The Argentina players fully understand their jobs: when you have Messi in your team, you need to run for him. And when you have the ball, you need to give it to him as soon as possible so that he can create something. So the players know what they need to do in every single moment, to give Messi everything he needs to be decisive, like he was on Tuesday night against Croatia,” Pochettino wrote in Theathletic.com.It seems the stars are aligning for Messi to win a world title and coach Scaloni is making everything possible to make it a perfect World Cup odyssey for his former teammate. Scaloni made key changes after the Saudi defeat and had the courage to bring in youngsters Enzo Fernandez and Julian Alvarez, who have been brilliant since.He has also made crucial changes to his system, using three defenders against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals and three holding-midfielders to neutralise Croatia great Luka Modric in the semi-finals.After Argentina booked their ticket to the final with a 3-0 win against Croatia, Messi confirmed today would be his last game for his country. Scaloni said that made it an even bigger match for his team and his country: “Let’s hope that if it’s Leo’s (Messi) last game, that we can win the title. It would be great and the important thing is to enjoy it... What better scenario than in a World Cup final.”Even French coach Deschamps, whose team has been battered by viral flu on the eve of the final, was aware the football romantics all over the world want Messi to lift the football’s biggest silverware today but was keen to make it another night of agony for the Argentine.“Not the only one in the world, no. I am often alone, but I like being alone,” said Deschamps, who will be in his third World Cup final after he won it in 1998 as Les Bleus’ captain and then four years ago as their coach.“The most important thing when preparing for a game like this one is to be calm, and of course, a final, any final, especially a World Cup final, there is the game and there is the particular context. But of course, the goal of a final is to win another trophy. But I know the whole of Argentina and maybe some French people too, would like to see Messi win. But we don’t really agree with that, so we are going to do everything we can to get what we want,” he added.Deschamps said France have not been overly troubled by the virus that has hit several players including defenders Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate, Raphael Varane, midfielder Adrien Rabiot and forward Kingsley Coman.The virus scare threatens to derail France’s bid to become the first team to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil achieved the feat in 1962 but with all 24 members of the squad in attendance for the training session yesterday, Deschamps was hopeful it would not impact his team’s performance today.“We try to take the maximum precautions, to adapt and to deal with it, without going overboard. It is obviously a situation. If it could not exist it would be better, but we manage as best we can,” Deschamps said.France have shown they can adapt to any kind of team, which could be a big asset against Argentina, who have tested out several systems during the World Cup. “You have to be willing to suffer at times. You have to make the most of the good situations, too,” said captain Hugo Lloris.“Tomorrow there will be a game plan to respect. We are still studying this team and preparing for this big game. There are always things we are not prepared for. To face that we need a perfect mindset, to be ready to go above and beyond. We know that we are capable of playing with possession and on the counter-attack. We have a lot of fast players offensively. The strength of our team is that we can adapt to any type of scenario.”

France’s defender Theo Hernandez strikes the ball to score his team’s first goal past Morocco’s goalkeeper Yassine Bounou during the Qatar 2022 World Cup semi-final against Morocco at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor yesterday. (AFP)
Sports
It’s France vs Argentina in the world cup final

It was as if the whole of Morocco had descended into Al Bayt Stadium last night. The ear-bleeding whistles from the partisan Moroccan fans every time France had the ball or the jeers when Kylian Mbappe was stopped in his tracks would ring in the ears of the 68,294 spectators for years to come. So would Walid Regragui’s side’s historic run to the semi-finals of the Qatar World Cup that will inspire many in the African and Arab world.Coach Regragui had called for that ‘crazy’ run to continue and boy did they give it a good shot. In the end, Morocco’s giant killing act was ended by a wily France, with the holders booking their second successive place in the final where they face Argentina at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday.Theo Hernandez’s acrobatic volley in the fifth minute had given France a perfect start, but Morocco were not going to cave in that easily. But too many missed opportunities and injuries to key defenders was always going to make it a steep climb for them. And when substitute Kolo Muani scored with his first touch in the 79th minute, Morocco knew their glorious run would come to an end.At the final whistle there was relief in the French camp, but it was tears from the Moroccan players and from the fans in the stands that was the telling moment of the second semi-final. While France will be chasing history – to become the first country to retain the World Cup for 60 years following Brazil’s triumphs in 1958 and 1962 – Morocco know they have inspired generations to come.The Atlas Lions’ marauding run to the semi-finals, where they defeated European powerhouses Belgium, Spain and Portugal, is the story for the ages to come. They can still go on to create more history though as they aim to become the first African and Arab side to finish third at a World Cup, when then they take on another beaten semi-finalists Croatia in the play-off at the Khalifa International Stadium on Saturday.“We gave the maximum, that’s the most important,” said Morocco coach Regragui. “We had some injuries, we lost Nayef Aguerd in the warm-up, Romain Saiss, Noussair Mazraoui at halftime. We paid for the slightest mistake. We didn’t get into the game well, we had too much technical waste in the first half, and the second goal killed us, but that doesn’t take away everything we did before.”It was a nervy and hard-fought win for France, who were pushed all the way by the Moroccans backed by their vociferous crowd. Didier Deschamps had spoken about how his players would have to shut out the noise and Hernandez did exactly that when he powered France ahead.With key defender Nayef Aguerd ruled out of the match after he was named in the starting line-up, Morocco’s backline took time to settle with the French taking advantage of it.Antoine Griezmann picked out Mbappe, who missed with his first strike as Moroccan defenders swarmed him but the ball took a deflection and fell into Hernandez. The left-back volleyed with his left foot from the far post as Morocco conceded for only the second time in the tournament – the first was an own goal against Canada in the group stage.It looked like they were in for a hammering when Mbappe had captain Romain Saiss in his mercy on the left flank and Olivier Giroud hit the post once and struck his next shot inches wide. Saiss, who had to be substituted after suffering a hamstring injury in the quarter-finals against Portugal, was clearly unfit and looked a liability before he was replaced by Selim Amallah just after 20 minutes.Morocco, though were not going down without a fight as Azzedine Ounahi forced Hugo Loris to dive to his left and make a save, while Hakim Ziyech shot wide. Morocco, who had gone behind for the first time in the tournament, enjoyed the possession and had completed more passes in the first 30 minutes last night than they did in the entire game against Portugal.They were unfortunate to not have been awarded a penalty when Sofiane Boufal was fouled by Hernandez, instead the referee inexplicably showed the Moroccan a yellow card. While they went into halftime a goal behind, Morocco looked the stronger team as Lloris got a hand to Jawad El Yamiq’s overhead kick which hit the post.After the break, the North Africans launched wave after wave attacks with Liverpool defender Ibrahima Konate, playing instead of unwell Dayot Upamecano, preserving France’s lead with some crucial blocks.While Moroccans wasted a few golden opportunities – with an off-colour Youssef En-Nesyri guilty on a couple of occasions. France kept their composure just like they did against England in their quarter-finals. And when Mbappe’s shot deflected into the path of Eintracht Frankfurt forward Muani, who slid the ball into the net, it was the end of Morocco’s resistance and a second successive place in the final for France.“There’s emotion, there’s pride, there’s going to be a final step, we’ve been together with the players for a month, it’s never easy, there’s happiness so far,” said a smiling coach Didier Deschamps.

France’s Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring his team’s second goal during the Qatar 2022 quarter-final against England at the Al Bayt Stadium yesterday. (AFP)
Sports
Bleus for Three Lions

Harry Kane turned into a villain from hero within a matter of thirty minutes. The England captain had shown nerves of steel while converting his first penalty of the night to bring his side back into the game, but blazed his next one into the lower tier of the Al Bayt Stadium – where a shell shocked English supporters watched in horror – to send holders France into the semi-finals of the World Cup.Kane was the standout English player on the pitch till his 83rd-minute missed penalty crushed Three Lions hopes of a second title since 1966. Kane had earlier cancelled out Aurelien Tchouameni’s first-half strike, before Oliver Giroud put France back in front with a header that deflected off defender Harry Maguire in the 78th minute.Five minutes later, England were given a way back into the game after Theo Hernandez’s needless shove on Mason Mount in the box resulted in a second penalty of the night. With history weighing on his mind as he went for his 53rd goal for England that would put him level with Wayne Rooney, Kane overshot his right footer as his Tottenham Hotspur teammate and French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and his teammates celebrated the decisive miss.France, who take on surprise semi-finalists Morocco on Wednesday at the same venue, were hardly the better team – especially in the second half – as England enjoyed larger possession and had 16 shots on target, six more than their opponents. But when presented with a goal-scoring opportunity, France were clinical and now will be favourites to reach their second successive final.England manager Gareth Southgate felt the result was harsh on his players.“Our performance deserved better. Goals are decisive, but I’ve just said to the players, I don’t think they could have given any more. I think they played really well against a top team,” he said.“There are fine margins, things at both ends that have ended up deciding the game, but the way the players have progressed as a group through this tournament has been fantastic. In most of the big moments we were in the right place. We had more shots on goal. But it’s a game of fine margins.”Kylian Mbappe, who was touted to be the danger man for France, was uncharacteristically quiet as the forward failed to add to his tournament highest tally of five goals. Antoine Griezmann was the livewire on the field for France. The Atletico Madrid star has been a revelation in his new role as deep lying midfielder in Qatar, and he once again pulled the strings for his team last night.England though had the best of chances as Kane forced Lloris to make a couple of crucial saves. But France surged ahead after Tchouameni’s brilliant drive from the 25 yards that beat Jordan Pickford low to his right. England players were unhappy with the goal after Bukayo Saka was clattered by Dayot Upamecano moments before but Brazilian referee Wilton Sampaio stuck to his decision.Few minutes later England and their fans were left incensed after Sampaio ignored the call for a penalty as Kane went down after a tackle from Upamecano. A minute into the second half though, England earned their penalty after Tchouameni’s clumsy foul on Saka as the Arsenal star weaved past the French defence.Kane confidently put the ball past Lloris into the top corner as England looked the better team with Jude Bellingham forcing Loris to tip his strike over. Saka and Kane too tried their luck from outside the box but it was Maguire’s header off the cross which brushed the post that came back to haunt England.France’s forward Olivier Giroud was a constant threat in the box and was denied a near certain goal when Pickford made a point-blank reflex save. But in the resulting corner, France regained the lead 12 minutes from time when Giroud headed in Antoine Griezmann’s perfect cross.England, desperate for the equaliser, brought in Mount and Sterling and they had a chance to take the game into extra time when Hernandez fouled Mount. With former star David Beckham nervously watching from the stands, it looked all safe as Kane stepped up to take the penalty but the Spurs striker’s wild kick landed among the crowd as England’s long wait for their second world title will continue for another four years.As another substitute Marcus Rashford blazed his free kick way over Lloris in what was the last action of the match, Kane looked to the sky recounting the moment that will haunt him forever.Southgate said the ‘incredible’ and ‘reliable’ Kane was not to be blamed for the loss. “For me, we win and lose as a team. We’ve let a couple of goals in, and missed a few chances. So he’s been incredible for us, so reliable in those sorts of situations. We wouldn’t be here but for the number of goals he’s scored for us,” he said.

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates as Argentina progress to the semi-finals. (Reuters)
Sports
Messi’s Argentina go through on penalties after dramatic Dutch comeback

A magical assist and a penalty from Lionel Messi had appeared to have put Argentina in the semi-finals of the World Cup before Netherlands’ Wout Weghorst’s late brace ripped open the dramatic quarter-final as the hotly-contested clash went into penalties. Thankfully for Messi, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez’s heroics kept his dream of winning the elusive World Cup alive as Argentina edged the Netherlands 4-3 in the shootout. Martinez made brilliant saves off Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis – the first two of Netherlands’ spot kicks. Enzo Fernandez missed Argentina’s fourth penalty but Lautaro Martinez slammed the decisive kick into the net as the two-time champions set up a semi-final against Croatia, who had earlier in the night knocked out another South American giant Brazil. It was another penalty heartbreak for Dutch coach Louis van Gaal against Argentina, having also suffered the same fate at the same stage in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. For Messi, he would be hoping it will end on a different note this time - eight years after losing in the final against Germany. “Argentina are among the four best in the world because they show that they know how to play every game with the same desire and the same intensity,” Messi, 35, said after the match. “A lot of joy, a lot of happiness. We didn’t have to go to extra time or penalties, we had to suffer. But we got through and it’s impressive,” he added. What started with a tetchy and slow-paced first-half, the quarter-finals between the two traditional World Cup rivals burst into life with plenty of skirmishes in the second half that often spilled into the dugouts in front of an 88,235 vociferous crowd at Lusail Stadium. There were cynical fouls, deliberate handball and a shoving contest in itself with Argentina almost paying a costly price for losing their composure at the end of 90 plus 11 minutes of stoppage time. There were a total of 14 yellow cards shown by Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz on the night – including eight to Argentina players. Weghorst, who had brought the Netherlands back into the game with a towering header in the 83rd minute, took the game to extra time after converting a cleverly taken free kick, in what was the last action of the regulation time. Argentina threw the proverbial kitchen sink to find the winner, particularly in the second half of the extra time, but the match was destined to go into penalties. Even before the match began, Argentina fans were in high spirits. As tournament favourites Brazil crashed out of the World Cup after a harrowing loss to Croatia on penalties, a loud cheer went across the Lusail Stadium as the fans of Selecao’s arch-rivals Argentina celebrated wildly. But La Albiceleste fans reserved their loudest cheer after one of their very own created a moment of magic to put Argentina ahead against the Netherlands. After a drab opening 35 minutes, Messi brought the game to life with a brilliant pass, only he could envisage and execute it to perfection. The Argentina captain drove past the Dutch defenders before he slipped a pass into the box, where Nahuel Molina took a soft first touch and then slid it past goalkeeper Andries Noppert for his first international goal. It was a touch of genius from Messi - the vision to deliver the reverse pass and the impeccable timing to place it in the right spot, giving a glimpse of his legendary career in a nutshell. He would later also convert a penalty in the 73rd minute – his fourth goal of Qatar 2022 - after Marcos Acuna was brought down in the box by Denzel Dumfries. An Argentina vs Croatia semi-final looked a foregone conclusion, before Van Gaal threw his trump card Weghorst in the 78th minute. The Besiktas striker on loan from Burnley made an instant impression with a goal five minutes later as Argentina appeared to lose control of the game they were very much in command. It all went out of control for Messi and his men in 10 minutes of added time, as Argentina players committed plenty of fouls, including a reckless lunging challenge from Leandro Paredes on Nathan Ake that kicked off a melee. In the last minute of stoppage time, the Netherlands were awarded a free kick just outside the box, which Van Gaal’s men took full advantage of. With substitutes German Pezzella and Paredes marking Weghorst on the edge of the box for a header, another late Dutch substitute Teun Koopmeiners cleverly slid the ball to his teammate while pretending to go for a free kick. Weghorst, who took the ball with his left foot, swivelled into the far corner. As the Netherlands players, both on and off the field, celebrated wildly, Messi cut a distraught figure. Fortunately for him, Martinez was at his absolute best to keep his teammates’ long-cherished dream alive. The heartbreaking loss at Lusail Stadium was the first for Netherlands in 20 matches. The loss brought an end to 71-year-old Van Gaal’s third spell as coach. “We practised on penalties all year and then you screw it up,” Van Gaal said. “That’s a pity. As a coach, I want to have everything under control. That is why I asked the players to take a penalty at their club, they all did. If you miss two, you won’t win anymore. You simply cannot simulate such a series.”

Argentina’s forward Lionel Messi (left) and Angel di Maria take part in a training session at Qatar University in Doha yesterday, on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup quarter-final against Netherlands. (AFP)
Sports
A classic on the cards

One of the two greatest careers will have a sad ending today at a World Cup as Argentina and the Netherlands square off in the quarter-finals.From the beginning the focus has been firmly on Lionel Messi, one of the greatest ever to have played the game. The Argentina superstar, playing in his fifth World Cup, has admitted Qatar will be his last tournament with his teammates and la Albiceleste’s passionate fan base rooting for him to lift a trophy that has eluded him all these years.At the other end today there is Louis van Gaal, the Dutch coach at 71 plotting his country’s first world title and giving himself a fitting farewell to his illustrious career. Then there is also the small matter of this game at the Lusail Stadium having all the trappings of becoming a classic.Eight years ago in Sao Paulo, Brazil, van Gaal saw a place in the final slip away after his side were beaten in penalties by Argentina in the semi-finals, adding to the pain of losing to the South Americans in the 1978 final.“I don’t like to think about it,” van Gaal had said earlier this week before adding, “We have a score to settle.”The two teams have made it to the quarters despite a huge question mark over their ability to go all the way. The Netherlands are one of the three unbeaten teams remaining in Qatar, but van Gaal’s conservative tactics – a departure from the traditional 4-3-3 the Dutch usually play – has come for criticism back home.Van Gaal has been a popular figure in Qatar – the oldest coach in the tournament. He has been swarmed by the international media for selfies after the press conferences, while he also gave a hug to a reporter from Senegal. But his home media have been less affirmative of his ways.Ahead of the Argentina game, van Gaal was not a happy man as he went on the offensive yesterday, defending his tactic of counter-attacking game rather than the all-out offensive approach he used to employ in his earlier coaching days.“I get the same question from you every time but you don’t understand that football is evolving,” he said.“It’s a lot harder now to play attacking football than it was 20 years ago when I was coach of Ajax. When I came up with that more defensive system in 2014 (at the World Cup in Brazil), I also received a lot of criticism but now half the world plays like that. Football has evolved towards it.“At this World Cup we see that the results are very tight, even between big teams and supposedly smaller countries, because compact defending is simply easier than attacking. But it’s not true if it seems we are only defending. I hope that is clear now,” said van Gaal, who has won more than 20 titles as a manager, working at clubs such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United.Van Gaal is confident his pragmatic approach can deliver the title to Netherlands, who have finished runner-up on three occasions on the big stage in 1974, 1978 and 2010.“We are also a country that has a chance to become world champions because I hope we are the best team,” said the veteran manager, who considers Brazil to be the top contenders.Every match Argentina has played at the World Cup in Qatar has turned itself into an occasion. Each time Messi and his teammates have had the ball at their feet or in the net, there is a sense of Buenos Aires having come to Doha.The support from la Albiceleste’s passionate fan base has been so overwhelming in the stadiums across Qatar, that travelling supporters have stayed back in the stands drumming and dancing, much after Argentina players have gone inside to the dressing room after the match.But like the Netherlands’, Argentina go into the quarters with not many convinced they have the depth to challenge for the title. The two-time champions bounced back admirably if not spectacularly after their opening game shock to Saudi Arabia. Driven by Messi, the team is devoted to their captain’s desire of a World Cup title but have not yet displayed the cutting edge a squad needs to possess to win a global showpiece event.Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said his team was prepared to give 100% effort at the Lusail Stadium. “We know that our team will break their backs as we have done in previous games,” the 44-year-old, the youngest coach in Qatar said.“Sometimes we’ve played very well, sometimes not that well, but we have always stood up for ourselves and that’s the thing that our people value. We know that we will give it all on the pitch. We know that football sometimes can be very beautiful and sometimes it can be cruel.”Scaloni was guarded in response when asked if Angel di Maria would be available for today’s game. Forward Di Maria missed the last-16 victory over Australia due to a left thigh injury, Rodrigo De Paul’s is also reportedly not hundred percent.“In principle, they’re feeling well and we will see in today’s training and come up with a lineup,” he said.“Yesterday, we trained behind closed doors so I don’t know where this information is coming from ... (but) the team comes first, so if you’re out on the field, you must be fit so that you can help the team.”In the last two World Cup meetings between Argentina and Netherlands, in the group stage in 2006 and a semi-final in 2014 which the Albiceleste won on penalties, neither side was able to score a goal in normal or extra time.Scaloni said Argentina had been practising spot-kicks but hoped the match did not come down to a shootout.“They always take penalties before and after matches but it’s all about luck when it comes to the penalty shootout,” he said.“I hope we don’t get to the penalty shootout, we hope the match is over before that.”

From right: Brazil’s Neymar, Lucas Paqueta, Vinicius Junior and Raphinha celebrate after their win over South Korea in the Qatar 2022 World Cup Round of 16 match at Stadium 974 yesterday. (Reuters)
Sports
Sublime Brazil crush Korea, dance into quarter-finals

Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Cafu and Roberto Carlos – the quartet part of Brazil’s last World Cup triumph in 2002 – could not stop grinning from ear to ear as they sat together in the hospitality lounge of Stadium 974 yesterday.They had just witnessed their countrymen break into another samba routine after going 4-0 up inside 36 minutes of their World Cup last 16 match against a hapless South Korea.Twenty years without a world title is a long time for a football superpower like Brazil and if last night’s performance against South Korea is an indication of things to come, then the five-time champions are in line to add a sixth title on December 18.Stadium 974, a 40,000-seater marvel partially built from recycled shipping containers and modular steel, may have hosted its last match before it is ripped apart and shipped to countries that need the infrastructure. And the Brazilian’s made sure it was a night to remember for those at the venue with a masterclass display in possession and passing that dismantled the South Koreans at half-time.“We’re dreaming of the title, of course. Today was the fourth game, there are three left. We’re very focused on getting that title,” Brazilian talisman Neymar said.The 4-1 rout after goals from Vinicius Junior, Neymar, Richarlison and Lucas Paqueta – set up Brazil a quarter-final clash against Croatia, who had earlier sent home another Asian side Japan.“Let’s hope we can carry on dancing all the way to the final. And we are also sending a big hug to Pele. Let’s hope he recovers quickly,” Vinicius said.If Brazil win that on Friday and Argentina beat the Netherlands the same night, then the two South American giants will meet each other in a mouth-watering semi-final.Last night, though, Brazil sent a warning that it will be difficult for any side to stop them with a breathtaking display of attacking football. Smarting from their stoppage time defeat to Cameroon in their last group stage match, coach Tite brought back his regulars – making 10 changes.His attacking lynchpin Neymar recovered from the ankle injury picked up against Serbia in their opening match, so did Danilo with right back Eder Militao the only player who started the Cameroon game to keep his place.And within no time Brazil were all over South Korea, who had qualified to the knockouts after a remarkable win over Portugal in their last match. The last time these two sides met in a friendly, Brazil had romped to a 5-1 victory.South Koreans knew what they were up against, yet were completely unprepared for it as Brazil took the lead in the seventh minute.Raphinha’s cross into the box evaded everyone including a lunging Neymar before Vinicius Junior met the ball to his left, took a touch and slammed it coolly past goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu and four defenders.Six minutes later Neymar added Brazil’s second and his 76th goal, leaving him just one behind the legendary Pele’s all-time record. The star forward converted the penalty after Richarlison had been fouled.South Korea, rattled by then, went for the leather when Hwang Hee-chan thumped a strike from 30 yards but it was spectacularly tipped over the bar by Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson. But there was no stopping South American’s scoring from the other end with the third goal arriving in a beautiful fashion.Tottenham Hotspur forward Richarlison, who has been criticised from showboating in the Premier League – controlled the ball with his head and then juggled into his feet before passing onto Marquinhos and racing into the box. Marquinhos by then had slid the ball to captain Thiago Silva, who laid into Richarlison as the latter slid it past Seung-gyu.The stunning piece of art lifted the whole stadium, with even coach Tite joining Richarlison for a dance on the sidelines. Paqueta then made it 4-0 after sliding the ball into the net after a Vinicius Jr pass into the box. Brazil could have had three more before the break with Richarlison, Neymar and Raphinha all wasting opportunities. The game was over by then.After the break, South Korea bagged a consolation goal through Paik Seung-ho in the 76th minute but Brazil by then already had one eye in the quarter-finals with Tite replacing his star players.

Argentina’s Julian Alvarez (second right) celebrates with teammates after scoring against Poland during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 match at Stadium 974 in Doha yesterday. (Reuters)
Sports
Argentina through despite Messi miss, Poland squeeze in

‘Messi, Messi’ chant reverberated around Stadium 974 as the Argentine captain stepped up to take a penalty in the 39th minute. The left-footed spot kick was, however, saved expertly by Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, but the Messi chant only got louder. The Argentina fans had turned Doha into Buenos Aires with their rhythmic chant, occasionally banging their feet into the shipping containers, of which the Stadium 974 is made of.After the opening game debacle against Saudi Arabia, the Group C game against Poland was a must-win for Argentina and one must have thought the fans of the two-time champions would have been nervous. On the contrary, there was an extra spring in their step. Their confidence was justified as Messi and his teammates reserved their best performance when they needed it the most. Messi’s penalty miss was the only negative mark in their comfortable 2-0 win over Poland as the Albiceleste sealed a last 16 clash against Australia thanks to second-half goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez.Their six points from two wins – they also beat Mexico – ensured they topped the group and avoided Group D toppers and 2018 world champions France. Poland, who barely laid a glove on their opponents yesterday, also went through not before facing some anxious moments.Poland were hanging on for their lives as Mexico had taken a 2-0 lead in another Group C game at the Lusail Stadium, with another Argentine goal sending them home.They were only ahead of Mexico on FIFA fair play rules for having fewer yellow cards.While Argentina came close on many occasions, Mexico themselves conceded in the closing stages as Polish players waited on the pitch to know their fate. Once the result was out, there was a huge sigh of relief from players even as a small pocket of Polish fans celebrated in the stadium.Based on yesterday’s performance they would know they did not merit a place in the last 16 and with France coming next, Poland need to up their game.It was all Argentina yesterday from the first minute as Messi pulled the strings. The 35-year-old, playing his fifth and most likely his last World Cup, was livewire as usual in his 22nd appearance at the football showpiece, which got past great Diego Maradona’s 21-game tally.Messi went close in the first 15 minutes, forcing Szczesny into a couple of saves. The one shot from the left angle, where he beat a couple of Polish defenders with ease, showed Messi was in the mood today.Argentina was awarded a penalty when Messi was adjudged to have brought down by Szczesny, while going for a header. The decision – after the referee looked at the pitch-side VAR monitor – looked harsh and justice was served when Szczesny guessed his right and blocked Messi’s kick. Lionel Scaloni’s men didn’t have to wait long for a breakthrough when the second half resumed. With just one minute in, Mac Allister’s feeble connection off Nahuel Molina’s cross trickled into the net as Szczesny was finally beaten.With their noses in front, Argentina grew in confidence as they camped in Poland half. The second goal came not far away with Enzo Fernandez’s perfect pass finding Alvarez, who smashed it into the top corner.“We went out there thinking we had to win,” said Messi after the game. “The game against Australia will be difficult - anyone can beat anyone. It’s very even, we have to prepare for the game in the best way, as always. I’m angry at missing that penalty but the team came out stronger after my mistake,” he said.Poland’s lynchpin Robert Lewandowski, who has 18 goals in 19 games for Barca this season, was left frustrated throughout the game as he did not have a single attempt on goal as his team sat back from the first whistle and rarely tested Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.If not for, Poland would have been gone home as Juventus keeper made couple of fines and take his team into the last-16 for the first time since 1986.“It was not a match for a striker but I knew it would be like this,” Lewandowski said. “For me, for the Poland team, given the possibilities we have, it was a success.“No-one will remember what this match was like - we will just be getting ready for France.”

Argentina’s Lionel Messi (second right) gestures next to teammates during a training session at the Qatar University in Doha yesterday, on the eve of the World Cup Group C match against Poland. (AFP)
Sports
Messi, Lewandowski carry Argentina and Poland hopes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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