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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.
Qatar to face Ecuador in FIFA World Cup opener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Marquez
Returning Marquez betting on himself for season opener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qataru2019s forward Almoez Ali is fouled by UAEu2019s defender Mohnad Salem (left) and goalkeeper Ali Khaseif (right) during the FIFA Arab Cup quarter-final at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
5-star Qatar make light work of UAE to enter semi-finals

Doha   Qatar await the winner of Algeria-Morocco match in last four Qatar powered past a hapless United Arab Emirates 5-0 with a ruthless first half display to seal their place in the FIFA Arab Cup semi-finals. The packed Friday crowd at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor witnessed Qatar’s golden generation of footballers put on a breathtaking display in the quarter-finals. But the UAE, who were gunning for a revenge for their 0-4 thrashing by Qatar in the Asian Cup semis in 2019, were dreadful in the first half. The Whites were a different side to the one that were hammered two years back in Abu Dhabi but the scars seemed to remain fresh on the players’ minds. The imposing Al Bayt Stadium, which had a small number of UAE fans, also made it difficult for the young visiting side. It was such a one-sided contest in the first half, that Qatar coach Felix Sanchez chose to sit in the dugout and chat with his assistants even as players went down the tunnel to the dressing room for a breather. It’s very rare when a coach does not need to talk to his players at half-time but Sanchez was afforded that luxury by his team. It was a night where anything Qatar players touched turned into gold, also in part thanks to the largesse by the UAE players, who gave away two penalties and also committed defensive howlers at will. “We will celebrate this victory because it’s a great result for us. The team is showing improvement after every match and now we need to focus on the semi-final,” said Sanchez, with African heavyweights Algeria or Morocco waiting for them in the semi-finals. Sanchez fielded a full-strength side yesterday, after playing a second-string side for most part against Iraq in their final group game on Monday. With Pedro Miguel missing due to injury, Abdelkarim Hassan slotted in as one of the three centre-backs, with Ismail Mohamed started as a right wing-back. Akram Afif and Almoez Ali, who made a late substitute appearance against Iraq and also bagged a goal each, pressed the UAF defence high from the beginning and it didn’t take long for them to crumble. In the sixth minute, UAE defender Mohanad Salem failed to clear a back pass as Almoez latched on to the ball and laid it off to Afif, whose shot deflected off Ali Salmin for an own goal. It was a perfect start to calm the nerves of Qatari players, as the UAE players struggled to build up momentum. The UAE players enjoyed more than 70% possession in the first half, preferring to build it up from the back, which played into Qatar’s hands. The hosts simply chose to sit back and counter-attack with Almoez and Afif lethal upfront. The Qatari forwards, however, didn’t have to do anything extraordinary as another clumsy defensive mistake from the UAE’s Mahmoud Khamis gifted them the second goal. In the 27th minute, Khamis handled the ball in the box off a cross from Ismail Mohamed, with Almoez putting the penalty into the net to double the advantage. For the UAE, all hell broke loose thereafter as Qatar smashed three goals in 12 minutes. In the 36th minute, Almoez was brought down by UAE captain and goalkeeper Ali Khaseif, with Boualem Khoukhi slotting the penalty to the top corner. Eight minutes later, Abdulaziz Hatem’s thunderous strike off a pass from Afif made it 4-0 before Almoez found the net again in stoppage time. With five goals, Qatar’s player’s intensity did drop off a bit while UAE did put on a much better display. Khoukhi went closest to scoring in the second half but Sanchez biggest worry will be his star forward Afif limping off late in the second after picking up a knock. Qatar’s defender Boualem Khoukhi (right) celebrates with teammates after scoring against the UAE during the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 quarter-final at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor yesterday. (AFP)

Qatar captain midfielder Hassan al-Haydos (left) celebrates with teammate Almoez Ali after the hosts win over Iraq at the FIFA Arab Cup at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor on Monday. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Qatar captain al-Haydos expects tough UAE challenge in quarters

Qatar captain Hassan al-Haydos expects the UAE to pose a tough challenge in the FIFA Arab Cup quarter-finals on Friday. The hosts cruised into the last eight with a third successive win against Iraq on Monday and now the Asian champions await a wounded UAE, who will be looking to settle the scores. The last time these two sides met in 2019, Qatar thrashed the UAE 4-0 on their home soil en route to winning their maiden Asian Cup title. Al-Haydos, who captained the side to continental victory two years back, says UAE are a different team to the one they faced at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. “The next match will not be at the same level as the one we played with the UAE in 2019. This Emirates team is a new side and the match is going to be difficult. We hope to be up to the mark and get a good result and qualify for the semi-finals,” the Al Sadd star said. Qatar topped the Group A but were unconvincing in their wins over Bahrain and Oman. In the final group game against Iraq at the Al Bayt Stadium on Monday, Qatar coach Felix Sanchez made nine changes to his starting line-up with his side already assured of a quarter-final place. The hosts struggled to find the back of the net against Iraq as the score remained 0-0 at half-time. That changed in the second half as substitutes Akram Afif, Almoez Ali and al-Haydos all came on to score late fine goals to send the hosts through with an impressive, unblemished record. “Hard luck to the Iraqi team and the Iraqi crowd,” said al-Haydos. “We proved that we are a strong team despite the participation of players who did not play in the first two matches. We played the match well and scored late goals to win. Iraq were desperate for goals and that allowed us space to attack resulting in these three goals,” he added. Monday’s game against Iraq gave Sanchez a peep into Qatar’s strength in depth – which was not many – as the Maroons gear up for their maiden World Cup at home in a year’s time. Though the Qatar’s second string functioned and competed well throughout, they lacked the sparkle and penetration normally provided by their regulars Afif and Almoez. “The match was not easy for us because we were already qualified but the players showed commitment and discipline. Their performance was great and now we have to recover and think about our next match,” Sanchez said. “I am proud of the players and I also want to thank fans for supporting us in the match,” the head coach added. The Spaniard also praised the trio of Almoez, Afif and al-Haydos for their late goals against Iraq. “It's great to come from outside the field and play and score to help the team. There are many players in our team who are key players and that's what the group does,” the coach said. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Bashar Resan said a dip in the team's performance in the second half resulted in the defeat. “We were not bad in the first half as we created several chances to score while not giving a strong Qatari team any opportunity to score,” the midfielder said. “We suffered a physical decline in the second half like in our previous two matches against Oman and Bahrain. We gave too much space to Qatar late in the match,” said Resan, who plays for Qatar SC. “We apologise to our fans for failing to advance as they were hoping for us to qualify.” Iraq, the most decorated team in the Arab Cup, remained winless in the tournament and finished third in the group, ahead of bottom-placed Bahrain.    

Qataru2019s Almoez Ali celebrates after scoring against Iraq during the FIFA Arab Cup Group A match at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor Monday. Reuters)
Super subs keep it perfect for Qatar

* Qatar face the UAE in the quarters, while Oman take on Tunisia on Friday Qatar needed its star trio Almoez Ali, Akram Afif and Hassan al-Haydos to come off the bench to secure a 3-0 win for the hosts against Iraq at the FIFA Arab Cup. The Asian champions’ second half burst at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor knocked Iraq out from the event, with Oman joining Qatar in the last eight after a 3-0 win over Bahrain Monday. Qatar now take on the UAE in the quarters on Friday, with Oman facing Group B toppers Tunisia on the same day. With qualification to quarter-finals already ensured, Qatar coach Felix Sanchez made nine changes to his starting XI that played against Oman. Star striker Akram Afif scores Qatar’s second goal. Reuters Only Bassam al-Rawi and Abdelaziz Hatem retained their place as Sanchez fielded fresh faces to give rest to the tired bodies. The Qatari youngsters put in a good shift at the start countering the physical nature of the Iraqi game but could not translate their domination in possession into chances. In fact, Iraq will count themselves unlucky after goalkeeper Yousof Hassan denied Bashar Resan with a double save in the 22nd minute, while Yaser Kasim’ shot hit the woodwork seven minute before half-time. Iraq, who needed a win to enter the quarters, threw the kitchen sink at Qatar’s defenders but the host’s backline stood up to the challenge. Qatar did create a couple of chances with half-time approaching but it nowhere did it trouble Iraq goalkeeper Fahad Talib. Sanchez’s men did look more threatening in the second half as Musab Khader’s header from a difficult angle was blocked by Talib, who was also forced to palm away Muntari’s solo effort. With Iraq’s threat wavering off, Sanchez brought in his big boys to the game. The Qatar coach made a double substitution at the half-hour mark, replacing al-Rawi and Ahmed Alaaeldin with Boualem Khoukhi and Khalid Muneer. With the balance of the match shifting towards Qatar, Sanchez introduced Almoez and al-Haydos for the injured Muntari and Ali Asad respectively. With an injection of pace into the forward line, spaces opened up for Qatar and it was only a matter of time before they went ahead. Al-Haydos went close with a long range shot coming off the crossbar in 72nd minute, before Almoez broke the deadlock ten minutes later. The Al Duhail forward latched onto a mistake from Munaf Younus as he drove past the Iraq defender and slotted the ball. Qatar’s star striker Afif, who came in a minute after the first goal, made it 2-0 with literally his first touch before al-Haydos found the back of the net in stoppage time. Three goals in the final twelve minutes made it a perfect start for Qatar as they finished the group stages with nine points, having earlier managed to beat Oman and Bahrain. The Al Annabi’s real test will come in the knockout stages, with Asian rivals the UAE waiting for them in quarters. If they do get past the Whites, then Sanchez’s men will come up against African giants. For Iraq, after a brave show in the draws against Oman and Bahrain, it was another end to a promising campaign. The last time Iraq lifted a major trophy was in 2007, when they beat Saudi Arabia to win the first AFC Asian Cup title. Meanwhile, at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium Oman powered past Bahrain 3-0 and into the quarter-finals. Mandhar al-Alawi opened the scoring just before half time, while Khalid al-Hajri and Arshad al-Alawi scored in quick succession after the break to send Gulf Champions Bahrain home.

Qatar players train on Sunday, on the eve of their final Group A match against Iraq at the FIFA Arab Cup.
Unbeaten Qatar hope to sustain winning momentum

With a quarter-final spot already in the bag, Qatar will hope to sustain their winning momentum in the final Group A game against Iraq on Monday. Irrespective of the result at the Al Bayt Stadium, Qatar will finish on top of the group and that will give coach Felix Sanchez an golden opportunity to start the match with fringe players as the hosts brace up for tougher matches in knockouts against quality opponents. For Iraq though, a win on Monday will ensure them a place in the knockout stages, with the result of another Group A encounter between winless Bahrain and Oman rendering it inconsequential. Qatar and Iraq have locked horns 35 times, and this 36th meeting promises to be an entertaining one. For Sanchez, entertainment could be the last thing on his mind as the Spaniard will look to give some rest to the jaded bodies of his players. Having played non-stop – for Qatar or their clubs – this year, Qatar players have visibly suffered from fatigue in the first two matches. In both their narrow victories against Oman and Bahrain, their fitness levels dropped down considerably in the second half. While they maintained their focus despite that and managed to eke out two wins is what makes this squad special in Qatar’s history. On the eve of the match, Sanchez did stick to the norm to say his team will gun for victory while also hinting at making changes to his starting XI. “We will make our plan against Iraq, surely there will be changes but we will play to win,” said the Spaniard yesterday. Sanchez confirmed Pedro Miguel, who picked up an injury against Oman, will sit out today with the Qatar coach hopeful the defender would be ready for the quarter-finals. The Maroons’ possible opponents could be any of Tunisia, the UAE and Syria, with Group B still wide open. Sanchez said his team was confident of taking on any team. “We will be ready to play any team in the knockout stage. We respect all the teams and we think any team we will face in the quarter-finals will be strong,” he said. On facing Iraq, Sanchez said the four-time former champions have always proved a difficult opponent. The last time these today faced – in the 2019 Arabian Gulf Cup in Qatar – Iraq emerged out as the winners. Sanchez said revenge would not be on his or players mind. “We are not seeking revenge against them. We lost an important game in the Gulf Cup but here we just want points not revenge,” the 45-year-old said. “Iraq are tough opponents from what we have experienced in our past matches. We will try to play a competitive game against them. We know if we have to go far in the tournament we have to be at our best in all the matches. We know Iraq needs points to qualify for the quarter-finals and we expect them to be offensive in the match. Iraq has always been a tough side. But we are going to play for a win,” Sanchez added. Meanwhile, Iraq’s stand-in coach Zeljko Petrovic said he has the belief in his team to beat Qatar and qualify the quarters. In their opening game against Oman, Iraq salvaged a point with an equaliser in the eighth minute of added time and followed it up with a goalless draw against Bahrain. “Iraq are still in with a chance of qualifying for the next round, so our sole focus is on beating Qatar. It won’t be a walk in the park because we’re coming up against a strong team that has won two games on the bounce, but I have every confidence in my players’ abilities and I’m sure we can come out on top,” said Petrovic yesterday. “The most important thing is to believe in our ability to win and qualify for the next round. The second thing is to give our best and not have regrets afterwards,” the Montenegrin added.