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Drivers Al-Attiyah, Alvarez go head-to-head for FIA World Cup glory in Saudi desert

HAIL: Competitive action gets underway on Wednesday at the Hail Cross-Country Rally, the final round of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies. Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Argentina’s Lucio Alvarez both drive V8-engined Toyota Hiluxes, built in conjunction with Toyota Gazoo Racing and Overdrive Racing, and they will go head-to-head to decide the outcome of…

Drivers Al-Attiyah, Alvarez go head-to-head for FIA World Cup glory in Saudi desert

HAIL: Competitive action gets underway on Wednesday at the Hail Cross-Country Rally, the final round of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies.

Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Argentina’s Lucio Alvarez both drive V8-engined Toyota Hiluxes, built in conjunction with Toyota Gazoo Racing and Overdrive Racing, and they will go head-to-head to decide the outcome of the 2021 FIA World Cup Drivers’ Championship.

To win his first FIA World Cup title, Alvarez needs to overturn a 28-point deficit. The Argentine will need to win the rally outright and score at least three additional bonus points for daily stage performances and, even then, the outcome will depend on whether Al-Attiyah finishes lower than eighth overall and fails to secure a single bonus point.

Al-Attiyah said: “I won in Hail back in 2008 and 2011 and with Matthieu (Baumel), my current co-driver, we won the first of the Bajas last December. We will do our best to take the win again and seal the championship. We have a good car. The rally is also very useful experience for us before the Dakar Rally in January.”

It will be a big ask for Alvarez, but the battle has at least confirmed that Overdrive Toyotas should fill the top two places in the points’ standings unless Russia’s Denis Krotov can seal a top-four result and Alvarez fails to finish. Krotov drives an X-raid Mini and starts the rally four points adrift of local hero Yazeed Al-Rajhi. The Saudi knows that a top finish could also see him overhaul Alvarez and snatch second place in the series.

Hoping to upset the applecart and challenge for honors in their own right are the Orlen Team’s Jakub Przygonski and Argentina’s Sebastian Halpern in their X-raid Minis and Czech driver Miroslav Zapletal in a Ford F-150. Former Spanish enduro rider Laia Sanz also joins the German X-raid team to drive a Mini John Cooper Works Rally in readiness for the Dakar challenge that awaits.

With the FIA T3 and T4 championships already settled in favor of Spain’s Cristina Gutierrez and America’s Austin Jones, pride and pre-Dakar experience are at stake in both the hotly contested categories.

Eight teams line up in the T3 section, with Russian Pavel Lebedev leading the way in his Can-Am and facing competition from local favorite Saleh Al-Saif, fellow Saudis Mashael Al-Obaidan, Dania Akeel, Esra Aldkheil, and Hamed Al-Harbi, Germany’s Annett Fischer, and Uzbekistan’s Anvar Ergashev.

Al-Obaidan said: “This is a great opportunity for me to test for Dakar. This is my third race after Sharqiya and Aragon in Spain. It’s the first time that Jacopo (Cerutti), my co-driver, and I have participated together. I’ve been here a couple of times but never in an official race. There are three Saudi females, including myself. The sport is really booming here. I believe there is a really bright future in the Kingdom for everyone.”

Six crews will battle it out over the next four days for T4 honors. South Racing Middle East’s Thomas Bell tops the field and faces competition from Poland’s Marek and Michal Goczal, Kuwait’s Meshari Al-Thefiri, Australia’s Molly Taylor, and Ukraine’s Levgen Kovalevych.

There is also a National Rally running behind the main FIA rally, a separate event for motorcycles and quads, a truck category, and dispensation for several 2022 specification machines to compete with teams carrying out pre-Dakar testing.

Czech WRC star Martin Prokop wheels out the latest Ford Raptor Cross-Country, running under the Benzina Orlen Team banner, both Frenchman Ronan Chabot and Argentina’s Juan Cruz Yacopini try out Overdrive Racing’s latest Toyota Hilux T1+, and Sweden’s Sebastian Eriksson gets his hands on the latest T3-2022 South Racing Can-Am Maverick.

The Hail Cross-Country Rally is being organized by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation under the supervision of the Hail Regional Development Authority in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Sports.

On Wednesday, competitors will tackle the first of four selective sections through the Al-Nafud desert. The competitive stage starts 82.59 kilometers from Rally HQ, includes a passage control and refueling point after 173 km, and runs for 258.14 km. A liaison of 47.31 km guides competitors back to the bivouac.

FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies – driver standings:

1.Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT) 92.5 pts

2.Lucio Alvarez (ARG) 64.5 pts

3.Yazeed Al-Rajhi (SAU) 57 pts

4.Denis Krotov (RUS) 53 pts

5.Mattias Ekstrom (SWE) 27 pts

FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies – co-driver standings:

1. Matthieu Baumel (FRA) 92.5 pts

2. Armand Monleon (ESP) 64.5 pts

3. Konstantin Zhiltsov (RUS) 53 pts

4. Michael Orr (GBR) 35.5 pts

5. Emil Bergkvist (SWE) 27 pts

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Serie A on the verge of financial ruin, says Inter CEO Marotta

Formula E champion Nyck de Vries recalls last season’s triumphs and looks forward to another win in Diriyah E-Prix RIYADH: Diriyah will always hold a special place in Nyck de Vries’ heart. It was here, in the north-west of Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh, that the Dutchman debuted as an ABB FIA Formula E driver…

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Formula E champion Nyck de Vries recalls last season’s triumphs and looks forward to another win in Diriyah E-Prix RIYADH: Diriyah will always hold a special place in Nyck de Vries’ heart. It was here, in the north-west of Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh, that the Dutchman debuted as an ABB FIA Formula E driver back in 2019. Then, in 2021, he broke another duck in Diriyah, this time the first of his two E-Prix victories to date – one that set the course for De Vries to eventually clinch a dramatic maiden championship for both himself and his team. Last year, under lights for the first time in the series’ history, and swaying between the 21 turns that sweep the street circuit of the UNESCO World Heritage site, there was a real romance to the races in Saudi Arabia. And De Vries – who won the first of February 2021’s season-opening double-header – was one of many that were left captivated. “It’s probably unfair to ask a driver what their favourite track is because we’re biassed, but Diriyah is definitely my favourite track on the calendar,” said De Vries on the eve of the 26-year-old’s first defence of his world title. “It treated me well last year and also in my first Formula E race back in 2019. I really like the layout because it’s twisty but fast at the same time, the slowest corner is not actually considered a slow-speed corner according to Formula E metrics. “I enjoy racing there and competing at night makes it a bit more special and unique, at night everything becomes a bit more intense and there’s more emotion.” In ABB FIA Formula E, all of that intensity, all of that emotion, is played out at speeds of up to 280 km/h and Diriyah’s third year on the E-Prix circuit set the tone for a thrilling championship in 2021. De Vries, who also emerged victorious in Valencia two stops later, eventually held out on the final race of the year to secure the drivers’ championship by just seven points. His efforts helped his Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team seal the double by an even finer margin, with four points all the separated Mercedes and Jaguar Racing by the time the chequered flag fell on the final race in Berlin last August. De Vries and Mercedes are now well-polished outfits going into the 2022 championship, but the same couldn’t be said when they entered ABB FIA Formula E hand-in-hand with Diriyah three years ago. “In 2019, I started my Formula E season before I could end my Formula 2 season so there was very little time for me to adapt and get ready,” De Vries reflected. “I did a test in the summer but I remember that we didn’t have a lot of time. It was still a very new team. Not only was I very much a rookie, but I felt like we all were as a team.” Clearly, both driver and team have come a long way since and there has been no let up for either since becoming the first ABB FIA Formula E winners under the FIA’s banner. After the final race in Berlin last year, De Vries went on to contest two rounds of the European Le Mans Series before the year was out and produced fastest times in testing for both IndyCar and FIA Formula One in December. Having described his team’s pre-Christmas testing in Valencia as going “very smoothly”, De Vries – one of the most sought-after drivers in motorsport – says the variety of his packed personal schedule helps ensure the Uitwellingerga-native remains razor sharp behind the wheel. “The only way to keep myself on my toes is to continue to race,” he explained. “I certainly want to stay in Formula E, no doubt about it. I personally believe that it’s important for a driver to stay active and continue practising racing skills in different disciplines.” Despite heading to Saudi Arabia as champion, De Vries isn’t feeling any extra pressure as he moves from being the hunter to the hunted. He added: “I’m very much looking forward to a new season and a new championship. We’re the reigning champions and I’m looking forward to being in a position to defend those championships. We have a lot of positivity and excitement in our team, we’re growing as a family and I’m very much looking forward to a new season. “There’s always pressure, I’m always nervous and I’m always stressed on race days because I care and I want to do well and I want to deliver. But being the reigning champion doesn’t change anything. I’m very grateful that I was privileged enough to experience winning the championship and everything that comes with it but there’s no added pressure.” With that being said, all eyes will be on De Vries when he returns to Diriyah for the first E-Prix of the new campaign from 28-29 January. He will no doubt be looking to write another memorable chapter of his career at the circuit he loves and, with fans back in the grandstands, De Vries was quick to share some advice for any young Saudis looking to take a leaf out of his book and pursue a career in motorsport. “Follow your passion and your dreams,” said De Vries. “No one has the right to take courage away from you or say something is impossible. “It’s a tough journey if you set yourself a goal and you always keep that in mind and work towards that then hard work pays off and further down the line you will get to where you want to be. It’s not always that straight forward but I’d say follow your passions and your dreams and believe in them.”

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Tunisia stun favorites Nigeria to boost Arab hopes at AFCON

The African Cup of Nations has already seen Ghana out, defending champions Algeria finish bottom of their group and now Nigeria eliminated at a relatively early stage after a shock loss at the hands of a COVID-19-ridden Tunisia on Sunday. That result really showed that the trophy could go anywhere, and as unimpressive as Egypt…

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The African Cup of Nations has already seen Ghana out, defending champions Algeria finish bottom of their group and now Nigeria eliminated at a relatively early stage after a shock loss at the hands of a COVID-19-ridden Tunisia on Sunday. That result really showed that the trophy could go anywhere, and as unimpressive as Egypt have been so far, coach Carlos Queiroz’s words after the group stage ended are looking increasingly accurate. “Now the real work begins, and now the real competition will begin,” he said. It was the kind of thing that you would expect such an experienced campaigner to say. After all, Egypt had not impressed in the group stage with a poor, to say the least, performance in a 1-0 loss to Nigeria in the opener. It was followed by two unconvincing victories by the same scoreline against Guinea-Bissau and then Sudan. With criticism at home, it was understandable, then, that Queiroz, who took the job in September, wanted to look forward rather than back. Yet the 68-year-old former Real Madrid manager has taken four teams through successful World Cup qualification campaigns and knows what he is talking about. Nigeria were perhaps the best team in the group stage and were certainly the only one to take maximum points. Drawn against Tunisia then in the second round, the Super Eagles, newly installed as tournament favorites, were expected to win. Not only had they been impressive in the first round, with winger Moses Simon a real standout, but Tunisia had been anything but. The North Africans had limped through to the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams, winning just one game and losing against Mali and Gambia, the latter an embarrassing defeat. All their goals had come in the 4-0 win over Mauritania. The odds were against the Carthage Eagles flying any higher in the tournament. A serious outbreak of COVID-19 in the Tunisia camp lengthened the odds of a win considerably. The federation announced that as many as 12 players out of the 28-man squad had tested positive, including star striker Wahbi Khazri. By the time the Nigeria game rolled around, at least seven players were unavailable. Coach Monhder Kebaier had also tested positive and his duties were taken over by assistant Bilal Kadri. But the Tunisian coaching staff did not use the infections as an excuse at any point. Despite all the problems, or perhaps because of them, Tunisia gave everything, working harder than their opponents, who gave the impression that they expected a comfortable evening. In what was a highly disciplined performance, Tunisia gave Simon no time or space, doubled up on the Nantes star and tried to cut off the supply to the forwards. Nigeria, who had looked the most creative of all the teams in the group stage (though admittedly the bar had been set pretty low by the rest), seemed to have few ideas and only started to come alive after Tunisia took the lead early in the second half thanks to a fierce long-range shot from Youssef Msakni. But a red card given to Alex Iwobi handed the initiative back to Tunisia, and in the end, they recorded a shock but deserved win. The 2004 champions now move into the quarter-finals and a winnable tie against Burkina Faso on Saturday. The extra six days should mean that coach Kebaier can field his strongest team, and hopes are now high. If Egypt can take some inspiration from Tunisia when they meet Ivory Coast on Tuesday, then the Arab world will have more than one team to cheer for when the quarter-finals kick off. With Queiroz a big fan of discipline, organization and shape, he will not have that much to learn defensively, but in terms of mood and confidence, Tunisia put the mediocrity of the group stage behind them and went out to win and, importantly, took their chances. It does not matter now how Egypt performed last week. They have a chance to reset, but they must start to take their chances after scoring only two goals in 270 minutes so far. “Look, I promise you, starting from tomorrow they are going to be doing finishing exercises from the morning until the afternoon,” Queiroz said at the weekend. “They just need to score more goals. To only play good football is not enough — we need to build up more goals and with that be more relaxed in the game.” Tunisia’s win over Nigeria serves as a perfect reminder that not only does the tournament start here, but that it is wide open. Ghana are out, Algeria are out and now Nigeria are out. It really is up for grabs.

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Algeria and Ghana handed tough World Cup playoff ties

Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages The group stages of the delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations ended with two big surprises — the exit of defending champions Algeria and another of the favorites, five-time title-holders Ghana. A record seven Arab nations started the tournament, but…

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Mohamed Salah and fellow Arab stars must step up in Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages The group stages of the delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations ended with two big surprises — the exit of defending champions Algeria and another of the favorites, five-time title-holders Ghana. A record seven Arab nations started the tournament, but only four have booked a place in the round of 16: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and, most surprisingly, Comoros. Morocco’s was perhaps the cleanest of qualifications, winning group C with seven points from two wins and a draw. The team looked to be on song and were led with distinction by Achraf Hakimi, who scored what may well be the best goal of the tournament so far against Gabon. The Paris Saint-Germain player has been ably backed by Yassine Bounou, the excellent Sevilla goalkeeper,  especially in the opening match of the campaign against Ghana. It was a match settled by a winning goal from substitute Sofiane Boufal, who plays for French Ligue 1 side Angers. Despite being benched in all three group matches, Boufal has shown his worth for coach Vahid Halilhodzic’s team. Seven-time winners Egypt got off to a poor start with an awful performance in the 1-0 loss to Nigeria and after that scraped two narrow wins to progress to the knockouts stages. Star forward Mohamed Salah, fresh from being nominated for the best FIFA men’s player award alongside Lionel Messi and eventual winner Robert Lewandowski, has often looked isolated and scored just one of Egypt’s paltry two goals at the tournament. There seems to be a lack of understanding between the Liverpool star and fellow forward Mustafa Mohamed and Omar Marmoush, an issue that needs to be resolved before Wednesday’s clash with a formidable Cote d’Ivoire team. Egypt recently took part in the FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar without any of their European-based stars, but the return of the players does not look to have improved the team visibly. Another that has disappointed is Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny, and he and Salah have rarely been subjected to this much criticism from their own fans and media. Coach Carlos Queiroz has yet to find the right formula despite the two wins over Guinea-Bissau and Sudan. Tunisia also were far from impressive, missing three penalties against Mali, Mauritania and Gambia on their way to scraping through the group stages by finishing as one of the best third-placed teams. The missed kicks came from Zamalek’s Seif El-Din Al-Jaziri, Saint-Etienne’s Wahbi Al-Kharazi — who both partially redeemed themselves with one and two goals, respectively —  and captain Youssef Al-Masakni, who plays for Al-Arabi Club in Qatar and had recently recovered from testing positive for COVID-19. The young Manchester United star Hannibal Mejbri, one of the standout players at the Arab Cup, was again expected to take center-stage, but has so far failed to replicate his performances in Doha. The biggest shock of the tournament has been the exit of champions Algeria. Manchester City star and talisman Riyad Mahrez entered the tournament with expectations of becoming the historical top scorer for his country at the AFCON, equaling Lakhdar Belloumi’s tally of six goals. However, Mahrez and his colleagues were humiliated in the group stage, gathering only one point from a draw and two losses. Algeria’s star man even missed a penalty in the comprehensive  3-1 loss to Cote d’Ivoire. Lack of preparation for most teams has been a feature of the early part of the tournament, and Mahrez and rest of coach Djamel Belmadi’s squad have failed to adapt to the pace of the competition, perhaps due to their late arrival in Cameroon. Incredibly Algeria’s defeat in their final group match, coupled with other results, helped unheralded Comoros become the fourth Arab nation to qualify for the knockout stages. The scenes of celebrations that followed their sensational 3-2 win over Ghana — one of the results of the competition so far — will live long in the memory, and showed just what this tournament means to fans and players. While the Pharaohs’ clash with Cote d’Ivoire is the pick of the round-of-16 matches, Morocco will have a somewhat easier confrontation against Malawi, while Tunisia, with a host of players missing after testing positive for COVID-19, will face a thankless task against Nigeria, arguably the tournament’s best team. For Comoros, the party continues against hosts Cameroon on Monday. Whatever happens from now on, it has been an unforgettable experience for them. Individually, stars such as Salah and Mahrez rarely caught then eye in the group stage. Instead, it is the Cameroonian Vincent Aboubakar, who plays for Al-Nassr in the Saudi Professional League, who has been one of the stars, grabbing five goals in the three matches to top the goal-scoring table. But teams and individuals have a habit of strongly emerging throughout a tournament. A slow start often ends up being a prelude to a star turn in the knockout stages. We await Salah and co catching fire in the coming days.

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