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Iran’s top footballers feel neglected

JEDDAH: Reigning champion Emily Kristine Pedersen from Denmark successfully defended her team title with a playoff victory in the Aramco Team Series Jeddah on Friday. Meanwhile, Slovenian teenager Pia Babnik bagged the individual honors. Pedersen saw off Lydia Hall from Wales over two extra holes at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic…

Iran’s top footballers feel neglected

JEDDAH: Reigning champion Emily Kristine Pedersen from Denmark successfully defended her team title with a playoff victory in the Aramco Team Series Jeddah on Friday. Meanwhile, Slovenian teenager Pia Babnik bagged the individual honors.

Pedersen saw off Lydia Hall from Wales over two extra holes at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City to secure the title for Team Pedersen, which also included Solheim Cup star Hannah Burke, from England, Krista Bakker, from Finland, and Ahmed Al-Subaey, the team’s amateur player.

Team Hall — which also included Becky Brewerton, from Wales, Luiza Altmann, from Brazil, and amateur Victor Green, a former NFL star — and Team Pedersen finished tied on 51-under after 54 holes on the Red Sea coast.

The captains could not be separated on their first playoff attempt down the par-five 18th, but then Hall found the water while going for the green in two the second time around.

Pedersen, whose tee shot left her perfectly placed in the middle of the fairway, capitalized by landing her approach within 10 feet of the pin before holing her eagle putt to claim the $150,000 top prize for her team.

“It means a lot to win again,” said 25-year-old Pedersen, whose victory last year was in the Saudi Ladies Team International, the event that proved to be the precursor to the Aramco Team Series, which was launched this year.

“I came back to Saudi Arabia hoping to get a win again and its just amazing to do it. I obviously love it around here, so it’s just great. We had a lot of fun as a team and it was a big team effort. We kept the energy high and kept each other high, so it was really just a great week.”

Last year Pedersen also required a playoff, against England’s Georgia Hall, to claim the top prize.

“Obviously I had a lot of good memories from the playoff last year,” she said, adding: “But it was fun. I feel like I know this course really, really well now, so I was happy.”

Burke returned to golf last year after a horrific Achilles injury that kept her out of the second half of the 2019 Ladies European Tour season.

Asked how it felt to now stand in the winners’ circle, six years after her only previous Tour victory, she said: “It feels really, really good — kind of a bit surreal. I’ve had a couple of tough years so this is absolutely amazing and I’m loving it.

“The injury in 2019 took its toll, not just physically but mentally, financially; I kind of had a year out, made zero money, spent a lot to rehab to get back to where I needed to be. It was mentally draining. It’s been a massive battle, really. I’ve been close to calling it a day, truthfully. So this is big.

“I’ve had massive support back home from all my family, friends and from my coach, Brian, here who has backed me all the way. Thanks to everyone.”

In the individual competition, meanwhile, there was some late drama. Germany’s Olivia Cowan headed into the final hole with a two-shot lead, and a par-5 almost certainly would have earned her a first career title, on a hole where a day earlier she found the water attempting to reach the green in two.

It proved to be Groundhog Day for the 25-year-old, as her attempt to set up an eagle putt once again ended up underwater. She scrambled to a closing 7 and a 15-under-par total.

That opened the door to Babnik, who was playing in the group behind the German and needed only a par of her own to force a playoff. The Slovenian went one better, firing a wedge to within 8 feet before rolling in what proved to be the winning putt for a birdie and a 16-under total.

“It feels amazing to have won,” said the 17-year-old. “I must admit I didn’t know what was going on in the group ahead, so I was just trying to play my game coming down 18. It was my amateur who came and told me that I had the putt to win, but I wanted to make it anyway for the team.

“The whole format of the Aramco Team Series is very relaxed and it’s definitely more fun. I was out there just trying to make birdies for the team. I’m really happy with my game and how I played today and over the last two weeks. I’ve loved playing out here in Saudi Arabia and look forward to coming back.”

The Aramco Team Series Jeddah was the last of four new $1million ATS tournaments that were added to the Ladies European Tour this season. It followed events in London, Sotogrande in Spain, and New York.

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Saudi Arabia’s first cricket talent hunt program launched 

Manchester City Champions League masterclass shows all not well for unsettled Mauricio Pochettino at PSG LONDON: For all the will, and ambition, of a manager, sometimes the fit of a club is not quite right. No matter how much Mauricio Pochettino insists he is happy at Paris Saint-Germain, the speculation of a move to Manchester…

Saudi Arabia’s first cricket talent hunt program launched 

Manchester City Champions League masterclass shows all not well for unsettled Mauricio Pochettino at PSG

LONDON: For all the will, and ambition, of a manager, sometimes the fit of a club is not quite right.

No matter how much Mauricio Pochettino insists he is happy at Paris Saint-Germain, the speculation of a move to Manchester United will not go away.

Not now – even with the surprise appointment on Thursday of Ralf Rangnick as the Old Trafford club’s interim manager until the end of the season – and not until someone is eventually chosen as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s permanent replacement.

Pochettino remains a leading candidate for that role.

And despite his belief that his PSG players won’t be distracted by what happens over the next six months, footballing history has often shown that commitment and quality don’t always come to the fore when there are rumours about a manager’s position, whether positive or negative.

Midfielder Ander Herrera, who ironically joined PSG from United on a free transfer in 2019 after five years at Old Trafford, said: “We are convinced…we know he is focused on the season and our club and to try to get the best from the team. 

“We are not distracted at all [by the situation]. Since the first day I came here, everyone loves to talk about that, everyone loves to make rumours about that. That doesn’t affect us at all.”

That is up for debate given their insipid and disjointed display in the 2-1 loss at Manchester City in the Champions League on Wednesday.

It was a result that saw Pep Guardiola’s side top the group and the French side finish runners-up and facing a potential tougher last-16 opponent.

City had the balletic attacking brilliance and cultured ball players that Lionel Messi and Neymar once had alongside them during their heyday at Barcelona. 

Now they were merely passengers, observers to a Guardiola masterclass that deserved a greater margin of victory for the English Premier League champions.

Based on his success during five years at Tottenham Hotspur, Pochettino forged a reputation of building sides with a strong work and team ethic. That is not visible in a PSG outfit that seems unbalanced, unconvincing and needs to earn their victories.

In the first half they had just three touches in the opposition’s box, compared to City’s 23.

Blessed with enviable individual talent, and despite taking a fortunate lead through Kylian Mbappe, they were often unravelled by a City team missing the injured Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and £100 million signing Jack Grealish.

In Bernardo Silva, the hosts had a player described by Gabriel Jesus – who scored the winning goal after a Raheem Sterling equaliser – as “one of the best players in the world right now”. The Brazil striker also said “nobody is selfish” in the City team.

The hashtag #PochOUT! was soon trending on Twitter after the defeat, with Pochettino criticised for being too defensive, lacking creative ideas and unable to get more out of a frontline of Messi, Neymar and Mbappe that was laboured rather than lethal.

Pochettino felt PSG “suffered” against City, while Herrera said Guardiola’s side had the quality to “kill you”.

But captain Marquinhos offered an insight into his own side’s failings as he added: “The Champions League, it’s that you’ve got to know how to play against the big teams.”

Right now, PSG are unable to do that.

With the Champions League coveted by their Qatari owners, this does not bode well for the rest of the campaign, nor Pochettino’s future.

Just two seasons ago Thomas Tuchel led them to the Champions League final, where they were edged 1-0 by Bayern Munich. Four months later he was dismissed with the best win percentage in Ligue 1 history.

PSG should be ready to challenge for the trophy now, but look a level below their European rivals.

Pochettino has to address that. Results will determine whether he remains in Paris or that, when United make their decision at the end of the season, the Argentine is their first and best choice.

While PSG have decided not to let Pochettino leave mid-season, he will also be aware that Zinedine Zidane had been discussed as a replacement – and would prove popular with fans and the owners.

A decade ago, when Qatar was bidding to host the 2022 World Cup, they brought on board a raft of stellar names to raise their profile and enhance their chances.

Guardiola and Saudi Arabia’s superstar Sami Al-Jaber were among them. But it was the signing of Zidane that was seen as the pivotal moment in helping them succeed against all odds.

The Frenchman is often named the footballing hero for many of those at the forefront of sporting change in the Middle East.

As a gifted player for clubs such as Juventus and Real Madrid and his national team, Zidane was iconic and inspirational, a legend.

But he was admired in the Gulf too because of his Arab roots – a Muslim of Algerian Kabyle descent.

Zidane would be the prestige signing for the Qataris a la Messi – or Guardiola in coaching terms when he took over at City and transformed them with style and success.

With 11 trophies in his first managerial job at Real Madrid – across two spells and five years – he would also be the biggest winner since Carlo Ancelotti had a 16-month spell in 2012.

In lifting three successive Champions League titles, Zidane managed to get the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale to show he could handle big names, and the challenge and expectation of managing a big club.

By adopting a more aggressive and attacking approach, imagine what he could do with Messi, Neymar and Mbappe if he was persuaded to stay?

While Madrid still seem favourites to lure French striker Mbappe when his contract runs out next summer, perhaps having Zidane in charge could sway him to remain for just a little longer.

As he admitted previously: “If you’re a boy and you’re French, your idol is Zidane.”

Mbappe, 22, will also have seen how Benzema flourished under Zidane’s tutelage to become one of the world’s best strikers again at 33.

Revered and respected by his peers with tough demands, Zidane could revitalise PSG – and allow Pochettino the opportunity to rebuild a United side that is under-achieving, but still has so much potential. Eventually, this would appear a perfect fit – and a fait accompli.

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Liverpool can go all way in Champions League: Ex-defender Jose Enrique

DUBAI: Liverpool return to Champions League action at Anfield against Porto on Wednesday with little at stake having secured qualification to the knockout stages after four wins from their opening four matches. It is a competition the club have a special affinity for, and former left-back Jose Enrique believes Jurgen Klopp’s men can go all…

Liverpool can go all way in Champions League: Ex-defender Jose Enrique

DUBAI: Liverpool return to Champions League action at Anfield against Porto on Wednesday with little at stake having secured qualification to the knockout stages after four wins from their opening four matches.

It is a competition the club have a special affinity for, and former left-back Jose Enrique believes Jurgen Klopp’s men can go all the way in it this season, despite some inconsistent results over the last few weeks.

He said: “In the league the only problem I see is that we’ve been unlucky with injuries, again. It happened last season with the center-backs, and this season it’s happening with the midfield. Let’s see how it goes, that will (impact) our Premier League title fight, because maybe we don’t have as strong enough squad.

“But the Champions League I believe we can go all in. Obviously, we’re through, and we now have away and home stages, anything can happen. And I can bet that in the Champions League Liverpool are really strong, especially when they play at Anfield,” the 35-year-old Spanish former defender added.

Speaking to Arab News in Dubai, where he met fans at the opening of the official Liverpool FC store at Mirdif City Center Mall — an event organized by the club’s official retail partner Seventy-8 — Enrique said: “The level of support for Liverpool FC around the world is well-known, and the passion for the Reds can definitely be felt here in Dubai and the UAE.”
Former Liverpool defender Jose Enrique says he is now completely healthy after an earlier surgery to remove a brain tumor. (Seventy-8)

Enrique announced in 2018 that he was recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumor.

“My health is completely fine now; I don’t feel any side effects. After the operation and treatment, I was feeling some side effects, but they’re completely gone now.

“Since I retired, I’m now working with my brother as a football agent. It took me a while to get used to it but now I’m so happy, and my brother is actually here in Dubai to close a player as well.

“So, I’m really happy, travelling quite a lot, now that (coronavirus disease) COVID-19 restrictions allow us to travel a little bit. So can’t complain, probably the best moment of my life since I retired,” he added.

Enrique recently returned to Anfield for the first time since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and he remains a fan five years after leaving.

“Against Brighton (2-2), the second half wasn’t the best but against Atletico Madrid (2-0) we won and that was great. It was very, very nice to be back because it was my first time back at Anfield after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

He had special words of praise for the Liverpool manager who he said had transformed the club and won the Champions League, the Premier League, and the FIFA Club World Cup in recent years.

“Klopp, what can I say that hasn’t been said already? Obviously, we have to give a lot of credit to the players but for me he is the main guy. If he was not there we would not be in this position, definitely for me he is the main man.

“I would have loved to have played under him because I believe he would have improved me a lot as a player. In my last season I was actually with him, but I wasn’t fit enough, I had many, many problems with my knee. So obviously I wasn’t available to play, the way he wants to play needs a lot of intensity, and my knee couldn’t handle that.

“I definitely would have loved, in one of my peak years, to play under him, because I really believe he would have made me maybe one of the best in my position,” he added.

Enrique also revealed his delight for Steven Gerrard after his former captain at Liverpool became the new coach at Aston Villa.

“I’m very happy for him, I’ve already congratulated him. I think it’s the right move for him. I don’t think you have to compare (Glasgow) Rangers to Aston Villa because they play in completely different leagues. Rangers are massive in Scotland, but Aston Villa are a massive club in the Premier League, they’ve just been struggling in the last few years.

“With Stevie, if they give him the right money, not big money, and the freedom to make his own decisions, I believe he can do really well there,” he said.

And Enrique also had words of encouragement for fans of his former club Newcastle United after the recent Saudi-backed takeover.

“I’m really happy for them. It’s a club that I will always love, they gave me the chance to play in the Premier League. The fans, they loved me when I was there, some of my best years. I wish them the best, I know how much they suffered with (Newcastle United’s former owner) Mike Ashley. Obviously, I left because Liverpool came for me, but Mike Ashley was one of the reasons to leave the club, and not just me, but many players.

“And now the new owners are ready to spend, and you can see when they signed how the fans celebrated outside the stadium. I’m very happy for them, because I believe it’s a club that at least should be in the top six in the Premier League,” he said.

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Benzema handed 1-year suspended sentence in sex tape case

RIYADH: A breathtaking, history-making Nasser Al-Dawsari goal after just 16 seconds of the AFC Champions League final set Saudi side Al-Hilal on their way to a deserved 2-0 victory over Pohang Steelers on Tuesday, and a record fourth continental title. The 22-year-old’s early breakthrough was record-breaking in another sense as it was the fastest goal…

Benzema handed 1-year suspended sentence in sex tape case

RIYADH: A breathtaking, history-making Nasser Al-Dawsari goal after just 16 seconds of the AFC Champions League final set Saudi side Al-Hilal on their way to a deserved 2-0 victory over Pohang Steelers on Tuesday, and a record fourth continental title.

The 22-year-old’s early breakthrough was record-breaking in another sense as it was the fastest goal ever scored in the Champions League final. It was a stunning strike, worthy in itself of winning any championship anywhere in the world. Moussa Marega doubled the lead in the second half and Pohang, who were second-best for much of the game, never really looked likely to come back from that.

The Koreans were up against it from the start. The roar of the 50,000-plus Saudi fans that greeted the kick-off at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh had not even died down before left-back Al-Dawsari, who made his national team debut this year, gave the Blues the lead. He picked up a loose ball just inside the Korean half, moved forward and unleashed a fierce shot from about 30 meters that flew into the top corner.

Goalkeeper Lee Jun might have been caught by surprise by the timing, power and the pace of the shot so early in the game but even if it had come in the last minute and not the first, it is likely he could have done little about it — it was simply unstoppable. The sea of blue around the arena erupted and Pohang were left stunned as their opponents celebrated with almost as much disbelief as delight.

With three continental titles of their own to their name, however, the Koreans had the experience to know that there were still more than 89 minutes left to play and a lot could happen in that time. There was a reminder of this just 10 minutes later, as the Steelers silenced the din in Riyadh for the first time.

Sin Jin-ho won the Champions League with Ulsan Hyundai last December, and the attacking midfielder must have thought he had got on the score sheet this time around when his half-volley from the edge of the area dipped over diving keeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf. Unfortunately for the Steelers, the ball bounced back off the underside of the bar. Lim Sang-hyub was well positioned to fire home the rebound but his shot bounced back off of Al-Mayouf’s legs. It was as close as the Koreans would come all night.

The game then started to settle into something approaching a more traditional final. The visitors were wary of conceding a second goal that would make an already tricky task doubly difficult and did not threaten enough. In fact, the game started to get a little scrappy, with some heavy challenges and misplaced passes. Al-Hilal, with playmaker Matheus Pereira getting more and more into the game, looked the more dangerous going forward but in the last 30 minutes of the first half neither goalkeeper had much to do until, right at the end, Al-Mayouf was grateful to see a close-range header from Gwon Wan-kyu fly straight into his hands.

Pohang made a double substitution at the start of the second half, a sign of their more adventurous intent, but it was Al-Hilal who created the first real chance after the break. Pereira found Bafetimbi Gomis in the area, only for the striker’s shot to be blocked by Alex Grant. Soon after, Pereira’s free-kick flew just over the top corner of the Pohang goal.

The Koreans, with seven losses in their last nine league games, were struggling to get a foothold in the game but while facing just a one goal deficit they were never out of it, and a mix-up in the Al-Hilal defense just before the hour mark allowed substitute Go Young-joon to get in a shot from the edge of the area that went wide.

Then, with 63 minutes on the clock, Gomis slipped the ball through to Marega in the right side of the area and the former FC Porto striker found the opposite corner with a low shot. Given that Pohang had not done enough in attack, that seemed to be that.

Mistakes can still change games, however, and that almost happened soon after. Al-Mayouf came out and missed a looping cross and the ball fell invitingly for Jeon Min-gwang at close range, but Muteb Al-Mufarrij was able to react quickly and clear the danger.

Pohang started to push forward but not only did this seem to be a case of too little, too late, it opened up more opportunities for Al-Hilal and 3-0 seemed more likely than 2-1. With 10 minutes remaining, the busy Gomis had a chance to increase the lead but shot just wide from inside the area.

That was the last significant chance of the game but Al-Hilal’s fans did not care as by this time they were starting to celebrate their team becoming the first to be crowned champions of Asia four times.

On the night, few could argue that they did not deserve this second triumph in three seasons.

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