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YEKATERINBURG: Senegal face Japan on Sunday at the World Cup fired up by an ‘ignorant’ tweet by a British tycoon and reality television star that has become the talk of the team.
Along with Nigeria, a powerful Senegal side spearheaded by Liverpool striker Sadio Mane are flying the flag for Africa in Russia.
After battling to a 2-1 opening win over Poland in Group ‘H’, Aliou Cisse’s Senegal can take a major step towards the last 16 with victory over Japan in Yekaterinburg.
They unwittingly found themselves at the centre of a Twitter storm this week after businessman Alan Sugar tweeted a picture of the Senegal team with the caption: “I recognise some of these guys from the beach in Marbella”.
Alongside the picture, the billionaire Briton posted images of sunglasses and handbags for sale.
The Apprentice presenter took down the post and later apologised after being accused of racism, but the incident angered Senegal and could serve to further inspire them against Japan.
Ndongo Ndiaye, a former basketball player and now an adviser to Senegal President Macky Sall, told The Times at the team’s base in Kaluga, south of Moscow: “Everyone here is talking about this tweet, it has made headlines in Senegal too.
“I think it is very ignorant from someone in his position,” said Ndiaye, calling for Sugar to be sacked by the BBC. “Of course, there must be freedom of speech but this was wrong and it is hurtful to the players and people from Senegal.”
Livewire forward Mane is Senegal’s prime dangerman, but it was the raw pace and power of Mbaye Niang and a mistake by Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny that clinched victory on Tuesday after Thiago Cionek’s own goal put the Africans ahead.
Cisse and his men are now dreaming of a repeat of their run to the quarter-finals in 2002 — he captained that team.
“Of course we represent our country but I can also guarantee that the whole of Africa is supporting us,” said Cisse, the only black coach at the World Cup.
A week ago, Japan — who sacked Vahid Halilhodzic and brought in Akira Nishino as coach just weeks before the World Cup — looked the easiest game in the group.
But a shock 2-1 win over Colombia made them the first Asian side to beat a South American team at a World Cup and will have infused the Japanese with badly needed belief.
In mitigation, Colombia played almost the whole game with 10 men after Carlos Sanchez was sent off on three minutes.
Japan’s attacking midfielder Keisuke Honda said on Friday they were wary of Senegal — but could also see a major weakness.
“It’s going to be tough, they have great players. They’re physical, they’re fast and they’ll play in front of a big crowd,” he said.
“But I know the weakness of some African teams... You know, no one can play perfectly for 90 minutes, and African players especially lack concentration, particularly in the second half.”
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2018
ON the eve of Belgium’s first game at this World Cup, Romelu Lukaku told the world his story.
Of his impoverished childhood when his family was broke, when he didn’t have a television set at home to watch the World Cup, and of the times when people wanted him to fail. In the story written by him, or ghost-written on his behalf, on the Players Tribune website, Lukaku said how he dreamt of taking his family out of the financial rut they found themselves in, when they had nothing to eat, through football.
He wrote how back in 2002 he couldn’t watch the World Cup. Now, in a multicultural Belgium squad that echoes of France’s 1998 World Cup winning side and to millions watching it on television, he is starring at one. Lukaku, who is of Congolese descent, scored two well-taken goals to lead Belgium to a 5-2 romp over Tunisia in an end-to-end game on Saturday which also saw Eden Hazard come into his own with a superb double.
Lukaku joined Cristiano Ronaldo on the top of the goal-scorers list at this World Cup and on this form he might end up winning the Golden Boot. The verve, tenacity and athleticism showed by Belgium could see them win the World Cup.
“We need to take it game by game,” Belgium’s Nacer Chadli told Dawn in the mixed zone when asked if this win sent out a statement to the world that Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ were all set to deliver a long-awaited first major title. “We need to keep doing the best we can and see how it goes.”
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois added: “I think we can win the World Cup with our attacking play. I’m happy that Lukaku scored two more goals. It’s good when our forwards convert.”
The game at the Spartak Stadium here was billed as a test of credentials for Belgium against a Tunisia side who had showed they were an awkward, stubborn team to beat in their opening match against England. Then, they were undone by a last-gasp goal in a 2-1 defeat but here, they were picked apart by a Belgium team that attacked at will. This was the first time that a World Cup had four Arab teams. Three of them — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco — were already out of reckoning before Tunisia had kicked off and Tunisia too are all but out.
“We would like to apologise to the Tunisian fans who were in great numbers at the stadium,” Tunisian coach Nabil Maaloul said at the post-match news conference. “It’s difficult to win against players who can make the difference at any moment with good passes and balls.”
Belgium defender Thomas Meunier had spoken ahead of the match that his side should go for the throat against Tunisia and that is exactly what they did.
They ran at the Tunisian defence and were ahead as soon as the sixth minute. Hazard got on the end of a quick one-two with Dries Mertens and got clipped by Syam Ben Youssef right on the edge of the box. He got up and tucked the resulting penalty.
They were 2-0 ahead 10 minutes later when Ali Maaloul’s heavy touch saw a charging Mertens nip in and get the ball before setting Lukaku free. The Manchester United striker took a touch, positioned himself before smashing a shot right in the corner of the net.
Credit to Tunisia, though, that they didn’t wilt. They pulled one back almost immediately, Dylan Bronn heading in Wahbi Khazri’s curling free-kick. Now Tunisia, to have any chance, needed to keep the score at this at least till half-time. They didn’t. And Lukaku got his second in injury-time when Meunier carved open their defence with a wonderful throughball for Lukaku to dink it over the goalkeeper.
It got worse for the Tunisians six minutes into the second-half with Hazard showing a delightful piece of skill for Belgium’s fourth. Jan Vertonghen’s long ball found the Chelsea forward and he took out Tunisia goalkeeper Farouk Ben Mustapha with one touch and slotted into an empty net.
It was all Belgium now and substitute Michy Batshuayi, having been earlier denied by a last-ditch goal-line clearance and the bar, added a fifth when he slid in to bury Youri Tielmans pass on the stroke of full-time before Khazri netted a consolation for the Tunisians in injury-time.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez revealed later that Lukaku picked an ankle injury during the match and would probably be rested for potentially the final Group ‘G’ match against England, one which could potentially decide which team finishes top. Even if he doesn’t play, Lukaku has already made his mark at the World Cup and with him, Belgium can think of going far.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2018
NIZHNY NOVGOROD: Handed a winning start for the first time in a major tournament for 12 years by captain Harry Kane’s injury-time winner against Tunisia, England can look forward to Sunday’s meeting with Panama with a rare sense of World Cup calm.
A two-time Premier League Golden Boot winner, Kane banished any remaining doubts over his ability to perform on the biggest stage for his country with the first double by an English player at the World Cup since Gary Lineker in 1990.
But Kane’s heroics in Volgograd papered over the cracks of his team-mates’ failure to find the net with a host of simple first-half chances.
Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard were particularly culpable and while Kane saved an inquest into England’s profligacy and ponderous second-half performance, Sterling’s place against Panama may now be in jeopardy.
The first media storm of a hitherto relaxed campaign for the Three Lions was brewing on Friday after Gareth Southgate’s planned team was inadvertently revealed when assistant manager Steve Holland’s notes were photographed at training on Thursday.
According to the notes, Marcus Rashford will replace Sterling with Ruben Loftus-Cheek stepping in for Dele Alli, who suffered a thigh injury against Tunisia.
Southgate criticised the media for giving England’s opponents an upper hand.
“If we were to give the opposition the opportunity of having our team it’s a disadvantage to us,” said Southgate. “So of course our media has to decide if they want to help the team or not.”
In contrast to his 23-goal season at club level for Premier League champions Manchester City, Sterling now hasn’t scored in his last 21 internationals.
However, Rashford refuted suggestions England are too dependent on Kane for goals.
“I don’t think that’s happening in this group,” said the Manchester United striker, who admitted to being an admirer of Kane’s ability to be in the right place at the right time.
“He gets himself in great positions. If we can find him, we will, and, more often than not, he’s going to score.”
At 20, Rashford is just one of a host of exciting young English talents as Southgate took the third youngest squad in the tournament to Russia.
And Holland believes a more clinical touch in front of goal will come with experience.
“It’s psychological, it’s about pushing the players to be match-winners but it is also a process,” he said. “It might just take the time that it takes.
“If you imagine these guys in a couple of years, and I hope I’m still around then, once they’ve become more seasoned at this level, that could be really exciting. It already is now.”
Racking up goals against Panama could be crucial if England are to top Group G.
Highly-fancied Belgium soared to the top of the group by easing past the World Cup debutants 3-0 in their opening game.
Victory in Nizhny Novgorod will guarantee England’s place in the last 16 along with Belgium who routed Tunisia 5-2 on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Panama will name an unchanged line-up for the clash against England, veteran coach Hernan Gomez confirmed on Saturday.
The Colombian, who previously coached his home country and Ecuador at the World Cup, said he was opting for experience in his team selection.
“The line-up will be exactly the same,” said Gomez. “We have a certain stability and an organised team.”
Gomez said though it made not the slightest difference to his plans, nor ‘gives me any advantage’.
He praised an ‘organised’ and ‘speedy’ England and said they would present an even stiffer test than Belgium, the top ranked team in the group, who beat the Central Americans 3-0.
“Tomorrow [Sunday] is going to be a very difficult match,” he said. “It’s going to be our hardest match by far.”
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2018
ZURICH: Switzerland’s 2-1 World Cup win over Serbia was given a mixed reaction by Swiss media who applauded their rousing second-half comeback but criticised celebrations by scorers Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri which appeared to have political overtones.
After falling behind in the fifth minute, Switzerland defied a cauldron-like atmosphere created by fervent Serbian supporters as they hit back with a thunderbolt from Xhaka and a last-minute breakaway goal from Shaqiri.
Both players, who are ethnic Albanians and of Kosovar heritage, celebrated with a gesture which appeared to imitate the eagle displayed on Albania’s flag.
Serbia refuses to recognise the independence of its former province Kosovo, whose 1.8 million people are mostly ethnic Albanians, which broke away 10 years ago.
Second-generation immigrants from the Balkans have played a huge part in transforming the Swiss national side over the past 10 years.
Players such as Valon Behrami — playing at his fourth World Cup — Xhaka and Shaqiri have brought both raw talent and passion to a team which was not noted for either in the past.
But their efforts on Friday got a mixed reaction from the Swiss media, which showered praise on their performance but criticised their celebrations.
“Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka have talented feet like no one else in this national team. But their political sensitivity and social awareness let much to be desired,” said the Neue Zuercher Zeitung (NZZ).
The tabloid Blick took a similar line. “Xhaka and Shaqiri played with real heart but forgot to keep cool heads when they celebrated, and that is the big flaw of this wonderfully stirring evening.”
Xhaka and Shaqiri, both articulate and multi-lingual, wear their hearts on their sleeve and have never been shy about their heritage.
In 2012, Swiss television commentator Sascha Ruefer caused controversy with comments about an Xhaka miss during a World Cup qualifier against Albania, when Switzerland were already 2-0 ahead.
“What was that? All he needed was to push the ball home. I’d like to see that again . . . presumably Xhaka was not unhappy at not having scored against Albania,” he said.
Ruefer denied he meant any slur but admitted his comment was a “bit unfortunate.”
Xhaka backed Kosovo’s ultimately successful campaign for FIFA membership and at one point contemplated playing for their before pledging his allegiance to Switzerland.
The players insisted there was nothing to see in their celebrations.
“For me it was a really special day,” said Xhaka. “This is a victory for my family, for Switzerland, Albania, Kosovo. The gesture was for everyone who has supported me, it was not aimed at our opponents. It was a really emotional game.”
Shaqiri said: “It’s nothing to do with politics, it’s about football.”
Meanwhile, the Serbian papers also slammed what they labelled ‘shameful provocation’ by Shaqiri and Xhaka. They noted that Shaqiri wore boots carrying flags of both Switzerland and Kosovo.
The Telegraph paper criticised the “provocative Albanian gesticulation” while the Vecernje Novosti, under the headline ‘Provocation of the Swiss’, featured a large photo of Shaqiri’s boots.
The Serbian Football Federation had complained over Shaqiri’s boots ahead of the match but without success, state-run television RTS reported.
“We sought that he changes the boots. It was a provocation, we were playing against Switzerland, not Kosovo,” official Jovan Surbatovic said.
Meanwhile, papers in Kosovo praised the ‘extraordinary performance’ of the two players.
“The gesture of Xhaka and Shaqiri causes hysteria in Serbia,” the Zeri paper commented.
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci tweeted his congratulations to the two scorers and the entire Swiss team on a “well-deserved win. Proud of you! Kosovo loves you!”.
Petrit Selimi, a former high-ranking Kosovo government official, defended the players’ actions.
“Why provocative? It’s a symbol of the Albanian flag. They [players] used to be Kosovo Albanian refugees,” he said on Twitter.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, less than a decade after the 1998-99 war between ethnic Albanian guerillas and Serb forces, but Belgrade — backed by its traditional ally Russia — still refuses to recognise the move.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2018
SOCHI: A dramatic stoppage-time goal from Toni Kroos gave holders Germany a 2-1 win over Sweden on Saturday to keep alive their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup last 16.
Kroos curled in a superb strike from an indirect free kick to grab the three points for the four-times world champions who are now level with Sweden in Group F on three points and behind Mexico who have six.
Sweden took the lead in the 32nd minute when Ola Toivonen finished confidently after Kroos gave the ball away in midfield.
Marco Reus equalised in the 48th minute, meeting a low cross from Timo Werner, and despite having Jerome Boateng sent off in the 82nd minute, Germany kept going and Kroos earned them a famous win.
The Swedes played with fire as the Germans racked up the chances in the opening minutes, but having weathered that storm they gradually began to threaten on the break, and Marcus Berg was denied a good shout for a penalty when he appeared to be bundled over by Boateng.
With Germany getting in behind Sweden’s full backs at will and fizzing passes across the box, it looked like it might be only a matter of time before they scored, but Toivonen’s goal gave Sweden breathing space.
Manuel Neuer saved the Germans from being 2-0 down at halftime, diving acrobatically to deflect Berg’s header from Sebastian Larsson’s stoppage-time free kick.
Reus got Germany back in the game early in the second half as the Germans launched a massive offensive and when Boateng was sent off for his second yellow card eight minutes from time the Germans continued to push on.
Timo Werner missed from point-blank range and the Swedes looked like hanging on for the draw, but Kroos struck five minutes into stoppage time to give Germany victory.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2018