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YAOUNDE, Cameroon: Morocco qualified for the knockout stages at the African Cup of Nations with a 2-0 win over debutant Comoros on Friday, joining host Cameroon as the first two teams through.
Morocco’s goals came from Selim Amallah early in the first half and substitute Zakaria Aboukhlal a minute before the end of the game, ensuring one of the most impressive teams in qualifying will be in the last 16 in Cameroon.
Aboukhlal’s goal was vindication for him after he won a penalty for Morocco in the 81st only to see Youssef En-Nesyri’s effort saved from the spot.
Morocco has two wins from two to lead Group C ahead of Friday’s late game between Gabon and Ghana. Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is expected to return for Gabon after testing positive for the coronavirus at an airport on arrival in Cameroon and missing the win over Comoros.
Senegal’s struggle to get going continued as it was held by Guinea to 0-0 in Group B, although the result left both teams in good shape to qualify.
The battle of Liverpool stars Sadio Mané of Senegal and Naby Keita of Guinea never really materialized at Kouekong Stadium in Cameroon’s western city of Bafoussam.
Keita did get yellow-carded for a foul on Mané, though.
Mané set up a good chance for Senegal with an attacking run that opened the way for Bouna Sarr to cut inside a defender and have a clear sight at goal. He pulled his shot wide.
Senegal opened its tournament with a very late 1-0 win over Zimbabwe, with Mané converting a penalty in the 97th minute. Guinea beat Malawi 1-0 in its first group game.
It leaves Senegal and Guinea level on four points at the top of the group.
Malawi beat Zimbabwe 2-1 later Friday, coming from 1-0 down with a brace by Gabadinho Mhango. Malawi is playing in its first African Cup since 2010 and only its third ever, and gave itself a chance of reaching the second round.
The top two teams in each of the six groups qualify automatically for the round of 16 as well as the four best third-place teams.
NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe has described the transfer situation at Newcastle United as complex, as he looks to recruit in the January window.
The Magpies head into Saturday’s crucial Premier League clash with Watford with two new faces expected to make their top flight debut for the club, having signed Kieran Trippier and Chris Wood for a collective $50 million so far this month.
And while the central defender that Howe wants through the door did not materialize before Friday’s registration deadline, the head coach is hopeful he will get the man he needs before the end of the window. And he is far from critical of the club’s hierarchy, who he says has been working “tirelessly” to secure deals.
Howe understands though that the perilous position occupied by the Magpies – they sit 19th in the table but can climb out of the top flight drop zone with a win – does not make transfer negotiations easy. Nor does the fact that United are targeting high quality players who clubs do not want to sell.
Providing a transfer update on Friday, Howe told the media: “We are not close to anyone else currently. We are looking, we have got time left in the window. We can move quickly if we need to try for more players. We are still active in the market.”
While pockets are deep – United are backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund – convincing players of the ‘project’ has not always been easy.
On the perils of the window so far, Howe said: “It is a very unique position but what you have to understand is that while people on the outside think it is quite an easy situation to be in, it’s not.
“It’s a very complex situation because you have to agree deals with clubs that do not want to sell in January. That’s well renowned in world football. Clubs are very reluctant to lose assets at this time of year and the players have got to want to join your battle and your fight to stay in the league.
“If they’re at the top of their profession, it’s not an easy sell. Newcastle has a huge pull in many different ways, but I believe that our league position is not one of them so it is a very delicate mix.
“Also, the most important thing for me is bringing the right characters into the group,” he added. “Character and attitude in the player – they have got to want to play and fight for Newcastle United now and in the future. Put all that into the mix and it is quite a difficult situation.”
United remain locked in transfer talks with Sevilla for the signing of Brazilian central defender Diego Carlos although – like their pursuit of Lille’s Sven Botman – the La Liga outfit look to be less than keen sellers at such an early stage in the window.
When asked about Carlos specifically, Howe replied: “We are not going to play this game, are we? Going through individuals? I would never talk about other club’s players whether you are factually correct or incorrect out of respect for them and their clubs. I’ll never do that.”
And when links to out-of-favor Manchester United and Netherlands international midfielder Donny van de Beek were put to the United boss, he reiterated: “I’m not going to comment on other people’s players. I’ve never done that in my career and I won’t start now.”
There are fears in Egypt of another disappointing international tournament for Mohamed Salah, and given how important he is for his country, that would mean failure for the Pharaohs.
If there is to be a chance of adding to the record seven African Cup of Nations titles, then the national team need to get the best out of the red-hot Liverpool star.
Ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Egypt’s appearance in the competition was overshadowed by the shoulder injury that Salah picked up in the final of the UEFA Champions League against Real Madrid just weeks earlier. The question as to how fit he was followed the team all around the tournament.
I attended a St. Petersburg pre-match press conference and the Russian players grew increasingly exasperated before their clash with the North Africans as they had to field question after question on Salah. Egypt fans will be hoping that his contract negotiation with Liverpool does not turn into another cloud.
It is becoming a bigger and bigger story, though it is unlikely to have been the reason for Egypt losing 1-0 to Nigeria in the opening game of AFCON 2021 on Tuesday.
The 29-year-old was a peripheral figure and could do little given the service, or the lack of it, he received from his teammates. Nigeria worked to cut off the supply from midfield and it was an effective tactic, as the Super Eagles coach Augustine Eguavoen explained after the game. “I’d like to congratulate my players. We had respect for Egypt and we just played our game,” he said. “Egypt only played on giving Salah spaces to run. It’s their only play, so we just had to keep the ball away from him.”
They did just that, and it now presents a headache for Egypt coach Carlos Queiroz. A win against Guinea-Bissau on Saturday is now not only necessary to get some points on the board, but a good performance is also needed to help fans forget the display against Nigeria in Garoua. Queiroz also needs to get his star shining. There is not yet a crisis — with the top two from each of the six-team groups going through as well as the four best-performing third-placed teams — but there has to be improvement.
The ideal situation would see Salah banging in a couple of goals and breaking a barren run for his country that has now reached six games.
That would be huge news back in Liverpool, where Salah’s contract situation has become the talk of the city. His current deal expires in the summer of 2023. It means that the player will be able to start talking to other teams next January and move for nothing a few months later. But Salah has indicated that he wants to stay at the six-time champions and has put the ball in the club’s court.
“I know Mo wants to stay. We want Mo to stay,” Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp said on Wednesday. “These things take time, but I think all of it is in a good place. I’m very positive about it. But as long as it is not done, we can’t say anything about it. Good conversations — that’s what I can say.”
A day later, Liverpool’s resolve to keep Salah surely strengthened as they looked short of firepower in a 0-0 draw against a 10-man Arsenal. The English papers were quick to point out the problem.
“Liverpool receive warning over life without Mo Salah and Sadio Mane in Arsenal draw,” was the Daily Mirror’s headline — just one of many pointing out that the Reds need the Egyptian.
Not only has he been consistently excellent since arriving in 2017, Salah has climbed to even greater heights in England this season, with 23 goals in 26 games.
After the stalemate, leading UK pundit and former Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher told the club to hasten the signing of a new contract for the Egyptian star. “I would love this deal to be done as quickly as possible,” he said on television, adding that Salah has provided incredible value for money in his five years so far.
“I don’t think they (the club and owners) would be forgiven if Salah left this club in the summer or in 18 months’ time. He’s a Liverpool legend and one of the greatest players the club has ever had. Salah wants to be paid as well as any top player in the Premier League or world football, and why shouldn’t he? He deserves that — we’re talking about one of the best players in the world.”
Few Reds would disagree. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then fans at Anfield woke up on Friday morning even more in love with Salah than before. That love only extends so far, however, as supporters would be delighted if Egypt exit at the earliest stage so that Salah can return to England.
For the player himself, it may not be a bad thing for his club to be reminded of just how much he brings, but his imminent concern is Egypt recovering from a poor start and living up to their record as the most successful team in the tournament’s history. To do that, coach Queiroz and the rest of the Egyptian team need to get the best out of their talisman, starting on Saturday against Guinea-Bissau.
Both club and country have their own Salah questions to answer, and while Egypt’s is more pressing, Liverpool cannot afford to wait too much longer.
RIYADH: The Saudi Pro League is no stranger to big-name foreign coaches, with a host of high-profile names washing through the league over the past decade or more.
But arguably this season’s best coach is, with the greatest of respect, the very definition of a no-name coach — he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
Croatian Kresimir Rezic was appointed coach of historically unheralded Damac, from Khamis Mushait in south-west Saudi Arabia; a club that have spent the better part of the past three decades in the lower reaches of the Saudi football ecosystem.
So inconsequential have the club been over the years that their home city doesn’t even have a stadium — Damac play their home games in nearby Abha, roughly a 35-minute drive from Khamis Mushait.
“We can’t compare ourselves to other clubs,” Rezic told Arab News. “In Khamis Mushait, we don’t even have a stadium. We don’t have a big army of supporters. This is something we are trying to build, to create something (special) for the club and this is just the beginning of our path.
“Is it going to be easy? Absolutely not, but we like to be a little bit of a different club to the others,” he continued.
Only 20 years ago Damac were in the fourth tier of Saudi football, a long way from the bright lights of the Pro League, while as recently as the 2014/15 season they were in the Saudi Second Division — the third tier of the Kingdom’s football pyramid.
Damac won promotion to the SPL for the 2019/20 season, in which they finished a respectable 10th — ahead of giants Al-Ittihad. But it looked as though their two-year stint in the top flight was set to come to an end when Rezic was appointed in January 2021 with the club sitting firmly in the relegation zone.
But under the Croatian tactician, who came to Damac as their under-19 coach after a career predominantly spent working as youth coach for famed Croatian club Hajduk Split, they finished the season strongly, going undefeated in their final nine games to avoid relegation by a single point.
Rezic recalled the doubt that existed externally and how that was used as motivation within the club in the closing stages of the season.
“Everybody was saying ‘This is a team for the first division, they will not be in the pro league again,’” Rezic said. “We used that in the locker room. We said ‘OK, maybe we will go to the first division, but from this moment we will earn respect from everybody and show them that we have quality.’And from that day we started winning games and reached 36 points and stayed in the (Pro) league.”
Having scraped to safety last season, many would have had Damac among the favorites to be in the relegation scrap again this season, but, against all the odds, Rezic has his team flying at the opposite end of the table.
With half the season gone, Damac are fifth in the table, just one point behind last year’s AFC Champions League winners Al-Hilal and within three points of an unlikely spot in the 2023 AFC Champions League.
Just a few weeks ago, Damac were top of the table, occupying that position for three of the four weeks from Rounds Nine to Twelve. But a recent dip in form — they are winless in their past four, which included a crazy 5-5 draw with Al-Fateh — has seen them cede ground and they now sit nine points behind league-leaders Al-Ittihad.
While an historic AFC Champions League berth is tantalizingly close, Rezic stressed that talk of what might be could prove a distraction for his side.
“We will try to fight for every point,” he said. “But to speak about the Asian Champions League — something that was never (in our thinking) — to put that as our mission could be very, very dangerous for us and create pressure. So we don’t speak about it.
“Our main targets are to stay in the league, be in a comfortable position in the middle of the table, (and) if we have an opportunity for something a little bit more, we will try to do it,” he continued.
While Rezic conceded it is difficult to compete against the financially superior and resource-rich super clubs like Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad, he has shown in his 12 months in charge at Damac that his methods can overcome many of those obstacles.
If he continues to overachieve with the club, he might even get his own Wikipedia page. But for now, you’ll just have to remember the name.
-ENDS-
BAFOUSSAM, Cameroon: Liverpool teammates Sadio Mane and Naby Keita became rivals on Friday, captaining Senegal and Guinea in a drab 0-0 Group B matchday 2 deadlock at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Scoring chances were few in the afternoon heat of Bafoussam with Senegal the more wasteful side in a showdown between nations expected to occupy the top two positions in the final standings.
Guinea and Senegal will go into the final round of group matches on Tuesday sharing the lead with four points each, and goal difference could determine who finishes first.
“The Guineans made quite an impression in the first half, but we were the more convincing team after half-time and looked the likelier winners,” said Senegal coach Aliou Cisse.
Guinea coach Kaba Diawara was satisfied with the outcome, saying “Senegal are the top ranked team in Africa so forcing a draw and keeping them goalless was okay.”
Malawi and Zimbabwe meet later on Friday in the second match of a double-header with both needing maximum points to have a realistic chance of reaching the second round.
While neither southern Africa country is likely to overtake Guinea or Senegal, a win could take them into the round of 16 as one the best four third-placed teams.
It was the third clash between the west African neighbors with Senegal winning the previous two by one-goal margins in 1994 and 2006.
Senegal midfielder Idrissa Gueye was ruled out after testing positive for coronavirus and joined fellow stars Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly in isolation.
Chelsea goalkeeper Mendy and Napoli center-back Koulibaly contracted Covid-19 before the opening round, in which Senegal snatched a last-gasp win over Zimbabwe through a Mane penalty.
An opening half played in 32 degrees celsius (90 fahrenheit) heat was dominated by defenses with Guinea wasting the only clearcut chance.
A swift counterattack by the Syli Nationale (national elephant) enabled them to outnumber the slowly retreating Senegalese, but it ended with Morgan Guilavogui shooting straight at goalkeeper Seny Dieng.
The ball then ran loose in the goalmouth and Senegal hastily cleared it at the expense of a fruitless corner.
Reigning African Footballer of the Year Mane had few opportunities to make an impact and teammate Bouna Sarr squandered a chance off a close-range free-kick by firing into the defensive wall.
Guinea won the first half corner count 7-2 and left the pitch at half-time satisfied having had the better of the exchanges with the 2019 Cup of Nations runners-up
Senegal were much improved in the early stages of the second half at the 20,000-seat Stade Kouekong in the western Cameroon highlands, only to be let down by poor finishing.
Unmarked Boulaye Dia missed a good chance at the far post when he failed to connect with a free-kick and Abdou Diallo had a header brilliantly tipped over by Guinea goalkeeper Aly Keita.
A forceful run by Mane set up Sarr, who wasted a great chance when he beat a defender only to fire wide with Keita helpless.
SYDNEY: Former world number one Andy Murray stormed into his first final since 2019 on Friday where he will meet Russian top seed Aslan Karatsev in a massive boost to his confidence ahead of the Australian Open.
The 34-year-old three-time major winner, who underwent career-saving hip surgery, has now strung together four wins in a row for the first time since being crowned champion at Antwerp nearly three years ago.
He again was exceptional against towering Reilly Opelka at the Sydney Classic, battling through their semifinal 6-7 (6/8), 6-4, 6-4, successfully blunting the American’s giant serve.
Murray, who has been given a wildcard into next week’s Australian Open, said he was encouraged by how he was playing heading into the opening Grand Slam of the year, a tournament where he is a five-time finalist.
“It would be amazing to start the year with a win, it’s already been a great week for me,” said the Scot, now ranked 135, who closed his eyes and let out a huge roar on winning the match.
“It’s big progress from anything I’ve done in the last year or so. To string four matches together like this, against a couple of top players,” said Murray, setting his sights on a 47th career title.
“I’ll go for 47 tomorrow. I’ve played better with each match and hopefully I step it up again tomorrow.”
He will face world number 20 Karatsev who came through a 3hrs 6mins epic against Briton Dan Evans 6-3, 6-7 (13/15), 6-3 to make Saturday’s final.
World number four Barbora Krejcikova saved seven match points to edge an epic third-set tie-break against Anett Kontaveit and storm into the women’s decider.
The French Open champion looked out for the count when she lost the first set to love against the seventh-ranked Estonian, but refocused to take the match into a deciding third.
It could have gone either way in a high-quality toe-to-toe encounter from two of last year’s most improved players, who signalled they will be a real threat at next week’s Australian Open.
But it was Krejcikova who eventually triumphed 0-6, 6-4, 7-6 (14/12) after 2 hours and 30 minutes on her fifth match point, after saving seven, to prevent Kontaveit from reaching her fourth final in a row.
She will play Spain’s world number nine Paula Badosa in the final after she cruised past 26th-ranked Russian Daria Kasatkina 6-2, 6-2.
“I just planned to fight more and try and stay in the match,” Krejcikova said on her comeback from a first-set bagel.
“I felt that at some point I would get my chances and it was important to convert them. I had to find a plan B and I’m really happy that I did. It was a wonderful match.”
Both players were newcomers to the season-ending WTA Finals last year, where they had their only previous meeting, which the Estonian won in straight sets en route to the final.
That victory was part of Kontaveit’s stellar year-end run, where she won 28 of her last 32 matches.

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