Saudi Arabia suspend World Cup referee over bribery

RIYADH: The Saudi Football Federation have banned referee Fahad Al-Mirdasi for life over bribery and urged FIFA to remove him from the pool of referees for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Mirdasi was suspended for offering to take a bribe to influence the outcome of a match, the federation’s disciplinary and ethics committee said late Tuesday.
The 32-year-old is one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent referees, having earned a FIFA badge in 2011 and officiating at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 and the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017.
Mirdasi was chosen to referee Saudi Arabia’s Kings Cup final between top clubs Al-Faisaly and Al-Ittihad on Saturday but was pulled from the roster just a few hours before the game.
In a statement, the disciplinary and ethics committee said Mirdasi had approached the president of Al-Ittihad asking him for a bribe to enable his team to win.
“The Ittihad president Hamad Al-Sanayeh called the Saudi Football Federation to state there was evidence that Fahad Al-Mirdasi had reached out via text messages on WhatsApp. He asked for an illegal sum of money in exchange for helping his team win the game,” it said.
The case was referred to the Saudi Football Federation, then the General Authority for Sport — the highest sports authority in the kingdom — triggering an administrative investigation.
Mirdasi confessed to the charges, according to the statement, and it was decided “to deprive him from participating in any football activity for life.”
The committee recommended that Saudi Arabia officially request FIFA to remove Mirdasi from the list of referees participating in the 2018 World Cup and suspend him for life.
“Our integrity is above all considerations,” said Turki Al-Sheikh, head of the General Authority for Sport.
Mirdasi was one of five Arab referees chosen by FIFA to officiate at the 2018 World Cup.

Fifa has requested more information.

“Fifa notes the information that referee Fahad Al Mirdasi has allegedly been banned from all football-related activities by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF),” the world governing body told BBC Sport.

 

Glimmer of hope for Al-Ahli in AFC Champions League clash with Qatar’s Al-Sadd

JEDDAH: There is good and bad news for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahli ahead of their attempt to overcome a 2-1 deficit from the first leg of their 2018 AFC Champions League second round clash with Al-Sadd on Monday in Jeddah.

The Qatari powerhouse arrived in Saudi Arabia on the back of a disappointing 1-0 loss on Friday to Al-Duhail in the semifinals of the Emir Cup but Al Ahli will have to manage without a number of star players.
A week ago in Qatar, Al-Sadd took a two-goal lead inside 30 minutes thanks to a brace from Boualem Khoukhi. Mohannad Aseri headed home early in the second-half to give Al-Ahli an away goal and hope for the second leg.
Aseri has recovered from a back injury to spearhead the attack once again and defender Mu’taz Hawsawi is also available but there is not much other good news for coach Fathi Al-Jabal in terms of available personnel.
Midfielder Ali Awaji is recovering from surgery on a dislocated shoulder sustained in Doha and star Syrian striker Omar Al-Somah is also unavailable. The Jeddah club will be without Tassir Al-Jassim and Saeed Al-Mowalem who are in action with the national team in a pre-World Cup training camp currently taking place in Spain.
“At this stage of the competition, the games are sure to be tough,” Al-Jabal said. “Missing some talented players makes it tougher but there is not much we can do about the players who can’t play, the ones who are available have been training well this week and we are ready.”
The Tunisian tactician preferred to focus on the positives from the first leg and a performance that saw the 2012 finalist disappointed to lose 2-1 despite putting the hosts under plenty of pressure and recording 21 attempts on goal.
“We are looking forward to the game in front of our own fans,” Al-Jabal said. “In the first leg we played well and the scoreline could have been better for us. We have to be patient and I am sure that we will have opportunities to score and we have to make sure that we are strong at the back.”
Al-Ahli will be encouraged by the fact that Al Sadd arrive in Jeddah with the Champions League now their only chance of silverware this season after the loss to Duhail in the Emir Cup.
It was a tough game for the 2011 Asian champions who had to play the entire second half with ten men due to a red card given to star defender Abdulkarim Hassan.
“It has been a difficult few days,” said coach Jesualdo Ferreira who welcomes back defender Pedro Miguel from suspension. “We have a tough schedule with three games in a week. The game with Al Duhail was unfortunate with refereeing decisions playing a big part.”
“Losing the game will affect us in Jeddah but we have what it takes to get the result we need. The previous season was much better for us than this season. Now we have to work very hard to achieve a positive result and move into the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League,” Ferreira added.

Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson ready for Roma Champions League test

LIVERPOOL: With a desire stoked in the stands of Parkhead, Andrew Robertson is now fired up to fulfil a childhood dream.
While following the fortunes of Celtic, the defender’s first Champions League final memory was when Zinedine Zidane volleyed Real Madrid to success in 2002 as the contest was staged in Robertson’s home city of Glasgow. He was just eight years old.
While Robertson was deemed too small to play for his boyhood idols, released at 15 with a future uncertain, he has grown to prove his worth on Europe’s biggest club stage with Liverpool.
Now, with a semifinal encounter against AS Roma after beating Premier League champions Manchester City in the last eight, he wants to emulate those Reds heroes who lifted the trophy five times before.
“I was a big Celtic fan growing up and my heroes were Henrik Larsson and Co,” Robertson told Arab News ahead of tonight’s first-leg clash 
at Anfield.
“But these heroes who have won the European Cup and Champions League for Liverpool, you have to look up to them — and we want to emulate them and hopefully get a winner’s medal too.
“The club’s won it five times and the history of the club has always been this, the Champions League, where the fans create a special atmosphere and the club challenges for the trophy. It would be unbelievable to be a part of that history.
“This is the highlight for me so far and an incredible feeling, but it just makes you hungry for more. I don’t want it to end.
“As a kid, you sit back and watch how great it would be to play in this competition, let alone in the final.
“I always used to go to Celtic and we didn’t progress very far in the Champions League, but the occasions at Parkhead were always unbelievable.
“The fans at Celtic are incredible, world renowned, but Anfield was unbelievable against Man City and we have another chance for them to create that same atmosphere and hopefully we can put in another great performance.”
Having beaten Pep Guardiola’s City so convincingly, 5-1 over two gripping games, Liverpool will start favorites against Roma.
That is despite the Italians upsetting Barcelona in the previous round with an epic 3-0 win in the second leg after a 4-1 loss at the Nou Camp.
But Robertson will take nothing for granted against a Roma side who last reached the final in 1984 where they were beaten by Liverpool in a penalty shootout at their Stadio Olimpico home.
“Barca are an unbelievable team,” added the Scotland left-back, 24. “But let’s not kid ourselves. For Roma to score three goals against Barcelona, that’s special.
“They’ve been unbelievable this season too in the Champions League and deserve to be in the semifinals. It will definitely not be an easy game.
“But once you get to the semis, the fear of who you are playing has gone because you know how good the teams are.
“It’s like you look forward to the possibility of playing in the final, that’s what drives you forward. We will have fire in our bellies because we are so close to getting there.”
Jurgen Klopp’s men will no doubt be looking to Mohamed Salah to conjure more magic against the club he left in the summer for £36.9 million ($51.5 million).
But Robertson insisted Liverpool are no one-man team and the Egyptian, crowned PFA Player of the Year on Sunday night after scoring 41 goals in an unforgettable campaign, epitomizes a team united and ambitious in their quest for glory.
“He’s just unbelievable,” said Robertson of the frontman.
“In the first half (of the second leg) against Man City we struggled to get him in the game and he wasn’t quite at it. But the second half he was different class and pops up with a goal to help us win it. That’s what he does.
“His goals have been incredible and long may that continue. He’s a great guy, so humble, and for someone who has done so much this season he’s so down to Earth.
“That’s credit to our squad because we don’t let anyone get ahead of themselves.
“Mo is no different, he’s a lovely person and stands for what we are as a team.”

 

HEART OF GOLD

Five years ago Andrew Robertson was playing in the fourth tier of Scottish football with Queen’s Park and earning extra money by selling concert tickets in the corporate offices at Hampden Park.
Last summer he suffered relegation from the Premier League with Hull City before Liverpool signed him for £10 million ($13.9 million).
In a career fraught with setbacks and hardships, he has been grateful, supporting foodbanks that help those in need.
“It’s all about giving something back to the less fortunate,” said Robertson.
“I’m in a fortunate position where I do a job I love and get paid well and it’s nice to give something back, especially in my hometown. I’ll always do that.
“It’s been a great journey for me in my career, and I’ve enjoyed every minute. But I don’t forget where I came from. Maybe it is rare, but a lot more people are doing it now and I hope even more will.”

 

How Pep Guardiola turned Man City into convincing Premier League champions

MANCHESTER: What do you get when you combine the world’s most coveted coach, financial backers with bottomless pockets, and the most talented group of players in the country?
Answer: One of the most ruthless, convincing title triumphs in the 26-year history of the Premier League.
Manchester City wrapped up the title on Sunday when Manchester United, the nearest challenger, surprisingly lost 1-0 at home to West Bromwich Albion. City leads by 16 points with five games still to play.
A side meticulously molded and prepared by Pep Guardiola won a record 18 straight Premier League games from August to late December, and they’ve put up plenty more impressive numbers.
Eighty-seven points, 93 goals, a goal difference of plus 68, 28 wins from 33 games. The current lead of 16 points is one of the biggest in the league’s history.
Guardiola didn’t win a trophy in his first season at City. His reaction? To spend $260 million of the club’s Abu Dhabi owners’ riches in the offseason, upgrade and tweak the weakest parts of the team, and deliver arguably the most stunning brand of football ever seen in English soccer.
Here’s a look at how Guardiola achieved the turnaround:

MOMENTUM
The blueprint for this season’s record-breaking success was laid in the second half of last season, when Pep Guardiola found his formula.
Largely sticking to a 4-3-3 formation with Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling as wingers, Guardiola dispensed completely with his occasional use of a three-man defense. City lost just two of its last 24 games in all competitions from the middle of January last year, providing momentum to take into the 2017-18 campaign.
Throw in some key summer signings and some tactical tinkering, and City has proved to be unstoppable.

SIGNINGS
Full backs were City’s offseason priority — 30-somethings Gael Clichy, Aleksandar Kolarov, Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta all departed over the summer — and the club spent $155 million to bring in Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo.
Pep Guardiola places huge significance on the impact of full backs in terms of his team’s attacking game plan, needing them to act as both wingers and defenders.
Mendy got injured in September so his impact has been negligible while Danilo has been little more than a backup. It’s Walker’s presence that has added a new dimension to City, his raids up the right wing allowing Raheem Sterling to come inside more and give the team greater numbers in the box to convert chances.
It’s no surprise that Sterling has had the most prolific season of his career, scoring 22 goals in all competitions so far.
Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson Moraes joined for $45 million from Benfica and has been a huge upgrade from Claudio Bravo with his shot-stopping and pinpoint long passing with a booming left foot.
Bernardo Silva, signed for $55 million from Monaco, has slowly developed into a key squad player, providing cover for Sterling and Leroy Sane.

TWO PLAYMAKERS
It’s a minor tactical switch that has had a major impact.
Pep Guardiola’s decision to deploy Kevin De Bruyne in a deepercentral-midfield role has allowed the Belgian to demonstrate his all-round skills, notably his vision, work rate and reading of the game. He’s been able to keep up his regular supply of assists, too, setting up 16 goals, with passes and through balls that are beyond many of his peers.
One performance, in a 7-2 win over Stoke in October, stands out. In that game, De Bruyne set up one goal with no-look pass to Leroy Sane, before supplying the winger for another goal with a diagonal through ball that sliced through four defenders.
De Bruyne’s new role also got the best out of central midfield partner David Silva, who has played just ahead of De Bruyne and been given license to go forward more.
The use of two central-midfield playmakers is new to English soccer — and has produced handsome results.

WINNING STREAK
When City beat Swansea 4-0 on Dec. 13, the team established an English top-flight record of 15 straight victories — surpassing the 14-match winning streaks of Arsenal (2002), Preston (1951), and both Manchester United and Bristol City in 1905.
City would go on to win three more games before drawing 0-0 at Crystal Palace on Dec. 31, ending the winning run at 18.
City was undefeated at that stage, raising the prospect of going through the season unbeaten like Arsenal’s Premier League “Invincibles” of 2003-04. A 4-3 loss at Liverpool on Jan. 14 put paid to that, but the league title was virtually wrapped up already.

LATE GOALS
That winning run started with Raheem Sterling’s goal in the seventh minute of injury time in a 2-1 victory at Bournemouth on Aug. 26. It wouldn’t be the last decisive late intervention by the winger.
He scored an 84th-minute winner against Huddersfield on Nov. 26, a 96th-minute winner against Southampton three days later, before David Silva grabbed an 83rd-minute winner against West Ham four days after that. All three games finished 2-1, and it revived memories of the winning goals scored in so-called “Fergie Time” by Manchester United’s trophy-winning teams under Alex Ferguson.
City, it seemed, wasn’t just playing the best football in the division, but had more resilience and fortune than any other team, too.

KEY WINS
Along the way, some notable performances established a champion-in-waiting aura around City.
The first was a dominant 1-0 victory at Chelsea on Sept. 30, when the defending champion was played off the field at Stamford Bridge. Two weeks later, that 7-2 win over Stoke featured some imperious attacking play.
Then there was the 2-1 win at Manchester United on Dec.10, featuring scrappy goals at set pieces from David Silva and Nicolas Otamendi, that left City 11 points clear of its neighbor. With not even half the season gone, United manager Jose Mourinho said his team’s title hopes were “probably” over.
Back-to-back wins across 72 hours in early March — 3-0 at Arsenal and 1-0 at home to Chelsea — all but confirmed what everyone had known for weeks: City was going to be champion.
It just needed clinching then. A 3-2 home loss to United in the derby denied City the chance to win the league in record time — with six games left — but Guardiola’s team only had to wait another week.

 

Not even Lionel Messi magic can hide fact Barcelona are brittle

The strangest aspect of Barcelona’s 3-0 defeat to Roma on Tuesday was how predictable it seems in retrospect.
Nobody — or at least no more than a tiny handful of people — can be said to have seen it coming, and yet all the warning signs were there, not merely in Roma’s excellence at home in European competition this season but in Barcelona’s laxity. Everything that was said after their 4-0 defeat to Paris St.Germain last season remains true, and the symptoms were readily apparent in their last-16 victory over Chelsea.
Look at that first Roma goal. Daniele De Rossi had the ball in the center of the pitch. He looked up. He had time to see the run of Edin Dzeko, time to measure his pass. Between De Rossi and the area into which he floated the ball were two slightly rickety lines of four. In the distance, behind him, walking back, was Lionel Messi. A little closer, in a half-jog, was Luis Suarez. Nobody was putting pressure on De Rossi. The pass was still difficult, but it was made far easier by the fact that, in the early stages of a Champions League quarterfinal second leg, he was given the time and space to measure it.
Messi is 30 now and in the 14th season of his professional career. If he is unable quite to summon the energy of old, it is perhaps not a huge surprise. He remains an extraordinary player, but a key part of that now is that the minimalism that has always characterised his genius now extends to his movement.
Watch him from the start of a game and he ambles about, spending the first five or ten minutes assessing the opposition, looking for their weaknesses. That is why his third-minute goal in the last 16 against Chelsea was the second earliest he has ever scored in a game. In his entire career for club and country he has only scored nine non-penalty goals in the first five minutes of matches.
Messi, of course, has to be accommodated. There is no point asking him to be something different. He is what he is, and that is undeniably beneficial. He remains generally team-focused, but the days when Pep Guardiola encouraged him not merely to be the best in the world with the ball but the best without it feel a long time ago. But that does make additional demands on those around him. If Messi is to play like he does, the other nine outfielders must take on additional responsibility. Suarez is now 31 and, on the evidence of Tuesday, either no longer has the energy or inclination to be Messi’s foil.
The 4-4-2 Ernesto Valverde seems to prefer is, presumably, designed to provide a platform that does not demand a huge workload from Messi. Two banks of four, if compact, is a solid base. But the problem for Barca is that they never seem particularly compact. In the Chelsea game, Willian in particular rampaged through the midfield. Sergio Busquets, such an undervalued part of Barca’s great sides, was repeatedly isolated in the center, a particular issue given his lack of pace is even more pronounced these days.
The question then, is how Barca, with such obvious flaws, can be 11 points clear at the top of the Spanish table, unbeaten in 38 league games. To suggest that the level in la Liga is not high enough feels inadequate as an explanation given the success of Spanish sides in European competition. The answer, perhaps, is that the nature of the threat they face in Spain is different, that the football is slower and more technical than the challenges posed by the likes of Chelsea and Roma. Their aura, perhaps, means domestically that opponents subconsciously accept a narrow defeat as the best possible outcome, whereas in knockout competition everything is focused on the short-term and sides are more willing to accept the risk of a heavy defeat if it increases the possibility of victory.
But whatever the reason, three Champions League quarterfinal defeats in a row tells their own story. In the past two seasons particularly, Barca have looked too slow and too disorganized to prosper in European competition, cracks over which even Messi’s brilliance cannot paper.