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Chelsea break Cardiff hearts to save Maurizio Sarri’s blushes as Neil Warnock hits out at ‘worst officials’

Lewis Hamilton cashes in on Ferrari failure, Leclerc frustration to win Bahrain Grand Prix SAKHIR, Bahrain: Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton profited from Ferrari’s latest failure and won a dramatic Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday.The race looked likely to finish a Ferrari 1-2 for Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel. But Vettel cracked under the…

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Chelsea break Cardiff hearts to save Maurizio Sarri’s blushes as Neil Warnock hits out at ‘worst officials’

Lewis Hamilton cashes in on Ferrari failure, Leclerc frustration to win Bahrain Grand Prix

SAKHIR, Bahrain: Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton profited from Ferrari’s latest failure and won a dramatic Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday.The race looked likely to finish a Ferrari 1-2 for Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel. But Vettel cracked under the pressure of Hamilton’s attack with less than 20 laps left and span out of contention.In a dramatic twist, race leader Leclerc’s engine started losing power with less than 10 laps left, allowing Hamilton to shred a 10-second deficit and secure a 1-2 for Mercedes as Valtteri Bottas passed Leclerc with three laps to go.A despondent Leclerc thought he was going to become the third-youngest winner of an F1 race, but instead just held on to third place on another bitterly disappointing day for Ferrari.Red Bull’s Max Verstappen placed fourth with Vettel in fifth.

(From L) Mercedes’ British driver Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari’s Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc and Mercedes’ Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas steer their cars during the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix at the Sakhir circuit. (AFP)

Leclerc was lucky to finish third — only doing so because the safety car came out near the end after the Renaults of Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg went off track.Under safety car rules drivers must hold position. Verstappen could not attack and missed out on a second straight podium, after third place at the season-opening Australian GP two weeks ago behind Hamilton and Bottas.Leclerc picked up a bonus point for posting the fastest lap. But Ferrari will know third and fifth spots were simply not good enough, after fourth and fifth in Australia.Heading into the Chinese GP in two weeks’ time, Ferrari has to find a way to stop throwing away points.Hamilton’s 74th career win earned him a hug from former England and Manchester United star David Beckham. But the five-time F1 champion acknowledged this one came with a touch of good fortune.That’s why Hamilton was quick to commiserate with Leclerc, climbing out of his car and sprinting over to him.“That was extremely unfortunate for Charles, he drove a great race,” Hamilton said. “He had done enough to win. We were definitely lucky today, but you have to take things as they come.”

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel leads Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton at the start of the race. (Reuters)

Ferrari had placed 1-2 in all three practice sessions and all three sections of qualifying. But in the past two seasons, the proud Italian manufacturer has made countless errors, and again the team’s reliability issues seem a big issue.“It was not our day,” Leclerc said, containing his frustration admirably. “Of course I’m extremely disappointed.”With strong winds blowing around the 5.4-kilometer (3.3-mile) circuit, track temperatures were below 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) at 6:10 p.m. local time for the start of the floodlit race.After becoming the second-youngest driver in F1 history to take pole position on Saturday, the 21-year-old Leclerc was overtaken by Vettel at the start but reclaimed his lead soon after with an audacious move on the outside.Vettel almost overtook him straight back.It was wheel-to-wheel racing from teammates, just what fans want to see. To the relief of the Ferrari garage they avoided crashing into each other and instead kept Hamilton and Bottas at a distance.It looked even more like being Ferrari’s day when Hamilton made an unusual error, taking a turn too wide on Lap 20 and slipping more than 6 seconds behind Leclerc.The British driver’s clumsy error, and Ferrari’s superior speed, meant Vettel was soon on Hamilton’s tail and he overtook him on Lap 23 to put Ferrari 1-2 and coasting.

Third placed Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc gestures as the race winner Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton looks on. (Reuters)

To make matters worse, Hamilton was worried about his rear tires, saying over radio “I’m in really big trouble.”As it turned out, he needn’t have been so concerned, with another Ferrari flop not too far away.It happened on Lap 39 of 57.After Bottas came in for his second tire change, it left Vettel and Hamilton to fight for second place. Vettel initially fended him off well but then lost control and span his car, prompting apparent looks of disbelief in the Ferrari garage.Question marks were raised last season and in 2017 about Vettel’s repeated mistakes under pressure, particularly when he crashed while leading the German GP last year. This time, he badly miscalculated Hamilton’s second attack. Even so, there was no contact from Hamilton and five-time F1 champion Vettel lost control of the car all by himself.It was not Vettel’s day. Soon after that, his front wing came off after he touched cars with Williams driver George Russell and Vettel returned to the pits.Then it got worse as panic crept into Leclerc’s voice.“Something strange with the engine,” Leclerc said as his lead rapidly dwindled. “What’s happening?“He soon knew.Hamilton surged past him for his first Bahrain win since 2015 and third overall.Bottas leads the title race, ahead of Hamilton 44-43, because of his fastest lap in Melbourne.

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Rib injury forces Saudi rower out of Olympic qualifying contention

MADRID: Barcelona and Atletico Madrid knew victory could fire them towards the La Liga title but Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Camp Nou handed Real Madrid the chance to go top.Four wins from their last four games will now be enough for Zinedine Zidane’s side to retain their La Liga crown, with a crunch game at home…

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Rib injury forces Saudi rower out of Olympic qualifying contention

MADRID: Barcelona and Atletico Madrid knew victory could fire them towards the La Liga title but Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Camp Nou handed Real Madrid the chance to go top.Four wins from their last four games will now be enough for Zinedine Zidane’s side to retain their La Liga crown, with a crunch game at home to fourth-placed Sevilla up first on Sunday.The first part of a blockbuster weekend in the Spanish title race pitched first against third but neither could take a decisive step forward, despite the best attempts of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, who faced each other for the first time since Suarez departed last summer.A point each leaves Atletico three points clear of Real Madrid, who have a game in hand and also the superior head-to-head over both Atleti and Barcelona.Barca remain two points off the top but their chances took the biggest hit, given they now need both Atletico and Real Madrid to slip up in the final stretch.Anything can still happen because of what we’ve seen so far,” said Gerard Pique. “If Madrid wins their four games they will be champions, but it is difficult for the big teams to be consistent. If we win all our three games, I think we’ll have a chance.”Atletico will be disappointed too, given they spurned a number of chances in during a dominant first half, before Ronald Koeman’s side recovered in the second.Jan Oblak had to deny Messi after a vintage run forward from the Argentine, who then had a well-placed free-kick in the last minute, only for Atletico to watch the ball spin inches wide.”We started better and they finished a little better,” Oblak said. “Real Madrid has four games left but for sure they are going to be tought games. We have to keep going.”Diego Simeone said on Friday Suarez had been “vindicated” since being forced to leave Barcelona, his 19 goals making him top scorer for the team.Koeman admitted it would be “strange” for everyone, including Messi, who sent a heartfelt open letter to his former team-mate, neighbour and best friend last year.The pair shared a few words in the centre circle before kick-off after the Camp Nou stadium announcer had already beamed that Suarez “will always be welcome”.But, in truth, the Uruguayan was not at his ruthless best as a handful of openings went unconverted in a contest full of chances but that lacked precision when it mattered most.Messi was repeatedly knocked over in the opening few minutes before Gerard Pique went through the back of Suarez, both teams scrapping for control.Atletico slowly took charge, helped by the departure of Sergio Busquets, who was replaced by Ilaix Moriba after a clash of heads that meant he had to be taken to hospital for tests.Without Busquets, Barcelona were rudderless for a while and the Atletico chances came thick and fast.Marc-Andre ter Stegen had to palm away Marcos Llorente’s shot and then stick out a foot to deny Suarez from the angle.Suarez then tried to nod in the rebound after a winding run from Yannick Carrasco before claiming a penalty after feeling a flick of Ter Stegen’s hand across his head.Barcelona were rattled, the usually steady Ter Stegen booting one ball straight into the stands, only for Messi to give Atletico a reality check, his driving run past six chasers opening the space for a shot, but Oblak tipped it wide.Felipe fired over from a well-worked Atleti short corner before half-time but Barca were better after the break, with both Ilaix and Pique going close shortly after the hour.Both coaches made changes, hoping to inspire a winner. Ousmane Dembele was one of them and he should have grabbed it with six minutes left but headed over from six yards in perhaps the best chance of the game.Messi could have won it at the end, standing over the ball with a free-kick placed centrally and 25 yards out. Atletico held their breath, the ball whistling just wide of Oblak’s post.

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Saudi Professional League aligns women’s football with AFC criteria

Abu Dhabi hoping to welcome more live audiences after successful hosting of major sporting events DUBAI: It was the fight event everybody wanted to be at. In the famous Octagon, UFC 257 reached its dramatic conclusion with American underdog Dustin Poirier stunning crowd-favorite Conor McGregor with a second round TKO. Yes, there was a crowd,…

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Saudi Professional League aligns women’s football with AFC criteria

Abu Dhabi hoping to welcome more live audiences after successful hosting of major sporting events

DUBAI: It was the fight event everybody wanted to be at.

In the famous Octagon, UFC 257 reached its dramatic conclusion with American underdog Dustin Poirier stunning crowd-favorite Conor McGregor with a second round TKO.

Yes, there was a crowd, a lucky 2000 after Abu Dhabi’s newly opened Etihad Arena had welcomed back live audiences for the third edition of UFC Fight Island.

For Salem Al-Sulaimani, operations director of Flash Entertainment, the presence of fight fans back on Yas Island’s in January, after the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, was a credit to all those involved in the event’s organization.

“Bringing the public to the arena was result of a great collaboration between Flash Entertainment, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism and all the government stakeholders in Abu Dhabi,” he said. “It was about making sure health and safety were a priority, making sure to implement very strict safety measures to allow the fighters, the teams and the public to feel safe in one place.”

The first Fight Island, which kicked off with UFC 251 on July 11, 2020, set the bar high. It was the first post-coronavirus international sporting event to attract athletes from around the world. Fight Island 2 followed in late September and October with UFC 253 and UFC 254, at which Khabib Nurmagomedov memorably called time on a peerless career after defeating Justin Gaethje. 

“Over the past seven months we have successfully hosted three UFC events in a row, which shows the success of the collaboration with all the government entities that put together a role-model Fight Island,” said Al-Sulaimani. “It showed how they managed to put on the safest place possible in hosting these kinds of international events.”

“Abu Dhabi became the first city outside Las Vegas to hold two consecutive UFC numbered events.”

UFC President Dana White, the fighters and their teams all expressed a willingness to return each time.

“The main difference wasn’t just repeating the events after each other,” said Al-Sulaimani. “In each one, we wanted to make it bigger, we wanted to make it better. Ultimately we wanted to bring the public to the events, to bring it live, while also maintaining high standards of health and safety.”

Now the hope is that more fans will slowly return to major sporting events in the UAE’s capital. Creating a consistently safe zone, or the “bubble model,” has played a major part in making that possible, as has the launch of the spectacular 20,000-capacity venue on the Yas Bay Waterfront.

“With the Etihad Arena, it showed the capability of such a great venue to adapt to the current pandemic and host such an event,” Al-Sulaimani said. “The last event, Fight Island 3, created so much vibe. Not only was it the first event that saw UFC have the public back since the Covid-19 outbreak, it was also the first public-attended event in Abu Dhabi. It ticked so many boxes, and it was the perfect way of showing the world Etihad Arena.”

Al-Sulaimani believes Abu Dhabi’s travel measures and the country’s successful vaccination program has opened the genuine possibility to even more fans returning to sporting spectacles this year.

“It provides us with great hope,” he said. “The UAE’s proactive, coordinated response in tackling the global pandemic has put the country on the right track. The high rates of vaccinated citizens and residents gives a massive hope in returning to normal and having more public-attended events. Other sporting organizations are looking at the Emirates as a model for their events.”

Already, talk has turned to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December and the possibility of having fans back at Yas Marina Circuit.

“We’re observing the global situation with the Grand Prix, making sure that we watch the pandemic on the horizon, and working with federal and local authorities here in Abu Dhabi,” said Al-Sulaimani. “Looking at what fans want, we are very aware of their appetite now, and the thrill of coming back to live events.”

The 2020 edition was held successfully without an audience, but this year there is even the tantalizing possibility of post-race entertainment making a comeback.

“Interestingly, usually with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, we approach artists to come and participate, but we already have had inquiries from very big artists,” he added. “So it’s them reaching out to us as opposed to us trying to chase them.”

Thanks to the success of the recent competitions in the capital, Al-Sulaimani and Flash Entertainment are looking to organize more events in Abu Dhabi and, potentially, further afield.

“In general that’s what we are always doing, that’s what we do on daily basis. As part of our growth strategy, we have ambitions to expand further into the region, and into the markets in the UAE,” he said. “We want to build on the previous work we did in Dubai, bringing in world-class entertainment. It’s a market that’s just an hour away from the capital. We have over the past few years managed to put more than 8.5 million smiles among the people, and we want to keep that going.”

And sports fans can look forward to more than just Formula 1 later this year.

“In December we will be hosting the 15th FINA World Swimming Championship at the Etihad Arena, and we also have the Mubadala Tennis Championship back this year, so there’s a lot to look forward to,” Al-Sulaimani said. “We are ready to bring all these international events to Abu Dhabi. Our goal here is to support Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030. Flash entertainment will continue providing that platform for emerging talent, and inspiring the next generations.”

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Abu Dhabi hoping to welcome more live audiences after successful hosting of major sporting events

RIYADH: The message on the advertising hording is clear: “Bigger Than Ever.” And this year’s AFC Champions League is just that, the biggest tournament ever – with an extra eight teams added, taking the total competing in the group stage to 40. This trend of expansion has been seen across various continental and global competitions…

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Abu Dhabi hoping to welcome more live audiences after successful hosting of major sporting events

RIYADH: The message on the advertising hording is clear: “Bigger Than Ever.”

And this year’s AFC Champions League is just that, the biggest tournament ever – with an extra eight teams added, taking the total competing in the group stage to 40.

This trend of expansion has been seen across various continental and global competitions over the last few years, with varying degrees of success.

The AFC Asian Cup and European Championships expanded from 16 teams to 24. The FIFA World Cup will see an increase from 32 teams to 48 for the 2026 tournament in the US, Canada, and Mexico, while the FIFA Women’s World Cup will expand from 24 teams to 32 for the 2023 edition in Australia and New Zealand.

Then, of course, there is the expanded UEFA Champions League, announced recently to placate the wantaway so-called Dirty Dozen.

Bigger is the mantra of football executives the world over, but bigger does not always equal better.

However, on the early evidence from this year’s AFC Champions League, the AFC appear to have struck gold with their new format.

One of the common arguments against expansion of tournaments is the extra teams added will dilute the quality, bringing with it mismatched clashes and blowout score lines.

But in the revamped 2021 AFC Champions League, the addition of the extra teams has rejuvenated what was fast becoming a tired format.

All anyone within Asian football circles is talking about right now is the giant-killing Tajik champions, FC Istiklol.

As each match of the group stage went on, their performances and their achievements became more remarkable, and they have delivered new life and interest right across the continent.

This writer has a weekly spot on a national football radio show in Australia, and for the last three weeks the main topic of conversation has been Istiklol. The nine-time Tajik champions are making waves and putting the AFC Champions League front and center where it would not normally be.

Australians have a love-hate relationship with the AFC Champions League at the best of times, and similar to the UAE are sleep walking to demotion to the second-tier AFC Cup after years of poor performance by A-League clubs on the continent.

Who would have thought Istiklol, and the quality of the Dzhalilov cousins, would be such a hot topic of conversation? But here we are, and we would not be here without the expanded format.

What the expanded format has done, for the most part anyway, is make every game count. With only the group winners now guaranteed of progression to the knockout rounds, there is a premium placed on every match and every point. Indeed, on every goal too.

In previous years, when the top two would progress, the result was often known with a few games to spare which made for a rather dull conclusion to the group stage. Not anymore.

Determining who finished top came down to the final game in three of the five groups in the AFC West zone, while in the other two there was still plenty to play for as teams, especially Al-Wahda, needed wins to secure as many points as possible to go through as one of the three best second-placed teams.

What it meant was big-name casualties, and they do not come much bigger than Qatari duo Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail.

Al-Sadd, coached by former Barcelona legend Xavi, would normally have advanced comfortably with three wins and 10 points, but instead were the first big name to fall victim to the new format that demands more.

For Al-Sadd, a team with serious aspirations of winning the whole tournament and with the talent to do so, getting knocked out in the group stage is a significant blow and will surely lead to Xavi coming under pressure to keep his job having failed again in their ultimate quest to return to the summit of Asian football.

Al-Duhail, champions in Qatar seven times in the last decade, were left to rue a missed penalty from Michael Olunga – who otherwise was the standout performer of the group stage with an impressive nine goals in six games – as they could only manage a draw against Al-Ahli when a win was needed to advance.

Their failure to advance gave Al-Hilal a lifeline, with the 2019 champions scraping through by the skin of their teeth after losing their final group stage encounter with Shabab Al-Ahli, which meant they advanced ahead of Al-Sadd on the third tiebreaker – goals scored.

The fact the fate of three teams came down to the very last seconds of the final matches added an enormous amount of tension and drama when ordinarily there would have been none.

That alone is a big tick for the new format.

While we wait to see what happens when the East Zone group stage takes place in June and July, we can only hope it is as fun and drama filled as the last two weeks.

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