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Sardar double sends Iran into Asian Cup knockouts

ABU DHABI (AFP): Sardar Azmoun struck twice as Iran sank Vietnam 2-0 on Saturday to reach the last 16 of the Asian Cup and set a new group-stage win record.

Iran, looking to end a 43-year title drought since last winning Asian football’s most coveted prize, could have scored four or five but for some poor finishing in Abu Dhabi. “It’s a pity our performance didn’t produce a couple more goals,” Iran coach Carlos Queiroz told reporters.

“But winning is the best medicine in football. To win two games and score seven goals — I have to praise my players because I am very demanding.” Saman Ghoddos and Mehdi Taremi went close for Asia’s top-ranked team before Azmoun rose to head home a Ghoddos cross after 38 minutes.

The Rubin Kazan forward lashed in his third goal of the tournament from the edge of the box 20 minutes from time to give Iran a ninth successive first-round victory dating back to 2007. Co-favourites with South Korea to lift the Asian Cup, Iran crushed war-torn Yemen 5-0 in their opening Group D game.

They were indebted to goalkeeper Alireza Safar Beiranvand for a courageous save from Nguyen Cong Phuong but were barely ruffled by the southeast Asian champions. “We just need to relax more,” said Queiroz. “In the second half our anxiety to score a third goal led to some bad passes.

“The combinations are there,” added the former Real Madrid and Portugal boss, whose team face bitter rivals Iraq in their final group fixture. “But that final touch will come. Now we must think, feel, eat, drink, do everything to be focused on Iraq.” Queiroz singled out Azmoun, who came out of international retirement for the Asian Cup. “He’s a finisher,” said the Portuguese, now in his eighth year as Iran coach. “We have high hopes for him for this competition. But the way the team is contributing around him, and our movement in the last third, are very interesting.”

While Queiroz comes into the Asian Cup after almost steering Iran to the World Cup knockout stage last year, Vietnam coach Park Hang-seo lamented the gulf in class between Team Melli and his Golden Dragons.

“Iran are ranked 29th in the world, we’re 100th,” shrugged the South Korean, whose team suffered a last-minute 3-2 defeat by Iraq in their opening game.

“They were just too strong. It will take time for us to compete at the top level, but Vietnam is a young team with a bright future.” Iraq were playing Yemen later on Saturday.

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Sharma fireworks thwarted as Australia beat India in 1st ODI

SYDNEY (Agencies): Australia fended off an explosive century from Rohit Sharma to post a morale-boosting 34-run victory over India in the first one-day international in Sydney on Saturday.

The Australians made 288 for five off their 50 overs after winning the toss and restricted India to 254 for nine. Sharma blasted 133 off 129 balls in a scintillating effort to keep India in the contest, while man-of-the-match Jhye Richardson took four for 26 for Australia.

It was a tonic for the ailing Australians, coming off their first-ever home Test series defeat to Virat Kohli’s India and after winning just three of their previous 24 ODIs. Test discard Peter Handscomb topscored with 73 off 61 balls for Australia with Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh also registered half-centuries.

“I am very pleased with the performance,” Australia skipper Aaron Finch said. “I think the way they rebuilt, Rohit and MS Dhoni, we knew they will take it deep and we managed to pick up the wickets at the right time.

“We can always improve, our execution with the ball was at times off. It will be a good series.” Handscomb, passed over this week by selectors for this month’s two Tests against Sri Lanka, led the way with six fours and two sixes. Fellow Test discard Marsh knocked up 54 off 70 balls while Khawaja made 59 from 81. India’s Bhuvneshwar Kumar finished with two for 66 and wrist-spinner Kuldeep Yadav claimed two for 54.

“We are not very pleased with the way we played,” Kohli said. “I thought we were fine with the ball, score of 300-plus was par on that wicket. We thought 280 was chaseable on that wicket but losing three wickets in such a short span of time is never good. “Rohit was outstanding and MS Dhoni supported him well but we could have done better with the tempo of the game.” India lurched to a disastrous start, losing three wickets in the first six overs, from which they failed to recover. Shikhar Dhawan was out on the sixth ball of the innings when he was leg before wicket for a first-ball duck to ODI debutant Jason Behrendorff.

  • Prodigious Sharma –

It got worse for India when Kohli was caught at square leg off Richardson for three and two balls later Ambati Rayudu was trapped leg before wicket by Richardson after a review for a two-ball duck, leaving India rocking at four for three.

Former World Cup-winning captain M.S. Dhoni put on 137 runs with Sharma for the fourth wicket to stabilise India’s rocky start before he was out leg before wicket to Behrendorff for 51 and his 68th ODI half-century. Dhoni, 37, who has captained India 332 times across the three formats, faced 96 balls and hit three fours and a six.

Sharma kept India in the contest with some prodigious hitting, blasting six sixes and 10 fours. But his mighty knock came to an end when he skied Marcus Stoinis to Glenn Maxwell at deep mid-wicket to end India’s remaining hopes. All-rounder Stoinis remained unbeaten on 47 off 43 balls with two fours and two sixes, while limited-over specialist Glenn Maxwell finished 11 off just five balls in Australia’s innings.

Aaron Finch fell for six in the third over when he was bowled by Kumar for the paceman’s 100th ODI wicket. Alex Carey fell in Kuldeep’s first over when he attempted to cut the leg-spinner, only to get an outside edge to Sharma at slip for 24 off 31 balls. Khawaja and Marsh put on 92 runs for the third wicket before Khawaja was out leg before wicket to spinner Ravindra Jadeja for 59 in the 29th over. Khawaja was struck on the front pad while attempting to sweep and sought a review but there was no ‘hot spot’ detected off the bat.

Marsh looked well set before he holed out to Mohammed Shami off Kuldeep at long on, ending a 53-run stand with Handscomb, who later found Dhawan at extra cover off Kumar. The second match in the three-match series takes place in Adelaide on Tuesday.

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Khawaja, Finch give conditional consent on playing in Pakistan

SYDNEY (Agencies): Australia’s limited-overs captain Aaron Finch and middle-order batsman Usman Khawaja are open to touring Pakistan, if the security situation in the country is under control.

Pakistan are scheduled to face-off in a five-match ODI series in March — later this year — and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is hopeful that part of the series takes places on home soil, instead of entirely in United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Speaking about a potential visit of Pakistan, Khawaja said that he will let the administrators make the final call on this. 

“Obviously, whatever Cricket Australia tells us, that’ll be the big thing,” Khawaja told reporters, according to Fox Sports. “We’ll leave it to the administrators. They’re pretty good at taking care of us and making sure everything’s safe.” Khawaja added: “I was born in Pakistan so it won’t be too different for me but it’s still a while away and we’ve (now) got three big games against the best nation in the world.”

Finch was also excited about touring Pakistan while also being full of praise for the passion towards the game in the country. “It would be great to get cricket back in Pakistan,” said Finch. “The passion their fans have got and just the amount of fans … (there are) some pretty empty stadiums in the UAE.”

The Australian skipper added: “Anytime there’s cricket back in Pakistan, they’re swinging from the rafters to get a seat,” he said. “Is it the right time? I’m not sure … that’s between the boards and the ACA (Australian Cricketers’ Association) to work through.”

It must be noted that Aussie Test captain Tim Paine along with former captain George Bailey and B fast-bowler Ben Cutting were part of a World XI who toured Pakistan in 2017, while their fellow cricketer Chris Green visited Lahore during 2018 edition of Pakistan Super League.

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India suspend Pandya, Rahul

New Delhi (Agencies): India on Friday suspended all-rounder Hardik Pandya and batsman Lokesh Rahul over comments made about women on a TV show and could force them to leave the team´s Australia tour, a cricket board source told AFP.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has told the team management that the duo will not play in at least the first of three one-day internationals in Sydney on Saturday while a full inquiry is launched. “Both Pandya and Rahul have been suspended pending an inquiry over their misogynist remarks in a TV chat show,” the source said.

Both could be ordered back to India, the source added, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement. Pandya, who was in the squad that beat Australia for the first time in an away Test series, boasted on the TV celebrity show about his success with multiple women. Rahul was on the show at the same time and watched his teammate´s bragging that sparked outrage on social media. Pandya, 25, has apologised for his conduct, but BCCI administrator Vinod Rai has suggested a two-match ban for both players.

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Sarri struggles to spark misfiring Chelsea

LONDON (Agencies): Maurizio Sarri must solve Chelsea’s striker crisis as his spluttering side bid to get back on track against Newcastle on Saturday. Sarri’s fourth-placed team are clinging onto a three-point lead over fifth placed Arsenal in the Premier League, leaving them with no margin for error in the race to qualify for next season’s Champions League. The root cause of Chelsea’s recent dip has been their misfiring forwards.

Plagued by injuries, Olivier Giroud has managed just five goals this season, with only one coming in the league. Alvaro Morata has netted nine times, but just five of those goals have come in his 16 league appearances. Morata appears to be uninterested in adapting to the demands of the physical Premier League — the former Real Madrid forward’s diffident style is the polar opposite of the bruising presence provided by Diego Costa, who fired Chelsea to two titles.

Sarri has recognised the fatal flaw in Chelsea’s squad and installed Eden Hazard as his central striker on several occasions in a bid to spark his attack. But moving Hazard to the ‘false nine’ position was a huge gamble given the Belgian’s success on the flanks, where his sublime skills have more room to flourish. Hazard has dropped several hints that he would prefer to remain in a wide role and his subdued performances up front have raised questions about Sarri’s tactical switch. With Hazard refusing to rule out joining Real Madrid following interest from the European champions, Chelsea need to keep their prize asset happy.

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Pakistan bowlers fight back to defy South Africa

JOHANNESBURG (AFP): Pakistan’s bowlers changed the course of the third and final Test against South Africa when they engineered a dramatic collapse on the first day of the third and final Test on Friday.

From being in control on 226 for three at tea, South Africa were bowled out for 262 at the Wanderers Stadium.

Vernon Philander struck back for South Africa, taking two wickets off successive balls as Pakistan reached 17 for two at the close.

A polished innings of 90 by Aiden Markram, coupled with some wayward bowling by Pakistan, laid the foundation for some attacking batting by South Africa, who collectively hit 37 fours and a six before tea on what looked the best batting pitch of a series already won by the hosts.

But the runs dried up after the interval as South Africa were able to add only 36 for the loss of seven wickets in 19.4 overs, hitting only four more boundaries.

Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Abbas set the tone after tea, taking two and one wickets respectively. Both bowlers gained reverse swing and tightened up their lines to make run-scoring difficult.

  • Ashraf turns the screw –

Amir left the field four balls into his 16th over after falling in his delivery stride and appearing to twist his left ankle but Hasan Ali and Faheem Ashraf continued to put pressure on the batsmen.

Ashraf finished with three for 57, while Amir, Abbas and Hasan took two wickets each.

Markram hit 16 boundaries off 124 balls in an innings marked by crisply-struck drives and firm clips to leg.

It was the third time in his 15-Test career that he had been dismissed in the nineties.

Markram, who had to pass a fitness test after suffering a badly bruised right thigh while fielding in the second Test in Cape Town, looked set for his fifth Test century until he glanced a ball from the medium-paced Faheem and wicketkeeper Sarfraz Ahmed dived to his left to take a good catch.

Hashim Amla (41) helped Markram put on 126 for the second wicket after stand-in captain Dean Elgar was caught behind off Mohammad Abbas for five in the second over.

Theunis de Bruyn (49) and new cap Zubayr Hamza (41) both batted brightly in a fourth wicket stand which was worth 72 off 92 balls at tea.

But De Bruyn was out in the third over after tea and Hamza, who scored 38 off 46 balls before tea, could add only three more runs off 22 deliveries before he was caught behind off Amir.

Left to negotiate a tricky 40 minutes before the close, Pakistan lost Shan Masood, their top scorer in the series, for two when a successful review by South Africa showed he had got a faint edge to a ball angled across him.

Azhar Ali received a superb first delivery which seamed way from him and found an edge for wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock to take a second catch.

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Andy Murray to retire, Australian Open could be last event

LONDON (Agencies): A tearful Andy Murray on Friday announced he would likely retire this year due to severe pain from a hip injury, saying next week’s Australian Open could be the last tournament of a glittering career.

The former world number one and three-time Grand Slam winner broke down at a press conference in Melbourne as he said the pain had become almost unbearable. “I can play with limitations. But having the limitations and the pain is not allowing me to enjoy competing or training,” the emotional Scot said.

Thirty-one-year-old “Sir Andy” said he would like to finish at his home Grand Slam in Wimbledon, but ruefully admitted he might not make it that far. He will be remembered as the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years and as a player who battled his way to the top in a golden era for the game alongside Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. “Wimbledon is where I would like to stop playing, but I am not certain I am able to do that,” he said. “I’ve been struggling for a long time. I’m not sure I can play through the pain for another four or five months.

“Pretty much done everything that I could to try and get my hip feeling better and it hasn’t helped loads.” He pulled out of last year’s Australian Open to have hip surgery and only returned in June at Queen’s Club in London.

He ended the season at Shenzhen in September after only a handful of appearances to concentrate on working his way back to full fitness. But he was knocked out in the second round on his return at Brisbane last week and called it quits on Thursday after less than an hour of a practice match in Melbourne against Djokovic, with his movement clearly hampered.

“I think there is a chance the Australian Open is my last tournament,” he said. While he intends to begin his opening-round match against 22nd seed Roberto Bautista Agut next week, how his body withstands potentially gruelling five-set clashes in energy-sapping heat remains to be seen.

  • ‘Legend of a bloke’ –

One of the so-called Big Four, along with Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, who have dominated the game for years, Murray’s ranking has slumped to 230. He hasn’t reached a Grand Slam final since winning his second Wimbledon title in 2016, but has nevertheless enjoyed a glittering career since turning professional in 2005, with not only three Grand Slam titles, but two Olympic gold medals and 45 ATP crowns.

Notably, in 2013 Murray became the first British man to win Wimbledon for 77 years, ending the nation’s obsession with finding a champion to follow in the footsteps of Fred Perry. World number five Juan Martin del Potro, who has also struggled with injuries and will miss the Australian Open, told Murray to “keep fighting”. “We love you @andy_murray and we want to see you happy and doing well,” he added. Billie Jean King called him “a champion on and off court”, referring to Murray’s long-time support of women’s equality in tennis.

“So sorry you cannot retire on your own terms, but remember to look to the future. Your greatest impact on the world may be yet to come. Your voice for equality will inspire future generations,” she said. Top Australian coach Darren Cahill, who until recently was mentoring world number one Simona Halep, said Murray was an example of the never-say-die attitude that separated the best from the average.

“When you search for examples of ’emptied the bucket to be as good as they could be’ there should be a picture of Andy Murray sitting under that quote,” he tweeted. “Remarkable discipline for training, competition, sacrifice, perfection, a little crazy but a legend of a bloke.” Former star Andy Roddick also paid tribute on Twitter. “I tip my cap to @andy_murray! Absolute legend. Short list of best tacticians in history. Unreal results in a brutal era. Nothing but respect here. I hope he can finish strong and healthy,” he said.

Murray said he had an option of another operation on his troublesome hip, but it was more about his quality of life after hanging up his racquet. “That’s something I’m seriously considering right now,” he said.

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Wu magic sparks China to 3-0 Asian Cup win over Philippines

ABU DHABI (Agencies): Star striker Wu Lei fired a brilliant double as China beat the Philippines 3-0 on Friday to virtually assure their place in the last 16 of the Asian Cup.

Marcello Lippi emerged victorious against old foe Sven-Goran Eriksson in a heavyweight coaching clash despite spirited early resistance from the Filipino ‘Street Dogs’ in Abu Dhabi.

China, runners-up in 1984 and 2004, improved to six points from two games in Group C after beating Kyrgyzstan 2-1 in their opening game.

They should have led after 32 minutes when Wu Xi headed wastefully wide from point-blank range. But Wu Lei provided the spark five minutes before half-time, turning on the edge of the box and whipping a right-foot shot into the far corner.

His second was even better as he swivelled to slam a Hao Junmin free kick past goalkeeper Michael Falkesgaard on the volley after 66 minutes to effectively finish the tie. Substitute Yu Dabao added a third with his first touch 10 minutes from time.

Pulverised 8-1 the last time the teams met in 2017, the Philippines gave China more of a game this time, having lost 1-0 to South Korea on their Asian Cup debut earlier this week.

Kevin Ingreso forced a fingertip save from China goalkeeper Yan Junling in first-half stoppage time but Eriksson’s faded badly after the break. A victory for South Korea over Kyrgyzstan later on Friday would guarantee China’s progress as they look to improve on a quarter-final finish in 2015.

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Bracewell and Kuggeleijn set up Black Caps T20 win

AUCLAND (Agencies): Doug Bracewell and debutant Scott Kuggeleijn were unlikely heroes with the bat as New Zealand denied Sri Lanka a consolation Twenty20 victory with a 35-run win at Eden Park on Friday.

The Black Caps won all three one-day internationals after taking the Test series 1-0 and they ensured Sri Lanka ended the tour winless in Auckland. New Zealand were in big trouble on 27-4 after Kasun Rajitha (3-44) and Lasith Malinga (2-24) took two wickets apiece, but Ross Taylor (33), Bracewell (44) and Kuggeleijn (35 not out) got them up to 179-7.

Sri Lanka could only muster 144 all out in reply, with Lockie Ferguson (3-21) and Ish Sodhi (3-30) doing the bulk of the damage as the in-form Thisara Perera’s rapid 43 was in vain. Malinga struck in the first over after winning the toss when the dangerous Martin Guptill’s attempted pull was taken by Kusal Mendis and the captain cleaned up Henry Nicholls after Rajitha removed Tim Seifert.

The Black Caps were four down in the fourth over after Rajitha saw the back of Colin Munro, but Taylor batted with patience in a 37-ball knock before Bracewell and Kuggeleijn produced a late assault. Bracewell smashed five sixes in his highest T20 international score, while Kuggeleijn cleared the ropes four times as Sri Lanka’s poor bowling at the death let New Zealand off the hook. Ferguson struck an early blow when Sadeera Samarawickrama played on for a golden duck, but Niroshan Dickwella and Kusal Perera scored freely in a promising second-wicket stand.

Kuggeleijn made an impact with the ball by getting rid of Kusal and Bracewell had Dickwella caught behind before Thisara carried on where he left off in the ODI series with some lusty blows. Sri Lanka’s hopes were all-but over when Ferguson dismissed Thisara – who hit three sixes – with a slower ball and Dhananjaya de Silva also fell in an excellent 13th over, with Sodhi mopping up the tail as the tourists folded.

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DNA request made in Cristiano Ronaldo rape case

LAS VEGAS (Agencies): Las Vegas police have asked football star Cristiano Ronaldo to submit a DNA sample as part of their investigation into rape allegations made against him.

The Portuguese forward — who plays for Juventus in Italy’s Serie A league — has vehemently denied the accusations, and his lawyer Peter Christiansen told AFP the request was standard procedure. “Mr Ronaldo has always maintained, as he does today, that what occurred in Las Vegas in 2009 was consensual in nature, so it is not surprising that DNA would be present, nor that the police would make this very standard request as part of their investigation,” he said in a statement.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said it had made an official request to Italian authorities, adding it is “taking the same steps in this case as in any other sexual assault to facilitate the collection of DNA evidence”. Former model Kathryn Mayorga, 34, of Las Vegas, made the accusations against the now 33-year-old Ronaldo in a complaint filed last year in the state of Nevada.

She claims after meeting the footballer at a Las Vegas nightclub, he raped her at his hotel suite on June 13, 2009 — just before he joined Real Madrid from Manchester United for a then-world record 94 million Euro ($108 million). Her lawyers have said previously she immediately reported the alleged rape to the Las Vegas police and underwent a medical examination.

A private mediation was organised with representatives of Ronaldo, Mayorga and their lawyers, where she alleges she was paid $375,000 to keep quiet. But Ronaldo’s lawyers have said that the non-disclosure agreement signed with the former model was “by no means a confession of guilt”.

Mayorga’s attorney has previously said the model agreed to an out-of-court settlement to keep her name from going public, but was inspired to speak out by the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. Her attorney could not immediately be reached for comment, but in the past said the agreement should be made null and void because it was made when she was suffering from extreme psychological duress.

Ronaldo is widely considered one of the greatest footballers in the history of the game having won the Golden Boot award — given to the leading goal scorer in any European league — a record four times.

Juventus signed him last year for 100 million euros ($115 million), the most ever paid for a player aged over 30.

Ronaldo has long been marketed as a world face of football and his image has become a global money spinner. When the rape allegations first came to light, shares in Juventus dipped on the stock exchange.