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Swiatek cruises past Sabalenka to reach Rome final

By Sports Desk May 14, 2022

Iga Swiatek continued her remarkable winning run to reach the Internazionali d'Italia final as she defeated Aryna Sabalenka 6-2 6-1.

Top seed Swiatek extended to 26 matches unbeaten, dating back to mid-February, with victory over Bianca Andreescu to set up the last-four meeting with Sabalenka, who battled past Amanda Anisimova.

The pair exchanged opening breaks in a tentative start to the clash in the Italian capital before Sabalenka again failed to hold her serve as Pole Swiatek took an early 3-1 lead.

World number eight Sabalenka, the third seed in the tournament, offered little response as the in-form Swiatek then claimed the first set with ease.

Sabalenka was again caught cold and had no answer as world number one Swiatek raced out the blocks in the second set, breaking twice via marathon rallies, to gain a 4-0 lead.

Swiatek swiftly wrapped victory up, despite a short medical time out for her opponent, and has now won all three of her WTA Tour encounters with Sabalenka in 2022, conceding just 12 games in the process.

Meanwhile, in the last 25 years only Serena Williams in 2013, Kim Clijsters in 2003 and Martina Hingis in 1998 have reached the final in Rome with fewer games dropped than Iga Swiatek this season (17).

The 20-year-old Swiatek continues on her quest for a fourth straight WTA 1000 crown and fifth consecutive title and in the final will face either Ons Jabeur or Daria Kasatkina, who face off later on Saturday.

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  • Morocco v Portugal: Fernandes alert to upset threat as Regragui calls on support of Arab world Morocco v Portugal: Fernandes alert to upset threat as Regragui calls on support of Arab world

    Bruno Fernandes and Portugal are alert to the threat of an upset posed by Morocco in their World Cup quarter-final after the Atlas Lions stunned Spain and now eye tournament history.

    Walid Regragui's side held La Roja to a 0-0 draw before beating them 3-0 on penalties, owing much to the saves of goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.

    Portugal had been effective if unspectacular in the group stage, but they released the handbrake in the last 16, demolishing Switzerland 6-1 in one of the finest performances by any team at Qatar 2022 after Goncalo Ramos came in for the benched Cristiano Ronaldo and scored a hat-trick.

    With the out-of-form and maligned Ronaldo out of the team, there was a perception of Portugal suddenly realising their potential without the 37-year-old holding them back, and Ramos' performance – as he became the first player since 2002 to net a World Cup treble on his first start – was evidence of that.

    But Fernandes – involved in more goals (five) than any of his team-mates in this tournament – insists Portugal will not be taking anything for granted.

    "It's a difficult game," he told reporters. "Morocco are a really good team.

    "They came first in the group, beat Spain, so we are aware of their qualities. We want to do the best game, as always, but we have to focus on ourselves and understand what we need to do to win our game.

    "That's the most important thing: that we do our game, do our job to get through. We know it will be a really difficult game."

    That is backed up by the fact Morocco have kept three clean sheets in four games at this World Cup, which is the most ever by an African side in a single edition of the tournament.

    But the task facing Morocco is monumental.

    If they do see off Portugal, Morocco will become the first African nation to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup.

    Each of the previous three African teams to reach a quarter-final were all eliminated in the last eight, with Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) falling at this hurdle.

    Additionally, only two of the previous 11 knockout meetings between European and African teams at the World Cup have seen CAF sides progress, and one of those was Morocco's shoot-out win over Spain.

    Morocco have been one of the best-supported nations in Qatar, and Regragui is calling on the support of the rest of the Arab world to help bridge the gap in quality to Portugal.

    "We cannot achieve anything without the Moroccan public," he said. "Four days ago, they came to the hotel to ask for tickets, and many of them came from all over to encourage us.

    "We tell our supporters that we need them, especially in the quarter-finals, to write history. We also need Arab supporters; Algerians, Tunisians and Africans, and we know that many countries are behind us."
     

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Portugal – Goncalo Ramos

    Will Fernando Santos stick to his guns and keep Ronaldo on the bench? Judging by the team's performance against Switzerland, he should.

    Ramos had a hand in four goals against the Swiss and his hat-trick in 74 minutes was more knockout goals than Ronaldo has ever managed in the knockout stages of the World Cup (none in 531 minutes).

    Morocco – Yassine Bounou

    He was the Atlas Lions' hero in the last 16, saving two penalties in the shoot-out – the other hit the post, but he seemed to have it covered anyway.

    But even outside of penalty shoot-outs, Bounou is a key man for Morocco as a dependable goalkeeper who was even nominated for FIFA's Yashin Trophy – the prize given to the world's best keeper – earlier this year.

    PREDICTION

    Portugal are firm favourites here, with Santos' side having a 55.8 per cent chance of progressing to the semi-finals.

    Morocco have an 18.8 per cent likelihood of winning in normal time, with the draw rated at 25.4 per cent.

    Clearly then, while the Atlas Lions are the underdogs, they have a good opportunity of at least forcing extra-time, which did not work out too badly for them last time.
  • Regragui proving Arab coaches are 'worthy' of top jobs like Barcelona Regragui proving Arab coaches are 'worthy' of top jobs like Barcelona

    Walid Regragui hopes Morocco's performance at the World Cup is showing why Arab coaches should get top jobs in Europe, which is "impossible" right now.

    Regragui was only appointed as Morocco head coach at the end of August.

    Since then, the Atlas Lions are unbeaten, conceding only an own goal against Canada and reaching the quarter-finals at Qatar 2022.

    Regragui's short stint has included an upset win over Belgium and a penalty shoot-out success against highly-fancied Spain in the last 16.

    Morocco are the first Arab team and fourth African side to make the last eight at a World Cup, prompting discussion of interest in Regragui's services.

    But the coach explained the battle he had faced just to get this job, let alone taking over at Manchester City or Barcelona.

    "This question is probably best asked to European clubs: why don't they hire Arab coaches? Maybe it's a cultural question, maybe it's a mentality aspect," he said.

    "Today I think it's impossible Manchester City or Barcelona bring an Arab coach. They don't think about it, as if we're not worthy, as if we're not capable.

    "But there's moments in history that make people change their mind. It's on us, the Arab and African people, to show we are ready."

    Having spent much of his coaching career with clubs in Morocco, Regragui added: "Ten years I am a coach, nobody looked at me. 'No, it is impossible, he does not have the experience. Let's look at somebody else'.

    "I'm in the quarter-final. Explain this miracle.

    "Experience doesn't matter. It's skills. It doesn't matter your background, where you're from; skills matter. If you're not worthy, you don't have the skills, you can leave."

    Perhaps Morocco's style of play could be an obstacle to Regragui's progress, with only Costa Rica (30.2 per cent) having a smaller average share of possession at the tournament than their 32.3 per cent.

    But Regragui made no apologies for Morocco's approach as they stifled Spain, who dominated 76.8 per cent of the play in the previous round but had only one shot on target in 120 minutes.

    Highlighting other examples of Spain – with the highest possession share at the finals (77.0 per cent) – bossing proceedings against elite sides, Regragui wondered if critics would rather Morocco had bravely lost.

    He asked: "Why do Morocco need to keep the ball? Why do African teams need to play very well and lose after and cry?"

    But now, against Portugal in Saturday's quarter-final, Regragui feels huge support for his side.

    "We want to show Africa deserves to be here, Morocco deserves to be here, football is global," he said.

    "We have a federation behind us, a whole people behind us, a whole continent behind us. We have the Arab world. That's a lot of people. That's what we're going to draw from."

  • Deschamps refutes idea France are overly reliant on Mbappe Deschamps refutes idea France are overly reliant on Mbappe

    France are not overly dependent on Kylian Mbappe, according to head coach Didier Deschamps.

    Mbappe has been in sparkling form at the Qatar World Cup and is the top scorer in the competition with five goals from four appearances.

    The 23-year-old's double in the last-16 win over Poland has taken his tally of World Cup goals to nine, as many as Lionel Messi and more than Cristiano Ronaldo.

    World champions France are unbeaten in the 13 games Mbappe has started in major competitions – outside of penalty shoot-outs – and will be hoping that record continues against England at Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday, with a place in the semi-finals up for grabs.

    Deschamps dismissed the idea France rely too heavily on the Paris Saint-Germain forward, who has now scored 250 goals for club and country.

    "I'm sure England will have prepared to face Kylian as our previous opponents did, but he's in a position to make the difference," Deschamps said in a press conference.

    "Even in the last match, he didn't show his top form, but he was still decisive.

    "We have other players that can be dangerous as well, so that helps us not be over-dependent on Kylian.

    "But Kylian is Kylian, and he has that capacity to make the difference in any moment."

    A major talking point in the build-up to the game has been the match-up between Mbappe and England right-back Kyle Walker, who could play either in a back four or a back five in order to combat the France forward's threat.

    France captain Hugo Lloris played with Walker at Tottenham and said Mbappe is putting the talk to one side.

    "I think Kylian is preparing very well. Trying to ignore a lot of the talk about him, it's really not something he needs," he said.

    "He's very focused on his objectives, individually and collectively. He seems very happy, playing with a smile on his face and seems very focused on the match ahead of us.

    "That's how he's looked from the beginning of this tournament."

    While the focus will be on Mbappe at one end of the pitch, England captain Harry Kane – who won the Golden Boot at Russia 2018 – could be decisive at the other, having scored his first goal of the tournament in the Three Lions' 3-0 defeat of Senegal in the round of 16.

    "I only have positive things to say about Harry, he's very important for the team, club and for England as well," Lloris said of his Spurs team-mate.

    "A real leader, an example for his team-mates, and he's a top player. 

    "Harry's someone who is known all over the world – not sure I can add too much to what is known. Our focus will be on representing our countries."

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