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Tournament’s giant-killing minnows keep the magic alive

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Even for the most committed of armchair fans, fatigue and apathy can set in when the World Cup’s “feast of football” sometimes fails to deliver the anticipated excitement levels. Making all those drab 0-0 draws and tedious mismatches worthwhile, however, are the giant-killing upsets that inevitably brighten up each tournament.

There’s nothing quite as pleasing as watching a team of swaggering superstars holding their heads in their hands as a motley crew of plucky journeymen rampage around the pitch in wild celebration — unless, of course, your country happens to be on the receiving end.

Such scenes were repeated this week in Qatar when Saudi Arabia stunned Lionel Messi’s Argentina before Japan humbled four-time champion Germany — adding to the tournament’s rich tradition of mega shocks.

Italy features prominently on that list, having lost to not one but both Koreas. The Azzurri were embarrassed 2-1 by co-host the Republic of Korea in 2002, but it was a truly seismic shock when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea beat the Italians 1-0 in England in 1966. That result was no fluke — the DPRK gave Eusebio’s Portugal an almighty scare in the quarterfinals, racing into a 3-0 lead before bowing out 5-3.

There was more ignominy for Italy at the 1994 World Cup in the United States, when the Republic of Ireland stunned a star-studded team that included the likes of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Roberto Baggio. The Irish had officially been allocated 3,325 tickets for each group match, but when the cameras panned over Giants Stadium, the stands were bathed in a sea of green. An estimated 50,000 Irish fans erupted in celebration when Ray Houghton’s 11th-minute winner soared into the net to kick off a Guinness-drenched party in New Jersey — and back home in Ireland for the next week.

Northern Ireland produced an arguably bigger shock in 1982 against host Spain. That was the first tournament with 24 rather than 16 teams and there were concerns that smaller nations would struggle. However, an early second-half goal by Watford striker Gerry Armstrong earned a 1-0 win, which was all the more remarkable considering NI had defender Mal Donaghy sent off with 30 minutes left on the clock.

Nothing, however, compares to 1950, when the US beat England 1-0 in Brazil. Legend has it that when the result was relayed to London, in the days before reliable communications, some newspapers believed it was a typo and that the correct result was 10-0 to England. Context is vital. England was the 3-1 favorite to lift the World Cup, while the US was rated 500-1 and entirely composed of amateurs. They included a postman, a paint-stripper, a dishwasher and a hearse driver. Back in the States, the result was barely noticed. The New York Times gave the famous victory just two paragraphs.

These are just a handful of the jaw-dropping results the tournament has produced through the decades, with other honorable mentions going to Scotland’s 3-2 win over the Netherlands’ famed ‘Total Football’ side in 1978, Cameroon’s 1-0 win over Diego Maradona’s Argentina in 1990, and Senegal’s 1-0 victory over world and European champion France in 2002.

Here’s hoping the achievements of Saudi Arabia and Japan inspire more giant-slaying heroics in Qatar.

Contact the writer at jamesboylan@chinadaily.com.cn

Source(s): China Daily.

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Preview: Much at stake for Barca, Xavi in Napoli trip

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MADRID, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) — FC Barcelona travel for one of the most important games of their season when they face Napoli in the first leg of the Champions League last-16 on Wednesday night.

The game is vital for the club’s economy, as well as for the credibility of coach Xavi Hernandez, who has already said he will be stepping down at the end of the season, but who could find himself leaving earlier (despite assurances to the contrary) in the case of a defeat.

Barcelona’s budget for the 2023-2024 was partly based on their reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League, with the extra 10 million the club would receive from UEFA for reaching the last eight, making a difference to an institution with debts of over 1,000 million euros.

With so much at stake, if Barca lose the first leg in Naples, it would be no big shock to see Barca president Joan Laporta and sporting director Deco decide to pull the trigger prematurely on a coach, who at times seems to be watching a different game to the rest of the world.

Xavi’s comments after Barca needed a twice-taken 97th minute penalty to beat fourth from bottom Celta Vigo, that according to Big Date his side should be top of La Liga, caused a few raised eyebrows – especially among people who have watched their games this season.

The fact is Barca are third in the table, eight points behind Real Madrid and still have several difficult games to play, including a visit to the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, and most of their football has not been that of a team that should be topping the table.

The good news for Barca and Xavi is that Napoli are in an even worse state, with the team currently sitting ninth in Serie A taking drastic action on Monday to sack Walter Mazzarri as coach and replace him with Francesco Calzona, who has just 48 hours to prepare for the tie.

Barca had some positive injury news on Monday with Joao Felix and Sergi Roberto passed fit, and both will be on the subs’ bench on Wednesday.

Xavi is expected to bring Inigo Martinez into central defense alongside Ronald Araujo, with Andreas Christensen moving into central midfield, alongside Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ilkay Gundogan, with Robert Lewandowski and 16-year-old Yamine Lamal leading the attack and Raphinha dropping to the subs’ bench.

The extra man in midfield implies caution from Xavi, who knows how important it is to avoid a first leg defeat – both for the club’s future and his own.

Source(s): Xinhua

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Mbappe reported to have penned five-year deal with Real Madrid

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MADRID, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) — The uncertainty over the future of French international striker Kylian Mbappe is coming to an end after the Spanish sports paper ‘Marca’ reported on Monday that he has already signed a contract with Real Madrid.

Mbappe’s future was already headline news long before last week’s announcement that he would be leaving Paris Saint-Germain at the end of the season, and although Real Madrid always seemed the most likely destination for the 25-year-old, Monday’s news appears to be the confirmation.

The newspaper, which is close to Real Madrid, assures that Mbappe signed a five-year contract with Real Madrid in February, which means he will earn a basic salary of between 15-20 million euros (16-21.5 million U.S. dollars) after tax every year, with bonuses in relation to his individual performances and titles.

The player will also receive a 50 million euros bonus for joining the Spanish giants, without the club having to pay a transfer fee.

Although the contract won’t be confirmed by the club until the end of the current season, Marca reports that Mbappe will officially be presented to the fans and the press early in July.

The news appears to end Real Madrid’s efforts to sign a player they have been attempting to tempt to Spain since 2017. It looked in 2022 as if Mbappe was en route to play in the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, but the forward opted to sign a new deal to stay in Paris.

Premier League clubs, such as Liverpool and Arsenal, are also interested in signing Mbappe, but it now looks as if their efforts are in vain.

The Frenchman will not be the only new arrival at Real Madrid this summer, with 17-year-old Brazilian international Endrick also set to join after the club confirmed his signing just over a year ago.

With every other club in Spain limited by financial fair play restrictions, it already looks as if Real Madrid’s squad will be stronger than ever next season.

Source(s): Xinhua

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La Liga: Real Madrid drop points, Barca and Atletico win

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MADRID, Feb. 18 (Xinhua) — Real Madrid dropped two points in the race for the La Liga title on Sunday, being held to a 1-1 draw away to Rayo Vallecano.

The draw lifts Carlo Ancelotti’s team six points clear of second-placed Girona, who have a difficult game away to Athletic Bilbao on Monday night, but means they miss the chance to go eight clear and increase the pressure on their nearest rivals in the title race.

Real Madrid got off to a perfect start when Mato Joselu slid them ahead from a low Fede Valverde cross after just two minutes.

Inigo Perez was making his debut as Rayo coach, and his players responded with an impressive display, getting their reward in the 27th minute when Eduardo Camavinga was penalized for handball and Raul de Tomas leveled from the spot.

In injury time, Madrid right-back Dani Carvajal was sent off after receiving two yellow cards in two minutes, and he will miss next weekend’s home game against Sevilla.

On Saturday, Robert Lewandowski scored a twice-taken 97th-minute penalty to give FC Barcelona a 2-1 win over Celta Vigo.

Lewandowski had put Barca ahead in the 44th minute, before Iago Aspas’ 200th goal for Celta leveled the score in the 46th minute.

Atletico Madrid impressed with a 5-0 win at home to Las Palmas, with forwards Marcos Llorente and Angel Correa each scoring twice.

Mikel Merino’s injury-time header gave Real Sociedad a 2-1 win away to Mallorca after Antonio Sanchez had given the home side a fourth minute lead.

Real Betis and Alaves drew Sunday’s final game 0-0, with the visitors frustrating Betis, who have had a poor week after losing at home in the UEFA Conference League on Thursday night to Dinamo Zagreb.

Sunday’s game between second-bottom Granada and bottom side Almeria ended in a 1-1 draw, which helps neither club’s aim to avoid relegation.

Valencia dominated at home to Sevilla, but were unable to beat visiting keeper Orjan Nyland, who made several important saves to help his side continue to edge away from the relegation zone.

Ante Budimir scored two second-half goals as Osasuna beat Cadiz 2-0 to stretch the visitors’ winless run to 21 games. Cadiz have gone five games without scoring.

The round of matches began on Friday night with a 1-1 draw between Villarreal and Getafe.

Source(s): Xinhua

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