France’s Quesne eyes major debut after birdie blast

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The world number 125 sunk birdies in four of his five opening holes, eagled his eighth and picked up a further shot a hole later to go into the turn at seven-under, vying for the lead with twice major winner Rory McIlroy.


Quesne bogeyed his tenth – a par four – but recovered with two more birdies to move to eight-under before a double bogey at the last left him three shots adrift of McIlroy’s 63.

“I really enjoyed this one, I hit a lot of very good shots, holed some putts and one bad shot on the last one, but that’s golf – I’m not superman,” Quesne told Reuters.

Quesne is France’s No.4 golfer, behind Victor Dubuisson, Gregory Bourdy and Raphael Jacquelin, but the 33-year-old said he was more concerned with improving his overall standing than becoming than becoming his country’s number one player.

“I’m looking towards the world rankings so I can play a major, which I’ve never done. It’s my goal this year,” said Quesne, a late bloomer who only took up golf aged 17 and turned professional six years later.

He remained on the challenger circuit for several years, but joined the senior tour in 2010 before an unhappy season led him to lose his card.

Quesne bounced back to become a fixture on the European tour from 2012, winning that year’s Andalucía Open as well as the 2013 Italian Open.

He has made a mixed start to 2014, claiming joint-eighth at Durban’s Volvo Golf Champions, but trailing in 52nd in Abu Dhabi and 28th in Qatar earlier this month. Dubai, the final leg of the so-called Gulf Swing, has proved more agreeable.

“The course is in very good condition, the greens are amazing. As the day progressed the greens got faster so we have to manage this,” said Quesne.

When asked whether he expected to be high up the leaderboard after Friday’s second round, Quesne was phlegmatic.

“I just try to play my game and we will see,” he added.

(Reporting by Matt Smith; editing by Justin Palmer)

Rueda welds cohesive Ecuador World Cup team

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But the void left by striker Cristian Benitez’s sudden death at 27 last year will be almost impossible to fill on the threshold of this year’s tournament in Brazil, Rueda told Reuters.


“A player of Cristian’s characteristics, both for his human qualities and footballing skills is practically irreplaceable,” the Colombian said. “You don’t find that round the corner.

“There will be another player because there must be eleven… In this short time of four months (to the finals) you can’t replace a player groomed over several years,” the 57-year-old told Reuters in an interview this week.

Ecuador, who reached the finals for the first time in Asia in 2002, face Switzerland, France and Honduras looking to improve on or at least equal their second round place in Germany in 2006 where they lost to England.

“We don’t have (recent) World Cup experience but we do have a great squad with lots of motivation and we’ll have to make up for that lack of experience with order, obedience and great tactical discipline,” said Rueda.

Ecuador’s three opponents in Group E played at the previous finals in South Africa with poor results, including Honduras under Colombian Rueda, and many of their players will be going to a second consecutive tournament.

The only Ecuadorean players with World Cup finals experience likely to go to Brazil are midfielder Alejandro Castillo of Saudi side Al-Hilal and Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia.

Rueda, who likes to study his rivals in minute detail, will stick to the same tactical plan against all three group opponents that served Ecuador well in the South American qualifiers since he took charge in 2011.

The Ecuador team have set themselves the goal of leaving a mark in Brazil in name of Benitez, who died last August from heart failure in Qatar where he was playing club football. He had contributed four goals in the qualifiers.

“The happiness is gone, the goals have gone and we’ve all put in the effort (to make light of his absence), it’s not been easy,” said Rueda, who will name his World Cup squad on May 26.

Valencia is a key player for Ecuador as a “a man of the (football) elite” although team work is Ecuador’s outstanding feature, he added.

“This team has great virtues, players with great talent, very committed, with good discipline, they’re a team with great harmony,” Rueda said.

Ecuador will play warm-up matches against Australia in London on March 5, the Netherlands in Amsterdam on May 17, Mexico in Texas on May 31 and England in Miami on June 4 before travelling to Brazil.

(Writing by Rex Gowar in London; Editing by Justin Palmer)

Another pitfall awaiting sloppy Napoli

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Instead they drew against all five teams and, rather than chasing Juventus, are now looking over their shoulders at Fiorentina, who are challenging them for third place which earns a spot in the Champions League playoff round.


Atalanta, who host Napoli on Sunday (1400 GMT), are 12th with 24 points from 21 games, just the type of team Napoli (44 points) are prone to slip up against.

Even more frustratingly, Napoli have won the more difficult games, beating AC Milan, Lazio, Hellas Verona and Fiorentina away and thumping Inter Milan 4-2 at home.

Benitez, who has rebuilt Napoli this season with the 64 million euros the club earned by selling Edinson Cavani to Paris St Germain, has been exasperated as a combination of sloppy defending and erratic finishing have cost his team crucial points.

Despite the slip-ups, the former Liverpool, Chelsea and Inter coach sees a bright future for the club especially after signing Brazilian midfielder Jorginho from Hellas Verona during the January transfer window.

“Jorginho has personality,” he said. “He’s not afraid of making mistakes, he’s a player with qualify who can do very well here.

“We’ve brought him to Napoli because he’s different to the midfielders we already have and gives us tactical alternatives.

“We are in a phase where we are growing and I’m very positive for the future,” added the Spaniard. “We have players in the team who can player at the top level for another four or five years.

“We are among the top three in Italy and this is a great chance to carry on with our project and aim higher.”

Inter Milan’s miserable run looks set to continue as they visit leaders Juventus on Sunday (1945), only a week after the clubs fell out over the failed exchange of Fredy Guarin and Mirko Vucinic.

The clubs, bitter rivals at the best of times, had already agreed terms for Inter midfielder Guarin to swap with Juve forward Vucinic when the Milan club pulled the plug following protests by their fans.

Inter, who are fifth with 33 points and are just one clear of Torino, Parma and Hellas Verona, have won only one of their nine last matches while Juventus, six points clear of AS Roma, have won 18 out of 21 games this season.

Inter won 3-1 at the Juventus stadium on their last league visit but that heralded a long, steady decline which eventually saw them finish ninth last term and earned coach Andrea Stramaccioni the sack.

Second-placed Roma, who have scored 10 goals in winning their last three games, host Parma as they attempt to keep up the pressure on Juventus after cutting their lead from eight to six points last Sunday. Fourth-placed Fiorentina (41 points) visit Cagliari on Saturday (1700).

(Writing by Brian Homewood in London; Editing by Pritha Sarkar; )

McIlroy sizzles in Dubai; Woods among chasing pack

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Playing the back nine holes first, the Northern Irishman was unperturbed by a 0405 GMT tee-off time, reaching the turn at five-under after sinking a quintet of birdies from the 12th to the 18th.


He rattled in an eagle at the par-five third hole with a 25-foot putt and picked up two further shots in a blemish-free round on the Majlis course.

Playing partner Tiger Woods kept pace initially to be four-under after nine holes, but then sunk nine successive pars to finish on 68, five behind his rival.

Italy’s Edoardo Molinari carded 65 to be two shots off the pace, with defending champion Stephen Gallacher among five players to shoot 66.

“Sometimes you have an early start, it maybe takes you a few holes to get going,” McIlroy told reporters, when asked about his scintillating beginning.

“But whenever you have people on the tee box and cameras clicking, it sort of makes you more alert at that time of the morning when sometimes you’re half asleep.”

It could have been even better for the 24-year-old, who missed a six-foot putt on the opening hole and lipped out another birdie attempt on the fifth hole. Had those gone he could have equalled the course record of 61.

“I drove it well and I can really take advantage of hitting it long and straight here,” McIlroy added. “I got a lot of wedges into greens. If I can keep doing that, hopefully scores like this will become more regular.”


McIlroy has fond memories of Dubai, claiming his first European tour victory at this event in 2009 and also winning 2012’s DP World Tour Championship to become only the second golfer to top the money list in both Europe and United States in the same season.

These achievements helped McIlroy become world number one, but he endured a tough 2013, rarely troubling the leaderboard as he sunk to sixth in the rankings.

The twice major winner has begun to find his form again, winning the Australian Open in December and finishing joint-second at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship earlier this month, with four top-10 finishes in his past five events on the European Tour.

“Getting back to world No. 1, it’s a by-product of playing well, giving yourself chances to win tournaments. If I finish second in every tournament from now to the end of the year, I would be world No. 1, I won’t be happy: I wouldn’t have won,” added McIlroy.

“These scores may look somewhat routine out there but there’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes to actually be able to go out and shoot scores like this.”

World number one Woods said he was relieved to sink a birdie on his opening hole in Dubai, his first competitive golf since last week’s dire 79 at California’s Torrey Pines, the second-worst round of his professional career.

The 38-year-old found the sand with alarming regularity but was still able to pick up further shots at 13, 15 and 18.

He found it harder going as overcast skies gave way to piercing desert sunshine, missing a 10-foot birdie chance at the second in a barren last nine holes.

“The greens are perfect, absolutely perfect,” Woods told reporters. “They have softened them up so they are a little more receptive but they are still just as fast. I’m sure the guys in the afternoon probably won’t go as low. They were drying out as we were playing.”

(Reporting by Matt Smith, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Syria talks focus on ‘terrorism’

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Syria’s warring sides focused on “terrorism” during a sixth day of talks in Geneva, sparring over who was to blame for the violence tearing their country apart.


For the first time in days, the two sides appeared to have agreed on the topic of discussion, but while they both wanted to talk about “terrorism” their interpretations of who was behind the violence differed widely.

The delegation from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has long insisted the talks must first address “terrorism” by jihadists and armed groups in the opposition, as well as countries like Arab monarchies and Turkey that support them.

It points out that halting the violence was the first item on the Geneva I communique – the never-implemented roadmap to peace adopted in 2012 and the focus of the current talks.

The opposition National Coalition delegation, however, maintains that setting up the transitional government called for in Geneva I must come first, and must entail Assad’s departure, something the regime flatly rejects.

On Thursday morning, the regime delegation presented a text it wanted the other side to agree on, urging all states to “prevent and stop the funding of terrorist acts”.

The text, obtained by AFP, also insisted that “fighting terrorist organisations and driving them out of Syria is a common objective and duty for every Syrian”.

The opposition rejected the communique as “one-sided” and “unacceptable”, delegations spokesman Louay Safi told reporters, pointing out that the text failed to denounce “the regime’s crimes against humanity”.

The opposition representatives had presented a massive file about “the regime’s violence against the people,” he said.

“The biggest terrorist in Syria is Bashar al Assad,” a source close to the opposition negotiating team told AFP.

“The regime wants to talk about terrorism. Barrel bombs are terrorism. Starving populations to death is terrorism. Torture, imprisonment are terrorism.”

Despite a constant combative tone, relations between the two sides appeared to be thawing, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said on Wednesday.

“The ice is breaking, slowly, but it is breaking,” he told reporters, adding though that he did not expect “anything substantive” to come out of the initial round of talks that are set to conclude Friday.

But he stressed that simply getting the parties talking for the first time since the conflict erupted in March 2011 was an important step.

Snowballs pose new defensive problem for Larsson

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Times may have changed for the former Swedish scoring machine but as the manager of small-town Falkenberg, he seems very content with his current position – for now.


“Go on! Go on! Be brave!” he calls to the kids as he makes his way to the clubhouse, rolling back the years with a trademark jinking run to elude them.

“Everything changes in life. It took some time to get used to, but you have to adapt to the situation,” Larsson later told Reuters in the warmth of that clubhouse as he explained the twists and turns of his time in management so far.

“If you can’t adapt to the situation you shouldn’t get into this line of work.”

Larsson’s coaching career could hardly be more different from his stellar spell as a player, in which he won league titles with Celtic in Scotland and Barcelona in Spain and played 106 times for his country, scoring 37 goals and winning a bronze medal at the 1994 World Cup.

“It’s different. As a player I played for top clubs but as a manager I’m here at my second club, a team where nobody apart from ourselves believes we can do something,” he said.

“That is a challenge for me as a coach, and for me that’s something that I thrive on. You learn a lot about yourself when things aren’t going well. It’s always good to be the underdog.”

Just a few weeks after he announced his retirement as a player at Helsingborg, Larsson got his first coaching job at second-tier side – and Helisingborg’s bitter rivals – Landskrona, in 2009.

He spent three eventful years there learning the ropes, but never managed to get them promoted to the top flight before departing in 2012.

“I had three good years there, I learned a lot, not only about the football, but about the way a football club works when you are a manager. It was a great experience.”


While studying for his coaching badges, the 42-year-old worked with fourth-tier side Hogaborg, the club that fostered him and that now has his son Jordan on the playing staff.

Larsson even laced up his boots again to play a couple of competitive games, lining up in attack beside his son.

The former Golden Boot winner may have been kept scoreless, but he enjoyed finally having the chance to play with his son.

“We kept them (the defenders) busy,” he says with a wry smile.

In December 2013, newly-promoted Falkenberg announced that Larsson would take over as manager. Sweden’s Cinderella club won the Superettan (second tier) in 2013, gaining promotion to the top flight for the first time in their history.

It is about as far as you can get from the Champions League, which Larsson won as a player with Barcelona in 2006, and the town’s 20,000 inhabitants would fit into the Camp Nou almost five times over.

But though money is tight and the playing staff small, Larsson is optimistic.

“What brought me here was the opportunity to work with a club, newly promoted, the opportunity, the challenge,” Larsson said.

“Everybody here in Sweden expects us to go straight back down to the Superettan, but hopefully we can surprise everyone.”


He says he will stay true to the kind of football he enjoyed as a player, but that Swedish fans expecting to see him replicate Barcelona’s style might be disappointed.

“Tiki-taka? No, there’s only one team that can really do that, maybe two. I don’t have that quality here that I can play that game.

“We have skilful players here, but we have to be a bit more clever. We’re going to try to play a passing game, and I’m going to try to make them even better.”

To do so, Larsson is keen the players learn themselves, rather than him simply telling them what to do on the pitch.

“I think it’s important not to give them the answers, it’s important to ask them, to make them aware of what they can change in order to get a better result.”

As for his own development, Larsson says he has absorbed ideas from coaches he worked under such as Martin O’Neill, Frank Rijkaard and Alex Ferguson, but that none has had a dominant influence on him.

“I think I learned a lot from everybody – the good ones and the bad ones – and I’ve tried to mould them into something that fits my persona. I can’t be Martin O’Neill, I can’t be any of the other coaches – I have to make my own way.”

It is unlikely any of the coaches he worked with had to deal with some of the daily challenges that Larsson now faces, such as making sure the training pitch is cleared of snow in time for training.

It appears that Larsson and his team are something of a priority for the local council. A thick layer of snow coats some of the roads leading to the training ground, but the pitch itself has been ploughed clear to allow the team to train.

(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Rex Gowar)

Santander players hold firm on Cup boycott threat

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The entire team and coaching staff made the threat on Monday in protest over unpaid wages and the way the unpopular Levin and his team are running the financially troubled club.


Santander are 3-1 down from last week’s first leg at Sociedad’s Anoeta stadium in San Sebastian and their chances of making the last four and setting up a meeting with record winners Barcelona are remote.

“The squad decided on something on Monday which they announced publically and they still think exactly the same way,” Luis Rubiales, president of Spain’s players’ union (AFE), told reporters after meeting with the players on Thursday.

“If the current board has not resigned by the time of the match (2000 GMT) they are not going to play,” he added.

Rubiales warned the players that refusing to play could have legal consequences but said they had the union’s full support.

“The players have more than enough legitimacy. I do not have words to describe everything they have had to put up with and how this inept board has got them into this situation.”

Levin has shown no sign of bowing to the players’ demands and was quoted in local media on Thursday as saying he intended to be in the VIP tribune for the match.

“We will try to find a consensus between all parties so that the game can go ahead,” he added.

Santander have fallen on hard times since they were taken over in January 2011 by Indian businessman Ahsan Ali Syed.

Ali Syed promised to invest in the squad and said Santander could become a “third force” in Spain to challenge Real Madrid and Barcelona.

However, they were relegated from La Liga at the end of the 2011-12 season after finishing 10 points adrift at the bottom.

Ali Syed disappeared from view and the club’s crisis deepened as they dropped down to the third tier (Segunda B) at the end of last term.

The future looked bleak after a capital increase in October designed to save them from ruin flopped and had to be abandoned and they remain in bankruptcy proceedings.

(Reporting by Iain Rogers, editing by Justin Palmer)

Serbia Davis Cup captain defends absent Djokovic

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With world number two Djokovic resting in Serbia’s skiing resort of Mount Kopaonik, the Swiss will be strong favourites to advance after former world number one Roger Federer joined Australian Open winner Stanislas Wawrinka as a surprise late inclusion.


“Novak is exhausted and made it clear he needs to recuperate for what will be a gruelling season on the ATP Tour,” Obradovic told a news conference after the draw pitted Federer against world number 268 Ilija Bozoljac in Friday’s opening singles rubber.

“He has played so many great matches for us, his priority this season is to recapture the number one spot on the ATP tour (from Rafa Nadal) and our fans need to understand that he is still a part of this team.”

With Janko Tipsarevic sidelined with a long-term heel injury and Viktor Troicki suspended after missing a blood test last April, 2010 winners Serbia require what would amount to one of the biggest shocks in Davis Cup history to eliminate the Swiss.

Federer said he would have liked Djokovic to join the party but also made it clear Switzerland were looking forward to the prospect of taking full advantage of his absence.

“We were all hoping Djokovic would be here but we understand that he has good reasons not to be and we all know how much he has done for his country,” said Federer, who often skips Davis Cup ties himself due to the competition’s scheduling.

“It would have been more exciting and more difficult for us but what we have to do now is take this opportunity to try to win the tie.”

Asked whether he plotted a late arrival in Serbia to outwit Djokovic, many of whose fans had hoped the world number two would have a last-minute change of heart and turn up to boost Serbia’s chances, Federer said: “The press hypes a lot of things up because they want top players to hate each other, but my relationship with Novak is good.

“We’ve had a tough and fierce rivalry at times but away from the court we are friendly and do a lot of things together, like charity.”

Wawrinka, who showed few signs of jet-lag and fatigue in Thursday’s practice with Federer after a long-haul flight from Melbourne, was excited ahead of his clash with Dusan Lajovic on Friday.

“I feel great after winning a grand slam during two fantastic weeks in Australia,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to play straight after those exertions but I am enjoying the moment.”

(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Italy’s Molinari targets Europe top-50 return after Dubai delight

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The former Ryder Cup player, who was part of Europe’s victorious 2010 team, has plunged down the world rankings from a career high 14th that same year to 274 today.


Now largely injury free, the 32-year-old sunk five birdies on his opening eight holes of Dubai’s Majlis course before a bogey at his ninth dragged him back to four-under at the turn.

Molinari then chipped in from 35 yards to eagle his 11th hole and picked up one more shot to end two strokes behind leader Rory McIlroy’s 63.

The last time the Italian scored 65 was at the Andalucía Open in March 2012 and on Thursday he credited swing coach Sean Foley for his resurgence.

“I have been working with Sean for more than a year and I think my driving is the best it’s ever been – I’m very confident … every hole is a birdie hole,” Molinari told reporters, having reached 12 out of 14 fairways from the tee.

He had surgery on his left wrist in June 2012 before another operation on his left thumb last August. The two injuries were unrelated.

“The thumb is probably 90 percent, it still bothers me sometimes, but I haven’t been taking painkillers for 3-4 weeks now – it’s very hard to be patient, but that’s another big help from working with Sean, he’s helped my game and my attitude on and off the course,” said Molinari, whose younger brother Francesco is the world number 43.

“In the last two years I haven’t been able to play much, so the first goal will be to play a full season. If I make it back to top 50 in Europe that would be satisfying.”

Molinari was one of the few players on Dubai’s first-round leader board to tee off in the afternoon and on Friday the schedule will be reversed, which the Italian believes could be an advantage as he gets to play on the softer morning greens before the desert sun bakes the turf.

“The greens will be firmer and firmer as the week goes by,” he added.

(Reporting by Matt Smith, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Curling: Canadian curlers ready to rock Sochi

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With nearly one million registered curlers in Canada, more than the rest of the world combined, the sport enjoys a high profile in the country with competitions routinely attracting sold-out crowds and top television ratings.


But along with that popularity come expectations.

Only the Canadian men’s and women’s ice hockey teams in Sochi will be under greater pressure than the curlers to bring home gold.

Since curling was added to the Olympic line-up at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Canadian rinks have won medals at each edition in the men’s and women’s events.


On the men’s side Canada has been the dominant force, taking silver in Nagano and Salt Lake City and gold in Turin and Vancouver.

The torch has now been passed to Brad Jacobs who will try to skip Canada to a third straight gold in Sochi while Jennifer Jones will bid to put the Canadian women on top of the podium for the first time since Nagano and end a run of silver and bronze medal finishes.

Jacobs’s fist-pumping foursome head to Russia as the title favourites having marched through the Canadian Olympic trials – considered by many a higher quality competition than the Olympics – undefeated, including a victory over reigning Olympic champion Kevin Martin.

“We’re a confident group of guys right now and there’s no reason not to be after winning the Olympic trials out of Canada,” said Jacobs.

“You win that and you should be very confident that you can bring back the gold for Canada and we’re looking forward to getting out there and hopefully strutting our stuff and playing like we did at the trials.”

The Canadians, however, certainly won’t be the only rink strutting their stuff at Sochi’s Ice Cube Curling Centre.

Thomas Ulsrud’s Norwegian foursome, silver medal winners in 2010, are back and ready to turn heads again with more of the outrageous, eye-popping outfits that turned the quirky rink into instant cult figures.

The fun-loving Norwegians became social media darlings in Vancouver with their harlequin-patterned pants and have promised more sartorial surprise in Sochi.

Niklas Edin’s Swedish foursome may not be as flashy as the Norwegians but will fancy their gold medal chances having beaten Jacobs’s Canada rink on their home ice in Victoria, British Columbia, to win the world championship.

Britain will not lack experience in their push for a podium with double world champion skip David Murdoch joining forces with Tom Brewster’s rink to form a Scottish dream team, that flashed their potential with a bronze medal placing at last year’s worlds.


Over in the women’s draw, Anette Norberg, who skipped Sweden to back-to-back golds in Turin and Vancouver, will not be in Sochi, leaving it to Margaretha Sigfridsson’s European championship rink to make it three in a row for the Tre Kronor.

World champion Eve Muirhead and her Scottish foursome could be Britain’s best shot at Sochi gold while China will look for a return to the podium following a breakthrough bronze in Vancouver.

“We would be happy if we get a medal,” said Sigfridsson. “We know we have the ability to play for gold as well but we know it will be very tough and we are willing to do our best there and the team that has the best week will of course win.”

Curling itself could be the big winner in Sochi.

With each Olympics the sport has seen its profile raised attracting more and more fans, among them rockers Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi who reportedly have on occasion rented ice time and picked up the brooms.

The world’s most famous curler, however, could well be Homer Simpson, the beer-swilling, doughnut-guzzling cartoon character who chased his Olympic dreams in an episode ahead of the Vancouver Winter Games by curling.

(Editing by Julien Pretot)