Thursday, 28 March 2013

AVB needs to spur on Tottenham

The international break will certainly have been welcomed by Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas.

Food for thought: Villas-Boas had a lot to ponder during the international break
Having seen his team suffer back-to-back Premier League defeats prior to the World Cup qualifiers, the 35-year-old Portuguese is likely to have spent the past two weeks devising a plan to prevent a second consecutive end-of-season collapse from the North Londoners.

Four wins from thirteen matches at the end of the 2011/12 campaign saw Spurs cling onto the fourth Champions League spot, but having earlier been touted as title contenders, they only had themselves to blame when the eventual European champions Chelsea took their place in this season’s competition.

Given that all the English representatives have failed to make it past the Champions League last-16 this time round, Spurs can at least be assured that a fourth-placed finish or better will ensure their status amongst Europe’s elite.

Nevertheless, they’re going to have to work hard for it. AVB’s men are a point behind third-placed Chelsea having played a game more while Arsenal and Everton are only four and six points behind them respectively with a game in hand.

The next four fixtures are likely to prove crucial in the outcome of their season. Key matches at home to Everton and away at Chelsea are sandwiched in between Saturday’s trip to Swansea and the visit of Manchester City to White Hart Lane on 21 April.
If they can come through that difficult spell with a respectable points tally, they will fancy their chances of completing the job against four teams who currently find themselves in the bottom half of the table; Wigan, Southampton, Stoke and Sunderland.

The pressure is on AVB to match the immediate expectations of chairman Daniel Levy and use the financial gains of Champions League football to mould Spurs into a side capable of challenging for the Premier League title. Success in the Europa League is a possibility but you’d expect that the majority of Spurs fans would sacrifice the silverware for a place in next season’s Champions League. The experience of making it to the quarter-finals in the 2010/11 season provides enough justification for that in itself.

The quality of Spurs’ squad is befitting of Champions League football, however, the future of their star man Gareth Bale could hinge on whether they secure it or not. Real Madrid and Barcelona have been heavily linked with the Welsh wizard and the lure of the two Spanish giants will be even greater if his current club are unable to offer the stage on which his talent deserves to be displayed.

The disappointment of missing out on the Champions League last season sparked the departures of Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart and the consequent arrivals of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Mousa Dembele and Clint Dempsey as replacements for them. Two world-class midfielders out. Three very good midfielders in.

Spurs cannot afford to make a habit out of this as they will gradually become a weaker outfit. The quicker they realise their potential as a club, the better.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Davis' Railwaymen keep chugging along

Davis has guided Crewe to a Wembley final for a second time
Crewe manager Steve Davis spoke admirably of the team ethic at the football club after guiding the Railwaymen to the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Despite conceding two injury-time goals - an own goal from Mark Ellis followed by a Leon Clarke header - in the second leg of the Northern Area final against Coventry, a 3-0 win at the Ricoh Arena two weeks earlier proved enough to earn Crewe a place in a cup final for the first time in their history.

“It’s just the result of a lot of hard work,” said Davis.

“Everybody’s working as hard as they possibly can; the players and the staff. We’ve got some great staff and some great people in the background.

“Everybody’s pulling together and that’s the most important thing. You need everybody to be pulling the same way as you and if they do that, it’s hard to stop.

“It feels like an express train at the moment that’s out of control and that’s a nice feeling.”

Davis’ men will meet Southend, 3-2 aggregate winners against Leyton Orient, in the final at Wembley on 7 April.

The sides’ most recent meeting came in last season’s League Two play-off semi-final with Crewe prevailing 3-2 over the two-legged tie before going onto to beat Cheltenham at Wembley to secure promotion to League One.

“We had a fantastic day down there in May so it’s something for the players to look forward to,” said Davis.

"It's only going to benefit us from a development point of view. The younger boys will learn a lot from tonight and they'll also learn a lot from a return to Wembley.

“It’s going to be a great occasion, a great day for the town to get down there and support the club and an opportunity to win a cup competition.”

Monday, 5 November 2012

To be the best, you've got to beat the best

Andy Murray began his bid to claim the ATP World Tour Finals crown with a three-set victory over Tomas Berdych on Monday, but can the 25-year-old Scot go all the way in London? With seven fierce competitors standing in his way, Murray will almost certainly have to reproduce the sort of the form which saw him win Olympic Gold and the US Open earlier this year. Here I assess his record against the world's best players and their chances of progressing in the competition.

Stuck in the middle: Murray stands between his two biggest threats in the title battle
Group A
Tomas Berdych (6)
Novak Djokovic (1)
Andy Murray (3)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (8) 

Group B
Roger Federer (2)
David Ferrer (5)
Juan Martin del Potro (7)
Janko Tipsarevic (9)

*World ranking in brackets

Group A
Murray vs Berdych
Overall head-to-head record: 4-4 (including today's result)
Grand Slam/ATP World Tour Masters head-to-head record: 2-3

Monday's 3-6 6-3 6-4 victory over the Czech fifth seed will have come as a major relief to Murray. Berdych was one of only two players to come into the competition with a superior head-to-head record against the Scot, having beaten him most notably at Roland Garros in 2010 and the Paris and Monte Carlo Masters in 2011 and 2012 respectively. The pair could meet again in the final but Berdych now has a major job on his hands to qualify.

Murray vs Djokovic
Overall head-to-head record: 7-9
Grand Slam/ATP World Tour Masters head-to-head record: 5-9

Murray may have an inferior head-to-head record against Djokovic but he can take plenty of heart from the fact that he has won four of their last seven meetings. The run includes a straight-sets semi-final triumph at the London Olympics and the dramatic five-set US Open final victory in September. The outcome of this competition's match is likely to determine the winner of Group A and may leave the loser vulnerable to elimination.  

Murray vs Tsonga
Overall head-to-head record: 6-1
Grand Slam/ATP World Tour Masters head-to-head record: 4-1

With the exception of an opening round defeat in the 2008 Australian Open, Murray has witnessed nothing but success against the 27-year-old Frenchman. Victories at Wimbledon in 2010 (quarter-final) and 2012 (semi-final) came either side of a win in the Queen's Club final in 2011. There's no doubt that he'll fancy his chances again with the Great British support behind him.

Group B
Murray vs Federer
Overall head-to-head record: 10-8
Grand Slam/ATP World Tour Masters head-to-head record: 7-6

With Federer seemingly firm favourite to top Group B, Murray will most likely have to win his own group to avoid the Swiss maestro in the semi-finals. Not that he should be fearful of the great man. A superior head-to-head record overall is backed up by a 7-6 lead from their Grand Slam and ATP World Tour Masters clashes. The one aspect you do have to point to is that Federer has generally come to the fore against Murray when it's mattered most. Victories for the seventeen-time Grand Slam champion in the 2008 US Open final, the 2010 Australian Open final and the 2012 Wimbledon final will all be fresh in Murray's mind. The two previous meetings in this event have also gone Federer's way; group stage matches in 2009 and 2010.

Murray vs Ferrer
Overall head-to-head record: 6-5
Grand Slam/ATP World Tour Masters head-to-head record: 5-4

Following the capture of his first ATP World Tour Masters final in Paris on Sunday, Ferrer will be brimming with confidence and hold out genuine hope of making the last four of the competition at the very least. Murray will be aware of the fact that four of his defeats to Ferrer have come on clay and that he leads 5-1 in their meetings on hard courts. Ferrer's sole win came in the group stage of this competition last year, so there's certainly no room for complacency from Murray if he crosses paths with the Spaniard.

Murray vs Del Potro
Overall head-to-head record: 5-1
Grand Slam/ATP World Tour Masters head-to-head record: 5-1

They may have only met six times to date but Murray's superior head-to-head record against Del Potro, which includes four wins on hard courts, is enough to suggest that any potential encounter can only go one way. Having secured back-to-back titles in October on the hard courts of Vienna and Basel, Del Potro will harbour ambitions of progressing from the group stage but it will be extremely difficult for the Argentinian.

Murray vs Tipsarevic
Overall head-to-head record: 5-3
Grand Slam/ATP World Tour Masters head-to-head record: 2-0

Benefiting from Rafael Nadal's prolonged absence, the man ranked ninth in the world has a mammoth task ahead of him if he is to qualify from the group. In the unlikely event that Murray and Tipsarevic do battle in the knockout stages, a superior record on hard courts, coupled with a much stronger all-round game, should give the Scot a clear mental edge.

Monday, 29 October 2012

We can learn much more from the Ballon d'Or

Class act: Messi is aiming to make it four Ballon d'Ors in a row
There may be a 23-man shortlist for this year's FIFA Ballon d'Or but in reality it's a two horse race. Either Barcelona's Lionel Messi or Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo will take the crown on 7th January 2013 as they continue to break records at an unfathomable rate.

The other 21 nominees will know this themselves, whether they choose to admit it or not, but the extensive list certainly gives us a interesting insight into football's hotspots at this moment in time, both at club and international level.

Nominees by the country where they play
Spain: 12 (Xabi Alonso, Karim Benzema, Sergio Busquets, Iker Casillas, Cristiano Ronaldo, Radamel Falcao, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Mesut Ozil, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Xavi) 
England: 5 (6*) (Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli, Didier Drogba*, Wayne Rooney, Yaya Toure and Robin Van Persie)
Italy: 2 (3*) (Gianluigi Buffon, Zlatan Ibrahimovic* and Andrea Pirlo)
Germany: 1 (Manuel Neuer)
France: 1 (Zlatan Ibrahimovic)
China: 1 (Didier Drogba)
Brazil: 1 (Neymar)

*Didier Drogba was a Chelsea player until 20th June 2012. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was an AC Milan player until 18th July 2012.

Nominees by nationality 
Spanish: 7 (Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Iker Casillas, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Xavi)
Italian: 3 (Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli)
Argentinian: 2 (Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi)
German: 2 (Manuel Neuer and Mesut Ozil)
Ivorian: 2 (Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure)
Brazilian: 1 (Neymar)
Colombian: 1 (Radamel Falcao) 
Dutch: 1 (Robin Van Persie)
English: 1 (Wayne Rooney)
French: 1 (Karim Benzema)
Portuguese: 1 (Cristiano Ronaldo)
Swedish: 1 (Zlatan Ibrahimovic)

With twelve representatives from Spain's La Liga, seven of which are homegrown, there's no doubt that it's the league producing and attracting the majority of the world's finest players.

Nevertheless, with the exception of Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao, these are only split between the two powerhouses of Spanish football, Real Madrid (6) and Barcelona (5). Their dominance of the league, particularly over the last three seasons where they have finished 25 points (2009/10), 21 points (2010/11) and 30 points (2011/12) clear of their nearest rivals, coincides with the creation of two incredible squads.

Atletico's superb start to this season, which has put them level on points with Barcelona at the top of the table after nine games and eight points clear of Real, has been spearheaded by Falcao's ten league goals.

The English Premier League can offer thanks to four of its clubs for their six representatives. Manchester City trio Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli and Yaya Toure are all in the running alongside Manchester United's Wayne Rooney.

Didier Drogba now plys his trade for Chinese outfit Shanghai Shenhua but his nomination is obviously attributed to the pivotal role he played in Chelsea's gobsmacking Champions League triumph last season.

And despite his transfer to Manchester United in the summer, Arsenal can take a large proportion of the credit for Robin Van Persie's selection after he finished as the Premier League's top marksmen in the 2011/12 campaign with 30 goals.

There is a healthier distribution of quality in the Premier League but players of the very highest calibre are harder to come by than they're in La Liga.

Serie A's dwindling reputation is demonstrated by the fact that just two of their players - Juventus duo Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo - feature in the shortlist. They can lay claim to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who left AC Milan to join Paris Saint-Germain in the summer, but his decision to play in the less demanding Ligue 1 tells a story in itself.  

The only real consolation for Italy is that they're the second best represented nation behind Spain with three nominees. The Azzurri are closely followed by Argentina, Germany and Ivory Coast who all have two.

The Bundesliga has been receiving plenty of plaudits this season with all three of their Champions League sides performing well in their respective groups. Therefore, it may come as a disappointment that Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is the only player from their league to make the final twenty-three.

Although there are two overwhelming favourites to win the accolade, the shortlist still has a purpose in assessing the quality of each nation's top-flight league. The debate over whether the English Premier League is the best in the world will continue to rumble on but it has to be said that Barcelona and Real Madrid are currently producing some of the best football the game has ever seen.

Questions have been asked on the back of our team's below-par performances in this season's Champions League but we must not forget that we have won three of the last eight competitions and had five losing finalists in the same period. Spain may have the upperhand in terms of quality but as an all-round package, it's the Premier League for me every time.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Can cycling's troubled past be fully exposed?

Armstrong has been found out but USADA want to uncover all the other hidden revelations
Today, the International Cycling Union (ICU) endorsed a United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) decision to erase drugs cheat Lance Armstrong's career from the record books.
The decision is widely perceived as the first major step towards restoring the credibility of cycling, however, USADA chairman Travis Tygart doesn't plan on stopping there.

He is proposing a panel to receive confessions from dopers that have not yet come forward. The question is whether this can really ensure the slate is wiped completely clean?

"It is essential that an independent and meaningful Truth and Reconciliation Commission be established so that the sport can fully unshackle itself from the past.

"There are many more details of doping that are hidden, many more doping doctors, and corrupt team directors and the omerta has not yet been fully broken." Travis Tygart, USADA chairman.

Cyclists who have cheated in the past and chosen not admit to it to this day obviously have a complete disregard for the fundamentals of fair competition within the sport. 

From their perspective, they don't stand to gain anything from owning up to their mistakes. In their eyes, it will only bring shame upon themselves and help clean up the act of a sport which they contrived to tarnish in the first place.

The word 'incentive' has been banded about to encourage these cheats to come forward. The fact of the matter is they don't deserve anything in return for confessing to their actions. The only incentive for them should be the assurance of their own self-dignity and a clear conscience in their future lives. But is that really enough? In some cases, yes. In others, no.

I personally struggle to understand how a Truth and Reconciliation Commission can unequivocally guarantee that all the misdemeanours of cycling's past are exposed, nevertheless, I would gladly be proved wrong.

What's done is done. Lessons have to be learnt from the Armstrong saga and drawn upon without fail going forward. If too much focus is put on the past, it will only undermine the aim of creating a brighter future for the sport.

Further developments regarding USADA's plans are expected in the coming weeks. I, like many others, will be all ears.


Monday, 15 October 2012

Ronnie brings up his century

Captain fantastic: Ronaldo is set to join Luis Figo and Fernando Couto in the 100+ caps club 
Wednesday 20th August 2003. Manchester United's new £12.24m signing Cristiano Ronaldo makes his international bow after replacing AC Milan's Rui Costa at half-time of Portugal's 1-0 friendly victory over Kazakhstan. Two weeks earlier, the 18-year-old was an influential figure as Sporting Lisbon defeated United 3-1 in a pre-season friendly to mark the opening of the their new stadium, the Estádio José Alvalade. Sir Alex Ferguson signed the Portuguese starlet the following week and the rest as they say is history.  

On Tuesday night, nine years on from his debut for Portugal, the man now regarded by many as the best player on the planet is set to win his 100th international cap in a World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland. At just 27 years and 254 days old, Ronaldo will become the third youngest European to reach the landmark for their respective country behind Germany's Lukas Podolski (27 years and 13 days) and Estonia's Kristen Viikmäe (27 years and 109 days).

In the build-up to Euro 2012, Ronaldo said: "I will only be fully content with my career when I have lifted a trophy with Portugal." (

He has managed to find the net on 37 occasions for his country to date but having failed to lift any silverware from five international tournaments, his desire to do so is unquestionable. A 1-0 loss to Greece in the final of Euro 2004 was followed by semi-final heartache at the hands of France in the 2006 World Cup (1-0) and Spain at Euro 2012 (0-0 AET, 4-2 on penalties). Sandwiched between the latter two, was quarter-final elimination to Germany at Euro 2008 (3-2) and a round of 16 defeat against Spain at the 2010 World Cup (1-0).

At club level he has won everything he would have wished for as a youngster. Three Premier League crowns (2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09), one La Liga title (2011-12), the FA Cup (2003-04), two Football League Cups (2005-06 and 2008-09), the Copa del Rey (2010-11), the UEFA Champions League (2007-08) and the FIFA Club World Cup (2008) are all firmly tucked away in the trophy cabinet and success on the international stage, namely the World Cup, would complete his collection.

Ronaldo and his Argentinian counterpart Lionel Messi are staking a major claim to go down as the best two players to have ever played the game but the general perception is that they will have to win the World Cup to truly challenge the legendary statuses of Pele and Diego Maradona. There's the obvious argument that the quality of the Portuguese and Argentinian players surrounding them will dictate their chances of achieveing the ultimate goal in football but these two players are so incredibly talented that they have the ability to win matches almost single-handedly, just as Pele and Maradona did for Brazil and Argentina respectively.

Despite suffering a 1-0 defeat away to Russia on Friday night, Portugal will still be extremely confident of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil one way or another. They now find themselves on the back foot in the battle for top spot and automatic qualification but they will expect to claim one of the eight best runners-up spots at the very least and secure a place in the play-offs. Ronaldo will be 29 years of age by the time the tournament starts and will most likely view it as the final international competition where he is at the very, very peak of his powers.  

It's set to be 100 caps and counting for CR7 on Tuesday night. Will his second century prove even more fruitful than the first?

Monday, 8 October 2012

Into the final stretch we go...

It's always said that the true sign of any great champion is the ability to produce the goods when it really matters. Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel has been on the cusp of the title race for much of this season but as we enter the final quarter of the campaign, two successive grand prix wins in Singapore and Japan have put the 25-year-old in prime position to retain his crown for a second time.

May the best man win: Vettel and Alonso have five races left to determine their fates
Only compatriot Michael Schumacher (2000 - 2004) and Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio (1954 - 1957) have managed to claim the championship more than two years consecutively, so a place in history beckons for Vettel. Just four points separate him and the championship leader Fernando Alonso with five races remaining and given that the former has recorded victories at four of those tracks within the last two years - the United States Grand Prix is a new addition for 2012 - he will certainly fancy his chances of sealing the elusive hat-trick.

Triumphs in Brazil and Abu Dhabi in 2010 and Korea and India in 2011 saw Vettel end the previous two campaigns in superb fashion but he will be wary of the fact that the man who profited as much as anybody from his retirements in Korea in 2010 and Abu Dhabi in 2011 was Alonso who finished first and second place respectively. 

The tide is turning
Since taking 121 points from races five (Spain) to eleven (Hungary) - Vettel claimed just sixty-nine points over the same period - Alonso has only managed to score thirty points from four races to Vettel's sixty-eight.

The German has the momentum and the experience to get himself over the line but he knows that any slip-ups will almost definitely be capitalised on by the Spaniard. The form of the Ferrari driver may have taken a turn for a worst but as a two-time world champion he won't let that affect him.

Comparison of Alonso's results in the first half and second half of the 2005 and 2006 seasons 
Races 1 - 10:
3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 4th, 1st, Ret, DNS, 1st (69 points from 10 races)
*Raikkonen bettered Alonso's result on three occasions (3/10)
Races 11 - 19:
2nd, 1st, 11th, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 1st (64 points from 9 races)
*Raikkonen bettered Alonso's result on five occasions (5/9)

Races 1 - 9:
1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st (84 points from 9 races)
*Schumacher bettered Alonso's result on two occasions (2/9)
Races 10 - 18:
5th, 2nd, 5th, Ret, 2nd, Ret, 2nd, 1st, 2nd (50 points from 9 races)
*Schumacher bettered Alonso's result on six occasions (6/9)

His back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006 may seem like a long time ago now, however, the manner in which he achieved them will stand him in extremely good stead. Despite coming under intense pressure from Kimi Raikkonen in 2005 and Schumacher in 2006, Alonso did what he had to do and gradually accumulated the necessary points to guide him to success. In both cases, his most impressive sequence of results came in the first half of the season. Thereafter, there was a lot more emphasis on grinding out the points and putting all his efforts into finishing as close to his rival as he could, if indeed he wasn't able to finish ahead of them (see above).

The 31-year-old will have to draw on these battling qualities once more to fend off the challenge of Vettel but such has been the competitiveness and unpredictability of Formula One this season, anything could happen. It might not be pretty from the eventual champion but success at the end of such an incredible campaign would mean an awful lot.

Raikkonen or Lewis Hamilton could even make a late push despite finding themselves thirty-seven and forty-two points off the pace respectively. Whatever the outcome, 2012 will go down as a landmark season for motorsport's centre piece.