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.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Fergie's defensive dilemmas

Sir Alex Ferguson may have described the four minutes of injury time added to Manchester United's 3-2 defeat by Tottenham as an insult to the game, but there's no denying that it would take even stronger words to sum up his side's defending against the North Londoners on Saturday.

Am I seeing this right?: Sir Alex won't have been impressed by his team's defending this season 

To put it simply, they fell well short of their usual standards. Jan Vertonghen and Gareth Bale were both allowed to roam forward unopposed in the first half to put Spurs into a deserved 2-0 lead and within moments of Nani halving the deficit in the 51st minute, Bale found himself in acres of space inside the box to force a decent save out of Anders Lindegaard and leave Clint Dempsey with a tap-in.

The Red Devils have now conceded nine goals in their opening six Premier League matches and kept just one clean sheet amid that period of games. Club captain Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are all on the treatment table and the doubts are growing about the capabilities of Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra to perform consistently at the highest level. The fact that the incredibly inexperienced Scott Wootton - a first team debutant in the 2-1 victory against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup last Wednesday - was the only defender on the bench on Saturday shows that the backline is genuinely stretched to its limits.

Goals conceded in the first six games of the last six seasons
2011/12 - 5 goals
2010/11 - 9 goals
2009/10 - 6 goals
2008/09 - 4 goals
2007/08 - 2 goals
2006/07 - 4 goals

Another youngster, Michael Keane, has been drafted into the squad alongside Wootton for the trip to face CFR Cluj on Tuesday night and as much as the all-round 'Champions League' experience will be beneficial to the pair of them, Sir Alex will be extremely hopeful that he isn't forced to throw them straight into the action. Anymore injuries and that could well be the case.

Their next four league games see them travel to Newcastle and Chelsea and play host to Stoke and Arsenal. The equivalent fixtures from last season yielded seven points, just one clean sheet and accounted for eight of the thirty-three goals they conceded in the Premier League. The manager will be anticipating a better return this time round as the Reds aim to seal up the cracks in the back four and get their title challenge back on track. 

The damage is by no means irreparable at this early stage of the season and Sir Alex can elude to many examples where shaky starts have been overcome and led to success. The same goals against record at this stage of the 2010/11 campaign saw United accumulate the same amount of points as they have thus far, twelve, and when you consider that they went on to win the title that season by nine points, it's far from doom and gloom.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Team USA are ryding high

All smiles for now: Olazábal and Love pose with the cup as they prepare to do battle
It was definitely a case of 1-0 to Team USA on Sunday. With just five days until the start of the Ryder Cup at the Medinah Country Club, Brandt Snedeker's PGA Tour Championship triumph in Atlanta, and the assured performances of his teammates lower down the leaderboard, will have seriously boosted the American contingent's belief that they can reclaim the much coveted trophy.

Snedeker, who is one of America's four wildcard picks, fended off the challenges of Team Europe duo Justin Rose and Luke Donald to secure the fourth PGA Tour win of his career and the FedEx Cup jackpot of $10m (£6.15m) in the process.

Masters champion Bubba Watson and U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson were tied for fifth place while Jim Furyk, Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar all finished inside the top ten to make it an extremely impressive showing from the core of Davis Love III's team.    

Team Europe's Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia were tied for tenth and fifteenth position respectively but their one other participant, Lee Westwood, had a tournament to forget with his final-round 74 leaving him bottom of the 30-man field on 15 over par.

The Ryder Cup line-ups
Team Europe
Justin Rose 2 (1) (5)
Luke Donald T3 (1) (3)
Rory McIlroy T10 (4) (1)
Sergio Garcia T15 (1) (19)
Lee Westwood 30 (0) (4)
Nicolas Colsaerts N/A (0) (35)
Peter Hanson N/A (1*) (25)
Martin Kaymer N/A (0) (32)
Paul Lawrie N/A (2*) (28)
Graeme McDowell N/A (0) (18)
Francesco Molinari N/A (0) (31)
Ian Poulter N/A (0) (26)

Team USA
Brandt Snedeker 1 (2) (10)
Webb Simpson T5 (1) (8)
Bubba Watson T5 (1) (7)
Jim Furyk 7 (0) (23)
Tiger Woods T8 (3) (2)
Dustin Johnson T10 (1) (13)
Matt Kuchar T10 (1) (15)
Zach Johnson T15 (2) (17)
Phil Mickelson T15 (1) (16)
Jason Dufner T20 (2) (9)
Steve Stricker 22 (1) (12)
Keegan Bradley T23 (1) (14)

1 - Finishing position at the PGA Tour Championship
(1) - Number of PGA Tour wins in 2012 (* denotes European Tour wins)
(1) - World ranking

Much has been made of the significance of home advantage for the Americans - - but that could be the least of European captain José María Olazábal's worries if his opposite numbers can produce the sort of form which has seen them assemble sixteen PGA Tour victories between them so far this season.

Compare that to Team Europe's haul of seven and you can begin to understand why many are tipping their counterparts from across the Atlantic to claim back the trophy.

There's no doubting that McIlroy and co have the capability to retain the crown if 
lady luck is on their side but Team USA's superior strength in depth should ultimately tell when the twelve singles matches are played on day three.

In the current world rankings, four members of Team Europe feature in the top five alongside Tiger Woods, however, six lie outside the top twenty compared to just one from Team America.

The facts speak for themselves. European players and fans alike will just have to hope that there isn't any substance behind them.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Give a little respect

Liverpool and Manchester United go head to head for the 186th time on Sunday in what could prove to be the most pivotal instalment to date.

Twenty-three years after the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool fans were cleared of all wrongdoing on Wednesday. Unfortunately, that didn't stop a minority of United supporters from continuing to point the finger, whether wholeheartedly or not, at Old Trafford on Saturday.

'Always the victims, it's never your fault', a chant aimed at Liverpool since the Patrice Evra-Luis Suarez incident in the corresponding fixture last season, could be heard from certain sections of the crowd during United's 4-0 win over Wigan.

Manchester United fan Francis makes some very heartfelt comments about Hillsborough chanting at Old Trafford: 

If distasteful slurs of this nature are echoed during Sunday's showdown at Anfield, it could have a seriously negative impact on one of English football's healthiest rivalries.

When these two clubs meet, the eyes of the world are inevitably watching. This match represents all that is great about the Premier League. It's a healthy rivalry because both clubs appreciate what their counterparts have contributed to the English game.

Amid all the hatred, jealousy and bitterness lies a mutual respect. This needs to shine through more than ever on Sunday. No references to the Hillsborough disaster by the United fans and no references to the Munich air disaster by the Liverpool fans. The headlines on Monday morning ought to be about the match itself and nothing else.

The confrontation between Evra and Suarez could well reignite if both players feature, however, such was the impression that left-back Alexander Büttner made on his United debut, Sir Alex Ferguson may well opt to leave out the 31-year-old Frenchman.

The United boss will unquestionably understand the sensitivity of the fixture and may see an opportunity to take the edge off the atmosphere by keeping Evra on the sidelines.

The more focus there is on the football, the better.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Legacy of London

The Olympic Stadium is set to host Premier League football in the coming years
29 gold, 17 silver and 19 bronze. Great Britain's record-breaking medal haul at London 2012 makes for extremely impressive reading in itself, but beyond the undeniable facts of our achievements, there's so much more we can take from what has been a truly unforgettable Olympic Games.

Just over one year ago, the city of London found itself at the root of a series of riots which spread across England and brought shame upon the nation. The events of the last two weeks have put us back on the map and restored the pride and dignity which had been severely dented. The eyes of the world were upon us and I'm sure all the spectators would agree that we put on a fantastic show.

Our bid, headed by LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) chairman Sebastian Coe, was centred around one key word...legacy. It wasn't just about what happened between 27th July 2012 and 12th August 2012; it was about what happened in the months and years that followed. Our aim was to make effective use of the venues built for the games, to boost our shattered economy and most importantly of all, to inspire the next generation of athletes. So have we achieved what we set out to do? 

Although the Olympics have ended, the process of fulfilling our promises is still in its infancy. There's very little room to criticise what we've accomplished thus far but we have to build on the triumph and bear in mind that we are still open to scrutiny from across the globe. We must see our plan through and repay the faith that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) showed in us when we were awarded the games back in 2005.

Iconic feats such as Jessica Ennis' emphatic victory in the Heptathlon and Mo Farah's gold medal winning performances in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres will provide plenty of impetus. These two phenomenal athletes are justification alone for the lasting legacy we are craving for. If we can produce talent of that calibre now, there's no reason why we can't do it again in the future. We can't afford to rest on our laurels and have to put all our efforts into repeating the cycle time and time again.   

Such has been the success of the games, there is already talk of London bidding again for 2024. The likelihood of it coming off is slim - simply because the 12 year gap is quite minimal when put into perspective - but anything can happen in sport. Many doubted that we could pick up where Beijing 2008's jaw-dropping showpiece left off but we've done that comfortably and perhaps we can go one better. Rio ought to get their thinking caps on because one thing is for sure, we'll be an incredibly tough act to follow.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Lightning Bolt strikes again

“It’s very rare to repeat success. To win two Olympic 100m titles, nobody else has ever done it. History defines the greatest. You need longevity and consistency." 

The words of back-to-back Olympic 100m champion Carl Lewis (Los Angeles 1984 and Seoul 1988) were most likely spoken in hope rather than genuine belief back in May ( On Sunday night in the Olympic Stadium, Usain Bolt blew Lewis' forecast out of the water as he repeated his predecessor's achievement in emphatic style.

History maker: Bolt crosses the line ahead of Blake and Gatlin

An Olympic record time of 9.63 seconds, the next fastest to his own world record, saw the 25-year-old Jamaican cross the finish line ahead of compatriot Yohan Blake and 2004 champion Justin Gatlin to firmly write his name into the history books and silence his critics.

On reflection, you have to consider whether it was ever in doubt? Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it shouldn't take anything away from the magnitude of Bolt's accomplishment. The 100m sprint is like no other event at the Olympics. The competitors train incredibly hard for four years but it all comes down to a single nine to ten second race. To win the much-coveted title in Beijing in 2008, and then have the hunger to work for it all over again in London against a stronger challenge, is testament to Bolt's attitude and professionalism.

Although he has gained a reputation for being somewhat of a party-goer - it reared its ugly head again in the early hours of Monday morning ( - he's clearly an athlete who knows his limits and abides by them. Nobody is in a position to aim criticism at his lifestyle off the track until it has a direct effect on his performance on it.

It's hard to believe that prior to his triple gold medal triumph in China, not many people had actually heard of the man who is now a household name throughout the world. He may have been billed for stardom by those within the sport but there wasn't anything like the same global expectancy to deliver as there was this time round. Despite suffering his fair share of disappointments over the last four years, particularly disqualification from the 2011 World Championships final after a false start, Bolt has taken everything in his stride and ultimately produced the goods at the right time.

Now, having matched Lewis' incredible feat, he has eyes set on winning the 200m crown and marking himself out as the only man to complete the 'double double'. Victory on Thursday night will propel him to legendary status and almost certainly bring the debate about whether he is the greatest sprinter of all time to a unanimous conclusion.

Ben Johnson, who initially won gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics before being exposed as a drugs cheat, has previously been quoted as saying that he was '50 years ahead of his time' and that 'Bolt is doing stuff' he was capable of. Surely this is a bit rich coming from an athlete reliant on performance enhancing drugs to reach his ultimate goal?

Success can be manufactured through a variety of means but there is no substitute for class. Bolt has the latter in abundance.

Monday, 16 July 2012

A tale of two British boxers

The Hayemaker marks his return in emphatic style
You just never know the minute in boxing. On 2nd July 2011, David Haye succumbed to a unanimous points defeat (117-109, 118-108, 116-110) at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko to signal what we were all led to believe was the end of his career between the ropes. Exactly three weeks later, fellow Brit Amir Khan knocked out Zab Judah in the fifth round to retain his WBA (Super) light-welterweight title, win the IBF light-welterweight title and heighten the possibility of a showdown with Floyd Mayweather in 2012. Fast forward a year and the outlook for these two fighters couldn't appear anymore different.

The returning Haye has his eyes firmly set on a meeting with Wladimir's older brother Vitali after knocking out Dereck Chisora at Upton Park on Saturday night. Khan, on the other hand, has an incredible amount of work to do to re-build his reputation in the light welterweight division, before he can even consider moving up to welterweight, following a devastating fourth-round defeat to Danny Garcia in Las Vegas.
I Khan't continue: Amir is unable to beat the referee's count
The former looked like he'd never been away as he intelligently negotiated his way past the stubborn challenge of Chisora. The manner of his defeat against Klitschko and the much maligned excuse he gave for it - a broken little toe - seemed to be long forgotten as the East London crowd roared him onto victory. The 31-year-old regained the respect of his fans at the weekend but he believes, rather ironically, that his performance may have been too impressive to tempt Vitali into the ring. The Hayemaker knows that the only genuine challenges for him in the heavyweight division are the Klitschko brothers and that there would simply be no point in him accepting anything else between now and the end of his career. If he beats Vitali, then that may well open the door for a rematch with Wladimir. If he fails to beat Vitali, then surely he will call time on his career for good. It's as simple as that.  

What Khan would give to be in the same position as Haye in his respective weight class. Sadly, and rather surprisingly, he appeared to be out of his depth against the largely unfancied American Garcia. The 25-year-old was left completely exposed, just as he had been by Breidis Prescott in 2008, and was feeding his critics with an abundance of ammunition as the fight came to its conclusion in the third and fourth rounds. No chin. Tactically naive. The knives were sharpening with each and every knockdown.

IBF super-middleweight champion Carl Froch has urged Khan to call time on his career( but the man from Bolton has vowed to battle on and prove that he has what it takes to mix it with the very best in the business ( Whether he will now get his dream fight against Mayweather remains to be seen but there are certainly challenges for him which rank between his ultimate goal and what he has already achieved. As he has admitted though, there is no longer any margin for error.

If there's ever been such a true indication of how ruthless a sport boxing can be, then Saturday night was it. It proved how careers can be brought back to life and thrown into turmoil in one fight, in one moment, with one punch. Some may argue that Khan ought to take inspiration from Haye in the way that he has bounced back from disappointment but in reality it is going to take more than one fight for him to reignite his career. He's unlikely to receive the same sums of money he has been since embarking on America and will have to show a huge amount of hunger and inner strength to earn his place amongst the elite once more.

For Haye, it's a case of waiting and hoping that a fight with Vitali can be agreed. His antics prior to the fight with Wladimir incensed Vitali as much as they did his brother but that in itself will not justify the fight going ahead. At the age of 40, and with a career in politics in the pipeline, there are serious doubts about whether the Ukrainian really has the desire to grant Haye his wishes. Furthermore, Vitali's manager Bernd Bonte claims that Haye has twice turned down the opportunity, choosing to fight Nikolai Valuev and Chisora instead ( Ultimately, if both fighters genuinely want it to happen, it will.

So what will the next 12 months bring for Haye and Khan? As we have seen, a lot could happen in that time.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Should we worry for Murray?

History was made at Wimbledon on Sunday but unfortunately for Andy Murray it was Roger Federer who produced the most telling piece. The Scot's appearance in the SW19 final saw him become the first British man to do so since Fred Perry in 1938 but Federer's four-set victory ensured that it was he who took all the post-match plaudits as he claimed his 17th Grand Slam title and regained the world number one ranking. The Swiss, who had beaten Murray in their previous two Grand Slam final meetings, is convinced that the British number one has what it takes to fulfil his ultimate dream but not everyone shares that optimism.
Will the tears of pain ever become tears of joy for Murray?

Murray now holds the unenviable record of featuring in the most Grand Slam finals without success with his most recent setback taking him past Frank Riseley, Frank Hunter, Harry Hopman, Bunny Austin and Eric Sturgess who all finished as runners-up on three occasions prior to the dawn of the open era in 1968. And while we can't forget that he is playing in what is arguably the sport's greatest era, if Murray fails to get himself over the line before the end of his career, it is highly likely that he will go down as the game's most memorable 'big-stage bottler' for some time.

The worrying thing for the 25 year old is that he hasn't even come close to winning any of the finals he has competed in. Securing the first set on Sunday was progression in itself from the three previous straight-set defeats, but when Federer levelled the match at 1-1 there seemed to be a crushing sense of inevitability around centre court.

Murray's Grand Slam final and semi-final defeats
US Open 2008 Final Opponent: Federer Result: 6-2, 7-5, 6-2
Wimbledon 2009 Semi-final Opponent: Roddick Result: 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (9-7), 7-6 (7-5)
Australian Open 2010 Final Opponent: Federer Result: 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (13-11)
Wimbledon 2010 Semi-final Opponent: Nadal Result: 6-4, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4
Australian Open 2011 Final Opponent: Djokovic Result: 6-4, 6-2, 6-3
French Open 2011 Semi-final Opponent: Nadal Result: 6-4, 7-5, 6-4
Wimbledon 2011 Semi-final Opponent: Nadal Result: 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4
US Open 2011 Semi-final Opponent: Nadal Result: 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2
Australian Open 2012 Semi-final Opponent: Djokovic Result: 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1, 7-5
Wimbledon 2012 Final Opponent: Federer Result: 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4

None of the 'big three' have had to go through the same heartache that Murray has over the last four years. Suffering losses in four finals and six semi-finals must be tough to take. Both Federer and Nadal claimed their first Grand Slam titles in their first final appearances while Djokovic only had to suffer the disappointment of one final defeat and two semi-final losses before winning his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2008.

There wasn't a such an extensive build-up to the success of these players. There wasn't anywhere near as much time to question whether they possessed the talent and mental strength to conquer a Grand Slam. It happened for them when very few expected it to. Murray has been on the cusp of success for four years now and has had to deal with the pressure and expectancy that comes with that. There's the argument that his past experiences will stand him in good stead in the future but they could also have the opposite effect.

Murray certainly wouldn't admit it, but his self-belief must surely be dwindling as each Grand Slam goes by. The tearful speech after Sunday's match showed his pain like never before and how desperate he is to reach his goal. The typical scenario of having to overcome two of the 'big three', within the space of three days, must be a draining thought for the 25 year old - two of his final appearances have come on the back of him avoiding the trio in the semi-finals.

All he can do is keep himself in the mix and hope that the tide eventually turns in his favour. If he can manage to do so, there are sources from which he can draw encouragement. Despite Federer's seeming renaissance, the general perception is that he only has a couple more Grand Slam titles left in him at most. Nadal's tendonitus in his knee has been pinpointed as a factor which could shorten his career at the highest level and there's still an onus on Djokovic to prove that his bumper year in 2011 was more than just a flash in the pan. The Serb has been there or there abouts in all the Grand Slams this season but as Murray knows, the difference between coming close to winning them and actually winning them is huge.

Murray won't care how he does it but he'll certainly get an extra bit of satisfaction if he does it while Federer, Nadal and Djokovic remain at the top of the game.

Monday, 2 July 2012

'Boring' Spain triumph again

Critics have labelled them boring. Many felt that the Barcelona and Real Madrid contingents couldn't continue to gel amid an ever-intensifying rivalry between the two clubs. Others questioned how it was possible for a team to succeed without naming an out-and-out striker in their starting line-up. Spain may not have lived upto the heights of Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup in terms of their overall performance, but victory at Euro 2012 has silenced all their doubters and left them pondering whether this really is the greatest international outfit to have ever graced a football pitch.

Nothing left to prove: Casillas marks four years of sheer dominance
Brazil's World Cup winning side of 1970 would certainly have a thing or two to say about that but it is often stated that there are too many variables to consider when it comes to comparing the different eras of football. At the very least, Spain's achievements have ensured that they will feature in the debates of fans and pundits alike for many years to come.
With this in mind, to call them boring is nothing short of an insult to their brilliance. Twelve goals scored to one conceded across their six matches. An average possession rating of 60.5% (60%, 78%, 62%, 53%, 59% and 51%). The player of the tournament in Andres Iniesta and the Golden Boot winner in Fernando Torres, who played only 189 minutes in total. If these sort of statistics are perceived as being boring, then we're in for a treat when an exciting team comes along. Those who have played the game, from top to bottom of the football pyramid, will appreciate just how difficult it is to do what Spain do. The problem is that they make it look so much easier than it actually is. It's football in its purest form. Incisive passing with an incredible amount of thought and consideration for every touch of the ball. When executed properly by top-class players at the peak of their powers, it can't be beaten.

Four players from Real Madrid (Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso) and six players from Barcelona (Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba*, Xavi Hernandez, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas) started the final in Kiev on Sunday night. Certain sections of the media have conjured up the idea that the ill-natured duel between Spain's two biggest clubs could cause problems in the national team's camp. It didn't cause problems at Euro 2008 or the 2010 World Cup and even though the bad blood has escalated considerably since then, when Jose Mourinho arrived at Madrid from Inter Milan, there were no reasons to suggest that it would cause problems during Euro 2012. These players are top professionals and are more than mature enough to put any animosity aside for the sake of their country. In fact, Graham Hunter's book, Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, details a close relationship between the captain Casillas and the midfield general Xavi, amongst others, which dates back to the very early days of their careers. Friendships of this magnitude aren't diminished in the heat of an encounter. Beneath all the antics and scuffles of an El Clasico lies a mutual respect that will always exist.

Now to clear up the final point of contention. Following criticism of Vicente Del Bosque's decision to name six midfielders against Italy in the opening match of Group C, the manager responded by starting Torres against the Republic of Ireland and Croatia. It may have seemed that the starting eleven against the Azzurri was merely an experiment but Del Bosque continued to show his belief in the system by employing it with undeniable success against France in the quarter-finals and Italy once more in the final. Had David Villa been fit to take part and arrived at the tournament on the back of another successful season at Barcelona we may never have witnessed this new phenomenon. The fact that we did, and that it worked, is not only testament to Del Bosque and his players, but to football as a whole. As said previously, Spain may not have been quite as spectacular as they were at Euro 2008 or the 2010 World Cup but their suceess at Euro 2012, more than any other, shows just how good a team they really are. Total football has prevailed.

*Barcelona have signed Jordi Alba from Valencia for £11.2m on a five-year deal, subject to a medical.

Monday, 25 June 2012

England: Looking to the future

Hodgson has a lot of thinking to do as he aims to mastermind England's revival 

We've seen it all before. It's the same old story. England eliminated from a major tournament once again. In golfing terms, an exit at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2012 was very much a par performance. When you consider the four semi-finalists - Portugal, Germany, Spain and Italy - there's no doubting that they're all operating at a far superior level in terms of quality. England are exactly what their sixth-placed world ranking suggests, a solid outfit but rank outsiders when it really matters.

Roy Hodgson has got through one of the most difficult honeymoon periods for any England manager and can hold his head high after successfully guiding his team through the group stage. Victory at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil may seem like an unfathomable dream, but what can be done by the boss over the next two years to maximise our chances? Here I focus on five key areas.

1. Implement possession football
An average of 39% possession across the four Euro 2012 matches says it all. We quite simply don't know how to keep hold of the ball and ware teams down like they do us. If the growing perception of England as a defensively-minded side is to reverse, this has to change. Yes, they can get away with it against the so called lesser teams but the top nations will ultimately punish them. I'm not suggesting that they need to reach the heights of Spain who consistently dominate possession regardless of the opposition, but they need to at least match their counterparts toe to toe. The old saying goes that 'you can't score a goal without the ball'. On that simplistic basis, England were 26% less likely to score a goal in Kiev's Olympic Stadium and their shot tally, eight to Italy's 31, was a true reflection of that. England have to learn to become more patient on the ball and not be afraid to pass sideways or backwards if that's the better option. Perhaps it's embedded in our football culture to always think about going forward but the game has changed and the Spanish especially have shown how probing football, which essentially forces teams into a physical and mental submission, is the key to success.

2. Think ahead and act now
John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole were arguably three of England's best performers over the course of the tournament and although they have the capability to play an integral part in qualifying for the World Cup, Hodgson has to decide now whether he envisages them in his starting line-up when the summer of 2014 arrives. Terry and Cole will both be 33 years of age by that time while Gerrard will be 34. Other key players to ponder over are Scott Parker and Gareth Barry who will both be 33 and Frank Lampard who will be 35. A sense of continuity and stability needs to be established throughout the qualifying campaign and it may be beneficial to use these older players sparingly and let the younger generation flourish as a team. Arsenal's Jack Wilshere appears to be the main focal point of England's future centre-midfield and even though Jordan Henderson has had his critics on the back of a disappointing season with Liverpool, he is still extremely young having only just turned 22. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have the makings of a superb centre-back partnership and this is further enhanced by the fact that they're both playing together at Manchester United under the nurtureship of Sir Alex Ferguson. Leighton Baines may feel his time has come to fill Cole's shoes at left-back and Kieran Gibbs provides a promising youthful option. The more caps these players get between now and the World Cup, the stronger England's squad will be.

My predicted future England line-up: Hart, Walker, Jones, Smalling, Gibbs, Lennon, Henderson, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck, Rooney.

3. Keep the fans on his side
England supporters won't have been particularly excited by their team's performance at Euro 2012 but they will certainly be encouraged. There's something to build on. The foundations are there. Hodgson's come out of a major tournament with a considerable amount of credibility to his name but he will need to mould together a more expansive style of play to keep it that way. As with any England manager, results will define Hodgson's reign. If he can add a bit finesse to the way they go about achieveing them, then that can only benefit his cause.

4. Make proper use of friendlies
Pick the best team available everytime and give the budding stars their chance from the bench. It's as straightforward as that. International friendlies will only ever be taken seriously if the fans can see that they're being used effectively. There's no point in making an ambundance of changes throughout the ninety minutes. They all need to be treated as though they're competitive matches and Hodgson must make that clear to any Premier League managers that have an issue with that policy.

5. Be ruthless
The phrase 'England have done enough' is banded about too much. We don't do more than enough, often enough. It's about time that we start putting games to bed and give ourselves a chance to implement a pattern of play under less pressured circumstances. Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland, Moldova and San Marino all await us in the World Cup qualifiers. We needn't fear any of those nations and need to take full advantage of the freedom that should give us.

Monday, 18 June 2012

There's a Major sense of unpredictability surrounding golf

Another major championship over, another first-time winner. Webb Simpson's US Open triumph at the Olympic Club in San Francisco stretched the incredible sequence to nine events as he followed in the footsteps of Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Keegan Bradley and Bubba Watson in clinching their maiden major victory.  
Will Simpson's success prove to be more than just a flash in the pan?

The 26-year-old American, who finished a shot clear of McDowell and fellow countryman Michael Thompson on one over par after shooting a final round of 68, had only previously won two PGA Tour events (2011 Wyndham Championship and 2011 Deutsche Bank Championship) and arrived at the tournament having missed the cuts at the Players Championship and the Memorial tournament. Not exactly the form of a prospective winner.
So is the incredible sense of unpredictability surrounding golf a good or bad thing for the game? There's the obvious argument that the sheer excitement of any sport is defined by the element of surprise. The possibility of an underdog overcoming the odds keeps us coming back for more and provides the paying public with talking points day after day. Sport wouldn't be what it is if the favourites won all the time but then again, you can't underestimate the value of them. The big guns are those that attract the most attention at the end of the day.

Last fifteen major championship winners
2008 PGA Championship: Padraig Harrington (3/3)
2009 Masters: Angel Cabrera (2/2)
2009 US Open: Lucas Glover
2009 British Open: Stewart Cink
2009 PGA Championship: Yang Yong-eun
2010 Masters: Phil Mickelson (4/4) 
2010 US Open: Graeme McDowell
2010 British Open: Louis Oosthuizen
2010 PGA Championship: Martin Kaymer
2011 Masters: Charl Schwartzel
2011 US Open: Rory McIlroy
2011 British Open: Darren Clarke
2011 PGA Championship: Keegan Bradley
2012 Masters: Bubba Watson
2012 US Open: Webb Simpson

*First-time winners in bold

Placing a bet on the winner of a major championship has become somewhat of a lottery nowadays. Player's odds are determined by history and prestige as oppose to recent form. Despite a steady resurgence, how much longer will Tiger Woods' former glories be taken into account when the bookies draw up their prices? Players of his class don't come around every day but golf needs someone to emerge from the crowd and at the very least threaten to match his major championship haul.

Golf is craving a new focal point. A name that immediately springs to mind when the sport is mentioned. Someone who carries an aura with him wherever he goes. Such is the overall standard of the game nowadays, the question is when this type of player will be unleashed, not if. The even more pertinent question is who?  

McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, both aged 23, are widely regarded as the game's brightest prospects with four PGA Tour wins between them to date. Crucially, the former has already broken his major championship duck and showed all the hallmarks of a sensational player in doing so. Simpson, Watson, Kaymer, Schwartzel and Ooisthuizen are all currently ranked in the world's top 20 and aged under 30 but whether any of them have the ability to take their game to another level remains to be seen.

Whoever it is that pulls away from the pack and grabs the initiative could have a very long and successful career ahead of them at the very top of the game. The key for these potential stars is consistency when it really matters. They all know that they have the ability to win major championships and the more they do it, the better they will be able to deal with the intense pressure which they inevitably conjure up.

The British Open takes place at Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club between 19th and 22nd July. Could that be the tournament that signals the fruition of a player on the brink of true stardom?