Monday, 23 April 2012

'The King of Clay' is here to stay

He's beaten him at the Australian Open. He's beaten him at Wimbledon. He's also beaten him at the US Open. World number one Novak Djokovic has proved in recent times that he has the edge over Rafael Nadal on the hard courts and grass courts, but Sunday's drubbing by the Spaniard in the final of the ATP Monte-Carlo Masters shows that the Serb has a very long way to go before taking the 'King of Clay' crown off his rival.  
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic could meet in a fourth consecutive Grand Slam final
A comprehensive 6-3 6-1 victory for Nadal ended a seven-match losing streak against his counterpart and guided him to his first tournament win since his record-equalling sixth French Open title last year. It has to be taken into consideration that Djokovic's grandfather sadly passed away on Thursday, however, Nadal was simply too good for his opponent on the day as he cruised to an eighth consecutive title in Monaco and a record-breaking 20th ATP Masters 1000 success.  

Having lost his previous seven finals against Djokovic, Nadal would have been forgiven for feeling nervous despite his domination of the clay court season over the past seven years. However, from the moment the 25-year-old went a break up in the third game of the match, he never looked back. 

The outcome of the last eight finals between Nadal and Djokovic:
ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Indian Wells 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 Djokovic
ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Miami 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(4) Djokovic
ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Madrid 7-5, 6-4 Djokovic
ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Rome 6-4, 6-4 Djokovic
Wimbledon 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 Djokovic
US Open 6-2, 6-4, 6-7(3), 6-1 Djokovic
Australian Open 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5, Djokovic
ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Monte Carlo 6-3, 6-1 Nadal

The win marks an impressive start to Nadal's preparations for Roland Garros (27th May - 10th June) where he aims to claim a seventh title and in doing so, establish himself as the most successful clay-court player of the Open era. Prior to that, there are another two Masters series events in Madrid (6th May -13th May) and Rome (13th May - 20th May). Nadal will be wary of the fact that he was beaten convincingly by Djokovic in the final of both tournaments last season and keen to extinguish any signs of encouragement for the Serb this time round, ahead of the second Grand Slam of the year.

Djokovic is not only aiming to secure the career Grand Slam by winning the French Open; he is also vying to become the first man to hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously since Rod Laver achieved a clean sweep in 1969. With just two wins from twelve matches against Nadal on clay, there's no doubt that the final hurdle will be the toughest of all.

Roger Federer may still not have secured the career Grand Slam to this day had it not been for Robin Soderling's heroic victory over Nadal in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open. The Spaniard's only defeat at Roland Garros opened the door for Federer to complete his collection but it's unlikely that Djokovic will be granted the same luxury. If he wants to join the elite group of career Grand Slam winners, he'll almost certainly have to overcome Nadal in the latter stages of the tournament.

The Master Series events in Madrid and Rome will tell us a lot about Djokovic's capability of doing just that, but such was Nadal's dominance on Sunday, it would seem that it may just be a step too far. Watch this space...

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Atletico Madrid vs Valencia (Europa League semi-final first leg): Match report

Atletico Madrid remain on course for a second Europa League final in the space of three seasons after securing a 4-2 victory against Valencia in the semi-final first-leg at the Vicente Calderon Stadium.

A brace from Columbian hotshot Radamel Falcao was added to by Miranda and Adrian Lopez to give Diego Simeone's side a commanding advantage ahead of the second-leg next week. Jonas and Ricardo Costa replied for the visitors at the end of each half, but the night belonged to Atletico who were too strong for their Spanish rivals.

The home side dominated proceedings from the off with the majority of their threat coming through Arda Turan down the right-hand side.

The Turkish international manufactured the first chance of the game, getting himself to the byline and pulling the ball back to Diego who forced a decent save out of Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves.

It took 18 minutes for the deadlock to be broken and unsurprisingly it was Atletico who went in front. Turan capitalised on some lacklustre defending from Adil Rami to divert an attempted cross off left-back Jordi Albi's foot and onto the head of leading goalscorer Falcao who claimed his 31st goal of the campaign.

Rami attempted to make amends for his error fifteen minutes later but headed wide from a corner while at the other end, Diego came agonisingly close to poking home Turan's teasing cross, only for the ball to end up in the grateful hands of Alves.

It appeared that Atletico were going in at half-time with a deserved lead in tact but in the third minute of stoppage time, Rami got up highest from a corner once more to glance a header towards Jonas for a tap in at the back post.

Not to be denied, the 2010 winners came out flying in the second half and within ten minutes of the restart they had established a 3-1 lead. Centre-back Miranda headed in Diego's floated free-kick in the 49th minute and five minutes later Lopez latched onto a sloppy pass from Mehmet Topal to drive at the heart of the opposition defence and coolly slot the ball home from the edge of the area.

Sensing goals, Atletico continued to push forward and they got their rewards in the 78th minute as Falcao bagged his second goal of the game in stunning fashion. Cutting in from the left-hand side, the 26-year-old lashed the ball into the top corner to leave Alves completely stranded.

Despite a desperately disappointing display from Valencia, Costa's headed goal in the dying moments of the game will give them some belief that they can turn the tie around in the Mestalla.

Team line-ups
Atletico Madrid: Courtois, Juanfran, Miranda, Dominguez, Filipe Luis, Mario Suarez, Gabi, Turan (Tiago 82), Diego (Perea 88), Adrian (Salvio 90), Falcao. Subs: Sergio Asenjo, Tiago, Salvio, Paulo Assuncao, Koke, Perea, Martin.

Goals: Falcao (18 and 78), Miranda (49) and Adrian Lopez (54).
Bookings: Turan (41) and Dominguez (90 + 5).
Red cards: N/A

Valencia: Diego Alves, Ricardo Costa, Rami, Victor Ruiz, Mathieu, Feghouli (Canales 72), Topal, Tino Costa, Jordi Alba (Piatti 72), Soldado, Jonas (Aduriz 79). Subs: Guaita, Bruno, Maduro, Aduriz, Piatti, Canales, Parejo.

Goals: Jonas (45 + 3) and Ricardo Costa (90 + 4).
Bookings: Feghouli (15) and Diego Alves (68).
Red cards: N/A

Referee: Craig Thomson (Scotland)

Monday, 16 April 2012

El Clásico preview

Football fans around the world will be transfixed by the most eagerly anticipated clash of the season on Saturday night. Barcelona vs Real Madrid at the Camp Nou promises to be explosive as Spain's big two go head-to-head once again in La Liga. With just four points separating the league leaders Madrid and second-placed Barca, the outcome will undoubtedly prove pivotal in the race for the title.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will both be eager to deliver  

Madrid have failed to overcome their bitter rivals in the league since May 2008, losing five and drawing two of the seven matches since. They have evidently lacked the mental edge over the Catalan giants in recent seasons and they will be more desperate than ever to change that this time round.

A win for Los Merengues would not only give them a seemingly unassailable lead of seven points at the top of the table; it would also give them a massive boost in belief ahead of a potential Champions League final showdown with Barca at the Allianz Arena in Munich on 19th May.

Barca go into the game having won eleven consecutive league matches and gradually whittled down Madrid's points advantage from ten points since 12th February. Over the same period, Madrid have won eight times and drawn on three occasions (Malaga (h) 1-1, Villarreal (a) 1-1 and Valencia (h) 0-0).

The match is sandwiched in between the first and second legs of the Champions League semi-finals as Barca face Chelsea (Wednesday 18th April (a) and Tuesday 24th April (h)) and Madrid go up against Bayern Munich (Tuesday 17th April (a) and Wednesday 25th April (h)). The extra day's rest for Madrid is certainly something they can draw plenty of encouragement from.

As for the sub-plots, there are several to feast your eyes on. The best two players on the planet, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, are tied on the record-breaking La Liga tally of 41 goals and both know that their performance in a game of this magnitude could go a long way to deciding who prevails as the winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year and the UEFA Ballon d'Or come the end of the calendar year. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho rekindle their mind-game ridden feud while the core of Spain's 2008 European Championship and 2010 World Cup-winning side put international allegiances aside once more with emotions set to run extremely high.

Madrid would no doubt settle for a share of the spoils but would equally enjoy ending their jinx against the Spanish champions, and laying down a huge marker with the latter stages of the Champions League in mind. Barca, on the other hand, will view the game as a must win if they're to emulate the club's record of four consecutive La Liga titles between 1990-91 and 1993-94.

Regardless of the result, the millions of viewers across the globe are set to be treated to a football match of the very highest calibre. A mixture of confrontation and play-acting often overshadows the action on the pitch when the two sides meet, but if that can all be refrained from, they both have the potential to ensure that Saturday's encounter lives up to it's illustrious name. El Clásico is upon us.

Predicted team line-ups
Barcelona: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Fabregas, Sanchez, Messi.

Real Madrid: Casillas, Arbeloa, Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Khedira, Alonso, Di Maria, Kaka, Ronaldo, Benzema.

Predicted scoreline
Barcelona 2-1 Real Madrid

Monday, 9 April 2012


Bubba Watson gratefully accepts the green jacket from 2011 champion Charl Schwartzel
Golf seldom fails to unearth surprise winners. Bubba Watson's triumph at the 2012 US Masters on Easter Sunday certainly fitted the criteria. The 33-year-old arrived at Augusta National ranked 16th in the world and tipped as a 40/1 outsider with bookmaker William Hill. He departed as the fourth best player on the planet and the latest addition to the prestigious list of major championship winners.

The unpredictability of modern-day golf is easily justfied. Watson is the eighth straight first-time major champion, and the 14th different winner in the last 14 majors. The pre-Masters favourites, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, both finished fifteen shots off the pace on five-over-par while world number one Luke Donald was only two shots better off.

So were there any reasons to genuinely believe that the man from Bagdad, Florida would go onto to claim the much-coveted green jacket? With only three US PGA Tour wins to his name prior to the event (Travelers Championship (June 2010), The Farmers Insurance Open (January 2011) and Zurich Classic of New Orleans (May 2011)) you would have to say no. Nevertheless, his form had been solid going into the first major of the season with the highlights being a second-placed finish at the WGC Cadillac Championship and a tied fourth-placed finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The ball striking prowess of the big-hitting left hander is unparallelled by anyone in the game right now but there have always been question marks about whether he has the temperament to establish himself amongst the elite.

Watson openly admitted his own weaknesses in a post-victory interview with PGATOUR.COM

"A few years ago, I was living the wrong way," he said. "Every golf shot was controlling how mad I got, how I was on the golf course. I was so wrapped up in what everybody else was doing; why is he beating me; why is this; why is that; why can't I make putts; why can't I make the cut; why can't I do this."

It's clear that his mind was focused solely on winning this time round. His second shot on the second play-off hole was nothing short of sensational as he somehow recovered from a wayward drive off the tenth tee. It was the shot which effectively sealed victory over a valiant Louis Oosthuizen and proudly placed him alongside Mike Weir (2003) and Phil Mickelson (2004, 2006 and 2010) as the third left-hander to win the Masters.

Whether or not Watson can push himself beyond the glut of one-time major championship winners remains to be seen. By definition a great golfer is one that wins a major championship and then goes on to do it again. The American has now proven that he has the physical and mental capacity to cope with the relentless pressure of a major championship. The experience he has gained will undoubtedbly prove invaluable but he must have the inherent hunger and desire to take his game to the next level and show the world that his Masters triumph was more than just a flash in the pan.