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.