Saturday, 30 January 2010

Sporting Picks of 2009, Part 5 - August 16th

Yang outplays Woods for USPGA win

South Korea's Yang Yong-Eun became the first Asian-born male winner of a major championship when he beat Tiger Woods to clinch the USPGA title at Hazeltine. The 37-year-old was two shots adrift of overnight leader Woods but held his nerve to card 70 to the American's 75 to win by three on the final green.

Yang's victory ended Woods's run of winning all 14 of his major titles when leading going into the final round.

Yang’s victory in a major golf championship has been long awaited bearing in mind the contribution Asian golfers, and in particular Japanese golfers, have made to their sport.

However the player who went into the last day as the leader was the World number one and arguably the sportsperson of the decade – Tiger Woods. Every one of his 14 majors have been won from the front, with only this event 10 years ago being the only major won where Woods encountered resistance on the last day.

With hindsight it could be argued that Woods performance in the majors in 2009 were a harbinger of the troubles he would find himself in. He did not challenge in any of the other majors and at Turnbery in the Open, Woods failed to make the cut for the first time in a major as a professional.

Stories of Wood’s alleged frat boy morals eventually surfaced in November, as Woods was involved in an incident outside his home. The downfall of what many people (but not myself) consider the finest golfer ever has been sudden and has put his many achievements in the shade.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Sporting Picks of 2009, Part 4 - August 12th

World Cup - European Zone, Group 9: Norway 4 Scotland 0

Scotland's World Cup dream was left on a knife edge after they suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of a desperate, Egil Olsen-inspired Norway. Gary Caldwell was sent off after 33 minutes and John Arne Riise scored with the resulting sublime free-kick. Morten Gamst Pedersen drove in the second on the stroke of half-time. Erik Huseklepp turned in the third and Pedersen added a fourth as coach Olsen's Norway revived their chances of reaching the play-offs from Group Nine.

Defeat means Scotland will probably now need to win their two remaining matches, at home to Macedonia and group winners Netherlands, to make those matches as one of the best-placed runners-up.

Truth be told this game was probably the jump the shark moment for George Burley. For some it would have been the loss in Macedonia, for others (mostly Rangers fans) it would have been his behaviour towards Kris Boyd, described by Darren Fletcher as the laziest trainer he has ever seen. There are members of the press who turned on Burley for his handling of the Ibrox 2 affair in the aftermath of the defeat in Amsterdam (when the Scotland defence seemed to be auditioning for parts as Dracula such was their aversion to crosses...). For the majority this game was the moment when it all became crystal clear. George Burley was not a Scotland manager.

Burley made errors of judgement when picking his defence. Norway had re-appointed Egil Olsen as manager in the spring of 2009, Olsen having taken Norway to 2 World Cups and a European Championship in his first stint in the 1990’s. Olsen’s tactics were to get the ball as quickly as possible into their opponents box, by any means necessary. At his disposal up front, Olsen had the former Rosenberg powerhouse, now at Aston Villa, John Carew. To combat this threat Burley picked the Caldwell brothers, Stephen being inexperienced at International level and Gary having begun a calamitous fall in form. It was a combination doomed to failure as both Caldwell brothers, later joined by the forgotten V sign flicker Christope Berra, floundered and failed to contain Carew.

As Carew ran amok among the Scotland back line (well… defence would be stretching the Trades Descriptions Act a bit to far…) it surely must have occurred to Burley to change the shape or the tactics. Four at the back wasn’t working, as players were getting through the Scotland back line without being picked up.

Of course the SFA blazers hindered Burley from the off with their agreement to this fixture list. Starting with playing Macedonia in the heat of the first weekend in September (they should have swapped the away fixture with Iceland around, a Wednesday night fixture wouldn’t have been so energy sapping), the timing of this fixture couldn’t have been worse as this was played before the start of the season, when many of the Scotland players looked under-cooked.

The strange thing is that Burley kind of recovered. Scotland destroyed Macedonia 2-0, but should have been 6 or 7-0, and lost 1-0 to the Netherlands at Hampden, but should have won with the amount of chances created. After the campaign it was back to normal as Scotland lost in Japan before Wales saw off yet another Scotland manager, 5 years after another famous Welsh win was the beginning of the end for Herr Voghts. This time the SFA were swift and decisive in their verdict and axed Burley within days of the Wales result. They have been equally swift and decisive in plumping for the Dundee United manager Craig Levein as his successor, a choice which appears to have been the consensus choice among the Scottish Football fraternity.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Sporting Picks of 2009, Part 3 - July 12th

England (435 & 252 for 9) drew with Australia (674 for 6 declared)

Paul Collingwood hit a valiant 74 and England's last-wicket pair defied Australia for 40 minutes to clinch a draw in the first Ashes Test. England, 20-2 overnight, lost three further wickets inside 90 minutes but somehow clung on in the final stages.

Collingwood's innings lasted 245 balls - five hours and 43 minutes in all. Then, amid scenes of high tension, with every dot ball roared by a capacity crowd, James Anderson and Monty Panesar kept Australia's spinners at bay.

The last man refused to be an easy target, and when Anderson squirted Siddle down to third man for four, England had a precious lead. Significantly, that meant England did not have to bat until the 1850 BST cut-off. They just had to get past 1840, which meant facing around three overs fewer. When the clock ticked past 1840 BST, an excitable crowd knew that Hauritz was bowling the last over. Anderson survived his 53rd delivery - Panesar had hung around for 35 - and the ground saluted a famous result.

Of England’s major series wins over the past 15 years, they have all contained a hard fought draw where England managed to find themselves in a hole, then proceeded to dig them out. Against South Africa in 1998, England conceded 552 runs and were forced to follow on in the 3rd Test at Old Trafford before eking out a draw with a last wicket partnership. Two years later at the same venue, the West Indies had set England 293 to win early on day 5 before losing Atherton in cloudy swinging conditions before the weather closed in after Lunch. While in the 2005 Ashes series, England with a paper thin 1st Innings advantage over Australia lost 3 quick wickets on the final morning of the 5th Test and saw Kevin Pieterson dropped by of all people Shane Warne. Pieterson went on to make his maiden Test century, and the Urn returned to England for the first time since 1989. This test was the equivalent to all of the above, and was a key moment in the series.

Australia came to England intent on retaining the Ashes, with Ricky Ponting correctly pointing out that all the legendary Australian captains have the badge of skippering a successful Ashes series win in England. Ponting flagged up that this was the only thing missing from his own CV. For 4 days of this test Australia looked like the old mean Australia. Katich got a hundred that banished the nightmare of 2005, Ponting got his obligatory century in an Ashes series here (to go with his hundreds at Headingley – in 1997 and 2001, and Old Trafford in 2005) while Clarke, North and Haddin were a throwback to the classic Australian middle order of years gone by. Missing out of the run-fest was the middle order batsman Mike Hussey and opener Phillip Hughes, who pre-series was touted as the next great Australian batsman. By the end of the series, Hughes will have been dropped in favour of Shane Watson, touted as Australia’s answer to Flintoff.

Yet for all that the batting looked invincible during this test, where the Australians would be shown up during this test would be their bowling attack. Hilfenhaus was the find of the series with his swing which was ideal in English conditions. However he would not have played had Brett Lee been fit. Instead the main pace attack was carried by Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson. Siddle is quick, able to generate bounce but is not accurate enough for line and length bowling. Johnson went into the series as one of the world’s best bowlers, but took too long to come to grips with English conditions. As a result, his confidence took a battering, only picking up one five wicket haul (at Headingley). Australia’s spin options were supplied by Nathan Hauritz who was a useful off-spinner, taking wickets with guile and flight. Bizarrely Stuart Clark, dubbed metronome 2 during the 2006/7 series in Australia because of his un-erring line and length bowling, would play no part in this test, or the series until Headingley (where he took 3 wickets and looked economical during the first innings, and didn’t during the second).

This was a tactical mistake as however talented the bowling unit was, the second morning of this test showed their tendency to leek runs. The last 3 wickets of the England first Innings would see Australia concede 99 runs in trying to get those wickets. This would be a critical trend throughout the series. On the 5th Morning, Australia had England 5 down for 70 runs, under Waugh, Taylor or Border England would have struggled to make 200 as pressure would have been created to force errors from the tail-enders. But then again despite the criticism flying the way of Ricky Ponting, it has to be said that Johnson, Hilfenhaus or Siddle are no McGrath, Flemming or Gillespie. The absence of Lee hurt.

Australia’s inability to close the match from 70 for 5 was a psychological blow for Australia. In each of the examples given above England went on to win the next test, this happened here as England smashed their hoodoo to win at Lords and outplay Australia at Edgebaston. Australia escaped with a draw there and then hammered England in 3 days at Headingley. Australia having looked to have restricted England to 332 at The Oval then fell victim to the most inspired spell of bowling since McGrath’s 5 wickets at Lords 4 years ago, as Broad ripped through the Australian middle order picking up 5 wickets in very short order. The old Australia would not have taken their foot off their opponent’s windpipe.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Sporting Picks of 2009, Part 2 - July 4th

South Africa 9 British Lions 28

The British and Irish Lions finished their South Africa tour on a spectacular high with a stunning victory in the final Test in Johannesburg. Faced with the prospect of a first series whitewash by the Springboks in 118 years, Ian McGeechan's men cast aside the agony of their last-gasp second Test defeat with a performance bursting with pride and passion.

A first-half brace from Wales wing Shane Williams, his first tries of the tour, saw the Lions take a commanding 15-6 half-time lead. Ugo Monye's 70m interception effort after 54 minutes extended the tourists' advantage before Morne Steyn landed his third penalty for the hosts.

But two late penalties from Stephen Jones put the seal on the Lions' first Test win since Brisbane in 2001, and South Africa's first defeat at Ellis Park for eight years.

It was deserved reward for the Lions' contribution to a thrilling series, and a fitting way for McGeechan to bow out, if indeed this is his final Test after seven tours as a player and head coach.

This Lions tour could have been the last Lions tour. In an ever changing world, the Lions could have begun to look like an anachronism had this tour not been so close a sporting contest. As the piece above points out, the Lions last win was the first test of their Australian tour 8 years ago as the then World Champions won both th Melbourne and then in Sydney. Four years ago, an over bloated backroom team led by Clive Woodward, then fresh from leading England to World Cup glory, were taken apart by New Zealand. That tour remains to this day an object lesson in how not to organise a Lions tour.

This time McGeechan had been brought in as head coach. McGeechan had been in charge for both the 1993 and ’97 tours (to New Zealand, lost 2-1, and South Africa, won 2-1, respectively). Northern hemisphere Rugby had also moved on from the assumption that the Lions side would be made up of a majority of Englishmen. This assumption in particular was broken by a second Grand Slam of the decade for Wales followed up by Ireland’s first Grand Slam since 1948, having fallen against France in 2007.

The stage was set for the Lion’s tour to the current World Champions. What was not anticipated was how close a contest the series would turn out to be. South Africa were out of sight with 20 minutes to go in the first test, but conceded 3 quick tries to only win by 3 points. The second test was a fractious affair which came down to a last gasp penalty from Steyn which settled a match which the Lions could have won and were drawing before Steyn’s penalty. The Third test saw a continuation of that bad blood as the Lions gained a well deserved win during this series.
After the disaster of 2005, it was a case of pride restored as the Lions despite the series defeat could come home with their heads held high.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Sporting Picks of 2009, Part 1 - May 27th

Barcelona 2 Manchester United 0

Manchester United's attempt to make history and become the first club to defend the Champions League ended in failure against Barcelona in Rome's Stadio Olimpico. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson's hopes of repeating last year's triumph against Chelsea barely got off the ground as they ended well beaten by a Barcelona side inspired by the genius of Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.

Once Samuel Eto'o scored at Edwin van der Sar's near post in the 10th minute after escaping Nemanja Vidic, the credits were rolling on their bid to add the Champions League to the Premier League for the second successive season.

Xavi hit the post with a free-kick and Thierry Henry was denied by Van der Sar before Messi crowned a glorious personal performance with a stunning header to clinch victory with 20 minutes remaining. He made a mockery of his tiny stature to rise and head home Xavi's cross - and in that magical moment any hopes United harboured of a recovery were snuffed out.

Barcelona’s victory coupled with Spain’s European Championship triumph in 2008 has been seen as a mini revival of Spanish Football. These two events however could be seen in a much wider context as part of a trend, the end of one era and perhaps the beginning of another.

Manchester United were overwhelming favourites to win, Barcelona were without 3 quarters of their back four and were facing a full strength Manchester United. The first 9 minutes were completely one sided as Manchester United battered Barcelona with attack after attack. Yet when Barcelona went ahead with their first attack, they launched their tactical master-plan. They kept the ball… and continued to keep the ball… and much to the annoyance of English commentators kept possession and launched attacks when the opportunities arose.

Barcelona’s performance was a throw-back to 15-20 years ago when overseas teams used to come and keep possession while home sides would not see the ball for 5-10 minutes at a time. It’s a forgotten art of keeping possession which killed Manchester United. As they grew more frustrated, they wasted more and more possession, and chances grew rarer and rarer. It was a fantastic performance which was in sharp contrast to the kick and rush of the English Premier League. Hopefully Barcelona’s performance will lead to the end of the homogenisation of Football, where everyone plays a variation of 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 (Barcelona played a formation of 4-3-3).

This brings us to Manchester United, or rather the English Premier League. I mentioned last year that I thought that years European Cup final would be the high point in this period of English dominance of the event (a finalist every year since 2005, 3 out of 4 semi finalists every year since 2007). That England has provided only 2 winners during this period when Television revenues have been flowing into club coffers somehow doesn’t feel that much like a great return. With the worst recession since the Second World War underway, and an expected de-crease in television revenues, English football might see an abrupt halt to the good times. At the top tier, English clubs have been mortgaged to the hilt to stay on the gravy train. Both Liverpool and Manchester United were bought with the new owners saddling the clubs with the debts accrued buying those clubs. Arsenal are on the brink of a bitter takeover battle. Chelsea on the other hand are secure behind the scenes, but have an aging squad which has developed the nasty habit of being able to get rid of managers they don’t like.

The relative lack of money would be bad enough for the English top four, but what happened next will have a serious bearing on English clubs chances of winning Europe’s top prize in the future. Real Madrid, having watched their big rivals become the first Spanish side to win the European Cup, League Championship, National Cup treble responded by going on a gargantuan spending spree. They smashed the transfer record by paying AC Milan £56 million for Kaka, and then smashed that by paying Manchester United £80 million for Ronaldo. Alonso (from Liverpool) and Benziema (from Lyon) followed as Perez went about building Galacticos II, forgetting both the financial constraints brought about by the original Galacticos project and the defensive deficiencies the original team had.

This cup final signified a shift in playing styles and marked perhaps a change in the balance of power from the English Premier League back to La Liga. Time will tell how long Spain retains it’s current position.