Saturday, 14 December 2013

If It's December, It Must Be SPOTY Time...

2012 Sport's Personality of the Year, Bradley Wiggins, with runner up Jessica Ennis
Sunday see’s the BBC’s annual “oh aren’t we great at covering sport” puff piece now known as Sport’s Personality of The Year.  With sport’s rights now being divvied up between BSkyB and BT Sport for utterly exorbitant sum’s, Sports Review of the Year seems both like a bygone take of a modern era and out of place with it’s anglocentric triumphalism.

I mentioned a couple of years ago the issue’s surrounding the voting procedures, with august sporting publications Zoo & Nut’s being given a vote, while only one of Scotland’s national newspapers had a vote.  While the BBC have changed those rules, it’s interesting to note that the representatives from the print world are still based in London rather than divvied between London, Cardiff, Belfast & Glasgow/Edinburgh.  That’s probably not going to be noticed much this year, given the identity of the huge favourite.  That’s not to say this won’t be an issue in the future.

For all the years that I’ve been doing this blog, Sport’s Personality has never really had an outstanding favourite.  Going back, the last dead cert to win would have been Andrew Flintoff in 2005 (even though that Ashes series was more of a team collective than Botham’s Ashes of 1981, it’s just that Flintoff was involved in most of the key moments).  This year though, there’s only really going to be one winner.  Yet since July, Andy Murray hasn’t really been at the top of his game.  His defence of his US Open championships fell at the quarter final stages at the hands of Stanislas Wawrinka before succumbing to a back injury, as Rafa Nadal staged a remarkable comeback. 
That moment...

At the start of the year though, Djokavic and Murray were the new Nadal and Federer.  Djokavic gained revenge over Murray for his US Open defeat by winning his third straight Australian Open.  Murray, revitalised after missing Roland Garros sailed through in the grass in South London.  However, he made heavy weather of a quarter final against Verdasco, going two sets down before winning the next three.  He also made heavy weather of the semi final against Janowicz, losing the first set before coming through in four sets.   However Djokavic had come through a titanic match against Del Potro that broke the record for the longest Wimbledon semi final (Becker V Lendl’s four hour and 1 minute epic in 1989 was the previous longest semi, Djokovic won in 4 Hours and 44 minutes).  Djokovic was still slight favourite to regain the title he won in 2011.

Remarkiably though Murray won, essentially by out Djokovicing Djokavic.  His win (above) ended 36 years wait for a British single’s win, 77 since a Brit won the men’s singles championship and 113 years since a Scot won the men’s singles championship.  So we might as well wrap up the trophy now and post it off to Miami, right?

Well…  with this being a public vote, we can’t really be certain.  Remember there are years where the winner is greeted with a collective “What?!?”.  AP McCoy’s win in 2010 can best be described as Left field, while, Ryan Giggs, Zara Phillips and Steve Davis are other, er, strange winners.  Mansell won it again in 1992 when he eventually won the F1 drivers championship, when one of our Olympic champions (Christie, Gunnell or Jackson) would have been more apt (Come to think of it, Robin Cousins beat both Alan Wells and Daley Thompson in 1980…  WTF???).  While David Beckham’s Sport’s Personality win came off the back of a man of the match performance in a key World Cup qualifier against Greece.  So who represent’s Murray’s biggest obstacle to becoming, in the year of the referendum, the first Scot to win since Chris Hoy all of five years ago.  Who is the stop Muzza candidate?

The favourite for that position is probably Mo Farrah.  Nominated last year for his 5,000m and 10,000 double at the Olympics, this year he repeated that feat in the World Championships in Moscow (retaining the 5,000 crown that he had won in Daegu two years ago).  You do wonder sometimes what Farah has to do to win this award.  Prehaps knobble Murray and British Cycling.

With Cycling at an all time high in the British sporting consciousness, it seems strange to think that Chris Froome (right, in yellow - obviously) might not be following Wiggins and Cavendish in winning this award.  The 100th jaunt around France known as the Tour De France was a tougher edition than last year, with a climb up Ventoux as well as a double jaunt up Alpe d’huez.  Froome, given the leadership of team Sky after Wiggins injury during the Giro d’Italia, destroyed his rivals in the mountains, taking yellow at Ax 3 Domaines and winning an iconic stage win at Mont Ventoux.  Even almost crashing into his biggest rival, the returning Alberto Contador, on the descent into Gap could not halt his march to the Yellow Jersey.

Those three are the favourites to finish in the top three.  Of the others, Maybe Justin Rose who became the first Englishman to win the US Open since Jacklyn in 1971 in June, or Leigh Halfpenny – who starred as Wales retained their 6 Nations championships and also played a part in the Lions series win in Australia – their first series win since beating South Africa in 1997 – could break into the top three.

Froom, Farah or Rose will finish in the top three behind Murray come Sunday.  If there is a shock, I think that it will be Farah.  It will be a shock though, I can’t conceive that the first British winner of the Mens singles title at Wimbledon in 77 years won’t be crowned Sports Personality of The Year come Sunday.

Now, Auntie, about that idea for Sports Villain of the year…

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Not Easy

All roads lead here - The Maracana will host next years World Cup Final

Four years ago, the draw for the World Cup was received with some delight in English quarters.  It was perceived that in drawing the USA, Algeria & Slovenia, England had been given a good draw.  They’re not thinking that now that the draw for next years World Cup in Brazil has delivered England’s hardest draw since Italia ‘90.

First up for England will be the side that knocked them out of the European Championships last year. Italy’s win on penalties in Kiev will give them the psychological edge going into this tie.  Italy will need no introduction, with their most recognisable player being the former Manchester City forward Mario Balotelli.  Whether the change of kick off time from 9pm to 6pm local time will help or hinder both sides remains to be seen, the match will be tacking place in Manaus in the Amazon region of Brazil.

England’s next match isn’t any easier, even though it will take place in the cooler south.  Uruguay were semi-finalists four years ago, and won the Coppa America two years ago.  At least two of the three man forward line that got them to the semi’s will be there.  Of course one of the survivors is Luis Suarez, now of Liverpool, who bagged key goals against Mexico & South Korea.  The other survivor will be Paris St Germain’s Eddison Cavani.

England’s last group match will be against the seeded minnows of this group.  However, the name Costa Rica still sends shivers down the back of Tartan Army foot soldiers nearly a quarter of a century on from Cayasso, Conejo & Co’s shock win.  That tournament was the only time they reached the knock our phase of the World Cup, they beat a dispirited Sweden as well before a heavy loss to Czechoslovakia.  Since then, they were piped to qualification by Turkey (in 2002) and Ecuador (in 2006) after opening that tournament against Germany.

This is a hard draw for England to get.  Should they qualify though, England will play either the winners or the runners up from Group C.  This group consists of Columbia, Ivory Coast, Japan & Greece.  Not an insurmountable obstacle, however the hazards in wait in the quarter final stage may well spell the end for England.  If England somehow win this group, they will be seeded to play either Brazil or the Netherlands.  If England finishes runners up, they will be seeded to face Spain.

England’s group is tough, but there are other interesting groups that have been thrown up by this draw.  The holders Spain (right) begin their defence of the World Cup against the side they beat in Johannesburg four years ago, The Netherlands.  The highly fancied Chile, who were also drawn in the same group as Spain four years ago, and Australia make up that group.  Brazil open the tournament against Croatia on 12 June, while the team that topped our qualifying group – and many people’s fancy as dark horses, Belgium – find themselves in a group with Algeria, South Korea and Russia.  Unfortunately for Belgium, their second round tie (should they qualify) will be against the survivors from group G – Germany, Portugal, Ghana & USA.  Arguably Group G is a tougher group to call than England’s group with lots of little sub plots going on.  Not least Jurgen Klinsman’s reunion with his former assistant during the 2006 World Cup.

To return to England though.  This is a tough group.  Funnily enough, there’s little in terms of past results between these teams.  England have only faced Italy in a World Cup finals match in the third place playoff in 1990 (Italy won 2-1 in Bari), though they did play each other in qualifying for both the 1978 (Italy wining 2-0 in Turin, England winning 2-0 at Wembley) & 1998 (Italy winning 1-0 at Wembley, 0-0 in Rome) tournaments.  England’s last finals match with Uruguay goes back further as this tie opened the 1966 tournament. 

While this group is a hard group, it is not impossible for England to escape.  Maybe the best thing to come out of this draw is that it will temper the hubris that instantly inflates whenever England reach the finals of a tournament.  Maybe we will see a more sober assessment of their chances than we have seen in many years, that those chances are not good. In short, there will be no emperor like there has been in 2002, 2006 & 2010, which might not be a bad thing for Hodgson.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Ashes 2013/14; Up For Grabs

Like three years ago, England go into this Ashes series with a chance of a series victory.  The 68th series though begins with Australia coming on in leaps and bounds in spite of the 3-0 series loss in England.  While England are slight favourites, they have the bigger selection issues.
Cook with the Ashes at The Oval

In sharp contrast, Australia has a settled looking batting line up.  After what looked like constant shuffling of the pack during the summer, Australia looks likely to start with an opening pair of David Warner and Chris Rodgers at the Gabba on Thursday.  Watson’s dropping down the order paid dividends for him at the Oval as he made a big hundred there.  He will come in at three, with the skipper Clarke coming in at Four.  The other centurion at The Oval, Steve Smith, will come in at five.  The only change in the line up looks as if the 20Twenty captain (and adopted Scot) George Bailey will make his debut at 6 with wicket keeper Brad Haddin dropping down to 7.

If Australia’s batting line up is developing rather nicely, there are a couple of selection issues surrounding Australia’s bowling attack.  Both Pattinson & Starc are injured, which means that Ryan Harris & Peter Siddle will lead the attack.  The remaining two places look to be between the pacemen James Faulkner (who played at The Oval), the walking enigma that is Mitchell Johnson & the spinner Nathan Lyon. 

I’m not sure the Australian selectors will go for Lyon, mostly because Warne & Stuart MacGill are really the only spinners to have taken wickets at the Gabba and because Lyon is not a prodigious turner of the ball.  Johnson presents another question.  He is highly rated by Australian Cricket observers, yet he only seems to produce one performance per series.  His performances (at Headingly in 2009 and the WACA in 2010/11) are overshadowed by his poor bowling, at Lords & the Oval in the 2009 series and at the MCG and SCG in the 2010/11 series.

If Australia are in better shape than they were in during the summer’s leg of the Ashes battles, what of England.  They had looked to have (not convincingly) resolved their issue regarding who to open with Captain Cook.  Joe Root might have made 180 in the Lords test, but apart from a nice 50 at The Oval never looked that comfortable opening.  The warm up match at Hobart saw Michael Carberry open, and take his chance with 153 not out.  Carberry opening and Root reverting to 6 would also solve another of England’s problems, Jonny Bairstow never really cemented his place at 6 during the summer series.  It is said that both Pieterson and Prior should be fit for the Gabba.

England’s biggest questions surround their pace attack.  Both Jimmy Anderson & Stuart Broad (poised to be the most boo’ed man in Australian sporting history after not walking at Trent Bridge) will be the new ball partnership, like they started in Brisbane three years ago.  However, there is a third berth up for grabs.  With Bresnan injured for the first test, the fight for that last quick bowling spot will be between Steve Finn and Boyd Rankin.  Both are playing in the final pre-test tour match, with Finn looking the most likely to get that final berth, with Swann being the sole spinner in the England side.

Despite the fact that England will be favourites, the size of their task should not be underestimated.  The series in 2010/11 was only the fifth series win in Australia for England since the end of the Second World War, while England doubled the amount of wins on Australian soil since their series win in 1986/7. 
Clarke celebrates reaching his century at Old Trafford
What they couldn’t do though was win in Brisbane, Australia had the best of the first three days before Strauss, Cook and Trott batted Australia out of the match in spectacular style.  Indeed, you need to go back 25 years for Australia’s last defeat at the Gabba, when Ambrose, Walsh, Marshall & Co blew Australia away.  England’s last win in Brisbane came two years earlier, when Botham’s 138 helped England to a 7 wicket win.

While England have won three series out of four since losing at home to South Africa in the summer of 2012, Australia’s form has been mixed.  They matched South Africa last year but lost the big moments.  They beat Sri Lanka, while we remember the summer Ashes series followed the same pattern as the South Africa home series. I rather suspect that the hard bouncy pitches of Australia may well suit the English batsmen a lot more than the slow dry pitches that we saw in England.  That’s why I think that England will win, but it won’t be as comfortable as it was three years ago.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Final Strech

For Scotland, the end of the current World Cup campaign can’t come quick enough. For other countries, the next week will be key to their chances of confirming their place at next years World Cup.
Snodgrass scores in Scotland's away win in Croatia
It doesn’t take too much to figure out what happened to Scotland, a hard group and a manager that kept on picking square pegs for round holes.  As a result, Levein’s teams struggled to keep the goals out and to keep any kind of prescience in midfield.

Since taking over, Strachan’s Scotland has looked more solid in midfield.  The centre of defence is still a concern – all of the goals in the friendly at Wembley came from bad defending at set-pieces while there were lapses in the home defeat to Belgium.  Scotland could still finish bottom of their group – Wales play Macedonia tonight before Tuesday’s final group games.  Wales finish in Belgium, Scotland finish at home to Croatia while Macedonia finish in Serbia.

With the celtic nations already out, it falls to England to keep alive any British interest in next years World Cup. Unlike the previous campaigns under Fabio Capello and Sven Goran Eriksson, England are not quite home and hosed.

Currently, England top their group by a point.  They do have two games left though, starting with tonight’s game against Montenegro.  Both Ukraine & Montenegro sit a point behind England, while Ukraine’s opponents tonight – Poland – sit a further 2 points behind.  Group H looks as if it will go down to the wire as England’s last match sees them up against their old favourites Poland at Wembley.

17 October 1973, England 1, Poland 1
There’s not really a Scottish equivalent to England V Poland, either in terms of the regularity that these teams seem to meet – they were drawn together in the qualifying rounds of the 1990, 94 & 98 World Cups and for Euro 2000 – that was after meeting at Mexico ’86, or in terms of the significance of their first qualifying meetings – when Poland knocked England out during qualifying for the 1974 World Cup – with the tie at Wembley (above) being essentially the last hurrah for the generation of England players & management that had won the World Cup 7 years earlier.

Having said that, a win for our nearest & dearest tonight, coupled with a Poland win in Ukraine, will see them all but there.  Bet you’re already looking forward to those World Cup special’s already…  hmmmm…

At the time of writing, there doesn’t look as if there will be any major fallers at this point.  However, remember that after next week we will only have 10 of Europe’s 14 qualifiers.  There will be the lottery of a round of play-offs to come.  For Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, all that’s left is planning for the next European Championships.