Thursday, 29 March 2012

Can King Kenny keep his place on the Liverpool throne?

Kenny Dalglish is a man under pressure. Success in the Carling Cup and an FA Cup semi-final merely paper over the cracks. In the competition that really matters, the Premier League, his beloved Liverpool are set to fall short of their previous season's points tally for a third consecutive year and could even go onto register their lowest total since the league's inception in 1992.

Kenny Dalglish has been left scratching his head in recent weeks

Since racking up their highest Premier League total of 86 points in the 2008/09 campaign, the Reds have slumped to 63 points in 2009/10 and 58 points in 2010/11. With eight games remaining in the current campaign, Dalglish's side need 17 points to demonstrate the slightest bit of progression from last season and 13 points to edge past their worst Premier League total of 54 points. English football's biggest prize is a distant dream for the eighteen-time winners.

It can't be said that Dalglish hasn't been backed by the board. Around £120 million has been splashed out on Charlie Adam, Andy Carroll, Sebastian Coates, Stewart Downing, Jose Enrique, Jordan Henderson and Luis Suarez but there is very little to show for it as far as the league is concerned. Adam (£8.5 million), Enrique (£6 million) and Suarez (£22.7 million) have all arguably lived up to their price tags but the same sentiments can't be aimed at the English trio of Carroll, Downing and Henderson which cost Liverpool a massive £75 million. Just nine goals have been scored between them in all competitions this season. Value for money? Far from it.

Sunderland, Everton, Swansea and Norwich are all within striking distance of the Reds who know that they simply have to win away at Newcastle on Sunday to stand a realistic chance of catching their opponents in fifth place. A miserable run of form in February and March has yield just four points from seven league matches and if they don't stop the rot soon they could be destined for a bottom-half finish.

Dalglish has openly admitted that his team needs to change its philosophy to a certain extent, but surely it's too late for that at this stage of the season? The big money signings who have failed to fulfil their potential up until now ought to step up to the plate and restore some respectability to Liverpool's dwindling league campaign. If that doesn't provide adequate motivation for the likes of Carroll, Downing and Henderson, perhaps the chance of playing at this summer's Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine will.

The final stretch of the 2011/12 season may not involve a battle for Champions League football as anticipated, however, it's an absolutely crucial period for Dalglish and Liverpool as they aim to prove they have what it takes to re-establish themselves amongst the elite of English football.

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Fed Express is set for its final journey

Roger Federer doesn't settle for second best. The Swiss will no doubt be delighted to have equalled Rafael Nadal's record of 19 ATP Masters 1000 titles after beating John Isner in the Indian Wells final on Sunday, but his ultimate ambition is to add to his haul of 16 Grand Slam titles. Has the great man got it in him?

With three ATP titles to his name already in 2012 (Rotterdam, Dubai and Indian Wells), the 30-year-old appears to be in great shape to claim his first slam since the 2010 Australian Open. Having only won once at Roland Garros - in 2009 after the king-of-clay Nadal had suffered a shock elimination at the hands of Robin Soderling in the fourth round - Federer will have one eye on Wimbledon and the US Open where he has been crowned champion on six and five occasions respectively.
Roger Federer is desperate to rekindle his former Grand Slam glory

Despite departing SW19 in the quarter-finals and Flushing Meadows in the semi-finals in 2010 and 2011, he will be determined to rediscover his magic this time round.

Standing in his way are the top two ranked players in the world, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and potentially world number four Andy Murray who is still vying for his first Grand Slam title.

Encouragingly for Federer, Nadal has failed to secure a title so far this season and even though Djokovic powered to the Australian Open in January, semi-final defeats against Murray in Dubai and Isner in Indian Wells have somewhat dented the air of invincibility he possessed throughout 2011. Murray's early exit from Indian Wells may detract from his promising early season form but there are still major question marks surrounding his mental capabilities in the latter stages of Grand Slams.

Evidently, there are strong reasons to believe that Federer could re-establish himself at the very top of the game, however, history suggests that age is more than just a number in tennis. Since the beginning of 1990, only five of the 89 Grand Slam tournaments have been won by players over the age of 30 (Andres Gomez 1990 French Open (aged 30), Petr Korda 1998 Australian Open (aged 30), Andre Agassi 2001 and 2003 Australian Open (aged 30 and 32) and Pete Sampras 2002 US Open (aged 31)).

The world number three can take comfort from the exploits of fellow legends Agassi and Sampras in the twilight of their careers, but such has been the development of the game over the past decade, it's difficult to see many names being added to that list in the future.

Nowadays, there is so much more emphasis on moving around the court at speed and producing a large variety of shots whereas in the past a combination of shot power and a quality service game could be enough to fire a player to stardom. The game has moved on massively to the benefit of young talent coming through the ranks which is something Federer has to deal with.

If he was competing in any other era many would argue that he could defy the dreaded age barrier and sustain his huge level of success. It just so happens that he is competing in an era which is recognised as being 'the closest to perfection the sport has ever seen' by Sporting Intelliegence

Whether this will prove the stumbling block in his quest for another Grand Slam title remains to be seen but whatever happens between now and the end of his career, it will take a very special player to better his record total.

And you certainly wouldn't bet against him making it that little bit more difficult to do so.  

Monday, 12 March 2012

The race is on

"We won't get nervous, we have the experience." The words of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will reverberate around the Etihad Stadium as his side aim to press home their new-found advantage over Manchester City in the Premier League title race.
All to play for: Manchester's top two are set for the title showdown  

City boss Roberto Mancini is convinced that the outcome of the Manchester derby will prove decisive, but given the difficulty of his team's fixtures compared to that of United's, and the clear shift in momentum, the pressure is all on City to make sure they're at least within striking distance of their bitter rivals come 30 April.

Trips to face Stoke (24 March) and Arsenal (8 April) will seriously test City's resolve, as will the visits of Chelsea (21 March) and Sunderland (31 March) to Eastlands.

Those four games come before tricky away fixtures at Norwich (14 April) and Wolves (22 April) and a favourable home match against West Brom (11 April).

United, on the other hand, have generous looking home games against Fulham (26 March), QPR (8 April), Aston Villa (15 April) and Everton (22 April) and visit three of the five relegation candidates; Wolves (18 March), Blackburn (2 April) and Wigan (11 April).

The old cliche goes that anything can happen between now and the end of the season but even the most pessimistic of United supporters would expect the champions to pick up at least 16 points from the next 21 available.

Five wins, one draw and one defeat will take United to 83 points, in which case City would need 14 points from their seven matches to be within three points of the Reds on derby day. If Mancini's men can hold their nerve that's by no means beyond their capabilities. The worry for them is that United could quite easily improve on that tally if they hit anywhere near top form.

Interestingly, both sides have the advantage of playing their fixture before the other on three occasions, with the only simultaneous kick-off, prior to the derby, being on 11 April. Neither manager can have any complaints regarding the scheduling, with the weight of pressure set to switch evenly between the two sides as the season unfolds.

So how will it all pan out? Below is my fixture-by-fixture prediction for both clubs:

Manchester United
18 March Wolves (A) W
26 March Fulham (H) W
2 April Blackburn (A) D
8 April QPR (H) W
11 April Wigan (A) W
15 April Aston Villa (H) W
22 April Everton (H) W
30 April Manchester City (A) D
6 May Swansea (H) W
13 May Sunderland (A) D
Points tally ahead of the derby: 86
Final points tally: 91

Manchester City
21 March Chelsea (H) W
24 March Stoke (A) D
31 March Sunderland (H) W
8 April Arsenal (A) L
11 April West Brom (H) W
14 April Norwich (A) D
22 April Wolves (A) W
30 April Manchester United (H) D
6 May Newcastle (A) W
13 May QPR (H) W
Points tally ahead of the derby: 80
Final points tally: 87

City have the ability to push United all the way but by my reckoning the Red Devils will be crowned champions on the penultimate day of the season. As Sir Alex said, experience will be the most important factor.

Mancini and his squad will gain a huge amount of the crucial ingredient during the title run-in and providing they manage to keep the nucleus of their squad together in the summer, they will undoubtedly come back as an even stronger outfit in 2012/13.

For now though, a 20th league title beckons for United.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Vettel's got the metal to make it a hat-trick

With the new Formula One season less than two weeks away, the question on everybody's lips is whether Sebastian Vettel can be stopped in his pursuit of a third successive world championship and a place in motor sport's history books. If successful this time round, the German will join Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna as a three-time champion and also put himself alongside compatriot Michael Schumacher (2000 - 2004) and Juan Manuel Fangio (1954 -1957), who up until now are the only two drivers to have won the crown more than two years consecutively. Such has been the dominance of Vettel and Red Bull in the past two campaigns, there is no reason to suggest that he won't repeat the feat of those two racing legends.
Sebastian Vettel is looking to re-write the record books this season

Despite a disappointing final day of pre-season testing in Barcelona on Sunday, the 24-year-old will be safe in the knowledge that his team has the edge over rivals McLaren and Ferrari ahead of the opening Grand Prix in Melbourne, Australia (18 March).

While many are predicting one of the closest seasons in years, the recent admission of Ferrari's technical director Pat Fry that the team 'have a lot of work to do' to get the car upto speed, and the doubts about whether McLaren duo - Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button - can rediscover their championship winning heroics of 2008 and 2009, understandably mark Vettel out as favourite to retain his title.

That's not to say it will be easy for him; far from it. The world champion will be joined in the field by five other drivers who have also been there and done it before - Schumacher (Mercedes), Hamilton, Button, Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) and Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus), who returns to F1 this season after two years in rallying.

These drivers have proven time and time again that they can win races against the odds and they're willing to take huge risks to ensure they cross the finishing line in first place. Schumacher and Raikkonen may struggle to force their way into the title shake-up come the end of the season, but if they do happen to find themselves in a podium position in any given Grand Prix, they can rely on their experience to fend off the main championship challengers.

Add to the mix Mark Webber, whose third-place finishes in the last two seasons have played a pivotal role in Red Bull securing back-to-back Constructors' Championships, and Felipe Massa, who came within a whisker of winning the championship in 2008, and you can see why it is shaping up to be a fascinating eight months.

With this in mind, if Vettel does manage to prevail this season it will undoubtedly be the greatest achievement of his illustrious career. The German will have to overcome some of F1's greats to establish himself as a legend of the sport but he certainly has the talent and the car to do just that.