Monday, 29 October 2012

We can learn much more from the Ballon d'Or

Class act: Messi is aiming to make it four Ballon d'Ors in a row
There may be a 23-man shortlist for this year's FIFA Ballon d'Or but in reality it's a two horse race. Either Barcelona's Lionel Messi or Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo will take the crown on 7th January 2013 as they continue to break records at an unfathomable rate.

The other 21 nominees will know this themselves, whether they choose to admit it or not, but the extensive list certainly gives us a interesting insight into football's hotspots at this moment in time, both at club and international level.

Nominees by the country where they play
Spain: 12 (Xabi Alonso, Karim Benzema, Sergio Busquets, Iker Casillas, Cristiano Ronaldo, Radamel Falcao, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Mesut Ozil, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Xavi) 
England: 5 (6*) (Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli, Didier Drogba*, Wayne Rooney, Yaya Toure and Robin Van Persie)
Italy: 2 (3*) (Gianluigi Buffon, Zlatan Ibrahimovic* and Andrea Pirlo)
Germany: 1 (Manuel Neuer)
France: 1 (Zlatan Ibrahimovic)
China: 1 (Didier Drogba)
Brazil: 1 (Neymar)

*Didier Drogba was a Chelsea player until 20th June 2012. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was an AC Milan player until 18th July 2012.

Nominees by nationality 
Spanish: 7 (Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Iker Casillas, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Xavi)
Italian: 3 (Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli)
Argentinian: 2 (Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi)
German: 2 (Manuel Neuer and Mesut Ozil)
Ivorian: 2 (Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure)
Brazilian: 1 (Neymar)
Colombian: 1 (Radamel Falcao) 
Dutch: 1 (Robin Van Persie)
English: 1 (Wayne Rooney)
French: 1 (Karim Benzema)
Portuguese: 1 (Cristiano Ronaldo)
Swedish: 1 (Zlatan Ibrahimovic)

With twelve representatives from Spain's La Liga, seven of which are homegrown, there's no doubt that it's the league producing and attracting the majority of the world's finest players.

Nevertheless, with the exception of Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao, these are only split between the two powerhouses of Spanish football, Real Madrid (6) and Barcelona (5). Their dominance of the league, particularly over the last three seasons where they have finished 25 points (2009/10), 21 points (2010/11) and 30 points (2011/12) clear of their nearest rivals, coincides with the creation of two incredible squads.

Atletico's superb start to this season, which has put them level on points with Barcelona at the top of the table after nine games and eight points clear of Real, has been spearheaded by Falcao's ten league goals.

The English Premier League can offer thanks to four of its clubs for their six representatives. Manchester City trio Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli and Yaya Toure are all in the running alongside Manchester United's Wayne Rooney.

Didier Drogba now plys his trade for Chinese outfit Shanghai Shenhua but his nomination is obviously attributed to the pivotal role he played in Chelsea's gobsmacking Champions League triumph last season.

And despite his transfer to Manchester United in the summer, Arsenal can take a large proportion of the credit for Robin Van Persie's selection after he finished as the Premier League's top marksmen in the 2011/12 campaign with 30 goals.

There is a healthier distribution of quality in the Premier League but players of the very highest calibre are harder to come by than they're in La Liga.

Serie A's dwindling reputation is demonstrated by the fact that just two of their players - Juventus duo Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo - feature in the shortlist. They can lay claim to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who left AC Milan to join Paris Saint-Germain in the summer, but his decision to play in the less demanding Ligue 1 tells a story in itself.  

The only real consolation for Italy is that they're the second best represented nation behind Spain with three nominees. The Azzurri are closely followed by Argentina, Germany and Ivory Coast who all have two.

The Bundesliga has been receiving plenty of plaudits this season with all three of their Champions League sides performing well in their respective groups. Therefore, it may come as a disappointment that Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is the only player from their league to make the final twenty-three.

Although there are two overwhelming favourites to win the accolade, the shortlist still has a purpose in assessing the quality of each nation's top-flight league. The debate over whether the English Premier League is the best in the world will continue to rumble on but it has to be said that Barcelona and Real Madrid are currently producing some of the best football the game has ever seen.

Questions have been asked on the back of our team's below-par performances in this season's Champions League but we must not forget that we have won three of the last eight competitions and had five losing finalists in the same period. Spain may have the upperhand in terms of quality but as an all-round package, it's the Premier League for me every time.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Can cycling's troubled past be fully exposed?

Armstrong has been found out but USADA want to uncover all the other hidden revelations
Today, the International Cycling Union (ICU) endorsed a United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) decision to erase drugs cheat Lance Armstrong's career from the record books.
The decision is widely perceived as the first major step towards restoring the credibility of cycling, however, USADA chairman Travis Tygart doesn't plan on stopping there.

He is proposing a panel to receive confessions from dopers that have not yet come forward. The question is whether this can really ensure the slate is wiped completely clean?

"It is essential that an independent and meaningful Truth and Reconciliation Commission be established so that the sport can fully unshackle itself from the past.

"There are many more details of doping that are hidden, many more doping doctors, and corrupt team directors and the omerta has not yet been fully broken." Travis Tygart, USADA chairman.

Cyclists who have cheated in the past and chosen not admit to it to this day obviously have a complete disregard for the fundamentals of fair competition within the sport. 

From their perspective, they don't stand to gain anything from owning up to their mistakes. In their eyes, it will only bring shame upon themselves and help clean up the act of a sport which they contrived to tarnish in the first place.

The word 'incentive' has been banded about to encourage these cheats to come forward. The fact of the matter is they don't deserve anything in return for confessing to their actions. The only incentive for them should be the assurance of their own self-dignity and a clear conscience in their future lives. But is that really enough? In some cases, yes. In others, no.

I personally struggle to understand how a Truth and Reconciliation Commission can unequivocally guarantee that all the misdemeanours of cycling's past are exposed, nevertheless, I would gladly be proved wrong.

What's done is done. Lessons have to be learnt from the Armstrong saga and drawn upon without fail going forward. If too much focus is put on the past, it will only undermine the aim of creating a brighter future for the sport.

Further developments regarding USADA's plans are expected in the coming weeks. I, like many others, will be all ears.


Monday, 15 October 2012

Ronnie brings up his century

Captain fantastic: Ronaldo is set to join Luis Figo and Fernando Couto in the 100+ caps club 
Wednesday 20th August 2003. Manchester United's new £12.24m signing Cristiano Ronaldo makes his international bow after replacing AC Milan's Rui Costa at half-time of Portugal's 1-0 friendly victory over Kazakhstan. Two weeks earlier, the 18-year-old was an influential figure as Sporting Lisbon defeated United 3-1 in a pre-season friendly to mark the opening of the their new stadium, the Estádio José Alvalade. Sir Alex Ferguson signed the Portuguese starlet the following week and the rest as they say is history.  

On Tuesday night, nine years on from his debut for Portugal, the man now regarded by many as the best player on the planet is set to win his 100th international cap in a World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland. At just 27 years and 254 days old, Ronaldo will become the third youngest European to reach the landmark for their respective country behind Germany's Lukas Podolski (27 years and 13 days) and Estonia's Kristen Viikmäe (27 years and 109 days).

In the build-up to Euro 2012, Ronaldo said: "I will only be fully content with my career when I have lifted a trophy with Portugal." (

He has managed to find the net on 37 occasions for his country to date but having failed to lift any silverware from five international tournaments, his desire to do so is unquestionable. A 1-0 loss to Greece in the final of Euro 2004 was followed by semi-final heartache at the hands of France in the 2006 World Cup (1-0) and Spain at Euro 2012 (0-0 AET, 4-2 on penalties). Sandwiched between the latter two, was quarter-final elimination to Germany at Euro 2008 (3-2) and a round of 16 defeat against Spain at the 2010 World Cup (1-0).

At club level he has won everything he would have wished for as a youngster. Three Premier League crowns (2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09), one La Liga title (2011-12), the FA Cup (2003-04), two Football League Cups (2005-06 and 2008-09), the Copa del Rey (2010-11), the UEFA Champions League (2007-08) and the FIFA Club World Cup (2008) are all firmly tucked away in the trophy cabinet and success on the international stage, namely the World Cup, would complete his collection.

Ronaldo and his Argentinian counterpart Lionel Messi are staking a major claim to go down as the best two players to have ever played the game but the general perception is that they will have to win the World Cup to truly challenge the legendary statuses of Pele and Diego Maradona. There's the obvious argument that the quality of the Portuguese and Argentinian players surrounding them will dictate their chances of achieveing the ultimate goal in football but these two players are so incredibly talented that they have the ability to win matches almost single-handedly, just as Pele and Maradona did for Brazil and Argentina respectively.

Despite suffering a 1-0 defeat away to Russia on Friday night, Portugal will still be extremely confident of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil one way or another. They now find themselves on the back foot in the battle for top spot and automatic qualification but they will expect to claim one of the eight best runners-up spots at the very least and secure a place in the play-offs. Ronaldo will be 29 years of age by the time the tournament starts and will most likely view it as the final international competition where he is at the very, very peak of his powers.  

It's set to be 100 caps and counting for CR7 on Tuesday night. Will his second century prove even more fruitful than the first?

Monday, 8 October 2012

Into the final stretch we go...

It's always said that the true sign of any great champion is the ability to produce the goods when it really matters. Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel has been on the cusp of the title race for much of this season but as we enter the final quarter of the campaign, two successive grand prix wins in Singapore and Japan have put the 25-year-old in prime position to retain his crown for a second time.

May the best man win: Vettel and Alonso have five races left to determine their fates
Only compatriot Michael Schumacher (2000 - 2004) and Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio (1954 - 1957) have managed to claim the championship more than two years consecutively, so a place in history beckons for Vettel. Just four points separate him and the championship leader Fernando Alonso with five races remaining and given that the former has recorded victories at four of those tracks within the last two years - the United States Grand Prix is a new addition for 2012 - he will certainly fancy his chances of sealing the elusive hat-trick.

Triumphs in Brazil and Abu Dhabi in 2010 and Korea and India in 2011 saw Vettel end the previous two campaigns in superb fashion but he will be wary of the fact that the man who profited as much as anybody from his retirements in Korea in 2010 and Abu Dhabi in 2011 was Alonso who finished first and second place respectively. 

The tide is turning
Since taking 121 points from races five (Spain) to eleven (Hungary) - Vettel claimed just sixty-nine points over the same period - Alonso has only managed to score thirty points from four races to Vettel's sixty-eight.

The German has the momentum and the experience to get himself over the line but he knows that any slip-ups will almost definitely be capitalised on by the Spaniard. The form of the Ferrari driver may have taken a turn for a worst but as a two-time world champion he won't let that affect him.

Comparison of Alonso's results in the first half and second half of the 2005 and 2006 seasons 
Races 1 - 10:
3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 4th, 1st, Ret, DNS, 1st (69 points from 10 races)
*Raikkonen bettered Alonso's result on three occasions (3/10)
Races 11 - 19:
2nd, 1st, 11th, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 1st (64 points from 9 races)
*Raikkonen bettered Alonso's result on five occasions (5/9)

Races 1 - 9:
1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st (84 points from 9 races)
*Schumacher bettered Alonso's result on two occasions (2/9)
Races 10 - 18:
5th, 2nd, 5th, Ret, 2nd, Ret, 2nd, 1st, 2nd (50 points from 9 races)
*Schumacher bettered Alonso's result on six occasions (6/9)

His back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006 may seem like a long time ago now, however, the manner in which he achieved them will stand him in extremely good stead. Despite coming under intense pressure from Kimi Raikkonen in 2005 and Schumacher in 2006, Alonso did what he had to do and gradually accumulated the necessary points to guide him to success. In both cases, his most impressive sequence of results came in the first half of the season. Thereafter, there was a lot more emphasis on grinding out the points and putting all his efforts into finishing as close to his rival as he could, if indeed he wasn't able to finish ahead of them (see above).

The 31-year-old will have to draw on these battling qualities once more to fend off the challenge of Vettel but such has been the competitiveness and unpredictability of Formula One this season, anything could happen. It might not be pretty from the eventual champion but success at the end of such an incredible campaign would mean an awful lot.

Raikkonen or Lewis Hamilton could even make a late push despite finding themselves thirty-seven and forty-two points off the pace respectively. Whatever the outcome, 2012 will go down as a landmark season for motorsport's centre piece.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Fergie's defensive dilemmas

Sir Alex Ferguson may have described the four minutes of injury time added to Manchester United's 3-2 defeat by Tottenham as an insult to the game, but there's no denying that it would take even stronger words to sum up his side's defending against the North Londoners on Saturday.

Am I seeing this right?: Sir Alex won't have been impressed by his team's defending this season 

To put it simply, they fell well short of their usual standards. Jan Vertonghen and Gareth Bale were both allowed to roam forward unopposed in the first half to put Spurs into a deserved 2-0 lead and within moments of Nani halving the deficit in the 51st minute, Bale found himself in acres of space inside the box to force a decent save out of Anders Lindegaard and leave Clint Dempsey with a tap-in.

The Red Devils have now conceded nine goals in their opening six Premier League matches and kept just one clean sheet amid that period of games. Club captain Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are all on the treatment table and the doubts are growing about the capabilities of Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra to perform consistently at the highest level. The fact that the incredibly inexperienced Scott Wootton - a first team debutant in the 2-1 victory against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup last Wednesday - was the only defender on the bench on Saturday shows that the backline is genuinely stretched to its limits.

Goals conceded in the first six games of the last six seasons
2011/12 - 5 goals
2010/11 - 9 goals
2009/10 - 6 goals
2008/09 - 4 goals
2007/08 - 2 goals
2006/07 - 4 goals

Another youngster, Michael Keane, has been drafted into the squad alongside Wootton for the trip to face CFR Cluj on Tuesday night and as much as the all-round 'Champions League' experience will be beneficial to the pair of them, Sir Alex will be extremely hopeful that he isn't forced to throw them straight into the action. Anymore injuries and that could well be the case.

Their next four league games see them travel to Newcastle and Chelsea and play host to Stoke and Arsenal. The equivalent fixtures from last season yielded seven points, just one clean sheet and accounted for eight of the thirty-three goals they conceded in the Premier League. The manager will be anticipating a better return this time round as the Reds aim to seal up the cracks in the back four and get their title challenge back on track. 

The damage is by no means irreparable at this early stage of the season and Sir Alex can elude to many examples where shaky starts have been overcome and led to success. The same goals against record at this stage of the 2010/11 campaign saw United accumulate the same amount of points as they have thus far, twelve, and when you consider that they went on to win the title that season by nine points, it's far from doom and gloom.