Friday, May 23, 2014

Madrid Showdown in Lisbon

All Madrid has been restless this week with the upcoming showdown between Real and Atletico in the UCL final at Lisbon. The Whites are going in as favorites with the bookies but this confrontation looks very evenly-matched on paper.

Real Madrid have been talking about La Decima for a few years now; their obsession for a 10th European Cup triumph has been voiced clear and loud. They came close to reaching the final in the past few years and have finally made it this year. On any day, they have the squad to beat any team. The reason being that, they have not only Christiano Ronaldo, but also Gareth Bale, who are one of a handful of players in the world that can turn a match on its head at any time. Ronaldo has shown it time and again, whether at Man Utd or at Real. Bale has shown it in this year's Copa Final where he scored a spectacular solo goal, against the run of play, against a menacing Barcelona. That goal finally exposed his explosiveness on the grand stage and shut down any critics that thought he wasn't worth the price tag Real paid for him. To have any chance, Atletico need to shut down Bale and Ronaldo. On the defensive side, Real are sweating on the availability of Pepe. More importantly, they will miss the organizational skills of Alonso, who's suspended for the match.

Atletico are this year's winners of La Liga after a titanic battle with Real and Barcelona. While no-one really expected them to last the distance, they showed amazing character and resilience to fend off two rivals with vastly superior squad names and resources. What Diego Simone has achieved this season with this team is more than spectacular. They might not be household names but the likes of Costa, Godin, Koke and Arda make a touch bunch that have been near-impossible to crack. They have found it easy to score when needed and are mightily difficult to be scored against. This team can give any other team a run for their money. The worrying thing for Atletico fans is the fitness of star striker Costa. His availability will be instrumental in their chances of scoring and winning. 

Both sides have huffed and puffed since reaching the final. It is clear that the season has taken its toll. Ronaldo and Costa have missed the last weeks' of matches because of injury. Their form, let alone their fitness or disposition, will  have an impact. The other intangible to consider is Simone. He has yet to lose a major final as manager. He's proven he has the motivational skills to get the best out of his over-performing players and a victory in this ultimate challenge would be the crowning achievement of a dream season.

I have little doubt this is going to be close. It might go to extra-time, maybe even penalties. My feeling is that Atletico will prevail in the end. Just a feeling, nothing concrete to back it up. I find them overpriced/under-valued on the exchanges or with bookies. The recipe for them to win is simple; keep Bale and Ronaldo at a distance and score as they usually do. Have a great final!

Win Final: Atletico Madrid

Saturday, May 17, 2014

End of drought

I can't possibly see anything other than Arsenal lifting the FA Cup in a few hours. They have Ramsey and Ozil back and have displayed very good form in the closing weeks of the EPL. Hull's best chance is to drag the game until the lottery of penalties but I reckon that the Gunners have enough firepower to score before then. Mind you, Man City inexplicably lost the final to Wigan last year. Arsenal lost to Birmingham in the League final a few years back. So, nothing's a certainty but I still think that Hull will be toothless today. The difference in class is evident. This should end the famous silverware drought for long-suffering Gunners fans. Take that Mourinho; Arsene Wenger, the man you labelled as a specialist in failure is bound to have a more successful season than you and Chelsea!

Win Cup: Arsenal

Monday, May 12, 2014

Looking at the scrums

The EPL is over with the crown going to the blue part of Manchester. This was a crazy, unprecedented season filled with shockers, the likes of which have never been witnessed before. Through this roller-coaster rider, I've gotten a bit of things right but also was off-base on quite a few others as well. Here are some observations that spring to mind.

The Ferguson factor. There is no doubt in my mind that SAF, or more his lack of participation, played a major part in the proceedings. With more or less the same Man Utd team, he won the league in the previous season by double digits. Sure, the team he left was not on the up-rise but that does not explain how the team can go worse off by 25 points within a year! That's over 8 matches. Football, particularly Man Utd, learned the hard way that the manager makes a difference, and even more so when the greatest of them all retires.

Among the things I got right was predicting that the title would go either to Chelsea or Man City. I explained that Man Utd had little chance under the re-building of Moyes, that Arsenal were still the same, and Liverpool could not possibly be of championship caliber. Got to admit that it turned out to be a close call. Sure, Man City are deserved champions but no matter what angle you look at it, it's Liverpool that threw the title away. With 3 matches to play and a 5-point lead, the Kops will regret for long their lack of pragmatism, particularly in the game they lost to Chelsea at Anfield. A point would have sufficed to stay in command, yet they fell into the defensive trap set by a maestro like Mourinho. That proved the impetus for their downfall. Although Gerrard and Rodgers have been at pains since yesterday to guarantee imminent success with this young Liverpool team, I am not that convinced. It's too early to say, but I see City and Chelsea being even stronger next season, and with Man Utd possibly re-energized and Arsenal re-inforced, the Kops will find it harder to creep under the radar as this season. We'll get to that in due time.

At the other end of the scale, I got it wrong with Fulham tipping them to be of top-10 potential at the start of the season. I think their managerial go-round and lack of stability therefof undermined a team that looked honest on paper. Felix Magath might have been an eye-opening and good long-term appointment but it came too late. If they get their focus straight, they could make a quick return to the EPL next year. On the other hand, tipping Crystal Palace to stay up after the appointment of Pulis proved right. Liverpool's Rodgers gets my vote for manager of the year but Pulis comes in a close second.

Some of the names that sparkled; first, Luis Suarez, evidently. The best striker in the EPL and one of the top 3 in the world, in my opinion. Sure, his defects are well-documented but he's got the agility and movement seen in Messi and a fantastic eye for goal. He carried Liverpool all season and if he leaves, gone are the Merseyside's chances of major silverware. Second, Yaya Toure, who I rate the most dominant in the EPL on his best day. He's got everything; power, vision and technique. The sight of his box-to-box runs leaving the opposition trailing in his wake is a joy to watch. He gives City the presence and platform they need in the middle of the field to unleash their fantastic offensive potential. Third, Ross Barkley, the revelation of the year. His goal against Man City at Goodison Park epitomises the gem of a talent that will serve England in the future. He can run, he can shoot, he's brave, he's going to the World Cup. If he does not stray, he's going to be a superstar.

And finally, the flops. Mourinho. Another trophy-less season for someone who makes it a point to win silverware by any cost. Sure, Chelsea is not the force of old but the way they petered out in the last few weeks of the campaign when there was all to play for, suggests that the Special One cannot always bring instant success. The pattern that seems to be emerging from his managerial record is that he is a master at getting a result against teams that need to be enterprising (think the Anfield game) but is less effective when it's his team that needs to dictate the play (think the UCL return game against Atletico Madrid). Dubbed the Semi-final One in lieu of Special One, for his growing record of failing to go past the semi-final stage of the UCL, he knows that any lack of silverware next year will hardly be tolerated by Ambramovich. It will be fascinating to see how Chelsea reacts next year but I would expect a fast start on their part. David Moyes, ok that has been well documented. Good coach but not good enough for Man Utd. He made them worse than what they actually are. Whether it's his or the player's fault is a moot point, they simply stopped believing in him and then stopped playing for him. Finally, Cardiff City, Norwich City and Fulham, the 3 relegated teams. I briefly mentioned Fulham above, but it is evident that the downfall for all these teams can be attributed to lack of leadership at the top. Cardiff were enjoying a good spell with Mickey Thomas and once owner Vincent Tan opted to change things and bring in Solkjaer in the second half of the season, things went inexorably downhill. Same story and failed policy for Norwich and Fulham. While it is very possible that the owners have good grounds for the changes they feel need to be imposed, even without the need of stating the reasons in public, the record seems to show that managerial changes done while the teams are doing reasonably well can indeed lead to catastrophic consequences.

Man City deservedly take it all at the end. They had the best squad, played the best football and have been the best representatives of English football.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Coronation for Man City

Sunday sees the curtain call to one of the most exciting and dramatic seasons of the EPL. In the end, Man City will win it because no-one can see them being beaten by West Ham at home on the last day. Here are some thoughts on the some of the fixtures of the ultimate day.

Cardiff v/s Chelsea. Cardiff will go down and Chelsea can at most look for 2nd place should Liverpool falter against Newcastle. Second place is not an enticing proposition to either Mourinho or the Blues at this time. Amazing, but Mourinho will finish the season empty-handed for the second time in a row, after last year's debacle at Real Madrid. That must be tough for someone that is driven by trophies like no other. Still, I cannot see Chelsea lose this match and a draw-no-bet on the visitors looks reasonable.

Hull v/s Everton. Don't expect Hull to go all guns blazing for a win here because they are bound to rest players for their upcoming FA Cup final against Arsenal. Everton have nothing to play for, having missed out on a UCL spot but will play in Europe next year. They will probably try to finish an excellent year on a high and a win at Hull does not look improbable at all.

Liverpool v/s Newcastle. Who'd thought before the season started that Liverpool will end up disappointed with a 2nd place finish? They should because they have blown it big time and wasted a glorious opportunity to win the league. I don't know if they'll have such an opportunity again in the near future. That said, they should easily dismiss of Newcastle on Sunday, but will all be aware that Man City will have gotten their required point against West Ham.

Man City v/s West Ham. Can City blow it? They almost blew it against QPR 2 seaons ago. They blew it against Wigan in last year's FA Cup final. They blew it against Sunderland at home a few weeks ago.  Mentally, they have lapses. But not getting at least a point at the Etihad against West Ham when the title is on the line, would be the greatest meltdown on all. I cannot see that happening. Vincent Kompany will lift the EPL trophy at the end of the day.

Southampton v/s Man Utd. I don't know what message interim manager Giggs was trying to send out when fielding newbies Wilson and Lawrence in their last home game? It almost seems as if he did not seem interested to give a chance of redemption for established players that have seen their stars dimmed during this catastrophic season. There is no doubt that this is a team at the end of a cycle that will undergo massive surgery in the off-season. On the other hand, the Saints have enjoyed an excellent season and are a force to reckon with at home. I like their chances as a draw-no-bet, knowing full well that they don't have anything to play for, while the Red Devils have an outside chance for a Europa League spot with a win.

Sunderland v/s Swansea. Even though they are safe after a fantastic last closing weeks, Sunderland should ride the great wave of momentum they are in and win their last home match against Swansea. I don't know how much the visitors have to rejoice at the appointment of interim manager Monk to the permanent position. I think they would have been better off with a proven manager. We'll see next season, but for this match, the form that Sunderland are in makes them impossible to oppose.

Tottenham v/s Aston Villa. I think that Spurs will get the last Europa spot. Although I was very skeptical from the start, I must say that Tim Sherwood has done a great job for them. There is definitely the vibes that he won't retain the position as Spurs, and particularly its chairman, want an established world-known name. They should beat a Villa team that has nothing to play for and should have less than full in the tank after their exertions at the Etihad in mid-week.

Win: Everton, Liverpool, Man City, Sunderland, Tottenham
Draw-no-bet: Chelsea, Southampton

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Noble on a mission

Thursday's 14.15 Group 3 Huxley Stakes at Chester sees the quick return to action of Noble Mission and Telescope after their duel a fortnight ago at Sandown. Frankel's brother won that last match easily by 9 lengths, the margin probably flattered by the lack of fitness of Telescope who faltered badly in the end. The latter will certainly be better wound up this time round and close the gap with Noble Mission. I cannot see those 2 sons of Galileo being out of the first 3 and they are both fancied as placings on the exchanges (first 3 placed), with Noble Mission again prevailing at the finish.

Win: Noble Mission
Place: Noble Mission, Telescope

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Epic Kop-llapse

What a stunner of a comeback by Crystal Palace to foil Liverpool today! With a 3-0 lead, the question for the Kops was whether to park the bus and secure the 3 important points or improve the goal difference to bridge the gap with Man City's. Call it monumental tactical mistake or defensive collapse, but it seems that Liverpool have all but scuppered their major chance of securing the league in years. This year looked to be their moment and by all accounts, it seems that they've blown it big time. The thought of Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal being even better next year will fill the Kops with regrets as regards this season giveaway. Scenes of Gerrard on his knees and of a shattered and inconsolable Suarez during the post game will be the lasting impression on the Kop despite the club's fantastic season. Unless Man City decide to give it all away...

The nightmare seaon of Man Utd is nearly over. Gone is Moyes and Giggs was hailed after a thumping win against lowly Norwich. Then Sunderland came to put things in their perspective and tone down the claims that Giggs was THE ONE. I wonder why Carlos Quieroz hasn't been solicited. At least his name hasn't been mentioned at all in the press, unlike Van Gaal who seems to be the appointed one. I mention SAF's ex-number 2 here, because having the read SAF's second autobiography, you'd feel that his choice for manager besides Moyes would have been Quieroz. It's true that the great man does not decide things anymore at Old Trafford, and with the Moyes debacle, these decisions would be more the domain of other instances such as the owners and chief executive. With Hull visiting on Tuesday, it might be worth having one last faith in the old brigade. Granted, Rooney will be missing, but it's difficult for me to see Hull presenting any clear danger here. They are almost out of the relegation danger but their play in the past few weeks gives me no confidence whatsoever for a proper showing. I see Man Utd finally ending their home misery and get the win, something which has been shockingly missing in their repertoire this season.

Win: Man Utd

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Magician to look forward to

Tremendous wins for Night of Thunder and Miss France in the 2000 and 1000 Guineas over the week-end. It was particularly pleasing to see Kieran Fallon win a classic after an 8-year drought. Although beaten, Australia confirmed all the good vibes from Ballydoyle and is certainly a horse to look forward to with excitement this year.

The other horse that is expected to light the fireworks for the Irish powerhouse this year is Magician. The winner of the Breeders Cup Turf makes his European re-appearance of the season at the Curragh on Monday. He finished 6th in the Sheema Classic in Dubai on World Cup day but it is a race best forgotten as he met into serious traffic trouble in the straight. Word is that he's in better nick than in Dubai, so he should win the Moorsbridge Group 3 Monday race.

Win: Magician

Friday, May 2, 2014

Of cajones and champions

It seems much of the drama remaining in the EPL will climax this week-end where the 2 main protagonists, Man City and Liverpool, have their toughest games remaining. The Citizens visit Everton where they have an appalling record, while Liverpool travel to Crystal Palace where full points are not a certain conclusion. It is general consensus that the Kops will easily dispose of struggling Newcastle on the last day while City should win its remaining home games against the likes of  Aston Villa and West Ham (though, that is by no means with 100% confidence).

Everton v/s Man City is the big one. The Toffees have surpassed all expectations all year long and have an outside chance for a UCL spot, although I don't think they will get it because Arsenal should finish the season strong. They have beaten the likes of Arsenal, Man Utd and Chelsea at Goodison Park, so they will pose City problems. I think they will fancy their chances here even though getting a result will hand the title advantage to their much-hated city rivals Liverpool. The downside for them is that they will play without their main midfield anchor in Gareth Barry as he's ineligible to play against his parent club. Whether the return of captain Jagielka in defence after a 10-week absence is a good or bad one remains to be seen. It will be tough to get back defending against the most awesome attacking team in the league.

On the other side, Man City will have been buoyed by last week-end's results which gave their title charge major impetus. They are now back in command of the title destiny. The return of Yaya Toure has made a huge difference to the team and the availability of Silva from injury on Saturday makes them an even more formidable force. When on-song, whether at home or on the road, their football can reach the realms of fantasy. Add to that the appearance of Aguero on the frontline guarantees that they will have their chances to score. They will score in that match, no doubt.

If I am to pick a weakness with this talented City team is their mental toughness. They were unable to beat Sunderland a couple of weeks ago at the Etihad when nothing short of 3 full points were necessary. When they won the league a couple of years back, they struggled mightily to overcome QPR at home on the last day. This is a team that lost to Wigan in the FA Cup final last year. Hence, this could very well be a team that can beat Everton this week, but possibly lose points against Villa or West Ham in their next games.

Liverpool have the advantage of playing their game against Crystal Palace a day later. They will be able to decide when to throw the kitchen sink if needed, based on City's result. I think because of this, they will beat the Eagles. With their attacking mind-set, last-ditch goals will happen.

The Kop fans have reason to be hopeful of a City misstep. It might not happen at Everton, it might happen after that, who knows? Or it might not happen. Pellegrini's reputation is also quite massively on the line here. With that squad, failure at this stage would be disastrous. As Diego Simeone would say, do they have the "cajones" to see it through?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

2000 Guineas 2014

This year's 2000 Guineas is as open and competitive as I can think of one in recent years. There is no Frankel or a George Washington that towers over the field and what is equally surprising is that at least half of the 14-runner field look to have a chance to win. Fascinating contest in store indeed. I will throw in what I think are the 5 leading contenders but it would not be shocking if the winner came out of that pack.

Kingman is the deserving favourite. Undefeated in 3 races, he showed that he lost non of his juvenile ability by winning the Greenham on his seasonal debut by an impressive 4.5 lengths. The manner of his win suggests that the mile looks well within his grasp although a mile and a quarter might stretch him being a son of Invincible Spirit. At this point, this colt is very much unexposed and being trained by John Gosden must give him a first-rate chance. His odds are definitely on the short side but if he is able to reproduce that customary stunning turn of foot on the good underfoot conditions, he should be in the thereabouts.

Australia is the hyped horse from Ballydoyle. Since he's been dubbed "the best Flat horse I've ever trained" by Aidan O'Brien, he's shot towards the top of the market. This all looks paper talk so far; being a son of Galileo out of Ouija Board, his pedigree suggests that he's more apt for the Derby than the mile distance. He's won 2 of his 3 races, and his last trouncing of the highly-regarded Free Eagle on his last juvenile run suggests that he could indeed be special. I suppose the Ballydoyle trainer must have had his reasons to put this colt on such a pedestal but I am not convinced that he's got the speed to win this mile event among such a talented group. If he does win, he could be the next Sea The Stars. An interesting case to follow though.

Toormore is another colt putting his undefeated credentials on the line. His sire being Arakan and representing the Hannon stable, there are bound to be shades of comparison with Dick Turpin which emerged a very creditable third in this race a few years ago. Although his win in his seasonal bow was workmanlike, he showed he possessed the qualities for a fight that will stand him in good stead for the race. He could be the value pick to be in the first 3 given his odds in the market.

This one might be a surprise pick for some but I cannot recall a horse from Spain being heralded as is Noozhoh Canarias. This son of the high-class miler Caradak is a winner of 4 out of 5 races and his lone defeat came after a valiant struggle with top sprinter Karakontie in the Grand Criterium last year. He's clearly highly-regarded by connections and if he takes to the Rowley Mile, he could have major Place contender.

Last, I will throw in Kingston Hill, the winner of last year's Racing Post Trophy and still undefeated. The fact that Saturday will be his first race of the season does not give much indication of what kind of form or fitness he carries going in the race. He's a first-year product of Mastercraftsman, a sire that I very much admire and which I think can produce very high-class horses if given the chance with proper mares. I think this colt will show up with a good display but my feeling is that he will not be fully wound-up to win in such good company.

I will go for Kingman for the win and Toormore and Noozhoh Canarias to follow him home.

Win: Kingman
Place: Toormore, Noozhoh Canarias