Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sussex Stakes: Kingman challenges Toronado

Let's cut to the matter: the Sussex Stakes got a disappointing turnout of only 4 horses, and only 2 horses can pretend for the win; Kingman and Toronado. The other 2, Darwin and Outstrip have no chance.

This renewal pins the best milers from the powerful Juddmonte and Hannon connections; 2 years ago, that was the case as well when Frankel defied Canford Cliffs before destroying the Hannon superstar. While not being heralded in the same breadth as Frankel, Kingman has shown that he is a top-drawer of a miler with a devastating turn of foot. Were it not for a strangely-raced Guineas, he would be maintaining an undefeated record going into this race. There are not many horses that have the kind of acceleration he displayed in annexing the Irish Guineas and St James Palace Stakes. He's the deserved favourite.

Toronado won this race last year, avenging a contentious defeat to arch-rival Dawn Approach at Royal Ascot. He won his seasonal opener in good fashion without being fully wound-up. Word from the Hannon yard is that he is in great form, so he should make his presence felt. He can throw up the occasional bad race but with these 4 runners, I cannot see him worse than second.

The fact that Toronado has to give Kingman an 8-pound allowance makes it an even harder task for the son of High Chaparral. Unless Kingman has an off-day, which he hasn't had yet, he's impossible to oppose. The final standing should see Kingman followed home by Toronado.

Win: Kingman
Dupla: Kingman - Toronado

Friday, July 25, 2014

King George: Telescope looks vulnerable

This year's edition of the King George at Ascot looks to be a cracking race; granted, Australia and Treve might not be here but the rest of the field is steeped with top-class middle-distance performers. Here's an analysis of the field.

Telescope. The son of Galileo will start with the favourite tag following his demolition of the field in the Hardwicke Stakes at the same course and distance last month. Sir Michael Stoute's colt will try to follow the footsteps of Harbinger, another Stoute top performer who went on to an authoritative win in the race after success in the Hardwicke. Telescope has never come out worse than second in six career races but he's never faced a talented field of this kind before. He relishes good to firm conditions, and the latest downpour on Friday does not bode well for him. I think he is seriously exposed in this race and will find one or two better on the day. I cannot see him win this.

Taghrooda is the unbeaten Oaks winner who will race against the males for the first time. Given the benefit of her sex and age allowance at the weights, she's a big player. She won the Oaks in a manner that suggests that she's above anything that comes from the distaff side of her generation and  will not be ill at ease in such illustrious company. Her trainer John Gosden is a master at readying his charges for the big occasion and Taghrooda is undoubtedly his main hope; I cannot see her out of the first 3.

At the start of the season, Magician was hailed as being a main contender for the biggest middle-distance prizes this year and it is fair to say that he has not reached the high levels expected of him. He laboured to win a Group 3 in Ireland and has since been runner-up to Noble Mission in the Tatersalls Gold Cup and The Fugue in the Prince of Wales Stakes at Royal Ascot. Unless the Ballydoyle crew have gotten the bottom of him, I fear his biggest hope will be for the minor places.

Mukhradam will be the second-string for Hamdan Al Maktoum but always has the potential to steal a race as he showed in the Coral-Eclipse some weeks ago. He's most dangerous when left to dictate the pace of the race and if allowed to freely roam in front until the straight, he's sure to cause worried looks to the rest of the pack. The 12 furlong trip will certainly stretch the stamina of this mile-and-a quarter specialist.

Trading Leather. A consistent performer who's never out of the places and who will relish the distance. Onb ability, he seems to be a notch below the main contenders but he can definitely spring a surprise if others failing to fire on the day.

Eagle Top. Connections have supplemented this son of Pivotal following his impressive victory in the King Edwards Stakes at Royal Ascot. I suspect that although he's unproven on soft conditions, he will not mind any rain, being a son of Pivotal and a mare from In the Wings. In fact, I think that any downpour will suit him best out of the lot and should be strongly considered if the going gets any worse from good.

Romsdal. This colt is another representative of the Gosden stable and seems to always give the best of himself. He finished a fantastic third in the Derby and is definitely a horse on the upgrade. William Buick has preferred Eagle Top, but then in the Derby he chose Western Hymn with the results we know. Richard Hughes gets the leg-up again on Romsdal and it will not be surprising if he finishes inside the first 3.

Leitir Mor has no chance and his main contribution in the race might be to foil Mukhradam's chances of setting the pace.

This should be a well-disputed race and I will be in the minority in suggesting that Telescope will not win this race. I think the horse is over-hyped more than anything despite his Hardwicke triumph. I think Gosden's horses all have live chances and expect Taghrooda to keep her invincible tag at the finishing post.

Win: Taghrooda
Won't win (lay): Telescope
Place (If going is good/soft): Eagle Top

Saturday, July 12, 2014

WC 2014 Final: Great Germany on Path to Glory

The World Cup Final on Sunday will reunite the 2 teams that have left the best impression in Brazil for the past month; Germany and Argentina both deserve to play the final for the right to be called world champions.

The last time the World Cup was organized in South America, i.e, in 1986 in Mexico, the final pitted Diego Maradona's Argentina against Matthaus' Germany. The Argies edged that one. Four years later in Italy, the Germans got their measure of revenge by winning the final by the minimum margin. One of Sunday's main questions will be whether Messi can finally emulate Maradona in winning the Cup, the ultimate validation left on his resume before being called the greatest player the world has ever seen. Without it, there will always be doubters no matter how many trophies or personal records he achieves in club football. Pele won it, Maradona too, Messi needs it.

On the way of the diminutive Argentinian are the powerhouse German team, a fantastically well-oiled machine that has left the greatest impression in these finals. This team is comprised of world-class players playing close to the peak of their careers; Lahm, Muller, Neuer, Ozil, Schweinsteiger to name a few, are elite names in European football and their individual qualities have been fantastically molded into a strong, effective and indomitable German juggernaut. Such is the power of their play and current level of confidence that they invariably dictate play like no other team and are malleable enough to change their system based on the way the match is developing; during this tournament, they showed they can score first, level the score, or win matches when the chips are on the line. Keeper Neuer is a freak, a massive presence, most possibly the best keeper in the world today. The defence is solid with the likes of Hummels, Boateng and Lahm commanding respect from the best strikers. Their midfield screams top-class with Ozil, Schweinsteiger, Gotze, Khedira all able to dictate tempo; and let's not forget Marco Reus, the genius from Dortmund is not even playing in these finals. Muller and Klose lead the way up front and have been terrorizing defences since the start of the tournament. This is the golden generation playing for Germany.

Argentina are an excellent team with some great players like Di Maria, Higuain and Aguero but undoubtedly their lifeblood is Messi. Take Messi out of the team and this team loses any aura of invincibility that it might have portrayed. They become a very good, but beatable team. To beat the Germans, they will need at least 3 things; first, Messi to be on top of his game and not be a passive player as he's been in the past 2 games; second, Mascherano, one their best players since the tournament started and who made a fantastic last-ditch save against a sure Robben goal in the last match, needs to keep breaking plays in midfield and keep the defence tight when needed; third, Aguero and Higuain will need to show efficacy in front of goal and take whatever goal opportunities that the Germans might present to them. It looks a tall order for Argentina but with some luck, they should believe that they can overcome their under-dogs tag.

The Germans are not invincible; Bayern Munich, the nucleus of this team, were stunned by Chelsea in the UCL final a couple of years back when they were overwhelming favourites to lift the trophy on home soil. For all their power, they will also need some luck to win. Chances are that they won't freeze on the occasion but they still need to break an Argentinian defence that has not conceded goals in their two knock-out matches. They still need to nullify the greatest threat in football; Messi.

I believe they will do it; the Germans will win it. From what we've seen for the past month, Germany have been the best team by far. The sight of German captain Lamn lifting the most-coveted trophy in sports at the Maracana on Sunday will be one of the most-deserving.

Win WC 2014: Germany

Friday, July 11, 2014

WC 2014: 12th July - Some redemption for Brazil?

Saturday's match for third-place between Brazil and the Netherlands is a match no team wants to play; it signifies that they were close to getting to the final but failed.

I stated that Germany would eliminate Brazil in the semi-finals but obviously the 7-1 scoreline in favour of the Germans was not expected. It was a no-brainer that the hosts were facing the perfect storm against the mighty Germans when they had to start the match without Silva and Neymar. But their horrific display exposed the paucity of talent in their squad; something that the Brazilians are not accustomed to since the early days of football. The humiliating defeat will stay in football folklore for ever and Brazil will only recover when they lift the World Cup again. I don't know which will go down as the worst moment for Brazil; their home defeat at the Maracana in the 1950 World Cup against Uruguay or this year's 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Germans.

The Dutch lost their penalty shoot-out against Argentina. It's hard to have any sympathy for their loss as they were far from playing the total football their teams have been so remembered for. I think Van Gaal had to get results based on the limited talent at his disposal; besides Van Persie and Robben, there is hardly any world-class talent in that team; even Sneijder seems to have lost pace since his peak days a few years back. The Dutch did well to arrive at this stage of the competition.

This match for third place is the worst for punting. Both countries could be fielding their second team. It seems to be more like an exhibition match which makes it impossible to gauge. What seems certain though is that Brazil are in urgent need of forgiveness and redemption at this point. They will have Silva back but not Neymar. This might be the last time for Scolari and some of his players to somewhat atone for Tuesday's catastrophe; playing not just with passion, but also with their brains to get a result that their fans might cheer about. If one really wants a punt here, then Brazil to win that match is the obvious one to take.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

WC 2014: 9th July. Defining moment for Messi?

The semi-final match between Argentina and The Netherlands is really a toss-up and I think it will be closely-matched till the end. Both teams are unbeaten but have also shown weaknesses that the opposing team will try to exploit.

The Netherlands could only overcome Costa Rica on penalties, so they can hardly be considered world-beaters. Although Krul was the hero for the Dutch, I didn't like his lack of gamesmanship in taunting opponents during the shoot-out. Lack of class from a second-tier keeper, but I suppose we've seen worse on a football field. Robin Van Persie has been a disappointing non-factor for the majority of the tournament and  it seems Robben is the go-to guy for Van Gaal's men. The Argies will do well if they can keep him quiet during the match. Argentina will be the fourth South American team that the Dutch will face; they edged Chile and Mexico in very close matches and could only draw Costa Rica; Argentina are a much better team than the ones they've encountered so far, so it's hard to see The Netherlands winning this in regular time.

Argentina were masterful in edging Belgium in the previous round, which was a real litmus test in gauging the quality and effectiveness of the team. They will be missing Di Maria, which is a huge setback, but it's not as bad as if they were missing Messi. The Argies haven't been spectacular by any means so far, but they've shown that they are hard to score against. They will rely on some magic from Messi or some of their other big names to make the difference. The other plus for them is the availability of Aguero.

I believe in the end Argentina will go through. The fact that they have Messi in their ranks gives them that extra bit of an edge. Should they not get past the Dutch, the critics will be all too keen to draw the knives against the superstar Argentinian and question his place in the pantheon of the greatest footballers. This could be his most important match and defining moment yet.

To reach final: Argentina

Monday, July 7, 2014

WC 2014: 8th July. End of the road for Brazil?

Both semi-final match-ups would have been worthy of a final on their own; Brazil, Germany, Netherlands and Argentina are four of the best teams in the world, all blessed with fantastic game winners. They all have genuine chances to win the lot. Here's my preview of Tuesday's first semi-final between Brazil and Germany.

Before getting past Columbia in the last round, even the most ardent fans of Brazil would have acknowledged that Germany would be a formidable prospective foe in a semi-final. The Germans have been impressive up to this point unlike the Brazilians who have been found making hard work of their matches. Fast forward the Columbia game and Brazil are now without their 2 best players in Thiago Silva and Neymar. If they have been huffing and puffing until this point, then one has to argue what remains of the chances of the Brazilians against the formidable German armada? I think their chances are very slim indeed.

 By losing Neymar, Brazil have lost their leading light and inspiration up front. Hulk has been enterprising on the left flank but for all his running and storming runs, his effectiveness has been negligible. Mention Fred the striker, and it's hard to see what is his role or worth to this team. I can't think of him making any impact in any game besides getting a dubious penalty against Croatia and a easy header against Cameroon. Besides that, Fred is a non-existent player on the field. I really don't see how they are going to trouble without Neymar.

In losing Thiago Silva, Brazil have lost their fulcrum at the back. He is definitely one of the best defenders in the world and provides the stability from which Brazil can build their attacks. His yellow card against Columbia, synonymous with suspension, was silly; he only has himself to blame and his absence leaves a huge gap in their defence. I mean, guess who's going to have to marshall the back line? David Luiz!! The Chelsea defender (soon to be ex-Chelsea) has scored twice in the tournament, but his tendency to score rather than defend is one of the Premier League's worst-kept secrets; he is just not reliable as a stay-at-home defender.

These absences are a monumental problem for Brazil to overcome. Much has been said about referee favouritism for the hosts; they will need a lot of it to beat the Germans. They have a very good tactical coach in Scolari and their chances to go through will be greatly enhanced if they succeed in getting to the penalty shoot-out.

The Germans were tipped to beat the French in this blog and they showed in that match that they could decisively control a match against the most arduous opponents. They have the capacity to score and it's hard to score against them with Neuer being a massive roadblock in goal. Since the start of the tournament, Germany have shown that they have a great possession game, that they can kill a match once in front, and that they can find a crucial leveller when in need; they are the most complete team in these finals.

Klose or Muller will have a field day with Silva missing at the back. Hummels and his back-line will have to be on their guards against Brazilian set-pieces, which are the most realistic cases for the hosts to break German resistance. Brazil are all-heart but I am afraid that won't be enough to stop the Germans who are as hungry to win the big trophy after 24 years. The dream might very well be over for the hosts after this game; Germany are the better team and should land in the final.

To reach final: Germany

Friday, July 4, 2014

WC 2014: 5th July

Argentina v/s Belgium. The main question regarding this Argentina team is what would they be without Messi? From what they've shown so far in this World Cup, a very average team indeed. Di Maria is the only other player who has excelled but the other big names such as Higuain, Aguero, Lavezzi to name a few have been very quiet. They were very laborious in winning by the minimum margin against Switzerland in the last round. I am not sure that this team has further improvement in them.

Although they have an exceptional talent in Hazard in their ranks, Belgium are not reliant on the Chelsea player but rather on a team play that seems to be getting better and better. I can't think of a team with so many star player names but their main strength is their ability to link up properly as a team which makes them dangerous and difficult to beat. Their main challenge will be to stop Messi  and their defence marshalled by Kompany has the ability to do that.

I will go against the grain here and select Belgium to go through. Argentina rely too much on Messi and if their superstar is properly shut down or has an off-day, the Belgians should have more than ample ammunition to breach any resistance that their opponents can muster.

Netherlands v/s Costa Rica. I don't think the overall winner of the World Cup will come from either of these 2 teams. I think Costa Rica have been brilliant so far and gained everyone's utmost respect by playing a well-organized football with flair and intelligence. Everything that is being thrown at them is bonus to them at this point. The Netherlands have not impressed me as they seem to have done to many pundits. Their win against Mexico was controversial to say the least; the Mexicans have good reason to feel hard done by the final result. I still think the Dutch will go through as they are a superior team to Costa Rica but they have to ensure the match goes before the lottery of penalties.

To qualify: Belgium, Netherlands

Thursday, July 3, 2014

WC 2014: 4th July

France v/s Germany. If there is a team that the French nation have traumatic recollections of in previous World Cups, it's Germany. At the height of their powerful teams led by Platini and Giresse, they faltered at the semi-final stages of World Cups 82 and 86 against the Germans. Needless to say that the French will use these past missteps as motivation to finally get one over their nemesis. No matter how well-fancied Didier Deschamps' team are by many pundits however, I don't think that will happen. I still rate France to be an inferior team to that of Germany; in fact, I think that the Germans are the best European team in the tournament. Skeptics will point to the fact that they were held by Ghana and Algeria and that they only prevailed by the minimum score against the USA. I certainly thought that they were shell-shocked by Ghana but showed that they had the resourcefulness to get back in the score and in the game. I also thought that they were in total control of the matches against the USA and Algeria, with both of these teams resorting to quick counter-attacks to try to get something out of those games. The Germans carved enough chances in those matches to win by a comfortable margin if their forwards were not profligate in front of goal.

In assessing France's positive results so far, it is worth noting that they have emerged from a relatively easy group with the likes of Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras providing relatively easy fodder. I mentioned before that the Swiss' FIFA ranking of 6th was superfluous and more of a joke. France's win against Nigeria was laborious to say the least as it was a keeper error late in the game that broke the deadlock. It won't be as easy against the Germans.

Got to go full board with Germany in this one. The French might keep it close but in the end, their lack of quality will tell against their powerful opponents.

Brazil v/s Columbia. Columbia have been the team of the tournament so far having won their 4 games and there is a sense of genuine optimism among themselves and football pundits that they can topple mighty Brazil on their own turf. And who'd thought that they would be in this position without superstar striker Radamel Falcao? They have over-achieved already and have a new-born star in James, but I think their run will end against the hosts. The Brazilians are being criticized from every corner and it's true that they owe it to some mighty luck to have gone past Chile in the previous round. I am especially thinking of the Chilean attack in the dying minutes which resulted in Julio Cesar's post resonating throughout Brazil from Pinilla's thunderbolt. Had that shot gone through, the fiesta would have been over in Brazil. I actually thought that Neymar wasn't playing much because of the knock he received in the early part of the match. Word is that he is totally recovered for Friday's game and that can only be good news for Brazil. They are a hard team to beat and I don't think that Columbia has enough experience at this stage to beat them on their ground.

To qualify: Germany, Brazil

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

WC 2014: 1st July

Argentina v/s Switzerland. Not exactly sure what Switzerland coach Hitzfield has in mind to withstand the Argie armada but it must certainly include a plan to contain Messi. The Barcelona superstar has been true to his name in this World Cup by scoring crucial solo goals. Besides Messi's genius, the other members of the Argentina team have somewhat under-performed so far, based on expectations. You've got the feeling that if Messi is on an off-day that Argentina might be in big trouble finding the net. Switzerland are clearly one of the least impressive teams to have made it from the group stages and they will certainly struggle to get something out of this match. The problem for them is the heat and the lack of depth in the team. Besides Shaquiri, there is no other player that comes close to being a constant threat or decisive match-winner. Argentina should find a way to go through.

Belgium v/s USA. I mentioned before that Belgium could go far in this tournament but I have a feeling that their litmus test will be against USA which represent a huge obstacle, in my opinion. The Belgians won all their 3 group games but they were made to struggle in all of them. They are a very talented and upcoming team but they will have to show mettle and seasoning against a battling USA team. Klinsmann has instilled belief and resilience in the Americans and they know how to keep the score close, as they did against Germany. The USA are well-organized and if they take their chances like against Ghana, they can definitely cause an upset. That is my selection.

To qualify: Argentina, USA.