Bayern Munich: some thoughts (from Offside Column 381)

A GLORIOUS AFFIRMATION of the Bundesliga’s supremacy was enjoyed at Wembley on Saturday night as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund produced the most thrilling European Cup final since Liverpool beat AC Milan in 2005.

The previous same-country fi nals had all been relative disappointments: Real Madrid-Valencia in 2000 (thrashing); AC Milan-Juventus in 2003 (tedious); Man United-Chelsea in 2008 (tense but technically wanting). This was the exact opposite. Everything we wanted it to be.

The whirlwind intensity of Dortmund’s opening half-hour was matched only, and fi nally surpassed, by the ruthless effi ciency Munich displayed in the second period. It is quite rare to see so many players perform at their peak in a game of such magnitude, but Arjen Robben, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez, Ilkay Gundogan, Marco Reus and Mats Hummels did just that, as Wembley witnessed a majestic spectacle of technical mastery at blinding speed, fused with spell-binding colour and noise in the stands.

An almost perfect final, Robben’s sensational winning goal a relative downside, as it robbed us of an extra half-hour. Should Bayern complete the treble – as they are overwhelmingly expected to – against Stuttgart in the German Cup Final this weekend, manager Jupp Heynckes will leave at the crest of the greatest wave one could possibly conceive.

Ever-underrated, Heynckes has conducted three managerial campaigns in the Champions League, winning it twice and fi nishing second once. Amazingly, he has been removed from his position after both victories. Enter now, Pep Guardiola: the man expected to sprinkle magic dust on this already most formidable of enterprises.

Intriguingly, it could be said that ex-Barcelona manager Guardiola faces quite the conundrum in Bavaria. How can he improve upon a treble? Especially one gained in such fantastic style. You can’t perfect perfection. How does Guardiola come in and try to implement his unique style when the old system won everything there was to win?

Might Guardiola’s fi rst day at Bayern Munich resemble Brian Clough’s at Leeds United, as Clough himself replaced a much loved, wildly successful manager in Don Revie? As depicted in ‘The Damned United’, Clough belligerently scolded the assembled Leeds players – reigning league champions, at the time: “Well, I might as well tell you now. You lot may all be internationals and have won all the domestic honours there are to win under Don Revie. But as far as I’m concerned, the fi rst thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest dustbin you can fi nd, because you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by cheating.” Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles and Eddie Gray stared disdainfully in response and Clough lasted 44 days in the job.

Similarly, when Rafa Benitez replaced Jose Mourinho at Internazionale in 2010 after they had won the treble, he barely survived until Christmas following an ill-advised campaign to undermine Mourinho’s achievements and the players he felt were still loyal to the Portuguese manager.

‘Winning everything better’ might be Guardiola’s aim, but can Bayern really win with more panache than they did this year? The league title by a frankly ludicrous 25 points and smashing the Spanish and Italian champions in Europe are staggering achievements. There is nowhere to go from the summit – and most who reach it only linger fl eetingly. The pinaccle of sport is resided at for a good time, not a long time. A monumental task has been left, but one which will be undertaken by a man who has proved himself a monumental figure.

Heynckes’ successes should be celebrated and remembered, certainly. He has just completed a season to rival any, by any team, in history. The one opening for Guardiola is this: no team has ever retained the European Cup since it became the Champions League in 1992. If Guardiola can somehow sustain that immense level of success it might even eclipse his Catalan conquests.

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Sir Alex: A grateful tribute

Say it ain’t so, Sir Alex. Say it ain’t so. The man who provided more supporting glory before my 21st birthday than most people could ever imagine enjoying in a lifetime, finally retired last week – appropriately, taking his leave at the summit, with the Premier League trophy in hand. The tributes have tended towards the elegiac in tone, as though Ferguson had died rather than retired. While some questioned this outpouring of quasi-grief, for Manchester United fans, it is as though something has died within. An incomparable figure has departed us; and now the future will be forever uncertain.

To sum Ferguson up in numbers is to denigrate just how important he was to Manchester United; but nevertheless, to put the man’s value simplistically, his ludicrous roll of honour included: 13 Premier League titles, 2 European Cups, 1 European Cup Winners’ Cup, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 1 European Super Cup, and 2 World Club Cups. It really does take the breath away.

It is also beautifully appropriate that Ferguson retires around the 30th anniversary of possibly his greatest managerial achievement. For all that he won at Old Trafford, and the momentous occasions became almost innumerable – defeating Real Madrid with Aberdeen, Aberdeen, in the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup final must be unsurpassable as a one-off accomplishment. His ability to get the most out of players – great, good and average alike – is surely unparalleled in the history of the game.

But it is Manchester United which Ferguson will be revered for the world over, as ruler of the most abiding regime football has ever known. In a way it was fitting that his last game at Old Trafford saw United ‘not making things easy for themselves’ and relying on a late winner; two of the enduring, eternal themes of Ferguson’s reign in red. The multitude of memories inspired by Ferguson includes, to name but a select few: Steve Bruce’s late double against Sheffield Wednesday, winning everything with kids, Cantona’s FA Cup final winner in ’96, the Ruud Van Nistelrooy-led title triumph in 2003, Moscow, knocking – in turn – Liverpool, Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City off their perches. He gave us it all.

And the treble. The treble. An achievement worthy of a paragraph to itself. A season unprecedented and still unmatched in English football – possibly forever. Ferguson’s delirious reaction to victory in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich summarised an unfailingly dramatic season where United continually, consistently snatched victory from seemingly impossible positions. That team, made in the unflinching image of their manager, stared the twin beasts of defeat and failure square in the face and sent them home, whimpering. Yorke and Solskjaer against Liverpool; Giggs in the FA Cup semi-final replay; Keane at Juventus; Cole against Spurs; and the two substitutes in the Nou Camp. Never, ever to be forgotten by any United fan. And it was Ferguson who made it all possible.

To hear rumblings of a potential departure last Tuesday night – despite my prediction that this would happen back in Fios 368 – provoked a shudder. For said rumours to be confirmed on Wednesday morning left one utterly reeling. Though you knew it must, there was a sense in which you felt this day would never come. The signs were there: the stand, the statue, the staggeringly distressed reaction to defeat against Real Madrid. And yet it was still a devastating shock. The emergence of Wayne Rooney’s transfer request was rendered almost insignificant in comparison: like hearing your Mum’s died and the milk’s gone off, as one wag put it.  

The stories about the great man are abundant, but a personal favourite Fergie anecdote that illustrates his refusal to countenance anything less than the best comes from the aftermath of the 1983 Scottish Cup final victory over Rangers. This was before my time, admittedly; but is easily accessible on your favourite video-sharing website. Rather than drowning in a torrent of self-congratulation after vanquishing the Old Firm, again, Ferguson – his face as black as the ace of spades – began castigating his team in broadest Govanese on live television as they paraded in the background:  “We’re the luckiest team in the world. We were a disgrace of a performance. Miller and McLeish won the cup for Aberdeen. Miller and McLeish played Rangers themselves. They were a disgrace of a performance. And I’m not caring, winning cups doesn’t matter. Our standards have been set long ago and we’re not going to accept that from any Aberdeen team. No way should we take any glory from that.” One can only imagine what the players thought, but not many examples better illustrate the man’s extraordinary desire for perfection in victory.

Notoriously loath to suffer fools, another amusing tale occurred at the after-match press conference following Manchester United’s humbling by the great Messi’s Barcelona in 2011. “If the owners of Man United gave you a blank cheque over the summer and allowed you to bring in one, just one, of Barcelona’s team – who would you sign?” ventured the interviewer. Ferguson, with a look of incredulous disdain, responded: “That’s one of the most stupid questions I’ve ever heard in my life. Mascherano.” He is that rarest of men; someone who could conjure humour from the lowest form of wit.    

Ferguson could certainly be harsh, vindictive, irritable and aggressive, as any player, manager or journalist who encountered him in a dark mood would probably attest to. But this was merely part of the wider legend, a part that unfortunately obscured some of his more charitable work, including that as a patron of The Preshal Trust – a Christian charity founded by May Nicholson – in Ferguson’s native Govan. An unlikely partnership, granted; but one that displayed Ferguson’s softer side.

However, in the last days, it was also pleasing to see Ferguson indulge his vengeful streak and skewer the player who must have caused him more annoyance and irritation than any other throughout his career: Wayne Rooney. Their relationship fractured when Rooney asked for transfer in late 2010, with the implicit assertion that he, Rooney, had become bigger than the club. Ferguson indulged him then, realising that he needed the terminally unfit Scouser time in order to continue his dynasty at that particular time; before knifing him in the back the moment he became dispensable. And with Robin Van Persie’s signing and subsequent success, Rooney has become definitively dispensable.

As Rooney’s camp strived and strained to deny that he had handed in another transfer request last week – another transfer request, at Manchester United; the mind bogglesFerguson stated, live on Sky Sports, that: “I don’t think Wayne was keen to play simply because he’s asked for a transfer.” Simple, yet brutally effective; Rooney tossed dismissively to the fans like a Roman Christian to the lions.   

As for his successor, well, it is only fair, despite his apparent lack of credentials for the job, to give David Moyes – recommended vigorously by the departing Knight of Govan – time to prove himself. During his farewell speech on Sunday afternoon, Ferguson – perhaps sensing the unease – exhorted the fans to rally behind Moyes when he officially steps in on July 1st. Despite some murmuring and discontent over the appointment in the Twittersphere, I believe the supporters will unanimously back Moyes from the outset.

However, he probably has to deliver success within the first couple of years to retain that support. All the ingredients are already in place to contend for the league title and to challenge in the Champions League – a marvellous golden hello from the club. It is a sad but undeniable fact that the footballing landscape has altered dramatically since Ferguson was given an extended period of grace in the late 1980s. It is doubtful that Moyes will be afforded “three years of excuses and it’s still crap” as the infamous banner about Ferguson once so eloquently put it.

Ferguson’s dedication to family must be admired by even his greatest critics and listening to him speak on Sunday it became apparent that this was, undoubtedly, the right time to bow out, despite the appearance of health and potentially having several years left at the top. As he sheepishly shuffled through the Guard of Honour on Sunday afternoon, looking like a kindly grandfather rather than the widely-depicted hammer of referees and scourge of rivals domestic and continental, it was impossible not to feel more than a touch emotional. His like will never be seen again. The greatest of all-time, and a privilege to have supported. 

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Scotland: should we just give up?

First of all, time for a confession. At the very last minute before the previous edition of Fios hit the printers, I shelved a segment from my column which was unfailingly, achingly, positive about the upcoming Scotland World Cup qualifying matches. Looking back at what I wrote, it is hard to remember ever composing anything which proved so spectacularly wide of the mark; my sense of relief that it never saw paper, palpable.

Gordon Strachan’s competitive reign could have scarcely begun more horrendously. Against Wales at Hampden and against Serbia in Novi Sad, Scotland were a catastrophic shambles masquerading as an international football team. The Faroe Islands in 2001, our previous nadir, was terrible; last week was much, much worse. 

I have every confidence that Berti Vogts’ team – maligned like no other – would have beaten the current shower 5-0. At least. Even George Burley, nearly as derided as Vogts, managed to take his qualifying campaign down to the last match. This time, Scotland became the first European country officially eliminated from Brazil 2014 – beating San Marino, Andorra and Malta to the trapdoor of ignominy.

Perhaps even more humiliating was the performance of the BBC Scotland pundits during the studio analysis, with their ignorant warbling about ‘positives’ and ‘plusses’. There weren’t any, and only the most delusional could have happened upon any of these mirages of relief.  The last two weeks have surely become an untouchable extreme of mediocrity for football in this country.

The moment which most emphasized the stench of Scotland’s fortnight – even more so than the laughable opening spell against Wales – might have been Charlie Adam’s excuse of a free-kick in Serbia. Presumably introduced as a half-time replacement for his heralded dead-ball expertise – because he certainly didn’t contribute anything in the way of passing, shooting, tackling or running – Adam proceeded to waste an encouraging position with a free-kick that failed to clear the ankles of the two-man Serbian wall. Indeed, Strachan must have been sorely tempted to sub his sub for that hideous dereliction of duty.  

Additionally, the passage of play that led up to the second Serbian goal must have ranked among the worst ever witnessed. Gary Caldwell initially failed to deal with a routine punt forward, compounded his error by playing a suicidal pass out of defence, Alan Hutton was caught – as ever – on his heels by the Serbian attacker, before Grant Hanley showed the advancing striker a shot at goal, instead of down the line. An all-encompassing, unmitigated shenanigans; not fit for Fivepenny Machair, never mind the Maracana Stadium in Rio.

Part of the problem Scotland face, when compared to a generation ago, is the abundance of countries that have emerged from the ruptures in the former U.S.S.R and Yugoslavia – providing a much improved standard of team in the UEFA qualifying sections. For instance, Yugoslavia has become: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia – all of whom, bar possibly Macedonia, are already superior to Scotland. At the current rate of Balkan progress, Kosovo will soon be surpassing Scotland as well.

Similarly, the dissolution of the Soviet Union has created a further 12 countries for Scotland to compete with in the qualifying rounds. Few of the post-Soviet countries are of the same quality as the former-Yugoslav states at football, but all are technically equipped to make life treacherous for Scotland. Not many are of this opinion, but the SFA must be firmly in the miniscule minority who curse the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Still, these are excuses that come nowhere near finding the root of our problem. The fact is, Scotland simply hasn’t produced enough players in the last 15 years of the requisite standard to reach major tournaments. Darren Fletcher is probably the only player of the current generation who might have threatened inclusion in the team at France ’98. The likes of James McFadden and Scott Brown have sometimes risen to the challenge, occasionally transformed from honest toilers by the famous blue shirt and skirl of bagpipes, but never with lasting effect. Oh for the days of a Paul Lambert/ John Collins midfield axis.

Rangers haven’t produced a genuinely international class outfield player since Barry Ferguson. This is an absolutely diabolical state of affairs for the self-proclaimed biggest club in the country. And arguably, Celtic have been even worse: Paul McStay their last home-grown player who became influential for Scotland.

Now, due to this dearth of locally reared talent, we’ve even come increasingly to rely on players who aren’t actually Scottish. Without sounding overtly xenophobic, the proliferation of non-Scots who have recently infested the ranks of the national team through tenuous relative links (Morrison, Bardsley, Bridcutt, Boyd, Mackail-Smith, Mackie, Fox, Commons et al.) cannot be conducive to producing a squad bursting with the attributes – pride and passion – that we must rely on, in view of our transparent technical inferiority, to be remotely successful as a footballing nation. The 13 players who played some part against Brazil in Saint Denis, 1998, were all of genuine Scottish extraction. Unfortunately, this particular horse has long bolted from the stable.

Scotland’s last genuinely world-class player was probably Willie Miller, at his zenith in the 80s. And when you consider that Wales have had Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs and Gareth Bale in that time, this is a dire situation. As far we can see, all the continual bleating about root-and-branch reform in Scotland has produced precisely no results thus far. The national team contains a surplus of relegation battlers and championship plodders – and hasn’t had a magician since Kenny Dalglish.  

The picture is undoubtedly bleak; it is the worst of times. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, despite the imminent expansion of the European Championships. Scotland, currently, wouldn’t qualify for a 48 team Euros, never mind the 24 team version to be piloted at France 2016. Let us just hope that Strachan – just as he recovered from the most mortifying start imaginable as Celtic manager (Artmedia Bratislava 5-0 Celtic) – can somehow do likewise after dragging Scotland to the very depths of despair at the outset of his reign.

What next for Kris Boyd?

As Johnny Lee Miller’s character in Trainspotting might have opined about Kris Boyd: “Well, at one time you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever.” Sick Boy’s theory of life will soon be put to its latest test by Boyd, a man treated with irrational quantities of both adoration and disdain throughout Scottish football.

One’s opinion of Boyd has always tended to the negative. In mine, it’s the unacceptable acceptance of mediocrity that – more than anything else – defined him. At his best, Boyd possessed the uncommon combination of being a great scorer of goals and a scorer of great goals. At his worst, Rangers, Scotland, Middlesbrough, Portland et al. may as well have been playing with ten men, such was Boyd’s unparalleled ability to make his living as a footballer, while not having a solitary clue how to actually be a footballer.

Boyd – though my tracking of his career has dwindled completely during his time in Oregon – presumably still plays the game with all the tenacity and desire of a man dawdling to the corner shop for the Sunday paper and ten smokes. Whether this is due to an unfortunate gait, or simply pure, transparent laziness is open to debate, though one suspects the majority would side to the latter.

And herein lies the problem: Boyd was endowed with an extraordinary ability yet he buried his talent in the ground, smugly satisfied with what he had and too slothful to bother improving the limitations that so shackled him. Faced with widespread disregard and even contempt? Fine with Boyd, for as long as he was still able to bang in five against Dundee United.

More than good enough to play in Scottish football’s dominant team against a conveyor belt of cannon-fodder; but not mobile enough, not clinical enough, and just not alive enough for any superior level to that. Look at the opponents against whom Boyd scored his seven international goals: Bulgaria, Faroe Islands, Georgia, South Africa and Lithuania. Rather less than a catalogue of tremendous conquests. In the same vein, Boyd’s three continental goals for Rangers came against Livorno (penalty), Auxerre and Hapoel Tel Aviv.

For Boyd, the defining moment of his international career came while his ample gluteus was welded to the Hampden bench. Not trusted by George Burley as a second half substitute, Boyd glared with hostility while Chris Iwelumo casually sidefooted wide of a gaping net, before prematurely retiring in the huff after the game.

But – despite these huge reservations – whatever it is, he did have it. Boyd definitely had it.

Even accounting for his attitude, his tiresome lack of commitment to the international cause, and his unrepentant laziness, Boyd always terminated inferior sides with extreme prejudice. There was period between 2006 and 2008 when he might just have been the best finisher in British football. A robotic assassin, with nerves of iron. He contributed little else, but his goalscoring was remarkable. In a good team, against hapless opposition; well, Boyd was your man.

In his day – which may not be over just yet – was Boyd a predator beyond compare or an incapable impostor? The truth, as so often when considering two extreme positions, probably lies somewhere in between. Boyd was never as good as his disciples would have convinced you; yet not as bad as his detractors claimed (no-one present at Firhill to witness his left-footed homage to Marco van Basten would deny that he was truly blessed with some special talent). Whether he will ever again discover that panache is doubtful, the career decline seems irreversible at present.

However, Boyd’s lasting legacy – unfairly, perhaps – may rest on production in his return to Rugby Park. Should he fail to impress at Kilmarnock, the Boyd who became a laughing stock in England, Turkey and the USA will be eternally remembered; but, should Boyd rise majestically from the scrapheap on which he currently resides, the columnists and sports editors will recall one of the great Scottish strikers: a man who had it, lost it, and got it back again.

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Super Bowl XLVII and why sport’s Everest has already been reached

Sunday night was good. Sunday night was very, very good in fact. Super Bowl XLVII – as recent tradition demanded – was undecided until the waning seconds. However, while watching enthralled, it was still impossible to escape the tragic sense that – despite the magnificence on show – the pinnacle of NFL football has already been achieved: it’s Gatsby has already been written; it’s Born To Run has already been sung; and it’s Sistine Chapel has already been painted.

This unexpected epiphany gradually brought further horrors to light, of which more in a bit.

It certainly wasn’t that the San Francisco Baltimore game lacked for multiple heroics from the drama’s principle protagonists. Joe Flacco was accurate, clutch, cannon-armed and innovative; winning a deserved MVP award following the performance of some superman Joe Montana and Brett Favre hybrid.

Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick – who might well be, along with Robert Griffin III, the future of the NFL – nearly produced a comeback for the ages. Is there a more exciting sight in football than watching Kaepernick get to the edge and take off, as he did on the game’s most electrifying play? Nothing like it, and little comes close. The only shame was that Kaepernick took so long to heat up, for when he did eventually come to boiling point, repeatedly scalding Baltimore with arm and legs, the laughable suggestions – from paid experts, no less – that Alex Smith should have been handed the reins after the farcical blackout were proved utter fallacy.

So, while Super Bowl XLVII was definitely up there and should be acclaimed, it was unable to match perfection. And for the participants playing their very hearts out there should be no shame in that; but for observers, though maybe it’s just me, The Game will be eternally tinged with disappointment. Because unfortunately – or providentially if you hold the destination in greater esteem than the journey – the NFL saw its ultimate on February 3rd 2008 in the University of Arizona Stadium in Glendale.

That night, the New England Patriots were trying to become the most perfect team in NFL history. 19-0 was on the table. Nineteen and flipping Oh. More perfect than Don Shula’s ‘72 Dolphins, no doubt. Words, so it seemed, could not do the spectacle justice as the New York Giants scratched and clawed and fought with all of their beings to match the leviathan of New England; before saving the game on the greatest miracle play of all time and winning it on the composed, controlled and finally delirious endzone toss that little boys’ dreams are forever made of. 

Try listening to the unfairly maligned Joe Buck on the decisive play without getting goosebumps: “Manning. Lobs it. Burress, alone. Touchdown New York.”  The noise; the atmosphere; the gravitas of the call; the NFL can try to surpass that for epochs. And won’t, ever. An emotional sporting high that cannot be matched or paralleled.

And there have been abundant epic encounters and marvellous moments in The Big Game since. Roethlisberger driving the Steelers to a last minute defeat of the Warner/Fitzgerald Cardinals; Tracy Porter delivering New Orleans’ first ever World Championship with a dramatic late pick-six of Peyton Manning; even last year, Patriots Giants II occassionaly threatened 2008’s Glendale heights.

But none of this really comes close. While the NFL can still be feasted upon, and remains pleasant to the taste; I can’t imagine or comprehend a game which could eclipse the Giants’ unique, transcending upset victory in 2008.

That game proved that football doesn’t have to be an offensive shootout to be special. The defensive play was frightening in its intensity and the surrounding storylines were plentiful: New England’s pursuit of perfection, Eli Manning attempting to cast off the doubters, Randy Moss seeking an elusive ring, and Tom Brady trying to join Montana and Terry Bradshaw in quarterbacking four Super Bowl victories. Perhaps most importantly, it even had the essential good vs. evil element – with the New York Giants heavily favoured among neutrals due to New England’s spygate involvement. 

Patriots Giants 1 even had the hometown hero’s last stand storyline, and the role was played much less insufferably and with a sight more grace by Michael Strahan in 2008 than Ray Lewis did on Sunday. Incidentally, Strahan also showed up to play that night – an integral part of a dominant defensive front that harried and chased Brady to the horizon of his sanity.

Lewis, to be frank, didn’t show up. Instead, the alleged heart of the Baltimore Ravens experienced metaphorical cardiac arrest and had to be carried throughout by his teammates and, particularly, by the man he has unfairly overshadowed for the last decade: Ed Reed, the greatest defensive player of his generation.

To summarise, XLVII was a very good – maybe even great – game, and one certainly cannot argue with that. But how do you watch a sport knowing you’ve already seen the best it has to offer? This is a conundrum to be lived with for ever. Where do you go from the top of the mountain? Some would suggest aiming for the stars, but this is rather clichéd nonsense. Does this realisation mar the enjoyment of sporting endeavour for the rest of time?

In relatively recent times, I been fortunate to be alive for Manchester United winning an unprecedented treble, and Barcelona taking the sport to an almost supernatural level; the greatest tennis era in history (currently enjoying an unusually sustained reign atop Everest); an Olympic Games beyond comparison; and the greatest games of cricket, rugby and darts ever played (Edgbaston ’05, Loftus Versfeld ’09 & Circus Tavern ’07); as well as the afore-discussed Giants Patriots Super Bowl XLII classic.    

Say it ain’t so, but it seems there are truly no more sporting worlds left to conquer. Sport is still here for us to enjoy, but we’ve already seen the best of you.

Australian Open 2013 Preview and Predictions

While probably the least heralded of the four Grand Slams; the Australian Open has a considerable claim to being the best of the bunch. Were it not for the majority of play generally occurring during the middle of the night in Britain then this tournament would surely be receiving a great deal more credit. Even with this caveat, an unfeasibly large number of the best matches of the 21st century have taken place in night-time slot – the slot coinciding with those in the United Kingdom arriving at their desks for a morning of discreetly following along online.

So, why is it the best? Most importantly, the tournament produces a greater quantity of high quality matches, from start to finish, than any other Grand Slam. Additionally, the meteorological issues which plague the other three majors are absent – apart from the occasional excessive heat warning, rather an insignificant problem to have. And finally, it has the best crowd of any of the Grand Slams– an audience there to enjoy the tennis and support the players fairly and passionately; free from the sorry disrespect frequently in evidence at Roland Garros, the snobbery occasionally prevalent at Wimbledon, and the ignorant catcalling of Flushing Meadows.

Recent evidence of Melbourne’s superiority? The 2012 Australian Open latter stages surely matched any Grand Slam in the history of the game: Rafa Nadal took down Roger Federer (again) in a mini-classic in the first semi-final; Novak Djokovic then outlasted Andy Murray over five hours and five sets in the second semi before –almost incomprehensibly, in one of the greatest athletic feats of all-time – returning to defeat Nadal in an epic six hour final less than two days later.

2012 was another incredible year for men’s tennis (comfortably the highest quality sport on the planet right now), but the combined standard of play and drama probably never equalled that which was on show Down Under in January.

So to 2013 and a tennis landscape which has shifted dramatically at the summit of the game. Nadal is out injured, has been since Wimbledon, with no definite return date. Murray is now a Grand Slam champion, and in possession of dramatically increased confidence and a transformed forehand. Federer is on the wane, capable of fleeting brilliance but lacking consistency. Only Djokovic is recognisable from 12 months ago – remaining a frightening warrior, world number 1 and deserved favourite to win his fourth Australian Open.    

Interestingly, Murray has a chance in Australia to accomplish something that has never been previously achieved in the Open Era (1968 – present). No player has ever won their second Grand Slam immediately after winning their first.  Indeed, of the 49 first time Grand Slam winners in the Open Era, only Federer, Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas and Ilie Nastase managed to win their second Major at the second attempt. (Thanks to the Sporting Intelligence website for that wonderful little nugget).

The other element of interest in this year’s draw is the potential rise of young contenders, Bernard Tomic, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov. All have weaknesses in their games, but the appearance of a real challenger to the top 4 is long overdue. Australian, but by no estimation the home favourite, Tomic has a penchant for throwing the towel in too easily and Dimitrov is flashy, if erratic – but both young men have started the year exceptionally and could go well. Raonic has a monstrous serve but struggles with his movement.  Could Tomic possibly end Federer’s remarkable streak of reaching every Grand Slam quarter final since Wimbledon 2004.

The draw has set up the tournament immaculately with big matches potentially on schedule from early on in the first week: Lleyton Hewitt vs. Janko Tipsarevic (R1), Tomic v Federer (R3) and David Ferrer vs. Marcos Baghdatis (R3) to name but three. Here’s to another January of attempting to balance overnight tennis and work the next day – something I’ve never managed with any great success before.

Predictions

Q/Fs

Djokovic bt. Berdych (Djokovic in 3); Ferrer bt. Dimitrov (Ferrer in 5); Murray bt. Del Potro (Murray in 4); Tomic bt. Gasquet (Tomic in 4).

S/Fs

Djokovic bt. Ferrer (Djokovic in 3); Murray bt. Tomic (Murray in 4).

Final

Murray bt. Djokovic (Murray in 5).

Analysis

It is hard to look beyond a Murray Djokovic final. The pick here is for Murray to take him down in 5 sets again, gaining a measure of revenge over Djokovic for heartbreaking defeats in 2011 and 2012. Should this occur, a rivalry to match any of the greatest in history will be officially, inarguably born.  

The majority of the draw should progress according to seeding with Ferrer’s quarter unquestionably the most open. However, if Ferrer can survive Baghdatis in the third round, one would still expect him to reach the semi-finals.

Once there, Ferrer would face Djokovic, a nightmare matchup for the little Spaniard – and one which he has no hope of winning. In fact, it is difficult to see any significant challenge to Djokovic before the final.

The only outlandish selection here is for Tomic to go deep into the second week. But if not now, then possibly never for Tomic. I think he raises his game in front of a raucous home crowd and snaps Federer’s remarkable quarter-final record –just a hunch, plenty evidence to the contrary – and takes down Raonic and Richard Gasquet before eventually falling at Murray’s hands.

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Greatest Sporting Moments of 2012: Longlist

Football: 

Chelsea vs. Barcelona in the Nou Camp; Man City winning the league in the last minute of the season; Spain perfecting football in the Euro 2012 final…

Tennis:

Murray vs. Djokovic (Australian Open s/f); Djokovic vs. Nadal (Australian Open final); Nadal vs. Rosol (Wimbledon 2nd Round); Murray vs. Tsonga (Wimbledon s/f); Federer vs. Del Potro (Olympic s/f); Murray vs. Djokovic (US Open final); Federer vs. Djokovic (WTF @ O2 final)…

Golf: 

Bubba Watson’s shot on the 1st playoff hole at the Masters; Tiger Woods’ chip-in on the 16th at the Memorial; Ernie Els coming from nowhere to win the Open; Europe’s remarkable finalday comeback at the Ryder Cup…

Athletics: 

Mo Farah winning the 10,000 metres; Jessica Ennis’ dominating the Olympic heptathlon; the US women and Jamaican men breaking the 4x100m world records; Farah winning the 5,000 metres; David Rudisha obliterating the 800m world record; Usain Bolt answering his doubters in the 100m final…

Cycling: 

Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France; Wiggins winning the Olympic Time Trial; Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny and Philip Hindes smash the world record in the Men’s Team Sprint final…

Swimming:

France hunting down the USA in the men’s 4x100m freestyle; Chad Le Clos beating Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly; Ye Shiwen destroying the world record in the 400m IM…

Cricket: 

Kevin Pietersen’s breathtaking 149 against South Africa at Headingley…

NFL: 

Tim Tebow beating the Pittsburgh Steelers on an 85 yard pass to Demaryius Thomas in OT; Giants shocking the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI…

Darts: 

Adrian Lewis coming from 5-1 down to beat James Wade 6-5 in the World Championship semi-final…

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Offside with Ali Walker (November 1st)

Mark Clattenburg

Whether the allegation concerning referee Mark Clattenburg racially abusing Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel last Sunday is true, or not – it is certainly additional evidence of a sport about to implode. Football has become an activity where the actual competition is now a sideshow to conspiracy theorizing, vile chanting, handshakes, t-shirts and various other irrelevancies.

Chelsea’s accusation is undoubtedly serious. If Clattenburg did say what he is accused of, then his career will surely be terminated and the game dragged further into a mire of racism, recently regarded as a problem of the past. If Clattenburg is innocent then Chelsea’s actions should be severely dealt with. Clattenburg’s two linesmen and 4th official are all connected during the game via microphone so, in theory, should be able to corroborate the story, either way.

Incidentally, we shouldn’t forget that this is a club who prematurely ended the career of the respected European official Anders Frisk in 2005, following a campaign of abuse instigated by their former manager, Jose Mourinho after a Champions League match against Barcelona.

Unfortunately, this latest controversy has completely detracted from what was a wonderful game between Chelsea and Manchester United; a match that contained great goals, sublime skill and terrific individual performances from star players like Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney. With Van Persie very much to the fore, United moved to within one point of Chelsea at the top of the league following their 3-2 win.

How Chelsea must wish they had the clever and clinical Dutchman at the focal point of their attack rather than the lumbering, erratic Fernando Torres. Similarly, Sir Alex Ferguson must be envious of the fluidity and intensity that Chelsea’s midfield played with for most of the match – reaching a level of excellence that United can only dream of in their current guise.

Sadly, in the wake of the Clattenburg issue, these interesting football issues will become secondary to yet another tiresome saga of claim and counter-claim, played out in all its gory detail by the 24-hour media cycle. It is the frequency of these incidents that is the most distressing aspect. Barely a week goes by in British football without the news agenda being dominated by another off-field distraction.

It seems that football – if it hasn’t already – is on the verge of completely losing the plot. Can we not just enjoy the sport anymore, without having to worry about the reality TV nonsense that has become a permanent accompaniment to the beautiful game?

Craig Levein

After Scotland’s listless defeat in Brussels it is surely time for Craig Levein to depart from his role as national team manager. Despite Levein’s repeated assertions that Scotland have been making progress under his management, the results don’t bear this theory out. Scotland have only won three competitive matches under Levein – two of which were against European minnows Liechtenstein – and the performances are getting noticeably worse, not better. To paint the scenario in its starkest light, Levein now has a worse record than two of his more maligned predecessors, George Burley and Berti Vogts.

That Levein’s time is up is almost beyond question now; who his replacement should be is more debateable. The best candidates – David Moyes and Steve Clarke – are hardly likely to leave their jobs in the top half of the English Premier League to take on a fairly thankless task. Gordon Strachan appears the choice of the Tartan Army but is hardly an inspiring selection; likewise Alex McLeish or Walter Smith – with their guaranteed brand of turgid, negative football. And presumably, the unemployed Pep Guardiola will not be interested in attempting to teach Alan Hutton the basics of tiki-taka. 

That the SFA must act quickly on Levein is a necessity to give the new manager, whoever he may be, a chance to use the dregs of this qualifying campaign to implement his style and a cohesive tactical system in preparation for the France 2016 qualification process.

Rangers

Rangers finally recorded their first away league win of the season at Clyde on Sunday, stretching their lead at the top of third division. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Rangers’ season thus far has been the remarkable home crowds that they have attracted – breaking the European record attendance for 4th tier matches on two occasions this season. The Ibrox attendance has even, on occasion, eclipsed all the gates in Scottish football put together.

However, the road back to the summit of Scottish football appears long and arduous; littered with tedious encounters against Annan Athletic, Dumbarton and Greenock Morton, so whether this impressive display of loyalty continues throughout remains to be seen. And – despite the contrary bluster from the fans – there must surely have been an element of jealousy in watching Celtic take on Barcelona in the Nou Camp last week.

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Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace

On the occasion of the ultimate, final destruction of the Lance Armstrong myth, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the current reality is the continued, mystifying refusal by the peloton – not to mention Armstrong’s principal sponsor, Nike – to denounce the Texan’s now confirmed cheating.

Fundamentalist blogospheric followers of the Cult of Lance continuing to defend their patron saint are as unsurprising as they are tragic. That the somewhat similar attitude of tolerance appears to be emanating from some of cycling’s high profile figures is profoundly worrying; with Samuel Sanchez and Paolo Savoldelli two of the most high profile names to come out in tentative support of Armstrong today. That Britain’s own Bradley Wiggins failed to offer an unequivocal condemnation of Armstrong on Sky News was also rather unfortunate.

Wiggins’ coronation to British sporting royalty this summer has given him an almost bulletproof status; praised unhesitatingly for being a winner, a hero and cool; rather than questioned for his apparently evolving principles regarding doping. An almost perfect parallel with the near universal and irreproachable acclaim that one Lance Armstrong was previously regarded with, in fact.

Read the transcript of Wiggins’ Sky News interview and notice the outright failure to condemn Armstrong, in addition to the attempt to make the Armstrong era – generation EPO – sound like a distant memory. “A lot of this stuff happened nearly 15 years ago” opined Wiggins.

Well actually no, Wiggins was beaten to the podium by Armstrong at the 2009 Tour. A mere three years ago. Did Wiggins really not know, or at least suspect, that Armstrong was engaged in dubious practices when the American bested him for 3rd place that year? However, much like the occasionally hypocritical practices and positions recently adopted by Team Sky, it is doubtful that Wiggins will be pressed firmly on the issue of how much he knew about Armstrong and when he knew it.

One would be forgiven for expecting an unconditional statement of support for USADA and a denunciation of the cancer still ailing the sport from the Tour De France champion and a formerly outspoken advocate of clean cycling. Where is that rage that used to burn incandescently against those who seeked to destroy the sport?  Where is the flagrant condemnation of Armstrong’s actions from the most recognisable athlete in the sport? Sorry, but we’re waiting and the sport needs this, Bradley.

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Why I Hate To Love Alberto Contador

There is something indefinably mysterious about Alberto Contador: an almost intangible air of beauty muddled with suspicion – ensuring, in my mind at least – his status as the most polarising figure in sport today. It may be the eerily sinister vestige of threat apparent in his dark, hooded features and vaguely menacing surname; or it may just be the sold-his-soul-to-the-devil ease with which he glides up blackly forbidding alpine ascents. Polarising, why? I hate him for his contribution to the lingering sickness afflicting cycling, yet I adore him for how perfectly he rides that bike.

Contador’s positive test at the 2010 Tour De France and his unconfirmed, yet unfortunately plausible dalliance with the notorious Eufemiano Fuentes ensure that his career – past, present and future – will forever be subject to cynicism.

However, the most dangerous thing about Contador is that his utter panache makes these sins seem almost forgivable. Contador is so smooth, so elegant and so uniquely graceful on his bike that you almost will him; beg him even, to be clean. Say it ain’t so, Alberto.

Watch Contador at Verbier in 2009. See him explode at Etna in 2011. And simply bask in his glory on L’Angliru in 2008. Whether these performances were legitimate is certainly in question; that they were joyous manifestations of the most outrageous cycling talent, is not.

There is an obvious comparison from the natural world; Contador is curiously reminiscent of a hummingbird, with legs for wings and pedalling at a cadence too fast for the human eye. As the bird delicately hovers in the greenery so Contador effortlessly flutters out of the peloton’s reach in the peaks of Europe.

And like the hummingbird, there is something altogether beautiful about watching Contador. He is a physical specimen created for the single purpose of riding a bike very fast, uphill. Contador is surely the most natural climber of our generation and a natural heir to the throne of mountaintop geniuses like Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes.  To watch the Spaniard on a steep ascent is to witness man and machine in perfect harmony, and while seeing Contador float up a brutal ascent might not be the most glorious sight in sport; it’s certainly in the top one.

Contador has ridden this flair to 5 Grand Tour victories (with another 2 vacated due to a positive drug test) but as with the truly transcendent, the numbers are insignificant. Don’t watch the statistics, watch the man. And he is, the, man.

David Millar’s repeated assertion that Contador was “one heck of a bike rider” at the conclusion of his decisive solo breakaway to virtually clinch the 2012 Vuelta a Espana, was greeted with metaphorical raised eyebrows and thinly veiled disdain on social media. But, in context, Millar’s point was correct; Contador’s chequered past assuredly had no bearing on the tactical appreciation he showed in sensing and seizing the opportunity to win the general classification. It was just great bike racing, and as Millar concluded: “old school, the good old school.” 

So, in light of the greatness, should Contador’s undoubted dark side be overlooked? Why, for example, is Diego Maradona still acclaimed for his brilliance rather than vilified for his cheating in 1986? Did the Hand of God goal cast a shadow over all his subsequent achievements? Nope. Did Shane Warne’s transgressions with a subcontinental bookmaker render his marvellous career void? Of course not.  Shouldn’t these same standards of forgiveness be mercifully bestowed upon Contador, or is he destined for eternal rest in the Ben Johnson Hall of Shame? 

It is often said of cycling that ‘when it looks too good to be true, it usually is’. However, might this reincarnation of Alberto Contador finally give us reason to trust in a two-wheeled saviour? Can we now believe in Contador the way we believe in Roger Federer, Lionel Messi and Rory McIlroy? For cycling’s sake, I hope so.

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