Wednesday 25 July 2018

The Hazardous Road to Eden

Its summer time in Madrid and always a volatile time when Real Madrid president Florentino Perez ruminates over possible new signings. These moments are often accompanied by club clear-outs which over the last few summers have seen the departure of James Rodriguez, Mesut Ozil, and Alvaro Morata – not long after returning from Juventus. All of whom followed the departure of Angel di Maria to Paris Saint German months previously.

Open rumours now suggest that Neymar is the new target – although he has no buy-out clause - but cost PSG £198M when he moved from Barcelona a few seasons ago. If Neymar did arrive in Madrid he would join a distinguished roster of his countrymen that played at the Santiago Bernabeu over the decades. Regretfully, few of whom have been outstanding during their stay, as the likes of Kaka arrived past his peak; Robinho never matured into the promising talent he was; with Ronaldo similarly arriving late in his career and not making a good account of himself beyond 2002 season. The injuries beginning to take their toll on his body. 

The most successful being Roberto Carlos and in more recent seasons, Marcelo. Both allegedly defenders yet more devastating in attack than in their primary roles. Although Casemiro was a favourite of previous manager. Zinedine Zidane, in the middle of the park, it remains to be seen whether he hits it off with new boss Julen Lopetegui. Who traditionally seems to have a preference for more agile players. Then if either Eden Hazard or Neymar Jr arrive at the club it will change the shape of and team and Casemiro no longer looks the right fit. 

Both Hazard and Neymar are players with very different CV’s, the Brazilian having been injured for part of last season and not the same force since his success at Barcelona. The Belgian playmaker meanwhile a steady-eddie at Stamford Bridge since 2012 and able overcome a very difficult season under Jose Mourinho two years ago. With Hazard probably more of what Madrid need given the talented Modric is now on the wrong side of thirty-three – and possibly also facing prison time in Croatia. 

Though an argument can be also made that Neymar fits well into that left-wing spot now left vacant by Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus. Although it is Gareth Bale’s more natural position as he has been accommodated on right side playing second fiddle to Cristiano for the past three seasons. The Welshman made his name at Spurs rampaging down the left flank and that was what made him attractive to Madrid and saw him debut for Wales side under John Toshack. Himself a former Real Madrid manager.

What does seem very clear is that James Rodriguez is not making a return to the Spanish capital from Bayern Munich after his two-year loan period. With an unsettle Matteo Kovacic now looking for more game time after Croatia’s World Cup success and prepared to go elsewhere. Although many might baulk at Madrid’s release clause of €264M. In addition, Karim Benzema has one of the highest buyout clauses at £886 million which makes his future look tricky at 30 years of age. But Perez may have to wheel and deal in order to reduce the playing squad and secure the names he so badly wants. So, anything is possible 

Yet as all managers find out when they arrive at Madrid the club’s commercial needs overrule the playing needs and if Karim has to play to attract a buyer then that is what will happen Also, the attacking midfielders Isco and Marco Asensio were tipped for a bright future at the Santiago Bernabeu and have hefty release clauses. But they maybe on their way too so Perez can fund a Hazard or Neymar’s arrival. Yet Asensio offers the club a huge profit opportunity having been bought for less than 4m euro back in 2014. 

The German Tony Kroos has also attracted interest from the Premier League and at 28 - with three Champions league medals and a World Cup - might feel a change might be good. But he just signed a new deal until 2020 amidst rumours that either of the Manchester clubs were keen on signing him. But Real Madrid perhaps couldn’t afford him to lose him if Perez is targeting the 2019 La Liga title. Although as a life sided player he does add to the clutter with Bale now about, and a Neymar and Hazard. However, that is where Lopetegui has to earn his wages and do his magic to keep all the players happy.

Regardless the road to Eden is well over €200M… so there will be real change aplenty in Madrid this summer. 

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Monday 23 July 2018

Team Sky Sing Duet for Pyrenees

Chris Froome has insisted he would be willing to sacrifice his chances of a record-equalling fifth Tour de France title to help teammate Geraint Thomas achieve victory. Thomas and Froome are first and second in the general classification heading into the final week of the Tour, with Thomas one minute and 39 seconds ahead of his teammate.

Team Sky – and Thomas – had continually insisted that Froome was their team leader, but the tone has shifted in recent days and for the first time on Monday Froome said he would be happy to help Thomas if necessary. Abuse of Team Sky will continue all the way to Paris, warns Brailsford

“As long as there is a Team Sky rider on the top step of the podium in Paris, I’m happy,” Froome said. Asked directly if he would sacrifice his hopes of a fifth Tour crown to help Thomas, Froome simply said: “Yes.”

Froome had said before the Tour he was aiming to come good in the third week, following his efforts in winning the Giro d’Italia in May, but, asked if he had identified places where he might attack and make up time on Thomas, he dismissed the question.

“All this talk of attacking or not attacking … we’re in an amazing position, we’re one and two,” he said. “It’s not up to us to be attacking. It’s for all the other riders in the peloton to make up time on us and dislodge us from the position we’re in.”

There are now only six days until the Tour reaches Paris, but Thomas said he was trying not to shift his mindset despite holding yellow.

“Obviously the closer you get, the more you want to stay on the podium, but I’m still not really thinking about it,” he said. “I’m thinking day by day. The dream was to be in with a shot of a podium and that’s still on the cards. I’m trying to keep the same mindset.”

Thomas and Froome may be in a strong position on the podium, but Team Sky were hurt on Sunday night when Gianni Moscon was disqualified from the race for striking the Fortuneo-Samsic rider Elie Gesbert early on stage 15 to Carcassonne.

“It’s disappointing, but there’s nothing we can do,” Thomas said. “What’s done is done. We just concentrate on the last week. We’ve still got a strong team. We’re a rider down but all the boys are riding well together.”

The team principal, Sir Dave Brailsford, is planning to review whether Moscon should face further punishment for his actions after the Tour, but refused to rule out terminating the contract of a rider who has a chequered disciplinary record.

“Obviously Gianni has left the race, which is very disappointing,” Brailsford said. “He’s really disappointed. He’s let himself down, he’s let his team down and now he’s gone home. From a team point of view, I’m going to keep the focus on the rest of this race here, and then next week I will gather the facts, look at the process and go from there.”

Brailsford accepted Moscon’s actions were unlikely to help Team Sky as they continue to face ill-feeling from elements within the Tour crowd, with Froome having been jostled and spat at, while Thomas has heard boos on the podium when collecting his yellow jersey this week. “I don’t know how people are going to react but it’s not going to calm people down,” he said.

Friday 20 July 2018

Take me to Paris now - Geraint Thomas

This was clearly not 2015 and despite all the expectations on Thursday at the Alpe d’Huez Stage 12 of the Tour de France. Neither was it a deja-vu for Nairo Quintana or Team Movistar as the Colombian was unable repeat that 10km attack on Chris Froome of three seasons ago. In fact, as they deepened into the stage Quintana went backwards and was unable to muster a response to Team Sky duo of Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome in this key stage. The talented Colombian perhaps now seeing his climbing powers wane and powerless in this decisive Alpine stage on Thursday. A day which saw hm drop to ninth place a trail by 3,56 with only one more mountain stage to finish left in the Pyrenees. 

Over the past two days the Team Movistar attack has been muffled with Marc Soler and Alejandro Valverde making some moves on the way to La Rosiere on Wednesday with little or no impact. Similarly, on the 175,kms stage the next day more shapes were thrown when Valverde joined the second breakaway a few minutes further up the road  - before easing back int the peloton just shortly before the final climb. The logic seemed to suggest then that it was Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa who were tasked with attack on this third and final climb of the day. But  when it eventually happened  it was rather feeble with Team Sky probably the most surprised of all with it lack punch. 

Then as the stage progressed the lead group  was joined by Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain Merida  who was looking menacing at one point  and the seemingly every present Tom Dumoulin of Sunweb. As the start of the climb approached it was already clear that the runaway stage leader Kruijswiljk would not take the Maillot Jaune on this occasion and  would be reeled in before the stage was over. Depending on what was left in the dutchman’s tank.  Although the pace he had set in ascent of Col de la Madeleine was starting to fade and the peloton was happy to accept the pace marked by Team Sky. Not ceding the stage yet it seemed to breakaway rider.  This was a  stage famous for hustle and the noisy fans with this year’s event proving  definitively that a long day-on the mountain side sun for many might do more harm than good.

The traditional Dutch Corner passed without incident and it was further up the climb that there were difficulties. One of which forced Nibali to abandon the Tour after a fall caused by some spectator encroachment . Then Chris Froome was hit at one point and soaked up  much booing on his way up the mountain. A general disorder suggesting changes may be imminent in crowd management in the future for the sake of rider’s safety. Notwithstanding, Froome still tested his companions to see if they could match his effort  as they continued along the narrow road gap afforded them by roadside spectators. As they moved up the mountain group reduced to just four on the last sector – Dumoulin, Froome, Thomas and Romain Bardet. 

The Frenchman had attempted to escape for a number of kilometres but to no avail. In the end he settled back into the race for the finish which saw a short discussion take place between  Dumoulin and Thomas. Before the washman set off for the finish line. It was Bardet who came third behind a weaker looking Froome.  A result which puts Sky in control of the race and Thomas with a firm hold on the yellow jersey into next week. Perhaps even Paris depending on the Team Sky’ strategy over the coming days.

Stage winner Thomas said afterwards: “Honestly I'm speechless. I don't know what to say. Not a chance in hell I thought I was going to win today. I just followed Dumoulin, Bardet and Froome were attacking - obviously a bit of bad luck for Nibali, I rode over his back wheel. I nearly came down myself. I don't know what to say.”

“This is just unbelievable, can we just go to Paris now?” continued Thomas, “I said yesterday this race is made for me now, today I can be happy for sure now.


Thursday 19 July 2018

Frosty Reception for Team Sky

If cyclists were to use football parlance then Wednesday at La Rosiere was such a moment for Mikel Nieve of Mitchelton-Scott to feel “gutted” when after a lengthy breakaway on Stage 11 of the Tour de France, his efforts fell asunder. Just a few hundred of metres from the finish line. His former Sky teammates, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, flashing past Frosty – as he was named by Sky – to leave the Spaniard fifth despite a hard day’s work. Indeed, leading on his own on the final kilometres of the climb. But such is the sport of cycling that it so often features thankless moments and drains any sentimentality one might feel. Perhaps part of the overall fascination of the sport even amidst the perennial drug allegations. 

The sheer physical demands of the Alpine stages are always full of drama and require super human effort. Which although can offer enthralling spectacle it also means that performance enhancement is part and parcel of it all. A history of the Tour which goes well beyond just Lance Armstrong and a total list that is almost endless: Alberto Contador, Marco Pantani, Pedro Delgado, Thomas Ullrich, Richard Virenque – to just name a few. Curiously, in recent times it is the fate of the one-time domestiques of Team Sky that offer a footnote to these events. As once outside the team and that bubble their air of invincibility as individuals fades. All of a sudden real life embraces them one by one with Nieve experiencing that on Wednesday.

Australian Richie Porte, a one-time favourite perhaps to win the Tour - based on his work at Team Sky - fell victim yet again to injury this year after another accident ending hopes of a Grand Tour victory. In 2015, and indeed 2013, Porte’s hard work were key to Sky victories at the Tour. So, in 2016 when he declared he was leaving for BMC and seen as an ideal replacement for fellow countryman Cadell Evans, a victory was almost expected. Unfortunately, last year a bad fall ended his chances as it has this year on the cobbled roads to Roubaix on Sunday. 

Mikel Landa was another who spent a season as a domestique at Team Sky and fulfilled his fair share of duties at the Giro, Tour and Vuelta for \=Froome & Co. Like a number of the prominent Spanish cyclists he came from Euzkatel-Euzkadi - a Basque team which lost its funding in 2013 - with many promising riders on the books. But last year Landa moved to Team Movistar which placed him alongside Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. If not as an equal it promised a future more appealing than slaving for Froome or Thomas for yet another season. 

On the way to La Rosiere Landa showed flashes of ambition but under team instruction no doubt remained in the peloton with Quintana as Thomas and Froome raced away. The frustration of not seeing Movistar battle was lessened by the breakaways of Valverde and Marc Soler on Wednesday. Perhaps the team hatching plans for Alpe d’Huez stage on Thursday’s long stage. Which may stifle the criticism of Movistar’s lack of ambition and willingness to compete with Team Sky despite a gala a roster. Although the team showed they have the ability to upset but perhaps lacked the belief on Stage 11. On Wednesday there was a sense of their talent and a possibility beyond just the team prize.

Meanwhile it was left to Nieve to make the run on his own. Another of that Eustakel generation Nieve showed why he nurtured his own ambitions outside the Sky team. The climbing specialist moving to Orica-Scott on a two-year deal in 2018. A reward for the 33-year-old after he assisted Froome in winning the 2016 and 2017 editions of the Tour de France. With a strong CV, Frosty has ridden in 13 Grand Tours and achieved five top 10 placings. At La Rosiere he was unlucky as G forced the issue just as Frosty ran out of steam. Perhaps victim of inside knowledge that only a former teammate of the Spanish rider would have at hand. Leaving him in his wake with Froome, Tom Dumoulin of Sunweb and Damiano Caruso of BMC all taking the first four places on the stage. 

Thursday may haunt Nieve as he wonders about the far-reaching power of Team Sky or Lady Luck. A bit like Porte no doubt. But both riders have had good seasons already and these are just short-term hiccups. In fairness, Nicholas Roche had a short sojourn at Sky and has battled with BMC Racing over recent years more competitively and unshackled. Looking at a top five place at La Vuelta at one stage in 2017. More importantly, enjoying the sport more now with BMC rather than just a being a Team Sky domestique. Viviani signed for Team Sky from Cannondale in 2015, riding the Giro d’Italia in 2015 and 2016 as part of the British team. However, he was reportedly unhappy about not being selected for his home Grand Tour in 2017 and departed despite having one year left on his contract. A move to Quick-Step this season saw him enjoy a very successful Giro D’Italia in Israel.

Obviously the most famous former Team Sky rider, Bradley Wiggins, winner of the Tour 2012 shared his views on the team with Eurosport this week, highlighting the possibility that Thomas might take the yellow jersey in Tuesday’s first Alpine stage, 

“This is where it gets difficult, as we hit the first mountain stage,” Wiggins said. “If Geraint stays where he is and takes the yellow jersey they’ve got a real problem on their hands.

“Both riders have got this joint leadership role, but that’s dangerous. But the quality they have in that team, they could end up first or second.”

Wiggins continued, describing the Team Sky principal, Dave Brailsford, as “divisive” and “self-serving.” He said: “Does Dave B come in and do his usual and be quite divisive and get in each other’s ear and kind of keep them both motivated for the same goal and there be a natural selection?

“Dave will be telling them they can both win it, as a way of motivating them, as a way of playing these cards deep in to the race. He’s quite self-serving. For him it’s about the team winning, it’s not about the individuals or the characters. He will always be in those riders’ ears constantly, and he has been, up till now as you can see.”

Last year Dan Martin revealed he declined a contract offer from Team Sky the British World Tour outfit seeing the Irishman as a replacement for Landa and offered the chance to focus on some events, including one-week stage races, for himself with Team Sky. But when it came to the Tour de France he would then ride for Chris Froome. However, when UAE Team Emirates saw him as outright team leader for the Tour de France it was an easy switch from Quick-Step. In the 2018 Toru Martin has looked strong and clearly hay with his choice.

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Thursday Stage 12

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Luis Enrique - Real Barca Leader for Spain

Although said before in Russia 2018 these words from Lionel Messi have never been more apt. “You have to show up in the World Cup, and in the World Cup anything can happen.”. In Argentina’s case this was certainly true when France brought an end to their involvement in this world cup. But the same could be said of Germany and Spain who also found the going tough and seemed unable to react and remain in the competition. With Joachim Loew deciding to remain as head and Argentina hopeful that Messi will continue to play for the national team. It seems that Spain may face the most turmoil. A continuation of the turmoil that started in Russia with the sudden departure of their manager, Lopetegui.

However, the subsequent performances of the Spanish team that has caused the most outrage and the players apparent lethargy under the stand-in manager, Fernando Hierro, that may prove the weakest link. In fairness former international and Real Madrid captain had the job thrust upon him under very difficult circumstances after travelling to Russia as an assistant. But football is unforgivably measured by results and so the early exit – albeit the last sixteen leaves may leave a few too many questions for Hierro to answer. So, there are names appearing in the press that could offer alternatives. One of them is former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique or another former Madrid player Michel – who has worked with Olympiacos in Greece and also in La Liga.

Clearly Hierro would not have be considered for the role of national manager in the normal course of events and would not have even viewed himself as a possible candidate – yet. But the truncated events however saw things develop rather differently and now see the novice manager emerge with his reputation not necessarily enhanced. His future career will lie elsewhere and stood down. Within days the Spanish Football Federation decided one Ex-Barcelona and Roma coach Luis Enrique has been appointed on a two-year contract. The 48-year-old former Spain midfielder has been out of management since leaving the Nou Camp last June.

Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) president Luis Rubiales said: "The decision was unanimous. I like his commitment and he has turned down better-paid jobs in order to coach Spain. "He's a coach who has all the requirements the federation was looking for."

Enrique, who played for Real Madrid and Barcelona, won the La Liga, Spanish Cup and Champions League treble as Barca manager in 2015. His first game in charge will be a Uefa Nations League game away to England at Wembley on 8 September, with Jose Francisco Molina, a former Spain keeper, as their sporting director.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Federer Does Not Just Do it Anymore

Roger Federer has signed a deal with Japanese clothing company Uniqlo after ending his decades-long partnership with Nike. The new contract is reportedly worth $300m (£228m) over the next 10 years and was signed after Federer's deal with Nike expired in March.

The tennis star donned the Japanese brand at his Wimbledon match on Monday, but for now has kept his Nike shoes. The 36-year-old Swiss player first signed with Nike in 1994.

Sports news site ESPN reported the price tag of Federer's new deal, but Uniqlo has not shared the specific terms. The star athlete added that the partnership had "been a long time coming".

Uniqlo's current athlete lineup includes Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori and Australian golfer Adam Scott.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Nike said they "do not comment on athlete contracts".

"However, we are thankful and proud to have been a part of Roger's incredible journey and wish him the best in the future."

Nike still retains ownership of Federer's monogrammed RF line.

ESPN reported Federer's earnings on-court are around $116m, making this new deal more than double his current tennis paycheck.

The sports news website also said Nike had been given the chance to match the new contract but declined.

But as the Japanese company does not make tennis shoes, it appears likely he will continue to wear his Nike trainers.

Team Sky welcome Froome verdict

Team Sky have today welcomed the decision by the UCI to dismiss the case against Chris Froome.

Chris Froome said:
“I am very pleased that the UCI has exonerated me. While this decision is obviously a big deal for me and the Team, it’s also an important moment for cycling. I understand the history of this great sport – good and bad. I have always taken my leadership position very seriously and I always do things the right way. I meant it when I said that I would never dishonour a winner’s jersey and that my results would stand the test of time. 

“I have never doubted that this case would be dismissed for the simple reason that I have known throughout I did nothing wrong. I have suffered with asthma since childhood. I know exactly what the rules are regarding my asthma medication and I only ever use my puffer to manage my symptoms within the permissible limits

“Of course, the UCI had to examine these test results from the Vuelta. Unfortunately, the details of the case did not remain confidential, as they should have done. And I appreciate more than anyone else the frustration at how long the case has taken to resolve and the uncertainty this has caused. I am glad it’s finally over.

“I am grateful for all the support I have had from the Team and from many fans across the world. Today’s ruling draws a line. It means we can all move on and focus on the Tour de France.” 

Team Principal Sir Dave Brailsford said:
“We have always had total confidence in Chris and his integrity. We knew that he had followed the right medical guidance in managing his asthma at the Vuelta and were sure that he would be exonerated in the end, which he has been. This is why we decided that it was right for Chris to continue racing, in line with UCI rules, while the process was ongoing. We are pleased that it has now been resolved.

“Chris’s elevated Salbutamol urine reading from Stage 18 of the Vuelta was treated as a ‘presumed’ Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) by the UCI and WADA, which triggered a requirement for us to provide further information. After a comprehensive review of that information, relevant data and scientific research, the UCI and WADA have concluded that there was, in fact, no AAF and that no rule has been broken.

“We said at the outset that there are complex medical and physiological issues which affect the metabolism and excretion of Salbutamol. The same individual can exhibit significant variations in test results taken over multiple days while using exactly the same amount of Salbutamol. This means that the level of Salbutamol in a single urine sample, alone, is not a reliable indicator of the amount inhaled. A review of all Chris’s 21 test results from the Vuelta revealed that the Stage 18 result was within his expected range of variation and therefore consistent with him having taken a permitted dose of Salbutamol.

“Chris has proved he is a great champion – not only on the bike but also by how he has conducted himself during this period. It has not been easy, but his professionalism, integrity and good grace under pressure have been exemplary and a credit to the sport. 

“The greatest bike race in the world starts in five days. We can’t wait to get racing again and help Chris win it for a record-equalling fifth time.”