Friday, 11 August 2017

Premier League preview 2017/18: Can Chelsea defend the title successfully?


ARSENAL The Gunners - Emirates Stadium - @Arsenal
Last season 5th ▪️ FA Cup Winners ▪️ League Cup Quarter finals ▪️ Champions League Last 16
Last major trophy FA Cup 2017 ▪️ Premier League seasons 26
Manager
Arsène Wenger (since October 1996)
Players In Sead Kolasinac, Alexandre Lacazette
Players Out Yaya Sanogo, Wojciech Szczesny
So, it finally happened. For the first time in 20 years under Arsène Wenger, Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League. Worse still, the Gunners also finished below north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur for the first time since 1995. That appeared as if it was going to be enough to bring the Wenger era to an end but a customary late rally included a third FA Cup Final win in four seasons, and the Frenchman subsequently signed a two-year extension. For some fans, the damage has already been done and Wenger's position remains untenable. Others are more charitable - but, despite the big money arrival of striker Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon, Arsenal simply lack enough quality overall to become serious title challengers once again.
Prediction: 5th

AFC BOURNEMOUTH The Cherries - Dean Court - @afcbournemouth
Last season 9th ▪️ FA Cup Third round ▪️ League Cup Third round
Last major trophy None ▪️ Premier League seasons 3
Manager Eddie Howe (since October 2012)

Players In Nathan Ake, Asmir Begovic, Jermain Defoe, Connor Mahoney, Frankie Vincent
Players Out None
This remarkable south coast odyssey continued last season as Bournemouth outscored Manchester United and finished inside the top half of the Premier League. The Cherries remained true to their attack-first style which has served them so well in recent years, and their approach was summed up perfectly by their 4-3 win against Liverpool at Dean Court in December. At the other end of the pitch, things were not so clever as Eddie Howe's men shipped 67 goals for the second season in a row. Experienced goalkeeper Asmir Begovic should help out in this regard while centre back Nathan Ake has now been taken on permanently. Of course, the main focus will still be in attack where - 16 years on from his previous appearance at the club - Jermain Defoe will line up alongside the impressive Joshua King.
Prediction: 11th 

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION The Seagulls - Falmer Stadium - @OfficialBHAFC
Last season 2nd (promoted) ▪️ FA Cup Third round ▪️ League Cup Third round
Last major trophy None ▪️ Premier League seasons 1
Manager Chris Hughton (since December 2014)
Players In Paschal Gross, Mathew Ryan, Markus Suttner, Mathias Normann, Steven Alzate, Ales Mateju, Davy Propper, Soufyan Ahannach, Josh Kerr, Izzy Brown
Players Out Chris O'Grady, David Stockdale, Elvis Manu, Rob Hunt
Last season, Brighton reached the top flight for the first time since 1983 with a points total (93) which would have often been enough to win the Championship. Indeed, the Seagulls themselves probably should have won the title - but Chris Hughton's men uncharacteristically took their eye off the ball and, by taking only one point out of their last three games, allowed Newcastle United to steal in. The giveaway tempered the celebrations in East Sussex somewhat and, subsequently, the incomings this summer have done little to allay fears that Brighton simply will not have enough quality up front for the top level. At least, in manager Hughton though, they have someone used to the stresses of battling at the wrong end of the Premier League table.
Prediction: 17th

BURNLEY The Clarets - Turf Moor - @BurnleyOfficial
Last season 16th ▪️ FA Cup Fifth round ▪️ League Cup Second round
Last major trophy First Division 1959-60 ▪️ Premier League seasons 4
Manager Sean Dyche (since October 2012)

Players In Charlie Taylor, Jonathan Walters, Jack Cork, Phil Bardsley, Adam Legzdins
Players Out Joey Barton, Michael Kightly, George Boyd, Michael Keane, Rouwen Hennings, Paul Robinson, Tendayi Darikwa, Andre Gray
Burnley avoided immediate relegation for the first time in the Premier League era last season, mainly on the strength of their form at Turf Moor where they took 33 of their 40 points. By contrast, the Clarets struggled badly on the road, winning just once - at Crystal Palace in April - and, at one stage, lost seven consecutive away games. Yet more travel sickness this season can only result in one outcome as it hardly seems reasonable to expect that such outstanding home form will be maintained, especially following the loss of their best player, Michael Keane, to Everton. Manager Sean Dyche will once again attempt to extract a level of performance from his team which is greater than the sum of its parts - but, even still, this might not be enough.
Prediction: 19th

CHELSEA The Blues - Stamford Bridge - @ChelseaFC
Last season Winners ▪️ FA Cup Runners-up ▪️ League Cup Fourth round
Last major trophy Premier League 2016-17 ▪️ Premier League seasons 26
Manager Antonio Conte (since July 2016)

Players In Willy Caballero, Antonio Rudiger, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Alvaro Morata
Players Out Asmir Begovic, Dominic Solanke, Juan Cuadrado, Christian Atsu, Bertrand Traore, Nathan Ake, John Terry, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nemanja Matic, Tammy Abraham, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kurt Zouma, Izzy Brown, Kasey Palmer
Chelsea stormed their way to a sixth English league title in May, and a fifth of the Premier League era, with a points total (93) bettered only by themselves in 2004-05. Italian coach Antonio Conte switched to a three-man defence and, with N'Golo Kante offering protection in midfield, the likes of Willian, Eden Hazard and Victor Moses supported Diego Costa as his goals fired the Blues to glory. Unfortunately for Chelsea, Costa now no longer wants to play ball and is holding out for a move elsewhere. Big signing Alvaro Morata has come in from Real Madrid as Costa's replacement - but he may take time to adapt to the league - and the squad as a whole could easily be distracted by the Champions League, which is back on the agenda. So, while Chelsea undoubtedly have the tools to become the first team this decade to defend their title successfully, it is no sure thing.
Prediction: 2nd

CRYSTAL PALACE The Eagles - Selhurst Park - @CPFC
Last season 14th ▪️ FA Cup Fourth round ▪️ League Cup Third round
Last major trophy None ▪️ Premier League seasons 9
Manager Frank de Boer (since June 2017)

Players In Jairo Riedewald, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Timothy Fosu-Mensah
Players Out Kwesi Appiah, Fraizer Campbell, Mathieu Flamini, Zeki Fryers, Joe Ledley, Steve Mandanda
Spot the odd one out: Ian Holloway, Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce, Frank de Boer. Yes, after half a decade of old-school British bosses in the dugout at Selhurst Park, chairman Steve Parish has opted instead to go Dutch. De Boer arrives having won four league titles in his native Netherlands with Ajax and he will favour a classic possession-based game. Ruben Loftus-Cheek arrives on loan from Chelsea looking to convert his potential into something more - and, with Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend on the wings and Christian Benteke up front, Crystal Palace should not struggle for goals, regardless of their style of play. But de Boer will also need to tighten up a defence which conceded 63 times - which was the most the Eagles' have conceded in a top-flight season since 1997-98.
Prediction: 13th

EVERTON The Toffees - Goodison Park - @Everton
Last season 7th ▪️ FA Cup Third round ▪️ League Cup Third round
Last major trophy FA Cup 1995 ▪️ Premier League seasons 26
Manager Ronald Koeman (since June 2016)

Players In Davy Klaassen, Henry Onyekuru, Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Sandro Ramirez, Boris Mathis, Josh Bowler, Wayne Rooney, Cuco Martina
Players Out Romelu Lukaku, Tom Cleverley, Gerard Deulofeu, Arouna Kone, Conor McAleny, Aiden McGeady
Big-spending Everton have splurged more than £100m on seven players - and there could yet be more to come as manager Ronald Koeman sets about moulding his own squad after taking over last summer. The Toffees, nevertheless, remain in the black with significant funds from the sale of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United further augmented by the departures of Tom Cleverley and Gerard Deulofeu. The question then that must be asked is if Everton are any closer to breaking into the top six as a result of this busy transfer window - and the answer, unfortunately for them, is probably not. A player like Lukaku is a rare beast indeed, and there will surely be occasions in this coming campaign that the Merseysiders miss his lethal finishing.
Prediction: 8th

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN The Terriers - John Smith's Stadium - @htafcdotcom
Last season 5th (promoted via playoffs) ▪️ FA Cup Fourth round ▪️ League Cup First round
Last major trophy First Division 1925-26 ▪️ Premier League seasons 1 
Manager David Wagner (since November 2015)
Players In Elias Kachunga, Laurent Depoitre, Aaron Mooy, Tom Ince, Danny Williams, Steve Mounie, Scott Malone, Mathias Jorgensen, Jonas Lossl, Kasey Palmer
Players Out Flo Bajaj, Kyle Dempsey, Joe Murphy, Harry Bunn, Mark Hudson
Huddersfield Town created history in May by becoming the first ever team to be promoted to the English top flight with a negative goal difference - and anyone who had the misfortune of watching the playoff final will know that the squad, as it existed then, would need to be hugely improved. A defence - which conceded 58 goals in the Championship - will surely need more reinforcement than it has received to date - but, instead, the signing of winger Tom Ince rather typifies the Terriers' summer business. The jury out on whether the 25-year-old will ever make it at the top level and the same can only be said for Huddersfield as a whole. Of course, it is not unusual for the playoff winners to be tipped to go straight back down - but then these Terriers are probably the biggest Premier League underdogs since Blackpool in 2010-11.
Prediction: 20th

LEICESTER CITY The Foxes - King Power Stadium - @LCFC
Last season 12th ▪️ FA Cup Fifth round ▪️ League Cup Third round ▪️ Champions League Quarter finals
Last major trophy Premier League 2015-16 ▪️ Premier League seasons 12
Manager Craig Shakespeare (since February 2017)

Players In Harry Maguire, Vicente Iborra, Eldin Jakupovic, Kelechi Iheanacho, George Thomas
Players Out Marcin Wasilewski, Ron-Robert Zieler
After a league title win and a Champions League quarter final in the last two seasons, this campaign for Leicester City may seem rather dull by contrast. A steady midtable place should be expected as the Foxes readjust to life in the middle lane following a whirlwind period. Kelechi Iheanacho had a decent goal record at Manchester City, despite his limited opportunity at Eastlands, and his signing should ease the weight off Jamie Vardy's shoulders. Additionally, Harry Maguire and Vicente Iborra will go some way to freshening what turned into a creaky defence, with 63 league goals conceded in 2016-17.
Prediction: 10th

LIVERPOOL The Reds - Anfield - @LFC
Last season 4th ▪️ FA Cup Fourth round ▪️ League Cup Semi finals
Last major trophy League Cup 2012 ▪️ Premier League seasons 26  
Manager Jürgen Klopp (since October 2015)
Players In Mohamed Salah, Dominic Solanke, Andrew Robertson
Players Out Andre Wisdom, Lucas Leiva, Kevin Stewart
Liverpool took advantage last season of a lack of midweek football to regain their place in the top four - but now manager Jürgen Klopp must defy a recent trend. Not since 2009 have the Reds finished in the top four in consecutive seasons - they followed their runners-up placing in 2009 with league finishes of 7th, 6th, 8th and 7th. Meanwhile, the runners-up place in 2014 was followed by 6th and 8th-placed finishes before last year. After five trophyless seasons at Anfield, there is also pressure on the German to bring in some sort of silverware - but, with most of their rivals around them having strengthened, Liverpool will have to prioritise once the injuries and suspensions begin to take their toll.
Prediction: 6th 

MANCHESTER CITY The Blues - Etihad Stadium - @ManCity
Last season 3rd ▪️ FA Cup Semi finals ▪️ League Cup Fourth round ▪️ Champions League Last 16
Last major trophy League Cup 2016 ▪️ Premier League seasons 21 
Manager Pep Guardiola (since July 2016)
Players In Bernardo Silva, Ederson, Kyle Walker, Danilo, Benjamin Mendy, Douglas Luiz, Uriel Antuna
Players Out Willy Caballero, Gael Clichy, Jesus Navas, Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, Bruno Zuculini, Nolito, Aleksandar Kolarov, Kelechi Iheanacho, Fernando, Aaron Mooy, Joe Hart
Pep Guardiola has sought to rectify the holes in his squad following a disappointing campaign in which Manchester City failed to feature in any finals and finished well off the pace in the title race. The Spanish boss identified the goalkeeping position and his defence as being in need of most repair following costly mistakes at the back throughout 2016-17 - and a £150m outlay on Ederson, Danilo, Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker will surely lead to an improvement, even if the amount splashed on Walker in particular is eye-wateringly high. With attackers Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus backed up by Kevin De Bruyne, an evergreen David Silva, and a maturing Leroy Sane, the Blues appear well-placed to make a full challenge this time.
Prediction: Champions 

MANCHESTER UNITED The Red Devils - Old Trafford - @ManUtd
Last season 6th ▪️ FA Cup Quarter finals ▪️ League Cup Winners ▪️ Europa League Winners
Last major trophy Europa League 2017 ▪️ Premier League seasons 26 
Manager José Mourinho (since May 2016)
Players In Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic, Victor Lindelof
Players Out Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Josh Harrop, Wayne Rooney, Adnan Januzaj, Timothy Fosu-Mensah
Manchester United made a return to the winners' enclosure last season with victory in the finals of the League Cup and the Europa League. Additionally, the Red Devils' enjoyed an unbeaten league run of 25 games from October to April - but no fewer than 10 draws at home undermined their challenge for the top four, and eventually Mourinho favoured the Europa League route as a way of getting back into the Champions League. This term, the Old Trafford faithful will expect far more from their side in the Premier League - and Mourinho cannot say that he has not been backed. Big signing Romelu Lukaku provides a longer term solution up front than Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the arrival of Nemanja Matic could prove just as important if it allows Paul Pogba to play further forward and with more freedom.
Prediction: 3rd 

NEWCASTLE UNITED The Magpies - St James Park - @NUFC
Last season 1st (promoted) ▪️ FA Cup Fourth round ▪️ League Cup Quarter finals
Last major trophy Fairs Cup 1969 ▪️ Premier League seasons 23 
Manager Rafael Benítez (since March 2016)
Players In Christian Atsu, Florian Lejeune, Jacob Murphy, Javier Manquillo, Mikel Merino
Players Out Kevin Mbabu, Lubo Satka, Florian Thauvin, Haris Vuckic, Vurnon Anita, Sammy Ameobi, Yoan Gouffran, Daryl Murphy
The Rafalution at St James Park truly took flight last season as Newcastle United overcame an early wobble and an April wobble to win the league title in dramatic fashion on the final day. The signings of Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie from Premier League clubs were as vital as they were unlikely if Rafael Benítez had decided to leave following relegation at the end of 2015-16 - and the successful Spaniard is understandably the Magpies' most popular manager in years. However, this summer, the former Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid boss has expressed his frustration at the club's transfer dealings - and there is undoubtedly a lack of Premier League experience throughout the squad. The belief on Tyneside, though, is that, as long as Benítez remains in the post, he will be able to cajole enough from this group of players to ensure a safe enough first season back in the Premier League.
Prediction: 14th

SOUTHAMPTON The Saints - St Mary's Stadium - @SouthamptonFC
Last season 8th ▪️ FA Cup Fourth round ▪️ League Cup Runners-up ▪️ Europa League Group stage
Last major trophy FA Cup 1976 ▪️ Premier League seasons 19 
Manager Mauricio Pellegrino (since June 2017)
Players In Jan Bednarek, Mario Lemina
Players Out Jay Rodriguez, Cuco Martina, Martin Caceres
Southampton finished in the top eight for a fourth successive season - and reached the League Cup Final - but that was still not enough to save Claude Puel from the sack. A strange decision on the surface but Saints fans can point to a series of turgid displays, with only 17 goals scored in their 19 home league games. Unfortunately for new manager Mauricio Pellegrino, the summer has been dominated by the demands of wantaway defender Virgil van Dijk, and the Dutchman will surely now move on to new pastures. However, the loss of a big player is nothing new for Southampton as a club - they have coped with worse before - and if Italian striker Manolo Gabbiadini picks up where he left off at the back end of last season, the south coast club will once again do more than just cope.
Prediction: 9th
 

STOKE CITY The Potters - bet365 Stadium - @stokecity
Last season 13th ▪️ FA Cup Third round ▪️ League Cup Third round
Last major trophy League Cup 1972 ▪️ Premier League seasons 10 
Manager Mark Hughes (since May 2013)
Players In Darren Fletcher, Josh Tymon, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Joe Bursik, Tre Pemberton, Kurt Zouma
Players Out Marko Arnautovic, Phil Bardsley, Glenn Whelan, Jonathan Walters, Shay Given, Daniel Bachmann
Stoke City suffered their worst season under Mark Hughes in 2016-17, dropping back to 13th, the equivalent of which was enough to see Tony Pulis moved on back in 2013. Never in serious trouble despite a slow start, the Potters' failure to push on in the second half of the campaign has left Hughes under pressure going into this term. Indeed, the Welshman is as short as 4/1 with some bookmakers to be the first manager to leave his post - and he was certainly not been helped by the decision of Marko Arnautovic to move to West Ham United. With only Darren Fletcher and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting as major incoming signings so far, it might just be that - after almost a decade of midtable serenity - this is the year Stoke start to struggle.
Prediction: 15th

SWANSEA CITY The Swans - Liberty Stadium - @SwansOfficial
Last season 15th ▪️ FA Cup Third round ▪️ League Cup Third round
Last major trophy League Cup 2013 ▪️ Premier League seasons
Manager Paul Clement (since January 2017)
Players In Erwin Mulder, Roque Mesa, Cian Harries, Tammy Abraham
Players Out Marvin Emnes, Bafetimbi Gomis, Gerhard Tremmel, Jack Cork, Modou Barrow
The suggestion that Swansea City fans are happy simply still just to be in the Premier League is surely no exaggeration after a traumatic last 12 months. The Swans looked as if they might go down even as late as April until 13 points out of the last 15 secured a final place of 15th which belied their earlier struggles. Manager Paul Clement can take much credit for the Swans' survival - the former Derby County manager tightened up a defence which had conceded 44 goals in the first half of the campaign - but the holes in the squad remain. Indeed, the situation could yet get worse if Gylfi Sigurdsson is lured elsewhere - and, while young striker Tammy Abraham - on loan from Chelsea - has potential, he may find it difficult to plough a lone furrow up front.
Prediction: 18th

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR Spurs - Wembley Stadium - @SpursOfficial
Last season Runners-up ▪️ FA Cup Semi finals ▪️ League Cup Fourth round ▪️ Champions League Group stage ▪️ Europa League Last 32
Last major trophy
League Cup 2008
▪️ Premier League seasons 26 
Manager Mauricio Pochettino (since May 2014)
Players In None
Players Out Kyle Walker, Federico Fazio, Clinton N'Jie, Filip Lesniak
It has been a quiet summer at Tottenham Hotspur as manager Mauricio Pochettino puts his trust firmly in the squad which took the club to their highest league finish since 1962-63. Last season was also the first time since 1964-65 that Spurs remained unbeaten at home throughout a campaign - and it was memorably their first finish above rivals Arsenal for 22 years. But this season looks tougher - due to the construction of their new ground, Spurs' home games have been moved to Wembley, a venue at which they have struggled. Meanwhile, the loss of Kyle Walker to Manchester City has been exacerbated by injury to his replacement Kieran Trippier. On the plus side, Harry Kane will ensure Pochettino's men continue to carry plenty of threat - and there are few centre-back partnerships in the Premier League as reliably solid as Belgian pair Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
Prediction: 4th 

WATFORD The Hornets - Vicarage Road - @WatfordFC
Last season 17th ▪️ FA Cup Fourth round ▪️ League Cup Second round
Last major trophy None ▪️ Premier League seasons 5
Manager Marco Silva (since May 2017)

Players In Daniel Bachmann, Tom Cleverley, Kiko Femenia, Will Hughes, Nathaniel Chalobah, Richarlison, Andre Grey
Players Out Mathias Ranegie, Mario Suarez, Steven Berghuis, Juan Carlos Paredes, Rene Gilmartin
Another season, another new manager - Portuguese Mario Silva became Watford's eighth boss since the Italian Pozzo family took over in 2012 when he joined in May. Not that the regular changes have done the Hertfordshire club too much harm - a third successive year in the top flight was secured in early April - although late-season performances then left previous manager Walter Mazzarri with an increasingly disenchanted squad and nowhere to turn. Silva himself, of course, arrived in English football only in January, making an ultimately failed attempt at keeping Hull City in the Premier League. That experience, though, should at least prepare him for what could be another tough next 10 months at Vicarage Road.
Prediction: 16th

WEST BROMWICH ALBION The Baggies - The Hawthorns - @WBA
Last season 10th ▪️ FA Cup Third round ▪️ League Cup Second round
Last major trophy FA Cup 1968 ▪️ Premier League seasons 12 
Manager Tony Pulis (since January 2015)
Players In Jay Rodriguez, Zhang Yuning, Ahmed Hegazy
Players Out Darren Fletcher
West Bromwich Albion begin an eighth-successive top-flight season, the Baggies' best run since the late 1970s and early 1980s - but the fact remains that they have never won more than 50 points in a single Premier League campaign. It looked for certain as if that duck was going to be broken last time out - but, having reached 40 points in February, Tony Pulis' men left for the beach and took only five points out of their last 36. In fact, West Brom lost seven out of their last eight and so carry no momentum into the new season. Regardless, Pulis will set his team up, as he always does - to survive and pinch a goal from a set-piece, an area in which they undoubtedly excel. While it is not pretty, it is effective - and should ensure West Brom celebrate a ninth-successive top-flight season next summer.
Prediction: 12th

WEST HAM UNITED The Hammers - London Stadium - @WestHamUtd
Last season 11th ▪️ FA Cup Third round ▪️ League Cup Quarter finals ▪️ Europa League Playoff
Last major trophy FA Cup 1980
▪️ Premier League seasons 22
Manager
Slaven Bilić (since June 2015)
Players In Javier Hernandez, Marko Arnautovic, Pablo Zabaleta, Anouar El Mhassani, Sead Haksabanovic, Joe Hart
Players Out Alvaro Arbeloa, Havard Nordtveit, Enner Valencia, Darren Randolph, Ashley Fletcher
Moving house is never easy - but, for West Ham United, last season was especially tough. It would be fair to say that many supporters are still not comfortable in their surroundings at the London Stadium - and the fact that the Hammers start this term with three away games because the arena is being used for athletics reinforces the belief that the arena is simply not suited for football. Slaven Bilić's men may be playing catch up then - but the Croatian boss, who is in need of a good season, appears to have recruited well. Javier Hernandez and Marko Arnautovic will add bite to an attack which was previously far too reliant on Andre Ayew and the oft-injured Andy Carroll. Meanwhile, further solid Premier League experience has been recruited as former Manchester City defender Pablo Zabaleta is reunited with the on-loan Joe Hart.
Prediction: 7th

All information correct at time of publication. Players In includes all first-team incoming permanent and loan moves. Players Out includes all first-team outgoing permanent moves and loans to other Premier League teams.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Lions roar to series draw - with a little French assistance

THE BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS secured a dramatic 15-15 draw at Eden Park against New Zealand yesterday, a result which meant the series also finished tied.

It is only the second time that the All Blacks have failed to beat the Lions in a series - and much of that is down to a sharp improvement from Warren Gatland's men.

After all, in the first Test just over two weeks ago, also in Auckland, the tourists were well-beaten after running out of steam in the second half.

The second Test in Wellington, though, was a different story. Trailing 18-9, having been level at half time, it looked as if the Lions' indiscipline might have been their undoing.

But, belatedly, the Lions started using their man advantage which had been gained when Sonny Bill Williams became the first All Black to be sent off for 50 years after he had crashed into the face of Anthony Watson with his shoulder.

First, on the hour, Taulupe Faletau went over in the corner to bring the Lions back into it.

Then, despite another New Zealand penalty in the meantime, Conor Murray added a second try after good work by Jamie George. Owen Farrell converted and the match was all-square at 21-21.

With three minutes left, Farrell then nailed the winning penalty and the Lions could celebrate a first victory over the All Blacks for 24 years.

For New Zealand, this was a first home defeat in 48 matches, a sequence which stretched back to 2009. It was also the first time for 15 years that they had failed to cross the try line in a home Test.

And, of course, it set up yesterday's delectable decider.

The All Blacks, clearly, were a wounded force after their rare defeat - and they allowed the Lions no breathing space in a frantic first half.

Indeed, if they had made the most of their numerous chances, then the late controversy to come would surely have been rendered pretty irrelevant.

As it was, the All Blacks spurned several good opportunities to score, and Ngani Laumape's try was all they had to show for their outright early dominance.

Nevertheless, the try was a thing of beauty as a cross-field kick from Beauden Barrett was patted down by his younger brother Jordie for Laumape to run onto.

Somehow, the Lions stayed in touch with two Farrell penalties - but, just before half time, came a scintillating second All Blacks try, finished off by Jordie Barrett on his first start.

At the interval then, it was 12-6 but the two-nil scoreline in terms of tries was a far better reflection of proceedings.

It looked as if the Lions would need something special - and, within seconds of the start of the second period, they got it through Elliot Daly.

For, though it was not a try, Daly's monstrous kick from inside his own half reduced arrears again to 12-9.

And then the All Blacks were temporarily reduced again to 14 men as French referee Romain Poite harshly penalised Jerome Kaino for a tackle on Alun Wynn Jones.

Once again, the Lions struggled to take advantage of their numerical superiority but a Farrell penalty squared up the match with 20 minutes to go.

Suddenly, it felt as if the Lions were in touching distance of first series win against New Zealand since 1971 and only a second ever.

However, it was the All Blacks who scored next, as Beauden Barrett slotted over after the Lions had collapsed a scrum.

Still, there was time - and, after Rhys Webb was impeded at the breakdown in the centre of the field, Farrell had another scoring opportunity from range.

Again, he nailed it through the centre of the posts - and again the Lions were level with just two minutes left.

Then came the biggest controversy of them all. From the restart, Beauden Barrett launched a short kick and the ball fell between Liam Williams and Kieran Reid before being played onto Ken Owens.

The Welshman was the wrong side of the offside line and it looked for certain as if it was going to be a penalty.

But, oddly, Poite then seemed to go against his instincts and checked upstairs with the video referee.

And, after a couple of minutes of tense deliberation, it was instead decided that Owens' offside had been accidental - and the All Blacks, to the shock of a packed Eden Park, only had a scrum.

To add to the hosts' disgruntlement, the Lions turned the scrum and Webb briefly broke free with the ball. However, a knock-on gave New Zealand - and Jordie Barrett - one last chance.

Just as the youngster charged for the line, though, the Lions' defence barged him into touch. It was the final action of a pulsating contest.

The match had been drawn and - for the first time ever against the All Blacks - the series had been drawn, and it all felt rather unsatisfactory.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen perhaps summed it up best when he said: "We've ended up with a hand on the trophy each and it's a little bit like kissing your sister. There's not a lot in it for anybody."

But Lions leader Gatland also had his own final say. Having been lampooned in the New Zealand Herald ahead of the series, the Kiwi entered the last press conference wearing a red clown nose.

Far from a clown, though, history will judge Gatland kindly.

After victory in Australia four years ago, his squad has avoided an overall defeat in the toughest contest of all - even if, this time, he needed more than a little French assistance.

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS TOUR OF NEW ZEALAND
24 JuneNew Zealand30-15British & Irish LionsAuckland

T Taylor, Ioane 2
P B Barrett 3
C B Barrett 3
(13-8)T O'Brien, Webb
P Farrell

C Farrell

01 JulyNew Zealand21-24British & Irish LionsWellington


P B Barrett 7
(9-9)T Faletau, Murray
P Farrell 4

C Farrell

08 JulyNew Zealand15-15British & Irish LionsAuckland

T Laumape, J Barrett
P B Barrett

C B Barrett
(12-6)P Farrell 4, Daly


BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS RECORD v NEW ZEALAND
Series 
New Zealand 10 
Lions
Drawn 1

Tests
New Zealand 30
Lions 7
Drawn 4
New Zealand points 700
Lions points 399

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Taking Root

JOE ROOT will walk out for the toss at Lord's tomorrow and become the 80th man to captain England in Test cricket.

The 26-year-old Yorkshireman actually took the position back in February following the resignation of Alastair Cook at the start of the year in the wake of a difficult series in India.

But a scheduling quirk has left Root waiting almost five months for his first opportunity to lead his side in the longest form of the game.

Nevertheless, it was always an opportunity likely to come to him. For years, Root has seemed destined to make it to the very top.

Making his Test debut in India in 2012, aged just 21, the angelic-looking youngster quickly gained the respect of his contemporaries for his adept play of spin.

Then, in the 2013 Ashes, Root scored 180 in the second Test at Lord's and England went on to take the series 3-0.

But it was a different matter Down Under in the return. Root started the campaign batting at six but was then moved up the order to three when Jonathan Trott returned home with a stress-related illness.

Eventually, he was dropped altogether for the fifth Test - and thus became probably the clearest example of the selectors' muddled thinking throughout the nightmare tour.

Thankfully, Root recovered and, in the 2014 summer series, he scored an unbeaten 200 against Sri Lanka, though England's form continued to dip in a surprise 1-0 defeat.

Root - by contrast - went from strength to strength, and a sequence of six consecutive Test half centuries in 2015 meant he had swiftly become an integral part of the team.

Moreover, though having to mature after recently becoming a father for the first time, he possesses an infectiously effervescent personality.

It has been established that he is quite happy to play his part in dressing room pranks and it is thought that he might be more positive in his decision-making than the often cautious Cook.

But, inevitably, there have been words of caution from several of predecessors.

It is, after all, a more difficult job now than ever before with the sharp focus of social media adding to the traditional off-the-field corporate and media responsibilities.

On the field, former captain Michael Vaughan estimated he would sometimes make up to 150 decisions per day, whether it was "team changes, bowling changes, field changes", or even simply whether to opt for pace or spin.

And, eventually, Root must also still focus his attention on his own batting - and try to maintain, or get close to maintaining, his excellent current Test average of 52.80.

Who knows? If he really enjoys the responsibilities of the captaincy, there is always a chance that figure will improve still further, in the mode of Graham Gooch.

But, given the list of priorities outlined above, it is more realistic to expect a slight decline in the long run.

Such a consequence would be easily negated if a fresh Root captaincy brought greater confidence overall to England's fragile top order which has struggled now for quite some time.

Even ignoring the India tour, England - on home soil - found themselves, at various times last summer, dealing with scores of 83-5, 84-4, 120-5, 139-6, 110-5, and 128-5.

South Africa, naturally, will not be slow to prey on any further vulnerability in the English batting, as they look for a third series win in England since apartheid ended.

Indeed, it is somewhat curious that Root begins his adventure as skipper against the Proteas.

For, on each of their last three tours, the South Africans have been responsible for ending a captaincy reign with Nasser Hussain (2003), Vaughan (2008), and Andrew Strauss (2012) all stepping down.

Of course, it would take a cricketing disaster, almost beyond imagination, for Root to suffer the same fate.

Nevertheless, with only this difficult series of four Tests and then three Tests later in the summer against West Indies coming before the return of the Ashes this winter, Root could well do with gaining some early momentum.

That is if the Australians sort out their contract dispute and the Ashes series actually still goes ahead...

ENGLAND'S TEST MATCH SUMMER

6-10 July(1)ENGLAND 458 & 233 beat SOUTH AFRICA 361 & 119 by 211 runsLord's
14-18 July(2)SOUTH AFRICA 335 & 343-9d beat ENGLAND 205 & 133 by 340 runsTrent Bridge
27-31 July(3)ENGLAND 353 & 313-8d beat SOUTH AFRICA 175 & 252 by 239 runsThe Oval
4-8 August(4)ENGLAND 362 & 243 beat SOUTH AFRICA 226 & 202 by 177 runsOld Trafford


ENGLAND beat SOUTH AFRICA 3-1
17-21 August(1)ENGLAND v WEST INDIESEdgbaston
25-29 August(2)ENGLAND v WEST INDIESHeadingley
7-11 September(3)ENGLAND v WEST INDIESLord's

Friday, 30 June 2017

Glastonbury 2017: A Worthy return

THE TRUE measure of a successful visit to Glastonbury Festival is often in the memories which abide, as much as in the experience itself.

So, in that case, Glastonbury 2017 was and still is a glorious triumph.

Even now, more than a week since it started, little moments fill the vacant boredom of everyday life and the corners of my mouth involuntarily curl up at the edge. My eyes dazzle excitedly and I catch myself smiling.

Right from the start, though, I knew this was going to be a special Glastonbury for me.

It was, after all, my first visit for four years - and so, when I eventually arrived on site, late on Thursday, I immediately collapsed to the turf in the manner of a Wimbledon champion who had just landed a winning forehand on championship point.

Time to explore - although, to be totally honest, Thursday night was a little stop-start for me and my companions as we consistently found ourselves in the unfortunate position of greeting the end of a set.

Perhaps it was inevitable that we would end up down a Rabbit Hole that night.

On Friday, we found better form as Chryssie Hynde and the Pretenders opened the Other Stage before we hot-footed it to West Holts for the Hot 8 Brass Band and a taste of festival-strength Brothers Cider.

Liverpool band Circa Waves then infused a summery burst of indie-pop as I clambered on the shoulders of a mate for their set-closer T-Shirt Weather.

"It's gonna be okay" affirmed lead vocalist Kieran Shudall as the band around him played out. Already, though, I knew it was going to be much better than that...

Next for me came the highly-rated Brighton-based Royal Blood and a first proper visit of the year to the Pyramid. Gladly, it can be reported that it was not a disappointment.

Indeed, there must have been few noisier sets of the weekend as duo Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher celebrated their album How Did We Get So Dark? going to number one by clanging champagne bottles together. The little monsters.

George Ezra did nothing to slow the pace by opening his Other Stage appearance with Cassy O before he strummed his way through a genuinely classy set to Budapest.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor then enticed the Avalon, indulging in a costume change while reminding her audience of her array of hits from the turn of the millennium.

And so, onto the first of the headliners - and Radiohead on Pyramid, 20 years on from the release of OK Computer.

Undoubtedly there was a buzz around the crowd - but, unfortunately for the more casual observer like myself, Thom Yorke had back-filled his set and my thoughts soon began to wander elsewhere.

In the Park, those thoughts found their home, as Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips reproduced exactly the sort of bizarre performance which first appealed to me back in 2010.

There is a gentle beauty among all the bizarreness, though - and the cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity was an outstandingly lovely touch before a becalmed crowd faded into the night to the words of Do You Realize??

Saturday already had a lot to live up to meet those opening standards.

Nevertheless, the day got off to a grand start as, on Pyramid, the Bootleg Beatles, marching suits and all, reincarnated Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on its 50th anniversary.

The Brass Funkeys entertainingly opened up the Avalon tent and kept spirits high amid the drizzle with a cover of One Step Beyond and a blast of the Bear Necessities.

And Jools Holland then brought on a whole array of guests during his set on Pyramid including his old mucker Chris Difford of Squeeze for a rendition of Cool For Cats.

Clearly, though, the afternoon belonged to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Drawing one of the biggest audiences of the weekend, Mr Corbyn's 14-minute speech on Pyramid was, in many ways, largely preaching to a converted choir.

However, in a week in which the Conservatives cheered the retention of a 1% cap on public sector wage growth in the House of Commons, Mr Corbyn's words will still have resonated well beyond the most hardcore of his supporters, and so his battle goes on.

Back to the music - and Saturday evening was a tale of two Katys, as KT Tunstall rolled back the years on the Acoustic stage before pop star-extraordinaire Katy Perry lit up the Pyramid.

The Avalanches provided more nostalgia on West Holts ahead of the Foo Fighters taking to the Pyramid stage.

Cruelly denied the top slot in 2015 when injury forced Dave Grohl to pull out, the Foos made up for lost time by starting with Times Like These and All My Life.

My Hero was dedicated to a naked fan in the audience and, as the set drew to its close, it reached its climax when Monkey Wrench and Best of You came in quick succession.

I think it would be fair to say that we did, indeed, see the best of the Foo Fighters who were on top form throughout - and it set me up for a night which felt at the time it as if it would last forever but now feels as if it was gone in a flash.

At least I know the night finished with people in a packed Silent Disco blasting out Bohemian Rhapsody to each other, and then it literally dawned upon me.

Dawn arrived, the sky was no longer dark - and yet I had not been to bed. Forgive me then for my later start on Sunday...

The final day of the festival began at Other as the Boston-based Dropkick Murphys paid testament to their celtic roots, ahead of a much-anticipated appearance by Rag'n'Bone Man.

Rag'n'Bone was clearly nervous during his set and he even admitted as much - but, thankfully, his voice remained as strong as ever, as he picked his way through the hits from his Human album.

Now, up until this point, the weather had been warm. There had been a little rain on Saturday morning but not enough for the ground to break up. However, for much of the time, the skies had been filled with a leaden cloud-cover.

Perhaps then even the weather knew it was party time on Pyramid as Barry Gibb brought some Saturday Night Fever to Sunday afternoon.

He was followed swiftly by Chic feat Nile Rodgers who brought the whole arena to its feet in a set which included all the hits and covers of Daft Punk and, again, Bowie.

It is difficult to put in words just how brilliant those three hours of disco under clear blue skies and a baking hot sun were - but, as the BeeGee sang, words are all I have.

Following all the dancing and singing, it was time to tone it down a bit - though only via another sing-a-long to the Bootleg Beatles' closer Hey Jude on Acoustic - and we made our way to the Circus Fields.

There, in the Big Top, we watched the stupidly entertaining Flying Dutchmen jugglers on unicycles.

And then the Occam's Razor acrobatics quintet dazzled my mind as a performance featuring huge metal poles played with at all sorts of different angles, the weight and timing of each move being key.

By this time, it was Ed Sheeran's turn to headline Pyramid, only six years after his appearance on the BBC Introducing Stage in 2011.

In fairness to Sheeran, we knew pretty much every number he played in his first hour - but, as this was the last night of Glastonbury for over 700 days, we wanted a big party in which to dance.

Mr Bombastic himself Shaggy - at the Gully Stage in the Silver Hayes area - duly obliged as he sailed through his tunes. Remember, though, it wasn't him...

At that point, all that was left was a final wander around the site, taking in the ever-magnificent Arcadia and ambling into the Bimble Inn for the raga-infused celtic sound of Delhi to Dublin.

One last boogie there and another in the Glade at around 3am on Monday morning just about finished us off as we headed back to our tents to put this festival to bed.

It had been an unbelievable few days, a festival which will not be easily forgotten in a long time.

But that period in the sunshine on Sunday afternoon was a particular highlight so, to conclude this write-up, I will lean upon the words of Bowie which featured on the 2016 Glastonbury t-shirts:

Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon
To paint that love upon a white balloon...
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We're Gonna Have a Party

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Election 2017: Young hearts run free as May clings on


GENERAL ELECTION

OVERALL SUMMARY
CON318 (-13)42.4% (+5.5%)
LAB262 (+30)40.0% (+9.5%)
SNP35 (-21)3.0% (-1.7%)
LD12 (+4)7.4% (-0.5%)
DUP10 (+2)0.9% (+0.3%)
Others136.3%
RESULT CON minority government 
Turnout 68.7% (+2.6%)

THERESA MAY has desperately clung onto her position as Prime Minister following a failed gamble on another dramatic General Election night.

Mrs May's Conservatives won the most votes and most seats in Thursday's poll but they fell short of retaining even the narrow majority which they had previously held.

Consequently, Mrs May has been forced into doing a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party who won 10 seats in Northern Ireland, though it is only a loose arrangement and not a formal coalition.

Certainly, it is not the strong and stable government which Mrs May had set her heart on when she called the election seven weeks ago.

In all, the Tories lost a net total of 23 seats against Labour in England and Wales, and only gains from the Scottish Nationalists provided any solace.

The SNP had won 56 out of the 59 Westminster seats in 2015 but, with their own record in the devolved Holyrood government to defend, they were always likely to go backwards.

Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon's party lost 13% of their previous share of the vote in Scotland, resulting in almost 40% of their MPs being unseated.

The defeated included their former party leader Alec Salmond in Gordon and Angus Robertson, who had been their leader in the House of Commons during the last Parliament.

But the biggest name of the night to lose his seat was former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who finally got his comeuppance as Labour gained Sheffield Hallam from the Liberal Democrats.

Despite this, the Lib Dems at least had a mixed night, rather than a totally disastrous one. 

There were modest gains in Scotland at the expense of the SNP and in London against the Conservatives as former ministers Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Jo Swinson all returned to Parliament.

Overall, though, the party's vote share was down slightly, and there was little sign of a revival in their former heartland in south west England.


Elsewhere, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas defied a slight decrease in her party's overall vote to retain her Brighton Pavilion seat.

However, the UKIP vote collapsed massively just about everywhere, down from 12.6% to just 1.8%. 


Paul Nuttall was humiliated in the Boston and Skegness constituency, taking only just over 3,000 votes, and he became the only party leader - so far - to resign.

At the time of writing, Mrs May has not followed suit despite this having been a huge personal humiliation for her.

After all, just a few weeks ago, the polls suggested that she was on course for the massive landslide victory which she craved heading into the Brexit negotiations.

In Jeremy Corbyn, she faced a supposed relic of an opponent, a man who had struggled to keep his party united during the course of his leadership.

But, with the launch of the manifestos, the tone of the campaign changed. 

The Conservatives' policy on social care became dubbed the dementia tax and, generally, the discussion moved away from Brexit and towards the provision of services.

Historically stronger ground for Labour, Mr Corbyn was able to point out that - even after seven years of austerity - Mrs May was set to make even more cuts.

Worse still in the eyes of many of the public, the Tories did not even appear to be prepared to defend their policy positions.

For, while Mr Corbyn toured the country holding mass rallies, Mrs May organised small private events with a particularly memorable instance of her hiding away coming in a barn in Aberdeenshire.

Rarely can there ever have been a lazier, more arrogant, more insulting campaign in a General Election in Britain.

Terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, which killed a combined total of 30 people, naturally left a sombre backdrop to the election, and campaigning was briefly suspended twice.

But, on its resumption, Mr Corbyn went straight back on the offensive, criticising Mrs May for cutting police numbers during her six-year tenure as Home Secretary.

Suddenly, it was Mrs May who was having to defend her political past - and there is a certain further irony in her eventual deal with the DUP.

The DUP's past links with loyalist paramilitary groups are more well-founded than anything connecting Mr Corbyn to the IRA - and yet, as it stands, their 10 MPs now hold a significant stake in determining Britain's future.


That, of course, includes the Brexit negotiations. There, a diminished Mrs May, previously a Remainer herself, will head to the table aware that she only retains any sort of power courtesy of MPs from Scotland and Northern Ireland, areas which both voted to stay in the EU.

Already, the lack of authority which Mrs May commands, even within her own party, has been exposed by the resignation today of her two top aides Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.

But, rather than shoring up Mrs May, their departure undoubtedly makes her weaker still - and, far from delivering her a massive landslide majority, this whole election has turned into a complete mess.

By contrast, things are looking up for Labour. True, the party still finished 56 seats short of the Conservatives - but there has been some excellent progress, especially in the south.

Seats like Peterborough, Enfield Southgate and Reading East - all won in the 1997 landslide under Tony Blair - have returned to the Labour fold after an intervening period of Conservative control.

More astonishingly, Labour gained Canterbury, a seat which had been held by the Tories since its inception in the 1800s.


And then, in the final result to declare, Kensington - the richest constituency in the country - fell to Labour after a third recount.

Overall, Mr Corbyn won over 12 million votes, more than Mr Blair in his "quiet" landslide in 2001 as Labour polled at 40% for only the third time since 1970.

The return of two-party politics has undoubtedly helped - though it has also assisted in keeping the Conservatives in power.

Nevertheless, if there is now going to be a period of binary politics, a strong opposition must now focus on presenting itself as a government-in-waiting. 

That means more support for Mr Corbyn from his own side, less sniping against him and certainly no embarrassingly pointless and diversionary leadership elections.

It seems inconceivable that the Conservatives will not, at some point in the near future, tear themselves apart over Mrs May's continued leadership after her failed gamble. Meanwhile, the arrangement with the DUP is tenuous in the extreme.

This General Election, when it was called, seemed incredibly unnecessary - and yet perhaps the greatest irony of this result is that it has necessitated another. 

Strong and stable times, indeed.

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