Friday, 12 September 2014

Fallen idols

Charges against PistoriusVerdictSentence
Premeditated murderNot guilty
Common-law murderNot guilty
Culpable homicide (manslaughter)Guilty> tbc on 13 October
(1) Discharging a firearm in public
(2) Discharging a firearm in public
Not guilty

> tbc on 13 October
Illegal possession of ammunitionNot guilty

OSCAR PISTORIUS faces the prospect of up to 15 years in jail after being found guilty of the manslaughter of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day last year.

Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled Pistorius acted "negligently" when he fired four shots through a locked toilet door believing an intruder was in his house.

But the judge also decided the prosecution had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he had intended to kill Ms Steenkamp.

On the other charges, Pistorius was found guilty of discharging a firearm in public when he fired a gun at a Johannesburg restaurant.

However, he was found not guilty on another count of the same offence, and was also found not guilty of illegal possession of ammunition.

The prosecution, led by Gerrie Nel, expressed disappointment that Pistorius was not convicted of murder but said it would wait until after sentencing to decide whether to appeal.

Sentencing will take place on 13 October after Judge Masipa adjourned the High Court in Pretoria having granted Pistorius bail.

Pistorius thus avoided the worst possible outcome - but it would be foolish to think this conviction leaves anything other than an indelible stain on his character.

A six-time Paralympic champion, the man known as Blade Runner became the first double leg amputee to participate in the Olympics at London 2012.

He had changed worldwide perceptions of disability and had become a hero in his homeland.

Of course, South African sport in the post-apartheid era has been here before.

In the 1990s, Hansie Cronje was supposed to lead the South African cricket team to the top of the world, emulating Francois Pienaar's achievements in rugby union.

And Cronje got close. By the second part of the decade, the Proteas had been re-established as a force in world cricket, enjoying the highest winning percentage in One-Day Internationals of any team.

They reached the semi finals of the Cricket World Cup in 1999, tying against Australia in an iconic match and losing on countback.

But, if there was anything Cronje liked more than winning, it was money and risk. He was a compulsive gambler.

With an unassailable 2-0 lead against England in a home Test series, the fifth Test in Centurion looked like being a disappointing washed-out draw.

Only 45 overs were possible on the first four days and South Africa had reached 155-6 in the first innings of the match, eventually going on to make 248-8.

Having declared, Cronje then made history as he became the first Test captain to forfeit a second innings.

In return, England captain Nasser Hussain had agreed to declare their first innings at 0-0 and so, effectively, a One-Day chase of 249 off the 70 remaining overs was set up.

On a difficult pitch, England made it to their target with two wickets and just five balls to spare, and so brought to an end South Africa's 14-match unbeaten streak in Tests.

At the time, Cronje was widely commended for his apparent show of sportsmanship - but he was also criticised in some quarters for his over-generous declaration.

Then, in April 2000, police in Dehli revealed they had a recording of a conversation between Cronje and Sanjay Chawla, a representative of an Indian betting syndicate, over match-fixing allegations.

Suddenly, a different light shone on the Centurion Test - and, indeed, it emerged in court that Cronje had accepted money and the gift of a leather jacket from a bookmaker in return for his early declaration.

Cronje was disgraced, and the South African media were stunned to report on the downfall of one of their favourite sporting sons.

The front-page headline on the Pretoria News simply asked: "Hansie, how could you?". Similarly, The Citizen - a South African tabloid - exclaimed "Oh, Hansie".

Cronje's career ended abruptly and, two years later, so did his life. On 1 June 2002, Cronje was killed after a cargo plane on which he was travelling crashed into the Outeniqua Mountains in poor weather. He was 32.

Aged 29, Ms Steenkamp was just a little younger when Pistorius made the fateful decision to shoot through the bathroom door just over 18 months ago.

It is a moment which will last with him forever, longer than any prison sentence - and it will also be what he is ultimately remembered for. Another fallen idol.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Euro 2016: UEFA fails to see that less = more

EURO 2016 qualification begins tonight with an expanded finals tournament offering 23 places alongside the hosts, France.

Taking place over more than four weeks in June and July 2016, the largest ever European Championships will last as long as a World Cup finals.

But, already, there is a worry that the level of competition will be seriously diluted by the increased numbers.

After all, 23 of the 53 UEFA members, excluding France, will be ultimately successful in their qualifying campaign - a whopping 43%.

Moreover, take away the eight lowest-ranked teams - serial no-hopers like Luxembourg and San Marino - and more than half of the entrants will make it through.

Even finishing third, with the best record among the third-placed teams, will be enough for automatic qualification alongside all of the group winners and runners-up.

The other eight third-placed teams, meanwhile, will get to enter a playoff for the last four places.

At the finals themselves, 36 group games will result in the elimination of just six teams - with four third-placed teams advancing into the Last 16.

Previously, the 16 finalists provided an easily divisible number - and UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino has conceded that the revised format is "not ideal".

However, UEFA president Michel Platini has long desired an expanded tournament - and the marketers and television companies were hardly going to disagree either.

And, while there is now seemingly no going back, the maxim that 'less is more' has certainly not been applied here.

It should not, perhaps, have come as much of a surprise. At club level, the UEFA Champions League principally acts to serve as a cartel for a select group of elite clubs.

Meanwhile, the Europa League is a prime example of UEFA inadequacy with a torturous group phase meaning a qualifier reaching the Final has to play 22 matches just to get there.

Of course, from the perspective of the head coaches of the Home Nations, the expanded tournament offers relief and opportunity.

There is relief for England's Roy Hodgson who will surely see his side come through Group E despite him starting to come under pressure for a poor World Cup. The Three Lions' first match - away to Switzerland on Monday - should easily be their toughest.

For Scotland coach Gordon Strachan, the 24-team Euros provide a golden opportunity to qualify for a major finals for the first time since century.

Last seen performing on the big stage at the World Cup in 1998, Scotland are unbeaten in their last six games - and really fancy their chances this time in one of the more interesting groups.

World champions Germany will no doubt top the section - but, behind them, the Scots will contest a three-way battle with Poland and Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland.

Debutants Gibraltar - kept apart from holders Spain in the draw - add another element of British interest in Group D, though not much can really be expected of a territory with a population of 30,000.

More will be expected of Wales this time, though. Having failed to qualify for any major tournament since 1958, the expanded Euros offer Chris Coleman's men a half-decent chance to put the record straight.

World Cup finalists Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovina will be expected to take the top two spots - but the Welsh must surely look to get the better of Israel, Cyprus and Andorra for third.

A third-placed finish will also be the aim of Northern Ireland in a section likely to be dominated by Greece and a Romania team which seems to be back on the rise.

The matches against Hungary and Finland, and avoiding a slip-up against the Faroe Isles, will be the key factors in any Northern Irish presence en France.

And that brings me on to my final point - why France yet again? After all, it is hardly as if the French have waited ages since their last international tournament.

For the record, France has previously hosted the Euros in 1984 and World Cup 1998 in my lifetime - as well as World Cup 1938 and the Euros in 1960 long before I was born.

Ah mais oui, Monsieur Platini is a Frenchman and must look after his own.

And, before this gets cast aside as Anglo-centric paranoia, consider Platini's response to a journalist's question over why France was preferred to fellow-bidders Turkey.

"When there is a Turkish president, then you can host a major tournament," he smirked - although, if we are being selfish here, at least France is just a short hop across the Channel. 


07-Sep Group D, Group F, Group I
08-Sep Group C, Group E, Group G
09-Sep Group A, Group B, Group H

GROUP A Netherlands, Czech Republic, Turkey, Latvia, Iceland, Kazakhstan
09-Sep17:00Kazakhstan0-0LatviaSkySports 5
09-Sep19:45Czech Republic2-1NetherlandsSkySports red button
09-Sep19:45Iceland3-0TurkeySkySports red button

GROUP B Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belgium, Israel, Wales, Cyprus, Andorra
09-Sep19:45Andorra1-2WalesSkySports 5
09-Sep19:45Bosnia-Herzegovina1-2CyprusSkySports red button

GROUP C Spain, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, FYR Macedonia, Luxembourg
08-Sep19:45Luxembourg1-1BelarusSkySports red button
08-Sep19:45Spain5-1FYR MacedoniaSkySports 5
08-Sep19:45Ukraine0-1SlovakiaSkySports red button

GROUP D Germany, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Scotland, Georgia, Gibraltar
07-Sep17:00Georgia1-2Republic of IrelandSkySports 5
07-Sep19:45Germany2-1ScotlandSkySports 5
07-Sep19:45Gibraltar0-7PolandSkySports red button

GROUP E England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino
08-Sep19:45Estonia1-0SloveniaSkySports red button
08-Sep19:45San Marino0-2LithuaniaSkySports red button

GROUP F Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland, Northern Ireland, Faroe Islands
07-Sep17:00Hungary1-2Northern IrelandSkySports 3
07-Sep19:45Faroe Islands1-3FinlandSkySports red button
07-Sep19:45Greece0-1RomaniaSkySports red button

GROUP G Russia, Sweden, Austria, Montenegro, Moldova, Liechtenstein
08-Sep17:00Russia4-0LiechtensteinSkySports 5
08-Sep19:45Austria1-1SwedenSkySports 1
08-Sep19:45Montenegro2-0MoldovaSkySports red button

GROUP H Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Malta
09-Sep17:00Azerbaijan1-2BulgariaSkySports red button
09-Sep19:45Croatia2-0MaltaSkySports red button
09-Sep19:45Norway0-2ItalySkySports 1

GROUP I Portugal, Denmark, Serbia, Armenia, Albania, [France]
07-Sep17:00Denmark2-1ArmeniaSkySports red button
07-Sep19:45Portugal0-1AlbaniaSkySports 3

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Salmond shouts his way to debate win

SCOTLAND First Minister Alec Salmond struck back in the second independence debate after he repeatedly shouted down his opponent Alistair Darling in an ill-tempered contest.

A snap poll by ICM showed 71% thought Mr Salmond had won the debate against just 29% for Mr Darling. Those figures represent quite a turnaround for Mr Salmond after Mr Darling's surprise win three weeks ago.

Nevertheless, with just over three weeks to go until polling day - and some postal voting taking place from this week - it was the least the Scottish Nationalist leader needed to do.

And yet, at this late stage, it still may not be enough.

For, although Mr Salmond was undoubtedly the clear victor last night, the standard of the debate at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow was frankly appalling.

Indeed, it was so poor that it may have put off those who are undecided from voting altogether, something over which BBC Scotland moderator Glenn Campbell must be held responsible.

Campbell seemed content to allow Mr Salmond to talk over Mr Darling, often not allowing the former Chancellor of the Exchequer to answer the question fully.

And it had the effect of creating a rather unedifying spectacle with satirist Charlie Brooker best summing up the viewer's perspective on Twitter. "This sounds like eight debates at once," he wrote.

In fact, the debate was meant to have been pretty well-structured with opening statements followed by four defined sections - on the economy, on home affairs, on foreign affairs and on Scotland's immediate future after the referendum.

In the middle of the four topics, the pair also had the opportunity to cross-examine one another - but this had the purely predictable result of the audience just not being able to hear either of them.

Finally, there were the closing statements when at least Mr Salmond had the decency to allow a clearly defeated Mr Darling to speak uninterrupted at the end.

And so why, other than Mr Salmond's bawling tactics, had Mr Darling found things so tough?

Well, one thing the former Chancellor let slip quite early on in the debate was that Scotland would still be able to use the pound outside of a currency union.

Mr Salmond immediately seized on this - but Mr Darling correctly countered that such an arrangement would leave Scotland without access to a Central Bank and thus a lender of last resort.

Home affairs were tougher again for Labour MP Mr Darling as he stood on his podium having to defend some of the policies of David Cameron on the NHS and welfare cuts.

And there was a particularly hairy moment for him when an audience member accused Mr Darling of being a hypocrite because of his support, while in government, for NHS privatisation.

The MP for Edinburgh South West found the contest in the second half of the night more easy-going and there were fewer flashpoints.

The last section - on what will happen to Scotland after the vote - actually allowed some of the bitterness of the campaign to be tempered.

This was to the extent that, on account of victory in the referendum, Mr Salmond even offered Mr Darling a place in an all-party group to negotiate independence.

Mr Darling, of course, still hopes that will not be necessary - but it really is more difficult to tell after Mr Salmond's rambunctious performance last night. 

Ultimately, though, any swing to "Aye" will probably not be enough - and so my bold prediction for 18 September is still for a narrow "Naw" win of 53% to 47%.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Match of the Day at 50

A STAPLE of Saturday night television and a national institution, BBC flagship football programme Match of the Day celebrates its 50th birthday today.

First broadcast on 22 August 1964, it featured - as its title suggests - only one match as defending champions Liverpool won 3-2 against Arsenal.

The transmission, shown on BBC Two, was actually originally intended only as part of a one-off series ahead of the 1966 World Cup.

BBC Two was also only available in London at the time - and it attracted an audience which was about half of the attendance in Anfield.

Nevertheless, commissioners decided that Match of the Day was here to stay - and, despite resistance from several clubs fearing an effect on their gates, a deal was reached with the Football League in 1965.

In the same year, the programme moved to a much wider audience on BBC One and, in 1969, it was broadcast in colour for the first time with Liverpool again the featured winners, 2-0 against West Ham United.

The 1980s saw a boom as a first live transmission in 1983 showed Manchester United beating Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 at Old Trafford.

However, this was quickly followed by a bust as the increasingly-competitive ITV gained sole rights in 1988, leaving the BBC with just the FA Cup.

The arrival of the Premier League in 1992 sent the live rights to Sky where, of course, they have stayed ever since.

But the BBC at least regained highlights of the top division, featuring extended coverage of three matches - and, for the first time, all the goals from the other games played that day.

That arrangement remained until 2001 when ITV outbid the BBC again. However, its ill-fated highlights programme, The Premiership, lasted just three years before the BBC regained the contract in 2004.

With Gary Lineker presenting, the BBC has since been able to show longer highlights from all of the games in what is now sometimes a 90-minute broadcast on Saturday night.

Match of the Day 2 shows the Sunday games while another spin-off - Match of the Day 2 Extra - discusses the main talking points of the previous day's action on Sunday at around midday.

As a package then, Match of the Day is in rude health. It now attracts more than seven million viewers across the weekend, bucking the trend of declining audience figures for major shows.

Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement.

For, although Lineker suggests Match of the Day is "predominately an action programme", even now there is far too much waffle from the pundits. 

Is there really any need for the likes of Alan Shearer to indulge in faux-outrage just because the producers have suggested it?

And yet, the voices which matter more - those of the commentators - have arguably declined over the last few years.

Lead commentator Guy Mowbray lacks the distinctive tone of some of the late greats like David Coleman and Tony Gubba, and so just fades into the background.

By contrast, the intensely-annoying Jonathan Pearce still uses the microphone to wallow in what seems to be his favourite past-time - that is, listening to the sound of his own screeching voice.

John Motson was actually a brilliant commentator back in his heyday - but now comes across as a bit of a parody of himself, parroting pointless statistics without much genuine analysis.

And, while it is high time the sheepskin coat was retired, this is not in any way an ageist rant.

After all, the BBC could do worse than bring back the still-excellent Barry Davies - something which the corporation has indeed done for its golden anniversary.

But, despite its faults, Match of the Day - and its iconic theme tune - still serves its purpose well, and has long since entered the automatic thought-process of the English football fan.

It does not happen that commonly at the moment - but, if a Newcastle United player scores a pearler, one of my first thoughts is of tuning into Match of the Day to see the goal repeated.

And, for a football programme on the telly, there can surely be no higher praise than that.

1964-1969 Kenneth Wolstenholme
1968-1973 David Coleman 
1973-1988 Jimmy Hill 
1988-1999 Des Lynam 
1999-present Gary Lineker 

Documentary Match of the Day at 50 is on BBC One tonight at 10.35pm. Match of the Day is on BBC One tomorrow at 10.30pm.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Cook sees through tumultuous summer

ENGLAND captain Alastair Cook came through a near-disastrous summer unscathed after three successive thrashings completely turned around the series against India.

Set with the wreckage of an Ashes whitewash still looming large in the background, England first contrived to lose 1-0 to Sri Lanka for their first early summer series defeat since their introduction in 2000.

The decisive match at Headingley was very nearly saved by a last-wicket partnership between Moeen Ali and James Anderson.

But, having performed several great escapes in the recent past, this England team was unable to complete the job, and Anderson fell to the penultimate ball of the match for a 55-ball duck.

Worse was yet to come. Following a terribly dull draw at Trent Bridge in which barely three innings were completed, England invited the touring Indians to play on a made-to-order green-top at Lord's.

It was indeed the greenest Test pitch seen in England for years, and everything seemed to be going to plan when the hosts won the toss and chose to field.

Middle-order batsman Ajinkya Rahane then surprised everyone however, racking up a century as India posted a first innings total of 295.

England still took a narrow innings lead of 24, thanks to a Gary Ballance ton - but India batted well in their second innings too, and the hosts were set a tricky target of 319 to win.

By the end of day four, it already looked unlikely. Cook had failed again and England had stumbled to 105-4.

And, though a quiet morning session on day five offered hope, Ali was bounced out by Ishant Sharma in the last ball before the interval.

It was a frightening taste of things to come as, after lunch, England collectively engaged in surely some of most truly brainless cricket ever seen at Lord's.

Matt Prior, Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Stuart Broad all fell to a stock short delivery from Sharma as the Indian quickie collected his Test best figures of 7-74.

SkySports pundit and legendary fast bowler Bob Willis later commented: "I've seen fewer hookers on a Saturday evening."

And it was indeed a case of having to laugh, or else you would cry - and, as often is the case in these situations, the innings ended with an appropriately comical run out.

Rock-bottom had finally been reached. Yes, the Ashes whitewash had been spectacular and a big surprise, given the 3-0 home win immediately beforehand.

But it also happened in the dead of the night and, in Mitchell Johnson, the Aussies had a ghoulish paceman who is still liable to give English batsmen nightmares even now.

By contrast, the defeats to Sri Lanka and India had been suffered at home, the green, green grass of home in the case of Lord's. Conditions could not have been more favourable.

Of course, not everything could be laid at captain Cook's door - and Prior's withdrawal in the wake of defeat in the second Test meant, in space of 12 months, almost half of the England team had been replaced.

For various reasons, the team's number three Jonathan Trott, their best batsman Kevin Pietersen, spinner Graeme Swann and wicket-keeper Prior were all now absent from the first XI.

However, the blame on Cook came largely from his continual use of negative fields which meant the plentiful lower order opposition runs of the winter had carried on into the summer.

Worse, his own form with the bat had been woeful over an extended period of time and, frankly, it just looked as if he badly needed a break from the game.

Yet, in the face of calls for his resignation from former captains Alec Stewart and Michael Vaughan, Cook vowed to continue in the lead role.

And, as he did so, the luck at last began to turn for the Essex man.

The crazy schedule of five back-to-back Test matches had claimed another victim, and this time it was on the side of the Indians as England's destroyer Sharma was ruled out for the next two matches.

In the third Test at the Rose Bowl in Southampton, England won the toss again and this time elected to bat.

Cook survived a drop on 15 and capitalised to make 95, falling just short of extending his England record for Test centuries to 26.

Nevertheless, Ian Bell - who had suffered a similarly lean spell to his skipper - hit 167 for his 21st Test century, and Ballance hit 156 as England were able to declare on 569-7.

A fired-up Anderson then tore into India, taking 5-53 - and, though the tourists fell short of the follow-on, England elected to bat again anyway.

This time, Cook anchored the innings, his 70 not out off 114 balls allowing likes of Ballance, Bell and Root to score quickly around him.

England declared a second time on 205-4 and Ali then proceeding to demolish the Indian line-up, finishing with 6-67.

The series was only just back level at 1-1 - but already it felt as if the tables had already been fully turned.

A campaign which had begun with an Indian fast-bowler bouncing England out at Lord's was now seeing a hitherto unheralded spinner in Ali completely flummox India.

In the fourth Test at Old Trafford, India skipper MS Dhoni won the toss and elected to bat under leaden skies in Manchester.

Half an hour later, the tourists were 8-4 with Anderson and Broad swinging the ball magnificently.

Anderson eventually took 3-46 and Broad 6-25 as India were bundled out for 152 on the stroke of tea on the first day. Six of their batsmen were out for a duck.

England were not at their most convincing in reply but half centuries from Bell, Root and new wicket-keeper Jos Buttler contributed to a total of 367.

Broad had his nose busted by a bouncer and so was unable to bowl in the second innings.

But Ali was again the star of the show, taking 4-39 as India fell to 161 all out after losing nine wickets in a single session after tea on Saturday.

England had won by an innings and suddenly the questions were instead being asked of the India regime with Dhoni and his men appearing to lack the ability or foresight to bat for time.

Sunday would have been a complete washout and better batting would have therefore taken the game into a final day which would have also been interrupted by rain.

Instead, it was 2-1 with England clearly holding the whip hand.

This was confirmed in the fifth Test over the weekend as the hosts won inside three days for a second time.

Asking India to bat first, Cook's attack immediately applied pressure to the tourists' increasingly brittle batting order and India duly collapsed to 90-9, and eventually 148 all out.

Encouragingly, the wickets were shared between four bowlers as Chris Jordan (3-32) and Chris Woakes (3-30) joined Anderson and the black-eyed Broad who took two apiece.

England then made a mockery of the India total, Cook and Ballance hitting 79 and 64 respectively to give a great platform to man of the match Root who made an unbeaten 149.

The scoring, on the third morning in particular, was lightening quick - almost 10-an-over - although this had more to do with a reprehensible Indian bowling performance and some shocking captaincy in the field by Dhoni.

If the bowling, fielding and captaincy had been poor, the batting once again was even worse.

Reduced to 9-2 following Gautam Gambhir's run out on the stroke of a rain break at lunch, India failed to make it to tea.

All out for 94 inside 30 overs, this was the first time that India had failed to make 200 in five successive innings since 1977.

Indeed, considering the bright start and the subsequent collapse of confidence, this has arguably been a worse tour than the 4-0 whitewash in 2011 when England were crowned the best in the world.

Unfortunately, this woeful India effort has also made it difficult to assess exactly how far this inexperienced England team is in terms of its development.

Nevertheless, things have certainly got better since earlier in the summer and a few certainties are emerging to fill some of the gaping holes which had been left.

Cook has restored confidence in his ability to lead the side and Ballance has looked a solid number three ever since his introduction to this level.

Bell and Root join Ballance in the middle-order while Buttler has done enough at the moment to be considered a replacement for Prior. 
Ali made the biggest impact of a player this summer, going from being a part-time spin option to leading the attack on a couple of occasions.

However, there remain doubts over the second-line seam attack behind Broad and Anderson, as well as the capability of Australia-born opener Sam Robson.

For now, though, England can put a tumultuous summer of Test cricket to bed with no more five-day action in the schedule until a tour of the West Indies next April.

In the meantime, England play five One-Day Internationals against India, and seven in Sri Lanka, before a triangular series Down Under against Australia and India.

It is all in preparation for the next Cricket World Cup which takes place next February and March in Australia and New Zealand.

L0-5 v Australia (A) + L0-1 v Sri Lanka (H) + W3-1 v India (H)

21-24 Nov 2013v Australia (A)BrisbaneL Australia 295 & 401-7d bt England 136 & 179 by 381 runs
5-9 Dec 2013v Australia (A)AdelaideL Australia 570-9d & 132-3d bt England 172 & 312 by 218 runs
13-17 Dec 2013v Australia (A)PerthL Australia 385 & 369-6d bt England 251 & 353 by 150 runs
26-29 Dec 2013v Australia (A)MelbourneL Australia 204 & 231-2 bt England 255 & 179 by eight wickets
3-5 Jan 2014v Australia (A)SydneyL Australia 326 & 276 bt England 155 & 166 by 281 runs
12-16 Jun 2014v Sri Lanka (H)Lord'sD England 575-9d 267-8d drew with Sri Lanka 453 & 201-9
20-24 Jun 2014v Sri Lanka (H)HeadingleyL Sri Lanka 257 & 457 bt England 365 & 249 by 100 runs
9-13 Jul 2014v India (H)Trent BridgeD India 457 & 391-9 drew with England 496
17-21 Jul 2014v India (H)Lord'sL India 295 & 342 bt England 319 & 223 by 95 runs
27-31 Jul 2014v India (H)Rose BowlW England 569-7d & 205-4d bt India 330 & 178 by 266 runs
7-9 Aug 2014v India (H)Old TraffordW England 367 bt India 152 & 161 by an inns and 54 runs
15-17 Aug 2014v India (H)The OvalW England 486 bt India 148 & 94 by an inns and 244 runs

Friday, 15 August 2014

Premier League 2014-15 preview: Man City seek total dominance

ARSENAL The Gunners - Emirates Stadium - @Arsenal
Last season 4th + FA Cup Winners + League Cup 4th round + Champions League Last 16
Last major trophy FA Cup 2014
Manager: Arsene Wenger (since October 1996)
Players In: Alexis Sanchez, Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy, David Ospina
Players Out: Thomas Vermaelen, Bacary Sagna, Lukasz Fabianski, Nicklas Bendtner, Park Chu-young, Thomas Eisfeld, Chuks Aneke, Daniel Boateng, Wellington Silva*, Carl Jenkinson*, Benik Afobe*
Pre-season results:
W2-0 v Boreham Wood (A)
L0-1 v New York Red Bulls (A)
W5-1 v Benfica (H)
L0-1 v Monaco (H)
W3-0 v Manchester City (N) [FA Community Shield]
Prediction: 2nd
At the Emirates, all the talk is about Alexis Sanchez -  and that really is no wonder, given the Chilean possesses the quality to take Arsene Wenger's men to the next level. Sanchez, a £30m signing from Barcelona, has moved to north London at an exciting time - as, having shrugged off their nine-year trophy drought with a fine comeback win in the FA Cup Final against Hull City in May, the Gunners have now firmly reset their sights on success back in the Premier League.
Of course, Sanchez will be a huge part of that, easing some of the weight off the shoulders of Olivier Giroud who, nevertheless, is still a genuine match-winner on his day. On top of that, there should also be plenty of goals from midfield from the likes of Aaron Ramsey, who picked up where he left off last season in the Community Shield, as well as Santi Cazorla and World Cup winner Mesut Ozil. The key for this trio - and also England pair Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott - is staying fit, the sheer number of injuries having undermined Arsenal's challenge in previous years.
In fact, last season, Wenger's men - in leading the Premier League for 128 days - were at the top for longer than any other team. The problem was the Gunners' spell at the top began in September and ended in February (before the customary dash for fourth place). Progress in this campaign would be represented by a sustained title challenge and, having also spent wisely beyond Sanchez this summer, it looks very much on.

ASTON VILLA The Villains - Villa Park - @AVFCOfficial
Last season 15th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 3rd round + Last major trophy League Cup 1996
Manager: Paul Lambert (since June 2012)
Players In: Phillippe Senderos, Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson, Aly Cissokho, Tom Leggett, Isaac Nehemie
Players Out: Marc Albrighton, Nathan Delfouneso, Jordan Bowery, Samir Carruthers, Nicklas Helenius*, Yacouba Sylla*, Jed Steer*, Antonio Luna*, Aleksandar Tonev*
Pre-season results:
W3-1 v Mansfield Town (A)
W2-0 v FC Dallas (A)
W1-0 v Houston Dynamo (A)
L1-3 v Chesterfield (A)
L1-4 v Groningen (A)
W1-0 v Walsall (A)
D0-0 v Parma (H)
Prediction: 16th
Aston Villa is a club which has badly lost its way over the past few years. Replacing spend-thrift Martin O'Neill with dour former Birmingham City boss Alex McLeish was always going to finish in failure - but Paul Lambert has done no better in either of his two seasons at Villa Park. Now, American owner Randy Lerner has had enough and put the club up for sale - but, with no buyers in sight, the Midlanders have been left treading water and the fans to fear the worst.
Normally a time for all football fans to find something to optimistic about their club, even the four incoming signings - Phillippe Senderos, Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Aly Cissokho - have generated little excitement in the second city and a fourth successive bottom-half finish looks like it is on the cards. Surely, though, Villa will be better at home than in those three previous seasons which, combined, have produced an eye-watering 27 defeats in front of the Holte End. If somehow it does get worse, it would be difficult to see Villa staying up. 

BURNLEY The Clarets - Turf Moor - @BurnleyOfficial 
Last season 2nd (promoted) + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 4th round + Last major trophy First Division 1959-60
Manager: Sean Dyche (since October 2012)
Players In: Lukas Jutkiewicz, Michael Kightly, Marvin Sordell, Matt Gilks, Matt Taylor, Steven Reid
Players Out: Chris Baird, Junior Stanislas, David Edgar, Keith Treacy, Brian Stock, Nick Liversedge
Pre-season results:
W8-0 v Grossklein (A)
W1-0 v Accrington Stanley (A)
L1-2 v Preston North End (A)
W1-0 v Blackpool (A)
D2-2 v Celta Vigo (H)
Prediction: 17th
Burnley achieved a second promotion to the Premier League in five years in April - and it would be fair to say the Clarets' difficult season in the top flight last time has rather tempered optimism in this part of east Lancashire. Nevertheless, the Turf Moor faithful should expect a decent run for their season ticket money this time around with Burnley possessing all the attributes to punch above their historical weight.
In Danny Ings, they have a striker who scored 21 league goals last season. His injured strike-partner Sam Vokes got 20 - and, once the latter recovers, it seems simply infeasible that neither of them will make the step up. Finally, in gravel-voiced manager Sean Dyche, Burnley appear to have a talented coach more than capable of holding his own tactically. The smallest budget in the division will mean Burnley face an inevitable battle against the drop - but Dyche and his charges have enough talent to suggest they will be able to make it a close-run thing.

CHELSEA The Blues - Stamford Bridge - @chelseafc
Last season 3th + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup Quarter finals + Champions League Semi finals
Last major trophy Europa League 2013
Manager: Jose Mourinho (since June 2013)
Players In: Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas, Filipe Luis, Mario Pasalic, Didier Drogba
Players Out: David Luiz, Romelu Lukaku, Samuel Eto'o, Demba Ba, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Patrick Van Aanholt, Sam Hutchinson, Mark Schwarzer, Henrique Hilario, Mario Pasalic*, Ryan Bertrand*, Bertrand Traore*, Wallace*, Thorgan Hazard*, Gael Kakuta*, John Swift*, Oriol Romeu*, Christian Atsu*
Pre-season results:
W5-0 v Wycombe Wanderers (A)
W3-2 v AFC Wimbledon (A)
D1-1 v Wolfsberger AC (A)
W2-1 v Olimpija (A)
W3-1 v Vitesse Arnhem (A)
L0-3 v Werder Bremen (A)
W2-0 v Fenerbahce (A)
L0-1 v Besiktas (A)
W2-1 v Ferencvaros (A)
W2-0 v Real Sociedad (H)
Prediction: 3rd
Pre-season favourites Chelsea had a solid if unspectacular first season back under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho as a strong defensive record sustained a title challenge until the closing weeks of the campaign. The reason for the ultimate failure of the Blues to add to their three Premier League titles was as obvious as the day is long, though. They simply did not score enough goals, their final total of 71 comparing badly with the tons hit by the two teams to finish above them, Manchester City and Liverpool. 
Consequently, it has come as no surprise to see strikers Demba Ba and Samuel Eto'o ditched in favour of Diego Costa, signed from Atletico Madrid for £32m. Costa did not have a great World Cup - not many Spain players did - but he is closer to the mould of Didier Drogba than Ba or Eto'o will ever be - and that is something which Mourinho loves, principally for the way it complements his strategy of leaving one battler up front and packing the midfield. Of course, Costa's back-up this season is Drogba himself, the 36-year-old Ivorian making an emotional return to Stamford Bridge on a one-year contract. Drogba's last kick in a blue shirt was the winning penalty in the 2012 Champions League final and he will no doubt find a way to make the headlines again.
But it is actually head coach Mourinho who must do much more if Chelsea are to live up to their status as favourites. Four draws and five defeats on the road last season suggested the Blues struggle when asked to break their opponents down. And that means a more attacking approach will be needed from the self-proclaimed Special One if he is not to go personally trophyless for a third year in a row - at which point he could even start to be considered "a specialist in failure".

CRYSTAL PALACE The Eagles - Selhurst Park - @CPFC
Last season 11th + FA Cup 4th round + League Cup 2nd round + Last major trophy None
Caretaker Manager: Keith Millen (since August 2014)
Players In: Fraizer Campbell, Brede Hangeland, Martin Kelly, Chris Kettings
Players Out: Jonathan Parr, Dean Moxey, Aaron Wilbraham, Kagisho Dikgacoi, Danny Gabbidon, Neil Alexander, Ibra Sekajja, Jose Campana, Alex Wynter*, Kwesi Appiah*, Jack Hunt*, Stephen Dobbie*
Pre-season results:
W13-1 v Grazer (N)
D2-2 v Columbus Crew (A)
W1-0 v Philadelphia Union (A)
W3-0 v Richmond Kickers (A)
L2-3 v Brentford (A)
D0-0 v Augsburg (A)
Prediction: 19th
Just what is Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish playing at? The Eagles are only featuring in back-to-back Premier League campaigns for the first time ever because of a remarkable resurgence under Tony Pulis in the second half of last season. Indeed, so good was the Eagles' form following the arrival of the Welshman in November that, extrapolated over a whole season, it would have put the south Londoners in eighth. 
Now, on the eve of the new season, Pulis has departed Selhurst Park with the tensions over transfer policy between him and his chairman Parish considered to be irreconcilable. It perhaps explains why incomings at Selhurst Park have so far been restricted to Fraizer Campbell and Brede Hangeland from relegated Cardiff City and Fulham, Martin Kelly from Liverpool and reserve goalkeeper Chris Kettings. Nevertheless, on the strength of last season, you would have backed just about any squad under Pulis to be kept in the top flight. Now that Palace are without him, the picture rather changes and it is not looking so good at all.

EVERTON The Toffees - Goodison Park - @Everton
Last season 5th  + FA Cup Quarter finals + League Cup 3rd round + Last major trophy FA Cup 1995
Manager: Roberto Martinez (since July 2013)
Players In: Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Muhamed Besic, Brendan Galloway, Christian Atsu*
Players Out: Apostolos Vellios, Magaye Gueye, Mason Springthorpe
Pre-season results:
D2-2 v Tranmere Rovers (A)
L0-1 v Leicester City (N)
D1-1 v Porto (H)
L1-3 v Celta Vigo (H)
L1-3 v SC Paderborn (A)
Prediction: 6th
Everton were dangerously close to a top-four finish last season, even moving into the final Champions League spot after beating principal rivals Arsenal 3-0 at Goodison in early April. A much tougher run-in ultimately left them seven points adrift of the Gunners - but the Toffees' tally of 72 was still their highest since the likes of Kevin Ratcliffe and Kevin Sheedy spearheaded the 1986-87 title-winning side. 
Roberto Martinez thus heads into his second season on Merseyside having won over the few doubters after building on the solid defensive foundations left by David Moyes and adding a bit of panache. His decision over the summer to sign a five-year deal shows admirable commitment to a long-term plan - while Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry have also both demonstrated a bit of loyalty by signing on permanently. Finally, young playmaker Ross Barkley has already shown more than enough to suggest he will be a mainstay in the Premier League for years to come - though, in terms of tangible success, the feeling remains that Everton's best chance is in the cups.

HULL CITY The Tigers - KC Stadium - @hullcityteam
Last season 16th + FA Cup Runners-up + League Cup 4th round + Last major trophy None
Manager: Steve Bruce (since June 2012)
Players In: Robert Snodgrass, Jake Livermore, Tom Ince, Harry Maguire, Andrew Robertson
Players Out: Shane Long, Matty Fryatt, Cameron Stewart, Nick Proschwitz, Conor Henderson, Robert Koren, Dougie Wilson, Abdoulaye Faye, Conor Townsend*, Joe Dudgeon*
Pre-season results:
W5-0 v Harrogate Town (A)
D1-1 v North Ferriby United (A)
W2-0 v York City (A)
D1-1 v Barnsley (A)
D0-0 v FK Trencin (A) [Europa League qualifier]
W2-1 v FK Trencin (H) [Europa League qualifier], won 2-1 on agg
W2-1 v VfB Stuttgart (A)
Prediction: 15th
Promotion one year, a Wembley Cup final the next - what comes next on Humberside? Well, provided the Tigers can get the better of Belgian side Lokeren, an exciting, extended adventure in the Europa League will follow. Of course, perhaps the biggest issue with the Europa League is the amount of games and travelling, and manager Steve Bruce will no doubt be wary over how these additional exertions affect Premier League form. 
After all, there is already evidence to suggest it might with Hull tailing off badly following their Cup semi final win. The situation there was slightly different as, by then, top flight survival had all but been confirmed - but, ultimately, Hull still failed to reach 40 points and dropped to 16th in the final reckoning. At least the area requiring improvement is obvious: Bruce will demand far more goals from Nikica Jelavic and others with City having averaged just one per game last season.

LEICESTER CITY The Foxes - King Power Stadium - @OfficialFOXES
Last season 1st (promoted) + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup Quarter finals + Last major trophy League Cup 2000
Manager: Nigel Pearson (since November 2011)
Players In: Matthew Upson, Marc Albrighton, Leonardo Ulloa, Ben Hamer, Jack Barmby, Louis Rowley
Players Out: Lloyd Dyer, Neil Danns, Sean St Ledger, Zak Whitbread, Marko Futacs, George Taft, Paul Gallagher*
Pre-season results:
W6-1 v Ilkeston (A)
W1-0 v Everton (N)
W3-2 v Walsall (A)
D1-1 v Preston North End (A)
W2-0 v Milton Keynes Dons (A)
W3-1 v Rotherham United (A)
W1-0 v Werder Bremen (H)
Prediction: 20th
Leicester City charged to the Championship title last season, racking up 31 wins and 102 points on their way to ending a 10-year top-flight absence. The Foxes will do well to be aware, though, that even title-winning sides have no guarantee of survival with the two most recent winners - Reading and Cardiff City - lasting just one season at the higher level. 
Moreover, Nigel Pearson's youthful squad, while hungry for more success, is badly lacking in Premier League experience - and that could prove to be a vital weakness in the closer matches which will ultimately decide their fate. As well as this, it is worth pointing out that Leicester's opening five fixtures are against Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal, Stoke City away and Manchester United - and this really tough start is one which could easily leave them playing a frustrating game of catch up straight away. 

LIVERPOOL The Reds - Anfield - @LFC
Last season Runners-up + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup 3rd round + Last major trophy League Cup 2012
Manager: Brendan Rodgers (since June 2012)
Players In: Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Emre Can, Divock Origi, Javier Manquillo, Lazar Markovic
Players Out: Luis Suarez, Pepe Reina, Martin Kelly, Conor Coady, Luis Alberto*, Iago Aspas*, Andre Wisdom*, Divock Origi*, Brad Smith*
Pre-season results:
L1-2 v Brondby (A)
W2-1 v Preston North End (A)
L0-1 v Roma (N)
W1-0 v Olympiakos (N)
D2-2 v Manchester City (N), won 3-1 on pens
W2-0 v Milan (N)
L1-3 v Manchester United (N)
W4-0 v Borussia Dortmund (H)
Prediction: 5th
Life at Anfield after Luis Suarez begins with a freshened-up squad, the £75m received from Barcelona for the controversial Uruguayan having been used to sign a trio of players from Southampton - Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren - as well as German youngster Emre Can from Bayer Leverkusen, Serbian winger Lazar Markovic from Benfica and Belgium's Divock Origi from Lille. 
Out of that sextet, though, only Lovren provides the much-needed defensive cover, Liverpool having effectively lost the title by conceding a round 50 goals last season. That compared poorly with eventual winners Manchester City (37) and title rivals Chelsea (27) with even Crystal Palace (48) tighter at the back. But, even with the other signings, it will not be easy for Brendan Rodgers to replace Suarez's 31 league goals and it will be interesting to see how Daniel Sturridge will fair without his lethal strike partner. 
Raheem Sterling will still surely be a livewire regardless - but, despite finishing runners-up last season, it should be recalled Liverpool have had false dawns before. In 2009, the Reds also finished second but, by 2010, they had fallen to seventh. And, while it is difficult to envisage anything quite as drastic as that, just staying in the Champions League places this season would be a half-decent achievement.

MANCHESTER CITY The Citizens - Etihad Stadium - @MCFC
Last season Champions + FA Cup Quarter finals + League Cup Winners + Champions League Last 16
Last major trophy Premier League 2013-14
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini (since June 2013)
Players In: Eliaquim Mangala, Fernando, Willy Caballero, Bruno Zuculini, Bacary Sagna, Frank Lampard*
Players Out: Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell, Costel Pantilimon, Joleon Lescott, Gareth Barry, Alex Nimely, Reece Wabara, Rony Lopes*, Emyr Huws*, Jason Denayer*
Pre-season results:
L0-2 v Dundee (A)
W2-1 v Hearts (A)
W4-1 v Sporting Kansas City (A)
W5-1 v Milan (N)
D2-2 v Liverpool (N), lost 1-3 on pens
D2-2 v Olympiakos (N), lost 4-5 on pens
L0-3 v Arsenal (N) [FA Community Shield]
Prediction: Champions
Manchester City have made the case for the defence this summer in the hope that this will enable them to achieve something previously only done by Manchester United and Chelsea - that is, retaining the Premier League title. Club captain Vincent Kompany has signed a new five-year deal, joining the likes of Sergio Aguero, Aleksandar Kolarov, David Silva and Samir Nasri in committing his future to the Etihad. 
And Kompany did this having gained a new centre-back partner in Eliaquim Mangala, signed for £32m from Porto in City's biggest bit of business in the off-season. Right-back Bacary Sagna and goalkeeper Willy Caballero have also arrived to provide competition to Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart respectively - but, so far, Manuel Pellegrini has declined to make changes up front following a bounteous campaign last time which brought 156 goals in all competitions, a record for the Premier League era. 
That does not mean there are not concerns in this area, though - main striker Aguero suffered three separate muscular injuries last season and also missed part of the World Cup. Nevertheless, Alvaro Negredo has already shown himself to be an able deputy while this could be the season Stevan Jovetic really bursts onto the season. 
With Edin Dzeko also contributing, City will often have simply too much for many of their opponents as they seek a third title in four years - and perhaps the beginning of the sort of domestic dominance their city rivals have enjoyed for most of the previous 20 years.    

MANCHESTER UNITED The Red Devils - Old Trafford - @ManUtd
Last season 7th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup Semi finals + Champions League Quarter finals
Last major trophy Premier League 2012-13
Manager: Louis Van Gaal (since July 2014)
Players In: Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Vanja Milinkovic
Players Out: Alexander Buttner, Patrice Evra, Bebe, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Federico Macheda, Jack Barmby, Louis Rowley, Ryan Giggs, Angelo Henriquez*
Pre-season results:
W7-0 v Los Angeles Galaxy (A)
W3-2 v Roma (N)
D0-0 v Internazionale (N), won 5-3 on pens
W3-1 v Real Madrid (N)
W3-1 v Liverpool (N)
W2-1 v Valencia (H)
Prediction: 4th
Ultimately, last season, the results told their own story. There were home and away defeats to Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton, regular reverses to several other teams at Old Trafford, and failures at home in the domestic cups to Swansea City and Sunderland. Many long-standing records over opponents fell and it all pointed to David Moyes simply not being up to the job. Enter Louis Van Gaal - a coach who has won just about everything - and someone who, on the face of it, looks a much better fit, having most recently impressed in leading the Dutch to third at the World Cup over the summer. 
In its current state, though, the Manchester United job is not easy - the ageing Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have now all left or retired - and, in the centre of defence and central midfield, there remain questions over whether the current players can ever step up to their level. This may prove even more vital if Van Gaal opts to use his favoured 3-5-2 formation, although at least he should be able to rely on the two up front getting enough goals to make the Red Devils far more competitive this year. 
Yes, Robin Van Persie's injury troubles came back to haunt him again as he made just 21 league appearances in 2013-14 - yet he still scored 12 goals and provided three assists. Meanwhile, new club captain Wayne Rooney - despite being frustrated on the wing in the World Cup - will not be short of motivation, standing just 34 goals short of beating Sir Bobby Charlton's all-time United record.
Regardless of the personnel, though, the most important job for Van Gaal is to restore a winning mentality at Old Trafford, something which was sorely lacking from Moyes when things began to go wrong. Indeed, such was the mess that was left, it would be unrealistic to expect United to challenge for the title again straight away. Nevertheless, this squad under Van Gaal - aided by the lack of a European distraction - should have enough to return the Red Devils to a top-four placing.     

NEWCASTLE UNITED The Magpies - St James Park - @NUFC
Last season 10th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 4th round + Last major trophy UEFA (Fairs) Cup 1969
Manager: Alan Pardew (since December 2010)
Players In: Remy Cabella, Emmanuel Riviere, Siem De Jong, Daryl Janmaat, Ayoze Perez, Jack Colback, Jamaal Lascelles, Karl Darlow, Facundo Ferreyra*
Players Out: Mathieu Debuchy, James Tavernier, Dan Gosling, Shola Ameobi, Conor Newton, Michael Richardson, Sylvain Marveaux*, Jamaal Lascelles*, Karl Darlow*, Adam Campbell*
Pre-season results:
L1-2 v Oldham Athletic (A)
W4-0 v Sydney (N)
W1-0 v Wellington Phoenix (A)
W1-0 v Sheffield Wednesday (A)
L1-3 v Malaga (N)
W3-1 v Schalke 04 (A)
D2-2 v Huddersfield Town (A)
W1-0 v Real Sociedad (H)
Prediction: 9th
Likely to lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous on a week-to-week basis, Newcastle United should nevertheless be able to hold a position in the middle of the table for most of the season. Widespread discontent with owner Mike Ashley spread to manager Alan Pardew towards the end of the last campaign to the extent that he had to cower away in the dugout from the ear-splitting boos in the 3-0 home win over Cardiff City. Despite being assured of a top-half finish, the reception was not a surprise with the Magpies' form having completely deserted them following the sale of Yohan Cabaye in January. Even then, it was the nature of some of the defeats which was most damning, four of them at home coming by three goals or more - including, for the second year running, a 3-0 derby reverse to Sunderland. 
Fortunately for Pardew, Ashley has seen fit to spend the Cabaye money, bringing in Remy Cabella, Emmanuel Riviere, Siem de Jong and Ayoze Perez - and, following Manchester City's visit to St James Park on the opening day, the early fixture list is actually rather kindly. But, without last year's loanee Loic Remy, the squad still looks short on goals and this, combined with a leaky defence, means there will be yet more difficult days ahead for the Toon Army over the course of the next 10 months.

Last season 4th (promoted via playoffs) + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 2nd round
Last major trophy League Cup 1967
Manager: Harry Redknapp (since November 2012)
Players In: Rio Ferdinand, Steven Caulker, Jordon Mutch, Mauricio Isla*
Players Out: Yossi Benayoun, Esteban Granero, Tom Hitchcock, Aaron Hughes, Stephane Mbia, Andrew Johnson, Gary O'Neil, Luke Young, Hogan Ephraim, Angelo Balanta
Pre-season results:
W1-0 v Rot-Weiss Erfurt (A)
L0-2 v RB Leipzig (A)
D2-2 v Leyton Orient (A)
D0-0 v Southend United (A)
W4-0 v Shamrock Rovers (A)
W2-0 Athlone Town (A)
L0-1 PAOK (H)
Prediction: 12th
Despite boasting the strongest squad in the Championship last season, Queens Park Rangers dropped disappointingly away from automatic promotion contention and then got lucky with a last-gasp goal in a playoff final which had been dominated by Derby County. Manager Harry Redknapp has admitted he would have left Loftus Road in the summer if he had lost at Wembley - but, yet, here he is back in the top flight once again. 
Of course, Rangers' most recent Premier League experience was effectively a two-year struggle, in which a bloated squad - beset by disciplinary problems - finished bottom in 2013. This time, Redknapp - determined not to make the same mistakes - has drafted in the coaching nous of Glenn Hoddle and the signings of Rio Ferdinand and Steven Caulker will add depth to the defence. A lack of goals outside of the efforts of Charlie Austin and the prodigal Loic Remy means it will not be pretty at times - but, having done the hard part in getting back up, the west Londoners should easily have enough about them to stay there.  

SOUTHAMPTON The Saints - St Mary's Stadium - @SouthamptonFC
Last season 8th + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup 4th round + Last major trophy FA Cup 1976
Manager: Ronald Koeman (since June 2014)
Players In: Dusan Tadic, Fraser Forster, Graziano Pelle, Shane Long, Florin Gardos, Ryan Bertrand*, Saphir Taider*
Players Out: Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers, Rickie Lambert, Billy Sharp, Tom Leggett, Isaac Nehemie, Guly do Prado, Lee Barnard, Jonathan Forte, Danny Fox, Andy Robinson, Dani Osvaldo*
Pre-season results:
W4-0 v EHC Hoensbroek (A)
W6-0 v Hasselt (A)
W1-0 v Swindon Town (A)
W1-0 v Bournemouth (A)
W3-1 v Brighton & Hove Albion (A)
L0-1 v Bayer Leverkusen (H)
Prediction: 14th
It has been a chastening summer on the south coast where no less than £96m of talent has departed, mainly bound for the north west. Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren joined Rickie Lambert at Liverpool - while Manchester United made Luke Shaw the most expensive teenager in history. Another starlet, Calum Chambers, has gone to Arsenal, and the man who oversaw last season's impressive eighth-placed finish - Mauricio Pochettino - is now at Tottenham Hotspur. 
It all leaves new boss Ronald Koeman with a significant rebuilding job to undertake under an owner, Katharina Liebherr, who rather reluctantly fell into role on the death of her father. Koeman at least brings with him plenty of experience, having previously taken charge of each of the traditional Dutch big three, as well as Benfica and Valencia. But, conversely, their two main bits of business - strikers Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle - have only really done well in the Dutch Eredivisie, a league whose previous talents have enjoyed mixed success in England.

STOKE CITY The Potters - Britannia Stadium - @stokecity
Last season 9th + FA Cup 4th round + League Cup Quarter finals + Last major trophy League Cup 1972
Manager: Mark Hughes (since May 2013)
Players In: Mame Biram Diouf, Dionatan Teixeira, Phil Bardsley, Steve Sidwell, Bojan Krkic
Players Out: Michael Kightly, Matthew Etherington, Juan Aguledo, Jamie Ness*
D1-1 v Borussia Moenchengladbach (A)
L0-2 v TSV 1860 Munich (A)
L1-2 v Schalke 04 (A)
D0-0 v Burton Albion (A)
D1-1 v Blackburn Rovers (A)
W2-0 v Real Betis (H)
D1-1 v SC Freiburg (A)
Prediction: 8th
Last season, Stoke City earned a first top-10 finish in the top flight since 1975 as manager Mark Hughes achieved something in his first attempt that predecessor Tony Pulis had failed to do in five. Initially given a chilly reception on his appointment in May 2013, Potters fans have now warmed to the former Manchester United striker after he turned around a worrying run of one point out of 18 at the close of the year with a convincing run of form in the springtime. 
The Welshman must now cope with some relatively increased expectations at the Britannia - but, with the highly-rated Bojan Krkic arriving from Barcelona, Stoke have the look of a team heading in the right direction. An improved showing on the road, where only relegated Norwich City and Cardiff City lost more often, and a few more goals from the strikers would not go amiss, though. 

SUNDERLAND The Black Cats - Stadium of Light - @SAFCofficial 
Last season 14th + FA Cup Quarter finals + League Cup Runners-up + Last major trophy FA Cup 1973
Manager: Gus Poyet (since October 2013)
Players In: Jack Rodwell, Will Buckley, Patrick Van Aanholt, Billy Jones, Jordi Gomez, Costel Pantilimon, Santiago Vergini*
Players Out: Ignacio Scocco, Jack Colback, Craig Gardner, Phil Bardsley, Billy Knott, Keiren Westwood, Carlos Cuellar, Andrea Dossena, Louis Laing, Oscar Ustari, David Vaughan, John Egan, El Hadji Ba*
Pre-season results:
W5-1 v Darlington 1883 (A)
W1-0 v Carlisle United (A)
W3-0 v Hartlepool United (A)
W1-0 v Recreativo Huelva (N)
L0-1 v Nacional (A)
D0-0 v Vitoria Setabul (A)
W2-0 v Real Betis (H)
W2-0 v Udinese (H)
Prediction: 13th
Sunderland begin their eighth successive season in the top flight this year, historically their best sequence since the 1950s - however, the previous seven years have brought only one top-half finish, under Steve Bruce in 2011. Last season was an even scarier ride than usual as a dreadful start spelt the end for Paulo di Canio before a resurgence under Gus Poyet - including a first Wembley Cup final in 22 years - fell flat in the spring. Bottom with six games to go, the Black Cats looked to have too much to do, especially with Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United away on the fixture list. But, thanks to a hitherto unseen run of form from Connor Wickham, the Mackems drew 2-2 at the Etihad and then won at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge to end up staying up with a game to spare. 
It must now be Poyet's priority to put his own stamp on this team - but, beyond Steven Fletcher, the Uruguayan's options up front look limited and that will be something exacerbated even further if the unsettled Wickham has departed by the end of August.
SWANSEA CITY The Swans - Liberty Stadium - @SwansOfficial
Last season 12th + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup 3rd round + Europa League Last 32 
Last major trophy League Cup 2013
Manager: Garry Monk (since February 2014)
Players In: Marvin Emnes, Bafetimbi Gomis, Lukasz Fabianski, Jefferson Montero, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Stephen Kingsley
Players Out: Ben Davies, Michel Vorm, Leroy Lita, David Ngog, Jernade Meade, Darnel Situ, Alejandro Pozuelo, Chico Flores, Daniel Alfei*, Michu*
Pre-season results:
D1-1 v Guadalajara (N)
L0-2 v Minnesota United (A)
W4-0 v Plymouth Argyle (A)
W2-0 v Exeter City (A)
L1-3 v Bournemouth (A)
W3-1 v Reading (A)
L0-3 v Villareal (H)
Prediction: 10th
By replacing League Cup-winning Michael Laudrup with club cult hero Garry Monk in February, Swansea showed sometimes change really is for the best. Even coming on the back of a wretched run of one win in 10, the move by chairman Huw Jenkins was nevertheless considered to be a risk and, following a thrilling 3-0 success over South Wales rivals Cardiff City in his first game, Monk also found victory difficult to come by at the beginning of his tenure.
But three wins in the last four games lifted the Swans up to 12th and their tally of 54 league goals, the eighth best in the division, was always going to keep them out of trouble. Still purveyors of attractive, possession football, Monk's men should also have plenty up front to prevent a repeat of last year's struggles with Wilfried Bony enjoying a decent World Cup for Ivory Coast and Bafetimbi Gomis joining from Lyon. A return to a solid mid-table placing beckons at the Liberty.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR Spurs - White Hart Lane - @SpursOfficial
Last season 6th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup Quarter finals + Europa League Last 16
Last major trophy League Cup 2008
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino (since May 2014)
Players In: Ben Davies, Michel Vorm, Eric Dier, DeAndre Yedlin
Players Out: Jake Livermore, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Iago Falque, Heurelho Gomes, Cameron Lancaster, Alex Pritchard*, Shaquile Coulthirst*
Pre-season results:
D3-3 v Seattle Sounders (A)
W3-2 v Toronto FC (A)
W2-0 v Chicago Fire (A)
W6-1 v Celtic (N)
W2-1 v Schalke 04 (H)
Prediction: 7th
Fourth in 2012, fifth in 2013 and sixth in 2014. Tottenham Hotspur fans can hardly say they did not see it coming if indeed they do finish seventh this season. A slow decline can trace its roots as far back as the spring of 2012 when Harry Redknapp was distracted by the possibility of becoming England manager and hit a bad run of form, ending up being dismissed at the end of the season. In Mauricio Pochettino, who has impressed at Southampton over the last year, Spurs are now on their third boss since Redknapp - and their slide away from the top four positions was accelerated last season by the sale of Gareth Bale and the failure of a boatload of signings to adapt, Roberto Soldado in particular. 
This was amply demonstrated in the results against the top four itself, Spurs scoring just once and conceding 24 goals in five games against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea across various times of the season. They also lost three times to Arsenal, and even three times to West Ham. Despite this, the North London club's record against the rest of the division is generally decent enough - again, though, this simply reflects their standing stuck between the top sides and the mid-table buffer zone.     

WEST BROMWICH ALBION The Baggies - The Hawthorns - @WBAFCofficial
Last season 17th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 3rd round + Last major trophy FA Cup 1968
Manager: Alan Irvine (since June 2014)
Players In: Brown Ideye, Jason Davidson, Cristian Gamboa, Craig Gardner, Joleon Lescott, Chris Baird, Sebastien Pocognoli, Andre Wisdom*
Players Out: Liam Ridgewell, Billy Jones, Steven Reid, Cameron Gayle, Diego Lugano, Zoltan Gera, Scott Allan, Nicolas Anelka, George Thorne
Pre-season results:
W2-0 v Bury (H)
W2-1 v Shrewsbury Town (A)
W1-0 v Sacramento Republic (A)
W3-1 v Sacramento Republic (A)
L0-1 v Nottingham Forest (A)
L2-3 v Port Vale (A)
L1-3 v Porto (H)
Prediction: 18th
After a spell as a yo-yo club throughout the whole of the last decade, West Brom appear to have stabilised in this one - and this is, in fact, a fifth successive season of top flight football for the Hawthorns club. Last season though was, by some distance, the Baggies' toughest since their latest promotion featuring two managers - Steve Clarke and Pepe Mel - and just seven wins. Indeed, in the end, it could be said West Brom only actually stayed up by finding three teams worse than themselves and chairman Jeremy Peace was swift to dispense of the services of the unconvincing Spaniard Mel. 
No one, least of all the Baggies' fans, expected his replacement would be the unheralded Alan Irvine, however - and the Scot, last seen being sacked by Sheffield Wednesday, already has much to prove. With a frightening run-in which includes Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in the last five games, West Brom will need a bright start if they are to avoiding boing-ing back down to the Championship again. 

WEST HAM UNITED The Hammers - Boleyn Ground - @whufc_official
Last season 13th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup Semi finals + Last major trophy League Cup 1981
Manager: Sam Allardyce (since June 2011)
Players In: Enner Valencia, Cheikhou Kouyate, Mauro Zarate, Aaron Cresswell, Diego Poyet, Diafra Sakho, Carl Jenkinson*
Players Out: Joe Cole, Matt Taylor, Stephen Henderson, Jack Collison, George McCartney, Callum Driver, Jordan Spence, George Moncur
Pre-season results:
D2-2 v Stevenage (A)
D0-0 v Ipswich Town (A)
D0-0 v Shakhtar Donetsk (N)
W4-2 v Espanyol (N)
L1-2 v Wellington Phoenix (N)
L1-3 v Sydney (N)
D0-0 v Schalke 04 (A), won 7-6 on pens
L0-2 v Malaga (N)
W3-2 v Sampdoria (H)
Prediction: 11th
All is not well at the Boleyn Ground again - with manager Sam Allardyce having to deal with the familiar refrain of shaping up or shipping out. Allardyce, who is always his own best publicist, defended his record last season by pointing to the 15 clean sheets which the Hammers kept - and, in fairness, this was ultimately what kept them up. However, six of those 15 games finished 0-0 - and it is exactly this dull, one-dimensional approach which is the source of the discontent in east London. Indeed, following the end of the season, the West Ham board even held showdown talks with Allardyce who subsequently promised a more attacking style of play. 
This was in little evidence in pre-season despite the signing of two small, pacy strikers in Enner Valencia and Mauro Zarate - and the jury remains out on whether Allardyce can adapt his tactics sufficiently to play to his new squad's strengths. Easily possessing enough quality to trundle to a mid-table finish, it may well be that West Ham reach the line next May without Allardyce in tow.

*Loan signing

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Irresponsible reporting on suicide

THE NEWS of the suicide of much-loved actor and comedian Robin Williams has unsurprisingly generated a huge response from the media over the past couple of days.

A lot of it has been a genuinely heart-warming remembrance of a hugely talented man who played a big part in my childhood for his roles in Mrs Doubtfire, Jumanji, Aladdin and Flubber.

And there were, of course, many, many others.

Williams' greatest success came in his portrayal of a psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar in 1997 as Best Supporting Actor.

But, while there is much to eulogise about the fine catalogue of work which he has left behind, it is massively disappointing to see the front pages of several of the tabloids this morning have instead focused heavily on the nature of his death.

Worse still, the biggest culprits have shown scant regard for the well-thought-out general advice provided by the Samaritans on the reporting of this sensitive topic.

"Tortured" is the prominent, one-word headline on the front of the Mirror - while the sub-heads carry speculation that money troubles were the trigger for the suicide.

The Daily Mail has reserved the whole of its front page for Williams - but again concerns itself solely with unconfirmed speculation surrounding his passing.

Meanwhile, the Sun and the Daily Star - as well as, surprisingly, the normally more reserved Metro free-sheet - all use dramatic language and describe in some detail exactly how he took his own life.

Even though it really should not matter how he did it - or why he did it.

Indeed, it simply does not matter. For, while journalists are admittedly usually there to explain how or why events have occurred, in this case and other similar ones, reporting the fact that he did it and that it is newsworthy because of his talent really should be enough.

Moreover, beyond the fact that Williams had depression, trying to guess at a trigger at this stage - even if it is a so-called 'educated' guess - is truly nonsensical, and actually not at all classy.

After all, ultimately only he knows exactly what thought processes he was going through.
Thankfully, some of the broadsheet newspapers produced some more thoughtful coverage.

The Guardian still dedicates a significant proportion of its front page to Williams - but simply reflects, in classy pictorial form, on his comedic versatility. A tribute from Russell Brand sits neatly below.

A further tribute is posted in the Times pull-out, the T2, a small mention of which is made in the strap-line at the top of the front page just below the masthead.

Credit where it is due, then, to those sensible editors who have perhaps taken a bit of thought before laying out the front of their newspaper.

Now, if only the tabloids would follow suit and end their rather grisly attempts at one-upmanship, determined by sensationalism and nothing more.

From today's evidence, though, there is fat chance of it happening any time soon - and so I'm off to watch Williams as the unforgettable Euphegenia Doubtfire.

You never know, it might just cheer me up.

RIP Robin McLaurin Williams (1951-2014), aged 63. May you never lose your little spark of madness.

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