2013 Vuelta a Espana preview – Nibali bids for rare Giro/Vuelta double

Vincenzo Nibali will be riding for an historic double when the Vuelta a Espana starts at Vilanova de Arousa tomorrow.

The Italian, 28, won his home Grand Tour, the Giro d-Italia, in convincing style earlier this season and is the bookmaker’s favourite to take his second career Vuelta win after his 2010 success.

A win in the General Classification would propel the Astana rider into cycling folklore as he would become only the fourth man in history to have won the Giro and the Vuelta in the same season.

Standing in his way though, is a terrifying parcours. Over half the stages (eleven) in the 2013 Vuelta will be summit finishes, while 13 of the 21 stages are classified as mountainous.

The Vuelta may be the youngest Grand Tour, but it is without doubt the most brutal because of the fierce heat experienced in late August, with temperatures rising to 40C on occasions.

If the riders thought the 2013 Giro was tough enough with sharp gradients peaking at close to 20% on some stages, the 2013 Vuelta’s queen stage is even more demanding.

Step forward the Alto de l’Angliru, a fearsome climb on the penultimate stage that kicks up to around 23% in the closing kilometres.

L’Angliru’s reputation proceeds itself. Some have called it ‘barbaric’, others have simply had their races wrecked by it.

If you are sitting here now and wondering what it is like to ride up it, search for a clip on YouTube of the stage ascending to its summit in the 2011 Vuelta. The severity of the steepness is mindblowing.

In the build-up to the Vuelta, Nibali has suggested that l’Angliru could be the defining climb of the race. It would, however, be surprising if this comes into fruition.

With 12 other mountainous stages sandwiching a time-trial on stage 11, fans can expect the race leader, whoever that may be, to arrive at the foot of l’Angliru with a healthy lead – as seen in the Tour de France this year which featured a notably hilly parcours.

Big time gaps are expected then, but for the GC contenders winning the final Grand Tour of 2013 will be a monumental battle.

With so many mountains to navigate, attacks will be frequent as the riders fight for any advantage they can.

Nibali’s greatest rival for the win seems to be Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who so agonisingly missed out on Tour de France contention after the combination of a puncture, crosswinds and an attack by Team Belkin off the front put paid to his chances.

He eased off for the remainder of the race as a result and is expected to be fresh ahead of an assault on his home Grand Tour.

His compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez, by contrast, started poorly in the Tour but rode himself into good form and an eventual podium place was no less than he deserved.

If he has recovered from the Tour and built upon that form he will be a significant threat to Nibali and Valverde. Currently rated as the world’s best rider, his combative style is backed up by a dazzling burst of acceleration on the toughest climbs.

Another Spaniard, Sami Sanchez, will be making a first appearance in his home race since 2009, when he finished second.

The popular rider, whose Euskaltel-Euskadi team recently announced failure in their bid to save the team from folding, has finished on the Vuelta podium twice, with his other podium finish coming after claiming third in 2007.

The 2008 Olympic road race gold medallist will be looking to give his team the perfect send-off with an emotional win in their home race after he skipped the Tour to concentrate on elevating his level to coincide with a tilt at the Vuelta.

Other GC contenders of note include Team Sky’s Colombian duo of Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran.

Henao has been handed the team leadership role, but if he cracks along the way Uran, who finished a tremendous second to Nibali in the Giro, will assume control.

As far as British interest in the Vuelta goes, there is not much to get excited over – there are just two Brits in the race.

Andrew Fenn, who rides for Mark Cavendish’s Omega Pharma – Quick Step team, is an exciting all-round cyclist, or rouleur, and at 23 will be riding his maiden Grand Tour.

The other is Sky’s Luke Rowe, who will also be participating in his first Grand Tour.

Rowe, who won a stage of the Tour of Britain last year, is regarded as a sprinter who can also aim for one-day classic races, and could later convert himself into a GC contender.

With many of the riders in this race looking to use the Vuelta as a springboard onto the subsequent World Championships, it is possible that a good proportion of them might drop out.

Yet, with the parcours in Tuscany also deemed hilly, a few of the GC contenders for the Vuelta may abandon to focus on the rainbow jersey if they have lost too much time.

Mountains, though, are what this year’s Vuelta is all about. The route could obliterate the peloton early on stages which traverse the Pyrenees and the infamously mountainous north of Spain. The climb up the l’Angliru is just the crowning glory on what promises to be a spectacular race.

All the signs point to a Nibali win when the riders roll into Madrid on the final stage three weeks from now, and with his Astana team looking immensely strong with quality riders such as Janez Brajkovic, Jakob Fuglsang and Tanel Kangert to work for him, it will take a rider possessing extraordinary form to beat him.

Advertisements

My 2013/14 Premier League predictions

Straight away, I’m going to jinx the upcoming Premier League season – I think it’s going to be a cracker.

It’s certainly looking as if it’s going to be the hardest Premier League season to call for a while, and who wouldn’t be up for some unpredictability after Manchester United cantered to the title last time out?

Of course there are the usual rivalries to look forward to, and some new ones too as broadcasting newcomers BT Sport look to sink the all-conquering Sky Sports in the biggest ever battle of its kind.

There is also the addition of goal-line technology to muse over. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were no major goal-line incidents to speak of for the Hawk-Eye system to judge – but that’s show business for you.

Anyway, let’s get started with the serious business. Counting down from 20th place to 1st, here’s my version of what the Premier League table will look like come Sunday 11th May next year.

20. Hull City Tigers (2012/13: Promoted, 2nd in Championship)

Has there ever been a team so hotly-tipped to go down as Hull City? (or Hull City Tigers as they have imaginatively been renamed).

At the managerial helm is Steve Bruce, perennial signer of has-been big-name players. Bruce has lived up to his reputation in the transfer market, signing the under-achieving Tom Huddlestone and Danny Graham, who will need to shoulder the burden of scoring consistently for his new side to give them a chance of staying up.

The acquisition of former Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor is a good bit of business though, and Graham might have an exciting strike partner in the talented Yannick Sagbo. The backbone of the team also has a distinct Man United youth squad look to it, as so many of Bruce’s teams have done in the past.

Criticisms of Bruce’s managerial aptitude aside, Hull have a solid defence which hardly conceded in last season’s Championship, but I expect the step up in class to prove too tough for them on their return to the top flight.

19. Crystal Palace (2012/13: Promoted, Championship play-off winners)

Nearly every football fan in the country rejoiced when Crystal Palace beat Watford 1-0 in the Championship play-off final at Wembley in May. Not because they’re all Eagles fans, but because Ian Holloway would be a regular fixture on Match of the Day once more.

The colourful Bristolian may have lost Wilfried Zaha to Man United this summer but he has bought well to replace him. Jose Campana, just 20, signed from Sevilla for €2m while Marouane Chamakh has also penned a one-year deal.

Holloway’s excellent man-management and motivational skills should get the ailing Chamakh into better goalscoring form than in recent seasons while the exciting talent of Jonathan Williams will provide him with the creativity needed at Premier League level.

Palace, like Hull, proved tough to score against last season but being just as frugal in the Premier League will be much more difficult and consequently relegation looms large for them this season.

18. Sunderland (2012/13: Premier League, 17th)

Yes, you heard it here first. Sunderland to be relegated. Why? Because despite the Paulo di Canio effect the Black Cats very nearly faced the drop last season.

The trouble for Sunderland fans is that di Canio has made a whole host of distinctly average signings in the summer. They have been the Premier League’s most active club, signing ten players in all, but none of them carry formidable reputations and Mackem fans will be wondering if it’s going to be enough for them to stay up this season.

Does di Canio know his best team? And will the raft of new players destabilise the club rather than strengthen it? Time will tell, but I feel it could have a negative impact as di Canio sorts out his best line-up, tactics and alternatives.

That said, the signing of Emanuele Giaccherini from Juventus is a good one and, if he can link up well with Steven Fletcher and fellow newcomer Jozy Altidore, Sunderland might just be OK.

Questions still remain over their defence though, and I expect this to be where Sunderland come unstuck this season. Few recognised reinforcements for an aged defence that conceded 1.5 goals on average per game last season is an ominous sign.

17. Fulham (2012/13: Premier League, 12th)

Joining Sunderland in a fight to stay in the top flight are Fulham. Martin Jol’s side finished an unrepresentative 12th last season, jumping four places after a 3-0 defeat of Swansea on the final day.

Jol knew that signings needed to be made and perhaps the most impressive of those is centre-back Fernando Amorebieta. Signed on a free transfer from Athletic Bilbao, the Venezuelan is powerful in the tackle, while his skill on the ball exudes a calming influence on those around him. He will form a strong partnership with Brede Hangeland in central defence.

Fulham still have an older squad than most, which is not necessarily a problem, but a lack of depth beyond those experienced players is certainly evident. Dimitar Berbatov has a new strike partner in Darren Bent, signed on loan from Aston Villa today, while Maarten Stekelenburg has replaced Mark Schwarzer between the posts.

I doubt Fulham will be relegated, but should they suffer a spate of injuries they will be struggling.

16. Cardiff City(2012/13: Promoted as Championship winners)

Of all the promoted sides, Cardiff look best placed to upset a few of the more established Premier League sides this season.

They already had Premier League experience in Craig Bellamy and Fraizer Campbell and the addition of Steven Caulker to bolster their defence has bucked the trend of their fellow promotees.

Having also signed Chile international Gary Medel from Sevilla, Malky Mackay’s side look in decent shape and should avoid the drop.

15. Stoke City (2012/13: Premier League, 13th)

Not many teams have signed a Barcelona player this summer, but Stoke City have. They welcome Marc Muniesa, a 21-year-old centre-back, to the Britannia this season.

He joins Dutch left-back Erik Pieters in the Potters squad as new manager Mark Hughes looks to improve upon 13th last season.

That placing flattered Stoke somewhat, particularly because they had been in relegation peril towards the end of the season, but they have a strong enough squad to survive the drop again this time round.

14. Aston Villa (2012/13: Premier League, 15th)

Villa have done well this summer to tie star striker Christian Benteke down on a new contract. Up top last season Villa looked as dangerous as any of the top sides in the division as Benteke was partnered by Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor, but their defence remains shaky.

Awash with youngsters, it was very nearly Villa’s undoing as they conceded 69 goals with the biggest slump in form coming in an 8-0 drubbing away to Chelsea.

Still, Villa’s forward line should get Paul Lambert’s men over the line and they can continue to build their side after the World Cup in Brazil in what is undoubtedly a long-term project for the Midlanders.

13. Southampton (2012/13: Premier League, 14th)

Mauricio Pochettino has been fairly inactive in the transfer market, but his two signings to date have been big ones.

Southampton have splashed the cash on Victor Wanyama (£12m) and Dejan Lovren (£8.5m), fees which are widely held to be well above what each player is worth.

£12m for Wanyama looks particularly expensive considering Wilfried Bony, Mesut Özil and Shinji Kagawa also commanded £12m fees, but Saints have nonetheless made a statement in signing the Kenya international.

Their form last season following Pochettino’s move was good, but a poor finish to the season belied a decent middle stint where Manchester City were among their scalps. Could be fighting for a top ten finish.

12. West Ham (2012/13: Premier League, 10th)

Sam Allardyce is similar to Steve Bruce in that he often signs players with a big reputation, and he has lived up to that billing by signing Liverpool pair Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing for a combined £21m.

The two players should, in theory at least, link up well with Downing’s crosses seen as the perfect supply for Carroll to destroy teams with his mastery of aerial duels.

With a solid defence and a diligent midfield, West Ham will be well clear of the relegation scrap and should be aiming for a top ten finish, which may just be beyond them given the quality of the teams around them.

11. Newcastle United (2012/13: Premier League, 16th)

A new season and a new start for Alan Pardew after the lucklustre display his side turned in last season.

Pardew has bought sparingly this summer, adding Loïc Remy on loan, and he will hope that the French contingent signed in January will be enough to see his side avoid the doldrums of their last campaign.

Newcastle still need to make a few additions to their squad to be on the safe side, but they have a good enough squad to contend for a top ten place.

10. Norwich City (2012/13: Premier League, 11th)

There are few teams in this division with a pair of strikers of the quality of Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper.

That Chris Hughton managed to secure their signatures for a comparatively small fee, suggests that Norwich have good reason to be chipper ahead of the upcoming campaign.

Van Wolfswinkel comes to Carrow Road with big promise and has a natural goalscoring ability which should alleviate the difficulties in front of goal that many Canaries fans had lamented last season.

Hooper has proven his prowess at Celtic and will be looking to kick on at a higher level with the carrot of a call-up to the England squad in World Cup year dangling in front of him.

Norwich can be defensively unsteady at times, and that is where their weakness lies. However, the exciting partnership up top and an underrated midfield including Robert Snodgrass and Wes Hoolahan will be good for a top ten spot.

9. West Brom (2012/13: Premier League, 8th)

The Baggies have prepared for the new season by signing experienced players of the calibre of Nicolas Anelka and Diego Lugano.

Yet, as is well known, both Anelka and Lugano are mercurial – Anelka especially so. Whether he will be consistently putting in 100% at the Hawthorns remains to be seen. If manager Steve Clarke sees him as a replacement for Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku, he could be sorely disappointed.

Lugano, meanwhile, looked past his best at the recent Confederations Cup for Uruguay and, in my opinion at least, represents more of a liability than a reliability.

Despite the relative lack of signings, West Brom should be competitive. An energetic and incisive midfield is their strength and if they can convince Peter Odemwinghie to stay they can aim for a top ten finish.

8. Everton (2012/13: Premier League, 6th)

Everton enter into the new season with a new manager for the first time in over a decade following the departure of David Moyes to Manchester United.

Incoming boss Roberto Martinez is certainly a respected manager and he will look to build upon the watchable style of play that Moyes developed during his tenure.

Key to their success will be the retention of Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, with the club so far resisting overtures for both men from Manchester United.

New loan signing Gerard Deulofeu comes in from Barcelona to provide strength to the Toffees forward line, which is also bolstered by Arouna Kone, who followed Martinez from Wigan in a permanent deal.

The Goodison Park faithful will have to be patient with the new regime – a European place (fifth) might be out of their reach.

7. Swansea City (2012/13: Premier League, 9th)

Swansea’s season has already started with qualification for the Europa League, and they look well placed to improve on an impressive ninth place finish from last season.

New signing Wilfried Bony looks strong and has linked up well with goalscoring sensation Michu so far. The Ivorian’s presence allows the Spaniard to drift into his favoured position just off the first striker, so Swansea may well benefit from that this season.

Swans manager Michael Laudrup has raided Real Betis for Spanish duo Alejandro Pozuelo and Jose Canas, with Pozuelo looking a very promising player in the playmaker role.

Fans at the Liberty Stadium will be hopeful of a good Premier League assault and their team could well deliver a top six place if one of the top six teams falters.

6. Tottenham Hotspur (2012/13: Premier League, 5th)

The crucial question at White Hart Lane this summer is whether prize asset Gareth Bale is going to leave the club.

Real Madrid have reportedly had a world-record bid of £87m turned down, and their interest has since cooled.

Bale has remained silent – some say this means he wants to leave – but chairman Daniel Levy is intent on keeping his star player.

If Bale were to leave, Spurs will rely heavily on £26m striker Roberto Soldado to score goals after Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe endured difficult seasons.

Paulinho, a £17m acquisition from Corinthians, looks a very good addition to the squad but the loss of Bale is expected to take its toll and I think Spurs will miss out on Europe – unless they can win a domestic cup.

5. Liverpool (2012/13: Premier League, 7th)

Liverpool flattered to deceive at times last season. They finished with 71 goals – the fourth highest in the division – but they were inconsistent and eventually paid the price when they missed out on European competition altogether.

They have also resisted Luis Suarez’s attempts to leave the club, with Arsenal having had two bids rejected, and have got their business done early, signing four players fairly cheaply.

Simon Mignolet will be first choice in goal after Pepe Reina left the club (on loan) to link up with former Reds boss Rafael Benitez at Napoli, while the addition of Spanish duo Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto will provide Daniel Sturridge with assistance should Suarez leave.

Philippe Coutinho is being tipped for a superb season alongside Steven Gerrard in midfield, and Reds boss Brendan Rodgers will be hopeful – rightly so – of a Europa League place at least.

4. Arsenal (2012/13: Premier League, 4th)

Much has been made of Arsenal’s lack of activity in the transfer market – but it has not been for want of trying.

The Gunners have twice failed in attempts to sign Luis Suarez and their only signing so far this summer has been French youngster Yaya Sanogo.

A fit again Jack Wilshere will be crucial to Arsene Wenger’s plans to launch an assault on a Champions League automatic qualifying spot, but with the calibre of teams ahead of them I feel fourth place is as good as Arsenal will get – for now.

3. Manchester United (2012/13: Premier League, champions)

Like Arsenal, United have added one player to their squad this summer – young Uruguay full-back Guillermo Varela. Interest in midfielders Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas has not resulted in a signing, while a bid for Leighton Baines has also been rejected.

Rumours are now abound that new manager David Moyes is looking to bring in playmaker Mesut Özil, and with time fast running out United fans are beginning to think a marquee signing may never materialise for the Glaswegian.

If it doesn’t chances will fall to exciting youngsters such as Adnan Januzaj and Jesse Lingard, while Nick Powell will be involved once he recovers from a pre-season hamstring injury.

Wilfried Zaha, who was signed in January, has also looked sharp in pre-season and prolific young Chilean striker Angelo Henriquez scored midweek for his country.

Wayne Rooney has been tipped for a move to Chelsea, but the club have rejected two bids and expect him to stay.

Despite the Rooney saga, the future looks bright for United, but they are in a transitional phase after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and an automatic Champions League spot will be Moyes’ realistic end product.

2. Manchester City (2012/13: Premier League, 2nd)

New manager Manuel Pellegrini erased memories of last season by doing his business in rapid fashion early in the summer.

His £90m outlay on Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and Jesus Navas has strengthened City greatly, and they will be extremely difficult to beat as a result.

City enjoyed the best defensive record in the league last season, conceding just 34 goals. They scored a measly 66 though – and Pellegrini has addressed that problem emphatically.

I think City will just be pipped to the title but it will be a close battle with the usual title suspects.

1. Chelsea (2012/13: Premier League, 3rd)

Jose Mourinho has picked a good time to return to Chelsea.

They have the squad to mount a serious challenge in Europe, let alone domestically.

Romelu Lukaku returns to the club following a successful loan spell at West Brom and he is favourite to beat Fernando Torres to a regular starting spot up top.

Kevin de Bruyne also looks a very good prospect, as does new signing Andre Schürrle, while another young talent – midfielder Marco van Ginkel – has been promised games under the terms of his signature.

Should Chelsea manage to keep David Luiz, they have a defensive backbone to a team that is capable of delivering the title and I fully expect them to be lifting the Premier League trophy next May.

Can Manchester United be regarded as a ‘big club’ any more?

It may not seem obvious at first glance, but the roots of decline at Old Trafford have been growing for several seasons now. That they have been simultaneously camouflaged by a series of poor performances from many of their title rivals has helped them immeasurably.

But on May 8 this year, United’s manager – their great pillar of stability and trophy-winning continuity – Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes was swiftly announced as his successor, and it hasn’t taken long for the vultures to circle ominously above this once fearsome club.

Ferguson’s absence has exposed United’s decaying inner core – quite the opposite to innumerable suggestions that he had left the club in rude health following a record-breaking twentieth league title.

Moyes has acceded to a creaking throne which is in need of some refurbishment. One such issue within the club is the unfortunate loss of three promising young players who are now flourishing at their new clubs.

Serbian winger Zoran Tosic left the club almost as quickly as he came. Bought for £7m in 2009 he made just two appearances for United. His slight frame was deemed too diminutive for the physical pressures of the Premier League and he was sold to CSKA Moscow for £8m – where he has since scored at a rate of one goal every five games.

Even more surprising was the club’s inability to tie down Paul Pogba to a long-term contract. The young Frenchman, who United had so controversially ‘poached’ from Le Havre as a 16-year-old was starved of opportunities at United and when Juventus registered their interest he never looked back.

The pain United must have felt last season when Pogba enjoyed a breakthrough year for club and country would have been considerable as the Frenchman had long been identified as the type of player to replace Owen Hargreaves in the long-term.

More startling though, is their refusal to exercise a buying option on Tosic’s compatriot Adem Ljajic. The young Serbian also performed superbly last season in Serie A, scoring 11 goals in 28 games for Fiorentina, who showed no such disregard for Ljajic’s potential.

Ljajic has been heavily linked with a big-money move to AC Milan this summer and it is not hard to see why – unless you’re United, that is.

Infact, United’s impotence in the transfer market has long been a problem. They can only count Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie as true world-class signings since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

It is an affliction that has spread to Moyes’ reign as manager – a point exemplified by United’s failure to sign midfielders Thiago Alcantara, Kevin Strootman and now, in all likelihood, Cesc Fabregas.

United have also been scuppered in a bid to sign Leighton Baines from Everton for £12m. Also, at the time of writing, the Twittersphere had been chirping with rumours of an impending bid for Baines’ clubmate Marouane Fellaini.

Quite how Fellaini will feel about being a fourth-choice transfer target remains to be seen but Moyes’ desire to make a high-profile midfielder his marquee signing is clear.

Could it be that United’s international appeal amongst the top-name footballers is on the wane? That type of appeal appears to be in direct opposition to the surge in popularity of the club as a brand and business, with profits steadily eating into the steep pile of debt created by the Glazer family’s takeover of the club in 2005.

Part of the problem in attracting the best players in world football has been United’s form in European competition. In the 2011/12 season, United were ignominiously dumped out of the Champions League in the group stages, and then comprehensively outclassed by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.

All this embarrassment followed a Champions League final loss to Barcelona in 2011, their second such defeat to the Spaniards in the space of three seasons.

Their playing style has also changed, in line with a change in world football. Gone is the swashbuckling, all out counter-attacking of the early 2000s. A more measured, precise passing game with an emphasis on spreading play out to the wings has since taken hold.

Critics had called it more conservative, but in the current climate United would have been torn apart had they not adapted their game – something Ferguson famously addressed with his fondness for a fluid 4-5-1 in defence, which morphed into a 4-3-3 in attack.

It had also seemed that United were without a playmaker until the signing of Shinji Kagawa last season, but even then he was used sparingly in a debut season blighted by injuries. He should be the answer to Moyes’ search for a central midfielder, and his preferred position – in a more advanced midfield role – will provide Moyes with flexibility in that area of the pitch.

Added to the concern of a lack of signings this summer is Wayne Rooney’s apparent desire to leave Old Trafford. Chelsea, led by the returning Jose Mourinho, have failed in two bids for the England striker, and it seems that a fee of around £35m will be enough for United to consider selling.

Moyes, for the moment, remains committed to the idea of keeping Rooney at the club, despite his admission that van Persie was ahead in the pecking order at the moment.

If Rooney was to leave, his departure would give a chance to three exciting understudies – Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Angelo Henriquez.

The trio are destined to become the heart of United’s forward line in the future, and will be given their opportunities by a manager who, like Ferguson, is keen on blooding young talent.

United’s poor pre-season form – they have only registered two wins in six games against limited opposition – will also concern Moyes. That said, he has given a number of chances to exciting talents Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha, who look ready to make the step up into regular first action.

Lingard has been arguably the most impressive, scoring four times in four games during the club’s pre-season tour of Asia.

So, while United have recently struggled to compete with clubs like PSG and Monaco in the transfer market, it seems that there is no need to buy big when the conveyor belt of talent is bringing along players of Lingard’s and Januzaj’s quality.

In that respect, Moyes has the chance to emulate Ferguson and manage a team full of exciting young players, building the club into a feared standing once again.

For the moment though, United are not as feared in playing terms as they used to be. And while they are still a big club they are not as big as they once were, and it may take time to reassemble the towering presence in world football that they constructed for themselves throughout the 2000s.