Will Russia make good hosts for the 2018 World Cup?

The recent World Cup in Brazil managed to thrive despite being neck-deep in an ocean of controversy but, as attention turns to 2018, is Russia going to be submerged?

International opinion towards Russia has been increasingly negative ever since the Ukrainian crisis began, and there are more issues for the Russians to deal with as the spotlight hovers over Moscow.

Russia’s last ‘mega-event’, the Winter Olympics, staged in the southern resort of Sochi, was held to be a sporting success but fell short in terms of the quantity of money spent – it was the most expensive Olympics in history at $51bn, beating the previous mark set by Beijing ($44bn) in 2008.

As with all mega-events, Sochi attracted huge media coverage and, inevitably, there was some digging into its inner workings.

What that coverage eventually uncovered was enormously damaging for Russia.

Reports began to surface of costs being driven skyward by corruption, there was criticism of Russia’s newly-passed anti-homosexual law, an established culture of racism and even terrorist threats.

The World Cup is the biggest sporting event on the planet and will garner even more worldwide attention than that of the Winter Olympics.

Russia will be under microscopic analysis and the early suggestions are that 2018 will be an extremely unpopular World Cup.

Firstly, there is an inherent problem with racism in Russian football – particularly so in Saint Petersburg, where local club Zenit are supported by a large faction of fans named ‘Landscrona.’

Among Landscrona’s horrible manifesto were the declarations that “dark-skinned players are all but forced down Zenit’s throat” and that homosexual players would be “unworthy of our great city.”

To the club’s credit, they are determined to weed out supporters of Landscrona and have signed Hulk and Axel Witsel in the past three years – both of whom are black.

Last season, CSKA Moscow were forced to play behind closed doors after their fans racially abused Manchester City’s Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure. Toure later claimed that black players may boycott Russia’s World Cup in protest.

Instances of racism are common in Russia and there will undoubtedly be more in 2018 – but will FIFA act swiftly to punish those responsible?

Above all this Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent violence, has served to further weaken the perception of their country worldwide.

Things have become even worse for President Vladimir Putin as it transpired that MH17 – a passenger plane shot down in Ukraine, killing 298 people – was blown up by a Buk-launched missile supplied to pro-Russian rebels by Moscow.

Putin’s handling of the tragedy has drawn heavy international condemnation and has even led to questions about the viability of the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in October.

Even so, the event will seemingly go ahead after Bernie Ecclestone, F1 supremo, rubbished concerns over the race in an attempt to negate the negative publicity surrounding it.

Discrimination against lesbian, gay and transgender people in Russia is another major concern – with some petitions to strip Russia of hosting rights attracting thousands of signatures.

These controversies are all bound to dominate the build-up to the World Cup, but there have also been worries over the cost of building new arenas for 2018.

Out of the permitted 12 stadiums, a total of nine new stadiums will be built, while three more will be upgraded or rebuilt. Unlike Brazil, construction of these stadiums is progressing well.

New infrastructure across the country will also be built and, like most mega-events, talk of an enduring legacy was a key component of the Russian World Cup bidding project.

The new stadiums and infrastructure will come at a potentially crippling cost, however.

Economic forecasts for Russia are worrying, with the country dicing with recession and Putin’s political opposition calling the $20bn budget allocated to the World Cup “unsustainable.”

On the pitch, Russia’s national team is one of the more experienced – it is rare that young players break through.

However, a poor performance in Brazil, which saw Russia crash out in the group stage, has prompted a change in approach with young players set to be given more opportunities.

There are high hopes for Dzhamaldin Khodzhaniyazov, a swashbuckling young defender, while Denis Cheryshev, a winger on Real Madrid’s books, could also make a significant impact in 2018.

So, although it is unlikely that Russia will have its right to host the 2018 World Cup revoked, it can expect an enormous amount of scorn from the international community for its discriminatory habits.

The question is can they change, and will FIFA make them mend their ways? Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are shrouded in doubt.

Perhaps the only respectable reason Russia deserves to host the 2018 World Cup is because it won the most votes to do so, leading many to arrive at the melancholic conclusion that footballing democracy has been too kind.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

The best and worst World Cups ever

After a magnificent World Cup in Brazil, there has been much talk both in newspapers and on social media as to whether it was the best World Cup ever.

There are several contenders for ‘best World Cup’, but what about the ‘worst World Cup’?

Answering both those categories at once, here are my picks for the best and worst World Cups in footballing history, starting with the best.

3. Switzerland 1954

If goal-drenched football is your thing, you could do no worse than delving into the archives for footage of Switzerland 1954. With over five goals scored per game, spectators were treated to some memorable scorelines including a 9-0 win for Ferenc Puskas’ Hungary against South Korea, an 8-3 Hungarian thrashing of West Germany and a seismic 7-5 win for Austria against hosts Switzerland in the quarter-final where nine goals were scored in the first half.

Best moment: Despite their earlier defeat by Hungary, the canny West Germans, knowing that scouting and video footage of club football were in their embryonic stages, had played an under-strength side in that game and later defeated the surprised Hungarians 3-2 in the final.

2. France 1998

Zidane’s double against Brazil. Beckham’s kick at Simeone. Carlos Valderrama’s haircut. Owen’s solo goal against Argentina – just some of the enduring memories of France ’98 that will continue to endure for some time to come. France ’98 was certainly a purist’s World Cup with an emphasis on attacking football. As a result, 171 goals were scored in a tournament eventually won by the home side as they triumphed 3-0 over a lacklustre Brazil.

Best moment: Dennis Bergkamp’s fear of flying had restricted his international appearances, but he braved the Channel Tunnel to take the stage for Holland in France. In the quarter-final against Argentina, with the score locked at 1-1 in the 89th minute, Bergkamp elegantly controlled a diagonal lofted pass before slamming home a volley to send Holland through to the semi-finals.

1. Brazil 2014

The Brazilian public were promised a marvellous World Cup and they were not disappointed. Despite taking place amidst noisy protests about the weight and wisdom of Brazilian government spending for football’s showpiece event, the tournament let its football do the talking as some hefty attacking play drew rich rewards for the billions of viewers around the world. Reigning champions Spain were thumped 5-1 by Holland, James Rodriguez announced himself as football’s next superstar and Germany swept all before them to record a fourth World Cup crown.

Best moment: Hopes were high for hosts Brazil going into their semi-final with Germany but, when Neymar fractured a vertebra and captain Thiago Silva earned a suspension, things quickly turned nightmarish as a ruthless German side dismembered them 7-1, compiling a 5-0 lead by half-time. Ouch.

Now we move on to the worst World Cups in history – brace yourselves!

3. USA 1994

The tone for USA ’94 was set in the opening ceremony when Oprah Winfrey fell off the stage in introducing Diana Ross before Ross famously missed a penalty in a pre-orchestrated routine. The football itself was not much better, with hot temperatures and a lack of attacking football combining to bore viewers rather than excite them. USA ’94 also made history by hosting the first goalless World Cup final – a dour 0-0 draw between eventual winners Brazil and Italy.

Worst moment: Diego Maradona was sent home in disgrace after testing positive for the banned weight-loss drug ephedrine. The fiasco ended his equally controversial and glittering international career, although he continued at club level for three more years.

2. Italy 1990

Italia ’90 is not fondly remembered by the football fraternity – unless you support Germany. The tournament was so bad that it caused the back-pass rule to be created while many experts consider the tournament to have been the crucible of defensive football. Only 115 goals were scored in the 52 matches played – a record low for World Cups – with one group even recording five draws from six games. A dull World Cup final was enlivened by Andreas Brehme, whose 85th-minute goal won the tournament for West Germany.

Worst moment:  Pedro Monzon is not a household name, but he went into the record books as the first man to be sent off in a World Cup final. The Argentine may rightfully protest his case though as a lunge on Jurgen Klinsmann missed the German, with replays appearing to show Klinsmann diving.

1. South Africa 2010

As the drone of vuvuzelas rang around every World Cup venue, the players may have been distracted, tactical messages from the bench drowned out and commentators unable to hear themselves speak. Whatever the reason was, South Africa 2010 is by far the worst World Cup in history. Teams were hindered by bobbly surfaces and an unpredictable ball, ironically named ‘Jabulani’ – Zulu for “bringing joy to everyone.” The tournament average of 2.27 goals per game is beaten only by the tally of 2.21 at Italia ’90. South Africa 2010 also hosted what many claim to be one of the worst World Cup games in history as England dismally drew 0-0 with Algeria in Cape Town.

Worst moment: Yet another recent World Cup final became an abysmal affair as Spain’s already lamentable encounter with Holland was spiked by Nigel de Jong, who took his position of central defensive midfielder too literally. De Jong’s ‘kung-fu kick’ on Xabi Alonso was only given a yellow card by referee Howard Webb – a decision almost as bad as the tackle. Spain went on to win 1-0 thanks to an Andres Iniesta goal in extra-time.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

2014 World Cup: The true cost of Brazil 2014

With just two matches to go in the 2014 World Cup there is one question on the world’s lips: ‘Has it been worth all the money?’

Brazil’s staging of the World Cup has been the most expensive in history – and even then over a third of the proposed improvements to transportation have been scrapped or abandoned.

At a conservative estimate of $14bn, Brazil 2014 is almost $8bn more expensive than the previous record, set by Germany in 2006.

Critics in Brazil have scoffed at the $14bn estimate and say it is likely to cost 300% more, with retired Brazilian footballer Romario, now an MP, saying the eventual cost could be $46bn – a figure he named “the biggest theft in history.”

These figures illustrate a growing disparity, as has been the case in staging recent sporting ‘mega-events’, between the estimate and the eventual cost.

Seven years ago, when Brazil won the right to host the 2014 World Cup, a picture of recovery from underdevelopment and a forecast of accelerated growth was painted by then president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

In reality though, this was never going to be the case within such a limited time span.

Spending on the World Cup has seen the order of priority first extend to stadiums, airports and then transport.

The 12 stadiums themselves have cost $3.6bn to either build or renovate, several of which will struggle to recoup that expenditure as they host lower division teams with small attendance figures.

Brazilian airports have been given a long-awaited refurbishment to accommodate the 600,000 people who flew in to watch the tournament and the three million flying internally between venues.

But overall infrastructure improvements have suffered most as Brazil struggled to get the stadiums and airports ready for the World Cup. Just 36 of the 93 major projects were completed on schedule, and the country now faces a massive task to be ready in time for hosting the 2016 Olympics.

Amidst all the focus on these costs, there is good news economically.

The Brazilian government has estimated that over 710,000 permanent and temporary jobs have been created with additional research suggesting that fan spending could total $13bn.

Yet Brazilian banks remain cautious.

Excellent interest rates of 11% continue to benefit savers, but the ballooned prices aimed at the World Cup’s thousands of tourists has contributed to an inflation rate of 6.52% which could hit Brazilians hard in the aftermath of the tournament.

In addition to the spending, there have been more damaging stories emanating from Brazil during the World Cup.

Mass protests, sparked in 2013 by a raise in bus fares, have been commonplace while unsightly favelas – some hold up to one million people – have been uprooted to provide a more pleasant background to the venues.

In Rio, where Germany will clash with Argentina in the final on Sunday, drug gangs control several shanty towns, holding residents to ransom and treating them in an authoritarian manner.

There is also the crime rate to consider, with Rio believed to have the 19th-highest crime rate across the world’s cities. The Brazilian government pledged $900m towards security measures during the World Cup and reports of violence have been scarce.

At stadiums, South American fans were largely to blame for breaches of security.

A total of 20 Argentinean supporters forced their way in to the Maracana stadium in Rio during their country’s match against Bosnia, while in Chile’s match with Spain, 100 ticketless Chilean supporters also forced their way in to the same stadium and damaged the media centre, with 85 fans being detained.

Tragically, in the construction of some stadiums, eight workers died in accidents. Another worker died three days before the World Cup when a monorail collapsed in Sao Paulo.

The most recent disaster occurred in Belo Horizonte, where an overpass collapsed killing two people and leaving 22 others injured.

So, while the economic projections are encouraging for the future, there are still many discontented Brazilian people.

Some Brazilians wanted the $14bn spent on the World Cup to be ploughed into the country’s education and healthcare systems – this was a key aspect of the many protests before and during the tournament.

There is still a huge amount of poverty in the country, with some favelas controlled by rampant drug cartels and riddled by violent crime and corruption.

The staging of the World Cup itself however, has been a big success with viewers voting the 2014 World Cup to be the most exciting ever.

The tournament also produced shock results such as Holland’s 5-1 thrashing of reigning champions Spain and the 7-1 destruction of host nation Brazil by Germany.

FIFA have also been successful, controversially, as their $2bn investment looks set to reap commercial revenues of $4bn with the governing body reinvesting $20m into legacy projects throughout Brazil.

Whichever way the spotlight shines money could have been spent on other areas, but that is the case with every major sporting event.

Despite the huge expenditure Brazil, already a rapidly developing economy, will eventually benefit from the money invested in their new airports, transport links and infrastructure – even though some stadiums might not recoup the money spent on them.

The true cost of Brazil 2014 might never be known, but in general the country is expected to widen the disparity between rich and poor – and that is perhaps the most telling cost of all.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

2014 World Cup: My 2014 World Cup XI

With the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro fast approaching, it’s time to focus on the players that will make up the FIFA team of the tournament.

Of course, the public don’t get a say, but there is plenty to discuss with several world-class performances throughout the tournament.

Regular World Cup followers will see dozens of ‘World Cup XI’ selections over the coming days, but here is my team along with seven substitutes who have also caught my attention.

For those interested, I’ve opted for a standard 4-2-3-1 formation – you can see my team on sharemytactics.com.

GK. Keylor Navas (CRC)

Navas attracted plaudits from across the globe for a series of stunning displays as he almost single-handedly kept Costa Rica in the World Cup. His world-class saves against Greece in their last-16 penalty shoot-out were arguably his best but another impressive shot-stopping spree against the Netherlands in the quarter-final proved futile as the Central American team went out on penalties.

RB. Cristian Gamboa (CRC)

The contest for the right-back slot was close, but Gamboa wins out for his lung-bursting runs down the right flank. His tireless efforts gave the Costa Ricans a vital get-out to relieve heavy pressure against Holland and Greece and, refreshingly, he is a full-back who is equally at home in defence as he is going forward.

CB: Mats Hummels (c) (GER)

Hummels is Germany’s giant at the back and possibly their most reliable player of the tournament, making him the ideal choice to captain my World Cup XI. The centre-back makes defending look easy with his almost telepathic reading of the game and has also weighed in with two goals including the winner against France in the quarter-final.

CB: Stefan de Vrij (HOL)

Perhaps one of the most unsung players at the World Cup, de Vrij has quietly gone about his business as a quality centre-back. Like Hummels, de Vrij has an excellent reading of the game and seems to thrive on the pressure of tournament football with his performances getting better as the tournament endured. He kept Gonzalo Higuain at bay with ease for 120 minutes in the semi-final against Argentina and also scored in the 5-1 thrashing of world champions Spain.

LB: Marcos Rojo (ARG)

Rojo has shown during this World Cup why a move to a big club in Europe could lie in wait. His pace on the left has provided Argentina with a formidable left flank as Rojo has been deployed in tandem with Angel di Maria. The 24-year-old grabbed a goal against Nigeria in the group stage and looks set to enjoy a long international career.

CM: Toni Kroos (GER)

The German midfield is loaded with talent, but Kroos surpasses his compatriots with his deadly ability to take a controlling grasp of matches. He ducks in and out of attack and defence making him hard to mark and also has the nous to thread an incisive pass. His quick double against Brazil in Germany’s incredible 7-1 mauling of the hosts illustrates why Real Madrid are chasing his signature.

CM: Javier Mascherano (ARG)

He has his critics, but Mascherano has had an outstanding tournament. The gritty Argentine has been cast into his preferred central defensive midfield slot and his country has reaped the rewards. A stunning late block from Arjen Robben’s shot in the semi-final win over Holland was Mascherano at his typically hard-working best.

LM: James Rodriguez (COL)

With six goals Rodriguez is currently top goalscorer at this World Cup, the best of which was a stupendous volley against Uruguay in the last-16. Although Colombia crashed out to Brazil in the quarter-finals, Rodriguez had made his presence felt with a number of world-class attacking displays. Could he follow Ronaldo and Messi as the next footballing superstar?

AM: Lionel Messi (ARG)

The man responsible for dragging Argentina through to the final is unsurprisingly Lionel Messi. Part of an average Argentine side, Messi has provided his country with a winning touch having scored the winning goals in two games and having created Angel di Maria’s winner against Belgium in the quarter-finals. Despite his improved form at this World Cup, his critics will argue that until he wins football’s greatest prize he cannot be elevated above Pele as the best that ever lived.

RM: Thomas Mueller (GER)

Mueller has had another productive World Cup with five goals and is quickly threatening the all-time record tally. One of his finest strengths is his elusive nature. Always on the move, the German can drift to either wing to take possession or can be deployed as a ruthless striker – as his predatory hat-trick against Portugal showed.

ST: Neymar (BRA)

The darling of Brazil, Neymar’s tournament was cruelly cut short by a mischievous challenge by Colombia’s Juan Zuniga which fractured a vertebra. Had he not been taken out so early he could have finished as top goalscorer, but his four goals gave an unusually dull Brazilian side hope of a home World Cup win.

Subs:

GK: Manuel Neuer (GER)

Solid, but not spectacular, Neuer’s tally of three clean sheets owes much to the powerful German defence as it does to his flamboyant sweeper-like antics.

CB: Thiago Silva (BRA)

Thiago Silva’s class during this tournament was defined by his absence in the 7-1 semi-final annihilation by Germany. He was the glue in the Brazilian defence and, when missing through suspension, they were leaderless and duly crumbled.

CB: Ezequiel Garay (ARG)

Garay has had an outstanding tournament for Argentina at the back, and his new club Zenit St. Petersburg will feel vindicated at the £12m they paid Benfica for his services.

RM: Mathieu Valbuena (FRA)

Arguably France’s best player at the World Cup, Valbuena was a constant menace on the right-wing with his pace and trickery. His deliveries from set-plays were sublime and he also scored a deserved goal against Switzerland in the group stage.

LM: Arjen Robben (HOL)

Despite admitting to diving during Holland’s 2-1 win over Mexico in the last-16, Robben earns a place on the bench. He terrified Spain with a brace in a famous 5-1 win and was full of his jinking runs even in extra-time periods against Costa Rica and Argentina.

ST: Robin van Persie (HOL)

The Dutch captain is worth his place on the bench purely because of an astonishing diving header against Spain, and he went on to notch two more goals despite being starved of service as the tournament progressed.

ST: Miroslav Klose (GER)

His goal at the second attempt against Brazil was a record-breaker for Klose as he overtook Ronaldo as the all-time leading World Cup goalscorer with 16. He has the chance to line up in his second World Cup final but has yet to score in one.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

2014 Tour de France preview – Can Froome beat Contador?

The 2014 Tour de France rolls off on Saturday as defending champion Chris Froome enters into combat with two-time winner Alberto Contador.

‘Le Tour’ is set to weave through Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex and London as the first three stages start and finish on British roads, and race organisers ASO will hope to see the ‘Grand Depart’ culminate in a spectacular sprint finish on The Mall.

There are also four British riders in the race: Froome, Mark Cavendish, Froome’s Team Sky team-mate Geraint Thomas and Orica Greenedge’s Simon Yates – a surprise inclusion in the Australian squad.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme has certainly made sure the British stages will pack a punch, with the opening stage from Leeds to Harrogate featuring three categorised climbs before the sprinters’ teams have a chance to pull any breakaway back in time for a sprint finish in Harrogate.

Of course, the winner of this stage will take the ‘maillot jaune’ and, with Harrogate being the birthplace of his mother, Cavendish will be hoping to win and become the seventh British rider in history to have worn the yellow jersey.

He will face huge competition from arch-rivals Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel, but the estimated one million fans expected to line the roads will push Cavendish on to what he hopes will be a memorable win.

Stage two, however, might prove too much for the sprinters to defend the yellow jersey as an astonishing nine categorised climbs punctuate the 201km route from York to Sheffield.

Prudhomme, devious as ever, has saved the steepest of those nine hills to feature just three miles from the finish – a short, agonising 800-metre climb up Jenkin Road which boasts a crushing 33% gradient at its steepest section.

With nine climbs packed into the second stage it resembles a one-day classic race where time gaps between the general classification (GC) riders will almost inevitably open up.

Viewers can expect the ‘puncheur’ riders such as Trek’s Fabian Cancellara, Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke and Omega-Pharma Quick Step’s Niki Terpstra to fight it out into Sheffield for the stage win.

Stage three is a sprinter’s stage, with a meek maximum elevation of 108 metres and a high-octane finish in London where Cavendish, Kittel and Greipel will again lock horns for a prestigious win.

With 2014 also marking 100 years since World War One began, ASO have plotted a 155.5km route through Belgium and northern France which starts in Ypres and finishes in Arenberg – both of which witnessed hundreds of thousands of deaths during WW1.

The commemorative stage also has another huge significance for ‘Le Tour’ as it forces the riders through nine sections of punishing cobblestones totalling 15km.

If stage two was responsible for opening time gaps then the cobblestones on stage five could potentially blow them apart and even wreck a GC contender’s race – as happened to Frank Schleck in 2010 when the Luxembourg rider fell and broke his collarbone on a treacherous cobbled section.

Stage seven will provide a tricky test towards the end with two fourth-category climbs in the final 17km, but the sprinters should avoid the inevitable attacks from the puncheurs to contest a sprint finish into Nancy.

The race will have entered eastern France on stage eight, with a trip to the scenic Vosges mountain range providing the entertainment on the next three stages.

Stage eight features the first of five summit finishes in the 2014 Tour, and it will bite the riders hard with an average gradient of 10.3% as the route tops out in Gerardmer la Mauselaine.

With seven categorised climbs on stage nine – including a first category climb at le Markstein – the GC riders will need to be aware of potentially pivotal attacks from their rivals before a 35km descent into Mulhouse.

Ahead of the first rest day, Prudhomme will hope for some fireworks on stage ten which features another six categorised climbs before arriving at la Planche des Belles Filles – the scene of Chris Froome’s maiden Tour stage win and a climb which tops out with a massive 20% gradient.

Once the rest day is completed, the race storms into the Alps as the climbs keep coming. Eight more climbs spread over two stages precede the first two mountainous stages.

If Contador and Froome have serious ambition to win the race, these two stages could be pivotal.

A summit finish at Chamrousse is the first ‘hors-categorie’ climb of the Tour and lasts a draining 18.2km.

Stage 14 reinforces an energy-sapping day with a visit to the highest point of the race, the Col d’Izoard, which tops out at 2,360m above sea level and lasts 19km with an average gradient of 6%.

The peloton is not done there, though. A summit finish in Risoul lasting 12.6km will confirm the strongest climbers in the race and will set the Tour up for a final blast into the Pyrenees.

Once they get there three perilous mountain stages await them.

On stage 16, the peloton must navigate four small climbs before the stage tops out on the Port de Bales climb, a highest-category ascent, before descending into Bagneres-de-Luchon.

Froome could be susceptible to an attack by Contador on this stage as the Spaniard is a better descender and, if he has team-mates around him to help isolate the British rider, the Tinkoff-Saxo man could steal a few seconds.

Stage 17 is another monster with three first-category climbs, including the Col de Peyresourde, stacked before a summit finish to Saint-Lary Pla d’Adet.

If that wasn’t enough, the battle between Froome and Contador could erupt on stage 18 as the peloton tackles the legendary Col du Tourmalet before a summit finish in Hautacam.

In a route many expect to favour Contador with 63 categorised climbs in total, the organisers have thrown a lifeline to Froome with a 54km time-trial from Bergerac to Perigueux.

The finish is reminiscent of the 2011 Tour when Cadel Evans won the race with a superb time-trial in the penultimate stage to overhaul a big gap to Andy Schleck. Will Froome be in the same position?

If he is, Contador will be a much harder obstacle to overcome as his time-trialling is almost a match for Froome’s.

Of course, the race traditionally finishes on the Champs-Elysees and Marcel Kittel will be favourite to repeat his 2013 victory – even with competition from Cavendish and Greipel.

So, on a route that is more suited to Contador than Froome, Team Sky’s leader will have to emulate the form he showed earlier in the year to overcome the dangerous Spaniard.

The trouble for Froome is that illness at the Criterium du Dauphine – the best indicator of Tour form – may have hampered his pre-Tour fitness and there are genuine concerns for the Brit as he comes up against a fully-fit, on form Contador.

The Dauphine also saw the emergence of American rider Andrew Talansky, whose late breakaway stage win helped capture the best stage-race victory of his career.

Alejandro Valverde is also a formidable threat, and the punchy, hilly nature of the Tour will favour him after he enjoyed a wonderful classics season – victory in La Fleche Wallonne is his highlight so far.

Much has also been made of Tejay van Garderen and Jurgen van den Broeck, who will almost certainly challenge for a podium spot alongside Talansky and the relentless Vincenzo Nibali.

Undoubtedly, the key to the Tour will be staying out of trouble. If Froome and Contador can survive stages two and five then the 2014 Tour could morph into a battleground with a series of pulsating duels in the Vosges, Alps and Pyrenees.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89