2015 Vuelta a Espana preview – Quintana vs. Froome… again

The latest edition of la Vuelta a Espana rolls off on Saturday and a high-calibre field is set to grace the final Grand Tour of the season.

Many of the world’s best climbers are in attendance, with the only notable absentee being Alberto Contador, who is resting after having already ridden the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.

Just as in the Tour last month it looks set to be a battle between Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome. Or does it? In usual Vuelta fashion, that is not the case.

The contenders

Quintana and Froome are the headline grabbers after their fantastic duel in the Tour de France and it is clear that Froome will be the leader of Team Sky.

In Quintana’s Movistar team however, the leadership role is more of a conundrum.

Movistar are renowned for their flexibility, their tricky tactics and are arguably the strongest WorldTour squad on the roster.

It’s no surprise, then, that they are keeping their cards close to their chest as Alejandro Valverde, a Vuelta specialist, is also capable of leading the team.

To add to the mystery, Valverde has been handed the bib with a 1 suffixing his race number – an indication of a team leader.

There is a similar situation at Astana, where 2010 Vuelta champion Vincenzo Nibali is riding in support of Fabio Aru.

Astana have three options for team leadership, with Italians Aru and Nibali joined by Spaniard Mikel Landa. Aru and Landa lit up the Giro as they hunted down Contador for the win, but Nibali is the undisputed number one at the team.

Like Valverde, Aru has been given the leader’s bib so it will be intriguing to see if Nibali plays ball or not.

The strongest Vuelta for years can also boast the presence of Tejay van Garderen, whose Tour was cut short by illness, while Vuelta dangerman Joaquim Rodriguez will be on the hunt for a podium finish too.

Rafal Majka will lead Tinkoff-Saxo in the absence of Contador and there is a welcome return to Grand Tour racing for Domenico Pozzovivo, who crashed so horrifically at the Giro.

The stages

La Vuelta is renowned for being a brutal race. With temperatures often exceeding 40C and summit finishes a regular occurrence, it can break any rider who struggles to deal with its unique demands.

This year there are eight summit finishes, with a further two uphill drags to the line.

By far the most challenging week is the second, with trips to the infamous Andorra region and three stages in the mountainous Asturias region of Spain.

Stage 11 in Andorra is a climber’s dream with one category two climb, four cat ones and one highest-category climb. It also takes the peloton up to the loftiest point of the race at 2,110m.

There is also plenty for the sprinters to feast on as there are seven, maybe eight flat stages that look perfect for a bunch sprint.

The sprinters

Inevitably, the green jersey for the points classification went to Peter Sagan in the Tour, and he will line up for a rare tilt at the Vuelta in preparation for the World Championships in September.

He is joined by Vuelta expert John Degenkolb, who has won nine stages in just two participations.

Sagan and Degenkolb will face a formidable rival in the sprints, with Nacer Bouhanni looking for redemption after a Tour ruined by injury.

Fabian Cancellara, who broke two vertebrae in a high-speed crash at the Tour, also makes his Grand Tour comeback and will animate several of the hilly stages as he goes in search of a fifth Vuelta stage win.

The Brits

The British contingent in the Vuelta is fairly low, but of high-quality. Froome is joined by Geraint Thomas, who worked so tenaciously for him at the Tour, while Steve Cummings, who won a stage at the Tour, will ride for MTN Qhubeka.

Team Sky again fly the flag for Britain and also include Ian Boswell, Sergio Henao, Vasil Kiryienka, Christian Knees, Mikel Nieve, Salvatore Puccio and Nico Roche in their line-up.

Tapas

The Vuelta takes the riders on a 2,086 mile route this year and will feature 21 stages – with ten of those packing an uphill finish.

It will start in Puerto Banus with a short 7.4km team time trial, while stage 17 could decide the destination of the title with a 39km individual time trial around Burgos.

Interestingly, the Trek team include Frank Schleck in their squad and there is also a place at Lotto Soudal for dark horse Jurgen van den Broeck.

It promises to be a fascinating Vuelta with so many things to look out for, but the overriding feeling is that this Vuelta is too close to call.

Nobody knows how Quintana will react after riding back-to-back Grand Tours for the first time and how will Froome perform in a race he has twice finished second in?

Then there is the challenge of Valverde and the collective threat of the trio of Astana riders.

Who will win? We’ll have to wait until Madrid to find out.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 or WordPress: neilwalton089

My 2015/16 Premier League predictions

Can anyone detect the faint rumble of a new Premier League season ahead? Maybe it’s the ubiquitous Sky Sports adverts, or the imposing BT Sport billboards? Or maybe just the football?

Ah yes, it’s definitely the football.

Normally, nothing much should be ascertained from pre-season – especially with regards to form. However, there have been some noticeably quiet clubs in the transfer window – with some more in need of fresh faces than others.

What seems to be clearest though, is that the 2015/16 Premier League season will be closer than the last campaign.

Anyway, enough waffling. Let’s get stuck in to the main course – some predictions.

  1. Sunderland – 16th last season – 9/4 to be relegated

Wearsiders look away now. This season has the makings of relegation for Dick Advocaat’s side. Sunderland will need goals to stay up, but having sold Connor Wickham and with the misfiring Danny Graham and Steven Fletcher supporting an aging Jermain Defoe, they are in big trouble. One ray of light is the signing of Jeremain Lens, a goalscoring Dutch midfielder – but one good deal alone is not going to save the Black Cats.

  1. Bournemouth – Championship winners last season – 7/5 to be relegated

The Cherries make their Premier League debut after snatching the Championship title from under Watford’s noses, but they look short of the requirements to stave off relegation. Boss Eddie Howe has made some interesting signings, with 37-year-old Sylvain Distin, Christian Atsu and Max Gradel all coming to Dean Court. Bournemouth play some attractive football and have plenty of energy in their side but in terms of defensive quality they are desperately short, and that spells doom.

  1. Leicester City – 14th last season – 3/1 to be relegated

Like all promoted clubs, Leicester’s target was merely to stay up. They did so dramatically as a stunning end-of-season winning run helped them survive by six points. Claudio Ranieri has assumed managerial control after the anti-PR Nigel Pearson was sacked, but “The Tinkerman” has hardly enhanced his reputation after a dismally poor stint with Greece. New signings include Shinji Okazaki and N’Golo Kante, but a defence that conceded 55 goals last season looks like relegation material.

  1. Watford – Championship runners-up last season – 6/5 to stay up

Having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the Championship title race last season, Watford have wasted no time in preparing themselves for the Premier League, making 11 signings for a combined £21m. They have bought astutely, with Valon Behrami and Jose Holebas the headliners. The good news for Watford is that they have goals in them. Captain Troy Deeney, coveted by many PL clubs, scored 21 league goals last term and his goals could prove crucial in keeping them up.

  1. Norwich City – Championship play-off winners – 4/5 to stay up

The main advantage Norwich have this season is that most of their squad has Premier League experience and in Alex Neil they have a tenacious manager with a growing reputation. This summer they have strengthened in midfield with Youssouf Mulumbu arriving from West Brom and the guile of Robbie Brady adding a threat from dead-ball situations. Norwich will be fine this season, and a nice little bonus would be a return to form for Ricky van Wolfswinkel.

  1. Aston Villa – 17th last season – 3/1 to be relegated

If Aston Villa had not found a replacement for Christian Benteke, they would have been in big trouble, but in Rudy Gestede they have a striker ready to step up to the Premier League. Manager Tim Sherwood has also been in talks with Emmanuel Adebayor and, after getting the most out of him at Spurs, repeating the trick could be worth up to 15 goals. Villa’s young side will feel the loss of Fabian Delph, but offsetting his departure is the bright talent of Jack Grealish.

  1. West Ham – 12th last season – 8/15 for a bottom 10 finish

If West Ham end up qualifying for the Europa League their Premier League season could go up in smoke. The average cost of a Europa League campaign was recently put at -4 points by a PL statistician. Add to that the fatigue of starting your season in early July and boss Sam Allardyce will have some tired players come May. The signing of Dimitri Payet with his eye-catching skill is exciting Hammers fans as another solid season awaits.

  1. West Brom – 13th last season – 9/2 to be top Midlands club

The Baggies have cause for optimism this season as the emergence of Saido Berahino continues to develop. His 14-goal campaign helped them massively last season and the wily Tony Pulis has pulled off a great signing in Rickie Lambert, who struggled to impose himself at Liverpool. Lambert and Berahino are set to form a fantastic combination and, with a propensity for putting defence first, Pulis will guide West Brom to another mid-table finish, with the top ten within reach.

  1. Crystal Palace – 10th last season – 4/7 for a bottom 10 finish

Palace have signed some excellent players this summer, not least Yohan Cabaye from PSG. The Frenchman will be keen to cement a place in the France squad with a home Euro 2016 campaign next summer and his goalscoring prowess at Newcastle under boss Alan Pardew’s guidance is another good sign. Connor Wickham has also arrived, while Eagles fans will be hoping that Yannick Bolasie kicks on from his breakthrough displays last term.

  1. Newcastle United – 15th last season – 1/2 to be top North East club

New manager Steve McClaren was building a good team at Derby, but has ditched them to join Newcastle. Drawing on his time in Holland, McClaren has kept a close eye on neighbours Belgium and has dipped into the transfer market to bring in Anderlecht pair Aleksandar Mitrovic and Chancel Mbemba. The goals of Serbia striker Mitrovic are much needed in Tyneside and with McClaren’s focus on defending they will challenge for a top ten finish.

  1. Stoke – 9th last season – 10/1 to finish tenth

Ex-Barcelona striker Mark Hughes seems set on raiding his former club to bring as many Barcelona players to the Potteries as he can. Marc Muniesa and Bojan were already on the club’s books, and now Ibrahim Afellay joins them. Afellay struggled with injury and lack of form for Barca, but if Hughes can get him fit his pace will be a major threat. Hughes has also added Marco van Ginkel to his ranks, and another top ten finish will be the target for the ambitious Welsh manager.

  1. Swansea – 8th last season – 6/4 for a top 10 finish

The Swans have been fairly quiet in the transfer market but the quality of their squad is there for all to see. Often lauded as playing the most attractive football in the league, Garry Monk’s side have added striker Eder to replace Wilfried Bony, with Andre Ayew another capable arrival up front. Swansea will be aiming for a Europa League spot but they may come up just short.

  1. Southampton – 7th last season – 40/1 to go unbeaten at home

Saints boss Ronald Koeman is a pragmatic coach, and he will realise that the club’s Europa League exploits will have an impact on their Premier League endeavours. The signing of Jordy Clasie is a massive coup for the south coast side, while the return to fitness of Jay Rodriguez will give Koeman a potent extra option up front, but overall their season might not hit the heights of last.

  1. Everton – 11th last season – 4/11 for a top 10 finish

Everton will expect a big improvement on last season when a taxing run in Europe impacted their Premier League ambitions. Romelu Lukaku scored just 10 PL goals last term and will aim for 15 this season, while the permanent signing of Gerard Deulofeu adds pace and creativity. Everton boast the best PL full-backs in Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, but Roberto Martinez’s best work has been to rebuff the overtures from Chelsea for centre-back John Stones.

  1. Spurs – 5th last season – 8/11 for a top 6 finish

White Hart Lane purred at the form of striker Harry Kane last season, but the goals dried up at the end as the strain of his first full PL season took hold. Kane’s challenge will be to sustain his goalscoring form throughout the campaign as Spurs push for a Europa League place and beyond. Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino has reinforced his defence with Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Tripper arriving, but will they plug the leakiest defence in the top ten last season?

  1. Liverpool – 6th last season – 4/7 for a top 5 finish

The spending at Anfield has risen to £300m under Brendan Rodgers’ stewardship, and now he must start producing results. Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke have arrived for £60m, but the club has departed with Raheem Sterling for £49m. Jordon Ibe seems like a ready-made replacement for Sterling, and this could be his breakthrough season. There is no doubting the quality of players at Liverpool, but is their manager holding them back?

  1. Manchester City – 2nd last season – 3/1 to win title

There is a stuttering around Man City’s form over the past 12 months that seems more serious than the club are willing to admit. Yaya Toure has gone off the boil and last season the squad’s average age was the highest in the league. A signing of massive intent was made with Sterling, and manager Manuel Pellegrini is hoping to add Kevin de Bruyne for a cool £60m as he looks to freshen up City’s midfield. Sergio Aguero may miss the start of the season but he will score 20 goals when fit, however, worryingly for City their defence is getting shakier and that could prove their downfall this term.

  1. Manchester United – 4th last season – 11/2 to win title

United announced their first signing – Memphis Depay for £31m – very early on and he has looked excellent in partnership with Wayne Rooney in pre-season. United’s signings have been eye-catching, with Bastian Schweinsteiger prised from Bayern Munich and Morgan Schneiderlin, Sergio Romero and Matteo Darmian following. Darmian looks the dark horse of the transfer window, as the Italian right-back tore teams apart at the World Cup and went relatively unnoticed. United have strengthened but their defence remains a concern and will end up costing them the league.

  1. Chelsea – reigning champions – 7/4 to win title

Jose Mourinho has been unusually calm in the transfer window, happy to sign players only when one leaves. Asmir Begovic is their only signing of note, but goalkeeping stalwart Petr Cech has left for Arsenal, which paved the way for Begovic to sign as competition to Thibault Courtois. The trouble for Chelsea lies up front this season. Diego Costa is injury and suspension prone, while Radamel Falcao has struggled desperately at Premier League level. Too much pressure could be placed on Eden Hazard for goals and that could mean Chelsea faltering in their title defence.

  1. Arsenal – 3rd last season – 4/1 to win title

This could be the year that all the talent finally translates into a Premier League title for Arsene Wenger and his squad. A midfield studded with jewels such as Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla is backed up by the energy of Francis Coquelin and Jack Wilshere. Up front, Theo Walcott is back from injury and Olivier Giroud will always score goals. Cech’s arrival boosts a defence marshalled by the impressive Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, while Hector Bellerin is the best young full-back in the league. Arsenal, more than any other team in the league, are capable of destroying teams at will and the presence of a world-class keeper in Cech will spread confidence throughout the team. Arsenal are champions in the making.

  • You can follow me on Twitter: @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089