2016/17 Premier League Preview

The 2016/17 Premier League season has quietly crept up on us just 88 days after Leicester City shocked the world with their astounding title win.

Leicester were priced at 5000/1 at the beginning of last season, but there is no repeat this time around as bookmakers are offering 33/1 to defend their title at the time of writing.

Despite losing N’Golo Kante to Chelsea, The Foxes have kept the core of their league-winning squad together, with top scorer Jamie Vardy signing a new contract.

They have also been boosted by the signings of pacy striker Ahmed Musa and Nampalys Mendy, who is seen as a direct replacement for Kante in midfield.

Whether Leicester can retain their crown remains to be seen, especially with Champions League commitments providing a distraction from their domestic exploits.

If there is one lesson we can learn from last season it’s not to write Claudio Ranieri’s side off.

Elsewhere, the two Manchester clubs look set to slug it out for the spoils with Arsenal and Chelsea.

New Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has signed an impressive array of young talent including £47.5m John Stones, and City will start the campaign as favourites.

Guardiola, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss, has left a glittering trail of trophies behind wherever he has worked and will be aiming to crown his first year in charge at the Etihad with the league title.

Arch rival Jose Mourinho has also made some big signings at Manchester United, breaking the world record transfer fee for Paul Pogba (£89m), while Zlatan Ibrahimovic (free), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (£26.3m) and Eric Bailly (£30m) are the other notable acquisitions.

Arsenal have been much quieter, signing only defenders Rob Holding and striker Takuma Asano. With manager Arsene Wenger again reluctant to strengthen his squad, it falls upon his talented team to take a step up in form – however previous seasons suggest it may be too great an ask.

Tottenham have again been quiet in the transfer market after their young side fell at the final hurdle last term.

Mauricio Pochettino has signed midfielder Victor Wanyama (£11m) from former club Southampton and Ajax striker Vincent Janssen (£17m) to give Harry Kane some competition up front.

Chelsea will be aiming for a much better season under new boss Antonio Conte, and the wily Italian will only have the domestic campaign to concentrate on after the London club failed to qualify for European competition.

Michy Batshuayi (£33m) and Kante (£30m) are the club’s big signings and, with Eden Hazard looking best to his best at the Euros, Conte will have plenty to work with as The Blues target a top four place.

Liverpool are outside bets, with boss Jurgen Klopp signing unheralded goalkeeper Loris Karius and centre-back Ragnar Klavan from the German Bundesliga, along with highly-rated defender Joel Matip.

Forwards Sadio Mane (£30m) and Georginio Wijnaldum (£23m) are the biggest deals for the Anfield club so far.

Relegation-wise, the likes of Burnley and Hull appear to be struggling.

Hull have yet to appoint a permanent manager after Steve Bruce’s departure and have made very few signings of note, bringing in only Jonathan Edwards (free) from Peterborough United.

Hull’s squad is dominated by Premier League has-beens such as Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone, Michael Dawson and Shaun Maloney.

Burnley will be motivated by the positivity of manager Sean Dyche, but their squad also looks bare and consists of the majority of players relegated from the Premier League

The Clarets will be heavily reliant on the goals of Andre Gray and Sam Vokes, but their defence might not be up to the task – which should prove to be their downfall.

Other than that duo, West Brom have had a tough summer and although they will enjoy a fresh injection of cash from new owner Guochuan Lai their aging squad looks vulnerable this season.

If striker Saido Berahino ends up leaving The Hawthorns this summer The Baggies will seriously struggle for goals.

Boss Tony Pulis loves a challenge and it may be one of the greatest achievements of his managerial career if he keeps Albion up.

Here are my predictions for the 2016/17 season:

  1. Manchester City
  2. Chelsea
  3. Manchester United
  4. Arsenal
  5. Tottenham
  6. Liverpool
  7. West Ham
  8. Leicester City
  9. Southampton
  10. Everton
  11. Stoke
  12. Crystal Palace
  13. Swansea
  14. Middlesbrough
  15. Watford
  16. Sunderland
  17. Bournemouth
  18. West Brom
  19. Burnley
  20. Hull


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

2016 Giro d’Italia preview

The 99th edition of the Giro d’Italia rolls off in Holland on Friday as some of the world’s best stage riders attempt to win the first Grand Tour of the 2016 cycling calendar.

Race organisers RCS have concocted a challenging route mixed with three individual time trials, which has attracted a stronger GC line-up than in previous years.

Many media outlets are billing the 2016 Giro as a shake-up between 2013 maglia rosa winner and home favourite Vincenzo Nibali and 2015 podium finisher Mikel Landa, but there are numerous others in with a realistic shout of winning.

The contenders

Alongside favourite Nibali and rival Landa, there lurks a dark horse – Alejandro Valverde.

Valverde has enjoyed an excellent early season, racing to victories in La Fleche Wallonne and the Ruta del Sol stage race.

However, this will be Valverde’s first Giro campaign and many experts are predicting a tough time for the Spaniard in the often snowy weather a Giro endures.

Outside shots for the GC win include Team Katusha’a Ilnur Zakarin, who has enjoyed top 10 finishes in each stage race he has ridden this season, Tinkoff’s Rafal Majka who is released from super-domestique duties for Alberto Contador and Tom Dumoulin, who is looking to capitalise on a breakthrough Vuelta last term.

The sprinters

Much will be made of the battle between German rivals Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel in the sprint stages but, in reality, the odds of a Kittel domination are extremely favourable.

There are five official flat stages to contest, along with a couple of ‘hilly’ stages that may end up in a bunch sprint if the peloton fancies a rest.

Kittel and Greipel will be pushed in the sprint finishes by young Australian sensation Caleb Ewan, while home rider Elia Viviani will have a free licence as Team Sky concentrate on Landa’s GC ambitions.

Sacha Modolo and Giacomo Nizzolo are other noteworthy Italian sprinters, both of whom will closely contest the red points classification jersey.

The Brits

Unfortunately for British fans there are no British riders in the Giro for the second year running. Team Sky are fielding two Irishmen – Nico Roche and Phllip Deignan – but that is as good as it gets for British and Irish supporters.

The Tour de France has always been the focus for Team Sky and there will be opportunities for the likes of Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings and Irishman Dan Martin to grab stage victories later in the summer.

The fun zones

Giro d’Italias are never forgiving races and the 2016 edition is no exception. The queen stage features two highest category climbs of more than 20km in length and an average gradient of 7%. Both climbs also ramp up to at least 11% for sustained periods.

The 3,383km race contains 21 stages and includes a total of 13 mountainous stages, five of which boast multiple high-category ascents.

RCS have ditched the team trial in favour of three individual TTs, bringing the total TT mileage to 61km – a factor that could pay dividends for the likes of Tom Dumoulin.

The route will begin in the south of Italy after the ‘Grande Partenza’ in Holland, working its way up to the north where it flows around the Italian Alps before finishing in Torino on May 29th.

With so much time-trialling and some long, brutal stages it could prove to be the perfect playground for Nibali. How well Landa fares in his first Grand Tour as GC leader also remains to be seen.

But the biggest threat to them both is Valverde. Given the Spaniard has again conditioned himself perfectly for the springtime classics he is in excellent shape to contest the Giro for the first time and win his second career Grand Tour.

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

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.


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

Lewis Hamilton wins second F1 world title

The greatest measure of a modern racing driver is how they perform when they face adversity.

At several points this season, one driver had faced such adversity and it looked as though his assault on the world drivers’ title would never bear fruit.

But cometh the hour, cometh Lewis Hamilton.

His performance this season, winning 11 times in 19 races, was at times glorious and at times ruthless.

However, from the very first race in Melbourne he had to battle back from a big points deficit.

After a catastrophic pre-season which threatened mass unreliability amongst the whole grid, it was perhaps no surprise that there were several casualties throughout the opening weekend.

Complex new hybrid power units, the cause of these problems, came complete with an intricate turbo incorporated into the design in the interests of green automobile technology.

Such sophistication under these new regulations warranted a massive learning curve for the teams but Mercedes, Hamilton’s team, had appeared to master them in the three pre-season tests.

Yet when the Briton pulled away from the start line in Australia to begin the formation lap his car was already experiencing problems and he retired shortly afterwards.

His teammate and childhood friend Nico Rosberg then cantered to victory and the scene was set for an intense battle between the two.

Hamilton, already 25 points down, would have to retrieve a desperate-looking situation.

In emphatic fashion, he did just that.

A dominant victory in Malaysia preceded a gripping wheel-to-wheel duel in Bahrain which conjured the best racing of the season.

Hamilton, disadvantaged on a harder compound of the Pirelli tyres, was being hunted down by a rampant Rosberg in the twilight of the race.

The German had planned his tyre strategy so that he would be the faster of the two in the last laps of the race and would then have the chance to overtake Hamilton for the win.

It was a good plan, in theory at least, but he had not calculated the tenacity with which Hamilton would defend his lead and despite being passed a couple of times, Hamilton brilliantly passed him back and held on for a psychologically crucial win.

He went on to consolidate that memorable drive with imperious victories in China and Spain to lead the championship by three points from a dazed Rosberg.

Then, a controversial moment in qualifying at Monaco rocked Rosberg’s credibility.

The German, pushing hard down the hill into Mirabeau, overshot the braking point on his flying lap and dived down the escape road, necessitating yellow flags.

Consequently, the drivers behind – including Hamilton – had to slow down under the FIA’s safety guidelines.

That meant that Hamilton could not beat Rosberg’s time and the German took a vital pole position at the famous street circuit which presents very few overtaking opportunities.

Rosberg managed to keep Hamilton behind him all race and he denied Hamilton what would have been his fifth straight win, snatching the championship lead to boot.

Further bad news was to follow in Canada when both Mercedes drivers hit brake trouble, only for Rosberg to manage the situation better.

Hamilton’s car was deemed too dangerous to drive and he retired, while Rosberg calmly found a way around the problem and took second place, extending his lead to 22 points.

All the momentum seemed to be with Rosberg and a blunder in qualifying from Hamilton left him languishing in midfield in Austria.

Typically, he made a stunning start and recovered to within a car’s length of Rosberg, but he could find no way past and Rosberg took his fourth win of the season.

At the next race in Silverstone Rosberg took pole again, but it was his turn to encounter reliability problems and he retired, leaving Hamilton without a challenger to claim a euphoric home win and cut the gap to four points.

Adversity soon caught up with Hamilton at the next three races, though.

Another glitch in qualifying saw his brakes fail at Hockenheim and he had to drive through the field to salvage a superb podium while Rosberg claimed a faultless home victory.

In Hungary, once more in qualifying, a car fire left him dead last while his rival took his sixth pole of the season.

Unusually for Hungary, it rained on race day.

Despite a nerve-jangling spin at the back of the field, Hamilton regrouped to pass Rosberg in the pit stops and then fend off his rival’s attempt at passing him for third.

Significantly, Rosberg had yet to prove he could defeat Hamilton in wheel-to-wheel combat – and so in Spa the German decided to erase those doubts.

Starting from pole, Rosberg lost the lead to Hamilton and on the second lap at the end of the Kemmel straight he clipped Hamilton’s left rear tyre, puncturing it and causing damage to the floor of his car, robbing him of downforce.

The damage forced Hamilton into retirement despite a game effort to carry on, but front wing damage sustained by Rosberg in the clash saw him limp to second – a measure of the dominance Mercedes enjoyed this season.

Rosberg did not intend to deliberately end Hamilton’s race, but the message that he would not be intimidated was plain for the world to see.

Spurred on by the incident, Hamilton turned up the pressure on Rosberg as he set about eating into the 29-point chasm between them.

At Monza, Hamilton relentlessly chased Rosberg down, forcing the German into a mistake at the Rettifilo chicane and he took to the escape road, allowing Hamilton to pass him and take the win.

Rosberg then suffered his second retirement of the season in Singapore and had to watch Hamilton score his second win in as many races to claim the championship lead by three points.

Starved of a duel between the two since Spa, the world watched at a saturated Suzuka circuit as Hamilton closed in on Rosberg.

It took a pass of breathtaking bravery around the outside of Rosberg at the high-speed turn one to wrestle the lead from his rival and he went on to take the win – later dedicated to colleague Jules Bianchi after he sustained brain injuries in a heavy crash.

Hamilton was the beneficiary of a Rosberg error in Russia when the German passed him for the lead, but flat-spotted tyres ruined Rosberg’s race and he drove terrifically to clamber back to second.

Hamilton again passed Rosberg convincingly in Austin to take his lead to 24 points, before an authoritative weekend from the German in Brazil set up a tense finish in Abu Dhabi with double points looming large.

Needing second to clinch his second world title, Hamilton duly qualified on the front row after Rosberg notched his eleventh pole position to underline his superiority in qualifying this season.

Under a setting sun at Yas Marina the tension was palpable as the cars lined up for the last time in 2014.

As the lights went out, Hamilton rocketed away from second while Rosberg was bogged down in revs.

Hamilton edged the gap to 2.6 seconds at the first stop but soon afterwards Rosberg’s ERS system began to misbehave and it deteriorated throughout the race.

Just as in Canada, though, the problem could have affected both Mercedes cars, meaning Hamilton had to conserve his car under late pressure from Felipe Massa while a wounded Rosberg slipped down the field.

But like on so many occasions this season Hamilton overcame adversity and held off Massa to record win number 11 and take the title by a whopping 67 points.

What made his second title win so impressive was the belief he had in his capability.

Despite falling behind in the standings three times and suffering reliability gremlins, Hamilton recovered each time and was a worthy winner.

Even though his performances in qualifying were unusually poor throughout the year, his ability to maximise his performance in race trim was unmatched – fatally so – by Rosberg, who continually had no answer to his rival when the two locked horns.

Adversity had given its utmost to prevent Hamilton from winning the title and at times Rosberg seemed destined to take his maiden championship victory.

Yet just when he needed it most Hamilton was able to reply with a stunning victory and with it, his second world title.

Cometh the hour, cometh Lewis Hamilton.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

2014 World Cup: Villains of the World Cup

What makes a World Cup villain?

Perhaps a player receiving a red card in a World Cup final? How about a world-class player who fails to perform on the biggest stage? Or maybe a disgraceful tackle or spitting incident?

The World Cup has had its fair share of villainy throughout its history but this list looks back at the ten most memorable villains and their footballing crimes.

10. Lionel Messi – Argentina, World Cups won: 0, World Cups: 2006, 2010

Messi is perhaps the biggest let-down in World Cup history. The all-time record goalscorer for Barcelona has consistently failed to reproduce his club form for his country at the World Cup. Having played eight times in World Cup Finals, his only goal was against Serbia and Montenegro in a 6-0 drubbing. His lack of goals and uninspiring World Cup performances are a paltry return for a player held as a deity in his native Argentina.

9. Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal, World Cups won: 0, World Cups: 2006, 2010

Like Messi, the Portuguese wonder has never replicated his club form at a World Cup finals. He has registered just two goals in two World Cups and was also partly responsible for getting England’s Wayne Rooney sent off after a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho. A subsequent wink to his bench suggested ‘job done’ and for those controversies he will remain a villain unless he can produce something spectacular in Brazil this June.

8. David Beckham – England, World Cups won: 0, World Cups: 1998, 2002, 2006

At France ’98, Beckham entered the tournament with a burgeoning reputation as both a footballer and a style icon. Engaged to Posh Spice and with golden locks, it would seem Beckham could do no wrong – until he played Argentina in the last 16. Feisty Argentine midfielder Diego Simeone fouled Beckham with a strong challenge but, while Beckham was on the floor the Englishman kicked out and earned himself a red card before England lost 4-3 on penalties. The Mirror immortalised the incident with their ’10 Heroic Lions, one stupid boy’ headline the following day.

7. Luis Suarez – Uruguay, World Cups won: 0, World Cups: 2010

He had enjoyed a fabulous tournament up to the quarter-final stage, scoring three goals, but Suarez would have another scandal embellished on his reputation after a handball against Ghana in extra-time. A goalmouth scramble presented Dominic Adiyiah with a chance to score a winner with seconds remaining but Suarez’s shocking handball prevented him from claiming a life-changing goal. Asamoah Gyan missed the resultant penalty and Ghana never recovered,  losing 4-2 on penalties. Who said cheats never prosper?

6. Wayne Rooney – England, World Cups won: 0, World Cups: 2006, 2010

Rooney’s major tournament debut at Euro 2004 bore fruit with four goals in four games. His next was to end in shame. A World Cup quarter-final against Portugal at Gelsenkirchen was the backdrop for a deliberate, unaggravated stamp in Ricardo Carvalho’s gentleman’s region. Rooney was sent off after his Manchester United team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo had a word in the referee’s ear. Rooney is also famous for being a World Cup let-down having failed to score in any of his eight World Cup games.

5. Frank Rijkaard – the Netherlands, World Cups won: 0, World Cups: 1990, 1994

The Dutchman disgraced himself during Italia ’90 when he spat in the hair of German striker Rudi Voeller – twice. In an ill-tempered match, Rijkaard was booked for a late clip on Voeller and subsequently spat in the German’s hair. Another free-kick, which resulted in a theatrical dive by Voeller to avoid the onrushing Dutch goalkeeper, incensed Rijkaard again. Rijkaard twisted Voeller’s ear and stood on his foot before both players earned a red card. Rijkaard had unfinished business though and landed another gob of spit at Voeller.

4. Harald Schumacher – West Germany, World Cups won: 0, World Cups: 1982, 1986

During a World Cup ’82 semi-final between West Germany and France, Michel Platini aimed a through ball to defender Patrick Battiston, who shot wide. Normally a goalkeeper might try to save the ball, but not on this occasion. Harald Schumacher leapt viciously into Battiston and the Frenchman was knocked unconscious, later slipping into a coma, losing three teeth and suffering a damaged vertebra. Schumacher would go on to lose two consecutive World Cup finals. Karma?

3. Nigel de Jong – the Netherlands, World Cups won: 0, World Cups: 2010

This incident did much to spice up a dour World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands. Nigel de Jong, who had inflicted some crunching challenges on his Spanish counterparts, finally went one bigger and thumped his studs into Xabi Alonso’s midriff. Dubbed the ‘karate kick’, de Jong’s ‘tackle’ went unpunished by referee Howard Webb, much to Spain’s obvious discontent.

2. Diego Maradona – Argentina, World Cups won: 1 (Mexico 1986), World Cups: 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994

Having already featured on the ‘heroes’ blog, Maradona also earns a high placing in the villains blog for his infamous ‘hand of God’ goal and a failed drugs test at the 1994 World Cup. The ‘hand of God’ at Mexico ’86 was the first of a brace against England as Argentina ran out 2-1 winners. The English defence was enraged but the referee failed to spot what the TV cameras picked up – there was Maradona’s fist, punched high into the air, hitting the ball and deflecting it into the goal. The Argentine would later go on to lift the World Cup. Eight years later he was sent home from the World Cup in shame after testing positive for ephedrine.

1. Zinedine Zidane – France, World Cups won: 1 (France 1998), World Cups: 1998, 2002, 2006

Like Maradona, Zidane also featured prominently in the earlier ‘heroes’ blog, but he claims top spot in the villains blog for his horrendous headbutt in the 2006 World Cup final. France and Italy were locked at 1-1 and embroiled in extra-time when Zidane traded insults with Marco Materazzi. The French legend then headbutted the Italian defender in the chest in what is seen by some as the most shocking incident in World Cup history. The foul was unseen by the referee but his fourth official saw it and advised that Zidane be sent off. Zidane had opened the scoring with a penalty, but his international career ended in both disgrace and disappointment as Italy won the penalty shoot-out 5-3.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

A Great British Sporting Weekend

Everything went perfectly – almost.

This was a Great British sporting weekend to rival any other in history.

It began on the other side of the planet as the British and Irish Lions took on Australia in Sydney. They knew that with the series locked at 1-1, a win would hand them their first series triumph in 16 years, and their first in Australia since 1989.

With ten Welsh players in the starting XV, the Lions were dubbed the “Llions” in some areas of the media, while coach Warren Gatland had come under heavy criticism for his decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll from not only the starting line-up, but the match-day squad too.

Within two minutes of the whistle the critics had been hushed as a rampant Lions scrum punished a knock-on from Will Genia at the kick-off with an Alex Corbisiero try.

The Lions were making mincemeat of a dismal Australian scrum, forcing the Wallabies to concede penalty after penalty in their own half to gift the tourists a 19-3 lead – Leigh Halfpenny clinically dispatching five kicks at goal.

But a late first-half twist saw the Aussies haul themselves back into the game with a converted James O’Connor score. Suddenly, the Lions were wobbling rather than bouncing into the break.

More nervous energy was to be expended amongst the 30,000 Lions fans inside the ANZ Stadium when Christian Leali’ifano kicked two penalties to make it 19-16.

The Lions’ response was tremendous with Jonny Sexton, George North and Jonathan Davies all cutting through the Australian defence to score tries in a mesmeric ten-minute spell.

At 41-16, the Lions had crushed the Australian’s spirit and the series was theirs.

A couple of hours after that momentous win, British attention switched to the Eifel mountains in Germany, where Lewis Hamilton wrapped up pole position for the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

He did so with a stunning lap, beating home darling Sebastian Vettel by 0.103 seconds on the final lap of qualifying.

British sport fans could have been forgiven for thinking that the day was not going to get better than this but 778 miles away from Hamilton in the Pyrenean mountains, Chris Froome had other ideas.

Froome, favourite for the Tour de France, had targeted the eighth stage in his quest to pull on the famous yellow jersey worn by the leader of the race.

After showing composure to gradually reel in a dangerous attack from Nairo Quintana, Froome’s Team Sky ripped up the road en route to the summit finish atop Ax 3 Domaines.

Froome then attacked with 6km remaining – to devastating effect.

So fierce was his acceleration on a climb peaking at a gradient of around 10%, he had shattered the race – leaving his rivals gasping for air.

He continued to power to the finish, cresting the summit with 1km to go and speeding over the false flat to claim his second career Tour de France stage win.

Froome claimed not only the yellow jersey and a stage win, but several minutes on his rivals. Alejandro Valverde was the least damaged of them all, but even he came home over a minute behind.

Alberto Contador and Quintana finished another 30 seconds later, while the explosive talent of Joaquim Rodriguez had been tamed, with the little Spaniard finishing over two minutes down on Froome.

All this had happened on Saturday, but the best was reserved for Sunday as Andy Murray faced world number one Novak Djokovic in the men’s singles final at Wimbledon.

Murray was aiming to win his second career Grand Slam, and in the process end a 77-year wait for the first British male winner at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.

In 40 degree heat, it was a battle of stamina as much as physicality.

Outrageously long rallies – some stretching to 30 shots – were becoming normal and a first set which took just over one hour was eventually won by the Scot 6-4.

In typical fashion, Djokovic mounted a quick recovery. Breaking Murray in the fourth game of the second set, he raced into a 4-1 lead.

Murray was stumbling at this point but swiftly picked up his game and broke the Serbian back, winning three games in a row to level at 4-4.

With the duo holding their next service games it was Djokovic who blinked first as Murray broke him for a 6-5 lead with his second break point. Nerveless, he served out the set to love for a 2-0 lead.

Djokovic was clearly out of sorts, perhaps hindered by his exhausting semi-final win over Juan Martin Del Potro, and he dropped his serve at the start of the third as Britain dared to believe this was Murray’s year.

He seemingly did too, as a sudden crash in his level of performance combined with Djokovic’s best tennis of the match resulted in two breaks of serve for the Serbian.

His 4-2 lead would diminish immediately though, as Murray stirringly chased down a flurry of drop shots to break Djokovic twice more and earn himself a 5-4 lead and a chance to serve for the championship.

The crowd, whose shrieks of support reverberated around Centre Court, were ecstacized as Murray fought crippling nerves to surge into a 40-0 lead.

Yet three championship points disappeared as quickly as they materialised, with Djokovic thriving on the pressure steeped on Murray’s every shot to win five straight points and a break-back opportunity.

Somehow summoning the strength to save the game, Murray twice more offered break points to Djokovic, and saved each of them with courageous defensive work.

On winning his fourth championship point Murray would not be denied and when Djokovic dumped a forehand into the net, a nerve-shredded Wimbledon exploded with relief as much as celebration.

The only disappointment to arise from this now fabled weekend was Hamilton’s performance in Germany. Swamped by both Red Bulls off the start, the Mercedes driver never recovered and could only finish fifth behind Vettel – who took the first home win of his young career.

Britain’s competitors were not finished yet – Graeme McDowell carded a superb 67 to win by four shots in the French Open. But by that time it was conceivable that golf, along with many other sports, had paled into relative insignificance as the nation basked in the rays of Murray’s success.

And so this Great British Sporting Weekend finished with a nation united and sun-drunk. We hadn’t felt this good since the Olympian summer of 2012.

Now, where did Andrew Strauss leave that little urn?

Is Ferrari’s legendary reputation in Formula One fully merited?

Ferrari. The name synonymous with the scintillating sport of Formula One. For many fans their existence on the grid is reason alone to watch one of the world’s most exciting sports. Having been an integral and prominent constructor from the very first World Championship in 1950, and the only one to have featured in every season since its inception, few people could doubt how important Ferrari is to both the history of the sport and indeed its future.

Yet, when you deeply examine the history of the sport, including drivers’ titles and constructors, some cracks begin to appear in the revered standing of the famous Italian marque.

Starting at the very beginning of Formula One history, Ferrari were immediately a big team and were always challenging for wins and podiums. Alfa Romeo, however, dominated the first two seasons in 1950 and 1951 with Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio respectively. Alfa subsequently pulled out of the sport and a major change of rules for the 1952 season to Formula Two specification was designed to avoid a Ferrari landslide. That failed dramatically.

For the next two seasons Ferrari, who had a successful Formula Two setup prior to the rule change, won the title with the legendary Alberto Ascari. They dominated in ’52 and ’53 with Ascari winning all six races he entered in ’52 and winning a further five in ’53.

Ferrari would not have it all their own way in 1954, however, as the emergence of Mercedes as a powerhouse and Ascari’s switch to Lancia for financial reward saw them beaten to the title. Ascari had endured a frustrating season that year, waiting for Lancia to get their car ready in time, and he would not be able to defend his title, instead watching Fangio race to his second world crown.

The following year was a horrific season for the sport, and one which still resonates to this day. At the Monaco Grand Prix, Ascari crashed his Lancia into the harbour and escaped with minor injuries. Just four days later, in a testing accident at Monza, he died. It is known that Ascari drove in that test without a helmet, although the exact cause of the crash which killed him will never be known.

Ascari’s death came in the same year as the Le Mans 24 Hours tragedy in which 80 people died. It was a dark year for motorsport, and too dark for some. Mercedes withdrew from racing altogether whilst Gianni Lancia, who was close friends with Ascari, was so distraught at his death that he signed his entire team over to Ferrari. This was to be a significant move.

The Lancia’s had been widely tipped as title-winners in 1956 with their innovative design and super-quick performance. Such was Ferrari’s confidence in them they entered Lancia’s cars under their name and ‘Prancing Horse’ logo and won the title with Fangio.

Fangio left them the following season for Maserati where he won his fifth and last title and Ferrari retaliated by signing British driver Mike Hawthorn in 1958. His team-mate, Peter Collins, also British, died in a crash at the infamously dangerous Nürburgring and, after Hawthorn won the title for Ferrari, he quit before tragically dying in a road accident a short time after.

Ferrari’s progress went into remission over the next few seasons as they were overhauled by a number of new and fast British constructors with a more powerful rear engine configuration. They would not win the title again until 1961 when new 1.5 litre engine regulations were introduced. USA driver Phil Hill won the title, but only after more tragedy when German driver, and championship leader, Wolfgang von Trips, died in a crash at the steep-banked Monza.

In 1962, Enzo Ferrari’s staff walked out on him and he was forced to enter old cars into the championship. It was an unmitigated disaster for the team as the British constructors continued to improve and the Italian giants were soundly beaten.

Ferrari owed much to the emerging talent of John Surtees in 1964 when they took both the drivers and constructors titles. Surtees became the first man to win the World Championship on two wheels and four wheels, having previously been a motorcycling World Champion.

The British teams had gathered strength though and Lotus, led by the ambitious Colin Chapman, were chief architects of Ferrari’s downfall with their revolutionary cars which put speed before safety. Other British teams, in the shape of Brabham and Tyrrell, played their part in dominating the next decade of racing and it was only in 1975, eleven years after their last title, that Ferrari next tasted success with the Austrian driver Niki Lauda.

Lauda was to suffer horrific burns in a crash at the Nürburgring during the 1976 season and, despite making an astounding comeback just six weeks later, lost the title to McLaren’s James Hunt in the final GP of the season at Suzuka. Ferrari did win the constructors title though and, in 1977, despite not having the best season, Lauda regained the title for Ferrari in a triumph of consistency over speed.

Lauda then left for Brabham after being replaced by Gilles Villeneuve, a quick young French-Canadian. Villeneuve enjoyed a popular status amongst fans for his driving style and, although he never won a title, was considered to be a Ferrari legend.

Jody Scheckter, a highly-regarded South African driver, was signed to partner him and pipped Villeneuve to the 1979 title in a double-triumph for Ferrari who had comfortably sealed the constructors’ title in the same year.

The subsequent 1980 season was perhaps one of Ferrari’s worst ever. They lost ground in the continuously evolving race for development and came tenth in the constructors’ title having scored just eight points.

Ferrari would not win another drivers title until 2000, after 21 years of being ruled over by the dominant McLaren and Williams teams. They did manage three constructors’ titles in that barren period, but they were not enough for a team of Ferrari’s wealth and ambition.

Their luck started to change in 1999, when they built a seriously competitive car for double world champion Michael Schumacher to drive. But, when he broke his leg in a crash at Silverstone, McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen won the title ahead of Schumacher’s team-mate Eddie Irvine.

Schumacher would have his day though, going on to win five consecutive drivers and six constructors crowns with the dominant Italian team as years of frustration in their pursuit of glory were washed away triumphantly – almost as easily as they brushed aside the competition.

French manufacturer Renault then halted the Italian charge, winning back-to-back titles with Fernando Alonso before Kimi Raikkonen stole the title at the last GP of the 2007 season in Brazil from McLaren to give Ferrari their sixth ‘double title’ of a distinctly red-liveried decade.

Since then, Ferrari have only won a solitary constructors title in 2008 (although it was their seventh of the decade) and have hampered themselves with a succession of complex and ambitious, yet fruitless, car designs as they continue their passionate quest for success in Formula One.

So, having looked at the highs and lows of Ferrari’s participation in Formula One, it has to be said that not only do they deserve their reputation in the sport as a result of their colourful and captivating history, but also on the basis of their achievements within the sport.

Although they have been massively inconsistent, with periods of domination often followed by unprofitable and hapless spells of drought, they were always searching for wins and success – winning was their vocabulary, their language. Their fifteen drivers titles and sixteen constructors titles may not statistically carry a better win percentage than other famous teams like Williams and McLaren, who have not been involved in the sport since its inauguration, but the sheer scale of contribution to the sport that Ferrari has been responsible for is, perhaps, immeasurable.

Ferrari’s intrinsic value to F1 is incalculable and there is a magnetic love for them across the world which illustrates just how significant and resounding their impact has been throughout the 62 seasons that Formula One has spanned. Historically they are priceless and their success is unrivalled. They are Formula One royalty – the very embodiment of the sport – and their legendary reputation is unquestionably deserved.

2013 F1 Seat Showdown: The Contenders

With testing for the new Formula One season due to begin in less than a month, there are still two seats available on the 2013 grid.

Only 11 teams and 22 drivers are expected to make the first test on February 5th at Jerez due to HRT’s apparent demise in the close season.

So far, only 20 drivers have been confirmed for next season and this has left an intense battle for the final two seats, with places at Force India and Caterham still available.

Let’s look at the contenders for each drive.

Force India

1. Jules Bianchi

The promising Frenchman is a member of Ferrari’s Driver Academy and drove for the British-based team in nine Practice 1 sessions during the 2012 F1 season.

Nico Hulkenberg’s move to Sauber has given him a chance to partner Paul di Resta and the 23-year-old is widely tipped to fill the vacancy created by Hulkenberg’s switch.

There is also a persistent rumour that Force India are looking to secure Ferrari engines for 2014 when major new regulations come into play, and Bianchi’s signature for 2013 could be a sweetener to such a partnership.

2. Jaime Alguersuari

The talented Spaniard drove in 46 Grand Prix for Toro Rosso between 2009 and 2011, becoming the youngest-ever driver in Formula One history at just 19.

His controversial departure from the team led to a testing role with F1 tyre supplier Pirelli in 2012, and it was thought his valuable knowledge of the newly-constructed 2013 tyres could have led to a seat with a big team next season.

However, such prospects failed to materialise and Alguersuari is now one of many drivers linked with Force India.

Despite decent financial backing, the 22-year-old is expected to miss out on the seat and has been in talks with teams in the popular German Touring Car Championship (DTM) about a 2013 drive.

3. Bruno Senna

The nephew of the late great Ayrton, Bruno stopped racing for 10 years after his death. This stunted his improvement as a driver, but his talent still endures. Coupled with hefty financial backing from Brazil, Senna is in with a good chance of taking the seat at Force India.

But the Brazilian will have to improve on his race performances for Williams in 2012, where a lack of practice time (Valtteri Bottas drove his car in several Practice 1 sessions) cost him in race trim.

Is also a candidate for the vacant seat at Caterham, where his vast sponsorship may prove irresistible.


1. Vitaly Petrov

Having saved the team’s season in the final Grand Prix of 2012 in Brazil with a lucrative 11th place (securing them a cash windfall for 10th in the constructors’ championship), Petrov might have expected a quick offer of a drive from Caterham for 2013.

Instead, Caterham employed Marussia’s Charles Pic and the Russian is now fighting to save his F1 career. Significant backing from Russia and the added possibility of huge media and corporate attention in the run up to the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in 2014 makes Petrov an attractive prospect for the F1 minnows.

2. Giedo van der Garde

The Dutchman impressed during his six Practice 1 drives for the team in 2012, and despite an average GP2 season in which he finished 6th overall, van der Garde is a serious contender for a 2013 seat.

Like so many other drivers, he carries good financial backing. His age, 27, is a potential obstacle to a deal while his inexperience, allied with that of Pic’s, also hampers his chances of securing a 2013 spot, with Caterham unlikely to pick two drivers with only an aggregate of one season’s experience between them.

3. Heikki Kovalainen

The experienced Finn is unwilling to provide the millions that Caterham want to keep his seat for 2013. Having had three outstanding seasons with the team he has been discounted. Should the team wish to call on his knowledge again, he would provide the perfect balance for Pic’s unpolished talent, but he looks set to suffer the same fate as fellow veteran Rubens Barrichello.

My picks for remaining 2013 seats:

Force India: Jules Bianchi

Caterham: Vitaly Petrov