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 Tour de France preview – Third time lucky for Quintana?

The 2016 Tour de France rolls off today as the 198 riders begin their 3,535km dash around France with a poignant first stage that finishes in Utah Beach to commemorate the D-Day landings of World War Two.

The battle for the first yellow jersey is likely to be between Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish, but it is the fight to wear the maillot jaune in Paris on July 24 that is the most appealing.

This Tour looks set to be a tense shake-up between reigning Tour champion Chris Froome and in-form Colombian climber Nairo Quintana.

The contenders

The past few editions of ‘le Tour’ have been ideal for Froome. His Tour victories of 2013 and 2015 combined just the right amount of time-trialling and high mountain passes, although Quintana very nearly snatched victory last season with an astounding attack on the famous Alpe d’Huez.

This year, Quintana will be licking his lips with a more mountainous route and two climber-centric time trials providing plenty of opportunity to put time into his rivals.

Quintana has finished second to Froome in each of the British rider’s wins but this year he looks the stronger of the two.

The Movistar rider has won three stage races this season already, triumphing in the Route du Sud, Tour de Romandie and the Volta a Catalunya.

Meanwhile, Froome is peaking at just the right time as he looks to win a third Tour and maintain his form for a tilt at the gold medal in the Olympic road race at Rio 2016.

The Kenya-born Brit took victory in the most prestigious warm-up for the Tour de France, the Criterium du Dauphine.

While the clash between Froome and Quintana will dominate the headlines, those writing off two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador do so at their peril.

The Spaniard has quietly gone about his business this season with the goal of timing his form for the Tour, and with his explosive climbing style and unparalleled ability in uphill time-trials he will undoubtedly be on Froome and Quintana’s watchlist.

There is also an intriguing dynamic at Astana where 2016 Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali will be riding in support of 2015 Vuelta a Espana victor Fabio Aru.

The Italians are known to dislike one another but they will be forced to help each other as Astana look to pull a tactical blindfold over their rivals.

Nibali will be gunning for a fast start and if he gets an early lead it will afford Astana the luxury of masking which rider is their preferred leader – giving their rivals two riders to mark instead of one.

Best of the rest

There is no doubting Richie Porte’s quality, but he has a worrying tendency to blow up in the latter stages of a Grand Tour.

He has consistently underperformed on the biggest stage and his exit from Team Sky was an understandable decision given he had been Froome’s wingman and deputy and simply failed to deliver.

The situation at his new team, BMC, is similar to that of Astana’s, as American rider Tejay van Garderen is also in contention for the yellow jersey.

The lanky time-trial specialist comes to the 2016 Tour with unfinished business as illness in last season’s edition cruelly robbed him of a podium spot as he was forced to abandon the race from third place on stage 17.

BMC can afford to place Porte as their leader and, if he’s strong enough, he will most likely keep that status to the end of the race. If he does run out of legs in the third week, van Garderen will naturally be high in the General Classification and the team can then support him instead.

There is also a strong feeling in France that Thibault Pinot or Romain Bardet could have a Tour to remember. Bardet in particular has been in excellent form this season and his demon descending abilities could be a factor on some hairy descents lined up for this Tour.

Pinot has long struggled with time-trialling and descending but the uphill stages against the clock will be more to his liking and he will always be a threat on the major mountain stages.

The other jerseys

Sadly, if Peter Sagan doesn’t win the green jersey it will only be through an accident. The world champion is supreme at picking up intermediate sprint points on hilly stages and he has won the last four green jerseys.

The sprinters will take the majority of the flat stage wins, with Sagan usually in the top five, but the Slovakian’s ability to survive in breakaways and win uphill sprints makes him the overwhelming favourite to take five in a row.

Marcel Kittel is tipped to win the most stages this year, but he will be challenged by fellow German Andre Greipel and British rider Mark Cavendish.

Kittel has been in scintillating form during 2016, often winning stages by several bike lengths and, if his Etixx Quick-Step team can provide a good lead-out train, he will again be untouchable.

The King of the Mountains classification is likely to be won by a GC contender, just as Froome did last year.

Failing that, a rider who is consistently in the breakaways can mop up points for being the first man over the summit. However, with the majority of points weighted for summit finishes, a pure climber is more likely to win the polka dot jersey.

The white jersey, given to the highest-placed rider under 25, is the most open for years after Quintana recently turned 26, but expect the winner to come from this trio of Warren Barguil, British rider Adam Yates or Louis Meintjes.

The stages

The 2016 Tour is full of mountains and consequently the warm-up races have been too, most noticeably with a focus on uphill time-trials.

Stage 12 stands out as the best stage in the race as the riders ascend the legendary Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day.

Froome has also earmarked this as the most attractive stage and given he beat Quintana convincingly on Ventoux in 2013 he will fancy his chances once more.

The back end of the Tour is usually slanted upwards and this edition is no different. Stages 17, 18, 19 and 20 are Alpine monsters, traversing Switzerland and then back into France.

With 54km of time-trialling to be done, including one uphill and the other with two tricky climbs, time gaps will quickly appear in the GC race.

The Brits

There is a ‘magnificent seven’ of British riders in this year’s Tour. Team Sky boast four of those with Froome, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe.

Team Dimension Data have two in the shape of Mark Cavendish and Steven Cummings, while the relatively unknown sprinter Daniel McLay makes his Tour debut for the Fortuneo-Vital Concept squad.

Denouement

As always there is plenty to look out for in the Tour this year. There are races within the race, races within each classification and there will be plenty of cat and mouse too.

It will be hard to take your eyes off the GC battle though. Froome, Quintana and Contador will be cutting shapes on some brutal mountain passes and it could come down to who handles the time-trials better than the others.

But there is a lingering feeling when looking over the parcours that this could well be Nairo Quintana’s year. On the Alpe d’Huez last season he will have sensed a weakness in Froome and the Colombian’s sparkling form this season gives him his best shot yet at climbing into yellow.

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

Euro 2016 blog 3 – Miserable England dumped out of Euro 2016

It was one of those nights that had an air of inevitability about it.

England, faced with a 1-0 goal lead against supposedly inferior Icelandic opposition, conceded two quick goals, each as woeful as the other, and then proceeded to lumber to defeat.

This was Hollywood lumbering. The supposed megastars of the English game. Players currently commanding multi-million pound wages were lumbering around the field like brain-dead zombies in pursuit of an impossible equaliser.

For the magnificent Iceland, it was their easiest game of the tournament so far. Having taken the lead they could afford to play to their strengths – defend in numbers and then break on the counter-attack.

The tactics worked perfectly because England failed to prepare for them.

Iceland had utilised the booming long throws of Cardiff City midfielder Aron Gunnarsson throughout the whole tournament, but England were hopelessly inept in conceding the equaliser.

It was no surprise to see Kari Arnason’s flicked header from the edge of the area land in Ragnar Sigurdsson’s path. The Iceland centre-back, who had a towering game, lashed home the volley in a sea of space to cancel out Wayne Rooney’s fourth-minute penalty.

What followed was equally predictable.

Putting together one of the moves of the match, Iceland swept upfield with ease, shifting the ball to target man Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, whose shot squirmed underneath Joe Hart’s pitiful dive.

Hart’s second grave error of the tournament – and second when diving low to his left – cast England into the land of the living dead.

Suddenly, players who had had magnificent seasons in the Premier League caved under the pressure.

The tension was palpable even before the match began. Joe Hart in particularly was too tense – nervous, even – shaking his head as if to rid himself of the strain.

As Ian Wright remarked after the match, England “were petrified.”

Wayne Rooney was dreadful. Gary Cahill was worse. Harry Kane was shocking. Manager Roy Hodgson resigned after the match.

Kane’s presence over free-kicks and corners was torturous. It was as if he tried to copy Gareth Bale, scored a worldy in training and was suddenly England’s best free-kick taker. He failed horribly.

His demise to the land of the dead, where his touch against Iceland was heavier than that of a zombie, was the scariest to watch.

Free-kick after free-kick. Shot after shot. Each clubbed wildly shy of the target with increasing desperation.

It was a disease that spread through the England side as the game wore on. To a man, their first touch was awful, with players letting the ball roll under their foot and technique malfunctioning.

There was no pressing of the opposition, no desire and no quality.

Too many times England were hesitant going forward. There was a suffocating tendency to pass the ball sideways. There was barely any creativity and only lethargic movement off the ball.

Substitute Marcus Rashford was the brightest spark, at least showing a willingness and ability to beat defenders and inject some life into a motionless attack.

Take nothing away from Iceland though. It is insignificant that they have a population of just over 300,000. What mattered was their commitment to the cause, their execution of a gameplan and tactics, plus their desire to put their bodies on the line.

Their fans were astounding. The cavernous ‘Viking chant’ even intimidated those watching on television. They supported their team in unison with passion, deafening noise and zero violence. They were a lesson to the footballing world.

On the pitch, the players followed suit.

Ragnar Sigurdsson delivered a man-of-the-match display in defence. Birkir Bjarnason menaced England on the counter and Ari Skulason completely shut down the pace of Kyle Walker.

Their display fully merited the win and a quarter-final match against hosts France, and who would bet against them defeating another under-fire team?

But for England this was a truly horrific match.

They haven’t learned from previous mistakes and have a nightmare record in knockout football.

They are paralysed by fear when the going gets tough, crippled by pressure and expectation.

Their gruesome fate was inevitable as soon as the 18th minute. They were dead and buried. The referee should have blown for full-time there and then – a kind of footballing euthanasia.

But unusually for these zombies they will get another chance in the land of the living. They will be praised again and all will be well…until the next major tournament comes along.

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

Euro 2016: Can France win at home again?

 

It’s been 18 years since France last hosted a major tournament and expectation levels will be just as high this time round.

In 1998, France stuffed a dismal Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final and they enter Euro 2016 not only as hosts but as favourites too.

Most bookmakers have them priced at 3/1 about the win, with Germany (9/2), Spain (5/1) and England (9/1) as alternatives.

The French certainly have a heap of pressure on them – not least because they lack a star striker after Karim Benzema’s suspension from the national team.

Olivier Giroud is the obvious candidate to fill the void left by Benzema, with the Arsenal striker’s goalscoring record of 17 in 49 games bettering Benzema’s 27 in 81 in percentage terms.

Giroud still has his critics and although he lacks star quality he is often underestimated in terms of pure goalscoring ability and will certainly score his fair share this summer.

Antoine Griezmann has also emerged as a world-class forward option for France and is capable of playing on either wing or in behind the striker where he has been so effective for Atletico Madrid.

But Les Bleus’ midfield really catches the eye.

Premier League duo N’Golo Kante and Dimitri Payet have each staked a claim for a starting place in the tournament opener against Romania on June 10, but France boss Didier Deschamps will most likely call upon stars Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi to dominate the midfield battle.

However, the French defence looks a little suspect with five of the selected eight defenders over the age of 30 and with no stand-out leader amongst them.

The back-line also lacks pace with only Lucas Digne and Bacary Sagna quick enough to resist Europe’s slickest wingers.

Les Bleus will therefore count on captain Hugo Lloris to be in top form during the tournament after his excellent season with Premier League side Spurs.

Lloris has established himself as one of the most coveted goalkeepers in Europe and will be a formidable presence between the sticks as France look to emulate their success of 1984 in winning their home European Championships.

Standing in their way will be Germany, who look a good price to secure their second successive major tournament win off the back of their World Cup triumph in Brazil two years ago.

Given their wealth of creative options in midfield and up front, the Germans seem to have been underestimated and will feel aggrieved not to be seen as the favourites heading into the tournament.

Like the French, their main weakness lies in defence after a raft of retirements following the World Cup.

Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng will form a strong central defensive partnership but there is little to shout about in the full-back positions and it is in those areas where their opponents will hope to make inroads.

Spain have undoubtedly the strongest defence in the championship with a back line of Jordi Alba, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Juanfran.

If coach Vicente del Bosque can withdraw his blind preference for goalkeeper Iker Casillas and choose David de Gea instead, Spain will have a monstrous back five.

The main problem for Spain is their lack of strikers.

Chelsea hitman Diego Costa has been unconvincing at international level and does not travel to France, leaving Spain’s main striking options as Alvaro Morata, Aritz Aduriz and Pedro.

Much will hinge on the power of their midfield in the defence of their title, with Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva all likely to start and the industry of Koke a helpful balance to an attack-minded engine room.

Then there is England, a definite outside shot but a team unlikely to make it past the semi-finals.

They have one of the youngest squads on show in France but their defence, like so many others, is a telling flaw and one which is likely to be exploited in ruthless fashion.

The promise of attacking trio Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli is something to savour for England boss Roy Hodgson but his main dilemma is accommodating captain Wayne Rooney in the same team.

The most sensible option is to play him in deep midfield and give him a controlling influence on the game, but Hodgson is still keen to play him in a number ten role which harms the effectiveness of Alli.

Still, this is England’s most exciting team for some time and they will be aiming to right the wrongs of the World Cup.

But, for the overall win it is hard to pick France in favour of Germany. The German midfield has an embarrassment of riches and despite their defensive frailties they will be devastating going forward – just too good for the competition.

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

Euro debate: Rooney in, or Rooney out?

Aside from the EU referendum, the next biggest debate about Europe surrounds the final 23-man England squad for the upcoming European Championship in France.

England boss Roy Hodgson has a tough job on his hands, with much discussion circling around players such as Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford and Andros Townsend.

On Rooney, the Vote Leave campaign will argue that he has been nowhere near his best this season.

His tally of eight goals and seven assists in the Premier League last season is mediocre by his standards.

But the Remain campaign would retort that he has had a couple of injuries and has been involved in a goal once every two games.

There is also the fact that Rooney is coming into form at the end of the season after a man-of-the-match performance in Manchester United’s FA Cup final win over Crystal Palace and a superb 20-yard strike against Australia in England’s penultimate Euro warm-up match.

Rooney himself has admitted he sees his future in a deeper position for club and country and there is definitely room to accommodate him at the base of Hodgson’s preferred midfield diamond in France.

Hodgson is keen to use Jack Wilshere in that position but he is desperately short of game time and looked off-form in England’s two warm-up games to date.

Using Rooney in that position would allow him to fulfil a role similar to that of Toni Kroos, who uses his fine array of passes to dictate play deep in the German midfield.

Rooney’s skill set is comparable to Kroos’ and his ability to spray long, diagonal balls in the mould of Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Kroos certainly adds weight to his midfield argument.

Of course, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy deserve to start up front against Russia in the first match of the Euros.

The strike pair notched 49 league goals between them last season and it is Kane’s relationship with Dele Alli, who is expected to start just behind them in the number ten position, that Hodgson is eager to preserve.

Therefore, deciding to play Rooney in midfield allows Hodgson to keep England’s captain and record goalscorer in the team, while conserving the exciting forward trio that England have developed since the 2014 World Cup.

So which three players should Hodgson drop from the squad?

Unfortunately for Hodgson some hypocrisy is creeping into his squad selection.

He has always indicated he would pick players on form – his inclusion of Marcus Rashford at least demonstrates his loyalty to form players.

However, there is a glaring exception to his rule in the form of Adam Lallana.

Liverpool’s creative midfielder has been anything but this season, scoring just four goals and assisting six more in 30 league games – even James Milner has more this term.

Lallana has endured an inconsistent season in Jürgen Klopp’s team and his England record is dreadful for a player of his technical ability.

In 22 games for the national side he has scored none and assisted just twice.

Hodgson may be persisting with Lallana because of his ability to play in a number of positions but the statistics don’t lie and they show Lallana to be ineffective at the top level, meaning he should not travel to France this summer.

Despite having a breakthrough season for champions Leicester City, Danny Drinkwater should also miss the Euros.

Hodgson is blessed with several options in midfield and has Jordan Henderson fit again, Eric Dier capable of playing in front of the back four, Jack Wilshere his number one choice, James Milner as a utility player and Wayne Rooney also as a classy alternative.

Drinkwater has quietly gone about his business in the warm-up games but has not done enough to suggest he is worthy of a place over the established midfielders in the squad.

The final player to miss out looks set to be Andros Townsend.

Hodgson is faced with a tough call between Townsend, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling, but it is the out-and-out winger who is struggling when pitted against the others.

Barkley has always been a regular in Hodgson’s plans, while Sterling’s versatility up front leaves Townsend looking vulnerable to the chop from England’s final squad.

Townsend has had a great finish to the season with relegated Newcastle, but it is too little too late and he will be left to rue a difficult time at Spurs where chances for him were limited.

However, the likes of Barkley and Sterling have flattered to deceive at international level and the pair will undoubtedly be looking over their shoulders until the announcement is made.

It would be hard to see Hodgson dropping Daniel Sturridge if he is fit, while Rashford deserves the opportunity to travel on form and given he is at times used as a makeshift winger.

As a result, Townsend can count himself unlucky to miss out should he be omitted from the final 23.

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

5 sports stars who retired too soon

Put yourself in the mind of a sport star.

You’re midway through your career, still competitive, maybe even at the top of your game. But you suddenly decide to retire. Has it all become too much? Are injuries taking their toll? Do you miss family time? Have you lost interest in the sport you’ve competed in all your life?

These are all reasons that sport stars have given for what has been deemed a ‘premature’ retirement.

The trouble is, some of the sportsmen and women that have retired ‘too early’ were sporting mega stars.

So, who are arguably the five biggest sporting stars to have retired with plenty of gas left in the tank?

  1. Björn Borg – Tennis – retired aged 26

Seventies heartthrob. Winner of 11 Grand Slam titles. Bjorn Borg had it all going for him when he retired in 1983. Borg had a superb career, particularly on grass and clay, winning the French Open six times and Wimbledon five, including a four-year domination at Roland Garros from 1978-81.

Borg was also the first tennis player to earn more than $1m in a year. So why quit?

Simply, the attention his success earned also proved to be his downfall. He was fed up with the demands on his time from sponsors and media and decided to give it all up.

Eight years after his retirement he made a calamitous comeback when failing to win a single match between 1991 and 1993 before he halted his career for the second time.

Borg can still sleep easy though. He remains fifth on the all-time list of Grand Slam winners and has a successful fashion chain in his native Sweden.

  1. Casey Stoner – MotoGP – retired aged 27

When people think of MotoGP legends, most think of Valentino Rossi, few of Casey Stoner. Maybe that’s because the Australian quit the sport with so much more to give.

Stoner’s ability on the fastest motorbikes on the planet was incalculable. He routinely made a lumbering Ducati compete against the faster Yamaha and Honda machines in the late noughties and took his first title in 2007.

His prowess on the misbehaving Ducati led many to realise just how special a rider he was but he soon grew frustrated, leaving for Honda in 2011 and winning his second title after taking victories in 10 of the 17 races.

Midway through the 2012 season Stoner announced his retirement from MotoGP, citing a lack of family time, annoyance with political issues within the sport and a decreasing enjoyment of riding.

Stoner, who won his home race at Phillip Island six consecutive times, had been testing with Honda up to 2016 and has now switched to Ducati. Could a full-time return in 2017 be on the cards?

  1. Justine Henin – Tennis – retired aged 25

Despite her diminutive appearance Justine Henin was a heavyweight in women’s tennis.

Her distinctive cries of “Allez!” at Roland Garros became her trademark as she claimed four French Open titles in her career tally of seven Grand Slams.

But, in 2008, when ranked world number one, Henin announced her shock departure from tennis, enabling her to feel less burden of expectation and to concentrate on other projects such as her tennis school.

However, her retirement ended just 19 months after it began as she returned to competition at the Brisbane International in preparation for the Australian Open.

Chasing a career Grand Slam at Wimbledon, Henin fractured her elbow after slipping and didn’t play again in 2010. A brief pre-season in 2011 was unsuccessful after aggravating her elbow and she retired again aged 28.

Henin continues to run her academy and is an ambassador for UNICEF post-career.

  1. Carolina Klüft – Athletics – retired aged 29

The second Swede on this list, Carolina Klüft was the queen of athletics when she decided to switch disciplines, ditching the heptathlon to concentrate on the long jump.

Undoubtedly, in many people’s eyes, she retired from the heptathlon too soon. Citing a lack of motivation, Klüft stepped away aged 25.

The news came as a huge shock, with Klüft dominating her event in the noughties by claiming one Olympic and three consecutive world championship golds.

When she did solely focus on the long jump, she struggled to make an impact and could only manage ninth in the Beijing Olympic final.

Injuries played their part in Klüft’s eventual retirement from the sport. She had suffered a bad hamstring injury in 2009 and wasn’t the same athlete post recovery, often claiming her legs had lost their spring.

In hindsight it’s easy to suggest that she could have continued with the heptathlon for several more years but, had she succeeded in her long jump career, perhaps she wouldn’t have featured on this list.

  1. Miguel Indurain – Cycling – retired aged 32

Known as ‘Big Mig’, Miguel Indurain will go down as one of the greatest riders ever to have competed.

His palmares – list of achievements – includes five consecutive Tour de France wins from 1991-95, including two Giro d’Italia-Tour doubles in 1992 and 1993.

He also won Olympic and world gold in the time-trial and took to the podium three times in the world road race.

However, with a lucrative two-year contract on the table, he decided to quit the sport aged 32 despite being in good enough condition to win a sixth Tour.

Indurain claimed this was due to the sport getting harder and harder for him but, compared to other professional cyclists, he could at least have seen out the contract he was offered and potentially have won the Tour twice more.

Sceptics have claimed his retirement just before the era of doping came to prominence was particularly suspect, but the Spaniard has never tested positive and his legendary results remain intact.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and 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.

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