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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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?

Sky’s Tour bid rests with Froome – Tour de France 2013 preview

A peloton of 198 riders will amass for 21 leg-crushing stages of the 100th Tour de France on Saturday – a journey over three weeks that will lead the greatest annual sporting event in the world over a distance of 2,115 miles.

To celebrate the centenary of cycling’s most iconic race, the organisers have compiled a route that takes in the legendary mountainous climbs of Alpe d’Huez (twice on stage 18), and Mont Ventoux – with the Tour culminating in a sunset finish on the Champs –Elysees in Paris.

For the first time in the race’s history the island of Corsica will feature when it hosts the opening three stages or ‘grand depart’ of the race.

The Pyrenees will also be navigated in the first week before the infamous Mont Ventoux ends the second with the Alps looming large in the third.

It is a truly brutal Tour and with the addition of three time-trials (one team and two individual) the 100th edition of this race is one of the most eagerly anticipated.

Once again, Great Britain has a pre-race favourite in Team Sky’s Chris Froome.

With 2012 winner Sir Bradley Wiggins unable to defend the famed yellow jersey because of a knee injury, cycling has been starved of what would have been a momentous rivalry.

Wiggins had planned to defend his crown after the recent snow-hindered Giro d’Italia – but Froome had long been placed as Sky’s team leader for the Tour, and the friction between the two riders has been uncomfortably evident ever since.

The source of the pair’s inclement relationship is widely reckoned to be the 2012 race when Froome, the stronger climber of the two, demonstrated his strength by attempting to leave Wiggins on a couple of crucial stages – only to back down and support him to victory in a further display of loyalty to the team.

For 2013, Wiggins was earmarked to be Froome’s right-hand man, but his subsequent withdrawal has saved Sky from a glut of unwanted media attention.

The duo’s Sky team-mate, Australian rider Richie Porte, will instead support Froome in the high mountains and will be the team’s back-up plan should Froome suffer injury or huge time losses.

Froome’s form has been exemplary in the run up to the race, with the Kenya-born Brit winning four out of five stage races this season – including the Criterium du Dauphine and the Criterium International, both of which are good indicators of a rider’s Tour de France form.

In doing so, Froome has emulated Wiggins’ performances of 2012 – and he will hope to provide the same end result.

But he will face strong competition from Spain’s Alberto Contador, twice a winner of this event, and his Team Saxo Bank –Tinkoff Bank squad.

Contador has seasoned Tour riders such as Nicholas Roche, Michael Rogers and Roman Kreuziger at his disposal but Sky, who will rely on Kanstantsin Siutsou and David Lopez alongside Porte in aid of Froome, will be confident of holding off the diminutive Spaniard.

Other contenders for the General Classification victory include the aggressive Spanish duo of Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde, along with promising Colombian rider Nairo Quintana – who will vie with BMC’s Tejay van Garderen for the best young rider’s white jersey, or ‘maillot blanc’.

Cadel Evans, who enjoyed a fine podium finish in the Giro, will also be in contention – as will the dangerous trio of Jurgen van den Broeck, Robert Gesink and Ryder Hesjedal.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Mark Cavendish, who last week won the British National Road Race Championships, has the chance to write his own piece of history during his quest for the green sprinter’s jersey.

He is currently fourth on the all-time list of Tour stage wins with 23, just 11 behind the great Eddy Merckx. A healthy six stage wins for the ‘Manx Missile’ would propel him above French legends Bernard Hinault and Andre Leducq into second on that list.

However, Cavendish could be the first rider to wear the ‘maillot jaune’ as the Corsican first stage seems custom-made for his explosive sprinting abilities.

Last year’s winner of the green jersey Peter Sagan will be Cavendish’s main threat, as the Slovakian is a stronger climber than the Briton and may look to escape on the hillier parcours later in the Tour to claim vital intermediate sprint points and maybe a couple of stage victories – just as he did last year.

One of the Tour’s most interesting sub-plots is the King of the Mountains classification, which is always unpredictable as the best climbers tend to stay in the peloton to conserve energy rather than chase the points on offer for cresting the summit of each categorised climb.

As a result, France’s popular Team Europcar member Tommy Voeckler – not renowned for his climbing – got himself into several breakaways last season to mop up the points on offer and claim the polka dot jersey.

Cycling fans will also be glued to the fortunes of current world champion Philippe Gilbert, French cult hero Voeckler, Andy Schleck – making his Grand Tour comeback after a fractured pelvis – and German sprinters Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel, who will provide a stern test for the likes of Cavendish, Sagan and Matt Goss in bunch sprint finishes.

But the hundreds of millions of eyes watching this inspiring event will likely be watching Froome and his battle with Contador.

While it is not the Froome vs. Wiggins clash the cycling community had so relished, it promises to be a fascinating match-up – and one which is worthy of the centennial staging of this colossal race.

Who are the best and worst football commentators?

Football commentators. The people armchair viewers love to hate.

There are plenty of atrocious and infuriating callers of the beautiful game out there, and also a handful of brilliant ones, but who makes my top 10 best and worst?

And before anyone pipes up about Andy Townsend, I’ve included co-commentators in the list too!

Let’s start with the good first:

10. Mike Ingham, BBC 5Live

Ingham is an entertaining commentator for those of you who are avid 5live listeners. Hardly ever culpable of making a mistake, he blends an enthusiastic commentary style with a thorough knowledge of the game. More importantly, he puts his 5live colleagues to shame.

9. Simon Brotherton, BBC

Brotherton is without doubt one of the BBC’s most underrated commentators. Experienced and articulate, he calls some of the biggest games on the Premier League calendar for Match of the Day with great success. Like Ingham, he hardly makes a mistake and is definitely worthy of a place on this countdown.

8. Clive Tyldesley, ITV

I’ve been known to call Tyldesley ‘Alive Clive’ due to his excitable style (he often sounds like a Dalek too), but generally he is a very capable commentator. His greatest work for ITV is probably the 1999 Champions League final, but can be prone to some occasional errors too. He gets bonus points for sitting next to Andy Townsend for two hours.

7. Rob Hawthorne, Sky Sports

Hawthorne is part of Sky’s respected commentary line-up, and has often called some high-profile matches. Not least the memorable Manchester derby where United’s Michael Owen snatched a 96th-minute winner in a 4-3 win. Looking back at Hawthorne’s commentary for that match on YouTube, it’s safe to say he did a fantastic job.

6. Jon Champion, ESPN

Perhaps the most respected commentator in the media, Champion is vastly experienced having worked for the BBC, ITV and most recently ESPN. His commentary of Owen’s wondergoal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup will forever live in the memory of England fans.

5. Peter Drury, ITV & Fox Soccer

Often unfairly dubbed ‘Peter Dreary’, Drury is a well-spoken and entertaining commentator. He has a remarkable knowledge of the game and thrives in the big moments during the biggest games. Arguably his most thrilling work was during last season’s Manchester City 3-2 QPR match for Fox Soccer, where Sergio Aguero scored a late title-clinching winner for City.

4. Steve Wilson, BBC

Wilson has often been overlooked for the biggest games on Match of the Day in favour of the much-maligned Guy Mowbray, but his commentary style is perhaps the clearest of them all. He has the ability to keep up with play using quick, engaging and efficient language, and rarely makes mistakes.

3. Martin Tyler, Sky Sports

Head honcho of Sky’s commentary team, Tyler’s career has spanned across numerous eras of football. Usually understated and reserving his enthusiasm for the biggest Premier League and European games, Tyler’s most famous piece of commentary came in Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Aston Villa in 2009, where 17-year-old Federico “Machedaaaaaa!” scored a last-gasp winner.

2. John Motson, BBC

“Motty” is the godfather of commentary. Having retired from calling the action at international tournaments, Motson typically covers games in London for Match of the Day. He is nudged down from the top spot due to what many critics have correctly said about his increasingly frail and error-laden commentary – but that should not detract from the 67-year-old’s marvellous career.

1. Jonathan Pearce, BBC

Pearce beats his famed BBC colleague to top spot by virtue of some memorable and flawless commentary. Without doubt the BBC’s finest live commentator, some of the most enjoyable work in his career came in 2001 during England’s 5-1 ‘Müllering’ of Germany in Munich, where he worked for Capital Gold Sport. The line “England have gone naff in Germany!” was just one of many gems that night.

And now, the bad (and in Mark Lawrenson’s case, the ugly):

10. Guy Mowbray, BBC

It is baffling to many armchair and pub viewers alike why Guy Mowbray continues to be awarded the biggest gigs in football commentary. He cannot bring himself to make a definitive judgement on many controversial incidents and he is usually off the pace with his languid and dull style. He should be afforded some respite from his many critics for his famous “Agueroooooooo” line in the climax to the 2011-12 Premier League season.

9. Chris Waddle, ESPN

Waddle is not shy of making criticisms of current players, but when you are responsible for one of the most painful moments in English football history, you can hardly hide. Alongside Champion at ESPN, he has a tendency to state the obvious and offers tired, useless analysis of live matches.

8. Alan Green, BBC 5Live

Green is another opinionated commentator who has drawn criticism from far and wide. His style is actually listenable and articulate, but he lets himself down by hovering over his criticisms of players for too long – often to the detriment of his output.

7. Robbie Savage, BBC 5Live

Savage has cultivated a punditry career seemingly out of thin air. He certainly uses up a lot of air too, with his frenzied commentary style for 5Live, and offers little or no original analysis. He has also become the voice of 5Live’s 606, which is the perfect place for his dim comments to be hidden amongst others.

6. Craig Burley, ESPN

One of the more enjoyable co-commentators on the list, Burley gets onto the bad side due to his unprofessional nature. He is often guilty of bullying Champion during live matches and, given Champion’s well-respected and insightful commentary, his obvious misplaced dislike for his colleague makes him appear in a bad light.

5. Steve Bower, BBC

Currently being groomed by the BBC for a commentary place in football’s biggest arenas, Bower is unworthy of such a privilege. He rarely gets enthused by big moments in matches and has a distinctly monotone style which feels out of place on Match of the Day.

4. Martin Keown, BBC

Making the grade for the BBC’s Euro 2012 coverage, Keown should count himself lucky that the Beeb ignore the hundreds of tweets about his commentary every time he picks up a co-commentators mic. Littering his calls with errors, mispronunciation and recycled clichés, Keown’s commentary is every bit as cringeworthy as his punditry.

3. Andy Townsend, ITV

There are few plastic Irishmen in this world, and if they are all like Andy Townsend, I hope none of them get a commentary job in their lives. Constantly stating the obvious, Townsend’s only redeeming feature is that he is not afraid to say if a player is offside, rather than the usual “it’s marginal” sitting-on-the-fence attitude.

2. Mark Lawrenson, BBC

“Lawro”, or rather, ‘LOL-o’ is prone to making awful puns and jokes during live commentary for the BBC. A fond wearer of revolting shirts and a model of the balding mullet, a tirade of abuse was directed his way during the Euro 2012 final for what the Twittersphere correctly perceived to be an abhorrent lesson in commentary. That he was partnered with Mowbray for the same match caused many viewers to switch over to ITV or Flog It on BBC2.

1. Mark Bright, BBC

I have no doubt that ‘Brighty’ is a nice enough bloke, but his commentary is useless. He deflates rather than inspires, confuses rather than enlightens and, more importantly, bores rather than delights. It is perhaps testament to the dearth of co-commentating depth-in-strength possessed by the BBC that Bright continues to journey to World Cups and European Championships. Bright is the strongest reason to ditch ex-player co-commentators, but if we didn’t have them, over half of this list would be null and void and I would not be blogging. So thanks Mark, it appears you do have a use after all.

Wiggins embarks on Giro d’Italia mission

Sir Bradley Wiggins will begin his quest to become the first British winner of the Giro d’Italia tomorrow when the opening Grand Tour of the 2013 season departs from Naples.

Team Sky’s Wiggins, who has never finished higher than 40th in the Giro, will attempt to claim the ‘maglia rosa’, or pink jersey, from 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal, who is aiming to defend his title with his Garmin-Sharp team.

Wiggins’ bid is significantly helped by 92.3km (57 miles) of time-trialling across the 21 stages, which is his main strength – a fact underlined by his superb gold medal-winning performance in the time-trial at London 2012.

However, the brutal high mountain stages of the Giro will likely play into his rivals’ hands.

One such rival is home favourite Vincenzo Nibali, who has already beaten Wiggins at the Giro del Trentino this season – a race seen as perfect preparation for the difficult parcours of the Giro d’Italia.

Wiggins did have a mechanical failure on the queen stage of that race, but the form of the Astana man in the high mountains will be of concern to the Briton, who can struggle at times with steep gradients.

However, Wiggins claims to have made improvements in the climbing discipline and, with two of the three time-trials completed by the time the riders enter the Italian Alps in the second week, he will hope to have built up a lead over his General Classification rivals.

The final week looks particularly hazardous, with the Giro entering the French Alps for a summit finish on the legendary Col du Galibier on stage 15, before ascending the infamous Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Italian Dolomites on the penultimate stage.

Attacks will almost certainly be fired at Team Sky’s train of climbers, but whether they will be fruitful depends on the strength of Wiggins’ team of dedicated domestiques.

Colombian’s Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, the latter an Olympic road-race silver medallist, will provide the power when the gradients, biting the riders at close to 20% in some places, start to kick up.

Christian Knees, Konstantin Siutsou and Dario Cataldo will also assist Wiggins in the higher terrains as Sky look to control the pace at the front of the peloton in typically robust style.

The Giro will also take in the stunning views of the revered Passo dello Stelvio on stage 19, and this could be a perfect opportunity for Nibali to strike a telling blow to Wiggins’ hopes if he is fresh enough.

Nibali and Hesjedal, although seen as Wiggins’ main rivals, will not be the only threats with a number of dangerous riders also joining the peloton.

Australian rider Cadel Evans, who has battled a debilitating virus for the past season, will be aiming for a top five finish at least with his BMC squad, while Spain’s Sami Sanchez is also a formidable climber.

Dark horses, and riders to watch for the future, include Mauro Santambrogio, who finished just behind fellow countryman Nibali in the recent Giro del Trentino and Holland’s Robert Gesink, who will be competing in his maiden Giro d’Italia.

Ivan Basso, a two-time Giro winner, will miss out owing to a buttock cyst, but Wiggins would have expected to beat the veteran Italian regardless of his injury.

Elsewhere, Mark Cavendish will spearhead the Omega-Pharma Quick-Step team as he goes in search of stage victories ahead of the Tour de France.

He will face competition from seasoned sprint rival Matt Goss and the electric John Degenkolb, who dominated the Vuelta a Espana sprint classification last season.

Other Britons include David Millar, who will work diligently for Hesjedal on the Garmin-Sharp team, the duo of Adam Blythe and Steve Cummings on Evans’ BMC squad, and the talented Alex Dowsett who will ride in support of 2011 Vuelta winner Juan Jose Cobo on the Movistar squad.

But the focus will undoubtedly be on the Wiggins, Nibali and Hesjedal fight at the pointy end of the race. All three riders look to be in peak form – with some tipping Hesjedal, who has impressed in the Spring classics this season, to retain his crown.

Wiggins, though, will be a prominent force in the time-trials and, if he can perform to the best of his abilities, may well have the race sewn up by the time the peloton rolls into the Alps during the second week.

His dream of emulating boyhood hero Miguel Indurain in standing on the top step of the podium in Brescia wearing the famous maglia rosa could not be closer and a victory in this illustrious race would unquestionably move the popular Briton a step closer to cycling immortality.

Women in Formula One

Women in Formula One – it’s the topic on everyone’s lips in the motorsport community.

This morning, the subject was elevated further into the public domain with the patronising comments of Sir Stirling Moss.

In an interview with BBC Radio 5live Moss, 83, said on the prospect of women competing in F1: “I think they have the strength, but I don’t know if they’ve got the mental aptitude to race hard, wheel-to-wheel.”

Such comments are not only unnecessary, they are fundamentally flawed.

There are several women competing in motorsport’s most famous disciplines – notably Danica Patrick, who earlier this season became the first woman to take pole position for the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s biggest race.

Patrick, who currently drives for the Stewart-Haas team, also became the first woman to lead a lap in the Daytona 500 and went on to finish eighth, despite entering the final lap in third place.

Patrick, 31, is also a former IndyCar driver – and a very successful one at that.

In 2008, she became the first woman to win an IndyCar race, securing victory at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit in Japan.

She also earned the rookie of the year accolade in 2005, while also showing her consistency by boasting the record for the number of consecutive IndyCar races finished – which stood at 50 before she switched to stock car racing in 2012.

Fellow female racing driver, Britain’s Katherine Legge, 32, also competed in IndyCar during the 2012 season, but she was cruelly replaced at the Dragon Racing team for 2013 despite having signed a two-year contract to race for them.

Her sponsors, TrueCar, took the decision to sign Colombian driver Sebastian Saavedra for 2013 despite entering the sport looking to sustain their Women Empowered initiative the year before.

TrueCar’s sudden change of heart has been viewed by many critics as a dishonest way of breaking in to IndyCar – and now Legge has been left without a drive this season.

Legge undoubtedly has the skill to drive at the highest level of single-seater racing in the USA, but this development leaves her future IndyCar career in jeopardy.

However, the future for women in Formula One, motorsport’s highest level of competition, looks altogether brighter, despite today’s comments from Moss.

Legge tested a Minardi car in 2005, becoming the first woman to do so for three years, and since then Spanish driver Maria de Villota and Scotland’s Susie Wolff have both driven an F1 car in testing format.

Sadly, de Villota lost her right eye in a freak accident during a test with F1 minnows Marussia last year, but the probability of Wolff – a development driver for Williams – driving competitively in F1 is much higher.

Wolff, who is married to Mercedes big cheese Toto Wolff, has completed seven seasons in German Touring Cars (DTM), with a career-best finish of seventh for Persson Motorsport – a privateer team which has seen good success, counting current F1 driver Paul di Resta and McLaren test driver Gary Paffett among its former employees.

However, sceptics of Wolff’s involvement in F1 claim that she has not done enough to warrant her place within the Williams setup, and that her powerful husband is putting his clout behind her in her bid to race in F1.

Such opinions seem unsubstantiated, but she will need to impress Williams – who currently employ Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas in F1 – to earn a drive in a future season.

One driver who is also turning heads with her performances is 18-year-old Dutch driver Beitske Visser, who last week announced that she had been signed onto Red Bull Racing’s junior team.

Red Bull have claimed both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles in the past three seasons and are the dominant force in F1.

They also have two graduates of the junior team – Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne – racing in their second F1 season for sister team Toro Rosso.

Visser will look to maintain her impressive results in the ADAC Formel Masters series, where she recorded two victories, as she bids to become only the sixth woman to earn an F1 contract.

Of the previous five, just two have qualified sufficiently to start a race.

Those two drivers are Italians Maria Teresa de Filippis and Lella Lombardi, who is the only woman in history to have scored points in an F1 race.

That success came at the horrific 1975 Spanish Grand Prix where Lombardi, racing for March, finished sixth in a race that was abruptly curtailed by the death of five spectators following a big crash involving Rolf Stommelen, who sustained a broken leg, wrist and two cracked ribs.

As the race finished before half distance, the points were halved meaning that Lombardi received just 0.5 points for sixth instead of the usual one.

De Filippis, meanwhile, was the subject of additional comments from Moss this morning, with the 16-time race winner claiming in debasing fashion that he used to “blow a kiss” to de Filippis if ever he lapped her, later adding that “she knew there was a race going on around her and she’d keep her eye on the mirrors and she’d always pull over.”

Moss and his comments have provoked angry reaction from women and feminists in and outside of the sport, with Wolff claiming his opinions made her “cringe”, before stating that she is part of a “different generation.”

It appears that Moss is in the minority with his views, particularly as several women are now involved in the sport on merit.

Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn will, in future, no longer be the sole female team principal on the grid, as Claire Williams, daughter of founder Sir Frank, is being given a more involved role at Williams with a view to running the team when he is no longer capable.

Add Wolff and Visser to the equation and there is a good possibility of F1 welcoming a female driver to the sport for the first time since 1992.

Whilst it is extremely unlikely that Patrick and Legge will be attracted to F1 to race for a small team due to the lucrative positions they find themselves in stateside, their presence in motorsport should serve as inspiration alone to a new generation of female drivers – one or more of whom could make it into Formula One in the future.

There is no doubt that women can and are driving at the highest levels in motorsport, but the moment when a woman competes full-time in F1 is merely a matter of when, not if – and rightly so.

India set to ignite world cricket as IPL 6 begins

With its glamour, packed stadiums, superb atmospheres and a sprinkling of the best players in world cricket, what’s not to like about the Indian Premier League?

The money-spinning Twenty20 tournament, in its sixth year, will officially start tomorrow with the grand opening ceremony, but most cricket fans will be looking forward to Wednesday and the first match between defending champions Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and Delhi Daredevils (DD).

KKR, owned by Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan, boast a very strong side once more with South African limited overs specialists Jacques Kallis and Ryan McLaren set to feature prominently alongside the mysterious off-spin of Sunil Narine.

Big-hitting wicketkeeper Brendon McCullum, who famously smashed 158 in the inaugural IPL match, will hope to transfer his recent good form for New Zealand into another superb IPL season, while Brett Lee, skipper Gautam Gambhir and England’s Eoin Morgan join Yusuf Pathan and Brad Haddin in a squad that should be in contention for a second successive title.

KKR’s roster would have been further boosted by the addition of world number one-ranked all-rounder Shakib al-Hasan, but the Bangladeshi cricket board wanted their star international players available for their tour of Zimbabwe, and so al-Hasan misses out alongside compatriot Tamim Iqbal, who had signed a contract with Pune Warriors.

In fact, the political controversy surrounding IPL 6 has threatened to overshadow the build-up to this great tournament.

The usual political hostilities between Pakistan and India persist, but until the various differences between Pakistan and India both on and off the field can be resolved, the IPL will not develop as fast as it might otherwise have done.

More recently, due to ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese people on India’s eastern coast and Sri Lankan rebels from Tamil Nadu, no Sri Lankan players will be allowed to play at Chennai.

This affects IPL heavyweights the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) the least as seamer Nuwan Kulasekara and spinner Akila Dananjaya are the only Sri Lankans in their squad and will likely play only bit-part roles throughout the IPL campaign.

Critics of the ban have pointed out that this favours Chennai, particularly as world-class players such as Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara, Lasith Malinga and Tillakaratne Dilshan will not be allowed to play for their respective teams.

Politics aside, Chennai have an excellent group of players to count upon as they look to regain a title that they have won twice in the past three seasons.

Indian talisman MS Dhoni continues to skipper the side, with fellow Indian superstars Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravi Ashwin providing exciting reinforcement.

Added to that quartet are the explosive talents of South African stars Francois du Plessis, Chris Morris and Albie Morkel, while Australian seamers Dirk Nannes and Ben Hilfenhaus will look to bowl tightly in a formidable attack which is enhanced by the tricky variation of West Indian all-rounder Dwayne Bravo.

Bravo’s international team-mate Chris Gayle continues his contract with Royal Challengers Bangalore, and the Jamaican is capable of scoring rapidly with his unrivalled big-hitting.

Gayle has shown in previous IPLs that no stadium is big enough for his gargantuan six-hitting, and he is ably assisted by fellow fast-scorers AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli and Dilshan.

Muralitharan and Daniel Vettori will supply their usual guile for a relatively fragile bowling attack, which is spearheaded by swing bowlers Zaheer Khan and Ravi Rampaul.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Chennai in this tournament will be Mumbai Indians, who are traditionally strong and are fortunate to have a plethora of international stars in their ranks.

Home favourites Sachin Tendulkar and Rohit Sharma are joined by compatriots Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha, while Malinga, Ricky Ponting, Munaf Patel, Mitchell Johnson and Kieron Pollard complete the Indians’ strong squad.

Delhi Daredevils will be without the influential Jesse Ryder and Kevin Pietersen, the former after suffering a fractured skull in a disgusting attack in Christchurch, but they will have the big-hitting Virender Sehwag and David Warner at their disposal, together with IPL 5’s purple-cap (leading wicket taker) winner Morne Morkel.

England players are scarce finds in the IPL though, as the tournament clashes with the Test series against New Zealand. Consequently, limited overs experts Eoin Morgan (KKR), Dimi Mascarenhas (Kings XI Punjab), Owais Shah (Rajasthan Royals) and Luke Wright (Pune) are the only notable inclusions.

Other international stars set to appear include the fiery Dale Steyn and Cameron White for newly-formed outsiders Sunrisers Hyderabad, formerly known as Deccan Chargers.

Pune, meanwhile, have the brutal Yuvraj Singh, Ross Taylor and Marlon Samuels alongside the crafty Steve Smith and Robin Uthappa and will be seeking an improvement on last season when they could only manage to finish last of the nine teams.

The bookies have Kings XI Punjab as the rank underdogs, but the team based on the foothills of the Himalayas includes Australian legend Adam Gilchrist, Mascarenhas and the reliable Shaun Marsh and David Hussey in their team.

Kings XI Punjab’s weakness has historically been their bowling and they have seemingly done little to address that problem with Ryan Harris, Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla the leading internationals in their attack.

Rajasthan Royals, owned by Bollywood darling Shilpa Shetty, complete the 2013 line-up and could prove to be dark horses after assembling an intriguing squad for IPL 6 which includes the exquisite yet orthodox shotmaking of Ajinkya Rahane and Rahul Dravid.

Firepower is provided in the shape of Shane Watson and Shah, while the world’s fastest bowler Shaun Tait is joined by Fidel Edwards and Australian veterans Brad Hogg and Brad Hodge.

Despite the controversy hindering the build-up to the tournament, IPL 6 has the potential to be the best so far – and with the likes of Tendulkar, Dhoni, Gayle and Steyn on show it should prove an irresistible attraction to cricket fans across the globe.

  • ITV 4 will screen every match of the IPL live in the UK.