2014 World Cup: My 2014 World Cup XI

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

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

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

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

GK. Keylor Navas (CRC)

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

RB. Cristian Gamboa (CRC)

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

CB: Mats Hummels (c) (GER)

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

CB: Stefan de Vrij (HOL)

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

LB: Marcos Rojo (ARG)

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

CM: Toni Kroos (GER)

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

CM: Javier Mascherano (ARG)

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

LM: James Rodriguez (COL)

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

AM: Lionel Messi (ARG)

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

RM: Thomas Mueller (GER)

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

ST: Neymar (BRA)

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

Subs:

GK: Manuel Neuer (GER)

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

CB: Thiago Silva (BRA)

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

CB: Ezequiel Garay (ARG)

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

RM: Mathieu Valbuena (FRA)

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

LM: Arjen Robben (HOL)

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

ST: Robin van Persie (HOL)

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

ST: Miroslav Klose (GER)

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

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

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2013 Vuelta a Espana preview – Nibali bids for rare Giro/Vuelta double

Vincenzo Nibali will be riding for an historic double when the Vuelta a Espana starts at Vilanova de Arousa tomorrow.

The Italian, 28, won his home Grand Tour, the Giro d-Italia, in convincing style earlier this season and is the bookmaker’s favourite to take his second career Vuelta win after his 2010 success.

A win in the General Classification would propel the Astana rider into cycling folklore as he would become only the fourth man in history to have won the Giro and the Vuelta in the same season.

Standing in his way though, is a terrifying parcours. Over half the stages (eleven) in the 2013 Vuelta will be summit finishes, while 13 of the 21 stages are classified as mountainous.

The Vuelta may be the youngest Grand Tour, but it is without doubt the most brutal because of the fierce heat experienced in late August, with temperatures rising to 40C on occasions.

If the riders thought the 2013 Giro was tough enough with sharp gradients peaking at close to 20% on some stages, the 2013 Vuelta’s queen stage is even more demanding.

Step forward the Alto de l’Angliru, a fearsome climb on the penultimate stage that kicks up to around 23% in the closing kilometres.

L’Angliru’s reputation proceeds itself. Some have called it ‘barbaric’, others have simply had their races wrecked by it.

If you are sitting here now and wondering what it is like to ride up it, search for a clip on YouTube of the stage ascending to its summit in the 2011 Vuelta. The severity of the steepness is mindblowing.

In the build-up to the Vuelta, Nibali has suggested that l’Angliru could be the defining climb of the race. It would, however, be surprising if this comes into fruition.

With 12 other mountainous stages sandwiching a time-trial on stage 11, fans can expect the race leader, whoever that may be, to arrive at the foot of l’Angliru with a healthy lead – as seen in the Tour de France this year which featured a notably hilly parcours.

Big time gaps are expected then, but for the GC contenders winning the final Grand Tour of 2013 will be a monumental battle.

With so many mountains to navigate, attacks will be frequent as the riders fight for any advantage they can.

Nibali’s greatest rival for the win seems to be Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who so agonisingly missed out on Tour de France contention after the combination of a puncture, crosswinds and an attack by Team Belkin off the front put paid to his chances.

He eased off for the remainder of the race as a result and is expected to be fresh ahead of an assault on his home Grand Tour.

His compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez, by contrast, started poorly in the Tour but rode himself into good form and an eventual podium place was no less than he deserved.

If he has recovered from the Tour and built upon that form he will be a significant threat to Nibali and Valverde. Currently rated as the world’s best rider, his combative style is backed up by a dazzling burst of acceleration on the toughest climbs.

Another Spaniard, Sami Sanchez, will be making a first appearance in his home race since 2009, when he finished second.

The popular rider, whose Euskaltel-Euskadi team recently announced failure in their bid to save the team from folding, has finished on the Vuelta podium twice, with his other podium finish coming after claiming third in 2007.

The 2008 Olympic road race gold medallist will be looking to give his team the perfect send-off with an emotional win in their home race after he skipped the Tour to concentrate on elevating his level to coincide with a tilt at the Vuelta.

Other GC contenders of note include Team Sky’s Colombian duo of Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran.

Henao has been handed the team leadership role, but if he cracks along the way Uran, who finished a tremendous second to Nibali in the Giro, will assume control.

As far as British interest in the Vuelta goes, there is not much to get excited over – there are just two Brits in the race.

Andrew Fenn, who rides for Mark Cavendish’s Omega Pharma – Quick Step team, is an exciting all-round cyclist, or rouleur, and at 23 will be riding his maiden Grand Tour.

The other is Sky’s Luke Rowe, who will also be participating in his first Grand Tour.

Rowe, who won a stage of the Tour of Britain last year, is regarded as a sprinter who can also aim for one-day classic races, and could later convert himself into a GC contender.

With many of the riders in this race looking to use the Vuelta as a springboard onto the subsequent World Championships, it is possible that a good proportion of them might drop out.

Yet, with the parcours in Tuscany also deemed hilly, a few of the GC contenders for the Vuelta may abandon to focus on the rainbow jersey if they have lost too much time.

Mountains, though, are what this year’s Vuelta is all about. The route could obliterate the peloton early on stages which traverse the Pyrenees and the infamously mountainous north of Spain. The climb up the l’Angliru is just the crowning glory on what promises to be a spectacular race.

All the signs point to a Nibali win when the riders roll into Madrid on the final stage three weeks from now, and with his Astana team looking immensely strong with quality riders such as Janez Brajkovic, Jakob Fuglsang and Tanel Kangert to work for him, it will take a rider possessing extraordinary form to beat him.

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.

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.