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.

Advertisements

Cüneyt Cakir, the stage is yours

It is said that good referees are invisible for the duration of a football match.

Yesterday night, Turkish official Cüneyt Cakir was anything but.

Maybe that was down to the 36-year-old’s garish turquoise shirt? Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t.

Mr Cakir created a frenzy of disbelief inside Old Trafford when, with Manchester United 2-1 up on aggregate against Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16, he sent Luis Nani off for serious foul play.

United were incensed because the decision allowed Madrid back into the game, before they cruelly killed the hosts off with two goals in three minutes from Luka Modric and ex-United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

To the letter of the law, Cakir was probably correct to show a straight red. Nani’s right boot made contact with Madrid right-back Alvaro Arbeloa’s rib cage in an aerial duel and after a brief break in play to allow both players to gather themselves, Cakir brandished red.

FIFA’s law 12 on fouls and misconduct provides that “A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball.”

So, Nani was justifiably sent off? Perhaps not.

It is widely held throughout the global footballing community that part of the art of refereeing is the official’s ability to apply the laws of the game with judgement of the footballing situation in question.

With the ball coming over Nani’s shoulder, the Portuguese winger’s eyes were fixated on the ball, with Arbeloa making a late entrance onto the scene. There was no intent to commit “excessive force or brutality” on Nani’s part.

Does there have to be? Once more, perhaps not. Taking everything into consideration, most referees would have realised that it was a 50/50 challenge, there was no malice involved, and that it had not been a high-tempered match up to that point.

This makes Cakir’s decision all the more robotic – and he has previous history.

Cakir, an insurer with a love of table tennis, became an elite referee in the 2007/08 season, and has since officiated several matches in the European Championships, Champions League, Europa League and Club World Cup.

What is immediately recognisable when glancing through his record is that, in the 134 games he has refereed since the 28th of March 2007, he has failed to give a card in just four of those games.

The plot thickens further when Cakir’s habits are examined more closely, and how predictable his style of officiating is.

Cakir would have first come to the attention of English fans when he officiated Chelsea’s 4-1 win over Spartak Moscow in the 2010/11 Champions League. It was a straightforward match to referee, with only four bookings dished out.

His next European match came three months later – a Europa League tie between Villarreal and Napoli which finished 2-1 to the hosts. It was marred by nine bookings, six of those coming in the second half.

Exactly three weeks later he sent off Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli in the same competition,  booking eight other players as City went out 2-1 on aggregate to Dynamo Kiev, despite winning 1-0 on the night.

Such a high volume of bookings means that Cakir’s style of refereeing is to adhere as closely to FIFA’s rulebook as possible.

Perhaps he enjoys the limelight when he flashes cards about. For certain, it is an inorganic approach to refereeing, and the statistics reinforce that point.

Last season, Cakir took charge of 34 games in the domestic Turkish Superlig and both elite European competitions.

He managed to show 172 yellow cards in that time, complete with nine red cards for good measure.

Across the 34 games, that is an average of 5.32 cards per game – an unusually high figure.

Those who have followed Cakir’s eye-catching refereeing since that time will have noticed his style of observing the match and the players in it during the first half, before unleashing a flurry of cards in the second period.

Last season he showed 61.3% of all his cards in the second half, and there were some high-profile matches during that time.

The infamous 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Chelsea at Camp Nou was famous for John Terry’s needless sending-off – a decision which Cakir got right – and the fractious nature of the match, with an additional eight players booked.

In Cakir’s homeland, the notorious Istanbul derby between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray is almost always an ill-tempered affair. So it proved in 2012 too, when Cakir sent off two players and booked 12 others.

His form continues into the current 2012/13 season when, after officiating just 25 games, he has already sent off eight players in all competitions, and has brandished 110 yellow cards.

That is an average of 4.72 cards per game – again, an unusually high figure.

When his performances are compared to that of England’s most card-happy referee, Martin Atkinson, Cakir’s super-strict manner is exposed again.

Atkinson has taken charge of 27 matches in all competitions this season, amassing a total of 107 cards, just one of which has been red. His average of 3.96 cards per game is a staggering 0.76 cards beneath the level of his Turkish colleague.

Cakir’s performances also seem to be more negatively prolific as the profile of the match amplifies. In his first major international tournament – Euro 2012 – he only officiated three games.

Yet, he still managed to brandish 18 yellows and one red, 13 of those coming in the second half and nine coming in the derby between Portugal and Spain. Ireland’s Keith Andrews was the man dismissed in a 2-0 loss against Italy.

In a World Cup Qualifying match between England and Ukraine, under three months later, Cakir showed 10 cards, sending off Steven Gerrard in the 1-1 draw at Wembley with (yes, you guessed it) all 10 of the bookings coming in the second half.

Cakir has also sent off Sergio Busquets for Barcelona in the Champions League this season, and Gary Cahill for Chelsea in the Club World Cup final. He now has Nani to add to that list of big, game-changing decisions.

With atmospheres no more hostile than those in his homeland, you would think Cakir has the necessary mental qualities in a referee to officiate in the biggest of occasions. All the matters discussed in this blog seem to suggest otherwise, but still FIFA and UEFA continue to give him high-profile games.

Perhaps that’s because he is a limpet to the rulebook. With that in mind, does he do a good or a bad job?

Does the fact that he gives a high amount of cards mean that he sees fouls no other referee does and should therefore be given credit for doing so?

One thing that seems certain is that Cakir will officiate at his first World Cup in Brazil next summer, and because of his latest attention-grabbing decision the weight of one billion eyes will be upon him.

If he continues to make similarly mechanical decisions in Brazil, he should probably turn his hand to officiating table tennis matches instead.