2015 Giro d’Italia preview

Normally, a Giro d’Italia would attract a good selection of the biggest names in cycling. This year, however, they all seem to be concentrating on a particularly inviting Tour de France.

That leaves Alberto Contador as the red-hot favourite to secure his second Giro triumph and take home the famous maglia rosa.

Take nothing as read, though. Contador has had an unspectacular start to the season and has been beaten by the likes of Italy’s Fabio Aru and Colombian rider Rigoberto Uran already this campaign, and the three of them will again face each other in the first Grand Tour of the year.

The contenders                                                                                

Contador, Aru and Uran are exceptional climbers. Spain’s Contador is the class act of them all, and his time-trialling is still good enough to put time into his General Classification rivals.

In Uran, Contador faces the biggest threat to his hopes of a seventh Grand Tour victory.

The Etixx-Quick Step leader has improved significantly in recent seasons and finished second behind compatriot Nairo Quintana in the 2014 Giro.

Aru, who claimed third place in 2014, is also a big danger but his time-trialling lets him down. This aspect of the race is especially important in 2015 because there is a gigantic 59.4km time trial at the end of the second week.

Aside from that trio, an unexpected wildcard has thrown himself into the mix.

Ilnur Zakarin, who has served a two-year ban for doping, leapt to the attention of the cycling world last week when he won the Tour de Romandie, beating Grand Tour winners Chris Froome and Quintana in the process.

The 25-year-old Russian has lost 10kg of weight since his ban to strip down to GC material and possesses a nifty time-trial – even giving former TT world champion Tony Martin a severe scare at the Romandie.

Whether Zakarin can challenge for the duration of the epic 3,486km journey from Liguria to Milan remains to be seen, but he will be a marked man – both by riders and a doping-obsessed media.

Readers may also be confused as to why Richie Porte doesn’t feature as a contender.

He has been guilty of some shocking collapses in Grand Tours in recent years, falling off the pace on innocuous climbs when tasked with being Chris Froome’s wingman.

The Australian has a lot to prove and must rebuild his reputation with a solid Giro performance.

The sprinters

With big-name sprinters Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish not contesting the Giro, the muscular presence of Andre Greipel is favourite to claim the red sprinter’s jersey – or points jersey.

Greipel and his fellow sprinters will find the parcours difficult, with only three officially flat stages to battle for.

That suggests the hilly route of the Giro could favour a punchier rider, with early favourites for stage wins being Australia’s Michael Matthews and classics specialist Tom Boonen.

Other sprinters including Team Sky’s Elia Viviani and Movistar’s Juan Jose Lobato will be looking to minesweep the peloton for lead-out trains as the bulk of their teams protect GC riders.

The Brits

Disappointingly for British cycling fans there is not a single British rider in the 2015 Giro. Team Sky, the usual proponents of British riders, seem to be massing their star Brits for a tilt at the Tour de France, with Froome, Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh and Ian Stannard all set to feature.

Team Sky have thrown their weight behind Aussie Richie Porte for the Giro, and he can count on support from workhorses Vasil Kiryienka and Bernie Eisel before super-domestiques Leopold Konig and Mikel Nieve chaperone him through the Dolomites.

The fun zones

In usual Giro fashion, the lovely organisers have schemed a brutal route across Italy.

The 21 stages include a mammoth 264km trip on stage seven, a 236km in mountainous roads on stage 19, and the harsh 59.4km TT chucked in for good measure.

No less than six summit finishes adorn the Giro this year, with the queen stage being the long slog to Sestriere, featuring an ascent of the Colle delle Finestre, the last half of which is raced over gravel – making the quest for forward momentum that little bit more difficult.

All things considered, Contador is rightly the favourite for Giro glory. His Tinkoff-Saxo team is arguably the strongest in the race and he will have Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers and Ivan Basso at his disposal for the mountains.

The Spaniard’s going to take some beating.

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2014 World Cup: Ten young stars to watch out for

Can you hear the sound of the world’s biggest carnival yet?

When it wheels into the newly-built Arena Corinthians on June 12 over one billion viewers will be gripped by World Cup fever.

Home nation Brazil will take on Croatia in Sao Paulo to begin the month-long festival of football.

Of course, there is much expectation and pressure on the Brazilian team to win on home turf and there have also been well-documented clashes and protests surrounding the judiciousness of the finances released by the Brazilian government to host this magical tournament. (There will be more on that in a later blog).

To help get your football juices going this blog will be the first of ten special World Cup blogs to supplement your enjoyment of the greatest sporting event on the planet.

Blog number one previews ten of the best young footballers to feature at the World Cup this summer.

To qualify, there are two criteria: A player must be aged 23 or under and must be making his World Cup debut.

So, let’s start the countdown. Who is set to be the brightest young talent of the World Cup?

10. Fabian Schär – Switzerland, age 22, centre-back (5 caps, 3 goals)

Perhaps a surprise inclusion at ten on this list, Schär is arguably one of the most exciting defenders in the world. His aerial ability from set-pieces is allied to an instinctive reading of the game and his impressive pace serves him well when faced with one-on-one duels. Recent performances for Basel in the Europa League suggest that Schär excels on the big stage and will be in contention for a starting place in Switzerland’s first game against Ecuador.

9. Mario Götze – Germany, 21, attacking midfielder (27 caps, 7 goals)

Undoubtedly one of the best German talents, of which there are many, but will he get a regular starting spot in Brazil? The competition for places in the German midfield could hinder Götze’s chances of making a big impact on the tournament but he has proven his goalscoring prowess at international level despite being in and out of the Bayern Munich side this season.

8. Son Heung-Min – South Korea, 21, attacking midfielder (23 caps, 6 goals)

After an impressive season with Bayer Leverkusen, Son will be carrying the affection of South Korea on his shoulders. Son usually plays just off the lead striker but such is his versatility and talent he can switch positions across a forward three and is also deployed on the wing. Son’s flexibility rids South Korea of a rigidity which had plagued their game in recent years but with their new hero they should be a threat to Belgium, Russia and Algeria in group H.

7. Adnan Januzaj – Belgium, 19, attacking midfielder (0 caps, 0 goals)

At just 19, Januzaj is part of a youthful and promising Belgium squad in Brazil. A long wrestling match between several countries is to blame for his lack of international experience but, after opting for Belgium, manager Marc Wilmots has wasted no time in including the Manchester United star in his plans. With the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin de Bruyne ahead of him in the pecking order Januzaj could make a significant impact coming off the bench against tiring opponents with his jinking runs.

6. Ross Barkley – England, 20, attacking midfielder (3 caps, 0 goals)

Barkley’s place on this list is dependent upon Roy Hodgson giving him the playing time many onlookers are craving. The precocious young talent has drawn comparisons with Paul Gascoigne but his technical ability stretches far beyond that of Gazza’s. Even if Hodgson prefers to be conservative in Brazil he is set to make substantial contributions when coming off the bench, particularly with his energetic and creative game.

5. Paul Pogba – France, 21, central midfielder (8 caps, 1 goal)

An authoritative and commanding presence in midfield, Pogba is very much in the Yaya Toure mould of footballer. He can rampage forward and score goals as a stellar season at Juventus has proven. Doubts still remain about his mentality but bearing his age in mind that is a problem he will overcome with maturity and should that process happen this summer he could be France’s star player in Brazil.

4. Mario Balotelli – Italy, 23, striker (29 caps, 12 goals)

Commeth the spotlight, commeth the maverick. Balotelli relishes attention and a World Cup in Brazil presents him with an opportunity to display his skills in the biggest arena of them all. His superb performances at Euro 2012 saw a coming of age for the rebellious striker and he has built upon that with some assured displays at AC Milan. He will be the spearhead of Italy’s attack versus England but can he control his temper to replicate his Euro 2012 showing?

3. Thibaut Courtois – Belgium, 22, goalkeeper (15 caps, 8 clean sheets)

Some may be surprised that a goalkeeper makes third place on this countdown, but Courtois will be one of the stars of the tournament. His potential is staggering and his acclimatisation to Spanish football with Atletico Madrid at a young age has been exceptional. A series of assured displays coupled with some outstanding saves shows why Chelsea paid €9m for him when he was just 19.

2. Eden Hazard – Belgium, 23, winger (43 caps, 5 goals)

A world-class talent but inconsistent with it, Hazard has the chance to exorcise his critics with a memorable display in Brazil. His tally of five goals in 43 games for Belgium is underwhelming but after enjoying a spectacular season for Chelsea there are signs he could flower into an international star this summer as part of a dangerous Belgium team.

1. Neymar – Brazil, 22, forward (47 caps, 30 goals)

There has been no expectation as high as this on any player in history. A home World Cup in a land where football is a religion. It seems made for Neymar and all his astonishing skill, but can he deliver under such a burden? His goal-laced performances at the 2013 Confederations Cup would offer a resounding yes to that question, even after an unconvincing opening season at Barcelona. Despite that, the Brazilian team is built to utilise his incredible talent with some tipping him to earn the Golden Boot. Could this tournament belong to the darling of Brazil?

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Man City see off disappointing Chelsea in FA Cup clash

Goals in each half from Stevan Jovetic and Samir Nasri gave Manchester City a simple win over a lacklustre Chelsea in their FA Cup fifth-round clash at the Etihad Stadium.

Jovetic had already clipped the bar with a chip before he placed an effort beyond Petr Cech after 16 minutes.

Despite the introduction of Mohamed Salah and Fernando Torres, Chelsea lacked spark throughout with the threat of Eden Hazard particularly nullified by a hungry City defence.

But it was a City substitution that finished the game off, with Nasri exchanging passes with an offside David Silva before slotting home to earn City a place in the quarter-final draw.

Before the highest-profile fifth round tie there was an impeccably-observed silence for Sir Tom Finney, the England and Preston legend, and the home side made a timid start amidst an understandably subdued atmosphere.

When City eventually settled, the opening goal was not far behind. Yaya Toure was the catalyst when his fierce shot was fumbled by Petr Cech, presenting Stevan Jovetic with a chance to score but his delicate chip grazed the crossbar.

City’s Montenegrin striker would not have to wait long for a goal though, and when Edin Dzeko found him on the right flank he finished off a quick passing move with a superbly-placed shot to Cech’s right which found the net via the post.

The goal confirmed City’s growing confidence but that was undermined by a shaky Costel Pantilimon, who ignited a goalmouth scramble with a flap at Branislav Ivanovic’s cross but, luckily for the 6ft 8in Romanian, his alert defence saw off the danger.

At the other end the hosts quickly resumed their silky attacking play and after 24 minutes another flowing attack culminated in Dzeko working Cech with a low shot from outside the box.

Chelsea’s disappointing start to the game was reflected by Eden Hazard’s anonymity, with the Belgian kept quiet by the City defence until some smart footwork drew a foul from compatriot Vincent Kompany who was booked by referee Phil Dowd.

Dowd was in action again just before the break, eventually booking David Luiz for a mis-timed challenge on Jovetic, but from the resultant advantage James Milner wasted a good opportunity when his heavy cross proved too strong for Dzeko to reach six yards from goal.

Jose Mourinho, who had been playing mind games all week with his title-hungry adversaries, reacted to a passive opening half by replacing Samuel Eto’o with new signing Mohamed Salah.

Salah replaced Eto’o up front in a move which continued Mourinho’s apparent lack of faith in Fernando Torres.

Mourinho would also have been keen to see his side establish themselves in the second half, but City continued to dominate without coaxing Cech into serious action.

Manuel Pellegrini, meanwhile, would have been angry when Jovetic proceeded to blemish what had been a diligent display with an embarrassing dive – prompting Dowd to brandish a yellow card.

It was to be Jovetic’s last action of the game, but he was replaced by the returning Samir Nasri on the hour with Mourinho giving Torres the chance to impose himself on his future plans at the expense of the quiet Ramires.

Nasri’s introduction would emerge as the crucial substitution when the Frenchman doubled City’s lead with a wonderful move after 67 minutes.

The attack began with Kompany, an imposing figure throughout, drilling a low ball to Nasri who fed David Silva before collecting the Spaniard’s square pass to calmly place the ball into a vacant net.

Television replays suggested that Silva was marginally offside when he received Nasri’s pass, but the officials went some way to redeeming themselves when correctly disallowing a Joleon Lescott tap-in from an offside position.

Chelsea could only muster a brief spell of pressure late on and duly failed to test Pantilimon in what was a microcosm for the whole match.

By then it was far too little far too late as City ran out comfortable winners to avenge their league defeat just 12 days previous and advance into the quarter-finals with ease.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89