2016 Tour de France preview – Third time lucky for Quintana?

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

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

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

The contenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other jerseys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stages

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

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

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

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

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

The Brits

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

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

Denouement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What followed was equally predictable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the pitch, the players followed suit.

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

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

But for England this was a truly horrific match.

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

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

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

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

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Euro debate: Rooney in, or Rooney out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So which three players should Hodgson drop from the squad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 sports stars who retired too soon

Put yourself in the mind of a sport star.

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

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

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

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

  1. Björn Borg – Tennis – retired aged 26

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Casey Stoner – MotoGP – retired aged 27

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Justine Henin – Tennis – retired aged 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Carolina Klüft – Athletics – retired aged 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Miguel Indurain – Cycling – retired aged 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 concepts to improve the sporting world

Any casual observer reading recent news headlines could be forgiven for thinking that sport, as a whole, is in a pretty bad state at the moment.

Whether it’s the continued allegations of doping in athletics, further details in the tale of the FIFA corruption scandal or match-fixing in tennis, bad news presently seems to follow sport around.

So, how do the various sporting authorities address these issues? The answer is with great difficulty.

All they seem to be doing on the surface is ‘standing strong’ against the cheats and ‘rebuilding for the future’.

This is typically understated media talk but rest assured beneath that exterior there is a lengthy list of proactive, reactive and preventative measures being drawn up and acted upon.

Aside from dealing with negative issues, what positive proactive steps could be taken to improve sport as a whole and, moving forward, what could the authorities do to regain the sporting public’s confidence?

  1. Lifetime bans for dopers and corrupt players/officials

There is no other way to weed out the cheats – lifetime bans must be given out. This is a hugely radical concept – one that is also extremely difficult to see happening but also one that would prove popular amongst clean players and officials.

Take the recent meldonium tests. Athletes can hide behind the ‘health reasons’ (only if you’re diabetic), but the 120-odd positive tests for the drug amongst high-profile sporting figures such as Maria Sharapova and Abeba Aregawi prove that a doping culture remains the biggest challenge facing athletics.

Decisive action should be taken. No excuses for missed tests. No namby-pamby two-year or four-year bans. Take the cheats out of sport completely – for life.

The same should happen with corrupt officials in football, for instance. There should never be another Sepp Blatter. Could there be a future situation where the public can elect FIFA’s officials?

  1. More money and media coverage at youth level

Sporting bodies are always boasting about the amount of care and attention they put into grassroots. Extra funding, boosting club projects and providing young talent with competitive arenas are just some of the things governing bodies and sponsors are keen to display.

For example, FIFA have enjoyed good coverage in lesser footballing nations for their part in developing facilities, coaching standards and youth training.

In England, the Football Foundation (funded by The FA, Premier League and the Government) contributes £36m each year to grassroots sport. However, FA chairman Greg Dyke has said grassroots is in crisis and wants to spend £250m by 2020 to create football hubs in 30 cities and increase the number of 3G pitches in urban areas to 500.

That £250m amounts to £14m more per year than the Football Foundation already spends, but is it enough considering the new £5.1bn package paid by Sky and BT to show Premier League games between 2016-19?

Under-21 football receives good media coverage, so too does junior motor racing in a large spread of formulae thanks to outputs such as Motors TV, Autosport and ITV4.

Meanwhile, 2015 Rugby World Cup revenue will enable the RFU to spend over £1m on grassroots rugby and predicts that 750 more state secondary schools will be playing the sport by 2019.

Cricket clubs also received grants totalling £2.5m in 2015 thanks to the England and Wales Cricket Trust’s partnership with Waitrose, which benefitted 801 clubs and helped 70% of those to generate further fundraising proceeds via their improved facilities.

Given the large sums of money flying around different sports there still seems to be an opportunity to do more at grassroots – particularly with media coverage. Could we see a youth sport TV channel pop up some time soon?

  1. Equality for women’s sport

As far as equal opportunities for women in sport go, they are very hard to come by. Only in tennis is there parity in earning potential at Grand Slams – and even then men’s world number one Novak Djokovic recently, and controversially, suggested men deserved more than women.

Women’s football has received noticeably more media attention in recent years – a trend that was helped by England’s third-place finish at the World Cup last year.

There is also lots of focus on women’s cycling with the exploits of world road race champion Lizzy Armitstead being closely followed as she dominates the peloton this season.

However, on the track there is a sexism row unfolding at British Cycling after allegations by Jess Varnish that she was told to have a baby after being dropped from the Great Britain team.

Olympic gold medallists Victoria Pendleton and Nicole Cooke have since raised concerns about alleged sexism at British Cycling in the wake of Varnish’s comments.

Clearly, hard work needs to be done to overhaul existing cultures in media and within women’s sport itself.

  1. Live coverage cap for pay TV companies

Pay TV is a growing concern for sport consumers in the UK. No longer can Premier League, Champions League, cricket and MotoGP fans watch live coverage of those events due to Sky and BT’s monopoly of the live broadcasting rights.

The BBC, ITV and C4 are routinely happy with winning the rights to highlights packages which at least allows non-Pay TV viewers to watch shows like Match of the Day, Champions League extra and F1 highlights.

C4’s existing deal to show 10 live F1 races per season will finish in 2018, allowing Sky to gain exclusivity and further reducing the number of live sporting events on affordable platforms such as Freeview and YouView.

While Pay TV generates a fortune for sport – notably in English football with the £5.1bn Premier League deal – it is also preventing young people from watching and being inspired to take up a sport.

Despite BT’s free-to-air ‘Showcase’ channel featuring 12 live Champions league games this season, viewing figures have been poor. A peak audience of just 200,000 compared to ITV’s 4.4m for the play-off round and group stages.

F1 is suffering in this country too, with Sky’s coverage generally receiving just 10% of the viewership that the BBC did in 2015.

Sponsors are increasingly turning their backs on pay TV too, following concerns about the number of people watching adverts etc.

It is a difficult balancing act, though. Pay TV is a convenient way for sporting bodies to generate revenue, but perhaps people would be more likely to sign up if it was cheaper.

Why not test a coverage cap idea, where pay TV companies can only monopolise a given amount of live sport per season?

  1. Use of video technology in football

Video technology is prevalent in many sports, particularly rugby and cricket. F1 stewards also look at different camera angles to adjudicate on racing incidents.

Not all sports use it though. Football is the notable exception. With money spilling into football, why can’t a rapid system be developed to check penalty, offside and booking decisions? Would it really hurt the flow of play? Many fans think it doesn’t in rugby and cricket, so why would football be any different?

Even snooker and cycling use video technology, whether it be the World Championship or the Tour de France. It’s time for football to keep up with the 21st century.

  1. Pundit school for inept analysts

This slightly more light-hearted suggestion would put an end to the horror shows that we have to endure when watching sport. There would be no more Michael Owens stating the obvious, no more Martin Keowns mispronouncing players’ names. No more know-it-alls like Robbie Savage and Joey Barton who cast their opinions on Champions League football despite never having played in Europe’s elite club competition.

What sporting fans are looking for is to be enlightened on the mechanics of a match that are not obvious to the untrained eye. What are the sub-plots? What tactics are being used? Which player is having a blinder under the radar, and for what reasons?

Sky Sports have done more than most to address the dying art of punditry, recruiting Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. More must be done to create pundits that make the half-time analysis slots as enjoyable and informative as the game itself.

Perhaps a pundit school or an analyst academy is the solution?

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

2016 F1 season preview

Anyone fancy a bit of Hamilton vs. Rosberg, or Mercedes vs. Ferrari?

Yes, the new F1 season is upon us almost as soon as the 2015 season ended.

After a couple of pre-season tests in Barcelona the teams have packed up and flown to Australia for the first race of the 2016 campaign.

But, easily the biggest question that has circulated the paddock over the winter surrounds the improvement of Ferrari – can they beat Mercedes to the championship title?

Are Ferrari catching Mercedes?

Pre-season testing indicated little in the way of outright pace, headline times were unreliable and there were different teams using different tyres, engine maps, fuel loads etc.

Even so, some number crunchers have concluded that Ferrari may have edged a little closer to their German rivals.

Mercedes are predicted to continue their dominance but if Ferrari have closed the gap, hiding their pace in testing, it presents a very attractive scenario for the season.

F1 has been starved of a two-team title battle for the past three seasons. Not since the infamous Vettel/Alonso scrap in 2012 have two drivers from two separate teams been contesting the title until the last race.

Naturally, the sub-plot to Mercedes’ superiority is the decline in attendances at some races and, worryingly, falling television audiences.

That Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have been virtually untouchable during the hybrid era has been the final straw for some fans who are either upset at astronomical raceday tickets or the rising cost of pay-to-view television.

So, do Ferrari have more than their reputation on the line? Is their challenge of Mercedes vital to the future of the sport? With every passing race it certainly seems that way.

The answers will begin to become apparent when the 2016 season is established and we know where all the teams stand.

Grid hierarchy

It definitely appears as if Mercedes and Ferrari are the top dogs, while Williams may just be at the head of a tight-looking midfield involving Red Bull, Force India and Toro Rosso – who have switched to 2015 Ferrari power-units this season.

Much of the spotlight will be on the latter’s Max Verstappen, who had a rookie season to remember last year.

Then there is McLaren, who have been encouraged by the news that Honda have fixed their ERS deployment issues, gaining the team multiple tenths of a second per lap.

Can they mix it with the four midfielders?

It’s widely expected that American newcomers Haas may struggle while they sort inevitable teething problems out, but they have decent pace and should be aiming for the occasional points finish with Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez at the wheel.

Renault might be fighting with McLaren, while Sauber will have to beat off competition from the revamped Manor team who are hoping to rid themselves of the perennial backmarker tag.

New rules

Over the winter F1 rushed to get qualifying updated to a new elimination format. The system is similar to track cycling’s elimination race where the slowest competitor is eliminated after a given period.

Q1 will last 16 minutes, with elimination beginning in the final minutes and seeing one driver omitted every 90 seconds until seven are gone.

Q2 is 15 minutes with the same system, while Q3 sees the top eight places decided in a 14-minute shootout.

The tyre rules have also been given a shake-up, with Pirelli adding a new purple-walled ultra-soft compound to the mix alongside the new rule that allows teams and drivers to pick their tyres from the three slick compounds Pirelli will bring to each race.

Theoretically this could see Hamilton on medium tyres being chased down by Rosberg and Vettel on super-softs – which is exactly the type of exciting scenario F1 bosses intended to craft.

Strict new radio rules also come into force in 2016, meaning drivers will have to think problems out without the help and guidance of their race engineers.

So, it’s an F1 season with some good racing ahead of it. Have Ferrari closed the gap to Mercedes or will it be Hamilton against Rosberg for the third successive year?

Stay glued to your screens to find out.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 or WordPress: neilwalton089

 

Is the England cricket team on an upward trend?

England’s Test series win away to world number one side South Africa is about as rare as they come these days.

Not since 2012 had England won a Test series away from home, and to do it against South Africa has led to all sorts of glamourous predictions for the future of England’s Test side.

Firstly, are England actually any good?

They have a top quality bowling attack, with Stuart Broad and James Anderson leading the line and Steven Finn, Ben Stokes plus Moeen Ali’s improving off-spin to call upon.

But their batting has long been a concern and still remains the gremlin in their line-up. Only captain Alastair Cook and number four Joe Root can truly be considered world-class, and there is a gaping hole beside Cook for the second opener’s spot.

Alex Hales is the most recent of eight men tasked with cementing a place alongside Cook but he has struggled for runs as his lazy technique outside off stump repeatedly sees him edge behind.

After a solid opening Test, Nick Compton has faded in his comeback series, while James Taylor’s fielding has been more impressive than his batting so far.

However, the lower order looks very promising with Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Ali all capable of scoring fluently should the top order fail – which it regularly does.

The other problem for England is that they’ve beaten a South African side stripped of premier bowlers Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander.

Steyn is the best pacer in the world and scared England in Durban before his shoulder injury, while Philander provides accuracy and stifles the flow of runs. It would have been a much tougher series for England had those two been fit.

Add to that South Africa’s dismal thrashing in India and England should really have been expected to beat them.

There are problems internally too, with the team bereft of a suitable leader.

Hashim Amla started the series as skipper but was guilty of some embarrassing captaincy when Stokes plundered 258 in Cape Town and immediately stepped down after realising his ineptitude in a role he never really wanted.

That left AB de Villiers in charge and he is also reluctant to hold on to it any longer, especially with his potential Test retirement looming after this series.

Amidst the gloom, two shining lights for the Proteas have been Dean Elgar and Kagiso Rabada.

Elgar has shown himself to be a gritty competitor, in the same mould as a Mike Hussey or a Chris Rogers. His ability to repel Broad and Anderson was noteworthy but he did look vulnerable to the rising ball, especially when facing the bounce of Finn.

In Rabada, they have a young paceman of serious potential. At just 20 years old he already bowls at 90mph and has consistently threatened England’s batsmen on this tour with a sharp line and length.

Imagine Steyn, Rabada and Philander all steaming in and South Africa will be back in business very soon.

So, in answer to this blog’s title, yes, England are on an upward trend.

They have winnable battles with Pakistan and Sri Lanka this summer before a daunting trip to the sub-continent where they face India after a brief sojourn to Bangladesh.

Given their deficiencies against Pakistan in the UAE, they may struggle again with the same sort of slow, low, turning pitches they will encounter next winter.

But, for the moment, they have the best bowler in Test cricket – Stuart Broad. Number five, James Anderson, isn’t bad either.

Joe Root is also handily placed at number two in the Test batsman’s rankings, while the team as a whole remain sixth behind South Africa, India, Australia, Pakistan and New Zealand.

That will surely improve come the end of 2016 and into the Bangladesh tour, but it is against India – who are set to replace South Africa in top spot – where the yardstick lies.

The real upward trend will be set if England can gain a positive result in that series.

Then we’ll see whether all the hype surrounding the likes of Stokes and Broad can be justified.

Right now, there’s a lot to be cheery about if you’re an English cricket fan. Here’s hoping there’s plenty more where that came from.

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