Ashes Preview

It is merely a couple of weeks away from the biggest showdown in world cricket. Australia and England are set to do battle yet again in what will surely be one of the most intriguing Ashes series in a long time. England come into it unsurprisingly as underdogs, as many fancy Australia’s strong top order, and destructive pace battery. However, with England the current holders of the urn, they will no doubt be more focused than ever on retaining it.

England Preview-

England come into this Ashes series with a major setback. They will be without arguably the best all round cricketer in the world right now in Ben Stokes unless something drastic changes with his police case. Still, without Stokes they remain a definite threat to the Aussies with a strong squad. Alastair Cook and Mark Stoneman seem to complement each other well as opening partners, with Cook grinding his innings out, whereas Stoneman is seen as the dasher, quite similar in a way to Australia’s opening pairing of Warner and Renshaw. Joe Root will be captaining England for the first time in an Ashes series, and he will of course be expected to lead from the front with his batting. If there is one thing that can be criticised about Root’s game, it is that he has a definite problem with converting his 50’s into 100’s. This issue will need to be urgently ironed out for this series if England want to win, as Root is by far and away England’s best batsman, and has the capability to take apart and completely demoralise opposition bowling attacks once he starts finding rhythm as the crease.

England’s middle order is going to be very hard to predict for the first game at the Gabba. Without Stokes, who has cemented his place at number 6 in recent years, they find themselves in need of a player who can come in and perform as well as he has. They have many options in their squad, with the likes of Gary Ballance, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan and possibly even Craig Overton being possibilities for that role. The scrutiny will definitely however be on James Vince. He is almost certain to bat at 3 in the first test, and in all honestly, won’t even have to perform that well if he is to better his first part of his England test career. He failed to pass 50 in every one of the 7 tests that he played back in the summer of 2016, and was subsequently dropped for the subcontinent tours. Despite a very mediocre county season, averaging in the mid 30’s for Hampshire, Vince was called up as a replacement for the dropped Tom Westley for the Ashes. Many ex professionals including Shane Warne had called for his inclusion, based on the fact that he appears to have a technique that is a lot more suited for Australian conditions than English ones, which in other words means, he prefers to bat on flat tracks as opposed to ones that do a bit.

England’s bowlers have notoriously struggled in Australia, with the same style bowler going out there and getting the same results- right arm medium fast bowlers who can’t move the Kookaburra ball getting hammered by the Aussie batsmen. They perhaps have a better chance this year, with maiden away Ashes series for Chris Woakes, Craig Overton and Jake Ball. I personally think that Craig Overton should be given a go. He has the ability to bowl for long sessions and bowl fast and accurately. Overton would be a difficult customer for the Aussies to deal with, and couple that with his ability to come in and score quick runs with the bat, he is a definite contender for a debut in Brisbane. Should Moeen Ali not pass his fitness test and be ruled out for the first test, then England will be forced to choose whether to go with an all out pace attack, or to include the spin of Mason Crane. Crane has impressed in his short international career so far, albeit in the shortest format, but the potential is definitely there for everyone to see. He has experience bowling in Australia as he made his Shield debut for New South Wales last year, and picked up a 5-fer at the SCG.

Overall, England’s team has the potential to be a very strong outfit, but there are a few players who need to solidify their positions and make them their own. The players inexperience in Australian conditions and an Ashes series might play a factor, with only Cook, Root, Anderson, Finn and Broad a part of the England squad that got mauled by the Aussies in 2013.

Predicted Line up for the first Test at the Gabba:

Cook, Stoneman, Vince, Root (c), Ballance, Bairstow (wk), Moeen, Woakes, Overton, Broad, Anderson

 

Australia Preview-

Australia come into the series lacking test match practise you could say. Since the India tour in February, they have only had one test series against Bangladesh which finished 1-1. They look to have a more settled team than England do, with question marks only really raised over the number 6 role and the wicket keeping position. At the top of the order, Warner will be relied on heavily to score big as he always does at home, and will look to get on top of the England bowlers right from the off. Matt Renshaw is a stark contrast to Warner as a batsman and the partnership is reminiscent of the Warner-Rogers partnership which dominated world cricket for a few years. Steve Smith will be the man to watch as always, with his test average reaching 60 this year, something that the great Ricky Ponting once achieved in his career at one stage as well.

Australia’s middle order has the potential to be very dangerous. Peter Handscomb comes in at 4 with a test average of over 50, and a lot of cricket played for him in more challenging conditions than what he is likely to face at home. The Aussies have the ability to play both Glenn Maxwell and Hilton Cartwright in that middle order to follow Handscomb- something which England might find to difficult to manage. Maxwell is destructive, a brutal yet innovative player who refuses to die wandering even in the longest form of the game. Hilton Cartwright is more of a reliable batsman, if not a bit less entertaining than Maxi. Cartwright averages 50 in first class and has only really just begun his international career. He is also a more than handy bowler, as Steve Smith can surely attest to, as Cartwright dismissed his skipper in the New South Wales vs Western Australia shield game a few days ago. They do have other options as well as these two, with Shaun Marsh always a reliable batsman wherever he plays in the order, and with his brother Mitchell looking in supreme form domestically, we could potentially see the Marsh brothers at 5 and 6 for Australia. The main issue for the Aussies however, is the wicket keeping position. It has been an issue that has plagued them ever since the retirement of Adam Gilchrist, and is currently at it’s worst point. Matthew Wade has demonstrated time and again in his turbulent international career that he is not reliable with the gloves, and doesn’t score the amount of runs to potentially ignore his wicket keeping flaws. There is no real challenge from anyone else on the domestic scene though, with there being no full time keepers who boast good enough batting stats. It will come down to Wade vs Peter Nevill for the role, and all signs point to Wade at the moment, but this is a area in which Australia will be concerned.

The Aussie bowling unit is probably the best bowling attack going around at the moment. They have a ridiculous amount of world class fast bowlers, so much so that not all of them can get a game, and have to be satisfied with carrying drinks, or not even selected at all! Their main threats are of course Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins. Starc is looking absolutely lethal with the ball right now, and will definitely fancy himself against the technically flawed Gary Ballance if he plays. Starc has just taken a career best 8 wicket innings haul for New South Wales, and then followed it up next game with a hat trick against Western Australia. Hazlewood is a top 5 bowler right now, with his outstanding ability to hit the perfect line and length every ball with great pace earning him rightful comparisons with Glenn McGrath. Cummins is the quickest of the lot, and whilst his international debut against South Africa feels so long ago, he is still very young, and has plenty of time to improve. If Cummins can consistently hit 150kph plus, then England’s batsmen might start to panic, and have flashbacks to Mitchell Johnson’s pace barrage 4 years back. This is all without mentioning their leading wicket taker in Tests this year Nathan Lyon, who is probably right now the best spinner in the world across all conditions. Lyon has spun Australia to numerous victories this year, and will enjoy bowling to an England line up that has shown an inability to cope with the turning ball at times recently.

Overall, it really is hard to look past Australia at the moment with the way their squad lines up. Their batsmen have such incredible records, and ability to score the big hundreds, and once that is coupled with the fact that their bowling attack can take out any top team in the world, it makes them perhaps too hot to handle.

Predicted line up for the First Test at the Gabba:

Warner, Renshaw, Smith (c), Handscomb, Cartwright/Khawaja, Maxwell, Wade (wk), Cummins, Starc, Hazlewood, Lyon

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World Cup Day 4 Recap

After an action packed start to the World Cup, the games kept on coming on Sunday and there was only one place I was going to be sat for the three games that were on.

The first game came from Group E as Costa Rica entertained Serbia. On paper, the game seemed as though it wouldn’t be appealing, but I was just as excited to watch this game as any other. Serbia have been a team in transition for a number of years, and they are starting to produce some quality footballers and now have a team that looks like it could potentially take them places. They have a good blend of youth and experience, and looked like a well organised team against Costa Rica. Both teams played pretty well, and it was difficult for both to break down each others defences. The standout player of the match was Sergej Milinkovic-Savic who I have been keeping a close eye on these past 2 seasons at Lazio, and I was excited to see how he performed at an international tournament. Milinkovic-Savic was superb, and I could tell just watching him that he is going to be some player. He dominated and bossed the attacking midfield region, having a very good blend of quick feet and agility as well as strength and power, which makes him a force to be reckoned with for defenders. He was precise with his passes, and showed a key attribute which I believe separates the top players with the others, and that was his decision making. It is often the case that young players lack the right decision making in the final third particularly, and I believe we see that with Kylian Mbappe, but with Milinkovic-Savic, I was very impressed with his vision, and his composure to get his head up, and slot Mitrovic in on goal when the opportunity presented itself. Mitrovic up top was a disappointment for me. He possesses qualities similar to Diego Costa, in that he is a tenacious, strong and aggressive forward, who tends to bully centre backs off the ball. The problem with Mitrovic was that he failed to demonstrate prolific qualities such as finishing and composure in the box that makes a great striker great. He was put through on goal a number of times, and each time either got the ball stuck under his feet, or failed to beat the keeper. It appears to me as if Serbia need to think about playing another striker alongside him, who can bang in the goals while Mitrovic is that target man up front who wins the balls and supplies to his striking partner. Serbia scored the only goal of the game when Aleksandar Kolarov curled in a beautiful free kick from some way out midway through the second half. Costa Rica didn’t really threaten Serbia much, and looked short of goals, but they did show a lot of heart and courage in the defense and midfield to keep Serbia at bay at times. I do think that with a more prolific striker, Serbia would have perhaps scored a few more, but they will be happy to get their campaign underway with a win, putting them top of their group.

I was thoroughly looking forward to the second game, which saw Group F get underway with a very intriguing match up in Germany vs Mexico. Coming into the game, I was surprised that so many people were writing off Mexico as they have a good team, and have performed very well in qualifying. In the first half, it was clear that Mexico were employing a Liverpool esque counter attacking style, which saw them constantly hit Germany on the break at rip roaring speed with their two wingers and forward. Mexico scored the opening and only goal of the game in the 20th minute when a swift counter saw the ball fall to Hirving Lozano, and the PSV man cut inside his man and buried the chance with aplomb. Lozano started the season for PSV in red hot form, and I closely followed his season, and was impressed with his technical ability coupled with his lightning pace. Lozano has been linked with a move to Liverpool, and he certainly proved in the first half that he fits in with their style of play. Mexico could have scored 3 or 4 in that first half if there final ball was a bit more improved. They were constantly exposing Kimmich for his forward runs, and Hummels and Boateng looked incredibly shaky against the pace of Mexico’s attacking counters. Throughout the game, Germany looked lothargic and very lackadaisical in their passing and movement. Muller and Ozil were particularly disappointing as they frequently gave away possession and kept playing horrible drifted balls into the box, which does not suit Germany’s style. I guess it was a testament to how well Mexico were playing that Germany had to resort to that. The game finished 0-1, and Germany have some serious problems to fix. I thought that when he came on, Julian Brandt looked a very exciting and talented player, and perhaps they could start him ahead of Draxler for their next game. They need to ensure that they don’t get hit so easily on the counter, because a more clinical team than Mexico would have torn them to shreds similar to how they tore Brazil to shreds in 2014.

Speaking of Brazil, they played in the final game of the day in the second Group E of the day as they took on Switzerland. The Swiss are certainly no mugs, and proved it today as they truly went toe to toe with the South Americans. Brazil flew out of the starting blocks, and were all over Switzerland to begin with, stringing together lovely one touch moves, resulting in scoring chances. The goal did eventually come in the first half through a Phillipe Coutinho wonder strike. During his time at Liverpool, and since he joined Barcelona, Coutinho has scored plenty of goals similar to this one, stepping inside on his right foot and bending it perfectly out of the goalkeepers reach from outside the box. Brazil deserved their goal, but Switzerland did not wilt. They essentially made it their aim to foul Neymar so much that he couldn’t have any influence on the game. The Brazilians were going down like bowling pins all over the pitch, and crucially for Switzerland, were not getting anywhere with the ball. Frustration and annoyance seemingly crept into their game, as they became sloppy on the ball, and started fouling Switzerland back. Just after the restart, Switzerland got their equaliser through a Steven Zuber header from a set play. Switzerland continued from here with their game plan and nullified any Brazilian attack with tenacious defending from their midfield as well as their defence. There is a reason why Switzerland are ranked so highly in the FIFA rankings, and they showed it today. They performed very well as a team, and all understood their roles very well. Brazil were electrifying at times, and showed glimpses of why they are tipped to go all the way and win the tournament by many, but Switzerland kept the same pace, and I thought outplayed Brazil for a lot of the second half mentally. It will be fascinating to see this group play out, as I was very impressed with Switzerland as well as Serbia today, although I do still see Brazil topping this group.

Tomorrow’s games see Sweden take on South Korea, Belgium against Panama, and then the big one. Is it coming home? No more years of hurt? We will find out how England get on against Tunisia in their opening World Cup game.

World Cup Day 3 Recap

Day 3 of the World Cup promised to be one of the best days of the tournament so far, with four games taking place over the course of the day.

The day began with France taking on massive underdogs Australia. France come into this tournament with huge expectations as being one of the best squads, and as one of the favourites to lift the trophy at the end. I was highly anticipating watching the French team in action, but afterwards I have to confess being underwhelmed and unimpressed by their performance against a plucky, but not overly impressive Australia team. I was expecting to see electrifying runs down the wings from Dembele and Mbappe, with Griezmann in the box ready to pounce on any loose ball. It didn’t quite play out that way, with France seeming very languid in their build up play, and quite sloppy in possession. They were defensively sound, but I felt as though they were not making the most of their offensive options. They took the lead in the second half after a boring, goalless first 45 minutes, when Griezmann was brought down in the box for a penalty. He tucked it away confidently, and is underway for the Cup in his first game, which will surely give him a big confidence boost. Sure enough though, only minutes later, and a moment of madness from Samuel Umtiti saw him thrust his hand in the air and almost punch the ball from out of the box, resulting in a penalty. Mile Jedinak stepped up and buried the penalty, leaving France in a poor situation after 60 minutes against the weakest team in their group. France however, did get their winner, and it came in the last 10 minutes of the game from Paul Pogba, who managed to just get the ball of the bar and over the line to break the Aussie spirits. All in all, it was a frustrating performance from France, but the good news is that they have plenty of time in which to figure out their mistakes and improve their game.

The second game saw Argentina take on Iceland, and the big question was how Argentina were going to play as a team. We all know how much quality lies in that Argentinian attack, especially when you are having to leave guys like Mauro Icardi at home after the season he has just had. The Icelandic team still lives long in the memories of English fans, who will all recall how England were knocked out by the Scandinavian team back in Euro 2016. The game was quite end to end at the start, with Iceland enjoying plenty of space in the Argentine box, and getting a few shots away in the process. Argentina took the lead when Man City striker Sergio Aguero blasted the ball into the top corner from inside the penalty box to give them the ideal start. Aguero has a poor record at World Cups and will surely be glad to get his first goal of a World Cup game in their first of 2018. The joy was to be short lived for Argentina as Iceland capitalised on lacklustre and unconvincing defending at the back, and Finbogasson buried his chance when it fell to him from the edge of the six yard box. Iceland performed heroically throughout the game, and their defending was top drawer, as was their composure and decision making up and down the pitch. From an Argentinian perspective, I thought their performance was atrocious. If I was an Argentine fan, then I would be asking serious questions, as their game plan was one of the worst I’ve seen for a supposed top ranked team. Their play quite literally revolved around giving the ball to Messi and hoping he could produce some magic. Even for the casual football fan, it is clear to see why this tactic is so flawed, and why it is so mind-blowing that Argentina chose to play like this. The Icelandic team realised the game plan almost instantly, and just started throwing three men to man mark Lionel Messi and essentially stop him from having any space to have any creative spark. This worked perfectly as Messi was subdued throughout the game, and yet Argentina didn’t change their tactics at all. They are a team full of talented players, and yet they were repeatedly being ignored as they made runs, because the team was so focused on giving the ball to Messi. Couple this with the fact that their defence and central midfield is below average, and you have to question why Argentina are ranked where they are. Messi’s situation was not helped when he missed a penalty that was given midway through the second half. Again, I have to question the decision making in this team. Messi has a pretty average record from the penalty spot, domestically and internationally, and realistically should have given the ball to Aguero, who has a much better record from 12 yards. The game finished 1-1 and I was angry at the way Argentina went about this game, as it showed a complete lack of awareness as to what it takes to win World Cup games. They need to fix themselves up very quickly if they are to get anything out of the game against Croatia on Thursday.

The last two games were definitely not as entertaining as any of the other games we have seen at the World Cup so far.

The first was Denmark against Peru which was the second game from Group C. It was a cagey affair, with neither team creating any clear cut chances, or having more of the play. The big moment in the first half did come when Peru were awarded a penalty for a foul, but perhaps overcome by nerves, Cuellar blasted it way over the bar and into the crowd, giving Denmark a lifeline. The penalty miss must have stung the Peruvian confidence, because although they were the better team for the rest of the game, they could never find that chance to open the scoring. The only goal of the game did come through Yussuf Poulsen as he slotted in a nice finish from inside the box. Before the game, many were anticipating Christian Eriksen’s performance amidst plenty of transfer rumours linking him with a move to Barcelona. He was fairly quiet throughout the game, and didn’t really have much of an influence on the result. Despite Peru being the better team, Denmark got the result, and will perhaps fancy themselves as a chance against the French who didn’t look convincing either in their win over Australia.

The final game saw Croatia take on Nigeria, and after Nigeria gave England a bit of a scare in a friendly match the other week, there was an air of uncertainty to this match. Their needn’t have been however, as Nigeria were poor from the outset. They lacked energy, skill or decision making to ever concern Croatia at all. Croatia looked slick on the ball, and with the influence of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in midfield, bossed the game from the centre of the park. It was a pretty dull game with barely any action. Croatia weren’t looking to force chances, and Nigeria were shockingly bad with their passing and team cohesion. The opening goal came towards the end of the first half when Etebo put the ball into his own net after uncertainty in the box from a corner caused panic among the defence. Nigeria went into the break 1 down and needed to come back out showing fight and passion to bring themselves back into the game. It was more of the same however, in fact probably worse, as Croatia continued to control the game under no real pressure. Croatia bagged their second goal from 12 yards, on this day of penalties. The Nigerian defender Ekong seemingly forgot that he was playing, and perhaps thought he was in the UFC as he grabbed a hold of Mandzukic’s neck in the box, putting him in a headlock right in front of the referee. A decision that summed up Nigeria’s performance, and Modric stepped up and coolly slotted in from the spot to seal the 3 points for Croatia. All in all, it was a solid game for Croatia who can take many positives from the game, one major one being that they didn’t have to exert too much energy in getting a comfortable win in their first game. For Nigeria however, they will have a lot to worry about as their team seems to have no cohesion, and were seemingly bereft of ideas during the match.

Tomorrow’s games include Costa Rica vs Serbia, Germany vs Mexico and the much anticipated Brazil against Switzerland.

World Cup Day 2 Recap

With the incredible game that was Portgual vs Spain, it is almost hard to remember that there was two other games on today in day 2 of the World Cup.

The day began with the second game from Group A, as Uruguay took on Egypt. Before the tournament, a lot was being made of whether Mohamed Salah would be fit enough to start the first game against Uruguay, and as it turned out, he didn’t play a minute. Whilst the game was not an end to end thriller, it still excited in parts, and we were treated to some potent attacking play from Uruguay’s two world class forwards, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. The PSG striker was the more effective of the two, as Suarez seemed unusually ineffective in front of goal. Cavani looked electric at times, and stung the hands of the goalkeeper a couple of times with some long range efforts. Without Salah, Egypt never looked like breaking the defensive line of Uruguay, and were having to rely on solid defending to hold out for a draw. I believe that Uruguay have the best centre back in the world in Diego Godin, and he forms a brilliant partnership for Uruguay, with his Atletico Madrid teammate Jose Maria Gimenez. They were both rock solid at the back, and whilst many people were expecting a goal to come from the likes of Cavani or Suarez, it was Gimenez who broke Egyptian hearts in the dying minutes, with a leap from a corner and a wonderful header past the helpless keeper. Uruguay hung on to the victory, and join Russia in their group of having winning starts. For Egypt, it was always going to be tough without their star man, and without a real threat up front to challenge the Uruguayan backline. For the North African team, they will have to pray that Salah will be back for the next game, and will know that a win at all costs performance is required.

In the second game, the first game of Group B saw Morocco take on Iran, in what turned out to be a real game of two halves. In the first half, Morocco looked full of quality, and their midfielders and defenders showed real technical ability on the ball, and desire to get the ball forwards fast, and attack Iran in short, sharp bursts. In qualifying, Iran have had an incredible amount of clean sheets, and their defensive prowess was definitely on display against the Moroccans, whose lack of goals was certainly not from a lack of trying. The Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand put in a very good shift for his country, and I was intrigued to find out that he was voted in the FIFA Top 10 goalkeepers in the world this year, which is a remarkable story for someone who was sleeping rough and was a pizza delivery driver not so long ago. The second half was not as interesting, and became a scrappy affair, lacking the technical qualities as exhibited in the first half. In the end, it was another late heartbreaking goal, as Bouhaddouz of Morocco was the unfortunate man who put the ball into his own net in the 95th minute, to see the Iranians grab the first win of Group B in this year’s World Cup.

All expectations were on the final game of the day in Portugal vs Spain, and boy did it live up to those expectations. Right from the word go, the game was fast paced and frantic. Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a fairly modest record at World Cups leading up to this year- especially by his standards, had an electric start, and won a penalty in the 4th minute with a beautiful piece of trickery that saw his Real Madrid teammate Nacho Fernandez bring him down. As is customary, Ronaldo buried the penalty with the kind of composure that we have seen from him in many a major tournament final. Portugal had the good start, but Spain were mesmerising to watch. From a football purist’s point of view, Spain are the absolute dream. Every single player in that Spain team has ridiculous technical skill coupled with a football brain that makes many of them complete footballers. It did not take long before Spain were level, and what a goal it was. Sergio Busquets, who I firmly believe is one of the most important players in that team, picked out a long ball to Diego Costa, who exemplified why is one of the most physical and most prolific strikers around, as he used his strength to send Pepe to the ground, and then completely out muscled Jose Fonte, and buried his chance from the edge of the box. It was a beautiful goal, and was a wonderful sight to see Costa simply bully the Portuguese defenders with such ease. As half time was approaching, the commentators were saying how Portugal would be lucky to see the game at 1-1 at half time, when the unthinkable happened, and David de Gea came out in support of Loris Karius by letting a Ronaldo shot slip through his hands, and showing the Liverpool goalkeeper that even the best make mistakes sometimes. This was a much needed confidence boost for Portugal, going into half time 2-1 up against a Spain team that was looking unplayable at times. In the second half, it was evident that Spain had been given a slight dressing down, as they came out even more fast and efficient as before. Their passing and movement was bordering on magical, and I have to say that Isco is fast becoming one of the best footballers in the world. He was unreal, his first touch was sublime, his dribbling, movement, vision, passing and understanding of the game was better than any player on that pitch. Spain soon had their equaliser, a very well worked free kick, saw Busquets provide another assist with a header across goal, to supply another Diego Costa, this time slightly more simple than his first. Spain now had the momentum with them, and Portugal could barely get the ball out of their own half. Ronaldo cut a frustrated, and somewhat isolated figure up front, almost wishing that he had the opportunity to create a piece of magic for his country…-hold that thought. In the meantime, Spain had taken the lead with what is surely going to be considered as one of the goals of the tournament, as Nacho Fernandez, a centre back, showed exquisite technique to volley the ball from outside the box, and send it fizzing off his laces off the post, and in, leaving Rui Patricio with no chance, and giving Spain the lead they richly deserved. Step forward, Cristiano Ronaldo. With the game dying down, and Portugal searching for anything to give them a way back into the game, they were given a huge opportunity in the 87th minute, as Ronaldo spun Gerard Pique, and was brought down just outside the box. As Danny Murphy on commentary was saying that Ronaldo would not be able to get it up and over the wall and in, Ronaldo gave his answer by bending a sumptuous strike up and over the wall into the top corner, this time nothing David de Gea could’ve done to save it. Portugal had their equaliser and Ronaldo was once more the hero of a nation. At the end of the game, Portgual were celebrating as though it were a victory, and Spain were agonising as though it were a loss. Spain will be incredibly disappointed with the way they conceded their three goals. Two came from set plays that could have been easily avoided with smarter defending, and one came from a goalkeeping howler from the best in the world. The difficulty of playing against someone like Ronaldo is if you give him only a chance, he’s going to punish you, and Spain will need to ensure that they don’t concede any more goals like that in future that were definitely preventable.

The World Cup is just getting started, and tomorrow promises even more thrilling action, with the likes of Australia, Peru and Iceland playing, and I suppose, France, Argentina, Croatia and Denmark.

 

World Cup Day 1 Recap

The biggest sporting event in the world got underway earlier, with the hosts Russia playing against Saudi Arabia. There was a lot of uncertainty about the result before kick off, with Saudi Arabia having put up a good showing against Germany a few days ago, and Russia having a notoriously poor record in major tournaments.

There was however, no need to be concerned if you were a Russian fan. Right from the starting whistle, they were at the top of their game, slick passing and movement and a high pressing system, which Saudi Arabia just could not cope with. Whilst the Saudi players possessed a fair amount of pace on the break, they simply lacked the decision making, and effectiveness in passing and movement to give Russia any troubles at all. Russia took the lead very early on, with Gazinsky heading in from a Golovin cross. The problems just kept mounting for Saudi Arabia as substitute Denis Cheryshev showed fantastic composure inside the box and produced a wonderful finish to belt the ball past the keeper after beating two defenders. At half time it was 2-0 and it had been plain sailing for Russia. Saudi Arabia’s defending was non-existent and they were being exposed big time. It didn’t get any easier for them after the break, as Russia continued to mount the pressure, and this resulted in a third goal as substitute Dyzuba headed in with ease. By this point, the Saudi players’ heads had completely dropped, and Denis Cheryshev capped a wonderful performance with a stunning volley from an acute angle that gave Russia their fourth, and perhaps sent a message to the rest of their group that they are there to be taken as serious contenders. The rout was completed as wonderkid Aleksandr Golovin curled in a free kick from 25 yards out into the top corner, capping a dream start to the tournament for the hosts in front of an expectant and jubilant crowd. A 5-0 defeat in such a fashion for Saudi Arabia surely leaves them with a mountain to climb after just the first game, with arguably tougher tests in Uruguay and Egypt coming up.

Star Man:

Aleksandr Golovin had been marked before the tournament started as Russia’s best and most important player, and he didn’t disappoint. I thought Golovin was flawless, and exemplified a perfect midfield performance. His passing was spot on, and his vision, decision making and execution were up there as the best of anyone on the pitch. Russia have been crying out for a potential superstar like Golovin for some time now, and what a story it would be for the hosts if their team can simply build on this win and carry such form into their remaining group games.

It certainly has been a brilliant start to the tournament, and with three games on tomorrow, the fun has only just started.

World Cup Preview- France

In terms of squad depth and world class players, there are very few teams competing at this years World Cup that can match up with France. The last 10 years have been crucial for French football in bringing through and developing their youngsters into top class talent, after some disappointing tournament results. They come into this tournament having finished runner’s up in Euro 2016 in a final that everybody expected them to win.

In goal, France have their captain and most experienced player in the squad Hugo Lloris, who is coming off a decent season with Tottenham. In years gone by, Lloris has been seen as one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the world, but this season, he has shown that he is well capable of mistakes and has started to look slightly error prone. He is still a world class goalkeeper, but France will need their captain to be at the top of his game, if he is to keep the attackers in this tournament at bay.

France’s defence is incredibly solid, with a centre back pairing of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti,who have both been playing at the top of their game for Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. Varane is captaincy material, and is a true leader at the back. What most people don’t realise when watching Varane is how quick he is, as well as his strength and defensive skills. Varane has outpaced players like Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang before who is known as one of the fastest players in football, so he is definitely not the player who is going to be exploited in behind the back-line. Samuel Umtiti has had a solid season for Barcelona that has just resulted in a new contract extension, to go along with the league title that Barcelona won so convincingly. As far as the full backs go, France will be buoyed by the return to fitness of Benjamin Mendy, who last season at Monaco, made his name as one of the most exciting attacking full backs in the world, with his pinpoint accuracy from crosses. You also feel that Mendy’s game can only have come on leaps and bounds after working with Pep Guardiola for a full season, despite having a long lay off due to injury. France’s squad depth also comes into play with their centre backs, where if either of Umtiti or Varane gets injured or suspended, they have the likes of Benjamin Pavard, Adil Rami or Presnel Kimpembe to call upon. In my opinion, Pavard is one of the most exciting and talented defenders in the world, and has been impressing many with his standout performances this season for Stuttgart. If France qualify early from the group stage, I would love to see Pavard given a chance to impress, and also show some of the big clubs in world football what he is about, as I believe clubs such as Arsenal and Liverpool should be taking a very keen interest in him.

Whilst a strong defence is obviously one of the most integral parts of winning a tournament such as the World Cup, I believe strongly that the midfield is the most important part of any team. If a team has a strong midfield, that makes them so much more dangerous, because they then have a perfect blend of attack and defence linked by the midfield. France does this perfectly, and I will be intrigued to see whether they go with 3 or 2 in the central midfield positions. I would hope France go with the three, but the vast array of players they have to choose from in that position is staggering. You would assume that Paul Pogba and N’golo Kante are first names on the teamsheet, and will have their positions secure. Kante is a marvellous footballer, and does his job absolutely superbly, and is undoubtedly one of the best defensive midfielders in the game. I hope to see Pogba shine at the World Cup this year, and exemplify just why he is seen as one of the best players in his position going around. If Pogba is allowed to roam free through the middle, and get involved in the attacking play, then France are going to be very dangerous. The last central midfield position for me is very tricky. They could potentially have Corentin Tolisso or Blaise Matuidi play alongside Pogba and Kante and sure up the defensive side of the midfield play, or they could play a bit more risky and go more attacking with the option of having Nabil Fekir play as a more advanced midfielder. Every time I watch Fekir play, I am in awe. He is a remarkable talent, and in my opinion, reminiscent in some ways of Zinedine Zidane, who himself made comments on Fekir saying that ” he is an incredible player, and impressed me technically”.

France’s attack for me, is probably on par with Brazil for being the best in the tournament. On one of the wings, they have Kylian Mbappe, who has followed up his breakout season at Monaco, with a very good debut year at PSG. There are times where his decision making perhaps lets him down, but when you consider his age, he is very, very good for this stage of his career. On the other wing, they will have Ousmane Dembele, who I consider to be the best young player in the world right now. Dembele has shown so much talent, that even Lionel Messi has started telling people that he sees Dembele as his successor at Barcelona. When I watch Dembele play, I am amazed at how quick he can run whilst keeping the ball so closely under control. With a lot of players who possess extreme pace, ball control can be an element of the game that they lack, which ultimately proves to be their biggest weakness. However, Dembele seems like he has the ball glued to his feet, and he glides past players as if they weren’t there, and I always admire players who simply glide past their opponents, because it makes it seem so effortless and achievable, but for many players out there, it seems near impossible. France’s main frontman for the tournament will be Antoine Griezmann, but I wouldn’t be surprised if France change their formation around to fit Giroud in as a striker with Griezmann playing just behind him, a bit like he does with Diego Costa at Atletico Madrid. Griezmann is one of my favourite player in world football to watch, as he really is one of those players that possesses a “football brain” to go along with his talent. His decision making is top class, and his finishing and passing rank him among the best in the world. In Euro 2016, Griezmann showed how important he was to France as he finished as top scorer and player of the tournament, and France will be hoping for more of the same this time around in Russia.

All in all, I feel that France have a very strong chance of lifting the trophy at the end, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if they win. If their midfield performs strongly, then the rest of the team can go about their business as they usually do, and I expect them to dominate their group, and go toe to toe with the other top teams.

World Cup Preview- Spain

Spain are my personal pick to go on and win the World Cup this year. They have a team that has no real weaknesses and their strengths are almost as good, if not better than every other team in the tournament.

Starting with their goalkeeper, Spain arguably have the best in the world in David de Gea. The amount of times de Gea has saved Man United points this season has surely been worrying along with incredible for Jose Mourinho’s team. De Gea’s shotstopping ability is phenomenal and it is surely such a boost for Spain going into the tournament knowing that they more than likely have the world’s best between the sticks.

Following on from de Gea, the Spanish backline is also quite formidable in its own right. The centre back pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique is probably as strong as you could want, with both coming off the back of fantastic performances defensively in guiding their respective teams to top domestic trophies this season. Ramos is the ultimate leader you look for in a football team. A true captain, and someone that players can look to and put their faith in as the leader of the group. Despite his nastiness and penchant for bringing the game into disrepute with his disregard for opposition player’s welfare, Ramos is probably the first name on the team sheet for any manager that is lucky enough to have him in their side. At left back, Spain also have, in my opinion, the best fullback in the world currently. Jordi Alba has formed a partnership with Lionel Messi this season that has been nothing short of remarkable. Alba’s ability to bomb down the wing and slice defences apart with his through balls has been a key to Barcelona’s success this season. When you are the first person Lionel Messi is looking to pass the ball to, it says a lot about you as a player, and Alba has been at the forefront of Barcelona’s attacking play this season, all while filling out his defensive duties magnificently at the same time. Any team looking to exploit and stop this defensive line of Spain will have their work cut out for sure.

The fact that Spain’s defence is not even their strongest asset is truly a testament to how complete their midfield is. In my opinion, Spain have the strongest midfield we have ever seen in a World Cup tournament. Probably their most crucial player, and also at the same time, probably the most underrated player in world football, Sergio Busquets is going to have a lot of pressure on his shoulders. Busquets is another player who learnt his craft and excelled under the brilliance of Pep Guardiola. He has lived up to his potential since Guardiola’s departure, and alongside Messi, has been Barcelona’s most important player in the last few years. People who don’t truly understand football will never quite appreciate what a vital and amazing job Busquets does for the team. Time and time again, he breaks up the opposition attack, composes himself, picks the pass, and sets the move in motion. It is a joy to watch a football player perform in his role so capably and so effectively, and it really is mind-blowing that people don’t realise just how good of a player he truly is. If we ignored goals and assists as defining factors in what makes the best individual footballer, then I believe Sergio Busquets would have at least one Ballon D’or by now. Busquets is however, just one player in that Spanish midfield alongside the likes of Thiago, Isco, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Koke, who would probably all be guaranteed starters in any other squad. The amount of technical ability in that midfield is frightening, and shows just how Spain are doing it right when it comes to producing the right kind of footballers. It is simply not good enough to select players based on pace, strength and shot power. If we were going by that, then chances are most of these players wouldn’t stand a chance in getting recognised as future players. This is a system of developing footballer that we see so often in England, and must change if we are to start producing players like Isco, David Silva etc.

In terms of forwards, Spain have the option of perhaps playing all their central midfield strength together, or otherwise utilising the options they have out wide, and playing with two wingers who will provide service to Diego Costa up front. Lucas Vasquez and Marco Asensio will be the obvious choices to be played on each flank, and both have had very solid seasons, playing important roles in Real Madrid’s Champion’s League winning season. Along with their pace, they both possess technical talent and vision which sets them apart from most other wingers. Diego Costa will lead the line for Spain, and fits very much into Ramos’ school of playing the game, which will make him a nightmare for opposition defenders to handle.

For me, Spain look flawless, and are definitely one of the many teams that has a high chance of winning the World Cup this year. The beauty of all this however, is that anything can happen in the World Cup, and we could see a Spain side that fail to click and ultimately end up failing in their quest for the trophy. The likelihood of that however, is very slim.

Is Darren Till the next big thing in MMA?

This coming Sunday on May 27th, the UFC will be hosting its first ever event in Liverpool, England, with 25-year-old scouser Darren Till as the headliner, facing off against one of the best welterweights in the UFC, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson.

Till is currently one of the most talked about fighters in the UFC, and one of the brightest prospects, boasting a record of 16-0-1 in his career to date. His most recent win was a very impressive first round TKO of UFC veteran Donald Cerrone which really shot Till into the realms of potential stardom. This has now resulted in him getting the main event spot in the first ever UFC event in Liverpool which is a historic moment for Till and the city of Liverpool.

Fans have gravitated towards Till because he seems to have the same aura about him that Conor McGregor had when he was first starting out. He has supreme confidence in his ability, and has no qualms in telling people that his goal is to be the greatest fighter in the history of the sport. Right now, Till’s focus is on legacy, which was once what McGregor fought for, as well. Time will tell whether that changes, but you sense with Till that he has a genuine love and passion for the sport, and loves the competition.

If Darren Till beats Stephen Thompson on May 27th in the Echo Arena, there will be no doubts that a superstar has been made. Thompson has beaten some of the best welterweights out there and also boasts an impressive victory over the current UFC Middleweight Champion, Robert Whittaker. He had two title shots, but fell short on both occasions against Tyron Woodley and now seeks to put an end to the hype of Darren Till and mark himself as a challenger once more. There is definitely a lot of risk involved in this fight for Wonderboy, as he is taking the fight in his opponent’s hometown, and against someone whom the UFC is looking to be their next big star. You sense that if Thompson loses this fight, then his chances for another title shot are slim, especially as he is now 35 years old.

The fight itself will be very intriguing in terms of a stylistic match up. Stephen Thompson is an elite Karate fighter who also went unbeaten during a kickboxing career that spanned over 50 fights. Darren Till, on the other hand, is an elite Muay Thai fighter, and thus this matchup is being deemed a Karate vs Muay Thai fight. Various kickboxing coaches who have trained with Till have said that he really is something special and unique, and perhaps we will see him exhibit that talent in the fight against Thompson. It will be by far the toughest challenge of his career, and there certainly would be no shame in losing to a guy like Thompson.

England has only really had one big MMA star in Michael Bisping, but as MMA is rapidly growing in the UK and becoming one of the most followed sports, we can expect to see many more up and coming prospects out of England in the future. Till is the next big hope for England, and will look to follow in the path of Bisping in becoming one of the biggest names in the sport, and becoming a future champion. Fighters from the UK and Ireland are just notorious for being exciting and entertaining during their fights, and also having a tremendous amount of heart and bravery while they’re at it. If Till’s rise and potential dominance can kick-start the surge in British MMA athletes, then we will very likely see the UFC dominated by British champions in the near future.

IPL 2018 Predictions

Group Stage:

1st: Delhi Daredevils

2nd: Royal Challenegers Bangalore

3rd: Rajasthan Royals

4th: Kolkata Knight Riders

5th: Mumbai Indians

6th: Chennai Super Kings

7th: Sunrisers Hyderabad

8th: Kings XI Punjab

 

Finals:

RCB beat Delhi

Rajasthan beat KKR

Rajasthan beat Delhi

RCB beat Rajasthan

 

Winners: RCB

 

Leading Run Scorer: Virat Kohli

Leading wicket taker: Kuldeep Yadav

Most sixes: Evin Lewis

Highest Individual Score: Rishab Pant

Best bowling figures: Yuzvendra Chahal

Most Valuable Player: Andre Russell

South Africa vs Australia Test Series Preview

As one of the most exciting Test Series between India and South Africa in a long time drew to a close, the Proteas did not have long to prepare for their next huge challenge. Australia come into the series off the back of a resounding 4-0 win over England in the Ashes, and will be full of confidence going into South Africa where they were victorious last time they visited. Both teams are at virtually full strength, minus the injured Dale Steyn for South Africa, and will be undoubtedly putting on a thrilling display for all those watching around the world.

South Africa have just beaten the number 1 ranked test team India 2-1, and right now, look as formidable as they have in years. Their batting is incredibly strong, with Markram and Elgar performing solidly at the top, and then with the experience and quality of Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers to follow. They also have Quinton de Kock to come after, who although being in a slight bad run of form, has the ability to take the game away from the bowling side so quickly with his counter attacking batting. It will be a big test for Amla, as he will face Josh Hazlewood once more, who last time these two sides met absolutely dominated Amla, and had the ball on a string against him. Amla has been slightly inconsistent for the past two years, and will definitely look to this series as one where he can cement his legacy as one of the all time great Test batsmen. The other interesting player to look out for in the South African side is of course AB de Villiers. He was back to his enigmatic best against India where he finished as the second highest run scorer in the Test series, only bettered by Virat Kohli. In all the pre-match talk, de Villiers is the only South African player which the Aussies are paying a lot of respect to, and they clearly view him as the main man in that lineup. AB has scored runs for fun against Australia in the past, although this bowling attack might just be the best he has faced. It will be an intriguing battle for sure.

In the bowling department, South Africa are truly frightening. They have the number 1 ranked bowler in the world in Kagiso Rabada, who at only 22 years old, is looking like the complete bowler already.  Rabada already has 120 wickets at an average of just over 22, and is surely the spearhead in that bowling lineup, which really is saying something when you look at the other bowlers in the attack. I have raved and admired the South African bowlers so much, that there really is not a lot more you can say about them. A few months ago, I pinpointed Lungi Ngidi as one to seriously keep an eye on for the future, and he delivered on that praise, when he skittled the Indians in the second test taking 6/29. He is another bowler who can reach upwards of 90mph, and will have a field day on the presumably bowler friendly wicket that will be used in this test series. They then have the experience of Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, who is playing his final Test series before he retires. Morkel has been a crucial player for South Africa during his career, and at times has gone under the radar. He will be missed once he retires, and he will be looking to ensure that his last series is a victorious one. Keshav Maharaj will most likely be the only spinning option in the side, and will rival Nathan Lyon in this series.

 

While it may seem that Australia are the complete side, I personally believe that is far from the truth. A lot of their victories against England in the Ashes relied on Steve Smith, and some of his match winning performances papered over the cracks a bit for the Aussies. They definitely have batting issues, especially with Cameron Bancroft not looking solid as an opener, and with the worries that Usman Khawaja playing outside of Australia brings. David Warner will have to put in a big effort and grind for his runs against such a quality attack if Australia are to beat South Africa in the batting department. I feel as though if Warner and Smith can be removed early, then Australia could be in a world of trouble against the bowling, and could end up very far behind just from that. South Africa will have to exploit this, and look to target Warner and Smith specifically. This is, however, a lot easier said than done, as England tried the exact same thing, and Smith ended up scoring over 700 runs in the series, with Warner not too far behind.

Australia’s bowling is capable of rivalling South Africa if they can all perform in tandem. Starc and Hazlewood are probably the scariest new ball duo in the world, with pace and venom that they bowl with. They are quick, nasty, and ruthless. They will relentlessly sledge and pepper batsman with short balls, yorkers and deliveries way into the 90mphs. As their first change bowler, Pat Cummins is incredibly important. He was the leading wicket taker in the Ashes, and has really come into his own in the past few months after all his injury troubles. Cummins is not only vital with the ball, but very handy with the bat, and is blossoming into a very skilled all-rounder. Australia probably have the better spinner in Nathan Lyon, and he could come into play early on, if the pitches continue to take turn later on in the match. Lyon was very good against England, and was made to look unplayable at times. Whether South Africa’s batsmen are better at playing spin than England, we will yet find out, but it will certainly be a tough challenge against someone of Lyon’s quality and experience.

Overall, it should be a fascinating Test series, with the winner most likely being crowned the best Test side in the world. It is difficult to predict who the favourite is, as both sides are pretty much equal as things stand.

PREDICTION:

South Africa 2-2 Australia.

Virat Kohli: The Greatest Batsman of all time?

India’s recent demolition of South Africa in the 6 match ODI series which finished 5-1 raised many questions about the strength of both teams in regards to next years World Cup. However, I think that the most interesting thing to come out of the series is the overwhelming realisation of what a phenomenon Virat Kohli is. In the 6 matches, Kohli scored 558 runs at an average of 186 with 3 hundreds and 1 fifty. At just 29 years old, Kohli already has a staggering 35 ODI hundreds, which is only bettered by Sachin Tendulkar in the history of One Day International cricket.

Before the tour of South Africa, Kohli was met with many doubters that said he wouldn’t be able to make the transition from the batting friendly subcontinent wickets against fairly poor bowling attacks in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, to the seam friendly pitches in South Africa against some of the best fast bowlers in the world. Kohli was the leading scorer in the Test series with the highest average, as he was in the One Day Series. In fact Kohli scored more runs in the ODI series than the entire South Africa top 5 combined. He is arguably in his prime years as a batsman, although it is difficult to say when a player’s prime years are, as Kumar Sangakkara and many others exemplified towards the back end of their careers. If he can continue this superhuman form in the coming years, then we really could be talking about him as the greatest ever to play the game.

The most impressive thing for me when watching Kohli over the past few years, is how he has changed his approach to batting in Test matches. In the early stages of his Test career, he showed that he was a product of the IPL, always going after the ball, and often getting himself out rather than the bowler getting him out. His approach now, is to be cautious early on, and only play the ball along the ground. You will very rarely, if at all, see Kohli take the aerial route in Tests, and I believe this is what allows him to go on and make the big scores and convert his fifties into big hundreds. If you compare him to someone like Joe Root who has a conversion problem, then you will notice that Root tends to take the aerial route often, especially against spinners when he is well set, and this usually results in his dismissal. Kohli is so good at keeping the ball along the floor and showing patience, and this is what sets him apart from most other players.

The astonishing thing with Kohli is even though he excels so heavily in ODI’s, we are all still unsure over what his strongest format is. He averages over 50 in every single international format, the only person in history to do so, and the fact that his averages are still going up and not down is even more incredulous. In the past few years, there has been a lot of debate about who the best batsman in the world is, with players like Kohli, Root, de Villiers, Smith and Williamson all thrown together in one category. However, I believe that Kohli has transcended all of those names and belongs in his own category now; he is just that good. We are witnessing someone so talented and so complete, that it deserves time to think about just how many more records could be broken by Kohli.

As an English fan, the upcoming series against India later this year is suddenly looking incredibly worrying.