28 December 2009

Is defeat a blessing in disguise for the Colts?

With just one week remaining in the NFL regular season, the '72 Miami Dolphins can breathe easy and - as has become traditional for the surviving members of the league's sole 'perfect' team at the fall of the last unbeaten side every season - pop the celebratory champagne corks.

At least as far as 2009 is concerned, nobody's perfect any more. But, for the Indianapolis Colts, that may turn out to be a good thing.

Until a week ago, the tantalising prospect of not one but two unbeaten teams duking it out in the Super Bowl - in, of all places, Miami - on February 7 remained very much a possibility. But then the New Orleans Saints stumbled to a 24-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and followed that up last night with a 20-17 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who recorded only their third win all season.

So now 13-0 has turned into 13-2 for the Saints. And what was shaping up to be a marquee season - and potentially a first-ever trip to the Super Bowl - led by the NFL's most potent offense is now plagued by doubt. Are the Saints losing form as we approach the business end of the season? Will the pressure of carrying the hopes of a city still struggling from the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina prove too great?

The same question marks cannot be said to hang over Indianapolis. Even if last night's 29-15 defeat to the New York Jets - who scored the game's last 19 points in erasing a 15-10 third quarter deficit - dashed any hopes of a perfect season, the result raises no major doubts about the Colts' momentum, coming as it did with quarterback Peyton Manning and other key starters sitting out the second half.

After all, the primary objective remains the Super Bowl, and with home field advantage in the playoffs already secured, there was little left to play for other than the mythical 19-0 season and the sometimes-voiced notion that a winning team should never let up.

But what if Manning or, say, running back Joseph Addai had been injured in what was effectively a meaningless game? Is the quest for perfection really worth the risk?

And, I would argue, a single defeat can even be healthy for the soul. It is a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted, and it also relieves the additional pressure of striving for the perfect season (as if pursuing a Super Bowl win isn't enough already).

Just ask the New England Patriots, who marched through the 2007 season with a 16-0 record, and from there to a Super Bowl against the New York Giants which many considered to be not so much a competitive game as a coronation. It was a game in which the Giants played out of their skins and the much vaunted Patriots coughed, spluttered and were eventually defeated, as if choking under the weight of expectation, both their own and that of a live audience of hundreds of millions.

There are many reasons why the Patriots lost that game. The pressure of emulating the '72 Dolphins was almost certainly a contributing factor. But so too was a dilution of focus. Instead of conserving their effort at the end of the regular season, they poured considerable energy into pursuing individual records for quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss, which went right down to the final regular season game - against, of all teams, the Giants. In pursuing individual and team glory, did the Patriots show too much of their gameplan to the Giants, an act of vanity which would later cost them in the Super Bowl? It's hard to tell, but it certainly wouldn't have helped their cause.

Interestingly, there is a possibility that the Jets will face the Colts in the playoffs. Unlike the Giants against the Patriots, they will have learned very little about Indianapolis last night.

So, the Colts are not chasing the end of the rainbow any more. They won't care about sacrificing the perfect season if it means they win the Super Bowl. It's a lesson which New England learned the hard way; Indianapolis may well benefit from maintaining their tunnel vision and playing the long game. Only time will tell.

There are many reasons why the Indianapolis Colts may fail to convert near-perfection into a Super Bowl win (not least the fact they have statistically the least productive running game in the entire NFL). But the vainglorious pursuit of the perfect 19-0 season will not be one of them.

17 December 2009

Contenders or pretenders?

Burnley 1 Arsenal 1

A dark omen or a temporary aberration? Two points dropped or one point gained? Glass half empty or half full?

You pay your money and you take your choice.

It is certainly true that games such as last night match at Turf Moor, those involving long round-trips to play middle-ranking team in inhospitable conditions, are often a measure of the true position of a championship aspirant. However, it is also far too easy to assign too much pessimism (or optimism) to a single data point.

For instance, Arsenal’s 1998 title-winning run came off the back of a thoroughly dispiriting 3-1 home defeat against Blackburn – a performance every bit as poor as the scoreline suggests - and even the 2004 Invincibles side had to battle for a 1-1 draw at Bolton in a wintry midweek fixture similar to last night’s. Take either of those two results in isolation, and you would be amazed that these were both championship sides.

And, lest we forget, this is a Burnley side which has lost just one of its nine home league games this season (to Wigan, ironically one of the Premier League’s worst travellers), including wins against defending champions Man U and Sunderland, and a draw against top-four challenger Aston Villa.

So was a draw really so bad? Or does it only look so grim off the back of Sunday’s big win at Anfield, and the fact that Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Villa all won their midweek games?

Glass half-full?

Let’s start by looking at the positives.

Firstly, there is no question that the club’s injury list has had an enormous impact throughout the season, but with several players either recently recovered or soon to return, things should soon improve. In recent weeks, injuries have deprived the team of its most potent striker, Robin van Persie (gone for at least four months) and his back-up Nicklas Bendtner (out until the New Year), the first, second and third-choice left-backs (Gael Clichy, Kieran Gibbs and Armand Traore) and, just before half-time last night, captain and creative lynchpin Cesc Fabregas. Theo Walcott has barely played all season (and it really shows); Abou Diaby and Eduardo were just returning from injury last night; Denilson and Tomas Rosicky are sidelined, and Samir Nasri has not fully hit his stride since his long lay-off.

It’s certainly been a major contributory part of Arsenal’s recent problems, but a reason to be more optimistic looking forward. (Having said that, it should not be held up as an excuse. The reality is that injuries are part and parcel of the modern game, and big clubs are expected to have deep squads. Man U, for instance, can point to a defence which started on Tuesday minus Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Wes Brown, Gary Neville, Fabio and Rafael da Silva and John O’Shea.)

Secondly, Arsenal’s league position actually isn’t that bad. With more than half the season still to go- and a game in hand (at home to Bolton) - they are potentially just five points behind leaders Chelsea and two behind Man U. (Which is not so shabby for a club who many ‘experts’ thought would struggle to retain their place in the top four.) Moreover, United’s defensive injury list is potentially crippling, and Chelsea will lose key players like Drogba, Essien, Kalou and Mikel to the forthcoming African Cup of Nations for at least a month. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s league fixtures over the next month are relatively kind, with four home matches sandwiching a trip to bottom club Portsmouth. And with games against United, Chelsea and Liverpool to follow in an 11-day span shortly after, it is clear that it is this two month spell out to mid-February – and not last night’s result - which will truly determine the outcome of Arsenal’s Premier League challenge.

And, finally, Arsene Wenger has made it clear that he will be looking to strengthen the squad in the January transfer window. In the past, notwithstanding last year’s capture of Andrei Arshavin, he has generally kept his wallet in his pocket during the winter window, so such news is welcome, even if he is unlikely to be spending mega-bucks.

Glass half-empty?

Naturally, there are negatives too.

The back four is dangerously short on depth, with any injury to Thomas Vermaelen or William Gallas requiring the less-than-reassuring Mikael Silvestre (currently looking every bit the fourth-choice left back) or Alex Song (who will be away at the African Cup of Nations) to stand in. Song will of course be missed in his holding midfield role during the African tournament, and there is no obvious like-for-like replacement. Manuel Almunia, a decent keeper who has played consistently above his level for the previous two seasons, is bereft of confidence and playing well below his level. Too many others are either playing poorly, inconsistently or struggling after injury, and beyond Fabregas and Arshavin the side lacks genuine match-winners which previous title sides boasted in abundance: Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Ljungberg, Vieira et cetera.

And while last night’s result was certainly a disappointment, it was the manner of the performance which was particularly depressing. Having taken an early lead, Arsenal dominated until Burnley equalised, at which point you could visibly see the confidence drain out of the team. And once Fabregas went off, things became increasingly disjointed. There was plenty of tidy possession, but much of Arsenal’s play lacked purpose. I can’t remember Brian Jensen having to make a difficult save throughout the second half, and the most penetrating run from an Arsenal player in that period came not from Arshavin or Nasri or Walcott or Eduardo, but from Vermaelen, a centre back. In truth, it was Burnley who created the most threatening opportunities in the final 45 minutes, and were it not for the thickness of the post and an assistant’s flag, could have won 3-1.

In fact, the second half summed up Arsenal’s ongoing problems in a nutshell. Too often lacking genuine bite up front, and yet giving up scoring opportunities at the other end with alarming regularity. A tendency to dominate without scoring, and then struggle for long periods after conceding. Able to conjure up a thrilling win at Liverpool on a Sunday, and then subside to an insipid draw just 72 hours later. It is a pattern Arsenal fans have seen on more than a few occasions over the past couple of years.

The (not-so-final) verdict

Which is the real Arsenal? The Anfield lions or the Turf Moor lambs? We don’t really know, but – and this is perhaps the crux of the matter – I’m not really sure Wenger or the team themselves know either.

We will have to wait and see how this most unpredictable of seasons pans out. What seems certain is that Arsenal’s form will continue to fluctuate, and the media will be all too quick to deliver their black-or-white verdict based on individual passages of 90 minutes.

More fool those of us who choose to take their quick-fire judgments as bible. In truth, Arsenal are maybe only half as good as they looked at Anfield, but probably also twice as good as they looked last night (or in the 3-0 home defeat to Chelsea). Whether that is good enough to sustain a title run all the way through to May remains to be seen. Any declaration one way or the other right now would be distinctly premature.

10 December 2009

The alternative SPotYs

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards take place in Sheffield this Sunday, with Jenson Button still the even-money favourite to win the main SPotY award (although it's interesting to note that Ryan Giggs is now 2/1 second favourite and drawing closer by the day). Usain Bolt is a shoo-in to retain Overseas SPotY. And the England cricket team that regained the Ashes the overwhelming favourite to win Team of the Year (although I would give a shout-out to the Arsenal Ladies football team, winners of the domestic treble).

It's a bit dull, really. The only real grain of doubt is whether the Welsh and Manchester United-supporting constituencies will be enough to sweep Giggs to the main award on the same wave of sentimental twaddle that brought him the PFA Player of the Year Award back in April, and has previously seen nice-guy also-rans such as Damon Hill, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski triumph on the night despite not actually winning anything of consequence during the corresponding year.

So, to spice up what is likely to be an all too predictable evening of back-slapping and poorly-delivered one-liners, here are my alternative SPotYs; some serious, others less so.

Comeback of the Year

Lance Armstrong - After more than three years in retirement, the seven-time Tour de France winner returned to the sport at the age of 37. Despite a broken collarbone disrupting his preparations and an intra-team cold war with Astana teammate Alberto Contador, he went on to finish third behind Contador in this year's Tour, at times showing glimpses of the indomitable champion he was previously.

Kim Clijsters - Retired suddenly in 2007. Returned just as suddenly two years later, and won the US Open in fairytale circumstances in September, becoming the first wild-card champion of the event - defeating both Venus and Serena Williams en route -  and the first mother to win a major since Evonne Cawley at Wimbledon in 1980.

Catriona Matthew - Won her first career major (and the first ever by a Scottish woman) at the British Open in August, just 11 weeks after giving birth to her second child.

And the winner is: Lance Armstrong. No sport is as unforgiving as cycling when it comes to exposing any physical weakness, and the Texan showed he can still stand toe-to-toe with the very best, despite giving away ten years or more in many cases.

Dick Dastardly Award for Most Evil Sportsperson in the World, Ever (Boo, Hiss)

Flavio Briatore - For ordering Nelson Piquet Jr to deliberately crash his car into a wall at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, engineering a safety car period which allowed Renault teammate Fernando Alonso to win. (The F1 wags say it was just about the only time Piquet Jr made an impact in his brief F1 career.)

Harlequins - The club's cynical manipulation of rugby's blood rule through the use of capsules of fake blood resulted in the departure of both director of rugby Dean Richards and chairman Charles Jillings, and gave rise to pointed questions about other unsavoury but rarely spoken about shady practices within the sport.

Thierry Henry - For single-handedly (see what I did there?) putting the integrity of football at risk - at least according to the FAI - by controlling the ball with his left hand in setting up William Gallas's decisive extra-time goal in France's World Cup playoff win against the Republic of Ireland. Robbie Keane would never have done anything so dishonest, no sirree.

Eduardo da Silva - Dived to win a penalty in a Champions League qualifier against Celtic. Arsenal's Croatian striker was retrospectively banned for two games (later overturned) and held up as the poster boy for football's cheating culture. Although, obviously, when Michael Owen does it against, say, Argentina at the World Cup finals, it is merely an example of the 'art' of 'cunning centre forward play'. There's a huge difference, of course: Owen plays for England; Eduardo doesn't.

And the winner is: Flavio Briatore. Henry and Eduardo gained unfair advantages, but did only what the vast majority of other players would also have done in their place. Harlequins were unfortunate insofar that they were the ones who got caught. Briatore's actions went way beyond all of these, conspiring to put at risk the safety of his own driver, marshals and spectators.

Sports WAG of the Year

There can be only one nominee and one winner here: Elin Nordegren, wife of Tiger Woods, who demonstrated that Tiger is not the only member of the Woods household who knows how to swing a golf club.

Victim of the Year

Again, there can only be one winner. Caster Semenya won the women's 800 metres at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, mere hours after the IAAF informed the world that it had asked her to undergo gender verification procedures. It was the kind of baseless public humiliation that no one should ever have to experience, let alone an 18 year old preparing to compete that same evening on a global stage.

Idiot of the Year

Mike Ashley - Bought Newcastle United. Sacked Sam Allardyce and brought in Kevin Keegan and Dennis Wise. Oversaw relegation from the Premier League, and now still can't offload the club despite asking for less than a quarter of the £400m he was reportedly attempting to sell for a year ago. If ever you needed it, Ashley is living proof that success in business does not guarantee success in sport.

ITV - For accidentally cutting to a commercial break and depriving viewers of the only goal in Everton's FA Cup replay win over Liverpool, the only moment of joy in a stultifyingly dull game.

Tiger Woods - Enough said.

And the winner is: Mike Ashley. Just because.

Gone But Not Forgotten Special Recognition Award

Sir Bobby Robson, former England manager and recipient of the 2007 SPotY Lifetime Achievement Award. 1933-2009. R.I.P.

And finally ...

Really Deserves to Win SPotY But Doesn't Stand a Chance Award

Alistair Brownlee - The 21 year old did not even make the final SPotY shortlist of ten, despite becoming World Triathlon Champion (having won all five of the World Championship Series events in which he competed) in a year in which he also completed a degree in Physiology and Sport. As if that wasn't enough, he is now undertaking an MSc in Finance.

Mark Cavendish - Won six stages in the Tour de France as well as the Milan-San Remo one day classic, confirming his status as the current king of sprinting on the road. He's arguably the best there has been in a decade or more - and is the subject of a frank and highly entertaining autobiography - but nonetheless remains unknown to many, while to others he is notable for being the only member of the British track cycling team to return from Beijing last year without a medal.

Jessica Ennis - Became world heptathlon champion just a year after missing out on Beijing with a career-threatening injury, as a result of which she has had to switch her take-off leg for the long jump. Ennis has talent, personality and a movie-of-the-week heart-warming tale of overcoming adversity to boot.

Beth Tweddle - Twice a gold medallist in a sport in which she is Britain's only world champion, and which is starved of funding and often ignored by the general sporting public (and, indeed, the Prime Minister when it comes to recognising a Briton winning a world title in somewhere as remote and far-flung as, er, London). While competing under such constraints, Tweddle also studied for (and completed, in 2007) her degree, a feat requiring a degree of commitment and flexibility every bit as impressive as her difficulty-laden, world title-winning floor routine.

And the winner is: all four of them. If push came to shove, Cavendish would get my vote, but in a parallel world where SPotY was awarded based on an objective assessment of achievement rather than how many column inches a sportsperson or their sport generates, each of the above would be a thoroughly deserving winner.

Shame it - like the other awards outlined here - will never happen, eh?

3 December 2009

Defining moments 4: Armstrong’s last stand

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much ...

In sport, you often hear competitors talk about “110 per cent effort” or similar to emphasise that they’ve given absolutely everything. While one might quibble over the mathematics of such a statement, it’s nonetheless a valid reminder that sportsmen and women do push their bodies to the very limit of their capabilities, and sometimes beyond.

Nowhere is such single-minded effort more necessary – or indeed more obvious - than it is every July at the Tour de France.

There’s something about the Tour that sets it apart. It provides the most strenuous examination possible of speed, stamina, strength and sheer obstinacy, with its long flat stages, savage mountain climbs, and against-the-clock time trials stretched over a gruelling three-week schedule.

To put this challenge into context, here are some basic facts and figures about the 2003 edition, which provides the setting for this post. That year’s race comprised 21 stages over 23 days, covering a total of 3,428km, roughly the same distance as Paris to Moscow. The furthest covered in one day was 231km (London to Cardiff), and the longest stage took over six hours to complete. En route, there were fifteen climbs higher than the peak of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. And at the end of it all, the race was won at an average speed of 41kph. At this pace, you would run the hundred metres nearly a second faster than Usain Bolt.

Three weeks. Two wheels. One living hell. Welcome to Le Tour. This is not an event you choose to participate in unless you are the hardest of masochistic hard men (or doped up to the eyeballs, but that’s an entirely different topic).

I can’t stress enough just how tough the Tour is to even complete, let alone win. It may share the same means of propulsion as a Sunday afternoon bike ride, but it has about as much in common with it as the marathon does with my walk home from the corner shop.

Over the years, the Tour has provided a plethora of memorable images and defining moments, many of them involving Lance Armstrong, the most successful Tour rider of all time. This is my favourite.

Tour de France, July 2003

No matter how good a climber you are, this is the kind of day you know is going to hurt in a way that no amount of training can truly prepare you for. Covering 160km and culminating in three major climbs – the Col d’Aspin (the warm-up act at a mere 1,489m above sea level), the Col du Tourmalet (2,114m) and finally the finish at the top of Luz-Ardiden (1,715m) – this is four-and-a-half hours of intense suffering for the very best; an extra thirty minutes or more for many others.

The American Lance Armstrong is seeking a fifth consecutive Tour victory, but he has not dominated this race in the manner of his previous wins, looking vulnerable in the Alps and conceding a massive 96 seconds to Jan Ullrich in the individual time trial three days earlier. His advantage over the German is now a wafer-thin 15 seconds, with Alexandre Vinokourov just three seconds further behind. Armstrong’s objective today is simple, at least on paper: build his slim cushion over Ullrich and Vinokourov, ideally to a minute or more, ahead of the potentially decisive second time trial.

The slopes of Luz-Ardiden are to be the battleground for Lance Armstrong’s last stand.

Four hours into the stage, the leading riders are bunched together at the foot of the final climb. They are watching each other, waiting for the attack they know must come soon.

Sure enough, the yellow jersey eases into position at the head of the group, the orange-shirted Spaniard Iban Mayo and Ullrich at his shoulder, the others a few metres further back. And then suddenly, inexplicably, Armstrong’s bike twitches violently and he crashes to the ground, taking Mayo with him. (TV replays will later show his handlebars had caught the straps of a spectator’s bag.)

A second passes, then two, then three. Is his bike broken? How badly is he hurt? Is it all over for Lance Armstrong – just like that?

The wait is excruciating, like watching a jelly-legged boxer struggling to beat the referee’s count. Ullrich and the other leading riders cycle past. Armstrong is clearly dazed and shaken as he picks himself up and rights his bike, pausing to refit his chain before setting off in pursuit. A TV camera zooms in on his bleeding elbow, then pans up to his face. His wide-eyed, adrenaline-fuelled fury tells you everything you need to know: I will not let it end like this!

Armstrong strains every sinew to regain the lost ground, but not without one further flirtation with disaster. Charging up the mountain in pursuit - out of the saddle, standing on the pedals, maximum effort - his right foot slips out of the pedal, and he lurches forward precariously, his balance utterly compromised. For a moment it looks as if he’s either going to lose his manhood on the bike frame or else come off his machine altogether. Fortunately he does neither. He instinctively catches himself, regains his balance, and quickly slots his foot back into the pedal. A hiccup, no more.

At this point, any ordinary human would probably be content to thank their lucky stars and follow the pack to the finish. But professional cyclists are not ordinary humans, and Lance Armstrong is no ordinary cyclist. He has been in this situation – hunted, disrespected, written off as lacking a winner’s quality – before, and he knows what to do.

The leading group is now back together again, and almost immediately Mayo launches an attack, his tired legs developing an instant burst of speed in an attempt to put a decisive gap between him and the others. Armstrong’s response is immediate, surging forward to catch the Spaniard’s breakaway, and then without pause for breath he does what he has always done best – launch an attack himself. A devastating burst of acceleration, a quick look over the shoulder to see if anyone can respond - they can’t - and he’s away, a yawning gap opening up rapidly behind him: five seconds, fifteen, thirty …

Literally and figuratively, Lance Armstrong never looked back again. He finished 40 seconds ahead of the rest that day, but it might as well have been 40 minutes. The war was not yet won, but the key battle had been.

Put firmly on the back foot, Ullrich would go on to crash in a torrential downpour during the final time trial in a desperate attempt to make up time, confirming Armstrong’s fifth Tour de France victory. The American would go on to win the next two Tours; Ullrich would never get as close again.

Armstrong’s stirring fight-back on Luz-Ardiden was potentially the difference between him losing his stranglehold on the world’s greatest bike race and becoming its most successful ever participant. On such critical, defining moments are sporting legends made.