Monday, March 15, 2010

Priceform Monthly Magazine - Issue 1

Read the first issue of Priceform Monthly Magazine, featuring a comprehensive preview of Cheltenham, as well as my article on Victoria Azarenka. Whatever your sporting interests, Priceform is a must read each and every month, with feature articles and interviews with some of the leading figures in sport.

For more from the Priceform team, check out www.priceform.com

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Priceform: The Golden Nuggets

Sports Magician provides the Golden Nuggets on Priceform each and every week. If you love your football and profiting from your interest in the sport, make sure you check the Golden Nuggets every week for the best weekend tips. Sports Magician has a proven record of success which you can view in detail on Priceform.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Priceform: The Overrule Special Edition - US Open Review

You can read my review of this year's US Open here on Priceform. Sports Magician covers all Grand Slam tennis exclusively for Priceform. If you like your tennis, as well as profiting from it, be sure to check The Overrule for each and every Grand Slam. The Overrule will be back in early 2010 for the Australian Open.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Exclusive Interview: The Great Scottish Hope

Read my exclusive interview with Adam Glekin on Priceform. Adam has been representing Scotland at the Maccabiah Games in Israel. Registration is required to read the interview and takes no more than a few seconds. Registration on Priceform gives you free access to the entire site for a whole month.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Priceform: The Overrule Special Edition - Wimbledon Review


You can read my review of Wimbledon at Priceform. Sports Magician presents special edition coverage of Grand Slam tennis for Priceform, including previews, daily selections and reviews. Look out for extensive coverage of the US Open in late August on Priceform from the Sports Magician.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sportingo: Introducing The Tennis Section Leader

Early last month I was offered the chance to take up a role as tennis section leader with Sportingo. It's an opportunity that I gladly accepted and am looking forward to continue growing the good relationship I've had with the Sportingo team for a while now. One of that team, Michelle Syen, has moved on to pastures new and I'd like to wish her every success with her new challenges and ambitions.

You'll be able to find regular tennis articles from myself on Sportingo each and every month. If you're an aspiring tennis writer, feel free to send me a mail about the possibility of having your work published on Sportingo.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Priceform: The Overrule

Catch my fortnightly look at the tennis world on Priceform by virtue of The Overrule. Priceform is a Sports Information Service that provides previews and in depth analysis on a wide variety of sports. If you're looking for a site that provides up to date comment on the sporting world as well as tips on how to profit from the sports you love then make sure you're a regular visitor to Priceform.

Friday, March 14, 2008

March: All Sports Magazine


You can read my latest article for All Sports Magazine on the number one spot in men's tennis here.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

For All Your Tennis Needs: TennisPlaza.com

TennisPlaza.com is dedicated to providing tennis players with convenient, one-stop Internet shopping for all of their equipment needs. The site offers extensive product information to fulfill the needs of each and every player at the best prices, be it the most appropriate racquets, strings, shoes, and other gear for individual styles of play. So whether you want to look as cool and calm as Roger Federer and Justine Henin or as colourful and chaotic as Stefan Koubek and Bethanie Mattek, let TennisPlaza.com be your destination for all your tennis needs.

March: All Sports Magazine

The March issue of All Sports Magazine will be available soon. This month's issue features my look at the world number one spot in men's tennis. Check back soon for more details.

Sports Magician will be back in action very soon to dissect the Masters Series draws at Indian Wells & Miami. Hope to see you all back here shortly as the first couple of Masters Series events of the year get underway.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Friday, August 24, 2007

Goal.com - Serie A Preview: Inter Milan

You can read my preview of Inter Milan for the upcoming Serie A season at Goal.com. You can also read previews of a number of the other notable sides in Serie A including Juventus, AC Milan, Roma, Lazio and others. Be sure to check them out, the previews are very extensive for each club and provide a wonderful overview of what we should expect to see in Serie A this season.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Goal.com - A Piece Of Argentina In Spain

You can find my profile of Argentine players expected to light up La Liga this season at Goal.com. I'll be writing a number of other pieces for Goal.com in time so be sure to check the site out. The football coverage is excellent from all corners of the globe.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

All Sports Magazine - US Open Preview


You can read my preview of the upcoming US Open in the August issue of All Sports Magazine. All Sports provide wonderful and in-depth coverage of a number of sports including football, tennis, cricket, formula 1 and rugby. In past issues of the magazine you can also catch my previews of the French Open and Wimbledon as well as a look at one of the rising stars in the men's game, Novak Djokovic.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Money Matters

Earlier this week another in an increasingly growing line of young South American talents made the switch to Russia. For clubs in Argentina or Brazil it has long been accepted that due to the differences economically between the riches on offer in Europe (as well as the financial power of European clubs) compared to South America that players will leave early and often.

Maxi Moralez has become the latest player to take on a new challenge in unfamiliar territory and will be well compensated for doing so. However, at what cost to the development of his career? Moralez makes the move fresh off an outstanding Under-20 World Cup for Argentina in which collectively his nation won the tournament, and individually he picked up the Silver ball having scored four goals in the process (including a crucial winner against Mexico in the last eight). It could be argued that he was in fact the player of the tournament above the much heralded Sergio Aguero who came in to the competition with a higher status and who also confirmed his undoubted quality.

Upon arrival back in Argentina, Racing Club assured fans that Moralez would be going nowhere for the time being and that the club would be able to enjoy his talents at least for another year; Moralez made his debut in 2005 and has played just over 50 games. Before you could say ‘Maximiliano’, Moralez was off to FC Moscow on a 5 year deal for a fee of around $7m. It was an offer the club had obviously accepted and a package that Moralez was all too quick to sign. The motivation for such a player at such an age is obvious and understandable. A financial package that will far outweigh what Racing could possibly have offered even if they wanted to. As well as an opportunity for Moralez not only to set himself up financially for a more luxurious lifestyle but also that of his loved ones.

Can a player be blamed for taking such an opportunity? No. Would Moralez’s development have been better served in Argentina for another year or two before a possible move to a more established European side in a country and league that may be more to his familiarity (like La Liga)? The answer to that will never be known, but recent history suggests Moralez may have made the wrong move.

Late last year, I documented the case of another two Argentines who had made the same kind of move – Fernando Cavenaghi and Clemente Rodriguez. Both Cavenaghi and Rodriguez were further ahead in their development as players than Moralez is now and even they both struggled to make an impact in the Russian league. Rodriguez has managed to repair the damage that move did to his career with a stint back at Boca Juniors and now a move to Espanyol. For Cavenaghi the damage has thus far been irreversible and he continues to struggle to reclaim the form and confidence (now in France at Bordeaux) that he once showed at River Plate and made him a realistic proposition for moves to some of Europe’s bigger names like Juventus.

More relevant to Moralez’s case may be the transfer of Osmar Ferreyra back in 2004 at around the same time that Cavenaghi and Rodriguez left River Plate and Boca Juniors respectively for Spartak Moscow. Like Moralez, Ferreyra gained worldwide attention after an impressive Under-20 World Cup in 2003 (playing on the left hand side of a team captained by Cavenaghi). Soon after the tournament and having not even made more than 20 appearances for River Plate, Ferreyra made the first move that came his way to CSKA Moscow.

CSKA has proven to be a great experience for another couple of players from that very same World Youth Cup in the form of Brazilian pair Daniel Carvalho and Dudu. However, Ferreyra did not experience the same success. He was unable to stay in the team and soon found himself frozen out completely to the point that he went from being an expected starter at the 2004 Olympics for Argentina to not even making the squad. He had fallen off the map, like Cavenaghi, and even turned down a chance to return to River Plate to resurrect his career in favour of staying on the bench due to the more lucrative contract he was afforded.

PSV gave Ferreyra the chance to prove himself in Europe and exhibit the talent that had prompted CSKA to purchase him to begin with. Low on confidence and struggling once more to adapt to new surroundings, he found himself back at CSKA. Last year, Ferreyra bit the bullet and returned to Argentina to play for San Lorenzo and has now started to piece his career back together. As part of the San Lorenzo side that recently won the 2007 Clausura he is beginning to rediscover his potential although international recognition is still not on the horizon like it was seemingly going to be post-2003.

Having made the move for the wrong reasons (financial) Ferreyra wasted two years of what is a short career as it is and now must continue to rebuild his reputation. With the way Maxi Moralez performed last month and the undeniable talent that he has it is not set in stone that he will experience similar troubles just because others have. And yet it’s a question that many who have followed Moralez’s career thus far will be wondering.

He won’t be the only Argentine at FC Moscow and that may help him. His new club lie 2nd in the Russian league and are pushing Spartak Moscow for the title where he will team up with another young Argentine in the form of Pablo Barrientos who has bucked the recent trend of Ferreyra, Cavenaghi and Rodriguez in Russia by getting off on the right foot.

Here’s hoping that in a couple of years Maxi Moralez has established himself at his new club and may even have moved on to somewhere greater instead of leaving us all wondering…’Whatever happened to Maxi Moralez?’.

And should Moralez’s adventure in Russia set his career back for one or two years or indefinitely it won’t stop the next young Argentine or Brazilian making the same move because at the end of the day in life, as in football, money matters.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Two Contenders And A Whole Host Of Pretenders

A new season brings a sense of optimism and expectation for clubs and fans all over the country, but don’t expect the conclusion of this season’s Premier League chase to be much different from the last. This weekend Manchester United and Chelsea meet in the FA Community Shield as the appetiser to the league season, and both sides will be fighting for the title all the way down to the wire yet again.

Not only should both sides be leading the way domestically but a strong Champions League challenge from each club is also on the menu. Liverpool continued their historical love affair with Europe’s premier club competition last season by reaching the final and although Rafa Benitez has strengthened his side and may bring Liverpool closer to the top two at home, it’s unlikely to be enough to overhaul them at present. In the eyes of many, Arsenal play the most eye catching and attractive football. However, playing beautiful football isn’t always enough (ask recent Argentina sides) to ensure success in the form of trophies. Arsenal’s first task is to fill the void left by Thierry Henry and despite the arrival of Eduardo da Silva (still awaiting a work permit) and the recall of Nicklas Bendtner from last season’s loan spell at Birmingham; it’s a void that is likely to prove too big to fill immediately. Will Arsenal entertain their fans and neutrals alike with their brand of football? Undoubtedly. Will Arsenal drop points against sides they dominate against through the lack of a consistent finisher? Most likely, yes. And that will prove to be their downfall at home and abroad.

Let’s take a closer look at the top two sides in the country and those hoping to challenge them.

Manchester United – The Carlos Tevez saga continues and with the High Court date set for August 22nd it means that unless a settlement is reached beforehand, Carlitos will be in limbo as the season kicks off. If we are to believe that Tevez will eventually team up with Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, then Manchester United will have at their disposal the kind of attacking threat that only Barcelona can claim to surpass.

In midfield, the signing of Owen Hargreaves is also key to the objective of retaining the Premiership and winning the Champions League. Hargreaves has for a long while, up until the 2006 World Cup, been a player under valued by England fans. Much of this had to do with him being played out of position for his national side, or not being given a sufficient period of time to exhibit his qualities in his preferred position. That perception changed last summer and now the Red Devils are likely to benefit from his energy and will to win. Alex Ferguson has his options in the centre of midfield along with Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes and it will be interesting to see which pair Ferguson goes with more often than not when his side are faced with crunch games domestically and in European competition.

Aside from these two key signings, United also brought in Nani and Anderson and although a first year in England is expected to be a developmental and learning experience for both, there will doubtless be times where either player makes a worthwhile contribution to their side and provide a sign of things to come in the future.

Defensively not much has changed at Old Trafford. Ben Foster is back from a successful loan spell at Watford and will provide cover for Edwin Van der Sar. I would argue that Foster may already be worthy of displacing Van der Sar now, never mind in the coming years. Carlos Tevez is not the only Argentine involved in a transfer dispute, Gabriel Heinze appears to want out of Old Trafford and sees Anfield as his next destination. Manchester United has a different point of view and Heinze is seeking legal advice in an effort to clinch the move. Should Heinze prove successful he will be the first player in over 40 years to move directly from Manchester United to Liverpool. With the additions made Manchester United have rightfully been installed as favourites to retain the title and if England are to have another representative in the Champions League final this season, then despite the demands of both competitions, the Old Trafford outfit look to have the strength in depth to provide an almighty challenge on both fronts.

Chelsea – As good as Manchester United look on paper at present, only a fool would write off Chelsea’s chances to match them every step of the way. A side built by Mourinho that lays its foundation on a strong defence found that very strength damaged last season by injuries at critical periods of the season. It even required Michael Essien to play a number of games at centre back, and despite acquitting himself fairly well, a centre back by nature he is not and thus Chelsea were caught out at times when they would otherwise not be. Having sold William Gallas (as part of the deal to bring Ashley Cole to Stamford Bridge) and Robert Huth before the start of last season Chelsea were lacking depth in that area and that has been addressed this time around. Cue the arrival of Tal Ben Haim from Bolton and the impending arrival of Alex subject to approval of his work permit. Alex was in fact signed back in 2004 by Chelsea and was effectively ‘parked’ at PSV until a time where he satisfied the criteria necessary to obtain his work permit to play in England. These arrivals along with a fit and healthy John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho means that Essien can spend this season doing what he does best, which is providing a bundle of energy to Chelsea’s midfield. If there is one flaw to Essien’s game it is the perhaps once too often rash tackle, but in totality he is a midfielder with all the qualities required to be a force at the highest level.

This season Essien will be joined in midfield by Florent Malouda and the French international should prove to be a hit. Whether Chelsea can get the best out of Michael Ballack remains to be seen and with the number of options Mourinho has in midfield, he can afford to mix and match based on the specifics of the opponent they are facing. Much like with who Ferguson will prefer in the centre of his midfield at crunch time, it will also be interesting to see which midfield line up Mourinho chooses to go with when some of the higher profile battles commence. Real Madrid have made their intentions to sign Arjen Robben quite clear and although Chelsea have not expressed a willingness to part with the Dutch wideman, the smart money appears to be on his departure rather than his continued stay at Stamford Bridge.

Going forward, as with Ballack, Chelsea will hope that this season will see the real Andriy Shevchenko. The Ukrainian forward had proved his world class credentials year after year at AC Milan, but those qualities were rarely shown last season. However, it is quite common even for some of the world’s best players to take a season or more to fully adapt to a new country, a new culture and most importantly in this instance, a different style of football. The Premier League is known for the pace of its matches and the lack of time in comparison to Serie A that players have on the ball. Shevchenko hasn’t lost any of his ability, but has he lost half a step in pace? Yes. That more than anything may have been exposed last season and may again this season. Chelsea will lose John Obi Mikel, Essien and Didier Drogba to the African Nations Cup at the turn of the year. To counter the loss of Drogba as well as provide an additional player to the forward line in general, Claudio Pizarro was brought in from Bayern Munich. In terms of defence and midfield the Blues look more than strong enough to claim the major trophies that they seek. However, it is upfront where Chelsea are still lacking in comparison to Manchester United at home and Barcelona abroad that may just mean they miss out on both the Premiership and Champions League.

Liverpool and Arsenal fell short of top spot by more than twenty points last season and although Liverpool have sufficiently strengthened enough to believe they can certainly close that gap, it’s harder to be as optimistic for Arsenal’s chances. As with Chelsea, Liverpool’s defensive foundation was already quite solid and it’s going forward where Benitez has looked to improve. Is Fernando Torres worth the money? If he scores goals consistently, then he is. It’s something that Liverpool have lacked since Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler were banging them in at the Kop, and if Torres can provide the 20 plus goals a season in the league that Liverpool are hoping for then they may actually have more to say in this title race than just being a comfortable third. Ryan Babel also has the capability to make the Reds a more dynamic proposition going forward and that explosiveness is sure to delight the Anfield crowd.

If Liverpool’s new look attack does not provide the injection of goals that is expected, they can at least rely on a very solid defence, protected by Javier Mascherano. Mascherano’s arrival last season after being criminally underused by West Ham allows Steven Gerrard to do more of his damage in and around the opposition penalty area and if Liverpool do start clicking as an attacking force, Gerrard could well find himself on the score sheet as much as Frank Lampard has the past few seasons for Chelsea. Gerrard has hit double figures in the league once (2005/06 season), and I would fully expect him to surpass the 10 league goals he scored that season this time around. On paper Liverpool still don’t look strong enough to win the league or even be in the top three or four contenders for the Champions League, but Benitez’s side have proven to be very durable in cup competitions. Liverpool fans are eager to taste success in the league once more and although that won’t happen this season, there should be a clear progression in Liverpool this season that will be evident as far as their league campaign is concerned.

Arsenal are a young side but that is not to their disadvantage as many of these young talents have a fair amount of experience. Arsenal’s Achilles heel is not a lack of talent but a lack of killer instinct. Not only do the Gunners lack the cutting edge that Manchester United can claim to have, they also lack the depth of squad. Comparatively speaking Arsenal have spent far less in recent years than Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Despite the quality and talent level of their first eleven being as good if not better on a technical level individually to their competitors during the recent past, the size of their squad has always been relatively small. It hasn’t stopped Arsenal from achieving some wonderful successes under Arsene Wenger during his tenure, but it certainly will be their undoing this season. Selling your prized asset is never the best way to improve a team and even though Henry’s departure was not Arsenal’s wish, his absence will be evident during the season. It’s natural that Arsenal will need time to build a new identity and the pressure is on Robin Van Persie to make this team his own now and prove to be a player Arsenal can rely on to consistently produce the goods. Van Persie missed much of last season through injury and it should go without saying that keeping him fit and healthy will be vital to Arsenal’s chances of making some noise this season.

Are Tottenham good enough to take advantage of a Henry-less Arsenal and break into the top four? Not in my opinion. In fact they may find that their place as the fifth best side in the country is challenged by a pack of clubs including Everton, Bolton, Portsmouth, Blackburn, Newcastle and West Ham. The good news for Spurs is that they kept hold of Dimitar Berbatov and added Darren Bent to their mix of options in attack. However, Spurs are just not strong enough throughout to crack the top four and their hopes are likely to lie again in a good Uefa Cup run as well as the other domestic cup competitions.

Everton finished last season in sixth place but I’m not convinced they will be able to retain or improve on that position this season. Everton largely stood still in the transfer market and in football, standing still often means moving backwards. Sam Allardyce played a significant role in raising the standards and expectations at Bolton and now Sammy Lee will have to prove he can keep up the kind of results that Bolton fans have now become accustomed to. The difference between Bolton staying in the top six or seven of the league or dropping down to mid-table or just below may be Nicolas Anelka. The club have revealed they would be prepared to sell him to a Champions League club if the price was right and with a month still left of the transfer window, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the enigmatic French forward is plying his trade elsewhere.

Allardyce now finds himself trying to revive the proverbial sleeping giant – Newcastle. The Magpies certainly have options upfront with the return from injury of Owen, the arrival of Mark Viduka adding to Obafemi Martins and Shola Ameobi. Allardyce proved at Bolton he could get the best out of a host of foreign players and he will try to work his magic now with Albert Luque. Keeping Owen fit will be key for Newcastle and the options they have going forward may be much needed as Newcastle still lack quality and depth in defence. ‘Big Sam’ has already stated this publicly and it may well be that Newcastle bring in another player or two in that area before the transfer window closes. David Rozehnal has been brought in from PSG, but it will require far more than just him for Newcastle to build a foundation at the back to match the potential they have in forward areas.

Portsmouth and West Ham have both active in the transfer market in an effort to break into that top six. Harry Redknapp has brought in Sylvain Distin, Sulley Muntari and David Nugent, all of whom will bolster the quality of the first team. Having revealed plans to open a new stadium in 2011, Portsmouth are certainly a team on the up and qualifying for the Uefa Cup next season is a realistic proposition for them. Turmoil and controversy surrounded West Ham last season, and even when Tevez scored the winner at Old Trafford to secure their Premier League status the wrangling and conflict was not nearly at an end. Whatever the rights and wrongs of West Ham’s continued existence in the top tier of English football, the fact is that the Hammers will take their place in the Premier League this season and will hope to put last season’s poor season behind them. For the first time in his managerial career, Alan Curbishley has had the opportunity to prove he can not only do something with nothing (as he did for much of his time at Charlton), but do a little more with a lot more at West Ham. Funds have been readily available for Curbishley this summer and he has taken that opportunity to bring in a number of new faces. Craig Bellamy, Scott Parker and Freddie Ljungberg have been brought in largely to replace those who have made their exits in the form of Carlos Tevez, Nigel Reo-Coker and Yossi Benayoun. Another new signing West Ham made but who won’t be in action for six months is Julien Faubert. A ruptured Achilles tendon will rule the £6.1m midfielder out for much of the season. Injury robbed West Ham of Dean Ashton for the whole of last season and his recovery is almost like having a new £15m forward inserted into the side. Despite the struggles of last season, West Ham should fare a lot better this season and be looking up the table rather than down.

Blackburn Rovers have just completed the signing of Roque Santa Cruz and teaming up with Benny McCarthy could help propel Mark Hughes’ side into the top six. Blackburn are currently involved in Intertoto Cup competition and will believe that they now have the makeup to qualify for the Uefa Cup directly next season rather than having to fight for a place through the Intertoto Cup again.

A new season promises much for many a club, but only a few set of clubs and fans will finish the season with their expectations reached. Who those clubs will be only time will tell. A season of ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments is not far away for millions of fans across the country.

How do you see the new Premier League season turning out at the top end and for your club?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Football Classic To Determine Copa America 2007

Argentina and Brazil continue one of football’s greatest rivalries, if not the greatest, on Sunday in the Copa America final. It’s no surprise to see Argentina’s star studded line up in the final, but Brazil’s participation was not as guaranteed as would ordinarily be expected. A weakened squad and a poor start gave other nations the hope of being the team to face Argentina in the final but ultimately Brazil have improved sufficiently to take their place as the Copa America reaches its climax.

This year’s Copa America has a number of similarities to the last tournament in 2004 for both Argentina and Brazil. Argentina arrived in Peru three years ago with a virtually full strength squad and saw off Peru in the quarter-finals before winning their semi-final against Colombia by three clear goals. That formula has been repeated this year, with Peru again being the victims in the last eight and this time it was Mexico who suffered a semi-final defeat 3-0.

Brazil who went on to win the 2004 edition on penalties arrive at the final in exactly the same manner this year as they had done then – by virtue of a penalty shoot-out win over Uruguay. Uruguay can count themselves unlucky not to have won in 90 minutes then and now, however that will be of little consolation to them.

The final represents another chance for Argentina to end a 14 year wait for another senior title and the man at the helm, Alfio Basile, was the coach who led them to that very triumph at the Copa America 1993. Once again, as in 2004, Argentina have reached the final playing the most attractive football, but that will count for nothing should they not be victorious when it matters.

Brazil, led by Dunga, have been roundly criticised back home for the lack of style that Brazilian fans have become accustomed to over many years. However, it should be noted that Dunga’s side is not playing with all of its key pieces and thus the coach has had to make the best of the talent available. Any side missing the likes of Kaka and Ronaldinho will find it difficult to replicate the considered standard that is expected of them. The Copa America invariably offers the chance for players with a reputation to make good on the hype surrounding them and Robinho has gone someway to answering his critics in that regard. Six goals in the tournament to date have helped Brazil reach a final where they will play the role as the underdog. Five of Robinho’s goals came against Chile, so it is arguable just how great his impact has been on the tournament as a whole.

The Seleção are searching for their eighth Copa America title and have won three of the last four tournaments dating back to 1997. Defeating Argentina with an under strength side will certainly vindicate Dunga’s philosophy that winning is what matters first and foremost. Brazil will have to win the final without their captain, Gilberto Silva, who picked up bookings in both the quarter and semi-final matches and thus is suspended for the final.

For Argentina, winning may not be enough. As with Brazil, a certain degree of style and flair is demanded by an expectant and restless Argentina public who have grown weary of witnessing the side produce great moments of football (like the 20 + pass goal in the 2006 World Cup), but not ultimately go on to claim the objective of winning the respective tournament. If being unlucky was an acceptable excuse in 2004, it won’t be the case this time around and a side boasting an attacking array of talent that includes Juan Roman Riquelme, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi has no choice but to shine brightly.

That confidence and ability was in full effect in last night’s semi-final clash with Mexico as Messi stamped his mark on the tournament with a goal that is unlikely to be bettered in the final. It was a moment of pure genius and talent that reflects what we are all likely to witness from the left foot of Messi over the coming years. Any great player always leaves their imprint on major tournaments with moments such as those and it is likely that the football world has much more to see of Messi as time progresses and his talent matures even further.

The least that can be expected from the final is passion and skill. Both nations take immense pride in representing the shirts that have become synonymous with the cultures of both Argentina and Brazil and if the match should threaten to boil over at any point it is only to be expected. Bragging rights are at stake, but for Argentina this year, you sense the pressure on them is a burden that has been waiting to be uplifted for 14 years.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Wimbledon Men's Review

The third Grand Slam of the year is over - as is the grass court season (just don’t tell the guys in Newport) – with the concluding story on the men’s side revolving around a familiar champion. The rain and poor organisation was also a major talking point, but let’s start off with what matters most, the players.

*Just like Borg now – Roger Federer won his 11th Grand Slam (just three behind Pete Sampras), and as far as the final goes it was certainly his most hard fought. In the process Federer equalled Bjorn Borg’s record of five consecutive Wimbledon titles (as well as equalling his overall Slam tally). It was fitting that Borg should be in attendance to witness a thrilling final and to congratulate a player who had just hit the same lofty heights that the Swede once did. Federer came into Wimbledon this year without his customary preparation at Halle, following his efforts and ultimate disappointment at Roland Garros. Ultimately it mattered not, as Federer was able to work his way into the tournament before the adverse conditions threw a spanner into the works and caused him to sit and watch while his rivals figured out if they were playing 3rd round or 4th round matches! Federer who had won his previous four Wimbledon titles for the loss of only five sets, had three taken off him this time around (all by Spaniards – one by Juan Carlos Ferrero and two by Rafael Nadal). Federer moves ever closer to Sampras’s 14 Slam titles and quite possibly by this time next year, he may have them. Time will tell.

*Almost like Borg – History was going to be written on Sunday either way. It was either going to be a Borg equalling five in a row for Federer or Nadal was going to be the first player since Borg to win the French Open and Wimbledon back to back. Even though Nadal will have to live with not taking any one of the four break points he engineered in the deciding set, there is no doubt that in the long run the tournament was a positive one for him. Nadal once again proved his mental toughness and stamina by coping better than any of the other players in the bottom half of the draw with the backed up schedule and poor organisation. He saw off some very tricky opponents in the form of Robin Soderling, Mikhail Youzhny and Tomas Berdych. Against Soderling, Nadal overcame his opponent in five long days and was eventually able to put aside the disappointment of not taking his chance to end the match in the third set tie-break days earlier. Youzhny looked set to knock Nadal out of Wimbledon as he had done at the US Open last year, but a recurring back injury swayed matters and Nadal was able to power his way past his opponent from two sets down. Berdych was seen as the player who would be able to blow Nadal off the court, but instead the flaky Czech was blown over by the wind and was completely unable to deal with the conditions. Nadal will hope that the remainder of the 2007 season does not turn out like it did post-Wimbledon 2006 where he failed to win another title or make a final. The signs during the first half of this season away from clay suggest the Spaniard will be in for a much better time of it this year.

*It never rains, it pours – Rain and Wimbledon go hand in hand. Something else goes with Wimbledon too, a lack of foresight and organisation. The tournament turned into a complete shambles from the moment that 4th round matches were being played before 3rd round ones. A roof over Centre Court won’t particularly help matters either, that will only be of use to the three or four scheduled matches that day on that showpiece court. The rest of the draw will still be in the same predicament, praying that the organisers have their thinking caps on rather than their blinkers. A tournament that prides itself on tradition should at the very least rid us of the almost yearly traditional poor decision making. A number of players have been critical of the tournament this year, ranging from the price and quality of pasta (Marat Safin), the lack of things to do in the area (Nikolay Davydenko) or more importantly the scheduling (Rafael Nadal & David Nalbandian among others…). I can agree with Davydenko, Nadal and Nalbandian, but I haven’t had the experience of pasta tasting at the tournament as Safin has done. But I’m sure we can take Safin’s word for it, that he knows good pasta when he tastes it, and Wimbledon just weren’t cutting it on that front.

*Hit it to my backhand, I dare you! – Richard Gasquet has a great backhand; all who have seen him play will know that. Andy Roddick has played him before, so he surely knew it too. And yet Roddick continually hit it to Gasquet’s backhand, and the talented Frenchman criticised in the past for failing to deliver on his potential, just kept firing the ball past the stranded American. It has become a common feature of watching Roddick to hear him continually castigate himself for his shot selection and tactics, and yet continually make the same mistakes point after point. There was a time when Roddick could bully his opponents with his ferocious serve and forehand but the flame appears to be dying out on the Connors/Roddick partnership in the sense that Roddick is still making the same errors as before Connors came on the scene. As Connors and Roddick have repeatedly said in the recent past, it’s ‘back to the drawing board’ for them.

*Signs of promise – As mentioned Gasquet is a very talented player who had not previously made the breakthroughs that had been expected. Tennis is very much a young man (or woman’s) sport in general terms and players come on the scene early and thus much is expected of a player even before they hit 22 because they would have been around for four to five years at least by that time in many cases. Gasquet had not reached the quarter-finals of a Slam until this Wimbledon and broke through further by reaching the last four before effectively being given no realistic chance of defeating Federer. It was no more than 16 hours between Gasquet defeating Roddick that he was on court with Federer, and although the first set was tight, the remainder of the match was largely routine for the now five time Wimbledon champion. Thanks to his efforts, Gasquet now sits as the 7th best player in the world. Will he be able to improve on this for the remainder of the season? He has the talent to do so, but talent is not all that matters in this sport, and it will be interesting to see how much Gasquet has learnt and grown from a mentality standpoint over the coming months.

*Take your hat off to Novak – Novak Djokovic wasn’t the only player who had to deal with a backed up schedule, but he certainly was the one who ended up having to work the longest. Playing his third round, fourth round and quarter-final matches with limited rest, Djokovic spent over three and a half hours and four sets on court with Nicolas Kiefer. He then followed that up with a four set, four hour battle with Lleyton Hewitt. In the last eight, it was time for some more, this time five sets and over five hours with Marcos Baghdatis. Time to go home, Novak? No, it was time to play Nadal in the last four. Unfortunately, the weather and organisation meant we ended up seeing two players who simply didn’t have enough in the tank to give the crowd the matches they had paid to see. Djokovic retired in the third set against Nadal, the second time in successive Slams that the young Spaniard took out the even younger Serb at the semi-final stage. Djokovic isn’t now just the third best player in the world according to public opinion; the rankings now say he is too.

*It was a good tournament for – Aside from the already mentioned players, Wimbledon proved to be a good couple of weeks for Juan Carlos Ferrero who became the seventh active player to reach at least the last eight of all four Slams. Nikolay Davydenko may find there is nothing to do around Wimbledon, but he at least found time to win three matches at SW19, something he had never done before in his career. Given he had only won one match at Wimbledon in five visits, this showing represented a significant improvement.

*It was a bad tournament for – David Nalbandian, a season that has yet to get going and at the current rate never will. Nalbandian was fully justified in criticising Wimbledon for what was going on off the court, but his performance on the court against Marcos Baghdatis was equally bad. Fernando Gonzalez avoided defeat in the first couple of rounds after very ordinary performances but failed to serve out the match against Janko Tipsarevic and was sent home at the third round stage. Ivo Karlovic possesses a serve many a player would love to have; his recent record at Wimbledon though they could live without. The big serving Croat (aren’t they all?) lost at SW19 at the first time of asking for the third successive year, taken out by everyone’s favourite French magician, Fabrice Santoro.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

14 years...

The Copa America has concluded its group phase and Argentina remain unscathed in their pursuit of claiming a first senior title in 14 years. For a country that lives and breaths football the wait has been far too long and no excuses will be accepted for failure this time around. In 2004, Argentina took a strong squad to the Copa America in Peru but were thwarted by Adriano in the final against an under strength Brazil side and eventually lost on penalties.

This year’s Copa has the same background, with Argentina boasting as strong a squad as possible and Brazil missing a couple of key names, including Kaka and Ronaldinho. The expectations for Argentina are not simply to win, but to win well, and thus far while Albicelestes have been a joy to behold going forward, the same cannot be said as far as security at the back is concerned.

Argentina coach Alfio ‘Coco’ Basile recalled Juan Sebastian Veron to the team, the first time Veron has been in action for Argentina since 2003. Juan Roman Riquelme ended his brief international exile and after leading Boca Juniors to yet another Copa Libertadores triumph, Basile did not hesitate to hand him the number ten shirt once more. Javier Saviola was the victim of another season on the Barcelona bench as he failed to make the squad. Oscar Ustari, a young goalkeeper with a great future ahead of him also didn’t make the cut due to an injury.

The campaign began amid much expectation with Lionel Messi expected to take centre stage and a side so strong that even Carlos Tevez could not be guaranteed a place in it. The return of Riquelme meant that the brief experimentation of Messi in the playmaker role was abandoned and he was to join Hernan Crespo in attack. This change resulted in Tevez being benched and in the long run is a major mistake. The future success of the Argentine national side will revolve around both Messi and Tevez and it’s paramount both are on the pitch at all times.

First up was a weakened USA side who had expended their energies and strongest squad winning the Gold Cup just days earlier. Argentina were rocked by an early set back as Eddie Johnson put the Americans in front from the penalty spot. However, order was soon to be restored and Crespo levelled matters. It was far from the explosive performance that had been anticipated, with Riquelme being especially pedestrian and little urgency shown throughout the side. It was not until Messi gave Crespo the chance to put Argentina ahead an hour into the encounter that the gulf in class became more apparent. A 4-1 victory was completed with goals from Pablo Aimar and Tevez, both of whom came off the bench. Despite the seemingly convincing victory, Argentina looked clumsy at the back even with very little attacking threat facing them. Diego Milito and Gabriel Heinze in particular were guilty on several occasions of giving away needless free kicks and this continued in the next match against Colombia.

Colombia were coming in off the back of a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Paraguay and pride as well as qualification hopes were on the line. Yet again Argentina fell behind early, this time to a back heel by Edixon Perea. The response from Argentina was impressive and Riquelme upped his performance considerably and by half time Argentina led 3-1. However, the lead came at a cost after a highly debateable penalty had been awarded and Crespo tore a thigh muscle in his right leg, an injury that will keep him out of the Copa America. With 3 goals to his name already, Crespo looked well placed to possibly finish the tournament as top scorer and came as a cruel blow to him. Riquelme put Argentina 2-1 up and added a third with a wonderful free kick.

Argentina played the remainder of the match at a canter and once more the defence looked vulnerable. Eventually running out 4-2 winners but it was not until Diego Milito’s injury time strike that Argentina were home and dry. Qualification had been assured and this allowed Basile to make wholesale changes for the battle with Paraguay that would determine the group winners.

Basile left Boca Juniors to take the reigns again of the national team and that Boca influence was evident in the next team selection with 7 of the starting line up having Boca connections as either past or present players. At the back, Argentina were more solid than they had been for the previous two matches, with Daniel Diaz adding his presence to the backline. After nearly 70 minutes of play, Rodrigo Palacio and Tevez had come close to breaking the deadlock but no joy had resulted. That was the call for Messi to spring off the bench into action and immediately a sense of urgency and cutting edge was apparent. However, it was not Messi, Tevez, Palacio or Aimar who proved to be the match winner for Argentina, it was Javier Mascherano. ‘Jefecito’ (little chief), scored his first goal for Argentina at senior level with a wonderful strike, passing the ball into the back of the net. Mascherano is key for Argentina and a fundamental piece of the team, he has long been tipped as a future international captain and it surely won’t be long before that is the case.

In winning the group Argentina now meet Peru in the quarter-finals as they had done in 2004. Then it was a Tevez free kick that was the difference between the sides, and Argentina will expect to win more comfortably than that this time around. The objective is coming ever closer and Argentina know that failure is not an option.

Argentina must win, and win well. And sometimes, even that is not enough.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

French Open Review - Men

The dust has settled on the significant part of the European clay court season, and at the Mecca of clay court tennis, the King still reigns. Here’s a look back on what unfolded over the past fortnight on the men’s side of things.

Still King – Rafael Nadal was expected by many to dominate the major clay court events, as he had done in 2005 and 2006. Despite the complacency and predictability, the replication of such results is nothing short of extraordinary. Nadal has looked even more dominating this year than he had the last, bringing at times a more aggressive game to his opponents than in the past. Still the best defender on tour, the young Spaniard continues to improve other aspects of his game and has at times literally looked unstoppable. The few times that Nadal has looked vulnerable, he has been mercilessly good when it comes to saving break points when it matters most. There could be no greater illustration of that than in the first set of the final. Roger Federer had engineered ten break points, but Nadal didn’t allow him to convert a single one. Although the final did not bring out the best in both players, what rarely remains in doubt on clay (and is in effect on faster surfaces at times also) is Nadal’s strength relating to the mental side of the game. Three visits to Roland Garros, and Nadal has left each time biting the trophy. Not since Bjorn Borg has a player won the French Open three successive times, you’ve heard of him, haven’t you?

This one hurts the most – A year on from his final defeat to Nadal, the world number one was left to experience another. Federer finally achieved a clay court victory over Nadal in Hamburg, and as much as the victory would have provided him with confidence and a greater self-belief in clay court battles with Nadal, the truth is that Hamburg and Roland Garros are different beasts. Federer has always been comfortable with conditions in Hamburg, but Roland Garros presents a different challenge. The match up was always liable to cause him problems and although some will argue that Federer’s backhand was greatly improved from the 2006 final, the fact is that it is still an area that Nadal can relentlessly attack and play the match on his own terms. Federer’s usually dominant forehand was responsible for many more errors than we have come to expect, and much of that can be put down to the pressure he felt to take control of the point before Nadal could further expose the backhand. Federer cites physical exhaustion as his reason for not defending his title in Halle this week, but it should go without saying that Federer will be recovering from the mental scars of this final, as well as resting aching limbs.

Djoker in the pack – Novak Djokovic continued his fine season with a last four appearance. At only 20, the Serb is demonstrating an ever increasing amount of maturity on court, and hilarity off court. Djokovic produced some fine tennis against Nadal at the semi-final stage. However, he was still unable to claim a set in the match, which speaks for volumes for where Nadal is at right now on clay. At the current rate, it will be quite a surprise if Djokovic does not end the year ranked the number three player in the world. And if he can continue his progression, it might not be long before he is genuinely in the mix with Federer and Nadal at the very top of the sport.

Bright spots –Nikolay Davydenko produced the kind of consistent tennis on both wings that we have all come to expect from him. Davydenko defeated David Nalbandian in round four. Despite trailing by a break in the fourth set and looking out on his feet, he somehow summoned the strength and determination to close out the match in a tie-break. Avoiding a fifth set of which he said afterwards, Nalbandian would have been the favourite for. Davydenko followed up that triumph with a gruelling straight sets win over Guillermo Cañas. The first set alone took 76 minutes, with punishing rallies being the order of the day. Davydenko’s tournament was eventually ended by Federer, but not before he led by a break in each set and even served for sets two and three.

Guillermo Cañas started the year ranked 142. He ended Roland Garros ranked 17 and has taken the mantle as the number one Argentine on tour. This is quite the comeback for a man whose story is well documented. Cañas’s sights will now be set on trying to secure a spot for the season end Masters Cup in Shanghai.

It was a good showing for Igor Andreev, who until Federer’s Hamburg victory over Nadal was the last man to defeat the Spaniard on clay. Possessing a devastating forehand, the Russian took out Andy Roddick, Nicolas Massu and Paul-Henri Mathieu before succumbing to Djokovic in round four.

A tournament to forget – Nine Americans made the main draw, but the only reason any of them lasted until the first Wednesday was the rain. Not a single player from the USA was able to negotiate their first round match. A far cry from the recent past where the USA had been able to celebrate Roland Garros triumphs from Andre Agassi, Jim Courier (twice) and Michael Chang.

David Ferrer would have expected to at least reach the last eight, but the Spanish warrior lost out to compatriot Fernando Verdasco in the third round. Ferrer led by a set and 5-2, but ended up on the wrong end of a four set encounter.

For the second successive year, Nicolas Almagro entered Roland Garros with visions of making an impact. And just like in 2006, Almagro left the tournament without too much to say, losing in the second round to Michael Llodra in five sets.

Fernando Gonzalez has had a very up and down season. The Chilean began the year playing flawless tennis on the way to the Australian Open final. He followed that up with months of mediocrity before exploding again to reach the Rome Masters Series final. Gonzalez was upset in the first round at Roland Garros, losing in straight sets to Radek Stepanek.

Sports Magician will be back soon on the Copa America and Wimbledon.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

King Of Clay & World Number One Playing For History

The final everyone expected has arrived in the form of King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, up against world number one, Roger Federer. History is on the line for both players on Sunday, with Nadal aiming for his 3rd Roland Garros title in his third visit to Paris. Federer hopes to claim the only Grand Slam which has eluded him thus far in his career, and victory will slash odds on him completing the calendar year Grand Slam.

Both players negotiated their draws with consummate ease on the way to the final. Nadal’s campaign began with a potentially tricky 1st round encounter with young Argentine Juan Martin del Potro. It was the closest Nadal has come to losing a set in the tournament, trailing 5-3 30-30 in the first set. However, within the blink of an eye, Nadal had recovered to take the first set, 7-5, and pulled away from a despondent del Potro for the remainder of the match. The Spaniard’s early round form was not overly impressive but it did not have to be. The aura carried over from almost three years of clay court dominance is a psychological advantage that many players visibly fail to deal sufficiently with. Nadal defeated Flavio Cipolla and Albert Montanes barely out of first gear.

In Hamburg, Lleyton Hewitt had pushed a jaded Nadal to the limit in a tight loss, and their 4th round encounter at Roland Garros was potentially seen as a testing challenge for the two-time defending champion. It’s at this stage of the tournament that Nadal could be seen to be moving up a level or two in his play and after demolishing Hewitt 6-1, 6-3 in the first couple of sets, survived a 3rd set hiccup to claim the match on the tie-break. The quarter-finals pitted Nadal against good friend and playstation dominator, Carlos Moya. It might have served Moya well to let Nadal win a game or two during their playstation battles, with Nadal as ruthless as ever completing his straight sets win with a 6-0 set.

Nadal’s semi-final opponent came in the form of the increasingly impressive Novak Djokovic. Despite playing well for a majority of the last four clash, Djokovic was still defeated in straight sets. The third set in particular saw some of the best tennis Nadal has produced during this fortnight and served as a warning to Federer for what may be in store for Sunday’s final.

Like Nadal, Federer has eased through his draw, playing as well as he has needed to during each round without ever having to use his full arsenal of skills. The world number one came to Paris with a much needed Masters Series title in Hamburg, defeating Nadal in the final, the first time Federer had succeeded against Nadal on clay. Federer’s quest for the French Open began with hard working American Michael Russell. The rain interrupted match did little to trouble Federer, who didn’t face a break point in the match. At this point the rain was becoming troublesome and playing havoc with the schedule and Federer was forced to play his 2nd round match with Thierry Ascione relatively late in the day. Federer breezed through the first two sets, before completing victory in a third set tie-break having saved set points. It was evident from his post-match comments that he was not impressed with being sent onto court at such a time, accusing the organisers of rushing his match through under the assumption he would be able to complete victory in a relatively short period of time.

Federer’s best early round performance came against Italian Potito Starace, needing just a touch over 90 minutes to complete victory. Mikhail Youzhny provided some resistance in the 4th round, but was ultimately dispatched 7-6, 6-4, 6-4. Federer’s quarter and semi-final opponents were both players inside the world’s top 10, Tommy Robredo and Nikolay Davydenko. Before each match, Federer’s record against Robredo stood at 7-0 (losing only one set in the process), and 8-0 versus Davydenko. With that in mind, it came as no surprise to anyone that Federer would extend his collective record against both opponents to 17-0. Robredo took advantage of Federer in their second set and took the set 6-1. Almost as if insulted, Federer proceeded to wipe the floor with the Spaniard, winning the remaining sets 6-1 6-2. Davydenko had comprehensively outplayed Guillermo Cañas in his quarter-final. Cañas was one of the few players in Federer’s half of the draw who might have been able to hustle and bustle his way to victory and gatecrash the expected Federer-Nadal final.

However, that was not to be the case and Davydenko will look back on his semi-final as major opportunity missed. The Russian, who has recently applied for Austrian citizenship, was a break up in each set and served for both the second and third sets. A distinct lack of self-belief meant Davydenko could not even claim a set in the match despite the openings he had created for himself. It often felt as if Davydenko was as far from winning a set when he served for it, as he was from the beginning of the match.

And so the final that the tennis world had expected has arrived, Nadal leads Federer 5-1 in clay court battles. Two of those victories came at Roland Garros, Nadal halting Federer’s search for the French Open title in last year’s final and in 2005 at the semi-final stage. Federer’s sole victory on clay, as previously mentioned, came this year in Hamburg. Conditions in Hamburg are not remotely the same in Paris, and whereas Hamburg suits Federer, Roland Garros suits Nadal. Federer will have to arguably produce the performance of his career on Sunday if he is to stop Nadal from winning a 3rd successive French Open and thus complete the Grand Slam set for his own collection.

Sports Magician will be reviewing the men's French Open early next week.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Queen Of Clay Closes In On Fourth French Open Title

The 2007 Women’s French Open champion will be decided on Saturday, and a familiar backhand is set to claim the title once again. Rafael Nadal is the King of Clay, and there can be no doubt as to who the Queen of Clay is – Justine Henin. Aiming for her third successive Roland Garros triumph and fourth in her career, the Belgian has already toppled two of the players who were expected to give her more problems than most.

Henin’s opponent in the final is a young Serbian talent. No, not Jelena Jankovic, but Ana Ivanovic. Jankovic was highly touted entering the tournament with a good deal of justification. However, being drawn in Henin’s half was always going to make things difficult for her to reach the final. Being drawn in the bottom half of the draw away from Henin, Serena Williams and Jankovic was of great benefit to Ivanovic, and she has capitalised on that to reach her first Grand Slam final.

Henin knows Court Philippe Chatrier like the back of her hand and looks set to defend the title yet again. The Belgian’s form has gradually improved and her most impressive displays have come against her toughest opponents. Both Serena Williams and Jankovic were expected to provide stern tests for the defending champion, but she dismissed both players for the loss of just 11 games. Never at any stage of either encounter did Henin look likely to be taken to a deciding set. What will worry Ivanovic is that despite these results, there is still more to come from Henin.

Before Ivanovic can set her sights on winning the match, she must first claim a set off Henin (who has won 33 consecutive sets at Roland Garros dating back to her 2005 4th round encounter with Svetlana Kuznetsova). Henin’s victims thus far in Paris have included; Elena Vesnina, Tamira Paszek, Mara Santangello and Sybille Bammer, as well as the aforementioned Williams and Jankovic.

Ana Ivanovic is on a run of her own, still only 19, the young woman from Belgrade is often known as much for her looks as her tennis. She possesses a game with the ability to hit countless winners, but with that comes the downside of racking up a stack of unforced errors. During the course of this tournament, she has largely been able to keep a rash of unforced errors out of her game and that was clearly evident during impressive wins over Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova in her quarter and semi-finals respectively.

Ivanovic won her first three rounds for the loss of only 9 games, against Sofia Arvidsson, Sania Mirza and Ioana Raluca Olaru. The Serbian’s stiffest test came against 4th round opponent, Anabel Medina Garrigues. Despite hitting 44 unforced errors, she was able to survive, winning 6-3 in the 3rd set.

If Ivanovic is to overcome Henin in Saturday’s final, she will have to play the match of her young career thus far. The likely outcome is that she will not be able to deal with Henin’s craft and will hit out recklessly in the hope of blasting Henin off court. It remains to be seen how Ivanovic deals with the Grand Slam final environment, she showed few nerves, if any at all in her semi-final. However, facing Sharapova on clay is very different to facing a three time Roland Garros champion.

Sports Magician will be previewing the men's final by Saturday morning.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Zaragoza: A Real Test For Madrid

While most of the top clubs and players in Europe have their feet up, relaxing after a long, hard season (or in the case of some of the South American players, preparing for the Copa America), the action in La Liga takes centre stage with a title race almost certain to go down to the wire. As in Germany, Holland and Portugal, where the destination of the title was not decided until the final whistle of the season, Spain’s two biggest football giants will experience a similar fate.

After 36 games, nothing separates Real Madrid and Barcelona. Both teams stand with 72pts, the difference being the routes taken to get there. Real Madrid hold the advantage in the aggregate score over the season against Barcelona (They won 2-0 at home and drew 3-3 away), which means that the title is presently theirs to lose. Two wins in their final games away to Real Zaragoza and at home to Mallorca will be enough to secure their 30th La Liga title.

The title is likely to be won and lost this weekend at La Romareda, home to Real Zaragoza. In recent years, Villareal have been labelled a mini version of a South American club, or specifically an Argentine one, due to the number of players on their books from Argentina. Still boasting a heavy South American flavour, although not necessarily an Argentinian one, that mantle has been passed to Zaragoza, boasting the Milito brothers (Gabriel and Diego), as well as Pablo Aimar and Andres D’Alessandro. As with Villareal, the South American influence does not stop at Argentina, Carlos Diogo (Uruguay), Gustavo Nery and Ewerthon (both Brazil) have also contributed to Zaragoza’s campaign.

Barcelona are facing Espanyol (deflated from defeat in the Uefa Cup final) and Gimnastic (already relegated) in their final games, and they will be expected to recoup maximum points. This means that Real Madrid will have to do the same and the upcoming clash at Zaragoza holds the key to the title race. Real Madrid end the season at home to Mallorca, and no one will expect them to spoil the Madrid party should Los Blancos return from Zaragoza with three points.

An away win at Zaragoza has proven very hard to come by this season. Incidentally, Zaragoza have been a different team home and away. At home they have taken 40 of their 58 points this season. Only Osasuna and Valencia have won at La Romareda this season, both of those defeats were suffered in December. Zaragoza remain unbeaten at home in La Liga in 2007, spanning 10 matches (winning 7 of them).

It won’t just be pride that Zaragoza will be playing for, which makes the task much more difficult for Real Madrid. Along with Real’s Madrid rivals, Atletico, and Villareal, Zaragoza are marginally ahead in a three way battle for the two remaining Uefa Cup spots for the 2007/2008 season. Earlier in the season, Real Madrid recorded a 1-0 home win over Zaragoza, but more goals are likely in this encounter. The match features two of the best strikers in La Liga this season, Diego Milito (20 league goals) and Ruud Van Nistelrooy (23 league goals).

For much of the season, Real Madrid have performed better away from home than at home. Playing with a certain degree of caution and conservatism under Fabio Capello, Real have been a far cry from the recent team of ‘Galacticos’, featuring, Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo. Van Nistelrooy has carried the goal scoring burden very well on his shoulders while Raul has flirted with glimpses of the past form that many Real fans choose to remember him by. Gonzalo Higuain, a January signing from River Plate, has often been played out of position, and while working manfully for the side he has not been able to assist Van Nistelrooy in the scoring stakes to release some of the pressure on the Dutchmen. Despite scoring only twice, Higuain chose a perfect moment to score his first goal at the Bernabeu, the winning goal in a 4-3 victory over Espanyol in the dying moments. His first goal came away at Atletico in the Madrid derby, a 1-1 draw.

Real’s largely conservative approach has seen them record a remarkably balanced set of results home and away. 37 of their 72 points have come at home, with the remaining 35 away from home. Speculation still surrounds the future of Fabio Capello, and it may well be a case of déjà vu should he lead Real to the La Liga title. Capello coached Real Madrid to the title in 1996/97, but was not there the following season, and at various stages of the current campaign it has been debateable as to whether Capello would even last the entire season. However, lasted he has and should he leave with another title under his belt, his message to the critics is loud and clear. Capello received heavy criticism for discarding the services of David Beckham once Beckham had announced that he would be leaving the club for MLS (in the USA) at the end of the season. Indifferent results and player pressure resulted in Capello introducing Beckham back into the fold, and his contributions have been telling, providing the kind of service that Van Nistelrooy thrives on.

Once again, Iker Casillas in goal has been a saviour for Real on many occasions. Still only 26 years old, the Spaniard has a very long career ahead of him, and is already in the discussion as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Casillas and Van Nistelrooy are likely to be pivotal for Real this weekend at either end of the pitch.

Since drawing 3-3 away at Barcelona in mid-March, Real Madrid have won 9 of 10 games, a run which has enabled them to sit on top of the table. The shackles appear to have been broken on the attacking front too, with the side scoring 13 goals in just 4 games during May. Real Madrid could be credited for timing their charge to the title perfectly, as Barcelona have been unable to consistently hit the heights that saw them win both La Liga and the Champions League last season.

Barcelona entered the season as favourites to retain La Liga and the Champions League, but lie in danger of winning nothing from a campaign which promised so much. Away from La Liga, they were beaten comfortably by Sevilla for the European Super Cup. The Catalans were again held scoreless in the final of the World Club Championship, losing 1-0 to last year’s Copa Libertadores champions from Brazil, Internacional. Their fortunes in the Copa del Rey were no better. Winning the first leg of their semi-final 5-2 against Getafe, including a Diego Maradona-like goal from Lionel Messi, the Catalans looked well on course to reach the final. However, a shocking and heartless display saw them crushed 4-0 in the return leg and dumped out of the competition. In pursuit of retaining their Champions League crown, Barcelona were constantly a step behind the form they had shown the previous season. Injuries to Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi did not help matters and Barcelona were left needing victory on the last match day of the group section to qualify for the latter stages. Victory over Werder Bremen was secured, but Barcelona were soon to fall. A 2-1 home defeat to Liverpool in the knock out stages presented them with an uphill challenge in the away leg, and although Barcelona were able to record a 1-0 victory this was not enough tom keep them in the competition.

Their failures in cup competitions aside, Barcelona have been dealing with a varying amount of dressing room unrest. Just how deep rooted and significant the problems are between the players is open to conjecture. However, what is not in doubt is the very public falling out between Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho and coach, Frank Rijkaard. Refusing to come on as a substitute in a dispute with Rijkaard, the Cameroon forward was labelled selfish by Ronaldinho, and Eto’o defended himself and attacked Ronaldinho in similar form.

Barcelona’s league form has been much like their cup exploits. They have at times proved to be a class or two above their opponents, only to then in turn hurt themselves with chaotic and uncertain defending, as well as a lack of ruthlessness when it comes to killing off games.

In contrast to Real Madrid, who have performed consistently well both at home and away, Barcelona’s title charge has relied heavily on an outstanding home record. Barcelona remain unbeaten at Camp Nou, taking 46pts at home, including 14 wins and 4 draws, with their last home game of the season approaching this weekend against Espanyol. Coincidently, Barcelona have scored and conceaded the same amount of goals away from home that Real Madrid have (32 goals for, 20 goals against), but Real Madrid have garnered 9pts more on their travels.

It will be a great surprise if Barcelona are unable to take maximum points from their remaining games, but unless Real Madrid slip up in the process this still won’t be enough. Barcelona will end their home campaign this season without the services of Ronaldinho. The Brazilian was sent off in a 1-0 home win over Getafe but will be available for the last match of the season, away at Gimnastic. Cushioning the blow of Ronaldinho’s absence is the form of Argentine starlet Lionel Messi. Since scoring a stunning hat-trick in a 3-3 draw with Real Madrid, Messi has scored (including that encounter) 7 goals in 11 matches and provided a number of assists in addition to his scoring feats.

Unless Zaragoza can stop Real Madrid on Saturday, Barcelona’s failure to concentrate in the last seconds against Real Betis is something they well be left to rue. Barcelona led 1-0 until a quickly taken free kick caught them sleeping, allowing Rafael Sobis to beat Victor Valdes at his near post. Among a host of dropped points over the course of the season, the Betis match could well be where the championship was lost for Barcelona. With Sobis being another South American product in La Liga, Barcelona will be relying on Zaragoza’s South American contingent to provide them with a similar gift in return.

Sports Magician will be previewing both the women's and men's French Open finals.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Hamburg Masters Series Review

The clay court Masters Series events for this season can be put to bed as attention for the majority of top contenders turns to the Mecca of clay court tennis; Roland Garros beginning on May 27. World number one, Roger Federer, got his hands on the first Masters Series title of his 2007 season. In doing so, Federer ended Rafael Nadal’s extraordinary clay court win streak. Here’s a look at the week gone by…

Confidence restored? – Having parted ways with his coach and clearly lacking in confidence, Hamburg was always going to be an important tournament for Federer. Not least to regain some form and belief heading into the French Open. Hamburg has been a happy hunting ground for Federer in the past and it proved to be so yet again. Whether Federer can be entirely pleased with his performances during the majority of the week is debateable. What isn’t in question is that a long awaited victory over Nadal on clay is a significant victory for Federer and his French Open aspirations. The difference between a 0-6 and 1-5 head to head on clay is minimal in number, but vital in terms of psychology. Federer achieved a victory he had not yet managed in his illustrious career and a result that will most likely have to be repeated in a few weeks time if he wants to claim his first French Open title. Nadal was not the only Spaniard Federer defeated, he also put paid to Juan Carlos Ferrero, David Ferrer and Carlos Moya. As well as a first round win over Argentine Juan Monaco. Ferrero and Moya have seen better days, but are former French Open champions. However, the win that means most for Federer came in the final against the current French Open champion. Time will tell how significant this victory proves to be…

The King is dead? – No. Rafael Nadal’s 81 match clay court win streak is finally at an end. In the week where Nadal gained a measure of revenge over the last player to beat him on clay, Igor Andreev, the French Open champion fell one match short of winning all three clay Masters Series events in the same season. Was it the right decision to play in Hamburg? It was debated before Hamburg, during Hamburg and inevitably will be post Hamburg. Regardless of the rights and wrongs, Nadal did play, and did lose his streak but certainly not his aura. It takes more than one defeat to put paid to almost three years of clay court dominance and Nadal will arrive at the French Open as the rightful favourite. Whereas the win for Federer was important, the same significance cannot be attributed to the loss for Nadal. No player likes to lose but every player (even Federer and Nadal) does at some point and Nadal would have been well aware this day would come sooner or later. How he reacts to defeat will be an interesting development. The chances are he will react by claiming his third French Open title.

A good week for a pair of former number ones – Having lost in the first round of both Monte Carlo and Rome, not much was expected of Carlos Moya. A winner at Roland Garros in 1998, Moya defeated three of the world’s top 12; Tomas Berdych, James Blake and Novak Djokovic. Moya came from behind against Berdych and Blake and recovered well against Djokovic having failed to serve out the match initially. He then went on to test Federer in the last four but fell in a deciding set. If not much was expected of Moya, then even less was expected of Lleyton Hewitt. The fiery Aussie returned to action in Rome after a two month layoff and promptly lost in the opening round. It wouldn’t have been pleasing for Hewitt to see the draw he was faced with in Hamburg. Hewitt played the roll of underdog very well and defeated Agustin Calleri, Juan Ignacio Chela, Nikolay Davydenko and Nicolas Almagro on his way to the semi-finals. As if that wasn’t enough, Hewitt pushed Nadal to 7-5 in the 3rd and almost pulled off a major shock. Hewitt may not have ended Nadal’s streak but he can certainly claim to have softened up the Spaniard a touch for Federer in the final.

Last year’s news – It was a dreadful tournament for the last four from 2006. Defending champion, Tommy Robredo, lost out in his first and only action of the tournament against Nicolas Almagro. Robredo’s semi final victim from last year, Mario Ancic, could not even play in the tournament. Ancic has been suffering from glandular fever since late February and is only just beginning to take steps in what he hopes to be a return to action once the grass court season is underway. Last year’s finalist, Radek Stepanek, couldn’t advance beyond the first round, suffering at the hands of Arnaud Clement. Jose Acasuso was the best of a bad bunch, reaching the third round before being comprehensively outplayed by Robredo’s conqueror, Almagro.

Sports Magician will be previewing the critical La Liga action for the weekend of June 9.

Monday, May 14, 2007

ATP Masters Series - Hamburg Preview

The last clay court Masters Series event of the season begins in Hamburg today. It offers the last chance for a number of players to regain form or carry on momentum through to Roland Garros. Hamburg hope and expect to see King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, in action and looking to build further on his remarkable 77 match clay court win streak. Roger Federer arrives in Germany without Tony Roche as he looks for some much needed confidence going into the French Open.

Doubting Roger?
For the first time since becoming world number one, Roger Federer is in somewhat of a mini-crisis. For any other player going four tournaments without a title would be no cause for drama. However, Federer has become accustomed to winning titles routinely and regularly and his recent losses have clearly dented the invincibility that he often carries on tour throughout the year. Much focus has been placed on Federer possibly winning the Grandslam this year, but thoughts of such an achievement are far off at present after what has transpired over the past few weeks. Hamburg may prove to be the perfect place for Federer to regain form, having won the event on three occasions. On paper Federer’s quarter poses few risks, but many will be keen to see how he comes back from his shock loss in Rome with possible encounters with Juan Carlos Ferrero and David Ferrer awaiting him.

Djokovic continuing to roll
The second quarter of the draw offers Novak Djokovic another chance to continue what has been a very impressive season. The Serbian youngster has three titles to his name this season already and has reached at least the quarter-finals in six of his last seven events. Djokovic’s consistent level of performance make him a strong candidate to reach the last four and a possible encounter with Roger Federer. Former French Open champion, Carlos Moya, has failed to win a Masters Series match on clay this season and will be expecting to put that right against American Mardy Fish in the first round. Tomas Berdych faces Fernando Verdasco in the first round in a match that involves two talented but mentally suspect players.

Defending champion with work to do
Tommy Robredo capitalised on the absence of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in last year’s event to claim his first Masters Series title. The draw has not been kind to him and some difficult challenges lay ahead if he is to even reach the last four. The third quarter of the draw is, much like in Rome, packed with players who will believe they can come through it, those include; Nicolas Almagro, Juan Ignacio Chela, Guillermo Cañas and Nikolay Davydenko. Aside from those individuals there are a number of other capable players in need of form and confidence heading into Roland Garros. Jose Acasuso has underperformed all season and having made the quarter-finals in Hamburg last year has points to defend. Agustin Calleri, Andy Murray and Lleyton Hewitt are all in need of wins prior to the French Open. This quarter is likely to provide some of the best first round action in Hamburg with matches between Volandri/Murray, Hewitt/Calleri and Chela/Cañas.

King of Clay heading to Hamburg?
At the time of writing Rafael Nadal is expected to play in Hamburg but this may still yet change. Nadal has voiced his support of the Hamburg event following plans by the ATP to downgrade its Masters Series status. In order for that support to carry weight, the Spaniard, in addition to the other top players need to turn up and play. Providing Nadal does so, it’s futile to claim that he will have trouble with his draw. Nadal disposed of Fernando Gonzalez 6-2, 6-2 in the Rome final and Gonzalez is likely to pose the greatest threat to Nadal in this quarter. However, it’s a threat Nadal is well equipped to handle. The possibility exists for Nadal to meet the last man to defeat him on clay, Igor Andreev, in the third round. The home crowd will be hoping that Philipp Kohlschreiber can give the Germans something to shout about by at least reaching the third round for an encounter with Nadal. Germany’s top ranked player, Tommy Haas, is unable to play the event due to injury.

Sports Magician will be reviewing the Hamburg Masters upon the conclusion of the event.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Rome Masters Series Review

The second clay Masters Series event of the season is over and the King of Clay continues to reign over the rest of the field. The Rome tournament proved successful for the home nation, but the same could not be said for the world number one who lost more than just a tennis match this week.

  • Tired and tested – Rafael Nadal’s clay win streak now stands at 77 wins as the Spaniard picked up his 3rd Masters Series title of 2007. Nadal has obliterated all before him on clay this season in even more impressive fashion than he had done for the past two seasons, but in the semi-finals he was given the biggest test he has received in the past few weeks. For the first time during the Euro clay season, Nadal began to look jaded against Nikolay Davydenko and the Russian pushed Nadal to the limit in an energy sapping three and a half hour encounter. Nadal was able to brush aside Fernando Gonzalez in the final, and the question now remains whether Nadal will play in Hamburg having shown the first signs of fatigue this week in Rome.
  • Parting ways – In losing his 3rd round match with Italian Filippo Volandri, Roger Federer produced arguably his worst display since becoming world number one. Federer looked devoid of confidence and never at any stage during the match did he allow Volandri to think about the magnitude of the victory he was about to obtain. There is much to consider for Federer if he is to provide the required level of play to challenge Nadal come the French Open. Whatever it is he plans to mull over and work on will be done without his part-time coach, Tony Roche. Both parties went their separate ways following Federer’s exit in Rome.
  • Forza Italia! – The past week was a great success for the home nation and the partisan Italian crowd. Filippo Volandri made full use of his wildcard by reaching the last four. In the process he defeated three players ranked inside the world’s top thirteen in the form of Richard Gasquet, Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych. Volandri met his match in the semi-final against Fernando Gonzalez, who showed off a glimpse of his Australian Open form and won the match with relative ease. Aside from Volandri, Potito Starace also gave the home crowd something to shout about, knocking off Agustin Calleri and Juan Carlos Ferrero before succumbing to Davydenko in a tight three set battle.
  • It was a good week for – Fernando Gonzalez gained some much needed confidence and momentum by reaching the final. Signs of Gonzalez coming back to life began against good friend and compatriot, Nicolas Massu. Down 4-2 in the 3rd set, Gonzalez came storming back to take the match and continued that level of play against Juan Ignacio Chela and Volandri in his quarter-final and semi-final respectively.
  • It was a bad week for – Tomas Berdych, despite reaching the quarter-finals, let himself down with a feeble display against Volandri in the last eight. Berdych was unable to stem the momentum Volandri was riding from the home crowd and refused to adjust his tactics, continually looking for winners too early in rallies and never giving himself a chance to play his way into the match. Guillermo Cañas, having come through qualifying much was expected of the Argentine. However, a surprising loss in the second round to Gilles Simon meant that Cañas could not claim status as the number one ranked Argentine (which he would have done so by reaching the semi-finals). Marcos Baghdatis, leading Novak Djokovic 5-1 in the 2nd set and seemingly on his way to taking the match into a decider. It was not to be though as he went on to lose six straight games, thus losing the match 6-2 7-5.

Sports Magician will be previewing the Hamburg Masters later this evening.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Rome Masters Series Preview

The fourth Masters Series event of the season begins on Monday in Rome. For the past two years the Rome Final has produced the match of the past two seasons, Rafael Nadal was the victor on both occasions in five hour plus finals against Roger Federer (2006) and Guillermo Coria (2005) respectively. That won’t be the case this year, at least not of the five set variety as the final will be a best of three sets affair. Nadal looks to continue his phenomenal run on clay, while Federer is still in search of his first Masters title of the season, an unusual situation for him to find himself in. The draw has been made with one of the remaining question marks being where Guillermo Cañas (a likely qualifier) will end up in the draw, there are four spots available in the top half (Federer) and three in the bottom half (Nadal).

Testing quarter for Federer
Largely unimpressive in Monte Carlo, the world number one still reached the final without dropping a set. A similar vein of form may not yield the same results this time around. Rome is the scene of where Federer came as close as he has ever done to defeating Nadal on clay and he’ll be hoping to reproduce that level of play this time around. Federer’s first opponent is likely to be Nicolas Almagro, both players met in Rome last year at the quarter final stage with Federer progressing in three sets, 7-5 in the third. Almagro was a non-factor in Monte Carlo, having to retire against Tomas Berdych after defending his title in Valencia. Federer would have hoped for a less demanding opponent to begin his campaign. Should Federer progress he may well run into Richard Gasquet (3rd round) and Tomas Berdych or Jose Acasuso (quarter-final). The potential is there for Federer to be well tested if and when he reaches the final.

The Americans have arrived
Having skipped Monte Carlo, Rome sees the return of the two top ten Americans – Andy Roddick and James Blake. Neither will be expected to be a factor in the event and both have been drawn in the same quarter. One of the standout matches of the first round pits Igor Andreev against David Ferrer. Both players will feel that surviving their first round encounter could well propel them to the last four of the tournament. Two players in desperate need of form and confidence are Gael Monfils and Fernando Gonzalez. Monfils has a semi-final to defend from last year with the chances of him doing so being remote to say the least. Gonzalez has been in poor form ever since the Australian Open, but has a draw that will encourage him to believe he at least has a good chance to reach the last eight.

Could Cañas land here?
Three of the seven qualifier spots are placed in the third quarter of the draw. It may well be that Cañas ends up in the quarter and would be the favourite to come through it. This section of the draw is filled with a number of players who will believe that on their day they will have as much chance of coming through it as any other. These names include; Tommy Robredo, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Murray, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Agustin Calleri, Marat Safin and Nikolay Davydenko. Hewitt and Murray have no matches on clay behind them this season and it remains to be seen how they perform. Safin, although with the ability to beat anyone on his day, has not had many of “his days” in a long while and there is little reason to believe that will change here. Davydenko, like Gonzalez, has been in poor form also and no longer playing with the consistency that has served him so well for the past two seasons. On paper, Tommy Robredo appears well placed to come through this section, although Ferrero and Calleri are more than capable of taking on that mantle too.

72 and counting…
Rafael Nadal fears no player on clay; he certainly won’t fear the draw he has received in pursuit of his third successive Rome Masters title. It’s hard to see any player in his quarter challenging him to a great extent and it will be a major shock should Nadal not be in the final, or indeed lifting the trophy. The best of the rest in the bottom quarter is headed by Novak Djokovic. Other notable names include former French Open champion, Carlos Moya, and a recent nemesis of Nadal away from clay, Mikhail Youzhny.

Sports Magician will be reviewing events in Rome upon the conclusion of the tournament.
 
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