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Vuelta a España preview: Key stages and contenders

The 75th anniversary edition of the Vuelta a España kicks off on Saturday night with a spectacular night-time team time trial. Despite being regarded as the smallest of the three Grand Tours, it promises to be an exciting race, with half a dozen or more riders having a genuine chance of claiming the overall win at the finish in Madrid on September 19th.

The route

This year’s course covers 3,353 km from Seville to Madrid and contains an intriguing mix of stages over its 21 days of racing. As many as eight stages could finish in bunch sprints (although it may be as few as four or five), but there are also six summit finishes including the monstrous 2,247-metre Bola del Mundo outside Madrid, which makes its Vuelta debut on the penultimate day. With only one individual time trial deep into the final week, the route will favour the stronger climbers, with plenty of attacking opportunities to sift out the weak from the strong. Key highlights include:

Stage 1: 13 km team time trial, which will take place on Saturday night in Seville and should make for spectacular viewing.

Stage 11: The first mountains of this year’s race come early on stage three from Marbella to Málaga. Stages eight and nine – which feature first the tricky first-category Xorret del Catí and then an undulating profile which requires the riders to crest seven medium-mountain summits in rapid succession – will also cause splits among the leaders. But it is not until this long 208 km run from Vilanova i la Geltrú into Andorra that this year’s route properly bares its teeth with its first beyond-category mountain, a 9.9 km, 6.5% climb to Vallnord Sector Pal.

Stage 11 (Wednesday 8th September)

Stages 14-16: The race will be probably be won and lost on these three consecutive days, each of which finishes at the summit of a beyond-category climb: respectively, Peña Cabarga (only 5.9 km, but a brutal 9.2% average gradient), Lagos de Covadonga (12.5 km, 7.0%) and finally Alto de Cotobello. (10.1 km, 8.2%)

Stage 14 (Saturday 11th September)

Stage 15 (Sunday 12th September)

Stage 16 (Monday 13th September)

Stage 17: The only individual time trial of this year’s Vuelta is a flat-as-a-pancake 46 km blast out of Peñafiel and back again. Coming off the back of the previous three stages and the final rest day, this could see a surprise winner and some major time gaps among the contenders as accumulated fatigue takes its toll.

Stage 20: If the race is still close, the climactic 21.6 km, 6.3% ascent of Bola del Mundo could provide the backdrop for a spectacular duel on the last meaningful day of racing, featuring short sections with 19% and 20% gradients in the closing two kilometres.

Stage 20 (Saturday 18th September)

Overall contenders

The battle for the overall win looks set to be a genuinely open one, with no clear favourite. Neither Ivan Basso nor Alberto Contador, the winners of this year’s other Grand Tours, are competing in Spain. And none of the top four from the 2009 race are competing either: winner Alejandro Valverde is serving a two-year doping ban, and Samuel Sánchez, Cadel Evans and Basso are also absent. Add to that Levi Leipheimer and the now retired Lance Armstrong, whose RadioShack team was, controversially, not invited, and the race is missing as many as nine potential winners. However, there is still plenty of quality among the leading names who will be lining up in Seville.

Here are my top six to look out for.

Igor Antón Hernández

Igor Antón Hernández (Euskaltel-Euskadi)

The 27-year old Hernández is likely to be the main contender for a strong all-Spanish Euskaltel-Euskadi team, who will be looking to shine on home soil after the disappointment of narrowly missing out on a podium finish for Samuel Sánchez at the Tour de France. He has finished in the top ten at the Vuelta previously (eighth in 2007), scored a stage win in 2006, and can be expected to feature prominently on the tougher mountain stages, where his team will look to orchestrate a decisive attack.

Denis Menchov

Denis Menchov (Rabobank)

Third in July’s Tour de France and the only previous Vuelta winner in this year’s field, the 2005 and 2007 champion certainly has the requisite class and experience. He will have a proven lieutenant in Rabobank teammate Juan Manuel Gárate, a previous winner of the climbers’ competition at the Giro. The Russian has raced relatively sparingly in 2010 but, given his gruelling Tour exertions, much will depend on whether he can stay close enough to the mountain specialists on the Vuelta’s six summit finishes and then reclaim any losses in the stage 17 time trial. If he can limit his losses to two minutes before then, a hat-trick of wins is a distinct possibility.

Ezequiel Mosquera

Ezequiel Mosquera (Xaocbeo-Galicia)

Menchov aside, Mosquera has perhaps the best individual record at the Vuelta, having finished in the top five three times (fifth in 2007 and 2009, fourth in 2008). The 34-year old veteran is a consistently strong climber who is unlikely to ride away from the field in spectacular fashion, but can be expected to be up at the front of the field on every summit finish. Given the demanding mountainous nature of this year’s course, that may be enough to propel him to the very top of the general classification this time around.

Vincenzo Nibali

Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas)

Rode brilliantly in the high mountains in support of team leader Ivan Basso at this year’s Giro d’Italia, where he briefly wore the maglia rosa, won a stage and finished third overall. The 25-year old Italian has been in excellent form all year, taking overall wins at the Tour de San Luis and Tour of Slovenia to add to an already impressive palmarès which includes a seventh-place finish at last year’s Tour de France. He has never previously raced at the Vuelta, but undoubtedly has the talent to claim victory. He will be well supported by a strong Liquigas team which includes Roman Kreuziger, who himself has two top ten finishes at the last two Tours de France to his name.

Joaquim Rodríguez

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha)

The Spanish Katusha rider finished eighth overall at the Tour de France, including a win in stage 12 at Mende, where he beat Contador in a two-up sprint finish at the end of the final brutal climb. He has also had previous success at the Vuelta, finishing sixth in 2008 and seventh last year. His post-Tour form has remained strong, with a fifth-place finish at the Clásica de San Sebastián less than four weeks ago, so he will undoubtedly have opportunities to contend for both stage wins and the overall classification.

Fränk Schleck

Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Assuming he has fully recovered from the fractured clavicle he sustained on stage three of the Tour de France, Schleck will lead the Saxo Bank team at the Vuelta, where his brother Andy, runner-up in France for the second straight year, is committed to supporting him. Fränk has yet to complete the Vuelta – and he has had only one day of competitive racing since crashing out of the Tour – but his pre-injury form was at a high level, winning the Tour de Suisse and finishing second at the Tour de Luxembourg. At full fitness – and without the wear and tear of a full three-week race in his legs this year – this may be his best chance of securing a maiden Grand Tour win before he and his brother leave Saxo Bank to form their own Luxembourg-based team next year.

Others to watch

Mark Cavendish and the other top sprinters will be looking for a confidence-boosting win or two ahead of the Worlds (image courtesy of TDWsport.com)

With mountain stages dominating, there is no guarantee the points competition will be won by a sprinter this year, which is a shame because the fast-twitch men are well represented here. HTC-Columbia‘s Mark Cavendish, fresh from the return to form which saw him win five stages in France, joins Tour green jersey Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre), Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) in an exceptionally strong field. Petacchi, Hushovd and Bennati are all previous winners of the points competition at the Vuelta. We should see some spectacular finishes on the flat stages, particularly early on, but do not be surprised if Cavendish and one or two others withdraw before the final week in order to save their legs for the World Championships on what looks to be a sprinter-friendly course in Melbourne at the beginning of October.

The climbers’ competition could conceivably be won by any of the overall contenders, but Frenchman David Moncoutié will be looking for his third straight win in this competition. The biggest threat to his chances may well come from one or more of the Caisse d’Epargne trio of Luis León Sánchez, Juan Mauricio Soler and Rigoberto Urán.

Finally, as Lance Armstrong heads into retirement (and litigation), and with both Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner also approaching the end of the road, American eyes will be looking towards a 22-year old, HTC-Columbia’s Tejay van Garderen, and Garmin-Transitions’ Tom Danielson, to usher in a new era. Van Garderen has already impressed at the highest level this year, placing an impressive third in June’s Critérium du Dauphiné. Neither is likely to get anywhere near the top ten, but their progress will be followed back home with keen interest.

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I will be doing updates after key stages of the Vuelta, as well as weekly summaries. For up-to-the-minute news, results and analysis of the race, visit either the official Vuelta website or the always excellent steephill.tv.

The Vuelta a España starts in Seville on Saturday 28th August and finishes in Madrid on Sunday 19th September. In the UK, British Eurosport will be providing daily live coverage and highlights throughout the race.

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Champions League group stage draw

Here is the draw for the group phase of the 2010/11 UEFA Champions League (British teams in capitals):

Group A: Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, TOTTENHAM, FC Twente

Group B: Lyon, Benfica, Schalke, Hapoel Tel Aviv

Group C: MANCHESTER UNITED, Valencia, RANGERS, Bursaspor

Group D: FC Barcelona, Panathinaikos, FC Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan

Group E: Bayern Munich, AS Roma, FC Basel, CFR Cluj

Group F: CHELSEA, Marseille, Spartak Moscow, MŠK Žilina

Group G: AC Milan, Real Madrid, Ajax, Auxerre

Group H: ARSENAL, Shakhtar Donetsk, SC Braga, FK Partisan

Here are my immediate reactions:

Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal should all be reasonably happy with their draws. Chelsea and Arsenal face long flights to away games in Russia and the Ukraine, but both should expect to win their groups comfortably. United’s visit to Rangers will be a highly-charged affair, but Sir Alex Ferguson‘s team will be too powerful for Walter Smith‘s side.

Having departed to Shakhtar Donetsk over the summer, striker Eduardo da Silva will at least have a chance to be given a proper send-off when he returns to the Emirates Stadium with his new side.

Pep Guardiola will need to practise his straight face in the mirror before telling the media that “there are no easy games in the Champions League”. He could not have asked for a much better draw if he had hand-picked it himself. At least he will not have to warn his Barcelona side that Rubin Kazan will be no push-over – the Russian champions won 2-1 at Camp Nou in last season’s group phase and held them to a 0-0 draw at home.

Harry Redknapp will be less happy, however. They were always going to face a tough draw as they were placed in the third pot of seeds, but Inter and Werder Bremen will stretch Spurs to the limit, and Dutch champions Twente were formidable in holding off Ajax last season under the guidance of former England coach Steve McClaren (who is now with Wolfsburg).

The toughest group, however, is unquestionably group G. Poor Auxerre, third in Ligue 1 last season, will face the seemingly impossible task of overcoming three of Europe’s biggest names, who have a total of 20 European Cup/Champions League trophies between them: AC Milan (seven), Real Madrid (nine) and Ajax (four). In that group, AC Milan striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar will have the opportunity to play not one but two of his former clubs, Ajax and Madrid.

Champions League draw? It’s a load of balls

Following Tottenham‘s 6-3 aggregate win over Young Boys last night, there will be five British clubs in today’s Champions League group phase draw, which will take place in Monaco at around 5pm UK time.

The 32 teams in the draw are divided into four pots based on their UEFA coefficient, with the giants of European football – including the Premier League’s top three, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal – in pot one. Spurs will join Scottish champions Rangers in pot three. Each group is then made up of one team from each pot.

England is the only country to have four representatives in today’s draw; France, Germany, Italy and Spain have three apiece.

The seedings in full are as follows:

Pot One: Inter Milan, Barcelona, Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Lyon.

Pot Two: Werder Bremen, Real Madrid, Roma, Shakhtar Donetsk, Benfica, Valencia, Marseille, Panathinaikos.

Pot Three: Tottenham, Rangers, Ajax, Schalke 04, Basle, Braga, FC Copenhagen, Spartak Moscow.

Pot Four: Hapoel Tel Aviv, FC Twente, Rubin Kazan, Auxerre, CFR Cluj, Partizan Belgrade, MŠK Žilina, Bursaspor.

And here is a quick break-down of each of the 18 countries’ representatives (clubs are domestic champions except where indicated):

Denmark: FC Copenhagen

England: Chelsea, Man Utd (runner-up), Arsenal (3rd), Tottenham (4th)

France: Marseille, Lyon (runner-up), Auxerre (3rd)

Germany: Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen (runner-up), Schalke (3rd)

Greece: Panathinaikos

Holland: FC Twente, Ajax (runner-up)

Israel: Hapoel Tel Aviv

Italy: Inter, Roma (runner-up), AC Milan (3rd)

Portugal: Benfica, Braga (runner-up)

Romania: CFR Cluj

Russia: Rubin Kazan, Spartak Moscow

Scotland: Rangers

Serbia: Partizan Belgrade

Slovakia: MŠK Žilina

Spain: Barcelona, Real Madrid (runner-up), Valencia (3rd)

Switzerland: Basle

Turkey: Bursaspor

Ukraine: Shakhtar Donetsk

Champions League rules dictate that teams from the same country cannot be drawn in the same group. So Rangers could face any of the Premier League’s top three, but Spurs will definitely face a daunting home-and-away encounter against one of Inter, Barcelona, Bayern, Milan and Lyon. Similarly, 2010 Champions League winners Inter cannot be drawn against Roma, and so on.

The top three English clubs will be hoping for a relatively straightforward draw, which ideally means avoiding Real Madrid and Roma in pot two, and the complexities of a long and arduous trip to play Shakhtar Donetsk, Rubin Kazan or Spartak Moscow. If anyone draws the combination of Panathinaikos, Basle and MŠK Žilina, expect their manager to be struggling to disguise a broad smile while trotting out the usual line about there being “no easy games in the Champions League”.

For Tottenham, they know they will be drawn to face a major European power from pot one, but Harry Redknapp will be hoping for a favourable draw from pot two to give his team a decent chance of progression to the knockout stages. Ideally, he will probably want Lyon and Panathinaikos; as an Arsenal fan, I’m crossing my fingers they will get Inter and Real Madrid, or Barcelona and Roma.

The way the Champions League draw is organised, which favours the progression of the bigger teams, has often been criticised in the past. Nonetheless, there is the potential for some intriguing encounters. What price Inter being drawn against Real Madrid, reuniting them with their Champions League-winning coach José Mourinho, the long-standing nemesis of new manager Rafa Benitez?

Shortly after 5pm,we will know for sure. And then let the hand-wringing and the frantic travel bookings commence.

The draw for the Europa League will follow at midday UK time on Friday.

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