Cavendish hat-trick moves him closer to the green jersey

Mark Cavendish clinched his third – and HTC-Columbia‘s fifth – stage win of this year’s Vuelta a España in Salamanca this afternoon. The victory consolidated his stranglehold on the points competition; barring a major mishap, he now looks certain to wear the green jersey when the race finishes in Madrid on Sunday.

At 149 km, today’s stage from Valladolid to Salamanca was pancake flat and also the shortest road stage of the Vuelta other than Sunday’s processional final run into Madrid, earmarking it as an obvious candidate for a bunch sprint and an opportunity for the GC contenders to enjoy a relatively easy day after the exertions of the individual time trial and the three consecutive summit finishes which preceded it.

Mark Cavendish, the only three-time stage winner so far at the Vuelta (image courtesy of

An eight-man break formed immediately, but were never allowed a lead of more than about two minutes by the peloton, led primarily by HTC-Columbia, Garmin-Transitions and the Liquigas team of race leader Vincenzo Nibali. Despite a late attack by former red jersey Philippe Gilbert, the pack was fully reintegrated in good time to set up the sprint.

Having safely negotiated several roundabouts in the final few kilometres, Quick Step drove the pace at the front deep into the final kilometre before faltering, allowing Cavendish’s own lead-out man Matt Goss to take over. Yet again, the Australian provided a brilliant lead-out into the slightly uphill finish, with Cavendish delaying his sprint until around the 175-metre mark. With Tyler Farrar out of position, Cavendish comfortably held off Saxo Bank‘s J J Haedo to win by just over a bike length and claim a hat-trick of consecutive sprint wins, his struggles in the race’s first week now long forgotten. Footon-Servetto‘s Manuel Cardoso was third, Farrar fourth.

As always, Cavendish proclaimed it a victory for the entire team rather than himself:

I say it every time but it’s me who crosses the line first but it’s a team of eight guys. Peter Velits, who is third on GC, put in a huge turn with a kilometre to go. Most GC guys would sit back but he put in an incredible effort for me.

Cavendish now leads Farrar by 32 in the points competition, and with only tomorrow and Sunday’s final stage offering significant opportunities for the sprinters, if he finishes ahead of Farrar tomorrow the Manx Missile should end his first Vuelta in the green jersey on Sunday.

The order at the top of the general classification remained unchanged today, and should do so again on tomorrow’ slightly lumpy stage, which is almost certain to finish in either another bunch sprint or a breakaway win. Vincenzo Nibali leads by 38 seconds.

Stage 18 result:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 3:27:11

2. Juan José Haedo (Saxo Bank) same time

3. Manuel Cardoso (Footon-Servetto) s/t

4. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) s/t

5. Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) s/t

General classification:

1. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 74:47:06

2. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) +0:38

3. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) +1:59

4. Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank) +3:43

5. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +3:48

6. Xavier Tondó (Cervelo) +3:48

7. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions) +3:58

8. Nicolas Roche (Ag2R-La Mondiale) +4:02

9. Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) +4:16

10. Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) +5:42

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 136 pts

2. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) 104

2. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 93

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 89

5. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 75

Mountains classification:

1. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 48 pts

2. Serafín Martínez (Xacobeo Galicia) 38

3. Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) 25

4. Gonzalo Rabuñal (Xacobeo Galicia) 25

5. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Eusakdi) 21

I am away on holiday for the next week, so will not be covering the final three stages.

For up-to-the-minute news, results and analysis of the race, visit either the official Vuelta website or the always excellent


Wilshere stakes claim as Fabregas’ heir apparent

UEFA Champions League: Arsenal 6 Braga 0

Fàbregas 9 pen, 53, Arshavin 30, Chamakh 34, Vela 69, 84

Arsenal started their Champions League campaign in the best possible way, trouncing Portugal’s S.C. Braga thanks to three goals in each half and a masterclass in one and two-touch attacking play, with captain Cesc Fàbregas orchestrating proceedings from midfield and 18-year old Jack Wilshere establishing himself as his heir apparent.

Although Braga were making their debut in the Champions League proper, last season’s runners-up in the Portuguese top division were not a side to be underestimated, having defeated Celtic and Sevilla (by an impressive 5-3 aggregate) to qualify for the group stage.

Arsène Wenger promoted fit-again Samir Nasri straight back into the starting line-up, which included an all-French back four of Gaël Clichy, Laurent Koscielny, Sébastien Squillaci and Bacary Sagna.

The home side got off to a flying start, passing and moving with pace and no small amount of threat. Twice in the first four minutes Fàbregas surged into the Braga penalty area, on the first occasion failing to earn what appeared to be a penalty. But it would not be long until referee Alain Hamer did point to the spot as Braga goalkeeper Felipe felled Marouane Chamakh and Fàbregas converted the resultant ninth-minute penalty high to the keeper’s left.

18-year old Jack Wilshere was a dynamic presence in Arsenal's midfield (image courtesy of

Playing behind his captain but often venturing forward in support of the front three of Chamakh, Nasri and Andrey Arshavin, Jack Wilshire quickly forced a point-blank save from Felipe as Arsenal continued to lay siege to the Braga goal, passing around and through the visitors’ defence seemingly at will. Too often in the past at 1-0 Arsenal have allowed themselves to get caught up in their own hype, moving the ball in pretty patterns without applying the killer touch. But with Braga offering little threat up front – Manuel Almunia did not have to make a meaningful save all night – and affording so much space around their area, Arsenal continued to carve out chances with some ease. It was only a matter of time before the second goal, and yet again it was Fàbregas who instigated the scoring move on the half-hour. He skipped past two half-hearted tackles before caressing the ball through to Arshavin who, after wasting several presentable chances against Bolton on Saturday, made no mistake this time.

At 2-0, the game was already as good as over, but Arsenal continued to hammer nails into the coffin. Four minutes later, some sparkling interplay between Arshavin, Wilshere and Chamakh left the Braga defence chasing shadows. The Englishman’s delightful back-heel set up the Moroccan striker, who calmly dug the ball out from between his feet and poked the ball home past the helpless Felipe. It was Chamakh’s third goal in only his fifth game for the club, and the fourth successive Champions League game in which he has scored.

With the three points in the bag, Arsenal could have been forgiven for taking their foot off the gas, but instead they showed no mercy against dispirited opponents. Arshavin seized on a loose clearance to chip a ball across the box for Fàbregas, unopposed, to nod in. Shortly after, Cesc was denied his hat-trick after a quick one-two with Arshavin when his shot was partially saved and then hacked off the line.

Unfortunately for Braga, the hosts’ appetite for goals was still not fully sated. Substitute Carlos Vela, teed up by first Arshavin and then Fàbregas, bagged a late brace to seal a 6-0 scoreline which fully reflected Arsenal’s dominance of a one-sided game. They will face tougher challenges in the competition – not least in the return leg in two months’ time – but the team can deservedly bask in the knowledge of a job very well done. Chamakh again impressed with his selfless running and link-up play (he completed all 28 of his passes in the first half), Nasri looked sharp after his injury, Vela continues to grow in confidence after some horrible performances last season, and the back four coped comfortably with most of Braga’s few attacks. The only minor downsides – and they were genuinely minor – was some occasionally careless passing by Arshavin and Alex Song. But to spend too much time dwelling on that would be like criticising van Gogh for chopping off his ear.

Wenger was suitably effusive about his captain’s performance in his post-match interview:

He has taken on another dimension. People forget that he is 23 years old, [an age] where other people start. He is a fantastic influence and it is important that he leads this team to winning and I believe it is a fantastic opportunity for the young players who play alongside him to improve as well. If you are 18 years old like Wilshere and you see Fabregas who is 23, it is a big opportunity to learn a lot.

He also singled out Wilshere, praising his ability to make such important contributions from central midfield so early in his first-team career:

[Last season’s loan spell at Bolton] was important because it accelerated his career. But, of course, Jack has been educated here and he was already an outstanding player when he left for Bolton. But this is the final part of the education of a player – to be integrated into the first team and play under pressure. That was important for him.

Football teaches you one thing – be open-minded and never have a definite opinion. You need to have opinions sometimes but you always have to have an open mind on players because you can never predict how quickly they develop.

It will be interesting to see how Wenger chooses to utilise Wilshere over the next few weeks. If Fàbregas was the chief architect of last night’s victory, Wilshere proved to be an extremely capable understudy. He was conspicuous in all phases of midfield: getting himself into dangerous positions,  passing the ball with a pleasing directness and deft touch, and being quite happy to stick his foot in defensively too. It was a performance which confirmed that he is both good enough and old enough to look comfortable at the highest level of club competition, and demonstrated exactly why he is considered one of the very brightest young England prospects. Indeed, for now he may well be better suited to the more technical and open nature of Champions League football than he is for the pace and power of the Premier League. Regardless, this mature showing confirmed what Arsenal fans have long suspected – that even if Fàbregas does depart for Barcelona next summer, in Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey Arsenal already possess two young midfielders who may one day prove to be the Spaniard’s equal. There can be no higher praise.

I will be covering neither Saturday’s game at Sunderland nor next Tuesday’s Carling Cup tie at White Hart Lane as I will be away on holiday. Post-match reviews will resume with the home game against West Brom on Saturday 25th.

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