My sporting month: September 2011

Ah, September. The end of summer. The beginning of autumn. The conclusion of the last major events of the year in tennis (the US Open) and cycling (the Vuelta a España). The start of the quadrennial highlight in one leading sport. The resumption of hostilities in the qualifying campaign of another. Events all over the world ranging from one of the northernmost countries in Europe to one of the most eastern nations in Asia. And a first encounter between the most successful and longest-serving manager in English football’s top division and a newcomer less than half his age. It should be quite a month. Here’s what I’ll be watching this month.

1. Euro 2012 qualifiers – Bulgaria vs England (2nd), England vs Wales (6th)

England‘s qualifying campaign for next summer’s European Championships resumes with a double-header against the bottom two teams in group F, with victory in both games essential if they are to stay ahead of Montenegro in the race for the one automatic qualification spot.

A day before the anniversary of a 4-0 drubbing at Wembley courtesy of a Jermain Defoe hat-trick, Fabio Capello‘s men will travel to Sofia without key midfielders Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere in search of a repeat win over Bulgaria. Four days later they will host Wales, who have lost all four of their matches to date, including a 2-0 defeat to England in March which was more one-sided than the scoreline suggests.

2. Rugby World Cup (starts 9th)

Over the course of six weeks, 20 teams will battle it out in New Zealand for the right to succeed South Africa as rugby union’s world champions. In 2007 the Springboks ground down defending champions England 15-6 in a dour game, while the tournament’s surprise package Argentina repeated their opening night upset of hosts France with a 34-10 victory in the bronze medal match.

The balance of power in world rugby currently resides firmly with the southern hemisphere sides, with New Zealand hopeful of taking full advantage of their position as hosts to win their first World Cup since they co-hosted the inaugural tournament in 1987. Australia will look to carry forward the form which saw them win the Tri-Nations last weekend to claim their third World Cup, with South Africa also seeking to become the first country to take a hat-trick of victories. It will be a major surprise if England, France or any of the northern hemisphere countries come out on top.

The group phase occupies the whole of the first month, with the final taking place in Auckland’s Eden Park on October 23rd.

3. Manchester United vs Chelsea (18th)

This is more than just a clash between two of the Premier League’s heavyweight teams. Coming just three weeks after Manchester United thrashed Arsenal 8-2 in a battle between the division’s two longest-serving managers, this game is a tussle between the old guard, 69-year old Sir Alex Ferguson, and the new generation as represented by new Chelsea boss André Villas-Boas, who at 33 years old is the youngest manager in the Premier League.

It is too early in the fixture list to call this a season-defining match, but it will certainly lay down a marker for the rest of the campaign. Will the wily old fox – whose team this season has received a fresh injection of youth in the shape of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley – have too much for the latest pretender to the throne, several of whose players are barely younger than he is?

Cancellara will defend his time trial world title

4. Cycling road world championships (19th-25th)

Copenhagen plays host to the cycling’s road world championships for the fifth time in its history (but the first since 1956) on a relatively flat course which offers major opportunities for British glory. In the men’s events, Thor Hushovd (road race) and Fabian Cancellara (time trial) will defend their rainbow jerseys with Mark Cavendish, supported by a full-strength British team, a major favourite for the former.

In the women’s races Britain’s Emma Pooley (time trial) and Italy’s Girogia Bronzini (road race) are the defending champions. Lizzie Armitstead and former world and Olympic champion Nicole Cooke will be Britain’s main hopes in the road race – the pair finished ninth and fourth respectively in Melbourne last year.

5. Singapore Grand Prix (25th)

The battle for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship may be all but mathematically over – Sebastian Vettel‘s seventh win of the season in Belgium moved him 92 points clear with a maximum of just 175 still available – but that will not diminish the spectacle of Singapore’s night race, the first of five consecutive grands prix following the end of the final European race in Italy a fortnight before.

In last year’s race Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso just managed to hold off eventual world champion Vettel by less than three-tenths of a second to claim the hat-trick of pole position, fastest lap and race win. It was a victory significantly less controversial than his previous one for Renault in the race’s maiden outing in 2008, when he took first place after teammate Nelson Piquet Jr was ordered to crash by the team to force a safety car period. That provided the platform for Alonso to charge through the field from 15th on the grid. McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton is the only other driver to have won in Singapore.

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