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My sporting month: January 2012

A new year brings with it the start of the season for many sports which have been in hibernation over the past couple of months. For winter sports, it sees the competition hotting up as their calendars pass the midway point or, in some cases, the road to the end-of-season playoffs.

With both the London Olympics and football’s European Championships upcoming this summer, 2012 looks set to be a bumper year for all sports fans. And January gets things off to a fast start with a post-Christmas cracker of a schedule. Here is a personal list of my top five events for the coming month.

1. FA Cup 3rd round (6th-9th)

The romance of the FA Cup is alive and well, with the draw for the third round, in which the 44 Premier League and Championship sides enter the competition, throwing up a pleasing mix of titanic clashes and giant-killing opportunities.

The top two teams in English football, Manchester City and Manchester United, will face off for local bragging rights at the Etihad Stadium, with United hungry to avenge their earlier 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford against their upstart neighbours. Elsewhere local derbies between Birmingham and Wolves and Nottingham Forest and Leicester will undoubtedly rekindle deep-seated rivalries. Of the four remaining non-league teams, Tamworth have the most eye-catching tie as they travel to Everton, but Salisbury City, Fleetwood Town and Wrexham will all be hopeful of pulling off a minor miracle against much higher-ranked sides.

Bracketing a four-day feast of Cup football, Liverpool take on Oldham on Friday night, while Leeds make the trip down the M1 to face Arsenal at this stage for the second year running. Last season they were denied a major upset only by a last-minute Cesc Fàbregas penalty, only to succumb in the replay at Elland Road. They will hope for better fortune second time around. As an Arsenal fan, I will of course be hoping for somewhat more straightforward progress to the fourth round, which will take place on the weekend of the 28th/29th.

2. NFL playoffs (start 7th, end 29th)

The final week of the regular season kicks off this evening (New Year’s Day), after which we will know the identity of the 12 playoff teams who will compete for a place in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis on February 5th.

Only one playoff berth remains undecided in the NFC, with the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys (both 8-7) going head to head tonight, with the loser missing out on the postseason altogether. Already guaranteed home-field advantage are the defending champion Green Bay Packers (14-1), who will enjoy the dual luxury of being able to rest their starters tonight against the Detroit Lions and a bye next week. The Lions (10-5) have already secured their place as a wild-card alongside the Atlanta Falcons (9-6), while the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints (both 12-3) have both won their divisions but are competing for the right to join the Packers in having next weekend off.

The picture is less clear-cut in the AFC, with home-field advantage still up for grabs. The New England Patriots (12-3) have clinched their division, while we must wait to see which of the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers (both 11-4) will take the AFC North crown, with the runner-up guaranteed a wild-card spot. The Houston Texans (10-5) have wrapped up the AFC South, while the Denver Broncos hold the tie-break edge over the Oakland Raiders (both 8-7) in the West. With only the AFC West winner and one wild-card berth to fill, there are five teams competing for the last two AFC spots: the Broncos, Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Tennessee Titans.

The playoffs commence next weekend with the two wild-cards in each conference travelling to the two lowest-seeded divisional winners, while the top seeds put their feet up and prepare for a home match-up the following week in the divisional round. The winners of those four games will then contest the AFC and NFC Championship games on Sunday 29th.

3. Australian Open (16th-29th)

The opening Grand Slam tournament of the tennis season sees Novak Djokovic return to Melbourne seeking to repeat the victory which provided the springboard for an incredible season which saw him claim three of the four majors (he also won at Wimbledon and the US Open) and seize the number one ranking from Rafael Nadal. In total he won 70 of his 76 matches and ten titles in a year of astonishing quality and consistency. However, Nadal has said he will avoid Davis Cup duty this year to focus on regaining the top spot, and with Andy Murray and Roger Federer, rejuvenated by his sixth AP World Tour Finals win, snapping at their heels, it promises to be another intense and fiercely competitive year.

Kim Clijsters defeated Li Na in the ladies’ final to take her fourth Grand Slam singles title, but missed most of the second half of 2011 with a series of injuries. However, she deliberately rested up at the back end of last season to ensure she is fully fit for this year, where she will target both the majors and the Olympics. With world number one Caroline Wozniacki still seeking her first Grand Slam title, the rivalry in the ladies’ tournament looks set to be as fierce as in the men’s.

4. England vs Pakistan, 1st Test (17th-21st)

England kick off a busy 2012 as the current number one-ranked Test side for the first time. The first of four series sees them travel to Pakistan for the first time in six years to play a challenging three-match series. On their last tour there in 2005/6, Marcus Trescothick’s side lost the first Test narrowly before succumbing to a heavy innings defeat in the third match to lose the series 2-0. Since then, however, England have twice won four-match series at home: 3-0 in 2006 and 3-1 in 2010.

England have won just two of eight series in Pakistan (in 1961/2 and 2000/1). But with their confidence high and their rivals in disarray after their recent spot-fixing scandals, Andrew Strauss‘ team will be confident of kicking off the defence of their number-one ranking with a series victory.

5. Tour Down Under (17th-22nd)

The cycling season kicks off with the now traditional curtain-raiser of the Tour Down Under. This congenial, sprinter-friendly race is an opportunity for the peloton to shake off some rust in the temperate climate of an Adelaide summer, while providing a springboard for both local riders and the stars of the future to make an early name for themselves. Last year Sky’s Ben Swift won two stages while Australian Cameron Meyer claimed overall victory. This year’s route includes a summit finish on Old Willunga Hill which will open up the competition for the overall, but expect sprinters to claim at least four of the six stages.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

2 Responses to My sporting month: January 2012

  1. James says:

    I bet you a tenner ManYoo pull this tie out of the bag. I’ll go double or quits on Djokovic retaining his Aussie Open title. And, because I’m feeling lucky this year, I predict a 3-1 victory for England over Pakistan.

  2. Sheree says:

    Can’t wait for the cycling to begin.

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