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My sporting month: April 2012

There’s plenty of sporting action to look forward to in April, with the race for league titles and both domestic and European cup competitions in football, the first of golf’s majors, the conclusion to what has been a pretty dismal pair of winter tours for England’s cricket team, and action of both the four and two-wheeled variety, including cycling’s Track World Championships from Melbourne.

It promises to be a busy, varied and exciting month. Here are five of the best which will be occupying my attention this month.

1. AFL – West Coast Eagles vs Western Bulldogs (1st)

The protracted opening round of the Aussie Rules season concludes with its final two games today, including a 2012 bow for my team, the West Coast Eagles, who travel to the Western Bulldogs hoping to consolidate their remarkable turnaround of last year. Having missed the playoff finals series for the third straight season in 2010, winning just four of 22 games to finish 16th and bottom of the ladder, they improved to 17-5 last year to finish fourth overall. Sadly, they fell to eventual champions Geelong in a one-sided preliminary final (effectively the semi-final round), but still had a lot to be proud of.

It’s easy to mock Aussie Rules as a poor man’s cross between rugby and Friday night pub-brawling, but followers of the sport will appreciate the skill, strength and stamina of its participants (who can regularly land 50-metre kicks on a sixpence) and its no-nonsense approach. You won’t see any of the histrionics or cheating which have become part and parcel of football in recent years, that’s for sure.

2. The Masters (5th-8th)

The Augusta National course, golf’s equivalent of a gladiatorial arena, rarely disappoints – and it surpassed itself last year. South African Charl Schwartzel claimed his maiden PGA Tour victory and his first major with a stunning final round 66. But he would never have had a sniff at the title had Rory McIlroy not self-destructed in spectacular fashion at the same time. Having led after each of the first three rounds and started the final 18 holes with a four-shot lead, the young Northern Irishman unravelled on the back nine, taking a triple-bogey on the 10th hole and then four-putting his way to a double-bogey on the 12th as he finished ten shots behind the winner.

The collapse would have destroyed a lesser man than McIlroy. Instead he went on to capture the US Open two months later and briefly claim the world number one ranking earlier this year. Schwartzel also proved he was no flash in the pan, with top-12 finishes at both the US Open and US PGA. If we have a finish half as dramatic this year, we will be in for a treat.

3. Paris-Roubaix (8th)

April is Spring Classics month in the cycling world, taking in several of the biggest one-day races on the cycling calendar. It is a month of cobbles and hills and sometimes cobbled hills, which is tailor-made for the all-round hard men of the sport – pure sprinters and climbers need not apply – riders such as Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen. From the Tour of Flanders (1st) to Liege-Bastogne-Liege (22nd), this three-week period invariably throws up some of the best racing of the year, cementing reputations and creating new legends.

Paris-Roubaix is many fans’ favourite – it is not affectionately called the ‘Hell of the North’ without good reason. A 258km route through northern France contains 27 sections of bone-jarring cobbled roads which provide the perfect platform for bold attacks, race-killing punctures and high drama. It is a gruelling, punishing race – others are longer, but none is tougher. Boonen is a three-time winner here, while Cancellara has won twice. Last year Cancellara was marked out of contention by his main rivals – he still finished second – as Garmin-Cervelo’s Johan Vansummeren escaped alone up the road to score a breakthrough win. Expect similar drama this year.

4. F1 Chinese GP (15th)

The third race of the 2012 Formula 1 season takes the grid to Shanghai for the ninth running of the Chinese Grand Prix. After Jenson Button’s season-opening win in Australia, Fernando Alonso took his Ferrari – which this year is more of a dog than a prancing horse – to victory in a rain-affected Malaysian GP. The Spaniard leads the standings with 35 points, five ahead of Lewis Hamilton and ten ahaed of Button, with reigning double world champion Sebastian Vettel languishing in sixth as he struggles to get the maximum out of his new Red Bull.

Hamilton won last year’s race to become the first two-time winner in China, but previous race winners include Button, Vettel, Alonso, Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen, all of whom will line up on the grid again this year.

5. Champions League semi-finals (17th-25th)

Chelsea are the Premier League’s sole representative in the quarter-finals, whose second legs take place on the 3rd and 4th, and look well placed to progress after their 1-0 away win at Benfica last week. However, most people ‘s attention will be on Barcelona ahead of the semi-finals, which will be played on consecutive mid-weeks later in the month.

With Real Madrid already 3-0 up from the away leg of their tie with Apoel Nicosia and Bayern Munich taking a 2-0 away victory into their second leg against Marseille, it is the defending champions whose status remains in the most doubt. A 0-0 draw away at AC Milan was not a bad result, but nonetheless they have minimal margin for error if they want to keep hopes of an all-La Liga final alive. As an aside, all four seeded teams kept clean sheets in the away legs of their quarter-finals, a remarkable achievement.

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The week in numbers: w/e 25/3/12

Woods won his first PGA title in over 2½ years (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

924Tiger Woods ended his winless streak of 924 days on the US PGA Tour by claiming a five-shot victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida.

62 – Age of two-time world darts champion John ‘Jocky’ Wilson, who died on Saturday night two days after his birthday. The Scotsman won the world title in 1982 and 1989.

156 – South Africa’s Alviro Petersen scored an 8½-hour 156 as South Africa took control of the third and final Test in Wellington. They currently lead the series over New Zealand 1-0. Read more of this post

The week in numbers: w/e 11/3/12

Wiggins' win on the final stage clinched overall victory (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

2 – Bradley Wiggins became only the second British cyclist (after Tom Simpson in 1967) to claim victory in the Paris-Nice stage race, as he won the final stage individual time trial to beat Lieuwe Westra by eight seconds overall. It was also Wiggins’ second major stage race win after the Criterium du Dauphine last year.

4 – Scotland were condemned to their fourth loss in as many matches in this year’s Six Nations as they lost 32-14 to Ireland. Similarly, Italy joined them with an identical record as they lost 24-3 in Wales, who can clinch a Grand Slam if they can beat France in Cardiff on Saturday.

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The week in numbers: w/e 29/1/12

Azarenka won both her first major and gained the number 1 ranking (image courtesy of Mark Howard/Flickr)

1 – Having lost the opening two games of the Australian Open final, Victoria Azarenka won 12 of the next 13 games to defeat Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-0, winning her first Grand Slam tournament and taking over the number one ranking.

15 – This was the third time in the last six tournaments that only 15 games were required to complete the ladies’ singles final. On each occasion the losing finalist was Russian (Sharapova in 2007 and 2012, Dinara Safina in 2009).

7 –  A joint-England-record seven players failed to score more than one run as the tourists were skittled out for 72 in pursuit of a target of 145 to give Pakistan an unassailable 2-0 lead in the second of their three-match series.

22 – 22 wickets fell in one day as New Zealand inflicted Zimbabwe’s record defeat to win their one-off Test in Napier by an innings. New Zealand declared on 495/7 before dismissing Zimbabwe for 51 and then 143 following on.

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The week in numbers: w/e 22/1/12

Joe Paterno, RIP (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

85 – Age of Joe Paterno, former football head coach of Penn State University, who died after a short battle with lung cancer. Paterno won 409 games and two national championships in nearly 46 years as coach, but was sacked last November for his links to a child abuse scandal.

0 – Number of sets won by the five British players – Laura Robson, Heather Watson, Elena Baltacha, James Ward and Anne Keothavong – who competed on the first day of the Australian Open. They lost ten sets and all five matches between them.

3 – Former Chelsea and Leeds defender Michael Duberry scored an unusual hat-trick for current club Oxford United. He conceded two own goals to put visitors Hereford United 2-1 up at the Kassam Stadium, before snatching a last-minute equaliser to earn Oxford a point.

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