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 22/5/11

Gilchrist bludgeoned 106 off 55 balls in a record T20 stand

206 – Australians Adam Gilchrist and Shaun Marsh recorded the highest partnership in Twenty20 history, as they put on 206 runs for the second wicket as Kings XI Punjab beat Royal Challengers Bangalore. Gilchrist scored 106 off 55 deliveries, while Marsh had an unbeaten 79 off 49 balls.

6 – Just nine years after their formation, AFC Wimbledon earned their sixth promotion in nine seasons after beating Luton on penalties in the Conference playoff final to gain a place in the Football League.

27 – Unanswered points scored by Leinster as they recovered from 22-6 down at half-time to defeat Northampton 33-22 to win rugby union’s Heineken Cup final.

2Mark Cavendish became the first – and so far only – rider to win twice at this year’s Giro d’Italia, taking victory on stages 10 and 12. He retired from the race immediately after his second win to begin preparations for July’s Tour de France.

4:20 – With six of 21 stages to go, Alberto Contador leads the Giro by 4:20. He is also currently first in the points competition.

André Villas-Boas - a treble-winning manager at only 33 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

33 – Age of André Villas-Boas, the manager who led has Porto to a treble of league, cup and Europa League this season. He is the youngest ever manager to win a European trophy. The treble was completed with a 6-2 win over Vitória de Guimarães in the Portuguese Cup final yesterday.

10Sussex‘s Rana Navad claimed match figures of 10/161 – taking five wickets in each innings – as Sussex defeated Somerset by eight wickets in their County Championship match.

3Gordon Muchall (175), Ian Blackwell (134) and Phil Mustard (101) each scored centuries in Durham‘s first innings total of 587/7 declared as they beat Worcestershire by an innings and 25 runs.

46 – At the age of 46, Bernard Hopkins became the oldest ever world champion as he beat Jean Pascal on points to claim the WBC light-heavyweight title.

13 – Number of people, including four jockeys, who have been charged by the British Horseracing Authority with conspiracy to commit a corrupt or fraudulent practice after a BHA investigation into suspicious betting activity on 10 races in 2009.

Warne retired with 1,001 international wickets

1,001 – International wickets taken by Shane Warne (708 in Tests, 293 in one-day internationals), who retired from professional cricket last week.

0.63 – In seconds, Sebastian Vettel‘s winning margin over Lewis Hamilton at the Spanish GP in Barcelona. Vettel has now won four of the five F1 races so far this season, collecting 118 out of a maximum possible 125 points.

40Real Madrid‘s Cristiano Ronaldo finished the season with a record 40 goals in La Liga, surpassing the previous record of 38 jointly held by Telmo Zarra and Hugo Sánchez.

43Deportivo La Coruña went down despite accumulating 43 points, the highest ever total for a relegated club in a 38-game La Liga season.

The Premier League in numbers

9Zoltan Gera‘s red card against Arsenal made him the ninth opponent to be sent off against the Gunners this season, highest in the Premier League. All nine dismissals were straight red cards.

Van Persie scored in each of his last nine away games (image courtesy of

9Robin van Persie extended his own record of scoring in consecutive Premier League away games to nine matches in the 2-2 draw at Fulham.

5 – No team has conceded more own goals than Blackpool‘s five this season. Ian Evatt put through his own net to put Manchester United 3-2 up. Blackpool eventually lost 4-2 and were relegated.

55 – Blackpool scored the most goals of any side which has been relegated from the Premier League.

2 – Relegated Blackpool finished the season by repeating the scoreline of two of their three FA Cup final appearances. The 4-2 defeat against Manchester United (1948) followed the 4-3 victory over Bolton (1953).

14Blackburn scored 3 away goals in the first half of an away match for the first time in 14 years, since going 3-0 up at Aston Villa in August 1998.

Kalinic netted just five times all season

5 – Blackburn’s top goalscorer Nikola Kalinić scored just five league goals.

19West Bromwich Albion‘s 3-3 draw at Newcastle meant they conceded in all 19 away matches this season, becoming the first side in Premier League history to do so twice.

3 – There were 3 matches this season in which teams came back from at least three goals down – all of these involved either or both of Newcastle and West Brom. In addition to yesterday’s game: Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4, West Brom 3 West Ham 3.

17 – Somen Tchoyi‘s hat-trick for West Brom was the 17th of the season, a record in a 20-team Premier League campaign.

14Wigan Athletic, who escaped relegation and finished 16th, lost 14 league games in 2010/11 – the same number as Liverpool in sixth.

6Birmingham‘s relegation following their 2-1 defeat at Tottenham means they will be the sixth English club from outside the top flight to play in European competition. Millwall were the last (2004/05).

5 – Birmingham have been either relegated from or promoted to the Premier League in five of the last six seasons.

1,063 – Total goals in the 2010/11 campaign, a record for a 38-match Premier League season.

16.9% – Champions Manchester United had the best shots-to-goals conversion rate in 2010/11, while bottom side West Ham the lowest (10.2%).

25 – There were only 25 0-0 draws (out of 380 total games) in the season – a rate of 6.6%.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times@InfostradaLive and @StatManJon.)

Arsenal’s trophy drought continues after gifting Birmingham late Carling Cup winner

Arsenal 1 Birmingham 2

Van Persie 39; Žigić 28, Martins 89

Obafemi Martins capitalised on a late mix-up between Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczęsny to give Birmingham City an unexpected but fully deserved Carling Cup triumph and send them into next season’s Europa League. For Arsenal, however, the wait for a first trophy since 2005 continues.

With both Cesc Fàbregas (hamstring) and Theo Walcott (ankle) unavailable after picking up injuries in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over StokeArsène Wenger was forced into changes. A fit again Koscielny replaced Sébastien Squillaci in the heart of defence,  while Andrey Arshavin and – somewhat surprisingly – Tomáš Rosický were included in the starting line-up.


Sagna – Djourou – Koscielny – Clichy

Song – Wilshere


Nasri – van Persie – Arshavin

Arsenal came into the final having already completed the double over Birmingham in the Premier League, winning 2-1 at the Emirates in October and 3-0 at St Andrew’s on New Year’s Day.

Birmingham start strong, but Arsenal bounce back

Birmingham shaded an enthralling first half, scored first, and could and perhaps should have added a second. But by half-time they could easily have gone in behind as Arsenal came roaring back.

The underdogs had three golden chances in the opening period, and Arsenal could consider themselves a little fortunate to have conceded only once while retaining their full complement of eleven men.

Szczęsny was fortunate not to concede an early penalty which could have seen him dismissed (image courtesy of

The game was barely a minute old when Lee Bowyer was played in behind the Arsenal defence by Nikola Žigić, advanced into the area and was felled by Szczęsny. The assistant referee flagged for offside – he was in fact half a yard onside – saving referee Mike Dean the tricky decision of whether or not to send off the Polish goalkeeper. It was a clear penalty, no question, but Szczęsny did appear to make a genuine attempt to play the ball. To my eyes, it was a yellow at most.

Birmingham did take the lead in the 28th minute, however. After a misplaced pass between Bacary Sagna and Jack Wilshere led to Sebastian Larsson‘s outswinging corner, Roger Johnson won the first header on the edge of the box and Žigić, three yards out, only needed a flick of his head to help the ball on into the net.

Žigić should have made it 2-0 six minutes later after the ball broke to him in the box, leaving him one-on-one. But as the Serbian giant hesitated, and the equally imposing physical presence of Szczęsny spread himself and made a vital block.

Van Persie's expertly taken goal with his weaker leg brought Arsenal level (image courtesy of

Arsenal, surprised by Birmingham’s fast start and possibly constrained by the expectation of being overwhelming favourites, struggled to settle into any kind of rhythm despite creating chances sporadically. Arshavin spun away from Martin Jiránek but Ben Foster saved well with his legs from close range. Samir Nasri danced into the box away from the attentions of three defenders, but shot wide from an angle. And, immediately after Žigić’s goal, Robin van Persie headed just wide from Bacary Sagna‘s cross.

Ironically, the equaliser arrived at the end of Birmingham’s best spell of the half, but it was a goal of the highest quality. A fast break saw Arshavin tee up Wilshere, whose fierce drive from 22 yards rattled the crossbar with Foster beaten. The rebound fell to Arshavin, who drove forward and pulled it back across the face of goal, where van Persie stretched out and hooked the ball into the far corner of the net from eight yards.

Deep into injury time, Arsenal could even have taken the lead, as Nasri’s swerving 30-yarder forced Foster into an awkward save. In truth, it would have been much more than they deserved.

Arsenal offer up a gift horse which Martins gratefully accepts

Buoyed by their late resurgence, Arsenal started the second half brightly. The ever eager Sagna bombed down the right and pulled a ball back to the edge of the box for the arriving Rosický, but his shot was dragged just wide.

Birmingham responded shortly before the hour when Keith Fahey swung his boot from the edge of the box and struck the inside of a post after good perseverance by substitute Jean Beausejour.

As the game entered its final quarter of an hour, Arsenal created five good chances in the space of six minutes but failed to convert any of them. Nasri was twice denied by the excellent Foster, and scuffed a free kick wide. The Birmingham keeper did well to hold a close-range drive by substitute Nicklas Bendtner as Rosický closed looking for the rebound. And the Czech was then denied when his back-heeled flick was saved after Marouane Chamakh (who had just arrived in place of Arshavin) had outmuscled Jiránek on the left touchline.

Koscielny blotted an otherwise solid game with his catastrophic late error (image courtesy of

But the second goal did not arrive, and as extra time beckoned there was always the danger of a late Birmingham winner. With barely a minute of normal time remaining, Foster launched a long free kick forward. The ball bounced, apparently harmlessly, into the Arsenal box. Koscielny swung a wild boot at it and Szczęsny then fumbled the ball as it bounced in front of him, gifting Martins the easiest winning goal he will ever score.

The red half of Wembley placed their heads in their hands, while the blue sections bounced in celebration. For Arsenal fans old enough to remember, it was like watching the 1988 League Cup final defeat to Luton all over again.

At the final whistle, Arsenal players dropped to their knees in disbelief, but a fifth defeat in seven League Cup finals had come in an all too predictable and familiar fashion. Despite relying heavily on the heroics of man of the match Foster, the Blues had earned the right to a slice of good fortune and will now have the opportunity to embark on a Europa League adventure next season.

Post-match reaction & analysis

Arsène Wenger was bitterly disappointed with the way his team had lost the game:

I am bitterly disappointed, like the whole team. We had some problems to start the game, the number of games we played caught up a little bit on us. It took us a while to get into the rhythm and pace of the game. In the second half we were on top, unfortunately we couldn’t score the second goal and, in the end, we made a mistake that left us no time at all to respond.

He admitted the team were equally despondent, but they would have to pick themselves up to face the challenges and opportunities ahead of them:

The team is very disappointed and we will face a lot of questions after that mistake tonight but we have to be strong enough to stand up.

Both of them [Koscielny and Szczesny] are destroyed. I don’t think it’s a good moment for me to add anything. We have to lift them up again and help them, that is what a team is about.

[It could affect us], we don’t deny that. It is a massive disappointment for the team but we have massive challenges in front of us – the Carling Cup is four games, five games but a championship season is 38. We will not throw 38 games away because of one game.

I am confident we have the character and this is a good opportunity to show it.

However, he gave all due credit to Alex McLeish‘s side:

Congratulations to Birmingham, they took advantage of the mistake [and] they took the trophy which hurts us tremendously.

There is not much to be said in terms of tactical analysis. Birmingham were quicker out of the blocks, and even when a sub-par Arsenal had them rocking in the second half they had the competitive spirit and resilience to never stop believing.

Arsenal undoubtedly missed Fàbregas’s creativity and Walcott’s pace, but the team that took the field had more than enough talent to have won the game. Repeated injuries have robbed Rosický of his cutting edge, and as a whole Arsenal’s central trio of the Czech, Wilshere and Alex Song never really exerted their quality on the game. The movement and touch of Van Persie, who hobbled off with 21 minutes left, was also missed at the end.

Defensively, they had generally looked solid until the late, late catastrophe, although the marking on Žigić’s goal had been lax. Sagna was the one outstanding player, defensively sound and covering huge swathes of the Wembley turf to provide many of Arsenal’s most threatening moments down the right.

There is little time for the squad to wallow in self-pity, however. It is back to the FA Cup on Wednesday, as Leyton Orient visit the Emirates for their fifth found replay, before potentially season-defining games in the league against Sunderland and at Barcelona in the Champions League. Win on Wednesday, and they will travel to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United in an FA Cup quarter-final in two weeks’ time.

There are still three trophies for Wenger’s side to fight for, and how they react to this devastating defeat will reveal everything about the character and togetherness of the squad. How the fans react to the disappointment – as usual, there has been a lot of anger and over-reaction online in the immediate aftermath of the defeat – will say a lot about them too.

My sporting month: February 2011

Despite being the shortest month of the year, February is a busy month in the sporting calendar. The next four weeks see some competitions beginning, while at the same time others draw to a close.

Here are my five personal highlights to watch out for over the next weeks, spanning the globe from the USA to Europe and Asia. But there is also a wealth of other great sport to be seen this month, including the Alpine World Championships in Garmisch (8th-20th) and cycling‘s Track World Cup in Manchester (18th-20th).

1. Rugby union: Six Nations (starts 4th)

France begin their defence of the Six Nations Championship at home to Scotland tomorrow evening, but the tournament kicks off tonight at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff as Wales host England, with both teams looking to improve on a 2010 performance which saw each side win just two of their five games.

With the World Cup in New Zealand only seven months away, the Six Nations represents a vital staging post as the top northern hemisphere teams seek to challenge the hegemony of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

2. Super Bowl XLV (6th)

The grand climax to the NFL season sees two of the league’s most storied franchises – the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers – facing off against one another for the first time in a Super Bowl for the right to lift the trophy named after legendary Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi.

The match will pit the blue-collar, smash-mouth Steelers – led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the league’s number one-ranked defense – against the finesse of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense. Between them, the two teams have won nine of the previous 44 Super Bowls, with the Steelers already holding the record for most wins with six. A win for the Packers would be their fourth overall, elevating them to fourth all-time behind the Steelers, Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers (who both have five wins).

3. Champions League round of 16 (starts 15th)

Strung out over four consecutive mid-weeks, the Champions League returns for the beginning of its knockout phase with all four English teams hoping to progress to the quarter-finals.

Chelsea have the most favourable draw, with a home-and-away tie against FC Copenhagen, while Manchester United will also strongly fancy their chances against French champions Marseille.

The two North London clubs face trickier engagements. Tottenham, in their first Champions League campaign, must play AC Milan, who currently lead Serie A by five points. But the most difficult – and most mouth-watering – tie of the round sees Arsenal once again pitted against Barcelona, who last season beat them 6-3 on aggregate at the quarter-final stage after Lionel Messi scored four times at the Camp Nou.

4. Cricket World Cup (starts 19th)

Cricket‘s quadrennial showpiece takes place in three countries – India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – over a span of six weeks, opening up with a match between India and Bangladesh on the 19th. The tournament is a marathon rather than a sprint, taking nearly five weeks of group games to whittle the 14 qualifying countries down to eight quarter-finalists, with the final eventually taking place on April 2nd.

Australia, still smarting from their Ashes humiliation, remain the team to beat in the 50-over format. They will be looking to win the tournament for an incredible fourth time in a row (and fifth overall). England will be hoping for a better performance than in 2007, where they fell at the Super Eight stage.

5. Carling Cup final (27th)

The English season’s first trophy will be decided at Wembley at the end of the month as Birmingham City take on Arsenal, with the two teams at opposite ends of the Premier League table. Arsenal sit in second place behind only Manchester United and are the only English team still in with a chance of winning four competitions this season (Premier League, FA CupCarling Cup and Champions League). Birmingham are currently 17th and only outside the relegation zone by virtue of having a superior goal difference to West Ham, who they defeated in their semi-final.

Arsenal will rightly start as favourites, but neither the bookies’ odds nor league positions will make any difference in a one-off final. It may only be the third most important domestic trophy of the season, but it is nonetheless the first one to be decided, and both teams will be desperate to win for entirely different reasons. For Arsenal, it would end a trophy drought of nearly six years and give their young team the confidence to kick on in other competitions. For Birmingham, the cup would give them a fillip in the battle against relegation, and yield a place in next season’s Europa League.

Fàbregas and Nasri provide the spark as Arsenal give Birmingham the blues

Birmingham City 0 Arsenal 3

van Persie 13, Nasri 58. Johnson (og) 66

A free kick by Robin van Persie and two moments of magic orchestrated by the one-two combination of Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri led to a surprisingly easy win at St Andrew’s as Arsenal kept Manchester United and Manchester City firmly in their sights at the top of the Premier League table.

As the old truism says, this was exactly the kind of game which championship-winning clubs find a way to win – away from home on a cold, wet winter’s evening against a strong and committed side, and with the added pressure of knowing your nearest rivals have already won earlier in the day. It is the sort of game the ‘Invincibles’ side of 2003/04 – Arsenal’s last title-winning team – won with regularity. That side had a physical steel to go with their artistry; this year’s edition are no push-overs physically, but tend to rely more on guile than strength. But do not underestimate their ability to dig deep mentally on nights such as this and stand toe-to-toe with even the most robust of opponents.

With captain Fàbregas available again after serving a one-match suspension, Arsène Wenger reverted to the same lineup which started Monday’s win over Chelsea:


Sagna – Djourou – Koscielny – Clichy

Song – Wilshere


Walcott – van Persie – Nasri

Fàbregas was clattered early on, but was able to play on (image courtesy of

Birmingham, always formidable on their own turf, had lost just one of their nine home league games this season – and one of 24 stretching back to a 2-1 defeat to Bolton in September 2009. This season, St Andrew’s has already seen a win over champions Chelsea and draws against both Tottenham and Manchester United.

Against United on Tuesday night, Birmingham had benefitted from a clear handball by Nikola Žigić which set up Lee Bowyer‘s last-minute equaliser. And their good fortune with refereeing decisions looked set to continue when centre-back Roger Johnson was fortunate to escape with a yellow card after a two-footed, studs-up challenge on Fàbregas which brought memories of Martin Taylor‘s leg-breaking tackle on Eduardo from the same fixture three years ago flooding back.

Van Persie scored his first league goal of the season (image courtesy of

But Arsenal were not to be intimidated, and karma would quickly come back to deal harsh retribution on Birmingham. Van Persie drew a foul, tumbling to the ground after Scott Dann tugged his shirt. A foul? Yes, but a soft one. The striker dusted himself off to take the free kick himself, Bowyer, on the end of the wall, turned sideways and the ball cannoned off his elbow past a stranded Ben Foster. It was the Dutchman’s first league goal of his injury-hit season, and his first direct from a free kick since late 2007.

Karma wasn’t finished yet, though. Lukasz Fabiański had just made a smart diving save from a Seb Larsson free kick – Birmingham’s only effort on target in the entire game – when a cross hit van Persie high on the arm. A clear handball: no penalty given.

Reprieved, Arsenal continued to flood forward with confidence. Time and again their pace down the flanks threatened to shred the home side’s defences – with Theo Walcott in particular nigh on unplayable at times – only for the final ball or finish to lack the killer touch. Van Persie missed the clearest chance to increase the lead, dinking the ball straight at Foster when sent through one-on-one, but Arsenal could easily have been three or four up by half-time.

Birmingham offered little in response, although they did create one moment of serious alarm. A free kick was flicked on by Cameron Jerome and fell to Johnson on the edge of the six-yard box, but his volley was that of a defender rather than a forward, and threatened the occupants of row Z more than it did Fabiański’s goal.

Any thoughts during the interval that Arsenal might relax as they did in the second half at Wigan were soon dispelled as they continued to attack relentlessly after the break. Jack Wilshere, on his 19th birthday, should have delivered his own present but scooped over after great work down the right from Walcott. Immediately after, a quick break saw Fàbregas spring Nasri free, but Foster did well to deny him.

Nasri scored one goal and played a key role in another (image courtesy of

Would the visitors pay for their profligacy? No. Three minutes later, Nasri played a quick one-two with his captain, advanced to the edge of the area, and steered a precise strike beyond the diving Foster’s right hand. It was the Frenchman’s 13th goal of a hugely impressive season.

The goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of Birmingham, who suddenly looked leggy and slow as they started to tire, while Arsenal remained fresh. (The benefits of squad rotation!) Eight minutes later, two became three and the game ended as a contest. Again, the creative spark came from a quicksilver exchange of passes between Nasri and Fàbregas. The Spaniard drove into the box, where his shot was saved by Foster and ricocheted off both Dann and Johnson before rolling into the unguarded net.

And that was pretty much that. Arsenal created and spurned a number of other chances to pad the margin of victory – van Persie being the most culpable – and Žigić struck the woodwork in injury time, but it mattered not. Notwithstanding the non-penalty decision, Arsenal had outclassed their hosts throughout and were excellent value for both the three points and a rare clean sheet.

After the game, Wenger was quick to point out the benefits of rotating his squad during the hectic Christmas programme:

I decided from the start when I saw the fixtures that I needed to rotate. You can do four or five in one game and four or five in the other game but I decided to go with the whole lot in one game and come back with the whole lot in the third game.

I can understand that I was criticised but I think what is important is that I am paid to make decisions. Strong decisions are better than half-decisions. I took a decision [making eight changes against Wigan] and it nearly worked, we were a little bit unlucky. I could have played the same team three times and lost at Wigan and tonight. I consider that we dropped two points at Wigan but you can also say that Manchester United dropped two points at St Andrew’s. Over the festive period we were the team with less recovery time than any team and the team who played, along with Manchester United, twice away from home.

There had been plenty of tough tackling from Birmingham players throughout the game. In addition to Johnson’s early challenge on Fàbregas, there was also an apparent stamp by Bowyer on Bacary Sagna. When asked about their opponents’ physical approach, he replied:

We were prepared mentally today to face physical challenges and we prepared ourselves not to lose our game and be calm, intelligent and especially to have the focus to put the ball down and play our game.

We needed to be resilient without losing our nerves. I give great credit to my players for doing that because they kept calm, intelligent and never let nerves come out in their game. I am very proud of my team today.

The team should indeed be proud after producing one of their best all-round performances of the season. Johan Djourou‘s strength solidified a back four which handled everything Birmingham could throw at them with relative ease, with Laurent Koscielny looking more assured beside him than he does when partnering Sébastien Squillaci. Fabiański had virtually nothing to do, but when called upon produced a key save from Larsson’s free kick.

Wilshere and Alex Song anchored the midfield effectively, giving Fàbregas, Nasri and the effervescent Walcott free rein to attack. Birmingham were simply unable to cope with their combination of pace and invention. And though van Persie had a largely poor game, he will take confidence from having finally opened his Premier League account for the season.

Overall, seven points from Chelsea at home and Wigan and Birmingham away represents a good return, which I suspect most Arsenal fans would have been more than happy with if offered that before Christmas. A win over Manchester City to conclude the holiday programme on Wednesday night would upgrade that to ‘excellent’, and provide the springboard for a serious title challenge through the second half of the season. Despite its inconsistencies and recurring frustrations, this team is growing. And with the top two still to visit the Emirates – Arsenal’s only remaining away game against a fellow top-six club is at Tottenham at the end of February – they are very much in control of their own destiny too.

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