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My sporting month: March 2011

March is an extremely busy month in the sporting calendar, with a host of different major events across multiple sports. In addition to the five events listed below, I will also be taking time to catch as much as I can of the FA Cup quarter-finals (which includes the mouth-watering possibility of a showdown between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford), the European Indoor Athletics Championships in Paris, cycling’s World Track Championships (which this year takes place in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands), the University Boat Race and the final two rounds of Six Nations matches, which offers the possibility of an England Grand Slam.

None of the above makes my personal list of highlights for March, though. Here are the five that did.

1. UEFA Champions League, Barcelona vs Arsenal (8th)

Arsenal came from behind to win 2-1 in the first leg at the Emirates, leaving this last-16 tie delicately poised for next week’s return match at Camp Nou. History suggests that teams which lose the away leg 2-1 are still the more likely to progress, and Arsenal know Barcelona will rightly consider themselves favourites to overturn the deficit at home.

The English side will not be able to sit back and hope for a goalless draw, which would guarantee their passage to the quarter-finals – in six previous European meetings between these two teams, neither has yet to keep a clean sheet. Arsenal will certainly look to snatch a crucial away goal on the break to cancel out David Villa‘s goal at the Emirates, but their own goal is likely to come under siege from the likes of Lionel Messi, XaviPedro and Villa himself.

If the second leg is anywhere near as good as the first, it will be a classic and a wonderful game for the neutrals. Miss it at your peril.

Mark Cavendish will be looking to win Milan-San Remo for the second time (image courtesy of TDWSport.com)

2. Milan-San Remo (19th)

One of cycling’s big one-day Classics, Milan San-Remo always attracts a large number of the sport’s big names. It is the longest professional one-day race at 298km, and although it is sometimes referred to as ‘the sprinters’ classic’, it features a lumpy route ending in the Poggio climb just a few kilometres from the finish. The last of a series of shortish but tough climbs, it drains the legs of energy to set up a taxing finish.

British superstar sprinter Mark Cavendish won here in 2009, and he will be back again looking to claim a second win after injury compromised his defence last year. Look out for also for last year’s winner Óscar Freire, world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara and Heinrich Haussler, who was edged out by Cavendish in 2009 but already has two stage wins at last month’s Tour of Qatar under his belt.

3. Cricket World Cup knockout phase (starts 23rd)

The quadrennial World Cup tournament takes an awfully long time to get going, with the group phase taking over a month to whittle down the original 14 entrants to eight. But once we reach the serious business of the knockout stages – the quarter-finals start on the 23rd – the drama will come thick and fast as we build towards the final on April 2nd.

Defending champions Australia have already made an ominously strong start to the tournament, winning their opening games over New Zealand and Zimbabwe with some ease as they seek an incredible fourth straight win (and fifth overall). And England, after a shaky start against the Netherlands, will have taken great encouragement from Sunday’s thrilling tied match against co-hosts India. Can Andrew Strauss‘s men safely negotiate their group and give themselves a chance of adding the 50-over world title to last year’s Twenty20 win?

4. Australian Football League kickoff (starts 24th)

After 2010 saw only the third Grand Final replay in history – Collingwood finally beat St Kilda at the second attempt – the 2011 Aussie Rules season kicks off on Thursday 24th. This year the league has expanded to 17 clubs with the introduction of the new Gold Coast team.

Collingwood kick off the defence of their title at Port Adelaide on Saturday 26th, but I will be focussed on the final game of round one the following day as the West Coast Eagles travel to North Melbourne to take on the Kangaroos. After a dismal 2010 in which they finished bottom of the ladder just four years after winning their third Grand Final, the only was is up for the Eagles.

2010 champion Sebastian Vettel (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

5. Australian Grand Prix (27th)

With the opening Bahrain GP cancelled due to safety concerns, the 2011 Formula 1 season now kicks off at the end of the month with the Australian race around Albert Park in Melbourne. Red Bull and their 23-year old driver Sebastian Vettel – the youngest drivers’ champion in the sport’s history – remain the combination to beat, although the German can continue to expect stiff competition from team-mate Mark Webber, not to mention the massed forces of both McLaren and Ferrari.

With Bahrain now removed from the calendar, the season now comprises 19 races, ending at Interlagos in Brazil at the end of November. If 2011 is even half as close as last year, which gave us the tightest title race in years with the four Red Bull and McLaren drivers all in contention until the final couple of races, it should be an exciting year.

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My sporting month: October 2010

October is a busy month in the sporting calendar, with its opening weekend in particular crammed full of potential highlights from all over the world – two of them taking place in Melbourne.

Here are five of the events which I will be looking out for over the next 31 days, with an honourable mention to three others which will struggle to compete for my personal airtime in what looks set to be a jam-packed month of intense – and hopefully exciting – sporting action.

1. AFL Grand Final replay (2nd)

For only the third time in the history of Aussie Rules, last Saturday’s Grand Final between Collingwood and St Kilda ended in a tie, 68-68, after St Kilda overturned a 24-point second half deficit.

Tomorrow’s replay of the final at the MCG promises to be equally tense. It is a long time since either club has enjoyed the privilege of being reigning Premiers – Collingwood’s last Grand Final win was in 1990, St Kilda’s in 1966 (when they defeated Collingwood in the final).

Philippe Gilbert

2. UCI Road World Championships: Men’s road race (3rd)

Cycling’s annual championships in Geelong and Melbourne actually started on Wednesday – Great Britain’s Emma Pooley won the women’s time trial – but the highlight will be the closing event, the men’s road race, which takes place on Sunday. The riders will tackle a 262.7 km course with a tricky uphill finish which may favour Classics strong men over pure sprinters like Mark Cavendish.

Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, winner of this year’s Amstel Gold race and of two stages in last month’s Vuelta a España, will feature among the favourites for what promises to be an open race.

For further analysis of the contenders for the race, read Jack Sargeant’s preview over at The Sports Review.

3. Premier League: Chelsea vs Arsenal (3rd) and Man City vs Arsenal (24th)

After last weekend’s shock home defeat to West Brom, Arsenal face two tough Premier League away trips this month, travelling first to Chelsea on Sunday and then to Manchester City, who dealt the champions their first defeat of the season last week.

Arsène Wenger‘s side suffered heavy losses in both these fixtures last season. After these two games we will have a good idea whether they are in better shape to mount a credible title run this year.

Mark Webber (image courtesy of formula1.com)

Championship leader Mark Webber

4. Formula 1: Japanese GP (10th) and Korean GP (24th)

With a potential 100 points still available from the four remaining races and just 25 separating current championship leader Mark Webber from fifth-placed Jenson Button, there is still everything to play for as one of the tightest F1 seasons of all time approaches its climax.

Ferrari‘s Fernando Alonso currently has the greatest momentum, having won three of the last five races (including the last two). By contrast, Lewis Hamilton will be desperate to reignite his title challenge, having crashed out of the last two races.

Meanwhile, the entire F1 circus will wait with bated breath to see whether or not the new Korean GP will actually go ahead as planned, with the organisers struggling to get the new track complete in time.

5. San Francisco 49ers vs Denver Broncos (31st)

After an unbeaten preseason, the 49ers have started 0-3 and already parted company with their offensive co-ordinator. Mike Singletary‘s team will need a good run over the next four games if they are to arrive for the NFL‘s fourth regular season game in the UK with their playoff hopes still intact. Their opponents at Wembley, the Denver Broncos, are 1-2 after a difficult start, so both teams will desperately need to win this repeat of Super Bowl XXIV (which the Joe Montana-led 49ers won 55-10).

The game will be covered live on Sky Sports, with highlights shown on the BBC. 80,000-plus fans will be there on the day; I’ll be one of them.

I have omitted (at least) three other major events from this month’s list, which I will at least follow in some capacity. Golf‘s Ryder Cup runs from today through to Sunday at Celtic Manor in Wales. The 19th Commonwealth Games, despite its much-publicised problems and the withdrawal of many competitors, will nonetheless start in Delhi on the 3rd and continue until the 14th. And finally, baseball‘s World Series is scheduled to start on the 27th.

Like I said, it’s a jam-packed month. Enjoy.

The week in numbers: w/e 26/9/10

England captain Andrew Strauss (image courtesy of HNM_1977)

8 Andrew Strauss‘s 68 in last Monday’s fourth one-day international against Pakistan was the eighth time he has passed 50 in ODIs in 2010, more than any other batsman. England went on to win the series 3-2.

68 – Points scored by both Collingwood and St Kilda in Saturday’s AFL Grand Final, after St Kilda recovered from a 24-point, third quarter deficit to level the scores with just 1:31 remaining. The teams will replay the final next Saturday.

3 – It was only the third tied final in AFL history, and the first since 1977.

0.293 – In seconds, Fernando Alonso‘s winning margin over Sebastian Vettel at yesterday’s Singapore Grand Prix.

25 – The points difference between F1 championship leader Mark Webber and fifth-placed Jenson Button, equivalent to the points available for a single race win. There are four grands prix remaining (assuming the Korean Grand Prix goes ahead).

31 – Age of Terry Newton, the former Wakefield and Great Britain rugby league star, who was found hanged at his home near Wigan yesterday afternoon. Newton had been serving a two-year suspension after testing positive for human growth hormone (HGH).

Ronnie O'Sullivan

10Ronnie O’Sullivan scored a record tenth career 147 break at the World Open in Glasgow last Monday. He had to be asked to pot the final black for the benefit of the crowd, having stopped at the pink in protest at the lack of a sizeable prize for a maximum break.

1 – Australian Neil Robertson defeated O’Sullivan 5-1 in last night’s final to confirm his position as the new world number one. He has now won all six of the world-ranking finals he has contested.

1997West Ham‘s 2-1 victory at Sunderland was the first time they had won a League Cup tie against top-tier opponents since 1997.

6 – In each of Wednesday’s six Carling Cup third round ties, the team scoring first ended up being knocked out of the competition.

69 – League positions between Liverpool (16th in the Premier League) and Northampton Town (17th in League Two) when the teams faced each other at Anfield in the Carling Cup. Northampton won on penalties when the match finished 2-2 after extra time, advancing to the fourth round for the first time since 1966.

30 – By winning 4-3 at Stamford Bridge, Newcastle ended Chelsea‘s run of 30 home domestic cup ties without defeat.

The Premier League week in numbers

Carlos Tevez

6 Carlos Tevez has scored six times in his last five Premier League appearances against Chelsea. In scoring the only goal of the game on Saturday, he raised his record to 25 goals in his last 29 league appearances.

0.70 – Goals per Premier League match conceded by Manchester City (27 games, 19 goals) since Roberto Mancini took over as manager. Under his predecessor Mark Hughes, they conceded goals at exactly twice that rate – 77 goals in 55 games, or 1.40 per match.

2 – Since the start of the 2009/10 season, Chelsea have failed to score just twice in the Premier League – against Birmingham last season and at Manchester City. The opposing goalkeeper on both occasions was Joe Hart.

5 – By drawing 0-0 at home to Everton, Fulham became only the second Premier League side to draw five of their opening six league games of the season, after Ipswich in 1992/93.

6 Fulham are unbeaten in their first six games, their best ever start to a Premier League season.

Samir Nasri (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

3Samir Nasri has scored all three Arsenal goals in West Bromwich Albion‘s two visits to the Emirates Stadium. His two goals on Saturday were his first at home in the Premier League since scoring two against Manchester United in November 2008.

18 – Their 3-2 win at the Emirates ended West Brom’s run of 18 consecutive Premier League away games without a win (four draws, 14 defeats).

5Manuel Almunia has saved five of the last six Premier League penalties he has faced at the Emirates Stadium. (He saved Chris Brunt‘s first-half spot-kick on Saturday.)

2 – West Ham, who won their first league game of the season (1-0 versus Spurs), have collected exactly two yellow cards in each of their six Premier League games to date.

21Birmingham‘s goalless draw with Wigan extended their run of unbeaten home league games to 21.

2 – Six games into the Premier League season, there are now only two undefeated teams – Manchester United and Fulham.

1 – West Ham’s victory over Spurs means Everton are now the Premier League’s only winless club.

The NFL week in numbers

Tom Brady (image courtesy of Keith Allison)

22 – Consecutive home starts won by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (New England 38 Buffalo 30). Brady passed for 252 yards and three touchdowns.

22 – Consecutive road losses by the Detroit Lions, tied for the third-longest streak in NFL history (Minnesota 24 Detroit 10).

2Seattle‘s Leon Washington returned kickoffs 101 and 99 yards for touchdowns, becoming only the tenth player in NFL history to record two kick return TDs in a single game (Seattle 27 San Diego 20).

3 – There will be just three undefeated teams in the NFL after week three. The Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers are both 3-0, and the Chicago Bears take on the Green Bay Packers tonight, with both currently 2-0.

5 – Conversely, there are five teams still looking to record their first win (Buffalo, Carolina, Cleveland, Detroit and San Francisco).

(Some statistics courtesy of @OptaJoe, @optajim, @OptaJean, @StatManJon and NFL.com.)

My sporting month: September 2010

With the Premier League in full swing, the Euro qualifying campaign getting under way, and both domestic and European cup competitions ramping up this month, you could be forgiven for thinking September is all about football, football and still more football, with a side serving of football.

But there is plenty of great sport on all across the world this month, so here are five of the big sporting events – both football and non-football – which I will be settling down into the armchair to watch over the next 30 days.

1. NFL regular season kick-off (9th-13th)

Defending champion New Orleans Saints host the Minnesota Vikings – for whom quarterback and future Hall of Famer Brett Favre returns for an incredible 20th season of football – in the Thursday night curtain-raiser on the 9th.

In terms of history and tradition, the highlight of the opening round is probably the Dallas Cowboys versus the Washington Redskins, but I will be watching out for the San Francisco 49ers, who visit division rival Seattle Seahawks looking to end a series of seven straight seasons in which they have failed to win the NFC West, the longest barren spell since their first Super Bowl season of 1981. Surely this year …?

2. UEFA Champions League Matchdays 1 & 2 (14th/15th & 28th/29th)

The most fiercely contested club competition in world football returns this month with the opening two matchdays of the group phase. The draw, conducted in Monaco last Thursday, pits three of the historic giants of European football – AC Milan, Real Madrid and Ajax – in the same group.

Matchday 1 sees Manchester United play Rangers at Old Trafford, with Arsenal hosting Braga and Chelsea and Tottenham travelling to MŠK Žilina and Werder Bremen respectively. But the two biggest ties of the first round will see Real Madrid play Ajax, while Bayern Munich welcome Roma.

The tie of the round in matchday 2 sees Ajax host AC Milan. Tasty stuff.

3. Premier League: Man Utd vs Liverpool (19th) and Man City vs Chelsea (25th)

After an opening weekend draw with Arsenal, this is Liverpool‘s second major test of the season as they attempt to regain a top-four spot with a visit to the home of their bitter rivals. Even in relatively poor seasons, Liverpool have often upset United and will be looking to do so again in what promises to be a ferocious and passionate match.

The following Saturday (the 25th), Man City host Chelsea in an intriguing showdown between the wealthiest club in football versus the team who used to hold that mantle. As the current Premier League champions, it is Chelsea who City have directly in their sights as they strive to turn hundreds of millions of pounds of investment into tangible results. It promises to be a fascinating match-up, and a genuine yardstick for City to measure their potential against.

4. AFL Grand Final (25th)

The vagaries of the Aussie Rules playoff system means that it takes three knockout rounds to whittle the eight qualifying teams down to the two finalists. (Don’t ask.) While my team, the West Coast Eagles, finished sixteenth and last on the league ladder Collingwood, coached by former Eagles’ head man Mick Malthouse, go into the finals series as the top-seeded club.

The Grand Final will take place at the MCG on Saturday 25th, but the knockout action begins this Friday. With the entire season at stake, expect a series of tough, no-hold-barred battles.

Lewis Hamilton en route to winning last year's Singapore GP (image courtesy of Nir Sinay)

5. Singapore Grand Prix (26th)

With the F1 drivers’ championship still too close to call – just three points separate Lewis Hamilton from second-placed Mark Webber after Sunday’s Belgian GP – the spectacular night race around the streets of Singapore heralds the end of the European season and the beginning of a long, five-race haul to the end of a season which looks like going right down to the final race in Abu Dhabi in November.

Will Hamilton extend his lead? Or can Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel or Fernando Alonso haul themselves back into contention?

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