My sporting month: February 2012

February sees major sporting events all over the globe, from the NFL’s Super Bowl in Indianapolis to a glut of events in the Middle East: Test cricket in Dubai, and cycling in Qatar and Oman. Closer to home football’s Champions League enters its knockout phase, with eight first-leg matches including tricky assignments for the Premier League’s two survivors, Arsenal and Chelsea. And that is just the first of a series of challenging fixtures for the misfiring Gunners, who face a horrendous run of games in a short spell. But it will certainly be an exciting month, and here are five of the key events I will be following in February.

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My sporting month: October 2011

Summer turns to autumn, the clocks go back an hour and our evenings grow dark, damp and cold. It can only be October. But as the leaves turn brown and fall from the trees, the world of sport is in full bloom as football’s domestic, European and international competitions kick into high gear, the Rugby World Cup heads towards its finale and the end is in sight at the end of long 2011 seasons in both Formula 1 and cycling.

Here are five events you will find me watching in the month of October – including one I will be attending live.

1. Tottenham vs Arsenal (2nd)

The first North London derby of the season sees Tottenham and Arsenal as evenly matched as they have been at any time during Arsène Wenger’s 15-year reign. Spurs have alternated good results with bad so far this season, and manager Harry Redknapp has already stated that a top-four finish in the league is his top priority.

Meanwhile, an Arsenal squad short of confidence and hampered by departures and injuries has had a slow start to what is already proving to be Wenger’s most difficult season in charge. However, everything is possible in a derby, and games between these two clubs have produced some classics in recent years, including a remarkable 5-4 Arsenal victory at White Hart Lane in 2004. To add extra spice to proceedings, former Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor – a regular goalscorer in this fixture previously – will be playing in his first North London derby in the white of Spurs.

2. Euro 2012 qualifiers – Montenegro vs England (7th)

England‘s final qualifying game for Euro 2012 is effectively a head-to-head with Montenegro to become the winner of group G. Fabio Capello’s men need only to avoid defeat in Podgorica to guarantee automatic progression to next summer’s finals in Poland and Ukraine. Defeat would leave them dependent on the outcome of Montenegro’s visit to Switzerland four days later, with the prospect of being thrown into a two-legged playoff the worst case scenario.

Like England, Montenegro have conceded just three goals to date in this qualifying campaign. They returned from Wembley last October with a useful 0-0 draw, but they will be keen to chase a win here to keep them ahead of Switzerland in the race for second place. It is unlikely to be a high-scoring game – it will certainly be a tense one.

3. Cycling autumn classics – Paris-Tours (9th) and Giro di Lombardia (15th)

The 2011 European cycling season comes to an end with two contrasting one-day classic races, both more than 100 years old: Paris-Tours and the Giro di Lombardia (also romantically known as ‘the classic of the falling leaves’). The French race is run over a predominantly flat course and is generally won by either a sprinter or a member of a small breakaway. Spain’s Óscar Freire took victory in 2010 after Philippe Gilbert had triumphed the previous two years. This year Mark Cavendish will race in the rainbow jersey for the first time and seek to become the first reigning world champion – and the first British rider – to win Paris-Tours.

Il Lombardia’s route has frequently altered over the years. The 2011 edition starts in Milan (its traditional start point) but finishes in Lecco rather than at Lake Como, where the previous seven races had concluded. This is categorically not a day for the pure sprinters, featuring a number of tough climbs which would not look out of place in the Giro d’Italia before a final descent and sprint into Lecco. Gilbert won in each of the last two years, and will be hoping to conclude a dominant year by completing a hat-trick of consecutive wins, a feat which has not been achieved since the great Fausto Coppi won four in a row between 1946 and 1949.

4. Rugby World Cup final (23rd)

The group phase of rugby union’s quadrennial global competition concludes tomorrow (Sunday), at the end of which we will finally know the line-up for the quarter-finals. Ireland‘s 15-6 victory over Australia a fortnight ago was not a seismic upset, but was certainly unexpected. Most intriguingly, it looks likely to pitch the Wallabies into the same half of the draw as their fellow southern hemisphere powerhouses, hosts New Zealand and defending champions South Africa, setting up a potentially mouth-watering semi-final showdown.

The Aussies’ probable absence from the other half of the draw paves the way for one of the big northern hemisphere nations to benefit from an easier than expected path to the final. If England win their pool, they are likely to face France in the quarter-final and then either Ireland or Wales for a place in the final. Could Martin Johnson’s oft-criticised squad make it to a third consecutive final? And which of the Tri-Nations superpowers will await them in Auckland on the 23rd? After nearly a month of pool games, the serious business is about to begin.

5. NFL at Wembley – Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs Chicago Bears (23rd)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers return to Wembley Stadium for the second time in three seasons as the NFL brings a regular season game to London for the fifth consecutive year. The Bucs will host the Chicago Bears in front of a sell-out Wembley crowd which last year saw the San Francisco 49ers complete a remarkable 24-16 comeback win over the Denver Broncos, thanks to a three touchdown barrage in the space of eight fourth quarter minutes.

Tampa have started the season 2-1, with all three of their games decided by seven points or less. Meanwhile, Chicago are 1-2, having lost back-to-back games against the powerful New Orleans Saints and defending Super Bowl champions Green Bay Packers. Neither team is considered among the favourites for a long playoff run, but both are solid squads who should put on a close and exciting game. And, for the fifth straight year, I will be there too. Look out for a post-game eyewitness report in the early hours of Monday morning.

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