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23 Dec 2011

Another crucial Old Firm clash looming

As the festive season is upon us, so comes the traditional Old Firm derby on December 28th. As always this fixture is hotly anticipated and passionately fought. Nearly always this match is seen as 'key' to either - or both - Rangers' and Celtic's race to the SPL trophy.

This time around is no different.

Both clubs have major stories surrounding them as we build up to the second derby of the season. Rangers, having built a 15 point gap over their Glasgow rivals, have hit turbulent times. Important players have seemingly lost form and their ability to win despite playing poorly has disappeared. That once massive lead has been reduced to just four points.

While some of this is down to Rangers' inability to play good football and win their matches, a lot of it is down to a fantastic revival from the Hoops. The Parkhead club has now won seven SPL matches on the trot and are undeniably the side with all the momentum going into the match. Manager Neil Lennon has found some consistency in his central defensive partnership, with Dan Majstorovic and Cha Du Ri becoming the favoured combination. Gary Hooper has continually scored goals at the other end of the field, while goalkeeper Frazer Forster has been on top form of late, most notably during the Hearts game where his penalty save in the dying moments preserved a Celtic win.

It's not all plain sailing for the men in green. Majstorovic has already been ruled out of the Old Firm match after a breaking a cheekbone during last week's clash with St Johnstone. With Emilio Izaquirre only set to return to the side for Celtic's game against Kilmarnock, a question mark can be placed over his match fitness.

Over at Ibrox, the drama surrounding Craig Whyte's financial situation had not been impacting on performance on the field. Perhaps now, with Stevie Naismith out for the season Rangers have looked devoid of creativity in attack, relying heavily on Nikica Jelavic, a player now the subject of intense media speculation as to where he may end up after January as the cash-strapped Gers look for some money.

Predicting the outcome of Old Firm games is never easy as they tend to take place in their own separate bubble from such trivialities as form and individual talent. It is a match where there are no underdogs, in fact, the team coming in off the back of a poor run has often been the one to come away the happier of the two sides.

Rangers have to be considered massive underdogs given their recent trouble at securing victory, not to mention Celtic's impressive run of results. However this match will really come down to a handful of key areas:
Emilio Izaquirre's impact: Although Izaquirre sustained a serious ankle injury, he did manage 90 minutes in a reserve match on Tuesday night and will be expected to get some game time against Kilmarnock on Saturday. If that goes well, expect the Honduran to feature in the Celtic lineup to face Rangers. His talent is unquestionable and on his day he is the top player in the league. Only Jelavic can really be considered on his level. A fully fit, in form Izaquirre could swing the odds even further in Rangers' favour as the Honduran has long tormented the league with his barnstorming runs from deep.

Nikica Jelavic vs Celtic's central defenders: Jelavic has been irrepressible in the SPL, scoring goals with ease against any team. It will be on his back to break through whatever defensive pairing Lennon puts out to provide the crucial goals to see Rangers triumphant. In recent weeks, defenses have held Jelavic's influence and when he has been kept off the ball for a long period of a match he seems to lose interest. This will be key to Celtic as Rangers tend to go as he does. However, giving Jelavic too much room is a genuine concern as not only is he a prolific scorer, he possesses great vision to play in team-mates rushing forward in support. His performance could well prove pivotal.

The midfield battle: Both halves of the Old Firm have a number of lineups they can explore and utilize in midfield. For Celtic, captain and talisman Scott Brown will be one of the first names on the team sheet and will be expected to be representing the club in it's most important fixture. His passion and commitment make him vital to Celtic's success, but in Maurice Edu he has an interesting challenge opposite him. Edu has made himself a regular in the Rangers starting XI of late, providing much needed defending and breaking forward to help create scoring chances. This pair could end up cancelling each other out. Rangers' Gregg Wylde will be the unknown quantity, the youngster has shone in some environments, but none quite matches the atmosphere and pressure of the Old Firm derby. If he can torment his opposite number, Rangers' can cause problems.

Match Prediction: Given the various positive and negative influences on both clubs, I could very easily play it safe and predict a draw. Celtic though have to be considered favourites, perhaps even strong favourites, to take all three points and all the momentum and optimism that will come with a 2-1 victory at Parkhead.
Celtic 2-1 Rangers

4 Nov 2011

St Mirren vs Hearts - Match Preview

Crisis club Hearts travel to St Mirren on Saturday afternoon with the aim of pushing their ongoing wage nightmare to one side.

St Mirren are flying high at present, sitting in 6th place in the SPL and looking up, not down, for the first time in many seasons. Buddies' boss Danny Lennon urged the campaign is a long way from over: "This [season] is a Grand National. You get over one or two jumps and then you fall at one. You've got to quickly get back up." He was optimistic when asked about whether he thought his team had the right mindset to push on for a top six finish: "We've got to keep dripping in that winning mentality."

Hearts are a club headed in the opposite direction: players and staff have not been paid in nineteen days and they having picked up just six points from their last five games. Lennon spoke about the situation at Tynecastle, saying in regard to players and staff going unpaid: "if you've deserve your wages. I can totally sympathize with that."

Hearts' task this weekend will be made that much harder as the team will be without both Ian Black and Danny Grainger, both suspended for violent conduct during last weekend's home defeat to Kilmarnock.

Buddies' midfielder Graham Carey reckons that Hearts' current behind-the-scenes turmoil make them an unknown quantity: "You don't really know how they're going to react. We're just going to focus on ourselves, play our own game.' Carey said, 'these things can bring players together, they have a point to prove. We can't worry about that and have to focus on the three points."

Carey also believes that the squad'good league standing is down to "the mindset that we have this season. We just take every game as it comes."

John McShane will be missing for St Mirren after picking up a minor knee injury in training, however the squad will be at near-full strength for a clash that could see them rise as high as 4th in the SPL come Monday evening.

10 Oct 2011

NBA: Last chance to save the day.

League officials and Players' Union representatives will meet Monday in New York in a final attempt to thrash out a deal that would save the start of the 2011-12 NBA season.

NBA Commissioner David Stern and Union President Derek Fisher will both be in attendance, Fisher also invited all NBA players to attend the critical meeting. If a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is not agreed upon at least in principle, Stern says he will have no choice but to cancel the opening two weeks of the season.

The main (and perhaps only) sticking point is the proposed split of Basketball Related Income (BRI). The Players' got a 57% share under the old CBA, and refuse to come below 53% in any new proposal. The League and Owners have drawn their line in the sand at a 50-50 split. 2011-12's projected BRI is $4bn, meaning that the 3% being fought over is 'just' $120 million, earning the players $2.12 billion. If the players and owners do not reach agreement today, the first two weeks of games will be zapped from the calender. That would cost the players a hefty sum of money in wages. Billy Hunter, executive director of the Union, alleged that the players would lose $350 million for each month of the season killed by the lockout.

Essentially, if the players lost a month of the season, they would need to up their split demand to 58% to guarantee the $2.12bn they are after today. To even get what is currently offered at 50-50 would mean the players would need to up their demand to 54.5%. Going by this (complicated) maths, the players and owners are being incredibly narrow-minded over this whole affair.

Instead of bickering over such an arbitrary number as 3% of BRI, why not agree to the equal share of 50% and focus on providing another sterling season of Basketball? 2010-11 was one of the best in history and not just for the on-court skills we witnessed. Lebron James' "Decision" made the Miami Heat must-watch TV, Derrick Rose's rags-to-riches rise to MVP status made the Bulls a team you couldn't miss and then we had the complete surprise package in the Playoffs, the Mavericks, sweeping the Lakers and ousting the star-studded Heat to lift their first-ever NBA Championship.

Why give up a continuation of that amazing season for such a relatively small amount of money? If the players and owners agreed they could make the current $4bn pie even bigger for themselves next time around.

One thing's for certain, Monday's meeting is absolutely crucial to the fate of the season.


Around the League
NBA fans seem to be the forgotten entity in this lockout saga. While millionaire players and billionaire owners bicker and whinge over an amount of money that the common person dreams about having, the rest of the world is suffering. Owners are constantly cranking up prices of the NBA games that people love to watch. The fans come to the games to get away from their daily lives, to forget about things like money and the recession. Now when they log onto their basketball websites or turn on the television to watch at some basketball, recession and money has taken over their old safe haven. No matter the outcome, the fans will never come out of a lockout with a more favourable opinion of either side.

6 Oct 2011

NBA: No deal reached, first fortnight of 2011-12 Regular Season facing cancellation.

It started with some brave smiles, a little hope and a lot of optimism.

Tuesdays' crucial NBA Labor negotiations ended when both owners and players left their Manhattan boardroom with disappointment written all over their faces. The talks ground to a halt once more over the proposed split of Basketball Related Income (BRI). The agreement that expired saw the players take a 57% share of BRI, which equated to a figure of roughly $2.18bn per year. In the present, the owners maintain their stance that a 57% share going to the players is unsustainable, citing $300 million in losses as their motivation for wanting a fairer (read - more in favor of the owners) deal.

The owners side, fronted by NBA Commissioner David Stern (who is bound to come in for some harsh criticism if he allows the Regular Season to be affected by the labor dispute) and his associated band of owners and lawyers officially proposed a 52-48% split in favor of the players, a major concession from their previous stance of 47% share going to the players, a stance that they claimed would not change. Their decision in moving off of this sparked off optimism that a deal could be reached Tuesday.

The Players' Union (NBPA) however became the sticking block as they moved from their previous 'lowest possible' offer of 54% down to 53%, another move that allowed optimism to creep in.

The two sides seem to be close to accepting the loss of Regular Season games. The losses for both would total into the hundreds of millions of dollars. This fact is what makes Inside Sports believe that a deal could be reached before Stern's Monday deadline for saving the November 1st season opener. If the two sides, who were once a full $800 million apart on proposed deals, are just one BRI percentage point away from each other then logic would dictate that both sides would be willing to compromise for that one percent rather than lose such a vast sum of money from lost games.

One hot topic that came out of the boardroom was the League's 50-50% split that was allegedly offered. The leak came from Stern, and it infuriated the players who claimed that the leak painted them in a bad light (if that were still possible). The deal that was officially offered was one that saw the players get 50% of BRI but also allowed them to garner up to 53% if their contracts included the correct clauses. If this deal was really on the table then someone somewhere must have had their minds on their coffers rather than the game.

In the end, a deal will likely be formed in the 50-53% range that favors the players. And then, just maybe, we can get back to what we all want most. A bit of basketball.

12 Sep 2011

NFL Newbie: Ravens ripping of Pittsburgh highlight of thrilling opening weekend

I have never watched an entire NFL game outside of the Superbowl, thinking it was the only game worth seeing. Could I have been any more wrong?

1 Aug 2011

Can Scotland make the 2014 World Cup?

The draw for the qualifying stage of the Brazil 2014 World Cup took place on Saturday evening in Rio de Janeiro, the city set to host the final in just under 3 years' time.

Scotland have not made a World Cup, or any major tournament, since the 1998 World Cup. 13 long years of disappointment. There was once a time where our national side made it to 5 straight World Cups, a record number, from 1970-90 we were regulars.

It would boost our chances of ending that run if Scotland got a favourable draw. We have played our best football against some of the top teams in the world and just missed out. In qualifying for Euro 2008 we came up against both 2006 World Cup finalists, in 2010 WC qualifying we came up against eventual-runners up Holland and in Euro 2012 qualifying we have drawn the best side in the world, and current World Champions, the Spanish. So the Tartan Army had a right to be nervous, as we could have drawn both one top-tier team and the French, who have fallen into the second pot of teams.

Thankfully, it didn't turn out so badly. Croatia from the top pot, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia and Wales make up the rest.

A winnable group? If Craig Levein can get the team playing as good as they did in the 2008-qualifying group, then I don't see why not. Scotland could certainly claim second place and a subsequent Playoff berth as a reasonable target.

Croatia: World Ranking: 9
Previous result vs Scotland: 1-1, March 2008.
The Croatians are a decent outfit, managed by fan favourite Slaven Bilic. They can count Tottenham's Luka Modric, Ivica Olic of Bayern Munich, Shaktar Donetsk and ex-Arsenal man Eduardo and a familiar face to Scottish fans - Rangers' Nikica Jelavic.
Target Results: A hard-fought draw at Hampden is a possibility, but I would expect the Croats to be too strong in Zagreb.

Serbia: World Ranking: 27
Previous result vs Scotland: These two teams have not meant since Serbia became independent in 1993.
The Serbs are in disarray at the minute. Although they qualified for both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, they were recently beaten 3-1, at home, by Estonia (Rank 79th). That said, they can boast Manchester City's Aleksander Kolarov, Premier League champion Nemanja Vidic, Nikica Zigic from Birmingham and their main danger man, Inter Milan's Dejan Stankovic, a man who is a leader, a goal scorer and a competent defender.
Target Results: On their day, Scotland could win at Hampden and possibly snatch a valuable point away from home. It all depends on the Serbian team that shows up.

Belgium: World Ranking: 37
Previous result vs Scotland: The pair were last together in the 2002 World Cup qualifying group. A 2-2 draw at Hampden, followed by a 2-0 defeat in Brussels put paid to our chances of progressing to a second-successive World Cup.
Belgium are in a state of redevelopment. They do however field a clutch of dangerous players. Everton's Marouanne Felaini, Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, and Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen.
Target Results: A win at home and looking for another away draw would be the ideal return for Levein's men.

Macedonia: World Ranking: 96
Previous result vs Scotland: Scotland won 2-0 at Hampden during the 2010 World Cup campaign after a 1-0 away defeat in the searing summer heat of Skopje.
Macedonia are a team who are better than their current world ranking suggests. They always take their game to their opponents and have given some of Europe's big boys a real test. Their main and only true threat is Lazio's Goran Pandev.
Target Results: A win at home is an absolute must, and a win away should be targeted, though a draw cannot be deemed a failure.

Wales: World Ranking: 112
Previous result vs Scotland: Scotland beat the Welsh 3-1 in the recent Nations Cup, although a 3-0 hiding in Cardiff marked the end of George Burley's tenure as Scotland coach.
The Welsh have slipped into the final pot of qualifying, albeit a mere 0.07 ranking points behind the Faroe Islands. The Welsh have Craig Bellamy and of course Premier League Player of the Year Gareth Bale. An intense atmosphere will surround this 'home-nations' tie.
Target Results: Scotland cannot afford to drop any points at home or away to the Welsh. The second-placed team in each group has it's results against the bottom team scrapped at the end of qualifying to determine which of the 9 runners-up misses out on the 8-team playoff. This is why Scotland need 6 points from the Welsh. This may be easier said than done, especially in the trip to the Millennium Stadium which will undoubtedly be packed to the rafters.

Group prediction:
Croatia should win the group if the rankings are to be believed, but second place is up for grabs between 3 or possibly even 4 teams. Belgium and Serbia are a couple of steps ahead of Scotland, but the bigger teams have disregarded us before and we ended beating the French in Paris and being robbed of at least a draw with the then-World Champion Italians. Macedonia have an outside chance depending on their overall squad strength given that the first qualifying game is over a year away.

29 Jul 2011

F1: An open letter to the BBC

Dear BBC,

Your Formula One coverage has won awards, earned praise from all quarters and seen decade-high audience figures for Grand Prix this year. I can understand the need to cost-cut, but is reducing coverage your biggest crowd-puller by 50% the way to do it? Is saving BBC 4 really necessary? 

Formula One fans are some of the most loyal, many will simply refuse to miss a race. Why do you feel it is OK to slap them in the face by removing coverage of their sport in favour of "FULL COVERAGE OF THE 70-DAY OLYMPIC TORCH RELAY." Do you expect to collect 6.6 million viewers for this, as you did for the British Grand Prix? Do you expect to earn a BAFTA for coverage of various people carrying a burning stick around the country? I understand the importance of the Olympics to the UK and the BBC (as the Olympic Broadcaster), and that this is an opportunity that comes around perhaps once every 50 years, but is this what the public wants? 

The reaction of Formula One fans is one of near solidarity. That reaction is overwhelmingly negative, this speaks volumes. Even those who already pay for Sky/Sky Sports are disappointed that the BBC have agreed to this deal. I and many others urge you to reconsider.

Thank you.