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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.

F1: Bernie Ecclestone's great betrayal?

“Sky have been trying to buy the TV rights from us for a long time, but we won’t because they are not free-to-air broadcasters. With their viewing figures it would be almost impossible for teams to find sponsors. That would be suicidal.” - Bernie Ecclestone, May 2011.

Fast forward two months. 90% of Formula One fans are going to be forced to either pay to watch every race, or miss half of them. Bernie Ecclestone told us this wouldn't happen. He said it wouldn't make sense, the teams wouldn't like it, the fans wouldn't like it, he wouldn't like it. But here we are, faced with a choice between paying up or giving up.

Sky, the BBC and Ecclestone have agreed on a seven-year deal (2012-18) that will see Sky Sports broadcast every practice session, qualifying and race live and uninterrupted. The BBC will air just 10, including the Monaco and British Grand Prix, and the final race of each season.

Today, a customer new to Sky has to pay at least £40 a month for Sky and Sky Sports subscriptions, both of which are needed to watch every race live. Considering that on average there are two races per month, and as half are on the BBC, one of those will be free-to-air, you pay £40 for that one race each month. Such a great deal, according to Ecclestone.

Formula One is entering a dark time, it's popularity has grown and grown since the end of the Schumacher era, with the Championship battles in 2007, 2008 and 2010 going down to the final race, and 2009 being decided in the second-to-last race. 6.6 million tuned into the British Grand Prix, and over 8 million watched the rain-delayed Canadian Grand Prix. Both figures are 10-year highs. The German Grand Prix this year drew it's highest audience in 15 years, and the BBC have given that up to save money.

The BBC have done this in the name of 'cost-cutting'. This is the same BBC who sent over 400 reporters and technicians to Glastonbury Festival, the same BBC who sent 250 employees to cover a 1-day event marking one year to the 2012 Olympics. Sky, with a hundred times the budget, sent 11 people in total. The corporation pays Chris Moyles and Jeremy Clarkson £6million a year. All of this is funded by the license fee, which is used to "fund" the BBC. Most expect that to mean "paying for bringing us programs." Obviously not.

This letter appeared in a major UK Newspaper not to long ago, and sums up precisely why Formula 1 should appear on the BBC:

"What other international sport has two recent British World Champions competing in a British team? What other sport has a hi-tech support industry centred on Britain? What other sport has two thirds of the international teams choosing to base themselves in Britain?
 What other sport is the pinnacle of an industry estimated to be worth £5 billion a year to the British economy? What other sport has as many Brits in key positions in foreign-based teams? What other sports is associated with cutting-edge engineering, and is a stimulus to youngsters to enter engineering? The BBC should feel a patriotic duty to broadcast Formula One."

Fan reaction so far has been overwhelmingly negative:

"Not impressed."- Martin Brundle

"F1 on Sky is a joke! So much for the sport's own rules. If the money is there then the rules go out of the window"

"F1 has won many new fans because of the BBC F1 coverage the last few years, the new deal will loose those not prepared to pay" - Sir Stirling Moss

"I can't afford Sky TV let alone a sports package on top, unfair, I feel cheated."

"I can assure you that I won't be paying for Sky. This is awful."

"I can't afford Sky, so that will be the end of 12 years of watching Formula One."

There are rays of hope for people opposed to this deal. Some fans have raised the legality of the deal, and teams are confused over what the benefits actually are. The teams, FIA and Bernie Ecclestone have all signed the Concorde Agreement, a contract that determines the rules of the sport and how it is run. It states that Formula One should be on free-to-air TV until 2013, which was when the original BBC contract was due to expire. The deal could be in breach of that aspect of the agreement. Several people have pointed out that teams must be consulted before any new broadcasting deal is agreed. The surprised reaction from many teams suggests that this has not happened. A couple of teams have questioned the benefits of the deal. Sponsors pay for the right to advertise on the cars. They are much happier paying for sponsorship of a team in a free-to-air sport. The sport going to pay-TV means that sponsors must pay even more. Along with this hit, less people will be watching on pay-TV as not everyone can afford it, this results in sponsors paying more for less exposure. Many would simply walk away from the sport, leaving huge holes in some budgets and causing other teams to fold altogether. Teams such as Virgin, HRT and Williams rely heavily on sponsorship deals to balance their books.

10 Jul 2011

F1: Brit GP raises more questions

The British Grand Prix was supposed to answer our questions. Were Red Bull unbeatable? Would the ban on off-throttle technology alter the playing field? What sort of performance would Lewis Hamilton turn in?

We got answers to some, but ultimately left with question marks surrounding relationships within Red Bull, Ferrari's sudden discovery of pace, McLaren's tactics and yet more controversy around the off-throttle technologies employed by many teams.

The race itself was another fantastic story, Sebastian Vettel looked to have his 7th victory of the year in his pocket until a shabby pitstop dropped cost him dearly. Lewis Hamilton, starting in tenth, made up 5 places in the opening 2 laps and was up to 3rd and just 7 seconds off the lead after 14 laps. He passed Webber through cunning pitstop strategy, before his tires failed him and he fell backwards, with Alonso taking a lead he would never lose.

Vettel's poor stop put him behind Hamilton who seemed to have lost the pace he had early on. The German spent 5 laps stuck behind the Brit, who defended beautifully to frustrate his rival. One sequence will linger. Vettel got the better run onto the old pit straight, sitting mere inches behind Hamilton yet struggling to decide whether to go left or right, in the end, he came mere millimetres away from a costly accident and lost his chance to overtake.
Alonso streaked to his first win of 2011 (pic: Autosport)

Jenson Button had a relatively quiet afternoon until an error in his second stop resulted in him driving off with nothing holding his left-front tire on. Retirement was not on the menu for Button, but one simple mistake was all it took.

The first of these new stories came about on Friday morning during a public press conference. McLaren's boss Martin Whitmarsh and Red Bull leader Christian Horner were asked about the reduction on off-throttle engine technology. The FIA had limited the usage of hot-blown diffusers so that only 10% of throttle gas was allowed to pass over the rear of the car. This was supposed to cover all teams, until it was discovered that the Renault engine was allowed to have 50% of throttle gas flow through the rear of the setup. This is allegedly due to the reliability needs of the Renault engine, and Red Bull, the biggest beneficiaries of the technology, claim they use cold-blown diffusers rated than the hot-blown variation used by the teams powered by Mercedes (McLaren being the biggest). McLaren contended that the Renault powered teams were getting an advantage due to the less restrictive measures on their technology. Red Bull's Christian Horner contended that their limit would result in the same performance loss as the limit on the McLaren cars.

Make up your own mind, this row is set to rumble on and on.

Next up on the controversy desk today is the atmosphere inside the Red Bull camp. Sebastian Vettel led Mark Webber from the first corner onwards, and was never troubled by the Aussie. In the final 2 laps however, Vettel slowed and Webber closed right up to put pressure on his team-mate. At one stage the pair were side-by-side approaching Copse corner.

Now, it is Inside Sports' view that Vettel should have let his faster team-mate through given his 77-point lead in the championship standings. The team sent out a radio message ordering Mark to stand down and not overtake, a request that did not sit well with the Australian: "I'm not okay with it, no. I ignored and battled to the end."

A division opened between the two Red Bull drivers after last year's Turkish and British Grand Prix, and boss Christian Horner did little more than stoke the fire when he said that he couldn't let his drivers fight because "we all know how that would end."

A glowing reinforcement of Mark's overtaking abilities there then.

If anything, today proved that with the right strategy and environment, Sebastian Vettel can be beaten, and he may well need to count on his team-mate to act as a rear gunner in later races. He can little afford to alienate his colleague if he has designs on back-to-back championships.Webber is the only other man with a car that is a match for Vettel.

The title race may be being dominated by one driver, the on- and off-track action has been more enthralling than ever.

30 Jun 2011

Silly season round-up

It's been 7 weeks since the end of the football season. Not long. Already it seems some teams have entered some sort of withdrawal-induced meltdown, with several strange, outlandish and just plain dumb transfer requests and rumours

Without further ado, let's get down to the business end of my first silly season round-up.

Signing of the week: Manchester United finally completed a widely expected signing of young Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea. A star of the future, De Gea will have to face the tough task of filling the gloves left empty by retiring legend Edwin Van Der Sar. The big Dutchman was consistently brilliant during his time at Old Trafford. De Gea's former coach when he was at Atletico Madrid says of the 20-year old that "he has shown that he is a winner and someone who can handle big finals." Only time will tell if Sir Alex Ferguson has correctly chosen the successor for Van Der Sar in a player with fewer than 100 first-team appearances.

Just getting started: Gossip coming from Merseyside claims that Liverpool's management and Raul Merieles are not the best of friends any more. The Portuguese midfielder provided much-needed energy and attacking intent when captain Steven Gerrard was injured. He was so willing to make his name in England that he took a large pay cut to join 'Pool on the condition that his wages for next year would increase if he played well. Merieles saved Liverpool this season. He scored several vital goals just after Kenny Dalglish took over that stabilized a club staring at a relegation battle. He fully deserves a pay increase, the club do not want to give him one and actually want rid of him. According to various sources, Liverpool are looking to make some money for their pursuits of Aston Villa's Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam of Blackpool, two players that together could replace Merieles.

Please go away: I'm tired of hearing about Cesc Fabregas. Barcelona want him, Cesc wants to go, Arsenal have said they could use the cash. Yet he remains in London. Barcelona gave an offer of £35 million last summer, and seriously reduced it to £27 million this year thanks to "wear and tear" gathered in the meantime. I wish this would all go away because, quite simply, we know how this ends. We've seen it before. A team holds onto their man as his value goes down because they believe they can force a better price. Eventually though, the team ends up accepting an offer well below the starting price and after wall-to-wall press coverage, the regular fan cannot stand the player any longer. Fabregas must be wishing for an easy divorce, for at the minute, the fans still love him. If he continues to push and push then he puts himself in danger of joining other players in being despised by fans of former teams. Take Wayne Rooney and Everton. Carlos Tevez with Manchester United, and a while back, Eric Cantona joining United from Leeds. For Arsenal's sake, and for Fabregas' legacy here, let's hope this ends peacefully.

Biggest winners: Sunderland, without a doubt. The Black Cats landed Craig Gardner for £5 million from Birmingham, have also signed Ipswich's teen sensation Connor Wickham for £8 million (from the palm of Liverpool's hand) and are also in talks with Man United's Wes Brown. Sunderland also managed to secure the services of Korean striker Ji-Dong Won, who wants to be in the first team "within 6 months". Great summer already for the team as they signal their intent to improve rather than simply maintain their position.

Biggest losers: Hard to say anyone has really lost this week, but if I had to choose, the answer is Hearts. Craig Thomson, a right-back at the Edinburgh side, was last week placed on the sex offender's register for sending "explicit images" to two underage girls. Everyone in Scotland expected the player to be instantly sacked, but this was not the case in a week to forget for the club. Hearts first said that he would be staying on, which was questionable, but okay if they were going to be providing support for him. Instead, they seemed to claim he was somehow the victim in all of this. Failure number two was a letter, apparently written by owner Vladimir Romanov, that claimed that Hearts had been "battling for seven years" to protect the club from corrupt influences including the Mafia. He also said that Hearts' performances in the final 12 games of the season were affected by corrupt officials and players. He also accused the SPL and referees of blocking Hearts out of the title race. A bad week indeed.

20 Jun 2011

Wimbledon: Murray breezes first round

There can't have been many matches where the winner has lost the 1st set only to go on and win 2 of the next three 6-0, 6-0. Andy Murray became (possibly) the first on that list with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 victory over world No56 Daniel Gimeno-Traver in their first-round matchup at this year's Wimbledon tournament.

The Andy Murray on display in the opening set was not the one we saw two weeks ago at Queen's Club that made Andy Roddick look like an amateur. He looked cautious, slightly rusty and couldn't make an impact on Gimeno-Traver's serve - the Spaniard holding his own comfortably and asking plenty of questions on Murray's slow second serve, hammering his forehands for multiple winners. The breakthrough came in the 9th game of the set, tied at 4-4 when Gimeno-Traver converted one of his three break-points to take full control of the first set. He went on to close it out with little in the form of a comeback from the Scot.

The second set began in the same fashion until the players reached 3-3, Murray served to lead 4-3 before breaking serve for the first time and leveling the match at 1-1 after a simple hold of serve.

The opening game of the 3rd set signaled the beginning of the end for Gimeno-Traver. Murray needed 3 break points to get where he wanted to go, but finally began dominating the match the way he should have been. The wheels were well and truly falling off the Spaniard's challenge when he fell 4-0 down and practically gave up the set 6-0.

The trainer made a quick visit as the players enjoyed an extended rest between the final two sets. There was always the risk that Gimeno-Traver would have lost his focus after quitting the previous set. The fears proved true as he was broken again in the opening game. Murray began playing some of his most beautiful tennis, every drop shot and lob was finding it's mark as the world No4 completed another 6-0 trouncing to serve up a "double-bagel" to the downhearted Spaniard.

17 Jun 2011

Golf: Rory McIlroy leading US Open

After that meltdown at the Masters a few weeks ago, Rory McIlroy has found the perfect reply.

McIlroy's reaction after sinking a 113-yard
chip to move him to -11 for the tournament.
Having played through 2 rounds at Congressional Country Club, the young Northern Irishman has built a lead the size of which hasn't been seen since Tiger Woods destroyed the field at Pebble Beach US Open in 2000. After his first 36 holes, McIlroy had dropped just 2 shots to lead at 11 under par. If it were not for a double-bogey on the tricky 18th, he would have set an all-time record -13 for an 10 shot lead.

As it stands, Rory leads by some 8 shots over Heath Slocum and Y.E. Yang. It's hard to call them the leaders of the chasing pack because the pack are chasing something that's been in a different universe over the past two days.

It started off as a confident, assured performance. Then it turned into one of the best rounds of his life followed by becoming something crafted by the golfing gods as McIlroy chipped in a 113-yard from the 8th fairway. He continued the staggering performance by picking up a further 2 shots to move to an historic -13. The last player to get to -12 was Woods in '00 and he went on to win that US Open by some 15 strokes. Had he not dropped two shots on the final hole of the day we may as well begin carving his name into the famous trophy.

Many will remember McIlroy's incredible disintegration which was amazing as his play at CCC. Leading by 4 shots going into the final 9 holes of the tournament, McIlroy went on to drop 10 shots to card an 8-over-par 80 on the final day to finish some 10 shots off the eventual winner. It was an awe-inspiring display of how not to close out a tournament that included a triple-bogey at the 10th and a double-bogey at the 12th. If he contrives to throw away this tournament from this position, we can say of future repeats: "He's done a McIlroy."

For Rory's sake, hope he can hang on.

13 Jun 2011

Dallas Mavericks win 2011 NBA Championship

Today is Dallas' day in the sun.

I could write page after page on why the Heat lost or why they did not deserve this title, but that is a story for another day.

With one final swish, the Dallas Mavericks did what everyone wanted them to do. They scored those final two points to seal a 105-95 Game 6 victory over the Miami Heat that gave them their first-ever NBA Championship, winning the deciding best-of-seven series 4 games to 2.

There hardly was a team that deserved this Title more than the Mavericks. Written off time and time again at every stage of the Playoffs and for every reason imaginable, they came up with the minor upset and finally collected the one missing piece of jewelry from 11 consecutive Playoff appearances.

The Heat came into this game on the back of a tidal wave of question marks. Could their best player, Lebron James, ind his 4th-quarter form? (averaging just 2 points per 4th Q), Did Dwyane Wade have enough in the tank to get his team two more wins. Dallas came in on the back of 2 moral boosting victories in Games 4 & 5. To say Dallas were the better team by far would be a lie. This series had 4 games decided by 4 points or less. The other two, both won by Dallas by 9 and 12 points respectively, were close for 46 minutes before being blown open late.

The Mavericks proved that Miami's strategy of getting 3 superstars is not the only way to build a title-winning outfit. Built around perennial All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs assembled a supporting cast that complemented the playing style of the German giant. With Jason Kidd at 38 years old running Point Guard dishing out the toughest off passes, Shawn Marion bringing down several key rebounds in every single game of the series. Jason Terry was my difference maker in these Finals, he had 27 points off the bench in Game 6 to lead all scorers in the final duel. Tyson Chandler played one of his best games as a Maverick at Center, fighting for every single rebound and lost cause, he had back-to-back offensive rebounds late in the final period that effectively sent the title to the Texan team.

But special mention must go to the winner of the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award. Dirk Nowitzki. The Dallas forward, constantly belittled due to his lack of a championship ring, can see his critics silenced forever. Several times in this series he pulled off the impossible, sparking and finishing several Maverick comebacks in each series of the Playoffs. On Sunday night, with a 1-10 first quarter and a 1-13 first half for a measly 3 points, it looked like the game could head for a decisive seventh game as the Mavs' main closer was not firing on all cylinders. 11 points in three quarters were all he managed.

Then the 4th quarter began and the switch was flipped. Nowitzki scored 10 in the final period as James and Wade combined for just 11. Two of the best players in the league, failing to deliver on their promise of a title.

In those final few minutes when it became clear that Miami were on the ropes, they transformed back into the team that started 9-8 and lost 5 straight. The players looked lost, out of sync on both ends of the court and all trying to do their own thing. When they should have been driving to the basket to get either a lay-up or at least 2 free-throws (the Mavericks were over the 4-foul per quarter limit), they shot contested, unbalanced three-pointers with 20 seconds left on the shot-clock.

The presentation of the famous Larry O'Brien trophy to the winning team was made more sentimental than celebratory this year as current Mavs owner Mark Cuban invited the original owner Don Carter and his wife to lift the trophy, ending the chase that for Carter, started with a $10 million dream in 1980. Dallas has had to endure the best and worst of times as a sports city. The Mavs posted a franchise-worst 11-71 record in 1993, followed up with a 13-69 the following season. When Mark Cuban rolled up and began pumping money in, many objected. But the nature of the players on this team - hard-working, honest and easy to like - made it easy to root for them to get the championship their investment and owner deserved.

Here's to Dallas.

8 Jun 2011

NBA Finals Special: Dallas and Miami level at 2-2

Dirk Nowitzki, with a sky-high temperature thanks to a raging fever, turned to face the basket with 18 seconds to play, the game tied. He drove to the right, flipped the ball up right-handed and watched it roll in off the backboard. 14.4 seconds later, the Dallas Mavericks had come from 9 points behind late in the 4th quarter to pull level in their NBA Finals showdown with the Miami Heat.

Where did he go? Lebron James' disappointing
performance costs Miami vital win.
While Nowitzki's heroics and the Mavericks second comeback in 3 games will grab many headlines, the real story behind the Mavs' win (and the Heat's loss) is the disappearance of Lebron James.

8 points. In 89 Playoff games, Lebron has not scored as few points as he did in last night's game. It's been 434 matches since he had such a poor performance. In games that Lebron scores 15 or less, his teams have gone 0-8. He had just 4 points in the first half and attempted 1 shot in the 4th quarter, previously known as Lebron James' personal scoring time. It's harsh to pin this loss on James, Miami had 7 fourth-quarter turnovers after having 0 in the third. Wade committed a cardinal sin in fumbling the inbounds pass on the final possession of the game. What James did wrong, however, was allowed his poor offense to affect his normally stellar defense. He appeared lazy and dare I say it, uninterested. Effectively reducing the Heat to a beatable team.

What can be said for certain is that Lebron will come back big time in Game 5 on Thursday night. He's too good a player to let a game like this go unanswered. What makes the difference in this case is that Dallas have game-planned for James, their defense has played him as good as any in the league this year, allowing him just 9 points in the three 4th quarters before Tuesday night. It comes down to his will. We've seen him simply drag the Heat to wins, most recently in the Chicago series where Wade took the back seat. The flip side of James is seen in his games for the Cavaliers against Boston, the famous LeQuit game which turned out to be his final game for Cleveland.

At 2-2, the schedule favors the Heat with 2 of the next 3 in Miami. However, the momentum lies 100% in the hands of the Mavericks. Their offense was in-sync, their defense rivaled Miami's and their bench finally showed up and it was evident. The Heat did not play exceptionally bad through 3 quarters. Very few turnovers, average shooting and very good offensive rebounds. They were even leading by 4 going into the 4th quarter. It was those 7 turnovers and 14 points that killed their chances of taking a commanding lead.

Now, they must return to Dallas again on Thursday night, battle the momentum and pray that the leagues-best-player version of Lebron James shows face on the court.

2 Jun 2011

Shaquille O'Neal - The original 'Superman'

The Big Shaqtus, Shaqnifique, The Big Shamrock, Shaqtastic, Shaq Attack, Shaq-Fu, The Big Diesel.

Whatever nickname he chose to be known as, Shaquille O'Neal will always be known as one of the best players to ever set foot in the NBA. 7ft 1in tall, 300lb (even more at times), Shaq would bully his way through the toughest of defenses and dunk the ball like you weren't there. At times his power could be scary - many rims were bent, buckled, pulled off. The man even brought down a whole basketball hoop on his own. How a man so big and heavy could jump so high defied the laws of physics. When he took to the air, players practically pushed each other to get out of his way. His special "Black Tornado" move left defenders bamboozled, high and dry trying to defend thin air as he spun his way past and dunked before his man had a chance to count to 3.

In 19 seasons, Shaq played with 6 teams, winning 4 titles, 3 NBA Finals MVP awards and the 2000-01 NBA MVP award along with 15 All-Star game appearances. 5th on the All-time scoring list with 28,596 points, he led the league in Shooting % (shots made out of shots attempted) for 10 seasons, breaking the previous, 40+ year-old record of 9. His stats speak for themselves. Shaq was one of just a few players to average over 20pts and 10 rebounds for his career (23 and 11).

If he was playing for your team, there was no other man in the world you would rather have the ball near the basket. His dunking madness allowed him to finish his career with 58% of his shots made, a testament to his under-the-basket style.

Winner of 3 NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and up and coming star Kobe Bryant, Shaq became the undisputed face of the post-Michael Jordan NBA. After a long and embarrassing feud with Bryant, Shaq was forced out of the Lakers' door and signed with the Miami Heat. Angry at the Lakers' attempt to replace him with Vlade Divac, an inadequate center at the best of times, Shaq teamed up with Dwyane Wade to deliver a title to Miami and stick his finger up to his old team.

He never quite hit the same heights again after this championship year as he moved across the league to Pheonix, Cleveland and finally ending the journey in Boston. But what he lost on the court he made up for with his larger-than-life personality off the court.

Some of his antics will be long remembered; throwing parties in various cities where he would be working the mic, dancing with whoever turned up. He released 4 rap albums and had 2 reality TV shows, further spreading his name across the entertainment world. His 2009 All-Star entrance will go down as one of the most memorable - and ridiculous - in history.

His retirement is probably a few seasons overdue, but it doesn't make the sadness any less. Shaq was by far the most dominant player since MJ, perhaps one of the most dominant ever given his defensive presence. He earns a spot in my Top 10 All-time players for his incredible career. Thanks for it all, Dr. Shaq.

29 May 2011

F1 2011: Lewis Hamilton's weekend to forget

7 days after appearing to be getting his season well and truly on track, Lewis Hamilton went into meltdown mode in Monaco.

McLaren's Hamilton watches Saturday qualifying.
(Photo: EPA)
It started with a strategical disaster in qualifying that left him doing his only timed lap on cold tires. It then emerged that he had cut the chicane setting it and was demoted to 9th.

The race began and Hamilton was mugged into Loewes hairpin by Michael Schumacher. This was soon reversed thanks to a brave overtaking move into turn 1. The afternoon began to unravel as Hamilton, trapped and frustrated behind Felipe Massa's Ferrari, dived recklessly into the side of Massa's car at the same hairpin that Schumacher got him. This earned him a drive-through penalty that was probably justified. Massa's afternoon ended two corners later as he ran wide under pressure from Hamilton in the tunnel and crashed into the wall.

Things appeared to be back on track for Hamilton until Adrian Sutil made contact with the wall and caused a multi-car pileup as others tried to avoid him. Buemi's Toro Rosso rode up the back of Hamilton causing damage to his rear wing. Vitaly Petrov then followed into the wall and was stuck in his car causing the race to be red-flagged with 6 laps remaining. The McLaren engineers did a fine job in repairing Hamilton's rear wing in just 15 minutes for the restart.

Following close behind Pastor Maldonado's Williams, Hamilton tried to get by into turn 1 but the young Venezuelan did not see the Brit coming and turned in, contact was made, Maldonado's afternoon ended in the barrier but Hamilton, again, carried on as he finished in 6th despite being given a 20-second penalty for the Maldonado crash.

It was in his post-race interview with the BBC that the crap hit the fan as Hamilton went into full rage mode. When asked about his incidents with Massa and Maldonado he said that the other drivers were "frickin' stupid for turning in on him," and that it was "frickin' ridiculous that he had been in front of the stewards 5 times in 6 races. His most controversial comment came when he was asked why he had been to the stewards office so many times. He replied: "Maybe it's because I am black, isn't that what Ali G said, I don't know."

Clearly marked as a joke, the F1 world and wider community has taken his remark out of context, many accusing him of blatant racism and calling for disqualification, suspension and even asking him to be banned from Formula 1. This, taken out of context, is a big mistake from Hamilton that he will regret. Hamilton will no doubt be wishing he took just a few minutes longer to collect his thoughts before opening his mouth. Taken in the context as it should be, this is simply a young man wondering why he has been to the FIA more times than any other driver, but choosing the wrong words at the wrong time in a world where there are people looking to take issue with everything you do or say.

A bad weekend that he will be desperate to imagine never having happened.

16 May 2011

The keys to a still-young series.

The Chicago Bulls lead the Miami Heat 1-0 in their Eastern Conference Finals match-up.

A lot of experts and pundits alike picked the Heat to win this series and seemed to be writing off the Bulls' chances before the opening tip. Now, these same people are having to revise their opinions quite drastically after Chicago dished out a 21-point battering on a flat-looking Heat squad.

The Bulls certainly played their best ball of this post-season following on from a high performance in Game 6 of the previous series. However, they won't play quite as well again in this series one would expect as the Bulls' bench brought Chicago an incredible advantage for Game 1.

You could also expect that Lebron James and Dwyane Wade will not combine for only 33 points again in this series, they will both go on to have a huge game themselves that could provide the scoring needed to overcome a smothering Bulls' defense. It's not even like Miami shot poorly (47%), even shooting better than the home team's 43%. It was the rebounding that killed the Heat in this one. Out-rebounded 45-33 in the game, 19-6 on the offensive end. Though rebounding was a major issue for the Heat in the season-series between this pair: 131-99 Bulls in 3 games.

Keys to the Series:


1. Limit the Bulls rebounding. Rebounding was the killer in this game and it has been all season against Chicago. Their rebounders need to do a better job of getting themselves between the ball and Bulls' players crashing the boards. Easier said than done, but the Heat went small in Game 1 as Ilgauskas and Dampier weren't even in uniform. Expect at least one of them to be activated for Wednesday night.

2. Get into the paint. Chicago also did a good little number on Wade and James as they struggled to get into the lane for easy points and had to settle for contested jump-shots. Bosh was left alone by his defender and Miami did do a good job of finding him inside.

3. Move the ball. Wade and Lebron tend to play a lot of isolated, 1-vs-1 plays that rely on themselves only. This plays right into the hands of a Bulls defense built on stopping this sort of play. Miami had very few assists and this contributed to their downfall. If they can move the ball more they can move the Bulls out of that defensive shell around the paint, opening up space for Lebron and Wade to get into the paint.

1. Limit Turnovers/fast-break points. If the Bulls hadn't committed 8 first-half turnovers, this game would have been a non-contest at half time. The Heat's offense is unstoppable in the open court, they scored their first 4 points on fast-break dunks that looked to set the tone for a long night for Bulls' fans.

2. If you're name is Rose, get to the rim. Derrick Rose took a lot more jump shots than viewers are used to seeing. He needs to do a better job of getting into the paint. When he gets into the paint, the defense collapses around him and this opens up the outside shooters the Bulls have enough of to be dangerous. Another plus of this defensive collapse is that the Bulls can crash the boards so much easier. Rose also attempted just 6 free-throws although this was a game-high. (Wade and James had 4 each).

3. Get more from Boozer. Boozer may have had a good game on first viewing. 14 points though is not his real level. Luol Deng won't be going off for 21 points every game so Boozer's offense becomes that much more important especially considering the Chicago bench won't be scoring just as much again either.

I still stick by my prediction of the Bulls in 7 as the Heat have enough talent to win at least their home games. I think the Bulls team-oriented style will beat the Heat's individual-oriented style: when James and Wade don't get their points the Heat have very few alternatives to ask to make up the difference.

East Finals Game 1: Bulls beat Heat 103-82

Experts? Really, are they still allowed to call them that?

A good 90% of the NBA 'experts' picked the Miami Heat to win this series. Memo, not if the Heat play like this again. They play like this again then this series is only going to have 3 more games.

The Heat are now 0-4 against Chicago this season. I don't see Chicago playing quite as well as Sunday night but they won't need to as this wasn't even close. Miami had just 28 shots in the second half to Chicago's 43. That's a huge plus especially in the Playoffs. The Bulls were regarded as the better rebounding of the pair though last night was something exceptional; Chicago out-rebounded Miami 45-33, 19-6 on the offensive end that resulted in all those extra shots for the Bulls and a 31-8 advantage in 2nd-chance points scored. 31 second chance points being a new high for this year's Bulls team.

Make no mistake, this series is by no way over, but this game fully exposed and humiliated the Heat's weaknesses: Rebounding, size and offensive plays.

Miami came out of the blocks at the start with 2 dunks off Bulls turnovers. It looked like it could be a long night with 9 first-half turnovers for Chicago. Miami led 24-20 after 1 quarter, Bosh with 17 of that 24 on a stellar night for the .5 of the Miami two-and-a-half men. Into the 2nd the Bulls stepped up defensively holding Miami again to 24 points to the Bulls 28 as Gibson hit a run with 7 of 9 Bulls points including a flat-out "get outta my" dunk over Dwyane Wade that electrified an already frenzied crowd. The half ended tied at 48 as the Bulls struggled some to stop the Heat getting points easily.

Wade will be having nightmares
for a little while...
Into the 3rd quarter with the Bulls up 58-57 and this is when things got out of hand. Lebron James had only 2 points in the third quarter as he couldn't hit a thing all night long. The Bulls bench unit completely outplayed their Heat counterparts as Watson, Korver, Brewer and Asik all had standout performances. Watson came in and did a great job hustling after the loose ball, highlighted by a chase-down on a loose ball with 3 seconds left on the shot-clock, CJ turns around, step-back 3 from deep to beat the buzzer. Korver didn't get too hot on his shooting missing a couple wide open before making a three after the game was not a contest, Thibodeau gave him 16 minutes as he did a decent job on Wade in the first half. The Bulls used Korver as the pick with Rose to get Korver more wide open shots against the Heat's terrible defense on the roll. Ronnie Brewer came in and tipped plenty of passes and made one great steal that resulted in 2 Free Throws and a possession after that had Brewer run off the baseline for a dunk. The Heat need to remember that the baseline exists as Brewer was free to move along it all evening.

Omer Asik had a fantastic night. I've yet to see a big man defend the rim and alter so many shots without fouling the shooter. He rebounds at both ends and never has shots blocked as he goes up strong two-handed for the dunk. Taj Gibson as mentioned above was charged up for this game, and his performance was rounded off by a see-to-believe putback dunk over two Heat defenders with hardly any time left in the game.

Erik Spoelstra was out-coached by Thibodeau as Spoelstra inexplicably went small against a Bulls team which has big players who are just as quick as a small, shown when Noah and Gibson blocked Wade and James' jump-shots respectively as they put on a masterclass in staying in front of the attacker.

Game 2 will be crucial in this still-young series: if Chicago can fend off an inevitable James/Wade fight-back and take a 2-0 lead to Miami then they will fully be in control and putting the pressure on the Heat. If the Bulls go in 2-0 up the Heat need to win that third game, as teams 3-0 down have never won the 7-game series (0-99 in history). The Heat will have the pressure of an unforgiving home crowd that could prove more of a burden if things get nasty in Game 3.

The roller-coaster has only just started.

27 Mar 2011

F1: Vettel invincible in Australian sun

Sebastian Vettel claimed the first victory of 2011, and he did it with a display of perfect driving in a near-perfect weekend for the reigning champion.

After blowing the field away in qualifying Vettel capitalized on a poor start by Lewis Hamilton in 2nd to pull out a huge lead in the opening lap. By the end of the second lap, Vettel was 2.3 seconds ahead of the Brit in his redesigned McLaren. Button and Alonso were both pushed back by a fast-starting Vitaly Petrov who guided his Renault down the inside of turn one and past the pair of former-champions.

Alonso was frozen out on the outside of turn one and lost 5 places as he slid back to as low as 10th on the opening lap. Massa climbed to 5th from 8th and Scottish rookie Paul Di Resta was another man with a handy start, up from 14th to 10th on lap one. The only casualties of first-lap shenanigans were 7-time champion Michael Schumacher who got a puncture from some contact with another car, and Buemi who pitted for repairs to his car after contact with team-mate Algersuari.

For a number of laps, Jenson Button sat staring at the rear of Massa's Ferrari, making use of the new adjustable rear-wing to get alongside the red car but could not make a move stick, becoming increasingly frustrated with his inability to make his superior pace count against a spirited defensive display from Felipe. All the while Alonso crept back up to the fighting duo. When he did manage to get the better of Massa, he was forced into cutting across the turn 13-14 chicane and should have given the place back to the Brazilian, but chose not to. Ferrari then made use of the lifted ban on team orders to switch their drivers so that Button would lose out to both Ferrari cars when he conceded position to Massa. Button never did, and received a drive-through penalty for his troubles.

With a relatively quiet start, Mark Webber quickly fell into a lonely race in 4th as he couldn't keep the pace of  the leading pair and ended up driving a solid race to 4th place with no real problems until he parked the car immediately after crossing the line. Lewis Hamilton was also lucky to finish as his car's floor came loose and began dragging on the track surface sending sparks flying at times. How much this affected the car's performance is unknown but Hamilton dealt with it well as he lost little time to the Red Bull in front or the Renault behind.

The upper part of the wing was found to be
breaching a rule on minimum size.
A resurgent Sauber pairing of Kobayashi and Sergio Perez overtook their way into the top 10, with Perez being the only man to complete the race with just one pit stop needed, an impressive feat after all the talk about 2, 3 or even 4 pit stops being necessary for an optimized race pace. However, pain was just around the corner for the team as they were both disqualified post-race due to a part of the rear-wing being smaller than the minimum size allowed by the rules. The piece in question was the moving part of the adjustable wing which resulted in a bigger size whole in the wing on the Sauber and therefore a higher top speed.
The DSQs were good news for some including Massa who was moved up from 9th to 7th, and the two Force India's of Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta, moved into ninth and tenth respectively, earning the young Brit a points finish on his debut.

Next up, a trip to South-East Asia and the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur. Will we see rain? Will we see blazing hot sunshine? Will Ferrari rediscover that pre-season form they were trumpeting as they arrived in Australia on Friday morning? So many questions that remain unanswered.

15 Mar 2011

The great big F1 2011 Preview!

Well, it's just 11 days until the lights go out in Australia to kick-start the 2011 Formula One season.

This year, I'll be doing race-by-race previews, reviews and breakdowns of all the major talking points and controversies that will almost definitely appear this season.

You can keep track of them by adding this page to your favorites, and checking back daily for the latest news and gossip from across the F1 world!

F1 Preview: HRT, Virgin and Lotus

"The Great Big Preview" INDEX

Here, I'll break down our three newest teams who are about to enter their second year in Formula 1. HRT, Virgin and Lotus all had their ups and downs in 2010, and they will all be looking at making the leap from back-of-the-pack to midfield runner.

Hispania Racing Team: HRT had a forgettable debut season in 2010. Their car was easily slowest of the 3 new teams and they remained that way for a large portion of the year before finally closing the gap in the final third of the year. Early teething problems with the car saw them struggle to finish races, and the drivers often found themselves taking the back row in qualifying. Bruno Senna showed some promise in a terrible car, Karun Chandhok did too. Then the money started talking as driver after driver rolled in with sponsor cash. Sakon Yamamoto was given a drive at the expense of the widely-liked Chandhok, a move that many considered to be cash-related rather than performance-related. Christian Klien also came in, reportedly with a high-value sponsor.

High Point: Double finishes in Malaysia, China and Korea.
Low Point: The way they dealt with their drivers and their cash was.....awful.
2011 Aim: At least become fastest of the newest teams in 2011.

Virgin Racing: After just a little problem (see below), the Virgin team quickly established itself as the second-quickest of the new runners. After failing to finish races, the team made the embarrassing announcement that their fuel tank was not big enough to complete the races. However, the team recovered and began to frequently challenge Lotus for the honor of being best of the newbies. Lucas Di Grassi did not cover himself in glory, but showed that he does deserve to be in Formula 1, albeit with a car not exactly built to showcase his talents. Timo Glock fulfilled his role as the experienced head, out-qualifying his team-mate most races and occasionally beating out the Lotus' in qualifying.

High Point: Double finishes in Spain and four other races.
Low Point: Failing to build the most basic part of the car correctly. Their fuel tank was not big enough to finish each of the first 3 races.
2011 Aim: Virgin will want to become the top new team this year, and look to show that an entirely computer-designed car is effective.

Lotus Racing: Lotus proved to be the fastest of the newcomers of 2010. They earned widespread respect from other teams, experts and fans when both cars finished the opening race of the year, something neither Virgin or HRT managed. Lotus were also the first to make it out of first qualifying at Malaysia (although this was down to rain). Lotus went on from strength to strength and celebrated the 500th race of the historic team at the European Grand Prix in Valencia. Drivers Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli had enough experience to get the maximum from their cars, which got closer and closer to the midfield pack.

High Point: Recorded highest finish (12th) in the Korean GP
Low Point: The team was/is involved in a legal battle over the use of the 'Team Lotus' name, which somewhat turned some fans and media against the team.
2011 Aim: Lotus have the resources and base to go on and join the midfield pack, they will look for a first points-finish in 2011.


Tomorrow: Toro-Rosso, Sauber and Force India.