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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.