Shootout Survivors: Argentina scrape into the World Cup Final on penalties

The South American Continent will have a representative in this Sunday’s World Cup Final. Much to the chagrin of the home nation, it is Argentina; not Brazil who will take to the field in the Estadio do Maracana to take on Germany for the most prestigious prize in Football. Argentina defeated The Netherlands 4-2 on penalties in Sao Paulo to book their place in The Final after an uneventful Semi-Final encounter.

Now this was more like your traditional World Cup Semi-Final, tight nervy and tense from start to finish. After yesterday’s frantic clash between Brazil and Germany, a return to footballing normality only seemed right. Whether one approves of their methods or not, their slow, plodding pace and over reliance on Lionel Messi; Argentina have been the perennial survivors of this World Cup. They do whatever it takes to win. The Albiceleste have not trailed any of their opponents for even a single minute in their seven outings at the tournament so far. Truth be told, they did not once look truly susceptible to falling behind yesterday evening either. It took the Dutch 99 minutes to muster a single attempt on target. The same side that decimated the reigning World Champions Spain 5-1 and rattled in 8 goals in their two opening games were completely blunted. Who said those Argentines are average? In a tight game that saw both teams stick to their shape rigidly; keen to stymie one another rather than go on the attack and risk being caught on the counter; Argentina’s back four were superb. Javier Mascherano in particular lunged in for a number of key tackles after bouncing back up from a nasty, concussive looking collision earlier on in the game. Even Martin Demichelis looked solid; as opposed the error prone and comedic centre half we see week in week out in a Manchester City shirt.

 ITV spent the pre-match portion of the game hyping the potential heroics of both sides’ star men: Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben. Ironically and almost inevitably, neither man stamped their mark on the game. Robben’s teasing runs lacked their usual incisiveness, and when finally clean through on goal in stoppage time, the 30 year old fluffed his lines. As for Messi, he was dire. The four time Ballon D’or winner spent the most important period of the game: extra time skulking around the turf in a manner befitting a lost looking Sunday League player, not the greatest Footballer in the World.

After a slightly less dreary period of Extra Time, the game would be decided by the terrible lottery that is a penalty shootout; a fitting conclusion considering the two sides had been impossible to separate in a mind-numbingly dull 120 minutes. Argentina had taken 8 shots to The Netherlands’ 7, each side had forced 4 corners and possession was split narrowly: 53% to 47% in favour of the Dutch. The Dutch might have fancied themselves having come through against plucky little Costa Rica via a shootout in the quarter-finals, but this time they were missing their trump card. Having run out of substitutions to make, Luis Van Gaal could not opt to bring on Tim Krul, the lanky Newcastle keepers’ heroics against Costa Rica have been well documented; Van Gaal lauded as a tactical genius for the switch. Instead the Dutch would have to turn to Jasper Cillessen to play the role of shootout hero, the Ajax shot stopper had never saved a penalty in his career heading into this evening’s semi-final. If you believe in signs there are none more ominous than that.

Netherlands began the shootout in the worst way possible, Aston Villa Centre Back Ron Vlaar who had been outstanding all game stepped forward, his tame effort down the middle was scooped up by Argentina’s much maligned keeper Sergio Romero. Messi then then coolly converted his spot kick to put his side into a lead they would not relinquish. Romero’s  second save in the shootout, denying Wesly Sneijder was simply outstanding; he hauled his frame into the top corner; keeping Sneijder out to all but quash the Dutch hopes of a comeback. It was then down to Maxi Rodriguez to do the honours, the most important kick of his career saw him send Argentina into their 4th World Cup Final; their first trip to the big dance since 1990. Messi and co celebrated jubilantly, but deep down they know they will need to find another dimension, and step it up a notch to defeat Germany in the final. Alejandro Sabella’s men no doubt watched the German’s ruthless 7-1 destruction of Brazil with trepidation. So far in the World Cup they’ve survived, finding a way to subdue all comers. They will do need to do more than survive on Sunday however, if they wish to clinch the World Cup trophy for the first time since 1986.


Grit, Guts and Glory: Djokovic wins a dramatic Wimbledon Final

Djoko wimbyStepping onto Centre Court for the Wimbledon Final this afternoon was a homecoming of sorts for the great Roger Federer, a seven time Champion at the All England Club. The 32 year old Swiss Maestro was back at the scene of his greatest triumphs, determined to turn back the clock one final time and become the oldest Wimbledon Champion since tennis’ open era began in 1969. Sadly, it was not to be. In a glorious five set duel, his opponent Novak Djokovic played the role of gallant gate crasher to perfection defeating his adversary 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4.

Djokovic and Federer, universally recognised as two of the greatest players ever to wield a racket engaged in an enthralling contest, from the first ball to the last. Djokovic, a speedy and athletic baseliner pitted his skills against Federer, a free flowing attacking genius. The first set culminated in a tie-break, which Federer snatched by 9 points to 7 after Djokovic dumped a backhand in the net. Federer had drawn first blood. Following the most testing 12 month period of his career in which the words “retirement” and “decline” swirled around his press conferences, the 32 year old legend had shown he was prepared to dig deep in what was fast becoming a dog fight.

Inevitably, Djokovic the most resilient competitor in tennis fought back in the second set. A fall by Djokovic at 0-1 mirrored a tumble he took earlier in the tournament against Gilles Simon in the third round, and foreshadowed the match’s end result. Djokovic had hit the deck but he would clamber off the turf and keep on fighting. He managed to break Federer’s serve at 1-1 and proceeded to take the second set 6-4. Disconcertingly for Federer he had not played badly at all, Djokovic was simply too consistent and too accurate from the backcourt. In extended baseline rallies he hardly missed; finding the corners of the court with startling accuracy.

Neither man would let up or surrender ground in the match’s pivotal third set, which once again headed for a tie-break. Djokovic, fuelled by the desire to avoid losing a fourth grand slam final in a row punctured Federer’s resolve, taking the breaker 7 points to 4. Daylight at last, he had finally pinned his old foe down, the end was in sight. The 27 year old Serb opened up a seemingly unassailable lead serving for the match at 5-3 in the fourth set. It was then time stood still. Was this 2014 or 2004 when Federer was in his pomp? Federer broke serve, pulling Djokovic out wide and sending him sprawling on the lawn before steering a forehand down the line into the open court for a winner. Vintage Federer, and he was only getting started. The Swiss fourth seed then saved a match point 4-5 down with an ace, that the hawk eye challenge system declared had caught the back end of the service line; landing in by a fraction. Djokovic was beginning to tighten up whilst Federer was in the ascendency; he reeled off two more games to take the fourth set 7-5 forcing the match into a decider.

For the first time since Federer escaped Andy Roddick in the longest Wimbledon Final on record in 2009, the most sought after prize in tennis would be decided in a fifth set. The match was now a titanic clash of wills; Djokovic was driven by the sting of failure, he could not fathom the prospect of losing in yet another grand slam final. Federer on the other hand was motivated by history, the greatest tennis player of all time looking to add to his record tally of 17 Slam titles. Federer’s season had been building up to this very moment, geared towards reclaiming a trophy he won on five consecutive occasions from 2003-08, was this to be his momentous homecoming? Early on in the set it looked to be the case; Federer who had only dropped serve once in the tournament heading into the final was playing his slashing brand of attacking tennis with assurance, moving forward to the net whenever possible. He held serve to love twice early on in the final set. However, Federer wasn’t confronted by a man willing to let him stride into the history books and secure title number eight; he was against Novak Djokovic the most resilient match player of his generation. Time and time again the Serb has found an unnatural second wind in matches from a losing position, and once more this would be the case. Serving to stay in the match at 4-5 down the Swiss Legend cracked. The final point of the match saw him send a backhand into the net to give Djokovic a hard fought victory. Centre Court had just witnessed a marvellous display of grit and guts from two legends, but cruelly there could only be one winner.

The Young and the Reckless: Kyrgios the Kid stuns Nadal in an upset for the ages at Wimbledon

Young, brash and bold, 19 year old Australian Wild Card Nick Kyrgios sprung the upset of the decade this afternoon on Centre Court, defeating World Number One Rafael Nadal 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3.

Nick who?  Many of the 15,000 in attendance may have asked prior to the contest, they soon found out. Kyrgios announced his arrival amongst the tennis elite in stunning fashion, his performance at times as insolent as it was breathtaking. Nadal a 14 time Grand Slam Champion one of the most indomitable competitors tennis has ever seen, swept aside by a Wild Card, how could it be?  Young and reckless, Kyrgios showed no respect for Nadal’s achievements from the outset. The very first point set the tone for the contest- Kyrgios banged an ace. One of the 37 untouchable serves he would hit over the course of the afternoon. Kyrgios is a man with a big game and even bigger personality. Standing at a gangly 6 ft 4 and sporting a flashy haircut he yelled, fist pumped and celebrated with a level of exuberance Centre Court has not seen in years- youthful abandon at its finest. As the first set entered a tie-break it became increasingly clear Kyrgios had not come to lie down, take the plaudits and head home back to Canberra. He had come to win.

The Australian continued to serve emphatically, snatching the first set tie-break 7-5. It was okay, Nadal would come back, he was simply sizing his opponent up and coming to grips with the Australian’s game before mounting another herculean escape effort. At least that’s what the script read.

As he had done in his three previous matches at this year’s Championships, Nadal looked to rally from a set to love down. He finally made inroads on the 19 year old’s serve at 6-5 in the second set; breaking to level the match at 1 set apiece. If Kyrgios dropped his head, slumped his shoulders and succumbed to defeat at this point his efforts would have been lauded. After all in his first appearance at Wimbledon, ranked 144th in the World he had made the last 16, showing remarkable poise and fighting spirit for a man of his age- he saved an astonishing 9 match points in his victory over Richard Gasquet in the second round.

As the third set unfolded it looked as if Kyrgios was starting to tire. Nadal was beginning to impose his will on the match, running his opponent side to side more often in extended baseline exchanges whilst serving with confidence and precision. Rafa had momentum experience on his side, but as fate would have it, on this historic late afternoon experience and momentum went out the window. Krygios hung tough as the third set headed into another tie-break, he then proceeded to push forward and place himself on the cusp of a legendary victory, out serving and out hitting Nadal on his way to a 2 sets to 1 lead. With the end in sight, Kyrgios continued in the manner he had started the match- emphatic and aggressive. He pounded his way to a 5-3 4th set lead and now he would serve for one of the most momentous victories of all time. The 19 year old unfazed, insolent, and as brash as ever, arrived at match point and finished with you guessed it- another thunderous ace the exclamation mark on an otherworldly performance

Finally. At long last men’s tennis has another teenage phenom. The boyhood champion is a dying breed in a modern game based around power and physical fitness, Kyrgios may not be a champion yet; but he certainly played like one today. His booming serve and towering physique are reminiscent of the last ever teenager to win the Men’s Singles Title at Wimbledon: Boris Becker who marched to the title in 1985. Today wasn’t just a win for Kyrgios it was a victory for the ATP tour which is in desperate need of a shot in the arm and some fresh young talent at the top of the sport. Young and reckless Kyrgios has hit the fast forward button, the future starts now.

Class Divide: Brilliant Suarez brings England to the brink in Brazil

World Class. Two words frequently used to describe Luis Suarez and more importantly, the two words that separated England and Uruguay in Sao Paulo last night. The Liverpool striker’s double helped his side to a 2-1 victory, leaving England staring into the abyss of elimination in the group stage of the World Cup for the first time since 1958.

Following a defeat by the same scoreline against Italy on Saturday night in Manaus, England went into this yesterday evenings’ skirmish with Uruguay knowing another loss would all but extinguish their chances of escaping the group stages. They also knew they were up against a Uruguayan side bolstered by the return of their talisman Luis Suarez, back to full fitness following key hole surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee. Rather than immediately rise to the occasion, Roy Hodgson’s men began tentatively. England lacked the verve and attacking flair they displayed early on against the Italians. Nerves? Perhaps. 19 year old starlet Raheem Sterling, whose darting runs and raw pace impressed in England’s group opener was stifled by the Uruguay back four who gave him scarcely any room to breathe. Let alone dash into space and supply the likes of Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge. You could sense the games cagey first half hour better suited the grizzled, experienced Uruguayan’s, and it was the South American’s who struck first. Mere moments after Wayne Rooney’s headed effort met the woodwork, the nation’s worst fears were realised. That man, Luis Suarez found the back of the net. The first of two costly English defensive errors saw Suarez nod home from close range directing Edison Cavani’s inch perfect cross beyond Joe Hart with 39 minutes played. Everton centre back Phil Jagielka was caught cold, allowing Suarez to ghost into the open space and put his side ahead.

Buoyed by opening the scoring, Uruguay began the second half on the front foot. Cavani came close, clean through on goal he dragged his shot wide of Hart. Where was the English fight back, the desire and spirit of 1966? It came in the 75th minute, a surging run by Glen Johnson culminated in an inviting cross into the box which was met by Rooney, who steered the ball home to level the match at 1-1. Rooney, a man much maligned for his recent performances in an England shirt and lacklustre record at major tournaments (he had never scored a world cup goal before tonight) reignited English hopes. For the first time in the game, England began to pressurise their opponents, sending hopeful crosses towards the opposition penalty area time and time again. However, they lacked the end product to match their efforts. With 85 minutes on the clock and the game delicately poised, Suarez a man who seems to play the role of pantomime villain with a real relish, was on hand to strike again. England Captain Steven Gerrard’s failure to deal with a long ball over the top enabled his Liverpool team mate to rush through the heart of the English defence, firing an accurate right footed effort into the top corner to snatch victory for Uruguay.

Suarez’s heroics combined with another frustrating showing by our beloved Three Lions help to underline a fact that was painfully obvious before the tournament even began. This young cohort of players for all their talent, lacks the killer instinct and experience that clinches tight games like this last nights affair. They aren’t well and truly World Class yet. As the final whistle sounded, Suarez was hoisted into the air by his team mates and rightfully so. After all he stood head and shoulders above an England side that despite their best efforts; are not quite ready to topple the powerhouses of international football. Call it is a class divide.



Pinnacle Pacman? Not quite, but good enough: Pacquaio bests Bradley in Welterweight Title Rematch

Only true sporting legends can delay the onset of father time. Last night 35 year old Filipino boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao proved this once again, defeating Timothy Bradley a man five years his junior in a hotly anticipated WBO Welterweight Title Rematch. Make no mistake about it, Pacquiao is not the same fighter who blasted his way to world titles in a record eight weight divisions, dismantling some of his generation’s most decorated fighters in the process. Nevertheless, his measured and at times dominant display against an unbeaten, high calibre opponent in Bradley screamed “I’m not done yet!”

The narrative heading into Pacquiao vs Bradley II set the scene for a heated, high stakes encounter. The first time the pair stepped into the ring on June 9th 2012, Bradley was awarded a controversial split decision, much to the chagrin of not only the fans in attendance but seemingly everyone and anyone around the sport of Boxing. In the two years between their first and second bouts Pacquiao and Bradley’s Imagefortunes have contrasted massively. Bradley evolved from an unheralded fighter into one of Boxing’s recognised pound for pound best. He showed extraordinary guts and determination in his first outing after the Pacquiao controversy, winning a  bruising war against hard hitting Russian Ruslan Provodnikov ; enduring multiple knockdowns on his way to a unanimous decision. Pacman on the other hand tasted yet another defeat, a frightening knockout at the hands of Mexican legend Juan Manuel Marquez, who to make matters worse, Bradley went on to comprehensively beat a year later. Although he ended his run of consecutive defeats with a win over Brandon Rios in Macau China, Pacquiao’s inability to knock Rios out drew a collective sigh from Boxing’s cognoscenti. Questions began to be raised: had age completely caught up with a man who at his best was the most devastating boxer of his generation? A politician, devoted Christian and family man, had Pacquiao outgrown the sport of boxing? Had the killer extinct that famously saw him leave Ricky Hatton a crumpled mess on the canvas left the Filipino ?

Once the bell rang for a return bout with Bradley these questions were emphatically answered. It became clear Manny may be old but he certainly isn’t finished. Bradley applied pressure on his opponent in the opening rounds of the fight taking up a much more aggressive approach than in their first meeting, making for some exciting back and forth action. As the fight wore on however, Bradley went from measured and effective to inefficient and clumsy (he later cited a calf injury as the reason for slowing down); the Californian missed a number of wild, looping right hands whilst Pacquiao dominated the middle to late rounds with vintage flurries and combination punching. The knockout both fighters promised in the pre-fight pageantry and build up may not have arrived but in the eyes of many, justice was served. As Pacquiao knelt in his corner following the fight, the scorecards read 116-112, 116-112 and 118-110 in his favour- vindication at last. A step slower, but wiser and more tactically astute, Pacquaio may be far from the peak of his powers but he still is a notch above your average prize-fighter.

Stan of Steel: Wawrinka snatches Australian Open Title

Stanislas Wawrinka is the 2014 Australian Open Men’s Singles Champion. In the minds of many heading into today’s final this was an improbable result. Each and every statistic seemed tilted in favour of his opponent; 27 year old 13 time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal. Rafa led the pair’s head to head 12-0 with 0 sets lost and looked primed to continue his domination of his 28 year old opponent, not to mention his sprint into the record books. Victory would have made Nadal the first since 1969 (the beginning of the open era) to have won each grand slam at least twice. The stage was set for a bout of superlatives surrounding another legendary Nadal display. What we didn’t count on heading into the match was the law that governs all sport: anything can happen. Despite a courageous performance, Nadal succumbed to back spasms and an opponent whose play at times was nothing short of pulverising.

Carrying momentum and confidence as a result of his epic quarter-final win over many people’s pre-tournament favourite Novak Djokovic (9-7 in the fifth set), Wawrinka started his first ever grand slam final without a trace of nerves. He harassed Nadal with booming strikes off both his backhand and forehand wings, rushing out to a 4-1 first set lead. He then closed out the set in emphatic fashion: hammering an ace out wide to claim the opener 6-3.

Rather than let up, Wawrinka began to loosen up in the second set. He broke Nadal’s serve once more with a picturesque backhand return winner, spread-eagled on the stretch. The whispers of an upset were beginning to become rumblings. Then came the pivotal moment in the match – after netting a forehand at 30-0 up while 0-2 down in the second set, Nadal immediately clutched his back wincing. Although he managed to win the game the signs were ominous. The world number one took a medical time out that angered not only Wawrinka but also the crowd who proceeded to boo him when he returned to the court.  Was this a ploy to waste time and halt an in form opponent?

The answer to that question was provided instantly, Nadal’s physical struggles were painfully obvious to see. He began to pump in first serves at pedestrian speeds and his movement was limp and slow; 6-2 Second Set Wawrinka. “Give Up” cried a member of the crowd Nadal, beaten and battered must have been tempted to do just that and become the first man to retire in an Aussie Open final since 1990, but then he wouldn’t be the great champion that he is. What followed was one of the most bizarre sets of tennis in recent memory. Wawrinka flustered by his opponent’s refusal to give in began to lose his hold on the match and seemingly his mind too. As Stan began to disintegrate Nadal forced his way back into the contest; a slew of unforced errors by Wawrinka combined with a series of blistering winners by the Spaniard who had no choice but to go for broke resulted in a 33 minute surprise third set for Nadal.

With Nadal surging Wawrinka needed to re-assert his dominance in the fourth set and take home the Norman Brooks Challenge Cup before things got messier. That’s exactly what he did – the Swiss struck a forehand up the line to break serve in the 6th game of the set and inch into a 4-2 lead. But Nadal clung on, delaying the inevitable with a final bout of resistance. He broke back immediately to win what would be his last game of the match. Then with the score at 4-3 Wawrinka once again pounded Nadal with a forehand down the line for a 5-3 lead. When his three match points arose; Wawrinka seized the first with, you guessed it, another forehand down the line past his helpless opponent.

Wawrinka’s celebrations at the end of this dramatic battle were muted. His achievement however cannot be understated. Under the guidance of his coach Magnus Norman, Wawrinka has found the mental strength to crack the code and become the first man outside of tennis’s’ “big four” to win a grand slam this decade. His forearm tattoo reads: ”Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” It has served him well. The man dubbed “Stanimal” for his ferociously aggressive tennis has been much maligned throughout his career. Seemingly content as Swiss Number 2 and a sidekick to the legendary Roger Federer, he finally emerged from his compatriot’s shadow, blasting his way into the limelight to claim a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory.


Floyd Mayweather vs Saul “Canelo” Alvarez Video Preview

September 14th it’s on. Boxing’s pound for pound number 1 Floyd Mayweather (44-0) will duel with the rising Mexican phenom Saul “Canelo” Alvarez (42-0-1) at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The hype level is off the charts for what will be the biggest fight of the year, with several box office records under threat. This preview video created by the the formidable Gorilla Productions does the fight justice.