Premier League 2020/21: January

Premier League 2020/21: January

It was a January with a difference entering 2021 as we had very few big signings during the transfer window, with the ongoing pandemic seeing teams more focused on getting unnecessary costs off their books and loans from other English clubs as opposed to spending big money on new names from the continent.

On the pitch, Liverpool’s 68-game unbeaten run in the Premier League at Anfield came to an end with a 0-1 loss to Burnley, while a draw against Manchester United – who themselves lost to Sheffield United during the month – and a loss at Southampton saw the defending Champions drop behind both Manchester Clubs, as Pep Guardiola’s City’s improved form saw them end the month top of the league.

Wins over United and Newcastle were not enough to lift Sheffield United off the bottom of the table, as Fulham and West Brom also started to pick up more points. However, it’s not looking good for any of these teams as they all finished the month some way from safety and begging for a miracle, as well as the safe return of fans to stadiums.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 15 goals; Son Heung-Min & Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 12 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 11 assists; Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) – 10 assists; Jack Grealish (Aston Villa) – 9 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 12 clean sheets; Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa) – 10 clean sheets; Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 9 clean sheets


Loss of the legend

On 25ᵗʰ January, Blues legend Frank Lampard was dismissed from his role as manager of Chelsea after a run of 8 league matches with just 2 wins, with his replacement Thomas Tuchel announced the next day. While there is a standard that the big teams expect, it feels like this was just another example of panicking at the first sign of trouble.

Lampard hasn’t been given a fair shot. Last season, he had to contend with a transfer ban and the loss of star player Eden Hazard, but utilised a squad of young English players to finish 4ᵗʰ – probably outperforming their own expectations – but some of their big summer signings have struggled to adapt to the league at a time when things are already weird enough with no fans in the stadium. These are strange times, so to let go of Lampard the first time his team has hit a bad patch seems an overreaction, especially when you look at how other teams have gone through similar bad spells this season and made their way back to the top of the table.

You could definitely argue that Lampard was given a big job too early in his managerial career, but after doing so, he should have been given the time to work with his squad and get through this tough time. Give it a year or two and they’ll be looking for Tuchel’s replacement, while Lampard will probably be getting the respect he deserves at another club.

Keep your distance

One of the crazy things in January was the call that players have to remain socially distanced when celebrating. While it has led to some fun celebrations – James Maddison’s 1 metre distant handshakes has been a personal favourite – this rule seems to have been largely ignored. And to be honest, I can completely understand why.

In a game where it’s apparently legal to crowd the referee to get a decision you want or to wrestle players to the ground in the box as a dead ball is played in, not being able to celebrate with your teammates – who you will be around all match and in training anyway – is just ridiculous

If there is that much of a worry about passing on the virus then the games should not be going ahead. And if it is merely to set an example to the public, then that is pathetic as there is a big difference between 2 elite athletes celebrating within their team and me breaching lockdown by going round to Joe Schmoe’s house for a party.

Too soft

Manchester United’s shock loss at home to Sheffield United highlighted an issue that seriously needs looking at: the way goalkeepers are protected. For Sheffield’s opener, David de Gea was clearly impeded from competing at the corner by getting pushed from behind as he went to jump, yet this was deemed fair contact and the goal was allowed to stand. And yet a little later in the game, Anthony Martial had an equaliser ruled out for Harry Maguire supposedly fouling keeper Aaron Ramsdale, though replays showed that it was clearly the keeper coming forward who initiated the contact.

To me, keepers get far too much protection in this day and age. When you consider that they are the only players allowed to use their hands, so should in theory be able to get to the ball before a striker’s head, it seems laughable that they will usually get a free kick in their favour the moment an opposition player comes within 3 feet of them, and I can’t help feel that this is (at least in part) behind the drop in quality of goalkeeping, as too many of them expect help from the officials, so then struggle if put under pressure legally.

To me, the keepers need to be treated no differently to the other 20 players on the pitch, but then as an aside to this, all the shenanigans that go on in the box at a set piece need to be eradicated.


Team of the Month

Manchester City

This month’s selection was easy as only Manchester City went the month with a 100% winning record. The Citizens went 4 from 4 in the league while also winning all their cup games – including a potential banana skin in Cheltenham Town. Not only that, but despite having played so much of the season without a recognised striker, they managed an aggregate score of 13-1 over those 4 games, as the recovered from an awful first half of the season to reach the top of the table by the end of the month.

Their oft-suspect defence has solidified, with John Stones finally showing the form that earned him a move to the Etihad, while players like Phil Foden and İlkay Gündoğan have stepped up to replace the stars who have moved on or been unavailable.

If City go on to win the league this season, January will be looked back on as a crucial month.


feat football prem league logo blue

The Wrong Move?

The Wrong Move?

This weekend just gone, myself and a group of fellow Pistol Shrimps found ourselves on a Zoom call to wish a teammate a happy birthday, and talk invariably turned to the future. May 2021 should have seen the Shrimps competing in their 10ᵗʰ Aber 7s, but the COVID-19 pandemic has left us stuck on 8, with last year’s tournament cancelled and this year’s likely not going ahead either.

And yet the professional tournaments for “elite” players continue, despite people going down with COVID left, right and centre. Squads are currently being named for the Six Nations, despite the most recent 2 rounds of European rugby being canned due to France taking a stand against the pandemic. The whole build-up seems like a farce and after the boredom of the Autumn Nations Cup – with it’s empty stadiums and matches cancelled due to COVID outbreaks – I have never found myself less enthused about the start of the Six Nations.

I am a die-hard rugby fan, but right here, right now, the health of the population – in every country – is much more important. And yet as each round of Premiership rugby goes on, we hear of more players testing positive. Celebrations for scoring a try become limited, but if you can’t high five someone from your own bubble, why should you be able to scrum down against someone from outside your bubble? I understand that rugby needs to keep going as much as possible to avoid financial trouble, but the league is a farce when teams are getting more points for having to cancel due to COVID than teams who are successfully avoiding outbreaks, while the wrong people having to isolate can prove costly.

To me, rugby should be stopping its elite competitions right now and creating more localised bubbles containing a handful of local teams (Premiership teams could link with Championship teams) for smaller exhibition tournaments and effectively use this season as a long preseason ahead of next season, by which point we should be in a better place.

Taking players to the Six Nations is just a recipe for spreading the disease among a wider group, so I sincerely feel that the Six Nations should be missed this year, and I also find it hard to imagine that rugby will be ready for the Lions Tour to South Africa in the summer.

 

Right now, it’s hard to feel that professional rugby has any credibility, with money appearing to be much more important than health, safety or even the integrity of the game. I can’t help feel that if we look back at the end of 2021, I can’t help feel that we would agree that a break from competition ended up being the right call.

In the meantime, I will just continue to look ahead to the return of the COVID-free Super Rugby Aotearoa.

A Tour Like No Other

A Tour Like No Other

After a 2-month delay and fears throughout of an enforced early finish, the 2020 edition of the Tour de France has come and gone. 176 riders started the race and 146 successfully completed the 3484.2km route around France. the 21 stages were won by 15 different riders, while the coveted maillot jaune was held by 5 different riders.

The winners

cycling tour de france 2020 pogacar bennett

So it’s safe to say that I got my prediction wrong here, with only 1 of my top 3 even making the podium. Following stints in yellow for Alexander Kristoff, Julian Alaphilippe and Adam Yates, it was no shock to see Primož Roglič take the yellow jersey on Stage 9. Tadej Pogačar had lost 1′ 21″ in the crosswinds of Stage 7, and while he made up some time on Roglič with a couple of stage victories, he could not crack his countryman and looked destined to finish 2ⁿᵈ in the GC until a crazy uphill time trial on Stage 20 saw him turn a 57 second deficit into a 59 second lead with just the procession into Paris remaining to win the yellow jersey competition (and white jersey for young rider) in his first Tour de France, with Roglič finishing 2ⁿᵈ and Richie Porte finally making a Tour de France Podium after years of bad luck.

In the green jersey competition, Alexander Kristoff won the opening stage and held the green jersey for the first couple of days until Peter Sagan took the lead in the Points Classification on Stage 3. The Slovak had won the green jersey every year since 2012 (save 2017, when he was thrown out the race for causing Mark Cavendish to crash), but found himself in a fight with Irishman Sam Bennett, who had left Bora–Hansgrohe for Deceuninck–Quick-Step because Sagan got priority over him. Stage 11 effectively ended Sagan’s hopes of retaining the green jersey, as in a 4-way sprint between him, Bennett, Caleb Ewan and Wout van Aert, he used excessive force on the Jumbo–Visma rider, resulting in his 2ⁿᵈ-place finish being discounted as he was relegated to the back of the peloton and docked points. While he continued to fight, Bennett proved too strong and secured the green jersey, before ending his first Tour de France with the added highlight of winning the famous sprint on the Champs-Élysées.

Benoît Cosnefroy of AG2R La Mondiale held the polka dot jersey for the Mountains classification for much of the race, until the GC fight saw Pogačar take the jersey on Stage 17. Richard Carapaz’s attacks in the final week saw him take the jersey on Stage 18, but Pogačar’s success on the uphill time trial saw him secure his 3ʳᵈ classification of the Tour. Movistar won the Teams Classification for the 5ᵗʰ time in 6 years, while Marc Hirschi of Team Sunweb was rewarded with the Combativity Award following a number of breaks that saw him pushing for stage victories.

cycling tour de france 2020 podium roglic pogacar porte

General Classification:

  1. Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) – UAE Team Emirates – 87h 20′ 05″
  2. Primož Roglič (Slovenia) – Team Jumbo–Visma   + 00′ 59″
  3. Richie Porte (Australia) – Trek–Segafredo   + 03′ 30″

Points Classification:

  1. Sam Bennett (Ireland) – Deceuninck–Quick-Step – 380 points
  2. Peter Sagan (Slovakia) – Bora–Hansgrohe – 284 points
  3. Matteo Trentin (CCC Pro Team) – CCC Pro Team – 260 points

Mountains Classification:

  1. Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) – UAE Team Emirates – 82 points
  2. Richard Carapaz (Ecuador) – Ineos Grenadiers – 74 points
  3. Primož Roglič (Slovenia) – Team Jumbo–Visma – 67 points

Young Rider Classification:

  1. Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) – UAE Team Emirates – 87h 20′ 05″
  2. Enric Mas (Spain) – Movistar Team   + 06′ 07″
  3. Valentin Madouas (France) – Groupama–FDJ  + 1h 42′ 43″

Teams Classification:

  1. Movistar Team – 262h 14′ 58″
  2. Team Jumbo–Visma  + 18′ 31″
  3. Team Bahrain–McLaren  + 57′ 10″

Top Teams of the Tour

While Ineos Grenadiers grew into the race (except Egan Bernal) and Bora–Hansgrohe did a great job to energise some stages to help Peter Sagan in his chase for the green jersey, but there were 3 teams that really stood out to me on the Tour.

Team Jumbo–Visma came with arguably the strongest line-up of any team with former Grand Tour winners Primož Roglič & Tom Dumoulin, while George Bennett and Robert Gesink both have top 10 GC finishes in previous Grand Tours, Sepp Kuss is currently one of the form climbers since the resumption of races and Wout van Aert is arguably the best all-round rider in pro cycling at the moment, with an engine that never gives up and the ability to help power the peloton along all day then still fight it out with specialised sprinters. While individuals had the occasional off day, the team barely put a foot wrong, ruling the front of the peloton in a way that appeared even more dominant than what we are used to from watching Team Sky/Ineos over the last 5 years, and it was only on the time trial – where nobody could help Roglič – that the Slovenian cracked to lose what had just hours earlier looked to be a certain Grand Tour victory. The team came away with 3 stage victories (including 2 sprints for van Aert) and had a handful of other top 3 finishes.

cycling tour de france 2020 jumbo visma

Some of Bora–Hansgrohe’s moves may have caused issues for Deceuninck–Quick-Step, but Sam Bennett’s team did what they had to in order to wrest the green jersey away from Peter Sagan. While id didn’t ever feel like they were controlling the front of the peloton in the final 5 with dominant trains like in previous years, the entire team worked hard to look after Sam Bennett through the mountains and positioning him in the right places to attack the bunch sprint. What helped Bennett’s green jersey campaign so much was his lead-out man Michael Mørkøv. The Dane did so well to consistently get in the right position to lead Bennett out rather than force him onto the wheel of another sprinter, but even after he released Bennett he would keep riding as hard as he could like a 2ⁿᵈ sprinter, getting amongst Bennett’s rivals at both the end of the race and intermediate sprints and limiting the points available to those looking to compete against Bennett.

cycling tour de france 2020 deceuninck-quickstep

But to me, the team of the Tour – and the one that probably gained the support of many neutral fans – was Team Sunweb. While sprinter Cees Bol had a limited impact, Sunweb used clever tactics to great success. Marc Hirshci had some great success getting up the road, only to agonisingly lose in 2 sprints against GC opposition, before finally winning from a break in the middle of Stage 12. Even after this, he continued to fight and was unfortunate to crash on a descent in Stage 18 that ruled him out of competing for the stage win, but still finished in 3ʳᵈ on the stage. His success in the breaks saw him finish 4ᵗʰ in the Mountains Classifiaction. But it wasn’t just Hirschi who was the benefit of Sunweb’s tactics, as Søren Kragh Andersen was able to get away late on Stages 14 and 19 to provide the team 2 more stage wins. They may not have been in the hunt for the Points Classification or GC, but they certainly made the Tour a more enjoyable affair and in Hirschi and Andersen gave neutrals someone to cheer for as they did everything they could to convert their attacks into stage wins.

cycling tour de france 2020 sunweb

Silver linings to an Ineos cloud

Whether they are going by Team Sky, Team Ineos or now Ineos Grenadiers, one thing will never change: they are coming to a Grand Tour looking to win the GC. Unfortunately, none of their 3 prospective leaders (Egan Bernal, Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas) were at their best and the ne closest to being ready (Bernal) found himself struggling to stick with Roglič and abandoned after Stage 16, having fallen out of GC contention.

While this brought an end to the chances of a 6ᵗʰ consecutive Tour de France GC victory, there were certainly silver linings for the team. Despite being injured in multiple falls during a rain-drenched opening stage, Pavel Sivakov completed the race and made the top 10 in the Young Rider Classification and remains a hope for the future. Meanwhile without a leader to protect, Richard Carapaz showed his quality in the late mountain stages to put himself in with a shot of winning the Mountains Classification, while he could have had a stage win had he not allowed ever-reliable Michał Kwiatkowski to cross the line first on Stage 18 for his first ever stage victory at the Tour.

cycling tour de france 2020 ineos carapaz kwiatkowski

And for those who think this is the end of the success for Ineos Grenadiers, think again! Froome may be leaving at the end of the season, but they still have 3 proven Grand Tour winners in Bernal, Thomas and Carapaz and a strong team with some younger riders like Sivakov who will only get better, while they are bringing in some great talent in Andrey Amador, Rohan Dennis and Adam Yates, as well as some young Brits.

The good, the bad and the ugly

As is always the case, the Tour gave us some beautiful moments. From riders being overcome with emotion after winning stages to Julian Alaphilippe dedicating his stage win to his father, who had died on the day that the Tour was initially meant to start. Add in the usual beautiful scenery, some fun from some of the team’s Twitter accounts, Matteo Trentin channelling Michael Fish on Stage 1, Wout van Aert doing everything and a much-deserved stage win for Michał Kwiatkowski, and there is plenty to look back on fondly.

Unfortunately, as wonderful as the race was, it’s safe to say that there were some moments that really harmed my enjoyment.

First off was the support (or should I say lack of support) for Black Lives Matter. We have seen support from so many sports, for example in the Premier League (football), Premiership (rugby) and also Formula 1, which made the lack of support during the Tour even more conspicuous in its absence. If anything, this was highlighted even more by only 1 black rider (Kévin Reza of B&B Hotels–Vital Concept) in the peloton. It was great to see ITV run a feature highlighting black cyclists, but is that really enough? And then when we finally got an act of support for BLM on the final day, it was arguably worse than nothing at all, as all we had was pro-BLM messages or anti-racism messages written on masks that were removed before the race even started. Cycling needs to prove it doesn’t have a race problem, and step 1 is showing more suitable support for Black Lives Matter.

cycling tour de france 2020 BLM no to racism

Second was a horrible incident involving Romain Bardet. The AG2R La Mondiale rider went down heavy in a crash during Stage 13, but was helped back onto his bike and completed the stage, before abandoning with a suspected concussion that was revealed to be a “small haemorrhage”. The UCI regulations say the following regarding concussion: “All those in the presence of a rider and in particular all doctors and paramedical assistants shall be watchful for riders showing symptoms of concussion… Any rider with a suspected concussion should be immediately removed from the competition or training and urgently assessed medically.” Footage clearly showed Bardet fall down as he was helped to his feet immediately after the crash – more than enough of a warning sign for concussion – and yet he was heled straight back onto his bike to continue the race and nobody made any attempt to stop him for an assessment following this. I completely understand that as a GC rider, having to go through a medical assessment will make it impossible to catch up with the peloton and most likely bring an end to your GC hopes, but the health and safety of the riders should be paramount and come before the race. Hopefully it won’t take something more serious to see an increased focus on checking riders.

And finally, but sticking with the idea that the health and safety of the riders should be paramount, I come to the “fans” who think that it is OK to break protocols during a pandemic and get right in the face of riders without a mask on. As well as potentially creating a risk of interfering with the rider’s race, it is putting the in so much danger of falling ill and potentially spreading it amongst the team and potentially even the peloton. Even in a normal race I hate seeing crowds filling the road; with the ongoing pandemic, it leaves me so angry and nervous!

 

Well that’s the Tour over for another year, but the good news is that we still have 2 more Grand Tours coming up in the next few weeks, while next year’s Tour should be back at the usual dates so we won’t have to wait quite as long as usual for it.

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

Post-Lockdown Blues

Post-Lockdown Blues

We’re 3 rounds into the return of Premiership Rugby following the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and if I’m being completely honest, I couldn’t care less! Almost as soon as the competition went on hiatus, my feelings were that the season should just be considered null and void and preparations should be made for the 2020/21 season. And while I have really tried to give the competition a chance, the action we’re seeing is making me feel that I was right.

feat rugby sale gloucester lineout

The season should have been over months ago, so in order to cause minimal disruption to the next season, the remaining games are being crammed into the shortest time possible. While this may work fr a limited contact game like football, the body needs time to recover and this is a nightmare for player well-being, as teams are having up to 3 matches in a week. What this is leading to is heavy rotation within teams between matches, and this has taken away any point of these games being competitive. Bristol’s rotation saw them put out a largely 2ⁿᵈ string (if no weaker) side against a Sale team that was close to its ideal XV. That Sale ran away with the game says nothing about their ability and everything about the lineups being used, while we had similar in Exeter’s demolition of Worcester and Bath’s win at Leicester. Even in Gloucester’s match against Tigers this weekend, the game was a rout in the first half until Tigers brought their stars off the bench and Gloucester took their big names off to keep them fresh. Yes, we as fans want to see tries, but we don’t want to see a team having a glorified training session running though a vastly inferior lineup. Alex Shaw put it best on Twitter when he asked if the integrity of the individual matches being sacrificed (uneven squads) to maintain integrity of the competition (play whole fixture list), and I can’t help feel that the answer is yes, which as a result is ruining the spectacle of such a good competition, while now a team may also make the playoffs thanks to playing a number of weakened teams at the expense of a better team who continually faced XVs that were close to the ideal selection. There is no easy way to get around all this, and it will leave questions over whoever wins the competition, which could have been avoided by having an extended preseason to prepare for 2020/21.

feat rugby bristol gloucester 3

Considering the amount of international rugby coming in the next 12 months – the Home Nations have the Autumn Tests, Summer Tests, the remains of the 2020 Six Nations, the 2021 Six Nations and the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa – the rest caused by a longer preseason would have benefited everybody, while also allowing players to adapt to the new interpretation of the breakdown, which has only further ruined the early weeks of matches as penalties are given continuously while players learn the limits of the officials’ tolerance.

feat rugby kingsholm gloucester main stand west terrace

The issue of player selection doesn’t even just come down to squad rotation, but also the players available to pick from. Due to the season having gone longer than usual, player contracts expired, and that has led to a number of players moving clubs mid-season (like Ben Spencer’s transfer from Saracens to Bath), leaving the league altogether (Will Skelton), signing short-term contracts to stay with the club until the end of the current season (Franco Marais), signing short-term deals with a new club until the end of this season (Matt Garvey, who is currently with Gloucester after leaving Bath) or entering the league midway through the season (Jonny Gray). Even the players Saracens are loaning out when they are in the Championship next season are already playing for their new clubs! What this has led to is completely different squads – especially when you look at the turnover at a club like Leicester – competing in this final stretch of the season, including the playoffs, and giving a completely different feel to this final stretch. You just have to look at Northampton’s struggles since the restart after being one of the best teams in the league pre-COVID to see how heavily impacted this season has been, and as such it doesn’t feel like a continuation of what came before.

feat rugby twickenham stoop

Obviously, I understand that with a league that is not ring-fenced, I understand that usually the league season would need to be completed if only to see who would be relegated, but this season that was not an issue as Saracens were already officially relegated as their punishment for years of cheating by breaching the salary cap. I would argue that the Sarries case even added to the argument to make the season null and void as if you look back at the lineups they were putting out before the lockdown, they were heavily varied first as they looked to try building up enough points to avoid relegation despite the initial points deduction, before then resting a their first XV as they switched their attention to Europe. How would it have been fair if a spot in the playoff was decided by one team beating Sarries’ 3ʳᵈ XV while another lost to their 1ˢᵗ XV? With Saracens relegated, it would have been easy enough to declare the season null and void, relegate Saracens – with Newcastle coming up in their place – and then using last season’s standings (with teams below Saracens pushed up a spot) to decide who qualified for the 2020/21 Champions Cup. It may be harsh on teams who improved this year, but it seems that it would have been a fairer way to do things.

Feat rugby london irish gloucester lineout

Instead, we’re stuck watching 1ˢᵗ XVs piling on the points against glorified A-League lineups in empty grounds that takes away home advantage, while being forced to listen to awful manufactured crowd noise. Coming off the back of Super Rugby Aotearoa, it looks an absolute shambles.

feat rugby Twickenham WC england wales empty

Unfortunately, what is right is not he priority for the RFU or Premiership Rugby. We see all the time that the organisations only care about what will get them money or keep them safe, as seen by the loss of contracts for the England 7s program, or the way that deserving teams like Georgia never get a shot in Tier 1 tournaments but Japan buy their way into SANZAAR competitions. The league season is being finished, the competition put in jeopardy and players put at risk is just for money, and that has to change if we want the rugby to go to the next level.

feat rugby kingsholm panorama

Tour de France 2020: Preview

Tour de France 2020: Preview

We are just days away from the Grand Départ of the 2020 edition of the Tour de France. Usually the second of road cycling’s 3 Grand Tours to be raced each year, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in this being the first of the 3 this year, while the race itself has also been pushed back.

Saturday will see the beginning of 3470 kilometres being covered over a space of 23 days (21 stages and 2 rest days), with 22 teams of 8 riders rolling out of Nice and making their way around the country – mainly Southern and Eastern France this year – before 20ᵗʰ September’s ceremonial procession into Paris and the final sprint to down the Champs-Élysées. And when all is said and done, the best overall rider over the 3 weeks will be the yellow jersey and winner of the race’s General Classification.

COVID-19

This is going to be a very different race than usual due to the Coronavirus pandemic that has hit the world this year. The race was initially slated to start on the 27ᵗʰ June, so a delay of 2 months could lead to different conditions to usual as we find the race taking part later in the summer.

Further than that, every cyclist will find that their preparation for the race has been heavily disrupted, and it was clear in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné that a number of riders were not yet at their best. If some of the top teams find their riders not quite as conditioned as they hope, then don’t be surprised if some less fancied teams find themselves in a more competitive situation to usual.

It looks like the Tour is taking plenty of precautions to keep everybody safe, with a number of plans in place, including regular testing. Perhaps the most noticeable that could impact the race is that a team with 2 positive tests will be pulled out of the race. Imagine if with a couple of days left the overwhelming leader in the GC was pulled out of the race due to 2 members of the team testing positive. With all things considered, this year’s race will be anything but predictable!

feat cycling crowd

As an aside, we will also see the impact on the roads with much smaller crowds. While it is obviously going to be a shame to see less fans at the roadside, I can’t help but think that it may lead to a safer race on some f those hard climbs where we see the road reduced to a width of less than a metre due to the crowds pushing forward, making things dangerous for the riders, especially with the motorbikes carrying camera operators right next to them. While the images of Chris Froome running up Mont Ventoux will go down in history, the last thing we want is riders having their races ruined – or worse, their safety put at risk – by crowds flooding the roads the cyclists are trying to race on.

Clash of the Titans

Of the last 8 iterations of the Tour, the yellow jersey has been won by Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky) on 7 occasions, with their only miss in that time coming when Chris Froome was forced to retire injured in the first week. This year, Ineos may find their hopes of a 6ᵗʰ consecutive victory at risk, as they look to face a tough challenge from Team Jumbo-Visma.

It looked like Froome would have the ultimate trio of potential leaders in Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal, but neither of the Brits looked close to readiness at the Dauphiné and have been pulled out to focus on prepping to be the leaders at the Vuelta and Giro respectively. Meanwhile, even Bernal did not seem close to competing with Jumbo-Visma’s Primož Roglič on the tough climbs before being withdrawn with a back issue. Ineos have named a strong lineup regardless, but even key domestiques like Michał Kwiatkowski looked far from their best, putting a lot of pressure on Pavel Sivakov. The inclusion of 2019 Giro d’Italia winner Richard Carapaz looks a shrewd call as he can be a key domestique if the team chooses to go all-in on Bernal, or a viable leader himself if Bernal is struggling – expect to see him in a limited-effort role early in the race to keep him fresh to fight so that the team an go all-in on him if needed, or even to use him to pressure Bernal’s other GC rivals by sending him off the front. But what must also be noted is that this will be the team’s first Grand Tour since the passing of directeur sportif Nicolas Portal, who has been a key part of their success. Now under pressure from Jumbo-Visma, with some big names missing and questions over others, this will be a big test for Dave Brailsford’s team.

cycling Tour De France 2019 Ineos win

Team Jumbo-Visma are probably the only team who come close to being such a threat in the GC in recent years. Like Ineos, it looked like they would be riding the Tour with 3 potential leaders in Primož Roglič, Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk, however injury on the Dauphiné has robbed Kruijswijk of his spot, while Roglič also left the race early following a fall. However, the Slovenian’s injuries did not look too severe and his great ability on both the climbs and in time trials surely leaves him as the favourite, while Dumoulin will likely be used in a similar role to what I described for Carapaz. Beyond that, though, the Team Jumbo-Visma team is a well-oiled machine, with George Bennett often able to hold his own amongst the leaders on climbs and surely now taking more of a domestique role, while Sepp Kuss looks in great form and Wout van Aert appears to have an engine that others find near-impossible to match. Inexperience leading the race has cost them in the past, but don’t expect that to be an issue now.

Brit-watch

With Froome and Thomas withdrawn and Mark Cavendish not being selected by Bahrain-McLaren, British interest may not be as high as in recent years, but there are still 4 riders out there representing GB.

Reliable Luke Rowe is still there as road captain for Team Ineos. Don’t expect to see him in breaks or going for stage wins at any point, but if Bernal/Carapaz are to come away with the yellow jersey, he will have played a key role.

feat cycling silhouette

Mitchelton-Scott have brought one of the Yates twins, Adam, but they have already admitted that they will be going for stage wins rather than the yellow jersey. If he can pick his days right, he can certainly be a threat on the mountain stages.

Hugh Carthy is a strong rider who will likely be a key domestique for EF Pro Cycling if they hope to have any success with Rigoberto Urán or Dani Martinez, while Connor Swift will be making his Tour de France debut for Arkéa–Samsic, riding in support of Nairo Quintana.

All for one, and one for all?

It’s no surprise to see a strong list of Frenchmen on the start line for their home race, but what are the chances of a first French victory since Bernard Hinault in 1985?

Thibaut Pinot of Groupama-FDJ is probably the best bet of a victory and looked in good form at the Dauphiné, though he couldn’t get it right on the final stage. Julian Alaphilippe excited a nation with his performance in last year’s Tour and while he will probably fall off a little on the hardest mountains, he looked to be riding into form on the Dauphiné and will surely look to light up the race. Guillaume Martin is coming in off the back of a podium finish in the Dauphiné, but it’s hard to imagine that Team Cofidis have the strength to give him sufficient support to win the yellow jersey. The other notable French leader is Romain Bardet of Team Ag2r-La Mondiale, but he has never shown himself strong enough to win the Tour, with his time trials especially letting him down.

feat cycling river

What will be interesting to see though is if we get a repeat of the events of the final day of this year’s Dauphiné. With Martin unable to get away from Pinot, but Dani Martinez riding away, victory looked all-but assured for the Colombian. Alaphilippe had gone for the stage win but dropped away and was caught by a group of leaders: Tom Dumoulin, Pinot, Martin, Bardet and climber Warren Barguil. What followed was a beautiful moment as rather than try to hold with the group, Alaphilippe decided to spend his last energy taking a turn at the front of the group, effectively working as a domestique for his countrymen and apparently inspiring the other French riders to all ride as support for Pinot to help their countryman get the GC victory despite them all riding for different teams.

With Stage 19 being one for the sprinters, 20 a time trial and 21 the procession into Paris, if there is only one French hope for the yellow jersey, it would be beautiful to see something similar happening to create a team of super-domestiques to go against Ineos and Jumbo-Visma and bring success back to France. With the way 2020 is going, anything is possible!

Sprint finish

Despite Dylan Groenewegen and Fabio Jakobsen both missing following the horror crash at the Tour de Pologne, and Mark Cavendish missing out on selection, there is a strong field of sprinters here at the Tour.

Peter Sagan has won the green jersey in 7 of the last 8 years (the only time he didn’t was following his disqualification in 2017 following a crash with Mark Cavendish) and I honestly can’t see things being any different this year, as Bora–Hansgrohe are one of the stronger sprint teams, while Sagan is also one of the few sprinters that will also be able to cope with the more minor climbs, allowing him to pick up extra points on intermediate sprints as well as uphill sprints. On the flatter stages, expect riders like Sam Bennett, Caleb Ewan and Elia Viviani to come to the fore, but it is likely that one will continually beat the others to the line, leading to them taking points off each other in the race to catch Sagan.

Right now, I’m predicting Sagan to win the green jersey but Sam Bennett of Deceuninck–Quick-Step to take the stage win in Paris.

feat cycling sprint set up

Dark horses

While Roglič would be my favourite for the race followed by Bernal, there are certainly some dark horses. Their seconds Dumoulin and Carapaz are equally capable of winning if the focus switches to them early enough in the race, especially given Dumoulin’s ability in time trials.

Outside the 2 big teams, Thibaut Pinot would be the favourite, but I also feel that Dani Martinez has a strong chance given his form in the mountains at the Dauphiné, as long as he is given a fair chance to race and not used up as a domestique for Urán. Tadej Pogačar of UAE Team Emirates looks to be one of the most exciting young riders in the peloton and must never be ruled out, especially if Fabio Aru rides in support of him. As I mentioned earlier, Guillaume Martin could push for a podium spot but will likely miss out due to not having such a strong team.

My final dark horse pick is Mikel Landa of Bahrain-McLaren. The Spaniard has top 10 finishes in the last 3 Tours, and while he may not have the punchy attacks of Pogačar, he is a tireless engine and with a team including Pello Bilbao and Wout Poels he should never be ruled out on the climbs.

My General Classification Prediction:

  1. Primož Roglič (Team Jumbo-Visma)
  2. Egan Bernal (Team Ineos)
  3. Dani Martinez (EF Pro Cycling)

To add a little extra fun to this year’s Tour, I have set up a pool on SuperBru and you’re all invited! You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code acmemock

cycling tour de france logo no background

Premier League: March 2020

Premier League: March 2020

Well… this was an odd month!

It feels like forever since we had any football, but we did in fact manage to get a week’s worth of matches (and those from the latter half of the week before) before all football was shut down due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought not just sport, but everyday life to a standstill. This is a very strange time for us all and the season is currently in a strange form of limbo, but in an attempt to keep things as normal as possible, I am still here with a look at the action and stories to come out this month.


Premier League Round-up


Offside?

Manchester United’s improvement was continuing in March with a 1-1 draw at Everton and a 2-0 victory over Manchester City at Old Trafford. A big moment in the Everton match came when VAR overruled an own goal from Harry Maguire (which would have won Everton the match) due to an offside decision against Gylfi Sigurðsson.

The Icelandic international was on the floor in the 6-yard box after having his shot saved by David de Gea. The ball came to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who’s shot towards the far post took a heavy deflection off Harry Maguire and into the goal at the near post after Sigurðsson – who was still on the floor with less than 2 United players between him and the goalline – pulled his legs out of the way. Sigurðsson was definitely in an offside position, but was he offside?

Per the FA’s Laws of the Game on their website:

A player in an offside position at the moment the ball is played or touched* by a team-mate is only penalised on becoming involved in active play by:

  • interfering with play by playing or touching a ball passed or touched by a team-mate or
  • interfering with an opponent by:
    • preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or
    • challenging an opponent for the ball or
    • clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent or
    • making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball

*The first point of contact of the ‘play’ or ‘touch’ of the ball should be used

or

  • gaining an advantage by playing the ball or interfering with an opponent when it has:
    • rebounded or been deflected off the goalpost, crossbar or an opponent
    • been deliberately saved by any opponent
    • A player in an offside position receiving the ball from an opponent who deliberately plays the ball (except from a deliberate save by any opponent) is not considered to have gained an advantage.

A ‘save’ is when a player stops, or attempts to stop, a ball which is going into or very close to the goal with any part of the body except the hands/arms (unless the goalkeeper within the penalty area).

The clear argument here is that Sigurðsson was in de Gea’s line of vision, which is in itself enough to disallow the goal. I would also make an argument that the offside could be given for another point as well: “clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent”. In this case, the playing of the ball is the deliberate lifting of the legs just in time for the ball to pass by untouched, in a similar way to a player deliberately stepping over a pass as a dummy to allow a player behind them to get the ball. Were it not for this action, the ball is being blocked by him, and it is only this late evasion that stops this.

If nothing else, I’m sure we can agree that Sigurðsson had more than enough time to get back to his feet and get onside, but chose instead to just stay on the floor, which proved costly.

How do we proceed?

The Premier League is in limbo at the moment as we wait to see how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic clears up. If it happens relatively quickly, then I imagine we will see the league continue as it was and finish slightly further into the summer than usual, which is now possible due to the Euros being pushed back a year. Obviously this would be the ideal situation, but what if the pandemic carries on for another couple of months and completing the season becomes impossible?

Should the season stand with the final standings as they are? Should we go back a couple of weeks to the last point every team had played the same number of matches? Or should the season just be struck off and replayed next season?

There is so much to consider. If the season in stopped early, there is plenty of argument to award Liverpool the title, but as it is not mathematically impossible for them to be caught at this stage, I feel that their title victory would need an asterisk next to it. European places and the bottom 3 also become very contentious decisions as it can be argued that some teams will have had a harder or easier playing schedule, giving advantage to some teams. There is also the issue that right now, not all teams have played the same number of games, but going back to the last time all teams had played the same number of matches could see a team drop down a position that they had fairly climbed above. Any partial season automatically gives an advantage to teams who had a strong first half of the season. Teams like Manchester United and Arsenal started the season poorly but have seen their results improving of late, and could have found themselves rising even higher in the standings.

Though it is harsh on the teams that have been doing well this season like Liverpool and Sheffield United (also teams pushing for promotion from the Championship), I think that the only fair way to deal with this season is to strike it off, with prize money split equally between all the teams, no champion, no promotion/relegation and the same teams competing in European competition next season (with Manchester City’s ban being pushed back a year). It is far from ideal and would really need all UEFA nations to agree to do the same to basically replay the competition next season, but these are unheralded times and I can’t see a fairer way to deal with such an unprecedented situation.

Let’s hope the situation improves quick enough for the seasons to be completed to make all of this a moot point!

Coping with the times

In this very difficult time, clubs have been reacting in very different ways to the COVID-19 pandemic and I just wanted to take a moment to praise a couple of teams who have acted admirably in the circumstances before throwing some shade at others whose actions have been less praiseworthy.

First of all, a massive credit to Brighton, who announced that they will donate 1000 tickets to NHS staff once matches are back on, and Bournemouth, who agreed to match this. NHS Staff are so underappreciated and are putting themselves at risk to look after those who are ill, so I would argue that 1000 tickets from each team should be an absolute minimum! A shout-out too for Burnley, who announced earlier in the month that all the matchday and non-matchday staff (including those in the community) will receive their usual pay while the break goes on.

On the flip-side however, a number of teams including Newcastle and Tottenham are taking advantage of the government’s job retention scheme to pay 80% of staff’s wages to a maximum of £2,500 a month. Meanwhile the players and big-earners remain on full salaries. The average Premier League player has a salary of over £3m per year, so it is disgusting that they are still getting full salaries while the public’s taxes are used to help the rest of the club staff survive. In my opinion, a minimum salary should be set in place, players above which should automatically receive a pay cut with their cut wages going to the rest of the staff being affected. Let’s be honest, those diving primadonnas earn ridiculous money for what they do anyway!

feat football prem league logo yellow