The first weekend of the NFL PlayOffs did not let anyone down even though expectations had been raised by some of the performances of teams ...
Tuesday, 31 May 2011
These things will happen in a 2 week tournament, but we still remain in a very strong position overall for the tournament and must look to bounce back in the correct fashion.
The Men's draw also gave us a wonderful Semi Final for Friday as Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer both reached that stage. While the initial drama will be surrounding Djokovic's unbeaten start to the season, we also have the intrigue of seeing if Federer is still a genuine threat at the business end of Slams as well as the chance for Djokovic to take over the World Number 1 Ranking in time for Wimbledon with a win.
The Women's draw sees the reigning Champion, Schiavone, take on France's last hope in their Slam in the form of Marion Bartoli. My initial reaction is again how much Schiavone can get Bartoli on the move as the French Woman is probably better off the ground.
That should be an entertaining Semi Final on Thursday as the tournament draws to a close.
Now on to Day 11 Picks:
Rafael Nadal - 5.5 games vs Robin Soderling: I am sure we have all read up on Nadal's private thoughts, thoughts that he made very public after his win over Ivan Ljubicic on Monday. Nadal admits he is not playing well but this is coming from someone who believes he has only been 'so-so' in previous trips to Paris.
It is clear that Nadal is not his usual dominating self at the moment, but he is a Champion that usually reserves his best tennis until the latter end of tournaments. Now he faces a huge test in the form of Robin Soderling.
Soderling is the only man to have beaten Nadal here in Paris, and has been playing pretty solid tennis. However, he has checked out of some sets this past 10 days and needs to keep to a high level if he wants to surprise Nadal.
Nadal will also have added motivation from the fact that he is not the biggest fan of Soderling and they have had issues in the past. You sense this will push the Spaniard on to play his best match of the tournament and perhaps see him produce something similar to either his win here at Roland Garros last year or at Wimbledon.
Soderling may take a set, but I see Nadal progressing here and covering the spread.
Andy Murray - 6.5 games vs Juan Ignacio Chela: The real issue about this match up is how well Andy Murray will recover to play again so soon after his win over Victor Troicki. His game matches up so well against Chela's, as proven in victories over the Argentinian in 2009 and 2010 here, both with plenty to spare.
Murray has admitted there is a partial tear in his right ankle, but he also feels he can get through the tournament (I wouldnt expect him to play at Queens next week).
Chela is the oldest man left in the draw and has done remarkably well to get through to this Quarter Final, especially considering he has had to negotiate two 5 set matches already. This run would be seen as a bonus as his career winds down and I struggle to see how he can be really competitive here.
Chela's serve is a weakness, while he doesnt use the guile that others do. I also feel Murray will control the points for the most part and its hard to see Chela winning more than 11 games here.
Victoria Azarenka - 4.5 games vs Na Li: I will admit I got Na Li's match with Petra Kvitova the wrong way around, but I still think the Chinese Number 1 is not built for clay and will really struggle here. Li herself has admitted clay is not her favourite surface and she now meets one of the hottest women on the tour in the shape of Victoria Azarenka.
Azarenka looks like the injury that forced her retirement in Rome is behind her, and she is barely allowing opponents to get involved in sets.
Li has won 3 of their 4 meetings on the tour, including at the Australian Open earlier this year, but none of their meetings have come on clay, a surface that favours Azarenka more.
I just feel the nature of the surface allows Azarenka more time to dictate the points and I expect she will come through in straight sets.
Maria Sharapova - 4.5 games vs Andrea Petkovic: Maria Sharapova has been consistent this season and now looks like she is smelling the chance to win yet another Major. There has been a little inconsistency in her performances so far, but the win in Rome showed Sharapova is ready to take this title home.
Sharapova has beaten the likes of Agnieska Radwanska, Sam Stosur and Caroline Wozniacki over the last couple of tournaments and has proved she can handle the slower stuff.
Andrea Petkovic is a real example for all those that work hard everyday that you can be rewarded. This is the 2nd Major of the season that she has reached the Quarter Finals and Petkovic also has the confidence behind her having won in Strasbourg in the last tournament before Paris.
However, Petkovic has not had an easy tournament and this is by far the hardest test she would have faced on the clay courts this season. The head to head is also 2-1 in favour of Sharapova, although none of the matches took place on clay, and I think the Russian will be able to overpower her opponent here.
I just noticed that I am picking all 4 favourites to cover the spreads tomorrow- Both Nadal and Azarenka are more on hunches and feeling of the match ups; Nadal has struggled in this tournament and Li has a winning record over Azarenka.
I just feel that all 4 favourites have a little extra on their opponents and can make it through to the next Round without having too many bumps along the way. Nadal and Murray may lose tight sets, but I think their prowess over their opponents will let them come through while clearing the handicap.
Both Azarenka and Sharapova have clear upsides on their opponents and the Women's game tends to throw up a few more easy sets which means even the loss of a set can be overcome.
MY PICKS: Rafael Nadal - 5.5 games @ 2.10 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
Andy Murray - 6.5 games @ 1.83 Stan James (3 Units)
Victoria Azarenka - 4.5 games @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Maria Sharapova - 4.5 games @ 2.10 BetFred (2 Units)
FRENCH OPEN: + 12.27 Units (- 7 Units Day 10 eurghhhh)
Soderling won in straight sets against Gilles Simon, even after seemingly losing concentration in the 3rd set. I think the big hitting Swede is happy to have got through without having to expend too much energy and must feel he has a chance with the way Nadal is playing.
The other big news in the Men's tournament was the withdrawal of Fabio Fognini from his Quarter Final tie with Novak Djokovic. I dont think anyone seriously expected Fognini to test Djokovic, but it does mean the Serb has additional days to rest his body and get ready for the potential matches against Roger Federer and Nadal.
The Women's draw saw Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka- there seems to be some obvious dislike between the two and that can only make for better theatre if they can overcome Andrea Petkovic and Na Li in the last 8 respectively.
It is also not too far fetched to think whichever of those ladies gets through to the Final will be the favourite to win the tournament.
Now on to Day 10 Picks:
Roger Federer - 6.5 games vs Gael Monfils: I think Roger Federer was enjoying the David Ferrer-Gael Monfils match earlier in the day as the it went into a 5th set and I feel this could take its toll on Monfils for this match.
Federer has beaten Monfils twice before at the French Open, in the Semi Final in 2008 and the Quarter Final in 2009, and on both occasions he has done so with a bit to spare.
Monfils might keep it entertaining for a couple of sets, but he is also likely to 'tank' a set away and that will be enough to help Federer cover a spread that I expected to be at least 2 games higher.
Monfils does like performing to a crowd, as shown when he beat Federer in Paris last year, but I just think his lack of matches recently may play against him if he gets behind early.
Francesca Schiavone - 3.5 games vs Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: I had to deliberate about picking this match for a little bit of time. Whereas I think the other match between Kuznetsova and Bartoli is really a pick 'em contest that I cannot separate, I just feel Schiavone's experience and game play will break Pavlyuchekova down eventually.
This is Pavlyuchenkova's first appearance in the Quarter Final of a Major, but Schiavone is the defending Champion here so knows what it takes to win the match. The Italian may not have the power that Pavlyuchenkova has, but she has the finesse that will expose the bad movement of the younger player.
Schivaone also leads the head to head 2-1 (1-0 on clay) and has won their only other meeting in a Major (last year at the US Open).
It is possible that this goes 3 sets, I just think Schiavone has too much at this moment of time on the red dirt.
MY PICKS: Andy Murray - 5.5 games @ 2.00 BetFred (2 Units) Still Running from Day 9 with the score tied 2-2 in sets and 20-17 in games to Murray
Roger Federer - 6.5 games @ 1.83 BetFred (3 Units)
Francesca Schiavone - 3.5 games @ 2.00 TitanBet (2 Units)
FRENCH OPEN: + 19.27 Units (+ 0.4 Units Day 9)
Monday, 30 May 2011
Fabio Fognini is the biggest surprise, in my opinion, as he has never shown the commitment in previous tournaments as he has here. The Italian has reached the Quarter Finals but is surely not going to be the man to end Novak Djokovic's winning streak.
Both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have made serene progress in the last couple of days, although Andy Murray's ankle turn is going to be tested against Victor Troicki. I would not be surprised if Murray pulls out of all tournaments in the lead up to Wimbledon if the ankle is really sore.
The Women's draw has lost the top 3 seeds, but there are still some real dangerous players left that could take the title home. It should be a fun week ahead of us.
The picks went 4-2-1 over the last 2 days which has led to another bunch of profit to add to our bank. Hopefully we can make this a very good tournament and not give any profit back to the bookmakers.
Now on to Day 9 Picks:
Robin Soderling - 5.5 games vs Gilles Simon: I underestimated Gilles Simon in the last Round against Mardy Fish, but I dont think I am making that mistake again. This time I am going against the Frenchman because I believe is going up against the better player in most departments.
Soderling also has a 5-2 head to head record against Simon (1-0 on clay) and for the most part has been an easy winner.
It is possible that Simon steals a set, but I think Soderling will come through and is likely to be able to win 1 of the 3 sets with a bit to spare which will lead to him covering this spread.
Petra Kvitova - 2.5 games vs Na Li: Petra Kvitova is a real dark horse to win the Women''s title- she has a big game off the ground and is capable of blowing her opponents off court.
Kvitova does face the experience Na Li, but beat her opponent in Madrid a couple of weeks ago with minimum fuss. Kvitova has also demolished her opponents in the previous Rounds and I think she is ready to make another big impact in a Grand Slam.
Li should not be underestimated and the Australian Open Runner Up will not give in easily, I just think she will struggle to keep Kvitova under control and will be beaten.
Andy Murray - 5.5 games vs Victor Troicki: This is possibly a dodgy pick considering the question marks surrounding Murray's injury, but I am of the belief the British Number 1 will not risk his chances at Wimbledon by playing on an injured ankle. He must feel his better chance of winning a slam is in London in 3 weeks time rather than here at the French, even with the kind path to the Semi Finals, and so I am backing him to cover the spread if he does play.
The ankle injury also looked more like one of surprise, rather than any long term damage, and I do expect Murray to play.
Murray leads the head to head 3-0, including a win at Wimbledon, and has yet to drop a set against Troicki. I find Murray's game is likely to be too consistent for Troicki, and I believe the Serb does not have the patience to beat Murray on clay.
Normally I would think this spread would be at least a couple of games higher, so the value is on Murray here.
MY PICKS: Robin Soderling - 5.5 games @ 2.20 BoyleSports (2 Units)
Petra Kvitova - 2.5 games @ 1.91 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Andy Murray - 5.5 games @ 2.00 BetFred (2 Units)
FRENCH OPEN: + 18.87 Units (+ 4.85 Units Day 7 and Day 8)
Saturday, 28 May 2011
My Day 7 Picks are mainly still running, but Djokovic completed the 3-1 set win. Mardy Fish, however, looked like a.... errrr.... hmmm... Fish out of water as he was being demolished by Gilles Simon and I expect that match is likely over as I write.
I will be back for Day 9 Picks when I will update the profit/loss column.
Now on to Day 8 Picks:
Roger Federer - 7 games vs Stanislas Wawrinka: Roger Federer looked really good in his win against Janko Tipsarevic, even though the 2nd set was a little tighter. He covered the spread in that Round and now faces his compratiot in Round 4.
Wawrinka showed his heart and desire again when coming from 2 sets down to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Round 3, but it will be interesting to see how he copes with Federer here.
Federer leads the head to head 10-1, and also leads 3-1 on clay courts after losing their first meeting on the surface.
Federer also beat Wawrinka by 8 games last year in this tournament and I think he can take advantage of the quicker conditions to record yet another win over the Swiss Number 2.
Marion Bartoli win 2-0 in sets vs Giselko Dulko: It was Dulko who took the headlines in the last Round by beating Sam Stosur, last year's runner up, in 3 sets, but I think it was Bartoli who had the more impressive win by knocking off Julia Goerges, one of the dark horses to win the tournament and arguably the women in the hottest form outside of Victoria Azarenka.
Bartoli has been pushed to 3 sets in every Round so far, but the home hope is still standing strong. She has a 4-0 head to head record against Dulko and is yet to drop a set to the Argentine.
To be fair, this is their first meeting on a clay court, but Bartoli has shown she is in form after reaching the Final in Strasbourg last week and should come through in straight sets.
Svetlana Kuznetsova - 1.5 games vs Daniela Hantuchova: I will admit that Daniela Hantuchova surprised me with her win over Caroline Wozniacki in the last Round, but this could represent a step up in class for her.
I was glad Hantuchova got through as I get another chance to watch her play, but Kuznetsova is a real threat to win this tournament having done so in 2009. The Russian has breezed through the tournament and lost just 11 games enroute to this match.
Kuznetsova also leads the head to head between the players 7-4, and has won both meetings on clay without losing a set.
Hantuchova took advantage of Wozniacki's 'get the ball into play' philosophy, but might find it hard to get past a player that will hit through the court.
MY PICKS: Roger Federer - 7 games @ 2.00 Pinnacle (2 Units)
Marion Bartoli win 2-0 sets @ 2.38 Stan James (2 Units)
Svetlana Kuznetsova - 1.5 games @ 1.95 Pinnacle (2 Units)
Roger Federer once again made easy progress through the draw although I do expect him to be tested a little more by Stanislas Wawrinka in the next round. Federer has quietly gone about his business as everyone spent more time talking about Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Federer has won here before and looks more than comfortable with his situation right now.
Another player making calm and easy progress through the draw is David Ferrer, arguably the 3rd most consistent performer on the red dirt this season behind Nadal and Djokovic.
Ferrer looked like he was coming to the end of a very productive career at the end of 2009, but has shown some real talent over the last 18 months as his window for winning a Slam closes rapidly. I dont believe Ferrer will win here, but a match with Federer in the Quarter Final is certain to excite.
The other big news of the day in the Men's draw was the meeting between Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro. First the match had to be moved from the Philippe Chatrier court because of the long nature of the first 3 matches on that court- that in turn caused disruptions as fans clamoured to get into the Suzanne Lenglen court to watch the game of the day.
I have stated before that Del Potro should have been in the position Djokovic is in if he had not injured his wrist and been forced to miss almost a year of action. The first 2 sets of the match did not disappoint and I am intrigued if Del Potro can continue his level of play and upset Djokovic.
Personally I am excited to see Del Potro playing the type of tennis he is- I did not expect his best stuff until the Summer hard court swing and the US Open, yet he is well on his way and is going to be a real danger for the rest of the season even if he does not complete the surprise win tomorrow.
The Women's draw saw the Number 1 seed, Caroline Wozniaki, get thumped out of the tournament by a Daniela Hantuchova playing her best tennis. That means the top 2 seeds are out and the draw remains open for anyone to win.
Wozniaki once again proved she is anything but the best player in the World and it must have the WTA Tour questioning their ranking system.
The picks did not have a good day yesterday with the Wozniaki defeat. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez was another disappointment, but fortunately Federer's easy win over Janko Tipsarevic left me with a small loss on the day and the Djokovic 3-1 set bet still running.
On to Day 7 Picks:
Robin Soderling - 7.5 games vs Leonardo Mayer: Robin Soderling should be very happy with the conditions expected at Roland Garros tomorrow and must be pleased with his draw as he faced Leonard Mayer, a player that has played a lot of tennis over the last 10 days after missing weeks at a time.
Mayer might be ranked outside the top 200, but he is a clay court specialist with his best results coming on the surface. Last season it took Marin Cilic 5 sets to beat him here in Paris.
Mayer also had a solid win over Marcos Baghdatis in the last round but I do wonder if the lack of competitive tennis over the last 6 weeks is going to take a toll on him against Soderling.
They have met once before when Soderling won 3 tight sets in the Davis Cup last season on an indoor hard court. However, the Swede has looked good so far in the tournament and I expect he will come through in straight sets and cover the spread.
Ivan Ljubicic v Fernando Verdasco Over 38.5 games: Both of these men have made relatively smooth progress through to this Round 3 meeting with the winner getting the 'reward' of a likely meeting with Rafael Nadal in Round 4.
Both have big games and could be rewarded by the conditions in Paris this year. The chances for a tie break or 2 are large with the way they can serve, while Fernando Verdasco is prone to mental lapses that costs him sets.
This has a tight 4 setter written all over it, and could finish either way. However, the Over 38.5 games could come into play if the tie breaks occur as I expect they will.
Mardy Fish vs Gilles Simon: Now I could be reading this matchup completely wrong, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Mardy Fish being quoted as the big underdog in this match.
Fish has improved tenfold on clay courts, as his loss of weight has improved his movement around the court. The conditions here also favour Fish's game, with the balls flying through the air and making it much more like a hard court meeting.
Simon will look to make balls all day, but Fish has the edge when it comes to serving and with his groundstrokes. Simon definitely has the better movement and his defensive game could extract mistakes from the Fish racquet.
It is possible this match could be dragged into a 5th set as they are evenly matched, so I cant see why Fish is the big underdog.
MY PICKS: Novak Djokovic win 3-1 sets @ 3.75 (1 Unit) Still Running from Yesterday
Robin Soderling - 7.5 games @ 2.10 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Ivan Ljubicic-Fernando Verdasco Over 38.5 games @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Mardy Fish @ 2.62 Unibet (2 Units)
FRENCH OPEN: + 14.02 Units (- 0.8 Units Day 6)
Heading to Rome that year, every United fan I met was supremely confident that we were going to win the trophy, especially after keeping Barcelona scoreless in 2 Legs the season before. Even the Barcelona fans out in Rome were a little concerned about playing United, believing they were defensively sound and going to make it very hard for Barcelona to play their football.
The experts and media also had solidly got behind United and believed they were set to become the first team in 19 years to retain the Champions League... We all saw what happened though, and it was Barcelona who took the trophy home.
This time we are hearing all the same talk. One set of fans are supremely confident, the others a little more concerned. The media have also effectively crowned one team Kings of Europe before a ball has been kicked while some, like Gary Linekar, has almost suggested that that team needs only turn up and perform to normal standards to win the game.
However, this time its all about Barcelona.
It is hard to tell how they will cope with the expectation that is on the team. We may have seen a glimpse of what this game could become when watching the Barcelona-Real Madrid Copa Del Rey Final recently...
On that occasion, everyone expected Barcelona to win. However, Real Madrid set themselves up in a strong, disciplined, defensive shape and frustrated Barcelona by not allowing them to play their expansive brand of football.
I expect United to want to do the same here and the key will be to not concede an early goal. The Red Devils have played successfully against Arsenal sides in the past that play a similar brand of football as Barcelona, even if it is less effective in the most part, and so the players should have the experience of knowing what it will take.
Concentration, as Sir Alex has mentioned a few times, is the key to the game. If United can concentrate defensively, I really feel they can spring a surprise as the team do have goals in them against a less than stellar Barcelona defence.
The odds makers have been disrespectful to United's chances of winning this game and I am going to put minimum stakes on United causing a surprise, just as Barca did in 2009 against the 'expert' opinion, and keep the trophy in England.
MY PICK: Manchester United to win @ 4.00 William Hill (1 Unit)
Friday, 27 May 2011
Rafael Nadal still looks a little uncomfortable in his surroundings, surprising considering the Spaniard has won the title 5 times previously. He struggled at times in his straight sets win over Pablo Andujar and has been on court an awful long time considering he is yet to compete in Round 3.
Nikolay Davydenko's surprise loss opens the door for Nadal who will meet Antonio Veic instead.
The biggest winner of the day may have been Andy Murray who struggled through his Round 2 match with Simone Bolelli. However, Jurgen Melzer, a prospective Quarter Final opponent, was beaten in 5 sets and the bottom half of Murray's Quarter has opened up considering Nicolas Almagro has already left the tournament.
With Michael Berrer next in line for the British Number 1, I very much expect Murray to negotiate the match and progress to at least the Semi Finals- he will not get a better chance here.
The Women's tournament was where the big surprises were in store- Kim Clijsters exited the tournament in 3 sets, even after holding match point in set 2, while Maria Sharapova can count her lucky stars that she is still in the tournament.
So far, the best looking player (in terms of ability and not looks) is Victoria Azarenka, one of the favourites at the start of the tournament and it is Azarenka who has benefited most from Clijster's exit.
The picks had another good day with both Mardy Fish and Ivan Ljubicic covering the set handicap after winning their matches in straight sets.
Gilles Simon made life a little more difficult for himself after losing the first set to Jeremy Chardy 4-6. However, he turned the match around with his consistency and came through 6-4, 6-1, 6-4 to cover the spread in the gloom of the Paris evening.
So on to Day 6 Picks:
Caroline Wozniaki - 4.5 games vs Daniela Hantuchova: I have said many times, and I will say again, that Caroline Wozniaki is the worst Number 1 I have seen for some time. Dinara Safina had a lot of criticism in her time as Number 1, but at least she was reaching SOME Grand Slam Finals, Wozniaki doesn't even do that, reaching 1 Grand Slam Final in 2009 in her career.
Why the media seem to gloss over this is beyond me- its not like she is blue eyed, blond, and supposedly attractive is it?!!
None of that matters here as to why I have picked her to win and cover the spread. Wozniaki has the perfect game plan to disrupt Daniela Hantuchova, making her play 1 shot more than the Slovakian would like and that has led to Wozniaki leading the head to head 3-0 and yet to drop a set.
In only 1 of the 6 sets competed has Hantuchova won more than 3 games and I think we may see more of the same tomorrow.
Novak Djokovic win 3-1 in sets vs Juan Martin Del Potro: Surprisingly they have put this on last on the Philippe Chatrier Court- that is the equivalent of going to a top quality restuaurant, being given a 4 course meal, and then the waiter brings out the lobster and cavier last and expects the diners to appreciate it!
The crowd have been quiet and filtering away by the time the last match starts on court, but they wont want to miss this fascinating battle.
Novak Djokovic is arguably in the position many thought Del Potro would be in after the latter's win at the US Open in 2009. Instead injuries have derailed his progress and now Del Potro will want to make a statement.
The problem for me is Del Potro has not really got the same consistency in his game as he did have 18 months ago and while I expect him to get it back, it seems too soon to expect him to knock off the supremely confident Djokovic.
However, Del Potro has enough in him to cause problems and I would not be surprised if he forces Djokovic to win in 4 good sets of tennis.
Roger Federer - 7 games vs Janko Tipsarevic: Roger Federer has looked good so far this week as he makes easy progress through the draw, but now faces the man who pushed him to 5 sets in Australia in 2008.
Tipsarevic is a player that raises his game for the top players in the game, but clay is his weakest surface and makes me believe he wont be able to compete with Federer here. The Serb has losing records on the surface for the past 3 seasons before this one and it is hard to see him troubling Federer for long.
I expect the former World Number 1 to win this one in straight sets and cover the spread in the process.
Guillermo Garcia-Lopez to win vs Fabio Fognini: This is much to do with wanting to oppose Fognini as it is wanting to back Garcia-Lopez. Fognini may have dropped just 11 games on his way to Round 3, but I have a feeling he has just taken advantage of a really kind draw.
First he beat Denis Istomin who is having a bad season, and then Fognini knocked out Stephane Robert who obviously partied too hard after beating Tomas Berdych in Round 1.
Garcia-Lopez was particularly expended in Round 2 when he had to win 13-11 in the 5th set against Marsal Ilhan, but I think the Spaniard has been vastly underrated here.
Garcia-Lopez' best results do come on the surface and he has not had a losing record on the clay courts in main ATP tour matches since 2007. Fognini had a losing record just last season, and had lost 6 of his last 7 matches on the surface before this tournament began.
The head to head is 1-1, with Fognini winning on clay in 2008 and Garcia-Lopez winning on grass last season.
Personally I have more faith in Garcia-Lopez and think his odds should be much shorter.
MY PICKS: Caroline Wozniacki - 4.5 games @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Novak Djokovic win 3-1 in sets @ 3.75 William Hill (1 Unit)
Roger Federer - 7 games @ 2.10 10Bet (2 Units)
Guillermo Garcia-Lopez win @ 2.50 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
FRENCH OPEN: + 14.82 Units
Thursday, 26 May 2011
The keys to the game:
1) The First Goal: In most 'big' games, the first goal in the contest is crucial and this game is no different. If Barcelona get it, it could be a long day for United as the Spanish team keeps the ball so well.
However, if United can get it, they have the know how defensively to make life difficult for Barcelona and could lead to a famous victory.
2) The Officials: The Officials have to be strong in this game and they cannot allow it to be overshadowed by controversy. They must also be aware of any gamesmanship taking place and must stamp their authority on the game.
3) The Midfield Battle: This is the heartbeat of the Barcelona team and it is up to Manchester United to make it hard for the Catalan club to play their brand of football. United cannot spend 70 minutes chasing shadows because it will be too tiring for them. The likes of Michael Carrick and Ji Sung Park must harry Andres Iniesta and Xavi, while Ryan Giggs must keep possession when United do get time to play.
4) Lionel Messi: The Argentine superstar may be feeling additional pressure in this game as many have tipped him to join the greatest players of all time if he can lead Barcelona to their 3rd title in 6 seasons. He has not really performed at his best against English sides in the past, even though he did score the 2nd in Rome 2 years ago.
What Must Barcelona do to Win
Barcelona's tactics to win the game will be the same as they are for most of their games- they will look to keep the possession for long periods and eventually work an opening once they have their opposition chasing shadows.
However, they must also be able to negate the United midfield by moving the ball quickly past them and not allowing United to settle into a defensive shape. A slow build up from Barcelona could play into United's hands, especially if they have not scored an early goal.
Getting the ball as often to Lionel Messi and allowing him to run at the defence. If Barcelona can get Messi into pockets of space where he can run at the defence and get them running back towards their own goal, Barcelona will see other players finding space and creating chances. Messi must influence the game as much as possible and not allow himself to get lost in the mix.
David Villa must take advantage of his likely match up with Fabio. The Spaniard has a lot more experience than the right back and he is one of the best when it comes to movement. Villa must try and expose the positioning of Fabio as he makes his runs from the left side of the front trio.
Gerard Pique must also move the ball out of defence at his feet and try and start moves to Iniesta and Xavi. I imagine United will try to cut the supply through Busquets at the bottom of the midfield three, so it is up to Pique (being more comfortable on the ball than Puyol) to start moves.
Pep Guardiola must have a 'Plan B' for this game- good defensive sides have been the achilles heal of Barcelona for some time and they must have a tactic to break down a wall of players if they are faced with it again.
What Must Manchester United do to Win
The first thing United have to do is defend well- they proved in the 2008 Semi Finals that they can defend well if they concentrate as the 1-0 win over 2 Legs demonstrated. It is a tactic that has frustrated Barcelona in the past, with Chelsea, Liverpool, Inter Milan and United all showing they can set up to make life difficult for Barcelona.
Sir Alex Ferguson is smart enough to know that Barcelona will have the lion's share of the possession, but United can limit what they do with that possession. Barcelona are one of the shortest sides in Europe, so the best option is to play narrow and force them to go wide... If they score with a cross and a header, you say too good. But I am sure United will fancy their chances with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic that they will win the majority of balls in the air.
Further on from the possession point, force Xavi and Iniesta to look for Dani Alves and Maxwell/Eric Abidal with the ball. If Barcelona are going to have 70% of possession, make sure Alves and the left back are seeing a lot of the ball in that time. Again, if they cross and score you have to say too good.
Keeping Lionel Messi quiet will also be important for United. They must not let the diminutive Argentine find pockets of space and must have him marked quickly and not allow him to turn on the ball. I dont think they need to man mark Messi but take responsibility as a defensive unit.
United must exploit the space that Barcelona leave behind on the attack. The counter attack can be effective as both Alves and the left back charge forward and the pace of Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez can cause plenty of problems. Play the ball into the channels and force Puyol and Pique away from their comfort zone.
The team must use their size defensively as well as on the attack. All set pieces have to be 'put into the mixer' as United will enjoy a size advantage. Arsenal's goal at the Nou Camp came from a corner that caused panic in the backline.
Keeping hold of the ball is also key for United when they get it back. Barca's pressing game means they will have more of the ball, but United cannot afford to give it away with sloppy passes as soon as they get it. It is a key to giving the defence some respite and also allowing them to maintain their shape rather than losing the ball and a goal in transistion.
Both teams have tactics they need to enforce if they are to win this game. Lionel Messi is an absolute key to both teams as one looks to get him on the ball while the other seeks to reduce his influence as much as possible.
Sir Alex Ferguson has spoken about 'concentration' a lot this week and I feel the manager thinks the side did not concentrate properly in the Final of 2009, while they were brilliant for 180 minutes in the Semi Finals of 2008. This will be absolutely key for United who must be zoned in for every single minute of this game.
This United team is not as good as the one that beat Barcelona in 2008, but even that victory was off the back of 2 special defensive performances rather than flair going forward. With Javier Hernandez playing off the last man, United have plenty of scope going forward this season, they have to defend very well though, something they have shown themselves to be capable of.
Barcelona will look to make Wembley as wide as possible on Saturday, but United must remain focused and make the game narrow. It is unlikely that Barca will win with a superb header, especially with the Ferdinand-Vidic partnership, and by making the pitch narrow, it makes the little intricate moves Barca like that much more difficult.
While some in the media think Barcelona just need to turn up to collect the trophy, I think the game will be much tighter and just depends who can enforce their style on the other. Can United sucker punch Barcelona on the counter and defend well? Yes, they can.
Can Barcelona pass the ball and create an opening through some magic from Lionel Messi? Yes they can.
But whatever happens, I very much doubt it will be easy and the nerves will be frayed
It is almost time for the end of season if you are based in one of the big European Leagues, and we are now just days away from the culmination of the Champions League, this year the Final being played at Wembley Stadium.
It was perhaps a dream for UEFA to see Barcelona reach the Final, with the Catalan giants being lauded as 'the best club side' in the history of European football. It was also a nice touch for the marketing department to see Barca facing an English side in the finale of the competition.
The first blog I am writing about this game is comparing the teams and judging which has the advantage in the different positions. I will also be looking at the 'Keys to the Game' and trying to see the tactical matchup between the teams and how each can go on and win.
Finally I will be writing a preview of the game, and trying to find the best way to find a profit.
On to the teams:
The Barcelona goalkeeper will be Victor Valdes, as has been the case for a few seasons. He is a solid goalkeeper, but I do not believe he is in the elite of Europe and is definitely prone to errors and perhaps losing concentration when Barca hold around 70% of the possession in a game.
He looked a little clumsy in the game with Arsenal at the Emirates and I definitely think teams can get some joy out of him if they force him to make saves. Valdes will not be lacking for experience with this being his 3rd Champions League Final for Barcelona.
When it comes to talk about experience, Edwin Van der Sar is brimming at the edges with big game experience. He has been a real revelation at Old Trafford as a stream of goalkeepers tried, and failed, to replace Peter Schemeichel before his arrival in 2005. Van der Sar is already a 2 time European Cup winner and will be playing in his 5th Champions League Final.
The big Dutchman's consistency gives United a lot of belief that even when they makes mistake in defence, they will still be saved by Van der Sar.
Edge: Manchester United
The Barcelona team is much easier to predict from 1-11 than Manchester United, although they do have one question on their defence. We can expect to see Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Carlos Puyol as 3 of the 4 starters with the question being whether they start with Eric Abidal or Maxwell.
This is quite easily the weakest part of the Barcelona team and we saw how Arsenal managed to create chances against them. Even in Rome 2009, United created quite a few decent openings in the game. The full backs spend a lot of time in the opposition half which means there are space in the channels while I believe Alves is defensively very suspect.
The centre backs are solid, but can be exposed by pace and the left back spot is perhaps the weakest in the entire XI.
Manchester United look likely to start with Fabio, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. This back 4 have played in a number of big games towards the back end of the season and know each others game perfectly.
The centre backs have the pace and power mix that makes them the best partnership in European football (in my humble opinion), while both full backs are fairly comfortable going backwards or forwards.
I do have a few concerns with the rash nature of Fabio as you dont really want players playing on a yellow card for a long period of the game. As Ray Wilkins will likely say 1000 times during the game, the young Brazilian needs 'to stay on his feet' and not dive in a give the officials a chance to book him.
Edge: Manchester United
If anyone other than Sergei Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta start in the midfield trio for Barcelona, I would be surprised while also feeling United's chances have improved on a scale determined by which of the 3 were not starting.
These 3 players are the key to the Barcelona team as they like playing their quick one-two football while making sure the football keeps ticking over. Xavi and Iniesta are two of the very best midfielders in the World and their job is primarily to provide the bullets for the front 3. However, do not underestimate Iniesta's chances on getting on the scoresheet as he has some vital goals from midfield in his time for Barca and Spain.
Sir Alex Ferguson is a much tougher man to predict. He has two options here, either to start with the 4-5-1 tactic that has served so well in the past, or the new 4-4-2 tactic that saw United beat Chelsea and Schalke to reach this stage.
I have a feeling we will see the 4 man version with Antonio Valencia, Ji Sung Park, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs the ones likely to get the nod. I would be surprised if the United team is not set out to be narrower than normal and make it difficult for the likes of Xavi and Iniesta to play their game without being tormented.
Park had a two particularly good games against Barcelona in the 2008 Semi Finals when he was given the task to remain relatively close to Lionel Messi... This did not work so well in the 2009 Final so I would expect he will be used to harass the midfielders instead.
My biggest concern about that foursome is whether United can keep the ball well enough when they do get possession. With Barca expected to dominate on that front, the limited chances United get will have to be used effectively.
The likes of Giggs and Park cannot afford to have a game where they lose possession too easily. Michael Carrick too must pull the strings better when the ball is at his feet, and he does have something to prove after his performance in Rome 2 years ago.
Again it seems the Barcelona 3 are easy to pick here- David Villa, Pedro and Lionel Messi will be the choice of Pep Guardiola in this game and all 3 provide pace and trickery that will keep the United defenders on their toes throughout the 90 minutes.
We all know about Lionel Messi and the quality he brings to the team. David Villa is a very good striker and United cannot afford for him to drift between the full backs and centre backs as he can be lethal in front of goal. Pedro is another who has the ability to make the diagonal runs that will be picked out by Iniesta and Xavi and get in on goal.
I expect United will counter with Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez in this game. Rooney is likely to drop off Hernandez and perhaps even sit on Sergei Busquets to prevent Barca building from the back of their midfield and also to help the 2 centre midfield players out when United do not have the ball.
Hernandez may not have played at the highest level before, but he has shown his temperament in big games with goals in the Quarter Finals against Chelsea and in the Premier League down the stretch. He also has a World Cup goal to his name and his pace is going to give Barca problems.
Hernandez is also at the right place at the right time and could be ready to enter folklore at Old Trafford.
Pep Guardiola is often touted as being one of the finest managers in Europe but I would like to reserve judgement on that until he manages elsewhere. I mean look what happened to Frank Rijkaard since leaving the Nou Camp.
Guardiola likes his team playing in the 'Barca way', but I have found he perhaps is lacking in a 'Plan B' if things are not going their way. Whether that is because he has firm belief that his tactics will eventually lead to his team winning, or whether he just doesnt know any better is up for debate.
We have yet to see Guardiola turn a game in his teams favour when they are struggling, the key being the 3-1 defeat to Inter last season when he failed to change the tide of the game once Barca fell behind.
If there is one manager I would guess has learned a thing or two after Rome 2009, it is Sir Alex Ferguson. So many times we have seen Fergie pick a team that has all scratching their heads, only to end with United winning. He said after Rome that he had made a mistake and he could not wait to play Barcelona again... Now is his opportunity.
Sir Alex can be pragmatic when things are not going right for United and he is not afraid to make changes no matter who it upsets.
Even if United fall behind in a game, they cannot be ruled out mainly because of the belief and desire running through this team which is down to the manager.
Edge: Manchester United
This game is appealing to the masses, in my opinion, because the teams seem to mirror one another. United are definitely stronger defending, while Barcelona's attack is their key.
On the other side of the coin, Barcelona's defending is not their strength and that matches up with United's 'weaker' side.
Midfield is usually the biggest battle on a football pitch and while Barcelona have the edge, United do have players that can make life difficult.
The game looks fascinatingly poised and both teams will feel confident in their chances of taking home the biggest prize in European football.
The biggest issue will be if Del Potro forces Djokovic into a long match, something that may have an affect as the tournament progresses into its 2nd week.
Roger Federer looked solid enough although his challenger was not really up to par here.
The Women's draw saw Julia Goerges play solid tennis to progress against Lucie Safarova, although the German will have to up her game if she wants to pose a genuine threat in this tournament. Still, I would rather be backing her than Caroline Wozniaki, surely one of the worst World Number 1's in recent times.
In terms of the picks, it was the best day of the tournament so far as 4 of the 5 picks identified came in as winners. To make it more productive, the lowest priced winner was priced at 2.00.
Guillermo Garcia-Lopez almost blew the Men's treble I had picked out, being forced to win 13-11 in the 5th set to get through.
Now on to the 5th Day Picks:
Mardy Fish - 1.5 sets vs Robin Haase: I actually like Haase as a player, even before he took Rafa Nadal to 5 sets at Wimbledon last year, but I think the Dutchman is playing one of the most improved players on a clay court in the form of Mardy Fish.
Fish has also famously lost 14kg of weight which can be seen with the way he moves on the court. The faster conditions will also aid him here, and I think he wins the match. There is the danger he drops 1 set here, but I think otherwise Mardy should be able to come through in 3 or 4 sets.
Ivan Ljubicic - 1.5 sets vs Sam Querrey: The big serving American has not had the best of seasons so far but is unlikely to perform under better conditions on a clay court. Querrey had an impressive 4 set win over Philip Kohlschreiber to reach the 2nd Round but now plays a much more dangerous opponent.
I am not usually a big fan of backing Ivan Ljubicic as he usually plays a lot better when I am NOT backing him to win. However, I feel he has a distinct advantage in the match up on this surface and I do expect him to move forward while dropping possibly just 1 set in the match.
Gilles Simon - 6 games vs Jeremy Chardy: This is yet another all-French match and will be last on the Phillipe Chatrier court on Day 5. I was a little surprised that Simon was not favoured even more as Chardy has struggled this season so far.
Chardy likes to hit his winners but that can be a problem against someone like Simon who can make a lot of balls. With a lack of consistency from Chardy, I expect Simon will get through while covering the spread.
If Simon wins by exactly 6 games, we will get our stake back.
As you can see, I don't have as many picks as yesterday simply because I cant find enough value in the Day 5 games. Hopefully the 3 picks I have identified can bring in another tidy profit.
MY PICKS: Mardy Fish - 1.5 sets @ 1.91 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Ivan Ljubicic - 1.5 sets @ 2.10 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Gilles Simon - 6 games @ 1.95 Bodog (2 Units)
FRENCH OPEN: + 8.90 Units
Wednesday, 25 May 2011
The faster balls and conditions here in Paris meant the big serving Isner was able to win a couple of tie-breaks to go in front and it is interesting to hear a lot of people talking about this being a 'bad sign' for Nadal and his supporters... I disagree and not just because he is my overall pick to win the tournament.
Nadal has now seen the conditions here and he is still in the tournament. The likes of Isner and, to a lesser extent, Ivo Karlovic have the games to cause many problems, even at Grand Slam level. They are not really threats to win the tournament but they can catch players cold.
I remember seeing Isner beat Andy Roddick at the US Open a couple of years ago in a surprise result. In that game, Roddick had so many chances to win but could not capitalise. Karlovic reached the Quarter Finals at Wimbledon in that same year.
The key here is Nadal has survived. He should be good to go until the Quarter Finals when he will face his only conquerer in this tournament, Robin Soderling, and I think this also gives Nadal a real chance to grow into this tournament.
Yesterday's picks brought in more profit for us. Santiago Giraldo had so many chances in his game with Pablo Andujar but could not make the breakthrough and eventually fell in 3 sets.
Fernando Verdasco recovered from a break down in the 4th set to win 3-1 and bring that pick home, while Robin Soderling's game with Benjamin Becker was voided when the German pulled out of the tournament.
Now let's move on to Day 4 Picks as the tournament reaches Round 2:
Gael Monfils - 7.5 games vs Guillermo Rufin: This is an all-French battle that should be watched by a full crowd as it goes on 2nd on the main court. Monfils is one of the most infruiating players on the tour, mixing his obvious talent with a passive game play that allows opponents to dictate the games.
Rufin is a young player, but has not had the best of time on the main tour and he will have to hit a lot of balls to beat 'The Rat' on a clay court.
I expect Monfils to come through in straight sets and he should cover the spread.
Mikhail Youzhny - 5.5 games vs Mikhael Kukushkin: This section of the draw really opened up when Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych made their early exits, and I think the Russian is the man that can take advantage of it. He plays a player in Kukushkin whose game is much more suited to the faster surfaces. I do have a slight concern that the faster balls being used and the conditions could help Kukushkin, but I expect Youzhny will have too much for him here.
Youzhny must also try to concentrate and not throw in a terrible set here.
Sam Stosur - 6.5 games vs Simona Halep: Sam Stosur has proved herself more than capable of playing on the clay courts, either here in Paris or at other tournaments. Stosur reached the Final here last year, including a comfortable win over Simona Halep along the way.
Halep has also been struggling in recent tournaments before her 1st Round win here, losing games with quite a bit to spare. She is still young and improving her game, but is unfortunate to be running into the Australian who looks a real threat this year again.
Womens Treble: Daniele Hantuchova, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Svetlana Kuznetsova: This is a risky treble with 3 short favourites in the womens tournament, but I do feel all 3 should be able to come through their games. Both Daniela Hantuchova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands play players that they have strong head to head records against and players that they should know well and also match up well against.
Svetlana Kuznetsova plays Irina-Carmelia Begu, a player that beat her in 3 sets on the clay courts of Marbella. Kuznetsova has also been a little off her game in recent weeks and has been ignored in the build up to this tournament, but I do expect her to reverse that defeat here.
Mens Treble: Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Albert Montanes and Stanislas Wawrinka: This is a less rewarding treble than the womens one, but again all 3 players should be able to come through their respective matches.
Guillermo Garcia-Lopez meets the Turkish Number 1 Marsel Ilhan, but his clay court pedigree should prove too strong. Albert Montanes meets compratiot Ruben Ramirez-Hidalgo who may struggle to replicate the form that beat Marin Cilic against an opponent that will know his game well and also holds a 5-2 head to head advantage.
Stanislas Wawrinka can be a hard player to read and drops far too many sloppy sets to really pose a threat at the Grand Slam level. He can be really good at times, while at others looking lost on the court. However, his 'B - Game' should be good enough to progress.
MY PICKS: Womens Treble: Hantuchova, Mattek-Sands and Kuznetsova @ 2.8 (2 Units)
Mens Treble: Garcia-Lopez, Montanes and Wawrinka @ 2.03 (2 Units)
Gael Monfils - 7.5 games @ 1.83 Bet365 (2 Units)
Mikhail Youzhny - 5.5 games @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Sam Stosur - 6.5 games @ 2.10 Paddy Power (2 Units)
French Open: + 1.04 Units
Tuesday, 24 May 2011
The biggest news of Day 2 actually affected my staking plan for the tournament as Tomas Berdych was beaten by Stephane Robert. Berdych, who reached the Semi Final here last year, was cruising with a 2 set lead but then failed to follow through and was beaten in 5 sets.
It cant have made the Czech player feel much better knowing Robert had never won a 5 set match, never won at a Grand Slam and is currently ranked at Number 140 in the World.
Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer came through difficult looking 1st Round ties with the minimal of fuss, while the likes of Richard Gasquet, Mardy Fish, Gael Monfil, Nikolay Davydenko and Juan Martin Del Potro all encountered few problems.
Hopefully the tournament will heat up as the week progresses as there are some cracking potential matches beginning to take shape.
Now on to the Day 3 picks:
Robin Soderling - 9.5 games vs Benjamin Becker: Over the last couple of years, Soderling has enjoyed some fine success at Roland Garros. This year he will be aided by the balls that move faster and conditions seem to suit him in Paris.
Add to the mixture that Becker has been off the tour for a few weeks and has not played a game on the red dirt this season and Soderling holds a 3-0 lead in the head to head record without losing a set, and the Swede has to be favoured.
The spread is big, but Soderling usually starts serving first and I imagine he may get off to a flyer with Becker being a little match rusty.
Santiago Giraldo vs Pablo Andujar: I am picking the underdog in this game for a couple of reasons. First off, Giraldo has beaten Andujar twice on this surface in their head to head, without losing a set, although both meetings were a few seasons ago and both took place in Giraldo's home country.
Giraldo has also picked up the better results of late on the red dirt, only being beaten by the likes of Rafa Nadal, Robin Soderling and Mardy Fish in recent tournaments, all top 10 players. Andujar had lost 4 in a row before beating Grigor Dimitrov and Julien Benneteau in Nice last week.
However, defeats to Paulo Lorenzi and Alejandro Falla are not such good results and I think Giraldo has the game to make his breakthrough in a Grand Slam after losing in 5 sets here and at Wimbledon last year.
Fernando Verdasco win 3-1 in sets vs Juan Monaco: This is one of the most intriguing match ups on the entire 1st Round in the Men's draw as Fernando Verdasco is having a poor season so far and plays against a man he has struggled against in the past.
Verdasco may not have had the kind of year we have come to expect after he reached the Australian Open Semi Final in 2009, but I have to admit he looked something close to his best in the first 2 sets against Robin Soderling in Rome a couple of weeks ago. He blew 3 match points in that game before losing in 3 sets, but has shown there is still some life in his tennis.
Monaco leads the head to head 7-2, winning 5 of their last 6 meetings, but the last 2 had extenuating circumstances and I can forgive Verdasco those defeats.
The balls are flying quicker through the courts and the conditions should give Verdasco the edge here. Mentally I can see him dropping 1 set in the contest, but I feel the Spaniard will come through in 4 sets against an opponent that he can outhit on a court with faster conditions as he did in Madrid 2 years ago.
My Picks: Robin Soderling - 9.5 games @ 1.83 Paddy Power (3 Units)
Santiago Giraldo win @ 2.05 Canbet (2 Units)
Fernando Verdasco win 3-1 @ 4.0 Bet365 (1 Unit)
French Open Record: + 0.04 Units
Monday, 23 May 2011
Still, United have a big European Final to look forward to on Saturday and 3 months can fly by with various trips to the bars after work, watching all the posh people at Wimbledon for the tennis, and the Major League Baseball season hotting up.
One thing I have never understood about the Premier League is why they pick their Player of the Year and Team of the Year so early in the season? They say its something to do with making sure all the players vote, but surely they could open it up today and finish the voting in 10 days time and announce the winners in the first week of June.
Well I have the luxury of not being a player (luxury? Think I would rather have the hardship of earning £50,000 a week and voting in January in all honesty) and have created my Team of the Year below:
There were not many goalkeepers that really stood out for me this season, and my choice came down to Ali Al-Habsi of Wigan and Edwin Van der Sar at Manchester United. The first choice may surprise some people, but Al-Habsi displaced Chris Kirkland as the Number 1 at the DW Stadium during the season and has had some really good performances.
He did make a couple of mistakes, most notably in the 1-0 loss to Manchester City a couple of months ago, but generally Al-Habsi was solid and helped keep Wigan in the Premier League.
However, for consistency, Van der Sar surely has no rival and proved beyond doubt that he is still at the top of his game. The Dutchman will be hard to replace at Old Trafford, and I really hope he can go out in the same manner as Peter Schmeichel, holding the Champions League trophy aloft.
Possibly one of the hardest positions to fill this season with very few outstanding players here. The player I have ended up picking is Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea. The Serbian is a consistent performer for the most part and has really made the right back position his own at Stamford Bridge.
He may favour the centre back position, but there really are not too many that provide his consistency at this position.
The PFA Team of the Year picked Ashley Cole here, but I have gone with Leighton Baines of Everton. Defensively he has been sound, while his crossing and ability from a set piece has helped Everton no end this season. It is no surprise he has been linked away from Goodison Park this Summer and I think he has a genuine chance of fulfilling a full international career with Everton as Cole looks on the way down from his peak.
Another who deserves a mention is Jose Enrique of Newcastle. The Spaniard looked like a rabbit in the headlights in his debut season in the Premier League, but a year in the Championship strengthened him up and he has been brilliant all season. Enrique has pace, power, and is a threat going forward as well as defending superbly... He is another who looks set to move to a bigger club in the Summer.
My first choice here was easy- Nemanja Vidic. With Rio Ferdinand missing chunks of the season, it was down to the new Manchester United skipper to lead by example and help Chris Smalling through games and he has been a real key foundation in the title winning side. Vidic has proven he is a leader, and he remains a tower of strength in the back 4 at Old Trafford. The next big step for the Serb will be to help the new goalkeeper bed in to the club.
The second choice comes from across Manchester in the form of Vincent Kompany. Kompany was expected to be one of Europe's top players in his time at Anderlecht, but it is at City this season that he has been the most consistent player in the backline. His pace allows him to help others out of trouble, and he has become a real leader in the absence of Kolo Toure. Kompany is still young and City have a solid foundation to build upon.
This is another easy choice for me to make- Nani. The Portuguese winger was sensational in the first few months of the seasons, scoring key goals and creating them too. He really has been playing well up until a few weeks ago coinciding with the return of Antonio Valencia. Nani has not been as effective on the left as he has on the right, and seems to be trying too hard at the moment.
If he can return to his form up until March, Nani can become a big performer at Old Trafford.
This is one of the tougher positions to pick a winner and it came down to Gareth Bale and Ashley Young. Bale was magnificent in the early part of the season, but injuries have really made his season a stop-start one, while it is arguable to say that his best performances have come in the Champions League.
I would also go a step further and say Bale was not so effective in games against Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City this season, although he did play well at the Emirates against Arsenal.
Ashley Young, on the other hand, has been incredibly consistent for most of the season in a team that has been struggling. He made an impact at international level and has been widely assumed to be the player that Manchester United came close to signing in the January window.
Young is bound for bigger and better things this Summer and I would still not be surprised if he was to walk through the doors at Old Trafford. His performances have been solid for most of the season and he deserves his spot.
Over the last few seasons, this category would have been dominated by the likes of Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas, but I none of those 4 players merit a place in this team.
Charlie Adam was an important piece of the puzzle at Blackpool and his 12 goals and ability from set pieces have to be respected. Jack Wilshire has had a solid first season in the middle for Arsenal and looks to provide the bite the midfield has been lacking for a few seasons.
The first player to get in to my team is Yaya Toure. Toure is a player I thought could have played a huge role at United with his defensive ability, but his move to Manchester City has shown there is a player with an eye for goal, as well as the ability to get box-to-box in games.
Toure's drive reminds me of Patrick Vieira in his pomp at Arsenal and he is young enough to provide some real steel to the City midfield for some time to come... Still dont think he is worth a reported £220,000 per week after tax though!!
I would partner Toure with Rafael Van der Vaart at Tottenham. It can be argued that he went through a period where he was not performing to a high standard, and was being brought off on a regular basis by Harry Redknapp, but Van der Vaart has scored plenty of goals and really helped add another dimension to the Tottenham attack.
The Dutchman had a solid first season in a new league and it will be interesting to know what his plans are now that Spurs are no longer competing in the Champions League.
This is another category with the usual suspects- Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres- failed to fire, although one player has been consistent in his performances for the last few seasons, Carlos Tevez.
Tevez scored 20 goals in the League this season, and his influence at the City of Manchester Stadium surely was the key to the team winning the FA Cup and securing a Champions League place this season. The Argentine may already have played his last game for City, but it was yet another successful season on the pitch for him.
I had a couple of choices as to who to partner him with- Javier Hernandez has been a real revelation at Manchester United while Dimitar Berbatov finished as joint top scorer with Tevez. Peter Odemwingie's goals were inspirational in keeping West Brom in the Premier League, while Robin Van Persie had his best goal scoring year at Arsenal.
However, I decided to pick Darren Bent although the others all had strong cases. There has been a direct correlation with Sunderland's bad run of form and Aston Villa picking up form with the transfer of Bent from the former to the latter.
Bent has proved himself a more than capable scorer at this level and is likely to get more chances with England on the back of his performances. He scored against Manchester United, Arsenal , Manchester City and Liverpool this season for either Sunderland or Aston Villa which shows he is not merely a flat-track bully.
Player of the Year
I would have picked Nemanja Vidic for this award as he has been consistent and a real leader for Manchester United while being partnered by different players. All at Old Trafford should be proud of him as the Captain.
2nd- Carlos Tevez, 3rd- Nani
Manager of the Year
I have to give a lot of respect to the likes of Tony Pulis at Stoke, Owen Coyle at Bolton and Ian Holloway at Blackpool for the way they have performed this season. Holloway would have definitely made my top 3 if he had kept Blackpool in the Premier League, while both Pulis and Coyle have done fantastic jobs at unfashionable clubs.
However, the winner, and I may be biased, is Sir Alex Ferguson. He has guided perhaps the weakest Manchester United squad in recent years to a Premier League title and also a place in the showpiece Final of the Champions League against Barcelona.
The biggest compliment he can receive is that if he managed any of the sides that finished in the top 4, I believe they would have won the League, and to take this transitional team to title number 19 is an incredible achievement.
2nd- Tony Pulis, 3rd- Owen Coyle
Cilic's defeat was a real shock and I wonder how much was down to the windy conditions in Paris yesterday. On a brighter note, he was a real threat to my Tomas Berdych e/w pick to win the tournament and now leaves the Czech player with a pretty big hole to get through to the Quarter Finals.
Let's hope for a better day today.
It is actually a tough day in the men's section and I have decided on the following:
1st Round Treble for Monday: Mardy Fish vs Ricardo Mello, Richard Gasquet vs Radek Stepanek, Victor Hanescu vs Benoit Paire: All 3 players are short priced favourites but should be good enough to see off their opponents here and this pays out at odds against... just.
I dont want to rush and make rash decisions this early in a tournament, especially where the bookmakers have been especially tight on this 2nd day to not give anything away. Hopefully Day 3 will give us more options than this.
My Picks: Fish, Gasquet and Hanescu Treble @ 2.04 (2 Units)
French Open Record 2011: - 2 Units
Sunday, 22 May 2011
Tsonga has also showed some decent form in the last 2 Masters tournaments on clay courts in Madrid and Rome and faces a journeyman opponent that has struggled in the last 4 Grand Slams at this level.
Tsonga did struggle in the early rounds here last year, but this is the perfect draw for his game to grow into this tournament.
Marin Cilic - 8.5 games vs Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo: This looks like a mismatch as Ramirez Hidalgo is in the twilight of his career and has been struggling to win matches, just gaining the W in 2 of his last 8 matches.
Cilic is a solid player that has not had the best of seasons, but his game should be too big for the Spaniard here and I expect the big server to come through in 3 fairly easy sets.
Ernest Gulbis vs Blaz Kavcic, Adrian Mannarino vs Guillermo Rufin Double: Both of these guys are a little inconsistent with their play, but they are facing much weaker oppositiona and there looks to be enough about their games to come through, even if it takes 5 sets to do so.
MY PICKS DAY 1: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 8.5 Games @ 2.00 (3 Units)
Marin Cilic - 8.5 Games @ 2.00 (3 Units)
Ernest Gulbis and Adrian Mannarino Double @ 2.33 (2 Units)
All the talk coming into Roland Garros this season is around the Novak Djokovic 37 match winning run to open the 2011 season. Djokovic has collected the Australian Open and 4 Masters Events during this run and has a real chance to overtake John McEnroe's 42 game winning run to start a season.
In saying all that, I still believe this will the hardest tournament for Djokovic to win in terms of pushing his fitness and having the task to eventually beat Rafael Nadal over a best of 5 set match. The Serb looked fatigued in Rome and it will be interesting to see how he holds up in the next fortnight.
Men's tennis is in a really good period at the moment with great rivalries developing and there is plenty of depth in the draw. I will break down each Quarter and eventually lead to a couple of picks that can hopefully bring home a profit at the end of the tournament.
I will also be putting up picks for each day of the tournament so without further ado, lets look at the draw:
The first quarter is headed up by the World Number 1 (on rankings at least) Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard also happens to have lost just 1 match in 39 at this tournament while winning it 5 times and has the chance to equal Bjorn Borg's record of 6 French Open titles.
The main threat in this section of the draw is Nadal's one and only French Open conquerer, Robin Soderling. The courts here in Paris really suit the Swede's game and he will remember he has beaten Nadal here before, although he will have to erase the ease of his defeat in the Final last season.
Other threats in this section are Mardy Fish, the highest ranked American and a significantly improved player on this surface and Fernando Verdasco, although the Spaniard has been in a rut of form for almost 12 months now.
John Isner is the first opponent for Nadal, but I dont expect problems on this surface and the first real test could be the potential 3rd Round meeting with Nikolay Davydenko. Davydenko has not really been in the best of form this season, but has won a title on clay courts and could at least push the Spaniard.
12 wins from 12 against Fernando Verdasco, a potential 4th Round opponent, means Nadal is almost certain to be a Quarter Finalist.
At that stage I would expect to see a Nadal-Soderling Quarter Final, but again would favour the Spaniard to win as long as there are no injury issues.
The highest seed in this section is World Number 4 Andy Murray and I would guess he could not be happier with the way the draw has panned out. The British player looks to have a fairly relaxing opening 2 Rounds of the tournament and then could face a couple of big servers in the forms of Milos Raonic in the 3rd Round and Alexander Dolgopolov in the 4th Round.
Raonic is a definite star in the making, but the clay courts look likely to be his least favoured surface and he has had a few injury concerns to deal with of late, while Dolgopolov is very inconsistent. Both of these players are likely to push Murray, but ultimately come up short.
There are a couple of dangerous players that could face Murray in the Quarter Finals in the forms of Jurgen Melzer and Nicolas Almagro. Melzer reached the Semi Finals in this tournament last season but has not been in the best of form of late. Almagro, on the other hand, is completely comfortable on a clay court and also gave Rafael Nadal a tough time on this surface last season.
IF Almagro can negotiate the early rounds with as little effort as possible, I think he can be a real threat to win this Quarter.
This section of the draw looks set to provide the most intriguing Quarter Final as David Ferrer and Roger Federer look set on a collision course next week.
Federer has been overlooked by many coming into this tournament, but has been handed a tricky, yet more than achievable, section to negotiate. An opener against Feliciano Lopez looks more intriguing after their close battle in Madrid, but these courts will not help Lopez' game and I expect the former World Number 1 to get through.
Federer also has a couple of tough looking games with Janko Tipsarevic and Stanislas Wawrinka to get through before the Quarter Finals, but both players are inconsistent and may struggle to mentally believe they can beat Federer in 3 out of 5 set matches.
David Ferrer's path through to the clash with Federer looks a lot more straight forward with the toughest assignment being a potential 4th Round clash with home favourite Gael Monfils. Monfils has beaten Ferrer in their 2 previous meetings, including once at this tournament, but has been struggling to string wins together.
Federer has beaten Ferrer in all 12 previous meetings, including 4 times on clay, and it would be hard to see Ferrer overturn that here in the longer formats of a Grand Slam. Ferrer has been in better recent form on this surface than the Swiss man, but mentally it could be hard for him to overcome this hurdle.
The final quarter of the draw is where the current World Number 2, Novak Djokovic, has been placed and I cant say he would have been overly happy with the tough nature of his draw.
This section has some real dangerous characters in the form of Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet, Marin Cilic, and arguably most of all, Juan Martin Del Potro all standing in the way of progress.
Del Potro was the one man I considered the most dangerous floater in the draw as his seeding would mean an early meeting for one of the top 4 seeds. The Argentine looked set to miss this tournament when injuring himself in Madrid, but he announced he would play and has been talking up his chances.
I would expect him to get through to a 3rd Round clash with Djokovic and it is entirely possible that could go the distance if Del Potro is not feeling any effects from his first 2 Rounds in the tournament.
Following that clash, Djokovic is likely to play either Richard Gasquet (who beat Federer in Rome) or Thomas Bellucci, the Brazilian who was a set and a break up against Djokovic in Madrid. Either one of those opponents will give Djokovic another test and this is when any doubts about the Serb's fitness will be shown up.
The Quarter Final is likely to see Tomas Berdych face the World Number 2- Berdych was a Semi Finalist here last year and the clay courts in Paris definitely favour his game. Even if Djokovic is still unbeaten by this time, I have no idea what kind of physical state he will find himself.
Semi Finals and Final
At this stage of the competition, I would fully expect Rafael Nadal to negotiate whoever has come out on the Second Quarter, be it Andy Murray or Nicolas Almagro. I also expect the Spaniard would have had the least amount on court out of the 4 players left at this stage.
The other half of the draw is likely to see a fresher Roger Federer facing an opponent that could have already had a very tough time getting through what looks like a loaded Fourth Quarter.
While it is hard to suggest Novak Djokovic's run has already come to an end by this stage, the draw has not been kind to him and it is a real possibility that it is Tomas Berdych facing Federer here.
Whoever it may be will be in for a really hard game as they are likely to have spent the most amount of time on court and that may just give Federer the opportunity to face his old rival in the Final.
Roger Federer has been quoted in the press this week where he is perhaps questioning the mental state that Rafael Nadal may be in after losing 4 straight Masters Finals to Novak Djokovic. This will likely be something Nadal has heard or read himself and I think the Spaniard would only be more focused to prove a point by retaining his crown in dominating fashion.
I am really looking forward to the next couple of weeks as I expect a strong tournament with some intriguing matches. Let us hope the rain stays away in Paris and we all have a profitable tournament.
My Picks: Rafael Nadal win the tournament @ 2.0 (5 Units)
Roger Federer win the tournament @ 17.0 (1 Unit E/W)
Tomas Berdych win the tournament @ 100 (0.5 Units E/W)
Saturday, 21 May 2011
On that occasion, Jean Pascal came out swinging in the early rounds and legitimately put Bernard Hopkins on his backside, but the later rounds were dominated by the wily veteran who aims to become the oldest World Champion in the history of this fine sport.
Hopkins should not be underestimated- for a fighter who lost his first professional fight to come back and have the career he has is quite a feat in itself. He seems to be getting better with age and is one of the best underdogs to have on your side.
Felix Trinidad, Kelly Pavlik and Antonio Tarver have all been defeated in fights where Hopkins was the underdog and who would back against him surprising again.
Jean Pascal is more famous in England and Europe for his tear-up with Carl Froch in December 2008, his sole loss. However, the Haitian is more famous on the other side of the Atlantic for dethroning Chad Dawson, one of the real up and coming stars of American boxing.
The fight should develop much more in the form of the latter rounds of their first encounter as Hopkins will now be aware of the punching power Pascal has in the early rounds. I expect the veteran to steer clear and box well in the early rounds and once again begin to dominate the latter stages of the fight.
George Foreman has been around in Hopkins' corner and suggests the older man will only get the title if he wins the fight by knockout.. I dont think it will need to come to that as Hopkins will once again show his superior talent and know-all to pull the decision.
The fight might not be the most exciting of the year, and I think the scorecards will read around 117-111 in Hopkins' favour.
There is a slight chance Hopkins does get the stoppage late as Pascal becomes a little wild trying to get the knockout he will need by the time the last 3 rounds begin, but after seeing him survive a punch-up with Carl Froch, I would be surprised to see him stopped.
MY PICK: Bernard Hopkins to WIN @ 2.4 Sporting Bet (2 UNITS)
Wednesday, 18 May 2011
In saying that, I may just change my mind if Sir Alex can secure United's 4th, his own 3rd, Champions League title on the 28th May.
After guiding United to title Number 19, I thought it would be as good a time as any to determine his best eleven since first winning the title in 1993 until today. I will set the team up in a traditional 4-4-2 system that has been favoured by the manager since walking through the doors at Old Trafford.
It has perhaps become a tougher issue in the last couple of seasons, but for me you could not look beyond the Great Dane, Peter Schmeichel... He had presence and stature that few have come close to replicating, while being the first goalkeeper that would be the key to starting counter attacks.
I dont think I remember another keeper who could throw the ball as far as Schmeichel did, while that has become the norm in todays football, and who can forget some of his big performances for United.
The game at Newcastle in the 1995/96 season when Schemeichel seemed to single handedly thwart the Geordies time after time stands out, but the most endearing memory I have of the big man was the save against Rapid Vienna from under the bar in a Champions League game in 1996... It definitately rivalled the famous Gordon Banks save, if not bettered it, and it was fitting he ended his United career with the Champions League trophy held aloft in 1999.
Honourable mention: Edwin Van der Sar
Right Back: The right back position was owned for many seasons by Gary Neville and it is hard to look beyond him. Not the most talented individual, he worked hard and he partnership with David Beckham reaped plenty of rewards for the strikers. Has there been a better right back in the Premier League?
Left Back: Perhaps a little controversial, but I have picked the ever dependable Denis Irwin here ahead of Patrice Evra. Irwin was the master of performing at 7 or better in every game he pulled on the shirt, be it for Ireland or United. He also chipped in with a few goals from the position thanks to a lethal shot and I favour him here for his better defensive work than the Frenchman Evra.
Honourable mention: Patrice Evra
Centre Backs: This was a tough choice with United having some solid centre halves during their Premier League years. The likes of Ronny Johnson were underrated outside of the club, but injuries ultimately ended his time at United although he was solid in games he did start. United also had two solid partnerships in the last 18 years: the Bruce-Pallister tandem in 1993-95 and the Vidic-Ferdinand tandem we enjoy today. Out of those 4 players, I have picked solely Rio Ferdinand who has been a brilliant signing for United over the last 9 years.
I partnered him with Jaap Stam, an uncompromising defender who could physically dominate as well as having the pace to retrieve situations. It is testament to his ability that even Sir Alex admits he was the one player he feels he had sold too early and regrets that decision.
Honourable mentions: Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Nemanja Vidic
Right Wing: The obvious choice here initially was David Beckham who enjoyed his best professional seasons at United as a right winger with the capability to put the ball on any strikers head from anywhere with the magical right boot. However, it was ultimately the player signed following Beckham's departure that has made the most impact for United from this wing, Cristiano Ronaldo. While some would argue Ronaldo was a forward rather than a winger, he was regularly used from this flank with the guidelines and option to cut in field and attack the opposition down the middle.
The most exciting player at Old Trafford since George Best is an absolute shoo-in here.
Honourable mentions: Andrey Kanchelskis, David Beckham
Left Wing: It is the man who has been tearing teams apart since 1991, Ryan Giggs. He has made the position his own for most of his career at Old Trafford even if his legs no longer allow him to run up and down the wing as he used to. Giggs was well sought after around Europe in his earlier years, but the man loved United and didnt want to go anywhere else and is now the most decorated player in English football history... Maybe SIR Ryan is next?
Centre Midfield: As easy as it was picking a left winger, it was just as easy to pick Paul Scholes and Roy Keane as the centre midfield partnership. The players complemented each other fully and I dont believe there has been a better centre midfield pairing in the Premier League.
It is easy to forget that both players missed the Champions League Final of 1999, but Keane was the best midfield enforcer of his generation and Scholes the finest English footballer of his generation
Perhaps the hardest decision of all is partnering two players up front as United have a history of strong forwards capable of changing games and scoring plenty of goals.
The two I have picked here are Eric Cantona and Ruud Van Nistelrooy... Cantona was the catalyst that sparked the United success in 1993 while also helping guide the younger players of Giggs, Beckham, Scholes and the Neville brothers in the 1996 title winning season.
Van Nistelrooy was as lethal as any striker in Europe during his seasons at Old Trafford, although he perhaps had some limitations to his overall game play that ended his time in Manchester a little prematurely. However, in saying all that, I dont think I remember another striker who literally needed just half a chance to score and was as dominant in the 6 yard area as the Dutchman.
Honourable mentions: Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Wayne Rooney
It is clear during Sir Alex's title winning time at United that there have been a number of exceptional players to play at this great club and it also telling how Fergie seems to know exactly when their 'best before' date comes up at the club (barring Jaap Stam).
Fergie can ruthlessly cut a player's time at Old Trafford but that has kept the team successful for such a long period. Hopefully in the next few seasons we can see some changes made to this 'Dream Team' as it will only mean more quality has walked through the doors and United remain the top dogs in Manchester, England and hopefully Europe too.
Sunday, 15 May 2011
People feel this could be a really close series, but I think the Heat have a clear edge and the young Bulls will struggle under the pressures Miami can create.
I know the Bulls won all 3 regular season meetings, but Miami are playing much better now and all 3 losses came by a combined 8 points. Where the Heat were fallen down towards the end of games in the regular season, they have been closing strongly throughout this Play Offs.
Derrick Rose causes a matchup problem for the Heat, but I struggle to see how the Bulls contain both James and Wade who had big games against the Boston Celtics.
For the Bulls to win 4 of 7 games, they need to shoot very well from the 3 point range and also take advantage of their depth when the benches are on the court. Derrick Rose needs to be more efficient with the ball and the Defense needs to play at their regular season level rather than Play Off version.
For the Heat, it will all be won and lost in the hands of their Big Three. When these guys are on, the Heat are very hard to stop. The likes of Joel Anthony continue playing very effectively, but the series could come down to how many shots the likes of Mike Bibby, James Jones, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller can make when they are open from the 3 point line.
The series should be fun to watch, but I cant look beyond the Miami Heat who are playing some really good stuff. With the Bulls having home court advantage, it is entirely possible the Heat will look to win just 1 of the first 2 Games of the series in the Windy City, and then close the show at home.
I'll pick the Miami Heat to come through in 6 Games
MY PICK: Miami Heat - 1.5 Games in the Series @ 2.1 (Ladbrokes)