Weekend Roundup (November, 12th): CoCo Vandeweghe shines as USA reclaims the Fed Cup title

Seventeen years ago, when the United States claimed their 17th Fed Cup at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, you would have to be borderline crazy to wager that it would take almost two decades to bag No.18.

After all, four Grand Slam Champions (Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Lisa Raymond) had just thrashed Spain to capture a second consecutive title, and two young phenomena by the name of Serena and Venus Williams were already in the process of changing the WTA Tour and collecting Majors by the bucket load. However, having tasted victory in 1999, the Williams sisters have sparingly participated in the competition this century and by notably skipping the American’s last three Final appearances (2003, 2009, 2010), they left the job for the likes of Meghann Shaughnessy (2003), Alexa Glatch (2009) or Melanie Oudin (2009/2010).

From this perspective, it’s perhaps not as surprising that the most successful nation in the history of the tournament had to toil for so long to reclaim world domination, the wait for a new generation of female tennis stars finally paying off this season. Shrugging off a broken-down Germany squad (4-0) in Hawai last February, and a weakened Czech Republic (3-2) in Tampa two months later, the Americans were back in the decider and prohibitive favourites ahead of the slew of matches in Minsk’s Čyžoŭka-Arena.

Ultimately, no adverse conditions should make up for the massive disparity between the two sides, with the visitors fielding a top-10 player and a Grand Slam Champion while the modest Belarus countered with two players ranked outside the top 70 and trying to step up, once again, for two-time Australian Open Champion Viktoria Azarenka, a national hero stranded in California, USA, due to an ugly custody battle for her infant son.

Aliaksandra Sasnovich was instrumental to Belarus on their way to a first Fed Cup Final (The Associated Press)

Having operated their fair share of miracles without Azarenka, ousting rivals Russia in Moscow on the 2016 World Group playoffs and shocking the Netherlands (4-1) and Switzerland (3-2) in emotional home ties to reach the Final in their maiden World Group appearance, Belarus’ magic would certainly have to run away at some point, and when an authoritarian CoCo Vandeweghe defeated Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-4, 6-4 in the first rubber, many thought the USA would breeze to victory.

However, Belarus still had a few more rabbits to pluck of their hat and Aryna Sabalenka, their pugnacious 19-year-old, decided to throw caution to the wind against US Open Champion Sloane Stephens in the second match; dozens of winners (31) and plenty more unforced errors (57) later (6-3, 3-6, 6-4), she actually managed to level the score at the end of day 1.

Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka reacts after defeating Sloane Stephens in game 2 of the 2017 Fed Cup Final (Getty Images)

Unimpressed, Vandeweghe bounced Sabalenka (7-6, 6-1) to push the USA to the brink of the title Sunday morning, yet Stephens, winless since her triumph in Flushing Meadows, succumbed again, this time to Sasnovich after an exhilarating 4-6, 6-1, 8-6 classic, the home crowd urging the World No.78 as she erased a 2-5 deficit in the third set.

Belarus extraordinary campaign merited the fifth and decisive rubber, a doubles match that could give Sasnovich and Sabalenka immortality if they were able to complete the greatest team sports achievement in their country’s history; however it wasn’t meant to be.

The conspicuous Vandeweghe and partner Shelby Rogers took the first set by 6-3, and then endured the pressure long enough in the second, coming back from 2-5 to crucially break serve three consecutive times and force the tiebreak. The dreams of a nation, the fairy-tale ending, hanged by a threat and it would evaporate when a wayward forehand from a fatigued Sasnovich collided into the netting, a celebration 17 years in the making erupting in its place after an historic performance from a surging 25-year-old star.

Defeated in 2010, well before evolving into an elite singles and doubles players and two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, CoCo Vandeweghe has come a long way since she was, simply, a promising teenager crestfallen by a loss to Italy in San Diego. Contributing with 8 total points and the maximum of 6 singles victories, an unprecedented feat since the World Group format was tweaked in 2005, Vandeweghe is now a Fed Cup legend, the perfect cherry on the top of her breakthrough WTA season.

With the Fed Cup handed out to the USA, the 2017 season for the women’s tour is officially over. Hence, attentions will now turn in full for the men, whose ATP Finals started Sunday in London right after the end of its new-fangled appetizer, the Next Generation ATP Finals.

Held in Milan for the first time, this season-ending event for the best singles players that are age 21 and under stood out particularly for the trial of a series of innovative rule changes tested for the first time in a competitive environment. The most interesting solutions included shorter sets (first to four games in each set with tie break at 3-All), no lets, no line judges  – with all calls made by Hawk-eye –  and possibility of on-court coaching and spectator movement during the match, nonetheless it’s still to be seen whether it can really increase the appeal of the game amongst sports fans.

As for the tennis, the tournament was won by Hyeon Chung, the first player from South Korea to lift an ATP Tour trophy since 2003. Victorious in all three group matches, the 21-year-old survived a tough, five set semi-final against Daniil Medvedev, and then defeated another Russian, World No. 35 Andrey Rublev, by 3-4(5) 4-3(2) 4-2 4-2 in the Final contested at the Fiera Milano.

Alpine skiing: Joy for Petra Vlhová and Felix Neureuther in Levi

Situated deep into the Arctic Circle (latitude 67.8°N), the weather in Levi is too chilling in winter for even the staunchest members of the white circus, making it impossible to hold a sporting event in Finland’s largest ski resort later in the season. Therefore, Lapland always kicks off the World Cup proceedings in respect to the most technical of the alpine disciplines, and the brightest slalom racers have gotten used to thriving from the get-go.

In 2016, ski stars Marcel Hirscher and Mikaela Shiffrin triumphed in Levi in the dawn of their winning campaigns, but they would strike out this time. We won’t know for a few months if this is a sign of things to come, but the road to retain their titles is certainly full of dangers and prospective rivals came out guns blazing for the first clash.

The World Cup venue in Levi in Finnish Lapland (Fis-Ski.com)

Shiffrin, the reigning slalom World, Olympic and World Cup Champion, once again showcased her unmatched mastery of the short skies in Levi, breezing to take the lead after the first run on Saturday, yet a sensational second leg by Slovak Petra Vlhová denied her intents of a third career victory in Finland. Racing off the blocks with a 0.21 second-disadvantage, the 22-year-old clocked 54.11s in the second turn for a combined 1:49.98 aggregated time, which Mikaela Shiffrin would miss by a tenth of a second. In Levi, the top duo was on a class of their own, with the third place finisher, Swiss Wendy Holdener, blowing past Frida Hansdotter to claim bronze some 1.25 seconds off the winners pace, nevertheless setting up a podium with the same three ladies of 2016 but in a different configuration.

The up-and-coming Vlhová, third twelve months ago, collected her third career win to push her rivals down a peg, and as consequence ascended to second in the overall classification, 10 pts behind Shiffrin, which is nice and all, but lags in comparison to the honour of naming a reindeer for the first time, the singular dividend granted to World Cup winners in Levi.

Levi Slalom winner Petra Vlhová makes new friends after collecting her prize (SITA/AP)

An amazed Vlhová wouldn’t disclose her choice in the immediate moments after the race, however the men’s victor had no such qualms. Veteran Felix Neureuther recently fathered a girl, and young Matilda will someday meet her namesake since the German skier was offered an unexpected gift in Levi.

Trailing British Dave Ryding after the first run by 0.14 seconds, Neureuther went fast in the second leg but not as much as the 30-year-old, whose advantage grew to more than half a second by the middle of the course. On a harmless left turn, though, Ryding would stumble a bit and miss the next gate, handing out to Neureuther a 13th career victory and the first since February 2016.

Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, the discipline’s 2015-16 crystal globe winner, took runner-up honours on the day while Swedish veteran Mattias Hargin posted the second best time of the second leg to grab an eight career podium and edge Swiss duo Luca Aerni and Daniel Yule, who tied for fourth, just 0.09 seconds away from a maiden podium for either man. As for the six-time overall World Cup Champion Marcel Hirscher, making a surprising appearance less than three months after breaking the left ankle in training, he was fourth at the mid-point of the event before surrendering to lack of form, concluding in 17th.

German Felix Neureuther (C) was flanked on the podium in Levi by Henrik Kristoffersen (R) and Mattias Hargin (L) (Lehtikuva/Vesa Moilanen via REUTERS )

The FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup returns in two weeks in North American soil. On the 25th-26th, the men will be in Lake Louise (Canada) for the inaugural downhill and Super-G events of the year, while the women tackle two technical events (GS, slalom) south of the border in Killington, Vermont.

Football: Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Croatia and Switzerland punch their tickets to Russia

The final international break of 2017 is also the ultimate opportunity to clinch a place in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, making these days a whirlwind for the national teams still in contention. From the nine open spots, five have already been claimed and the rest will be awarded until Wednesday night, so let’s take a look at the latest from World Cup qualifying.

CAF

Nigeria and Egypt, already qualified since October, met their travel companions on the weekend as the African qualifiers reached their climax.

In Group A, Tunisia knew in advance that a point was enough regardless of RD Congo’s result against Guinea, and Les Aigles de Carthage fulfilled their duties, securing a nervous goalless draw at home against neighbours Libya to return to the world stage 12 years after the last appearance.

Fellow North African side Morocco is also heading to Russia after locking down Group C with a famous victory in Abidjan. Still to concede a goal entering the last game, the Lions of the Atlas stunned the Ivory Coast in the first half when Nabil Dirar and defender Medhi Benatia scored on a five-minute blitz, and then milked the clock to guarantee a result that served their intents. Morocco will make its first World Cup appearance since France 1998, while the Ivorians miss out after three consecutive tournaments.

Filling out CAF’s five team representation, Senegal will return to the World Cup after their only previous appearance ended in the quarter-finals in 2002. Back in South Africa to play a rematch of the encounter that had been annulled by allegations of match fixing, Senegal proved stronger than the Bafana Bafana this time and took the vital three points courtesy of an own goal and a marker from striker Diafra Sakho. With the victory, they amassed 11 pts, five more than Cape Verde and Burkina Faso with a round to go.

UEFA

Four playoff series were in order to complete UEFA’s 14-team contingent, and half are already consummated.

Northern Ireland – Switzerland, 0-1 on aggregate

On what was probably Northern Ireland’s most important match in 30 years, the hosts played second fiddle to a disciplined Switzerland team that dominated the ball in Belfast and deserved more than a victory tainted by a ludicrous refereeing mistake. Xherdan Shaqiri, Haris Seferovic and Granit Xhaka wasted good opportunities, but the visitors would eventually get their breakthrough in the 58th minute, the Romanian Ovidiu Hategan somehow detecting a deliberate handball from midfielder Corry Evans after a shot from Shaqiri, and left back Ricardo Rodriguez coolly converting the penalty on the game winner.

Absent from the World Cup since 1986, Northern Ireland lacked the artifice to threaten the Swiss goal and they went into the second leg, in Basel, with the daunting task of rescuing the tie away from home. A gutsy effort in the water-drenched pitch of the St. Jakob-Park kept Michael O’Neill’s men in the fray until the final moments, but when Rodriguez cleared a ball on the goal line in injury time, their dream was over. Switzerland will be in Russia for a fourth consecutive World Cup appearance.

Croatia – Greece, 4-1 on aggregate

Deprived of defensemen Vasilis Torosidis and Kostas Manolas, Greece wilted under the pressure of a talented Croatian team to all but seal their fate after the first leg in Zagreb (4-1).

The early mistake by goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis allowed Luka Modric to open the score from the penalty spot, shortly after Nikola Kalinic augmented the advantage for the hosts, and not even Sokratis Papastathopoulos header to pull one back inspired the 2004 European Champions to a rally. Their slim hopes were engulfed by the strikes of Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric, putting the tie squarely in Croatia’s corner, and with a comfortable three-goal advantage, Zlatko Dalic’s squad entered the Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis at ease. Croatia easily managed the game in Athens, held the 0-0 and booked a trip to Russia, barely bothered by an insipid Greece that couldn’t direct a shot on goal, at home, for 87 minutes.

Since their first World Cup qualification as an independent nation (France 1998), Croatia only missed out in 2010.

Sweden – Italy, 1-0 (2nd leg on Monday)

The only former World Champion yet to book a place in Russia, Italy will have to improve dramatically from their performance in Stockholm to avoid a first absence from the World Cup final tournament since 1958.

At the Friends Arena last Friday, the Azzurri were outplayed by a plucky Swedish side aspiring to end a 12-year World Cup drought, and Jakob Johansson’s drive, deflected on the way to goal by Daniele de Rossi, was simply the materialization of it. Without the suspended Marco Verrati, Italy will have to turn around the tie at the San Siro on Monday, or Gianluigi Buffon’s 175th international cap may well be his last.

 

Denmark – Republic of Ireland, 0-0 (2nd leg on Tuesday)

The visitors from the Republic of Ireland flew to Copenhagen determined to keep the deadlock for as long as possible, and they completed their mission with success, dragging Denmark to a dreadful game of football.

Neither team looked particularly capable of engineering a goal throughout the 90 minutes at the Parken, but they’ll need to do it in Dublin, on Tuesday, if they want to avoid taking their chances on a penalty shootout. Were they to succeed and go through, Denmark would return to the World Cup after last showing up in South Africa, while Ireland’s last appearance dates back to 2002.

Inter Confederation playoffs

Honduras 0-0 Australia. New Zealand 0-0 Peru. Four teams, two matches, 0 goals.

Fans in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Wellington, New Zealand, left the stadiums frustrated by the lack of offensive entrepreneurship as their teams’ chances of going to Russia took a dip. Conversely, a home win is all that separates Australia and Peru from the objective, but you shouldn’t be surprised if things go down to the wire in the return legs to come.

Australia and Honduras drew 0-0 in the first leg of their 2018 World Cup playoff (Reuters)

On Wednesday, Sidney will stop to discover whether the Socceroos will qualify for a fourth consecutive World Cup or Honduras will make it three in a row and, a few hours later, the spotlight will shift to Lima, where the 32nd and last spot will be snatched, either by the hosts, who haven’t qualified since 1982, or the visiting Kiwis, last seen dawdling in South Africa seven years ago.

Moment of the weekend

Dave Ryding was a man on his way to history until disaster knocked him down with the same weight of a glacial blow from freezing Artic wind.

On his second slalom run in the slope of Levi (Finland), with the finish line in sight, a small skid off a turn was all it took to wreck Ryding’s perfect exhibition. The theatrical nature of slalom racing was in full display as he tumbled, and Great Britain’s wait for a maiden victory on the Alpine skiing World Cup continues.

 

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Weekend Roundup (November, 5th): Sock’ed in and the Final absolutely no one saw coming

Positioned on the calendar as the last regular ATP tournament of the year, the Paris Masters 1000 is premium territory for surprises and breakout runs, blending in-form journeyman making a late surge for crucial points ahead of the new season, everyday competitors fighting the effects of the long season, top-level guys chasing a position in the year-end Championships and stars managing their energies in preparation for the ATP Tour Finals.

Five years ago, this cocktail resulted in a Cinderella run by a qualifier, the unknown Jerzy Janowicz, and 2017, the year of “Stranger things”  in tennis, was probably predestined for a rehash. Like the Pole Janowicz, Serbian Filip Krajinović had flown under the radar of most tennis fans until this week, however he did enough to warrant consideration, amassing five titles and 47 match victories on the ATP Challenger Tour throughout 2017, and then found a way to put it all together in the City of Light.

With one match victory recorded previously at the ATP Masters 1000 level, the 25-year-old waltzed past the qualifying in France and then brushed aside 10th seed Sam Querrey and 9th seed John Isner on his way to the Final, Rafa Nadal’s withdrawal before their quarter-final matchup simply a blip on the road.

Filip Krajinović reacts during his semi-final encounter against John Isner in Paris

By sake of our comparison, where Janowicz had a hammer of a service, Krajinović has a big two-handed backhand, and both have in common a massive jump towards a career-high ranking after their magical run – the Serbian from 77 to No. 33 in the World – and eventual defeat to a more experienced, yet first-time Masters 1000 winner. In 2012, Spanish veteran David Ferrer took the trophy, the most important of his career, this time American Jack Sock avenged his compatriots to claim the biggest honour of his (singles) career after three hard-fought sets (5–7, 6–4, 6–1) and 118 minutes.

While this edition will be remembered as the tournament of Krajinović, particularly if he fails to build on it like Janowicz, in the grand scheme of things Jack Sock’s triumph looms way larger,  delivering a sensational final twist on the ATP Race to London. Entering the week, 10 men were vying for the last two spots available in the ATP Tour Finals’ lineup, and after Belgian David Goffin secured one despite losing in round three, the race went down to the wire.

For much of the tournament, Juan Martin Del Potro looked poised to confiscate the place of Pablo Carreño Busta (eliminated in round two), yet the Argentine succumbed to Isner in the quarter-finals, and the American’s subsequent loss to Krajinović swung the door wide open for Sock, the man fiddling with the lowest odds at the beginning of the tournament.

American Jack Sock returns a ball during the Final of the Rolex Paris Masters on Sunday (AFP Photo/CHRISTOPHE SIMON)

The World No. 22 needed everything to go his way, from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s withdrawals, to the successive failures of his rivals and other major names in the draw – none of the top 8 seeds made it to a Masters’ last four for the first time in sixteen years –  and he seized the opportunity when the improbable happened to conquer his third title of 2017. A 25-year-old from Nebraska, Sock is also the first American to lift a singles trophy at the Masters 1000 level since Andy Roddick in 2010 (Miami), and he will gallop into the top 10 for the first time, holding the ninth spot ahead of the ATP Finals.

With Paris in the books, the men’s tennis season will run for three more weeks, with the maiden Next Generation ATP Finals, featuring the best under-21 players in the ATP Tour, starting on November 7th and being followed by the ATP Finals and the Davis Cup Final.

Conversely, on the women’s ranks, only the 2017 Fed Cup is still to be awarded after the WTA Elite Trophy concluded Sunday in Zhuhai, China.  The year-end tournament, contested by the top eleven players that didn’t qualify for the 2017 WTA Finals (plus wild card Shuai Peng) was captured by German Julia Görges, who swiftly moved from a six-year trophy drought to two consecutive tournament victories in the final weeks of 2017.

After defeating 1st seed Kristina Mladenovic and Slovakia’s Magdaléna Rybáriková in the round robin phase, the 29-year-old proceeded to vanquish Latvian Anastasija Sevastova (6-2, 6-3) in the semi-finals and American CoCo Vandeweghe (7-5, 6-1) in the Final to lift the most significant trophy of her career without dropping a set. Consequently, Görges ends the year on a nine-match winning streak and as the World No. 14, her best ever ranking.

Football: Man United capitulates to Chelsea to extend Man City’s gap at the top

Even if he claims otherwise, José Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge as an opponent will always be a special occasion for the man and Chelsea fans. Unfortunately for the Portuguese manager, it is also becoming significant for reasons that extend beyond the emotional realm, since for the fourth time in the same number of visits with Manchester United, he left empty-handed. An Alvaro Morata header was all it took for the Blues to overcome the Red Devils (1-0), and they moved to within one point of their adversary and rivals Tottenham in the standings.

With an injury-depleted lineup, the Spurs managed to battle past a feisty (and recovering) Crystal Palace side at Wembley – a long-range shot from Heung-min Son the difference on the day – and remain in the fray, yet another round came and went without a rebuff to the notion that this is Manchester City’s league to lose. On the other blockbuster matchup of round 11, the Citizens amassed a ninth consecutive victory by defeating Arsenal (3-1) at the Etihad to extend their lead to 8 points, with Arsène Wenger’s team threatening at times but never looking particularly close to snatching the draw.

With the loss, the Londoners dropped to sixth, their 19 pts levelled with the surprising Burnley, winners at Southampton (0-1), and Liverpool, who cruised past West Ham (1-4) to drop the hammer on Slaven Bilic’s coaching tenure. With two wins on the year, West Ham fell into the relegation zone, from which Everton exited after a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Watford (3-2).

Ligue 1

Goals, goals and more goals. A full boatload of them in round 12 for France’s top four, who combined for a 21-0 record this week.

Five tallies for leaders Paris St. Germain in Angers, Neymar’s absence a mere footnote when you have Kylian Mbappé (2) and Edison Cavani (2). Six for AS Monaco at the principality, with Argentine striker Guido Carrillo filling in for Radamel Falcao and young Adama Traoré netting a brace against Guingamp. Five for Olympique Marseille in the reception to Caen, two of them courtesy of French international Florian Thauvin. And, finally, five for Olympique Lyon on a one-sided Derby Rhône-Alpes, with Nabil Fékir stirring the pot in Saint Etiénne’s face after center-back Léo Lacroix was ejected early on the second half with the score sitting at a respectable 0-2.

As a result of the goal scoring festival, PSG keeps the four-point advantage over Monaco, the seven points above Lyon’s total, and the eight over Marseille, with Nantes hanging in fifth place after a 2-1 victory over Toulouse. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the table, the afflicted Lille returned to the winning column for the first time since round 1, the three points obtained in the venue of last-place Metz (0-3) not enough to leave the relegation zone, but providing some temporary relief nonetheless.

La Liga

Far from authoring their best performance of the year, frontrunners FC Barcelona collected a tenth victory in 11 games after dispatching Sevilla at the Camp Nou (2-1) on Saturday. Much-maligned forward Paco Alcácer notched both tallies on Leo Messi’s 600th game for the Blaugrana, and their four-point advantage stays intact for another week since second-place Valencia keeps hoarding the goals and the points.

This week, Los Che gifted their fans with three more of each against Leganés, and they’re still unbeaten on the season and navigating clear of both Madrid outfits, which healed their European scars with triumphs one week before meeting at the Wanda Metropolitano. While Champions Real Madrid bounced back from two consecutive defeats with a comfortable 3-0 win over Las Palmas, Atlético’s scoring woes continued in Galicia. a last-minute free kick from Ghanian midfielder Thomas Partey eventually secured the three-points against Deportivo La Coruña, but Diego Simeone’s men will need to step up their level to hold back a team like Villarreal, fifth with 20 points after a 2-0 victory over bottom-feeders Málaga.

Serie A

A fascinating Serie A season got even more compelling following a testy round 12 for the pacemakers at the top. Defeated mid-week for the third time in four Champions League matches, leaders Napoli faltered on the return to domestic action as they couldn’t buy a goal in Verona against Chievo. The 0-0 marked the first time this season the Napolitans were blanked, and they only kept sole possession of the top perch because Inter Milan couldn’t do better at the San Siro, tied down (1-1) by a talented Torino side.

Napoli and Inter have 32 and 30 pts, respectively, and sandwiched in between is now Juventus, who had to suffer far more than expected to overcome last-place Benevento. Still pointless after 11 matches, the visitors jumped ahead on a free kick by captain Amato Ciciretti, but second-half tallies by Gonzalo Higuaín and Juan Cuadrado saved the defending Champions from an embarrassing result. Since Lazio’s reception to Udinese was postponed due to the inclement rain that fustigated Rome this weekend, Juventus were actually the main beneficiaries of the round’s results in conjunction with AS Roma, who came out on top of an intense, goal-filled encounter in Florence (2-4).

Argentine Gonzalo Higuaín scored the tying goal for Juventus against Benevento on Sunday (EPA)

In serious need of a triumph to ease the pressure on coach Vincenzo Montella, AC Milan fared well at Sassuolo (0-2) to reach 19 pts, while Sampdoria prevailed (0-2) in the always volatile Derby della Lanterna, beating rivals Genoa, who are stuck at six points and under the red line.

Bundesliga

On the eve of the previous international break, at the end of September, Borussia Dortmund was running high in the Bundesliga, holding a five point lead at the top of the table. One month and four games later, Peter Bosz’s side has picked up just one more point and they’re six behind Bayern Munich after the surging Bavarians produced a ruthless display of strength in Der Klassiker (1-3). Arjen Robben, Robert Lewandowski and David Alaba scored Saturday at the Signal Iduna Arena, with Marc Bartra discounting for the hosts in the final moments, and the road for an unprecedented sixth consecutive title cleared out.

With Dortmund seemingly in shambles, at this time the closest opposition to Bayern are last-year’s runners up RB Leipzig, who came from behind to beat Hannover 96 by 2-1 with goals from forwards Yussuf Poulsen and Timo Werner. Moreover, levelling rivals Dortmund at 20 pts, Schalke 04 rose to fourth after claiming the three points in Freiburg (0-1), while Hoffenheim’s 3-0 victory at Köln vaulted them to fifth, and prolonged the hosts’ dreadful campaign. After the fifth place of 2016-17, FC Köln is yet to win this season and they’re stranded at two points after 11 rounds.

Another loss for FC Köln on the Bundesliga this season, the ninth in 11 matches (Foto: Bongarts)

Winter sports season gets under way in Sölden

Leafs are falling, temperatures are plunging, and the winter sports season is around the corner. As I alluded to in the first Weekend Roundup, in a year that will peak with the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games next February, these disciplines warrant increased screen time, consequently we’ll closely monitor them here over the next few months.

Since I can’t do them all, we’ll focus on three of the centrepieces of every Winter Olympiad: biathlon, ski jumping and alpine skiing. The World Cup circuit for the first two sports will begin later this month, but the alpine skiing 2017-18 World Cup season has already kicked off, and since we missed the boat last weekend, let’s take the opportunity to quickly recap the first race(s) of the year, the beginning of a trek spanning two continents, two dozens of venues and almost 80 different events (men + women) up to the season ending in Åre, Sweden, by mid-March of 2018.

As customary, the first stop of the Alpine Skiing World Cup was Sölden, in the Austrian Tyrol region, and on Saturday, October 28th, the ladies had the honour of raising the curtain on the 2017-18 season with the inaugural giant slalom race, won by German Viktoria Rebensburg.

German skier Viktoria Rebensburg celebrated victory in Sölden on the first race of the 2017-18 Alpine skiing World Cup (AFP Photo/Johann GRODER))

The 2010 GS Olympic Champion, who struggled in 2016/17 with back problems and a tibial fracture, overcame a 0.33 seconds deficit after the first run to snatch a second triumph in the season opener, seven years after collecting her maiden World Cup victory in the same venue. Expected to be on the hunt for a third GS crystal globe (2011, 2012), the 28-year-old’s campaign is off to a great start after she kept at bay the incumbent Tessa Worley, who placed in second to claim a first ever podium in Sölden.

The French skier, only sixth after the first run, was the fastest competitor in the second leg, and managed to leapfrog Italian veteran Manuela Mölgg, who had to settle for third place after a blistering inaugural descent in 55.57 seconds. As for last season’s overall World Cup Champion, American Mikaela Shiffrin, she clocked 55.69 in the first leg, right behind Molgg, but trailed a bit in the decisive segment to dip to fifth on a bright, autumnal day on the Rettenbach Glacier.

Lamentably, the conditions would change dramatically over the next few hours, with powerful wind gusts forcing the cancellation of the men’s event scheduled for the following day. A setback to the male competitors, especially the GS specialists whose cherished opportunity was wiped out from the calendar (opening events can’t be rescheduled), yet the tour will move on. As soon as next weekend (12th November), the Finnish ski resort of Levi hosts the first slalom races of the new term.

Moment of the weekend

With all due respect to Marco Asensio’s thunderbolt in Real Madrid’s triumph over Las Palmas, Nabil Fékir’s first goal on Sunday gets the nod for three reasons: the individual effort to back off the defence and the smooth finish, the impact of the strike on the eventual outcome, putting Lyon firmly in the driver’s seat on the derby at Saint Etiénne, and its role as the first domino for what would happen on the second half.

 

 

Five NHL rookies turning heads in the first month of the season

For everyone getting their feet wet in a new work environment, starting on the right foot is extremely important to establish rank and quickly earn the confidence of colleagues and bosses. The NHL is no exception, and for many fans one of the most satisfying parts of the NHL regular season is keeping track of the league newcomers, from those that arrive showered with praise and high expectations, to less heralded players that had to work their tail off to ascend from lower leagues and the college ranks.

Up to October 25th, 99 players (93 skaters + 6 goalies) have featured in, at least, a game in 2017-18 and are considered rookies eligible to receive the Calder Memorial Trophy*. Among those, the likes of Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils), Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins), Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks) and Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning), preseason favourites for the award, stand out at the top of the leader boards, yet it’s not on the high-profile constituents we will cast a shining light here.

Instead, we’re looking for under-the-radar names that have popped out so far, seizing important roles in the respective teams even if few – outside of their home markets – had them pegged for such fast starts. To further limit our pool, we restricted  our evaluation to players that have logged over 18 min per game, in the case of defenseman, or forwards with an TOI/GP above 15 min, thereby claiming what can be roughly defined as top-four D/ top-six FW usage. Let’s meet the five most interesting cases from the lot.

* To be eligible for the award, a player cannot have played more than 25 games in any single preceding season nor in six or more games in each of any two preceding seasons in any major professional league. Beginning in 1990-91, to be eligible for this award a player must not have attained his twenty-sixth birthday by September 15th of the season in which he is eligible.

 

Victor Mete (D, Montreal Canadiens)

The lone beacon of hope on the Canadiens dreadful start, Victor Mete is a 2016 fourth-round pick that wasn’t supposed to make it to the big league on his draft +2 year, much less grasp such an important role for the group (not) shielding Carey Price.

Smallish at 5’9″, 184 pounds, the 19-year-old is surprisingly soaking up almost 20 mins (19:41) of ice time, playing regular shifts with captain Shea Weber on the Habs’ top pairing, drawing the toughest matchups and still coming out in the black on most possession metrics (Adj 51.55 CF%). Moreover, while his -5 rating is ugly, it is much more a product of poor team play, as no Canadiens player is in positive territory, and bad luck (94.8 PDO) than explicit defensive shortcomings.

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Victor Mete protects the puck behind the net (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

In fact, Mete, a flashy puck-moving defenseman with elite skating ability, is already the only Montreal blueliner that can consistently elude forecheckers, hurry the puck up the ice, complete a quick pass out of the zone and join the rush, leading the offense-starved Canadiens in (individual) transition plays and both scoring changes for (78) and high dangerous shot attempts (40) when on the ice.

A left-side blueliner that has filled the void created by the departure of veteran Andrei Markov, Mete has the speed to get back on the play and recover loose pucks, but, naturally, still struggles against stronger players in the wall or in front of the net, reasons that explain why he’s yet to be thrusted into the penalty kill by Claude Julien. He’s made for it on the powerplay, though, handling 2:58 mins per night and picking up two primary assists on the man-advantage, where his shot and quarterbacking ability inspire predictions of gaudy offensive totals further down the road.

Alex Iaffallo (LW, Los Angeles Kings)

One of the last players added to the Kings training camp roster, Alex Iaffalo stunned everyone by not only making the roster, but also snatching the plum assignment on LA’s top forward group, playing left wing to Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown and being an integral part of the team’s excellent beginning of regular season.

LA Kings forward Alex Iafallo joins line rushes during a warmup session (Harry How/Getty Images)

The 23-year-old had excelled in his last college season, amassing 21 goals and 51 pts as a senior at the University of Minnesota – Duluth, and his noticeable speed caught the eye of several NHL organizations, with Iaffalo opting to sign for the Kings, a team in dire need of his attributes. A great skater that can keep possession of the puck despite being light (6’0’’, 185 lb), the undrafted forward also received rave reviews for his release and accurate shot, possessing the ability to slot in either wing or in the middle.

Nine games into his NHL career, Iaffalo is yet to find the twine, having collected just 3 assists, but he’s fired 21 shots on goal – with an additional 13 missing the net – and looks active, engaged and fast complementing the heavy, grinding style of his line mates. The Kings premium attacking trio has clicked so far, with Iaffalo boasting a +7 rating in 16:48 min of TOI/GP and good possession/scoring chances numbers (53.13 adj CF%, 50.0 SCF%,53.23 HD CF%), thus expect him to keep the ball rolling for the next while.

Robert Hagg (D, Philadelphia Flyers)

After making his NHL debut in the last game of 2016-17, Robert Hagg has taken advantage of the youth movement steadily revamping Philadelphia’s defensive outlook to grab a top-four spot, his blend of size, smarts, mobility and two-way acumen assisting partner Shayne Gostisbehere to a prolific season start (11 pts in 9 matches).

Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Robert Hagg in action against the Carolina Hurricanes (Getty Images)

A former 2nd rounder (2013) who took his time getting acclimated to the intricacies of the North American game, the Swedish blueliner fits the mould of a modern shutdown defender: big (6’2’’), strong in the corners and physical – his 26 hits lead the team -, but also a good skater that keeps it simple in possession and can dish a sound breakout pass. Hagg topped at 20 pts in 3 AHL seasons, indicating limited offensive ceiling, however there’s every reason to believe the 22-year-old could be an excellent complement on the Flyers’ blueline to a more dynamic partner, be it Gostisbehere, promising 2014 1st rounder Travis Sanheim, or even the fledging Ivan Provorov on the top pair.

With one assist in 9 appearances, and a +5 rating clearly propped up by a sky-high 110.4 PDO, Hagg’s underlying numbers haven’t been spectacular (45.58 adj CF%, SCF 44.54%), yet it’s obvious coach Dave Hackstol trusts him, deploying the Uppsala-native for 18:14 mins per game, including 1:44 mins on the PK, where size and strength make it certain his usage is only going to increase.

Anders Bjork (RW, Boston Bruins)

As a former U-20 World Championships standout for the USA, and one of the top forward prospects in the Bruins organization, Anders Bjork’s name may not be as unfamiliar as the rest of this list, nevertheless he was consecutively overshadowed by teammate Charlie McAvoy in early season previews and his nice season start warrants the spotlight.

Boston Bruins winger Anders Bjork tries to evade a Chicago Blackhawks defenseman in a preseason game (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

A fifth round pick by Boston back in 2014, the winger cracked the Bruins roster after three seasons at Notre Dame where his point totals increased steadily (22 to 35 to 52), and he’s done nothing but impress so far due to his notable work rate and willingness to chase pucks, provoke turnovers and disrupt the breakout.

Praised over the years for his hockey sense and 200-foot game, Bjork was once expected to grow into a speedy, aggressive checking-line forward with some scoring touch, but there’s probably more to him, his versatility, slick hands and offensive instincts looking the perfect fit on the right side of Boston’s top line, flanking Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

This trio played together in preseason before Bergeron got injured, and the 21-year-old then moved to the David Krejci unit – with fellow rookie Jake DeBrusk – for the first five games, with his possession numbers suffering as a consequence (48.29 Adj CF%, 46.15 SCF%, 37.50 CF%) but not the scoring acumen. In 7 games, Bjork has already picked up 3 goals and 3 assists, and with Bergeron’s return, that pace shouldn’t decrease precipitously from here on. Except if he injures another preeminent teammate in practice, like recently happened with goalie Tuukka Rask.

Jesper Bratt (LW, New Jersey Devils)

It’s been 22 years since a teenager drafted as low as Jesper Bratt, the 162nd pick in 2016, played in the NHL, and if we add that he scored just 14 goals in 94 games on Sweden’s Allsvenskan (2nd tier) the last two years, it’s fair to say the Devils rookie completely came out of the blue.

Swedish winger Jesper Bratt skates in a game against the New York Rangers (NHL.com)

Few on his own organization expected the 19-year-old to make the team, but a mandate to inject speed into New Jersey’s roster worked on his favour and there he was, bursting onto the scene with six points in his first three games to get pundits scrambling. It’s true that Bratt is currently mired on a five-game pointless streak, still he has forged his niche inside John Hynes’ lineup as a special teams expert that can impact the game with his pace and creativity.

Moreover, in 8 games, the Swedish left winger has amassed a +5 rating and a pair of powerplay and shorthanded points, his average ice time of 15:16 mins entailing close to 6 mins of combined action in both situations. Coming in at 5’10’’ and 179 pounds, Bratt is small but explosive, an adept skater with a knack for reacting quickly and reaching loose pucks while outnumbered, as well as a skilled, intelligent offensive player with a puck control and shot that can prove lethal on the man-advantage. The production is not there yet at even-strength, partly explaining why he’s been shuffled down from the second line (Adam Henrique and Marcus Johansson) to play with Pavel Zacha and Brian Gibbons, but it will eventually come with experience.

 

All stats mentioned in this post updated until October 25th and gathered from NHL.com or naturalstattrick.com.

Weekend roundup (October, 22nd): Inter Milan slows down Napoli’s scintillating start

It’s been a while since the Serie A inhabited the imagination of football fans around the world, the combination of boundless pockets of money, elite skill and tactical majesty vaulting the Italian League to rarefied air amongst its counterparts throughout the 90s and early 2000’s. Over the last few seasons, Juventus utter dominance has obscured the overall rejuvenation of the Calcio, yet Maurizio Sarri’s exceptional job at SSC Napoli is finally getting bandied across the continent, the Partenopei enjoying deserved recognition for their bustling footballing machine on the wheels of a perfect league start with eight wins in eight matches.

Consequently, it came as no surprise that after a massive mid-week clash with Manchester City, Napoli’s reception to second-place Inter Milan was, arguably, the match of the weekend in European football, a brimming San Paolo expecting another step forward on the long road towards a Championship they’ve craved for 27 years. However, if this Napoli team is perfectly qualified to trade punch for punch with the continent’s elite, it isn’t afforded the same roster depth as others and that may well be their demise as the season rolls on.

Against Inter, Sarri elected nine of the players that started against City last Tuesday, recalling midfielders Alan and Jorginho to fill in for Amadou Diawara and Piotr Zieliński, and despite preserving the foundations of their exquisite passing game and trademarked accelerations, the fatigued hosts failed to bust the rigid block set up by Luciano Spalletti’s side, also undefeated so far on the season.

Buoyed by goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, namely on a miraculous save on José Callejón’s point-blank shot in the 24th minute, and the last minute stop on Dries Mertens’ flick, the visitors actually could have left victorious had Mario Vecino’s inspired run and chip not been cleared at the goal line by center back Raúl Albiol.

Nevertheless, in the end, what will go down is the 0-0, Napoli’s unblemished record coming to an end, and the Serie A table cluttering with Napoli (25 pts) and Inter (23) watching as Juventus and Lazio (both 22) creep up on them.

Overshadowed and looking bewildered in occasion, this hasn’t been Juventus’ best start, yet Il Bianconeri sent a clear message this week, whipping Udinese (2-6) away with a hat-trick from German international Sami Khedira. Peek through the numbers and you’ll notice Juventus was, above all, extremely clinical, notching five times in five shots on goal and profiting from an own-goal, however Massimiliano Allegri’s squad will take it at this time. Meanwhile, in Rome, Lazio banked a fourth consecutive triumph, clocking Cagliari (3-0) as the inevitable Ciro Immobile upped his account to 13 goals with another brace.

Moreover, fifth place AS Roma won at Torino (0-1), a 69th minute free kick by left back Aleksandar Kolarov proving decisive to reach 18 pts with a game in hand, precisely against Sampdoria, sixth with 17 after routing Crotone on the strength of five unanswered goals at the Luigi Ferraris. As for AC Milan, the crisis is an evidence after a 0-0 home draw with Genoa in a game where prized summer acquisition Leonardo Bonucci was sent off in the 25th minute. I Rossoneri dropped to the second half of the table, putting Vincenzo Montella’s job in serious jeopardy.

La Liga

In the wake of another round of European matches, all top-four La Liga clubs won their encounters but only one managed to impress in the process. Welcoming Sevilla at the Mestalla Stadium, Valencia dismantled the opposition with four straight goals to secure second place, notch a fifth consecutive triumph and keep the four-point gap on leaders Barcelona (25 points), who got help from a controversial goal in the early moments of their 2-0 triumph over Malaga at the Camp Nou.

After Barcelona and Valencia fulfilled their duties on Saturday, the two Madrid outfits responded positively to their mid-week setbacks the next day. Real Madrid cruised to a no-frills 3-0 victory over Eibar, while Atletico negotiated the complicated visit to the Balaídos with a narrow 1-0 triumph over Celta de Vigo courtesy of Kevin Gameiro’s opportunistic finish. The capital rivals are separated by a point in the standings, and are now followed by the surprising Leganés, who amassed their fifth success in nine rounds after beating Athletic Bilbao (1-0). With their second consecutive league defeat, Sevilla dipped to sixth, their 16 points now equalled by Real Betis (2-0 over Alavés) and Villarreal (4-0 to Las Palmas).

Bundesliga

In a span of two weeks, Borussia Dortmund’s five point advantage vanished as their European hiccups spilled into Bundesliga action. Following the home defeat against Leipzig, the black and yellow allowed hosts Eintracht Frankfurt to roar back from two goals down in their round 9 contest, conceding a draw which restored Bayern Munich to their customary placing at the top of the table.

Traveling North to Hamburg, the Bavarians looked far from brilliant, however Corentin Tolisso’s second half marker expressed on the score (0-1) the numerical advantage the visitors benefitted from after midfielder Gideon Jung was dismissed in 39th minute.

French midfielder Corentin Tolisso netted the game-winner for Bayern Munich in Hamburg (AP)

Dortmund and Bayern have amassed 20 points from 9 games, and RB Leipzig comes right behind, totalling 19 after Austrian midfielder Marcel Sabitzer scored the lone goal against Stuttgart. In round 10, Leipzig visits Munich in a match that can further muddle things at the top.

Schalke 04, victorious (2-0) against Mainz on Friday, is fourth with 16 points after catching an Hoffenheim team that once again gave away two points (1-1 at Wolfsburg) in the dying moments of their encounter, while Bayer Leverkusen, absent from Europe this season, approached the top five after a devastating second half performance at Borussia Moenchengladbach. Down 1-0 at half time, they pumped five past Swiss goalie Yann Sommer in a 33-minute stretch to sink Die Fohlen, and now get a great opportunity to keep ascending with a reception to rivals – and last place – FC Köln (0-0 vs Werder Bremen) next week.

Ligue 1

In spite of the current resource disparity, every clash between fierce rivals Marseille and Paris Saint Germain is slapped with the “appointment viewing” tag and the round 10 encounter at the Velódrome was no exception. Le Classique was tense and intense, controversial and vicious inside and outside the pitch, marked by the ejection of debutant Neymar, and capped by a spectacular Edinson Cavani free kick in injury time that shattered Marseille’s heart and salvaged a point for PSG.

With the 2-2 draw, the Parisians conserve their lead at the top of Ligue 1, holding a 4-point advantage over Monaco, who returned to the winning column after a 4–game dry spell domestically and abroad. Forwards Keita Baldé and Radamel Falcao were on the mark against Caen, and Les Monégasques closest competition is now the surging Nantes, who brushed aside Guingamp (2-1).

In Troyes, a Memphis Depay hat-trick powered Olympique Lyon to a bloated 0-5 away victory and up a few rungs on the standings, surpassing Marseille, Saint Etiénne, surprised at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard by Montpellier (0-1), and Bordeaux, who fell at Amiens (1-0). Down at the bottom, another defeat, this time in Rennes, saw 2010-11 Ligue1 Champions Lille drop into the relegation zone.

English Premier League

One week after being denounced for the conservative game plan in Liverpool, Manchester United bombed spectacularly in the visit to newly promoted Huddersfield Town (2-1), their maiden loss of the campaign speeded up by defensive miscues and remarkable passivity.  José Mourinho’s men are now five points adrift of Manchester City, who glided towards three more points in the reception to Burnley (3-0), and levelled with a Tottenham team getting hot.

Several Huddersfield Town players celebrate with fans after their famous triumph over Manchester United on Saturday (Action Images via Reuters/Ed Sykes)

In front of a Premier League record crowd (80,827) at Wembley, the Spurs dispatched Liverpool by a conclusive 4-1, with Harry Kane bagging two more goals on their fourth consecutive league win to condemn the visitors to a pedestrian ninth place after nine rounds. Still, the Reds can take some solace on the fact that their city rivals, Everton, are considerably worst, submerged below the red line after another defeat at home to Arsenal, who took full advantage of Idrissa Gueye’s dismissal in the 68th minute to inflate the score.

The hefty 2-5 defeat cost Ronald Koeman’s job, while another coach under intense scrutiny, Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, found some relief on the Blues late rally against Watford. The visitors stunned Stamford Bridge when they tallied twice around half time in reply to Pedro Rodríguez fantastic opener, yet César Azpilicueta and substitute Michy Batshuayi (x2) found the net in the last twenty minutes to secure a 4-2 victory, which propelled Chelsea past the opponent in the standings and maintained the defending Champions nine points behind Man City.

Cycling: Fernando Gavíria feasts in China

We’ve arrived at the end of the road for the 2017 World Tour season, with the first edition of the Gree-Tour of Guangxi taking place in the faraway lands of South China since last Thursday. A six-day race, the event will only finish on Tuesday, but so far it’s been dominated by the two Belgium teams in the peloton.

With the first three stages marked as flat, Colombian Fernando Gavíria looked the man to beat and the Quick-Step Floors sprinter confirmed his favouritism, compiling wins No. 11, 12 and 13 of his 2017 season in imperious fashion. The likes of Max Walscheid (Team Sunweb), Magnus Cort Nielsen (ORICA-Scott) and Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) were left in the dust by Gavíria, and the scenery then changed for stage 4, which concluded with the ascension to the Mashan Nongla Scenic Spot.

Lotto Soudal’s Tim Wellens edged Bauke Molema (Trek Segafredo) at the finish line to claim victory on the Queen stage, and he now leads the Dutch rider in the general classification by four seconds, with Irish Nicholas Roche (BMC) standing nine seconds behind. Since the last two days will tackle the rugged terrain around Guilin, including 6 categorized climbs, it’s early to appoint Wellens as the future winner, but he should like his chances of picking up a fourth WT overall triumph after the Eneco Tour in 2014 and 2015, and Tour of Poland in 2016.

Belgian rider Tim Wellens celebrates his win in stage 4 of the Tour of Guangxi (Tim de Waele / TDWSport.com)

Tennis: Juan Martín Del Potro defends title in Stockholm to enter ATP Finals fray

The ATP Tour year-end Championships are less than a month away and, at this time, just four names have booked their trip to London: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem. Hence, with four spots still up for grabs, this week of action was absolutely pivotal for many of the contenders, who could choose between the final three ATP 250 tournaments (Moscow, Antwerp and Stockholm) of 2017. Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and the idle Marin Čilić inched closer to qualification, yet David Goffin and Pablo Carreño Busta, who hold the last two places, had performances that made them no favours.

Playing at home and with the recent conquests in Shenzhen and Tokyo still fresh, Goffin fell to qualifier Stefanos Tsitsipas in the QF of the European Open to complicate his situation and boost the chances of fellow hopefuls Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Diego Schwartzman. The French and Argentine eventually jostled in Antwerp’s Final, with Tsonga keeping his perfect 2017 record in tournament-deciding matches with a 6-3, 7-5 victory. After Rotterdam, Marseille and Lyon, this was a career-best fourth title of the year for the powerful 32-year-old, who’s looking for a fourth ATP Tour Finals appearance, whereas the diminutive Schwartzman lost the Final in Antwerp to a French player (Richard Gasquet) for a second consecutive year.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the strongest player in the European Open, contested in Antwerp last week (ATP Tour)

Meanwhile, in Moscow, where he defended the 2016 title, Spaniard Carreño Busta, battling a finger injury, was knocked off in the second round by Russian Daniil Medvedev. That meant the Kremlin Cup ended up on the hands of Damir Džumhur, who beat unseeded Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in three sets (6-2, 1-6, 6-4) to prove his predilection for Russia. Just one month ago, the Bosnian had captured his first ATP Tour title in Saint Petersburg.

Moreover, in Stockholm, as a result of the best draw contested this week – all eight seeds reached the QF – the Swedish crowd was rewarded with a sumptuous Final between World No. 8 Grigor Dimitrov and fourth seed Juan Martin Del Potro, two former winners of the event.

Making good use of a relentless delivery, the lanky Argentine dominated the match to amass a straight sets victory (6-4, 6-2) that secured a 20th career title and his first of the 2017 season. It was also the second consecutive triumph in the Swedish capital for Del Potro, who moved to 14th in the Race to London (or 11th, discounting the injured Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka), just 470 points behind Carreño Busta, while Dimitrov is fifth, having failed to lock his place but well on his way to do so over the next two weeks.

On the women’s side, with the WTA Finals kicking off in Singapore yesterday, the weekend marked the conclusion of the regular WTA Tour calendar and the final smiles were reserved for two German players.

In the WTA Premier of Moscow, missing defending Champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and with Maria Sharapova flopping on her first appearance since 2007, it would emerge 28-year-old Julia Görges to put an end to a personal six-year drought without a WTA Tour title.

Enjoying a bounce back season after several years toiling on the second half of the Top 100, the former World No.15 (2012) had already reached three finals in 2017 (Mallorca, Bucharest, Washington D.C.) but could only capture her third career title on Saturday by crushing (6-1, 6-2) 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina. With the victory, Görges ascends to the top 20, breaking into the WTA Elite Trophy field at the last minute, and leapfrogging Angelique Kerber as the leading German player on the rankings.

Julia Görges (L) and Daria Kasatkina (R) hold their trophies from the Kremlin Cup (Pavel Golovkin, AP )

A week of overwhelming feelings for Görges, but also for her compatriot Carina Witthöft, who conquered her first WTA Tour trophy at the Luxembourg Open. The 22-year-old bested Monica Puig, the Rio 2016 Olympic Champion, in two sets (6-3, 7-5) to close the season ranked just shy of the top 50 (No. 51), and with eyes set on further progression in 2018.

Moment of the weekend

Precision, power and transcendent speed on this magical run and sublime finish from Portuguese winger Gonçalo Guedes, one of the key figures in Valencia’s great start to La Liga in 2017-18. On a season loan from Paris Saint Germain, the 20-year-old’s belter was the inaugural goal of Los Che emphatic 4-0 victory over Sevilla, and he would add another marker plus an assist on a night to remember at the Mestalla.

Weekend Roundup (October, 15th): Roger Federer’s rampant 2017 season continues in Shanghai

More than Federer’s return to the top of his game at age 36, one of the sports stories of 2017 has been the meticulous, unanticipated turnaround we’ve been able to witness on year 13 of “Fedal”, the biggest rivalry in tennis history. Since that sensational fifth set in Melbourne, when Roger Federer came back from a break down to stun Rafael Nadal and collect the Australian Open, the dynamics of the pair’s meetings have shifted significantly, and after comprehensive straight set wins in Indian Wells and Miami, Shanghai hosted yet another magnificent display from the “Swiss Maestro” against his long-time foe.

Playing under a closed roof and in fast conditions that favour his wicked offensive game, Federer jumped on his rival from the onset in Shanghai, breaking serve in the first game of the match, and never looked back on his way to a commanding, 71-minute, 6-4, 6-3 victory. When the one-handed backhand is dissecting the court and the serve firing on all cylinders, the Swiss is virtually unbeatable in hard courts, and those two weapons were once again the main catalysts to a fifth straight victory over Nadal, who fought till the very end but never managed to dent his rival’s delivery, failing to muster a single break point all night and capturing just 17% of the points contested on Federer’s first serve.

The two tennis legends share a moment in Shanghai after another chapter of their rivalry (Reuters)

With the victory over the World No. 1, which guaranteed a 94th professional trophy – just 14 off Jimmy Connors’ Open era record – Federer is now 10-1 against top-ten players in 2017, the only setback coming in Toronto to youngster Alex Zverev in what was also his only loss in seven finals to date. Moreover, he further diminished his head-to-head deficit with Nadal to 15-23, shaving off the 31-year-old’s lead at the top of the ATP rankings to 1960 points.

Three tournaments are still left on the schedule for both men: the Swiss Indoors in Basel, the Paris Masters and the ATP Tour Finals in London, hence there’s an outside chance the lead changes hands to allow the Swiss a six year-end No.1, an incredible feat that would come eight years after the last. For that to happen, Rafa would have to stumble early somewhere along the way, which is unlikely, yet we’ve seen far stranger things in this tennis season…

In the WTA Tour, the biggest news of the weekend was the return of Maria Sharapova to the titles, more than two years after triumphing in Rome (May 2015), and just on the seventh tournament appearance since the end of her doping suspension. In Tianjin’s WTA International, the Russian star, ranked No. 85 in the World, brushed aside a fearless Aryna Sabalenka in two sets, 7-5, 7-6 (8), with the 19-year-old from Belarus handling her first WTA Tour Final with impressive poise.

Aryna Sabalenka (L) and Maria Sharapova (R) exhibit their trophies after the Final in Tianjin (Reuters)

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a tournament which lost plenty of star power in one fell swoop with the withdrawals of Elina Svitolina (1st seed) and Caroline Wozniacki (defending Champion) coupled with defeats for Venus Williams (2) and Agnieszka Radwanska (4) in the same day, was rewarded with a gripping Final between two Russian-born players.  Rallying from a set down, the 26-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (6th seed) prevailed over Daria Gavrilova (7) by 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3) to claim the third title of the season (Monterey, Rabat) and 11th of her career.

Finally, in Linz, Austria, with no top 25 players in the draw after Jelena Ostapenko and defending champion Dominika Cibulkova dropped out, the Final was contested by the first and second favourites, a rarity in the wildly unpredictable female professional Tour. Entering the decider under the weight of an ugly 1-6 record in WTA Finals, Czech Barbora Strýcová was able to rise to the occasion this time, besting Slovak Magdaléna Rybáriková by 6-4, 6-1 to capture her first title since September 2011, when she lifted her maiden singles’ trophy in Québec City.

Football: Juventus startled as Napoli marches on

With the top-six sides in direct confrontation, round 8 of the Serie A promised fireworks and it delivered in spades, beginning with Juventus’ first loss in 41 home league games. The Vecchia Signora, resting the likes of Paulo Dybala or Miralem Pjanic ahead of an important Champions League clash, still managed to get in front when Douglas Costa scored in the 23th minute, yet the raging Ciro Immobile took over in the second half, tallying twice in seven minutes to power Lazio in front.

The in-form Ciro Immobile fired Lazio past Gianluigi Buffon’s Juventus

The burly striker passed Dybala in the goal scoring race, and Massimiliano Allegri was forced to send in his Argentinian joker, with the No.10 coming off the bench to hit the post and then waste a last minute penalty, the second consecutive match where his shot from the 11m mark was parried by the goalkeeper.

The final 1-2 outcome meant Lazio caught Juventus in the table, the two sides square at 19 pts, and now five back of Napoli, who preserved their perfect record with an impressive 1-0 victory at the Stadio Olimpico. It would belong to winger Lorenzo Insigne the role of expressing the Partenopei superiority over AS Roma on yet another show of strength by the well-drilled squad of Maurizio Sarri.

Finally, in a Milan Derby that elicited flashbacks of great battles of the past, Inter ruled in an emotional, back and forth thriller (3-2) decided by striker Mauro Icardi, who converted a penalty in injury time to complete a hat-trick. The Nerazurri collected their seventh win in 8 matches, and are in second place, just two pts behind Napoli, while the revamped AC Milan, despite all the good signs, are tenth, already 12 pts off the top.

Ligue 1

Even with Edinson Cavani safeguarded for the battles to come and a misfiring Kylian Mbappé, Paris St. Germain collected three points in Dijon (1-2) to extend their lead at the top of the Ligue 1 table. A late equalizer by Benjamin Jeannot put a scare on the visitors, yet right back Thomas Meunier emerged in additional time to complete his brace and help PSG capitalise on the stumble by the closest opposition.

Conceding in injury time for the second consecutive round, this time a perfect free kick by Olympique Lyon’s captain Nabil Fékir, defending Champions AS Monaco lost (3-2) for the second time in the league to let the leader out of sight. Now six points adrift, they need to start watching their back as the pack is approaching, with five teams positioned at arms-length.

One of them is Lyon, who rose to fifth, catching Bordeaux, who drew at home to Nantes (1-1), allowing the Canaries to secure an important point away to keep pace with Marseille, involved in the round’s best game in Strasbourg (3-3), and Saint Etiénne, who rallied from a goal down to beat Metz (3-1). Further back, reference to the persisting Lille crisis, with the Northerners still looking for a first triumph since the opener after a late penalty allowed Troyes to snatch a point (2-2) at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

Bundesliga

In Jupp Heynckes’ first game back in charge, Bayern Munich thrashed SC Freiburg (5-0) at the Allianz Arena and the victory allowed the Bavarians to approach the top after leaders Borussia Dortmund lost for the first time.

In a tumultuous match between Champions League teams, RB Leipzig went 3-1 up in Dortmund, responding in style to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s early tally, but two bookings in succession by midfielder Stefan Ilsanker levelled the number of men on the pitch just nine minutes after Sokratis had been sent showering. Borussia pressed to rescue some dignity, with Aubameyang cutting the deficit from the penalty spot however that was all she wrote, with the defeat shrinking Dortmund’s advantage at the top to just two points.

Forward Yussuf Poulsen scores RB Leipzig’s second goal in Dortmund. (Foto: Lars Baron|Bongarts|Getty Images)

Meanwhile, with the triumph, Leipzig managed to climb to third since Hoffenheim dropped two points at home, an 89th minute own goal by Kevin Vogt cooperating to let Augsburg leave Sinsheim with a 2-2 draw. Borussia Moenchengladbach and Schalke 04, who captured assertive victories at Werder Bremen (0-2) and Hertha Berlin (0-2), respectively, approached European territory, while FC Köln’s agony continues as their 7th loss in 8 games was settled by a 94th minute game-winner for Stuttgart.

La Liga

At the eight hurdle, FC Barcelona finally tripped to concede points for the first time on the 2017-18 campaign. Facing a difficult test at Atletico Madrid, the Catalans found themselves chasing following Saúl Ñíguez long-range shot 21 minutes in, and they couldn’t do more than draw level when Luis Suárez found the end of an excellent delivery by Sergi Roberto with 8 minutes to go.

The leaders have amassed 22 pts to date, retaining a six point advantage over Diego Simeone’s team, which got leapfrogged by city rivals Real Madrid this weekend. Cristiano Ronaldo’s first goal of the campaign oddly arrived deep into October, but the Portuguese superstar at least saved it for when it mattered, notching in the 85th minute to overcome a pesky Getafe side (1-2).

Concurrently, Sevilla, who were second entering round 8, fell in Bilbao (1-0) to an Athletic team that was on a six-match winless streak, while Valencia’s trip to Andalusia turned into an exhilarating experience. The visitors scored four times until the 74th minute to get a firm handle on the match, yet Real Betis countered with three in a five minute spam to set up a furious finish where Valencia tallied two more to come out victorious by 6 goals to 3. With these three points, Los Che are now in second place, 4 pts behind Barcelona.

Premier League

The calendar of the Premier League is saturated with exceptional clashes year round, but none is quite like the most traditional match in English football, the North-West derby between Liverpool and Manchester United. For their 169th league encounter, Anfield Road hosted a colorless 0-0 that didn’t really help anyone, even if Liverpool can claim to have carried the better of the play for most of the afternoon only to be deterred by a sublime David de Gea.

With the result, the Reds of Jürgen Klopp picked up their 13th point in 8 games, seven less than Man United, who lost contact with their city rivals after they unsurprisingly pummelled Stoke City (7-2) at the Etihad Stadium. Although it wasn’t as easy for Man City as the score might indicate, the Citizens holding a three-goal advantage inside 27 minutes and the visitors scoring twice around halftime before the game truly got out of hand. Nevertheless, Pepe Guardiola’s side, boasting a staggering 29-4 goal record, are finally clear at the top and few would bet that anyone will reel them back.

Rolling five points behind City, Tottenham Hotspur edged Bournemouth (1-0) with a lone tally from Christian Eriksen securing their maiden Premier League triumph at Wembley, while Chelsea plunged down the table after a shocking defeat (2-1) at Selhurst Park to Crystal Palace. The last-place team was still looking for their first goals and points of the campaign, and César Azpilicueta’s own goal was the kick they needed to clinch a famous victory over a side whose lack of depth was exposed by the absences of N’Golo Kanté and Álvaro Morata.

Wilfried Zaha shoots past Thibaut Courtois to put Crystal Palace 2-1 up on Chelsea (Reuters)

The London Blues are now levelled in points with Liverpool, Burnley and Arsenal, who have yet to win away from home following another disappointing result at Watford, where the hosts earned a come from behind victory (2-1) that vaulted them to fourth.

Cycling: Diego Ulissi presides over the Tour of Turkey during Sam Bennett’s party

At the same time most of the world’s best lay on some paradisiacal holiday destination, the 2017 cycling season slowly trundles to the finish line under a small fraction of the attention destined to the major races in the rear-view.

The (Presidential) Cycling Tour of Turkey may have been elevated to the World Tour this season, yet you would be hardly pressed to believe it simply by looking at the peloton that departed last Tuesday. Comprising a total of 104 riders and 13 formations, including just four from the premier category (Astana, UAE Team Emirates, Trek-Segafredo, BORA-hansgrohe), it’s fair to say the change from late April to October did nothing to increase the profile of the event and, as a consequence, many shrugged the forgettable, uninspiring competition of the six-stage race, concluded in the bustling Istambul on Sunday.

Sam Bennett (BORA-Hansgrohe) celebrates his triumph in stage 5 of the Tour of Turkey (Bettini Photo)

Many but certainly not Sam Bennett, the 27-year-old sprinter from BORA-hansgrohe who did his best Peter Sagan impression to dominate for most of the week, taking four of the first five stages and later missing out on the finale after falling on a corner in the final meters. Opportunity for Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) – twice runner-up to Bennett – who took advantage to bag the stage victory on that last day, and for the race Champion, Italian Diego Ulissi, who snatched the general lead after sweeping the field on the uphill finish in Selçuk on day 4.

Moment of the weekend

The tremendous volley on the run by Dijon forward Benjamin Jeannot, which left goalkeeper Alphonse Aréola rooted to the ground and threatened to halt Paris St. Germain’s triumphant march in Ligue 1. Unfortunately for the 25-year-old, it was worth no points in the standings, but that’s no reason we can’t celebrate it here.

Weekend Roundup (October, 8th): Simona Halep’s special day

In sports, just like in life, you’re seldom granted second chances to realize your ultimate dreams. A third or fourth opportunity to hop on the train headed to your divine destination? Forget about it.

Nonetheless, if Simona Halep should thank a whirlwind 2017 WTA Tour season for affording multiple occasions to stand a single triumph from “becoming” the best tennis player in the world, such an achievement can’t, in any way, be called fortuitous.

In fact, it is the deserved recognition for three years of top-notch tennis from the longest active member on the WTA Top-10, the reward for the regular appearances in the latter stages of tournaments this season (11 quarter-finals and 7 semi-finals in the last 13 events she contested), the deserved compensation for the hard work and difficult decisions undertaken to convert into one of the fittest players in the Tour and, above all, the triumph of resilience and determination to overcome successive setbacks as she edged ever closer to her lifelong goal.

The 26-year-old, who pursued the World No.1 incessantly through 2017, could feel it within touching distance in three previous instances this year only to languish when it went away. First, in Paris, when Jelena Ostapenko recovered from a set and a break down to snatch Roland Garros and crush the Romanian’s thoughts in double fashion. Later succumbing in three sets to Johanna Konta on the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, when all she needed to do was capture the second set tie break. Finally, in Cincinnati, when Halep was annihilated by Garbiñe Muguruza in the Final, opening a door the Spaniard walked into after the US Open.

Hopes dashed in heart-breaking fashion over and over again until last Saturday, at the Premier Mandatory of Beijing, the Romanian’s tortuous odyssey coming to its happy end, to a certain extent culminating her steady rise since a breakthrough 2013 season. Poetically, Halep faced the same Ostapenko that had delivered the first and most scathing blow, and she fought  through the nerves to expunge all the demons in a convincing 6-2, 6-4 triumph which showcased the assets that brought her here: consistency, superior speed and agility, the ability to turn defence into offense in a blink, the understated aggressiveness.

Reunited after the 2017 Roland Garros singles final, Jelena Ostapenko was the first to congratulate Simon Halep on her achievement (Getty Images)

In the grand scheme of things, it may have been just a semi-final of a late season tournament, but this match meant the World to Halep, the first Romanian to reach the pinnacle of the female tennis rankings, the 25th woman to hold the top position since 1975, and the third to do it for the first time this year, after Muguruza and Czech Karolína Plíšková. It was indeed her special day, even if that elusive Grand Slam title still looms large on the career arch she will follow from here on.

Somehow lost in the shuffle of Halep’s milestone was the reality that a Final still had to be played in Beijing the next day, and another woman also craved her share of the spotlight. Fresh of a title in Wuhan the previous weekend, Caroline Garcia scampered to the Chinese capital and proceeded to reel in victory after victory to reach a second consecutive Final, eventually toppling the impending No.1 in a tight decider (6-4, 7-6(3)) to lift her first Premier Mandatory title.

An upset that capped a stunning fortnight and improbable eleven-match winning streak for the soaring 23-year-old, vaulted into the Top-10 (No.9) for the first time, and now firmly enmeshed in the race to Singapore, where the WTA Finals will be contested later this month.

Caroline Garcia compiled an unprecendented Wuhan/Beijing double (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, as a new No.1 emerged on the women’s tour, the ATP’s top dog was strengthening his grip in same venue. The week may have started with a scare for Rafael Nadal, who fended off two match points from Lucas Pouille in round one of the ATP 500 of Beijing, but he quickly got acclimated to the Asian humidity and blossomed into his dominant self for the rest of the event, demolishing 8th seed Nick Kyrgios by 6-2, 6-1 in the Final to collect his 6th title of the year and 75th of his career.

Concurrently, in Tokyo, David Goffin confirmed his push for a spot on the ATP Tour Finals by securing a second straight title following the triumph in Shenzhen the previous week. The Belgian defeated France’s Adrian Mannarino in the Final in two sets (6–3, 7–5) to pick up an ATP 500 for the first time, and denied his 29-year-old rival of a maiden tournament victory on the highest professional circuit.

Cycling: Vincenzo Nibali reigns at Il Lombardia for a second time

Contested against the spectacular background of Lake Como, the “race of the falling leaves” is the last landmark of the cycling season, the final Monument Classic of the year and a gruelling finish to the autumnal series of Italian one-day classics. Almost 250km long, featuring plenty of steep uphill sections and treacherous, swerving descents, it favours the riders that can sustain their form until the latter stages of the season, are well versed on the terrain in hand and have the technical skills to operate the bike in challenging conditions.

In resume, it is perfect for Vincenzo Nibali, the pugnacious Italian star that is not only one of the greatest climbers in the World, but also a great terrific time-trial list and exceptional descender. Victorious at Il Lombardia in 2015 and unable to defend his title last year after an unfortunate crash at the 2016 Olympics, the Shark of Messina was the prohibitive favourite heading into the 111th edition of the famous event, and he made his presence felt when it mattered.

Home favourite Vincenzo Nibali captured his second win at the Giro di Lombardia (Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com)

With less than 20km to go, as the action picked up on the penultimate climb (Civiglio) of the race, Nibali sniffed the danger when Thibault Pinot (FDJ) went on attack for a third time and he lunged across to join the French before the hill’s crest. From there, the Bahrain Merida leader furiously hurried downhill, skimming the bends to distance Pinot and opening a gap that only widened in the final ascent to San Fermo della Battagli and short run-in to the finish line in the city of Como.

With authority, the 32-year-old sealed the 69th triumph for the home nation in the history of the event – but only the second in the last 9 years – while, further back, Pinot’s forces faded with Nibali out of the sight and he was absorbed by a small chasing group from which compatriot Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) free wheeled in the final kms to take second on the day, 28 seconds off the winner and 10 ahead of Italian Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), who won the skirmish for third.

Italian and French riders split the top seven at the Giro di Lombardia, and when attentions shifted to France for the prestigious Paris-Tours the following day, the hosts wanted to get their neighbours back. It wouldn’t happen since the in-form Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step) once again displayed his mettle, pushing the pace on an elevation inside the last 10km to break away from the pack alongside Danish youngster Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb), and then imposing his will in the final sprint with a small boost from teammate Nikki Terpstra, the only man who had managed to bridge across.

Matteo Trentin edged Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb) on his final race for Quick-Step Floors (Getty Images)

By securing a seventh victory in just over two months, Trentin bid a perfect adieu to Quick-Step after six and a half seasons with the Belgium outfit. The Italian will represent Orica-Scott when the peloton returns to the European roads next season.

Football: Taking the temperature at the 2018 World Cup qualifiers

No domestic leagues action this weekend, so we’ll instead dive into the final stretch of the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. One Confederation at a time, which teams have already punched their ticket and who’s still in play?

CONCACAF

Costa Rica joined Mexico in the group of qualified nations after a last-gasp goal by Kendall Waston secured a dramatic draw against Honduras on Saturday, and the United States are in the driver’s seat for the last spot after a commanding 4-0 win over Panama.

Due to their superior goal difference, a draw in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday should be enough for the Americans to clinch third place, while Honduras and Panama will fight for fourth and the corresponding playoff wild card to face the Asian representative. Panama currently holds the tie breaker by a five-goal margin, and therefore any triumph over Costa Rica may do the trick.

AFC

Regulars Iran, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia are already gearing up for Russia, and that prominent list is only missing Australia, pipped on goal-difference by the Saudis on the group stage.

The Socceroos can still make it for a fourth straight time, but they’ll need to finish off Syria in Sidney on Tuesday before tackling a final playoff round with the fourth place team from the CONCACAF.  Meanwhile, the Syrians are eyeing an astonishing debut appearance in the midst of a raging Civil War that forced their home leg (1-1) to be held in Malaysia.

Syria and Australia will meet again in Sidney on Tuesday to decide who advances to the final playoff round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers (AP Photo/ Vincent Thian)

CONMEBOL

With Brazil having already booked their trip a few months ago and Uruguay virtually qualified by virtue of a +10 goal difference, the South American 18-game marathon will meet its explosive finale on Tuesday, four days after a sensational round of games scrambled the standings even more.

Five teams (Chile, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay) are currently separated by two points and there’s only a pair of direct slots up for grabs plus a wild card for a final playoff with New Zealand in November. Strap down, this is going down to the wire.

CAF

The first two African nations to arrange their trip to Russia were Nigeria, who bagged group B after edging 2012 African Champions Zambia, and Egypt, who secured qualification for the first time in 28 years with an injury time winner from the penalty spot against Congo on Sunday.

In group A, Tunisia and DR Congo are still in the race, with the Tunisians only requiring a draw from the reception to Libya next month to return to the World stage for the first time since 2006, while in Group C it’s down to Ivory Coast and Morocco, who will square off in November with the Ivorians ahead in the table and holding home advantage. Conversely, Group D is a mess, with all four teams alive after the decision to repeat the polemic South Africa-Senegal, whose original outcome was invalidated for allegations of match manipulation.

UEFA

In the first round of the final group-stage double-header, powerhouses Germany, Spain and England joined Belgium and hosts Russia on the list of qualified teams, with Poland securing their spot on Sunday following a nervy victory over Montenegro.

With four groups yet to settle, there are a lot of moving parts to take into account regarding the remaining group winners and the eight teams that will advance to the playoffs, but it’s safe to say France (Group A), Serbia (Group D) and Iceland (Group I) should qualify when they host weak opposition (Belarus, Georgia and Kosovo, respectively) on the closing match day.

After a spectacular 3-0 win in Turkey, Iceland is on course to reach a first World Cup tournament (STR / AP)

That leaves a trio of games to track feverishly on Monday and Tuesday. Wales and the Republic of Ireland (Group D) clash in Cardiff and Ukraine meets Croatia (Group I) in Kiev in pair of encounters where draws could sentence both sides, while the Lisbon battle between Portugal and Group B immaculate leaders Switzerland sees the European Champions in need of a win to leapfrog their rivals.

Moreover, welcoming Gibraltar to Athens, Greece (Group H) is three points away from pairing with Northern Ireland (Group C), Italy (Group G) and Denmark (Group E) in November’s two-legged playoffs, while only a disaster – an inconceivable seven goal defeat – in Amsterdam would stop Sweden (group A) from doing the same. Finally, with their schedule complete, Slovakia, the Group F runners-up, can’t do much more than crunch numbers and wait as others determine whether they did enough to reach the playoffs.

Moment of the weekend

“El Mundial! El Mundial! El Mundial!”

It’s probably the dream of every live sports announcer. Nailing the call of an everlasting moment for the history of their nation.

The 95th minute equalizer by Kendall Waston, which secured Costa Rica’s fifth appearance at the FIFA World Cup, certainly fits the description, sending into raptures every one of the 35,175 spectators blessed to celebrate inside the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica, and most of the other 4.9 million that populate this Central American country.

The 2017-18 NHL season: Predictions

The new NHL season is ahead of us, and it’s time for another venture into the worthless world of preseason prognostications, a guilty pleasure for every self-proclaimed pundit. Not satisfied with all the blanks straying from my iffy gunfire 12 months ago (you can recall them here), I’m back to extricate some sense of redemption and to unload a new shipment of hot fire.

The blueprint for this post was established last year and there’s no reason to change it, so let’s go straight ahead and start mumbling.

Regular season standings

Atlantic Division

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Toronto Maple Leafs
  3. Montreal Canadiens
  4. Ottawa Senators

Outside (in order): Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings

With Steven Stamkos finally steering clear of his rotten luck, the Tampa Bay Lightning overcome a slow start to clinch a first Division title in 14 years, staving off the challenge of the effervescent Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that will rank in the top ten on both sides of the puck. The Montreal Canadiens, with Alex Galchenyuk and not Jonathan Drouin as the No.1 Center, ride Carey Price to third place, setting up the playoff encounter we all want to see, while the superpowers of Erik Karlsson waft the Senators through a late charge and into a dramatic appropriation of the last wild card on the final day of the season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs should enjoy a smooth ride in the Atlantic Division (Sportsnet.ca)

The team Ottawa leaps right at the finish line are the Sabres, whose thin defence cracks under pressure deep into the regular season slog. Meanwhile, the Bruins hit a mid-season swoon when their dynamic top line (Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak) suffers a casualty, and then Tuukka Rask falters as they try to re-enter the race.

Florida’s puzzling offseason moves backfire to cost Dale Tallon’s job on the eve of their elimination from the playoff race (taxi charges included), while the Red Wings engage on a throwback dispute with the Colorado Avalanche for the right to evade the bottom of the table. They triumph twice, on and off the ice as Detroit wins the lottery to secure the first pick in the 2018 Draft.

Metropolitan Division

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Columbus Blue Jackets
  3. Carolina Hurricanes
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins

Outside: Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders

It’s not the cakewalk of recent times, but the Capitals are still able to capture the Divisional crown when their youngsters step up to the task, fending off the Blue Jackets. The Artemi Panarin trade pays off for Columbus when the attack keeps them afloat through Sergei Bobrovsky’s ups and downs, and, in addition, they get a cushy first round encounter with the Hurricanes. Backed by the stellar goaltending of Scott Darling, Ron Francis finally ants up his assets on defence to acquire Matt Duchene mid-season, and Carolina ends its 9-year playoff drought with a week to spare.

The Carolina Hurricanes are on the cusp of greater things, starting with a return to the playoffs in 2017-18 (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Stumbling out of the gate and pulled further back by a two-month stretch missing half of their two-headed monster, Pittsburgh nearly misses the playoffs, but gets lucky when Philadelphia chokes down the stretch. Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and a spectacular bounce-back year from Cory Schneider inspire the Devils to a surprising 90-pt season, yet they still fall short of the cut, while both New York outfits enter tailspins when goaltending isn’t up to the task and central problems bubble up: the lack of centre depth in Manhattan, the continuing John Tavares’ melodrama in Brooklyn.

Central Division

  1. Minnesota Wild
  2. Dallas Stars
  3. Nashville Predators
  4. Winnipeg Jets

Outside: Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche

I shall not underestimate Bruce Boudreau’s regular season magic again, therefore Minnesota takes the Division on the strength of their superior depth at forward. As expected, Dallas clicks offensively though their defensive woes won’t subside for good under Ken Hitchcock just yet, especially with that immature defensive corps and Ben Bishop threading merely average numbers. In Nashville, Juuse Saros peacefully overthrows Pekka Rinne midseason, but health – after Ryan Ellis’ return – is the main reason the Predators stride comfortable into third place.

The Minnesota Wild of Nino Niederreiter (#22) are primed for a divisional title this season (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

After years of agony, the Jets fire Paul Maurice in December and Winnipeg goes batshit crazy when they pummel Chicago on the last day of the regular season to secure the last Wild Card. Sure, they do it by relying way too much on the power play and top-heavy offense, but it’s enough since the Blackhawks’ own depth issues finally catch up to them. The steep regression experienced by Jake Allen, coupled with an unrelentingly injury bug, derail St. Louis season to end their six-year playoff streak, however the Blues still finish miles ahead of Colorado, the NHL’s only sub-65 pts team.

Pacific Division

  1. Anaheim Ducks
  2. Edmonton Oilers
  3. Calgary Flames
  4. LA Kings

Outside: Arizona Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights, Vancouver Canucks

Oilers’ goaltender Cam Talbot goes down in early March, and that opens the door for Anaheim, who collects a sixth consecutive Pacific Division banner due to Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg and Corey Perry’s 30+ goals campaigns. Still, another 100-pt season from Connor McDavid powers Edmonton past the adversity, and they hold off fierce rivals Calgary for home ice advantage in an explosive first round battle.

Unshackled under the guidance of John Stevens, the Los Angeles Kings rebound to go on a stunning ten-game scoring spree that fortifies their return to the postseason, while Arizona’s rebirth – impelled by a bunch of pubescent kids – emerges as one of the main storylines of the year. It isn’t until the rookies hit the wall that their playoff aspirations evaporate, but 88 pts are enough to finish above the Sharks, a team caught in the middle of a generational change and undone by a freak Brent Burns’ injury.

Arizona’s mix of youngsters such as Clayton Keller (#14) and veterans like Oliver Ekman-Larsson (#23) may catch teams by surprise this season (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Amassing a respectable 75 points, Vegas’s debut goes according to plan and the Golden Knights even manage to pipe Vancouver, who try – and fail – to offload any veterans before the Sedins ride into the sunset.

Playoffs

Eastern Conference Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Western Conference Champions: Minnesota Wild

The Penguins’ three-peat ambitions dissolve at the hands of the Washington Capitals in round one and our beloved Planet Earth disintegrates the following day, for sure.

However, in case that does not happen, Washington proceeds to squander the opportunity, getting Halak’ed by Scott Darling in the Divisional Final and signalling the end of the road for Barry Trotz and Alex Ovechkin. In the Atlantic, Bolts and Leafs clash in a sensational second round played at breakneck speed, with Tampa advancing in Game 7 before sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes to reach a third Stanley Cup Final in their history.

In the West, Oilers and Ducks go the distance for a second consecutive season, and the exhausted winner bows out to the Minnesota Wild, whose ability to bypass the proverbial series with the Chicago Blackhawks proves as important to their success as overcoming Bruce Boudreau’s playoff tribulations in an emotional Game 7 triumph over Winnipeg.

Stanley Cup Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Propelled by the likes of Tyler Johnson (#9) and Nikita Kucherov (#86), the Tampa Bay Lightning will lift the Stanley Cup next June (Mike Carlson/Getty Images North America)

Conn Smythe Winner: Nikita Kucherov

Victor Hedman delivers a Lidstrom-esque effort, logging 31 minutes per game throughout the postseason, but Kucherov’s three playoff overtime winners, including Game 5 of the Finals, sway enough votes to crown a second Russian in the history of the award, after Evgeni Malkin in 2009.

Major Individual Honours

Art Ross Trophy (Most points): Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers)

Turning Ryan Strome into a 30-goal scorer along the way, Connor McDavid shatters the century mark for the second consecutive season after managing a 10-point gap on everyone else for the last two months. The prodigious 20-year-old finishes with 105+ points in 80 games, keeping at bay Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn (96) and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau (92), whose performances get vaulted to new levels due to some kind of telepathic connection with Jaromír Jágr.

Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele and Buffalo’ Jack Eichel also amass more than 85 points for the first time on their careers, while perennial contenders Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby fall short of 80.

Maurice Richard Trophy (Most goals): Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets)

Teed up “ad nauseum” by the likes of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine erupts to post a 49-goal  – the 50th hits Chicago’s empty net but gets called back for offside –  sophomore campaign and become just the second Finnish forward to lead the NHL in goals (Teemu Selanne).

Winnipeg’s sniper Patrik Laine is destined to win the Maurice Richard Trophy (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nonetheless, with the overall increase in powerplay opportunities, a rising tide means Laine will have plenty of competition nipping at his heels until the very end. Vladimir Tarasenko and Tyler Seguin tie for second place with 46 markers, while Jack Eichel, Jamie Benn and Connor McDavid also break the 40-goal barrier, something Auston Matthews (34) is unable to do after being knocked out of last three weeks of regular season action.

Calder Memorial Trophy (Rookie of the season): Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils)

The dynamic Swiss center is, definitely, no Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, yet he’ll be the fourth No.1 pick in five years to take home the Calder on his rookie season (for shame, Connor).

Partnering with Taylor Hall on the Devils’ top line, Hischier will pot 20+ goals to graze the 60-pt threshold, and that will prove sufficient to ward off the challenges of fellow forwards Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes) and Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), respectively, the leading point-getter and goal-scorer amongst freshman. A pair of standout defenseman, Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins), round out the top five.

James Norris Memorial Trophy (Best defenseman): Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning)

Already embarking on his ninth NHL season, you can say this is a recognition that has been a long time coming for the hulking Swedish defenseman. With Tampa Bay romping through the regular season, Hedman’s dominance in every facet of the game will ensure he won’t even need to pile up as many points (72) as in 2016-17 to grab the Norris.

Tampa Bay Lightning’s All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman looks poised to take a first Norris Trophy (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Fellow Swede Erik Karlsson makes a proverbial late push, but the generational Ottawa blueliner will be shut down for a third consecutive year whilst Nashville’s Roman Josi gets rewarded for a career-best 65-point season with a maiden nomination.

Vezina Trophy (Best goalie):  Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals)

Washington’s defence suffered plenty of casualties, leading many pundits to write off the possibility of another imperious regular season, yet Braden Holtby is eager to atone for last spring’s performance, and he’ll start the healing process by snatching a second Vezina trophy with an NHL-best save percentage.

His closest competition will come from Pittsburgh, with Matt Murray making up for the Penguins’ uneven play and ghastly contributions of backup Antti Niemi to score a nomination for his first 40-win campaign. Completing the field to write history as the first Danish player selected for a major NHL award, Toronto’s workhorse goalie Frederik Andersen will be recognized for topping the NHL in starts, winning in excess of 38 games and compiling above average numbers both in GAA and Sv%.

Jack Adams Award (Best Coach): NOT John Tortorella

Hart Memorial Trophy (Most valuable player): Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars)

Jamie Benn, your 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner (Jerome Miron / USA TODAY Sports)

An inordinate amount of shorthanded points, gaudy offensive totals, and a leading role on an electrifying bounce-back season for the Stars coalesce to power Dallas’ skipper over incumbent Connor McDavid in a major upset decided by a razor-thin margin.

Patrik Laine comes next, a distant third finalist emerging from the pack due to his vital contributions for the Jets’ late playoff push. Goaltender Braden Holtby hauls the Washington Capitals past some unexpected offensive struggles, and almost cracks the top-three, while Jack Eichel’s candidacy is ultimately ruined by Buffalo’s belated collapse.

Weekend Roundup (October, 1st): Manchester City puts the Premier League on notice

Sixteen unanswered goals in the previous three Premier League Games and seven straight victories in all competitions provide a nice cushion for a team that is about to enter the ground of the defending Champions, yet Manchester City’s presentation in Stamford Bridge was a different show of strength.

A comprehensive, meticulous supremacy that a man like Antonio Conte, the pragmatic, sly, single-minded manager of Chelsea has seldom suffered on his decade-long career; a preeminent football lecture founded on sharp, crisp passing, intelligent player movement, coordinated pressing and utter domination of the ball that would rank amongst the best performances of any Pep Guardiola-led squad, not just his Man City era.

Consequently, it came to be that nobody even remembered the visitors were without the insidious Sergio Agüero, involved in a car accident in the Netherlands, as they bossed over the thwarted Londoners, jumbled by the gracious, lavish play of midfielders Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Fernandinho, the agility of the rapidly-improving Gabriel Jesus and the incisive dashes of Raheem Sterling and, particularly, Leroy Sané. The stats tell it all, with Man City amassing 63% of possession and 17 shot attempts (5 on goal) to just 4 (2 on net) from the hosts, seemingly even more befuddled following Álvaro Morata’s departure in the 35th minute with an hamstring injury.

It’s true that the scoreboard only motioned once, a courteous bow to Kevin de Bruyne’s wonder goal in the 67th minute, the Belgium star playing a beautiful one-two with Gabriel Jesus before unleashing a thunderous left-foot screamer past the outstretched Thibault Courtois, yet the message resonated loud and clear through the Islands and the continent apart. Pep Guardiola’s Man City 2.0 is an incommensurable grander beast than last year’s side, which finished 15 pts back of Chelsea, and they’re here to subjugate, as much in substance and style.

The ball shot by Man City’s Kevin de Bruyne flies by Thibault Courtois on the late evening of Stamford Bridge (Getty Images)

Nevertheless, for all the class they’ve exuded in the pitch this season, the Blues of Manchester, now six points up on Chelsea, have yet to ditch their rivals at the top of the Premier League table. Manchester United may not be as aesthetically pleasant, but you can’t question the outcomes as José Mourinho’s side pumped four goals for the sixth time in eleven matches across all competitions in 2017-18. Their victim this time being the bottomless pit of despair that is Crystal Palace right now, seven losses in equal number of matches this term and still without a single goal to lean on.

Tottenham, also in a free-scoring mode in recent times, rose to third after a routine 4-0 win at Huddersfield Town with the inevitable Harry Kane netting a brace to elevate his September tally to 11 goals in 6 matches. The Spurs have 14 points, five less than the leaders, and one more than Chelsea and Arsenal, who have quietly climbed up the standings over the last few weeks and beat Brighton (2-0) at the Emirates Stadium in round 8.

Conversely, Liverpool has been sliding, compiling just one win in their last seven matches (all competitions) after drawing 1-1 at Newcastle. Philippe Coutinho scored for a third consecutive game, but the hosts levelled by Joselu seven minutes later, and Jürgen Klopp’s team now shares the sixth place with the surprising Watford (2-2 at West Bromwich) and Burnley, whose 1-0 victory at Goodison Park resulted in Everton’s fourth defeat in just seven Premier League games.

Ligue 1

For the second consecutive week, Monaco opened the round in France, however not even the indomitable predatory instinct of Radamel Falcao was enough to make amends three days after an embarrassing Champions League home defeat to FC Porto. The Colombian striker scored in the first half, but Montpellier would erase the deficit with a stoppage time marker by Souley Camara.

With the slip up, PSG had the opportunity to retake the three-point advantage squandered in round 6, and they walked right through it, acing what was supposed to be a real test against the unbeaten Bordeaux, who were third. An irresistible first half with 6 goals – five for the hosts – showcased once again the full might of the Parisians’ attack, with Neymar tallying twice and assisting Edison Cavani for the 2-0 before Kylian Mbappé also found the back of the net on the 6-2 drubbing.

With Bordeaux blitzed in Paris and St. Etiénne succumbing at Troyes (2-1), three sides parlayed wins in round 6 to leap the duo, with the spotlight falling on Olympique Marseille, who rallied from a two-goal deficit in Nice with four straight goals.

L’OM now sits at 16 pts, three behind Monaco, levelled with Nantes (1-0 vs Metz) and one above Caen (0-1 at Rennes) on the table of the Ligue 1, which also hit the news this weekend for two disparate moments: the hilarious sent off of Lyon’s center back Marcelo on the team’s 3-3 draw in Angers and, on a much sombre note, the suspension of the match between Amiens and Lille when several visiting fans got injured celebrating a goal after a barrier collapsed in the stands.

Serie A

Locked in a stare down from match day one, one of the leaders would eventually have to blink first and Juventus’ draw in Bergamo did the job, as the Old Lady’s perfect record came to an end to grant Napoli sole possession of first place.

The six-time defending Champions scored two times inside 24 minutes in Atalanta’s stadium, however Juventus’ loanee Mattia Caldara and a potent header by Bryan Cristante tied the proceedings at two. There was more to tell, though, since Paulo Dybala’s penalty kick in the 84th minute was denied by Albanian goalkeeper Etrit Berisha, and, in turn, Napoli now leads the league by two points.

Paulo Dybala’s missed penalty denied Juventus the three points against Atalanta (La Presse)

Mauricio Sarri’s men grabbed a full complement against Cagliari (3-0) at the San Paolo to go 7 of 7, while Inter won at last-place Benevento (1-2) with a brace from Croatian midfielder Marcelo Brozovic to level Juve in second. Fourth-place Lazio recorded the rout of the week, thrashing Sassuolo 6-1 at the Stadio Olimpico.

In the round’s marquee matchup, AS Roma triumphed (0-2) at the San Siro to distance AC Milan in the table. The hosts attacked more, but it was Bosnian striker Edin Džeko who broke the deadlock with a superb shot from distance in the 72nd minute, before Alessandro Florenzi poked in the insurance five minutes later.

The result means the Rossoneri are now 9 pts behind Napoli, but a lot can chance in an explosive round 8 to be played after the international break, when the top six sides will be in confront. In a couple of days, Juve will host Lazio, Napoli will visit Roma and the Milan teams will battle each other at another chapter of the Derby della Madonnina.

Bundesliga

Carlo Ancelotti may be gone, but the problems at Bayern Munich didn’t magically disappear with the departure of the Italian manager. After the paltry performance in Paris, the Bavarians travelled to Berlin and they blew a two-goal lead for the second time in as many fixtures, with the goals of Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski cancelled in a five-minute span by Hertha’s Ondrej Duda and Salomon Kalou.

Hertha’s Salomon Kalou bangs in the equalizer against Bayern Munich at the Berlin Olympiastadion on Sunday (Reuters)

Bayern is now five points adrift of leaders Borussia Dortmund, who passed at Augsburg (1-2) in spite of Aubameyang’s missed penalty, yet they actually surged one spot on the table by virtue of Hoffenheim’s loss at Freiburg (3-2).

Hannover 96, defeated in Moenchengladbach (2-1), also eschewed the “unbeaten” label this week, tumbling to fifth, while RB Leipzig  visited last place FC Köln and came out victorious (1-2), cutting the deficit to Bayern to a single point and aggravating the situation of their opponents on the day. The Goats of Cologne are still stuck at one point after seven matches and the relegation line is already six away.

La Liga

On a politically charged weekend in Spain, football couldn’t manage to dodge the circumstances as FC Barcelona was forced to play its round 7 encounter inside an empty Camp Nou. Naturally lethargic for 45 minutes, the Catalan’s came out in the second half with extra resolve and cracked a problem named Las Palmas with three goals, the first from Sergio Busquets and the next two ascribed to Lionel Messi.

The day FC Barcelona’s motto meant more than just words sprayed on the seats of Camp Nou (Getty Images)

Incidentally, the other team from Barcelona, RCD Espanyol, was on the Spanish capital this week, yet they failed to put another dent on (Real) Madrid’s ambitions. Two goals from Isco were enough to finally secure the defending Champions’ maiden home victory of the campaign and to preserve the 7-point chasm to the top.

In between the two giants, though, there are still teams to take into account, and both Sevilla (2-0 vs Malaga) and Valencia (3-2 vs Athletic) fulfilled their duties in the weekend. The same cannot be said of Atlético Madrid, who can thank goaltender Jan Oblak for leaving nearby Leganés with a draw (0-0) before the reception to Barcelona at their brand-new Wanda Metropolitano.  At the bottom, Alavés surprised Levante (0-2) to pick up the first points in 2017-18, and left Málaga to hold the red lantern.

Tennis: Caroline Garcia conquers Wuhan in battle of outsiders   

The Wuhan Open – the last of the Premier 5 events on the 2017 WTA Tour calendar – took place last week in the most populous city in Central China, and in spite of the presence of eight of the top ten female players in the World, the scene was stolen by two unseeded players, who combined to play a thrilling Final that lasted almost three hours.

France’s Caroline Garcia, who had eliminated two of the tour’s best players in 2016, (Angelique Kerber and Dominika Cibulková) to reach her first final of the year, made it count in the end, lifting the biggest trophy of her career after a 6-7 7-6 6-2 triumph, however her opponent was the true star of the event.

An elated Caroline Garcia holds the trophy of the Wuhan Open (Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu)

Australian Ashleigh Barty, a 21-year-old who abandoned tennis for 18 months to become a professional cricket player, served twice for the Championship in the second set, and it would have a been a fitting reward after such a remarkable campaign in Wuhan. In fact, on her way to a third career final, Barty collected four consecutive wins over top ten players – Johanna Konta (5th seed in Wuhan), Agnieszka Radwanska (9), Karolína Plíšková (4) and Jeļena Ostapenko (8) – to compile a breakthrough performance which validates her new career-high ranking of 23. She will stand eight spots behind Garcia, who also reached a milestone after authoring the greatest triumph for French woman’s tennis since Marion Bartoli stunned the world at Wimbledon in 2013.

Besides Wuhan, the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, also hosted a WTA tournament last week. With only one top-50 player in town, the defending Champion Krystina Plíšková, the title fell to Ukrainian Kateryna Bondarenko, who upset second seed Tímea Babos on the Final in straight sets (6-4, 6-4). For Bondarenko, the World No.153, this was a second WTA Tour success, more than 9 years after taking the spoils in Birmingham, while the Hungarian Babos dropped a second singles final this month – after Québec City two weeks ago – but still found some level of redemption by winning the doubles event alongside Czech Andrea Hlaváčková.

Kateryna Bondarenko, draped in traditional Uzbek attire, shows off the Tashkent Open trophy (Tashkent Open)

On the men’s side, the ATP Tour made stops in two Chinese cities last week for a pair of ATP 250 tournaments.

In Shenzhen, on the southeast coast, broad smiles were reserved for Belgian David Goffin, who finally won a Final after six consecutive setbacks, including two earlier this year (Sofia, Rotterdam), with the trophy in sight. The 26-year-old needed three sets (6–4, 6–7, 6–3) to scrape by Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov, but he finally ended a three-year trophy drought, a puzzling stretch if we take into account that Goffin broke into the top-ten in between.

Meanwhile, in Chengdu, a decider pitting two of the ATP Tour journeyman, 32-year-old Marcos Baghdatis and 31-year-old Dennis Istomin, was terminated after just five games when the Cypriot Baghdatis couldn’t cope any more with acute pain on his back. The former World No. 8 was fighting for his first tournament win in seven years, but he had to abandon, thereby conceding the title to the powerful Uzbek player, best known to tennis fans for defeating Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open early this season. Two years after triumphing in Nottingham, Istomin claimed his second career ATP Tour event.

Dennis Istomin won the title in Chengdu (ATP World Tour)

Cycling: Giovanni Visconti tricks the peloton to win the Giro Dell’Emilia

The World Championships have come and gone, but cycling season isn’t over just yet. The last monument of the season, the Giro di Lombardia, is just days away, and some of main candidates gauged their form on Saturday at the 100th edition of the Giro Dell´Emilia.

With the start located in Bologna and finishing just outside the city, on the hill leading to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, the race course asked the peloton to weave through the roads of the Emilia-Romana region before tackling five times a finishing circuit that included the climb to San Luca. On the penultimate of these laps, with 16 km to go, Italian veteran Giovanni Visconti bolted the main bunch and quickly took a 30-second advantage that would prove enough to secure victory.

The favourites woke up late and tried to reel in the fugitive on the final ascent up Monte della Guardia, which included slopes of 18%, however all attempts were successively shut down by Vincenzo Nibali, Visconti’s teammate at Bahrain-Merida, and the 34-year-old would be able to finish with a 12-second lead on the runner-up, which ended up being Nibali.

Glory for Giovanni Visconti in Bologna on Saturday (Tim de Waele / TDWSport.com)

Colombian Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) completed the podium on a day that was overshadowed by the news regarding his compatriot – and defending Champion – Esteban Chaves. The Orica-Scott rider took a nasty fall negotiating a bend while in hot pursuit of Visconti, fractured his right shoulder, and will miss the remainder of the season, including the defence of his title at “Il Lombardia” on October 7th.

Also on Saturday, German Andre Greipel picked up a much-needed victory for Lotto-Soudal, claiming just his fifth win of the season on the final sprint of the Omloop Eurometropool. The following day, Spaniard Luis León Sanchez (Astana) upset Italians Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain -Merida) and Elia Viviani (Team Sky) to earn his first triumph in 18 months at the Gran Premio Bruno Beghelli, while British Daniel McClay (Fortuneo-Oscaro) snatched victory in dramatic fashion at the Tour de l’Eurométropole, pipping an unsuspecting Anthony Turgis (Cofidis) right at the finish line.

Moment of the weekend

In perfect alignment with our headline, it has to be Kevin de Bruyne’s sensational strike that gave Manchester City a momentous 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge.

The Belgium‘s top-notch execution wrapped up a swift, smart, incisive connection in the final third, perfectly symbolizing the blend of artistry and ruthlessness present in the 2017-18 iteration of the Northwestern outfit.

Weekend Roundup (September, 24th): Peter Sagan writes history at the 2017 UCI World Championships

It took 84 editions of the Cycling Road World Championships for a man to win the road race three consecutive times. That man wasn’t supposed to be a Slovak. Not when the Italians, the Belgians and the French have dominated the sport and the event since the beginnings back in the 1920’s. Not when the ten major nations are able to field rosters of 9 riders, giving them ample resources to control and mould the race to their liking, and to isolate a guy like Sagan with dozens of miles to spare. Yet, somehow, the 27-year-old is a three-time World Champion – something only four other men had done before – by adding the gold obtained in Bergen to the 2015 title in Richmond, when he launched a daring solo attack to ride to victory in the final kilometres, and last year’s triumph in Doha, wrestled at the sprint.

Yesterday, in Norway, it all suggested a return to his old days at Cannondale, before he had a team set up to cater to his needs, a target on his back and a distinctive rainbow jersey gleaming everywhere he went. In a discreet, blue and white Slovakian jersey that blended inside the peloton seamlessly, Sagan ghosted through the race. Definitely through the first 200kms riddled with doomed breakaways, but also during Tom Dumoulin’s attack on the penultimate passage in Salmon Hill, and the short spurts of action that followed as the powerhouses looked ready to actually trim the pack.

The peloton rode near the fjords of Bergen during the first hours of the Worlds men’s elite road race (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

Still, an inordinate bunch of 80 riders would make it back one final time to the key climb of the circuit, and someone had to break the race apart. It was France’s Julian Alaphilippe, who sinuously wheeled up the hill to peel away from everyone except Italy’s Gianni Moscon. At the time, it felt like the day’s decisive moment had come and gone, and Sagan was still to show his cards, uncharacteristically inconspicuous among the 25 cyclists that chased the front duo standing 15 seconds adrift on the crest of Salmon Hill.

Under the circumstances of such a long race, that advantage might have been enough for a proven rouleur, but the skinny Alaphilippe committed the tactical error of discarding Moscon too early, and he would pay for it when the bunch caught up to him inside the last two kilometres, ushering in a final sprint and Sagan’s opportunity for a “Three-Pete”.

As the group buzzed to the finish line, home favourite Alexander Kristoff jumped ahead by exploding off the final curve with 300m to go, but the Slovak was, as usual, in the right spot, slipping out of the Norwegian’s wheel to gobble up the deficit, and then thrusting his bike forward to edge Kristoff in a photo-finish by all of 20cm. Euphoria ensued for the Slovakian fans in attendance, disappointment transpired from the majority in Bergen, and bronze medallist Michael Matthews (Australia) got caught on camera punishing his bike while crossing the end line. So close, yet so far from his dreams.

A third gold medal and a brand-new rainbow for the Slovak superstar (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

The men’s Under-23 road race, contested on Friday, was won by France’s Benoit Cosnefroy, who beat Germany’s Lennard Kämna in a two-man sprint, with Michael Svendgaard, of Denmark, securing the bronze by finishing top of the peloton. Meanwhile, on Saturday’s women’s elite road race, the sun shined on Dutch Chantal Blaak, who kicked off from the front group on the flat 9 km run-in to the line, and ended up 28 second ahead and flapping her arms on the air. Australia’s Katrin Garfoot leaped the rest of the field for silver, while the 2016 World Champion, Denmark’s Amalie Dideriksen, completed the podium.

Tennis: Rookie joy at the ATP Tour

On the eve of a mass migration to Asia for an important three week swing, the last seven days felt very much like a transitional period in the ATP Tour before things get serious again. Consequently, while many of the top players had fun in an exhibition tournament, two ATP 250 tournaments were available for the lower rungs scalping for points ahead of the home stretch of the season. It was in this scenario that something rare happened: two first time ATP Tour Champions in the same week.

In St. Petersburg, with defending Champion Alexander Zverev absent, the trophy fell into the hands of Damir Džumhur, who not only conquered his maiden trophy at this level, but also became the first player representing the Bosnia-Herzegovina to hold an ATP Tour title. In the Final, the 25-year-old from Sarajevo fended off third seed Fabio Fognini in three sets (4-6, 6-4,6-2) taking advantage of the Italian’s fatigue after a tough, come-from-behind semi-final triumph versus top-seed Roberto Bautista Agut.

A delighted Damir Džumhur kisses his maiden ATP trophy in St. Petersburg (AP)

Meanwhile, in Metz, a deflated crowd watched as German qualifier Peter Gojowczyk ousted home favourite Benoît Paire, the 7th seed, in two sets (7-5, 6-2), to capture his first ATP Tour trophy and secure a new career-best singles ranking of #66. Devilish stuff, no doubt about it.

Nonetheless, most tennis fans spent this weekend not with their eyes in France and Russia, but glued to the action in Prague, where the inaugural Laver Cup took place. Named after the Australian legend, this tournament pitted Team Europe and Team World in a Ryder-Cup style event where players squared off on a series of singles and doubles matches over three days.

Team Europe, containing five top-ten players, including Rafael Nadal (ATP No.1) and Roger Federer (No.2), was the overwhelming choice heading into the series, however the winners only emerged on the last of 12 scheduled matches. And not without some heroics from Roger Federer, who needed to save a match point against Nick Kyrgios (4-6, 7-6, [11-9)) to clinch the trophy for Team Europe by a final tally of 15-9.

While the men are still boarding planes to Asia, the WTA Tour is already entering the second fortnight of action in the Far East. On Sunday, three tournaments met their new holders and the highlight was the victory of Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki on the Pan Pacific Open, a WTA Premier Event that gathered most of the top-ten women taking the courts this week.

Wozniacki, the World No.6, was defending her title in Tokyo and she signed off in style for a second consecutive year, clobbering newly-minted World No.1 Garbiñe Muguruza (6-2, 6-0) in the semi-finals before sweeping past Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchekova in the Final (6-0, 7-5).

Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki poses with the Championship trophy from the Pan Pacific Open (AFP Photo/Kazuhiro NOGI)

Across the Sea, French Open Champion Jeļena Ostapenko confirmed her top seed status in Seoul by overpowering first-time finalist Beatriz Haddad Maia (6-7, 6-1, 6-4) to collect the Korea Open, while, four years after winning her first WTA title in Guangzhou, Zhang Shuai found bliss at home soil again. The 28-year-old Chinese beat Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunić by 6-2, 3-6 and 6-2 in the decisive match to hold the trophy aloft in front of her compatriots.

Athletics: Eliud Kipchoge wins Berlin Marathon but misses out on World Record

Many hailed it as the greatest men’s marathon lineup of all-time, and for good reason. After all, taking part were the reigning Olympic Champion and 2015 winner Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) – who raced in a blistering 2:00:25 in May at Nike’s Breaking2 project, an event which took place in Monza, Italy, under controlled (and non-conforming) conditions – , the 2013 Champion and former world record holder Wilson Kipsang (Kenya), and the defending Champion, track legend and 5000m/10000m world record holder Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia).

Three athletes with personal bests below two hours and four minutes running together, in Berlin, where flat roads, a fast surface and mild temperatures collude to power the elite to record breaking performances. Three men bidding to smash Dennis Kimetto’s marathon world record of 2:02:57 (Berlin, 2014) and fantasizing with a sub-two hour time.

And then, when the day came, it brought the rain with it. And Bekele going empty shortly past the midway mark. And Kipsang suddenly dropping out at the 30kms. The blockbuster showdown for history up in smoke and drizzle.

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge crosses the line to win the 44th Berlin marathon on Sunday. (Michael Sohn/The Associated Press)

Nevertheless, there was still a race to be won, and Kipchoge ended up crossing the finish line in 2:03:32, just 35 seconds off the fancied mark after being pushed by a neophyte, 26-year-old Guye Adola (Ethiopia), whose 2:03:46 now stand as the best marathon debut ever. Far behind, Mosinet Geremew, also of Ethiopia, clocked 2:06:09 to claim third.

In the woman’s event, Gladys Cherono imitated her compatriot to repeat the 2015 triumph in 2:20:23. She was flanked in the podium by Ethiopia’s Ruti Aga (second) and fellow Kenyan Valary Ayabei (third).

Football: Juventus and Napoli remain perfect

Serie A

Another week, another victory for the duo of leaders, as Juventus and Napoli made it 6 out of 6 to maintain the pace at the top of the table. The Neapolitans suffered to overcome a feisty SPAL 2013 in Ferrara, yet a goal from left back Faouzi Ghoulam 7 minutes from time secured the 3-2 triumph. Meanwhile, Juventus throttled rivals Torino with another inspired performance from Paulo Dybala, who netted twice in their 4-0 romp.

Juventus forward Paulo Dybala starred at the Derby della Mole on Saturday (EPA)

Internazionale fans had to wait until the 87th minute for Danilo D’Ambrosio’s lone tally against Genoa at San Siro, but the victory maintains Luciano Spalleti’s side just two points behind the leaders. In the nation’s capital, AS Roma comfortably beat Udinese (3-1) and are now at 12 points with a game in hand, nipping at the heels of heart rivals Lazio, who capitalized on Ciro Immobile’s superb run of form (9 goals in the last 6 matches) to win in Verona. Conversely, the new look AC Milan couldn’t negotiate the difficult trip to the Luigi Ferraris, losing 2-0 to Sampdoria to fall six points back of the leaders.

Finally, in a game between newly-promoted sides, Crotone defeated Benevento 2-0 to escape the relegation zone, and guarantee the debutants will continue to wait for their first Serie A points.

Bundesliga

Dortmund increased their lead at the top of the table with an impressive 6-1 drubbing of Moenchengladbach in a battle of Borussias. Recruited from SC Freiburg in the offseason, Maximilian Phillip tallied the first two at the Signal Iduna Arena before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang notched a hat-trick in a smashing evening.

BVB are now three points up on Bayern Munich, who allowed Wolfsburg to steal a point at the Allianz Arena in the round’s opener. Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben scored in the first half, but Maximilian Arnold cut one back with some help from Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, and Daniel Didavi completed the shocker four minutes from time.

Standing in for the injured Manuel Neuer, Sven Ulreich’s howler cost Bayern Munich two points against Wolfsburg (Getty Images)

Sandwiched between the two giants is now Hoffenheim, who hosted and beat (2-0) Schalke 04, while fourth-placed Hannover 96 welcomed bottom side FC Koln and couldn’t get off the 0-0 to collect a second consecutive draw.

Ligue 1

On the strength of another brace from Radamel Falcao, Monaco waltzed in Lille (4-0) on Friday – pushing their opponent into the relegation zone – and then took a seat to watch as Paris St. Germain got swamped at Montpellier (0-0) without Neymar. After a tumultuous summer, where half of their team was swarmed with offers from greener pastures, the defending Champions proved they won’t relinquish the title easily and cut the deficit at the top to one point.

The red-hot Falcao is already up to 11 goals in 7 Ligue 1 matches this season (AFP / Denis Charlet)

After the top two, the battle for third position is also shaping up nicely. The still-undefeated Bordeaux took the mantle from St. Etiénne (2-2 against Rennes) after brushing past Guingamp (3-1), while Marseille (2-0 vs Toulouse) and Nantes (1-2 at Strasbourg) stand two points behind. On the other hand, Lyon (3-3, Dijon) and Nice (2-2, Angers) dropped points at home in entertaining affairs to lose ground on their adversaries.

La Liga

It wasn’t supposed to be that difficult, but Real Madrid eventually held on (1-2) to leave the home of bottom-feeders Alavés with the three points. Newly-recruited midfielder Dani Ceballos scored the two goals for the struggling behemoths, and the distance to the top remains at seven points after Barcelona made the best out of the short trip to Girona. The “Blaugrana” manufactured a relaxing 3-0 victory with the help of two own-goals and Lionel Messi could even afford to take a night off in that department.

On his first start for Real Madrid, Dani Ceballos tallied twice to save his team at Alavés (AP)

In Madrid, in a fight between La Liga’s best supporting actors, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann helped Atlético upend Sevilla (2-0) to climb to second, four points off Barcelona, whilst Valencia confirmed their good season start by snatching a precious 3 points away to Real Sociedad in a thrilling five-goal game (2-3). It wasn’t the only high-scoring affair of round 6, though, as Celta de Vigo triumphed 4-0 at Eibar, Espanyol beat Deportivo 4-1, Málaga picked up their first point of the campaign after drawing 3-3 to Athletic Bilbao, and Getafe crushed Villareal (4-0) to send the visitors coach, Fran Escribá, packing.

Premier League

We’ve reached the end of round six and most of the cream has already risen to the top of the Premier League table, particularly after a pair of vital 3-2 away victories for Tottenham and Liverpool this week.

Visiting Leicester for the second time in a matter of days, Jurgen Klopp’s side avenged the League Cup elimination on the return to grace of Philippe Coutinho (goal and assist), while the Spurs edged city rivals West Ham at the London Olympic Stadium with a two-goal performance from Harry Kane. Tottenham and Liverpool are now fourth and fifth, respectively, with 11 points each.

The front trio of City, United and Chelsea all won, even if the Red Devils had to suffer to preserve Romelu Lukaku’s winner at Southampton (0-1). Meanwhile, to the blue side of Manchester, the weekend reserved a routine 5-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace, which Chelsea almost matched (4-0) in the usually tricky confines of the Britannia Stadium. The (London) Blues vanquished Stoke City and the four goals originated from Spain: three belonged to striker Álvaro Morata and the other to Pedro Rodríguez.

Elsewhere, Everton claimed an important victory over Bournemouth (2-1), dodging the last places for now, while Watford triumphed at Swansea to cling to sixth (1-2).

Moment of the weekend:

The gripping finale to the men’s road race of the World Championships in Bergen, obviously.

While technical problems with the broadcast meant TV viewers around the World were unable to watch most of the final three kilometres, fixed cameras still managed to pick up the riders in the final 900m to complete the job. Hence, revel on the fleeting seconds of the titanic sprint between Sagan and Kristoff as commentated in the Slovak television, and then check the replay (2:30m) from an overhead view.

 

Sorting through the contenders for the 2017 Men’s World Championships title

On Sunday, the 24th, the UCI Road World Championships will reach their epilogue in Bergen, Norway, when the men’s elite road race will be contested by a peloton of almost 200 athletes. The 267.5km race course includes an initial 39.5km through the nearby fjords before the cyclists reach the scenic Norwegian city, where they’ll tackle a challenging finishing loop of 19.1km a total of 12 times.

This Classics-like, urban circuit contains three ascents, which are bound to disentangle drivers and passengers inside the bunch as the fatigue sets in, and the last promises to feature prominently in the race’s decision. The climb up Mount Ulriken (Salmon Hill) averages 6.4% over just 1.5km, but it is expected to be furiously attacked, especially over the initial 500 metres at 7.8%, after which the slope sweetens a bit. However, from the top, it’s a twisting 1km descent and a flat 9km run in to the finish line, and that means there’s a 50%-50% chance that a peloton or a strong team effort chases down a small breakaway to set up a final bunch sprint, or, in alternative, a group of escapees makes it to the end.

The Bergen World Championships have been contested against a spectacular backdrop (Photo: Eivind Senneset / Bergen Kommune)

Moreover, thickening the plot, Bergen’s recognizably instable weather may show up to accentuate the drama, and insert further unpredictability on a bumpy race where the tactical nous will certainly come to the fore. As a consequence, the list of contenders for the rainbow jersey is long and diverse, and that’s precisely the aspect this article hopes to cast a light on.

Surveying the startlist for the event, a few names jump out right away, but we aimed to go deeper than just ordering a limited number of candidates to victory and, instead, opted to divide the contestants in five tiers. At the top of the pyramid, we’ll have our five and four “stars” candidates, the men that dominate the betting odds entering the competition, and we’ll slowly extend the scope until the unveil of the group of “one star” dark horses at the base. Or you can just consider the rest of the field as the bottom level, since we would be truly shocked if anyone not mentioned claims victory at the race’s end or rises to the podium.

✮✮✮✮ (5 stars)

Peter Sagan (Slovakia)

The two-time defending Champion is the odds-on favourite again and, as such, deserves a class of his own.

Nevertheless, if the Slovak wants to make history by becoming the first to collect three rainbow jerseys in a row, and join Alfredo Binda, Rik Van Steenbergen, Eddy Merckx and Oscar Freire on the selected group of three-time World Champions, he’ll have to be smart and don’t fall prey to the distractions rival nations will throw at him.

Slovakia’s Peter Sagan hopes to repeat the triumphs of 2015 (pictured above) and 2016 (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

While Slovakia will bring a six-men unit this time, it’s doubtful Sagan will have help when the final and potentially decisive climb arrives, so he might as well just go on the offense, like he did in Richmond 2015, or pick his poison careful when the group breaks apart. On good form over the last few weeks, responding to the ejection from the Tour de France with stage victories at the Tour of Poland and BinckBank Tour before a perfect last rehersal at the GP de Québec, Sagan’s preparation has been hampered by an illness yet he’s expected to be fully fit for battle.

✮✮✮ (4 stars)

Matteo Trentin (Italy), Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland), Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium), Michael Matthews (Australia)

The Olympic Champion Greg van Avermaet may have been pipped by Sagan in Québec just two weeks ago, but he’s had success in direct confrontations with the Slovak before and will certainly tap on those memories when time arrives. Outstanding last spring, when he bagged the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgen and the Paris-Roubaix, the Belgium has no wins to his name since June and has looked a few notches below his best, yet the backing of an impressive team and a stellar résumé in one-day races over the last two years ensure he’s a major candidate.

Greg van Avermaet will try to pair the World title with his Olympic gold medal from Rio 2016.

Michal Kwiatkowski, the 2014 World Champion following a surprising attack at the foot of the last climb in Ponferrada, is as versatile as they come and a legitimate danger in whatever scenario plays out for his ability to raid uphill, downhill or on flat terrain. Brilliant throughout the season, from the triumphs at the Strade Bianchi and Milan-San Remo in March, to the podiums at the Ardennes classics or his shifts leading the pack up the mountains of the Tour de France, the Pole is another opponent that owns real estate inside Sagan’s head due to their shared history (2016 Harelbeke; 2017 Milan-San Remo).

A runner-up two years ago, Michael Matthews’ candidacy receives a boost for no longer having to share leadership duties with Simon Gerrans, which proved problematic in years past. Furthermore, the Aussie made great strides this season after a move to Team Sunweb, conquering the green jersey at the Tour de France, a tremendous confidence builder, and placing fourth at the Liège-Bastogne-Liège to showcase just how much he’s improved in steep, short climbs. The 26-year-old may not in Sagan’s or Kwiatkowski’s level if asked  to react quickly to attacks uphill, but he should be able to hang around to capitalize on a chaotic finish.

After picking up silver in Richmond 2015, Michael Matthews shouldn’t settle for less than victory in Bergen (Fotoreporter Sirotti)

The central character on the World Tour over the last month, Matteo Trentin arrives in Norway on a roll after pilling up wins in several terrains. For long overshadowed at Quick-Step Floors and asked to labour for others to shine, this might be the opportunity of a lifetime for the 28-year-old. While Italy isn’t short on options, and hence unlikely to present a united front behind Trentin, he’s earned the right to not defer to others and, in a final sprint, few may be able to outpace him. Conspiring against the Italian’s chances, though, is the fact that he’s never had these many eyeballs pointed at him whilst facing such an illustrious field of rivals, and the lack of a previous impact victory, or even podium appearance, at a major one-day race resembling the mix of distance and hilly difficulties he’ll encounter in Bergen.

✮✮ (3 stars)

Fernando Gavíria (Colombia), Julian Alaphilippe (France), Alexander Kristoff (Norway), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway), Philippe Gilbert (Belgium)

Coming in fresher than any of his rivals after a three month convalescence from a knee injury, Julian Alaphilippe’s lean shoulders will be asked to sustain the hopes of a cycling nation who’s about to reach two decades without an elite men’s road title. Leaving the best French sprinters (Bouhanni, Démare, Coquard) at home was an irrefutable sign of confidence on the 25-year-old, but we can’t help to think it may be too early. Alaphilippe is hugely talented, can climb and sprint, and is a good bet to win this race in the future, yet his performance at the Vuelta doesn’t exactly instil the trust that he can beat the likes of Matthews, Sagan or Kwiatkowski in Bergen.

Colombia’s Fernando Gavíria is, arguably, the fastest man in the peloton that will line up Sunday morning and, therefore, the man to beat in a bunch finale, however we’re not sure he has what it will take to cling to the front if the race is seriously attacked late, no matter the strength of the Colombian roster around him. Truth be told, his teammates are mostly climbers, not often urged to power in frantic pursuit of a breakaway, thus someone would need to give a helping hand others would be foolish to offer. Additionally, Gavíria didn’t exactly light up the recent Tour of Britain, and hasn’t raced a lot since May, when he dominated the sprints at the Giro.

Fernando Gaviria is Colombia’s main threat to take victory in Bergen (Foto: Federación Colombiana de Ciclismo)

The 23-year-old’s physical condition is another question mark going in and, since there will be years to come when the route will suit him better, don’t deposit too many chips on his number. Still, we can’t rule him out either.

Much like his compatriot and rival Greg van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert’s peak condition was observed earlier in the season. Victorious at the Tour de Flanders and Amstel Gold Race in April, when he looked rejuvenated following his departure from BMC, the former World Champion (2012) faded as the season went on to pass incognito through the recent Tour of Britain. Nevertheless, Gilbert is savvy and experienced, perfectly aware of what’s necessary to navigate a race like this, and a four-time Monument winner. You simply can’t discount him, much less when he’ll enjoy the freedom to go on his own.

The 2012 World Champion, Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, is still ranked among the favourites (Bettini Photo)

Crowned European Champion just a month ago, Alexander Kristoff would have been hailed as an all-out favourite on home soil if not for a 2017 season that has unfolded several rungs below his standards. Wins have been hard to come by for the 30-year-old, especially at the World Tour level (just two), and a plethora of podiums and top ten finishes don’t conceal the fact that he’s been on the losing end of many clashes with the main opponents he’ll face in Bergen. Heck, in his current form, we’re not even sure he would crack a 40-men leading group at the top of Salmon Hill on the last lap… Kristoff may transcend himself at the sight of a throng of Norwegian fans and flags, but we won’t count on it, not even if the race is decided on a mass sprint.

On the contrary, the other Norwegian hope, Edvald Boasson Hagen, should be monitored closely by the other favourites. The 30-year-old impressed at the Tour of Britain earlier this month, and the familiar surroundings may be exactly what he needs to finally get over the hump and secure a major triumph for his career. After all, this season, Boasson Hagen has already snatched victories on the overall classifications of the Tour de Fjords and Tour of Norway, and understanding how to thrive at home is always important, regardless of the disparity between those races and the Worlds. In addition, let’s hope taking part in last Wednesday’s individual time trial didn’t emptied his tank.

Edvald Boasson Hagen is the reigning Norwegian Champion and one of the hosts’ best riders (Foto: Fredrik Varfjell / NTB scanpix)

(2 stars)

Elia Viviani (Italy), Diego Ulissi (Italy), Sonny Colbrelli (Italy), Oliver Naesen (Belgium), Tim Wellens (Belgium), Tony Gallopin (France), Michael Albasini (Switzerland), Rui Costa (Portugal), Daniel Martin (Ireland)

This “two stars” echelon is a heterogeneous group that agglutinates backup options and leaders from smaller nations, with the Italian trio, in particular, sticking out as wildcards to keep an eye on.

Sprinter Elia Viviani racked up two important World Tour wins recently (Bretagne Classic and Hamburg Cyclassics) and held his own at the Milan-San Remo earlier this season, yet help may be hard to come by if he struggles on one of the ascents. Moreover, in a crowded finish, compatriot Sonny Colbrelli, who has toppled Viviani twice in the last weeks, could overrule his challenge, while Diego Ulissi is an adaptable option Italy will save in the back pocket to play judiciously. A two-time World Champion in the junior ranks, the 28-year-old, who won the GP de Montreal two weeks ago, is a respectable finisher in small groups, however you won’t find many relevant appearances in races with this mileage on his career to date.

Italy’s Elia Viviani (left) was narrowly beaten at the European Championships road race last month (Bettini Photo)

Belgium’s Tim Wellens is aggressive, fearless, unpredictable and a lock to emerge on a breakaway sometime during the race, but equally unlikely to be given much leeway by the peloton or conserve enough energy to follow the best when the race breaks loose. Moreover, he offers few guarantees in terms of final acceleration, which limits his upside. Oliver Naesen, the well-rounded Belgian Champion, is another rider capable of agitating the race, but he’ll probably be asked to save his energy for the benefit of others.

Meanwhile, Tony Gallopin is a decent backup option for France in case something happens to Alaphilippe, and he proved it by being right in the thick of action on the Canadian World Tour events, Tour of Wallonie and Clásica San Sebastian since the end of July. Flying under the radar can only improve his odds of a good result in Bergen.

Rui Costa, the surprising 2013 World Champion, has been snakebitten, falling on the wrong side of many close calls this season – including three second places at the Giro –, yet his luck shouldn’t turn in Bergen. A smart rider who relies on instinct to sniff the right break, he can finish but will have a hard time trying to discard or outsprint any of the main contenders. As for Ireland’s Daniel Martin, a proven hilly classics expert, it’s expected he will play a key role in blasting the race open on the final ascent, but that won’t make for the missing rolling skills to sustain, by himself, a small advantage in the final 9kms.

Portugal’s Rui Costa (right) sprints to victory at the 2013 World Championships.

Always a force to be reckoned with at the Ardennes Classics, especially the Flèche Wallone, 36-year-old Swiss Michael Albasini has never triumphed at a meaningful one-day race, become a National Champion or finished better than 17th (2012) at the Worlds. It’s implausible it will happen this time.

(1 star)

Ben Swift (Great Britain), Adam Blythe (Great Britan), José Joaquim Rojas (Spain), Nikias Arndt (Germany), Dylan Theuns (Belgium), Jasper Stuvyen (Belgium), Lars Boom (Netherlands), Danny van Poppel (Netherlands), Jean-Pierre Drucker (Luxembourg), Daryl Impey (South Africa), Sergio Henao (Colombia), Rigoberto Urán (Colombia), Magnus Cort Nielsen (Denmark), Petr Vakoc (Czech Republic)

It’s symptomatic that, in the absence of Alejandro Valverde, the first and only Spaniard barely slides into the last tier. And even that may be too kind for José Joaquim Rojas, a low-end sprinter with ten career victories and a single World Tour success recorded over the last five seasons.

Since Mark Cavendish was left at home for lack of form, Ben Swift and Adam Blythe carry Great Britain’s dim ambitions. The former claimed two podiums at the Milan-San Remo (2014, 2015), but has mostly been inconspicuous this season, while the latter outpaced Cavendish on the National Championships yet doesn’t have a lot of experience at this level of competition.

Belgium’s Dylan Theuns would be higher up the list had this race been held one month earlier, however the form that resulted in his breakthrough performances in July and early August seemed to vanish in Canada. Meanwhile, his teammate Jasper Stuyven is a decent sprinter sadly stuck on a team with too many (better) options.

Belgian Dylan Teuns has already won in Norway this season. He took the overall victory and two stages at the Arctic Tour of Norway (ASO)

The vigorous Lars Boom popped on the radar after winning the Tour of Britain, yet his only real chance would be an implausible solo break. Still, there other ways he could impact the race, especially if a thick group makes it past the final slope. Boom could then maintain the pace in the front of the pack or shield a guy like Danny van Poppel, the Netherlands’ late call up.

Nikias Arndt is, probably, Germany’s best option after John Degenkolb pulled out, but, unless truly exceptional circumstances arise, we’re simply talking about a potential top ten position. The same logic would apply to fellow fast man such as Magnus Cort Nielsen, Daryl Impey and Jean-Pierre Drucker.

Germany’s Nikias Arndt in action at Wednesday’s ITT. He’ll also take part on the men’s elite road race (teamsunweb.com)

Sergio Henao’s explosiveness and Rigoberto Urán’s rolling power could end up being essential for Colombia, especially if Gavíria falters and they need to hatch a plan B, while Petr Vakoc is a burgeoning puncher, boasts good finishing speed and is surrounded by an interesting Czech ensemble (Roman Kreuziger, Zdenek Stybar, Jan Bárta).