The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship final report (Part II)

(Continuation of Part I)

  1. Russia

Medallists in each of the preceding seven tournaments and 14 of the previous 16 editions, the Russians always seem to find a way to crash the podium at the WJC. However, national coach Valeri Bragin started the 2018 event complaining about the lack of international experience on its roster, which, keep in mind, contained only three players yet to complete their 19th birthday, and then things went south for them in a hurry, with a defeat in the tournament opener against the Czech (4-5) leading to a curbed campaign.

Unable to beat the Swedes in the final group game, the Russians were left to slow down the Americans in the QF and succumbed to the task, flying home empty-handed after capturing their last gold medal in the same arena back in 2011.

Russia players and staff look on after a 4-2 quarterfinal round loss to the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Usually a critical part of their most successful teams, goaltending was not a force for the Red Army this time, with Vladislav Sukhachyov, who replaced Alexei Melnichuk in the first game, notching a 2.74 GAA and 0.904 Sv%. Additionally, neither was their defensive unit which, orphan of a stud rear-guard in the same level of Mikhail Sergachev (2017) or Ivan Provorov (2016), had to hack it by commitment. Captain Yegor Zaitsev (NJ) and undrafted Vladislav Syomin, the point man on the man-advantage, shouldered the biggest load, but the true standouts of Team Russia laboured further up the ice, particularly the mightily impressive Klim Kostin (STL).

After a 2016-17 season derailed by injury, the 31st pick of the 2017 draft took advantage of the big stage by posting a team-leading 5 goals and 3 assists in just 5 games, his hands and powerful stride highlights in a forgettable competition for his team. Kostin was one of two under aged forwards on the Russian roster, the other being 2018 top-prospect Andrei Svechnikov (5A), and the pair was followed, in terms of performance, by a duo of Chicago Blackhawks’ picks, Artur Kayumov ( 2nd round, 2016) and Andrei Altybarmakyan (3rd, 2017).

Russia’s Klim Kostin #24 plays the puck while Sweden’s Jacob Moverare #27 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

On the negative side, reference for top center German Rubtsov (PHI), whose 4 pts exceeded his overall contributions on both sides of the puck, and Vitali Abramov (CBJ), who couldn’t replicate his lofty QMJHL point totals (150 in 96 games over the last two seasons) also due to the team’s anemic powerplay, last in the tournament (1/20, 5%) and severely hampered by the lack of right-handed options (17 of 20 skaters shot left).

  1. Czech Republic

It had become routine to see the Czech Republic ranked fifth or sixth and sent packing in the quarter-finals, when their lack of depth gets exposed by one of the big-five of international hockey, but the band sang a different tune in 2018. For just the second time in the last 11 encounters, the Czechs overcame Russia to begin their campaign in style, and after they defeated Belarus and Switzerland, second place and a winnable quarter-final against Finland loomed.

Battling back twice before prevailing in the SO (4-3), the Czechs best classification since 2005 was secured, however they couldn’t repeat the bronze of Grand Forks, ND, because Canada (7-2) and the USA (9-3) obliterated them in the medal round. Nothing that would obscure a stepping-stone event for a country in the upswing, dreaming of even bigger things in 2019 with their 11 possible returnees – including Filip Zadina, Martin Nečas and Filip Chytil – and poised to host the event in 2020.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18, Albert Michnac #29, Martin Necas #8, Martin Kaut #16 and Libor Hajek #3 celebrate at the bench after a second period goal against Sweden during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Until then, the goal has to be the return to the times when significantly more Czech teenagers were selected by NHL teams, since only six of the 23 men that competed in Buffalo have been drafted and two more signed NHL deals after being overlooked. One of latter cases, goaltender Josef Kořenář, is a San Jose Sharks prospect whose numbers (4.49 GAA, 0.879 Sv%) in Buffalo skewed significantly as a result of the two final poundings, which followed a stellar 51-save performance against the Finns.

With 34 goals allowed in seven games, defence was far from the Czechs strong suit outside of a few bright individual exceptions – beyond Hájek, we could name Vojtěch Budik (BUF) and Jakub Galvas (CHI) – but, fortunately, they could light some fireworks up front.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Chytil #21 looks for a scoring chance against Russia’s Alexei Melnichuk #1 while Nikita Makeyev #2 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

As referenced before, the duo Martin Nečas (CAR) and Filip Zadina led the way, but Filip Chytil (2+2), the Rangers first round pick, also had his moments, especially in the opener against Russia. Difficult to push off the puck, capable of executing in tight and with an edge to his game, Chytil vanished in the later rounds and took linemate Martin Kaut (2+5), a potential top-50 pick in 2018, with him, eventually leading to the rise of a few unsung heroes, including the undrafted Kristian Reichel (3+1), a heart-and-soul third line center that loves to do the grunt work, LW Daniel Kurovský (2+1), whose hard-nosed game was difficult to ignore, and right-winger Radovan Pavlík (3+3).

Bronze Medal Winners: United States of America

Afforded a golden opportunity to capture back-to-back titles for a first time, the 2018 tournament can’t be considered a success for the Americans because they failed to fulfil the objective on home ice, yet there are still a lot of positives to take from their performance. For instance, their response to the unexpected defeat against Slovakia, regrouping quickly to overcome a two-goal deficit in the outdoor game, or the dominant performance in the bronze medal game less than 24 hours after the disappointing SF loss to the Swedes.

USA players celebrating after a 4-3 shoot-out win over Canada during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

There’s a case to be made that the Americans, who scored 20 goals in the group stage (the same number as Sweden) and 35 in total (one less than Canada), were in equal footing with the two finalists, and ended up in third-place victims of the circumstances and the below-average performance of Joseph Woll (TOR), who guarded the net in every indoor game and was severely outmatched by his counterparts. While Filip Gustavsson and Carter Hart soared, Woll’s ultimate body of work fails the sniff test (0.886, 2.71 GAA) and that proved decisive.

Moreover, on paper, the American defence palled in comparison with their rivals’, but this unheralded group held his ground, with Adam Fox and the steady Dylan Samberg (WIN, 1+3, +10) anchoring the first pair, and U. Minnesota’s mainstay Ryan Lindgren (BOS) doing the heavy lifting in the second unit as 18-year-old Quinn Hughes and his refined offensive skills were increasingly phased out of the rotation as the importance of the games increased.

USA’s Riley Tufte #27 attempts a shot against Denmark’s Kasper Krog #31 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Still, where the Americans were truly likely to create separation, according to pre-tournament predictions, was on the quality of their offensive group and ability to rotate four lines sprinkled with first round picks. Despite the tall goal totals, that didn’t exactly turned out as expected, since at the same time Brady Tkachuk and Casey Mittelstadt (BUF) thrived on the top-line alongside captain Joey Anderson (NJ, 4+3), and Kieffer Bellows’ (NYI) erupted on Ryan Poehling’s (MTR) right flank, the likes of Riley Tufte (DAL), Max Jones (ANA), Joshua Norris (SJ) and even NHL-tested Kailer Yamamoto (EDM) struggled to put points on the board in critical situations. That would be the major difference for the Swedish and Canadian forward units.

Silver Medal Winners: Sweden

44. That’s the number of consecutive wins the Swedes have amassed in group play since 2007… or 43 more than the amount of World titles they’ve secured in the same period.

Cruising through the group stage as usual (20-7 in goal differential), the Tre Kronor’s pallid exhibition against Slovakia (3-2) in the QF awoke the alarm sirens and elicited thoughts of a fourth consecutive medal-less appearance, however Sweden managed to oust the USA (4-2) for the first time in ten Final Four battles, and then came pretty close to stamp a first gold medal since 2012. Despite being assessed six minor penalties to Canada’s one, the Swedes had the better of play in the Final, and even ringed one off the post minutes before Tyler Steenbergen potted the game-winning-goal with 100 seconds to go in regulation.

Truly a shame for a team brimming with talent way beyond the likes of Rasmus Dahlin or their trio of top-ten picks at the forward ranks: sniper Elias Pettersson (VAN, 5+2), charismatic captain Lias Andersson (NYR, 6+1), whose level of play dropped after dislocating his shoulder against Russia, and the cerebral (and inconsistent) Alexander Nylander (BUF, 1+6), competing at his third WJC.

High-choices at the 2017 draft, defensemen Erik Brännström (LV) and Timothy Liljegren (TOR) are two such cases of blue-chip prospects that enjoyed great tournaments, with the former spending most of the time besides Dahlin and regularly displaying exceptional quickness and agility to skate the puck up the ice, and the latter coupling the willingness to engage opponents physically with slick skating skills and the ability to fire long, on-the tape, stretch passes to feed Sweden’s speedy forward group.

Conversely, despite being passed twice at the draft, rearguard Jesper Sellgreen stood out for combining puck-moving ability and feistiness in a modest frame, earning comparisons with Tobias Ernstrom, while the members of the lower attacking lines proved essential to, repeatedly, tip the balance in favour of Sweden with their mix of speed, forecheking expertise and grit. It was no coincidence that in Sweden’s difficult quarter-final match (3-2), the unit of Isac Lundeström (draft-eligible, 2 G), Oskar Steen (BOS, 2+2) and Tim Söderlund (CHI, 2+3) manufactured all three goals with their boundless energy, and neither was that, alongside fourth-liner Axel Jonsson Fjällby (WSH, 2+2), who dashed around the ice with long locks of air flowing out of his helmet, they proved extremely dangerous shorthanded, a situation that earned Sweden four goals during the tournament.

Sweden’s Axel Jonsson Fjallby #22 skates with the puck as Vladislav Yeryomenko #8 of Team Belarus gives chase during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

World Junior Champions: Canada

Three years without conquering gold at the WJC is too much for an hockey-mad nation like Canada, and to erase the taste of last year’s heartbreaking loss to the USA in Montreal, they could have hardly asked for better than their close to perfect tournament south of the border: best attack (39 goals) and best defense (11), the top powerplay (13 of 29) and penalty kill (22 of 25) and a 6-0-1 record only spoiled by the two-goal lead relinquished against the USA (3-4, SO).

With a roster that contained a single top-ten pick (D Cale Makar) and many feared would struggle in the absence of high-end, game-breaking talents, Team Canada’s preference for a versatile, balanced attack was right on the money, as the team rolled four lines, every forward scored, and the rest went according to expectations, with their mobile, skilled backend pushing the pace to generate scoring chances, and goaltender Carter Hart playing up to his abilities throughout the tournament.

Canadian players and staff celebrate after a 3-1 gold medal game win over Sweden at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

With such an homogeneous roster, Canada didn’t even have to rely too much on their three returning blueliners, Dante Fabbro (NSH), Jake Bean (CAR) and Kale Clague (LA), all-around rearguards that move the puck, as the trio was eventually eclipsed by the sparkling offensive instincts of Cale Makar (COL) and the superb Victor Mete (MTR) / Conor Timmins (COL) pairing, whose combined +- rating was a whopping +26 in 7 games.

As a matter of fact, when Mete was on the ice, the opposition did not score at all, his stick work and ability to drive play suffocating rivals, while Timmins emerged as the revelation of the roster, an unassuming two-way defenseman that could play shutdown hockey, make a crisp first pass, and deliver a sweet feed like the pass-shot Tyler Steenbergen (ARI) tipped to sink Sweden’s hopes in the Final.

Canada’s Tyler Steenbergen #17 scores the championship winning goal against Sweden’s Filip Gustavsson #30 during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Moreover, in attack, the conversation was much of the same, with veterans Taylor Raddysh (TBL, 2+3), Dillon Dubé (CGY, 3+2) and top-center Sam Steel (ANA, 4+5) meshing with newcomers like Jordan Kyrou (STL) and Boris Katchouk (TBL, 3+3) to form two solid, if unspectacular, scoring units and the trios of low-pedigree, mid-round wildcards that followed them out overwhelming the opposition’s depth players with tons of speed and skill. Not incidentally, it was from this bottom-six that arose the inspirational tale of the tournament, 7-goal scorer Drake Batherson (OTT), a player passed once before the Sens snapped him up on the 2017 4th round and someone that would catch fire in the three consecutive blowout victories  (DEN, SWI, CZE) that preceded the final game.

The WJC implications on the 2018 NHL Draft

It’s usually said that a good showing at the WJC can significantly boost the draft value of a prospect and examples lie everywhere – Nico Hischier, just last year, is one – however, in recent seasons, it’s been quite rare to encounter these many U-18 players leaving their mark internationally against players with an extra 2 years of development time. As much as six potential top-10 selections – and, possibly, the entire top-five – competed at the tournament held in Buffalo, many acing the audition, and that has led to a lot of hand-wringing in the wake of the event, with pre-draft rankings revised to account for the latest developments.

Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18 lets a shot go while Finland’s Otto Koivula #12 looks on during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Below, I’ll expose how the race for the top-five positions is shaping up, ranking the players in contention based on their most recent accomplishments, but always keeping in mind that a guy like Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist, who couldn’t infiltrate his country’s loaded roster, is still in the running for an early callup come late June in Dallas.

  1. Rasmus Dahlin (D)
  2. Andrei Svechnikov (RW)
  3. Brady Tkachuk (LW)
  4. Filip Zadina (LW)
  5. Quinn Hughes (D)

Since Sidney Crosby back in 2005, we haven’t seen a contest decided as early as this one. Rasmus Dahlin will be No.1 in 2018, having cemented his status as the unquestionable best player available with the performance in Buffalo, and he will also become the second ever Swede to go first overall, succeeding C Mats Sundin in 1989.

On the contrary, the guy that was touted as the main competition to Dahlin over the last while, Russian Andrei Svechnikov, is now worried about the rustle of the footsteps of two of the WJC’s brightest stars, wingers Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina.

Russian forward Andrei Svechnikov was among the top draft-eligible prospects at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship (Photo: Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Svechnikov, a burgeoning power forward, had already endured wrist injury this season, and then had to battle the Russian prejudice against younger players, resulting in limited action early in the tournament. With 5 assists in 5 games, he ended up doing just fine, flashing his rare combination of skill, size and puck protection, but his impact fell way short of Zadina’s, a tournament All-Star for his electrifying offensive skills, and Tkachuk’s, whose all-around influence – on top of the physical attributes – took many observers aback. The final hierarchy of these three will very much depend on the teams holding the picks, but, for now, Svechnikov’s pedigree is still prevailing.

To round out the top-five, Quinn Hughes, a fantastic skater that turns on a dime and flies up the ice in transition, is certainly a possibility, even if the young defenseman was benched for much of the medal round games, barely seeing the ice except for the moments when the USA trailed and needed to amp the offensive pressure. Still, for the record, let’s just add that Rasmus Dahlin filled much of the same role for the Swedes in 2017…

American defenseman Quinn Hughes carries the puck in the bronze medal game against the Czech Republic (Kevin Hoffman /Getty Images)

Ranked outside of the very top of the rankings, but still worthy of attention, we encounter three European prospects that played in Buffalo. Finland’s Rasmus Kupari, a skilled center that was unfortunately casted as the 13th forward on his team and thus failed to stick his claim for a top-ten selection, Sweden’s Isac Lundeström, a lanky, speedy forward that was an integral part of his nation’s most reliable line and may go a few spots above his expected late-first round rank, and Czech Republic’s Martin Kaut, whose point-per-game pace might convince someone to take a flier within the top-30 or right after it.

The NHL pipeline update

As a prime meeting of the brightest youth prospects from around the world, the World Junior Championships are a first peek into what the future might bring for the kids at the professional levels. Therefore, it stands to reason that the tournament is also viewed on a scale that extends beyond national-team concerns and tries to predict the potential ramifications for the teams that hold their NHL rights. Fans and management alike discuss in which line that prospect might be plugged, implications on the organizational depth chart of someone’s emergence, or the best way to maximize the value of an asset, hence it’s just natural that positive exploits on the international arena also serve as a sign of the draft acumen of one’s organization and barometer of the health of its prospect base.

Sweden’s Alexander Nylander #19 fires a shot at USA’s Joseph Woll #31 during the semi-final round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

In this sense, the sheer amount of drafted players competing at the tournament is important, but far from the only indicator to take into account. From the entire batch of players that exhibited their qualities in Buffalo, the biggest share belonged to the New Jersey Devils, with 7 players, whereas Arizona, Pittsburgh, Florida and Minnesota loaned a single element, yet the NHL teams that left Buffalo feeling ecstatic about their assembly of talent lie in between the two poles. We’ve identified five NHL organizations that, based on qualitative and quantitative parameters, must be marveling at their craftiness in player evaluation and development.

Buffalo Sabres (5): Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (FIN), Vojtěch Budik (CZE), Casey Mittelstadt (USA), Alexander Nylander and Marcus Davidsson (both SWE)

The Sabres are toiling in the bottom of the NHL standings, but there’s reason for hope in Buffalo based on the group that took part in this “home” tournament. Possessing the rights for Casey Mittelstadt, the tournament MVP, is the chief justification for their nomination in this space, yet the rest of the Sabres prospects also filled significant roles for their respective nations. Particularly Alex Nylander, another former 8th overall pick whose elite creativity and puck skills sooner or later will surface at the professional level, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen,  the uncontested starter for Finland.

Furthermore, despite being longer shots, Budik played some critical minutes for the Czech on their top defensive pair, while Marcus Davidsson thrived on a fourth-line that received limited minutes at five-on-five but contributed greatly for Sweden’s success on the PK.

Tampa Bay Lightning (5): Libor Hájek (CZE), Cal Foote, Brett Howden, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh (all CAN)

One of the savviest organizations breeding NHL-calibre players, the Tampa Bay Lightning are certainly pleased with the progress achieved by Libor Hájek over the last 18 months, the 2016 second rounder maturing into an all-situations blueliner that might slot on their lineup in a couple of seasons.

Drafted last June, Cal Foote played primarily on the third pairing for Canada and stayed out of trouble, while the three forwards proved important components of their well-oiled machine, with Brett Howden centering the productive checking line, and Katchouk and Raddysh flanking Robert Thomas on the team’s second unit.

Canada’s Callan Foote #6 get tangled up with an unknown Switzerland player during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Chicago Blackhawks (5): Henri Jokiharju (FIN), Jakub Galvas (CZE), Artur Kayumov and Andrei Altibarmakyan (both RUS), Tim Söderlund (SWE)

The only first rounder of the Hawks faction, defenseman Henri Jokiharju, didn’t perform badly but he takes a step back here since each of his lesser-known colleagues improved his inherent value for the organization. Galvas, a diminutive blueliner, battled hard in every shift and showed poise with the puck, Kayumov scored at a point-per-game clip and was always around the net, Altibarmakyan’s constant activity and skill created problems for the opposition, and Söderlund’s jet-like acceleration, high-energy level and PK prowess were second to none.

St. Louis Blues (4): Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas (both CAN), Klim Kostin (RUS), Nikolaj Kragh (DEN)

Portended as the No.1 Danish center, Krag’s tournament came to a premature end due to injury, but the other three Blues’ prospects proved extremely useful for their teams. Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin garnered accolades and were in the running for a place on the All-Star team as two of the most exciting wingers in the competition, while Thomas, an intelligent two-way pivot, kept the puck going in the right direction at all times.

Calgary Flames (6): Adam Fox (USA), Juuso Välimäki and Eeti Tuulola (FIN), Dillon Dubé (CAN), Adam Růžička (SVK), Linus Lindström (SWE)

Forwards Tuulola, Růžička and Lindström failed to hit the twine during the tournament however the other Calgary prospects make up for their futility. Adam Fox led the American blueline, Juuso Välimäki carried the “C” and emerged as a real force for the Finns from the backend, and Dillon Dubé, another player who captained his team, did the dirty work on Canada’s top-line and powerplay.

Canada’s captain Dillon Dube #9 waves the flag following his team’s victory against Sweden during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Honourable mention: Colorado Avalanche (2): Cale Makar and Conor Timmins (both CAN)

Although the Avs only sent two prospects to Buffalo, the duo reached high-levels of performance, with the roving Makar voted for the tournament’s All-Star team and Timmins’ smart, simple game shining on Canada’s shutdown pair.

The tournament’s Best Goals

A total of 216 goals were scored during the 30 games of the 2018 WJC and I’ll bring this report to its conclusion by presenting the top-three in chronological order.

First, American Casey Mittelstadt making Slovakia’s defence look silly with a neutral-zone takeaway and a finish that evokes memories of Bobby Orr’s airborne 1970 Stanley Cup clincher.

Then, just seconds later, Slovakia’s Samuel Buček returning the favour on the other end, staying with the puck after his audacious wrap-around attempt was denied to claim a famous victory for his country.

Finally, a great individual effort by Sweden’s Elias Pettersson, who deked a poor Swiss defenseman before finishing around the goaltender.

 

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The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship final report (Part I)

For most intents and purposes, the IIHF U-20 World Championship (WJC) is the only best-on-best international hockey tournament on a yearly basis and a tremendous showcase of the sport at its most frantic nature due to its singular blend of unbridled youth passion and devotion to the national cause. For the second time in seven years, the event took place at the turn of the calendar year (December 26th to January 5th) in the gloomy American city of Buffalo, NY, and there is a lot to discuss after the 10 top-division countries duelled for global supremacy in front of large TV audiences*, swaths of empty seats and, in the case of the USA – Canada game, the 44 592 die-hard fans that braved an inclement snowstorm.

While the trophy was eventually handed out to the Canadian team, who beat Sweden in a fantastic Final to secure a 17th U-20 World title (in a total of 42 editions), for a neutral like me the most exciting part of this event is getting familiarized with the players that, one day, will star for the senior national representations and the different NHL teams, and that’s precisely what led me to consolidate the notes and observations gleaned during the event into this report.

USA’s Jake Oettinger #30 watches Canada’s Sam Steel #23 chase the puck during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

This piece is divided into four sections, and in the first I’ll introduce and discuss the best players in the tournament, as selected by the IIHF directorate, the media (All-Star Team I) and …me (All Star Team II). Afterwards, I’ll scan through the ten teams in the competition (from last-place to the gold medal winner) looking to analyse their results and ramble a bit on a few significant players that caught my eye, before pivoting back to the individual sphere as I take stock of the fluctuations experienced at the top of the draft rankings ahead of the upcoming 2018 NHL draft. To cap it off, I’ll appoint the NHL organizations that rejoiced with the encouraging performances of their prospects in Buffalo, and nominate the three best goals of the tournament.

And (somewhere) along the way we’ll split this text in two posts, because I don’t want my reader(s) to get lost while scrolling down. Anyway, on to the cream of this year’s tournament.

* for a competition featuring largely unknown teenagers

 

IIHF Directorate Awards

Top Forward: Casey Mittelstadt (USA)

Playing in the arena that he will call home in a near future, Mittelstadt, the Buffalo Sabres 8th overall pick in 2017, put on a show through the 10 days of competition, often times looking like a man amongst boys for his dominance of the puck and ability to control the tempo of the game.

USA’s Casey Mittelstadt #11 scores a third period game-tying goal against Slovakia’s Roman Durny #30 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

In fact, at 6’1 and 200 lbs, the Edina, MIN native doesn’t impose fear in the opposition for his physical traits, as he’s neither overly big, powerful, explosive or quick, nonetheless Mittelstadt is really difficult to knock off the puck and possesses creativity and top-end vision in spades, which results in nifty dishes and short passes against the run of play that take defenders by surprise. More of a playmaker than a scorer, Mittelstadt is dangerous off the rush for his ability to change speeds and draw defenders before distributing the puck, and his poise and wizardry in possession reminded many of Clayton Keller, the focal point of the American offense in 2017.

Unlike Keller, though, Mittelstadt’s 4 goals and 7 points weren’t enough to reach the Final – much less lift the trophy – even if his line with Brady Tkachuk and Joey Anderson was the most effective of the tournament, cycling the puck on the boards and driving possession like no other, and the 19-year-old put together, probably, the most exceptional individual performance of the tournament (3A), outdoors, not less, with the blizzard and piles of snow being no match for a star pivot determined to will the USA back from a two-goal deficit to Canada.

The tournament’s point-leader, Mittelstadt relished and demanded the puck in the big-moments, never shying away from the responsibility of leading his team, and that’s something that should excite Sabres fans, poised to have a formidable one-two punch down the middle when Mittelstadt joins forces with compatriot Jack Eichel in Buffalo.

Top Defenseman: Rasmus Dahlin (Sweden)

Talk about living up to the hype.

The putative 1st overall pick in next June’s NHL draft became the first U-18 to deserve top defenseman honours against players up to two years older than him, and such feat was only possible because the HC Frolunda wunderkind is, undoubtedly, the total package.

Most hockey fans had already seen videos of Dahlin’s offensive incursions: chin up, eyes surveying the scene, puck stuck to his blade, a courageous kid evading multiple forecheckers and not afraid to dangle through set defences and create something out of nothing. There was a whole lot of it in Buffalo, but what doesn’t make most highlight-reels is everything else he already does at silly levels. Not only the pinpoint, threading passes in the offensive zone, or his vision and patience as he selects the perfect outlet when skating it out is not the best option, but the effortless skating for a broad-shouldered 6’2’’ (and growing..) man-child that dances on his edges and changes directions with absurd ease.

With 6 assists in the tournament, Dahlin was, as expected, an impact player offensively for the Swedes, however, in the medal round, the defensive side of his game really stood out:  the defensive reads and ability to anticipate where the puck is going, the improved stick work, how he angles before stealing the puck cleanly, the disposition to use the body in the boards or to dish hits on open-ice.

The 17-year-old was entrusted with a lot of ice time against top opposition and thrived, yet, for all the fine-tuning that’s already a hallmark of his game at a tender age, if I’m allowed some nit-picking here…can’t really say I came away impressed with his work on the man-advantage, particularly after the unit set up in the OZ. Although Dahlin manned the top of the umbrella and shot a lot (25 times in 7 games), a few too many attempts were blocked or deflected and, sometimes, he looked tentative about which option to choose. This is not exactly a knock on him but, well…it’s good to know that even a prodigy like Dahlin might still need to polish a part of his game.

Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin in action at ther 2018 World Junior Championships (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

One thing is certain, though. His compatriots Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman weren’t even close to Dahlin’s level at age 17, and the youngster possesses all the tools to become a franchise icon and, maybe, one of the best of all-time.

Top Goaltender: Filip Gustavsson (Sweden)

Separating the goaltenders of the two tournament finalists is not unlike splitting hairs, but since the picks were in before the end of the Final and Gustavsson recorded better numbers than Carter Hart until Canada’s winning goal – in which he was, in no way, at fault – this selection is quite understandable.

Having a difficult time at home this season (3.04 GAA, 0.887 Sv% in 10 games for Lulea HF), the Pittsburgh Penguins second rounder (2016) embraced the challenge of backstopping a stacked Swedish ensemble in Buffalo and finished the tournament with a 0.924 Sv% and 1.81 GAA, performing at the highest level in every critical game for his team. He limited the Czech to a goal in the group stage, shut down the Slovaks late in the QF (3-2), denied the USA’s late flurry in the semi-finals (4-2), and stood tall against Canada in the decider despite facing their red-hot man-advantage in six occasions. Gustavsson’s shakiest start came against Russia (4-3), when he let in the equalizer after coughing up a bad rebound, but he responded to it with a couple of sublime saves in overtime and the shootout to snatch the victory.

The 19-year-old netminder will continue to work on swallowing pucks with his body and challenging opponents more, however his game is already at a good level, as he’s able to seal the ice quite well with his pads, push side-to-side quickly with his strong base, and use his glove effectively. Despite being a couple of years away from pushing for an NHL spot, it’s clear the current Stanley Cup Champions are blessed with a clogged goaltending pipeline since Filip Gustavsson belongs to the same organization that employs fellow youngsters Matt Murray (23 years old) and Tristan Jarry (22).

 

The 2018 All-tournament team (as selected by the media):

G: Filip Gustavsson (SWE)

(see above)

D: LD Rasmus Dahlin (SWE); RD: Cale Makar (CAN)

Despite tying for the tournament lead in goals (3) and points (8) from defensemen, Cale Makar’s selection for the All-Star team took many by surprise because of his highly-specific usage under coach Dominique Ducharme. In fact, on Canada’s two most evenly-matched encounters, versus the USA and Sweden, Makar saw less than 10 minutes of ice time in each and seldom cracked the regular 5-on-5 pairings, eventually finishing the tournament as the least-used blueliner on the winning roster. Still, when he did touch the ice or, more explicitly, hopped the boards to quarterback the powerplay, Makar showed why he was the highest drafted player (4th overall in 2017) in the team.

A special talent selected by the Colorado Avalanche out of Junior A hockey last June, Cale Makar is absolutely electric with the puck on his stick, rushing up the ice at dizzying speeds while constantly assessing his options, using his great stick-handing ability to slither through the neutral zone and gain the blue line, and then distributing the puck with aplomb or wiring it to the net. Due to his propensity to walk the line, Makar’s shots are rarely blocked and usually carry the perfect velocity and weight to be tipped in front or find its way past the maze of defenders, therefore standing as no surprise that he accrues points with such ease.

When the Calgary-native eventually reaches the NHL, he’ll need to be physically and mentally able to withstand the grind of a long season, but there’s no doubt the Avalanche have a gem of a defender on their hands, a supremely-gifted blueliner with shades of Erik Karlsson’s flash.

F: LW Filip Zadina (CZE); C Casey Mittelstadt (USA); RW Kieffer Bellows (USA)

A top-ranked prospect that completed 18 years of age barely a month ago, Filip Zadina’s name gained steam after he burst out of the gate strong (24 G, 46 pts in 32 games) in his rookie season in Halifax (QMJHL), however few expected him to be such a difference-maker at the World Juniors and turn into the first Czech on the All-Star team since Petr Mrázek in 2012. Playing alongside Martin Nečas on one of the Czech’s scoring lines, and on the opposite halfwall on the powerplay set up, the left winger was one of the most dynamic players around, a true force on both ends, always trying to invent, make plays and manufacture scoring changes and never afraid to mix it up with bigger, stronger players.

When Zadina had the puck, you knew he would try something different and due to his speed, skill and offensive flair, opponents soon started respecting his ability to beat them. An adept shooter (37 SOG in 7 games) with a wealth of offensive resources, Zadina scored four of his seven goals on the man-advantage, but his paramount moment came at even strength in the semi-finals, turning Canadian defenseman Kale Clague inside out before rifling one over Carter Hart’s shoulder.

Always active and smelling blood, the man likened to a shark by his coach saw his draft stock explode for his tenacity away from the puck and ability to step up and score on the clutch on the other end, and there remain few doubts he’ll be a top-five pick at the 2018 NHL draft.

The tournament top goal-scorer with 9 tallies (+ 1A), American Kieffer Bellows grabbed a spot on the All-Star team by virtue of his stellar feats in the knockout rounds, where he scored five times in three games, including the corrosive bullet that served as the go-ahead goal in the third period of the quarter-final matchup with Russia. Thickly-built, Bellows maintains his balance as he bulldozes his way to the net, yet he also got the hands to go around the defenders before unleash his devastating shot. Indeed, an NHL- calibre release is the 19-year-old’s calling card, a heavy shot that blasts off his stick and which, naturally, he’s not shy of using constantly, as the tournament-high 38 shots on goal clocked in Buffalo attest.

Smart exploring soft spots in coverage, especially on the PP, and possessing the rare instinct of elite finishers, Bellows surpassed the USA single-tournament record of eight goals set by Jeremy Roenick in 1989, but he still needs to improve his footwork so that he can adjust to the higher pace at the professional ranks. If he can take that next step, the NY Islanders pick (19th overall, 2016) will torment at lot of goalies at the NHL level and, one day, might even approach the 485 goals gobbled by his father, Brian Bellows.

Tournament MVP: Casey Mittelstadt (USA)

With no player clearly distancing himself from the rest on Canada’s roster, the Most Valuable Player award, voted by the members of the media, probably came down to Rasmus Dahlin or Casey Mittelstadt.

Had the Swedish star managed to found the back of the net throughout the tournament, or increase his point total in the knockout rounds, we might be having a different conversation, but Dahlin was busy excelling in other areas, and the leading scorer usually has the inside track in these kind of awards… Undeniably the top forward in the competition, Casey Mittelstadt is a worthy recipient of the MVP distinction, succeeding Canada’s Thomas Chabot.

 

Alternative All-Star team

A kind of Second All-Star team composed of the players snubbed by the media in their election.

G: Carter Hart (Canada)

For the first time in many, many years, Canada did not enter the World Junior tournament with question marks hanging over their goaltending as Hart returned for his second appearance supported by a magnificent 0.961 Sv% and 1.31 GAA in 17 WHL games. Actually, a case can be made that the Philadelphia Flyers prospect (2nd round, 2016) was Canada’s trump card in the race for the title, and he justified the lofty credentials by pacing all goaltenders in Buffalo with a 1.81 GAA and 0.930 Sv%.

Canada’s Carter Hart #31 looks on during preliminary round action against the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Calm and seemingly always in control of the situation around, Carter Hart displays above-average athleticism and technical fundaments, yet what really sets him apart is the sound positioning and how he is quick to square to the shooter before every shot. Have the Flyers finally found the answer to their incessant calls for a permanent crease solution? Sure looks like it.

D: LD Libor Hájek (Czech Republic); RD Adam Fox (USA)

The lynchpin of the Czech defence, Libor Hájek, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, was wildly impressive from start to finish in Buffalo. A two-way, minute-munching blueliner without whom the Europeans couldn’t have survived, Hájek played in the top powerplay and penalty killing units, formed the go-to shutdown pair with Vojtěch Budik, and chipped in offensively frequently, tying Canada’s Cale Makar for most points amongst rear guards with 8 (1+7).

Czech Republic defenseman Libor Hajek controls the puck during the second period against Canada in a semifinal in the IIHF world junior hockey championships Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Strapping but not highly physical, Hájek moves well and has the stamina to handle a large workload, takes pride in taking care of business in his own zone, and is then proactive with the puck, making crisp outlet passes and pinching to keep the attack going. He was, arguably, the most influential defender in the entire tournament and, definitely, the best outside of the top-three rosters.

Wearing an “A” on his second participation at the WJC, Harvard’s Adam Fox took the reins of the American defence from Charlie McAvoy, last year’s All-Star, and mustered a hell of an impersonation. With slick puck skills and the eagerness to jump into the rush and follow the action deep into the offensive zone, the Calgary Flames third rounder (2016) was the catalyst of many odd-man rushes and in one of those was rewarded with the game-winning goal that downed Finland.

No slouch in the other side of the puck either, with the mobility, anticipation, quickness and feistiness of Fox and partner Dylan Samberg accelerating interceptions, puck recoveries and the succeeding breakouts, the native of Jericho, NY, might do well, though, to use his remaining two years of college eligibility to bulk up, gain strength and round out his game before turning pro.

Honourable mention: Conor Timmins (Canada)

F: LW Brady Tkachuk (USA); C Martin Nečas (Czech Republic), RW Jordan Kyrou (Canada)

With illustrious bloodlines, Brady Tkachuk’s presence at the 2018 tournament was assumed to be a growing experience before he could dominate in 2019, but there’s a non-negligible chance that he may not be available next year due to NHL duties. Standing at 6’3’’, it’s almost a requirement for a Tkachuk to love throwing the body around and play a menacing, “power-forward“ type game, but Brady doesn’t go out of his way looking for hits and already displays a much-more well-rounded game than expected.

USA’s Brady Tkachuk #7 scores a shootout goal against Canada’s Carter Hart #31 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Versatile and smart enough to play in all-situations, including critical defensive moments, Tkachuk boasts a heavy shot, a really nice set of hands in tight to pair his big frame, and an attitude that exudes passion and commitment in every shift. The 3 goals and 9 pts obtained at the World Juniors as an 18-year-old are, seemingly, just the tip of his immense potential.

After making the Carolina Hurricanes out of training camp and enjoying a sip of NHL action in anticipation of a loan back to HC Kometa Brno, Martin Nečas featured as one of the must-watch players in the tournament and he didn’t disappoint. It’s not usual that a player from the Czech Republic ties for the tournament lead in scoring, but Nečas’ 11 pts (3 goals) matched Casey Mittelstadt’s total, and he could have racked up even more if not for the need to sacrifice offense to attend other needs, including some penalty killing work and defensive zone assignments.

With the puck on his stick, though, Nečas also excelled, especially off the rush, with the 2017 12th overall pick showing an appetite for dropping deep to gather the puck in full flight, speed through the neutral zone and distribute or fire on goal. Capable of executing at top speed, Nečas high-skill level and creativity jump out, and he’s also an elegant skater with impressive agility and ability to change directions in full stride. The jury is still out on whether he’ll grow into the star center the Canes desperately need but, at worst, he should evolve into an impact top-six middleman.

Rumoured as a potential option for a Canadian Olympic roster that could use high-end skill in the absence of NHL players, Jordan Kyrou made clear at the World Junior Championship why his profile has increased so much since being taken by the St. Louis Blues with the 35th pick of the 2016 NHL draft.

Incredible in transition, jetting away from backcheckers, slipping checks and feathering passes through sticks, Kyrou creates space for himself and teammates when the puck is under his control since he can set up a teammate or fling at goal to catch goalies by surprise, but he also works hard in pursuit of the biscuit and keeps the cycling game going despite his slim figure. The OHL top-point getter when he left for Team Canada’s training camp, Kyrou continued his prolific ways in Buffalo, collecting a team-best 10 pts (3 goals), and with the help of additional muscle, it’s possible to envision him as a right wing on a Blues’ scoring line sometime down the road.

Honourable mentions: Klim Kostin (Russia), Elias Petersson (Sweden)

Team by team analysis

  1. Belarus (relegated)

Newly-promoted from the Division 1, group A, Belarus will be right back to where they came from after a tournament where they lacked a touch of luck and killer instinct to take full advantage of their third-ranked PP and PK units.

The Eastern European side pushed eventual semi-finalists Czech Republic in a narrow 6-5 defeat, and ended the group stage with the same goal differential as Switzerland (10 GF – 20 GA), yet in the decisive encounter with the Swiss they squandered a 2-1 lead in the third and had to settle for the relegation playoff. In the best-of-three series, Belarus once again failed to close the deal in Game 1, allowing Denmark to rally from 4-2 down with three tallies in the last 11 minutes, and their destiny was sealed after a SO loss in Game 2.

Belarus celebrates a second period goal by Vladislav Yeryomenko #8 against Denmark during the relegation round. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

The Belarussians will be replaced by Kazakhstan next year, but don’t be surprised if both nations trade places again in 2020 since many of Belarus top players can fight for promotion in 2019, including powerplay quarterback Vladislav Yeryomenko, an undrafted defenseman plying his trade for the Calgary Hitmen (WHL), and captain Maxim Sushko (PHI), the only drafted player in the roster and someone who rose to the challenge in Buffalo by tallying 8 pts (2G) in 6 games.

  1. Denmark

Missing blue-chip prospects mirroring the pedigree of Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Danes posted an ugly 2-26 goal differential during a terrible round robin showing that broke a streak of three consecutive QF appearances, but they were still able to redeem themselves by avoiding relegation in the playoff.

Forwards Jonas Røndbjerg (LV) and Joachim Blichfeld (SJ), two of just four drafted players on the roster, inspired their crucial comeback in Game 1 vs Belarus, and the duo also proved a step above the rest of the squad throughout, amassing 7 (2+5) and 6 (3+3) pts, respectively, while none of their teammates could collect more than a pair.

Team Denmark watches the Danish flag being raised during the national anthem following the team’s victory over Belarus in relegation round (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Almost half of Denmark’s roster can return in 2019, and every bit of experience will be necessary to extend their unprecedented run of five consecutive presences in the top-division, already three more than they obtained in the three preceding decades.

  1. Switzerland

These days it’s quite unusual for Switzerland to struggle so much in international competition, but the putrid results in Buffalo have an explanation. The Swiss group included a single drafted player, big defenseman Tobias Geisser (WAS), already a fixture of EV Zug’s blueline, and they submitted the youngest roster among the competitors, with 14 players eligible for the 2019 competition.

Switzerland’s Nico Gross #16 controls the puck against the Czech Republic’s Daniel Kurovsky #15 during the preliminary round (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Nonetheless, beyond edging Belarus in their must-win round robin encounter, the Swiss competed well against the Swedes and the Czech, keeping the score close until the third period, and revealed a few promising talents that should be taken in the early rounds of the 2018 NHL Draft. Forwards Phillip Kurashev (1+2), a slick playmaker who plays for the Québec Remparts (QMJHL), and powerful winger Nando Eggenberger, a regular for HC Davos, are two good examples, but 17-year-old Nico Gross, an Oshawa Generals (OHL) defenseman, was the player that had scouts raving on his second appearance at the U-20 level.

  1. Slovakia

The Slovaks authored the shock of the tournament in day 3, upsetting the title-favourites USA in front of the home crowd, however they wouldn’t go on to repeat the heroics of 2015, when a fabulous performance by goaltender Denis Godla netted a bronze medal.

Clobbered by Canada in the opening session, the Slovaks also fell to Finland and thrashed Denmark before putting a scare (2-3) on the rampant Swedes in the quarter-finals. All in all, a respectable performance for a country that selected only two players with NHL-ties, top-center Adam Růžička (CGY) and RW Marian Studenič (NJ), but was still able to bother the favourites with their aggressive style supported by good goaltending.

Slovakia’s Roman Durny #30 makes a pad save against USA during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Roman Durný, their 19-year-old goalie, stopped 43 of 45 shots against the US to prop a 0.928 Sv%, while left winger Samuel Buček had an amazing tournament, picking up 3 goals and 7 pts in five games, including a memorable three-point night versus the Americans that comprised two primary assists for linemate Filip Krivošík and a spectacular individual effort on the GWG. Ignored at the 2017 draft, Buček, who plays for the USHL’s Chicago Steel, may well hear his name called next summer alongside the draft-eligible Adam Liška (LW, Kitchener Rangers) and Miloš Roman (C, Vancouver Giants).

  1. Finland

Determined to put to bed the disastrous performance of 2017 (9th place), the Finns were hailed as a darkhorse for the title due to the amount of talent at their disposal this season. Counting on 15 players that won the 2016 U-18 World Championships, Finland’s roster was stock full of top-prospects, especially on defence, but, strangely, things never clicked into gear, with their usual conservative and deliberate approach clashing with the need to hit higher notes against top opposition.

Canada’s Sam Steel #23 scores a first period goal against Finland’s Ukko-Pekka Luukonen #1 while Urho Vaakanainen #23 and Miro Heiskanen #2 battle with Taylor Raddysh #16 during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

The Finns shrugged away Slovakia (5-2) and Denmark (4-1), and couldn’t be faulted for their competitive performances against the USA (4-5) and Canada (2-4), yet the expectations called for, at least, a semi-final appearance and they would be denied that by the Czech (3-4), ultimately falling in the shootout despite holding a lead deep into the third period.

With 16 goals allowed in five games (3.13 GAA), part of the responsibility falls into the less-than-stellar performance of goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (BUF), who carried the load start to finish and only notched a 0.879 Sv%, yet their illustrious defence, which encompassed five first round picks, also underperformed as a unit.

Olli Juolevi (VAN), competing in his third straight tournament, bounced back from a poor 2017 showing with 4 pts and 21 shots, looking active and transitioning up the ice alongside the offensive-oriented Henri Jokiharju (CHI), but more was expected of Miro Heiskanen (DAL), whose eye-popping offensive totals at home (9 G, 14 pts in 20 games for HIFK) didn’t translate internationally. The 2017 3rd overall pick was still noticeable on his ability to skate out of trouble and break plays in his own zone, and formed a steady top pair with captain Juuso Välimäki (CGY), whose reach, maturity and NHL-size stood out.

Finland’s Kristian Vesalainen #13 skates with the puck while USA’s Andrew Peeke #20 chases him down during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Meanwhile, up front, Finland was betrayed by its lack of depth, particularly down the middle. Janne Kuokkanen (CAR) didn’t nail the top-line assignment, and despite the best efforts of Aapeli Räsänen (EDM), a pass-first center who stumbled into 4 goals, the Finns relied too much on their two top-end forwards, Eeli Tolvanen (NAS) and Kristian Vesalainen (WIN). Tolvanen, who has been ripping up the KHL (17 goals in 40 games), is characterized as a gifted goal-scorer with an accurate, varied shot and deadly release, but he could only net once (5 assists) in 30 shots directed on goal and a few more that clank off the iron. For his part, Vesalainen, a burly power-forward, was never afraid to fight through the opposition or command the puck, and ended up rewarded with 2 goals and 6 pts.

This duo will seize important roles in the NHL sooner than later, but questions remain of their cohort of attackers, including Aleksi Heponiemi (FLA), the speedy WHL point-machine (71 in 29 games) who started the tournament well (2 G) before fading out.

(Continues in the next post)

What I’m thankful for in 2017

I closed the books in 2016 with a piece on the sports-related items that enhanced my life in some capacity throughout the preceding twelve months, and since the goal was always to circle back to it at every calendar turn, here I am again.

Obviously, there’s no fun in rehashing the same subjects over and over again, therefore, with full admission that living in the same age of Lionel Messi or being able to enjoy the tail end of Jaromír Jágr’s career (just to name two examples from last year’s list) is still an absolute pleasure, this time I had to tweak my approach to capture more of the year in hand and what has brought a smile to my face. This was much easier starting from a clean slate, but after a lot of indecision I eventually decided to go way overboard on a handful of paramount choices and then rattle off a few more, leaving the door open to explore the latter on another opportunity if justified.

All right, that’s more than enough talk, time to say graces before welcoming 2018:

Sports activism

Although the blend of politics and sports has been a perennial point of contention for decades, it’s fair to say that in few instances have we seen so many sports figures join the public discourse, advocate for what they believe and express strong personal views on complex, troublesome subjects.

In a time of societal unrest and with social media serving as a powerful amplifier, it was inspiring and, more notably, extremely important that NFL players stood (or knelt) together, in a peaceful manner, to bring attention to racial inequality and brutality against minorities. But also that basketball superstars with worldwide followings like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry took the lead to confront bigotry and social injustice, risking the ire of fans, their reputations, marketing opportunities and, ultimately, a lot of money. Or “rich, white male dudes”, such as prominent NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, eloquently expressed their opposition to the causes supported by their right-wing employers. That a behemoth like the NBA delivered a loud statement against discriminatory legislation by pulling its All-Star Game from the state of North Carolina. That hundreds of athletes, including those that have to battle every day to make ends meet in “niche” sports, weren’t shy about sticking their neck out and showing disgust for the buffoon inhabiting the White House and his ilk.

Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans in September (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The USA and civil rights issues, for the reasons we all know, proved the rallying center for the most high-profile demonstrations of 2017, yet it would be foolish not to prolong this point to include another bubbling matter which surfaced under much dimmer lights as athletes came together to demand change. We’re talking about gender discrimination, with women’s sports’ increasing status and relevance fuelling significant breakthroughs, especially in team sports, which historically have lagged behind individual disciplines in such issues.

Building on the US Women’s football (soccer) team’s suit against wage prejudice that gave way to an improved collective bargaining agreement, their ice hockey counterparts threatened to boycott the 2017 World Championship if demands for a fairer pay scale, and equitable support on wide-ranging matters such as youth development, equipment, travel accommodations, and marketing weren’t met. Standing together and supported by the unwillingness of professional, amateur and youth players to break rank, they succeeded in the boardrooms (and later on the ice) and inspired football teams throughout the world to fight for better conditions. The results were significantly improved working and financial pacts for players in countries such as Argentina, Sweden, Brazil, Nigeria, Denmark, Ghana, Ireland and New Zealand, and a ground-breaking deal in Norway, where the national federation devised a deal that’s (essentially) equal for the men’s and women’s national teams.

The USA ice hockey women’s national team triumphed on and off the ice in 2017.

More examples of sports figures making a difference could be cited, including the athletes, Olympic Champions et all, that jumped out of the shadows and to the forefront of the on-going movement against sexual assault and sexual harassment, nonetheless, as a sports aficionado and fan of many referenced above, the bottom line is my appreciation for all the men and women who decided to wield their (enormous) influence and lay so much on the line so that future generations could benefit from a fairer, inclusive, united and more generous sports world and society. May more join them in 2018, when a major event such as the FIFA World Cup will be contested in a country known for dubious human rights practices….

2017 UEFA Women’s European Championship

As a sports fan, few things give me more pleasure than following a major event from start to finish, taking note of the trends emerging over the weeks of competition, the ups-and-down in performance, who rises and falls along the way, which teams burn under the pressure or defy expectations. At the women’s Euro 2017, I could do it all and beyond. Prepare diligently and grow excited as the tournament kick-off drew closer, sit back and watch every minute of action in the Netherlands building up to a riveting Final, and revel in the aftermath as conclusions were drawn and the best of the best celebrated.

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Thousands celebrated the Dutch Women’s National Team in Utrecht after victory at the Euro 2017.

A three week period I will cherish because it represented the first international appearance for my nation, and the chance to experience the pulsating orange throngs that lifted Lieke Martens, Jackie Groenen, Vivianne Miedema and alike to victory, however my investment was rewarded by so much more. The unflinching self-belief of Pernille Harder as she hauled the Danes to the Final. The dogged determination of underdogs Austria. The Dutch footballing lecture instructed on favourites England in Enschede. The Earth-shattering end of Germany’s titanic reign. The decline of Sweden, a reality-check for the ambitious Spain and yet another French fiasco. The reunion with Icelandic fans. Barbara Bonansea (Italy), Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland), Tessa Wullaert (Belgium) and Caroline Weir (Scotland) waving goodbye too early, and the acrid tears exuded by Caroline Graham Hansen, Ada Hederberg and Norway.

Truth be told, there was no team that failed to struck a chord (even you, Russia), no game I desired to shut down or moment I preferred to skip. Gosh, I’ll say it: the 2019 World Cup can’t come soon enough.

The 2017 WTA Tour season

On a year that, for many tennis fans, was all about the return of Rafa and Roger to the top of the game, the female Tour quietly produced a remarkable season that oozed unpredictability, upsets and compelling narratives.

Back in January, the fact that Serena Williams collected an Open era, record-breaking 23rd career Grand Slam in Melbourne hardly caught anyone by surprise, but that would soon change with news of her on-going pregnancy, and as the Queen left the stage to join the onlookers, the windfall of remarkable incidents started to transpire on a weekly basis.

The swift eclipse of Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitová’s incredible recovery after the gruesome attack that damaged the tendons in her left hand. The perplexing hiccups of Simona Halep with the World No.1 on the line and the brief stints on-the job for Karolína Plíšková and Garbiñe Muguruza. The teenage naivety of Jeļena Ostapenko en route to the title at Roland Garros, and Sloane Stephens’ lightning journey from foot rehab to the US Open throne. Johanna Konta’s journey in front of her compatriots in Wimbledon, Elina Svitolina’s breakthrough season capped with a WTA-best five titles, and Caroline Wozniacki’s successive slips at the final hurdle until she found redemption in Singapore. The late season explosion of Caroline Garcia at the same time compatriot (and recent foe) Kiki Mladenovic crumbled to pieces. The universal reverence of Venus Williams, a stunning two-time Grand Slam Finalist and WTA Finals’ runner-up at age 37.

Sloane Stephens surprising triumph at the US Open was just one of the many great stories of the WTA Tour in 2017 (Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Through four contrasting Grand Slam winners and seven major finalists, five different World leaders, and plenty of movement in and out of the top-ten, it was a banner campaign for the WTA Tour which few cared to enjoy. I sure did.

The IIHF World Junior Championships

It’s closing on a decade that my holiday season is engrossed by the brightest young prospects in hockey and the tournament that matches the U-20 elite of the world never stops to daze. Understandably, many disregard the event as just another youth tournament packed with kids that won’t ever reach the highest ranks of the sport, but I prefer to look at it as a great opportunity to fill some dark, winter hours with fast, electric hockey played by talented individuals whose inexperience leads to action-packed, captivating encounters spiced up by national pride.

Moreover, simply by taking the plunge, I improve my personal hockey database and, with every passing edition, get to engrave some instant classics in it, most courtesy of the NHL superstars of tomorrow.

American John Carlson beats Canadian goaltender Martin Jones for the overtime game winning goal at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championships Final (REUTERS/Shaun Best)

Don’t believe me? Take a gander at this collection, just off the top of my head: the heroics of John Tavares and Jordan Eberle in Ottawa 2009; the overtime snipe of John Carlson in Saskatoon 2010; Evgeni Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko leading Russia’s stunning comeback from a three-goal disadvantage to Canada in Buffalo 2011; Mika Zibanejad breaking the deadlock in OT in Calgary 2012; the impervious John Gibson stealing the show in Ufa 2013; Rasmus Ristolainen shocking a loaded Swedish team in Malmo 2014; Connor McDavid erupting late in Montreal 2015 to power Canada to a first title in six years; Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine and Sebastian Aho running circles around the opposition in Helsinki 2016; Thomas Chabot and Charlie McAvoy going head to head in Toronto 2017 as the Americans stole gold north of the border once again. Not bad, eh? I recommend you jump on the fun ahead of the 2018 knockout rounds scheduled for Buffalo in a few days.

Sports writing

I enjoy reading and it’s only natural that I also derive major satisfaction from dipping into thoughtful, insightful, well-written sports pieces. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that around the World Wide Web, and since I intend to compile a list of the best sports reads of 2018 to pluck in here, might as well just mention a few personal favourites (English, only).

Due to its global reach, the football writing community is one of the most diverse and prolific, but I’m still to find a better place than These Football Times for long-form articles on the beautiful game from an historical and/or modern perspective. Additionally, In Bed with Maradona (IBWM), on the interception of football and culture, and Outside the Boot, with excellent youth prospects and tactical analysis, are great resources to tap on, while staying updated on Gabriele Marcotti’s musings on international football is something I try to do.

In hockey media, few write better features than Alex Prewitt at Sports Illustrated, but Kristina Rutherford and her Sportsnet colleagues come close. Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column is an essential weekly read for any NHL fan, Sean McIndoe (Down Goes Brown) cracks me up time and time again, and Dimitri Filipovic is my favourite among the analytics-inclined gang (also, his work is not behind The Athletic’s paywall, like so many of his counterparts, which is nice).

For all-things tennis, Jon Wertheim (SI) is my go-to-guy, especially his weekly mailbag write-up, and I’ll invariably make the time when Louisa Thomas dabbles into the sport. Finally, Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur always strikes the nail whatever is the subject of his daily column, and you can’t go wrong with anything published at The Players Tribune.

Rapid Fire

The (Winter) Olympics to come; Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and his midfield maestro, Kevin de Bruyne; Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Dončić, the new kings of European Basketball; Tom Dumoulin, shaking cycling’s World Tour one step at a time; Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel, the present and future of swimming; PK Subban and Nashville’s flourishing hockey scene; Two-time Stanley Cup Champion Phil Kessel (sorry, not sorry); Juan Martin Del Potro and his flair for the dramatic; Karsten Warholm, Europe’s new track star; Jackie Groenen, the Dutch “Ant”; the half-pirouettes and no-look passes of Isabelle Gulldén (recency bias, wee).

Tom Dumoulin, of the Netherlands, holds up the trophy after winning the Giro d’Italia. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

My teams

What’s better than hitting the jackpot once? Doing it twice. In consecutive years. Even if, as privileged as I feel for what happened over the last two seasons, the taste of the latest months is one I want to eschew. Quickly.

Weekend Roundup (December, 17th): French handball’s sovereignty

The 2017 calendar year started with France beating Norway for the men’s World handball Championship title and destiny would have it that both nations would square off again 11 months later at the same stage of the women’s tournament. However, while the outcome was the same, the odds were radically different, with the Norwegians, clear underdogs last January in Paris, holding the cards in Hamburg after rampaging through the knockout stages of the tournament held in Germany since December 1st.

Reigning European and World Champions, the Norwegian ladies have dominated the women’s game for the last few seasons on the back of a lightning-fast attack, and as they demolished Olympic Champions Russia (34-17) in the quarter-finals and the Netherlands (32-23) in the semi-finals, they couldn’t spurn the favouritism ahead of Sunday’s clash in a sold-out Barclaycard Arena. Still, France, silver medallists at the 2016 Olympics, were widely regarded as the best defence in the world and that would make all the difference in the Final.

France’s Béatrice Edwige (#24) controls Norway’s Stine Oftedal (#10) and Nora Mørk (#9) during the 2017 Women’s World Championship Final (Getty Images)

Not in the first 15 minutes, though, which Norway doubled with a 7-4 lead as the French struggled to put together good offensive plays, but from there onwards, with the length and athleticism that form the core of Les Bleus’ backline stifling Norway’s attempts to break through. Anchored by All-World goaltender Amandine Leynaud, who stopped a pair of 7m shots, the French rallied to take the lead at half time (11-10) despite suffering a series of 2m suspensions, and then emerged after the break to capitalize on their opponent’s frustration, born out of a putrid performance from their own goalkeepers  – Kari Aalvik Grimsbø and Katrine Lunde, who both stopped more than 40% of shots until the Final, combined for 4/26 (15%) in the decider – and an inability to activate Tournament MVP and creative force Stine Oftedal.

Inside 37 minutes, France led 15-12, but then Norway’s veteran pivot Heidi Løke and influential shooters Nora Mørk – the tournament top goalscorer (66 goals) – and Veronica Kristiansen surged to re-establish the balance and heighten the tensions inside the arena. The score read 20-20 entering the last five minutes, a time when heroes were called to action, and Allison Pineau, the 2009 World Handball Player, answered the bell like she had done in similar circumstances against Sweden in the semi-final. Scoring twice to give France a crucial two-goal cushion late, Pineau joined stalwarts Béatrice Edwige and Camille Ayglon as they limited the Scandinavians to a single reply by Kristiansen, and it wasn’t long before Alexandra Lacrabère drilled the nail in Norway’s coffin with 20 seconds left on the clock.

Amandine Leynaud reacts after the last save of the World Championship Final against Norway (ihf.info)

With the surprising 23-21 win, France collected the second World Championship title of their history (five finals), avenging the loss to Norway in 2011 and succeeding the side that beat Hungary in Zagreb 2003 under the guidance of the same national coach, Olivier Krumbholz, while Norway were left to wait two more years for a fourth World crown.

In the third-place game, the Netherlands brushed aside Sweden (24-21, 14-8 at HT) despite going through a 15-min goalless spell in the second half. A recent powerhouse in women’s handball, this was a second consecutive World Championship medal for the Dutch, beaten by Norway in the 2015 Final, while Sweden achieved their best ever result as they had never finished better than sixth.

Alpine skiing:  The return of Anna Veith

For Austrian Anna Veith (née Fenninger), the last couple of years have been a nightmare, with knee injuries and multiple surgeries wiping major parts of the two seasons that followed her overall World Cup titles in 2014 and 2015. The 2014 Super-G Olympic Champion reappeared on the World Tour earlier this month in Lake Louise, and after a string of cautious performances, found her stride in Val d’Isére on Sunday to pick up a World Cup victory for the 15th time on her career and first since March 2015.

A delighted Anna Veith celebrates her first World Cup victory after more than 2 years of injury setbacks (PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP-PHOTO)

Second off the blocks, the 28-year-old’s left knee held up on a furious Super-G descent in the French resort and Veith was thus able to stand, clearly emotional, on the top of the podium, with runner-up Tina Weirather, who clocked 0.48 seconds more, and third-place finisher Sofia Goggia (Italy) by her side. Skiing with a broken hand suffered after a nasty fall on Saturday, this was also an extraordinary result for the 28-year-old Weirather, the reigning Super-G World Cup Champion, while Goggia was similarly thrilled for a second podium on the 2017-18 season and on the French snow, since she was only beaten by Lindsey Vonn on Saturday’s rescheduled Super-G.

Moreover, Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel ranked third on Vonn’s record-extending 78th World Cup victory to claim a first career top-three finish, while the stop in Val D’Isère proved harmful for Viktoria Rebensburg’s hopes in the general classification. With Mikaela Shiffrin absent, the German could only gather 36 pts from her seventh place on Saturday before crashing out on Sunday and, consequently, the American star still leads the overall table by a comfortable 109 pts, with Weirather lagging a further 38 pts ahead of Tuesday’s giant slalom in Courchevel.

At the same time the women raced in France, the men started a trek through several Northern Italy ski resorts. In Val Gardena, on Friday, 28-year-old Josef Ferstl claimed his maiden World Cup win on a Super-G affected by difficult weather conditions, namely a thick fog that interrupted the race after competitor number 38. The German, whose previous career-best was a fifth place in 2016, edged Austrian’s Max Franz and Matthias Meyer by 0.02 and 0.1 seconds, respectively, but things would get back to normal over the weekend with the favourites emerging to the top of the standings.

Germany’s Josef Ferstl in action during his maiden Super-G victory in Val Gardena (AFP – Tiziana FABI)

Such was the case on Saturday’s Downhill, dominated by Norwegians Aksel Lund Svindal and Kjetil Janrud, first and second ahead of Max Franz in Val Gardena, and on Sunday’s giant-slalom, contested in nearby Alta Badia and conquered for the fifth consecutive season by six-time crystal globe winner Marcel Hirscher.

A massive 1.70 seconds adrift, Norwegian prodigy Henrik Kristoffersen finished second for the fourth time this season – and the third behind Hirscher – while Slovenian Žan Kranjec made a podium appearance for the first time on his career. On the men’s overall classification, things are rather tight at this time, with Hirscher and Svindal sharing the lead with 374 points, and Kristoffersen (365) and Jansrud (329) on the hunt.

Biathlon: Johannes Thingnes Bø and Martin Fourcade escalate their duel in Le Grand Bornand

For the first time since 2013, the Biathlon World Cup made a stop in France, home of the men’s preeminent competitor of this decade, six-time overall Champion Martin Fourcade, however the 29-year-old had to fend off stiff competition from rival Johannes Thingnes Bø to celebrate in front of his fans in Annecy – Le Grand Bornand.

A fresh-faced 20-year-old back in 2013, Johannes Thingnes Bø picked up his first career World Cup wins in this very course, and two clean-shooting performances ensured that he would repeat the success in the sprint and pursuit competitions in 2017, thwarting Fourcade in consecutive days to reach a streak of four consecutive victories on the current season. For the home hero, a perfect shooting record was not enough on Friday, with the Norwegian out-skiing Fourcade by 21.1 seconds, and extending the gap with an extra 40 seconds on the next day’s pursuit after the French misfired twice.

Johannes Thingnes Bø skis towards victory on the Pursuit against the backdrop of Le Grand Bornand (biathlonworld.com)

Fourcade’s teammate, Antonin Guigonnat completed the sprint top-three for a first career podium finish, with Anton Shipulin joining Bø and Fourcade after the pursuit event, yet the script was eventually flipped on Sunday when Martin Fourcade finally delivered a win in the 15km Mass Start to the delight of the partisan crowd. With Johannes Thingnes Bø delayed by two early prone penalties, the Perpignan-native controlled the race, eschewed the competition just before the final visit to the shooting gallery, and then completed a mistake-free day to ski away towards victory, French flag in hand.

Making up ground throughout, his Norwegian foe was still able to finish second in the Mass Start, ahead of German Erik Lesser, and that means Fourcade and Bø go into the holiday break separated by only 20 pts (432-412) and far above anyone else.

French superstar Martin Fourcade leads the pack during the Mass Start event (biathlonworld.com)

Conversely, the women’s tour has been positively chaotic this season, with the yellow bib now resting on the body of a fifth different woman. Slovakian veteran Anastasiya Kuzmina had won the pursuit in Hochfilzen, her first success in three years, and with the triumph on the opening 7.5 km Sprint in Le Grand Bornand took the lead from Kaisa Mäkäräinen, yet she wouldn’t be able to repeat a clean-shooting performance on the pursuit, picking up four penalties as defending World Cup Champion Laura Dahlmeier, second on the sprint, took advantage to secure her first trophy of the season. Lisa Vitozzi, the 22-year-old Italian, climbed a spot from her sprint position to complete the pursuit podium, and off were the ladies for Sunday’s Mass Start which, like the men’s race, would provide ample fodder for celebration amongst the hosts.

Brimming with unpredictability, the 12.5km epilogue looked about to be clinched by German Denise Herrmann, but the former cross-country skier cratered on the last shooting position by failing to drop three of five targets, and opened the door for 22-year-old Justine Braisaz, whose clean performance was rewarded with a first career victory in front of her compatriots. Unheralded Belarussian Iryna Kryuko also fired to perfection and secured a first career podium, while Laura Dahlmeier made it three podiums out of three in Le Grand Bornand to amass valuable points as she navigates her way up the overall standings.

Justine Braisaz savours her first World Cup victory in Annecy-Le Grand Bornand on Sunday (biathlonworld.com)

Kuzmina, fourth in the Mass Start, will wear the yellow bib on January 4th, when the biathlon World Cup returns in Oberhof (Germany), even if Justine Braisaz (6 pts behind), Kaisa Mäkäräinen (21) and Denise Herrmann (26) are all in excellent position to upstage her after the break.

Ski jumping: Richard Freitag pads his overall lead in Engelberg

In inspired form since he grabbed the yellow bib in Nizhny Tagil, German Richard Freitag enjoyed another weekend of great success in Engelberg to distance his main rivals on the race for the ski jumping overall World Cup title.

In Central Switzerland, the 26-year-old came within a tenth of a point from sweeping the two individual events on the schedule as his second-place finish on Saturday was followed by a comprehensive triumph on Sunday’s competition, where Freitag compiled the best totals of both rounds (141.3 and 145.1) to leave Poland’s Kamil Stoch and Austria’s Stefan Kraft almost 12 pts behind. It was a fifth consecutive World Cup podium for the German and it didn’t double as a fourth win in five races simply because, 24 hours earlier, Norway’s Anders Fannemel benefitted from more favourable conditions during his first round attempt (133 m; 128.7 pts) to forge a lead that resisted Freitag’s 129m final jump by the shortest of margins (253.6 to 253.5 pts).

Richard Freitag soars through the sky of Engelberg and towards victory in the Ski Jumping World Cup event (dpa)

Double Olympic Champion Kamil Stoch locked third place on that occasion (250.8 pts), showing he’s rounding into form just in time for the defence of his Four Hills Tournament crown, however Freitag will undoubtedly be the man to beat when the World Tour reconvenes in Oberstdorf on the 30th of December to kick off this season’s edition of the iconic competition. With 7 of 23 individual events contested so far, Freitag’s 550 pts lead the overall race with compatriot Andreas Wellinger maintaining second place (399 pts) after back-to-back sixth positions in Engelberg, and Norwegian Daniel André Tande slotting third with 356 points.

On the women’s World Cup, history was made with the completion of a first ever team event on Saturday. Hinterzarten, a village in Germany’s Black Forest, played host to Japan’s victory, with Yuki Ito, Kaori Iwabuchi, Yuka Seto and Sara Takanashi edging the teams from France and Russia as favourites Germany were held back by Svenja Wuerth’s crash in the first round, and would later crown Norwegian Maren Lundby as the winner of the individual competition ahead of local favourite Katharina Althaus and defending World Cup Champion Sara Takanashi. With the victory, Lundby caught Althaus on the overall classification, both women accumulating 360 pts after 4 events.

The Japanese team (Sara Takanashi, Kaori Iwabuchi, Yuka Seto and Yuki Ito, L-R) that won the inaugural team event in women’s Ski Jumping World Cup history (KYODO)

Football: Inter Milan picks up first defeat of the season

Entering round 17, Inter Milan were the only team yet to taste defeat in the Serie A to merit top of the league honours, yet that would end on Saturday afternoon as Udinese stormed into San Siro to shellshock Luciano Spalleti’s side.

It was still lunch time when Lasagna was served by Kevin in the 14th minute, and while Mauro Icardi responded almost instantaneously, the prolific striker couldn’t do the same in the second half, with Rodrigo de Paul and Antonin Barak burying the leaders and the 1-3 scoreline meaning that the Nerazzurri would return first-place to Napoli, who rode a fast start and three goals inside thirty minutes to claim victory in Torino (1-3). Keeping the three-goal mantra, Juventus passed comfortably in Bologna (0-3) to also leapfrog Inter, while Roma got within two points of the former leaders when center-back Federico Fazio nodded home a 94th minute winner against Cagliari (1-0) at the Stadio Olimpico.

Losing ground for the second consecutive week, Lazio drew 3-3 in Bergamo against Atalanta to fall five points back of their city rivals, whereas AC Milan confirmed the jolt provided by Gennaro Gattuso’s appointment has already evaporated. Facing a Hellas Verona they had swiftly beaten 3-0 in mid-week Italian Cup action, the Rossoneri got handed back a similar score to deepen their (on-field) problems.

Bundesliga

The last round of matches before a month-long winter break was once again positive for Bayern Munich, whose 0-1 victory in Stuttgart, courtesy of Thomas Muller’s goal, helped extend their lead to 11 pts. It’s true that the Bavarian giants felt a pinch of fear before Sven Ulreich saved a penalty in stoppage time, but they soon forgot the scare when the rest of the weekend’s results started falling their way, beginning with Schalke 04’s 2-2 draw in Frankfurt.

Truth be told, it could have been even worst for the visitors if not for another late rally, with Breel Embolo and Naldo – once again in the 95th minute – salvaging a point that served them well after RB Leipzig incredibly wasted an 82-minute man-advantage, at home, to Hertha Berlin (2-3).

On a four-game winless streak, last year’s runner-up were caught at 28 pts by Borussia Moenchengladbach, who beat Hamburg by 3-1 on Friday, Bayer Levekusen, challenged by Hannover to a goal-filled 4-4 draw, and Borussia Dortmund, who followed their breakthrough victory mid-week with a second win under new coach Peter Stoger.

And while American Christian Pulisic notched BVB’s game-winner in the 89th minute to defeat Hoffenheim (2-1) at the Signal Iduna Park, the most relevant goal of the weekend belonged to another Christian, FC Köln’s Clemens, since it would secure his team a first victory of the campaign (1-0 vs Wolfsburg) after just three draws in the initial 16 matches of 2017-18.

Ligue 1

Fresh off dumping Olympique Marseille out of the League Cup, sixth-place Stade Rennais may have entertained thoughts of troubling the mighty Paris St. Germain, but they soon understood there’s not a lot any defence can do when the MCN (Mbappé-Cavani-Neymar) is on a good day. PSG’s stars, especially an irrepressible Neymar, crafted two goals inside 17 minutes, added two more after Firmin Mubele discounted, and left Rennes with a 4-1 victory that pushes their goal-scoring average to over 3 goals per game….

The Parisians are, undoubtedly, having fun on their journey to recapture the French title but, this week, Monaco found a way to match their output after right back Djibril Sidibé opened the scoring at St. Etiénne in the third minute and the home team unravelled. With the 1-4 loss, Les Verts, winless since October 14th, continue their free-fall on the Ligue 1 table, while the defending Champions kept pace with Olympique Lyon, who overcame Marseille (2-0) in the main clash of round 18. In a battle of teams riding opposing trends, the plunging Bordeaux lost in Nice (1-0) after Mario Balotelli fired Les Aiglons to a fourth consecutive victory and possession of sixth-place, the top of a congested zone that sees 7th (Rennes) and 18th (Lille) separated by just 8 pts.

La Liga

When FC Barcelona steps into the Santiago Bernabéu next Saturday to contest the first “El Clásico” of 2017-18, they’ll do so with the backing of a fluffy 11-point gap that shifts all the pressure into the hosts’ corner. In the same week their heart rivals picked up the 2017 FIFA Club World Cup in the UAE, the Catalans obtained a straightforward 4-0 triumph over Deportivo La Coruña – the goals divided equally by Paulinho and Luis Suárez – to reach win 13 in 16 games and increase, by a point, the advantage over the second place, now owned by Atlético Madrid.

In customary manner, Atleti did just enough to eke out a win in round 16, with Fernando Torres scoring the lone tally against Alavés at the Wanda Metropoliano, and the capital side profited from Valencia’s second consecutive thud away from the Mestalla to climb a step. At Eibar, Los Che succumbed 2-1 to drop to third, eight points from the top, and Real Madrid can match their 34 points when they play their deferred appointment with Leganés. Moreover, fifth-place Sevilla, embarrassed by the defending Champions in the previous round, stuttered at home to Levante (0-0) to lose a chance of closing on the top-four.

Premier League

The Tottenham Hotspur of Mauricio Pochettino are no ordinary football team, but that was very much what they looked like as Man City steamrolled another opponent to add success No. 16 of their remarkable win streak. The conclusive 4-1 score established the huge gap between the voracious machine engineered by Pep Guardiola and one of its supposed challengers, now stuck an incredible 21 points behind, however it’s time we recognize that City’s chasers haven’t necessarily performed badly even if they’re a mile away from the top.

For instance, Manchester United collected another hard-fought victory, the 13th in 18 games, at the Hawthorns, holding off a determined West Bromwich (1-2), while Chelsea have won six of the last eight following a 1-0 triumph over Southampton secured by Marcos Alonso’s free kick from distance. Eleven and 14 points, respectively, separate these two from Man City, and round 18 also delivered victories for the next tier, as Arsenal beat Newcastle (1-0) by virtue of a Mesut Özil left-foot volley, and Liverpool hammered Bournemouth (0-4) to return to the right path after a couple of draws.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the table, Crystal Palace, who started the season with 7 consecutive defeats, went to Leicester, pulled out a 3-0 victory, and left the relegation zone for the first time this season.

Moment of the week

We skimmed past it in this roundup since the competition is stacked towards the most powerful sides and, really, not that interesting, nonetheless a World title is a World title and the Cup-clinching goal something to remember.

In Real Madrid’s victory over South American Champions Grêmio at the FIFA Club World Cup final, the difference was a throwback goal from 2017 Ballon D’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, and as a powerful free kick that nicked through the defensive wall to break the deadlock, it holds definitive merits worthy of inclusion here.

Weekend Roundup (December, 3rd): Winter has arrived

Have you noticed how cold it is out there these days? Well, I’m fortunate to be writing these words in my balmy South European location, but athletes around the world are already feeling the effects of the winter temperatures in frigid locations such as Sweden and Russia at a time the World Cup seasons for the most followed winter sports are just getting into a rhythm.

Over the last week, a bunch of events took place in chilly weather, which means we have a lot to review. Let’s get to it right away or, in alternative, feel free to scroll down to our football section.

Ski jumping: German double in Nizhny Tagil

Located 25km east of the virtual border between Europe and Asia, Nizhny Tagil is not only the most oriental point to be visited by the 2017-18 Ski Jumping World Cup, but also the place where Germany made loud and clear that, even without Severin Freund, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with throughout this Olympic season.

Regarded as the two most talented athletes on the German team, Richard Freitag and Andreas Wellinger were tasked with stepping up this year, and they showed their class in the Tramplin Stork over the weekend, splitting the two individual events contested in Russia, lifting their country to the top of the Nations Cup, and etching their names one-and-two in the race for the overall title after the third stop of the season.

Richard Freitag celebrates his victory on the first individual competition in Nizhny Tagil (FIS-Ski.com)

On Saturday, Karl Geiger (another German) led the way after the first round with 135.1 pts, yet the fireworks were reserved for the two best Norwegians of the moment. Daniel-André Tande and Johann André Forfang smashed the trampoline’s record in succession by landing at 141m and 141.5m, respectively, however that wasn’t enough to hold off the 26-year-old Freitag, who rose from eight after the break to clinch his sixth World Cup victory. A 137m leap resulted in a 141.4 point-tally in the final round and an accumulated score of 267.5 pts, which Tande came just 0.6 pts short off. Meanwhile, the third place finisher (Forfang) and the duo Stefan Kraft / Andreas Wellinger were separated by a tenth of a second and a mere 3.3 points removed from the top.

With such tight margins, Geiger slipped to sixth in the classification of the first individual event, and the next day he watched as his two colleagues put on a show again. Jumping 132m for a score of 137 pts, the 22-year-old Wellinger set the standard after the first attempt, and then he coupled it with 138 pts to secure a third career triumph, besting Freitag, who followed the example of Saturday to escalate from fourth to second after a second jump worth 142 pts, and defending World Cup Champion Stefan Kraft, who finished third.

Germany’s Andreas Wellinger in action in Nizhny Tagil (TAD/Eibner-Pressefoto)

Another German, Markus Eisenbichler, ended in fourth, preceding Daniel-André Tande on the day and, in result, the first four men in the general classification are just 80 pts apart, Freitag leading with 270 pts and Wellinger, Tande and Kraft chasing. Junshiro Kobayashi, who carried the yellow bib after Wisla and Ruka, didn’t compete in Russia but he should be back next week when Freitag will usher the ski jumping circus into Titisee-Neustadt, in the South of Germany.

Moreover, in Lillehammer, Norway, the female World Cup kicked off with three events at the Lysgårdsbakken hill. Home favourite Maren Lundby won the first competition on Friday, overcoming the challenge of Germany’s Katharina Althaus, but the pair exchanged spots on Saturday and Sunday, with Althaus picking up both triumphs. Therefore, the 21-year-old conquered the first Lillehammer Triple overall and assumed the ladies’ World Cup lead, 20 pts ahead of Lundby and 120 above defending Champion Sara Takanashi, of Japan.

Biathlon: Denise Herrmann skis away from the opposition in Östersund

With the two women who dominated the IBU World Cup last year, Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier and Czech Republic’s Gabriela Koukalová, missing the action in Östersund, the chance to leave a mark in the season-opening stop was there for the taking, and no one took better advantage of it than 28-year-old Denise Herrmann.

A seven-year veteran of the cross-country World Tour who embraced the challenge of picking up the rifle and changing sports in 2016, Herrmann failed to break into the top 10 in any individual event in 2016-17 as her shooting was still a work in progress, yet another summer of hard work payed off handsomely in Sweden this week.

German Denise Herrmann made the difference on the skiing sections in Östersund (biathlonworld.com)

Flying around the tracks in a tier beyond her rivals, Herrmann needed accuracy at the spot to compound the lightning-fast skiing of a former sprinter, and she got it on Friday’s Sprint (7.5 km) race after a single (standing) penalty allowed her to leave the closest competition, France’s Justine Braisaz and Ukraine’s Juliya Dzhyma, more than 15 seconds behind.

The two women that flanked the German on the podium cleaned and still couldn’t muster enough to snatch victory, and the same would happen on Sunday’s Pursuit, with Herrmann giving away her initial advantage over an immaculate Braisaz after picking up two standing penalties, but eventually dashing to the finish line in the final skiing section.

Justine Braisaz, Denise Herrmann and Juliya Dzhyma (L to R). The podium in the Sprint in Östersund (biathlonworld.com)

Although the 21-year-old Braisaz had to settle for two runner-up positions in Östersund, she came away with the yellow bib and the World Cup overall lead by virtue of her eight-place on Wednesday’s 15km individual event, where Herrmann finished 23rd. They move to Hochfilzen, Austria, where the next events will be held, separated by 4 pts, while Belarus’ Nadezhda Skardino is 13 pts from the top following a week where she collected her first World Cup triumph (in the individual competition) and dropped an incredible 50-of-50 in the shooting range.

Martin Fourcade’s perseverance delivers Pursuit victory

Since 2011-12, when he won his first (of six consecutive) overall World Cup titles, Martin Fourcade has always collected (at least) an individual victory in the season-opener yet, to keep the streak going, the French superstar had to labour until the final competition in Östersund.

On Sunday, after podium finishes in the individual (3rd) and sprint (2nd) events, Fourcade could finally celebrate as he demolished the competition on the Pursuit to cross the finish line almost 50 seconds before second place Jakov Fak (Slovenia). Firing fast and to perfection at the standing position as the opposition struggled with the difficult wind conditions, Fourcade opened a gap in the third shooting stop, when Tarjei Boe had to fulfil three penalty laps, and then controlled the race, no one in sight to steal his moment as had happened with his Norwegian rivals in the previous two events.

Martin Fourcade celebrates after cleaning the standing sections at the Pursuit in Östersund (Biathlonworld,com)

On Thursday, Johannes Thingnes Boe went 20-for-20 to capture his 14th career victory and first ever in the 20-km individual race, leaving Fourcade 2:14 min behind after the French botched two shots in the final standing position while, two days later, his brother Tarjei Boe swiped the triumph from under the nose of Martin with some late heroics on the 10km Sprint. Leaving the blocks with bib 94, the 2010-11 Total Score Champion thrived on the faster conditions, and capitalized on his one-shot performance to squeeze Fourcade’s time by 0.7 seconds, thus securing a first World Cup victory in more than 4 years.

Pushed by his rivals but not toppled, Fourcade left Östersund in his usual position, the top of the overall charts, with his 162 pts being 31 more than teammate Quentin Fillon Maillet, second in the individual event and third in the pursuit in Sweden, and 44 above Johannes Thingnes Boe’s total. They’ll renew festivities in Hochfilzen later this week.

Alpine skiing: Mikaela Shiffrin lays down her speed credentials at “Lake Lindsey”

On the same week the New Yorker published an in-depth profile on the upbringing of Mikaela Shiffrin, the “best slalom skier in the World”, the American superstar went out in Lake Louise, Canada, to push the boundaries of her achievements and showcase the ambition to be the best skier ever. A savant in the technical disciplines, Shiffrin has steadily honed her speed chops over the last couple of seasons, but it was still stunning to see it all coalesce on the first speed events of the 2017-18 season.

Mikaela Shiffrin battles the elements during the Women’s Downhill on Dec. 1, 2017 in Lake Louise, Canada. (Christophe Pallot, Agence Zoom/Getty Images)

With two downhills and a Super-G on the agenda, the 22-year-old collected the first (speed) podium finish of her career on Friday, finishing 0.3 seconds off the pace of Austria’s Cornelia Huetter, who took her maiden downhill victory, and 0.21 seconds behind Tina Weirather, of Liechtenstein. Astonishing performance from an athlete that had never classified better than 13th in the most heralded of the alpine disciplines, yet the American phenomenon upped her level even more the following day, claiming victory in the 2nd downhill race of the week by brushing aside Viktoria Rebensburg, the winner of the first two GS of the year who clocked 0.13 seconds more, and surprising Swiss Michelle Gisin, who claimed a downhill podium finish for the first time.

On Sunday’s Super-G the standings provided a more familiar outlook, with Weirather and Swiss Lara Gut, the last two Super-G World Cup Champions, grabbing the top-two positions and reigning Super-G World Champion, Austrian Nicole Schmidhofer, completing the podium as Shiffrin punched the fifth-best time to bookend a marvellous weekend that wasn’t nearly as sweet for another American star, 33-year-old Lindsey Vonn.

Tina Weirather, of Liechtenstein, won the Super-G in Lake Louise (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)

At “Lake Lindsey”, where she has racked up a mind-boggling 18 World Cup victories and 25 podiums, the veteran crashed out in the first event of the week, recuperated to complete the second in a disappointing 12th place, and then tumbled again on Sunday to collect another DNF. Not a promising season start for Vonn, who has missed a lot of time in recent years due to similar falls, and whose dream of fighting for a fifth overall World Cup title – and a first since 2011-2012 – is already all but over in the face of Shiffrin’s prowess. With 7 of 39 races contested, the defending Champion has already amassed 510 points against the 336 of Viktoria Rebensburg and the 234 of Tina Weirather.

Aksel Lund Svindal and Marcel Hirscher open their accounts in 2017-18

The Birds of Prey course in Vail/Beaver Creek, with his myriad jumps bearing the names of native flying animals, is one of the most emblematic on the Alpine Ski World Tour calendar, and a place where the best male skiers always strive to perform at their very best. With 25 crystal globes between themselves, Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal and Austrian Marcel Hirscher are two of greatest of all-time, and they showed why this weekend, picking up victories shortly after coming back from injury.

On Saturday’s downhill, the 33-year-old Svindal set the pace at 1:40:46min when he raised the curtain with bib No.1, and none of the other competitors would better his time, allowing the two-time overall World Cup Champion an unparalleled fourth downhill triumph (2009, 2014, 2016) in Beaver Creek. Winner of the discipline’s season opener in Lake Louise last week, Switzerland’s Beat Feuz finished as the runner-up for a third time on the American resort, with German Thomas Dreßen completing the podium for a first top-three position of his career.

Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal prepares to hit the snow after a jump during the downhill in Beaver Creek (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

Meanwhile, after the cancellation of Sölden’s giant slalom, the event’s specialists had their first opportunity to shine in Beaver Creek and the victory would fall to a familiar face. Barely four months removed from a serious ankle injury, Marcel Hirscher posted a field-best second run to dispossess German Stefan Luitz from the top position and secure a fourth career win in the Birds of Prey. Making a charge from seventh, Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen claimed second, while Luitz hanged for a fifth career podium after edging Manuel Feller (Austria) by a hundred of a second.

To the dismay of the home crowd, American Ted Ligety fell from second to seventh in the second leg and, consequently, the hosts were shut down of the podium all together since Friday’s Super-G also did not go their way. Taking the spoils, Austrian Vincent Kriechmayr celebrated a maiden World Cup triumph by pipping defending Super-G WC Champion Kjetil Jansrud by 0.23 seconds, and compatriot Hannes Reichelt by 0.33.

Austria’s Vincent Kriechmayr sprays champagne after his maiden World Cup victory in the Super-G of Beaver Creek (AP-PTI)

In the men’s overall classification, Team Norway’s Svindal and Jansrud are separated by just four points (249-245), with Beat Feuz in third (208). The technical events return next weekend, with giant slalom and slalom races in Val d’Isère (France), while the ladies land in St. Moritz (Switzerland) to tackle two Super-G races and the first of the two alpine combined events of the season.

Football: Juventus wins at the San Paolo as Inter Milan seizes first place in the Serie A

Napoli held a piece of the Serie A lead for the first 14 rounds, but their tenure came to an end on Friday after a painful defeat against arch-rivals Juventus at their own ground. To add salt to the wound, the only marker inside a flaming San Paolo was laid by Gonzalo Higuaín, the former-idol-turned-public-enemy who sealed a blistering counter attack devised by Paulo Dybala in the 12th minute. Harnessing the furious charge by the hosts, the reigning Champions locked down the valuable 0-1 score, and cut the gap between the sides to one point, Napoli’s 38 pts and Juventus’ 37 trailing the 39 accumulated by Inter Milan.

Reawakened under Luciano Spalleti, I Nerazzuri throttled Chievo at San Siro, with Croatian Ivan Perisic authoring three of the five unanswered goals and Mauro Icardi notching a league-leading 16th, and they will defend their new position and season invincibility at the Juventus Stadium next weekend. The blockbuster encounter of round 16 will be another chapter in this wildly-entertaining Serie A season, yet the Scudetto-race isn’t limited to the top-three. With 34 points amassed after a 3-1 victory over SPAL, AS Roma’s game-in-hand can make it even more interesting, and Lazio is in the same position, their 32 pts padded by a late turnaround (1-2) at Sampdoria.

In different circumstances, Gennaro Gattuso’s first game in charge continued AC Milan’s futility. Visiting the lowly Benevento, who carried the red lantern with 0 pts after 14 games, the Rossoneri conceded a late tying goal (2-2) that dropped them to 8th. Milan’s 21 pts put them closer to the relegation zone than the Champions League positions…

Premier League

Over the last 13 years, the coaching rivalry between José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger has filled countless paper columns as the Portuguese usually got the better of the Frenchman and, this weekend, the story was much of the same.

At the Emirates, Arsenal attacked furiously and forced a superb David de Gea to tie the top-flight record for most saves in a single match (14), yet Manchester United came away with the vital three points after two away goals inside 11 minutes set the tempo of the match. Both sides would score in the second half to set the concluding 1-3, and while Paul Pogba’s send-off throws a wrench into United’s plans for next week’s showdown with Man City at Old Trafford, they’ll be relieved to live a few more days with the 8-pt difference.

Surprised by Angelo Ogbonna’s tally at the end of the first half, the leaders solved the issue on hand Sunday with another late goal – David Silva’s outstretched boot directing Kevin de Bruyne’s sweet deliver into West Ham’s net (2-1)  – and amassed consecutive win number 13 to inch closer to the Premier League record. A triumph for City in the coming derby would do it, but they’ll have more than a few folks rooting against it for the sake of a competitive league. In fact, Chelsea, 11 pts adrift after beating Newcastle 3-1, Liverpool, 14 pts behind after thrashing Brighton (1-5) ahead of the Liverpool Derby, Arsenal (15) and Tottenham, a massive 18 pts from the top after tying 1-1 at Watford, can’t do much more than cheer on the Red Devils.

 

Ligue 1

Paris Saint-Germain’s 2-1 defeat at Strasbourg, their first of the season in any competition, was a major surprise, but it is unlikely to evolve into more than a minor blip on their campaign. Resting Edinson Cavani and Marco Verrati, the Parisians’ machine stuttered in the stronghold of the newly-promoted side, however their lead only shrank by a point, from 10 to 9, after second-place Olympique Marseille took their turn giving away points.

Monaco had lost in the previous weekend and Olympique Lyon followed suit mid-week against Lille, hence L’OM drew at Montpellier (1-1) Sunday to tumble back to fourth on the heels of Monaco’s 1-0 win over Angers, secured with an early goal from Radamel Falcao, and Lyon’s 2-1 triumph in Caen. As we said last week, the race for second is going to be fun, and a team like fifth-place Nantes (1-1 at St. Etiénne) is still not out of it.

La Liga

When Argentine Maxi Gómez poked in Celta de Vigo’s equalizer (2-2) at the Camp Nou on Saturday morning, the Catalans thought things at the top of La Liga were about to get more uncomfortable, but that was not what happened. Though the leaders ended up conceding the third draw of the campaign, and second in succession, they received unexpected gifts to increase their grip of first place.

For it, they can thank another forgettable night for Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid, held to a goalless draw against Athletic Bilbao at San Mamés (0-0), and Valencia’s first loss of the season in Getafe (1-0). Los Che proved unable to exploit a man-advantage for 65 minutes, and conceded a goal shortly past the hour mark, but not every piece of news was good for Barcelona.

For instance, they lost centre-back Samuel Umtiti for the next few weeks due to injury, and watched Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann salvage a late win for his current club (2-1) against his former team, Real Sociedad. With the victory, the still-unbeaten Atletico are now 6 pts behind the leaders, 1 off Valencia’s pace and two above city-foes Real Madrid, who were caught by Sevilla (2-0 vs Deportivo) at 28 pts ahead of their clash in the Spanish capital in round 15.

Bundesliga

The opening created by Bayern Munich’s setback in round 14 vanished as quickly as it appeared after the Bavarians overcame a spirited Hannover 96 at the Allianz Arena (3-1). The defending Champions couldn’t relax until Robert Lewandowski bagged his 14th goal of the season in the 87th minute yet, in the end, these were a really good couple of days for the German giants.

It started when second-place RB Leipzig were routed 4-0 by Hoffenheim, with Bayern loanee Sèrge Gnabry netting a brace, and continued as third-place Schalke 04 surrendered a home draw to bottom-feeders FC Koln (2-2).

Following the example set forth by the competition, fourth-place Borussia Moenchengladbach also fell flat in Wolfsburg, leaving under the weight of a three-goal loss (3-0), and the other Borussia, the yellows of Dortmund, delayed their revival with another tie in a regional affair in Leverkusen (1-1). As a result, six points distance first and second, while the bridge between Leipzig and ninth-place Bayer Leverkusen is worth just five.

Moment of the weekend

Easiest pick in a long time, for sure.

Entering the 95th minute of their reception to AC Milan, last-place Benevento were staring the abyss of yet another defeat in the Serie A, the 15th in equal number of matches. A few seconds later, euphoria raged inside the inconspicuous Stadio Ciro Vigorito in the small city of the South of Italy, the reason being a miraculous last-gasp equalizer by the most implausible of all sources, goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli.

The minnows had to wait a long time for their first ever top-flight point, but there’s simply no way anyone could have written a better script than Brignoli’s sensational diving header in the cusp of the final whistle. It was an unforgettable moment for the people of Benevento, and for a club whose stay amongst Italy’s best will, more than likely, be a short one.

Weekend Roundup (November, 26th): France spurns Belgium to lift first Davis Cup in 16 years

On his first stint (1991-92) as France’s Davis Cup captain, Yannick Noah won a Davis Cup, breaking a 59-year drought. On his second spell, between 1995 and 1998, he lifted a second Cup in 1996. In his first period in charge of France’s Fed Cup team, the former World No.3 in singles conquered the country’s maiden trophy.

Success wearing the colours of his nation may have eluded the 1983 Roland Garros Champion as a player, a lost final in 1982 the closer he got to clutching the trophy, but the boisterous Noah has more than made up for it as a coach, a leader and an inspirational figure for French tennis. The latest title, in front of a pulsating crowd in Lille, is simply another feather in his cap, the magical touch of Yannick Noah the solution for another long drought, this one particularly ridiculous due to France’s unmatched depth of top players at the men’s highest levels.

The Davis Cup Final contested between France and Belgium at the Pierre-Mauroy Stadium this weekend was intense, spiced by the rivalry of neighbouring nations and, obviously, emotional, but lacked the drama that could only come from titanic, enduring clashes where the tension hikes through the roof and any mistakes can mean the end of a lifelong dream. The Final series went the distance (3-2) yet, outside of the doubles rubber, every match followed the script put forth in the first set, with the victors racing to claim the spoils in just three sets.

Ricard Gasquet (L) and Pierre-Hugues Herbert (R) celebrate their victory in the third match of the 2017 Davis Cup Final (Pascal Rossignol, Reuters)

Take the example of the first match, between World No. 18 Lucas Pouille and the in-form David Goffin, the Belgium linchpin clawing his way to a 7-5 triumph in the first set before dispatching the next two (6-3, 6-1), obtaining a maiden victory over Pouille in four confronts. Or that of the second encounter, when French No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vanquished World No.76 Steve Darcis in the three quick sets (6-3, 6-2, 6-1) to level the proceedings. Naturally,  it would happen twice more on Sunday, with Goffin toppling Tsonga in a straight sets (7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-2) blockbuster after surviving a frantic first set where he saved six break points, and Pouille redeeming himself in front of friends and family with an imperious, Cup-clinching performance (6-3, 6-1, 6-0) over the overmatched Darcis.

In between, on Saturday, a four-set affair vindicated Yannick Noah’s bold decision to drop Nicolas Mahut from the squad and play his regular partner, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, on his offside and besides the exquisite Richard Gasquet. After claiming the first set, the French pair surrendered the second to Belgium’s Ruben Bemelmans and Joris de Loore, but stepped up with the visitors serving at 5-3 in the third, hustling to claim victory in 6-1, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4.

A win in the third rubber that would essentially render useless the two triumphs secured by the unwavering Goffin  – the best player in the series and now 21-3 in Davis Cup single’s action – since “Mr Davis Cup” Steve Darcis never looked about to unveil his “superhero” cape in Lille.

Instrumental to eliminate Germany in the first round (when Goffin was missing), the 33-year-old had a perfect record in five Davis Cup fifth rubbers, yet he proved no match to a fired-up Pouille on Sunday, and as the large French contingent (the Champions used 8 (!) different players en route to the title) mugged the elated winner, Belgium were left to lick the wounds of a third lost Final, and second in three years after capitulating to Great Britain in 2015.

As for France, the 2017 title is their first since 2001 and the 10th in history, matching Great Britain and lagging way behind the totals of Australia (28) and the USA (32). In the last 16 years, the French went to the Final on three occasions, with the most recent taking place three years ago in this very same venue and against a fellow neighbour: the Switzerland of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.

With the Davis Cup World Group wrapped up, the 2017 tennis season is finally over at the top-level, but it won’t take long before the stars of the sport return to the courts. In just five weeks, they’ll be back in action and, in seven, the first Grand Slam of 2018 will kick off in Melbourne.

Winter sports 

Biathlon: Norway triumphs in the first mixed relay of the season

Stuck right in the centre of Sweden, the city of Östersund usually hosts the inaugural events of the IBU Biathlon World Cup and the beginning of the 2017-18 season was no different.

With the first individual events only scheduled for the end of the week, two relays raised the curtain on Sunday to provide a first glimpse of the athletes’ form in an Olympic year. As usual when multiple relays take place in the same day, strategy took a huge part in defining the allocation of resources for each race, and in Östersund the teams from Norway and Austria reaped the benefits of their choices as France misfired badly by putting all of their eggs in a single basket.

The members of Norway’s mixed relay team show the medals from Östersund (Photo: IBU/biathlonworld)

Tapping their best male and female athletes for the single mixed relay (2 x 6km (W) + 2x 7.5 km (M)), the French were clear favourites to repeat the victory of last year, but were ultimately betrayed by a terrible shooting day from their star pair. Martin Fourcade and Marie Dorin Habert combined for 10 blanks on the day, and not even their speed over the skis could reel them back, ending up in a four-team sprint for third which Kazakhstan (Galina Vishnevkaya /Maxim Braun) brilliantly won.

Runner-up in 2016, the Austrian duo of Lisa Theresa Hauser and Simon Eder rode a brilliant shooting performance, missing just two targets, to claim victory in the early afternoon of Östersund, while Germany’s Vanessa Hinz and Erik Lesser finished second despite nine spares.

Austria’s Lisa Theresa Hauser and Simon Eder won Östersund’s single mixed relay event on Sunday

By sending a secondary unit to the single mixed relay, Norway put their faith in the strongest possible quartet (Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold, Tiril Eckhoff, Johannes Thingnes Boe, Emil Hegle Svendsen) for the mixed relay (2x 6km (2 W) + 2x 7.5 km mixed relay (2M)) event, and through ups and downs, eventually came out on top. With the ladies leading the line, Sweden’s Hanna Öberg and Finland’s Kaisa Makarainen transmitted in the lead after the first and second exchanges, respectively, however it was Italy who closed the third leg in first place after Dominik Windisch cleared all targets.

Anchor Lukas Hofer took over with a 23-second advantage over Slovakia and Norway, but he struggled badly on the prone position, served a penalty lap and ceded control to Norway and veteran Emil Hegle Svendsen, who would stumble in the last shooting range. Needing three spares to pass, he let the chasers get within 5 seconds, but the 2010-11 Total Score winner would hold off the streaking Hofer (who blitzed the standing shots) to secure the win ahead of Italy. Germany took bronze, with Arnd Peiffer overthrowing Matej Kazar and the surprising Slovakia in the last climb.

Ski jumping: Jernej Damjan records shocking win in Ruka

At age 34 and with a single individual World Cup triumph listed on his résumé (Sapporo, 2014), Slovenian Jernej Damjan is far from a leading figure in his national team, much less the Ski Jumping World Tour. However, all it takes to grasp the spotlight in this sport are two inspired jumps in succession, and that’s precisely what Damjan manage on Sunday in the Rukatunturi large hill (HS 142), beating a smattering of Norwegians and Germans for a superb triumph under the Finnish sky.

Pure joy reflected on the face of Slovenian veteran Jernej Damjan after his astonishing triumph in Ruka (Reuters)

Out of nowhere, Damjan jumped 140m in the first round to take the surprising lead, waited a long time for the encore, and then delivered under pressure, with the 142m and final total of 301.4 points proving enough to brush aside the challenge of a pair of 22-year-olds, Johann André Forfang (298.6 pts) of Norway and Andreas Wellinger (293 pts) of Germany. A grand total of seven athletes from these two nations found their way into the Top 10 on Sunday, whereas one man in particular came to rue his luck in Ruka, defending World Cup Champion Stefan Kraft.

For the second consecutive week, the Austrian dominated qualification and landed farther than anyone else during the three days of competition, even setting a new hill record of 147.5m on Saturday, however a mistake during take-off on his first jump in the individual event imploded his chances of victory. Kraft would correct in the final round, clearing 145m to escalate from 26th to 13th but, similarly to what had happened the day before, that wouldn’t amount to much as his outstanding performance wasn’t enough to corral Austria to the podium in a team event once again won by Norway.

The four Norwegian athletes took victory in the team event for the second consecutive week

Displaying great team spirit and homogeneity in performance for the second consecutive week, Robert Johansson, Anders Fannemel, Daniel-André Tande and Johann André Forfang collected 1184.2 points for Norway, a massive 68 more than second-place Germany, who knocked Japan to third in the last jump following a Richard Freitag 138m-leap that Junshiro Kobayashi couldn’t answer to. Fourth-place Austria was followed by Slovenia, and then ranked an unlucky Poland, whose sixth place came in spite of the disqualification of Piotr Zyla before his first jump due to irregular crotch length.

The next stage of the Ski Jumping World Cup is the Tramplin Stork, in Nizhny Targil, Russia, where athletes will compete in two individual events next weekend.

Alpine Skiing: Mikaela Shiffrin opens her win account in Kyllington

It’s not her native Vail or even nearby Aspen, Colorado, but Kyllington, Vermont, will do just fine for American star Mikaela Shiffrin on her quest for a second overall World Cup title. Usually fertile ground for the Slalom Queen, the early season swing through North America has brought 180 out of a possible 200 points to her mantle, and Shiffrin is already clear of the field in the general classification.

Overshadowed by dark clouds and light rain, the ultimate spoiler for the home favourite on Saturday’s giant slalom came in the form of German Viktoria Rebensburg, the 2010 Olympic Champion. Making it two of two in GS this season, the 28-year-old authored a pair of flawless runs on her way to secure a 15th career World Cup triumph, besting Shiffrin by 0.67 seconds and Manuela Mölgg by almost 1.5 ticks. Matching her surprise third place of the season opener in Solden, the Italian veteran is thus third on the discipline’s classification, tied with crystal globe holder Tessa Worley at 120 points, five behind Shiffrin and 80 from Rebensburg’s total.

American Mikaela Shiffrin drew all the attentions in the Alpine Skiing World Cup races in Kyllington, Vermont (Andrew Shinn)

Although she was pipped in GS, Shiffrin would reign supreme on Sunday’s slalom, riding with unparalleled bravado to avenge the result of two weeks ago in Levi. Slovak Petra Vlhová was no match for the American this time, but a competent second run vaulted her from fifth to second on the day, a hefty 1.64 seconds off the winner’s pace, while Austrian Bernadette Schild took advantage of Wendy Holdener’s error-filled second round to claim a fifth career World Cup podium. With 180 pts each and well ahead of everyone else, Vlhová and Shiffrin share top honours in the slalom classification so far.

North of the border, in Lake Louise, Alberta, the men contested the first speed competitions of the year with victory smiling on a pair of high-profile names. Reigning downhill World Champion Beat Feuz drew first blood on Saturday, edging the discipline’s Olympic Champion Matthias Mayer by 0.09 seconds in the fastest of the Alpine races. Returning to the tour after another severe knee injury, Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal was 0.32 seconds away from a dream comeback, eventually settling for bronze ahead of two-time crystal globe winner Peter Fill of Italy.

Fifth on the downhill, Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud rose to the top of the podium on Sunday’s Super-G to kick off the defence of the discipline’s title in style. The 32-year-old’s closest opposition was provided by a pair of Austrians, runner-up Max Franz (+ 0.28s) and 2015 Super-G World Champion Hannes Reichelt, who finished third (+0.32).

Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud won the men’s Super G at Lake Louise Ski Resort (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

For now, Jansrud leads the overall World Cup classification followed by Feuz and Svindal, but the picture might change significantly next week when the men’s tour moves to Beaver Creek, Colorado, where three more events will be held: a downhill, a super-G and the first giant slalom of the season. At the same time, the speed demons of the ladies circuit have a first opportunity to showcase their form as the inaugural downhill and Super-G races of their season take place in Lake Louise.

Football: Madness in Dortmund

It can be claimed that more than the aggregate totals of wins, draws and losses, what levitates a rivalry are those magical games that stay in the minds of supporters positioned both sides of the fence. More times than not, it would correspond to those days when one team emphatically crushes the other, but while that wasn’t the case on Saturday, it can be argued one of the combatants abandoned the pitch in Dortmund broken to pieces.

Everything went smoothly for the struggling Dortmund in the early going. They scored one, then another, and another, and another. Not even the most irrational supporter could have foreboded a four-goal spree inside 25 minutes against their bitter rivals, but there it was, the perfect cleansing needed after some terrible weeks.

The game settled down and with thirty minutes to go, Schalke 04’s consolation goal bounced off the head of Guido Burgstaller. Four minutes later, another marker for the visitors. Is it possible? Aubameyang is stupidly sent-off. Maybe? Daniel Caligiuri smashed one inside the top-corner. Alright…it was four, it’s now one and soon… it’s none. Naldo meets the last-minute corner, sets alive the visiting horde and silences the Yellow Wall. 4-0. 0-4. 4-4. Crack open the history books.

The bottom line? With the draw both teams recovered a point to the leaders since Bayern Munich lost for the first time in Jupp Heynckes most recent tenure. Thorgan Hazard and Matthias Ginter scored for Borussia Moenchenglabach in their 2-1 victory, Arturo Vidal discounted, the hosts climbed to fourth, with 24 pts, and they’re two behind second-place RB Leipzig, who cut the deficit to Bayern after a 2-0 triumph over Werder Bremen.

Winless in six matches, Borussia Dortmund are fifth with 21 pts, while Bayer Leverkusen climbed to sixth, leapfrogging their opponents in round 13, Eintracht Frankfurt (0-1), but also Hoffenheim (3-0 L in Hamburg) and Hannover 96 (1-1 vs Stuttgart). Bottom-feeders FC Köln, who beat Arsenal on Thursday in the Europa League? An 11th loss in 13 games after succumbing to Hertha Berlin at home (0-2).

Premier League

Thirty-seven points amassed from the first 13 games mean Manchester City have started better than any other Premier League competitor in history, yet this weekend was just another reminder that, even for them, the danger lies in every corner of the toughest league in World football. Fortunately, soon after Nicolás Otamendi’s own-goal sent Pep Guardiola’s men to half-time down 1-0 at Huddersfield Town, Sergio Agüero levelled and Raheem Sterling found an 84th-minute winner that extends the winning-streak to 11.

A visit to Old Trafford beckons for City in two weeks, but before the short trek across Manchester, the Red Devils needed a deflected shot from Ashley Young to beat Brighton at their holy ground (1-0) and, consequently, preserve the difference at eight points.

Further behind, Arsenal escaped Burnley (0-1) with three points, courtesy of a last-minute Alexis Sanchez’s winner from the spot, and the Gunners were further rewarded with reclaimed land from the closest opposition. That would be city rivals Tottenham, who disappointed at home to West Bromwich (1-1), and the pair Liverpool / Chelsea, who drew (1-1) at Anfield Road on matchday’s 13 blockbuster after Willian’s lofted shot surprised Simon Mignolet and cancelled Mohamed Salah’s game-breaker.

Starting at Chelsea, third with 26 pts, and ending on eight-place Watford, who now possess 21, every team around the European zone has a one-point advantage over the next  while, at the bottom, Cristal Palace’s second win of the campaign (2-1 vs Stoke City) pulled them within 3 pts off the safety zone.

La Liga

Unbeaten on the season and nine-games deep into a fantastic winning-streak, Valencia welcomed leaders Barcelona into the Mestalla with eyes set on moving closer to first place, but it took them quite some time to show it. The visitors dominated the first half and Lionel Messi’s shot clearly crossed the line to give them the lead, however the referee fell into a different reality and only then Los Che woke up to the top-of-the table clash. Their speed down the flanks created Barça some problems, and as Rodrigo poked in the opener at the hour mark, the rest of La Liga celebrated.

Not so fast said Jordi Alba, concluding a beautiful feed by Messi to forge a late equalizer that kept things equal at the very top, but not right below, since Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid cut their deficit by two points this week. The latter erupted offensively to pepper Levante with five goals, matching braces from French forwards Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro doing the heavy lifting, while the Champions of Europe suffered to overcome Malaga at the Bernabéu (3-2) until Cristiano Ronaldo notched the winner in the 76th minute correcting his saved penalty attempt.

Meanwhile, on the round’s best game, Sevilla completed the second stunning comeback of their week, a nice follow-up to that three-goal outburst against Liverpool mid-week. Down 2-0 at Villarreal, the visitors tied the match with consecutive goals, added the winner from the spot later on, and hang on to an impressive 3-2 away victory that distances their opponents.

Serie A

Another eventful weekend in Italy, with the top three completing their mission with success, the next three dropping points and AC Milan finally completing the shakeout everyone was waiting for.

Going through a strenuous period, leaders Napoli filled in the minimum requirements at Udine by snatching the three points after Jorginho impelled home the rebound off his missed penalty shot. The 0-1 road win wasn’t brilliant, but it was enough to keep the two-point advantage over Inter Milan, who travelled to Sardinia and saw Mauro Icardi bag two more in their 1-3 victory over Cagliari, the argentine’s 15th tally equalling Ciro Immobile’s total on the Capocannonieri’s race.

Inter captain Mauro Icardi scored twice in his team’s 3-1 victory in Cagliari (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP)

Meanwhile, third-place Juventus are still four points off the top, the challenge presented by Crotone dealt with after a three-goal barrage in the second half (3-0), but their advantage increased following the draws conceded by the two teams from Rome. Daniele De Rossi’s brain-stop resulted in a red card, a penalty converted by Genoa’s Gianluca Lapadula and two points left by I Giallorossi at the Luigi Ferraris (1-1), while Lazio’s substitute Felipe Caicedo kicked a Fiorentina player in the box deep into injury time to allow Khouma Babacar a late equalizer (1-1) in the Italian capital.

Moreover, one week after beating Juventus, sixth-place Sampdoria crashed and burned in Bologna (3-0), while AC Milan’s goalless draw to Torino at the San Siro signified the end of the road for coach Vincenzo Montella. Former midfielder Gennaro Gattuso takes over the coaching duties with the team in seventh place and already 18 points behind Napoli.

Ligue 1

Two seasons ago, Paris St. Germain won the French title with 96 pts and an absurd 31-pt advantage over the closest opposition, and after the Parisians thoroughly outclassed defending Champions Monaco at the Principality on Sunday, it’s fair to wonder if we’re bound for something similar.

With Julian Draxler joining Neymar, Cavani and Mbappé on attack, the visitors dominated at will for more than an hour, scored twice, left a few more for another occasion, and didn’t really sweat until João Moutinho’s free kick deflected on the wasteful Mbappé. The final 1-2 may be slim for the difference between the two sides, but the nine-point gap on the standings is, most certainly, not. Highly unlikely to retain the title, Monaco’s counterparts in Ligue1 will be Lyon, who caught up to them after another five-spot away from home, this time against the free-falling Nice, and Marseille, who solved Guingamp due to an individual effort by Florian Thauvin.

These three teams are separated by a single point after 14 rounds, and the fifth-place, still occupied by Nantes, is already at a five-point distance after the Canaries fell at Rennes (2-1).

Moment of the weekend

So long, 2017 tennis season. We’ll miss you, but historical landmarks always take precedence.

That’s why this space rightfully belongs to Naldo, Schalke 04’s central defender who culminated his team’s monumental 4-goal comeback with a furious header in the last minute of the 151th Revierderby. The Gelsenkirchen outfit may have 58 victories in the history of the derby (to Dortmund’s 51), yet the goal that settled the 42nd draw will resonate through time more than many game-winners.

Weekend Roundup (November, 19th): Running away

It’s not even December yet, two thirds of the league calendars are still to be played and one simply can’t shake off the feeling that we already know too much about the ending.

On a weekend where Bayern Munich, PSG and Napoli saw their lead incremented and the pair Manchester City and Barcelona watched strong rivals fall further behind, the hopes of dramatic title chases fuelled by rival fans and neutral spectators alike wrinkled like a rapidly deflating air balloon. With the exception of Napoli, municipalities can safely draw up parade routes, yet we’re far from running out of compelling storylines to follow until May.

Take a gander at the footballing action around the continent this weekend:

La Liga

The first Madrid derby at Atlético’s new home, the Wanda Metropolitano, didn’t satisfy any of the contending sides but elicited big smiles out East, in Catalonia. With Los Colchoneros struggling to find the goals at home (now just five in the same number of matches) and Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in a slump, the 90-minute stalemate hardly came as a surprise and, in result, both teams are now 10 points adrift of leaders FC Barcelona, a distance that has never been overcome by a title-winning side in La Liga history.

The Blaugrana also ventured into the capital region on Saturday, paying a visit to Leganés, and they were delighted that their own misfiring striker came to life. Luis Suárez notched twice in the 0-3 win, Paulinho signed up for the other, they went home with another three points in the bag and the weekend could have only turned out better had their rivals Espanyol been able to slow down second place Valencia. In the Cornellà-El Prat, the home side threatened many times but couldn’t convert, and Geoffrey Kondogbia’s belter in the 67th minute greatly simplified the job for the visitors, who then added a second by Santi Mina for good measure.

The difference between the top two, who face off at the Mestalla next week, is four points, while, further back, Sevilla returned to the top five with a 2-1 home victory against Celta de Vigo to profit from Villarreal’s 1-1 draw at Athletic Bilbao.

Premier League

The streak it’s already at ten and Pep Guardiola’s army keeps making it look easy. At Leicester, Manchester City pampered us with two wonderfully crafted goals, one concluded in a tap-in by Gabriel Jesus and the other with a thunderbolt off the left foot of Europe’s best midfielder these days, Belgian Kevin de Bruyne, to seal a 15th win in the last 16 matches across all competitions.

The leaders have the look and feel of an unstoppable side, but with the derby fast approaching, Manchester United will do anything in their power to arrive there with the current 8-point disadvantage. In Old Trafford, with Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic back in the fold, the Red Devils roared back from a goal down to dispatch Newcastle United by 4-1, and recover full possession of second place with 26 points, one ahead of defending Champions Chelsea, who scored three times in the first half – and one in the second – to brush aside West Bromwich at the Hawthorns (0-4).

Tumbling to fourth this week, Tottenham left the Emirates Stadium complaining about two offside goals, yet the referee can’t overshadow an uncharacteristically poor exhibition from Mauricio Pochettino’s men in the London derby (2-0). Outplayed by rivals Arsenal, the two teams are now separated by 1 point, 23 to 22, double digits behind City and in close proximity with Liverpool (22), convincing conquerors of Southampton at Anfield (3-0) with a brace from the surprising Premier League top goalscorer, Egyptian Mohamed Salah. Also with 22 pts in the table, the remarkable Burnley keeps racking up the victories after taking down Swansea (2-0).

Ligue 1

Claudio Ranieri may be Italian and a certified miracle-maker after his time in Leicester, but this Nantes team, placed in fifth on the Ligue 1 table, is still a world away from Paris and the implacable goal-scoring machine that energizes the Parc des Princes twice a month. In the team’s round 13 affair, PSG pumped out four more to elevate their tally to 26 goals in seven home matches, and two came off the boots of forward Edinson Cavani, the Uruguayan’s 15 goals making him one of the strongest candidates to the Golden Boot award.

Nevertheless, more important, the Parisians 4-1 triumph increased the gap at the top since their three closest rivals couldn’t gather the three points this weekend. Second-place AS Monaco struggled in Amiens and the 1-1 draw was all they deserved, while Olympique Lyon couldn’t find a way (0-0) past a well-organized Montpellier at the Groupama Stadium. For their part, fourth-place Marseille was seconds away from doing even worse in Bordeaux, but midfielder Morgan Sanson rescued a point (1-1) in the very last play of the game.

With a six, nine and ten point disadvantage, respectively, the trio is bound to watch PSG’s triumphal march from afar unless Monaco can claim the three points when they receive the leaders at the Principality next week.

Bundesliga

The Bayern Munich that dominates the Bundesliga at will is the one that picks up comprehensive wins week after week without breaking a sweat, and that Bayern is definitely back to torment the rest of the German league.

This weekend, a clinical performance stake three unanswered goals past Augsburg and, in the process, they extended the gap at the top to six points following RB Leipzig’s 2-2 draw at Leverkusen. Last year’s runner-up grabbed a 2-1 lead in the second half after a couple of penalties, but Kevin Volland manage to level for the hosts despite Bayer being reduced to 10 men. With 23 points on the table, Leipzig were caught by Schalke 04, who fended off Hamburg (2-0) at the Veltins Arena, while Borussia Monchengladbach climbed to fourth after getting the better of Hertha Berlin in a goal-filled battle (2-4) in the German Capital.

The other Borussia? Well, it goes from bad to worst after another loss, the third in succession and the fourth in five matches. In Stuttgart, a ridiculous miscommunication between Marc Bartra and Roman Burki opened the door for the hosts, and they capitalized to secure a 2-1 victory that sinks Dortmund further down the table. They’re already at fifth, tied with Hoffenheim (1-1 vs Eintracht Frankfurt), and another disaster next week, when they host Schalke 04 in the Ruhr Derby, could spell the end of the road for coach Peter Bosz.

Meanwhile, at the bottom, Werder Bremen collected their first league win of the season, thrashing Hannover 96 (4-0) with a hat trick from Max Kruse to create distance from FC Köln, whose nightmarish season annexed another chapter in Mainz (1-0).

Serie A

Unconvincing for much of the season, Juventus’ second Serie A loss is just another reminded that the road to a seventh consecutive title is full of dangers, and resting key starters on a recognizably difficult visit is the wrong way to go about it. Yes, a Champions League clash with Barcelona looms on Wednesday, but sixth-place Sampdoria are a really tricky opponent and Massimiliano Allegri’s team learned it quickly as the hosts raced to a three-goal lead in the second half.

Masking the score with two stoppage time markers accomplished nothing, and now the rivals are even more confident that the Vecchia Signora’s reign may be in jeopardy. Just ask leaders Napoli, who cleared another hurdle with a sound, 2-1 victory over AC Milan at the San Paolo. Or Inter Milan, who reclaimed second on the shoulders of Mauro Icardi’s double header against Atalanta (2-0). Or AS Roma, only a point behind Juventus with a game in hand after triumphing on the explosive capital derby (2-1) against fifth-place Lazio, now 7 points off the leaders but also with a rescheduled game to play.

This Serie A season is shaping up to be a classic, and the only thing missing is a better AC Milan, whose defeat in Napoli was the sixth of their campaign, the same number of victories they’ve amassed so far. Incidentally, every setback occurred against a top-six side, which is both recognition of the I Rossoneri’s distance to the top and its relative strength.

Furthermore, on the opposite side of the table, Benevento collected a 13th defeat in 13 games to establish a new European record for worst start of the season. We may be 25 games from the finish line, but only a miracle can salvage the newcomers from a ticket back to Serie B.

Tennis: Grigor Dimitrov captures the biggest title of his career at the ATP Finals

Without last year’s finalists (Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic) as well as regular secondary figures such as Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic, the smart money ahead of the ATP Finals resided on the “dream” Final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the perfect bookend to a season dominated by the two legends of the sport.

However, the Spaniard’s nagging knee problems led to a precocious abandon following a three sets battle against David Goffin, and the plucky Belgian would be responsible for further casualties in London. Busting every pre-tournament predictions, he knocked down Federer in a stunning semi-final encounter on Saturday to became just the sixth men to defeat the two superstars in the same tournament – the first not named Novak Djokovic to do it in seven years – and thus set up an improbable Final between two of the five first-time qualifiers in the eight-men field.

David Goffin raises his arms after the victory over Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the ATP Tour Finals (Tony O’Brien, Action Images via Reuters)

Both Goffin and fellow 26-year-old Grigor Dimitrov hadn’t played under brighter lights than what they faced on Sunday at the O2 Arena, yet the pressure and responsibility didn’t weight down the level of both men tasked with capping the 2017 ATP season. Undefeated in London after cruising through the round robin to later overcome American Jack Sock in the semi-finals, Dimitrov collected the first set by 7-5, fighting back from a break down, but then Goffin found the breakthrough at 3-3 in the second to make it clear this wouldn’t be a repeat of their one-sided group stage encounter a few days earlier.

In that occasion, the Belgian had won just two games in the entire match, yet he displayed superior power and shot-making in the Final to hold on to the lead (6-4), force a decider and enjoy a bevy of opportunities to break again in the first game of the third set. His Bulgarian opponent, though, was able to maintain the composure and when his rival’s backhand sailed wide at 3-2, Dimitrov picked up the decisive advantage. Moments later, up 5-2, he let three Championship points slip away on the response, but the same wouldn’t happen as he served the match out (6-3), the fifth match point wrapping up the 2.5h-showdown on a heart-breaking missed volley by Goffin.

Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov gazes at his ATP Finals trophy (Tony O’Brien, Action Images via Reuters)

With the victory, the most important of his career, Dimitrov is the first debutant to win the ATP Finals since 1998 and he finishes the year as the World No.3, a notable ascend from his 17th position at the beginning of 2017. Meanwhile, Goffin also climbs to a new career-high No.7, but he can’t head to holidays just yet since the Belgian will spearhead his country’s representation in Lille, France, for the 2017 Davis Cup Final next weekend.

Ski jumping: Junshiro Kobayashi upsets Kamil Stoch and Stefan Kraft in Wisla

One week earlier than usual, the 2017-18 edition of the Ski Jumping World Cup was off the ground in Wisla, Poland, a first time host of the season opener. Situated a stone throw away from the border with the Czech Republic, the hometown of the legendary Adam Małysz is renowned for the passionate support of the local fans, who usually steer the home boys to the top of the podium, yet, this time, the champagne popped from the hands of others as the Poles came close but not close enough.

In the individual competition, reigning Olympic Champion Kamil Stoch was one of the favourites, his two victories in the Malinka hill last January still fresh on the memory of his compatriots, however the 30-year-old fell behind in the first round, posting only the eight best total, and then couldn’t make up all the ground despite leading the field by a fair margin with his second jump (137.6 pts).

Stoch eventually ended up as the runner-up to 26-year-old Junshiro Kobayashi, in great form since the qualification on Friday and whose consistency paid off big time to secure a maiden World Cup triumph. Levelled in points with defending World Cup Champion Stefan Kraft after the initial leaps, the Japanese bested the Austrian in round two by 2.9 pts, and then took advantage of the adverse wind conditions that derailed the second attempt of leader Richard Freitag (Germany) to claim the win with a combined total of 260.5 pts, just ahead of Stoch (258.2) and Kraft (257.7).

Kamil Stoch, Junshiro Kobayashi and Stefan Kraft (L-R) shared the podium in Wisla (Grzegorz Momot /PAP)

The unlucky Freitag fell to fourth, leading the German contingent that will miss the injured Severin Freund for all of this season, while three other Poles (Piotr Zyla, Stefan Hula and Dawid Kubacki) finished in the top 10 to give the home crowd some reason to cheer after the disappointment of the previous day.

On Saturday, kicking off the defence of their first Nations Cup title, the Polish squad composed of Stoch, Zyla, Kubacki and Maciej Kot squared off with Norway and Austria throughout the team event, only to be pipped by a Norwegian team (Johann Andre Forfang, Anders Fannemel, Daniel-Andre Tande and Robert Johansson) propelled by the massive score (141 pts) earned by Forfang in the beginning of the final round.

Relegated to shared possession of second place, Polish and Austrians skiers have an opportunity for redemption next week in Finland as individual and team events are scheduled for the Rukatunturi hill when Kuusamo/Ruka becomes the second of this season’s eighteen World Cup stops.

Moment of the week:

With 2017 winding down, I’ll jump on this second-to-last opportunity to feature a majestic tennis point here and relinquish the stage to Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin.

One of a handful of gorgeous rallies during the ATP Finals decider, the Bulgarian eventually took this point in a crucial hour of the match when his overhead shot met the standard set by Goffin’s exquisite between-the-legs lob. The smash allowed Dimitrov to move within two points of victory, and invigorated the decidedly partisan crowd inside London’s O2 Arena for the final moments of the ATP season.

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.

 

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.