2018 Winter Olympics medal prognostications

Arriving to PyeongChang, South Korea, from all corners of the World, athletes from 15 different sports will battle for the 102 sets of medals available during the 2018 Winter Olympics, the ultimate reward for years of hard work and sacrifices in the name of a dream.

Unfortunately, this writer won’t be one of them, which means I can’t do much more than sit back, monitor the proceedings from my living room on the other side of the planet…and try to look smart doing so. But how? Well, by predicting the Olympic medal winners in advance and before the wind, unexpected temperatures, injuries, illnesses or just plain bad luck conspire to reshape the course of history.

Now, forecasting 100 different events is a lot for a single person, and since I won’t bother to trick you into thinking I have any idea who is going to take the freestyle skiing ladies’ aerials gold, let’s narrow the field to 28 events and my own Fab Four: Alpine skiing, Biathlon, Ice Hockey and Ski Jumping.

For full disclosure, the projections released by Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and the statistical genius at Gracenote were consulted before publication, but the future will certainly prove my brilliance in comparison with the so-called experts and machines. Or not. Still, on a related note, can we, reasonable people with a functioning brain, agree that biathlete Laura Dahlmeier won’t leave Pyeonchang with six gold medals? Great. Let’s get down to business then.

 

Alpine Skiing

The Pyeongchang Games are expected to coronate overall World Cup leaders Marcel Hischer and Mikaela Shiffrin, but exactly how much metal can this star duo accumulate? Moreover, is Lindsey Vonn going to add a few extra Olympic honours to the 2 medals obtained in Vancouver 2010, further padding an already stellar career? Is comeback King Aksel Lund Svindal destined for greatness on his final Olympic appearance? There’s no shortage of intrigue ahead of the alpine skiing events of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

American Mikaela Shiffrin shined as an 18-year-old in Sochi 2014 and she’ll be looking for more gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics (GEPA/Mario Kneisl)

Men:

Downhill

Gold: Beat Feuz, Switzerland

Silver: Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway

Bronze: Matthias Mayer, Austria

World Champion Beat Feutz leads the downhill standings this season by virtue of 3 victories and 2 runner-up finishes in 7 races, and he’s the man to beat in the fastest of the alpine disciplines. Svindal should return to the Olympic podium at age 35, making up for the disappointment of Sochi, while an Austrian always seems to sneak into the podium in these occasions. My money is on defending Champion Matthias Mayer, wildly inconsistent but someone who’s been showing signs of life recently.

 

Super-G

Gold: Max Franz, Austria

Silver: Kjetil Jansrud, Norway

Bronze: Vincent Kriechmayer, Austria

Kjetil Jansrud defends the crown from Sochi and leads the World Cup charts at the moment, but he’s going to have his hands full with the Austrian armada. Between Franz, Kriechmayer and 2015 World Champion Hannes Reichelt, the most decorated Alpine country has nice probabilities of snatching multiple medals, and I believe the 28-year-old Franz is the man to devise the perfect run.

 

Combined

Gold: Alexis Pinturault, France

Silver: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Bronze: Peter Fill, Italy

Alexis Pinturault has topped the Alpine combined standings in four of the last 5 seasons and he’s due a major title. The French will pick up gold after holding off the slalom charge of Marcel Hirscher. Veteran Peter Fill clocks the best time of the downhill run and then clings to the podium in the ensuing slalom.

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Ted Ligety, United States

If you’re as much as a casual alpine skiing spectator, you probably know Hirscher has yet to win an Olympic gold medal. That will end in PyeongChang, and as occurred in many previous instances this season, Henrik Kristoffersen will fill the bridesmaid role. After a first season podium on the GS of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Ted Ligety won’t approach the top two nor impact the fight for his succession, but the American still manages to shrug away the opposition for bronze.

 

Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Luca Aerni, Switzerland

Triumphant in six of the seven slalom events he’s contested this season, Hirscher is the odds-on favourite for the Olympic crown, but Kristoffersen will, undoubtedly, be lurking around if the six-time overall World Cup Champion commits the most insignificant of mistakes. Aerni, the 24-year-old who won the Alpine Combined at the 2017 Worlds, pipes Michael Matt (Austria) for third.

 

Women:

Downhill

Gold: Lindsey Vonn, United States

Silver: Sofia Goggia, Italy

Bronze: Ragnhild Mowinckel, Norway

Vonn and Goggia starred on the final speed events ahead of the Olympics and they’ll again put their friendship on the line in South Korea, with the American prevailing to reclaim the downhill Olympic title. Mowinckel wins bronze to clinch Norway’s first ever medal for a female Alpine skier (all previous 29 were collected by men).

 

Super-G

Gold: Tina Weirather, Liechtenstein

Silver: Lara Gut, Switzerland

Bronze: Lindsey Vonn, United States

Four years after crashing in a downhill training run in Sochi, Tina Weirather finally emulates her mother, Hanni Wetzel, and becomes the second Olympic Champion from Liechtenstein. Fourth in 2014, current Super-G World Cup leader Lara Gut climbs two steps to claim silver, while Nicole Schmidhofer, the reigning World Champion, is bested by Lindsey Vonn for the final podium position.

 

Combined

Gold: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Federica Brignone, Italy

Repeating the triumph of last year’s World Championships, Wendy Holdener creeps ahead of Shiffrin, the Slalom Queen, to savour her maiden Olympic title. In an all-Italian battle for third, Brignone knocks Sofia Goggia and Marta Bassino out of podium contention while Lindsey Vonn straddles a gate in the slalom to DNF.

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Viktoria Rebensburg, Germany

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Tessa Worley, France

The most consistent GS competitor of the season, Rebensburg recaptures her Olympic crown four years after placing third in Sochi, therefore ending Shiffrin’s bid for 3+ titles in a single Olympics. A World Champion in 2013 and 2015, Tessa Worley makes up for the deception of missing the 2014 Olympics by rescuing the bronze medal.

 

Slalom

Gold: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Silver: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Bronze: Frida Hansdotter, Sweden

With an advantage of over one second, Mikaela Shiffrin blows the competition apart to secure a second consecutive gold medal in her signature event. The in-form Holdener settles for second, while 32-year-old Frida Hansdotter takes advantage of Petra Vlhová’s tentative run to steal third place from the Slovak’s hands.

 

(Mixed) Team Event

Gold: Austria

Silver: Switzerland

Bronze: France

Marcel Hirscher will bookend a spectacular Winter Olympics by guiding Austria to the top of the podium on the first Team event in Olympic history. A talented Switzerland ensemble guarantees silver by upsetting the France of Pinturault, Worley and Mathieu Favre in the semis, though the French rebound to push Sweden out of the picture in the small final.

 

Biathlon

Martin Fourcade and Johannes Thingnes Bø have monopolized attentions this winter by hoarding 14 of the 15 individual competitions staged so far in the biathlon World Cup season, and their multiple clashes are bound to set alight the Alpensia Biathlon Center, nevertheless don’t sleep on the women. Laura Dahlmeier will be looking to reproduce her unconceivable five gold, six-medal performance of last year’s World Championships, and she’ll be up against a smattering of powerful opponents, including Sochi’s dominant figure, Darya Domracheva, and the current World Cup leader, Kaisa Mäkäräinen.

Johannes Thingnes Bø (L) and Martin Fourcade (R) will renew hostilities in PyeongChang (biathlon-hochfilzen.at)

Men:

10km Sprint

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Jakov Fak, Slovenia

Despite leading the sprint World Cup standings, Fourcade has only one victory to Bø’s three in this discipline in 2017-18, and the Norwegian has generally looked faster from the get-go at every World Cup stop. Therefore, we expect Johannes to take the first assault in Pyeongchang, with Martin Fourcade stopping the clock a few ticks later for silver. The steady Jacov Fak, World Champion in this discipline in 2012, concludes the podium lineup due to a clean shooting performance in a day where most of the other contenders will miss more than usual for lack of acclimation to the track and Olympic atmosphere.

 

12.5km Pursuit

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Emil Hegle Svendsen, Norway

Staying ahead of Fourcade during the Pursuit following his sprint successes hasn’t been a problem for Johannes Thingnes Bø this season, and we predict the same will happen at the Olympics. The 32-year-old Svendsen has picked up an Olympic medal in every other biathlon discipline between the 2010 and 2014 Games, and it would be neat if he managed to complete his set at the Pursuit.

 

15km Mass Start

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Bronze: Tarjei Bø, Norway

The hectic Mass start is a race that gets Fourcade’s emotions flowing like no other, and the French will outlast his Norwegian rival here, erupting to victory by a comfortable margin. For his part, Johannes may string a few misses on the day, but his magnificent skiing form should pull him out of trouble and back into medal territory. Tarjei Bø will take a ride with his younger brother and land on the last podium position.

 

20km Individual

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Erik Lesser, Germany

Bronze: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Martin Fourcade is the reigning Olympic Champion in the 20km individual and he won three consecutive World titles in this event before the third place of Hochfilzen 2017. The clear favourite since the race suits his deliberate shooting style and skiing prowess, the French will win ahead of Erik Lesser in a repeat of Sochi’s results. Meanwhile, Johannes Bø is not at his best in biathlon’s longest individual effort, but this season he tied his rival in the discipline’s standings by capturing a victory and a third place, and the Norwegian has the legs to make ground on the rest in spite of one, maybe even two, extra misses.

 

4×7.5km Relay

Gold: France

Silver: Norway

Bronze: Germany

Anchored by the two stars of the season, the men’s relay is expected to come down to the Johannes Bø – Martin Fourcade final showdown, with the French likely to start a few seconds late. In top form, a Norwegian group with Svendsen, the Bø brothers and Ole Einar Bjorndalen would be nearly unbeatable, however the legend was left off the team and Lars Helge Birkeland, while a steady athlete, doesn’t have as much international experience as the French trio supporting Martin. Simply because I’m still salty due to the absence of the greatest Winter Olympian ever, I’ll edge my bets on France.

With an experienced and reliable group, the Germans only need to avoid shooting themselves in the foot to secure third ahead of Austria, Italy and the Swedes, who recently triumphed in Oberhof. Russia, who won at home soil four years ago, couldn’t clear enough athletes to form a team for PyeongChang.

 

Women:

7.5km Sprint

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Anastasiya Kuzmina, Slovakia

Bronze: Tiril Eckhoff, Norway

Dahlmeier has yet to showcase the dominant skiing form of 2016-17, yet I sense she’ll explode off the gates in South Korea, shooting clean to overcome Anastasiya Kuzmina, the sprint Champion from Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. Tiril Eckhoff is usually at her best on the sprint, and the easy shooting range combined with an up-and-down track should suit her qualities, guiding the Norwegian to a second individual medal after the Mass Sprint of Sochi.

 

10km Pursuit

Gold: Kaisa Mäkäräinen, Finland

Silver: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Bronze: Denise Herrmann, Germany

Shut out of medal contention on the last two Winter Olympics, Kaisa Mäkäräinen will break her duck on the Pursuit, bursting ahead of Dahlmeier after the standing shootout to clinch an emotional victory. Denise Herrmann, the ultimate wild card with her lightning fast skiing and erratic shooting, will enjoy a good day in the office and power up the field to take the final podium position.

 

12.5km Mass Start

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Bronze: Justine Braisaz, France

Although Dahlmeier won’t amass five gold medals like last year, she’ll still head home with a stuffed trophy case. This race will provide her with another opportunity to ascend to the highest podium level, while Domracheva, the 2014 Mass start Champion, will scamper away from the opposition with the finish line in sight to secure silver. Building back her form through the week after an untimely illness, 21-year-old Justine Braisaz will claim bronze and a first career medal.

 

15km Individual

Gold: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Silver: Dorothea Wierer, Italy

Bronze: Nadezhda Skardino, Belarus

Returning to the World Tour after a couple of lost seasons due to mononucleosis and pregnancy, Domracheva is unlikely to repeat her haul from Sochi, but she won’t leave empty-handed either. I trust the Belarussian will keep her cool on the shooting range, defend her Olympic title and be joined on the podium by her teammate Nadezhda Skardino, who will shoot clean to secure the top-three for a second consecutive Olympics. Dorothea Wierer, the winner of the last 15km individual race in Ruhpolding, showed clear progression as the Games approached, and that will merit a silver medal on the event where she’s tallied three of her four World Cup victories.

 

4x6km Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Italy

Winners of seven of the last eight women’s relays, the German ladies should lock the Olympic title without too much trouble, and that will ring true even if they opt to save their trump card, Laura Dahlmeier, after the mixed relay. Surprising Champions in Sochi amidst political turmoil back home, Ukraine returns all four athletes and they’ll be in the mix again, but I just like more the blend of experience and youth on the French team. Moreover, Italy’s relay is filled with sharp-shooters and in Dorothea Wierer they have an excellent anchor, which should be enough to drive Ukraine away from the medals.

 

Mixed Biathlon Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Norway

Swapping Tora Berger and Bjorndalen for Marte Olsbu (or Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold) and Johannes Thingnes Bø shouldn’t have a major effect on the strength of Norway’s relay compared to Sochi, yet the opposition looks stronger this time and the race difficult to handicap. Provided Martin Fourcade is in the lineup, France will exhibit a formidable unit, and Germany would be a pain to deal with if Dahlmeier checks out in front.

As the reigning World Champions, I’m picking the Germans to outlast a fierce French challenge for the title, with Norway dropping to third. Nonetheless, keep an eye on Italy, a credible threat to replicate the bronze of Sochi if Lukas Hofer and Dominik Windisch manage to keep their erratic shooting in check…

 

Ice Hockey

Canada swept the titles in the two most recent Winter Olympics, but without NHL players, they’ll be in a tough spot to emerge victorious out of the deep pool of candidates on the men’s side. Meanwhile, the women’s event should feature another North American battle between the Americans and the Canadians, and history has proven anything can happen when those two meet.

Canada beat the United States in the women’s ice hockey Final in Sochi 2014. These two teams should reconvene at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Men:

Gold: Sweden

Silver: Olympic Athletes of Russia

Bronze: Canada

Youngster Rasmus Dahlin steals the show and goaltender Viktor Fasth slams the door shut on the high-powered Russians, who leave the tournament disgruntled in spite of managing their best result since 1998. The makeshift Canadian team edges the hard-working Finns in a low-scoring bronze medal game.

 

Women:

Gold: United States

Silver: Canada

Bronze: Finland

The four-time defending World Champions USA finally get the best of Canada, ending their neighbours’ run of four consecutive Olympic gold medals after yet another memorable chapter of one of world sports most underrated rivalries. Before that, Finland’s star goalkeeper Noora Räty almost steals a Final birth, but Canada eventually progresses out of the semi-final in OT, leaving the much-improved Finns to outduel Sweden for third place.

 

Ski Jumping

Kamil Stoch reigned supreme in Sochi four years ago, and the Pole’s name is again at the very top of the shortlist of favourites, but duplicating the achievement won’t be easy as his path to victory is brimming with talented Germans and Norwegians.

Kamil Sotch jumped for imortality at Sochi 2014. He’ll try to reach the same heights in South Korea (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports Eric Bolte )

Men:

Normal Hill

Gold: Kamil Stoch, Poland

Silver: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Bronze: Richard Freitag, Germany

Five weeks after an historical Four Hills Tournament sweep, Kamil Stoch defends his Normal Hill title by upstaging the dynamic German duo of Andreas Wellinger and Richard Freitag. Junshiro Kobayashi falls to fifth after posting the best mark of the first round, and he’s not the only Japanese to miss the mark since 45-year-old Noriaki Kasai also fails to follow up an excellent first attempt.

 

Large Hill

Gold: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Silver: Stefan Kraft, Austria

Bronze: Daniel-André Tande, Norway

Poland’s Kamil Stoch is pestered by difficult wind conditions on his first jump and he wastes the chance to repeat the double triumph of Sochi. The 22-year-old Andreas Wellinger flies to victory, while reigning World Cup Champion Stefan Kraft finds his stride at the right time after a difficult season start. Daniel-André Tande scores an individual medal to lead a Norwegian team that places 4 men inside the top 10.

 

Team

Gold: Norway

Silver: Germany

Bronze: Poland

The World Cup leaders from Norway extract revenge from the poor showing of Sochi by riding their balanced foursome to the Olympic title. Poland’s Kamil Stoch sets a new hill-record on his final jump to push Germany in the battle for silver, but Richard Freitag answers the call in response to limit the losses for the 2014 Champions.

 

Women:

Normal Hill

Gold: Maren Lundby, Norway

Silver: Sara Takanashi, Japan

Bronze: Katharina Althaus, Germany

Maren Lundby, the runaway World Cup leader, battles the nerves to win the second ever women’s gold medal in ski jumping. After a field-best first attempt, four-time World Cup overall winner Sara Takanashi finds redemption from the fourth-place of Sochi by securing the runner-up spot, while Katharina Althaus, second on the World Cup standings, has to settle for bronze ahead of compatriot – and defending Champion – Carina Vogt.

 

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European Tour of Sports – Albania

The Basics

Population: 2.8 M

Area: 28 748 km2

Capital: Tirana

Summer Olympic Medals: 0

Winter Olympic Medals: 0

 

Popular Sports and History

By virtue of its name, Albania registers at the top of the charts – right after Afghanistan – every time the countries of the World are listed, but as soon as sporting laurels are tallied up, this small nation verging the Adriatic and Ionian Seas immediate drops into the depths. Indeed, of the 71 Olympic committees that have participated in the Olympic Games, Albania is one of just five from Europe to never obtain a medal, sharing the distinction with minnows Andorra, Monaco and San Marino, the Mediterranean island of Malta and fellow Balkan nation Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A secluded, communist state for much of the post – WWII era, Albania’s international isolation only came to an end in 1991, when the Socialist Republic instituted by Enver Hoxha was dissolved. One year later, the country would return to the Olympic stage in Barcelona, resuming a story that knew its first and only episode two decades earlier, in Munich 1972.

A regular participant of the Games since then, including the Winter Olympics since an inaugural appearance at Torino 2006, Albania’s representations usually congregate up to a dozen of athletes, yet the country is still to unearth metal of any order in spite of a few honourable performances over the years, particularly from their weightlifters.

Alpine Skier Erjon Tola waves the Albanian flag at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics (Paul Gilham/Getty Images Europe)

The sport where Albania’s credentials at the global scale are more significant, weightlifting has made the nation proud on many occasions, with Albanian athletes racking up almost two dozens of medals between Continental and World meetings to turn into some of the most recognizable figures around. However, a veil of suspicion was thrown over the country’s success for occasion of the 2014 World Championships held in Astana (Kazakhstan), when stars Daniel Godelli and Romela Begaj, who had just become the first Albanian athletes to win World Championship gold in sports on the Olympic program, as well as teammate Hysen Pulaku, failed doping tests by accusing the presence of Stanozonol, a substance that is used to increase muscle mass in animals and humans.

Naturally, the competition’s results were erased and the athletes suspended, which hindered the strength of the Albanian team at the 2016 Rio Olympics and curbed the expectations as the group headed to Brazil featured just a pair of weightlifters alongside two swimmers and track and field participants. This was a major let-down for the country but, at least, the Albanian people could find some solace on another high point of the nation’s sports history, the qualification to the 2016 UEFA European Championships.

A football-mad country like many other continental counterparts, Albania had never reached a major men’s football tournament and their trip to France was further sweetened by their first victory, a 1-0 triumph over Romania in the final group stage match that eclipsed the previous standard set by a quarter-final appearance at the 1984 UEFA European Under-21 Championship. A nation with a large diaspora, reflected also on the number of talents of Albanian-heritage competing for other countries – Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka being prime examples – the Albanian national team has in Lorik Cana its most distinct football representative, as the former PSG, Lazio and Olympique Marseille midfielder amassed a record 93 international caps between 2003 and 2016.

Albania’s participation in the UEFA Euro 2016 was one of the greatest moments in the country’s sports history (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, domestically, the all-time dominant clubs are all from the capital city, with KF Tirana, 24-times National Champions, Dinamo Tirana (18) and Partizani (15) leading in number of trophies, but being supplanted in recent times by other organizations, including Skënderbeu Korçë, who won five consecutive titles between 2010 and 2015, and reigning Champions FK Kukësi.

Beyond football, the most popular team sports in Albania are basketball and volleyball, even if the country is far removed from the continental elite. The men’s national basketball team was invited to early editions of the EuroBasket, but couldn’t do better than last place in 1947 and 1957, while the women can boast a Mediterranean Games gold medal in 1987. At the club level, BC Partizani Tirana, 33-times Champions, hold the record of men’s national honours, while KB Tirana, the basketball branch of KF Tirana, is historically dominant on the women’s side (40 national titles).

In respect to volleyball, Albania’s peak dates back to the Communist period, especially the 70’s and 80’s, when Dinamo Tirana’s women’s team reached the Final Four of the Women’s CEV Champions Cup in two instances (1979/1980 and 1989/1990). On the men’s side, Dinamo was equally dominant until 1996, conquering 25 titles, before ceding the stage to KS Studenti, the team representing the University of Tirana who has collected 14 of the last 18 editions of the national league.

The Albanian women’s volleyball team during a match against Finland in Tirana (cev.lu)

Moreover, in international competitions from sports such as athletics, swimming, wrestling and shooting, Albanian athletes have also enjoyed some degree of success, especially in secondary events like the Mediterranean Games, whereas in snow and ice disciplines Albania’s tradition is virtually non-existent outside of the odd representation sent to the Winter Olympics, where alpine skiers Erjon Tola and Suela Mëhilli have worn the red and black of the Albanian flag.

Star Athletes

Luiza Gega (Athletics)

The Albanian flag bearer at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Luiza Gega is the best middle-distance runner in the country’s history, holding the national records in four separate distances (800m, 1500m, 3000m, 3000m steeplechase).

A medal winner in several international meetings, including the 2013 Summer Universiade (bronze), the 2013 Mediterranean Games (silver) – both in the 1500m – and the 2015 European Games (gold in the 1500m, silver in the 800m), the 29-year-old’s most important result is, however, the silver medal in the 3000m steeplechase of the 2016 European Championships, where she only trailed 2015 World Championships bronze medallist Gesa Felicitas Krause of Germany.

Luiza Gega in action at the 2016 Athletics World Championships (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Europe)

Elseid Hysaj (Football)

Before developing into the standout right back of Italian powerhouse SSC Napoli, Elseid Hysaj was a shy, 15-year-old boy crossing the Adriatic Sea to join his father, an emigrant in Tuscany, and pursue the dream of a professional footballing career. Accepted at Empoli’s academy, the youngster rose through the ranks and amassed over 100 appearances for the first team until 2015, when he caught the eye of Napoli, moving south alongside coach Maurizio Sarri to assume a key role for the Serie A runner-up in 2015-16.

Also a bulwark for the national team, which he represented at the historical Euro 2016 campaign, Hysaj is, at age 23, one of the most sought-after full backs in the game, and he is destined to take over every Albanian record currently held by the retired Lorik Cana.

Evagjelia Veli (Weightlifting)

One of the few top-level Albanian weightlifters that has not run into trouble with the anti-doping authorities, Evagjelia Veli parlayed her breakthrough 5th position in the 2016 European Championships into a finalist place at the Rio Olympics, coming out eight in the Women’s 53 Kg, one of the best Albanian results ever at that level of competition.

Albanian Weightlifter Evagjelia Veli prepares to lift at an international competition

The 26-year-old then confirmed her status as one of the best in the world the following season, placing 4th at the continental event and 8th at the World Championships in a heavier category (58 kg), and a final step into medal territory is expected by the local fans of this battered sport.

Other Athletes: Izmir Smajlaj (Athletics), Sidni Hoxha (Swimming), Etrit Berisha (Football), Eugert Zhupa (Cycling), Briken Calja (Weightlifting)

Venues

In just a few months (June 2018), Albania will open the new pearl of their sporting infrastructure, the Arena Kombëtare. Being erected on the same site of the former national stadium, the Qemal Stafa, the new, fully covered facility with capacity for 22,500 spectators will receive the Albanian Cup Final, house the national football team, and be the main getaway for concerts. Unfortunately, contrary to its predecessor, which stood for seven decades, the arena won’t possess an athletics track, which means any track and field meetings from now on must be hosted at the Elbasan Arena.

This is what Albania’s new national stadium, the Arena Kombëtare, will look like when it opens in a few months (FOTO: Anadolija)

The home ground of KF Elbasan, this venue reconstructed in 2014 hosted the national football team over the last few years, and the 12,800 fervent fans in attendance were always a menace for opposing teams, yet, even with construction going in Tirana, the biggest stadium in the country is not the Elbasan Arena, but Shkodër’s Loro Boriçi Stadium, which has accommodated up to 16,000 KF Vllaznia fans since 1980 and was used by the Kosovo National football team during the 2018 World Cup qualifying. Furthermore, another important venue, the Selman Stërmasi Stadium, has capacity for 9,500 spectators and regularly welcomes the games of the capital’s most important club, KF Tirana.

An Albanian national basketball team match at the Asllan Rusi Sports Palace (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KB_Tirana)

In terms of indoor venues, Albania’s main facility is still the old Asllan Rusi Sports Palace, a 3,000-seats building named after a former volleyball player. Opened in the 1950’s, this place hosted the 2013 Weightlifting European Championships, one of the most important events ever organized in Albania, and it houses the basketball sections of Partizani and Dinamo Tirana.

As for SK Tirana’s basketball and volleyball teams, they play at the Farie Hoti Sports Palace, whereas the Albanian national basketball and volleyball teams are in the process of moving from the Asllan Rusi to the new Tirana Olympic Park, a recently-inaugurated, multi-purpose infrastructure that congregates all of Albania’s sports federations around several training facilities and a 1200-seats sports hall.

Yearly Events

So, we’ve already established that Albania isn’t exactly a hotbed for international sporting competitions or great sports spectacles, however, if you happen to be in town and are craving some entertainment, attending an Albanian Superliga match can make for some heated, colourful antics, particularly if teams from Tirana, Shkodër (KF Vllaznia), Elbasan or Korçë (Skënderbeu) are in action. The football league runs from August to May, and since that might prove insufficient, I also gathered a few more events that may be of interest for sports fans:

Rally Albania, Rally Racing  

Tirana, June

Tirana Half Marathon, Athletics

Tirana, October

The Notebook: 2018 Australian Open

Every Grand Slam forges its own history. Its unique heroes and villains, those who capture the imagination of fans or revolt against the audience, players who relish the spotlight or shrink under it, figures who find redemption and break longstanding ducks and those who leave before we even notice they were there. In the early weeks of every new tennis season and frequently under the brutal heat and humidity of the Aussie summer, tribulations are magnified, storylines get blown of proportion and many take the final outcomes as if it sets up what’s to come on the ensuing 10 months of action.

The most recent fortnight of the Australian Open was no exception to this, although its distinctive feel is expressed on its two singles’ Champions: tasting the same sweet flavour of victory, exuding a similar range of emotions yet incarnating two contrasting outlines: the puerile joy of the first time and the touching breakdown of someone who keeps redefining personal success. Nonetheless, while the emotional portraits of Caroline Wozniacki and Roger Federer will forever depict the 2018 edition, there were secondary characters aplenty in this sporting tale which engendered something we wish to carry forward. And since those memories eventually evaporate, nothing better than transposing them to words so that we can preserve what they elicit against the backdrop of the unceasing passage of time and whatever the future reserves.

Consequently, about those tribulations, narratives and, above all, the characters, here is the 2018 Australian Open notebook.

 

1 – America (not) First. All in all, despite Serena Williams’ lengthy absence, 2017 was a surprisingly excellent year for American tennis. A Fed Cup title, female representatives in every Major final, the rebirth of Venus, stepping-stone seasons for CoCo Vandeweghe and Sloane Stephens, a strong run for Madison Keys at the US Open and a resurgence in the men’s side, with Jack Sock shining at the Paris’ Masters and Sam Querrey’s semi-final at Wimbledon. Impressive diversity in scope and scale, felicitations all around, and then… the 2018 Australian Open happened, particularly that abhorrent day one which exposed the vulnerabilities of America’s preeminent players.

A sick CoCo Vandeweghe was one of the early casualties in Melbourne (Andy Brownbill)

Mired in a head-scratching, eight-game losing-streak post-US Open, Sloane Stephens can’t seem to figure out how to handle the expectations of being a Grand Slam Champion and the hyper-motivated opposition that follows. The 2017 AO finalist, Venus Williams, always takes time to shake off the rust of the holidays and primed for an early upset, the cocktail of a streaking Belinda Bencic and suffocating heat proved too much. Corroborating her hit-or-miss nature at the Slams (three first round exits in her last six majors), a flu-affected CoCo Vandeweghe lost her marbles against Timea Babos and was dumped out unceremoniously. Lifeless after a short offseason, Jack Sock completed a disastrous Australian swing by bowing out after one match in his first Major appearance as a top-ten player. Nestled inside the top-20 but getting up there in age, John Isner (World No. 16) and Sam Querrey (No 13) were also directed to the exits quite early. That left Madison Keys and that Tennys-Sandbag-that-shall-not-be-mentioned to save the honour and, for different reasons, they didn’t exactly ace the task.

 

2 – In an era of tennis history where teenage phenomenons are increasingly rare since players take more time to reach the physical and mental standards required to compete at the very top levels of the tour, the sight of a 15-year-old in the third round provoked an adrenaline rush. An already precocious Australian Junior Champion in 2017, Marta Kostyuk got an invitation for the woman’s qualifying in 2018 and she crushed forehands over players more than a decade older for six matches until her run in Melbourne Park was finally halted by compatriot Elina Svitolina.

The youngest player since Martina Hingis in 1996 to reach the third round of the Australian Open or qualify to the main draw of any major since 2005, the Ukrainian charmed with cheeky remarks, fascinated for the crisp ball striking abilities and “easy power” generated by her developing body, and impressed for the way she handled the occasion and the big stage. Tutored by Roger Federer’s coach, Ivan Ljubicic, and blessed with equal doses of ambition and thirst for self-improvement, Kostyuk looks ready to trail the long road to the top, ditching the junior tournaments to waddle in the lower ranks until free access to WTA Tour events is possible, which won’t happen until she turns 18. That’s obviously a long time from now, but over the next twelve months we should get a better idea of the answer to the question on everyone’s mind. Was this the start of something really, really special?

Marta Kostuyk, a 15-year-old from Ukraine, was the sensation of the first week (Getty Images)

3 – The recently announced return to the 16-seed format at the majors in 2019 promises to be a hot topic of discussion throughout the season, however the first signs at the Australian Open favoured the side campaigning against the idea. Even if everyone knows that, in the men’s tour in particular, the first week of the Slams tend to be rather predictable, It’s still difficult to champion the need for more randomness and upsets when almost half of the 64 protected names in the single’s draws fell within the first two rounds, and 10 of the top 16 ranked ladies headed home before the arrival of the middle weekend. More importantly, though, compelling matches were the norm, not the exception, with the searing heat adding just another layer of uncertainty to intriguing clashes such as Kvitova – Petkovic, Tsonga – Shapovalov or Del Potro – Kachanov, who seeped drama for hours.

 

4 – Garbiñe Muguruza is turning into a mystifying player, equally capable of waltzing through the field or pack her things and leave big tournaments hastily if something doesn’t go according to plan. After retiring in Brisbane (tight injury), the Spaniard was nowhere near her best, nonetheless we’ve seen time and time again that Champions build their form during the fortnight, and the Spaniard simply ought to overcome an unconventional, yet clearly overmatched opponent like World No. 88 Su-Wei Hsieh, a player whose singular brand of tennis had delivered exactly one top-20 victory in a decade and a half.

Possessing the explosive strokes to dictate points from the get-go and chase her second round opponent out of the court, Muguruza was incapable of using them to her advantage and wilted in the heat to depart meekly after two sets, wasting a great opportunity to reclaim the World No.1 she surrendered last fall.

 

5 – Watching Denis Shapovalov is a rollercoaster. It’s both fun and disheartening, it’s exciting and hectic most of the time, sluggish when he simply can’t help himself. It’s always entertaining though, as the kid oozes energy, both good and bad, boasts the swagger of the predestined and the swashbuckling shot making of supreme talents. With his patented backward cap, cartoonish backhand, high-octane tennis and outsized personality, El Shapo is impossible to miss or ignore. You can either love or hate him, but if you like tennis, you’ll be glued to the television and this bustling teenager, waiting for the next highlight-reel shot or dreadful mistake born out of impatience.

Canadian Denis Shapovalov hits the ball during his second round encounter (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Up 5-2 in the fifth set against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Canadian teen didn’t choke as much as he lost his cool, judgement and vigour when his legs faltered. No matter how gifted, any 18-year-old is prone to bouts of inconsistency and sudden energy draining, yet the young Canadian will learn from this disappointment against the same man he defeated for his first Major breakthrough (US Open 2017) and who has seen too much to fall for the same mistakes twice. By the way, remember that unfortunate incident with an umpire in Davis Cup competition a mere twelve months ago. It feels ages in the past, doesn’t it?

 

6 – It must have felt like a dream for Jana Fett, the materialization of her childhood visions of grandiosity. She was finally competing in her maiden Grand Slam draw, playing in a major stadium and against a decorated opponent, the World No.2. And then the image got brighter and more vivid. With nothing to lose, she relishes the opportunity and aims for the lines. The ball kisses the white paint, the off-balance shots clip the net and skip past the opponent. She steers bold returns past her rival. Fett gets into a groove and good things continue to happen: there’s a set for you and then one for her. It’s going the distance. Look, a break. And another. You see her racket flying, smashed in frustration. And OMG, you’re serving for the match at 5-1 and you can almost taste the biggest win of your career. And then you battle the nerves to get to the cusp. One…no, TWO Match Points. Go for the killer ace…almost, just wide. Put the ball back in play and, oh no, your opponent survives. Once, twice…after all, they say she has multiple lives.

The murmurs in the crowd augment. You retreat, the tension finally engulfing your body and you hope, no, pray, actually, beg her to finish it for you. No chance, she clearly knows better than that. But it’s still 5-2. You sit down and dwell on what happened. And then it stops clicking. You spray ball after ball. 5-3. Wake up! Keep it in play, Jana! 5-4. Why doesn’t she miss a shot? 5-5. Blink. 5-7. Game. Set. Match. Fett. Wozniacki. Did that really happen?

 

7 – 4-6, 6-4… 15-13! Multiple sets jammed into a gripping decider that showcased the guts and tenacity of the World No.1, but also casted the floodgates on her undersized opponent, an unheralded American that packs way more punch than her figure lets on. Unfortunate that the feet failed her just as the finish line emerged on the horizon, the fast-moving Lauren Davis was still a revelation, a masterful example that a strong lower-body and beefy legs, not unlike catapult-like arms, can assist in generating tremendous power and winners galore.

American Lauren Davis falls during her epic third round match against Simona Halep (Paul Crock / Getty Images)

Matching Simona Halep roar by roar, sprint by sprint and groundstroke by groundstroke – particularly backhands – for almost 4 hours, one of the smallest players in the WTA Tour capitulated by her serve, but stockpiled confidence for the future, where the second week of a Grand Slam is an inevitability.

 

8 – Many believed Maria Sharapova would soar up the WTA ladder as soon as she got the green light to return from her suspension, but six months of ups and downs in 2017 proved the game as evolved and it would take the Russian some time to get back into a groove.

That being said, it’s a bit troubling that she’s still looking rusty and out of it on so many instances, unable to string victories, losing to players she shouldn’t, concocting dominant sets that are immediately followed up with error-filled sequences, and failing to assert her mental strength in prominent matchups. Such as the blockbuster third rounder against Angelique Kerber, the type of match Sharapova used to elevate for. Conversely, in Melbourne, she barely bothered the German and left through the back door. Maybe, it’s time to realize that a return to the top ten in the near future is unlikely.

 

9 – It’s always embarrassing when the fourth seed has a meltdown and gets baggeled with the game on the line, but the real problem for Alex Zverev is that this was not a solitary instance. His startling lack of responses, physically, mentally and tactically, to the challenges posed by long marathons are well documented – he’s yet to win a best-of-five match against a top-50 player on his career – and without breaking that ordeal, there’s no way he’s going to get where he wants and where he should be, the latter stages of the Grand Slams.

The racket paid for the struggles of Alex Zverev in Melbourne (AAP: Julian Smith)

At age 20, time is obviously on the younger Zverev’s side, but he’s got to keep filling his body and find a way to strengthen his splintering legs, so that no one walks over him like Hyeong Chung did in Melbourne.

 

10 – Ashleigh Barty, Australia’s leading female player, lasted just three rounds in Melbourne but the way she managed to rally back from a set down and harness the firepower of Aryna Sabalenka and Camila Giorgi was eye-popping. Blessed with nifty hands, the 21-year-old is able to redirect pace with the best, craft angles, chose the best option at most times and play a combination of spins and slices that bodes well for her chances at future editions of her home Slam.

Eventually outlasted by a better-rounded powerhouse in the form of Japanese youngster Naomi Osaka, the newly-minted top-twenty player is one to keep a really close eye in 2018 since her fast rise up the rankings in the last twelve months may not be completed just yet.

 

11 – There are lingering reservations about Nick Kyrgios’ dedication to the craft and his mental fortitude under pressure, but if Melbourne wasn’t the place for his second career Grand Slam quarter-final, this time it wasn’t due to self-sabotage or energy channelled the wrong way. Fresh of a title in Brisbane, Kyrgios was unusually chilled through 4 matches at the Australian Open, composed in a whole lot of occasions, and brilliant when his unassailable serve and thunderous forehand were firing on all cylinders.

Nick Kyrgios serves during his first round match at the 2018 Australian Open (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Ultimately, this mix would resulted in a statement win over Tsonga in a round three showpiece at Rod Laver Arena, and contribute decisively to one of the matches of the tournament on the men’s side: his adieu after four comprehensive sets against World No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov where Kyrgios gave it all but couldn’t overcome three tiebreaks that went the other way. Gracious in defeat as much as in victory, this tournament was a major step forward for the outrageously talented Aussie, destined for greatness shall he desire such thing.

 

12 – With six WTA titles amassed since the beginning of 2017, Elina Svitolina has been the most consistent tour player in Serena’s absence, however the World No. 4, the betting favourite ahead of the Open, took off from Melbourne still searching for a maiden semi-final at one of the tent pole events of the game.

A solid all-around player, the Ukrainian won four matches for a career-best run at the tournament, yet three of them came against qualifiers, and she failed to impress or look comfortable on court before disintegrating against Elise Mertens. Overwhelmed by the speed of the Belgian’s strokes on the fast court of the Rod Laver Arena, Svitolina’s movement flagged and her belief sunk as the games piled up on the other side of the net and the sun rose in the sky. In the end, she mustered just three total games in two sets against an unseeded rival, and displayed a disconcerting inertia on court reminiscent of the quarter-final’s third set at Roland Garros last May. Precocious as it may sound, these might be the initial stages of some light Grand Slam dread.

 

13 – Unveiling an abbreviated service motion after his six-month lay-off, Novak Djokovic was supposedly close to healthy entering the tournament, but game action would betray that notion. The shoulder-to-wrist sleeve on his right arm was a feature throughout, and despite hitting high-levels of performance at times, the Serb never looked loose on his new skin, the groundstrokes lacking punch, the first delivery faltering recurrently and his trademark stamina and agility a work in progress.

Easing past Donald Young, a weakened Gael Monfils, and Spaniard Albert Ramos-Viñolas, Djokovic encountered a mirror image of his younger self in the fourth round, the elastic Hyeon Chung, and couldn’t find the solution to a riddle the six-time Australian Open Champion posed so many times to his rivals. Yielding after just three sets, he will now re-evaluate the state of his elbow and if surgery is the only option, another long leave may be in the cards for a man who is quietly closing on two years without a Grand Slam title.

Novak Djokovic (R) congratulates Hyeon Chung (L) on his fourth round victory (Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images)

14 – Seemingly as quirky inside as off the court, everything in Su-Wei Hsieh’s game is unorthodox: her fragile physique, the way she moves around, how she, more than hit, sometimes batts the ball over the net like she was “swatting away a fly”. Plus the absurd placements she can explore from any position, the angles she finds, the unpredictability and ability to disguise what’s coming next – which completely fritted away Garbiñe Muguruza’s resolve – the variety of spins, amorties and slices that make up for a confounding match if you’re not ready to run around and, more importantly, to dictate from the onset.

Reaching her second AO fourth round at age 32 after tricking the Wimbledon Champion and out-smarting another pace-averse maven, Agnieszka Radwanska, the Taiwanese veteran came pretty close from derailing the Angie Kerber-hype train until her own wheels fell off in the last moments of the second set. Soon after, her surprising run was over, but the name left engraved on the minds of those who had just made contact with the throw-back style of this doubles specialist.

 

15 – Looking like an irrepressible force through four matches, including a 6-3, 6-2 dismantling of eight-seed Caroline Garcia, Madison Keys’ damning no-show in her quarter-final versus Angelique Kerber made for one of the major let-downs of the fortnight. A terrific server with a massive forehand to boot, the American had already compiled just three games in a disastrous first Grand Slam Final at the US Open, and duplicated the lacklustre performance in Melbourne when things started to get out of hand.

Obliged to force the note in order to penetrate Kerber’s exceptional defence, Keys quickly plunged into a tailspin, collecting only 4 of 23 first set points and accumulating unforced errors (25 in 15 games) as her opponent eased to a 51-minute drubbing no one expected. Especially not the flabbergasted Keys, who’s still to fully unlock her ominous ceiling.

 

16 – By stringing a 14-match winning streak to kick off the new season, Angelique Kerber put to bed a puzzling 2017 and resurged in Australia, perhaps, as an even better version of her multi Grand Slam, career-defining form of 2016. At least, that’s what her consummate tear down of Maria Sharapova and Madison Keys resembled, with the German surrendering a total of 7 matches in what were supposed to be two big tests to her revival.

Angelique Kerber serves in the shadows of the Rod Laver Arena (Michael Dodge/Getty Images AsiaPac)

With her head cleared after a coaching change and regained trust on the serve, Kerber relied more than ever on the fundamentals of her previous success: the ability to block one more ball than the opposition and the willingness to run for hours, a gutsy approach to pressure situations, and that patented down-the-line forehand that can be devastating when she takes time away by connecting on the rising ball. Against Simona Halep in a nail-biting semi-final, all the best features of her counterpunching style were clicking and that’s why she came within one point of winning an outstanding battle of wills, eventually succumbing 9-7 in the third set. Kerber picked the wrong side of the coin on that occasion, but that won’t happen a lot if she sustains this form through 2018. Welcome back, Angie.

 

17 – When Andy Murray announced his decision to skip the Australian Open, no one predicted a British gentlemen would reach the latter stages, but it only took a couple of surprises to dig a massive hole in the draw a dark horse could sneak through. The 22-year-old Kyle Edmund helped his cause by upsetting US Open finalist Kevin Anderson (11th seed) in a five-set thriller in round one, others took care of susceptible seeds like Jack Sock (8) and Lucas Pouille (18), and the soft-spoken 23-year-old trudged ahead, beating three players ranked outside the top-60 to set up a clash with Grigor Dimitrov (3) in his maiden quarter-final.

Kyle Edmund drills a backhand during his semi-final match in Melbourne (Getty Images)

At that stage, merely good was not good enough, but the familiarity between the two competitors indicated this might be a winnable match for Edmund if he just managed to summon his A-Game, and he sure did. The much-improved serve responded in critical situations, his booming forehand hit the marks for most of the match, and Edmund secured a famous victory against the ATP Finals winner. Unfortunately for him, Marin Cilic conquered a forehand battle two days later to dispatch the young Brit home, but few think that’s the last we’ve heard of him.

 

18 – Ranked No. 127 in January 2017, Elise Mertens didn’t participate in the Australian Open last year since she missed the qualifying to attend (and win) Hobart yet, if you were paying any attention to the 2017 WTA season, you noticed her meteoric rise and the rave reviews to her burgeoning attacking game. Equally adept at ripping from the baseline or further up the court, the Belgian who describes her game as a mixture of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters negotiated some difficult early encounters in Melbourne, and stole the spotlight in the quarter-finals, demolishing fourth seed Elina Svitolina to become the unseeded intruder in the final four.

Against Wozniacki, some rookie nerves early on, and the inability to keep her offensive instincts in check and wait for the right opportunities to lace a winner conspired for her demise; although not before she came back from a break down to force the second set tiebreak and give just another display of the arsenal that may guide her to the top ten before long.

Belgian Elise Mertens went further at the Australian Open than ever before (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

19 – A shy, bespectacled Korean ranked No. 58 in the World isn’t anyone’s image of a giant-killer, but Hyeon Chung, the reigning Next Gen Finals Champion, was on a lot of radars well before his sensational back-to-back victories over Alex Zverev and Novak Djokovic. Fast and athletic, the 21-year-old boasts the type of wiping-shield defence that vaulted the career of his Serbian idol, and as you watch him do splits on the baseline, extend his arms to crucially keep the ball in play, and complete passing shots from compromising positions, you can’t help to marvel at the glaring similarities.

That uncanny ability to flip from defence to offense in a hurry is a feature of today’s tennis stars (think Novak, Rafa and Andy) and therefore the Korean looks poise to continue his upward mobility on the rankings, but let’s not anoint him as a future Grand Slam winner just yet. Fellow youngsters like Zverev and Kyrgios bear more options to get there, and while no contemporary beat Chung to a first semi-final appearance, he was still blistered by Roger Federer on the spot.

 

20 – For the second time in eight months, Simona Halep lost a Grand Slam Final against a lower-ranked opponent; however you would be hard pressed to find a World No. 1 that concluded a tournament without the trophy on her hands yet so much to appreciate from the two weeks of action. For instance, for the Romanian, this event was perhaps the last obstacle she had to transverse before completely embracing her status as a dominant figure in the WTA Tour and a player ready to withstand and thrive in every circumstance. At least, that what we hope she is taking from the experience, from all those hours fighting with a sprained ankle, a sore right foot, headaches, cramps and the like, with her body stretched to the limit but buoyed by inspiring bravery and self-belief.

Simona Halep fires a forehand during the women’s singles Australian Open Final (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The common thread between the three best matches of the entire fortnight (the historical 3rd round vs Lauren Davis, SF and Final), Halep saved five match points between the first two encounters at moments when her mind and legs clamoured for rest, and she managed it by stepping inside the court, shorting the points and displaying an aggression, especially on her forehand, unlike anything we’ve seen from her before. Amassing 90 total winners against Angie Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki is something akin to Jelena Ostapenko or Madison Keys, and a true game-changer for the Romanian, representing the roadmap to become a favourite in every major even when the likes of Serena, Vika Azarenka and Maria Sharapova fully resettle.

One of the best athletes around, Halep sadly capitulated for a third consecutive Grand Slam Final in the last couple of games of the deciding set, her demise accelerated by a second serve that ceased to exist when her batteries finally ran dry after more than 14 hours of competitive tennis. Even if she deserved something other than the runner-up silver plate for her herculean effort, this was an epic performance through and through.

 

21 – With four of the Big five of men’s tennis impaired, it’s just natural that whoever manages to reach a Grand Slam Final is slightly overlooked, yet Marin Cilic, a Grand Slam Champion in his own right, deserves all the respect in the world, not just for his campaign in Melbourne but for a career that is still in the upswing as he nears the thirties. Once merely renowned for his massive serve and the free points he got from it, Cilic evolved into an all-around threat when he started to jump behind the delivery, his heavy groundstrokes a distress to any opponent and his deft touch at the net a nice complement. Moreover, the 29-year-old wouldn’t be able to trade blows with Rafa Nadal for five sets if he couldn’t move surprisingly well for a towering man.

Marin Cilic stretches to return a ball during his semi-final match (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Cruising through the first week, the Cilic we saw in Australia wasn’t the in-the-zone version that romped to the US Open title in 2014, but it was enough to outlast Nadal in the QF when everyone counted on the contrary, and to push Roger Federer the distance in the Final. Ultimately, his chances rested in all those break opportunities in the beginning of the fifth set that the Swiss managed to fend off before kicking into overdrive, still Cilic will get some consolation from his new career-high mark of World No.3, and the bolstered notion that only Roger, Rafa, Novak, Andy and Stan can boast better resumes in this golden era of tennis than Marin, the gentle giant of Medjugorje.

 

22 – 811 WTA matches, 12.5 years, 43 Grand Slam appearances, 27 WTA titles, 67 weeks as World No.1, countless questions about a distinguished, yet “slamless” career, so much blood, sweat and tears until that magical moment when Caroline Wozniacki could caress her Daphne. As in the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, the Australian Open woman’s single’s trophy, the prize the many millions she has accumulated wouldn’t buy, and the corollary of the Dane’s career.

Jubilation for Caroline Wozniacki at the end of her third career Grand Slam Final (Andy Brownbill/The Associated Press)

Appointed as one of the favourites following her WTA Finals victory at the end of 2017, Wozniacki’s campaign was close, so so close from ending in its infancy, but a mix of poise, experience and luck got her over the hump in round two, and she proceeded to make the best of her time playing with “house money”, breezing to the Final with reckless abandon, new-found aggressiveness and that steely determination of someone who feels her time was arriving less than 18 months since the day she found her name lost on the depths of the Top 100. And she was right about it, because this was the best Caroline we’ve ever seen, the Caroline who can claim cheap points with her serve, who’s not afraid to let it rip looking for winners, who dictates points while still being able to retrieve every ball, play wondrous defence and limit her unforced errors under heavy pressure, especially on the backhand (6 in the final, only 40 from over 1000 points contested through the tournament).

In the Final, after almost three hours of awe-inspiring tennis, the arm-wrestle concluded with a netted backhand off Simona Halep’s racket, and Wozniacki was free to let the emotions flow, let go off all the frustrations, call herself a Grand Slam Champion – the first hailing from the Kingdom of Denmark -, the World No.1, a record six years after she last relinquished the post, and a great of tennis history. Even if, at the time, she could barely think of anythink but Daphne.

 

23 – On the 50th anniversary of the Open Era, men’s tennis got to meet its first 20-times Grand Slam Champion. That’s 10% of the sport’s biggest tournaments claimed by the same individual, the incomparable Roger Federer, the only man who could string sequences of seven best-of-five victories at age 36 like it’s a walk in the park. It very much isn’t, as the tears rolling down his eyes testify, but, regardless of the fact that every other contender in the field surrendered to an upset or injury, the achievement is, most definitely, a testament to Federer’s staying power, his unfettered dedication to the game and a superior intellect, which detected where his weak spots lied during some lean years and adapted, tweaked, improved until he could add glorious new chapters to the “fairytale”.

Roger Federer kisses his sixth Australian Open trophy (Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images)

Unencumbered for six rounds, Roger Federer suffered with Cilic’s ball weight during the Final, especially when the point lengthened, but his refined offensive game and ever-gracious movement prevailed in the vast majority of the points played: short (76% were concluded after 4 shots or less) and usually dictated by Federer’s serve (24-16 in aces) or quick, offensive bursts following the Croat’s second delivery. In short, another example of the blueprint behind Federer’s resurgence, which has earned the Swiss three of the last five majors and now a record-equalling sixth Australian Open. Simply magnificient.

Uncovering trends at the Laureus World Sport Awards

Established in 1999 by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, an organization that aims to use “the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage, and prove that sport has the power to change the world”, the Laureus World Sport Awards are the most renowned annual global recognition of the work of people and teams competing in the multitude of existing sporting disciplines.

Tackling on an undertaking that is both tricky and subjective, as comparing efforts and achievements between athletes that perform such different activities is bound to be, these awards are, nonetheless, an interesting proposition whose function has been successively dwarfed by fundamental biases and incongruences. And since I take this way too seriously, I sought to identify and analyse these tendencies after perusing through the bewildering lineup of contenders for the 2018 awards.

To carry this out, though, we first need to get to know the Laureus’ selection process, which in short, goes like this: first a Nomination Panel “consisting of leading sportswriters, editors and broadcasters from more than 100 countries” is polled, resulting in the group of six nominees in a variety of categories, and then another group of “experts”, the Laureus World Sports Academy, an association of 60+ retired sportspeople who volunteer their time to support the work of the Laureus Foundation, votes to decide the winners who are announced in a glitzy ceremony every February.

The Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony is always held in glamorous settings

This year’s show is scheduled for the 27th of February at the Sporting Club Monte Carlo (Monaco), but the main point to take away is that a lot of important questions about the voting process are left unanswered. For instance, who are, from where and which sports cover the members of the nomination panel? Are votes tallied one per head or do they rank athletes to allocate points and, if yes, how many? Are they allowed to select countryman/woman? Answers to these questions would provide clarity to many of the puzzling nominations and victories we’ve seen over the years, and while we do know the identity of the Academy’s membership, the voting process is similarly unknown and the results kept under wraps.

It’s quite obvious that in any award granted as a result of the opinion of a few dozens of experts, inherent preferences are accentuated by anonymity, and thus we’re left to speculate based on the information available. In this case, that would be a breakdown of the Laureus Academy current membership (list here), a decent jumping off point to shed light on the clear patterns emerging year after year.

While acknowledging that expecting a perfectly balanced group that respects the wide spectrum of sports disciplines contested around the world would be absurd, we can’t help to notice that the Laureus Foundation would be foolish to forecast some semblance of representability, diversity and, above all, sense of appreciation for the achievements in less acclaimed (pretty different from less competitive) sports when 19 of the 64 distinguished constituents are either former track and field athletes (10) or football players (9), almost 10% (6) played a “niche sport” such as cricket (!!), only 5 contended in Winter disciplines (3 in alpine skiiing), more than half (34) were born in Europe and just 14 are women.

Retired cyclists Chris Hoy and Fabian Cancellara as well as former footballer Ruud Gullit were inducted into the Laureus World Sports Academy last year [Photo/VCG]

Consequently, the history of the Laureus Sports Awards is permeated with odd selections and small idiosyncrasies, which I’ll try to underline as we preview the ceremony to come and look into the 2018 nominees in five preeminent categories: Sportsman, Sportswoman, Team, Breakthrough and Comeback of the Year.

Herewith, let’s explore the history of each award, get to know the nominees, identify relevant snubs and anticipate the winners based on past experience.

 

World Sportsman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances”

History

In the 18 previous editions, a total of 13 sports have found their way into the nominations but only 7 different men from 4 sports (tennis, golf, formula one and athletics) have hosted the trophy.

Since 2004, being the ATP World No.1 has merited an automatic spot –  the exception is 2012/13 – and between Roger Federer, who shares the record for most statuettes (4) with Usain Bolt,  Rafael Nadal (1) and Novak Djokovic (3), tennis players have won 8 of last 13 years, with the Jamaican sprinter and German driver Sebastian Vettel (2014) squeezed in between. Unsurprisingly, one track and field star is usually on the ballot (every edition but 2007) and the Formula One Champion is also a fixture (12 of the last 16 years), with the same destiny reserved to football’s FIFA World Player of the Year/Ballon D’Or Winner in every instance since Ronaldinho cracked the field in 2006.

Roger Federer and Usain Bolt (pictured) share the record for most Sportsman of the year awards with 4.

Furthermore, if you’re an NBA Champion (contenders in five of the last seven years) or Major Championship-winning golfer (Tiger Woods lifted the trophy in 2000 and 2001), you have a great chance of standing out from the pack and barge into the limelight, which, in turn, allows limited space for turnover on the six-man unit.

The 2018 nominees:

Mo Farah (United Kingdom, Athletics)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Chris Froome (United Kingdom, Cycling)
Lewis Hamilton (United Kingdom, Motor Racing)
Rafael Nadal (Spain, Tennis)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Football)

Track and Field Star? Check. Ballon D’Or Winner? Check. Formula One Champion? Check. The two men who split the major tennis competitions in 2017? Check and check. Mo Farah, Rafael Nadal and Lewis Hamilton got summoned to attend the ceremony for a fourth time, Ronaldo for a fifth and Roger Federer for a record-tying seventh, joining Usain Bolt and Tiger Woods. It’s almost like this category is an exclusive country club that decides to admit a new member here and there. In 2018, the honour fell on Chris Froome and the four-time Tour de France winner had to pick up a second Grand Tour (Vuelta a España) on the season just to merit consideration for the first time.

Snubs:

Do the Laureus decision makers care about any team sport other than football and basketball?

If they’re giving away career shoot outs to the likes of Mo Farah, can someone introduce them to three-time World Handball Player of the Year Nikola Karabatić? The man’s incredible résumé includes, among many others, 9 major titles and 13 international medals as a leading man for the French National Team and, at age 33, he carried them to another World title in 2017 on the back of an MVP-worthy performance. Not too shabby, right?

Voted in three occasions as the best handball player in the World, France’s Nikola Karabatić has never been nominated for a Laureus award (Alex Grimm/Bongarts)

Moreover, are Formula One cars so incredibly difficult to drive that pilots from other disciplines, for instance the World Rally Championships, deserve no respect whatsoever? Sébastien Loeb, the nine-time WRC World Champion, was never elected to the Laureus and his heir, Sébastien Ogier, counting five titles already, suffers from the same stigma. In two wheels, Valentino Rossi got the call after his last five Moto GP titles (coinciding with the field’s expansion from five to six slots) but Marc Márquez can’t even secure a second after four Championships?

Alpine Skier Marcel Hirscher racked up his unprecedented sixth consecutive overall World Cup title and added two gold medals at the World Championships, yet he’s still waiting for some global recognition. Ditto for French Martin Fourcade, who upped his stratospheric credentials even more by setting a record of points (1322) and individual victories (14) in the biathlon World Cup, sweeping all five crystal globes to secure a sixth consecutive Total Score victory and seize complete domination of his sport. Still, what’s that compared with the British fella who won a 10,000 meters race in front of his compatriots, right?

Who will win the Laureus: Roger Federer (Tennis)

I reckon Federer and Nadal may split some of the tennis-inclined voters, but the Swiss is an Academy-favourite, boasts a global following that would exult with the news (gotta work those tv ratings!) and his 2017 season at the sprightly age of 35 is one for history books. Bank on Roger getting the trophy for a fifth time and a full decade (2008) after his last.

Darkhorse: Cristiano Ronaldo (Football)

Incredibly, a football player has never won this award and despite the fact that the Portuguese’s individual figures have looked far better in previous instances, he can benefit from a radical dispersal of votes to edge in front by virtue of Real Madrid’s bucket load of silverware in 2017.

Who should win: Martin Fourcade Chris Froome (Cycling)

Chris Froome races during a stage of the 2017 Vuelta a España (ALAMY LIVE NEWS)

Connect recent news with Lance Armstrong’s cautionary tale (the American won in 2003 but was stripped of the trophy years later) and it’s highly unlikely Froome climbs to the stage in Monaco. Nevertheless, for my money – and based on what has transpired, so far, about his positive doping analysis – he should, chiefly because it had been four decades since someone won the Tour and Vuelta in the same season, and many had tried and failed to complete the task since the Spanish Grand Tour moved to the current position in the calendar. Clinching victories in two Grant Tours separated by a handful of weeks is an incredible feat and I don’t see how the others top that (If you’re shouting Roger Federer’s name, please take a look at his calendar from April to June…).

 

World Sportswoman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportswoman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances.”

History: 

If the men have formed a secluded society, what can we say about the women’s distinction? In the same 18 years, only 9 different sports have offered candidates and two thirds of the statuettes were collected either by tennis players (5) or track and field athletes (7). Sensing a theme here?

Last year, gymnast Simone Biles went home with the Laureus figurine, capitalizing on her sport’s first ever nomination, but chances are we’ll be back to square one 12 months later based on the group announced this time, which includes two track athletes for the 13th (!!!!) consecutive year plus a pair of tennis players, notably three-time winner (and child-bearer) Serena Williams.

Serena Williams, the 2017 Australian Open Champion, has won the World Sportswoman of the Year award more times than anyone else (Source: Reuters)

The 2018 nominees:

Allyson Felix (USA, Athletics)
Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming)
Garbiñe Muguruza (Spain, Tennis)
Caster Semenya (South Africa, Athletics)
Mikaela Shiffrin (USA, Alpine Skiing)
Serena Williams (USA, Tennis)

When you have an athletics quota to fill no matter what, stupid appointments are bound to happen, and for all Allyson Felix has done throughout her extraordinary career (including her previous Laureus citations in 2013 and 2017), she has no business being on this list. If you fail to collect individual gold medals at your sport’s World Championships, how on Earth are you a top-six World Sportswoman in any given year?

It’s a dismal choice, but it’s not unique in a list born out of the need to invite the same faces and deputies. I love tennis, but c’mon….Serena Williams played two tournaments in 2017, one of those in the early stages of a pregnancy, and somehow got a record fifth nomination, while Garbiñe Muguruza erupted in the summer, claiming Wimbledon and Cincinnati, yet she then failed to hold onto a WTA World No.1 that was there for the taking. None of these women deserve to be here, pure and simple.

Still, the Spaniard, at least, is a newcomer that may return in the future whereas another neophyte, Caster Semenya, gets a pass for conforming to the minimum requirements (the 800m World title), in opposition to Allyson Felix. Katie Ledecky, nominated for a third consecutive year, will someday become the second swimmer to win this award, succeeding Missy Franklin (2014), and I would wager big money that Mikaela Shiffrin, the fifth nomination in six years for a female alpine skier – the men have 0..ever – will write her name alongside Janica Kostelić (2006) and Lindsey Vonn (2011) sooner than later.

Snubs:

Scroll down this page, pick any woman that conquered gold in London and paste her name over Allyson Felix’s. Feeling helpless? I’ll pull four names that added the World title in London to the 2016 Olympic gold and boast both the pedigree and clout for such honour: 2017 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Nafissatou Thiam (Belgium, heptathlon), 2016 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Almaz Ayana (Ethiopia, 10,000 m), World Record holder Anita Włodarczyk (Poland, hammer throw) and two-time Olympic Champion Sandra Perković (Croatia, discus throw). Any of these ladies would be an infinitely better choice than Felix.

Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam added the 2017 World title to her heptathlon Olympic Gold (Getty Images)

Since athletics and tennis have acquired multiple selections in recent times, why not swimming? Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden), who collected 3 gold medals and one silver at the FINA World Championships, and American Lilly King (4 titles, 2 of them individual) approximated Ledecky’s tally (5 golds + 1 silver) and managed to break a couple of world records each along the way…

In the winter disciplines, biathlete Laura Dahlmeier got doled out the Fourcade-treatment. Her first World Cup overall title, 2 small globes, 10 individual wins and an outstanding 4 gold medals and one silver from five events at the World Championships are laudable accomplishments that behoved full attention.

Who will win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

I mean…Serena won’t pluck a shiny new toy for her baby girl..right, RIGHT?

The 22-year-old Ledecky was pipped by tennis’ GOAT in 2016, and surrendered the stage to the captivating acrobatics of Simone Biles last year, but her path to victory looks unimpeded this time. That surprising defeat to Italy’s Federica Pellegrini in the 200m freestyle – her first in an individual event internationally – and the lack of new world records are small knocks on her application, yet she put her own marks and expectations at such a preposterous level that it might not really matter. Adding the five golds and one silver amassed in Budapest, the 20-year-old has already broken the World Aquatics Championships’ all-time female gold medal (14) and that really says it all.

All Katie Ledecky does is collect medals at the major swimming meetings. In Budapest, at the 2017 World Championships, she added 6 more to her mantle (SIPA USA)

Underdog: Mikaela Shiffrin (Alpine Skiing)

Compatriot Lindsey Vonn had to endure two disappointments before earning the award, and Shiffrin might follow a similar path after securing a maiden nomination for her first overall World Cup title in 2016-17. The main difference lies in the fact that, if everything goes according to plan, the Slalom Queen will crush the PyeongChang Olympics next month, bag a whole lot of gold, and stake an early pole-position for the 2019 Laureus.

Who should win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

She’s due. And if it goes any other way – except for a Shiffrin upset -, it’s a joke.

 

World Team of the Year

“Awarded to the team that best demonstrates supreme performance and achievements – such as world, continental, international or national and major championship title.”

History:

Awarded for the first time in 2000 to English football club Manchester United, treble winners (Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup) in 1998-1999, this distinction has been dominated by football teams as both domestic and international sides have collected the award nine of 18 times. As such, the UEFA Champions League winner has been nominated in every occasion since 2001 – except for the 2011-12 Chelsea FC – and the national teams that conquer the UEFA European Championships or the (Men/Women’s) FIFA World Cup are also pencilled in.

With 15 appearances in 17 years since the category was expanded from 3 to 5 (later 6) spots, the F1 Constructors World Champions are also virtual locks every season and possible winners (2x) when their hopes don’t clash with sure-fire victors coming from the Men’s FIFA World Cup (5 wins in 5 opportunities) and Rugby World Cup (3 of 4). With no Championship side spurned since 2008 (the 2007 San Antonio Spurs), NBA representatives are also on a long run of appearances but have yet to collect the statuette.

New Zealand’s All Blacks won the World Team of the Year award in 2016 (Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

France Davis Cup Team (France, Tennis)
Golden State Warriors (USA, Basketball)
Mercedes-AMG Petronas (Germany, Motor Racing)
New England Patriots (USA, American Football)
New Zealand America’s Cup (New Zealand, Sailing)
Real Madrid CF (Spain, Football)

NBA Champions Golden State Warriors, Formula One Champions Mercedes and Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, who added the La Liga title to a second consecutive Champions League badge, were the obvious choices, and the rest benefitted from 2017 being neither an Olympic year nor host to a major football or rugby competition.

Therefore, the French tennis team is the fifth Davis Cup-winning squad to merit a call, sailing is represented by the America’s Cup holder for a first time since the Team Alinghy in 2004, and the only true stunner are the Super Bowl winners New England Patriots, the first NFL team to earn a nomination.

Emirates Team New Zealand and helmsman Peter Burling conquered the 35th America’s Cup (ACEA 2017 / Photo Ricardo Pinto)

Snubs:

Since 2006, the Men’s French National handball team has collected three European Championships, two Olympic titles and four World Championships. In 2017, despite being mired in the middle of a generational transition, they cruised to another World title by defeating all their opponents. Evidently, the Laureus Academy thinks winning the Davis Cup, a discredited competition ignored by many of the World’s elite, is a more impressive feat…

With the Patriots inclusion coming one year after the MLB’s Chicago Cubs became the first team from a North American professional league to win a Laureus, time was right to recognize the forgotten NHL (0 nominations), but ice hockey was once again shut out of the awards. Tough break for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions in 19 years.

Who will win: Real Madrid (Football)

Barring a triumph for the Davis Cup winners, any other result would fall short of the “upset” moniker, nonetheless I would say Real Madrid’s time has come.

Spanish side Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions League for the second consecutive year in 2016-17 (AFP)

European Champions on five occasions in the XXI century, they’ve always taken a step back to others at the Laureus, but I have a hard time believing their 5-spot combo (Champions League, La Liga, European SuperCup, Spanish SuperCup, FIFA Club World Cup) won’t do the job in similar fashion to FC Barcelona’s haul in 2011. Although Barça’s perfect 2009, six trophies out of six, went unrewarded….

Darkhorse: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Thwarted by New Zealand’s All-Blacks in 2016, the Warriors return two years later with an even more robust body of work. A similar regular season record (67-15) amassed in casual fashion, a fabulous playoff term (16-1) culminated with a dominant performance (4-1) against the team (Cleveland Cavaliers) that spoiled their back-to-back challenge the previous season, and a cadre of pundits pondering whether they had just witnessed the greatest NBA team ever.

If a basketball team is going to steal the show, better be this one.

Who should win: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Going 16-1 in a salary-capped league postseason is ridiculous, though I wouldn’t exactly oppose appreciation for New Zealand America’s Cup team’s history. Exacting revenge in commanding fashion (7-1) from the same US Oracle Team against whom they blew a 8-1 lead four years earlier must have made for a riveting spectacle.

 

World Breakthrough of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team whose performance as a newcomer suggests the greatest potential for an outstanding career or to an established sportsman or sportswoman who produces a significant step-up in class to a considerably higher level of sporting achievement.”

Handed out until 2007 to the newcomer of the year, this distinction features the most distinct range of potential candidates, and that is expressed on both the diversity of origins from the nominees (18 different sports since 2000) and the notion that no one has repeated victory (though some have broken through more than once…).

Fifteen men and only three women have been rewarded for substantial improvements in their performances over the previous 12 months, however a few teams have also made appearances amongst the nominees, for example Leicester City for their English Premier League triumph in 2016-17. Still, in 14 of 18 instances, the winner was a golfer (5), a Formula One driver (5) or a tennis player (4) and those three sports, alongside football (0 wins of 14 nominations!), also monopolize the history of this award, hence we can’t really say it is divorced from the palpable biases of the Academy.

German Formula One driver Nico Rosberg received the Breakthrough of the Year award in 2017 (Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece, Basketball)
Caeleb Dressel (USA, Swimming)
Sergio Garcia (Spain, Golf)
Anthony Joshua (United Kingdom, Boxing)
Kylian Mbappé (France, Soccer)
Jelena Ostapenko (Latvia, Tennis)

The very inaugural winner of the award, back in 2000, Sergio García can become the first man to repeat if his much-anticipated, maiden Major Championship victory at The Masters of Augusta is enough to sway the jury. Moreover, the 37-year-old is also the old soul on this group, with Anthony Joshua counting 28 years of age, and the rest hovering in the late teens/early 20’s.

The world heavyweight champion is the third boxer to warrant consideration, following on the footsteps of fellow Brits Amir Khan (2005) and Tyson Fury (2016), while Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jelena Ostapenko are the first Greek and Latvian sports people to be nominated for this Laureus award. American Caeleb Dressel, the new face of men’s swimming, can achieve something Michael Phelps never did – Brit Rebecca Adlington is the only swimmer to have won the award – while football’s teenage sensation Kylian Mbappé will try to avoid the same fate of Lionel Messi (2006) and Neymar (2013), both bested by tennis players (Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, respectively).

Jelena Ostapenko’s triumph on the clay of Roland Garros earned her a Laureus nomination (Reuters)

Snubs:

A first-time Grand Tour winner in 2017, Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin wouldn’t look out of place in this category. Particularly because the Giro d’Italia triumph (and the victory at the Worlds individual Time Trial race) may well be a glimpse of more to come from the man many believe to be uniquely qualified to end Chris Froome’s reign in the Tour de France.

As with the other individual classes, it’s quite unusual that the nominations in this category are stripped of a track and field star in the making. We’re not complaining about it, however the World Championships in London could have sanctioned the likes of 21-year-old Karsten Warholm, the Norwegian who stunned the field to take the 400m hurdles title in convincing fashion, or Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas, the talented 22-year-old who outlasted reigning Olympic Champion Catherine Ibargüen in an epic South-American duel.

As far as up-and-coming teams, the Dutch Women’s National Football Team, European Champions for the first time to put an end to Germany’s 22-year hegemony, and the NHL’s Nashville Predators, maiden Stanley Cup Finalists in a campaign that showcased their players, city and fans like never before, would have been worthy contenders.

Who will win: Kylian Mbappé (Football)

There’s not a lot on the history of this award that helps underscore many tendencies, but we know Ostapenko, as a woman – albeit a tennis player – may be at a disadvantage, and no Formula One driver made the cut this time, so let’s simply push the cards into Kylian Mbappé’s corner and cross fingers.

Those ten ex-footballers on the Academy board have to be worth for something, and I believe they can rally around the exciting French striker, an 18-year-old superstar that will set football fields ablaze for the next 15 years.

Paris St. Germain forward Kylian Mbappé is recognized for his breakout season in 2017.

Darkhorse: Sergio García (Golf)

I may be terribly wrong, but I struggle to contemplate enough support for a Greek player that hasn’t won a playoff round in the NBA – no matter how freakishly athletic he looks -, a bubbly teenager from a small Baltic nation, a boxer (no disrespect intended) or even a (still) under-the-radar American swimmer (maybe at the ESPY’s, kid). Which leaves us with Sergio García, one of the most beloved golfers of all-time, a veteran primed for a late career accolade after a revered milestone, and a man who will, definitely, earn an invitation to join the Laureus Academy as soon as his playing days are over.

Who should win: Caeleb Dressel (Swimming)

When you thought it would take an entire lifetime to spawn someone that could draw comparisons to Michael Phelps, out of nowhere materializes another arresting combination of slender frame/fulminant turns/amazing underwater shifts that hoards medals at the World Championships to leave swimming fans agape.

Three gold medals in the same session (actually, in a 98-min spam), something never accomplished before, a total of seven World titles in the same meeting (even if 4 of them courtesy of the relay events), tying the World Championships record of Phelps and the merits of another swimming legend, Mark Spitz. This is the breakthrough of 2017.

American swimmer Caeleb Dressel reacts after winning one of his races at the Swimming World Championships in Budapest last July (Patrick B. Kraemer)

 

World Comeback of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team who has overcome injury, illness, adversity, disappointment or failure and risen back to triumph in the sporting arena. The Award may also mark a historic fightback by an individual or a team in a sporting event or series of sports events.”

A category that allows for multiple premises and motivations, this award has contained nominees from a lot of different disciplines (23) over the years, helping to spread the reach of the Laureus “brand” to sports largely ignored for the other prizes (ice hockey, triathlon, equestrian, rowing…) but, in the end, the same dominate as far as most nominations (athletics, golf) and winners (tennis – 6, athletics – 2). Without two-time victors on the board of honour after 18 editions, the first man to receive this award was former cyclist Lance Armstrong by virtue of his recovery from testicular cancer and eventual triumph at the Tour de France yet, as happened with the rest of his laurels, the American’s name has been expunged following his doping admission.

The 2018 nominees:

FC Barcelona (Spain, Football)
Chapecoense (Brazil, Football)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Justin Gatlin (USA, Athletics)
Sally Pearson (Australia, Athletics)
Valentino Rossi (Italy, Motor Racing)

Associação Chapecoense de Futebol’s rehabilitation after a tragic plane crash and the return to football of the only three players (Alan Ruschel, Neto and Jakson Follmann) that survived couldn’t have been forgotten, and neither could Roger Federer’s odyssey back to the top of his game, as the Swiss scored, perhaps, the most breath-taking injury comeback in tennis history.

Chapecoense’s Alan Ruschel waves to the crowd at Camp Nou before a friendly match between the Brazilian team and FC Barcelona (Toni Albir, EFE)

Paula Radcliffe (2008) and Felix Sanchez (2013) were the two track and field athletes to win this award, but it’s unlikely Justin Gatlin, who found public redemption on the track by beating Usain Bolt on the legend’s last individual race, or Sally Pearson, once again the 100m hurdles World Champion after three years marred by multiple injury setbacks, add their names to the list. FC Barcelona’s frantic comeback against PSG in the last minutes of their round of 16 Champions League tie is, arguably, one of the most memorable in football history, while Valentino Rossi is up for a second victory (2011) for taking less than a month to make another swift recovery from displaced fractures on his right leg’s tibia and fibula.

Snubs:

It’s harsh to hold a grudge against any of the six nominees, but I might have bumped out Justin Gatlin (who played a major role in his demise) for Petra Kvitová. Assaulted at home in late 2016 by a knife-wielding robber, the Czech’s left hand tendons and nerves were severely damaged, putting her career at risk, but she was still able to return to the WTA Tour in less than 6 months and eventually collect her first title following the recovery at Birmingham last June.

Petra Kvitová triumphed in Birmingham on her second tournament back from a severe hand injury (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images for LTA)

The New England Patriots’ comeback from 28-3 down on Super Bowl LI to claim a fifth title this century could have also featured in this category, but Bil Bellichick and Tom Brady ain’t Roger Federer to get two swings at the piñata in the same year.

Who will win: Chapecoense (Football)

I just can’t anticipate a different scenario.

Darkhorse: Roger Federer (Tennis)

Picks up the record-extending Majors No. 18 (Australian Open) and No. 19 (Wimbledon) to end a four-year Slam drought, and reclaim the throne in his mid-thirties after six months on the shelf for a freak injury? In any other year, this is a slam dunk choice.

Who should win: Chapecoense (Football)

C’mon, what type of person do you think I am?

 

As part of their World Sports Awards, the Laureus Foundation also presents a few discretionary distinctions and three other regular statuettes: for Action Sportsperson of the Year, rewarding who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement in action sports, Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability, for those who best demonstrate excellent athletic achievement and strong leadership qualities in a sport in the Paralympic programme, and Best Sporting Moment, introduced last year and voted by the public.

I’ve grandstanded enough already, so I’m not going to opine on awards I know nothing about, but can’t finish this article without praising the Laureus Foundation for calling “alternative” sports stars and disabled athletes to the limelight, rubbing shoulders with the “mainstream” sporting heroes followed by millions around the world.

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.

 

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.