Football

The multiple layers of a rotten Oranje

Once the trail-blazing frontrunners of the beautiful game and epitomes of swagger on the field, the Netherlands are now teetering on the edge of football irrelevancy, the Oranje’s first consecutive major tournament misses in over three decades propelling the highest structures of Dutch football into a collective frenzy.

How could a proud footballing nation that finished third at the 2014 World Cup and was a shot away from lifting the trophy in 2010 spin out of control so dramatically in a handful of years? How did a berth of progressive ideas that revolutionised and reshaped the sport manage to become this trite, decaying entity, drained of its identity, their innovative notions of the past first appropriated, then upgraded by neighbours and competitors?

The only nation in history to play three FIFA World Cup finals without claiming the ultimate prize, the Netherlands blessed the footballing world with some of its greatest sides and players since Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff co-geminated the inspiring Totalvoetball in the late 1960’s. Flooding Dutch football like the indomitable tidal streams on the low countries, this intoxicating philosophy based on ruthless pressing, neat passing and positional swaps powered the domestic outfits to immense success in the 1970’s and the national team on  unforgettable campaigns every genuine football fan can babble about.

In fact, from the Cruyff and Johan Neeskens-led Clockwork Orange sides that lost the 1974 and 1978 deciders in heart-breaking fashion, past the brilliant generation chiselled in gold by Marco Van Basten’s iconic volley at the 1988 European Championships, through the hypnotic Dennis Bergkamp and the prodigious 1995 Champions League winners with Ajax, up to the contemporary days of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, who came within a whisker of swiping the World Cup from the hands of an emblematic Spain, there is so much to reminisce about.

And still, this very nation, whose footballing history was built on a combination of pulsating attacking football and such supreme talent that elevated the sport to a form of art unlike anything seen before, is now a stuttering machine, a laughing stock even, its main institutions incapable of churning out neither the style, nor the skill and results that do justice to the past.

As football minnows such as Iceland, Albania and Wales debuted at the 2016 European Championships, the Netherlands humiliatingly missed out on the expanded 24-team field, and they couldn’t do better in the 2018 World Cup qualifying, activating the blinking, screeching siren looming, somewhat quietly, over their football for a few years. Not anymore. It’s time to analyse and rethink the game in Holland and beyond, and in this article we’ll try to shed some light on the multiple reasons that compound the response to the main question facing Dutch football, particularly its (men’s) national team.

How did the pioneering Total Football derive into Total Flopball?

 

I –  National Team failures: The aftermath of the 2014 World Cup

For most, the last image elicited by the men clad in orange is one of triumph. At the third-place playoff of the 2014 World Cup, a young Netherlands squad guided by the cantankerous Louis van Gaal crushed a traumatized Brazilian team with three unanswered goals, and it seemed the future was bright for the Dutch, their squad anchored by a mixture of experienced stars and an array of up-and-coming, just-entering-their-prime support pieces.

Daley Blind of the Netherlands (5) celebrates scoring his team’s second goal with Ron Vlaar (2), Georginio Wijnaldum (20) and Bruno Martins Indi (right) during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Third Place Playoff match (Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)

However, the seasoned mentor would soon leave the post for a new challenge at Manchester United, and what followed was a truly catastrophic qualifying campaign ahead of the Euro 2016, with Guus Hiddink, at first, and his assistant Danny Blind later, overseeing an inconceivable fourth-place finish in the qualifying pool. With only 13 pts collected in 10 games, the Oranje compiled more losses (5) than wins (4), and couldn’t muster a single triumph (1D, 5L) over direct rivals Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey, who all headed to France.

This outcome resulted in a first European Championships miss since 1984, and a major tournament failure unseen since they were pipped by Portugal and the Republic of Ireland ahead of the 2002 World Cup, yet the changes hardly came by. Blind, who had lost three of four qualifying matches, was kept in charge despite his limited experience as a head coach – he had only guided Ajax for 14 months a decade earlier – and following the departures of assistants Dick Advocaat and Marco van Basten, the shortcomings of the former defender would quickly came into the fore.

Drawn into a group with France and Sweden in World Cup qualifying, the Dutch wrestled an important point in Stockholm at the pool opener, performing well in spite of the absence of captain Arjen Robben, but a month later a screamer from Paul Pogba proved enough to earn France a 1-0 victory in Amsterdam, placing the Dutch immediately behind the eight ball. Skip a few months forward, and the Blind experiment met his rational end after a resounding 2-0 defeat in Sofia, a game marked by the unfortunate debut of center-back Matthijs de Ligt, 17 years old at the time, merely two starts into his professional career and a prominent feature in both Bulgarian goals.

A shocking loss in Sofia marked the beginning of the end for Holland’s 2018 World Cup dreams (Reuters)

For the second consecutive campaign, the KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association) was forced to replace the chief-commander in the middle of the journey, and this time, to no one’s surprise, the option fell on another patriarch of Dutch football, 70-year-old Dick Advocaat. He took over with back-to-back 5-0 routs in Rotterdam against the Ivory Coast (friendly) and Luxembourg, but dropped the ball in the first major test, the crucial visit to Paris.

Despite being thoroughly dominated by the hosts, the Netherlands were still alive at the hour mark in the Stade de France, trailing by a single goal, when Kevin Strootman was sent off and Advocaat reacted by committing to the irresponsible decision of urging all units forward in search of a tying marker, admittedly unaware that goal-difference could prove essential to the group’s decision.

Naturally, the nimble French forwards held a feast in the acres of space left available, smashing three more past Jasper Cillessen for a 4-0 defeat that sunk the Netherland’s World Cup hopes well before the final blow delivered by Luxembourg, throttled 8-0 in Stockholm hours after Advocaat famously laughed off a question forecasting such possibility.

Under the weight of an unsurmountable goal deficit, the Netherlands picked up a difficult victory in Belarus (1-3) before shooting for a near-miracle in the last game versus Sweden. They needed a preposterous 7-goal triumph in Amsterdam just to reach the playoffs, yet fell way short, bouncing out with 19 pts amassed by virtue of a 6-1-3 qualifying record. Not the sheer disaster of the previous campaign, nevertheless a second consecutive fiasco, unheard in the Oranje since the 1982-86 period, the fallout of Johan Cruyff’s generation.

At this point, savvy readers will point out the Netherlands returned to the biggest stage in 1988 and with a bang, an emergent, fresh crop of talent torching the opposition on the way to Holland’s only major title to date. Can we expect history to repeat itself in the short term?

II – Transitional crisis

Well, broaching comparisons between sides separated by almost three decades is always a tricky proposition, but it can be argued that some connecting dots are to be established between the origins of the two most recent stagnation periods in Dutch football and, in particular, their respective prominent faces.

In fact, even if their international appearances lacked the same flamboyancy and worldwide veneration reserved for the rampaging heroes of the 1970’s, the core group that led the country’s fortunes for the vast majority of the XXI century earned much of the same high esteem showered on the likes of Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol or Arie Hann by virtue of their impressive collective accomplishments and individual accolades, which rank at the very top of every relevant statistical category in national team history.

Born between 1983 and 1984, we’re talking about veterans that peaked at the 2010 World Cup though their influence stretched from the mid-2000’s, past the latest Oranje appearance in a global stage (2014), and into the most recent disappointments, a longevity that ensures the moniker of a “golden generation”.

Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben back in 2006, the early days of their national team careers. Happier and easier times for the Netherlands (ANP)

The first to earn a senior cap, playmaker Rafael van der Vaart (now 35-years-old) wore the Oranje jersey 109 times, fourth all-time, until his time ended just before the 2014 World Cup due to injury, while striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (34) may have never been a full-fledged starter yet in almost a decade (2006-2015) of work plundered 42 goals, second only to Robin van Persie (34), whose 50 tallies obtained in 102 games make him the top scorer in national team history.

The former Manchester United and Arsenal standout is now a shadow of his former self, having returned to Feyenoord in January, but he continues to resist calling an end to his international career, contrary to Wesley Snejder (33), the quintessential number 10 who became the most capped (133) Dutch player before opting to retire from the National Team a few weeks ago.

Finally, this influential quintet is completed with Arjen Robben (34), arguably the only Dutch mainstay who can still be labelled as “world-class”; the perpetuity at Bayern Munich seemingly extending his shelf life as an impact player. The genial winger, who vaulted the squad at the 2014 World Cup, scored 6 times (7 matches) in the latest qualifying campaign before announcing his international retirement following the game with Sweden. Tallying  twice in that night in Amsterdam, including a trademarked inside run and left-footed, curled shot that will linger as a perfect reminder of his brilliance, Robben then talked about the need to “pass the baton” to the next generation, casting a light on the tortuous reality: who will pick it up?

Looking at the group of established players that will comprise the nucleus of the Dutch national team moving forward, the pickle isn’t exactly the lack of good players entering the prime of their careers or evolving into solid performers, but the bare cupboard of transcendental talents and top-level performers plying their trade in Europe’s heavyweights in the same way minor Dutch factions once cohabitated in Barcelona, Milan or Madrid.

Truth to matter, peruse the rosters of perennial Champions League contenders these days and you’ll encounter the aforementioned Robben in the German giants, Daley Blind, a utility man at Manchester United who, ideally, wouldn’t be the first option at any position, and FC Barcelona’s backup goaltender Jasper Cillesen. OK, if you’re feeling gracious, let’s expand the net to include Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum, once a can’t miss prospect who didn’t blossom as expected, teammate Virgil van Dijk, recently moved for a defenseman’s world record fee, and AS Roma’s Kevin Strootman, who missed the large part of two consecutive seasons (2014/15 and 2015/16) due to injury. Seven names…

Several Dutch players surround England’s Dele Alli in a recently friendly match in Amsterdam. It will be, necessarily, a different Oranje moving forward (Associated Press)

Furthermore, while Blind, Cillesen and Wijnaldum played prominent parts at the 2014 World Cup, some of the other youngsters who caught the eye under Louis van Gaal failed to evolve as expected in order to reach the European elite. Snapped out of Feyenoord after the tournament in Brazil, center-backs Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij are perfect examples of it, as their respective careers stalled in the meantime, the former falling out of favour at FC Porto, the latter encountering injury problems during his stay at SS Lazio. Remember diminutive midfielder Jordy Clasie, once likened to Xavi? Incapable of carving his space during a two-year spell at Southampton, he’s on loan in Belgium this season hoping to revive a dwindling career.

And what about Van Gaal’s crown jewel, winger Memphis Depay? Dazzling for PSV in 2014-15, he botched the opportunity at Manchester United and is only now, at 24 years old, displaying glimpses of his tantalizing potential in Lyon, teasing with incredible pieces of skill but also showing that some ripening is still needed before he can be expected to pull all the strings for the Oranje.

As a result of this absence of go-to options or even a coherent group ready to bridge the gap, one might be compelled to the notion that something went terribly wrong in respect to player development in the Netherlands over the last decade-plus. Or, perhaps, they’re simply facing a momentary talent famine?

III – Dropping off the radar: lost generations and a shifting recruitment pool

Far from a flawless predictor of success at the senior level, repeated excellence at the youth levels is as good an indicator of the health of a development system as we can find in football, not least because it tends to lead into waves of talent and a well-stocked pool at the top of the pyramid.

Spain and Germany, the two most accomplished European nations of the last decade, are obvious examples of this, and while it’s been well documented that the vast majority of their best players previously tasted victory at the U-17, U-19 or U-21 level, the reality is, in hindsight, the Netherlands ought to place at a similar level.

After all, of the five UEFA (men’s) trophies that are exposed on the KNVB cabinet, four were captured in the last dozen of years, and the back-to-back triumphs at the U-21 European Championships in 2006 and 2007 emerge as a cautionary tale in this exercise.

The Netherlands won the Under-21 European Championships at home in 2007. Do you dare to name any three of the boys in the image? (Getty)

Positioned on the final part of a youngster formative years, with most participants already well established amongst the professional ranks, this showcase event is, usually, a final stepping stone towards stardom for the most promising individuals however, due to a variety of reasons, for the large majority of the Dutch players that comprised the two aforementioned squads, the continental championship, more than a peak in terms of silverware, functioned as a tangible zenith in performance.

Indeed, a total of twenty-two players from those rosters earned full international debuts at some point, yet only three stuck around for a meaningful period of time (Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, center back Ron Vlaar and winger Ryan Babel) whereas the likes of Hedwiges Maduro, Urby Emanuelsson, Demy de Zeeuw or the 2007 Golden Player of the tournament, Royston Drenthe, flamed out as soon as they were thrusted into the spotlight for their clubs or set foot abroad.

Incidentally, since those consecutive triumphs, the Dutch failed to qualify for four of the last five U-21 tournaments, making an appearance in 2013 to reach the semi-finals with many of the players that starred one year later in Brazil (De Vrij, Blind, Martins Indi, Depay, Wijnaldum, Clasie) and a few from whom a lot was expected to no avail (Adam Maher, Marco van Ginkel, Ola John).

Consequently, it seems the transition from the youth ranks to the highest-levels of professional football (especially outside of the Eredivisie) has proved traumatic for many of the country’s best talents lately, and as we delve further into the system, this theory gets further validation.

A regular presence (5 of last 8) at the Under-19 European Championships, the Netherlands made it to the final four only once (2017) in that span, therefore failing to qualify for any U-20 World Cup since 2001 (they hosted in 2005) and also providing a stark contrast with their exceptional U-17 performances as of late. On the last ten U-17 Euros, the Netherlands reached six semi-finals, advanced four times to the decider and captured the title on two occasions, 2011 and 2012, both times defeating Germany in the Final.

Senior Dutch internationals Memphis Depay (#11), Tonny Vilhena (#10) and Karim Rekik (#4) were part of the U-17 European Championship success in 2011 (UEFA)

Some of the members of those winning generations, now aged 23-24, have already broken into the main Oranje (Nathan Aké, Karim Rekik, Terrence Kongolo, Jetro Williams, Memphis Depay, Tonny Vilhena), yet none looks primed to grow into a true game-changer as many anticipated the likes of Vilhena or 2011 Best player of the tournament Kyle Ebecílio would become. And if you’re wondering whether it is still too early to draw conclusions from those classes, look no further than 2012 runners-up Germany, who featured Julian Brandt and Leon Goretzka, two influential figures on the last Confederations Cup, or France, already reaping dividends from the likes of Anthony Martial or Thomas Lemar.

In any case, we can safely assume that gifted footballers are still sprouting on the fields of the Netherlands, and whatever is belying their full maturation has to do with nurturing, nonetheless there’s another pressing issue that needs to be addressed in regards to the talent pool available in the country.

A former maritime and merchant powerhouse, the Kingdom of the Netherlands held possessions around the world well into the second half of the XX century, when the decolonisation fever eventually hit their enclaves and outposts in the Caribbean. Still, the Dutch were able to keep a grip on some overseas territories (Curaçao, Aruba, Sint Maarten and the Caribbean Netherlands) until very recently and sports, as many other areas, got important contributions from the diaspora for a very long time.

The birth land of thousands who moved stateside in search of better opportunities, Suriname, an independent country since 1975, particularly stands out amongst the former Dutch territories as plenty of the Netherlands’ football stars of yesteryear carried Surinamese descent, yet that spring has also dried up significantly over the last few years. Where once the Dutch mined Patrick Kluivert, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Edgar Davids or Clarence Seedorf, legends that perfectly combined the technical proficiency of local football-education with South-American flair and exuberance, they’re now tied to Quincy Promes, Georginio Wijnaldum, Ryan Babel or Virgil van Dijk, and the gap is still to be filled with impact players hailing from the melting pot that is the Dutch society today.

Oranje legends Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids line up before a match against the Czech Republic at the Euro 2000.

On the current national team, you’ll find players with origins in Tunisia, Angola, Mozambique, Ivory Coast, Ghana or Guinea-Bissao, however plenty of others rose up the ranks under the watchful eye of the KNVB only to later change alliances, agreeing to represent the country of their parents. In most cases, the loss won’t prove substantial, but since quality, more than quantity, is what usually makes the difference at the top levels, someone as talented as Morocco international and Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech, who could have eased the transition following Wesley Sneijder’s decline, shouldn’t have escaped.

 

So, as we’ve established that some of Dutch football’s decline stems from flawed player development as well as an inability to syphon the best of the evolving Dutch society, now it’s time to examine another important aspect: the application of their footballing philosophy.

IV – Identity: the strenuous compromise between style and results

Bold, enthralling, beautiful and fun. Dutch football used to be the benchmark of an aesthetically pleasing experience in pure footballing terms: slick passing, and positional and spacing fluidity the guiding principles for a country that grew to favour style over substance. So much that almost unanimous acclamation disguised the fact that the Dutch national team didn’t win as much as it should have in its glorious eras; trophies left on the hands of others and painful losses shrugged off in the name of adoration by neutrals and prudish adherence to defining principles and ideals.

Such approach flew through the decades, generations of artists collapsing in the moment of truth time and time again, but still earning appraise from plaudits. It’s no coincidence then that Johan Cruyff once posited that ”There is no medal better than being acclaimed for your style” neither that the 2008 European Championships marked, perhaps, the last time such saying resonated, the Netherlands commanded by Marco van Basten displaying the same finesse of the former striker as they swept through the group phase with rousing triumphs over France (3-0) and Italy (4-1) only to be dumped out by a Russian team led by fellow Dutch Guus Hiddink.

After that competition, though, van Basten stepped down and new manager Bert van Marwijk turned things around 180°, leading the team to the 2010 World Cup Final with pragmatism, cohesion, discipline and, might we say… a lot of hard graft, embodied to perfection by the midfield vigour of Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, an unmovable stab of concrete in front of the defensive sector. Ultimately defeated by Spain in one of the most rugged finals in history, the National team members were pelted back home with accusations of “betrayal” for renouncing to the traditions of Dutch football, their “anti-football” methods – as dubbed by Cruyff itself – an “ugly, vulgar” compromise forged in the name of victory at all costs.

Spain’s Iker Casillas stops Arjen Robben’s point-blank chance in a crucial moment of the 2010 World Cup Final (Getty)

We’ll never experience how history would have unfolded had Arjen Robben’s shot evaded the outstretched leg of Iker Casillas in the night of Johannesburg, but we know that the KNVB doubled down on the matter-of-fact approach in 2012, substituting van Marwijk, following a disappointing European Championships, with Louis van Gaal. Setting up a defensive 5-3-2/3-5-2 hybrid that relied more than ever on defensive compactness, blistering counter attacks and the individual brilliance of a couple of names (Robben, Van Persie), the Netherlands’ option was vindicated when they extracted revenge from the ball-hugging wizards of Spain in a 5-1 drubbing in the opener in Brazil, before proceeding to get within a penalty-shootout victory of returning to the World Final.

And then, in spite of getting closer to glory with this ruthless, pragmatic mind-set than at any time throughout the previous two decades, the national purists brandished their forks again to demand a return to the possession-based blueprint, and their pleas were acquiesced. Hiddink, Blind and Advocaat imposed the return to the 4x3x3 formation that’s imprinted into the fabric of Dutch football, however the results were nothing short of calamitous. Why?

The straightforward answer lies in the enormous progresses experienced in the game of football, particularly in the tactical side, but, mostly, on the realization that Totalvoetball has always been about so much more than a mere formation or striving to hold the ball just for the sake of it. Built around the whole idea of space and time and how it can be maximized (on offense) and shrunk (on defence), incisive possession football necessitates quick-thinking, reactivity, creativity and awareness, traits that aren’t in abundance on the current Dutch squad, as well as fine-tuned collective movements, complementarity and superior understanding between players.

Consequently, more than the lack of skill and physical attributes to replicate the frenzied demands of an intense, high pressing game or to formulate intricate passing sequences, the Dutch national team simply can’t sustain such a complex, challenging model because it’s not able to foster familiarity without a solid foundation over which to instil the main attacking principles. Cue the “sterile possession” paradigm that grace the Netherlands today, expertly parodied by the late Johan Cruyff, one of the fathers of the ideology, as the “world champions [of] passing sideways and back”.

For instance, try to catch a national team game – under the previous regime – against half-decent opposition and it’s distressing to note the Netherlands’ inability to devise a clean breakout from the back, with the ball slowly passed around the defenders and deep-lying midfielder, the buildup process unable to draw adversaries out of their defensive shape in order to create space for a penetrating pass that kick-starts the offense.

Moreover, as the ball circulates around the perimeter and sometimes up the flanks, underlapping or overlapping runs are few and far between, interior movements to explore pockets of space in between, devise passing triangles or create overloads scarce, and positional fluidity, a staple of Total Football, a foreign concept. In result, danger is only generated from the outer channels, and in the few instances a winger manages to receive the ball up the field, he usually has to resort to hopeful crosses towards the box as the central midfielders are mostly overlooked in the construction phase and reserved a secondary role in the final thirds.

With Robben, Sneijder and van Persie in their prime, the Dutch may had been able to live with this primitive, predictable style of football, but the palpable shortage of difference-makers can’t masquerade and explain everything, much less deficient organization and the bevy of defensive inconsistencies that haunt many Dutch teams. An obvious coaching issue exacerbated at the national team level by subpar management (more on this after the jump), nevertheless also a clarion call for a country that needs to realize that nostalgia and reviving used formulas isn’t playing to one’s strengths.

Johan Cruyff runs at Franz Beckenbauer during the 1974 World Cup Final won by West Germany

Emulating Spain and Germany, who have thrived on the possession-based dogma, is easier said than done without a lot of groundwork on a daily basis and, necessarily, at the club level. In fact, the eminent Dutch teams of the 1970’s and 1980’s were concocted by merging strong blocks from Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV, tapping on mechanisms and mutual partnerships that could be easily transposed to the international realm, and, evidently, the same happened over the last few years with Spain (2008-2012) and Germany (2014), whose subtract of success was grinded away at FC Barcelona (supplemented with superb Real Madrid individuals) and Bayern Munich.

Naturally, the biggest clubs in the Netherlands aren’t afforded the opportunity to keep their players long enough to build crucial chemistry, and with Dutch players scattering across Europe, it’s impractical to aim for the same lofty notes of decades ago. If Holland aspires to get back to the top of the game, mindlessly mirroring the past it’s definitely not the way to go, and the same extends to the methods implemented by the men tasked with orchestrating from the dugout.

V – Coaching: the merry-go round and a class stopped in time

Since the fourth and last tour of duty (1990-1992) undertaken by the emblematic Rinus Michels, the leading job in Dutch football has been occupied by one of two types of coaches: the members of the old guard, elder statesman who earned respect all around the World over the last three decades, and raw faces, usually former players with limited international experience at the time of appointment.

In regards to the first group, most football fans can name the trio of men that, every time the Dutch job opens up, are automatically placed on the short list of candidates, their reputations almost granting permission to take turns between club posts. Since 1992, Dick Advocaat (70 years old), Louis Van Gaal (66) and Guus Hiddink (70) have trained the national team in 7 different occasions (3+2+2) and for a combined 12 years (4+3.5+4.5), but with Advocaat stepping down, van Gaal in a sabbatical period following his departure from Man United in 2016, and Hiddink similarly in reclusion after an interim stint at Chelsea in 2015-16, none of those options was on the table ahead of the new two-year qualifying cycle.

Netherlands’ Robin van Persie celebrates with head coach Louis van Gaal after scoring a goal during a 2014 World Cup match against Spain (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Likewise, it was highly implausible the KNVB would tap one of the other recent incumbents, their curriculum and post-Netherlands endeavours a forewarning that a healthy mix of experience and future vision was vital in these turbulent times. Take Frank Rijkaard, for example, who led the nation to the semi-finals of the Euro 2000 in his first managerial experience, played a huge part in the rebirth of FC Barcelona between 2003 and 2008, but then hiked through Turkey (Galatasaray) and Saudi Arabia (National team) before falling off the radar in 2013.

The announcement of Rijkaard’s retirement came last December, at age 55, and followed shortly after one of his former teammates, Marco Van Basten, also put his coaching prospects on hold. Streamlined into the Dutch job in 2004, The Swan of Utrecht’s subsequent coaching ventures at Ajax, Heerenveen and AZ Alkmaar failed to bear fruits, and after serving time as a KNVB employee, filling managerial and assistant roles, he joined FIFA as the “Chief Officer for Technical Development”.

A UEFA Cup winner (2002) with Feyenoord, Bert van Maarwijk’s was a more accomplished manager at the beginning of his four-year tenure (2008-2012), but after the disastrous Euro 2012 campaign which determined his exit, he also hasn’t racked up the achievements, following up the Dutch job with an embarrassing 143-day spell at Hamburg, a stint in Saudi Arabia cut short by contract disagreements, and the recent appointment to lead Australia next summer in Russia. And then, obviously, there’s Danny Blind, for some reason groomed by Hiddink to succeed him even if his résumé features all of one year (2005-2006) as Ajax’s head coach and plenty of labour as an anonymous assistant.

Still, the fiasco of Blind’s 20-month experiment finally gave the KNVB enough pause to launch a thorough process in order to select the right man for the job, and while many wanted them to cut right through the established practices and go outside the box (or outside their borders..), they eventually settled for another uninspired choice, another kick at the 1988 class of European Champions.

Boasting a solid career at home and abroad, Ronaldo Koeman’s name was always bound to rally a large consensus, as he remains the only person to have not only played but also managed the Dutch “Big Three” of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, and the man who was spurned in favour of Hiddink back in 2014 finally got his turn. Pointing to a solid track record mentoring young players and thriving when the overall quality at his disposal was underwhelming, the 55-year-old was judged to embody the perfect profile considering the current circumstances facing the Dutch National team, and the early signs are certainly promising.

Ronald Koeman, manager of the Netherlands (L), looks on from the team bench prior to the international friendly against England last month (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Europe)

Taking the reins surrounded by a renovated support staff, including new sporting and general directors, Koeman led the Netherlands to a splendid 3-0 victory over European Champions Portugal in the latest round of friendlies, his novel 5-2-3 providing more options to build through the thirds and occupy the half spaces in possession, yet one can’t shake the feeling Koeman’s appointment still sounds as a lost opportunity to revamp the entire status quo in the country.

As mentioned before, times have changed and, as the Netherlands display some difficulties to accompany the evolution brimming around the continent, their coaching landscape functions as a paramount example worth exploring, an area where the Dutch are still programmed to do what they’ve always done. For instance, the default option for top clubs in Holland is still the appointment of former club players to run the main show in spite of limited previous experience. Phillip Cocu (PSV) and Giovanni van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord) are the most recent examples of this learning-on-the-fly approach, and while they had no problem padding their CV with national honours, deficiencies end up being exposed in European competitions or as soon as they venture abroad and onto more competitive environments, like happened with Frank de Boer, a four-time Dutch Champion with Ajax who lasted less than 3 months in his most recent positions (Inter Milan and Crystal Palace).

Conflictingly, the type of academy-trained, scientific-inclined minds that are flourishing all over Europe face uphill battles to land top jobs, with Peter Bosz (53-years-old), who guided Ajax to the Europa League final last season, and new Ajax manager Erik ten Hag (48), the Rinus Michels Award winner in 2015-16, shining as beacons of hope for a minority that, for better or worse, will eventually elbow their way to the forefront in short order just like it did, to cite a clear-cut success case, in neighbouring Germany.

Alternatively, it’s also not difficult to make the case that the foreign path should be explored both at the club and national team level since, on a deeper level, it finds inspiration on the history of the Netherlands as a country and football nation. In fact, well before their influence spread throughout the world, also in footballing terms, the Dutch were renowned for being unusually receptive to exterior ideas and expertise, their cosmopolitan capital a fervent hub of innovation, opened to learning, crafting and improving methodologies that would be shared with the world. Ultimately, that was the genesis of Totatvoetball, how it spawned and blossomed under Michels and Cruyff and, it can be argued, the principal lesson the Dutch should absorb looking back at their history.

The legendary Rinus Michels holds aloft the 1988 European Championships trophy won by the Netherlands, their only major (men’s) international honour to date (Getty)

Therefore, at a time Holland has grown (too) protective of its footballing principles, rooted to outdated theories and afraid of testing new tactics and concepts, the traditional notions simply have to be challenged and deconstructed. And to ensure a full reboot, not unlike what Germany (yup, them again) went through in the beginning of the century, they should (re) open their borders like they’ve done in all other walks of life. There’s no way around it.

The Austrian Ernst Happel, who sat on the bench at the 1978 World Cup, was the last foreigner to lead the Dutch National Team, and soon they may have to reconsider it again because sometimes it takes swallowing the pride to overhaul an entire system or, in this case, to shake the excessively inward-looking, conservative mentality that has gradually seeped into Dutch football. And, in addition, a successful stint by a foreign national manager might open the floodgates and convince domestic clubs to dip into uncharted waters, scour the global market and think progressively when they need to fill managerial voids, which can only enhance the future prospects of a national league in its own state of crisis.

VI – The National League: sequels of an abrupt fall from grace

So far we’ve focused primarily on the national team and the broader problems of Dutch football, however another aspect has greatly contributed to the demise of the game in the low lands: the downfall of the Eredivisie, the National League, and consequently of the major football institutions in the Netherlands, once among the most renowned in the world.

In the 1970’s, the apogee of orange football, the local clubs were the watermark of Europe, a reality inked in silver with the 9 European trophies conquered during the decade, starting with Feyenoord’s European Cup success in 1970 which would be followed by three consecutive titles for Ajax Amsterdam. Meanwhile, PSV Eindhoven collected the UEFA Cup in 1978 and a decade later would herald another run of Dutch success, with their 1988 European Cup success preceding five other international trophies until 1995, when Van Gaal’s kids brought the Champions League, European Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup to Ajax’s museum.

Members of Ajax’s 1995 Champions League winning team celebrate. They are the last to bring the iconic European Cup to the Netherlands (AP)

However, the seismic Bosman ruling came into effect in late 1995, and the profound implications that would unfold in the transfer market demarcated the moment Dutch clubs started to lag behind their European counterparts. It’s no coincidence that since the turn of the century a single continental honour is on record, the 2002 UEFA Cup won by Feyenoord at their own De Kuip stadium, and the descent into obscurity gives no signs of halting despite Ajax’s sentimental run to the 2017 Europa League Final.

Actually, more than the harbinger of a renaissance, De Godenzonen’s latest accomplishment is seen as a blip in the radar for a country that hasn’t produced a Champions League quarter-finalist since 2007 (PSV) and barely groaned, in wistful resignation, as all five representatives in the 2017-18 UEFA club competitions got emphatically bounced out by the end of November. Defending National Champions Feyenoord (Champions League) and Cup-holders Vitesse Arnheim (Europa League) qualified directly to the group stage of their respective competitions before mustering just two wins combined, while Utrecht, PSV and Ajax were eliminated in the Europa League playoffs, with the Amsterdam giants taking just three months to go from surprise finalists to a first-year without European competition in more than five decades…

Accordingly, the nation’s top-flight is currently ranked 14th in the UEFA League rankings, miles away from the top-five, Russia and Portugal, but also chasing the likes of Belgium, Ukraine, Turkey, Switzerland and the lowly Austrian and Czech league. Definitely embarrassing for a country of such tradition, although a situation not borne out of a lack of fan engagement, as corroborated by the attendance figures of 2016-17. No matter how dispirited by the progress of their football, the locals continued to flock to the stadiums in good numbers, with the Eredivisie’s average turnout – set at more than 19k per game – ranking eighth in Europe, or the highest outside the five largest markets (England (EPL + Championship), Germany (Bundesliga 1 and 2), Spain, Italy and France).

Nevertheless, this encouraging gate numbers fail to amount to much when the sizable economic gulf to other nations imposes a sad reality manifested in a sharp loss of competitiveness at the senior levels and the establishment of a vicious cycle that proves hard to break. Undeniably, athletic Dutch kids are still attracted to play football and the clubs continue to educate and graduate youngsters into their squads with incredible frequency – and, perhaps, more prematurely than ever -, yet clubs from abroad come knocking on the door so early that many promising players leave their homeland before being ready for the step up and fizzle out, lost in the shuffle at foreign academies or languishing on the benches until they’re forced to take a step back and return home with confidence shattered and the lustre all but gone.

The list of once highly-rated prospects plagued by this issue encompasses the likes of Luuk de Jong and Marco van Ginkel, both currently at PSV, Ricardo Kishna (Den Haag), Zakaria Labyad (Utrecht) or Luc Castaignos (Vitesse), however the revolving door gives no signs of ceasing at every transfer window; the most recent players fleeing the nest before fully asserting themselves being 22-year-old right back Rick Karsdorp (Feyenoord to Roma), 21-year-old midfielder Riechedly Bazoer (Ajax-Wolfsburg) or 22-year-old winger Anwar El Ghazi (Ajax-Lille).

Chelsea FC loanee Marco van Ginkel is unlikely to ever find his way back to the Premier League powerhouse (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Additionally, such annual exodus has another major repercussion, the watering down of the Eredivisie’s level of play as clubs can’t afford to replenish the rosters by recuiting the type of mature players that would, immediately, fill the shoes of the departed and, in turn, end up choosing richer locations. From here, a chain reaction emerges, with players easily snapped out because they can’t properly develop at home due to unsatisfactory competition (and coaching), and teams reeling, particularly internationally, since many revenue streams are dependent on results and, consequently, on the overall quality of the squad.

Once the perfect breeding ground for talents from all over the world, the gateway for the likes of Ronaldo Nazário, Romário or Luis Suárez, Dutch clubs haven’t exactly lost the eye for spotting quality, or even the appeal for a youngster from Belgium, Denmark, Mexico, Scandinavia, the Balkans or the Baltics, just to cite a few examples, yet  the story arch for a foreign signing is quite similar, as they also arrive earlier now and say goodbye when fans had barely met them, relegating the Dutch top-flight to the role of a, de facto, conveyor belt and supplier of the dominant European leagues.

VII – Rays of sunshine: from the prototypical Dutch player to the stars of tomorrow

Running parallel to a decaying national league that fails to prepare its athletes to the speed and intensity of the top-tier competitions, the Dutch player developed at home is also known to display a few characteristics that may play a small part in the current futility of the game in the Netherlands.

While as smart, versatile, technically proficient and tactically astute as any other, most Dutch products seem to have been coaxed out of some of the best attributes former generations enjoyed: the self-determination to express themselves in the middle of collective tenets and the audacity to think and execute differently. Some of this can be pinned on the decline of street football and the consistent football practices instructed worldwide, but there’s some basis to the notion that the Dutch have succumbed to the error of culling individual flair in favour of purely diligent players, who can read the game and fulfil a routine task with the efficiency of the best although they do struggle solving unexpected problems and going off-script.

Leaving behind the reality that this delicate balance between individualism and collectivism was pivotal during the Oranje’s heyday, experience also dictates that some of the quirks of Dutch players of the past are gone since today’s players seemingly perform better under a manager who tells them exactly what to do – like Louis Van Gaal – rather than someone who challenges and affords more leeway.

Additionally, with this mutation in the genetics of the Dutch game, their positional strengths have shifted away from the roles that demand more artistry and improvisation. Once a nation brimming with creative offensive players, the chivvying of dribbling, for example, is responsible for the sparse number of Dutch wingers that excel in one-on-one confrontations or look to execute in crowded spaces. And those that exist frequently butt heads with their clubs and coaches, like happened with Memphis Depay at PSV.

Sweeper, midfielder, goalscorer. The incomparable Ruud Gullit symbolized the wild nature of Dutch football. In the picture, he is in action against the URSS at the Euro 1988 (Pichon/L’Équipe)

Furthermore, the elegant ball-playing defenders that were key features of legendary Dutch sides haven’t been seen in a long time, which is a shame for the nation that pioneered the sweeper role where Ruud Krol, Ronald Koeman, Danny Blind and Frank de Boer excelled by mastering the art of the long pass, advancing from the back line and becoming an additional midfielder that would confuse the opposition and open passing lanes.

Fortunately, though, there are a few positive signs regarding these problematics, not only with a change in mentality that was evident on the free-flowing Ajax side that dazzled in Europe last season but, particularly, in the form of the rising tide of Dutch talent, whose development should continue to be handled with extreme care. For a case in point, look no further than the most exciting offensive talent to emerge in the country in a long time, 18-year-old Justin Kluivert (Ajax), who is already dealing with a lot of pressure, both for his notable bloodlines – he’s the son of Patrick Kluivert – and magnetic skills with the ball at his feet, namely the ability to eviscerate defences with his dribbling and close control.

The pacy wing man is already hailed as the heir apparent to Robben, however there’s more help on the way, including two well-rounded midfielders that impress for their intelligence in possession and smart passing, 20-year-old Donny van de Beek (Ajax), who has already bagged over a dozen of goals this season, and AZ Alkmaar’s crown-jewel, the gangly Guus Til, who complements his technical skills with the ability to win aerial challenges in the middle of the park.

Still, it is in another young midfielder that lies the biggest potential to reshape the face of Dutch football, 20-year-old Frenkie de Jong (Ajax), a mesmerizing talent for his ability to effortlessly fill any role in midfield due to his vision, passing range and versatility, but also a player that is thriving this season from deeper areas, used as a libero with free reign to define the pace of play, dribble out of the back and stride forward in mazy runs, raising comparisons to Franz Beckenbauer or a young Ruud Gullit.

The 20-year-old Frenkie de Jong is one of the diamonds of Ajax’s squad (ProShots)

Moreover, the cupboard in defence also features left-footed center back Rick van Drongelen, who made a seamless jump from Sparta Rotterdam to Hamburg at age 19 and is garnering admirers for his impressive Bundesliga debut season, Feyenoord’s Jeremiah St. Juste (21 years old), a bright spot during his team’s Champions League campaign, and, of course, the precocious Matthijs de Ligt. Already an Oranje first-team indisputable, he took over the captaincy duties at Ajax Amsterdam at age 18, and his physical and emotional maturity is a sight to behold, with de Ligt displaying outstanding composure on the ball, the ability to pick out passes of any range from the backline and decisiveness in confront with opposing forwards, where the teenager flashes uncanny speed and sense of timing.

Provided the development of these building blocks goes smoothly, and they continue to expand the base, there’s a potential for a return to the winning ways to come in the medium-term for the Netherlands, and such timeline can even be accelerated if they could add two crucial pieces to this cohort. An elite goalkeeper that would take the mantle from Edwin van der Saar, one of the first stoppers proficient with the ball at his feet and versed on the advantages of assuming a meaningful role in the team’s circulation, and a skilled, prolific marksman to spearhead the line and push incumbents Vincent Janssen and Bas Dost down the pecking order, continuing the heritage of Marco van Basten, Patrick Kluivert, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie.

Conclusion

Few doubts exist the Netherlands have hit rock-bottom, that a country and a national team whose ground-breaking approach to the game merited cult status are nowadays in a state of trauma, probing for solutions and a new direction in a world that has moved on from their philosophy. Still, the best part about floundering is the sense there’s only one way to go – back up – and, sooner or later, the vibrant orange jerseys will, unequivocally, marvel the football world again.

A litany of errors and missteps have been made at all levels, from a national federation that has struggled to find answers to stop the slide down the sport’s hierarchy, to the clubs, unable to compete with counterparts from countries that face similar challenges in a new economic reality that favours the giants, a coaching class that lacks the outside-the-box, forward-thinking attitude of yore, and players that can’t simply rely on natural talent and smarts alone, however no one disputes the Netherlands are still one of the sport’s guardian nations.

Dutch fans wave flags during the Women’s Euro 2017 Final in Enschede, Netherlands (AP)

That much is evident in the streets, on the slick fields of the lowlands, on the colourful fans that, while distressed with the current situation, keep showing up in major numbers and, from time to time, on the biggest football meetings, as last summer’s triumphant Women’s European Championships exemplified.

It may take more than anticipated to rebuild Dutch football from the ground up, to advance coaching and management practices that are lagging behind their competitors, to groom and mould the stars of tomorrow, to recover the respect cultivated over four decades and, especially, to come to terms with the country’s stand in this ever-evolving football landscape where knowledge is widely available to everyone who seeks it, but others countries went through their own soul-searching periods, sought inspiration outside, overhauled their processes and are now reaping the benefits of their methodical approaches.

The “neurotic genius” of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff turned around football history in a country that was an afterthought for the first half of the XXI century, and if the Dutch hope to avoid a return to this faraway past, the non-conformist, inventive aura instilled by those visionaries should guide them out of the crumble and through the paradigm-shifting changes needed. Even if those include the hard-to-digest decisions they’ve been dreading and putting off for clashing with their romantic, self-professed football notions and the idealistic “Dutch-way” of doing things. Because, it goes without saying, football is rarely beautiful when one is losing.

 

Advertisements

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

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.

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.

430defe800000578-0-image-a-33_1502142361473

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

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

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

The 2017 WTA Tour season

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

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

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

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

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

The IIHF World Junior Championships

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

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

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

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

Sports writing

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

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

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

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

Rapid Fire

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

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

My teams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alpine skiing:  The return of Anna Veith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ski jumping: Richard Freitag pads his overall lead in Engelberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football: Inter Milan picks up first defeat of the season

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

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

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

Bundesliga

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

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

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

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

Ligue 1

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

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

La Liga

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

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

Premier League

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

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

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

Moment of the week

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

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

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

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

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

Ski jumping: German double in Nizhny Tagil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biathlon: Denise Herrmann skis away from the opposition in Östersund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Fourcade’s perseverance delivers Pursuit victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Premier League

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

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

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

 

Ligue 1

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

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

La Liga

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

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

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

Bundesliga

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

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

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

Moment of the weekend

Easiest pick in a long time, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter sports 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ski jumping: Jernej Damjan records shocking win in Ruka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alpine Skiing: Mikaela Shiffrin opens her win account in Kyllington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football: Madness in Dortmund

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

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

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

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

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

Premier League

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

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

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

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

La Liga

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

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

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

Serie A

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

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

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

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

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

Ligue 1

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

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

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

Moment of the weekend

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

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

Weekend Roundup (November, 19th): Running away

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

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

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

La Liga

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

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

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

Premier League

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

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

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

Ligue 1

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

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

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

Bundesliga

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

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

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

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

Serie A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moment of the week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAF

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

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

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

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

UEFA

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

Northern Ireland – Switzerland, 0-1 on aggregate

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

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

Croatia – Greece, 4-1 on aggregate

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Inter Confederation playoffs

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

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

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

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

Moment of the weekend

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ligue 1

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

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

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

La Liga

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

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

Serie A

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

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

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

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

Bundesliga

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

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

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

Winter sports season gets under way in Sölden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moment of the weekend

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