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2018 IIHF World Championship: Hockey impressions

If you have yet to read the previous post on my experience at the 2018 IIHF World Championship, click here.

As you might already know, I was bunked in Copenhagen for the 2018 IIHF World Championship. And even though I only watched a handful of matches in full, parts of a few more and barely anything that went down in Herning, I still want to collect a few takeaways from the tournament and each team I followed. Without further ado:

Austria

Immediately demoted following every previous top division appearance, the Austrians arrived in Copenhagen with a single goal in mind: avoid relegation at all costs. An achievement unlocked with flying colours after their resounding 4-0 triumph over Belarus in a do-or-die situation and, impressively, just 24 hours after a traumatic 2-5 loss against fellow relegation fodder France. It’s true that way back in their tournament opener Austria had surprisingly forced Switzerland to play overtime, escalating internal expectations, but more couldn’t have been asked from a team missing star forwards Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner.

Eventually Philadelphia’s Michael Raffl showed up to infuse some NHL skill into the lineup, notching two eye-popping goals against the Czech and four in total, while veteran goalie Bernhard Starkbaum (91.79 Sv%, 2.72 GAA) authored some of the most spectacular desperation saves in the tournament, nonetheless the Austrian’s 14th place in the final standings is generally representative of their potential.

The Austrian players kneel to thank their fans for the support in the game against Belarus (new-iihf.com).

Belarus

A team in transition now that the Kostitsyn brothers and Mikhail Grabovski are being phased out, not many expected the Belarussians to bother the big nations like they’ve done at times in the past, yet their Danish nightmare went way deeper than that. Thrashed by France (6-2) between expected routs from Sweden and Russia, five days into the competition coach Dave Lewis was relieved off his duties, however the move didn’t rally the troops and the results continued to go from bad to worse, with that embarrassing defeat to Austria sealing their first relegation since 2003.

Madly inept in front of the goal, Belarus only scored 8 times in 7 games and half of those came in a washed out finale against Slovakia, where they provided their faithful with some semblance of hope, turning a 0-2 into a 4-3, before surrendering 4 straight Slovakian markers. Disastrous.

Belarus’ players react after their 7th and final loss at the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

Czech Republic

There was so much to like about Czech Republic’s performance in Copenhagen, so much promise, and they still headed home empty handed for the sixth consecutive year. Pushing the Swedes like few others did, and defeating Russia in a thriller, the Czech’s group prospects were eventually undone by the crucial points dropped in those early overtime encounters against Switzerland and Slovakia, forcing an extra trip to Herning and an unpredictable quarter-final with the USA decided by Patrick Kane’s genius.

Still, another last-eight exit couldn’t overshadow the confirmation of Pavel Francouz as one of Europe’s best goalies and a smart pickup by the Colorado Avalanche nor the heady play of a relatively anonymous blueline, where Detroit’s prospects Filip Hronek (20-year-old) and Libor Šulák (24) as well as newly-signed Montreal Canadien David Sklenička (21) shone. Moreover, up front, beyond the boost provide by David Pastrňák and David Krejčí, there was a lot to get Carolina Hurricanes’ fans excited about Martin Nečas (19), Vegas fans expectant about what Tomáš Hyka (25) can do in a bigger NHL spell and confidence-building performances by Dmitrij Jaškin(25) or Dominik Kubalík (22). After some bare years, the Czech revolution is underway and it’s a just a matter of time before they barge into the podium again. And how sweet looks the prospect of doing it in Slovakia next year?

Czech center Martin Nečas is chased by his teammates after scoring a late equalizer versus Slovakia.

France

After threatening to reach the quarters last year in Paris, there were natural aspirations regarding a possible second ever top-eight (2014) finish for France, however, despite a positive tournament, they never got particularly close. Hammered by Russia (0-7) in the first day, Les Bleus rebounded to handily best direct rivals Belarus (6-2) and Austria (5-2), yet they would have liked to cause more problems to the Czech (0-6) or the Swiss (1-5).

Taking into account that their two best forwards, Pierre-Édouard Bellemare and Antoine Roussel, didn’t don the sweater, Cristobal Huet is history, and the lack of alternatives to long-time mainstays such as Damien Fleury or the da Costa brothers is an inescapable reality, securing a 12th consecutive top division appearance in 2019 was not only an accomplishment but a nice way to bid adieu to retiring coach Dave Henderson.

France’s Jordann Perret reacts after scoring a goal on Belarus (Getty Images)

Russia

As I see it, you can evaluate Russia’s performance under two distinct prisms: they were without their five best players (Malkin, Kucherov, Tarasenko, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin) but still clinched second place in the group before falling in an hard-fought QF against Canada, which is obviously no shame and therefore qualifies Ilya Vorobyov’s first competition in charge as satisfactory. Or you could state that the Olympic Champions (…) dropped a winnable match against the Czech, were squarely beaten by Sweden and, once again, faltered in the moment of truth in a tournament they weren’t overwhelming favourites…

Not sure which option was favoured by Russian media, so I’ll just skip ahead and note that young Kirill Kaprizov put together another star-making performance in the international limelight, netting 6 goals in 8 games (Patience, Wild fans, exert patience), and together with Nikita Gusev and Pavel Datsyuk rekindled the magic of Pyeongchang to form the most dominant line seen in Copenhagen. Want another KHL player to keep tabs on? SKA St. Petersburg’s Alexander Barabanov, a skilled 23-year-old, bottom-six winger who posted 4 goals and 4 assists to turn scout’s heads aplenty.

Russia’s Pavel Datsyuk in action against Switzerland in a preliminary group match (Russian Ice Hockey Federation)

Slovakia

Just like their neighbours, Slovakia hasn’t medalled since 2012. Unlike the Czech, it’s difficult to anticipate that streak will be broken soon. Sure, the 9th place obtained in Denmark is an improvement over the disastrous 14th of 2017, but that shouldn’t be the standard for one of hockey’s traditional nations, which ought to get into the last eight regularly. Pipped to fourth place in Group A by virtue of a 0-2 defeat to the Swiss, the Slovaks showed fighting spirit against Sweden and the Czechs, failing both times in overtime, yet their well-documented struggles in graduating fresh blood into the national team setup were front and centre once again.

Goalie Marek Čiliak played decently, especially against the Czech, but he didn’t steal a game, the Slovak defence was still anchored by veteran Andrej Sekera – though it was nice to see draft-eligible Martin Fehérvary getting a test run – and the attack paced by the everlasting Ladislav Nagy, who posted 10 pts (5 against Belarus) as a 39-year-old top-line winger. With just two NHL players amongst their ranks (defenseman Christián Jaroš, from Ottawa, was the other), at least the tournament gave Tomáš Jurčo (4 goals) a chance to display some signs of life, with his raw skill sticking out from the mob.

Slovakia’s Tomáš Jurčo celebrates his goal against Austria (nhl.com)

Sweden

Preliminary round success in international play is a patented Swedish tradition and they delivered. After that, things naturally get trickier, but buoyed by the yellow wave that invaded Royal Arena, the Tre Kronor surfed high expectations in Copenhagen to end up seizing a second consecutive world title. Not that the Swedes were always overwhelming  – Latvia, Slovakia and Switzerland can attest to that – however they managed to keep their nerve while trailing, continuing to pummel the opposition until they found a way to retake control of the proceedings.

And it helped, obviously, that their roster was brimming with established NHL talent and experience, headlined by the best defence corps in the tournament (Larsson, Ekman Larsson, Klingberg and Lindholm is a sick top-four) and a top forward line that clicked immediately, as Mattias Janmark (10 pts) managed to keep pace with Mika Zibanejad and Rikard Rakell (6 goals each). In any case, if that wasn’t enough firepower for opponents to deal with, Mattias Ekholm, Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Patric Hörnqvist soon disembarked directly from North America just to exacerbate the problem, and their supposed Achilles heel, the goaltending position, sorted itself out as Anders Nilsson ousted Magnus Hellberg’s competition before running away with Media All-Star honours (95.4, 1.09, 3 SO)..and the Cup.

Team Sweden listen to the national anthem after winning a match at the 2018 IIHF World Championship (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Switzerland

Who would have thought the same Swiss team that struggled to squeak past Austria in their opener would eventually shock the hockey world two weeks later? In fact, not just once, which can be attributed to luck, but almost three straight times in a span of four days, upsetting established hockey nations with relentless team effort and discipline. Looking back though, the turning point for the Swiss might have been that tough back-to-back against Russia and Sweden (12/13 of May), when their battle level wasn’t enough to erase deficits but inspired belief.

Afterwards, the Swiss stomped France to book a place in the QF, raided Finland in a four-minute second period blitz, and built a Cinderella story that deserved a happy ending. It wasn’t meant to be, nonetheless Switzerland paved the road to success for mid-level nations: extract tremendous contributions from your NHL players (Timo Meier, Nino Niederreiter and Sven Andrighetto notched a point per game, Mirco Mueller stepped up in the medal round, late-arrivals Kevin Fiala and Roman Josi added a new dimension), ride a hot goalkeeper (Leonardo Genoni was immense vs Canada and Sweden) and – not least – unearth a few hidden gems along the way. For the Swiss, that was synonymous with defenseman Ramon Untersander (3 goals, 7 points), sneaky forward Gregory Hofmann (4 goals) and the tournament’s revelation, Enzo Corvi, the 25-year-old HC Davos center who rode shotgun with Niederreiter and scored a beauty of an overtime winner against Austria.

Jubilant Swiss players get together to celebrate victory over Canada in the semi-final of the 2018 IIHF World Championship (Getty Images)

Canada

Connor McDavid is unlikely to be available for the Worlds for much of the next 15 years (right, Edmonton?) and the Canadians, to put it simple, blew away a great opportunity to level Russia’s (including Soviet Union) record tally of 27 gold medals in the competition. Evidently not due to the young phenomenon’s efforts, since he piled up the points (17 in 10 matches), scored an hat-trick on the Norwegians and an overtime winner that avoided embarrassment versus Latvia, but it’s still a fact that McDavid didn’t exactly rip the opposition to shreds in the playoff round. This in spite of the three assists against Russia, followed up by a frustrating match versus the Swiss, and the disappearing act in the team’s putrid effort on a bronze medal contest that epitomized Canada’s tournament, one with more valleys than peaks.

Still, positive grades go out to Aaron Ekblad and Colton Parayko (that cannon of a shot is a sight to behold) and all the question marks are reserved for Canada’s entire goaltending situation: a tandem of Darcy Kuemper (awful performance) and Curtis McElhinney (serviceable…)? No comments. Except we’ll take the time to report the name of Canada’s third string goalie: Michael Di Pietro. Who?

Canadians Connor McDavid, Ryan O’Reilly and Aaron Ekblad celebrate victory over Russia at the World Championship quarter-finals (Getty Images)

Latvia

Why, Latvia? Who allowed you free reign to destroy our beautiful dream, a Sweden-Denmark quarter-final? I’ll only forgive you because Latvian hockey fans are awesome and your goalies have a penchant for creating chaos. How else can we explain the fact unheralded Kristers Gudļevskis put a scare into the Canadian hearts again? Or that Elvis Merzļikins – great name, greater numbers (94.04 Sv%, 1.50 GAA, 2 SO) – shut down Denmark, forced the USA to OT and came pretty close from doing the same to the almighty Swedes?

USA

For once the Americans didn’t tank a bronze medal game! Because they still felt the sting of their semi-final debacle? Maybe. Because they cherish every opportunity to get an upper-hand on the Canadians? A bit. But I prefer to believe they badly wanted to honour Jim Johannson, the USA Hockey mainstay and mentor who unexpectedly passed away in January at age 53.

In an emotive ceremony, John Johannson, Jim’s brother, handed out the bronze medals to the American players and, afterwards, they all expressed their profound esteem for the man, yet they should know the best way to preserve his legacy at USA Hockey is to follow Patrick Kane’s lead: show up every May with a strong, committed group and establish the Americans as a force to be reckoned at the World Championships too. This was another step, as no one scored as much as the USA (46 goals) or picked up more points than Kane (20), the tournament MVP, but to claim a World title in the future, they’ll have to clean up the type of lacklustre performances that caused Finland and Sweden to pump six goals into Keith Kinkaid’s net.

Nick Bonino of the U.S. scores a goal in the bronze-medal match (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Finland

The mystifying tales of a talented Finnish duo that was setting Herning on fire didn’t take long to reach the Danish Capital, and just as I rubbed my hands in anticipation of the incoming circus, the party was over. Forty goals in eight games, demolitions of Canada (5-1) and the USA (6-2) interspersed by head-scratching losses to Denmark and Germany. Of course, Finland would have to draw their worst version against Switzerland. Still, 18 pts for Sebastian Aho (9 goals!) and 14 (5+9) for Teuvo Teräväinen, with the Hurricanes’ duo combining for a +29 rating in just 8 games? Absurd.

Denmark

It’s fair to call Denmark’s tournament a(n on-ice) failure. Quarter-Finalists in 2010 and 2016, they were dumped out, on home soil, by tiny Latvia in a winner-takes-all preliminary finale contested days after, predictably, achieving the most difficult: overcome Olympic silver medallists Germany and steal three points from the high-flying Finns.

It’s true that Denmark’s most explosive offensive weapons, Nikolaj Ehlers and Lars Eller, were still involved in the NHL playoffs, but the hosts still boasted the majority of their stalwarts (Frans Nielsen, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Mikkel Bødker, Jannik Hansen) and none could buy a single goal against Latvia. Frederik Andersen, their joker, did all he could (94.38 Sv%, 1.65 GAA) on the other end and his titanic effort still went to waste. Bah.

Goalie Frederik Andersen leads Team Denmark’s salute to the public of Herning after the victory over Finland on May 9th (Martin Rose/Getty Images Europe)

Nothing to report: Germany, Norway, North Korea

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Field Report: 2018 IIHF World Championship

They promised Heroes would come and when they finally departed, a trail of indelible memories was left behind: of on-ice feats that will ring for generations to come, of the visitors who fuelled an unprecedented party, of jam-packed arenas and rivals turned friends. Along with multiple accounts of parents and kids watching the sport for the first time, of locals inspired by vulcanized rubber and skates scratching the ice on a country that soon realized what it was missing on.

Fifteen years. That’s how long Denmark has squared off, spring after spring, with ice hockey’s powerhouse nations and how long it took to place the sport in the national conversation. A decade and a half of breakthroughs, milestones and small victories, but also of  painfully slow growth in dedicated infrastructures, number of participants, attendances and exposure. So much that every other (European) top-division regular exercised its right to host the sport’s annual showcase, the main IIHF World Championship, before the Danes took a leap of faith, believing that a country with just 27 rinks, 5000 registered players and an average turnout of 1300 spectators in the national league could rise to the challenge. With a helping hand from the hockey world, both in the stands and behind the scenes, Denmark aced the test, crushing expected attendance figures and administering an immaculate sports event whose financial and capital benefits will trickle down the national hockey edifice for a long time.

However, as much I would like to continue to pump the Danes’ tires, this is a post about my personal experience in Denmark as one of 1100 volunteers that helped stage the Ice Hockey Worlds and, necessarily, as a rabid hockey fan, so let’s get on with it. First, should I introduce you to my “working” space?

Inside and outside Royal Arena

Contested by the 16 best ice hockey nations, the IIHF World Championship Top Division is yearly held across two venues, with teams divided in two groups of eight that run concurrently before a knockout stage. For the 2018 competition, that meant the city of Herning, in the central Jutland Region and the country’s hockey hotbed, welcomed hosts Denmark and seven opponents at the impressive Jyske Bank Boxen Arena, while the remaining eight nations, including bordering Sweden, faced off in Copenhagen and the brand-new Royal Arena.

Royal Arena shining under the sun in the first day of the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

Opened last year, the result of a private-public partnership that desired to bestow the Danish capital with a modern entertainment venue that could host major spectacles and sporting events, the Royal Arena is as conveniently located as any leading, non-central venue could be. Served by a regional training station that runs to the airport, the city centre or across the Øresund in a few minutes, and with two metro stations (Ørestad and Vestamager) in walking distance, the building is not only a centerpiece of Ørestad’s development into one of Copenhagen’s burgeoning residential districts, but also a state-of-the art, lustrous setting that blends glass and wooden details into an elegant, distinct Nordic style look.

Moreover, on the inside, the curvy concourses in all levels are spacious and delicately illuminated as to take advantage of the natural light when available, whereas the three-tiered stands came short of forming a full bowl since one of the sides ends in an adjustable walled area that can fit multiple purposes, including the installation of a provisional stand for the World Championship. With decent sightlines and dark seating all around, the arena might need a suitable audience to feel accommodating, yet, at near full capacity (12490 spectators for the tournament), the noise and colours popped out nicely to produce some raucous and genuinely fun atmospheres.

Still, there’s no arguing that the added magic of major, tournament-like sport events lies as much in what happens while the real action is going on as the festive environment before and after the matches, and that was definitely taken care off at the Worlds Fanzone. Conveniently located just across the street (Hannemanns Allé) from the Royal Arena, the 10.000m2 outdoor area staged a true manifestation of the friendly nature of hockey fans, with rival factions drinking, playing and, generally, hanging out together and behaving exceptionally well even as beer flowed freely.

A packed Fanzone awaits the start of the Final.

As someone much more used to the sectarian, markedly antagonistic nature of football fans – especially at the club level – I can’t exactly say that surprised described my feelings when I took a few minutes to enjoy the festival-like environment, but I was, definitely, a little proud of the sense of camaraderie emanating as game-time approached and the amicable banter that followed the on-ice battles.

Furthermore, with many activities and games fit for children and youngsters available, Copenhagen’s Fanzone was also a favourite of the natives, with the local organizers making a concerted effort to invite and provide arena access to schools for lower-profile matchups, and the kids, in turn, taking full advantage of the opportunity. Hopefully, a few of those boys and girls shooting a puck for the first time felt inspired to take on this beautiful sport (since they actually can, you know L).

Alas, I didn’t travel to Copenhagen to meander through the fanzone or sit in the stands, so what the hell was I actually doing?

At the Media Center

Media Center Assistant. Loooots of fun (”Czechoslovakia” speaker voice, please). No sporting event these days makes sense without the men and women tasked with disseminating its stories to the world, and making sure they possess all the conditions to do just that was the central mandate of our job.

In short, we’re talking about guaranteeing a functional working environment before, during and after the matches, from the early mornings (when teams held their practices) up to two hours after the end of the last game of the day (usually past midnight). That entailed, amongst others, distributing crucial tournament information to the people who needed it fast (and burning through an Amazonia-like tonnage of paper in the process), keep all the relevant updates available and easily accessible, sort out ways to help with any odd situations that may arise (baggage/equipment storing, for example) and, critically, make sure that they kept their minds sane in spite of the furious workload they’re subjected to during the fortnight. The secret?  Media Center’s own Holy Trinity: Coffee, bananas and cookies!

Honestly, I know that might not sound that exciting unless you really enjoy sifting though piles of all kinds of hockey statistics, glancing at game reports or checking roster updates every day (*raises hand*), but the job does come with manifold perks that would make anyone’s time worthwhile, namely premium access to the media stand and several short windows to follow the action and soak the arena’s in-game atmosphere.

Nonetheless, if you’re a media buff like me or simply a hockey enthusiast, the opportunity to contact, meet and chat with all kinds of accredited media, from acclaimed reporters, broadcasters and writers to the more inconspicuous cameramen and photographers hailing from all parts of the hockey world is probably enticing enough, and things might get even better as soon as you realized that journalists only form a portion of the tremendous amount of hockey people that prowl the IIHF World Championship Media Center on a daily basis.

Look, kid. That guy’s a hockey legend.

Have you heard the expression “a healthy scratch watching from the press box”? Well, if players want to observe their teammates or opponents in action, they do need to find a seat in the Media tribune. And with them come the coaches. And team officials. And honourable guests, from NHL General Managers to head coaches or scouts, who would very much like to socialize with fellow hockey people and grab a lineup to help follow the activity on ice.

So, now imagine if you get a bit star struck simply by bumping into TSN’s Darren Dreger, or having to interrupt the intermission chat of the best commentating duo in the business (Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro) to deliver a game report, and now magnify it when you notice that Nick Lidstrom is standing a few meters away seconds before jumping on air to provide analysis of Sweden’s debut. Also spotted in this bustling area during the tournament by this overexcited hockey nerd: legendary players like Alexei Yashin (Russia), Jiri Fischer (Czech Republic), Miroslav Satan (Slovakia) and Martin Brodeur (Canada), NHL GMs such as Ray Shero (New Jersey Devils) and Jim Nill (Dallas Stars) and Stanley Cup winning-coaches like Mike Babcock and Dan Bylsma.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking now. “Stop bragging, idiot! Also, big deal. A bunch of has beens. What about the (current) stars of the show?” Well…

The Mixed Zone

If you’ve ever followed a major sports event, such as the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup, you’ve likely heard of the Mixed Zone, loosely defined as an area where athletes speak with the media after doing their thing in front of millions of spectators.

For a guy like Usain Bolt at the Olympics, the Mixed zone ritual is an interminable, energy-sapping labyrinth of international press that has to be navigated, and while the IIHF World Championships and most of its athletes obviously aren’t at the same level, hockey players have to deal with a similar kind of apparatus after every game, with all competitors funnelled right as they leave the ice to a room where they meet plenty of faces eager to get a money quote.

A looping area divided in four sections, the Mixed Zone is a tightly-run entity that offers broadcasters and official TV rights holders the first crack at the players, who subsequently move to face radio reporters, web media personal and the voracious print /online writers in this order.

The Mixed Zone room (after a practice session).

While not obliged to express their feelings, every dressed player (and head coach) is still required to do the full tour and since competition for exclusive time with star players is fierce, things are bound to get messy and confusing without some kind of proactive action. And that’s where we entered as in order to expedite and facilitate the process, we kept an eye on everyone to guarantee no regulations were broken (especially regarding illegal video recording), but also sought media requests, tried to liaison with the team media managers, and regularly helped spot and stop the most coveted athletes so that everyone would leave happy. Likewise, a similar procedure followed every practice session held on the main arena or the adjacent (and absolutely freezing) practice rink.

All in all, standing on the mixed zone, rubbing shoulders with reporters and standing centimetres apart from every hockey star in the tournament was, unequivocally, a highlight of my experience. And since I was fortunate enough to be assigned for it frequently and on a daily basis, might as well just spit out some loose (but innocuous) observations based  on what I saw and listened in there regarding the eight teams that formed group A plus Canada, transplanted from Herning for the quarter-finals.

Insights from the Mixed zone

  • Exactly where’s the separation between Belarus and Russia? I’m aware of the close political, cultural and linguistic ties, but it still took me a surprisingly long time (and a lot of accreditation double-checking) to pinpoint the breadth of the Belarussian contingent dispatched to Copenhagen as they diligently split allegiances, attention and resources through the group stage. Additionally, reference to the unpredictable scheduling of Belarus’ head coach(es) declarations, dizzyingly bouncing at will between off-days, post-practice, pre-game and post-game, in turn creating a few logistical problems, and to goalie Vitali Trus, winner of the “seriously, how old is this guy?” award by defying his pubescent looks for a full decade.
  • The Austrian’s post-victory routine with their travelling devotees was fascinating, but they were still, by far, the quietest bunch in terms of press interest. Virtually no domestic coverage, limited outside curiosity for a roster that lacked buzz, and a lot of expectant faces trekking the mixed zone and waiting for a chance to share their thoughts that rarely came.

Ice-level view of the stands.

  • How big is hockey in Czech Republic? I figured I had a good idea, but it was still impressive to notice the all-hands-on-deck coverage on every platform, from TV to web and print. Including, I was told, plenty of eminent on-air talent reporting from Denmark, and large amounts of backstage/TV production equipment on site.

In addition, the frenzy around the team noticeably piqued after the arrival of the two NHL Davids – even if one persisted in trying to skip part of his media obligations – whereas the distinct change of the guard was also evident in the mixed zone. While Tomáš Plekanec’s presence barely registered a blip, Martin Nečas prominence ratchet up by the game. Oh, and Philadelphia’s Radko Gudas is a surprisingly affable guy off the ice… or maybe his invaluable contributions to the Penguins playoff cause were simply too fresh on my memory to cloud my judgement.

  • Allez Les Blues. Putting aside the fact that I’m still bummed Stéphane da Costa somehow evaded my watchful eye, the French definitely shot up my preferences during the tournament. A rather small but polite and welcoming group of journalists, players thrilled to answer every request regardless of the origin, and our unofficial award for the finest media managing work claimed by Team France’s Valérie Thibault. Well, the free keychains/pins helped too, I guess.
  • The Russians. Ever-present in all media areas, they were clearly better left on their own unless you happened to speak the language as both players and media looked noticeably uninterested in making much of an effort to speak English. In fact, such trump card was repeatedly played by many of their KHL-based elements, which further increased the international media burden on the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Artem Anisimov (btw, we missed you, Ovi). Get ready, Mr. Kaprizov, that’s what the near future holds for you, sir. Outside of ridiculous offensive stats on the ice and female worshipping of it, of course.
  • If clinging to the past defines the current state of Slovakian hockey, shipping one of the less than a handful of radio reporters working in the tournament is its media-equivalent, right? Anyway, kudos to coach Craig Ramsay for the gracious way he handled the pressure of the Slovak media after the early exit, and to captain Andrej Sekera, also their runaway leader in the number of post-game engagements. Meanwhile, he didn’t play much, but the tournament’s youngest participant, 18-year-old Martin Fehérváry, drew his fair share of curiosity in the mixed zone.

Rikard Rakell doing extra hours in the mixed zone after one of Sweden’s early matches

  • For geographical reasons, Sweden’s media contingent was, by far, the biggest in the competition and, naturally, it just kept growing as the Tre Kronor marched to the title. Already a premium ticket for their blend of talent, recognizable faces and English proficiency, all Swedish mixed zones were wild, especially in the print media area, unbearably crowded by the end. Still, no one could ever criticize the players’ effort as the Swedish stars held court multiple times and rarely rushed out of the loop. The patience displayed by the likes of Rickard Rakell, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mika Zibanejad and the late arriving Filip Forsberg and Patric Hörnqvist was truly commendable.

On the contrary, it was disconcerting to notice that a guy like Hampus Lindholm flies as much under-the-radar at home as in the NHL and even captain Mikael Backlund’s low-profile from Calgary held up. Young Elias Pettersson broke a finger midway to cut short his tournament, but I can report his media education is going quite well (the same can’t be said of his physical maturation), such was his cordiality and generosity in repeatedly answering the same questions about Vancouver, whereas head coach Rikard Gronborg really strikes an imposing presence, his mastery in contact with the media and ability to spew out words without actually saying much the final proof that an NHL opportunity is right around the corner.

  • Not unlike their hockey team, Swiss media was hardly noticeable throughout the first week of the tournament, displaying the usual Helvetian reserve and efficiency, but as the group increased and the Eisgenossen soared, they made their presence felt. For instance, by taking over the final corner of the print section and diligently waiting for their heroes to navigate the rest of the maze, which also made our job easier. Moreover, there seemed to be a real sense of togetherness that extended from the team to the media, regardless of language differences, and that probably contributed to make Patrick Fischer’s ritual though the media zone more enjoyable, as the 42-year-old head coach steadily ploughed through all the requests in the country’s three official languages (Italian, French and German).

As for the players, there was a healthy mix of interest dispensed to both the European-based guys, especially the breakout names, and the NHL guys, but Roman Josi, unsurprisingly, proved to be on a different level, brushing aside a disappointing end of the season and all the miles logged in the last two seasons to show up in Copenhagen ready to handle almost as much off the ice as inside.

  • How can you infer that it is time to scale back your hockey-time allocation? When you can identify TSN’s Tessa Bonhomme in the flash zone area without having to check her accreditation card…Anyway, Canada relocated from Herning, and while I obviously can’t speak to their approach in the preliminary stage, their press managers definitely meant business in Copenhagen after the elimination games, escorting players from stop to stop and making sure they didn’t talk more than the absolutely necessary.

McDavid? He dutifully stopped by TSN’s place and then moved straight to the print section, where this happened: “Connor, Connor, anyone wants Connor?” – Cue pandemonium and mass migration, with reporters pushing and elbowing each other and a major scrum forming in a matter of seconds, an indistinct melee of phones, audio recorders, heads and arms. 97 fielded a pair of questions and onward he went, with whoever missed him left to grab someone else. Amongst the frontrunners I can nominate Ryan O’Reilly and defenseman Colton Parayko, but it was Aaron Ekblad who drew my biggest chuckle throughout the experience at the mixed zone: A “Do you want to join too?” directed at a volunteer too animated in his attempts to not let another Canuck slip away from a web request.

Extras:

  • To Team USA’s press manager: Please return my semi-final sheet. Or, at least, next time make sure any of the inquiries is met. Tks. Also, props to Patrick Kane, the American captain who answered the call even after their embarrassing semi-final performance to honour his much-appreciated commitment to the competition.

A few American players kick a ball around before the third-place playoff.

  • The Finnish players never landed in Copenhagen, but the amount of media (and fans) that still showed up for the medal games was impressive.

Press Conferences are only held at the World Championship from the quarter-finals forward, which means I was present at just two (CAN-RUS and USA-CAN) of the six scheduled for Copenhagen, but I’ll still leave two notes.

  • The third place match really highlighted the lack of North American interest in the tournament. Outside of the TSN crew, there was one (I think) Canadian reporter looking for Bill Peters’ takes on the game. Meanwhile, the victorious American coach, Jeff Blashill, literally held a one-on-one exchange with reporter Julie Robenhymer.
  • Why ask your coach anything in English when you can just swarm him and start the deposition after the press conference is called off, right Russian media?

And that’s it for behind-the-curtain fodder I’m willing to share. A few more sections remaining in this post though.

Five favourite players to watch during the tournament

  1. Connor McDavid

The (next) best hockey player in the world performing in front of my eyes and I didn’t even had to cross the Atlantic? Pretty cool. Still, If only he hadn’t forgotten to sip his coffee before the bronze medal match…

  1. Rikard Rakell/Mika Zibanejad

They made some sweet music together on the ice, and repeatedly staying late in the mixed zone meant I could actually listen to their views on the game.

  1. David Pastrňák

The entire gulf in intensity between the NHL playoffs and the IIHF World Championship expressed in one night. Although Patrick Kane didn’t appreciate my hot take enlisting Pastrňák as the tournament’s second best player and the Czechs suffered in result.

  1. Pavel Datsyuk

A legend walking amongst the mortals.

  1. Filip Forsberg

I was on the edge of my seat (if I had one, duh) every time he received the puck in the offensive zone. A magnetic presence that deked the hell out of Sweden’s rivals.

Five memorable games

  1. CZE 4-3 RUS (OT), Group Stage

A rivalry always incensed by massive political and sporting backdrops, the temperature rose quickly at Royal Arena when the Russians opened the score early to break the game apart in front of a rowdy sellout crowd. Fuelled by the fire-branding talent of reinforcements David Krejčí and David Pastrňák, two sleepless demons who combined for 7 points on the night, the Czech should have claimed the three points in regulation, however the 3-3 scoreline was upheld until OT.

Eventually the irrepressible Pastrňák deftly banked the winner to cap an exciting extra session, but the dropped point would make all the difference to separate both teams in the final group standings.

  1. RUS 4-5 CAN (OT), Quarter Final

It’s a shame that hockey’s premier arch nemesis contested an afternoon tilt in a Royal Arena short of full capacity (9.017), but the hockey more than made up for the tepid ambience.

The vaunted Canada-Russia QF matchup

It all started with a Colton Parayko howitzer from the point, the first of three crucial powerplay goals for Canada, and after Russia rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the second, the teams went head-to-head in a wacky third period that demanded extra innings. An overtime hero in PyeongChang a few months ago, Kirill Kaprizov’s debatable penalty opened the door to Canada and Connor McDavid took advantage, threading a sweet pass that was deflected into the winner by Ryan O’Reilly. In a blink, Russia’s dream of an Olympic / World Championship double in the same calendar year went up in smoke.

  1. CAN 2-3 SUI, Semi-Final

There are few things a neutral sports fan enjoys more than a monumental upset, and even if this wasn’t the best possible Canadian team, hats off to the underdog Swiss for taking full advantage of the opportunities, mustering timely secondary scoring (Scherwey, Hofmann and Haas hit the twine) and surviving countless periods of intense Canadian pressure without capitulating or taking penalties.

With a 45-17 discrepancy in shots on goal, Switzerland’s victory was only possible because goalie Leonardo Genoni stood on his head, including a last-second desperation save on Connor McDavid, yet the way the Swiss collapsed in front of the net and kept play to the outside said a lot about the team’s mettle and validated this historical result.

  1. CZE 3-2 SVK (OT)

If someone needed a reality check on how much this tournament means for European nations, this was it. A vibrating, electric atmosphere inside a stuffed hockey arena in the second day of the tournament, a Saturday delight sponsored by a reported 7000 travelling Czech fans and a mass of boisterous Slovaks, an engaging party disguised as a hockey game  between two abutting, brotherly nations with so much in common.

On the ice, the favoured Czech carried the play, but the points belonged in full to the scrappy Slovaks until Martin Nečas found a hole on Marek Čiliak’s armour with just 10 seconds to go in the third period, blowing the roof off the building in the process. Later it fell to teammate Dmitrij Jaškin the responsibility to put an end to a wonderful contest in overtime, picking the puck off his own shot before slipping a backhand over the Slovak goalie’s leg, and outside went both sets of fans, eager to continue the festivities through the night.

  1. SWE 3-2 SUI (SO)

Going into the final day, I knew it would take a majestic decider to take that Czech Republic-Slovakia encounter off the higher perch, and even if history was millimetres away from being made in Copenhagen, the tournament’s climax ultimately delivered enough drama to nudge just ahead.

A Swiss defender lugs the puck up the ice during the Final against Sweden

Taking the lead twice to stun the mostly yellow-clad crowd, the Swiss once again relied on a spectacular Genoni to keep the Swedes in check on this reedition of the 2011 Final, yet the prohibitive tournament favourites managed to puncture the red wall enough times to level at two and force sudden-death. Then, a spine-tingling 20 minute, 4 on 4 extra session featured incredible chances for both sides, particularly Kevin Fiala’s point-blank shot denied by Anders Nilsson’s glove and Adam Larsson’s ping at the final buzzer, however destiny had reserved the abhorrent shootout format as the ultimate tiebreaker. Inching closer to an unprecedented World title, the Swiss again took the lead (Andrighetto) only to watch as Sweden responded with back-to-back conversions authored by NHL All-Stars Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Filip Forsberg. The weight of the world fell on Nino Niederreiter’s shoulders, but he failed to deceive Nilsson and assured Denmark’s maiden tournament would crown their neighbours and a repeated Champion.

Notes on Copenhagen (and Malmö)

You know the drill. This ain’t a travel blog, but I can still summon a few general thoughts on the setting, can’t I?

  • Yes, the Danish Capital is laughingly expensive. But one of the World’s most liveable cities is also absolutely gorgeous when the sun is shining, with locals (and expatriates) rushing to sprawl on the parks, streets and cafes. And boy, the glorious weather decided to bless the World Championships with delightful regularity, I’m happy to report.
  • As an advocate of the “walk-until-your-feet-hurt” city exploration method, it can’t get much better than Copenhagen’s accessibility and compactness in terms of major venues and sights. It’s a pedestrian paradise without the bustle of Amsterdam, and still brimming with canals, water and green everywhere you look.

Frederiksberg Have

  • Getting back, for a minute, to my hockey fan persona. What was up with the complete absence of outdoors publicizing the biggest sporting event in the country’s history around the city center? One banner tucked over one of the side exits of the main train station won’t cut it for the majority of tourists oblivious to the competition, much less shoddy advertisement in some peripheral metro stations on the way to Ørestad.
  • Speaking of Ørestad: if you find yourself in the area and enjoy modern architecture, take the time to admire some of the edgy residential buildings.
  • With minimum research you’ll discover the must-watch sights and tourist traps (one rhymes with idle barmaid), so I’ll leave you with my own non-hockey fanboy moment: Lingering around Christiansborg’s courtyard half-expecting Birgitte Nyborg to turn up and start whispering with political adversaries under the arcades.
  • Favourite places to walk: Frederiksberg Have, Fælledparken (admittedly because of all those football fields marked on the grass) and the lakes area (also quite good for people’s watching, if you’re into that).
  • Favourite place to Bike: Kalvebod Fælled, in Amager. A splendorous wild area of protected wetlands, forest, and lakes rich in wildlife. It’s massive, but you can reach the outer edge in ten minutes from Brygge Islands, just across the canal from the city center.
  • Finally, definitely reserve one day to visit Malmö, just across the Øresund. The views from the bridge crossing are worth the train fare, and the Swedish city has undeniably eschewed for good the bad reputation that stemmed from its industrial past, social divisions and multi-cultural makeup.

If you can tell why I framed this Malmö location, we’re friends for life.

Be aware that Malmö has a charming yet small historical centre (Gamla Staden). Blink and you might miss it coming out of the train station. Thumbs up for the tons of green spaces, the two modern sports venues (Malmö Arena and Swedbank Stadium) and the upscale Västra Hamnen district. Especially its waterfront, a stone throw away from the Turning Torso, which offers great views of the coast, the bridge and the Øresund.

Ok, now that’s really all I have for you in this post. Although not the totality of my “coverage” from the 2018 IIHF World Championship. If you care to read my hockey thoughts on the tournament, head here. If not, thanks for reading.

2018 Winter Olympics medal prognostications

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

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

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

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

 

Alpine Skiing

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

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

Men:

Downhill

Gold: Beat Feuz, Switzerland

Silver: Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway

Bronze: Matthias Mayer, Austria

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

 

Super-G

Gold: Max Franz, Austria

Silver: Kjetil Jansrud, Norway

Bronze: Vincent Kriechmayer, Austria

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

 

Combined

Gold: Alexis Pinturault, France

Silver: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Bronze: Peter Fill, Italy

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

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Ted Ligety, United States

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

 

Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Luca Aerni, Switzerland

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

 

Women:

Downhill

Gold: Lindsey Vonn, United States

Silver: Sofia Goggia, Italy

Bronze: Ragnhild Mowinckel, Norway

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

 

Super-G

Gold: Tina Weirather, Liechtenstein

Silver: Lara Gut, Switzerland

Bronze: Lindsey Vonn, United States

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

 

Combined

Gold: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Federica Brignone, Italy

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

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Viktoria Rebensburg, Germany

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Tessa Worley, France

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

 

Slalom

Gold: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Silver: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Bronze: Frida Hansdotter, Sweden

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

 

(Mixed) Team Event

Gold: Austria

Silver: Switzerland

Bronze: France

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

 

Biathlon

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

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

Men:

10km Sprint

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Jakov Fak, Slovenia

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

 

12.5km Pursuit

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Emil Hegle Svendsen, Norway

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

 

15km Mass Start

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Bronze: Tarjei Bø, Norway

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

 

20km Individual

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Erik Lesser, Germany

Bronze: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

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

 

4×7.5km Relay

Gold: France

Silver: Norway

Bronze: Germany

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

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

 

Women:

7.5km Sprint

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Anastasiya Kuzmina, Slovakia

Bronze: Tiril Eckhoff, Norway

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

 

10km Pursuit

Gold: Kaisa Mäkäräinen, Finland

Silver: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Bronze: Denise Herrmann, Germany

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

 

12.5km Mass Start

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Bronze: Justine Braisaz, France

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

 

15km Individual

Gold: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Silver: Dorothea Wierer, Italy

Bronze: Nadezhda Skardino, Belarus

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

 

4x6km Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Italy

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

 

Mixed Biathlon Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Norway

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

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

 

Ice Hockey

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

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

Men:

Gold: Sweden

Silver: Olympic Athletes of Russia

Bronze: Canada

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

 

Women:

Gold: United States

Silver: Canada

Bronze: Finland

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

 

Ski Jumping

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

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

Men:

Normal Hill

Gold: Kamil Stoch, Poland

Silver: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Bronze: Richard Freitag, Germany

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

 

Large Hill

Gold: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Silver: Stefan Kraft, Austria

Bronze: Daniel-André Tande, Norway

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

 

Team

Gold: Norway

Silver: Germany

Bronze: Poland

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

 

Women:

Normal Hill

Gold: Maren Lundby, Norway

Silver: Sara Takanashi, Japan

Bronze: Katharina Althaus, Germany

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

 

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 (September, 17th): Slovenia wins the 2017 EuroBasket

Welcome to our new weekly report in Wheeling a round puck: the Weekend Roundup, where we’ll provide a rundown of the events that happened in the world of sport on the two busiest days of each seven-day spam.

While this concept is still a work in progress that is sure to see a few chances over the next months, the hope is that these pieces – mostly informative, but veering into commentary at times – will deliver a sensible summary of the most important incidents and results from a selected group of sports.

Therefore, football (mostly the five major European leagues), cycling (World Tour races) and tennis (ATP and WTA Tour) will be ever present – except in the offseason, of course – and it’s probable we’ll also venture regularly into the World Cup of the major winter sports (alpine skiing, ski jumping, cross country, biathlon) when time comes.

Moreover, we’ll tackle other sports as the calendar rolls around and major competitions from the likes of Athletics, Swimming or ice hockey take the spotlight. As you’ve already guessed, in this first post basketball makes an appearance due to the end of the 2017 EuroBasket, and that’s precisely the model to follow. So, let’s jump right into the hoop(s).

Basketball: Slovenian delight in Istanbul

After 18 days of competition across Europe, the European Basketball Championships ended this Sunday at the Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul, Turkey, the location selected to host the knockout rounds of a competition whose group stage span four different countries (Finland, Israel, Romania, Turkey) for the second time.

Slovenia and Serbia, two nations that were once part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, made it out of the 24-team field to contest the decisive match and, following a thrilling spectacle, the Slovenians were crowned European Champions for the first time by virtue of a 93-85 win.

Built around an explosive backcourt that featured Miami Heat’s point guard Goran Dragić, and 18-year-old wunderkind Luka Dončić (Real Madrid), the Slovenian’s high-flying offense had earned rave reviews throughout their flawless campaign (8-0 in the final tournament, 6-0 in qualifying), yet the Serbian’s were able to establish control in the first ten minutes and close the first quarter up 22-20.

However, with the nerves of a maiden Final put on the rear view, Slovenia took charge in the second inspired by a sublime Dragić – who ended the game with 35 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals – and they crafted a nine point advantage (56-47) at the half.

After the break, Serbia’s hopes were hanging by a thread as Slovenia looked to pull out, yet disaster struck with 4.44 min to go in the third when the influential Dončić hurt his left ankle. A consternated green-and-white fan section looked frozen as his prodigy was helped off the court, and the situation offered a perfect rallying call for their opponent. Led by Bogdan Bogdanović, which served as Serbia’s primary facilitator in the absence (from the tournament) of the entrancing Miloš Teodosić, the deficit shrank and, by the middle of the fourth period, the lead was changing hands in every possession.

It was right around this time that Slovenia’s captain Goran Dragić was also forced to leave with an injury, and few believed his team would still be able to pull off victory without its two best players. But, stunningly, they did, with their backup guards Jaka Blažič and Aleksej Nikolić coming up big in crunch time, shooter Klemen Prepelič icing big three pointers all night, naturalized forward Anthony Randolph stepping up in the final minutes, or center Gašper Vidmar making a huge block on a Bogdanović reserve lay-up to stunt Serbia’s chances of a late comeback.

Slovenian players exult after the final buzzer (credits: fiba.eurobasket)

A truly epic team effort to seal a sensational run by Slovenia, which swept Group A (Helsinki, Finland), dispatched Ukraine in the round of 16, fended off a Kristaps Porzingis-led Latvia in the quarters, and vanquished the defending Champions Spain in the semi-finals to surpass their previous best result at the EuroBasket: a fourth place in 2009, when they fell to Serbia in overtime on the semis. Not bad for a country of just 2.1M people.

Moreover, to cap it off, Goran Dragić was elected the tournament MVP, and he was joined by Dončić, Russia’s Alexei Shved, Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanović and Spain’s Pau Gasol on the EuroBasket All-Tournament Team. In the third place game, Spain defeated Russia (93-85) to claim bronze and provide a fitting send off for retiring captain Juan Carlos Navarro, who collected a staggering tenth international medal with the national team.

Tennis: Belgium and France qualify for Davis Cup Final

Third consecutive week without ATP Tour events, as Grand Slam action in New York was immediately followed by the last batch of Davis Cup ties highlighted, naturally, by the semi-finals of the World Group.  France and Belgium hosted Serbia and Australia, respectively, and they took full advantage of home court to book a spot on the Final, scheduled for late November in France.

In Lille, the French faced a Serbian team missing Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki, but they couldn’t avoid an early scare when Lucas Pouille succumbed to Dušan Lajović in four sets at the opener. However, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made quick work of rookie Laslo Đere to level on Friday, and then two-time Grand Slam Champions Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicholas Mahut won in doubles to set France on the right path.

Tsonga completed the job by ousting Lajovic on Sunday, laying waste to the final rubber, and thus sending the team captained by Yannick Noah to a third final in seven years (2010, 2014). With no Novak Djokovic (2010), Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka (2014) standing on their way, France has no excuses this time. They should end their 16-year drought in a couple of months.

France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga jubilates after winning the Davis Cup semi final against Serbia (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

Meanwhile, in Brussels, pundits expected a cracking matchup and it delivered. Belgium’s No.1, David Goffin, dropped the first set against John Millman but rebounded quickly to pull the hosts in front, while Nick Kyrgios rallied back from 2-1 down to brush past Steve Darcis in five sets and level at 1-1.

On Saturday, Australia’s pair (John Peers/Jordan Thompson) captured victory in commanding fashion, yet Belgium was able to respond with their backs to the wall 24 hours later. The resolute Goffin slowed down Kyrgios to triumph in four, and then Darcis snatched the vital third point in a straight sets victory over Jordan Thompson. Elation in Brussels. Belgium will make a short trip south of the border to contest a second Davis Cup Final in three years after capitulating at home to Andy Murray’s Great Britain back in 2015. Maybe they’re reserved better luck as huge underdogs on the road.

The plucky Belgians are back in the Davis Cup Final (Emmanuel Dunand /AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

In the World Group playoffs, Canada (without Milos Raonic), Croatia, Germany (missing  the Zverev brothers and Philipp Kohlschreiber) and Switzerland (no Wawrinka or Federer) were able to guarantee another year amongst the elite, while Russia was upset by Hungary and the 2012 and 2013 Champions Czech Republic fell to the Netherlands. Without Del Potro, Argentina lost at Kazakhstan to become just the third nation to be relegated the year after winning the title, while the Japan-Brazil (3-1) tie was only concluded on Monday after rain and an incoming typhoon cancelled play in Osaka on the weekend.

On the WTA Tour, the aftermath of the US Open brought a week imbued with two small, 125k international tournaments (Tokyo and Québec City) boasting rather unremarkable draws. Consequently, it wasn’t exactly a major surprise that the Japan Women’s Open Final pitted two qualifiers, World No. 171 Miyu Kato and Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas (No.100), nor that the slightly more experienced competitor eventually prevailed.

Diyas, a finalist on the same tournament back in 2014 (loss to Sam Stosur), conjured better memories this time and triumphed by 6-2, 7-5 to hold aloft her first WTA Tour trophy. Incidentally, despite a stronger field, similar scenes were observed in Canada, where Belgium’s Alison van Uytvanck defeated Hungary’s Tímea Babos in three sets (5-7, 6-4, 6-1) to conquer the 25th Tournoi de Québec and her first title at this level.

Zarina Diyas, of Kazakhstan, kisses the trophy of the Japan Women’s Open

Cycling: Irrepressible Matteo Trentin keeps rolling

With no World tour races on the calendar ahead of the World Championships, the highest ranked competition of the weekend was the Primus Classic (1.HC), also known as the GP Impanis-Van Petegem. A Belgium event won by the likes of Fernando Gavíria, Andre Greipel or Greg van Avermaet in recent seasons, this year’s edition reaffirmed the credentials of one of the most in-form riders on the tour.

Fresh off four stage wins in Spain, Quick-Step Floors’ Matteo Trentin flexed his muscles once again to triumph in Boortmeerbeek, Flanders, on Saturday. Part of a 15-men group sitting in front of the peloton late, the 28-year-old disregarded a highly-advantageous situation for his team – numbers in the break and sprinter Gaviria lined up to take victory – when he took off with 6.5 km to go carrying just BMC’s Jean-Pierre Drucker on his trail. A risky move bound to upset his directors had it gone wrong, but one the Italian would follow up perfectly when he eschewed his partner-in-crime with a couple of kilometres to go and rode solo to raise his arms at the finish line.

Victory for Matteo Trentin in Belgium

With the World Championships road race one week away, that was a mightily impressive display from the man that should lead a strong Italian contingent looking for a first title since 2008.

This weekend also concluded the 2017 Tour of Denmark with a fourth consecutive overall triumph for a local boy. About to complete his first World Tour season, 21-year-old Mads Pedersen (Trek Segafredo), the Danish National Champion, held off two-time winner (2014, 2016) Michael Valgren (Astana Pro Team) to secure his best career win to date in front of his compatriots. Pedersen had obtained the lead after winning stage 3, edging Valgren at the finish, and he administered his meagre advantage during Friday’s ITT and Saturday’s last stage, when he finished second to Max Walscheid (Team Sunweb) to clinch victory in the general classification.

On Sunday, the UCI World Championships kicked off in Bergen with the team time trial competition. Since the rebirth of the event, in 2012, only five teams (BMC, Quick Step, Orica-Scott, Sky and Movistar) had managed to medal, yet the day would belong to Team Sunweb, still regarded as an outsider despite boasting, probably, the best time trail specialist in the World.

Team Sunweb won the team time trial title at the start of the World Championships in Bergen (NTB Scanpix/Cornelius Poppe via REUTERS)

With Tom Dumoulin and fellow Dutch Wilco Kelderman powering the six-men unit, the German outfit upended pre-race favourites BMC, who repeated the second place of 2016, and the star-studded Team Sky, whose lineup contained Chris Froome and former World Champions Vasil Kyrienka (ITT, 2015) and Michal Kwiatkowski (road race, 2014). Quick-Step Floors, who has won a record three times, including in 2016, finished fourth, 35 seconds off Team Sunweb’s pace.

Football: Shorthanded Real Madrid pulls through at San Sebastián

La Liga

Traditionally, Real Sociedad’s Anoeta is one of the toughest grounds in Spain, and Real Madrid didn’t make their task any easier by dropping points unexpectedly in the previous two matchdays and lining up without Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema (all injured) and Cristiano Ronaldo (suspended). Zidane’s team couldn’t afford to give Barça more leeway at the top of the table, and they didn’t, scrapping a 3-1 victory against a team that was three of three up to this game.

One day earlier, at Getafe, FC Barcelona suffered to keep their 100% win record intact and the four-point gap on the rivals. The hosts scored first, on a screamer from Shibasaki – the first goal allowed by the Catalans on the league – but substitutes Denis Suárez and the much-scorned Paulinho turned the game around. The bad news would came later, when it was announced their 105M addiction Ousmane Dembélé had been ruled out for a few months with a thigh injury.

Paulinho’s first goal with FC Barcelona allowed the Catalans to grab the three points at Getafe (Denis Doyle/GettyImages)

Elsewhere, Atlético Madrid opened their new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, with a narrow 1-0 victory over last place Málaga. Antoine Griezmann scored the game’s lone goal and the “Colchoneros” moved up the table to fourth, tied with their city rivals, while Sevilla passed at Girona with a goal from Colombian forward Luis Muriel and rose to second, with 10 pts. At the bottom, Málaga is still stuck on neutral, as is Alavés, still goalless on the season and comprehensively beaten at home by Villareal (0-3) this week.

English Premier League

Heading into round 5, Manchester United and Manchester City shared the Premier League lead with 10 pts, and things didn’t change in the weekend after both sides picked up easy wins and watched as their competitors left points on the board.

On Saturday, Manchester City cruised to another rout, pumping 6 goals at Watford, who had entered the round undefeated (2W, 2D). Kun Agüero tallied three times on the afternoon to  push the Citizens goal scoring record over the last seven days to a staggering 15-0, while their rivals responded by dispatching the struggling Everton (1 win in five matches) by 4-0. It wasn’t as easy as it looks though, since Old Trafford was only allowed a sigh of relief when Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored the second goal in the 83th minute.

Argentine striker Sergio Agüero was on top form in Man City’s visit to Watford (AFP Photo/Ben STANSALL)

Chelsea continues in pursue of the front duo, but they lost ground after drawing 0-0 against Arsenal. Liverpool dropped points at home once again, this time to Burnley (1-1), while Tottenham couldn’t break past Swansea’s wall and have yet to win at Wembley for the Premier League. It stands to reason their mid-week triumph over Dortmund didn’t broke the curse, and that’s good news for a team like Newcastle, who won for a third consecutive week after dropping the first two matches of the campaign, and leaped to fourth.

At the bottom, Crystal Palace’s sacking of Frank de Boer and subsequent appointment of Roy Hodgson didn’t pay immediate dividends, as the former England manager oversaw a 0-1 defeat to Southampton that saw the South Londoners write some history…

And the nightmare may not end soon since their next three opponents are Man City (a), Man Utd (a), and Chelsea (h)…

Serie A

Inter, Juve and Napoli had collected three points in every game played and they kept the pace in round four. The Nerazzurri found two late goals at Crotone to snatch victory, Paulo Dybala bagged a hat trick to steer Juventus on their visit to Sassuolo and now counts eight goals in four matches, and Napoli schooled newly-promoted Benevento (0 pts, last place) at the San Paolo (6-0).

Ciro Immobile’s brace helped Lazio came out victorious at Genoa (2-3), keeping the capital side two points off the top, while AC Milan bounced back from last week’s loss with the Laziale to climb to fifth, with 9 pts, after overcoming Udinese (2-1)

Bundesliga

After being surprised on the Europa League mid-week, Hoffenheim couldn’t beat Hertha Berlin at home on Sunday, and were thus dumped out of the front carriage. Hannover and Dortmund, who routed Cologne (5-0) and have yet to concede a goal, are now the duo ahead, with ten points each, while Bayern Munich is right behind.

The Bavarians calmed their fans with a cool 4-0 home win over Mainz courtesy of their star forwards. Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski (2) were on target, and the five-time defending Champions now accumulate nine points, the same as Schalke 04, who triumphed at Werder Bremen.

Thomas Muller (#25) and Robert Lewandowski (#9) celebrate one of the goals scored against Mainz on Saturday (Andreas Gebert/dpa)

Last year’s runners-up RB Leipzig were stifled by Borussia Mönchengladbach (2-2), while Bayer Leverkusen finally picked up a win (4-0, Freiburg) to leave the relegation zone.

Ligue 1

Monaco hosted Strasbourg after the humbling 0-4 defeat in Nice last week, and they did what was asked, with Falcao notching twice in their 3-0 victory to keep them three points off PSG. The Colombian now has 9 goals in 6 games to top the Golden Shoe race, and distanced himself from Edison Cavani, who was held off the scoresheet as the Parisians eventually broke Lyon’s opposition late. It took own goals by defenders Marcelo and Jérémy Morel, but PSG is now a perfect six of six.

Saint-Etiénne, winners 1-0 at Dijon, are in third place with 13 pts, followed by Bordeux, Lyon and Marseille, while Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille lost in stoppage time at Guingamp, and haven’t taken three points since the opening fixture. They have 5 pts amassed in six matches, and are just one above the red line.

Moment of the weekend

A couple of outstanding football goals around the world this week, but we’ll grant the stage on this first Weekend Roundup to another debut.

After 50 years at the Vicente Calderón, Atletico Madrid revealed their new home and Antoine Griezmann was the man on duty, directing home the ball after an excellence play down the right flank by Angel Correa. A goal worth three points for Diego Simeone’s team, and just another reason to celebrate on a special night.

 

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group C

Headlined by one of the main candidates to the title, Group C is the most interesting of the preliminary stage because every team can realistically entertain the idea of advancing.

If everything goes according to plan, France should casually stroll to the next round and leave Switzerland, Iceland and Austria to discuss the other ticket, with the Swiss edging their rivals in individual talent, Iceland counting on being the only side to have participated in the competition previously, and Austria believing their core group of Germany-based players can carry the mail and overachieve.

France

Will Les Bleues finally get over the hump?  On paper, France is blessed with the strongest squad in the competition – next to Germany – but over the last international competitions they’ve repeatedly been stopped in the knockout rounds (QFs at the 2013 Euro, 2015 WC and 2016 Olympics) and underperformed significantly to the dismay of their fans.

Populated by Olympique Lyon and Paris St. Germain players’, the Finalists of this years’ Champions League, it’s more than time the French put it all together and topple Germany and the rest of the field to win a maiden international trophy. If they miss the mark again, tensions will escalate to unbearable highs ahead of the 2019 World Cup, which France will host.

Qualification: Group 3 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Sixth

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Olivier Echouafni

Star Player: Amandine Henry (Portland Thorns, USA)

The 27-year-old Henry is probably the finest defensive midfielder in women’s football these days due to her blend of controlled aggression, vision, passing range and poise in possession.

Amandine Henry, the outstanding “milieu du terrain” for France

Initiating the transition from the space usually destined to the defensive anchor, the French midfielder is able to impact the game in several areas, breaking lines with her elegant strides, picking up both long and short passes, initiating the press high up the pitch or tackling with aplomb. Moreover, her all-around brilliance shines even more when she can seamlessly swap roles with long time midfield partner Camille Abily, with whom she played for 9 seasons at Lyon to incredible success.

Awarded the Silver Ball for the second best player of the 2015 World Cup, Henry embraced a new challenge last year, traveling overseas to represent the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, but she’s still well versed on the style and tendencies of most of her French teammates, who surely breathe better knowing the midfielder is shielding their back.

Player to watch: Sakina Karchaoui (Montpellier HSC)

A surprise late call up for the French team that played at the 2016 Olympic Games, Sakina Karchaoui is rapidly becoming an important member of Les Bleues as a result of a series of solid defensive performances in high-stake matches.

The 21-year-old ascended the youth ranks as an offensive midfielder, but transformed into a left back at the end of her academy days in Montpellier and the decision is paying off big time. Speedy, athletic and aggressive, Karchaoui displays good defensive instincts, but what sets her apart is the effusive disposition and the energetic runs up and down the flank which usually end up with venomous crosses towards the box. Those are qualities that don’t proliferate in women’s football, much less in quality full backs, and therefore the Franco-Moroccan will be one of the hot properties to monitor over the next few seasons.

Twenty-one-year-old Sakina Karchaoui is one of the new faces of Team France

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): S. Bouhaddi; J. Houara – G. Mbock Bathy – W. Renard (C) – S. Karchaoui; A. Henry – C. Abily; E. Thomis – G. Thiney – C. Lavogez ; E. Le Sommer

The 4x2x3x1 has been France’s staple for many years and in Dutch soil that’s bound to continue, yet Olivier Echouafni isn’t short in personnel to change the mix if things get stale. Particularly the midfield’s offensive trio, which has been under the spotlight following Louisa Necib’s retirement after Rio and Amel Majri’s ankle injury.

To wit, speedster Elodie Thomis will have to watch her shadow in youngster Kadidiatou Diani, and expected left winger Claire Lavogez is far from untouchable, while Gaëtane Thiney could be squeezed out by the reallocation of forward Eugénie Le Sommer to the creation zone.

Moreover, striker Marie-Laure Delie is also bound to receive an opportunity to get going, with a slight tweak to the system possibly in the cards, leading to the implementation of the 4x3x3 and the introduction of a third central midfielder in veteran Élise Boussaglia or 20-year-old portent Onema Geyoro.

Switzerland

Two years after hurdling past the group stage at the 2015 World Cup, the Swiss make their first appearance at the European Championships to provide a stark contrast with the other debutants, who will be more than satisfied with an honourable exit from the tournament.

A level of ambition justified by a perfect qualifying campaign, where they won all eight matches, and the presence of a handful of world-class performers in their ranks. While far from title contenders, Switzerland has the goods to upset any team in the tournament on a good day, and therefore the quarter-finals are the minimal requirement.

Qualification: Group 6 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Martina Voss-Tecklenburg (GER)

Star Player: Ramona Bachmann (Chelsea FC, ENG)

Standing at a stocky 162cm, Ramona Bachmann doesn’t immediately radiate the aura of terrific football player, but you just need to wait until she gets going to realize the dynamic skill set and ability to pick defences apart. The 26-year-old Swiss zips around the pitch with and without the ball, making good use of her low center of gravity, and backs down defences with her dribbling ability, which opens up terrain in the final third for teammates to operate.

Ramona Bachmann scored an hat-trick against Equador at the 2015 World Cup, and will be looking for more during her Euro debut

With the characteristics of a winger, she’s primarily used as a nomadic forward or a false striker with Switzerland, exploring spaces between defenders with diagonal runs and overloading half spaces, but the 42 goals in 80 international caps certify the ability to finish is also there. After all, there has to be a reason Bachmann turned professional at age 16 and over the last ten years has represented top clubs in four different countries (Sweden, USA, Germany and England).

Player to watch: Lia Wälti (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

A diminutive midfielder that coordinates Switzerland’s play at the center of the park, Lia Wälti’s game is one that relies on intelligence and flawless, yet understated, technique.

Acting as the outlet at the start of the Swiss buildup, she distributes the ball with both feet and tremendous poise and accuracy, playing at one or two touches to accelerate but also controlling the pace when necessary. In addition, defensively Wälti is able to overcome the lack of size and strength with non-stop activity and positioning.

You can make a case that the 24-year-old is the silent mechanism that makes Switzerland’s machine run swiftly and on time, and that’s worth appreciating even if all the sparkle is provided by others.

Lia Wälti performs the unsavory tasks necessary to carry Switzerland to new heights

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): G. Thalmann; A. Crnogorčević – C. Abbé (C ) – R. Kiwic – N. Maritz; E. Aigbogun – L. Wälti – M. Moser – L. Dickenmann; F. Humm – R. Bachmann

Martina Voss -Tecklenburg’s team plays a direct, fast and attacking style of play that appeases onlookers but concurrently contributes to some tactical anarchy, with the four attacking players regularly exchanging positions and getting caught in transition. The role of veteran Lara Dickenmann is thus essential, since she’s the one responsible for curbing the offensive impetus and organizing support to the two central midfielders. In alternative, the introduction of Vanessa Bernauer in substitution of Fabienne Humm or Eseosa Aigbogun could similarly help tone down some riskier tendencies.

Conversely, if Switzerland is chasing the score, loosening the grip on Ana-Maria Crnogorčevic is the solution to adopt as she’s clamouring for a more prominent role in offense since being incomprehensively adapted to a full back position, hence quashing an element that scored seven times during the qualifying phase.

Iceland

On their third consecutive appearance at the European Championships, Iceland will try to mirror the result of 2013, when they advanced past the group stage before succumbing to hosts Sweden.

Similarly to the men’s team that captivated the continent last summer, the Icelanders have been growing their profile in the women’s game over the last few seasons, and much is owed to their all-time top scorer, Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir, who unfortunately won’t play in the competition after rupturing the cruciate ligament on her knee a few weeks ago. A massive blow that can make all the difference between progressing or heading home early.

Qualification: Group 1 winners (7W, 1L)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2013)

Head coach: Freyr Alexandersson

Star Player: Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir is a workhorse in Iceland’s midfield

By assuming the team captaincy in 2014 on the heels of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir’s pregnancy, Sara Björk further increased her influence inside an Icelandic group that paces at the rhythm of its midfield heartbeat.

Armband draped on her arm, the 26-year-old does a bit of everything for her national team, directing traffic and her teammates, covering for positional mishaps, claiming the ball from defenders to start the transition and setting the example with her enduring predisposition to run.

Astute decision making, many rungs above her teammates, completes the description and clearly demarks why Gunnarsdóttir is the rare player on the roster to feature regularly for a top-level European club.

In her case, German double winners Wolfsburg, the team she chose to represent in 2016 after five seasons and four national titles amassed with Sweden’s FC Rosengård.

Player to watch: Elín Jensen (Valur)

Elín Metta Jensen can be considered a special case in Iceland’s squad, and not just because her name is much easier to scribble than the vast majority of her teammates’.

For instance, despite her youth, the 22-year-old has already participated in the tournament before, called up in 2013 after notching 18 goals in 18 games to pace the 2012 Icelandic League as a teenager. Moreover, her propensity for taking defenders off the dribble and individualize actions shocks with Iceland’s “Team first” battle cry, and that may be the chief reason behind her struggles to consistently break into the starting lineup over the years.

Maybe it will finally happen in Dutch soil, probably not in a center forward role but on the wing, where Elín Jensen can offer a jolt of offensive talent to turn around matches going the wrong way.

Probable Lineup (3x4x3): G. Gunnarsdóttir; G. Viggósdóttir – S. Atladóttir – A. Kristjánsdóttir; R. Hönnudóttir – D. Brynjarsdóttir – S. Gunnarsdóttir (C) – H. Gísladóttir; F. Friðriksdóttir – K. Ásbjörnsdóttir – H. Magnúsdóttir

After surging through qualifying on a 4x2x3x1 formation that sometimes versed a 4x3x3, the loss of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir instigated a drastic change of tactical structure, with Freyr Alexandersson expected to take his chances in matchday one against France with a 3x4x3 that defensively will very much resemble a 5x3x2/5x2x3.

The loss of influentional forward Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir (#9) changes everything for Iceland

Due to the new-fangled nature of this system, it’s still not clear where everyone will slot, especially up front, but in this projection I elected experience: from Dagný Brynjarsdóttir being hailed as the partner to Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir in the middle, to 32-year-old Hólmfríður Magnúsdóttir as the final piece of the forward trio alongside Fanndís Friðriksdóttir and the mobile Katrín Asbjornsdottir, who is expected to unseat qualifying joint-top scorer Harpa Thorsteinsdóttir.

Meanwhile, on defence, Sif Atladóttir is the main beneficiary of the extra center back position, and as a reward she brings with her a singular weapon Iceland will rely heavily on: the ability to propel the ball into the goal area from free throws, generating cheap opportunities to incite mayhem in front of the net.

Austria

Until a recent 4-2 home triumph over Denmark, It had been more than 3 years since Austria last defeated one of the other 15 participants at the Euro 2017, and that speaks volumes to the task ahead of Dominik Thalhammer’s women in this tournament.

On the contrary, in qualification the Austrians lost narrowly at home to Norway only to snatch a 2-2 tie away, while a look at their roster reveals six players that pontificate in top-four Frauen-Bundesliga outfits. It’s fair to say Switzerland and Iceland should underestimate the Austrians at their own peril.

Austria’s qualification for the Euro 2017 is the first in their women’s football history

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 8 (5W, 2D, 1 L), five points behind Norway

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Dominik Thalhammer

Star Player: Nina Burger (SC Sand, GER)

Top scorer of the Austrian League in six consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2012, Nina Burger was forced to take her talents abroad when things got too easy at home. She first landed in the USA before eventually returning to Europe to represent SC Sand, where she tallied 15 goals over two seasons.

That’s an unimpressive total that we can probably chalk up to her unusual style of play. Far from a complete striker, Burger is, instead, more of an old-school poacher, someone that sticks to her high position, lays claim to lose balls in the area and aims for the net at every opportunity.

A limited skill set that is still incredibly valuable for the Austrian national team, since the five goals she notched in qualifying helped secure the ticket to the Netherlands and cemented her status as the country’s top scorer of all-time. Now, time to beef up those numbers at the biggest stage she’s ever been.

Player to watch: Sarah Zadrazil (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

Despite wearing the No. 9 shirt for Austria, Sarah Zadrazil is far from a major scoring threat in the pitch. In fact, the 24-year-old would match up far better with the No.8, the numerical digit usually associated with the box-to-box midfielder, the function she carries out to great lengths alongside Freiburg’s Sarah Puntingan.

Austria’s Sarah Zadrazil tries to break an English attack during an international friendly match

Industrious, unrelenting and highly reactive to lose balls, Zadrazil keeps Austria permanently prepared for the defensive transition, and any team could use a responsible player like that, which is why Turbine Potsdam coveted her services after a three-year spell playing college soccer at the United States.

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): M. Zinsberger; K. Schiechtl– C. Wenninger –  V. Schnaderbeck (C ) – S. Maierhofer; S. Puntingam – S. Zadrazil; L. Feiersinger – N. Billa – V. Aschauer; N. Burger

The positioning of Nicole Billa is the key element of Austria’s set up, as the Hoffenheim player can drop back to form a trio in midfield with Zadrazil and Puntingan (4x3x3), execute between the lines (the 4x2x3x1), or take a few steps forward to supplement Burger inside the goal area.

Either way, much is asked of wingers Laura Feiersinger and Verena Aschauer (both SC Sand players), who regularly rush up and down the corridor to assist the defence and necessarily tire out by the middle of the second half. The 26-year-old Nadine Prohaska is then called to action to replace one, while the other toughs it out, since depth is an issue for Austria at this level.

Closing remarks on the Euro 2016

The UEFA Euro 2016 ended last Sunday in Paris, with Portugal taking the trophy for the first time in their history, and behind the competition left a trail of notable occurrences. I decided to weigh in on what I’ll recollect from a month of international football on several fronts, handing out my own accolades (and reproaches).

Here are my choices and the corresponding justifications.

 

Best Game: Germany-Italy

If you’re going purely by the entertainment standpoint, obviously Portugal  3-3 Hungary and France 5-2 Iceland extend a strong case, but I tend to get caught on tactical battles. With the caveat that I didn’t see Italy’s dismantling of Spain, my choices got narrowed down to Germany-France and Germany-Italy. The SF encounter was intense, physical and emotional as always happens when those two countries clash, but the chess game played by Joachim Löw and Antonio Conte takes the cake. A fascinating contrast of styles despite analogous starting structures, it featured the thrilling uneasiness that comes with the belief that every erroneous bounce of the ball could decide the match (which would have happened if Boateng hadn’t suffered a brief brain pause). It was just an absolute classic between the two most competent sides in the tournament. In the end, the dramatic, memorable penalty shootout was simply the cherry on top.

Worst Game: Wales- Northern Ireland

A snooze fest that not even two boisterous sets of fans could save. Little to null goal action, a festival of predictable moves and broken plays that was mercifully ended with an own-goal obtained once the most talented player in the pitch gathered the means to try something different.  A preview of Premier League action in a (not so remote) post-Brexit future?

 

Best goal: Xherdan Shaquiri, Switzerland-Poland

An outrageous overhead kick from the edge of the box tying an elimination match with ten minutes to go? Is there really a question about this? Should it really matter that Switzerland ultimately lost? Yes, please. No. No.

Xherdan Shaquiri temporarily stunned Poland with this ludicrous execution

Honourable Mentions: Marek Hamšík (Slovakia v Russia), Éder (Portugal v France)

 

Best coach: Fernando Santos (Portugal)

An experienced manager that believed stubbornly in his ideas and in the end got crowned in spite of the avalanche of critics.

Portugal dominated every group stage match – as they ought to- but a series of unlucky bounces pushed them dangerously close to falling out, yet the confidence of their coach never wavered. They never dazzled but Santos, certainly inspired by his time at Greece, saw the end of the road before anyone else and did everything he could to get there. If it meant committing all his resources to stifling Croatia’s free-flowing style and hope for a reverse of fortune on the fast break, he went for it. If it meant leaving Ronaldo on an island and force him to retreat to the midfield to feel the ball, let it be. If it meant drilling his players’ mind to keep an eye on both ends at every move, may it work. If it meant tempting destiny by tossing his spare striker into the heat of the Final.…well, why not? As they say, “better be lucky than be good”.

Portugal’s manager Fernando Santos is lifted in the air by his players after the triumph in the 2016 European Championship

However, don’t be fooled. Portugal didn’t put the odds in their favour just by shrinking their margins of error, trusting the individual quality on their side and riding the faith of their coach.  They were mature, tactically aware, malleable and resilient in front of the adversity, as Ronaldo’s injury in Paris highlighted. Both Fernando Santos and its players deserved their immortality in Portugal’s football lore.

 

Worst Coach: Tie between Marc Wilmots (Belgium) and Ray Hodgson (England)

Wilmots came into the tournament under pressure for his palpable shortcomings guiding a stacked line-up brimming with highly valued offensive talents, and didn’t exactly dismiss those concerns in France. Being outsmarted by Antonio Conte in the opener may be excusable, but he didn’t learn from his mistakes when the team was again tasked with having to manoeuvre past a stingy 3-5-2 defensive scheme. If you beat teams handily (but not without some compromising signals burbling) with Kevin de Bruyne slotted behind the striker and multiple talents playing off each other, why bring back the Marouane Fellaini option for the QF against a Wales team that thrives with speed on the counter? Was he expecting the midfielder’s bountiful hair to cover the space his legs couldn’t?

Wilmots may be absolved from his backline’s mistakes after his most experienced options went down, but the lack of a clear strategy to overcome a side that blocked them twice on the qualifying phase was embarrassing.  He simply hasn’t displayed the tactical nous necessary and it backfired spectacularly this time, putting his job under serious peril (and… now it’s gone). I highly doubt he’ll have the chance to waste another opportunity like this.

Marc Wilmots was the face of Belgium’s incapacity to surpass Wales

As for Hodgson, the writing has also been in the wall for some time. With a career built majorly at underdog sides he could pummel to fit his defensive approach, the 68-year-old is a relic of another era at a time England is producing generations of  unpredictable talents. The English roster had the depth and high-end skill to match the best in the competition, but no one ever understood how they wanted to play.

It was not only the bizarre saga about Wayne Rooney’s assignment, but the inability to put players in position to succeed, with the likes of Dele Alli and Harry Kane turning into caricatures of their form for Pochettino’s Tottenham. Were it not for Daniel Sturridge’s late match winner against Wales, “The Three Lions” would have left the competition without a victory and the game against Iceland simply displayed the team’s contradictions, with England unable to break down their opponents despite ample warnings. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were free to run forward but England just couldn’t find man advantages at the flanks to afford solid crosses or open space in the middle to pierce through. Watching 18-year-old Marcus Rashford being sought repeatedly on the final minutes to force 1 on 2’s (or 3’s) reeked of desperation and fittingly signalled the end of Hodgson’s tenure.

 

Underachieving team:  Belgium

When you possess their array of talent, get tendered a soft road to the final, and still can’t beat Wales at the third try, you failed. Plain and simple.

Overachieving Team: Iceland

The smallest nation ever to qualify for a major tournament was vaulted by almost 10% of their own in route to stamp the shock of the tournament, and in the process caught the hearts of millions. Fighting like Vikings until the final drop of sweat left their bodies, Iceland’s infectious disposition was in display as they firmly chased an unsurmountable deficit against France in the game that ended their Cinderella run.

They take the recognition over the other feel-good story, Wales, because they can’t count on a World top-ten (five?) player to lift them at any time.

The “Please, take another drink” team: Croatia

Croatia’s triump over defending Champions Spain didn’t have the follow up they expected

I called them “indisputably one of the most talented (ensembles) in the tournament” and they   didn’t disappoint, amassing a deserved victory over Spain to finish atop the competition’s toughest group. Everything was clicking, even as there were questions about their ability to function as a team, which, outside of those final moments against Czech Republic, proved unwarranted. However, their journey took an unfortunate turn while they sat at home, and they can blame Iceland for that.

Ante Čačić took too long to decipher Portugal’s plan and when he acted (the brazen Marko Pjaca should have been launched earlier) fatigue was already too prominent to control the outcome. Croatia got greedy chasing a goal and was punished on the break, traveling home way too early. Better luck next time.

 

Worst Teams: Sweden and Ukraine

Playing 180 minutes of football in a major competition without recording a shot on goal is acutely disconcerting, and Erik Hamrén should thank Zlatan’s national team retirement for temporarily changing the narrative.

Nevertheless, Sweden’s dearth of a mere flicker of imagination was dispiriting to watch, as their game was entirely founded on Albin Ekdal’s and Kim Källström’s ability to play long balls towards their strikers.  They waited…and waited…and waited for Ibrahimović to do some magic but their frustrated star could never deliver with two or three men hanged over him, as wingers Sebastian Larsson and Emil Forsberg became invisible for the tournament’s entirety. Sweden’s rudimentary style lacked offensive spark and not even the generation that won the U-21 Euro last year seems to have an answer for that.

The Ukrainians were the only team to leave the tournament without tallying despite possessing the firepower to do so in the Konoplyanka-Kovalenko-Yarmolenko trio. To a positive showing against the World Champions, especially in the first half, Ukraine responded with a listless display against Northern Ireland in a do or die situation. They did better against a Polish team already qualified but still came out with nothing to show for it.

 

Best fans: three way tie between Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Vibrant, piping, unconditional and unwavering support coupled with a legacy to boot. We’ll miss the Icelandic “Haka” (or “thunderclap”) the French so shamelessly copied, Wales’ rendition of “Don’t Take me Home” ringing until the Semis and the memorable “Will Grigg’s on Fire”.

Wales’ Red Wall crossed the English Channel to support its heroes in France

 

Best Player: Antoine Griezmann (France)

Out of sorts against Romania in the opener, Atletico’s marksman rescued victory against Albania coming off the bench, yet his party wouldn’t really start until the knockout stage got running.  Five goals in three games powered the hosts to the Final, and the vision of the blue #7 darting through Germany’s end jumps out as the remembrance from the tournament’s most-charged encounter. He didn’t reach the same level of brilliance displayed in the Champions League a few weeks earlier, but so didn’t any of his rivals, and there’s no denying his numbers (six goals and two assists) and influence. Had Griezmann struck on any of his glorious chances in the final, a new French legend would have been born. This way, he just takes two (somewhat) meaningless trophies home.

Honourable mention: Toni Kroos (Germany)

The maestro of the Mannschaft was omnipresent throughout the competition: recovering, distributing with assertiveness, shifting the point of attack, finding his teammates in between the lines, delivering every free kick expertly. It was tiring watching him pull the strings and become the fulcrum for a team that missed dearly the finishing ability of Thomas Müller, probably the major reason they couldn’t go further. After a long season for Real Madrid, the effort laid down by the slick midfielder deserved another corollary. At age 26, he may be the world’s best all-rounded central midfielder.

The class of Germany’s Toni Kroos was in display at the Euro 2016

 

Best eleven of the tournament:

 

GK Rui Patrício (Portugal): A victim of Portugal’s early hitches, he brought his A-Game for the knockout rounds: a vital late stop in extra time against Croatia (with the post’s assistance), a great stretch save to pare down a Polish kick in the shootout, a handful of superb saves in the Final to prolong the tie and set up Éder’s gift from the gods.

RB Alessandro Florenzi (Italy): At the hardest position to fill, I opted for a player that symbolised Italy’s performance, as the hard-working wing-back was key on Antonio Conte’s strategy. His versatility allowed his team to meander between tactical structures almost imperceptibly, and he impressed closing down the flank aggressively and diligently helping out in attack.

Leonardo Bonucci was a leader for the Azurri at the Euro 2016

CB Leonardo Bonucci (Italy): Started the competition providing an outstanding dipping ball for Emanuele Giaccherini’s goal, and ended exhibiting nerves of steel in front of Manuel Neuer, flawlessly converting a penalty late in regulation, an unusual situation for him. He couldn’t do the same in the shootout but he looked sublime throughout, commanding Italy’s backline with aplomb and chalking up the offense, channelling his inner Andrea Pirlo. At age 29, his stock rose so much that he can become the World’s most expensive defenseman this summer.

CB Pepe (Portugal): The lifeblood and vocal leader of Portugal’s defensive unit was in imperial form against Croatia and kept the level up there onwards, using his athleticism to clear every attempt venturing close to Portugal’s net. The “Man of The Match” award in the Final was as much deserved as long overdue.

LB Raphaël Guerreiro (Portugal): Snapped by Borussia Dortmund earlier in the tournament, Guerreiro validated the German’s confidence by showcasing his skilful left foot abundantly. A poised, offensive-minded left back with defensive acumen and speed to transition back and forth, he excelled whipping the ball towards the box on crosses and free kicks. By far the most dynamic full back in the competition, and so, so close to becoming the hero in the final with his smashing shot off the cross bar.

CM Toni Kroos (Germany)see above

CM Aaron Ramsey (Wales): Chris Coleman anchored much of his team’s success on Ramsey’s ability to connect the midfield and attack, and the Arsenal man delivered on the task. He pushed the pace forward elegantly, and smartly attacked the space between defenders, all without ever relinquishing his duties alongside Joe Ledley and Joe Allen. Magnificent against Belgium, he was absent in the SF due to suspension and Wales missed his craftiness dearly. His four assists led the tournament alongside Eden Hazard.

OM Dimitri Payet (France)see below

F Gareth Bale (Wales): Three splendid goals in the group stage to fire up Wales’ debut, and an enduring “never die” attitude after that despite failing to hit the scoreboard again. His teammates looked for him in times of trouble, and Bale relished the challenge of inspiring them with his unrelenting runs and thumping shots.

F Antoine Griezmann (France) – see above

Antoine Griezmann shined brightly for the hosts France

F Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal): The Portuguese captain was the face of anxiousness for the first two games, but everything changed after his crucial brace against Hungary. He ditched the selfishness that was creeping into his game, and understood how he could better help his team: pushing back defences, offering passing lines, supporting the ball movement and crashing the box to finish. The individual moment of genius came on a towering header against Wales and later his teammates picked him up when he went down in tears, managing to claim the title he desired so much.

 

Bonus:

I wrote a series of articles previewing the players that would breakout in the competition, and now decided to do a quick follow up by keying in on my top five hits and slips.

Missed the mark:

Piotr Zieliński (Poland): Only 45 minutes of playing time against Ukraine as Adam Nawałka rested some starters, he gave entry to Jakub Błaszczykowski, who would score the game-winning-goal. The option for the two man partnership up front killed his chances

Jason Denayer (Belgium): Marc Wilmots’ last minute change of heart on his defence’s composition relegated Denayer to the bench in favour of Thomas Vermaelen, and he only got in the action when the oft-injured Barcelona man flailed before the QF. Then, Denayer got caught watching closely as Hal Robson-Kanu fed his inner Johan Cruyff, and both Ashley Williams and Sam Vokes headed the ball home.

Jason Denayer had his hands full against Gareth Bale and the rest of Wales

Paddy McNair (Northern Ireland): Started the first game against Poland but was taken out at halftime as the team looked for a more offensive minded approach. Later, he was thrown in injury-time against Ukraine, and never touched the French grass again.

Federico Bernardeschi (Italy): One hour as a left-wing back against Ireland while Conte rested almost all of his favourites on the group’s last encounter. And that was it for now. I suspect things will look different in Russia’s 2018 World Cup.

Oğuzhan Özyakup (Turkey): Featured in all three of Turkey’s games but the impact just wasn’t there. A half-time casualty against Croatia, opening space for Hakan Çalhanoğlu to tuck inside, Özyakup was one of the victims after Spain’s lashing on the second match. Fatih Terim still gave him 30 minutes on Turkey’s farewell.

 

On the spot:

Dimitri Payet (France): I read somewhere before the Euro’s beginning that Payet might leave as the best player in the tournament. I didn’t exactly buy that right away, but an outstanding kick to pry away the triumph against Romania on the opener turned the spotlight on him. Payet wasn’t unerringly brilliant throughout, but his scented, unpredictable game brought much needed flair to France’s midfield. Didier Deschamps’ option was, thus, completely vindicated by a trio of cracking goals and a couple of assists.

The trickery of Dimiti Payet wreaked havoc in the pitches of France

Elseid Hysaj (Albania): The Napoli man may have been the best right-back of the group stage, with his impressive stamina along the sidelines leading the minnows on their way to an historic first international participation. His stunning through ball to put Armando Sadiku face to face with the Swiss goalie was one of the best pieces of skill in the tournament, but he also locked down his flank impressively, contributing to a unit that proved tough to break.

Ondrej Duda (Slovakia): The creative midfielder scored just seconds after taking the pitch against Wales, and won regular duties as an improvised forward for the rest of the group stage, proving difficult to control due his shiftiness, technique and ability to soundly exchange positions with the members of the offensive trio slotted behind. Ján Kozák opted for a pure striker against Germany and Slovakia was kept at bay…

Jonas Hector (Germany): FC Köln’s inconspicuous left-back played every minute of the competition for the World Champions and his performances were staunchly immaculate. Consistent and dogged on defence, always available to support and offer width to Germany’s possession game, Hector confirmed his report as a dependable full-back destined for bigger stages. All in all, probably the second best in the competition at his position.

Ádám Nagy (Hungary): The slender defensive pivot was a working bee on Hungary’s midfield, vigorously pacing left and right looking to tackle, receive the ball and initiate the offense with crisp passes. Like the rest of his teammates, he seemed a bit bemused by Belgium’s attacking waves during the round of 16 match, but with so much space to cover by himself he can be forgiven.

Arnór Ingvi Traustason (Iceland): 15 minutes against Austria, and a last-gasp goal that reshaped the route of the eventual Champions and arguably the complexity of the entire tournament. THANK YOU, Arnór!

Iceland’s players mug goalscorer Arnór Ingvi Traustason after guaranteeing their first win in European Championships