Australian sports:

Two preliminary finals. Two contrasting games. North Melbourne were never in the top four during the regular season and it showed on Friday night as they were completely outclassed by the Sydney Swans in Sydney. The Swans had winners all over the park. Their midfielders picked up possessions at will while up forward Buddy Franklin, Kurt Tippet and Adam Goodes reaped the rewards. It was hardly a proper test before a Grand Final but Sydney will rightly start as favourites next Saturday afternoon.

Their opponents will be Hawthorn. The Hawks withstood a first quarter power surge, as Port Adelaide bombarded the goal but failed to make their chances pay finishing the quarter with 3.9. Hawthorn looked the better side for the next two and a half quarters as they ground their way to a seemingly impregnable position, 28 points clear with ten minutes gone in the last quarter. But Port Adelaide have thrilled fans and neutrals all year with their daring and attack minded approach. They kicked the last four goals of the game and even had a shot, admittedly from the boundary, to win it. Hawthorn held on by 3 points, thanks in no small part to Luke Hodge’s courageous diving smother in the final minute. Luke Hodge’s big game reputation has never been in question and it would be no surprise to see him playing a decisive role against the Swans next week. A captain who truly does lead from the front!

The NRL finals series was ignited with two absolute classics. The Roosters jumped out to a 30-0 lead against the Cowboys and then saw their lead wiped out. They snuck home thanks to a late field goal for a one point win, but the Cowboys will be left ruing (another) controversial video refereeing decision that went the Roosters way in the dying minutes. It was hard to imagine that Saturday’s match could be any closer but Manly and the Bulldogs managed as they played out a 17-17 tie in regular time. Trent Hodkinson’s second field goal of the night was enough to get the Bulldogs over the line in golden point.

 

Football:

As a Manchester United fan writing about football and the EPL in particular is a little tough right now. While referee Mark Clattenburg may have had a shocking match the simple fact is that Manchester United shouldn’t lose 5-3 to Leicester City. And that’s not meant with any disrespect to Leicester, who hung in there when Manchester United’s expensively assembled squad was playing the type of football viewers love to watch and then prayed on their frailties at the back when the opportunities presented themselves. United were cruising at 3-1 when Clattenburg’s most controversial decision arrived as he failed to award Rafael a free-kick for a clear foul and then penalised him for a seemingly innocuous push on his Leicester opponent. The non-decision and then penalty changed the game but to hide behind that as the reason for defeat would be to avoid the problem. Calmness under pressure epitomised United teams of the past and has all but disappeared today. Replacing it carelessness, indecision, poor tactical awareness and a lack of composure have become common place. While it does not affect the whole team, and Angel Di Maria can win games on his own, it is not like only one or two players are guilty either, once fear took hold against Leicester it was there for all to see. Even the previously assured Daley Blind resorted to hoofing the ball clear when under nothing but perceived pressure.

In other upsets on the weekend Liverpool lost to West Ham. Liverpool set the Premier league alight last season but this season have been a completely different story. They are struggling to cope with set pieces at the back and lacking the fluidity and potency going forward. Brendan Rodgers has a tough task on his hands as he tries to bed in new players and balance Champions League commitments, all the while maintaining a domestic title challenge. A challenge that has been made harder by opposition teams learning to sit back and negate their counter attacking speed.

The moment Chelsea fans feared more than any other this season duly arrived on Sunday. With their side leading Manchester City away from home and seemingly headed for an 8 point lead at the top after only five games one of their most revered players, Frank Lampard, returned to haunt his old employee’s. It would have been an incredibly bitter pill to swallow. Not that Mangual Pelligirini wanted to be drawn into any comments post-match, he was instead focussing on comparing Chelsea to Stoke for their negative tactics and refusal to actually try and play football. It is not the first time a Jose Mourinho team has been accused of this and it won’t be the last, but at the end of the day Mourinho won’t care and Chelsea and their fans need only console themselves with a look at the table.

These were the most noteworthy results in England but it was a fascinating weekend across Europe. Real Madrid hammered eight past Deportivo, while Barcelona also won convincingly. Both Bayern Munich and PSG were expected to cruise to their domestic titles and while that may still happen neither has quite hit their stride yet and both were held to draws in games they would have expected to win. Juventus and Roma on the other hand continued their perfect starts to the season with a 1-0 win over AC Milan and a 2-0 home win over Cagliari respectively.

 

Cycling:

The 2014 cycling World Championships in Ponferrada, Spain, started with an upset as BMC took home their first team time trial gold medal. The team time trial was introduced to the world champs two years ago to give trade teams an opportunity to shine and it has become one of the most prestigious prizes in the sport, especially for the big budget teams. BMC had the best of the conditions, compared to their main rivals at least, but their margin of victory reflected their dominance. Orica GreenEdge had to settle for silver for the second year in a row, but were more than thirty seconds back. The six teams between second and seventh were separated by only a further thirty seconds. In his post-race interview Tejay Van Garderen, a rider who has finished in the top five at the Tour de France on two occasions, called it the highlight of his career. For Peter Velits, it was a third consecutive win after he was part of the successful Omega team in 2012 and 2013.

 

  1. AFL – Preliminary finals – Sydney versus North Melbourne and Hawthorn versus Port Adelaide – Sydney and Hawthorn are both coming into the preliminary finals after a week off and it will be interesting to see how that has affected their preparations. A week to rest battered and bruised bodies at the end of a long season can be a blessing but any drop in sharpness will be costly. Both North and Port have shown they can start quickly and score multiple goals in a short space of time already this finals series. Sydney and Hawthorn have home ground advantage and will start as favourites, despite losing to their opponents during the regular season.

Tips – Sydney and Hawthorn have been the best teams all year and have the depth and experience to progress to the grand-final.

SUQ – 9 – With a spot in the grand-final on the line the stakes couldn’t be higher.

 

  1. Rugby League – Semi-finals – Sydney Roosters versus North Queensland Cowboys and Manly Sea Eagles versus Canterbury Bulldogs – What a difference a week makes! The Roosters have gone from favourites for the flags to one game away from elimination after last week’s surprise defeat. The Cowboys smashed the Bronco’s in a dominant first half and will be full of confidence. The Bulldogs rediscovered their form last week and take on a depleted Manly side on Saturday night. The question is, which Bulldogs outfit will turn up? If they are switched on the game will be theirs for the taking.

Tips – The Bulldogs and Roosters to stay alive for another week.

SUQ – 6 – a week behind the AFL in their finals schedule but also a less popular and well followed sporting code.

 

  1. English Premier League – Round 5 – Manchester City versus Chelsea (Sunday) is the pick of the weekend’s fixtures. A win for Chelsea would put them 8 points clear of the team many expected to be their nearest challenger for the title, a massive lead so early in the season. Both are coming off disappointing mid-week Champions League performances and will be desperate for a win. Other top four hopefuls, Arsenal (Aston Villa), Liverpool (West Ham) and Manchester United (Leicester) are all on the road and face tricky tests but these are games they should win if they hope to make Champions League next year. At the other end of the table, Newcastle have had a disastrous start to the season and a loss at home to Hull will probably see the first managerial casualty of the season.

Tips – QPR, Arsenal, Sunderland, Hull City, Swansea City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton and Manchester City

SUQ – 8 – It’s only early in the season but the schedule has thrown up some early fixtures that will prove pivotal in shaping the season.

 

Also note that the World Cycling Championships commence in Ponferrada, Spain, with the team time trial on Sunday. Some teams are still to announce their squads so this makes any predictions difficult, but reigning champions Omega, powered by Tony Martin, will start as favourites ahead of the Australian based outfit Orica GreenEdge and Britain’s Team Sky.

It was a big weekend of sport. With heaps to cover it really is difficult to know where to start. In the AFL winning form proved to be good form. Geelong and Fremantle both started as favourites courtesy of finishing higher on the ladder and home ground advantage. But both were coming off losses in the first round of finals and were to be eliminated in straight sets. North Melbourne got the jump on Geelong and despite a last quarter surge from the Cats they held on, just, to win. Over in Perth Femantle dominated Port Adelaide early but failed to make their supremacy show on the scoreboard. Port took control in a dynamic third quarter and then continued on their way in the final quarter as they ran out 23 point winners.

Argentina have struggled to find themselves since joining the annual rugby union championships with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. On Saturday night they came close to causing a major upset against Australia in a disappointgly empty Gold Coast stadium. It was an Australian performance that included a bit of everything, including plenty of missed opportunities, as they showed what is best described as weak dominance against the touring Argentine’s. After looking out of their depth for much of the first half Argentina improved markedly in the second and threatened to snatch the win. Even at the death they were pushing for a converted try to level things up only to by denied a saving tackle and the referee’s whistle.

Whilst in Sydney I took the opportunity to catch some rugby league. I can’t confess to being a fanatic, and much prefer union to league, but the Panthers come from behind win was as good as anything from around the globe on the weekend. With scores level entering the last ten minutes the Roosters, who had finished the regular season top and were the competition favourites, scored a converted try to take the lead. But the Panthers weren’t done, a miraculous try with three minutes to go, as the ball was flicked back into play by an airborn Dallin Watene-Zelezniak when seemingly going into touch, was followed by an exceptional conversion from Jamie Soward. Then with less than ten seconds to go Soward kicked a field goal to secure the most unlikely of triumphs. Elsewhere there were wins for the Rabbitohs, Cowboys and Bulldogs.

On to cycling. Alberto Contador secured a third Vuelta a Espana victory after safely navigating the final time trial. Adam Hansen, competing in his tenth consecutive grand tour, won Friday’s stage with a perfectly timed late attack. Saturday saw the predicted show down between the top two in the general classification. Alberto Contador stayed glued to Chris Froome’s wheel while the other contenders fell by the way side then jumped clear to take the stage and effectively secure the overall win. The final stage saw a win for Adriano Malori, with most of the top 10 forced to focus on staying upright as conditions steadily deteriorated during the day.

Contador entered the race under an injury cloud and was keen to play down his chances before the racing started. But as I noted in the preview, it is hard to imagine he was lining up if he didn’t believe he could win. The departure of Nairo Quintana on stage 11 changed the complexion of the race and robbed viewers of one of the likely challengers to Contador. As a race, it had more intrigue and excitement than either the Tour or the Giro. And while it was a grand tour that had a great mix of stages the fact there was only one big mountain stage in the last week was perhaps to its detriment with few changes in the general classification in the latter part of the race. Meanwhile John Degenkolb was rewarded for reaching the finish as he won the points jersey.

Canada played host to two one day classics, with GP Quebec on Friday and GP Montreal on Sunday. The two races are relatively new on the calendar but are quickly becoming key lead up races for the World Championships, which take place two weeks after. Siman Gerrans became the first rider to win both races in the same season as he sprinted to victory in both. His sprint on Quebec was particularly impressive as he closed down the inform Tom Doumolin in the final few hundred meters and had just enough left in the tank to come round him in sight of the line. The win was also Orica GreenEdge’s 100th. Ramunas Navardauskas was another to impress in both races as he finished third and fourth.

In the basketball World Cup Serbia fell at the final hurdle of what would have been one of the great underdog stories. Serbia disposed of France in the semi-finals, 90-85, but despit their improbable run few commentators gave them a chance in the final. Playing without pressure they jumped out to an early lead but after the United States went on a 15-0 run they were never threatened as they went on to complete back-to-back world cup wins.

Straight into it this week.

  1. AFL Finals – They’ll feature all of September, and the stakes will only get higher, and the number of teams left that can win the flag will continue to dwindle. This week sees last week’s qualifying finals losers hosting the elimination finals winners. On Friday night Geelong host North Melbourne. Geelong go in as favourites but many commentators are tipping North. The general feeling is that Geelong are vulnerable and aren’t as good as some of the recent Geelong vintages. The second match sees Fremantle playing host to Port Adelaide. Port Adelaide are coming off one of the most convincing performances of the season and despite losing to Fremantle in Perth only two weeks ago will enter the match full of confidence. Fremantle will look to lock the ball down and play ferocious football, avoiding a shoot-out against a fast, attacking minded, Port Adelaide outfit.

 

Tips – Geelong, they just know how to win, and Port Adelaide.

SUQ – 8.5 and trending up. Definitely worth knowing who is playing.

 

  1. Cycling – Vuelta a Espana – It’s Alberto Contador’s race to lose with only three stages to go but there is still time for that to change. The first of the final three stages is a relatively flat stage that looks ideally suited to a breakaway. Orica will have different ideas as they try to set up Michael Matthews for a second stage win, while John Degenkolb will be looking to score points in the race for the points jersey however he can. The penultimate stage finishes with a long climb. Contador leads Chris Froome by more than a minute and Alejandro Valverde is close behind. The podium is unlikely to change but the order might. Froome continues to improve and if he can win the stage and take another thirty seconds on Contador he might just think he can finish the job in the final time trial. The final stage is a short time trial where the time gaps will most likely only be small. Many of those who would have been favourites have already left the Vuelta and once again Froome and Contador are likely to be at the top of the standings.

 

Tips – Matthews or Alessandro De Marchi from a breakaway in tonight’s stage. Froome to win the final two stages but Contador to hold on and win overall.

SUQ – 8.5 – Three different stages but they may not be that decisive, with few changes amongst the top 10 likely.

TV coverage – all three stages are live on SBS.

 

  1. Basketball – World Cup – Not something I would have expected to follow quite as closely as I have but with the final this weekend it has worked its way into a deserving slot here. The United States (though you might not recognise some names with many stars missing) defeated Lithuania comfortably in the first semi-final to progress to the final where they will play the winner of France and Serbia. France upset hosts Spain in their quarter-final, while the Serbians have become the fairy tale story of the World Cup. Serbia started as underdogs in both knock-out matches but has stayed alive with wins over Greece and Turkey.

 

Tips – France to just edge Serbia but to come up well short against the US.

SUQ – 5 – A World Cup but not one that is watched by many and its unlikely to be a topic of conversation either at home or in the office.

TV coverage – The semi-final is live on ABC from 6am on Saturday. No idea about the final, but same time Monday I’m guessing.

 

After the international break the European football leagues are all back in action this weekend. England’s only two sides with perfect records, Chelsea and Swansea City, play each other. The other match worth keeping an eye would have to be Arsenal versus Manchester City. Over in Spain the highlight of the weekends fixtures is the Madrid derby, with Real Madrid hosting Athletico Madrid in a repeat of last season’s Champions League final.

Stage 16 went perfectly to script. If your name was Alberto Contador. A strong early break was established on the first climb of the day and Luis Leon Sanchez went about collecting as many mountain points as he possibly could. He now leads that competition and should have enough of an advantage to hold on to the jersey all the way to the finish. The breakaway’s lead peaked at more than eight minutes but once Katusha took control of the peloton their advantage began to fall steadily. Katusha were replaced by Sky at the front on the penultimate climb of the day, a clear sign Chris Froome was feeling strong.

Up ahead the breakaway had plenty of passengers and their cooperation was pretty much non-existent (more on that later). The breakaway soon splintered with Alessandro de Marchi and Gianluca Brambilla forging ahead, behind it was Wout Poels trying gallantly to hold on. On to the final climb and Sky continued to ratchet up the pace. Despite their forcing the “peloton” still had almost thirty riders at the base of the final climb. Up ahead it was now just De Marchi and Poels but the gap was tumbling. De Marchi quickly realised that he had no hope of surviving at the current pace and he left Poels and set off in pursuit of another stage win. With a lead of just over a minute and more than ten kilometres to go it looked unlikely.

The Sky train continued to set the pace, each riding themselves to the point of no return before pulling off the front for the next in line. Finally it was just Mikel Nieve leading Froome. His acceleration cut the lead group in half to ten and as he pulled off Froome’s post marked attack came. Contador was glued to his wheel but behind was carnage. Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez fought on gamely, with Fabio Aru spending some time with them and the rest chasing. Behind it was anyone’s guess, the tv camera’s didn’t care.

Up ahead De Marchi was slowly being reeled on. He was caught by Froome and Contador with three km to go, hung with them briefly but then slipped into the distance. Contador had attacked on numerous occasions in previous stages but today he put away his attacking instincts and played the tactical game. Having followed Froome’s wheel away from the rest of the challengers he then unleashed one brutal attack that quickly distanced the Brit. Contador soloed to the stage win, followed by Froome and a very weary De Marchi. Valverde, Rodriguez, Aru, Dan Martin, Robert Gesink, Samuel Sanchez and Ryder Hesjedal completed the top 10.

If Contador was the big winner of the day Rigoberto Uran was the big loser. He looked in trouble on the first climb of the day and ultimately lost more than fifteen minutes as he tumbled out of the top 10.

And the most aggressive rider of the day. The race organisers gave it to Luis Leon Sanchez, a clear sign if ever of the favouritism towards Spanish riders considering De Marchi’s outstanding ride. But it was Gianluca Brambilla and Ivan Rovny who should have been the dual recipients. Rovny was in the break to support team leader Contador later in the stage and he was there for the ride, not contributing to the pace at all. Brambilla lost his cool and after an apparent tug on Rovny’s seat the two came to blows, literally. The site of two riders swerving along whilst trying to punch the other was certainly one to behold, it doesn’t happen every day! Half an hour after the incident the race official finally decided that they should be disqualified. Why it took so long who knows. And was the DQ over the top? You be the judge:

If you are only going to watch one stage of this year’s Vuelta then this should be it. The Queen stage has attacking riding written all over it and there is every chance that the winner of the Vuelta will be decided today.

The last couple of stages:

The first two of three big mountain stages in a row have been won by remnants of the breakaway. Firstly it was Ryder Hesjedal who showed perfect judgement on the final climb to outlast his breakaway companions, who filled the first nine positions on the stage. On stage 15 it was Przemyslaw Niemiec who took the honours. He was the sole survivor from the morning breakaway, holding off the fast finishing Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez by a mere five seconds. Had the two of them worked with Contador earlier on the final climb then they may well have been fighting for the win. Contador was only a few seconds behind, with another short gap to Chris Froome and Fabio Aru. Contador was critical of both Valverde and Rodriguez after the stage, believing they had missed a major opportunity to cooperate and distance Froome who struggled on a number of occasions as he yo-yo’ed off the back of the dwindling group.

The current standings:

  1. Alberto Contador 58:31:35 (total time taken so far)
  2. Alejandro Valverde 0:00:31 (so 31 seconds behind)
  3. Chris Froome 0:01:20
  4. Joaquim Rodriguez st (quite amazing but it is true!)
  5. Fabio Aru 0:02:22
  6. Rigoberto Uran 0:02:57
  7. Daniel Martin 0:04:55
  8. Samuel Sanchez 0:05:02
  9. Robert Gesink 0:05:11
  10. Warren Barguil 0:06:36

 

The route:

It might be short at only 160.5km but make no mistake, this will be a brutal stage. Fortunately for the riders the searing heat of the first week has dissipated, with cooler temperatures and a chance of rain now on the agenda. The stage, with five big mountains, includes more than 4,500 metres of vertical climbing. The final climb alone is 16.5km with an average gradient of 6.2%. That may not seem so bad but given what comes before it and the fact the gradient gets steeper and steeper the further the climb goes on it is a very difficult finish. With almost no valley floor between the final two climbs on the stage there is a chance that one of the major contenders will launch a kamikaze attack on the penultimate climb of the day. If successful they could just write themselves into cycling folklore.

What will happen:

A hard climb so early in the stage means that anyone who wants to be in the breakaway will have to be a good climber. Luis Leon Sanchez is targeting the mountains jersey and he is sure to be in there. Other names to look for include Alessandro de Marchi, Sergio Pardilla, Mikel Landa, Laurens ten Dam and Romain Sicard. The teams of the major favourites are all likely to try and put someone in the breakaway, which could open it up to riders closer to the top of the GC standings.

Who will win:

Unlike the previous stages I think the break will be caught today. In such a short stage the tempo is likely to be high and fatigue will be a big issue, especially in the latter half of the stage. This means the big GC guys are likely to be fighting for the win. At this stage Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez appear to be the strongest climbers in the race. Froome has shown signs that he is getting better but he has been unable to hang with the three Spaniards and it is hard to see that changing on such a difficult stage. This type of finish doesn’t suit Valverde’s punchy riding style and he is likely to ride conservatively and limit his losses. This makes for a duel between Contador and Rodriguez. For Contador to win he has to drop Rodriguez. He has tried multiple times over the last few stages but has never managed to gain a significant advantage. Contador loves to attack but at 80 seconds behind the red jersey and still not on the podium the ball rests with Rodriguez. I think he’ll take back some of that time tonight. Regardless of who wins one thing is for sure, there will be fireworks!

Four AFL finals. Four wins for the favourites. But that only tells half the story. The two qualifying finals followed a similar pattern. Both Hawthorn versus Geelong and Sydney versus Fremantle were tight, hard-fought contests for the opening half. But slowly the favourites, Hawthorn and Sydney, ground down their opponents through relentless pressure. And while they continued to find avenues to goal, Geelong and Fremantle found scoring increasingly difficult. Neither match ended in a blow-out and it was job done for the two favourites. Hawthorn and Sydney now have a week off and then a home preliminary final to look forward to. Regardless of what happens over the next two weeks both will start as favourites again when they next take to the field.

In the first elimination final Port Adelaide played what some of their players described as their best twenty minutes of the season. Richmond were ordinary, yet it couldn’t be described as the worst twenty minutes of the season because they just didn’t have enough of the ball. When they did have it there were no terrible turnovers or mistakes. Port Adelaide was just very very good. Trent Cotchin’s decision to kick against the wind may have been criticised but it is hard to imagine it made any difference. Port dominated every aspect of the game – by the mid-way point of the second quarter the margin was more than fifty points, and growing. They had winners all over the field and after a late season hick-up were back to the best here. Richmond won the last quarter to avoid a 100 point thumping, but that will be of little solace when the post mortem starts. The Tigers will look back on their slow start to the season and wonder where they could have finished if they were able to replicate their form of the second half of the season for the entire 23 rounds.

The second elimination final saw Essendon get the jump on North Melbourne and open up what looked to be a match winning lead at half-time. But the third quarter isn’t known as the premiership quarter for nothing. North stormed back into the contest. Essendon still led at the final change but North had all the momentum. As predicted it was the closest and most even of the weekends finals, with North getting home by 12 points. For North Melbourne, Drew Petrie was the hero, kicking the final two goals of the game. It represents Essendon’s third elimination finals loss in a row. For the players, it will be another off-season of worrying with the 2012 supplements scandal still unresolved. The end and a resolution can’t come soon enough!

While the favourites may have saluted in the AFL the same can’t be said at the US Open. Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic caused two huge semi-final upsets over Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer respectively. Not only did they master their more experienced and highly favoured opponents but in some incredibly oppressive conditions. Heat and humidity have plagued this year’s US open and the conditions over the last couple of days have been no different. Nishikori progressed to the final in four sets while Cilic halted Federer’s progress in straight sets. Both are first time finalists, with Nishikori the first Japanese man ever to make a grand slam final. Incredibly it will be the first grand slam final since the 2005 Australian open that hasn’t included one of Djokovic, Federer or Nadal. That’s a quite unbelievable 39 grand slams!

On the women’s side Serena Williams secured a record equalling sixth US Open title and eighteenth grand slam with a relatively straight forward 6-3 6-3 win over Dane Caroline Wozniacki. Williams hasn’t had the best year but her form at the US Open has been close to imperious, as she won the title without dropping a set. As always Wozniacki was gracious in defeat and one can only hope that grand slam success is not too far away for her. In the doubles, there was no fairy tale for Martina Hingis and her partner Flavia PenettaasEkaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnini won a close three-set final.

Australia have crashed out of the basketball World Cup after a heart breaking and scarcely believable 65-64 loss to Turkey in their Round of 16 play-off. Australia led for most of the match and with less than a minute to play were in possession and leading 64-62. But Cameron Bairstow, who had been one of the Boomers best, failed to get a shot away as the shot clock expired with 22 seconds of play left. The Turks used the time to devastating effect, with Emir Preldzic sinking a three pointer to send the world’s seventh ranked team into rapturous celebrations. The Australians really only have themselves to blame after a number of easy misses, notably from the free throw line. They had Turkey on the ropes but couldn’t capitalise and dreams of a first World Cup medal have now been dashed.