September 10th, 2009
04:37 PM ET

Maradona will deliver magic for Argentina

Stop this nonsense talk about Argentina not making the 2010 World Cup finals. Stop it right now.

Maradona needs to work his magic to revive Argentina’s World Cup qualifying hopes.
Maradona needs to work his magic to revive Argentina’s World Cup qualifying hopes.

Can you remember 2002 World Cup qualification, when the shoe was on the other foot? Argentina were waltzing through qualification. They lost just once the entire campaign (away to Brazil), and ended up top of the group, 13 full points ahead of their biggest rivals.

Brazil, meantime, put together a string of performances reminiscent of today’s Argentina: a loss at Ecuador, a home draw with lowly Peru. Their coach, Emerson Leao, was let go in favor of Luis Felipe Scolari. Scolari’s Brazil would immediately lose at Uruguay, and talk of missing the World Cup continued.

Could it happen? Of course not - although it came down to the final day of matches!  Everyone knew they had the players, maybe the best in the world. And they would prove it eight months later - defeating Germany in the World Cup final. You may think I’m nuts, but Argentina will do the same in South Africa. I just can’t figure out if it’s with Maradona or not.

It’s just that level of unpredictability that’s hurt Maradona so far. He’s like a king gone mad - he has the power to do anything he wants, regardless of rationale. He’s lost four of six World Cup matches by giving debuts to players no-one’s heard of, and finding room in his team for old guys it seems he himself could have played alongside - like Palermo and Veron.

Argentina have two matches remaining: at home to Peru and away to Uruguay. Thankfully, they are a month away. Plenty of time for even Maradona to realize the mistakes he’s made.

I don’t think he’s that smart, but I do think he’s magic. He’s already lived a life defined by ridiculous decisions, with highs and lows most of us can’t possibly imagine.

And look where he is now: coaching the two-time World Cup winners, with the second-best player on the planet, Lionel Messi.

It’s not that he’ll make his next team selection with wisdom, it’s more that he can’t possibly do worse. And this time, it’s the very unpredictability that will lift his side, the magic that will work.

Argentina will win both matches and end on 28 points, securing fourth place in the table and an automatic berth in South Africa.

Telling Stat: Take a look at Argentina’s goals for/goals against during 2002 campaign: 42 and 15. Right now it’s 20 and 19.

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Filed under:  Football
September 7th, 2009
09:48 AM ET

Clijsters's class remains

Since Kim Clijsters made a terrific and much needed return to competitive tennis last month, I’m often asked about the depth of the women’s game. The question is: how is it, that she’s able to compete with the top players having taken over two years off?

Clijsters has shown that form maybe temporary, but class remains permanent.
Clijsters has shown that form maybe temporary, but class remains permanent.

Does her success highlight how the standard has declined?

I don’t think the level has gone down at all, it is just that Kim has adapted to life on tour again, very well indeed.

Let us not forget too, that she has been training since January and it's not as if she had to start from scratch.

If you stopped using a computer and started again in two years time, you’d still remember how to turn it on, how to type etc, wouldn’t you?

For Kim, it’s been a matter of getting fit again – and we’re talking professional athlete fit, and getting in some match-practice. She hits the ball as well as ever, knows where to put it, and is mentally very strong judging by the way she’s been winning the "big" points.

And now, she’s married, has a baby, and has plenty of money in the bank; the pressure is off. She can play for fun – and stop any time she wants to.

Enjoy every minute of her “second career”, as she calls it. I can’t see her staying around for long. She’s already said she wants another baby and when that happens, I very much doubt there will be a “third career.”

By the way, Belgian media are reporting that Justin Henin is close to a comeback. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!

Also, isn’t it interesting that it’s no longer the women’s game which is easy to predict, but the men’s!

We have 14 of the top seeds for the tournament making the last 16. Until Friday afternoon at the US Open none of the top 10 had even lost a set!

Austrian player Jurgen Melzer, who lost to 6th seed Juan Martin del Potro, admitted there is a big gap between the top players and the rest.

In the women's game only seven of the top seeds made the last 16.

It’s a transition time with the emergence of some new, fresh faces and the decline of some old ones. Elena Dementieva’s conqueror, Melanie Oudin is a future top 10 player no question, while the ultra-talented Amelie Mauresmo seems to have had her time and is no longer in love with the game.

Speaking of Mauresmo, she’d been included in my current perfect player:

Women's –
1st Serve: Venus Williams
2nd Serve: Serena Williams
Forehand: Kim Clijsters
Backhand: Serena Williams
Volley: Amelie Mauresmo
Overhead: Venus Williams

Men’s –
1st Serve: Andy Roddick
2nd Serve: Roger Federer
Forehand: Roger Federer
Backhand: Rafael Nadal
Volley: Roger Federer
Overhead: Roger Federer

Which players would make up your perfect competitor?

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Filed under:  Tennis
September 7th, 2009
09:18 AM ET

Where have all the F1 heroes gone?

Wanted, a bona fide sporting icon. Job requirements; talent; integrity; passion; glamor; ruthlessness. Must be able to drive. As the Formula One season limps towards its conclusion after another scandal-tinged campaign the question needs to be asked - where have all the heroes gone?

Legendary Formula One star Ayrton Senna sparked worldwide interest in the sport
Legendary Formula One star Ayrton Senna sparked worldwide interest in the sport

In each generation of Formula One there’s been at least one driver whose success and/or charisma has not only put him on top of the podium, but has acted as a beacon for the sport.

As in the heyday of professional boxing, when everybody knew who the world heavyweight champion was, the heavyweights of F-1 once needed no introduction.

Multiple title-winners like Fangio, Stewart, Fittipaldi, Piquet, Lauda, Senna, and Schumacher, were an indelible part of the culture, attracting as many casual fans as serious followers of the sport.

What’s more, they often weren’t alone, as mavericks like Graham Hill, James Hunt, Eddie Irvine, and others provided a fascinating sideshow with a marriage of driving talent and glamorous playboy excess.

We admired them all, envied a few, and maybe disapproved of others, but at least we noticed them, which is more than can be said for today’s amorphous bunch.

That’s not to say there aren’t any good drivers out there. There are. But there is no stand-out talent. No personality.

That’s why the eventually aborted return of Michael Schumacher was so over-hyped. Yes, he was unique a champion, and it certainly would have been good to see him pit his wits against today’s field.

However, it was still kind of embarrassing that his return would have been the main event, because it signified that the championship race and the personalities involved in it are just not that compelling.

So who among the current crop has the capacity to step up? And by step up I don’t mean win the championship, but actually put together a string of performances that make us give a damn in general.

Current title leader Jenson Button hardly gets the juices flowing. But for the controversial rear-diffuser advantage his Brawn GP team had at the beginning of the season, I feel he probably wouldn’t be in the position he is, which also goes for his teammate, Rubens Barrichello.

At 22, Red Bull’s Sebastien Vettel has shown the potential to be a serious player. But, with the best will in the world, his season has been a touch erratic, and his ultimate success is surely in the more distant future, and perhaps with a different team.

Lewis Hamilton? Well, we all know the trials and tribulations the defending champion went through, which is why he’s looked so dejected and demoralized for much of the campaign.

Granted, he’s promising a late season surge, but he has an awful lot of ground to make up to regain the credibility he once had as the bright young thing and face of the future in the sport.

I could go on, but you’re surely getting my drift. Tennis has Federer, Nadal, Murray, and the Williams sisters.

Golf has Tiger Woods. Football has Brazil, Man. United, Barca and Real Madrid. Formula One has...... no-one!

And never mind tinkering with the rules and finances, the lack of a hero is Formula One’s greatest problem at the moment. Because if you don’t care WHO wins, surely HOW they win is irrelevant.

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Filed under:  Motorsport
September 4th, 2009
10:41 AM ET

Have Bayern spent their way out of trouble?

Bavarian nerves had been jangling – Bayern Munich fans endured a disappointing second-place finish to champions Wolfsburg last season, a situation that was only compounded by an inauspicious Bundesliga start that included two draws and a humbling defeat to newly-promoted Mainz.

Could the deadly duo of Robben and Ribery bring glory back to Bayern?
Could the deadly duo of Robben and Ribery bring glory back to Bayern?

Bayern Munich general manager, Uli Hoeness, responded as best he knows how – and pulled out his checkbook, spending $37 million on former Real Madrid winger Arjen Robben. With his target landed the only thing that remained to be seen was whether the 'flying' Dutchman could live up to his potential.

Well, if the the 25-year-old's baptism of fire against defending champions Wolfsburg was anything to go by, there is reason for optimism. Robben made a dream debut, coming on in the second half to net two goals and seal Bayern’s first win of the season. But it was the style of Robben playing alongside Franck Ribery that stuck in the mind. The incredible performance from the attacking duo did much to ease the hurt of Bayern’s worst start to a season in 43 years. And it sent the German media into raptures.

The puns were never-ending, and “Rib and Rob”, or “Robbery” were saluted as Europe’s best counter-attacking combination, whilst the Bild paid homage to the “Baylacticos” and their “football from another planet”. Bayern may not possess the star quality of Real Madrid, but the double act will certainly take some stopping this season – Bundesliga be warned.

Robben’s addition to the team looks to have given Bayern new life. And their strength up front is undeniable. But little has been done to solve the ills in the team’s defense.

Exploiting that weakness looks to be the only hope for Bayern’s opponents in the next round, Borussia Dortmund. The Bavarians will be the latest of a number of big-name opponents for Dortmund after the black-and-yellows lost to Hamburg before drawing with Stuttgart a week later. Last weekend’s match in Frankfurt was a chance for Juergen Klopp’s side to prove its potential against a middling side – but a disappointing 1-1 draw showed the team has a long way to go to return to the impressive form it showed at the end of last season

Bayern’s big bucks looked to have set the Bavarians back on track. That’s a luxury Dortmund can’t afford – and which will most likely cost them the game.

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Filed under:  Football
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