The Calm before the Storm

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Since the advent of the transfer window in 2002 there has been an element of predictability about the comings and goings in the Premiership and elsewhere in Europe. January traditionally sees a rush of panic buys for teams under threat of relegation, while the best run clubs either sign promising youngsters, should the opportunity present itself, or stand still altogether. The summer window, meanwhile, is quite different. As soon as clubs know where they stand for the coming season, having sealed promotion, avoided relegation or secured Champions League qualification, transfer targets are identified and dead wood is cast aside. Teams such as recently relegated Queens Park Rangers know they must sell in order to balance the books, and consequently their best players are snapped up by teams who view them as the ever elusive missing piece. This does pose the question; if these players are so good, why did their team get relegated in the first place? QPR’s back four sprung more leaks than the titanic last season, yet Christopher Samba was brought back by Anzi Makhachkala for £12 million, and their goalkeeper, Brazil number one Julio Cesar, is allegedly wanted by Arsenal, AC Milan and Roma.

Of course QPR, Cesar and Samba are just small fish in a big, big transfer pond this summer. Wayne Rooney is reportedly unhappy at Manchester United, primarily for being supplanted as the clubs main striker by Robin Van Persie. Rooney himself complained in 2010 that United weren’t matching his ambition and needed to sign more world class players. Lo and behold, they do exactly that and he slaps in a transfer request. It’s a strange old world, and as I sit here writing this article Rooney’s future location remains a mystery. Will Chelsea come in for him? Jose Mourinho says he is an admirer. But is he more interested in signing Rooney or rocking the Old Trafford boat, so calmly steered for 25 years by Sir Alex Ferguson before he handed the reigns to David Moyes? United themselves have had two bids for ex-Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas rejected by his current team, Barcelona. Moyes could well go back with a third offer. Or he may not, and choose instead to return to his former club Everton for Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini is an almost completely different player to Fabregas, so I’m not really sure where Moyes is heading with his interest in these two central midfielders.

Over to Spain for a second now, and Real Madrid are rumoured in the Spanish press to have agreed a deal for Gareth Bale with Tottenham. £80 million is the quoted figure, plus a further £51 million in salary over six years. Spurs have denied that a deal has been agreed, and nothing official has come from Madrid themselves. Madrids new manager, former Chelsea supremo Carlo Ancelotti, has stated that Madrid’s own star player Cristiano Ronaldo is not for sale. Ronaldo has been linked with a return to former club Manchester United, who have also themselves been linked with Bale. Confusing, I know. But what about Madrid’s hated rivals, Barcelona? While the Fabregas saga is ongoing they’ve had to appoint a new manager due to the poor health of Tito Vilanova. Gerardo Martino is the new man in charge, and if reports are to be believed it’s mainly due to his good relationship with Lionel Messi. Martino made his name managing in Argentina, and he’ll be tasked with carving out a role in the side for wonder-kid Neymar, who fulfilled some of his much hyped promise in the recent Confederations Cup. Another star of that Brazilian side, Paulinho, has also made a big money move, this time to Tottenham. The Londoners stumped up a reported £20 million to land the midfielder.

Back to England now, where as of last night Luis Suarez was allowed to talk to Arsenal regarding a potential transfer from Liverpool. A bid of £40 million (and a quid) triggered a clause that doesn’t force Liverpool into selling but allows the Uruguayan to talk to the interested team. Suarez did say he wanted to leave England because of the media scrutiny a while back, but that would no longer appear to be the case should he migrate down south. Of course it’s not all about the ‘big’ teams, and one side who have made an early splash in the transfer window is Norwich. Striker Ricky Van Wolfswinkel agreed a deal early doors to sign for the Canaries, and fellow front man Gary Hooper looks on the verge of joining him for a quoted figure of £5.5 million from Celtic. Leroy Fer has also joined the Norfolk club, making the switch from FC Twente last week, while former top scorer Grant Holt has left for pastures new. It’s exciting times at Carrow Road, and with all the managerial changes and transfer uncertainty at the top of the table Chris Hughton will be confident of a successful campaign this coming season.

So lets try to round this mess up. It’s less than a week before the calendar turns to August and the transfer deadline countdown begins, yet many of the top sides (sorry, Delia) still have plenty of ins and outs to finalise. Will Bale leave Spurs? Is Rooney Stamford Bridge bound? Can Liverpool hold on to Suarez? Will Carlton Cole pass his Crystal Palace medical? These are all big questions that are yet to be answered, and while speculation continues to riddle the back pages of the press nothing substantial has yet to materialise. Perhaps one transfer will act as the catalyst and set the wheels in motion for the other deals to be completed. I can see it now: Bale to Madrid! Ronaldo to United! Rooney to Chelsea! Kalou to West Ham! And Arsenal, poor old Arsenal, stuck with Bendtner leading the line..

What England’s Thrilling First Test Victory Means

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Test cricket is alive and well. Today’s thrilling first Investec Ashes test saw England hold their nerve and defeat Australia by just 14 runs at Trent Bridge, but both sides will have little time for recovery before the second test gets under way at Lords on Thursday. England will have little time to celebrate, while the Aussies will need to pick themselves up off the deck if they are to bounce back at the home of cricket. I’ll spare you the obvious analysis of the past five days, such as Ashton Agar’s brilliant debut and Stuart Broads decision not to walk when he hit the cover off the ball on the third evening. But I will delve deeper into some of the wider implications of perhaps the finest test match of the DRS ‘era’.

One area of concern for the hosts is Jimmy Anderson’s fitness going forward in the five match series (ten, ifyou consider the teams will meet again this winter for five matches in Australia). Anderson is no spring chicken, he turns 31 in 16 days, and he was visibly struggling before the lunch interval today with cramp. It goes without saying that Anderson is crucial to England’s Ashes hopes, so it’ll be interesting to see how he holds up on Thursday after his 13-over marathon spell today.

As far as the rest of the England bowling attack is concerned, while Broad and Graeme Swann are shoe-ins for Lords Steven Finn will be sweating over his place. He only just got the nod over Tim Bresnan for the first test and his performance, especially today, was sadly lacking in quality and composure. Finn struggled to bowl economically to even Australia’s lower order batsmen, and his dropped catch in the deep this morning was nearly so very costly. After England’s last four wickets combined for just 21 runs in the match Bresnan’s batting will also be appealing to Andy Flower and his backroom staff, so don’t be surprised to see the barrel chested Yorkshirman deputise for Finn in the second test. As far as the batsmen are concerned although Jonny Bairstow didn’t score many runs he’s almost certain to be retained at number six, although another poor performance from him could see Nick Compton given a second chance of a test career at Old Trafford in the third test.

Brad Haddin was the Aussies best batsman as he nearly guided them to a famous victory, but it’s important to remember just how close he was to missing out entirely on this Ashes tour. Matthew Wade had been the man in possession of the gloves recently for the visitors and while he did nothing particularly wrong Haddin was mainly included for his experience and to take on the role of vice-captain in the side. Haddin has traditionally performed well against England, scoring two centuries in the 2009 and 2010/11 series, so recently departed coach Mickey Arthur looks to have been justified in giving Haddin the opportunity to resume his test career. Not that he’s likely to receive much credit for his decision.

Whether or not Arthur’s replacement Darren Lehmann makes any changes to the team for Lords remains to be seen. Although the Australians came close to winning the first test a couple of players, especially Ed Cowan, were disappointing and the likes of David Warner and Usman Khawaja will be in the frame to fill the number three spot in the order should Lehmann decide Cowan’s performance merits receiving the axe.

My final point iconcerns DRS and the way it was utilised by both skippers. Michael Clarke paid dearly for wasting his reviews throughout the game, acknowledging so in his post match interview. Alistair Cook takes a lot of stick for being conservative and passive as a captain, which may or may not be justified. However these characteristics transfer to his use of the review system, and it’s undeniably served him well so far in his short spell at the helm. DRS was set up to eliminate the howler, and Cook uses the system for exactly that purpose. While Clarke used the system speculatively on numerous occasions Cook was happy to keep his reviews stashed away for when he needed them most. And boy, did he need one at hand when Haddin got the faintest of nicks through to Matt Prior.

So after a thrilling and exhausting test match the series moves quickly on to Lords, and while England will be hoping to emulate their victory there in 2009 the Australians will know that a win for them will turn the tide in their favour. Will the second test be as close as the first? No one can say for certain, but you get the feeling that this series could ebb and flow in a way eerily similar to the colossal battle of 2005.

England v Australia Ashes Series Betting Preview

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Two and a half years after England famously dismantled Australia down under the two sides go head to head in crickets most illustrious series. While the two great rivals have battled in one day and twenty20 competition in recent months each encounter has been played with one eye on the little urn that’s been contested for since the later part of the nineteenth century. The next six weeks will see five matches played, starting at Trent Bridge tomorrow morning and concluding at the Kia Oval in August. For the first time in perhaps two decades England enter the series as clear favourites and it will perhaps be England’s ability to handle the pressure of being front runners which could dictate where the Ashes will reside when the battle concludes.

            England go into the series with a fairly settled top seven, the exception being the second opening berth alongside captain Alistair Cook. Nick Compton has been omitted from the first test squad with Joe Root promoted to open in his place, while Jonny Bairstow is given the opportunity to cement his spot in the team at number six. None of the trio should be considered in the top run scorer market for the hosts, each for different reasons. Root has never opened in test cricket which means he’s going to have to answer serious questions about his ability to see off the new ball. Meanwhile Compton is unlikely to feature in the series, while Bairstow is yet to strike an international century despite being given plenty of opportunities over the past year. Matt Prior should also be avoided as run scoring opportunities at number seven in the order are few and far between, although his test record is outstanding. This leaves the usual suspects such as captain Cook (11/4) and Jonathan Trott (3/1) as the men likely to lead England’s run scoring charge. However it’s the controversial Kevin Pietersen (7/2) who I’m tipping to continue his superb record against the Aussies. KP announced himself to the world with a stunning 158 at the Oval back in 2005 and his double ton at Adelaide in 2010 will go down in Ashes folklore as one of the great knocks of modern times. Pietersen returned to action with Surrey following a leg injury two weeks ago, making an unbeaten 177 and he’s great value to dominate the Aussies once more this summer.

            Captain Michael Clarke will be crucial to Australia’s Ashes chances, as the right hander has developed an incredible appetite for big scores since he took on leadership of the team from Ricky Ponting. Two double tons and one triple century in the 24 games is a phenomenal record, and 9/4 could look generous should Clarke, as expected, heavily outscore his teammates in the first test. The skipper is heavy favourite to lead by example and head the visitors run charts. The rest of the top seven isn’t set in stone with less than 24 hours to go until the first ball is bowled, although new coach has said Shane Watson (7/2) and Chris Rogers (4/1) will open the batting. This gives both players a chance to get the series off to a flying start, and Rogers could be worth a punt thanks to his knowledge of English conditions having excelled for Middlesex over the past few seasons.

            The hosts’ bowling is experienced and variable, from the expert swing bowling of James Anderson to off-spinner Graeme Swann. Stuart Broad is a shoe-in to fill one of the other two bowling positions available while Tim Bresnan and Steven Finn will compete for the other. Finn should be given first crack at supplementing the other three, but over the course of a five match series Bresnan should expect to play in at least two of the games. Anderson is the most skilled of the attack and despite his age and workload has shown a remarkable ability to stay fit and is almost an ever present in the side. As a result he’s the man you’ll want to back to take the most Aussie wickets at odds of 13/8.

            Australia’s attack is inexperienced and raw in comparison, but that doesn’t mean they should be underestimated. Mitchell Starc is a young left arm fast bowler who has an impressive test record despite his youth. Peter Siddle is one player English supporters will recognise thanks to his impressive performances in the past two Ashes contests including a hat-trick on the opening day of the 2010/11 Ashes at the Gabba. Nathan Lyon is the spin option, and although he has 76 test wickets to his name don’t be fooled in thinking he’s the next great Australian spinner. His accuracy is average and he isn’t a big turner of the ball, so expect performances closer to Bruce Martin than Graeme Swann. James Pattinson is another exciting young quick who is likely to be selected for the first test tomorrow. However Pattinson is not so fortunate as Starc in that he isn’t left handed, a characteristic that has given England some problems over the past few years. Zaheer Khan and Trent Boult are just two southpaws who have achieved success against Cook and co. which will give Starc (3/1) much encouragement. If he can stay fit then expect him to be very competitive in the Australian top wicket taking stakes.

            So far as the eventual outcome of the series is concerned, England’s superiority in the ICC rankings (3rd) to Australia (4th) is reflected in odds of 1/3 on them winning the series and retaining the Ashes in style. The Aussies are 9/2 and could well be worth a punt, especially considering their bowlers are more than capable of taking 20 wickets. The draw is an unlikely outcome at 7/1, and there hasn’t been a drawn Ashes series since 1972. Although I won’t go as far as tipping Australia to regain the urn, I think the series will be closer than many expect and 2-1(15/2) to England could be the final outcome in a tight and hopefully entertaining tussle.

All odds are courtesy of Bet365.com