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Archive for May 2007

Derby in top flight

Derby County beat West Bromwich Albion 1-nil at Wembley in the Championships play-off final to book their place in the Barclays English Premiership next season.

I thought the Baggies played well in the first half dominating possession and creating a few chances. I think the idea was to score an early goal but that didn't happen and the Rams had a breakthrough early in the second half through Stephen Pearson. Once the Rams scored I just thought that was it because I know they can defend very well and it proved to be so.

I think Derby deserve their place in the Premiership even though its at the expense of my team. They were consistent throughout the season and it was some poor results towards the end that cost them automatic qualification.

The Rams had a clear game plan for the final and that was to stop the Baggies from playing their attacking football and in particular to stop Jason Koumas from dominating midfield play. That worked and also they had their own good chances.

For the Baggies its back to the drawing board and try and prepare for next season. The manager Tony Mowbray will now have a full season to plan for which is good because he came in the middle of last season.

My only fear is that we may lose key players like Jason Koumas and Diomansy Kamara. They have been key this season and may not fancy another season in the Championship especially if the premiership clubs coming knocking.

West Brom's loss means that it becomes the only one of the relegated sides from last season to miss out on promotion after the elevation of both Birmingham and Sunderland.

McLarens rule in Monaco

Fernando Alonso won the F1 Monaco Grand Prix after starting from pole and leading all way to the finish with Lewis Hamilton coming a close second in what is slowly becoming a familiar position for him this season.

This was the fifth race of the season and so far the podium has comprised McLaren and Ferrari drivers only and the only driver to feature on all podiums so far is Hamilton.

I think Hamilton was disappointed that he did not get pole on Saturday because he knows that had he got it he would have won the race. I think he is no longer satisfied with breaking records ( this time first rookie driver to finish on podium in first five races) and finishing on the podium but would like to win a race and that is what counts more. Felipe Massa finished a distant third and his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen scrapped into the points points grabbing eight position having started the race in 16th position.

It was good to see Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella finish fourth and I wonder if this marks a change of fortune for the team. However it was good not all that rosy for Fisichella's team-mate Heikki Kovalainen who finished thirteenth.

BMW sauber continue to be consistent but I think they still lack the cutting edge to challenge the top two teams. I still think that the day when we see a driver outside McLaren and Ferrari on the podium it will be one from BMW Sauber.

Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld finished fifth and sixth respectively with Williams' Alexander Wurz finishing seventh. Last time it was Nico Rosberg who finished in the points for Williams and this is a positive result for they have managed to score points in two successive races.

Mark Webber did not finish the race once again and it doesn't look good for him so far this season. I thought Webber had a chance this time of scoring points after qualifying sixth but car problems continue to trouble him and it is increasingly looking like last season already. This time it was a gearbox problem.

The next two races will be in North America starting with the race in Montreal, Canada.

Hewitt semis hurdle

I have been following Lleyton Hewitt's progress at the Hypo Group International tournament in Vienna, Austria and once again for the second consecutive tournament he reached the semi-finals but again failed to reach the final.

This time he lost his semi-final match to Gael Monfils who went on to lose to the Juan Monaco in the final. This time he was playing in a tournament that didn't have many of the big names and that gave Hewitt a chance to reach the final and win it possibly and so you would think but Monfils also had good tournament as he also dispatched another big gun in Andy Roddick along the way.

Even though Hewitt failed to reach the final, I think he has done his French Open preparations no harm and I think he will be able to reach at least the second week. A grand slam always has some unknown players coming in and causing some shocks but I think that if Hewitt plays the way he has done for the past fortnight he is capable of causing upsets of his own.

Hewitt's first match will be against Max Mirnyi whilst defending champion Rafael Nadal will play Argentinian Juan Martin Del Potro and Roger Federer will fight it out against American Michael Russell.

Milan overcome Liverpool

AC Milan beat Liverpool to win the clubs seventh European crown in Athens with a Filippo Inzaghi double either side of half time.

But I think it could all have been different had Liverpool taken advantage of their dominance in the first half and score a goal or two but it was Milan who snatched a goal towards the end of the first half and that changed the complexion of the game.

Whereas in first half Liverpool had to probe Milan in search of an opening, in the second half they had to chase the game but still aware that Milan could hit them on the counter which they surely did in the second half to second Milan's second and after that only another miraculous comeback could save Liverpool.

I think the difference in the first half was Liverpool's packed midfield which outplayed Milan's and managed to contain dangerman Kaka but that dominance only saw one shot on target and also credit to Milan's defence that held firm.

I also think Harry Kewell should have come earlier to replace Boudewijn Zenden who was rather quiet and this could have been due to the ankle injury. Possibly Rafa was cautious with with Kewell because he hasn't played for a long time and had only two substitute appearances before this match.

But the day belonged to Inzaghi whose brace ensured that Milan won their seventh European title and two more they will catch Real Madrid. Interestingly a Liverpool win would have meant six apiece between Milan and Liverpool.

Liverpool's goal came too late for them and on the course of the whole match I think the Rossoneri deserved their win.

Federer stops Nadal run

Roger Federer stopped Rafael Nadal's 81 match record winning streak on clay when he beat the world number two at the Hamburg Masters in three sets to win his fourth Hamburg title.

Federer who had his own winning streak stopped by Guillermo Canas recently, didn't have the perfect start to the match when he lost the first set 6-2 and at that point it looked like it was going to be another routine Nadal win on clay.

But Federer came in the second set with a determination to win and took the second set leaving the third set as the decider. Federer steam rolled the third to win 6-0 to break Nadal's long running winning streak on clay which could have gone even longer especially at the start of the French Open.

I think Federer's win will mean Nadal will go into the French Open knowing that there is now a strong challenge to his grip at Rolland Garros and that may put some pressure on him.

Interestingly Lleyton Hewitt could have stopped Nadal's run in the semis but Nadal had a slight edge in what was a thrilling semi and I think Nadal has to think about the danger posed by Hewitt as well who had a very good Hamburg tournament.

Chelsea in cup double

Chelsea beat Manchester United in the FA Cup played at the new Wembley to clinch a cup double thanks to a Didier Drogba goal scored in extra time.

The much hyped first FA Cup final at the new Wembley never lived to expectations and especially the first twenty minutes which looked more like training session than a cup final. Drogba's goal was class but by then I was actually bored but it meant that we were saved a third consecutive FA Cup decided on penalties.

Just a few weeks ago there was talk about a quadruple for Chelsea and a treble for United but it has all come down to a cup double for Chelsea and a single for United if you can call it that. Actually I think its good these two teams did not make it to meet in this year's Champions League final because it would have meant enduring another cagey two hours.

After a scoreless draw in the league ten days before the final, some people thought that the final would be much better but unfortunately it turned out to be exactly the same cagey style, with both teams trying as much as possible to avoid a loss.

The next match between the two sides will be the Community Shield in August and again at Wembley and lets hope that its going to be a bit more interesting than this FA Cup final.

Baggies reach Wembley to face Derby

West Bromwich Albion this morning beat Wolverhampton Wanderers in a Black Country derby play-off to set up a Championship play-off final against Derby at Wembley on May 28.

After an exciting first leg at Molineux, the second leg was a bit sub-dued as the expected Wolves attack never eventuated but it was the Baggies who dominated the second leg as Kevin Phillips continued his scoring run.

Derby had to go through the penalty shoot-out after losing the second leg 3-2 at Pride Park. The two games yielded a total of eight goals but I think the Saints played quite well in the second leg knowing they had nothing to lose and so they just went for it.

The play-off final should be a tight encounter and I won't be surprised if the match is decided on penalties. In the normal season, the Baggies beat the Rams 1-0 at the Hawthorns and at Pride Park the home team won 2-1. So its honours even but this time there is a very big prize at stake and that's the premiership.

If the Baggies win at Wembley it will mean that for the first time all the three relegated sides from one season would have gone back to the premiership on first attempt.

Massa notches Barcelona win

Ferrari's Felipe Massa secured a second consecutive win when he won the Spanish Grand Prix from pole ahead of McLaren's duo of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. His team-mate Kimi Raikkonen was running third when he retired after just 10 laps due to electrical problems.

By finishing on the podium for the fourth time in as many races Hamilton became the first driver to finish on the podium on four consecutive times in his year in F1. Also the McLaren driver now leads the driver's championship by two points and at 22 he becomes the youngest driver to do so.

I think the Massa secured his win when he fought off Alonso on the first corner because from then on he went on take command of the race and only losing the lead on pit-stops.

No other team apart from Ferrari and McLaren has finished on the podium so far this season but I still think BMW Sauber are the ones who could break that podium monopoly. BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica finished fourth and his team-mate Nick Heidfeld could not finish the race.

It was good to see a Williams finish in the points with Nico Rosberg finishing sixth behind Mark Webber's team-mate David Coultard. Once again Webber failed to finish and this time it was a hydraulics problem and I am afraid the pattern of 2006 seems to be developing again.

Renault's Heikki Kovalainen and Super Aguri's Takuma Sato completed the points places. It doesn't look like its going to be a good season for Giancarlo Fisichella after he finished just outside the points in ninth place after some fuel rig problems.

Next stop Monaco.

Night racing for Singapore

This week it was announced on the official F1 website that Singapore had been added to the F1 calendar for 2008 and the race is proposed to be a night one.

I am not a fan of night racing at all because at the heart of it is pleasing fans in some far away place and ignoring the locals especially those who live close to the circuit and there is also the big issue of safety of both the fans and the drivers.

How safe night racing will be nobody really knows as this will be the first time that a F1 race has been held at night. One also has to think about what happens if it rains at night and especially with the kind of heavy downpours experienced in areas like Singapore. I think that is likely to pose some serious problems.

I also fear that should the night race be successful, pressure will be put on both Melbourne and Malaysia to switch their races to night time. In a previous post, I argued that this wasn't for the good of locals and I still think so.

In another F1 development it was announced that Valencia might host a F1 race next year called the European Grand prix. What baffles me is not the announcement itself but the fact it looks like there was an announcement sometime last year that no country would host more than one race. This race would give Spain two races and I wonder whether that policy has now been shelved aside.

Rumblings about Australia's tour to Zimbabwe

One of the hot topics this past week has been the issue of abandoning the Australia's cricket team scheduled tour of Zimbabwe later in the year.

I think the good thing so far in this issue is the willingness on the part of the Australia government to pay any fine that the International Cricket Council (ICC) may impose on Cricket Australia should they abandon the tour. Its not good to advocate abandoning the tour and then let the sporting body foot the bill.

From a cricket perspective ignoring the political side of the story, Zimbabwe playing Australia is a total mismatch and I don't know what the ICC thinks will be gained from this tour. Recently Zimbabwe lost all its matches against lowly ranked Bangladesh and they also failed to win a single match at the World Cup and playing Australia can only lead to some records which just distort the existing records.

Zimbabwean cricket reached a peak at the World Cup in South Africa but since then problems on and off the pitch have meant that the cricket itself, the sport, has taken a back-seat. It is in this context that Australia touring will bring a mismatch which nobody really wants and I think Zimbabwe should be playing sides like Kenya and Ireland more often and then play the Test playing nations later when its form and standard has improved.

At the moment its hard to see this tour going ahead but all the same I will be following the developments closely and I am keen to see what the ICC's response will be should the tour be abandoned as expected.

UEFA places and relegation on last day

With Manchester United already crowned champions going into the final round of the English Premier league, focus will be on who will join Charlton and Watford in the championship next season and there is also the UEFA Cup places to be decided.

In an earlier post I discussed about Watford's relegation and who was going to follow suit but since then Charlton has followed them after their loss to Spurs and now Wigan, Sheffield, West Ham are the only ones who can still be relegated.

Fulham escaped after a vital win against what was essentially Liverpool's reserve team and a Carlos Tevez inspired West Ham have put themselves in a comfortable position after beating Bolton in the last round.

Wigan and Sheffield meet at Bramall Lane in a match where Wigan has to win to lengthen its short stay in the premiership. Wigan are now the only team whose survival is dependent on other teams and but its made easier by the fact that should they beat Sheffield, then they will end up above them.

West Ham and Sheffield both need draws to survive. West Ham have made the relegation battle seem a little easier because they have picked up form at the right moment and their key victory in the last few weeks was the one against Wigan. To be able to survive relegation you need to beat teams around you and Wigan failed in that respect when they lost 3 nil to the Hammers at home.

Turning to the UEFA cup places, Everton, Spurs, Bolton, Reading and Portsmouth all have a chance to bring European football to their stadiums next season. The fact that Manchester United and Chelsea are playing in the FA Cup final at Wembley has meant that seventh position gets a UEFA Cup place that would otherwise have gone to the winner of the FA Cup.

Spurs and Everton are most likely going to get the two of the places. Spurs meet Manchester City at White Hart Lane needing only a draw to secure a UEFA place. Although Everton meet Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea will have one eye on the FA Cup and therefore are likely to rest some key players and therefore Everton should be able to get the draw they need at least.

Bolton meet in-form Aston Villa and I will not be surprised to see a Villa win there. For them all they need is a win and they are in although a draw could be enough depending on what happens to Reading and Portsmouth.

Reading lost a great chance last week when they lost to Watford at home and now they will need to beat Blackburn to be in with a chance. Bolton will have to either draw or lose for them to qualify.

Portsmouth will meet Arsenal at Fratton Park knowing that a win coupled by losses by both Reading and Bolton will land them a UEFA place. I see their chances as slim as I cannot see Arsene Wenger's men losing the last match of what has been a disappointing season for them by their standards. Also a win or a draw might secure the Gunners third place depending on what happens between Liverpool and Charlton at Anfield.

Meanwhile from an Australian perspective, I am hoping that Foxtel will show these matches the way they were shown last week for the Championships last day. Last week on the last day of the Championship, one match was featured but goals from the key matches and latest league table were shown to keep viewers up to speed with developments around the grounds.

Federer stunned in Rome

Roger Federer last night lost in straight sets to wildcard Filippo Volandri in the third round of the Rome Masters.

Federer was not the only big name to exit in the third round with Andy Roddick also going out after losing to Juan Ignacio Chela.

But it is Federer's exit that is most interesting. When I saw him lose the first game of the match I just thought he would come back but as the match went on he committed so many errors and local favourite Volandri took advantage of that.

This was Federer's fourth loss of the year and one more loss would equal the number of losses suffered in the whole of the last year and we are still in May.

I think this is not the right form for Federer going into the French Open which starts later this month. Meanwhile Rafael Nadal despite suffering from dizzy spells won his 74th consecutive clay court match to set up a quarter-final date with Novak Djokovic.

And for those who were waiting for another Nadal/Federer match up on clay will have to wait a bit longer.

The budget and the election

Its interesting to see the reaction of different people to the budget presented by Federal Treasurer Peter Costello on Tuesday night.

While the tax breaks are always welcome, and so are all those bonuses to carers and older people and also the child care benefits - these go a long way in helping those who receive them.

What I find interesting though is that these one-off bonuses tend to come in election year. In the 2004 budget, a new maternity payment was introduced and now known as baby bonus.

I am wondering whether Costello has done enough to win the election later this year but should his party win then in three year's time we should expect even more one-off bonuses - I just don't know what shape or form they will take.

Fight for play-off places

Sunderland and Birmingham will go into the last round of the season on Sunday knowing that for them it's a question of who takes the Championship title for 2007 but their places are already assured in the premiership next season.

I wish the same could be said for the six teams that lie from fourth to ninth position who still have to fight for a play-off place and for some of them a loss or a draw in that final match will just bring the season to an end.

Birmingham only needs a win against Preston North End to secure the Championship title at Deepdale and that win if it happens would end Preston's season. Preston is one of six teams that include West Bromwich Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Southampton, Stoke City and Colchester who could end up in the play-off positions if results go their way.

To win the title Sunderland would need to beat relegated Luton and hope that Birmingham does not win against Preston. I don't think the Black Cats fans will care that much because they are now back in the premiership and winning the title would just be an icing on the cake.

Derby have already qualified for the playoffs in third place and their position is guaranteed. Derby has had a wonderful season but getting only seven points from a possible eighteen from their last six away matches has cost them dearly. They know that the playoffs are a bit of a lottery but playing the second leg at home should at least give them some comfort.

My team West Brom currently lie fourth and a win against Barnsley will secure that fourth position. There must be jitters among the Baggies fans because this is a team that lately has only managed one win at home from the last six matches although it has managed to pick up wins away from home and crucially last week's win away to Coventry City. At the start of the season I thought they would be promoted but I am afraid it doesn't look that way at the moment.

Wolves play Leicester away at Walkers Stadium and a win would secure them a playoff place but a draw may not be enough depending on other results. Leicester having failed to win any of their last six home games, don't seem able to win at home at the moment and that should give Wolves some confidence.

Now for the interesting bit. Southampton and Stoke have exactly the same number of points and goal difference and whilst Southampton host relegated Southend, Stoke are away to QPR. While both teams have what I think are winnable games, it could come down to goal difference to determine who reaches the play-off and I am expecting these two teams to try and score as many goals as they can.

For Preston and Colchester a draw will not be enough. Colchester's chances are slim because of their inferior goal difference. They would need to win their match against Crystal Palace by at least five goals and hope that Southampton, Stoke and Preston all lose.

Its unfortunate that the none of the teams vying for the play-off places are playing each other but it should be interesting all the same. There is also a possibility that all the teams involved in the play-offs could all be from the Midlands which would give two promoted sides from that region.

The play-off route is hard but it also produces some very exciting football to wrap up the Championship season and lets see which team will deliver the goods come Sunday.

Liverpool to face Milan again

Liverpool will play AC Milan in the UEFA Champions League final at the Olympics Stadium in Athens on the 23rd of May after both teams were victors over Chelsea and Manchester United respectively.

Liverpool beat Chelsea on penalties to advance to the final for the second time in three seasons whilst Chelsea are still to reach the final. Of the so-called big four clubs in the English premiership Chelsea are the only one to not have qualified for the final of Europe's premier club competition.

I think Chelsea lost the plot in the first leg at Stamford Bridge because after dominating for long periods, they could only score a single goal. I think a second goal would have gone a long way into securing their place in the final. They should have been sharper in front of goal because taking such a slender lead to Anfield was never going to make Liverpool's life difficult.

It would also appear to me that whilst Liverpool practiced penalties prior to this match Chelsea don't seem to have done that and you can tell from their poorly taken penalties and the lack of confidence in the face of the takers. Liverpool on the other hand were well drilled for the penalties and all their kicks were excellent. They even brought in Robbie Fowler towards the end and I think he was brought in potentially as penalty taker and that was a good move on behalf of manager Rafael Benitez.

In the other semi-final Milan outclassed Manchester United at the San Siro and will now again meet their 2005 conquerors in the final. The Milan/Manchester United semi-final produced the better football and Milan showed their class and United never looked like scoring against a Kaka inspired Milan. Cristiano Ronaldo never rose to the occasion and now Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, will have to wait another year.

I think the final should be an interesting one being played between two sides with contrasting styles. I don't think Milan will allow Liverpool to come back again should they go in front this time and my verdict is that Liverpool will only win this final if the match goes to a penalty shoot-out.

Now turning to the losing semi-finalists, its now back to the league and the FA Cup business for both teams. Chelsea's quadruple dream has now been reduced to a treble if not a double whilst for United the dream is now for a double.

With the league title seemingly gone to United, it will not be surprising to see Chelsea just holding on the less prestigious League Cup but whatever happens the next three weeks should be interesting for both set of fans and even the neutrals like me.

Water levels on record low

The Melbourne water storage levels went below the 30% mark for the first time in thirty nine years this week and that is a cause for concern I think.

As of today the water storage level is at 29.9% and I just hope the current rains will make sure that the level will go back to above 30 %. In a previous post I mentioned the new water restriction stage 3a for Melbourne that came into effect at the start of last month but I am now beginning to wonder whether this is the time to implement stage 4.

The Victorian Premier Steve Bracks said that the state government has options to counter water shortages and these include harvesting storm water from the Yarra river, a desalination plant, piping water over the Great Divide from the Goulburn Murray irrigation district and also piping recycled water from the Eastern Treatment Plant at Carrum to Gippsland for use at Latrobe Valley power stations.

These look like four good options but me and maybe a few other people would like to know when they will start seriously taking some measures to implement them. Its one thing having the options but its quite another implementing them and in time.

Nadal triumphs in surface battle

Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in the battle of the surfaces in a match played in Palma, Spain on a court with clay and grass on either side of the net.

It was a very interesting exhibition match but given the seriousness of the play it was taken quite seriously by the players with a tie-break being a fitting end to the three set match.

I think its very hard to draw some conclusions on this but one thing for sure is that Federer has now improved so much on clay and could beat Nadal at the French Open and also Nadal by reaching the Wimbledon final last year showed us that though he may be called a clay court specialist, he is equally good on grass but not as good as Federer.

Nadal and Federer will both play in the clay tournament in Milan and it should be an interesting final should both players reach it. Nadal is now on a 72-match unbeaten streak on clay and must be eager to extend that streak on clay in Milan.

Birmingham and Sunderland go up

After Derby County's 2 nil loss to Crystal Palace on Sunday, Birmingham and Sunderland were both promoted to the premiership because now Derby can only finish on 84 points should they win their last match against Leeds on Sunday.

Birmingham and Sunderland should be congratulated for having such strong finishes to the season after both had sluggish starts and at one time it looked like the Birmingham manager Steve Bruce's job was on the line but all credit to the directors at St Andrews who stated that his job was safe for the whole season.

Sunderland also had an indifferent start to the championship especially when Niall Quinn was briefly in charge and could not find a away of winning a football game but then they brought in Roy Keane as manager who has now steered the team back to the premiership.

What this means is that of the three relegated sides last season West Bromwich Albion is the odd one out but it currently lies in the play-off places and a win against Barnsley at the Hawthorns will secure a playoff place. This is a far cry for a team that once graced the top of the league at one point this season but the playoffs are still not that bad because they give an alternate route to promotion.

Talking about playoffs, Derby have secured the third place and will play the second leg at home against whoever finishes sixth and it can be any one of six teams at the moment - West Brom, Wolverhampton, Southampton, Stoke, Preston and Colchester.

I think there will be a lot of attention on the team that Derby plays - Leeds United. Leeds are on the verge of dropping into League 1 at the moment and mathematically they can stay up but its not looking good at all. This is a team that not so long ago played in the Champions League semi-final but I am sure they will come back.

So congratulations to both Birmingham and Sunderland and I will now waiting to see who take over the remaining three playoff places come Sunday.