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Doubling Up: A Bridge Too Far For Allyson Felix

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta two athletes stood head and shoulders above the rest. France’s Marie José Perec and poster boy of the games Michael Johnson both won two individual golds apiece in the 200 metres and the 400 metres. No athlete, male or female, has since matched this feat, but one was expected to have a serious chance of doing so in London next year; the USA’s Allyson Felix.

Since bursting on to the scene as an 18 year old in 2004 with a silver medal in the 200 metres in Athens, Felix has established herself as one of track and field’s true superstars and most consistent performers. Since clinching that silver medal in Greece, the affable American has won three consecutive world titles in the 200 metres (2005, 2007 and 2009) and a second Olympic silver in 2008.

2010 saw the Californian place much more emphasis on running the 400 metres as she looked to prepare for a potential double assault in London. Felix proved that her graceful running style makes her the most naturally talented sprinter in world athletics (with the exception of Usain Bolt) as she took to the longer distance like a duck to water. Running both the 200 and 400 metres did not seem to be a problem at all as she became the first person to win two IAAF Diamond League Trophies in the same year, winning 21 of 22 races she started. Felix was looking a hot bet to emulate Perec and Johnson.

Fast forward 12 months and many are now questioning the wisdom of Felix’s planned double in London next year. The reason? A sub-par showing at this year’s world championships in Daegu.

Allyson Felix will hope to raise the US flag in victory next year in London (This image is the property of AP)

It seems odd to describe a silver medal and personal best in the 400 metres and a bronze medal in the 200 metres as disappointing, but for Allyson Felix, it is. Given her talent and dominance in both events in recent times, she was expected to return to the United States with two gold medals in her suitcase.

Her second place finish in the 400 metres was the more satisfactory result as she ran a personal best of 49.59 seconds in a close race won by Botswana’s Amantle Montsho. Felix’s performance and her strong finish in particular suggested that there is more to come over the longer distance, but her bronze medal in the 200 metres in a time of 22.42 will have been a great disappointment for the three-time champion. The final took place only four days after the final of the 400 metres, with the heats starting only three days after her silver medal performance and if truth be told, the 25 year old looked fatigued. It is one thing doubling up at Diamond League meets, but another matter altogether at World Championships and Olympics when there are three and four rounds respectively. The 200 and 400 metres are all about speed endurance and so fresh legs are crucial. As such, it is a particularly hard double to achieve, especially for one of Felix’s build. In stark contrast to the more powerful and muscular Veronica Campbell-Brown and Carmelita Jeter, Felix is a very slight, very graceful runner and the sheer amount of running she had to do looked to have taken it out of her. She did recover to run an impressive leg in the USA’s 4×100 metres relay, but again looked jaded in her country’s 4×400 metres triumph.

There is no doubt that Felix is an Olympic champion waiting to be crowned but if she attempts to win two gold medals in London next year, she may jeopardise her chances. This is not to say that winning gold in both events is beyond her, but her sub-par showing in Daegu will have given her food for thought. One individual gold medal will complete her collection and so it is now up to her and her coach Bobby Kersee to assess what happened this summer in Daegu before deciding what to do in London next year. Let’s hope they make the right decision as Felix’s talent and exemplary attitude are more than worthy of Olympic glory.

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Categories: Athletics

Who will win the Rugby World Cup?

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

The Rugby World Cup kicks off in New Zealand in a matter of hours and the All Blacks are overwhelming favourites to win their first title since 1987. It is however, far from a foregone conclusion. Who do you think will win?

Categories: Rugby Union

Is the end nigh for Arsène Wenger?

September 4, 2011 3 comments

Since Arsène Wenger took hold of the reins at Arsenal way back in October 1996, he has helped change the club beyond recognition. Under his predecessor Bruce Rioch, the North London club had finished fifth in the Premier League, 19 points behind champions Manchester United. Within two years, the Frenchman had assembled a squad awash with quality and delivered a league and FA Cup double. Under his guidance, the Gunners became perennial title contenders and went on to achieve the double again in 2002 as Thierry Henry took England by storm. Wenger’s Arsenal career reached its zenith during the 2003/2004 season as his side achieved the unthinkable and went an entire 38 game season undefeated. No side has yet been able to match the feat achieved by the team dubbed The Invincibles. Arsenal’s place atop the Premier League table was soon usurped by José Mourinho’s billionaire-funded Chelsea but the silverware continued to find its way in to the club’s trophy cabinet in the form of the FA Cup in 2005.

During this period of almost uninterrupted success in one competition or another, Wenger’s teams garnered a reputation for playing football which was easy on the eye, football for purists some might say, a style surpassed perhaps only by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. The manager himself became known as a supreme talent spotter plucking the likes of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit out of relative obscurity and rescuing the wonderfully talented, but at the time still very raw, Thierry Henry from his Italian nightmare at Juventus. He seemed to work wonders on a limited budget, particularly in comparison to the money afforded the likes of Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson and very nearly led the club to European glory in 2006 before a Ronaldinho-inspired Barcelona came from one goal down to deny the Frenchman his crowning glory.

The club’s success on the pitch has led to almost unchecked growth off it. Arsenal has become a major sporting brand with global appeal and the club is now one of the world’s most profitable. The money generated by on-field success facilitated the club’s move to its new home – the fantastically modern Emirates Stadium.

In short, Wenger has presided over a period of unprecedented success at Arsenal yet now, in 2011, he finds himself under extreme pressure, the likes of which most of us would find insufferable. Fans who for so long have shown an unwavering faith in his managerial abilities are now starting to question him. Some are even calling for his head. Every move he makes is now being scrutinised even more intensely by the world’s sporting media, particularly with regards to his dealings in the dizzying carousel that is the transfer market, and some are even questioning whether he has lost sight of the most important thing in sport; winning.

So why does the man who has worked wonders for a club, which 15 years ago found itself sliding towards mid-table irrelevance, suddenly find himself being attacked from all sides? This is a question to which the answer is far from simple.

One could argue that, to an extent at least, Wenger is a victim of his own success. The silverware flowed in to the club’s trophy room on the crest of an irresistible footballing wave in the late 90s and early 00s at a rate rivalled only by Manchester United. However, it may not have escaped your attention that in the paragraphs above outlining Wenger’s achievements there is no mention of anything beyond the Champions League Final in May 2006. There is no mention of any trophy after the 2005 FA Cup, as not since then has the Frenchman seen his captain lift a major trophy. With the exception of the 2007/2008 title race and this year’s League Cup final, Arsenal have not looked like adding to their Wenger-inspired trophy haul and, if truth be told, they have looked in recent years like a car stuck in neutral, the driver of which is desperately seeking first gear.

For so long Arsenal were Manchester United’s main and perhaps only serious title contenders. So intense was the rivalry between the two clubs that matches between them often descended in to ill-disciplined farce, most notably during the infamous 2004 post-match pizza throwing incident. The days of watching those two titans of midfield, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, tussle for supremacy in what served as a microcosm of the clubs’ own titanic battle now seem like a distant memory. The chasm that has opened between the two clubs was revealed with startling brutality last Sunday as the defending champions romped to an emphatic 8-2 victory at Old Trafford. There is of course an argument to be made for the away side as they were without a whole host of first-team players and forced to thrust the likes of Carl Jenkinson and Francis Coquelin in to action against a rampant Wayne Rooney and co. What will concern Wenger more, is the anonymity of senior players such as Andrey Arshavin and Tomáš Rosický in that match, both of whom looked like they would rather be anywhere other than Old Trafford even before Danny Welbeck opened the scoring. Arshavin in particular has performed in this manner for some time now and Rosický looks like the injury-ravaged player that he is.

Not only have Manchester United pulled far ahead of Arsenal, but so too have the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City. Whilst Manchester City were putting their petro-dollars to good use by buying Sergio Agüero, Arsène Wenger was handing Charlton Athletic a £1 million cheque for Carl Jenkinson. This contrast was enough to convince Samir Nasri to swap the Emirates for the newly named Etihad Stadium. In doing so he followed Arsenal’s best player, Cesc Fàbregas, out of the exit door leaving Wenger with two huge gaps to fill in midfield, a situation made worse by the news that Arsenal’s next best midfielder, Jack Wilshere, is out until November. Chelsea and Manchester City are now the pretenders to Manchester United’s crown, not Arsenal, and with Liverpool having invested heavily this summer and Tottenham Hotspur always dangerous, it is not unthinkable that the Gunners may fail to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

 

Arsène Wenger was forced to look helplessly as his side were torn apart by a rampant Manchester United (This image is the property of the Guardian)

Arsène Wenger can of course not be blamed for Fàbregas wanting to return to his homeland or Samir Nasri having his head turned by a reported £180,000 a week contract, but the reason for leaving given by both players is telling: ‘I want to win trophies.’ Evidently neither felt this was a possibility at Arsenal and judging by what we have seen so far this season, it is hard to disagree.

As mentioned above, the issue is that Wenger has had to play the likes of Jenkinson, Frimpong and Coquelin and for this he must take some of the blame. Whilst these players are undoubtedly talented and may well go on to become world-class, they are simply not yet ready to play game in game out in the Premier League. Where are the experienced back up players? There aren’t any. In the last two or three years, Wenger has let his squad become ultra thin and he is now reaping what he has sown.

This summer, Gael Clichy, Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri have all left and one could reasonably argue that none of them have been replaced. Given Arsenal’s lack of midfield options, it seems odd that Denilson has been allowed to return to Brazil on loan and apart from Robin van Persie, what does the Frenchman have at his disposal in terms of attacking options? Nicklas Bendtner departed for a season long loan to Sunderland on transfer deadline day vowing never to return and the club’s only fit left-back, Armand Traoré, was sold to QPR just a day after a horror showing at Old Trafford. The likes of Abou Diaby, Kieran Gibbs and Thomas Vermaelan seem to be incapable of staying fit for any length of time and Wenger has failed to legislate for this.

For too long the manager has promised the Arsenal faithful that ‘this team will come good’ but Jack Wilshere aside, none of those who have recently come in to the side look up to scratch for a club with serious title ambitions. For some time those same fans have admitted a need for their team to play more direct football at times, but the Frenchman remains married to his belief in what some see as ‘walk it in the net’ football. Stubborn to a fault some might say.

It is for his signings, or lack of them, that the most vociferous criticism has been reserved however. This summer illustrated the point perfectly. It was certainly no mystery that Wenger was going to lose both Fàbregas and Nasri and so he had plenty of time to weigh up and prepare reasonable offers for replacements. Big names such as Mario Götze of Borussia Dortmund and Eden Hazard of Lille were bandied about but neither deal materialised. Wenger instead found himself involved in the mad scramble that drives Sky’s Jim White to near combustion: transfer deadline day. In the end, he was able to recruit two experienced midfielders, Mikel Arteta from Everton and Chelsea’s Israeli international Yossi Benayoun. These will no doubt prove good additions to Wenger’s squad, as will German centre back Per Mertesacker, also signed on deadline day, but if truth be told, neither has produced his best form in the last two seasons and they are not the stellar names Emirates regulars were hoping for. In fact, the Arteta deal, which was finalised right on the cut off time of 11 p.m., smacked of desperation somewhat. Some were also left wondering why the club had not bought a midfield general, the kind of player lacking since Patrick Vieira’s departure a full six years ago.

 

For too long Wenger has refused to roll his dice and go big in the transfer market and there are various theories as to why. There is a long held belief amongst some Arsenal supporters that Wenger has lacked an ally on the board since David Dein’s departure and that consequently, they will not sanction the kind of six figure weekly wages needed to attract the world’s top players. Some even question whether he has the funds to buy such players in the first place with much of the blame being put on the cost of the new stadium.

 

Perhaps the most compelling argument however, is that the manager himself is reluctant to spend big as he seeks to do it his way, i.e. buy young and cheap. He has on occasion ventured in to the transfer market for big money buys, but more often than not, they have ended in disappointment. Sylvain Wiltord was a club record signing and whilst solid, he did not pull up any trees. Andrey Arshavin has failed to consistently show the form that made him so sought-after in his Zenit St. Petersburg days and José Antonio Reyes came and went having barely left a mark on English football. There also have to be question marks over why he spent a reported £12 million on 18 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain this year (did he really need a pacey attacking player in the mould of Theo Walcott?), especially when one then considers he offered a paltry £6 million for Bolton and England centre back Gary Cahill. Wenger’s better acquisitions have been for the most part bargain buys and this is perhaps why he is reluctant to ask his chairman for big money signings. Whatever the case, it has left his squad thin and his task difficult.

 

A fourth title of the Wenger era is well beyond Arsenal this year as they will need to rely on young, inexperienced players such as Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, but those calling for his job should proceed with caution. Whilst it is true that one can only live off past glories for so long, nobody should forget how far Arsène Wenger has brought the club. Then there is the matter of who would replace him, something which very few consider when yelling ‘(name of manager) out. There is no obvious candidate, so let’s hope Arsenal do the right thing and keep the faith. If they do, Wenger will need to repay that faith and finally showing some flexibility on the style of football played and in the transfer market would be a good start.

Categories: Football