Are the Spanish greedy?

An interesting article, the thrust of which was that Spain’s poaching of the world’s top players has left more balanced leagues in the rest of Europe, recently caught my attention. As an Aston Villa fan, I’m not sure I agree that parity has reached the Premiership. If you look at the top 5 or 6 teams of the past few years, the same select group of names crops up time and time again: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and a n others. Yes, one or two have climbed a few places thanks largely to their new deep pockets and others, including my beloved boys in claret and blue, have slipped back. However, I would agree that this season is looking as competitive as 2001-02 season. But that could change.

A not too dissimilar situation can be found in the Italian Serie A and and the French First Division where the typical powerhouse teams are being challenged by some sporting minnows. But we’ve not yet reached mid-season. Often the lesser teams can’t maintain their challenges for the entire season, as injuries and other factors take their toll. One could argue that zones or tiers have appeared in the leagues and it’s difficult for teams to progress to the next tier without significant financial investment.

Over in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid have been busily acquiring the world’s best soccer talents and, so the article argues, doing the Spanish fans a disservice by rendering anything other than the classicos a walkover. The author (unfairly, in my opinion) compared the Spanish league to that of Scotland where two clubs, from the same city, Glasgow Rangers and Celtic, have dominated for years. It’s true that in recent years in La Liga the gap between the winner and the also rans has widened. Last year Barcelona won with 96 points, 34 points clear of 4th placed Villareal. While in 2006-07 season, Real Madrid won the title with a much narrower margin and 23% fewer points. But it’s winning that counts, not the margin of victory.

The article also points to the players short-listed for FIFA’s Player of the Year, the Ballon d’Or. In 2007, the list comprised 11 Premier League players, eight from La Liga, seven from Serie A, three from the Bundesliga and one from France. Since then, the world’s elite have migrated to Spain and this year’s short list included 13 players from the Spanish League, four from the Premiership, two from Serie A and the Bundesliga, and one each from Russia and Brazil. Could Spain’s dominance of recent World and European Cups not provide a simpler explanation?

Well, I have to confess that I’m not sure I agree with the author’s conclusions. Clubs with deep pockets, who regularly enjoy European football and have plenty of silverware in the cupboards, are going to attract the best players. Taking those players and moulding them into a winning side, is a whole other ball game. It is perhaps interesting to note that those teams who regularly place well in their respective leagues have “superstar” managers. Ones who have enjoyed significant periods in charge, such as Wenger and Ferguson, ones who have an abiding affinity with the club, like Guardiola, or ones who have enjoyed success wherever they have roamed such as Mourinho. Remember, football is a team sport and great teams, not teams of great players, win trophies. Though I do accept  they could be one and the same.

Just another week end

The incredibly mild weather is continuing which isn’t great news for those planning on going skiing. This, of course, has meant I have been out and about on the bike since my return from the Big Apple. Yesterday was the Telethon, France’s version of “Children in Need” but I was too busy with my guests to take part in the Club’s ride.

One of my English students is contemplating what to do after leaving school. French schools appear to be no better than English when it comes to dishing out career advice, so we’re lending a helping hand. I had invited around a couple of family friends for dinner. One’s an accountant and the other’s Head of HR at a bank in Monaco so they were both able to impart some words of wisdom and advice to our young friend.

Having guests for dinner’s an excuse to try out some new recipes. I decided on English cooking with a twist as my theme for the evening. I cooked a silky smooth cauliflower soup with black pudding, fish and chips with home-made tomato ketchup and for dessert, apple crumble and custard. Obviously, nothing was quite as it seemed. 

I dusted the monkfish in curry powder and fried it for a few minutes and served it with celeriac chips which had first been confit in goose fat before being fried too. The crumble was perched atop cored apple halves stuffed with rum soaked raisins and served with my home made custard, not a tin of Bird’s in sight. There was also a cheese course and my petit fours to finish. I believe the boys have quite changed their minds about English cooking.

Our young guest stayed over and rode Saturday morning with my beloved and his friends. He returned to collect his stuff and the two of them polished off the remaining crumble doused in custard. Who knew raw crumble tasted so good? Yes, the “spare” crumble hadn’t been cooked. Still both declared it ideal cycling food.  I went for a 3 hour ride after they’d left but returned too late to prevent them eating it. 

Following on from my Garmin malfunction, still waiting to hear from my LBS on that one, the screen went blank on my 7 month old Dell.  Now I’d had the same problem with my old Dell, but only after 7 year’s use. I immediately spoke to their Support Desk but I’ve got to make contact with them again tomorrow morning.

Saturday afternoon, I replaced my Blackberry. The mouse on the old one had given up the ghost. It would only work in two rather than four directions so, sadly, it had to go. Of course, the functionality on the new one is completely different and I’m still grappling with it.

Today was the Departmental pointage at Menton. We lost our crown last year and I don’t expect we’ve recovered it. Nevertheless, as M Le President was working, I was on hand to chivy the boys. After the pointage we continued on in to Italy for a coffee with a few clubmates. The coffee’s good in France but it’s cheaper and better in Italy. This added a few extra kilometers to the ride, just over 100km by the time we got back home.

We collected the papers, showered and then I whipped up a quick lunch before we settled down on the sofa to read the papers and watch the television. It’s allowed, we’ve expended a significant number of calories.

Profiting from the brief respite from live cycling, I’ve been reconnecting with the world of round balls. Football and tennis to be exact, and with mixed fortunes. My beloved boys in claret and blue lost 1-0 at home to the Red Devils, a disappointing result from a strange team selection. OGC Nice were at home to Rennes and frankly I feared the curse of the returning former manager and players. Not a bit,  the boys won 2-0 to keep them connected with those teams sloshing around in the final quarter of the league. A loss would have had unthinkable consequences.

It was the Davis Cup Final this week end, Spain v Argentina. Naturally, the boys playing on home turf were favourites to lift the cup for the 5th time in 11 years. They didn’t disappoint, despite heroic performances from Del Potro and Nalbandian, Nadal wrapped it up today with a thrilling reverse singles which swung first in favour of Argentina and then back again like a pendulum. But no one really doubted the outcome: Spain victorious again.

Sheree’s sporting smorgasbord

When I go back to the UK to visit my parents I feel as if I’m in some sort of parallel universe: no internet, no L’Equipe and a dull diet of daytime TV. The world continues but I seem stuck in some sort of Groundhog Day scenario. My mother’s illness is getting markedly worse. Of course, it’s only ever going to be a one-way bet but it seems to have gathered momentum and she’s much more overtly aggressive. I do appreciate that most of the time she’s no idea who we are and is therefore in a state of constant confusion with little way of making herself understood. There are times when you see flickers of the woman she once was but they’re becoming very few and far between. More worryingly I see the toll her disease is having on my father. While, on the one hand, I look forward to seeing them, as soon as I arrive I want to come back home.

Despite a crowded sporting calendar the only sport I saw all week end was the big match and, no, I don’t mean the Manchester Derby. We watched the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final in which France gave New Zealand an unexpected run for their money and, were it not for some strange but consistent refereeing decisions, might well have rained on the All Blacks parade. Despite the scepticism beforehand, L’Equipe produced a special supplement today paying homage to the boys’ exploits which included pages of gratitude from their sponsors. They might have been beaten but they went out with heads held high.

Arriving back home late Sunday afternoon, I was intent with catching up with all the other sporting news until I saw the announcement about Marco Simoncelli’s death. You see so many shots of the motorbike riders sliding off into the kitty litter and then bouncing back to their feet that you tend to forget the sport’s inherent dangers. It seemed doubly cruel that he should lose his life on a track where he crowned his 250cc championship season in 2008 and after achieving his best result of the 2011 season (2nd) in the previous race at Phillip Island. I didn’t have the heart to check on the results in the Moto2 and 125cc races.

Sebastien Loeb closed in on the World Rally Championship after winning the Catalunya Rally. Whether or not he wins his 8th consecutive title will be decided in three weeks in Wales. He leads Mikko Hirvonen by 8 points. Citroen teammate Sebastien Ogier dropped out of the rally and out of contention but looks unwilling to play second-fiddle for another season. Citroen did however wrap up the constructor’s championship.

Disappointment on the football pitch as AVFC were beaten at home for the first time since 1979 by their neighbours, The Baggies, after a contentious sending off reduced my beloved boys in claret and blue to 10 men. The phrase “we woz robbed” easily comes to mind. OGCN meekly capitulated 1-0 away at Nancy. But the big news was the 6-1 dismantling of the Red Devils in the Theatre of Dreams by their derby rivals Manchester City. When did Manchester United last concede that many goals? It was Sir Alec Ferguson’s “worst day ever”.  Down south, reduced to 9 men, Chelsea lost 1-0 away to their neighbours QPR. Derbies often throw up surprising results.

As I left for the UK on Friday a headline in L’Equipe caught my attention “Armstrong pedale encore”. Was Lance making yet another comeback? No, it was a comment about NBA player Hilton Armstrong. Thank goodness, because, quite frankly with teams disappearing left, right and centre, there’s no longer a place for Lance in the professional peloton. It seems particularly cruel that Geox have withdrawn their support just after the closing of the transfer window leaving staff and riders high and dry, with the latter’s points no longer worth a jot. I was rightly or wrongly under the impression that they’d signed on the dotted line for two years. I await with interest to see what the UCI is going to do about this.  While over on the piste, team GB appear to be underwhelmed, rather than delighted, by their haul of only 7 gold medals from Apeldoorn. It’s all relative.

Bountiful

My beloved departed yesterday afternoon which is probably just as well given how busy the last couple of days have been. The weather’s not been ideal: grey, chilly and drizzly. Not great for Carnival but the lower temperatures and more snow have assured great skiing in the mountains close to Nice.

Monday I collected Tom III. Who would have thought that a few extra horses under the bonnet (or, in the case of a Smart, in the boot) would have made such a difference? Why didn’t I get a Brabus version before? I am so loving driving the new car and putting it through its paces. It’s got all the boys toys, some of which I’ll never use, but they’ll serve to amuse my beloved.

Monday, is also administration day and, as it was also a month end, cue invoices, expenses and salaries. Yesterday, after my weigh-in, I continued with the administration, this time for the club, specifically ensuring that everything is in good order for the Treasurer’s return.

Only the truly faithful made it down to the club yesterday evening in the pouring rain. These are, however, the ones who always volunteer and turn out for the club whatever and whenever. As none of them are getting any younger, we do need to start looking for replacements in the ranks of the more recently retired and about to retire.

One of the professional riders, who lives locally, popped in with his other half, to hand over his spare and old kit for our youngsters. In recent years he’s raced for Cofidis, Agritubel and now RadioShack who have changed their kit for this season – thanks. We’re looking forward to seeing him, and some of our other local riders, in next week’s Paris-Nice which I am hoping will be a race to the sun. The long-range forecasts look promising.

This donation is really generous of him and all this kit will be a great boon to the parents. While the youngsters do receive free kit from the club’s sponsors, it’s really for race days. Riding every day soon takes a toll on the kit which, when you add it all up, particularly with the stuff required for winter riding, is not cheap, even at cost.

Article in March's Velo Magazine

Talking about our youngsters, as you can see from above, there was a small piece on one of them in this month’s Velo magazine. Sadly, he wasn’t wearing club kit in the photo, and they got the club’s name wrong (I’ve  since dropped them a line with the corrections). Let’s hope this is just the first of many mentions for our riders.

I had completely forgotten that Nice were playing their Cup game away at division 2 Reims yesterday evening. They managed to win 3-2 in extra time and are now into the semi-finals. The draw for the next round will take place this week end. A trip to Paris for the final in May would be very welcome so I hope we don’t get Lille or PSG in the next round.. I also see there was some consolation for Arsenal yesterday, Chelsea beat Manchester United: a silver lining to Sunday’s cloud.

Handily poised

Having devoted yesterday’s post to a round up of the cycling, today I felt I should turn my attention to the football. I will, of course, firstly address the two clubs closest to my heart: namely, AVFC and OGCN. The former didn’t play at the week and as their would-be opponents were involved in a replay. Unsurprisingly, they’ll be playing Manchester City in the next round of the FA Cup. My beloved boys in claret and blue are the filling in a Midlands sandwich. They’re lying in 16th place with 30 points, the same as Birmingham who are above us thanks to a superior goal difference, and a game in hand. Below us, on two points less, are WBA. To put this in perspective, the league leaders, Manchester United, have twice as many points. OGCN lost 3-0 at home to PSG. They’ve played one game less than Villa and are on 27 points in 17th place, just above Monaco, who are in the relegation zone. The similarities are alarming but I don’t believe either will be relegated.

I will now turn my attention to the Champion’s League which tends to be a bit of a closed shop. There’s 4 English sides (Man U, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal), 3 Spanish teams (Real, Barca, Valencia), 3 Italian teams (Inter, AC Milan, Roma), 2 German teams (Bayern, Schalke), 2 French teams (OL, OM) plus 2 others (Copenhagen, Shaktar Donetsk).  Following the results of the first leg, there’s only one side which looks likely to be eliminated: FC Copenhagen who were beaten 2-0 at home by Chelsea.

If we look at the results from the remaining first legs, there are at first glance some surprising results: most notably Spurs winning 1-0 away at AC Milan and Manchester United drawing 0-0 away from home at OM. In other instances,  while the favoured team lost, they do have that all important away goal as in Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona, Lyon 1 – 1 Real Madrid which should provide the platform for a home, and overall, win in the next leg.

At this stage, it’s not easy to forecast who will win. There’s so many variables not just the opponents in the forthcoming rounds, domestic situations but,  more crucially, the availability of key players. However, I’m all for sticking my neck out and I’m going to predict that the last 8 teams will be Spurs, Schalke, Shaktar, Barca, Real, Chelsea, Man U, Bayern. I would have liked to include Arsenal in that list but cannot see them beating Barcelona at home. I hope, in this case, I’m proved wrong.

 Of course, it’s difficult to work up enough interest if your own team isn’t playing, nor shows any sign of qualifying to play Champions League in my remaining lifetime. I will however always be able to treasure the moment when Peter Withe’s knee struck the ball in Rotterdam and put in the back of the Bayern net enabling my beloved boys to bring home the trophy in 1982. I watched the game after barracading myself into the tv lounge of the hotel where I was staying in Taunton while auditing Somerset CC.

Playing hookey

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what’s prescribed in the training programme, the weather just beckons. It did today. The last few days the weather’s been steadily improving and today was positively balmy. Break out the sun-block. I could no more take a rest day than I could remain indoors.

I headed out with my beloved around lunchtime for one of my favourite circuits: Vence by way of l’Ara, returning via La Gaude. Regular readers will know that my current record for ascending to Vence, set last year, is 51 minutes. This early in the season, I’m not aiming to get close to that figure.

There’s something very uplifting about being out in the open air, bathed in warm sunshine, without a care in the world. Not only that but my traffic light karma was working well. I coasted through 5 out of 6 sets of lights: always a promising sign. On the way up to La Colle sur Loup, the weather was so warm I was beginning to regret wearing my windtex jacket. But I was sure I’d appreciate it’s thickness later on when descending. I did.

As we wended our way ever upwards, to my right I caught glimpses of the sea through the trees, always a calming influence. As I glanced ahead, I could see the walled village of St Paul de Vence. It’s usually on this particular stretch of road where, in the spring and summer months, I encounter hoards of Japanese tourists, heading towards St Paul, having just disembarked from their coaches. They usually become quite animated when they see me and, inevitably, take my photograph. I often wonder how they explain me away when showing their holiday photographs to friends and family on their return. We didn’t have to dodge tourists today, only the school buses.

I made good time up to the base of l’Ara despite having to stop several times to blow my nose. I am getting better at doing this one-handed while continuing to pedal, but it’s a job best done with both hands, and that’s still beyond me. A glance at my Garmin revealed  it was unlikely I would beat my best time, however I would at least be close to it. And I was: 52mins 23secs.

We rode through Vence and along to St Jeannet. The road was surprisingly quiet, bereft of both cars and cyclists. We stopped to enjoy a coffee in the sunshine and lingered over the newspaper.  I noted that my beloved boys in claret and blue had been bought down to earth 3-1 yesterday evening, at the Theatre of Dreams. The Red Devils, courtesy of Wayne Rooney, had scored in the first minute of the match and we were 2-0 down (Rooney again) at half-time. Darren Bent got one back in the second half, but then we conceded another. It read as if we put up a spirited, but ultimately doomed, defence.

You might be wondering why we didn’t watch the match on my beloved husband’s all-singing, all dancing, new, oversized HD screen in the office. That had been the plan. However, he has had problems accessing the connection via the internet. Meanly, I have left him to sort it out. He visited the Orange Shop yesterday afternoon where he learned that, thanks to an administrative oversight, he was given the wrong access code. As a consequence, the connection was cancelled and it will now take 7 days to be re-established. We’ll get there eventually.

The lack of traffic facilitated a swift descent back home where I quickly rustled up some lunch before sitting down to plan this evening’s English class. After last week’s session translating song lyrics into French, I’m going to find an article on travel to discuss and translate. I find it’s always better to pick topics which will hold their interest.

Postscript: Got back from the club to discover OGCN had beaten Drancy 0-1 to advance to the quarter-finals of the Cup.

Lightweight

The weather’s been a bit of a curate’s egg this week as we slide inexorably towards winter.  Rain on the coast has translated into snow in the mountains where they may well be about to experience their third consecutive great winter. Many of the resorts are opening next week end. This has spurred me on to go cross-country skiing this winter – great cross-training for my cycling.

Despite the almost incessant rain, I have managed to fit in my training thanks largely to the sunshine on both Wednesday and Friday. I had feared for Sunday’s pointage, after torrential rain overnight, but it had stopped by the time we awoke. Indeed a stiff, chilly breeze rapidly dried the wet roads although the sky looked threatening all morning. As a consequence, only the die-hards turned up. Normally the roads are thronged with cyclists but it was play “spot the cyclist” this Sunday as large numbers chose to remain under the covers.

We returned home to a bowl of hearty vegetable soup and my beloved boys in claret and blue away at Ewood Park. Sadly, the roll-call of injuries is such that Houlier has had to decimate the ranks of the youth squad. While they proved to be a match for the Red Devils last week end, their efforts fell on stonier ground today.

Friedel, normally so reliable, had a poor game and was constantly under pressure from the set pieces which characterise all of Sam Allardyce’s well-organised squads. If my memory serves me correctly, didn’t Houlier sell Friedel to Blackburn when he was the Liverpool manager?

Man for man, my beloved boys in claret and blue, with few exceptions, were head and shoulders smaller (and hence lighter) than their Blackburn counterparts who effectively muzzled both Gabi Agbonlahor and Ashley Young, thereby snuffing out any potential Villa threat. Key to the result however, aside from Pedersen’s two goals, was Blackburn’s control of the midfield.

Robert Pires came on after the second goal to inject some much needed experience and Gallic flair but had no impact whatsoever on the game. It’s still early days, but I’m sure he’ll prove to be a valuable addition to the squad.

Villa are now 13th with 17 points, just one more than their blue-nosed neighbours who, incredibly, beat Chelsea at the week end. Equally amazing was Spurs win at the Emirates. However, the top of the table  is starting to look all too familiar. Chelsea lead with 28 points, the same number as Man U in 2nd place, while Arsenal are 3rd with 26. Man City, after beating Fulham today, are 4th with 25 points.

OGCN went down 0-1 at home to Montpelier. Once again, Ospina was our “man of the match”. Knowing that he’ll be lured away (sold for as much money as possible) at the end of the season, and with goalkeeper number 2 retiring, OGCN have already bought his replacement. The boys are lying in 15th place with 16 points, just one less than AVFC.

Way to go!

I’ve just finished watching a thrilling Liege-Bastogne-Liege. With so many favourites on form it was going to be hard to pick a winner from the galaxy of stars. Indeed, the big names remained pretty much in contention until a certain Alex Vinokourov launched a trademark attack 16km from the finish. He was rapidly joined by another man much on form, Alexandre Kolobnev. 

He just wanted it more

Gilbert, Valverde and Evans gave chase but the hard men prevailed. Gilbert gave a massive kick to try and get up to the two lead men but was ultimately caught and overhauled by Valverde. The two Alexs battled it out with the Kazakh getting the better of the Russian in the final couple of hundred meters. No one should have been surprised. He’s won in before and said that this race was one of his targets for this year.  He was clearly on top form, as shown by his GC win Friday in the Giro del Trentino. It probably suited him to have the press and the rest of the peloton focus on Contador – good bluff. Roll on the Giro, it’s going to be an exciting tour and I’m looking forward to following it and riding some of its parcours.

Prior to L-B-L, I watched my beloved boys in claret and blue win 1-0 in the local derby match against Birmingham City. An important win, as it keeps us in the chase for 4th place, after Spurs lost to the Red Devils and Arsenal drew with Man City. Closer to home,  OGCN won 2-1 and finally erased any lingering relegation fears.

This morning’s pointage was replaced by a three-line whip attendance at the official opening of the recently completed cycling lane between Cagnes sur Mer and St Laurent du Var. To be honest, our legs still bore the lingering effects of yesterday’s La Louis Caput, so a gentle stroll on the bike was much appreciated.

At yesterday’s La Louis Caput, the mass start of earlier years had been abandoned in favour of a policy of “start when you like”. We set off at 08:00am but saw so few other riders that we concluded either there had been a poor turn-out or, everyone else had started before us. My beloved kindly rode with me to the half-way point when, with rain threatening, I suggested he might like to ride on ahead.

At this point I was passed by a few riders doing the 150km loop but they were all going too fast for me to tag on the back. I slogged on alone into a head wind and a darkening sky. It wasn’t until I started the descent for home that I managed to ride with anyone else. I got onto the back of a group of 4 guys. I also overhauled a group of triathletes who had ridden most of the route just ahead of me. If only I could ascend as well as I descend! Still I bettered last year’s time by a considerable margin, so I must be getting faster – musn’t I?

Hot money

At the beginning of the season, Martin O’Neil, AVFC’s wondrous football manager attempted (unsuccessfully) to manage the fans’ expectations. He cautioned that with the teams around us having strengthened their squads, we would do well to hold onto 6th place. We’re currently lying 7th, 7 points behind Spurs who are in 4th. Liverpool are 5th and Manchester City are 6th.

This time last year, having dallied with 4th position and the prospect of Champion’s League football, we simply ran out of steam. Sadly, we’re in danger of a repeat performance. Excellent cup runs (Final of League Cup and semi-final of FA Cup) have left us playing 5 matches in two weeks. We’ve won one, drawn three and lost on Saturday, away at Chelsea. Actually, that’s not strictly true. After a brave first-half performance(according to a friend of mine, who’s a Chelsea fan), we were thrashed 7-1 by Chelsea. An ominous portent for our forthcoming FA Cup semi-final clash at Wembley on 10 April.

On the bright side, we’ll have had at least two trips to Wembley this season our first trips in 10 years. It’s hard to see what more Martin O’Neil can do to break into the top four. Maybe, it’s simply not possible as the monetary divide gets ever wider.

Over here, OGCN, having dispensed with the services of its coach, has now won three consecutive matches and looks to have a firm grip on 16th spot. The prospect of relegation is fast receding. 

The season seems to be rushing towards a conclusion and, before we know it, the World Cup will be upon us once more. However, there’s still the small matter of the Champion’s League. It’s being contested by two English sides (Arsenal and Man U), two French sides (Lyon and Bordeaux), one Spanish (Barca), one Italian (Inter), one Russian (CSK) and one German (Bayern).  If I were a betting woman (I’m not, I leave that to my two sisters), I’d put my money on Inter, Barca, Man U and Bordeaux to reach the semis.

Postscript: Lucky I’m not a betting woman! I do hope it wasn’t the curse of the pundit but the semis are Bayern v Lyon and Inter v Barca. Still 2 out of 4’s not too bad. Given the incredible form of Messi, I’m going to plump for a Bayern v Barca final, with Barca to win.

If only

I headed down to the rendezvous point for today’s club ride under a heavily overcast sky. It wasn’t particularly cold, but it was damp. There was a good turn out of members, most of whom I had to kiss on the cheeks. Once we had set off, I took the opportunity during the first few kms of the ride to update M le President on events of the past week.  The road turned up to Gattieres and, as is my wont, I slid from the front to the back of the peloton in nano-seconds. However, it was some time before they disappeared totally from view and, as our paths crossed later that morning, I realised I wasn’t too far behind the medium slow group.

Today’s programme featured a 31/2hr ride at my speed. Actually I felt much better than I had yesterday and enjoyed the ride up to Tourrettes via Vence. Where, having worked up a bit of a sweat, I was now feeling chilled so decided to descend via Vence and La Gaude to collect the Sunday papers and warm myself up with a quick cup of coffee before hurrying home for my simultaneous sporting action.

For Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, the weather in Belgium was truly atrocious, not that it seemed to deter the die-hard fans. A large number of riders, having lost all hope of a decent finish, either hopped into the broom wagon or one of their team cars. In fact, there were only 26 finishers!

The light was so poor that it was difficult to distinguish the riders who were strewn all over the parcours largely thanks to the high winds. For safety reasons, the course was reduced in length (by 10km) and the winner crossed the line half-way through the first half of the League Cup final. It was Bobbie Traksel (Vacansoleil) who amply demonstrated Jens Voigt’s mantra that if you don’t try you’ll never win: he was one of the original breakaways. Rick Flens (Rabobank) was 2nd and Ian Stannard (Sky) who was 3rd had bridged up to Traksel from one of the splintered groups. Although a number of riders had tried to catch the trio, most notably Hushovd (Cervelo) and Roulston (HTC-Columbia), no one had gotten within 40 seconds of them.

Over on the other screen, Villa had gone ahead with a penalty (James Milner) after Vidic had brought down Gabby Agbonlahor. The pundits, to a man, agreed that the referee should have shown Vidic a red card (last defender) but he didn’t even get a yellow. Who knows how the game might have panned out with the Red Devils down to 10 men. Michael Owen scored in the 13th minute and shortly thereafter pulled his hamstring. This meant Rooney was going to have to come off the bench and play.

While my beloved boys in claret and blue played well in the first-half they were overrun by Manchester United, the cup holders, in the second half. That man Rooney popped his head onto a wonderful pass from Valencia and it was game over with less than 15 minutes to play. While Villa threw everything at their opponents, they held firm to retain their title.  

Last night, predictably, OGCN lost 2-0 away at Olympique Lyonnais and remain one place above the drop zone.