What a difference 12 months makes.
A year ago today, and with 16 rounds played, Man United were celebrating an away win in the Manchester derby that had moved them six points clear of their city rivals – and defending Champions – at the top of the league.
Chelsea were a further four points behind in third place and Everton occupied fourth place, though shared a points tally of 26 with Tottenham and West Brom.
Futher down the table, Arsenal had jumped three places into 7th, but were still a massive 15 points behind the leaders and well out of the title race.
Liverpool ended that weekend with a 3-2 win at West Ham to leapfrog the Hammers into 10th – albeit only through the narrowest of advantages in the goal difference of the respective clubs.
Southampton were out of the relegation zone on goal difference, and Newcastle only a couple of points clear of the bottom three.
After round 15 of the 2013/14 season last weekend, the current Premier League standings couldn’t look more different for a number of teams.
In terms of points tally, champions Man United are closer to 19th-placed Crystal Palace than to the current leaders Arsenal, who are five clear of second-placed Liverpool.
Newcastle and Liverpool are the big movers, nine points and eight points better off respectively than 12 months ago.
And Southampton have been one of the biggest surprises, thoroughly deserving of their position ahead of Man United in the table.
As most observers have commented, it’s been a thoroughly unpredictable campaign so far, and, due to that fact, one of the most interesting of all Premier League seasons.
Where the title ends up, and who claims the much coveted top-four places may become a little clearer in a month’s time.
Arsenal have dealt well so far with the big games, but face games against Man City, Chelsea and Newcastle before New Year.
Liverpool arguably have an even tougher conclusion to the calendar year, with a trip to Spurs this weekend, before away games at both Man City and Chelsea in the days between Christmas and New Year.
The outcome of those results may give an indication into the likelihood of either Arsenal or Liverpool mounting a serious and lasting title challenge, but equally revealing will be how Man City and Chelsea cope with facing two of the league’s form teams.
I wasn’t brave enough to make any predictions at the start of the season, other than backing Pellegrini to help Man City land their second Premier League title in 3 years.
I’d still be surprised for any other outcome in terms of the winners, but beyond that, anything could happen. My only hope is that the unpredictability continues, and that come May, there’s still plenty to play for.
So, having finally completed his long-awaited transfer to Real Madrid, Gareth Bale on Sunday evening became the most expensive footballer in football history.
It’s a statement which will take some getting used to – not because Gareth Bale isn’t an excellent footballer, but rather because the fee is at a level which shouldn’t be paid for any footballer who isn’t Lionel Messi.
It’s still difficult to determine which of the two clubs involved are most guilty of getting carried away: Real Madrid, for being willing to pay such a fee in the first place; or Tottenham for believing that their player was worth more than the reported £81million offered to them earlier in the summer.
To put the price tag into perspective, only a small handful of players have ever transferred for a fee in excess of £40million. Amongst that small group of players are Zinedine Zidane, Kaka, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It seems absurd to think that Gareth Bale, good though he is, can be valued at almost €35 million more than Real Madrid paid for Kaka, at a time when Kaka was a recent winner of the Ballon D’Or and World Player of the Year awards, and internationally regarded as one finest players of his generation.
It appears equally crazy that Real Madrid value Bale at a fee which is greater than the world-record price paid to land Ronaldo in 2009, who has gone on to break countless records in his four years at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Of course, Real Madrid’s transfer activity has often had an element of how much commercial success a player’s arrival can bring. That was seen during the first era of Galacticos, and also during the second era, brought about by Florentino Perez’s successful re-election as club president.
Kaka and Ronaldo were prime examples of players who were always likely to bring plenty of money into the club through its sale of merchandise.
But even from a commercial point of view, it’s hard to understand how much sense it makes to splash out so much money on Bale. As an international star, he’s simply not in the same league as Ronaldo or Messi, nor of Xavi, Iniesta or even Neymar, Barcelona’s new signing.
The other risk for Real Madrid is that should Bale not be successful in Spain, there would be difficulty recouping much more than a third of the transfer fee. This is always a possibility when a club spends a record amount to sign a new player, but the risk is minimized when the player in question has proven themselves consistently at the highest possible level.
Bale’s quality is much more well-known in Britain than throughout the rest of Europe, and he’ll be under intense scrutiny from football fans across the globe as he sets about the task of showing why Real Madrid paid such a high price for his services.
From Tottenham’s perspective, most of the focus has inevitably centred around the loss of their best player. However, that shouldn’t detract from the fact that they already had a squad with enough quality to make the league’s top four and with the investment of the money raised from Bale’s transfer, Spurs could, or perhaps should, go on to push for the title.
New additions such as Roberto Soldado should help fill the match-winning boots of Gareth Bale, while increased quality in other areas of the squad could drive Tottenham towards the kind of success which cannot be achieved when dependent solely on one man.
It certainly has given Spurs an advantage over rivals such as Arsenal and Liverpool in the battle for Champions League qualification – and should the team from White Hart Lane achieve that, then there may not be long to wait for a reunion of football’s costliest player with that of his former club.
It was a little surprising to see so few pundits tip Man City for the league this season.
Man United, as defending champions, are favoured by many to land yet another title – despite the departure of Alex Ferguson. And of those who feel that David Moyes won’t mark a first season at the Old Trafford helm with Premiership silverware, the return of Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge is enough for Chelsea to be considered firm favourites.
Whether because of a weak defence of their title last season, or a new manager with no experience in the English league, Man City have had much less of the attention over the pre-season.
It’s a situation which may be quite refreshing to be in for the club’s players and fans alike, after being under a constant spotlight during Roberto Mancini’s tenure – for both positive and negative reasons.
With the departure of two of the Italian’s most controversial squad members since January, and a man in charge who’s less likely to lose control of his players there’s every chance that last season’s runners-up will finally enjoy some stability.
Pellegrini may not be well-known in England and arrives with no prior experience of the Premier League, but his record in Spain commands plenty of respect. A single season at Real Madrid won’t be mentioned amongst the highlights, mainly due to the fact that even a record 96-point tally wasn’t good enough to topple Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
The ability of the Chilean to achieve such a high standard of league performance with a host of big name signings brought in during the summer leading up to his 11 months at the club was nonetheless impressive, and no doubt laid the foundations for Madrid success under Jose Mourinho. Such was the standard of opposition that even Mourinho required time – and addition heavy investment – in order to achieve some measure of success.
If Pellegrini’s reign at the Santiago Bernabeu won’t be viewed as a big success, the years during which he was as Villarreal and Malaga most definitely will. That’s where Pellegrini proved himself as a top coach, not only by leading both sides into the Champions League for the first time, but also in guiding them into the latter stages of the competition.
Villarreal were semi-finalists in 2006, where they lost 1-0 on aggregate to Arsenal. And last season, Pellegrini’s Malaga side were on the brink of matching the achievement of his former club, until two injury-time goals by Borussia Dortmund turned the quarter final tie on its head and saw the Bundesliga team progress to the last four.
At Man City, Pellegrini is with a club who have prior Champions League experience, although he won’t have to do much in order to improve on two seasons of huge underachievement in the competition.
With so much focus on Man United and Chelsea, there is perhaps less pressure on Man City to live up to the huge things that have been expected of their expensively assembled squad. And with that reduced pressure, Pellegrini may be able to quietly get on with building a team which will compete for the the silverware craved by the club’s owners.
Of course, should Pellegrini begin his reign in England strongly, then the media focus would be firmly back on his side. But based on the last decade, the new man has every chance of succeeding where Mancini failed, and of bringing some calm to a club which has grown used to almost non-stop drama.
Andy Murray will begin the defence of his US Open title next week, and if the draw goes to plan he could be in for a tough couple of weeks.
Seeded 3rd after being overtaken by Rafael Nadal following the Spaniard’s latest tournament win at Cincinnati last week, Murray faces the prospect of having to play Tomas Berdych, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal in successive matches if he progresses to the latter stages. And should Djokovic fail to reach the last four, an alternative semi-final opponent for Murray could come in the shape of Juan-Martin Del Potro, the 2009 winner.
Not that Murray will be deterred by looking at the potential opponents; he faced the prospect of an equally tough route through to the Wimbledon final when this year’s draw was made, but saw his half of the draw thrown wide open by the early exit of both Nadal and Roger Federer.
But while Murray remains one of the leading contenders for the year’s final Grand Slam event, his slim chances of ending the year as world number one are all but over, having crashed out early at lucrative events in Montreal and then Cincinnati.
John McEnroe was the latest expert to predict that Murray could yet end the year at the number one ranked player – a claim which has been echoed by others since Murray’s Wimbledon triumph.
The problem for Murray – and Djokovic – is that the only way in which to improve a ranking, is to improve on the performance achieved in the same event during the previous year. That means even if Murray was to match his 2012 performance in each of the season’s events, he’d only pick up the same number of points as he did a year ago and would therefore have the same ranking points as he has now.
In the case of Nadal, he didn’t take part in any of the competitions between August and February. Therefore, there’s plenty of possibility for improvement. By reaching the final of the US Open, he’d be guaranteed to improve his ranking by a minimum of 1200 points, and move further away from Murray – and closer to Djokovic’s number 1 spot.
Murray’s time at the top of the men’s game may yet come – but not until he’s reached the level of year-round consistency that his rivals in the sport have already achieved.
So, not only is Rafael Nadal back, but he’s answered all of those who questioned whether he would ever get back to a position of competing for – and winning – the sport’s top prizes.
Such was the seriousness of his most recent injury setback, there were even suggestions, only 6 months ago, of the possibility of an early retirement for one of the game’s finest ever players.
However, not only has Nadal overcome a long injury lay-off and proved he is fit enough to compete at the highest level, but the Spaniard has also shown the fighting qualities of a true champion to get back to mixing it with the very the best in the world.
Had it not been for a seven month gap in ranking points, Nadal would surely be in contention for challenging Novak Djokovic for the world number one spot – something which no man has looked likely to do in the two years since the Serb first topped the rankings, during which time he has been utterly dominant in the men’s game.
It was against Djokovic in the semi final that Nadal showed beyond doubt that he’s recovered sufficiently to be able to regain his best form. In an encounter which bore resemblances to the 2012 Australian Open final, Nadal looked to be heading for defeat once he’d was broken in the final set – just as Djokovic had done in that epic battle on the hard court of Melbourne.
But in a first five-set contest since bowing out at Wimbledon last year, Nadal showed his ability to come back from a seemingly impossible position, before going on to complete an incredible turnaround.
It says much for the performances of Nadal that he is comfortably on top in the year-to-date rankings, despite missing the whole of January – including the 2,000 points on offer at the Australian Open.
If the main rankings are currently working against him though, Nadal can take comfort in the fact that for the next eight months, he barely has any points to defend in order to maintain his current ranking points total, which means that while all other players have to improve on last year’s tournament performances in order to improve their ranking, Nadal will see his ranking improve with each and every game he wins.
Of course, for great champions, it’s winning trophies that is the ultimate mark of success. On that front, Nadal is now only two grand slam titles away from becoming the second most successful player in the Open era, and as long as he enjoys better luck with injuries over the next few years, there’s likely to be enough opportunities for Nadal to close in on Federer’s record haul of 17.
History was made at roland Garros, and on the form shown throughout his comeback from injury, Nadal in the mood to make plenty more marks on the tennis history books.
It caps a remarkable turnaround in fortunes, and for his rivals, achieving a grand slam title has just become a lot more difficult again.
Britain’s highest observation deck, the Shard, today opened to the public.
When building work was completed on the latest addition to London’s skyline, it was marketed as “Europe’s tallest building”. However, that title was short-lived and soon went to Moscow’s Mercury City which stands 31m higher.
Nor can there be a claim that the Shard contains the highest observation deck on the continent. That honour still belongs to the Eiffel Tower which allows visitors to reach heights of 275m, compared to the 244m lookout from the 80th floor of the Shard.
Despite the fact that earlier boasts no longer apply, the views over London and the surrounding areas will no doubt be spectacular. On a clear day, visibility is said to extend for 40 miles across the city. It’s just unfortunate that the nature of Britain’s weather make it impossible to predict a clear day!
And the weather may not be the only factor in keeping a lot of tourists away. Admission prices are also typically British, and purchasing a ticket on the day will cost adult visitors £29.95.
The cost would seem expensive even if the Shard was the tallest structure on the planet, but the prices become almost impossible to justify when compared to similar attractions around the globe.
The rooftop observation deck of Guangzhou’s Canton Tower is the highest in the world and twice the height of the Shard, yet the cost (¥150/£15.63) is around half as much. A 370m trip to the 86th floor of the Petronas Towers would set a tourist back a similar amount (RM80/£16.28).
In North America, the Empire State Building offers visitors the choice of ascending to viewing points situated on two levels. Rising 320m to the main deck on the 86th floor costs $25.00 (£15.75), while a ticket that includes the addition of elevation to the top deck is priced at $42.00 (£26.46).
Toronto’s CN Tower gives visitors a similar choice. A purchase on the day for standard admission costs $32.00CAD (£20.20). Arriving at an initial height of 346m it includes the chance to step on the tower’s glass floor, and is a height that most people would be satisfied with. If not, an extra $12.00CAD (£7.58) will pay for access to the Skypod – situated a further 80m above the ground.
Chicago’s Skydeck is arguably even better value still, with admission costing $18 US dollars (£11.34).
Nothing in Europe compares to the much higher structures of Eastern Asia or North America, but value for money can certainly be found in similar attractions within some of the continent’s biggest cities. The Eiffel Tower is amongst the most visited tourist attractions in the world, and views over Paris from the tower’s summit cost just €14.00 (£12.10). Cheaper still is entry to Berlin’s iconic Fernsehturm which at €12.00 provides 360 degree views over the German capital.
Britain doesn’t do value for money quite as well as many other countries. So, while the Shard may not be as tall as many of its global rivals, it could at least be marketed as one of the highest priced observation decks in the world.
Before the 2013 Australian Open even began, there was plenty of talk concerning the history that Djokovic or Murray would make, should either of them claim the first of the year’s grand slam titles.
Djokovic was aiming to be the first player in the Open era to win three successive titles in Melbourne. Murray, having won his first Grand Slam title with the US Open in September, was looking to become the first player to follow up a maiden title by winning back-to-back titles.
It was fitting then, that these two should contest the final, as they did two years ago. Last year, the two men faced each other in a gruelling five hour semi final, and a match that could have gone either way with only the finest of margins separating the players.
Djokovic won both of those meetings – as he did in the 2013 final earlier today – but Murray’s five-set win against the same opponent when they met in New York only four months ago is evidence that he’s more than capable on his day of triumphing over the world number 1.
On route to the final, Murray claimed his first win over Roger Federer in a grand slam event. It would be premature to suggest that Murray has overtaken Federer in the men’s game, but it was nonetheless a significant victory, and one which could have been achieved in straight sets had the Brit been more clinical.
If Murray can improve on his dismal showing during last year’s clay court season, there’s every chance of him improving his ATP World Tour ranking enough to leapfrog Federer and head into Roland Garros as the second best player in the world.
In fighting off the challenge of Djokovic to reclaim the world number 1 spot in 2011, Federer proved to his doubters that he’s still amongst the sport’s best, but there must surely be questions over just how long he’ll be able to compete with the likes of Djokovic and Murray in five set tennis.
And with Rafa Nadal far from certain of retaining his position amongst the elite after such a long injury lay-off, there looks to be very few players capable of challenging the dominance of Djokovic or the emergence of Murray.
That could either offer tennis fans with many fascinating battles between the sport’s top two stars, as it did during the period between 2006 and 2008 when Nadal rose to the challenge of toppling Roger Federer, or it could lead to a predictable state of affairs, where the two finalists may as well be handed a passage straight through to the final for lack of any serious threats elsewhere.
For me, the lack of progress made from players such as Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin Del Potro has been disappointing.
A series of injuries certainly affected Del Potro for a lengthy period after he won the 2009 US Open, but he’s fought his way back into the top ten, and has the ability to be causing problems for the very best players.
Similarly, Berdych and Tsonga both have the talent to be more of a threat, but simply don’t look any closer to breaking into the elite than they did three or four years ago.
Each of those two players have long had the ability to challenge the top players when they meet, as well as having the potential to get much closer to competing for and winning the biggest prizes.
But with each major tournament that goes by, there’s a similar outcome whenever a top four seed is pitted against an opponent ranked in the lower half of the top ten. Berdych and Tsonga both showed glimpses of their ability to produce tennis of the highest quality in their respective matches against Djokovic and Federer, but neither genuinely looked like upsetting the odds.
Amongst the younger players, I was looking forward to seeing how Milos Raonic coped in his fourth round match with Federer. Raonic clearly has plenty of potential but failed to provide any real test for Federer, who in the TV commentary was described as “looking bored” as he closed in on a comfortable victory.
The previous round had resulted in Bernard Tomic – another player touted for future success – send crashing out by Federer in straight sets.
In a sport that was ruled by Federer, taken over by Nadal and then by Djokovic, there appears at the moment to be only one genuine contender to the Serb’s status as world number 1 – Andy Murray.
Nadal v Federer was a rivalry developed in tournaments all over the world on every surface. Murray and Djokovic have each played in three of the last four grand slam finals, and the evidence suggests that the pair could contest many more, in a rivalry that is shaping up to be the fiercest on the men’s tour.