The real Argentina golden generation?

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The term ‘golden generation’ usually applies to a team, and usually retrospectively, after its star has waned and commentators cast a wistful look back to better bygone days. The latest in this line is Chile, as a team comprising talents like Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Bravo, who led Chile to consecutive Copa América titles, fell to a 3-1 defeat in Brazil and thus failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia this summer. The moment the game had ended, the adiós to the golden generation began.

On the other hand, a case could be made for pointing to an Argentine ‘golden generation’. It does not concern a team or the past, or the current side boasting the prowess of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Paulo Dybala.

Argentina’s golden age is arguably here and now, but on the touchline rather than on the pitch, a born more or less within a decade of each other. Although Argentina’s touted golden generation on the pitch has under-delivered, losing three major tournament finals in as many years between 2014 and 2016, it is to the touchline that our attention should be drawn to truly appreciate an Argentinean golden age.

 

Mauricio Pochettino: 45 years old

Pochettino’s reputation is only going up with Tottenham Hotspur, but his managerial achievements date back to well before he arrived in England. He saved Espanyol from relegation when he joined in 2009, beating city rivals Barcelona in the process – a feat that Espanyol fans cherish given how rare it is.

When he arrived in England to take charge of Southampton, much of the media was flabbergasted. Nigel Adkins had been doing a respectable job of keeping the then newly promoted side afloat in the Premier League before his surprising and sudden sacking, only to be replaced with a fairly unknown entity from La Liga who could not speak a word of English and needed a translator at all interviews.

But time would prove everyone’s doubts wrong. Southampton went from strength to strength, avoiding relegation in 2012/13 and then finishing eighth next season, the Saints’ best ever top-flight finish.

Then came the spell with Spurs. Pochettino has made Spurs genuine title contenders in consecutive seasons now, even if not quite there, as the 2015/6 implosion towards the season’s end hinted at residual, authentically ‘Spurs’ deficiencies.

Nonetheless, Pochettino has taken Spurs into the Champions League, third and then second in the Premier League, with Harry Kane and Dele Alli blossoming into some of the world’s top young talent in that time. And they finished above Arsenal in the league for the first time in decades, perhaps underlining his achievements more than anything else among Spurs fans.

 

Diego Simeone: 47 years old

‘El Cholo’, as he is affectionately known, will undoubtedly go down in history as Atlético Madrid’s greatest ever manager alongside Luis Aragonés. After winning the title with Estudiantes de la Plata and managing River Plate in Argentina, his European exploits with Madrid’s less glamorous team have truly earned him a place among Europe’s managerial elite.

Taking charge in 2011, he won a Europa League and Super Cup double in 2012. The longstanding jinx against capital rivals Real Madrid was finally broken when he guided Atlético to the Copa del Rey victory in 2013, beating Real in extra-time.

The crowning glory came the following season when Atlético broke La Liga’s Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly, snatching a hard-fought 1-1 draw with Barcelona at the Camp Nou to win the league on the final day.

Atlético’s place among Europe’s top clubs has not been totally without pain. Under Simeone they have reached two Champions League finals, only to lose heart-breaking matches to their bitter rivals from across Madrid on both occasions, the first time in extra time and the second on penalties.

But the fact that they got there shows Atlético’s huge development under El Cholo, as well as the emergence of star talent under his guidance such as Agüero, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and now Antoine Griezmann to add to a resilient and consistent defensive core of Jan Oblak, Diego Godí, Juanfran, Filipe Luis and Gabi. He is a living legend at Atlético, who will perhaps be admired fully after he departs.

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Jorge Sampaoli: 57 years old

Chile’s title-winning golden generation owes a lot to an Argentinian, Jorge Sampaoli. Between 2012 and 2016, he developed an exciting team of flair under Marcelo Bielsa – another Argentinean managerial giant – into one that could challenge for and win titles.

The apotheosis came in 2015 when, in Chile’s national stadium no less, Alexis Sánchez struck the winning penalty in the shoot-out to send a nation into raptures and end a century of trophy-less disappointment.

The core of the side established under Sampaoli – Sánchez, Vidal, Gary Medel, Eduardo Vargas, and others – then went on to reclaim the title in the USA in 2016 – again against Argentina. Sampaoli boats an impressive 62% win record as Chile manager and added steely determination to the eye-catching flair that had already existed before his arrival.

Joining Sevilla in 2016, he restored the Andalusia club to the Champions League after leading them to fourth in the 2016/17 La Liga season and ended Real Madrid’s record-breaking unbeaten run.

It is no coincidence that he now holds the reins of the Argentinean national side, whose under-achievement is his job to arrest, and straightaway he has ensured that Messi and co will be going to Russia in 2018 to try and achieve the success becoming of such a talented squad.

 

Eduardo Berizzo: 47 years old

Berizzo picks up where Sampaoli left off at Sevilla and joins this list of fairly young and talented Argentinean managers. With O’Higgins he won the Chilean title in 2013 and a Supercopa in 2014 before moving to Spain with Celta Vigo that year.

The Galician club’s fortunes took a massive upturn under his management as Balaídos became one of La Liga’s most difficult places to travel. Iago Aspas, remembered in Liverpool as one of the biggest flops, has now developed into one of La Liga’s best offensive players, and it was Berizzo who coaxed the best out of him, particularly in the 2016/17 season, which saw him gain his first caps and a goal for the Spanish national side.

Celta also went on a long run in Europe, reaching the Europa League semi-finals before succumbing to Manchester United. Nonetheless, at Sevilla, Berizzo’s rising stock can attain new heights as he seeks to guide them through the Champions League and book their place in next year’s competition via a strong La Liga campaign.

 

Mauricio Pellegrino: 46 years old

Pellegrino’s appointment as Southampton manager – following in the footsteps of Pochettino – might not have set Saints fans’ pulses racing. But then neither did the appointment of Pochettino in 2013.

In fact, Pellegrino has emerged in recent times as a manager who can over-achieve with modest resources, which would accurately summarise Southampton’s six consecutive seasons in the Premier League.

Last season, managing newly promoted Alavés, Pellegrino did not only keep them away from relegation, but he kept them up impressively, as the club were one of La Liga’s surprise packages alongside Eibar. Moreover, a staggering cup run saw them reach the Copa del Rey final, which no-one could see coming with a modest squad possessing modest resources. Who is to say he cannot do a similar job at Southampton?

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Atlético’s puzzling attacking problem

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Are Atlético still waiting for the return of this man?

There is a peculiar conundrum developing alarmingly at Atlético Madrid.

On the one hand, the squad is brimming with offensive talent and options: Antoine Griezmann, Fernando Torres, Yannick Carrasco, Kevin Gameiro, Nico Gaitán, Ángel Correa, Luciano Vietto – and this is without mentioning the returning Diego Costa and Vitolo, who will arrive in January from Las Palmas.

Yet, on the other hand, Atlético Madrid’s big problem is a persistent inability to score goals. A breakdown of their results this season illustrates this paradoxical fact:

  • 19 August – 2-2 v Girona
  • 26 August – 5-1 v Las Palmas
  • 9 September – 0-0 v Valencia
  • 12 September – 0-0 v Roma
  • 16 September – 1-0 v Málaga
  • 20 September – 2-1 v Athletic Bilbao
  • 23 September – 2-0 v Sevilla
  • 27 September – 1-2 v Chelsea
  • 30 September – 0-0 v Leganés
  • 14 October – 1-1 v Barcelona
  • 18 October – 0-0 v Qarabag
  • 22 October – 1-0 v Celta Vigo

That is a total of only 15 goals in 12 games, with four shutouts against them, including, most damagingly, against the Champions League’s Azerbaijani minnows, Qarabag.

Atlético Madrid’s reputation for robust defending on many occasions mitigates, perhaps causes to some extent, this lack of clinical play up front. The 1-0 win in Balaídos epitomised an attritional and gritty but unattractive Diego Simeone win, relying on the defensive core of Godín and Oblak to grind out the win at a tough away venue.

However, in the long run this is unsustainable. The timing of drawing blanks, in Rome and Azerbaijan, has meant that there is now a serious possibility of Atlético Madrid – the semi-finalists or runners-up in three out of the last four Champions Leagues – not even qualifying from the group stage.

With the notable exception of the game against a struggling Las Palmas, they have failed to score more than twice in a game – not even against bottom of the table Málaga at the Metropolitano. Even the goal against Chelsea was not from open play, being a Griezmann penalty. Playing at a still unfamiliar new home ground might provide much of the answer as to why Atlético Madrid are so consistently misfiring in front of goal.

Those games in should have been won. Those games needed to have been won, given the home loss to Chelsea and the tough nature of the group as a whole. Chelsea and Roma are unlikely to be so generous to Qarabag.

So, even though Atlético will not mind if they do not shrug off the Simeone stereotype of boring 1-0 wins in the league, it is no way to sustain a title challenge or challenge Europe’s elite clubs.

The arrival of Costa to fitness and selection availability may change this in the near future. Meanwhile, Atlético’s offensive limitations, however confusing they may be given the talent at Simeone’s disposal, are causing serious damage to their prospects until then.

Anderson: boringly predictable, thrillingly potent

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The spectacular is not always necessary to win games. Sometimes, yes, a moment or spell of wizardry from a bowler or batsman can change the course of a game on its head. But, more often than not, it is predictable and even boring consistency that ultimately leads to success.

This mantra most definitely applies to James Anderson, now England’s all-time leading wicket-taker in Tests and rapidly catching up with even Glenn McGrath on the all-time list.

His trajectory from a young firebrand capable of producing magic balls but mercurially and inconsistently was perhaps captured by his previous best figures of 7-43 against New Zealand. The match featured some magic balls swinging from leg stump to demolish off stump, unplayable balls that got him noticed as a hugely talented young swing bowler.

However, it was not these types of deliveries that in the long run cemented his place among England’s best bowlers. Not all conditions and wickets are conducive to Anderson’s spell that day. It was unbridled but unsustainable.

Time would tell as Anderson’s initial foray into international cricket stumbled upon injury and a loss of form, dropping out of the side altogether in the aftermath of the chastening 2006-7 whitewash in Australia, where Anderson’s firebrand style simply did not work in the absence of the ideal conditions for prodigious swing.

Instead, Anderson became a better bowler by learning how to control his bowling consistently over long spells, which ended up proving more valuable to the team and his place in it, despite not taking mind-bogglingly eye-catching wickets or heaps of five-fors every game.

ESPNCricinfo’s recent analysis of Anderson’s wickets show that, in fact, the bulk of his impact has come through unremitting line and length bowling with only a hint of swing either way enough to dismiss the batsman. They may not be the entertaining, booming in-swingers or out-swingers, but in the long run they were more devastating.

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This path from youthful abandon to a more measured maturity mirrors that of another of cricket’s all-time great bowlers: Shane Warne. Warne himself revealed how he felt his bowling became more effective as he became older and more subtle, even though he was no longer spinning the ball as far or bowling as many googlies as he initially was upon starting international cricket in the early 1990s:

“I didn’t really understand how to get wickets or bowl to plans,” he admitted in 2000. “The fact that I no longer bowl huge leg breaks every time is not the same as losing the weapon. […] I don’t employ that ripper as a stock ball.”

“I believe I bowl with more variety now, and the strategy includes regulating the amount of turn on each leg break. I think I’ve become a smarter bowler. I use the big one as a shock ball; it’s my wicket-taking ball.”

Tellingly, he added: “It does not always need to deviate a foot or eighteen inches to take the edge.” Precisely the same could be said of Anderson’s career, only replacing the word ‘deviate’ for ‘swing’ or ‘seam’.

The Anderson apotheosis thus came against West Indies at Lord’s, where he achieved new best figures of 7-42, bowling some unplayable deliveries that moved enough to clip Kieran Powell’s off stump or clip the edge of the batsmen without bowling massively swinging magic balls.

This spell took Anderson past 500 wickets and affirmed the centrality of boring but predictably effective consistency in all top bowlers’ performances.

Premier League v La Liga, competition v quality

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Both the Premier League and La Liga claim that they are the best league in the world. Who’s right? It probably comes down to a judgement based on competitiveness or quality.

Comparing raw numbers is useful given that both are 20-team leagues. Overall, the Premier League is arguably more compelling due to its competitiveness over a 10-season period starting from 2007/8 and including 2016/7.

La Liga’s winners tend to win more heavily than the Premier League’s. On two occasions, the La Liga champions earned 100 points (Real Madrid in 2011/12, Barcelona in 2012/13), and on average the La Liga winner has won 93.5 points. For the Premier League, on the other hand, the highest points tally for the winner was 93 (Chelsea in 2016/17), with the average winner’s points being 86.8.

The average gap between the top and bottom clubs also gives the Premier League more competitiveness, with an average difference of 62.2 points to La Liga’s 65.4.

Most telling, however, is the average number of points over the 10-year period for both league’s top two teams. La Liga’s is 181.3 points, the Premier League’s 168.2 – a gap of some 13 points. This testifies to the long La Liga duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona, who concentrate points within the top two teams in a way that Premier League heavyweights don’t, suggesting a wider distribution of points with other teams in the table.

The diversity of top finishers also indicates the Premier League’s greater unpredictability and excitement. There have been four different winners in the last 10 seasons, most memorably Leicester City’s most unlikely of triumphs in the 2015/16 season.

Apart from Atlético Madrid’s 2013/14 title, however, La Liga has remained a duopoly between the two Clásico clubs. And only twice in the last two seasons has another club broken into the top two (Villarreal in 2007/08 and Atlético), whereas the Premier League has had Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal in the top two alongside a wider number of title-winners in Leicester, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea.

Qualitatively and quantitatively, therefore, the Premier League is arguably the best given its greater unpredictability and its wider casting of the competitive net.

But does this entitle it to the label of the best in the world? More recently the overriding theme has been that of its decline on the European stage, whereas Spain’s European ascendancy has flourished – and is not limited to Barcelona and Real Madrid.

The 2007/08 Champions League was the Premier League’s European apotheosis, with an all-English final between Chelsea and Manchester United following all but one of the semi-finalists being English.

Since then, however, it’s been a story of decline. In the last 10 years, English teams have won two Champions Leagues and finished as runners up three times, with no finalists since Chelsea in 2012.

On the other hand, Spanish clubs have won the title six times in the same period, with two runners up. And where England’s contenders were always Chelsea or Manchester United, Atlético Madrid’s two appearances in the final indicate La Liga’s greater depth of footballing power in the world’s top club competition.

Spain’s advantage therefore boasts of greater quality in depth. The Europa League adds to this argument. A Spanish team has won every other Europa League title in the last 10 years, with Sevilla winning three in a row and the 2012 final being an all-Spanish affair between Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao.

English clubs, however, have only two titles to their name and two runners-up, while those teams that have won it – Chelsea and Manchester United – did so due to drops in their quality and which barred them from Champions League football in those years.

So while only Chelsea and Manchester United have won European titles for the Premier League, La Liga has been represented on European podia by four clubs: Real and Atlético Madrid, Barcelona, and Sevilla. Spain’s quality in depth clearly outdoes the Premier League’s.

As to which is the best overall, perhaps there is no objective judgement between one’s preference for in-depth quality shown overseas or a more entertaining internal competitiveness that usually struggles in continental competitions. You couldn’t imagine a Spanish Leicester – Deportivo la Coruña, say – winning La Liga, but nor is it plausible that in the last ten years Spurs would win a treble of Europa League titles or seriously contend for the Champions League. The jury remains out.

Akers’s Arsenal legacy lives on at Chelsea

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Gilly Flaherty made 76 appearances for Arsenal, playing under Akers from 2006.

There used to be a time when the question would be which trophy the Gunners failed to win. When they had the league’s strongest team and the biggest names. When they reached the final of Europe’s top club competition under a legendary manager at the peak of his powers.

Yes, this describes Arsenal’s past. But, no, probably not the team you initially thought of. It describes Arsenal Ladies (now Women) FC.

It was under manager Vic Akers that Arsenal truly were the behemoths of women’s football. But they have fallen some way from their halcyon days, without a league title since 2012.

To relativise this ‘failure’ consider that, under Akers, Arsenal won the league nine times in a row between 2001 and 2009. Under Akers’s tenure, between 1987 and 2009, the female Gunners won 32 major titles overall, including 12 league triumphs, 10 FA Cups and the equivalent of the women’s Champions League in 2007 – something the men haven’t done and now looks like a fantasy.

However, the women’s football scene has changed dramatically since Akers’s time, with restructuring leading to the new Women’s Super League, the increasing professionalisation of women’s football on both sides of the Atlantic and, as a result, new and stronger challengers, most notably Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea, the teams who have all won the league since Arsenal last did.

Yet although Akers’s club is no longer the dominant force, his legacy has outlived his management days in playing no small role in the success of Arsenal’s competitors, above all Chelsea. The Akers legacy indirectly lives on in West London. What follows shows that the spine and leadership of the current WSL champions was nurtured and shone in North London, at Arsenal, and under Vic Akers.

 

  1. Katie Chapman

Now the Chelsea skipper, Chapman was instrumental to Akers’s best season with Arsenal – and that says a lot. In her first season with the club in 2006/7 Arsenal won an unprecedented quadruple of league, FA Cup, league cup and UEFA Cup (Champions League equivalent), helping Arsenal become the first English team to win the premier European club competition in women’s football. Her midfield engine ran the team and she scored 30 goals in 58 appearances before leaving for the States in 2010.

She returned to Arsenal for a few more seasons between 2010 and 2013 before joining Chelsea in 2014, where she has subsequently enjoyed more success, captaining the Blues to a league and cup double, no less, in 2015 and another WSL title in the 2017 Spring Series. She has now made 45 appearances and counting for Chelsea.

 

  1. Gilly Flaherty

Accompanying Chapman on the road from North to West London in a double transfer was Gilly Flaherty. She emerged through the youth system at Arsenal and became a mainstay of the Gunners’ defence over several seasons. Like Chapman, she outstayed Akers at Arsenal and left only in 2013 after playing 76 times in red and white.

Her consistency for Arsenal was transferred to Chelsea in January 2014, where, with Chapman, she vice-captained the Blues to their inaugural WSL success and FA Cup double in 2015 and is now approaching a half-century of Chelsea appearances.

The Chelsea website generously acknowledges the club’s indebtedness to her time with Akers’s Arsenal, where she acquired “a winning mentality which was ingrained in her trophy-laden spell with the Gunners”. Chelsea’s captain and vice-captain, therefore, are originally Gunners. And the Blues’ solid centre-back pairing of Flaherty and Niamh Fahey was started by Akers at Arsenal.

 

  1. Niamh Fahey

Akers signed the Irishwoman in 2008, his last season at Arsenal, but it proved to be a shrewd acquisition as Fahey racked up 73 appearances for the Gunners over the course of six seasons and helped Akers to say goodbye with a treble-winning campaign in 2009.

Again taken from the horse’s mouth, the Chelsea website says that the centre-back, in tandem with ex-Gunner Gilly Flaherty, “immediately helped add to the winning mentality in a team yet to win silverware”. And she promptly did so with the 2015 double and 2017 Spring Series triumphs.

Persistent scrutiny over the lack of defensive leaders at Arsenal is therefore a pretty male-centric view when both Fahey and Flaherty emerged at Arsenal to become the stand-out performers in the WSL for different London clubs.

 

  1. Gemma Davison

Davison worked her way through the Arsenal youth ranks and was involved in every game in Akers’s swansong season in 2008/9, appearing 22 times and scoring on seven occasions. Her peripatetic career crisscrossing the Atlantic saw her rejoin Arsenal for two more post-Akers stints in the 2009/10 and 2012/3.

When Liverpool retained the WSL crown in 2014 Davison contributed four goals and 14 appearances. She joined Chelsea the following year and then helped them regain the WSL at Liverpool and Arsenal’s expense in 2017 after achieving the double in 2015.

 

  1. Karen Carney

Another player who debuted for Arsenal under Akers in 2006, Carney enjoyed three action-packed seasons with Arsenal and departed with him, the winger scoring 28 goals in 54 appearances between 2006 and 2009 prior to being lured by the new professional soccer scene stateside. She was thus also part of that all-conquering quadruple-winning Arsenal squad of 2006/7.

She joined Chelsea in 2015 and rejoined all her former Arsenal colleagues en route to winning the 2017 Spring Series. But it all started for her at Arsenal with Vic Akers.

Women’s tennis merry-go-round dizzyingly spins on

Sloane Stephens

Sloane Stephens is the most recent winner of a first Grand Slam after winning the US Open.

It only lasted eight weeks. Karolina Pliskova – still in search of a first Grand Slam – reached world number one after Wimbledon despite being knocked out in the second round of the tournament.

She was displaced by Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza in September after the US Open, where neither player reached the last four. Counter-intuitively, this time Mugurza’s fourth-round exit earned her a place at the WTA rankings’ summit whereas her Wimbledon triumph did not. Round and round we keep going on the dizzying merry-go-round of women’s tennis.

The unpredictable oscillations of women’s tennis are fascinating and frustrating. Muguruza is now the seventh women’s number one in this calendar year alone. The ebb and flow is fantastic for ever-changing competition but becomes disorientating when taken to such an extent.

At least, when Serena Williams is not around.

Since the start of the decade there have been no less than 14 different changes in the number one women’s ranking concerning eight different players (Caroline Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Angelique Kerber, Pliskova, Mugurza and Williams), many of whom only enjoyed brief stays at the top, like Pliskova.

Of the 32 Grand Slams since 2010, however, Serena has won 12, and winning all but one Slam in 2012 and 2015. 13 different competitors each winning a Slam shows us that alternatives emerged at different times without mounting a consistent challenge and creating a compelling rivalry to thwart her dominance. Serena is the only female tennis player who can be relied on to reach the top and stay there for the long haul.

Indeed, no one could prise the world number one position from her for over three years between 2013 and 2016. To her credit, at least Muguruza has two Slams to her name in occupying the top spot.

This statistic contrasts with the stability and predictability of the men’s scene, where in the same period the top ranking changed hands eight times but, crucially, only among the usual suspects: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.

Winning Grand Slams outside of this closed shop has almost been impossible. 28 of the 32 Slams between 2010 and 2017 were won by one of the big four, with Wawrinka’s (3) and Cilic’s (1) successes seeming like curious anomalies to the relentless consistency and rivalry between the Swiss, Spaniard, Serb and Scot. No one has been ranked number one outside these four men since 2004. In contrast, therefore, women’s tennis seems more fun and egalitarian as the wealth of riches in the men’s game has been concentrated among a small elite.

The endless fluctuations in Grand Slam champions and world number ones replacing each other resemble a merry-go-round rotating at full pelt. It’s fun to ride on, but only up to a point. Continue for too long and you feel sick and dizzy. In reality, we might just be waiting for 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena to come back and put everyone else’s fun to an end.

Hope and hopelessness for Windies

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Most West Indies batsmen have had to pick up where this man left off – an onerous burden.

In a cricketing summer littered with excessive puns revolving around the Hope brothers, the end of a Test series of familiar failings and fresh optimism for the West Indies really can be summarised by juxtaposing the fortunes of the Windies’ brothers.It is a tale of two brothers. Shai Hope, 23, by far outperformed his older brother to claim family bragging rights and suggest that the future of West Indies Test cricket need not seem dismal.

The Barbados man made history, scoring centuries in both innings in Leeds to become the first player ever to do so at Headingley. His 147 in the first innings was the Windies’ highest score of the series, while his unbeaten 118 in the second innings anchored his team to the unlikeliest of run chases in Test history, given the mauling they had just received at Edgbaston.

Add to that his 62 at Lord’s on a seaming and swinging pitch – meaning he ended the series with 375 runs at an average of 75 – and the signs of a Test career in the making were on display, alongside promising innings from Kraigg Brathwaite, Jermaine Blackwood and Kieron Powell.

But all too often for the Windies, inspiration went hand in hand with ineptness. Which takes us to the older brother, Kyle Hope.

The 28-year-old averaged under 7 with the bat, scoring 41 runs with a high score of 25. At no stage did he exude the aura of composure and class that his younger brother, or Brathwaite and Powell in their best innings, did, and never looked likely to make substantial runs.

This haplessness with the bat was mirrored by other players like Shane Dowrich and Roston Chase, neither of whom reached 50.

It was West Indies’ soft underbelly that undermined the good work of others, which was never sustained durably apart from that stunning fifth day at Headlingley. Shoddy fielding and erratic bowling – especially on the first day at Edgbaston – let down the best efforts of Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel, with Dowrich dropping a few clangers despite wearing a pair of wicketkeeping gloves. Talent is no good when it is periodically let down by indiscipline.

So the two Hope brothers’ contrasting series each represent Windies’ Janus-faced performances, Dr Jekyll versus Mr Hyde, resilience and weakness, hope and hopelessness. However, it would be for the good of cricket in general if the Windies could harness more of the younger brother’s spirit in the years to come.

Sri Lanka facing the unthinkable

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Galle is no longer the fortress it once was.

It’s probably fair to say that Sri Lankan cricket is at its lowest ebb in living memory. On the back of a humiliatingly one-sided 3-0 whitewash at home to India in the Test series, they lost all the following limited-overs matches: 5-0 in the ODI series and the only T20I.

Sri Lanka’s year of discontent reads thus so far in Tests and ODIs:

  • December 2016 – January 2017, 3 Tests v South Africa: lost 0-3 (by 206 runs, 282 runs, and an innings and 118 runs)
  • January-February, 5 ODIs v South Africa: lost 0-5
  • March, 2 Tests at home to Bangladesh: 1-1 (losing to Bangladesh at home in a Test match for the first time ever)
  • March-April, 3 ODIs at home against Bangladesh: 1-1
  • June, ICC Champions Trophy: failed to qualify from the group stage after dropping several catches in the crucial match against Pakistan
  • June-July, 5 ODIs at home to Zimbabwe: lost 2-3 (we all thought this was Sri Lankan cricket’s real nadir)
  • July, only Test v Zimbabwe: won, a laboured and unconvincing four-wicket win.
  • July-August, 3 Tests v India at home: lost 0-3 (by 304 runs, an innings and 53 runs, and an innings and 171 runs)
  • August-September, 5 ODIs v India: lost 0-5

As the underlined scores highlight mercilessly, Sri Lanka have undergone the humiliation of no fewer than four series whitewashes in this calendar year alone. They have created unwanted history, losing a Test at home to an albeit improving Bangladesh and an ODI series to lowly Zimbabwe.

They have lost seven of their last eight Tests, five of which were at home, and of which three were by more than an innings margin.

So the tradition of Sri Lanka’s home redoubt, epitomised by the Galle fortress, seemingly no longer applies.

Sri Lanka, the side that has produced some of the greatest names to grace the game recently – Muralitharan, Malinga, Sangakkara, Jayawardene, and others –, that won the tournament in 1996 and were twice runners-up in consecutive World Cups, could be absent from cricket’s showpiece tournament in a couple of years.

Only the top eight teams as of 30 September on the ICC ODI rankings qualify automatically. Sri Lanka are eighth, with 86 ranking points, only eight points above the West Indies.

Sri Lanka, however, have no more ODIs to play after the latest humiliating whitewash at home to India, where in no game did the Sri Lankan batting surpass 250.

Their fate, therefore, lies out of their hands.

West Indies take on England in a five-match ODI series that ends on 29 September. And this is a West Indies squad boosted by the additions of Marlon Samuels and one Chris Gayle. Sri Lanka have plenty to be fearful about.

It is perhaps apposite that Sri Lanka’s fate will be decided in a West Indies series. Much has been made of West Indies’ decline from the dominant force in world cricket in the 1980s and early 1990s to the feebler force they are today.

Sri Lanka are arguably at a similar crossroads, with the retirement of legends of the game like Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene and Lasith Malinga (in Tests, at least) in the last decade or so. The new generation of young players (Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva, say) show flickers of promise but simply cannot replace the illustrious names that preceded them straightaway.

Ironically, Sri Lanka’s star performer during this transitional era has been Rangana Herath, the portly off-spinner who, at 39 years old, isn’t exactly a spring chicken.

So, unthinkably, worse could be yet to come. Given Sri Lanka’s atrocious results this calendar year, they are edging closer to having to fight for their place in the 2019 Cricket World Cup.

And, having already lost an ODI series to Zimbabwe, who’s to say they aren’t in serious trouble of fading away entirely from cricket’s top table?

Galle is no longer the fortress it once was.

GoCompare: Glasgow football stadia

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Hampden Park

Scotland’s national football stadium pretty much sums up the national team: plenty of potential at a superficial first glance, but little that’s exceptional upon a closer look.

The exterior that initially greets visitors is impressive. An imposing Scottish football crest sits on top of a large flight of stairs. There’s colour and design.

Added to that is Scotland’s footballing pedigree, with the likes of Gordon Strachan and Sir Alex Ferguson adorning the walls on the front. There’s history, passion, and pride.

But move on from this initial façade and you will find nothing special. It’s mostly more of the same, monotonous, identikit mix of beams and metal walls with nothing much to write home about.

Finally reaching the other side, all that is encountered is a dark blue exterior stating ‘Scotland’s national stadium’. It’s functional and understated, but not exceptional.

Alas, it’s a bit like the current Scotland side. For all the initial eye-catching (a Robert Snodgrass exterior, say) there’s a mass of the honest and functional yet average and uninspiring.

There’s a reason why Scotland have failed to qualify for a major tournament since 1998.

Last year summed up this predicament most depressingly, as England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all made it to the Euro 2016 party in France while the Tartan Army had to stay at home.

Having said that, Hampden Park avoids England’s problems. Wembley, an architecturally imposing stadium, masks the mediocrity of the national team that plays there.

Unlike with England, at least nobody really expects Scotland to tear up international football. And, on and off the pitch, they duly oblige.

 

Ibrox

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The home of Glasgow Rangers is located in Govan, once the home of the world’s shipbuilding industry. At one point, a staggering 75% of the world’s ships were built on the Clyde.

So redbrick Ibrox mirrors its gritty Govan settings, redolent of Glasgow’s Victorian industrial heritage and grandeur. It’s not aesthetically spectacular, but there is a certain dignity and poise in the Bill Mc Struth Main Stand’s Victorian-style redbrick exterior.

Rangers, founded in 1872, is therefore one of Britain’s oldest football clubs and matches this narrative of tradition and strength.

The record list and old players displayed on the outside testify to the club’s stature in Scottish, British and world football.

But that grandeur of old has fallen prey to post-industrial decline, much like the Rangers side. The team that won 54 Scottish league titles – and nine in a row between 1988 and 1997 – is now struggling.

The last time Rangers won the Scottish Premiership was in the 2010/11 season. Their last trophy was only the Scottish Challenge Cup in 2016.

The 3-2 loss to Hibs in 2016’s Scottish Cup Final would never have happened in years gone by. This is, after all, the club with 33 Scottish Cup titles.

First came the relegation to Scotland’s fourth tier in 2012 after financial ruin plagued the club.

And last year’s humiliating 10-2 aggregate defeat to the old nemesis Celtic was the epitome of an old giant’s humbling.

For a club with its history, it’s time to make Rangers great again to befit the stadium it plays in.

 

Celtic Park

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And so we’ve left the best ‘til last. Celtic Park is Glasgow’s best football stadium and, fittingly, so are the team that plays inside.

The esplanade leading up to the front entrance provides a sense of anticipation and mesmerisation that the other two don’t. The statues of Jock Stein and Billy McNeill and the flags on either side of the main path heighten the expectations and humble you when faced with the club’s longevity and success.

The appealing mix of green and white attract the eye in a way that Hampden Park and Ibrox’s more bland grey or red brick don’t, while the star at the front hints at Celtic being the star of Scottish football to reflect their European Cup title of 1967.

Arriving at the stadium, the exterior boasts a wealth of information about the Bhoys’ illustrious history, including nine consecutive league titles between 1965 and 1974. The mix of pictures in colour and in black and white adds to the historical weight of the club.

On the Jock Stein and Lisbon Lions Stands are the huge letters spelling ‘PARADISE where legends are made’. Ibrox and Hampden Park make an effort to document past players, but on this dazzling scale.

It may be paradise for some, but hell for pretty much everyone else – no team has beaten won at Cetlic Park in the league since December 2015.

The various ‘jungle walls’, where fans’ names, dates of birth and personalised messages are inscribed into the brick, touchingly back up the quotation of the Jock Stein statue at the front, that “football without the fans is nothing”.

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Most surprising is the inclusion of one game on this continuum of success – the 2-1 win over Barcelona.

Even though it was ‘only’ a Champions League group stage fixture in 2012, beating one of the best club sides in recent times merits its own place on the Celtic FC timeline.

And this matches Celtic’s one-team representation of Scotland in the Champions League.

(And, whisper it quietly, you might as well commemorate the win given that it will probably never happen again. Sorry, Brendan, but losing 6-1 and 7-0 to Barcelona is an “embarrassment”.)

And Celtic’s success on the pitch goes without saying recently. Last season Brendan Rodgers’ men swept the Scottish Premiership after amassing 106 points, undefeated and finishing an embarrassingly one-sided 30 points ahead of Aberdeen in second. This seems unlikely to change soon.

So, in being Glasgow’s most impressive stadium, Celtic Park confirms what most of us already knew: that Celtic are Scotland’s best football team.

Time to dismiss the Tebbit test

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Now that the West Indies cricket team are touring England, it is apposite to bring up Norman Tebbit’s 1990 test relating to the integration of immigrants and their offspring in the UK.

Tebbit’s measurement for how integrated immigrants, of whatever generation, were in British society was to see whether they supported England or the country of their heritage, namely India, Pakistan or the West Indies. Picking a cricket team was supposed to have wider repercussions on their place in British society.

Fast-forward to 2014. England are playing India in a T20 at Edgbaston. Moeen Ali is booed by several India fans while fielding. For some reason or another, he was adjudged to be deserving of their ire.

Moeen maintains a professional calm after the game and hopes, fairly idealistically, that one day all those booing fans will one day support England. After all, many of those India fans were in all likelihood born and brought up in England.

So, who’s the traitor?

For Tebbit, those India fans booing Ali – let’s say some of them booed him because of his Pakistani heritage – were at fault. They should have been supporting England and Ali.

Although that particular England-India series had plenty of contentious issues, Moeen Ali is the last person to get involved in the testosterone-filled antler-jousting that Ben Stokes, James Anderson and Ravindra Jadeja would do. So it made the booing of Moeen even more striking given his ethnic and religious difference within the England side.

Clearly, for some of the India fans – and for some of Pakistani origin whose comments I’ve heard – Moeen is at fault for playing for England and/or because he is Muslim and of Pakistani origin.

Let’s be clear. Moeen is betraying no-one by representing England, where he – and many of his ancestors – was born and brought up.

However, those choosing to support India have their own reasons for doing so. They shouldn’t be labelled as Tebbit test traitors.

Identities and allegiances are complex things in our multicultural society. Cricket teams are part of the kaleidoscope of identities that make up who we are.

It is perfectly possible to have a UK passport, support India at cricket and England at football. David Cameron tried making this argument in 2015, which was a sensible speech about managing and happily possessing lots of different and complementary identities. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed by the comedy of the then PM “forgetting” that he supported Aston Villa instead of West Ham.

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The only thing Moeen Ali betrays is a W.G. Grace look. Amal316/Wikimedia Commons

Anecdotally, my personal circumstances lead me to support England. I was born and grew up here. My foreign heritage is only half-Pakistani and three generations back in time, adding more chronological and geographical obstacles to wholly backing Pakistan.

And I fell in love with cricket in the summer of 2005, with that Ashes series. Enough said. I could only support England from then on, and still do with no compunction whatsoever.

But, of course, Pakistan are my second team given half my roots are Pakistani. There’s no problem with embracing more than one allegiance.

However, my circumstances are particular to me, and others’ will lead them to support India, Pakistan, the West Indies, and others.

And that’s fine – it’s part of the myriad of identities and influences in Britain’s multicultural society. This diversity doesn’t prevent harmony.

What does is trying to tell people how to think and simplify complex personal affiliations and backgrounds when it comes to sporting allegiances and identifications – on both sides.

A lot of the time it’s tough for people to decide, and that’s fine. Just let’s not label people as traitors for not following our preconceived expectations of how they ought to think and act.

Surely the way forward as a society is to overcome this binary configuration that puts people into pre-packaged categories and boxes. This way, no-one is a traitor – and everyone can enjoy the game, be it cricket or otherwise.