English sides learn Champions League fate

29 August, 2014

England's Champions League representatives have met the group stage draw with mixed reception.

Manchester City face the hardest challenge facing Bayern Munich for the third time in four seasons, CSKA Moscow and Roma. Liverpool return to the competition after a five-year absence and have been rewarded with a group consisting of defending champions Real Madrid, FC Basel and Bulgaria's Ludogorets.

Chelsea will be the happier of England's representatives with the Blues drawn with Schalke 04, Sporting Lisbon and Slovenia's Maribor. Arsenal's reward for squeezing past Besiktas in the play-off stage is another head-to-head with 2013 finalists Borussia Dortmund alongside Galatasaray and Anderlecht.

Celtic would have been Scotland's only team in the group stage but were knocked out by Maribor in the play-off stage. This was despite the SPL champions being reinstated to the competition after being eliminated by Legia Warsaw. The Polish side beat Celtic 6-1 on aggregate but were dumped out after fielding an ineligible player.

Liverpool fans will have fond memories of ties against Real Madrid. The last time the two faced each other in the Champions League, the Anfield side overcame a declining Real team 5-0 on aggregate. It included a famous 4-0 victory on Merseyside but the years since have seen the Spanish giants return to their former glory and it will be a tough ask for Brendan Rodgers' side to top the group.

For City, the sight of Bayern must be increasingly disheartening. The Germans ran riot at the Etihad in October winning 3-1 but in truth it could have been much more. City did get revenge in Munich when they came back from two goals down to beat a below par Bayern 3-2.

The night will be remembered, however, for City boss Manuel Pellegrini admitting that he was unaware that a fourth goal would have meant City topped the group and avoided a last 16 tie against Barcelona.

Both Arsenal and Chelsea will be relatively confident of qualification from their respective groups. The Gunners renew acquaintances with Dortmund who they met at the group stage last season. Dortmund won 2-1 in north London but Arsenal hit back with 1-0 win at the Signal Iduna Park and with the Germans losing talisman Robert Lewandowski to Bayern, Arsenal will be aiming for qualification as group winners.

The Blues could not have asked for a better group with Schalke, Sporting Lisbon and Maribor providing opposition boss Jose Mourinho would be confident of overcoming.

Elsewhere, 2011 champions Barcelona will face a group of Paris Saint-Germain, Ajax and Apoel Nicosia while group A consists of last year's runners-up Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiakos and Malmo.  

Everton handed tough group on European return

29 August, 2014

Everton have been handed a tough group on their return to Europe.

The Toffees will face Lille, Wolfsburg and FC Krasnodar in the group stages of the Europa League. It is the first time the Merseyside club has competed in the competition since 2009/10 season. Lille finished third in France's Ligue 1 while big spending Wolfsburg finished fifth in the Bundesliga. Russia's FC Krasnodar provide another challenge claiming fifth spot in the Russian Premier League last season.

Tottenham Hotspur also qualified for the group stages after a comfortable 5-1 aggregate win over Cyprus' AEL Limassol in the play-off round. The North Londoners have been rewarded with a group consisting of Besiktas, beaten by Arsenal in the Champions League play-off, Partizan Belgrade and Greek side Asteras.

Celtic will also be in the Europa League group stages after being knocked out of the Champions League for the second time this season by Slovenian side Maribor. The SPL champions avoided a reunion with Legia Warsaw who knocked the Glasgow side out of the Champions League only to be expelled after fielding an ineligible player.

The Scottish side have been drawn in Group D with Red Bull Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb and Romanian side Astra. Elsewhere, reigning champions Sevilla will face Standard Liege, Feyenoord and Rijeka while Internazionale will play Ukrainian side Dnipro, St-Etienne and Azerbaijan's Qarabag.

One team who will not be continuing their European adventure is Hull City. The FA Cup runners-up were knocked out by Belgian side Lokeren on away goals at the KC Stadium on Thursday (August 28th) night. Steve Bruce's side went a goal ahead through Robbie Brady to level the tie on aggregate but Lokeren hit back through Jordan Remacle.

Another penalty from Brady gave Hull a glimmer of hope but they were unable to find another goal and crashed out of the tournament before reaching the group stage. They also ended the game with ten men after Yannick Sagbo was given a straight red in the 71st minute.

For Everton, and boss Roberto Martinez, the group stage will be a test of how far they have progressed over the past season. Key additions such as the permanent signing of striker Romelu Lukaku and veteran forward Samuel Eto'o are designed to bolster the squad preparing them for the extra effort required to balance a European and domestic campaign.

Wayne Rooney named England Captain

28 August, 2014

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney has been named as England's new captain, taking over from Liverpool's Steven Gerrard, who announced his retirement from international football following the disastrous World Cup in Brazil.

The 28-year-old said that it was a "dream come true" for himself and his family and that it gave him "massive pride".

"As a kid I always loved the occasion of watching a big England game on the television," he went on to say. "Back then I had a burning ambition to play for my country. Now to be appointed captain is beyond my wildest dreams."

It comes on the back of the striker being named captain of his club by Louis van Gaal. There is a lot of expectation on Rooney to take charge and inspire Man Utd this season – with disastrous results, he clearly has a lot of work to do.

Similarly, there is a lot riding on his now senior role within the England team, which is looking to qualify for Euro 2016. The Three Lions play Sweden on September 3rd and fans are hoping for something inspirational.

England manager Roy Hodgson explained he thought long and hard about the decision but that in the end, handing the armband to the striker was the most logical choice.

"He's the right man and he'll show enormous enthusiasm and responsibility," he continued. "I've had a long conversation with him and he's prepared to accept the pressures that the England captaincy brings."

Hodgson continued by saying that over the last two years, the work he has done with Rooney has suggested that he has the "character and desire" to lead his fellow players.

Rooney has indicated that he intends to speak to Gerrard about "different aspects" of the captaincy, explaining that the Liverpool midfielder and himself had a quality professional relationship at international level.

"I hope that I will have the full backing of the fans," the Man Utd striker said. "I am their type of player once I am on that pitch. My only thought is to win and give everything I have got and that sharing that desire will be the way I want to captain the team."

The BBC's chief football writer Phil McNulty described Rooney's appointment as being the "right choice", in part because there is a decided lack of alternatives on offer within the current England squad.

He said that at 28, Rooney is in a prime position to lead his country through the qualifiers and indeed a "new era" in English football at this level. While he did not shine during the World Cup, he was nevertheless one of the better players. His work ethic was certainly commendable.

"Rooney is a natural leader and taker of responsibility in every game, even when fortunes are against him, and this is what Hodgson will need as he takes a new look squad forward into games that will shape his own future as much as England's," Mr McNulty wrote.

"He has not been afraid to say his piece in the dressing room, acting as great support to his predecessor Gerrard, who gave him a glowing reference as the only candidate he believed should succeed him."

CiCi Bellis becomes youngster player to win at US Open

27 August, 2014

Tennis player CiCi Bellis has earned herself a place in the record books, becoming, at the age of 15 (and 152 days), the youngest winner of US Open match.

She takes away this extraordinary crown from the now retired Anna Kournikova, who was 59 days older than Bellis when she herself won at the US open (she got to the fourth round).

The teenager beat 12th seed Dominika Cibulkova 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 in a remarkable match on Court Six.

It is quite a feat, as world number 13 Cibulkova is certainly no walkover. Earlier this year, for example, the Slovakian ended up in the finals of the Australian Open.

Moreover, Bellis, who is competing in the tournament thanks to a wildcard entry – she won the US girls' national championships – has never played at a Women's Tennis Association level before.

“I went into the match thinking it was going to be such a great experience, but I never thought I would come out on top winning," said Bellis.

"I’m feeling amazing. I’m still speechless. I’m still in shock about that match. I went in thinking I was going to play as well as I could possibly play. I obviously played pretty well. So I’m really happy. Words can’t describe it right now."

To put into perspective just how young Bellis is, she was born the same year that Serena Williams won her first US open back in 1999.

Ranked 1,208 in the world, there is now a lot of interest in the youngster and whether she has what it takes to be one of the greatest tennis players of her generation.

For now, Bellis will have to stay focused, as her second round match is against Kazakhstan's Zarbia Dyas, who is number 48 in the world.

Interestingly, because she is still classed as an amateur, she is unable to collect the prize money for her win. This has not deterred her in the slightest.

"I don't really think about it," she said. "I try to just focus on the tennis rather than anything else. I'm definitely going to stay an amateur right now to keep my options open for college, in case an injury or something happens. But I'd love to be a pro one day."

Oakland Raiders least desirable team in NFL

26 August, 2014

It has been tough being an Oakland Raiders fan in recent years. Eleven consecutive non-winning seasons and now the California side have been voted the least desirable team to play for in NFL.

An NFL Nation Confidential survey posed the question "the only way I'd play for [team name] is if they doubled my salary" to over 100 NFL players. Of the 82 which responded, 23 per cent named the Raiders as their least desirable team. This was followed by the Buffalo Bills (19 per cent), Cleveland Browns (16 per cent), Jacksonville Jaguars (nine per cent) and Green Bay Packers (six per cent).

It has been a miserable few seasons for the Raiders who have not reached the post-season since 2002. Even that campaign did not end well as they were embarrassed 48-21 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Super Bowl XXXVII. Since then there has been somewhat of a stigma attached to the Raiders - they have become known as a team of instability with a cloud of uncertainty constantly hanging over the Coliseum.

The Raiders have gone through six coaches since 2004 and, despite their best efforts, have still not been able to reach the heights of 2002's Super Bowl appearance. However, being named as the least desirable in the game and has been met with dismay by current defensive back Charles Woodson who considers pulling on the jersey a real honour.

Teammate Marcel Reece believes the Raiders are considered the "black sheep of the NFL" and maintains that there is some sort of stigma attached to the franchise. He blamed the media perception of the team as being one of the key factors in why the respondents named the Raiders as the least desirable.

Reece told ESPN.com: "Whoever said it, they're telling a lie. They didn't think about it. They thought about the one team that has the biggest stigma of negativity around them. From the media. From the masses.

"The most hated team in the world? The first thing that comes to mind is the Oakland Raiders. The bad boys. The black sheep of the NFL. And it's not really a negative thing because we don't do bad things."

The Raiders kick off the intra-conference season against New York Jets on September 7th followed by games against Houston Texans and the New England Patriots. They will compete in the NFL's showpiece game at Wembley Stadium against Miami Dolphins on September 28th as part of the NFL International Series.

Formula One: Rosberg-Hamilton rivalry heads to Belgium

22 August, 2014

Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton renew their rivalry once again as Formula One prepares for the Belgian Grand Prix.

The 2014 world championship has been dominated by the battle for top spot between the two Mercedes drivers and this rivalry has boiled over on more than one occasion, as recent events have shown. At the Hungarian Grand Prix, Hamilton ignored team instructions to allow Rosberg past and claimed third spot for himself sparking yet another feud between the two.

Rosberg currently holds a 11 point lead over Hamilton at the top of the overall standings but the Brit will be determined to claw back some points at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps when it gets underway today (August 22nd).

Hamilton has endured some mixed results in Belgium over the years. While claiming the checkered flag in 2010 he has been forced to retire on a number of occasions and could not make his pole position count last year, losing out to Sebastian Vettel. It has not been a happy hunting ground for Rosberg either with the German having never won in Belgium.

The German has come into the race with a new focus, stating that he has "learned" from the mistakes made in Hungary and of the controversy of the race. When asked about whether or not had cleared the air with Hamilton following the race he said: "It's clear for me; not sure on the other side."

Speaking about the incident, Rosberg added: "Of course we discussed it after the race, because it's important to review a situation like that and to know how to move forward. I gathered that there was a bit of a mess in the media and so it wouldn't be useful for me to give another extra bit to that at the moment, it's better to let it all calm down."

Mercedes has been in dominant form this year but it is widely expected that the team will face its toughest challenge in Belgium, and again in Monza in two weeks. Williams is tipped to push Mercedes all the way at Spa as it boasts a car with the strongest straight line speed without the same amount of downforce as Mercedes has.

Williams driver Felipe Massa believes Belgium and Monza are two key opportunities for the team to show that they are a rival to Mercedes going ahead into the rest of the season and into the following campaign.

NFL: 2014 breakout players

21 August, 2014

The start of the 2014 NFL season is less than a month away and sides all over the US will be making their final preparations for the big day.

It all kicks off on September 4th when the Seattle Seahawks begin the defence of their Super Bowl title with a trip to Wisconsin to take on the Green Bay Packers. There are some key battles on round one of the new campaign with the Dallas Cowboys travelling to the San Francisco 49ers while the New England Patriots host the Miami Dolphins.

With a new season, comes new hope and, for many players, a fresh start. So who will be the key breakout players for the coming season? Here is a selection of the hotly tipped stars for the future.

Ladarius Green (San Diego Chargers)

Picked by the Chargers in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, 2014 could prove to be a big season for Green. The 24-year-old tight end enjoyed a fairly successful past campaign scoring 432 receiving yards while also scoring three touchdowns. He will be viewing the coming season as an ideal opportunity for a breakout and is expected to see a lot of playing time.

While Antonio Gates will continue as the starter, Green will be involved in two tight end set and may see himself playing receiver at some point.

Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins)

The 2014 season is a poignant moment for Tannehill. The quarterback enters his third year with the Dolphins and a lot is expected of the 26-year-old.  While not considered to be the frontrunner for 'breakout star of the year' he will be a major candidate. It is expected the arrival of Philadelphia's Bill Lazor as offensive co-ordinator will hone Tannehill's game.

However, he will need to improve significantly on the offensive line problems and organisational issues which affected his 2013 campaign.

Jamie Collins (New England Patriots)

Entering his second season with the Patriots following his second round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Collins will be looking to make headway as the team outside linebacker. Despite a relatively quiet past season he turned heads in January 2014 with an outstanding performance against the Indianapolis Colts in the play-offs.

His record of six tackles, one quarterback sack and one interception highlights the potential Collins can bring to the Patriots.

Terrance Williams (Dallas Cowboys)

The loss of Miles Austin puts Williams in prime position to take the wide receiver role in the Cowboys side. He impressed during the 2013 campaign and with quarterback Tony Romo's tendency to distribute all over the field, the athleticism of Williams will play into the Cowboys' hands.

He capped off his rookie season after racking up 44 receptions for 736 yards and five touchdowns.

US Open: Can Andy Murray rekindle memories of 2012?

20 August, 2014

September 10th, 2012 is a date that will live long in history of British tennis.

While the nation slept, over in New York Andy Murray was writing his name into the history books. The then world number three was battling out an intense US Open Men's Singles final with Novak Djokovic that would swing back and forth throughout. Two sets up, to losing the next two, to finally overcoming the Serb in the fifth, Murray had become US Open champion.

It was a real watershed moment for British tennis. Not since Fred Perry in 1936 had the country produced a player to take the top prize at Flushing Meadows and for Murray it sparked an extraordinary year. Less than a year after his win in New York he overcame Djokovic again to give the country something it has wanted for decades, a British Wimbledon champion.

Flash forward to 2014 and the start of the US Open is only a matter of days. Unlike 2012, Murray is not riding a high of an Olympic gold medal nor determined to overcome a gruelling and emotional Wimbledon final defeat. A disappointing showing at the All England Club this year saw Murray eliminated at the quarter final stage to Grigor Dimitrov and he will need to be on top of his game to succeed in New York.

Murray has been ranked as eighth seed for the US Open behind the likes of Stanislas Wawrinka, David Ferrer, Milos Raonic and Dimitrov. The Scot has not won an ATP ranking event since his Wimbledon success and was recently knocked at the quarter finals by Roger Federer at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.

One man who will not be standing in Murray's chance of winning the US Open is defending champion Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard has been forced to withdraw from the competition with an injury to his right wrist. Nadal missed the warm-up tournament in Cincinnati as well as Toronto and announced on his Facebook page that he would be competing at Flushing Meadows.

Nadal wrote: "I am very sorry to announce I won't be able to play at this year's US Open. I am sure you understand that it is a very tough moment for me since it is a tournament I love and where I have great memories from fans, the night matches, so many things."

The 2014 US Open kicks off on Monday (August 25th), running until September 8th.

Swansea spoil Louis van Gaal's big day

19 August, 2014

Swansea City caused a major shock on the opening weekend of the Premier League, defeating Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford and ruining Louis van Gaal's first official match.

The new look Red Devils were hoping to kick the campaign off with a win but were stunned by a slick Swansea side which took the lead through Ki Sung-yeung after 28 minutes. United toiled against the well organised Welsh side but equalised in the second half through newly-installed captain Wayne Rooney.

While many would believe this would spark the 2012/13 champions into life, it was Swansea who grabbed the win through new signing Gylfi Sigurdsson with less than 20 minutes to go. The defeat marked the first time United had lost an opening day fixture since 1972 while for Swansea it was their first away win over the Red Devils since 1931.

As their cross-city rivals continued to struggle, Manchester City had no such trouble in dispatching Newcastle United. On what was an emotional day on Tyneside, as St James' Park remembered supporters Liam Sweeney and John Alder who were killed aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, City overcame a spirited Newcastle side 2-0 with goals coming from David Silva and substitute Sergio Aguero.

Chelsea also got their campaign underway in ominous fashion, overpowering newly promoted Burnley 3-1 at Turf Moor. The Clarets did give the visitors a scare when Scott Arfield gave them the lead on 14 minutes but a Cesc Fabregas-inspired Chelsea stormed back with goals from new boy Diego Costa, Andre Schurrle and Branislav Ivanovic sending the points back to London.

Arsenal and Liverpool both opened the season with wins, albeit with much more of a struggle. The Gunners needed an Aaron Ramsey stoppage time winner to dispatch of managerless Crystal Palace 2-1 while Liverpool were given a huge test against Southampton.

The south coast team, which saw no less than three players leave for Liverpool in the summer, came from a goal down but lost  2-1 when Daniel Sturridge poked home.

Elsewhere, summer signing Eric Dier scored in the final minute to give Tottenham Hotspur a 1-0 win at West Ham United, Leicester City and Everton shared an enthralling 2-2 draw while Hull City claimed a 1-0 win away at Queens Park Rangers.

A Lee Cattermole thunderbolt sent Sunderland on their way to a 2-2 draw with West Bromwich Albion while Andreas Weimann gave Aston Villa a single goal victory away at Stoke City.

The resurgence of Alastair Cook

18 August, 2014

They say a week in politics is a long time, well for England cricket captain Alastair Cook, a month must seem like a lifetime.

Flashback to June and the Essex opening batsman was facing calls for him to resign from his position after another demoralising Test defeat, this time to Sri Lanka. Shane Warne described the performance at Headingley as "the worst day of captaincy" he had seen at international level for 25 years, piling the pressure on Cook.

England were on a terrible winless streak without a victory since the Ashes against Australia, stretching back ten games. Cook himself had been in disappointing form against Sri Lanka scoring just 78 runs in four innings. He remained defiant heading into the five game Test series against India, stating that he not would resign from his position and vowed to "throw everything" he had at the role.

A poor start to the series did not help matters with a draw and a defeat once again heaping the pressure on Cook and his team. However, in recent weeks England have rallied and completed a 3-1 Test series victory over India thanks to a rampant performance during the fifth Test, wrapping the match up in just three days.

England completely outclassed the tourists, winning by an innings and 244 runs. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Jordan tore through the Indian batting order, bowling the hosts out for just 94 in 29.2 overs. The impressive bowling added towards to the outstanding batting performance from Joe Root who scored an unbeaten 149.

India had simply no response for England's 486 and it proved to be redemption for Cook after a summer of discontent. Following the victory over India, Cook paid tribute to his wife, Alice, who convinced to stay on as England captain. Cook admitted there were some dark times over the past few months and he even considered his position following the Sri Lanka loss at Headingley and the Indian defeat at Lord's.

However, Cook told BBC Test Match Special that his wife manage to convince to stay on and see out the series.

Cook said: "Without my wife, I don't think I'd be standing here as captain. You don't often say things like that - I don't know why I just have - but it's the way I feel. You can bare your soul quite often to Alice and she's very good at getting me back on the straight and narrow."