Thursday, May 29, 2008

ENGLAND 2 USA 0 … IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

DID YOU KNOW that the United States soccer team played England in an international match at the new Wembley Stadium last night?

You can be forgiven for missing it. It seems much of the U.S media did.

David Beckham’s high-profile arrival in Los Angeles less than a year ago was greeted by a huge media fanfare.

But judging by the coverage – or lack of it – of last night’s game, television, radio, newspapers and the sports websites have returned to their usual summer diet of basketball and baseball.

For the record, a United States team minus leading goalscorer Landon Donovan due to a groin injury, was comprehensively outplayed in a 2-0 defeat.

It will take more than a week for John Terry to get over the penalty miss that cost Chelsea the Champions League trophy.

But he at least took the first step to recovery by scoring England’s opening goal.

There’s a big difference between the Champions League final and a low-key international friendly.

Following England’s failure to qualify for the finals of the European Championship, which are being staged in Austria and Switzerland next month, there was little more than national pride at stake.

Terry bounces back from Champions League nightmare

But for Terry, at least, it was chance to “get back on the bike” after his Moscow misery.

Handed the captain’s armband by manager Fabio Capello, he responded by giving England a 38th minute lead with a powerful header.

Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard made it 2-0 after 59 minutes to send the majority of fans in a crowd of 71,233 home happy.

Beckham, presented with a golden cap by Sir Bobby Charlton before the game to mark his 100th England appearance against France in March, was not surprised to see Terry bounce back.

“He was disappointed by last week and will still be hurting for a while yet. But he’ll get over it,” said Becks.

“Tonight we all saw the man and the player he is. He’s one of the strongest characters I’ve seen in football. Every one of us was happy when he scored.”

Terry was happy his season did not end on a sour note. “It was a relief really to have the England game rather than have to wait the whole summer to dwell on what happened in Moscow.

“The manager gave me a huge boost when he told me I was going to be captain and, hopefully, I’ve repaid him.”

Last night, it was the United States team who were feeling down. They never seriously troubled England goalkeeper David James.

They could have done with the attacking power of Brian McBride, the striker who announced earlier in the day that he was leaving Premier League club Fulham to return to the USA.

A sad day all round for United States’ soccer.


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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

JOBA MOVE A MIXED BLESSING FOR YANKS

ONE JOBA CHAMBERLAIN … there’s only one Joba Chamberlain. How New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi must wish there were two.

There’s no debate about whether Joba is the Yanks’ best young pitcher; the winless Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy have seen to that.

But opinion is still divided on whether his greatest value to the team is as a starting pitcher or bullpen reliever.

Last night’s infuriating 10-9, 11th inning defeat in Baltimore provided further ammunition for both camps.

The Yankees handed Kennedy an early 4-0 lead – and he promptly handed it straight back before leaving the game with a strained muscle.

His failure to build on a decent start against the Orioles last week should mean that’s we’ve seen the last of him for a little while.

Compare his ERA of 7.41 with Darrell Rasner’s 1.80, plus the fact that Rasner has managed to win three games, and it’s pretty obvious who should make way for Joba the starter.

Kennedy will no doubt get another chance at a future date, but the Yanks were banking on him to become their regular No. 4 or No. 5 starter and, right now, that looks very unlikely.

Bronx Bombers desperately need a pitching ace

That the Yanks need a high octane, high profile pitcher is beyond doubt. They don’t have a true No. 1. But we also saw last night how much they’re going to miss Joba at the business end of games.

After Mariano Rivera had pitched two scoreless innings (should he really be pitching when the score is tied?) and the Yanks had taken the lead for the third time at 9-8, Joba would have been just the man to seal the deal.

Instead, he was sitting in the dugout waiting for another long relief session today, possibly leading to a first start against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium next Tuesday.

LaTroy Hawkins was the man called upon to close the game. Hawkins is certainly no Rivera; in fact, he’s no Luis Vizcaíno either. Once again, he wasn’t up to the job.

After enduring a 67-minute rain delay, defeat was a bitter pill to swallow for those Yankee fans that had stayed up past midnight.

The team has fallen back two games under .500 and even if they avoid the sweep at Camden Yards tonight, they’ll still be rooted to the bottom of the American League East table.

I’m confident Joba Chamberlain will be a success, wherever and whenever he pitches. But the fact remains that, from now on, we’re only going to see him once every five days.

Unless Girardi can clone him, or bring up another whizz-kid from the minors, the Yankees’ bullpen looks wafer-thin without Joba.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

GRANT PAYS PENALTY FOR CHELSEA “FAILURE”

WILLIE RANDOLPH can thank his lucky stars he’s not managing in the English Premier League. If he were, he wouldn’t be now.

Avram Grant was one penalty kick away from winning the Champions League for Chelsea. Now the affable Israeli is out of work.

The only thing you get for coming second when you’re in charge of a club in English football’s top flight is the sack. Chelsea finished runners-up in the League, the Champions League and the League Cup.

Grant could quite easily have won three trophies. Instead, he has been shown the door just eight months into a four-year contract.

The 53-year-old took over from Portuguese coach José Mourinho – the self-styled ‘Special One’ – in September of last year.

His studious appearance and lack of flamboyance did not endear him to the British media, and there has been constant speculation about his position.

Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil tycoon who has turned the London club into a European super power, expects at least one piece of silverware every season.

Terry miss proves costly for Israeli coach

Had John Terry not slipped and missed his spot-kick against Manchester United in Moscow last week, Grant would have delivered the biggest prize of all.

But even then, the suspicion was that it was only a matter of time before a big-name coach, such as Dutchman Frank Rijkaard, replaced him.

Grant lost only two Premier League games during his spell in charge, but was criticized by fans for his team’s lack of style.

Explaining the decision to fire Grant, Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck said, “We have very high expectations at Chelsea and a couple of second-place finishes is just not good enough for us.

“So although we never would have thought in September when José Mourinho left that we would be able to make it into a Champions League final as we did, Chelsea are here to win trophies.”

Fortunately for Randolph, whose team has lost 26 out of 49 games this season, the Mets ownership is considerably more patient than the men who run Chelsea.

They are prepared to give him time to turn things around. Exactly how much time remains to be seen.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

PRESSURE MOUNTS ON RANDOLPH

HAROLD WILSON, the former British Prime Minister, once said, “a week is a long time in politics.” Well, in baseball, it’s a blink of an eye.

This time last week, the New York Mets looked to have turned the corner while the New York Yankees were still on the road to nowhere.

So much for momentum. The Mets followed their two-game sweep at Yankee Stadium by losing all four games in Atlanta. Now they’ve lost two out of three to a Colorado Rockies team so badly hit by injuries that they had to ask the laundry lady to bat cleanup.

Six defeats in their last seven, nine in 13, have dropped the Mets - pre-season favorites to win the National League East - ­two games below .500 at 23-25.

It can’t have been a happy flight back to the Big Apple for manager Willie Randolph as he figured out what to say to owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon at their crunch meeting tomorrow.

Will Randolph still be in a job come Monday night? “I don’t see why not,” he told reporters.

Randolph insists he still has the backing of the players; that he hasn’t lost the clubhouse. But if the phone-in shows on ESPN and WFAN are any indication, then he has certainly lost the faith of the fans, still smarting from last season’s late collapse.

No one, apart from general manager Omar Minaya - and possibly Randolph himself, knows what exactly is on the agenda for their meeting. Will Randolph be asked to explain his comments claiming he’s being subjected to unfair criticism due to the color of his skin. Will he be grilled on the team’s performance? Will he be fired?

Mets manager still has two years to run on his contract

Two factors may earn him a stay of execution. First, his contract doesn’t expire until 2009; he’s owed $2 million this year and $2.25 million the following season. Secondly, there’s no one outstanding candidate to take his place.

If he’s still in the dugout at Shea tomorrow night, Randolph can expect a few boos from the fans. Division leaders Florida Marlins are the visitors for a three-game series, which could be a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective. Win 3-0 or 2-1 and the pressure will be lifted, even if only for a short time. Lose and the calls for Randolph’s head will grow even louder.

Randolph can at least draw from solace from the turnaround at his old club, the Yankees. A dramatic, come-from-behind 6-5 win earned the Yanks another series sweep against the sinking Seattle Mariners and their fifth consecutive victory.

Suddenly, the sun is shining and the Bronx Bombers are making hay, albeit against some of the American League’s lesser lights. The return of Alex Rodriguez has coincided with an outburst of offensive power. Coincidence, of course, is not the right word. With so many lefties in their line-up, A-Rod brings balance to the batting order, not to mention his home run threat.

With the Red Sox struggling on the road, the Yankees have a chance to make up the lost ground, although they now have to do it in Baltimore, then Minnesota. They’re back level at .500 and manager Joe Girardi will believe that from now on, the only way is up.

Yes, one week sure is a short time in baseball.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

PLAYING THE RACE CARD ANOTHER BAD MOVE BY RANDOLPH

IF YANKEES fans have been at loss to explain why their team is not hitting so far this season, then supporters of the New York Mets must be tearing their hair out.

Is there any more enigmatic team in baseball? One day they play like potential world champions, the next they look like chumps.

You might have expected their weekend demolition of the Yankees to act as a springboard for a winning run.

Not a bit of it. They haven’t just lost the first three games of a four-game series against the Atlanta Braves; they’ve been out-pitched, out-hit and outfought. 

The score currently stands at 23-7 in favor of the Braves. The onus is now on Johan Santana to save them from a humiliating sweep against Tim Hudson at Turner Field tonight and keep the Mets the right side of .500.

Willie Randolph, the first African-American to manage a baseball team in New York, has been feeling the heat from frustrated Mets fans virtually from opening day…and the pressure is mounting.

He didn’t help his cause by suggesting in one newspaper interview that criticism of his management of the team had racial undertones.

No more multiracial sport than baseball

What utter nonsense. There is no more multiracial country than the USA, no more multiracial city than New York and no more multiracial sport than baseball. The color of your skin is irrelevant. White fans worship black ball players and vice-versa.

I’m from England yet my favorite baseball players are Alex Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to question their creed or color; their place of birth or their nationality. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the two best players on the team I happen to support.

To be fair to Randolph, there is no escape from the media spotlight in the Big Apple. Every word has to be chosen carefully or before you know it, it has been blown out of proportion on every website, newspaper and blog.

The role of manager in baseball is vastly overstated, but Mets fans have a right to question whether Randolph is getting the best from his roster of players.

Most believe the Mets are better than their current record. The addition of Santana was supposed to be the final piece in the jigsaw, the ace that would turn the Mets into World Series winners.

It might do yet. We’re only a quarter of the way into the season. But baseball is not just America’s favorite pastime; it’s a sport played, analyzed and dissected every day.

The question fans constantly ask is what have you done for me lately? Mets followers were ecstatic on Sunday. Four days later and they’re again asking whether Randolph is the right man for the job.

Winning record reflects higher payroll

His first three seasons have all been winning ones. His overall record currently stands at 285-234. On the debit side, he has been given a lot more to play with than any other previous Mets manager.

The addition of Carlos Beltrán and Carlos Delgado to David Wright and José Reyes gave the Mets the most formidable batting line-up in the National League.

The loss of Pedro Martínez through injury has been offset by the big-money signing of Santana from the Minnesota Twins.

After last season’s pathetic collapse down the stretch, what Randolph needed most was a fast start to 2008.

Instead, the Mets find themselves one place off the bottom of their division, three and a half games behind the surprise leaders, the Florida Marlins.

Unlike Joe Girardi across town, Randolph does not have time on his side. He’s been given the goods by Omar Minaya and the owners. Now it’s time to deliver.

If the Mets are not above .500 come the All-Star break, Randolph has two chances of hanging on to his job – slim and none – and slim’s just left town.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

TERRY SLIP HANDS MANCHESTER UNITED CHAMPIONS LEAGUE TROPHY

JOHN TERRY was the hero-turned-villain as Manchester United beat Chelsea 6-5 in a dramatic penalty shoot-out to win European football’s premier trophy for the third time.

It was Chelsea captain Terry who had prevented United winning the first all-English Champions League final in extra-time, making a miraculous, headed clearance right in front of goal from Ryan Giggs’ shot.

The England defender then had the chance for the crowning glory when the match, which finished level at 1-1 after 90 minutes, went to penalties.

Cristiano Ronaldo had already missed for United while Chelsea’s first four penalty takers were all successful.

But as Terry ran up to take his spot kick, he slipped on the rain-softened turf in miserable Moscow and his shot went wide of the post.

United, European champions in 1968 and 1999, made the most of their reprieve as Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar saved Nicolas Anelka’s tame shot.

It was tough luck on Chelsea, who had recovered from going a goal down when Ronaldo scored from a free header in the 26th minute.

Frank Lampard equalized just before half-time and Chelsea went on to dominate the second half.

Drogba sent-off after hitting post

Drogba’s curling shot cannoned back off the post and Lampard hit the crossbar. Drogba was then sent-off in extra-time for foolishly slapping Nemanja Vidic in the face.

In truth, there were too many fouls throughout the game to make it a great spectacle. The referee issued eight yellow cards and one red.

The recently relaid pitch inside the Luzhniki Stadium seemed to sap the players’ strength, many of them collapsing with cramp.

United had the edge in the first half, but Chelsea probably did enough to win the game in the second, thanks to the prompting of German midfielder Michael Ballack.

However, it was not to be. Fifty years on from the Munich air disaster, Sir Bobby Charlton – one of the survivors – was there to witness United’s and manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s latest European triumph.

Charlton’s record of 758 appearances for the Red Devils was surpassed by Giggs when he came on as a substitute three times from the end of normal time.

Not that Sir Bobby would have minded one bit. United through and through, he was no doubt thrilled to see the giants of British football write another chapter in their illustrious history.

BAD HAND YES, BUT GIRARDI NEEDS TO INSTILL SOME PRIDE

NO PRIDE. No power. An embarrassment to the famous pinstripes. The team with the highest payroll in baseball hit a new season low at Yankee Stadium last night.

Hank Steinbrenner, Senior Vice President of the New York Yankees, says Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman are playing “the hand they were dealt.” To use a poker analogy, right now it’s 2-7 offsuit against a pair of aces.

Steamrolled by the Mets in the Subpar Series at the weekend – the same Mets who lost both games of a double header in Atlanta yesterday – the Yanks returned refreshed from a day off to produce another abysmal performance against the Baltimore Orioles.

Mike Mussina, the one pitcher the Yanks have been able to rely on in recent weeks, hit the self-destruct button (with the aid of Derek Jeter) in the very first inning.

The Yanks never do anything in half measures. There was no damage limitation as Mussina allowed seven runs, only one of which was earned. At 7-0 down, it was game over the way they have been hitting – or not hitting – lately.

Jeter later left the game after being hit on the hand (X-rays revealed no serious damage) and the only bright spot on a gray night at Yankee Stadium was Alex Rodriguez hitting a home run on his return from injury.

With the Boston Red Sox unearthing another young pitching gem in Justin Masterson, the last-placed Yankees (20-25) now find themselves seven and half games back.

They have lost their last four, six out of seven, nine out of 12. They have scored just 14 runs in the last seven games; yet they’ve conceded 30 in the last three.

It’s almost a carbon copy of their start to last season, when things got even worse before they got better. But as Mussina says, “If this is the same place we were a year ago, it sure feels a lot worse than that.”

Girardi and Cashman must take some of the blame

While Steinbrenner has a point about the Yankees’ roster and the legacy left by Joe Torre, Girardi and Cashman are hardly blameless.

Cashman chose not to do anything about the starting pitching last winter and his gamble on youth has so far failed to pay off. The bench could surely have been a lot stronger too.

Girardi’s job is to get the best out of the players at his disposal and, at the moment, they are letting both him and the fans down.

It may be harsh but do fans really want to see a player joking around when his team is getting shelled at home for the second successive game?

Johnny Damon has a great personality, but not everyone could see the funny side after he had scorched a line drive straight to first base and his former Red Sox team-mate Kevin Millar. This, after he had misjudged a fly ball earlier in the game.

As Ken Singleton said on the YES commentary, the Yanks had two choices when they found themselves 7-0, then 9-0 down: they could either fight or surrender tamely.

Yankees teams of old would have chosen the first option; they would have battled right to the end. This team waved the white flag and then resorted to petty retaliation after Jeter was hit.

That the Yankees will improve is as certain as a guy named David winning American Idol tonight. But in the words of Yogi Berra, “it gets late early out there” and they’re giving themselves another mountain to climb.

They weren’t good enough to catch the Red Sox last year; they’re not good enough to catch the best team in baseball this year either.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and the Yankees have 117 games left to turn things around. But, as things stand, even the wild card seems a long way off.

Monday, May 19, 2008

BIG BROWN LOOKS UNBEATABLE IN BELMONT

NEW YORK’S Belmont Park will be the focus of attention in three weeks’ time when many believe Big Brown will become the first Triple Crown winner for 30 years.

It was back in 1978 that Affirmed completed the sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to become the 11th Triple Crown champion.

Since then, 10 horses have arrived on Long Island with the first two legs in the bag…and 10 have failed. So what makes Big Brown different?

Class. That’s the simple answer. Big Brown didn’t just win the Derby and Preakness, he won them on the bridle.

Had the three-year-old bay colt been asked a serious question by jockey Kent Desormeaux, his winning margin could have doubled, even tripled.

Whether he beat much remains to be seen. But to win the Derby from post 20 was no small achievement and, once again, it was his manner of victory that impressed most observers at Pimlico on Saturday.

Sent off the red-hot 1-5 favorite, Big Brown traveled with such ease that Desormeaux was able to peak between his legs to see where his opponents were. He needn’t have bothered. It was a case of Big Brown first, the rest nowhere, as he strolled home more than five lengths clear.

With most horses, you’re lucky if you can get them to change gear once in a race. Big Brown has gears ranging from first to cruise control.

Unbeaten in five races, we don’t how he will respond in a driving finish as he’s yet to be tested. So will that happen at Belmont Park?

Three factors Big Brown must overcome

If you discount the horses he has already beaten, and none of them seem to have any excuses, there are three things Big Brown has to overcome.

1. Casino Drive. The Japanese challenger has already won on the track, taking the Peter Pan. A half brother to 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil and a three-quarters brother to Rags to Riches, the filly who won the race last year, he’s certainly bred for the race.

2. The distance. Run over one and a half miles, the Belmont is easily the longest leg of the Triple Crown.

3. Three races in five weeks. Racehorses are not machines. Trainer Ricky Dutrow Jr. now has the task of bringing Big Brown to the boil for a third time in a short space of time.

Casino Drive may be a worthy challenger, but he’ll need to be a world-beater to get past an on-song Big Brown.

Personally, I don’t think the extra distance is a factor. Big Brown would have won the Derby and the Preakness at any distance.

For me, the biggest worry is the proximity of the races. Will there be any gas left in the tank? Dutrow is unconcerned. “I know we have horse left. I just can’t imagine him not showing up for the Belmont.”

Neither can I. It’s not as though the horse had a hard race in either Kentucky or Baltimore.

Desormeaux oozes confidence – both on and off the track. “Casino Drive is the only one that can even entertain Big Brown’s stride. It’s going to be exciting. He can run; he’s a nice horse. It’s an extra quarter of a mile. You know there are so many hurdles. Can’t wait to find out.”

Many a Triple Crown bubble has burst at Belmont Park

Smarty Jones (2004), Funny Cide (2003), War Emblem (2002), Charismatic (1999), Real Quiet (1998), Silver Charm (1997), Sunday Silence (1989), Alysheba (1987), Pleasant Colony (1981) and Spectacular Bid (1979). All had their hopes of the Triple Crown dashed at Belmont.

But I for one won’t be betting against Big Brown come Saturday, June 7. I believe he will join the great Seattle Slew (1977) as the only undefeated Triple Crown winner.

Regardless of what happens in the Belmont, the sad part is that we’ll never know just how good Big Brown really is.

The acid test of a colt’s ability is how he fares against the older horses as a four year old. Big Brown will be off to stud long before then.

A Triple Crown winner will provide American horse racing with a much-needed boost. But if Big Brown succeeds, it will be a bittersweet victory.

No sooner has the horse earned a place in our hearts than he’s whisked away for a purely physical relationship. Some guys have all the luck!

A-ROD TO THE RESCUE? SINKING YANKS SEND OUT AN SOS

ALEX RODRIGUEZ already has to shoulder the “burden” of being the highest paid player in baseball. Now he has to deal with the pressure of saving the New York Yankees’ season.

It was A-Rod who kept the sinking Yanks afloat last year when they fell eight games below .500 at 21-29. The deficit is only half that (20-24) at the moment, but if anything, the challenge facing A-Rod and co is even greater.

The stats: The Yankees are rock bottom of the American League East, six games behind the Boston Red Sox. They have lost eight of their last 11 and scored 12 runs in the last six games. Only Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui are hitting over .300.

The facts: The starting rotation is an accident waiting to happen. No. 1 Chien-Ming Wang gets intro trouble when there are runners on base. No. 2 Andy Pettitte keeps imploding in the fourth inning. Ian Kennedy is not good enough – yet; Kei Igawa is not good enough and never will be – period.

Saturday’s debacle against the Mets must have made uncomfortable viewing for general manager Brian Cashman, the man who opted against trading the winless Phil Hughes for Johan Santana.

No doubt Senior Vice President Hank Steinbrenner will be reminding him of that fact if the Yankees’ pitching does not improve between now and September. October baseball in the Bronx seems a long way off at the moment.

Three home runs but Santana beats Pettitte

Okay, so Santana gave up three solo home runs. But unlike Pettitte, he managed to pitch seven and two-thirds innings, keeping his team in the game.

Last night’s 11-2 massacre was not only an embarrassment; it showed just how short the Yanks are on confidence and belief.

“Our team is definitely much better than what we’re showing right now,” claims Johnny Damon. How much better? Good enough to give the Red Sox a six-game start?

The good news is that A-Rod makes his return from a quad injury against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium tomorrow night.

The bad news is that he doesn’t have Jorge Posada to ride shotgun this time around. Posada is doing light training but won’t be back until some time in June.

Just as the Mets arrived at Yankee Stadium this weekend seeking a spark to ignite their season, so their cross-town rivals and are in need of a defining moment; a turning point.

A-Rod managed to hit a Grand Slam in a “simulated game” on Sunday. Now the Yanks desperately need him to do it for real.

Friday, May 16, 2008

WHY RANDOLPH AND THE METS CAN’T AFFORD TO LOSE THE SUBPAR SERIES


WITH THE YANKEES two games under .500 and the Mets just one game over, perhaps they should rename the first installment of this year’s Subway Series the Subpar Series.

Normally, the biannual contests between the two New York teams are eagerly anticipated by both sets of fans. But, right at the moment, anticipation has given way to apathy.

Even the most ardent supporter is finding few reasons to be cheerful. The Mets still seem to be suffering from the malaise that set in last September, when they blew the National League title and missed out on post-season baseball altogether.

They arrive at Yankee Stadium on the back of a 3-1 home series defeat against the last-placed Washington Nationals.

Yet, amazingly, the Mets find themselves in a better position than the Yankees. At least they’re only two-and-a-half games back in their division and they don’t have four teams, including the World Series-winning Red Sox, above them.

A 3-1 series defeat by this season’s surprise package, the Tampa Bay Rays, sent the Yanks slumping to the bottom of the American League East table.

First, it was problems with the starting rotation. Now they can’t hit their way out of a paper bag. Six runs in four games was the sum total of their offensive output at Tropicana Field, usually a happy hunting ground for their highly paid hitters.

Hank Steinbrenner’s stinging rebuke worked the oracle for one game – thanks to the miserly pitching of a rejuvenated Mike Mussina – but normal service was resumed yesterday, when they managed just three hits in six innings off ex-Mets prospect Scott Kazmir.

Yankee fans have become used to slow starts in recent seasons. It will all come right when A-Rod returns (hopefully, next Tuesday). But will it?

A-Rod wasn’t exactly setting the world alight before his quad injury. There is no timetable for the return of Jorge Posada, a man who gives the Yanks depth and balance in their line-up.

Yankees still don't have a settled starting rotation

There are too many question marks. Will Ian Kennedy and Kei Igawa continue to takes turns as the fifth starter, each outperforming the other in terms of runs conceded? Will Andy Pettitte ever pitch like a No. 2 starter. When will Phil Hughes return and will he ever fulfill his potential? Can we really expect Moose to continue to be this good? Is Darrell Rasner (2-0) another Aaron Small? Small appeared from nowhere to go 10-0 in 2005 before disappearing again, this time without trace.

With little or no runs to play with, the pitchers are under pressure from the very first inning. But while Robinson Cano has shown signs this week of emerging from his slump, Jason Giambi continues to hit like an old has-been.

Make that an overpaid old has-been. He’s reportedly earning $23.4 million in the final year of his contract, making him the second highest paid player in baseball behind, yes, you guessed it…A-Rod. That’s the price you pay for giving big-name players like Giambi and Johnny Damon ridiculously long contracts to lure them to your ball club in the first place.

Things are so bad that Giambi, according to The Daily News, will be wearing a gold lamé, tiger-striped thong against the Mets. “I only put it on when I’m desperate to get out of a big slump,” he explains.

The report claims he shares his underwear with slumping team-mates. Spot the Yankee hitter that isn’t wearing a thong this weekend.

And so to the Mets. Their big four of José Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltrán and Carlos Delgado are all batting well below .300.

This is a team built to coast to the pennant and go all the way to the World Series. So after last season’s pathetic collapse, it’s hardly surprising that some disgruntled fans are calling for the head of manager Willie Randolph.

Like Steinbrenner and the Yankees, they want to see more bang for their buck in terms of effort. And the manner of yesterday’s 1-0 defeat by the Nats has only added to their unrest.

So who’s under more pressure this weekend – Randolph and the Mets or Girardi and the Yankees?

I’d have to say Randolph and the Mets. Girardi is in his first season; he’s inherited a group of old players and he’s not been able to field a full-strength line-up the whole season.

Any defeat at any time against the Mets is unpalatable. But just imagine what the sports phone-in shows will sound like on Monday should Johan Santana fall short tonight and the Mets lose the series? 

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

JUSTINE HENIN: SMALL IN SIZE, BIG IN STATURE

FIRST Annika Sorenstam. Then Justine Henin. But if Sorenstam’s decision to quit professional golf sent a ripple running through the world of sport, Henin’s retirement created a wave of tsunami proportions.

Just 25 years of age, Henin appeared to be in the prime of her life: No. 1 in the WTA Rankings for the last 117 weeks and coming off the most successful season of her career.

She won 63 out of 67 matches in 2007, captured the French Open for the third year running (fourth in all) and then triumphed at the US Open in September.

Reconciled with her family after years apart, Henin seemed set to dominate ladies’ tennis for years to come.

Now, less than two weeks before the start of her favorite tournament on the red clay of Roland Garros, she is walking away from the sport, vowing never to return.

So what are the reasons behind her decision and what is her tennis legacy?

At 5ft 5ins tall – or small, depending on how you look at it – Henin was at a considerable disadvantage against many of her more muscular opponents, particularly the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena.

"For her size, the greatest athlete we've ever seen"

But what Henin lacked in power, she more than made up for in mental strength. Billie Jean King once described the pocket dynamo as “for her size, the greatest athlete we’ve ever seen.”

Renowned for her one-handed backhand, fleet footedness and precise play, Henin had to work hard to stay at the top.

Her frail physique and weak immune system meant it was a constant battle to stay fit. She withdrew from this week’s Rome Open and her reduced schedule this season suggested the demands were catching up on her.

An intensely private person, Henin kept herself to herself on tour. She suffered in comparison to the vivacious, more open personality of Kim Clijsters, her fellow Belgian.

But whereas Clijsters has won only one Grand Slam tournament, Henin won seven – four French, two US and one Australian.

That dedication has come in spite of her problems off the court; her divorce from Pierre-Yves Hardenne and her long estrangement from her father, two brothers and sister following the death of her mother, Francoise, when she was 12.

It was Francoise who had taken Justine to Paris to see Steffi Graf grace the court at the French Open. She had told her mother: “One day I will play here and I will win.” Not once, but four times. 

Sadly, it seems Henin will not get another chance to complete the Career Grand Slam. Beaten twice in the final at Wimbledon, her failure to win on grass means she will probably not be ranked alongside the all-time greats such as King, Graf, Margaret Court, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

However, she will be remembered as the little girl from Belgium who could slug it out from the baseline with the giants of ladies’ tennis.




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ADIEU ANNIKA. WE'RE GOING TO MISS YOU!

SIMPLY the best female golfer ever to pick up a club. That’s Annika Sorenstam, who has decided to “step away” from competitive play at the end of this season.

Women’s golf does not enjoy the same media exposure worldwide as the men’s game, but almost everyone has heard of Sorenstam. The Swede has won 90 professional tournaments, including 72 events on the LPGA Tour, 10 of them majors. She’s been named Player of the Year no fewer than eight times and has collected the Vare Trophy (given to the player with the lowest scoring average for the season) on six occasions.

But more than that, she has been a trailblazer for her sport. The only woman to shoot 59 in tournament play, she became the first female in 58 years to compete on the men’s U.S. Tour in the 2003 Colonial tournament.

Kathy Whitworth (88) and Mickey Wright (82) may have won more times on the LPGA Tour than Annika, but not against such strong competition.

For the last decade or so, Annika has been the Tiger Woods of women’s golf. Between 2001 and 2005, she actually won more majors than Tiger – seven against five. They even sent text messages to each other as a reminder of the score between them!

GREATEST FEMALE GOLFER OF ALL TIME

Fittingly, it was Woods who led the tributes, describing Sorenstam as “the greatest female golfer of all time.”

At 37 years of age, Annika has decided to devote some time to her personal life. She is getting married next April and plans to start a family.

“I have given it my all, and it’s been fun,” she said. “I came back from injury last year and I feel healthy. I have started strong this season and I will be leaving the game on my own terms.”

Her final event will be the Dubai Ladies Masters. But she’s hoping to add to her tally of titles before then.

Usurped as the No. 1 player by Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa, Annika has battled back from injury with typical grit and determination to win three events this season, including last week’s SBS Open.

Currently No. 2 in the money list on $1,244,281, some $300,000 behind Ochoa, Annika has never settled for second best. That’s not going to change now.

“I’m a huge competitor. People that know me know I don’t settle for second. I know what to do, and I look forward to it.”

Whether Ochoa’s emergence is a factor in Annika’s decision to “retire” is a matter for debate. She has certainly never shied away from a challenge.

As well as helping establish the Solheim Cup as a meaningful competition, she has opened her own golf academy and is involved in several other ventures, including course design.

The good news for golf fans is that they can enjoy seeing Annika competing for another seven months. And who would bet against her writing a few more headlines before heading over the horizon?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

VAUNTED YANKS HAVE BECOME A SOFT TOUCH

IT AIN'T OVER till it’s over but the way things are going, it might be an idea to bring the bulldozers into Yankee Stadium six months early to remove $200 million worth of rubbish.

For so long the team everyone feared, the New York Yankees are turning into the soft touch of the American League East.

Just staying at .500 has become a major struggle – and it’s not all down to injuries and pitching problems.

Pundits who were predicting the Yankees would hit between 950 and 1,000 runs this season are no doubt revising their figures. So far, they have scored 168 runs in 39 games, which puts them on course for just under 700.

Of course, a lot of that is due to the continued absence of Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. Any club would be severely handicapped by the absence of their best batter and inspirational catcher.

Good teams, however, find a way to win in adversity. The senior players step up to the plate. And in the Yanks case, that just isn’t happening.

They’re still carrying two everyday players with a batting average under .200 – Jason Giambi (.177) and Robinson Canó (.188). Shelly Duncan, a player manager Joe Girardi was hoping he could rely on off the bench, is hitting .194.

If you’re not hitting, then you’re relying on pitching. Chien-Ming Wang is doing just fine; Mike Mussina has managed to turn his early-season form around; Darrell Rasner has won both his starts.

Pettitte has fallen short of expectations so far

Andy Pettitte, however, is not performing like a No. 2 starter. His 3-4 record and an ERA of 4.40 hardly justifies the $16 million the Yankees are paying him this season.

Pettitte is still regarded as a “big game pitcher.” Right now, the Yanks need him to be an “every game pitcher.”

Just how many more chances is Kei Igawa going to get? Surely it’s time the Yanks cut their losses and accepted he is never going to make a Major League pitcher. 

Right now, the starting rotation is like the Keystone Cops. Ian Kennedy makes one good start in Triple-A and he’s called back up. It’s no different in the bullpen. In two months, Chris Britton has been up and down no fewer than six times!

But perhaps the most worrying – and depressing – trend is that the Yankees are now a team you can kick when they’re down.

If they’re not ahead by the sixth or seven inning, forget it. They can blow a lead but they sure can’t overcome a deficit late in the game. That famous fighting spirit seems to be missing from the current line-up. 

Maybe it’s time for Girardi to start making some unpopular decisions. Losing is bad enough but when you start waving the white flag against the Tampa Bay Rays in the fourth inning, enough is enough.

The challenge facing the team is to keep the Yankees in contention until A-Rod and Posada are fit to return. Right now, they don’t look up to it.

And with a Subway Series against the Mets coming up this weekend, the hurt may have only just begun.

Monday, May 12, 2008

TEAM USA STARS IN FULHAM’S GREAT ESCAPE


FULHAM’S American contingent will again be playing their football in the Premier League next season after staging their own version of the “Great Escape.”

The west London club looked certain to be demoted from English football’s top flight when they trailed 2-0 at Manchester City two weeks ago.

But an amazing comeback resulted in them winning 3-2, they then beat relegation rivals Birmingham 2-0 at Craven Cottage, and on Saturday, a 76th-minute goal from Danny Murphy ensured survival with a 1-0 victory at Portsmouth.

That’s good news for the United States, which has no fewer than five players in Fulham first-team squad: Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, Carlos Bocanegra and Kasey Keller.

Keller, Dempsey and McBride all started the match at Portsmouth with Bocanegra on the bench. The evergreen Keller, now 38, managed to displace Antti Niemi in goal in March.

“Kasey was in the team and doing well, but then he got injured and was out for a long time,” said much-traveled manager Roy Hodgson, the man who inspired Fulham’s late rally.

“When he was fit again, we stuck with Antti at first. But when the team is conceding the odd goal, you think about whether it’s the right time to look at the other guy.”

Dempsey finished as Fulham’s top goalscorer with six in the Premier League, two more than McBride.

Time for Eddie Johnson to fulfill his potential

Hodgson will be looking for a much greater output from these two next season and he’s also hoping Johnson can finally fulfill his potential.

He will no doubt also be asking for further investment in the playing staff from chairman Mohamed Al Fayed, owner of Harrods department store.

Fulham’s win on Saturday, however, was bad news for another U.S. player, Marcus Hahnemann, one of four American goalkeepers in the Premier League (Tim Howard and Brad Friedel are the others).

It meant that Reading’s 4-0 demolition of Derby counted for nothing. After two seasons in the Premier League, Steve Coppell’s Royals were relegated along with their hosts and Birmingham.

Derby, whose team included two Americans – Eddie Lewis and sub Benny Feilhaber – finished rock bottom with just one win in 38 league fixtures and must surely rate as the worst Premier League team of all time.

These three will be replaced by West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City and the winner of the Championship play-offs for 2008-2009.

At the other end of the table, Manchester United clinched their 10th Premier League title with a 2-0 victory at Wigan. 

Runners-up Chelsea, held to a 1-1 draw by Bolton at Stamford Bridge, are now pinning their hopes of a trophy on beating United in the Champions League final in Moscow later this month.

Captain John Terry, who dislocated his elbow on Saturday, is insisting he will be fit for the final. Chelsea will be keeping their fingers crossed he makes it as they are a much more solid team with England international Terry marshaling their defense.