Sunday, 28 December 2014

5 things we learned from Newcastle v Everton

Newcastle eased the pressure on manager Alan Pardew on Sunday with a 3-2 victory over Everton that ended a four-match losing streak in all competitions.
With Moussa Sissoko and Cheick Tiote excellent in midfield Newcastle dominated the second half but should be thankful the visitors did not add to Kevin Mirallas’s late strike.

Still, should Papiss Cisse have been sent off? And where do Everton go now with a growing injury list? Let’s take a look at what we learned.

Newcastle start slowly and peak late once more

19 matches into the season Newcastle still haven’t scored in the first half an hour of a Premier League match. Surely this is the kind of statistic that will come back to haunt the Geordies. Still, once Cisse cancelled out Arouna Kone’s opener - his first goal since joining Everton in August 2013 - a clever finish from Ayoze Perez and a chip from Jack Colback put Newcastle ahead in the second half. Despite Mirallas making it 3-2 the hosts still created chances through Perez and Sissoko, while they have now scored 62% of their league goals in the last 30 minutes of play.

Cisse was lucky to stay on the pitch

The Senegal international was a nuisance all match, dropping deep to provide flick-ons and also equalising with an acrobatic half-volley after Michael Williamson returned a cross from the right. Still, he should have been sent off when he appeared to elbow Seamus Coleman in Everton’s penalty area. Referee Craig Pawson, who couldn’t have missed the incident, took no action but the Football Association could punish the forward even if Pawson doesn’t mention the event in his post-match report.

Pardew can take heart from Rolls-Royce midfield

Unruly strikers aside, Pardew will take a lot of pride from his midfielders’ performances. The former Crystal Palace player started as a leading candidate to take up the manager’s spot at Selhurst Park but if he stays in the north-east, Sissoko will be crucial to Pardew’s revival. The French international’s through-balls set alarm bells ringing all match and he now boasts a 79% pass completion rate over the course of the season. Tiote was also productive with two assists, while the ever-improving Colback put his side in front like a predatory centre-forward, finishing with the outside of his boot.

Martinez needs fringe players to improve – and quickly

With seven changes made from Friday’s 1-0 reverse to Stoke, when goalkeeper Tim Howard and centre-back Phil Jagielka both went off injured, it was always going to be a tough ask for Roberto Martinez’s Everton side. Joel Robles in goal failed to command his area at corners while left-back Luke Garbatt, at 21-years-old making his first Premier League appearance, played with adventure despite losing the ball on occasion.  Because of other long-term absentees such as Steven Pienarr, these players need to step up particularly if Martinez keeps his job throughout the January transfer window.

Ross Barkley is still maturing as a player

As if five losses in seven league games wasn’t bad enough, the Everton boss has also been criticised recently for playing Ross Barkley on the wing, stifling his ability to open pockets of space and thread balls through. The 21-year-old thrives when driving from the centre-circle but has struggled this season after returning from a disappointing World Cup with England. Barkley sliced a clearance into Colback’s path for Newcastle’s second and he was overrun in midfield by the combative Sissoko. It’s times like these when Martinez needs his big players, especially Barkley, firing on all cylinders.
By Alistair Hendrie


Saturday, 27 December 2014

UFC Fight Night London: A pimetime slot is exactly what the UFC needs

Channel 5’s decision to show live coverage of UFC Fight Night London on Saturday is a brave roll of the dice, but it’s a necessary move to grow the profile of MMA

The broadcaster will screen the show, headlined by Croydon’s Jimi Manuwa against Stockholm’s Alexander Gustafsson, from 9-11pm in a landmark moment for the UFC – this is the promotion’s first show to air live on free-to-view television in the UK. It's an interesting proposition.

You only need to look at Channel 5's track record in combat sports, particularly with heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury, who drew 1,500,000 viewers for his war with Steve Cunningham in April 2013.

It was perhaps that exposure that got the Manchester slugger a meeting with David Haye before “The Hayemaker” twice pulled out due to injuries .

Meanwhile, it’s a proven theory that fight sports go hand-in-hand with a terrestrial, primetime Saturday audience. Remember the early 90s when ITV, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank became compulsive family viewing?

That kind of platform is important to promote MMA further, hopefully to the point where our world-class talent – the likes of Manuwa and London’s Brad Pickett (both on Saturday’s card) – can grace the back pages.

Garry Cook, UFC executive vice-president and EMEA managing director, told me this week: “I’ve got to give it to Channel 5, they came to us and said: “We think there’s a place for boxing or UFC on a Saturday night. Although it’s new territory for both of us, we’re going to work hard and make it work.

“It needs to be a partnership though: if Channel 5 gets great ratings, that’s a success for them. But if they also tell the fighters’ stories, give it some context and provide education, that’s a success for us too.”

Cook makes a good point about that golden Saturday slot. Original dramas dominate Saturday night’s terrestrial viewing, while ITV are sticking with The Jonathan Ross Show for now.

And with Sky Sports offering a La Liga game between lowly Granada and Villarreal as an alternative to the UFC, the core 18-34 audience may well be on the sofa cheering for Brit star Manuwa.

Still, with any business plan, there are always stumbling blocks. Is the wider general public ready for mixed martial arts?

Think back to England’s last UFC showcase in October – yes, it was a great event, but what might happen if Gustafsson-Manuwa ends as a freak no-contest like Ross Pearson-Melvin Guillard?

With a broader audience watching – many of whom may be first-time viewers - you would hope the evening avoids that kind of setback.

But Cook countered: “Having been around sport for 25 years, the thing I love is its unpredictability. That kind of thing provides both fear and excitement and MMA in particular is so unpredictable; in combat sports it can go either way and that’s what makes it great.

“With the Channel 5 deal we want to bring the energy and excitement from the event to the audience at home. Paul Dunthorne [Chief Operating Officer at Channel 5] and his team have been magnificent and they agree that it’s not just about staging the broadcasts; it’s about educating the general public about the sport.

“London’s always been a big market for us and we always feel it’s important to come back to the main cities, the big arenas... we want to keep that consistency and then the audience will grow. And with our Channel 5 link-up, lo and behold, hopefully we’ll have over a million viewers on Saturday night.”

By Alistair Hendrie. Originally posted on

UFC 181: Lawler-MacDonald and five fights to make after a big weekend

Robbie Lawler set the record straight on Saturday by outpointing Johny Hendricks at UFC 181 to take the welterweight title, avenging his earlier loss to 'Big Rigg' in their March war.

'Ruthless' forced the pace early – perhaps trying to catch the judges’ attention – before a late rally of punches and front kicks helped him win by scores of 49-46 and 48-47 against 47-48.

Meanwhile, as Anthony Pettis submitted Gilbert Melendez with a guillotine choke in round two of their lightweight title fight, let’s take a look at six potential scraps which could happen after another weekend of action.

Robbie Lawler v Rory MacDonald

It’s incredible to think that, at 25, Rory MacDonald has already built a 9-2 record in the Octagon.

Now that his Tristar MMA team-mate Georges St. Pierre is out of the picture, it’s about time Rory got a title shot.

The British Columbia native lost to Lawler on the cards last year, but MacDonald has since dominated Tarec Saffiedine and Tyron Woodley, while his leg kicks are arguably the best in the 170lbs division.

Johny Hendricks v Tarec Saffiedine/Matt Brown

It’s incredible to think that, at 25, Rory MacDonald has already built a 9-2 record in the Octagon.

Now that his Tristar MMA team-mate Georges St. Pierre is out of the picture, it’s about time Rory got a title shot.

The British Columbia native lost to Lawler on the cards last year, but MacDonald has since dominated Tarec Saffiedine and Tyron Woodley, while his leg kicks are arguably the best in the 170lbs division.

Anthony Pettis v Khabib Nurmagomedov

After defeating Melendez, Donald Cerrone and Benson Henderson (twice), Pettis stands as the best lightweight on earth by quite some way.

However, Nurmagomedov rests at 5-0 in the UFC after displaying an explosive blend of throws, chokes and judo prowess. In his May 2013 decision over Abel Trujillo he completed 21 takedowns, while he recently told MMA Fighting that Pettis is “scared” to fight him.

'Showtime' told the same site he’d “never heard of” the Russian. Nice.

Eddie Alvarez v Gilbert Melendez

Staying on the 155bs scene, there are plenty of competitors ranked between Melendez, the No. 1 contender, and Eddie Alvarez, now standing at No. 11.

Now that both are finally competing on the biggest stage of them all – the UFC – this match-up could happen at the top half of a marquee card in 2015. Expect toe-to-toe action if these fan-favourites meet.

Tony Ferguson v Jim Miller

Tony Ferguson is another man making waves in the lightweight division.

At UFC 181 he stormed back in round two and submitted Trujillo – no mean feat – with a patient, well-executed rear naked choke.

Jim Miller is available and waiting, so that bout would make sense. The New Jersey fighter is versatile with unbreakable cardio, but at 5 foot 8 could he make room for his own strikes against the rangy, 6 foot Ferguson?

Travis Browne v Mark Hunt

Heavyweight 'Hapa' Browne returned to form on Saturday by stopping Brendan Schaub with punches from back mount in round one.

After breaking his left hand in defeat to Fabricio Werdum in April - also hurting his ribs and nose – the Glendale Fighting Club man cut off the cage with intent, using his reach and length to punish Schaub.

How about a battle with rejuvenated 40-year-old Hunt? Strikers’ paradise indeed.

By Alistair Hendrie

Originally posted on

Frampton ready to take the IBF super-bantamweight title from Kiko Martinez

Carl Frampton is eager to settle a score with Leo Santa Cruz as he prepares for his first world title challenge, on Saturday in Belfast, against IBF super bantamweight champion Kiko Martinez.

After defeating Martinez in 2013 , Frampton was all set for a clash with Santa Cruz until the WBC champion’s promoters, Golden Boy, turned on the silent treatment, “His team didn’t want it – it’s that simple,” said Frampton, deep in training at McGuigan’s Gym in Battersea.

“After I won my WBC eliminator against Hugo Cazares [by second round knockout in April] I think it spooked them a bit. Before that they were really keen and my manager Barry McGuigan was in talks with some very powerful people. 
But after I fought Cazares they turned to radio silence. Boxing is full of politics but Golden Boy is a huge company with a lot of influence so they could have taken the fight if they really wanted it.”

Frampton, 27, claimed he was “shocked” when Martinez accepted a rematch, especially considering how he punished the Spaniard over nine rounds to take his European title in February 2013.

“Although I’m surprised I’m very happy he’s taken the fight,” he said. “There’s a lot of history there and in terms of the Belfast public and the demand, this is a much bigger fight than Santa Cruz.
Martinez said he had some personal problems when we met before but to be honest, he would say that: he has to have some excuse. I read that he’s clinging on to how he perforated my eardrum in round four. I boxed on for five rounds after that and knocked him out, so if he thinks he can hurt me he’s wrong.”
The man from Tigers Bay added, “I plan on hitting him hard in the first few rounds and from then on he’ll remember what happened last time, because I hurt him a few times and then he was stopped. I’m assuming and thinking this is going to be a tough fight but it’s one I’ve prepared for.”

Still, Martinez has since regrouped to win the IBF title from Johnathan Gonzalez, going on to dominate Jeffery Mathebula and Hozumi Hasegawa in his first defences. 
And while the Alicante man famously smashed Bernard Dunne inside a round in Dublin in 2007, it will be a tough ask for him to repeat the trick in front of 16,000 Belfast fans at a temporary stadium in the Titanic Quarter.

“I keep trying to imagine what it’s going to look like,” said Frampton. “I just think it’s going to look unbelievable. It’s a very historic setting with the slip where the Titanic was built and you can actually see it from my old house in Tigers Bay.
“Whenever we have 9,000 fans at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena it sounds unbelievable, but with 16,000 it’s going to be even better. A lot of people have worked hard to make this happen – the government have put their hands in their pockets too, so it’s very humbling.”
With that kind of pressure on his shoulders, how does Frampton stay calm? Does he look to his mentor, the revered McGuigan, for advice on how to deal with such fanfare?

Ever grounded, the Northern Irishman answered, “I’m not doing anything differently than if I was working an average 9-5 job, and if people like that, I like it. Barry’s a good man and gives me advice about everything, not just dealing with pressure. I like to think I’m pretty approachable so I’d rather people in the streets speak to me than not.”
If Frampton does grab a world title at the first time of asking, perhaps the likes of Santa Cruz, British rival Scott Quigg and Cuban magician Guillermo Rigondeaux will come calling. 
“I don’t want these guys to put me on the backburner but you’ve got to carry on. Once I’ve got a world title the bigger fights will be there to make and there won’t be any stumbling blocks. The ball’s in our court once we beat Martinez.” 

By Alistair Hendrie - originally posted on

Friday, 26 December 2014

5 things we learned from Arsenal-QPR

Alexis Sanchez was the star of the show once more as Arsenal defeated Queens Park Rangers 2-1, seeing off a late scare after Oliver Giroud was sent off for violent conduct. 
The Chilean magician – who missed an early penalty – nevertheless scored the opener and assisted Tomas Rosicky’s second, although the home side were forced to sweat thanks to Charlie Austin’s spot-kick.

With that, the Gunners stay in sixth while QPR remain pointless away after losing all nine of their trips this season. Let’s look at what we discovered from tonight’s action.

Giroud should know better
The Arsenal striker showed petulance beyond his experience when headbutting QPR’s Nedum Onuoha for a straight red card. He lashed out when Onuoha took exception to Giroud racing into a 50-50 challenge with Rob Green. You wouldn’t normally expect it from such a well-versed player. Giroud is 28-years-old, showed discipline to return early from an ankle injury last month, and also scored for France at the World Cup against Switzerland. Yes, football demands a steely mentality, but Giroud has been around long enough to know better.

Sanchez can stand up and be counted
Once Arsenal were reduced to ten men the dogged South American was an inspiration, holding the ball up and weaving through traffic to lay off Rosicky on the right who made it 2-0. Sanchez was always willing to dribble into small pockets of space, making room for his team-mates, while his timing and pace of passes was exceptional. His opener – a hanging, diving header from Kieran Gibbs’s cross – marked his tenth goal of the Premier League season, while he touched the ball 79 times, second only to team-mate Santi Cazorla on 99.

Wenger could have a problem upfront
The winger's success was because he was allowed to drop deep and roam, playing through balls for Danny Welbeck up front as well as ghosting into the box. But with Giroud now suspended for the matches against West Ham, Southampton and Hull, manager Arsene Wenger is without an in-form centre-forward. Welbeck, who always bristles with creativity, is nevertheless without a goal in his last five matches, while Lukas Podolski lacks minutes. Will Wenger sacrifice Sanchez and ask him to lead the line, or will he take a punt on Podolski or even Joel Campbell?

Austin could show Sanchez how to take a penalty

Sanchez didn’t have it all his own way however – after being fouled by Armand Traore his resultant penalty was saved by Green. He passed it too close to the middle and his international team-mate Eduardo Vargas even did Green a favour by signalling to dive to the right. Conversely, Charlie Austin’s spot-kick for the visitors, after Mathieu Debuchy clipped Junior Hoilett, was driven with pace and power. It marked the Englishman’s twelfth goal of the season, not to mention his second penalty after his strike in last weekend’s 3-2 comeback against West Brom.

QPR should get back to basics away from home

Austin’s effort was only Rangers’ fourth away goal this season and their mentality on their travels is becoming a problem. Too often in the first half Harry Redknapp’s side were caught with 11 men behind the ball, their only outlet being a solo run from Vargas or Jordan Mutch in midfield. It was only once Hoilett and Leroy Fer came on - finally adding some width - that QPR started to prosper. Once they focused on getting the ball out wide quickly, setting up chance after chance for Bobby Zamora, the visitors started to play with more abandon rather than sitting back and accepting pressure.
By Alistair Hendrie


Sunday, 21 December 2014

Striking problems persist for Rodgers and Liverpool

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers must have breathed a sigh of relief when Martin Skrtel rose to head home his side’s equaliser in their 2-2 draw against Arsenal on Sunday. The Merseysiders’ lack of zest and options upfront are well documented – Daniel Sturridge is sidelined with a thigh injury - and although the Reds drew level after having Fabio Borini sent off, their profligacy in front of goal is still concerning.

With only 21 goals this season they rank as the second-lowest scorers in the top half of the Premier League behind Newcastle, one place ahead of them in ninth. No Liverpool striker has scored a league goal since November 23rd when Rickie Lambert, the underused England international, notched a consolation in a 3-1 slump at Crystal Palace.

Indeed, more worryingly, Rodgers is exiling his centre-forwards. Lambert and Borini came on late after starting on the bench. Once Borini came on he was dismissed for two silly yellows within sixteen minutes, plus Mario Balotelli was suspended. So why not reshuffle in the January transfer window? A run of three wins in twelve games, across all competitions, suggests Rodgers might not last until then.

The Northern Irishman has always championed fast, free-flowing, attacking football and against Arsenal, like the 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford last weekend, he opted for a front-line based on technique rather than force. Raheem Sterling was flanked by Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, and although Coutinho grabbed the opener in style, Liverpool wasted their chances. Of their 27 shots 10 were on target, while Arsenal were more economical with three on target – including two goals – from seven attempts.  

You have to feel for Sterling though. The little winger is quick, nimble-footed and can unlock defences with one burst of those muscular legs. Rodgers has a problem however: Sterling is not a striker, nor is he a natural finisher. The 20-year-old repeatedly shot straight at Wojciech Szczesny, showing his lack of guile when bearing down on goal. Against Manchester United he lost a similar battle with David De Gea. Scoring goals is something that comes naturally to some players - you either have it or you don’t. Thierry Henry, the former Arsenal and France magician who retired this week, had it, but Sterling doesn’t.

Still, Rodgers can be thankful that upcoming fixtures against Burnley, Leicester and Swansea – and indeed AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup Third Round – might provide Lambert and company with more of a chance to hit the net. What is worrying, though, is Liverpool’s recent slide to tenth in the table.

Compare their situation with the leading pack. Chelsea, who visit Stoke tomorrow, are top on goal difference ahead of Manchester City – who are missing Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic through injury. But City have rallied together as a group, defeating Leicester and Crystal Palace without their goal-getters by an aggregate score of 4-0. Manuel Pellegrini’s side are settled. They have blooded in new signings to remain a cohesive unit - unlike Liverpool who are going backwards after last summer’s extravagant, scattergun signings. And then there’s Manchester United in third. Falcao, the Colombian assassin, returned from injury on Saturday against Aston Villa to score United’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw.

In that sense the Christmas period – throwing up three Premier League fixtures in seven days - could be make or break for Rodgers. The former Reading and Swansea boss has a tough job on his hand as well as the pressure of coaxing the best out of Balotelli. While Lambert has struggled and Borini will never be first pick, it seems the only question is how far Liverpool and Rodgers will slip by the time the year is out.   

By Alistair Hendrie