Ben Coley looks ahead to his favourite meeting at Cheltenham, another bullet for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to dodge, and the rest of this weekend's sport.
Little more than a month ago, I wondered whether Manchester United would 'force their current manager to suffer the ignominy of the sack after a home defeat to either Manchester City, or else Leeds, just before actual Christmas', rather than do the honourable thing in November. Well, here we are, and it's a little more complicated than perhaps I expected.
On the one hand, United were hopeless as they crashed out (one can only crash out) of the Champions League during the week and, while their group was a difficult one, the manner in which they exited was emblematic of systemic issues which had already been brought into focus once more by Paul Pogba's agent. It would be nice, wouldn't it, if at some stage it at least looked like everyone at the club was pulling in a broadly similar direction.
On the other, if United were to beat City this weekend, they would be four points ahead of their rivals after 11 games, and within two of the top. That margin would surely widen to five once Sunday finished - Spurs and Liverpool are at Palace and Fulham respectively - but United have a game in hand on that pair.
Put another way, defeat in their biggest game so far this season would leave Solskjaer on the brink; victory would confirm United as genuine title contenders. These are the margins of a ruthless sport and represent a fitting contradiction for the baby-faced assassin, as he looks to dodge bullets while firing off his own.
Football on Sporting Life
- Friday's Leeds v West Ham preview
- Saturday's Premier League preview
- Super Sunday: Fulham v Liverpool
- The rest of Sunday's match-by-match tips
- Saturday's Sporting Life Accumulator
Football on TV
- Leeds v West Ham - 2000, Sky Sports
- Wolves v Aston Villa - 1230, BT Sport
- Cardiff v Swansea - 1230, Sky Sports
- Newcastle v West Brom - 1500, Sky Sports
- Manchester City v Manchester United - 1730, Sky Sports
- Everton v Chelsea - 2000, BT Sport
- Southampton v Sheffield United - 1200, Sky Sports
- Dundee United v Rangers - 1200, Sky Sports
- Crystal Palace v Tottenham - 1415, Sky Sports
- Fulham v Liverpool - 1630, Sky Sports
- Arsenal v Burnley - 1915, Sky Sports
- Leicester v Brighton - 1915, Amazon Prime
It's my birthday on Sunday, and though I don't like to mention it, it helps to explain why this Cheltenham meeting has always been my favourite. Year after year, I would go with my old man. Now, I have a child and do not leave the house unless it is to go to the park. Prestbury is a fading memory; my currency is now Kompan.
This meeting is the best of the season at Cheltenham. I understand the unique appeal of the Festival, but I'm not mad on the crowds, the traffic, the hustle and bustle. Go there in December and you'll get much of the competitiveness if a little less of the class, as part of an experience sharpened by winter. On a bright, sunny, cold day, there really is nothing like it.
I realise this is a bit 'oh, I saw Bob Dylan at Cafe Wha?, how ghastly that you had to go to Madison Square Garden' but it's truly how I feel. Given a choice of tickets, I'm taking Caspian Caviar Gold Cup ahead of actual Gold Cup every single time, whatever the discrepancy in face value.
Saturday's edition of one of the best handicap chases of the season will see Coole Cody bid to follow up his success at the November meeting, and so will Matt Brocklebank, whose Value Bet bagged a nice winner at Sandown last weekend and another on Friday, having also been aboard the aforementioned Coole Cody at big prices.
And if you are obsessed with March, then do not despair - if Master Tommytucker wins the Caspian Caviar off 157, he may well return for either the Ryanair (25/1) or the Gold Cup (50/1). My advice though is to enjoy Saturday for precisely what it is.
Racing on Sporting Life
- Matt Brocklebank's Value Bet
- Daily selections from our racing team
- All this weekend's racing betting previews
Racing on TV
- Cheltenham - 1205-1535, Racing TV
- Fairyhouse - 1130-1522, Racing TV
- Doncaster - 1150-1515, Sky Sports Racing
- Hereford - 1212-1542, Sky Sports Racing
- Newcastle - 1345-1700, Sky Sports Racing
- Wolverhampton - 1415-2015, Sky Sports Racing
- Carlisle - 1200-1510, Racing TV
- Southwell - 1220-1530, Sky Sports Racing
- Lingfield - 1210-1520, Sky Sports Racing
Lewis Hamilton is an easy target, because he's an F1 driver with mega-money who was turned away from Wimbledon's Royal Box when he didn't wear what he was asked to, and he once described his (admittedly working-class) upbringing in Stevenage as having risen from the slums, and he genuinely thinks he's a budding musician, and then there's that time he pure bullied a child relative on the internet. All of this, I suspect, you know.
These days, it's increasingly hard not to admire him in parallel. The list of his career achievements is now sufficiently long and varied to begrudgingly accept that he is quite good at driving. And he has placed himself at the forefront of sport's battle for racial equality, and the wider conversations that ought to provoke, in a way that certain others - and yes, I am looking directly at Tiger Woods here - have sadly not. He is to be respected for that and, one day, when he is knighted, it will have been earned by both his actions and his words.
But we must never, never let respect and admiration get in the way of enjoying ourselves at the expense of a sportsperson who does take themselves quite seriously and that's it's especially frustrating that we were so close to the jackpot last weekend - George Russell winning the Sakhir Grand Prix, having replaced a Covid-stricken Hamilton at the eleventh hour.
Russell, from the favelas of King's Lynn, was driving in his 16th race, but his first in a car capable of winning. That he would surely done had Mercedes not scuppered him with the sort of egregious error which would've left Hamilton spitting. Was the man himself behind it? Did he, from his isolation station in Bahrain, order the code red? You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want Hamilton on that grid - you need Hamilton on that grid.
And there he shall return for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this week, presumably driving the fastest car nice and fast.
Formula One on TV
- Abu Dhabi Grand Prix qualifying - 1300, Sky Sports F1
- Abu Dhabi Grand Prix race - 1310, Sky Sports F1
Here comes Dubai down the motorway
Over in Dubai, the European Tour season ends with the DP World Tour Championship where one man will also win what we used to call the Order of Merit. Every great of the Tour has won this accolade at some stage, and it's a sign of the times that there is a chance one of the best players on the PGA Tour wins it on Sunday, with Patrick Reed the man to catch at the beginning of the week - for all he'll likely need to win the tournament to stay there.
Reed is a divisive figure at the best of times and I must admit that I struggle with the constant reminders that he, unlike most of his compatriots and plenty of Europeans, has shown his support of the European Tour. In 2020, an admittedly fragmented year, that means taking a meaty cheque to miss the cut in Saudi Arabia, playing at Wentworth, and playing here. In 2019, he played one event when the PGA Tour season was in full swing - the Saudi International again, where he's paid handsomely for merely showing up. Once the more important PGA Tour season finished, he chose to come over to the European Tour and battle for the Race to Dubai, which is great.
According to some, he does it for the love of travel, to broaden his horizons; and yet he didn't venture to Cyprus to learn about the goddess Aphrodite, nor take a safari around Kruger National Park at the Alfred Dunhill Championship. You won't find him in Kenya, either, but he has turned up for the Hong Kong Open (sponsored by UBS) and the European Open (sponsored by Porsche). Travel. It's all about the travel.
I'm glad Reed wants to win the Race to Dubai, and that he wants to play on other tours, but could do without it being coloured as an act of charity for which we should be grateful. When Tony Finau ventured to Hong Kong back in January, despite the fact it was no longer European Tour-sanctioned, I don't recall anyone musing that he must want to show his support for the Asian Tour. Instead, we assumed that he had been paid to be there. We don't say that Tommy Fleetwood's appearance in the Honda Classic is a show of support for the PGA Tour, either.
Reed has not been paid to be in Dubai, but there is a significant accolade and a big bonus pool to play for. He is there for purely sporting reasons. He has no affinity for the European Tour, he doesn't owe it anything, and its his single-minded pursuit of success which has helped make him what he is. There is so much to admire about Reed the player, without having to bow to some kind of philanthropic donation of his time and energy. He's here to win. I hope he finishes second to the aforementioned Fleetwood but, at the time of writing, he is clear at the top.
Golf on Sporting Life
Golf on TV
- DP World Tour Championship round three - 0700-1300, Sky Sports Golf
- US Women's Open round three - 1600, Sky Sports Golf
- DP World Tour Championship round four - 0630-1230, Sky Sports Golf
- US Women's Open round three - 1600, Sky Sports Golf
It's been a strange fortnight for boxing, with two British fights failing to produce what had been expected of them, to varying degrees. No doubt it was satisfying to watch Joe Joyce release his spiteful jab with an archer's accuracy, forcing Daniel Dubois into retreat, but the fight had been close until then and felt as though the best was still to come. A week later, Anthony Yarde played the role of dumped 12-year-old to perfection, mouthing 'how' as the judges' scorecards revealed he had lost to Lyndon Arthur. It seems the answer could be found in his corner, where Yarde's coach displayed an interesting relationship with reality during those short, vital moments together between rounds.
The result was the total absence of a plan, which made for frustrating viewing even in acknowledgement that reacting and adapting quickly during an actual fight must be tricky. Yarde therefore wound up losing despite feeling as though he'd been the aggressor, which he was. Alas his opponent was deemed to be far more accurate and was the only one capable of demonstrating that his formula had been calculated. It is supposed to be the sweet science, after all.
This weekend should help release all those frustrations, because when Anthony Joshua walks to the ring, the bar which represents the minimum expectation of drama and entertainment is all but cleared. Hopefully, Saturday's clash with Kubrat Pulev is a key step towards meeting Tyson Fury, and it's one Joshua should take in his stride for all that his opponent is clearly dangerous.
Chris Oliver - who very much predicted Joyce's dismantling of Dubois and landed another winner last weekend - reckons that this fight would've been a bigger draw three years ago, when a less assured AJ might have brawled with the Bulgarian who stands opposite. Now, after a chastening defeat to Andy Ruiz in their first meeting, the Watford man should demonstrate the kind of tactical nous that Yarde failed to, and he's fancied to win the fight sometime after the beginning of the seventh round.
Boxing on Sporting Life
Boxing on TV
- Tommy Frank v Harvey Horn - 2000, Eurosport 2
- Sam Eggington v Ashley Theophane - 2200, Channel 5