Saturday 10 December 2016

10 sporting storylines to look forward to in 2016

Tom Rooney

Published 31/12/2015 | 19:24

Katie Taylor
Katie Taylor

While last year was far from mundane, 2016’s considerably more concentrated sporting calendar should make for even better viewing.

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January transfer window

It’s nigh on impossible to remember a Premier League season when the vagaries of football were more evident. Even the most revered of oracles could not have predicted that Leicester City, led by Claudio Ranieri, would be resting comfortably at the summit of the table at the halfway point of the campaign.

Or, that Guus Hiddink would be reprising his role as caretaker boss at Chelsea, after Jose Mourinho had presided over the worst title defence in living memory. It’s made for compelling viewing and all we can do is hope for more of the same.

Come Saturday (January 2) the transfer window will open for the next month and, with so much television money flying around, there’s no reason that there won't be transactions abound.

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If the Foxes are to sustain their seismic title charge, they must augment their squad at the very least as a contingency plan for if, or when, the seemingly inexhaustible brio and form of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté begins to wane.

It will be curious to see whether Roman Abramovich will release funds to Hiddink - Alex Teixeira's €40m switch from Shakhtar Donestsk is allegedly set- to replenish a clearly tired or, perhaps more accurately, indifferent group of players.

Then, of course, there are the same old woes. Liverpool need quality defenders, Arsenal - a pit-bull to buttress their back four, while Man City seem, at this point, poorly equipped at either end of the pitch.

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Man United feel beyond help, and yarns detailing mammoth bids for Robert Lewandowski are fanciful at best, though there are those in greater disrepair.

Aston Villa manager Rémi Garde has apparently been promised resources from Randy Lerner as the midlands side stare into the relegation abyss, though the Frenchman would be best advised not to hold his breath. Moreover, Alan Pardew has made brash proclamations that Crystal Palace will acquire elite talent in their pursuit of a Champions League spot.

Where to next for the titans of European club management?  

As Louis Van Gaal stormed out of a press conference populated by a media he could apparently no longer stand the sight of, his already tenuous tenure at the helm for Manchester United seemed all but over.

Three days later, as United’s winless streak dating back to November 21 was extended by Stoke at the Britannia Stadium, the bookies paid out on the Dutchman’s sacking and Jose Mourinho’s confirmation as United’s fourth manager since May 2013 looked a foregone conclusion.

However, Van Gaal has remained in situ, and United’s periodically ambitious performance during their stalemate against Chelsea was, at the very least, mildly encouraging.

If it were to prove a false dawn, and it might, then the Old Trafford board are likely to take action and make an official move for Mourinho, apparently now a target of his former club Real Madrid and president Florentino Perez, who are no longer enamoured by Raphael Benitez, or so we’re told.

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Then there’s the small matter of Pep Guardiola; the object of every obscenely wealthy club’s desires. Except, that is, Bayern Munich. They and Guardiola will part company at the end of the season, brining an end to an era which saw the continuation of their domestic dominance though, thus far, a failure to do likewise in Europe. The reins will be passed to the criminally underrated Carlo Ancelotti.

With that being said, the Spaniard will have multiple suitors. There had been a consensus that Manchester City, with their Ex Barcelona contingent in corporate management, would handily secured his services.

Yet, Chelsea are now in the market for a new long term leader, as too could be United and, indeed, Arsenal; should Arsene Wegner finally steer them to a first title since 2004 before making his way to boardroom.

Unlike Guardiola, Mourinho’s options look limited, given his penchant for unbridled rancour everywhere he goes. While Van Gaal, should he be relieved of his position, may take up a post with the Dutch FA or do what his wife has asked of him countless times and retire.

Ireland’s showing in the Six Nations

It’s not stretch to say that Ireland’s latest World Cup quarter final stumble was the most crushing of all.

Why? Because we dared not to just hope, but also to expect. Under Joe Schmidt’s guidance it felt as though no stone would be left unturned and, that the back-to-back Championship wins would prove a stepping stone to the holy grail of Irish rugby; a place in the final four of the game’s greatest showcase.

The dubious assumption was as follows; win the group, avoid the All Blacks and then the old South American foe, Argentina, would capitulate under the scrutiny of Schmidt’s towering intellect. Of course, Daniel Hourcade’s dynamic acolytes savagely put a crocked green machine to the sword.

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Things have hardly improved since. The traditional flagship provinces of Leinster and Munster are mired in mediocrity, Paul O’Connell belongs to the south of France, Johnny Sexton has lost his mojo and the injury toll is mounting.

What changes will be borne of the nebulous internal review the IRFU are conducting? Has Schmidt deemed his safety-first game plan as myopic, and shall he blood in tyros such as the Stuarts, McCloskey, Olding, Josh Van der Flier and  the dynamic Garry Ringrose?

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England and France both suffered greater World Cup humiliation and have drafted in two crafty coaches of their own in Eddie Jones and the great Toulouse mastermind, Guy Noves. Scotland continue make strides under Vern Cotter, while Warren Gatland is always a threat. Despite contesting the championship for a decade and a half Italy remain the whipping boy.

No Northern Hemisphere side made the penultimate round of the World Cup and there will be a palpable surge for wrongs to be righted, so an unprecedented three in-a-row may beyond the realms of possibility. Wales come to Dublin for the opener on February 7.

After that, there’s only a three test summer tour of South Africa to look forward to, which is followed by the visit of New Zealand and Australia in November.

The rise and rise of Conor McGregor

The newly crowned UFC featherweight champion is undoubtedly the most divisive figure in Irish sport. Though, to be fair, the 27-year-old polarizes on a global scale. However, love him or loathe him, McGregor, through an amalgam of near preternatural fighting ability and star power, has ascended to the top of the MMA world. And beyond, in case you haven’t noticed.

His earning capacity, particularly when considering his sport of choice, is almost unheard of and is only set to grow. Lucrative deals with the UFC, sponsors such as Reebok and Monster may prove just the tip of the iceberg for the braggadocios Crumlin boy, with Hollywood likely to try and harness his veneer of invincibility as they did Ronda Rousey's.

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He has been promised a shot at the lightweight title should he so chose to look to the division for greater challenges and spoils and, in the bracket he now lords over, a potential rematch with Jose Aldo or a long-awaited showdown with Frankie Edgar also loom. Whatever happens, we’ll hear about to it the point of distraction but McGregor is entitled to more reverence in his country of birth.

What will Tyson Fury do or say next?

Fury is by no means the first athlete to allow some ill-held opinions leak from his mind and into the public consciousness, though his rants on abortion, homosexuality and women have completely overshadowed his exploits in the ring.

On November 28 in Dusseldorf, the 27-year-old dethroned Wladimir Klitschko via unanimous decision to claim the WBA, IBF, WBO, IBO and The Ring heavyweight crowns, though his previous rants meant he had little time to revel in the great achievement.

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Within 10 days he was stripped of the IBF title as the immediate rematch clause with Klitschko meant the Manchester native could not face the body’s mandatory challenger, Vyacheslav Glazkov.

When he was shortlisted for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the public outcry was defeating and Fury cut an unperturbed figure throughout the ordeal. A compelling figure with reasonable boxing ability, the undisputed champion of politically incorrect should be one of the must-see figures of 2016.

Will managers make the difference out west?

After a winter of player unrest in Mayo and Galway, which led to the resignations of Noel Connelly/Pat Holmes and Anthony Cunningham, there is huge pressure in the west to deliver success in 2016.

Both have come agonisingly close to ending their respective famines, Mayo's stretching back to 1951 and Galway's to 1988, in recent years, but that task now lays with Stephen Rochford and Tribesmen boss Micheál Donoghue.

There's no doubt both counties have the talent but with 13 All-Ireland final losses combined since their last triumph, the toughest job may be to instil a winning mentality. But if both can achieve this, the west may truly be awake in September. (Michael Verney)

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Can Donal Óg help the Banner bounce back?

IT seems like a long time since Clare scaled the hurling heights in 2013 with perfomances in the past two seasons resulting in just one championship win and relegation to Division 1B for 2016.

Davy Fitzgerald is under pressure to get the Banner dining at hurling's top table again and the radical step of recruiting former goalkeeping rival Donal Óg Cusack has raised many eyebrows throughout the country.

It looks like the last throw of the dice from Fitzgerald but if it pays off, it will be heralded a masterstroke. Optimism is already high and after a brief period in the wilderness, it will be interesting to see if Cusack can help Clare bounce back. (Michael Verney)

Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane seek to lead Ireland into unchartered territory at the Euros

It’s been far too many years since the consensus feeling towards a Republic of Ireland side was one of such unbridled glee. But, in the latter stages of the charge for France, the pieces of O’Neill’s vision came together and his unpolished rabble morphed into a cohesive, cardio-vascular machine before our eyes.

Shane Long’s winner against Germany at the Aviva and the tour-de-force given by Jon Walters at the same venue in the second leg of the playoff with Bosnia & Herzegovina will live long in the memory. But it’s the selfless ethos which has blossomed over the past 12 months that make this squad a handful for any side, even those of a far more refined calibre.

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The draw was far from ideal but entirely manageable according to O’Neill. Belgium, the number one side in the world, Italy and Sweden must all be navigated to one degree or another, starting with the Scandinavian outfit in Pairs on June 13.

Anything other than the humiliation which ensued four years ago will be palatable, though the former law student from Derry has made dreamers of us again.

Ireland set to amass a considerable medal haul in Rio in the ring and on the fairway

Come August the GAA Championship will have to share the box office with the Olympic Games. As golf makes its first appearance in the games since 1904, Team Ireland will count Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell among her ranks. Unquestionably, the former’s presence will garner a massive viewership as he seeks to add a gold medal to his incredible haul of accolades.

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Even without the erstwhile Billy Walsh, Ireland’s pugilists should make a considerable dent in the medal allocation department. The qualification quota for representatives is yet to be filled, but those confirmed are practiced hands.

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Having won bronze in the previous two games, light-flyweight Paddy Barnes is amply placed to better those feats. Michael Conlan, the first Irish man to win World Championship gold, will be difficult to bet against earning a medal of that hue in the bantamweight bracket.

Katie Taylor, lest we forgot her, will surely be the main attraction. She stole the show in London as women boxed in the games for the first time and then finally secured the Olympic gold medal she strived so long for. In June she won the lightweight title at the European Games and will be a hot favourite to retain her title in Rio.

Led by Darren Clarke, can Team Europe make it four Ryder Cups in a row?

For the second time in as many tournaments, an Irish captain will be at helm as a selection of Europe’s best golfers take on their American counterparts at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota.

In 2014, Paul McGinley steered the Europeans to a hat-trick of consecutive titles, and was one of a five man selection panel who chose Clarke to succeed him. The 47-year-old Clarke will be pitting his wits against Davis Love III, who was part of a Task Force assembled by the PGA of America to establish why Team Europe had achieved such dominance in recent competitions.

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Running from September 30 - October 2, both outfits may contain newly minted Olympic medallists, while Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington will surely be aiming to qualify for Clarke’s team after both failed to make the cut last time out. 

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