Eamonn Sweeney: A slow bicycle race to the summit
The weakest Premier League in years has its consolations. There's a more exciting title race for one thing, with nine points covering the top eight teams, six of whom have a decent chance of winning it, and Leicester City atop them all.
It also gave us an unusually meaningful week six of the Champions League group stages, with three of the four Premier League sides going into the final round of games needing a result to go through. By the close of play in those key matches the score stood at two out of three which, as those of us schooled in the slow sets of the 1980s will remember, ain't bad.
After the dire start to the campaign and some bumpy patches along the way, getting three teams into the last 16 must count as something of an achievement for the Premier League. The Bundesliga and Serie A could only manage two each, while Paris St Germain will be Ligue 1's sole representative. But while the quantity is definitely there, quality is a different matter, with the weakest of the three qualifiers from La Liga, Atletico Madrid, looking better than Manchester City, the Premier League's strongest.
City and Chelsea's presence in the seeded half of the draw does give the Premier League a good chance of getting two teams into the last eight, providing neither of them draw Paris St Germain tomorrow and Chelsea don't draw Juventus. But it's hard to see much joy for the English teams after that: light years separate them from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and the 2007-08 campaign which saw the league provide three of the last four teams seems as far away now as some artefact from a long-lost civilization.
For all that, City deserve credit for coming out on top of a genuinely difficult group. It ranks as a personal triumph for Manuel Pellegrini, who had the look of a dead man walking during the second half of the last Premier League season. It confirmed the suspicion that were City to fire on all cylinders on even a reasonably regular basis, they could win the Premier League with something in hand. Tuesday night's win over Borussia Monchengladbach was to some degree an emblematic Manchester City performance, lassitude and carelessness in the first half eventually redeemed when the team opened up in the second half and revealed the power they have at their disposal.
Chelsea have also failed to repeat their European form in domestic football this season but there the disparity has been so great as to suggest that something more sinister may be going on. You don't have to be particularly cynical to feel that the home defeat by Bournemouth indicated that certain key players want to get rid of Mourinho, while the utterly different display against Porto suggests they want to still have something serious to play for under his successor.
Yet it was the performances of Arsenal and Manchester United which were the most intriguing and also the most revealing about where both clubs are right now. There is an idea abroad that there's a somewhat steelier cast than usual to the Gunners this term. You could argue that this has arisen merely because the struggles of their main rivals have been making Arsenal look better by default, yet the 3-0 win away to Olympiakos was undeniably one of the outstanding performances of the group stages.
Not only did Arsene Wenger's team produce it when the need was greatest, they did so against a team which, for all its shortcomings, has long been a formidable force at home. Going into Wednesday night's game, the Greeks had won nine out of their last 12 Champions League games in Athens, with their victims including Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal.
In fact the statement that 'this is the kind of game Arsenal normally lose' was particularly true in this case. Since 2009 the London team had played this fixture three times and lost on each occasion. There couldn't have better confirmation that there may indeed be something different about the new model Arsenal.
The icing on the cake of a marvellous performance was the hat-trick from Olivier Giroud, one of those players who seems tailor-made to have the phrase 'much maligned' lurking somewhere near his name. There is something uninspiring about the way the man from Chambery goes about his business. Lacking the normal continental flash he is oddly reminiscent of some workmanlike centre-forward from the old First Division, a Bob Latchford, Phil Boyer or Peter Withe rather than a Thierry Henry or David Trezeguet.
Yet when you consider the struggles of more glamorous strikers in the Premier League - Radamel Falcao, Andriy Shevchenko, the post-Liverpool Fernando Torres - Giroud's 32 goals from 59 games in the last season and a half is not a bad return at all. He is the kind of player who, once disposed of, might prove surprisingly tricky to replace.
Wenger may be happier now than he has been for a long time about the direction of the team but there is a sting in the tail. In recent years Arsenal have been operating in a comfort zone, reducing expectations by struggling early in the season, dispelling the notion that they have any right to challenge Chelsea or City and giving the impression that success for them is nailing down a spot in the top four. This time around when the title is obviously there for the taking and Arsenal look as well equipped as anyone to take it, anything less than first place will stick out as a clear failure on the part of Wenger and his players. If this season holds enormous promise for the league's longest-serving manager, it also holds unusual danger. Nobody at the Emirates will celebrate third or fourth this time.
Manchester United's campaign showed the danger of high expectations. The weakness of Group B, which was hailed as a kind of Group of Life when the draw was made, meant there could be no excuses for failure. United's obvious weakness in ending up behind the team currently placed fifth in the Bundesliga and the one lying third in the much diminished Eredivisie was genuinely shocking. In only two and a half seasons since Alex Ferguson's departure, United are already calling to mind the decline of the once apparently unassailable Liverpool dynasty in the ' 90s.
Particularly striking on Tuesday night was the alacrity with which Wolfsburg struck back after United had taken the lead and the inability of United to hold on after they'd been handed a lifeline eight minutes from time by a fortunate own goal. The lead lasted just three minutes, while United only managed to remain at 2-2 for two minutes. They have taken on the look of a team who'll always manage to do just enough to fail.
It was hardly any consolation to Louis Van Gaal that a team so often derided as boring had for once contributed to a thriller. Their contribution, unfortunately, largely consisted of defending so amateurish that almost every Wolfsburg setpiece bore such menace you nearly expected to hear the Jaws theme on the Volkswagen Arena PA.
Paul Scholes' cutting assessment that "when you have an average team, you get average results" hurt as only the truth can. The team looked the kind of side which loses 3-2 at Wolfsburg, the performances of Daley Blind and Memphis Depay suggesting why Holland haven't made the European Championships and those of the young English players indicating that you won't win anything with these kids. Meanwhile Bastian Schweinsteiger disported himself yet again with all the urgency of a retiree who's moved to a condo in Miami to rest after a long and stressful career.
The one saving grace for United is that a Premier League title still isn't out of the question. Such has been the inconsistency of the main contenders that nobody, apart from Chelsea, has lost too much ground. This title race isn't a sprint but then it's not a marathon either. It's a slow bicycle race.
Right now Arsenal look better than anyone. They may be the great masters of flattering to deceive but it does feel like Wenger might be poised for his sweetest triumph of all, one achieved when Ferguson has departed the scene and Mourinho's luck has turned.
After that Olympiakos performance, the Gunners are the unseeded team nobody will want to draw. Who'd have thought it?
When beauty is used as a stick to beat you with
Poor Paige Spiranac, the living proof that whatever you do these days there'll always be cranks around to criticise you. And that while, in the words of Wallis Simpson, "You can't be too rich or too thin," you can apparently be too good looking.
Spiranac is a 22-year-old American golfer who recently turned pro after an impressive college career. She made her LPGA tour in the Dubai Masters last week and straight away became the target of criticism.
The problem? Well, Paige happens to be beautiful. Extraordinarily beautiful in a Hollywood movie starlet kind of way. So when her college team posted a trick shot video on Instagram last year, their captain became what I believe is known as a social media sensation. She has subsequently attracted an enormous amount of followers on the aforementioned social media. So the organisers of the Dubai tournament were accused of giving her an invitation solely for this reason.
Our heroine was thus placed under enormous pressure and failed to make the cut after the first two rounds. Proper order, said assorted sour-bellies and begrudgers. Yet it was hard not to feel that the complaining had a lot to do with jealousy.
It's not the woman's fault, after all, that she's beautiful. She was born that way. So why judge the book by the cover? For that matter the fact that a host of lonely guys are mooning over her photos on Instagram isn't her fault either. From the tone of some of the coverage you'd imagine that Spiranac was an underwear model who'd been entered in the tournament as a gimmick. In fact she captained San Diego University to a Mountain West conference title and was named on the All Mountain West team. And she earned her LPGA tour card rather than being given it out of sympathy.
Scratch below the surface and Spiranac's story is one of a young woman whose first ambition was to be a top gymnast, but she fractured her kneecap twice, took up golf at the age of 12 and is trying to make her mark as a pro. A young woman who says things like, "I'm not a model, it never even crossed my mind. I was a tomboy. I played football and wasn't afraid to get dirty," and "I'm not comfortable in front of the camera. I'm introverted and all my friends make fun of me because all I do is work out and play golf.
Spiranac described the reaction to her invitation to Dubai as giving her, "the hardest days of my life to get through," and says she'll be taking a break from social media. Which I suppose counts as a kind of victory for the cranks. But I suspect, and hope, we haven't heard the last of her.
It's not easy when people focus on how amazingly attractive you are rather than on your ability. Believe me.
Darts' appeal is lost on prissy snobs
The sporting year being a long one, it's easy to forget the great stuff that happened at the start of it. For example, the match on January 3 when Gary Anderson took his first world darts title and prevented Phil Taylor from winning his 17th.
It was a contest which was nail bitingly close - Anderson winning seven sets to six; nerve-wracking - the outsider seemed to be choking when he lost a 6-4 lead; and breathtaking - the 32 180s broke the previous final record. And it seems to have gotten a little bit lost, what with everything that's happened since. Which is a pity because Anderson, a 44-year-old Scot going up against a living legend, gave as gutsy a performance as there was in any sport this past year.
This Thursday the showdown at the Alexandra Palace begins again and, as was the case last year, lips are being licked at the prospect of a final for the ages between Taylor and Michael Van Gerwen, his heir apparent and the 2014 world champion. The 26-year-old Dutchman has been majestic this season, winning the World Matchplay, Grand Slam, European Championship and UK Open titles. Taylor, meanwhile, has suffered through a pretty undistinguished season but he does have the big advantage of being Phil Taylor.
However, last year's predictions of a two-horse race were upset by Anderson, who defeated Van Gerwen in the semi before seeing off Taylor, and he won't relinquish his title easily, having already turned over the favourite in the Premier League final. Van Gerwen got another reminder that he wasn't invincible at the World Grand Prix in the Citywest hotel, the sport's number three competition, when he lost to rank outsider Robert Thornton in the final. Thornton, Adrian Lewis, James Wade and Peter Wright will all be hoping to emulate Anderson's run out of the pack when proceedings come to an end in the new year.
The championships have taken on an increasingly international flavour in recent years with darts players from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Australia, Holland, Belgium, Austria, Germany, New Zealand, the USA and Spain having qualified for the tournament proper. This year they could be joined by an Irishman, Balbriggan-based Meathman Mick 'The Magnet' McGowan, who plays in the preliminary round on Friday. His opponent? Sun Qiang from China, one of the game's new frontiers. Players from Thailand, Singapore, Denmark, Greece, Japan, Russia, South Africa, the Philippines and Finland will also be scrapping it out for a place in the last 64.
There are also two Northern Irish players in action. Brendan Dolan from Fermanagh, who's ranked number 18 in the world, is seeded to meet Anderson in the third round. And Daryl 'The Dude' Gurney from Derry could meet the champion in the second round if he wins his opening match against Jamie Lewis of Wales on Thursday.
The world championship usually draws a few prissy and tight-assed comments of the "it isn't really a sport" variety, which often seem to have more to do with memories of the legendary Not the Nine O'Clock News darts match sketch than the reality of the game itself. The fact is that making big shots under the kind of pressure the players endure at the worlds is an achievement any sportsman would be proud of.
In any case, I've always felt that the objections to darts largely stem from snobbery. It remains a sport largely rooted in the working class: Van Gerwen was a tiler before he turned pro, Taylor was a sheet metal worker and Anderson worked for a building firm that made fireplaces. And the atmosphere at the Alexandra Palace shows that the bond between players and fans hasn't been lessened by the financial rewards available to the top players. They remember where they came from and their supporters love them for it.
The pubs where the championships will be watched with the most fervour are the same. In fact the presence of darts on a bar telly functions as a good warning system for those of a snobbish disposition. If you find yourself in urgent need of a conversation about Slow Food, Other Voices and Decembeard, this probably isn't the place for you.
There's a spot down the street which might suit you better. Now be quiet on your way out, we're watching the darts.
Sunday Indo Sport