Eamonn Sweeney’s 10 days to look forward to in 2014
The year ahead offers the Super Bowl in New Jersey, the Winter Olympics in Russia and the World Cup Final in Rio de Janeiro.
Super Bowl XLVIII, East Rutherford, New Jersey
Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos is probably the finest quarterback in the history of American football. But two years ago the Indianapolis Colts gave him the boot after he'd missed an entire season through injury. Worn down by neck and spinal surgery, the 37-year-old has just completed a record-breaking season which makes the Broncos favourites to go to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998. Should they win this might just be the best comeback story ever. Facing them could be the perennially underachieving Seattle Seahawks who've never won the Super Bowl but have the best regular season record this time round and whose fanatical supporters set a world decibel record for a sporting event earlier this season.
Ireland v Wales, Six Nations, Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Ireland's season will almost certainly depend on this game. Lose at home to the champions and the away ties against England and France will look like insurmountable obstacles. Win and the team could be playing for big stakes when they go to Paris on March 15. Ireland have won just three of their last ten games in the championship but one of those victories was over Wales last year. The potential of the team to either soar to the heights or plumb the depths is what makes this such a fascinating showdown.
Winter Olympics Women's Downhill, Sochi, Russia
Lindsey Vonn is the queen of Alpine Skiing. One of only two women to win four combined World Cup titles and the reigning Olympic champion, she'd have been hot favourite to retain her title. But a crash at the World Championships back in February left Vonn with torn cruciate and medial ligaments in her knee and a fractured shin. She came back tentatively a couple of weeks ago but will head to Sochi with minimal competitive preparation. It looks an impossible ask but Vonn is no ordinary competitor. World champ Marion Rolland of France and World Cup holder Tina Maze of Slovenia will be the big threats.
Winter Olympics Men's Ice Hockey Final, Sochi, Russia
The USSR ruled Olympic ice hockey, winning seven titles out of nine from 1956 to 1988. But since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia have persistently disappointed with just a silver and a bronze from five tournaments. The pressure to deliver on home ice will be monumental and should they succeed it will be the emotional highpoint of the games. Much of that pressure will fall on Alexander Ovechkin, one of the two best players in the world. Reigning champions Canada, who in Sidney Crosby have the Messi to Ovechkin's Ronaldo, will be the big threat with world champs Sweden also in the mix.
Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham
In which Hurricane Fly bids to become just the sixth horse in history to win the race three times and, at ten years old, the third oldest winner after Hatton's Grace and Sea Pigeon. The reigning champion looked as good as ever when winning the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown but there will be stiff competition from the likes of The New One and My Tent Or Yours, whose victory at Kempton indicated that he'll give Tony McCoy a great chance of equalling Tim Molony's record of four winners. Alternatively, McCoy may be tempted by the prospect of renewing rivalry with Hurricane Fly on Jessica Harrington's Jezki, It'll be tight.'
Ireland v Zimbabwe, ICC Twenty20 World Cup, Sylhet Divisional Stadium, Sri Lanka
In the past two T20 World Cups rain has prevented the Irish cricketers from producing a victory to match their famous wins over Pakistan and England in the one-day competition. This time round if they want to play the big boys they have to win their qualifying group which probably means defeating Test nation Zimbabwe. If they do that the chance of capturing the national imagination with games against England, South Africa, Sri Lanka and New Zealand awaits. The date is surely a good omen.
Champions League Final, Estadio Da Luz, Lisbon
With eight different winners in the last ten years, the Champions League is a glorious opposite to the predictable oligarchy of Europe's major domestic leagues. Bayern Munich are being talked up as favourites but you have to go back to 1990 and AC Milan for the last team to retain the title. Barcelona, the only multiple winners in the last decade, will be there or thereabouts, while Real Madrid will surely be spurred on by memories of the underachievement which has seen them fail to even reach a decider since 2000. Chelsea's grizzled bunch of campaigners and competition specialist manager are probably the Premier League's best chance though Manchester City will have a puncher's chance against Barca and it's hard to see the winners of that one not fetching up in Lisbon. Best bet to do a Dortmund and come out of the pack? Atletico Madrid, neck and neck with Barcelona at the top of La Liga and super impressive in the group stages.
World Cup Final, Estadio Do Maracana, Rio de Janeiro
Let's be honest, this pretty much dwarfs everything else in sport this year. The world will be watching as the dénouement unfolds on this Sunday evening. But the big question is whether we'll have had a tournament worthy of the hype. The last two competitions have been disappointing and you'd hope for a return to the adventurous spirit of the excellent 2002 finals, particularly as the tournament is taking place in the greatest football nation of them all. It looks like a shoot-out between the host nation, their great rivals Argentina, holders Spain and the ever-improving Germans. But there will, as always, be many twists and turns along the way. Look out for the precocious Belgians, the exciting Chileans, a Colombian team who pushed Argentina all the way in the qualifying group and a Dutch side loaded with attacking talent who might be dark horses yet again.
All-Ireland Hurling Final, Croke Park
Who'd have thought it? Just one utterly spellbinding year has been enough to turn Irish sport's most predictable competition into its most compelling. The 2014 championship promises so much it's hard to not to feel impatient for the beginning already. Clare's tremendously exciting young team will find everyone gunning for them, a Kilkenny team trying to wrest back superiority, Tipperary and Galway sides who never expected the Banner to usurp them as heirs to the throne, Cork who came within seconds of an unlikely championship last year and Dublin and Limerick sides coming off the back of stirring provincial breakthroughs. Bring it on.
Ryder Cup, Gleneagles, Scotland
Yes, I know the competition doesn't really mean anything but has there ever been as exciting an afternoon of TV sport as the one two years ago when Europe came from the dead to overhaul the Yanks in Illinois? With six of the last 12 being decided by a single point, and one of them being drawn, the Ryder Cup is the ultimate cliffhanger competition and this one will hardly be any different.