Sporting action to have fans on edge of their seats in 2014
Chelsea, Brazil, Dublin and Australia can seal the glory in a year to savour
Years from now, when we recall the sporting year of 2013, what will be the abiding memory? Personal pictures which time can't fade. The day we lived a moment destined to be carried forever; when we captured an image that continues to lend itself to a story told fondly.
All answers to such questions are influenced by origins and loyalties. And such is the wonder of sport, no two answers are likely to be the same and even if they do reconcile, it will be for different reasons.
As the highs and lows of another 12 months are recalled, it becomes apparent 2013 was also a year that raised many questions.
Has the status quo in Manchester changed forever? Can Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane ever meet expectations? Did Johnny Sexton begin an irreversible trend? Can James Horan still see the promised land? Did Lance Armstrong's confession enable cycling to embark on a journey of restoring credibility?
Only time can clarify such matters and as another year is resigned to the archives, I find expectations growing. We can only hope our best days are in front of us and here, I look forward and hope my predictions become a reality in 2014.
PREMIER LEAGUE / WORLD CUP
Before a ball was even kicked in this season's Premier League, there was an expectation that things would be different. The managerial changes in the top clubs created uncertainty. Last May, the final Premier League standings read Manchester United first, followed by rivals City, Chelsea and Arsenal. At halfway in this current season, swap Liverpool for United and the top four clubs remain the same. So, for all the pre-season debate, very little has changed.
Jose Mourinho has returned to Chelsea and lost little of his aura, Manuel Pellegrini appears to be meeting the challenge in Manchester and Arsene Wenger continues to prove his critics wrong. Brendan Rodgers, meanwhile, has done good things at Liverpool and it would seem that as long as Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez remain fit, they will be challenging for a Champions League spot.
But their neighbours Everton are the story of the season so far. Roberto Martinez has brought fresh ideas and demonstrated his considerable capabilities as a coach when having better players at his disposal.
The club have developed another kid with endless talent in the shape of Ross Barkley and the blue half of Merseyside will be hoping he doesn't follow in the footsteps of their last child prodigy.
So, who will be champions come May? I believe Chelsea will emerge on top. Success in the current transfer window is vital to their title-winning prospects as a free-scoring striker is urgently needed at Stamford Bridge. Samuel Eto'o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba have struggled, yet Chelsea sit two points off leaders Arsenal.
Should Mourinho get the resources to improve the team's goal-scoring threat, I feel the rest will be playing for second. Wherever in the world Mourinho has coached, he always found a way to win; a brilliant trait in a brilliant manger. A trait that will see the champagne corks popping at Stamford Bridge come May.
Meanwhile, high summer will bring to pass the 20th FIFA World Cup and what a tournament it promises to be.
While home advantage will heighten pressure on Brazil, I suspect the location will be a considerable advantage to their chances of success. Huge concerns for European players centre on how they can acclimatise to conditions and whether they can perform to their maximum powers.
This isn't the greatest Brazilian side to have graced the beautiful game, but I feel whoever beats them this summer may well be taking home the World Cup. If the host team start well and gather momentum, with the support of a soccer-loving nation, they may well become an impossible force to stop. There is time yet to perfect your samba!
The appointment of Joe Schmidt brought renewed hope around the prospects of the international rugby side. He came so close to achieving the ultimate start to his reign when overseeing a brilliant Irish performance against the All Blacks in November. Defeat on that occasion was unbearable and while condolences were in short supply for the players, the performance demonstrated that we can live with the world's best.
We can take real hope from the fact that Schmidt got such a performance out of his players within such a short space of time. The challenge now is to consistently maintain their performance at, or very close to, the standards demonstrated against the All Blacks. Should they be capable of that, Irish rugby will know more good days than bad in the short term.
The upcoming Six Nations is especially difficult with away matches in both Paris and London. We can take some optimism from the November Internationals as all of Ireland's competitors in the Six Nations had their own difficulties against southern hemisphere opposition.
And even without the injured Sean O'Brien, I expect Ireland will be very competitive and at the very least win their home matches. Don't be surprised if they register an away win in either Paris or London.
Meanwhile, the women's team face a different set of challenges as they kick off their campaign on January 31. They must cope with the tag of defending champions. But having their first two matches against Scotland and Wales at home provides the prospect of this team putting back-to-back Grand Slams together. Their final match in March will see them travel to Pau in what could well be a championship decider against France.
ALL-IRELAND FOOTBALL C'SHIP
There was a sense of inevitability about the Dublin footballers in 2013. On occasions, in the heat of the championships, they sailed close to the wind but always looked like men in control. They never seemed to doubt their own destiny; there was an aura of invincibility. But can they repeat such feats in 2014?
Remember in 2012, Dublin seemed flat after bridging a 16-year gap when winning Sam the previous year. The hunger was absent. But things have changed now and I believe Dublin will put back-to-back All-Irelands together come September.
The influence of Jim Gavin and the young talent at his disposal are the key factors why I believe Dublin will be successful again in 2014.
Uncertainty about the merits of the opposition is also a factor. Kerry have lost another two players in Eoin Brosnan and Tomas ó Sé; Mayo's psychological barrier continues to only get bigger; Cork are in transition under new management; and on the evidence of 2013, the teams in Ulster will have to make remarkable progress to be in a position to challenge for All-Ireland honours.
Under a very understated and focused Jim Gavin, I suspect the Dublin players won't be allowed to bask in the glory of last year's All-Ireland victory and Sam will be theirs again in 2014.
ALL-IRELAND HURLING C'SHIP
Just when we least expected it, everything changed. The world of hurling was unrecognisable in 2013. Four All-Ireland semi-finalists consisting of Dublin, Cork, Clare and Limerick illustrate just how far the powerbase shifted. In such a climate, making predictions for 2014 is a peerless task. There are too many variables to consider for anyone to be definitive about what will take place in the coming months.
Kilkenny and Tipperary are dependent on key men, the same men have done many miles and it's conceivable their best days are behind them. Are the youth of such counties as good as those gone before? Can either county sustain a realistic challenge without the presence of core individuals? Galway continue to be an enigma. Who knows what Galway team will take to the field in 2014?
Dublin and Cork are teams heading in the right direction. Last year was a breakthrough year for both and now the challenge is to build on the progress and win the big one.
Clare will know a different type of pressure in 2014, however, as there will be an expectation surrounding the All-Ireland champions. But they must deal with such realities and all the hype that goes with it. Roll on the hurling championship of 2014 for if you thought 2013 was interesting, I suspect even better is to come.
On September 7 last year at Leopardstown, Joseph O'Brien won on a two-year-old named Australia. As he went to the line, the expression on the young jockey's face was a picture that painted a thousand words.
Out of the great mare Ouija Board -- which won numerous big races across the globe -- I believe Australia will provide Aidan and Joseph O'Brien with another success in the Epsom Derby come June.
The further he went at Leopardstown, the better he looked and he made Dermot Weld's Free Eagle look ordinary. Australia is bred to be an exceptional racehorse and I expect he won't disappoint.
AND FINALLY ...
So, how about trying an ante-post accumulator consisting of Chelsea (Premier League), Brazil (World Cup), Dublin (All-Ireland SFC) and Australia (Epsom Derby) for 2014? I can't wait. Bring it on.