England for Euro 2004, Radcliffe for gold?

Stage is set for a year of sporting drama


Olympic Games

OLYMPIC GAMES

By Mike Rowbottom

Britain will be looking to a number of defending Olympic champions to produce the goods again in Athens when the 28th Games take place from 13 to 29 August.

While Sir Steve Redgrave has finally halted his gold medal collection at five, his partner on three of those occasions, Matthew Pinsent, is seeking his own fourth gold in the coxless pairs, in tandem with one of his victorious colleagues from the fours win in Sydney, James Cracknell. Pinsent and Cracknell suffered a setback this year when they could only finish fourth in the World Championships. Just a bad day at the office? Time will tell.

The cyclists, who got Britain off to a rush of medals in Sydney, will be seeking to make a similar impact, although they start later in the programme in Greece. Jason Queally, who won the 1km time trial, faces strong opposition from last year's world champion, Chris Hoy, Craig Maclean, and the newcomer from BMX racing, Jamie Staff. Two other world champions, Bradley Wiggins and David Millar, look promising on track and road respectively.

Sailing also promises riches for Britain, as Ben Ainslie, who followed up his 1996 silver with gold at Sydney in the Laser class, contests the Finn class, while Shirley Robertson, another gold medallist from 2000, teams up with the newcomers Sarah Ayton and Sarah Webb in the Yngling class.

Another Sydney winner, Richard Faulds, will seek to defend his Double Trap shooting title.

The ones to watch on the first day of the Games will be the diving pair of Peter Waterfield and Leon Taylor in the 10m synchro, in which they were fourth in 2000, and judo's Craig Fallon, 20, who has hit outstanding form in the under-60kg category this year, earning silver at the World Championships.

With Jonathan Edwards retired, only one British athlete will defend her title in Athens - the heptathlete Denise Lewis, who has a massive task against Sweden's new world champion, Carolina Kluft.

Paula Radcliffe appears the best bet for a gold, assuming her preparations run smoothly and she enters the event where she is three minutes faster than any other woman, the marathon.

Ashia Hansen, the world indoor champion and record-holder at triple jump, is also due a good Olympics, and could profit from the absence of the woman who led this year's world rankings, the displaced Cuban Yamile Aldama.

Kelly Holmes, the 800m bronze medallist in 2000, could well add to her medal collection. As for the men, much depends on whether Mark Lewis-Francis can live up to his potential in the 100m and whether Dean Macey, the world silver and bronze medallist in the decathlon, can stay remotely fit.

Predictions: Pinsent to be the British golden boy, Radcliffe the British golden girl.

FOOTBALL

By Glenn Moore

Lisbon will be the focus for English football this year but the less heralded location of Gelsenkirchen may draw the attention first. The industrial German city will host the Champions' League final at Schalke 04's roofed Arena AufSchalke, and Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United all have ambitions to be there.

Their campaigns begin again in February when each has a negotiable first knock-out round draw, although Chelsea will have to be at their best to overcome Stuttgart.

Both the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, and Jacques Santini, his French counterpart, will be hoping none of the trio makes the final, for it takes place on 26 May. Just 18 days later, England and France will open their European Championship programme against each other.

The intervening period is arguably too short to rest players and then prepare them for a demanding tournament. Nevertheless, if both are able to field close to their first-choice teams (unlike the World Cup when Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham were unfit) they will both be contenders, potentially meeting again in the final.

For England, winning football matches is only half the task. They will also be praying their supporters do not provoke Uefa into throwing Eriksson's side out of the tournament. Should the hooligans behave in Portugal, they may face another test before year-end with visits to Wales and Northern Ireland, the dates for which will be determined at the World Cup fixtures meeting on 13 January.

Domestically, the Premiership is clearly between the big three with Wolves and Leicester looking likely to fill relegation places. More intriguing is whether Leeds can avoid both going down and going bust.

North of the border, this could be the year Martin O'Neill finally leaves Celtic Park, probably with another title, though he will not head off to White Hart Lane. Anfield is the probable destination. Gérard Houllier will survive only if Liverpool claim fourth place, and the Champions' League berth that goes with it. Despite their faltering form, that is within Liverpool's grasp so O'Neill will not be burning any bridges just yet.

And, it seems, the year will begin with further developments in the Rio Ferdinand affair as Manchester United appeal against his eight-month ban. Common sense may prevail but, at Old Trafford, balance sheets normally hold sway.

Predictions: England to reach the Euro 2004 final (if key players remain fit); Sven Goran Eriksson to remain as the national manager; and an English club to reach the Champions' League final.

RUGBY UNION

By Chris Hewett

Precious little respite, barely enough time to draw breath. When Clive Woodward decreed that no discussion of England's World Cup victory would be permitted inside the red rose camp after New Year's Eve, he was not being curmudgeonly for the sake of it. In February, he must travel to Rome and Edinburgh on Six Nations business; in March, he crosses swords with Bernard Laporte in Paris. And in June? June is an interesting one, to say the least: the All Blacks in Dunedin and Auckland, the Wallabies in Sydney. This is Himalayan stuff. Everest may have been conquered, but K2 and Kangchenjunga beckon.

England are in the peculiar position of not yet knowing if they are about to step into the unknown. Will Martin Johnson and Neil Back plough on to early summer, or call it quits after the European season? What about Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Dawson and Will Greenwood? Can Woodward bank on the spine of his Webb Ellis Cup-winning side gathering in New Zealand's South Island, where no England team has ever won a Test match, or will he be forced to visit the "House of Pain" at Carisbrook, Dunedin, with a reshaped second row, a fresh half-back pairing and a revamped midfield?

If the coach achieved a minor miracle by negotiating 2003 with only one fairly meaningless defeat in 17 Tests, it will be a major-league marvel if he reaches the autumn with a full hand of victories. The All Blacks will be infinitely more pragmatic under Graham Henry than they were under the discarded John Mitchell, and the Australians will be aching for vengeance. The French will not extend the hand of friendship, either; as several stated within hours of the World Cup denouement, they are already sick to the back teeth of English "arrogance".

On the club front, the most regularly compelling part of the English league campaign - the scrap at the bottom - has already been decided. Rotherham may as well start playing the Plymouths and Henleys now. Bath and Wasps should contest the Premiership final at Twickenham, assuming the Londoners have not thrown everything at the Heineken Cup, where they can be bracketed with Toulouse, Stade Français, Llanelli Scarlets and Munster as potential winners.

Predictions : England to win a fourth Six Nations' Championship title; Llanelli Scarlets to conquer Europe.

CRICKET

By Jon Culley

Despite a thrashing in Sri Lanka, Michael Vaughan (right) and England can look forward to 2004 with a chance of enjoying a half-decent year. They will be seeing a lot of the West Indies, beginning with a two-month tour of the Caribbean, which kicks off on 1 March and comprises four Tests and seven one-day internationals.

The West Indies then come to England, joining New Zealand in the one-day triangular NatWest Series as a prelude to four more Test matches. The Kiwis are scheduled to play a three-Test series here in the early part of the summer, starting on 20 May at Lord's.

England and the West Indies may find themselves reasonably evenly matched. These last few years have been low-key ones for the Caribbean nations as senior players retire and juniors seek to bed themselves in, but the West Indies have won their last two series, including one at home to Sri Lanka, and Brian Lara appears to be somewhere near back to his best.

After the final Test against the West Indies, which is scheduled to finish on 23 August at The Oval, there is the NatWest Challenge of three one-day internationals against India, and then a busy season culminates in the ICC Champions Trophy, staged in England for the first time.

All 10 full member nations plus Kenya and the winner of March's ICC Six Nations challenge will compete in four groups of three to produce the semi-finalists. The 15 matches will be staged at Edgbaston, The Oval and Hampshire's Rose Bowl ground from 10 to 25 September .

Domestically, the England and Wales Cricket Board will hope for more bumper crowds when the Twenty20 Cup is staged for the second time with the finals day to be held at Edgbaston on 7 August.

Prediction: England to repeat 2000 Test series victory against West Indies.

GOLF

By Andy Farrell

After an extra year's hiatus between the last two Ryder Cups, the 35th match will come around with commendable swiftness when Europe attempt to retain the trophy at Oakland Hills in Detroit in September. Qualification for the team has already begun and will dominate the season. There will be a number of changes from the team that won the Cup at The Belfry in 2002, not least with Bernhard Langer now assuming the captaincy.

The list of potential rookies trying to play for Europe is impressive: Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Freddie Jacobson, with Luke Donald and Alex Cejka hoping to catch the eye on the US Tour. Which of the talented newcomers make it will be intriguing, while Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Thomas Bjorn and Sergio Garcia should provide the powerhouse of the team. After a dispiriting 2003, Colin Montgomerie will bust a gut to secure the senior pro role.

Westwood's rejuvenation and the increasing dedication of Clarke should see the pair challenging to win Europe's first major championship since 1999. After the upsets of 2003, will the majors be any more predictable in 2004? Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh will be hoping so.

The magnificent Shinnecock Hills club hosts the US Open in June; Royal Troon, where Americans have won on the last five occasions, stages the 133rd Open Championship in July; and in August, the USPGA Championship moves to the new venue of Whistling Straits on the banks of Lake Michigan.

Formby hosts the Curtis Cup in June and a win for Great Britain and Ireland's women amateurs would mean all four of the trophies for the great team competitions would reside on this side of the Atlantic for the first time.

Meanwhile, it will be fun seeing Annika Sorenstam trying to top her incredible 2003 season.

Prediction: Europe retain the Ryder Cup but may need a tie to do so.

TENNIS

By John Roberts

If faith can really move mountains, expect more than the customary tremors on Henman Hill as Britain prepares to acclaim its first Wimbledon men's singles champion for 68 years.

Two months ago, before Tim Henman (above) climaxed an injury-disrupted year with a triumph at the Paris Masters, your correspondent would have no more suggested that the British No 1 would succeed in meeting his ultimate challenge than that the All England Club would build a retractable roof on the Centre Court. Since then, both have become feasible because of a renewed determination to make them happen.

Henman does not need planning permission, but he will be hoping for luck with his health, his draw, his shots on key points, and with the elements, to assist an aggressive campaign for glory after a disappointing conclusion to four semi-finals.

He knows it will be difficult to reprise the relaxed assuredness of his play in overcoming three of the best players in the world - Gustavo Kuerten, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick - en route to winning the Paris Masters last November, when he had little to lose.

But with the reassuring Paul Annacone, Pete Sampras's former coach, to guide him, Henman may be ready to peak ahead of his 30th birthday.

Henman also joins forces with Greg Rusedski in the cause of helping Britain make a swift return to the Davis Cup World Group from the Euro-African Zone, starting with a tie against Finland or Luxembourg in April.

Prediction: Henman to win Wimbledon.

RACING

By John Cobb

If contests on the track are as fiercely fought as those between the powers that wish to shape the sport then 2004 will be a classic.

The main battle looming is between the British Horseracing Board and the Office of Fair Trading, which seek to wrest much of the power from racing's ruling body and allow the courses to set fixtures to suit themselves and to negotiate their own deals over data rights.

With that issue unresolved the BHB continues to pile on the fixtures and there will be a record number of opportunities to back losers in 2004 with 1,341 meetings scheduled, including 70 under the new banner of "regional racing" for those of least ability.

At the other end of the scale, the most powerful man in racing, John Magnier, is facing a legal challenge from Sir Alex Ferguson over proceeds from the stud career of Rock Of Gibraltar. Neither side is going to want to air their laundry in the public spotlight and a settlement out of court looks the safest bet.

On the track, Magnier's Ballydoyle stable should enjoy a better year than 2003, with the new stable jockey, Jamie Spencer, on board the 2,000 Guineas favourite, One Cool Cat, and a host of possible Derby contenders headed by American Post and Yeats.

An alternative to Ballydoyle's battalions in the premier Classic comes from the one-man army of David Elsworth and his Salford City, a seven-length winner of a maiden race in October.

It is not often that bookmakers underreact, but after Christmas defeats for all bar Intersky Falcon among Champion Hurdle favourites, there is value to be had in Paul Nicholls's Rigmarole, who has impressed over the Champion course and distance.

Predictions: BHB challenge to OFT to fail miserably; Ferguson v Magnier to be settled out of court; Rigmarole to win Champion Hurdle (16-1); Salford City to win the Derby (33-1).

MOTOR RACING

By David Tremayne

Christmas arrived early for Jenson Button, in the shape of the Michelin tyres which replace the Bridgestone boots that were fitted to his BAR-Honda in 2003.

In testing at Jerez in Spain before Christmas, the Englishman and his new Japanese team-mate, Takuma Sato, who replaces the ousted Jacques Villeneuve, lapped a second and a half quicker than they had on Bridgestone rubber in similar tests. Optimistic team personnel spoke excitedly of a "transformation".

Looking ahead to the new Formula One season, BAR could surprise. But ironically, the team's performance leaves Sir Frank Williams, whose new contender is due to be unveiled on 5 January, convinced that Michael Schumacher's Ferrari was still the best car at the end of 2003, now that the apparent difference in the two tyre companies' products has been quantified by lap times.

"My private view is that Ferrari still had the best car at the end of last year, and that eminence was overshadowed by the performance of Michelin," he says. "Quite clearly, Ferrari will be the team to beat at the beginning of the season and McLaren will be right with them."

McLaren's managing director, Martin Whitmarsh, says of their new car: "I believe it is competitive now, and I believe we are going to make it a quicker car before we go to Australia in March."

Ferrari's sporting director, Jean Todt, sounds a warning. "The Michael Schumacher we see next year," he says, "will be the best Michael Schumacher ever. He is as motivated as he has ever been."

Prediction: A repeat of 2003, but even better.

BOXING

By Steve Bunce

Some of the usual British suspects are in title fights during the first two months of 2004. Joe Calzaghe in February; Howard Eastman in January; Danny Williams in January. The prospects David Haye, Roman Greenberg, Carl Froch and Kevin Mitchell will also box during the same period.

The big issue in 2004 will be whether or not the best British boxers move forward to fight their counterparts. Ricky Hatton, Johnny Nelson, Calzaghe and Scott Harrison all have opponents on the horizon.

Sheffield's Clinton Woods and Manchester's Michael Brodie have both secured rematches to their world title fights that ended in draws. Both have the ability to win. Robin Reid, a tight loser in Germany earlier this month, has also lodged a complaint and should get a rematch.

The British heavyweight scene has never been better - and never more complicated. Herbie Hide, Audley Harrison, Matt Skelton, Michael Sprott and the champion, Williams, should all meet, but they will not. Money and rival television companies will keep them in separate rings. The BBC-Sky showdown continues to entertain.

It is Olympic year and the qualification process is likely to limit British and Irish participation to three or four at the most. There were three in Sydney and any more in Athens will be a bonus. Expect the Russians to take over from the old Cuban side.

Expect Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, James Toney, Roy Jones, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather to be in the big fights. Take your pick with the pairings because nothing can be ruled out.

Prediction: Lennox Lewis back in the ring.

RUGBY LEAGUE

By Dave Hadfield

If rugby league should wish for one thing this New Year - apart from the eternally elusive prize of victory over Australia, which should have been achieved in the 2003 Ashes series but will now have to wait for this autumn's inaugural Tri-Nations - it is for more variety in its main domestic competitions.

Since the advent of Super League and summer rugby in 1996, only three clubs - Wigan, St Helens and Bradford - have won it. The same three, plus Leeds, have virtually monopolised the Challenge Cup, with the exception of Sheffield Eagles' victory over Wigan in 1998.

It is hard to imagine the winners of a gruelling marathon like Super League coming from outside the big four, but the Cup could provide scope for a welcome surprise. Hull, among the also-rans the closest to joining the four leading clubs, could be due a trip to Cardiff - and that would give their burgeoning support another boost.

From a little further back in the field, both Castleford and Warrington will fancy their chances of Cup success, especially if some of the obvious favourites draw each other in the earlier rounds.

The question of who wins promotion into Super League from National League One should be one of the more intriguing aspects of the season. With Halifax rebuilding after last season's implosion, it should be Leigh's turn, but Hull KR have shown a serious intent through the appointments of Malcolm Reilly and Martin Hall.

Prediction: An outsider to win the Challenge Cup.

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