My selection of 2015 Sporting Highlights

Adam Selby reports on Valencia reaching the Champions League.

Perhaps a strange choice being a lifelong Manchester City fan, but as a student of Spanish spending my year abroad in Valencia, perhaps one of the best moments I was lucky enough to experience first-hand was Valencia’s progression and eventual achievement in reclaiming a position amongst the European elite in this season’s Champions League. Clearly my own team’s recent success in the Premier League obtaining regular Champions League football has undeniably been nothing short of brilliant to watch in the past few seasons, something I never try to undervalue and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that mixture of adulation and relief a year on from the frustration and all round disappointment I had felt when Peter Crouch condemned Manchester City to another season without European Football. But after following Valencia very closely and attending regular matches at the magnificent Mestalla, Valencia you could say became my adopted Spanish side, and their voyage to secure Champions League football was enjoyable, gripping, and totally deserved.

Despite the club falling upon harder times of late, culminating in the appointment of Gary Neville, who will now join his brother Phil out in Spain, Valencia CF were a real joy to watch. The appointment of the former Rio Ave manager, Nuno, initially proved to be an inspired choice given that this was the first season since 1997-98 that Valencia would not compete in any European competition. Somebody with fresh ideas was much needed and although Valencia fans will still explain to you that they dreamt and continue to dream of one day winning the league, a realistic aim for Nuno and his side was to simply obtain European Football. Therefore, Nuno’s message was simple—get Valencia back into the Champions League. And with this determination and this refreshed outlook, Valencia hit the ground running, earning 17 out of a possible 21 points in the club’s first seven games, notably including an impressive 3-1 home victory over the then league title holders Atlético Madrid. The difference was instantly significant from the word go; a stark contrast to the dreary, dilapidated and downright disappointing end to the previous campaign. Nuno’s side were not just winning games, but they were comfortably beating the sides around them by several goals, scoring 17 goals in their first seven games, and they even sat at the top of the table five games in. Campeones… ¿ole ole ole?

Perhaps not.

Inevitably, because of the superior size and stature of the El Clasico pairing of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid alongside an Atlético Madrid off the back of league success in the previous La Liga campaign, not forgetting the Europa League winners and bitter rivals Sevilla, it was always going to be a tough ask, a difficult feat for Valencia to maintain such form. Yet the investment pumped into the club by Singapore businessman and now too the co-owner of Salford City FC, Peter Lim, again revitalised the side and offered a sustainable long-term plan with murmurs of financial difficulties cast aside in the space of 24 hours. Therefore, given this influx of guaranteed money, even at the half-way point through the season, Valencia could now begin to flaunt their financial muscle in the transfer window, turning loans from the previous Summer into permanent deals, and even purchasing players outright for significant sums of money. Enzo Perez joined from SL Benfica for a fee of €25M, a figure that is largely unseen both in the winter transfer window in Spain, and also at Valencia in recent years.

Valencia therefore progressed, continuing to defy the odds in the race for Champions League football, and beat the likes of Villarreal CF and former manager Unai Emery’s Sevilla, whilst picking up valuable points against close rivals Athletic Bilbao and Celta Vigo, as well, to keep alive any hope of a fourth-place finish, or at that point maybe even higher! There was even a surprise home victory against Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid at the Mestalla, which kick-started the New Year in the best way possible. But in what is often referred to as a team game, with individual results meaning nothing if you fail to reach your pre-season target, for me perhaps the most impressive spell in their quest for Champions League football was the club’s form between February and March, the key months often cited as the crucial period after the New Year in maintaining the togetherness with regards to form and performances, as well as avoiding injuries. Throughout this period, between the start of February and April, Valencia re-gained their level of performances from the start of the season and cruised to seven wins out of a possible ten only to be halted by a defeat to the eventual league winners FC Barcelona at the Nou Camp. This certainly stood them in good stead as Gameweek 38 neared ever closer.

However despite Valencia’s good form, their fate still went down to the wire with a victory needed away at Almería, who themselves were fighting for their lives to avoid relegation and needed three points. Valencia fans crammed into bars, huddling around screens small and large, dreaming of mixing again with the upper echelons of European Football. In what had been a very nervy build up to the game in the week leading up to it, such tension filtered onto the pitch with fierce rivals Sevilla ready and waiting in the wings to catapult into fourth place and pip Valencia to the Champions League. In a feisty encounter, which saw four first-half goals, seven yellow cards and a red during the course of the game, with the game locked at 2-2, even I along with those watching it with me continued to hope that Valencia could make it through. Although I was merely a visitor, somebody enjoying the fruits of the city during my period of residence abroad, you could clearly see how much a place in the Champions League meant to the growing crowds of Valencia supporters, gathered round any means possible of watching the game. As both sides pushed for a late goal to seal each other’s fate one way or another, cometh the hour cometh the club’s top scorer Paco Alcacer in the 80th minute, who slotted the ball away to send fans across the city into a frenzy—a magnificent moment to witness as my year away came to an end. The full time whistle sounded and with that cheers of joy, sighs of relief and the chants of “Amunt Valencia” (Come on Valencia) echoed from bar to bar, from house to house and from fan to fan.

Now, personally speaking, a place in Europe is something that, although I personally still see as a real achievement in the modern-game, it is perhaps expected more so of the bigger sides in England than perhaps it is in Spain. Valencia fought hard during the 14/15 campaign against sides with as much power as they to reach the Champions League, and their place in the league was fully deserved, because their football proved frequently to be a pleasure to watch. Perhaps even more of a contributing factor away from the pitch was their loyal fans and the atmosphere they created prior to every home game, and the travelling support they took across Spain to every game, doing everything possible, even in the final stages, to give them a much-needed boost and push them over the line. This is, for me, why Valencia reaching the Champions League was, in a way, almost like a trophy win itself, and one of my highlights of the year.

Adam Selby reports on Stuart Bingham winning the 2015 World Snooker Championship.

As a long-time fan and follower of the annual World Snooker Championships, for once it was refreshing to witness a competition of such all-round quality, rather than dominance of one or two individuals throughout the two week tournament. And with a growing number of amateurs continuing to break onto the professional circuit, partly because of changes made to the traditional format, but largely due to the thriving crop of talented young stars in the game, the 2015 World Snooker Championship final made for an excellent end to an exceptional tournament. Not only that, the 2015 tournament marked only the fourth time in the sport’s history where all four World Championship semi-finalists were English, which too bodes well for the future of English and British snooker.

After scraping through the semi-finals, only narrowly beating the promising Judd Trump by one frame, 17-16, Stuart Bingham defied the odds and even a late comeback from Trump, who produced some scintillating snooker, to produce back to back century breaks to reach his first ever World Championship Final. However, awaiting the debutant was Shaun Murphy, the only former World Champion to reach the last four, and a player who is still no stranger to regular participation in the latter stages of ranking events. The 2005 World Champion comfortably cruised to a 17-9 victory against fellow Englishman Barry Hawkins, even though Hawkins salvaged five frame wins out of eight in the penultimate session of the tie to take the game to a fourth and final session, thus restricting Murphy from winning the game outright with a session to spare.

So with the bookies rightly favouring Murphy given his previous success and consistency throughout the 2014/15 snooker season, Stuart Bingham, who was available to back as a  50/1 outsider before the tournament, was very much the underdog going into the final. But in retrospect, this position, alongside Bingham’s experience gained in all levels of the game, aged 38 years and becoming the oldest first-time finalist since 1978, in fact probably helped guide Bingham in the best possible way to his eventual victory. Given the narrow circumstances he defeated Judd Trump by in the previous round, Bingham’s determination shone throughout the game, coming back on several occasions from three or four frames down to peg it back to a level playing field or to take a slender lead into every session.

It was in the third session where Bingham finally hit his top gear and arguably his best form of the competition, reproducing some of his form from the earlier rounds to establish a three-frame lead. Bingham’s break-building helped him along the way too, with his break of 123 in the 14th frame breaking the previous record of 83 centuries set throughout the competition in 2009, whilst six frames later Bingham missed a golden opportunity to make what was looking more and more like an impending victory even more special by missing the final red when on course for a 147. Despite a late fight-back from Murphy, Bingham maintained his cool and ploughed through to an eventual 18-15 victory over Shaun Murphy for his first ever World Title.

Adam Selby reports on Chris Froome’s victory at the Tour de France 2015.

When Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins made history in 2012 by becoming the first rider from the United Kingdom to win the yellow jersey and be crowned the winner of the Tour de France, nobody ever expected Chris Froome to not only repeat the remarkable achievement earned by his team-mate but to also win it in such quick succession only one year later. And given the continued success of British athletes in the Olympics and World Championships in all areas of the sport, even I began to ponder whether or not this was the dawn of a new era in cycling and whether Britannia would once again rule the waves (or the roads in this case). My aspirations for Froome and Wiggins to continue flying high at the top of the charts at the Tour de France every year were soon quashed, however, after Italian Rider Vicenzo Nibali, the bronze medallist podium finisher during Wiggins’ 2012 tournament win, capitalised on both Froome and Spanish rider Alberto Contador’s misfortune after crashing out early on in the tournament, to break the back to back wins of British riders, and claim the iconic yellow jersey.

Therefore, 2015 was a big year for several parties. Not just Chris Froome, not just Team Sky but Great British cycling as a whole on the biggest stage in the sport. Clearly in the build up to the competition, Team Sky had focused all of their attention on making sure Froome, the best placed rider to win the tournament outright, reclaimed his position on the podium and the yellow jersey that went with it. In typical fashion, as the 21 stage race got underway, it was very difficult to tell from the early stages just exactly who was going to win it from the opening stages of the campaign. But after early strokes of luck with an in-form Fabian Cancellara crashing out on stage three, as well as fellow yellow jersey holder Tony Martin’s withdrawal from the race early on, the stage was set for Froome to win his second Tour de France, so long as he avoided injury and maintained both his concentration and determination throughout the competition.

The Englishman had a taste of success after Stage three and wore the yellow jersey for the following stage, but it took until stage 7 for Froome to reclaim the coveted jersey and position as leader of the competition. An important win in stage 10 in a 104 mile mountain climb from Tarbes to La Pierre Saint-Martin was the turning point, where his fellow riders finally once again took notice of Froome as a serious contender for the overall victory, but again avoiding both injury and any loss of time to his closest competitors would prove to be the obstacles that could prevent what was increasingly looking like his second competition win.

Coming into the race as a favourite alongside the 2014 winner Nibali, Froome continued to live up to his pre-competition reputation with a number of impressive performances in the mountain stages. And although he wasn’t imperiously winning stage by stage, his lack of complacency in the all-important mountain stages meant the Englishman in fact lost very little time to his closest competitors. Just as they were getting the champagne on ice, Froome had to fend off the threat of being pipped to the post by Colombian rider Nairo Quintana, the eventual winner of the white jersey awarded for the best young rider, who challenged Froome right until the end. Quintana’s achievement of gaining an impressive eighty seconds over Froome in the penultimate stage must not be overlooked, but this mighty feat was not enough, and Quintana had to settle for second place.

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