Talking points,

New Year’s aspirations

2024 starts with a bang as the African Cup of Nations and the Australian Open get underway this week. I reflect on the biggest talking points from the world of sport with fresh challenges in prospect. 

1. Stepping up in trip
On Saturday at Kempton Edwardstone will make his first attempt beyond the two-mile trip since a hurdling event in 2021. After delivering a huge performance in the Tingle Creek at Sandown last December, he has failed to reproduce a performance of that ilk and the feeling for some time has been that he would be suited by stepping up in trip. A feeling confirmed by his two starts this season on which he has been decisively beaten by Jonbon on two occasions.

The Ryanair Chase has an open look to it with Allaho failing to hit the heights on his two starts since returning from a lengthy lay-off. Joseph O’Brien’s Banbridge will also be looking to make an impression and throw his hat into the Ryanair mix.

There is the sense that this division is waiting to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and if Edwardstone can win well in what looks like a competitive assignment, he could well be that horse and the 12/1 currently available for the Ryanair will not be available for long…

Edwardstone to win the Silvinaico Conti Chase @ 2/1

2. Wide open Afcon
While Premier League managers across the country collectively rage at losing their stars in the heat of domestic battle, an entire continent will be deaf to their protests. Despite it’s unfortunate timing, Afcon never fails to provide entertainment and the 2024 edition is looking particularly competitive.

After what Morocco achieved when reaching the World Cup semi-finals in Qatar, you would think they would be hot favourites for this tournament. They do assume the position at the top of the market, but there are doubts as to their strength relative to their 2022 vintage. Their star man at the World Cup, Sofyan Amrabat, has struggled to adjust to the pace of the Premier League and has played limited minutes as a result, while front men — Sofyan Boufal and Hakim Ziyech — are both struggling for form and fitness, with neither now plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues.

Senegal, the winners in 2023, will be confident in retaining their crown. They boast greater depth now with six of their 27-man squad Premier League players and the emergence of Pape Matar Sarr for Tottenham a big plus in the engine room. Sadio Mane may have joined the Saudi exodus from Europe last summer but remains a force to be reckoned with and should be complimented by the energy and enterprise of Nicholas Jackson.

The dark horse in the competition could be Eygpt. Finalists in 2021, they will feel the pain of that defeat on penalties, and they are led by a rejuvenated Mo Salah who at 31 is in arguably the form of his life.

Morocco to win Afcon @ 11/2

3. No Rafa Down Under
There will be no third Australian Open for Rafael Nadal, at least not in 2024, after the news filtered through on Sunday that he will not participate in this year’s tournament due to another injury setback.

It is an unfortunate development for all concerned and has raised fears that the great Spaniard may have played his last game in Australia. He looked to be on the way to making a comeback from the injury he suffered in this tournament last year, but for now that is on hold, and we can only hope he will recover in time for time for his favourite tournament at Roland Garros in May.

Carlos Alcaraz — the man who idolises Nadal — presents the best chance on paper of preventing Novak Djokovic from grabbing a record-extending eleventh Australian Open title. But Djokovic was also beaten by Alex De Minaur five days ago. The young Aussie will have the home crowd on his side and could become the first Australian to win the men’s singles since 1976.

Djokovic to win the Australian Open @ 21/20

4. Questions are the answers
Under the cosh at the Emirates, Liverpool had the look of a team carrying perhaps one absence too many. With the talismanic Mo Salah departed for Afcon and the recently impressive Wataru Endo away at the Asia Cup, there was a disjointed look to the purple Reds in North London.

Darwin Nunez was finding space hard to come by, Cody Gakpo looked awkward cutting in from the left, Alexis Macallister was struggling with the intensity of the Arsenal press and Harvey Elliott was doing an unconvincing Mo Salah impression down the right.

All in all, it looked like familiar questions would be raised. Do Liverpool require a specialist defensive midfielder, should Trent Alexander-Arnold be playing at right back, is Darwin Nunez a centre forward or a winger?

The second half brought changes not only from the bench. Gakpo and Nunez swapped, a young Connor Bradley was introduced at right back and suddenly Liverpool were finding pockets of space out wide and in behind.

Arsenal will rue their missed chances, but it is Liverpool who bloodied the nose of one of their title rivals on their own patch. Imperfect they may be, but the question marks around who starts and where, could be their greatest strength.

Diogo Jota to score anytime against Fulham @ 17/4

Lola Katz Roberts is a Content Executive at Fitzdares.

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