Steve McManaman: The Gold Cup is wide open

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Al Boum Photo will attempt to defend his Gold Cup crown next month.
Al Boum Photo will attempt to defend his Gold Cup crown next month.

In the latest edition of his exclusive column, Steve McManaman reflects on the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown, and looks at what it may mean in terms of the Cheltenham Gold Cup

It was hard not to be impressed with Delta Work’s victory in the Irish Gold Cup.

He ran really well, and produced a strong battling performance to see off two top drawer rivals in Kemboy and Presenting Percy for the second start running. It was a great win for Michael O’Leary and the Gigginstown boys, though again it’s hard to completely weigh up the form because of how close the trio finished together. Kemboy is still getting his fitness together after an interrupted start to the season, but Delta Work battled all the way to the line, and that’s always a really good sign for Cheltenham.

There are plenty with claims, however, including the defending champion Al Boum Photo…

While several of the front-runners in the market have had their claims dented one way or another, we can’t really say that about Al Boum Photo, because we hardly ever see him! He won at Tramore on New Year’s Day as well as we’d expect him too, and his supporters will be relying on his form last year - and the fact that he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and won it well - but it looks a particularly open-looking renewal of the race this year.

Al Boum Photo’s light campaign is something I can’t relate too, as I’d want to run him all of the time, but then again I was never lucky enough to own a Gold Cup winner with a serious chance of defending his crown. If you go back to the likes of Henrietta Knight with Best Mate, she would have a set plan for him every single year - Race A, followed by Race B and then the Cheltenham Gold Cup - and it worked. As an amateur owner I wanted my horse to run all of the time because I wanted to enjoy myself and enjoy owning them, but maybe if I had a horse of that class, perhaps I would be more reserved. Then again, when Seebald was in his pomp he was good enough to contest a Champion Chase and an Arkle and he ran six or seven times a season, so who knows!  

We can’t forget about the British challenge, either…

Santini proved his doubters wrong when winning the Cotswold Chase last week, and although I think those question marks around him were fair, it was great to see him bounce back from what was a disappointing (albeit winning) performance at Sandown in November. He had a wind operation in-between those two runs, and perhaps that cleared a few problems away, because he defeated an excellent yardstick in Bristol De Mai. Nicky Henderson always has his horses absolutely flying in time for Cheltenham, and he’ll arrive with every chance. Meanwhile, I think Native River is potentially the forgotten horse. Everyone thinks he’s ground dependant, and that he’s better with a bit of cut in the ground, but he’s a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner in his own right and it has been quite wet recently, so we’ll wait and see.

Last but not least, Faugheen continues to dazzle.

He was just incredible on Sunday, and Rich Ricci must be absolutely loving it. To pick up his eleventh Grade 1 success and seventeenth win overall at the grand old age of 12 is just brilliant, and it’s lovely to see those type of horses just keep on going. He was an absolute superstar in his younger career, and to see him come back like this after thinking his career was potentially over at the end of last season is some story. He didn’t jump particularly well, but he stayed on so well, and it was another brilliant victory. 

Over in the world of football, it’s all about one team. 

What Liverpool are doing this season in the Premier League is phenomenal - the best ever. 

However, until they win more trophies, they’re not going to be considered a great team. When they retain a title or cup, that’s when they go into the realms of a great team. 

Last year there were a few detractors saying they didn’t want Liverpool to win and a few people moaning, but I don’t think anybody can have any gripes about anything this year, they’ve just waltzed away with it.

The fact that they can win the Premier League in March is absolutely astonishing. They can even win it at Goodison Park, which would be even more galling for the Everton fans if that were to happen, but that’s dependent on whether Manchester City drop points before then too.

To rack up 100 points out of 102 is phenomenal, and I don’t care what league you’re in, even in dominant leagues that’s just unheard of nowadays.

We all like to see competition, but we all eulogised when Manchester City got 100 points and nobody begrudged them because they were incredibly good. 

Likewise, if Liverpool run away with it this year then you can’t knock it, it’s just an incredible performance. 

The January transfer window may have shut, but clubs are already making their plans for the summer, and it’s interesting to see Jadon Sancho linked with the Reds…

Sancho would probably prefer to go somewhere where he will start week-in and week-out and there’s no problem with that.

The other thing to consider is the cost implications. How much is he going to cost? No doubt, he’s an extremely bright prospect, he’s doing really well in Dortmund, he plays regularly and he’s a star there.

Whether Liverpool would go for him now, I don’t know and if he was available, he’d command big money. And there a number of clubs that would go for him.

Jadon could cost £60 million-£75 million and that’s a lot of money for somebody that young even though he looks a fantastic prospect.  It’s a big outlay for a player and in all honesty Liverpool’s young players are all doing well themselves and Jurgen Klopp seems to want to give them a go.  

2020 Cheltenham Festival Tips

It could be that they instead opt to bring a certain Philippe Countinho back to the club.

I wouldn’t mind seeing Coutinho back. He’s a brilliant player but a lot of it is just down to economics. 

If they can bring Coutinho back for a reasonable fee and potentially sell a couple of players who aren't playing regularly, then that could work. There are rumours that Xherdan Shaqiri may leave at the end of the season, and Adam Lallana may want to play more often.

If there’s space available then I’d certainly like Coutinho back, as he was a wonderful player for Liverpool. He’s that type of player that when plan A isn’t working he can change the game. He scored some incredible goals for Liverpool and though he’d have to win the fans over after he asked to leave, I think that most fans would recognise how good he was for Liverpool.

He seems to have lost his way a bit at the minute, he needs a bit of TLC and an arm around him doesn’t he? So if he wants to come back to Liverpool and the deal was good then I’d have no qualms taking him back because he’s a lovely player.

Over in Spain, Gareth Bale resisted the temptation to leave Real Madrid, having been linked with a transfer away…

Personally, I don’t think he should have moved in January. If he wants to move, he should wait until the summer and and give himself a couple of months to sort everything out. However, there is Euro 2020 to consider. 

Real Madrid are playing very well now. Zinedine Zidane has got them playing very well these last few months and they look a really hard team to beat, so Gareth may as well stay there.

I know he’s had his injury problems, like Hazard, but you may as well stay there because he will still have an important role to play until the end of the season if they’re successful.

He loves Madrid, he loves the city, he loves the lifestyle and the culture. As long as he wants to stay there, he has a number of years left on his contract, then he will stay there.

Speaking of Zidane, it would be a shuddering blow to Los Blancos should he walk away from the club.

He’s turned it round again this year - I know he’s gone back to his tried and tested formation of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric, but he’s also getting really good results.

He won the Supercopa recently, he’s top of the league now and of course they’ve got Manchester City in the Champions League.

He’s walked away before so I presume when he retook the job he must have been given certain promises about various things. If promises are broken, then he could walk away again. He’s a strong-willed man and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. If there’s anyone that can walk away then it will be Zizou.

It will be interesting to see what happens there as he’s hardly played any of players that he bought in the summer.

Luka Jovic has hardly played, he’s gone back to Karim Benzema who’s been incredible this year, so I do think he wants a bigger say on transfers, but as we know in Spain, players come and go.

The President and the sporting director sometimes choose their own players and give them as a gift to the managers, so we will wait and see. 

If he wins the league and leaves, then there will be a queue of clubs who would want him to be their manager.

Regarding the links to Juventus, he played for them, he speaks Italian and he’s a hero over there, so it would be easy for him there. Because Juventus are so dominant, he knows Cristiano very well, he knows a lot of the players very well.

I don’t know how Maurizio Sarri is thought about at Juventus, but they’re playing very well at the moment. They’re top of the league despite it being a bit closer than normal.

I think Zizou could take any job at the moment. He’d get the PSG job if he wanted it, he’d probably get the Bayern Munich job if he wanted it. Everybody would want him because of his record and what he’s achieved in such a short time.

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