Cheltenham Festival Day 1
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Cheltenham Insights Clan Des Obeaux has to be the favourite for the King George

The festive season is upon us and there’s plenty of quality racing to look forward to over the Christmas period. The renowned King George VI Chase at Kempton is one of the racing highlights at this time of year and Steve McManaman is backing Clan Des Obeaux for a victory in this prestigious Boxing Day showdown. Returning with his column, Steve discusses the form of Envoi Allen, Douvan’s full brother Jonbon and Shishkin’s removal from the Tingle Creek.

Envoi Allen wasn’t victorious in one of the strongest all-round races we’ve seen in a while at Punchestown...

The John Durkan race was a hell of a race! Last year Envoi was in novice company and the year before that he was a star hurdler, but this time around I believe he was just up against real opposition. It was unfortunate the way he finished last year, when he pulled up and was injured. He had a prep run, which he won and then he ran in the John Durkan, which is a very difficult race considering the opposition included horses such as Allaho and others of a similar calibre. The strength of that field made it one of the best quality races we’ve seen all-round in terms of the depth. I don’t necessarily believe that Envoi Allen ran a bad race, it just sadly didn’t work out. He was in contention but never looked like he was going to win. Allaho, who performed magnificently in the Ryanair Chase in March, held out strongly to beat them all, so I don’t believe many excuses can be made for any of the horses. There were multiple winners in the mix but somebody had to win!

We’re a few weeks away from the King George and in my opinion, Clan Des Obeaux has to be the favourite for it.

If he’s fit and well, then he can win it. There don’t seem to be a lot of standout horses. It’ll be interesting to see the Irish horses come over for the race once the declarations come out. The Betfair Chase was won by A Plus Tard, whilst Bristol De Mai was disappointing. You also don’t know if the 2.5-miler horses such as Frodon will also be looking to compete in that 3-mile category because, of course, Boxing Day at Kempton isn’t as taxing as the Gold Cup. Clan Des Obeaux surely has to go to the race as the favourite as he’s won others like it.

Jonbon, the full brother to Douvan, is the current favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle but his 7/2 ante-post price is absurd.

The ante-post price of 7/2 is ridiculous. His bloodline rather than performances are the reason behind that. Jonbon won very well at Newbury but that was a race he should have won. 7/2 is far too short but the one thing you would say is that JP’s spent a lot of money on him. His bloodline is great, he ran and won very well at Newbury and there’s still a lot of improvement to come from him. JP and AP McCoy are both involved too and they certainly know their horses, especially Supreme Novice horses. It’s incredibly exciting isn’t it? Regardless of the price, which JP won’t be interested in anyway, he’s got another real candidate for a race at Cheltenham.

Nicky Henderson’s decision to remove Shishkin from the Tingle Creek indicates he may be suffering from injury in the lead up to the Cheltenham Festival

In this respect there’s certainly a lot of emphasis on the Festival. Nicky Henderson and Shishkin might have had a little setback there which we haven’t been told about. The fact that he never ran suggests that, which put him out of training. Nicky has always targeted Tingle Creek for his horses. It was a pity that he wasn’t there as the Tingle Creek wasn’t as strong as we would have liked it to be. Chacun Pour Soi came over to bring some quality to the race but overall it lacked depth. It would have been good to see those two horses go head to head just to get an idea of how good the English two-mile chasers are. We will just have to wait and see. Chacun Pour Soi didn't run the way that people expected and Greaneteen, who was an outsider, was victorious, so you couldn’t get an idea of how good the speedy two-mile chasers are.

Despite Real Madrid flying in La Liga this season, I still don’t see them as a threat to the English sides in this year’s Champions League. 

I still feel like the English sides and Bayern Munich are the most likely sides to win the Champions League this season. Real Madrid have done really well considering that they only brought in David Alaba in the summer. Karim Benzema has been brilliant whilst Vinícius Jr. has really stepped up and improved a lot from last year. But La Liga is weaker than it has been for a long time. Atletico Madrid struggled in their Champions League group and qualified in their final game and Barcelona have fallen so much that it’s actually quite sad to see. The title race this year has just been left open for Real Madrid and with the experience that Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and David Alaba possess, they can win the Spanish League with everybody fit and well. However, in the semi-finals last season against Chelsea, they were poor and it’s only a year on, so I still imagine the English sides will be too much for them.

Over the weekend, Cristiano Ronaldo was linked with a sensational move back to Real Madrid. Even though I find it unlikely, I don’t believe a return is impossible. 

It’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible when you’re talking about Real Madrid. They haven’t spent much money in recent times so they now have a war chest of cash to spend. They’ve been renovating the stadium and then of course COVID happened, so Real have been getting themselves ready for when they come out the other side, like most teams have. Barcelona may be struggling but Real Madrid are flourishing. They’ve got money and there’s a good chance that Kylian Mbappé will go there as well as Antonio Rüdiger for free. They also sound as if they’re interested in Erling Haaland who they can bring in if they want too. The renovation of the Bernabeu almost symbolises a new dawn at Real Madrid. There’s a lot of opportunities for players to go to Real Madrid. They’ve got the funds to battle with other teams and if Mbappé goes there then it looks even more enticing for other players to go. Cristiano could go back but I think he will have another year at Manchester United and then see. 

Another forward who’s been linked with the La Liga leaders is Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski...

It’s never been possible to prize him out of Bayern Munich. I’m sure he would have loved to have played for Real Madrid a while ago but he’s always been such a great player for Bayern and they cherish him. They’ve always wanted a lot of money for him and rightly so as he’s the best number nine around. 

Sticking with Bayern Munich’s talisman, I believe he should have won the 2021 Ballon d’Or.

Right now you would have to say that either Mohamed Salah or Robert Lewandowski are currently the best players in the world. Mo has an amazing goalscoring record but so does Lewandowski, who scores bundles of goals every single year. I personally believe that Lewandowski should have won the Ballon d’Or after breaking Gerd Müller’s record. I know Lionel Messi won the Copa America but I watched the tournament and the standard of football wasn’t the best and it wasn’t as if Lionel Messi was outstanding himself. 

It will be interesting to see how Mohamed Salah gets on in the Africa Cup of Nations this year.  As long as he keeps replicating his current form then there’s certainly a chance he can win the 2022 Ballon d’Or. Titles come into it and who wins the Champions League will also be a factor.

Though he has yet to sign a new deal at the club with 18 months left on his current contract, I would be shocked if Mohamed Salah left Liverpool. 

Yes I would be shocked if Mo leaves. I think he wants to stay. Liverpool want him to stay. I think they’ve had discussions and the agent is more than happy for him to stay, and it’s just about how much he wants. I have no idea how much that is, but I don’t think it’s extortionate. 

He’s got 18 months left on his contract. If it doesn’t get done or the indication is that it won’t get done, he very may well leave. I personally think he’ll stay but it’ll be awful for Liverpool fans to see him leave next year.

Divock Origi is the perfect squad player. Everybody at Liverpool adores him.

If he wants to stay at Liverpool knowing he’s going to play a lot more when Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane go off to the Africa Cup of Nations in January, he might think ‘this is the place for me. I’m really happy here, I’m settled here, my family’s happy here.’ He scored in the Champions League semi-final and he scored in the Champions League final. He scores big goals and he has a big impact when he plays. So maybe he feels that is better than moving to a lesser team and playing in lesser games, and not being as excited a footballer as when you are playing in the Champions League.

As a footballer you want to play as many games as physically possible so you can think he should have left before now. But most of the people who are making these comments about him leaving Liverpool stopped playing football 10, 15, 20 years ago. And maybe this is just a new thing. Maybe he feels loved at Liverpool - and he is loved at Liverpool! He’s an absolute superstar. Everybody adores him. He’s very well-paid, and the games he plays in are all high-profile, quality games. Who’s to say if he left Liverpool and went to a mid-table Premier League team that he would get the same enjoyment? He’s playing against the best opposition, he’s playing in the Champions League when called upon, he’s playing in FA Cup games, he’s involved in the highest games at the highest level. So maybe he’s very happy playing that role - that 20 games a season role - and knows that he’s playing a part.

He might finish his career by playing 250 games and winning lots of trophies. And who’s to say that’s wrong? He’ll always have a huge reputation at Liverpool. In the end they’ve all got a part to play and that’s what having a squad is all about.

Jude Bellingham could be absolutely frightening at the right club.

He’s got all the attributes to be a superstar. When you look through the teams and the sides that could buy him - Manchester United would need that type of player as a central midfielder. Manchester City, with Rodri, Ä°lkay GündoÄŸan, Bernardo Silva, not so much. Liverpool have got Jordan Henderson, Thiago, Fabinho. Of course it would be a great signing, he’s a great player, but whether Liverpool need him now is another thing. Henderson is moving towards the end of his career. James Milner also. So Liverpool could always take another centre midfielder but it’s very congested in there. Georginio Wijnaldum left the club in the summer and people said they needed to replace him but they didn’t. But whether people move on and Jürgen brings Jude in is another thing. City could accommodate him but they’ve got a plethora of great players in there and he mightn’t play. I think United need a centre midfielder of that ilk. Nemanja Matić and Juan Mata are coming to the end of their careers and Paul Pogba may leave. So if there’s one team that needs a player like Jude Bellingham, it’s Manchester United. 

Based purely on what he did for Liverpool, any team would take Georginio Wijnaldum.

It’s great going to Paris Saint-Germain, of course it is. But then they brought Lionel Messi in, then Sergio Ramos, What looked like a nice project has probably turned into an ‘Oh my lord, what have I turned up to here?!’ situation.

Wijnaldum went to PSG on a free and but anyone who wanted to sign him would have to pay for him now because he signed a long-term deal, on good wages so it would take a lot to get him away from there now. Barcelona were interested in him at one stage but they are in a bit of a mess. Any team would take him on his form for Liverpool but it all depends on finances.

For me, Trent Alexander-Arnold is the best right-back in the Premier League

There are an abundance of great right-backs in the Premier League, but for me, Trent Alexander-Arnold has to be the standout one. When we talk about the best full-backs Reece James is a really good player, though he plays in a different type of role at Chelsea to Trent at Liverpool. Kyle Walker and is great for Manchester City. Kieran Trippier is Spanish champion with Atlético de Madrid.

But Trent, the way he plays for Liverpool - that role just suits him down to the ground. And the way Liverpool play suits him. He’s in brilliant, brilliant form. He links up with Jordan Henderson inside. He links up with Salah in front of him. At this moment in time that side of the Liverpool pitch is working really well.

The fact that England have got so many great right-backs, is a great problem to have but it’s hard to compare them. They’ve all got specific roles to play for their clubs. Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City all play differently, but they’re all sitting at the top of the Premier League.

I feel sorry for Barcelona’s youngsters. Because it’s such a mess at that club, you don't really know how good those players are.

Gavi’s only 17 and to be very honest I feel sorry for a lot of the Barcelona kids. The name of Barcelona and the club has been put on their shoulders. And whether it’s Gavi, Pedri, Nico González, Ronald Araújo, they’re either not good enough for Barcelona yet, or they are good enough and they’re just in a struggling team. It’s hard for 17, 18 year olds to pick a team like Barcelona up and take them forward. They’ve fallen that much. But at this moment in time, you just don’t know how good those kids are.

He will get better but there has been a massive overreaction to Jack Grealish’s slow start at Manchester City.

There's more scrutiny because of the price tag. If he had gone to City for £10m, no one would be interested. But as soon as he went to £100m and he became the most expensive player, of course there’s more attention on him and his performances.

But he does have to improve. He has been injured and and came back at Watford and he probably should have scored, maybe twice. They were decent enough chances for him and that would have helped him. I didn’t necessarily expect him have a superstar  performance against Wolves as it wasn’t a game where you could ‘star’ by the way the game was played, with Wolves basically just defending. But yes he will get better. Working with Pep Guardiola will make him better. He does have to be a little bit quicker, because Manchester City play quicker than the way he played at Aston Villa, but he’ll be fine. 

And finally, I’m absolutely thrilled for Raheem, he deserves everything he’s worked so hard for.

It’s great that he has scored his 100th Premier League goal. It’s a great record for him. He’s a really nice guy and he’s done really well. He’s had times at City when he hasn’t played because of the depth of their squad and there have been rumours about him, but he’s kept his head down, worked hard, and got back into the team. He had a great summer with England and he’s played really well for City this year and turned into one of their most dangerous forwards. I’m absolutely thrilled to bits for him. He deserves everything he gets.

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