Cheltenham Insights: Why I don’t expect Al Boum Photo to win a third Gold Cup

The Cheltenham Festival is finally upon us! In a week’s time the festival will begin with the Supreme Novices' Hurdle on Tuesday afternoon, with Nicky Henderson’s Constitution Hill the current favourite for victory. Ahead of the festival, Steve McManaman returns with his column to discuss whether he will be in attendance, how many winners he expects Willie Mullins to have and why he doesn’t expect Al Boum Photo to win a third Gold Cup.

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I’ve always loved the Tuesday racing at the Cheltenham Festival.

“I’m probably not going to attend the festival this year as it’s a Champions League week and I’ll be working. I may opt to watch the Thursday or Friday races with my father at home as he loves his horses. 

“As I’ve mentioned in my column previously, my favourite day for racing at Cheltenham is the Tuesday. I like all the big races on each day, of course I do. I love the Champion Chase on the Wednesday too, and Energumene vs Shishkin is going to be a classic. I’ve always loved the Friday racing with the Gold Cup, the Triumph Hurdle and the County Hurdle. But I personally have always enjoyed the Tuesday more than any other day as you start the festival off with the Supreme, the Arkle and then a couple of races later you’ve got the Champion Hurdle. I really enjoy that particular day. Previously it was considered one of the quieter days and that was the day I usually aimed to attend."

It’s hard to predict just how many winners Willie Mullins will get at Cheltenham, but if he can get at least six then that would be amazing. 

“Any other year, six winners is a ridiculous amount but when it comes to Willie Mullins, then it’s not out of the realm of possibility. If a jockey got six victories then you’d be absolutely amazed so if a trainer got six wins then you’d be absolutely delighted with that. He has two favourites, as well as a number of second and third favourites with Appreciate It being an example of one of those."

If Galopin Des Champs came up against Bob Olinger over fences, then I’d back Willie Mullins’ entry. 

“What I’ve seen over fences this year makes me want to back Galopin Des Champs. I backed Bob Olinger last year over hurdles and he won really, really well as he was expected to. Over fences this year, I believe that Galopin Des Champs looks a lot more natural. If they both were to compete in a high pace Cheltenham race over fences then I’d be more confident in Galopin Des Champs being victorious in the Turners Novices' Chase.” 

I don’t expect to see Al Boum Photo join the elite list of horses to have won the Gold Cup on three occasions. 

“I don’t think he’ll be victorious in the Cheltenham Gold Cup this year unfortunately. Last year he was disappointing coming up against the likes of Minella Indo and A Plus Tard, so can he improve a year later? I don’t think so sadly. I wouldn’t be backing him.”

It’s too early to select an ideal bet for the Festival as there’s still over a week to go. 

“If you want me to say Honeysuckle at 4/7 then that’s no problem! You want a little bit of value don’t you? I quite like the look of Flooring Porter in the Stayers’ Hurdle. I know he was beaten by Klassical Dream in the Christmas Hurdle in December after he let him have a really big start and ever since then, Klassical Dream has flattered to deceive. Another bet could be for  Energumene or Shishkin in the Champion Chase. Would you bet against Shishkin? I think Honeysuckle would be victorious as there’s nothing really up against her. I’m also looking forward to seeing Facile Vega in the Champion Bumper and seeing how good he is. Tiger Roll will be a very popular bet in the Cross Country Chase. I haven’t got a bet ready at the moment as like everybody else, I’ll be sitting there the day before the festival and seeing which horses have been declared for each race.”

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Onto football. I’d love to see my former club Liverpool win the quadruple but I believe it’s going to be incredibly difficult for them to do so. 

“I believe the quadruple is nigh-on-impossible, but Liverpool do have a chance. They’ve got Nottingham Forest in the next round of the FA Cup and they’ve got a good chance of progressing to the Quarter-Finals of the Champions League. The hardest challenge for them will be coming up against Manchester City in the league. City will be at home when they face Liverpool on April 10th and will be considered slight favourites to win that game, so that’s going to be a difficult one. It will be incredibly hard for Liverpool to achieve a quadruple, as it was for Manchester City a few years ago.

“It’s great that Liverpool have won a trophy already this season but even with one in the bag, I still believe a quadruple will be nearly impossible.”

Rumours suggest that Jude Bellingham wants to stay at Borussia Dortmund this summer and I don’t think this decision will impact Liverpool’s chances of signing him in the future. 

“Regarding the rumours that Jude is set to stay in Germany next season, Borussia Dortmund only need to sell one player this season and that’s expected to be Erling Haaland. They don’t need to sell anyone else. Jude would play every game for Borussia Dortmund, which he wouldn’t for Liverpool or Manchester City. You can understand why he’s going to stay if he does end up staying this summer. He will keep on improving as he will be playing every game and playing in European competition. He’s only a baby. There’s plenty of time for him to move clubs if he does want to move clubs in the future. I don’t think him staying at Dortmund this summer will jeopardise Liverpool or Manchester City’s chances of signing him down the line. At this moment in time, they’re the two best teams in Europe, they’re incredibly strong and the competition for places is madness. I don’t think Jude spending another season in Germany will hinder either side.” 

He may have been out injured a lot this season, but if I was a prospective buyer of Erling Haaland I wouldn’t be too worried. 

“I wouldn’t be too concerned if I was a prospective buyer when it comes to Erling Haaland’s injury woes this season. Of course, clubs are going to do their due diligence on him, especially if you’re going to spend a lot of money to sign him. At this particular moment if I was Manchester CIty, Real Madrid, Barcelona or whoever tries to sign him, I wouldn’t be worried at all by the injuries he’s had this season.”

If Harry Kane wants to leave Tottenham this summer, then I hope he gets his wish.

“I believe Harry Kane will push to leave Tottenham again this summer. Considering that he wanted to leave last summer, then after the season Spurs have had this year with all the turmoil surrounding the club, then I can see him wanting to leave again this summer. I thought the situation regarding his future was handled poorly by everybody involved last time. If he does want to leave then I hope he gets his wish. He’s been a great servant for Tottenham and he deserves to win the biggest trophies. Considering that he’s been at the club all his life and considering what he’s done in a Tottenham shirt, I thought it was awful that he was priced out of a move. I don’t know whether he wants to move or not but once you get to 29 years of age then it’s hard to keep improving as a player, so if he wants to leave then I hope he gets his wish.”

Keep an eye on Yéremy Pino but he wouldn’t make Manchester City or Liverpool better right now.

“I wouldn’t go overboard yet with a young player like that, but I can understand all the talk about him. He’s had a good season. I saw him initially at the beginning of the season against Chelsea in the Super Cup and they were in Europe in the Champions League, which I worked on. I watched a lot of him and a lot of Villarreal. You know what Villarreal are like. They’re not a big spending team. Their record signing is Arnaut Danjuma from Bournemouth. They are a club that needs to buy and sell.

“There’s a bit of a furore about Pino. Is Pino going to come into the Manchester City team and make them better? Well no, not at the moment. That’s not being disrespectful to the young 19-year-old. He’s just not.

“Yes, he’s someone to keep an eye on - of course he is! All these young players who play this style of football, everybody keeps an eye on them and looks at them all the time. But for City or Liverpool I’ll probably say no at this moment in time.”

Jules Koundé attracts attention but he has to improve if he wants a move to a Premier League club like Liverpool.

“I’ve seen him a lot. He and [fellow Sevilla centre-back] Diego Carlos are linked with a lot of clubs every single year. I think the pair of them could easily go in the end. A couple of years ago they were worth £40m, £50m, £60m and then they struggled to a certain extent. Sevilla are doing OK at the moment. They’re playing well at the minute, but like every single year they just flatter to deceive a little bit.

“Koundé is a French international and he’s young. He will attract attention. The way defenders in Spain play always means they do. But even though he’s only 23 years old, he has been around and has been highly thought of for the past couple of years. However, nobody’s plumped for him yet, and there’s a reason. It’s either because he’s too expensive or he’s just not top level yet. I still think he has to improve if he’s going to be in the top echelons of the Premier League, where you will find the very best teams.

“To get a player from a top six La Liga club into the Premier League, that player really has to have been playing well and lighting up La Liga. You have to be exceptional to jump into the Premier League starting XIs.”

It won’t be much of a statement signing, but if the deal is good, Georginio Wijnaldum could be a good signing for Aston Villa.

“I don’t think he’d have been regretting leaving Liverpool, I presume it was a financial reason and he’s been compensated really well going to PSG. And they’re probably going to win the league and a cup in France because they’re too strong for the French league. I think he’d have experienced a different type of lifestyle in Paris with the type of players they’ve got.

“Whether he’ll go to Villa is another thing. He went to Paris on a free, they gave him a lot of money, so I’d presume they’d want a fee for him. How much they’d want for him and how much Villa would want for him would be a big stumbling point. He’s 31 now and I don’t think it’d be much of a statement signing. The way Philippe Coutinho’s playing, you’d want to sign him. If his clause is £30m, then there’s not a lot of money to go around for other people. I think if you could do a deal to bring Wijnaldum in, on a free contract or whatever, it might be worth doing it. He’s highly experienced and he’s a great professional to have around. He got very rarely injured at Liverpool, his constitution was excellent, and I thought he was great there.

“It’s also a matter of age and if he’d get in the way of some of the younger players. Last year Aston Villa won the Youth Cup final so they have got younger players coming through.

“But if the deal is good, I’ve got no problem with that. He will help players for the next three or four years, no problem at all. He’s a really really good pro and I like him.”

He can’t be number two forever, but, for now, Caoimhin Kelleher should sit and learn and then branch out on his own. 

“‘The best number two in the world’ is just a throwaway remark from Jürgen, so I’m not interested in that. I know Caoimhin and he’s a lovely kid and I’m thrilled to bits that he’s doing this. He will have to play football soon. You don’t want to be a number two for ten years. I think we all know that. But I don’t think he needs to go this summer. He should probably sit and be successful and learn more from Alisson and the goalkeeping coaches around him. And then this time next year we might be having a different conversation.

“He’s had a breakthrough season this year. He’s moved in front of Adrian. I think he’s probably got another year of learning and playing with the very very best. That wouldn’t do him any harm at all. And then he would think about what’s the next step in his career. A couple of years of learning and then branch out on your own.”

I would love Liverpool to sign Kylian Mbappé but realistically if they needed strengthening anywhere it would be in the midfield department.

“If I could sign anybody I would sign [Kylian] Mbappé. Even though he’s going to cost too much. I thought he was brilliant at Monaco and then he went to Paris and has been great. Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Lionel] Messi are coming to the end and Mbappé has been the one who has been standing up this year. He’s the real superstar.

“And then it’d be somebody like Erling Haaland - a centre-forward who would score you a load of goals. But with this money and how much you would want, it just sets the dressing room on fire. For everyone else, you’d have to pay them.

“If you look at Liverpool’s setup at the minute, if they needed strengthening it would be with a different type of midfielder to what they have now. It would probably be one of the big hitters if they could afford it.”

Mauricio Pochettino would suit Manchester United down to the ground.

“I think he would strengthen Manchester United, but anybody would at the moment. I don’t mean that disrespectfully. They’re all over the place. They need to appoint ‘A Manager’ - and I’m not saying it’s Pochettino - and give them a little bit of strength and a little bit of stability. I feel sorry for [Ralf[] Rangnick coming in because with this ‘interim appointment’ to the end of the season and then him going upstairs, there are so many uncertainties that they’ve weakened his case as a manager. The way it’s been handled has been shambolic. If it was Poch, if it was Erik ten Hag, it would strengthen Manchester United’s case, the way they are. It’s just been a mess, really, and very unbecoming of them. I think they’ll be better regardless. Pochettino is a great manager. He’d suit Manchester United down to the ground. And then he could probably aim for Real Madrid later down the line.”

Carlo Ancelotti, on the other hand, wouldn’t be a good appointment for Manchester United.

“No, it wouldn’t be a good appointment for Manchester United. I don’t see the point of it. United need stability at the minute, they need to plan, and pick a good manager, give him time, and back him to a certain extent in what he wants to do with the players. If he wants to get rid of players, he needs to be backed. But they need some stability and they need it long-term.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with Carlo at Real Madrid. It looks like he’s going to win the league so I’d be surprised if they get rid of him. A lot of it will depend on what happens in the Champions League.”

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