Cheltenham Festival Day 1
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Cheltenham Insights: Why I expect the Irish horses to dominate at Cheltenham

With the Cheltenham Festival just weeks away, we’re beginning to get a clear idea of which owners, trainers and horses will be planning to make a name for themselves at the meeting. Returning with his monthly column, Steve McManaman discusses all things Cheltenham including why he believes the Irish horses will dominate, why Galopin Des Champs is well suited to the 2 mile Brown Advisory and why it’s hard to predict the winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. 

Galopin Des Champs looks like one of the best chasers around and I predict that he’ll be going for the 2 mile Brown Advisory at the Cheltenham Festival.

At this moment in time, I believe that the two mile Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase is better suited to him. He has looked outstanding over the last couple of races I’ve seen him participate in, when he’s stepped up in class, he has just ran away with everything. Leads from the start, runs away, jumps like a buck, doesn’t touch a twig and just keeps going further and further away. He’s an absolute machine. He’s going to be a very short priced favourite, so I presume at such an early stage of his career that Willie Mullins will go for an easier race at the Cheltenham Festival which I believe will be the two-miler. 

I expect the Irish horses to dominate at Cheltenham once again this year.

I certainly hope that we see improvements this year from the British trained horses. Over the last few years, Ireland having most of the winners has been the bet of the tournament. The horses coming over were so strong and last year it was the same. The odds won’t be 4/6 this year, it’ll be more like 1/10 for more Irish winners.

When you look at many of the grade 1 races at the Festival, all the favourites at the head of the market are Irish trained horses. There should definitely be a better fightback from the British horses but when you look at it as a whole, you feel as if the Irish are going to dominate again. 

A lot of the horses coming over to the UK have very favourable handicap conditions. As there are so many unknowns and so many competitive races in Ireland, you feel as if they have more to benefit from handicap conditions than British horses. I certainly believe the Irish will be big favourites to dominate again.

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It’s always difficult to predict the winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

With the Supreme, you usually go for horses such as Sir Gerhard, who has run really well. I really love the Supreme Novices Hurdle as there are so many unknown quantities and that’s the great thing about it. Sir Gerhard has taken to hurdles really well, so his form in the bumper last year was really spot on. Dysart Dynamo has also been incredibly impressive recently but your eye gets drawn towards the Irish horses when it comes to tipping a winner. The Supreme is one of those races you just sit and watch. You have a firm favourite for the Champion Hurdle but for the Supreme there are so many unknown horses who can come out of the shadows, which makes this race one which you can just sit back and observe rather than taking a punt on it.

Honeysuckle will be the star attraction for the first day of the Cheltenham Festival. 

She must rank very highly now amongst the hurdling greats. This mare is an absolute superstar isn’t she? And she looks like she’s going to bolt up this year too. If she’s in the same kind of form that she was in last year then she should win on the bridle in the Champion Hurdle. Epatante is getting a little bit older and Honeysuckle will be around 1/2 to win the race. She’s been up against some great horses over the last two or three years and has beaten them all. She’s now sitting pretty at the top of the pile by a good distance. She will be the star billing for the first day at the Cheltenham Festival.

Michael O’Leary’s decision to rule Tiger Roll out of the Grand National didn’t come as a surprise to me. 

I can understand the decision and I can understand why many are complaining about the weight. If it wasn’t Michael O’Leary then it would have been someone else. Tiger Roll is a year older and O’Leary is trying to protect him and if other horses above him were pulled out of the Grand National then it could be 11-09, 11-10. We know he’s not a big imposing type of horse and he has won before whilst carrying weight before, but that was a few years ago. 

The way Tiger Roll ran at Cheltenham last year in the cross country showed that he hadn’t lost any of his vigour. Whether he has this year though is another question. I totally understand why Michael O’Leary wants to focus on other races now and leave out the Grand National because four and a half miles around Aintree whilst carrying a large weight is a big ask considering the age Tiger Roll is at now.

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Liverpool have ensured that the title race is back on, but Manchester City are still the favourites in my eyes.

I’d still say that Manchester City are the favourites. They’re ahead in the table and they’ve got a home fixture against Liverpool too. Neutrals don’t want to see a team be 20 points clear at the top of the table and it’s great that we’re now talking about the title race being back on. Everybody is giddy about it after Tottenham's victory at the weekend. 

Liverpool still have to do the business on Wednesday against Leeds as they need to keep within three points or less by the time they face Manchester City at the Etihad. A few years ago when there was a close race between the two sides, both teams kept winning game after game and that just highlights the quality of these two sides. As fans we want to be talking about a really exciting Premier League title race this season. 

I’m very excited by Liverpool’s new signing Luis Díaz.

It’s very early days but it will be difficult for Luis Díaz to emulate Mo Salah’s success at Liverpool. When Mohamed Salah came into the club initially, he wasn’t known as the goal scoring machine which he’s turned out to be. When you consider who Mo is up there with in terms of the club’s other great goalscorers such as Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, it’s phenomenal in itself. 

Regarding Luis Díaz, you don’t want to put pressure on players but he looks a  real Liverpool type player and suits the way that Jurgen Klopp wants them to play. He’s aggressive, hunts the ball down, he’s quick with the ball and he gets goals. He’ll certainly get lots of goals but I doubt he’ll get near Mohamed Salah as Liverpool now have more options up front and there’s going to be more of an opportunity to chop and change.

I’d love Liverpool to get Kylian Mbappé but I’m a realist. 

Everybody you speak to in Madrid, and every person you speak to in France, says Kylian Mbappé is going to join Real Madrid. It’s just a matter of getting their Champions League tie out of the way. Of course he could join Liverpool but the fact that you’d have to pay him £1 million a week, I just don’t think it’s going to happen!

Kylian Mbappé is the best player in the world at the moment. I know Mo [Salah]’s had a great season. [Robert]Lewandowski has too. But when you look at the heir apparent to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Mbappé’s the one you’d pick, because of his age and his dynamism. 

I’d love Liverpool to get him but I’m a realist. When I look at it, the only place I can see him turning up is at Real Madrid and I think the deal is probably already done.

Liverpool aren't crying out for Kylian Mbappé, the way he plays and the position he plays. If they lose a couple of the centre-forwards, then yes. But I just can’t see it happening and they’ve just brought in Luis Díaz and they’ve now got five forwards. I just think it would be surreal if they went for another one.  

João Félix isn’t good enough to play for Liverpool.

It’s possible we will see him in the Premier League in the next few years. I don’t know whether he wants to go and play abroad. But he’s certainly struggled at Atlético. His reputation when he went to Atlético was huge. It was a big, big price tag for such a young lad coming out of Portugal and he hasn’t lived up to it at all. I don’t think he’s good enough to play for Liverpool from what I’ve seen and I don’t know who else would take him. If he was €30 million, someone would take a chance on him but there’s no way, from what you’ve seen, that someone’s going to pay a lot of money for him to bring him to the Premier League. If anything I think he’d stay in Spain or go back to Portugal. 

We’ve said before, certain players suit certain teams and certain players don’t, and he’s one, going to play for Simeone and the way they play just doesn’t suit. It just looks like the wrong fit. They’ve tried every type of player there, from  Suarez, Correas,  Griezmann, to Joao Felix’, and nothing seems to be working at the moment. I can totally understand why he’s struggled at Atlético Madrid. But whether he turns up in the Premier League, it wouldn’t be for the price tag and the fanfare that it was when he joined Atlético Madrid.

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I would say to Jacob Ramsey ‘just stay at Villa, keep your head down’. He’s doing great at the moment, don’t change it. 

He’s a young lad who’s done really well under Steven Gerrard and Dean Smith. I watched Aston Villa beat Liverpool last year in the Youth Cup final and they had a really good group of lads. They have to keep those players. The best thing for him is to stay at Aston Villa and learn his trade, play more and keep doing what he’s doing. Whether or not he’s going to be good enough in the future for Liverpool, I don’t think they need him now. For the kid’s welfare, he’s probably best staying where he is, learning from Steven and the players around him. He’s doing great at the moment, don’t change it. There’s plenty of time in his long career to think about whether he wants a move. But at this moment in time, I’d say just stay at Villa, keep your head down, work hard, keep learning and keep improving. And if he can get into the England squad, that would be incredible for him, with the World Cup around the corner.

Sadio Mané would be a superstar signing for Real Madrid or Barcelona.

I doubt he would move and whether they’d let him go is debatable. He’s only got 18 months left on his contract. Whether Real Madrid or Barcelona could afford him is also the question. Barcelona can’t afford him. I know Mané’s got 18 months left on his deal but it’d have to be over £60m, £70m, £80m. And after bringing [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang and Ferran Torres in, they can’t afford him at the moment. They’ll have to wait until they’re back up to speed, have 100,000 fans back in the stadium and do a few more sponsorship deals before they can start bringing someone like Mané. 

Real Madrid have other targets. I think if they bring in Mbappé and Erling Haaland, there won’t even be a discussion about bringing Sadio Mané in. It’s a bit pie in the sky. If they don’t go for Haaland (because they can’t afford him) they may go for Sadio Mané. Who knows? Mané’s just won, and been voted the best player in the Africa Cup of Nations. It’d be a superstar signing.

Five years ago I had a different opinion about Spanish football. Now when I look, Real Madrid are not the Real Madrid of old. They are a number of years behind the top English teams. So if you want to sort of step down a bit and play for your ‘favourite club’, then fine. When players used to want to play for Barcelona or the Real Madrid, those clubs were challenging for every single top honour. That’s not going to be the case for a number of years because of their finances. Real Madrid are going to need eight or nine players, not just one or two. Barcelona are the same, to get back to the level of the English teams. If you’re a 30-year-old footballer and you want to play the best football and win the best trophies, then the best place to play is in the Premier League. If you just want to play in La Liga, then accept that they’re not at the level of the English teams and they won’t be for a number of years. 

I think Gavi will stay at Barcelona

I personally think they’ll resolve it and he’ll stay at Barcelona. He’s only a young kid and I think Barcelona are starting to get their finances in order after a rough couple of years. Sponsorship deals are starting to increase, crowd numbers are starting to increase, and they’re starting to get on top of their finances, as you can see with the players they’re starting to bring in, knowing they need to get into the Champions League this year. I think Gavi will stay. He’s only a young kid and I don't necessarily  think he needs to move to a different country yet, and I think Barcelona will re-sign him.

Barcelona need to keep Araújo more than anything

At the moment Araújo’s still got a lot to learn and improve on. However, he probably is unsellable for Barcelona at the moment, just because of their squad. [Samuel] Umtiti signed again but they don’t really fancy him and they want him to leave. They’ve wanted him to leave for a long time. Of course they’ve brought Eric García in, who’s very inexperienced but struggling at the moment, with Barcelona struggling. Gerard Piqué is getting older. So they probably need to keep Araújo more than anything because they haven’t really got a host of centre defenders. Clement Lenglet’s been around for a while and has struggled at times through this transitional period. Barcelona played Valencia, beat them 4-1 and García and Araújo played together, so that might be the future. They need to start building a team instead of just balancing the books.

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Paul Pogba to PSG makes perfect sense. 

If Paul Pogba was to make a move to one of Manchester United’s Premier League rivals, I wouldn't be shocked….I would be incredibly shocked! If it was Manchester City, Chelsea, or Liverpool I would be amazed, far more than shocked. Why would you? Is Paul Pogba going to improve Manchester City’s team? No. He wouldn’t improve Liverpool’s either. Probably not Chelsea’s, the way they play. 

Paul Pogba’s form for Manchester United over the past five years hasn’t been good enough to reflect that he can go and play for Manchester City or Liverpool. His reputation is excellent, of course it is. But his reputation is in the France shirt and Juventus shirt. It’s not in the Manchester United shirt. His style of play is too slow for Man City or Liverpool. PSG fits. The way they play. They’ve got [Ander] Herrera. They’ve got [Marco] Verratti. They’ve got Idrissa Gueye. 

A Frenchman. Going back to PSG. On a free contract. It makes absolute perfect sense.

Could Kieran Tierney play for Real Madrid? Definitely.

I’d be surprised if they went for Kieran Tierney. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a really good player and he’d be fine for Madrid but he’s probably not the right type of player for Madrid. When you look at their left-backs, Roberto Carlos, Marcelo, and now Ferland Mendy, it’s all about going forwards. Kieran Tierney is a better defender than all those players mentioned but I’d be surprised if they went for somebody like him. Could he play for them the way they are at the minute? Definitely. I think he’s a really good defender and they need defenders. But it would be a very left-field punt for me, looking at what Real Madrid normally do and the people they buy and how they operate. David Alaba can play at left-back at the moment, but I certainly agree with the idea that Real Madrid need strengthening at the back, without a shadow of a doubt. They were better last year, and the year before, defensively, than they are this year and they need six or seven players to get anywhere near the force that they once were and a lot of those players need to be in the defensive system.

I'd have no problem with Bernardo Silva leaving but if he wants to be the best player, stay at Manchester City

It all depends on personal circumstances and whether he wants to get closer to home. But if you want to be the best player and win the best trophies, stay at Manchester City. It’s as simple as that for me. I don’t know whether Bernardo Silva’s got a desire to play in La Liga. But the fact that we’re talking about him having arguably his best season and he’s playing in a team that are top of the league and are favourites for the Champions League, you wouldn’t be changing that unless you really, really had to. You’re not moving from Manchester City to Real Madrid as a step up in football. You’re not going there to improve, you’re going there for the lifestyle change and I’d be surprised with the season he’s had that he’d be thinking about that.

The fact that he’s lived in Manchester for such a long time, he must be accustomed to his life there. But there may be a time when he thinks its time for a move. David Silva ran his course, had his ten years, and wanted to play in La Liga for Real Sociedad and I totally understand that, as long as you know you’re making that choice for that particular reason. Don’t be saying ‘I’m going out to be a better footballer’ or to win things. We know why you’re going there and that’s cool. If Bernardo Silva decided to leave and go there, I'd have no problem with it because he’s been a great servant for Man City, he’s been a wonderful player. But if you want to carry on and be hungry and win the Champions League, he’s got a much better chance of winning it with Man City - even though they haven’t done it yet - than winning it with Real Madrid.

Cheltenham Festival 2022
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