Steve McManaman: My review of the Cheltenham Festival

Al Boum Photo won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the second year running.
Al Boum Photo won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the second year running.

In the latest edition of his exclusive column, Steve McManaman looks back on a thrilling week of Jumps racing, as the Cheltenham Festival took centre stage on the Cotswolds…

First things first, it was really disappointing to see the Grand National cancelled. 

Of course, safety comes first, and it just wasn’t possible to have an event with 60,000 people, but it’s a big blow to both the city of Liverpool and racing as a whole. The sport has been able to carry on behind closed doors so far, meaning that there was a real opportunity for an event like the Grand National to reach a bigger audience than ever before - simply because there will be nothing else to compete with on a Saturday afternoon. But staging the National is completely different to a normal run of the mill Monday meeting and it would have been very difficult to hold it behind closed doors. It’s going to be a big blow to the city, a lot of local businesses rely on those three days of the National meeting to make a living, so to scrap it at such short notice is going to be devastating - but ultimately in the circumstances it was the right decision. 

It means Tiger Roll won’t be able to emulate Red Rum (this year), after shaping well at Cheltenham last week…

I thought he ran really well considering the circumstances, and the setback he had earlier in the season. Gordon Elliott said before the race that he was worried about the ground, and he bumped into a serious performer in this kind of code in the form of Easysland - who goes so well in testing conditions. I got the impression that this was designed to put Tiger Roll spot on for the Grand National, and the fact that he and the winner pulled so far clear of the third-placed horse shows that he was just unlucky to bump into a good one. Sadly, we won’t get to see him go for the hat-trick at Aintree next month, but if he has one more start this season, potentially at the Punchestown Festival, he’ll be fit and ready to go. 

One race that didn’t disappoint was the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which produced a classic renewal.

It was a brilliant race, one that was made so exciting by the fact that there were at least seven or eight horses still in with a chance approaching the second fence from home. Normally, if you’re not up to standard, you’re tailed off, but we had outsiders like Real Steel and Monalee run really well, while Lostintranslation roared back to form as well in third. The way in which the runner-up Santini stayed on to the line was impressive too, and perhaps if the ground had been a little bit more testing on the Friday, he could well have got there and denied the champion.

However, Al Boum Photo was a worthy winner, and we can certainly consider him to be a Gold Cup great now. Only a few horses have managed to complete the feat he has in winning back-to-back renewals of this race, and it’s a brilliant training performance from Willie Mullins. As with Henrietta Knight and Best Mate, people get frustrated when good horses only have one or two runs a season, but he’s proven that this strategy is worth doing, and it has paid dividends. 

In terms of next year, he’s got a great chance of emulating Best Mate and winning it three times. It won’t be easy of course, and the likes of Santini and Lostintranslation will have an extra year of experience behind them, while there could be new challengers to the throne in the form of a certain Champ - who was an utterly extraordinary winner of the RSA Chase last week. We don’t have long to wait now - only 364 days to go!

We’ll move on to the football, and I think it’s essential that the Premier League season needs to be completed...

I believe Euro 2020 will be suspended until next year. This is the one time that UEFA have delegated the competition across 12 countries, so it is impossible to contain it this time around with so many locations. 

Liverpool are going to win the league regardless, and it’s more a question of what’s going to happen to the teams fighting against relegation and what’s going to happen regarding the sides competing for the Champions League places.

On top of that, what’s going to happen to Leeds United and West Brom? They’ve both spent a lot of money this season and have both made financial gambles on getting themselves into the Premier League for next season. 

With the amount of revenue that’s on offer to Premier League teams, you cannot just tell two sides who are six and seven points clear at the top of the Championship respectively, that they’re just going to scrap the league and start again next season. I think the Premier League would open themselves up to all sorts of lawsuits if that happened.

However, I don’t think they could have cancelled the games sooner. All they could do was liaise and be advised by the experts in the field. That information was all they could rely on. If the experts said ‘Not yet, not yet’, then that was all they could do.  

There has to be a sensible way of doing things and by putting the season on hold the leagues have given themselves time to consider all the options, the legal implications and then make decisions guided by the experts.

Liverpool went out of the Champions League last week, and there was a lot to be desired about Atletico Madrid’s performance…

Diego Simeone deserves credit for getting the right result, but when I watched both legs, I didn’t enjoy either of the Atletico Madrid performances. I don’t like that style of football full stop, and although I think they deserve credit for getting through, they don’t for how they got through.  I think they advanced by luck if I’m being completely honest.

Sometimes the Champions League isn’t all about the best teams getting through all the time. It is about a bit of luck, a goalkeeper making a big save or a player getting sent off or somebody giving away a penalty. 

Jan Oblak was, and always is, outstanding, but Liverpool had around 30 chances over the tie and didn’t score enough goals. However at the other end of the pitch, it was Adrian’s big mistake that let Atletico Madrid back into the game.

He could have controlled the ball and passed it, but instead he played the ball straight to Joao Felix and then he slipped as Marcos Llorente’s shot went past him. Adrian also should have stopped the third goal but the game was already done at that point.

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Meanwhile, I’ll take rumours of Real Madrid’s interest in Sadio Mane and Erling Haaland with a pinch of salt...

Regardless of how the Champions League turns out this season, the best teams in the world at present are the English teams. Real Madrid and Barcelona are not!

They both want to start again and bring in a few new players because they’ve both had disappointing seasons this year, so they’re going to start turning their squads over. Despite this, I don’t think there’s any chance of either Sadio Mane or Mohammed Salah going to either Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Regarding Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland, it’s definitely too soon for him to leave because he seems happy and more importantly he’s playing regularly and scoring goals. 

He should move when he’s a more experienced player after playing 200 or so games for Dortmund and playing 20 to 30 games in the Champions League - and not jump ship prematurely and head straight for Real Madrid.

You’ve seen what’s happened to Luka Jovic this season, he’s hardly kicked a ball for Real Madrid after having a wonderful season last year in Germany. Haaland doesn’t need that kind of pressure, and on top of that, I’ve heard that Real Madrid are interested in Kylian Mbappe instead - so both of them don’t need to be there at the same time.

Rumours that Paul Pogba has now decided that his long-term future belongs at Manchester United may be a sign that Real Madrid are no longer interested in him...

He hasn’t played enough football this season for sides like Madrid to be genuinely interested in him. 

If he stays, plays and gets back to full fitness at Manchester United, I certainly think that he will get back into the starting eleven very easily. Nemanja Matic is a year older, Juan Mata is a year older and Paul is definitely good enough to play in those positions alongside Bruno Fernandes, so I don’t think there’s any problem there. 

He’s certainly got the quality to play in the Manchester United midfield as long as he’s fit and healthy, but we’ve been waiting to hear from Paul Pogba all year regarding his future. Pogba has yet to say whether he wants to stay or whether he wants to leave.

Despite a quiet start to life at Real Madrid, Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho is reportedly keeping tabs on defender Eder Militao...

Despite his debut season at Madrid being a bit of a non-starter, I was really impressed with him last season for Porto and I thought he was an excellent central defender. 

Playing for Porto in the Portuguese league is different to playing in Spain with Real Madrid, but when I saw his performances in the Champions League, it made sense to me why Real Madrid had bought him.

The thing that’s hampered Militao at Madrid is that when Zinedine Zidane went back to the Bernabeu he returned to his trusted back four who he thinks he can rely on. So for the likes of Eder Militao and Ferland Mendy, who joined Real Madrid in the summer, they’ve found becoming a permanent fixture in the starting 11 difficult.

But Militao was an excellent central defender at Porto, and I think that’s the best thing to judge him on.

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