Steve McManaman: Not long until the Cheltenham Festival now!

Paisley Park has an excellent chance of winning back-to-back renewals of the Stayers' Hurdle.
Paisley Park has an excellent chance of winning back-to-back renewals of the Stayers' Hurdle.

In the latest edition of his exclusive column, Steve McManaman looks ahead to next week’s Cheltenham Festival, and gives his views on the big talking points at the meeting, including Altior’s bid for a hat-trick of Champion Chase wins. 

Let’s start with what’s shaping up into an absolute classic renewal of the Champion Chase… 

This is going to be some race. Usually with the Champion Chase you have one standout star that is sent off as an odds-on favourite, but this time we have a two-time defending champion in Altior, up against two serious challengers in Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil

This will be Altior’s biggest test yet over two miles, because he’s up against really good, quality opposition. 

Personally, the only reason we have serious question marks around Altior is because he lost his unbeaten record against Cyrname at Ascot back in November, but it was business as usual at Newbury last time out, and if he’d have never lined up in the 1965 Chase, he’d probably be 20 or 21 races unbeaten here and an odds-on favourite once again. 

I’d side with him every day of the week, and although Defi Du Seuil deserves plenty of respect, I’m with the champion all day long. I think they’ll go a really good gallop here, and bearing in mind how Altior finishes his races, he’s the one I’d want to be with when they come up the hill. 

There’s another big name due to run on the Wednesday of the meeting, in the form of the dual Grand National hero Tiger Roll…

It would be some feat if he’s able to seal a fifth success at the Festival this year, particularly when you consider how different each of the Triumph Hurdle, the National Hunt Chase and the Cross Country race are. 

He shaped really well in the Boyne Hurdle last month, and I just hope that we see the best Tiger Roll - if he’s beaten by a better horse, then so be it. You can’t question Gordon Elliott, and he’ll have him nice and fit, but there’s some really good opposition against him this year. 

If you had to pick one win for him this season, though, it would have to be the Grand National. We still talk about Red Rum in the 1970s, so if Tiger Roll can get anywhere near replicating that it would be some achievement. 

Thursday’s feature is the Stayers’ Hurdle, which has an odds-on favourite at the time of writing…

I don’t think anyone can stop Paisley Park, and when we’ve seen him this year, he’s looked so good. He’s an incredible horse - he seems to hit a flat spot and then absolutely takes off.

You need to be a special horse to try and beat him, because he stays all day long, and it’s only in the last half a mile of the race that we see the best of him! It’s a great story with Emma Lavelle and his owner, and no disrespect to anyone else in the race, but these are the stories you want to see happen, because they’re what make racing so good. 

The feature is of course the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and plenty will be coming into this thinking they have a serious chance. 

This is about as wide open as I can remember, and you are able to make pretty solid cases both for and against nearly every single runner in the field. I saw Nigel Twiston-Davies commenting on the price difference between Santini and Bristol De Mai, and I have to admit it’s pretty interesting that you can get 7/2 about one and 25/1 about the other considering there were only a handful of lengths between them at Cheltenham in January. 

It’s so open that you can make solid cases both for almost everyone, even last year’s winner Al Boum Photo - who of course has a proven record in this race, but will be coming here on the back of just one pretty easy prep race. The King George winner Clan Des Obeaux can’t be discounted either, and you’d have to really fancy him considering how bullish Paul Nicholls is about his chances. 

It could well be that the winner comes in at a juicy price, but unlike in the case of Lord Windermere a few years ago, it wouldn't be a total surprise this time around - because there are genuine contenders right through the field. 

I really can’t call it, but I can’t wait to watch!

Over to the football, and the big talking point is undoubtedly Liverpool’s unbeaten run in the Premier League coming to an end at Watford over the weekend.

Don’t get me wrong, Liverpool fans would have wanted them to have remained unbeaten, but since the winter break Liverpool haven’t been great. The Norwich game wasn’t great, the loss to Atletico Madrid wasn’t great either as well as the West Ham game last week.

The fact that this shadow of being ‘The Invincibles’ is no longer hanging over them means it may make a lot of the players relax, take a deep breath and start all over again.

This may now be a period of relaxation before going again, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need at the business end of the season. Of course Liverpool should win the league, but this little scare might make them go back to the training ground, regroup and start again. 

What a time this is to start again, too, when you have the FA Cup this week and the Champions League next week.

One man who keeps going from strength to strength is Trent Alexander-Arnold… 

He’s been amazing for the club this season, and he works really well with Andy Robertson; the way that Liverpool set up without natural wide players up top means that the full-backs give them width, and they’ve both been fantastic. 

When you look at the right-backs around the world, you’d have to say that Trent is the currently the best. You’d have him ahead of Dani Carvajal of Real Madrid or Danilo at Juventus, and now that Bayern Munich are playing Joshua Kimmich in midfield, then Trent is at least up there with the very best in the world. Principally his job for Liverpool is that he’s an attacking full-back and an assist provider, and his stats prove how well he is performing consistently.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to see Mo Salah linked with a switch to La Liga…

I see his future at Liverpool to be honest. Players are consistently linked with Real Madrid and Barcelona because they were considered to be the best sides in the world back in the day, but you can argue the best sides are now in the Premier League. 

Four or five years ago Real Madrid and Barcelona were winning the Champions League every other year, but that's no longer the case so I don’t understand the premise of why you need to go to La Liga at the moment. 

Unless Real Madrid sign four or five big players in the near future, then they’re just going to play second fiddle to the Premier League sides, and the same applies to Barcelona. Lionel Messi is going to retire in the next few years and Real Madrid are going to lose Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema. They’re all in their thirties and there’s going to be a real transitional phase going on at the top two clubs in Spain over the next couple of years.

It’s the same with the Raheem Sterling to Madrid rumours - Manchester City at the moment are a better side than Real Madrid, so Raheem is already at the best club for him. 

We never know what’s going to happen in two or three years. When Spanish sides have a lull,  they tend to just go and smash the transfer market. If Kylian Mbappe joins Real Madrid this summer, then that’s the cycle starting again. If Neymar turns up at Barcelona, then that’s the start of their renaissance too. 

Regarding Raheem’s long term future, I think the thing for him is to continue his career in England, playing under Pep Guardiola, playing for one of the best sides and playing against the best opposition. The best sides in Europe at the moment are Liverpool and Manchester City.

Cheltenham Festival Tips

One man who looks ready for a transfer is Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish. 

He's ready for the very top level of English football. Unfortunately, it all depends on what Aston Villa do this season - if they stay up there’s a chance that Aston Villa may be able to hang onto him.

Aston Villa and their fans won’t like to hear this, but sooner rather than later he needs to spread his wings and leave. The only way he can keep on improving as a player is by playing for a big club and start playing in the Champions League against the best players. That’s when a player can really start to flourish. He’s a really good talent and he did excellently last season to get Villa to where they are now.

When we’ve seen him this season, he plays football the way we all want to see football played. He drops his shoulder, he goes past people, he scores great goals, so it’s only a matter of time before one of the big boys comes in and snaps him up.

Another who could leave the Midlands is Birmingham City wonderkid Jude Bellingham… 

I’ve heard a lot about him through working in academy football, and his reputation is very good. He’s only 16 and he seems to be linked with everybody nowadays. There was a story about Manchester United being interested in him, and all it’s done for Birmingham City is that it’s increased Jude’s price tag. 

I don’t know if Liverpool would be interested considering the figures that are being associated with him. Three months ago I read that he was valued at £30 million and now I hear it’s £50 million. Liverpool already have very good young players in their academy - so id be surprised if they would join the chase for Jude with that sort of money being talked about.

Last but not least, it’s hard not to be impressed with how Carlo Ancelotti has started life as Everton manager. 

He’s done really well and it’s not just Carlo, a lot of credit should go to Duncan Ferguson, too. Since Duncan took over from Marco Silva, the team has just gone from strength to strength.

For Carlo’s first game at home against Arsenal, he was sat in the stands and it was a very poor game. The difference between that Everton versus Arsenal game compared to the Arsenal versus Everton game last week was a stark contrast. Carlo brings that star quality to Everton - he’s not a shouter, but he knows what he wants. With Duncan Ferguson as his number two you get a different approach as you get that element of abrasiveness from Duncan when it’s required.

Everton have improved so much with the same group of players and that’s brilliant for them. If they had beaten Manchester United at the weekend, then we really would have been speaking about them making a late push for the Champions League spots.

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