Tokyo 2020 didn't lead us fully out of the tunnel but a legacy of hope permeated light through the darkness

By Sports Desk August 08, 2021

Tokyo 2020 has been and gone. Was it worth the wait?

Woah boy, where do you even start to answer such a question?

Let's begin with where we were a little over two weeks ago when the Games were finally declared open. A year later than planned, of course, due to a global health pandemic that continues to wreak havoc across the continents.

To say there was scepticism would be an understatement. In parts there was downright anger, in others just bafflement that the Olympics would go ahead in such circumstances.

For some there was excitement, too. An unrepentant Thomas Bach delivered a message of solidarity and unity at an opening ceremony many thought might come.

"We are standing in solidarity to make the Olympic Games happen, and to enable all of you dear athletes, and from all sports to take part in the Olympic games," the IOC chief said in front of millions watching around the world. 

"This solidarity fuels our ambitions to make the world a better place through sport. Only through solidarity can we be here tonight. Without solidarity there is no peace.

"This feeling of togetherness this is the light at the end of the dark tunnel, the pandemic forced us apart, to keep our distance from each other, to stay away even from our loved ones. This separation made this tunnel so dark."

There is no escaping the fact these will forever be the pandemic Games, a permanent reminder forever etched in the history books of the utterly bizarre, and at times terrifying, times the world has lived through.

These Games have not completely succeeded in leading us out of the dark tunnel. They never could, there is still too much pain and hardship being caused by COVID-19 for it to have truly healed the globe.

Nor will we ever really escape the fact that Tokyo 2020 was an Olympics that could have been. A beautiful, vibrant, colourful, futuristic city – it is immensely sad we will never know how good the Olympics could have been. It is sadder still that so many great moments were played out in the absence of spectators.

But you know what, despite it all, the greatest show on earth delivered. At least at times it did. That this was the pandemic Games needn't be the only legacy left behind in the Japanese capital.

The majority of the success stories naturally belong to the athletes. Whether it be the unheralded Austrian Anna Kiesenhofer securing gold in a women's cycling road race where her rivals had no idea she had even won. Or maybe Annemiek van Vleuten, the runner-up in that event, finally taking Olympic gold in the time trial five years after a horrific crash scuppered her hopes when leading the road race at Rio 2016.

Perhaps you took inspiration from the exploits of Emma McKeon, Ariarne Titmus, Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel and Adam Peaty in the pool, maybe it was the utter joy and emotion of Tom Daley finally diving his way to Olympic gold. It could have been at the track, where Elaine Thompson-Herah etched her name into history perhaps as the greatest female sprinter ever, or Karsten Warholm and Sydney McLaughlin breaking astonishing new ground in the 400m hurdles, or Marcell Jacobs' unlikely 100m success, or Andre De Grasse living up to the billing as the heir to Usain Bolt with his ascension to the top of the podium in the 200m, or Neeraj Chopra breaking new ground for India with a heck of a javelin throw.

Every which way you turn there are stories to ignite that burning love of the Olympics. There is just something enduringly beautiful about humans (yes, humans not just athletes) conquering greatness, yielding reward for unthinkable hours of graft just to peak at the right time in an allotted slot over two weeks of sporting bedlam.

Credit must be given too for the way Tokyo 2020 has opened its doors to new (at least new in Olympic terms) sports such as skateboarding, speed climbing and surfing. Faster, Stronger, Higher, sure – but Younger, Fresher, Bolder as well. A whole new world of eyes has been brought to the Games, while the stars of tomorrow are engaged and motivated to dream that one day "that could be me".

And, perhaps most importantly of all, was the ever-changing conversation and narrative surrounding mental health.

Simone Biles, the living legend gymnast was tipped to be the face of the Games but, sort of poetically in keeping with the theme of Tokyo 2020, it did not go exactly to plan. There was just one rotation in the team final before she sat out the rest of the night. Four more withdrawals followed before she returned to take a quite brilliant bronze on the balance beam.

Her message about struggling with the mental aspect of an Olympics and the pressure it brings was enlightening, brave and powerful. It allowed others to follow suit – Peaty, the unstoppable force in the men's 100m breaststroke, himself later said he required a break from the gruelling demands of being an elite athlete.

Some people would try and convince you Biles' decision was "weak" or lacked "mental toughness". Those people are emphatically and unforgivably wrong. More to the point they are people, much like I, who will never come close to understanding the sacrifices it takes to achieve greatness.

With the closing ceremony bringing Tokyo 2020 to an end - after a wait that felt like a lifetime - and the Olympic flame extinguished, the dust will settle and perhaps it is time and reflection that will prove the most valuable gifts in assessing whether Tokyo 2020 was worth the wait.

In the immediate here and now, the mood seems still split between those inspired by the against-all-odds nature and those who felt like the Games just…sort of happened, we went through the motions, survived with a few blemishes but no major hiccups.

It is impossible to fully accept Bach's opening-ceremony assertion that Tokyo 2020 is the light to lead us out of a dark tunnel.

But perhaps it is the message of hope that permeated light through the darkness that can be the real lasting legacy of Tokyo 2020. After all, given everything we've been through for over a year and a half, we could all use a little hope in our lives.

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  • Man Utd no lost cause but Rangnick has work cut out as he inherits mishmash of philosophies Man Utd no lost cause but Rangnick has work cut out as he inherits mishmash of philosophies

    When Manchester United sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and announced a caretaker manager would then be followed by an interim manager to be replaced by a third coach at the end of the season, confusion would have been written over the faces of many supporters.

    It seemed an unnecessarily convoluted process to just appointing someone better than Solskjaer, but perceptions are already starting to change.

    Michael Carrick had a pretty daunting introduction to life at the helm, with a crucial Champions League match followed by a trip to imperious Premier League leaders Chelsea.

    Yet, after what was presumably his second and final game in charge, he's seen United take an entirely respectable four points – Ralf Rangnick waits in the wings, and there were even hallmarks of the German on display as Carrick presided over Sunday's 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

    There could be no mistaking what was going through Carrick's mind before the game. While he shrugged off Cristiano Ronaldo's benching as just simple squad selection, one of the main focuses on the Portugal star this season has been a lack of work rate off the ball.

    Given Rangnick's reputation and renown as the so-called 'Godfather of Gegenpressing', it can't have been a coincidence that Carrick opted to start a front three who would ordinarily be expected to get through a little more work when not in possession.

    Getting in Chelsea faces appeared to be the objective, and to United's credit, there certainly seemed to be a greater desire to press with intensity during the early stages of the match.

    While that may have been a sign of things to expect in future for United, it would also be fair to say they have much work to do as well – their urgency out of possession may have looked better, but it didn't seem to upset Chelsea massively.

    The Blues still created a raft of opportunities, two of which were crafted inside the first three minutes and 10 seconds, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Victor Lindelof unconvincing on both occasions.

    Those accounted for two of the four saves David de Gea was forced into before the break, the Spaniard also tipping a long-range Antonio Rudiger strike onto the crossbar.

    Chelsea reached half-time with no goals from 0.86 expected goals (xG), showing United (0.02 xG) were benefiting from a mixture of wasteful finishing and De Gea's excellence – so while Carrick's set-up technically worked to a certain extent, keeping the hosts out in the first half, the Red Devils offered nothing in attack themselves.

    Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford were sloppy, Bruno Fernandes – deployed as a 'false 9' – seemed to be playing by his own rules, going rogue as he often popped up in the full-back areas. Nobody was leading the line and therefore United had no out-ball.

    As a result, they managed just two touches in the Chelsea box and 21 passes in the final third – Thomas Tuchel's men had 16 and 81, respectively. United's mid-game tweet of "leading from the front" accompanied by a photo of Fernandes almost seemed sarcastic when Sancho was their only player whose average position was in the attacking half during the first 45.

    But early in the second half, the game changed in an instant. Fernandes leathered a bouncing ball up the pitch with the kind of kick that would be followed by a shout of "have it!" in your average Sunday League game.

    Jorginho's first touch was similarly Sunday League, the ball squirming off his foot and right to Sancho, who charged forward with only Rashford for company. A little swivel of the hips, suggesting he'd square the ball, deceived Edouard Mendy and the forward slotted home his first Premier League goal.

    Of course, it was hardly a goal indicative of some new-found philosophy – it was a Jorginho error. Yet, had United not been pressing in anticipation of a mistake, they wouldn't have scored.

    United suddenly started to look a threat on the counter-attack with Sancho and Rashford, who was far livelier than he had been in the first half – though Carrick might have wanted to see his team use their countering as a weapon a little more often.

    As it was, they soon fell back into their set-up from the first half for the most part, sitting back in their own area and inviting pressure. It brought their downfall, as Wan-Bissaka's rash penalty concession allowed Jorginho to atone for his error at the other end.

    United were fortunate, with Rudiger's late volley going high and wide when he looked destined to score, though they at least showed the kind of urgency and spirit that was lacking in recent embarrassments at the hands of Liverpool and Manchester City.

    Rangnick's main concerns will likely lie in the tactical mishmash he stands to inherit, and in some ways this game showcased it perfectly. One minute their priority was pressing, the next it wasn't. They began to set up for counter-attacking, then they weren't.

    Let's not forget, this is a squad assembled by several different coaches all with hugely varying ideas – from Louis van Gaal's possession-based approach and Jose Mourinho's pragmatism, to Solskjaer's counter-attacking (not that he stuck with that throughout his time in charge) and now Rangnick's 'Gegenpressing'.

    The draw at Chelsea certainly shows Rangnick will have a lot to work with. The off-the-ball performances of Fred and Scott McTominay would have been particularly encouraging. But it also highlighted he has a lot of work to do.

  • Copa Libertadores final 2021: Palmeiras and Flamengo ready for 'war' in South American showpiece Copa Libertadores final 2021: Palmeiras and Flamengo ready for 'war' in South American showpiece

    The Copa Libertadores is a competition like no other, just look back at the 2018 final between bitter rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors.

    The second leg of the all-Argentinean decider was sensationally played at Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu in the Spanish capital three years ago after Boca's team bus was attacked by River supporters en route to El Monumental for the initially scheduled return encounter.

    River eventually prevailed 5-3 on aggregate.

    Fast forward to this week – Flamengo and titleholders Palmeiras will do battle at Uruguay's iconic Centenario stadium in Montevideo. Saturday's final is only the fifth decider to feature two teams from the same country in the tournament's history. Four of those fixtures have been all-Brazilian showdowns after Palmeiras trumped rivals Santos last season.

    As Palmeiras bid to become the first team to retain the Libertadores crown in 20 years – Boca were the last to do so in 2001, star goalkeeper Weverton provided an insight into the emotion-fuelled competition, which was founded in 1960.

    "Really, our side here is much more passion than reason," Brazil international Weverton – who has called Palmeiras home since 2018 – told Stats Perform as he explained what it means to play in the Libertadores decider. "I say that in Europe, people go watch a show, go to have fun, they go with their family to watch a show. The Brazilian football the families go to the stadium to watch your team win. He wants his club to win, and it doesn't matter what it takes. He doesn't go to the stadium to watch a match, have fun, and take his son to wave to his favourite player. No. He goes to the match so he can see his team winning. This is the big difference from our football.

    "We always want to win. We are very competitive. Sometimes we do a match here that is… Abel [Ferreira] always says that those who lose will give food to people in need. So, we have three teams and the worst one has to pay. We get very competitive on that. Nobody wants to lose. Even if it is not that much money. It is competitive. Brazilian football is all about that. We don't know how to lose; we don't accept losing. Sometimes people say that we need to accept the defeat, but it is in our Brazilian blood to compete.

    "So, when you talk about Libertadores, how is the atmosphere in a Libertadores match? It looks like a war. I shouldn't associate football and war, but Libertadores brings up that competitive atmosphere, a tough match. I think that is the style of Libertadores.

    "We see the Champions League as a show, but Libertadores is not like that. When you play Libertadores, you are going to the battle. I think that is the difference between South American football, the Brazilian football, from European football."

    This year's Libertadores final is the first in history to feature the winners of the past two tournaments – Flamengo conquered South America in 2019 before Palmeiras got their hands on the trophy thanks to Breno Lopes' 99th-minute winner last year.

    Montevideo brings back good memories for two-time champions Flamengo, who trumped Chile's Cobreloa in 1981 for their first Libertadores trophy 40 years ago.

    "That is something that brings up good memories," star Flamengo defender David Luiz told Stats Perform. "Without a doubt, we must carry this and bring that to us in a totally positive way. That is a place where every 'flamenguista' was happy. Why not be happy again?"

    David Luiz joined Flamengo in September following his exit from Arsenal at the end of last season.

    The 34-year-old returned to his homeland 14 years after departing Vitoria for Europe, moving to the star-studded Rio de Janeiro-based outfit boasting Gabriel 'Gabigol' Barbosa, Filipe Luis, Everton Ribeiro, Diego and loanees Kenedy (Chelsea) and Andreas Pereira (Manchester United).

    "I always said that since I came here that I am privileged in this group," David Luiz said. "I arrived at the best time of the competition. I could play the semi-finals, and now it is the best part of the cake. That is playing this great final. I am anxious, I want to play it.

    "It was always a dream for me to be playing in my country. I could accomplish that after I left Brazil while I was with the national team. But now I am representing America's best team. And I can be in the final of the biggest South American competition. Without a doubt, that is very, very special."

    Flamengo have established themselves as one of South America's finest, setting the bar after sweeping Libertadores, Campeonato Brasileiro and Recopa Sudamericana honours under Jorge Jesus before his return to Benfica.

    After back-to-back league trophies in 2019 and 2020, Flamengo turned to Renato Gaucho after the tenures of former Pep Guardiola assistant Domenec Torrent and iconic ex-goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni did not go according to plan.

    With Gaucho – the record holder for most victories in Libertadores history (50) – at the helm, Flamengo are on the cusp of a third crown.

    Flamengo remain undefeated in the 2021 edition. They will be aiming to repeat the feat of rivals Corinthians, who are still the only team to win the title while going undefeated in the current format of the tournament, following their 2012 achievement.

    The hero in the 2019 final with a brace, Gabigol will spearhead Flamengo's efforts on the pitch – the in-form Brazil international and former Inter forward tops the goalscoring charts in this season's Libertadores (10) as he seeks to become the first player in the competition's history to score 11 goals in the 21st century.

    Gabigol has outperformed his expected goals tally (xG total of 8.5), while he has supplied four assists.

    A Champions League winner with Premier League giants Chelsea, David Luiz was asked to compare the two tournaments, and whether Flamengo had the quality to compete in the European edition.

    "I believe and understand that when you love something in your life, you will always feel that anger to live this," David Luiz said. "When you love something, you will have this in your heart, you have anxiety, you will want to be there, you will be counting the days, you will, without a doubt, be focused on that. The same way I counted, I lived, was anxious and wanted to play when I was young and was in the Champions League final. Today also, even after a lot of years, a lot of finals, that is still happening. I still love football. I still love what I do. And, of course, I will keep having that same anger to be in a final and living it the best way I can."

    On Flamengo being able to match it with teams in the Champions League, David Luiz added: "I believe that is right. Today Flamengo are the first club to be organised to give us players the opportunity to represent and do best what we have to do that is to play football the best way we can. We have an amazing structure.

    "High-calibre players, players who have played in numerous places and have a lot of quality. I believe, yes, we have the quality to play a Champions League without a doubt."

    Standing in Flamengo's way is Weverton and reigning Libertadores champions Palmeiras, who are captained by tenacious former Juventus and Inter midfielder Felipe Melo.

    Palmeiras continue to flourish under Portuguese head coach Abel Ferreira – the club have only lost two of the 19 Libertadores games with the 42-year-old in the dugout, while they are seven games unbeaten having eliminated Atletico Mineiro in the semis.

    Abel is also looking to become the first European coach to win two Libertadores titles.

    Weverton has kept seven clean sheets in this season's tournament as two-time winners Palmeiras eye their third piece of silverware in their sixth trip to the final.

    In total, the 33-year-old has kept 31 clean sheets in 60 Libertadores appearances, with a 51.6 per cent effectiveness.

    "I believe that you try to keep what you've achieved as if you were protecting something you conquered," Weverton said when asked about the fact it has been 20 years since a team last celebrated back-to-back titles. "We conquered that last year and now we have the chance to protect it, to bring it back, and that motivates us. But it doesn't give us an advantage. It just brings us motivation to protect something that you know that feels good to achieve.

    "We saw how good it is to be champions of Libertadores, on how many good things this brings to you. Recognition, prestige, history, you have your name in the club’s history, brings you the fans respect. So, we saw that there are a lot of good things around it. We want to feel it again. We know we will have to battle for that again, we know that it is going to be a great game, a big war facing a great team. We know the path, but we have to pay the price for it. It does motivate us, but we need to prepare ourselves and know that it is going to be tough, but it is doable."

  • Josh Allen regression an increasing concern for suddenly slumping Bills Josh Allen regression an increasing concern for suddenly slumping Bills

    Just over a month ago, no team appeared better placed to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI than the Buffalo Bills.

    Buffalo laid their AFC Championship Game demons to rest with a blowout win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, their offseason focus on stacking talent on the defensive line seeming to pay dividends in a 38-20 success that saw Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' offense held in check while Josh Allen produced a performance that seemed to solidify him as an MVP frontrunner.

    Yet the winds of change blow swiftly across the NFL, especially in a season where parity reigns supreme, and six weeks on from Buffalo's victory in Kansas City, the Bills look a long way from Super Bowl contenders.

    Indeed, while the Chiefs – though still far from consistent on offense – look to have got their house in order and are firmly in contention for the top seed in the AFC, the Bills no longer own top spot in their division after being run over in their own building by Jonathan Taylor and the Indianapolis Colts.

    The Colts marched to a 41-15 rout at Orchard Park, running back Taylor scoring five touchdowns and looking a more likely MVP contender than Buffalo's dual-threat quarterback.

    While Taylor's astounding success will of course be concerning to the Bills, their season-long performance on defense has generally been impressive.

    Derrick Henry also enjoyed a dominant outing running the ball against Buffalo in the Bills' Week 6 loss to the Tennessee Titans. However, for the most part, Buffalo's is a defense that has typically prevented opponents from performing efficiently through the air or on the ground, the Bills allowing the fewest yards per play in the NFL.

    The bigger problems for Buffalo concern an offense that has stalled in recent weeks and the performance of a quarterback whose step back from his stunning 2020 is more worrying than first thought.

    Buffalo's damaging offensive downturn

    The Bills remain a top-10 offense by yards per play, in which they rank sixth with 5.95, yet a deeper look at their form over the past four games should only further doubt over whether this team can make the playoffs.

    Indeed, since their shootout loss to the Titans, in which Buffalo would have prevailed if not for a botched quarterback sneak on a potential game-winning drive, the Bills have passed for 300 yards just once in four games, and that performance came against a New York Jets defense last in the league by yards per play allowed.

    The Bills have committed nine turnovers across that span, four coming against the Colts after they gave the ball away twice in the win over the Jets and three times in an embarrassing loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars where they managed only six points.

    That fourth-down failure in Tennessee right now looks to be an inflection point, both for the Bills and Allen, who has struggled for the accuracy that astounded so many last season.

    Allen a long way from MVP calibre 

    Were it not for Aaron Rodgers' incredible 2020, Allen might have been named the MVP last year.

    He was a distant second to Rodgers in the voting, receiving four votes to 44 for the Green Bay Packers star. Mahomes (2) was the only other player to receive a vote.

    Allen earned those votes with a campaign he finished with 4,544 yards passing, 37 touchdown throws and 10 interceptions. He also ran for eight scores and caught another.

    While he is tied fifth in the NFL with 21 passing touchdowns, Allen has already thrown eight interceptions, with his completion percentage declining from 69.2 in 2020 to 65.7 this season.

    That is a reflection of his drop-off in accuracy. Last year, Allen delivered an accurate well-thrown ball on 80.5 per cent of attempts, seventh in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 100 passes.

    In 2021, his well-thrown percentage of 77.8 is below the average of 78.8 for quarterbacks who meet that same threshold.

    No quarterback with three-figure pass attempts has thrown more interceptable passes than Allen, whose tally of 19 gives him a pickable pass percentage of 5.21 that trails only Mike White (6.87), Zach Wilson (6.86) and Davis Mills (6.06).

    Only five quarterbacks have had more attempts under duress than Allen (110) and his pickable pass rate balloons to 8.47 per cent when pressured. Justin Fields (9.43) is the sole signal-caller with at least 50 passes under pressure to fare worse.

    With a well-thrown percentage of 70.6 and four pickable passes against the Colts, he is trending in the wrong direction.

    Yet he is not solely to blame, with his struggles partially a symptom of playing behind an offensive line that has struggled with injuries. However, protection issues aside, the numbers suggest there are gameplan adjustments available to the Bills that can make Allen's life easier.

    Putting the boot in

    The Colts finished with 264 yards on the ground compared to 91 for Buffalo, the Bills running the ball only 13 times.

    That disparity is a reflection of the game script, with the Colts jumping out to a 24-7 lead in the first half they never looked like relinquishing.

    But, in more conventional game situations, the Bills may be well served by leaning more on a run game that has been surprisingly efficient. 

    The Bills are sixth in the NFL in yards per rush (4.70) but are running the ball just 32.8 per cent of the time. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss have not lived up to expectations but, with the former averaging 3.34 yards per carry on rushes where this a run disruption by a defender, there is an argument for putting more faith in a ground game in which Allen can easily be incorporated.

    That threat of the run and Allen's ability with his legs could also feature more heavily as part of the passing attack. The Bills average 9.85 yards per play on play-action throws (the league average is 9.28) but use it on only 13.56 per cent of pass attempts. That is slightly the league average of 12.9 but, given the success they have had when utilising a play-fake, there is room for it to become a more prominent part of the offense.

    Similarly, the Bills use a boot-action on 3.68 per cent of pass attempts, below the NFL average of 5.9, yet, on the small sample size of 11 such passes, Allen is delivering a well-thrown ball 81.8 per cent of the time when they use it.

    On a short week in the wake of a chastening defeat, the Bills now face a potentially season-defining game on Thanksgiving with a New Orleans Saints team that will themselves be desperate to bounce back from a humbling at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles, the turnaround giving them little time to implement significant changes to the offensive approach.

    However, facing an aggressive Saints defense that was gashed on the ground by a dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts in Week 11, the Bills' best hope of getting back on track may be to show more belief in their highly drafted running backs and lean on the athletic upside that convinced them to make Allen the face of the franchise.

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