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John Duggan: A Happy New Year...
Soccer

John Duggan: A Happy New Year means an attempt at sporting predictions

John Duggan writes that sport will provide some mental comfort for us in 2021, with a healthy amount of expected occurrences and wild shocks...

Nobody could have forecast what was in store for us in 2020, and hopefully life will get easier for people and COVID 19 can be suppressed and calmed.

The physical and mental health of everyone is the most important thing right now, but sport is a constant reminder of what we miss in terms of participation and camaraderie.

Sport has also kept many of us occupied mentally. It's kept a lot of us sane since various sporting bodies around the world found a way to get the show back on the road. I am fresh off watching an excellent Manchester derby. Credit to everyone involved in professional and amateur sport for beaming some sort of normality onto our television screens.

2020 delivered sporting surprises; a first Munster senior football title for Tipperary since 1935; a first Ulster senior football crown for Cavan in 23 years; Sam Bennett winning the green jersey at the Tour de France, a first Irish success in the sprinting stakes in cycling's premier race in three decades.

It's always a fun exercise trying to mysteriously predict the future; when it materialises, it's a satisfying feeling.

Here's my stab at playing Nostradamus in 2021 with the bookies' odds beside each prognostication.

All Ireland senior football championship: Kerry - 9/2

It will sicken Kerry football supporters that Dublin have won six All Ireland titles in a row. Absolutely sicken them. Kerry are the aristocrats of the game; the most successful county in the history of Gaelic Football. What has happened - Dublin's footballers have broken records and achieved what Kerry could not - five in a row, which is now six. That all said, I don't believe Dublin will win indefinitely. Their incredible streak will come to an end and the county which is always best equipped to break a streak is Kerry. Natural talent matters in sport and Kerry have football in their blood. They threw the kitchen sink at Dublin in 2019 and while the knockout blow by Cork last year was a setback, I think they can return to contend seriously for the Sam Maguire Cup. Kerry won five All Ireland minor titles under Peter Keane and are current League champions. These are small statistics in the wider realm of the Dubs' dominance, but it will be Kerry that end their hegemony, and possibly by July.

All Ireland senior hurling championship: Limerick - 6/4

This doesn't strike me as a brittle Limerick outfit; their players are focused under John Kiely's leadership and wish to create a legacy. I just can't see this group of players being sated by winning two All Ireland titles in three years. It's not the Limerick of old - it took them 45 years to get back to the summit and there's been too much work done at academy level to throw it away. At the Liam McCarthy Cup level, the landscape is much more open than football when you consider the quality of top contenders; 2019 All Ireland champions Tipperary, Leinster champions Kilkenny, Galway, a revitalised Waterford, Clare, Wexford, sleeping giant Cork etc

Limerick though were emphatic in the All Ireland final, saving their best for last, crushing Waterford by 11 points. It was their second major statement of the campaign after their dismissal of Tipperary in Munster. The Shannonsiders are physically strong, powerful and skillful - their only weakness is a lack of goals - but when you put 30 points on the scoreboard in a final, that's okay. A team with an average age in their mid 20's, they are clearly the best team in the country and I see no hunger issues.

Rory McIlroy to win the Masters - 10/1 

2021 marks seven years since Rory McIlroy won a major golf championship, which is hard to fathom given it looked back in 2014 that he was going to challenge Tiger Woods' haul of major titles. At the age of 25, he had four majors in the locker; the only one that's eluded him has been the Masters. McIlroy has got in his own way - more mentally than anything - in securing the Grand Slam, but he's just too good not to get there during his career. People sometimes forget how ridiculously talented the County Down star is; perhaps fatherhood and being in a good place can bring him back to the major circle. I think the short gap between a December and an April Masters takes the pressure off in a way - and McIlroy's game is tailor-made for Augusta. Fourth in the world right now, he's finished in the top ten in six of the last seven years at the hallowed hall in Georgia and I do think he will break through and win the Masters at some stage more comfortably than people think. Possibly in April.

Burrows Saint to win the Aintree Grand National - 20/1

Willie Mullins demonstrated at Christmas that he's as good as ever, mopping up the big races at Leopardstown. The Carlow trainer has the favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Chase. Who knows if Cheltenham and the Aintree Grand National meetings will happen; but if they do, it's worth considering Mullins' horse 'Burrows Saint' for the Aintree Grand National. In 2019, this horse won the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse as a six year old, an impressive achievement for a chaser so young. I remember Mullins delivering huge improvement in Hedgehunter before he won the 2005 Aintree showpiece and there's no reason why Burrows Saint, who has been campaigned quietly over hurdles, cannot also improve. Burrows Saint jumps and stays and if he turns up at Aintree, he's got a chance.

Manchester City to win the Champions League - 4/1

Pep Guardiola's men are into another League Cup final, but they could win a hundred more trophies in England and it still wouldn't remove the question about why they can't do it in Europe. 2021 marks a decade since Pep guided Barcelona to a second Champions League under his watch. At times, City have played mesmeric football under Pep, but the Champions League has turned into a bogey competition. Defeats to Lyon and Tottenham Hotspur in the last couple of seasons have been almost slapstick. Still, City have very talented players and Borussia Monchengladbach should be negotiated in the last 16. Guardiola has been trying to find the right blend between defence and attack in recent months; Ruben Dias has been a strong addition in this regard and Sergio Aguero may have a final flourish upon returning to fitness. A more cautious City may now have the tools to go all the way, especially with such question marks over the other elite European clubs this season.

England to win the Six Nations - 6/5

I think Ireland may struggle in the Six Nations and I am not convinced yet that we are anywhere near the end of the transition under Andy Farrell. England on the other hand are a powerful, consistent force under Eddie Jones and they have France at home first up. Leinster and Munster may be competitive for European honours, but it's worrying that England and France have separated themselves from the pack quite swiftly when it comes to the international scene in the Northern Hemisphere. Sometimes the answer is obvious, and England won't fear playing at an empty Aviva Stadium. At odds against, they look to be value.

Ireland to win three or more medals at the Tokyo Olympics

Let's hope the Tokyo Olympics does take place in July - it would be a triumph for the world - but despite a cost which is running into tens of billions - it shouldn't be held for financial reasons. The health conditions must be right, so lets hope the pandemic is under relative control by then. There is a real possibility Tokyo may never see the light of day, but if it does, Ireland has a very decent chance of success in the Summer Games. When you think about our contenders, you can see why - Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry in golf; Rhys McClenaghan in gymnastics, Sanita Puspure in rowing - where we may also see the O'Donovan brothers again - Kellie Harrington in boxing if she qualifies - while there are also chances in women's hockey, equestrian and even taekwondo. Ireland won six medals at London 2012, and two in Rio in 2016. So I think at least three is achievable. Coming home empty handed, as was the case in 1968, 1972, 1976, 1988 and 2004 would be very disappointing.

Finally, Jon Rahm will win a major golf championship in 2021

Rory McIlroy is the prediction to win the Masters, but there are three other major championships this year and I believe Spain's Jon Rahm can win his first major. Ranked number two in the world, the 26-year-old is a fierce competitor and born winner. The US Open will be held at Torrey Pines in California, where Rahm won his first PGA Tour event. Last year, he won twice, including at the prestigious Memorial Tournament. With five PGA Tour and six European Tour titles to his name, Rahm knows how to get the job done. He is strong in all facets of his game, especially off the tee, but it's his desire to improve that has marked him out for me as a champion in waiting.

Good luck with your own predictions and enjoy your sporting year! You can interact with me on Twitter @johnduggansport

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