The Central Jersey Royals baseball team is now holding open tryouts to fill open roster spots for its spring/summer teams. Due to popular demand, they are expanding from one team last year to multiple age teams this year. The teams have experienced coaches and have been around for the last three years. All interested registrants, ages 10-14, are encouraged to apply online at fatheadsportsonline.com or obtain additional information by e-mailing email@example.com.
BY DOUG McKENZIEStaff Writer PHOTOS BY SCOTT PILLING staff Above, Middletown South quarterback Pat Campbell looks for an open man during a recent scrimmage against Sayreville in Middletown. A total of 19 seniors graduated from last year’s Middletown South football team. While they left on top, having won three consecutive state titles and 36 straight games overall, their departure marked the start of new era at Middletown South. But for all of those teams out there licking their chops at the possibility that the Eagles are suddenly ripe for revenge this year, South head coach Steve Antonucci has a message for you: “Wait and see.” Antonucci, now entering his ninth season at South, certainly understands the impact losing so many players is sure to have on his team this fall. After all, among those players was Knowshon Moreno, the state’s second all-time leading rusher and leader in points scored and touchdowns, who is now taking his tremendous talents to the next level at the University of Georgia. And while Moreno certainly earned his share of headlines over the last few season, there were plenty of other game-breakers on last year’s Eagles squad who have since moved on the collegiate game. Nick Macaluso was generally regarded as one of (if not the) top linebackers in the state last year, and is now at Stanford University. Also moving on were Keith Heaney (Lafayette), Andrew Poulson (Lafayette) and Mark Longo (Cornell), and a slew of other players who did nothing but win at the high school level. For most programs, such losses would point to a rebuilding process over the next year or two. But not at Middletown South, and not under Antonucci’s watch. “We expect to keep it going,” the coach said. “They’ve obviously got a pretty tough task ahead of them, but we’ve got some experience to mix with a lot of youth on this team. “This group reminds me a bit of the 2002 team,” he added. “We’re just going to plod along and mature with each game. We’re not going to be as explosive as we’ve been, but we’ll be fine.” This year’s Eagles return just four starters on offense, but the team does have some other players with varsity experience, according to Antonucci. Leading the team will be junior quarterback Pat Campbell, who Antonucci expects to surprise people with his abilities this season. “He’s a great-looking specimen,” the coach said. “He’s 6-2, about 210 pounds, and has all the potential in the world. He reminds me of [former Eagle QB] Brendan Kennedy. Maybe he doesn’t have the foot-speed that Brendan had, but he has all the other tools.” Campbell, who led the Eagles JV team to an 8-1 mark last year, has one returning starter in the backfield in senior fullback Dave Dosil. Dosil, who certainly deserves a lot of the credit for Moreno’s success last year, will be opening holes this fall for senior running back Sean Barber, senior Brian Meeker, and a pair of promising sophomores, Matt Martino and Chris Bunge. Among the wideouts are returning starter Dayon Lane, a senior, as well as senior Chris Duffy, who saw a lot of time last year, and sophomore Mike Farrell. The offensive line is anchored by a pair of returning starters at the guard positions, Brian King and Greg Sullivan. They are joined by senior center Chris Guderian, senior tackle Joe Sciortino and junior tackle Steve Lang. Many of the same players will be on the defensive side of the ball, where the Eagles return just three starters. The defensive ends are Guderian and Sciortino, while Farrell will also see some time there. Senior Alec Bay, a returning starter, is at defensive tackle, along with King and senior Mike Guarnien, while Dosil returns at outside linebacker, where he is joined by Martino and Barber. Bay will not start tomorrow night when the Eagles open their season against Neptune, but should be back in the lineup in a couple of weeks once he recovers from a broken toe. At inside linebacker are juniors Josh Matthews and Dan Miller, while Lake and Meeker cover the corners, and senior Sean Gilbert returns at the safety position. Throughout the preseason, the Eagles have looked good, adding to Antonucci’s theory that this new-look Eagle squad could meet with familiar results this year. “So far so good,” the coach said. “We’ve stayed away from major injuries and have played well. Our defense is coming together, though we’re still pretty young on this side of the ball.” Among the younger players who Antonucci said have looked particularly strong through the preseason are Martino, who the coach called a “heck of a ballplayer,” and Bunge and Farrell. “We’ve got a lot of young guys that will eventually be very good football players,” the coach said. “I still think we’re a state qualifier, and as the season goes on, some of our young guys will mature, and the young mistakes should go away, making us a pretty solid team. We’ve got to overcome our youth, and depth could be an issue.” The Eagles’ schedule includes some tough foes in their own right, such as Central, Ocean, Toms River North, Wall and Neptune. And Antonucci and his players know that this year, as in the years past, they enter every game with bull’s-eyes on their backs. “No doubt about it, everybody we’re playing wants to see if they can get back some of what we’ve taken over the last few years,” the coach said. The question is, will the new-look Eagles come back to the pack a bit, or are they still among the Shore Conference’s and the state’s elite teams? Wait and see. BY DOUG McKENZIE Staff Writer Three-time defending state champs open season tomorrow
The MYAA 9/10-year-old girls’ softball All-Stars took second place in the Little League Section 3 Tournament. Middle-town was the District 19 winner to advance to the Section 3 tournament. “We had solid pitching performances and timely hitting in our winning games,” manager Frank Miceli said. Kristi Miceli threw a no-hitter with 16 strikeouts and hit a two-run homer in Middletown’s game one win. Elizabeth Gulino led the team in hitting during the series. Nikki Alfano and Nicolette Scheinhartz each drove in three runs in Middletown’s second win. The team played solid defensively in the series with strong glove work by Amanda Kanski, Payleigh Behan and Alexandra Raguseo. Also contributing to the team’s successful run with key hits and solid pitching were Kendall Keelen, Julia McCarthy, Samantha Politano, and Sinead Slade. Nick Alfano was the coach for the team. “Middletown is very proud of how these girls came together in a short period of time and played as a team,” said Miceli. “We are also proud of the direction our program is heading, having won the District title three straight years in this age group.” Middletown also won the Little League (11/12) District 19 title this season. The Hazlet Hawks 12U girls fastpitch travel softball team concluded their successful season by winning their hometown tournament on Aug. 3 at HYAL Fields. The team’s combined record for the Hazlet Township tournament was 4-0, including a 10-6 win over the Holmdel Hornets to clinch first place for the six-team event. During their impressive run throughout the tournament, Hazlet outscored their opponents by a combined score of 37-10. The team won two of the five tournaments they entered during their travel season, also winning the Bergen Blast tournament in Allendale the weekend of June 30-July 1. The girls tournament team consists of the following players from Hazlet Township: Casey Bossert, Nicolette Bou, Taylor Buonocore, Tiffany Dahlquist, Jackie Dickenman, Nicole Ennis, Laura Gesario, Jessica Helmstetter, Erica Lencsak, Christina Marzelli and Jill McDonald. The team is lead by head coach Gerard Gesario, with assistance from Lou Buonocore and Joe Marzelli. Eileen and Sarah Marzelli handle score keeping and cheerleading.
Steve Bush brings a wealth of coaching experience on high school, college and National Football League (NFL) levels as he takes over as Middletown High School North’s football coach.Bush succeeds Joe Trezza, who resigned after last season.“It’s going well,” said Bush, whose background includes two state playoff championships at high schools in New York and Massachusetts. “The kids have been great and are working hard. We’re getting things together and making progress.”Bush, who previously was head coach for seven seasons at Manalapan High School, said he was eager to get back into the area. Bush took the year off when he and the rest of the staff of the Miami Dolphins, where he coached for four years, was let go after head coach Tony Sparano was fired following the 2011 NFL season. Bush had one year left on his contract with the Dolphins last season as wide receivers coach, and he spent some time refocusing on where he was going from there.He heard Middletown North was looking for a coach for this season and remembered when he coached against the Lions at Manalapan, including an NJSIAA playoff loss.“They had some tough kids when we played Middletown North,” Bush said. “And when I applied, I was very impressed with the people running the school and the superintendent.”Bush was also impressed after meeting with the players, including Ryan McMahon, a senior this fall and frontrunner at quarterback for graduated standout athlete Cody Thompson. Last season, McMahon played in the defensive backfield. There’s also linebacker Dan Napolitano, defensive back Brandon Piccini, wide receiver/defensive back Jake Betkowski and two-way lineman John Quinn.Playing in Shore Conference A North, Middletown North has a bye week and opens on Sept. 20 at Shore Conference A South powerhouse Brick Memorial High School.Bush said he will run a spread offense, somewhat like the Lions have run in the past, and take advantage of opponents’ defensive breakdowns. Defensively, it’s an aggressive style but a work in progress, as Bush said he will adapt to his personnel from what he sees in summer workouts and preseason training that begins in mid-August.Bush started his coaching career as a graduate assistant for two years at Southern Connecticut State University, where he excelled as a defensive back. From there, he had three two-year coaching stints with New England colleges on the staffs at the University of New Haven, Boston University and Springfield College. He stayed in New England as a high school coach for three years at Longmeadow High School, which won 22 straight games and a Western Massachusetts championship.Bush went from there to Manalapan before becoming a defensive assistant for five years at Syracuse University under Paul Pasqualoni. He stayed in that area for a three-year stint at West Genesee High School in Camillus, N.Y., and won a state championship in his final season.Bush then took the big leap to the NFL before returning to the area in April. He resides in Tinton Falls. Bush grew up in Basking Ridge, where he excelled at Ridge High School playing for his dad, who was head coach there.“I’ve had the chance to be around some great people,” Bush said of his coaching experiences.Bush believes he is surrounding himself with some good coaches on his staff. Bush will be offensive coordinator, and he still is awaiting school board approval of a defensive coordinator. But he has George Kostas as line coach, looking to fill many spots opened by graduations on both sides of the ball; Jason Pino as running back and outside linebacker coach; and Geoff Massiminee as tight end and secondary coach. Dane Webster is the head freshman coach. MIDDLETOWN NORTH By WAYNE WITKOWSKI Correspondent
Above: Brookdale Community College pitcher Courtney Semkewycz winds up to deliver a pitch during the April 1 game against Ocean County College in Lincroft. Semkewycz tossed a one-hit shutout as Brookdale scored an 11-0 win. Right: Brookdale second baseman Taylor Sheridan, left, looks to turn a double play as Ocean’s Kara Molnar is late sliding into second base. Weather was an early season opponent for the Brookdale Community College softball team.Veteran head coach Bo Scannapieco said 1994 was the last time he remembered field conditions being as bad as they were this year. The Jersey Blues weren’t able to play a home game until April 1 and hadn’t practiced on their own diamond. They played their first official home games at Count Basie Field in Red Bank — home of Red Bank Catholic High School.The Jersey Blues have handled the adversity quite well, however. They were 11- 4 through their first 15 games, which included their usual trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in March. They were ranked No. 4 in the country in the latest National Junior College Athletic Association Division III softball poll. PHOTOS BY STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Despite a lack of practice time, Scannapieco likes the way his Brookdale team is playing in early April.“There’s a lot of good things I see,” he said. “We played really well [in South Carolina]. That was a positive.”The way the Jersey Blues performed when they finally got to play on their home diamond was positive, too. They beat Ocean County College by identical 11-0 scores in sweeping the April 1 twinbill in Lincroft.The big surprise in the early going has been Brookdale’s defense. Despite the lack of practice time on the field, the Jersey Blues’ defense has been exceptional.“We’re strong defensively,” Scannapieco said. “Shortstop Cassie Varvaro (Toms River East) is the glue.“All of our outfielders are good defensively, and Jacquie Coulahan (Howell) is doing a good job at third base.”First baseman Caroline Abin (Peddie School) and Taylor Sheridan (Keyport), who has played three different positions, shore up the infield. Center fielder Amanda Pringle (Wall) is the mainstay in the outfield.The Jersey Blues have three dependable catchers in Alexandria Montefinese (Monmouth Regional), Morgan Schweitzer (Monroe Township) and Victoria Mettlen (St. Rose).The biggest difference between this Brookdale team and the one that finished third at last year’s National Junior College Athletic Association championships is their ability to create offense. Last year, the team lacked small ball capability.“We struggled last year at the nationals to score runs,” said Scannapieco, who has led Brookdale to three national championships. “I’ve added some athletes and speed.“We’re able to manufacture runs and take the extra base. Our base running is good, and we’re going to stress that more — be more aggressive.”That was on full display in the home opener when the Jersey Blues used small ball, bunts and stolen bases that were turned into big innings.Brookdale has swiped 28 bases in 32 attempts, helping the offense average more than eight runs a game thus far. Varvaro is a See the video perfect 9 for 9 www.gmnews.com stealing bases.Pringle and Varvaro are the catalysts at the top of the lineup who have been using their speed to set the table.Varvaro has scored 22 runs and is batting a ridiculous .638 with a .707 on-base percentage (OBP). She has 30 hits already. The freshman was recently selected as the Garden State Athletic Conference Player of the Week.Pringle is batting .396 with a .442 OBP.Outfielder Sara Vocisano (Piscataway) is the team’s top run producer with 21 RBIs and 17 runs scored. The sophomore is batting .460 with six doubles, a triple and a .500 OBP.Abin is batting .479 with 19 RBIs, a coteam high of 22 runs and a .519 OBP.Sheridan is batting an otherworldly .605 with 22 runs scored, matching Abin and Varvaro for the team lead. She has 15 RBIs and eight stolen bases. Her two home runs lead the team.Pitcher Courtney Semkewycz (Henry Hudson) has nine extra base hits — seven doubles, a triple and a home run. The sophomore has 15 RBIs and 18 runs scored and is batting .463 with an OBP of .542. Alexandra Clayton (Wall) has 16 RBIs and 12 runs scored while batting .343.Semkewycz, Victoria Vogt (County Prep), Kaitlyn Kretzmer (St. Rose) and Kirby Marron (Wall) make up the pitching rotation.It was Semkewycz and Kretzmer who tossed those back-to-back shutouts against Ocean, with Semkewycz throwing a one-hitter.Semkewycz is 5-1 and pitching to a 1.43 ERA, while Vogt is 4-0 with a 4.25 ERA.The rotation does not have dominating a strikeout pitcher, so the most important thing for the Jersey Blues’ hurlers is to throw strikes, stay away from walks and let the defense do its job. It’s working pretty well thus far. Completing the 2015 Jersey Blues are Brianna Calabrese (Red Bank Regional), Sara Case (St. Rose) and Gianna Mauro (Monmouth Regional).Brookdale concluded an eight-game home stand April 8 in a doubleheader against the County College of Morris.That is followed by a road trip to Middlesex County College April 9. Then it’s back to Lincroft for doubleheaders with Cumberland County College (April 11), Harford Community College (April 12), Union County College (April 13) and Burlington County College (April 15). By TIM MORRIS Staff Writer
By David BrettEngland finally wrestled back some momentum on day two of the fourth Ashes Test on Friday but are yet to find an answer to Australian wicketkeeper Brad Haddin’s defiance with the bat.The tourists may have surrendered the Ashes after a hat-trick of defeats but the second day’s play at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was classic attritional cricket as the English bowlers restricted the hosts to 164 for nine, to go with an unflattering run rate of 2.23, at stumps.It was not pretty cricket to watch but it was clear that England had done their homework, made plans and, more importantly, their bowlers were sticking to them.More to their credit, the MCG’s drop-in pitch played stubbornly straight for the most part on a sunny day.“There wasn’t much there,” James Anderson, who took 3-50, told reporters.Stuart Broad claimed 3-30 while fellow paceman Tim Bresnan took 2-24.“There was some reverse and some point in the day, but there wasn’t really much seam movement or anything. So we had to work really hard, be patient and work with the guy at the other end,” said Anderson.“We were all trying to bowl maidens and bowl dots, and as boring as it sounds that’s the way to go on that pitch and it worked well for us.”The bowlers conceded just four extras in 73.3 overs, and only 58 runs off 29 overs in the middle session.Having batted first, this was the first time in the series England sensed a lead of any kind to protect and their pacemen replied with a disciplined performance.With their bowlers operating predominantly outside the off-stump to offside-heavy fields, England strangled Australia’s batsmen even more effectively than the hosts had stifled their own.Australia’s number five batsman Steve Smith was starved of his favoured leg-side scoring shots – 80 percent of runs in his Perth century came on the leg-side – and was eventually frustrated into a rash cut shot that was snaffled in the slips.Smith scored 19 runs off 77 deliveries at a strike rate of 24.67, compared to his 53-plus in the first innings at Perth.The Australian batsman who remains a thorn in England’s side, however, is Haddin who finished the day unbeaten on 43.Australia have been in trouble in each of their first innings so far. They were 83-4 at Brisbane, 174-4 at Adelaide and 129-4 at Perth before Haddin bailed them out on all three occasions.Haddin has the second highest average with the bat in the series – his 73.60 bettered only by David Warner’s 77.66 – but with Australia still 91 runs behind, even he is unlikely to prevent England taking a substantial first innings lead.England, desperate to prevent a series whitewash, will badly need it on MCG’s drop-in pitch where the lowest total defended is 142, while the highest run chase is 332.“We’d have liked a few more runs this morning,” Anderson said of England’s 255, improbably, their highest first innings total in the series.“But then having spoken to our batters last night we knew we could make it difficult for them to score because it’s quite a slow pitch. If we set the right fields and bowled in the right areas we could get some rewards – and we did that.“It’s going to be difficult for us. We’ve seen how difficult it is to score on there.“It might be slow going for us tomorrow, but if we get stuck in, hopefully we can get a reasonable lead.”
By Nick MulvenneyBernard Foley kicked a long-range penalty a minute from time to give the New South Wales Waratahs their maiden Super Rugby title with a 33-32 victory over the seven-times champion Canterbury Crusaders in a thrilling final on Saturday.The Waratahs dreams of a first title in their third final were hanging by a thread when the Wallabies flyhalf calmly slotted his seventh penalty of the night from 44 metres to send the record crowd of 61,823 at the Olympic Stadium into raptures.The Waratahs also had tries either side of half time from centre Adam Ashley-Cooper but they had to dig deep in the second half when the Crusaders erased an early deficit and took a slender lead.It was a first win in 12 matches over a decade against the New Zealanders, who had won the first two finals between the teams in 2005 and 2008.“The Crusaders really lifted their game in the second half and showed why they’re the kings of the finals,” said Waratahs coach Michael Cheika, who has transformed the underachieving state side in his two years at the helm.“But we’ve been working really hard on our persistence all year and it paid off for us.”The Crusaders had tries from flanker Matt Todd and winger Nemani Nadolo – his 12th of the season – along with 20 points from the boot of flyhalf Colin Slade but their wait for an eighth title will now go into a seventh season.The Waratahs, as they have often this season, started at a canter and were 8-0 up inside five minutes after Foley kicked his first penalty and Ashley-Cooper finished off a breathless move by barging through three tacklers to touch down.The Crusaders appeared shellshocked by the Waratahs’ opening salvo – making uncharacteristic handling errors and looking fragile at the set piece – and two more Foley penalties extended the lead to 14-0 after 15 minutes.The New Zealanders had too much quality to simply lie down, though, and from a counter-attack from inside their own 22 on 18 minutes, number eight Kieran Read offloaded to flanker Todd, who brushed off Ashley-Cooper’s tackle to score in the corner.Dan Carter added the extras in one of his last contributions before he departed the contest on the half-hour mark with a corked thigh, leaving Slade to trade a couple of penalties apiece with Foley before the break.CONTROVERSIAL DECISIONThree minutes after halftime and the scores were all square at 20-20 after another sweeping Crusaders counter-attack resulted in Nadolo touching down in the corner.It was a controversial decision confirmed by referee Craig Joubert only after review of the TV pictures, which suggested the Fijian’s foot might have gone into touch.Slade converted and added a penalty after the Waratahs scrum collapsed under pressure in the 48th minute to put the Crusaders ahead for the first time at 23-20.Foley missed a chance to level the scores a couple of minutes later but made no mistake with his next attempt only for Slade to slot another penalty to maintain the three-point cushion.The Crusaders were now dominating the breakdown but the Waratahs stuck to their task and managed to get enough quick ball to launch another assault with Ashley-Cooper again crashing through tacklers to give the home side the lead at 30-26.Slade kicked two more penalties, though, to give the Crusaders a two-point lead but ultimately it only set the stage for Foley, who got his chance when Richie McCaw infringed at the breakdown.“We’re absolutely gutted,” said Crusaders skipper Read.“We definitely started slowly and I was proud of the way we fought back. In the end it came down to one kick. That’s footie I guess.”The crowd was a record for a Super Rugby match, beating the 55,000 that watched the Bulls beat the Waikato Chiefs in the 2009 final in Pretoria.
By Ian ChadbandIt was Alex Ferguson who once noted famously that watching the World Cup was as excruciating as visiting the dentist while offering the counterpoint that the Champions League was much more fun, quite the best competition in football.To be fair, the old Manchester United manager did make this observation long before the exhilarating 2014 edition of the World Cup restored most football folk’s faith in the sport’s premier event.So now it is time for UEFA’s ever more unstoppable juggernaut of an event to re-establish its bragging rights as the 60th edition of the European Cup competition – and the 23rd in its Champions League guise – kicks off this week with its first set of group matches on the long road to a climax at Berlin’s Olympiastadion next June.The Champions League’s paymasters can ask again who cares about the World Cup when hundreds of millions are able to see Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and company strut the dandiest stages of European club football week in, week out over the next 10 months?The competition, which was worth 57.4 million euros in prize money to last season’s champions, has mushroomed into an unrecognisable phenomenon and veritable cash cow from the inaugural 29-game, 16-team tournament of 1955-1956 which made an intriguing bow with no television or sponsorship nor, indeed, sniffy Englishmen.Some things never change, though.Just as the Cup’s first edition in 1956 was won by Real Madrid, so the Spanish aristocrats begin tournament number 60 as holders and warm favourites, even after their underwhelming start to the La Liga campaign.Even without AC Milan and Manchester United, 10-times winners between them, in this year’s draw, there is predictability to what will eventuate.It is no coincidence that the four favourites this season – Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Chelsea – are also the last four heavyweight winners of the trophy.The last genuine surprise winners? Jose Mourinho’s Porto in 2004, 18 of the last 19 winners having come from one of the continent’s big four leagues – La Liga, Bundesliga, Premier League and Serie A. The Champions League is not big on fairytales.Here is another predictable prediction. Carlo Ancelotti can claim that his Real Madrid squad “is stronger than it was last year” – a highly debatable assertion without Xabi Alonso and Angel di Maria offering their excellent balance – but they will not defend their title.Why? Modern Champions League lore dictates that the winner never repeats, that the pressure is too much. You have to go back to Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in 1990, three years before the inaugural Champions League final, to find the last back-to back European champions.More than that, no champions since then have ever been succeeded by a club from their own country.So Barcelona, with their own set of striking Galacticos – Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez – and last year’s beaten finalists Atletico Madrid, still hewn from Diego Simeone’s inspirational one-for-all image, have their work cut out.Yet for Real, surely the pressure of finally landing the fabled 10th crown – La Decima – last season ought to make the idea of winning the not-so-exacting ‘Undecima’ seem a mere trifle?If it happens, Ancelotti would be the first coach ever to win ‘the Cup with the big ears’ four times. Added to his two titles as a player with Milan, it would cement this quiet achiever’s standing as equalling Real Madrid’s Francisco Gento as the most decorated figure in European Cup annals.Gento played in all six of Real Madrid’s European Cup triumphs between 1956 and 1966.MAJOR CASUALTYSurely, as Real prepare to start their defence at the Bernabeu against Basel on Tuesday, President Florentino Perez must believe they can break the Champions League holders’ jinx, especially if Cristiano Ronaldo can maintain his supersonic form of last term, with his record 17 goals in a campaign.Ronaldo himself predicts he is not finished yet, stating: “In terms of individual achievements I’m going to try to break my own records. I know it’s tough, but I’m going to try.”Indeed, it seems a decent bet that this season, both Ronaldo and Messi will shoot past the all-time tournament record of 71, held by Real’s former immaculate marksman, Raul.Traditionalists may pine for the days before the occasionally less than gripping group stages when a big fish could be netted early in a straight knockout competition.Yet there is always room for a major casualty to go tumbling before the end of the year.Bayern Munich and Manchester City, the champions of Germany and England respectively, meet on Wednesday for the third tournament out of four and have to repel both Serie A runners-up AS Roma and Russian champions CSKA Moscow in a highly competitive Group E.A couple of other Anglo-German clashes – Arsenal renewing familiar rivalry at Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea hosting Schalke 04 – may be the pick of the other opening round games.For a bit of romance, though, look no further than Anfield where the returning five-times champions Liverpool will play host to the unsung Bulgarian side Ludogorets and their amazed new celebrity, Cosmin Moti.Defender Moti was the unlikely hero who, pressed into emergency action as substitute goalkeeper in Ludogorets’ qualifying playoff against Steaua Bucharest, scored one and saved two in his side’s victorious shootout.“Everything in football is possible,” said the man who had laughed that Steaua’s penalty takers could not possibly know what he was going to do because he did not know himself.With Ludogorets’ first-choice keeper Vladislav Stoyanov suspended, their coach Georgi Dermendzhiev suggested, perhaps only half in jest, that Moti might end up in goal at Anfield.It would not be just Liverpool’s Kop, who have long believed in Champions League fairytales, but the entire tournament which would adore that.
By Toby DavisFor those who questioned Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers for allowing winger Raheem Sterling to take a mid-season break, the answer came in one emphatic burst of pace in Tuesday night’s League Cup semi-final draw with Chelsea.Sterling had returned from a trip to Jamaica for Saturday’s Premier League clash at Aston Villa, and was reinstated to his role as a makeshift centre forward for the first leg against league leaders Chelsea at Anfield.With Liverpool a goal down in the second half, after Eden Hazard’s early penalty, and becoming increasingly frustrated, the 20-year-old received the ball in Chelsea’s half.Sterling powered away from the chasing John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic and showed a clean pair of heels to Gary Cahill before finishing expertly into the corner with his left foot.The goal was straight from the top drawer and, with his pace and movement, the England forward was a nuisance to Chelsea’s back four for the whole 90 minutes of the 1-1 draw at Anfield.It was the sort of performance that made a mockery of those who claimed his manager should not have let him take a break from the stress and strain of football to rest and recuperate.“This is about the boy’s life and his career,” Rodgers said on Sky Sports. “People will talk about it but I’m only worried about the kid.“You could see he was probably fresher, not so much physically but mentally. He’s had so much put on him so early in his career. There is no doubt he is an exceptional young talent.”The result was disappointing for Rodgers after his side dominated the game and they will go into the return leg next week as underdogs to reach the final at Wembley against Tottenham Hotspur or third tier Sheffield United.The Liverpool boss put a positive spin on the result, however, choosing to focus on the improvement in his side’s performance level from earlier in the season.“We’re getting better with every game, you can see the confidence returning,” said Rodgers.“We were very unfortunate not to win the game. We went behind against the run of play but we created opportunities.“You’ve seen the return of the aggression in our intensity. The only thing which was missing was more than one goal…“It felt like a big game and the performance was big.”
By Greg StutchburyTOP seeds Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams barely moved out of second gear while Victoria Azarenka underlined her Australian Open pedigree as players experienced the hottest conditions of the championship so far on Thursday.Four-time champion Djokovic only needed to up his game after an hour of his 6-0 6-1 6-4 victory over Andrey Kuznetsov, while Williams had to be on her mettle a little sooner following some early resistance from former world number two Vera Zvonareva.Once the 18-time grand slam singles champion got up to speed, however, she cruised away from the Russian with a 7-5 6-0 victory during the day session.“Things really clicked. I had no other option but for things to click,” the American told reporters as she moved into the third round and within sight of a potential quarter-final with Azarenka.Twice champion Azarenka, whose ranking has plummeted to 44 after she was restricted to just nine tournaments last year with foot and knee injuries, proved she would not be kept down for long as she hammered eighth seed Caroline Wozniacki 6-4 6-2.“I knew that I’m unseeded so I can play anybody. I just accept whoever is on the opposite side and I’m happy with the way I stayed consistent throughout the whole match,” she said.“I think there’s always things you can improve, but it’s a great progress from one match to another.”Woziniacki, a former world number one, said while losing “sucks” she felt her good friend was back to her best already.“Her level, it’s high,” she said. “I think she’s at the level that she left when she stopped playing.”Men’s champion Stan Wawrinka, who beat Romanian qualifier Marius Copil, the lowest ranked men’s player in the second round at 194, and eighth seed Milos Raonic, who dispatched American Donald Young, also both advanced after clinical victories.Air temperatures had dropped considerably for the later matches at Melbourne Park, but had exceeded 35 Celsius during the day session, with France’s Adrian Mannarino a notable casualty.The 26-year-old held two match points in the third set against 12th-seed Feliciano Lopez before he was forced to retire while trailing in the fourth.Lopez was awarded the match 4-6 4-6 7-6(3) 4-0 and will now face Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz, who beat 17th-seed Gael Monfils in an entertaining five setter.Controversy also raged on Thursday after a male television interviewer had asked seventh seed Eugenie Bouchard to showcase her dress with a ‘twirl’ after her second round victory on Wednesday.The Canadian later said it was strange to be asked to do such a thing, while social and mainstream media went into overdrive with accusations of sexism, though Williams said there were more important things to discuss.“I wouldn’t ask Rafa (Nadal) or Roger (Federer) to twirl. Whether it’s sexist or not, I don’t know,” she said.“Life is far too short to focus on that. We have so many other problems we want to deal with that we should focus on.”Williams’ victory came about 90 minutes after older sister Venus hammered American compatriot Lauren Davis 6-2 6-3, while sixth seed Radwanska also made short work of Sweden’s Johanna Larsson in a 6-0 6-1 victory that took just 44 minutes.Twice Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova also advanced after a comfortable 6-2 6-4 victory over Germany’s Mona Barthel.US Open finalist Kei Nishikori was forced to dig himself out of a small hole when he lost the first set to Ivan Dodig, but once he got warmed up, and the temperatures continued to rise, the Croatian wilted.“It was … hot out there,” Nishikori said after winning 4-6 7-5 6-2 7-6(0).“A lot of sun. It wasn’t easy. I was a little bit dizzy and tired.“But it’s going to be like this in Australia.” Results from the Australian Open Women’s Singles Round 2 matches on ThursdayVictoria Azarenka (Belarus) beat 8-Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark) 6-4 6-225-Barbora Zahlavova Strycova (Czech Republic) beat Chang Kai-Chen (Taiwan) 6-1 7-5Madison Brengle (U.S.) beat Irina Falconi (U.S.) 6-1 6-34-Petra Kvitova (Czech Republic) beat Mona Barthel (Germany) 6-2 6-419-Alize Cornet (France) beat Denisa Allertova (Czech Republic) 6-4 6-7(2) 6-2Madison Keys (U.S.) beat 29-Casey Dellacqua (Australia) 2-6 6-1 6-126-Elina Svitolina (Ukraine) beat Nicole Gibbs (U.S.) 7-6(3) 7-6(6)11-Dominika Cibulkova (Slovakia) beat Tsvetana Pironkova (Bulgaria) 6-2 6-030-Varvara Lepchenko (U.S.) beat Ajla Tomljanovic (Croatia) 6-1 7-6(1)Camila Giorgi (Italy) beat Tereza Smitkova (Czech Republic) 6-1 6-41-Serena Williams (U.S.) beat Vera Zvonareva (Russia) 7-5 6-0Timea Bacsinszky (Switzerland) beat Anna Tatishvili (U.S.) 6-7(5) 6-3 6-224-Garbine Muguruza Blanco (Spain) beat Daniela Hantuchova (Slovakia) 6-1 1-6 6-018-Venus Williams (U.S.) beat Lauren Davis (U.S.) 6-2 6-36-Agnieszka Radwanska (Poland) beat Johanna Larsson (Sweden) 6-0 6-1Results from the Australian Open Men’s Singles Round 2 matches on Thursday 8-Milos Raonic (Canada) beat Donald Young (U.S.) 6-4 7-6(3) 6-3Benjamin Becker (Germany) beat Lleyton Hewitt (Australia) 2-6 1-6 6-3 6-4 6-231-Fernando Verdasco (Spain) beat Go Soeda (Japan) 6-3 6-2 7-6(3)Jerzy Janowicz (Poland) beat 17-Gael Monfils (France) 6-4 1-6 6-7(3) 6-3 6-39-David Ferrer (Spain) beat Sergiy Stakhovsky (Ukraine) 5-7 6-3 6-4 6-218-Gilles Simon (France) beat Marcel Granollers (Spain) 7-6(5) 6-2 6-4Gilles Muller (Luxembourg) beat 13-Roberto Bautista (Spain) 7-6(5) 1-6 7-5 6-1Vasek Pospisil (Canada) beat Paolo Lorenzi (Italy) 6-7(3) 7-6(4) 6-3 6-41-Novak Djokovic (Serbia) beat Andrey Kuznetsov (Russia) 6-0 6-1 6-44-Stanislas Wawrinka (Switzerland) beat Marius Copil (Romania) 7-6(4) 7-6(4) 6-35-Kei Nishikori (Japan) beat Ivan Dodig (Croatia) 4-6 7-5 6-2 7-6(0)12-Feliciano Lopez (Spain) beat Adrian Mannarino (France) 4-6 4-6 7-6(3) 4-0 (Mannarino retired)19-John Isner (U.S.) beat Andreas Haider-Maurer (Austria) 6-4 7-6(4) 4-6 6-4Jarkko Nieminen (Finland) beat Matthias Bachinger (Germany) 7-6(4) 7-5 7-5Steve Johnson (U.S.) beat 30-Santiago Giraldo (Colombia) 6-3 6-4 6-2Guillermo Garcia-Lopez (Spain) beat Alejandro Gonzalez (Colombia) 6-1 6-3 6-3