ALESSANDRO DEL PIERO mania came to Gosford. Unfortunately, the man himself did not.
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Sydney FC tweeted their official team sheet at 6.37pm, by which time it was too late to make a U-turn and head back down the F3. It was a very long drive home for those that made the trip. It always is when your side concedes seven goals. Never, in the history of the Sky Blues have they been so exposed. And only one team – the now-defunct North Queensland Fury – has let in more.

There was a strong chance when the Juventus great wasn’t sighted on the training field at Macquarie University that the 15,686 at Bluetongue Stadium would be disappointed. Nor was he in the stands, with the team’s medical staff deciding a road trip was unlikely to ease the tension in his hamstrings. But there would have been few complaints from the Mariners faithful. The marquee man wasn’t there but it was an historic occasion nevertheless. Holger Osieck, spotted watching from the stands, would have struggled to make sense of it.

When Daniel McBreen scored his third – the home side’s seventh – Central Coast coach Graham Arnold started flapping his arms to pump up the crowd. They needed no encouragement. Not so long ago Arnold knocked back overtures to take over at Sydney. The decision to stay put has been vindicated.

Before the Del Piero news became official, the visitors were considered a $3.75 chance. When he was scratched, you could help yourself to $4.50.

Del Piero’s absence was the latest blow to an outfit which has already had more line-up changes than INXS. While the loss of the $2 million man – the one who had taken more shots, scored more goals and won more balls than any other Sydney player this year – was sorely missed, there is no excuse for what his team dished up.

An Italian international was replaced by a Panamanian one. The A-League has truly become the world game. And it was some start. Yairo Yau needed only eight minutes to make his mark for the Sky Blues. A Mariners turnover – both sides, particularly Sydney, made many costly ones – gave the 23-year-old his first goal. His chip over keeper Mathew Ryan was the sort of deft touch that Del Piero would have been proud of.

Had he kept his head in the 27th minute, Yau could have added to the tally. Instead he blasted over the woodwork while within range. Later, he set up Ali Abbas with a chipped pass which was brilliantly volleyed over the keeper. It was a rare happy moment for the Sky Blues.

News of Del Piero’s withdrawal may have prompted some viewers back in Turin – the Sky Blues are beamed back to his homeland – to flick over to an Italian soap instead. If they craved drama, they should have stayed tuned. A porous Sydney defence, coupled with some spectacular finishing, ensured Ivan Necevski was often called upon. Some of the Sydney goalkeeper’s pain was self-inflicted, like the time he failed to cleanly gather a John Hutchinson shot with the result a Sebastian Ryall own goal. This was not the sort of night where they could afford to be charitable.

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Former Boomers great Shane Heal is like the rest of us. He can’t quite figure out this New Zealand Breakers side that continues to master the art of winning ugly in the NBL.
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But the man who once went jaw-to-jaw with Charles Barkley in his prime knows one thing – as the back-to-back champions continue to find ways to win scrappy ball games, they’re still an ominous force in this league.

Heal’s Sydney Kings were the latest team to walk out of the Breakers’ gym scratching their heads over how they let one slip. So far the Kiwi club has looked a shadow of the offensive powerhouse that steamrolled through the last two regular seasons, yet the NZ side has just rattled off four straight victories to go 4-1.

On Friday night it took a last-second corner three from Mika Vukona to eke out a 79-76 victory that was, again, gloriously imperfect. The Breakers shot just 42 per cent, made only half their foul-shots and missed 16 of 22 attempts from deep.

Yet once more they found a way to win a game that threatened to get away from them, largely thanks to commanding individual displays from Cedric Jackson (22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, four steals) and Alex Pledger (16 points, 10 boards and three blocks ).

Heal was asked if winning ugly was something we might have to put up with all season as the Breakers figure out their new identity post-Gary Wilkinson.

“It’s a good question,” said Heal. “Across the board a lot of teams have improved, so New Zealand are going to have their challenges. But winning ugly is not bad either because with the class they’ve got, when they get things going again they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

“Different” was how Heal termed this year’s Breakers line-up. Because But also a little bit the same.

“Andrej [Lemanis] has done a great job creating a culture that is successful,” added Heal. “When they roll the balls out they’ve got everybody except [Will] Hudson who knows exactly what they’re doing, and they’ve got good at it over the last few years.”

Still, the Breakers continue to search for their offensive fluidity, and they were guilty of letting the Kings back in the game after leading by 13 in the third quarter and seven in the final stanza.

“We’re in a great spot, we’re 4-1 and we’ve still got our best basketball in front of us,” said Lemanis. “To shoot 42 per cent and keep winning ball games is a really positive sign, and I’ve felt the last couple of weeks the group has started to get there. I’m happy with the synergy of the group.”

As Lemanis pointed out, to win with almost no contribution from Tom Abercrombie (and Corey Webster out with a back injury) was also an encouraging sign. The talented swingman, bothered by fouls and a hamstring strain, had no points on zero-for-four shooting and added a single board in 24 minutes.

“It’s the way it seems to be every week with different people stepping up.”

This week it was Pledger again with his second double-double of the season, and those doubts fading fast into the ether.

“The more he gets exposed to being the starter and understanding we rely on him, the better he’s going to be at coping and delivering,” said Lemanis. “Seeing him wanting the ball in big situations is impressive, and the three blocks… he affects the game in a lot of different ways.”

Heal described the pick-and-roll combination of Pledger and Jackson as a “nightmare” to deal with, and Lemanis praised his point guard’s leadership and creativity.

“Ced carried us at important moments, did a great job of attacking the zone, stayed aggressive, got in the lane and finished plays. That then starts opening things up for other people, with Mika’s three at the end a good example.”

That’s the Breakers right now. Beautifully ugly.

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Yes he can: The money has come for Americain to win the Cup.THE 2010 Melbourne Cup winner Americain has drawn ”the perfect barrier” for what will be his final race start in Tuesday’s Melbourne Cup. Unless he happens to win it.
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The favourite for the $6.2 million race drew the middle draw of barrier 12 in the field of 24 at last night’s barrier draw where his part-owner Gerry Ryan confirmed the magnificent eight-year-old stallion would finish his career if he was to be beaten.

”It’s his last go at the Cup and his last run but Kevin [Bamford, part-owner] came up with the idea that if he was to win, we’d take him to Sandown [Classic] and give everyone a chance to farewell him,” Ryan said. ”I hope we get to Sandown.”

Americain continued to tumble in the Cup market, as he has done for the past week since it was confirmed that two-time Melbourne Cup winning jockey Damien Oliver, who won yesterday’s Victoria Derby on outsider Fiveandahalfstar, will ride him for the first time.

When final acceptances were taken yesterday at 4.30pm, there were a record 40 horses remaining in the Melbourne Cup. The Victoria Racing Club committee met briefly but once again announced no changes to the line up with the top 24 horses on the elimination order confirmed as starters.

Sheikh Al Thani, the owner of last year’s winner Dunaden said he wasn’t worried about his horse’s gate 16 but said there were other factors that had him concerned. The horse’s trainer, Mikel Delzangles, will fly to Melbourne on Monday after tasting success in the juvenile Breeders Cup at Santa Anita in the US.

”I hope my trainer hasn’t used up all my luck in America,” he said. ”The barrier is OK, 59 kilograms is a worry. We’re hoping he can do it again.”

The mystery horse of this year’s Melbourne Cup is the third favourite Mount Athos, who firmed in a point to $7 after drawing ideally in barrier eight. Owner Marwan Koukash was delighted. ”We wanted to draw as close to 10 as possible and we are right where we wanted to be,” he said. ”The horse has travelled well and we have a good barrier, so I can’t wait for Tuesday.”

Mark Weld said barrier 11 for Galileo’s Choice was ideal and not just because it gave his rider Pat Smullen the option of pressing forward or easing back for a trail. ”We are delighted to be drawn inside Americain,” the son of trainer Dermot Weld said. ”They are boxed next to each other at Werribee and if you could have chosen where we wanted to draw it would have been next to him in the middle of the field.

”I don’t want to put a damper on anyone’s day but we would like a bit of rain on Monday, just to make the track perfect for him.”

Red Cadeaux’s trainer Ed Dunlop and his jockey Michael Rodd couldn’t quite agree that barrier 18 may present a problem for the runner-up of last year.

”My only concerns were drawing either barrier one or 24,” Dunlop said. ”I am not concerned outside of that.”

But Rodd said he was concerned the wide draw could ruin his chances. ”It’s a bit of a kick in the guts to tell you the truth drawing out there,” he said. ”He’s a horse that settles in the second half of the field anyway and he’s always very strong late, so we’ll just have to wait and see come Tuesday.

”He looks a million dollars and is a bigger horse and a thicker horse than last year, so hopefully that transfers into him going one better this year.”

Another former imported horse snared the final Cup spot when Kelinni finished too well for Bart Cummings’ Dare To Dream in the Lexus Stakes. Kelinni takes the bottom weight of just 51 kilograms into Tuesday’s Cup after Racing Victoria handicapper Greg Carpenter decided against penalising him for the win.

Glen Boss, who was hoping to ride import Gatewood in the race, was briefly without a Cup ride after that horse ran down the track in the Lexus. But he was quickly snapped up by Kelinni’s trainer, Chris Waller.

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SHANE Watson should be Australia’s most influential cricketer. He is certainly one of its busiest, and most highly paid.
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All of which is why Cricket Australia’s team performance unit, created and empowered by the Argus report, hatched the most sophisticated and specialised plan yet to have him at peak fitness for the Test series against South Africa, and again for next year’s Ashes.

That plan unravelled disastrously on Saturday when Watson trudged from Allan Border Field with a suspected calf injury six days before the first Test against the Proteas.

If Cricket Australia is to blame, then the finger should be pointed at head office, not the coaching hierarchy that wanted him to skip the Champion’s League Twenty20 tournament. Instead, team performance manager Pat Howard won a compromise – despite opposition from the Sydney Sixers – and called him home after the early games. The Champions League, a senior Cricket Australia official confided recently, is ”a pain in the arse”, but the ache is diminished somewhat for CA management because of the millions of dollars it makes for Australian cricket.

The pain in Watson’s calf may not have been avoided if he had come straight home from the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka, in which he marauded with bat and ball and was man of the series. He could only have played grade cricket or Futures League (second XI) state matches if he had been at home, because the domestic schedule was compromised, too, to cater for the Sixers’ sojourn to the Champions League.

But there is no doubt the lucrative club tournament has played havoc with Australia’s Test preparations, leaving Pat Cummins with a stress injury in his back that went undiagnosed for a week and fellow Test squad quicks Ben Hilfenhaus and Mitchell Starc with just one Sheffield Shield game to find their groove with a red ball. Nor have the batsmen had the ideal preparation; opener David Warner played only two games for the Delhi Daredevils when he could have been at home, resting and preparing to face the most formidable pace attack in the world. Watson, who missed all of last summer’s Tests with hamstring and calf injuries, this week spoke of a desire ”deep inside” to move beyond the decent starts that have characterised his Test career and convert them to Test hundreds.

”Over the next couple of weeks the conditioning part of things is going to be very important. Unless you’re out there playing you can’t replicate anything like what it’s going to be physically being out there on your feet in a battle for five days. That’s certainly going to take a bit of time to get my body adjusted to it,” he said. ”Mentally, that’s one of the reasons why I came home [from CL Twenty20]. To be able to reset my batting especially to get rid of a few of the little things that creep in when you’re playing the shorter form of the game.”

Until Watson can work out a way to make that adjustment, and Cricket Australia can work out a way to keep him fit, his career will be unfulfilled.

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