2018 MotoGP season preview

The 2018 MotoGP season kicks off this weekend under the lights in Qatar, so it is time to look ahead to the oncoming season and assess the chances of the contenders.

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How the riders will line up for the 2018 MotoGP season. Image: BT Sport MotoGP

The front-runners

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Marc Marquez celebrated his sixth world title, and his fourth MotoGP title, at the final race in Valencia last season. Image: Motorsport.com

World Champion Marc Marquez has had a rather understated pre-season as he prepares to aim for his fifth MotoGP title. Despite topping the charts in the first test in Valencia back in November, Marquez has recorded an eighth in Sepang, a third in Thailand and a seventh in Qatar.

The Spaniard has won just once in the premier class at Losail, so he may have to wait to launch his bid for the title.

Andrea Dovizioso ran Marquez close last season, and has offered a slightly more consistent pre-season than his rival. After a sluggish start in Valencia, Dovi has recorded a fourth place in Sepang, a seventh in Thailand and a third in Qatar.

The Yamahas had a disappointing year in 2017, especially considering Maverick Vinales’ dominant form in testing. This year he was slightly more off the pace. The Spaniard, who finished third last season, has placed seventh, eighth and fifth in the three 2018 tests.

His teammate, the experienced Valentino Rossi, has said that he will continue racing for at least the next two years. Rossi finished second in the Qatar test at the beginning of the month, but finished twelfth in Thailand and ninth in Sepang.

Jorge Lorenzo is clearly still trying to get to grips with the Ducati, having finished on the rostrum three times last year. Lorenzo topped the charts in Sepang, but has struggled to match that pace in the subsequent tests, finishing fifteenth and tenth.

Could 2018 finally be the year that Dani Pedrosa makes his mark on the championship. The 32-year-old continues to be one of the best riders to never win the MotoGP title, but his pre-season form has been impressive. He has recorded two second places and topped the standings in Thailand. However, the Spaniard has also finished twelfth in Qatar and eleventh on the first day in Valencia, so it could go either way once the season gets underway.

 

The outsiders

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Cal Crutchlow has praised Honda for the improvements they have made this winter. Image: Autosport.com

Johann Zarco was the top performing rookie last season, with the Frenchman finishing the year in sixth. The Yamaha rider topped the timing charts in the final test in Qatar, finishing almost a quarter of a second ahead of Valentino Rossi.

Zarco finished second in Thailand, and also recorded top three finishes in both days of the Valencia test.

Danilo Petrucci finished on the podium four times season, and finished just 13 points behind Jorge Lorenzo. The giant Italian will be looking to build on his strong showing, especially in the first half of the season. Petrucci has been consistently in the middle of the pack during testing, but will hope that he can steer his Ducati in to the top half of the grid.

Cal Crutchlow will be disappointed with his 2017 season. The Brit finished ninth overall and failed to finish five times. A third place in Argentina was the highlight of a pretty sub-standard campaign, but Crutchlow will be hoping that he can recover this year.

He has performed well in testing, finishing fourth in Qatar and Thailand and third in Sepang. Crutchlow has praised the improvements that have been made to his Honda, saying that Honda have given their riders all that they wanted.

Andrea Iannone always has the potential to cause an upset, however his aggressive riding style has led to a number of crashes. He has been off the pace in testing but tends to perform much better on a raceday.

The Brits

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Scott Redding will be hoping that he can improve on last season after his move to Aprilia. Image: Motorcycle Sports

Bradley Smith managed to keep his ride at KTM this year but his performance will be under close scrutiny this year. Smith managed to up his performances at the end of last year, but his KTM still looks unlikely to let Smith challenge the top 10.

Scott Redding has moved to Aprilia, with his spot at Pramac Ducati being taken by Jack Miller. Redding had a solid season last year, scoring four top 10 finishes, including in the season opener in Qatar. Testing has shown that Redding is still getting used to his new bike, and he may have to wait until he is able to challenge for a top 10 place.

The rookies

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Franco Morbidelli has won back-to-back Moto2 titles before he stepped up to the premier class. Image: Motorsport.com

Two-time Moto2 champion Franco Morbidelli has stepped to challenge himself in the top class. Morbidelli will race for the Marc VDS Honda team alongside Thomas Luthi, who came runner-up to Morbidelli last season.

Xavier Simeon will race on a Ducati this season. Simeon finished 23rd in Moto2 last season, and will partner Tito Rabat, who has moved to the Reale Avintia Racing team from from the Marc VDS team.

Takaaki Nakagami showed some promise last season in Moto2, collecting three third places and a win. Nakagami will partner Cal Crutchlow as LCR Honda will enter a second rider this year.

Hafizh Syahrin will become the first Malaysian rider to compete in MotoGP after he was drafted in to replace Jonas Folger, who has to miss the season due to suffering from Gilbert’s syndrome. The German missed the last four races of the 2017 season due to the rare illness, which forces the body to shut down.

 

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Premier League 2017/18 Preview – Southampton

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Image: eurosport.co.uk

Southampton drastically underperformed last season, but still managed an eighth place finish and reached the League Cup final. However, despite this seemingly good performance on paper, the Saints finished six points above seventeenth place Watford, and were 17 points worse off than the season before. Only the bottom five teams scored less goals than the Saints (41), and their top scorer was Nathan Redmond with just seven goals. Claude Puel’s sacking was largely accredited to Southampton’s poor home form, as only Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough and Sunderland had worse home records. New boss Mauricio Pellegrino guided newly-promoted Alaves to ninth in La Liga and the Copa del Rey final last season. The Saints have so far kept hold of star players, with Virgil van Dijk and Ryan Bertrand linked with moves away from the club. If they want to close the gap on Everton, it is vital that Saints retain their stars, as well as adding quality to the squad. Jan Bednarek, a Polish Under-21 international centre-back has joined the club, and the Saints have also broken their transfer record for midfielder Mario Lemina from Juventus for around £18m. Lemina will slot in alongside last season’s top performer Oriel Romeu at the base of the midfield, allowing Steven Davis to occupy a more natural number ten role. Dusan Tadic underperformed last season, scoring 3 goals and providing 7 assists, whilst record-signing Sofiane Boufal struggled to make an impact. Both will have to step up their game or face being replaced if Saints are going to push for a Europa League place again. However, creating chances was not Southampton’s main problem last season, as they finished seventh for chances created last season, but finished in the bottom five for shot conversion rates (7.45 chances per goal). The Saints have a favourable set of fixtures, facing only Manchester United out of last season’s top seven before November. This should allow new boss Pellegrino to ease himself in to the job and get some points on the board early on, winning over the fans in a way that Claude Puel never managed to.

Key Player: Manolo Gabbiadini. The Italian took the Premier League by storm after his surprise arrival in January, scoring six goals in his first four games, including two in the League Cup final. If the Saints are looking to improve on last season, Gabbiadini will be vital in offering a more clinical option up front than Shane Long or the recently sold Jay Rodriguez. Pellegrino has favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation in pre-season and Gabbiadini could feature either as the lone striker or as a part of the three in attacking midfield, which would be more akin to his position at Napoli.

One to Watch: Alfie Jones. The centre back has been a mainstay of the Under 23s side, captaining the side despite being only 19. After the emergence of Jack Stephens in the first team last season, Jones will be looking to emulate that with the future of Virgil van Dijk still uncertain. At 19, it is unlikely that the club’s Young Player of the Year for 2016 will feature much this season, but expect to see him around the first team squad, especially in the cup competitions.

Last Season: 8th

Predicted Finish: 8th

Premier League 2017/18 Preview – Newcastle United

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Image: mirror.co.uk

Newcastle were expected to walk the Championship last season, but stuttered on their way to the title, only just edging out Brighton. Credit must go to Rafa Benitez for sticking with the club in the Championship, and if he stays, which is not a certainty at the moment, he will be the reason that Newcastle won’t go down this season. Christian Atsu has made his loan move permanent, and £6.2m could prove a bargain. The Magpies’ strength is out wide, with Atsu joining the hugely influential Matt Richie, who impressed in his previous Premier League season with Bournemouth, and another new signing Jacob Murphy. Murphy was a key player for Norwich last season, netting nine goals and providing six assists. Florian Lejeune has joined from Eibar, and will likely partner Ciaran Clark at centre-back. Javier Manquillo, who spent last season on loan at rivals Sunderland, will also bolster the defence, as Benitez has looked to strengthen the best defence in the Championship last season. It’s been a frustrating summer for Magpies fans, as the club have missed out on a number of transfer targets and owner Mike Ashley appears to have gone back on his promise that boss Rafa Benitez would be given the money to strengthen his squad. Newcastle have the squad to avoid a relegation scrap and push for mid-table, but ultimately where they finish will depend on whether Benitez stays.

Key Player: Matt Ritchie. The Scottish winger has one of the best left foots in the division, and was a key player in the Magpies’ promotion season. He chipped in with 12 goals, making him Newcastle’s second top scorer, and this goal threat will be vital to support Dwight Gayle, who does not guarantee goals in the top division. Almost half of Ritchie’s assists last season were to Gayle, so this partnership could again bear fruit.

One to Watch: Freddie Woodman. The goalkeeping position is a competitive one for Newcastle this season, but Woodman has proved that he has the ability to step up to the plate. Like Jordan Pickford did last season, Woodman has the chance to assert himself as a potential first choice ‘keeper, as the club has no stand-out number one. Despite never playing for Newcastle, Woodman has experience of playing under pressure, winning the 2014 Under-17 European Championship and the 2017 Under-20 World Cup with England, winning the golden glove and saving a penalty in the final of the latter.

Last Season: 1st (Championship)

Predicted Finish: 15th

Premier League 2017/18 Preview – Manchester United

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Image: BBC.co.uk

Last season was a bit strange for Manchester United, as they seemed to underperform but still came out of the season with two trophies and a place in this year’s Champions League. Jose Mourinho has taken his squad and strengthened through the spine. Victor Lindelof has come in from Benfica, and the highly-rated centre-back, who can also deputise at right-back, should form a solid partnership with one of last season’s stand outs, Eric Bailly. After the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United needed a statement signing up front. Romelu Lukaku is a goal-scorer and will easily hit 20 goals this season, but his streakiness at Everton maybe a slight worry for United fans. Despite his goal in the European Super Cup, the Belgian did miss a couple of sitters. However, the morale effect of signing Lukaku ahead of title rivals Chelsea could be even bigger than his on-field impact. United’s signing of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea could be one of the best signings of the summer. Although the defensive midfielder is not one of the most glamourous signings, his presence in midfield will allow Paul Pogba to roam more freely, instead of being bogged down having to focus on the defensive work. A midfield trio of Matic, Pogba and Herrera will get the best out of all three, with Pogba occupying a role similar to the one that he starred in for Juventus. United’s side is beginning to look like a title-challenging squad, but there is still some concerns that Antonio Valencia is their best option at right-back, whilst their plan B of hitting it long to Fellaini is also cause for concern given the presence of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford in the squad. As mentioned in my preview for Manchester City, the Manchester derby in early April will be a key game in determining the final position of both sides, and in United’s case could be the determining factor between mounting a title challenge and settling for a top four finish.

Key Player: Paul Pogba. The Frenchman had an okay first season back at Old Trafford, performing well but just lacking that bit of luck. Only Kevin de Bruyne struck the woodwork more often than Pogba last season, whilst only Jordan Henderson averaged more passes per game. With the addition of Matic, Pogba will be free to focus more on the offensive side of his game, which will inevitably lead to a rise in both goals and assists. There will also be less of a spotlight on the midfielder after the arrival of Romelu Lukaku, as he did suffer from close scrutiny and unrealistic expectations due to his then world record transfer fee.

One to Watch: Axel Tuanzebe. The centre-back made his debut back in January in the FA Cup win over Wigan, and went on to appear in five games last season. He was awarded United’s Young Player of the Year award in 2015, as well as the 2017 Reserve Player of the Year award, and now looks ready to step up and make more of an impact on the first team. With fellow youngster Timothy Fosu-Mensah heading out on loan this season, Tuanzebe remaining at Old Trafford indicates that he will feature more often.

Last Season: 6th

Predicted Finish: 3rd

Premier League 2017/18 Preview – Manchester City

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Image: Premier League

City have been the biggest spenders of the summer so far, with Pep Guardiola looking to mould the squad more in his image. Out have gone squad players such as Jesus Navas and Nolito, whilst Aleksandar Kolarov is their only surviving full back. In their place have come Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy for a combined fee of around £100m, whilst Danilo has joined from Real Madrid. Pep’s experiment with Claudio Bravo failed miserably last year, with the ‘keeper only managing a 54% save percentage. To combat this, City have splashed a record £34.7m for a goalkeeper, as Ederson arrives from Benfica. Another signing from Monaco bolsters City’s attacking ranks, as Bernardo Silva has joined with a view to becoming David Silva’s long term successor. Going forward will be City’s strength this season, with Sergio Aguero and fit again Gabriel Jesus, who hit the ground running after his January move to the Etihad. With both Silvas, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Ilkay Gundogan and their host of new attacking full backs, City’s strikers will have a wealth of chances put on a plate for them this year. Last season was Pep’s first trophy-less season in his managerial career, and with the amount that he has spent this summer in addition to the already expensively assembled squad at his disposal, he will be under pressure to deliver either Premier League or Champions League success. City host rivals Manchester United in early April, and this could be the key game that determines whether Pep’s side are title winners, or are just in the running.

Key Player: Kevin de Bruyne. The Belgian topped the Premier League’s assist charts last season, providing 18 goals. As proved with City’s slump the season before last, the whole side struggles when de Bruyne is not in the side. With the addition of Bernardo Silva, the burden on de Bruyne to produce is lessened, but he will still be the key to anything City create going forward.

One to Watch: Phil Foden. The 17-year-old midfielder has been promoted to the first team this summer after impressing Pep Guardiola, and has featured in their US tour. Foden was named on the bench in City’s final Champions League group game last against Celtic, and scored for England in their European Under-17s final defeat by Spain. Predominantly playing in the number ten role, Foden has some tough competition if he is to feature in the first team, but this also means that he will be learning from some of the best attacking midfielders in world football.

Last Season: 3rd

Predicted Finish: 1st

Premier League 2017/18 Preview – Liverpool

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Image: Daily Mail

Liverpool’s success in the transfer window cannot be judged until the window closes. The club are desperate to keep hold of Philippe Coutinho, but it will be hard to resist a substantial bid from Barcelona with their newly acquired riches from Neymar’s move to PSG. There is also the issue of Virgil van Dijk, who the club had to publicly apologise for tapping up earlier in the summer, however the player seems determined to force a move. Of the business that they have done, Mohamed Salah has come in from Roma, a much-improved player to the one that failed to break through at Chelsea. Salah joins a threatening front line of Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. At the back, Liverpool will have a natural left-back this year, as Andrew Robertson has come in from Hull, meaning that they will not have to shoe-horn James Milner into defence. Up front is an issue for Jurgen Klopp. Roberto Firmino operated there last season, whilst Daniel Sturridge is unlikely to feature regularly this season, whether through injuries or because he does not fit in to Klopp’s philosophy. Added to that there is Divock Origi, Danny Ings, and new signing Dominic Solanke, who has been impressive in pre-season, netting three goals. After not having European football last season, Liverpool managed to claim a Champions League place, so the extra matches this season could be the difference between matching last season’s achievements and missing out.

Key Player: Saido Mane. With Coutinho looking likely to leave, Saido Mane would be Liverpool’s main threat going forward. The attacker was Liverpool’s joint top-scorer with 13 goals last season, and Liverpool’s form significantly dropped off when he went to the African Cup of Nations. Mane’s pace is a key feature in Klopp’s philosophy, and paired with Salah on the opposite wing, this could be Liverpool’s real attack threat this season.

One to Watch: Ben Woodburn. The Welshman broke in to the Liverpool side last year, and has reportedly had several loan offers for him rejected this summer. This implies that Woodburn is a part of Jurgen Klopp’s plans this season. Woodburn netted in the friendly against Athletic Club, and became the club’s youngest ever goal-scorer after his FA Cup strike against Leeds last season. Woodburn can operate up front, on the wing or behind the striker, making him perfect for Klopp’s system.

Last Season: 4th

Predicted Finish: 5th

Premier League 2017/18 Preview – Leicester City

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Image: The Sun

Everyone expected Leicester to drop off last season, but not quite to the extent that they did. Craig Shakespeare steadied the ship after the sacking of Claudio Ranieri, dragging the Foxes away from the relegation zone and up to a mid-table finish. Their Champions League run to the Quarter Final last year was one of the highlights of the season for neutrals. Shakespeare has been backed in the transfer market, and Leicester have had one of the most successful windows in the league. Harry Maguire impressed in a poor Hull side last season, and at 24 he offers an alternative to the aging Robert Huth and Wes Morgan. Vincete Iborra has joined from Sevilla for around £12.5m, with the midfielder looking to partner Wilfred Ndidi, who really improved as the season went on last time out. After Ahmed Musa’s struggles to adapt last season, the Foxes have brought in Kelechi Iheanacho from Manchester City for £25m. He scored 7 in 28 appearances last season for City, and has proven in his limited game time that he is a top quality poacher. This should help ease the burden on Jamie Vardy, who still managed 13 goals last season despite his struggles in the first half of the campaign. Eldin Jakupovic has also joined from Hull to replace the outgoing Ron-Robert Zieler as backup to Kasper Schmiechel. A worry for Leicester will be if Riyad Mahrez does depart, as they have not brought in a direct replacement for their want away star, however Demarai Gray could step up to replace the Algerian.

Key Player: Wilfred Ndidi. The 20-year-old had a solid start to his Leicester career last year, and didn’t look out of his depth as he tried to replace N’golo Kante. He averaged 4 tackles a game last season (1.1 more than any other Leicester player), and only Yohan Belalouane made more interceptions per game. At such a young age, and being partnered with the experienced Vincete Iborra, Ndidi can only improve this season.

One to Watch: Darnell Johnson. The young defender was a mainstay of the club’s Under-23 side last season, featuring in 17 of their 22 league games. He featured at centre back for England in their successful Under-19s European Championship campaign, and may be ready to make the step up in to the first team.

Last Season: 12th

Predicted Finish: 9th