Column: Want a glimpse of sports’ future in 2016?


By John Leicester



FILE - In this June 4, 2015, file photo, Serena Williams, of the United States, returns a shot in her semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament against Timea Bacsinszky, of Switzerland, at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris. Williams withdrew from her opening match at the Hopman Cup on Monday, Jan. 4, 2016 because of inflammation in her left knee, an early setback in her preparations for an Australian Open title defense. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)


FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi kicks the ball during a training session at Miniestadi stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)


PARIS — Underdogs had their days, plenty of them, in 2015: Leicester City snapping at the heels of England’s Premier League giants, Japan beating South Africa at the rugby World Cup, Roberta Vinci derailing Serena Williams’ drive for a calendar year Grand Slam.

All of which showed that the only solid prediction to be made about sports is to expect the unexpected.

But that won’t stop us from trying.

Here, for fun only, is a stab at reading the future of sports in 2016:

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CHAMPS OF EUROPE: Barcelona will become the first Champions League winner to defend the title. Hardly a bold prediction, given its attack of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. The trio scored 75 percent of Barcelona’s 180 goals in 2015. If they stay fit, they’ll score and create more goals than Barcelona concedes against big European opponents on its path to the May 28 final.

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ARSENAL, FINALLY: Arsene Wenger must be a formidable player of “Risk,” the board game of world domination that favors patient, steady progress. Because Arsenal’s manager has slowly but surely built a team that will win the Premier League, profiting from Chelsea’s implosion and the inconsistencies of the two Manchester teams.

Despite a superb first half of the season, Leicester isn’t strong enough to go the distance. Being knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona this coming March will allow the Gunners to focus their firepower on the nervy English title race, for their first league triumph since 2004.

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EURO 2016: The smart choice would be world champion Germany, or Belgium, or Spain. But 50 years after it won the World Cup, England will win the European Championship, behind goal scorers Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney and, if coach Roy Hodgson is courageous, the exciting Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli, Tottenham’s quick, sharp 19-year-old. The biggest victor, however, will be host France, which will defy the terrorists who killed 130 people in Paris in November by putting on a great tournament.

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UNBEATEN PSG: Supercharged by Qatari wealth, Paris Saint-Germain will not only defend its French league title in 2016 but do so without losing a game — becoming the first team since Juventus in 2012 to go through a season undefeated in one of Europe’s top five leagues. That feat — also achieved by Arsenal in 2003-2004 — will be the only redeeming feature of the French league being sucked dry of all suspense by PSG’s crushing financial superiority.

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MERCEDES, AGAIN: Ferrari edged closer to Mercedes in 2015, but by nowhere near enough. Either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg took pole position for Mercedes in 18 of the 19 races, with a whopping qualifying advantage of 0.694 seconds, on average, over the next-best team, most often Ferrari. That was even larger than Mercedes’ qualifying margin in 2014. The German manufacturer will again dominate the new Formula One season that starts in Australia in March.

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BUT NOT HAMILTON: Hamilton’s jet-setting, party lifestyle will blunt his edge this year, opening the door for teammate Rosberg to be crowned world champion. Rosberg beat Hamilton to pole in the last six races of 2015 and won the last three, giving him momentum for 2016. Having learned from multiple occasions when Hamilton outmuscled him on track, Rosberg will be steelier this year, making their relationship even harder to manage for Mercedes.

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SHOT BOLT: Without Justin Gatlin’s stumble in the final meters (yards), Usain Bolt’s reign as 100-meter world champion might have ended at the 2015 championships in Beijing. Never had Bolt run so slowly — 9.79 seconds — in winning world or Olympic gold or allowed such a narrow margin of victory, with Gatlin just 0.01 of a second behind. Having swept sprinting gold at the Olympics of 2008 and 2012, there’ll be no three-peat for Bolt at the Rio de Janeiro Games. One week before his 30th birthday, the Jamaican will lose the 100 final on Aug. 14 but retain his 200 title four days later.

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RUSSIA COMPETES: Despite having known for years of rife doping in Russia, the International Association of Athletics Federations will see to it that Russian athletes don’t miss the Rio Games, arguing that Russia’s remedial anti-doping measures warrant the lifting of its ban from international competition, thereby avoiding a painful clash for IAAF President Sebastian Coe with the sporting power.

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SLOWING SERENA: With creaky knees and her 35th birthday looming this September, Serena Williams forever blew her chance for a calendar Slam when she lost last September to Vinci in the semifinals of the last major she needed to achieve the feat, the U.S. Open. Williams’ iron will previously dug her out of repeated holes in 2015. This year, body willing, it will again carry the winner of 21 Grand Slam titles to at least level Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22. But women’s tennis is ripe for generational change. Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, the 22-year-old who lost the Wimbledon final to Williams, will win her first major this year.

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FROOME: Because of crashes and the other unforeseen hazards of a three-week race, predicting the outcome of the Tour de France is risky. With that proviso, Chris Froome will win again this July, joining the small band of seven riders who won three or more editions of cycling’s showcase race. Doused in urine by a roadside spectator, drained by a hacking cough in the final week and pursued by questions about doping, the wiry Briton proved his resilience in winning in 2015, on a route less suited to his strengths than this year’s.

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Does your crystal ball disagree? Feel free to say so at the addresses below. And rendezvous same time, same place at the start of 2017 to compare notes.

FILE – In this June 4, 2015, file photo, Serena Williams, of the United States, returns a shot in her semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament against Timea Bacsinszky, of Switzerland, at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris. Williams withdrew from her opening match at the Hopman Cup on Monday, Jan. 4, 2016 because of inflammation in her left knee, an early setback in her preparations for an Australian Open title defense. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)
http://wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_107977436-90e435ca4d32462a80826efa03f48603.jpgFILE – In this June 4, 2015, file photo, Serena Williams, of the United States, returns a shot in her semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament against Timea Bacsinszky, of Switzerland, at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris. Williams withdrew from her opening match at the Hopman Cup on Monday, Jan. 4, 2016 because of inflammation in her left knee, an early setback in her preparations for an Australian Open title defense. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi kicks the ball during a training session at Miniestadi stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
http://wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_107977436-da39e01a63b94774b4d4bb719b192084.jpgFC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi kicks the ball during a training session at Miniestadi stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

By John Leicester

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicesterap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/John-Leicester-Associated-Press-Sports-Columnist-579349882203298/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicesterap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/John-Leicester-Associated-Press-Sports-Columnist-579349882203298/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel

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