As another sporting year begins there may be a certain feeling that nothing could top the unforgettable year of 2012, which saw a magnificent Olympic Games, the European Championships, a British Grand Slam winner after so long and much more.

Mario Balotelli | Why, oh why is it always him? (Image | Manchester City FC)

Mario Balotelli | Having once again hit the headlines after a row with manager Roberto Mancini in training, we ask: why, oh why is it always him? (Image | Manchester City FC)

However, there are more than enough prizes to be decided over the next 12 months, some of which are fairly easy to predict, while others remain very much open to debate.

The Armchair Pundits, therefore, has taken a look at the calendar and pinpointed five “sure-fire successes”, some of which are bound to be as controversial as Mario Balotelli and about as likely as Tom Daley being handed his own diving-themed show on televi… Oh, hang on.

Manchester United to lift the Premier League trophy

With 21 Premier League matches played, Manchester United lead the way on 52 points, seven ahead of champions Manchester City.

Although this lead is not quite as unassailable as that of Bayern Munich, nine points ahead of Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, or Barcelona, who have an 11-point cushion, there is a palpable sense that the Citizens’ brief dominance is coming to an end.

Perhaps most mystifying of all is the fact that, far from this being a vintage United side, it is a rather lacklustre team that Sir Alex Ferguson has put out to reclaim the biggest prize in English football.

Robin van Persie, Javier Hernández and Wayne Rooney aside, the Red Devils appear rather ordinary. Indeed, this triumvirate has saved United on so many occasions already it is almost farcical.

Thus, with a defence more suspect than Ferguson’s claims about Ashley Williams and a midfield that constantly flatters to deceive, the 19-time title winners are edging closer by the week to another triumph.

How, you may ask, are they performing such miracles? As mentioned previously, the 40 goals netted already by the “big three” have been a rather substantial help, however the kindness of their Manchester rivals is also playing a major role.

Lethal | Javier Hernández, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie have put Manchester United in the driving seat. (Image | Sky Sports)

Lethal | Javier Hernández, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie celebrate after all scoring against Braga in the UEFA Champions League, just one occasion on which they have saved Manchester United this season. (Image | Sky Sports)

Unlike last season, when City were scoring goals for fun and destroying their opponents, a philosophy that saw them clinch the title on goal difference, the Citizens failed to strengthen adequately in the summer and are paying the price.

A limp-wristed campaign in the UEFA Champions League has not been made up for by domestic domination, and when it comes down to it, there is a general assumption that United will win, whether 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 or perhaps even 4-0 down, whereas Roberto Mancini’s men cannot perform such heroics.

For this reason, the Old Trafford club are nailed-on favourites to retain their stranglehold at the top and make it 20 league titles without really breaking a sweat.

An odd combination of a faltering rival, disastrous defence and devastating attacking potential is set to see United reclaim the trophy, despite a midfield that lacks in so many areas, and playing in the super-competitive “best league in the world”.

This to be Andy Murray‘s year at Wimbledon

It is a line so common that it will probably soon appear on “fashionable” t-shirts in major high-street stores. “This is Andy’s year, finally he’s going to do it”. We made this rather blinkered prediction last year and in 2011, and neither time did it take place.

However, something has changed in the world of tennis and the pendulum does look to be swinging the way of Andy Murray. Far from the moody Scot that was “ours” simply because British tennis had no other figure to venerate, the 25-year-old has fought his way into our hearts and contention for serious honours.

Glory at Flushing Meadows was genuinely a turning point for Murray, as it vindicated everything the world number three had been doing to adapt his game in pursuit of Grand Slam titles. Gone was the tentative style, and the fragile player was replaced by a powerful, deserved Major winner.

The big obstacle this year at Wimbledon, as ever, is Roger Federer. Having drawn level with Pete Sampras on seven Wimbledon titles, the Swiss will not give up until he surpasses the legendary American.

SW19 has always been a happy hunting ground for Federer and, for a combination of reasons, Murray is never able to find a way past the man for whom Centre Court is more or less his second home.

Pressure that once brought out panic in Murray must now urge him on to another level. The excuse of “Federer’s just too good at Wimbledon” cannot, and will not wash anymore. They both want it, but after last year, when Murray came so close to victory, he will not want to taste defeat again.

England winning The Ashes at home

Despite a defeat to India A at the weekend, England look in fairly good shape following their first series win in India for 25 years. Much will depend on the result, and most importantly performance put in against the same opponents in the one-day international series starting on Friday.

Nonetheless, the negatives aside, should there be an improvement batting-wise in the ODI series, England could easily turn a rather humiliating day into a real benchmark of where the squad is at ahead of The Ashes this summer.

Having won the last couple of Ashes tournaments on home soil, and the previous two home and away, form at least will be in favour of Alastair Cook’s side.

There remains a lot of cricket to be played between now and July, but the omens in January remain positive ahead of forthcoming Tests and ODI series, and the all-important summer months.

One of Málaga, Shakhtar Donetsk, Borussia Dortmund or Celtic to reach the UEFA Champions League final

All of these sides excelled in the group stages to varying degrees, taking considerable scalps on their way to the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. For Celtic it was the biggest of all, Barcelona, on a special night at Celtic Park.

Málaga, meanwhile, set the competition alight and sailed through Group C with three wins and the same number of draws, including a magnificent 1-0 victory over AC Milan. With a UEFA coefficient of just 16.837, compared to Milan’s 89.996, Los Boquerones are not to be taken lightly.

It is a similar story for Borussia Dortmund and Shakhtar Donetsk, the former winning their group at a canter with four victories and two draws, plus famous wins against Man City and Real Madrid.

I make that Wan-nil | Victor Wanyama celebrates putting Celtic ahead against Barcelona on a famous night in Glasgow. (Image | BBC)

I make that Wan-nil | Victor Wanyama celebrates putting Celtic ahead against Barcelona on a famous night in Glasgow. (Image | BBC)

Shakhtar narrowly pipped Chelsea to qualification courtesy of their head-to-head record, namely the fact that the Ukrainians scored twice at Stamford Bridge in a 3-2 defeat, while the Blues managed just one goal in their 2-1 loss in Donetsk.

Leaving the tears of Rod Stewart and the defeaning roar of Celtic Park to one side, there is a strong chance that the Scottish club may not have enough to repeat their group stage heroics and see off Juventus in the round of 16.

With Shakhtar and Dortmund facing up to each other on February 13, at least one will be in the draw for the next round, while Málaga will fancy their chances against Porto, one of the “softer” teams to have emerged from the group stages.

Logic dictates that it will be one of Dortmund or Shakhtar to reach the final, and embarrass some of the more complacent bigger names in the tournament along the way, but pinpointing a winner is not quite so easy.

Superb against two of the biggest clubs in Europe, the Germans outperformed every team bar Paris Saint-Germain in the group stages, and it would take a gargantuan effort from their Ukrainian rivals to see off Jürgen Klopp and his players.

Having said this, it will require something very special indeed to end one of the most impressive unbeaten runs throughout Europe, in weather that can be most accurately described as “bloody cold”.

Put it this way, Dortmund had better start preparing as soon as possible. They really will have to Klopp to it…

Fernando Alonso taking the Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship

After finishing 11 points behind Sebastian Vettel in the 2012 Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship, Fernando Alonso will be a man on a mission this year.

Very few professional sportsmen and women like losing, but for a seasoned champion such as Alonso, the pain must have been particularly acute. Without a trophy since 2006, the 31-year-old does not have too long left to rectify the situation.

You little champ | Sebastian Vettel celebrates his third Drivers' World Championship win, in a sight Fernando Alonso must be getting sick of. (Image | The Motor Report)

You little champ | Sebastian Vettel enjoys his third Drivers’ World Championship, in a sight Fernando Alonso must be getting sick of. (Image | The Motor Report)

For what he craves is to be considered one of the true greats and mentioned in the same breath as Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio and, of course, Vettel himself.

Dreams of glory aside, the Spaniard joins a host of figures desperate to claim the drivers’ crown, such as Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen, Mark Webber and Jenson Button.

With Red Bull design chief Adrian Newey admitting that Vettel’s drive to the title has slightly hampered preparations for the coming season, hope remains for the Spaniard that he can capitalise on any weaknesses in the Milton Keynes-based team.

One thing is for sure, the battle between one of the most driven, if you will pardon the expression, men in Formula 1 and a driver looking to reclaim his spot at the pinnacle of the sport will be every bit as intense as last season.

It has been a long time since Formula 1 has ever been equal, or decided purely on driving skill alone. However, there is no greater leveller than this, and if the cars are not poles apart, nor will these two great champions be. Should this be the case, my money will be on Alonso.

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