LANCE Armstrong’s return to cycling is not going as smoothly  as he had hoped, but he is still confident of a strong performance at next month’s Tour de France.
The 37-year old finished an admirable 12th at the Giro d’Italia last Sunday, but his preparations for next month’s Tour have been hampered by financial problems at his team Astana. The Kazakhstan-based team has fallen foul of its riders after failing to pay their salaries.
“It’s taking a lot of work up to this point but we might ride strong and be in the front in July,” said Armstrong. The American is considering buying the team so that its problems will be rectified, allowing it to compete in next month’s tour.
“The financial woes that left salaries unpaid are not completely resolved yet,” team manager Johan Bruyneel said.
“I hope that the team sponsors will meet the deadline for the bank guarantee and the payments.”

• MICHAEL Ballack has extended his deal with the Chelsea Academy of Whiners and Superstar Referee Bullys for another year.
Apparently he said some crap about being delighted that Ancelotti has arrived and how much he hopes to follow theIr FA Cup success.
Before that, Michael plans to enjoy the pre-season break by getting down the pool nice and early each morning and placing a towel on every sun-lounger in sight before pissing off to have breakfast and a shared half-pint with the missus in some café that needs clips to keep the plastic mats on.

• WITH all the edginess and barb of a Neighbours episode, the war of words has begun before next month’s Ashes series.
Ricky Ponting has brandished a big stick, put it into a large cauldron of shit and begun to stir: “Maybe, as we saw in 2007, if he’s [Andrew Flintoff] not 100% fit then maybe that sort of impact he can have around the team is not there,” he said.
“That’s where they’re going to have a tough decision to make.” He makes no mention of anything that happens in 2005, you might have noticed.
He then began to ramble on about Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen’s performances for Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League (Ponting turned down the same opportunity).
“There was obviously a great incentive for those guys to go and play with the amount of money they went for and I guess they were always coming back from the IPL early for the Test matches,” he said.
“But for us it was a great opportunity to step away from cricket for a few weeks and make sure we’re in the best shape we could be in.” Ooooh.

• “THE Football League’s independent ‘Football Disciplinary Commission’ today deducted Crystal Palace Football Club one point from its end of season total of 57 points. The decision follows the fielding of an ineligible player, Rui Fonté, versus Sheffield United on the 3rd May 2009” – A harsh decision which means that, instead of finishing the Championship season in 15th place with 57 points, history will show that the Eagles actually finished … in 15th place with 56 points. That’ll teach them!

• “A EUROPEAN place would be the ultimate aim. How long that would take, I’ve got my personal ambitions. All I can say is that it will be in the near future” – Phil Brown/Tom Jones gets slightly carried away after keeping Hull up.

•”I DARE say fate will dictate that we cross paths again in our careers but we wish him all the best” – Phil Brown, again, this time talking about League Two side Darlington’s new assistant manager Dean Windass. Something tells us it won’t be Darlington’s ascent to the Premiership that incurs such ‘fate’.

• “I AM with Ravi all day every day, I love the bloke, his confidence, the way he plays without fear, the way he talks about things and the way he doesn’t worry” – Is there anything Kevin Pietersen doesn’t like about Ravi Bopara?

• “I THINK good luck to [Gareth] Barry, he’s got a long life ahead of him. Making money for your talent is fine in my book” – Or making money for a lack of it, in ex-Soccer AM presenter Tim Lovejoy’s case.