The Shawshank Redemption – 20th Anniversary Running Diary

Unknown-1September 23rd, 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Shawshank Redemption, which has ranked as my favorite movie ever since I first saw it, which was probably about 2 years after it came out.  To celebrate the milestone, I watched the movie again for around the 20th time (at least) and kept a running diary of it.  If you have not seen it, you must, must, must watch it. Right now.  Go.  Otherwise, read on.

00:00:10 (DVD Run time)  ♪”If I didn’t care, more than words can say”♪…the music fades and we see Andy Dufresne in the car outside of a house…UH OH HE HAS A GUN! AND LOTS OF SHELLS. AND VODKA…this will not end well.

00:02:14 “I’ll see you in hell before I see you in Reno” – that seems a bit harsh from Andy, after all I’ve been to Reno and it’s not that bad. But how did this case look to the prosecutors and the jury: he confesses to being outside the house, mad at his wife for having an affair, with a gun on the night she was murdered.

00:04:17 “Since I’m innocent of this crime, I find it decidedly inconvenient” – your freedom is on the line, Dufresne, and you get sarcastic with the prosecutor…seems cold.  I cannot remember whether or not I thought he was guilty first time I watched this movie, but looking back I’m starting to think he might have actually done it and isn’t, you know “fo’real innocent”

00:06:14 – Red’s first parole hearing (that we see) out of three. I love how he’s clearly just reciting rote answers to questions, then comes out and tells his friends “Same shit, different day”, with the futility of the proceedings being pointed out by another prisoner saying “I’m up for rejection next week”.

00:07:58There must be a con like me in every prison in America” – and in Orange is the New Black, she even has the same nickname, Red!

00:08:27 This is the first shot of the prison, which is actually in Mansfield, Ohio.  My wife took me there last summer and it was simultaneously fascinating to see the place where my favorite movie was shot; and horrifying to think that people were actually incarcerated in such a shithole that had so much lead in the paint, we could both feel it in our lungs by the time we left.  Also, our tour guide said he had NEVER SEEN THE SHAWSHANK REDMEPTION…but he did buy into a whole load of ghost stories about the place so we got to hear a lot about them.

images-100:09:59You speak English, butt steak?” – Captain Hadley seems nice…

00:11:00 I really do not know whether or not after enough time had passed in prison, I would find myself willing to bet on which new inmate would break first…but if I did, the guy wearing a bow tie who is in tears while he is being marched in would definitely be my choice.

00:11:57 On the tour, you get to walk into the prison and look up at the same angle as Andy does as he is being marched in.  I tried to take a video that would replica the movie but it fell short on two counts: 1) Frank Darabont is a great director; 2) I was using an iPhone.

00:12:50 Warden Norden makes his authority known by having Hadley beat someone for daring to ask when they eat, then tells the prisoners “Put your faith in the Lord, your ass belong to me…(muttering) and the sisters.”

00:14:35 I don’t mean to spoil the ending for anybody who might be watching along with this and has never seen it before (which will literally be zero people so I’m just going to go ahead and spoil) but how lucky was it that Andy got an end cell.  And also for Heywood that “fat-ass” (sorry I do not know if he had any other name in the movie) was his neighbor and he got to wind him up until he broke.

00:15:34 We now take a break in this running diary to get an article from Buzzfeed…

The 7 Best Lines in the Scene When Fat-Ass Breaks Down Crying

1. “You’ll wish your Daddy never dicked your Mommy”

2. “Poke your ass out, give me a first look”.

3. “And it’s Fat Ass, by a nose!”

4. “I want my Mommy” “I had your Mommy, she wasn’t that great!”

5. Hadley: “What the Christ is this happy horse shit” Inmate: “He took the Lord’s name in vain. I’m telling the warden”.

6. “What is your malfunction you fat barrel of monkey spunk” – Captain Hadley the charmer.

7. “You run this place like a fucking prison!”

Then Hadley beats Fat Ass to death and it doesn’t all quite seem so funny…still number 5 was great. Read more of this post

Premiership Roundup and Weekend Preview – Manchester City vs Chelsea

Welbeck and Hart look on as the Arsenal striker's lobbed effort comes back off the post

Welbeck and Hart look on as the Arsenal striker’s lobbed effort comes back off the post

September is no time to be making snap judgements about how a team will fair in the Premier League – although I am ready to abandon my ridiculous notion that Spurs will finish anywhere other than sixth – but Manchester City are in danger of falling behind on several front at this early stage.  Last Saturday, they were outplayed for the first 25 minutes by Arsenal at the Emirates, who did everything except score, with Danny Welbeck guilty of missing a great chance on his debut.  However, the Gunners’ own frailties were made clear when they were caught on the break and fell behind to Sergio Aguero’s goal, but they turned the game around with goals from Jack Wilshere and Alexis Sanchez in 10 second half minutes.  City came back to earn a draw thanks to a header from Martin Demichelis, but on the back of a defeat against Stoke in their previous league match and with Chelsea up next – who beat them twice last season – the reigning champions are in danger of being winless in three Premierhsip games, something they avoided for all of 2013/14.  They have already reached three in a row without victory in all competitions as they were beaten 1-0 in Munich at Bayern, who were without Frank Ribery and could only use Arjen Robben off the bench.

What is particularly worrying for Manchester City – and the rest of the Premier League in general – is how good Chelsea already look and how well Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas have slotted into the side.  Going forward, Jose Mourinho’s side look unstoppable and that is clear from the fact that they have racked up 15 goals in their four Premiership fixtures thus far, but if there is hope for everyone else, it is on the defensive end.  Last weekend against Swansea – who also entered the game on 9 points from their opening three matches – Chelsea fell behind when John Terry diverted the ball into his own net, but then a hat-trick from Diego Costa and a debut strike from Loic Remy helped the Blues ease to victory, even with Jonjo Shelvey claiming a second for the Welsh club before the end.  The one worry for Mourinho – other than his back line – is the fitness of Costa, who has been struggling with a hamstring issue (which also forced him off after ten minutes of last season’s Champions League final) and he was reduced to just a substitute appearance in Chelsea’s first European match of the campaign, a 1-1 home draw with Schalke.  However, with Remy and Didier Drogba available as well, it is unlikely that the Blues will have similar striking issues that they had last year, when a lack of goals from the forward men was what ultimately cost them the title. Read more of this post

The NFL, Domestic Violence and (Less Significantly) Week 3 Picks

Ravens-jersey-be-nice-to-girlsOver the last couple of weeks, the question that has been raised again and again is whether or not we should still watch the NFL, the query being set against the backdrop of numerous incidents of domestic violence and other criminal activities by the players.  While this is an understandable reaction to the reports of vile incidents that have taken place, the idea of boycotting the league is one that may make individuals feel better about themselves, but will do nothing to affect change.    The general feeling that has been voiced over the last few weeks following the Ray Rice video release, charges brought against Greg Hardy and Jonathan Dwyer, alongside the arrest of Adrian Peterson for hitting his four-year old son with a branch, has been “what’s wrong with the NFL?”.  This misses the point, the real question is “What’s wrong with men?”.

This is not just an issue with the NFL. An estimated 1.3 million women each year are the victims of domestic violence; 25% of women experience abuse during their lifetimes; one-third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner (all figures from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and all are estimated because a large number of domestic violence cases are never reported).  Domestic violence can only be stopped by one group of people: not the NFL, who have certainly not helped themselves by the appalling manner in which they’ve handled these issues; not the prognosticating talking heads in the media; and certainly not the victims, who might be in fear for their lives and those of their children, so the question of “why would you stay with someone who hits you?” is particularly ignorant. The only group that can bring an end to domestic violence are men. It’s quite simple, do not hit your spouse. No. Matter. What.  It’s cowardly. It’s abhorrent. It’s wrong.

As for Peterson – if you think hitting a FOUR YEAR OLD CHILD with a branch, switch, hand or anything, teaches them something other than violence is acceptable, you’re mistaken.   I mean, this should not even be a debate.  I cannot even elaborate on this because it is so basic.

That’s not to say that the NFL and its fans cannot do their part: not rooting for players who commit such vile acts, teams should be willing to cut players no matter how important they are to the franchise if they are found guilty of such crimes.  The Ravens should offer a free jersey exchange for those who have Ray Rice on the back of their shirts and fans should want to trade them in.  Even something as seemingly insignificant as a fantasy league – would you really want to win if the key to your success was Peterson or Rice? A message needs to be sent – in the NFL and as a society in general – that domestic violence is not acceptable and those who do it should be ostracized.  Oh and of course, Roger Goodell should resign. Read more of this post

Premier League Action Returns

Unknown-1Like a kid on Christmas morning who has got the exact present they wanted, but realized they will have to wait another day to play with it since it did not come with the requisite batteries, Manchester United fans have had to wait through the international break to finally get a glimpse at their deadline day signing, Radamel Falcao.  With the Colombian striker’s debut likely this Sunday against Queens Park Rangers, alongside a thrilling slate of fixtures, this weekend promises to be one of the most exciting of the season, even at this early stage.  Before we get to what’s to come, here’s a look back at the action that took place two weeks ago – before the annoying stoppage for the international calendar to take over – starting with the most surprising result and ending with Tottenham being thrashed by Liverpool.

Manchester City 0 – 1 Stoke 

Maybe this was not so much of a surprise, because since the start of the 2013/14 season, Manchester City have played 37 games against teams other than Stoke and scored 106 goals, but in their three fixtures against the Potters they have managed to find the net just once in 270 minutes.  The reigning champions enjoyed 72% of the possession and should have had a penalty when YaYa Toure was fouled in the area, but Stoke earned their victory with a fantastic individual run and finish by Mame Biram Diouf.  The result was particularly satisfying to the Potters’ manager, Mark Hughes, who was sacked by City in 2009.

Everton 3 – 6 Chelsea

This was not surprising for the fact that Chelsea won, but because of the actual scoreline.  The match had everything (other than good goalkeeping and defending): five goals in ten second half minutes; Diego Costa scored in the opening and final minute, but also showed his nasty side by berating Seamus Coleman after he put the ball into his own net; Samuel Eto’o got a goal against his former club with his very first touch; and Tim Howard had to forfeit the title of “Secretary of Defense” he had been given with his performance against Belgium at the World Cup.

Leicester 1 – 1 Arsenal

A good point for the newly promoted Leicester, but it was a shock that Arsenal did not win the game late on, as they picked up points in the final five minutes of their opening two fixtures with Everton and Crystal Palace.  On transfer deadline day, the Gunners brought in Danny Welbeck from Manchester United to strengthen their attack and – unfortunately – if he is played as an out-an-out striker, he could enjoy a renaissance similar to the one Daniel Sturridge has found at Liverpool. Read more of this post

NFL 2014 Week 2 Picks

Dan Carpenter of the Bills kicks the winning field goal against the Bears

Dan Carpenter of the Bills kicks the winning field goal against the Bears

While all of the experts are saying that you cannot overreact to Week 1 (moments before they then make some definitive statements based on the first games), here’s a few things we did learn from the opening action in the 2014 NFL season:

  • Ray Rice should never play in the NFL again. The release of the video that showed him knocking out his then fiancée was abhorrent and shocking; the fact that he showed no remorse for his actions at the time (or since) and instead just treated a fellow human being with complete disregard and without compassion is at least as bad as the original act.  If the Packers signed Rice, I would stop rooting for them and I am sure fans of the other 31 teams would feel the same.
  • Talking of Green Bay, the fact they lost to the Seahawks in Seattle is not too much cause for concern for me; especially as the team that has been touted as their main rival in the NFC North – the Chicago Bears – were beaten at home by the Bills.
  • Right now there are three teams tied atop the AFC East at 1-0, while the Patriots are bottom as the only ones to lose in Week 1 – falling to the Dolphins in Miami who scored 23 unanswered points in the second half.
  • The NFC East is probably the weakest division in the league (again) this year and their combined score in the first half this week was 73-16.  Had it not been for Philadelphia’s second half comeback against the Jaguars, all four teams would have been 0-1.
  • Defense was not on display in Atlanta’s overtime victory over New Orleans as both offenses racked up 34 points in regulation, before the Falcons got the win with a field goal in overtime.

Week 2 Predictions

Last Week, 11-5; Season, 11-5

Home teams in bold

Steelers +2.5 over Ravens – Pittsburgh were far from impressive in giving up their lead to the Browns and only winning in overtime, but even though they have finally cut Ray Rice (once there was irrefutable video evidence of his actions) I just cannot pick Baltimore this week.

Falcons +5.5 over BengalsThe Atlanta offense looked more potent than the Bengals, who only scored field goals in the first 55 minutes of their victory over Baltimore last week.  So I am taking the points.

Dolphins -0.5 over BillsIn a few weeks, I think that beating the Patriots will be more impressive than defeating the Bears, but for some reason I really hope that Buffalo will be good this year.  I do not believe it yet though.

Browns +6.5 over Saints - I think this will be a relative close game, even if New Orleans can avoid going 0-2, I cannot see Drew Brees putting up enough points to blow out the Browns outside on the banks of Lake Erie.

Titans -3.5 over Cowboys – This seems almost too easy: the Cowboys looked awful against the 49ers (especially in the first half), while Tennessee had a comfortable victory at Kansas City.  The closest contest could be who will throw more touchdown passes to Titans players: Jake Locker or Tony Romo.

Lions +2.5 over Panthers - Carolina will have Cam Newton back and scored an impressive win without him in Week 1 (albeit over the Buccaneers, who I do not think will be good again this season), but Detroit’s offense looked great against the (admittedly also woeful) Giants.

Patriots -3.5 over Vikings – One of the hardest picks to make this week I think.  The Patriots are 2-6 on their last 8 road games and did not look good against Miami, but the reasons to choose New England – Tom Brady has Gronkowski back as a target and a week of practice with him; Patriots rarely lose two in a row; Minnesota beat a poor Rams team…and I just convinced myself and changed my selection away from the Vikings.  

Cardinals +1.5 over GiantsThe chance to get points against an NFC East team…done!

Jaguars +5.5 over WashingtonSee above!

Rams +5.5 over Buccaneers - I honestly do not have any clue which way this game between two mediocre teams will go so taking the points.

Seahawks -5.5 over Chargers – Seattle have had 10 days to prepare for this matchup and Sn Diego played late on Monday night.

Broncos -13.5 over Chiefs – I am not sure how many points they would have had to make this in order for me to take Kansas City – I think Peyton Manning will enjoy racking up the points and his own stats.

Packers -8.5 over Jets – completely biased pick of which I am not ashamed.

Texans -2.5 over Raiders – Why do I have confidence in a team that won just two games in 2013, giving points on the road? Ah, they are playing Oakland.

49ers -7.5 over Bears – San Francisco may have taken the second half off against the Cowboys in Week 1, but they still won at a canter.  Chicago really needs to bounce back from their opening game defeat to the Bills, but even as they are adjusting to a new stadium, the 49ers will be very tough to beat.

Eagles +2.5 over Colts – Philadelphia scored 34 points in the second half against the Jaguars last week to overturn a 17-0 deficit; the Colts scored twice in the final 8 minutes to cut the score from 31-10 to within seven against the Broncos.  This could be a high-octane fourth-quarter and I could see either team winning in a blowout, or a really close game.  So basically, I have no idea and am taking the Eagles on gut instinct.

 

 

 

NFL 2014 Season Preview and Week 1 Picks

Last year, I did a two-part, 5,500+ word preview for the NFL 2013 campaign and my research for that helped set me up to finish above 50% picking games against the spread during the regular season once again.  However, this time around life has got in the way of me being able to do any type of reading up on the teams, so you can take my predictions with an even bigger grain of salt than you might have done otherwise.  On a weekly basis, I will be posting my picks and might pick out a few points, but I will not be covering the NFL in as much depth as I have done for the last three years.  Here is a whiz-bang look through my prognostications for the 2014 season:

NFC

North

1. Green Bay Packers 13 – 3

2. Detroit Lions 10-6

3. Chicago Bears 7-9

4. Minnesota Vikings 6-10

Rodgers came back in Week 17 to stun Soldier Field with a last minute game winning touchdown

Rodgers came back in Week 17 to stun Soldier Field with a last-minute game winning touchdown

People seem to like Chicago to be good this year, but while their offense looks strong, on defense they are unlikely to be able to get stops at crucial times which will cost them in close games.  I think the absence of Jim Schwartz from Detroit will help them take a huge step forward – assuming Jim Caldwell learned from Peyton Manning in Indianapolis – and Minnesota will be better when they start Teddy Bridgewater.  I’m picking the Packers to take the division though – a totally biased pick but if Rodgers is healthy for all 16 games, they should be in a very strong position to claim one of the top 2 seeds in the NFC.  Julius Peppers addition alongside Clay Matthews should help up front as Green Bay tries to patch up a very porous defense.

East

1. Philadelphia Eagles 10-6

2. Washington 7-9

3. Dallas Cowboys 6-10

4. NY Giants 6-10

One of the worst divisions in football last year, the NFC East is unlikely to have improved much this time around, with the exception of the Eagles who head into the second year of Chip Kelly’s high-octane offense.  Dallas has no depth or defense; Washington would be better off starting Kirk Cousins than Robert Griffin III, if they are going to try to force RG3 to be a pocket quarter-back and take away his rushing threat; and the offensive line of the Giants is a complete mess so expect lots of Eli Manning throwing interceptions as he tosses the ball away to avoid a sack.

South

1. New Orleans Saints 11-5

2. Atlanta Falcons 8-8

3. Carolina Panthers 7-9

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11

If the Saints can sort out their defense, then they have a chance to win a second Super Bowl following on from their 2009 success.  They should not have too many problems winning the NFC South: the Falcons are coming off a 4-12 season and on Hard Knocks, they appeared to be a thoroughly nice organization, but not one that I can imagine getting back to double-digit wins this year; the Panthers had an easy schedule in 2013 and will find it much tougher to return to the playoffs this time around; and the Buccaneers are some people’s dark horse pick for the division, but I am not convinced Josh McCown is as good as he looked in that brief spell for the Bears.

Can Seattle repeat their 2013 success?

Can Seattle repeat their 2013 success?

West

1. Seattle Seahawks 14-2

2. San Francisco 49ers 11-5

3. Arizona Cardinals 7-9

4. St. Louis Rams 3-13

Although I am definitely not picking Seattle to repeat as Super Bowl champions (more on that below), it is hard to imagine them failing to coast through the regular season.  Their job of topping the NFC West has been helped by the myriad suspensions suffered by the 49ers, who I expect to come on strong in the second half of the year and should have enough to be a Wild Card once again.  St. Louis have lost their quarterback, Sam Bradford for the whole of 2014 and with him goes any chance they have of progression; while the Cardinals – who finished last year with a 10-6 record, have regression written all over them.

NFC Playoff teams: 1. Seattle; 2. Green Bay; 3. New Orleans; 4. Philadelphia; 5. San Francisco; 6. Detroit Read more of this post

Premier League Roundup – Tottenham Top Early Table and United Humbled

My new wallpaper

My new wallpaper

Spurs Top of the League!

Ah, if the season were but two games long, my pre-season prediction of Tottenham winning their first title since 1960/61 would already have come true!  Spurs sit atop the early table thanks to a 4-0 demolition of Queens Park Rangers at White Hart Lane, the visitors being managed by Harry Redknapp and tactically coached by Glenn Hoddle, two of Mauricio Pochettino’s predecessors in the Tottenham hot seat.  Neither Redknapp, nor club legend Hoddle, had the depth of talent in their squad that the Argentinian has available to him – though ‘Arry did of course have Gareth Bale – but what has impressed most about Pochettino’s tenure in the early stages has been the manner of Spurs’ performances.  A high, pressing game has been adopted and when in possession, there is a fluidity about the movement of the ball and players; last saturday, that was particularly true of the triumvirate of Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela.  The latter’s excellent showing against QPR, on the back of two assists that helped turn around the Europa League qualifying playoff against AEL Limassol, has led to many declaring that he will finally live up to the £30m transfer fee he cost Tottenham last summer.  In truth, he was barely given a chance in his first season, making cameos off the bench and being played only in Europa League fixtures – during which he displayed a nice touch but was obviously playing like he had something to prove – before injury curtailed his campaign at the start of the calendar year.  Now that Lamela looks likely to start every game (including in pre-season), he is has been able to establish himself and is playing with more confidence and that is paying off wonderfully for Tottenham – particularly in the third goal last weekend when he picked up a pass (the 44th of a lengthy spell of possession), glided past three defenders, then delivered a pinpoint cross for Chadli to head into the back of the net.

It is not just the resurgent Lamela that gives Spurs fans reason to be cheerful: 20-year-old Eric Dier looks like he will be one of the best buys of the summer, at a cost of just £4m he already looks assured in either the centre of defence or at right back, plus he has scored in both of his first two Premier League matches; the addition of Ben Davies to the squad has seemingly put a rocket under Danny Rose, who played fantastically against QPR as he now faces competition at left-back; and although Michael Dawson has been a great servant to the club who gave his all in every match, it was the right time for him to move on – Dawson joined Hull this week – as he lacks the pace needed to succeed in Pochettino’s pressing system.  With the transfer deadline approaching on Monday, it is likely that a few players will leave, but I doubt there will be any major new additions at White Hart Lane.  Federico Fazio joined from Sevilla in midweek and is likely to form a central defensive partnership with Younes Kaboul; but other than up front – where the combination of Emmanuel Adebayor, Harry Kane and Roberto Soldado still seems to be lacking a 20 goal a season striker – it is hard to see where else the squad can be realistically improved at this point.  Finally, Tottenham also made the Europa League group stages on Thursday with a 3-0 home victory over AEL Limassol and will now face Besiktas (knocked out of the Champions League by Arsenal on Wednesday), Partizan Belgrade and Greek side Asteras Tripolis in the next round.  As for the league title, you do not get anything for being top in August, but it is still better to be 1st than anywhere else no matter what the stage of the season – but my clairvoyance will have to wait until May to be proven correct!

United Continue to Stumble

With Louis van Gaal sticking to his guns and attempting to implement his favored 3-5-2 system at Manchester United, the teething problems continued this past week.  Last Sunday in the league, the Red Devils were lucky to hold on to get a point against Sunderland; then they were demolished 4-0 by League One outfit MK Dons, in the second round of the Capital One Cup.  Since 1996/7, clubs that have been involved in European competitions have not had to play in the second round of the League Cup, instead being given a bye to the third round, so this was the first time that United had played in this stage since 1995, when they were also knocked out by lower league opposition as York City beat them 4-3 over two legs.  This time it was not even that close, as MK Dons took advantage of poor defending – particularly from Jonny Evans who was returning from injury – to completely humiliate a side that was crowned Champions of England less than 16 months ago.

Alongside the new tactics, van Gaal is also trying to improve the quality available to him in his squad: Angel DiMaria joined this week for a British transfer record fee of £59.7m, while the Dutchman is still pursuing Arturo Vidal and Daley Blind.  Whatever van Gaal might say about the talent available to him, his current squad is the most expensive in Premier League history as their total transfer fees are £401.2m (though Wilfried Zaha – who cost £15m – has just been loaned back to Crystal Palace), whereas MK Dons assembled their playing staff for just £500,000.  If only all management was as easy as bringing on a substitute keeper for a penalty shootout to fluster the mighty Costa Rica…

Read more of this post

Premier League Recap and Preview – Week 2 2014/15

United lose to Swansea

"You make the squad better, than I'll take over and become a legend.  Cheers."

“You make the squad better, than I’ll take over and become a legend. Cheers.”

In his first Premier League match in charge of Manchester United, Louis van Gaal was able to return normal service to the club – at least “normal” in the post-Ferguson era – as they were beaten 2-1 at home by Swansea.  The Welsh team have been widely predicted to struggle this year under the stewardship of Garry Monk, but they were full value for their first ever league win at Old Trafford.  In the 28th minute, the Swans exploited gaps in the United back line to take the lead, as Ki Sung-yeung was unmarked as he converted Nathan Dyer’s pass; but an acrobatic volley from new Red Devils’ captain, Wayne Rooney, leveled the score early in the second half.  However, Gylfi Sigurdsson – who had a successful loan spell at Swansea prior to his tenure at Tottenham – celebrated his return to the club with the winning goal 18 minutes from the end, as the visitors hung on to the lead despite much United pressure at the end of the match.

Louis van Gaal’s favored formation of 3-4-1-2 would take any squad time to get used to if they had not played it before, but one of the biggest issues for Manchester United is that they do not have the personnel for that system.  The central defensive trio of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and youngster Tyler Blackett are all reasonably talented, but there is no dominant player like Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand (in his prime) to hold them together and keep everyone disciplined in their positioning.  On the flanks, neither Ashley Young nor Nani is the type of winger that enjoys tracking back to defend, but at least the addition of Marcos Rojo will help there.  The center of midfield was an obvious weakness last season and new signing Ander Herrera will take time to embed himself in the team, while Michael Carrick – someone who helps protect and use possession so well – is out injured with ankle ligament damage.  For all the problems that face United, they expect Robin Van Persie to return this Sunday against Sunderland and van Gaal will be hoping that his fellow Dutchman can help instill some much-needed confidence back into a club that were crowned champions just 15 months ago.

Spurs win at West Ham

In my ridiculously optimistic season preview, I had Tottenham winning the league and, if I had written a script for the opening match of the campaign to back up that viewpoint, it would not have deviated too much from what actually happened at Upton Park last Saturday.  Firstly, Spurs were reduced to 10 men after just half an hour, as Kyle Naughton was harshly red carded for a handball in the box.  Without doubt, it was a penalty as Naughton’s hands were up above his head and blocked the shot, but the right-back was less than a yard away from Kevin Nolan, so there was nothing deliberate about the handball.  However, Mark Noble dragged the penalty badly wide and despite dominating the game for the next 30 minutes, West Ham were unable to find a breakthrough and the numbers were then evened up when James Collins was dismissed for a second bookable offense.

Putting the "Chav" into Xavi

Putting the “Chav” into Xavi

Up until the 90th minute, the best efforts for both sides had been a Stewart Downing chance in the box, which Hugo Lloris did brilliantly to block; and a free-kick for Spurs, which was first taken by a pitch-invading West Ham supporter, who got the attempt on target, something that Christian Eriksen failed to do when the intruder was caught and removed.  However, during injury time, Eric Dier – the young central defender who joined from Sporting Lisbon in the summer – popped up in a striking position and scored on his Tottenham debut to give Mauricio Pochettino a win in his first Premier League match in charge of the club.  Not only did that goal secure all three points for Spurs, it also helped banish the memories of the 2013/14 season, a campaign that saw us lose three times to West Ham. Read more of this post

Premier League Preview 2014/15

New teammates John Terry and Diego Costa square off during last year's Champions League

New teammates John Terry and Diego Costa square off during last year’s Champions League

Over the last month, while I have been preparing to write this preview for the 2014/15 Premier League season, I have only been able to envision one team winning the title: Chelsea.  Jose Mourinho has an incredible record in his second year at all of the clubs he has managed (lifting the domestic title with Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale and Real Madrid in such campaigns) and this will be his sophomore season in his return to Stamford Bridge.  Add to that the fact that they have invested very shrewdly in the summer with the signings of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa – filling two of their main holes in their team from last year – and all I could imagine was Chelsea topping the Premier League and to be honest, the odds are on that happening.

However, in the last week I have started to doubt this viewpoint – after all, I had Argentina claiming the World Cup every time I filled out a bracket – sometimes, things are just too obvious.  For the last seven days, the image of one other club lifting the league title just could not be shaken from my head – so which team?

Arsenal: the arch-rivals to the side I support and who have brought in the Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez during the summer, strengthening their options up front, while they have the best collection of creative midfielders this side of the German national team.  On that note, they have also hired a fitness coach from Die Mannschaft and that should help them avoid them suffering the costly injuries of recent campaigns, last year most notably to Aaron Ramsey, who looked stronger than ever in the Community Shield last Sunday.  Nevertheless, there is still a fragility in Arsene Wenger’s side in the centre of defense and they would need a dramatic improvement in their results away from home against their main rivals if they were to make the leap from fourth to first this year.

Manchester City – the reigning champions and a team that has maintained stability this summer by securing David Silva and Sergio Aguero on long-term deals, while only adding a couple of new faces, including the veteran Frank Lampard on loan from the new MLS club, NYCFC.  Although the Citizens will be strong once again this campaign, but I think their primary focus will be the Champions League and their domestic challenge will falter as their progress in Europe.

Liverpool – the club that finished second behind City in 2013/14 and were within a Steven Gerrard slip of maybe claiming their first title since 1990.  They have invested wisely and brought in three of Southampton’s best players: Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert, while Brendan Rogers showed how much improvement he can garner…wait, they sold Luis Suarez? No chance – they will be out of the top four this season.

Manchester United – now led by self-proclaimed genius Louis Van Gaal (to be fair, a lot of people in the media seem to agree with that prognostication).  Many pundits are tipping United to be back among the title contenders, I’m assuming they have not looked at the Red Devils squad list and seen that their central defensive options amount to Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.  Look for Tim Krul to make a crucial save from the penalty spot to deny Manchester United a victory against Newcastle. Poetic justice.

Everton – a side that made significant progress both stylistically and results wise last year under the guidance of Roberto Martinez.  However, though they have improved their playing squad with the addition of Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry as permanent transfers over the summer, both of them were at Goodison Park last term on loan, so their team has not actually progressed from where they were in 2013/14.  I think they will be competitive in the league, but the added pressure of the Europa League will see them drift away from the top four by March.   Read more of this post

World Cup Semi-Finals – Picking Sides

Messi strikes late against Iran to give Argentina the victory

Messi strikes late against Iran to give Argentina the victory

The 2014 World Cup has been a fantastical spectacle of football so far, as the group stages had plenty of goals and excitement, while the knockout rounds have managed to continue delivering drama, even as the scoring ratio has dropped and the favorite in each tie has progressed.  With the semi-finals taking place today and tomorrow – and no natural allegiance left for me since the USA narrowly succumbed to Belgium in extra-time – here is my preference for which of the four remaining countries I would most like to see win it all at the Maracanã this Sunday:

1. Argentina

I have always had an affinity for Argentina thanks to Tottenham legends Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa*, but I became an even bigger fan of them in the 2006 World Cup.  In that tournament, their blend of football was enthralling and spectacular to watch, most notably in their 6-0 demolition of Serbia that included my favorite goal of all time – the 25 pass move finished by Esteban Cambiasso. Although they have not been anywhere near as entertaining or convincing this time around, Lionel Messi has played very well and controlled games in the style of his predecessor in the number 10 shirt – not Maradona, but Juan Romàn Riquelme.  Everything has been going through Messi for Argentina – who can blame them when you have a player of his ability – and that will continue to be the case as Angel DiMaria is out for the rest of the World Cup, while Sergio Aguero is far from full-fitness, even if he is likely to be risked against the Netherlands.

*ESPN just released a fantastic 30 for 30 documentary about Ardiles and Villa’s time at Spurs, focusing on the effect that the Falklands War had on the two Argentinian footballers playing in England at the time. I highly recommend checking it out.

My bias is further increased by the fact that every single time I filled in a bracket prior to the World Cup, the only thing that I did not change my mind on was who I though would win this World Cup – Argentina.  I picked them when the draw for the tournament was made in December and again in the preview just before the World Cup kicked off last month, so it would be nice to be proven right about one thing, given that my other three semi-finalists in the latter post were Chile (not bad, only missed out on getting past Brazil on penalties), Spain (oops); and Switzerland (pushed Argentina in the Round of 16, but I thought they would top the group and have an easier route).  Beyond just wanting to be right though, I really want this Argentina team – in particular Lionel Messi – to end their drought in international tournaments and win this World Cup.

2. Germany

Another country that I started to really root for in 2006 and my enjoyment of Germany came through another former Tottenham player, Jürgen Klinsmann.  When he was manager of the German national side, Klinsmann completely overhauled their style of play into one that was attacking and exciting to watch, far different from the 2002 version of the team that was effective but dull as they made the World Cup final in spite of a paucity of talent (outside of Michael Ballack and Oliver Kahn, they did not have any top class players).  Now they have an abundance of great midfielders – my favorite being Thomas Müller, but also Mesut Özil (whom I liked a lot more before he went to Arsenal, but still rate as a fantastic passer of the ball), Toni Kroos, Andre Schürrle; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Götze and Sami Khedira – the best goalkeeper in the world, Manuel Neuer; and the joint top-scorer in World Cup history, Miroslav Klose, who needs one more goal to pass Ronaldo and have the record to himself.  They are a vibrant side to watch and their defeat of France means they are the first nation to appear in four consecutive World Cup semi-finals; while they have also reached this stage in their last five major tournaments.  However, it has been 24 years since they won the biggest prize of all and they have not done so as a unified nation, as all three of their triumphs have come under the moniker of West Germany.  Coincidentally, the only other two countries that have won the World Cup three times, lifted it for a fourth time 24 years after they had their third: Brazil (1970 – 1994) and Italy (1982-2006) – the Germans have a great chance to continue that trend in 2014. Read more of this post

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