Irrelevant Euro Qualifiers and the Premier League Returns

The irrelevant Euro 2016 Qualifying Process

The weekend that Premier League action restarts following an international break is one that is anticipated more than most, as it comes on the back of qualifying fixtures or friendlies between countries that simply do not mean as much as the club games.  I love the major international tournaments, from the World Cup, to the European Championships or Copa America – basically anything that is not the Olympic Games, where football is an after-thought – but these two-year qualifying group stages are just irrelevant and boring.  That has never been more true than now, as Euro 2016 will feature 24 countries – up from the 16 of recent iterations of the competition – and thus it will be very hard for the major nations to avoid qualifying for the finals.  This past fortnight should have been exciting (except for the awful scenes that broke out in the match between Serbia and Albania): Poland beat the World Champions, Germany; Iceland defeated Netherlands; Slovakia won 2-1 against Spain; England overcame San Marino – so many unexpected successes, but still all the big guns will make it to France because nearly half of the continent will.  With the hosts the only nation guaranteed a spot, that means that 53 countries are competing for 23 slots.  Then consider this list of 20 nations:

San Marino, Andorra, Malta, Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Cyprus, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Lithuania, Albania, Gibraltar, Estonia, Latvia, Wales, Armenia, Montenegro, Northern Ireland

None of these teams are going to qualify, so it basically means that 23 spots are being contested by 33 teams.  Plus, I did not even put Scotland, Finland and Iceland in that grouping because I felt that it might be a little harsh on them, even though the latter two have never made it to a major tournament, while there are Scottish people who are legally allowed to drink who were not born the last time their home country made a European Championship or World Cup (Euro 96). When UEFA determined the seedings for the qualifying draw, Israel were ranked as the 23rd best team in Europe (thus expected to qualify for the 24 team tournament) despite the fact that they: a) are not in Europe; and b) last competed in an international tournament in 1968, when they came third in the Asian Cup, held in Iran.  The whole system is a joke and it will get even worse when the tournament itself arrives and some crappy team gets three draws in the group stage and somehow makes it to the second round, because they’re one of the best third-place finishers, just like the 1990/1994 World Cups.  Ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the qualifying for the African Cup of Nations was actually getting interesting, except for the fact that Morocco has pulled out of hosting the event due to ebola fears and now there may not actually be a tournament for which to qualify…still more interesting than the UEFA competition, however.

Premier League Recap and Weekend Preview

At least the Premier League is back this weekend and I get to watch Tottenham play…oh I actually cannot remember who they’re facing this weekend. Let me just check…Saturday early kick off, 12:45pm local time, that’s 7:45am Eastern and 4:45am Pacific, still there’s always coffee to help with the early start…and they’re playing…Manchester City away.  Oh for fu…

Smithers, dismember the corpse and send his wife a corsage

Smithers, dismember the corpse and send his wife a corsage

Since my weekend will be ruined by Spurs before it even really starts, let’s have a quick look back at the action from two weeks ago – the highlights:

  • Chelsea maintained their unbeaten record with a 2-0 victory over Arsenal and also managed to get under Arsene Wenger’s skin once again as he reacted to a challenge on Alexis Sanchez by confronting and pushing Jose Mourinho, who clearly loved the whole incident.
  • Tottenham earned a win for Mauricio Pochettino against his old club, Southampton, holding on to win 1-0 thanks to a Christian Eriksen goal.  Somehow that result meant that Spurs, who had not won since the second game of the season, have spent the last two weeks above the Gunners, who suffered their first defeat of the campaign in the aforementioned game with Chelsea.
  • Fans of 2-2 draws got to enjoy two more of them, as the matches between Leicester and Burnley, plus Swansea and Newcastle ended with that scoreline, bringing the season’s total to 10.  In the latter match, Papiss Cissé once again scored both – as he had done against Hull – probably saving Alan Pardew’s job ahead of the international break.
  • Manchester United moved into the top 4 with a 2-1 home victory over Everton, with Angel DiMaria and Radamel Falcao both getting on the score sheet.  This proves that Louis Van Gaal is indeed a genius and he can inspire his team to greatness…or, they were very lucky to get away with the three points, needing to rely on some stunning saves from David de Gea and Leighton Baines’ first ever penalty miss in the top flight.

Strength of Schedule Rankings

That one lucky victory is not the only bad sign for Manchester United supporters either.  Since there were two weeks in between fixtures, I spent some time (okay I did it today at the last-minute, but still) looking at the strength of schedule each team has faced so far.  I mapped out who each club has faced so far, giving their opponents a value from 1-20 based on their current league position – it looked something like this:

Position Team Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7
1 Chelsea Burnley Leicester Everton Swansea Man City Aston Villa Arsenal
2 Man CIty Newcastle Liverpool Stoke Arsenal Chelsea Hull Aston Villa
3 Southampton Liverpool West Brom West Ham Newcastle Swansea QPR Tottenham
4 Man United Swansea Sunderland Burnley QPR Leicester West Ham Everton
5 Swansea Man United Burnley West Brom Chelsea Southampton Sunderland Newcastle
6 Tottenham West Ham QPR Liverpool Sunderland West Brom Arsenal Southampton
7 West Ham Tottenham Crystal Palace Southampton Hull Liverpool Man United QPR
8 Arsenal Crystal Palace Everton Leicester Man City Aston Villa Tottenham Chelsea
9 Liverpool Southampton Man City Tottenham Aston Villa West Ham Everton West Brom
10 Aston Villa Stoke Newcastle Hull Liverpool Arsenal Chelsea Man City
11 Hull QPR Stoke Aston Villa West Ham Newcastle Man City Crystal Palace
12 Leicester Everton Chelsea Arsenal Stoke Man United Crystal Palace Burnley
13 Sunderland West Brom Man United QPR Tottenham Burnley Swansea Stoke
14 West Brom Sunderland Southampton Swansea Everton Tottenham Burnley Liverpool
15 Crystal Palace Arsenal West Ham Newcastle Burnley Everton Leicester Hull
16 Stoke Aston Villa Hull Man City Leicester QPR Newcastle Sunderland
17 Everton Leicester Arsenal Chelsea West Brom Crystal Palace Liverpool Man United
18 Newcastle Man City Aston Villa Crystal Palace Southampton Hull Stoke Swansea
19 Burnley Chelsea Swansea Man United Crystal Palace Sunderland West Brom Leicester
20 QPR Hull Tottenham Sunderland Man United Stoke Southampton West Ham

This is obviously not a perfect process, since it does not take into account home/away factor, nor does it necessarily reflect how good a team is – you would expect Arsenal to be a tougher opponent than Southampton, despite their current positions in the table.  But what it does show is the form of the clubs that each team has faced, so when I then plugged in the values and worked out the average position of the opponent of each team, the rankings came out as follows (SOS = Strength of Schedule, AVP = Average Position of opponent, basically the higher up the list, the harder the fixtures have been for each side)

SOS Club AVP
1 Liverpool 8.43
2 QPR 8.57
3 Newcastle 8.86
4 Arsenal 9
= Everton 9
6 Burnley 9.14
7 Aston Villa 9.29
8 West Ham 9.71
9 Swansea 10.29
= West Brom 10.29
11 Chelsea 10.43
= Man CIty 10.43
13 Tottenham 10.57
14 Southampton 11.29
15 Leicester 11.43
16 Sunderland 12
17 Stoke 12.29
18 Hull 12.57
19 Crystal Palace 13.14
20 Man United 13.29

So Manchester United have had, relatively speaking, the easiest fixtures thus far, yet they still sit precariously in fourth place, ahead of 5th and 6th placed Swansea and Tottenham on goal difference.  As you would expect from looking at the league table, this also suggests that Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton are likely to move up the standings in the coming weeks as everything evens out (maybe not so with QPR, who have helped improve opponents’ positions by being rubbish and losing to them), while the likes of Hull, Crystal Palace and United have inaccurately lofty positions to this point.  Or, I could just have had too much time to think about the Premier League with no games to watch, plus my desire to avoid this weekend’s likely massacre at the Etihad.

Weekend Action and Predictions

Following on from Manchester City’s demolition of Spurs on Saturday, Arsenal can reclaim their regular position of being above their North London rivals by beating Hull at home, two ever-presents in the Premier League meet at Goodison Park as Everton take on Aston Villa; there is an all-claret-and-blue affair between Burnley and West Ham; a London derby as Crystal Palace host Chelsea; Newcastle and Leicester will be the teams drawing 2-2 this week; and Sunderland have the longest trip of the weekend, as they head to the south coast to play Southampton.  Last season, Tim Sherwood took over at Spurs following their home defeat to Liverpool and he could repeat the trick this campaign – should rumors have any basis in fact – at QPR, as Harry Redknapp’s position has come under increased scrutiny ahead of their meeting with the Reds on Sunday.  Also that day, Stoke play Swansea at the Britannia, while the Monday Night matchup is between West Brom and the overrated Manchester United.

Predictions

Last time, 3-7; Season, 28-42

Home team listed first

Manchester City vs Tottenham – Don’t ask

(okay, Home win)

Arsenal vs Hull – Home win

Burnley vs West Ham – Draw

Crystal Palace vs Chelsea – Away win

Everton vs Aston Villa – Home win

Newcastle vs Leicester – Draw

Southampton vs Sunderland – Home win

QPR vs Liverpool – Away win

Stoke vs Swansea – Away win

West Brom vs Manchester United – Draw

 

 

NFL 2014 Week 7 Picks

Mike Nugent's sliced field goal attempt meant the Bengals and Panthers tied

Mike Nugent’s sliced field goal attempt meant the Bengals and Panthers tied

Before getting to the predictions for this weekend, here is a quick look at some of the stories from Week 6 in the NFL:

  • The Bengals and Panthers played out the first tie of the 2014 NFL season.  The final score of 37-37 was the highest number of points in a tied game since the introduction of sudden death overtime for regular season contests in 1974.
  • Denver’s win over the Jets in the stadium in which they lost the Super Bowl last February means they are 8-2 in their last 10 games, with the two defeats both coming against the Seahawks.
  • Green Bay should have been out of sight of Miami by half-time, but their victory ended up being really exciting as Aaron Rodgers faked a spike on the second-to-last play of the game, then threw a touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless with three seconds remaining.
  • Only two teams have been shutout so far in 2014: the New York Jets in San Diego in week 5; followed up by their fellow Jerseyites the Giants, who lost 27-0 in Philadelphia last Sunday night.
  • People are starting to believe that the Cowboys are for real, as they inflicted just the second home defeat on Russell Wilson’s Seahawks, winning 30-23 in Seattle.  Their game this Sunday at home to the Giants looks like a foregone conclusion – so my guess is that it will be a huge letdown game for Dallas, with Tony Romo throwing multiple interceptions.
  • 1 minutes and 3 seconds into the second quarter of their contest with the Buccaneers, the Ravens were 35-0 up with Joe Flacco having thrown five touchdown passes.
  • The Raiders and Jaguars lost their Week 6 games by a combined five points – with Oakland particularly impressive against the Chargers – but both teams remain winless at 0-5 and 0-6 respectively.

Week 6 Picks

Last week, 7-8; Season, 49-42

Home teams in bold

Jets +9.5 over Patriots

Ravens -6.5 over Falcons

Vikings +4.5 over Bills

Dolphins +3.5 over Bears

Colts -2.5 over Bengals

Jaguars +4.5 over Browns

Saints +2.5 over Lions

Panthers +6.5 over Packers

Titans +4.5 over Washington

Seahawks -6.5 over Rams

Chargers -4.5 over Chiefs

Giants +6.5 over Cowboys

Cardinals -3.5 over Raiders

49ers +6.5 over Broncos

Texans +3.5 over Steelers

 

 

 

 

NFL 2014 Week 6 Picks

Rodgers found Jordy Nelson for a 66 yard touchdown pass against the Vikings

Rodgers found Jordy Nelson for a 66 yard touchdown pass against the Vikings

With just five weeks of the season in the books, there are no unbeaten teams left in the NFL and only two who are yet to record a victory – the Raiders and the Jaguars.  Twenty-two of the league’s thirty-two teams have recorded either two or three victories so far, with only a couple of outliers to what looks like a very open year where any team who gets on a roll could make a deep run in the playoffs.  Here’s a quick look around the league and how things went in Week 5;

NFC North 1. Packers/Lions 3-2; 3. Vikings/Bears 2-3

  • Green Bay took advantage of Minnesota’s quarterback problems to race to an easy Thursday night victory, with Aaron Rodgers able to sit the fourth quarter with the game beyond the Vikings’ reach.
  • It turned out to be a great weekend for the Packers as Chicago gave up an early lead to lose to the Panthers; while the Lions kicking woes continued and it cost them dearly against the Bills.

NFC East 1. Eagles/Cowboys 4-1; 3. Giants 3-2; 4. Washington 1-4

  • Philadelphia and Dallas both kept up their impressive starts by beating St. Louis and Houston respectively, though the Cowboys needed overtime to overcome the Texans.  Still, the only team that has beaten either of them to this point is the 49ers.
  • After their 30-20 victory over the Falcons moved them to 3-2, there has been the suggestion that New York Giants could be surprisingly good this year.  However, their three wins have come against Washington – who have only beaten the winless Jaguars – plus Atlanta and Houston, who had a combined record of 6-26 in 2013.  I think the Giants are going to be 2014’s “good-bad team” – they will be able to beat other mediocre sides, but will lose against tougher opponents.
  • Outside of destroying an awful Jacksonville team, Washington had their best performance of the year on Monday night as they hung tough against the reigning Super Bowl champion Seahawks.  In the second half, the Washington defense looked really pumped up and was holding Seattle, but the offense just could not put up enough points for them to draw level.

NFC South 1. Panthers 3-2; 2. Falcons/Saints 2-3; 4. Buccaneers 1-4

  • There might not be any good teams in the NFC South this year, even though the Panthers are disproving those (including me) who thought they would not be contenders to top the division again this season.  Their two losses to the Steelers and Ravens were poor, though they did recover last weekend enough to come from behind and beat the Bears at home.
  • New Orleans required overtime to win at home over the Buccaneers and have yet to put in an impressive performance this year, as their offense as sputtered not exploded as we have come to expect in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era.  On a bye this week, the Saints will need to improve massively ahead of their next five fixtures which look very tricky: @Detroit; vs. Green Bay; @Carolina; vs. San Francisco; vs. Cincinnati.

NFC West 1. Seahawks/Cardinals 3-1; 3. 49ers 3-2; 4. Rams 1-3

  • Arizona lost for the first time this season last week, but it was in Denver against Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ potent offense, which destroyed the Cardinals’ previously strong defense.  They are now down to their third string quarterback – Logan Thomas – so Arizona will need that defense to recover quickly in order to keep them in games over the next few weeks, until either Drew Stanton or Carson Palmer can return.  
  • Seattle’s only loss so far was in San Diego against an impressive Chargers team and their victory against Washington on Monday showed they can still ground out wins when they are not firing on all cylinders.
  • San Francisco have managed to hang in there and are only a half game back after five weeks and they should improve in the second part of the season as they get more used to their new stadium and have players come back from suspensions.  The 49ers also need Colin Kaepernick to get over a relatively poor start, though he did show signs of that in last weekend’s victory over the Chiefs, throwing for 201 yards and a touchdown, with no picks.

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Premier League Roundup and Weekend Preview – Chelsea vs Arsenal

Chadli gives Spurs a surprise lead at Arsenal

Chadli gives Spurs a surprise lead at Arsenal

Despite only enjoying two separate five-minute spells when they were the better team in the North London Derby, Tottenham managed to leave the Emirates with a point last weekend following a 1-1 draw with Arsenal.  For much of the first half, Spurs once again looked like a group of players who had never met each other before and were unable to put together any sort of passing move, but somehow they were able to make it to the break without conceding.  Eleven minutes into the second half, Christian Eriksen caught Matthieu Flamini in possession inside the Arsenal half, gave the ball to Erik Lamela who threaded through a lovely pass that Nacer Chadli converted to give Tottenham a surprising lead.  Any hopes of a smash-and-grab victory were dashed fifteen minutes before the end, when a mishit by Lamela – who, to be fair, worked hard defensively even though it is clearly not his forte – allowed Alexis Sanchez the opportunity to cross and Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain lashed in the equalizer.  Spurs held on for the final quarter of an hour and by one basic metric – an important one to us supporters – Mauricio Pochettino has already improved on last season.  In 2013/14, eight matches against Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham (our three biggest rivals) ended with no wins, one draw and seven defeats.  So far this year, Tottenham have beaten the Hammers and got a point against the Gunners – there may be bigger aims in the Premier League, but these fixtures are the ones fans look to when the schedule comes out.

As for Arsenal, they cannot be too disappointed with a draw in the derby, as it maintains their unbeaten record in the league and they followed it up with a 4-1 thrashing of Galatasaray in the Champions League in midweek.  It really looks as though the combination of Danny Welbeck (who grabbed a hat-trick in that victory over the Turkish side), Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanches and Oxlaide-Chamberlain is starting to click; the biggest weakness for the Gunners is the lack of a top-notch defensive midfielder in their squad.  Flamini certainly does not appear to be good enough to dominate in that position against the better teams, while Wenger deployed Santi Cazorla there in the Champions League, but that would be very risky against other top-four sides.  This weekend, Arsenal face their toughest challenge so far this season as they face the only other unbeaten side, league leaders Chelsea, who thrashed them 6-0 at Stamford Bridge in March.  The Blues had a comfortable 3-0 win over Aston Villa last weekend to maintain their position atop the Premiership and with them having Cesc Fabregas in the lineup to haunt his old club, who were unwilling to break their wage structure to bring him back when he was leaving Barcelona in the summer, Sunday’s encounter is mouthwatering.  I’m particularly excited to see Fabregas score and then not celebrate, leading to the commentators talk about how much respect it shows for his former club, ignoring the fact that he’s not exactly showing loyalty to the team that currently pays his wages.  If Spurs ever played Real Madrid again (say, if they somehow ended up in the Europa League…) and Gareth Bale scored, I’d hope he did his stupid finger-heart celebration – I’m not going to be any less pissed off just because he stands there solemnly while being congratulated by his team-mate.  You scored, enjoy it.  Read more of this post

NFL 2014 Week 5 Picks

Ray Rice shows his support for women's wellbeing on the field, if not in casino elevators

Ray Rice shows his support for women’s wellbeing on the field, if not in casino elevators

With approximately one quarter of the season gone, here’s what we have learned so far from the 2014 NFL season:

  • There does not seem to be any standout teams so far – the only two undefeated sides, Cincinnati and Arizona, have both only played three games and, although the Bengals have played better than anyone else overall thus far, neither has the aura of invincibility.
  • Green Bay are 2-2, but looked great on the road against Chicago and only have 5 games remaining away from Lambeau Field, so their early struggles could be behind them (speaks the ardent fan).
  • Teams that might be far better than I thought heading into the season: Dallas; Detroit; Kansas City; Cincinnati.  Teams that might be much worse than I predicted: New England; New Orleans; Tennessee.  Teams that look as bad as everyone thought they would be: Jacksonville; Oakland.
  • I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to point out the hypocrisy that will be on show this weekend and for the rest of October as NFL players wear pink to show how much they care about women during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Perhaps if the Commissioner, Owners and players gave up some of their earnings to charities that help battered women, it might be more believable that they give a fuck.

Week 5 Picks

Last week, 7-6; Season, 34-27

Home teams in bold

Packers -9.5 over Vikings – Even though when I pick against Green Bay, they win and lose when i back them, Teddy Bridgewater is an injury doubt for this Thursday night NFC North matchup and I think even the Packers’ defense can contain Christian Ponder.

Falcons +3.5 over Giants – Okay, so the Giants won two games, I still do not think they’re that good.

Bills +7.5 over Lions – Buffalo won in Chicago, I think they will at least keep it close in Detroit.

Bears +2.5 over Panthers – Comeback game for Cutler who looked good for 29:59 against Green Bay, just missed a game-tying touchdown at the end of the first half and then went to pieces in the third quarter.  Also, Chicago are 0-2 at home and 2-0 on the road so far this season.

Titans -2.5 over Browns – I still think Jake Locker is a good quarterback and is going to come good at some point this year.

Texans +4.5 over Cowboys – It would be vintage Dallas for them to have started so well this season, then disappoint their fans by losing a cross-state rivalry game.

Ravens +3.5 over Colts – Baltimore’s last road game was in Cleveland, the town the franchise left to setup in Maryland, replacing the Colts who had left two decades before.  This does not mean anything for the game, but I’m picking the Ravens just because I think they’re playing better right now.

Rams +7.5 over Eagles – Starting to get a little worried that I’ve picked seven road teams in succession, but I think St. Louis’ defense will cause problems for Philadelphia, even if they do not have enough to win the game they should keep it within a touchdown.

Saints -10.5 over Buccaneers – Last chance, New Orleans. Lose this and I’m picking against you for the rest of the year.

Jaguars +6.5 over Steelers – Jacksonville spent the first half of last season being awful and losing by double digits to every opponent, then flipped it in the second half of the year and covered – then won – most of their games.  I’m thinking a home fixture against Pittsburgh is exactly what they need to avoid an 0-5 start and they win this outright.

Broncos -7.5 over Cardinals – Really wanted to take Arizona and their awesome defense for this, but Denver has had two weeks to prepare (as have the Cardinals) and I think they will have too much for the leaders of the NFC West.

Chiefs +7.5 over 49ers – A battle between the two cities whose teams won the baseball wild card games – I’ll take Kansas City to keep this one close against San Francisco.

 

Chargers -7.5 over Jets – At least the Jets will not be losing in prime-time this week.

Bengals +2.5 over Patriots – Why would New England be favored?

Seahawks -7.5 over Washington – So the Kirk Cousins > RG3 debate is not necessarily over, but might just be irrelevant right now.  Cousins looked awful against the Giants and against the best defense in the league, it is hard to see things getting better.

 

 

 

Premier League Preview – Merseyside and North London Derbies

Walcott might not have enough fingers this time to show the score

Walcott might not have enough fingers this time to show the score

This weekend’s Premier League fixture list sees two of the biggest derbies in the country both take place on Saturday, as Liverpool host Everton in the early kick off, then Arsenal take on Tottenham later in the day.  Most seasons, any North London derby is a contest I look forward to, even if I have trepidation about how the match will go, especially when it is being played at the Emirates (as this Saturday’s fixture is).  However, this year I am contemplating whether or not I should even watch the game, given the fact that Spurs will not only lose the match, but could well be taken apart by an historic margin.  The largest ever victory for either side in this matchup is Arsenal’s 6-0 defeat of Tottenham in the 1934/5 season; this year with the combination of Tottenham’s porous back line and the Gunners’ array of attacking talents, they are likely to rack up at least that many.

To clarify, this is not some sort of reverse jinx or the pessimism returning after my brief hazy Tottenham-optimism that reared it’s head in my Premiership season preview, it is rather just a fact, based on how the two teams are currently playing.  Against West Brom last week, Spurs put in one of the worst performances I can ever remember watching – and I’ve seen us lose 4-0 at home to Blackburn.  The passing was awful, going forward we looked clueless and like the players had never even met each other; the 1-0 scoreline to the Baggies was the least they deserved.  When Mauricio Pochettino was appointed as the new Tottenham manager in May, I was really disappointed because I did not think that he was the right man for the job, preferring instead for them to go for Frank de Boer.  Nevertheless, I put aside my thoughts on that and realized that maybe I was not the best judge of who should be in charge, given that I was happy when Andre Villas-Boas was appointed and never thought Martin Jol should have been sacked; while I did not ever like Harry Redknapp, who took the club to their highest finish in the Premier League era.  My issues with Pochettino were his spotty record in the transfer market and the fact that he did not take the FA Cup seriously while at Southampton, but I did like the style of football he had the Saints playing during his tenure at St. Mary’s.  In his first couple in games in charge at White Hart Lane, it appeared as though he had at least got the players to buy into his philosophy – the work rate against both West Ham and QPR was excellent, the pressing high up the field worked and the passing moves looked relatively good.

Since that positive start, the wheels have completely come off and Spurs look as inept as they did under the stewardship of Tim Sherwood – unable to come up with any game plan to combat even the relatively easy task (in Premier League terms) of playing West Brom at home.  The attacking midfield trio of Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli should be given a chance to gel as they are all talented and can make the dynamic work if given a chance, but there need to be more options both behind and ahead of them if they are going to be truly effective.  Emmanuel Adebayor is having one of his fallow spells, where he is not exactly playing badly, but at no point do you ever think he is going to score, while the options to replace him – Harry Kane and Roberto Soldado – are hardly guaranteed net-busters either.  It makes the decision not to strengthen the forward line in the summer an obvious mistake, as teams can focus on the attacking midfielders and know they are not going to be caught out by an in-form striker getting space in behind them.  Added to the goal-shy strike force is a wing-back pairing of Eric Dier (who seems like a perfectly good centre back, but is not good enough defensively on the flank) and Danny Rose, who misplaces so many passes and cannot cross a road, let alone the ball into a dangerous area; and holding midfielders who do nothing going forward, in the form of Nabil Bentaleb, Etienne Capoue or Paulinho.  The central defensive partnership seemingly changes every game, with Pochettino unsure of whether he wants to play Younes Kaboul and Chiriches, or Vertonghen plus Fazio.  With Kaboul having been made the club captain, he is likely to start most league games (Hugo Lloris should have been given the armband as he is our most outstanding player in any position) and while he is good in the air and can have great games, he is far from being a reliable defender.

In all, Spurs are in complete disarray once again and when they come face to face with an Arsenal team who put three past Aston Villa in four minutes last weekend – including a goal and an assist for the rejuvenated Mesut Özil – they are going to be lucky to come away with anything other than a heavy defeat.  If there is anything I can hold onto going into the derby, it is at least that Tottenham made it through in the League Cup this week, despite being outplayed by Championship leaders Nottingham Forest, who took the lead before Ryan Mason scored a wonderful first goal for Spurs and Soldado and Kane fired them through to the next round.  The Gunners chances of winning another trophy this season were reduced by one competition, as they put out a weakened side and were beaten 2-1 at home by Southampton.  By the final whistle on Saturday however, those results will be forgotten about by both sides…and I will be wishing I had decided not to watch the match.

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Roger Goodell, ESPN, Bill Simmons and NFL Week 4 Picks

The Broncos/Seahawks Super Bowl rematch last sunday had a dramatic finish…but the action again takes a back seat

The Broncos/Seahawks Super Bowl rematch last sunday had a dramatic finish…but the action again takes a back seat to other issues

We are officially through the looking glass for suspensions related to Ray Rice – here’s where we stand.

Ray Rice – knocks his fiancée out in an elevator, shows no remorse or compassion as she lays on the floor out cold.  Punishment: Originally 2 game suspension (extended after public outrage when the video was released).

Stephen A. Smith – proffers the ridiculous, abhorrent view that women should try to avoid provoking men into knocking them out cold in elevators. Punishment: ESPN suspends him for 1 week.

Roger Goodell – completely mishandles the Ray Rice incident. Is told by the running back exactly what happened, but only suspends him for 2 games despite the NFL having access to the video.  Is either completely incompetent or completely full of shit. Gives a 45 minute press conference where he gives a non-apology apology (one that made me think of this episode of This American Life…”mistakes were made”).  Punishment: $35.1million. Wait, that’s not a punishment, that’s his salary.  No punishment for Goodell who also claimed not to have even considered resigning.

Bill Simmons – talks on his weekly podcast with Cousin Sal about the Goodell press conference with the type of frankness that made him one of the most popular writers on ESPN for so long, leading to them letting him establish the branched-off Grantland website. Suggests Goodell was lying and refers to what he said as “fucking bullshit” (bleeped out) and dares the bosses at ESPN to call him up about his rant, saying that he gets to talk about this on his podcast.  Punishment – Three week suspension.

So congratulations to both the NFL and ESPN for having no clue what justice is and, in the case of the latter, acting like a totalitarian state by punishing someone who dared to speak out of turn and against the ruling power.

One suggestion for those getting disillusioned with the NFL – check out the Premier League this weekend, two big derby matches: Liverpool vs Everton (7:45am ET NBCSN) and Arsenal vs Spurs (12:30pm ET NBC).  Because every single week there seems to be so much to say, other than anything about the actual games that were played the previous Sunday and it really is just frustrating.

A couple of notes before my weekly picks:

  • Only three teams have perfect records heading into Week 4: Philadelphia, Arizona and Cincinnati.  There are also a trio of winless teams: Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Oakland.
  • Six franchises have byes already this week and the last team to win the Super Bowl after having their week of rest this early was the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers.  The teams not playing: Seattle, Denver, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Arizona and St. Louis.
  • London hosts the first of three games at Wembley Stadium this season, with the Raiders taking on the Dolphins which would be a great matchup, if it was 1984.

Week 4 Picks

Last week, 10-6; Season, 27-21

Home teams in bold

Washington -3.5 over Giants

Texans -2.5 over Bills

Bears +0.5 over Packers

Jets +1.5 over Lions

Titans +7.5 over Colts

Dolphins -4.5 over Raiders

Steelers -7.5 over Buccaneers

Panthers +3.5 over Ravens

Chargers -13.5 over Jaguars

Vikings +3.5 over Falcons

Eagles +5.5 over 49ers

Cowboys +3.5 over Saints

Chiefs +3.5 over Patriots

 

 

 

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

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