This week in: English Football – FA Cup review and Midweek Premiership Preview

During Saturday’s cup tie between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield, Patrice Evra – who was racially abused by Luis Suarez in the league encounter between the two sides last October – was subjected to constant booing, chants of “One lying bastard”, and at least one supporter making monkey gestures at him – pictures of which made their way around Twitter following the match.  While Liverpool have issued an apology on their website today in response to the photo, the club has not covered itself in glory throughout this affair.  Initially, the Merseysiders went all out to place the blame on the Manchester United left-back, claiming he was making everything up; then, after Suarez was found guilty by the Football Association of calling Evra “Negro” seven times (he admitted to using the word once), the Liverpool team came out for their pre-game warmup for their encounter against Wigan wearing t-shirts supporting the Uruguayan.  Even after the commission released their findings on the incident, the club issued a statement defending their own player, while suggesting that Evra was at least partly to blame.  The right thing for the club to have done was say: “Luis used a word that is commonly used in his home country, but he now realises is offensive and he apologies to Patrice Evra whole-heartedly” – this could have diffused the whole issue.    While there is a tribal hatred between fans of United and Liverpool, this does not excuse racist behaviour, nor the violence, or singing of songs about the Munich or Hillsborough tragedies, that happens whenever these two sides meet.

On the pitch, Kenny Dalglish’s men got one over on their old enemy – Park’s strike before time had cancelled out an error by United’s Keeper, De

Fellaini took time out from playing Jean-Ralphio on Parks & Recreation to score Everton's winner

Gea, that had allowed Agger to open the scoring, but a late Dirk Kuyt goal gave the home side a narrow 2-1 win.  QPR and Chelsea faced each other for the first time since their contentious league match which Rangers won and resulted in a racism charge against John Terry – a case he faces this week.  In an exact reverse of the Premiership game, it was Chelsea who got the victory thanks to a controversial penalty decision going their way.  In other games: a header from Marouane Fellaini gave Everton a place in the fifth round at Fulham’s expense; Spurs were completely outplayed by Championship side Watford, yet progressed as Rafael Van der Vaart scored the only goal of the game; Arsenal came back from 2-0 down at half-time to knock-out Aston Villa at the Emirates; Bolton beat Swansea; and Leicester City took care of business at home against lower-league Swindon Town.  There were two upsets – Brighton, of the Championship, beat top-flight Newcastle; and League Two’s richest club, Crawley Town, won away at Hull City, who are two divisions above them in the league pyramid.

This week sees midweek Premiership fixtures, as well as the closing of the transfer window at 11pm UK time on the 31st January, meaning sides will no longer be able to add to their squads for the remainder of the season.  On Tuesday: Chelsea travel to Wales to face Swansea;  Tottenham host Wigan; Liverpool are away at Wolves; first-placed Manchester City take on Everton at Goodison Park; and Manchester United entertain Stoke.  The next night, Arsenal will try to stop a run of three straight league defeats when they play Bolton at the Reebok Stadium; Fulham play West Brom; Aston Villa are home against QPR; Blackburn and Newcastle meet at Ewood Park; and Sunderland host Norwich.

Predictions

Last time, 1-9 (so take the below with a grain of salt!); Season 82-108

Tuesday

Swansea vs Chelsea – Draw

Tottenham vs Wigan – Home win

Wolves vs Liverpool – Draw

Everton vs Manchester City – Away win

Manchester United vs Stoke – Home win

Wednesday

Aston Villa vs QPR – Draw

Blackburn vs Newcastle – Home win

Bolton vs Arsenal – Away win

Fulham vs West Brom – Home win

Sunderland vs Norwich – Home win

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This week in: English Football – Manchester Rules and the FA Cup Fourth Round

Referee Howard Webb - never knowingly looking in the right direction

Last weekend’s results all but confirmed the Premiership title race would have just the two horses in it for the rest of the season, as Manchester City overcame Tottenham, and United won away at Arsenal.  The first half of the City game was forgettable, with neither side giving the opposing keeper much work, but the second half was the polar opposite.  Mancini’s men struck first, through former Gunner Samir Nasri, and then, when Joleon Lescott bundled home a corner to make it 2-0, they appeared to be out of sight.  However, Tottenham did not just roll over, and a mistake from Stefan Savic allowed Jermain Defoe to convert into an empty net – having gone around Joe Hart – to cut the deficit in half, then a cracking left foot shot from Gareth Bale made it 2-2 with 25 minutes still to play.  Harry Redknapp, who is normally attacking in his team selections, chose to withdraw Rafael Van der Vaart in favour of – the more defensively minded – Jake Livermore, suggesting Tottenham would be happy with the point.  In the final minutes, they still had a great chance to win it when Gareth Bale broke through the Manchester City back line and played a ball across the face of goal that eluded Defoe by a whisker.  Defending a 100% home record in the Premiership, the league leaders did not stop looking for a winner themselves and were able to find one – with almost the last kick of the game.  Mario Balotelli converted a penalty, after he had been felled by Ledley King in the box, but there was a huge doubt about whether or not the Italian should have been on the pitch at that point – as he had stamped on Scott Parker in an earlier incident.  Nevertheless, Spurs were undone more by a failure to convert their own chance to win the game and reverting to negative tactics in the final ten minutes, trying to hold on to a draw rather than going all out to try to win.

Manchester United ensured they were able to remain three points behind their rivals, as they secured a 2-1 win over Arsenal at the Emirates thanks to a late goal from Danny Welbeck.  Arsene Wenger’s team were certainly not outclassed by the champions and, if not for missed chances by Robin Van Persie and Aaron Ramsay in particular, they may well have claimed all three points.  However, when Wenger chose to withdraw youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had provided the pass for Van Persie’s equaliser, and replace him with the Russian enigma that is Andrei Arshavin, there was dissent both from the Arsenal crowd and their captain (Van Persie was seen mouthing “NO” when the substitution was made).  While the supporters may have not liked the decision, it was strange to see such outward dissent against a manager who they have loved and respected for so long.  Perhaps a more damning indictment of the home fans was the fact that, with their side chasing an equaliser against one of their biggest rivals over the last twenty years, the stadium was half-empty in the final few minutes as many rushed to beat the traffic, rather than staying and supporting their team until the final whistle.  It’s one thing to head for the exit when your team is being thrashed – although I never left a game early myself – but in a close match against an old enemy, that’s just not being a good fan whichever club you root for.

The two Manchester teams were the only clubs of the top 9 in the league to win last weekend: Chelsea were held to a goalless draw at Norwich – the home side’s first clean sheet of the season, suggesting what they needed all year was to face £50m striker, Fernando Torres, who cannot buy a goal at the moment; Liverpool suffered a 3-1 defeat away to Bolton, after which their manager, Kenny Dalglish, criticised his players for not giving their opponents enough respect, thinking they could just turn up and win without much effort; Stoke lost at home to West Brom; and Newcastle, who had led 1-0 at half-time, suffered a 5-2 defeat at Fulham – a game which included the first Premiership hat-trick for an American, as Clint Dempsey scored three for the Cottagers.  Aston Villa won the Midlands derby against Wolves 3-2, thanks to two long-range goals from on-loan Robbie Keane – the Irishman scoring against his former club, and for his 6th Premier League team in total (Wolves, Coventry, Leeds, Spurs, Liverpool, Aston Villa).  QPR moved out of the relegation zone with a 3-1 win over Wigan at Loftus Road; Sunderland ended Swansea’s good run of form by beating them 2-0 in the North-East; and Everton and Blackburn shared the points at Goodison Park, with Tim Cahill getting his first goal for the home side in more than a year.

This week sees the return of the FA Cup as the competition reaches the Fourth Round.  Spurs will be hoping Harry Redknapp is not too distracted by his tax evasion court case, which started on Monday, when he returns to the bench to manage the team in their away game with Watford this Friday.  That same day, it is “Donovan vs Dempsey”, as the two US teammates play against each other as Everton play Fulham.  Saturday morning brings a rematch of QPR and Chelsea and Loftus Road, the league game saw the home team win and John Terry be accused of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand; while old foes, Liverpool and Manchester United, square off at Anfield.  Some of the other fixtures include: League Two’s rich club, Crawley Town, travel to Championship side, Hull City; Brighton host Newcastle; and former West Ham player, Paolo Di Canio, takes his Swindon team to play Leicester City.  Sunday sees a North-East derby as Middlesborough travel to Sunderland; and an all-Premiership clash at the Emirates as Arsenal host Aston Villa.

Friday, 27 January 2012
Watford v Tottenham
Everton v Fulham

Saturday, 28 January 2012
QPR v Chelsea
Liverpool v Man Utd
Blackpool v Sheffield Wed
Bolton v Swansea
Derby v Stoke
Hull v Crawley Town
Leicester v Swindon
Millwall v Southampton
Sheffield Utd v Birmingham
Stevenage v Notts County
West Brom v Norwich
Brighton v Newcastle

Sunday, 29 January 2012
Sunderland v Middlesbrough
Arsenal v Aston Villa

President Obama’s State of the Union 2012

President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening to deliver the State of the Union address for the third (and potentially final) time. He focused on jobs; all through the speech he made references to programs and bills he wanted Congress to enact in order to continue the recovery and build an “economy to last”.

The address was bracketed by the Commander-in-Chief giving praise to the military, and referencing the assassination of Osama Bin Laden last year. President Obama highlighted that, thanks to the brave men and women in uniform, for the first time in 9 years there were no troops fighting in Iraq and, for unlike the previous two decades, the former leader of Al Qaeda was no longer a threat the United States of America. As well as the SNL skit mantra of “I got Osama”, the President also focused on the importance of helping veterans returning home in finding jobs and being given opportunities as they were after the Second World War. To do this, he wants Congress to approve tax breaks for companies hiring those who are returning to work having served their country in the military – and this need for hiring incentives was a recurring theme in the speech. President Obama stated that legislation was needed to encourage manufacturing and high-tech companies to employ people in the United States, rather than overseas; that those who outsourced jobs and profits to other countries should no longer receive tax breaks for doing so; and corporations should be enabled to set up training programs with community colleges to retrain people who are looking for work and then hire them.

The President also talked about the path that got the country into the financial crisis – the growing income inequality between the richest and everyone else; banks and mortgage lenders taking advantage of the lack of regulation to take risks with other people’s money; and a decline in the manufacturing industry. Obama pointed out that in the six months before he took office, 4 million jobs were lost – then the same number again before the policies he put in place took effect. In the 22 months since then he stated, 3.2 million jobs have been added and for the first time since the 1990s, American manufacturers were hiring again. President Obama talked about the success of the Auto Industry that was in sharp decline when he came to power, with many people suggesting he should have let it fail. Since his administration had “bet on American workers”, the big three car companies had turned their businesses around, making themselves more efficient and innovative, resulting in Chrysler and Ford growing and investing, while General Motors is once again the largest car manufacturer in the world (they overtook Toyota last year).

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This week in: American Football – One step from the Superbowl

I did try to get new NFL expert, Rob Lowe, to guest write this week’s column – sadly he was too busy being City Manager in Pawnee – and he only had time to let the world know that Peyton Manning has played literally his last game for the Colts.  Next week: Peter King uses his Monday Morning Quarterback column on Sports Illustrated to discuss his views on the character of Sam Seaborn in The West Wing.

The Packers fumbled away their season

Last weekend’s divisional round brought upsets in the NFC: the two favoured teams, with elite quarterbacks duking it out to be this season’s MVP, were eliminated from the playoffs by teams led by former number 1 draft picks under center, who have been much maligned through the years.  The Giant’s Eli Manning won over supporters in 2007/8 when he led his team to a surprise Superbowl win over the Patriots, but, after he threw 20 interceptions last season, there were still many who questioned his status as one of their game’s best quarterbacks.  In the last couple of weeks, Manning has disproven his critics once again and, for the second time in his career, went into Lambeau Field for a January playoff game and emerged victorious.  He had help though – Green Bay Plaxico’d themselves (shot themselves in the foot/leg) on offense by: fumbling three times; dropping 5 catches, and allowing Aaron Rodgers to be sacked four times.  However, their real undoing was on defense – giving up 37 points and the hail mary touchdown, at the very end of the first half, knocked the wind out of their sails completely.  A 15-1 regular season for the Packers is now for nothing, as they join a succession of Superbowl champions who have struggled to make an impact in the following year’s playoffs:

Superbowl XLV winners: Green Bay Packers.  Next season – eliminated in first playoff game by New York Giants

Superbowl XLIV winners: New Orleans Saints. Next season – eliminated in first playoff game at Seattle Seahawks

Superbowl XLIII winners: Pittsburgh Steelers. Next season – finished 9-7, missed playoffs

Superbowl XLII winners: New York Giants.  Next season – eliminated in first playoff game by Philadelphia Eagles

Superbowl XL1 winners: Indianapolis Colts. Next season – eliminated in first playoff game by San Diego Chargers

Superbowl XL winners: Pittsburgh Steelers. Next season – finish 8-8, missed playoffs

The last reigning champs to win a playoff game were the Patriots in 2006 – as they beat the Jaguars in the Wild Card round before losing to the Broncos in Denver – and they were coming off back-to-back Superbowl wins.

Not for the first time in history, the New York Giants are heading to San Francisco – though this time, they’re not defecting West with the Brooklyn Dodgers – as the 49ers beat the New Orleans Saints last weekend.  Alex Smith, who has struggled with injury and lackluster form since being the number 1 pick in the 2005 draft, repaid the faith that new coach Jim Harbaugh showed him in the offseason by convincing him to spend another year in San Francisco.  Smith led his team on consecutive 80 and 85 yard touchdown drives in the final four minutes to come from behind – twice – to win the game.  New Orleans only managed 37 rushing yards as the 49ers defense shut them down, meaning Drew Brees had to throw 62 times – gaining 462 yards and 4 touchdowns, but also two interceptions which, combined with three fumbles lost, cost the Saints a chance to host the NFC Championship game this weekend.

In contrast, there were no upsets in the AFC, as the Ravens and Patriots won the right to face each other at Gillette Stadium this weekend.  New England defeated the Tebow-led Broncos 45-10; while Baltimore beat a stubborn Houston team, 20-13.  While the Patriots’ QB, Tom Brady, threw 6 touchdown passes and looks like he is back to his 2007 vintage best, Joe Flacco looked shaky for the Ravens and struggled to put the game away.  During a radio interview this week, Baltimore safety, Ed Reed, said he thought that the quarterback was rattled by the Texans, after they sacked him 5 times during the game.  With even his own team questioning his toughness, Flacco will have a point to prove this weekend in the arena he led his team to a 33-14 win back in 2009 in his second season in the league.

With four potential matchups left for the Superbowl, there is already a storyline written for it:

49ers vs Ravens – A rematch from Thanksgiving, this would be another Harbaugh Bowl, as brothers Jim and John coach these two teams.  John (Baltimore) came out on top last time, but a battle to win-it-all would raise the stakes exponentially.

49ers vs Patriots – New England QB, Tom Brady, would be playing against the team he grew up rooting for, with the opportunity to tie his boyhood hero, and 49ers legend, Joe Montana on 4 Superbowl rings.

Giants vs Patriots – New York vs Boston needs no added spice, but a rematch of Superbowl XLII, when the Giants stopped the Patriots from having a perfect season, would make this an extra special game.

Giants vs Ravens  – A repeat of Superbowl XXXV, in which Baltimore prevailed 35-7.  If the Giants do make it to the final game, then Eli Manning will be playing in his big brother’s home stadium in Indianapolis, having an opportunity to overtake him with two Superbowl victories.

Predictions

Last week, 2-2; Playoffs 5-3

Sunday 3pm: Ravens @ Patriots

The conventional wisdom here is that New England will stroll through this game and into the Superbowl, as they beat the Broncos with ease last week, while Baltimore struggled to knock out Houston.  However, the Patriots have not beaten a team with a winning record all season, so it is hard to gauge exactly how legitimate this team is.  Their offense is the best of all four teams that remain, but their defense was the 2nd worst in the NFL.  If Ray Rice can rush for 100+ yards, he should open up the passing game for Joe Flacco to exploit, as well as helping the Ravens control the clock and reduce the amount of time that Tom Brady gets to cause them damage.  I think this will be a close game and, if Baltimore’s defense can stop too many big plays from the Patriots, I can see them pulling off a shock victory.  Prediction: Ravens +7.5 over Patriots

Sunday 6:30pm: Giants @ 49ers

Just like in the early game, all the experts seem convinced about how this one is going – that the Giants are invoking the spirit of their 2007 run, which culminated in them winning Superbowl 42, and they will with the NFC again this year.  New York’s pass rush, combined with the deep threat of Manning throwing to Victor Cruz, has them as the common pick to brush aside the 49ers and head to the Championship game.  However, during the regular season, the Giants were only 29th in defending the pass and 19th against the rush; they lost in San Francisco in week 10; and the 49ers looked really good in their game against the Saints last week.  Rain is also due in the area this weekend – a wet field will favour a rushing game over passing – and the 49ers had the best run defense in the league this year.  Prediction: 49ers -2.5 over Giants

 

This week in: English Football – Manchester vs North London

Sunday August 28th, 2011

Tottenham Hotspur 1 – 5 Manchester City

Manchester United 8 – 2 Arsenal

This Sunday, Spurs and their fiercest rivals, Arsenal, once again turn their attention north to Manchester, as the two teams try to gain revenge for the 13-3 aggregate thrashing they suffered nearly 5 months ago. While those defeats came early enough in the season for the points to be recovered, the pressure is increased now as all four teams are in closely fought contests: City and United are fighting it out for the title; Spurs would like to be involved in that conversation too, but realistically want to finish as London’s top club in third place; Arsenal need to climb back into the Champions League places, as they currently lie four points behind 4th placed Chelsea.

Manchester City still have their 100% home record in the league, having won all 10 of their fixtures at the City of Manchester I mean massively overpriced sponsorship with financial shenanigans definitely going on Etihad Stadium – but their last two games there have ended in defeat – against United in the FA Cup, and Liverpool in the Carling Cup. The absence of Yaya Toure, who is representing the Cote D’Ivoire at the Africa Cup of Nations, has weakened the City midfield, giving Tottenham an opportunity to dominate in the middle of the park. However, Spurs will be without Emanuel Adebayor up front – he is on loan from Manchester City and thus is ineligible to play against his parent club. Harry Redknapp, who tax evasion case goes to trial the day after the match, will be hoping that Rafael Van der Vaart and Jermain Defoe will be able to join forces and lead the line, having been competing with each other for a single place in the starting lineup all season. If Bale on the left and Lennon on the right-wing can get behind the City full backs – Micah Richards and Gael Clichy – then Tottenham will have a great chance at putting the home team under pressure – but they will need to be less wasteful with their chances than they were in the draw with Wolves last week. The Lilywhites have a good record away to City since they moved out of Maine Road – last season’s defeat is the only time they have lost in that stadium. Nevertheless, much as Spurs are much improved from the team that was thrashed 5-1 at the Lane back in August, they still cannot compete with City’s strength in depth, and Mancini’s men will be heavy favourites to stretch their home league winning streak.

Arsenal have lost consecutive league games, falling at Fulham and Swansea in their most recent outings, but they have been a much better team at

United fans put down their prawn sandwiches long enough to celebrate thrashing Arsenal. Don't worry...they 8 2

home than on their travels this season. Their only Premiership loss of the season at the Emirates was against Liverpool back in August and they will be hoping to exploit the weaknesses in the United defence that Blackburn and Newcastle have exposed in recent weeks. Ferguson was concerned enough about those two defeats that he brought back Paul Scholes, 56 37, out of retirement and back into his starting lineup for their win over Bolton last Saturday – and it was a goalscoring reincarnation for the diminutive midfielder, who netted the first of 3 United goals. With Thierry Henry also back in the fold at Arsenal, both sides have tacitly admitted that their current squads need some of the magic from yesteryear. The Frenchman, on loan from New York Red Bulls until the end of February, scored one of the best goals in Premiership history in this fixture back in September, 2000 – back when Highbury still put the “home” in: “Wow, Arsenal fans don’t make much noise at home…”. With Henry and Van Persie in attack, coupled with a strong midfield that will dominate a United team without Darren Fletcher, (the Scotsman has performed particularly well against Arsenal in the past) Wenger’s men should be confident in avenging the 8-2 loss from earlier in the season.

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The Game is Still the Game

**WARNING** – This article contains spoilers for all 5 seasons of The Wire. If you haven’t watched The Wire yet, go to amazon.com; buy the complete set, watch all 60 hours, then read this. You’ll thank me for it (probably more for having seen The Wire than for this article, but still).

Non-Spurs Fan: “If you know they’re going to end up disappointing and frustrating you, why do you keep supporting them?

Me: “Got to. This Tottenham, man

The true star of the Wire – Baltimore, MD

I have a special way of watching Tottenham’s games – leaned forward, literally on the edge of my seat, with a nervous look on my face and the occasional nail being bitten – similar to how I used to sit in the Paxton Road end of White Hart Lane, now transferred to a sofa in Brooklyn.  The only other thing that has brought me to this viewing position, this physical display of angst, nervousness and sense of impending doom, was the greatest television show ever made, The Wire.

Each season of The Wire is set up very much like one for Tottenham Hotspur: first you have to get used to a new cast of characters and squad members; the story of the season then unfolds with various highs and lows; the penulitmate act brings some type of heartbreak and you then lick your wounds, wrap up and look to see where it will go next year.

Ever Expanding/Changing Cast

The Wire was unique in the way it approached it’s story telling with such a large number of characters – introducing many new ones through the years and trusting that the audience would keep up. In the same way, many a time I’d arrive at White Hart Lane one January and have to try and figure out who the Japanese player wearing number 4 in our midfield was (turns out it was Kazuyuki Toda…no, I have no idea what happened to him either).   Take a look at the major characters introduced through the five years of The Wire (listed as when they became involved in the plots not based on first appearance, cf. Prop Joe is in Season 1 but his significance becomes more apparent from Season 3 onwards), and the players who signed for Tottenham in that same time period (2002-2008)

Tottenham: (2002) Redknapp, Acimovic, Blondel, Ricketts, Hirschfield, Keane. (2003) Toda, Postiga, Zamora, Mabizela, Kanoute, Dalmat, Konchesky. (2004) Brown, Defoe, Robinson, Fulop, Defendi, Mendes, Sean Davis, Leigh Mills, Reto Ziegler, Erik Edman, Timothee Atouba, Naybet, Edson Silva, Pamarot, Carrick, Davenport.  (2005) Mido, Hallfredsson, El Hamadaoui, Radek Cerny, Dawson, Andy Reid, Stalteri, Lennon, Huddlestone, Tainio, Routledge, Young-Pyo Lee, Rasiak, Jenas, Davids.  (2006) Danny Murphy, Ghaly, Berbatov, Assou-Ekotto, Zakora, Dervitte, Malbranque, Chimbonda. (2007) Rocha, Alnwick, Bale, Taarabt, Bent, Kaboul, Rose, Boateng, Gunter. (2008) Woodgate, Hutton, Gilberto, Modric, Dos Santos, Gomes, Bostock, Bentley, Pavlyuchenko, Corluka.

The Wire: (Season 1) McNulty, Bunk, Omar, Stringer, Bubbles, Avon, D’Angelo, Daniels, Kima, Lester, Burrell, Rawls,  Herc, Carver, Prez, Sydnor, Landsman, Maurice Levy, Wee-Bey, Bodie, Poot, Wallace, Pearlman. (Season 2) Frank, Nick & Ziggy Sobotka, Beadie, Valchek, Vondas, The Greek, Brother Mouzone, Butchie, Cheese. (Season 3) Marlo, Carcetti, Bunny, Prop Joe, Slim Charles, Cutty, Johnny, Clay Davis. (Season 4) Dukie, Randy, Namond, Michael, Chris, Snoop, Kenard, Sherrod, Norman Wilson. (Season 5) Gus, Templeton, Alma, Walon, McNutty.

So, more than 50 memorable characters from five seasons of The Wire and more than 70 players signed by Tottenham during those 6 years.  The big difference would be that, while The Wire put this huge cast together into fabulously well woven plots showing that everything and everyone in Baltimore is connected, Spurs have often looked like McNulty trying to put together his Ikea furniture – knowing all the pieces are there but not being able to figure out how to assemble them into something functional.  I imagine Hoddle must have been reaching for the Jamesons as he tried to fit Bunjecevic, a defender, into a holding midfield role (thinking that he was Tottenham’s answer to Arsenal’s then captain, Patrick Vieira – spoiler alert -that didn’t turn out so well). There’s also something about seeing former stars of either The Wire or Spurs turn up in another place – seeing Stringer Bell turn up as Luther or in The Big C, Bunk and Lester in Treme, Pedro Mendes scoring a cracker for Porto or Andy Reid waddling around for Blackpool – it’s like seeing an old friend and catching up with what they’ve been up to since you last saw them.   The one exception to this is when a player had left Spurs when they would have wanted to keep him but the player forced his way out (for example Berbatov, Campbell, Sheringham the first time).  In those cases, there’s a danger that they may get booed upon their return to White Hart Lane.

Heartbreak

There are four words that scared me more than any others when watching The Wire – seeing “Written by George Pelecanos” in the opening titles.  Don’t get me wrong, Pelecanos is a fabulous writer and his novels are well worth checking out – but he was David Simon’s axe man, writing the second to last (and most heart wrenching) episode of each of the five seasons.  Any hope or connection you had built up through the season was on the line in those penultimate episodes, one way or another, you were going to end up devastated by something.  The first year it was Poot and Bodie being forced to carry out the execution of their friend, Wallace – a death that was so brutal to the viewer not just because of the victim but also the killers; mere kids who knew they faced a similar fate if they did not follow orders.

The final part of the second season saw Frank Sobotka backed into a corner and forced to agree to help the investigation into The Greeks in return for leniency for his son and nephew, Ziggy and Nick. This decision turns out to be fatal for Frank, and Pelecanos teaches us, before even David Chase did with Tony Soprano, that you don’t have to see the blood to know someone’s dead – we know his fate as he walks along the pier to meet Vondas at the climax of the last but one episode.

Season 3 brought us the disintegration of the Avon & Stringer partnership, as both men saw different futures for their “organisation”.  The disagreement led to each of them betraying the other, Stringer ratting out Avon to Bunny Colvin, while Barksdale gives up his old friend to Omar and Brother Mouzone – a ruthless pairing who kill Russell “Stringer” Bell in the very property development he believed would be his path to being a legitimate businessman.  While he was not exactly a good guy, Stringer was a fun anti-hero and his involvement in The Wire ending three-fifths of the way through was a massive shock and loss for the viewer.

In the final season, our hearts are moved by Michael and Dukie’s last conversation, where Michael does not even remember the summer of the previous year, events so fresh in the memories of viewers.  Dukie, destined for a life of addiction and residing with the street vendors; Michael, a loner who is forced to take out Snoop before she could do the same to him; we know their paths and we fear for them.

The eventual despair, where there was once hope, the gut-wrenching endings, the sheer frustration as you wish it had turned out differently even though you deep-down knew it never would – these emotions are very familiar to Tottenham fans.  In 2002, Spurs had a fantastic run in the League Cup, culminating in a 5-1 thrashing of London rivals Chelsea in the semi-finals. But, while that night at the Lane brought much anticipation, the season ended on a down note as we lost the final to Blackburn and then had three straight 4-0 defeats, once from Manchester United and twice from that same Chelsea team, knocking us out of the FA Cup and ensuring Spurs would not qualify for Europe through the league.

If David Simon had been writing the story for the 2002/3 Tottenham season, he would have handed over the reigns to George Pelecanos at a very specific moment – half time in the FA Cup Fourth Round Replay between Spurs and Manchester City at White Hart Lane.  The home side were up 3-0 and City were down to 10 men after Joey Barton was sent off at the interval for dissent, but then over the loud speaker they announced that “if we win – ha ha” tickets for the next round at Old Trafford would be available after the game. I really should have left at that point, as what followed was as inevitable as it was frustrating – 4 goals saw the away team turn it around and win.  The season petered out following that defeat and Tottenham ended up in a lowly 14th place in the league.

Over the next three seasons, there was more Cup disappointment to endure for Spurs fans. Defeat on penalties to Boro, a 1-0 undeserved loss up at Newcastle (just the 650 mile round trip drive that day…) going out of competitions to Grimsby and Leicester in 2004/5, throwing away a two goal lead in the latter tie.  Then there was a noble aggregate loss to Sevilla in our first UEFA Cup adventure in almost a decade, coupled with losses to Arsenal and Chelsea in cup ties despite having been ahead against both.  There was also disappointment in player sales – oftentimes just when it looked like we might progress to the next level, a key player would leave and rebuilding would be forced upon Spurs once more.  Sheringham went to win trophies at Manchester United back in 1997; Campbell left for free to our arch-rivals Arsenal back in 2001; Carrick was sold for a hefy profit to United in 2006 and Berbatov went the same way in 2008. While the last two may have represented good business, it left us with obvious gaps in the squad which it took a while to fill, if we managed at all.  At some point in the 2006/7 season, when the Tottenham midfield was unable to get a grip on games, I was forced to embrace my inner D’Angelo, asking incredulously “Where’s Carrick at? Where’s the boy, Jol? Where’s Carrick? That’s all I want to know.” Continue reading

This week in: American Football – Playoffs Week 2

Last week’s games saw all four home teams win in the first round of the playoffs – meaning the wild cards have been eliminated and this weekend brings matchups between the eight divisional winners from the regular season.  The Falcons offense did not score any points – their as their only score was a safety – in their 24-2 loss to the Giants at the Meadowlands.  Atlanta lost their first playoff game for the second year in a row, having been dumped out as a number 1 seed by the Packers last season.  Detroit put up a valiant effort in the first half in New Orleans – leading by 14-10 at the interval – but the Saints unleashed a barrage of offense in the second half, scoring five touchdowns and making the final score 45-28.  In the AFC, the Texans beat the Bengals in Houston, giving the franchise a win in their first playoff appearance.  Cincinnati’s rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, threw three interceptions and was outperformed by fellow first-year player T.J Yates – though the Texans’ QB was helped by his team’s running game and the return from injury of their first choice wide receiver, Andre Johnson.

Tebow lets John Elway know how many yards he threw for in his first playoff game

The biggest story of the weekend was the Broncos win over the Steelers in Denver – with Tim Tebow playing his best game at quarterback since becoming a pro.  The former University of Florida star threw for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns and added another on the ground – the highlight being the very first play of overtime, which was an 80 yard pass to Demaryius Thomas.  Pittsburgh focused on stopping the run, not expecting Tebow to be able to throw deep on them, even against man coverage – they were proven wrong on that assumption and last season’s losing Superbowl team are heading to their offseason earlier than they would have liked.

Predictions

Regular season 134-122

Playoffs 3-1

Saturday 4:30pm Saints @ 49ers

The new “greatest show on turf” will have to play on grass this week, having played 12 of their 17 games in domes up to this point, as New Orleans travels to the number 2 seed San Francisco 49ers.  Drew Brees did not look at his best in the first half of the game against the Lions last week, but in the second he led touchdown drives on the Saints’ first five possessions, ending Detroit’s hopes of an unlikely upset.  Away from the Superdome this year, New Orleans had a 5-3 record and looked more vulnerable than in front of their own fans.  The 49ers will be inspired by all the experts favouring the Saints in this matchup, and believe they deserve more respect as a 2 seed.  Their only loss in San Francisco came in week 2 against a Cowboys team that came from behind to win in overtime, so they will not be fearing anybody in their own stadium.  The aerial threat of Drew Brees will be the biggest concern, and the 49ers defense ranked just 16th in the league for passing yards allowed, while against the rush they were the best in the NFL.  I really wanted to take San Francisco in this game, but I just cannot see them being able to contain Brees for the full 60 minutes.  Prediction: Saints -3.5 over 49ers

Saturday 8:00pm Broncos @ Patriots

There’s no way that Tim Tebow can do it again is there?  Having recorded a victory over the Steelers in a game that the Broncos were not expected to win, now Denver heads to New England – again with few people believing they have any chance of progressing.  When these two teams met in week 15, the Patriots won 41-23 at Mile High Stadium and the Broncos will need to keep the New England offense off the field and the scoreboard as much as possible if they are to have any opportunity of winning this rematch.  One stat that might give them hope is that Tom Brady is on a 35-1 streak at home in the regular season, but has lost his last couple of playoff starts at Gillette Stadium – as the Patriots fell at the first hurdle against the Jets and Ravens in the last two years.  I cannot see it happening again, bad as the New England defense is, I think they will put up at least another 40 points and comfortably progress to the AFC Championship game.  Prediction: Patriots -13.5 over Broncos

Sunday 1:00pm Texans @ Ravens

Houston and Baltimore are two teams that have offenses based around their rushing games – with Ray Rice the key man for the Ravens and Arian Foster and Ben Tate the main dangers of the Texans.  This is a rematch of their week 6 encounter in Baltimore, which the home side won 29-14, at a time when Houston still had their first choice quarterback, Matt Schaub, starting under center.  Now it is third-string rookie, T.J. Yates, and, although he led them to victory over the Bengals last week, the game against the Ravens will be a much tougher proposition.  The Texans will need their defense and Arian Foster to be at the top of their games if they are to have any chance of causing a shock.  While Joe Flacco struggled on the road, the Baltimore QB led his team to a perfect 8-0 home record and they will be confident of getting one step closer to the Superbowl with a victory over a franchise they have beaten all five times they have played them.  However, I think this will be the upset of the week, with the Texans booking themselves a surprise trip to New England next weekend.  Prediction: Texans +7.5 over Ravens (and win outright: Houston 23, Baltimore 20)

Sunday 4:30pm Giants @ Packers

Not that I have the weather for Green Bay on my phone or anything...

Having listened to, and read, several previews of this weekends games, I now believe that the Packers have no chance of winning this game.  The consensus seems to be that the Giants pass rush, combined with the deep threat of Eli Manning throwing to Victor Cruz, leaves New York as the clear favourites to make the NFC championship game.  Furthermore, the experts argue that the throwing game of Aaron Rodgers is much more suited to warmer weather and could be affected by a cold and windy Wisconsin day, while the Giants won in 2007 and are invoking that spirit again this year.  My main concern, as a Green Bay fan, is that it snows heavily and the running back tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmed Bradshaw cause havoc for the Packers defense.  There are also the demons from four years ago to exorcise – when the Giants came in to Green Bay and won a trip to the Superbowl with an overtime victory.  But that was a whole different era – back when that old guy was playing for the Packers…Brent something….  Having said all that, this is the reigning Superbowl champions, playing at home, against a team they beat on their own turf just over a month ago.  Plus, Sunday is the one day this weekend that snow isn’t forecast in Green Bay.  Prediction: Packers -8.5 over Giants

This week in: English Football – That Game in Hand, and Henry Returns

Wednesday sees Tottenham and Everton meet for that “game in hand”, which has been in Spurs’ pocket since the very first week of the season – the fixture had to be called off due to rioting in London.  My (mostly Arsenal supporting) friends at CultFootball are hopeful that this will lead to Tottenham ending up with egg on their faces – the theory being that Spurs fans consider this as an inevitable victory and three more points to be put on the board.  Nevertheless, those of us from the white half of North London, have spent the last twenty years seeing opportunities like this wasted.  Everton at home is never an easy fixture as David Moyes sets up his teams to be very tough to break down, even if they have troubles scoring, and Spurs have only won once of their last eight league fixtures with the Toffeemen.  Harry Redknapp’s men have shown a higher level of resilience this season than in prior years and they claimed victory in their last game against West Brom, despite losing three central midfielders: Scott Parker to injury before the game; his replacement, Sandro, in the first half to a thigh strain; and the substitute who came on for the Brazilian, Jake Livermore, also had to go off after a clash of heads with his teammate, Younes Kaboul.  The biggest factor could still be that a win puts Tottenham level on points with second place Manchester United, meaning Everton will almost definitely come away with at least a draw today.  Should they lose the game, I guess the Lilywhites will have to wipe the egg off their faces, with the knowledge that they remain just 6 points above the Gunners.

There was good news for Arsenal this week as their former striker, Thierry Henry, came back to the club on loan, just in time to score the winning goal that ensured that his old/new team secured a goliath-slaying victory and their first trophy since 2005…wait, hold on, that was just how the

Henry wins the World Cup for Arsenal...or a home Cup tie with lower-division Leeds

end of the game celebrations made it look – in fact it helped them win a home game against Championship side Leeds, in the third-round of the FA Cup.  Henry got a raucous reception on his return to the Emirates, and while the Frenchman was undoubtedly a legend for Arsenal – he is their record goal-scorer, he left the club in 2007 in pursuit of the European Cup (successfully, as he got a winner’s medal in 2009).  That is the very same competition Arsene Wenger has been desperate to win and yet, his top player preferred to take his talents to Barcelona, rather than try to help Arsenal make that leap.  The comparison with LeBron James – who moved to Miami to team up with Wade and Bosh for an easier path to NBA titles – is not completely fair as at least Henry had helped the Gunners to win the league and Cup before absconding, but the holy grail of the Champions League is to Wenger, what a championship would be to the city of Cleveland.  It’s good for Arsenal fans that they can celebrate the achievements of Henry while he was with them, rather than focusing on his reasons for leaving the team – James is afforded no such luxury when he returns to Ohio to face the Cavaliers.

In the FA Cup last weekend, the biggest story should have been League Two’s Swindon Town defeating Premiership side, Wigan Athletic, 2-1.  Instead, the majority of the coverage went to the Manchester derby, which saw City lose 3-2 at home to United, having been reduced to 10 men early in the game when the referee, Chris Foy, sent off Vincent Kompany for a two-footed challenge.  That also was bad news for British Cyclist, Sir Chris Hoy, who, last time his near namesake made a controversial (and incorrect) decision – in the Stoke vs Tottenham game – was subjected to abuse on Twitter by idiotic, and seemingly illiterate, Spurs fans.  It was a week for old-timers coming back, as Paul Scholes returned to the Manchester United squad having come out of retirement for the rest of the season.  With United and Arsenal bringing out new signings Scholes and Henry for substitute appearances, it feels like everything has gone back to the 1990s in Britain – next time I return there, I expect to find people listening to Ocean Colour Scene and Supergrass

In the Carling Cup, Crystal Palace won the first leg of their tie with Cardiff on Tuesday night, while Liverpool and Manchester City meet on Wednesday for the first half of their semi-final matchup.  This weekend sees a return to Premiership action for all of the top-flight clubs, after last week’s sojourn into the FA Cup, and all of the sides near the top of the table have fixtures they would expect to win.  Manchester United are home to Bolton, while City are away to Wigan; Spurs play Wolves at the Lane; Arsenal travel to Wales to face Swansea; and Chelsea host Sunderland – though with Martin O’Neill in charge that will be a difficult fixture for Villas-Boas’ team.  QPR, who replaced manager Neil Warnock with Mark Hughes at the beginning of the week, travel to Newcastle; Blackburn “entertain” Fulham; Liverpool and Stoke meet at Anfield; and Aston Villa are at home to Everton.

Predictions

Christmas bumper pack: 10-10; Season 76-93

Wednesday

Tottenham vs Everton – Draw

Saturday

Aston Villa vs Everton – Draw

Blackburn vs Fulham – Away win

Chelsea vs Sunderland – Draw

Liverpool vs Stoke – Away win

Manchester United vs Bolton – Home win

Tottenham vs Wolves – Home win

West Brom vs Norwich – Away win

Sunday

Newcastle vs QPR – Home win

Swansea vs Arsenal – Away win

Monday

Wigan vs Manchester City – Away win

Note – if you missed the midseason team-by-team Premiership review, go here and here to get updated on how each club has performed thus far.

This week in: English Football – The Magic of the FA Cup

This weekend is the third round of the FA Cup, the knockout tournament that runs alongside the league season and is open to many levels of non-

Mickey Thomas scores the free-kick for Wrexham that knocked out Arsenal in 1992

league teams as well as the 92 league clubs.  It is at this stage that the clubs from the top two divisions of English football enter the competition and the excitement builds.  Although the overall significance of the FA Cup has become lessened in recent years with the focus on the Premiership and Champions League, and the financial rewards that go along with just competing in either one, it is still a major trophy and one every team would want to win.  On FA Cup third round day, the upsets and giant-killing stories from years past will be retold across the British media.  Ronnie Radford’s famous goal for Hereford against Newcastle will be shown.  Wrexham’s unlikely slaying of the reigning league champions, Arsenal, in 1992 will be rehashed.  Wimbledon’s shock win over the great Liverpool side in 1988 will be brought up, Lawrie Sanchez’s winning goal and Dave Beasant’s penalty save televised once again.

While these retrospectives are communal to all football fans in Britain, what makes the FA Cup magical is that every fan will have their own personal memories of their club’s exploits in the tournament.  I remember being 9 years old and watching the Spurs vs Arsenal semi-final in 1991, when Gary Lineker scored twice and Gascoigne hit that free-kick – which I rewatched so many times I could repeat Barry Davies’ commentary without looking…”Gascoigne…is he going to have a crack? He is you know! OH I SAY! BRILLIANT! THAT IS SCHOOLBOY’S OWN STUFF!”.  For the final, we were in Greece on a family holiday, but my Dad and I sought out a place showing the game so we could watch us win the Cup.  21 years later, that is still the last time Tottenham won the trophy.

The games that really stick out in the memory are the ones I went to, especially the defeats: the 4-3 loss to Manchester City in 2004, a game Spurs had led 3-0 in at half-time; driving more than 600 miles round-trip to Newcastle with my sister in 2005, only to see us slump to a tepid 1-0 defeat; then the following year we travelled to Leicester and saw Tottenham lose 3-2 (again throwing away a lead, having been 2-0 up) to lower league opposition.  But there was also a replay away to Nottingham Forest that my sister and I got stuck in a ridiculously long traffic jam before and ended up having to run over the Trent Bridge (in the snow) to get into the stadium just after kick-off, and into our places in time to see Spurs win 3-0.  I enjoyed the FA Cup so much I would even go to non-Tottenham games – I went to watch Cheltenham vs Chester in the third round of the 2006 competition, which ended up being a dramatic 2-2 draw with Chester earning a replay having been two goals down.

A lot of the attention this weekend might go to the glamour tie between Manchester City and Manchester United on Sunday – but they get to play each other week in, week out.  The David vs Goliath stories, the upsets, the romance of the FA Cup will be found elsewhere.  You never know where a shock result will happen on third round day – all the pundits try to predict, but the nature of the surprise is you do not see it coming.  I just hope it’s not Cheltenham winning at White Hart Lane.

Fixtures

Friday, 6 January 2012
Liverpool v Oldham

Saturday, 7 January 2012
Birmingham v Wolverhampton
Dag & Red v Millwall
Barnsley v Swansea
Brighton v Wrexham
Coventry v Southampton
Crawley Town v Bristol City
Derby v Crystal Palace
Doncaster v Notts County
Doncaster v Sutton Utd
Everton v Tamworth
Fleetwood Town v Blackpool
Fulham v Charlton
Gillingham v Stoke
Hull v Ipswich
MK Dons v QPR
Macclesfield v Bolton
Middlesbrough v Shrewsbury
Newcastle v Blackburn
Norwich v Burnley
Nott’m Forest v Leicester
Reading v Stevenage
Sheffield Utd v Salisbury
Swindon v Wigan
Tottenham v Cheltenham
Watford v Bradford
West Brom v Cardiff
Bristol Rovers v Aston Villa

Sunday, 8 January 2012
Man City v Man Utd
Chelsea v Portsmouth
Sheffield Wed v West Ham
Peterborough v Sunderland

Monday, 9 January 2012
Arsenal v Leeds

This week in: American Football – Wildcard Weekend

The final weekend of the season determined the last three playoff spots in the NFL and wrapped up all of the various seeding and draft issues that were still in play. The highly touted win-or-go-home matchup between the Giants and the Cowboys ended up being virtually over by half-time, as New York raced out to a 21 point lead that held up, securing the NFC East title for Tom Coughlin’s men.  Dallas will now have plenty of time in the offseason to rue their home loss to the Giants – when they had led by 12 points with only six minutes left – and they ended up slumping to third in the division behind the Eagles having lost all four of their games against Philadelphia and New York.

Denver lost to the Chiefs, led by former Broncos QB Kyle Orton, but topped the AFC West on a tiebreaker, as they finished the year tied with both Oakland and San Diego on 8-8.  Cincinnati were defeated by Baltimore – the win clinching the division and a first round bye for the Ravens – but continue on thanks to losses for all the other Wild Card hopefuls except for the Titans, who missed out on a tiebreaker as they were beaten by the Bengals in Week 9.  Indianapolis did what they needed to do, namely lose in Jacksonville, to ensure they have the rights to the first pick in April’s draft.  New England rallied from a 21-0 deficit to the Bills to win 49-21 and clinch home-field advantage in the AFC, while the Steelers had to make do with a Wild Card as their win in Cleveland was rendered moot by the Ravens own victory further south in Ohio, the aforementioned game in Cincinnati.

The Packers, who had already clinched the top seed in the NFC, benched QB Aaron Rodgers to ensure he was healthy for the playoffs, but his replacement, Matt Flynn, showed his own worth by throwing for 480 yards and 6 touchdowns, in a 45-41 shootout win over the Lions.  That loss

New single season passing yards record holder - Drew Brees

meant Detroit would be the sixth seed even if Atlanta lost at home against Tampa Bay – which did not happen anyway as the Falcons put up 45 points of their own to enter the playoffs on a high. In New Orleans, Drew Brees added another 389 passing yards to his own record, having broken Dan Marino’s long-standing mark the week before, and added five touchdowns for good measure.  It is now a genuine debate as to who should win the MVP between Brees and Aaron Rodgers – though both men would prefer to win the Superbowl in February rather than be concerned about any personal accolades.

Predictions review

Before I go into the Playoff matchups – a quick review of my pre-season and weekly predictions:

Against the spread weekly picks – 134-122 (but 10-22 in the last 2 weeks)

Pre-season picks:

(Correct picks in bold)

NFC North – Packers                                                    AFC North – Ravens

NFC South – Saints                                                       AFC South – Titans Texans

NFC East – Cowboys Giants                                       AFC East – Patriots

NFC West – Cardinals 49ers                                      AFC West – Chargers Broncos

Wild Cards – Eagles, Falcons, Lions                      Wild Cards – Colts, Steelers, Bengals

So 6 right, 6 wrong – on the plus side – my Superbowl pick is still alive:

Packers over Patriots

Wildcard Weekend

Saturday 4:30pm – Bengals @ Texans

When these two teams met in Cincinnati in Week 14, Houston’s third-string quarterback T.J. Yates led a fourth quarter comeback to claim a victory that secured the Texans first playoff place in their franchise’s history.  Following that win, Houston lost their final three games of the Continue reading