Premiership Festive Season Review and New Year’s Day Preview

Podolski returned from injury to propel Arsenal to victory at West Ham
Podolski returned from injury to propel Arsenal to victory at West Ham

With every team having played two Premiership fixtures between Thursday and Sunday, all the clubs have now played 19 of their 38 matches, making this the half-way point of the season.  To review last week’s action and preview the New Year’s Day games, for this post I am going to go through the teams in the order in which they currently stand in the Premiership table.

1. Arsenal – 42 points

On Boxing Day, Arsenal made the short trip to east London to face West Ham and recovered from a goal down early in the second-half to come away with a 3-1 victory, with two goals from Theo Walcott and another from Lukas Podolski, returning to the fray after an injury had kept him out since the end of August.  On Sunday, the Gunners maintained their position at the top of the table with a 1-0 away win against Newcastle, with Oliver Giroud netting his 11th goal of the season, but the French striker is expected to miss the New Year’s Day visit of Cardiff due to injury, as are Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Kieran Gibbs.

2. Manchester City – 41 points

With two home fixtures over the festive period, it was somewhat inevitable that City would pick up six points and maintain their 100% Premiership record at the Etihad this season, though both of their wins were far from easy.  Against Liverpool, they fell behind to a Phillipe Coutinho goal, but were ahead by half-time thanks to Vincent Kompany and Alvaro Negredo, then managed to hold on for the victory despite substantial pressure from the visitors.  Last Saturday in their match with Crystal Palace, Manuel Pelligirini’s men were kept at bay until Edin Dzeko broke the deadlock in the 66th minute for the only goal of the game, the first time all season that City have scored less than twice at home.  They were also somewhat fortunate to stop Palace from scoring in that match, since Cameron Jerome collided with Joe Hart in the first half, leaving the England keeper with restricted vision due to a cut around his eye, but he managed to see well enough to stop Tony Pulis’ men from getting past him.  On January 1st, City will leave the comforts of Manchester to head to south Wales for a match with Swansea, a fixture in which they were held to a draw last season.

3. Chelsea – 40 points

Chelsea were far from their best in both their Boxing Day encounter with Swansea, and their match with Liverpool three days later, yet on both occasions they did enough to pick up the three points and are now just two points off the leaders in the Premiership.  Eden Hazard scored the only goal of the game against the Welsh club, then it was his brilliant strike on Sunday that wiped out Liverpool’s early lead, with Samuel Eto’o getting the winner in the 34th minute.  Chelsea will see in 2014 with a trip to Southampton, a fixture they lost 2-1 last season.

Tim Howard's first red card in 10 years in the Premiership
Tim Howard’s first red card in 10 years in the Premiership

4. Everton – 37 points

There is a danger for the clubs from Everton on down that the title race could soon become a three-horse race, as a three-point gap now exists between the Toffees and third place Chelsea.  The reason for that deficit is that on Boxing Day, Everton lost at home for the first time in 2013 as they were beaten 1-0 by the bottom club, Sunderland.  There were mitigating circumstances to the loss however, as goalkeeper Tim Howard was sent off in the 22nd minute for a professional foul on Ki, who converted the penalty, and the Black Cats were able to hold onto their slim lead against 10 men for the remainder of the match.  Normal order at Goodison Park was restored on Sunday, as Everton beat Southampton 2-1 thanks to a 74th minute winner by Romelu Lukaku, which moved them up into the Champions League qualification places.  Roberto Martinez’s men, who travel to Stoke on New Year’s Day, look like contenders for a top four finish, though they probably do not have a strong enough squad to maintain a challenge for the Premiership crown. Continue reading

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My Top Ten TV Shows of 2013

Such was the abundance of good shows that aired in 2013 – which included the conclusion of my second favorite program of all time –  I have an “honorable mentions” list  that is nearly as long as my top 10 list, but I wanted to stick to a round ten rather than expand it to (SEO and all that jazz).  A side note, I have heard great things about the Netflix show Orange is the New Black and Showtime’s Masters of Sex, but I have not had the opportunity to watch either as yet so they will be absent from my top 10 list.

Honorable mentions

Top of the Lake: A beautifully directed, compelling show set in New Zealand and starring Elisabeth Moss, I enjoyed Sundance’s first foray into original programming, but it was a little heavy going and when a couple of episodes piled up on the DVR, it felt like something of a chore to get through, rather than the enjoyment that other shows provided.

The VP...and some former Senator from Delaware
The VP…and some former Senator from Delaware

Veep –  Creator Armando Iannucci’s imaginative use of swearing is the highlight of this show, but there is plenty more beyond that, including Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s hilarious performance as the Vice-President.  It also gave me my favorite line of the year: VP Meyer had been consistently telling Jonah – on one of his many visits to the office “on behalf” of the President – to f*ck off, then bates him once more:

Meyer: So let me get something straight, you like to have sex and travel?

Jonah: (Enthusiastically) Yes!

Meyer: (Mouths) So F*CK OFF

Justified – The search for Drew Thompson was not a bad plot, but the best part of Justified is when Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) share screen time, which they just did not do enough of this time around.  It continued to provide a thoroughly enjoyable hour of television each week however, but unlike last year, this time it did not crack into my top 10.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart  – And in particular, the guest host stint by John Oliver when the main guy was directing a movie over the summer.  Oliver is a fantastic comedian and proved himself adept in the big chair, something that has earned him his own show on HBO in 2014 – his writing and correspondent gigs on The Daily Show will be missed.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee – The web series from Jerry Seinfeld was once again fantastically funny and an enjoyable way to spend twenty minutes.  All of the guests in season two were hilarious, but the Chris Rock installment was my favorite and I cannot wait for the new episodes to come on, starting on January 2nd.

Arrested Development – The much-anticipated return of Arrested Development finally happened for real in May, when 14 new episodes were released on Netflix to a mixed critical response.  While they were not as good as the first two seasons of the show – I thought the third year, when they were focusing a lot on the fact that they were being cancelled, was less funny – the new episodes when considered as a whole were clever, witty and enjoyable, plus they provided closure for all of those who wanted the show to be brought back.  Of course, they still might make that movie…

Treme – With non-stop action this year…just kidding, the pace of David Simon’s most recent television show remained slow throughout the five episodes of the final season, but that was part of what was enjoyable about the look at the New Orleans music and culture scenes after Hurricane Katrina hit the city.  Despite a shortened run, Simon still took the time to let us enjoy some extended moments, most notably: Davis having a multitude of musicians into the radio station to perform a live version of “Sing Sing Sing”; and the goodbye to Albert Lambreaux from his family and fellow Indians at the start of the finale.

Dishonorable Mentions

Dexter – I had seen the first half of the final season when they first aired, but then did not have Showtime for a few months and, even though I could now go back and watch the finale, I have not found the will or motivation to do so, such was the poor quality of the last few years of this once great show.

Bates Motel – I am a fan of Hitchcock’s original movie and the A&E series about Norman Bates’ early life sounded much better than it turned out to be.

(Major spoilers for all of the shows listed so do not read on if you do not want the latest seasons ruined)

Top 10 List

10. Hello Ladies

Of all the shows I watched this year, none made me laugh as much as Hello Ladies, the new HBO show by co-creator of The Office, Stephen Merchant.  The supporting cast – in particular Nate Torrance – were funny, but it was Merchant’s performance as Stuart Pritchard that was the standout aspect of the show, which borrowed some of the material from his standup tour of the same name.    Hello Ladies continues the tradition of  The Office and Extras of providing harsh, painfully funny situations – the type of humor that will not always be to everybody’s taste, but makes me crack up – but it does slightly surprise me that out of Merchant and Ricky Gervais, it is the former who made a show like this, while the latter made a bittersweet one about kindness (see number 5).

9. Mad Men

This was the only show that I attempted to do episodic reviews of in 2013 – though I saw the final two episodes late and did not get the opportunity to complete the season recaps – but ultimately Mad Men has shifted to a program that I enjoy watching, but do not think it will ever reach the standard it set in its first few years.  Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm with the ending was because I was convinced that this year’s run of episodes was leading up to the death of Megan Draper – who seemed to be drowned out by sirens whenever she spoke – and was disappointed to be wrong (not because I wanted the character out of it, I just thought I had found some hidden clues).  Nevertheless, the Bob Benson/Pete Campbell storyline was fantastic, Don Draper’s Hershey pitch was also brilliantly done and Mad Men remained one of the better written and acted shows on television, the only thing it falls down on is by comparison to its own first three seasons. Continue reading

NFL Week 17 Preview

But can he win in the cold?
But can he win in the cold?

This Sunday sees the final sixteen fixtures of the NFL season take place and there are still four postseason spots up for grabs, three in the NFC and just the sixth seed to be determined in the AFC.  It’s Christmas week so I am going to cut to the chase to the Week 16 action – nobody has time to bother reading about the Browns vs Jets meeting, as everyone is far too busy making meaningful holiday videos on their iPhones to justify not actually conversing with their families during the day – so instead here is a rundown of the games that actually had playoff implications.

Denver confirmed the AFC West title and a first-round bye with a 37-13 victory over the Texans in Houston, with their division crown assured with a week to spare thanks to Kansas City’s home defeat by the Indianapolis Colts.  In the Broncos win, Peyton Manning also usurped Tom Brady for the most ever touchdown passes in a season, as he threw four on the day to take his total for 2013 to 51, one ahead of the Patriots quarterback’s total set in 2007, with a week to spare.  However, New England’s impressive 41-7 defeat of the Ravens in Baltimore means that Denver are not yet assured of the number 1 seed in the AFC and will have to compete in their final fixture if they are to secure home-field advantage up until the Super Bowl.

The loss for Baltimore meant that they are no longer in control of their own destiny for the sixth seed of the playoffs, even though the team they had previously been chief rivals with for the berth, the Miami Dolphins, were also beaten as the Bills blanked them 19-0 in Buffalo.  Also still in the race for the last open AFC postseason spot are the Pittsburgh Steelers – who overcame the cold and some poor officiating to beat the Packers 38-31 in Green Bay – and the San Diego Chargers, who prevailed over the Raiders 26-13 to maintain their challenge.  Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s 42-14 victory over the Vikings ensures they still have a chance to gain a first-round bye, but they also could still end up as low as the fourth seed in the AFC.

Over in the NFC, only half of the playoff places have been confirmed, with the most recent one coming on Monday night when the 49ers survived a late rally to beat the Falcons 34-24 in San Francisco, which marked the final regular season game at Candlestick Park, a stadium that is to be replaced starting next year.  There is still a chance that the 49ers could claim the number 1 seed in the NFC, thanks to Arizona becoming the first team to beat the Seahawks in Seattle for two years, despite Carson Palmer throwing four interceptions as their defense put in a very impressive display.  Carolina moved to within a victory of claiming their NFC South title since 2008 thanks to a 17-13 defeat of the Saints in a game that saw a torrential storm hit the field during the second half, while the Cowboys maintained their hopes of winning the East by rallying from behind to beat Washington 24-23, though they look likely to be without Tony Romo for the rest of the season as he struggles with a back injury that will require surgery.

The win for Dallas meant that Philadelphia’s evening game against the Bears had no real significance for the Eagles, since the division title was going to go down to their matchup with the Cowboys in Week 17 regardless of whether they won or lost.  Alongside that, Green Bay’s earlier defeat to the Steelers gave Chicago the opportunity to claim the NFC North title if they could win in Philadelphia, but despite these opposite motivating factors the Eagles racked up seven touchdowns in a 54-11 thrashing of the Bears.  Detroit were eliminated from the playoff picture after their 23-20 home loss to the Giants, even though they had held a seven point lead and possession with just over five minutes to go in the game.  In the fixtures that did not matter in Week 16, the Rams moved to 7-8 with a 23-13 win over Tampa Bay; Tennessee beat the Jaguars, 20-16 in Jacksonville; and since I know everyone does really want to know, the Browns gave up a 10-0 lead to lose 24-13 to the Jets and thus ensured they should get a top five draft pick next May. Continue reading

Premiership Christmas Bonanza

Suarez the unstoppable
Suarez the unstoppable

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as the Premiership has three round of fixtures between December 26th and January 1st, followed by the third round of the F.A. Cup in the first weekend of the New Year.  With such a busy festive period, clubs have the opportunity to make their move up the table; can find themselves drop out of contention in the title race; or for some, drift closer towards relegation out of the top division.  This year, it is a particularly crucial time for those competing for the Premiership crown, since the top five teams are currently separated by two points and the current leaders, Liverpool, face the teams in 3rd (Manchester City) and 4th (Chelsea) inside three days.

The Reds reached the top of the Premiership table on the back of more brilliance from Luis Suarez, who had two goals and an assist – which entailed him giving up an easy chance to allow Rahim Sterling to finish into an empty net – in their 3-1 win over Cardiff at Anfield.  Incredibly, that takes the Uruguayans tally for the season to 19 goals and we are not even at the half-way point, meaning he is on target not only to break the scoring record for most in a 38 game Premiership season (held jointly by Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo, who found the net 31 times apiece in the 1995/6 and 2007/8 seasons respectively) but also the mark of 34 set by Andrew Cole (1993/4) and Shearer (1994/5) back when there were 42 fixtures in each campaign.  What makes this all the more remarkable is that even though Liverpool have had 17 league matches this season, Suarez was suspended for the first five and thus has managed his 19 goals in just 12 games – I’m not saying I was wrong to make Gareth Bale the most valuable player in the Premiership back in January – and the transfer fee he commanded and subsequent performances for Tottenham and  Real Madrid justified that selection – but since the Welshman has departed, there is no question of who is now number one and Brendan Rodgers will be relieved that his star man has signed a new contract with the club.  Following their defeat to Liverpool, there was some good news for Cardiff supporters, who had shown their support for their manager throughout the game and afterwards, the ultimatum that owner Vincent Tan had put on Malky Mackay – that he should resign or be sacked – was lifted and it appears the Scotsman will remain in charge of the Welsh club at least for the time being.

On Monday night, Arsenal had the opportunity to move back to the top of the Premiership, but instead had to settle for second place on goal difference after they were held to a goalless draw by Chelsea at the Emirates.  The match was so bad that I do not want to dwell on it too much, but Arsenal had a strong case for a penalty in the first half when Theo Walcott was felled in the box by Willian, in a move that came straight after a bad foul on Mikel Arteta that could have seen John Obi-Mikel sent off, but instead went unpunished by referee Mike Dean.  Jose Mourinho – who remains unbeaten in ten meetings with Arsene Wenger – had set up his side to be tough to break down and their resilience earned them both a point and the ire of the home crowd, who were chanting “Boring Boring Chelsea” in the final few minutes.  To be honest, neither side really went for the other and at the end of it, it felt like 90 minutes I could have better spent doing anything other than watching that game.

At the opposite end of the excitement stakes were the matches at Fulham and Southampton over the weekend, which saw a total of 11 games between them.  At Craven Cottage, the home side were beaten 4-2 by Manchester City, but only after they had made a contest of it by recovering from 2-0 down to bring the scores level heading into the final 20 minutes.  However, strikes by Jesus Navas and James Milner ensured that City moved to within a point of the leaders in the Premiership, with two fixtures at the Etihad – where they still boast a 100% record this season – coming up next.  At St. Mary’s, Southampton faced a Tottenham side being led by Tim Sherwood in his first experience being in charge of a top-flight league match and it was the Saints who struck first, as Adam Lallana turned and shot from 25 yards and found the bottom corner.  However, Sherwood had restored Emmanuel Adebayor to the starting lineup and had him playing alongside Roberto Soldado in a very attacking Spurs lineup that also featured Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Mousa Dembélé, with the forward-focused Belgian nominally being used as a defensive midfielder.  It was Adebayor who made the biggest impression however, as he was scored an equalizer by converting a fantastic cross by Soldado, who had been played into space on the flank by the Togolese striker and, after the two sides had traded goals at the start of the second-half, it was Adebayor who scored the winner for Tottenham, picking up a loose ball in the area and stroking the ball into the Southampton net.  Following that win, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy made the decision to appoint Sherwood as manager on an 18 month contract, taking him up until the end of the 2014/15 season, though the feeling must be that if he fails to perform over the remainder of this campaign, there will be yet another new man in the dugout at White Hart Lane next August. Continue reading

Premiership Roundup and Weekend Preview: Arsenal vs Chelsea and Managerial Job Postings

Tim Sherwood realizes being Tottenham manager is not that much fun
Tim Sherwood realizes being Tottenham manager is not that much fun

I try to have a look at job websites at least once a week – just in case that dream opportunity comes up – and recently there have been some eye-catching openings at a managerial level in various places across the UK.  Here’s the most recent one:

North London club seeking to restore former glories, or at least make it into the top four so that the shareholders will make more money from Champions League revenues (hint, this is the only measure of performance we will be using).  Position is available for a maximum of two years and your staff will be changed twice a year, with your best asset being removed once every August, yet we expect you to improve nonetheless.  Buck-passers need not apply.

As was covered in my post on Monday, Tottenham’s board decided that following the 5-0 loss to Liverpool at White Hart Lane last Sunday, it was time to axe Andre Villas-Boas and look for an 11th manager in the last twenty years.  While I covered his departure, I did not talk too much about the game, which saw Luis Suarez score twice to take his tally to 17 goals in 11 Premiership goals this term, two more than the entire Spurs squad had managed in their 16 fixtures.  Jordan Henderson, Jon Flanagan and Rahim Sterling also found the net in a match that saw AVB’s final team ran ragged by a side who could exploit the high line of defense that was deployed, especially since Etienne Capoue – naturally a holding midfielder – was one of the two centre backs.  Tottenham were not helped by the sending off of Paulinho when the score was 2-0 for a high tackle on Suarez, but they already looked like a beaten side before they were at a numerical disadvantage.

On Wednesday, Tim Sherwood took charge of Spurs for his first experience of professional management and he was clearly intent on setting himself out as being the anti-Villas-Boas, using traditional English tactics of 4-4-2 and putting Lennon and Townsend on the wings, telling them to run at the defenders and utilizing a high-tempo style of play.  Up front, Sherwood opted for Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor, the latter of whom had played only 45 minutes of football this season as he had fallen out of favor with AVB.  While that decision may appear to have paid off for the interim manager – Adebayor scored a cracking goal to give Tottenham the lead, stylishly finishing off a cross from Defoe – the overall tactics Sherwood used were rudimentary and lacking any sort of guile, not to mention that it did not suit the players he had his disposal.  In a 4-4-2 system, it is necessary to have two strong players in the middle of the pitch, with the more attacking players deployed on the wings, but with Sandro and Paulinho out due to injury and suspension respectively, Mousa Dembélé – who fits the bill – lined up alongside Gylfi Sigurdsson, a player who is much more effective when he lines up either on the left flank or behind a main striker.  While Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela have not found immediate success since their big money transfers, they still could have been viable options to line up behind either Defoe or Adebayor to link the play up between the midfield and attack.  As it was, just like the possession-focused approach of AVB, Sherwood’s team only had one tactic: get the ball to either Lennon or Townsend on the wing and send some crosses into the box.  One-dimenstional football, no matter what form that takes, will always be stymied by an opponent is able to adapt and that is exactly what Sam Allardyce got his troops to do, making them full value for their 2-1 victory and their second win of the season at White Hart Lane.

Tim Sherwood clearly proved he is not Andre Villas-Boas, but he also provided enough evidence in 90 minutes that he is not the man who should be in the dugout at Tottenham on a permanent basis.  However, former Spurs boss Glenn Hoddle let it be known through a website he co-founded (Zapsportz.com) that he is available should the powers that be at White Hart Lane come knocking, so I am doing the same – if they want to give me a call, I will be willing to give them some advice.  Actually – here’s some for free, this is the line-up that should be starting for Tottenham if everyone is fit:

System: 4-2-3-1 (with the full-backs overlapping on the wings)

GK: Hugo Lloris

RB: Kyle Walker

CB: Jan Vertonghen

CB: Vlad Chiriches

LB: Danny Rose

CM: Sandro

CM: Paulinho

LW: Gylfi Sigurdsson

RW: Aaron Lennon

AM: Christian Eriksen

ST: Jermain Defoe

Subs: Brad Friedel; Younes Kaboul; Erik Lamela; Mousa Dembélé; Lewis Holtby; Etienne Capoue; Roberto Soldado

Sorry Andros Townsend (who will be out for around four weeks with a hamstring injury he picked up against the Hammers), but shooting all the time and not providing a single assist all season, while scoring only once from a huge deflection, is not good enough to even make the bench with the players available.  Michael Dawson has been a great servant to the club, but he is too slow and vulnerable to quick, skillful strikers so would not make it ahead of the other three centre-backs.  Capoue is the hardest player to leave out of the starting XI of those on the bench (plus Holtby, whom I really enjoy watching for his enthusiasm and fantastic passing ability) but the pairing of Sandro and Paulinho has been one of the better parts of Tottenham’s campaign thus far.  So there you go Spurs, references are available upon request.

Continue reading

NFL Week 15 Review, Week 16 Preview and Playoff Picture Update

Eddie Lacy dives in for the winning score for the Packers over the Cowboys
Eddie Lacy dives in for the winning score for the Packers over the Cowboys

Week 15 Review

The most exciting game in the NFL last weekend was the contest in Dallas, which saw the Cowboys leading the Packers 26-3 at half-time, but Green Bay – who would have been on the brink of elimination from playoff contention with a loss – rallied back behind back quarterback Matt Flynn to win 37-36.  They were aided by the game plan of Dallas in the second half, as they ran the ball only 7 times when a more rush-orientated offense would have not only allowed the clock to run down and give the Packers less time to make their comeback.  More of a ground attack would also have avoided the turnovers that ultimately cost the Cowboys a much-needed victory.  Tony Romo threw two interceptions in the final three minutes, the first giving Green Bay the opportunity to take the lead, the second allowing them to run down the final 90 seconds by taking a knee.  Even before those turnovers, after the Packers had edged ahead for the first time in the contest with a James Starks fourth-quarter touchdown, on the subsequent drive Romo was lucky to avoid an interception when Tramon Williams took away a pass intended for Jason Whitten, but was adjudged to have allowed the ball to touch the ground and the decision was reversed on a Dallas challenge.  Despite having gotten away with that near giveaway, the Cowboys continued to pursue an aerial attack even after they had the lead back and it was Williams who made a spectacular catch for the interception that ended the game.

It remains to be seen whether or not that loss will end up costing the Cowboys a place in the postseason, but for now they remain a game back of the Eagle in the NFC East, as Philadelphia were beaten by a Adrian Peterson-less Vikings team in Minnesota, 48-30.  Meanwhile, the Packers are still half a game behind the Bears in the NFC North, after Chicago scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to beat the Browns in Cleveland, 38-31; while the Lions slipped to a one back of the division lead, as they lost to a last second field goal against the Ravens on Monday night, with all of Baltimore’s 18 points coming from Justin Tucker kicks.

Of the six teams who were in the top three seed positions in each conference heading into the weekend, only Seattle emerged victorious, as they blanked the Giants in their own stadium, 23-0.  New Orleans, who had still hoped to catch the Seahawks for home-field advantage in the NFC, were beaten 27-16 in St. Louis, meaning that this season, the Rams have both won and lost five different games by double digits.  In the AFC, (Philadelphia, who as mentioned above lost to the Vikings, were the number 3 seed in the NFC heading into week 15) Denver were the first of the teams with the best records to lose, as they allowed San Diego to keep their postseason hopes alive with a 27-20 win on Thursday night; then the Patriots were defeated in Miami 24-20, as the Dolphins intercepted a Tom Brady pass in their own endzone to end the game; and the Bengals failed to take advantage of New England’s loss, as they fell to the Steelers 30-20 in Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

The Saints loss in St. Louis allowed the Panthers back into the NFC South divisional race and Carolina are now tied with New Orleans on 10-4 following their 30-20 victory over the Jets, who are now eliminated from the playoff race.  Elsewhere, the Cardinals remain in the hunt thanks to a 37-34 overtime victory against the Titans, who had forced the extra period by scoring 10 points in the final 47 seconds (and 17 in the final 192); the Colts remain a possible 3 seed after their 25-3 defeat of the Texans in Indianapolis; Washington had the chance to tie their game against Atlanta if they went for an extra point after a touchdown in the final minute, but opted to go for two to try to win the contest and failed – an aggressive move that was a smart choice, even if it did not work out; Jamaal Charles scored five touchdowns for the Chiefs to propel them to a 56-31 victory over the Raiders; the 49ers prevailed 33-14 in Tampa Bay; and the Bills beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville, 27-20.

Week 16 Preview and Playoff Picture

With two games remaining, this is how the 32 teams line up:

  • Four have already booked their place in the playoffs (AFC: Denver, Kansas City and Indianapolis. NFC: Seattle)
  • Thirteen are eliminated from postseason contention (AFC: Houston, Cleveland; Jacksonville; Oakland, Buffalo; Tennessee; NY Jets. NFC: Washington, Atlanta; Tampa Bay, Minnesota, NY Giants; St. Louis)
  • Eleven have their fate in their own hands and will be in the playoffs if they win out or, in some cases, win 1 of 2. (AFC: New England; Cincinnati; Baltimore, Miami. NFC: New Orleans; Philadelphia, Dallas; Chicago, Green Bay, Carolina; San Francisco)
  • Four need to win their final two contests and require other results to go their way (AFC: San Diego; Pittsburgh. NFC: Detroit; Arizona) Continue reading

Tottenham Sack Andre Villas-Boas

On the plus side, AVB will have some time off over Christmas...
On the plus side, AVB will have some time off over Christmas…

On Sunday, Tottenham capitulated for the second time in five Premier League matches to be on the wrong end of a heavy defeat, this time losing 5-0 to Liverpool, just a few weeks after their 6-0 thrashing at the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City.  It was the final straw for the Spurs board, who took the decision to fire manager Andre Villas-Boas on Monday in response to the poor performances.  As a Tottenham fan, I have been heavily conflicted about this (admittedly completely predictable) move by Daniel Levy. Let’s start with the reasons I think it is short-sighted and ridiculous:

  • Tottenham have changed their manager so many times in the last twenty years, that my most worn out line is that they have had more false dawns than Truman Burbank.  Since 1993, the men to have been permanently (though that has a different meaning at White Hart Lane) in charge at Spurs are: Osvaldo Ardiles; Gerry Francis; Christian Gross; Man in a Raincoat; Glenn Hoddle; Jacques Santini; Martin Jol; Juande Ramos; Harry Redknapp and Andre Villas-Boas.  That’s ten, making of an average of one every two years, with an 11th to be appointed sometime soon (you would assume) and not even counting David Pleat, who has had three spells as caretaker boss including an extended period following Hoddle’s dismissal in 2003.  Do we really need to start rebuilding again?
  • Yes, a lot of money was spent in the summer (£110.5m), but the net outlay that Tottenham made was one of the lowest in the Premiership thanks to the money that came back in the selling of several players, but mainly Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for £86m.  Also, AVB was not in charge of player recruitment this summer (that job went to the new Director of Football, Frances Baldini) and the club was left in a position where they have numerous options in midfield (Sandro, Paulinho, Mousa Dembélé, Etienne Capoue, Aaron Lennon, Andros Townsend, Nacer Chadli, Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Lewis Holtby and Gylfi Sigurdsson), while in central defence, only Michael Dawson, Younes Kaboul, Vlad Chiriches and Jan Vertonghen are at the manager’s disposal.  Not only that, but Vertonghen as been forced to fill-in at left-back for much of the season due to an injury to the only other senior player who can lineup there (Danny Rose, who himself is a converted midfielder) and the lack of depth at centre-back was exposed by Liverpool on Sunday, who took advantage of Capoue’s inexperience in the position.
  • Spurs have sold one of their best assets many times in the last few years (Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale – even Robbie Keane was at the top of his game when he moved to Liverpool for more than £20m), blamed the manager for not progressing after those players have been sold, then started the process all over again with a new man in charge.
  • In 2012/13, Villas-Boas led Spurs to their highest ever Premiership points total (72). After 16 games of that campaign, we had 26 points – at the same stage this season, we have 27 points.  Heavy defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City are not good – in fact, the trouble really started with the 3-0 loss to West Ham at the Lane, which is much less excusable – but it was not like Tottenham were in a completely terrible position despite those results. He also had the best win percentage of any Spurs boss in the Premiership era.
  • In the Europa League and League Cup – our two main chances at a trophy, particularly after being drawn away at Arsenal in the third round of the FA Cup – progress has been good.  Spurs rank as one of the favorites for the Europa League, while on Wednesday, there is a chance to atone for the home loss to West Ham when they return for the League Cup quarter-final.  Now, Steffan Freund will be in charge for that match and who knows what kind of job he will do – if it is anything like his playing performances for the club, expect lots of strong challenges and wild, off-target shooting. Continue reading

Premiership Roundup and Weekend Preview – City vs Arsenal

Cabaye's deflected winner for Newcastle condemned Man United to their third home defeat of the season
Cabaye’s deflected winner for Newcastle condemned Man United to their third home defeat of the season

Premiership Roundup

Last weekend, Newcastle United gained their fourth away win of the season, securing the victory thanks to a goal by Yohan Cabaye that saw Alan Pardew’s side move up to seventh in the Premiership, just three points behind the top four.  In the match, Newcastle enjoyed the majority of the possession and had more shots than their opponents, but the majority of the attention surrounding the result went to the team they beat – just because it was Manchester United.  (Prepare yourself for me to completely ignore what I have written and completely focus on the Red Devils for the rest of the paragraph).  The loss for United was their second at home within the space of four days, after they had gone down by the same 1-0 scoreline to Everton last Wednesday, and that was their third loss of the year at Old Trafford – the total they suffered all of last season and as many as they have had in a single campaign since 2001/2, when they had six and finished third in the league.  Such a final position would probably be something that David Moyes would accept right now in his first year in charge at the reigning champions, as they currently languish in ninth place and are 13 points behind the leaders, Arsenal; seven off the Champions League spots; and only nine above the relegation zone.  Against Newcastle, they clearly missed Wayne Rooney who was out due to suspension having received five yellow cards this season; but over the last few weeks the absence they have really felt is Michael Carrick in the midfield.  Without Carrick’s steady passing and calming influence in front of the back four, United have looked vulnerable and have been forced to play Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley in the centre of the park, neither of whom look good enough to be first-choice midfielders for the reigning champions.  The title race is almost certainly beyond Manchester United this season (though like Germany, you write them off at your own peril), but what they should be most concerned about for now is this Saturday’s trip to Villa Park – a ground they have not lost in the Premiership on since 1996, but then Everton and Newcastle had not won at Old Trafford since 1992 and 1972 respectively – because if they do lose, then they will be level on points with Aston Villa, a team that only narrowly avoided relegation last term.

At the top of the table, Arsenal extended their lead to five points despite being held to a draw at the Emirates by Everton, who quickly recovered from Mesut Özil’s 79th minute goal to get an equalizer through Gerard Deulofeu four minutes later.  The reason that the Gunners gained an extra point cushion over second place was because Chelsea, who had begun the weekend in the runners-up spot, were beaten 3-2 away at Stoke thanks to a strong substitute performance from Stephen Ireland and a cracking winner scored by Oussama Assaidi, currently on loan at the Britannia Stadium from Liverpool.  Assaidi’s goal helped his parent club leap-frog Chelsea in the table, as they moved ahead on goal difference thanks to a 4-1 win at Anfield over West Ham, during which Luis Suarez scored another brace and in their last four home matches, Liverpool have now found the net on seventeen occasions.  A further point back behind in fourth in the Premiership are Manchester City, who drew away at Southampton last Saturday after Sergio Aguero’s early strike was cancelled out by a spectacular goal by Dani Osvaldo.

Elsewhere last weekend, Spurs picked up their second consecutive 2-1 away win, this time beating Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, but they should have put the game beyond doubt in the second half and were lucky not to concede a penalty when Sandro blocked a cross with his arm; Crystal Palace picked up their third win in four fixtures, this time defeating Cardiff 2-0 at Selhurst Park, which included another goal for Marouane Chamakh, who has scored three times in the Premiership this season from a total of four shots; Norwich soaked up a lot of pressure from West Brom and were able to pick them off to get a vital 2-0 away win; Fulham gained their first victory since October 21st, beating Aston Villa 2-0 as they continued to look better under the management of Rene Meulensteen than they did at the end of the Martin Jol era; and on Monday night, Danny Graham scored his first goal in 30 games against his old club, Swansea, but the Welsh side earned a point against Hull when Chico turned a cross from Jonjo Shelvey into the net. Continue reading

NFL Week 14 Review, Week 15 Preview and Power Poll Update

Frank Gore en route to 110 yards rushing in the 49ers 19-17 win over Seattle
Frank Gore en route to 110 yards rushing in the 49ers 19-17 win over Seattle

Week 14 Review

With just three weeks of the regular season remaining, the playoff race is starting to take shape as some teams have already been eliminated, some are fighting for their postseason lives, while just three know for sure that they will still be playing football come January.  Seattle were the first to clinch a spot, doing so with their win over New Orleans in Week 13, so their 19-17 loss in San Francisco last Sunday should not concern them too much, particularly as they are still almost certain to clinch home-field advantage in the NFC.  Many pundits have been declaring that the Seahawks as unbeatable in their own stadium and have penned them in as one of the two Super Bowl teams.  While it is true that they have won all of their home fixtures in the last two seasons, it should be remembered that the second game of that streak was against the Packers in Week 3 of 2012, which they would have lost if the replacement refs had not awarded a very dubious touchdown to Seattle on the final play.  The Seahawks are undoubtedly the team to beat in the NFC, but they are not a juggernaut who will sail into the big game without any problems – Russell Wilson is only a second year quarterback and has won a total of one playoff game in his life, so it is not a given that he will be able to lead his team the two victories they need to make it to New Jersey in February.  Also, in the last nine seasons, only once has a number 1 seed ended up winning the Super Bowl (the New Orleans Saints in 2009) – the postseason has been unpredictable and being hot at the right time has been more important than dominating in the regular season – just ask the 2007 New England Patriots.

The other two teams to already be assured a playoff berth are the Denver Broncos – who will almost certainly be the number 1 seed in the AFC – after they came from behind to beat the Tennessee Titans 51-28, a tally which included another four touchdown passes by Peyton Manning – taking his total to the season to 45, five behind Tom Brady’s record – and a 64-yard field goal by Matt Prater, the longest in NFL history.  That defeat for the Titans clinched the AFC South for the Indianapolis Colts, despite their 42-28 loss in Cincinnati, which makes the Bengals the favorites for the three seed in the AFC.

LeSean McCoy was kept his cool running in the snow
LeSean McCoy was kept his cool running in the snow

Overall, Week 14 in the NFL was one of the most exciting in league history, with the 16 games including a record-breaking 104 touchdowns and the early games on Sunday combining to have numerous exciting endings – sometimes in the same fixture.  That was the case in Baltimore, where the Ravens trailed the Vikings 12-7 with just over two minutes to play, but in the final 125 seconds, the teams combined for five touchdowns and the same number of lead changes to give the home team a 29-26 victory that keeps them in prime position for a wild card spot.  In New England, the Patriots came from 19-3 down in the third quarter and 26-14 behind with just over a minute remaining to beat the Browns 27-26, thanks to an onside kick recovery and a very dubious pass interference call that cost Cleveland the game – but kept them in a good position to get a high draft pick next May.  In a very snowy Philadelphia, the Eagles moved into first place in the NFC East thanks to a 217-yard rushing day by LeSean McCoy that helped them defeat the Lions 34-20, despite two kick returns for touchdowns by Detroit’s Jeremy Ross.  That loss allowed the Bears to move into a tie at the top of the NFC North as they beat the Cowboys 45-28 on Monday night, while the Packers are a half-game back of both of them after they won for the first time this season without Aaron Rodgers, edging Atlanta 22-21 in Green Bay.

In the race for the AFC Wild Cards, the Chiefs maintained their strong grip on the 5 seed with a 45-10 victory in Washington; the Dolphins kept pace with the Ravens by beating the Steelers 34-28 in Pittsburgh, though Miami is behind Baltimore because of their head-to-head record; the Jets stayed in the race with a 37-27 win against the Raiders; and the Chargers are still alive after they prevailed 37-14 over the Giants in San Diego.  In the NFC, New Orleans look set to win the two seed as they ended the Panthers winning run by defeating them 31-13 on Sunday night; while the Cardinals remained a game behind Carolina and San Francisco in the hunt for a Wild Card as they beat the Rams, 30-10 in Arizona.  Elsewhere, the Jaguars won for the fourth time in fifth games, 27-20 against the Texans on Thursday night, a result that represented Houston’s 11th loss in a row and one that ended the tenure of head coach Gary Kubiak, who was relieved of his duties the following day; and Tampa Bay have also gone from 0-8 to 4-9, this time beating Buffalo 27-6 at home. Continue reading

World Cup Draw 2014

What has 32 balls and just screwed the USA and England? The 2014 World Cup Draw!
What has 32 balls and just screwed the USA and England? The 2014 World Cup Draw!

World Cup Draw

Today, the draw was made for the next World Cup that is going to be played in Brazil in 2014.  Well, that is, it will be played in Brazil assuming the stadia are all completed as reports suggest they are far behind, plus there are ongoing protests about the expense of hosting the tournament that is being funded primarily with public money.  And it is being contested in 2014, assuming the fringe group of “academics” who think that the years 600 C.E. – 900 C.E. did not actually happen are wrong and there wasn’t a moving forward of the calendar by 300 years to make certain empires appear to have had more longevity than they really enjoyed.  Not that it actually matters whether next year is 2014 C.E. or 1714 C.E – the earth is more than 4.5 billion years old anyway – the main thing is the World Cup is going to be contested, somewhere, almost certainly in Brazil, next June. Before that, there is still more than half a season to go in the European leagues which could see crucial players get injured and others hit or lose form.  Here are some quick initial thoughts on the draw, plus my early prediction for how the tournament will play out.

  • Spain face Netherlands in their first match, a repeat of the 2010 World Cup Final which was ill-tempered and saw the Spanish win in extra-time thanks to a goal by Andreas Iniesta.
  • The USA will face Germany, the nation for whom Jürgen Klinsmann, USA’s manager, played for in the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups, scoring 11 goals in the process, then he coached the team in their home tournament in 2006.  The United States also face Ghana, who knocked them out in the Round of 16 in 2010, plus Portugal, who have one of the two best players in the world in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo.
  • England also face a tough group: Uruguay – who have Luis Suarez, the top scorer in the Premiership despite having missed the first five games of the season; Italy and Costa Rica, who will be more comfortable with the suffocating heat of the Amazon region where Group D fixtures will be played and the Mayor of Manaus reacted badly to Roy Hodgson saying that he hoped England would not be drawn there, stating that they would not be welcome.
  • France were on the brink of elimination during the playoffs, having lost 2-0 in the Ukraine, but their 3-0 victory in Paris has seen them rewarded with a weak-looking group: Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador.
  • Brazil’s progress to the knockout stages should not be difficult (Croatia, Cameroon and the worst Mexico team of the last 20 years), but they would then face someone from the Spain/Chile/Netherlands/Australia group in the Round of 16, far from an easy task (unless the Aussies make it through).
  • Always a couple of first round games that make you relieved that you do not feel bad skipping during the relentless first three weeks when all you seem to be doing is watching football: 2014 candidates to avoid – Japan vs Greece; Iran vs Bosnia Herzegovina; Algeria vs South Korea.
  • N.B. I will probably watch and enjoy all three of those games I just listed… Continue reading