Premiership Roundup – City thrash Spurs, face Chelsea next

City get help from the referee they really did not need
City get help from the referee they really did not need

Midweek Recap

Before I get to the bitterness, let me just qualify something about the Tottenham vs Manchester City game – in the opening half an hour, Manuel Pelligrini’s men played the most impressive attacking football I have ever witnessed and, in particular, Sergio Aguero appeared able to carve through the Spurs defence at will.  They did not just deserve their 1-0 lead at that point, it could have been five and should have been at least three: Aguero’s run into the box, reminiscent of his title-winning goal against Queens Park Rangers on the final day of the 2011/12 campaign, ended in a shot coming back off the inside of the post; plus Edin Dzeko had a handful of chances that he should have done better with.  In the last 15 minutes of the first half however, Tottenham actually showed some fight – something they had completely failed to do in their drubbing at the Etihad earlier in the season – and even found the net from a set-play, but Michael Dawson was adjudged to have been offside (replays suggested at the moment Christian Eriksen took the free-kick, the Spurs captain may have been level, but there was also a slight touch from Emmanuel Adebayor at which point Dawson was clearly offside).  Tackles were flying in and for a while, it looked as though City were actually rattled by this approach.  At the break, I found myself thinking that even if I still believed we would lose the game, at least Tottenham were not going down without a fight.

Nevertheless, just a couple of minutes into the second period, the challenge facing Tim Sherwood’s side went from very difficult to impossible, as Danny Rose was sent off and a penalty awarded to Manchester City for a challenge on Dzeko in the area.  This is where the bitterness comes in – not only was the tackle perfectly fair, with Rose clearly playing the ball and any contact with the striker came after the ball was played, but referee Andre Mariner did not initially award a penalty and only changed his mind and brandished the red card on advice from his assistant.  Because of the angle that Rose came in from, the assistant’s view of the ball was blocked by the left-back and Mariner actually had a better view of the incident and his instincts not to award a spot-kick were correct.  Now bad decisions happen and like I said before, there was very little chance that Tottenham would have taken anything from the game anyway, but being down a man against the best attacking side in the Premiership era is a recipe for a thrashing.  What bothered me most though was the way the incident was dealt with by the commentators – who suggested it was a close decision that could have gone either way but ultimately did not impact the result – and in post-match analysis such as The Guardian Football Weekly podcast, where it warranted nothing more than a passing mention at the end of a discussion about the game.  If such a poor decision had been made against other clubs (in particular, City, Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea), then not only would it have been the major talking point surrounding the fixture, there would also have been a question about whether or not it affected the outcome.  Last season, Spurs were 1-0 down to City at home and turned the game around to win 3-1 with all of the goals coming in the final 20 minutes – it may not have happened again, but better officiating would at least have given us a better chance.   Continue reading

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Super Bowl Preview Special

In the lead up to the Big Game (as referred to in all commercials, but by nobody else ever) I thought it was appropriate to mine the views of NFL experts to get a more rounded view of the Championship Round and who is likely to win the Super Bowl.  So I reached out to some of the more tenured writers and asked them to share a version of their weekly columns for my own site – somewhat surprisingly*, they all agreed!

*Okay it is not actually surprising, or true, as this is all made up, but still…

Peter King – formerly writer for Sports Illustrated, now with his own, totally separate, please-give-me-something-like-Grantland site of MMQB (found at mmqb.si.com)

ec008af787ac20f4ee1840ccfd8b244dAs I was walking across the turf at Sports Authority Stadium at Mile High after watching Peyton’s first workout session of the pre-season last July, I remember running into Clive Warren, one of the men behind the success of the Denver Broncos.  Warren is not as well-known as Manning, or any of the other players or coaches, but he still contributes a useful role in the organization. He’s the man who cleans Bucky, the Bronco statue that sits atop the south scoreboard and has been a fixture of Denver’s home stadium since 1975.  Clive has been in charge of cleaning the 1600 pound, 27 feet tall, fibre glass and steel statue from the beginning and it tells him it reminds him of a horse he used to look after on the farm he grew up on in Nebraska six decades ago.  “I told Peyton all about that farm and the horse” Clive told me, “he said that the next time he is in Omaha, he will go visit”.  Seems like that story has been on Manning’s mind ever since.

Offensive Player of the Week: Richard Sherman (Seattle Seahawks)

Because I have given Richard Sherman a column on my Grantland-wannabe website – I feel completely justified in saying that I did not like his post-game rant when he had the audacity to be pumped up and excited, minutes after making the play that took his team to the Super Bowl at the expense of their biggest rival.  I thought Sherman should not have been calling out an opponent and that his post-game interview was offensive (hence why a defensive player is given the OPOW award).

Defensive Player of the Week: Navarro Bowman (San Francisco 49ers)

Even if he hadn’t made 14 tackles, including a sack, I’d definitely have given this award to Bowman because he suffered a heart-breaking injury and it gives me the opportunity to talk about how brave he is.

Five Things I Think You Think I Will Think About Thinking About The Super Bowl

  1. Lot of focus on the fact that the Super Bowl is coming to New York, but in fact the game will actually be played in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
  2. Not a great time for NJ Governor Chris Christie to be embroiled in scandal with all of the nation’s sports media coming to town.
  3. Peyton Manning vs Russell Wilson – now there’s a quarterback matchup I’m looking forward to watching.
  4. Hard luck for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots – he’s been a helluva quarterback, but no rings in 9 years now.
  5. Jim Harbaugh misses out again, but has taken the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship games.  When I talked to him in the locker room after the loss to Seattle he was downbeat but assured me “We’ll be back Peter my old buddy, you can quote me on that”.

Beer Nerdiness of the Week:

I had a pumpkin-infused, hop-filled, one-of-a-kind, made especially for me IPA from a small craft brewery outside of Denver during Championship weekend – not as good as the offerings available in Boston, but not a bad beer to go with the unseasonably warm weather.

Coffee Nerdiness of the Week:

Heading into one of the Starbucks by the NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center, the barista looked at me blankly and asked for my order and name to go on the cup, even though I have been in there several times over the last year and was even recognized by someone in the line.  “Will this go in your coffee section, Peter?” they asked, sadly it will and the vanilla latte (with pumpkin-infusion) was far from the best I’ve had from Starbucks stores.

Factoid of the Week That May Only Interest Me

John Tyler, the 10th President of the United States – as of 2012 – still had two living grandsons, even though he was born in 1790.  I know this has nothing to do with football, but have I mentioned i have a Hall of Fame vote recently?

Super Bowl Haiku

Seattle want one

But Peyton is after two

Who will prevail? Continue reading

Premiership Midweek Preview

This week promises to be a crucial one in the three big races that are going on in the Premiership this season, with a full round of fixtures on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by the closing of the January transfer window on Friday evening.  Although big mid-season deals have proven to be rare and not too successful in recent seasons, several clubs could benefit from bringing in the right player and in particular, those in the relegation dogfight will be hoping to bring in someone who can provide firepower to lift a side away from the danger of dropping out of the Premiership.  Let’s look at the three big battles to be played out over the rest of this campaign and who each team faces in the midweek round of fixtures.

Manchester City have been an unstoppable goalscoring force in all four competitions this season
Manchester City have been an unstoppable goalscoring force in all four competitions this season

Title Race

Contenders 1. Arsenal 51pts; 2. Manchester City 50pts; 3. Chelsea 49pts

The three teams going for the title all look to have settled squads and are unlikely to be making any big purchases in then next few days – although Chelsea have just completed a deal for Basel’s 21-year-old Egyptian winger, Mohamed Salah.  To say these three are in a league of their own is actually an understatement – since December 23rd, between them they have played 23 games and have won 22 of them, with the only blip being City’s 1-1 draw away at Blackburn in the F.A. Cup, which they corrected with a 5-0 thrashing of Rovers in the replay.  In midweek, Arsenal will try to maintain their position at the top when they face Southampton at St. Mary’s on Tuesday night; then, on Wednesday, Chelsea have a London derby against West Ham and Manchester City have a trip to White Hart Lane, a ground they were beaten on last season. Continue reading

Premiership Review and FA Cup Fourth Round Preview

Eto'o, brutal for United's new Caesar of David Moyes
Eto’o, brutal for United’s new Caesar of David Moyes

Once again last weekend, the three top teams in the Premiership all won their fixtures to maintain the two point differential covering them and all of them won their matches by two goals, though all with different score lines.  Chelsea had the toughest test on paper as they faced Manchester United – though this iteration of the Red Devils is nothing like that the one that has been challenging for the title consistently over the last two decades – and a hat-trick from Samuel Eto’o gave them a 3-1 victory and made sure that the Blues kept pace with the teams above them in the table.  United had briefly looked like they might mount a comeback in the final stages when Javier Hernandez pulled a goal back with 12 minutes to play, but they were unable to break through again and David Moyes finds his team six points outside the top four in his first season in charge.

Nevertheless, Manchester United’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League next year do like receiving a big boost this week, as they are closing in on the signing of Chelsea’s two-time player of the year, Juan Mata, for a fee of around £40m.  The potential transfer has riled Arsene Wenger, who believes that is part of Jose Mourinho’s masterplan to claim the title this season – since Chelsea have already played United twice, while both Arsenal and Manchester City still have to face them in the league again and they will now be stronger with Mata in their side.  For now, the Gunners remain top of the pile following their 2-0 home victory over Fulham last Saturday, with Santi Cazorla scoring both, and they remain a point ahead of City, who surpassed 100 goals for the season their 34th match of the campaign, beating Cardiff 4-2 at the Etihad Stadium.

That loss saw Cardiff drop to the bottom of the Premiership on goal difference, below Sunderland who recovered from an early 2-0 deficit to share the points in their game against Southampton at the Stadium of Light.  On the same number of points as the Bluebirds and the Black Cats are West Ham, who were beaten at home 3-1 by Newcastle on Saturday; while Crystal Palace moved out of the relegation zone thanks to a 1-0 victory over Stoke, giving manager Tony Pulis the satisfaction of defeating the club he was sacked from last summer. Two other teams moved away from the bottom three as Norwich struck late to beat Hull 1-0 at Carrow Road, while West Brom earned a point in their Monday night match against Everton, though the Baggies did also lose a sponsor as Zoopla said they would be ending their shirt deal with the club, following their refusal to sack Nicholas Anelka for the offensive quenelle gesture he made after scoring against West Ham in December. Continue reading

NFL Divisional Round Review and Championship Game Previews

Not Drew Brees throwing a pass for the Saints, what could go wrong?
Not Drew Brees throwing a pass for the Saints, what could go wrong?

Divisional Round Review

A week after one of the most exciting playoff weekends in the NFL, the Divisional Round of the 2013 season was one that lacked the excitement and shocks of recent years.  For the first time in a decade, all four favorites heading into the second weekend of the postseason won their contests to progress to the championship games and none of the match ups were particularly close.  After three-quarters, the closest game was New England against Indianapolis, where the Patriots led the Colts 29-22 with 15 minutes to play, but after that they scored 14 unanswered points to have the largest margin of victory of the weekend, 43-22.  The other three contests of the divisional round all saw fourth quarter comebacks by the underdogs, though on each occasion they fell short of causing an upset.  Perhaps the closest was the least likely, as the Saints rallied from 16-0 and 23-8 down to score a touchdown with 26 seconds left and then recovered an onside kick to get the ball back.  On what should have been the second to last play, Drew Brees threw a pass to Marques Colston on the sideline and, if the wide receiver had simply stepped out-of-bounds, they would have been able to run one more down to try to get into the end zone.  However, Colston – for inexplicable reasons – decided to keep the play alive as if time had already run out and attempted a cross-field lateral that not only failed to find its target, but was also thrown forward, thus bringing a penalty flag and a run-off of the remaining time on the clock, ensuring the Seahawks progressed to the NFC Championship Game.

Seattle’s opponents in that game will be the 49ers, who followed up their victory in Green Bay with a 23-10 defeat of the Carolina Panthers, who had beaten them in San Francisco earlier in the season.  Although Colin Kaepernick had nowhere near as dominant a performance as he had against the Packers in the Wild Card round, he still threw one touchdown pass and got another on the ground, which gave him the opportunity to mimic Cam Newton’s Superman style celebration, a reference to the fact that the Panthers quarterback had been selected first – 35 slots ahead of Kaepernick – in the 2011 draft.  However, the real super hero in this 49ers renaissance is Jim Harbaugh, who has taken San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game in all three of his seasons as head coach and has the opportunity to reach the Super Bowl for a second straight year.

In the other matchup last weekend, Denver led San Diego by 17-0 heading into the final period and despite Phillip Rivers leading the Chargers to that many points in the fourth quarter, another touchdown by the Broncos and some crucial third down passes by Peyton Manning helped the home team progress to the AFC title game.  During the first half, much was being made of the fact that Manning kept on shouting “OMAHA!” during his snap counts, with the tourist board for the city in Nebraska with that name tweeting about it; and the steak company with that title suggested they could work on a deal if Peyton wanted to give them some in-game advertising should they make the Super Bowl.  The actual reasoning behind it was more impressive, as Manning utilized the fact that Denver’s old offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, was now head coach for San Diego and had tried to tip off his defense about the quarterback’s habit on his snap counts; instead it was Peyton who got the better of his former coach, as he got the Chargers to commit five neutral zone infraction penalties – the most for any team since 2001.   Continue reading

The Most Boring Weekend In The Premiership and Chelsea vs Manchester United

Pardew and Pelligrini calmly discuss which wine they will share after the match
Pardew and Pelligrini calmly discuss which wine they will share after the match

Last weekend’s round of fixtures in the Premiership will have to go down as one of the most boring in recent history.  There were no big surprises, no real back-and-forth games and even Stoke vs Liverpool – which ended up 5-3 to the Reds – was far from being as exciting as the scoreline suggests.  The clubs that comprised the top seven going into the weekend all won; of those, Arsenal were the only ones who did not win by two goals; while only West Ham and Sunderland enjoyed victories over teams (Cardiff and Fulham) who had started the match higher in the table than them.  Outside of Newcastle – who sat in 8th at the beginning of play and were thus the highest placed team to lose, 2-0 to Manchester City  – having a goal disallowed for a questionable offside call, then their manager, Alan Pardew, calling his opposite number, Manuel Pelligrini a f*cking old c*nt (for which he later apologized at least), there was not much in the way of controversy either.

Of the seven Premiership games that were contested last Saturday, five ended with a 2-0 scoreline: Chelsea’s victory at Hull; Everton’s defeat of Norwich at Goodison Park; West Ham’s vital win at Cardiff; and Tottenham’s triumph over Crystal Palace at White Hart Lane.  In that last game, Spurs survived an early scare when Jason Puncheon missed a penalty in such an hilariously awful manner it literally made me laugh out loud.  So bad was the miss, it is now the most

Jason Puncheon - he shoots where he wants
Jason Puncheon – he shoots where he wants

embarrassing thing to happen to Puncheon in a Premier League match, despite last season in a game for Southampton against Everton, him having to leave the pitch in the second half to answer the call of nature, which became the subject of chants from the Saints fans. Elsewhere, Sunderland moved off the bottom with a 4-1 win at Fulham, in main part thanks to a hat-trick by Adam Johnson; Southampton got just their second victory in ten matches as they beat West Brom 1-0 at St. Mary’s; Arsenal got revenge for their opening day defeat to Aston Villa as they won 2-1 on Monday night; and as mentioned above, Liverpool gave up a two goal lead in the first half, but recovered to beat Stoke, 5-3.

The dominance of the teams in the top third of the table last weekend was a reflection on how there are really three separate mini-leagues in the Premiership this season. At the top, you have three clubs who are competing for the title, currently separated by two points: Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City.  After that comes a group of four teams aiming to finish in the Champions League places: Liverpool – who might still harbor ambitions of winning their first championship since 1989/90, but seem unlikely to usurp all three of the sides above them – Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United.  Then – after Newcastle and Southampton who are both in something of a no-man’s land, unlikely to be involved in the European race, but too far above the rest to drop too far – comes the relegation scrap, which this season sees 11 teams at risk of dropping out of the division.  Thanks to Sunderland’s recent revival, no club has yet been cut adrift and a string of victories could see any of the bottom three propelled into mid table, while Hull and Aston Villa – who are in 10th and 11th places respectively, but only five points above the drop zone – need to avoid a run of bad results that could see them plummet in the standings.  All of the bottom 11 – Hull, Villa, Stoke, Swansea, West Brom, Norwich, Fulham, West Ham, Cardiff, Sunderland and Crystal Palace – have won between 4 and 6 of the 21 fixtures thus far and, with 17 more remaining, any of those three could find themselves relegated by the end of the season in May.

This weekend, the standout fixture is Chelsea versus Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, though that contest does not quite have the same importance as it has in recent years, as only the home side are among the title contenders this season.  With that match being played on Sunday at 4pm local time, both Arsenal and Manchester City will have the opportunity to put pressure on the Blues as they both have home matches on Saturday against Fulham and Cardiff respectively.  Elsewhere, with these fixtures being a reversal of the games from the second week of the season, Spurs travel to Swansea; Liverpool host Aston Villa; West Brom entertain Everton; and Newcastle have an away match against West Ham.  At the bottom, Crystal Palace take on Stoke; Norwich and Hull meet at Carrow Road; and Sunderland face Southampton in the early kick-off on Saturday.

Predictions

Last week, 7-3; Season, 110-100

Home teams listed first

Sunderland vs Southampton – Draw

Arsenal vs Fulham – Home win

Crystal Palace vs Stoke – Draw

Manchester City vs Cardiff – Home win

Norwich vs Hull – Away win

West Ham vs Newcastle – Away win

Liverpool vs Aston Villa – Home win

Swansea vs Tottenham – Draw

Chelsea vs Manchester United – Home win

West Brom vs Everton – Away win

NFL Wild Card Roundup and Divisional Round Preview

An all-too familiar sight - Kaepernick running away from Packers defenders
An all-too familiar sight – Kaepernick running away from Packers defenders

Wild Card Round

San Francisco 49ers 23, Green Bay Packers 20

As with my English football roundup, I am going to start with the game that was the worst for me, since it saw the team I support eliminated from the playoffs.  Being a fan of a club or franchise can be an up and down experience, but having two rooting interests in different sports at the same time can multiply that experience on any given weekend.  In terms of longevity, Tottenham of course rank as team I have supported the longest, for as far back as I can remember in starting around 1985 when I was 4; then comes the Green Bay Packers, who I adopted in the early 1990s when the UK television Channel 4 showed the Saturday morning roundup show called “Blitz” and I picked this team from a place called Wisconsin (even living in the USA now and having been to 32 of the 50 states, I still have not made it to the Beaver State) where they liked cheese and had a highly-touted young quarterback called Brett Favre; and then the New York Yankees, who I rooted for as they were the underdogs in the 1996 World Series – my introduction to baseball – and there home city was a place I was interested in visiting and subsequently living in, rather than Atlanta.

Anyway – and I really am going to get back to the 49ers victory in a moment – in the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s, Tottenham beat Stoke 3-0, then won at Old Trafford against Manchester United, while the Packers had Aaron Rodgers return and beat the Bears in Chicago to advance to the playoffs.  That was a good week for me as a sports fan. However, last Saturday, Spurs were beaten by their arch-rivals, Arsenal and knocked out of the FA Cup in the first round they played in, which made the signs look ominous for Green Bay, even though the two contests to others may have appeared completely unrelated.  At the start of the game against San Francisco, the Packers lived up to my diminished expectations by failing to get a first down in the first quarter and were lucky to have escaped two trips to the red zones by the 49ers with only a six point deficit.  However, after that things started to pick up and even though they trailed at half-time, Green Bay were finally looking like they could not only contain Colin Kaerpernick for the first time in three attempts, they were also starting to move the ball and Rodgers was looking more like himself.  Midway through the second-half, the Packers QB made an incredible play, alluding two San Francisco defenders who looked like they were about the sack him on fourth down, then found Randall Cobb downfield. That play setup a go-ahead touchdown, carried into the end zone by full-back John Kuhn, who completely failed to make the Lambeau Leap, not even getting off the floor.  However, Kaepernick quickly had the visiting team in the lead again as he led the 49ers down the field and threw a 28 yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis and, when the Packers could then only tie the score with a field goal on their next possession, San Francisco controlled the ball for the last five and a half minutes and a Phil Dawson kick as time expired put them through to the divisional round.  During that final drive, there was a pass that should have been picked off by Micah Hyde, but the Green Bay cornerback dropped it and at that point, I knew the Packers had lost.

Indianapolis Colts 45, Kansas City Chiefs 44

I watched this matchup in Croxley Ales on the Lower East Side – a playoff tradition with a group of friends that dates back to us watching the Packers vs Giants NFC Championship game in 2008 – so as much of my attention was on the awesome hot wings and beer selection on offer, as was on the game.  However, I could not fail to register the complete reversal of fortunes the two teams were going through in the second half thanks to a Chiefs fan in a Jamaal Charles jersey at the next table who was standing up first celebrating, then in sheer disbelief as Kansas City gave up a 38-10 lead to lose 45-44.  While Alex Smith had a great performance for the Chiefs, throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions – though he did give up a fumble during the collapse – it was a tale of two halves for Andrew Luck, who gave up three picks in the first half, but rallied to end with four TD passes (three in the second half) and had a crucial play when he recovered a loose ball and dived over the line to bring the Colts to within three points in the fourth quarter.  It was the largest comeback in NFL playoff history that did not require overtime – the Bills recovered from 32 points down to beat the Houston Oilers in an extra period in January 1993 – and was the eighth time in his young career that Luck has led Indianapolis to a come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter.

New Orleans Saints 26, Philadelphia Eagles 24

During the first half of this matchup, it appeared that the narrative that had been touted all week about the Saints – that they could not win on the road – was going to prove true as they put up only six points and Drew Brees threw two interceptions.  However, New Orleans’ defence held Philadelphia to just 7 points through those first thirty minutes and Brees – who was Super Bowl MVP when he led the team to victory in February 2010 – had a much stronger performance in the third quarter as he led two touchdown drives to move the Saints into the lead.  Nick Foles, who had an impressive season when he became the starter for the Eagles, did get his team back in front with a 3 yard pass to Zach Ertz inside the final five minutes, but a Shayne Graham kick as time expired gave the Saints their first road playoff victory in franchise history. Continue reading

English Football – Cup Roundup and Premiership Opening Weekend Fixtures Reversal

The Emirates saved money on a scoreboard by employing Theo Walcott
The Emirates saved money on a scoreboard by employing Theo Walcott

Cup Roundup

If there was anywhere else I could begin in the roundup of the two different cup competitions, other than with the North London derby, then I definitely would.  However, it was the biggest tie and therefore the obvious place to start, so let’s just get it out of the way: Arsenal scored twice and Tottenham never looked like responding as soon as Santi Cazorla had given the home side the lead, especially since Emmanuel Adebayor went back to looking like the disinterested striker who was on the fringes of the club for the last season and a half.  All the headlines went to an incident late in the game when Theo Walcott gestured to the Spurs fans while he was being stretchered off around the pitch, as he was responding to abuse from the traveling supporters, by displaying the 2-0 scoreline with his fingers.  Now, shouting non-racist, non-homophobic things at opposition players is part of the game and Walcott’s response – even as a die-hard Spurs fan – I actually found funny and good-natured (it should not incite the crowd, since it was banter not hateful), but then Tottenham supporters responded by throwing things at the Arsenal player, which is completely unacceptable.  Unfortunately for Gooners and England fans, Walcott was subsequently ruled out for the rest of the season and the World Cup as he suffered a ruptured ACL in his left knee, but the FA have – sensibly – also advised he will not face any punishment for his 2-0 gesture towards the Tottenham crowd.

There were too many other FA Cup ties that took place last weekend to cover them all, so here are the highlights of what happened:

  • Nottingham Forest thrashed an inexperienced West Ham side 5-0 at the City Ground and the pressure on Hammers boss Sam Allardyce increased in midweek when his team put in another lackluster display as they were beaten 6-0 by Manchester City and the Etihad.  That made it game, set and match for City, who have now racked up three tennis set style wins over London opposition as they also defeated Tottenham 6-0 and Arsenal 6-3 at home; but they face a replay in their third-round FA Cup tie, as they were held 1-1 by Championship side Blackburn at Ewood Park last Saturday.
  • David Moyes is facing increased scrutiny of his suitability as manager at Manchester United, as they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Swansea, who won 2-1 at Old Trafford; then lost 2-1 in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final away at Sunderland.
  • League Two’s Rochdale United caused a deserved outset by outplaying Leeds and beating them 2-0, while Sheffield United ousted Aston Villa and Milton Keynes Dons earned a 3-3 draw at last year’s winners Wigan in the other games that saw lower division sides enjoy impressive results.
  • Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton and Hull all progressed without too much trouble, while Ole Gunnar Solksjær had a victory in his first match in charge of Cardiff, as he watched his new troops beat Newcastle, 2-1 at the Stadium of Light.

Premiership Preview

This week sees all of the fixtures from the opening weekend of the season reversed, so for example, Tottenham travelled to Crystal Palace for their first match of the campaign and this Saturday they will host the Eagles at White Hart Lane.  To preview the action, let’s look at the match reports (either the BBC’s or Guardian’s, since those are the two I read) from those opening games and see how much, or little, the narratives have changed around each club.

Mourinho and Mata both double fist-pump celebrate during Chelsea's opening day victory
Mourinho and Mata both double fist-pump celebrate during Chelsea’s opening day victory

Hull vs Chelsea

Reverse Fixture Result: Chelsea 2 – 0 Hull

Match Report Extracts: The BBC were impressed with Chelsea’s style stating that “The Blues were stirring“, while The Guardian enthused, “Chelsea played some wonderful, slick football and the crowd never tired of serenading the returning hero” (Mourinho).  There were also had some words of comfort for Hull in the Guardian, “For Hull, that (Lampard’s 35 yard free-kick goal) was probably the first reminder of how brutal this league can be. They will not always be confronted by teams with this speed of thought and movement…

What Has Happened Since: Chelsea may not have kept up such stylish performances, but they are only two points off the lead and if they can add a striker who scores a lot of goals – or get one of Fernando Torres, Demba Ba or Samuel Eto’o to find the net more regularly – then they could win the title come May.  Hull have improved on that opening game and currently sit in 10th place, six points above the relegation zone and, in Tom Huddlestone, they have a player who, on his day, can control matches with his range of passing and shooting – alhough he has only scored once in over two years, he can strike the ball well with either foot from outside the area.

Prediction For This Game: Draw – Hull’s home form has been good, they were unlucky to lose to Manchester United, then beat Fulham 6-0 in their last two fixtures at the KC Stadium; while six of the seven games Chelsea have failed to win so far in the Premiership have come away from Stamford Bridge. Continue reading

New Year’s Day Premiership Review and FA Cup Third Round Weekend Preview

Young goes down under a challenge by Lloris
Young goes down under a challenge by Lloris

For the second consecutive season, Tottenham Hotspur took all three points from their trip to Old Trafford – having previously failed to win there in the Premiership era – this time prevailing by two goals to one.  Emmanuel Adebayor scored the first with a perfectly placed header into the bottom corner of David de Gea’s net, though it was made possible thanks to great breakaway play by Roberto Soldado and Christian Eriksen, with the latter providing a pinpoint cross for the Togolese striker; then the Danish midfielder doubled the lead with his second goal in three games.  What was particularly impressive in this victory – which gives Tim Sherwood three wins and a draw in his first four Premiership matches as Spurs manager – is that the team were far from their best, but refused to buckle under the pressure that Manchester United threw at them as they sought an equalizer.  United had cut the deficit back to one immediately after Eriksen’s headed goal thanks to a smart finish by Danny Welbeck, but Spurs held strong in the final twenty minutes and were able to pick up a vital three points to move within two of the Champions League place, with the league now taking a brief hiatus while the FA Cup takes center stage this weekend.

In his post-match interview, David Moyes called the refereeing scandalous – the match was officiated by 2010 World Cup Final ref, Howard Webb – specifically referring to a penalty he believed should have been awarded in a challenge between Ashley Young and Hugo Lloris which saw the French keeper beaten to the ball on the edge of the box and the England winger went tumbling.  The replays suggested there was some contact, though also that Young was already on his way down, and while I have definitely seen penalties given for less – especially for United at the Stretford End at Old Trafford – it was far from the “stonewall” decision that Moyes suggested.  (However, at some point this season I do expect that Lloris, who has a tendency to come rushing out of his area and has already been caught out a few times, will see red as he continues to ride his luck.)  Of course what the new man in charge of United was displaying was that, while he has not found a way to grind out wins and keep his team in the top 3 of the Premiership, he has learned one skill from his predecessor, as Sir Alex Ferguson was an expert in deflecting attention away from negative results.  Moyes is getting plenty of experience of doing that at least, as he has seen his side lose four times already at Old Trafford this campaign, more than any season since 2001/2 when they ended up third, their lowest ever finish in the Premiership era.   Continue reading

NFL Week 17 Review and Playoffs Preview

12949603Week 17 Review

The obvious place for me to start – as a Packers fan – is with Green Bay’s 33-28 win in Chicago last Sunday, that clinched the NFC North for the Wisconsin team with an 8-7-1 record.  It was the first game back for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who had been out with a broken collarbone sustained in their first meeting with the Bears on November 4th and although there was some rust – he had a rare multiple interception game, giving up the ball on both of the Packers first two possessions – he came through big on the final drive to send Green Bay into the playoffs.  On three occasions in that possession, the Packers faced fourth down with the season on the line: first time, John Kuhn picked up the needed yard; then on another 4th and 1, Rodgers found his favorite target of the day, Jordy Nelson; and finally, with a 4th and 8 on the 48 yard line, Randall Cobb streaked for the end zone, was not picked up by the Chicago defense who were expecting a shorter pass, and number 12 did not miss as he put it right into Cobb’s hands for a touchdown that gave Green Bay their third consecutive division title and fourth straight playoff appearance.

For the third season in a row, the Cowboys lost a week 17 contest against a divisional opponent that saw them eliminated from the playoffs, this time being beaten by the Eagles 24-22, after falling to the Giants in 2011 and Washington in 2012.  This year they were without Tony Romo, who was ruled out with a back injury, but the replacement quarterback, Kyle Orton, had an opportunity to win the game at the end after leading a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game but for a failed two point conversion.  After that, the Cowboys defense forced a three and out on the Eagles and got the ball back, but on the first play of their final possession,which started inside the two-minute warning, Orton threw an interception to effectively end the game and send the internet into a frenzy of people wondering if the backup was actually just Romo – known for those sorts of mistakes at the end of big games – wearing a different jersey. Continue reading