This week in: English Football – London Plays Catchup

The two Manchester clubs have occupied first and second in the Premiership for about as long as the “99-percenters” have resided in Zuccotti Park.  Now Newcastle United, still unbeaten this season, have moved into third place, meaning the five Premier League clubs from London find themselves playing catchup.  Chelsea are in 4th place, ahead of Tottenham in 5th on goal difference, though Spurs have a game in hand; Arsenal reside in 7th; QPR in 12th; and Fulham, the lowest side from the capital, in 15th.  Over the last decade, the quest to be London’s top team has been between Arsenal and Chelsea – Spurs have not finished above either of them in that period – but this season is looking like a three-horse race.

While Chelsea may still harbour ambitions of breaking up the Manchester hegemony in the title race, they are more likely to find themselves in a battle to remain in the Champions League by the end of the season.  Last week’s 5-3 defeat to Arsenal showed the weaknesses in Chelsea’s defence – in particular John Terry’s positioning and lack of pace – which Robin

Arsenal and Chelsea have to also fight Tottenham now to be the Pride of London

Van Persie and Theo Walcott were able to exploit effectively.  In attack, Juan Mata was an astute signing and gives them a player capable of changing the games – but outside of that. the options are lacklustre.  Fernando Torres has finally found some level of scoring form, yet still looks like a shadow of the striker who won Euro 2008 for Spain.  Neither Drogba, nor Anelka, look capable of leading the line in the way they have done in previous seasons, so the best option for Chelsea’s manager, Villas-Boas, appears to be Daniel Sturridge – the youngster has scored four goals in just six league appearances so far this year.  In the midfield, Frank Lampard is enjoying a renaissance this season and Mata is providing the creativity, but the Blues miss Michael Essien – a tough tackler, who adds grit and balance to their team – they hope to have him back by the end of next month.  Chelsea’s top four position to this point of the season, has come via wins over teams who they would expect to beat (West Brom, Norwich, Sunderland, Swansea, Bolton, and Everton), while they were held to a draw by Fulham and lost to Manchester United, Arsenal, and QPR.  Before the turn of the year, they have to play Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester City, and Tottenham – should they lose two or more of those games, any title aspirations will have to be forgotten and the battle for fourth will be their focus.

It is hard for Arsenal fans to accept that their, seemingly perpetual, dominance over local rivals Tottenham may be overturned this season – like people who persist in calling the cute and furry creatures from down under, “Koala Bears,”  because they have always thought that to be true (they’re marsupials, it’s just “Koala”).  While Spurs may have been the lowly neighbour for a long time – it has not always been so.  Tottenham were the first club in the 20th century to win the League and Cup double; the first British team to win a European trophy (the Cup Winners Cup in 1963); and, finished above Arsenal five times in the 1980s – things do change.  Looking at the teams this year, Spurs can argue that they have at least as good a playing squad as their North London rivals.  The first choice goalkeepers are pretty much a wash – with Szczesny playing as well as ever for Arsenal, and American Brad Friedel providing Spurs with a much more reliable pair of hands than Gomes gave them last year.  Neither team’s defence is the strongest part of their squad, though the Gunners will be hoping that a partnership of Mertesacker and Vermaelen will help the ratio of goals they give up – so far this season Arsenal have conceded 21 in 10 games, more than the rest of the league other than Bolton and Blackburn.  Tottenham have been missing Michael Dawson, who is out with an Achilles injury, and Ledley King is hampered by having only one working knee – but other than the two Manchester clubs, teams have been scoring an average of less than one a game against them.  While the full-backs are of a similar standard (Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto for Spurs, Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs, when fit, for Arsenal), it is in the midfield that Tottenham have the clear advantage.  For their rivals, Theo Walcott plays well once every four games, Arteta was last good in 2009, Frimpong times his challenges about as well as Paul Scholes did, and Rosicky and Arshavin are washed up and now fringe players at best.  With Jack Wilshere out with an injury, Arsenal’s strongest midfielder this season has been Aaron Ramsay, but he had an awful game at White Hart Lane, where he gave the ball away many times.  In contrast, Tottenham are struggling to fit all of their good players in a packed midfield – Scott Parker has added the grit that has been missing for so long and freed up Luka Modric and Rafael Van der Vaart (who has scored in five consecutive league games) to play more attacking roles.  On the wings, Aaron Lennon has been providing better end products to his dashing runs than he has done in previous years, and Gareth Bale continues to destroy right backs with a combination of speed and strength.  With Sandro, Huddlestone, Krancjar and Pienaar more than capable fill-ins, should there be injuries or suspensions, Spurs have strength in-depth in the middle of the park.  Up front, Robin Van Persie is the most in-form player for either of the two clubs, but other than that, Arsenal do not have a reliable striker – Chamakh and Gervinho are both wasteful in their finishing.  Tottenham look much more of a threat with Adebayor leading the attack than they did with Peter Crouch, and Defoe has improved his all around game and remains deadly with half a yard of space anywhere around the penalty box.  Overall, Spurs have looked the more balanced team with a quarter of the season gone – which is reflected in their position three points above Arsenal, having played a game less than their rivals.  For the first time since 1995, there may not be a St. Totteringham’s Day this season – the point of the season that Arsenal celebrate that their rivals can no longer mathematically finish above them in the league.

Outside of London last weekend, both Manchester United and City picked up three more points, away to Everton and home to Wolves respectively.  Norwich came from 3-1 down to draw with Blackburn at Carrow Road; Liverpool beat West Brom at the Hawthorns; Newcastle continued their good form thanks to a hat-trick from Demba Ba, helping them win away at Stoke on Monday night; and Bolton’s wretched season continued as they lost in Wales against Swansea.  Wigan remain bottom of the table, after losing at home to Martin Jol’s Fulham, and Sunderland and Aston Villa shared four goals and the points in a match at the Stadium of Light.

Predictions

Last week 5-5, season 38-31

Newcastle vs Everton – Home win

Arsenal vs West Brom – Home win

Aston Villa vs Norwich – Draw

Blackburn vs Chelsea – Draw

Liverpool vs Swansea – Home win

Manchester United vs Sunderland – Home win

QPR vs Manchester City – Away win

Wolves vs Wigan – Home win

Bolton vs Stoke – Away win

Fulham vs Spurs – Away win

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This week in: American Football – Week 9

Judging by my predictions last week, the NFL this season has been somewhat unpredictable.  A few highlights from my week 8 picks:

Colts +9.5 over Titans

What I said: Hard to take Indianapolis after they were crushed by the Saints

What happened: I took them, and they lost by 17

Giants -9.5 over Dolphins

What I said: Last time I took the Giants when they were heavily favoured at home, they failed to cover…

What happened: They failed to cover, I failed to learn my lesson

Saints -10.5 over Rams

The Rams sacked Saints QB Drew Brees 6 times on Sunday

What I said:   I’m not sure how high they would have had to make this line for me to take the Rams – maybe -20.5.

What happened: The Rams lost their starting Quarterback, Sam Bradford for the game, but beat the Saints by 10

In other games: the Cardinals had a big lead over the Ravens in Baltimore, but failed to hold on and lost by a field goal; the Bills won for the first time in five tries playing in Toronto, keeping the injury plagued Redskins off the scoreboard in a 23-0 win; Tim Tebow had another bad game but without the fourth quarter heroics – the Lions beating the Broncos 45-10, moving Detroit to 6-2 for the season; the Steelers dominated the Patriots, whose secondary could not contain any of Pittsburgh’s receivers in a 25-17 loss for New England; and the Eagles put in the kind of performance that shows why many predicted them as Superbowl favourites before the season, as they beat their divisional rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, 34-7.  On Monday night, the Chiefs won their fourth straight game, having lost their first three, and now sit atop the AFC West with the team they beat, the San Diego Chargers.

This week sees several good divisional matchups across the league: AFC East contenders the Bills and Jets meet in Buffalo; the Steelers look for revenge for their week 1 loss against the Ravens in Pittsburgh; the New Orleans Saints hope to recover from their shock loss to the Rams, at home to the Buccaneers, who had a bye last week after their trip to London the previous Sunday; and in a battle of the Bad Quarterbacks, Tim Tebow’s Broncos face off with Carson Palmer’s Raiders in Oakland.  There is also a rematch of Superbowl 42, when the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots to spoil their perfect season; the Packers will look to continue their unbeaten season when they play the Chargers in San Diego – though Sports Illustrated jinxed Green Bay this week by putting them on their cover with a headline of “The Perfect Pack”; the 6-1 49ers come to the East Coast to play the Washington Redskins; and the Rams try to improve on last week’s surprise win over the Saints when they travel to Arizona to face the Cardinals.

Predictions:

Last week 6-7, somehow – having gone 1-5 in the early games; Season 61-55

Home teams in bold

Falcons -7.5 over Colts

Bills -1.5 over Jets

Texans -10.5 over Browns

Seahawks +12.5 over Cowboys

Chiefs –6.5 over Dolphins

Saints -7.5 over Buccaneers

49ers -3.5 over Redskins

Bengals +2.5 over Titans

Raiders -7.5 over Broncos

Chargers +5.5 over Packers (SI might jinx the Packers, I’m definitely not going to)

Rams +4.5 over Cardinals

Giants +8.5 over Patriots

Steelers -3.5 over Ravens

Eagles -6.5 over Bears

This week in: English Football – Premiership Predictions

Manchester City have their trophy cabinet ready for May

I covered last weekend’s action here – City thrashing United and Terry’s racism stories were too compelling to wait on – so now my weekend’s premiership predictions.

Last week 4-6, Season 33-26

Everton vs Manchester United Away Win – Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United tend to respond well to defeats – when that loss is to their local rivals and by a 6-1 scoreline, their next opponents will be fearing a backlash. The Blues did win their last game away to Fulham, but they have lost Phil Neville and Tim Cahill to injuries.

Chelsea vs Arsenal – Home win – Chelsea have won all four of their home games and Arsenal are yet to win away from the Emirates this season.  The Gunners have defender Thomas Vermaelen back for this game, while Chelsea will be without Drogba and Boswinga, after the pair were sent off against QPR last week.  The home team do have Torres back from suspension and Arsenal are lightweight in the middle of the park since selling Fabregas and Nasri and losing Jack Wilshere to an injury.  All of this means I think Chelsea will have enough to win this game, sending Arsene Wenger’s side to their fifth defeat of the season.

Manchester City vs Wolves – Home win –  These two sides actually met on Wednesday in the Carling Cup at Molineux, City winning the game 5-2, but neither team had their first choice XI on display.  It’s impossible to imagine anything other than a home win here – Manchester City have only dropped two points all year, scoring thirty-three goals in nine games and conceding just seven; whereas Wolves, who won their first two league games of the season, have not won any of their last seven since then.

Norwich vs Blackburn – Draw –  Blackburn are rock bottom of the Premiership and face a tough trip away to Norwich, a team who two seasons ago were in the third tier of English football, but Rovers showed plenty of fight in their loss to Tottenham last week and could pick up a point at Carrow Road.

Sunderland vs Aston Villa – Away win – Villa started the season strongly and were unbeaten until they faced Manchester City two weeks ago and then lost the Midlands derby with West Bromwich Albion last week.  Sunderland picked up just their second win of the season away to Bolton in their last outing, but will be fearing their former striker, Darren Bent, coming back to haunt them this Halloween weekend.

Swansea vs Bolton – Home win – I have not seen either team play yet so far this season, so going purely on perception with this pick. Bolton have been better away from home, winning 2 and losing 2, than at the Reebok Stadium, where they have lost all five of their games this season.  Swansea have been the complete opposite: unbeaten at home and yet to win away so far this season.

Wigan vs Fulham – Home win – Fulham have been an enigma this campaign – they put 6 past QPR two weeks ago, but that is their only win so far, and they lost at home to Everton last time out.  Wigan are second bottom and desperately need the points, having lost their last five league games.  Much as I love Fulham manager Martin Jol from his time at Tottenham, it looks like he needs more time to work on their squad and think they will slump to another defeat again this weekend.

West Brom vs Liverpool – Home win – Former Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson will try to lead his West Brom team to another win over his former employers, having done just that last season.  Last week, Albion had an impressive away win against Aston Villa, while Liverpool were wasteful in front of goal – particularly Luis Suarez, who himself missed 11 attempts – as they were held to a draw at home by Norwich.

Tottenham vs QPR – Home win – Spurs, unbeaten against every team that does not hail from Manchester, go into this London derby full of confidence.  QPR are currently in 10th place and last week they beat local rivals Chelsea – though they looked very tentative in that game in the second half, playing against just nine men and with the lead.  This week (I hope) will be a case of the morning after for Rangers and Spurs should continue their push for a top four place.

Stoke vs Newcastle – Draw – Newcastle have not lost yet this season and are in fourth place, Stoke are unbeaten at home.  The Geordies have a large french contingent and they will be put to the test in this most anecdotal of games – the English Press is often keen on saying about foreign imports to the Premier League: “Could they do it on a cold Monday evening in Stoke?”.  City lost their last game away to Arsenal and have had problems scoring goals this season (only 7 in 9 games) – but they have only conceded one in four matches at the Britannia so this one has 0-0 written all over it.

This week in: American Football – Week 8

Tebow- an adequate QB for at least 10% of one game

Last week in the NFL, Denver Quarterback, Tim Tebow, lead his team to an improbable comeback – having been 15-0 down with less than three minutes of the game remaining, the Broncos recovered to win 18-15 in Overtime.  Tebow’s performance in the final few drives of the game went someway to disguising just how bad he had been for the first 54 minutes – in that time he completed just 4 of his 14 pass attempts for a total of 40 yards.

Elsewhere, Chiefs QB, Matt Cassell, had a very unimpressive day in Denver – his completion rate was just 50% (15/30), he threw for only 161 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions.  Nevertheless, his side easily won 28-0 thanks to Raiders QBs Boller and Palmer combining to throw six picks, two of which were returned for touchdowns by the Kansas City defense. Peyton Manning remained on the sidelined for the Colts after neck surgery – an area of his body that would not have got much exercise during Sunday night’s game with the Saints – it was one way traffic as New Orleans spent most of the game driving towards the Colts endzone and ended up winning 62-7.

With Indianapolis struggling, the Titans and the Texans met in Tennessee with first place in the AFC South up for grabs.  The contest ended up being another one-sided matchup, as Houston thrashed the Titans 41-7.  In the fifth NFL game to be played in London, the Bears beat the Buccaneers in front of more than 76,000 fans at Wembley Stadium.  The Packers stayed perfect with a win in Minnesota, moving them to 7-0; the Panthers beat the injury-riddled Redskins; the Jets won at home against the Chargers; and the Jaguars defeated the Ravens on Monday night, despite running back Maurice “What Would” Jones-Drew fumbling the ball four times.  In the race for projected number one draft pick Andrew Luck, the Rams lost to the Cowboys and thus kept pace with the Colts and the Dolphins having lost all of their games thus far this season.  The Browns and the Seahawks played out a dull 6-3 game in Cleveland – the home team winning by two field goals to one – and people say that there isn’t enough scoring in “soccer”.

Predictions

Last week 7-6; Season 55-48

Home teams in bold

Colts +9.5 over Titans – Hard to take Indianapolis after they were crushed by the Saints last week – but the Titans were almost as bad and QB Matt Hasselbeck threw three interceptions in their loss to the Texans – taking the points.

Saints -10.5 over Rams – St. Louis, many people’s pre-season tips for the NFC West, have proven to be a terrible team and the Saints will be looking to continue their high-octane offense from last week.  I’m not sure how high they would have had to make this line for me to take the Rams – maybe -20.5.

Giants -9.5 over Dolphins – Last time I took the Giants in a home game they were heavily fancied in (Week 5 over the Seahawks), they ended up not only failing to cover, but actually lost the game.  However, I still cannot take Miami – who gave up that late lead to the Broncos last time around.

Panthers -3.5 over Vikings – Cam Newton led his Carolina team to victory against the Redskins last week, and I can see him making it two in a row this time against Minnesota.  Despite a spirited comeback that fell just short against the Packers last week, Vikings QB Christian Ponder – who has replaced the benched Donovan McNabb – threw two interceptions and needs to prove he can compete before his team is 16 points down.

Ravens -12.5 over Cardinals – Although Baltimore lost the Monday Night game in Jacksonville, they have been very strong at home this year (3-0, aggregate score of 98-38) and can expect to beat an Arizona team who have lost their last five games.

Texans -9.5 over Jaguars – After that impressive win over Baltimore, I should really be taking the Jaguars to at least cover this spread.  But they have been the worst team in passing yards gained thus far this season – QB Blaine Gabbert has thrown for just 810 yards this season and four touchdowns, compared with Houston’s Matt Schaub who has gained 1893 passing yards and 12 TDs.  Jacksonville also has a short week to prepare for the game after playing on Monday and are 0-3 in road games this year.

Bills -5.5 over Redskins – Before this season, bye weeks for teams usually resulted in a strong performance the following week as they had two games to prepare.  This year, teams coming back from a week off are just 3-9 – this could be in part to rules under the new labour agreement which prevent franchises from contacting their players for four straight days during this period, resulting in less preparation time than was previously available.  Alternatively, it could reflect the standard of the teams who have thus far had bye weeks – the 9 losses were for the Browns, Cowboys, Rams, Dolphins, Redskins, Titans, Cardinals, Chargers and Seahawks – combined record: 19-35.  Either way, the Bills should not have too many problems as they come back from a two week break to play the Redskins, who have benched their starting Quarterback, Rex Grossman, and have lost Tim Hightower and Santana Moss to injuries. Even though this game is being played in Toronto, not Buffalo, I think the Bills should win comfortably.

Lions -3.5 over Broncos – The Lions have lost two straight games, after winning their first five; the Broncos are on a high from their fourth quarter comeback last weekend – but Tebow was very bad for the first 54 minutes in that game and Detroit’s defensive line will cause him many more problems than the Dolphins did.

Bengals – 2.5 over Seahawks – Tough call, as neither team has been particularly impressive so far, but decided that I trust Cincinatti’s defense (111 points conceded in 6 games), more than Seattle’s offense (97 points scored in 6 games).

49ers -9.5 over Browns – Somehow, Cleveland is 3-3 going in to week 8.  They do have the number one pass defense in the NFL this year, but the main reason they do not have a losing record is a weak schedule.  Their wins have been against the Seahawks, Colts and Dolphins – who have a combined record of 2-18.  The 49ers have been the surprise team of the season – if they had not lost a late lead to the Cowboys, they would be 6-0 – and should take care of business at home against the Browns.

Patriots -2.5 over Steelers – With Tom Brady as their Quarterback, New England is 6-1 against Pittsburgh and have the top rated offense in the NFL again this season.  The Steelers have recovered from their week 1 mauling by the Ravens, and are now 5-2, but their five wins have been against Seattle (2-5), Tennessee (3-3), Indianapolis (0-7), Jacksonville (2-5) and Arizona (1-5) – their other loss coming against Houston (4-3).  I think Pittsburgh might be a secretly mediocre “good” team, and believe the Patriots will prove that this weekend.

Cowboys +3.5 over Eagles – Philadelphia is in desperate need of an impressive win, as they try to live up to all the pre-season hype surrounding them – but the Cowboys have been playing well this year and, if they had held on to big leads against they had against the Jets and the Lions, would be 5-1 and top of the NFC East.  As it is, they are 3-3, but I think they will keep the Eagles winless at home so far this season.

Chiefs +3.5 over Chargers – After two weeks, it looked as though Kansas City were among the worst teams in the NFL, having lost 41-7 to Buffalo and 48-3 to the Lions in their first couple of games.  Following that, the Chiefs played the Chargers close in San Diego – losing 20-17 – and then won their next three against the Vikings, Colts and Raiders.  A win this weekend would give them a share of the AFC West lead with the Chargers – who themselves have not played particularly well this season and lost last week against the Jets.  This promises to be a close game, with the home field advantage potentially the key to a Kansas City win.

This week in: American and English Football – NFL heads to Wembley

The NFL Returns to Wembley

There is a perfect crossover in footballs of both types this week, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears will play the fifth regular season NFL game at Wembley Stadium, the home of English “soccer”.  This now annual event is well received by the legion of fans the NFL has attracted across the Atlantic, but there is still disdain on both sides for the other country’s “football” – which results in those who only embrace one of the sports, missing out on the other.  To most Brits, American Football is nothing more than ‘rugby with pads”; alongside those in the US who consider soccer boring, due to a lack of scoring.

I first started following the NFL in the early 90s, picking the Packers as my team with their young quarterback, Brett Favre – in the days before he had a phone that could send picture messages – as an alternative to the dominant Steve Young led 49ers, or the widely loved Dallas Cowboys.  While I enjoyed the sport for the game itself, it was not until I moved to New York that I discovered the culture surrounding it – watching the games in a bar with friends, drinking some beers and eating some hot wings – really adds to the experience.  On the other side, those who think that English football* is dull are missing out on the tribal nature of clubs supporters, on the boisterous atmosphere at the games, the anxiety of potential relegation, the joy of winning a trophy or beating your arch-rivals.  I have attended fixtures in the NFL, NHL, NBA, and dozens of baseball games, but nothing comes close to the experience of going to a football game.  Those who dismiss the other code of football are usually doing it out of ignorance, I love both types and recommend either to any sports fan.  Besides, they are both much better than rugby…

*I’m calling it English football, but of course I could say European, South American, everywhere else on earth – as only the US calls it soccer

To help bring these two sports together, at least for this weekend, here’s a look at how the season has gone in each league – with a comparison of teams who find themselves in similar positions:

Championship Contenders

These are the teams everyone expected to be competing for the top prizes and, thus far, have been proving people right:

Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers (NFL)

Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea (Premiership)

Strong Starters

The clubs who have jumped out to a good opening to their seasons, but there is a doubt as to whether this success has any longevity:

San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFL)

Newcastle United, Stoke City, Tottenham Hotspur (Premiership)

Strong Teams, Indifferent Starts

Teams that have been dominant in recent years, but have not looked themselves in the first few weeks of this season, yet they cannot be written off just yet:

Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles (yep, even at 2-4) (NFL)

Arsenal, Liverpool (Premiership)

Middle of the Road Teams

The ones who will be mid-table in the Premiership, or will be on the cusp of a wild card for the playoffs but unlikely to contend for the Superbowl – essentially, they are mediocre:

Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs (NFL)

Aston Villa, West Brom, Fulham (Premiership)

Big Teams Down Low

In the NFL, this does not have as much impact as there is no relegation, in the Premiership, falling all the way down can be fatal:

Indianapolis Colts (NFL)

Everton (Premiership)

Luck Needed

For the Premiership clubs, they require some luck to avoid relegation, for the worst in the NFL, getting the number 1 pick in next year’s draft means acquiring ace college QB, Andrew Luck (N.B. Colts & Everton are in these races too)

Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars (NFL)

Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic, Norwich City, QPR, Swansea City, Sunderland, Wolverhampton Wanderers (Premiership)

CLICK HERE FOR THIS WEEK’S GAMES AND PREDICTIONS

This week in: American and English Football – Preview and Predictions

If you missed Part I of the American and English Football crossover weekend preview, CLICK HERE

Manchester Derby - One For the Lovers

In the Premiership this weekend, one game stands out above all others – Manchester United versus Manchester City – a battle of the top two in the league, who meet on Sunday at Old Trafford.  Having won the FA Cup last season, City at least will not have to see the banner boasting of the length of the trophy drought they had been in, which has been hung at their rival’s stadium for many years.  After last week’s results (when City beat Villa, while United were held to a draw by Liverpool), Roberto Mancini’s team travel across Manchester knowing that a point would be enough to remain in pole position.  There is also a south-west London derby on Sunday, as QPR host third place Chelsea; while in the Midlands, Aston Villa take on West Brom.  Arsenal hope to continue their revival at home to Stoke; Norwich go to Anfield to play Liverpool; Newcastle host Wigan and Fulham and Everton meet at Craven Cottage.  Tottenham, who are unbeaten in their last five, travel to Blackburn – but have a game against Rubin Kazan (who I think Bob Dylan sang about in “Hurricane“) in the Europa League on Thursday to contend with first.

Week 7 of the NFL, as well as having the London game between the Buccaneers and the Bears, includes an NFC North match-up as the Packers play the Vikings in Minnesota; the Titans host the Texans in the AFC South; the Jets meet the Chargers at the Meadowlands; and the Cowboys are home against the St. Louis Rams.  There is a rematch of both Superbowl XLIII (Steelers vs Cardinals) and Superbowl XLIV (Colts vs Saints) – though both sides look very one-sided now – with the teams that triumphed in those two games (Pittsburgh & New Orleans) likely to win again this weekend.  New quarterbacks will be on show for both the Redskins – who will start John Beck having benched Rex Grossman for this week’s game with the Panthers – and the Raiders, who lost Jason Campbell to injury last weekend and have traded two first-round picks for Carson Palmer – his first appearance will be against the Kansas City Chiefs.  Tim Tebow will also be taking over as a starter for the Denver Broncos, and does so back in Florida, where he made his name in college, as his team travels to Miami to take on the Dolphins.

Predictions

NFL

Last Week 8-5, Season 48-42

Home teams in bold

Lions -3.5 over Falcons

Buccaneers +0.5 over Bears (at Wembley Stadium, London)

Seahawks +3.5 over Browns

Broncos +3.5 over Dolphins

Titans -3.5 over Texans

Chargers -1.5 over Jets

Panthers -2.5 over Redskins

Chiefs +3.5 over Raiders

Steelers -3.5 over Cardinals

Cowboys -12.5 over Rams

Packers -8.5 over Vikings

Saints -13.5 over Colts

Ravens -7.5 over Jaguars

Premiership

Last week 6-4, Season 29-20

Wolves vs Swansea – Draw

Aston Villa vs West Brom – Home win

Bolton vs Sunderland – Draw

Newcastle vs Wigan – Home win

Liverpool vs Norwich – Home win

Arsenal vs Stoke – Home win

Fulham vs Everton – Home win

Manchester United vs Manchester City – Draw

Blackburn vs Tottenham – Away win

QPR vs Chelsea – Away win

World Series Preview

The World Series has arrived – Game 1 is Wednesday night with the first pitch scheduled for 8:05pm – with a seven game

Busch Stadium, St. Louis

contest between the St. Louis Cardinals, playing at home in the opener, and the Texas Rangers.  The Rangers are back in the Fall Classic for the second straight year, becoming the first repeat American League pennant winners since the New York Yankees won four in a row between 1998-2001 – but have zero World Series titles in their 40 year history.  In contrast, the St. Louis Cardinals have won it all 10 times, most recently in 2006.  Having been 10.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves for the National League Wild Card in late August, beaten the pitching rich Phillies in the Divisional Series, before knocking out the team with the best home record in baseball this year – the Brewers – by winning twice in their stadium, the Cardinals have every right to believe they are the team of destiny this season.

The biggest issue for most fans is figuring out who to root for in this series, as they are not among the bigger markets in baseball.  Neither of the two teams would have been first choice for the television networks, who would have been hoping for clubs with biggest fan-bases to make the World Series (something like Phillies vs Yankees/Red Sox).  So who will I be supporting for the next 4 to 7 games? Given that I have no natural like nor dislike for either team, other than the animosity I gained for the Rangers in last year’s ALCS, much of which was for the since departed Cliff Lee, I am going to have to rely on other deciding factors.

State Nicknames & Slogans – The “Lone Star State” taking on the “Show Me” state…Hardly inspiring nicknames for either side – this is no exactly “Live Free or Die” – but then New Hampshire does not have a professional baseball team.  This would almost be a draw, but for the “Don’t mess with Texas” moniker that has become synonymous with that state, which gives this one to Missouri. Texas Rangers 0, St. Louis Cardinals 1

Presidents – Just looking at the Presidents who were born in the respective states, there is Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson for Texas, Harry S Truman for Missouri (note, that’s Harry S Truman, not Harry S. Truman, his middle name was just “S”, it does not stand for anything…some free Presidential Pedantry in a piece about baseball).  Based solely on those three, the Rangers would be getting a point – two solid Presidents against the guy who ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  But the first person you think of when you consider Texas is of course President George W. Bush – indeed he owned the Rangers for a time and was first elected to office as Governor of the State – so can his actions (and inactions) outweigh the devastation and death caused by two nuclear weapons being used for the only time in war?  Of course they can.  Texas Rangers 0, St. Louis Cardinals 2

Slavery – Neither state can be proud of its history here – the Missouri Compromise enabled that territory to continue slavery, while Texas  seceded from the union to protect this inhumane, immoral act and now the Texas Board of Education has tried to rebrand the whole practice as the “Atlantic Triangular Trade”. Neither side wins this one – both lose a point.Texas Rangers -1, St. Louis Cardinals 1

Managers – Back to baseball matters: Cardinals manager, Tony La Russa, is clearly a very talented tactician and understands the game better than almost everyone else – but he still is not very likeable.  By contrast, Ron Washington is so lively and enthusiastic during every game that you cannot help but enjoy seeing him celebrate.  He also does not have an incredibly distracting dye job on his hair, which La Russa does. Texas Rangers 0, St. Louis Cardinals 1

Miscellanea – The Texas Rangers were at the centre of one of the saddest moments in the baseball season – when a man died at one of their games trying to catch a ball thrown by Josh Hamilton, to give to his son.  Unfortunately, they chose to remember this in their first playoff game against the Rays in the ALDS by having the boy and his mother come out to throw the first pitch to Hamilton – while I am sure the Rangers meant well, it came across as emotionally exploitative and I fear the effect it would have had on such a young kid, not to mention the widow.  Also, during game 1 of last season’s World Series, I was out bowling in Manhattan and in the lane next to us was a guy wearing a brand new Texas Rangers hat – missing his supposedly favourite team in their first ever appearance in the Fall Classic in order to knock over some pins.  For the Cardinals, their best player’s name is pronounced “Poo Holes” and they have a nice arch to look at during the game. Texas Rangers 0, St. Louis Cardinals 2

Predictions – For the whole postseason, I have got a record of one prediction right to five wrong.  The only correct guess I have made was the St. Louis Cardinals knocking out the Milwaukee Brewers, reason enough for me to back them one more time.  Texas Rangers 0, St. Louis Cardinals 3 – The Prediction – Cardinals in 6

This week in: American Football – Week 6

It is never a good sign for fans when their team is being widely lauded in the media before they have won anything – or

Last week the Bills took down the highly fancied Eagles

had not even played a game.  Just ask those who root for the Phillies, Red Sox, Heat or Eagles – all of whom were being predicted to go all the way prior to their respective seasons started, but failed to meet those expectations.  So when I read in Peter King’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” column on SI.com this Monday that the Packers and Lions, should they both keep winning, would each be 10-0 going into their Thanksgiving day showdown in Detroit, I knew that Green Bay were cursed for this week’s game.

Then I checked the fixtures for week 6 and saw the reigning Champs are home to the woeful St. Louis Rams and my fears dissipated. Having overcome an early deficit against the Falcons in Atlanta in last Sunday night’s game, the  schedule has really opened up for Green Bay.  Before the Turkey Day showdown with the Lions, the only other unbeaten team left in the NFL, the Packers face the struggling Vikings twice, host the Rams and the Buccaneers, and must travel to San Diego to play the Chargers – the only one of those games they will not be heavily favoured in.

Since I’ve spent around 200 words jinxing my own team, time to move on to a recap of last week’s games.  The Eagles dropped to 1-4 after their loss to the Buffalo Bills; the Vikings picked up their first win of the year by beating the Arizona Cardinals in Minnesota; and the Oakland Raiders, who lost their long time owner, Al Davis, who died on Saturday.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were routed by the 49ers, who are looking strong favourites to win the NFC West this year; their divisional rivals, the Seattle Seahawks, provided the upset of the week when they beat the New York Giants in the New Meadowlands; and the Chargers survived a Tim Tebow fueled comeback from the Broncos in Denver, holding on to win 28-24.  The Patriots got a measure of revenge on the Jets for last year’s playoff loss; the Steelers routed the Titans; and the Chiefs won in Indianapolis, dropping the Colts to 0-5.

The pick of the games this week sees the Redskins, coming off a bye week, try to maintain their lead in the NFC East when they host the Eagles; Alex Smith and the 49ers travel to Detroit to face the 5-0 Lions; and the struggling Cowboys head to New England to play the Patriots.  In the race for the worst record and therefore the number 1 draft pick, which this year mans landing superstar college Quarterback Andrew Luck, the 0-5 Colts are playing the Bengals; while the winless Dolphins, who had a bye last week, take on the New York Jets in New Jersey in Monday Night’s game.

Predicitions

Last week, 8-5; season 40-37

Home teams in bold

Panthers +4.5 over Falcons

Bills +3.5 over Giants

Bengals -6.5 over Colts

49ers +4.5 over Lions

Packers -14.5 over Rams

Redskins -0.5 over Eagles

Steelers -12.5 over Jaguars

Raiders -5.5 over Browns

Ravens -7.5 over Texans

Cowboys +7.5 over Patriots

Saints -4.5 over Buccaneers

Bears -3.5 over Vikings

Dolphins +7.5 over Jets

This Week In: English Football – Liverpool vs Man Utd

Dalglish and Ferguson face off again on Saturday

After a break for international fixtures, including the final group games in the qualifying tournament for Euro 2012, the Premier League returns with a full slate of matches this weekend.  The marquee game of the bunch is the first one that will be played, as Liverpool face their old rivals, Manchester United, in the early kick-off on Saturday.  In the last round of games, there was the North London Derby, but these two North-West clubs might dislike each other even more than Spurs and Arsenal do.  While there is no doubting the fans animosity towards each other in those games, with Manchester United and Liverpool the divide is not just between the clubs, but also the cities they call home.

In the days of the Industrial revolution, the two cities were in direct competition with each other for business.  In 1894, when the Manchester Ship Canal was completed ships were able to bypass Liverpool and dock directly in Manchester, resulting in less revenue for the former’s merchants, which ultimately lead to job losses in the city.  From here a rivalry between the two places was formed, nowadays it is framed in each city’s most successful football clubs.  While Liverpool and Everton derbies mean a lot to families who are divided between red and blue; and Manchester United and City games have taken on a new relevance in the last two seasons, as both teams are in the upper echelons of the league and are competing for titles, it is Saturday’s game at Anfield that supporters of both clubs will most want to win.

When Sir Alex Ferguson took over at United in 1986, Liverpool were the dominant team in English football and, in 1990, they won their 18th league title.  At that time, the Red Devils were sitting on a total of just 7 championships, and had not won any since 1967.  Since the dawn of the Premiership era in the early 90s, Ferguson has revitalised the club and Manchester United have won 12 league titles since 1992/1993.  As Liverpool have not won any in that time, they now trail their rivals in the overall title count by 19 to 18 – though they still can cite their 5 European Cup triumphs, compared with United’s 3.

The personnel involved with the two teams do not like each other either:  when he started his reign at United, Sir Alex had talked about wanting to “knock Liverpool off their fucking perch”; Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has many shirts he has swapped with opposing players displayed in his house, but none of them are from a Manchester United player; and recently retired Red Devil, Gary Neville, was famously antagonistic towards Liverpool, running the length of the pitch to celebrate a last minute winning goal in front of the away supporters in a game at Old Trafford in 2006.  The two clubs will not do business together, no player has been transferred between the two teams since 1964.  When Gabriel Heinze requested a move to Anfieldfrom Old Trafford in 2007, he was vilified by the United fans, the transfer was blocked and he ended up being sold to Real Madrid instead.

Manchester United have not won in the league at Anfield since 2007, having lost all of their last three Premiership away games against Liverpool.  This season, Ferguson’s team have only dropped 2 points out of the first 21 available to them, and they will be looking to continue their good form against their old enemy this weekend.  Liverpool have had a reasonable start to the season, and beat Everton in their last league game – a win on Saturday would take them up to 4th, with Newcastle not playing until Sunday.  You can predict the winner of the game in this week’s poll question – found at the bottom of this article.

That game at St. James’ Park sees Newcastle taking on a Tottenham team who also won a derby game last time out, overcoming Arsenal 2-1 at White Hart Lane.  Spurs have won their last four games, having started the season with two defeats to the Manchester clubs, and will be looking to strengthen their own quest for a top four spot this weekend in the North-East.  In other games, Manchester City take on a still unbeaten Aston Villa side at Maine Road City of Manchester Stadium theEtihad Stadium; 15th takes on 16th at the Emirates when Arsenal host Sunderland; two of the newly promoted sides, Norwich and Swansea, play at Carrow Road; and two of the bottom three meet with Bolton making the short trip to Wigan.  Fulham, who won 6-0 in their last outing, travel to Stoke; while QPR, the team on the wrong end of that thrashing by the Cottagers, hope to get back on track as they are at home to Blackburn Rovers.  Bovril will be in short supply in the Midlands this weekend as there is a derby between West Bromwich Albion and Wolves; while Chelsea will look to keep the pressure on the top two of United and City by beating Everton at Stamford Bridge.  After a delay of two weeks, it will be good to be back to a full round of Premier League fixtures again.

Predictions

Last time 6-4; Season 23-16

Liverpool vs Manchester United – Away win

Manchester City vs Aston Villa – Home win

Norwich vs Swansea – Draw

QPR vs Blackburn – Home win

Stoke vs Fulham – Home win

Wigan vs Bolton – Away win

Chelsea vs Everton – Home win

West Brom vs Wolves – Home win

Arsenal vs Sunderland – Home win

Newcastle vs Tottenham – Away win

Baseball – ALCS/NLCS Preview

If you are going to predict sporting events, you either need to get them spot on, or completely wrong – there is no fun in being as accurate as a coin toss and getting 50% right- as I have been thus far in my NFL picks (32 and 32 against the spread going into Week 5).  Luckily, I was nowhere near being average with my picks for the divisional series of the MLB playoffs.  As you can see here, I made the following prognostications:

Phillies over Cardinals in 3 – Actual Result – Cardinals in 5

Diamondbacks over Brewers in 5 – Actual Result – Brewers in 5

Rays over Rangers in 5 – Actual Result – Rangers in 4

Yankees over Tigers in 4 – Actual Result – Tigers in 5

A big OH for four, making me about as useful as A-Rod in October, and 39% less accurate than Punxsutawney Phil .  One small caveat, I did state in the preview for the Yankees/Tigers series that my head was saying Detroit but my heart was picking

Phil predicts it will be an early winter for the Yankees

New York.  I could also try and fall back on the pre-season predictions of virtually all of the major baseball writers who projected a World Series between the Phillies and the Red Sox – the former falling at the first hurdle in October, the latter suffering the biggest collapse in baseball history. (Note that every single pundit picked at least one of Philadelphia or Boston to make the World Series, if not both) But I digress, I could not have been more wrong, so now it is time to let you know who will miss out on making the World Series when they are cursed by my predictions.

ALCS

Detroit Tigers vs Texas Rangers (Rangers have home-field advantage)

This really is a hard one to call, the two teams regular season records were separated by a single game – the Rangers winning 96 to the Tigers 95 – but Detroit did win 6 out of the 9 times they played against each other this year.  Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander is without doubt the best player in this series and, as manager Jim Leyland held off bringing him in to game 5 against the Yankees, he will be available to potentially pitch three times against Texas.  Unlike last year, when they had Cliff Lee to take them all the way to the World Series, the Rangers do not have an ace pitcher this year.  What they do have is a balanced lineup and have been playing consistently well all year – plus they took care of the rampant Tampa Bay Rays in their ALDS matchup.  In the Tigers favour, their closer, Jose Valverde, has not blown a save all season and the team has not lost a game in which they have led after the 7th inning all season – with Joaquin Benoit as the setup man in the 8th before Valverde takes over to finish the job.  Because of this ability to shorten the game by 6 outs , I’m picking Detroit to make their first World Series since 2006 – when they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in 5.

Prediction – Detroit in 6

NLCS

St. Louis Cardinals vs Milwaukee Brewers (Brewers have home-field advantange)

On August 26th, the Cardinals were 10.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the battle for the National League Wild Card – now they are four wins away from returning to the World Series, 5 years after they last won it all.  In Pujols, Berkman and Holliday, St. Louis has a formidable middle of the order that will be difficult for the Milwaukee pitchers to navigate.  Their hero in the deciding game against the Phillies, Chris Carpenter – who pitched a complete game shutout for the win – will not be available until Game 3 this time around, meaning Jamie Garcia (13-7, 3.56 ERA during the regular season) will probably get the ball for the series opener.  The Brewers also used their number 1 starter, Yovani Gallardo, in the series clincher against the Diamondbacks on Friday night, so it will fall to Zack Greinke to try to get Milwaukee off to a winning start at home.  In Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, the Brewers also have formidable 3-4 hitters and this matchup may come down to who takes care of business in front of their own fans.  After knocking out the Phillies – who had a starting pitching staff including Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, not to mention the best regular season record in all of baseball this year – I cannot pick against the Cardinals.

Prediction – Cardinals in 5