EPL 8: Inside the Octagon

Yesterday, I spoke these words aloud to see how they would sound: “I am a Chelsea fan”. 

I immediately looked around to see if anyone had actually heard me, and also in complete fear and desperation in case I had said something I could not take back[1].  After a few furtive glances around I determined the following: a) no one had heard me b) I was talking to myself c) Chelsea might be the perfect club for me.

WHAT?

Chelsea might be my team?  When just a week ago the Manchester Squads were neck in neck for my affections?  When Chelsea was on the chopping block, waiting to see if a rose / picture / scale / chef’s knife would appear for them as they looked on in anguish at the last possible and epically dramatic second? 

Chelsea showed me something against Bolton this past weekend I did not anticipate ever seeing in a high paid, endless egomaniacal squad – their beating heart.  With an embattled coach, embarrassing losses piling up, their backline leader facing a potential prison term and their $50 million striker unable to buy a goal, the team pulled together and gutted out a commanding win against Bolton with a dominant second half versus a squad fighting relegation (the words: “I love and unequivocally support John Terry” are much harder to stomach and each attempt to say them aloud led to serious chest pains and visions of holy water boiling). 

Yet what truly sucked me in to the team was their gaping flaws, so heart-wrenchingly on display.  Fernando Torres exquisite agony – readable in his every breath and each extra long closeup; Gary Cahill’s complete inability to anchor the shakiest of back lines and playing without any trust from his teammates; Petr Cech’s unyielding steadiness in the face of pressure; the unwavering devotion of Frank Lampard and, finally, the diminutively death-defying forays and volleys of Juan Mata.

Currently sitting fifth in the Premier League, Chelsea has a long way to go to get back into the top four as Arsenal continues to round into form[2] .  They may take a few years rebuilding and fitting new pieces into their team.  Tradition dictates an eventual return to contention but given the slippery slope of has-been Vets and not enough youth[3] it should take some time. 

The Manchester Squads meanwhile won in very different fashions but seem to be headed on an apocalyptic collision course for the league title.  Man City won going away against Blackburn in a performance so dominant that at times it appeared they were playing a youth league team.  Man U needed goals from ageless wonders Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs (playing his 900th game!) in order to get past Norwich.  Both goals were simply perfect examples of wily / crafty vets getting into the right position.  Giggs goal was pure clutch, and one of the most exciting moments of the season not involving Thierry Henry. 

But, I said the following words aloud: “I am a Chelsea fan”.

The worst part is, it did not sound too bad[4]

 


[1] Do not mess with Premier League Fans. 

[2] And Terry awaits his trial and a pack of Manchester lads sent out to the cut…I guess I can no longer make John Terry jokes if Chelsea is possibly going to be my team. 

[3] Unlike Man City and Man U who have stockpiled…except for Man U’s 95 year old midfield.  Chelsea currently has 2 under 21 players.    

[4] My brother, Just Ross, has thrown his hands up in defeat and sworn off all soccer related posts for some time. 

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Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – Feb 28, 2012

In the 2012 All-Star Game, LeBron had a chance to erase his end of game demons and refused to take it. 

To rehash what nine million sports talk commentators are saying: LeBron (whose 36 points and ridiculous three point shooting had brought the East back into the game and made it competitive) passed off the ball instead of taking the final shot.  He found an open Deron Williams who had no trouble shooting an open three; the ball then bounced back to LeBron who attempted a very strange pass into traffic that was picked off by Blake Griffin instead of trying a three. 

I wanted LeBron to take the shot.  Kobe wanted LeBron to take the shot.  Everyone wanted LeBron to take the shot. In an ultimately meaningless game it would have meant absolutely nothing if he made it or not.  The simple fact that he refused to take a game winner with nothing on the line is very troubling.  He needed to take the shot to exorcise whatever demons are haunting him (looking at you Clevelanders!)

Reverse the situation – LeBron guarding Kobe with a two point lead on the line.  Does Kobe hesistate for a millisecond before shooting?  No chance.  Imagine Cleveland LeBron in that situation: I think he shoots without any regret or second thought.  Miami LeBron simply can no longer pull the trigger in a tight game.  He does not have it in him right now to take the shot – and in some ways we can understand why he is so reluctant.  If he hits the shot people will complain it is in a meaningless game.  If he misses we can again point to the fact that the greatest player in the world cannot make a clutch shot to save his life. 

In the past week I read the amazing and classic basketball book Wilt and within the self-aggrandizing pages lies the most startling comparison to LeBron I have yet found.  Like Wilt, LeBron is supremely talented and is such a physical freak that he can rise to the top of the sport with little or no effort.  Like Wilt, LeBron may not understand what it takes to win.  True greatness comes not from statistical dominance but rather from making everyone better and winning championships – see Michael Jordan or Bill Russell for prime examples.  Wilt and LeBron have unique skills which allow them to dominate games whenever they choose, but both lack the confidence to do so at the end of the game.  Is it because of a fear of failure?  Wilt writes about always being seen as a villain (sound like anyone we know?) and never getting credit for his accomplishments – even as he completely failed to understand what it took to be the best. 

Is LeBron destined to be Wilt 2.0?  A player who had to go to Miami (as Wilt went to LA) so that someone else (DWade / or Jerry West) can take the final shot?   Take the shot LeBron, miss or not you simply need to take one with the game on the line.  The first step is simply to show us you can. 

We can talk about making the shot later.

Free Kicks – Feb 26, 2007

Here are my weekly Free Kicks – thoughts from the Premiership weekend that was:

Chelsea needed one, and they got it – Under fire from fans, vets and even their own management, Chelsea managed to get a big win against Bolton.  Frank Lampard showed the magic touch in scoring his 150th career goal but by the end of the game all of the attention was focused again on the exquisite agony of Fernando Torres.  Once again much was made of his failure to score (thankfully the televison viewers were reminded that the last time he scored was at Stamford Bridge…in September) which in many ways is unfair to what Torres has brought to the team.  He gives more than foul machine Didier Drogba but simply cannot score – his crosses are particularly beautiful poetry (see the one to Juan Mata against Man U that led to the goal of the year).  However, Chelsea is not paying $50 million for crosses – to anyone other than Juan Mata anyways – and each game he fails to score is another wrenching defeat for his waning confidence.  Torres may need a fresh start somewhere else to get back on track.

RIP Tottenham’s Title Hopes – Through the first half on Sunday the Spurs were heading for a glorious showdown in a three pony race; by the end of the second they can only hang their heads in shame.  As my buddy @madadub tweeted “What a massive letdown this morning, that was an embarrassing display #shameful“.  Instead of a chance at the titles, the Spurs may now have a fight on their hands for third place and a key Champions League slot.  The Spurs would really have to collapse to finish out of the top four, but the rumors of losing Harry Redknapp to England Managership seem to be taking a real toll on the squad.  Can they hold on for the remainder of the season and keep the third slot? 

Man City looked Barca-esque –During the clinic City put on against Blackburn, the most impressive thing was their ridiculous pin point passing.  The team looked tight, strong and good enough to keep a guy as excellent as James Milner on the bench for 80 minutes.  No one has been deeper this season and getting to see another fantastic goal by Mario Balotelli was a joy.  The talent is undeniable and he fits in perfectly with City.  The dogfight continues at the top of the table, but City looks like the class of the league this season. 

Man U wins thrillingly – Not to be outdone, the other Manchester team won a thriller thanks to their two “elder statesmen” Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, both of whom appear more and more like ageless wonders.  How much longer can Man U patch together a coherent squad before they fall apart?  The return of Tom Cleverly will be incredibly helpful to a midfield held together by little more than patches.  Can they catch City?  The final stretch is upon us, and the King will be a member of the Manchester Darby.

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – Feb 24, 2012

Did Miami kill Linsanity?

Near the end of the second quarter of Miami and New York, LeBron James dunked the ball as hard as he ever has in his career.  After a steal, he got the ball at mid-court with two Knick defenders ahead of him.  Without hesitating, LBJ picked up ridiculous speed and slammed the ball two-handed with such ferocity that his message was abundantly clear – we could not care less about the Knicks.

For the past week, all anyone – including the Heat – could talk about was what a benchmark game this was for the Knicks and Jeremy Lin.  Miami put that to rest by forcing Lin into seven first half turnovers and holding him to his worst game in weeks.  From the outset Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole pressed the ball and slowed Lin down, forcing him into quick decisions and disrupting any sense of rythym. 

Then there was the frightening play of LeBron, Wade and Bosh.  For one of the first times all season the three of them were firing on all cylinders.  Once again we glimpsed the tantalizing potential of the Miami Heat’s Big Three.  They moved the ball well, all scored in the mid to low 20’s and helped get their supporting cast (Chalmers, Cole, and Battier) involved.  Defensively it may have been their best game all season – multiple from behind blocks hampered the Knicks all night. 

More interesting was the way Miami’s players played up the Lin angle all week: building him up in order to tear him down.  Miami may have played a con game, but it showed how much they want to win – and how far they have come in the short time the team has been together.  Tonight they looked deep, defensively strong and offensively on fire.  Chris Bosh was particularly good and he looked like he was meshing well with both his teammates for the first time in quite awhile. 

Miami truly looked like a championship contender, but can they maintain the effort they put forth tonight?

EPL VII – The Deathly Hallows

In which a surprising club is faced with elimination. 

Speaking this past week with my brother, Just Ross, yielded two quotes that are pure gold:

1)      “You’re writing too much about soccer.”

2)      “Are you really going to go through this whole process just to become a Man U Fan?”

The honest answer: I do not know.  Honestly.

Man U has always been a team I have felt a strong attachment to for most of my life – not surprising when you consider that I have quite the affinity for evil empires like the New York Yankees and Miami Heat)[1]

One of the major reasons Man U is in top spot thus far is simply because I do not know if I can take any more losing.  2011 was one of the worst years for sports in the history of my life.  Both the Vancouver Canucks and Miami Heat were up 2-0 in their respective finals.  The rest is history[2], terrible, awful, gut wrenching history[3]

Do I really want to follow the potential regelation of my team, year in and year out?  This consistently dire situation sounds like a recipe for constant depression (known to Englishmen as “the Black Dog” and usually only 99.7% football related)[4].  Man U gives a chance for victory every single year simply due to the fact that like the Red Sox and Yankees they actually spend the money in order to remain consistently competitive[5].  My heart may not be able to take another decade of relegation drama. 

Yet, one team which has slowly grown on me and not for the reasons that you might think.  The team is Everton and the reason is the argument made by Chelsea supporter Michael Davies in which he admonished diehard fan Rog Bennett about it not being good enough for Everton to be happy about a mid-table finish.  At the end of the day this is about winning titles.  Period.  Regardless of how much money you spend.  Everton – a team to keep an eye on.

Now we come to the painful part of the program in which someone is eliminated.  If this was a reality show, Chelsea would be one of the teams on the chopping block.  A major reason is that if I was to become a fan of the Blues, I would have to support them regardless of their character flaws.  A friend of my brother is a fan – and John Terry must be revered as a Saint.  Tough, tough situation to stomach at the best of times[6].  Chelsea feels like they are not the team for me, but I just cannot eliminate a team when players like Juan Mata play as hard as they do. 

Instead Norwich has been eliminated. 

Did I really just spend an entire post attempting to convince myself that Man U might be my team because my heart cannot stand to back another mid-table team that will take time to rise to prominence – or have they really won me over for non-selfish reasons?

City may have something to say about that… 


[1] Not shockingly, my NL team is the Atlanta Braves. 

[2] Probably the most ridiculous collapses in history and a major reason why I now spell EPIC FAIL the following way – D I E  B R U I N S  D I E. 

[3] Still.  So.  Painful. 

[4] Thanks to the Men In Blazers for this info!

[5] Also see Man City and Chelsea!

[6] 3 words: “Wayne Bridges Wife”

Free Kicks – Feb 22, 2012

Some thoughts from the week that was in football:

Chelsea is in trouble on the backline – For the first time in more than a decade, Chelsea looks to be a strange combo of too old and too young on their backline.  Against Napoli (and Sunderland) there were some serious issues going on which must be very troublesome for supporters.  David Luis again made a catastrophic mistake which led to a goal; Ashley Cole looked old and was generally run around all day; Gary Cahill (the big transfer) is playing with no confidence and looks totally out of place with his new club.  Is this the post- John Terry future?  A chaotic mix of talent but a complete lack of discipline?  With all the focus on their drowning manager AVB, Chelsea played well at times, but were ultimately overmatched all over the field.  Not a great week for Chelsea fans…

Arsenal had a tough week – On the heels of Henry’s stunning winner, Arsenal was kicked about and was no threat during their Champions league match.  Rumors of RVP’s departure for greener pastures (despite Barca’s refusal to pay fees) cannot help matters at all. 

John Terry headed for surgery – Has John Terry once again slipped the pressure?  He decides to have exploratory surgery at the perfect time to avoid any and all conflict over potentially playing for England at Euro 2012.  It takes him out of the limelight until his upcoming trial.  How does he keep getting out of these things?  The man has more lives than a cat.

Checking in with the Canucks

The NHL season is entering the stretch run, and my beloved Canucks (known to most as the greatest team in the history of the NHL) are once again in prime position to make a Cup run.  For quite a while at the outset of the season I struggled to get back into watching games as the long and exhausting run to the doorstep of hoisting Lord Stanley took a lot out of me as a fan.  Combined of course with watching the city I love more than any other descend into complete anarchy after the never-in-doubt Game 7 loss[1]

As the city burned and I tried to process what had happened, all I knew was that I wanted a long break from the game and the team.  People like to talk about tortured sports cities and rarely include Vancouver despite 40 years of mostly ineptitude as a franchise.  The Canucks have only played in three Stanley Cups during that time and have lost two winnable Game 7’s (one against the greatest team the Rangers have ever sent out; the other of course against a city that has clearly made a deal with Satan himself.  How else can you explain the Championship Sweep Boston has experienced?) all the while hearing year in and year out since 2000 that we are a contender[2].   

Can you blame me for wanting some time away from the team?  When the season kicked off it seemed like hardly any time had passed since June.  In many ways it felt as if I had missed a couple of games and was just picking up again a ways into a much longer season.  Not enough time went by and I came back wanting the same intensity of the playoffs, which simply was not there during the regular season.  The tension I had felt during the playoffs disappeared[3] and I found it difficult to get into the games. 

Fast forward to the last month in which the playoffs loom and the Canucks seem to be in position for another deep run.  My latest prayer: please let Chicago and Detroit meet before we have to play either of them.  I attended my first game since the playoffs and the energy was different, but no less overwhelming and exciting.  At one point I found myself trying to explain to my beautiful girlfriend what it was like in the building when Daniel Sedin scored an end to end rush against Chicago and simply could not.  For a brief moment I had feared the roof would literally come off the building – I can only imagine what it was like when Burrows scored his Game 7 overtime winner. 

The 2011 Cup run gave our city another group of heroes and gritty role players to worship for eternity alongside those from the ’94 squad[4].  Getting to watch them play this season has been somewhat anti-climactic: I desperately want the Cup and I desperately want to see this group of players raise it.  As a city we deserve it, and as I enjoyed the 6-1 evisceration of Toronto last night I saw, for the first time all season a team that looks like a legitimate threat. 

Just hoping against hope that Boston stumbles in the East and Detroit and Chicago kill each other. 

We can take anyone else[5]


[1] Our only chance?  Playing Schneider in net in Boston in Game 6 and having him pull out a win.  Luongo wanted no part of that building or the pressure of having to win Game 7.  Boston played harder and simply wanted it more in the end.  I will now go bash my head against a wall for an hour. 

[2] Yes, even during the Nasland years. 

[3] Though the anger I feel at rioters and looters (mostly from Surrey) still remains very strong indeed.  Watching it all transpire on TV made me wish the Police would actually fire the bean bag shotguns at the instigators.  I would bet 95% of the people involved were simply standing around.  Next time hopefully the instigators will get a bloody good kicking. 

[4] Like the Courtnall brothers and Greg Adams!

[5] Though I am worried about Detroit and Chicago.  And Pittsburgh if Crosby returns. 

As the Ball Bounces – Feb 19, 2012

Some thoughts surrounding recent NBA developments:

Jeremy Lin for…MVP – Is this as far out as it appears?  Lets imagine the Knicks snagging the 3 or 4 seed in the East and Lin plays a huge part in that.  For the sake of argument we have to suppose that Lin continues to lead the team despite the return of Carmelo and finishes with around 22-24 ppg and 8 apg (also suppose he cuts way down on his turnovers)  Are those MVP numbers?  Absolutely.  Talking with Just Ross yesterday we both struggled to comprehend how the Knicks had gone from complete afterthoughts to legit playoff contenders.  Of course this all depends on what happens when Melo returns but if Lin continues to be the engine that drives the Knicks then he may merit a place in the discussion.  Think about this: name a player who has been more valuable to his team this season?  Or try and name a player who has allowed one of the top ten guys in the league to be casually banded about as trade fodder for Dwight Howard. 

The Current MVP Ballot looks like this – 1) LeBron James – at this point, really his to lose.  2) Chris Paul – who has been more valuable to their team?  3) Derrick Rose – putting up great numbers for the best team in the game.  4) Kobe Bryant – simply refusing to allow the Lakers to become irrelevent.  5) ? Lin?  Kevin Durant?  Kevin Love?

Dwight Howard cannot carry a franchise to a title – Miami had struggled against the Magic in their previous meeting due to the perfect combo of Howard being unstoppable inside and the three point shooters on fire outside.  Today, Miami had made major adjustments (including LeBron on Howard at one point) which led to a blowout win.  One of the best attributes the Heat have shown this season is the ability to come back after a loss and make every change they need to in order to win.  This will hopefully make them unstoppable during the playoffs.

The Worst Show on Television

A couple of days ago, Shaq agreed to light himself on fire – on national television – if his team in the “emerging stars” game does not win by ten points.  The above video does not fully capture how truly awful Shaq has been on TV, he may be in contention for “worst of all time”. 

The best pregame show guys (like FOX’s NFL Crew) actually prepare material beforehand.  Shaq seems content to simply destroy all the chemistry that Kenny and Charles had previously built and to be completely outrageous.  Some of the “highlights”:

– A Christmas tree is pushed over on him on the first day of the season.

– He swears on national television and has to eat a bar of soap (I wish I was making this up) leading to him simply walking off set. 

– A five minute rant in which he attempts to prove he is the greatest center of all time and get the other guys to agree with him.

At times when the show is on, I have wondered if TNT is simply hoping his contract runs out so they can dump him.  Bill Simmons speculated he may be drawing a second paycheck from ESPN in order to tank the previously good show.  In many ways it is a sad ending to what could have been a glorious career: Shaq again is doing just enough and having a great time doing it.  He never killed himself when he was in the league and there is no way he is going to now that he is on TV.  He desperately wants to stay relevent in a league that is so quick to forget its former greats.  Through television and “Inside the NBA” he seeks to validate his entire career and seems to be on a mission to make himself out as the greatest of all time. 

Instead, he has revealed another fact about him that we as fans have long ignored: he has destroyed the chemistry of every single team he has ever been on while blaming someone else (see Orlando, LA, Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland, Boston). 

Even in retirement his impressive streak appears intact.

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – Feb 17, 2012

Miami has pulled off a feat no other team has achieved in this shortened season: they won a back to back to back. 

Amidst the team’s strange love of Linsanity – which has led to all of us imagining a bizarro world in which LeBron was on the Knicks – they managed to blow out teams on three consecutive nights.  The stretch has coincided perfectly with Dwyane Wade playing his best basketball of the season, and Chris Bosh becoming a surprising rebounding force. 

Yet as always, controversy has been stirred again.  LeBron feels he is a villian (old news) and he could see himself playing for the Cavs again – most likely when he is a vet with a two inch vertical and cagey jumpshot – which was one of the craziest things he has ever said. 

Not only did he manage to reopen the wounds that Kyrie Irving has finally bandaged but he did it during a season when Miami looks hungry for a title.  Do the Cavs want a post title LeBron returning to their team?  It may not end up as gloriously as he is picturing in his head.  He is genuinely hated in Cleveland (see Scott Raab’s entire book The Whore of Akron for most of the gory details) and to return to the team would be nothing short of the worst insult this side of John Terry to Anton Ferdinand of QPR (*allegedly!*)

NBA players are very lucky that the worst they have to deal with is people booing them.  When Wayne Rooney was angry with ManU and threatened to force a transfer to Man City, twenty masked thugs showed up at his house and left behind the following banner “Go to City and Die”.  LeBron does not have to deal with that level of hatred, and nor does it stop his newfound happy-go-lucky season. 

Of course the timing of  his proposed Cavs return statement was timed perfectly with a trip to Cleveland, but who can resist the urge to stick it to the Cavs again when you already killed their title hopes for another five years?