EPL “Title” XI – Equality for All?

I came into this competition to choose an EPL Team with what I thought was an open mind.  I was not simply going to look at the table and select the team currently at the top – my goal was to use a set of criteria to slowly eliminate teams before picking one I could root for beginning next season.

Evidently, my approach was a little bit too clinical and more methodical than it should have been.  As I have discovered, when choosing a team it is often not about any number of criteria you have painstakingly set out to adhere to.  Rather the team and its players will seize you by the throat and complete overwhelm you into submission (see Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch).

From the very outset my meandering was doomed to an epic failure the instant I connected with a team.  This all serves to lead me to the other day:

During my lunch hour I was in desperate need of a boost and ducked into a café for a lunchtime coffee.  Stepping inside the café I immediately noticed the café was running a Champions League game featuring Chelsea and Benfica.  There was a clear feeling of nervous energy within the café that was on the precipice of exploding.  As the kindly, older owner made my drink – clearly with one eye on the game – I started up a quick chat about footy.  We watch the few minutes while he prepped my latte (in reality he was watching the game and burned himself at least three times without ever taking his eyes of the screen apart from a quick muttered curse.  He also handed me something I definitely did not order but that is how difficult it is to pour coffee when a game is on) and our chat ended with him stating the words “Go Benfica” – to the screen, not me.

I smiled, took the caramel drink I had not ordered, snatched a few more seconds of the game and then walked out.  The instant I hit the street the words rolled out in a whisper – “Go Chelsea”.

Once a team grasps you, they never let go, they are in your very soul and rooted like an unkillable plant (trust me, as a Canucks fan I know – they were literally on the doughnut I ate yesterday).  I can no longer pretend to be totally objective in my search as something has begun to take root.

No longer can I include Manchester United among my list of potential candidates.  While I like the team (and Wayne Rooney might just be my favorite player) they are not my squad.

My god…they are not my squad…that means….

I am going to be sick.

Advertisements

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – March 27, 2012

I told myself the following before I wrote this blog:

Do not panic about Miami, do not panic about Miami, do not panic about the state of basketball in Miami!

I will not fail to do so, in traditionally epic fashion.

What in the bloody hell is going on in Miami!  How can they look frighteningly dominant at times and then stunningly lethargic at others?  Why can they not beat teams like Indiana – whom they have previously run off the court – and why do they struggle to close out every single team in the league?  For a solid eight minutes against Oklahoma City the best player for Miami was Joel freaking Anthony.  I will now jump in on LeBron the closer James.

Against OKC, arguably the best team in the entire league, LeBron looked complete disinterested in anything other than setting up after game plans to hit the nightlife with summer workout partner Kevin Durant.  None of this would have been any kind of problem – had Miami been winning the goddamn game at any point but they never even had a chance to pull out a victory.

A couple of times LeBron was matched up on smaller, weaker defenders and I was yelling at the screen, urging him to take them to the rack.  He hesitated, every single time and looked for a pass.  He wanted to be virtually anywhere else and it shows in every single pass he makes to a “lesser” teammate.   There is simply something off with LeBron, something incredibly difficult to define and is increasingly worry some on a 3 ½ man team.  Where is the LeBron who destroyed   Boston and Chicago?  I am becoming begrudgingly alright with his inability to show up in the last five minutes of any close game and that he is not made of the same stuff as MJ, Larry Bird, Magic and *cough Kobe Bryant, but I am not alright with the “current greatest player” coasting Wilt-like through important games that could eventually determine the seeding in the NBA Finals.

The most frustrating part is how amazing LeBron has been this year.  He is putting up unbelievable numbers (it would be nearly impossible to create a video game character with his skills) and is probably the best one on one defender currently playing in the NBA.  We know LBJ has late game heroics in him, and we know he can vanquish any foe when he wants to but he seems to be increasingly crippled by the moment.  For god’s sake LBJ throw it down on someone!  You can take any player in the NBA to the hoop and finish with more of a flourish than anyone in the history of the game.  What in the hell did he work with Hakeem for in the off season to develop his unstoppable turnaround if he is going to be terrified to deploy it?

On to the trick or treat play of DWade:

Treat – He is becoming on the best closers in the game.

Trick – His inconsistency has been shocking and very un-DWade like.  No one has more ups and downs this season than him.  At no point all season has he put together a completely dominant performance.  I understand he has been playing hurt but the biggest rhythm the Heat had all season was when Bosh and LBJ had it going.  When Wade is in the lineup, LeBron simply does not know what to do.

Miami needs to sort it out – and quick!!! – before the conclusion of a season in which virtually anything can happen.  The positives: last season there was a lot of panic and Miami pulled it together in the playoffs and made a deep run.  The team could be tired from that deep postseason run.  Perhaps LeBron is playing the greatest rope a dope since Ali and plans to unleash holy hell come playoff time.

Can I trust them in a series against Chicago or OKC?

As the Ball Bounces – March 25, 2012

Hoop thoughts for the past couple of weeks:

Steve Nash is a magician – Nash continues to defy his age and doubters with vintage performances and astounding numbers (today 13 assists, vs. Houston 11 assists).  How is the man still getting it done?  After seeing him live it is clear he has much to teach the next generation of point guards.  Nash never (as in not under any circumstances) gives up his dribble.  He circles around and around, probing and looking for weakness.  When he spots an opening it is quickly exploited (against Houston it also helped that Michael Redd was 10 for 12 with 25 points).  Phoenix has also been on an absolute tear thanks to Nash who is the unlikely face of the franchise.  Consider the following: he completely rejuvenated the career of injury prone Grant Hill; he helped Gortat “the Polish Hammer” turn himself into one of the most consistent centers in the NBA; he inspires any subpar team he is part of and transforms them into a legit 8 seed in the West.  Not bad for 38…and Canadian.

Kevin Love has quietly turned out to be the best power forward in the NBA right now – Imagine a scenario in which the Clippers propose a trade with the T-Wolves, Blake for KLove.  There is no way that the Wolves make that trade.  Absolutely none.  Love has played incredibly well as of late and does the following better than the more hyped Griffin: shoot, rebound, score, defend, pass.  Griffin leads in a couple areas: dunks and fan following.  In August when the US Olympic team takes the floor there is no doubt at all it should be with Love in the four spot.  He is a consummate team player and has averaged more than 40 points per game in his last two contests (51 vs. OKC and 31 today).  Single handedly he nearly took down the two headed monster of Durant (41 points) and Westbrook (45 points) – keep in mind this all happened in the same game.  As @madadub messaged me: “Were they playing NBA Jam 3 on 3?”

No team looks like a surefire Champ – OKC and Chicago have the top records in the West and East, and Miami is close behind.  None of those teams has been particularly dominant and all have suffered somewhat embarrassing losses.  In a post lockout season it seems just about anything can happen.  Memphis seems primed to make a run.  The Lakers could have one last run in them.  The Knicks could pull it all together.  My money is still on Miami to pull through but I am increasingly nervous as the playoffs are gearing up.

Don’t even get me started on the Canucks.

 

Free Kicks – March 21, 2012

Torres finally scores (twice!) – Watching Torres score and then smile like a gorilla had been lifted from his shoulders was great.  Seeing him score again?  Gravy.  Torres is a great offensive player and finally breaking his drought was like seeing rain in the desert.  His four points in the game (2 goals, 2 assists) showed Torres can still be the player that Chelsea payed $50 million for.  Next season will give him a chance to rise again since Drogba will not be in a blue jersey.  Welcome back, Fernando.

Arsenal continues to rise – Arsenal is on a tear at exactly the right time that other teams have begun to fade and they may be on their way to third place soon.

Muamba shows how quickly things change – As fans of American Football know, sometimes the greatest are struck down in an instant.  Players have rallied around the fallen Bolton midfielder and we continue to hope for his recovery.  A terrifying moment that reminds us all how mortal we all are.

Suarez may be the greatest villain ever – Should we even be surprised at this point?  He might be the most dastardly man in EPL history.  So talented…so troubled.  Liverpool needs his pop, but the cost is huge.  No one in English football plays harder than Steven Gerrard.

Man U continues to power through – United is rising at the perfect time and may be through at the top of the table.  Today’s Chelsea – Man City game is huge for both squads but Man City is now chasing and must keep pace.

NFL Quick Hits – March 21, 2012

With Spring upon us there have been major developments – all while I was sitting around a pool in Phoenix.  Here we go in attempting to make sense of what has happened:

Peyton is a Bronco – Friday I was ridiculously excited because Steve Young went on ESPN and told me that Manning was going to be a 49er.  The team had quietly been putting pieces in place for Manning to lead the team to a Super Bowl (Moss, Manningham…) and they really seemed to offer the best chance to return to glory.  My brother was terrified, as a Giants fan this was his nightmare coming true.  We were a little too early.  Manning signed with the Broncos and instantly put them among the top contenders (assuming he is healthy) and made the man on the right trade bait.  I am not sure if I love this move for Manning but I like it.  The Broncos are on the rise and with a great player like Manning, they have a real shot.  However, the road still goes through New England.

Alex Smith, reluctant returnee? – After taking a quick Miami vacation (a red-eye flight), Smith signed for more than he is worth in San Fran.  When it looked like the team was seconds from signing Manning, Smith began to explore his options and then had to be won back to the 9ers.  Is he somewhat unhappy now or is everyone the 2nd choice after one of the best qbs ever?  Regardless, the 9ers felt they were one piece away and did not get that piece.  What now?  All the pressure is on Smith.

Tebow to the Jets…maybe – With Manning in the fold, the Broncos had to get rid of Tebow and they found a willing trade partner in the New York Jets.  We may now see Tebowmania and Linsanity in the same city.  Not only will Tebow pressure Mark Sanchez and force him to step up, he will now be expanding his brand in the biggest city in the world.  Maybe, as of 1:15 pacific time, the deal may be off due to complications involving Tebows contract.  You cannot make this sort of thing up.

Flynn to the Seahawks – Goodbye Charlie Whitehurst and Tavaris Jackson.

 

EPL X – The Return of the White Walkers?

This past Saturday I sat in a deserted bar – literally, we were the only people there – to watch Tottenham take on Everton in a game that the Spurs were desperate to win.  I am not sure if I expected mass fandom to be on hand, but I certainly expected more than myself and @madadub sitting there enjoying coffee and football alone (on a television that mysteriously kept blacking out, and caused us to miss the first goal.  This was an absolutely shameful display by a bar which shall remain nameless[1]).

Shockingly though, midway through Tottenham’s dominant performance I began to wonder if I gave up on them too quickly.  Could they resurface like George RR Martin’s deadly White Walkers?  However, I remembered why I eliminated them in the first place: because they are @madadub’s team and if they are my team too, it takes away all the fun of chirping each other after a win or loss.  Watching footy these past two Saturday mornings has been a great experience and trash talk will make it even more so.  I want to go all “Joe Hart vs. penalty shooter” on my EPL loving friends.

Wednesday I managed to catch some of the incredible second half of Chelsea – Napoli in the Champions League.   What a second half it was to catch; and what a difference a day makes.  In the wake of losing beleaguered manager AVB, Chelsea has become a different squad and their vets absolutely stood on their heads today.  John Terry scored a goal with such ferocity that even Didier Drogba had to run over and celebrate with him[2] and in the 105th minute, Chelsea took a 5-4 lead on aggregate over upstart Napoli and then held on to win.  This officially qualifies as a truly stunning comeback in which the team showed true heart for the first time all season.

Given the turmoil the team has recently gone through, it appears that new “caretaker” manager Di Matteo is content to let his vets run wild.  Run wild they have[3] as their 4-1 thrashing against Napoli was one of the games of the year.  Chelsea had to make up 4 goals to win the series and move on and for the first time all season they delievered.  After the game the players hugged and bonded like they had won the league.  Great to finally see lads and I am not even going to get into Di Matteo’s level of excitement / awkward hug and back-slap of exhausted and still unable to score Fernando Torres[4]

At this point it seems like I need to revise my rankings as so much has happened in the past few weeks that my head is positively spinning.  Deep breath, here we go:

1)      (excruciatingly long pause…then another…not…sure…I…can…do…it… I do not know if I can rank them here…) Chelsea

2)      Man United

3)      Man City

4)      Stoke

5)      Swansea

6)      Everton

There they are ladies and gentlemen.  The final six.  No more messing about: my team will come out of this pile. By the end of this season I will have someone to cheer on in the Premiership.  Until then I will continue to enjoy my burgeoning, and increasingly deep, obsession with futbal.


[1] The Academic on West Broadway in Vancouver, BC.  Whoops.

[2] I can no longer make jokes about John Terry, this sucks.

[3] Though I have a sneaking suspicion that Drogba is simply auditioning for his next team.

[4] Torres was still in agony over not scoring and Di Matteo celebrated as if it was Christmas morning and he was five years old.  Needless to say: a shocking contrast of opposites.

NFL Quick Hits – Free Agency

The Prodigal Son Returns – Randy Moss is a 49er and I was excited enough about it to send two separate “Moss to the 9ers” texts.  Here is the most explosive wide reciever of his generation…on my team.  Granted he did not play last season, and I have previously written that I think the game has passed him by somewhat, but no player inspires terror in opposing corners like Randy Moss.  If he is even seventy percent of what he was, that is more than enough to stretch the field for guys like Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis.  I like this move, I really do.  Hopefully Alex Smith can throw far enough…

Peyton to the… – Not the Dolphins (same div as Brady / the Jets), not the Jets (resigned Sanchez to a questionable deal), not the Skins (RGIII is the man there)…so where does one of the best QB’s of his generation (debate away, I think it is Brady) go?  Only one option seems remotely viable: the Arizona Cardinals.  Manning would get to play on grass, in a dome and throw to Larry Fitzgerald.  The Cards could cut Kevin Kolb with few ramifications and they have a bit of an underrated squad.  As for the chances of returning to the playoffs, the NFC West is pretty weak and Manning could swing the division to the Cards – as Kurt Warner before him.

Matt Flynn – Does it seem a forgone conclusion that he is headed to Seattle?

 

Free Kicks – March 13, 2012

My thoughts on this week in football…

Man City finally stumbles, Man United rises – City has controlled the table for so long that their victory at the conclusion of the season has seemed inevitable for months but the loss to Swansea this past weekend has led to the rise of Man United to first.  While first place is by no means out of the realm of possibility for the ultra talented City, United seems to be playing their best football with the season on the line.  Wayne Rooney has been in ridiculous form (only RVP has been better) and the team, despite being held together with duct tape and aging vets has managed to play exceptionally well.  Sir Alex knows how to get the best out of his squad and Roberto Mancini may not have the vets to pull out top spot this season.

Mario Balotelli is crazy – The talented striker is one of the most interesting personalities to enter the EPL in a long time.  Whether he can learn to harness his talent and eccentricities remains to be seen. 

Arsenal is running on pure luck – The squad has two straight injury time winners which have helped them move within one spot of faultering Tottenham.  It is quite interesting that this season began with new teams rising to the top (City, Tottenham), and may finish with all the old faces (United, Arsenal) occupying the top slots.  Tottenham’s loss against Everton was particularly brutal given how much they dominated the game.  As my friend (and Spurs supporter) @madadub said: “Spurs need a win badly.”  They simply could not put the ball in the net despite a number of chances and may see fourth place slipping from their grasp if they are not careful. 

 

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – March 12, 2012

Welcome back, DWade. 

Miami really needed this one against an upstart Indiana Pacers team in OT, and they really needed Wade to bury the winner with .001 seconds left on the clock.  After a few weeks of struggling the final shot (and who was going to take it), Wade nailed one and put any thoughts of LeBron having to handle the ball with the game on the line out of our minds completely. 

When LeBron made his fateful “decision” to join the Miami Heat, we all wondered what he was doing: did he not want to be the guy?  At this moment it seems as if we can say with some certainty that no, he does not want to be the guy.  Perhaps he never wanted to be the guy and has now found himself in the ideal situation: for 40 minutes a game he can absolutely dominate.  For the final ten seconds he wants no part of it.  He will pass the ball to Chris Bosh, he will pass the ball to DWade, he will pass the ball to Udonis freaking Haslem. 

LeBron does not want that shot. 

For an extended period of time we have wondered what roles LeBron and DWade will accept in playing together.  LeBron now gets to be the primary scorer (and MVP) and Wade gets to be the closer.  The only question remaining for me is this: can LeBron become one of the greatest players in NBA history when he is terrified to finish anyone off?  The answer is neither easy to stomach, nor easily forthcoming. 

Few teams in history can boast better guys in either role.

The Nine – EPL

Sitting and watching Barca’s deconstruction[1] of Bayer on Wednesday gave me a wonderful reminder of everything futbal can be – and why I am going through this entire process of choosing a team.  Barca is, after all, a team so frighteningly good that they made a 7-0 victory over a very good team appear to be just another evening. 

In many ways, it was: Lionel Messi scored an astounding 5 goals[2], one with an on the run chip that was breathtaking and led my beautiful girlfriend to comment on how incredible it was.  Not many players would be able to chip over a keeper while running full speed and sink it right into the net, most would probably chip over the net.  Few players have ever been as talented as Messi and after reading Graham Hunter’s informative Barca: The Making of the World’s Greatest Team, it becomes abundantly clear that few have ever been as driven either.  All the players want to do is win and they simply do not know how to let up, which is why with a 6-0 lead Messi was crashing into two defenders and sliding an agonizing roller off the post and into the net from an impossible angle.  This team simply wants to win every single game – do not count them out of La Liga just yet…[3]and what they have done is simply not fair. 

Obviously their infuriating and complex quick passing system is a work of on field poetry and the implementation of that system has been easy thanks to a top notch youth program that has rendered international transfers unnecessary[4].  The following players came out of the system and have played within it their whole lives: Xavi, Messi, Puyol, Pique, Iniesta…each an incredible player who haspassed up far richer options to stay and win.  None can compare though, to the brilliance of Messi whose talent is so tremendous that he rises above even the greatest of teammates in skill and desire to win.  Winning is simply all the team collectively wants to do.  Every game is a personal challenge to this goal, whether it is Champions League or simply a friendly. 

Could such a system be implemented in the Premiership?

Sort of…Tottenham’s recent success can be traced to the implementation and development of a Barca-esque system.  Chelsea’s Russian kingpin asked deposed manager AVB what he would need to put such a system in place at Stamford Bridge.  AVB famously replied “10 years”[5] which he will not get. 

As we watched Bayer and Barca run my girlfriend commented, “This is soccer.  This is how it should be played.  When was the last time the Premiership Players ran like this?”  I began to attempt a weak defense of overpaid, underachieving English players but the answer is that they do not play in anywhere near the same style[6] and while money may have spoiled them for the most part, English football is also played in a dour, grind it out for a draw style (see the wonderful and entertaining 40 Years of Shite for all the glorious details). 

Should I change it up?  Should I pick a team outside of the Premiership – a team along the lines of Napoli, Barca or AC Milan? 

As always, in troubled times, I find myself asking the question: What Would John Terry Do?

The only answer, as always: Wayne Bridges Wife.

My quest has taken me to the Premiership and looking at teams outside the league (regardless of how amazing a string of 872 passes can be) is no longer an option.  I am shackled to this league, wonderfully and happily ready for all the dour football I can find[7]

 


[1] Dismemberment would probably be more accurate. 

[2] A Champions League record, ESPN will have you know!

[3] We cannot say the same about Chelsea…

[4] And they simply do not work out for the club because the players cannot fit in. 

[5] He got eight months. 

[6] With the single exception of the best team money can buy: Man City. 

[7] Although not from Aston Villa: they are out.