A thrilling Derby Day across England

- September 30th, 2014

Everybody loves a good sports rivalry and nothing gets better than ones that have existed for nearly a century.

That what we had this weekend when on Saturday, Liverpool and Everton squared off in the Merseyside Derby and Arsenal and Tottenham battled in the North London Derby.

As expected, both games were a bit testy with the usual intensity between the sides.

Liverpool looked the better side and were mere minutes away from clinching the crucial three points at home. That is, until the most unlikely strike of the week knotted it up in the 91st minute.

When the ball fell to centre back Phil Jagielka a few yards outside the box, I’m not sure that even he thought that his shot would scream into the top corner. In fact, watching his subdued celebration, he might’ve been in shock at what just happened.

For the Reds, dropping those two points hurts even more with Champions League this week. Without injured Daniel Sturridge and sold-off Luis Suarez – the SAS, if you will – Liverpool’s attack has been lacking this season.

This team usually doesn’t have much trouble in the Merseyside Derby, this draw shows that it might be on the decline.

As for the North London derby, Arsenal didn’t just drop two points – it dropped two players.

With Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsay both going down and getting subbed off in the first-half the Gunners depth will be even further tested. This is already a side playing without a true right back and with barely any cover remaining.

With this week another Champion League grind, we’re undoubtedly going to see some academy players on the team sheet soon.

As it usually happens with Arsenal, it allowed a goal when it looked most likely to guy ahead. Against the run of play, Spurs hit on a counter attack which saw Nacer Chadli slot one home, leading to one of the most curious yellow cards I’ve ever seen.

While there have been some justifiable excessive celebration cards, this was not the case for one.

Seriously, look at what he did to deserve the discipline.

Either way, it didn’t hurt Spurs any in the end, as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain put home the tying goal roughly 20 minutes later to knot things up.

And, while many saw that Danny Welbeck was dummying the ball to Ox, it certainly didn’t look intentional. What the former Manchester United player did was execute one of the most awkward-looking miss-hits that I’ve seen. If not for Ox being there to pound it home, it could’ve ended up on misplay reels everywhere.

OH CAPTAIN, NO CAPTAIN

Wayne Rooney’s game against West Ham was him in a nutshell: He scored a very skillful goal and then got sent off for kicking a guy in the nuts.

It’s fairly apparent that Rooney isn’t the right man for the job of captain at United, as his outbursts like that kick on Stewart Downing happen all too often and nearly cost his team dearly.

If not for an offside call on Kevin Nolan, this would’ve been a draw and more points dropped for Louis van Gaal at Old Trafford.

At least with Rooney suspended for three games, it will give Juan Mata a chance to actually play. I’m sure he was getting flashbacks to last season with Chelsea while sitting on the bench and having little chance of getting in the game.

It might have helped Mata if he was a defender though. United started 19-year-old Patrick McNair and left back Marcos Rojo in the middle of defence. It also brought on young defender Tom Thorpe as a sub late on.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Burnley has now sunk to the bottom of the table after getting crushed by an average West Brom side. I must say that Saido Berahino looks like he could be a star one day for the Baggies … Southampton now have four wins in six games and look like its summer exodus actually made it better. Of course, its competition hasn’t been the best yet, but racking up points never hurts. With a few decent results against top sides, the Saints could legitimately contend for a European spot … It used to be that you would expect ManchesterCity to fall after seeing a pesky team like HullCity come back the way it did early. Instead, the Sky Blues fired back in the second half and even got a second goal in as many games from a resurgent Frank Lampard … A week after being absolutely stupendous, Eliaquim Mangala was stupefying. The centre back scored an awful own goal and then conceded a penalty on a bad tackle. Let’s see if he can bounce back, or if his confidence will be shaken … Another week, another easy Diego Costa goal, another Chelsea win. Have the Blues clinched the title yet? … How in the world is Newcastle still backing Alan Pardew after another scoreless loss? How much more can the board watch before finally sacking him? … Only one game on Sunday? What’s up with that? Spread these fixtures out, EPL.

THE LAST WORD

So, everyone loved having two derbys on one day, right? How would you feel about even more?

Why can’t the Premier League schedule an entire gameweek of derbys? While I’m sure that it would be a logistical nightmare, there’s no reason why at least a couple more could be added to the two that we just watched.

I also understand that you want each derby to have it’s own TV time slot, so take a look at this potential schedule and tell me how salivating it sounds.

Saturday, 7:30 a.m.: Liverpool-Everton

Saturday: 10 a.m.: Aston Villa-West Bromwich Albion

Saturday: 12:30 p.m.: Arsenal-Tottenham

Sunday: 9 a.m.: Chelsea-QPR

Sunday: 11 a.m.: Manchester United-Manchester City

Monday: 2:30 p.m.: Newcastle-Sunderland

Now who wouldn’t love being stapled to your couch for that series of games?

Apologies of course to the teams that don’t have derby rivals. If you wanted to get the rest of the league involved, you could slot in matches like Swansea-Southampton, WestHam-CrystalPalace, StokeCity-LeicesterCity and Burnley-HullCity somewhere too.

Of course, burning all these lovely matches on one weekend seems like a waste when you could spread them out, but it would be incredibly marketable as Derby Weekend and you could build around that.

Then again, the FA has been doing pretty well for the past 100 years, who am I to argue?

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

Could AP get his wish? + Week 4 picks

- September 27th, 2014

If you may recall, ESPN ran a feature near the beginning of the season about Jerry Jones.

In it, the Dallas Cowboys owner had a phone conversation with Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in which AP said that he would like to play for the Cowboys before his career over.

After all of the controversy involving child abuse and the real possibility that the Vikings will let the superstar back go once it is all cleared up, AP might get his wish sooner rather than later.

Of course, what Peterson allegedly did to his four-year-old is horrid and deplorable. He should and will be punished by the league for his actions. But after he serves his time, wouldn’t he look great running behind Dallas’ amazing offensive line?

With DeMarco Murray a free agent after this season, the Cowboys could be in the market for a new running back.

Big D has also never been shy about signing players with checkered pasts, giving them chances at rehabbing their images.

Really, it might be the only option for the Texas native and one that is mutually beneficial to the team if it can’t retain Murray.

So, AP’s dream might come true.

The lines are from Vegas and the home teams are in CAPS.

WASHINGTON -3.5 over New York Giants

Don’t mind me, I’m just continuing my terrible streak of predicting Thursday night games. And who

switched Eli Manning and Kirk Cousins before this game? RG3, I’m looking your way!

OAKLAND +3.5 over Miami in England

Year after year it never fails: The NFL sends at least one awful team to play in England. I thought it was trying to expand its brand, not kill it. Either way, can you back a team with as much behind-the-scenes turmoil as Miami right now?

CHICAGO +1.5 over Green Bay

Both of these teams should finally be able to get their running games moving. Have to take the home dog.

Buffalo +3 over HOUSTON

If Arian Foster can’t play, it’s really tough to take the Texans. Bet the under on this game too, that’s a lock.

INDIANAPOLIS -7.5 over Tennessee

If it was Jake Locker, I could handle that. But Charlie “Clipboard Jesus” Whitehurst isn’t going to get it done.

Carolina +3.5 over BALTIMORE

The Panthers have to bounce back after that embarrassing loss in prime time. Also getting to show up former receiver Steve Smith is a bonus.

Detroit -1.5 over NEW YORK JETS

This is the type of game the Jets somehow always win, but I don’t trust Geno Smith enough to pick them.

Tampa Bay +7.5 over PITTSBURGH

The Bucs are spiralling and going to Mike Glennon at QB isn’t going to help. LeVeon Bell should be able to run freely with DT Gerald McCoy hurt too.

SAN DIEGO -13 over Jacksonville

You can’t spot Blake Bortles two touchdowns! OK, maybe you can. Rookie QB getting first start on the road against a contender? Should be an easy cover.

Philadelphia +5.5 over SAN FRANCISCO

The Eagles soar in second halves while the 49ers wilt. That could be disastrous for Jim Harbaugh’s

Atlanta -3 over MINNESOTA

Teddy Bridgewater will get his first start, but it will be without the Vikes best running back and top tight end. The Falcons are well-rested after thrashing the Bucs 10 days ago.

New Orleans -3 over DALLAS

This one looks like the one where the Saints offence really comes alive against an overmatched Cowboys defence.

New England -3.5 over KANSAS CITY

This one does sound a bit dicey with Jamaal Charles likely playing, but you have to trust Tom Brady in a night game.

Last week: 9-7

This season: 21-27

Lampard the hero and the villain

- September 23rd, 2014

As the great Sir Ian Darke once said, “You could not write a script like this.”

After being let go by the club that he became a hero at, Chelsea’s career leading scorer, Frank Lampard, came on as a sub and scored the game-tying goal for Manchester City on Sunday.

A class act all the way, Lampard did not celebrate the goal and even applauded the travelling Blues fans after the game.

It was a fitting end and one that you could almost feel coming.

Despite being down to 10 men thanks to Pablo Zabaletta’s second yellow card in a very gritty game, City didn’t shut up shop like most teams would have. It made for an exciting end to the game after the Blues had pulled ahead on neat pass and finish from Eden Hazard to Andre Schurrle.

After a neat bit of passing by City, the ball came to Lampard, who pounded it home on the volley – something he has done his fair share of times for Chelsea.

The end result was that we saw two teams that are destined to be at the top of the table come May, fighting it out for early positioning. When these two sides meet again in late January, you can expect another good matchup with even more on the line.

CARE TO TAKE SOME BLAME, LVG?

At the 61st minute, the scoreline was Leicester 1-3 Manchester United.

At the 83rd minute, the scoreline was Leicester 5-3 Manchester United.

But don’t blame United manager Louis van Gaal, it wasn’t his fault and he’ll never admit it.

Of course this meltdown was on the high-priced players.

LVG has changed the system twice now since becoming the Red Devils manager, switching now from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond formation. You have to wonder if the players are absorbing what he’s trying to do here with all the changes.

Radamel Falcao made his first start and had a lovely assist on Robin van Persie’s goal. But offence was never going to be the problem. Even with new defensive signings Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind on the pitch, United still shipped five goals against a promoted side – including four in 20 minutes – before being knocked down to 10 men.

LVG has done a poor job with a much better than David Moyes had. With an opening fixture list of Swansea, Sunderland, Burnley, QPR and Leicester, United has collected just five points.

What will happen when they face one of the top teams?

We’ll find out soon enough and if the form doesn’t improve, we’ll start hearing the calls for yet another manager to get the sack.

LIVERPOOL IN THE RED

In the past week, Liverpool has lost to Aston Villa at home, nearly settled for a draw against Romania’s Ludogorets and then lost to West Ham 3-1. I thought this team was supposed to contend?

While some credit should be given to the Hammers, who look splendid in attack for the first time in my memory, Liverpool’s problem is the same as it has been under Brendan Rodgers: The defence isn’t good enough.

And it will be tested even more with injuries cropping up. At one point, Raheem Sterling – one of the team’s most gifted creative players – was playing right back due to injuries. That’s a supreme waste of his talent.

Until Rodgers figures out how to get some stability on the back line, the Reds just can’t contend.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

The one top-six contender that actually won this weekend was Arsenal, which took care of business against a flu-riddle Aston Villa side. The man of the match happened to be the much-maligned Mesut Ozil, who has taken more than his fair share of slack on this blog. So will his goal and assist stop the criticism? Of course not. Ozil’s shot was lucky to beat Brad Guzan and the only reason he shot it was that there was no one left to pass to. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and say he’s back to world-class standard … Hull City’s Nikica Jelavic had an early goal-of-the-season candidate against Newcastle. That near-bicycle kick was hit as well as it could’ve been … Spurs looked out of sorts being upset by West Brom. You have to figure that playing in Europa League during the week did the team no favours … With Newcastle’s comeback victory against Hull, it appears Alan Pardew has saved his job for at least one more week. But the harsh reality is that it was still just a point against a rather average side and the Magpies are still on the bottom of the table … The last time that Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea all failed to win on a weekend? November 2010 … Hey, FIFA 15 is out today! What are you doing sitting around reading this blog! Grab a copy and play!

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

Goodell has got to go + Week 3 picks

- September 20th, 2014

Roger Goodell said in his long-awaited press conference on Friday that he had no intention on resigning. The biggest question now is, of course, “Why the hell not?”

I’m not Goodell’s boss and I’m not one to go around saying that hard-working people should lose their jobs, but in Goodell’s case, the only thing that he works hard it is apparently cover-ups and he’s not very good at it either.

The negatives are far outweighing the positives from Goodell’s reign as commissioner of the NFL.

The biggest positive is the amount of money he has made the owners – his bosses – and how he has grown the game. Really though, with the position the league was in when Goodell took over from Paul Tagliabue, football was already on a rollercoaster ride to the top and the money was always going to come in.

As proven by what Goodell has done while in charge, anybody with even the slightest bit of aptitude for this position could have raked in a huge amount of money.

My favourite part of Friday’s press conference was when a TMZ reporter asked Goodell how his entire legal department couldn’t get the Rice elevator tape when all it took TMZ was a single phone call. Goodell’s answer involved something about not knowing how TMZ got said tape.

That response reeks of a dodge and just overall incompetence.

That’s exactly why Goodell has to go.

The lines are from Vegas and the home teams are in CAPS

TampaBay +6 over ATLANTA

OK, I really should have seen this one coming. The Bucs are in pretty dire straights and I’m not sure what Lovie Smith can do to turn this team around.

San Diego +2.5 over BUFFALO

The Bills are undefeated and looked good against Miami, but the Chargers are the better team here.

ST. LOUIS (pk) over Dallas

Just when you think the Cowboys have pulled it together, they fall apart against a weaker team.

Washington +6.5 over PHILADELPHIA

I really like Kirk Cousin and think he deserves to start even over a healthy RG3. The Eagles have a problem with falling behind early and Washington might be able to take advantage of it.

Houston -2 over NEW YORK GIANTS

The Giants are one of the five worst teams in the league and their offensive line will be in trouble trying to stop J.J. Watt.

NEW ORLEANS -10.5 over Minnesota

Even if this whole Adrian Peterson saga galvanizes this Vikings team like the Ray Rice saga in Baltimore, you can’t discount an angry, winless Saints team in their home-opener

CINCINNATI -7 over Tennessee

The Titans had a lot of trouble stopping the run against Dallas and should see another steady diet of power rushing by the Bengals this week with A.J. Green hobbled.

CLEVELAND +6.5 over Baltimore

The Ravens are a different team on the road and the Browns will play them tough.

DETROIT -2.5 over Green Bay

While many picked the Pack as a Super Bowl contender, I’m really not seeing it through two games. The Lions aren’t a great team, but will definitely give it their all here. And who’s covering Megatron, really?

JACKSONVILLE +7 over Indianapolis

The Jags were embarrassed at Washington last week, but are always ready to put up a fight against their division rivals.

NEW ENGLAND -14 over Oakland

If this line stayed at 16, which I saw earlier this week, then I might’ve actually talked myself into Oakland. But I see the Pats running the ball hard down the Raiders’ throats.

San Francisco -3 over ARIZONA

The Niners fell apart against Chicago and Colin Kaepernick looked very shaky. That said the Cardinals are also falling apart and starting Drew Stanton again.

SEATTLE -4.5 over Denver

The Super Bowl rematch won’t be a shellacking like the game in February, but it should be an easy win at home for the Seahawks.

Kansas City +4 over MIAMI

The Dolphins’ flaws were exposed by Buffalo last week, and with Jamaal Charles looking like he could play, the Chiefs just might be able to exploit them.

CAROLINA -3 over Pittsburgh

The Panthers didn’t slide into regression like many thought they would, while Pittsburgh hasn’t looked great in its two games so far.

Chicago +3 over NEW YORK JETS

The Bears needed a big comeback to beat the Niners on the West Coast, but shouldn’t be getting points against a Jets team that barely beat Oakland.

Last week: 6-10
This season: 12-20

Costa the best buy of the summer

- September 16th, 2014

I’m not sure that we’re even going to be able to debate the best signing of the season in the Premier League because we already have the answer: Diego Costa.

He is basically everything that Chelsea lacked last season in an attacker. He is the perfect poaching No. 9 that is in the right spot at the right time all the time.

That was certainly the case on Saturday as the Blues maintained their 100% record by trouncing fellow table-toppers Swansea 4-2 at Stamford Bridge.

Costa potted three goals that were all about opportunity and now has seven on the season in just four games.

That’s seven in four games compared to five for Fernando Torres, five for Demba Ba and nine for Samuel Eto’o in the entire 2013-14 campaign.

As demonstrated by those numbers, you can clearly see that Chelsea’s strikers weren’t all that great at, well, striking.

Costa is just that. Two of his goals against the Swans came on clever runs and simple deflections past the hopeless keeper.

While some forwards need to be the focus of the attack, Costa is just fine stepping into the right spot, which makes him perfect to lead the line for a Chelsea side with a lot of creativity in attack and is sturdy in defence.

With Costa, I’m not so sure that the Premier League won’t become a race for second place, because the Blues might just get too far ahead to be caught.

UNITED UP TO NINTH

All that it took was a 4-0 thumping of an awful-looking QPR side for some to proclaim that Manchester United is ready to contend. Let’s just hold off on that for a second.

Firstly, it was just Louis van Gaal’s first EPL win.

Second, I still see some issues with this side.

With Phil Jones and Chris Smalling both out, Tyler Blackett remains in the starting lineup.

Sure, the Radamel Falcao signing looks nice on paper, but where is he going to play? The more offensive talent that the Red Devils add, the more that is going to be left out.

And remember: This was just against one of  the worst teams in the EPL.

While some have pointed out that the last time United had two points from the first three games, it went on to win the title. But after that poor start in 2007, it reeled off eight straight wins.

If van Gaal can get on a run like that, then we can start proclaiming Manchester United as the powerhouse it thinks it is.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

This season’s first heavyweight battle ended in a draw as Arsenal and Manchester City fought it out at the Emirates. The real star of the show was Jack Wilshere, who looks to have finally found a position to shine in for the Gunners. With Arsene Wenger moving underachieving Mesut Ozil out wide, Wilshere was able to shine in the middle of the pitch, picking up a goal and an assist. If not for Martin Demichelis’ late tying goal, the Englishman would be the talk of the tabloids even more this week … It feels like forever that Sergio Aguero has played a full game. He is either hurt or subbed off or comes on as a sub, but always seems to score … With Mathieu Debuchy ruled out for as long as three months, Arsenal’s defensive depth is going to be seriously challenged. With Champions League starting today, the Gunners calendar is going to look a bit congested. While Callum Chambers will step in against Borussia Dortmund, there’s little top-class cover on the backline after him … Crystal Palace 0, Burnley 0 because of course it was … Everton picked up its first win of the season, topping West Brom 2-0 thanks to Romelu Lukaku potting his first of the season less than two minutes in … When was the last time that a West Ham player scored a goal like Enner Valencia’s against Hull City on Monday? With the Hammers buying more and more players with skill attributes more than strength and aggression, we could see them play a style more to the fan’s liking – and much to Big Sam’s chagrin … Anybody that picked Southampton to be relegated is looking pretty silly right about now … Despite spending what felt like the entire second half in Aston Villa’s end of the pitch, Liverpool just could not finish. How many people would’ve predicted the Villas would hold the powerful Reds and claim a clean sheet at Anfield? And to do it without injured top centre back Ron Vlaar? And who would’ve thought that Aston Villa would be second in the Premier League at any point?

THE LAST WORD

It’s time for Alan Pardew to go.

While Tony Pulis may have technically been the first manager to leave his post this season, Newcastle’s Pardew should certainly be next.

There has been enough roster turnover at St. James to tell you that it isn’t the players that are letting this side down.

After this weekend’s 4-0 demolishing at the hands of Southampton, there have been plenty of calls for his head to roll. Honestly, I think it’s about time and I’m surprised he has lasted this long.

The Magpies went throw a couple of horrid stretches last season that should’ve been enough to tie a can on Pardew. Now, Newcastle sits at the bottom of the table with two points from four games and a minus-6 goal differential.

It’s not like there’s a lack of replacements out there, either.

David Moyes may not be the right man for a massive club like Manchester United, but he would be more than capable of managing the Magpies to Europa League contention in a couple of years.

The hot name is Hull City’s Steve Bruce, but the fact that the Tigers are visiting the Northeast this coming weekend does that rumour no favours.

So really, if the only reason that Pardew hasn’t been fired is that his contract is too much to buy out, well that’s just not good enough. Keeping a lame duck around could lead this team to relegation, which would cost the team A LOT more.

After all, it’s not like there isn’t a recent history of relegation for Newcastle. Right?

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki