United rules Manchester once again

- April 15th, 2015

It was like the good ol’ days were back at Old Trafford.

After the famed Manchester Derby, the red side of town was the one doing all of the celebrating while the once-noisy neighbours have been silenced.

It’s not just a one-game thing either, these two sides look to be headed in different directions.

Since the new year, City has faltered, including its brutal run of poor form while Yaya Toure was away at the African Cup of Nations.

It’s very clear that this team needs to restock its shelves, but I’m not sure if it has the cash – ironically – to do it. With Financial Fair Play in effect, this team will have to sell off some assets before reinvesting the cash.

Then when you consider the need to find an eventual replacement for Toure, a bonafide Champions League-calibre striker to pair with Sergio Aguero, a winger and a top-class centre back, that’s a lot of cash needed.

And don’t forget that this team will probably be looking for a new manager this summer, as the owners don’t like failure at all.

As for the Red Devils, they’re soaring and have essentially locked up their spot in Europe next year. A far cry from what happened last season under David Moyes – though the start to this campaign was pretty rough.

But it looks like the learning period is over and this is a team that will only get better and then further strengthen over the summer.

Now, you could even debate how much change is needed.

Both Ashley Young and Maraoune Felliani had great games. It shouldn’t be forgotten that these were two guys supposedly on the outside looking in when the season began.

Sure, there will be need for a new striker with Falcao’s loan ending and Robin van Persie reportedly leaving. But attracting a world-class attacker shouldn’t be a problem when you play attractive football like LVG’s side currently is.

As for the derby itself, a few little bits of history were made.

-This was the first ever that a United player wasn’t booked in the derby – amazing considering that Fellaini and Phil Jones share the favourite colour of yellow.

- This was the 87th time in a row that City couldn’t come back in a game while trailing at the half in the EPL. This streak dates back to 1995.

THE TITLE ‘RACE’

Plenty of ink is being spilled about whether Arsenal has an actual chance at catching Chelsea atop the table, but I’ll save you the time of reading about it: It ain’t going to happen.

Even without Diego Costa and Loic Remy, Chelsea was still able to grab three points from QPR.

It’s these type of 1-0 performances that remind how good of a manager Jose Mourinho is. He is perfectly fine with suffocating a game and then snatching the points at the end.

While earlier this season, the Blues seemed free-wheeling on the attack, I’d expect more close results as the Special One inches towards the EPL title.

Arsenal showed a lot of grit to grind out its result against Burnley, which should’ve been a lot easier than it was.

This type of result was something that the Gunners haven’t always been able to pull off in the past and it could show some actual growth from this squad.

It’s a shame that it all but too late.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

You have to love Cesc Fabregas’ mask. There’s not much more intimidating than a player wearing one of those graphite face protectors … The Alan Pardew-Newcastle breakup might go down as one of the most lopsided ones in recent memory. His Crystal Palace side has been flying high since he arrived while the Magpies continue to look average at the best of times … It looks like a managerial change wasn’t enough for Sunderland, which continues to falter more often than not … Christian Benteke has started to show the form that he had before rupturing his Achilles at towards the end of last season. He is quickly helping us forget that Aston Villa once went more than a month without scoring a goal … What happened to West Brom’s defence? Watching a Tony Pulis side give up three goals to bottom-feeders Leicester is just strange.

THE LAST WORD

Sure, he’s young, but Raheem Sterling should really know better.

The Liverpool starlet was in the news again this week after photos came out of him smoking some sort of pipe.

This is also coming off the back of him turning down a 100K per week contract to stay with the Reds.

So, are we sure this guy has it all together? Or is he just being a youth acting out?

When it came time to play this week, Sterling was hit or miss – and really that was the very definition of the phrase.

His goal to open scoring came off some beautiful ball control, a slick dribble and the type of outside of the foot shot you usually only see when playing FIFA.

But then there was the miss of all misses. Sterling, wide open in front, with the ball at his feet, a wide open net in front of him and no defenders around him, put the ball wide.

It’s the kind of thing that needs to be seen to be believed.

Really, with his name popping in so many headlines recently, you would think that Sterling is getting advice from teammate Mario Balotelli on how to stay in the tabloids’ firing line.

Instead, he should be concentrating on his game and getting better.

Or else, we’re going to start seeing a lot more misses than hits – just ask Super Mario how it’s going for him.

Twitter @danbilicki

What’s left to race for in the Premier League?

- April 7th, 2015

It’s early April, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot left to play for in the Premier League.

Chelsea leads the title race by seven points, have a game in hand and are playing on form.

Manchester City sits in fourth place, the final Champions League spot, and leads Spurs and Liverpool by seven points and has a far superior goal differential.

That leaves the race for the two Europa League spots, which is down to three teams – Spurs, Liverpool and Southampton.

And quite the “race” it is, with all three teams combining to pick up just a single point this weekend on Spurs’ draw with Burnley.

Tottenham is the team out of those three actually on the best form right now, while Southampton has by far the best goal differential. This could leave Liverpool on the outside looking in.

After starting this year on fire, the injuries and suspensions have piled up fast for the Reds and with them, the losses. Saturday’s demolition at the hands of Arsenal is just another drop in the bucket of a lost season and also saw promising defender Emre Can sent off.

The Reds’ best hope of making it into Europe next season may actually be in the FA Cup, with a quarterfinal replay against Blackburn on Wednesday.

But if Brendan Rodgers’ crew can’t lift that silverware, it will have to pick up its game and rediscover the amazing form it had to start 2015.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the current team in eighth place is Swansea, which is seven points behind.

WELL, THERE IS THE RELEGATION RACE

The bottom of the table might actually be the most interesting race left in England.

While Leicester – sitting at the bottom of the table and looking kind of hopeless despite beating West Ham – is six points from safety, there is a big cluster of five teams sitting five points apart from Sunderland at 15th to QPR at 19th place.

In between are Hull City, Aston Villa and Burnley. With a big matchup on Tuesday between the Villans and Rangers, we should be in for some battles at the bottom.

While it would be a shame to see the three promoted teams get sent right back down, right now that’s looking like the most likely scenario.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Seriously, Manchester City? The defending champs have now dropped to fourth in the table and look toothless in attack. What happened to the killer team that dominates on offence? Even with nearly 75% possession against Crystal Palace on Monday, the Sky Blues lost. I’m not sure what they’ll be, but there will certainly be changes at the Etihad this summer … There were no shortage of goals of the week candidates. Take your pick from Jason Puncheon’s free kick, Charlie Adams chipping Thibault Courtois from half or Jermain Defoe’s wonder-volley. My pick goes to Bobby Zamora’s wonderful chip while being defended in full stride … Raheem Sterling has rejected a new contract with Liverpool worth 100,000 pounds per week. While I’m not saying that he isn’t worth that – he is – why not just take it and then negotiate an exit in the transfer window. Either way he doesn’t seem happy to be at Liverpool and obviously wants out … We knew Diego Costa would pick up some knocks during the season and now he’s limping again. It’s a good thing the Blues have some other attacking options and a nice lead atop the table … When trailing on the road at halftime, Manchester City hasn’t won in the Premier League in 20 years.

THE LAST WORD

Why can’t Newcastle beat Sunderland?

Another instalment of the Tyneside derby and another three points for the Black Cats.

No matter where these teams are in the table, Sunderland always seems to get the better of its bitter rival.

Really, it has gotten to the point where it’s even questionable to call it a rivalry – that would infer that both sides are actually fighting.

When Newcastle gets around to hiring a real manager after Alan Pardew left earlier this year, they should find one that takes these games seriously.

There’s nothing worse than being beaten time and again by your neighbours and having them hold it over your head.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

2015 MLB season preview

- April 3rd, 2015

Opening night for the MLB season on Sunday, meaning we’re just a mere 162 games away from the playoffs – ridiculous, no?

Well, while baseball doesn’t have any intentions of shortening the season any time soon, it is going about shortening games this season – and it’s about time.

But, with offence falling in recent years, who does this move to speed up games benefit more: Pitchers or batters?

Both sides will have less time to adjust on the fly, but hitters have gotten used to going through elaborate routines at the plate and will now have to keep one foot in the box instead of stepping out after every pitch.

With less time to do this adjustments, take signs from coaches and just in general think about what could be coming next, it could lead to another decrease in offence.

Unless the league makes an adjustment to make the strike zone smaller or lower the mounds, we could be in for another prolonged dead ball era.

THE A-ROD SAGA

With Alex Rodriguez returning to the New York Yankees after his yearlong suspension, we should be in for some interesting stories.

While it should be safe to assume that the 41-year-old slugger won’t be his former formidable self, you have to wonder how much the Yankees actually want to keep him around. He’s carrying a hefty salary and a valuable roster spot.

Also, there’s the looming threat that he may reach a home run milestone and activate a massive bonus clause.

This should lead to the Yanks thinking about a buyout – which would also buy them some goodwill with the public as well.

Where this all goes, nobody knows, but at least it should be interesting.

RED SOX INSTANT REBUILD

While Boston fans in the past were quick to malign the rival Yankees  for spending their way through rebuilds, it now looks like the Red Sox are just fine with doing the same.

After a terrible title defence in 2014, Boston went out and signed World Series hero Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez and a trio of starting pitchers to restock the rotation.

With an already decent roster, this should thrust the team back into contention sooner rather than later.

EVEN SEASONS

The San Francisco Giants may have won the World Series last year, but you can already count them out this year.

Why? Because it’s an even-numbered season.

For some reason, that just doesn’t jive with the Giants.

Maybes it’s title hangovers from winning the years before, but the odd-numbered years just don’t go well by on the south side of the Bay.

Can the champs end this weird anomaly, or will we make this officially a dynasty and see the Giants return to the post-season to defend their title?

THE MORE CUBANS THE BETTER

With U.S. President Obama’s opening of relations with Cuba, we can expect to see more players coming to the majors from the Caribbean nation.

Rusney Castillo just got the biggest contract ever for a defector.

Yasmany Tomas, Yoan Moncada and Hector Olivera all signed deals too, but will start in the minors.

With Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig already making a huge splash in MLB, it should fun to see what their compatriots can do when they get the call.

PREDICTIONS

What’s a good season preview post without some predictions? Here’s how I think the season will break down.

AL East: Baltimore Orioles

AL Central: Detroit Tigers

AL West: L.A. Angels

AL wild cards: Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox

NL East: Washington Nationals

NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals

NL West: L.A. Dodgers

NL wild cards: Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers

ALCS: Orioles over Angels

NLCS: Nationals over Cardinals

World Series: Nationals over Orioles

AL MVP: Mike Trout, LAA

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, WAS

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, CHW

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, LAD

AL ROY: Daniel Norris, TOR

NL ROY: Kris Bryant, CHC

First overall pick: Texas Rangers

Surprises: Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Miami Marlins, New York Mets, San Diego Padres.

Disappointments: Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners.

Show some class, fans

- April 2nd, 2015

Respect in sports is something that is taught at every level of every game and for very good reason. It’s fundamental to becoming a good, well-rounded person in not just sports, but in life.

That’s why what fans are doing in Buffalo and at the arenas of many tanking teams is deplorable.

You should never cheer for your own team to lose.

And while you can say it is their freedom of speech to do so, it is not about that – it’s about respect.

Tanking for draft picks is a hot-button topic sports these days, with teams seemingly looking for ways to lose more games to increase their chances at getting a top player in the draft.

It has to stop.

Players and teams should go out and try to win every game they can. If your team isn’t very good, try to develop players and get better. If that’s not working, try using a different strategy. If you can’t think of one, fire the coach and find somebody that can.

It’s no secret that teams like the Sabres, Coyotes, Oiler and Leafs have been tanking for a chance at Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel – the latest surefire future stars. But why is this acceptable?

When the Leafs fired coach Randy Carlyle, they were in a playoff spot. Since then, the team has been absolutely awful sinking to second last in the Eastern Conference.

Under Carlyle, Toronto was 21-16-3. Under Peter Horachek, who has proven to be one of the worst coaches in the league in recent history, the team is 8-27-3.

The fact that the Leafs haven’t fired Horachek for looking this pitiful is a joke.

But, this isn’t a rant about the scourge of tanking in pro sports, it’s about the fans that support it.

By cheering for your team to lose, you are enabling terrible sportsmanship, enabling teams to get away with not competing – which is the essence of sports.

When the team allows a weak goal, don’t cheer it, boo them! You’re not supposed to be happy you’re losing. Show your displeasure that it has come to the fact that your squad is competing for a better draft pick than for a playoff spot.

Even worse, is the opposite end of the spectrum: Booing your team for winning.

In what world should be it considered OK to crap on your favourite team for doing well? It’s insane.

But, this is the sad place we are as a society. And until things change and there’s no incentive to lose games, we’ll always see this despicable action of teams trying to game the system by losing on purpose and we’ll always see fans support it in the hope that this leads to a better team in the future.

The only real justice would be to see none of the teams that are openly tanking win the lottery. It would be amazing to see a team that’s trying its damnedest to actually make the playoffs win with long odds.

If that were the case, I wouldn’t have any problem for a second laughing at the suckers rooting for their teams to tank.

Even better: Watching the Bruins or Senators miss out on the eighth spot and then win the McDavid lottery. That would show their division rivals.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

Stevie G’s farewell tour on hiatus

- March 23rd, 2015

It was supposed to be a match between two hot teams that happen to two of soccer’s oldest rivals, competing with a lot on the line.

Instead, it turned into the Steven Gerrard sideshow.

Liverpool’s living legend lasted about 30 seconds on the pitch after coming on as a half-time substitute. He was supposed to change the game – and he certainly did.

After some jostling with Ander Herrera, Stevie G stamped on the Red Devil’s ankle and saw red.

While some would argue that it should have been a yellow, you can’t say that it wasn’t dangerous, even if it wasn’t intentional.

It wasn’t the only testy incident either. Mario Balotelli – in a fashion only he could pull off – was held back by fans after tangling with Chris Smalling on the sidelines. While I don’t think that the Italian was about to get sent off for anything rash, it was quite the sight.

Even on the final play of the game, Martin Skrtel stamped on David De Gea while chasing a through ball. It was the appropriate ugly ending to a rough game. You have to wonder if he’ll be hearing from the FA about it shortly.

The game itself had its thrills, with United looking the better side for much of the game. It wasn’t until late on, even while a man down, that Liverpool looked most threatening. But, of course, it was too late.

The implications of United’s 2-1 win are pretty big with the season winding down. There’s now a five-point gap between the Red Devils in fourth place and Liverpool in five, putting a little barrier between the Champions League and the Europa League teams.

TITLE TALK

How about Arsenal?

A little quietly, the Gunners have been the best team in the EPL since Christmas, even better than Liverpool.

And now, it stands in third place, just a single point behind Manchester City.

While we’ve said that Chelsea’s lead is pretty much unassailable, wouldn’t it be interesting to see the two London clubs duke it out at the top of the table?

The top four teams all won this week, meaning a status quo at the top of the table. Chelsea nearly blew dropped points at Hull, but was saved by a late effort from Loic Remy, who came on after Diego Costa suffered a hamstring injury – which could put a damper on the Blues’ form.

Manchester City had it easy after West Brom went down a man early on – even if Sergio Aguero didn’t pick up any extra fantasy points for hopeful owners.

As for Arsenal, it had a war with Newcastle and ended up on top. For large portions of the second half, the Magpies were looking likely to even up the game and escape with a draw, only to have the Gunners defend stoutly in their own end.

With the North London side getting healthy and playing well on both ends of the pitch, this is a team that won’t be fading any time soon.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Oh, Angel Di Maria. Should the erstwhile United winger not have been sent off for his absent-minded handball? Catching a ball that’s inbounds – though certainly on its way out – should at least have been a yellow … Another week, another amazing performance by Harry Kane. This time the future England hero hit a hat trick to take atop the scoring race … Olivier Giroud is proving to be about as true of a No. 9 there is. Between him, Kane and Costa, this league has some of the world’s best poachers … You have to believer that Alan Pardew is ecstatic that his Crystal Palace side is now above Newcastle in the table … Leicester City’s defending against Spurs showed exactly why this team is going down while Tottenham’s defending in the same game showed why it’s not close to contending for a Champions League spot.

THE LAST WORD

While I realize in this day and age we can stream essentially every soccer in the world almost, I still don’t understand what BeIN Sports is, what channel it would be on my box and how the heck it got El Classico.

Really, it’s the biggest game in the world – sorry United-Liverpool – and it was on a channel that many probably didn’t even know existed.

How has TSN or Sportsnet not stepped up to broadcast this game, or even one or two La Liga games per week at this point?

Soccer is on the rise and the Spanish first division is arguably the world’s second-most popular. It should have a platform in Canada that isn’t a specialty channel.

As much as I’m sure people love watching a game on their laptop, it should be a lot more accessible than it currently is.