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Same ol’ Manchester United

- August 25th, 2014

Looking at the scoreline of Sunderland 1-Manchester United 1, you would swear David Moyes was still in charge.

Harsh, but fair.

Louis Van Gaal’s side has gotten out to a horrid start to the season, despite playing two teams destined for midtable. With just one point from two games, the Red Devils sit in 13th place – and that’s just because they have scored two goals this season. Sad, really.

On Sunday in Sunderland, despite getting out to an early lead, only 13 minutes later United coughed it up on Jack Rodwell’s first as a Black Cat.

And it’s not like United were the better team that was held to a draw on the road. Even the official Manchester United Twitter feed (@ManUtd) felt Sunderland was more likely to win it. How does that happen?

The key for Van Gaal to make the most of this season will be what he does in the final few days of the transfer window. With Angel Di Maria coming in from Real Madrid, that’s a great start.

But that’s it – just a start.

Look at the defenders that United used in the second half of Sunday’s game: Phil Jones, Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane were the three centre backs. That’s a far cry from Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand – even last year’s version.

This squad needs strengthening in the back and in depth. Keane, Blackett and Reece James aren’t players ready to contribute to a supposed EPL contender yet – they could use loan spells at lesser clubs or even in the Championship.

With less than a week to go before the window slams shut, reinforcements must be brought in.

If not, we could be looking at another David Moyes situation, with the fans turning on LVG.

Even worse, jokes about a relegation fight or setting up shop in midtable could become a reality.

WHY DOESN’T ARSENAL LISTEN?

It’s a piece of advice that the Gunners receive from all corners of the interwebs on surely a weekly basis: Buy a good defensive midfielder for cover.

It’s a piece of business that manager Arsene Wenger refuses to do, but needs to in order to avoid situations like the one that unfolded on Saturday against Everton.

With both Arsenal fullbacks bombing down the wings with little regard to their defensive duties, it was exploited time and again on the counter, leading to a two-goal deficit. Luckily, the Gunners were able to storm back and salvage a point on the road, but that’s another story.

If Arsenal looked at London rivals Chelsea, it would see exactly how to use this style of play correctly.

With the Blues’ Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic repeatedly getting into forward positions, midfield Nemanja Matic was always there to track back and help out on the line. The result: Chelsea hasn’t allowed a goal in two games.

Granted, there’s more to it than just that, but it’s the basis of the style.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Tell me again why nobody tried to pry Irish fullback Seamus Coleman from Everton this summer? All he did in his season debut was score a nice header and look good all over the field … Should we start a #FreeGiroud movement? When he came at Goodison Park, he changed the game for Arsenal, giving the attack a point of focus … That’s two 2-2 draws for Everton. Not an ideal start with Europa League kicking off soon … David Nugent is just not good enough for the EPL. He’s what we call a Quad-A player in baseball: Too good for the minors, not good enough for the bigs … Despite this, Leicester has looked good so far. It held off Chelsea well in the first half and could’ve done better in the second if not for Nugent’s poor efforts … Three goals for West Ham? In one game?? When was the last time that happened? The early 1900s?… OK, maybe it’s just managerless Crystal Palace that is just that bad … Just to prove that Stoke City still hasn’t turned the corner in becoming a more affluent attacking team, it took almost 70 minutes of playing with a man advantage to crack Hull City’s defence and score an equalizer.

THE BIGGEST GAME OF THE SEASON, SO FAR

Mario Balotelli arrived this week in Liverpool. Great. Can he defend?

That has been the problem for the Reds the past few years and it’s just not going to be solved by adding another, as outstanding as the quirky Italian can be.

On Monday, Manchester City had little issue with Liverpool, picking up a 3-1 win in which the Reds only marker was an own goal by Pablo Zabaletta.

As for the defending champs, it’s results like this that show you why they will be a force to reckoned with yet again.

Stevan Jovetic scored twice, showing that the Citizens have another scoring threat for opponents to worry about.

Substitute Sergio Aguero scored in the same minute that he was brought on. The joke was that they should’ve taken him off immediately, as his work for the day was done. And how often does something like that happen? It usually takes a minute for a sub to even trot from the sideline to an attacking position.

I picked both of these teams to reach Champions League, but as City proved here, there could be a gulf between the true contenders and those simply slugging it out for fourth place.

FANTASY CORNER

If I told you a defender led all fantasy scoring in the EPL through two weeks, you would probably guess it was one of the higher-priced, bigger names out there. Leighton Baines? Nope. Vincent Kompany? Nope. Martin Skrtel? Ha! Branislav Ivanovic? Well, close.

It’s Tottenham’s Eric Dier.

The former Sporting centre back came to Spurs in the summer, but wasn’t expected to start right away with the team also bringing Ben Davies and already employing Jan Vertonghen, Younes Caboul and others.

But after two goals, two clean sheets and some bonus points to boot, Dier has 29 points, seven more than Ivanovic, who is second in scoring.

While that production will certainly slow, buy him now for a quick little profit.

THE LAST WORD

In case you haven’t seen it yet, there’s some pretty damning evidence out there that one of the world’s best players should probably get a lengthy ban.

If you haven’t seen, here you go.

It looks like old Cristiano Ronaldo gives Atletico Madrid defender Diego Godin a couple of good shots including a decent 1-2 to knock him down.

If La Liga and FIFA don’t look at this and dole out at least a couple of game’s worth of punishment, you can tell just how much power the Real Madrid star holds within the sport.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

Welcome back, EPL. We missed you

- August 19th, 2014

The World Cup ended just over a month ago, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been craving some good ol’ high-end football.

With the Premier League kicking off on Saturday morning, it felt like a return to normalcy.

The top teams of last year came out strong, we had some anxious moments, questionable refereeing and David Moyes’ Manchester United set another dubious record at Old Trafford.

What’s that you say? Moyes isn’t in charge of the Red Devils anymore? I honestly couldn’t tell.

It was in fact manager Louis Van Gaal’s regular-season debut for United, but didn’t do much to help fans forget about the Moyes era by making some very questionable selections for the match against Swansea.

Van Gaal – or David Moyes II, according a Wikipedia edit – trotted out youngsters Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard while also playing Javier Hernandez, Nani and Maraoune Fellaini – three players that have supposed been told by the manager that their time is done with the team.

The end result was a 2-1 loss and the first home-opener defeat for United since 1972.

Of course, the transfer window is still open and Argentine defender Marcos Rojo’s arrival is imminent, but this team has some more purchases to make if it wants to the contender that its fans demand.

KARMA POINTS

If you don’t believe that karma exists, listen to this story.

In my fantasy football league, we select draft order by picking the minute of the first goal from a group of games on EPL opening weekend.

Last year I had made a trade to acquire another player’s first-round pick.

So, instead of doing the honest thing and trying to make a reasonable selection, my Manchester United fan friend Mick picked the 91st minute, all but guaranteeing the last pick of the first round would come my way.

Of course, we all know what happened to Mick’s Red Devils after he made this karmic error.

EVERTON IN TROUBLE?

If the Toffees are going to finally get into a Champions League position, they’re going to have a tough road ahead getting there.

Before the game even started, reports came out that rising star midfielder Ross Barkley could miss up to five months with a knee injury. That’s the kind of blow that could scuttle a team’s European hopes.

Then, Everton struggled against Leicester City. While this is a team that dominated the Championship, the scouting report was that it didn’t really have the talent level to make much noise in the top-flight. Boy was that wrong. If you can scrape out a draw against a top-six team, chances are you’ll have a shot at reaching midtable through the season.

Sidenote: I was actually confused as which team was which when I flipped on to the game. It took me a second that it was Leicester wearing the blue shirts and Everton in the white. Also not helping, the fact that they were playing pretty evenly – which is a bit troubling for Everton.

TOP O’ THE TABLE

Sure, we’re only game in, but the contenders of last season are already back on top.

Chelsea and Manchester City lead the way, both winning their openers by two goals.

City looked efficient, yet unimpressive against a rebuilt Newcastle side that showed some promise against the defending champs. And its second goal came very late on, when substitute Sergio Aguero made a nice recovery of his own rebound and put it home.

The Blues actually trailed promoted Burnley before firing back with three of their own. The real star man was newcomer Cesc Fabregas, who had two assists including a beauty setup on Andre Schurrle’s goal.

Arsenal’s midfield played like they had just met, even though only one of the five of them was a new arrival. You would’ve figured it could’ve done better against a team that had just split with its manager early that week, after Tony Pulis left Crystal Palace citing “mutual contempt.”

Liverpool played like, well, Liverpool. A nice goal by Raheem Sterling and an opportunistic finish by Daniel Sturridge made up for a bit of lax defending on Nathaniel Clynne’s nice finish.

We’re still very early on, but it’s looking like each team has its flaws and its strengths again, would should make for a great race.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

The goal of the weekend competition was a close one, but I’ll give it to Everton’s Aiden McGeady for burying it in the top corner against Leicester with defenders on the line and the keeper charging out … While West Ham surely deserved a penalty for Kyle Naughton’s handball in the box, I don’t think the Spurs defender should’ve been sent off. His hands were up and blocked the ball, but it didn’t look deliberate at all. He was protecting his face is all … Dear Arsene Wenger, stop trying to make Yaya Sanogo happen. It’s going to happen … When was the last time you saw a central defender round the keeper on a breakaway to score a game-winner? That’s what Spurs’ Eric Dier did on a beauty feed from Harry Kane, much to many’s surprise, and grabbed the three points against West Ham … While watching Arsenal’s midfield struggle, I actually had to look up if Mesut Ozil was playing or not. It was tough to tell when you consider how invisible he usually is … Three red cards on opening day? Is that a record? … It was a tough loss for QPR in its return to the top tier. But when you ask aging Rio Ferdinand to mark someone on a corner, that’s the risk you run.

THE LAST WORD

We leave you with a fan that reminds us just how much English there is in the English Premier League.

https://twitter.com/FootballCliches/status/500674139523661826

That’s about everything you need to know about football fans in a six-second clip.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

Don’t get too excited about that silverware, Arsenal

- August 12th, 2014

With the kickoff to the English Premier League just around the corner and our big EPL preview running in Wednesday’s paper, we might as well get our feet wet talking about the annual curtain-jerker: The Community Shield.

It seems perfectly fitting that after nine years without a trophy, Arsenal now has won two pieces of silverware in a matter of months.

But even though it looked great in defeating last year’s EPL champion Manchester City, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves in thinking that the Gunners are one of the top contenders.

Even with the high-profile addition of Alexis Sanchez, this is a team that still lacks that true MVP-calibre player that the likes of Chelsea and the Manchester sides have.

The Gunners attack looked like it could do some damage this season, but this is a one-game sample size and it wasn’t exactly 100% effort out there.

When looking at the Community Shield, let’s just take it for what it is: An exhibition with some nominal bragging rights on the line.

Just look at the fact that both teams made six substitutions and that City sat a lot of its players, many of them having just joined the team a week or so before the game.

Without the likes of Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaletta and with Samir Nasri and David Silva playing just 45 minutes each, there was little chance that City was going to be able to truly compete.

I’m sure that we won’t see a repeat of this 3-0 defeat when these two teams meet a month from now at the Emirates.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

LeBron James aces the off-season

- July 28th, 2014

Since ‘The Decision’ back in 2010, I have hated LeBron James.

I’m fairly certain that was the case for a lot of people.

But now, I’m on the verge of forgiving the man anointed King James.

Why? Because over the course of this summer James has done just about everything that he possibly could to repair his relationship with the place he shunned four years ago and the fans whose hearts he broke. Well, everything short of actually calling everyone in Northeast Ohio and apologizing for The Decision.

Sure, “The Letter” published by Sports Illustrated was about as close as you could realistically get to doing that, but that’s splitting hairs.

With that letter and the decision to come home to the Cleveland Cavaliers after four years and two titles in Miami, James made the best choices for him, the people around him and for the league.

James, according to his letter, wants to raise his family – about to grow with a daughter on the way – in Northeast Ohio, which wouldn’t exactly be possible when he would be “working” in Miami for eight months a year.

It also helps repair the bond with the fans who supported him from Day 1 – and not just Day 1 of his NBA career. These are fans that have cheered him since he was a high school hoops prodigy.

James has also set himself up in a better basketball environment as well. He may not have the star power with him in Cleveland, but he has young, capable players full of potential. Guys that should be eager to learn under him like players learned under MJ, Larry Bird and Magic. LeBron James could be the best thing to ever happen to Andrew Wiggins – if he’s not dealt for Kevin Love.

And who has he hurt with this move? Almost nobody. Ask Heat fans – if you can find any anymore – if they care. They never deserved James in the first place – walking out in the middle of a NBA Finals game because your team is losing is unforgivable. Besides, the man brought two titles to South Beach; I think that’s enough.

The only real person that was slighted here was Chris Bosh, who really should’ve taken the Rockets’ deal and fled Florida as well. He stood the most to gain if both he and James returned to Miami with Dwayne Wade and possibly lured another top-flight talent to create a Big Four.

And Wade? He doesn’t care. He just won two more titles for HIS team thanks to his masterful recruiting in 2010.

Finally, James made perhaps the best move of all this weekend, announcing that he would wear his No. 23 jersey and not the No. 6 as he did with the Heat.

Now, those Cavs fans that didn’t burn their James jerseys will be able to jump right back into the excitement and relive the good old days.

It was another selfless move when you consider how much more James stood to gain through sales of a fresh No. 6 Cavs jersey.

James may have ended the playoffs on the losing end, but he spent the summer winning, plain and simple.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

XI players that were better than Messi in Brazil

- July 17th, 2014

Let’s face it: Lionel Messi didn’t deserve the Golden Ball.

While he did help his team with some magic moments to lead Argentina to the final, he was largely invisible in the entire knockout phase.

Even in the group stages, he was marked out of most games.

When Messi was announced as the Golden Ball winner as the World Cup’s MVP, even Sepp Blatter was surprised. If the corrupt head of corrupt FIFA doesn’t want to reward one of the world’s most marketable players, that’s saying something.

So, after a couple of days to let the dust settle, here’s my Starting XI of players that probably deserved the Golden Ball more than Messi.

GK – Manuel Neuer, GER

This generations top sweeper-keeper was Golden Gloves winner of the tournament, edging out Keylor Navas – who was outstanding for Costa Rica.

DEF – Jerome Boateng, GER

The best defender from the champions was a name that wasn’t called on very often. Why? Because he didn’t make any mistakes, even when starting the tournament as a right back.

DEF – Ezequiel Garay, ARG

Part of one of the best defences in Brazil, Garay was the man who put out the most fires for Argentina.

DEF – Ron Vlaar, NED

Has an Aston Villa player ever had as good of a World Cup as Vlaar? Probably not as the Dutchman was outstanding in leading the Oranje’s back three.

DEF/MF – Philipp Lahm, GER

Only above-average as a defensive midfielder to start the World Cup, it was his move to right back that helped the Germans really hit their stride.

MF – Toni Kroos, GER

In a midfield full of talent, Kroos looked like the best all-around players and was the most dangerous on the ball.

MF – Javier Mascherano, ARG

Was playing so hard in the semifinals that he literally tore his anus. Was the all-around best player on his team and probably even more important than Messi.

MF – James Rodriguez, COL

Has Colombia made it to the semifinals, there’s no way you couldn’t have given him the Golden Ball. Now it’s just an argument and, really, he should have been the winner.

FWD – Arjen Robben, NED

While his offence is usually what gets him noticed, he was battling hard every minutes and even tracking back on defence, something that he doesn’t do every game for Bayern.

FWD – Thomas Muller, GER

The top scorer on the winning team is always in contention. Muller isn’t the most creative player, but man can he score.

FWD – Neymar, BRA

Before his terrible back injury in the quarterfinals, Neymar was far and away the best Brazilian player and a shining star of the tournament.

And, just for fun, here’s a starting XI of the most disappointing players of the World Cup.

GK – Iker Casillas, ESP

Once among the world’s best keepers, he performance was laughable in Brazil.

DEF – Pepe, POR

His headbutt to Muller in their opener essentially ended both his and his country’s tournament.

DEF – David Luiz, BRA

When you have a central defender playing most of the game past midfield, it’s easy to understand how your team loses 7-1.

DEF – Marcelo, BRA

Let’s just take the “back” part of the Brazilians’ “wingback” designation because defending was the last thing on his mind.

MF – Eden Hazard, BEL

Much like Messi, had a couple of magic moments with some assists, but was largely disappointing.

MF – Michael Bradley, USA

Sure, he covered a lot of ground – the most of any player per game, in fact – but he was supposed to be a focal point on offence and failed in that respect.

MF – Steven Gerrard, ENG

England’s captain had a rough go of it, just like his team. Have to wonder if that was it for his international career.

MF – Mesut Ozil, GER

Was largely invisible for large portions of games, turned the ball over too often and was too timid to shoot most the time.

FWD – Cristiano Ronaldo, POR

You can blame the injury, but a lot more was expected from the supposed world’s best player.

FWD – Wayne Rooney, ENG

He bagged his first ever World Cup goal, but blew several chances before it in that game alone. Also had the worst corner kick in soccer’s history.

FWD – Fred, BRA

When you’re relentlessly booed by your home fans, you know you’re doing something wrong.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki