Author Archive

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.

Congratulations, champions Chelsea

- March 17th, 2015

This season is starting to feel a lot like the last title defence for Manchester City.

The champions just aren’t playing up to the level that we know that it can. If anything, it is playing down to its opponents.

Case in point: Losing to Burnley.

This isn’t the first this season that City has taken it easy and ended up paying for it either. You would think that it would have learned its lesson from its drought while Yaya Toure was away at African Cup of Nations.

You have to wonder if the team has tuned out manager Manuel Pellegrini after he had them so motivated last season. And if he’s out after this season – which seems likely after watching this star-studded team struggle against a team that’s still in the relegation zone despite this win  – who would be next in line? Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp will be the hot names, of course.

Chelsea, which now has a six-point lead atop the table and a game in hand, will be hard-pressed to choke this title away.

After being eliminated from Champions League in a heartbreaker against PSG, the Blues fought to a draw with Southampton – which benefitted from a very questionable penalty call.

We’ve said it before and things did get a bit interesting for a while, but I think this time it’s pretty safe to declare Chelsea the champions-elect of the Premier League.

ASTON WHO?

Tim Sherwood sure has done a number on this Aston Villa side.

This is a team that had scored just 15 goals all season, but somehow managed to pot four in the first half against Sunderland this week.

Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor bagged a brace each while the Black Cats looked appalling on defence. The win also saw the Villans vault Sunderland into 16th place, just little bit closer to safety from relegation. Getting that nice bit of goal differential going both ways is also a nice bonus.

Unsurprisingly, Sunderland sacked manager Gus Poyet after the loss. Perhaps management had seen the effect a new manager like Sherwood had on Villa and is now hoping for the same with Dick Advocaat.

After all this Villa team that was once a trainwreck has now won three games in a row including two against Midlands rival West Brom.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Here’s some food for thought: Harry Kane has 26 goals in 41 appearances in all competitions this season; Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Falcao have combined for 27 goals in 75 appearances. Makes you wonder how much Kane’s price tag will be when the galacticos inevitably come calling this summer … All of West Brom’s wins this season have been clean sheets. I guess it’s safe to bet against them once they ship a goal … You have to love Rooney’s celebration after video surfaced of him taking a knockout punch against buddy Phil Bardsley. Check it out if you haven’t seen it yet … What a howler by Tim Krul. And it only got worse for Newcastle after that … So, are we agreed that Manchester United’s struggles were all Angel Di Maria’s fault? … Liverpool is probably the one team that you don’t want to face for the rest of the season. The Reds are the definition of in form.

THE LAST WORD

Raise your hand if you had QPR’s Matthew Phillips down for scoring the goal of the season.

OK, now but down your hands, you liars.

While it must be said that it was in a losing cause against Crystal Palace, Phillips’ goal is the one thing that will be remembered about a very average fixture.

It’s not very often that you see a 45-yard unstoppable screamer from a very average player.

When you hear about goals from that distance, it’s usually someone chipping the keeper. That was certainly not the case here.

This shot dipped perfectly into the top corner over the leaping Julian Speroni.

The funniest thing about this is that if the shot hadn’t gone in, Phillips would’ve gotten a lot of flak for taking a shot from just past midfield in a game that his team was losing.

Fickle we are as fans.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

Time to kill the deadline coverage

- March 3rd, 2015

By the time the bell rang at 3 p.m. on Monday for the NHL trade deadline the amount of players on the move roughly equalled the amount of people covering the trade deadline on TSN and Sportsnet.

It was that uneventful.

When you consider the most excitement of the day came when TSN had Gino Reda wrangling llamas in the parking lot, well, you get the picture of what actually went down on deadline day.

This came after months of advertising for this “event” by both sports networks, which devoted at least a dozen people each for on-screen duties.

The biggest trade of the day? Jeff Petry from Edmonton to Montreal for a couple of draft picks. I can honestly tell you that I have never of Petry and wouldn’t have even known he played for the Oilers.

But the spectacle raged on. The whole thing on TSN went on from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. – nine hours of coverage! – and then followed that with a one-hour recap show.

A bit excessive when you’re breaking down deals like Maxime Talbot and Paul Carey for Jordan Caron.

Compare that to the coverage both networks gave the NBA trade deadline a couple of weeks ago: None. Not even a ticker on the main networks while some pretty big and unexpected deals were breaking. It was the exact opposite of what happened at the NHL deadline.

The whole thing really got started in 2010, when there were a record amount of deals that went down and networks were scrambling to keep up.

Now, nothing happens until around noon and, even then, there’s nothing too big.

This year especially, teams were making deals in the weeks leading up to the deadline. While there were some interesting names on the table like the Leafs’ Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel, there was no way that either would be dealt in a panic trade in an effort to tank for Connor McDavid. After all, the market for them will still be there around draft time.

This should be a wakeup call to the networks and media in general that we shouldn’t go treating the the NHL trade deadline like it’s a Canadian national holiday. It’s a bank holiday at best and, at worst, it’s a bunch of llamas running through a studio full of guys staring at their cell phones.

It’s time to tone things down.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

Chelsea’s first Cup of many

- March 2nd, 2015

The way that this season is going, Chelsea might look back at Sunday’s Capital One Cup win over Tottenham as practice – a rehearsal of how to celebrate after winning a title.

With the league leaders taking it to their London rivals at Wembley, this could’ve been an opportunity for chasers Manchester City to gain some ground in the standings – even if the Blues would have that game in hand.

But Manchester City found out the hard way that trips to Anfield in 2015 are no joking matter.

Liverpool has certainly found its game and are now undefeated in 11 games. This run has helped them jump right into the race for the Champions League as it now sits just two points behind Manchester United in fourth.

This win was all thanks to another Philippe Coutinho rocket. His past three goals have been great shots from outside the box and all three have been game-winners as well – even if his goal against Southampton was in the third minute.

Even the Reds’ defence is playing better, something that has dogged them since Brendan Rodgers took over the team.

But this game wasn’t about Liverpool’s win, it was more about City’s loss.

Even settling for a draw would have been a bad result, but now it’s that much worse.

While having a game in hand is nice and all, Chelsea still has to get a result in it. But with so much room for error, I think we’re getting closer by the day to putting a bow on this season and handing Chelsea another piece of silverware.

FANTASY CORNER

Thanks to the Cup final, we now get our first fantastic double gameweek of the season.

It’s time to stock up on Spurs and maybe Charlie Austin if you fancy QPR’s fixtures – which I wouldn’t.

This is the time in the fantasy season where your moves matter the most. Captaining a guy like Harry Kane for a double gameweek and perhaps getting a goal or two can boost your score big time. Of course, you likely won’t be the only one doing so.

The big debate I think is whether you go with either Kane or Christian Eriksen as your captain, do you take a shot with Austin or do you take Sergio Aguero at home against bottom-of-the-table Leicester City. That’s a decision that should be mulled over carefully.

CHANGING THE LAWS

FIFA met this week to talk about something that didn’t end with the world rolling its collective eyes. Shocking, I know.

But with a committee talking about some rule changes that actually make sense, well there is some hope from the rulers of the world’s game.

Probably the best idea would be the elimination of so-called triple punishment. Really, it made no sense from the start that a player could be send off, suspended for the next game and the other team gets a penalty all for one foul that wasn’t even egregious.

By removing the ban, that takes at least some of the bite out of it.

Another proposal was adding an extra substitution if a game goes into extra time. While I’m all for protecting players’ health, playing an extra two 15-minute halves isn’t enough to necessitate an extra change.

Really, soccer doesn’t need to change to become more like North American sports, either.

Changing the clock to stop when the ball goes out of play is completely unnecessary.

And thank God that the idea of a penalty box has been quickly struck down.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Europe hasn’t treated England well so far this season. Both Liverpool and Tottenham went out in Europa League and things aren’t looking great for Arsenal and Manchester City right now. Even Chelsea isn’t on the most surest of fitting after its 1-1 draw against PSG. The weird thing is Italy’s solid record in Europe, with six teams still alive. You don’t see that everyday … Saido Berahino is doing his best to force his way into England’s plans. He scored a stunner of a volley to give West Brom its win on Saturday … Peter Crouch tied Alan Shearer’s record of 46 headed goals this week. While I’m not surprised that the lanky striker tied the record, I am that they actually keep track of that sort of thing. Although, they do have numbers for everything these days … Wayne Rooney also set a record this week, hitting the 10-goal mark for the 11th straight season. He’s the first player to do so and considering the type of transfer movement we see from top players these days, it might not happen again.

THE LAST WORD

We laughed when Arsenal’s Keiran Gibbs was sent off instead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in a case of mistaken identity last year, but this time was just sad.

The ref got it completely wrong when Sunderland’s Wes Brown was given his marching orders after a foul in the box on Radamel Falcao gave United a penalty.

The problem is that it was John O’Shea that committed the foul.

Even after pleading with the ref that he should be the one sent off Sunderland’s captain O’Shea remained on the pitch.

After the game, the referee association backed the official and gave the reasoning that he saw Brown foul Falcao and that it was the right call.

I wonder how this will all hold up after an appeal that will surely come.

My take on the whole thing: I don’t think it should’ve been a red card to begin with. Nobody would’ve complained if it was simply a penalty and a yellow for O’Shea.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

Go fourth, my sons

- February 23rd, 2015

Don’t look now, but we have one hell of a race on for the Top 4 and the Champions League spots that come with them.

With Liverpool’s win over Southampton and Tottenham’s draw on Sunday, only four points separate Arsenal in third from Spurs in seventh.

Realistically, you could see a team go from out of Europe entirely to sitting in an automatic Champions League spot.

While the top two spots are all but locked up, this adds some intrigue for that next group of teams, who aren’t all that bad, if you haven’t noticed.

Arsenal is firing on all cylinders and has seemingly gotten over the injury bug.

Manchester United can’t seem to keep it all together despite having an immensely talented side.

Liverpool is coming on strong after some early season struggles.

Southampton is sticking around, despite getting outplayed by the Reds on Sunday.

And then there’s Harry Kane, keeping Spurs alive in this race and in the driver’s seat in the Europa League playoffs.

So who will end the season looking forward to a European trip next season?

Well you can’t count out the Gunners and their reputation for winning that fourth-place trophy. United has too much riding on finishing in Champions League, but might have to settle for Europa League if it doesn’t play its cards right. Southampton’s dream season seems to be going downhill and its attack can be spotty at times. That leaves Liverpool and Tottenham, but both are looking at a nice Europa League run and also have some domestic Cup ties in the future, stretching their squads.

What we do know for certain is this: The race for Europe is going to come down to the final days of the season and it’s going to be fantastic.

TITLE TALK

Manchester City was able to put a little bit of pressure on Chelsea this week, thanks in no small way to the refs at Stamford Bridge.

Burnley did its part in pestering the league leaders into some frustrated fouls – including the clattering challenge that saw Nemanja Matic sent off. The Clarets knew that they would never beat the Blues through skill and seemed set on just playing it rough and hoping for the best.

But what they weren’t counting on was the ref missing a clear hand ball in the box, denying the hosts a penalty and likely all three points. Instead, it was a draw and an opportunity for City to make up ground.

In a fixture that Manchester City always seems to excel at, the result was never in doubt. After a giveaway in the first minute led to a penalty call, you could tell Newcastle was always going to be on its backfoot on Saturday afternoon.

Five goals later, it was all over but the crying.

It’s these type of performances that City needs to remind people that there is a title race on the go. And it was especially nice to see City go full throttle and not really rest players ahead of the Citizens’ huge game against Barcelona midweek.

With Champions League on the go again, you can never be sure which games will get priority and what kind of squad rotation will go on.

With Chelsea playing in the League Cup final next weekend, it will be interesting to see how it deals with the fixture congestion later on.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Hey, Everton, we’re waiting. Wasn’t this team supposed to contend for a spot in Europe? Instead, it isn’t too far above the relegation fray and drawing against bottom-dwelling Leicester City isn’t easing worries … West Ham has lost Andy Carroll for the season, again. If he could ever stay healthy, he could become a world-class target man in front of the net for England … It should be noted that there were four clean sheets this week and two of them came in Sunderland and West Brom’s 0-0 draw.

THE LAST WORD

Like it or not, Qatar 2022 is going to happen.

This week, reports were made that it will be taking place in November and December too. You know, because you can’t play soccer in the middle of the desert in the middle of the summer.

Hasn’t enough happened since the middle Eastern nation was awarded the tournament that it should’ve been moved by now?

There are human rights violations and construction workers deaths piling up every day, yet FIFA is giving it all a blind eye.

And now, with this move of the tournament to winter, it will throw a serious wrench in Europe’s domestic seasons. Considering how much money is at stake in TV deals with the Premier League, which just re-upped for about $5 billion, this could be a serious problem.

We constantly harp on the NHL for caving to the Olympics while only a small percentage of players actually go to the Games. It will be interesting to see if any leagues will continue play during Qatar 2022.

After all, League Championship doesn’t take international breaks. The German Bundesliga and some eastern European leagues have winter breaks already. How will this affect those leagues?

While there is still plenty to work out in terms of logistics, the 2022 World Cup is becoming more of a nightmare by the day.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki