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It’s really going South(ampton)

- December 16th, 2014

A month ago, Southampton was sitting second in the table after coming off a 2-0 win against Leicester City and feeling on top of the world.

The Saints had just won their fourth game in a row and had genuine European aspirations.

That’s when the wheels fell off.

A draw against Aston Villa which featured a brain-fart goal was just the beginning of the slide. Next came four straight losses against some of the top sides in England, which is a bit understandable, but this is a team with its sights set high.

Which brings us to this weekend’s loss to Burnley – almost unforgivable for a side with European dreams.

The Clarets scored the game’s lone goal on a mistake and deflection by Southampton’s formerly outstanding back four.

Before this five-game winless run, Southampton had allowed just five goals in 11 games. Since, it has been eight goals in five contests and the mistakes and mental errors are adding up.

The goals have dried up on the other end too. Against a Burnley side that has allowed 24 goals this season and sat in the relegation zone for much of the campaign, the Saints could only muster four shots on target – including Dusan Tadic’s missed penalty.

The schedule doesn’t get much easier in the meantime either, with Chelsea and rematches with Arsenal and Manchester United on the horizon. By the time that the Saints get an easy run of games, it may already be far too late to salvage their hopes for this season.

INTO THE RECORD BOOKS

We saw two big milestones reached this week by two men that have had a huge impact on each other in their careers.

First, we saw Chelsea’ Jose Mourinho become the fastest EPL manager to reach 400 points, doing so in 174 games. That’s a full 17 games faster than the next man on the list, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Then, in the late Saturday game, former Chelsea talisman Frank Lampard scored his 175th Premier League goal, tying him for fourth all time with Thierry Henry.

Too see these two reach such high milestones on the same day is quite the pleasant coincidence.

The more impressive feat I’d say is Lampard’s. For a midfielder to score that many goals – even if he has scored a wealth of them on penalties – is nothing short of amazing.

With a loan move to New York City FC imminent – he could be on the move as early as February – I don’t see him moving much farther up the ranks.

Alan Shearer is top of the list with an unreachable 260 while it would take quite a bit of luck to surpass Andrew Cole at 187. Considering Wayne Rooney in third place with 179 is still chugging along, even that spot seems unattainable.

But that shouldn’t stop us from celebrating “Fat Frank,” one of the best midfield scorers of all-time.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

It was just in April when Liverpool faced Manchester United and dominated in a 3-0 result. Now, it has been flipped with the Red Devils soundly outplaying the Reds … If you don’t think David De Gea is the second best keeper in the world right now, you didn’t watch this game … Every time I see West Ham sitting in fourth in mid-December, I think that it must be a typo. Even stranger, the Hammers are still doing it with offence as they only have three clean sheets this season … What a perfectly placed strike by Stewart Downing. He didn’t get much on the shot, but rolled it right into the corner … Welcome back, Petr Cech. It was nice to see the Chelsea great between the sticks with Thibault Courtois out with a minor injury … Arsenal always dominates Newcastle when the Magpies come to visit London and this game was no different. With all of these injured Gunners coming back, this is a team to watch out for in 2015.

THE LAST WORD

How many people would’ve thought that we’d see a Manchester City striker set a record this season?

OK, probably a lot of people. But you would’ve guessed it would’ve been for something to do with scoring.

Jose Pozo will go into the record books for another reason: By wearing the No. 78, he has worn the highest jersey number in Premier League history.

Thanks to an injury during warmups for Edin Dzeko, Pozo was pressed into action against Leicester.

Personally, I frown upon players using needless high numbers, especially in footie.

It’s not like there are 77 other taken numbers that has pushed Pozo into this obscene territory. While we often see high numbers in Serie A for some reason, England had actually disallowed players from using such outlandish numbers in the past.

Really, it should’ve stepped in again.

Final fun fact: Pozo’s nickname is Mini-Messi, which is deeply ironic considering he is taller than the Barcelona sensation by half an inch.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

Picks for NFL Week 14

- December 13th, 2014

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

Arizona +4.5 over ST. LOUIS

Thursday night was not entertaining football – unless you love defence. Either way, even if you were buying in on St. Louis’ outstanding defence, giving that many points to a 10-win team is just nuts.

Oakland +10 over KANSAS CITY

The Raiders beat the Chiefs a couple weeks back and probably won’t do it again. But can’t an improving young Raiders team at least keep it respectable?

Jacksonville +14 over BALTIMORE

The Ravens are a great team at home, but they’re secretly lacking in pass defence. Winning by two TDs is a bit dicey.

Pittsburgh -2 over ATLANTA

With Julio Jones banged up, the Steelers might get off lightly here. But it must be remembered they’re the only AFC North to lose to the NFC South this season – and they have twice.

Houston +6.5 over INDIANAPOLIS

A tough division rivalry and there’s a lot at stake for the Texans – including J.J. Watt’s MVP candidacy.

Cincinnati +1 over CLEVELAND

As much as I love Johnny Football, I think the Bengals are the better team here.

NEW ENGLAND -7.5 over Miami

A little revenge game for the Pats, who are home after two long weeks on the road. IT’s hard to like the Dolphins playing in the cold, too.

Tampa Bay +3 over CAROLINA

While Cam Newton’s car wreck is more of a metaphor for the Bucs’ season, the QB’s injury should be enough of a setback for the NFC South contenders this week.

NEW YORK GIANTS -6.5 over Washington

The Giants are making a late-season push to help their coach keep his job while I’m not sure any Washington player is going to do the same.

BUFFALO +4.5 over Green Bay

If there’s one thing the Bills do, it’s play opponents really tight and really tough. The Packers will have some trouble on the road, but I like the points here.

Minnesota +7.5 over DETROIT

Basically, I have to cheer for the Vikings because as a Cowboys fan I need the Lions to lose. Of course, this probably won’t work because Dallas is destined to miss the playoffs.

TENNESSEE +3 over New York Jets

What did the Jets do to be favoured on the road against anyone? The Titans are bad, but the Jets are too.

Denver -4 over SAN DIEGO

Many fantasy owners are upset about Peyton Manning and Demaryius Thomas having awful games last week, but with the Broncos running game really getting into gear, this team is going to be even scarier in the playoffs.

San Francisco +10 over SEATTLE

The Seahawks are on fire right now and a force on defence. The 49ers are falling apart at the seams. So of course, something weird will happen and San Francisco will somehow pull off a miracle and at least cover.

PHILADELPHIA -3 over Dallas

We just watched the Eagles run over the Cowboys two weeks ago in Dallas. Why would anyone think it won’t happen again?

New Orleans -3 over CHICAGO

Two teams that have seen everything go wrong this season. At least the Saints somehow have playoff hopes remaining and should be out there playing harder than the no-luck Bears.

Last week: 8-7-1

This season: 110-94-3

And, we have a race in the EPL!

- December 9th, 2014

It was a day like Saturday that we really needed to jumpstart any sort of interest in the Premier League title race.

As little as two weeks ago, we were writing off this season as Chelsea’s to lose. But now, after the Blues’ dream of an undefeated season came to an end against Newcastle and Manchester City was able to sneak by Everton, the defending champs are just three points back.

In fact, Chelsea’s run of form hasn’t been anything special, with a draw, win and loss in the past three league games.

Even worse, they had another superstar suspended due to yellow card accumulation with Cesc Fabregas being forced out of the next game. This comes on the heels of getting Diego Costa back from his ban.

So, did Newcastle lay out a strategy of how to take down Chelsea? I’m not so sure.

When you consider that Papiss Cisse had to take advantage of two rare mistakes by the Chelsea back line, I’m not so sure that success is replicable that way.

But, you must give credit to the upstart Magpies for holding off the stellar attack of the league leaders while down to ten men for the final 10 minutes of the game.

WAIT, ARE WE SURE WE HAVE A RACE?

It turns out my gushing words about Sergio Aguero last week may have jinxed the City striker.

Just minutes into the game, the league-leading scorer slipped, injuring his knee and forcing him out of the game.

The early reports are that there is some ligament damage and that the Argentine will be out for a month – so make your fantasy team moves now.

Even more concerning is that City is a little thin up front right now.

Edin Dzeko is less than 100% and Stevan Jovetic is also chasing full fitness. This could leave Jose Pozo as the only striker they have right now, although it’s not like the Citizens lack attacking punch from other spots on the pitch.

It will be interesting to see how Manuel Pellegrini deals with this situation in the coming week, especially with a Champions League fixture on the books too.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

QPR gets off the bottom and out of the relegation zone! I’m not sure where the R’s would be without Charlie Austin, but we’re about to find out with him suspended after seeing red … There were three 0-0 draws on Saturday. Needless to say, there was a lot more time in the highlight shows to talk about the big Chelsea loss … We really might be watching the fall of Arsene Wenger. Stoke scored less than a minute in and three times in the first half. That’s a tough hole for anybody to dig out of and the Gunners fell short … Even worse for Arsenal: More defensive personnel issues. Nacho Monreal is now ailing and Callum Chambers will miss a game after getting a red card … Some nifty bits of skill by Christian Eriksen and Yannick Bolasie in the Crystal Palace-Tottenham game … West Ham might have a problem that you never would’ve thought possible: They have too many good strikers. With Andy Carroll back and scoring two goals, Enner Valencia looking good and Diafra Sakho wowing everyone, how will Big Sam handle this abundance of players up front?

 THE LAST WORD

I think the dream is dead for Southampton.

Three games against top-flight opponents, three losses in a row.

Even worse, the defensive resolve that propelled the Saints to the top of the table has seemingly disappeared. Robin van Persie’s two goals we off of mistakes by Southampton defenders.

First, RvP was sent in on the keeper alone after an amateur-hour back pass by Jose Fonte. Next, he was left unmarked as Wayne Rooney swung a free kick into the box.

While we don’t doubt that the Saints can make a run at a Europa League spot, any hopes of title contention are now over.

This was a game that was there for the taking too, with Manchester United doing some very questionable things.

Making a tactical sub of taking off Patrick McNair to move to a back three was puzzling so early on. And further, playing Maraoune Fellaini in a deep-lying role made the Belgian seem quite disinterested.

Maybe one day, when Louis van Gaal can finally assemble his Van Gaalacticos to rival the best in Europe, he won’t have to make such puzzling decisions. But you can’t rip him too much now, considering his side did pick up the three points.

That’s actually five wins running and a jump up into third place. Perhaps LVG isn’t as bad as we thought he was – or perhaps there’s just more parity than ever in the Premier League.

Responding to Grey Cup commenters + Week 14 NFL picks

- December 6th, 2014

I don’t really get into responding to comments on this blog, but since my post about why I didn’t want to watch the Grey Cup last week generated so much interest, I thought I would address some today.

- I do not have a “little man complex,” as one commenter suggested. I am actually of average height and weight.

-I have never given the NFL a free pass. I feel that Roger Goodell isn’t very good at his job and should probably be removed from power over the many scandals (the domestic abuse issue being the latest) that have occurred under his supervision.

-I would love to see the study that ranked MLS the 88th-best soccer league in the world. It’s surely in the top 50.

-I have, in fact, played sports (football, soccer, baseball and ice hockey), but none professionally.

-One commenter said the he wishes the CFL had a franchise in the U.S. and “maybe one day they can have a U.S. division. I’m surprised fellow commenters didn’t supply a history lesson.

-The Bills in T.O. Series being cancelled reflected more on how poorly the series was run and priced more than the overall interest in the NFL in Canada.

-To those who bring up the power failure in New Orleans at the Super Bowl, doesn’t anybody realize that it was Beyonce’s way of motivating the 49ers?

-Finally, I’ve been called many terrible things on Twitter (@danbilicki) and in comments, but none is worse than being labelled a Manchester United fan. How dare you! Blackburn Rovers for life.

As for this week’s picks, the lines are from Vegas and the home teams are in CAPs.

CHICAGO +3.5 over Dallas

How weird is it that these two teams played two Thursdays in a row? How badly could that mess up a team’s rhythm? I’m as surprised as anyone that the Cowboys are undefeated on the road this season, but next week in Philly should be a huge test of that record. Of course, everything’s gravy for the Cowboys now that they can’t possibly go 8-8 again.

MIAMI -2.5 over Baltimore

The Jets were able to run the ball on Miami, but that involved a lot of reverses and a lot of volume. The Ravens just lost Haloti Ngata and their pass defence is secretly not good.

Indianapolis -3.5 over CLEVELAND

This should have been Johnny Football’s big hurrah. Instead, it’s a blowout loss for the Browns and another week of Manziel-Hoyer drama.

Houston -5 over JACKSONVILLE

Ryan Fitzpatrick may not throw six more TDs this season. It doesn’t matter though, as J.J. Watt eats mediocre QBs for breakfast and Arian Foster will run wild.

New York Giants (PK) over TENNESSEE

The Titans might be the worst team in the league while the Giants can’t keep on blowing winnable games. A loss here more than seals Tom Coughlin’s fate.

NEW ORLEANS -9.5 over Carolina

The Saints have already beaten the Panthers by a big margin and that was in Carolina. Drew Brees and Co. has to avenge their three-game losing streak at home.

Tampa Bay +9.5 over DETROIT

Big letdown opportunity for the Lions here, as Detroit hasn’t won a game in October for two years.

WASHINGTON +3 over St. Louis

Lots of value here taking a home dog that might not be terrible over a team that’s fresh off a big win against a truly awful squad.

MINNESOTA -6 over New York Jets

The Vikings aren’t as bad as their record and coach Mike Zimmer is really building something there. It’s easy to see the Vikes in the playoff hunt next season.

Buffalo +10 over DENVER

The Bills defence should hold the team in this game. The Broncos have an average record against the spread this season too.

ARIZONA -1 over Kansas City

The Cardinals have one of the league’s best home-field advantages, so how are they only getting a point against a team that’s in an equal slump?

OAKLAND +8 over San Francisco

This game is a blood feud and you can’t trust the 49ers offence right now.

Seattle +1 over PHILADELPHIA

The Seahawks defence has jumped back into its daunting form with some key players coming back. With Mark Sanchez under centre, I don’t like Philly’s chances.

New England -3.5 over SAN DIEGO

While some would worry about the long flight from New England to San Diego, the Pats stayed out west this week. The Chargers are a great December team, but it’s not like the Patriots aren’t too.

GREEN BAY -12.5 over Atlanta

The only risk here is a letdown game for the Pack, but you can’t bet against Aaron Rodgers at home right now. They’ll undoubtedly put up at least 40 points against the uber-soft Falcons.

Last week: 8-8

This season: 102-87-2

The Saints came back to earth

- December 4th, 2014

There’s something really Tottenham-y about Southampton and it’s not a good thing.

You see, the Saints may have lost just four games this season, but those four games have come against the league’s best sides.

After dropping two games in less than a week to Manchester City at home and then a heartbreaker to Arsenal at the Emirates – added to losses against Liverpool and Spurs – the Saints have lost to every team that it has faced that finished in the top six last year.

It reminds us of how Spurs would always loss – usually big – when facing a side near the top of the table.

It could get worse for Ronald Koeman’s crew too, with Manchester United next on the fixture list. Even worse: Jack Cork, Dusan Tadic and Toby Alderweireld all went off injured in the loss at Arsenal.

Alderweireld’s injury was particularly damaging, as Southampton had already used all of its subs and was forced to play out the final 10 minutes down a man. Without the big Belgian, the Gunners came strong and eventually saw Alexis Sanchez put home the winner.

It’s the kind of result that shows you which teams are built for the top of the table and which ones are punching above their weight.

While Southampton has garnered a lot of new fans and some respect around the footballing community, I’m not so sure this story has the happiest of endings, with Europa League looking more likely than Champions League after this week of play.

CITY FINDS IT’S RACING SHOES

Since a 2-2 draw against lowly QPR less than a month ago, Manchester City has started firing on all cylinders. Wins against Swansea, Bayern Munich in Champions League play, Southampton and Sunderland have the defending champs six points back of Chelsea.

It’s still early, but it’s results like this weekend’s – Chelsea as held to a 0-0 draw by Sunderland and City beat upstarts Southampton – which breathe life into title races.

With 24 games to play, six points can easily be made up in as little as a week like this one.

It’s even easier when you have Sergio Aguero playing like he has.

The Argentine attacker can now easily be called the third best player in the world behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – with no offence to Ballon d’Or nominee Manuel Neuer. And, really, the gap between the top two and Aguero at No. 3 hasn’t been closer in a long time.

City’s dynamo seems to get off amazing shots in the tightest areas and can make stellar passes to set up goals, like Stevan Jovetic’s strike against Sunderland.

As long as Kun stays healthy, City will always have a shot at whichever game their playing and at the EPL title.

QUICK KICKS

What awful defending on Maraoune Fellaini’s goal by Stoke. That defender watched the ball fly over his head to the big Belgian and didn’t even try to get head it … Diego Costa should’ve gotten a bigger suspension than his one game for yellow card accumulation. If the ref had seen him kick out at the Sunderland player, he would’ve been red carded and Chelsea would be without their top player for three games … How real are West Ham’s chances at Europe? After beating Newcastle and West Brom – two sides that are capable of their moments – Big Sam’s boys are in fifth. And they’re getting back striking duo Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia soon too … Has Brendan Rodgers turned it around just in time? With two wins this week, you have to think that Liverpool’s prospects are looking up. The Reds need a good run of form heading into back-to-back dates with Manchester United and Arsenal coming up shortly … Everton has somehow allowed 22 goals this season, tied for fifth-worst in the league with Burnley. Maybe it’s time that the Toffees kept the chains on gallivanting wing backs Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman and try to secure the back line a bit better … There’s nothing like having midweek fixtures to shake up the table. With so many teams packed so close together, seeing two game worth of movement in a matter of days was a delight – and there’s more to come this weekend!

THE LAST WORD

Manchester United should be thanking its lucky stars it has David De Gea between the sticks.

If not for the Spanish goalkeeper, this season could be going a lot worse for the Red Devils.

After another stellar reflex save to earn his team three points against Stoke on Wednesday, it has become fairly certain that De Gea is United’s player of the season so far.

He has had to deal with leaky back lines and what seems like a thousand different combinations of a back four. He has had to deal with the players up front failing to connect with each other and falling short on the scoresheet against some weaker opponents.

While many focus on how Louis van Gaal is running this team, or how the injuries are piling up or how much better the offence should be or who the team should sign in January, maybe we should all take a good look at why Manchester United are sitting in fourth right now: David De Gea.