The Curious Case of the Premier League

The Barclay’s Premier League has long marketed itself as the most unpredictable league in the world. And while in most years the claim serves as a strong advertisement and nothing more, this year the words are quite true.

Look no further than the league leaders with 15 games left to play. Don’t rub your eyes, that is Leicester City’s name you see atop the table. Led by the dynamic duo of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the Foxes have taken the English league by storm. While the struggles of Chelsea (in 13th place) and Manchester United (5th) have allowed room at the top of the table, Leicester City was not supposed to be a beneficiary of these struggles. Leicester was supposed to be in a relegation fight with new manager Claudio Raneiri, not a fight for a Champions League spot.

With each passing week, people claim Leicester City’s bubble will pop and they will return back to earth, and with each passing week Vardy, Mahrez and Co. prove everyone wrong. Vardy set the Premier League record for consecutive games with a goal when he scored in 11 straight matches in during a red hot period from August to November and has managed 16 goals overall. Mahrez, not to be overshadowed by his teammate, has managed 13 goals, giving Leicester two of the top five goal scorers in English soccer.

It is now too late in the season to say Leicester City is a pretender. They must be strongly considered to fight Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham for the Premier League title.

News just this week has made Leicester’s case for the title even stronger. Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City’s $90 million man, suffered ligament damage in a League Cup match against Everton that will sideline him for up to 6 weeks. This injury coupled with Arsenal’s recent struggles (2 points from their last 3 matches) make it really seem plausible that it could be Leicester City’s year.

Leicester’s magical run at the top of the league has masked some of the other unpredictable elements of this year’s Barclay’s Premier League. West Ham United, Southampton, Stoke City and Watford (all typical mid-table/relegation fighters) sit on the top half of the table within 5 points of a Europa League spot. Tottenham is experiencing a youth revitalization under Mauricio Pottechino and are threatening to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since the departure of Gareth Bale. Liverpool is struggling under new manager Jurgen Klopp, Everton is underperforming for its talent level and AFC Bouremouth is surviving comfortably in its first top flight season in its 125 year history.

Yet all these stories are being overshadowed, rightfully so, by little Leicester City. Will Leicester City keep up their torrid pace and win the league? Who knows. They’ve already dodged what many perceived as a major bullet in retaining Mahrez and Vardy during the transfer window.

This Premier League season truly has been unpredictable and will be must watch TV from now until a winner is crowned in mid-May.

Advertisements

Can the Warriors do it?

By now every NBA fan should be aware of the beating that the Golden State Warriors are putting on the league. After last night’s demolition of the Spurs, the Dubs are sitting pretty with a 41-4 record. There hasn’t been a team that has looked this dominant since the record setting ‘95-’96 Chicago Bulls. Now over halfway through the season, their only real clunker has been a 113-95 loss to the Pistons (their other losses came to the Bucks after a 24 game win streak, to the Mavs in a game where they were without Stephen Curry, and to the Nuggets by two points). Naturally, this raises the question: Can the Warriors beat the Bulls’ record mark of 72 wins?

Up until yesterday, this blogger’s answer was a staunch ‘no.’ The NBA season is a long, grueling journey in which even the best teams tend to have stretches of mediocrity. I assumed that the Warriors would start dropping games as the season wore on. This would only be natural, considering they have to take the opposition’s best effort every night. I assumed there would be mental lapses and games where the shots wouldn’t fall. I assumed the other top teams in the league would be able to take the occasional game off of them, simply because that’s how the NBA works.

I was wrong.

These Warriors are like no team I have seen in my lifetime. They don’t just beat teams. They emasculate them. They eviscerate them. They beat them so bad that they cause teams to fire their coaches (‘sup Cleveland). Last night the Spurs – a team that is shaping up to be historically great in their own right – allowed the Warriors to shoot 52% from the field and 42% from three. That was all I needed to see. If they can do that to the Spurs, especially after doing the same thing to the Cavs a week before, consider me to be on the bandwagon. At this point it’s hard to imagine the Warriors losing more than two or three games to the other top teams the rest of the way, even on the road. Add that to their seeming inability to play down to lesser opponents, and they’re looking very, very good as far as 73 wins are concerned.

In the Spurs game Steph Curry scored 37 points through three quarters, before getting his usual rest in the fourth. And this may be the largest reason why I believe the Warriors can beat the Bulls’ record. The Warriors can only go as far as Curry goes. If he wears down as the season goes on, the Dubs can kiss the record goodbye, and I’m sure they are exceedingly aware of this fact. So how do they counter this? They simply get up by so many points that Curry doesn’t even have to play in the majority of fourth quarters. He is only averaging 33 minutes per game, an amount that should ensure that he will not be exhausted by season’s end.

I could go on for days gushing about Curry and his season (I firmly believe he is putting up the best offensive season of all time), but I will instead note that his supporting cast has been nothing short of incredible. Draymond Green has turned into one of the most versatile players in the league, and Klay Thompson continues to be solid as the lesser splash brother. With Harrison Barnes’ return from injury and Steve Kerr’s return to the bench in the wake of a back surgery, the Warriors only seem poised to improve as the season goes on.

And I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Head Coach Shake-Up in Cleveland

It seems to be déjà vu all over again for the Cleveland Cavaliers. David Blatt was fired today, January 22nd, in just his second season at the helm. Cleveland fans might remember a similar thing happening to one of their coaches six years ago when the Cavs fired former head coach, Mike Brown following a season where, despite not reaching the NBA Finals, they went 61-21, owning the best record in the East.

Blatt has ultimately faced a very similar fate. After leading the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals last season where they fell to Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors, the Cavs came into the 2015-16 season with a renewed vigor. They officially have a healthy team of elite talent with LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving and have been surging along in the Eastern Conference yet again to the tune of a 30-11 record, holding a 3.5 game lead over second place, Toronto.

david_blatt_15755412493
David Blatt has been fired after just 1+ seasons at Head Coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers

So what led to this change? Many people have speculated that the coaching change came at the behest of Cleveland’s star, LeBron James. It’s no secret that James’s opinions are highly regarded when it comes to his team. The 4x MVP and 2x Champion has always had the best interest for his team (whether Cleveland or Miami) at heart. He’s vocal and expects the same from his fellow players and coaches when it comes to leadership. However, all speculation that LeBron was involved in this Decision can be thrown out the window. As per, ESPN Insider, Brian Windhorst, LeBron was not consulted on the decision to fire Blatt. It remains odd that a Head Coach who is frankly quite respected by many in the NBA was fired so abruptly. Outspoken GM, David Griffin offered his take on the decision to fire Blatt at today’s news conference. Griffin frequently mentioned a disconnect within the organization, that “pretty good” was not good enough, and that he believed in the team possibly more than they believed in themselves. Griffin basically laid it all down, there. The decision to fire David Blatt was more or less his, and his alone. He seemed pretty determined and didn’t mince words in front of the press and stated that the players did not have a say in the decision. What he saw was sufficient enough for him. If you ask me, I’d say this has shades of the recent Chip Kelly firing that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Who knows what the real story was on Blatt? As far as any fan or spectator could tell, sure there was some “disconnectedness” between the players and the coach, but that will happen with most franchises from time to time, and it can often be worked out of! David Blatt had a great track record as a Head Coach, both abroad in Israel and at home with the Cavs. In 123 games, Blatt went 83-40 with Cleveland, that’s good enough for a .675 win percentage, and though they lost the Finals to Golden State, he did this in his first year with the team (again, not overshadowing the accomplishments of Steve Kerr)! Blatt, in my opinion, has been the best coach that LeBron has played for in the NBA. He has excellent credentials and led this team as best as he could. He is MUCH BETTER than Erik Spoelstra of the Heat who, again in my opinion, is really not much of a coach at all but more of a figurehead, especially when he has James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh on his team. So, yeah I’m kinda peeved at the Cavs organization and Dave Griffin, but what’s done is done. The Cavaliers begin a new chapter tonight with assistant coach, turned head coach (on a multi-year contract no less) Tyronn Lue. Will Lue help this team reach its full potential? I couldn’t tell you. David Griffin seems to think he’s the best coach for this team right now, even if he doesn’t think he’s a “better basketball coach” (GEEZ! Way to instill confidence in your man, Griff!). I look forward to seeing how the rest of this season for Cleveland plays out.

 

NOTES:

-Tyronn Lue signed a 3 year contract worth at least $9.5 million, as per Adrian Wojnarowski

-GSW Head Coach, Steve Kerr returns to the bench for the first time this year, following an extensive recovery from offseason back surgery, the Warriors are 39-4 on the year

Federer and Sharapova reach milestones in Melbourne

The Australian Open is in full swing and  and as the first major of the year, it serves as a chance for some of the game’s best players to get back into the swing of things and ramp their game back up to their top level.

This year’s tournament, though it has already seen some upsets of top players, some of the biggest names in the sport have been cruising along as expected. On the men’s side, each of the top 4 seeds have made it through to the third round with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic already on to the fourth. On the women’s side, the 1, 4 and 5 seeds are through to the fourth round, with #3 seed Garbine Murguruza still left to play.

In their most recent matches, Federer, the men’s #3 seed, and Maria Sharapova, the women’s #5 seed, each reached significant career milestones.

Starting with the winningest player of all time, Federer earned his 300th Grand Slam match victory by beating Grigor Dmitrov in 4 sets 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. Federer is at this point simply expanding his own record as he sits 67 wins ahead of Jimmy Connors. Federer, at 34, is also the oldest man to reach the round of 16 since Andre Agassi in 2005. Federer will face the 15 seed, David Goffin in the next round.

maria sharapova
Maria Sharapova has struggled in her career against Serena Williams but has 598 wins against everyone else

Sharapova is a 5 time Grand Slam winner and won in a championship in Melbourne in 2008. Though she faltered in the second set, she did go on to win the deciding third against young American Lauren Davis by a score of 6-1, 6-7, 6-0. For Sharapova it was her 600th career victory, a milestone that she joked was a reminder that she was getting old. Sharapova will face #18 Belinda Bencic in the fourth round and might face another match against Serena Williams in the quarterfinals if both women win their next matches.

As the Open heads into its second week, the match-ups start to get much more interesting as many of the unseeded qualifiers will have fallen, setting up ranked matches such as the classic Sharapova-Williams bout.

Should there be concern about Rafa Nadal?

The Australian Open is in full swing and as is the case with every tennis tournaments, there have already been upsets in the first round. On the women’s side, the number 32, 31, 29, 25, 22, 16, 8 and 2 seeds have all gone down. Most significant are the losses of Simona Halep, the #2 seed behind Serena Williams, Serena’s sister Venus, who came in as the 8 seed and the local favorite of my current home, Caroline Wozniacki.

The men’s draw is no stranger to upsets either. I previously mentioned the loss of the #17 seed Benoit Paire to Noah Rubin but the number 20, 11 and 5 seeds have also lost. But it’s that 5 seed that it’s time to talk about.

Rafael Nadal lost in the first round of a major for just the second time in his career. The first came at Wimbledon in 2013 when he lost to Steve Darcis. In this case the loss is a bit more respectable. Nadal fell to fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, who has had a lengthy and successful career, in 5 sets. But it’s notable because of how Nadal’s career has gone in recent years. If this had happened a few years ago, it would have been seen as a simple blip, such as when he lost to Robin Soderling in the French Open, a tournament he has dominated in his career.

But if you combine this loss with his recent performance, it reveals something more alarming: that Rafael Nadal may have begun the downward spiral towards retirement. Nadal has won 14 majors and was, at one point, the best player in the world. But from there he began having problems with his knees, which kept him off the court and caused his ranking to drop. He has since been surpassed by the other members of the men’s tennis Big Four-Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic- as well as Stan Wawrinka.

Despite the injuries, Nadal had managed to maintain enough of his championship form to remain competitive. At least until 2015. 2015 was the first season that Nadal did not make a single major final for the first time in 10 years. Nada himself had spoken about a loss of confidence given last year’s performance, though he had said that he had like his performances from the early tournaments of 2016.

This loss now makes 5 consecutive majors without even a semi-finals appearance from Nadal (and 6 of the last 7), with his last win coming at the French Open in 2014. 2015 also marked the first time Nadal competed in all 4 Majors since 2011.

I’m not saying Nadal will never win a significant tournament again. The next Major is the French Open, which he has dominated for his entire career. But not everyone has the longevity of Federer and it may be time to recognize that Nadal may not be able to compete with the best of the best for much longer outside of his magnificence on clay.

Thumbs up: Noah Rubin

I’m going to be honest here. This story makes me feel quite inadequate. But nonetheless I have to give a big thumbs up to Noah Rubin. Who is Noah Rubin? Good question.

Noah is a 19 year old American tennis player playing in the 2016 Australian Open. And Noah, just this weekend, won his first career professional tennis match.

But there’s more than just someone getting their first win. Rubin earned his first win, in a major tournament as just a wild card entry and ranked a lowly 328 in the world.

The American teenager ousted the 17 seed, Frenchman Benoit Paire, in straight sets, 7-6 7-6 7-6 to earn his first major victory. Though Paire was clearly not pleased with his own performance and his 72(!) unforced errors, I give a lot of credit to Rubin for being able to take advantage of the mistakes and string enough points together, even if Paire was not so complimentary of the youngster.

Beyond simply congratulating a young American tennis player, I feel a closer connection to this story. Noah Rubin hails from Long Island, New York and has actually played tennis at the same club where I used to back when I was playing sports rather than blogging about them. While I don’t know him personally-he is younger and much better than I am-I still feel like he deserves the shout out and that I have some connection to him and his success.

Additionally, since the retirement of Andy Roddick there has been a bit of a talent vacuum when it comes to American men’s tennis. John Isner is probably the best America has to offer at the moment on the men’s side but he struggles to make it deep into any major tournaments. Any potential young talent is worth keeping an eye on.

Rubin will advance and play another Frenchman, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, in the second round. Good luck to Noah and way to represent Long Island tennis!

AU Women’s Basketball Drops Close Patriot League Decision

With 4:58 left to play in the fourth quarter at Bender Arena, the AU Women’s Basketball team closed the lead of the Army Black Knights to two points. Over the final minutes of the game, the Eagles struggled offensively while Army closed the game on a 12-4 run to hand AU their fourth Patriot League loss Saturday afternoon.

The Eagles (4-13, 2-4 PL) rallied from a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to put themselves in a position to beat the offensively potent Black Knights (14-2, 5-1 PL), but managed only one field goal in the final five minutes, a three-pointer by senior guard Ari Booth with the Eagles down by ten points. Each of the Eagles four Patriot League losses have come by ten points or less.

“It’s disappointing,” head coach Megan Gebbia said of the Eagles numerous close losses this season. “You know just a couple errors here and there could change the outcome. These games give me confidence in the team as this is, supposedly, the best team in the league and we’re right there with them.”

While the Eagles struggled offensively, their defense was stout, holding Kelsey Minato, the seventh-leading scorer in the nation, to only five field goals and below her average of 23.6 points per game. Senior guard Jordan Light was tasked with guarding Minato, and 10 of Minato’s points came in the third quarter with Light sitting on the bench due to foul trouble.

“I think Jordan did a very nice job on her [Minato], I wish she hadn’t got into foul trouble late in the second quarter and early in the third quarter,” Gebbia said. “They’re a very difficult team to guard. They had some role players step up for them [today].”  

The Black Knights came into their matchup with the Eagles boasting gaudy offensive numbers. In their 15 games, Army was scoring 69.1 points per game, shooting 40.5 percent on three-point field goals. AU held Army without a three-point field goal. Minato and Jean Parker came into the game shooting above 40 percent on three-point attempts.

Freshman forward Cecily Carl led the Eagles offensively with 10 points and six rebounds, while sophomore guard Emily Kinneston added eight points off the bench. The Eagles shot 33.3 percent as a team for the game and experienced long droughts over the course of the game, including no field goals in the first six minutes of the second quarter.

“I think we didn’t get the ball inside enough,” Gebbia said. “They had 32 [points] in the paint, we had 14. That’s a huge discrepancy and that needs to change for the next game.”

 

The Eagles return to the court Wednesday Jan. 20 against Lafayette at 7 p.m. in Bender Arena looking to improve on their offensive output.

 

Thumbs up: Blair Walsh

Now I know many of you reading the headline are asking “why are you giving a thumbs up to the dude who lost a playoff game for the Vikings?” And that is a fair question to ask. But bear with me and you’ll see why.

As mentioned above, Walsh, in the eyes of some, is the reason that the Vikings lost to the Seahawks last weekend in the playoffs. By the same token, the score was 10-9 so Walsh was the only reason the Vikes kept the score close, but you can understand the frustration at a missed 27 yard field goal, which is considered by many to be a chip shot.

But alas Walsh does miss his field goal and I’m sure got loads of hate from Minnesotans on Twitter. Though not everyone was so upset. A group of students at Northpoint Elementary School wrote Walsh letters of encouragement and had them sent to Vikings headquarters. For the students this was a class exercise on empathy.

But Walsh took it another step forward. He delayed his trip out of town-which takes courage in and of itself because I’m sure he’s not the most popular guy in Minnesota right now-to visit the school. He personally thanked the students for their messages and imparted some wisdom to the students as well.

Check out the video from ESPN here.

So that’s why Walsh gets a thumbs up. Because despite the miss, he remained a good and upbeat person and that’s exactly the person you want to be sending young children a message.

New head coach spells end for Manziel in Cleveland

The Cleveland Browns have made yet another coaching change, hiring Hue Jackson to be their 6th head coach since 2008. Jackson replaces Mike Pettine, who was fired immediately following the Browns’ final game of the season.

Jackson had previously been the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals. His last head coaching job was in 2011 when he went 8-8 in his only season with the Oakland Raiders.

Jackson has just been introduced as the new head coach, but reports are already out about Johnny Manziel’s status with the team. The first reports out of Cleveland is that during his interview and meeting with team ownership, Jackson requested that the team “move on” from the troubled quarterback.

For all his success at Texas A&M, Manziel hasn’t quite found a way to translate that to the professional game. He has lost training camp quarterback competitions twice, once to Brian Hoyer and once Josh McCown. He did get some chances to play due to injuries and while he had moments of the Manziel we saw at A&M, overall the success hasn’t been there at the professional level. He is 2-6 as a starter in his two year career with 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.

But beyond the mediocrity on the field, Manziel has had off the field troubles as well. He is often seen out partying either during bye weeks or just regularly during the season. This past year he notably was late for his concussion tests because of a late night, wore a disguise to go to a party towards the end of the season and was benched after a video appeared on Instagram of him at a party back in Texas.

Prior to the season, Manziel voluntarily checked himself into rehab in an attempt to curb some of his risky behavior.

There is no word on how this transaction may take place, but whether he is released or traded, Cleveland has likely seen the last of Johnny Football.

NFL Owners Approve Move to Los Angeles

THE NFL IS BACK IN LOS ANGELES!

In a meeting in Houston, Texas today, NFL Owners agreed to approve the proposed plans for the St. Louis Rams to return back to Los Angeles, starting in 2016. Owners voted overwhelmingly to accept the relocation proposals of the Rams and the San Diego Chargers to move back to Los Angeles, voting 30-2 in favor of the franchises. The Rams would be returning back to Los Angeles, home to the second biggest media market, for the first time since 1994-95 when they played as the Los Angeles Rams.

The Los Angeles Rams played in Southern California from 1936-1995, with a brief gap in 1943, when operations were suspended. They are best remembered for bring the city 21 playoff appearances in the 48 year history culminating in the highest honor in 1951 with an NFL Championship. There were also plenty of Hall of Fame players who graced Los Angeles with their presence over the years, such as Eric Dickerson, Norm Van Brocklin, Deacon Jones, and Jack Youngblood. The LA Rams were a powerhouse of a franchise that certainly gave off the idea that football in Southern California would be a mainstay for the NFL, though it was not meant to be. In 1994-95, the Rams had lost their fanbase and had failed to make the playoffs since 1989. The stadium situation as well as the fact that they were being overshadowed by the more successful Dodgers and Lakers teams of the late 80s resulted in loss of viewership and a plummeting franchise. It wasn’t until 1995, that the Rams were able to relocate to St. Louis, Missouri where they would play out the next 20 years (winning Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999).

Other teams that initially pursued relocation from their respective cities following the 2015 Regular Season were the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers. Oakland played in Los Angeles from 1982-1994, where they won Super Bowls XI (1976) and XV (1980) before relocating to their current home. They withdrew their request on January 12, 2016. The San Diego Chargers called Los Angeles home when the franchise first started out, residing in the City of Angels solely in their inaugural season, 1960 but winning the division that year.

With the Rams approved to move back to LA, they will play out their next few seasons from 2016-2019 most likely in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before the new facility, proposed by owner Stan Kroenke, is completed in Inglewood, CA in 2019. The Chargers have until January 16, 2017 to decide if they will join the Rams in moving to Los Angeles, though all indications seem to point to the move being a certainty. Incentive to both the Raiders and Chargers to stay in their current cities will include $100 million to go towards stadium renovation costs, as per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.

With what is surely both shocking, yet expected news, it will be interesting to further gauge the response by fans and cities of NFL teams, mainly those that have struggled in past seasons, to the news of the Rams, and possibly the Chargers playing in LA once again. But for now, let us all take in this news as more information unfolds while remaining optimistic that the uniforms of old will return along with the team in 2016.