February 14, 2017

FREE KICKS: Apologies not enough for Hull City

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

At the end of the season, this past weekend’s game against Arsenal could be one that Hull City fans lament the most.

It takes a pretty colossal mess up to get a referee to actually apologize to you at halftime, but that was the case on Saturday.

Yes, Mark Clattenburg actually said sorry to the Tigers after missing a blatant handball on the game’s only goal at the time. It was so blatant that Alexis Sanchez’s outstretched hand was actually the last thing that the ball touched before crossing the goal line.

Though the Gunners would score another – after being awarded a penalty for a handball in the box, ironically – it was the first goal that was all they would need.

It’s situations like this where video replay would benefit the game greatly. It was a clear-cut case of handball and would’ve taken 30 seconds for a ref upstairs to review.

While many purists are against bringing replay and coaches challenges into the game, we might’ve just witnessed a blown call that could cost the Tigers millions of dollars if they end up relegated by a few points.

Oh, and the missed handball wasn’t the only blown call by Clattenburg, either. The ref gave Gunners defender Kieran Gibbs a yellow card for knocking over Lazar Markovic, who was clear in on goal – a scoring opportunity if I’ve ever seen – and was shown just a yellow card.

At that point, if Clattenburg had gotten things right, Hull City would’ve been square with Arsenal at 0-0 and up a man after Gibbs was sent off.

Instead, it remains in the relegation zone, just a point off the bottom of the table.


The early favourite for best winter transfer has to be Manolo Gabbiadini.

The Southampton striker scored two more goals this week against Sunderland, giving him three in two games. Just don’t be so quick to transfer him into your fantasy team: Southampton has a blank gameweek next, so he won’t even see action.

But when the Saints do get back to playing, expect opponents to keep an eye out for the red-hot Italian.


Of course Liverpool turns things around and beats Spurs after weeks of ragging on Jurgen Klopp.

This is what his team does: Beat the best sides and struggle against the teams below.

Spurs made it easy on them too, keeping a high line and allowing Sadio Mane to blow by an overmatched defender on the first goal, then turning the ball over deep right to him and then failing to secure one of the two rebounds.

Defensive injuries are really hurting Spurs right now and Mauricio Pochettino needs to find some stability at the back. Perhaps going to a back three like Spurs did a few weeks ago would help, but without Danny Rose at left back, that could be a flawed plan.

The Reds are now a point behind Tottenham with Manchester United a point behind them, causing a huge pileup around the Champions League spots in the table. This should get very interesting down the stretch and even more confusing when teams start picking up games in hand thanks to various cup competitions.


Sunderland went from pounding in four goals in a half to losing 4-0 in the span of a week. Such is life as a relegation-battler, we guess … Big Sam is getting deeper into the relegation hole with Crystal Palace after losing to Stoke City this weekend. The Eagles are now tied last with Sunderland, but a win will vault either side to safety at the moment … Who’s the best of the Wests? Neither team. West Ham and West Bromwich Albion draw 2-2 … Manchester United looked great against Watford, which isn’t saying much, but it’s these types of games that need to be won for the top teams to contend for Champions League places … Congrats to the Red Devils on becoming the first Premier League team to reach 2,000 points … It should also be noted that since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, United is just sixth in the Premier League in total points, with Manchester City leading the charge … Surprise! Middlesbrough failed to score again this week. They’ve scored the fewest in the league with 19 goals, but it’s a good thing that they’re tied for fourth-best defence with 27 goals conceded. That’s better than both Arsenal and City … Don’t look now, but Diego Costa is riding a bit of a cold streak. The Chelsea striker has now gone 195 minutes without getting a shot on target … Chelsea are so far ahead right now that they can afford to have a draw on the road and not even worry about it too much.


Pep Guardiola might’ve been saved some headaches for a little while with Gabriel Jesus limping off against Bournemouth.

The teenage sensation got his third start in a row with Sergio Aguero sitting on the bench.

This changed in the 15th minute when the Brazilian seemingly injured his foot while trying to reach a pass in the box that was too high. He was subbed off for Kun shortly and the rest was history.

City went on to win the game and jump into second in the table while Aguero contributed on what was ruled an own goal for Cherries defender Tyrone Mings.

A Tuesday morning scan showed that he suffered a broken metatarsal and will be out two to three months. At least in the short-term, City won’t be too pressed with fixtures. It has a FA Cup match against Huddersfield Town next weekend and then a Champions League dateafterwards, but then another week off. In fact, between now and the Sky Blues’ March 5 fixture with Sunderland, they only play those two games.

For now, the only questions about Gabriel that Guardiola will have to answer will be about his fitness, but when Jesus is ready to rise, the dilemma the manager has created at striker will be in the headlines once again.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

February 8, 2017

FREE KICKS: Klopp a big flop?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

It has happened at Manchester United for the past three managers now and it’s something that simply can’t be escaped: Comparisons to the gaffers that came before the current one.

It has been all the rage to compare supposed-saviour Jurgen Klopp’s work at Liverpool with some of the bigger “failures” in recent years.

In the past week, it has been brought up that Klopp now has the exact same Premier League record through 54 games that Brendan Rodgers had (26-16-12) and that overall, Klopp’s win percentage is actually worse than David Moyes’ at United.

Not helping: Klopp has now lost four of five games, all against much lesser opponents, and has crashed out of both domestic cup competitions. We do have to credit him for the draw against Chelsea last week, but losing to lowly Hull on Saturday scuttles all the good will he built from that.

The Reds didn’t make any moves in the January window while there are clearly some needs with this team. The defence remains leaky and a legit option up front is needed, with Daniel Sturridge looking like he’ll never regain his top form, Divock Origi being too inconsistent and Roberto Firminho being used more as a false nine.

The return from injury of Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane from the African Cup of Nations should help the attack, but that’s not the biggest problem – it’s the defence.

If Klopp can’t address the Reds’ issues there and if he can’t get his team up to play against sides below his team in the table, Liverpool will never truly contend.

Playing well against the top six in the table is nice, but that’s a smaller portion of the schedule than facing the rest of the league. The key to winning it all – or even just securing a Champions League spot – is beating up on the teams below you. If the Reds can’t start doing that, a place in Europa League is far more likely than a return to the big dance.

And if Klopp doesn’t start pulling things together soon, he’ll become just another statistic and be labeled as just another false saviour.


Is there a fantasy player more frustrating than Romelu Lukaku?

It’s hot and cold and hot and you never know when the big Belgian is going to show up on the scoresheet. Then, out of nowhere, he’ll score four.

Lukaku is now the leading forward in fantasy after his massive outburst against Bournemouth and Everton has seriously started to come around.

That’s 16 goals on the season for the striker, just two shy of his career high set last season, and when you consider that he is just 23 years old, it’s not insane to think that he should be among the Premier League’s goal-scoring greats. He’s at 76 goals for his career and unless he moves abroad, he’s a shoo-in to reach the 100-goal milestone – something only four active players have accomplished.


Jesus is looking like a saviour for Manchester City. Gabriel Jesus, of course. In his second consecutive start, he bagged a brace against Swansea – including the game-winner in injury time. With Jesus starting over City legend Sergio Aguero, this probably isn’t going to end without some controversy. You can’t keep a player like Kun on the bench for too long … The Foxes have backed Claudio Ranieri after Leicester dropped another game, this time to Manchester United. The defending champions are now just a point out of the relegation zone and with Champions League back on next week, there’s no guarantee this situation gets better soon … We thought that Big Sam was a manager that’s capable of sorting out a defence? Apparently not. When you give up four goals in the first half to struggling Sunderland, that’s a terrible sign. Even worse: Jermain Defoe scored twice in injury time alone … Speaking of struggles, Southampton has now lost six of seven games after falling to West Ham. New signing Manolo Gabbiadini scored in his debut, but it’s really the back line – once a strength for the Saints – that needs work … How crappy must it have been to see former captain Jose Fonte return to Saint Mary’s so soon for the Southampton faithful? … N’Golo Kante has more tackles in the past two seasons than any Premier League player has in the past three combined … Eden Hazard made Arsenal look straight-up silly on his run. Legend says that Laurent Koscielny is still back-pedaling to this very day … We wish Hector Bellerin a speedy recovery from that nasty-looking concussion he suffered while Marcos Alonso scored on Saturday. What a double-whammy for the Gunners.


Chelsea’s 3-0 loss to Arsenal in late September seems like it happened an eternity ago.

Sure, that was only a few months ago, but so much has changed with this Blues team.

It was that loss that spurred manager Antonio Conte to change his system completely, going to three at the back and sparked the Blues to go on the biggest winning streak in Premier League history.

After that winless September, we all thought that this team was closer to the one that slouched to a tenth-place finish and the worst title defence in Premier League history. Instead, they’re cruising to a championship an are barely being challenged.

The Gunners were supposed to be a potential stumbling block, but they put up as much fight as a paper bag in the rain.

The Blues now have an 80% chance of hoisting the trophy, according to ESPN’s projections. They already have nine more points than last year. They’re also nine points clear at the top, while last season they finished 13 points away from relegation.

This has been quite the remarkable turnaround from the circus that went on last season at Stamford Bridge. Who knew that if owner Roman Abramovich just hired a low-key manager and kept his nose out of things, it would all go so smoothly?

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

February 3, 2017

The Patriots will rise above the Falcons

by Dan Bilicki In: Football, Picks

I’ve been trying for two weeks to make a case for the Atlanta Falcons – it’s that hard.

It seems that everything that the amazing Falcons are good at, the Patriots have a solid counter for it. And in some areas where the NFC champs struggle, the Pats excel.

It all starts at the top for the Patriots, with the genius that is Bill Belichick running the show. He has put on a masterclass this season with his defence, posting league-best number while trading away starting linebacker Jamie Collins mid-season.

His defence is the league’s best at taking away big plays, which are a key part of the Falcons offence. The Pats have the secondary and the schemes to take away the big play without sacrificing much in run defence. Also, New England defenders are solid tacklers, taking away potential for big yards-after-catch plays – another staple of the Falcons offence.

Belichick’s defence may not give up many points, but it is OK with allowing yardage – in small pieces. He’ll let you dink and dunk between the 20s, then stiffen up when it really matters in the red zone. His challenge will be to stop a team that excels in close.

We would also be remiss to mention that the Pats haven’t faced an offence this good all season. The closest would’ve been the Steelers in the AFC title game, but they lost their best player, LeVeon Bell, very early on.

Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has done some amazing work building the league’s top offence, but this will be his biggest test yet – until he’s pacing the sidelines as the 49ers new head coach.

On the other side of the ball, we don’t have to tell you that Tom Brady is pretty good at carving up an opposing defence.

When Dan Quinn was in charge of the Seahawks two years ago against the Pats, he used the front four to create pressure while dropping seven back in coverage. He knows that Brady is even better when you blitz him and he shouldn’t play into that strength. Whether the Falcons’ pass rush can disrupt Brady without sending extra men is the big question.

Around Brady, the Pats have assembled a wide array of playmakers that all fill different roles. No matter what the gameplan calls for, Brady has that tool in his shed to use. We should see a bunch of LeGarrette Blount on the ground, Dion Lewis catching the ball out of the backfield, Julian Edelman coming out of the slot and New England’s latest hero, Chris Hogan, taking the top off the Falcons defence. The Pats offence is about as similar to a Swiss Army knife as there is in the game today.

Of course, the Super Bowl rarely turns out to be very cut and dry, and we should expect a few surprises, but this whole season has been leading up to seeing commissioner Roger Goodell hand over the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Robert Kraft, Belichick and Brady.

Unless the Falcons can pull off the upset, that will be a sight for the ages.

Pick: New England 34, Atlanta 24

MVP: LeGarrette Blount, NE

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

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