August 23, 2016

The Manchester United of old is back

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

We’re just two games into the season, but I think it’s safe to say that Manchester United is back to being the powerhouse it once was.

After some lean years under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal after Sir Alex Ferguson retired, the Red Devils finally have a manager that knows how to win at their helm. Jose Mourinho’s ways may bother some, but the moves he has made to bring in players look to be paying off already.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice on Friday to bring his season total to three and Paul Pogba made his redebut.

With Wayne Rooney looking good in a role a bit behind the attack, this R.I.P. attack may be one of the best in the league.

he defending looks great as well and there has never been any doubt that David De Gea is one of the world’s best ’keepers.

United is tied for first with cross-town rivals Manchester City and this rivalry looks like it featured at the top of the table for the rest of the season.

SHATTERED CRYSTAL

The one team that I had tabbed to go down and is looking bit the role right now is Crystal Palace.

Alan Pardew’s squad hasn’t looked great and is the only team that hasn’t scored a goal yet this season. The worries should be adding up really quickly considering that the Eagles have collected just 11 points from 21 games in 2016.

Of course, this week it finally signed Christian Benteke from Liverpool after upping its off from 23-million pounds plus add-ons to 27-million. This could be the move that spurs the oft-forgotten London club to some success, but if the squad has truly tuned out Pardew – as it seems – there might be only one way to right the ship.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Well, you can’t blame Alberto Moreno for those two goals, can you Liverpool fans? With the under-fire left back on the bench, Burnley hit the Reds on the counter twice to score an upset. The underdogs showed that if you can sit back and defend against Jurgen Klopp’s side, you’ll have those chances on the break … That’s two games in a row that Diego Costa should have been sent off and two games in a row when he has scored the late winner for Chelsea. He should’ve seen a second yellow for a dive against Watford and one day these indiscretions will catch up to him. If he keeps up this pace of a yellow per game, he’s going to see a lot of suspensions, too … Hull City is currently third in the league on goal differential after winning once again. Again, this is a club with a caretaker manager and barely enough players. We don’t think the Tigers will be able to keep this up for long though, with United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea on tap over their next five games … Hugo Lloris will miss four weeks for Spurs, so I guess it’s a good thing the international break is coming up shortly … You really have to feel for Nampalys Mendy, who looked to sprain his ankle pretty badly in his Leicester City debut. As the supposed replacement for N’Golo Kante, the Foxes will need him back quickly … The Foxes were robbed of a penalty when Hector Bellerin clearly took down Ahmed Musa in the box. It was a bad challenge and Leicester should’ve walked away with a win … It looks like Pep Guardiola is firmly backing Sergio Aguero in all aspects of his game. After Kun missed two penalties midweek in Champions League, Aguero was still called to step up to the spot against Stoke and rewarded his manager. City’s 4-1 win was a lot more indicative of this team’s talent than that 2-1 slog against Sunderland in the opener … Is Raheem Sterling back? He has looked impressive early this season … Speaking of Sterling, why was he the one marking the massive Ryan Shawcross on a corner when the Stoke defender drew a penalty? That was a bad tactical decision … Who saw this coming: Andy Carroll is already injured and will miss six weeks. The West Ham striker also said on Twitter that he’ll be back and that he’s still a “15-20 goal striker,” you know, despite having only scored 15 goals once in his career and that was with Newcastle while playing in the second tier … Will Sunderland be able stay up this season without its annual 4-6 points from beating rival Newcastle? That’s a burning question in Northeast England right now.

THE LAST WORD

This week we got our first taste of Friday Night Football in the Prem, when Manchester United beat Southampton. While on the surface, it’s just the league trying to space out its games a little bit, my question is if it is too much.

Most leagues in Europe have a Friday tilt most weeks while the EPL haven’t until now, so this isn’t exactly breaking ground. The big difference is that the Premier League also usually has a game on Monday.

With games on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, that’s just three days a week without English football. And then, when you figure in Cup dates – like there are this week – and European dates – Champions League on Tuesdays and Wednesdays plus Europa League on Thursdays – that’s a game to watch every day.

Is that too much? Time will tell, but I know some North American fans won’t be too happy about having to stream another game per week at work.

And don’t even get me started on the earlier deadline for fantasy each week…

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

August 15, 2016

Leicester City gets out-Foxed

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

You couldn’t write it up any better: In their season-opener, the defending champions lost to a team that everyone has picked to be relegated.

Even better, it was just last year that Leicester City, a team many figured to finish near the bottom of the table, a team with 5,000-1 odds to win it all, well, actually did just that. And now, one game into their title defence, it has fallen to a team that’s barely a team right now.

Hull City is a team in shambles. It barely has enough players to name a squad and under the watch of a caretaker manager.

But that didn’t stop the Tigers from coming and winning their first game back in the Premier League.

It was the perfect story to start the season and once again proves that almost anything can happen in soccer.

It may not have lasted too long, but after Day 1 of the 2016-17 season, Hull City was the leader of the Premier League.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

While you can surely discount the fact that Arsenal’s defence was missing a lot of key players, you can’t help but be impressed with Philippe Coutinho.

He was the only player in the league to score a brace and looked impressive doing so. His stellar free kick was also one of the goals of the week.

In fact, the entire Liverpool attack looked pretty impressive while running over the Gunners. The Reds did switch off on defence after going up 4-1, but were able to hold on.

Now, the question is if he can keep up some consistency, which has troubled him in the past.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

It looks like Joe Hart and his entrance-tunnel antics are finished at Manchester City. New manager Pep Guardiola benched the England No. 1 this weekend in favour of Willy Caballero and now the reports are that the Sky Blues have agreed to a deal with Barcelona for Claudio Bravo. It’s reportedly worth 21-million pounds, but the only hold up is an injury to Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. Maybe Everton will get its wish and land Hart now … Another team with a tough situation in goal is Tottenham, after Hugo Lloris limped off against the Toffees. That will press Michel Vorm into duty for the time being, but that’s certainly a situation to monitor after the Spurs captain won the Gold Gloves last season … Nathan Redmond is one to watch for your fantasy team. He’s a cheap-ish midfielder that will be playing striker for the Saints this season. And you can see why manager Claude Puel rates him after he scored the equalizer against Watford … What’s going on with Swansea? After selling Andre Ayew and captain Ashley Williams, Icelandic star Gylfi Sigurdsson was benched to start the game and played only 31 minutes. Maybe it’s just the Swans way of getting him some rest after an unexpected run at Euro, but it should be watched … Did Harry Kane play this weekend? Because I didn’t see him … Congrats to Zlatan for scoring in yet another debut. Everywhere he has gone he has potted on in his first game. Pretty impressive … United is on top of the league for now, being the only club to win by two goals … City’s incredible possession numbers were impressive, but didn’t pay off as much as they probably should’ve when you have 77% possession, you shouldn’t have to rely on a Paddy McNair own goal to win against Sunderland … Marko Arnautovic might have gotten a little lucky this week. While it didn’t take much a lip-reader to tell he was swearing at the ref, he didn’t receive a card for the infraction. It’s supposed to be a red this season, so that could’ve been a costly blow up for the Austrian … In case you were wondering how Newcastle is doing in the League Championship, the answer is not good. The Magpies lost Huddersfield Town on Saturday and have yet to record a point. Maybe Rafa Benitez isn’t cut out for the second tier … Granit Xhaka had most fouls in the league with four this week and he managed that in just 24 minutes. A bit of an auspicious debut … Liverpool set a club record by covering 117.6km against Arsenal. Man, does Klopp have them running hard and you have to wonder if that will catch up to them in the long run.

THE LAST WORD

It may be a new season, but it’s the same ol’ Diego Costa.

After picking up a yellow card earlier in the game, the Chelsea striker should’ve been sent off for a studs-up tackle on West Ham keeper Adrian in the second half. Heck, you could argue that the foul deserved a straight red.

Of course, the way that narrative always seemingly drives the league, it was Costa that slotted home the winning goal for the Blues in the 89th minute, much to the chagrin of the Irons.

With refs getting stricter with yellow-card offences this season, Costa is sure to rack up his fair share. And just one game into this new season, he should’ve already had at least two.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

July 27, 2016

What if Zika had hit in 2014?

by Dan Bilicki In: Olympics, Soccer

In case you haven’t been paying attention to any of the sports, travel or news sections in recent months leading up to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next month, there’s a not-so-little virus called Zika going around.

The irony is that this very big outbreak is happening because the disease can be communicated by one of the world’s smallest annoyances – mosquitoes.

Due this and the effects of the disease – mainly that it can seriously harm fetuses and affect births up to two years after contracting the disease – some big-name athletes have dropped out of the Games. Pros have been dropping like flies, with a withdrawal being announced what feels like every other day.

It’s hard to criticize anyone unwilling to risk their health and well-being for an athletic endeavor so we’ll just leave it at that.

But there’s also a question that came to my mind about the timing of this outbreak: What if it had happened two years ago, when Brazil was hosting the World Cup?

While the Summer Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world, with thousands of athletes coming from around the world, the World Cup is a close second.

The biggest difference between the two is that while there are some professional athletes that participate in the Games, the World Cup is made up 100% of people who play soccer for a living. And, as some of the keener observers may have noted, most of the athletes bowing out of Rio are pros – mainly golfers and tennis players, who have other tournaments to they can focus on that will likely net them more money than an Olympic medal.

For athletes like swimmers, weight-lifters and track stars, this is the be-all, end-all of their sport. This is it, the pinnacle of it all. For a golfer, this is more like a minor annoyance with a big health risk.

So would the top stars of the soccer world have come to Brazil with this Zika outbreak in full effect?

The World Cup is, of course, the top prize in the sport. But would a player from a European team like Greece or Switzerland, with no real chance of winning fly to Brazil and risk their health?

Would some stars in their mid-20s, hoping to start a family soon, take that flight?

And you also have weigh the fact that Cup games took place all over Brazil, including in Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon. I’m sure that it would be tough to not get a mosquito bite or two that deep into the jungle.

It’s an interesting thing to think about leading up to the Games’ opening ceremonies in just over a week. What if this was two years ago? And what if the world didn’t come to Brazil?

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

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