February 13, 2019

EPL FREE KICKS: Stamford Bridge is falling down

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

We thought things were getting better, but it’s the blues for the Blues.

After a week of feeling good about itself, coming off a big 5-0 win over Huddersfield and seeing Eden Hazard and new arrival Gonzalo Higuain thrive, Chelsea was quickly brought down to earth with a confidence-shattering 6-0 defeat at Manchester City. It was the biggest Premier League loss in the club’s history.

This wasn’t the first time that City has scored six in a game this season, but the previous two occasions came against relegation battlers Huddersfield and Southampton.

This was Chelsea, a team that’s sixth in the league and had nearly gone into December unbeaten.

Now, it has lost three out of its past four, with the aggregate score of the losses 12-0.

Manager Maurizio Sarri was understandably upset after the game, refusing to shake hands with City counterpart Pep Guardiola. Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger stayed on the field after the game to apologize to travelling fans.

After a display like this, it’s no wonder that Eden Hazard has reportedly made his decision to leave the club in the summer, eying  a big-money transfer to Real Madrid. Who exactly Chelsea would replace him with is a tough question, considering the Belgian’s immense talent.

There should be plenty of questions about whether Sarri is the right man for this club. After that long unbeaten run, the team seems disinterested at times.

Jorginho seemingly gets Sarri’s system, but he’s playing in N’Golo Kante’s natural position and the Frenchman is only one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. And there was at least one instance in which the Brazilian wasn’t putting in much effort to track back on Sunday.

David Luiz is capable of making the passes to be a good player in Sarri’s system, but he has been a liability on the back line this season, often being beaten and outworked by opposing attackers.

Speaking of defenders who don’t actually do much defending, Marcos Alonso hasn’t brought in any attacking returns since Gameweek 11 against Crystal Palace. If a defender is going to get forward as often as the Spaniard does, he better be producing on the scoreboard.

Chelsea has a lot of questions that need to be answered. Perhaps the biggest is  whether or not Roman Abramovich will show patience with Sarri – something that the owner has famously eschewed with past managers. And, if Sarri is cut loose after this season gone wrong (or during it), who is next to take the helm?

We hear that Jose Mourinho is available…

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

For the second time in two weeks, Sergio Aguero scored a hat trick.

More impressive: He did it against a top-six club for the second week in a row. In fact, Aguero has 43 goals against the ‘Big Six’ clubs since 2011-12, which is 14 more than the next highest scorer, Jamie Vardy.

Even more impressive: He did it in just 64 minutes before being subbed off in preparation for a mid-week Champions League tilt.

After scoring three against Arsenal last week, Aguero repeated the feat against visiting Chelsea as part of City’s 6-0 demolition of the Blues.

It was his 11th career hat trick, equaling the record set by Alan Shearer, who did it with Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle.

Kun is now tied with Mohamed Salah atop the scoring charts with 17 goals this season, meaning that’s just one more race between City and Liverpool that should be heated down the home stretch.

It also raises a bigger question for another day: Is Aguero the best striker in Premier League history? His 160 goals in eight seasons (including the current campaign) have him ranked eighth overall. That’s 100 behind Shearer, who accomplished that total over 14 seasons. At Kun’s current pace of 20 goals per season, he’ll pass Shearer if he plays five more years in the Prem.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Quite the fantasy turnaround for Saed Kolasinac owners on Saturday. He went from nabbing 13 points with 90 minutes played, an assist and a clean sheet to just two points after scoring an own goal in the third minute of injury time … This might shock you, but Burnley hasn’t lost a Premier League match in 2019. Including a draw against West Ham on Dec. 30, 2018, the Clarets are on a seven-game unbeaten run in league play … After winning the EPL player of the month award for January, Marcus Rashford was given the weekend off by manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – himself the winner of manager of the month … Under Solskjaer, Paul Pogba has looked like the player everybody thought he could be. He has racked up eight goals and five assists in 11 games under the new manager, proving to be worth every cent of his record transfer fee and further demonstrating how Jose Mourinho was wasting him in a more defensive role … Ryan Babel, who has looked fairly good since coming back to the Prem with Fulham after some seasons abroad, managed to hit the post from about a yard out. Unsurprisingly, he was subbed off almost immediately after … It has been five years, or 154 matches, since Newcastle have had an opponent get a man sent off in the Premier League.

THE LAST WORD

Perhaps the biggest streak that isn’t garnering much attention right now is what Tottenham has accomplished dating back to last season.

Spurs hasn’t had a draw in Premier League play in 30 games. This season, they have 20 wins, six losses and no draws after finishing the final four games of the 2017-18 season with three wins and loss.

This season alone, Southampton has nine draws while the team with the second fewest, Man City, has two.

The funniest thing about draws is that you never know when they’re going to come. It’s always easier to predict wins and losses, but you’ll rarely see someone call for a draw.

Looking ahead in the league, Burnley is next but then come two big matchups at Chelsea and then home to Arsenal. While any of those three fixtures could end knotted up, all we’re rooting for now is that Tottenham somehow goes an entire season without a draw. That would put some critics in their place.

February 1, 2019

BILICKI’S SUPER BOWL PICK: Patriots’ experience will outweigh Rams’ explosiveness

by Dan Bilicki In: Football, Picks

Another year, another Super Bowl featuring one of the longest running dynasties in sports history.

Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are back in the big game, facing an up-and-coming squad looking to dethrone two of the best ever at their positions.

It’s hard to argue that Belichick and Brady aren’t the best-ever head coach and quarterback, respectively. Across the field will be modern offensive genius Sean McVay and his protégé Jared Goff.

There’s the problem.

While Goff has certainly been solid and at times spectacular under McVay these past two seasons, there are still many holes in his game. McVay is great at relaying information to him through the headset, but you have to believe that a defensive guru like Belichick will know this and adapt his defence.

The Pats D doesn’t have the overall talent, but is great at having the right guys in the right spots to succeed – it’s part of Belichick’s overall coaching philosophy.

Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh are going to be a handful for the Pats offensive line, but pressure is nothing that it hasn’t handled well in these playoffs so far. Despite having faced two of the best pass-rushing teams in the league, Brady has yet to be sacked this post-season and New England’s running game has been incredibly hot.

Despite basically telling their opponents that they’ll be running the ball whenever rookie Sony Michel is in the game and pass whenever James White tags in, the Chiefs and Chargers weren’t able to slow the Pats running backs.

The Rams’ big-name corners aren’t exactly an advantage, either. Aqib Talib remains a decent option to put on an opponents’ No. 1 receiver, but the Pats don’t exactly have one of those. There’s Julian Edelman (who operates out of the slot, Nickell Robey-Coleman’s territory), Chris Hogan (not exactly a consistent threat) and Rob Gronkowski (a shadow of his former greatness). Who would you put Talib on, given the options? And if you want to consider having him blanket Gronk, the Pats will gladly utilize him as a blocker, which he has been doing very effectively down the stretch.

On the other side of the field is Marcus Peters, who can be a liability at times. The former Chief is known to gamble on routes going for picks and has a penchant for getting flagged for interference.

My worry here is that we could see a similar gameflow from what we got in the previous two Super Bowls. It’s very easy to envision the Rams getting out to an early lead – similar to what the Eagles and Falcons did – and then being able to hold off the Pats in the second half, something that the Falcons failed to do while the Eagles were able to finish things off.

This game will be about being able to adapt to your opponent, and there’s no team and no coach better at doing that than Belichick’s Patriots.

Pick: New England 31, Los Angeles Rams 28

MVP: Tom Brady, NE

January 23, 2019

EPL FREE KICKS: Who’s going to win the war in London?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

You wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at the table, but the top three teams in England’s capital are in differing states of turmoil.

On a weekend where we saw a pair of London derbies, we got a closer look at three of the sides battling for two Champions League spots – with a fourth, Manchester United, also heavily involved in the race.

The Gunners may have won their battle with Chelsea – quite handily, as well – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t trouble brewing. The team announced that head of recruitment Sven Mislintat will be leaving the club in February, roughly a year after joining. Mislintat was hailed as a great addition and did some solid work in the summer on a limited budget, bringing in Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi. His departure is a big blow for a club looking for stability after long-time manager Arsene Wenger left in the summer.

Arsenal, which has been getting closer to full strength, also got some bad news on the injury front, losing speedy wing back Hector Bellerin, likely going into next season, after he tore his ACL on Saturday.

The Blues, who fell 2-0 to rival Arsenal and now sit just three points above the Gunners, seem to be in a bit of turmoil as well after starting the season on a long unbeaten run.

Manager Maurizio Sarri ripped the team after its “surrender” to Arsenal and critics were quick to point out that keeping his players motivated is also part of his responsibilities. There were also a few predictions that the Italian would be gone within the next year and a half.

Eden Hazard, perpetually involved in transfer talks, also admitted to being a pain and source of frustration not just to Sarri, but to all of his past managers and likely to his future bosses, too. I mean, at least he’s owning up to it, but a player with his talent needs to find more consistency to truly reach the level he should be on.

And then there are Spurs, who escaped Craven Cottage with three points thanks to an injury-time winner by Harry “No, not that Harry” Winks.

Truth be told, Fulham deserved to walk away from that contest with a point and Spurs should consider themselves lucky to collect all three.

But Tottenham was not excluded from the bad news, either, seeing Dele Alli go down with a hamstring injury that does “not look great.” Tottenham later updated the English midfielder’s status, saying he won’t return to training until early March.

It’s terrible timing for Spurs, who are currently without top scorer Harry Kane, due to an ankle injury, and Heung-min Son, who is with the South Korean national team at the Asian Cup for a few more weeks.

The latest transfer rumours have Spurs interested in West Ham striker Andy Carroll as a fill-in for Kane, but we’re not sure if he’s meant to replace Kane in the trainer’s room, because it doesn’t work like that.

It seems that everywhere you look in London, there’s trouble with a capital T. Which side can best weather the storm will decide who’s playing in Europe next season.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Diogo Jota didn’t just net a hat trick for Wolves on Saturday, he did it in the clutch, too.

The Portuguese winger scored the winner against Leicester City in the third minute of second-half injury time, moving Wolves ahead of the Foxes and up into eighth in the table.

It was the third hat trick of the season in the Premier League and Jota also become just the second Portuguese player to score three goals in a Premier League game, the first being Cristiano Ronaldo. He was also the first Wolves player to do it in the top flight since John Richards pulled off the feat in 1977.

Another interesting fact: Of the current 20 EPL teams, Manchester United has gone the fourth-longest without a player scoring a hat trick – the most recent being Robin Van Persie in 2013.

SALA PLANE MISSING

Some terrible news out of Cardiff City with reports that the team’s record signing, Emiliano Sala, was aboard a flight that disappeared over the Channel Islands. Sala was confirmed to be aboard a small private plane flying from Nantes, France, to Cardiff when the plane went missing off the coast of Guernsey. French and Guernsey authorities are searching for the craft, but have yet to find anything and have said they don’t expect any survivors.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Jan Siewert has been named the new manager of Huddersfield Town. While this isn’t particularly exciting news, the best part of it was a Sky Sports correspondent supposedly finding the new gaffer in the stands, only to have it turn out to be a doppelganger. The Terriers played it off well, using ‘Martin from Wakefield’ in their Twitter announcement of Siewert’s hiring … The saying is that you have to be good to be lucky and that was certainly the case for Liverpool on the weekend. How else can you explain the amount of good bounces and deflections that resulted in its goals against Crystal Palace? What is worrying for the Reds, though, was that they made the same defensive mistakes they have in the past, allowing opponents too many easy chances that they cashed in. Jurgen Klopp must keep his side focused to stay ahead of the game in this tight title race … James Milner was sent off by his former PE teacher, Jon Moss. We wonder if, as a schoolboy, Milner ever got detention from Moss, or if this was the first time he had crossed his former teacher.

THE LAST WORD

Manchester United is just fun to watch.

When was the last time you heard that?

For years, the Red Devils’ talented players were stifled creatively under pragmatic managers that insisted on defence-first approaches. Now, under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United seems to be thriving on the attack – something it could have been doing for years.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson left, fans have had to endure the reigns of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, managers that all favour a defensive approach. It has led to more than five years of mixed results and boring football. In this current sporting climate, you better be either good or entertaining if you’re a top side, and United was quite often neither.

It’s good to see one of the world’s most popular sports teams finally playing up to its potential and gearing for a stretch run to a possible Champions League spot.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

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