April 18, 2018

FREE KICKS: City are the champions, but Salah is the real winner

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

A coronation that has been months in the making finally took place this weekend, with Manchester City clinching the Premier League title following Manchester United’s loss to lowly West Brom – more on that later.

There’s not much left to say about City’s dominance of the league this season that hasn’t already been said, but seeing members of the Sky Blues make up half of the PFA player of the year field shows just how good this side is.

Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Leroy Sane are all up for the award, while we’re sure the Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero weren’t too far off from making the cut. The remaining three nominees are no slouches, either. Manchester United’s David De Gea, Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah round out the field.

So, who deserves the honour? There’s only one answer and it’s the Reds’ Egyptian winger. Salah is on the verge of breaking the Premier League record for goals in a season, sitting on 30, which is one shy of the mark. He’s not just a one-trick pony, either, Salah demonstrated that with his goal this week, a marvelous looping header over the keeper off of a brilliant ball into the box by Trent Alexander-Arnold.

When you look at the other nominees, they all have their flaws.

Kane will likely be the runner-up in the Golden Boot race and certainly isn’t the creator that Salah is, with just two assists this season to the Egyptian’s 11.

David De Gea is a shoo-in as the top goalkeeper of the year and has been fantastic, but it’s hard to give this award to the keeper of a team that finished a distant second place — at best. De Gea also has more goals allowed than City’s Ederson.

As for the trio of City players, they’re likely to split the vote, hurting each other’s chances. Of the three, De Bruyne has the best shot, but his numbers don’t compare to Salah’s, either.

Even taking a broader view, Salah’s 30 goals is more than Lionel Messi’s 29 in Spain, Robert Lewandowski’s 27 in Germany, Ciro Immobile’s 27 in Italy and Edinson Cavani’s 25 in France.

Looking back, it’s amazing that Liverpool bought Salah from Roma – its Champions League semifinal opponent — for 36.9 million GBP. With the inflation of transfer fees that followed, he is easily worth at least 100 million.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

When one thinks of an impact sub, the name Olivier Giroud isn’t the first that comes to mind.

But with the Blues trailing 2-0 to lowly Southampton, Giroud came on for Alvaro Morata and the rest was history. Chelsea scored three goals in eight minutes, with two from beautiful Frenchman himself, to come back and beat the Saints, on the road, no less.

That’s a pretty remarkable brace, if you ask me.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

You’re not going to believe this, but there’s a chance that if Man City takes its foot off the gas and punts a couple of games, that Liverpool could complete the season with the fewest losses. Currently, City has two, the Reds have four … Watching the Gunners bottle it at St. James Park is just par for the course now. With an early 1-0 lead, you can never think that Arsenal is going to hold on, even against a midtable club like Newcastle … Even worse for Arsenal, it is just two points ahead of Burnley in the table for sixth. With those two teams set to meet in Gameweek 37, that match could be a decider for a Europa League spot … For the second week in a row, Huddersfield scored a goal! You wouldn’t think that to be too much cause to celebrate against a team on early holiday like Watford, but this was the first time since February it had scored in consecutive matches … What a great first half of the M23 derby. Wilfried Zaha is a special player for Crystal Palace and should get some transfer attention this summer. Also, no, I had no clue that Crystal Palace-Brighton & Hove Albion was a derby game, either … Andy Carroll scored in the 90th minute to ruin Stoke’s day. The Potters really needed the three points in their bid to avoid relegation, but have to settle for one and stay in 19th place.

THE LAST WORD

Jose Mourinho seemingly has his typical third-year blowup starting earlier than anticipated, being his second season at Manchester United and all.

How else can you explain the many reports of players wanting out picking up by the day?

How else can you explain the inconsistency of his team on the field?

How else can you explain the decision to remove his best midfielder before the hour mark when the score’s still tied?

There are far more questions than answers at Old Trafford and this comes just a week after United’s amazing comeback win over City to delay their noisy neighbour’s title celebration.

But after beating the top team in the league on the road, United lost to the worst team in the league at home, getting blanked by lowly West Bromwich Albion.

With Anthony Martial this week saying he wants to leave this summer, Luke Shaw previously stating his unhappiness and this saga with Paul Pogba seemingly getting worse, could it be easier for United to simply sack Mourinho this summer?

The Special One has seemingly been feuding with Pogba for a while now and this week’s sub only makes it look worse. The Frenchman hasn’t been playing up to his standard under Mourinho, either, having scored fewer goals and key passes than Philippe Coutinho, who left the league in January. Pogba returned as one of the best all-around midfielders in the world and his talent is being squandered.

Whether the board decides to tolerate another season (or less) of Mourinho’s antics will be a huge storyline heading into this summer.

Oh, and if you want some context on how bad this loss to the Baggies was, West Brom’s win was its first since January 13 against the Gulls and its second since August 19 — when it had beaten Burnley to bring its record to 2-0-0.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

April 9, 2018

FREE KICKS: Man City’s coronation delayed, deeper worries exposed

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

What was supposed to be a coronation became a second nightmare result in the span of just days for Manchester City.

The league leaders were set to clinch the Premier League title in fantastic fashion: At home, against their cross-town rivals, setting the record for the earliest date and fewest games to secure the championship.

Instead, after taking a 2-0 lead into halftime, it all fell apart.

Paul Pogba scored twice in just three minutes before Chris Smalling – whose poor marking on a corner allowed Vincent Kompany to score the opener – scored a head of his own to completely deflate the crowd at the Etihad.

Ultimately, the result doesn’t matter too much for City. The Sky Blues will still win the Premier League title, it’s just a matter of time. But what this loss does to the team’s psyche will be key.

This heartbreaking loss comes just days after losing 3-0 at Liverpool in the Champions League quarterfinals. This is the competition that really matters to City right now and has been its focus since essentially wrapping up the league so early. But with so few meaningful games over the past months, perhaps Pep Guardiola’s side has let its foot off the gas at the worst-possible moment.

While we don’t doubt City can score three against a Liverpool side that has been leaky on defence on the road this season, it’s a situation you certainly don’t want to be in. Even worse, allowing the Reds to score even once on Tuesday should effectively end the Citizens’ hopes of advancing at all.

Guardiola has his work cut out for him, in one of the few times that he has been tested this season.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

He’s often the forgotten man in Arsenal’s attack, but this weekend was all about Danny Welbeck. Playing 90 minutes for just the fifth time this season, the former United attacker bagged a brace and had an assist, accounting for all three of the Gunners’ goals.

Welbeck also scored the winner in a match that could have easily been a draw and had all the hallmarks of just another game in which Arsene Wenger’s side dropped points.

Instead, Arsenal has a five-point lead on Burnley in seventh and should be considered the favourite to win Europa League.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

That was some poor defending from Chelsea on the game-tying goal. A weak clearance that no defender really put an honest effort into tracking down and Javier Hernandez was allowed to just run into the box to bang home the pass from Marko Arnautovic. After watching that sequence and the fact that the Blues have just 12 points from their past 11 games, we don’t think Antonio Conte will be back next season. Chelsea is just sleepwalking to the end now … Chicarito has been subbed on at Stamford Bridge four times and has a goal in all four matches … Nothing like a little brouhaha at the end of a game. Jack Wilshere got off light for his role in the whole thing while Jack Stephens and Mohamed Elneny deserved their punishments … Huddersfield hadn’t scored since February until finally potting one against Brighton & Hove Albion … The Merseyside derby is usually a big affair, but it was certainly lacking this time. With Liverpool obviously more focused on their return leg against City and Mohamed Salah out, this one just didn’t have the same energy and intensity …Is Stoke’s 10-year run in the Premier League coming to an end? After a fourth defeat in a row, it’s starting to feel more and more likely. Especially after seeing Xherdan Shaqiri rip the team in a magazine interview a couple of weeks ago … Despite the loss to United, City still has a good shot at setting a few records this season. Most wins (30), most goals (103), biggest goal differential (71) and most away wins (15) … Arsenal has a chance to be one of two teams in history to have a player in every group at the World Cup. The other team? This year’s Barcelona squad … The USL (6) has more English managers than the Premier League (4). And that number was actually better before Alan Pardew stepped down … Salah already has more fantasy points than the leaders of the past three seasons with 273. And, somehow, teammate Roberto Firmino has one more bonus point.

THE LAST WORD

It’s not official, but it might as well be: West Bromwich Albion’s days in the Premier League are over.

After Pardew parted ways with the club midweek, the Baggies were able to manage a draw against Swansea on Saturday, but it’s not enough at this point.

With five games remaining, West Brom is 10 points from safety and seven goals behind in differential. While that task should already seem daunting enough, it’s the opponents that make it even worse: Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs are all on the fixture list for West Brom.

How the club rebuilds itself in the Championship will be interesting. This is a side that has long relied on its defence to get by, but that clearly failed this season, having already allowed more goals than the 2016-17 season. With just 26 goals for, West Brom is tied for the worst attack in the league as well.

The club needs to find a manager to fix that part of the equation and bring the club back up before the parachute payments run out.

If not, this Midlands club could be mired in the second tier for a while.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

March 29, 2018

2018 MLB PREVIEW: Parity has disappeared in Major League Baseball

by Dan Bilicki In: Baseball, Picks

While certainly anything can happen, it feels like we’re starting to see some true separation between the top contenders and the lower teams in baseball again.

Since the luxury tax came in, we’ve seen a more even playing field when it comes to the playoffs. But now, with more and more teams looking to build through the draft and emulate the World Series successes of the Cubs and Astros in the past two years, we’re going to see a lot of teams tanking it in 2018.

Just looking at some power rankings and it’s very clear that the bottom 10 teams in the league have made more moves trending downwards than up.

It’s one of the reasons why so many good free agents found it so hard to get a good contract this off-season: There a more teams than ever that would rather pick higher in the draft than ultimately fall short of the second wild card and have nothing to show for it. And worse, top teams are more and more unwilling to part with compensatory picks to sign veteran free agents.

You can bet that there will be plenty of teams looking to deal their stars for prospects around the deadline, too.

And when you look towards the top of the standings and at predictions, it’s a pretty boilerplate bunch. Most division champions from last year shouldn’t have too much issue retaining their crowns. And the ones that could fall off will likely grab a wild-card spot.

While there certainly will be some surprises this season – there always are – right now it feels like we’re going to be in for long season without too much craziness in store.

But I hope I’m wrong.

AL EAST: Boston Red Sox

AL CENTRAL: Cleveland Indians

AL WEST: Houston Astros

AL WILD CARDS: New York Yankees, L.A. Angels

ALCS: Red Sox over Astros

NL EAST: Washington Nationals

NL CENTRAL: Chicago Cubs

NL WEST: L.A. Dodgers

NL WILD CARDS: Milwaukee Brewers, Arizona Diamondbacks

NLCS: Nationals over Cubs

WORLD SERIES: Red Sox over Nationals

AL MVP: Mike Trout, LAA

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, WAS

AL CY YOUNG: Chris Sale, BOS

NL CY YOUNG: Max Scherzer, WAS

BLUE JAYS RECORD: 77-85, third in the AL East.

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