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.

March 13, 2018

FREE KICKS: The league belongs to Manchester

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

We’ve been so preoccupied with Manchester City running away at the top of the table, that we haven’t really been noticed how well its neighbour is faring in second place.

With a nice win over Liverpool this weekend in an age-old rivalry game, United has now opened up a four-point lead for second place.

Sure, it certainly doesn’t mean that the race is over, but when you consider that Spurs just lost Harry Kane to an ankle injury – reportedly for up to six weeks – and United just beat fourth-place Liverpool, and you can start to believe that maybe there isn’t much of a race to be had here.

And with United’s loss to Sevilla snuffing out its Champions League ambitions, the focus for Jose Mourinho should be squarely on finishing in that second spot and earning the money that comes along with it. Then, maybe, he’ll be able to convince the board to bring on even more players to fit his style this summer.

Sure, nothing has been settled yet, but we’re not betting against the Manchester teams taking the top two spots in the Premier League. Shades of 2011-12, but without any of the drama.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

We don’t often get sentimental here, but when a milestone like this is reached, it should be recognized: Petr Cech picked up his 200th Premier League clean sheet on Sunday.

In what has been a tumultuous season for Arsenal and its fans, this is something that should surely lift some spirits.

Cech had gone 11 games without a clean sheet, but has 10 on the season. He had to do some work for this one, too, stopping Troy Deeney on a penalty.

It’s not often that you’ll see a Gunner in this space often, but this one is well deserved for a player that isn’t as appreciated as he should be anymore.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

After beating AC Milan, Arsenal now has more European away wins (4) than domestic (3) … After going winless in its past four PL games and falling ever closer to the relegation zone, Southampton has sacked Mauricio Pellegrino. After years of selling off its top players – mainly to Liverpool – that practice has caught up to the Saints on the pitch. And with Mark Hughes the lead candidate to take over, we’re not sure how well this will go for the southern coast side … Even Kane limping off, Spurs were able to see off Bournemouth. The Cherries scored the opener, but Tottenham stormed back with a nice 4-1 win. And the man stepping up for the second game in a row: Heung-min Son … Props to Swansea for keeping a clean sheet despite playing with 10 men from the 11th minute on. How can you not be rooting for this club?

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Mourinho isn’t even subtlety going at his detractors anymore. Check out this quote:

“The worst manager in history of PL, Frank de Boer, says it is no good for Marcus Rashford to have manager like me. Maybe with him he could learn how to lose.”

No that is straight-up flame emojis.

THE LAST WORD

Things are getting heated in east London, with West Ham United supporters storming the pitch this weekend.

They’re pissed, and understandably, about the direction of the club and decided to show the bosses how much.

After chants of “Sack the board,” and “you destroyed our club,” several fans ran onto the pitch after the Irons had conceded to Burnley. One even stole a corner flag while others berated players.

Classy bunch, this sounds like.

Marches against the board have been planned and this situation doesn’t look like it will die down anytime soon.

And with the results not going in the Irons’ favour and the club getting closer to the relegation zone by the week, this could get even worse.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

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