February 13, 2018

FREE KICKS: How to solve a problem like Mahrez

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

It’s an age-old problem in European football: What do you do with wantaway stars?

They’re capable of derailing a team and can hold their club hostage. It’s something that we rarely see in North American sports because of the way that transfers and player power works in Europe.

There’s much more power on the players’ sides during negotiations with the club and long-term contracts aren’t always played out. In fact, unlike when a player is traded in North American leagues, the contract is renegotiated with the new club.

Just look at the current case of Riyad Mahrez and Leicester City. Mahrez, if you may remember, was one of the key players that helped the extraordinary happen when the Foxes won the Premier League title two years ago. He remains one of the team’s best players and is among the best in the league as well. His team, on the other hand, hasn’t been able to replicate the glory it achieved two seasons ago and now the Algerian international wants out.

If you follow soccer, this is nothing that hasn’t happened before.

With some interest piquing in the winter transfer window, Mahrez put in a transfer request and sat out in hope of a move, with Manchester City being his rumoured top destination.

But with a 50-million pound bid coming in very late – not giving the Foxes enough time to find a suitable replacement – it was rejected and Mahrez remains with the team.

He isn’t happy about this.

So now there’s this limbo the club and player sit in for the rest of the season until the window opens for business in the summer. So, what’s to be done?

There are several options, but most end up being losing scenarios.

You can sit the player, but this might actually be the worst idea, a lose-lose-lose, if you will. The club loses money having to pay a top player to sit at home, the player loses out on valuable playing time to keep sharp, and the club (again) loses because the player’s value drops with each week he sits.

A could transfer him immediately after the player turns in his request, but with potential buyers knowing that he wants out, his value dips and the club loses out on the fee.

Perhaps the most logical path – and the one that Leicester seems to be taking – is bring the player back into the side and then promise to sell him in the next window. Of course, there is some awkwardness between the player and his teammates, as well as the fans, but it might be the closest thing to a win for either side.

Of course, the club could always sweeten the pot by offering a new, bigger contract, but we’re not sure if this all that Mahrez is after, in this case.

So, how do you solve a problem like Mahrez? Apparently it is just by forgetting about what happened, for now.


We were set to split this award for the first time ever, but Sergio Aguero had to go and score his fourth goal of the game in 90th minute. Otherwise, Kun and Kevin De Bruyne, who had three assists against Leicester City on Saturday, would’ve been co-winners.

Instead, it’s Man City’s top scorer, who now has 21 goals this season – five short of his career high and we’re not even halfway through February. He’s also two goals back of Harry Kane for the league lead, making this year’s scoring race a pretty thrilling one, considering the Spurs striker won the Golden Boot with 29 last year, a mark that should be easily topped this campaign.

And, in case you were wondering, Aguero’s 13 goals in 2018 so far are more than Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford combined (12).


Pretty funny moment when De Bruyne stole Aguero’s game ball after the match. It’s nice to see guys have a laugh … Jamie Vardy became the first player ever to score against each of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Man United and Spurs in the same season … In case you were wondering, City can win the league by beating United on April 7. Could you imagine the scenes if the Citizens clinch against their biggest rival? … Liverpool beats its farm team, Southampton, but the Reds didn’t really need any of its former Saints to do so. After Mohamed Salah set up Roberto Firmino for an early goal, the Brazilian returned the favour later on. That’s 22 goals for Salah this season, on track for one of the best seasons ever by a Liverpool player … Swansea’s amazing run under new manager Carlos Carvalhal continued with another win against a team well ahead of it in the table. The Swans haven’t lost a game since a 2-0 defeat against Spurs on Jan. 2. And that includes matchups with Liverpool, Arsenal and Leicester City … Swansea’s amazing form since Carlos Carvalhal took over: WLDDWWDWDW. That’s one loss since late December … Chris Smalling’s dive was the third time this season that a United player has been booked for simulation, tied for the league lead … How in the world was Antonio Valencia’s boot to the face of Newcastle’s Christian Atsu not a red card? There was no need to go in that high and it was incredibly dangerous … Jose Mourinho has never won at St. James Park. After the 1-0 loss, the Special One is 0-4-3 there … Rafa Benitez has his number, too. The win was Benitez’s sixth against Mourinho and only Pep Guardiola has more (nine) … Antonio Conte was spared the same fate as Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo before him. The previous Chelsea managers were both sacked after losses to West Brom, but the Italian avoided that with a 3-0 win over the Baggies … If Chelsea does want to sack Conte, it will be pricey. The reported cost to buy out the manager is a massive 26.7 million pounds. No wonder they’re in no rush to make a move.


Tell me if you’ve heard this one before, but Jose Mourinho is creating some drama.

This week, he again hauled off world-class midfielder Paul Pogba after a goal conceded and brought on Michael Carrick because Mourinho wanted someone “to do the simple things.”

Two games ago, Pogba was subbed off after an argument with Mourinho on the sideline and last weekend the Frenchman didn’t get the start, with Scott McTominay getting the nod.

When healthy, Pogba is one of the best all-round midfielders in the world, but Mourinho seems intent on antagonizing both him and the fans. Why in the world would you take off an incredibly gifted player like Pogba when you need a goal to salvage a point away?  And why Carrick, who we honestly thought had retired.

Usually when Mourinho creates controversy, it’s to take attention off his players and put it on himself. Providing a distraction while his charges work things out. This time, he risks alienating one of the best players in the world and could see his team start dropping in the table if he’s not careful.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

February 6, 2018

FREE KICKS: Did the transfer merry-go-round solve anything?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

While we should all be resigned to the fact that Manchester City has wrapped up the title, sitting 13 points up on Manchester United after this weekend’s draw against Burnley, the race for the top four looks like it will be as tight as ever.

After this weekend’s fixtures, Arsenal sits sixth place with 45 points, five back Chelsea in the critical fourth-place slot.

All five teams made a big move in the transfer window to prepare for this killer stretch run. Arsenal and United exchanged Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan while Chelsea picked up target man Olivier Giroud from the Gunners. The Reds landed Virgil van Dijk at the beginning of the window, but also lost key playmaker Philippe Coutinho to Barca. Arsenal, seemingly already sick of summer acquisition Alexandre Lacazette, also picked Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to lead the line. And Spurs, not to be left out, bought PSG castoff Lucas Moura.

These five combatants had no small share of drama this weekend, either.

Liverpool and Tottenham had a crazy end to their game with a couple of penalty calls and two goals in injury time.

Sanchez opened his account with United after watching his team concede 11 seconds into his United Premier League debut against Spurs midweek.

Arsenal’s offence exploded once again, scoring three goals in the first 19 minutes and four in the first half against Everton.

And Chelsea couldn’t hold off Watford to grab a point despite grabbing an equalizer in the 82nd minute.

All five of these Champions League chasers have talented enough squads to make a run at the three remaining spots. Now, it’ll be a matter of seeing which January arrival can propel his new team over the finish line ahead of their rivals.


With all the hype behind the arrivals of Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan, and Mesut Ozil signing a contract extension, the forgotten man at the Emirates was Aaron Ramsey.

While many were clamouring for Arsene Wenger to roll out a LMAO (Lacazzette, Auba, Mkhi, Ozil) attacking line – which makes no sense positionally – it was the Welshman that got the headlines against Everton, scoring a hat trick in the big win.

Of course, the new arrivals did their share, with Mkhi setting up three goals and Auba scoring in his debut – although he looked offside to me – but it was the tried and true that came through.

The biggest question mark with Ramsey has been his injury proneness, but if he can stay healthy, his play will prove just as important as those big-money signings.


With all of the talk about the referees in the Liverpool-Tottenham clash, it was a smart move by Mohamed Salah to keep playing while his team appealed for handball in the box, eventually beating the three defenders in front of him and scoring what almost everybody thought would be the winner. Play to the whistle is what we’re all taught and this time it benefited the Reds … What a rocket from Victor Wanyama to tie up that game. You don’t see many shots hit harder than that …  Dele Alli picked up his third yellow card for diving since 2015-16. No player has received more … The criminally underrated Chris Brunt now has 21 assists since the start of the 2014-15 season, which is actually two more than former player of the year Eden Hazard … Raheem Sterling had the miss of the season, right in front of the Burnley net. It’s a good thing for him and City that it likely won’t matter in the long run … Wait, is Swansea good? The Welsh side now has seven points in the past three games, including those two shockers against Liverpool and Arsenal … Goals don’t come more perfectly placed than Izquierdo’s against West Ham. There was no chance for Adrian to stop that perfectly curled shot into the top corner … Scott McTominay got absolutely clobbered by the Terriers’ Terence Kongolo to no call. It was the sort of hit that would’ve definitely been called a foul outside of the box, but for some reason the ref didn’t want to make the call for a clear penalty. Kongolo probably should’ve gotten a yellow for it, too … Speaking of McTominay, we’re not sure what message that Jose Mourinho was trying to send by starting the youngster over Paul Pogba. It’s something that can’t be ignored after the Special One and Pogba got into a positioning argument on the sidelines midweek and the Frenchman was subbed off. All this is doing is creating a narrative of instability at Old Trafford between the manager and a star player and it’s an unneeded distraction … Only seven teams have a positive goal differential this season and six of them are at +16 or higher. Only Leicester City, which started out the season quite poorly, is in the single digits at +3 … You’ve got to be pretty daft to get two yellows in the space of five minutes, like Tiemoue Bakayoko did against Watford. The game was only a half-hour old, too.


If you thought the race for Champions League spots was going to be crazy, take a look down the table and notice how insanely close the relegation race is.

From 19th-place Huddersfield Town to 12th-place West Ham, there is a mere three-point difference. That’s eight teams that could find themselves in the relegation zone at the end of any given week, plus 20th-place West Brom, which is four points back of the Terriers.

The big difference right now is goal differential, with Stoke and Huddersfield at -26 and -27, respectively, while the teams currently in safe positions no worse than Swansea’s -18. That could be huge down the line. The thought of being sent to the Championship because of a tiebreaker would be a heartbreaker.

February 2, 2018

Bilicki’s Super Bowl LII pick

by Dan Bilicki In: Football, Picks

We’re finally here at the end of another NFL season in what felt like no time at all.

It feels like just yesterday that the Pats were getting lit up by Andy Reid’s Chiefs on the opening Thursday nighter, but that was amazingly five months ago.

Now, we’re at the Super Bowl and the Pats are looking for a repeat championship and will have to take out Reid disciple Doug Pederson to get it.

But that’s hardly the most interesting angle of this game. This could be a classic case of a great offence against an amazing defence, but it’s more than that.

New England’s offence was the league’s best this season while Philadelphia’s defence was among the league leaders themselves. This matchup is obviously intriguing and we should see a great battle be waged.

But what about the other side of the coin? That’s where the big dilemma occurs.

New England’s defence started out this season historically bad, but while finishing fourth-worst in yards allowed per game, it was fifth-best in points allowed – just behind the Eagles.

Philadelphia’s offence was the best in the league, that is until MVP candidate Carson Wentz was lost for the season and Nick Foles struggled to the finish line.

The Pats bounced back and are still under the control of one of the greatest minds in the history of the game, Bill Belichick. If there’s any coach that can make things work with below-average pieces it’s him.

After some rough starts to close out the regular season, Foles has bounced back in the playoffs and looked excellent against the Vikings last week – you know, the top-rated defence in the league.

Between all four of these units, we’re looking at fairly even matchups.

While the Pats have the experience in Super Bowls, this marking their third in four years, the Eagles have been buoyed during this playoff run by an underdog, nobody-believes-in-us attitude.

It’s this reason why I’m taking the points. Everything seems too even to bank on either side winning by much. Even some of the mismatches overlap, a good example being how each time has a tight end that will be incredibly hard to cover.

It should also be state that six of the Patriots’ seven Super Bowl appearances have been decided by four points or less and the most was by six points and that was in the most unlikely circumstance – last year’s overtime game.

The way we see it, the Eagles will likely try to shorten this game and keep the Pats offence off the field as much as possible and the Pats will likely to resort to a dink-and-dunk offence to move the ball and keep Tom Brady upright in the pocket.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but a good example of what we could see is what happened in the AFC title game two weeks ago: The Pats fall behind early before making some adjustments at half and mounting the comeback. We think we’re looking at another close result, with either a fourth-quarter comeback for the Pats, or a backdoor cover by the Eagles.

Pick: New England 26, Philadelphia 24

MVP: Tom Brady, NE

Conference finals: 1-1

The playoffs: 5-5

Regular season: 127-107-10

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