Champions League Quarterfinals

April 7, 2009

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The Champions League returns this afternoon with the first set of first legs of the quarterfinals. I’ll preview the other matches tomorrow. But for now:

FC Porto @ Manchester United
United have not been playing anywhere near the level they were playing when they last played in the Champions League. Over the past few weeks they have lost twice and given up a bevy of goals. They are still atop the English table but there are some weaknesses that are finally being exposed. Additionally, Rio Ferdinand is not expected to be match fit which greatly diminishes the United defense.

On the other side, Porto have been on a fantastic run domestically. They’ve won almost all of their past twenty matches and are playing in high form. While they slipped into this round compliments of a nil-nil home draw against Atlético Madrid at the Estadio do Dragão, Porto are a side that is very dangerous for Man United. Yet it is still very difficult to win at Old Trafford, especially for European foes.

Prediction: United 2 – Porto 1

Arsenal @ Villarreal
This match will be at the Estadio El Madrigal, a tough place for visitors to play. The Spanish side had a lesser opponent in the first knock out round against Panathinaikos and so their relative strength remains to be seen. Domestically, Villarreal have won just nine home matches this season (and just thirteen overall), good for a distant fourth place in La Liga.

Arsenal have been playing much better in England than they were when the Champions League last took place. They barely made it by Roma, winning on penalties in Rome four weeks ago. Since then the Gunners have made their case as a serious club in England, pushing solidly into a Champions League qualification spot for next year. But starting this round away could prove difficult for Arsenal, even as they have improved greatly in England.

Prediction: Villarreal 2 – Arsenal 2


…of the Decade

April 7, 2009

It’s hard to believe but we’re not finished with the first decade of this century, at least as far as college basketball goes. So I’ll be the first to put together the teams and coaches of the aughts. I’ll use a breakdown of final fours, title games and championships to determine who’s been the best over the past ten years.

Here are the pertinent stats:

Final Fours:
UNC – 4
Florida – 3
Michigan State – 3
UCLA – 3
Kansas – 3
Connecticut – 2
Duke – 2
Maryland – 2

Title Games:
Florida – 3
UNC – 2
Kansas – 2
Michigan State – 2

Titles:
Florida – 2
UNC – 2
Michigan State – 1
Connecticut – 1
Duke – 1
Maryland – 1
Syracuse – 1
Kansas – 1

Here’s how the conferences break down:
Final Fours:
ACC – 9
Big 10 – 8
Big 12 – 6
Big East – 5
Pac 10 – 4
SEC – 4
Conference USA – 3

Title Games:
ACC – 5
Big 10 – 5
SEC – 3
Big East – 2
Pac 10 – 2
Big 12 – 2

Titles:
ACC – 4
Big East – 2
SEC – 2
Big 10 – 1
Big 12 – 1

And for Coaches:
Roy Williams – 5 Final Fours (3 UNC, 2 KU), 2 titles
Billy Donovan – 3 Final Fours, 2 titles
Tom Izzo – 3 Final Fours, 1 title
Ben Howland – 3 Final Fours
Mike Krzyzewski – 2 Final Fours, 1 title
Gary Williams – 2 Final Fours, 1 title
Jim Calhoun – 2 Final Fours, 1 title

Just using stats, it’s hard to argue with Roy Williams and UNC as being the coach and team of the decade, though the reality is probably different. Williams is definitely the coach of the decade having spent half the decade in the Final Four and playing in three title games with two different schools. But the team is harder to define.

You can’t connect the 2000 Matt Doherty-coached Tar Heels with the Roy Williams teams of the later years. UCLA went three years in a row to the Final Four but never won it all (and only made one title game). Florida won back-to-back titles but certainly weren’t the same team that lost to Michigan State in 2000. Maryland played in back-to-back Final Fours but no one would argue that they are the best team of this decade.

I guess in the end there is no answer. No team was the dominant one throughout the decade. Duke probably won more games than anyone else but they could never put together the tournament runs to justify their mentioning. Florida and UNC had long gaps between their Final Four successes, UCLA never dominated and neither did Michigan State.


All Carolina

April 7, 2009

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It wasn’t even close. Even in the second half when Carolina really wasn’t very good, it still wasn’t close. After scoring the most-ever points in a first half of the NCAA title game, it really didn’t matter.

This was what I thought would happen to Michigan State against Kansas, Louisville or Connecticut. Not that I thought MSU wasn’t a good team, I just didn’t consider them a true heavyweight. Instead they played beyond their normal level, one of those more than the sum of their parts teams, and escaped each of those power programs to get the chance to play Carolina. Yet none of it mattered in the end because the team that simply could not miss in earlier games was completely deficient on the offensive end, particularly in the first half.

When I talked to my brother about the game on Sunday he made a good point that Carolina just builds a big lead in the first half and the other team has to play catch-up the rest of the night which forces bad shots, more turnovers and in the end, a loss. That could not have been a more accurate explanation for what happened last night in Detroit. Michigan State looked scared and then downright careless (if not just bad).

It’s hard to tell how this UNC team will be judged. They were anointed before the season as the guarantee for the title. So does simply meeting those expectations garner any more respect? Probably not. But they did win every single tournament game by more than a dozen points and often by more than fifteen, including last night. I know other teams have done it before, I think Florida may have even done it a few years ago, but looking back, this Carolina team was completely dominant when it mattered most.

What I think we all underestimated with this team was how embarrassed they were with their loss in the Final Four last year to Kansas in San Antonio. Remember that? It was 40-12 at one point in the first half? That’s why Hansbrough, Lawson and Ellington all came back. They were clearly motivated by a much bigger idea that until the tournament started, no one really mentioned very often. That force was more than enough to win four of their easiest games in the sweet sixteen, great eight, final four and title game.


The NCAA Finals

April 6, 2009

I’m not going to spend tons of space here dissecting tonight’s game as anyone with two eyes and a pulse knows the story. UNC is the goliath that everyone expected to win and little old Michigan State is pursuing the dream season in the home town gym.

Ok, barf. Here’s the real story.

UNC has had as many, if not more injuries than the famed Michigan State sob-story. Marcus Ginyard never played this year, Tyler Zeller’s development was stunted with a broken hand, Danny Green was out, Ty Lawson didn’t play for the first half of March, etc. It’s true that Michigan State has had its share of injuries, illness and the like, but both teams have had to struggle equally to get through the season unscathed.

Michigan State is being projected as the little engine that could when that is really furthest from the truth. Several pundits picked them to go to the Final Four before the season started. They won the Big 10 regular season title and were a no. 2 seed (had they won the Big 10 tournament, they would’ve likely been a no. 1 seed, or at least had a nice case for one). It’s true that MSU was not favored against either Louisville or UCONN and that they had to beat a good Kansas team just to get here. But let’s not make them out to be some scrappy George Mason clone.

Finally, about the fact that MSU is in the Final Four. People everywhere (except Mitch Albom) have been saying that Michigan State have been the saviors of the tournament by selling out the games in a city where no one in their right mind would ever want to go otherwise (example, the Mayor of Indianapolis was robbed Saturday night in Detroit). But let’s be honest, what does the city of Detroit want with the Final Four? Thousands of people staying in their city for the weekend. Instead they get a school that is just 90 miles from the city. That means that all of the Michigan State fans are did not spend all day Sunday and all day today in Detroit. It means they all drove back home, did not stay in hotels, did not go out to eat, did not go to bars or casinos, etc. They all went home and are coming back tonight.

So, I hope this has given everyone a better idea of what’s actually going on tonight. It’s like I said with the Arizona story going into the sweet 16: the media need something to cling to as a sob-story, Olympics-style feature and create Michigan State as this colossal underdog. That simply is not the case.

Oh, and I like Carolina tonight, 81-72.


United Respond

April 5, 2009

macheda

A Ronaldo brace and Federico Macheda’s debut goal in the 90th minute saw Manchester United edge Aston Villa at Old Trafford to regain first place in the Premiership. John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor scored to give Villa a 2-1 lead but Ronaldo and Macheda, just a teen, scored in the final ten minutes to snatch three points for United. The win puts United one point ahead of Liverpool with an extra game still to be played. Villa remain in fifth place but are now on thin ice as Everton are lurking just a point behind.

Speaking of Everton, the Toffees used a double from Jo and goals from Marouane Fellaini and Leon Osman in the second half to crush Wigan, 4-0 at Goodison Park. The thrashing of the eighth-place side powers Everton to within a single point of earning a European qualification spot. Catching Arsenal for fourth is highly unlikely but Villa appear ready to be overtaken. As mentioned, Wigan are in eighth place, just a point clear of Fulham.


Liverpool Back Out Front

April 4, 2009

yossi

Yossi Benayoun’s extra-time strike sent Liverpool back to the top of the English table with a 1-0 victory over Fulham at Craven Cottage. The Cottagers went ninety full minutes without allowing Liverpool on the scoreboard but could not hold off for the final minutes of injury time. The Reds find themselves two points clear of Manchester United at the top, though they’ve played two games more than the defending champions. Fulham remain in ninth on 40 points.

At Ewood Park, Benni McCarthy and Andre Ooijer scored within the final eight minutes to steal a 2-1 victory for Blackburn over Tottenham. Spurs scored early on from a Robbie Keane penalty but could not keep Rovers from dropping two into the net in the final moments. The three points today could possibly have saved Blackburn’s season as they are now five points clear of relegation. Spurs stay in eleventh place, where they finished last season.

Arsenal whipped Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium, 2-0. Emmanuel Adebayor’s brace carried the Gunners past one of the worst away sides in England. Arsenal push even further clear of Aston Villa for the final Champions League qualification position while City stick in tenth place, just ahead of Spurs on differential.

In Alan Shearer’s debut at the helm for Newcastle, the Magpies fell meekly to Chelsea, 2-0 at St. James’ Park. Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda scored within nine minutes of each other in the second half to power the Blues to victory. Chelsea are now just a single point behind Man United for second place, though again, United have played two fewer matches. Toon stick in the relegation zone, though in eighteenth position. They’re now three points shy of seventeenth.

Junior Stanislas and James Tomkins straddled half-time with goals for West Ham United as the Hammers beat Sunderland 2-0 at Upton Park. Taking nothing away from West Ham, Sunderland are just three points clear of Newcastle for the final relegation position. But the Hammers are in much better shape, clearing Wigan and taking seventh place, at least for now.

Kevin Davies, Gary Cahill, Matthew Taylor and Ricardo Gardner spread out their goals over the course of their match with Middlesbrough earning Bolton Wanderers a convincing 4-1 victory at the Reebok. Gary O’Neil’s 38th minute goal was all Boro could manage. In the process, Boro remained mired in the depths of relegation. Bolton push back toward the middle of the pack, earning a spot in twelfth place, eight points clear of relegation.

West Bromich Albion confirmed its status as a terrible club in losing 2-0 at The Hawthorns to Stoke City. Ricardo Fuller and James Beattie tallied goals for Stoke as they powered up to thirteenth place and six points clear of relegation with the three points earned. The Baggies remain DFL, where they have been for quite some time.

Finally, in a battle of clubs needing three points desperately, Hull City and Portsmouth did themselves no favors in a sorry nil-nil draw at the KC Stadium. Even when Pompey went to ten men on Glen Johnson’s second yellow card in the 80th minute, Hull could not find the goal. Now, the clubs are five and four points clear of relegation, clearly a disaster match for both sides.


Premiership Predictions – Week 31

April 3, 2009

epl

After a week off for World Cup qualifying matches, many of the stars of the Premier League will be on relatively short rest this week. Especially those players who play in South America.

Manchester United, though still with an extra game to play, are just one point ahead of Liverpool atop the table. Their home date with Aston Villa can help determine both the fate of United and the last-gasp hopes of Villa to get back into the Champions League race. Chelsea will visit St. James’ Park for the first match of the Alan Shearer era at Newcastle. I expect a raucous crowd and perhaps some extra adrenaline to carry Toon to a nice result. Elsewhere, West Brom and Stoke battle near the bottom and Hull and Pompey will fight to stay above the relegation line.

Saturday:
Tottenham @ Blackburn – Blackburn
Manchester City @ Arsenal – Arsenal
Chelsea @ Newcastle – Draw
Sunderland @ West Ham – Sunderland
Middlesbrough @ Bolton – Bolton
Stoke @ West Bromich Albion – Draw
Portsmouth @ Hull City – Pompey
Liverpool @ Fulham – Liverpool

Sunday:
Wigan @ Everton – Everton
Aston Villa @ Manchester United – United

Results Thus Far:

Week 1 – 19 points
Week 2 – 16 points
Week 3 – 12 points
Week 4 – 13 points
Week 5 – 13 points
Week 6 – 27 points
Week 7 – 14 points
Week 8 – 22 points
Week 9 – 18 points
Week 10 – 19 points
Week 11 – 11 points
Week 12 – 10 points
Week 13 – 16 points
Week 14 – 13 points
Week 15 – 9 points
Week 16 – 18 points
Week 17 – 11 points
Week 18 – 14 points
Week 19 – 15 points
Week 20 – 23 points
Week 21 – 21 points
Week 22 – 20 points
Week 23 – 21 points
Week 24 – 14 points
Week 25 – 23 points
Week 26 – 11 points
Week 27 – 16 points
Week 28 – 19 points
Week 29 – 22 points
Week 30 – 16 points