Monthly Archives: February 2016

The slow growth of the Europa League

It's great to see the competition finally get a little more recognition.  Source: YouTube

It’s great to see the competition finally get a little more recognition. Source: YouTube

Lambasted for years as being a punishment for teams who dropped out of the Champions League and a burden for those who had to play on a Thursday night but in the last year or so, the Europa League has really grown into an interesting and stronger competition.

The real change has been the reward for winning, with the victors gaining an automatic spot in next season’s Champions League. It’s an added incentive not just to those who qualify for the Europa League but to those who fall out of the main competition too, knowing that winning isn’t just a trophy but a place back at the big table for next season.

The quality of teams entering the competition has also gone up as teams across Europe become a little more competitive. The likes of Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Lazio, Fiorentina, Valencia, Villarreal, Marseille, Monaco, Saint-Etienne, Bordeaux, Schalke, Ajax, Sporting Lisbon, Besiktas and Fenerbahce were all in the first round and some even failed to qualify for the knockout stages.

Then you also look at the sides that failed to make the next round last night. Teams such as Galatasaray, FC Porto and Napoli, who all fell from the Champions League, lost out on a place in the next round along with a number of strong sides.

It’s then highlighted by the good games we shall see in the Last 16. Liverpool against Manchester United, Spurs versus Dortmund, Villarreal facing Bayer Leverkusen, Athletic Bilbao opposite Valencia all showcase the strength that the Europa League has started to boast.

Admittedly, it still doesn’t compete with the might of the Champions League’s teams but at the same time, there are plenty of prestigious clubs that all would like to lift the trophy at the end. Some, like Liverpool or United, could see this as their best opportunity of reaching next season’s Champions League and adding some silverware to that is enough incentive for teams to play stronger teams.

As the competition keeps going, it will hopefully become something a little more than it has been. Less of playing youth products, more a place to use the strength of a good squad or simply to use as momentum like teams had used European competitions in the past.

If anything, it’s great to watch a good competition full of teams that always come up with a little surprise. Seeing a player like Pione Sisto for FC Midtjylland step up against good competition is excellent to see and for any obsessive football fan, the fact they get to see more talent from different corners of Europe is only a good thing.

It will never fully step out of the shadow of the Champions League but at the same time, it doesn’t have to. What is good is that it’s starting to gain more respect, more viewership and probably the most important thing, more teams want to win it.

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Damian Lillard comes out swinging after All-Star snub

This man is on a real tear.  Source: SB Nation

This man is on a real tear. Source: SB Nation

The message has been sent, loud and clear. Do not snub Portland Trail Blazers’ guard Damian Lillard, he will come back to haunt you.

The young point guard was passed over for the All-Star game in Toronto, admittedly amid a tough crowd of guards, but he has been exceptional. Averaging a career-high 25.1 points per game and 7.2 assists after being handed the face of the franchise since LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure is no mean feat.

In fact, comparing him to some other superstars shows you how well he’s doing. His three-point percentage (37.2%) is better than the likes of James Harden and DeMar DeRozan, while he also has more assists per game (7.2) than the best player in the NBA at this moment in time, Stephen Curry.

Lillard is solid from the free-throw line (86.2%), his turnover ratio is similar to other All-Star talent on similar minutes too. The main attribute he’s behind on is steals, his average of 1.1, is way below the likes of Curry, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul, who all average at least 2.

Not many put Curry on skates.  Source: YouTube

Not many put Curry on skates. Source: YouTube

However, Portland fans are starting to chant MVP since his snub and for good reason, the former Rookie of the Year has been on a tear.

In his last five games, Lillard has averaged 35.8 points per contest, which is already ridiculous. Combine that with the fact he’s shooting at a 49.5% clip and you have a real monster that’s slowly helping the Trail Blazers rise up in the Western Conference rankings.

What’s really impressive is that through this spell, he’s earning himself easy baskets. The 25-year-old is 23/32 on shots from within 10 feet of the basket, meaning that he’s picking his drives at the right time and making sure he’s finding an easier show when his team needs points on the board.

The real statement came against possibly the best opponent in the Golden State Warriors. Facing the best in the game, Lillard put up a career-high 51 points, shooting at 64.3% from the field , hitting 9/12 three-point shots while adding seven assists and six steal.

McCollum has helped make an incredibly exciting backcourt in Portland.  Source: USA Today

McCollum has helped make an incredibly exciting backcourt in Portland. Source: USA Today

What a barnstormer of a performance that is.

Admittedly, C.J McCollum’s rise has helped too, with the absolutely nailed-on Most Improved Player averaging 21.1 points per game. He notched 31 to Lillard’s 30 against  Utah Jazz and equalled his point guard’s 34 points against the Brooklyn Nets, highlighting how good these two young guards are.

In many eyes, only the Splash Brothers at the Warriors are better. While some could argue that DeRozan and Lowry should have something to say about it, there’s no doubt that Portland have a backcourt they can really excited about for the next eight to ten years.

And as for Lillard, it’s almost a certainty that if he keeps playing like this, he will not be ignored for long. Him and McCollum are both lifting the Blazers way above where most would think he would be and his on-the-court leadership, showing everyone how it’s done, has simply been exemplary.

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Has The FA Cup lost its magic?

Oh Trophy, we art thou magic gone?  Source: The FA

Oh Trophy, we art thou magic gone? Source: The FA

In the wake of Chelsea’s 5-1 win against a Manchester City side littered with a number of debuting young talent on Sunday afternoon, a debate has begun as to whether the FA Cup has lost some of it’s magic.

The short answer is yes. The long answer is to follow but it’s also not really that surprising that even the oldest club competition in the world has lost a little of its shine, but it’s due to a number of factors.

Starting with the media and the hype of the competition, the moving of games for TV hasn’t helped at all. Place like the BBC are desperate to air an all-Premier League tie like the one on Sunday but with both teams also in Champions League action, neither were happy with the news.

The fact that the next round will very likely be competing with Premier League games, along with Football League games, means that some attention has been drawn away and can make a league like the Championship look like a mess. Some teams have played 29 games, some have played 32, which is going to cause a pile up of fixtures for a team.

The youthful Manchester City squad came under scrutiny.  Source: Sky Sports

The youthful Manchester City squad came under scrutiny. Source: Sky Sports

The competition itself hasn’t adapted out of stubborness and calls that it would harm it, but stagnating it hurts just as much. Replays are a nightmare for schedulers despite the money-rolling opportunities for smaller clubs, which is literally the only benefit other than for the fans of said club.

As I’ve already mentioned, scheduling them on a weekend also doesn’t seem to work when there’s league fixtures on too. Why not move them to the mid-week, when they’ll be appreciated more, or in a more drastic move, change the league fixtures to a mid-week?

It works in literally every other big European country. Spain, Germany, France and Italy all have their big club competition in the week, two of them even have two legs and the fact that the League Cup already does it means it shouldn’t be too big of a shift, especially as that finishes in late February.

We can still have it start on a big Saturday in January too, much like the Coupe de France does, before moving to a mid-week schedule before the final on it’s own Saturday. It may mean the semi-finals have to be away from Wembley as that would be a scheduling nightmare but it would help give the competition more prestige.

Was Pellegrini's team disrepectful or a sign of the times?  Source: soccernews.com

Was Pellegrini’s team disrepectful or a sign of the times? Source: soccernews.com

The cup’s importance has also dropped below the league for pretty much any team. Hull City of the Championship made 10 changes because promotion is much more important to them than a cup run and rightfully so, they aren’t likely to win it and the money they’ll get from going up will be enormous.

Big teams have to rotate at least because of how much are on their plate but even smaller Premier League teams do as they want to stay away from relegation. It’s always difficult to balance it correctly, the likes of West Ham have probably shown it the best, but the very top clubs have to make sure they make the Champions League and that means there tends to be an impact.

So how do you change things? A stipulation on having a certain amount of “first-team” players is absurd. It’s slightly insulting to those who do start, a club would simply promote them if they didn’t meet the criteria and it will promote teams keeping a large squad together.

A Champions League place is an interesting thought but too much of a risk to the co-efficent. The fact that it could have been won by Wigan a few years ago shows you how it could drastically harm the English league and no other country does it.

In the end, something needs to give. Manuel Pellegrini’s side was clearly a message to say that something needs to be done. It has a little bit of dust on it but with a few little shakes of a duster, it could become as good as new.

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NBA Trade Deadline: Who improved and who disappointed?

After the dust settles from the All-Star Weekend, all the attention turns to the trade deadline and as always, there were plenty of interesting moves made. So who came out smelling of roses and who look to have shot themselves in the foot? Here’s a quick look at three teams who improved and three that disappointed.

 

Improved

Detroit Pistons

Drummond and Jackson are good players who now have more talent around them.  Source: USA Today

Drummond and Jackson are good players who now have more talent around them. Source: USA Today

There’s always one team that likes to surprise us a little at the trade deadline and this year it was Stan van Gundy’s Detroit Pistons. They might just be floating outside the playoffs but with a solid core and some really valuable additions, they look like they could pull ahead in that tight pack in the Eastern Conference.

Tobias Harris is only 23 and can still get better, even though he’s an asset with his versatility already. They then get Donatas Montiejunas, who could still develop into a really good power forward, and Marcus Thornton, who adds to their weak bench.

When they give up a first-round pick and two role players for that much coming in, it’s nothing more than a win. Not only have they got enough to contend for a playoff place this season, they may have set up enough for a strong future too.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Some wil miss the sight of Varejao but the Cavs upgraded with Channing Frye.  Source: The Express

Some wil miss the sight of Varejao but the Cavs upgraded with Channing Frye. Source: The Express

While the reigning Eastern Conference champions gave up a popular player in Anderson Varejao and a conditional first-round pick, they must feel that they’ve added a solid piece in Channing Frye from the Orlando Magic.

There were a few clubs chasing the 32-year-old, including the Los Angeles Clippers, who can work well as a stretch four in the NBA. Some feel that he’s too similar to Kevin Love but that’s exactly why he’s been brought in, he can help that consistenty of emulating Love from off the bench.

With players like LeBron James and Kyrie Irving desperate for more floor room, Frye will give them that. It also takes away some of the log-jam happening under the rim with Tristan Thompson as they look to make a team that can take on the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. Or at least, they hope it will.

Los Angeles Clippers

Green fills a need and is a great pickup for the price.  Source: Sports Illustrated

Green fills a need and is a great pickup for the price. Source: Sports Illustrated

When initial reports had the Clippers flipping Lance Stephenson, C.J Wilcox and a first-round selection for Channing Frye, it seemed like a pretty decent deal. However, when it was announced that they were getting Jeff Green for the first and last of that offer, it has to be seen as a real coup.

Green is a really solid player who could even start at the three for LA, a position of need for the last few years, as well as being able to play at the four when the team goes small ball. He already has a relationship with coach Doc Rivers and to give up a player who contributed very little seems like a bargain.

Adding to that, the pick is a 2019 selection that could even become a 2021 pick, so they could be giving up very little for some real solid production. Especially with Blake Griffin out for a few more weeks yet, Green could be a really valuable addition to compete with the other strong teams out in the West.

 

Disappointed

Utah Jazz

Mack? Really? Why?  Source: saltcityhoops.com

Mack? Really? Why? Source: saltcityhoops.com

The Jazz have a genuine shot of making the playoffs this year but needed a point guard to make more of a contribution. with Dante Exum likely out for the season, they needed a playmaker to help facilitate the likes of Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert.

So they decided to trade for the Atlanta Hawk’s third guard Shelvin Mack. A player who’s statistically worse that their current two fit guards, Trey Burke and Raul Neto, in almost every area. What an incredible move.

Is he good enough to even play? If not, then why did they need to make this move? He may surprise us, he may fall flat on his face. In the end, it looks like the Jazz couldn’t decide whether to stick or twist so just did a twirl for us at the deadline.

Atlanta Hawks

Hinrich has a lot of miles on the clock and has rapidly declined over the past season or so.  Source: Bleacher Report

Hinrich has a lot of miles on the clock and has rapidly declined over the past season or so. Source: Bleacher Report

So as we’ve already mentioned, the Hawks moved on their third guard, which was a decent move. They also decided to keep the likes of Jeff Teague and Al Horford, so their current core remains in tact until at least the summer.

Was it the wisest move to keep Horford, who could go for free in the summer? It remains to be seen, especially if they couldn’t find a good offer before the deadline. However, they decided to make a late move for Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich, to replace the departed Mack.

Why? We may never know. They have two really solid guards, but they essentially swapped Mack for Hinrich while also giving up Justin Holiday, who had fallen out of the rotation anyway. This can only be to clear some space and maybe give the team some extra leadership they didn’t really need anyway.

Memphis Grizzlies

Even Courtney Lee was surprised to be traded.  Source: rantsports.com

Even Courtney Lee was surprised to be traded. Source: rantsports.com

What a strange deadline from the Grizzlies, who look to have thrown their hands up in the air and hope they can rebuild again around an ageing Marc Gasol. That seems even stranger when they are sat with the fifth seed in the Western Conference.

We’ve already mentioned the Green trade, which brings in a player that will either be waived instantly or will be a complete gamble in Lance Stephenson. They also gave up Courtney Lee to the Charlotte Hornets for mainly cap space, although P.J Hariston has shown flashes of quality.

Both were third and fourth in three-point shooting on a bad three-point shooting team. Will these moves help keep Mike Conley around in the summer? He may need more than a load of second-round picks to convince him to stay in Tennessee.

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Tottenham Hotspur – The Barcelona of the Premier League

Pochettino has created a top team in North London.  Source: ibtimes.com

Pochettino has created a top team in North London. Source: ibtimes.com

Yes you read that title correctly. No, I haven’t suffered a mental breakdown and yes, I have been watching the Premier League this season.

The fact of the matter is Tottenham Hotspur are the club in England that play the closest to the Spanish giants everyone holds up as one of the most impressive teams in football. However, it may not necessarily be for the reasons you usually associate with the Catalan side.

Spurs’ best attribute this season has been their stern defence. They’ve conceded just 20 goals this season in the league and despite just nine clean sheets in 26 games, they have only allowed more than one goal twice.

It’s pretty impressive and while some will pin it down to their Belgian centre-back pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, along with their world class goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, the real difference has been in front of them. It’s the manager Mauricio Pochettino’s use of Eric Dier that has really helped them become a sterner unit at the back.

The defender-cum-defensive midfielder had been utilised in a number of positions last season but it’s his role as the protector that has pushed his game to the next level. He doesn’t venture too far forward and even slots in as an extra defender as the full-backs push on.

Dier's positional move has really improved the team.  Source: Sky Sports

Dier’s positional move has really improved the team. Source: Sky Sports

That movement, although simple, gives them an extra body against counter attacks and allows his centre-backs to close down the space as he uses his defensive instincts to cover. Much like Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano do at Barcelona, they almost create a 3-5-2 as the full backs push on to give them the width that allows their creative players more space in more dangerous areas.

The two CBs also act in a similar way to what Gerard Pique does, as they are both quick on the ground and proficient with the ball. Both Vertonghen and Alderweireld are capable passers, even switching play on occasion and it’s a real asset to the team.

Speaking of the full-backs, the club’s use of their four players in those positions on both wings has been very impressive. They rotate them when they can to keep them fit, which keeps things competitive and has pushed four solid players to become even better, as well as becoming a real important part of their attacking play.

In an even stranger stat, both right backs (Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier) have a goal and an assist while both left-backs (Danny Rose and Ben Davies) have two assists. They are allowed to get forward and create chances in Pochettino’s team, with Trippier showing a few weeks ago how much freedom they have.

Even with possession on the opposite flank, Trippier found himself in the opposition box to score. It was reminicent of Dani Alves or Jordi Alba at Barcelona, who are more advanced more often that most full-backs for any team, contributing mainly in an attacking sense with the knowledge that they have cover from those three defenders behind them.

Rose, along with the other full backs, have been key for Spurs this season.  Source: The Express

Rose, along with the other full backs, have been key for Spurs this season. Source: The Express

Pochettino does come from that class of Marcelo Bielsa pupils, along with the likes of Pep Guardiola, which is probably why his style emulates Barcelona. They like to win the ball high up if they can, they like their full-backs to provide the width and their defensive midfielder to have the discipline to stay back.

And while they don’t have the attacking potency of Barcelona, their forward players have been allowed to create and cause havok. Harry Kane is no one-season wonder, Dele Alli has been a revelation, Christian Eriksen has continued to grow and Erik Lamela no longer looks like an expensive mistake.

All that is gelled by quietly one of their best players in Mousa Dembele. The Belgian is a real workhorse, going from box to box and be involved as much as he can on both sides of the ball. He keeps them ticking with his 89.5% pass completion, he’s added three goals and he’s the perfect foil to the balance that any side needs.

When rotation is needed, the likes of Heung Min Son and Nacer Chadli have contributed as well and along with the full-back depth and the form of Kevin Wimmer in Vertonghen’s absence, they have plenty of talent in their squad. It means they’ve sneaked games they used to lose and it’s a great credit to the side that Pochettino has created in his just-under two seasons there.

Tottenham can absolutely win the league, they have enough to do it but the real thing here is they can really build something here. The one issue is keeping every single piece they can in the summer, or at the very least finding the right replacements and the little additions, with a move to a new stadium on the way along with the influx of TV money, they could make themselves a permanent top four fixture.

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The Barcelona penalty – was it disrespectful?

Was it really spectacular or disrespectful?  Source: Sky Sports

Was it really spectacular or disrespectful? Source: Sky Sports

There has been a lot written about the penalty by Barcelona in their 6-1 win against Celta Vigo at the weekend, where Lionel Messi simply passed the ball for Luis Suarez to stride on to and net his hat-trick. It’s caused all manner of furore, from both sides of the debate, so let’s lay out the land.

With the home side winning 3-1 and cruising, many are saying that to score a penalty like that is disrespectful. Others are saying that it’s adding to the entertainment of football, showman being showman and it’s not against the rules to do it.

In an essence, both sides are right, mainly because you have to take all angles into context.

Let’s start with the obvious before the debate, the penalty is an arrogant gesture. Whether you love it or hate it, you aren’t wrong if you are either way inclined, you have to have bundles of confidence in it to perform it as it looks awful to miss it.

On the side of those who find it disrespectful, it’s not hard to see why. If that was against the team you loved, against a side with a vast amount of resources and talent, to add that kind of penalty to an already strong position is a little bit of a slap in the face.

It’s very difficult for the goalkeeper to stop, with many deciding a way to dive rather than worrying about rushing down a shot. Would it happen if they were drawing or losing? It’s highly unlikely and that’s why the accusations started.

These three are real showmen, as are the entire Barcelona team.  Source: ITV

These three are real showmen, as are the entire Barcelona team. Source: ITV

On the side of it being fun, it is quite exiting for someone to do something different. It was a little bit of showmanship and craft, that people love, and it almost personified the players involved with the play.

Messi was being unselfish, even though he could score his 300th La Liga goal to set up Luis Suarez for his hat-trick. Their intricate passing play, along with Neymar, has been a highlight of the Camp Nou this season and will likely be for seasons to come.

There was no outcry from Celta, who accepted it, and it’s a totally viable way of taking a penalty. Like I mentioned previously, if you can pull it off it will tend to yield better results when employed as goalkeepers tend to make a move during a forwards run up to the kick.

The only problem I really personally have with it is the “entertainment” factor and many acting like it was some beautiful piece of genius. It was alright, I’ve seen it before and to me, I just wasn’t overly bothered about it. Then again I’m not really bothered about the classy chipped penalty, they are much like layups to a slam dunk, it’s just not as impressive as they hope for it to be.

In the end, the real annoying thing about this debate will be that it will drag on, because more people will copy it in this new social world. Look at the Panenka penalty, look at the amount of sportsman celebrating with a dab, this will also catch on like a house on fire.

So yeah, get ready for more of this. If only we hadn’t reacted at all.

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Can Leicester City really win the Premier League?

Ranieri has been a revelation, on and off the field, for Leicester.  Source: The Telegraph

Ranieri has been a revelation, on and off the field, for Leicester. Source: The Telegraph

With only 13 games left of the season, surprise package Leicester City are at the front of the pack in the Premier League. The question on everyone’s lips, as it has been for the last few months, can Claudio Ranieri’s men win it? Here’s a look into both arguments:

The Yes argument

 

Mahrez is in sensational form and is currently the front-runner for the Premier League Player of the Year.  Source: Metro

Mahrez is in sensational form and is currently the front-runner for the Premier League Player of the Year. Source: Metro

At this point, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for Leicester to win the league. They’ve got through a number of tough games, with one ahead against Arsenal this weekend, but they’ve passed almost every challenge in front of them.

The real positive is that they’ve only been held goalless three times this season, all in a three-game spell over Christmas against Manchester City, Liverpool and Bouremouth. Since then, they’ve beaten two of those teams in return fixtures.

In 16 of their 25 games this season, they’ve scored more than once. They average 13.3 shots per game, ninth best in the league but get 4.8 on target, which is fourth-best. The danger they represent in attack is simply startling and no-one has worked out how to shut them out on a consistent basis or even stop them from scoring more than one goal per game.

The obvious contributors to that are Ryiad Mahrez, who has 14 goals and 10 assists, and Jamie Vardy, who has notched 18 goals. They have been vital, with the next best goals total being Shinji Okazaki with four but the assists have been spread out through the likes of Marc Albrighton (6), Danny Drinkwater (4), Christian Fuchs (3) and N’Golo Kante (3).

It's been pointed out before, but Kante has been vital to their success.  Source: The Express

It’s been pointed out before, but Kante has been vital to their success. Source: The Express

While they have the fifth-best defence in the league with 27 goals conceded, it’s the work rate when out of possession that’s impressive. Averaging the second-most tackles per game with 22.6 and the most interceptions with 21.8, claiming the ball back so regularly has clearly given them more opportunities to spring quality counter attacks their forwards thrive off.

Unsurprisingly, the player leading that is the French midfielder Kante, who notches 4.1 tackles per game (2nd best in the league) and 4.1 interceptions (best in the league). His tireless work in breaking up play before either playing it to a forward or driving at the defence itself has been a real inspiration for the Foxes.

Keeping those players on the pitch has also been crucial and both their disilinary record and injury report have been very good. Only Robert Huth and Vardy have served suspensions due to yellows and none of their best players have been out for an extended period of time, along with Ranieri’s consistency, they have a settled group in superb form.

 

The No argument

 

You may never beat Wes Morgan, but you can run past him.  Source: The Express

You may never beat Wes Morgan, but you can run past him. Source: The Express

The real worry for Leicester is that while they have scored plenty, they’ve struggled to keep others at bay on a consistent basis. They’ve managed just eight clean sheets, giving plenty of teams hope that they can at least grab a goal against the league leaders.

Unlike some, I actually believe their biggest test comes after the Arsenal game, regardless of the result. The best teams need to knock some of the little teams out of the park and early before they get too much of a foothold in the game.

With that in mind, their next four are at home to Norwich, West Brom, then away to Watford before returning home against Newcastle United. While some will rightly see these as pretty simple fixtures against at least three sides that have leaked goals in recent fixtures, these are also teams desperate for results.

That is actually a significant difference to earlier in the season. Even in November and December, teams still saw Leicester as a side they could pick points up from, so would set up in their normal way, only to be blitzed by a vicious counter-attack. Inferior teams will not make that mistake again.

So expect them to have 10 men behind the ball (except Watford, who may be more adventurous but are more defensively solid) in order to stifle Leicester into coming onto them. That’s not really a situation the Foxes have faced, they tend to have less possession than the opposition so do they give it to them? No, a lucky goal puts them at a potential serious disadvantage.

Huth has got away wiht a few nervy moments this season being physical with other players.  Source: worldsoccer.com

Huth has got away wiht a few nervy moments this season being physical with other players. Source: worldsoccer.com

This is hopefully where the experience of Ranieri comes into play, adjusting his team to deal with the threat. He may throw on an extra winger instead of a forward to work in the intricate spaces but how Leicester deal with having more of the ball and less space to counter into will be their truest test.

Especiallly because they have slow centre-backs. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are very solid but aren’t blessed with pace, which could kill Leicester when, ironically, they are counted on. That deeper back line has helped them prove how good they are but when they need to push on against weaker teams, it is a weakness that others will seek to exploit.

Also, can they deal with the pressure? They have up until this point, because so many doubted them but especially if they beat Arsenal, they are absolutely favourites to win the league. Others have buckled in the past, even Blackburn Rovers did but had just enough in the bank to win it and they wouldn’t want to have to go to the likes of Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge towards the end of the season to seal the deal if they’ve slipped.

They also need to be wary of any injuries or suspensions, I’m thinking of Morgan and Huth for the latter if they are countered on. If they can keep everyone fit, they have a real chance but a serious blow to any of their crucial four players and it could be enough to topple them.

 

The Verdict

 

Be honest to yourself, Leicester can win the league.  Source: The Mirror

Be honest to yourself, Leicester can win the league. Source: The Mirror

I’m not coming to an absolute conclusion here but based on the evidence, they have enough to win it. They’ve put in an astonishing amount of effort and with that, the Champions League is an absolute possibility. Like I’ve mentioned, the relegation teams will actually be the real worry as they are favourites but if teams set up like they have all season, combined with their rivals stumbling even more, they could even run away with it.

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Thoughts on Super Bowl 50

Manning may ride off into the sunset on the back of a Hall of Fame career with a happy ending. Source: CNN

Manning may ride off into the sunset on the back of a Hall of Fame career with a happy ending. Source: CNN

I learned a valuable lesson the other night, never go back on what you stick your faith in. Defence wins championships, it’s been proven more often than not and that logic abandoned many as they felt the Panthers were just too good on both sides of the ball.

However, we had all forgotten that this Denver Broncos defence is very, very good. Last night, they proved they are possibly even greater than that and will go down on record as one of the best in history.

It carried them through a season, through the post-season and eventually in the big dance. They made the big plays they needed, getting to the quarterback and stifling receivers on all kinds of teams which then allowed them to win a championship under Gary Kubiak.

Peyton Manning looks now like he has that fairytale ending should he bow out, which he really should on evidence from this season. The new face of the team, Von Miller, shone as he has all season long and really lead a front seven that caused havoc in their two most important games of the season, which was so impressive.

Von Miller is a stud and dominated the game. Source: USA Today

Von Miller is a stud and dominated the game. Source: USA Today

The Panthers just never clicked into gear on offence, which killed them. The running game never got going, despite their insistence on giving the running back the ball on every first down to start a drive, which in turn gave them long distances on second and third down, which meant feeding time for the Denver pass rush.

Cam Newton couldn’t pull out his own heroics either, over-throwing early before finally settling into a rhythm, only to see his passes dropped. Greg Olsen was blanketed all game long, which hurt them the most, but praise to their stellar defence which kept them in the hunt right until the end, especially the breakout performance from Kony Ealy.

It always felt like one moment for Ron Rivera’s team would do it but Wade Phillip’s defence would never, ever allow that opportunity. They were stout, they were aggressive and they got everything they wanted, when they wanted it.

With every new Super Bowl champion, there’s talk of whether a dynasty could be built but in Denver, it’s a little tricky. They maximised what they had within Manning’s championship window and they now may have a few decisions to make.

Kuechly and the Panthers will be back. Source: Bleacher Report

Kuechly and the Panthers will be back. Source: Bleacher Report

Miller will rightfully get a monster deal, Brock Osweiler will have a lot of swing should Manning go through with retirement and then they still might need some space to shore up the depth chart. If none of the older players drop their level, they will contend again but their time will close quicker than the team they faced on Sunday.

As for Carolina, they should have the ability to bounce back, even though the NFC arguably has more depth of top teams to contend with. They have an excellent defence, a good offence with one of it’s best playmakers in Kelvin Benjamin coming back and they only have Josh Norman to worry about in free agency.

If they can find another little piece in the draft, keep the players fit and firing they will be a dangerous team again next year. They have a great coaching staff along with a good attitude and this won’t be the last time we see the Panthers as contenders.

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Cam Newton, the punching bag

The Dabbing machine was more drab after Sunday, and for good reason.  Source: USA Today

The Dabbing machine was more drab after Sunday, and for good reason. Source: USA Today

It seems every time someone makes a slight misstep, people want to take a swing at them. In the NFL, no one has personified that ideal more than Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and his haters have only been given more reason to jab at him after Super Bowl 50.

The league MVP walked out of his post-match press conference in a huff, with many pointing the finger at him being able to hear the Denver Broncos defensive back Chris Harris Jr. discussing his game on the other side of the curtain.

Even before that, Newton was giving short answers to relatively repetitive questions and seemed dejected, like many would losing possibly their only chance at the Lombardi Trophy.

Some call it being a sore loser, but the demeanour reminded me of another consistent winner in Tom Brady. The New England Patriots quarterback was clearly not happy about being at the Super Bowl being presented as an MVP, he wanted to be in the dressing room preparing for the game.

His attitude was sour, but most people would be after a loss like that.  Source: bet.com

His attitude was sour, but most people would be after a loss like that. Source: bet.com

The best hate winning and while some can mask it, there are a few who simply can’t hide their anger and disappointment at defeat. This shouldn’t be an attribute we should appreciate but neither should we condemn it, it’s difficult for anyone to speak about something they have dreamed about for so long, go in a moment.

What also irks some is that he’s unapologetic about being upset and you know what is strange about that? He’s allowed to be. You’re allowed to not want to answer questions if you’re not in the mood, there’s plenty of other players to talk to and many got their column inches from the things he didn’t say anyway.

Then others say he folded, which is a serious accusation to make. That he should have jumped on the fumble, when we don’t exactly know why he didn’t, is presuming that he’s weak and adding more to the fire of pressure on a player.

It’s the latest in barbs that people seem to keep throwing at him. The fact that he celebrates and has a good time when winning gets on people’s nerves and the antidote to that is stopping him winning. When they did, he sulked, and they moaned about him doing that.

Ron Rivera supports Cam's attitude, saying it proves he has passion.  Source: panthers.com

Ron Rivera supports Cam’s attitude, saying it proves he has passion. Source: panthers.com

When he tore down visiting fans’ signs, which was disrespectful, but when the fans should know they aren’t allowed in the stadium then it’s their own fault. He wanted to create an atmosphere in there, he was also sending a key statement to everyone else. Newton wanted it as his team against the world.

Trying to imagine the reaction to hi celebrating if they had won will boggle the mind forever. People are consistently looking for errors in his game, in which he proved this season that he has the consistent quality to compete with the best.

In the end, Newton will never convince everyone. He doesn’t have to, he has to convince his teammates that he’s good enough to lead them to victory, and he’s succeeded. The fact that his attitude has taken all the media attention away from even the Broncos win to an extent, shows how much of a circus is consistently following him.

This is why some athletes are run into the ground. Hopefully for Cam, he will have that day in the sun to prove his doubters wrong.

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NFL Honors Award Show 2016 predicitons

As we head towards Super Bowl 50, I thought it would be ideal to look at the night before the big event and predict the potential winners for the NFL’s Honors Award Show.

Most Valuable Player – Cam Newton

Woah, Cam. Dab away sir, dab away.  Source: USA Today

Woah, Cam. Dab away sir, dab away. Source: USA Today

Although there are a few names in the hat in this one, Cam Newton is the clear front-runner. Having led his team to a 15-1 regular season record and the Super Bowl, Cam has really matured into the leader on this team and into a very good quarterback capable of carrying his team across the line.

This season, he recorded 35 passing touchdowns to just 10 interceptions, throwing for 3,837 yards with a 59.8% pass accuracy. Add onto that his 10 rushing touchdowns, as he himself added 636 yards on the ground as he lost just four fumbles.

It’s been a sensational year for the former Heismann trophy winner and he, along with Russell Wilson, are making the duel-threat quarterback a legitimate option. He’s inspired comebacks, he’s danced a lot and given some young kids moments they will never forget, this one is an easy call.

Coach of the Year – Ron Rivera

Riverboat Ron has had a masterclass of a season.  Source: panthers.com

Riverboat Ron has had a masterclass of a season. Source: panthers.com

This is a very close award between two-time winner Bruce Arians and Panthers coach Ron Rivera and by a slight margin, Rivera comes out on top. He helped his team continue the excellent work from the end of last season and really attack the 2015 campaign.

A superb 15-1 record, where he kept everyone in check and then added to that two superlative playoff wins against two strong teams really puts him above everyone.

Rivera has bread an atmosphere in Carolina that his players clearly both enjoy and thrive within. They have a superb team, credit to the general manager Dave Gettleman there too, and Riverboat Ron has continued ploughing away as his team only gets better and better.

Offensive Player of the Year – Carson Palmer

Palmer is an MVP candidate but will gladly accept this award.  Source: Fox Sports

Palmer is an MVP candidate but will gladly accept this award. Source: Fox Sports

There is a number of names that could quite easily win this award, Tom Brady being one of them, but the NFL should recognise how good the Arizona Cardinals were in some way and this will be how they will do it.

Carson Palmer threw for 4,671 yards with a 63.7% pass completion percentage, notching 35 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. He had a QB rating average of 104.6 and added a rushing touchdown as the 36-year-old came back healthy to lead the Cardinals to a 13-3 record.

Despite playoff disappointments, Palmer had a very strong year and just came up short against the best team in the NFL. If he can stay healthy, along with the entire team, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with again next year.

Defensive Player of the Year – Luke Kuechly

Kuechly is a tackling machine.  Source: Bleacher Report

Kuechly is a tackling machine. Source: Bleacher Report

The preview I had a month ago saw JJ Watt, Aaron Donald and Tyrann Mathieu ahead of this man but when it came to the business end, Luke Kuechly stepped up and showed why he absolutely should win this award.

In 13 games, he notched 118 combined tackles, a sack, 10 passes defended and a career-equalling four interceptions, including his first touchdown. In the post-season, he has 19 combined tackles, a fumble recovery, two interceptions returned for touchdowns and three passes defended.

He has been the heartbeat of the superb Carolina Panthers defence and if he was fit all season, he would have won this award with his eyes closed. His two tempo-setting interceptions in the playoffs should seal the deal, the middle linebacker changes games.

Rookie of the Year – Todd Gurley

More of this next season, just in LA. Source: USA Today

More of this next season, just in LA. Source: USA Today

It’s hard to predict this award as no-one really separated themselves from the crowd but Todd Gurley might have just done enough to win this one.

The first-round running back rushed for 1,106 yards in 13 games, averaging nine yards a carry and scoring 10 touchdowns. He did lose a few fumbles, three to be exact, but  he still flashed explosive talent that could torment the NFL for years to come.

Many thought he may struggle after missing his final year in college through injury but Gurley proved doubters wrong very swiftly. He’ll be the face of the Rams as they move to Los Angeles and they need to build around him and that strong defence to push forward.

Offensive Rookie of the Year – Amari Cooper

Cooper shined and will have a big future in the Black Hole.  Source: sacbee.com

Cooper shined and will have a big future in the Black Hole. Source: sacbee.com

He may have won the above award had he not slowed down towards the end of the season but Amari Cooper has shown people enough to let them know he’ll be a success in the NFL.

The Alabama alumni caught 72 balls for 1,070 yards, scoring six touchdowns and fumbling just once. He was used sporadically and only caught three balls in his final two games that may have hurt his cause but there’s no doubt that the rookie deserves at least one of the awards.

Cooper will just lose out to the running back who carried a sorry offence but make no mistake, he is one to keep an eye out for in the future. The Oakland Raiders are building again and the young wideout will be a big part of their next few seasons at least.

Defensive Rookie of the Year – Marcus Peters

Peters has settled in nicely with the Chiefs.  Source: thescore.com

Peters has settled in nicely with the Chiefs. Source: thescore.com

A rightful Pro Bowler in his first year, Marcus Peters has really impressed since he was drafted in the first round by the Kansas City Chiefs.

The young cornerback has had 60 tackles in 16 games, 26 passes defended and eight interceptions, with two returned for a touchdown. He also forced a fumble in a terrific year that has been a position of need at the Chiefs and has been duly filled by Peters.

The former Washington standout has a really bright future within a solid defence. Some may have had questions about him starting before the start of the season, now he’s even starting in Honolulu, it’s been a meteoric rise.

Comeback Player of the Year – Eric Berry

Berry's story is one of real triumph. Source: Kansas City Chiefs website

Berry’s story is one of real triumph. Source: Kansas City Chiefs website

Absolutely no questions about this one, Eric Berry will be the Comeback Player of the Year. He absolutely deserves it and no one will argue with it, his comeback this year has been monumental.

Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December 2014, ending his season and he began treatment straight away. He was cleared for action nine months later and despite not starting one game, he has been sensational yet again.

61 combined tackles, 10 passes defended and two interceptions as he became a key cog in the Kansas City Chiefs defence again and was selected to the Pro Bowl. To come back so quickly and at such a high level, you can only admire the terrific resolve of a real quality football player.

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