Monthly Archives: March 2017

In defence of the away goals rule

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Look, we’ve all been burned by it or adorded it, so let’s talk about the away goals rule in the Champions League.

For me, I’ll never forget the time Manchester United lost to Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League semi-final on away goals. Having drew 2-2 at Old Trafford, the Germans slipped through our grasps and snuck into the final in a 1-1 that will have me shaking my head for all eternity.

At least Zinedine Zidane scored that blinder in the final.

So many complain about it, while those same voices are eerily quiet when it works in their favour. With that in mind, do we really need the away goals rule? Is it really fair to everyone? Or is it just a way to avoid extra time like it’s the plague for club sides?

In the last six years, eight knockout ties have been settled by the away goals rule with at least one each year. Four of the opening ties were won by the home side, Paris Saint-Germain drew twice to Barcelona in 2012-13 and to Chelsea in 2014/15, while the other two were defeats for Arsenal at the Emirates.

Two of those four that won their opening home fixture secured safe passage to the next round, while both of the Gunners’ initial defeats could not be turned around away from home. PSG’s two draws saw them knocked out at the Camp Nou but qualify in extra time on away goals at Stamford Bridge.

In some, like Marseille’s passage in 2011/12 over Inter Milan and Arsenal’s two losses, the rule looks incredibly harsh. The Ligue 1 side won the tie in the very last second, having held on for 74 minutes before the Italians nabbed two goals only to see it slip on one mistake in the dying embers.

As for the Gunners’ pair of clashes, three goals conceded at home in opening legs killed the ties. On both occasions, they managed to score two away without conceding but alas, the away goals rule states that is not good enough.

Then again, it gives some teams their just rewards. Atletico Madrid were excellent in their semi-final over Bayern Munich last season, with their away goal coming whilst the tie was level at 1-1 and Chelsea’s excellent 2-0 win at home meant the single goal they stole from a drab affair at the Parc des Princes earned them rightful passage to the next round.

In truth, it does tend to hand the advantage to the away side in that first leg. In the 78 games played in the knockout stages in the last six years, the away side has only failed to score in the first game on 27 occasions.

58 of those 78 sides that start away have gone through. However, with seeding affording you that opportunity through qualifying top of your group, it’s not a surprise as you expect a stronger team to be heading on the plane first.

What is extremely interesting is when it comes down to the semi-finals, when the true big teams match up without a seeding advantage. Only one side that went away in the first leg has qualified for the final in the last 10 attempts, Real Madrid being the sole victor over Manchester City last season.

That shows that when it is whittled down to the crème de la crème, the law doesn’t matter. In fact, only one semi-final has required away goals in that span, which was the aforementioned Atletico win, while only one other has gone down to penalties.

In the end, UEFA are forced into a little bit of a corner. The rule is there, on paper at least, to encourage attacking play from the away sides in both legs but more often than not, it causes it in the first leg while the home side sit on anything they’ve gained in the follow-up match.

At the same time, no club wants to play extra time in midweek with a busy domestic schedule that has everyone vying for silverware too. It also tends not to matter in the slightest when it really comes down to the best of the best, so isn’t it a relatively amicable way to thin the herd early doors?

You could tweak it a little, potentially switching the seeding around to test the big teams but with clubs highly unlikely to want to force extra time and the rule needing to be applied fairly irregularly, they will stick to their guns. And so they should, It does encourage exciting ties in the long run and can keep teams in them for longer if they really give it their all.

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Why Erik Spoelstra should be Coach of the Year

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A few years ago, people would have you believe that the Miami Heat could have anyone coaching the trio of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to their two NBA championships.

Those voices are eerily silent now, wonder why that would be?

Maybe because Erik Spoelstra has knitted together a group of rag tag players that have rebounded back from an 11-30 start to the season to being on the brink of the Eastern Conference playoffs. If they finish above .500, they will be the first team to recover from a 19-game deficit to be above that average at the end of the season.

It started with the end of an era, as Dwayne Wade decided to say farewell to the south coast and returned home. Combined with the admission that Bosh would likely never play the game due to reoccurring blood clots, Miami looked to be resetting to a rebuild of their roster.

They started by making sure their best prospect didn’t skip town. Hassan Whiteside was tied down to a big deal, anchoring the team alongside the likes of Goran Dragic and youngsters like Justice Winslow.

As previously mentioned, they floundered around early on. What did come out of every defeat, from every coach and broadcasting team, was despite their record the Heat would put in maximum effort for the entire game and never allow anyone an easy night.

Seemingly out of the playoff run by the turn of the year, they all of a sudden clicked into place. The defensive principles that the coach reminded them every night, the system to get more threes into their game and adding that to the effort they were already showing mixed into a potent cocktail.

From January 17th, they rattled off 13 straight victories that included wins against the Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks and the Golden State Warriors. Including that run, Miami have gone 24-6 which has seen them go a game clear in the eighth spot in the playoffs and they have yet to lose two games back-to-back.

One factor in that has been their defence, which has been stellar all season. They rank 5th in the league in points allowed, they lead the league in three-pointers made in a game against them and every single night, just watching them rush round the court like a pack of Jack Russell’s, you know they play hard on that end of the floor.

What has changed in recent times is their offensive output, with their points per game average going up by a whopping 10 points per game for the months of February and March. The offence is finally clicking, players are believing in their ability and that confidence is flowing throughout the line-up.

Whiteside was a beast all year and is still currently leading the league in rebounds while sitting third in blocks. Dragic is a great point guard in a league filled with them, but those two alone were never going to be enough to push the Heat into the postseason.

Their push starts with Dion Waiters, the odd man out for many years has finally come out of the shadows. Averaging 15.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, all career highs and he isn’t afraid to take that big game shot, hitting huge game-winning threes against the Charlotte Hornets and the Cleveland Cavaliers, his old team.

No wonder he feels he has that Philly Cheese swag.

Add to that the Johnson brothers, Tyler and James, who bring such a burst of the bench. The former is averaging 13.8 points per game, justifying his expensive extension in the summer, while the latter is not far behind on 12.3 ppg.

Both are averaging over four boards and three assists per game and bring so much energy in the second quarters. Neither has started a game all season but when they are on the court, they allow Miami to switch gears but lose none of the intensity.

That’s saying nothing of other role players like Wayne Ellington, who’s been dynamite from three-point range in recent weeks, or Rodney McGruder, who doesn’t fill the box score but brings great defence every night. Willie Reed does plenty in his short minutes to give Whiteside a breather, Josh Richardson is growing into a fine player and they all add something to this time.

When you also think they’ve missed Justice Winslow in that stretch, especially just as he was ascending into the line-up, and the Heat finally have direction. Unlike so many other mid-card teams in the NBA, they have an identity, they have the right kind of players and they have a foundation they can hopefully pull an interesting rebuild into quickly.

Those that are fighting for that first seed are praying that the Heat either finish seventh or fade away. Even if a series goes 4-0, all of those teams know it will be an incredibly hard-fought battle to sweep a team that brings everything night in and night out.

While Mike D’Antoni has done wonders for the offensive juggernaut that is the Rockets but Spoelstra’s efforts, should the Heat get to the post-season, are beyond miraculous. They aren’t just a team, they are a culture and after their boom years of buying big, they now have a network from which they can structure another championship run.

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NFL free agency 2017: As odd and frantic as ever

With the calendar finally turning over to March, NFL fans can celebrate the start of a new season. Well, those that like to watch the fire-sale frenzy that is free agency, at the very least.

As contracts expire and players are allowed to move freely to another team, it’s time for some smooching from GMs and coaches as they try to promise new hopefuls they’ll be big in their city. Most end with heartbreak but sometimes, they can be a match made in heaven.

Here’s a few thoughts on the first few days of free agency.

 

The best just got better

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The New England Patriots didn’t need any help in being good, NFL. You didn’t have to help them strengthen a team that won the whole damn thing last year, y’know?

They’ll never learn.

Bill Belichick is an absolute master of this game and strangely enough, it was two trades that actually impressed the most. Bringing in an exciting young receiver in former New Orleans Saints man Brandin Cooks to be their new number one option out wide for draft picks was a solid move even after picking up the almost-Super Bowl 49 MVP Kony Ealy from the Carolina Panthers.

Add to that the pickup of Pro Bowl corner Stephon Gilmore, from none other than a divisional rival in the Buffalo Bills, and former Green Bay Packers tight end Jared Cook to replace Martellus Bennett and that’s a nice little mix.

The focus shifts now to keeping Malcolm Butler and Dont’a Hightower, which would be a frightening thought to the rest of the NFL. Even with all the picks they used up, they could regain almost all of them by sending Jimmy Garapolo to the Cleveland Browns.

 

The poor got a little stronger

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Speaking of the Browns, they made baby steps toward climbing out of the basement.

They started with the offensive line, just in case they finally find someone to stand behind it. Kevin Zeitler weakens an opponent in the Cincinnati Bengals while adding a veteran to the group, J.C. Tretter is another solid addition and extension to Joel Bitonio finally puts this unit back to where they were before they lost Alex Mack last offseason.

Bringing in Kenny Britt was also a solid move, a relatively consistent performer over the last few seasons. Not trying to combine him with Terrell Pryor, especially when the former QB signed a reasonable deal with Washington, does seem a little odd but spend where you need to spend.

Some of that gigantic cap room was used on a blockbuster trade for Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler. While it’s likely they’ll bin the lobster as soon as possible, they bought a second round pick they can add to the pile of 11 selections in each of the next two drafts.

That booty should have enough value in it to tempt the Patriots to move Jimmy G to Ohio. With the champs moving so many picks, surely it’s only a matter of time?

 

There’s money if you’re an offensive lineman

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If you’re a decent lineman this March, you got paid.

Along with the aforementioned dynamic duo in Cleveland, the Los Angeles Chargers slapped a big deal on former Denver Broncos left tackle Russell Okung and the Minnesota Vikings paid a pretty penny to steal Riley Reiff off their fellow NFC North side, the Detroit Lions.

Neither of those played at a particularly high level last year but with needy teams come looser purse strings. Combine that with a draft reportedly thin on the ground at tackle and guard, anyone with experience with a bit of quality was treated like a diamond in the rough.

There’s no doubt some of these players have talent but to be paid $53 million over four years for Okung? That seems a little too steep of a price.

 

But there’s not so much for wide receivers

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Alshon Jeffery is a legitimate number one receiver in the NFL, yet teams looked at him like he’d kissed their wife right in front of them.

Credit to him for taking a prove-it deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, along with a “promise” to stay if he succeeds, but the PED violation hit his value harder than many expected it to. I mean, enhancing your performance is a big sin but players with worse records have earned plenty of bucks otherwise.

As it was mentioned earlier, the market for Pryor was also thinner than some anticipated. He looked a real threat since converting to a wideout but teams still stayed away from a potential one-season wonder.

Even DeSean Jackson settled for a secondary role as a deep threat in Tampa Bay, which shows there just wasn’t that much love for pass catchers this year. In fairness, the talent level was pretty thin too.

 

The quarterback market stay still, for now

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While the players were thin on the ground at quarterback in free agency, we are really still waiting for the big moves to happen, if they will at all.

Mike Glennon joined the Chicago Bears was the only real deal that has gone down so far. That’s not counting some backups signing up but that isn’t going to change a franchise overnight.

Jay Cutler was released into the wild and had a meeting with the New York Jets but there’s been no paperwork as of yet. He may look if anyone else pops their heads up and then decide if it’s even worth lacing up over a cushy retirement.

Jimmy G can’t stop teasing us on Instagram and in fairness, that one will likely rumble on until the draft next month. New England will like to squeeze every last bit of juice from that deal until Cleveland have no option to throw in a sweetner.

The final chip to fall anywhere is Tony Romo. The Dallas Cowboys are hoping someone is willing to trade, everyone is giggling at their poker face and are waiting for him to be released and go on a Peyton Manning-esque tour.

That one could go on and on as well, but whether he ends up staying in Texas with Houston or follows in Manning’s footsteps to Denver, it will be the story of the offseason.

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Winners and losers of the NBA’s trade deadline

The NBA trade deadline is like their transfer deadline day, only things happen and less dildos are thrown by supporters outside stadiums. In this more civilised yet slightly more complex set-up, it can lead to some teams changing their seasons after the All-Star break while others decide to blow things up now ready for the summer.

So, with all that in mind, who came out smelling of roses and who had the scent of rolling around in a pig sty? Here’s a look at the winners and losers from last week’s deadline.

 

Winners

Houston Rockets

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Lou Williams was a super pick-up for the attack-minded Rockets. Source: The Undefeated.

If you want to see what a playoff team needs to do to give themselves an extra push at the trade deadline, you only need peer through the doors of the Toyota Center. They solidified their bench by adding Lou Williams, who could still be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year alongside new teammate Eric Gordon, while moving KJ McDaniel’s slightly weighty wage to make that much-needed room to breathe in the buyout market.

To say this team really need another shooter is like saying Scrooge McDuck needs more gold but then again, you can’t argue with a couple more doubloons to add to the collection. With the Golden State Warriors worrying about Kevin Durant’s health and the San Antonio Spurs not quite as powerful as before, the Rockets now see their chance to contend against the best in the Western conference.

They are fun, exciting and might have just elevated themselves into a real contender.

 

Toronto Raptors

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If Ibaka returns to form, this goes from a decent to a fantastic move. Source: NBA

With an almighty scuffle looking to break out at the top of the Eastern Conference, it was the Toronto Raptors that looked to try and steal a march on everyone else. Adding Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to their ranks gives them more depth up front and should make the better on defence too.

If they can get the Spaniard back playing to his potential, Ibaka could be a steal and could even be a bargain come the summer to sign on a longer deal. Tucker has put in some solid displays for the Phoenix Suns this season and with other teams sniffing around, the Raptors will be delighted to have snapped him up too.

The injury to Kyle Lowry has probably killed any momentum towards the top of the playoff order but the Raptors will not be sorry come the postseason when the gloves come off.

 

Losers

New York Knicks

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The Rose experiment hasn’t worked and they should have done more to get Rubio through the door. Source: Daily Knicks

It seems like the Knicks can’t trade anyone away at the moment. They tried to kick Carmelo Anthony out the door and just when they thought they had found Derrick Rose a home, the Minnesota Timberwolves slammed the door in their face.

In all honesty, they needed to push harder to get Ricky Rubio in and start this new era at Madison Square Garden. Finally, someone would have passed the ball on this team and maybe they could be moving forward but instead, Phil Jackson will keep fighting Melo and owner Jimmy Dolan will keep fighting the fans in what really is becoming a real miss.

Sorry, Kristaps.

 

Boston Celtics

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The Celtics are pretty good but could have been sensational if they had nabbed either George or Butler. Source: Business Insider

This is a little harsh, since they are still a pretty good team, but could they not get us so excited if it wasn’t going to happen? The Celtics were amping everyone up that they may pull off a blockbuster move for either Paul George or Jimmy Butler, yet neither managed to come to the TD Garden.

Either would have been a quality addition that would have pushed Boston into the upper-upper echelon of the NBA but they were thwarted. The Indiana Pacers wanted more than they were willing to play, while the Chicago Bulls are under some kind of spell that tells them the playoffs now are more important than their impending and almost certain rebuild.

A toast to what could have been, Boston, but don’t get our hopes up again.

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