Saturday, December 17, 2005

Giant soccer post: Champion's League Round of 16 preview

On Friday, the draw for the UEFA Champion’s League round of 16 took place, and it produced some very intriguing matchups. In this round, two matches are played between the teams, with the winner advancing on aggregate. In case of a tie, away goals are used as a first tiebreaker; extra time and shootout are the last resorts. Here are some capsules of the ties, which start in February:

Chelsea v. Barcelona
The only rematch from last year’s round of 16, except this time Barca have the homefield advantage. This tie will come down to whether Chelsea can hold Barca scoreless in the first leg at Stamford Bridge, because it is hard to believe any team, even Chelsea, could prevent Barca from scoring at least 2 in the Camp Nou. Barca’s defense is not the strongest, so the Blues can hope for snatching an away goal and a victory in the second leg, but my reckoning is that Barca’s attack will be just too strong. Chelsea will also be without the services of central midfielder Michael Essien, who is suspended for a horrible tackle against Liverpool in the group stages. Chelsea just don’t seem to be in the same attacking form as they were last year, and it will cost them.
Prediction: Barca wins 4-2 on aggregate

Real Madrid v. Arsenal
Madrid’s domestic and European form has been inconsistent all year, while Arsenal put together one of the best performances in the group stages, albeit against weak competition. Madrid’s star power is undeniable, especially in attack, with Ronaldo, Raul, Robinho and Julio Baptista, but their defense has looked vulnerable at times this year. Arsenal, meanwhile, have been bolstered by the return of Sol Campbell to the back line, but have been continually plagued with injuries and inconsistency in the midfield. Arsenal’s attack is undeniably world class, with Thierry Henry reasserting himself as the most dangerous striker in the world. Young Robin Van Persie has performed admirably as Henry’s complementary striker, stepping in for his aging compatriot Dennis Bergkamp. Real Madrid will also have to adjust to a new coach, with former skipper Vanderlei Luxembergo having been sacked due to poor domestic form. I think this will be a major factor in the tie, and I see a dramatic finish at Highbury, with Henry delivering the decisive goal. Though Arsenal are technically the higher seed, it will feel like an upset if they win.
Prediction: Arsenal wins 5-4 on aggregate

Werder Bremen v. Juventus
With the arrival of Patrick Viera, the return of Pavel Nedved, and the emergence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Juve have taken over the title of most well-rounded team in the world from AC Milan. There isn’t a weakness to be found in this squad, and while Bremen’s striker Miroslav Klose could give even Juve’s defense problems, Juve will simply outclass Bremen all over the field.
Prediction: Juve wins 4-1 on aggregate

Bayern München v. AC Milan
These clubs have lifted a combined 10 Champion’s League cups, making for yet another star-studded matchup. Milan has been out of sorts in Serie A this season, with age perhaps starting to show its effects. Bayern is cruising through the Bundesliga as usual, but are in a bit of turmoil regarding the status of star midfielder Michael Ballack, who is seeking a transfer. The teams match up very evenly in defense and midfield, but Milan have a bit more class up front, with Andriy Shevchenko, Alberto Gilardino, and Kaká. It should be a scintillating couple of games, and I feel homefield advantage will prove decisive for Milan.
Prediction: Milan wins 4-3 on aggregate

PSV Eindhoven v. Olympique Lyonnais
Yet another intriguing matchup between last year’s semifinalist PSV and the most exciting club this side of Barca, Lyon. Lyon has made the statement of the tournament so far, recording a 3-0 thrashing of Real Madrid and going undefeated in group play. PSV looked shaky in the group stage, conceding 9 goals while scoring only 7, and were somewhat lucky to advance. As is the lot of most Dutch clubs, PSV lost a great deal of talent in the offseason, with Mark Van Bommel, Ji-Sung Park, and Young-Pyo Lee all moving to more lucrative clubs. PSV will cause problems on the wings with speedsters DaMarcus Beasley and Jefferson Farfán, but Lyon has a seemingly limitless reserve of strikers and attacking midfielders, with the sublime Juninho orchestrating. Lyon have become the best club in the world at scoring goals in short bursts, and I think one of their patented salvos will overwhelm PSV.
Prediction: Lyon wins 6-3 on aggregate

Ajax v. Inter Milan
Ajax have been in poor form all season and were fortunate to be placed in a group with two minnows. Inter have been up and down as usual in Serie A, but are back on the upswing after a recent victory against city rivals AC Milan. If their attacking form holds, and it should, with Adriano and Obafemi Martins forming a potent partnership, Inter should walk all over the Dutch side.
Prediction: Inter wins 5-2 on aggregate

Benfica v. Liverpool
Defending tournament champs Liverpool draw one of the weaker sides as their title defense continues. Early in the season, Liverpool struggled to score goals and were mired in the middle of the Premiership table. They have caught fire recently, and have moved up to within striking distance of Chelsea, and have not conceded a goal in over 1000 minutes of play. Liverpool’s stifling defense will be too much for Benfica, who did well to knock Manchester United out of the tourney in the group stages. But with Liverpool striker Fernando Morientes rounding into form, I don’t believe Benfica will have enough this time.
Prediction: Liverpool wins 3-0 on aggregate

Rangers v. Villarreal
Probably the most unlikely pairing, as Rangers surprisingly squeaked into the round despite their horrid domestic form, thanks to the now sizzling Danish forward Peter Løvenkrands. Villarreal suprisingly topped their group, thanks to a stalwart defense that conceded only 1 goal in 6 games. These Champs League newcomers were also without the services of strikers Diego Forlán and Juan Román Riquelme during many of these games, and their returns will be a major factor. I see Villarreal as slightly better than Rangers in every phase of the game.
Prediction: Villarreal wins 2-1 on aggregate

Sunday, December 11, 2005

NFL Home stretch

Time for the home stretch in the NFL. Let’s start out by reviewing my predictions from a month ago:

AFC picks:
North winner: Steelers
South winner: Colts
East winner: Patriots
West winner: Broncos
Wild card: Bengals
Wild card: Chargers

NFC picks:
North winner: Bears
South winner: Panthers
East winner: Giants
West winner: Seahawks
Wild card: Falcons
Wild card: Redskins

I have bolded the picks that haven’t worked out so well. Let’s examine why.

I made these picks after watching Pittsburgh smack down Cincy with rushing and defense. A month later, Pittsburgh’s D and rushing are not the same anymore. Injuries have decimated the offensive line, which has slowed the running game and forced Ben Roethlisberger to throw under increasing pressure. The results were obvious in last week’s game against Cincy, as Big Ben threw 3 picks, which essentially cost them the game. Pittsburgh is on the outside looking in, and with 3 teams ahead of them in the wild card race, it’s pretty much over for them.

Cincinnati has continued to win using explosive offense and takeaways on defense. They’re running away with the division, and based on their easy remaining schedule, will likely get a bye and a home game in the playoffs. Given that they only lost by 8 to the Colts, it isn’t too hard to imagine them in the Super Bowl if a few of those takeaways go their way again in the AFC championship game.

Jacksonville plays their biggest game in years tomorrow, as they host the Colts. Even if Jax wins they will still likely finish behind Indy in the division, but they would go a long way toward wrapping up a wild card berth with a win. With Byron Leftwich out, however, it appears to be an uphill battle.

San Diego and Kansas City are the other teams in contention, and the edge between them goes to San Diego, if only because of schedules. Kansas City’s remaining opponents are 32-16. If they can beat San Diego at Arrowhead in two weeks, however, that could take care of business. I’ll go down now saying the winner of that game will make the playoffs while the loser will stay home.

Over in the NFC, the division races are going as I predicted, but the wild card is a mess. Tampa sits in one slot at 8-4, while Dallas, Atlanta, and the S.S. Minnesota are at 7-5. This race will probably come down to the last day of the season. Tampa gets to host New Orleans, while Atlanta hosts Carolina, Minnesota hosts Chicago, and Dallas is at home to St. Louis. Based on those final day matchups, I’m giving the nod to Tampa and Dallas.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Hot Stove Cooking

The baseball winter meetings have ended, and as usual, all anyone is talking about is the absurd contracts handed out to pitchers. The Blue Jays emerged as the freest spenders, signing starter A.J. Burnett and closer B.J. Ryan to 5 year deals. Toronto was roundly criticized for the length of the deals, given that Burnett has a long history of injuries and Ryan only has two good seasons on his resume. It’s true, the Jays probably will not be getting too much out of these guys in the 4th and 5th years of these deals. But it’s also true that Toronto now has the strongest pitching staff in the AL East. Add in their deal to get first baseman Lyle Overbay, and you have a team that has a good chance to win 90 games and finally usurp the New York/Boston dominance of the division.

Here are some of the other teams whom I felt improved the most:

New York Mets: The biggest hole in the Mets lineup was at first base, and GM Omar Minaya addressed that need in a big way, dealing another farm system jewel, Yusmeiro Petit, and other minor leaguers to Florida for Carlos Delgado. The Mets also shored up their bullpen with Billy Wagner, although at his age (34) and with his history, the Mets could regret the length of his 4 year deal even more than the Blue Jays do with Ryan and his 5 years. They acquired Paul Lo Duca in a separate trade with Florida, and they now field a lineup with very few holes. These moves make the Mets the prohibitive favorites in the NL East

Boston Red Sox: I love the sense of urgency here. The Red Sox sacrificed some farm system depth and their backup catcher, but they wound up with power pitcher Josh Beckett, who could develop into a true ace and three solid players in relief pitcher Guillermo Mota, 3B Mike Lowell, and 2B Mark Loretta. Both had down years last season, but playing in the fens should revive both of their bats. Lowell won a Gold Glove last season, and should help whomever is playing shortstop a great deal. I say “whomever” because Boston dealt last year’s starter, the overpaid Edgar Renteria, to the Braves for 3B superprospect Andy Marte. Rumor had it that Boston was going to flip Marte on to Tampa for SS Julio Lugo, but Boston decided to hang on to Marte. It’s a curious decision, but not a bad one. The decision shows Boston’s hydra GM is not going to allow the team to become the new Yankees.

Chicago White Sox: The Champs get even better. Not only did they retain Paul Konerko, they finally acquired some protection for him in the form of Jim Thome. Thome should be able to thrive in the DH role and avoid the health problems that have hampered him for the past year and half. I really admire GM Ken Williams’s determination to improve the offense of this team; he knows that his pitching staff is more likely to regress than improve, and he compensated for this by improving the offense. I also love it when GM’s look to internal options to fill holes. In this case, farm system star Brian Anderson will step into the outfield role vacated by Aaron Rowand (who went to Philly). Anderson will likely provide the same offensive production as Rowand, and at a fraction of the cost. To top things off, Williams then traded “last man in the bullpen” Damaso Marte to Pittsburgh for Rob Mackowiack, who immediately improves Chicago’s bench.

Now for some quick hit analysis on the other deals:

Alfonso Soriano to Washington: Washington got hosed. Wilkerson plus Sledge will outproduce Soriano any day of the week, especially when you put Soriano in cavernous RFK. Major coup for the Rangers.

Bob Wickman re-signs with Cleveland: This is a “settling for” deal for Cleveland after they missed out on Trevor Hoffman. Fortunately, it’s just a one-year deal. Hoffman would have been better though.

Trevor Hoffman and Brian Giles re-sign with San Diego: Hometown discount! *clap clap clap clap clap* San Diego treads water and will stay competitive, especially since....

Mike Cameron traded to San Diego for Xavier Nady: Great deal for the Padres. They don’t give up much in Nady, and they gain one of the better defensive outfielders in baseball. Cameron has thrived in hitters parks (Safeco, Shea) his whole career, and I expect his success to continue. Don’t know why the Mets couldn’t have gotten more for him.

Juan Pierre traded to Cubs: I don’t like this deal at all. Pierre doesn’t walk, and is entirely reliant on his batting average to get on base at an acceptable rate. His average could turn around in ‘06, but if it doesn’t, Derrek Lee will once again have no one to drive home. Pierre is also below average defensively. He’s a classic case of steals and batting average inflating perceived value.

Sean Casey traded to Pirates: A classic addition by subtraction deal for the Reds. It’s much better to have both Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena in the lineup, and Casey’s departure means Adam Dunn shifts over to first base. The Reds will also save a good deal of money. This is a P.R. move for the Pirates, but Casey won’t turn the team around by any means. Below-average pitcher Dave Williams goes the other way, where he will compete with Eric Milton for “worst lefty starter in the divison”.

Tony Womack traded to Reds: Why God, why?

Rafael Furcal signs with Los Angeles Dodgers: 3 years $39m? Color me impressed. Furcal’s OBP and defense justify the money, and I like the three years even better. This assures Los Angeles of his peak years, and they won’t be on the hook when he starts to decline. This move could precipitate Jeff Kent’s shift to first base, which will improve the defense as well.

Kyle Farnsworth signs with New York Yankees: Too many years, too much money, league average performance. Sounds like every single other member of the New York pitching staff. He’ll fit right in!

Tom Gordon signs with Philadelphia: Way too many years, way too much money. He might not take kindly to being named the closer again, either.

Luis Castillo traded to Minnesota: Fantastic deal for the Twins, who didn’t give up much, and get a guy with a great glove and an .394 OBP last year. He is an immense improvement, and could help the offense enough for the Twins to contend again. Probably my favorite trade of the offseason.

$7m per year contracts: That is the going rate for a league average starting pitcher these days. Cases in point: Paul Byrd to Cleveland and Esteban Loaiza to Oakland. We now live in a world where Kris Benson is a bargain! Imagine that!

There are still plenty of big names that could move, including Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, Nomar Garciaparra, Mike Piazza, Kevin Millwood, and Matt Morris. Stay tuned.

Draw, Pilgrim

Three big topics to cover; three separate posts for each. First, the draw for the 2006 World Cup.

The World Cup will be open in six months, and for the first time on Friday, we know the fixtures. It’s testament to the tournament’s impact that over 350 million viewers tuned in to find out the results as they happened, and surely millions more followed the draw on the internet. Why is the draw so important? Just ask Bruce Arena and Sam’s Army.

The United States have occupied a top ten spot in the FIFA rankings ever since their magical run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. They would be even higher had they gotten the winning result they deserved against Germany. Because the team had showed such potential with teenagers like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley in important roles, smart money was on the US to at least match their 2002 performance in Germany. Those ambitions may have come crashing down on Friday.

The US was among the final teams drawn, as they were members of pool 4. Other members of pool 4 had already been paired in groups with England (Group B) and hosts Germany (Group A), and the US proved lucky at first, avoiding Group C with Argentina, Holland, and Ivory Coast. Of the four groups remaining, the US would have easily ranked as the second best side in three of them–Group F headed by Brazil, Group G with France, and Group H with Spain. But when the ping pong ball came up, it was for Group E with Italy, Czech Republic, and Ghana, a true group of death.

Italy’s World Cup pedigree is unquestioned; the Czech Republic is currently ranked 2nd in the world, boast countless attacking options, and have the world’s best goalkeeper in Petr Cech; Ghana is one of the strongest teams in Africa. To make matters worse for the US, if they were to come in second in the group and advance, they would face the winner of Group F–barring a miracle, that will be Brazil.

Even before the draw, the odds for the US to win were at 80:1. Those odds will surely be longer now. The order of the matches are already set, and the US will play the Czechs first, then Italy, then Ghana. The game against Ghana is clearly a “must win”. As the Americans found out in 2002, even a win and a draw is enough to advance, as long as you get some help. It’s entirely possible that the US could play well enough to draw both the Czechs and Italy, with a win against Ghana likely putting them through.

But playing for the draw does not suit the United States’ attacking style. If they have one advantage over the European sides, it is speed and athleticism. Since two draws and a win would probably just mean a date with Brazil, I expect Arena and his squad to take an all or nothing approach against the Czechs and the Italians. Such a strategy against disciplined sides will probably result in a group stage flameout, but it is worth taking the risk to avoid Brazil.

As for the rest of the field, England and Germany look to have easy paths to the quarterfinals. Both should top their groups and face relatively weak competition in the round of 16. Whom they would meet in the quarterfinals is much harder to determine. Argentina, Holland, Mexico, and Portugal will likely vie for the spots against England and Germany, but the order in which they will finish in the group stages in anyone’s guess. If Argentina do end up against Germany, the hosts will likely be knocked out in the quarters. On the bottom half of the bracket, the winners of Group E and G have the good fortune to avoid Brazil, a major advantage for Italy, France, and the Czechs. Even if Spain manages to do well for once, they will likely crash out at the hands of Brazil in the quarterfinals.

I won’t make any formal predictions until final rosters are set and injury situations are known (which won’t be until the end of May), but playing out the tourney in my head, the outcome that seems most likely is Argentina v. Italy in one semifinal with Brazil v. England in the other. All of those finals permutations are dream matchups, but surely Argentina v. Brazil would be one of the most riveting of all time.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Forever and a day

Hello there hockey fans. It's been forever since I've graced the board with hockey news, but here I am with a mid-season update.

I feel compelled to note first that in just 24 games this year, Jason Spezza has earned himself a league leading 43 points (11 goals, 32 assists), averaging 1.79 points per game. He's on pace for just about 147 points this season. In contrast, last season's scoring leader Martin St. Louis scored 94 points in 82 games for an average of 1.14 points per game. Even more astonishingly there are at least 30 skaters with an absolute chance of breaking the hundred point mark this season. If you haven't heard, scoring is up.

Remarkably, goaltending is not down as much as you'd think. The top three goaltenders in Goals Against Average in 2003-2004 all had GAA's under 2.00 (1.68, 1.88, 1.98). This year, Hasek, Lundqvist and Fernandez are holding their own for GAA's of 1.94, 2.00 and 2.02 respectively. These are phenomenal totals for a league with such a dramatic increase in offense.

OLN has scheduled three games for this Monday and Tuesday. The matchups are disappointing, probably because OLN will only air games on Mondays and Tuesdays. Still, hockey is hockey, and here are my quickie summaries of the games:

Wild at Rangers, 7PM Monday: This game will likely feature two of the top three goalies in GAA in the league. Manny Fernandez has been excellent in goal recently, but he hasn't been getting the goal support necessary to win games. The Wild have lost seven out of their last nine games, mustering only 12 goals in the seven losses. The Rangers had won six straight before dropping their last game to the Capitals. Henrik Lundqvist gave up five goals before getting pulled midway through the third period. Look for both teams to get strong play out of their goalies in this one.

Islanders at Blues, 8PM Tuesday: The lackluster Islanders meet the hapless Blues on Tuesday night in what could possibly be the year's least exciting hockey game. St. Louis comes into the game with an NHL worst 13 points and a goal differential of -38. The Islanders are lucky to be in the tenth spot in the Eastern Conference with their .500 record. Look for New York to score quite a few goals in this one.

Thrashers at Sharks, 10:30PM Tuesday: This is possibly the best game on the slate for this week on OLN. The Sharks are circling after their big trade for Joe Thornton. They gave up a lot to get this guy, but he has already made a big difference, with two goals to help his team come from behind against the Maple Leafs. The Sharks have been bad, losing 10 in a row before pulling together two wins at the end of the week. However, of the 10 losses, six were one goal games, and three of those were lost in shootouts. San Jose is close, and the Thornton deal might be exactly what they need.

Atlanta is just plain bad. They aren't as bad as St. Louis or even Florida or Washington, but they just can't seem to get it together this year. The Thrashers had their own blockbuster trade early in the season, sending all-star Dany Heatly to Ottawa for Marian Hossa and Peter Bondra, but the trade has not worked out well for Atlanta. The Thrashers have scorers, but they lack depth in their lines. They also have terrible goaltending -- third to last in goals against. Look for the new look Sharks to take advantage.

So there you have it. At this point, it would do the NHL good to offer programming to networks for free to see if anyone would pick up a Red Wings game or something. It would be worth a shot, because the "Sidney Crosby on OLN on Monday nights" angle is not working to rejuvinate the league.