Hey guys apologies for how late this article is, I was away last weekend so it had taken me forever to catch up on the weekend’s action… good job there were no Premier League games this weekend!
Round 27 was an awful one for Manchester United, whose 1-0 loss at Newcastle allowed their chasers to catch up. Chelsea got back to winning ways against strugglers West Brom, and Liverpool beat a disappointing Southampton 0-2, while Spurs are now only 4 points off 2nd following their 1-0 victory over Arsenal. Further down the table, Huddersfield earned their first points of 2018 with a 4-1 victory of Bournemouth.
One of the benefits of the delay in getting this post done is that I have been able to see a few more stories beyond the matches themselves. And what a week to see stories as news has come out to say that 4 senior West Brom players broke a curfew and stole a taxi when away in Barcelona. This is the sort of crap that I would expect from academy lads or players who have recently made it into the first team squad, rather than 4 experienced players. I was shocked when I heard the news and even more so when I saw the names – Jonny Evans, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore and Boaz Myhill. These players aren’t just senior players, they are 4 of the most senior players in the squad (Livermore is the youngest at 28 years old) and Evans and Barry have both played for title-winning sides. These are the players that should be setting an example, yet they are the ones causing issues and distractions. It is questionable whether West Brom have the quality to stay up anyway – though they have improved under Pardew they are still not getting enough results – but if some of the most senior players including the club captain are acting like this then I think we can guarantee West Brom’s place in the Championship next season.
Sad story, happy ending?
Away from the games this week, it has also been announced that Hull midfielder Ryan Mason has been forced to retire from football following recovery from a fractured skull suffered in a challenge with Gary Cahill just over a year ago. It is a shame to hear this as he was a talented midfielder but the injury was such a serious one, the risk is so high in a sport that includes heading the ball.
It looks like there could be a happy ending to the story though as reports suggest that Spurs have already contacted Mason about returning to his former club in a coaching role. It is great to see that they are giving Mason this chance considering he had left the club in August 2016 and I think that they have taken into account the fact that he had been with the club since he joined the academy aged 8 and only left due to not being a big part of the plans moving forward.
I wish him all the best in his future activities, whether he takes up Spurs’ offer or not.
Wrong call from Puel?
Claude Puel has had a lot to deal with in recent weeks with the Riyad Mahrez saga so deserves some sympathy, but I think he made a tactical blunder at the Etihad on Saturday. Leicester started the game with 5 at the back and though they conceded within the opening few minutes they improved after this and drew level through Jamie Vardy’s 24th minute goal. However with the score at 1-1, Puel chose to change things up in the second half and go to 4 at the back, replacing Danny Simpson with Adrien Silva. Did this work? Well City ran out 5-1 winners with 4 second half goals from Sergio Aguero, so you be the judge!
City have consistently showed this season how dangerous they are in the final third, so I think Leicester would have had a better chance of victory clogging the space at the back and hitting City on the bench or capitalising on errors as Vardy did for his goal. Unfortunately for the Foxes, changing to 4 at the back against them was always going to give players like Aguero and De Bruyne the space to work their magic, and they did exactly that.
Chris Smalling had an absolute shocker on Sunday against Newcastle. His performance was characterised by missed passes and poor positioning and he was also lucky to not concede a penalty as he brought down Dwight Gayle just inside the box. But by far the worst moment though was his dive.
Centrebacks have often been some of the hardest players on the pitch – just think of Tony Adams or, more recently, Nemanja Vidic – so to see him diving under no contact is embarrassing. And to make things even worse, Newcastle scored the only goal of the game from the resulting free kick! People who regularly read these posts will know how much I hate diving, so I’m sure you can imagine how disgusted I am by his performance. Smalling was one of the few players who seemed to impress under Louis van Gaal, but he has appeared to regress since Mourinho arrived and I think a replacement should be a priority for United this summer, as David de Gea is arguably making this defence look better than it really is.
Round 28 predictions:
Leicester City v Stoke City – Leicester win
AFC Bournemouth v Newcastle United – Draw
Brighton & Hove Albion v Swansea City – Swansea win
Burnley v Southampton – Burnley win
Liverpool v West Ham United – Liverpool win
West Bromwich Albion v Huddersfield Town – Huddersfield win
Ahh the Patriots, possibly the greatest team in the history of the league. Every fan has an opinion on them, they are either loved by their fans and considered the greatest of all time or hated and called arrogant, with controversy following them like a bad smell. But regardless of your opinion on them, they are dominating the league and deserved champions.
Obviously I am talking about the Patriots from the Schmoedown, not the New England variety that lost in Super Bowl LII, though as can be seen above, there are certainly some similarities! Despite Jeff “The Insneider” Sneider being “Little Evil” JTE’s fall-back option after being turned down by “Classy” Clarke Wolfe at The Decision, the Patriots have gone on to be the most successful team in the league. Their 8-0 record includes a 17-18 victory over Top 10 to claim the Teams belt and 5 successful title defences against Team Trek, Wolves of Steel (Wolfe & Mark “Yodi” Reilly – who she picked over JTE), Top 10, Modok and Above the Line have seen them hold the belt for over a year now. Though they have not had quite the same success in the singles division, JTE was runner-up in the 2017 Ultimate Schmoedown to current champion Samm Levine and opened the 2018 season with a 2nd place in a #1 Contender Triple Threat match against Mike Kalinowski and Rachel Cushing. Sneider had his own shot in the singles with a #1 Contender match against the commissioner Kristian Harloff at Collider Collision 2017 and it was a loss to teammate JTE that halted Sneider’s progress in the Ultimate Schmoedown, so who knows how far he could have gone.
But it is as a team that they have been so dangerous. They cover for each other so well in matches, whilst JTE is probably one of the most dangerous competitors in a buzzer round – a staple of Title matches. They have come through JTE’s horror 2016 where he was unable to win a singles match and have also continued to dominate despite issues in both competitors personal lives during 2017 – just look at Sneider’s reaction to beating Above the Line and you can see what it meant to him!
So why do so many people root against them? Well to put it bluntly, they are jerks! As part of Tom Dagnino’s Lions Den they play their heel role to perfection, and their unbeaten record and obvious quality in the Schmoedown give them an arrogance that makes them a clear target for any babyface looking to right the wrongs in the league and triumph over evil.
Aside from their desire to beat such heels, the Patriot’s belts are clearly a target for any team trying to prove their worth and I’m sure many would love to be the team that hands the Patriots their first ever loss. But who is most likely to dethrone the Patriots?
Top 10 – “The Outlaw” John Rocha & “Mighty” Matt Knost
The obvious team to discuss first as their victory over Top That has earned them a shot at a 3rd match against the Patriots. Top 10 are previous Team Champions having defeated Team Schmoes in October 2016, but they lost the belts to the Patriots at Schmoedown Spectacular and when they competed against them again on July 4th 2017 they were blown out the water. The only remaining members of the Four Horsemen have worked their way back since them and after working their way back and slowly turning face, they made it to the semi-finals of the 2017 Ultimate Schmoedown where they lost to Team Action, only to earn a #1 Contenders match by demolishing Team Action 12-22 in their Stipulation match at Schmoedown Spectacular II.
Rocha is a former Singles Champion having defeated Dan Murrell in 2016 so clearly knows his movie trivia, but as 2017 went on he did appear to lose his focus a little bit as he struggled to figure out if he was a heel or a face. The loss to Team Action appears to have given him a new lease of life to prove himself again and against Top That he was probably the most focused I had ever seen him, going so far as to keep the mask on throughout the match. When I first started watching in 2017, Knost appeared the weak link in the team, but as Rocha began to struggle his performances improved and since the Top 10! Show returned he has been even better, to the point that he and Rocha combined against Top That to have the first ever Perfect Round 1 (including the bonus question) for both team members.
“The second time didn’t happen! The first time was a fluke!” – Matt Knost after defeating Top That
With their focus at an all-time high and the prospect of another meeting against their old enemies, they are out for revenge and I think that it could be third time lucky for Top 10!
Above the Line – “The Godfather” Drew McWeeny & “The Inglorious One” Samm Levine
The first super-team to enter the Schmoedown, the Rookie Team of the Year did not form until after Collider Collision, but ran the gauntlet in the 2017 Ultimate Schmoedown, defeating Nerd’s Watch, DC Movie News, Wolves of Steel and Team Action on their way to setting up a title bout at Schmoedown Spectacular II, where they lost on the final question in Round 3.
Levine is the current Singles Champion and won both Singles & Overall Player of the Year in 2017 and while McWeeny has maybe not gone on to the heights expected in singles competition so far, his partnership with the Inglorious One has been a match made in heaven by Kristian Harloff. Their victory over Wolves of Steel in the semis of the 2017 Ultimate Schmoedown – just their third ever match as a team – saw them set a new record points haul for a Team match with 35 points – a feat recently matched by Top 10 against Top That. If only they’d Remembered the Titans, they would have the singles belts already.
Where they do lack at the moment in experience in the title matches, as they are not used to the buzzer and betting rounds, however with 1 unsuccessful title match under their belt as a team and (at time of writing) 2 singles title matches to Levine’s name, they will be getting more used to the longer format and the extra rounds. Between the 2 of them, they have already shown that the categories many would wish to avoid – 70s, 80s, Movie Release Dates etc. – are arguably strengths and have also already shown that they are not afraid to go away and work on their weaknesses, with Levine’s decision to watch animated movies highlighting the lengths they will go to.
When they get another title shot – and I’m sure they will soon – I think that they have every chance of taking the belts off the Patriots if they still hold them at this point.
Modok – “The Kahuna” Matt Atchity & Grae “Lights Out” Drake
Before Above the Line can get another shot at the title, they first have to come through a #1 Contender match against the next team on the list: Team Modok. Formerly Team Rotten Tomatoes, Atchity and Drake earned their title shot following a victory over Nerd’s Watch at Collider Collision and actually took the Patriots to Sudden Death Overtime, only for JTE to get the winning answer.
However the game wouldn’t have even gone to Overtime if Atchity had paid more attention to the rules of the buzzer round and less to keeping his Russian spy persona intact! There is clearly a deep movie knowledge there and they are fun to watch, but right now I think there are stronger teams out there and I would be surprised to see them take down Above the Line.
Top That – Eric Goldman & Jim Vejvoda
Their 3-2 record following defeat to Top 10 may not stand out, but the team formerly known as Team IGN have been very impressive in the Schmoedown. The have a KO and 2 TKOs to their name and if not for a controversial call in their match against Rotten Tomatoes, it could have very easily been these guys fighting Nerd’s Watch at Collider Collision.
Jim Vejvoda is a competitor the fans can’t wait to see in the Singles League as he doesn’t appear to have many weaknesses, while Eric Goldman also clearly knows his stuff having worked for IGN but really comes into his own with categories like Comic Book Movies. Their losing score of 30 points against Top 10 would be enough to win them most matches by at least TKO!
However as well as they have done, their recent #1 Contender match against Top 10 probably showed a dangerous weakness: they are not regular viewers of the show. They have a general idea of what most competitors will struggle with but not the idea of what an individual’s strengths and weaknesses are, which came back to bite them on the ass big time when Top 10 spun Opponents Choice but were handed Biopics – a Rocha specialty – and answered every question correctly. They also don’t appear to use their challenges and the JTE rule (3 question repeats) as well as other teams, maybe by not watching they don’t fully understand them? If they were to have a better understanding of the game and their competitors I would feel much more comfortable predicting them as a possible team to take down the Patriots, but I currently feel this, combined with their lack of experience in Title matches – I get the feeling they would struggle in the buzzer round – stops them being the heroes that can take down the Patriots.
The Shirewolves – “Classy” Clarke Wolfe & Rachel “The Crusher” Cushing
The team everyone has been hoping for ever since Yodi stepped away from competing and Ken Napzok lost his smile has finally formed! 2 of the most successful females in the league and the last 2 Rookies of the Year, the Shirewolves have plenty of beef with the Lions Den and will be looking to take them down, starting with Ken and Dagnino and hopefully ending with the Patriots.
Wolfe faced the Patriots as part of the Wolves of Steel in their second title defence, and while she hasn’t yet played a title match, Cushing will have likely faced Samm Levine for the Singles title and may even hold the belt by the time the Shirewolves earn a title shot. Having not seem them in a match together yet it is hard to judge, but I have the feeling they will be a formidable opponent.
It will take at least a few months before they have enough wins to take on the Patriots so it is very possible the Team title will have changed hands by then, but if not I think this would be a great match to watch from both a story and competition perspective.
The Wildberries – Eliot “The Mountain” Dewberry & Josh “The Wildman” Macuga
“0-10 is our goal!” – Josh Macuga at the 2017 Awards
Enough said! If the Patriots ever face the Wildberries then it’s because they have already lost the belt.
Looking to the future?
“But these heels… Don’t make me come out of retirement. Cos I eat heels for breakfast. You saw that.” – Mark Reilly on accepting the Yodi Award at the 2017 Awards
So picture this: Top 10 come up short against the Patriots for the third time in a row. Above the Line dispose of Modok but once again fail in their title match. The Shirewolves demolish Napzok & Dagnino and go on an unbeaten run to a title match, only to fail like everyone before them. On the sidelines, Mark “Yodi” Reilly watches his former teammate Clarke Wolfe miss out on the belt once again and is forced to watch the Lions Den gloat again.
While Dagnino and the Patriots crow at their latest victory in the post-match interview, Yodi crashes the interview and warns them that their time at the top is coming to an end, because he’s coming back with the sole purpose of taking them down. A team match is arranged for Yodi’s return, but nobody seems to know who his teammate will be. The match arrives and Reilly walks out alone, takes the mic and introduces his new teammate – former Singles Champion Dan Murrell. Team Champs are back! These 2 guys were teammates for the 2015 Ultimate Schmoedown and Murrell is a former member of the Lions Den and I’m sure he would relish an opportunity to cut his old faction down to size.
Like the Shirewolves before them, they beat all comers, taking down a few heels on the way to the Patriots. Would they be able to beat the Patriots? I can’t guarantee that but I’m sure it will be a match for the ages!
Do you think any of these teams will beat the Patriots? Do you think there’s another existing team that could beat them? Kristian Harloff has already teased that we will see more super-teams in 2018, so perhaps the team that ends the Patriots’ reign hasn’t even formed yet.
The Grand Slam dream is over for Wales in 2018 as they leave Twickenham with a losing bonus point following a tight, enthralling and controversial encounter. Following their victory against the Italians, Ireland and England are the only teams still able to go unbeaten but they cannot start eying up their Round 5 showdown yet as they each have 2 more games to win first. Meanwhile Scotland got their 6 Nations back on track with a win against the French, who currently join Italy as the only winless teams after 2 rounds.
Ireland 56-19 Italy
I wonder how Ireland will react to the loss of Robbie Henshaw, who will likely be out of the tournament with a shoulder injury. Though I was not sure about the balance of the midfield in Round 1, I thought he and Aki were starting to work better and rebuild on their chemistry from Henshaw’s Connacht days. With Henshaw out, they have a couple of ways that they could replace him against Wales:
Dual Playmakers – take a leaf out of England’s book and copy the Ford/Farrell axis by playing either Ian Keatley or Joey Carbery in the centre. This would improve the distribution options in the backline and as it is something that Ireland have not really done recently, the extra playmaker may help to catch out a Wales team expecting 2 physical centres.
Safe options – bring in either Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell or Fergus McFadden as Aki’s centre partner. This would allow the Irish to continue with the same sort of gameplan, and while Farrell and Scannell are in the squad as centres, McFadden’s international experience (he has 33 caps compared to the combined 19 caps combined for the 4 players mentioned as options so far) could give him the advantage, though Farrell’s physicality could be crucial against Wales’ strong midfield.
The returner – Garry Ringrose is close to a return from injury and if everyone was available and fully fit he would probably be the 13 of choice. However I see this as an outside bet as coming into a clash against Wales is a big ask for someone who has just returned from injury. I think Joe Schmidt would do better in the long term allowing him to ease himself back in during the tournament with Leinster.
The switch – as well as just being a damn good winger for Munster and Ireland, one of Keith Earls’ best features is his versatility as he is comfortable at either wing or centre. Earls moved into the 13 position following Henshaw’s injury and while the defensive organisation did drop off a bit, 2 weeks of preparation would likely see to this. This could lead to a start for either Andrew Conway (who was man of the match against Fiji in the Autumn Tests) or the exciting Jordan Larmour, whose footwork against Italy was one of the highlights of the match. An improving Welsh team would be a big step up in quality for Larmour’s second cap, but the thought of him and Steff Evans attacking each other all day is mouth-watering.
I think that either McFadden or Farrell are the more likely options for Joe Schmidt, but it will be very interesting to see what the Kiwi chooses to do.
As with most Italy matches at the moment, there are clearly positives to take – they scored 3 tries against a team ranked in the top 4 in the world – but again there were negatives and clear areas to work on. The defence was bamboozled by some of the attacking lines from England in Round 1, but this week they were leaking some very disappointing tries. Obviously it is hard to defend effectively against interceptions like for Jacob Stockdale’s try and Robbie Henshaw’s second, but Henshaw’s first and Bundee Aki’s try were far too easy as they crashed over from close range taking the ball direct from Conor Murray on out-to-in lines. The defence was too busy looking inside and watching the ball rather than picking up the runners and that will prove costly against teams at this level. Scotland scored a similar try against France this weekend through Huw Jones, so I am sure they will be making notes on this Italian weakness ahead of their Round 5 fixture.
England 12-6 Wales
Whether at 10 or 12, you can always rely on Owen Farrell to put in a huge performance for England. Against Wales, Farrell was part of a miserly defence and shut down a number of attacks with well-timed tackles to cause knock-ons and also brought an end to Shingler’s attack and popped up with a key turnover deep in his own half to stop another Welsh advance. With ball in hand, he controlled the game so well, from his kick to set up Jonny May’s opener that got better every time you saw it, to his command of the phases in the build-up to May’s second and his willingness to take the big hit from Ross Moriarty as he floated the ball out to Joe Launchbury. It wasn’t just Farrell who controlled the game well, as George Ford pulled the strings well inside him while Danny Care looks to have really improved his box kicks and made almost all of them contestable for the chasers. Steff Evans is not the best in the air and Anthony Watson rightly dominated the air on that wing, while Jonny May also had some luck in the air on the left wing. England’s kicking game combined with their resolute defence won them the game and deserves a lot of credit. When even your Welsh mate is saying that, you know how well they’ve done!
Looking at the game as a whole, England probably deserved the win, but Wales could have very easily come away with the victory. They chose to kick a couple of penalties to the corner rather than go for goal and combined with Rhys Patchell’s miss, this could have been enough to put the scoreboard in their favour. They also created some great chances, with the tackle of the tournament from Sam Underhill the only reason Scott Williams didn’t get a try, while a questionable decision to kick from Aaron Shingler stopped another attack. And then of course there’s that TMO decision. The TMO decided that the try should not stand as though Steff Evans played the ball with his knee rather than his hand, Gareth Anscombe did not clearly ground the ball. Wrong on both parts! Anscombe clearly grounded the ball but actually Scrum V proved that the ball did in fact go forward off Evans’ finger. So the TMO got the right decision for the wrong reasons, though I would argue if we look at clear and obvious evidence then the try should be awarded – and that’s coming from an England fan! To lose a goal kicker as accomplished as Leigh Halfpenny so close to the match, it was always going to make things more difficult for Wales but the team stepped up well and came so close to a huge win at Twickenham. What they really need to work on though is their kicking game, as Gareth Davies continually kicked too long which made it easy for Mike Brown to win the high ball. They are so close to getting the results despite the number of players missing, Ireland will have to be very careful in Round 3.
Scotland 32-26 France
Gregor Townsend made a very brave call by replacing Finn Russell midway through the second half and moving Greig Laidlaw to fly half. Laidlaw started his Scotland career at 10 and played there on occasions for Gloucester, but he has very much become a 9, yet his performance after being shifted from 9 to 10 was exactly what Scotland needed. The Glasgow centre partnership of Peter Horne and Huw Jones looked much better than last week and the back row had a much better balance, but despite this, Russell struggled for the second week in a row, misjudging a number of kicks from hand and giving the French easy territory – though he did not seem disappointed whenever they showed him following a poor kick. He was also at fault for the first France try as he allowed Teddy Thomas to beat him to the outside 1v1 then fell off with a weak tackle attempt. Laidlaw controlled the game so well from 9 and 10 and was perfect off the tee, while Russell’s removal allowed Stuart Hogg’s monster boot to earn Scotland the territory whenever the French gave away a penalty outside Laidlaw’s range.
In the early scrums it looked like France were going to give the Scots a torrid time as the French front row got an early advantage over their less experience rivals, however they failed to capitalise on this and gain dominance at the set piece, while they continued in the same vein as last week by giving away a high number of penalties, especially as the half went on. Without the pressure of kicking, Lionel Beauxis had on the whole a good afternoon, however a few times when he was put under pressure we saw flashes of the fly half who once tried – and failed – to kick a ball passed to him on the volley, as he flicked on an awful pass to his captain and also put fullback Geoffrey Palis under heaps of pressure when he slipped a pass to him rather than clear under pressure on their own try line. Baptiste Serin and Louis Picamoles both looked assured from the bench and I will be interested to see if these performances help them get a starting spot for the game against Italy, but right now the French attacks are far too infrequent and they do not have the fitness to make it through the full 80 minutes. Their fixture with Italy on the 23rd is really looking like the battle for the wooden spoon. Right now, I would predict a French victory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Italians pulled off the win.
Fantasy rugby images are from the ESPN Fantasy Rugby website: http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk
6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com
Another bad week for Antonio Conte! Chelsea’s 4-1 loss at Watford on Monday night meant that the Blues dropped back behind Liverpool in the standings, whilst Tottenham – who drew 2-2 at Anfield – are now only a point outside the top 4. Arsenal sent out a signal of intent following their big January signings by demolishing Everton 5-1, and they now sit only 5 points outside the top 4, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang already contributing for the Gunners. Swansea’s resurgence under Carlos Carvalhal has seen them rise out of the relegation zone at the expense of Huddersfield, whose winless run continues following a 2-0 loss at Manchester United.
In all the hysteria surrounding the final minutes of Liverpool’s draw with Spurs, what has not been discussed much is Dele Alli’s yellow card for diving… again! This is his third yellow card for diving since his Premier League debut in 2015 and for a player of his undeniable quality he doesn’t need to do this! Now I have made my feelings clear previously that the FA’s ability to retrospectively ban diving is a step in the right direction, but to stamp diving out the game they need to be able to ban players for diving regardless of whether the ref is fooled or not.
Troy Deeney has also got himself in the headlines for the wrong reason this week after his middle-finger gesture in his goal celebration against Chelsea. Deeney has already been suspended twice this season for red cards including a violent conduct charge for a clash with Joe Allen but has avoided punishment for this transgression despite Alli receiving a 1-match suspension earlier this season for a gesture of his own. How Deeney has got away with this is beyond me!
But my biggest issue here is that both these players are role models to youngsters! As if them being Premier League footballers wasn’t enough, Deeney is his club’s captain while Alli is an England international. I understand that players can make mistakes but both are making them repeatedly and I would not want to be a parent and seeing my child idolise either of these guys at the moment.
Don’t get shirty
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Newcastle on Sunday. After a taking a lead through Mohamed Diamé, they were denied the 3 points at Crystal Palace by a 55th minute penalty for Ciaran Clark pulling on Christian Benteke’s shirt.
When I say I feel sorry for Newcastle, I should clarify – I 100% agree that the incident was a foul and deserving of a penalty, but these are never called by officials! This happens in the box at every set piece and if you call every single one then the games get into double digits for penalties. Players don’t know what they can and can’t get away with as there have been much more impactful shirt pulls that have gone unpunished previously.
I see 2 options: this needs to always be penalised or never be penalised. In my opinion the former is a better option. We may get a couple of weeks with a ridiculously high number of penalties, but most players will adapt and stop giving away these fouls or they won’t get picked by their managers. Surely a couple of weeks of penalties is worth it for a cleaner game.
No defence for this
Stoke’s early improvement under Paul Lambert stalled at the weekend with a 2-1 loss at Bournemouth. While Stoke are clearly starting to improve, their defence is still suspect and cost them at the weekend. Bournemouth’s first goal was at best a comedy of errors and at worst a shambles at the back, while Lys Mousset had a free header for the winning goal. I feel sorry for Jack Butland, who has not played poorly on the whole this season but has had so little help from his defence. With Joe Hart out of favour at West Ham, he should have been pushing for the England number 1 shirt, but the fact that he is part of a team with the worst defensive record in the league will surely harm his chances and possibly his confidence too. If Stoke do go down this year – I think they will be safe but with it so close in the table it is too tough to call – then it will be down mainly to defence rather than the guys up front.
Round 27 predictions:
Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal – Draw
Everton v Crystal Palace – Everton win
Stoke City v Brighton & Hove Albion – Draw
Swansea City v Burnley – Burnley win
West Ham United v Watford – Watford win
Manchester City v Leicester City – Man City win
Huddersfield Town v AFC Bournemouth – Draw
Newcastle United v Manchester United – Man United win
Liverpool A Southampton v Liverpool – Liverpool win
The 52nd Super Bowl was a fantastic show of offensive ability with a record 1151 yards made from scrimmage over the 60 minutes. After a thrilling encounter, the Eagles came away with a 41-33 victory to lift the Vince Lombardi trophy for the first time in the franchise’s history.
Well it was a fantastic game, the amount of sport from this weekend that I already planned to write about and my inability to stay awake throughout meant that I was not going to write about the game, until my cousin decided to be helpful on twitter and promote an article that I wasn’t doing…
Luckily though, I had the match recorded and the tweet had given me some inspiration so I watched the game back and the rest, as they say, is history!
In some sporting events, there is clearly one moment that decides the result of a game. A missed kick, a costly penalty, a Hail Mary. This game went so back and forth, the Pats were able to stay in it right to the last and were not far from taking the game to overtime. So with this in mind, I wanted to look at some of the moments that won Philadelphia their first ever Super Bowl. By this I do not necessarily mean the touchdowns and successful kicks – though some of these will certainly feature – but rather events that will have had an impact on who had the momentum and the way the game panned out.
Pre-game – Malcolm Butler was the hero of Super Bowl XLIX with his late interception of Russell Wilson and has developed into a dependable cornerback who has started all but 1 regular season game for the Patriots this season. Yet a decision was made at the eleventh hour to hold him out of the defense and only play him on special teams. It is not currently clear the exact reasons for his drop, but there have been mentions of poor practices following an illness early in the week and also a violation of team rules. To drop a starting defensive back at the last moment against a receiving corps that includes Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz is a dangerous move and will have surely put the Patriots at a disadvantage.
1st Quarter, 4:25 remaining, 3rd & 4 – With the Eagles settling for a field goal on the opening drive, Tom Brady drives the Pats the length of the field but his 3rd down pass to Rob Gronkowski in the end zone is deflected away by Jalen Mills and the Patriots are forced to kick a field goal to level the game at 3-3. Though it was well defended by Mills, Gronk should be a matchup nightmare but the pass made it too easy for the cornerback. This was systematic of the Brady-Gronkowski link in the first half as they only combined for a single 9-yard catch.
1st Quarter, 2:41 remaining, 1st & 10 – Following a 36-yard rush from former Patriot LeGarrette Blount, Nick Foles connects with Alshon Jeffery for a 34-yard touchdown. The field goal was missed, leaving the Eagles with a 9-3 lead. The coverage from the Patriots was not poor, but Jeffery is a large receiver that specialises in this kind of play. Whether it was caused by the late withdrawal of Butler, but it is odd that the Pats did not line up Stephon Gilmore against him considering he is usually the man to match up against the big-bodied receivers. When the Pats defense later adjusted to have Gilmore follow Jeffery, his effectiveness in the Philly passing game was reduced.
2nd Quarter, 15:00 remaining, 3rd & 2 – The Patriots again got in the Philly red zone but failed to convert the chance into a touchdown. A sweep play to Brandin Cooks was well blocked on the right, leaving the receiver with a 1v1 against safety Rodney McLeod to earn 1st & Goal. Rather than trying to step around McLeod, Cooks saw him begin to duck into the tackle so attempted a hurdle, but McLeod reacted quick enough to stop him making the necessary yards in what ended up being a bizarre looking play. New England were forced to attempt a field goal but a fumbled hold put Stephen Gostkowski off and he kicked wide, leaving the Eagles with a 9-3 lead.
2nd Quarter, 13:11 remaining, 1st & 10 – Tom Brady connects with Brandin Cooks for a first down, however he is blindsided by Malcolm Jenkins while trying to gain extra yards and left the game with a head injury. He did not return to the pitch. The hit was completely legal, but unfortunately there was a helmet-to-helmet clash in the collision that Cooks – who had been looking the other way when hit – came off worst from. This was a big loss for New England as Cooks was their downfield playmaker, so the offensive capability was reduced for the rest of the game.
2nd Quarter, 12:04 remaining, 3rd & 5 – The Patriots decided to go for a trick play on 3rd down and it so nearly worked! Brady handed off to James White and looked to get out of the way of the defense, but when White reversed the play to Danny Amendola, Brady was in space on the right and ready to make the first down. Unfortunately for the Pats, Brady may be an elite quarterback but he is not an elite wide receiver and he was unable to make the catch over his shoulder on the run. While a trick play was a great idea, Brady is still recovering from a hand injury that almost ended his season early and is not the most athletic of quarterbacks, so the decision to use him as a receiver here was an odd one. The Pats then decided to go for it on 4th down but were unable to convert and turned the ball over on the Eagles 35 yard line still 9-3 down.
2nd Quarter, 0:38 remaining, 4th & Goal – With Eagles 15-12 up and less than 2 yards away from the end zone, they decided to take a risk and make a trick play of their own. With Foles up at the line of scrimmage pretending to call an audible, the ball was snapped direct to Corey Clement who ran left and reversed to Trey Burton, who threw a pass to none other than Nick Foles, who had a simple catch for a touchdown! As well as an incredibly ballsy play, the fact the Eagles scored with a receiving touchdown for their quarterback must have been incredibly satisfying following Brady’s early drop. The successful conversion gave the Eagles a 22-12 lead going into halftime, and the morale boost may have proved vital considering the Pats came out swinging in the 3rd quarter.
3rd Quarter, 7:24 remaining, 3rd & 6 – Nick Foles scores with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Corey Clement, which is then converted for a 29-19 lead. In my mind, this is the most contentious play of the game as watching the replays I feel that Clement did not have enough control to have been classed as completing the catch before stepping out the back of the end zone. The officials had so many looks at this, but I feel that the decision on Sunday flies against other similar plays during the regular season. Considering the Pats end up needing a touchdown and 2-point conversion on their final drive, the decision to award the touchdown here rather than call an incomplete pass as leave Philly settling for a field goal has a huge impact on the remainder of the game. One thing for sure, the catch rule needs looking at before next season!
4th Quarter, 5:38 remaining, 4th & 1 – Nick Foles completes a 2-yard pass to Zach Ertz to keep the chains moving. While the Pats offense failed to convert many of their big plays, their defense allowed too many vital plays from the Eagles and could not get off the field. At this point in the game, the Pats led 32-33 and their offense was performing much better. Had they turned the ball over on downs here, I am sure they would have put at least 3 points on the board while using up as much time as possible, leaving Philly with a hard task to pull off the win.
4th Quarter, 2:25 remaining, 3rd & 7 – Foles connects with Ertz again on another vital play for an 11-yard touchdown. The play is reviewed a number of times due to the ball coming out as Ertz dives for the line and hits the ground, but in my view he was clearly a runner by that point so just had to cross the plane of the line. This put the Eagles back ahead 38-33 following a failed 2-point conversion, a lead that they would not relinquish.
4th Quarter, 2:16 remaining, 2nd & 2 – With the Patriots needing a touchdown to win, Tom Brady is sacked by Brandon Graham and fumbles. Eagles defensive lineman Derek Barnett recovers. This is the only sack of the entire game! The Eagles score a field gone from the ensuing drive and leave the Patriots with about a minute to go the length of the field, score a touchdown and a 2-point conversion.
The final play – The Patriots manage to drive into range to legitimately attempt a Hail Mary to the end zone. Rob Gronkowski goes up in coverage but is unable to collect the ball, which bobbles around a bit but hits the ground before any Patriots player can collect it. The game ends with the Philadelphia Eagles victorious.
The 6 Nations finally kicked off in shocking fashion on Saturday in exciting fashion as Wales and Scotland both tried to emulate the style of their most competitive teams of the moment (the Scarlets & Glasgow). While it worked for Wales, an error-strewn performance from the Scots saw them come crashing back down to earth after a fantastic Autumn series. In France, controversy was the word of the day with a few questionable calls from medical ‘professionals’ but karma proved a bitch for Les Bleus as Johnny Sexton nailed a 45m drop goal on the final play to earn the Irish the win. On Sunday a relatively inexperienced Italian team recovered from 2 early Anthony Watson tries to stick close to England until late in the game when 3 tries in the last 12 minutes gave the scoreline a more one-sided feel.
Wales 34-7 Scotland
This Welsh performance was probably the most beautiful I have seen them play in years! With so many players out injured, Josh Adams was the only non-Scarlet in the starting back line, while half of the initial pack also play for the Pro12 champions. This Scarlets presence was clear in the way they played with open attacking rugby rather than the Warrenball tactics we have become used to. Leigh Halfpenny has been much maligned in recent years as not bringing enough to the attack, but contributed 2 tries as well as 14 points with the boot, while Stef Evans – who did not have the best of Autumns with Wales – finished wonderfully to earn the bonus point and would have scored a contender for try of the tournament much earlier in the game had the offload from Alun Wyn Jones been better. The midfield trio of Patchell, Parkes and Williams looked incredible both in attack and defence, while Adams looked at home on the wing in his Test debut. In the back row, Josh Navidi and man of the match Aaron Shingler were spectacular and outplayed their opposite numbers. A cynical part of me can’t help but wonder how much of the different style is due to Gatland & Howley compared to the Scarlets contingent playing their natural game and the rest of the team joining in. I will be very interested to see what happens when the usual starters are available again: how many of them will get straight back in the team and whether the style of play shifts back to what we have become used to seeing.
Scotland’s inaccuracy was their undoing at the Principality Stadium. The intent to play good attacking rugby was there but too often the ball was going to floor. While the main focus of the talk on Scotland’s injuries was towards the front row, they were also missing defensive linchpin Alex Dunbar, while other regulars at centre over recent years Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor and Matt Scott were all unavailable or not selected having recently recovered from injuries. Huw Jones’ centre partner for this match Chris Harris had only 21 minutes of international rugby against Samoa under his belt and the lack of chemistry showed, while Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg failed to have much of a positive influence on the game. Meanwhile, captain John Barclay was outplayed by his Welsh rivals and failed to adapt to the way the ruck was being refereed and was penalised multiple times for clearly putting his hands on the floor beyond the ball and bringing himself back. A player of his experience should know that it is illegal and change what he’s doing the moment the referee pings him.
France 13-15 Ireland
Remind me never to go to a French doctor. In France’s last 6 Nations game, they abused the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocols to get a competitive advantage in the scrums, leading to them scoring the winning try. After all the furore from fans, there was no way they would try that again in their very next match in the competition, right? Right? Wrong! Debutante Matthieu Jalibert went down just before half time following a collising of knees with Bundee Aki. It was clear that the physio attending to him was giving all his attention to the fly half’s knee, yet when he limped off it was announced that his removal had gone down as a HIA, meaning that as long as he passed that (there was nothing in the replays to suggest he took a knock to the head) he would be able to return to the pitch. It looked like a less-than-sneaky attempt to give Jalibert a chance to walk off the knock and continue. And then with just minutes left in the game and the score at 13-12, it got even worse! Replacement scrum half Antoine Dupont came away from the back of a French scrum but suddenly went down without any contact. Again the physio’s looked at the knee while the call comes to Nigel Owens that the match doctor has called a HIA. Had Dupont been going off injured, then France would have seen out the game without a specialist scrum half, yet the call for a HIA allowed Maxime Machenaud to come back on. Listening over the ref’s mike I got the feeling that Owens didn’t believe what he was being told but he had no choice. This is disgusting cheating from the French 3 times in their last 2 games! The investigation after the 2017 incident found the French at fault but things were very much swept under the carpet, there is no way that can happen again. As I am writing this I have read that Dupont is out with a torn ACL while Jalibert is also out for about a month with a knee injury. Nothing to suggest either of them is suffering from concussion or any other head injury. If France are found guilty of such abuse of a system in place for player welfare they should be thrown out of the tournament! At least that way we can get Georgia into the tournament.
It will be interesting to see how other teams fare against the French, but on the whole I was not impressed by Ireland’s performance. Despite having 68% possession and territory, they did not manage a single clean break according to ESPN’s stats. The French gave away so many penalties and yet they were not clinical enough and clearly preferred to take 3 points rather than go in search of a try. In my tournament preview I said that I don’t think there will be a Grand Slam this year, in which case bonus points could prove crucial. If Ireland continue to rely on the boot of Johnny Sexton rather than getting tries, I can see them falling short against someone and losing the title due to a lack of bonus points.
Italy 15-46 England
Considering how inexperienced many of the squad were and the quality of players missing, I was impressed by how well Italy stuck in the game against England following Watson’s early brace. Tommaso Boni at 13 was especially impressive and I would be interested to see if he could play beside Michele Campagnaro when he recovers from injury. What is great to see is that like the Italian Pro14 teams, the national team is improving, but they are not yet the finished article. Former Hartpury flanker Seb Negri made ground but very few others did on a regular basis and again I feel adding Jake Polledri to the 23 would make them more dangerous. They also need to find a way to improve in the front row. With props like Andrea Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni, the Italian scrum used to be one of the most feared in the tournament but in recent years it has become an area that teams can attack to win penalties. The Italians need to improve here to get the backs more front-foot ball and better field position.
No offence to Anthony Watson, but I do not agree with the decision to award him man of the match. Other than his 2 tries – the first of which especially was a relatively simple run in – he did very little else to impact the game. Sam Simmonds, on the other hand scored a brace of his own and provided the assist for Jack Nowell with a perfectly executed draw and pass. He finished the game with 75 metres off 13 carries. Per ESPN’s stats, he also finished top of all players in the game for clean breaks (3), defenders beaten (6) and tackles made (22 – 7 more than his closest competitor Chris Robshaw). His pace provides something different at 8 to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes and even when one of them is back, I think he is doing enough to suggest that he deserves a spot on one of the flanks.
Fantasy rugby images are from the ESPN Fantasy Rugby website: http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk
6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com
It was goals galore in most matches of Round 25, with Stoke’s 0-0 draw against Watford the only game not to include at least 2 goals. Before I go any further I need to apologise to my friend Chris, who is a Spurs supporter. When I was predicting this week’s results on my last roundup, I was so tempted to predict a Spurs win against United but I saw them coming up short and failing to capitalise on home advantage against another rival. How wrong I was as Christian Eriksen’s goal after just 11 seconds put them on their way to a deserved 2-0 victory.
Elsewhere Bournemouth shocked Chelsea with a 0-3 victory at Stamford Bridge and Swansea continued their revival with a 3-1 victory over Arsenal, while Liverpool got back to winning ways with 3 goals at Huddersfield.
In other news, the January transfer window closed with Premier League clubs having spent a record £150 million on deadline day and a 3-way deal taking place between Arsenal, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund. But more on that later.
Before we get into the big stuff, a quick shoot-out to Southampton defender Jack Stephens who scored their equaliser against Brighton with a lovely backheel – if Messi did that we’d be raving about it for weeks!
People are always quick to criticise referees and their assistants when they make a mistake – I myself have mentioned a number of errors this season as examples for why more technology is needed in the sport – but it is much less frequent that a ref gets praised for his actions. But watching Manchester City’s 3-0 victory over West Brom, I saw a moment of refereeing from Robert Madley that deserves much more attention and praise.
With the score at 1-0, City began an attack from halfway through Kevin de Bruyne. Knowing the danger that West Brom were in, Baggies winger James McClean chose to dive in and bring down the Belgian with no attempt to get the ball. A cynical foul that will clearly result in a yellow card, but also bring a halt to the game and allow the defence to organise. His challenge failed to bring down de Bruyne, though he was clearly impeded and I don’t think anyone would have blamed Madley for blowing the whistle and awarding a free kick, however seeing de Bruyne managing to keep his feet, he chose to hold his arms out for advantage. City used this advantage to continue into the box and through a lovely combination down the left, which was finished by de Bruyne putting the ball in the back of the West Brom net. While City’s players and fans celebrated, Madley found McClean and gave him a deserved yellow card.
I feel that this was great refereeing and use of the advantage by Madley. Many would likely have blown for the foul immediately and watched the resultant free kick come to nothing against a reorganised defence, however to play advantage gave City the chance they deserved and (as usual this season) they took it. To book McClean as well also ensured that he was given the punishment that he deserved for his actions.
It is not always easy to see in a split second whether there is an advantage or not. When a referee gets it right like Madley did, he deserves to get recognition for his actions.
I really feel for Newcastle fans. They are a club with a long history of success and their fan base has stayed loyal even through their struggles in the Premier League and their previous relegations. They also have arguably one of the better managers in the league in Rafa Benitez, but are sadly missing the most important part: a squad capable enough of winning in the top flight.
The majority of Newcastle’s players this season are part of the squad that played in the Championship last year, but despite impressive players like Jamaal Lascelles and players like Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie who have Premier League experience, this is not a squad that can expect to be challenging any higher than mid-table. To make things even worse for them, the difference between mid-table and relegation is minimal this season, with only 5 points separating 10th placed Bournemouth and 19th placed Swansea. Newcastle drastically needed signings in January in order to stay up.
The problem though, is that Mike Ashley does not like to put his hand in his pocket. At all. To him, Newcastle United is a business and he is doing very well in that regard, but the fans need and deserve results and a financial input that he is just not willing to give. The takeover that was giving fans hope fell through in December and rather than seeing the club compete for long-term signings, the fans once again had to settle for 3 short-term loans, namely Kenedy, Islam Slimani and Sparta Prague keeper Martin Dubravka.
Newcastle’s issues have not been so much at the back – only Brighton and West Brom have conceded less goals out of the teams in the bottom half of the table – but up front, where they have struggled to find the back of the net. Is Slimani going to help here? He has not really impressed at Leicester so the immediate signs are not good. The only one of the 3 loan signings that currently looks promising for the Magpies is that of Kenedy, who looked impressive on his debut against Burnley and won the penalty that Joselu (unsurprisingly) failed to score. Ashley needs to sell the club soon to someone who cares, or Newcastle will find themselves back in the Championship, while Benitez will choose to move on to a club that will allow him to bring in the players he wants.
Their results and league position may not be ideal, but I would say that Arsenal have had a great time in the transfer market. They were already resigned to losing Alexis Sanchez (who was out of contract in the summer) but managed to offload him while bringing in a player with the potential to star in this team as a direct replacement. They also offloaded Olivier Giroud who was clearly not seen as a starter this season despite a record of 4 goals in 16 league appearances mainly off the bench, while bringing in the highly rated Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and also securing Mesut Özil to a new contract. Combined with the signing of Alexandre Lacazette in the summer, the Gunners are putting together a formidable team, but they are suspect at the back and this will likely stop them from getting Champions League football again next season. I expect to see them looking to strengthen their defence in the summer.
For Everton, Theo Walcott looks revitalised following his move from Arsenal and with Seamus Coleman returning from injury, they could form a deadly partnership down the right flank. Sticking with wingers and Watford’s signing of Gerard Deulofeu on loan from Barcelona is another astute signing as he has undoubted talent and experience in the league.
It will be interesting to see how much Riyad Mahrez features for Leicester over the next few weeks. The Algerian wanted to leave in the summer and handed in a transfer request on Tuesday amid speculation that Manchester City were interested, but the Sky Blues were unwilling to meet Leicester’s valuation having just shelled out £57m for Aymeric Laporte, who on early evidence may finally be a centreback worth the price tag (as far as anyone is worth millions of pounds). Mahrez did not feature this week against Everton and I can’t help but wonder how much his heart will be in it over the next few months. He will surely move in the summer so it would not surprise me if Claude Puel limits his game time going forward and uses it as a chance to start developing other players as replacements for him.
Round 26 predictions:
Burnley v Manchester City – City win
AFC Bournemouth v Stoke City – Draw
Brighton & Hove Albion v West Ham United – Draw
Leicester City v Swansea City – Draw
Manchester United v Huddersfield Town – United win