At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Making the Big Turn in The British Isles

Yes, it's been a while since I posted. Not that there hasn't been a great deal of substance, just very few blogging blocks of time in which to comment. Because so many seem to be doing so in less than helpful fashion, I'll leave it to the rest of the blogosphere to chime in there. I've got other things on my mind. Like football.

Not American football, mind you. What the majority of the world calls football. If you are thinking, "Oh, you mean soccer", well...if you must call it that.

There is much to talk about in the glorious state of the game in the United Kingdom. The Barclays Premier League (BPL) is enjoying (or for some teams and followers, enduring) a season so dynamic, crazy and capricious that it seems as unpredictable as Prime Minister David Cameron's policy decisions from 10 Downing Street. Throughout the rest of the Isles, things are heating up as we pass the two-thirds-of-the-way-through-the-season mark in various leagues. And while I am no expert on the game (my two years as a head coach and two as assistant at the high school level must suffice for experience), I am a huge fan. Thus begins my running commentary on intriguing storylines of British soccer for this season, in no particular order:

(1) Possible FA Cup history in the making: With a fifth round proper matchup with Hull City looming next weekend, Arsenal is gunning (pun intended) for a third consecutive title in the oldest existing football competition in the world. Alexi Sanchez, Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil, Danny Welbeck, and company are complementing solid defense and great goaltending by Petr Cech in making the "sweet sixteen". Having conquered Hull City and Aston Villa, respectively, the last two years in the finals, if the Gunners run the table here on in, they will join the Blackburn Rovers as the only three-peat FA Cup champs. For the record, Blackburn did that trifecta in '84, '85, and '86. By the way, that's 1884, 1885, and 1886. Special, indeed.

(2) New TV contract windfall: Although the old adage is that every game counts, success is more critical this year in the Premier League. That's because the more-than-five-billion-pounds-sterling TV contract penned by Sky Sports and BT Sports for live UK coverage of Premier League games is going to cover the members of next year's circuit in so much jack. What this means is that--if approximations are accurate--the team that finishes LAST next season will still get a TV payout of nearly 100 million pounds, which will give a significant boost to player signing power. Even the middle-of-the-road teams like Watford, Swansea City, or West Bromwich Albion will have the purse power to outspend most professional teams on the European continent, tilting the balance of power most definitely toward Britannia and the BPL. Elite players and managers the world over will have a hard time resisting the lucre from the land of the Three Lions.

(3) Coaching carousel: Aside from the peppered sacking of managers throughout various flights of English football, this year has seen a number of BPL managers shown the door and given the "left foot of disfellowship" (to use a brutal Presbyterian term). The double firing of Dick Advocate (Sunderland) and Brendan Rodgers (Liverpool) on October 4th began the piling of the trash heap. Tim Sherwood never got the Prince William-beloved Aston Villa FC out of the cellar, so he was gone three weeks later. After one win in twelve league and cup games, Swansea AFC boss Garry Monk was gone in the early days of Advent, leading to improved effort by the Swans. All this was a lead-up to 17 December, when defending champion Chelsea, mired in sixteenth place, had enough and owner Roman Abramovich gave manager Jose Mourinho the axe. Even Manuel Pellegrini is leaving Manchester City at the end of the year to make room for Bayern Munich head man Pep Guardiola. The only question is who will be the next one to fall, and although Remi Garde could be the next to get a pink slip as Aston Villa's fortunes haven't improved, my money is on...

(4) Louis Van Gaal. The former Ajax, Bayern Munich, and Dutch national team manager is fighting an uphill battle as the head man for Manchester United. The sheer number of boos cascading from the stands at Old Trafford this year makes one wonder how much time LVG and his autocratic methods still have. The sterling efforts of goaltender David De Gea have largely gone wasted this year as ManU averages less than 1.3 goals scored per game. As for how the rest of the roster jells together, well, they have been hurt by injuries, but something is just not right about Wayne Rooney and company, leading us to conclude that Manchester United might be a worse hot mess than the present Louisiana state budget crisis. The only thing that makes less sense is that co-chairmen Joel and Avram Glazer (when not distracted by their ownership of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) might put Jose Mourinho in charge after LVG, a move that makes as much sense as Donald Trump off his meds.

(5) Leicester City in first place: Speaking off off one's meds, the play of the Foxes has been nothing short of amazing and unprecedented. Not to mention it overturns all conventional thinking about winning football. Going into yesterday's narrow 2-1 loss at Arsenal (which, after weekend play, still leaves the Foxes in first place by two points), Leicester was 18th in the league out of 20 teams in time of ball possession (40.9%) and nineteenth in number of passes completed. Yet they were first in average goals scored per game and at the top of the table in overall standings. What? How does that happen. But it appears that Claudio Ranieri doesn't care how it gets done, just so they keep winning. The energy has carried over from last season, when LCFC was mired in last place at only 17 points total, but escaped relegation with inspired play over the season's final weeks. It remains to be seen if they can hold off Arsenal, Manchester City, and hard-charging Tottenham Hotspur, but the Foxes have made this season fun by showing a smaller-budget squad can make it good.

(6) Manager of the Year choice: I'd have to say Renieri for what he's been able to deliver at Leicester. But former Borussia Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp has made football at Anfield enjoyable again since taking over at Liverpool, so I foresee the Teutonic Care Bear winning this award in either of the two following seasons.

(7) More circuits: The Welsh Premier League sees a hot race at the top between second-place Bala Town and top-of-the-table The New Saints that could come down to the last week. Belfast teams Crusaders and Linfield continue their tussle for the title in the Northern Irish Premiership. The big rumblings are coming out of Scotland, and the reasons for that are...

(8) Renewing the Old Firm: There are rivalries and then there are feuds. Then there is the Old Firm, which really needs to be in our school's History of Global Conflicts class curriculum. Think Ohio State-Michigan football, Yankees-Red Sox baseball, Carolina-Duke basketball, Canadiens-Bruins hockey, mixed with the European continent when Archduke Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo in 1914, add steroids, and stir vigorously. Glasgow clubs Celtic FC and Rangers FC have played each other 400 times over the years, and to say they have drawn blood is no overstatement. This old-fashioned hate-fest slathers over political, religious, and socioeconomic lines, but those lines are still drawn brightly. The Rangers have brooded over the past years as they have gone through liquidation and severe multiple demotion, only to claw back and be at the top of the Scottish Championship League, one step below the Scottish Premiership, where Celtic leads that table. If the Rangers gain friends, this rivalry is so back on I can taste it. And maybe the sheer drama of moments like this one can return:

(9) Speaking of relegation and promotion, as in every division of British football, some move up and some move down. For the sake of space, I'll just focus on BPL teams relegated to the English League Championship (second tier) and who is coming up.

We have a chance for another unprecedented item this year. Since the top tier became known as the Premier League in 1992, at least one team promoted to the BPL each year has been relegated for the next. We do have a shot at overturning that rule this year, as newly promoted Watford (9th place), AFC Bournemouth (15th), and Norwich City (17th) are all clear of the relegation zone [teams placed 18th-20th in the twenty team league are demoted to the League Championship division] for now. I do think Aston Villa is headed for demotion. The team is in disarray, can't score, and they just put in an immobile effort in a 6-0 loss to Liverpool today. While I believe either 18th-place Newcastle United or 19th-place Sunderland will be one of the other demoted teams, I like Sunderland's chances to stay in the BPL better. They beat Manchester United yesterday, 2-1, at home and made ManU look like FIFA diarrhea in the process. Newcastle got shell-shocked at Chelsea in a subpar effort, and their squad looks like its losing its moxie. In truth, I believe Norwich is likely headed for relegation, given its leaky defense is showing greater regularity, as it did in the extraordinarily fun yet defensively deplorable 5-4 loss to Liverpool weeks ago as seen here (ignore the Stoke-Leicester banner; it really is Norwich-Liverpool):

So my demoted teams are Newcastle (finishing 18th), Norwich City (19th), and Aston Villa at last, which is bound to disappoint Villa's biggest fan, Prince William.

So who is replacing them from the English League Championship? Most likely Hull City will return, and I have them penciled in as the most likely ELC champions. Middlesborough is showing themselves tough to beat, and I believe they have incentive to return to the BPL. The tricky part is guessing the third team for promotion, as ELC teams that finish third through sixth in the standings will engage in a playoff for that final spot. As they look to be peaking at the right time, I think Sheffield Wednesday has the best shot to emerge and gain promotion. It will be a sweet sight for that 124-year old clock above Hillsborough Stadium's South Stand to look down next year as the Owls get back to BPL action.

If you've read all the way to the end here, you're a true fan. Of association football or the blog, I'm not sure. But thanks for reading...and give feedback if you want!

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