Sunday, February 22, 2015

Don’t Cry for Me, Jose Mourinho: Time for the Replay in Soccer?

It is clear that Jose Mourinho never read The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Either that or he completely misunderstood the moral, assuming the boy was doing the right thing by constantly warning the villagers of something that hadn’t yet happened. In any case, there is no question that he has a rather compelling case about the refereeing debacle yesterday, if not some evidence of a larger conspiracy. Chelsea saw an amazing four decisions go against them in one game before the sending off of Matic cost them two points against the bottom dwelling Burnley.

The four decisions were as follows: 1. 30’: Ashley Barnes sends Branislav Ivanovic crashing to the ground in an aerial challenge after a knee in the back. Verdict: should have been a free kick and could have been a yellow card for Barnes. 2. 33’: Ivanovic fires a shot at goal but Michael Kightly diverts it with an outstretched arm, as he turns his back to goal. Verdict: should have been a penalty (very clearly!). 3. 43’: Diego Costa tumbles to the ground after Burnley captain Jason Shackell leans into him with an outstretched arm. Atkinson waves play on. Verdict: could have been a Chelsea penalty but would have been very soft. 4. 69’: Barnes misses the ball and almost snaps Nemanja Matic's left shin with his studs but Atkinson waves play on. An enraged Matic leaps up and pushes Barnes over violently. Atkinson sends off Matic and books Ivanovic for trying to take red card out of his hand. Verdict: the tackle merited a red card for Barnes and a Chelsea free kick, as one of the worst tackles all year.

However, Chelsea are not the only team that might feel aggrieved by the men in yellow and black. Southampton had two pretty strong penalty appeals in the first few minutes of a game they ultimately lost to Liverpool 2-0 today, and then another one tight decision right before halftime that arguably should have seen Mignolet see red. Earlier, West Ham had a 2-1 lead on Tottenham heading into the last seconds of five extra minutes when a soft Song penalty allowed the Spurs to claim a point (their 13th in the final five minutes of games this year). And though I hate to admit it, Crystal Palace might have a legitimate claim that Welbeck was just outside the box on the penalty that got Arsenal their first goal (though I disagree) and offsides before the pass that made it 2-0 (true!). Really, any fan of the sport can think of an endless array of incidents that cost their team or nation a game or valuable points.

The question that emerges is whether some sort of replay system should be implemented. Penalty claims are always a subjective topic and pundits often disagree, even with the benefit of replay and slow motion. But the clear penalties missed, the soft penalties given, the missed yellow and red cards (or wrongly given) and the successful diving (though it has seriously abated this season) all cost teams places in the table, money and ultimately allow the wrong team to win or draw games they shouldn’t. One could argue it’s just the nature of the sport, and adds another element for the pundits and fans to debate and write about, but the major American leagues have been able to implement them without undermining the integrity of the game (even as controversy still abounds). Maybe it is time for soccer to seriously consider taking the next step in technological innovation?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Three Things: Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal

Arsenal lined up against Crystal Palace today knowing they had lost only once at Selhurst Park in their entire history, way back in 1977. On the other side, Palace has been in impressive form since former star Alan Pardew’s return, good enough to be in seventh place counting only the games of his short tenure. Right from the whistle, Pardew had Crystal pressing high and playing down the wings and it was working better than he could have dreamed, with Wilfred Zaha flashing the ball wickedly across goal after beating Monreal on the right side in the fourth minute (and then almost endlessly throughout the game). Arsenal were getting through the Palace defense in stops and starts, but were without a shot or touch in the box until Danny Welbeck charged toward a wayward pass from Giroud in the sixth minute, beat the defender to the ball and then was tripped just as he crossed over the line to collect a great first touch in the box. Mark Clattenburg immediately pointed to the spot and Cazorla coolly stepped up and finished low and to the right while Speroni went the other way (making it six of six penalties this season and 8 goals in total in this renaissance season for the Spaniard).

Crystal immediately pushed for the equalizer and had several dangerous crosses in the box in quick succession, including a corner that led to a free header for Frazier Campbell on 12 minutes, though he fluffed it harmlessly toward the middle of goal and a pool of Arsenal defenders. The Gunners were sloppy with the ball, losing it time and time again to the tight press and defending too much in their own box, with Monreal in particular having trouble dealing with the once hot prospect Zaha. Koscielny had a free header in the 21st minute after a lovely back header pass from Giroud from a corner, but got it horribly wrong. Sanchez then almost made Dann pay for too casual a back pass.

In the 28th minute, a reckless challenge on Campbell earned Crystal another free kick and Coquelin a yellow card. Crystal were beating Arsenal to most balls, getting in crosses with regularity and playing with more hunger than the Gunners. Then Zaha fouled Monreal right on the byline in the 38th minute, leading to a Gunners free kick and, though Cazorla’s delivery was dealt with by the Palace defenders, Arsenal seemed to settle from here and improved their passing and possession, though Ospina had to deal with two dangerous balls in the last four minutes of the half. Then, just as the clock passed 45 minutes, Ozil got the ball forward to Sanchez, who sent Welbeck in on goal from the left (though he might have been marginally offsides). His shot was blocked by Speroni but right into the path of the charging Giroud, who finish easily to make it 2-0. Arsenal had been outplayed for large parts of the first half, but as has been the case of late, were economical with their chances and stout enough defensively to keep Crystal out.

Yet Arsenal have dropped 10 points from winning positions on the road this season, with only Swansea worse, and Crystal started the second half brightly, creating three chances in the first three minutes, though they were unable to get a shot on goal. Zaha, in particularly, was impressive, though his crosses and shot were blocked for corners more often than not. Zaha laid off to Puncheon in the 51st minute, but the shot was blocked and Arsenal dealt with yet another corner. Arsenal were again having trouble stringing more than two or three passes together, but were dealing with the pressure in their box well, even as Zaha continued to be a nightmare down the right. In the 56th minute, Giroud came in for a rough challenge on Gayle, earning himself a yellow in the process. On the counter a moment later, Ozil easily beat his defender and then laid it off to Sanchez, who shot it just wide with a gaping hole across goal. In the 62nd minute, Zaha had the ball a few yards from goal, but failed to get his shot off and in the 69th Soauare sent in a pitch perfect cross that Gayle met, sending it just over the crossbar. Five minutes later, a questionable foul call on Monreal after Sanchez should have earned one himself, led to a Puncheon free kick that went just wide while Ospina stayed cemented to his spot. Wenger had seen enough, with Crystal bossing 69 percent of possession in the 2nd half, and sent Rosicky on for Ozil and Gibbs for Welbeck (76’). Pardew responded positively sending in two tall strikers in the 79th minute (Ameobi for Lindley and Murray for Gayle). In the 83rd minute, Sanchez was dispossessed for the not the first time and Bolosie went on a thundering run through to shoot on goal, though right at Ospina. Chambers grabbed at his shirt ineffectively along the way and received a retrospective yellow, adding to a rather large pile he has garnered in his debut season. Ospina saved finely in the 87th, after a glancing header from a corner was goal bound. Paulista came on in the 89th minute for Sanchez, who had a less than impressive game except for the pass to Welbeck that led to the second goal. After the season he’s had, he can be forgive for a below par effort in a winning game, but one hopes he soon returns to his imperious form. Ospina was again called into action in the 92nd minute as a wayward cross almost snuck in the near post, but two minutes later Murray pulled one back with a toe poke from close in on a rebounded Zaha shot. With time running out, Ospina clung on to a great Bolosie cross headed off the post by Murray, saving the three points. Arsenal were really overrun through much of the game and luck to win, but three points are three points. And while we’re at it, three points on the game …

1. Don’t Press Me On: Arsenal have had trouble for a few years now when playing against the high press. The lack of a physical presence in the middle is one of the reasons, but the other appears to be a lack of poise when the time available to pass shrinks. Ozil, Cazorla and, to a lesser extent, Sanchez have the skill to cut through that press and provide quality chances in front of them, but that happened too infrequently today and might alert other teams that this is a winning strategy against the team. Ozil has returned from his long injury layoff well though, looking consistently impressive and hungry for goals after improving the biggest weakness in his game with some quality finishes and shots in recent weeks. And Coquelin, of course, has helped with his more physical play, though the Gunners offered Crystal far too many chances and probably miss the box-to-box work rate of a still injured Ramsey.

2. Chambers of Secrets: after a bright start with the club, slotting in at centreback when Koscielny or Mertesacker were injured and then on the right after Debuchy suffered his first injury, Chambers has found time a little harder to come by of late. But he has taken Bellerin’s place in recent games on the right, even as it is clearly his weakest position. Chambers has all the tools to be a top quality defender or even defensive midfielder, but on the right, his lack of pace and tendency to go too hard into challenges is a real liability for Arsenal. That was most clear in the loss to Swansea, where he was beaten by the winger time and time again as the Swans came back for a 2-1 win. While Arsenal held on to win today, Chambers was as overrun on the right as Monreal was on the left, failing to challenge crosses or stop players from cutting around him with ease. Bellerin should be back on the right for the next game, if he recovers from his injury sufficiently.

3. Giroud Purple Patch: Giroud has now scored 8 in his last 11 (and 11 overall) and really does appear to be the “different striker” Wenger has been hailing since his FA Cup brace. He is increasingly comfortable on the ball and around the box, can shoot with power or well-placed grace and has one of the better headers in the English game. While Welbeck was responsible for the two goals, it was Giroud who was there to give the Gunners a little breathing room after a tough first half – breathing room they needed after the second half assault. If he keeps up this scoring rate, Welbeck will again find himself cast out to the wing, a fate he left United to escape.

Watching Crystal Palace throughout the game, it is clear Pardew has brought a new style and hunger to the team and I believe he will now keep them up. But they will need better finishing if they are to do much more than that going forward. For Arsenal, it was another win on a day where they were really outplayed. Yet more good news followed as Chelsea dropped two points (to Burnley at home!) and Manchester United ceded a 1-0 lead Herrera had earned them and actually lost at Swansea City 2-1, with RVP limping off on crutches after the game. Arsenal thus find themselves in third place with Southampton playing Liverpool tomorrow. And City already 2-0 up on Newcastle after a mere 15 minutes, poised to scrape back to within five points of slightly floundering Chelsea. The title race and top four chase are hotting up toward equatorial temperatures as the final third of the season commences!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Some Questions for the Climate Change Deniers

The tired debate on climate change continues on unabated by the ever growing body of evidence debunking it. The latest example? A recent study highlighted by Fox News and then Joanne Nova that climate change deniers are more likely to know the answer to a nine-question quiz on climatology, created by a Yale professor and answered by a sample of 2,000 respondents. But here are the questions global warming conspiracy theorists never seem to answer:

1. Why would all these Nobel Prize winning scientists lie?
2. Who benefits from this “conspiracy?”
3. How do you explain the rather obvious changes in the climate, including the fact the temperatures are rising dramatically in the Arctic?
4. Who benefits from continuing to argue about this “conspiracy?”
5. Who benefits if we continue to do nothing about climate change?
6. Who funds most of the research on this “conspiracy?”
7. Why hasn’t the mainstream media found any evidence of this conspiracy after all these years?

The only question I’ve seen answered with any level of scrutiny is #2, with the absurd claims about Wall Street organizing this whole thing for future carbon trading profits. While they did orchestrate one of the biggest scams in history, almost eliciting the collapse of the global economy in the process, while garnering record profits and bonuses, it was really their incompetence that was rewarded. How are they supposed to have convinced so many climatologists to go along with this epic scam, backed by pretty compelling scientific evidence. Last and maybe most importantly:

8. Even if this is all a scam, aren’t there other benefits to lowering our addiction to carbon-based fuels, that clearly pollute the air and cause all sorts of problem for human health (that are beyond question) and global geopolitics?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

FA Cup: Arsenal end Middlesboro Run 2-1

Arsenal lined up for their 5th Round FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough coming off a strong start to the second half of the season, only marred by the 2-1 loss to their North London neighbors a couple of weeks back (and the loss to Southampton on New Years Day). And while Middlesbrough had the confidence of scalping Chelsea in the last round and a decent run of games themselves, the vast distance in quality between the Championship and Premier League became quickly apparent. Arsenal were rampant from the first whistle, though their quick, precision passing and high press against the two banks of five defenders failed to reap the goal they deserved. That was until the 27th minute, when Sanchez thrust forward and passed the ball to Welbeck at the edge of the box. He laid it off to Cazorla, who sent a perfectly weighted ball to Gibbs. The left back sent a low cross in toward Giroud, who finished powerfully past Middlesbrough keeper Tomas Mejias.

Two minutes later it was two, as Sanchez first earned a corner through his consistently resilient play and then delivered a ball into the path of a charging Giroud who volleyed beautifully across goal from a tight angle. Arsenal continued to push for a third throughout the rest of the first half but some nice saves from Mejias and some missed chances left the score at 2-0. Arsenal had 67 percent possession and 10 shots to 1 (with 4 to 1 on goal). The second half largely followed the pattern of the first, with Middlesbrough sniffing out a few half chances but Arsenal dominating possession and chances for large spells. The difference, of course, was the third goal never came. But it was unnecessary and the game finished as one of the most complete performances by the Gunners all season, albeit against a lower level team.

Sanchez was back to his hard working best a few days after injury fears were heightening and only denied a goal by an excellent save of a glancing header in the second half. Rosicky replaced him in the 72nd minute and Walcott came on for an underwhelming Welbeck at the same time. The ex-United star can never be faulted for his effort, or the layoff that contributed to the first goal, but continues to spurn chances and give the ball up carelessly a little too often for my tastes, continuing the questions about his finishing touch. Gabriel Paulista also looked impressive in his first appearance on the pitch for Arsenal, with three key interventions in the box to cut out Middlesbrough threats. He did earn a yellow for a professional foul and gave up a needless corner near the end, but seemed to shore up the defense in a way Mertesacker has too often failed to this season. Walcott had a good chance to score in the 87th minute, when a lovely 20-yard Rosicky through ball left him one on one with the keeper, but his weak shot was well saved. And so it ended with the 2-0 scoreline and a comfortable afternoon for the Gunners, who now await their quarterfinal draw, which will be announced tomorrow.

There have already been a number of upsets in the FA Cup so far, with Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham all gone, but Liverpool came back to stake their place in the quarters with help from an unlikely source, as Balotelli contributed to a win for the second game running with a strong free kick that was rebounded in by Adam Lallana to complete the 2-1 comeback. United will expect to join their rivals in the next round as they line up against Preston North End tomorrow. Aston Villa won 2-1 against Leicester and Bradford City pulled off another famous win, beating Sunderland 2-0, to join West Brom, Blackburn and Reading in the next round. Arsenal are thus three games away from a FA Cup repeat, which would tie Wenger for the record of 6, though they will probably face Liverpool and/or hated United along the way.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Arsenal Escape With 2-1 Win Over Leicester City

It took only three days for Arsenal to jump back above their North London rivals after a rather flat 2-1 victory over Leicester City at the Emirates coupled with a 3-2 Spurs loss at Anfield. It was a less than stellar performance by the home side that could have been worse, but for a number of near misses by the league’s bottom dwellers. They looked anything but in the game, missing three clear cut chances in the first half, finally pulling one back on 61 minutes and then having a couple final chances to snatch a point go begging. But Arsenal held on for the three points and now find themselves in fourth place, at least for a day (with United playing tomorrow).

Arsenal started brightly after a couple of early scares and opened the scoring with Ozil again leading the way. A nice one two left him free on goal and his shot was well saved by ex-Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer. Ozil delivered the resultant corner low toward the middle of the box and Koscielny beat his man to it, slotting it into the right corner for the opener, on 27 minutes. Leicester then had a couple of chances of their own to draw even before another quality shot from Ozil, this time from the edge of the box, was pushed by Schwarzer right into the path of Walcott, who crushed the ball into the far corner. The Gunners thus went into halftime 2-0 up and looked set to add to that lead in the second.

But Leicester came out with renewed vitality and came close to getting one back on several occasions, including a fine goal line header clearance by Mertesacker. The goal finally came in the 61st minute though, after some shambolic defending by the Gunners concluded with new signing Andrej Kramaric hitting a hard low shot past a diving Ospina to make it a one goal affair. Cazorla almost restored the two-goal lead a couple of minutes later, but for another fine Schwarzer save and then Sanchez finally came off, after looking less than his best with what appeared to be a knee injury that us Gooners will be praying is only the “knock” that Wenger claimed in the post-match interview (replaced by Giroud). Ramsey came on in the second half as well, but a third hamstring injury of the season saw him last a total of nine minutes. Ozil calmed the Gunners down with some fine possession and passing, but they were holding on for dear life through the five minutes of extra time, lucky to have taken maximum points.

Arsenal have now won 8 of their last 9, but looked anything but convincing throughout, returning to the panicking defense of the past after a second game running of sloppy passing and flat footed defending. They have a few days off before their fifth round tie with Man City killers Middlesboro Sunday, a trip to Crystal Palace the following Saturday and then the first leg of the Champions League tie at home against Monaco. On the other end, Leicester and their under fire manager Nigel Pearson can take some positives from the game, but need to start picking up more points, after only garnering 9 of their last 30 on offer since the historic 5-3 come from behind victory over United way back in September. On this display alone, they have a chance, but will have to collect some wins on the run in if they are not to head back to the Championship after one year with the big boys. Arsenal will hope their injury woes of the first half don’t start catching up with them again as they try to build momentum in what looks like the most exciting Top 4 race in recent years. Liverpool, Tottenham, Southampton, United and Arsenal will now fight it out for the two spots behind Chelsea and City, barring the unlikely scenario of the latter continues to falter and falling even further down the table.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Clinton Conundrum at Heart of New Consensus

A New York Times article Saturday highlights the conundrum facing Hillary Clinton as she runs for president, essentially serving as a perfect exemplar of where we find ourselves in American politics today. As argued in the lede, “With advice from more than 200 policy experts, Hillary Rodham Clinton is trying to answer what has emerged as a central question of her early presidential campaign strategy: how to address the anger about income inequality without overly vilifying the wealthy.” The problem starts with who some of those purported experts are, including the longtime champion of neoliberalism Lawrence Summers.

Clinton has never been a progressive populist in the way some hoped and has instead tended to adhere to the policies of her neoliberal husband and the more “centrist” voices of the party. The New Democratic model seemed to die with the election of Bush and fading popularity of sellout Blair, but we might be in for another round of cultural progressivism and conservative economics, even as the country yearns for an economic overhaul that more equitably shares the benefits of our rise in productivity and profits. Can Clinton shepherd such a change? The early signs are ominous, even as there does seem to be a more progressive bent to some of her early platform ruminations.

In the article it claims, “Although people close to Mrs. Clinton say she has not yet settled on a specific platform, she is expected to embrace several principles. They include standard Democratic initiatives like raising the minimum wage, investing in infrastructure, closing corporate tax loopholes and cutting taxes for the middle class. Other ideas are newer, such as providing incentives to corporations to increase profit-sharing with employees and changing labor laws to give workers more collective bargaining power.” This would be as close to a populist message as we could hope for, but can Clinton push through even a subset of these proposals with a Republican dominated Congress? Can her victory sweep in enough Dems to take back the Senate and soften the GOP majority in the House? At the moment, given the recent history and last election, that seems unlikely.

Early signs instead point to more of the same bipartisan bickering with little substantive work getting done. Obama has finally stood up to the Republicans in the past couple of months and passed some more progressive executive orders, but the battle over the budget and key economic policy loom in the near future, with a sense that the GOP will look to rebound from these post-wave reversals and assert their questionable “mandate.” The country looks on, hoping for a change that seems less likely than ever with four to eight more years of a Clinton administration, and an even dimmer outlook if she happens to lose. Another Clinton/Bush race, which is starting to look likely, really is déjà vu all over again, only worse …

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Biggest Choker in History?

Andy Murray was up 2-0 and serving in the third set of the Australian Open Final two weeks ago with a chance to forge ahead and take a two sets to one lead on his arch-nemesis Novak Djokovic. And then he played a loose game, was broken and changed ends back on serve 2-1. From there Djokovic won 11 of the next 12 games to close out the match 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-0. And while it was clear that Djokovic upped his game and began playing great tennis, particularly when he faced break point at 3-3 in that third set, there was also a sense that Murray blew a strong chance to win the match.

Murray essentially disappeared after losing that break point and failed to win another game. This was his fourth chance to win an Australian Open, on top of three other Grand Slam finals he’s lost and even after his incredible 2012-2013, when he won an Olympic Gold, a U.S. Open and became the first Brit in 77 years to win Wimbledon, the old questions about choking have reared their ugly head yet again. Coming into the Finals this year, he was playing among his best tennis in two years. For two and a half sets, he fought valiantly, and really should have won the first set tiebreaker, but for an ill-timed double fault that took away his lead and momentum. But that complete collapse begs the question of whether Murray should be considered as a challenger in the Pantheon of “greatest sports chokers” of all times.

So who are the other contenders for the dubious title? Rather than looking at single events and reiterating a list that has been written many times before, I’m going to go with athletes who have made a career of choking, even if they earlier (or later) did find success in their career. Given that team sports are, by definition, team oriented, I’m going to skew toward individual sports, considering a few players from the major American sports leagues. I am generally looking at a “body of work” rather than one iconic moment, though a few entries seemed necessary for their one infamous blunder. Some might be wondering if Russell Wilson should be on the list after that Super Bowl interception, but most people are blaming Pete Carroll instead, it was a great pick, he did win a Super Bowl a year earlier and had the best postseason QBR in league history (until, I assume, those last two games get factored in). In any case, here is my list …

The Contenders (to rival Andy Murray)

1. Greg Norman: in 1986 alone, Norman led all four majors after the third round but only won the British Open. Most famously, he took a six-stroke to Sunday at the Masters in 1996 before shooting a 78 and losing to Faldo by five strokes. That kid from Northern Ireland pulled a similar feat a couple of years ago, but has been pretty unstoppable ever since. Norman was considered the best golfer in the world in the mid-90s, but choked away more majors than anyone else I can think of.

2. Phil Mickelson: one of the most beloved and richest golfers in the history of the sport, Mickelson has won five majors and 42 PGA events. But he has lost countless other majors that he had a strong chance of winning. Between 1999 and 2003 alone, he had six second-place or third-place finishes. Among his most obvious chokes is in the U.S. Open, where he has come in second a record six times, including blowing the 2006 Open at Winged Foot, where a part on 18 would have been enough to win (he double-bogeyed and didn’t even get into the playoff the next day, after inexplicably hitting a driver on the last hole). His career is winding down now, though the 2013 come-from-behind win at the British Open has quelled some of the talk of his long career of coming up short in the big ones.

3. Michelle Kwan: considered the best female skater in the world for five years, Kwan somehow lost two Olympics in a row to upstart teenagers – first Tara Lipinski in 1998 and then Sarah Hughes in 2002. It wasn’t so much that she was beaten as beat herself, failing to perform to her best in either of those Olympics. The skating rink is littered with failure on the biggest stage, but Kwan stands out for the two losses, even as the judges and fans wanted her to win so badly.

4. U.S. Ryder Cup 2012 Team (“Meltdown at Medina”): the only team entry in the list followed one of the greatest collapses in the history of the event, as Europe charged back from 10-6 down (10-4 at one point) to win the title in a series of singles events they were often heavily favored to lose. The U.S. had done the same back in 1999 (coming back from 10-6 down that is), but that victory was at home and felt more like an incredible performance by the Americans rather than a European collapse. The reason I include a team on the list is because the Americans, who generally have more talent on paper, have won only two of the last 10 biannual events, after dominating it until the mid-80s.

5. Dan O’Brien: Reebok decided to spend considerable money touting the Olympic decathlon battle between Dave Johnson and Dan O’Brien at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The problem, Dan forgot to read the script and passed on lower heights before missing his target pole vault of 15’9” and was unceremoniously out of the event. He did come back to win four years later in Atlanta, but few will forget the choke of 1992.

6. Scott Norwood: several kickers have missed key kicks in the playoffs, including Gary Anderson against the Falcons with a chance to get the Vikings back to the Super Bowl, but the miss by Norwood will stand in Super Bowl lore as one of the most memorable failures, starting a trend that would continue for the Bills three additional trips to the Big Game in the 90s. It’s hard to define a guy by one kick, particularly a 47-yarder, but does any non-Bills fan remember any other kick he ever had in his career.

7. Osafa Powell: a sprinter that has lived in the shadow of his countryman Usain Bolt for many years now, Powell can be forgiven for failing to win the gold in the 100 meters. But finishing 5th in two consecutive Summer Olympics, and then dead last in a third, while holding the record for breaking the 10 second barrier more times than any other runner (82 in total) and having a personal best of 9.72, does beg some questions. In 2004 he skipped the 200 meters final, even as he had qualified for the event, and then finally won a medal in 2008, in the 4x100 relay, recording the fastest split time in history (8.70). Hopes were higher in 2012, but then he pulled up after realizing he wasn’t going to win, claiming a “hamstring” injury that seemed suspect at best.

8. Jana Novotna: her career was marred by chokes in the Finals of major events, even as she was ultimately inducted into the tennis hall of fame. Two Wimbledon matches should suffice to provide the requisite evidence: she had six match points up 6-7, 6-4, 5-0 before losing to unseeded teenager Chandra Rubin then lost in the finals the next year to Martina Hingis, after being up 2-0 and a point from 3-0 in the third set (she lost 6-3).

9. Brett Favre: so Norwood wouldn’t feel lonely on the list, I thought I would add one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, who also had a tendency to choke in big games. Maybe most memorable was the interception he threw in overtime of the 2010 NFC Championship game when his adopted Vikings looked sure to beat the Giants and head to the Super Bowl, but there is also the 6-8 playoff record and 24 interceptions that followed the Packers’ SB win of 1996. In fact, his record in the playoffs, and big games, was pretty bad in the second half of his career (and I’ll never forgive him for his late fade in his one season with the Jets, costing us a sure playoff spot).

10.Chris Webber: I’ll include one basketball player in the list, the one that called the timeout that wasn’t, costing the Fab Five their championship. Webber would go on to have an incredible NBA career, but never won a title, arguably partially due to his inability to perform at his best when the pressure was on.

Honorable Mentions

Donovan McNabb: maybe he should be in the list above, but I’ll leave him here. He was 1-4 in NFC Championship games and 0-1 in Super Bowls. This doesn’t come down to him alone, but his performances did seem to dip on the biggest stage.

Bill Buckner: again, a guy that had a very respectable career but will be forever defined by one play, missing a simple grounder that led to a loss in Game 6 before Clemens blew Game 7 and the Red Sox heartache went on for another 18 years. Actually, one could have just put the entire Red Sox franchise between 1918 and 2004 on the list, though maybe the Cubs would be more appropriate these days.

Patrick Ewing: Ewing had a great game in the heartbreaking 1982 NCAA Finals loss to North Carolina and it was Fred Brown that actually threw the pass to a ghost that sealed it, but it was the start of a trend for the seven footer, who won one title at Georgetown, but lost two others (the other the famous Cinderella Story loss to Villanova in 1985). Ewing then moved onto the NBA and found his way to the Finals twice. In one of those Finals, against the Rockets, he had his classic fading jumper from the right corner to win the Title, but missed it. And that was how his career ended, without a single NBA Title to his name.

Karl Malone: in a similar vein to Ewing, though with an even more distinguished career, Malone was one of the greatest forwards in NBA history over his long 17-year career. And yet he and Stockton were unable to finish the job and win a Title (though that guy Jordan had something to do with it). We might also add Charles Barkley to that list, though his chances were arguably more limited.

Ernst Byner: the list of football players with key interceptions, drops or fumbles is long (add Russell Wilson to the list, of course), but Byner’s fumble on the one-yard line that led to the drive and a Super Bowl trip for Elway’s Broncos stands out as among the most infamous. Those Browns missed a trip to the Super Bowl two years running, but that is the play that stands out. More a play than a career, but the defining play of that career, I imagine.

Peyton Manning: Manning is arguably the greatest regular season quarterback in league history, though some might argue for Marino, Brady or even Fouts. But his record in the postseason has marred any claim to “best ever,” which probably currently resides with his arch nemesis Tom Brady. Brady, in fact, holds the record for most playoff wins (21), most Super Bowl appearances (6) and, of course, is tied with Bradshaw and Montana (whom many think is still the greatest ever) for most Super Bowl titles (4). Manning has one Super Bowl ring (2003), an 11-13 record playoff record and couldn’t win the big game in college either, losing the Championship Game to Nebraska his senior year. And his less touted brother has one more ring than him, both earned by beating the guy Manning so rarely could. Maybe he should be in the top 10 above?

Alex Rodriguez: he’s had an incredible career and with six more homers passes Willie Mays on the career homer list, beyond finally winning a World Series ring in 2009. But A-Rod will be remembered not only for his cheating but also his general futility in 75 playoff games. His career numbers in the postseason are so out of line with his regular season numbers, he has arguably had the most abject playoff career of any star in the history of the game. To hit the low notes: his career batting average is .299, but falls to .263 in the playoffs; his RBI to at bat percentage drops from 17.35 to 12.57 percent in his 326 post season plate appearances (though he did walk a respectable 39 times); his home runs per at bat falls from 1 in 17 to 1 in 25; and his strike outs per plate appearance goes up from 18.29 to 23 percent in the post season. Beyond that is the fact that Yankees have to keep paying this chump about $20 million a year for the next three years, with little hope of getting much for that 60 plus mill.

Mary Decker (Slaney): In 1982, Decker set six world records in distances from the mile to 10,000 meters and received the James E. Sullivan award as the best athlete in the U.S. In 1983, she swept the 1500 and 3000 meters events at the World Championship in Helsinki, making her the huge favorite to win an Olympic medal the next year. But instead she tripped over Zola Budd’s foot and didn’t even finish the 3000. She came back four years later, after a birth and a year out injured, but failed to medal again, then failed to qualify for the Olympics on two other occasions. Considered among the greatest female runners of all times, and still holding world records in several events, she either got unlucky or failed on the biggest stage, not once but twice.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal vs. Tottenham (L1-2)

Things started rather well for Arsenal at White Hart Lane today, with Mesut Ozil scoring his third goal in his last three games on 11 minutes. And given their form in recent weeks, many a Gooner might have had a strong reason to feel optimistic. Watching the taped game (it started at 4:45 a.m. here), I was less sanguine, particularly as Tottenham mounted attack after attack. Arsenal did get to halftime up 1-0, but with only 35 percent of possession and only one other shot on target. As the second half began, it became clear that Arsenal would continue their surprising, and welcome, new strategy of setting up in a defensive formation and then playing on the counter.

The problem was that the high press that Mauricio Pochettino has taken with him from Southampton kept the Gunners from getting the ball out with any effectiveness and, beside a short stretch before the equalizer, had trouble stringing together enough passes to disrupt the forward momentum of the Spurs. Yet 55 minutes into the game, their defense had yet to concede, with several last second tackles and a few topnotch saves from Ospina keeping their slender lead. That changed in the 56th minute, when the player of the year so far, Harry Kane, coolly slotted past Ospina after the Columbian could only parry the ball into his path after a corner. It was really what Tottenham deserved after an impressive attacking display throughout much of the match. Arsenal tried to inject some attack back into their game, but found few chances but for a whipped shot from Welbeck that Lloris saved well and a free header from a corner that Koscielny directed right at the French keeper.

Given their inability to sustain any attack and trouble even getting the ball out of their zone, the Gunners might have been thinking a point would be good business on a bad day. But Harry Kane would have none of that, rising above Koscielny and Mertesacker to perfectly cushion a header into the far corner in the 86th minute. Arsenal tried to equalize, but without their usual flair, and they dropped not only three points to their bitterest rivals, but fell a points below them in the standings. It was a tough day for the Gunners and a spectacular one for the Spurs, though Tottenham fans should probably hold their tongues, as they have been above Arsenal at this point in a season far too many times, only to blow it in the end. If they continue to play as they did today, however, the Top 4 will soon start looking like a viable and just reward. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Kane “Homecoming”: Harry Kane’s story is a rare one these days – a local kid that started playing for his hometown team as a nine-year-old with dreams of making it to the starting lineup, but real doubts as he went out on loan more than once. Given his chance this season, the 21-year-old has taken it like few in history, first scoring consistently in the Europa League and then matching that feat in the EPL. He now has 22 goals in all competitions, leading all players in England, and looks unlikely to let up soon (barring an injury). He seems to have it all, the poachers instinct, a great header, the ability to score from distance, drive and, maybe most importantly, the poise of a top-class player. At 21, his career has to be managed well, but this is a kid who could go on to do incredible things for club and country.

2. Gunner Gumption (or lack thereof): The most consistent thing about the Gunners over the past several years has been their inconsistency. Sure they finish in the Top 4 every year and tend to get out of their group in the champions league, but when it really counts, they too often seem second best (until the late league run most years they always seem to manage to snatch that fourth, or once third, spot – often from Tottenham, it should be noted). After an inspiring win against City and then an absolute demolition of Aston Villa, there was hope the Gunners could keep up their winning ways, but they again found a way to lose that momentum – even with the early lead. The players seemed to doubt themselves throughout, giving the ball away cheaply and clearing wildly far too often for a team of this talent. They surely missed Sanchez, but certainly could have done better. And now they need to get back to winning ways to ensure the Spurs don’t continue building on that lead. In the end, Wenger set them up to win, but they failed to execute the plan effectively.

3. Tactical Troubles: One could argue that Pochettino outcoached Wenger for not the first time in his career today, though Arsenal could have stopped both goals and easily won this game 1-0. The reason they didn’t, to me, is because they need more work in this new system. It is clear Coquelin has brought power and leadership to the midfield, even as this was not his best game, but Cazorla and Ozil will need to play better defense and distribute the ball better under pressure if this system can work against high pressing teams with strong attacks. Ramsey will also have to improve or give way, as he just can’t seem to find the form of last season and appears to be as frustrated with his play as the fans are starting to become. What was really missing for me in this formation was a second DM. If you are going to play this system, you need to go the way of Man City or Chelsea, and have the sort of defensive-minded players who won’t get as easily beat as Ozil or Cazorla (though he has been better in recent weeks) too often do. Maybe Flamini could have done the job, but I think this highlights the need for that other top class DM to come in next summer – though he should have been there since last August at least! Three other points: a) while Bellerin and Monreal were not bad, there was too much room on the wings, particularly behind Bellerin, and while this was partially due to Ozil and Cazorla not helping out enough, it appeared they were playing a little too far up the pitch and need to stay back a little deeper, b) Giroud and Welbeck have to do a better job of holding the ball up and distributing it for the system to provide goals. While Welbeck made a few impressive runs, including the one that led to the opening goal, he was far too sloppy in giving the ball away, and c) It is time for real questions to be asked of Mertesacker who was partially responsible on both goals, particularly now that a 15 million pound potential replacement sits on the bench. Germany realized that his best days might already be behind him and it might be time for Wenger to come to the same conclusion.

Next up for Arsenal is a welcome trip back home to face bottom dwelling Leicester City (Wednesday) before taking on Middlesboro in the FA Cup and then heading to a relatively hot Crystal Palace. Tottenham next head to Anfield to face a slightly resurgent Liverpool (who drew 0-0 with Everton today) before facing West Ham at home and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, with Europa League games sandwiched in between. So even as it was a bad day for the Gunners, they may very well find themselves back above their North London rivals within the next week or two. That is only if they get back to playing quality football again rather quickly, though.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Stay Classy Sarah Palin

It's good to see conservatives so intent on supporting a sociopathic racist like Chris Kyle. And not surprisingly, Sarah Palin wants to get in the fray as well, though this seems a little extreme ...

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal vs. Aston Villa

Arsenal played in the early game Sunday against an Aston Villa team lingering near the heel of the table; having scored only 11 goals all season, though they do had the best defense outside the top four. Had is the instrumental word though, as that defense looked less than convincing in the first quarter of the game, as three players found themselves one on one with goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Giroud was the one to take his chance in the 8th minute, scoring his fifth in his last six games, after Walcott and Ramsey had spurned theirs earlier. The Giroud goal was assisted by a lovely clip heel lofted pass from Ozil in his first start since October 5, looking very much like the star he was at Real throughout. From there, Arsenal continued to dominate even as Villa settled into the game. Giroud spurned a second chance from 8 yards out, choosing a cute pass over a rather simple finish. Koscielny almost headed a corner in a few minutes later and then Cazorla took a pass from Giroud and charged forward, hitting the post in the 26th minute (though a last pass to Ozil would have led to a simple tap in). Ozil put it in the back of the net in the 30th minute, after a nice exchange with Cazorla, but a tight offsides on Cazorla cost them that second goal.
Arsenal were thus dominating, but still only up one nil when Ramsey almost scored from the top of the box in the 35th minute but for a decent Guzan save at the near post. In the 41st minute, Villa came close to equalizing, and ending their almost 9½ hours of league play without a goal, only kept out by a lack of power on the header and a nice save from Ospina. On a quick replay, Walcott missed another good chance, being caught from behind for a second time just outside the box with a clear pathway to the goal. And that is how the half ended, with Arsenal appearing to be four or five nil up, but in fact only leading by the early Giroud goal.

And 30 seconds into the second half, Benteke came within a couple feet of equalizing, after a nice exchange of passes by the Villains, and probably should have done better. Five minutes later, the Belgian had a free header that he sent horribly wide, after Mertesacker allowed the cross to come in unchallenged. Two good chances scorned and in the 56th minute they were made to pay for their continued profligacy, as Giroud and Ozil switched places, with the Frenchman sending a pitch perfect pass beyond the charging Villa defenders and to the German, who slotted the ball well past Guzan and into the far corner of the goal. In the 63rd minute, Theo Walcott finally finished a chance for his 50th EPL goal, after an excellent leading pass from Cazorla and first touch to complete yet another counter. Arsenal were suddenly up 3-0 and cruising. In the 70th minute, Chuka Akpom and Rosicky came on for Giroud and Walcott and less than four minutes later, Akpom used his pace to beat Guzan to the ball and earn a penalty. Cazorla was lucky to convert it after he hit Guzan’s hand, but the Gunners were up 4-0. That makes six in seven for Cazorla, with five coming from the spot as he supplants the injured Arteta as the primary penalty taker for Arsenal. In the 77th minute, Flamini came on for Ramsey, reminding that the Gunners could probably use another DM. Akpom could have scored on a free header in the 85th minute, after Mertesacker sent in a nice cross after retrieving the scraps of a corner and was sent in again early in extra time, though a second weak shot cost him. Bellerin didn’t miss his chance to score his first senior goal a minute later, sending the ball perfectly into the far corner in the 92nd goal. As time ran out, Villa almost scored their first in six, but Ospina saved at his far post and Arsenal had finished the job 5-0.

1. Villa’s Shambolic Defending/Arsenal Rousing Attack: Arsenal could, and probably should, have scored three goals in the first ten minutes of the game and four or five by halftime, but for the rustiness of Theo Walcott and the still wanting quality of Ramsey’s finishing this season; together with Giroud missing two chances, Koscielny having a header cleared on the line, a goal disallowed for a marginal offsides and a series of other near misses. Ramsey does have six goals in all competitions, but compared to the 17 from 2013-14, it appears he is too hungry to find the form that made him one of the best midfielders in the EPL before his injury last term, rushing shots, being too ambitious and missing open players. For Walcott, a slight drop in pace and confidence after a year out injured allowed Villain defenders to catch him on two occasions, but he finished the second half chance for his second in two games. But it was an impressive offensive display throughout, rewarded more in the second half obviously, but it is worth noting that this was done with Sanchez out injured with a slight hamstring problem. Ozil, in particular, should be highlighted for his impressive display throughout, leading the counter, putting the ball in the goal twice (though one didn’t count) and assisting the opener. On the other end, Villa will be concerned at how easily the Gunners went from front to back and cut apart their defense throughout the game, with at least six through balls along with all the other attacking verve, hoping to avoid the drop.

2. Coquelin Continues to Impress: Whenever Coquelin is anywhere near an opponent with the ball, he challenges that player for it. That is the role of a DM, but what is even more impressive about the young Frenchman is how often he disrupts the play, executes a perfect tackle and/or steals the ball and how infrequently he fouls in the process. It is an impressive revival for a player many of us Gooners thought we would never see play for Arsenal again, coupled with a poise on the ball and ability to push the play forward with solid passing that he didn’t exhibit before. Coquelin appears to have become the key to the entire Gunner defense in the past few weeks and might well be the difference between yet another top four finish and missing out on the Champions League for the first time under Wenger. Along with Coquelin, another young player quietly impressing for the Gunners is the right back Spaniard Bellerin, who defends better than Chambers, has a better range of passing and a better cross – as well as a decent shot (it appears!). The two are at the center of the veritable renaissance of a defense that was shipping two goals a game earlier in the season but none in the last three league games.

3. Mertesacker Malaise: there was a noticeable improvement in Per Mertesacker’s game in the first half, as he fights to keep the young hungry Brazilian Paulista from supplanting him in the starting lineup, but some less impressive defending during parts of the second might fuel speculation he will soon be taking up a place on the bench. Alongside him on the proverbial bench, should be the entire Villa offense, which has now gone over 10 hours (and 6 full games) without scoring a goal, with Benteke appearing to be a shell of the fierce presence in the box he was last season. Villa have now set a team record for futility and must be wondering where their next goal will come from and whether Paul Lambert is the right man to lead this team through the tight relegation battle they appear poised to face.

The win pushed the Gunners back into fifth place, tied with Southampton on points (though the Saints have a game in hand) and only one point behind United (with a better goal differential). They have now taken 19 of their last 24 available points heading into the North London derby at a hot Tottenham next weekend while Aston Villa head home to face Chelsea as they teeter just two points above the relegation zone.

Romney is Out!

Read about it here: New Yorker