All posts by Greg Visone

Greg’s Gambling Lines: NFL and NCAA Picks (September 29 and 30)

This has been a crazy week for me in terms of gambling. Despite going 5-5 in my inaugural Gambling Lines column last week, I lost quite a bit of my earnings from the early games betting on the Michigan-Notre Dame over/under. Despite that, I made back a small amount of cash on Sunday’s NFL games.

I had two bets on Monday Night Football, my bigger one getting decided on the final play. One of those bets was a seven-point teaser: Seahawks +10.5 and Under 53 (-130). That bet was over by halftime, but the other bet, Seahawks +3.5 was a much larger bet, and one that I profited on because of much-maligned refereeing incompetence. Honestly, I’m glad I profited, but I’m much happier that the regular referees are coming back. I’m furious with the owners for allowing this to drag on as long as it did. Anybody with half a brain knew that it would come down to someone getting cost a game (I knew it in preseason). For this to have dragged on as long as it did screams malpractice and incompetence of the highest order, and I found Jim Irsay’s tweets on Wednesday to be incredibly insulting to my intelligence.

Anyway, let’s get on to some selections. We’re going to introduce some NFL picks into the mix this week in addition to the NCAA picks. I think I’ve got some good ones this week, but nothing’s a sure thing when it comes to Vegas.

Note: Unless otherwise noted, all picks will be against the spread, and all odds are -110 (or 10/11). That means you need to bet $110 to win $100, and the ratio stays the same for however much you bet.

Thursday Night Special:

NFL + NCAA Parlay: Baltimore (-12) v Cleveland and Stanford (-7) at Washington (odds: +$273)

Stanford has had Washington’s number over the years, and in spite of Washington starting off well at home this season and having a primetime game on national television against the #8 team in the country, Stanford should be able to pull this out. As far as the NFL game is concerned, 0-3 Cleveland is traveling on short rest to face a Baltimore team riding high after sneaking away with a win on Sunday Night Football against New England. Cleveland may have a trend of playing well in primetime games, but don’t over think this one. Lay the points for both favorites tonight.

NCAA Saturday:

#25 Baylor at #9 West Virginia Under 81.5

This one was too big to turn down. Yes, both teams are very good offensively, with Baylor averaging 51.3 PPG and West Virginia 47.3. But look at the teams they’ve faced: West Virginia played Marshall, James Madison and Maryland, while Baylor played SMU, Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe. Best team of those six is Maryland, and West Virginia was held to 31 points in that game last week. Yes, this one is bound to be a shoot-out, but 82 points is a bit too high for my liking.

UConn (-16) v Buffalo

Okay, I know Connecticut is coming off a loss against Western Michigan, and yes, they’re two wins against Maryland and UMass are nothing to write home about, but come on. Buffalo lost to Kent State 23-7 at home last week, with their only TD coming courtesy of a Hail Mary at the end of the half with a catch that the receiver couldn’t make again if he got another 50 chances at it. To only be favored by 16 is a blessing in my eyes. Lay the points.

Saturday’s Big Money picks:

**Seven-point teaser #1**: #14 Ohio State (+9.5) at #20 Michigan State under 49 (-130)

This game could go either way. That being said, Michigan State’s offense has struggled in three of their first four games, and they’ve given up an average of 11.8 points per game. On the other side of the ball, Ohio State has been able to score points this year, but they haven’t really had a big test yet. Having watched Ohio State in all four games this season, I’ll say this: the offense is not as good as Urban Meyer would like it to be, and Braxton Miller is not a legitimate Heisman Candidate this year. Last year, Ohio State lost 10-7 at home to Michigan State and struggled to move the ball. Six of their seven losses last year were by a TD or less. They brought in Urban Meyer because he is one of the best coaches in the country, but the biggest thing that he’s been able to do wherever he’s gone is win games. Sounds pretty simple, no? If they’re going to be in close games this year, they will be able to win them. I think they’ll be able to leave East Lansing with a win, but just to be safe, do a teaser and give yourself a bit of a handicap.

**Seven-point teaser #2**: #22 Nebraska (-4.5) v Wisconsin under 58.5 (-130)

Nebraska’s first ever Big Ten game last year was away to Wisconsin, where the Badgers welcomed them with a 48-17 ass-whooping at Camp Randall. This year, Nebraska’s got revenge on their mind, and this would be the perfect scenario for them to get one over the Badgers. While Wisconsin’s loss to Oregon State doesn’t look as bad as it did a few weeks ago, they haven’t really impressed in their first few games. Their most impressive win was last week when they won by 11 against UTEP. If Utah State makes a field goal at the end of the game in Week 3, we’re talking about a 2-2 Wisconsin team here that was supposed to coast into the Big Ten Championship Game. While they’re probably going to represent the Leaders Division in Indianapolis, it’s clear that something isn’t quite right in Madison, and they’re going to suffer for it against Nebraska.

NFL:

San Francisco 49ers -3.5 at New York Jets

The line here is lower than it should be with the 49ers are coming off a loss in Minnesota, while the Jets are coming off an OT win in Miami. When you factor in that the Jets have lost Revis for the season, and that their offense is a disaster going up against a defense that made a habit last season out of trying to kill QBs, it’s fair to say that the bookies made it easy for bettors here. [Editor’s note: the house always wins in the long-run, Greg!]

Miami Dolphins at Arizona Cardinals Under 40

The Cardinals, much to everyone’s surprise, are 3-0 going into this game against Miami. While the offense has been consistent, putting up an average of 22.33 PPG, their defense has been the driving point, and they made a huge statement against the Eagles on Sunday. As a huge Giants fan, it’s given me a massive amount of joy to get the opportunity to see Michael Vick get popped repeatedly on television in two of the first three weeks of the season, and the Cardinals were being more vicious than a dog who just managed to survive getting electrocuted to death. They forced a number of turnovers and have been able to contain both Tom Brady and Vick the last two weeks. Miami, on the other hand, has been very efficient at stopping the run so far this season, and while they’ve given up quite a few points in the first three weeks, they should be able to do well against Arizona’s offense.

Denver Broncos -6 v Oakland Raiders

Despite getting beaten handily the first two weeks, Oakland is coming off a big win against Pittsburgh, while the Broncos have (not so surprisingly) lost two straight with Peyton at the helm. It’s fair to say that the Raiders were facing an injury-depleted Steelers lineup last week, while the Broncos have had a rather difficult start to the schedule going up against three playoff teams from last year. Even with this being a divisional game, the Broncos haven’t looked bad by any means in their first three games. I expect them to cover here against Oakland.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers -3 v Washington Redskins

As much as I hate to say it, Tampa Bay looks like a legitimate team right now. Schiano is coaching this team very well and has them fighting until the end against the teams they’ve played these first three weeks. While Washington has looked like a very good team as well in these last few weeks, I can’t help but feel as though this is one of those games where we’ll get to see a team have all of the pieces come together. I think the Bucs will pull it out here.

St. Louis Rams +3 v Seattle Seahawks

The NFC West has had a trend over the years of divisional games typically being won by the home team. This one should be no different. In spite of how horrible St. Louis looked last week, they should be able to do much better this week against Seattle. Yes, the Seahawks were impressive in their win on Monday night (even if they were handed the game by the refs at the end), but Seattle is a different team when they play at home. Seattle also loves playing on Monday night (they have the highest winning percentage in the history of MNF). However, they have not been as good on the road. I’ll take the points and expect St. Louis to win outright.

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Alright, there’s my picks for the 29th and 30th of September. Enjoy, and remember: if you’re dumb enough to bet your house on one of these recommendations, then you deserve what happens to you.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

EPL Recap Week 5: Moronic Liverpool-Manchester United Fans and John Terry Soil It All

Last weekend saw some phenomenal action in the English Premier League, with two marquee match-ups grabbing the spotlight in England: Liverpool vs. Manchester United and Manchester City vs. Arsenal. It was meant to be a great weekend of football that would be capped off by two matches would be watched by millions around the world, and as far as action was concerned, both lived up to the hype. However, I need to deviate from the usual format of “title-contender,” “mid-table,” and “relegation” in recapping the matches to point out some troublesome off-the-pitch action.

At Anfield, it was supposed to be an emotional day, as Liverpool were playing at home for the first time since the Independent Hillsborough Panel issued their report and completely exonerated the club’s fans for what had happened on 15 April 1989. Manchester United came to Anfield, with Sir Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust pleading for the traveling Manchester United fans (who were given a near-full away allocation for the first time in quite a while) to end all offensive anti-Liverpool songs and show respect to the opposing fans. Just this once, in respect of the 96.

Man United wore jumpers before the match with “96” on the back, and Luis Suarez shook Patrice Evra’s hand, thus putting that issue to bed once and for all. After a beautiful tribute on the pitch, with balloons being released into the air, flowers were presented to Ian Rush by Sir Bobby Charlton, and a three-sided crowd mosaic was put on display during the opening minute of play, the focus went back to matters on the pitch, but the hostility off it was as ripe as ever.

In the 12th minute, a select amount of traveling Man United fans could be heard clearly over the television singing “Where’s your famous Munich song” towards the rest of the ground, a reference to the chant sung by a minority of Liverpool fans about the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. Eyewitness accounts claim that this was in response to two fans at the Anfield Road end of the stadium doing the “Munich Aeroplane Pose” towards them a minute earlier. After the match, while being held in the ground by stewards as the rest of fans left, a number of fans could be heard yet again singing the aforementioned song, in addition to chants of “Always the victims, It’s never your fault” and “Mur-der-ers”, which are references to both the Hillsborough and Heysel Disasters of 1989 and 1985 (link to the video here).

Things were rather eventful on the pitch as well, with Jonjo Shelvey getting sent off for a two-footed challenge on Jonny Evans, who got nothing despite going in two-footed as well. While heading towards the tunnel, the 20 year-old Shelvey had some words with Sir Alex. After the match, which was a 2-1 Man United win, Jonjo took to twitter to apologize to the fans for getting sent off. However, he also added one other tweet, which read:

“I have also apologised to Sir Alex, just where I come from people don’t grass people up to get someone sent off.”

That has since been deleted, but it’s clear that he’ll probably see some reprimand from the FA for that remark.

Yesterday was supposed to be a chance for Liverpool and Manchester United to move on and show that there is some common decency in football in spite of what is a very heated rivalry. Alas, the lunatic/idiotic minorities in each fan-base have overshadowed the silent majorities. Just when it seemed as though society had taken another positive step, we’ve been reminded of how far we still have to go. There’s never true unity when tribalism is still in play.

After all matches had taken place on Sunday, a stunning development took place in the form of Chelsea Captain, (twice) former England National Team Captain, and overall undeserving media darling John Terry releasing a statement. The reason? He was retiring from the England National Team effective immediately. The announcement came less than 24 hours before his FA hearing in regards to the incident that had taken place last season involving Anton Ferdinand. The statement from John Terry read as follows:

“I am making this statement today in advance of the hearing of the FA disciplinary charge because I feel the FA, in pursuing charges against me where I have already been cleared in a court of law, have made my position with the national team untenable.”

Now, I’ve already explained this in a prior post on this website, but just for the sake of clarity, let me explain how fucking ridiculous this quote is. First of all, John: You are not being charged for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. You are being charged with misconduct and violating Rule E3, which deals with “bringing the game into disrepute.” Rule E3 specifically says that a player on the pitch cannot use “threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour.” It doesn’t matter what context you used them in, because The FA rules state that your intent doesn’t matter as you still used incredibly offensive language.

In addition, John, you used one, if not two “aggravating factors” as defined in the first subheading of rule E3. The aggravating factors are defined as “a reference to any one or more of a person’s ethnic origin, colour, race, nationality, faith, gender, sexual orientation or disability,” which you have admitted to doing in a court of law.

Also, the process for this charge is different than what you faced in a criminal court. The FA are not undermining the English Justice System, as they are operating under a lower burden of proof than a criminal court. You were found not guilty, because there was a reasonable doubt as to your intent. Here, you have to face the same burden of proof as Luis Suarez, known as “balance of probability,” in regards to whether or not you used the words “Fucking Black Cunt,” something that, as I have already pointed out, you have admitted to in a court of law.

John, you have no leg to stand on here. The FA has done what it believes is the right course of action and it is not untenable by any means. Why? Because they are operating by fair and consistent standards. Just because you’re an English media darling and a national hero doesn’t mean you deserve special treatment from your own governing body.

Your retirement from the English National Team is the equivalent of a spoiled little kid running to their Mom because they’ve been grounded by Dad for saying “fuck you” in response to being asked to clean their room. Your excuse? “Mom lets me say that all the time cause she knows that I don’t mean it.” Well you know what? Fuck off John.

Next week we’ll see a normal weekend EPL review, but yesterday was just too insane to focus on what happened on the pitch.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

Greg’s Gambling Lines: College Football Week 4

Okay, I’ve never had my own column for picking winners before. Alas, with my only column these days being the EPL wrap-up column every week, we had to figure something out to get me writing articles on a more regular basis [Editor’s Note: You can pitch and write on your own ideas too!]. So here’s my first ever gambling column going into tomorrow’s College Football games. If I do well, then we’ll continue it for the rest of the season. If it doesn’t go over well, then we gave it a shot. Still, it’s about time my gambling addiction came in handy.

I’ll have three “Big Money” picks this week, in addition to one specialty parlay.

Note: All picks will be against the spread, and all odds, unless otherwise noted, are -110 (or 10/11). That means you need to bet $110 to win $100, and the ratio stays the same for however much you bet.

Alright, here are my picks for this Saturday’s College Football action:

Kansas (+9) at Northern Illinois

Kansas is getting its leading rusher from last season James Sims back from suspension going into this game, but Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox have filled in for him rather well despite his absence the first three games. They’ve started off 1-2, but I think they’ve got enough here to beat the spread at Northern Illinois.

Miami (Ohio) (-24.5) v UMass

High-octane passing game at home against a team that’s coming off three consecutive spankings against BCS Conference opponents? I’ll take that. I’m weary about spotting 24 points, but willing to take the risk here.

Louisville (-13.5) at Florida International

Not exactly thrilled to be going with this pick, but Florida International beat Louisville 24-17 in their meeting at Louisville last season. Louisville’s starting off the season well, however, and should have that humiliation from last year fresh in its mind going into this one.

Washington State (-20) v Colorado

I’m going to sum this up for you rather sweetly: Colorado is fucking horrible. They’ve not only lost to Colorado State and Sacramento State in close games, but they’re also coming off a humiliating blowout to Fresno State. Lay the 20 points and expect the Buffs’ miserable season to continue in their first Pac-12 game of the season.

Arkansas (-9) v Rutgers

I know Arkansas’s got injury problems and has lost to UL-Monroe & Alabama at home, but they should be strong enough to bounce back here. Yes, Rutgers is 3-0 and coming off a big Thursday Night win at South Florida, but John L. Smith needs this game to somewhat salvage the season (and his locker room).

Under 59.5 UAB at Ohio State

The Ohio State offense has been out there for a little while, and chinks in the armor are starting to show in spite of their 3-0 start. While UAB might not get much going with the ball, they should be able to give Braxton and Co. a tough time as the Buckeyes play their last tune-up before the Big Ten schedule starts.

Three “Big Money” picks

Notre Dame (-5.5) v. Michigan

As much as I hate to say it: Notre Dame looks legit right now. The defense is playing very well, while the offense is carrying the load and doing its job so far. Michigan, however, hasn’t really had a conventional opponent since Alabama. Air Force is an option offense that Big Ten teams don’t usually run, and UMass is, well, UMass. So take Notre Dame here against the spread. Still, I’d love it if both of these teams could lose. Seriously, could we please try to make that happen?

Florida State (-14) v Clemson

Okay, before you all get started: Yes, Florida State hasn’t played anybody yet. But they’re kicking the shit out of whoever the hell they do play. I mean, you gotta be doing something right to win 69-3, 55-0 and 52-0 your first three games. Yes, Clemson is much tougher than Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest, but that defense is still suspect. Remember the Orange Bowl against West Virginia? I mean, that was only 9 months ago…

Auburn (+20.5) v Louisiana State University

This one is based on history more than anything. This is a massive rivalry game, with Auburn and LSU always playing tough (and close) games against each other in Auburn. Yes, Auburn has struggled in their early season games so far, but I have my doubts that this will be a blowout by LSU. Take the points and look for Auburn to give LSU a bit of a scare here.

*7-Point Teaser*:

South Carolina (-3 / under 55.5) v. Missouri (line: -130)

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Alright, there’s my picks. Enjoy, and remember: if you’re dumb enough to bet your house on one of these recommendations, then you deserve what happens to you.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

EPL Recap Week 4: A Rare Moment of Solidarity

This weekend’s English Premier League action has been very exciting, but the action seemed to take a back seat for the most part, because of revelations that took over 23 years to finally come to light.

The findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel were revealed on Wednesday September 12th. Thousands of documents from the disaster were being made public for the first time, and the findings confirmed that what the families of the victims, and Liverpool fans in general, had been saying about that day for over 23 years were the truth.

To sum it up in a paragraph would be incredibly disrespectful, as there’s so much more to the story that can be expressed in words. Alas, this is a football piece, and I have to try my best to do so: On 15 April 1989, 96 Liverpool fans who went to Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium for the FA Cup Semi-final against Nottingham Forest were killed by a crush that was the result of a lack of police control. The Independent Panel found that South Yorkshire Police changed or deleted 116 of 164 statements by officers to shift blame on to the fans in an orchestrated cover-up. To top it all off, it was found that ambulance services being allowed access into the ground could have saved 41 lives. They were lined up outside the stadium ready to go in but were denied access by South Yorkshire Police. Nobody to date has ever been held accountable for this disaster. After 23 years of fighting, the families have finally gotten the truth from their government, and can now begin the fight for justice and having those responsible finally be held accountable.

In the aftermath of this news coming to light, almost all grounds in England hosting a match this weekend held a tribute of some sort for the Hillsborough victims and the families of those who died. Reading played “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over the loudspeaker before their match against Tottenham. Everton held a particularly moving tribute prior to their match on Monday night against Newcastle, with Margaret Aspinall and and Trevor Hicks, heads of the Hillsborough Families Support Group and Hillsborough Justice Campaign, both of whom lost children on 15 April, in attendance. Sunderland showed a message on the screen showing their support for the families prior to their match at home against Liverpool. All of these acts are indicative of a rare moment of solidarity in English football, and it reminds us all of the fact that there is more to life than football, as we have all been reminded of the fact that 96 Liverpool fans went to a match 23 years ago and never came home.

With that solidarity being highlighted, it’s time for us to review the highlights of this weekend’s Premiership action:

TITLE CONTENDING: Man United’s 4-0 smashing of Wigan at home

I’m not gonna mention the shenanigans that took place at this match, as its already been beaten to death in the press. As far as what happened on the pitch, Man United took their chances at home and made it clear that they are back and hungry to reclaim the league title this season. After a scoreless first half, Paul Scholes got things started with a goal in the 50th minute, marking his 700th appearance for Man United with a goal at Old Trafford. Another usual suspect put the game to bed 12 minutes later, as Javier Hernandez scored to put United up 2-0. Then Alexander Büttner, making his debut for United, opened his account with a goal that resulted from a terrific run on his part, followed by a finish from a tight angle off the keeper and in. Late in the match, 17 year-old Nick Powell came off the bench for United to make his debut in front of the Old Trafford faithful, and capped it off with a debut goal of his own.

MID-TABLE: Everton 2-2 Newcastle

This was a phenomenal match. Everton started off much brighter and got the opening goal in the 16th minute on a truly great finish by Leighton Baines. Newcastle started to get something going at the end of the first half, and was able to get the equalizer early in the 2nd, courtesy of Demba Ba. The match became much more open as a result of that goal, and, in the 88th minute, Everton appeared to have snatched a late winner with a goal from Victor Anichebe. Alas, this was not to be as Demba Ba scored yet another equalizer two minutes later to seal a point for a very injury-depleted Newcastle United.

RELEGATION: Southampton loses 6-1 to Arsenal at The Emirates

This might be a bit cruel to put Southampton’s 6-1 loss as the worst performance of the week, seeing as it was against Arsenal. But having already played Manchester United and Manchester City tough but losing 3-2 in each match, in addition to a 2-0 home loss to Wigan, this one hurt for Saints fans. They conceded two own goals in this match, in addition to one from Podolski, two from Gervinho, and one from Walcott in a 6-1 drubbing. They’ve lost four straight matches in the Premier League since being promoted, with this one being the worst of the bunch. It’s fair to say that this is worthy of being distinguished as a team in relegation form.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

Confessions of a New York Giant Fan: Why Big Blue Won’t Repeat

As a lifelong Season Ticket Holder of the New York Giants, I’ve been on a nineteen-year emotional roller-coaster ride, with my mood every autumn and winter being determined by how Big Blue did in their most recent game. I’ve been in attendance for some phenomenal wins, and an equal number of devastating losses. Even while attending The Ohio State University last season, I did not miss a single game, going as far as to watch a handful of games on sketchy internet streams. Thankfully, I was able to attend the last two home Giants games of the season while on winter break, the latter of the two being a one-game playoff for the Division Crown and a spot in the playoffs. While watching the playoff games in my dorm room, my RA, fully aware of the extent of my fandom, gave me a pass on dorm rules during games, allowing me to curse and scream my head off after quiet hours as the Giants went on their second magic carpet ride to a Super Bowl Championship in five seasons (which, in turn, resulted in me being a celebratory drunk for a full week).

That Super Bowl Championship has had me in a state of euphoria for quite some time. Just as we began to think that the Giants would once again collapse in the second half of the season (which, for the record, always happens because the NFL insists on giving the Giants a back-loaded schedule. Seriously, can’t you give us a fucking break every once in a while?), they got hot at just the right time, got their star players back from injury, and went on to lift the Lombardi trophy for the fourth time in their history. Even the most pessimistic of Giants fans (such as myself) are confident about the future of the team, seeing as we have a young core of players, a remarkably strong and deep defensive line, and to top it all off, a Top-Five QB in Eli Manning who, as long as he is on the field, gives us a shot to win any game we’re in.

With all of that positivity in mind, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and make a not-so-bold prediction: The Super Bowl Champion New York Giants have too many holes to mount a serious repeat challenge.

There are a number of reasons why I believe this is gonna happen; some of these reasons are logical and based on the team’s current players and coaching staff, while others are down to pure speculation and are based on my many years as a die-hard fan. While I could easily just list them out in bullet-point fashion, I feel it necessary to give a bit more insight. For the most part, what is about to follow are my rambling thoughts on certain Giants players, most of which have been bottled up for years. So, without further ado, here’s my list of reasons why my beloved New York Giants will have a massively unsuccessful season in defense of their crown:

5) Our Linebackers Suck

I have lost count of the number of times I have cursed out Giants linebackers over the years. The Giants haven’t had had a strong core of starting linebackers in the last decade. Yes, the team has gotten by (thanks to a very strong and deep defensive line), but for a team that prides itself on having a strong defense, it has always disappointed me that the Giants have yet to find a high-caliber linebacker in recent years. Yes, Michael Boley has done a decent job, but I don’t consider him to be a top notch linebacker. Starting alongside him? Chase Blackburn in the middle and Mathias Kiwanuka as the other outside linebacker. As much as I love and appreciate Chase Blackburn for all he’s done as a Giant, he’s not a starting linebacker. Kiwanuka is a defensive end who gets thrown in at OLB in order to get him more playing time, knowing that he’ll get less snaps in the DE rotation with Tuck, Osi, and JPP in the mix. When used in the pass-rush, he is very effective. However, his run-stopping ability is well below-par. Behind these three on the depth chart are first-round bust Keith Rivers, late-round sophomore Jacquain Williams, and undrafted sophomores Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger. Fair to say that this group fails to inspire me.

4) I have no faith in the secondary

For some reason, when the Giants draft secondary players in the first or second round, they always seem to be highly disappointing. Aside from Corey Webster in 2008 and Terrell Thomas in general, I haven’t really had any trust in a Giants CB to contain a receiver since Jason Sehorn, who I affectionately refer to as the best white corner of the last quarter-century. This season is no different. I have no faith in Corey Webster or Prince Amukamara to cover receivers effectively. To make matters worse, with Terrell Thomas injured yet again and Aaron Ross (aka “The First Round Nickel CB”) leaving for Jacksonville via free agency, the Giants have very little depth behind their two starters, a fact which disturbs me given the growing tendency in the NFL to spread the ball around and rely on the passing game. While I have some faith in Kenny Phillips to continue doing the job at strong safety (especially in his contract year), I cannot say the same about Antrel Rolle. In spite of being the highest-paid safety in the league, Antrel Rolle has had largely infuriating moments as a Giant. His tendency to get stupid personal fouls is something that has always made me try to pull my hair out. All in all, in a league that depends more and more on a quarterback’s ability to slice up secondaries, this group of players gives me very little faith.

3) The Offensive Line Actually Offends Me

Having watched Football for years, I’ve held one core belief more than any other: Whether you play in high school, college, or the NFL, your games are won and lost in the trenches. The Giants offensive line has experienced a lot of upheaval in the last two years. In 2008, the Giants had, bar none, the best offensive line in the league. From right-to-left, you had McKenzie, Snee, O’Hara, Seubert and Diehl at the top of their game, enabling Jacobs, Bradshaw and Ward to run the ball all over the field and open up the passing game for Eli. The following season, the offensive line play deteriorated, which, in-turn, led to the decline of the running game. The main reason why Eli has thrived statistically the last three years is because of the running game’s decline. Last off-season, the Giants released O’Hara & Seubert, two of the aforementioned fixtures on that 2008 offensive line, and were replaced by David Baas & Stacy Andrews. In spite of these changes, the Giants had the worst rushing offense in the entire NFL last season. This off-season, hot-headed & much-maligned RT Kareem McKenzie left, as did Stacy Andrews.

In addition, David Diehl, drafted as a LG turned into a massively below-average LT, moved back to LG last season, has again been moved, this time from LG to RT, a position he has never played before in his life, meaning that only one starter from 2010, Tom Coughlin’s son-in-law Chris Snee, still has his place on the OL. From right-to-left, the offensive line this season will probably be Diehl, Snee, Baas, career backup Kevin Boothe, & William Beatty. I really think we could’ve addressed this in the first round of the draft. While I admit that David Wilson is clearly a talented running back that replaces the void created by the departure of Brandon Jacobs, I believe we could’ve addressed the need in another way and taken an offensive tackle to replace Kareem McKenzie. Cordy Glenn and Jonathan Martin were both projected first-round picks that were still on the board. By taking one of them, you could’ve plugged them in at RT & kept David Diehl at LG, his natural position, boosting the overall quality of the offensive line & potentially reviving a running game that has never been less effective than it was last season. Defenses are gonna be able to stop Eli eventually. It’d be nice to have a half-decent running game to keep them on their toes as well.

2) The Schedule is Fucking Scary (The NFC East as well)

The Giants always seem to get horrible scheduling decisions from the NFL. This usually comes in the form of a very back-loaded schedule, but the NFL has also found more creative ways to screw with Big Blue. For example, in 2009, the Giants were handed their first game on Thanksgiving Day since 1992. The catch? They had to travel approximately 1,770 miles to play the Denver Broncos away on three-days rest. The Giants lost 26-6 en route to one of the franchise’s finest in-season collapses in recent memory, going from 5-0 to 8-8 and missing out on a playoff spot. Now, I’m not saying that the schedule was entirely responsible for enabling the collapse to continue, but it certainly didn’t do us any good. This year, the NFL truly had something special in store for my beloved Jints. For the first time in NFL history, a defending Super Bowl Champion has been handed the toughest Strength-Of-Schedule of all NFL teams. It’s only fitting that the 9-7 Giants, the first ever 9-7 team to win a Super Bowl, has to be given such a horrifying obstacle. To top it all off, the schedule becomes murderous after the Week 5 game against the Browns. Starting with the San Francisco 49ers in week 6, the Giants play seven games against teams who made the playoffs last season, with the remaining four games being against division rivals. The only break the NFL gives the Giants? A week 11 bye right before a Sunday Night game against Green Bay. At least they didn’t give us the bye earlier. Thanks for that, Roger… you greedy scumbag.

In addition to the murderous schedule, the NFC East is admittedly tougher than it was last year. The Giants clinched their playoff spot the last week of the season, in what was essentially an extra playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys with the winner taking the division & the loser going home (FYI: The Jets game was also a playoff game in some respects, with the losing team needing a miracle the last week of the season to clinch a postseason berth). The Cowboys could’ve easily put the Giants to bed in Week 14. All they had to do was hold on to a 12 point lead with 4 minutes to go. The Giants and Cowboys both finished 9-7. They are clearly on similar levels. If Miles Austin catches the ball that got caught in the lights in that Week 14 game or Jason Garrett doesn’t ice his own kicker against Arizona, Dallas could’ve been the ones lifting that Lombardi Trophy last February. The Week 17 game would’ve been meaningless if one of those two situations were handled properly. In Philadelphia, the Eagles are regrouping and look very dangerous going into the season. Last year, the “Dream Team” finished the year strong, finally coming together the last four weeks of the year. This year, DeSean “The Jerk” Jackson looks sharper (no longer distracted by his contract situation), the team is deeper and has a better understanding of Andy Reid’s philosophy. In all seriousness, I think Philly is gonna win the NFC East this year and maybe, just maybe, make a deep run in the playoffs (FWIW: just writing that makes me wanna vomit). To top it all off, Washington has a new rookie QB in Robert Griffin III and a much more experienced and talented team than they did last season. Mike Shanahan, now in his third season as Head Coach, is starting to put a team together in DC. I have a weird feeling that he’s got something going on down there. If he gets it right, the rest of the division is really gonna be in trouble, and none of us want that to happen.

1) Fate

The Giants have a tendency of fucking up massively after a championship season. In many cases, it hasn’t even been because of on-field play. In 1987, a year after the team’s first Super Bowl Championship, the players went on strike mid-season, causing games to be canceled for week 3, but replacement players to be used in weeks 4-6. The Giants went 0-3 in games played by replacement players. They finished 6-9, missing the playoffs & a chance to defend their crown. Had the Giants gone 2-1 in those three games, they would’ve made the playoffs as a wild card team, potentially getting a shot to do so. In 1991, Ray Handley took over for Bill Parcells as Head Coach a year after Big Tuna won Super Bowl XXV. Handley was a mediocre head coach who wasted a perfectly good opportunity to make a name for himself with a talented Giants team coming off its second Super Bowl in five seasons, missing the playoffs in 1991 and 1992. Handley is best remembered for his inability to pick a starting QB between Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler, both of whom led the Giants to Super Bowl glory in 1986 and 1990. The controversy heavily marred his job as coach of the Giants and the team’s record failed to truly reflect the team’s ability and talent.

Those two cases aside, the most notable case of the New York Giants being unable to capitalize on a Super Bowl Championship was 2008. Coming off of a victory in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants had a much more talented team than what it had in 2007. The group was more experienced and in my opinion was the best team that Tom Coughlin has had in his eight years (going on nine) as Giants Head Coach. They Giants started the year 10-1 and were cruising going into their game against Washington. That team thought it was going to go back to the Super Bowl. They thought it was their God-given right to make it back to the Super Bowl. Then Plaxico Burress, already declared out for Sunday’s game with an injury as a precaution going into the playoffs, went into a night club in New York City two days before the game with an unregistered gun concealed in his sweatpants (the reason he was carrying the gun was because Steve Smith was robbed at gunpoint three days earlier by a stranger outside his apartment). The gun went off, shooting Plaxico in his right thigh. The magnitude of the story really didn’t sink in until after the Giants beat Washington that Sunday to go to 11-1. Plaxico reported himself to police the day after the game to face charges of criminal possession of a handgun, as Burress was carrying an expired Concealed Carrier of Weapons License from the state of Florida and was not registered in New York. Burress was suspended for the rest of the season by the Giants and released the following April. The off-field distraction, however, proved to be devastating for a team that thought it was well on its way to defending its Super Bowl crown, going 1-3 the last four games of the regular season before losing to Philly at home in their Divisional Round playoff game. Players on that team have spoken of the disappointment of that year and what might have been, many of whom still blame Plaxico for the team’s decline at the end of that season.

Honestly, knowing those three stories well, and knowing for a fact that the Giants just love to knock me down when I least expect it as a fan, I have good reason to believe that the Giants are gonna miss the playoffs this season. The team really isn’t anything to write home about right now, we’ve got an incredibly tough schedule and are playing in a division that’s gotten miles tougher. The last team to repeat as Super Bowl Champions was the Patriots in 2004. Five other teams have been able to accomplish the feat. In the age of free agency and where teams know each other much better than they did ten or fifteen years ago, let alone even further back, it’s very difficult to repeat as Super Bowl Champions, let alone follow up such a season with a decent campaign.

The Giants have a target on their back in 2012 and have a very tough schedule to go with it. If there’s any time that I’d consider it acceptable to not do very well after a Super Bowl Championship, it’d be this season. Why? Because I’m expecting it! Honestly, I’d rather they didn’t make the playoffs this year than have them tease me like they’ve done in years prior. Knowing them, however, they’ll make a point of it to be cruel and kick me when I’m most vulnerable. Honestly, this could go either way. But I can honestly say that the Giants won’t win the Super Bowl this season, and I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs either. But hey, I’ve seen them win two Super Bowls in my lifetime. That’s two more than I ever thought I’d see…

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

EPL Recap Week 1: “It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint!”

With the opening weekend of the English Premier League season behind us, it’s worth noting that the League Table is going to look very different in May compared to how it looks now. Yes, some teams got some very good results, while others faltered or disappointed. But it’s worth noting that this is a marathon of a competition, and even if you win big in your opening match, you could still play like shit in your next 37 matches and get relegated. The tortoise always wins over the hare.

There are two perfect quotes in my opinion to describe the Premier League. Both of them come from Brian Clough, who won the Football League with Derby County and Nottingham Forest back in the 1970s. When Clough was being interviewed by the BBC’s John Motson, he was asked what Nottingham Forest’s priorities were for the upcoming season, given that they were defending the European Cup and seen as favorites in contention for the Football League, FA Cup, and League Cup. Clough responded in a rather bold and hilarious manner:

“The Football League, always has been and always will be (our top priority). I would gladly go out of the European Cup, the Football League Cup, and the FA Cup, which we’re not even in yet. I would gladly go out of all of them tomorrow if you could guarantee me winning the Football League.”

John Motson quickly asked why Clough felt so strongly about the Football League being his top priority. Clough responded in a rather harsh manner yet again, but he did so with a lot of insight, making it clear how tough it really is to win a League Championship:

“Because that (the Football League) is the one that you have to have every single aspect of football management about you to win it. You’ve got to have endurance, you’ve got to have talent, you’ve got to be a little bit daft, you’ve got to have strength, psychology, you name it, and of course, you’ve got to have very good players, but it’s a real endurance battle over nine or ten months.”

That’s what makes this competition so special in my opinion. You could have the talent to win against the best teams in the league on your day, but over the course of nine or ten months, all of your results will be averaged out by the strength of your overall playing squad and how you’ve done throughout the season. To win the football league is an accomplishment that isn’t taken lightly. It’s always deserved by the winners. You can’t call it a fluke. Maybe injuries play a part, but it’s the responsibility of the team to keep playing and to ensure that the injuries don’t effect the results too much.

Every week, I’ll be writing a quick recap of the weekend’s games, highlighting the “good,” “bad,” and “ugly” action. We’ve labeled this “Title Contending,” “Mid-Table,” and “Relegation.” Now when teams or players are mentioned under these specifications, it doesn’t mean that they’re title contending or relegation sides, it just means that for that week, their performance was worthy of such a distinction. Although the entire league is a marathon, I’ll be highlighting the, um, jogs that happen every week that ultimately make up the race.

TITLE CONTENDING: Newcastle’s 2-1 win over Spurs sends Premier League the message: “We’re Here to Stay”

Last season, Newcastle floated around the Top Four in spite of making very few high-profile moves a year after selling Andy Carroll for £35m to Liverpool. Many thought they would fade away eventually, and while they didn’t finish Top Four, they stayed around & endured. They’re in a position to push forward from there and maybe make a run into the Top Four. Alas, they were being forgotten by a lot of pundits, with the likes of Spurs and Chelsea being picked to finish above them. With the likes of Demba Ba (16 goals last season) and Papiss Demba Cisse (13 goals in 13 starts last season), this strike force can carry Newscastle far. This huge win against Spurs at home does indeed send the message to the rest of the Premier League’s big dogs that Newcastle is here to stay, and St. James’ Park is a scary place to play.

MID-TABLE: Manchester United struggle at Goodison Park as Everton pulls off a 1-0 stunner on MNF

After losing the Premier League in the final seconds last season against city rivals Manchester City, Manchester United came out with guns blazing in the transfer market, looking to reclaim the top spot in the league and the city. United brought in Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie in the off-season, but it was Everton who started their Premier League campaign with a bang on Monday Night. The Blues dominated the majority of the night, with Marouane Fellaini scoring from a corner in the 57th minute to send Goodison Park into a rapturous roar. It was a deserved victory for Everton, with Robin van Persie’s Manchester United debut being a less-than-stellar performance off the bench.

RELEGATION: Norwich City and QPR each lose 5-0

On Friday, the mood around Fulham FC was one of nervous disposition given Martin Jol’s not-so-shocking admission that Clint Dempsey would not play for Fulham in their season opener against Norwich City and had requested a transfer to Liverpool. Fulham, minus Dempsey, went on to smash Norwich City in their opening match of the season, winning 5-0 at Craven Cottage, as Duff, Petric, Kacaniklic and Sidwell scored the goals in a nightmare debut for Norwich City manager Chris Hughton.

While Chris Hughton’s Norwich City debut was much less than desirable, Michael Laudrup’s Swansea City debut could only be described as a dream start, as his boys went on to crush QPR 5-0 at Loftus Road. If that sounds familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of QPR’s Premier League opener last season, when they lost 4-0 at home to Bolton Wanderers. QPR had the last laugh, however, as they stayed up on the last day of the season, while Bolton were relegated thanks to numerous injury problems and other issues. It’s just a simple yet ever-so-true reminder of the fact that the league is not won and lost in the first week of the season.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

Why the John Terry Racism Episode is FAr from over…

Over the weekend, Chelsea Defender John Terry walked out of Westminster magistrates court a free man after chief magistrate Howard Riddle found him not guilty of a “racially aggravated public order offence.” In other words, the judge said that he could not conclusively prove that when JT said the words “fucking black cunt” to Queens Park Rangers Defender Anton Ferdinand, that he was not repeating them back to him sarcastically in response to Anton thinking he heard the words.

In the aftermath of the verdict yesterday, I watched Sky Sports News for quite a while. After the first hour, the way they reported the story made it seem as though the case was over and that John Terry was an innocent man. People on my Twitter timeline, the majority of which are Liverpool fans, thought that the case was over and that John Terry, despite the video evidence, was gonna get away with yet another heinous act.

I’m writing this piece to tell you this: Contrary to popular belief, the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand racism case is not over. The fat lady isn’t singing yet. Quite frankly, she hasn’t even started warming up.

I wasn’t bothered by the not guilty verdict. Having followed the trial, I fully expected him to be found not guilty, because there was no sufficient proof beyond a reasonable doubt that John Terry wasn’t telling the truth as far as his testimony was concerned. Besides, if he was found guilty, the punishment would’ve been in the area of a £2.5k fine—peanuts for a man making £150,000-a-week in wages. Regardless of the verdict, one thing was certain in my mind: John Terry would be charged by The FA after the criminal trial ended. There, he would have to fight against the dreaded legal burden known as “balance of probabilities,” (a burden of proof that’s much, much, much less than a “reasonable doubt,” as Luis Suarez can attest to) and face much greater punishments in the region of a six-match ban and a five-figure fine.

In the first hour of their coverage of the verdict, Sky Sports News interviewed a former FA executive and Anton Ferdinand’s lawyer. Both of them said that the matter was far from over and that the FA now would launch their own investigation to try to figure out what had happened, much like they did in the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra case. The FA even released a statement on their website, where they stated that their own investigation was now underway. For some reason, SSN didn’t show those two interviews again for the rest of the day, nor did they mention the FA statement. Instead, it was back to singing the praises of Brave John Terry, the wrongly defamed former England Captain who can do no wrong.

The former FA Executive and Anton Ferdinand’s lawyer are correct: this matter is far from over. The FA will launch an investigation and, should they simply look at the court evidence, or even the televised footage of the game, will find that there is enough substance to Anton Ferdinand’s statement to charge John Terry with misconduct, having violated Rule E3.

Rule E3, under the sub-heading “General Behavior”, holds the following language in its first point:

“A participant shall at all times act in the best interests of the game and shall not act in any manner which is improper or brings the game into disrepute or use any one, or a combination of, violent conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour.”

As you could see in the TV coverage, John Terry did indeed say “fucking black cunt” to Anton Ferdinand. He used those indecent words. Regardless of whether or not he meant what he said, he did say them. That alone merits an FA Charge for the former England Captain.

The sub-heading’s next point specifically covers the use of racial abuse:

In the event of any breach of Rule E 3(1) including a reference to any one or more of a person’s ethnic origin, colour, race, nationality, faith, gender, sexual orientation or disability (an “aggravating factor”), a Regulatory Commission shall consider the imposition of an increased sanction, taking into account the following entry points:

For a first offence, a sanction that is double that which the Regulatory Commission would have applied had the aggravating factor not been present.

For a second offence, a sanction that is treble that which the Regulatory Commission would have applied had the aggravating factor not been present.

Any further such offence(s) shall give rise to consideration of a permanent suspension.

As mentioned above, John Terry did indeed say to Anton Ferdinand “fucking black cunt”. That is a reference to Anton Ferdinand’s race. Regardless of whether not there was intent, John Terry’s actions violated rule E3. He has admitted to saying those words in court. As a result, he should be expecting an FA charge.

In spite of this, however, I’ve received quite a few replies from people on Twitter saying that if the FA charged John Terry, they would be undermining the English Judicial System. I don’t believe this to be true, because of the lowered burden of proof The FA would require for a conviction to be handed out, they would be able to charge Terry and prosecute him under their own jurisdiction in a court independent of the English Justice System.

If you don’t understand that, I’ll give you an example: OJ Simpson, Hall of Fame half-back for the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, was infamously charged with the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. In the criminal trial, OJ Simpson was found not guilty of the murder, thus escaping criminal punishment. OJ, however, was found to be liable for damages in the civil trial. The jury in the civil trial only needed to determine that there was a preponderance of evidence on either side to reach a verdict. That civil trial did not undermine the American Justice system because it took place in a separate court and required a much lower burden of proof to find OJ guilty.

If charged by The FA, the burden of proof John Terry would have to fight against is “balance of probabilities,” a ridiculously low standard which makes it so that if one side is found to be more credible than the other, even by a marginal amount, the court will find in their favor. That was the burden of proof that Suarez had to face when Evra accused him. He was found guilty under “balance of probabilities,” forever branded a racist, in spite of the fact that The FA and Patrice Evra have said that they don’t believe Suarez to be a racist.

I personally believe that the burden of proof in that sort of case is far too low, because it can irreparably harm the reputation of someone with what would be considered a lack of evidence in a criminal court. That being said, Suarez did admit to referring to the color of Patrice Evra’s skin. It is because he admitted to referring to the color of Evra’s skin that he was found guilty of misconduct, thus violating rule E3. The FA acted within their guidelines and ruled as they saw fit. By those guidelines, they got it right.

I no longer argue the Suarez ruling. I’ve accepted it and, while I still have problems with how it was handled, I’ve have moved past it. The one thing I would like, however, is consistency from The FA in the application of their rules. Now is the time to hold John Terry to the same standards and charge him with misconduct, as he has clearly violated the same rules as Suarez. They would not be undermining the English Justice system because they would be holding him to a lower burden of proof than the criminal court.

To top it all off, if they do not charge John Terry for directing the words “fucking black cunt” at a player on the field at one of their own top-flight matches, an act which was caught on camera and broadcast live around the world, they can no longer act as the moral compass of the football world when it comes to racism and bigotry, something which they have taken great pride in over the last decade. Remember the BBC Panorama special about racism and antisemitism at Polish and Ukrainian football matches occurring regularly? If Terry doesn’t get charged, the country would have no right to show that and act as though they’re on a higher moral pedestal than the rest of the world.

If Terry isn’t charged, it allows Liverpool fans such as myself and Justin to scream of a double standard as Luis Suarez, a Uruguayan international with a black grandfather, has been found guilty of violating rule E3; yet John Terry, an England international who has slept with his teammate’s girlfriend, verbally abused Americans at a pub in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and been stripped of the England Captaincy TWICE, has been allowed to walk free. What does that say to the rest of the world, as well as black players in the game today? It certainly doesn’t come as positive that’s for sure.

To quote Will Smith, “I ain’t heard no fat lady!” I hope you haven’t heard one either.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

The League Cup and The Europa League: “A Pot Worth Winning” or Self-Inflicted Curses?

The Europa League began this week, so Greg hashed out the blessings and curses of the competition and England’s League Cup.

As a Liverpool FC fan, I can honestly say that I enjoyed watching the 2011-2012 Carling Cup (which will properly be referred to as “The League Cup” for the rest of this article because of the impending name change). Needless to say that us winning the competition played a huge part in my enjoyment, but even if we had lost in the Semi-Final or Final of the competition, I could honestly say that I enjoyed every single minute of it. From pummeling Exeter City handily in the second round to winning a phenomenal Final on penalties against Cardiff City, the entire cup run was, far and away, one of my favorite parts of the season.

However, The League Cup isn’t universally considered to be a major trophy by a significant amount of English Football. This is partially because of the competition’s relatively low Prize Fund; losing semi-finalists receive £25,000 apiece, the runner-up £50,000, and the winner £100,000. To put that in perspective, the FA Cup Prize Fund rewards £900,000 to the runner-up & £1.8m to the winners. In other words, Liverpool made nine times more losing to Chelsea in the FA Cup Final than they did for defeating Cardiff City in the League Cup Final.

Because of the competition being seen as a “Mickey Mouse Cup” by fans, managers, and clubs as a whole, some managers use it as an excuse to play a weakened side or give young players a chance to get first team experience. One Premier League manager who preferred for many years to play weakened sides in the League Cup is Arsenal Manager Arsène Wenger, who described it as a “non-trophy” in early 2010. His preference to play young players in the League Cup has been mirrored by other top-flight managers.

Another big issue with the League Cup is a relatively new perception by many that focusing on the competition has had a tendency to negatively affect results at the end of the season. This has been exemplified of late by Liverpool’s fall from grace after winning the Cup this season, in addition to Birmingham City getting relegated after winning it in 2011 coinciding with Finalists Arsenal going from title contenders to fourth place in the aftermath.

This belief that success in the League Cup has a negative effect on league form is very similar to another theory: that being in the Europa League has an adverse effect on clubs while in the competition.

The Europa League, known as the UEFA Cup until the 2009/10 season, is Europe’s second-tier cup competition. Founded in 1971, the format for this competition has changed constantly & drastically over the years, as UEFA has merged the “Cup Winners’ Cup” & Intertoto Cup into the competition, expanded the number of teams that qualify, the number of rounds, etc. for a number of different reasons. The Europa League’s current format consists of four qualifying rounds, a 48-team “Group Stage” (from which the top two teams in each group advance), and is closed out by four two-legged knockout rounds, the first of which contains the 24 teams that advanced from its Group Stage in addition to the eight third-place finishers in the Champions League. The last two teams remaining play in a 90-minute Final held at a pre-arranged “neutral” venue. The winner of the tournament automatically qualifies for the group stage of the tournament the following season.

Since being rebranded and re-formatted in 2009, the Europa League has, for the most part, been an entertaining competition. Teams such as Athletic Bilbao, Fulham, and S.C. Braga have made entertaining runs and reached the Final of the competition, defeating the likes of Manchester United, Juventus, and Liverpool on their cinderella runs. It’s a competition that produces entertaining football and gives the fans some enjoyable moments along the way.

However, the Europa League, much like the League Cup, has its problems. While most of Europe enjoys the competition and treats it seriously, clubs, pundits, fans, and managers in the UK view it in a very negative light, and consider the competition to be more of a burden than anything else. Playing on Thursday nights, half the time with kickoff being at 6 PM, isn’t exactly the most entertaining thought for clubs that consider themselves to be a part of the most competitive league in the world. The competition is shown on Channel 5, the UK’s least appealing basic network, a fact which was subject of a chant from United fans as a way of ridiculing LFC for the better part of the two seasons they were in the Europa League (“Thursday night, Channel Five!” repeated at nauseum). For the most part, the competition isn’t even shown on live television outside of Europe, with most hardcore foreign fans watching via internet streams on very sketchy websites, making the appeal even bleaker.

Playing on Thursday nights means having to play the majority of your league matches on Sunday, giving your side just Friday and Saturday to rest prior to a match against a league opponent. When you consider the fact that you might have to fly back from Lichtenstein for a Europa League game on a Thursday night prior to playing at Old Trafford in a league match on Sunday afternoon, it’s understandable why teams might not take the competition as seriously as UEFA would like.

The big problem with playing in the Europa League is the adverse affect it supposedly has on a team’s League form. By only having two days’ rest and enduring some long travels prior to returning home, teams supposedly suffer as a result of being in the Europa League. This is especially bad for clubs that are aspiring to get into the Champions League (such as Liverpool and Tottenham), as Champions League qualification in England is based almost solely on finishing in the Top Four. If you’re stuck in the Europa League and have a faltering League form, you’re stuck in this zone of mediocrity. It’s a ridiculous catch-22 in some people’s minds: By losing in the Europa League, you feel ashamed about getting eliminated from Europe’s second-tier competition, which could have an adverse effect on morale and an already mixed League form. But if you win, you have to keep playing in this second-tier European competition and risk fixture congestion and continuously faltering league form at the sake of winning a European competition which has a winners payout that’s equivalent of a Champions League Quarterfinalist that had to play 5 less matches to earn the same amount of money.

That’s the big problem with the Europa League today: the supposed “big clubs” have no incentive to go out and win it. The luster of the competition is not what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. It doesn’t pay as much as the Champions League does, and if you win, you seal a spot in next year’s competition, which is where you’ll probably play because your league form wasn’t good enough to qualify for the Champions League. With that, your cycle of mediocrity continues, and goes on and on and on until either you get lucky and somehow get back into the Champions League or fall out completely, which is even more humiliating and degrading than being in the Europa League.

So, all of the above in mind, the question must be asked: are the League Cup and Europa League competitions worth focusing on at the sake of sacrificing a club’s League form? Is either competition, in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, “A pot worth winning”?

The first answer to this, at least in my opinion, is that it’s relative to each club. If you are a club that has an ambition of getting into the Champions League, you play your reserves in those competitions and focus on winning in your domestic league. If you advance, then great, it’s a bonus. If you get eliminated, who gives a fuck? That’s the beauty of the League Cup in some ways: if you lose, some fans really don’t care, and if you win, at least you can say that you won one more trophy than the majority of teams that season (yes, Arsenal, I’m looking at you.).

In spite of the relevence of a competition to a club’s goals for the season being a major factor in determining whether or not a trophy is “a pot worth winning,” there is another spectrum to the argument that I can’t ignore, and that’s playing a weakened side just because you don’t give a fuck. Why in God’s name would any club play a weakened side and then have the nerve to charge fans for the right to come in and see the reserves play in a competition that you don’t care about? It’s horrifying. Obviously, exceptions to this rule do exist (e.g. Man United not charging season ticket holders for Europa League tickets as a part of their auto-cup scheme), but numerous clubs have made this such a regular practice in the Europa League and League Cup that bigger headlines are made when a club doesn’t charge for a match than when they jack ’em up, a fact which, as a sports fan, sickens me to my core.

Another factor that hurts is the lack of pride that a club portrays in playing a weakened side. It literally says to the opposition and the fans: “We’re sorry, we don’t care about this match, so we’re gonna send out the reserves to play this game, and if you don’t like it, then screw off. Also, if you’d like to buy a ticket for a match we actually give a fuck about, please go down to the box office after the game.” On top of that, if you get eliminated, it’s even more humiliating and degrading, because not only did you lose to a lower league side, but you didn’t even bother to send out a half-decent side. You didn’t even go for it.

That’s what hurt most for me when LFC lost to Northampton Town in the League Cup in 2010. Gerrard and Torres were both on the bench, and youngster Nathan Eccleston was handed his 2nd club cap (He has yet to appear in a League match and hasn’t been seen in the LFC first team since). Roy Hodgson put out such a poor side that he was essentially saying to the fans in attendance “We’re not even gonna bother advancing in this tournament. Thanks for your money, but we’re not sorry for being piss poor today against a League Two side at home.” What pride is there in that? That’s right: There’s none.

Look, I’d love to see Liverpool make it back into the Champions League next season, but I’m of the belief that every match, regardless of the competition, is one worthy of a full-strength side. We should be going into this season with the intention of winning every competition we’re in. Playing a few reserves in a match isn’t a bad idea every once in a while, and sometimes it’s necessary with injuries, suspensions, and matters that are out of a Manager’s control. But if I was told before last season started that I’d get to choose between seeing Liverpool finish Top Four or have a shot at a Cup Double, with no gray area in between, I would’ve honestly chosen the Cup Double. Because that means that the fans would get the chance to go to Wembley three times and have some fun along the way. It also would’ve meant two shots at winning our first trophy in six years compared to a single year in the Champions League.

The last season, while incredibly frustrating, was a lot of fun and gave me some memories I’ll never forget. A cup run, regardless of what competition it is, can be just as exciting, if not more exciting than finishing fourth. From Bellamy’s goal against Man City to Kuyt’s winner against Man United to Carroll’s winner against Everton, all three were cup moments from this season that put me and other Liverpool fans on Cloud Nine. We celebrated each goal like it was a goal that had won us the Premier League. Each moment made the fans happy. That’s why any trophy is “a pot worth winning” in my book, because at the end of the day, professional football would not exist without the fans themselves. When you win a competition, you win it for those people in the stands, not owners or sponsors or anybody else. I know that’s a minority opinion, and it’s old fashioned, but I stand by it 100%.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

The Breakdown: Spain vs. Italy Euro 2012 Final Preview

Here’s the first article from contributor Greg Visone.

Historically speaking, this is probably the best Euro Final matchup we could’ve asked for. This is only the fourth time that the Final of the European Championship is a rematch between teams that met earlier in the competition (the other three: Soviet Union v The Netherlands in Euro 88, Czech Republic v Germany in Euro 96 & Portugal v Greece in Euro 2004). There is, however, a lot more history to Spain-Italy than the 1-1 draw we saw earlier this month in Group C action.

Spain and Italy have played each other thirty times, with Italy having a marginally better overall record, boasting a 10-12-8 record (win-draw-loss) against La Roja. The record, however, does not show the whole story. These two countries have played each other five times in major competitions. At the 1934 World Cup, hosts Italy defeated Spain 1-0 in their quarterfinal replay en route to winning their first ever World Cup.

The two teams would not play each other in a major tournament for nearly fifty years, until they were drawn together in Group B at Euro 1980, another tournament hosted by the Italians. They drew 0-0 in their first group stage match, with Italy finishing second in the group and Spain last. Italy went on to finish fourth in the competition.

At Euro 88, Italy defeated Spain 1-0 in their Group A match. Much like Euro 1980, Italy would advance from the group stage at the expense of Spain. Italy also went on to defeat Spain 2-1 in their 1994 World Cup quarterfinal match, with Italy’s Roberto Baggio winning it in the 88th minute for the Italians at Foxboro. Italy would go on to lose the World Cup Final on penalties against Brazil, with star man Roberto Baggio missing the ultimate penalty at the Rose Bowl.

Spain would finally get a leg-up in this rivalry with a win over the Italians at Euro 2008, when they won their quarterfinal matchup on penalties. Spain would go on to win the tournament, hoisting their first major trophy since they won Euro 1964 on home soil.

Now that we have the history of this matchup out of the way, we can finally focus on how the two teams might focus tactically against each other in the Final.

Spanish coach Vincente Del Bosque isn’t going to change his tactics or lineup just because it’s the Final. The thing about this Spain side that I love is that they will not deviate from their style of play for any opponent. They will go into this match with their thought process being “We are Spain, we’re gonna pass you to death, and eventually pass it right into the net. You know what we’re gonna do, now try and stop it.” That is the mindset of a side that’s won the last two major tournaments they’ve competed in (as much as I’d love to count the Confederations Cup, I won’t do it because it’d be wrong).

For the most part, Spain’s lineup will be a formality: Casillas in goal, with Pique, Sergio Ramos, Arbeloa, and Alba at the back four; Busquets, Xavi, Alonso, Iniesta, David Silva are going to play straight across the midfield. What will be interesting to see is whether or not Spain will have a striker in the starting XI—the first time Spain and Italy faced each other, Spain had midfield maestro Cesc Fábregas line up alongside the other five midfielders, leaving high-quality strikers Fernando “Judas” Torres, Fernando Llorente, and Álvaro Negredo on the bench. This “False 9” formation is what AC Roma invented with Francesco Totti in Fabregas’s role. More recently, Barcelona has employed with a False 9 with Messi up front.

Naturally, Spain dominated possession and passed Italy to death, with their goal coming from a wonderful build-up, as Xavi found Iniesta, who found Silva right outside the box, who in turn put in a perfect through-ball for Fabregas, who passed it right into the back of the net past Gigi Buffon to equalize.

The big problem with their no striker formation was their lack of possession in the final third. They gave the ball away very easily, mostly because each of the six midfielders looked for someone else to finish off the chances. In short: Fabregas is no Totti and certainly no Messi. When striker Fernando Torres came on, his presence enabled them to keep possession more in the final third and made them look more likely to score. He created channels between the center-backs—his movement always had to be marked 1v1, allowing Spain to more effectively overload the final third. Torres’s finishing was poor, however, with him snatching at chances in a very similar fashion to what we’ve seen from him at Chelsea the last year and a half. Despite Torres’s toothless finishing, Spain has won their two games with him starting by a combined score of 5-0. Without him? 3-1 on aggregate.

Del Bosque hasn’t started Torres in the knockout stage, so don’t expect any changes. Either Negredo or Fabregas will occupy that False 9 role. Spain have enough quality midfielders to be able to play the way they’d like to in this Final. Yes, they’ll have to bring on a striker eventually, but they’re going play very cautious and try to put themselves in a position to win the last half-hour of the match. They’re going to focus on keeping possession the way that they have the last half-decade. It’s what got them to this date with history. They’re looking to become the first country to win three consecutive major tournaments, and they’re one win away from doing just that. Now is no time to deviate from their strategy.

While Italy has yet to go behind at any stage, they’ve not been very convincing overall. They’ve done just enough at every stage to get through, which, at the end of the day, is all that really matters. They started off the tournament with two draws against Spain and Croatia, which had them needing to defeat Ireland and have Spain defeat Croatia for them to go through, in addition to a bunch of whacky scenarios because of the Euro 2012 Group Stage tiebreakers being very self-contradictory (As a side note, I’d like to make the following request to UEFA: for Euro 2016 in France, please just use goal difference to decide tie-breakers. As much as I loved the chaos you caused, it was just too confusing. I mean, for once, FIFA actually has done something better than you. Think about that). They took the lead early against Ireland, went on to win 2-0, and, thanks to some great goalkeeping by Iker Casillas, got the 1-0 Spain win they needed to advance to the knockout stages.

Italy would not be here if it wasn’t for Spain defeating Croatia. Imagine how Spain would feel if they lost tomorrow. It would have them wishing they’d come to that rumored “gentleman’s agreement” with Croatia to draw 2-2 and assure each side went through and knocked Italy out.

As far as performances have been concerned, Andrea Pirlo, star midfield maestro for Serie A Champions Juventus, has led the Italians from day one. His through-ball to super-sub Antonio Di Natale gave Italy the lead against Spain the first time they met in this tournament (which I’ve referenced far too often in so far in this piece). He then scored a stunning free kick against Croatia to give them lead five minutes before the halftime whistle. His free kick against Ireland in the 35th minute gave Italy the lead against Ireland, as it found the head of AC Milan’s Antonio Cassano. Pirlo sealed the win for Italy in the dying moments as his corner found Mario Balotelli, Italy’s leading scorer in this tournament, as he finished it off in stunning fashion. His cheeky penalty against England is yet another highlight of his tournament performance so far, as he chipped it past and already committed Joe Hart in a show of his pure footballing class. He also made a save on the goal-line off a corner against Germany in the first five minutes, which, if it had gone in, might’ve changed the course of the match from there on out. Barring a calamitous performance against Spain in the Final, he is all-but assured to be declared the best player of the tournament by UEFA when the full-time whistle is blown.

Mario Balotelli’s two goals against Germany saw them through to the Final in Kyiv, but like his first goal of the tournament against Ireland, both goals were the product of beautiful passes, with Cassano evading two defenders before putting in the beautiful cross (which he headed in brilliantly) and the beautiful through-ball by Montolivo to set up the second, which saw Balotelli through on goal behind the chasing German defense, something very uncharacteristic of the pre-tournament favorites.

Italy lined up in a standard 3-5-2 against Spain in the Group C encounter, with Giaccherini and Maggio on the wings of the five-man midfield. The primary means of attack for Italy in this formation was through-balls to Balotelli and Cassano, while trying to disrupt the incredibly talented midfield of Spain. Di Natale went on for an already booked Balotelli in the 56th minute before scoring on the aforementioned through-ball from Pirlo slightly after the hour mark. They also lined up in a 3-5-2 against Croatia, but Pirlo played more of a defensive midfield role.

Since the Ireland match, Italy have lined up in a 4-1-3-2, with Pirlo as a defensive midfielder, playing directly behind Thiago Motta or Montolivo, with Marchiso and De Rossi on the wings. Abate would then come in as a right back, moving Chiellini to left back from his center back role in the 3-5-2, with Barzagli and Bonucci being the center back pairing. I would expect Italy to line up in this formation for the final against Spain. However, because of the success of the 3-5-2 in the opening match, I would not be surprised if Prandelli reverted back to that for the rematch.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

As much as I’d love to see Italy win the Final for the sake of my bet, something tells me that this Spanish team has come too far to lose now. They’re on the brink of becoming the greatest national team side ever by winning three consecutive major international tournaments. To lose now would be as brutal as it gets. That being said, I expect both sides to play cautiously. I’m gonna bet $5 on a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes, which is currently going off at 5/1. I think Spain will either win 1-0 in extra time or seal the win on penalties.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny