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    Here's The Pitch: Sept. 9, 2013

    Monday, September 9, 2013, 4:53 PM [General]

    FREE KICK: So what's been going on since we last got together? Whether it's the masterpiece theatre presented by the Barclays Premier League or the grand stage of the international game, soccer has produced plenty of drama. Let's find out who deserves to take a bow, and who needs to make way for an understudy. It's time to kick start this thing. 

    BARCLAYS PREMIER LEAGUE: The first act involves Gareth Bale. As early as December of 2012, I declared my allegiance to the Welshman as the Premier League’s 2012-13 MVP, and arguably the third best player in Europe (behind Messi and Ronaldo). While it was my hope that Bale and Tottenham Hotspur would have a lengthy marriage, money will always be an attractive and irresistible mistress. Real Madrid shed nearly 100 million Euros to import Bale from the premiership, and now they, and by extension La Liga, are dating one of the sport’s most desirable players; meanwhile, without their leading man, Spurs has scored just two goals in their first three League matches.  

    There was a character from the 1970’s TV show "The Mod Squad" named Linc who had a well-coiffed afro to go along with a cool persona. Marouane Fellaini can match Clarence Williams III north of the scalp, however, when in the glare of the spotlight, the Belgian is more Miley Cyrus than James Bond. With Manchester United sputtering like a Volkswagen on a cobblestone street, manager David Moyes plucked his former Everton player to firm up a flabby and unsightly Red Devils midsection.  

    Moving on to Arsenal, after an opening day loss to Aston Villa, Arsene Wenger must have felt like Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Thumbs down was the verdict across north London with the belief that the Frenchman was pinching pennies, but wins over London rivals Fulham and Tottenham have turned those thumbs upside down, and with the arrival of underrated Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid, it appears that Arsenal will be serious championship contenders throughout the campaign.

    Overall, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" can best describe the action on the pitch. Liverpool undefeated? Man U not within the top four? Jose Mourinho with some head-scratching decisions at Chelsea? Hold on tight passengers, the 2013-14 season promises to be a roller-coaster ride.

    UNITED NATIONS: It's often been said that revenge is a dish best served cold, and after the USA defeated Costa Rica in blizzard conditions six months ago in Denver, the Ticos declared war - and while CR won last Friday's battle 3-1 in San Jose, Uncle Sam's Army remains poised to plant the Stars and Stripes for CONCACAF supremacy and book a first-class ticket to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.

    As for Mexico's shocking 2-1 home loss to Honduras on that same Friday night and the sacking of manager Jose Manuel de la Torre minutes after the contest: I refuse to love thy neighbor. El Tri are in fourth place and currently sit on the outside looking in, as only the first three teams automatically qualify for the World Cup, and Mexico’s soccer team would lose an unopposed popularity contest amongst US soccer supporters. All eyes are now on Columbus, Ohio, site of Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier.

    That's it for now. Hit me back with your questions and comments: nbaker@yesnetwork.com.

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    Here's The Pitch: Kicking off the 2013-14 Calendar

    Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 12:37 PM [General]

    FREE KICK: I liken this blog to a car, and a shiny, new 2013-’14 model is just about ready to roll out of the showroom floor and hit the road. But first, let’s take a test drive and kick the tires concerning some of the issues that caught my attention the past two-and-a-half months of the BPL offseason.

    MANAGERIAL MERRY-GO-ROUND: The typical summer breeze was more like a windstorm these past three months within the Barclay’s Premier League, and as usual, the bulk of the huffing and puffing was blown by the League’s big men on campus.

    Sir Alex Ferguson’s unexpected retirement from the good-ship Manchester United had the most strength, and while we can agree that all good things eventually come to an end, this observer believed that the most successful manager in the history of British football still had many miles left to travel. But, taking the baton for the next leg of United’s journey is David Moye; while at Everton, Moyes hardly had the tools that many of his peers enjoyed, however the boyish-looking Scot was still able to craft a sturdy structure worthy of European consideration on an annual basis.

    Other pieces that moved upon the BPL chess board included Roberto Martinez, who checked from relegated Wigan to Everton, Man City’s hiring of Manuel Pellegrini, and Stoke’s employment of Mark Hughes, but check-mate was provided by the grandmaster, Jose Mourinho, who following a fairly successful stint at Real Madrid has rejoined the world’s top domestic league. Buyer beware, though, as Mourinho has had more movement than Ex Lax, and as to whether or not the Chosen One lasts five years at Chelsea, I’m taking the under.

    TOURNAMENT TUSSLES: France was crowned King of the Under-20 World Cup which took place throughout Turkey, and while an afternoon nap had more drama than their victory against Uruguay in the final, the tournament as a whole was more Van Gogh than Pollock.  Several soccer scribes felt the U.S team under-achieved by not advancing past the group stage, and upon closer inspection, our fate was sealed before the  tournament’s first tackle when the Red, White and Blue was placed shoulder-to-shoulder alongside France (the eventual champions), Ghana (a semi-finalist that lost to France), and Spain (one of the pre-tournament favorites).  Still, three cheers to head coach Tab Ramos, who had his team employ an up-tempo, attacking groove reminiscent of a James Brown gig.

    In my view, Brazil’s 3-0 victory over Spain in the Confederation Cup final was fool’s gold. The Spaniards played possum in the 2009 edition of the same tournament, losing to the USA during the elimination round, but we all remember what happened 12 months later when the sport’s most valuable trophy was on the line.

    Meanwhile, a ham-and-cheese sandwich was more appealing than the USA’s CONCACAF championship to this observer, as I refuse to join the chorus trumpeting wins over the likes of Belize, Cuba, and El Salvador. The most significant development, really, was Mexico continuing to wobble like a college freshman after his first keg party.

    HE DOESN’T KNOW “JACK” DEMPSEY: Exactly one year ago, Clint Dempsey was riding shotgun; despite the respect from then-manager Martin Jol and the adoration of Fulham’s faithful, the Texan did his best bank robber impersonation and held up the London-based side demanding to be shipped to a higher-profile squad. I wrote at the time that being a big fish in a small pond was more valuable than swimming as a minnow within a vast ocean, but Dempsey felt otherwise and took the bait. Subsequently, he was gobbled up hook, line and sinker by Tottenham Hotspur, and after just one season America’s top soccer export was cast off to sea and now finds himself in MLS as a member of the Seattle Sounders. As a comparison, this season he’ll perform at Asbury Park’s Convention Hall while his previous gig was New York City’s Carnegie Hall, and it ranks as the worst career choice since Coke Zero was introduced to the marketplace.

    PENALTY KICK: Next week is the start of the 2013-14 BPL season. We’ll kick it for real come next week, and I’ll also go on blast concerning the Wayne Rooney/Chelsea soap opera. Until then, hit me back with your comments: nbaker@yesnetwork.com.

     

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    Here's The Pitch: The 2012-13 season's final act

    Monday, May 20, 2013, 1:59 PM [General]

    FREE KICK: If recent Super Bowls were a jab, last season's BPL finale was an uppercut, as Manchester City scored a pair of injury time goals in defeating Queens Park Rangers to swipe the crown from hated Manchester United. A bowling ball would’ve fit into the mouths of soccer fans during those final frantic minutes at Etihad Stadium, and City’s margin of victory in claiming their first title since 1968 was goal differential the size of a fingernail.  

    It was not the same this season, as sadly, much like the month of March, the 2012-13 Premiership season went out like a lamb, with the final Sunday having as much potency as a Shirley Temple. Man U had the crown locked up weeks ago and QPR, Reading, and Wigan, the FA Cup champion, were already relegated prior to the start of play, so the only suspense was between Arsenal and Tottenham, with their matches determining who would finish fourth and claim a berth in the Champions League and who would place fifth and drown their sorrows with a pint (and a Europa League invite). Let’s kick start this thing one last time.

    NEWCASTLE UNITED vs. ARSENAL: Gunners manager Arsene Wenger welcomed back fellow Frenchman Olivier Giroud from suspension for this important encounter, and while Arsenal played with a sense of desperation and purpose, strangely the same could not be said for Newcastle. Alan Pardew's side was thoroughly spanked by Arsenal 7-3 in their first meeting of the season, so their lack of a cutting edge on this occasion was surprising. The Magpies proved to be compact at the back and took a scoreless tie into the locker room at the intermission, but early in the second 45, Arsenal finally struck gold. Theo Walcott's free kick was knocked down inside the box, where Laurent Koscielny outmuscled Fabricio Coloccini to deposit the game's only goal. Walcott had a chance to put the final nail in Newcastle's coffin near the end of regulation, but the midfielder mistakenly went with style over substance and his shot clanged off the post and skipped harmlessly out to sea. The Gunners would not pay the ultimate price for their mistake, however, and they qualify for the Champions League for the 16th straight year, a remarkable achievement. Three months ago, Piers Morgan demanded that Arsenal's management firm give Wenger the boot, but the opinionated talk show host had his vocal chords on mute following this result. Arsenal 1, Newcastle 0

    TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR vs. SUNDERLAND: With all matches starting at the same time in the final week, Spurs entered the contest with the belief that a victory would seal the deal towards Champions League qualification. In the end, referee Andre Marriner had as much of a bearing on this match as the 22 players.  In a scene reminiscent of the UFC, Gareth Bale was wrestled to the ground in the 26th minute, and Marriner, one of the least experienced arbiters in the Premiership, must've been waiting for Bale to tap out; instead of pointing to the spot, the referee went with a yellow, wrongly carding Bale for diving.  Early in the second, Marriner again felt the wrath of the Tottenham faithful for refusing to whistle the Black Cats for a clear handball, and Spurs were hotter than July. Finally, 15 minutes from time, the official made a correct decision when he banished Sunderland's David Vaughan to the locker room after the defender hacked down Aaron Lennon. With increased acreage at his disposal, Bale finally found the back of the net with his customary left-footed fastball to the upper outside corner, a special goal from a special player. On March 3rd, Spurs held a seven point lead on Arsenal, but two months later, they lost out to their London rival by a single point. This is a case when a victory must have seemed like a loss.  Spurs 1, Sunderland 0

    WEST BROMWICH ALBION vs. MANCHESTER UNITED: Instead of a Hollywood ending to Sir Alex Ferguson's 26-year coaching career, the fans were treated to a scene straight out of the Twilight Zone. How else could one describe the Red Devils allowing three goals in the final nine minutes to snatch a tie from the jaws of victory? The 5-5 stalemate was the first of its' kind in the history of the Premiership, and Romelu Lukaku's hat trick was rendered a mere afterthought as the world continues to turn around Ferguson and Wayne Rooney; once again, number 10 was not featured in Man U's game day lineup, and Rooney reportedly is upset with his set-up role in the team's offense. Hey, I hate paying taxes, but it's something that I'm ordered to do, so I do it. If Ferguson was wavering in his decision to retire, this result likely ended all doubts. WBA 5, Manchester United 5

    CHELSEA vs. EVERTON: This was the final game for Everton skipper David Moyes before he sets sail for Old Trafford, where he'll try to fill the large shoes of Sir Alex Ferguson, and it was also the last hurrah for Chelsea interim manager Rafa Benitez. At one time, Fernando Torres was as unpopular as a dentist on the day after Halloween, but the enigmatic striker would score his first goal since December 23rd to lift the Blues to a third place finish in the standings. Regular readers of this column realize that I'm the captain of the Rafa Benitez fan club. His 2013 Chelsea resume is reminiscent of Bob Lemon's stint as New York Yankees manager in 1978, when Lemon was the third manager hired by George Steinbrenner that season but led the Bronx Bombers to a World Series title despite staring down a 14.5 game deficit in the month of July. Benitez is like the stray dog that wanders onto a front porch during a rain storm looking for a meal, a warm blanket, and a scratch of the belly, but Chelsea's rabid supporters welcomed the pooch with a kick to the curb. Chelsea 2, Everton 1

    LIVERPOOL vs. QUEENS PARK RANGERS: Another heartfelt send-off, this time involving Liverpool's Jamie Carragher; the defender was never the fastest or most talented player, but smarts and guile propelled him to a stellar 16-year career. Philippe Coutinho tallied the game's lone goal with a tremendous piledriver from 30 yards out, and that’s that for QPR. Their “get up and go” got up and went a month and a half ago, and next season they'll play in England's Triple-A league.  Liverpool 1, QPR 0

    MANCHESTER CITY vs. NORWICH CITY:  With the firing of Roberto Mancini as head coach, last season's champions checked out of this contest long before kickoff. The game's final goal was also the loveliest, as Jonathan Howson cut through defenders Joleon Lescott, Micah Richards, and Pablo Zabaleta much like a lawn motor shreds through grass. Man City will require a heart transplant if they are to compete for a Premiership title next season. Norwich 3, Manchester City 2

    SOUTHAMPTON vs. STOKE: Stoke kept tabloid writers worldwide busy during the week with a series of embarrassing charades. Striker Kenwyne Jones discovered a pig’s head in his locker, and in response, a teammate had his windshield shattered into tiny crystals. Much like the conclusion of final exams on a college campus, I can understand having the lads let off some steam, but Stoke brewed enough tea for an entire continent. Luckily for them, they put down their toys at kickoff and put in work for the entire 90 minutes to pick up a draw. Southampton 1, Stoke 1

    WEST HAM UNITED vs. READING: This refreshing and breathtaking affair was spotted amongst a mostly stale and lackluster Sunday across the premiership landscape. Reading was already one of three teams headed for demotion, but they refused to wallow in self-pity, climbing off the canvas to negate an early 2-0 West Ham lead before Kevin Nolan netted a pair late in the second half. West Ham 4, Reading 2

    SWANSEA vs. FULHAM: After a spell of eight straight winless results, Fulham finally came away from a match with all three points. Bryan Ruiz moonwalked a pass to Alexander Kacaniklic for Fulham's first goal with Dimitar Berbatov authoring the second score, and the London side would add a third to close the books on their first road triumph since New Year's Day. Mark Schwarzer was terrific between the pipes for Fulham, and while a 40-year-old netminder is never in high demand, Martin Jol should go out of his way to ink the veteran to a new deal. Fulham 3, Swansea 0

    WIGAN vs. ASTON VILLA: Given Wigan’s week, they could have had a starring role in “The Hangover Part 3” lined up. Just a few days after winning the FA Cup for the first time in the club's history, the little engine that could found themselves on the wrong side of relegation following a loss at Arsenal, but Roberto Martinez's side refused to go down without a fight on their final day in the Premiership. They reluctantly coughed up an equalizing goal in the 60th minute for a 2-2 stalemate, but it's my belief that Wigan won’t be down for very long. Wigan 2, Aston Villa 2

    PENALTY KICK: This blog hopes to return at the start of the 2013-14 campaign. I don’t know how many regular readers I’m reaching, nor if you folks are informed and entertained by my writing, but I love watching the Premiership and I can only hope that my passion for the beautiful game shines through on this page. If you have a comment or a question, please address them to me at nbaker@yesnetwork.com. See you in the fall!

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    Here's The Pitch

    Monday, May 13, 2013, 11:20 PM [General]

    FREE KICK: F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that "Destiny is not a matter of chance, but of choice." With 38 continental trophies in his 26-year tenure, Sir Alex Ferguson has firmly established Manchester United as the New York Yankees of British football. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe Dimaggio ultimately exited the stage, and at age 71, the most decorated manager the sport has ever seen has taken his final bow. His departure leaves as many questions as there are answers, but those riddles can be solved at a later date. Let's kick start this thing.

    MANCHESTER UNITED vs. SWANSEA CITY: Following an emotional pre-game ceremony before Ferguson stepped on the Old Trafford pitch for the last time, poor Swansea had to feel like the lamb being led into a den of wolves. Unbeknownst to them, there was some backstage turbulence involving Wayne Rooney. The Red Devil with the largest pitchfork has asked for a transfer and was not included on the team's roster sheet, and conspiracy advocates noticed that the two combustible individuals shared a less than heartwarming embrace when Man U were awarded their championship medals. The situation is similar to that of David Beckham several years earlier, but, even on his last day, Ferguson's number one commandment that no player is bigger than the club rang true. Rio Ferdinand was lonelier than a geek on a Saturday night in slotting home the game-winner three minutes from time, as the veteran defender took up a spot at the far post and had a corner kick fall gently into his lap. You really didn't expect United to lose in Sir Alex's final home game, did you? Manchester United 2, Swansea 1

    ASTON VILLA vs. CHELSEA: Now this is a horse I can ride! This was the most thrilling and exciting match of the weekend by the length of a soccer field; there’s so much to write about and so little space. Here goes: Christian Benteke opened the scoring for an underdog AV squad early in the first half, but Frank Lampard, the Derek Jeter of Chelsea, would net the equalizer in the 61st with a high, rising fastball to the outside corner. Later, Lee Mason was more pickpocket than referee when he reached into his lapel to show red to Ramires and Benteke, and wide open 10-on-10 football was the result. After central defender John Terry was carted off with a leg injury, Lampard would score the game-winner in true Hollywood splendor; it was an all-star production with Ashley Cole and Eden Hazard having co-starring roles before the leading man accepted his Oscar, and then, in a scene not witnessed since the Beatles invasion of the U.S. in the mid-60's, Chelsea supporters rushed onto the pitch to join in the celebration. Not only did the goal move No. 8 into first place on the club's all-time scoring list, it also ensured a top-four finish and a Champions League berth next season for Chelsea. Lampard is headed to MLS (and specifically to the L.A. Galaxy), but why work in the minor leagues when you can still hit major league pitching? For Villa, their BPL existence for 2013-'14 will likely be determined on the final weekend. Chelsea 2, Aston Villa 1

    STOKE vs. TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: Stoke's participation in the Premiership for next season is secure while Spurs continues its Lindsay Lohan-like roller coaster ride, and anything less than a Top 4 finish will leave hearts crushed in north London and a possible exit door at Gareth Bale's locker. On this day, a cracked pillar would’ve provided more support than Tottenham's backline on Steven Nzonzi's opener, and when Charlie Adam rushed to take a free kick, Spurs was busy counting the house. With 87 minutes left to play, Stoke was on top, but lanky Texan Clint Dempsey leveled the match 17 minutes later when he lobbed a change-up from 35 yards out. Later, Adam was shown red after two questionable decisions – to this impartial observer, on both incidents the midfielder was only guilty of an abundance of hustle – to put Spurs on the power play for nearly 43 minutes, and after misfiring on several quality scoring chances, Emmanuel Adebayor, the man Spurs fans love to hate, tapped home the winner courtesy of a Dempsey cross. Spurs comes through with a must-have victory, but they'll need some help if they are to leap-frog Arsenal and into a top four finish. Tottenham 2, Stoke 1

    EVERTON vs. WEST HAM UNITED: If Sir Alex Ferguson's final act played Broadway, then David Moyes' Everton farewell played at a VFW hall. The Everton field boss will take over for Ferguson next season and his last home game with Everton also brought with it an outpouring of emotion. Comparatively, Everton shops at K-Mart for its talent (compared to Man U, Man City, and Chelsea, who shop exclusively at Bloomingdales), but season after season, Everton was always a threat to qualify for the Champions or Europa Leagues. During his tenure, Moyes had the uncanny ability to turn hamburger into steak, and he would go out a winner thanks to a goal in each half by Kevin Mirallas. Everton 2, WHU 0

    FULHAM vs. LIVERPOOL: It seems like once their Premiership membership card was stamped for next season, Fulham folded their tent; on this day, they suffered their fifth straight defeat, and can only look in the mirror to locate the guilty party. Dimitar Berbatov nodded home the first goal of the contest in the 33rd, but Daniel Sturridge would score the next three for the Reds. The first one received four stars, as Liverpool journeyed Route 1 with a long pass and Sturridge did the rest, treating poor Aaron Hughes much like Michael Jordan abused Craig Ehlo and Byron Russell when they were left one-on-one with the immortal one. Later, after connecting on his hat trick, Sturridge decided to bust a move; he’s not a great dancer, buthe's a pretty good soccer player. Liverpool 3, Fulham 1

    SUNDERLAND vs. SOUTHAMPTON: Ahh, yet another match this writer can sink his fingers into, a match with enormous implications for both clubs. The mission was hardly impossible: win the match, gobble up all three points, and ensure your Premiership existence next season. The Black Cats have been on the prowl since Paolo Dicanio took over as manager last month, but surprisingly it was Southampton who enjoyed the better of play in half number one. The match was scoreless until the 68th when Phillip Bardsley did his best Matt Harvey impersonation and whistled a fastball past a defenseless Artur Boruc to make it 1-nil Sunderland, but the lead would last for just six minutes before Jason Puncheon tied the game in knots. It was a blue-collar, lunch-bucket goal for Puncheon, who placed his rebound past Simon Mignolet from the front porch despite being prone on all-fours. They say a tie is like kissing your sister, and these two squads puckered up to Marge Simpson. Sunderland 1, Southampton 1

    QUEENS PARK RANGERS vs. NEWCASTLE UNITED: Newcastle needed a positive result to alleviate their relegation fears, and QPR provided the perfect vaccine to their ills. Rangers offered an illusion by scoring the game's first goal on a questionable penalty kick decision, but the Magpies got mad and then got even on a PK of their own; Hatem Ben Afra delivered the goods, and it ws 1-1 after 18. Later, for the second consecutive week, QPR offered some Will Ferrell-type comedy, as goalkeeper Richard Green and defender Jose Bosingwa did their best “Who's On First” routine until Jonas Gutierrez arrived on the scene to deliver the punch line, and Gutierrez did the work while Yoan Gouffran got the glory. Alan Pardew is one of my favorite managers, as while I can't vouch for his technical abilities, his ruthless honesty during his postgame press conferences is as refreshing as a spring morning. Newcastle 2, QPR 1

    NORWICH CITY vs. WEST BROMWICH ALBION: Back in 1991, Michael Spinks fought Mike Tyson in the most anticipated boxing match since the Ali-Frazier three-fight series in the 1970's. That event was more sparkler than firecracker, ending after just 90 seconds with a Tyson knockout win, and while this contest was hardly Tyson-Spinks or even Mayweather-Guerrero in the build up, it certainly looked like the former on the pitch. WBA decided to curl up in a fetal position after absorbing the first body punch that the Canaries threw, and it was a position they wouldn't budge from for the entire 90 minutes. Much like several teams mentioned above, Norwich needed a win for their Premiership survival, and they got it. Norwich 4, WBA 0

    ARSENAL vs. WIGAN and READING vs. MANCHESTER CITY: Originally scheduled for Sunday, both of these matches were postponed until Tuesday, May 14 due to Man City and Wigan meeting in the FA Cup Final on Saturday, a match Wigan won 1-0. In the grand scheme of things, Reading vs. Man City means little, as Reading will finish 19th and be relegated no matter what while Man City has second place and a Champions League berth locked up, but Wigan vs. Arsenal is perhaps the biggest fixture of the week. Arsenal is two points behind Tottenham for fourth place and can jump into the driver’s seat with a win, while Wigan needs a win to avoid relegation; the FA Cup champs are four points behind 17th-place Sunderland, but as Sunderland won both fixtures between the teams, they would own the tiebreaker, so Wigan needs a pair of wins (and a Sunderland loss to Tottenham next Sunday) to survive the cut.

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    Here's The Pitch: May 6, 2013

    Monday, May 6, 2013, 4:52 PM [General]

    FREE KICK: This season’s Barclay’s Premier League standings are much like an ocean, in that danger and intrigue can be found near the bottom instead of at the top. Three teams face the Premiership firing line, with Reading and Queens Park Rangers already blindfolded and dangling a cigarette from their lower lip; currently, Wigan is the third team set to be demoted, but Sunderland, Newcastle, and Aston Villa entered the weekend just five points above sea level. For those four “contenders,” it’s time to grab the life preservers and float to shore, because with relegation comes a loss of some 40 million dollars in TV revenue. It’s time to find out which teams sink and which ones swim. Let’s kick start this thing.

    MANCHESTER UNITED vs. CHELSEA: The more compelling matches of the weekend involved Wigan, Aston Villa, and Newcastle, but when the Red Sox and Yankees of the Premiership line up across each other, it instantly becomes the lead.  With the 2012-13 BPL title already in their bank account, Man U did not have the determination of their opponent, and the match was more chess than football, with more probing and poking than fury and drive. The Red Devils were checkmated in the 86th when Oscar spotted Juan Mata just inside the box, and his left-footed slider found the lower right corner of the net via a Phil Jones deflection for the game's first and only goal.  A few minutes later, Chelsea's David Luiz and Man U defender Rafael engaged in hand-to-hand and elbow-to-elbow contact;  Rafael acted last with a swift kick to his fellow Brazilian's calf, sending the curly-haired one down in a heap, but as he grinned sheepishly at his Tony Award-winning play, Rafael was shown red by referee Howard Webb.  Did Rafael deserve a card? For sure, but yellow would've been my color of choice. With the win, Chelsea has a 13-5-5 record under Benitez, and while the Spaniard is still looked upon as Benedict Arnold by Chelsea supporters, history will flatter his 2012-'13 accomplishments.  Chelsea 1, Manchester United 0.

    TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR vs. SOUTHAMPTON: Earlier in the week my hero Gareth Bale was anointed Player of the Year in the BPL, and he rescued Spurs on this occasion with a left-footed slider that gave his team all three points. The goal was pure Picasso; while traveling right to left at top side, the Welshman unleashed a left-footed rocket that left Southampton goalkeeper Artur Boric sprawling like a contortionist. Just a tremendous individual effort from captain clutch, and while Bale already had my vote as the Premiership's MVP months ago, I'll now raise the pot and go all-in: Gareth Bale is the third best soccer player in Europe, ranking below Lionel Messi and Ronaldo.  Tottenham visits Chelsea during the midweek, and the winner claims all the chips in the race for a Champions League berth.  Tottenham 1, Southampton 0.

    SWANSEA CITY vs. MANCHESTER CITY: Many years ago, Billy Preston had a hit song entitled "Nothing From Nothing Leaves Nothing"; this match had plenty of nothing, but that shouldn't come as a surprise, as Swansea's BPL survival kit for next season is secured, and ditto for Man City's 2nd place finish.  Swansea enjoyed the better of play while Edin Dzeko was the goose that had the game's golden opportunity.  If he was on the golf course, his opponent would've had him pick up the "gimme,” but somehow the Bosnian's effort from three yards out missed the target. Swansea 0, Manchester City 0.

    QUEENS PARK RANGERS vs. ARSENAL: QPR has already been sentenced to the Minor Leagues, and it took just 20 seconds for their lack of desire to appear, as that's how long it took for Theo Wolcott to open the scoring. Wolcott should've recorded a hat trick, though, as he turned into a plumber later in the first half in striking the pipe, and in the second half, his right-footed sinker was denied via a fine save from QPR keeper Joel Robles. Loic Remy had the home side's top scoring chance late in the second, but his swirling effort fell just wide. After the match, QPR manager Harry Redknapp declared that his team gave maximum effort, but to that I quote another song that I'm fond of: James Brown’s "Talking loud and saying nothing.” There's a reason why they are the rear end of the Premiership table. Arsenal 1, QPR 0.

    LIVERPOOL vs. EVERTON: On Saturday the U.S. hosted the Kentucky Derby, the most exciting two minutes in sports; well, this match was the dullest 90 minutes in soccer. I haven't seen so much promise go to waste since Vanilla Ice. Liverpool spilled a six-pack into the Newcastle net one week earlier, but they went cold turkey on this day; clearly they missed Luis Suarez, who sat out the second game of his 10-game suspension. In the second half, referee Michael Oliver suspected foul play when he disallowed an apparent Sylvain Distin goal; somehow, the arbiter ruled that Victor Anichebe interfered with netminder Pepe Reina, but replays showed that the only contact the Nigerian made with Reina was with his breath. I expected more from both clubs but that would be the theme of the weekend throughout the BPL. Everton 0, Liverpool 0.

    NORWICH CITY vs. ASTON VILLA: After a 2-1 victory against Everton back on February 23, Norwich sat mid-table and could not be blamed for making off-season plans; however, the Canaries haven't won since, and now find themselves in a battle royal for Premiership survival. Aston Villa had only lost once in their previous four, and despite fielding the youngest team in the BPL, they've displayed nerves of steel in avoiding what was a near-certain drop one month ago. AV midfielder Gabriel Agbonlahor has a love-hate relationship with fans and management, but Saturday's date was deep and passionate, as Agbonlahor put on a Lebron James-like performance in lifting his team to victory. His goal to open the scoring was Selma Hayek’like in its beauty, and after Grant Holt deservedly tied the game in knots on a penalty kick, Agbonlahor ran onto a long outlet pass and delivered the goods from five yards out.  Aston Villa climbs to the summit of premiership survival, the 40 point plateau, while the buns are becoming quite squeaky at Norwich.  Aston Villa 2, Norwich 1.

    WEST HAM UNITED vs. NEWCASTLE UNITED: The Hammers can sleep peacefully assured of membership in the Premier League next season, while Newcastle's issues would best be handled with an hour on Oprah Winfrey's couch. Alan Pardew has a locker room full of characters, and with Fabricio Coloccini and Hatem Ben Afra recovered from injury, the manager added character to his ship of fools. Pappiss Cisse had the best scoring chance, but his slow roller was cleared off the goal line; at regular speed it appeared to be the wrong decision, and after viewing several replays I haven't changed my opinion. Yet another scoreless outcome…ugh. West Ham 0, Newcastle 0.

    WEST BROMWICH ALBION vs. WIGAN: Seeing his Wigan squad fighting for survival is an annual rite of passage for manager Roberto Martinez, and  I would not be the least bit surprised if Michael Corleone's quote from “The Godfather Part III” – “Every time I think I'm out, they pull me back in" – is etched above the locker room door.  Just one loss in the last two weeks would've meant the death sentence of relegation for Wigan, but they always seem to find a stay of execution; on Saturday, it was actually two stays of execution, as the Lactics erased a pair of one-goal deficits. On March 17, I facetiously wrote that Callum McManaman deserved to be put on trial for his Paul Bunyan imitation in nearly sawing off a Newcastle player's leg, but his game-winner in the 80th courtesy of Shaun Maloney's heavy labor finds him King for a day. Rocky lives in the form of Wigan. Wigan 3, WBA 2.

    FULHAM vs. READING: Nigel Adkins was appointed Reading's interim manager on March 26th, and six fixtures later, he was able to notch his first win; unfortunately, the victory came 30 days late. Hal Robson-Kanu  and Bryan Ruiz would each score twice, and Martin Jol should be embarrassed because Fulham has mailed in their season, stamped return to sender.  Reading 4, Fulham 2.

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    Monday, April 29, 2013, 3:56 PM [General]

    FREE KICK - It was the story that sports journalists around the world sank their teeth into. Luis Suarez treated Branislav Ivanovic's elbow as if it were a well-done steak. Immediately following the incident Suarez apologized. The outrage decreased to a murmur and the story seemingly floated out to sea. Days later however Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre and manager Brendan Rogers created a mutiny. In their estimation the 10-game penalty was cruel and unusual punishment. I can't understand their protest. This wasn't like trying to get a good night kiss at the end of a first date; it was more like a pinch or grab of a body part. The penalty for that offense requires a swift kick south of the border. The BPL's governing body was the father of the girl.

    ARSENAL vs. MANCHESTER UNITED - A touch of class preceded the match when the gunners lined up in rows and applauded the champions’ appearance onto the pitch. Arsenal's fans on the other hand treated the contest as if it were the hunger games. Their boos and catcalls were primarily directed towards Robin Van Persie who they found guilty of treason in the summer of 2012. Theo Wolcott got on the board at the two minute mark when he outraced Patrice Evra to a Thomas Rosicky pass. The play should've been whistled for offsides but the goal stood, 1-0 Arsenal. RVP amassed 132 goals in his eight seasons in Arsenal red and white, eighth-most in club history. He was as subtle as a sledgehammer in the opening 45 with a solid scoring opportunity while cheek-to-cheek with Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny; being shown yellow for a harsh challenge; stripping Bacary Sagna like paint remover; winning a penalty kick; and consequently scoring the red devils’ equalizer (that's two games worth of labor for most soccer players) to make it 1-1 at the halfway mark. The field was slanted in Arsenal's favor in the second 45 however Man U proved dangerous on the counter-attack. Sagna needs to hit the casino. Consider him fortunate in avoiding an early exit following a sliding two-footed challenge on Evra. Arsenal-1 Manchester United-1.

    WIGAN vs. TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR - With just three weeks left in the season this was a match that had value for both clubs. Spurs with an eye on a top four finish and Champions League qualification next season and Wigan looking to escape the BPL's relegation zone. This end-to-end ping pong match was the Hearns vs. Hagler of the weekend. A spine-tingling, pulsating toe-to-toe slugfest that produced an Abbott-and-Costello goof for Tottenham's first goal; an Aroldis Chapman-like fastball from Callum McManaman to give Wigan a 2-1 advantage; and some late-game Spurs drama that was better suited for a theatre. Masterpiece Theatre indeed. Wigan-2 Tottenham-2.

    CHELSEA vs. SWANSEA CITY - The blues were rubbing their hands like a mad scientist as they welcomed a Swansea side winless in their previous five. Midfielders Oscar and Frank Lampard each tallied in the first half giving Chelsea a comfortable victory. It was Lampard's 201st goal with Chelsea; one behind club leader Bobby Tambling. To their supporters interim Chelsea field boss Rafa Benetiz is as welcome as a detective among a roomful of thieves, but his accomplishments since taking over need to be recognized. A likely top three finish in the premiership standings; one of four teams remaining in the Europa League. A more compact and secure defensive backline. Be careful for what you wish for Chelsea, you might not like what you'll get. Chelsea-2 Swansea-nil.

    MANCHESTER CITY vs. WEST HAM UNITED - The hammers entered the match on a streak, having not tasted defeat in their last five. However they bit off more than they could chew in the BPL's second-placed team. Man City's first goal was a paint-by-the-numbers approach. Sergio Aguero put the finishing brush stroke on the tally from West Ham's front porch. Yaya Toure's would follow with a left-footed slider from the top of the box. The called strike rendered Andy Carroll's injury time goal meaningless. To be real, Manchester City's penchant for turning golden scoring opportunities into rust reared its ugly head once again. City didn't do much but it was enough to secure all three points. Manchester City-2 West Ham-1.

    NEWCASTLE UNITED vs. LIVERPOOL- With Luis Suarez serving the first of his ten-game sentence Liverpool could be excused for a lackluster performance. Instead its' fans were standing and shouting "encore" after a devastating and lethal offensive output. The reds guzzled a six-pack at Newcastle's expense, leaving the home side wobbly and rubber-legged at games' end. A surprising result to this reporter. Just one month ago the magpies were one of eight teams fighting for a Europa League title. Now they find themselves one of three teams who could still be relegated. Head Coach Alan Pardew peeled the paint off the walls in his post-match interview. Liverpool-6 Newcastle-nil.

    READING vs. QUEENS PARK RANGERS - A Macy's mannequin had more life than this dull scoreless affair. A fitting conclusion in a matchup between two sides that will move from the premiership's uptown address to the Championship League ghetto next season. At first glance it appeared both sides played hard, but when the cards were turned up, they were bluffing with a 2-7 off-suit. Are these two teams playing out the string? Reading-nil QPR-nil.

    EVERTON vs. FULHAM - With just two wins away from home in 2013 (one coming on New Year's Day). Fulham once again proved more meek than mighty. Stephen Pienaar slotted home a centering pass at the 6 minute mark and that's all she wrote. Everton keeps their slim Champions League dreams afloat while Fulham continue to drown in mediocrity. Everton-1 Fulham-nil.

    SOUTHAMPTON vs. WEST BROMWICH ALBION - Having not lost since a 2-1 setback to QPR back on March 2nd and sitting chilly in the middle of the premiership table, Southampton was guilty of sitting back and admiring their work instead of dealing with the task at hand. Robert Madley made his premiership debut as the man in charge and he was kept busy dismissing two Southampton and one WBA player. At even-strength the Saints were no match for Albion and they were finger-paint ugly playing 9-against-10. Romelu Lukaku was the man of the match by heads and shoulders. The Belgian international netted West Brom's second score and provided first aid on their third tally. WBA-3 Southampton-0.

    STOKE vs. NORWICH CITY - To the loser nightmares of being relegated, the victors would be spoiled with premiership riches next season. Charlie Adams was the hero scoring the only goal from the sweep spot. Stoke traveled from points A to B courtesy of Robert Huth's long distance punt. Stoke can now exhale in reaching the 40 point plateau, Norwich will try to hold its breath over the next three weeks. Stoke-1 Norwich-0.

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    Monday, April 22, 2013, 2:01 PM [General]

    FREE KICK - Rafa Benitez is Public Enemy No. 1 to Chelsea supporters, while fans of Liverpool treat the Spaniard as if he's the fifth Beatle. History adds a shine to Rafa's Liverpool resume; a Champions League crown in 2005 despite falling behind 3-nil at halftime of the championship game; the FA Cup trophy in 2006; a Champions League runner-up finish in 2007. Benetiz also did well domestically with the Reds finishing third in 2006 (a point out of second), and a second place result in 2010, his last with the club. Then there was his verbal sparring with Sir Alex Ferguson. It brought back memories of Tupac vs. Biggie from the 90's, a pure rapper's delight. Benetiz was punked on occasion but for the most part the portly one dished out as well as he received. The old met the new this past weekend when Rafa Benetiz and his Chelsea teammates visited Liverpool. Let's kick start this thing.

    LIVERPOOL vs. CHELSEA - As expected the Anfield fans gave Benetiz a royal welcome but their smiles turned upside down in the 26th minute when Oscar headed home a corner kick. 1-0 Chelsea at intermission.  Luis Suarez lobbed a change-up seven minutes after the re-start. Former Chelsea striker Daniel Sturridge would make no mistake with his volley and the game was tied at one. Suarez put hand to ball five minutes later allowing Eden Hazard to untie the knot, 2-1 Chelsea. It stayed that way deep into injury time when Sturridge and Suarez engaged in a role reversal. The Uruguayan would blast home the equalizer ending matters with a 2-2 stalemate. The game was over but the drama was just beginning. Late in the second half replays caught Suarez biting the forearm of Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic following a scrum in the penalty area. Expect the unexpected in the premiership, but gnawing on the opponent's flesh is new to me. It brought back memories from a generation ago when The Sheik and Freddie Blassie went Dracula on the forehead's of unsuspecting babyface wrestlers. Suarez will likely serve time in soccer's sin bin, courtesy of a well-deserved suspension. Liverpool-2 Chelsea-2.

    TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR vs. MANCHESTER CITY - Gareth Bale, this author's candidate for MVP honors, returned to the Spurs starting eleven after missing the prior two weeks with a leg injury but City crashed the welcome home party through the majesty of Carlos Tevez. The Argentine weaved his way through the Tottenham midfield and back line like a seamstress before finding James Milner with a how-did-he-do that pass. With green acres at his disposal Milner would pick out Samir Nasri for the only goal of the first half. Spurs shifted into desperation mode in the second stanza and finally found the back of the net in the 72nd. Texan Clint Dempsey stood tall in the saddle delivering a sinker from five yards out, 1-1 with 20 minutes remaining. Substitute striker Jermain Defoe came out of the bullpen and unleashed a wicked fastball to the outside corner, 2-1 Spurs at the 79-minute mark. Bale would put the game to bed in the 82nd giving the home side a courageous 3-1 victory and improving their Champions League condition from critical to stable. Tottenham-3 Manchester City-1.

    FULHAM vs. ARSENAL - The lone London derby on the premiership docket was turned on its head just 12 minutes in when Fulham's Steve Sidwell was found guilty of a dangerous two-footed challenge on Mikel Arteta. Sidwell was shown red and Fulham played 10-against 11 for nearly 80 minutes. Sidwell is a repeat offender having served a similar suspension earlier in the season. Branded as an ex-con, he's now required to serve a four-game sentence. Fulham would defend like the Union army at Gettysburg but would reluctantly wilt under Arsenal's aerial and ground attacks. Per Mertesacker used the old noggin for the only score in the 43rd. The gunners have now won eight of their last 10 and currently sit third in the premiership standings. Arsenal-1 Fulham-nil.

    SUNDERLAND vs. EVERTON - The elite midfielders of the BPL such as Bale, Silva, and Mata travel like a luxury automobile while Sunderland's Stephane Sessegnon motors around the pitch like a Land Rover. The rugged native of Benin scored the only goal deep into first half stoppage time courtesy of a charitable gift from the defensively-challenged Leighton Baines. Everton was found lacking on the offensive end justifying the result. David Moyes' side harbored hopes of stealing a coveted Champions League berth however this effort was worthy of a jaywalking ticket. Take a bow Paolo Di Canio; he'll never win a popularity contest, but with six points in two games, not to mention breathing space above the relegation zone, his skills as a manager are to be commended. Sunderland-1 Everton-nil.

    NORWICH CITY vs. READING - Norwich had produced just one victory in their last 16 matches dropping them dangerously close to the premiership's outer limits. Goals from Ryan Bennett and Elliott Bennett (no relation) two minutes apart offset a 72nd tally from Gareth McCleary. The canaries are singing this week after a must-have victory. Norwich-2 Reading-1.

    SOUTHAMPTON vs. SWANSEA CITY - The pitch was tilted downhill in Southampton's favor in the first 45 while Swansea enjoyed the better of play in the final 45. This one was a paperback instead of a hard-cover read. Southampton-0 Swansea-0.

    WEST HAM UNITED vs. WIGAN - Wigan is within the final three drop zone, but also have an eye to the FA Cup final where they are to meet Manchester City. Me thinks that remaining in the premiership for the 2013-14 season is a more valuable prize than a claim to soccer's oldest trophy but it wasn't evident on this day. The hammers treated their opponent like a nail during the entire match. If this was a boxing or UFC bout it would've been stopped long before the end. West Ham enjoyed the comforts of home with Matthew Jarvis scoring from Wigan's front porch while Kevin Nolan delivered the goods from the doorstep. The 2-nil outcome doesn't accurately describe West Ham's complete domination. West Ham-2 Wigan-0.

    WEST BROMWICH ALBION vs. NEWCASTLE UNITED - Newcastle reminds me of the young schoolboy who is constantly teased and bullied by the class muscle head. At the first sign of adversity they have a tendency to curl up in a fetal position. They walked tall and with a sense of purpose after taking a 1-0 lead into the halftime break. WBA's offensive attack, which was stuck in neutral in the first 45, went into overdrive in the second half. Billy Jones would deposit a loose ball into the back of the net and the two teams would share a point apiece. Newcastle would be well served to hit the gym to add some muscle and develop a spine. WBA-1 Newcastle-1.

    QUEENS PARK RANGERS vs. STOKE - Some things in life are given; such as death, taxes, and disagreements between conservatives and liberals. Add to that list a demotion for QPR. Stoke has an allergic reaction to scoring but received goals in each half from Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters in putting QPR out of its misery. Stoke-2 QPR-0.

    PENALTY KICK - Manchester United is poised to claim the Barclays Premier League title. It's the red devils’ sixth championship in the 21st century. They share the same approach once adopted by the late Al Davis. The Oakland Raiders owner wanted no part of the popular adage that a team should take what the opponent gave them. Instead he told his team to take what they want. It's that greedy, selfish, attitude that separates the great from the good.

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    Tuesday, April 16, 2013, 9:10 AM [General]

    FREE KICK - Last week in this space I wrote about Sunderland’s new manager Paolo Di Canio, and his checkered past. His troops were solid in a 2-1 loss to Chelsea back on April 7; however this past weekend the temperature was raised by more than a few degrees as the black cats took the short 10 mile drive to Newcastle. How bitter is this coastal rivalry? Put the Yankees and Mets in a bowl, stir vigorously and smother in Louisiana hot sauce. This not so family feud kicks off the weekend that was in the Barclays Premier League.

    NEWCASTLE UNITED vs. SUNDERLAND - The magpies came into the match in a somber frame of mind after being dismissed from Europa League competition earlier in the week. Their fortunes were not helped in this match by some shoddy decisions from the men who handle the lines. A seemingly legit Papiss Cisse 61st minute equalizer was whistled in a bogus offsides decision, and the magpies had yet another buzz-kill in the 82nd when David Vaughan was credited with Sunderland’s third goal despite being in an offsides position.  The situation went from bad to worse for Newcastle with the announcement that goalie Tim Krul is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Since Manchester United enjoys an afternoon’s worth of daylight at the top of the table, the only intrigue and mystery to be found is within the relegation zone. Sunderland-3 Newcastle-0.

    STOKE vs. MANCHESTER UNITED - Just another routine, 9-to-5 work day for a United side that was in no need of overtime hours. Michael Carrick opened the scoring in the 4th minute with Robin Van Persie adding his first goal in the last 10 games from the penalty dot. Speaking of scoring, or shall I say a lack thereof, Stoke has registered just two goals in their last seven contests. That’s a Serengeti -like drought. Manchester United-2 Stoke-nil.

    READING vs. LIVERPOOL - Think of any superhero that comes to mind; add three others, and you get a clear picture of the heroics from Reading net minder Alex McCarthy. Target practice is a perfect description of what took place at Madjeski Stadium. Liverpool’s first-string gunslingers Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, and Daniel Sturridge were all guilty of shooting blanks. Reading-nil Liverpool-nil.

    ARSENAL vs. NORWICH CITY - A bitter outcome followed a sweet start from Norwich; They defended strongly with a 1-nil advantage until the 85th minute, when a linesman spotted a Kei Kamara infraction within the penalty area. I’d seen more clutching and grabbing on a first date, however the call stood and Mikel Arteta delivered the goods from the spot. With the wind at their backs, the gunners scored two more leaving Norwich manager Chris Hughton frothing at the mouth during his postgame news conference. Arsenal-3 Norwich-1.

    SOUTHAMPTON VS. WEST HAM UNITED - One point each was a fair result for these two sides in sluggishly played affair. Andy Carroll continued his fine form of late as he found the back of the net for the sixth time this season. Gaston Ramirez entered the score sheet for Southampton but allow me to throw some shade towards teammate Rickie Lambert. I’ve ignored the underrated striker for far too long. Quite simply the talented Englishman should be mentioned in the same sentence with Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale when MVP candidates are debated. Southampton-1 West Ham-1.

    ASTON VILLA vs. FULHAM - The Bonnie and Clyde of AV’s strike force Christian Benteke and Charles N’Zgobia came to play on Saturday, but unfortunately Villa’s dynamic duo were in need of nine other accomplices.  Fulham was headed for certain defeat until Fabian Delph pulled an OG and I don’t mean original gangster. The midfielder inadvertently nodded home a Fulham 66th minute corner kick resulting in the final outcome. One month ago Aston Villa was receiving last rites; today they sit one point above the drop zone. Aston Villa-1 Fulham-1.

    EVERTON vs. QUEENS PARK RANGERS - You just knew that QPR would be riding on fumes after their heartbreaking tie eight days earlier against Wigan. Darron Gibson and Victor Anichebe scored in either half keeping Everton’s European itinerary plans on schedule. QPR has officially asked for a blindfold and cigarette; manager Harry Redknapp criticized the team’s attitude and work rate, and he also lamented the fact that striker Loic Remy will likely leave at seasons’ end. Everton-2 QPR-nil 

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    Tuesday, April 9, 2013, 3:33 PM [General]

    FREE KICK - In a last-gasp attempt to save their BPL membership card, Sunderland named Paolo Di Canio as its new manager. Di Canio’s background makes Chris Brown seem like a boy scout. He once pushed a referee to the ground after being dismissed with a red card, feuded with managers in both England and Italy, and is a passionate defender of former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. On more than one occasion he's displayed a roman salute; which before a rabid Lazio fan base is like giving a teenage girl an unlimited telephone card. In 2001 the enigmatic Di Canio was honored with the FIFA Fair Play Award proving that the only difference between a noose and a halo is six inches. I'd prefer to judge Di Canio by the play of his current team, and not by previous actions. Let's kick start this thing.

    CHELSEA vs. SUNDERLAND - A weird game with two own-goals, and a deflected score. Playing their fourth game in nine days Chelsea was like a sailor on liberty at last call. Therefore it was no surprise that the visitors opened the scoring in the final seconds of the opening 45 when Cesar Azpilicueta mistakenly headed an aerial pass behind a flailing Peter Cech; 1-0 Sunderland. Fernando Torres was unleashed from the coach's doghouse and paid an instant dividend when his shot run was re-directed past Simon Mignolet to even the score at one. Eight minutes later Branislav Ivanovic deflected home a David Luiz effort giving he blues all three points. With Chelsea playing an American-like baseball schedule and the black cats taking lessons from new manager Di Canio, it's little wonder that this game was more finger-paint than Picasso. Chelsea-2 Sunderland-1.

    MANCHESTER UNITED vs. MANCHESTER CITY - The Yankees vs. Mets or Giants vs. Jets of English soccer had the aura of a heavyweight title fight. The first 45 was pulsating, end-to-end action but a pair of zeros remained on the scoreboard. It was like observing a bevy of beautiful women at a nightclub and being unable to connect with any of them. The second 45 picked up where the first 45 left off. James Milner graciously accepted Ryan Giggs' charitable donation to open the scoring with Vincent Kompany's own goal tying the game in knots eight minutes after. Sergio Aguero tight roped the top of the man U penalty area before roofing the go-ahead strike past a startled David DeGea. Man City won the battle however Man United will win the war. Manchester City-2 Manchester United-1.

    TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR vs. EVERTON - Two teams trying to secure berths in next season's Champions League tournament produced more twists and turns than a hip-hop dancer. The game was hardly a waltz. Emmanuel Adebayor scored the second fastest goal in the premiership this season when he got on the receiving end of a pinpoint 30-yard-pass from Jan Vertonghen. 1-nil Spurs before the fans could get comfortable. Sylvain Distin did his best LeBron James impersonation to head home the equalizer; 1-1 at intermission. After Everton took a 2-1 advantage through Kevin Mirallas, Gylfi Sigurdsson deposited the rebound of an Adebayor shot to knot the proceedings at 2. A French poodle would've provided more protection than midfielder Leighton Baines on the game-tying goal. The Spurs performed admirably in their first game without the maestro of their orchestra, Gareth Bale. With the talented Welshman expected to miss two weeks with an ankle injury, the Spurs' grip on third place is dangling by a string. Tottenham-2 Everton-2.

    LIVERPOOL vs. WEST HAM UNITED - for the past two weeks field boss Brendan Rogers and his fan base have insisted that Liverpool can still claim one of the coveted top four spots and clinch Champions League qualification. Mr. Rogers needs to understand that he can huff and puff until his cheeks turn red, but the opposition won't blow away by themselves. An obviously overconfident Liverpool team could only muster a scoreless draw. I subscribe to the fairness doctrine. The hammers deserved to win this game, however Lucas Leiva rescued his team from harm with a fantastic goal line clearance of a Jack Collision head knocker. Liverpool-nil WHU-nil.

    QUEENS PARK RANGERS vs. WIGAN - Much like life in the Big Apple, downtown and not uptown is where the action is most fun. This relegation zone battle was Gettysburg for QPR skipper Sir Harry Redknapp who declared that nothing less than three points was required from his troops in an effort to avoid demotion. Strangely instead of a slugfest, these two teams decided to spar until the 11th round. At the 85th minute Rangers were off and running on the counter-attack. Frenchman Loic Remy proved to be more dependable than a cabernet along the champs d'elysees when he placed a right-footed rocket along the outside corner. QPR fans were ignited like a plate of Crème brûlée, 1-0 home side. With a 1-0 advantage QPR defended more like Custer than Grant. A pair of clumsy, rash fouls gave Wigan a pair of scoring opportunities. The second by Shaun Maloney resulted in the tying goal. Loftus Road had the atmosphere of a funeral, while Wigan and their supporters partied like it was 1999. QPR-1 Wigan-1.

    READING vs. SOUTHAMPTON - This contest had more sides than an Italian dinner. Reading manager Nigel Adkins met up with a Southampton club that showed him the door just a few months earlier despite navigating the team's premiership survival course. Goals from Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana translated into relegation-zone doom for Reading, who have fallen and can't get up. Southampton-2 Reading-0.

    WEST BROMWICH ALBION vs. ARSENAL- Tomas Rosicky was the difference offensively and defensively as the gunners jumped ahead of third placed Chelsea in the standings. At the 12-minute mark Rosicky turned WBA's golden scoring chance to rust with a goal-line clearance, while his of goals in the 20th and 50th minutes turned WBA blue. Arsenal withstood a 70th minute red card to Per Mertesacker in registering a well-deserved road win. Arsenal-2 WBA-1.

    NEWCASTLE UNITED vs. FULHAM - A pair of premiership setbacks along with a midweek defeat in Europa League play left Newcastle starving for a win. After spitting out several solid scoring chances, Papiss Cisse feasted on a delicious serving deep into stoppage time. Fulham was proven impotent on the offensive end. Newcastle-1 Fulham-nil.

    STOKE vs. ASTON VILLA - Stoke would rather rumble and tumble instead of run and gun and their physical characteristics have amounted to just one victory in their previous 13 outings. Matthew Lowton volleyed home the game-winner from 35 yards out just three minutes remaining in regulation. It was the prettiest goal this side of a beauty pageant. Christian Benteke's tally in injury time was nothing more than a sprig of parsley on a dinner plate. Aston Villa-3 Stoke-1.

    NORWICH CITY vs. SWANSEA CITY - A 2-2 stalemate was a fitting conclusion for two sides comfortably north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Norwich-2 Swansea-2.

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    Monday, April 1, 2013, 5:39 PM [General]

    FREE KICK - International duty called across the soccer universe last week interrupting the thundering locomotive known as Manchester United. Their cushion over runner-up Manchester City is more sofa than pin.  Sir Alex Ferguson has proven to be more like a conductor than an engineer this season and the result has been a smooth ride along the premiership rails. Let’s get the BPL schedule back on track; first stop, Sunderland’s Stadium of Light.

    SUNDERLAND vs. MANCHESTER UNITED - The leaders of the pack did just enough to take all three points in a game as dull as an overcast day. Robin Van Persie’s 27th minute shot deflected past a helpless Simon Mignolet.  It was credited as a Titus Bramble own goal, 1-0 red devils. That would be the final but hardly the finish of Sunderland’s afternoon. Head coach Martin O’Neill reminds me of a driver who owns a GPS but insists on getting from point A to point B by using his sense of direction. Ultimately you’ll lose your way and in this instance the black cats called on Paolo Di Canio as their new designated driver. Manchester United-1 Sunderland-nil.

    MANCHESTER CITY vs. NEWCASTLE UNITED - Just a complete and thorough beat down by the Dr Jekyll/Mr. Hyde of the premiership.  A pair of goals in each half spelled doom for a Newcastle side looking to survive in England’s top-flight, while one of eight teams remaining in the battle royal known as the Europa league. Manchester City-4 Newcastle-0.

    SOUTHAMPTON vs. CHELSEA - Chelsea’s fan base has treated interim boss Rafa Bentiez as if they are attending a concert. At first they treated the Spaniard like a Metallica show; a high-decibel, cacophony of noise. After some success in the Europa League and improvement domestically they went the easy-listening route; cue up Michael McDonald or Stevie Wonder. After Saturday’s surprising setback against a Southampton team that lives closer to the basement than the penthouse, I’m afraid that rock and roll is here to stay. Rickie Lambert’s 35th minute rocket of a free kick was the game winner. The delivery had the velocity of an Aroldis Chapman heater, and the curvature of an Andy Pettitte slider. Goalie Peter Cech was called out on a strike. Southampton-2 Chelsea-1.

    SWANSEA CITY vs. TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR - I’m sure my readers are tired of reading about my bromance with Spurs midfielder Gareth Bale but allow me to flirt with the talented Welshman for a little while longer. Needless to say Bale was involved in both Spurs scoring plays. He provided first aid to Jan Vertonghen’s 7th minute tally and struck out the Swansea side with a change-up 14 minutes later. Michu’s goal in the 71st was a case of too little, too late. Tottenham-2 Swansea-1.  

    ASTON VILLA vs. LIVERPOOL - Fresh off his heroics for the US national team in a pair of world cup qualifiers, goalkeeper Brad Guzan was unable to save his domestic club from defeat. The home side got on the board first through in-form striker Christian Benteke. The Belgian didn’t waffle after receiving Gabriel Agbonlahor ‘s chest pass midway through the first half; 1-nil AV at intermission. Two minutes into the second half, Coutinho threaded a pass that would’ve been the envy of Betsy Ross. Steven Gerrard’s penalty kick in the 60th spelled doom for Villa however his day was not done. The Liverpool captain denied a sure AV equalizer late in the contest when he dove across the goalmouth to nod away Benteke’s header. Was the win pretty ? Not a by a long shot; in fact it was barely attractive, but at the end of the season all victories look like Miss Universe. Liverpool-2 Aston Villa-1.

    ARSENAL vs. READING - Seven straight defeats and counting for Reading as they continue their downward spiral.  The gunners were on target with Gervinho involved in three of his team’s four goals. Arsenal-4 Reading-1.

    WEST HAM UNITED vs. WEST BROMWICH ALBION - West Ham’s Andy Carroll was a big-ticket, high-priced purchase by WH in the offseason but his label is “made in China”.  At least counterfeit goods still have some value. The long-haired frontman has the popularity of a rock star and he would tally a pair to satisfy the fans but more importantly put three points into the team’s win column. West Ham-3 WBA-1.

    WIGAN vs. NORWICH CITY - Arouna Kone turned into captain clutch when his right-footed shot beat Lee Camp at the near post as Wigan lifted themselves out of the relegation zone with their third straight win. Allow me to give Wigan a bit of stick (British term). Callum McManaman was found innocent when his crippling tackle of Massadia Haidara went unpunished, however their defense of the act was sickening. True justice will be rendered if Wigan is given a one year relegation sentence. Wigan-1 Norwich-nil.

    EVERTON vs. STOKE CITY - Kevin Mirallas went coast-to-coast in a 60 yard sprint for the game’s only goal while Tim Howard was in the cage for Everton for the first time since suffering a back injury back in February. Stoke, which plays a side more similar to American football than European soccer, are nearing the BPL’s danger zone. Everton-1 Stoke-nil. 

    PENALTY KICK - This column is dedicated to the Barclays Premier League. However if a manager is allowed three subs per match, then this author should also be able to make an occasional change. I want to take a short journey down the U.S national team’s lane. On Tuesday they escaped the cauldron named Azteca Stadium and returned stateside with a scoreless result against Mexico in a key World Cup qualifier. If a tie is like kissing your sister, than Salma Hayek needs to pucker up. Holla back nbaker@yesnetwork.com.

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    Here's the Pitch

    Monday, March 18, 2013, 4:07 PM [General]

    FREE KICK- Chelsea supporters can make Dennis Rodman appear normal. After the blues bravely eclipsed a 2-nil halftime deficit in their FA Cup encounter with Manchester United, their fans still had scalpels at the ready; in search of Rafa Benitez's neatly coiffed scalp. The much-maligned interim skipper has steered a sinking ship into smooth waters. However a loss to fellow Londoner West Ham would be a Titanic-sized defeat for a team with Champions League aspirations. Let's kick start this thing.

    CHELSEA vs. WEST HAM UNITED - Chelsea dominated this all-London affair from the jump. Surprisingly so in my estimation after an emotional, pulsating come-from-behind Europa League victory on Thursday. It was target practice as early as the six minute mark when Demba Ba somehow could not hit the bull’s-eye despite going one-on-one against WH keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen. The Blues would hit the right note 13 minutes later. Eden Hazard's chipped pass would float onto the head of Frank Lampard. The Chelsea captain would make no mistake from 8 yards out, 1-0 home side. The Hammers rightfully had a goal disallowed moments later when Andy Carroll needlessly pushed David Luiz to the turf. The Brazilian certainly over-dramatized the offense but the verdict was just and justice was served. Five minutes into the second stanza Chelsea's midfield firm of Mata and Hazard joined forces to net Chelsea's second of the day. Hazard applied the finishing touch with a low line drive, 2-0 Chelsea. An honest, 9-to-5 work day for Chelsea with the payoff a probable Champions League spot next fall. Chelsea-2 West Ham-nil.

    MANCHESTER UNITED vs. READING - On paper this appeared more mismatch than matchup. Man U sits at the head of the premiership table, while Reading is still trying to make a reservation. They entered the contest on a five-game losing skid and sacked manager Brian McDermott earlier in the week. The red devils obviously had their mind on other matters as on this day they were closer to decent than good. Wayne Rooney was the game's only goal scorer when his deflected shot in the 21st skipped above and beyond Reading keeper Stuart Taylor. The visitors huffed and puffed but they blew away absolutely no one with their finishing skills. United is at the point where their play depends on the quality of the opponent. Manchester United-1 Reading-0.

    EVERTON vs. MANCHESTER CITY - Allow me to re-title this encounter the beauty and the beast. Everton was attractive, a sight to behold in their own special way. After laying an egg in their FA cup defeat to Wigan last weekend, they took out their frustrations on a Manchester City club that seemed oddly detached. They had absolutely no spirit, no zip, no determination. Early on Everton's Kevin Mirallas had an apparent goal waved off because of a bogus offside call. However in the 32nd Leon Osman did his best Andy Pettitte impersonation. He unleashed a wicked slider while on his left foot that left Joe Hart cemented to his goal line. The 30 yard shot had more curves than J-Lo, 1-0 Everton at the break. Steven Pienaar, who has been Everton's best player since the turn of the year, was justifiably shown red in the 60th minute for his stomp upon Javi Garcia's shin and ankle. Everton continued to surge forward despite playing 10 against 11 with City's best chance coming from a sudden one-two punch delivered by Carlos Tevez and James Milner. Nikica Jelavic came on in relief and struck out City deep into injury time with a gorgeous curve ball that caught the outside corner. City's lineup was compromised by YaYa Toure's absence due to illness, but that doesn't excuse their comatose effort. Everton-2 Manchester City-nil.

    TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR vs. FULHAM - After being extended to 120 minutes in an epic Europa League contest Thursday night in Milan, Spurs found themselves more vulnerable than a balance sheet in a roomful of accountants. Fulham stalked their weakened prey and pounced in the 52nd through former Spurs frontman Dimitar Berbatov. The enigmatic striker, who seems oblivious to any emotion, deposited a perfect cross past Hugo Lloris. Gareth Bale returned to the Tottenham starting 11 after missing the clash against Inter with a suspension but the Welshman lacked creativity and drive. Spurs best chance came at the end of regulation when Mark Schwarzer denied Jermain Defoe's bullet from point-blank range. Sweet revenge for Fulham field boss Martin Jol who was bounced from Tottenham in 2007 despite a pair of top-five finishes. If revenge is a dish best served cold, this win went down like an ice cold beer on a sweltering August day. Fulham-1 Spurs-0.

    SWANSEA CITY vs. ARSENAL - Give credit to the gunners as they had a full and complete recovery after being released from the Champions League admitting room. They waited until the 74th when Nacho Monreal netted his first of the season. A chorus of Auld Lang Syne rang out again in injury time when Gervinho tallied home for the first time since September. Arsenal would also be proud of the effort from young midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He was the best man on the pitch by leaps and bounds and possessed the energy of a three-year old at a central park playground. Arsenal-2 Swansea-nil.

    SOUTHAMPTON vs. LIVERPOOL - With nine wins from their last 15 matches Liverpool was surfing at high tide. On the other hand Southampton appeared lost at sea since the installation of replacement skipper Mauricio Pochettino. It was smooth sailing for the home side with goals on a re-direction and deflection. Philippe Coutinho, who received high praise from this author one week earlier, brought the reds to within one at the close of the first half however Jay Rodriguez would part the black sea (black being the color of Liverpool's uniform on this day) and Southampton surprisingly claimed all three points. Southampton-3 Liverpool-1.

    WIGAN vs. NEWCASTLE UNITED - Sadly this report is more medical than game; and that's unfortunate because these two teams produced plenty of entertaining soccer. Wigan midfielder Callum McManaman took his physical play to the extreme midway through the first half when his right cleat gouged the knee of Newcastle's Massadio Haidara. McManaman's "play" had all the finesse of a NYC cab driver at rush driver. Astonishingly referee Mark Halsey would neither produce a yellow or red card. If McManaman had done this on the street, it would've started a gang war that would've made the mafia families drool with envy. Haidara was stretchered off with early reports indicating ligament damage while the unpunished McManaman was mercifully subbed for before Alan Pardew could call on a Hitman to exact a measure of revenge. Arouna Kone's game-winning goal included a blatant handball that wasn't spotted. Wigan-2 Newcastle-1.

    STOKE vs. WEST BROMWICH ALBION - Stoke had gone dry scoring just three goals in their previous five league games, while WBA have confounded most experts with their 8th placed ranking at the start of the day despite being offensively challenged. All the elements were in place for a premiership stew and these sides cooked up a drab and listless encounter. Stoke's Kenwyne Jones produced the best chance late in the match but a scoreless tie was a fair outcome Stoke-0 WBA-0.

    SUNDERLAND vs. NORWICH CITY - Once again controversial officiating marred a premiership contest. After Wes Hoolahan nodded a shot past Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to open the scoring, referee Chris Foy pointed Norwich netminder Mark Bunn towards the door. According to Foy, Bunn touched the ball with his arm in challenging a loose ball outside the penalty area. The handball ruling was anything but clear-cut however Foy saw fit to pull out the red card. Later in the match Foy got it right when he whistled Sebastian Bassong for a handball inside the rectangular area and Craig Gardner made no mistake from the dot to knot the score at one. To their credit despite being down a player Norwich pressed forward and was done wrong when Foy failed to spot Danny Rose's obvious handball inside the box. The game ended in a 1-1 stalemate but when it comes to the people in charge of handling the match I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. Norwich-1 Sunderland-1.

    ASTON VILLA vs. QUEENS PARK RANGERS - A "must win" situation for QPR vs. a "can't afford to lose" mantra for AV. Each team displayed a go for broke attitude that was pleasing to the eye. QPR had the pitch tilted in their favor early on with Brad Guzan's stellar goalkeeping the only obstacle that prevented a rout. With the score deadlocked at two Christian Benteke took advantage of some shoddy defending to net the game-winner. Harry Redknapp looked like Charlie Brown on Halloween night during his post-match press conference. He was absolutely gutted. The race to avoid relegation will be more compelling than the race at the top. Aston Villa-3 QPR-2.

    PENALTY KICK - In the spirit of college basketball's March Madness let's do some comparative shopping; the ACC tournament is the Germany's Bundelisga. Spain's La Liga can be slotted alongside the Big 10 conference tournament (you folks should know where this is going). The Big East tournament has been, is currently, and always will be the Barclays Premier league. If you smell what the Baker man is cooking. I invite all readers to holla back. nbaker@yesnetwork.com.

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    Here's the Pitch

    Monday, March 11, 2013, 3:01 PM [General]

    FREE KICK - While the flames have been extinguished, Manchester United supporters are still fired up over Nani's red card in last week's Champions league showdown with Real Madrid. United, Manchester City, and Chelsea and others had FA Cup encounters on this weekend's plate. That left just six premiership league games on the menu. I'm prepared to feast on the leftovers. Let's kick start this thing.

    LIVERPOOL vs. TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR - The weekend's most attractive matchup involved two teams who at the moment have better form than Kate Upton. Nifty footwork not seen since the days of Michael Jackson helped give Liverpool a lead midway through the opening 45. Philippe Coutinho tip-toed past a pair of defenders, which gave Luis Suarez acres of open space. He poked home a pass and the home side had a 1-nil advantage. Spurs would score the next two goals with Gareth Bale providing first aid on both tallies, despite glue-like marking by the reds. Bumbling not seen since the days of Laurel and Hardy provided Liverpool with a lifeline. Kyle Walker and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris combined on a comedy act that Stewart Downing converted into the tying goal, while Jermain Defoe's error gift-wrapped all three points to Liverpool. The unearned runs translated into Spurs losing the match instead of Liverpool winning it. Game on in the race for the final two Champions League spots. Liverpool-3 Tottenham-2.

    NEWCASTLE UNITED vs. STOKE - At the turn of the new year, Newcastle were flat on its' back; receiving life-support and donating to charity one of their most valuable players in striker Demba Ba. Suddenly the magpies have developed the strength of Hercules. They are one of just 16 teams left in the Europa League (the poor man's Champions League) and are now nine points north of the drop zone. In the 67th minute of a defensive battle Chieck Tiote, who has the finesse of a Greco-Roman wrestler, took down Jonathan Walters within the penalty box. Walters would make no mistake from the 12-yard dot and the visitors had a 1-0 lead. Yohan Cabaye tied the game in knots when he went top shelf after picking up a loose ball in the slot. Then deep into injury time Papiss Cisse found himself all alone on Stoke's front porch. He got up from his rocking chair and scored the game winner. All credit to manager Alan Pardew. The steel industry may be on its' last legs in the U.S but it's a thriving business in northeast England. Newcastle-2 Stoke-1.

    NORWICH CITY vs. SOUTHAMPTON - Neither rain, nor snow, or sleet for that matter would deny these squads of their appointed rounds. The conditions were awful with the pitch resembling a Florida swamp. Needless to say the game bogged into a scoreless bore after 90 minutes. Just as a tie seemed a fair and equitable verdict Norwich striker Grant Holt did his best Daniel Day Lewis impersonation and "fell" to ground following a meek challenge from Luke Shaw. It's not the first time that the saints have been on the wrong side of a judge's gavel. The late comedian Richard Pryor once remarked, "if you go looking for justice, what you'll find is just us." Southampton fans were not amused. Surprisingly goalie Artur Boric gave his team a stay of execution with a fantastic diving save of Holt's PK. I guess sometimes life can be fair. Norwich-nil Southampton-nil.

    READING vs. ASTON VILLA - The villains need to strap on their hard-hats and lunch buckets if they are to escape relegation. Their blue-collar effort garnered all three points in a tense pulsating affair. Nathan Baker swung and missed when a centering pass crossed his path midway through the first half. The resulting strike out was credited as an own-goal and a 1-nil Reading advantage. Christian Benteke continued his consistent play when his deflected shot eluded a flailing Stuart Taylor just one minute after Baker's OG, 1-1 the score at that point. Gabriel Agbonlahor would later unleash a rocket into the upper left corner late in the first half and AV held a 2-1 lead at intermission. American Brad Guzan stood tall between the pipes in denying several solid scoring chances in the second half however Reading were howling like a cable news host when an offsides call negated an apparent Noel Hunt equalizer. There's more space between the pinky and ring finger than what separated Hunt and the nearest AV defender but the offsides call stood. Aston Villa-2 Reading-1.

    QUEENS PARK RANGERS vs. SUNDERLAND - QPR registered its' second consecutive victory with a well-deserved home win. The black cats were purring in the early going. Stephane Sessegnon put in work down the right wing before crossing to Steven Fletcher. He would place an exclamation point on the buildup giving Sunderland a 1-nil after 20 minutes of play. Sunderland were toast after Frenchmen Loici Remy knotted the score off the rebound in the 30th minute. In the 70th, Andros Townsend lobbed a knuckleball past Simon Mignolet that would've made R.A. Dickey proud and 20 minutes later Jermaine Jenas went dead-red serving up a fastball that painted the outside corner. QPR were firing blanks with five straight home shutouts in premiership games before unleashing their offensive firepower on this day. QPR-3 Sunderland-1.

    WEST BROMWICH ALBION vs. SWANSEA CITY - In general the officiating in the premiership this season has been above average. There have been occasional head-scratching decisions but by-and-large the league's referees and linesmen have earned a passing grade. Unfortunately the judge and jury in this case caused a mistrial. With Swansea trailing 2-1 Roland Lamah found the back of the net. A linesman wrongly judged that Lamah was offsides, ignoring the fact that Lamah received the ball from an opposing player after his shot on goal. Maybe soccer needs a supreme court, or better yet a court of appeals. Swansea was understandably livid after the match and WBA manager Steve Clarke also admitted that his team feasted on lucky charms. WBA-2 Swansea-1.

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