UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg Preview Part II

March 9, 2011

Well it took five rounds of predictions, but I finally get to gloat a little bit. Barcelona (somewhat controversially) knocked off Arsenal 3-1 to advance to the quarterfinals (I predicted a 3-0 victory). Shakhtar did the same, easily dismissing the free-falling Roma squad 3-0 (I predicted a 2-0 victory). Not a bad day at all. Let’s see if I can get lucky again today.

AC Milan at Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs won the first leg 1-0)

Tottenham Hotspur can’t blow this one…right? Like many fans, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. On one hand, they looked every bit like a Champions League title contender in the first leg, when they pulled off a 1-0 upset at Milan. On the other hand, this is the same team that went out and lost to Premier League bottom dweller Blackpool (their only win since January 12) and only managed a 3-3 draw with relegation bound Wolves.

So the only thing we really know about Spurs is that we don’t know what team we are going to see in any given match. They pass the you-never-know test that I just invented: if someone approached you with the score from yesterday’s Spurs match, there is literally no scoreline that could surprise you.

Meanwhile, AC Milan has continued to dominate Serie A this season. They have reeled off four consecutive victories to all but lock up the title. It would take a huge collapse and an equally monster run from Inter to lose the title.

Milan can score and Spurs rarely can stop good attacking teams, so the 1-0 advantage that Spurs take into this match isn’t really all that big of an advantage. Sure, they have the luxury of playing back on their heels with the lead. But even with that going for them, I can’t grasp my mind around Spurs actually putting up two consecutive clean sheets against Milan. I’m sticking with my original prediction: Milan takes this leg 2-1 and advances on away goals. And I’m fully prepared for Spurs to shock me once again.

Valencia at Schalke 04 (teams drew 1-1 in first leg)

In the first leg preview, I spent a lot of time breaking down this game before deciding that Valencia would be too strong for Schalke. I have only one real regret: that I spent that much time analyzing the matchup in the first place.

Every year, the Champions League has at least one clunker in the Round of 16. That award went to the Olympiacos/Bordeaux tie last season. This season, Valencia and Schalke take it. Schalke is a middle of the table Bundesliga team and Valencia is probably the third best team in Spain, for whatever that’s worth. Neither has any realistic shot of winning the entire competition. The only other Round of 16 matchup you can say that about is Shakhtar/Roma, but at least that has this year’s potential Cinderella team in Shakhtar.

As far star power (or lack thereof)? Valencia’s top two scorers are Artiz Aduriz and Roberto Soldado, neither of whom came anywhere close to making Spain’s World Cup team. The closest thing to a star on the German side is former Spanish national team forward Ra├║l, best known as “the guy who used to be the leader on the Spanish national team before they were any good.” Catchy nickname, I know.

What’s all that mean? It means that I have no confidence in picking either team, so I’ll go with a 1-1 draw. One of the teams will advance on penalty kicks and promptly get destroyed in the quarterfinals.


Oh, those power-hungry refs

January 13, 2011

The NBA expanded the guidelines on technicals over the offseason. Most seemed to think it was crazy at the time. It took almost half of the season, but we finally have some visual evidence that cracking down on player behavior was, in fact, crazy:

For those counting at home, that’s five total┬átechnicals on three players and a coach in less than ten seconds. The game descended from a competitive game to a complete farce in less than ten seconds.

That scene is really a microcosm of why no one cares about the NBA. At least when other sports’ games turn into a farce that quickly, it gives fans some form of entertainment. A bench-clearing brawl in baseball, a hockey fight, a massive car wreck in NASCAR – these are all perversely exciting. In the NBA, a team gets five free points because three players apparently sighed.

It is hard to tell based on those camera angles exactly what the players did to deserve technicals, but it could not have been that bad. By my estimation, there were only 47 people in the crowd for the game.* If one of those players actually said something worthy of a technical, we would have heard it echo.

* The Timberwolves drew a reported 11,209 to the game against the Spurs, the team with the best record in the NBA. The Target Center’s capacity is 19,500. Even using the Timberwolves’ very generous attendance figure, the arena was barely half full for the game.

LeBron recently was criticized for suggesting contraction. If your product is a distant fourth among major sports teams in only the 16th largest metropolitan area in the United States…well, contraction can’t be THAT bad of an idea.

I have lived in Minneapolis for four years but I have never gone to a Timberwolves game. The $10 ticket price is about $8.75 more than I think they are worth. But if I was a fan, I would be pretty upset about these technicals. At this point in the game, my 9-29 T-Wolves were only trailing the 31-6 Spurs by six in the second half. Just like that, the lead expands to eleven and the game is pretty much over. Minnesota did not get back within eight the rest of the way.

****************

You’d think this would be the part where I rip on the referee for getting a little out of control. That would be too easy.

The real problem is with the league. A new rule or a rule change/interpretation should be implemented for one of these four – and only these four – reasons:

1. A rule is ambiguous as written;

2. A team has an unfair advantage under the current rules;

3. There are safety concerns;

4. Modern technology becomes available to make certain calls easier.

That’s it. Sometimes these rules do not pan out. Changing the rules on helmet-to-helmet contact in the middle of the NFL season was silly. But at least it was understandable. In principle, nobody thinks that launching at somebody’s helmet with your own helmet is a good idea. The increased fines midseason was a poorly executed plan, but the idea behind it was reasonable.

The commonality between these four reasons is simple: they are all real problems for a sport. The new rules seek to solve the problems. #1, 2, and 4 go to the integrity of the game. #3 goes to safety. Most people would agree that integrity and safety are important issues – perhaps even the most important issues in sports.

You know what’s not a real problem? Whiny players that complain. Granted, in certain situations, players that complain could be a problem, but it is a made-up problem, not a real one. Of course these are sports and to a certain degree all of these problems are made up, but let me explain what I mean by a real vs. a made-up problem.

A real problem means that something is intrinsically wrong with your sport. A real problem is not sport-specific; it would affect any sport the same way. For example, “a lot of our players are dying of brain-related problems in their 40s, and pretty soon our sport might die out because no parent in their right mind will let their kid play.” Or “our fans are starting to really question our impartiality because we refuse to fix our umpire’s blatant mistakes with readily available technology.” Those are real problems.

A made-up problem is context-specific. It is only a problem because someone said it was a problem. As in, “grrr…it makes me so mad when that player shows emotion after an amazing touchdown run.” Or “how dare that man sigh to the referee when he is already overpaid by $8 million a year.” Those are only problems because someone with power decided that they were. Nothing about those problems are intrinsic to sports. If that were the case, European soccer would spontaneously cease to exist.

The NBA argued that the problem was equivalent to the umpire problem in baseball. According to the ESPN.com article, the senior vice president of referee operations said that audience research was a major factor in making these changes. I’m not buying it. First, who made up the audience in this research? Unless it was made up of 70-year old white dudes longing for the good ol’ days and angry columnists that are running out of story ideas, I’m not sure the audience is representative of NBA fans as a whole.

Second, even if the audience was mildly annoyed by the player complaints, I can’t imagine that giving the other team five free throws would be their answer to the problem. At least the 82 Timberwolf fans in the audience would agree. Unless the secret goal was to further turn off an already fragile fan base, I would say the crackdown failed miserably.

So was the referee power hungry? Absolutely. But I don’t blame him. I blame the out-of-touch NBA executives that empowered him to pull off such nonsense. That’s what happens when you use real solutions to solve made-up problems.*

* And yes, I will be republishing the same article next fall when the NCAA starts punishing after touchdown celebrations as live-ball fouls. I give it until Week 3 before the first game-changing touchdown gets called back in the closing seconds. Hell shall be raised.