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Florent Malouda and French Guiana Stir Up the Gold Cup

The 2017 Gold Cup has been rocked by a match between the tiny South American-based territory of French Guiana, who is not even recognized by FIFA, and Honduras, a 2014 World Cup participant. It has all the details of a story that makes CONCACAF so very… CONCACAF-y; a World Cup star, vague non-sensible rules, a possibly forfeited match that could affect who goes through to the knockout stage of the tournament. It’s pretty much par for the course for an organization that was home to the late Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner, two of the largest figures in FIFA’s recent massive corruption scandal, and faces near constant criticism for dubious refereeing and allegations of match fixing.

It all stems from French Guiana’s decision to play Florent Malouda in their second group game of the tournament. If that name sounds familiar to you, it should. Malouda was a star for Chelsea and for the French national team from 2004-12. During that time he played in the 2006 and 2010 World Cup, as well as EURO 2008 and 2012.

So what on earth is he doing playing in CONCACAF’s highest regional tournament?

Well, Malouda was born in Cayenne, the capital city of French Guiana, which is considered an overseas department of France. Because of this, French Guiana is not a member of FIFA since it’s a part of the European nation. However, when it comes to regional tournaments, French Guiana is one of several French territories that participates as a member of CONCACAF, and those national teams are allowed to use players born in their territory, regardless of if they play for a recognized FIFA nation.

So where does the controversy come in? Malouda played three times for French Guiana, the place of his birth, earlier this year, in a friendly against Barbados, as well as in the 2017 Caribbean Cup final tournament in June against Jamaica and Martinique (another overseas department of France). As a result of the team’s third place finish, French Guiana qualified for the Gold Cup, which pits qualifying teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean against each other every two years. However, CONCACAF officials notified French Guiana about a vague rule that had been added to the Gold Cup tournament. Section XV, Clause A states, “Each participating member association shall select its national representative team from the best players who are nationals of its country and under its jurisdiction, and are eligible for selection in accordance with the provisions of the applicable FIFA regulations.”

Florent Malouda training

Malouda training with French Guiana’s national team

Days before the Gold Cup began, with Malouda having already been named to French Guiana’s 23-man roster, CONCACAF officials specifically warned the team that they considered Malouda ineligible for the tournament. Typically, a match involving an illegal player is considered forfeited and a team is given a 3-0 loss, but CONCACAF also went so far as to threaten fines and other possible punishments if French Guiana used an “ineligible” player. While they looked into the situation, Malouda did not appear in his side’s opening game, a 4-2 loss to Canada. But a couple days later, not only did Malouda start the second match, but French Guiana even named him captain, as French Guiana nearly came up with a famous victory, but ultimately settled for a 0-0 draw.

The die was cast and now we wait to see what the results will be.

And while you can read plenty of hastily put together, error-filled blog posts about the match (like here and here), here are some facts about the situation. French Guiana haven’t “defied a FIFA ruling” by playing Malouda. FIFA has given no ruling on the situation, and neither for that matter, has CONCACAF. This isn’t an “automatic” 3-0 win for Honduras. Like in any situation, a panel will be convened to make a ruling on the player’s status. Until that happens, this counts as a 0-0 draw. French Guiana also aren’t “making a statement” by fielding Malouda in the side. As national team manager Jaïr Karam mentioned in interviews, “This time we read the rules and we are sure of our case and we will win it.” This was a decision made that they were within the rules to use their player and they would take their chances on a battle with the disciplinary committee, not a match that they were throwing away to try and make a point or win a moral victory by playing well. Following the Honduras match Karam threw his full weight behind his team’s case. “We made the decision from within. I didn’t want to take the risk (against Canada). Now we’re sure about our legal situation, we’ve decided to go fight, and it’s a fight we’re going to win,” Karam said.

And it’s definitely a case that French Guiana can make. Even the wording of the rule from CONCACAF is horribly vague and unclear. The last phrase in that sentence, “are eligible for selection in accordance with the provisions of the applicable FIFA regulations,” really doesn’t make sense in this scenario. Yes, FIFA cap ties players to a country once they appear in an official FIFA competition match (so only appearing in a friendly would not count), but these French territory teams aren’t FIFA members and could never have participated in an official FIFA competition anyway in order to cap-tie a player. You can’t even discuss things like FIFA’s one-time transfer of international football eligibility, or FIFA’s ruling on allowing eligible players to switch to newly admitted members like what is happening now with Kosovo, because again, these teams aren’t members of FIFA! Plus, for what it’s worth, Malouda and French Guiana received permission from the France FA for Malouda to be in the squad.

Jocelyn Angloma, Loval

Jocelyn Angloma scored two goals for Guadeloupe during their 2007 Gold Cup run to the semifinals.

The rules didn’t used to be like this previously. Just look back at the 2007 Gold Cup, when another former French international, Jocelyn Angloma, a native of Guadeloupe, helped his home island nation qualify for the Gold Cup and make a Cinderella run to the tournament semifinals, where they finished a goal away from upsetting mighty Mexico. Back then, former international players from official national teams were fine, as long as it had been five years since their last international match for that country (something that would also apply to Malouda’s case here having last played for France in 2012). Angloma had played 37 times for Les Bleus, but it barely registered headlines at the time that he was competing for a national team besides France. What was bigger news in 2007 was that he was 41 years old and still playing international soccer, and scoring magnificent goals like this one.

For reasons unknown the Gold Cup’s rules changed to bring it more in-line with FIFA regulations, but why should it? CONCACAF is a region with several non-FIFA members. If a player from Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, and other French territories becomes good enough that they can compete on the world stage, they have to do it through the French national team. Their tiny home territories in the Caribbean and northeastern South America aren’t given a chance to qualify for the World Cup. And before anyone calls foul about the idea of a French international superstar representing both the European nation and their CONCACAF national team at the same time, the issue is a non-starter. Any player good enough to play regularly for the French national team (like say, Florent Malouda) is not going to be also skipping around in the summer at the Caribbean Cup. It just wouldn’t make sense for their career, especially considering they’d almost certainly be playing high-level club football at the same time.

In fact, since French Guiana, and other territories like Guadeloupe and Martinique aren’t FIFA members, club teams are under no obligation to release players to be available for their international matches, something they have to do if requested by a recognized national team. This can make it very difficult to put together your best team or even have adequate time to prepare for something like the Gold Cup tournament, where a Caribbean participant is usually a huge underdog. It’s just another example of how CONCACAF has botched this. You simply can’t pick and choose rules to apply in a situation like this. It’s the proverbial square peg in a round hole.

Again, Karam raised a good point about his team’s situation, stating, “So, what we’re asking for simply, is to have the same rights as the rest of the world. Either we’re completely in FIFA, and as such, we would have permission to get players from professional clubs, or we aren’t in FIFA, and that allows us to use former players from our related national teams.”

This most likely won’t be a constant occurrence. The only time we’ll see situations like this, that call the rule into question, are when we have either an older player, like Malouda or Angloma, whose career is winding down and days of international glory are behind them. They may have the skill to warrant a place on their native national side roster, but comparing it to having them play in their prime is like trying to compare apples and oranges. You could also have a player who got a short stint with the national team but didn’t become a regular player, and while they’re certainly cap tied to France, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to play now for their team in the Gold Cup.

Look at this situation from another way. Let’s say during the last World Cup cycle for the U.S. national team under Jurgen Klinsmann, when the stars and stripes qualified for Brazil using Jermain Jones, John Brooks, Julian Green, and other German-born players who held U.S. citizenship, only for FIFA to decide before the World Cup started that teams could only use players born in their home countries. There would be outrage at that! How could FIFA decide to change the rules in between the qualifying stage and the final tournament, to force a country to leave behind key players who helped them reach the World Cup in the first place?! The op-ed pieces from soccer journalists in this country would be unceasing, and rightly so.

Florent Malouda vs HondurasYet that is exactly the scenario that we have here. Malouda was able to represent French Guiana in the 2017 Caribbean Cup, which determined which teams qualified for the Gold Cup final tournament. Was it a one-off approval situation? No, it was totally within the rules of the tournament for French Guiana, a French territory, to use a player born in French Guiana! (It’s also worth pointing out that French Guiana had already qualified for the Gold Cup by the time Malouda started playing for the team in the 2017 Caribbean Cup, so it’s not like he’s the reason they made it.) And yet the Gold Cup tournament organizers decided to insert a rule about following FIFA’s eligibility rules for the tournament, basically acting like the spoiled kid on the playground who changes the rules to their liking midway through the game.

So again, we wait.

If everything were just in the world, French Guiana would win their case and their result would stand. It may not even change anything in the long run. The Guianans need a result, and most likely a win in their last group stage match against Costa Rica to have a chance of making the knockout round anyway. But the point has already been made by the results on the field for Les Yana Dokos. They’ve played entertaining football, scored some great goals, and held one of the strongest teams in the region to a stalemate in their first ever Gold Cup appearance.

And for his part, Malouda really seems to want to play for the right reasons, saying after the match, “It’s a great honor for me to wear the armband and represent French Guiana in this level of competition, and that’s very important for the people in my country as well, and so it’s great to be out there.”

Don’t expect this to be the end of the matter either. This is only going to get more interesting over the next couple days. Especially, if French Guiana doubles down and plays Malouda in their next match as well.

The End of Bald American Goalkeepers in the Premier League

With Brad Guzan’s transfer to newly minted MLS franchise Atlanta United complete, an era of the Premier League, nearly as long as the league’s existence itself, has come to an end. I’m talking of course, of the tradition of American goalkeepers with no hair on their heads, manning the posts for one of its clubs. Bald Yankee keepers have played a leading role in the Premier League going back to 1996 when Kasey Keller became the number one at Leicester City.

Brad Friedel, Marcus Hahnemann, Tim Howard, and Guzan followed over the years, and while not many outfield players took up spots in England’s highest division, the swarm of U.S. goalkeepers gave American soccer fans a reason to take up a rooting interest in the Premier League. And fans would notice one trait shared between these defenders of the goal… none of them had hair!

Now that’s a little bit of a misnomer. Kasey Keller started his time in the Premiership with Leicester with a mostly full, albeit rapidly receding head of hair, but quickly became the shiny-headed hero most U.S. fans will remember from his starting job in the 2006 World Cup, once making his move to Tottenham Hotspur in 2001. Friedel, Hahnemann, Howard, and Guzan all sported chrome domes from the get-go and so a tradition that spanned 16 seasons was born, with at least one bald, American keeper playing a match for a Premier League side.

History of Bald US GK in Prem

Two decades of bald American goalkeepers playing for Premier League clubs

The golden age was the 2007-08 campaign when four keepers combined to play in 125 of their club’s matches: Keller for Fulham, Friedel with Blackburn Rovers, Howard for Everton, and Hahnemann with Reading. That year saw Friedel and Hahnemann play in all 38 Premier League contests for their teams, while Howard saw action in all but two of Everton’s. Keller was brought in as a back-up at Craven Cottage but after dealing with an injury, took over the starting job for the final 10 games and earned points in seven of them, as Fulham miraculously avoided relegation at the expense of Hahnemann’s Reading side.

Friedel won plaudits for his longevity, setting a Premier League record of 310 straight appearances between 2004 and 2012 and becoming the league’s fourth-oldest player. He also helped guide the development of fellow “Brad” when Guzan joined him at Aston Villa in 2008. Keller had a similarly lengthy career. Along with Juergen Sommer, he proved that American “soccer” players could cut it in English football in the early 1990s, paving the way for future U.S. keepers. Howard has become perhaps the best known after his high-profile move from MLS to Manchester United before spending ten year’s as the number one at Everton, which coincided with his World Cup heroics and an increased American interest in the Premier League.

Marcus Hahnemann Brad Friedel handshake final

Marcus Hahnemann and Brad Friedel played every match for Reading and Blackburn respectively in 2007-08

It’s sad to see this wonderfully quirky era reach its conclusion. Howard followed in Keller’s shoes and made his way back to MLS before this past season, signing with the Colorado Rapids. Guzan has also chosen to make his return to American shores following back-to-back disappointing relegations with Aston Villa and Middlesbrough.

There appeared to be others in the pipeline ready to take up the mantel. Thinly haired Cody Cropper spent three seasons developing at Southampton, and manned the posts for MK Dons in the next level down, before returning to MLS with the New England Revolution this year. Similarly, Charlie Horton (who while not bald, could have shaved his head eventually) spent time in the Championship with Leeds United before opting for a move to D.C. United. And so the age of bald goalkeeping bad-assery ends not with a Premier League winners medal, but on the back of a 3-0 shellacking for the ‘Boro at Anfield.

Let this be a lesson to you would-be goalkeepers. If you want to eventually make it across the pond to the world of English football, bust out those clippers and lop those follicles off right now. And it doesn’t hurt if your name happens to be Brad.

2015-16 Premier League Review

*First number is where the team finished, followed in parentheses by where I predicted they would end up and how many spots I was off by.

Aston Villa

Aston Villa – Finish: 20th, Predicted: (18th), Difference: -2 

Putrid. Horrendous. Terrible. These are the words that describe a truly awful season for Aston Villa and it supporters. Villa earned the fewest points (17) since the 2008-09 season when Derby County set a Premier League record-low of 11. They won their opening game against newly promoted Bournemouth at the beginning of the season and didn’t win another until January 12th.

Their top scorer, Jordan Ayew, had just seven goals, but the young Ghanian son of former football great Abedi Pelé often looked like the only threat to an opponent in the entire Villa side. The defense was a shambles in front of Brad Guzan who spent a lot of matches looking like the main character in a Greek tragedy, betrayed and left alone to fight against vastly superior opponents.

Aston Villa definitely deserved to be relegated and there is a ton of work to be done if they’re going to avoid the fate of teams like Portsmouth, Blackpool, Bolton and Wigan before them, who suffered additional relegations after their Premier League exit. Villa have been on the decline for several seasons now, but it’s still a tough pill to swallow for supporters of a team that has been in the top flight since 1987. But changes are already in the works. Unpopular owner Randy Lerner has sold the team, and a new Chinese owner, Tony Xia, has taken over, with deep pockets to potentially buoy the club back to its former heights.

Norwich City

Norwich City – 19th (16th) -3

Every year it seems like at least one of the promoted sides gets sent back down through the trap door to the Championship, and this time around the fate went to Norwich City. The team has taken on “yo-yo club” status as it continues to bounce back and forth between the top two divisions, and it didn’t quite have enough this time around to stay up.

Things went wrong for the Canaries just after the calendar switched to 2016. After winning three out of four games, with victories over Manchester United, Aston Villa and Southampton, they went ten matches in a row without another win, dropping them into a hole they couldn’t dig out of.

The price for that could be high. Young winger Nathan Redmond finally fulfilled his potential at the Premier League level this campaign, but now looks set to exit the club rather than spend another season in the Championship. He’ll come with a hefty price tag but it’s still a blow to Norwich after years spent nurturing his development. The club still has plenty of talented players on its roster, and knows how to navigate the treacherous waters of the second division, so don’t be surprised if you see them gaining promotion as soon as 2017. 

Newcastle United

Newcastle United – 18th (12th) -6 

The list of teams that deserved to be relegated this season was a long one. So many teams played poorly from the likes of Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion, Swansea, Chelsea, etc. but it’s Newcastle United who claimed the dubious honor of last team out of the Premier League.

The Toon Army has been in danger of seeing their club in the Championship for a little while now, but appeared to have taken a proactive approach by not just opening the checkbook, but just about emptying the bank account on new players. Despite spending more than $100 million on Georginio Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Chancel Mbemba, Andros Townsend and Jonjo Shelvey among others this season, Newcastle never clicked into a cohesive unit. However, they’ll still feel hard done by, seeing as how they would have stayed up without a ridiculous late-season push by their rivals Sunderland, who leap-frogged them at the end.

Supporters still have hope though, and feel like things are going in the right direction, after ending the season unbeaten over their final six matches. The waiting game is to see if manager Rafa Benitez sticks around for the Championship season. The Spaniard looked to be a good fit after arriving in March, but ran out of time to turn their fortunes around for the season. 

Sunderland v Chelsea - Barclays Premier League

Sunderland – 17th (19th) +2 

I am now going under the assumption that just like the “Black Cats” moniker would suggest, Sunderland really do have nine lives, and therefore won’t be relegated until 2021-22, after yet another amazing escape for the fourth year in a row. Then again, this now marks 9 seasons in the Premier League since the last time they were in the second tier, so maybe this is the final chapter in this novel.

But what a final chapter of this season it was. Sunderland ended 2015-16 on a six match unbeaten run and suffered just one loss in their last 11 games. It was a spectacular turnaround overall getting points in 15 of their final 19 matches, and a lot of that credit goes to a manager that I’ve often made fun of… Sam Allardyce. “Big Fat Sam” found a way to totally reverse the Black Cats’ fortunes, from relegation shoe-ins at midseason to one of the toughest squads to get a win against in 2016. If the trend from recent years continues though, Allardyce won’t last long into 2016-17 and Sunderland will be searching for a new manager to try and claw them out of a hole.

Veteran striker Jermaine Defoe might just have logged his best season ever. The former England international had a goal haul in all competitions that equaled the number on the back of his shirt; that is to say, 18. That’s a step-up of 14 more than his first action with the Black Cats last campaign, and the 12 that came in the Premier League put him seventh on the scoring charts. Successful enough that another club may come in for his services. 

Bournemouth

Bournemouth – 16th (17th) +1 

A fantastic first season in the league for the Cherries overall. They took points in more than half of their matches to finish five points above the relegation zone. By that same margin, they were only five points below an 11th place finish, but obviously its a lot more work to carve out those few additional results.

They didn’t exactly turn the Vitality Stadium into a fortress, earning only five of their 11 total wins and allowing the second-most goals (34, one better than Aston Villa) of any club at their home ground. But that’s part of the positives to take away from their inaugural campaign. They were able to go into hostile territory, against clubs they hadn’t played before, and got results. It bodes well for their second season in the top flight, that they have some room to improve on their home form (which you’d expect could easily happen), and that could lead to a mid-table finish if they can just hold serve on their away matches.

The fact that they were without some major weapons due to injury, and there’s real belief that next season could see Eddie Howe cement his side as Premier League mainstays. Young striker Callum Wilson only got back on the field in early April, and failed to score in any of the team’s final six games. Yet he still finished with the second-most goals. A full season from him would be a big boost next year, as would another dynamic, if not more consistently scoring, year from Matt Ritchie.

Keeping Ritchie could be an issue though, as the Scottish international appears to have interest from several other Premier League clubs. Bournemouth may have trouble saying “no” to a big-money offer for their winger. 

Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace – 15th (11th) -4 

Crystal Palace had the second-worst 2016 portion of the season with just 11 points in their final 19 matches. That led to a free-fall through the table, tumbling down ten spots from their fifth-place perch at mid-year. Such is the fickle nature of football that manager Alan Pardew has lost a lot of the goodwill he rightfully earned just a year ago after he dragged the club from relegation to a top-half of the table finish in just a few months.

How did it all go wrong for the Eagles? Plain and simply, the wheels came off defensively. In their final 19 contests Crystal Palace allowed two or more goals 11 times, compared to just twice during their first 19 matches of the 2015-16 season. Their scoring-by-committee approach evaporated into a scoring-by-nobody system. Influential midfielder Yohan Cabaye went goalless in the second half of the schedule but still finished second highest on the club scoring chart with his five tallies. Perhaps the Frenchman’s scoring form will return during the EURO 2016 tournament. 

Right now Palace just has the look of a squad that wants to play free-flowing football, but doesn’t quite have the players to pull it off. While they struggle to finish off attacks, other teams have punished them with much simpler, yet more efficient systems that play to their strengths and can do enough to hold off the Eagles on the other side of the pitch. As simple an answer as it may sound, another high profile signing to team up with, and take some of the pressure off of Cabaye, might just be the ticket. 

West Bromwich Albion

West Bromwich Albion – 14th (15th) +1 

A 14th-place finishing position for West Bromwich Albion seems about right for a club that had modest ambitions going into the campaign. They gave their fans some matches to cheer about with victories over Arsenal and Manchester United, and a stretch of four games unbeaten (and three victories in that stretch) from mid-February to March was a nice run. However, at the end of the day, West Brom are still a club with a lot of issues to try and fix.

Young striker Saido Berahino did his stock no favors with only one league goal since October, and may not be able to earn himself a move to a club as prestigious as what appeared to be in the works at Tottenham. It definitely appears his time at the Hawthorns has run out, but a new goalscorer is definitely needed (what team doesn’t need that though?) after failing to score more than one goal in a game over their final ten matches of the season.

Ben Foster returned from a knee injury in late January to take back the starting job from Boaz Myhill, who filled the space between the posts admirably in his absence. The defense did its part keeping the scoring down (Johnny Evans, Jonas Olsson, Gareth McAuley, and Craig Dawson deserve high praise for that), and a Tony Pulis back line is always tough to crack, but without scoring support on the other end, the Baggies will just have to be content with keeping their Premier League status. After years as a yo-yo club bouncing between the top flight and the Championship, that’s not a bad outcome, and the situation could change after a few more seasons of piles of Premier League money flowing into the club’s coffers. 

Watford

Watford – 13th (20th) +7 

Watford came back down to earth in the second half of the campaign, winning just four of their 19 games played in 2016. But that was still a lot better than the doom and gloom I predicted for them when they decided to start the season with a new manager and mostly new squad who hadn’t had much of a chance to get to know each other after the club won promotion. Maybe the Pozzo family is onto something and more teams will start pressing the self-destruct button on their squads once they reach the Premier League (or maybe they got incredibly lucky).

Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes may have only kept three clean sheets in the second half of the season, but his total of 11 was still good enough to be tied for the sixth-most shutouts by a Premier League shot-stopper. And that is a huge improvement over his last stay in the top flight that featured plenty of howlers. Plus, that scoring duo of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo managed to finish in the top ten on the Golden Boot chart with 13 and 15 goals respectively.

The latter though may be part of the reason for the slip. While 15 goals is impressive, that means he only had one in the second half of the season after his phenomenal start. It corresponded with their overall dip in goal production from 24 tallies in the first 19 matches to just 16 goals in the final 19 games of the campaign. It’s very odd to think that Watford could boast two of the top ten finishers in the Premier League, but end the season with more goals than just four other clubs.

And the manager wheel for the Hornets spins once again, as the spring slump meant Quique Sanchez Flores surprisingly lost his job. Keep your eyes peeled to see how Watford tops its crazy antics next season. 

Swansea City

Swansea City – 12th (6th) -6

Well… a 12th place finish wasn’t great for Swansea City, especially after I thought they’d be in the battle to pick up a Europa League spot after last year’s 8th place position in the table. However, they did manage to avoid the worst-case scenario with Italian manager Francesco Guidolin guiding the Swans to mid-table safety and a five spot improvement from where they stood in January.

Swansea managed to get it together at midseason enough to nearly triple their goal scoring record from 16 to 42, which was still seventh worst in the league but better than it could have been. Andre Ayew finished the campaign on a tear with four goals in three matches, but he epitomized the inconsistent displays from much of the Wales-based club’s squad. Ayew’s finish broke a nine-match scoreless streak to finish with 12 tallies, which may set him up for a summer transfer.

Gylfi Sigurdsson was by and large the team’s leading man and looks set to go into the first major tournament appearance for Iceland at EURO 2016 on a high note. But for every good campaign, there was a disappointing one, like Bafetimbi Gomis netting only six times total, even after starting 2015-16 by scoring in each of the first four matches. Swansea are in an interesting flux as they try to get back to being a top half of the table team this next year. 

Everton

Everton – 11th (10th) -1 

Everton finished last season in 11th position, were in 11th at the midpoint of this campaign, and here they sit as 2015-16 comes to a close. Roberto Martinez had an ambitious outlook though and the team fell short in its goals to push for a European Qualification and was bounced in the semifinals of both cup competitions.

Their goal scoring ways was what gave them a shot at things through the majority of the season. However, a stretch of nine games from mid-March to mid-May saw them score more than one goal only one time. They largely depended on Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku who finished third in the running for the golden boot with 18 tallies, but even that could have been much more before a drought that lasted the final ten matches of the season (only nine of which he played in). The Toffees big, $18.5 million mid-year transfer for Senegal striker Oumar Niasse has looked like a flop so far.

Goalkeeping is another tricky spot to figure out. Tim Howard had been entrenched for so many seasons it hasn’t been a position that needed to be figured out in a long, long time. But the U.S. national teamer is back in MLS and Spaniard Joel Robles may not be the answer after a so-so run of form this season.

One thing that Everton can do to strengthen their bid for European football is to solidify their points at home. The Toffees lost eight times and won only six, the latter being better than only Bournemouth, Chelsea, and Aston Villa. A much better showing at Goodison Park should be worth at least a few extra places in the table. 

Chelsea

Chelsea – 10th (2nd) -8 

Chelsea did manage to steady things after their disastrous start and somehow earned a top-half of the table finish (even if it was by a single victory). But the problems that plagued Jose Mourinho up until his firing didn’t magically disappear and the players never returned to their world-beating form from a season ago. That might be the more disturbing part. A rut, no matter how long it lasts and how deep it goes, can still be overlooked as long as you eventually come out of it, but that never happened in 2015-16 and will have to be priority number one for new incoming manager Antonio Conte.

Conte appears to be a throwback to what made most Chelsea teams great. He’s a defensive-minded manager not in the traditional sense, but as a true master of the art. He’s also the type of manager who isn’t afraid to sell off players who don’t fit his style or don’t seem to be giving 100% on the field or in training, which could shock some of the Chelsea stars back to life.

One focus may be on changing the centerback positions where John Terry and Gary Cahill appear to be losing a step in age and youngster Kurt Zouma appears to be the future. More will be needed out of Eden Hazard who went from a player who looked to be among the best in the world a year ago, to not scoring a single goal until late April. He finished the campaign with just four league tallies, his fewest number since his first full season with Lille in Ligue 1 all the way back in 2008-09.

Hazard did still play a part in deciding the title this season though, with a late equalizer against Tottenham clinching the title for Leicester City. Next year, Chelsea will just be hoping he’s winning the title for them. 

Stoke City v Manchester United - Barclays Premier League

Stoke City – 9th (7th) -2 

While they may not have hit the European Qualification hopes some held for them, Stoke City have fully cemented themselves as a club that make up the structure of the Premier League, having now finished in the top half of the table for a third straight season.

Stoke showed how much they relied on Jack Butland when the young goalkeeper was injured playing for England against Germany in March. A broken leg ended his season early and was followed shortly by three straight games where the Potters allowed four goals. They only won one of their final seven matches without Butland between the posts. They’ll look for a return to a steady back line next season.

Club-record signing Giannelli Imbula got some valuable match-time to adjust to the Premier League, with the young midfielder from France netting twice. Bojan Krkic improved on his debut season in the Premier League by scoring seven times, but the star honors belonged to Austrian Marko Arnautovic and his 11 tallies. Xherdan Shaqiri didn’t score frequently, but each one seemed spectacular when he did. Overall, Stoke have the look of a club on the rise, but perhaps just like Everton, no matter how strong they can get with the increase in Premier League revenue, the top teams will always be just a little bit better. 

Liverpool v Southampton - Barclays Premier League

Liverpool – 8th (5th) -3 

I wrote in my mid-season check-in that someone needed to step up and make the jump in the second half of the season for Liverpool. Forward Roberto Firmino, despite his big price tag, was not one that I had in mind. Yet it was the Brazilian forward who went off during the 2016 segment of the schedule, recording two multi-goal games in January and a run of three straight matches with a goal in March, to finish as the club’s top Premier League scorer.

But even a singular standout performance like that wasn’t enough to even help Liverpool improve on their mid-season position of 7th. They weren’t far off, but only one win in their final five games kept them out of a top-five spot. Part of the reason for that could just be down to exhaustion. The Reds had a cluttered fixture list down the stretch as they pushed for a Europa League title and the automatic Champions League qualification that came with it. That put a lot of extra minutes on players’ legs and also took some of the importance off of how they did in the league.

Jurgen Klopp’s side came close, losing 3-1 in the final to Sevilla, who feel like annual winners at this point. But those extra high-profile matches took their toll. Playmaker Phillippe Coutinho for example still scored seven times from the New Year on, but only three of those goals came in Premier League matches.

Now with no European football distractions to worry about, and a full offseason for Klopp to prepare, Liverpool can put their focus solely on getting back into the Top Four during the 2016-17 season. 

West Ham United

West Ham United – 7th (14th) +7 

West Ham United nabbed their best finish in the Premier League since 2001-02, coming home in 7th place and surprising me quite a bit. They also managed to exorcise some of the demons from last year after fading down the stretch following a start that had them among the European competition places. This time around, the Hammers lost just four times in 2016, and came up just two points shy of overtaking Southampton for 6th. Manager Slaven Bilic has been a fantastic choice for the club.

They remained a “scoring by committee” squad in the second half of the season, but with different contributors. While Lanzini and Payet’s goal form declined slightly, Andy Carroll picked up the slack with seven to finish as joint-top scorer at nine; his biggest performance being the hat trick in a 3-3 draw with Arsenal. Now if only they could keep the big England front man from getting injured so frequently.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that no player finished in double figures, and Enner Valencia might be the biggest disappointment, with just a return of four strikes in 19 appearances for the Ecuadorian not measuring up to expectations. West Ham also might have a problem on the horizon in keeping Payet at the club, as the influential Frenchman will have “bigger” clubs circling after his nine goals and 21 assists.

The high point of the season has to go down as their pulse pounding, 3-2 come-from-behind win versus Manchester United, which was a fantastic tribute to their fans in the club’s final ever game at Upton Park. Things are definitely looking up for West Ham as they move into the Olympic Stadium in London. 

Southampton

Southampton – 6th (8th) +2 

Talk about an organization that knows how to produce Premier League players. Despite being continuously ransacked by larger clubs for their talented youngsters (Liverpool appear to be treating Southampton as its Academy team at this point), Southampton just continue to keep playing good football and let their system drive them forward, seemingly regardless of whose on the pitch or what manager is picking the team.

It may be a new manager soon as well. Ronald Koeman may choose to jump to a “bigger” club to try and continue to build his resume, but he’ll have to be careful not to suffer the same fate of a number of former Saints who leave for what they think are greener pastures only to find themselves finishing below their old club in the league table. A sixth-place finish was a solid run this year, missing out on a tie for fourth with the Manchester clubs by a solitary victory.

It was a furious charge that fell just short. The Saints turned around their poor form to end 2015, but doubling their number of victories from the first half of the campaign (12 from their last 19 matches after only six from their first 19 games). Two separate stretches of six matches without a loss, and five wins in each of those spans, showed that they aren’t a club to be satisfied with mid-table security. They are firmly focused on following Tottenham’s lead into a constant top-four finishing club.

Fraser Forster put himself right back into the starting goalkeeper role, and did so well that Maarten Stekelenburg looks likely to move somewhere else on a permanent basis after his loan expires. All three of their strikers continued to score goals at equal pace, they just upped production with Sadio Mané, Grazziano Pellè, and Shane Long all hitting double digits. Dusan Tadic contributed to 19 different goals (seven tallies, 12 assists). At the back, Virgil Van Dijk played phenomenally alongside Jose Fonté, and now looks to be the newest Southampton target for other clubs to chase. 

Manchester United

Manchester United – 5th (3rd) -2 

So close, but so far away is the story of 2015-16 for Manchester United. The Red Devils lost out on a Champions League spot to their rivals Manchester City on goal difference A rescheduled final match of the season (caused by a fake bomb left over from a training exercise at Old Trafford) meant that United had little hope, needing to win by 19 goals to overtake their blue counterparts.

It’s a fizzling end for Manchester United after they spent so many resources trying to not only finish in the top four, but also compete for the trophy. A huge splash of cash for Anthony Martial saw the French youngster finish as the team’s top Premier League scorer with 11 strikes, but that’s not a huge amount when you look at the size of a club like Manchester United. The Red Devils have spent an insane amount of money over the last two years and it has become clear that the slide that started under David Moyes was not the manager’s fault. He managed the same type of finish without being given nearly the same resources as Dutchmen Louis van Gaal.

After uninspired football that saw the club bore their fans with five 0-0 draws in the first half of the season, drop out of a relatively tame Champions League draw at the group stage, get booed off the pitch by their own supporters on a number of occasions, and struggle the entire year simply to create chances in a system that was devoid of an offensive spark, it’s time to call “time” on van Gaal’s spell in charge. Jose Mourinho anyone?

Inadvertently, there seems to be some positives to take from this campaign going into 2016-17. The club did manage to hold onto goalkeeper David de Gea (even if by accidentally messing up his last-second transfer to Real Madrid) with the Spaniard finishing as their player of the year for the third season in a row. And teenage sensation Marcus Rashford was an accidental discovery. Forced into action through injuries and a rare United prospect without a ton of hype behind him, he burst onto the scene with 8 goals in 18 total appearances (5 in 11 in the Premier League alone).

Manchester City

Manchester City – 4th (4th) +0

It’s hard to grade Manchester City’s season in a campaign where it really doesn’t appear that the owners of the club cared if they won or not. Even while 2015-16 was happening, the focus was purely on next season with the February announcement that Pep Guardiola would be taking over as manager for 2016-17. This effectively made Manuel Pellegrini a lame duck, tasked with trying to motivate a group to chase down the league leaders even as the internal pressure to succeed softened.

It was an impossible task for any manager, and City’s form showed the ill effects of the announcement. A stretch of six games from February to March that saw them lose four times was the end of their chances to realistically win the Premier League title. Overall, during the second half of the season, the Citizens earned just two points (draws with West Ham United and Arsenal) from its seven matches with the other clubs who made up the top eight places in the table. Yes, Manchester City was capable of putting a beat down on lesser opposition (4-0 victories over Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Bournemouth, and Stoke City was evidence of that) but a team with this much talent on its books should be putting up a better fight and getting better results against its rivals at the top of the heap.

City still avoided the worst-case scenario, pipping United for the final Champions League spot on goal difference. But an aging and oft-injured core group of players shows that Guardiola will have his work cut out for him in his first year on the job. Luckily, the Abu Dhabi Group have plenty of resources to go after any transfer targets their new man deems necessary. Whether or not Guardiola can adjust quickly to the pressures of the England game is another matter. It will be interesting to see if he can create the type of dynasty that City’s owners so desperately want. 

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur – 3rd (9th) +6

A third-place finish would normally be nothing to frown about for Tottenham Hotspur, but 2015-16 will most likely leave a bitter taste in their mouths after seeing not only their title hopes collapse down the stretch of the season, but also featured a 5-1 capitulation to Newcastle United on the final day to allow historic rivals Arsenal to leapfrog them into second place. St. Totteringham’s Day continues for a 22nd straight year. 

That being said, there really is a lot for the club to be proud of. This is their best finish in the table since the 1989-90 season when they also finished third. Harry Kane (or is it officially Sir Harry of Kane now?) shook off his slump of one goal in the first nine matches to finish as the golden boot winner with 25 goals. Dele Alli proved to be just as valuable to the club as Kane is with 10 goals and 11 assists in the first season playing for Tottenham for the just-turned-20-year-old England man. Those two look to be a duo to keep Tottenham on top for a long time to come, and have a lot of England fans drooling about the future of the national team.

The club has an embarrassment of riches in midfield, and at the back Hugo Lloris has proven himself to be one of, if not the, best goalkeepers in the Premier League. Opposing attacks seem to just smash upon the rocks of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld at centerback.

The future continues to look bright for Spurs, but with such a good squad, maybe you can understand why the fans are disappointed with a third place finish. When you have a great team, you’re only satisfied with championships, and Tottenham don’t want to miss out on their window to gobble some up. They’ll be one of the favorites going into 2016-17. 

Arsenal v Sunderland
Barclays Premier League
The Emirates Stadium
20th May 2015

Arsenal – 2nd (1st) -1

Arsenal may have finished second in the table, but that doesn’t really tell the story for the team who topped the charts when the calendar flipped to 2016. They looked to set to finally end that Premier League championship drought when they claimed a stoppage time win against Leicester on February 7th, only for the team to falter with back-to-back losses. From there, they were never really a part of the title race conversation.

The Gunners lost fewer games in the second half of the season (three compared to four), but they won a lot fewer too (eight compared to twelve). That inability to finish off “inferior” teams like Southampton, Swansea, West Ham, Crystal Palace, and Sunderland ultimately cost Arsenal a shot at the crown. Now the question is raised once again about what the Gunners have to do to get over the hump. Is it time to move on from Arsene Wenger and select a new manager (Wenger currently has one year left on his contract) or do they bust open the war chest for a new striker who can pop in goals at the 20+ level?

The stats don’t show much to be disappointed in, with Alexis Sanchez hitting 13 goals and four assists. Mesut Ozil faded down the stretch, perhaps from fixture clutter as much as anything, but the German midfielder still provided six goals and 19 assists. Somehow, someway… Olivier Giroud is still the team’s top scorer with 16 despite really not playing all that well, or seeming to be that important to the club.

When you go down the roster, Arsenal are a team with a lot of players you would expect to do well, who have been putting in simply average performances. They aren’t playing badly enough that a clear-cut solution is evident, but they certainly aren’t playing well enough consistently during the season to put this team ahead of its rivals. It’s an extremely tricky situation to be in, but one that won’t be unfamiliar to Arsenal in the slightest.

Leicester City

Leicester City – 1st (13th) +12

It doesn’t seem to happen very often anymore, but once in a while, “sports” remind us why we care so much about a game when there are so many other seemingly more important things that demand our attention. Every now and again, you get a story that brings back all the emotions – the surprise, the hope, the utter joy – that we remember as children, when you believed anything was possible and sports represented all that was fun in the world.

Leicester City, and its amazing, impossible run to the 2015-16 Premier League title, is that tale. They are the Cinderella story to end all Cinderella stories; the underdog who defied maybe the most improbable odds ever, to lift a trophy that has been reserved for only the biggest and richest and most powerful for more than 20 years.

A 5,000-to-1 long shot who was nearly relegated last year, lost their player of the season to an expiring contract, and lost their manager who guided them (improbably) to safety in an offseason scandal, somehow bested Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and City, Tottenham, and Arsenal to win the Premier League for their first time.

It is not hyperbolic in the slightest to call this the greatest upset in sporting history. It will certainly go down as one when the inevitable arguments between impossible to compare sports and eras are brought up. But more importantly than any of that, this was a season to make every football fan believe in the magic, believe that their team could win it all too. From now on, every fan can take a look at their club before the start of the season and think, “maybe, just maybe we can do it too.”

The Premier League desperately needed this. The English top flight has developed a reputation as the most competitive and entertaining league in the world, where anyone can beat anybody on any given day. But despite that acclaim, it’s a league that’s been very short on surprises over its existence. Save for one surprise triumph by Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95, the Premier League has been won only by Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City since it began back 1992-93.

When you compare the resources those teams have, the hundreds of millions of pounds spent by each of them to build a title-contending squad, with that of little Leicester City, you can understand how impossible this all seems. The Foxes relied on the old stereotypes of underdogs, finding players who had been cast aside by others, building an actual “team” rather than just assembling a group of superstars, and finding a way to craft the chemistry where players supported each other and wanted to win for each other. Low and behold, they succeeded.

That’s now how sports are supposed to work anymore.

Manager Claudio Ranieri, “the Tinkerman”, kept his goals reasonable, targeting only Premier League survival from the beginning and not switching his focus to loftier expectations until those initial goals were completed. This might have kept Leicester City grounded where other teams have faltered after strong starts. Regardless, there was still a lot of work to do when the Foxes reached the halfway point and found themselves in second place.

And after the midseason point when all the pressure was on and the team was expected to come plummeting back down to earth? They lost just one match out of their final 20 (that stoppage-time defeat to Arsenal). They showed that they were for real when they kicked off 2016 with four wins in six matches, and five wins in a row starting in early March gave them some breathing room and heaped all of that pressure onto their opponents. Aresenal fell to the side following their victory over to the Foxes, and Tottenham, with all their firepower, simply couldn’t keep up with Leicester’s pace. Finally, a Spurs’ draw with Chelsea meant the title belonged to Leicester City and the celebration was on.

There were individual performances to acknowledge as well. Jamie Vardy set the new Premier League record for scoring in consecutive games, and his 24 goals were one shy of the golden boot. He also completed his much-talked-about transformation from non-league footballer to England national teamer. Riyad Mahrez similarly came out of nowhere to have an amazing season with 17 goals and 11 assists. He also won the vote for the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award. Captain Wes Morgan anchored the defense and played every minute of every game for the champions, while N’golo Kanté put on a master class of holding midfielder capabilities, recording more tackles and interceptions than any other player. Plus, you can’t forget about goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who stepped out of father Peter’s shadow to claim his own Premier League triumph.

The glory will be short-lived as the team begins to focus on fending off overtures for its players from other clubs, and looks into adding more depth before a season that will include Champions League football. No team has won back-to-back titles in the Premier League since the mid-2000s, and Leicester City will be hard-pressed to repeat their extraordinary feat. But no matter what happens, nothing can replace what happened in 2015-16. Leicester’s win has changed world football.

Good luck getting 5,000-to-1 odds on a team to win the title ever again.

Premier League 2015-16 Midseason Check In

The 2015-16 Premier League season has been a wild one so far to say the least. Since we have reached the end of December, it’s time to check in on how my preseason predictions are shaping up. We start at the bottom of the table and move up, with my prediction for the team’s finish in parentheses next to how many positions I’m currently off by. Let’s get to it.

Aston Villa – 20th (18th) -3

Aston Villa have been a team living on borrowed time for several seasons, and it appears, finally, that this year the clock has run out on their Premier League status. A paltry eight points and one win from 19 games seems about right for this club. That lone win to start the season, against newly promoted Bournemouth, was followed by losses in nine of their next 10 matches.

There have been some bright spots. The team needed a talismanic offensive player after losing Christian Benteke to Liverpool, and they appear to have found one in Jordan Ayew. The Ghanaian leads the team with five goals and has consistently looked like their most dangerous threat. Fellow new arrival Rudy Gestede has done a good job mostly coming off the bench, and has used his size as a good hold-up player. However, the fact that his three goals are the second-most on the team tells you all you need to know about Aston Villa’s scoring punch. Jack Grealish was expected to take another step up, but he has been in manager Remi Garde’s doghouse after getting caught out partying after a bad loss.

Problems at the back have been a big issue as well, with defenders seemingly uninterested in marking opposing attackers. Their last game before the midway point of the campaign was a 2-0 capitulation to Norwich City where forwards seemed to waltz into acres of space for both goals. Even in a topsy-turvy season like this one where no team has looked close to unbeatable, it’s hard to see where you’d expect Villa to come away with three points. Like other bottom-rooted teams before them, Aston Villa is going to find it hard to bring in recruits during the transfer window. Quality players do not flock to sinking ships.

Sunderland – 19th (19th) +0

My preseason prediction for Sunderland appears to be spot on. The Black Cats have been in bad spots like this before… as in each of the last three years… and are somehow still around and kicking in the top flight, so maybe they can do it again. Three victories in 19 games doesn’t exactly inspire confidence though. What looked like a slight turnaround at the end of November, after back-to-back wins over Crystal Palace and Stoke, turned out to be just a flash in the pan, as the team followed it up with five straight losses. Their latest one, a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool, gives them 13 losses, tied for the most with Aston Villa.

Four goals is a decent return from experienced striker Jermain Defoe on a low-scoring team (after all, it’s not like anybody has more), but Sunderland will really need him to pick it up in the second half of the year if they’ll make another miraculous escape. The big problem has been the lack of offense being generated from midfield. An experienced Premier League group that includes Adam Johnson, Sebastian Larsson and Jack Rodwell has produced a grand total of one league goal.

Sunderland have tried to improve their fortunes with a host of loan moves from all over Europe, but the thing that may have condemned them to relegation is their choice of manager. After Dick Advocaat resigned in early October, the Black Cats chose to replace him with, wait for it… Sam Allardyce.

Yep.

Because “Big Fat Sam” had loads of success implementing an offensive-minded, winning style of football at West Ham. Oh wait…

Newcastle Georginio Wijnaldum

Newcastle United – 18th (12th) -6

Newcastle United barely survived the drop last year, but rather than turning things around they’ve gone right back to the bottom. It looks like they’ll be among the mix of contenders fighting to avoid the final spot in the relegation zone, but don’t have the same type of talent or team chemistry that other clubs have going for them.

One bright spot, the transfer moves this summer have been fantastic compared to how the rest of the team has played. Newcastle haven’t scored many goals this year, only 19 in 19 matches, but nearly all of them have come from new players Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic. At the back, fellow newcomer Chancel Mbemba has been fine, logging tons of minutes and looking like a rock in the center of defense.

With four goals, young Spanish striker Ayoze Perez has been a nice surprise, albeit one who was already on the roster. But with his standout play in comparison to a lot of his teammates has come the inevitable transfer rumors that he’ll leave in January for greener pastures.

Expectations are Newcastle will have to make a serious splash in the transfer windows if they want to not only survive, but also switch from relegation fights to mid-table comfort in future campaigns. As Aston Villa and Sunderland have been proving this year, you can only survive so long if you don’t change. Lucky for the army of Toon faithful, it looks like the club knows what it’s doing when it comes to new signings.

Swansea City – 17th (6th) -11

Swansea City represent one of my biggest misses of the year, and it certainly didn’t look like that would be the case early on. If you stopped paying attention to Swansea after the first couple weeks of the season, you may be confused as to why the Swans are so low. After all, they were unbeaten through the first month of the campaign and looked to have a world-beating striker in Bafétimbi Gomis. The problem has been one that even started to rear its head during that early stretch; Swansea just simply cannot win games.

The scoring has dried up as well. Their total of only 16 goals is second worst in the league, just one above Aston Villa’s haul of 15. Gomis has scored just once in the 14 games he’s played since his impressive start. Ghanaian André Ayew has been the only other player to shoulder the load, leading the team with six goals. The defensive work has been just fine however, and the Swans have allowed 10 goals fewer than the five other clubs making up the bottom of the table.

Their lone victory from October through November was a 2-1 squeaker over that same Villa team, and that was enough for Garry Monk’s time at the club to end in early December. Alan Curtis is still at the helm as the caretaker leader, and no word on if a full time replacement will be named before the end of the season. If Swansea were to be relegated at season’s end, it would be one of the bigger head-scratchers of recent memory as to how they managed it.

Bournemouth – 16th (17th) +1

Just making the Premier League was a miraculous achievement for plucky Bournemouth. Winning back-to-back matches against giant English clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United is just the icing on their unending supply of cake (notice how I didn’t say “cherry,” don’t always go after the low-hanging fruit)!

Their 34 goals against is tied for the second-most allowed in the Premier League this season, but the Cherries always knew coming in that it would be how many goals they scored that determined if they avoided relegation. A haul of 22 is pretty impressive for the smallest budget in England’s top flight, especially when you consider that they’ve been missing their best strikers in Callum Wilson and Max Grandel, through injury.

Matt Ritchie looks like a future star for years to come and would probably be a welcome addition to any club in the Premier League. His zig-zagging runs and an eye for the spectacular in front of goal have ensured Bournemouth are always a threat when on the attack. Young, talismanic manager Eddie Howe certainly has the belief and the coaching style to get the best out of what he has. It’s easy to say that putting together enough money to buy a top-quality player would be a huge boost, but there’s something to be said for chemistry among a squad, and Bournemouth have that in spades. The soccer gods generally smile on those that play the game the right way, and I stand by my preseason belief that the Cherries will survive. And the Premier League will be better because of it.

Norwich City – 15th (16th) +1

The common point total to reach “safety” and avoid relegation is generally stated to be 40 points. So you could say that through half of its matches Norwich City are halfway to survival with 20 points from the campaign. Another way of looking at it is they’re right on the edge, and a couple of bad results or key injuries could knock them out.

Young, attacking midfielder Nathan Redmond (hard to believe he’s only 21) was a player I identified as needing to take a step up and realize his potential, and he definitely did that early in the season. Redmond scored in the first two matches of the year and had four goals in nine games, but hasn’t found the back of the net since. Even with the peaks and valleys in form, he’s still leading the team in goals. Cameron Jerome has chipped in with three but Norwich are in need of a striker that can find the net with regularity (what team doesn’t need more of those) and should be shopping for one in the January window.

Norwich fans will probably be rooting for their club to meet that 40-point mark sooner rather than later. A bright spot has been the team’s ability to beat clubs in the bottom part of the table, keeping them from making up ground. However, the Canaries end the season with games against Arsenal, Manchester United and a road game against Everton, definitely not a stretch they’ll want to arrive at where they’ll still need to get results. Another relegation could be disastrous, especially as the club looks to stop yo-yoing between the Premier League and the Championship.

Chelsea Jose Mourinho

Chelsea – 14th (2nd) -12

As amazing as Leicester City’s run to the top of the table has been this year (and we’ll get to that later on), an equally if not larger story has been just how inconceivably bad Chelsea’s campaign has gone. Champions a year ago to at risk of relegation in the span of a couple months.

Manager Jose Mourinho was sent packing after he wasn’t able to steer the squad out of their nosedive down the table. The “Special One’s” part in all this was even stranger. He played the part of pariah with his scapegoating of team medic Eva Carneiro for an early loss and his frequent outbursts with the media. Not that this behavior was new for Mourinho but it was always accompanied in the past by wins, which made it seem like just a part of his management style.

It’s been more than just off field issues that have derailed Chelsea’s season of course. The on-field product hasn’t been up to par. Despite the line-up being nearly identical, there have been little changes that have added up. Fans of the team will point to the decision to sell long-time goalkeeper Petr Cech this summer after he had been passed on the depth chart by Thibault Courtois, as a mistake, especially after a suspension and injury forced Asmir Begovic into service for many games. But Begovic is a solid goalkeeper and played admirably. The real problem lies right in front of him. The usual stingy Chelsea defense has disappeared. Once rock-solid players have started to look just too old and younger replacements have looked overwhelmed at times. No longer are defenders hurling their bodies in front of shots and making tough tackles, and the result is that Chelsea are giving up the kinds of goals fans haven’t seen them allow in years.

The team also hasn’t looked hungry, perhaps too overconfident after their largely unchallenged run to the title last season. The Premier League is not so easy a league that you can waltz through it at half speed. Guus Hiddink has been brought in to right the ship and prevent the unthinkable, his second time as interim manager at the club. Chelsea have enough talent that it’s unthinkable they’ll be in the Championship next year. Then again, I would have considered it unthinkable if at the start of the campaign someone had suggested the Blues would be where they are right now.

West Bromwich Albion – 13th (15th) +2

West Bromwich Albion’s strength this season was always going to lie in its defense, and the back end of the formation has delivered. West Brom have won a lot close games this season and goalkeeper Boaz Myhill is tied for the second-most shutouts in the Premier League with seven. Just another example of Tony Pulis getting the most out of what he has to work with.

The offense though has been a different story. Striker Saido Berahino, who scored 14 goals last year, wants out and didn’t exactly do it quietly. Tweeting that you’ve played your last game for a club is about as public a venting of your issues as you can get. Credit West Brom for sticking to their guns and not letting the talented youngster head out the door during the transfer window since they didn’t get a fair value offer for him. That may change this month with plenty of other squads looking for a scoring injection.

Berahino, despite his more limited playing time in light of his off-field issues with the club, is still the team’s joint top scorer. Of course, that’s not exactly hard to do when the other two you’re tied with have scored only three goals apiece. Experienced striker Rickie Lambert has only found the net once for his new club and the scoring has been very much by committee. Coaxing a few more goals out of the bunch will be the main goal going forward for Pulis, but with a strong and sturdy defense, there should be Premier League football again at the Hawthorns next season.

Southampton – 12th (8th) -4

Southampton are more even across the board than any other team in the Premier League. With half of their fixtures played they’ve won 6, lost 7 and drawn 6. They’ve scored and given up about an equal number of goals, 26 for, 23 against. And they also sit in the middle of the table, 12th place, 15 points off the leaders, and 12 points above the relegation zone. It would be easy to proclaim that Southampton fans are suffering through the boringness of a mid-table campaign.

From a broad overview perspective, it’s not the worst thing in the world. Yes the club are coming off a season where, much like Leicester this year, they raced out of the gate and looked like they had a shot at a top four finish before fading to eighth, but security as a Premier League mainstay is a huge accomplishment for a club that spent plenty of seasons in the Championship. There’s also been a lot of good things to take away so far. The attacking triumvirate of Sadio Mane, Grazziano Pelle and Shane Long has combined for 12 goals with Dusan Tadic also chipping in from midfield. The defense has looked okay with a good mix of younger players to go along with a rock-solid veteran like Jose Fonta, while Maarten Stekelenburg appears to have cemented the starting spot in goal.

It’s also important to remember that Southampton still have resources. They’ve got cash and they’ve got good, young talent. A year where the club survives comfortably and snags a little more experience isn’t the worst thing in the world, and the club could still very easily make a run into the top part of the standings in the second half of the season.

Everton – 11th (10th) +1

At the halfway point of the campaign, Everton sit exactly where they were at the end of last season, 11th in the table. Unlike last year’s season, which created real concern over the threat of relegation, there has been a lot to enjoy about 2015-16 for Toffees’ fans. Everton has been a part of several of the most entertaining games of the year.

High scoring, back-and-forth, late drama filled matches that have produced everything a football fan could want. The 3-1 win over Chelsea, a 3-2 victory against West Brom, a heart-stopping 3-3 tie with Bournemouth and most recently, a narrow 4-3 loss to Stoke City are just a few of the games that have been worth the price of admission this season. Led by Romelu Lukaku’s 15 goals scored in the Premier League, tied with Jamie Vardy for the most by any player, Everton have been an offensive juggernaut. A total of 35 strikes is good for third-most in the league behind only Leicester City and Manchester City.

The defense has sprung a few leaks with 28 goals allowed, but those problems might be alleviated with the return of Phil Jagielka who has been out with a knee injury since late October. American goalkeeper Tim Howard has had his critics at times, but for my money has played pretty well this season and is still his team’s best option in between the posts. The position may be the same, but the style of football makes a world of difference. Everton fans currently have plenty to smile about.

Stoke City Shaqiri

Stoke City – 10th (7th) -3

Stoke City’s season started slower than an upside down turtle strapped to a sloth, but the Potters have been playing up to their potential lately and find themselves just one point behind sixth place Manchester United. They went six games without a win to begin things, but have been tough to beat with only six losses total at the midway point.

The phrase, “Sexy, sexy Stoke,” has been bandied about by folks like the Men in Blazers and Premier League fans to describe the large amount of flashy attacking players in the squad compared to the rough, tough, boot it long style that Stoke fans have been used to seeing. Xherdan Shaqiri was the newest addition to that group, but it took the young Swiss native a little while to adapt to the Premier League. December saw him turn the corner with both assists in a 2-0 win against Man City, and two goals in a 4-3 triumph over Everton in their 19th game of the season.

Young English shot-stopper Jack Butland has seized the role left vacant after Asmir Begovic’s transfer to Chelsea, and he has thrived as the new number one, single-handedly earning points for Stoke at times with stellar performances. Austrian Marko Arnautovic has emerged as the season’s star for the club and leads the team with seven goals. Bojan Krkic has showed that last year’s season-ending injury hasn’t slowed him down at all.

If the players continue to get used to the Premier League and keep improving at their current rate, my preseason prediction of a seventh place finish may end up being too low.

Watford – 9th (20th) +11

Watford have made me eat my words. I chose them to finish dead last in the league. A sure-fire bet for relegation, a team of brand new players with no chemistry and no sense of continuity. I’d seen this move before, I thought to myself. This never works. By the time they get into a rhythm and actually learn to play together the season will be half over and they’ll be so far behind they won’t be able to dream of catching up.

In the immortal words of the character Dr. Cox from the TV show Scrubs, I was, “Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. You’re wrong! You’re wrong! You’re wroooooooong!”

The Hornets have been fine this year. In a season where literally every team has looked to have problems and inconsistencies, Watford have looked more comfortable than most. They have just gone about their business and beaten teams they should beat, and some that they probably shouldn’t have. It’s the type of combination that usually leads to a finish in the top half of the table.

Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes has been fantastic in his return to the league and reaches the midway point tied for the most shutouts with eight. Up top, Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo has been a revelation with 14 goals, and would be one of the top stories of the year if not for the spectacular campaign for Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy. Troy Deeney has also found his scoring punch. If the goals keep flowing, Watford should finish comfortably in the top half of the table.

West Ham – 8th (14th) +6

West Ham United were one of the early surprises last season, with a great first half of the year that saw them in the mix for a top-half finish before tumbling down after the midpoint. That’s a fate they’ll try to avoid a repeat performance of. Once again the Hammers made noise early, sitting second after six matches and still in the top four through 10. An eight-match winless streak was a stumbling block, but the squad didn’t lose too many of those fixtures. That run was broken on their midseason game with a 2-1 victory over Southampton.

While a lot of teams rely on one or two players to score the bulk of their goals, West Ham truly have a scoring-by-committee operation. They’ve gotten five goals from Dimitri Payet, three goals from Diafra Sakho, three goals from Cheikhou Kouyaté and two goals from Andy Carroll. Manuel Lanzini has impressed with four goals and should have his loan turned into a permanent transfer this summer. The thigh injury to Sakho was a blow, but he should be back before the end of the season. Ecuador national team player Enner Valencia hasn’t scored in the few games since his return from long-term injury, but should be back into the swing of things soon.

So much for the storm clouds that appeared to be gathering before the season kicked off. Things are looking up for West Ham under new manager Slaven Bilic. They’ve shown they can beat the “big” teams with wins against Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea. Goalkeeper Adrian has continued to fly under the radar amongst Premier League shot-stoppers but he has been a big part of their success. A finish in the top half of the table should be the least the Hammers target.

Liverpool Jurgen Klopp

Liverpool – 7th (5th) -2

It’s no coincidence that Liverpool have looked like a club without an identity this season. Questions abound about what exactly this team should be hoping to achieve. Are they in a rebuild? Are they a team on the rise? Are they a team that is one piece away from making a run? So far, the first option seems to most likely. Manager Brendan Rodgers got the axe early as the top brass ran out of time to give him to try and find the answers. In his place comes a huge upgrade in Jurgen Klopp. He brings charisma and a great resume to the job, but has to face reality that reviving this once great club won’t be a simple fix.

It doesn’t help when you can’t hang onto your most important pieces. Like Luis Suarez before him, Raheem Sterling moved on to a bigger club. Not only did they lose their best player but the Reds also lost their center with Steven Gerrard moving on to easier pastures in his final years. Jordan Henderson and James Milner haven’t exactly assumed the position of fiery leader, and have had their share of struggles. The defense has looked shaky with passionate defender Martin Skrtel continuing his alarming habit of scoring own goals. Simon Mignolet hasn’t played like a starting Premier League goalkeeper, but isn’t exactly challenged with Adam Bogdan his closest competition on the depth chart. Philippe Coutinho has probably been the team’s best player, but he can’t score a long-range bomb of a goal every game. With Daniel Sturridge limited through injury, Christian Benteke has been the top choice striker. However, he is scoring at a decidedly average pace, and “average” could be the word used to describe the performances of a majority of the other first team players.

Liverpool need their investments in some of their young talent to pay off. They need a few players to make the jump from good to great, and they need it now. The squad is packed with players that should be able to do the job, and the early results seem to be that Klopp may be the guy to help them transform.

Manchester United – 6th (3rd) -3

Honestly, sixth place feels a little high for Manchester United the way this team has played, but they are only two points ahead of tenth place Stoke City. Their five losses have been to Norwich, Bournemouth, Stoke, Swansea and Arsenal, but it’s the host of other uninspired performances that has been the biggest concerns. Lackluster displays against teams like Newcastle, West Ham and Chelsea. No wins since November. These are the kinds of things that make it easy to see why United are considering firing Louis van Gaal despite still being in the running for a European place.

The scoring has dried up. Captain and longtime striker Wayne Rooney has not looked like himself now that he’s in his 30’s instead of his teens or 20’s. The Red Devils second all-time goal scorer has found the net in just two league games this year. Part of the problem is van Gaal’s system. Rooney has been used as a lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation, but because of a lack of chemistry in the midfield he’s been forced further and further back toward his own goal if he wants to receive the ball. He’s never been a fast player, and trying to start attacking moves from his own half isn’t going to work for the England international. A two-striker formation could be the key to getting him back on the score sheet.

Speaking of that lack of chemistry in the midfield, despite spending around $500 million over the past two seasons, Louis van Gaal has yet to nail down a regular combination of players. There are tons of talented options available with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juan Mata, Memphis Depay, Marouane Fellaini, Morgan Schneiderlin, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick all in the mix, among others. Talent is one thing, but chemistry is another, and the team just hasn’t clicked yet.

The club has been more than willing to open up the war chest; the $75 million spent on French teenager Anthony Martial is evidence enough of that, but this may not be a problem that Manchester United can solve by throwing money at it. However, if they do decide to move on from van Gaal, it’s an awful lot of money to have wasted just to realize that they made the wrong choice.

Crystal Palace – 5th (11th) +6

Crystal Palace were another squad I had marked for taking another step in the right direction. A tenth place finish was fantastic for the Eagles a year ago, and they’re looking to obliterate that mark this time around.

Yohan Cabaye has been every bit the player Crystal Palace hoped they were getting when they convinced him to make the move to England. His five league goals is enough to lead the squad, but his influence in building attacks, not finishing them, has been the biggest strength he’s brought to the table. Yannick Bolasie has knocked in some goals and the squad looks like they’ve gelled into a comprehensive unit. An unbeaten month of December was a nice way to end the year and help them end 2015 in a Europa League position.

Not everything has been fantastic though. The loan move for Chelsea’s Patrick Bamford has been an unmitigated disaster. Speedy attacker Dwight Gayle has yet to score a goal in a Premier League game this season (he has found the net several times in League Cup matches). Young goalkeeper Alex McCarthy was given a shot at the starting job, but failed to nail it down, giving way to Wayne Hennessey.

These little issues have been small potatoes compared to what the team has achieved. It’s important for Alan Pardew’s side to remember that they are just as close to slipping back into mid-table as they are to advancing any further up it. A strong end to the season could lead to some more exemplary summer signings and a real shot at European football.

Tottenham Hotspur – 4th (9th) +5

How do you improve on a strong fifth-place finish from a year ago? Well… mathematically by finishing fourth or better. That’s where Tottenham finds itself with half the league games played.

Things weren’t looking so hot in the early season when Harry Kane suffered through a scoring slump in the first few games (called it!). But after having just one goal through nine games, he picked things up to the tune of ten in his next ten (nevermind!). Eric Dier has made the transition quickly to being a very good defensive midfielder, and Tottenham has ditched some dead weight with Roberto Saldado off to Villarreal and Emmanuel Adebayor off to… wherever (even if they are still paying his wages).

Spurs have a fearsome pairing at centerback with Belgian nationals Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. They anchor the stingiest defense in the Premier League along with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, giving up just 15 goals in 19 games and having a league-best goal differential of +18. It’s an amazing turnaround compared to last year when they gave up 53 goals. Alderweireld appears to be the big piece and has been worth every cent they paid to get him from Southampton this summer. He has also gotten the best out of his compatriot Vertonghen who looks a lot more disciplined.

Spurs have made a habit of getting results out of matches with just two league losses all year, and three straight wins before the midpoint mark have them trending up.

Manchester City Kevin De Bruyne

Manchester City – 3rd (4th) +1

Early in the season it looked like Manchester City were this year’s version of Chelsea. An unchallenged romp to the Premier League title looked to be locked down. Then everything changed when the rest of the league woke up and decided it would be really fun if they had the most bonkers campaign ever.

The Citizens are probably still the favorites to win the league at this point, but there are some troubling signs. Big losses to Liverpool and Tottenham and defeats against top-half of the table teams like Arsenal, Stoke City and West Ham show that Man City are far from unbeatable. Sergio Aguero is the team’s top scorer as expected, but the goals have come from everywhere and in bunches with 13 different players buzzing the net. They’re tied for the most goals scored at 37 and have had big outbursts like 5-1 and 6-1 wins. That hasn’t changed from last year, but really not much has.

Manuel Pellegrini didn’t need to make many big moves, but the players he chose to bring in have worked out. Raheem Sterling has fit in and started to find the net at the same clip as fellow new signing Kevin De Bruyne, who came in from Wolfsburg for the second-highest transfer fee in Premier League history. In a league where everyone has beaten everybody, Manchester City have as good a chance if not better to win the race at the end.

Leicester City – 2nd (13th) +11

As much as these blog posts trying to predict the Premier League are just a fun exercise for me, one that is done by hundreds if not thousands of websites, I do find myself caring about getting my picks right. Nobody wants to look like an idiot, or in this case like somebody who doesn’t actually know anything about the sport they’re trying showcase their expertise of. So when I sat down before the season to try and determine where I thought the Foxes would finish up, I had a genuine dilemma. On one hand, I was very impressed with their end-of-season form that saw the club avoid relegation in 2014-15. On the other, I know that form is fleeting and the team could just as easily have returned to their predominantly losing ways.

I stuck by my guns though that this was a squad that was better than even what people had seen a glimpse of at the end of the last campaign. I believed they could easily survive and even outclass a few teams in the Premier League, as they slowly entrenched themselves in the top flight like other clubs had done before them. So I put them in for a solid mid-table showing. That was probably even a stretch compared to what football fans thought of their chances, yet here I am more than half the table off from their current position of SECOND… and only on goal differential at that.

This isn’t just the best story of the Premier League, this is one of the best stories in sports. A league, and a game, with no salary cap restrictions, where the only way to gain a place among the clubs that legitimately have a title shot each year is to literally buy your way in, and a middle of the pack team is showing everyone up? It’s unheard of. It’s unprecedented. It defies everything that we’ve come to know and accept about the world of football.

I love it.

Leicester have been led by Jamie Vardy and his record-level goal scoring pace, and the complimentary and equally free-scoring ways of Riyad Mahrez. They’ve won close games, they’ve blown out teams, and they’ve hardly played a bad match. They’ve done everything so well that if you peeled the logos and identifiers off of them and asked a fan to guess who they were based on their stats, I’d wager they’d all pick something like Arsenal or Chelsea or Man City. Claudio Ranieri, who seemed like an odd choice for manager at the beginning of the season, now looks like a soccer savant, injecting joy in the side and finding the right mix between things like freedom and creativity and discipline.

It may not last. West Ham had a fine start to last season before plummeting back to earth. Southampton also threatened to earn a top four finish last year before running out of gas toward the end. But this feels like something different. This feels special. And if Leicester can somehow keep it going in the second half of the season and win the league, it will be the greatest sporting accomplishment that I have ever witnessed a team achieving.

Arsenal Arsene Wenger

Arsenal – 1st (1st) +0

Unlike a lot of my predictions that have been well off target, my pick for the top spot is right on the money at this point. It seems like it shouldn’t be such a close race based on how Arsenal have played. The club would be cruising along with a comfortable point advantage if not for their habit of losing random games here and there: an opening day defeat by West Ham, a bad game against Chelsea, a stumble against West Bromwich Albion and a blowout loss to the Saints. Of course, if they hadn’t this wouldn’t be the Premier League season of parity.

The Gunners have also been dealing with yet another injury crisis with Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott just a few of the group who have been out of action for long stretches. Losing Alexis Sanchez to a hamstring injury at the end of November was a particularly painful blow, but it hasn’t affected them so far with four wins in five games since (even with that bad 4-0 loss to Southampton mixed in there). The Chile national teamer has been a creative force, even if his stat of six league goals is a little deceptive; they all came in three games. Up top, Olivier Giroud continues to use his “meaty French forehead,” and other parts of his body as well, to score goals. His tally of 10 leads the team.

However, the biggest impacts have come from two other players. Mesut Ozil has become the core of Arsenal’s ball movement capabilities, something most people wouldn’t have predicted after the German’s first two seasons at the club. He didn’t look like the player he was at Real Madrid when he arrived, trying to adapt to the more physical Premier League. After having a summer break where he wasn’t off winning the World Cup with Germany, Ozil has looked fresher and more like a player worth the huge transfer fee the Gunners shelled out for him. Meanwhile, Petr Cech has brought stability to the goalkeeping position, which is a big change compared to past seasons. His age has shown with a few bad performances, but the experience and quality can’t be underrated for the man who now owns the record for most shutouts in Premier League history with 170.

The bottom line is that this represents Arsenal’s and Arsene Wenger’s best chance to win a Premier League title for the first time since 2004. They aren’t fighting off a challenge from Chelsea or Manchester United who have had unusually bad campaigns and have been busy rethinking their choices of high-profile managers. Leicester City’s season has been remarkable to this point, but history gives little hope to their chances of keeping it up until season’s end, and Manchester City appears to have more issues than the Gunners.

The “Invincibles” Arsenal squad went on an unbeaten run in ’03-’04 to lift the trophy that season. It would be more than a little ironic if the next time they claim the crown is in a season like this, that has been anything but perfect. But the end results would be the same, and I don’t think the supporters will mind at all.

NASCAR Gets It Right At Darlington

It’s time for a NASCAR blog post!

Last weekend’s NASCAR “throwback” event at Darlington Raceway got me thinking about the sport in a couple of different ways. First, it was an excellent promotion in how it used nostalgia to add to the event. It was the return of the Southern 500, Darlington’s traditional race, to Labor Day weekend, a position it hadn’t been in since 2003. It also used throwback paint schemes and an old-school announcing team of Ken Squier (the first man that comes to mind for me when I’m thinking about NASCAR play-by-play) and Ned and Dale Jarrett to cater to NASCAR fans’ memories of the “good old days” of the sport.

It was also a literal return to way racing used to be at the track that is nicknamed both “the Lady in Black” and “the Track Too Tough to Tame” thanks to changes to the tires and the cars’ aerodynamics packages. The result was that the tires didn’t last as long as they normally do at other tracks and became “slick” much quicker. Drivers had to plan when to take on fresh tires so they could last the entire race. It was the first time I heard crew chiefs on a broadcast noting the difficulties of having a limited number of sets of tires since the 1990’s.

It was fantastic.

The drivers seemed to think so too. Carl Edwards won the race and sounded pleased with the changes in victory lane. “This is what it’s about… sliding cars, the tires are falling off… I mean, this is the style of racing that I love,” Edwards said.

Denny Hamlin was also in agreement after a third place run. “It’s the package we need to run from now on,” Hamlin said. “It’s unbelievable how much tire fall off there is. You’re sliding around, there are more wrecks, which is unusual but it’s a good thing because guys are messing up. That happens every now and then in racing. It’s a lot of fun from our perspective and it’s something that we can look forward to.”

The retro paint schemes were also very well done. Personally, I was a big fan of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s “David Pearson” paint job, Kyle Larson’s “Kyle Petty” scheme, Mike Bliss’ “Harry Gant” tribute and Trevor Bayne’s “Mark Martin” look. But my favorite throwback look came in the Nationwide Series courtesy of Josh Wise and the Go Green Racing Team, with a nod to Ricky Craven’s colors during his victory over Kurt Busch in the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington.

That race was the closest finish in NASCAR history at just .002 seconds (since equaled by Jimmie Johnson in his win over Clint Bowyer at Talladega) and was exactly the kind of racing that made this sport so popular in the first place. Two drivers, neither with a car handling particularly well, using every ounce of their driving ability to push their machines to the absolute limit, and battling each other right to the finish line. It’s something any fan would love to see more of.

With any luck, the tweaks seen in this race signals some intent from NASCAR to go back to the roots that helped make their sport so great in the first place. Hopefully, it’s for more than just one race on the calendar.

2015-16 Premier League Preview

The Premier League is back, and with it comes another edition of my season preview complete with predictions on where each club will finish. Last season I managed to nail the top three in the right order and got two of the three relegation spots correct… which really isn’t saying much considering the Premier League is most unpredictable in the middle. This year, I expect the bottom of the table to be very complicated with any of six different teams in danger of falling through the trap door to the Championship, while toward the top, several mid-table teams have a chance to have a real breakout campaign.

Watford

Watford – 20th

Watford are a bit of an odd team, and I’m not even referring to the fact that they’re nicknamed “the Hornets” when they have a moose head on their team crest. No, it’s their Italian owners, the Pozzo family, that have many football fans scratching their heads. After earning direct promotion through a second-place finish in the Championship last season, the team is unrecognizable just a few months later. Why? Because the Pozzos decided their team wasn’t anywhere near good enough as things stood.

The owners couldn’t come to terms on a new contract with manager Slavisa Jokanovic (the fourth different manager over the course of that one season, it should be mentioned) so out the door he went, replaced by Quique Sanchez Flores. The squad list looks like a general assembly of the United Nations with players from 22 different countries after a host of summer signings. Yet not one of those was a goalkeeper to challenge Heurelho Gomes whose last season in the Premier League was a dumpster fire of horrible errors. Etienne Capoue is the big name arrival and it’s worth pointing out that many of these players appear to be Premier League caliber, but a squad has to be a team rather than a collection of players to be successful.

Too many changes, too many question marks and too much uncertainty should have Watford falling through the trap door at season’s end.

Sunderland

Sunderland – 19th

How many lives do the Black Cats have left? Sunderland has pulled off miraculous escapes from relegation in each of the last three seasons, thanks to a late-season surge in form and a spirited manager. The first two of those managers didn’t last long after though with Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet both getting fired before the end of the next campaign. Dick Advocaat will look to buck that trend, but only after he reversed his decision to retire after the season to accept a one-year contract.

Jermain Defoe will look to keep his half-season form from last year going for the whole campaign, something Sunderland really need having scored the second-fewest number of goals in 2014-15. Dutch international Jermain Lens is the shiny new arrival from Dynamo Kyiv at the cost of $13 million, and could add some spark up front or on the flanks. Sunderland’s strength lies in its midfield group that includes Sebastian Larsson, Jack Rodwell, Adam Johnson and captain Lee Cattermole, although Johnson could be out of action in February due to his court trial for allegations he had sex with an underage girl.

Off-field distractions and on-field struggles should be too much for Sunderland to overcome. The magic has to run out sometime and I see them heading to the Championship.

Aston Villa

Aston Villa – 18th

So… Aston Villa were nearly relegated for the umpteenth time last season and now their two best players, Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, have gone away. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. Benteke’s departure was maybe inevitable, as the Belgium international is too good a striker to be mired in the depths of the table for too long. Delph’s departure however, will feel more like a gut-punch to fans. The Villa captain pledged his loyalty to the club on numerous occasions, turning down a move to Manchester City before bizarrely accepting it a few days later. Both players represent sizable gaps to fill.

The team got busy on trying to do just that. Senegalese midfielder Idrissa Gueye arrives from Lille, Ghana’s Jordan Ayew is in from Lorient and Rudy Gestede comes in at striker from Blackburn. Two reinforcements come in from Manchester City as well in the form of a permanent move for Scott Sinclair and a free transfer for defender Micah Richards. Gabriel Agbonlahor should end up shouldering more responsibility up front and in the center of the pitch, while reliable midfielder Charles N’Zogbia is also still there. American keeper Brad Guzan will hope that a strong club season, outperforming Everton’s and fellow American Tim Howard, might help him keep his place as the starter on the U.S. men’s national team even with Howard’s imminent return.

Villa have to hope that their new signings mesh quickly and adapt to life in the Premier League if they will have any hope of survival.

Bournemouth

Bournemouth – 17th

Bournemouth has reached the Premier League for the first time in its 125-year history and you better believe they’re going to enjoy the party. It’s a story that sounds like a game of Football Manager, with three promotions (League Two to League One to the Championship to the Premier League) in just six seasons. Not only that, they were on the verge of bankruptcy and relegation from the entire Football League in 2009, before their dramatic turnaround. As Drake once said, “Started from the bottom now we’re here.”

If last season is any implication, the Cherries are going to be fun to watch. They play a fluid, offensive brand of football with a lot of pressure and a lot of passes. The last newly promoted side to go out and actually try to score goals and win games that way was Blackpool, and they missed out on survival on the last day of 2011, with a very respectable 39 points. You have to admire a small club (their stadium seats less than 12,000) that is willing to go out and play positive football.

Like a lot of cash-strapped newly promoted sides, Bournemouth relied on a host of free transfers to add some experience. Goalkeepers Artur Boruc and Adam Federici, speedy winger Joshua King and experienced defender Sylvain Distin (along with the young and talented Christian Atsu on loan from Chelsea) all joined talismanic manager Eddie Howe’s squad this summer. Ivorian forward Max Gradel and club-record signing Tyrone Mings were the expensive buys. They should mix with young attackers Callum Wilson and Matt Ritchie, both of whom really impressed in the Championship.

Overall, Bournemouth has too much belief and too much going for it to get relegated after one campaign. It may be close and it may come down to the end of the season, but I think they’ll stay up. And everyone can enjoy rooting for the little team that could, along the way.

Norwich City

Norwich City – 16th

The last team into the Premier League after defeating Middlesbrough in the playoff final, Norwich City managed to rebound quickly after being relegated following the 2013-14 season. Now the question is, can they avoid being sent down again after just one season?

The Canaries did not have as much success bringing in new blood this summer as other teams. Graham Dorrans’ loan move from West Bromwich Albion was made permanent. His former teammate with the Baggies, Youssouf Mulumbu, adds some grit to midfield while Robbie Brady brings some set-piece mastery to the flanks, joining from relegated Hull City. They mix with a squad that isn’t exactly star-studded. Long-time club player Wes Hoolahan and goalkeeper John Ruddy bring the experience, but the biggest question mark is if Norwich can score enough goals to keep itself up.

Ricky van Wolfswinkel is back after a season-long loan with St. Etienne in France’s Ligue 1, but he didn’t exactly set the world on fire in his first Premier League go-round with Norwich, finding the back of the net just once in 25 games. Cameron Jerome is on his seventh Premier League campaign, but he hasn’t scored more than four goals in a top-flight season since the turn of the decade. Gary Hooper is serviceable if not outstanding and Nathan Redmond has been regarded as a future superstar for a long time, but is maybe not ready to take that next step at just 21. Expect Norwich City to display a lot of grit, but they will need some luck if they’re going to have a shot at matching the three-year stay they enjoyed the last time they gained promotion.

West Bromwich Albion

West Bromwich Albion – 15th

Look, I like Tony Pulis, he knows how to get the most out of a Premier League team that doesn’t have as much talent as bigger clubs, but man does he play a boring brand of football. That said, West Bromwich Albion is a team that could use substance over style, as they try to survive another year.

Saido Berahino is far and away the best player on the team. After scoring 14 Premier League goals, the Baggies have done well to hang onto their young striker so far. He’ll get some support up front this season in the form of striker Rickie Lambert. Lambert has a pedigree of scoring goals for hard-working teams and he’ll be looking for more playing time after a hot and cold stay at Liverpool.

West Brom’s biggest strength is at the back. James Chester was the most expensive signing for Pulis this summer, costing $12 million from Hull City. He joins a group that already includes Jonas Olsson, Joleon Lescott and Craig Dawson. They’ll need to be at their best to keep teams off the board and make the job a little bit easier on the other side of the pitch for Berahino and company. It’s certainly a lot to ask when you take a look at some of the monster line-ups other teams have put together. Pulis’ tactical maneuvering might be the difference-maker.

West Ham United

West Ham United – 14th

Oh, you pesky Hammers. West Ham United have been a bit boring in the last few seasons to say the least, but that all may finally change with big Sam Allardyce no longer at the helm as manager. After a surprisingly grand early start, West Ham fell back to finish 12th. I’m not expecting a repeat performance of last year’s opening success, so a more consistent run of form is necessary from new man Slaven Bilic to avoid disaster.

West Ham have a plodding, physical, if not technically gifted team, that should push around enough opponents to keep them in the Premier League, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Hammers’ roster of center backs is nothing to sneeze at. The biggest concern is on the other side of the ball where injuries have already struck. An early season start due to Europa League qualifying means the squad is on very short rest, and star strikers Andy Carroll and Enner Valencia are both out with significant injuries. With Stewart Downing’s summer transfer to boyhood club Middlesbrough, play-making duties will fall squarely on the shoulders of Diafra Sakho.

There is a distinct possibility that things go horribly, horribly wrong here and paint a black mark on West Ham’s final season at Upton Park, before their move to the Olympic Stadium in 2016.

Leicester City

Leicester City – 13th

Leicester City has a giant Esteban Cambiasso-shaped whole in its team, after the experienced Argentine midfielder declined to return for another season. His leadership was a big reason why the Foxes managed to escape relegation with a late surge in form. However, that wasn’t the only offseason loss the team suffered. After a preseason tour to Thailand ended with scandalous headlines involving youth team players and prostitutes (including manager Nigel Pearson’s son), Pearson’s time in charge came to an abrupt halt. In his place, a perplexing choice of Italian manager Claudio Ranieri, who last managed in the Premier League 11 years ago.

Leicester’s main strength lies up front where the hard working Jamie Vardy, high scoring Leonardo Ulloa and newly signed Japanese international Shinji Okazaki all operate. In the back, Robert Huth and Wes Morgan shore up the defense with Kasper Schmeichel entrenched between the posts. It could be a nervy few weeks to open the season for Leicester as they make adjustments, but I expect them to once again stay up.

Newcastle United

Newcastle United – 12th

Newcastle United were another entry on the long list of teams that were nearly relegated last season. The fans finally got their wish to see manager Alan Pardew leave the club, when he took over Crystal Palace in January. The result? Newcastle plummeted to a 15th place finish, well below the Eagles, which Pardew took over. Steve McClaren is the new manager, and the former leader of the English national team will hope that he can repair some of the club’s image and engineer a quick rebuild.

A lot of money has been invested in a few transfers from PSV Eindhoven and Anderlecht. Striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, midfielder Georgino Wijnaldum and defender Chancel Mbemba have all arrived to help out a main cast that includes striker Papiss Demba Cissé, defender and captain Fabricio Coloccini, goalkeeper Tim Krul and midfielder Cheick Tioté. A few more reinforcements may be necessary but Newcastle fans will be hoping for simple stability and a step in the right direction, as the Magpies look to rebound to the top half of the Premier League.

Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace – 11th

Alan Pardew took the Eagles to new heights last campaign with a tenth place finish, the club’s best ever season. Pardew, already a club legend from his time there as a player, only took the reins in January, so hopes are high he can at the very least repeat his success with a full season in charge.

Crystal Palace definitely know how to soar like eagles with fast players like Dwight Gayle, Yannick Bolassie, Jason Puncheon and Wilfried Zaha. Expensive signings Yohan Cabaye, amazingly arriving from Paris Saint-Germain for $20 million, and striker Connor Wickham from Sunderland should help add a cutting edge to the attack, as will Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford who scored 17 goals in 39 games for Middlesbrough last season. Glenn Murray is also still on the team and has a knack for scoring goals whenever he gets a chance to play.

There are some defensive liabilities and young goalkeeper Alex McCarthy may end up replacing Julian Speroni sooner rather than later, but I expect Crystal Palace to finish comfortably in the mid-table.

Everton

Everton – 10th

Everton fans thought the sky was falling around them in 2014-15, before ending up in a decidedly mid-table 11th place finish. They should probably expect about the same finish this year but without the doom and gloom surrounding the proceedings.

While Everton could use a bit more depth at certain spots, they do have an excellent starting group on both offense and defense. Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman are top quality Premier League fullbacks while Phil Jagielka and youngster John Stones start at center back. Up front, Belgian duo Kevin Miralles and Romelu Lukaku should provide the goals while Arouna Koné and Steven Naismith provide cover off the bench. In the midfield, Ross Barkley will hope for a bounce back season in terms of production, after a disappointing year following the World Cup. He’s joined by Everton’s main acquisitions this summer, Tom Cleverly, on a free from Manchester United and winger Gerard Deulofeu, who arrives from Barcelona after a loan two seasons ago.

The risk for the Toffees is if some of their players end up not looking like themselves, which happened last year. Tim Howard had a down season before rebounding toward the end, Ross Barkley looked out of sorts and Romelu Lukaku started slowly after his big money transfer. The other huge concern is if Everton can hold onto some of their best players, particularly John Stones who could get snapped up before the transfer window closes.

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur – 9th

Tottenham Hotspur, otherwise known as the fighting Harry Kanes, managed a fifth-place finish last season. A then 21-year-old English striker Harry Kane announced himself to the Premier League with an incredible 21 goals, which helped make up for Spurs’ leaky defense that allowed 53 goals, more than any other team in the top half of the table. If Kane’s production falls off even slightly, Tottenham could go tumbling back into the pack.

Kane wouldn’t be the first Premier League striker to burst onto the scene with a world-class caliber season only to fade the following year. Swansea City fans will point to Spanish forward Michu as a recent example. Club-record signing Roberto Soldado has been a massive disappointment in his two seasons at White Hart Lane and experienced players Emmanuel Adebayor and Aaron Lennon appear headed out the door as well.

The bright spots in midfield are Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Érik Lamela who can score and provide final passes. Captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has played exceptionally at times despite Spurs’ horrible goals against record. The major coup this summer was buying defender Toby Alderweireld who had a fantastic season last year on loan at Southampton. Still, the best Tottenham seem to be able to hope for is an identical fifth-place finish and if the goals scored drop off it could be much, much worse.

Southampton

Southampton – 8th

Manager Ronald Koeman had a phenomenal first year, leading Southampton to its highest-ever Premier League finish. The Saints looked like a Champions League caliber team for much of the season before fading near the end, but it was a stark difference to how things looked following a massive amount of star players being sold before the campaign. It’s a new season, but the script looks familiar as two more big pieces of the squad are out the door.

Nathaniel Clyne is off to Liverpool, while Morgan Schneiderlin has been bought by Manchester United, two pieces of business that leave the Saints $60 million richer. Some of that money has been reinvested. Dutch international Jordy Clasie reunites with Koeman to take over the vacated holding midfielder spot, while Spanish youngster Juanmi and defender Cédric Soares were reasonably prices additions. The defensive side of the ball is still an issue for Southampton. Maya Yoshida Goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg is on a season-long loan from Fulham, and will battle Fraser Forster for the starting spot. Captain José Fonta and Japanese international Maya Yoshida will try to nail down the defense at the center back positions. Up top, Sadio Mané and Graziano Pelle should be a deadly duo, while youngster James Ward-Prowse is your latest Southampton starlet to keep an eye on.

The Saints are on to something here in their approach to the game. Smart scouting means they can replace the players who are big purchases by more established Premier League clubs, and that money has also helped the team build and improve within. It’s a refreshing change to what life is like at the top of the table and you can’t help but hope Southampton succeed with it.

Stoke City

Stoke City – 7th

For so long, Stoke City were known as a team that played bruising, kick and chase football, clogging up the pitch and grinding out points under manager Tony Pulis, satisfied with keeping themselves in the Premier League year after year. They rarely faced the threat of relegation, but never mounted anything close to a serious challenge toward the top of the table. My how things can change in just a few short years.

Stoke have gone out and rebranded their image. Now under manager Mark Hughes the club plays football that isn’t dull. They’ve been ambitious in their transfer targets and this season brought in two more players from Barcelona, Ibrahim Afellay and Moha El Ouriachi, to go along with last year’s surprise package Bojan Krkic. Bojan’s season was cut short by injury last year, and if he can avoid that fate he should be a real treat to watch making Stoke’s midfield tick. Spanish striker Joselu was the big money signing this offseason and should battle Mame Biram Diouf for minutes up front.

Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic has left the starting role with the Potters in favor of a seat on the bench at Chelsea. Jack Butland takes over for him and I believe he’ll have a breakout year. A very young and talented keeper himself, Butland appears to have a lock on the future England top spot and could make his presence known with a full Premier League year in between the posts. Steven N’Zonzi is perhaps a bigger loss in midfield, having been sold to Sevilla, but talented pieces like Charlie Adam and Marko Arnautovic are still in place, and at least one more big signing could be in store. It should be a very fun season at the Brittania.

Swansea City

Swansea City – 6th

Swansea City is one of the fun teams to watch in the Premier League. Manager Gary Monk has shown that he can have the team playing attack-minded football. Now it remains to be seen if the club can mount a serious challenge for a European football spot.

U.S. men’s national team fans will recognize a couple of Swansea’s new additions from the 2014 World Cup, with Ghana’s André Ayew and Portugal’s Éder both having played against the Stars and Stripes in the group stage. They will both lend support up front to star man Bafetimbi Gomis, who will be looking for a more consistent season after scoring seven goals last year. Dead ball specialist and assist machine Gylfi Sigurdsson should have no trouble finding players to get on the end of his deliveries, while in goal Poland’s Łukasz Fabiański will need another surprisingly good season, much like last year’s performance, to help the team push up the table. And I’ll be keeping a closer eye on South Korean midfielder Ki Sung-Yeung, so I don’t miss out on another very good, under the radar season.

Liverpool

Liverpool – 5th

As if Liverpool didn’t have enough to worry about with trying to keep pace with the top teams in the table, the Reds went and lost out on their best player. Sure they made out like a bandit in Raheem Sterling’s $75 million transfer to Manchester City, but the fact that they once again couldn’t hold onto their best player has to be concerning to the storied club. Talismanic leader and captain Steven Gerrard has moved on, which at this point in his career doesn’t hurt the team too much skill-wise although his leadership may be missed.

Without Sterling, attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho will be counted on to shoulder a larger brunt of creative play. The Brazilian tallied five goals for the second straight season in 2014-15 and was also named to the PFA’s Team of the Year. He’s joined in the midfield by free transfer James Milner and Roberto Firmino who cost $40 million from Hoffenheim. New captain Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana should also see plenty of playing time. A healthy season and return to form for striker Daniel Sturridge would also greatly help things. He’s joined in the rotation by new arrivals Christian Benteke (Aston Villa, $50 million) and Danny Ings (Burnley, pending tribunal). Mario Balotelli is still there, but the Italian is unlikely to see any playing time after a horrible 2014-15 campaign.

Nathaniel Clyne is the last big addition to mention, costing $20 million from Southampton. He joins fellow former Saints Lallana and Dejan Lovren. Meanwhile, youngster Jordan Ibe could be a player to make the leap into more regular first-team minutes, as Brendan Rodgers starts to feel the pressure and desperately takes a run at a top four spot.

Manchester City

Manchester City – 4th

Manchester City might have finished second in the Premier League last season, but they were a long way from taking the title from Chelsea. An experienced roster, the Citizens dropped the average age in the starting line-up quite a bit with the purchase of Raheem Sterling from Liverpool. He’ll be alongside the heartbeat of Manchester City, Yaya Touré in midfield. David Silva is the other star in the middle of the pitch. The Spaniard known for his deft touches and perfect passes also contributed 12 goals in 2014-15. Fabian Delph arrives from Aston Villa to occupy the holding role in front of a defensive unit that struggled at times last year. Captain Vincent Kompany and company (that’s fun to say) will work to tighten things up.

Goalkeeper Joe Hart, for all his critics, still managed to lead the league in clean sheets last year with 14. This team is a locomotive up front though, and it’s strength lies in offense. A league-best 83 goals blew the doors off everyone else. Top scorer Sergio Aguero and his 26 tallies is the number one reason why. The Argentine is electric with the ball and shouldn’t have any trouble maintaining his high standard.

Manuel Pellegrini’s side still seems to be missing a piece or two to really grab that Premier League title. Luckily for City fans, the club still has bags of money at its disposal and should make some more noise before the end of the transfer window.

Manchester United

Manchester United – 3rd

Louis van Gaal’s second summer in charge of Manchester United was another where the Red Devils splashed the cash. Huge payouts totaling $120 million in order to secure the services of Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Matteo Darmian show once again that the team is going for it. Then again, last year it was a similar story and the best they could manage was fourth place.

The truth is United are spoiled for choice when it comes to talent. Their roster is full to the brim with top quality players. In the midfield alone there is Juan Mata, Michael Carrick, Adnan Januzaj, Daley Blind, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera to go along with Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin. Van Gaal can’t possibly keep them all happy, so he has to get rid of a few. But how do you choose among a lot that have all performed very well for United at one time or another. Some of it just comes down to who van Gaal happens not to like. For evidence of that, look no further than the goalkeeper position where Victor Valdes, Anders Lindegaard and to some extent (because of his rumored move to Real Madrid) David de Gea are all on the wrong side of the manager.

Somehow, United’s once-clogged striker positions are now their thinnest spots on the pitch. Robin van Persie and Radmel Falcao are gone, and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is another of the players in van Gaal’s doghouse whom he is looking to offload. That leaves just captain and star player Wayne Rooney up front with 19-year-old James Wilson for support. There is no question that United are talented, but until van Gaal gets things organized and gets a finalized first-team settled in, I can’t see them getting close to overtaking Chelsea or Arsenal.

Chelsea

Chelsea – 2nd

José Mourinho led Chelsea to the top of the table in his second season back in the Premier League. With only three losses, the Blues were a cut above everyone else and had three games left to go when they locked up the trophy. Now the quest begins to become the first team to win the title twice in a row since 2009-10 when Manchester United won the league for the third year running.

Mourinho has left his squad essentially in tact from the team that lifted the trophy last season. Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic arrives as the new back-up from Stoke City while Radamel Falcao will try and restore his once glittering reputation after a forgettable year at Manchester United. If club legend Petr Cech couldn’t even get playing time ahead of Belgian youngster Thibeault Courtois, you have to assume that Begovic will barely see the field. Captain John Terry and Gary Cahill anchor a stellar defensive unit. Eden Hazard has become one of, if not the best player in the Premier League, with Cesc Fabregas, Willian and Oscar also in midfield. Up top, Diego Costa will look to avoid injury after scoring 20 goals in 26 games last season.

If there is any concern it’s that Mourinho’s tactic of hardly rotating his squad at all may come back to bite him if the injury bug strikes. There’s also a risk of Mourinho spontaneously combusting at some point as he continues to get worked up and start media fights with anyone and everyone who poses the slightest threat or dares disrespect him.

Arsenal

Arsenal – 1st

After finding a way to both appear to mount a title challenge to Chelsea and throw it away nearly simultaneously last season, Arsenal are my pick to finally get over the hump and win the Premier League for the first time since 2003-04 (*double checks that figure* Really?! Holy crap that was a long time ago!).

Arsene Wenger has been the man with a plan for so long, he’s the longest-tenured manager in the Premier League by a long way. He believes in developing talent rather than just going out and paying for it, but that model has changed a little bit recently after Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie were all whisked away by other clubs in the middle of their prime a few seasons ago. In response, Arsenal cracked open the war chest to bring in Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez from Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. The result? A team that plays beautiful football, the kind Wenger aspires to, and can get results.

The big transfer is goalkeeper Petr Cech who comes over from rival Chelsea in search of first-team football. The Czech Republic international has a fantastic Premier League pedigree and could be the first player to nail down the Arsenal position in between the posts in a long, long time. Up front, Olivier Giroud should be the main man after scoring 30 goals over the last two seasons, with Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott providing support. In the midfield, Aaron Ramsay, Jack Wilshere and Francis Coquelin slot in along with Özil and Sanchez, while Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny hold down the fort in the back.

With other talents I haven’t even mentioned yet like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla and Calum Chambers it’s no surprise why Arsenal are title challengers, but winning the thing for the first time in more than a decade will be a tough task.

70-2: Rafael Nadal’s Surprising Loss at French Open

Have you ever watched something weird? Something that just stands out as so incorrect, so one-sided, so not what it should be that you’re convinced something is going on, like an elaborate hoax or a practical joke. That’s what it felt like today watching Rafael Nadal lose in straight sets to Novak Djokovic in today’s French Open Quarterfinal match.

For those of you who don’t follow tennis with more than just a cursory glance at the sport during its major tournaments (and there are a lot of sports fans like that) this result wouldn’t seem that out of place. Djokovic is the #1 ranked men’s tennis player in the world, and he often takes his opponents apart on the way to a victory. One thing that was definitely strange was this match happening in the quarterfinals of the tournament, maybe the earliest meeting of high-powered players in French Open history. If you told a casual tennis player that Nadal and Djokovic were playing for the championship rather than just a semi-final date, it would probably seem more likely than not.

This early a meeting between these two was only possible because of Nadal’s dip in 2015. The Spaniard has slipped to #7 in the world this season, his lowest ranking in a decade. There have been other signs of Nadal’s decline this year. His only win so far came in an ATP 250 tournament (ATP 500, ATP 1000 and Open tournaments are all higher prestige) and he suffered quarterfinal defeats to other top 10 players like Tomas Berdych at the Australian Open and Stan Wawrinka at the Italian Open.

Still, it seemed doubtful that it would affect Nadal at the French Open. Any other player, sure you expect them to struggle, but nobody has ever been as dominant at a major tournament like Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. That isn’t hyperbole. The 29-year-old had lost once (ONCE!!! As in one time) to a player on those clay courts in ten years. That lone loss was an upset defeat to Sweden’s Robin Soderling in 2009, in the fourth round. Nadal lifted the trophy in the other nine tournaments. Coming into today, Nadal was 70-1 in French Open matches. In modern day tennis with other all-time great players like Djokovic and Rodger Federer and Andy Murray out there, that record is absurd. It boggles the mind.

Novak Djokovic defeats Rafael NadalSo it was equally as mind-boggling to see Nadal lose to Djokovic this way, in his own domain: 7-5, 6-3, 6-1. Not only does Nadal not lose at Roland Garros, he certainly doesn’t lose in straight sets, and he had never trailed two sets to love in a match here before. Djokovic had 23 forehand winners to just three from Nadal! It just didn’t make sense. There were points early in the game where it looked like we were set up for another instant classic tennis match, like this point in the first set.

But it wasn’t to be. After dropping the first set, Nadal seemed to wilt as the game went along, rather than getting stronger like we’ve seen so many times in the past. Nadal is known for his tooth-and-nail style playing himself to the brink of exhaustion and injury in his refusal to go down without a fight. Instead, Nadal played defensively. Whether through his own lack of confidence with his play or because of Djokovic’s skill, he seemed unable to mount any offense, unable to push Djokovic onto the back foot.

There were two points especially that characterized the match for me. This first came in the second set. Down 5-3 having just had his serve broken, Nadal had to break Djokovic right back to avoid losing the set. He forced the game to deuce, and looked like he would surely have advantage when he returned Djokovic’s serve beautifully, placing it down around the feet of the onrushing Serbian. Amazingly, Djokovic somehow managed to throw is body downward while at the same time flicking a cross-court backhand over the net, landing the ball on the line as it bounced off the side court. Djokovic won the next point to take the set.

The second point came deep in the third set. With Djokovic out to a commanding lead and just points away from pulling a shocking upset, I expected to see Nadal’s determination kick in, to refuse to make it that easy to rip the crown from his head. When Djokovic hit a drop shot (and not even a great drop shot) that Nadal took one half-hearted step toward before stopping and watching it bounce, I knew the match was over. Nadal seemed to be in disbelief, demoralized at letting himself get into this situation in the first place.

After the match, Nadal said all the right things and talked about working harder than ever before to try and reclaim the title. The last time he lost a match at the French Open he won the next four tournaments there. It may be a little harder this time, but I’ll expect to see Nadal back on top very soon.