Manchester United- Chelsea
Today's F.A. Cup match is one of the highlights of the English footbll season, M.U. having basically wrapped up the Premier league title and, with the Red Devils' spectacular flameout this week vs. Real Madrid completing the deal, the English failure in the European Champions League now being complete.
The match will be just for a spot in the semifinals, but the team that emerges from this round will be a huge favorite to win the Cup. Chelsea is the defending champion, Manchester United has 11 titles, the most of any (Chelsea has seven, and four of the last six).
M.U. had a midweek failure in the Champions league--at home, no less. While leading 1-0, their midfield wing player Nani suffered a red card ("a bit harsh" was the judgment of the commentators; I did not watch it), and things fell apart. While their coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, raged at the decision, the team's defense faltered and they gave up two goals. The lead held and the last English team in the premier competition was out.
This game now has the fans, the crowd, and the players all worked up. Ferguson is starting Rooney at center forward, over probable Player of the Year Robin Van Persie, making up for not playing him Wednesday. Chelsea has its own issue: underwhelming superstar Fernando Torres, their longtime captain John Terry (feuding with his coach, Rafa Benitez), and rising star Eden Hazard are all on the bench. Both teams have plenty of talent to put out there, and options to make strategic substitutions as the game goes forward.
Manchester United will attack early; the key will be whether Chelsea can withstand the charge and then successfully counter-attack, as they did in their run to the Champions League title last year. I think it will be a high-scoring game, unless Chelsea gets an early lead. I will be watching the referees closely to see whether Ferguson, the crowd, and the M.U. mystique will get into their head and lead to critical calls against us. Otherwise, I think we have a chance for a huge win--which would demolish the aura of superiority for M.U. that they have earned through a brilliant Premier League season--or, at least a tie (a "draw") which would bring the replay back to Chelsea and could turn the tables in their favor.
Baseball: It's Back!
It's a bit too early for my official season preview, but I am thrilled by its approach. My Cincinnati Reds had a great season, a disappointing postseason (losing three straight home games and their Divisional Series to eventual World Champion San Francisco after jumping out to a 2-0 lead on the road), and a good offseason, so I think they are primed to achieve all that is possible for them in 2013.
So that's number one for me, but there are many other interesting themes going into the season. Are the Yankees fading? Are the Rangers? Can the Angels buy their way to the top? Can the Blue Jays trade their way into contention? Will the Cardinals retain their status as a top contender despite the probable permanent loss of their ace pitcher, Chris Carpenter? Can the Giants' pitching lead them once again? Is the Phillies' run as a top contender over? Are the Orioles for real? The A's? Can the Astros, big-time NL losers now in the American League, break the alltime record for losses?
My (provisional) answers: Yes; yes; yes; yes; yes; yes; yes; no; no; no.
Meanwhile, there's the "World Baseball Classic"--the invention, inspired by the World Cup, to have an inernational competition with players organized into national teams. It may not be all that it should be--and I do think there needs to be some change in the timing of the competition, so that the major league teams will have less reason to hold out key players--but I like the fact that it has been organized, that many players do want to participate, and that several nations' fans (though not so much the Americans) have gotten behind it. I have also heard talk that there may be a move, before too long, to have our "World Series" championships play a truer world series against the Japanese major league champion.
This last development could cause a change in the season plan--the WBC, as presently constituted, will not, because it just substitutes for a couple of early weeks of spring training, time which is generally considered a waste of time and effort by players--to shorten the season by a week or so. I've already called for this to allow another round of wild-card playoffs; this would be another reason, and another good reason, to do it. The oldtime regular season of 154 games was plenty.
A Very Few Words About the NHL
I didn't miss the NHL at all during the lockout, but the run of the Chicago Blackhawks to start the delayed regular season was just what the league needed. It certainly created some genuine excitement here in the Windy City metro area, but I think it also helped generate interest beyond the area in all of the league cities. Now that the season-opening blitz is over--their string without a loss lasted nearly half of the truncated regular season, being fully the equivalent of a 20-25 game win streak in baseball which has not happened in a very long time--we can move to the real point of the regular season, which is the battle of the middle-level teams to make it into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Then the real season, the second season when anything can happen, will begin.
Just as Short on the NBA, in a Similar Position
The NBA didn't have a lockout; they had the full regular season (this year, anyway--the did the NHL thing last year), but it's almost as though the early part of the season didn't happen. The surprising teams that were hot early, like the Clippers, Knicks, Nets, 76ers, are all fading badly; some teams that were disastrously below expectations, like the Lakers and Heat, are ferociously coming onto their game. The Eastern conference's eight playoff teams are totally set (a ten-game spread back to #9), so the battle there will be for first-round opponent and home-court advantage. The West is a free-for-all with all positions and the borderline slots up for grabs. The exception is that the two teams who have been consistently good all year, the Spurs and the Thunder, should be number 1 and 2 in the West.
...And Finally, the Madhouse of NCAA Basketball
We've got a week before the brackets will be announced. There will be a lot of excitement and drama with the conference tournaments this week, but nothing too substantial will change. All of the teams have lost games they shouldn't have; all the marginal teams have won games that belie their mediocre chaacter. There may be afew teams that get top seeds and easy first-round matchups, but mostly it will be, from the beginning, an unstructured tournament, nearly impossible to predict with accuracy. The second round should have a huge number of upsets, defined as a lower seed defeating a higher seed, so many that it will be hard to truly call them upsets.
Before the brackets come out, I will make a very rough prediction of the teams that will make the Final Eight, five based on some evidence they can win big games on the road, the key characteristic required for success in the NCAA tournament: Georgetown, Louisville, Gonzaga, Duke, New Mexico; and three "wild-card picks", teams that have not proved it, but will get it together in the tournament somehow. I'll take one--of the many, many possible teams--from the "Big 10" (Michigan St. or Indiana), one from the "Big 12" (Kansas St. or Oklahoma St.), and one lower-seeded team from a "lesser" conference (I'll go with VCU or St. Louis). Obviously, not all of these will be feasible, once the brackets are announced, and probably two or three will be out after the first weekend (when there will be 16 left), but I think this is the most likely outline.
Correction: Arsenal is still in the Champions League--technically. They are behind 3-1 to Bayern Munich after the first game, so they need to make up a two-goal deficit with three goals or more--on the road--to stay in it.