Test of Champions
I must get something in before the kickoff of the biggest football game of the year: the Champions League final game, between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, from Milan (Fox, 2:30 p.m. Eastern).
Spain's La Liga clearly has the best club competition in the world, with its teams dominating the European club championships for the last 2-3 years. Beyond that, of course, Spain has won the last two European Championships and the World Cup before the last.
Real Madrid is an all-star team of some of the highest-paid players, and their fans and owners expect the best results, so this game is a must-win for the current squad and its management, as they have no other trophies this year (Barcelona won the league title and the domestic elimination cup championship). Atletico has been right there in all of the competition, but the expectations of their long-suffering fans, who are at least as passionate as Real's, are more realistic. In that sense, Atletico has already accomplished a great feat, eliminating the two teams I would have expected to meet in this Champions Cup final, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. To provide an analogy to American sports, Real is the Yankees, Atletico the Mets.
This year's league contest went down to the final game before Barcelona won narrowly over Atletico and Real. Barcelona had an unusual run of bad play for a few weeks this spring, which caused their lead in La Liga to shrink to the verge, and Atletico caught them during this period to eliminate them from the Champions League tournament. Atletico then topped it of with a narrow victory over Bayern--which has the core of the world champion German team, plus others.
The match has galvanized Spain in a way that their long-lasting, unresolved political stalemate cannot. In a possible foreshadowing of a problem the US could face in a few years, the two parties which controlled national politics since the end of the postwar Franco dictatorship have rotted away from the inside and are being steadily replaced by new ones: Ciudadanos ("Citizens") has posed a good-government, free-market alternative to the corrupt, patronage-based "Christian" Popular Party which inherited the remnants of Franco's Falange party, and Podemos ("We Can") has been eating away the support of the Socialist party, which once posed a lively democratic alternative but has failed to be a successful governing party. Podemos stands for rejection of austerity and has mobilized the disaffected, particularly the youth.
The resulting four-party division of support, complicated by the possibility of secessionist referendum for Catalonia, seems to be impossible to resolve with normal parliamentary methods, because none of the four parties trusts any of the others enough to govern with them (and particularly their party leaders do not). Last December's general election created the mess, and June's new election seems unlikely to make any change to the situation. Some kind of non-partisan technocratic solution seems the only likely outcome. to create a government of some kind. In the meantime, it's good that the Battle of Madrid will be resolved in a neutral location--I'm thinking Milano will be relatively unscathed, but the home city may have some dangerous moments.
I hesitate to predict the outcome of the final--a single game is very unpredictable on its dynamics. One likely result will be that one of the teams will show itself up to the occasion and the other will show nerves early, which could be disastrous (think of the Spain-Brazil World Cup final, which got out of hand early); another would be scoreless stalemate with both teams trying to avoid losing. I'm hoping for a third, more exciting result: a freewheeling, open contest that remains close but is decided in regulation time. OK, I'll go with that, Real Madrid, 3-2.
Not to Exaggerate, But..
The Preakness Stakes last week was probably the best horse race I've ever seen in that classic, which , when there are any proven great horses competing, is usually the predictable intermission between the wild-and-woolly Kentucky Derby and the often-dramatic test presented by the longer race in the Belmont Stakes. This year there are two great horses, as shown by the Derby result. If I were advising Exaggerator's team, whose horse closed strongly late but came up short against the undefeated Nyquist in the Derby, I would've said to wait out the Preakness, rest your horse, and beat him in the endless homestretch of the Belmont. They knew better: the Desormeaux brothers, trainer and jockey for Exaggerator, who earned their stripes at the Preakness' Pimlico race track, went for it there and got a great break from the weather: Nyquist had never raced in a sloppy track like Pimlico had last week, while Exaggerator's best win had been in an off track.
Exaggerator had a perfect ride, saving ground on the rail the whole way, and made a brilliant move coming around the final turn. My congratulations to the Desormeaux family and the owners of their horse, who will now be favored in the Belmont, due to a fever that Nyquist came down with after the race.
Not too many surprises so far, as major-league baseball reaches the one-third mark of the season this week. The biggest positive surprise is Boston's Red Sox, who have surpassed division rival Toronto as having the most potent offense in the majors; the biggest negative surprise is my pick for 2016 World Series champs, the Houston Astros, for which everything (hitting, pitching, fielding) seems to be coming up snake eyes. It is not too late for them, though, as their division has a fair degree of parity (all three American League divisions are still competitive, first-to-last).
The National League is different, with very clear winners and losers. The biggest positive surprise are the expected losers from Philadelphia. The Phillies' rebuilding program is proceeding faster than expected and they are at least mediocre. The Cubs' rebuild is complete and they are close to total domination of the league, though they will have to prove it against tough postseason pitching. The Dodgers are disappointing, while the Giants--winners of the World Series in the last three even-numbered years--seem to be rising to the top once again.
Finally, to the NBA, where a huge game will be played today: the big two of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, will have their big chance for postseason success take a final exam today. They have a 3-2 advantage against the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors, who threatened, through their record-setting regular season, to change the nature of the game itself (small ball, 3-pointers), and the home game tonight in OKC could be viewed as the climax of the whole season. Like Atletico Madrid, the Thunder has been earning their shot by toppling the favorites--first their dramatic victory over the Spurs, now, maybe, the Warriors. If they do succeed, they will face Lebron James and the Cavaliers in a championship final that will be, like today's Champions League, difficult or impossible to predict because of the unlikely buildup.
OK, OKC over GSW (narrowly, tonight), and Cleveland over OKC, 4-2.