Monday, April 28, 2014

Pennant Fever

Before John Calipari came to the University of Kentucky, I used to spend a lot more time watching and thinking about English soccer.  But in recent years, the drama surrounding basketball season in Kentucky has been so intense that I have kept only a vague eye on conditions across the pond.  After all, Manchester United almost always won the league anyway.

But I probably should have paid more attention this year.  Sir Alex Ferguson, Man Utd's ruthless genius manager (imagine a better version of Bobby Knight), finally retired.  He was replaced by David Moyes, who had built a nice career for himself grinding out close victories at Everton.  But like Billy Gillespie, Moyes learned that there is a big difference between toughing out games in the provinces and coaching huge stars who are supposed to win every game.  With only a few games left in the season, United is mired in seventh place.  Not only will the Red Devils lose the league title, they won't even qualify for the Champions' League next year, which would be like Kansas missing the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  Moyes was fired a few weeks ago.

So that was drama enough.  But that's not all.  Chelsea finally got back Jose Mourinho, the genius coach who led them to Premier League titles in 2004-05 and 2005-06 before being let go for reasons that never made any sense.  Nobody coaches defense like Mourinho, and sure enough he has gotten Chelsea all the way to the semi-final of the Champions' League -- the only English team to get so far.

Meanwhile, Manchester City also had a new manager -- the old manager was fired after winning the league title in 2011-12 and coming in second last year.  The new manager is Manuel Pelligrini, a Chilean who had previously managed Real Madrid and Malaga in Spain.

The big story, however, has been in Liverpool, which dominated English football from the mid-1960's to the early 1990's, but which couldn't compete with Alex Ferguson and his Man Utd dynasty.  United and Liverpool fans hate each other, and the United fans -- who went from 1968 to 1993 without a title in the days of Liverpool's excellence -- took great joy in the fact that Liverpool hasn't won the title since 1989-90.  (In the early 1990's, Liverpool had 18 titles to 7 for Manchester United; now United leads 20 to 18.)  In June 2012, the Reds (as Liverpool is known) hired Brendan Rogers as manager.  Rogers was best-known for taking Swansea City -- a small club in Wales -- all the way into the Premier League.  Last year, Rogers didn't do very much -- Liverpool finished in seventh, not qualifying for the Champions' League.  But this year they've been battling for the lead for the whole season.  In fact, when they beat Manchester City 3-2 a few weeks ago, they appeared to be close to having the title in hand.

But yesterday, Liverpool was beaten at home for the first time all year -- going down 2-0 to Chelsea, which used its usual relentless tactics to utterly frustrate Liverpool's offense.  And now everything is up for grabs.  The top of the table now looks like this:

1.  Liverpool:  25-6-5 (80 points)
2.  Chelsea:  24-6-6 (78 points)
3.  Man City:  24-6-5 (77 points)
4.  Arsenal:  22-7-7 (73 points)

If you look carefully, you will see that Manchester City has one more game left than Liverpool.  Here are the remaining games for each of the three contenders, with the place in the standings for each opponents (home games in ALL CAPS):

5/5:  at Crystal Palace (11th place)
5/11:  NEWCASTLE UTD. (9th place)

5/4:  NORWICH CITY (18th place)
5/11:  at Cardiff City (20th place)

5/3:  at Everton (5th place)
5/7:  ASTON VILLA (16th place)
5/11:  WEST HAM UTD (14th place)

If all three of the contenders win out, Liverpool and Manchester City will tie with 86 points.  At that point, the championship would go to whichever team has the better goal differential.  Liverpool has outscored its opponents by 50 points, but Manchester City has outscored its opponents by 58 points.  So City will have the advantage -- and the title -- if they tie with Liverpool on points.  So there is, as the British say, a lot to play for.

Other notes:  Arsenal will play Hull City for the F.A. Cup title -- it's the first time Hull City has made the final.  In Scotland, Rangers was busted down to the bottom division a few years ago for financial irregularities, so there is no one to challenge Celtic.  Rangers is working their way back up to the top division, but for at least one more year, Celtic will have it all their own way.

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