Sports

EPL Weekly Preview: Sunderland, Arsenal, Manchester United and More

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Chances are, if you're reading this blog, you know who Conan O'Brien is. What you probably don't know that in college I was dubbed with the nickname "Conan" by dorm-mates for my likeness to the pale-faced, ginger-haired(*) late-night host.

Yeah, Conan might not have the looks of a ladykiller, but at the time circa 2000 he was pretty damn funny. Since there wasn't YouTube, yet, you'd actually have to watch his show every night on NBC to watch classics like Conan and Mr. T picking apples or the greatest late-night sketch ever, "Old Timey Base Ball." As has been written -- at length -- there was a weird, underdog charm to Conan's late night show. Not all the jokes worked. Maybe it was weird for the sake of being weird. There were only so many times you could watch Conan's mock flop sweat in the presence of a Hollywood starlet.

Of course, where else on television could you see a cardboard cutout of Arnold Schwartznegger's face making lewd -- insane -- comments, or the entire "Walker: Texas Ranger" lever. You, could, if you were an unemployed liberal arts major probably write a couple thousand words that in the long run, the humor spawned from "Late Night" was done more to hurt comedy ten, 15 years after the fact then push it forward, but that's an argument for another day.

Let's forward a couple years and Conan a) failed as "Tonight Show" host and b) plugs on in total irrelevance with his show on TBS.(**)

(*) If you're scoring at home, my hair is more "auburn" or "chestnut" hue.
(**) Really, is anyone under the age of 55 really watching talk shows any more at night? Isn't the format beyond dated? Then again, where else are we going to get to see Ben Stiller plug clips of the upcoming (sure to be delightful) "Tower Heist" movie?

In a weird way, one of my other favorite late night -- or any time -- television guilty pleasures seems to be heading into the Conan on the "Tonight Show" direction. My formerly beloved Fox Soccer Channel, err, Fox Soccer.

Now, bear in mind, complaining on the Internet about the decline of a 24-hour (more like 20) soccer cable channel in America could rival the most obnoxious things of all time. Even the Freegan with three-foot dreads at the nearest "Occupy" wherever is rolling his eyes behind his MacBook Pro at me.

It's just ... it's just ... if you went back about five years I'd never in a million years think I'd be using this digital space to trash FSC. It wasn't simply that the network aired live soccer games -- plus review shows, magazine shows, highlights ... even soccer soap opera's (remember 'Dream Team?) and call-in shows (Fox ... Football FONE IN!) -- there was something decidedly refreshing about the way FSC did things. It wasn't the self-perpetuating hype machine like ESPN, nor was it over-the-top aggressively aggro (for lack of a better word) like other FOX sports entities.

Looking back, that charm was probably just another word that starts with the letter C -- cheapness.

As Fox Sports World transitioned to Fox Soccer Channel there was a nice, do-it-yourself vibe to the show. Anyone else remember when Clint Mathis returned to MLS and showed up on the phone-in show (whatever it was named at the time). All that was missing was Wayne and Garth. To that, "Fox Soccer Report" -- never change what you're doing in Manitoba. It's still taken me years to adjust to the non-bespectacled Bobby McMahon. Let us nerds at least have that as a bastion of hype-free, ESPN sports television insanity.

There wasn't the schlock. The noise-to-make-noise that annoys anyone with a brain about ESPN. If you were a fan of soccer, you got soccer. Nothing more, and sometimes a little less.

Slowly Fox Soccer has tried to increase it's production values, or add a studio show before the Saturday morning EPL kickoffs. We've gotten graphic improvements. More "tv stuff," so that when a Champions League final shows up on FOX or a replayed EPL game it doesn't look like it's produced by a high school AV Club. (***) If anything, now the studio stuff produced out of Los Angeles by Fox Soccer seems, oh, generic?

(***) From the 1970s, because there are teenagers today that can cut film and edit like pros. The kid that made this insanely good Stanley Kubrick montage is 20.

Generic might be too kind. The production is still below the quality we've come to expect from ESPN, especially on it's non-Papa LeBatard interrupted EPL games. Even if the increases are better than the scrappy old days at FSC, it's still somewhat amateurish compared to the rest of the sports market.

That's not so bad, though, as the "FOX-ification" of the network now. There seems to be more attitude, more product placement more in-your-face stuff that made the old days of FSC such a welcome respite. It's almost enough to miss the days of constant ProActiv Katy Perry ads instead of these screaming match promos, "THE COTTAGERS HEAD TO OLD TRAFFORD," for example.

You can't stop progress. If FOX puts more of an emphasis on soccer, expect Fox Soccer to become more-and-more generic, filled with more-and-more asinine, cliched commentary from its analysts and more sponsored segments like the rest of its sports platforms.

And -- spinning newspaper alert -- as I woke up and was ready to hit "publish" on this post, news breaks that FOX is going broadcast the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which frankly judging by the company's track record is an outright debacle. FOX does have seven years to make us forget about the Curt Menefee Champions League Final disaster, or open up its wallet and hire somebody to replace Warren Barton.

"Let's go down to Tony Sirgusa who's on the touchline. ... Guys, lemme tell you something, I've eaten meals who are bigger than Lionel Messi."

Really, this is bad in so many ways. It effectively means ESPN stops caring about soccer -- at all -- as soon as the final whistle ends at Brazil 2014, which is a shame since the network showed it can do a great job when it tones down the self-important crap and sticks to the games like it did with the 2010 World Cup. The end of Ian Darke ... almost can't type with all the tears on the keyboard. The end of John "the coach" Harkes, decidedly less so.

With FOX's track record -- more concerned with cheap ratings ploys and sponsoring its other crappy reality shows -- this, to quote Ron Burgundy looks grim. Real grim. Hard to see them pulling themselves up to a higher plain like ESPN did last summer in South Africa, if anything, expect FOX to go even lower into the television dumpster.

God help us if they create a soccer playing robot.

Saturday:

* Wolves v. Swansea City -- (Live, ESPN2, 7:30 a.m.) The plus side about this game being the early ESPN2 is that I won't feel bad if I get trashed on Friday night, fall asleep in a dumpster and miss out. Please don't hold that against me Ian. It's not you, it's the teams who are playing. As it is, Wolves are impossible to figure out. Mick McCarthy's boys in mustard seemed spry to start the year, but have since dropped four straight games giving up 10 goals in the process. Now, with the very useful Stephen Fletcher sidelined, it's up to somebody to turn this tailspin around. Still hard to get a gauge on Swansea being able to stick around. The Swans have given up three or more goals thrice already -- all on the road. ... Wolves 2, Swansea 1

* Aston Villa v. West Bromwich Albion -- (Live, FSC+, 10 a.m.) This is sort of a derby, but not really. The teams are close to each other, but it's not like Villa/Brum or West Brom/Wolves. Then again, Villa Park seems to have the intensity of your average January NBA arena these days. Maybe Randy Lerner should have told LeBron James to stick around to watch this one. Might have been more up his alley. ... Aston Villa 1, West Brom 0

* Bolton v. Sunderland -- I'll say this about Bolton ... it's, it's ... it's a team. Owen Coyle, bless his heart, fields 11 players each and every weekend. They've got uniforms and everything. As for Sunderland, I'll quote a term used on my favorite show, "Storage Wars" and the delightful Brandi Passante -- "pooper scoopers." Steve Bruce is a pooper scooper. Maybe grabbing a couple guys off relegated teams -- David Vaughn, Craig Gardner -- and Sir Alex castoffs -- John O'Shea and Wes Brown isn't exactly the ticket to success, especially when you sell off Darren Bent and let Asamoah Gyan retire to DJ Saudi Super Sweet Sixteen parties, or whatever he decided to do. ... Bolton 1, Sunderland 1

* Newcastle United v. Wigan Athletic -- (Live, Fox Soccer, 10 a.m.) It's hard to believe that Newcastle United is boring and the standard of consistency in this league of all of a sudden. Is Alan Pardew digging through the trash of Roy Hodgson's old London-area home? We know the drill with Wigan, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, win three games in April and May and survive the drop. Now that's boring. ... Newcastle United 3, Wigan 0

* Liverpool v. Norwich City -- (Live, Fox Soccer, 12:30 p.m.) The Reds can go on a little run here, with this match followed by trips to Stoke, West Brom and a home game with Swansea before back-to-back games with Chelsea and Manchester City. ... Liverpool 2, Norwich City 0
Sunday:

* Arsenal v. Stoke City -- (Live, FSC+, 8:30 a.m.) Posed this question on Twitter during the Champions League: Is Theo Walcott one of the most overrated players in the world? That might apply to the most of the Gunners team, which could be part of the problem. Myth vs. Reality and all that jazz. Arsenal are good at home 3-0-1, but have only scored six in those four matches. That could change if Robin van Persie is about to go on one of his over-one goal per-game run. Doubt, with Stoke tall defense, if Arsenal keep lobbing crosses like it did against Marseille that would be a very prudent idea. ... Arsenal 2, Stoke City 0

* Manchester United v. Manchester City -- (Live, FSC, 8:30 a.m.) Remember, first and foremost, ONE WORKING CLASS TOWN IS ABOUT TO ERUPT!!!!

Soup-to-nuts, Manchester City have a better, deeper squad of players than United. I'll borrow a trope from my favorite radio host -- Mike Francesa -- when callers try to compare teams rosters, ie. Yankees/Mets or Yankees/Red Sox. Of Manchester United's first choice XI, how many would automatically start for City? Rooney? Slightly over Kun Aguero? Nani over who? Granted, when healthy Nemaja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand slot over whomever starts next to Vincent Kompany.

That said, these games are rarely about players.

Last time it came down to that ridiculous Rooney bicycle kick. You could say the cliche is United just know how to win, but this is a different City team. A team that has won an FA Cup and is now ankle deep in the Champions League.

What I'm looking for is a couple things: a) Is David Silva ready to orchestrate a game at Old Trafford for 90 minutes? b) does Sir Alex clog up the midfield for 70 odd minutes and then bring on Nani and Chicharito like he did against Liverpool? c) How does the ref (XXXX) impact this one?

For whatever the reason, think City has the better of play, but United stings for a couple goals -- either in a cluster in the 30-35 minute range, or very late. ... United 2, City 1

* Fulham v. Everton -- Team America vs. Team America Jr. Weird fact for Fulham. It's only allowed three goals at Craven Cottage in four games, but only has one win to show for it. You wouldn't necessarily connect Martin Jol with defensive resolve, but there it is. Credit Jol, too, for getting positive minutes and contributions from ginger bros Steve Sidwell and John Arne Riise, but who appeared headed on the track to obscurity. Love Tim Cahill, but time for the Aussie to start producing some goals for Everton to get its groove going. ... Fulham 1, Everton 0

* Blackburn v. Tottenham -- Is there a bigger tease in England than Jermain Defoe? Ability to brilliant, yet goes eons without goals. ... Blackburn 2, Tottenham 1

* QPR v. Chelsea -- (Live, FSC, 10 a.m.) I'd pay some good money to sit in a room with Joey Barton, a bottle of whiskey and hear his takes on Frank Lampard and John Terry. ... QPR 1, Chelsea 2

Last round: 5-5
Season: 46-33