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English Premier League: Week 5 Analysis

If you're a soccer fan living in North America, Fox Soccer Channel should be cradled and caressed like a veritable gift from the gods. Think about it, an American cable channel devoted full-time to soccer? Are you smoking crack? No, 1999 version of myself, I assure you it exists.

Anyone who's watched FSC for a significant amount of time, however, must wonder if the channel is being produced out of a broom closet and run by some random AV Club in Winnipeg. (By that token, GolTV appears to be beaming from a rebel Sandinista communications shed in the jungles of Nicaragua.)

In a way, the FSC's continual goofs, graphical mistakes and overall community-access vibe make you wonder when Jeremy St. Louis is accidentally going to slip a completely un-ironic, unintentional "boom goes the dynamite" whilst reading a highlight.

Maybe that's part of FSC's charm. It's not slick though that's probably an impossibility with the amount of Canadian accents involved with the "Fox Soccer Report."

Even when FSC tries to be cool, it comes off like a stereotypical 1980s movie nerd buying a fancy tuxedo and trying to impress the cool kids at the prom, only to be dumped in the punch bowl.

And let's not even talk about the sub-"Wayne's World" vibe that exudes from "Soccer Talk Live," which is mildly vexing considering that show is produced in Los Angeles, not the wilds of Manitoba. It's hard, too, not to snicker at the faux-English pub set crafted for "Super Sunday Plus."

ESPN it ain't.

At least there's Bobby McMahon, who stands above the rest of the FSC fray like an ancient Babylonian Ziggurat. Is there a better, more knowledgeable, shtick-free sports analyst for any sport on any channel? God bless him, Bobby just sits behind the desk and spits knowledge without any agendas or false-hype.

The thing of it is, for all it's warts and clunkiness there's something sweet and endearing about FSC. The network, despite being part of the Fox empire seems to be "with" the American soccer fan. Again, the mere fact it exists should be good enough.

FSC's minimalist-cum-amateur production style rang even more relevant last weekend with the kickoff of the 2010-11 NFL season.

As I've written about many times, part of the appeal of televised soccer is you can flip on the channel and two hours later the match is over. There aren't and endless parade of commercials breaks highlighting American male stupidity, wherein people like myself are reverted to their lowest base form to secure a lite beer. There are no smarmy insurance agents imploring me to sign up for their coverage. Sure, I might feel like less of an American, but almost all soccer telecasts are devoid of pick-up truck ads, too.

The constant commercial breaks (and repetitive ads) make it very difficult to enjoy watching the NFL, at times.

Put it this way, by the end of last NFL weekend that annoying piano riff from the iPad ad(*) was running on a loop inside my skull.

(*) All-and-all, I'm fairly certain I prefer my products to offer "magical" abilities over "historical" abilities. But that's just me.

That's obviously a quirk soccer will hold over most American sports, the merciful lack of commercial breaks. In fact, ads seem so foreign that FSC seems to alternate that Sylvania ad with Andy Gray screaming, "Ohhhhh yaaaaa beauty"(*) every other break.

(*) Question I posed to Liverpool fan Ace Cowboy the other day. Is there an opposite to "Oh you beauty." Reds fans must've coined something by now.

More than the lack of ads, watching foreign soccer games re-packaged in America holds these added bonuses: no sideline reports, no annoying promos for new shows staring Jim Belushi, no analysts who think they are paid by the word and best of all ... no Joe Buck. Those are huge wins.

So too are the lack of tedious pregame NFL shows, which consist of roughly half a dozen beefy, ex-Jocks in suits screaming at each other about wide receivers with VH1 reality shows.

Let's not forget, the on-screen jumble of graphics during NFL games is probably as big a reason for the growth in ADD in America as anything else, right?

For me, these basic presentation issues truly pushed me more toward soccer once it became so readily available on cable. It's truly refreshing as a sports fan to be able to watch a game without any manufactured hype or hoopla and form your own opinions.

It doesn't hurt that Ian Darke's voice makes me feel happy, like walking into a room with the smell of freshly baked cookies. (ESPN, hire this man.)

The irony here, judging from Guardian match play-by-plays and Zonal Marking's twitter, the same things that annoy intelligent American sports fans when they watch the NFL plague people in England (or elsewhere) even worse. The Sky Reporters/Analysts all seem to be an unholy amalgamation of Mike Ditka, Stephen A. Smith, Sean Salisbury and Stuart Scott all rolled into one.

Factor in that the English media has far less access to the players and managers than the media in America, and it's probably all hype and non-sourced conjecture with the added bonus of wrapping every possible story in the Cross of St. George.

There's always the mute button.


Round 5 Picks:

I've never claimed to be an expert, but I'm off to a rougher start than than Joaquin Phoenix' rap career. If you're actually wagering on the EPL, there's only one safe bet -- Chelsea.

If we really break it down, there's one unbeatable team -- Chelsea -- and one totally inept squad -- West Ham. The other 18, throw into a hat and they can conceivably beat (or draw) each other every weekend. The major tiered separation in the table: Title challengers, European fighters, Middle of the Pack and Relegation Scrappers has yet to unravel.

Put it this way, last weekend only two of the 10 home sides walked away with all three points.

You've been warned.


* Stoke City v. West Ham United -- (Live, ESPN2, 7:45 a.m.) The big debate, wake up early on Saturday for this match? Part of me thinks if you do, a group of doctors in white coats are going to crash through the window of your bedroom and whisk you away to a re-programming facility in Idaho. Call it a game-time decision. On a more relevant note, Rory Delap might have saved Stoke's season on Monday, not with his hands believe it or not, but his head. Late in the match vs. Aston Villa he make a diving header to keep a ball alive at the top of the penalty area, which eventually found Mathew Etherington to set up Kenwyne Jones' equalizer. The Potters got off to a slow start. They'll be okay with upcoming matches with Newcastle, Blackburn and Bolton. There's enough talent on the team to finish in the 10-13 range. On the other hand, West Ham are a mess. A total mess, in fact. Avram Grant won't be around to watch this one for the Jewish Holidays, can't blame him. It's amazing it took up until this week for the first rumor linking unemployed U.S. defender Jay DeMerit to the Irons. You'd think this team would be scouting nearby pub teams for live bodies to plug into the defense considering Mathew Upson's start to the season, which earns him the unfortunate honors of best "Impersonation of a Zombie by an EPL Player." ... Stoke City 2, West Ham 0.

* West Brom v. Birmingham City -- Aside from opening day at Chelsea, the Baggies haven't been overmatched, losing 1-0 to Liverpool, drawing Tottenham 1-1 and beating Sunderland 1-0. Not bad. Not great. Respectable. The key for Roberto di Matteo is keeping the defense tight because this team doesn't have the guns to win back-and-forth shootouts. That'll come to roost at the Hawthorns on Saturday with Birmingham coming to town. The Brum, until Sunday's 0-0 draw with Liverpool, had scored two goals in every League match, oddly enough none from a player designated as a "forward/striker." Unheralded Craig Gardner leads the way with three. If somebody can emerge from the group of Cameron Jerome, Nikola Zigic, Matt Derbyshire or James McFadden, Birmingham might be able to push for the Europa League. Queitly Alex McLeish has built a super sturdy, solid squad. ... West Brom 0, Birmingham City 1

* Tottenham v. Wolves -- (Live, FSC, 10 a.m.) Are "Dutch Aces" required to make a modern-day Faustian deal with the Devil? Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Dirk Kuyt are all sidelined for a couple weeks. Add to the list Rafael van der Vaart who left Spurs' 2-2 draw at Werder Bremen at the half with an injury. Wesley Sneijder ... watch your back. Another tricky match for Tottenham, since even if Redknapp's boys go up 1-0 or 2-0, Wolves are a team that keeps working and won't just roll over, grab their ankles and take what's coming to them. Wolves aren't pretty -- some are calling them dirty -- but they fight until the whistle blows. At this point in this particular season, any of the three possible outcomes of this match wouldn't surprise me. Seems like a game Peter Crouch bails out Spurs late. Tottenham will probably be without: Michael Dawson, Jermain Defoe Gomes, Luka Modric and van der Vaart. Gareth Bale better drink two glasses of milk before this one. Oh, one other thing, if you're watching Wovles for the first time this season, note George Elokobi. A lot of footballers are mocked for being "fat." Elokobi is wiiiiiiiiiide. ... Tottenham 2, Wolves 1

* Everton v. Newcastle United -- (Live, FSC+, 10 a.m.) Halftime entertainment for this match is a jumping-header contest between Tim Cahill and Andy Carroll. Conventional wisdom is the Toffees get a bump from their frantic 3-3 draw with Manchester United. The way this season is going, we might expect the total opposite. ... Everton 1, Newcastle 1

* Aston Villa v. Bolton -- Impossible to get a gauge on Aston Villa right now with the managerial flux. The team is loaded with solid, professionals like Richard Dunne, Stiliyan Petrov and (yes), Emile Heskey, etc. You know these guys are giving honest accounts regardless of manager. Then there's the club's best player -- Ashley Young. Will he get on board quick with Gerard Houllier or are his eyes already focused on White Hart Lane or Anfield or wherever elese in January? Either way, Villa is pretty much Villa. Great in spurts, pedestrian most other times. Bolton are still finding an identity under Owen Coyle. From what I've seen the biggest trouble might be Kevin Davies, who wears the captain's armband. Sure Davies scores, but when he's your water-carrier, how high up the table can the club finish? With Johan Ellmander getting more acclimated to English football, Bolton might be better served mixing around with 4-3-3/4-5-1 with Ellmander in the middle, not Davies and his combative, sloppy nature.Coyle, though, can't just drop his captain without some blowback, now can he? Davies hasn't trained all week. File that away. Perhaps Coyle can call up Eagles' coach Andy Reid for how to deal with this. ... Aston Villa 0, Bolton 0

* Blackburn Rovers v. Fulham -- Woah, Fulham are actually fifth in the table? Who knew? Good luck Cottagers. With Bobby Zamora on ice until next year you're going to be counting on Eddie Johnson getting minutes and producing. Have fun with that, really. If Mark Schwarzer is sloppy with the ball, Niko Kalanic is going to pounce. Be warned. ... Blackburn 2, Fulham 1

* Sunderland v. Arsenal -- (Live, FSC, 12:30 p.m.) Good thing that Lee Cattermole is suspended for another red card, unless Arsene Wenger might have rushed onto the Stadium of Light field with handcuffs in a gendarme outfit, declaring a citizen's arrest. Call this a good test for Arsenal, which is Tupac-style rolling after its destruction of Braga in the midweek. Sunderland do have the horses -- Darren Bent/AsamaohGyan -- to expose Arsenal's defensive shortcomings. Jordan Henderson in the midfield, though, is not the man to slow down a revived Cesc Fabregas. ... Sunderland 1, Arsenal 2


* Manchester United v. Liverpool -- (Live, FSC+, 8:30 p.m.) Crazier Liverpool stat? That the club has scored as many league goals as West Brom? Or that David Ngog is making Fernando Torres look like Andriy Voronin? Liverpool are in that weird place where any result it lodges takes momentum effort, forcing their supporters into 90 minutes of life-or-death observing. You really have to wonder if Roy Hodgson would have the guts to sit Torres and start Ngog on Sunday. If it wasn't Manchester United at Old Trafford, he might. It might be what's best for the game, but worse for the fragile confidence of the Spaniard. Mull it over 'Pool fans. Manchester United? The bad vibes from blowing the game vs. Everton carried into Tuesday's Champions League game with Rangers, where it was a lot of guys in red shirts walking around and trying to tee up Darron Gibson for 30-yard shots. Then again, Sir Alex treated that match like the Carling Cup. Throw in the brutal broken leg suffered by Antonio Valencia, plus the lingering Rooney garbage and it's mini-crisis time for United. One the bright side, Rio Ferdinand returned. (Does he still "punk" teammates?) Dimitar Berbatov's form is the most encouraging nugget for the Red Devils. Is it too cynical to think that the Red Devils get bailed out by either Mr. Penalty or Mr. Own Goal? Above all for this match, will either team actually have the gumption to stand up and snatch the game or will they both play in fear of the other shoe dropping? (If you feel short-changed by this, a Liverpool perspective at "OYB" ... Manchester United 1, Liverpool 0

* Wigan v. Manchester City -- Not a slam dunk for City, which despite buying as many midfielders as humanly possible are turning to Jo at forward with Emmanuel Adebayor sidelined by a crippling case of "dead leg." As long as Wigan don't concede a goal in the first 15 minutes, City will probably have to work in this match. To borrow an analogy from "The Wire" City still needs to grind it out in the Pit before it's got what it takes to work a tower. Better yet, the words of Clay Davis: crawl, walk run. City's expectations on running as high as possible despite the fact the side Roberto Mancini has barely figured out how to crawl. All that said, hard to see Joe Hart making a blunder in back-to-back weeks, so Wigan won't score. It won't be pretty but City finds a way. ... Wigan 0, City 2

* Chelsea v. Blackpool -- (Live, FSC, 11 a.m.) First time I think since I've been doing this where 10-0 wouldn't be impossible. This is a true litmus test. If Chelsea don't mash Blackpool at Stamford Bridge, then the (Premier League) sky is no longer blue, no pun intended. It'll be in the words of Dr. Peter Venkman, "Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!" For our own collective sanity, form holds. ... Chelsea 5, Blackpool 0

Last round: 3-7
Season: 14-26

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