Saturday afternoon, after the Premier League games wrapped up, I made it a point to avoid all college bowl games. Meant nothing to me. No sense supporting ESPN with increased Neilsen rating to support a system that is outdated and is a sham to begin with. Not that I'm a zealot for a NCAA tournament-like playoff bracket, but I'm not a mindless drone that is simply going to watch two teams play football because ESPN puts it on the screen.
Eventually, later in the day, I did relent and watch the Fiesta Bowl out of duty since UConn is my alma mata.
Once again it reiterated a point to why the Premier League -- and all foreign based soccer for that matter -- is so appealing to watch on television. (I don't mention MLS, since it falls prey to the same production traps of other U.S. sports.)
Saturday, for instance, if you got up in time for West Brom/Manchester United and stuck through Birmingham/Arsenal, you could have watched three back-to-back-to-back matches in about seven hours time. Contrast with the average college bowl game that runs somewhere in the four-hour range.
That's simply too much time to devote to one sporting event. It truly tests the mind's resolve for sanity when you're bombarded with ads proclaiming how Pizza Hut is, "something to look forward to all week." Enough. No mas. In the words of Mike Singletary, "Can. Not. Do it."
Beyond the way commercials stretch out games and test our patience, it's the whole production of how most American games are presented that wears on you as a fan. Once upon a time when a college basketball game was aired on television, it was a special event usually between two good programs. Nowadays there's a game on at almost all hours every night.
This creates that syndrome where every announcer tries to act as if the game they're calling is THE MOST IMPORTANT. GAME. EVER.
Admittedly, you can't be a non-enthusiastic, cynical sourpuss like me, but a little perspective from time-to-time would be nice. There's no need to over-sell a regular season Big Ten matchup between two teams that, at best, are one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament come March. Most viewers have eyes. We know what we're watching.
The more you watch Premier League telecasts, the more you realize they're aren't immune to the hype machine or cliches, yet most of the time they don't try to oversell the action. When it's deary, they'll admit to it, or simply not talk. Sunday, during a frankly entirely forgettable and pedestrian Newcastle 1-0 win at Wigan, the talkers didn't yammer on like it was a World Cup final, they simply presented the game and tried to get some talking points on. It was a game that happened, 90 minutes later we move on with our lives.
Think about some of the other annoyances during a typical American sports production. Have you ever heard a worthwhile sideline interview? Has a coach every said anything useful while jogging off the field or court as someone with a mic chases after them? Or how about the phrase "when I was talking to Peyton before the game," or the random mention of how much a certain somebody loves Duke or Brett Favre and it's refreshing. I'll let you in on a little secret, nine times out of 10, most athletes and coaches don't have anything interesting to say other than the same, boring "coach speak," yet as viewers we're beholden to these boring cliches every single time.
All of this sets up a weird set of contrasts.
As time progresses, more and more people have some kind of ADD or inability to sit and focus on one thing. Soccer might, in theory, off less action than other sports, but it's two-hour window makes it much more agreeable with watching while blogging or tweeting or YouTubing or whatever, while keeping a causal eye on it. It's not a serious time committal either. To crib an oft-repeated line from the streets of West Baltimore, "The Game is the Game," and that's good enough for me.
Bottom line for me, the best thing about watching the EPL or other leagues is you can simply watch the games for the games themselves and form your own conclusions without having a guy like Matt Millen slobbering about what I just saw with my two eyes on a replay every 10 seconds.
Okay, let's look back at the Premier League weekend, shall we?
Sir, for a reason -- On New Year's Day I watched a National Geographic documentary on private contractors in Iraq. The doc mainly focused on British contractors making delivers around Baghdad. Part of the doc showed how they essentially make their own rules, especially while driving, such as pointing a mounted automatic weapon at cars that won't get out of their way.
Not exactly the best comparison in the world, but Sir Alex Ferguson seemingly has the same type of run over English football, albeit without pointing a 50-caliber in someone's face.
Since I've been writing this, I've never really bought into the theory Manchester United get more breaks than other teams. The last couple days changed my thinking, slightly. Granted, Birmingham City's stoppage time equalizer in the midweek probably shouldn't have counted, yet Ferguson grumbled all over about it. It's not a + b = c, but it's hard not to think that it had some influence on Saturday's game against West Brom at the Hawthorns, namely that clear penalty against Gary Neville inside the box.
Guess you can credit Ferguson for using his lofty perch in England to get refs and officials to kowtow to him. He's built the reputation and others have reason to fear getting on his bad side. Michael Jordan would get calls from NBA refs other players wouldn't get. A player like Derek Jeter seems to get the benefit of the doubt in baseball. You earn that rep, you reap those rewards which lie in the (ref's) shades of gray.
I probably wouldn't harp on this, except Ferguson's other actions this week -- recalling Ritchie De Laet and Joshua King from Preston North End after the club fired his son Darren -- was so petty there isn't even an accurately way to frame them. Even legendary NFL coach Don Shula's use of his son Dan seems mild-mannered in comparison. This was like a little kid pouting, taking his ball and going home. Amazing that through everything he's done Ferguson seems to have thinner skin than ESPN's Bill Simmons.
That's Ferguson, though. Respected and feared.
As for the game itself? My iPhone alarm glitched out -- don't cry for me. Only saw the extended highlights, including Wayne Rooney's graceless header that broke his scoreless streak in the run of play dating back to a time before the world knew who Willow Smith is. Seriously, Rooney nodded that ball in as if he was bobbing for a Halloween apple.
Thankfully James Morrison's bending cracker was a peach of a goal.
After that Peter Odemwingie missed a penalty and Chicharito scored the winner on a late, unmarked header. Pretty much what we've come to expect from Manchester United during this season, except this time they held on in the final minutes to notch only their second away win of the season.
Golden Spurs? -- Three straight wins for Tottenham, with a clean sheet vs. Fulham on Sunday to boot. In light of Chelsea's stumble on Sunday, Spurs can probably now afford to puff out their chests and declare themselves outsider title contenders. Tottenham are on a three-game streak, including two wins with only 10 men, then holding off Fulham to take all three points. Seems like the team has turned a corner. Instead of expecting a collapse, the team -- and fans -- expect wins.
Tottenham didn't play well, scoring when Gareth Bale headed in a long Rafael van der Vaart free kick in the first half, but it was enough. (Still fascinated by Bale's Taylor Swift/Lady Gaga heart symbol celebration. Bizarre he doesn't get more flack for it. Guess he's the Brit analogue of the Jonas Bros.)
Strange that Harry Redknapp seems so intent on bringing on that Beckham fellow for a couple weeks loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy. Is it just to play in in the Champions League Round of 16 tie with AC Milan, a game where Beckham actually wouldn't be the oldest player on the pitch? Is Redknapp physically unable to get his mind away from thinking about Beckham slapping in balls for Peter Crouch and Roman Pavyluchenko to knock down?
Maybe Redknapp is slier than we think, and it's a move on par with handing the captain's armband to William Gallas at Arsenal. This is a move to tweak Manchester United and Ferguson.
Super Joe Lives! -- Told you Joe Cole would be the signing of the season. Even received a certificate from the New Bedlam Mental Hospital declaring me, "Not Insane." Slightly more crazy, the bizarre rumor floating around on Twitter Sunday that the New York Red Bulls were looking to add Cole on loan. Really, if you believe that, well, let me introduce you to my friend Prince Akeem from Nigeria.
Amazingly, Liverpool's 2-1 win over Bolton on Saturday was the first time the Reds had some back all season to win a game. Helps that Steven Gerrard popped a perfect ball for Fernando Torres to run onto early in the second half. The irony here was that Gerrard only entered the game after Raul Meireles limped off with an injury, slightly less strange that Cole bungling in a winner from close range.
Not sure what this does for Roy Hodgson. Liverpool are never going to break out of their multi-season malaise until every result isn't poured over and analyzed like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The constant din to fire him, or the small voices wanting to give him time thing isn't beneficial to anyone. That said, not sure I'd let Hodgson have too much free reign toward signing players in January.
More of the Blues -- Apologies, but Sunday morning my body wanted to get some sleep. Guesssing Chelsea had maybe righted the ship last week, it made sense to snooze through the early a.m. affair with Aston Villa.
Waking about around 10, I pulled out my phone and checked the result. When it read Chelsea 3, Aston Villa 3 I did one of those overly exaggerated, cartoon-y rubbing of my eyes to make sure I was reading it correctly. Yep, it was correct, as the highlights later showed.
First, really quick, nice heart shown by Aston Villa. The team isn't great, but it's got enough talent that it realistically shouldn't need to sweat out a relegation fight deep into April and May.
Chelsea, on the other hand ... ? Better question, what is the Blues calling card? What can the team rely on week-in, week-out?
It seemed like a vintage, gutty performance by the team to come back to two goals in the final 10 minutes from old hands Didier Drogba and John Terry. Even the elaborate, lengthy, group-hug celebration on the touchline looked like something from the year 2005.
Problem is, it's not 2005.
Chelsea went to sleep, allowing Marc Albrighton to pop in a nice looping cross, when an unmarked Ciaran Clark nodded it in without so much as a challenge from a Blues' defender.
The tendency here is to overreact, but that's a cruel blow for Chelsea to suffer. What seemed like a perfect, intention reassertion, becomes another set of questions and worry. The Blues are six adrift of Manchester United, with one more game played. More concerning is Chelsea is looking up at Tottenham and will have to rally simply to make the Champions League.
And speaking of the Champions League, at some point Carlo Ancelotti might need to make the judgment call that Europe is the team's top priority. Would Roman Abramovich allow Chelsea to punt the Premier League season to focus on the Champions League? It's a gamble, but so too is relying on the aging legs of Drogba, Terry and Frank Lampard to fight wars on multiple fronts.
Around the League:
Good win by Sunderland, taking care of Blackburn 3-0 at home. Darren Bent scored. ... Weird winner for West Ham, with Carlton Cole whiffing on a chance, only for it to bounce off Wolves' defender George Zubar. Not sure what happened to Avram Grant -- now wearing a Mancini-approved scarf -- and his grand Jonathan Spector midfield experiment? West Ham are out of the relegation zone, but have played more games than anyone else. The team, at least, now has some life. ... Leighton Baines is now sporting a modern-day "Paige Boy" haircut. Don't even have a joke for it. ... Stoke had two shots vs. Everton and won. ... Manchester City didn't do much, but held on for a 1-0 win with Blackpool, via an Adam Johnson well-placed winner. Carlos Tevez missed a penalty and scuffed a chance at an open goal. Also, what happens with the Argentine's used "snoods"? With any hope they are disposed of in a nearby toxic waste dump. ... At one point Blackpool subbed Carney for Varney. This made me way too happy. ... Couple injuries to monitor: Raul Meireles, William Gallas, Alan Hutton, Rooney and David Silva. ... Luka Modric seems to get better every match. ... Apples to oranges, yes, but the guys running the NFL ought to look at what's happened with the quality of play in the EPL during the crammed holiday period. ... Not much to say about Arsenal's win at Birmingham. The Gunners took care of business against a team that doesn't pack much of a punch. Nice goal by Samir Nasri, as usual. ... Ronaldinho to Blackburn? Hilarious. How does such nonsense get started?
Fantasy Team O' the Week:
Scelso Emiliano's Emi Team topped the week with 71 points thanks to Bale, Drogba and Joe Hart.
Round 22 Picks:
* Fulham v. West Brom -- Fulham probably played well enough in the second half to get a point against Tottenham. Too bad Mark Hughes is reduced to starting Andrew Johnson up top, as he seems to play the game on roller skates. Keep him away from stiff breezes, or he's liable to hurt himself. West Brom have lost four straight and are starting to be who we thought they were. ... Fulham 2, West Brom 1
* Manchester United v. Stoke City -- (Live, FSC, 3 p.m.) United will have to win this one by dictating the play through the midfield, the type of game Sir Alex thought he bought Michael Carrick for. Didn't turn out that way, as we now know. Stoke are physical, but not good enough to win at Old Trafford. ... Manchester United 2, Stoke City 0
* Blackpool v. Birmingham City -- (Live, FSC+, 3 p.m.) Blackpool is playing to win every 90 minutes, caution be damned. Saturday vs. Arsenal Alex McLeish played very conservatively vs. the Gunners, as Birmingham played out to a slow death. How to make sense of it for this one? ... Blackpool 1, Birmingham City 1
* Arsenal v. Manchester City -- (Live, ESPN2, 2:45 p.m.) Massive too strong a word for this one? Probably not, since both will likely be looking up at Manchester United in the table at kickoff, while the loser will have to wait nearly two weeks staring at that deficit until play resumes after the FA Cup next week.
With over half the games played, we can easily call these teams consistently inconsistent.
In isolated 10-minute spurts, each look like they could challenge Barcelona's claim as the best club team in the world, only to be undone by continued lapses in defensive concentration.
When they met the first time Arsenal won easily, with City reduced to 10-men inside of 10 minutes. Wonder if this time City will sit back and soak up pressure, trying to spring Carlos Tevez on the counter-attack, likely breaking Laurent Koscielny's ankles in the process. City do have the bodies to clog up space, cutting down Samir Nasri's space to dangle. Arsenal should be encouraged by the return of Robin van Persie, who gives them a major weapon on set pieces in front of goal. If Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry are out there, the Dutchman should have amble chances in front of goal from deadballs.
The X-factor, as usual, is Mario Balotelli who's fighting a fitness battle anyway. His power and strength clearly could worry Arsene Wenger the night before the match, assuming the Italian enigma plays with energy and smarts.
However it plays out, this is a fascinating match to watch. ... Arsenal 1, City 1
* Aston Villa v. Sunderland -- In the end, Aston Villa probably will avoid relegation since they'll win enough at home and other below them will struggle to get points. At least Villa seem committed to using young, new players instead of making a push for re-treads in January. Sunderland still don't travel well, one of these days Steve Bruce will figure it out since this side does have talent. ... Aston Villa 1, Sunderland 1
* Newcastle United v. West Ham United -- The way this season has gone a 4-0 scoreline either way wouldn't surprise me either way. ... Newcastle 2, West Ham 1
* Wolves v. Chelsea -- (Live, FSC, 3 p.m.) Rewind the DVR to Oct. 23 when Chelsea hosted the home fixture of this matchup. Wolves gave them all they could handle, clogging the midfield and slowing down the odd-man advantages. It was the first time it seemed like their might be a crack in the Chelsea armor. Not sure what to make of Chelsea at the moment. ... Wolves 1, Chelsea 2
* Everton v. Tottenham -- If I'm an Evertonian, I'd think twice about mocking Liverpool any time soon. The Toffees are in deep trouble without Tim Cahill. Not sure where they're going to get goals. Does David Moyes open it up, try a 4-4-2, even if it means Louis Saha and Yakubu both on the field at the same time? A five-man midfield, especially at home against a team like Tottenham that leaks goals is a recipe for underwhelming. Either that or starting using Jack Rodwell more. The team can't go very far when it's two best offensive players are Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman. Spurs have won three straight and are likely due a clunker, but they've got the knack for winning games while Everton doesn't. That seems to count over time. ... Everton 1, Tottenham 2
* Blackburn v. Liverpool -- (Live, FSC+, 3 p.m.) There are a away fixtures, like the long travel to a cauldron of sound in Eastern Europe or Turkey. You know, where they hoist up tables to stand on, or launching flaming mopeds onto the pitch. There's Old Trafford, or formerly Stamford Bridge. These are places you may want to consider changing tactics to slow down the game. Ewood Park isn't such a place. If Roy Hodgson reverts back to having Liverpool back-pass to Pepe Reina and hoof it along, in light of Saturday's rousing last-minute win vs. he's more of wimp that I thought. ... Blackburn 1, Liverpool 2
* Bolton v. Wigan Athletic -- One thing to note about Bolton is that the club is in every match. Owen Coyle's team is off consecutive one-goal defeats at Stamford Bridge and Anfield, playing well enough in each to at least take some points. Wigan is probably due for a disinterested performance, too. ... Bolton 2, Wigan 1
Last round: 6-4