After an admittedly much needed break for the FA Cup, we're back in action this weekend in the Barclay's Premier League -- aka the most important sporting league in the galaxy, well, aside from Premier League Darts.
Wait, err, thought you said world's drunkest sporting league.
Darts wins that in a triple bullseye.
That said, let's take a look at a couple issues/questions for the back nine of the EPL season.
And a word of warning, if allusion to the drunken madness that is professional darts, well, you might get annoyed. If not, you might get an unexpected laugh or two.
1. Is Manchester City out of gas?
Short answer, yes. Long answer no.
City's lead is now down to a scant three points over both Manchester United -- who just beat them 3-2 in the FA Cup last Sunday -- and Tottenham. City also loses both Kolo Toure and Yaya Toure to the African Cup of Nations for the next month, has captain Vincent Kompany suspended for three more matches and might not be able to offload Carlos Tevez, either, although aside from his pouty faces what damage is Carlito going to inflict on the team?
Crisis? What crisis. Actually, unlike Jose Mourinho who would shrug this off, Roberto Mancini has been stamping around that his billion dollar squad is stretched too thin. (Hey, you signed Stefan Savic.)
City, which looked like it might stroll to the title, look as vulnerable as they been, especially considering the KO in the Champions League, the loss in the FA Cup and the 1-0 Carling Cup semifinal deficit to Liverpool.
Overall, the amount of talent on board you'd think City rights the ship and can reassert themselves next week when they host Tottenham at the Eithad Stadium. Nobody else in the league is all that impressive, either.
Three things that do worry you about City: a) Edin Dzeko seems to feast against bad teams while Mario Balotelli is still insane, though he could do nothing for 89 minutes and then score a goal with his butt check in the other minute; b) who is the leader on this team? who pulls it together when the crisis starts to swirl? c) City plays United on April 28, which should loom above everything as Sir Alex Ferguson cranks up the "mind games" once spring hits.
Oh and fans in Eastlands might want a preemptive #prayfordavid hashtag warmed up because David Silva seems on track to miss a handful of games. If he doesn't -- and I do like him, picked him as my preseason player of the season -- he's one tough dude. You just think, with the weather in England, the way he's on the ball so much, eventually he'll tweak something.
City would have to readjust completely with Silva out, if only for two or three games.
2. Is Manchester United, back?
Probably. Did they even go anywhere? To Manchester United fans credit, most don't stand for second place, so that's why it seems like, when judged in proper context, a solid season is already seems lost.
What we do know is that Paul Scholes is back. Edwin van der Sar, isn't.
And that's the issue for United. For all its central midfield woes, it's forwards are still the envy of anyone outside of City -- Rooney, Chicharito, Welbeck and even Berbatov. The Red Devils are still going to score goals, especially if Ashley Young gets healthy. Ji-Sung Park, for all his tireless contributions for the club, is showing signs of age playing in his stead.
Problem is, Nemanja Vidic is gone for the year. Ferguson might bitch about a lot of things in his way of doing it, but he doing moan about losing Vidic very much, did he? It's simple, old school logic but you can't cry over spilled milk, right?
Rio Ferdinand is a shell of his former self, regardless. The rest of the defense, though promising, is young. And then there's the whole David de Gea mess in goal.
If United are going to defend the title and gazump City, it'll likely need Rooney at his rampaging best as well as a consistent Nani to outscore teams and accept that even up 3-1 in the final 20 minutes might make for some nervy moments seeing out the games.
United are United, by Ferguson's sheer force of will, you know they're hanging around until you every single last finger has been forcefully ripped from holding the trophy.
3. Is Tottenham honestly -- REALLY -- going to push the Manchester clubs for the title?
Push, yes. Win it, no. Let's hope the players don't think that way, though -- to dare is to dream, right?
Tottenham don't have to worry about the Europa League, though those games against Shamrock Rovers did seem to come in handy since Jake Livermore has played some games before being forced to play in place of Scott Parker and Sandro.
The red flags for Tottenham? Two losses -- albeit in August -- to both Manchester clubs and a draw with Chelsea in a game it was ahead 1-0 early. Plus the brittle bones of all its important players -- Ledley King, William Gallas, Rafael van der Vaart -- is a worry.
One area Spurs could improve? Jermain Defoe has a big second half as he pushes for a place in the England Euro squad.
There's really no good reason Spurs shouldn't push all the way until May, unless the injuries pile up. If they can use their speed to stretch out teams and catch them out, they are deadly.
That said, stay away from any lasagna between now and the end of the year.
Spurs might not win the title, fine, but up eight and nine points on Chelsea and Arsenal a Champions League place is a must.
4. Is Clint Dempsey stuck at Fulham forever?
One quick thing, Dempsey's Twitter account is setting up as the biggest disappoint of 2012, that or the new Batman movie. Either or. One way or another, something will be listed in a "Biggest Dissappointiments of 2012" in slideshow form in 11 or so months on numerous websites. Dempsey's twitter probably won't be one, rightfully.
Then again, what really do you expect from Dempsey's Twitter? If he wants to retweet random people wearing his jerseys, that's his right as a person. It's not exactly stimulating to the mind, but he's famous and why not interact with your fans? Be a good guy, right? There are plenty of cynical assholes on the service.
Big fan of Dempsey before twitter and after twitter.
Let's talk about Dempsey's career on the field.
Dempsey is putting together the best season by an American in England, possibly ever. No, probably ever with 12 goals in 28 games. Dude is ballin out the frame, even if it's for a middling Fulham team that's at its best ... slightly better than mediocre.
Is he stuck doing it for Fulham, which peaked with its Europa League final loss two years ago?
Here's a crazy thought, why wouldn't Harry Redknapp make a bid Martin Jol can't refuse? Would Dempsey be an automatic starter at White Hart Lane? Maybe not, but consider this ... Dempsey could play in behind Emmanuel Adebayor in games van der Vaart is out. He could play on either side of midfield. More importantly, you'd think as he gets older Dempsey moves more central on the field and a team can never have too much midfield cover.
Above all, unlike switching leagues, Dempsey is established in England, so a move across London wouldn't be too far flung.
If Dempsey is ever to play in the Champions League, Tottenham provides the best case for it.
5. What's up with Chelsea?
I'll mercifully refrain from making any jokes about the new NBC Cheslea Handler sitcom. You're welcome.
Actually wait, just to ruin your day, think of Whitney Cummings making an open-mouth sneer/snarl promoting her program on the same network -- which will now broadcast MLS and USMNT matches starting this year, on its new 24/7 sports network previously known as Versus. And, yes, somehow I know that an episode of "Whitney" featured Chicago Fire regalia. Yes, it happened. Look it up. Pretty sure the Fire were the only Chicago-area team they could afford to get the licensing for.
(MLS by NBC promo. Would be five to eight times better with Whitney Cummings narration. Am I right?)
Wait, what were we talking about here?
It's a mild surprise, though, that Roman Abramovich hasn't asked the E! host, Handler(*), for player advice.
The irony around Chelsea, its kept its key players from the Mourinho years -- Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba -- but made about 100 other moves around them without, seemingly, any direction.
The Blues said they wanted to get younger, but Romelu Lakuku is stuck in the reserves. Josh McEachran is off to Swansea. Flourent Malouda and Saloman Kalou are still around. David Luiz -- a future building block -- seems like a flop or a bench player. Michael Essien might, finally, be healthy. Oriol Romenu came from Barca as an almost afterthought and already seems to be the fans favorite player. Most amazingly, Paulo Ferreira still collects a check signed by Abramovich.
And, of course, the Fernando Torres conundrum.
It's not wonder results under first year manager Andre Villas-Boas have been scattershot.
Chelsea, all told, have as many pieces as any team in the league, but putting them together is a mess. There are almost three teams at Chelsea -- the old guard, the new wave (Mata, Romenu, etc.) and the Abramovich dream team (Torres and 10 other players.)
This might work when you play "FIFA" online, where player's egos don't play a factor, but when you're always wondering about your place in the team it affects how you play on the field in real life.
(*) If you ever have to consulate a talk show host for player personnel moves in any sport, the first call you make is to Whoopi Goldberg, right?
6. Was Demba Ba the best signing of the summer?
Fun to watch player, too. Pray he stays healthy playing for Senegal this month down in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon at the African Cup of Nations(**).
That said, if you prescribe to the entire "Moneyball" theory that's trying to be applied to soccer, Newcastle United would be outright insane NOT to sell him as soon as possible. Look at it this way, the Magpies got Ba for basically nothing and now he's scored 15 goals. It's the season of his life. Many guys have had one great season, as a club you sell off that. It only makes sense.
In Newcastle's case, where it's been on fire with low-profile signings (Cabaye, Tiote) you reinvest that money for a couple more useful players, perhaps a right midfielder, another striker or an outside back.
(**) My favorite ACN bet is Morocco to win the whole thing at 10-to-1.
7. Speaking of "Moneyball," is that what Arsene Wenger did with Thierry Henry?
Normally a club like Arsenal bringing in a 34-year-old striker from MLS would be cause for jokes, but Henry is a rare case.
Maybe his goal vs. Leeds in the third round of the FA Cup is nothing more than a flash in the pan, a moment for a highlight DVD. (Absolutely hilarious to hear Henry yell, "get in, yeah!" as he walked off the field.)
However, Arsene Wenger -- who hates to spend money -- got a player, short term, who will help the team and more importantly raise morale when the Gunners season basically comes down to its Champions League Round of 16 ties with AC Milan next month.
The problem with the Henry move is it still glosses over the Gunners over-reliance on Robin van Persie, who is going to slow down his scoring rate -- he's only human. Arsenal is still counting too much on Theo Walcott and to a degree, Andrey Arshavin. If anything, Gunners fans should worry more about scoring goals than preventing them because the Arsenal defense has been better than it gets credit for.
Two reasons for optimism via Arsenal? Alex Song keeps getting better and Jack Wilshere will, maybe, play a couple games this year.
8. Will any team surprise in the second half, in a good way?
Sunderland ... maybe.
One mystery lost on me is why Martin O'Neill wears No. 31 on his shirt he uses on the sidelines. Anyone have an answer for this? Maybe Jonathon Wilson knows.
The ceiling for Sunderland is, at best, seventh or eighth, but with Stephane Sessagnon and Seb Larsson there's some nice attacking talent. If O'Neill can cut the deadwood from the Steve Bruce era, bring in a first-choice striker who isn't Nic Bendtner this team could make strides.
9. We're dying to know, who gets relegated?
Bolton -- Sorry Tim Ream, get ready for trips to Ipswich Town next year. There's just no talent at Bolton and failing to come up with a way to replace Johan Elmander and Daniel Sturridge was killer.
Wigan -- Hey now. Hey noooow. Don't dream it's over. Roberto Martinez, if you want to sing Crowded House karaoke with me, the offer is on the table next time you're in the United States.
QPR -- This is going out on a limb, considering Mark Hughes is going to have money to spend, but QPR is like a North American sports expansion team, adding players from teams nobody else wants. Losing Alejandro Faurlin will be tough to rebound from, plus trying to seismically shift from the team that won the Championship to a Premier League team is hard to do -- doubly with a new manager in January. QPR's chairman Tony Fernades is gambling but that gamble might pay more dividends in 2013 than this 2012.
10. Any other random predictions or guesses for the next five months?
a) A "big game" will be overshadowed by an early red card.
b) Teams will continue to attempt crosses, despite its low percentage.
c) Blackburn fans will eventually protest a Steve Kean protest.
d) Wenger will figure out how the pocket on a jacket works.
e) Rooney will kiss his badge after a goal.
f) The ratio of words written about Andy Carroll not scoring goals vs. actual Andy Carroll goals will be something like 43,312 to 3.
g) Everton's top signing in January will be a player from the fifth division of Peru.
h) A missing persons report will be issued for Samir Nasri in February.
i) A key member of England's Euro team will break his metatarsal.
j) John Terry won't sleep with a teammates wife or racially abuse anyone.
k) Harry Redknapp will be linked with 5-6 random players from Brazil and claim not to know who they are. Gonzo?
l) Rory Delap's throw-ins will stop being a "thing."
m) On the day the Mayan calendar ends, the only person on Earth who will be "raptured" will be Gareth Bale.
11. You've written a bunch anything you'd like to say about Liverpool?
* Manchester United v. Bolton -- (Live, ESPN3, 10 a.m.) Assuming Sir Alex puts out a first choice lineup, United should roll. Something tells me Berbatov has something to offer the club in 2012 before being sold off to a rich Russian team. ... Manchester United 3, Bolton 1
* Tottenham v. Wolves -- Tottenham has allowed 20 goals this year, an impressive record -- even more impressive if you realize eight were in the first two games against Manchester United/City. Funny how a proven, gaffe-free keeper (Brad Freidel) and a healthy (sometimes) Ledley King will do that for you. Also, we're officially at the point of the season when every article or mention of Wolves must begin with "relegation threatened Wolves." ... Spurs 2, Wolves 1
* Blackburn Rovers v. Fulham -- In Yakubu we trust? Blackburn, assuming it can hold onto Junior Holliet and Chris Samba, actually does have a pulse to avoid relegation if only for the consistency of the big Nigerian striker (12 goals in 14 starts.) Admittedly, I usually have a good grasp on the player movement in the Prem, however this "Orlando" fellow on Fulham seems to be some sort of figment of Martin Jol's imagination. ... Blackburn 1, Fulham 1
* Aston Villa v. Everton -- Just when you think every Premier League club is getting smarter, along comes Alex McLeish signing Robbie Keane on loan from the LA Galaxy. It's a shame he didn't do it in October, though, as Keane and Emile Heskey could have trick or treated as Master Blaster from "Beyond Thunderdome." Sadly, Everton could actually kind of use Keane considering all those cross-continental flights to Down Under seem to finally be catching up on Tim Cahill, who has not scored this year. Also, Darren Gibson -- hated by United fans -- isn't a terrible move for Everton, unless he has to replace Jack Rodwell and Maroune Feliani. Is he great? No, but a perfect Toffee bargain buy for David Moyes. ... Aston Villa 1, Everton 0
* West Brom v. Norwich City -- This counts for nothing, but West Brom's Simon Cox might well be the feistiest player in the Premier League. ... West Brom 1, Norwich City 1
* Chelsea v. Sunderland -- (Live, FSC, 10 a.m.) Last time this fixture was contested, Asamoah Gyan, Daniel Sturridge and Nedum Onuoha were dancing around Stamford Bridge, ending the Blues outstanding home record. Little did we know it would be a sign of things to come as Chelsea have already lost three times at home this year. ... Chelsea 2, Sunderland 1
* Liverpool v. Stoke City -- (Live, FSC+ 10 a.m.) While Liverpool can't score, its defense is good -- second fewest goals allowed (18) to Manchester City. Credit that to both Daniel Agger and Martin Sktrel saying healthy, playing 17 and 18 games respectively. Assuming they can defend Stoke on set plays -- including Robert Huth V2 (deflected) rockets, that record should continue. ... Liverpool 1, Stoke City 0
* Newcastle United v. QPR -- (Live, FSC+, 8:30 a.m.) Shame Joey Barton is suspended for this one from a red card, which he took to Twitter to try to defend. Seriously, all that was missing from Barton's ranting and raving was a, "back ... and to the right," comment. No surprise from Barton, who is an unhinged, unapologetic asshole -- making him the best athlete to follow. Oh right, it's a shame he'll miss this because there was probably a very high chance he did his best Eric Cantona dojo impression on a fat Geordie in the stands. Realistically, good luck for Newcastle finding goals without Demba Ba, but the club has been -- if anything -- resilient this year. ... Newcastle United 1, QPR 0
* Swansea City v. Arsenal -- (Live, FSC, 11 a.m.) Let's see how defensive a style Swanseas's ball-possesion, Wales-cum-Barcelona system is. Playing 90 minutes of keep away from the Gunners is probably the best bet, of course, until Thierry Henry comes on in the 80th minute and scores. ... Swansea 0, Arsenal 1
* Wigan Athletic v. Manchester City -- Wigan back in slumpbuster mode? ... Wigan 0, Manchester City 2
Last round: 4-7