Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Just a Little Reminder...

All This Amazing Has Me Hoarse

Those of you who thought at the start of the series that Zaza Pachulia would be gracing the front page of ESPN.com, raise your hands. Those of you who thought that the Celtics would be the ones losing their cool, raise your hands. Those of you who thought that Joe Johnson could turn in a Kobe/Lebron fourth quarter, putting the team on his back and willing them to victory (complete with a beautiful Randolph Childress in the '95 ACC Tournament Final moment), raise your hands. Those of you who saw the Hawks coming back from spotting the Celtics a 16-3 lead to start the game and a 75-65 lead to start the fourth quarter, raise your hands. Those of you who thought that Philips Arena would become something along the lines of a raucous college gym (with nicer TV screens and more temperamental shot clocks), raise your hands. Those of you who thought that hundreds of Hawks fans would be chanting "Let's Go Hawks!," "Overrated!," and "Boston sucks!" on the escalators after the game, raise your hands. (Personally, I thought that both fan bases could bond over a "Yankees suck!" chant that would have the added benefit of our friends from Massachusetts not knowing that the joke was on them.) Those of you who thought that this series was going back to Boston 2-2 with Celtics fans likely wearing expressions of extreme constipation when their team takes the floor on Wednesday night, raise your hands.

OK, with that out of the way, here are some random thoughts:

1. Josh Smith has to be hearing a cash register with every big play he makes. His line from last night: 28 points, seven blocks, six rebounds, and one turnover. He played good defense on Kevin Garnett when called upon. He didn't take too many dumb shots, although he fell in love with the three a little much for my tastes and didn't hit from outside like he did on Saturday night. At this stage, the Hawks have to pay to keep him. Hopefully, with the interest generated by this playoff performance, money won't be an issue.

2. While the Hawks had a few terrific individual performances last night, they still don't run anything approaching a coherent offensive system. That works when Joe Johnson is absolutely unstoppable, but I'd like to see more movement and structure from this team. That said, you can't fault Mike Woodson last night for simply riding a hot hand. A lot of coaches would have screwed that up by complicating was was a very simple situation: Boston could not guard our best player, so our best player should get the ball on every possession.

3. The Celtics hit 12 of 23 from behind the arc. I can't say I ever thought that the Hawks could win a game against Boston in which the Celtics were so hot from outside.

4. I cannot escape the '91 Braves vibe from this Hawks team. While the '91 Braves were excellent for four months and this Hawks team has been excellent for exactly three days, there are a number of parallels the deserve mentioning. Both teams were very young teams that had been built patiently. Both teams broke nine-year playoff droughts. Both teams energized previously moribund fan bases. That last point is where the analogy works the best. Philips Arena was always a fun place to watch a game because the facility is so nice and NBA basketball is really impressive in person, but the Hawks never generated much excitement in the crowd. All of a sudden, the crowds have gone from 0 to 60. The noise is intense, people are standing and screaming from start to finish, and the opponents seem legitimately rattled by the experience. All we need is the Tomahawk Squawk to bring it all together.

5. Another historical analogy: the Hawks and Celtics played an epic, seven-game series 20 years ago that started with two wins in Boston by the home team, followed by two wins by the Hawks at home. The Hawks then stole game five at the Garden before suffering heart-breaking losses in games six and seven. The game seven loss is famous for the scoring duel between Dominique and Larry Bird, but game six was the real killer. The Hawks had a chance to close the Celtics out at home, but lost after falling behind early and spending the whole game trying to dig out of the hole. Cliff Levingston missed a running one-hander on the Hawks' final possession that would have tied the game. The team responded to the "close, but no cigar" moment with the acquisitions of Reggie Theus and Moses Malone, neither of whom lived up to their reputations in Atlanta. The '89 Hawks lost in the first round to Milwaukee and spent the next several years in the wilderness. Hopefully, the downward trajectory from the '88 Boston series isn't repeated this time around. The fact that I'm invoking a tight seven-game series between two good teams is evidence enough that these Hawks have taken a significant leap in the past three days.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Three Final Thoughts on Matt Ryan

1. By drafting Ryan, the Falcons are falling back into the exact same trap they faced with Mike Vick. With Vick, the Falcons faced the problem that they had committed a huge amount of money, including an enormous signing bonus, to a player who produced decent, but not outstanding results. The team was paying Vick to be Brady or Manning, but he was far short of that level. The Falcons could only win with Vick if they surrounded him with great talent, but Vick's cap number, combined with less than stellar drafting from Rich McKay, prevented that possibility.

With Ryan, the Falcons are going to pay an arm and a leg for a quarterback who will almost certainly not produce initially (rookie quarterbacks so rarely do) and whose upside is almost certainly not Brady/Peyton Manning and very likely isn't Roethlisberger/Eli Manning. Even if Ryan turns into a pretty good quarterback, he's going to be paid like a star, which means the Falcons are right back at square one. And that analysis ignores the opportunity cost involved with passing on an excellent defensive tackle to take a decent quarterback.

2. Ryan is not coming into a good situation with the Falcons. Leaving aside the mediocre receiving corps and substandard offensive line, Falcons fans are not happy with the drafting of Ryan. Speaking in broad stereotypes (always a recipe for disaster), the Falcons' fan base is primarily composed of two groups. The first group are African-Americans, some of whom still like Mike Vick and most of whom are well aware of the racial coding that goes on when the media slobbers all over Ryan for being a "leader" and "polished." They aren't going to be overly excited for a great white hope, given the circumstances. The second group are college football fanatics who view Falcons games as dessert after the main course on Saturday. (I would put myself in this group. I would also assert that there isn't tremendous overlap between group one and group two because college football unfortunately tends to be a white sport, especially in the South. I digress.) Southern college football fans, almost universally, view Ryan as an average college quarterback who has been hyped beyond his merits because he played in the Northeast. This group is also not happy with the Ryan selection.

Whereas most top five picks are greeted with unabashed, oft-irrational enthusiasm by the fans of the teams that draft them, Ryan is not going to get the same love in Atlanta. Atlanta fans tend to be a lot more positive and forgiving than, say, Philly fans, but the particulars of Ryan's drafting mean that he is going face an especially empathetic fan base. This is why the purported rationale of the Falcons to take Ryan for marketing purposes is so weak. I am promising myself that I am going to root for Ryan, even if his success will mean that I will be spectacularly wrong about the decision to pick him, but my leash will be short. OK, that's a bad choice of words when discussing a Falcons QB.

3. Steak Shapiro was, as one could expect, insufferable this morning when discussing the Ryan pick. He was totally dismissive of the idea that Arthur Blank had anything to do with the selection, even while admitting that Blank wanted the Falcons to take Ryan. Gee, if the managing partner of my firm didn't order me to take a particular course in a case, but expressed an opinion that I should do something, do you think I might do it? Steak then naturally started his defense of the Ryan selection with the subjective analysis that most support of Ryan takes. He cited his "leadership," as if players are going to follow a young quarterback if that quarterback doesn't produce on the field. For the cherry on top of the sundae, Steak was mortified when a caller compared the pick to David Carr and pointed out that Ryan just wasn't that good in college. His two defenses:

a. Ryan's 67% completion percentage. For the record, Steak, Ryan completed 59.3% of his passes last year, not that it's your job to know about sports or anything. Maybe you picked the wrong name for the bar your station partnered.

b. Ryan played well against Georgia Tech. So did Sean Glennon (22/32, 296 yards, 9.3yards per attempt, 2 TDs, no picks) and I'm not going out on a limb by saying that Glennon isn't going to be a top five pick in the Draft any time soon. Ryan was poor for 115 of the 120 minutes he played against Virginia Tech and just about the entire game against Florida State. I would say that he ran up his numbers against bad teams, but he was mediocre against N.C. State and UMass. I guess BC's receivers must have been so bad that they couldn't get open against the Minutemen.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Amazing Happened

I was all ready to proclaim yesterday as Black Saturday for the Atlanta pro sports teams. The Falcons did what we all feared they would do, picking a guy (Matt Ryan) to be the "face of the franchise" as opposed to a guy (Glenn Dorsey) who would accomplish that oh-so conventional goal of making the team better. The Braves dropped to 0-1,000,000 in one-run games with a loss to the Mets. All that was necessary to complete the trifecta was the Celtics walking over the Hawks in the local basketball collective's first home game in nine years. How many times have we ever got to say that the Hawks were the saving grace of the local teams?

It will be hard for me to put into words how fantastic last night was. Philips Arena was packed and the number of Celtics fans was not excessive. There were plenty of specks of green in the arena, but the crowd was at least 90% Hawks fans. This was not the NLDS against the Cubs. The crowd was into the game from the word go. It was, if you'll excuse me an incredibly obvious cliche, a true playoff atmosphere. The crowd was egging on the players and vice versa. After the game, fans were spontaneously screaming and chanting on the concourses and escalators as they were leaving the game. Since when did Hawks fans cheer without being told to do so by Ryan Cameron? Indigenous excitement? This was a proud night for Atlanta sports fans.

Of course, it helps to have a great performance from the team. In that respect, we have to start by showering praise on Josh Smith. Last night was his "Hello, America" moment. I suspect that most casual NBA fans around the country have seen Smith in the dunk contest in Denver, on game highlights, and maybe in a game against their favorite team. On a national stage for one of the first times, Smith played his best game in a Hawks uniform. He poured in 27 points, including five momentum-generating dunks and three three-pointers. If Smith shot like that from the outside on a consistent basis, he'd be one of the top 15 players in the league. Then again, if my aunt had balls, she'd be my uncle.

Al Horford also deserves mention for his performance last night. His line of 17 points and 14 rebounds doesn't quite do justice to his performance. He battled gamely inside and gave the Hawks an inside presence that they desperately needed. He worked successfully with Josh Smith to fire up the crowd, culminating his performance with a clinching jumper and taunting of a fallen Paul Pierce. OK, I probably shouldn't be endorsing the provocation of a 67-win team, but this Hawks team is young and needs the confidence that Horford's bravado generates. What's the worst that happens from Horford letting Pierce know that he had just stuck in the dagger? The Celtics win in five, one more game than anyone thought before the series?

Collectively, the Hawks' offensive performance was so much better from the first two games that it was hard to believe that this was the same team. It's fine to be fired up and egged on by an emotional crowd, but that doesn't necessarily lead to sharing the basketball. Last night, the Hawks' movement and passing was light years better than the team showed in the games in Boston. How about 28 assists one game after having 10? Mike Bibby deserves some credit here. His scoring is still suffering, but he had five assists in the first quarter to set the tone. All of the Hawks' starters except for Marvin Williams had six or more assists. If the team played like this on a consistent basis, they would be a contender in the East. If my aunt...

All in all, I've been to a lot of Hawks games at Philips Arena and last night was easily the best experience I've had. From the crowd to the team, it could not have been any better. I know I'm being repetitive on this point, but I can't wipe away the feelings of surprise, pride, and excitement the morning after. For one night, I got a peek at what the Hawks can be and I really liked it. When was the last time I had occasion to write a sentence like that? For a night, all the potential of this team that I've hoped for came flowing out. Even better, all the potential of this city as a basketball hotbed came flowing out.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

You've Got a Lotta Nerve

It takes a lot of gall to park the best roster in Europe in front of their own goal for 90 minutes, especially against an opponent with a highly vulnerable defense, and then claim that you're going to attack in the second leg at home. Didn't you promise some attacking football in the first leg before deploying the first-choice strikers for England and Argentina as defensive wingbacks? Are you aware that no one can take you seriously anymore?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Working Man's Liveblog

Anthems, starting lineups, major goosebumps. I've dreaded this match-up for weeks because of Barca's form, but I'm a sucker for my teams and now I'm amped...five hours after the game started and thousands of miles away. The Nou Camp, which isn't noted for being especially loud, is absolutely rocking. The fans are really getting behind their struggling team.

Barca's big surprise is Deco in the starting lineup. He has barely been seen in the past several months. He made a sudden return against Real Madrid in December and did not play well. United have an attacking lineup, with Rooney, Tevez, and Ronaldo all on from the start.

2 min. Well that was an eventful start. Barca give the ball away from the kickoff, they give up a free kick, then a corner, then a penalty. Milito, Barca's best defender, lets Ronaldo get his head to the ball and then handles it. A smidge of a harsh call, but not entirely unjust. Ronaldo then misses the frame on the penalty.

10 min. - Barca have dominated since Ronaldo's let-off. They force several corners and Messi is buzzing.

12 min. Van der Sar gives the ball away, Barca come in three on two, but Eto'o's pass is a little off. Get that out of your system before the summer, Edwin.

14. min. More pressure from Barca. Marquez hits a free kick into the wall, then Messi creates more pressure. Messi is all over the place, definitely not sticking to the right wing. Tim Vickery would be pleased.

16 min. It just occurred to me that the Nou Camp crowd have plenty of experience whistling a visiting side wearing all white.

18 min. Toure is bossing it in the middle. Barca are a much better team with a proper defensive midfielder.

21 min. Odds that Paul Scholes will get a card in this match fouling Messi: 78%.

24 min. Ronaldo is off his game since the penalty miss. His contribution since then have been a series of dives, a lot of complaining, one dust-up with Valdes, and an instance where he dribbled the ball off his ankles.

28 min. Iniesta frees Ronaldo with a dreadful pass, but Ronaldo takes a swan dive in the box and nothing comes of it. I can see why everyone in the EPL hates Cristiano.

31 min. Barca have had the lionshare of the possession and corners, but United have had the better chances. A familiar refrain for Barca. Barca have come close to hooking up in the box with passes, but nothing to test van der Sar.

32 min. I'm a little perplexed by Sir Alex starting both Tevez and Rooney and then giving them defensive duties on the wings. Is this for counter-attacking purposes? Is Sir Alex really that much of a skirt on the road...or is this exactly the strategy that always works against Barca at home? Can I really begrudge Sir Alex for doing what works?

35 min. Hargreaves has had the measure of Iniesta on the left. Is that Bojan's music coming on the hour?

40 min. Marquez, whom I worried would be the weak link when I saw him in the starting lineup in Puyol's place, has been very solid so far, as have both of the United centerbacks. Who makes the mistake first: Marquez or Wes Brown?

44 min. Wing free kick for United. I am very fearful. Ronaldo elects to shoot instead of sending in a cross to a surely unmarked attacker (going on Barca's recent marking on set pieces). Thank you, Cristiano.

Halftime - Janusz Michalik is exactly right at the half: Sir Alex has his tactics right and is waiting for Barca to futilely attack ten behind the ball before his team counters.

47 min. Xavi undresses Scholes in the middle, but the attack fizzles out in the final third. So much skill and yet no clear chances. As soon as I say that, Eto'o gets free in the box, but his pass cannot find Messi in front. Good defending by Hargreaves and Messi should have done more to free himself.

51 min. There was Eto'o's chance. Free on the right of goal and he shot into the side netting. Messi and Iniesta made sweet love on a pair of passes to free Eto'o. Iniesta's touch was especially sublime. We may not be able to beat anyone in the Primera, but dammit, English champions-elect, we have more touch than you.

52 min. Marquez makes the mistake that we all feared, completely whiffing as Carrick goes right by him and into a one-on-one with Valdes, which he hammers into the side netting with free men at the far post. A big let-off for Barca. We survived the big Marquez mistake. Wes Brown, you're up.

61 min. Messi off, Krkic on. Not a bad move. Best to save Messi. I thought that Krkic would come on for Iniesta, but Henry might be tagged for that slot on the left. Thierry is warming up.

68 min. I can't remember the last time United had possession in the Barca half. That said, Barca have been reduced to toothless efforts from outside in the last ten minutes.

74 min. I thought that EPL sides were big on pressing. They've really conceded possession to Barca, even moreso in the second half.

81 min. The game is petering out a little, most likely before a final flourish.

87 min. United have played as if Ronaldo hit the target in the first minute. I'll never listen to Sir Alex or United fans talk about their commitment to attacking or atractive football. At least Chelsea have scored when they came to the Nou Camp.

Full time. I'm not sure how I feel about this. 0-0 is not a bad result at home, especially with Barca struggling at present and United facing a tough match this weekend...where they'll probably play like pu**ies again. Barca having a ton of possession and not scoring is an old song this season.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The 2006 Good Luck Charm Returns

And G-d knows we need it this year.

Four keys to the game for Barca:

1. They absolutely, positively cannot get caught forward with too many players committed to attack. This has been their downfall for two years in home games and it will play right into Manchester United's counter-attacking style. If you see Barca leaving only its central defenders back when in possession of the ball or you see four-on-fours, then the Red Devils are on their way to Moscow.

2. Samuel Eto'o has to shoot the ball accurately when he gets chances. Eto'o is not a great finisher, despite being an excellent striker overall. He will get one or two clear chances tomorrow night and he has to bury them. Conversely, Wayne Rooney can be similarly profligate in front of goal, so Barca have to hope that he misses when he gets a clear sight of the net.

3. Yaya Toure's back has to be healthy. One of the major differences between the solid Barca of the first half of the year and the suspect team of the second half has been Toure's back injury and resulting weakness in defensive midfield. Xavi and Iniesta have played fairly well in the last several weeks, but they need proper support behind them in order to properly boss the game.

4. With Carles Puyol suspended after getting two yellow cards in the Schalke ties (the yellow in the first leg was a bizarre decision by the ref that Puyol was time-wasting), Lilian Thuram will likely play in the center of defense. Thuram is in the "I play well once every three games" stage of his career, not unlike Zidane at the end of his career. This game has to be the one out of every three for Thuram. If Barca get the player who was an absolute pillar in the 2006 World Cup, then they have a chance. If not, then Rooney and Ronaldo are going to have their chances.

Work permitting, there will be a pseudo-live blog tomorrow night when I watch a recording of the game.

Liverpool-Chelsea Thoughts

That was about the match that we expected...until 90 minutes. A minimal number of chances, a scrappy goal from Liverpool in front of the Kop that had a whiff of offsides and the overpowering stench of good fortune, and then a 1-0 scoreline for the 'Pool to take to Stamford Bridge, where they've never scored under Rafa Benitez. The script completely changed in injury time when a seemingly harmless cross to the middle was turned by John Arne Riise into his own net. Liverpool live on very small margins because of their style, so they put themselves into the situation where one bad move can cost them dearly. I'm tickled by the idea of the Reds having to go on the road in Europe and, gasp, attack. I was also tickled that Chelsea got their goal as the 'Pool fans were singing "You'll Never Walk Alone." The Chelsea support, incidentally, looked almost embarrassed to cheer for the goal. Either that or they were terrified of being on the receiving end of flying poo.

To properly convey the quality (or lack thereof) of the match, here are some choice cuts from the Guardian's minute-by-minute report:

4 min - A Liverpool throw-in, deep in their own half. The ball is flung up the touchline, Terry hoofs it up in the air and a game of head-tennis ensues. "It's going to be very, very tight and congested in that midfield," says Jim Beglin in the ITV commentary box, prompting Clive Tyldesley to go off on one about how effective games like this are for curing insomnia. When an enthusiast like Tyldesley can't even be bothered to try selling a match, you know you're in trouble.

37 min - This is predictably grim fare.

GOAL! Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea (Kuyt 40) A shocking, comical attempt at a clearance from Claude Makelele allows Kuyt to squeeze in behind him, latch on to a Mascherano miskick and smash the ball through Petr Cech's legs at the near post from about three yards out.

It was the scrappiest, messiest goal you'll ever see...

54 min: "Barry, to update your statistics, Liverpool and Chelsea have now played 615 minutes of Footie and scored an incredible four goals, dropping the minutes-per-goal stat to a jaw-dropping 153.75 from 190," writes Satyajit Mujumdar. "This is exciting stuff."

64 min: Ballack, Drogba and Lampard are all looking a little ring-rusty tonight, which is hardly surprising considering they've missed a lot of training for various reasons in recent weeks. Frank Lampard incurs the derision of the Kop when, running on to a Drogba pull-back from the edge of the six-yard box, his leaden-footed touch thumps the ball into an advertising hoarding.

86 min: A corner kick for Liverpool after Fernando Torres beat the Chelsea offside trap to latch on to a Steven Gerrard pass from the centre-circle. With 40 yards to the goal and only Petr Cech to beat, Torres miscontrols the ball and leaves it behind him.

Assorted observations on the match that will hopefully omit the adjectives "grim" or "dour":

1. Claude Makelele showed his age in the game. He was beaten by Kujt for the Liverpool goal and he was beaten by Gerrard for Liverpool's best chance in the second half. Chelsea is obviously better with Essien as the midfield anchor, so give another advantage to the Blues in the second leg if he is healthy (or even if they play John Obi Mikel in that role).

2. Avram Grant has been underwhelming as the Chelsea boss and he certainly can't claim to have made any tactical changes to get a draw tonight, but he has done a better job than the Special One of creating conditions for Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack to play together. Ballack and Lampard linked up very nicely to set up Florent Malouda for Chelsea's best chance in the second half and they've been connecting on free kicks with frequency in the Champions League.

3. Petr Cech is a terrific keeper. No ifs, ands or buts about it. His save on Gerrard was outstanding and he made two big saves on Fernando Torres on either side of halftime. His performance in the match reminded me that Cech made the best save I've ever seen:

I wasn't alive to see Lev Yashin play or Gordon Banks' save from Pele in '70, so take my endorsement with a grain of salt.

4. Kudos to ESPN for showing the pre-game atmosphere, namely the fans singing before the match and the players assembling in the tunnel, looking very serious. Let's see if ESPN does the same at venues other than Anfield.

5. Steven Gerrard was fairly quiet, but his pass to free Torres for his first half chance and his shot from the right in the second half were really, really good. Don't let my constant griping about Liverpool obscure the fact that there is some genuine skill in the side. Maybe I'm being overly harsh on Makelele if I'm describing Gerrard as "fairly quiet" in the match?

6. Were ESPN's broadcast team correct when they said that Fabio Aurelio is the first Brazilian to ever play for Liverpool? Really? It must be nice to be me and be proven right on a daily basis. How am I supposed to take a major club seriously when it has so little interest in playing properly that they have never deployed a player from Brazil? Who needs players who can pass and move properly?

A Brief Political Digression

What would the media's reaction be if we replaced Scranton with Birmingham or Columbia in this story:

Barack Obama’s campaign opened a downtown office here on March 15, just in time for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. It was not a glorious day for Team Obama. Some of the green signs the campaign had trucked in by the thousands were burned during the parade, and campaign volunteers — white volunteers — were greeted with racial slurs.

Actually, there is a bit of a sports parallel. We often complain about the media sticking too closely to its narratives about games and teams, but that tendency shows up in politics as well as sports. Racism is often treated as a specifically Southern phenomenon, so when open racism makes an appearance above the Mason-Dixon Line, it doesn't register. That said, racism in Scranton doesn't come with the same legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, so maybe the different narrative isn't entirely irrational.

We Waited Nine Years for That?

When Der Wife and I had half-season tickets for the Hawks in 2005-6, we went to roughly 18 games. As you might imagine, there were a fair number of lulls in action watching a 26-win team in a half-empty arena. I recall staring out into the vast expanse of Philips Arena on more than one occasion, typically after the euphoria of one section winning free burritos from Chipotle had worn off, and musing "man, I can't tell you how excited I'll be when the Hawks finally play a playoff game."

I thought about that sentiment on Sunday night as the Hawks got beaten around by the Celtics. The fact that Boston won came as no surprise. There is a reason why Boston finished 29 games ahead of the Hawks in the standings this year. If the Hawks take one game in the series and stay competitive in one or two others, I'll be reasonably pleased. What galled me about Sunday night was the manner in which the Celtics dispatched the Hawks. Boston didn't appear to have to shift out of third gear to win comfortably. Between Rajon Rondo eating Mike Bibby alive in the pivotal match-up in the game or Josh Smith hoisting up wild shots as a result of the Celtics' defense baiting him into playing out of control basketball, the product on the floor just wasn't very enticing. Moreover, the team seemed to lack excitement at the start of the game, which is not what I was expecting from a team with nothing to lose.

By the third quarter, Mike Fratello was astutely observing that Mike Woodson was going to be frustrated when watching the tape by the number of possessions that involved zero or one passes by the Hawks. What Fratello was surely thinking, but did not mention, is the fact that the Hawks have nothing approximating an offensive system, so Woodson will have to point the finger at himself for the wretched offensive performance. By the fourth quarter, I was watching Pretty Woman, consistent with my tradition of watching chick flicks when a sporting event is really disappointing me. (The Devil Wears Prada proved quite therapeutic during the fourth quarter of the Michigan-Oregon game this September.)

The only Hawks who acquitted themselves well in the game were Al Horford, who was by far the best Hawk on the court, and Josh Childress, who is the only one of the Hawks' swing men who appears to know what he's doing against a good opponent. It's not even fair to compare Childress's basketball IQ to that of Smith and Marvin Williams.

Game two is Wednesday night and if the Hawks can be within single-digits going into the fourth quarter, I'll be thrilled. Game three is at home against the Celtics on Saturday night. Der Wife and I will be in attendance, as we promised when we were two of the hardy souls in attendance at the worst game in NBA history. I'm hoping against hope that the Hawks show some fire on Saturday.

Peter King has a Feeling!

You'll never guess who Peter King thinks he thinks the Falcons are taking on Sunday:

3. Atlanta. QB Matt Ryan, Boston College. Did everyone get the hint nine days ago when Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff borrowed owner Arthur Blank's G-4 jet for the day and took coach Mike Smith over to Baton Rouge for a love-in with Dorsey ... and then Dorsey visited the Falcons' facility last week to see everyone else in the organization?

How's this for a surprise: I say Atlanta will take Ryan even if Dorsey's on the board. Then everyone will say it was the owner's pick. Not so. With Dimitroff's background in football, I'm convinced he'd never have taken this job if he felt Blank's heavy hand on his shoulder for the first pick. It's logical to think Blank wants Ryan for the billboard-on-I-85 factor. But if this pick is Ryan, it will be because Dimitroff and Smith think it's best for the franchise.

Now for Ryan. My buddy Don "Donnie Brasco'' Banks is always telling me how gullible I am. Brasco likes baseball, and I called him a couple of years ago after seeing Juan Acevedo pitch in a spring-training game and told him, "Juan Acevedo's gonna win 15 games this year.'' He didn't come close. I admit to getting sucked in a bit by players I like. So write this down, you who keep records of how badly I screw up predictions: Matt Ryan is going to be a star in the NFL. You can feel it being around him -- he's got that I-won't-be-denied demeanor Peyton Manning had 10 years ago. He's got a plus arm, he knows how to get players around him to play better, and he loves having the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

A couple thoughts:

1. Consistent with his pattern of relying upon entirely subjective, fuzzy reasoning when it comes to all matters Matt Ryan, Peter King thinks that Matt Ryan is going to be a star because "you can feel it being around him" and he apparently has Peyton Manning's demeanor. You know what else Peyton Manning had, Peter? Good stats. A productive college offense. He did not provoke universal reactions of "meh" from everyone who watched him play in college.

2. Here's my concern about the Arthur Blank dynamic here. If we are all assuming that Blank wants to take Ryan because he is smitten with the young man (and Blank's affections for his franchise quarterbacks have always led to such good results; why can't he be the jilted lover who gets burned by a cheating spouse and vows to never date again?) or because he wants to do so for marketing purposes (because what more would an African-American-heavy fan base like more than a quarterback with the nickname "Matty Ice"?), then that presents problems for Thomas Dimitroff. If Dimitroff takes Ryan and Ryan is a bust, then Blank can always excuse the mistake by saying "I was wrong about Ryan as well." If Dimitroff takes Glenn Dorsey and Dorsey is a bust, then Blank will raise an eyebrow and say "I told you so." It's always safer to follow the boss's lead, even if the Boss is not explicit in his interference. If I were Dimitroff, I'd play off of Blank's love for Keith Brooking and sell the Dorsey pick as a pre-requisite to making Brooking a passable option at middle linebacker.

3. As if you needed any more confirmation that taking Ryan would be a bad move for the Falcons, Beau Bock heartily endorsed the move on the radio this morning because the "Falcons need a quarterback." Beau, the Falcons need a lot of things. The mere fact that you have a need does not lead to the conclusion that you should take a player about 40 picks too early because he plays a position of need.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

This Seems Fair

Honestly, who else deserves the weakest schedule in the NFL more than the team that just completed the first 16-0 regular season in history. I understand that the mechanics here do not involve some sort of conspiracy by the NFL to make Bill Simmons happy every weekend. The Patriots play in a division that includes the 1-15 Dolphins and 4-12 Jets, so their opponents' winning percentage is weighted down significantly. They are also scheduled to play the AFC West and NFC West this year, both of which are full of teams that had bad 2007 seasons. So add four games against the Jets and Dolphins to games against the Raiders (4-12), Chiefs (4-12), 49ers (5-11), and Rams (3-13) and fully half of the Patriots' schedule is against teams that were terrible in 2007. This isn't the fault of the Pats or anything, but it at least ought to prevent their backers in the media from whining next fall. Their weak schedule also illustrates the maxim that the NFL barely weights the schedules of its teams any more, so it attributing success to a "last-place schedule" or failure to a "first-place schedule" is a total misnomer now. Finally, the Pats' schedule as compared to that of the Colts illustrates the significant advantage that the Pats have in that their division is much weaker than the AFC South, so they start the year with a leg up in terms of getting homefield advantage in the playoffs.

And while we're on the subject of the NFL, I was decidedly unimpressed by the interview I heard with Mike Mularkey on the radio this morning. After two decades of watching Michigan football, suffice it to say that I'm not overly enthusiastic when I hear an offensive coordinator whose philosophy is based on "imposing our will on the opponent" and "being more physical." Maybe I'm reading too much into these remarks, but it seems to me to foretell a fall of lots of running between the tackles to show that our members are bigger than those of our opponents. This is all fine and good when you're Dirk Diggler (read: Michigan or USC in the 70s when they had 150 players on their rosters and could monopolize talent), but it doesn't work in college football today and it certainly doesn't work in the NFL. As Der Wife said this morning, the Falcons really don't have the big wiener.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Headline we Dreamed of (Baby Steps Version)

Hawks End NBA's Longest Playoff Drought

Now, please put up a fight against Boston. I'm not asking for a series victory or anything, but is one win at home plus a really tight game in Boston too much to demand? I really can't stomach the idea of Sam Cassell dancing all over the floor like he did on Saturday night when he single-handedly made me depressed about the Hawks' rebuilding project. (If our starting five can be torched in crunch time of a big game by a 38-year old who the Celtics got for nothing...) Saturday night also gave me two other thoughts:

1. If Randy Moss got into so much trouble for pretending to moon the fans at Lambeau Field, then how does Cassell get away with a dance that's meant to show that he has really big balls? Joe Buck, you're on the clock on this one.

2. Watching Josh Smith and Rajon Rondo both play well for their teams reminded me that Jay Bilas panned both of them at the NBA Draft. He might be the dumbest smart guy with a microphone, even when he's not commenting from an extreme conflict of interest as he was when Tommy Amaker was involved.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Best 5-7 Baseball Team on the Planet

The Braves are 5-7. They have the run differential of a 7-5 team. They are second in runs scored and 5th in team OPS. They're fifth in runs allowed and third in opponent's OPS. They have had a grand total of two bad starts: one from Chuck James in Colorado (a recipe for disaster if there ever was one - an extreme flyball pitcher at altitude) and one yesterday when Tom Glavine injured his hamstring. The starting rotation looks much better than last year, although it is brittle as one would expect from a rotation based around four aged pitchers. The bullpen might be a partial explanation for the team's dreadful record in one-run games, but they don't look that bad to me. Chris Resop ("Poser" spelled backwards) is the only guy in the pen who looks a little out of his depth. The lineup looks pretty good. Mark Teixeira isn't going to hit .213 all year, Yunel is off to a great start, and Mark Kotsay hasn't been a total bust with the bat so far. The only negative is that Francoeur looks like he's hacking at everything again.

Overall, I find it hard to write about the Braves in April because I am constantly having to resist the urge to draw conclusions off of a very small sample size. That said, I'd give the team a solid B+ for the first two weeks, even though they have a losing record. There isn't an obvious weakness to the team, other than the fact that they don't have six or seven reliable starters (just like every other team in baseball).

Your Latest Yankees-Red Sox Saturation Update

Saturday morning - I watched ten minutes of SportsCenter at the Y while on an exercise bike. About half the time was devoted to highlights of the Yankees-Red Sox game from the night before, followed by an in-depth feature by Bob Holtzman about Sean Casey playing in his first Yankees-Red Sox game, as if that experience isn't true for numerous players every year.

Sunday morning - I flipped on the Sports Reporters while on the Elliptical machine. You'll never guess what they were discussing ten minutes into the show. If you had "a discussion about why we should all care about the Yankees-Red Sox games in April," then give yourself a gold star. When Mitch Albom tried to change the topic to the 2-9 Tigers, the big story in the first two weeks of the season, Gary Roberts then chided him by saying "it's only April." That wouldn't have any implications for obsessing about Yankees-Red Sox games this weekend, would it?

Monday morning - the discussion on both local sports talk stations around 7 a.m. was the burial of a Red Sox jersey in the foundation of New Yankees Stadium. It's not just ESPN that shoves the rivalry down our throats, it's also the ostensible local stations, as well. And it's not as if there weren't other sports stories over the weekend...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Stumbling Forward

The Champions League Semis are now set: beauty (Barca-Manchester United) and the beast (Chelsea-Liverpool). I didn't see the Barca second leg last night because ESPN decided, in their infinite wisdom, to show a tie that was conclusively decided in the first leg. ESPN's normal approach has been to show one quarterfinal on ESPN2 and then the second on ESPN Classic, but they instead decided that old Masters highlights were a better option. So anyway, my bitching at ESPN aside, I can report that the descriptions of the game last night seem consistent with the first leg: Barca won 1-0, but looked very shaky doing it.

Here is Sid Lowe:

Barça went into last night's match seven points behind Real Madrid in the league, with fans launching a white-hankie protest at the weekend, calling for the head of the president, Joan Laporta, and abusing their "lazy" players at training, demanding "less millions, more bollocks". The crisis grew even deeper in the run-up to the game when a high-ranking official admitted that the club had invented injuries as an excuse to leave "certain players" out of the side.

Xavier Sala Martín, head of the club's economic commission, did not name them but it is widely understood that he was pointing the finger at Ronaldinho and Deco. He said that some players had been "ostracised" because they were too often "out partying" and missed training sessions. He claimed that injuries had been invented in order to provide a pretext for leaving them out.

Rijkaard last night replied that "there are no players who have been separated from the rest of the squad". The sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, insisted there was "medical evidence" to prove Ronaldinho and Deco are indeed injured.

With the club seemingly teetering on the edge of the abyss, such revelations were the last thing Barça needed and the game against Schalke was presented as death or glory. And although Barça emerged alive, their lacklustre performance did little to placate the fans, especially as the night's star performer, Bojan Krkic, was taken off early, prompting a monumental bout of whistling and booing from the Barcelona fans.

The home side looked shaky in defence and disjointed going forward and the scrappy goal from Touré - the younger brother of Arsenal's Kolo - after good work by Krkic down the right and two failed clearances from the Schalke defence, did nothing to alter that impression.

Here is Nic from FCBNews.com:

Barça have reached the semi-finals of the Champions League after beating Schalke 04 1-0 (2-0 on aggregate) and will now face Manchester United for a place in the final in Moscow on May 21st. However, the performance, especially in the first half left a lot to be desired. Whether the recent declarations from directors had a negative effect I cannot say, but for the first half an hour Barça played so badly it looked more likely that they would get knocked out...

The only player who can really take any credit from tonight’s game is Carles Puyol. Bojan was good in the second half but disappointing in the first. Toure Yaya deserves applause for scoring and for lasting for 80 minutes but he doesn’t clean up in midfield as he did before his injury and at time looks like an injured elephant lumbering behind the pack. Worst of all was Eric Abidal whose form has dropped frighteningly in the second half of the season. Surely it is time for Sylvinho to take over at left back though I dread to think what Cristiano Ronaldo might do if he has a good day.

Barca haven't played a really good match since the first leg against Celtic in February. They've had good halves, but they cannot seem to put together a good 90 minutes. The club is plagued by rumors of internal dissension and the recent comments by Sala Martin seem to confirm that the club has sidelined its two biggest stars from the '06 European Champions because of indiscipline. I keep waiting for something to turn around, but at a certain stage, I have to consider the possibility that I'm waiting for a train that won't arrive in the station. The English media keep referring to the tie with Manchester United as "mouth-watering," but that's in name only. Barca are seven points down in a crap La Liga for a reason: they haven't a good team in 2008. Barring some sort of miraculous turn of events, United will win both legs. This is the only miracle I can think of:

As for the other side of the bracket, I did watch the Arsenal-Liverpool match and it confirmed everything I hate about Liverpool. The Reds progressed because of a dreadful penalty call that came right in front of the Kop. Arsenal's anger is especially justified because the penalty given against Kolo Toure involved far less contact than the penalty that wasn't given for Dirk Kujt's tug. Combine the crap penalty call with the highly dubious red card given to Marco Materazzi in the round of 16 (also at Anfield) that left Inter playing with ten men for an hour and you get the impression that Liverpool really do have a 12th man advantage at Anfield, only the 12th man is not the crowd. Chelsea know that it isn't enough to beat Liverpool; they have to do so decisively because the big decisions will likely go in the Scousers' favor.

And another complaint about Liverpool: their goals were the hallmark of a conservative team. They scored off of a corner, a long ball from the keeper, and a crap penalty. Liverpool scored without taking any risks and it can't be a coincidence that their only goals (aside from Babel's final marker when Arsenal had everyone pushed forward) came in response to Arsenal goals. Liverpool are fundamentally a reactionary team. Their goals weren't close to those created by Arsenal. This is probably the unrealistic romantic in me, but I'd rather lose playing properly than win playing like Liverpool. I can understand clubs with no money taking route one, but Liverpool fancy themselves as a superpower. Whether a club can be a superpower without winning its league for two decades is another matter. (I realize that this paragraph might come back to bite me if Barca beat Manchester United 1-0 on a set piece.)

My irrational bitching aside, the tie was also decided because the match-up that every Arsenal fan feared - Phillipe Senderos trying to mark Fernando Torres - was every bit the mismatch that the Gunners feared. Senderos was awful, which raises the following question: does Arsenal not have a back-up right back? Arsenal's first choice central defensive pairing - William Gallas and Kolo Toure - was available, but Toure was at right-back because of Bacary Sagna's injury. If Arsenal does have a replacement right-back, then what the hell was Toure doing playing out of position? And if Arsenal don't have a back-up right-back, then what the hell is Arsene Wenger doing with the coffers of the richest club in England? Is he really spending all that money on scouts to pilfer more teenage central midfielders from Barca's cantera?

And while we're criticizing Arsene Wenger, what will it take for him to stop playing Emmanuel Eboue? Eboue is terrible, he's a diver, and he's keeping the far superior Theo Walcott on the bench. WTF?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Quickie Thoughts on Kansas-Memphis

1. At the end of the game last night, I was hoping that the focus of the post-game analysis would be on Kansas making some terrific plays to get back into the game, capped by a phenomenal shot from Mario Chalmers to force overtime. I was hoping that the focus would not be on Memphis "choking." Based on a scan of the radio dial and the AJC sports page, I was wrong. The focus seems to be much more on Memphis losing the game than on Kansas winning it. That's pretty unfair to Memphis, who are being penalized for being good enough to have put themselves into the position to blow a lead in the first place. The Tigers played really well to go from 47-44 down to 60-51 ahead against an outstanding team. They then missed a few free throws down the stretch that wouldn't have mattered if Mario Chalmers wouldn't have channeled Scottie Thurman. If Chalmers misses, then Memphis is exalted as a great champion, a 39-1 dynamo that won the most loaded Final Four in history (at least in terms of seeds). Because Chalmers makes the shot and then Kansas keeps right on rolling in overtime, Memphis are chokers. Makes perfect sense to me.

2. I really enjoyed the game last night. I didn't do a bracket this year for the first time in about 20 years because: (1) I don't know much about college basketball anymore; (2) college basketball is a shadow of its former self in a number of respects (the best players only spending one year, the prevalence of flopping as a concerted defensive strategy, and the meaninglessness of the regular season are three reasons that come to mind); (3) Michigan sucks; and (4) I'm tired of listening to boobs in the office discuss their brackets endlessly, as if I care or am impressed that they knew about Western Kentucky all along. (The only more reprehensible behavior among men in an office environment is discussion of their golf games.) I have to say that not doing a bracket was a liberating experience. I didn't have to participate in any of the banal "I got this right!" discussions. More importantly, I was able to watch games without having my rooting interests complicated. I was able to watch Memphis and Kansas play last night without worrying about who I picked or would the result make me smarter or dumber.

I also enjoyed the game because it was played at a very high level. I've found a lot of college basketball games this year to be close to unwatchable because the level of play just isn't very high. Last night, Memphis and Kansas rolled a bunch of excellent players out onto the floor and they went at each other for 45 minutes. The defense and rebounding were especially good. Every basket was earned. The game was somewhat defensive, but not in a Big Ten/Battle of the Somme sort of way. It was defensive because the teams were really athletic and up in each other's faces. They also stayed on their feet for the most part, which I appreciate. Speaking of which...

3. Do Carolina fans realize that their team flops almost as much as Duke does? With the amount of mockery that UNC backers make of Duke players for tumbling whenever an opponent gets in the nearest area code, you would think that the Heels play defense by, you know, staying in front of their men and contesting shots. Instead, UNC is led by a 6'10 white guy who never tries to block shots, but instead flopped (by my count) five times on Saturday night. You're 6'10 and you draw charges instead of trying to block shots? How manly of you, Psycho-T. (Keep in mind that UNC was the first team I ever hated because my first sports allegiance was Virginia basketball in the early 80s when Ralph Sampson played for the Hoos, so I'm not entirely objective on this point.)

4. I might be the only person who thinks this, but Billy Packer, warts and all, isn't a bad color guy. He does go off on weird tangents, but the themes he drove home on Saturday night (Kansas's weak side defense was killing UNC) and last night (Derrick Rose needed to assert himself more, which he promptly did in the run that put Memphis ahead late) were spot on. Packer was also right when he noted that the Memphis players were leaning backwards on their late free throws. Generally speaking, Packer does not fall into the trap of deciding the story lines before the game. He actually pays attention and dissects what's going on on the court. Do the Packer haters not realize that that is actually somewhat rare these days? And isn't the fact that fans of every program consider Packer to be biased against their teams actually a sign that he's doing his job properly?

5. To my untrained eye, Kansas is a weird team. They have several good post players, several good lead guards, and relatively few dangerous swing men. They're the reverse of the Hawks. Isn't it much easier to find a swing man as opposed to a good point or center?

6. Maybe Florida has set the bar too high, but how many schools have had a better year in the two major sports than Kansas has this year? 12-1 and Orange Bowl champions in football; 37-3 and national champions in basketball.

Friday, April 04, 2008

What Color are Mike Hampton's Eyes?

I'm going with hazel:

Here I am, once again
I’m torn into pieces, can't deny it, can't pretend
Just thought you were the one
Broken up, deep inside
But you won't get to see the tears I cry
Behind these hazel eyes

I'm sorry, but I couldn't resist.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Random Thoughts while Watching Arsenal-Liverpool

For all the bitching we all do about sports coverage these days, if you told me when I was a kid that I would be able to watch a recorded soccer game from England while writing an online journal, keeping track of the Braves and Hawks games, and monitoring my work messages, I would have been pretty impressed by the future.

We're 19 minutes in and nothing has happened other than a mistake by each keeper. Did I mention that Liverpool is playing? Or that I hate them?

I am seriously trying to find a single hardcore college football fan who thinks that Matt Ryan should be a top ten draft pick. Just one.

Bergkamp would have scored on that long ball, Robin.

Good for Emmanuel Adebayor. Other than the fact that I'm rooting for Arsenal to save the world from another 180 minutes of shit on a stick, I'm happy that Adebayor scored because he looks better with the new hairdo and I don't want the new style to be blamed for an extended goal drought.

Did I really just say that nothing was happening? 1-1. These styles do mesh nicely with one another.

A reminder for people who don't think that English football is crap: in this game between Arsenal and Liverpool, there are two English players (Carragher, Gerrard), as compared to three French players (Gallas, Flamini, Clichy), three Dutch players (Kuyt, Babel, Van Persie), and five Spaniards (Fabregas, Almunia, Alonso, Torres, Reina).

I'm liking the first four innings of the Jair Jurrjens era. I also like his name.

Am I the only one who watches pitchers pitch from the stretch and immediately thinks of that one year when the umpires went nuts calling balks for not coming to a complete stop at the belt? I'm imagining what would happen if SEC refs suddenly called 15-yard penalties every time a coach got a toe over the sideline.

I h8 Xavier Nady. We have put him on pace for a triple crown.

Is it me or has Mike Bibby single-handedly turned the Hawks into a Western Conference team? Even when we lose (as we're losing tonight to the slumping Raptors, but a four-game winning streak does buy you a little grace), we do so in high-scoring, entertaining fashion. Speaking of the local pro basketball collective, one of their ticket reps e-mailed me the other day to tout the Hawks being on the verge of their first playoff "birth" in "centuries." Atlanta Spirit, you inspire confidence with every e-mail your minions send. I'm going to check out the end of the Hawks game...

The last four seconds of regulation of the Hawks game were CRAZY. Mike Bibby hits a three to tie the game with a half a second to go after pump-faking. The Hawks then allow T.J. Ford to get an unmolested alley-oop for the win...only the ball sits in Ford's hand for sixth-tenths instead of five and the basket does not count. As best we can tell from the replay, Josh Smith was supposed to switch to protect the front of the rim and he just stood at the foul line, doing absolutely nothing. J-Smoove then makes amends with a "no, no...yes!" three to give the Hawks the lead with two minutes to go in OT. I'm quite captivated right now. Bibby hits another three for the lead after Bosh had a three-point play, then Smith hits another three for a four-point lead. There can't be many people watching, but this has been a fantastic game. 127-120! Five in a row! Boston, beware! We might not get swept!

Opening segment of Baseball Tonight: extended highlights of the Blue Jays-Yankees game that had just been broadcast on ESPN2, followed by highlights of the final out of the Angels 1-0 win over the Twins, followed by extended highlights of the Mets' 11-0 win over the Marlins, followed by extended coverage of Pedro Martinez's hamstring. Paging Captain Louis Renault...

I accidentally caught the final score of the two matches today on ESPN's bottom line, so here are my thoughts after watching the second half of Arsenal-Liverpool and all of Fenerbahce-Chelsea on fast-forward:

1. Typical Liverpool. They get their goal 26 minutes in and then don't create a chance the rest of the game. Naturally, one of their "forwards" was in the box to foul Alexander Hleb for a penalty that everyone at the Emirates save the ref saw. I can't tell you how much I dislike this Liverpool team.

2. I like Arsene Wenger and all, but what does it say when you put Nicklas Bendtner on as a sub and that sub not only fails to score, he clears off the line...the opponent's goal line. Tommy Smyth insists that Bendtner was offsides when there was a Liverpool player behind him on the line and a second over the goal line. (Can we get a ruling on whether a player out of bounds can keep an attacker onside?)

3. ESPN, I was most looking forward to the Fenerbahce game because of the atmosphere, so you naturally pulled a GolTV and took all of the crowd noise out of the feed. Great move.

4. If you love footie, sports, or screaming Turks, then please watch this clip:

Wow. If all it takes to produce successful, attacking football is signing a bunch of Brazilians and appointing a member of '82 Brazil as manager, then what's the rest of Europe waiting for? Where is Falcao, anyway?

Stumbly Wumbly Blaugrana

I really don't want to be the stereotypical Barca fan who whines any time the side don't win a match 5-0 with at least three of the goals coming at the end of 20+ passes. That said, Barca won a road first leg at Schalke and managed to underwhelm while doing so. I should be happy because road victories in the knock-out stages are not a common occurrence. Manchester United had all of two such wins this decade until last night, while Barca have two in this year alone. In their defense, Barca played well in the first 45 minutes, so my criticism is really of the second half performance. Barca maintained possession in the first half, which limited Schalke's attacks, and they created several good chances. The goal was a classic Barca 4-3-3 goal:

Iniesta was given too much space and his pass to Henry was a thing of beauty. (Mirko Slomka didn't listen to my advice that he pack his team behind the ball. On an unrelated note, I think he's the best dressed coach in football.) Henry's shot wasn't especially impressive, but he handled the rebound perfectly and Bojan was in the right place at the right time. Barca then spent the rest of the half monopolizing the ball and creating a few half chances. sadly, the attack was impotent on the right side, where Samuel Eto'o was stationed. You can see how much Barca miss Messi, as Eto'o just isn't especially dangerous when pushed off onto the right wing. He works really hard, but he needs to be in the center to be effective. Even though Bojan scored the goal, he's a much better fit on the right side. I'm also joining the Barca fans who would like to see what a 4-4-2 looks like with Henry and Eto'o up front. Rijkaard was willing to change to 3-4-3 last year, so why can't he try another formation change? Would it really be that hard to instruct Iniesta to play wide? And wouldn't it be better to be able to play a more defensive formation against Manchester United?

Schalke totally dominated the second half. I suspect that Rijkaard decided to shut up shop and take the 1-0 lead back to the Nou Camp, Unfortunately, Frank appears to be the only person on earth who doesn't realize that his defense, on current form, cannot function when the opponent has the lionshare of possession. Schalke created chance after chance. It's a miracle that the Germans didn't score. Barca's marking on set pieces is truly appalling. This has always been a problem for them, especially against Northern European sides (the two legitimate goals they allowed in the '06 knockout stages were wing free kicks by Chelsea and Arsenal), but last night was a new low. You would think that after blowing two points at Almeria as a result of excessively casual marking of attackers on corners, the side would learn its lesson, but the defenders appear too disinterested to mark properly. Abidal is the worst offender. He can't be this lax for France, right? By the end, the announcers were almost shocked by the end at the number of free headers that Schalke had. I can't explain how a team of professionals struggles so badly at what should be a fairly basic task: don't let your guy get a free header.

I've read that United were flattered by the scoreline against Roma last night, but after watching Barca's defense struggle for a solid month now, I can't shake the feeling that United is going to smoke Barca if the Catalans don't blow it next week against Schalke. I like the idea of Barca being the decided underdogs in a tie, as they would be against United, but that doesn't trump the reality that a backline that can't mark Kevin Kuranyi and Heiko Westermann is going to be unable to keep out Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Roonney. I am left hoping for Leo Messi to come back healthy (Alex Ferguson is famously conservative on the road in Europe; facing a Barca side with the one player in the world as dangerous as Ronaldo will make him even tighter) and Barca's defense to shake off their bizarre funk and return to the unit that was so effective in January. United isn't an aerial team, so that's something, I guess. I'm looking for small consolations at this point.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

My Losing Streak Continues

On May 23, 1991, my Dad took my brother Dan and I to a Braves-Padres game at Fulton County Stadium. The Braves gave up four runs in the top of the tenth inning at which point my Dad decided that we had seen enough, so we drove back to Macon. This was not the first time that my Dad had decided to bail on a game early. (The concept of getting up early to go to work was still foreign to my teenage mind at the time.) On June 20, 1990, Dad reached a similar conclusion after the immortal Rick Luecken walked Mariano Duncan to lead off the tenth inning after the Braves had blown a lead in the eight and ninth innings. Somehow, Luecken and Joe Boever were no match in the late innings for Randy Myers and Norm Charlton. I digress.

In the car on the way home from the Padres game, we listed as the Braves improbably scored four in the bottom of the tenth to tie the game. (Incidentally, a clip of David Justice's home run to tie the game in the tenth is used in A Few Good Men while Tom Cruise is working at home.) My brother and I got to experience the odd occurrence of watching a game in Atlanta and then seeing the conclusion in Macon.

I mention this because I had the same experience last night. I left the Braves game along with most of the rest of a large crowd in the eighth inning as Manny Acosta's meatballs turned a 4-4 game into an 8-4 deficit. Cue all the "it's a crazy game!" cliches, because I got to listen to Pete van Wieren lose his mind in the ninth as the Pirates allowed the Braves to score five times to send the game into extras. Just like the 1991 game against the Padres, the Braves had an amazing comeback and then lost the game in the 12th. I should have known that it would not be the Braves night when Blaine Boyer pumped his fists excitedly after striking out the Pirates' relief pitcher in the top of the 11th, then Brayan Pena lined out with a runner on second in the bottom of the 11th. I watched the Pirates get the leadoff man on in the 12th against Boyer and then promptly turned off the light and went to sleep. The lesson: we all turn into our parents.