Author

Mark Travis

Mark Travis has 132 articles published.

Finishing Touch

in Futbol by
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Gerard Pique’s winning goal in Spain’s victory against the Czech Republic on Monday was a thumping reminder of Spain’s persistent goal-scoring drought. After Spain was held scoreless for 86 minutes and with the team fresh out of ideas, Pique and Sergio Ramos were summoned forward to provide aerial threats for one final barrage of crosses.

It didn’t take long for Iniesta to find his Barcelona teammate for the winner, but after dominating possession and passing the ball all over the field, the desperate measures required for Spain to score one goal are concerning. Without a striker to rely on, Spain leaned on its centerbacks to deliver a goal and rescue the result.

This has been Spain’s biggest weakness since its disappointing title defense at the 2014 World Cup. With David Villa on his last international run, Spain featured turncoat Diego Costa as its striker in Brazil, and the ex-Brazilian failed to deliver anything of substance. Costa has only one goal in 10 caps for Spain and after being left out of the squad for friendlies in March, Vicente del Bosque kept out of the Euros, too.

Costa is just one of several strikers Spain has cycled through during the past few years. Del Bosque has selected Soldado, Negredo, Llorente and now Alvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz with this summer’s squad, but the goals still haven’t come. Spain has even gone without a striker altogether with David Silva and Cesc Fabregas in False 9 roles to no avail.

Morata offers good pace, skill on the ball and determination on defense, but his finishing is not on par with the top strikers in the world. Aduriz was a more than deserving selection after a 32-goal season for Athletic Club, but he is more of target man than someone who can squeeze through the tight spaces Spain is forced to play in.

Although subpar striker play is to blame for Spain’s lack of goals, so is the way its opponents play. Spain is almost better off playing teams of similar quality that attack and go for all three points than it is against Georgia or the Czech Republic and other teams that park the bus and simply try to survive for 90 minutes. When a team possesses the ball for 70 or 80 percent of the match, there are few opportunities to counter, and when the opposition has resigned itself to playing without the ball, there is almost no room to operate around their box.

The Spaniards still play some beautiful stuff in midfield and their creative players are among the best in the world, but with defenses so compact and dug in, they can’t walk the ball into the net. This often forces a team that prefers a tiki-taka style to lump in crosses and to force the ball into fruitless slivers of space. Luckily for Spain, it is one of the few European nations that still possesses reliable full backs, and Jordi Alba and Juanfran are capable of decent defending and making important runs down the flank to open things up.

When all else fails, Spain gets desperate and sends Pique and Sergio Ramos forward, leaving Sergio Busquets back as the break stopper in case of emergency. It is a far cry from the beautiful football Spain is typical associated with, but it is a necessary adjustment that its opponents and its strikers force it to make.

Against the Czech Republic, it worked. Iniesta, who looked like the best midfielder in the world in this game, delivered a brilliant cross that found Pique’s forehead and Spain took a valuable three points in its opening group game, putting a stop to a troubling trend of horrible opening performances under del Bosque. But for Spain to defend its title as the European Champs, it is going to need a lot more production from the men leading its line.

Payet’s World

in Futbol by
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France 2 – Romania 1

The 2016 Euros kicked off with a rather tense opener in Paris, with the host nation looking less than dominant in a game many expected them to seize. Luckily for France, it had Dimitri Payet on its side.

Payet was brilliant and would have been the man of the match even had the game ended in a draw. His stunning strike to give France the win was the capper on a sensational and inspired night of football. In what was essentially his debut for France on the big stage, Payet was the driving force for the hosts, racking up an assist on Olivier Giroud’s opening goal and nearly creating another with a beautiful cross that found the foot of Paul Pogba on the volley.

Pogba wasn’t quite as dominant as he should have been against a Romania side with no answer for him in the midfield, but Payet picked up the slack and N’Golo Kante continued his sensational Premier League winning form by bossing the middle of the park. Payet’s winner also sheltered Antoine Griezmann from some criticism. Griezmann’s last competitive match was the Champions League Final against Real Madrid. After missing a critical penalty in that match, Griezmann seemed to lack confidence in front of goal against Romania, squandering a pair of chances that should have been goals.

Despite a pair of underwhelming efforts from two of its stars, France is well on its way past the group stage, and it has two more games to sharpen up before the pressure on them amps to the max.

Switzerland 1 – Albania 0

The Albanians will feel they deserved at least a point after their strong defensive showing against the Swiss. Despite having its captain, central defender Lorik Cana, sent off 10 minutes before halftime, Albania kept its shape for the entirety of the match, even when manager Gianni De Biasi made offensive substitutions in the final 20 minutes.

Albania created a handful of delicious chances on the counter, but its strikers were not up to par. Swiss keeper Yann Sommer had a man of the match performance and made several key saves, but Armando Sadiku and Shkelzen Gashi made his job easier by putting in poor attempts in one-on-one situations.

The Swiss were far from convincing in this game and tactically I think they were inferior to a 10-man Albanian side. Albanian’s solid defense kept danger man Xherdan Shaqiri from creating much in open play (though he did assist the game’s only goal on a set piece) and fullbacks Stephan Lichsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez, critical elements of Switzerland’s attack, did not factor into play.

Playing against his brother Taulant, new Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka was the most impressive outfield player on the pitch, controlling the game with a game-high 116 passes. Xhaka is going to dominate the middle of the park for the Gunners in a few months, but if the Swiss are going to get the most out of him in the Euros, they will need their wide players to provide him with more dangerous options going forward.

Wales 2 – Slovakia 1

It should come as no surprise that a Gareth Bale free kick helped Wales take all three points in its first major tournament game in more than 50 years. Bale was less than spectacular in open play, as one might expect with much of the defense’s attention being on him (and Martin Skrtel’s experience defending him), but his trademarked knuckleball free kick was enough of a contribution to spur on his country.

Slovakia were game in this match, though. Had Marek Hamsik’s early effort on goal been a bit more precise, this would have been a much different game. Slovakia did tie the game when Ondrej Duda came off the bench in the 61st minute and scored less than 30 seconds after subbing in, but Welsh substitute Hal Robson-Kanu rescued the three points with a fortunate strike in the 81st minute.

Wales might be extremely reliant on Bale’s brilliance, but with Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen supporting him in the midfield and what looked a sturdy three centerback alignment, it is on its way to having a quarterfinal berth.

England 1 – Russia 1

After going 10-0 in its qualifying group and with some promising young talent coming off strong seasons in the Premier League, England entered this tournament as one of the teams to watch. The Lions might not be ready to challenge Germany, France or Spain for the trophy this year, but the foundation is being built for a World Cup contender.

England’s opening match against Russia, however, was proof that the team is still not reliable on the big stage. Although the Lions dominated possession against Russia and were minutes away from three points, overall England were underwhelming and its infamous tendency to giveaway games reared its ugly head. Eric Dier scored a wonderful free kick that should have sealed a win for England, but Russia tied the game one minute into added time.

Russia were not good in this game. It relied heavily on lumped through balls to Artem Dzyuba, who had a poor game, and it didn’t get enough from Aleksandr Kokorin, who I think is Russia’s best player. But England gave Russia a chance by failing to create chance for the majority of the match. Wayne Rooney looked good in his new midfield role, but I think Ross Barkley and Jamie Vardy should be preferred to Adam Lallana and Dele Alli.

England should still be a sure thing to get past the group stage, but if it can’t generate more on the attack than it did against Russia, Wales might end up on top of Group B.

Quite An Arrival

in Futbol by
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Sparse crowds and inflated ticket prices have been the talk of the Copa America Centanario during its opening week. With Neymar out, Luis Suarez sidelined and the United States not quite to the level where they can draw sold out crowds even against the No. 3 team in the FIFA rankings (Columbia), only two nations have been able to pack stadiums across the US: Mexico and Argentina.

It isn’t hard to understand why that is the case. There is no walling off Mexican fans from their beloved El Tri and there is nothing more appealing to any football fan than the chance to see Lionel Messi play in person. Although Mexico have more than delivered for its fans with entertaining wins against Uruguay and Jamaica, fans who ponied up to see Messi in action were left wanting after Argentina’s first 130 minutes in this tournament.

After Messi missed Argentina’s 2-1 win against Chile, he started the Albiceleste’s second game against Panama on the bench as well. The crowd at Soldier Field in Chicago chanted Messi’s name almost from kickoff on Saturday night, pleading with Gerardo Martino to unleash the world’s greatest player on United States soil.

And in the 61st minute, the fans got their wish.

Argentina only lead 1-0 when Messi entered the game, but the result was never in doubt. Given his lack of game fitness, it would have been easy and forgivable for Messi to come on and have a runabout in the game’s final half hour. But this is the best player in the world we are talking about, and after reaching the final in each of Argentina’s past two major tournaments (the World Cup and last year’s Copa America) before falling short, Messi is a man on a mission to deliver a trophy for the Albiceleste.

Messi netted a hat trick in his half-an-hour on the pitch, dazzling with his pinpoint passes and spectacular curved shots. Twice he beat Panama’s keeper one-on-one after having the ball fall to his feet near the edge of the box and his 28-yard free kick was picture perfect. And if coming in and making the result go from an underwhelming 1-0 victory to a crushing 4-0 win wasn’t enough, Messi delivered an inch perfect pass to Marcos Rojo down the left flank in the closing minutes, allowing Rojo to head the ball down to Sergio Aguero for Argentina’s fifth goal.

The Albiceleste have had two good games to start this tournament, and with Messi back in the side they certainly look like the favorite to win the tournament. Argentina’s opening win against Chile was an important one; without Messi, the team played a counterattacking style perfectly suited for Angel Di Maria and controlled Chile in the middle of the park with the duo of Javier Mascherano and Augusto Fernandez, giving Martino a tactical change of plans for his back pocket.

That said, Di Maria was subbed off in the first half against Panama with what is believed to be an abductor injury. Injuries have been the unfortunate story of Di Maria’s international career during the past few years, and Argentina will be losing one its most dangerous weapons if he is forced to miss anything more than its final group stage game against Bolivia.

But with Messi back and with solid players such as Nicolas Gaitan or Erik Lamela around if a Di Maria replacement is necessary, Argentina are still more than capable of winning this tournament. And, as Messi’s arrival proved, the Albiceleste are more than worth the price of admission.

Let Down

in Futbol by
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Edinson Cavani must feel cursed. Blessed with an incredible knack for scoring goals, ideal size for a target man and good skill on the ball, Cavani has the makings of a player who can lead the line for some of the top clubs and countries around the world. But in his two most high-profile roles, better players have overshadowed and displaced him from the top dog role he would have had almost anywhere else.

For Uruguay, Barcelona star Luis Suarez has always assumed the spotlight. Whether it be his antics, skills or goals, Suarez is a far more polarizing and electrifying footballer than Cavani. Uruguay often play Cavani alongside Suarez, but Cavani is not tremendous as a support player and has struggled to find his form for the national team.

Unfortunately, Cavani has had his hands tied in a similar predicament during his time at Paris Saint-Germain with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic had a legendary stint at PSG, but that didn’t stop the French giants from purchasing Cavani in 2013 while he was tearing it up for Napoli. PSG boss Laurent Blanc never could find an ideal way to pair Zlatan, who prefers to be a lone striker, and Cavani. Cavani wound up playing Cavani as a winger far more than he would have liked, and his production never matched the results he

This summer seemed to be a potential turning point for Cavani. With Ibrahimovic biding farewell to Paris and PSG seeming to commit to Cavani as its lead striker, it seems Cavani will finally be the star man for one of the top clubs in the world. As for his national team duties, an injury for Suarez meant a chance for Cavani to lead Uruguay past the group stage.

But as is often the case for Cavani, with the sky being the limit, he never got off the ground.

Cavani didn’t make a great impression as the lone talisman for Uruguay last summer. Uruguay got to the quarterfinals at the 2015 Copa America, and his side nearly eliminated Chile, the hosts and eventual champions, but he was sent off in the final game and didn’t score a goal in the tournament. Nevertheless, this year’s tournament offered Cavani a redo.

After serving his suspension for his biting ban last year, an injury has kept Suarez off the pitch this summer, giving Cavani another chance to get Uruguay past the group stage and put his team in a good position for when Suarez was able to return. Instead of carrying his country, Cavani collapsed under the pressure.

Losing to Mexico in Glendale in your opening game is nothing to be embarrassed about; it was practically a home match for Mexico and El Tri has been flying under new manager Juan Carlos Osorio. But Uruguay’s ensuing loss to Venezuela on Thursday was shocking, and it sealed La Celeste’s elimination from the tournament. And of course Cavani would be at fault with his terrible miss in the 88th minute on a shot that would have tied the game and given Uruguay a sliver of hope in its final group game.

To make matters worse, Suarez was throwing a fit on the sideline as he hoped to get into the game during the second half. Even as an ineligible observer, Suarez seemed more likely to deliver for Uruguay than Cavani did.

This makes back-to-back tournaments Cavani has failed deliver as his country’s most dangerous offensive player, and he wasn’t spectacular playing alongside an injured Suarez at the World Cup, either. Cavani’s poor showing this summer is all the more interesting because of the role he is expected to step into with PSG next season; if this is how Cavani performs outside of Suarez’s shadow, why should PSG believe he will do any better filling in for Zlatan?

Cavani is one of the biggest enigmas in world football. He was an exceptional player during his time at Napoli and has had his moments – like his winner in PSG’s Champions League tie at Stamford Bridge this season – with the Parisians and for his country, but whether he will ever return to the form he reached in Serie A remains a mystery.

Perhaps it is as simple as style of play. Cavani might be seen as one of the world’s best No. 9’s if he had spent the past few seasons playing for Atletico Madrid instead of PSG. Few teams around the world dominate the ball like the Parisians, especially in Ligue 1 play, but Cavani has always been better suited for a counter-attacking team that allows his pressing and work rate to shine.

A change of scenery or league might be best for Cavani at this point, but PSG seems intent on giving him a chance to lead the club to glory, which is a chance he was more than deserving of when PSG first bought him from Napoli. But more and more, Cavani’s domination of Serie A seems like his peak, and everything since has been a let down.

Heart and Hustle

in NBA by
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It is hard to decide whether the circumstances surrounding the Los Angeles Clippers’ latest postseason disappointment makes their fate easier to swallow than their last surprising playoff exit.

Last season, a franchise that had barely even sniffed second round in its existence was a quarter away from a conference finals berth that would have greatly altered the perception of the franchise and its core before choking it away. This year, a seemingly cursed franchise suffered two cataclysmic injuries just when promise seemed to be on the horizon.

What is more painful: Having firm control of your situation and failing to meet expectations or never even getting that opportunity?

At the end the day, the details won’t matter for the Clippers. They don’t change the bottom line, which is that this was another lost season for a franchise in desperate need of a breakthrough, a lost season for a core that might not have another season together and a lost season for a point guard whose prime is closer to its end than its beginning.

But the details do matter, at least in one respect.

The poignant difference between the final games of the Clippers’ season during the past two years was their disposition. This time around, the Clippers did not go down without a fight. They were not befuddled by unexpected circumstances like they were when the Rockets made their furious comeback last year in Game 6. Even without their two best players and with J.J. Redick looking like a shell of himself, the Clippers scrapped, clawed and fought back against the Blazers, and they were on level terms with Portland for seven of the final eight quarters of this series.

Doc Rivers and his players said all the right things about trying to move on from the injuries to Paul and Griffin. They talked about coming to terms with the situation and trying to fight through it. It wasn’t an unfamiliar rhetoric; what was surprising was that the Clippers actually lived up to their words. It would have been natural and completely forgivable for the Clippers to fold once their postseason dreams turned into heartbreaking nightmares. Instead, they tried to persevere and did not concede an inch to the Blazers.

The two players who most embodied the Clippers’ undying pride in the final two games were DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers.

Jordan played a fantastic series altogether. Los Angeles came into the series with a staunch dedication to its gameplan for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, which required its bigs to extend high to trap Portland’s star guards before scurrying back to the paint in time to protect the basket. For a player who has become synonymous with the prevalent “ice” coverage, which allows him to sag back in the paint on pick-and-rolls, Jordan showcased an ability to pressure the ball well beyond the 3-point line while still acting as an effective rim deterrent. Things did not get easier for Portland once Paul and Griffin went down, which is a testament to how good Jordan was on the defensive end in this series.

Then there was Rivers, who took an elbow to his left eye during the first quarter of Game 6 and was a bloody mess as the trainers ushered him to the locker room. Rivers only missed about a quarter of the game before returning with 11 stitches under and above his eye. There were times when you could see blood streaming down his face from the fresh wound, but Rivers didn’t care. He managed to pour in 21 points to go along with eight assists and six rebounds with one eye practically shut, a la Steve Nash in the 2010 semifinals against the Spurs.

When the final buzzer sounded, Rivers was emotional. You could tell he mustered up everything he could to get back in the game and play through his impairment for his teammates, and he literally left his blood, sweat and tears on the court.

Given that his coach is also his father and that his tenure in New Orleans didn’t go particularly well, Rivers has been one of the league’s most maligned players during the past two seasons. Many believe he wouldn’t have a spot in the league if it weren’t for his dad’s role as coach and general manager, but this game helped confirm that isn’t the case. This was the fourth time he has scored 15 or more points in a postseason game for the Clippers, and his defense on Lillard was phenomenal. Rivers has a player option for next season, but don’t be surprised if he opts out in search of a better deal.

What happens next for the Clippers will be one of the biggest stories of the offseason. Or maybe it won’t. Much like this season, when the Clippers were an afterthought hidden in the footnotes of historical seasons for the Warriors and Spurs, Kevin Durant’s free agency (and who knows, maybe LeBron’s, too) might push any shakeup in Los Angeles to the backburner.

I hope this isn’t the end for the Clippers as we know them, though. Doc Rivers talked before the season about change being necessary if a core becomes stale, but the way this season ended was obviously not a product of that. Los Angeles certainly needs to upgrade to stay on course with the Warriors, and Doc’s extremely spotty record as a GM leaves little room for hope on that front, but after all this team has been through, it doesn’t deserve for its present era to be ended by untimely injuries.

But if this was the last time we see this iteration of the Clippers, even if Paul and Griffin were absent, at least they went out fighting like a team that believed it could overcome its certain demise. For the Clippers franchise, that is a victory in and of itself.

Back In The Spotlight

in NBA by
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For the first time in three seasons, Chris Paul overshadowed Stephen Curry. Ever since Curry broke out on the national stage in 2013, Paul has become a bit of an afterthought, replaced as the league’s preeminent point guard while the Warriors quickly supplanted the Clippers as the most exhilarating team in California.

Monday night, however, Paul stole the spotlight back. And it could not have been for a worse reason.

Just more than 24 hours after Curry slipped on a wet spot near midcourt at the Toyota Center and suffered a mild MCL sprain, Paul’s innocuous reach on Gerald Henderson produced even more disastrous results, for he fractured the third metacarpal in his right hand. While Curry’s initial two-week timetable leaves room for optimism, Paul is expected to be out for the remainder of the postseason, giving the Clippers little reason to hope.

And, as the Clippers luck would have it, Paul isn’t only causality they will have to deal with in this series. In Game 4, Blake Griffin aggravated the quad injury that kept him out for a large part of the season out for most of the season, and the team has announced he is done for the year. The cherry on top is J.J. Redick, whose bruised heel is limiting his effectiveness on the heels of the best season of his career. By the end of Game 4, the lineup the Clippers had on the floor looked like one Doc Rivers deployed in the dying days of the season when the seeds were set, and that is going to be how the Clippers look to finish this series.

This was a cruel turn for one of America’s sincerely cursed sports franchises. When the Clippers took the floor in Portland on Monday night, their oft-criticized core had never been in a better position to make the conference finals. The most optimistic timetable for Curry had him returning for Game 4 in the second round at the earliest, and Los Angeles was in a good position to take a 3-1 lead against the Blazers, a team it had dominated for two of the first three games of the series.

By the start of the fourth quarter, that narrative had been completely reversed. Suddenly, the Warriors seemed to escape the possibility of facing the Clippers, a team that consistently pushes them (in large part thanks to Paul’s fight), without Curry and instead a more favorable matchup against the Blazers had become more likely.

This was also an unbelievably traumatic twist for Paul. Paul is one of this generation’s most brilliant and accomplished players, but circumstances and happenings out of his control have robbed him of a legitimate title chance seemingly every season. He had had a fantastic regular season, perhaps his best since his first with the Clippers, navigating choppy waters without Griffin for most of the season and carrying the team to another 50-win season, no small feat for Clipper land. Most importantly, Paul was healthy for most of the year and might have played all 82 for the second straight season were it not for precautionary DNPs and the Clippers resting guys down the stretch. Another of Paul’s prime seasons going to waste because such an unlucky injury in the postseason feels so unjust.

Now that the Blazers have found an offensive rhythm and with the Clippers down their two best players, the pendulum has swung violently in Portland’s favor for the remainder of this series, and Los Angeles shutting down Griffin could easily be interpreted as the white flag on this season. So within two days we went from having two blockbuster, potentially all-time great, second round matchups – Oklahoma City vs San Antonio and Los Angeles vs Golden State – to one great series and another tarnished by injuries.

The pressure has certainly shifted to the Thunder and Spurs, two teams that couldn’t have envisioned this good a shot at the Finals just two days ago. Assuming the Blazers are able to defeat the Clippers, which they should be favored to do at this point, they will face the Warriors without the league MVP, but Golden State will be happier to see the Blazers than the healthy Clippers, for the Warriors have a much better chance to stall against Portland, making Curry’s return while the series is still being decided a possibility. Either way, if Portland can beat the wounded Warriors or if Golden State scraps by the Blazers with Curry barely rounding into form, the Thunder or Spurs will smell blood in the water in the conference finals.

Meanwhile, Paul and the Clippers will likely be at home watching the conference finals yet again, wondering what might have been. In back-to-back seasons the Clippers were a fourth quarter away from their first conference finals birth – first against the Thunder in 2014, then the Rockets last season – only to choke away those opportunities. Maybe they wouldn’t have gotten nearly as close this year, but in many ways a second round victory against the (healthy) defending champions would have been a validation of this Clippers’ core.

But now, because of the unforgiving and untimely nature of injuries, the Clippers won’t have that chance. And who knows how much time Paul has left in the spotlight.

Der Bayern Dusel

in Champions League Analysis/Futbol by
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Juventus, along with their Spanish spirit animal (Atletico Madrid), are the perennial thorn in the side of the Champions League. In an extravagant competition designed to pit star-studded sides that play fast and fluid attacking football against each other, Juve are the antithesis: A defensive-minded side with a speciality in tactics and tackles rather than flicks and flair.

During the past two seasons under Max Allegri, Juve have sapped the elegance from the flamboyant likes of Manchester City, Dortmund and Real Madrid, and they performed admirably in the Champions League final against Barcelona. Juve were certainly a more dangerous side last season, when they had a world class striker leading the line (Carlos Tevez), a destructive presence in the midfield who could also join the attack (Arturo Vidal) and a certain promising prospect who we will get to later. But Allegri has adapted, and on a relatively tight budget considering the club let Tevez return to his beloved Boca Juniors on a free transfer, and he had his side battling for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals Wednesday night.

The first leg of Juve’s Round of 16 matchup against Bayern was only the second time Juve had played a four-goal game in the Champions League under Allegri and it was the second time that an opponent had put two goals past them. Other than Barcelona, this Bayern team is clearly the most talented opponent Juve have faced during the past two seasons, and the Zebras began the tie in typical fashion, sitting back and letting Bayern bring the game to them. The strategy backfired when Thomas Muller scored just before halftime, and the tie seemed over when Robben scored Bayern’s second away goal in the 56th minute. Juve rallied, though, scoring twice in the final half hour to even things up before the scene shifted to Bavaria.

Juve’s comeback in the first leg was surprising, but it was nothing compared to the way The Old Lady started in the return leg. Within the first 30 minutes, Juve had secured two away goals of their own and looked poised to pull off a major upset; the moment Juan Cuadrado’s finesse shot hit the back of the net in the 28th minute, Juventus had outscored Bayern 4-0 during the past hour of play. With Bayern’s goals in Turin stripped of their additional value, Juventus had earned itself a chance to shape up at the back and try to see out the tie for an hour with one of the best attacking teams in world football breathing down their necks.

The Old Lady nearly did it, too. Juve nearly pulled off a feat many thought to be impossible. They were as comfortable as can a team can be when putting 10 men behind the ball and giving Bayern Munich an hour to figure out how to score a pair of goals, and their defending was solid. But parking the bus against the top sides in the world can’t last forever, which Juve found out in the first leg when they sat back without a lead to protect and conceded two.

It was only after going down 2-0 at home when Juve picked up their intensity and played more ambitiously, and that spirit carried over in the opening half hour of Wednesday’s affair. Allegri got the tactics wrong out of the gate in this tie, playing in fear of Bayern from the opening kick in their home leg, but it seemed Juve’s strong close in Turin had keyed Allegri in to the benefits of letting his team play more aggressively, particularly against a depleted Bayern backline that has looked shaky when challenged. That mindset didn’t last long, though, for Juve retreated into their shell once they put themselves two goals ahead.

I think Allegri blew a golden opportunity in Bavaria. Juve scored twice because they were putting good pressure on Bayern and creating chances on the break and with possession of their own, yet as soon as they got up 2-0 he decided to switch his team into an even more defensive formation, all but killing Juve’s chances of scoring a third goal without a good bit of luck. I can see parking the bus straight away if you score two quick goals in fluke situations, but Juve were legitimately troubling Bayern and Pep Guardiola’s defense was in shambles. Had the Zebras finished out the half and started the second with the same attacking fervor they arrived in Germany with, they might well have gone through.

Not only did Allegri neuter his team after they had showcased their attacking prowess, he also took out his two top performers well before they were ready to leave the pitch, and his changes directly preceded Bayern’s first two goals. Allegri took Alvaro Morata off for Mario Mandzukic in the 72nd minute, and less than a minute later Robert Lewandowski had headed home Douglas Costa’s brilliant cross to bring Bayern within one. Then Allegri brought Cuadrado off in the 89th minute, and two minutes later Muller had tied the game.

Morata, who came on as a sub in the first leg and created one of Juve’s goals, was brilliant Wednesday. His hold up play was great, he had a tremendous work rate chasing down clearances and his run that created Juve’s second goal was sublime. Picking up the ball deep in his own half, Morata glided past Bayern’s defenders as if they weren’t there, charging down the pitch until the defense committed to him and then slid a perfect pass to Cuadrado, who played a great match himself, for the goal.

Morata should have had a goal of his own, too, but the referee disallowed it on a wrong offside call, making for the second time this tie Juve had lost a goal because of an incorrect decision. Morata was critical for Juve when they got past Real Madrid last season and he was good enough in both of his appearances against Bayern to secure the same result this season. If there is any positive takeaway for Juve from this game, it’s that Morata looked lively once again in the midst of a rather quiet season. The version of Morata that played against Bayern paired with Paulo Dybala, one of the best young forwards in Europe, would give Juventus a great strike partnership for the next few years.

Unfortunately for The Old Lady, Morata was subbed off 20 minutes too early, and while Allegri was submarining his sides’ chances, his adversary helped win the game for his team. Guardiola’s subs were fantastic, with Kingsley Coman entering in the 60th minute and Thiago coming on in extra time. Coman was an energetic presence out wide for Bayern, but more importantly his insertion shifted Douglas Costa into a more central role.

Alex Sandro, a left back by trade who has had good success as a hybrid wide midfielder for Juve, had done as good a job as he could in dealing with Costa, helping cover for the slower Patrice Evra by tracking back and taking up the widest positions. Once Coman came in and drew Sandro’s attention, Evra and Juve’s midfielders were left to defend Costa, a losing proposition for Juve.

Coman was also directly involved in the result, assisting on Muller’s equalizer in the 91st minute and scoring a gorgeous curler on the break to seal the tie in the 110th minute. Coman was a Juve player a season ago, though he never played a meaningful role, and Bayern got him on loan with an option to buy during the summer (for a price that now looks like a steal). Who knows how much Coman would have played had he stayed with Juve this season, but imagining this same Juve team coming into Bavaria with Sandro at left back and Coman taking Evra’s place in the side must be painful for Juve fans. Coman is fantastic on the ball and an excellent playmaker for a 19-year-old. Ribery and Robben have been the star wide players for Bayern for several seasons, but it won’t be long before Costa and Coman displace them.

It is tough to say that the better team didn’t go through from this tie; Bayern are impossibly deep and talented and they managed six goals (albeit with extra time) against a team that hasn’t allowed a goal in Serie A since Jan. 10. But when you consider the two missed calls (one giving Bayern an underserved goal in the first leg, the other taking a legitimate goal away from Juve in Bavaria) and the fact that Juve scored four straight goals in the middle of this tie, one could argue that Juve were just as good, if not better, during these two games.

Juventus will never be able to make that claim firmly, though, because they gave Bayern way too much time to thump their way back into the tie with crosses and longshots rather than staying positive and keeping the pressure on Bayern’s unconvincing defense. Such has been the story for Juve in big games under Allegri.

Juve, while lacking the volume of the other super clubs, are talented and Allegri has a great defensive system that his players buy into. What is separating Juve from the European crown is that their manager has yet to reciprocate the trust his players have in him. Sitting back and making opponents come to them will always be a part of The Old Lady’s DNA, but until Allegri realizes that parking the bus against the best teams in the world is a stopgap, often desperate, solution and not a foolproof plan, Juve will be at the mercy of teams that can dominate possession in the final third in their sleep.

Parisian Prominence

in Champions League Analysis/Futbol by
pstid

For the second straight season, Paris Saint-Germain eliminated Chelsea from the Champions League with an impressive performance at Stamford Bridge, though this time the Parisians’ triumph was less surprising and more convincing. With their 2-1 victory against the Blues last week, the Parisians booked their place in the quarterfinals with a tactical and spirited performance against a Chelsea side that has been decent under interim manager Guus Hiddink.

The second leg of last year’s tie was full of drama almost from kickoff, with Zlatan Ibrahimović being sent off after just half an hour. Ten-man PSG rallied to level the match and the tie at 2 in the 86th minute, with David Luiz forcing extra time with a thumping header. An Eden Hazard penalty put PSG behind again before their other Brazilian centerback, Thiago Silva, beat Thibaut Courtois with a header of his own, putting PSG through on away goals.

This time around, the Parisians’ place in the next round was never in doubt, particularly after Adrien Rabiot slotted home the opening goal in London, giving PSG a matching away goal and setting them up for a thorough performance that put them through. They won their home leg 2-1 thanks to Edinson Cavani’s late goal, and the Parisians looked even more comfortable on Chelsea’s ground, securing the same result in London.

Midfield Mastery

PSG dominated Chelsea in the center of the park in both legs, which was particularly impressive during the second leg at Stamford Bridge with Marco Verrati out and Blaise Matuidi playing injured. In the deciding matchup, PSG boss Laurent Blanc deployed a sturdy midfield pair alongside Matuidi in veteran Thiago Motta and the ravishing Rabiot. Even against lesser sides, Chelsea can cede possession at home, so Blanc put his faith in a trio capable of recycling possession and doing the dirty work in midfield, necessary qualities in a game PSG merely needed to control, not dominate.

The Parisians were far from complacent, though, looking to add to the 2-1 lead they stepped onto the pitch with. At times, PSG’s passing was as slick and instinctive as you will see in football. Their movement looked choreographed and their triangles were as tight as ever, culminating in some aesthetically pleasing football and a handful of good chances.

Understandably, Matuidi was far from his lively self in this game, straying from confrontation in the midfield and rarely springing forward into the attacking third. With Matuidi slowed, Rabiot was critical for the Parisians, and he played one of the best games of the season. Rabiot was comfortable exchanging short passes with Motta in the middle of the park and he had great success drifting wide and linking up near the touchline, which spurred moves like this one.

Rabiot had 92 passes with a 90.2 percent completion rate, the game’s second highest total behind Motta, who picked 118 passes in this game and helped PSG establish control. Motta did, however, look a bit throw off when Chelsea pressed him intently and he wasn’t tremendous defensively. Without Rabiot buzzing around the field, Motta might have been at fault for a few more mistakes, but the youngster did well in this game to provide an outlet for Motta, and PSG were able to dominate the midfield.

But it wasn’t just the three midfielders Blanc picked that made the difference in this game; an attacking midfielder turned winger in Angel Di Maria had a massive impact in this game by dropping into the hole and helping usher play into the attacking third. Zlatan has played the No. 10 role extensively during the latter part of his career, but he stayed forward against Chelsea, often drifting off the centerbacks just a tad and attacking for wide positions. Di Maria’s central positioning and Ibrahimovic’s slight drift were key in PSG’s first goal, as was Rabiot’s ubiquitous nature in this game.

Di Maria has been brilliant in a lot of different facets this season, and against the Blues he showcased an element of his versatility that will give Blanc a lot of different attacking options as the Parisians progress to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

Ibracadabra

Zlatan, whose recent comments indicate this will be his final season in France, is doing all that he can to secure his first Champions League trophy as a Parisian. The Swede was integral in PSG’s attacking play against Chelsea, scoring twice and assisting once in the tie. As someone who has been criticized for shrinking in big games, Ibra has refuted those criticisms with his typical stern tone. He was magnificent against the Blues overmatched centerback duo, drifting wide of Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic on both of PSG’s goals – once as a playmaker, once as a scorer – and Lucas worked well as his silent counterpart, making critical runs that drew defenders away from PSG’s talisman.

Ibra is in flying form having had a hand in two goals against Chelsea and scoring another four against Ligue 1 bottomfeeder Troyes. PSG have wrapped up the domestic league with eight games to play, meaning Blanc can save Ibra specifically for the Champions League. If Zlatan can maintain his fitness and form during the next month or so, PSG will have a great shot at winning the one trophy he desires the most.

Sorting out the defense

Blanc might do well to stay away from totally rotated sides in the league, because his defense can use some sharpening. Although they couldn’t get their attack going against them, PSG’s defense was more impressive in its matchups with Real Madrid during the group stage (one goal conceded in two games) than it was in either game against Chelsea. The centerback duo of Luiz and Silva is firmly the Parisians’ best, but Blanc has some options, each talented and flawed, at the fullback spots that he will have to sort through ahead of the Champions League quarterfinals.

Maxwell and Marquinhos started both legs against Chelsea at left and right back, respectively, with Gregory Van der Wiel managing a cameo in the second leg, summer signing Layvin Kurzawa never seeing the pitch and Sergio Aurier rightfully out of the team after his disparaging comments about his manager on Periscope. Maxwell, aka Zlatan’s lucky charm when it comes to trophies, probably won’t be displaced, but Marquinhos might find himself out of the squad should PSG have the misfortune of drawing Ronaldo, Douglas Costa or Neymar in the quarterfinal.

And that, really, is what is most intriguing about the next challenge for PSG. They’ve proven to be one of the five best sides in the world this season, with dominating form in their league and good showings in the Champions League. But PSG have consistently failed to live up to the standards set by the few clubs that boast more lavish teams, living proof of the difference between great and world class sides.

With the addition of Di Maria, the evolution of their midfield and Ibra’s farewell looming, this is PSG’s best chance to prove they belong with the perennial big boys.

Looking On The Whiteside

in NBA by
whitesidefinal

The Miami Heat struck gold when they signed Hassan Whiteside last November. Whiteside, a maligned and peripatetic talent, was stuck in a fruitless cycle of D-League contracts and passport stamps when the Heat took a chance on him, and he paid immediate dividends.

Within a fortnight of his first real taste of the rotation, Whiteside posted 23 points and 16 rebounds in a breakout performance against the Clippers. Two weeks after that, Whiteside posted his first career triple-double when he put up 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks against the Bulls. As the weeks went by, the monstrous statlines piled up, and Whiteside quickly earned a reputation as one of the biggest bargains in the league.

Those points-rebounds-blocks triple-doubles have become a bit of a calling card for Whiteside. Whiteside has three such triple-doubles this season, giving him four for his career; the only other player with more than one since 2000 is Ben Wallace. As Whiteside so eloquently put it: Ain’t nobody else doing it with blocks.

The illustration for this article was done specifically for this piece by artist Alex Dunbar. You can see more of his work at CourtsideScribbles.com

One would think a player with the potential to put up such cartoonish numbers on a regular basis would be the crucial piece in his team’s playoff push. Instead Whiteside has spent this season being toggled between the limelight and the timeout corner as the Heat try to figure out exactly what they have in this radiant and recalcitrant talent.

Whiteside’s situation is littered with precedents. There aren’t any examples of NBA teams exhuming a former second rounder who had resorted to playing in Lebanon and China, much less cases of that player subsequently becoming one of the most dominant centers in the league within a season and a half. Imagine new Rocket Michael Beasley coming in and challenging for the scoring title during the final two months of the season. That is akin to what Whiteside has done since Miami plucked him from obscurity.

The downside of being plucked from obscurity is that Miami’s flyer on Whiteside came with a contract that didn’t offer any longterm security for either party. The terms of the deal aren’t wholly unique for a 15th man being signed for the minimum during the season, but this particular case, in which Whiteside has stunningly developed into a max-level talent, is certainly a first; it is the kind of rare occurrence that might even have its own exception in the CBA named after it to protect both sides if it ever happens again.

Although the Heat don’t have any contractual right or advantage to lean on when Whiteside hits free agency this summer, they did give themselves the chance to win Whiteside over during this trial run. After all, Miami was the team most eager to sign him when his only other offers paid in yuan instead of dollars. Given the Heat’s sterling reputation, which only shines brighter in light of Joe Johnson’s decision to move to South Beach instead of embarking on a guaranteed trip to the Finals with the Cavs, it would seem they have a massive advantage in keeping Whiteside around. The Heat organization has a ton of clout among players because they take care of their own and Miami offers the NBA’s most scenic residential options. What’s not to like?

Whiteside’s situation isn’t that cut and dry. It doesn’t seem as if the Heat have established themselves as overwhelming favorites to retain Whiteside, which isn’t what you would expect given the circumstances.

There are several relevant sideplots in this impending free agency saga, not the least of which is Whiteside’s personality. Like any talented big man, Whiteside wants more touches and a bigger slice of the possessions pie on offense, and he isn’t shy about it. Were Whiteside to accept the confines of the Tyson Chandler role, which suits him well, then the Heat couldn’t ask for a better pick-and-roll dive man to play alongside Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade (though the fit between Wade and Dragic is still in question).

But Whiteside desires more of the spotlight, and because Whiteside can walk at the end of the season, the Heat are in an interesting position: Do they cater to him or give him stern love? I suppose that question was answered when Miami showed its admirable colors and refused to allow LeBron James and his camp to run the show, which might have been a factor in his decision to return to Cleveland. If Miami’s power brokers aren’t going to budge on their principles for the game’s best player, then they certainly aren’t going to do so for Whiteside.

That said, there is a difference between acquiescing to a player’s wishes and making the sensible decision to make a player who will have no shortage of suitors this offseason feel welcome and wanted. Earlier in the season, Whiteside lost his place in the starting lineup, and even with Bosh out, Whiteside has been coming off the bench. He plays starter’s minutes most nights, but Amare Stoudemire gets the token starts. Perhaps this isn’t significant because Whiteside plays about as much as he would as a starter, but for someone like him, the starter moniker seems to mean something. And, generally speaking, if you are a few months away from offering a player a $100 million deal, you should be starting him, right?

One of the reasons the Heat might demur with committing to Whiteside is that they are one of the foremost analytical organizations in the league. A forward-thinking coach like Erik Spoelstra is probably hesitant to shift the foundation of his offense to suit a big man’s desire to post up more. If we were talking about Marc Gasol, this would be a different story. But post touches for Whiteside means only one thing: A shot is coming. He is a black hole in the post and he adds nothing as a playmaker. This season, Whiteside has 18 total assists and 100 turnovers; for context, Rajon Rondo has had 18 or more assists in a game six times this season.

One would think it inevitable that Whiteside’s efficiency would suffer greatly if he replaced a large number of his pick-and-roll dunks with post touches, but he is as efficient as it gets for possession enders. Whiteside is shooting 65.8 percent on his post touches this season, the fourth highest percentage in the league behind Rudy Gobert, Jonas Valanciunas and Dwight Howard. Mix in Whiteside’s incredible prowess on pick-and-rolls – he makes 74.7 percent of his shots as the roll man – and you can see the framework for one of the league’s better offensive centers. Whiteside has even been showcasing a midrange jumper recently, which could only serve to boost his value (as would passing the ball every once in a while).

And this is without mentioning Whiteside’s effect on the other end of the floor.

Although his block numbers are outlandish, for most of the season Miami has been better defensively with Whiteside off the floor. That trend has reversed recently, though, and now Miami is virtually the same with or without Whiteside on the floor. That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his defensive value, nor is the fact that he is allowing 46.4 percent shooting at the basket this season, a solid number, but also not elite. Regardless, Whiteside is the game’s most dominant shot blocker and there is some value in that. Whiteside is averaging 3.92 blocks per game; DeAndre Jordan is second at 2.26. The difference between Whiteside and Jordan is the same as the difference between Jordan and Aron Baynes, who ranks 76th in blocks per game.

Ultimately, this all boils down to one question, which applies to any team that might want to throw heaps of money at Whiteside: Does Miami want to commit $20 million a season to a 26-year-old with two seasons of NBA-level production on his resume?

If Miami’s goal is to maximize its chances during Wade’s and Bosh’s window, then it might be smarter to spend that money elsewhere. If Pat Riley has the bigger picture in mind, which would be surprising considering his own age and Wade’s dwindling prime, then he might see the potential in a Dragic/Winslow/Whiteside core as a starting point. After all, the trio of Wade/Bosh/Whiteside has been average this season (minus-0.8 net rating) while the trio of Dragic/Winslow/Whiteside has been one of Miami’s best (plus-5.4 net rating) three-man groups.

One could argue Miami has the infrastructure in place to mitigate any damaging effects Whiteside’s ego might have on a franchise lacking such a powerful and renowned hierarchy, and the Heat have a staff well-equipped to extract the most out of Whiteside. Betting on Whiteside again, though it will be much riskier this time, could mean getting one of the game’s 10 best bigs under control for four or five seasons.

There is also the chance Whiteside wants to move and cash his checks elsewhere. As unpredictable as his career was to follow when he was bouncing from continent to continent, Whiteside’s next chapter might be even more ambiguous.

Whiteside has a unique set of potent talents that will have teams flocking to his doorstep in July, but his flaws will give every general manager in the league pause before they make that nine-figure offer. The determining factor will be which general managers aren’t comfortable with his imperfections and which ones decide to look at things on the Whiteside.

A Paradigm Shifted

in Featured/NBA by
IMG_7290

Rarely are sports more confounding than when Steph Curry plays. Golden State’s wunderkind has a way of turning masterful displays of athletic grace into something as bewildering as calculus or neural science. That’s what his performances are, after all: Riveting studies in the mathematic and cerebral requisites for such ambitious and cutting-edge athletic pursuits.

On Saturday, we witnessed the peak of Curry’s personal discovery, the ultimate realization of the power of an earnest mind and enthusiastic soul. His performance against the Thunder, rescuing his team from what seemed a sure defeat at the hands of an eager opponent in one of the few arenas that can turn the “Oracle Effect” against the Warriors, was as demonstrative and elegant as artistic expression gets in the sporting realm.

This game was nearly an odd dramatic turn for the defending champs, what with the third best player on a 52-5 team going on a profanity-laced tirade that required a police inquisition during halftime. On top of that, Curry had has own personal drama to overcome after he exited the game with an injury to his once-troublesome left ankle during the third quarter. Curry returned in the third quarter and proceeded to hit 7 3-pointers during the final three periods of the game. The Warriors were down 11 with five minutes left in the fourth before Curry rattled off two 3s to help the Warriors force overtime, where he added three more 3s, including the breathtaking winner with 0.6 seconds left in the game.

Curry’s final shot might be the most memorable highlight in what has been a season full of peaks for the reigning MVP. On the fateful possession, Curry leisurely trotted up the floor, perfectly aligning his shot and and the clock in his head. When the ball left his hands, the whole arena knew that they weren’t witnessing some desperation heave; this was the shot Curry wanted to take. He sought out a 38-footer and drained it. This was no fluke. This was the latest in a series of expansions of his range, of his potential, of his control of the sport.

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