The Favorites to Win the 2017-2018 English Premier League

Manchester United has started out strong in the current EPL season by signing Romelu Lukaku from Everton in July. Lukaku snubbed Chelsea, his former club, and instead signed with United for £75 million. The 24-year old has shown his worth by tallying seven goals and one assist in eight matches in the Premier League, while scoring three goals in two Champions League appearances. Manchester United found a real striker in the Belgian, and he has proven to be lethal in front of goal. His strength and shot power almost reminds us of a young Adriano in his Inter Milan days.

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Manchester United has been a bully to the opposition so far by scoring 24 goals and only conceding four. It seems as though the Red Devils are really starting to shine again, as many of the starting 11 have consistently been featured on team of the week selections. Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Marcus Rashford, and to everyone’s surprise, Marouane Fellaini, was featured last week.

Fellaini has been criticized by teammates such as Zlatan Ibrahmovic, and slammed by fans on twitter in the past for horrid mistakes and performances. Recently though, the 6’4” Afro-sporting Belgian has been a huge contributor to United’s recent success. With the injury of Paul Pogba looking to be a long-term concern, Jose Mourinho may have found a steady replacement in Marouane Fellaini this year. Unfortunately for United, Fellaini has been sidelined due to a knee sprain on international duty, which means that United needs immediate backup. A possible solution is to call back Andreas Pereira who is currently on loan with Valencia. Another option may be 19-year old Timothy Fosu-Mensah who was loaned out to Crystal Palace. Despite these choices, Spanish midfielder Ander Herrera would be the most logical solution to be placed alongside Matic.

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Manchester City

Manchester City has arguably been the most fun team to watch this season in the English Premier League. With a goal differential of +25 after eight matches, one could argue that City is the strongest team and favorites to lift the trophy in May. The Citizens have four players on the top-ten scorer sheet (Aguero, Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sané) thus far and their chemistry looks better than it did last season.

Kevin de Bruyne has had a great start that included a world-class finish against Chelsea. He has truly earned his Ballon d’Or nomination in the way that he controls City’s midfield game in and game out. Another key player for City has been the 21-year old German, Leroy Sané. His pace and foot skills have earned the youngster praise from manager Pep Guardiola on numerous occasions.

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Gabriel Jesus is another young player who is constantly proving doubters wrong. The Brazilian won the Brazil Serie A with Palmerias and the Olympics with Brazil in 2016. His accomplishments on the pitch earned him several transfer requests from European giants, but Manchester City would eventually earn his signature. Fans were concerned with how much playing time the 20-year old would get, but he has capitalized on every chance he has gotten, scoring seven goals and assisting four times in just 11 games in the 2016-17 EPL season. This year, he has already done enough to score 6 goals, and tally an assist.

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Experts questioned if the partnership with Sergio Agüero in 2017-2018 would actually help the team. Two major strikers playing at once sometimes causes controversy, and many argued that the two would not be able to compliment each other. The duo proved the nonbelievers wrong once again as the goals kept pouring on for City. With Agüero out injured due to a car accident for a short stint, City will look to the young guns to provide precious points to stay top of the Premier League.

 

The Giants Need to Make a Coaching Change

The New York Football Giants have started their 2017-2018 NFL season, which was supposed to build upon their 11-5 playoff season last year, at a dreadful 0-4. For the second time in two games, the Giants lost on a last-second field goal, something t reminiscent of Tom Coughlin’s last season in charge, in which the Giants lost eight times in one-possession games. For the second time in two games, Ben McAdoo’s play calling and decision making have directly led to the Giants losing. Following the aforementioned 6-10 season, Coughlin was relieved of his duties as the Head Coach. He was replaced by McAdoo, who had contributed a few bright spots to an otherwise bleak season as Offensive Coordinator. However, I believe that most of the problems plaguing the Giants currently have still not been resurrected from that 6-10 season, and I believe that in order to fix those mistakes, McAdoo must either be fired, or at the very least, be relieved of play-calling duties.

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In that last season in charge, there was a lack of quality decision-making coming from Coughlin, which led to his firing. Yet, not even two full seasons later, the same poor decision making is rearing its head. The Giants have left points on the field time and time again in back-to-back games, and this has directly led to their 0-4 start. Take for example, last week’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Midway through the first quarter, the Giants started a drive with rather good field position, starting on their own 37, when a third down and short came up. On a third and one, McAdoo dials up a toss play for a loss of four. Not very many coaches in the NFL are going to be calling for a toss play to the side of your offensive line that is subpar on a third and short. Furthermore, this play would bring the Giants back from Philly’s 34 to the 38, effectively knocking them out of field goal range, with McAdoo opting to punt rather than attempting a 55-yard field goal. With the game continuing as a low scoring affair in the first half, the Giants found themselves having their game-tying touchdown reversed and facing a third and one from the Eagles’ one yard line. Eli Manning fails to find his target and the Giants have fourth and one, and once again we have a fatal faux pas from McAdoo. Rather than taking some form of points from the drive and going into the half down 7-3, the decision was made to attempt to go over the top of the pile, and, needless to say, things did not go according to plan.

While a 55-yard field goal with an inexperienced kicker is somewhat understandable to not attempt, not taking three points at the half and giving your offense some semblance of confidence is absolutely inexcusable. This play-calling that has exhibited cases of being passive at the wrong times and uber-aggressive at the wrong times led to at a minimum of six points being left on the field in a game which would be lost by two. An inexperienced Philadelphia kicker, Jake Elliot, kicked the longest field goal in the history of Lincoln Financial Field, a 61-yarder which left Odell Beckham Jr. and all of the Giants faithful watching with nothing that could be done. It is worth noting that one could put nearly as much blame on punter Brad Wing in this loss, as he shanked his final punt of the game, only 28 yards, leaving the Eagles with the time and the field position to eventually win the game.

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By some unbelievable stretch of the imagination, things would pick up right where they left off very early in the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the Buccaneers taking an early 7-0 lead at home, the Giants began their drive downfield, which stalled on fourth and four at the Tampa Bay 30. Now, most, if not all coaches in this situation would gladly take three points and answer back to the opposition taking the lead on the next drive. McAdoo does not think like most coaches. So, naturally, instead of taking the field goal, McAdoo leaves the offense on the field, resulting in a turnover on downs for the Giants offense, and a huge stop for the Bucs’ defense. This would again directly lead to the Giants losing the game, as the Buccaneers kicked a field goal as time expired to win the game, courtesy of ex-Jet Nick Folk.

There was one more decision that I could not fathom near the end of the game, and that one revolved around the use of the Giants’ third and final timeout. Going into Tampa Bay’s final drive, the Giants did not have all of their timeouts, so their only option was to hope for a stop and play off of the two minute warning. A stop never came, and facing a third and one with 90 seconds remaining, Jameis Winston found his man in Cameron Brate for 26 yards, effectively ending the game. The Giants did still have one timeout remaining, and instead of saving it to potentially ice Nick Folk prior to his eventual field goal attempt, McAdoo called a timeout with 34 seconds remaining following a Jameis Winston kneel on first down. It is also worth noting that the Giants finally managed to get a rushing touchdown in this game (their first of the season), a 14-yard scramble from none other than Eli Manning, who, despite his team being 0-4, should not be shouldering anywhere near the blame that he is currently being given. Manning is sporting a near 70% completion rate on the season, which is good for third amongst qualified quarterbacks, while also having attempted the second most passes in the league to date. Needless to say, Eli is doing just fine. However, the extreme lack of a running game, along with injuries and struggles with the offensive line, and the offense managing to not stay on the field and exhausting their stout defense is what is ailing the Giants this season.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-New York Giants at Green Bay Packers

While I personally did not agree with Coughlin being fired after coaching the team to two super bowl victories, I do feel that something needs to change this season, and there are no more second chances for McAdoo. That needs to start in week five with McAdoo being relieved of his play-calling duties, and if it seems that this was not the problem, the Giants should bring in a new offensive coordinator. There are simply no excuses for a team led by Eli Manning, with weapons in the passing game such as Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and Brandon Marshall, to be averaging a meager 15 points per game. Had the Giants been 2-2 at this moment, then many people including myself, would not be calling for changes in the coaching hierarchy. However, with the season looking all but over sitting at 0-4 in a year in which 9-7 is more than likely not going to win the division, things are not looking good.

Serie A Summer 2017 Transfer Window Grades

Atalanta

Key Acquisitions (Players they obtained) Key Losses (Players sold / let go / sent on loan / retired) Important Players that Stayed (stayed despite heavy links to leave)
Cornelius (Copenhaghen) Migliaccio (Fine Carriera) Papu Gomez
Ilicic (Fiorentina) Grassi (Spa via Napoli) Andrea Petagna
Castagne (Genk) Zukanovic (Genoa via Roma) Spinazzola
Osolini (Ascoli via Juventus) Frank Kessie (Milan)
De Roon (Middlesbrough) Conti (Milan)
Paloschi (Spal)
D’Alessandro (Benevento)

Antonio’s Grade: B-

Atalanta lost key players to bigger clubs, but that was always going to happen after their incredible display last season, culminating in a fourth place finish. The loss of Kessie might hurt the most as he absolutely dominated the midfield for them. Ilicic and Orsolini should bring creativity to the attack and bringing De Roon back after a season in the Premier League should help patch up the wound of losing Kessie. Holding onto the likes of Petagna, Spinazzola and Gomez means that the transfer market wasn’t necessarily poor, as Atalanta also made good profit which will help them long-term. They also avoided losing enough players to put them in danger of the relegation zone.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: C

When the highlight of your transfer window is keeping a 29-year-old winger, it’s not a great off-season. With the Europa League closing in, the Bergamaschi will have to do without star center midfielder Kessie, who was sold to AC Milan early on in the transfer window. Unfortunately, Atalanta did not re–invest much of the funds received from the Kessie deal and now find themselves falling back into Serie A mediocrity. The key signing for them this season will be Ilicic from Fiorentina, who could be set for a breakout season.

Benevento

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Belec (Carpi) Cragno (Cagliari) Ciciretti
Letizia (Carpi) Pajac (Cagliari) Venuti
A. Costa (Empoli) Falco (Bologna) Chibsah
Cataldi (Genoa via Lazio) Bagadur (Brescia via Fiorentina)
D’Alessandro (Atalanta) Camporese (Foggia)
Lemmello (Sassuolo) Ceravolo (Parma)
Antei (Sassuolo)
Lazaar (Newcastle)
Lombardi (Lazio)

Antonio’s Grade: C+

It wasn’t a bad mercato for Benevento when you look at some of the players they bought. They brought in some players with Serie A experience, loaned in some young talent, and kept hold of some talents. I couldn’t imagine them doing much more given their budget and considering that this is their first ever season in Serie A. However, I do not believe that they have done enough to get them away from the relegation zone. The other teams that would normally finish near the relegation zone have seemingly done enough to stay up. Bringing in Letizia and Costa definitely gives some defensive strength, and Cataldi can improve their midfield considerably, but I don’t think it’s enough. Losing Cragno and Ceravolo could prove costly in the long run. Lemmello is the only player that seems capable of scoring more than a few goals. Since their goal is to stay in Serie A, I can’t give them a high grade because they have not done enough to remain there.

Pietro-Iemmello

Sebastiano’s Grade: B+

Bringing in Serie A veterans such as Antei, Lazaar, and Lemmello are all crucial signings for a team that few have staying up. Cataldi from Lazio could also prove to be a revelation, but at the moment, it seems like they greatly overpaid for him. It is hard to imagine Benevento doing more than they have, and yet salvation still seems far away.

Bologna

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
De Maio (Fiorentina) Dzemaili (Montreal Impact) Verdi
G. Gonzalez (Palermo) Viviani (Spal via Verona) Di Francesco
Andrea Poli (Milan) Oikonomou (Spal) Masina
Palacio (Inter) Gastaldello (Brescia)

Antonio’s Grade: C-

It was a very dull transfer market for Bologna, and coming immediately after a terrible season has got to be painful for any Bologna fan. They didn’t bring in many names that I can see improving this side. The only good signing I can think of is De Maio, who is just a solid center back. They lost Dzemaili, who was one of their best goal scorers, and both of their starting center backs in Oikonomou and Gastaldello. Dzemaili needed to be replaced and their answer to bring in Andrea Poli is not nearly enough. Keeping Masina and Di Francesco could have positive long-term effects, but this was a poor mercato overall. I don’t think everyone’s least favorite cold-cut improved at all and they will likely finish around the same place as last season.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: D

Bologna’s back line has been upgraded with De Maio and Gonzalez, and the midfield is set to showcase former AC Milan veteran Poli, who is not a signing that will change much, and might actually take minutes away from younger players like Donsah and Pulgar. Bologna will have to be weary this year as they may fall back to where they ended last season, which would be crushing for the city and the team.

Cagliari

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Cragno (Benevento) Di Gennaro (Lazio) Joao Pedro
Cop (Gijon) Gabriel (Milan) Barella
Cigarini (Sampdoria) Bruno Alves (Glasgow Rangers)
Andreolli (Inter) Murru (Sampdoria)
Romagna (Brescia via Juventus) Tachtsidis (Olympiacos via Torino)
Gregory Van der Wiel (Fenerbahce) Mauricio Isla (Fenerbahce)
Pavoletti (Napoli) Salamon (Spal)
Borriello (Spal)

Antonio’s Grade: A-

It was just an average mercato for Cagliari until the news that Borriello would be leaving was heard. This could have been disastrous, given that there wasn’t much time to find a suitable replacement. However, Cagliari managed to make not one, but two fantastic signings in the last day or two of the mercato, in Pavoletti and Van der Wiel. They also brought in young talents like Romagna and Cragno. Cigarini should help bring balance to the midfield, while the only losses that may have hurt them were Tachtsidis and Murru as all the other players that left have been properly replaced. Overall, this was a very impressive mercato from Cagliari and they should finish closer to mid table now.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: B+

It’s a good thing that the transfer window doesn’t end in July because a month ago, Cagliari’s window looked gloomy. A month later, the Sardinian giants brought in a steady right back in Van der Wiel and a proven goal scorer in Pavoletti as a replacement for Borriello. Andreolli will also shore up the back as Cagliari look to establish themselves as a mid-table Serie A team.

Chievo Verona

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Rodriguez (Cesena) Sardo (Fine Carriera) Birsa
Pucciarelli (Empoli) De Guzman (Eintracht Francoforte via Napoli) Inglese (sold but loaned back)
Tomovic (Fiorentina) Spolli (Genoa)
Stepinski (Nantes) Gakpe (Genoa)
Mpoku (Standard Liege)
Izco (Crotene)

Antonio’s Grade: D

Surely this is the season that Chievo fails. They have finished way too high in the table for the talent their squad possesses. This mercato was a disaster in my opinion. Pucciarelli was brought in to score goals, but he has never been very good at that. Tomovic could end up being decent, but center back was not their biggest problem that needed fixing. Their goalkeeper is seemingly too past his prime to continue as a starting goalkeeper. Their midfield lacks creativity, and their attack doesn’t look very potent. Losing Izco and De Guzman with no replacements will likely cost them. Holding on to Inglese might be enough to keep them out of the relegation zone, but it’s not looking like this will be a positive season for Chievo.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: D

Every year, Chievo seems to be on the brink of failing apart and every year, they prove the doubters wrong. This year’s window was no different than the past few windows, spending very little and relying on experience. It’s hard to see this team surviving an ever more competitive league with the signings that they made.

Crotone

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Budimir (Sampdoria) Mesbah (Losanna) Ceccherini
Faraoni (Udinese) Rosi (Genoa) Martella
Kragl (Frosinone) Crisetig (Bologna)
Izco (Chievo) G. Gerrari (Sassuolo)
Ajeti (Torino) Falcinelli (Sassuolo)
Crociata (Milan) Capezzi (Sampdoria)
Mandragora (Juventus)
Tumminello (Roma)
Pavlovic (Sampdoria)

Antonio’s Grade: C-

Crotone pulled off somewhat of a miracle to stay up last season. Half-way through the season, they looked like they were probably finishing in last place, but somehow managed to stay up. A good amount of their success was due to Falcinelli’s ability to score goals, and now they can’t rely on him. He has not been replaced at all. Trotta and Budimir have extremely low chances of scoring 10 or more goals individually and possibly even combined. Mandragora and Izco are solid additions that actually make their midfield stronger than it was last season, while Crociata and Tumminello are interesting young talents that could end up making a difference. However, their goalkeeper isn’t that solid, they have no identifiable goal-scorer and their wingers really shouldn’t be on any Serie A team. Crotone didn’t do enough and will almost surely get relegated.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: C+

“Quantity over Quality” was the motto for Crotone this year after their improbable salvation last season. Having lost key players like Falcinelli and Ferrari, the arrivals of Budimir and Tumminello will need to be in-form if they are to stay up. Perhaps the January window will give Crotone another chance to add the last piece that would put them over the hump.

Fiorentina

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
V. Hugo (Palmeiras) Cristian Tello (Betis Siviglia via Barca) Chiesa
Gaspar (Vitoria) Gonzalo Rodriguez (San Lorenzo) Badelj
Veretout (Aston Villa) De Maio (Bologna via Anderlecht)
Benassi (Torino) Ilicic (Atalanta)
Eysseric (Nizza) Valero (Inter)
Giovanni Simeone (Genoa) Vecino (Inter)
Pezzella (Betis) Bernardeschi (Juventus)
Thereau (Udinese) Tatarusanu (Nantes)
Gil (Monaco) Kalinic (Milan)
Tomovic (Chievo)

Antonio’s Grade: B-

As seen above, Fiorentina have had a very busy summer in the transfer market, as they basically have a completely new team from that of last season. However, even though I believe they have lost key players that will hurt them, they have made up for it in some way by bringing in some good talent. On defense, they can no longer count on former captain Rodriguez, De Maio, or Tomovic, players who have not been properly replaced. The loss of rising star Bernardeschi might end up hurting the most as he was Fiorentina’s best player last season. Chiesa is another rising star and can partially replace Bernardeschi, but he still has some time to go before he reaches that level. Fiorentina have replaced Kalinic, their top goal-scorer for the past two seasons, with Simeone. Simeone is the son of Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone and looks to have a bright future, although I don’t think he is quite at the level of Kalanic just yet. Eysseric can replace the creativity lost from Valero going to Inter. Gil, Gaspar, and Benassi are all promising young talents that are positive additions for Fiorentina. Overall, Fiorentina are not as strong as they were just a few months ago, but this team is building for the future.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: D

Fiorentina may have a very difficult season ahead, as they lost most of their centerpieces with Vecino, Kalinic, Bernardeschi and Valero all going to greener pastures. Now it will be up to Simeone and Thereau to carry the load left by those that have gone. Overall, there is little doubt that the team was far more talented a year ago.

Genoa

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Zukanovic (Atalanta via Roma) Orban (Racing Club) Laxalt
Bertolacci (Milan) Burdisso (Torino)
Lapadula (Milan) Pinilla (Univ. de Chile)
Rodriguez (Banfield) Cataldi (Benevento)
Centurion (Boca Juniors via San Paolo) Ntcham (Celtic Glasgow via Manchester City)
Rossettini (Torino) Simeone (Fiorentina)
Ricci (Sassuolo) Hiljemark (Panathinaikos)

Antonio’s Grade: B

Last season was one of the worst seasons that Genoa have had in recent memory. They barely avoided relegation even though their team usually finishes comfortably mid-table. They clearly needed a tune-up and that’s what they got to some degree. Zukanovic and Rossettini are pretty good additions to the defense and are upgrades over the likes of Munoz and Orban. Bertolacci, if he stays healthy, can add creativity and goals. Lapadula will guarantee hard work and I reckon, quite a few goals. Centurion seems like a positive purchase as many top sides were after him this summer. Genoa didn’t lose many key players besides Simeone and Burdisso, so they shouldn’t be too worried. If Perin can stay healthy, Genoa will likely go back to finishing comfortably mid-table.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: B

Genoa covered all of the bases this summer by bringing in Rossettini and Zukanovic for the defense, Bertolacci in the midfield, and Lapadula in attack. With Simeone being the only star player leaving, Genoa should improve upon last season’s record. While the signings will not blow anyone away, they are enough to be competitive in this league.

Inter Milan

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Skriniar (Sampdoria) Ever Banega (Sevilla) Ivan Perisic
Borja Valero (Fiorentina) Medel (Besiktas) Antonio Candreva
Vecino (Fiorentina) Murillo e Kondogia (Valencia)
Dalbert (Nice) Stevan Jovetic (Monaco)
Cancelo (Valencia) Gabigol (Benfica)
Karamoh (Caen) Ansaldi (Torino)

Antonio’s Grade: B-

Inter remained fairly active in the August transfer market. They got rid of some deadweight and brought in some impressive acquisitions. However, Inter fans were promised top players from all over Europe and they didn’t really get that. This most definitely has to do with them not finishing in a European position and the fact that their big-money signings last season largely failed. I do think that Spalletti will figure out how to get the best from the players he has, which is still a strong squad. Skriniar isn’t the center back most Inter fans wanted, but he is solid nonetheless. Borja Valero could be that link that was missing from Inter last season and his midfield passing and movement is much needed. Dalbert and Cancelo are improvements over Nagatomo, Santon, and D’Ambrosio even though they didn’t get Ricardo Rodriguez or Serge Aurier. The failure to pick up a truly top-class midfielder may end up costing them in the end. Losing Murillo and Medel may actually hurt them as Inter look extremely low on center backs and defensive midfielders even if those two weren’t great in the first place.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: C+

New ownership often brings high expectations – expectations that are not always met as we can see here with the Nerazzuri. The additions of Valero and Vecino will certainly strengthen the midfield, especially after selling former Monaco man, Kondogbia. Skriniar will be an upgrade over Murillo, but with Ranocchia as the only other option to Miranda, the back line is thin. Perhaps Inter was overshadowed by its crosstown rivals, but this is not a window that will see them compete for a champions league spot just yet.

Juventus

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Bentancur (Boca) Dani Alves (Paris St. Germain) Paulo Dybala
Douglas Costa (Bayern Munich) Neto (Valencia) Alex Sandro
Mattia De Sciglio (Milan) Leonardo Bonucci (Milan)
Wojciech Szczesny (Roma via Arsenal) Mandragora (Crotone)
Bernardeschi (Fiorentina) Lemina (Southampton)
Blaise Matuidi (Paris St. Germain) Rincon (Torino)
Benedikt Howedes (Schalke)

Antonio’s Grade: B+

The major news this summer coming out of Juventus was Bonucci’s decision to leave for AC Milan. It seemed insane that Bonucci would want to leave Juventus, who have won the league six times in a row, for a team that finished in sixth place last season. People saw this as a sign of a disastrous mercato for Juve and maybe a changing of the guard. However, I believe that, in general, Juventus have done some good business this summer. They acquired a fantastic winger in Costa for a minimum price. They also made great deals by getting Szczesny, Matuidi and Howedes for very little cost. Szczesny is a great addition and gives Juventus two great goalkeepers in the squad. Matuidi fixes a lot of the midfield problems given how injury-prone Marchisio can be, and with Khedira out of steam. Howedes probably isn’t on Bonucci’s level, but he is a proven center back and adds needed depth. However, there are a few problems that they didn’t properly address. The purchase of De Sciglio to be their starting right back (and replace) Dani Alves is truly baffling. Also, I think that Juventus should have gotten rid of Sturaro and added another defensive midfielder to compensate for the aforementioned Marchisio and Khedira. Lastly, they were supposed to get Schick, but failed to do so which means that they don’t have much striker depth. Still, the likes of Bernardeschi and Bentancur are very promising youngsters, and the absence of Bonucci frees up more playing time for Daniele Rugani this season. Also, none of the purchases were very expensive, barring Bernardeschi, who deserved the price tag.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: B

How do you defend your Serie A title? You do so through buying proven winners in Matuidi, Howedes, and Costa. This is how the Bianconeri answered that question this summer. Add on some utility players like De Sciglio and Szczesny and it seems like an excellent transfer roundup. On the other hand, Juve could have easily acquired Keita Balde, Spinazzola and Shick, and failed to do so. Balde in particular was up for pennies on the dollar and Juve will surely regret not picking him up. Finally, Bonucci’s departure will be a blessing in disguise as Rugani will see more minutes and improve the squad with his presence from the start.

 Lazio

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Marusic (Ostenda) Biglia (Milan) Milinkovic-Savic
Lucas Leiva (Liverpool) Hoedt ( Southampton) De Vrij
Di Gennaro (Cagliari) Keita (Monaco)
Felipe Caicedo (Espanyol) Cataldi (Benevento)
Nani (Sporting Lisbon)  

 Antonio’s Grade: B

As usual, Lazio have had a largely inactive mercato. They sold well with Hoedt, Biglia and Keita and brought in some cheap replacements. Nani was the replacement brought in for Keita, but he definitely isn’t quite at the same level and that’s ignoring the fact that he is on the decline. Lucas Leiva is a decent replacement for Biglia, but once again, he isn’t quite on the same level. They did well to hold onto Milinkovic-Savic, who was one of the best midfielders in the league last season. They somehow managed to beat Juventus in the Supercoppa, so maybe they are better than they seem. Overall, it wasn’t a very exciting mercato and the team hasn’t really improved – but Lazio held onto most of their talents, and their squad looks good enough to finish in one of the Europa League spots.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: C+

Another perplexing transfer season for the capital’s first team, as they lose Keita Balde at a discounted price, their captain, Biglia, and promising young defender Hoedt. When one sells the center pieces of a team as is the case here, the appropriate signings must be made. Unfortunately, Lazio brought in injury prone Lucas Leiva, a winger that is past his prime in Nani, and two promising but unproven youngsters from the Braga young team – for 30 million euros. With all of the funds at their disposal, it would have been nice to see Lazio make the jump into champions league placement.

A.C. Milan

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Musacchio (Villarreal) Pasalic (Spartak Moscow) Gianluigi Donnarumma
R. Rodriguez (Wolfsburg) Mati Fernandez (Fiorentina) Suso
Kessie (Atalanta) Deulofeu (Barcelona via Everton)
Conti (Atalanta) Honda (Pachuca)
André Silva (Porto) Kucka (Trabzonspor)
Borini (Sunderland) Bertolacci (Genoa)
Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) Lapadula (Genoa)  
Bonucci (Juventus) De Sciglio (Juventus)  
Biglia (Lazio) Vangioni ( Monterrey)  
Kalinic (Fiorentina) Bacca (Villarreal)  
  Niang (Torino)  

Antonio’s Grade: A

Milan had one of the best transfer markets in all of Europe. Fassone and Mirabelli were in charge of the mercato and they completely revolutionized the team to the point where only two or three starters from last season will continue to be in the starting lineup this season. Milan brought in Rodriguez, who is one of the best left backs in the world. They signed Conti who was the highest scoring defender in all of Europe last season and is an improvement over Abate or Calabria. Calhanoglu is one of the world’s best free kick takers and is versatile. Biglia is a top midfielder and a huge improvement over Montolivo. Kalanic and Andre Silva will provide a lot of goals between them (as will Cutrone). Both strikers are much more suitable to Montella’s playing style than Bacca was. Musacchio has been one of the best center backs in all of La Liga for the past few seasons and is a much better player than Paletta or Zapata.

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The biggest signing, however, must be Bonucci. Milan were able to sign him for only around €40 million, which is a steal when you compare it to the overall market. The fact that he wanted to leave Juventus and join Milan shows that top players are interested in Milan’s project. Bonucci is considered to be one of the world’s best center backs and will be important for Milan’s goal of Champions League qualification. It was also incredibly important that Gianluigi Donnarumma stayed because he is already one of the best goalkeepers in the league and will likely be one of the best that Italy has ever had. It must also be mentioned that Milan bought almost every one of these players for a fairly cheap price and beat out other competitors (Roma and Inter) to get some of these players. Lastly, Milan did a fine job getting rid of players that shouldn’t be on the team like Bertolacci, Poli, Honda, Bacca, and Vangioni. The only missing piece is that they didn’t get another winger to replace Deulofeu and Niang, which could hurt them in the long run. Overall, it was a fantastic Mercato for Milan as they will likely finish in a Champions League spot.

Sebastiano’s Grade: A+

After years of enduring subpar players and performances, it finally seems like the return of the Milan giants is eminent. Kessie, Biglia, Bonucci, Rodriguez, Musacchio and Silva are but a few of the plethora of top level additions Milan made this offseason. It may still be early to tell just how far this team can go, but the potential is there. From the performances we have seen to date, this team may well be contending for the Scudetto as early as this season. A transfer window for the ages.

Napoli

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Ounas (Bordeaux) Pavoletti (Cagliari) Insigne
Mario Rui (Roma) D. Zapata (Sampdoria) Koulibaly
  Strinic (Sampdoria) Hysaj

Antonio’s Grade: B+

The main story for Napoli this summer is that they barely changed their team. But is this a bad thing? They kept a fantastic team together and even made a few good deals. Insigne and Koulibaly are hitting the peak of their career now and it is so important that they stayed. This Napoli side can push hard for the Scudetto this season as Juve and Roma are slightly weaker. The fact that not one of their starting players left is impressive and shows that the team is committed to their goal. The only problem I see is that Reina is getting old and is starting to make a few too many mistakes. If they had gotten Rulli, it would have been an important purchase. Also, Koulibaly probably needs a better partner than Albiol, Maksimovic and Chiriches if they want to push deep into the Champions League. However, Ounas is a solid addition, as is Mario Rui. This team looks set to do great things this season, including mounting a title challenge.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: D

There is no question that retaining your team identity and most valuable players is important in mounting a serious run in to the top. However, for a team like Napoli, bringing in one or two big names would have undoubtedly put them above most of the other teams with the exception of Juventus. With one of the most exciting teams in Europe, we would have liked to see more investments being made to better the team now and possibly to even have Napoli be a contender in the Champions League. In an age where money reigns supreme, Napoli were left behind and we will see the consequences both in the present and in the future.

Roma

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Moreno (PSV) Totti (retired) Nainggolan
Pellegrini (Sassuolo) Szczesny (Juventus via Arsenal) Manolas
Karsdorp (Feyenoord) Vermaelen (Barcelona)
Gonalons (Lyon) Salah (Liverpool)
Under (Istanbul Başakşehir) Paredes (Zenit)
Defrel (Sassuolo) Rudiger (Chelsea)
Kolarov (Manchester City)  
Schick (Sampdoria)    

Antonio’s Grade: B-

Roma brought in famous sporting director Monchi to revolutionize the team in the upcoming season. How did he do? Well, he came to a club that was in debt because of Roma’s failure to qualify for the Champions League the previous season. Monchi did a decent job at making money back with sales for decently high prices for Salah, Rudiger and Paredes. He was able to get a few players for cheap like Pellegrini, Moreno, Under and Gonalons, although none of these are top signings. Kolarov could prove to be a good purchase at left back as Roma relied far too much on Emerson last season. Towards the end of the transfer market, Roma were able to capture Schick, who may well prove to be a fantastic long term signing. However, it seems that Roma overpaid for Defrel and they never signed a true right winger to replace Salah after they failed to land Mahrez. This means that players will have to play out of position to cover for this failure. Under could end up being a player that flourishes in that role but isn’t at the level of Salah yet. This will be the first season in over 25 years that Roma can no longer rely upon the magic of Francesco Totti, so their failure to pick up multiple quality signings will hurt their chances of fighting for the Scudetto and possibly even finishing top four.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: B-

The sporting director Monchi did a decent job in his effort to mix young talent with experienced veterans, but nothing spectacular occurred in Roma’s window. Numerous key players have left, and their replacements are questionable. Defrel for 20 million still leaves us speechless as does the addition of Gonalons, while Kolarov, Pellegrini and Shick seem to be the ideal signings for a Roma team that will be battling at the top of the table for a Champions League spot.

Sampdoria

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Capezzi (Crotone) Skriniar (Inter) Torreira
Caprari (Pescara via Inter) Bruno Fernandes (Sporting) Linetty
Murru (Cagliari) Cigarini (Cagliari),
Kownacki (Lech Poznan) Muriel (Sevilla),
G. Ferrari (Crotone) Schick (Roma)
Ramirez (Middlesbrough)  
Andersen (Twente)  
Strinic (Napoli)    
D. Zapata (Napoli)    

Antonio’s Grade: B+

It looked like it was going to be another difficult season for Sampdoria after they started selling a number of their starters from last season including the center back Skriniar, attacking midfielder Bruno Fernandes and striker Luis Muriel. Not too long after, Sampdoria started making important new signings. Caprari could be an interesting buy to replace the dribbling skills of Fernandes and Muriel. Gaston Ramirez is a top signing from the Premier League who improves the squad without a doubt. Anderson and Ferrari will be important in defense as Sampdoria incredibly only had two true center backs last season, which caused them problems. There probably should have been another center back brought in considering they sold Skriniar. New signings Murru and Strinic will compete for the starting left back spot. Duvan Zapata is a positive signing for the attack as well. However, losing promising young star Schick will cost them some goals even though they ended up getting a large sum of money in his sale. Keeping hold of Torreira and Linetty will be important for them. I think Sampdoria could aim slightly higher this season since they added much needed depth to the squad this season.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: B+

A couple of years ago when we saw Samuel Eto’o wear the Sampdoria shirt, we were perhaps tricked into thinking this was the start of a new Sampdoria. Instead, today we have come to realize the Genovese giants remain the same – good without being great, making astute signings without blowing anyone away. Zapata, Murru, Ferrari and Gaston Ramirez will improve the team from last season and while I would not expect anything spectacular, a top-ten finish seems almost assured.

Sassuolo

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Falcinelli (Crotone) Aquilani (Pescara) Domenico Berardi
Cassata (Ascoli via Juventus) Pellegrini (Roma) Acerbi
Goldaniga (Palermo) Defrel (Roma)
  Iemmello (Benevento)
  Ricci (Genoa)

Antonio’s Grade: C-

Sassuolo’s season was a failure. They got knocked out of the Europa League in the group stages and finished close to the relegation zone. They needed a strong mercato to make sure that they can finish in the top ten, but it doesn’t look like they have improved at all. They do have Falcinelli back who should add goals and Goldaniga is a solid defender, but they really haven’t done much. Losing Pellegrini to Roma could do a lot of damage as he might have been their best player last season. Defrel and Iemmello scored most of the goals last season, so it’s strange how they let them both go. They have to hope that Berardi has a fantastic season or it will be another failure of a season. Sassuolo needed more depth and they really didn’t get that.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: F

Having lost Defrel, Pellegrini and Antei, we expected Sassuolo to buy young exciting replacements. Instead Sassuolo failed to reinvest and are now looking like relegation contenders. Furthermore, the neroverdi have lost long-time manager Di Francesco, and this too will add to the difficulties of the upcoming season. Berardi and Duncan, the two star players of the team that stayed, will have to be in form if Sassuolo has any chance of surviving.

SPAL

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Mattiello (Juventus) Bonifazi (Torino) Meret
Oikonomou (Bologna) Del Grosso (Atalanta) Vicari
Rizzo (Bologna) Ghiglione (Pro Vercelli via Genoa)
Viviani (Bologna via Verona) Zigoni (Milan)
Felipe (Udinese) Castagnetti (Empoli)
A. Gomis (Salernitana via Torino) Giani (Spezia)
Paloschi (Atalanta)  
Konate (Malmoe)    
Grassi (Atalanta via Napoli)    
Borriello (Cagliari)    
Bonazzoli (Sampdoria)    

Antonio’s Grade: A

SPAL had a fantastic season as they won Serie B to make it into Serie A. They have also had a fantastic mercato in that their already strong squad became a lot stronger by bringing in talents from all over Serie A. The players they brought in aren’t just rejects but truly talented players. Oikonomou and Felipe are pretty good defenders. Bringing in Rizzo, Viviani, and Grassi improves their midfield considerably. Gomis and Meret will fight for the starting goalkeeper spot but Meret looks like he will have the brighter future of the two, especially after his performances last season. Most impressive of all is that they were able to bring in two proven goalscorers in Paloschi and Borriello. Borriello had a great season and scored 20 goals in 37 competitive games last season and his abilities will be important. It looks like SPAL have done more than enough to stay up, meaning this mercato has been fantastic. Still, losing players like Giani, Zigoni, and especially Bonifazi could end up costing them as they were very important for SPAL last season. Still, I think the additions brought in are good enough to get them to safety.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: A-

An excellent summer for the novel Serie A squad! Essentially revamping the entire team, SPAL managed to add young talent with many proven Serie A players. Greece star-man Oikonomou will be a pivotal addition to the defense as marquee signings, Borriello and Paloschi will take care of the goalscoring up front. There will also be competition for the starting goalkeeper spot as Meret and Gomis look like two promising Italian shot stoppers. For the funds at their disposal and their inexperience in the top flight, SPAL have enough to be the surprise of the season.

Torino

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Bonifazi (Spal) Joe Hart (West Ham) Belotti
Lyanco (San Paolo) Castan (Roma) Baselli
Sirigu (PSG) Iturbe (Roma)
Berenguer (Osasuna) Benassi (Fiorentina)
N’Koulou (Lyon) Rossettini (Genoa)
Rincon (Juventus) Zappacosta (Chelsea)
Burdisso (Genoa)  
Niang (Milan)    
Ansaldi (Inter)    

Antonio’s Grade: A

Torino had a decent season, but it looks like they have all of the right pieces to improve. Bonifazi was a beast last season for SPAL and looks to be a bright star in the future of their defense. Sirigu should be an improvement over a very poor Joe Hart. Berenguer was linked to Napoli, but the fact that Torino was able to get him is positive for them. N’Koulou is a top defender and will bring stability to the defense, which was Torino’s biggest problem last season along with mistakes from Hart. Rincon is a good replacement for the departed Benassi. Niang should add more depth to the attack and Ansaldi can play at left or right back and is also a positive signing. Torino addressed their defensive weakness and added some overall depth. Losing Zappacosta might be the only negative as he did very well for the Granata. They also don’t have a solid backup for Belotti, but Boye should be decent enough. Possibly the most important thing is that Belotti stayed with them and is guaranteed to score a lot of goals.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: A

One of the most efficient and effective transfer windows in all of Europe. This year, Torino managed to keep up with the big money spenders in Juve, Roma, Milan and Inter by purchasing numerous proven players in the likes of, Sirigu, former Cameroon captain N’Koulou, Rincon, Niang and Ansaldi. Not only this, but they were also able to keep star striker Belotti for at least another six months. Iturbe and Benassi have moved away, but Toro replaced them magnificently. Expect Toro to finish in the top seven this year.

Udinese

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Lasagna (Carpi) Kums (Gent) Jankto
Mallé (Granada) D. Zapata (Napoli) Fofana
Bizzarri (Pescara) Felipe (SPAL)
Pezzella (Palermo) Heurtaux (Verona)
Nuytinck (Anderlecht) Badu (Bursaspor)
Bajic (Koniaspor) Thereau (Fiorentina)
Behrami (Watford) Karnezis (Watford)  
Maxi Lopez (Torino) Kone (AEK Atene)  
  Wague (Watford)  

Antonio’s Grade: C+

Udinese had a disappointing season overall and their mercato is slightly disappointing as well. Udinese’s goal should be to get back into Europe, but they haven’t done nearly enough to finish among the top seven. Losing their main strikers in Thereau and Zapata will likely prove costly as Lasagna and Perica don’t seem like they will score as many goals. Felipe and Heurtaux are gone, which isn’t much of a problem, but losing Karnezis to Watford seemed like a bad decision. Maybe Scuffet can finally live up to the hype that surrounded a few seasons back, but they probably shouldn’t have made that gamble. Keeping Jankto and Fofana is important for their midfield as both are promising players. Nuytinck was a positive purchase for their defense and Behrami will bring strength to the team. Maxi Lopez was a good signing for cheap as he might be able to make a difference from the bench, as will Bajic. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but I don’t think they have done enough to considerably improve upon last season.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: D

Could this be the year that Udinese go down? With the window that they had, it may very well. With Thereau going to Fiorentina and Badu to Bursaspor, Udinese brought in Maxi Lopez and Behrami as replacements. Perhaps five years ago, these players could have been starters in Serie A, but now they are merely old and unable to be what they once were. Udinese are in trouble if they fail to splash the cash in January.

Hellas Verona

Key Acquisitions Key Losses Important Players that Stayed
Verde (Avellino) Boldor (Montreal Impact via Bologna) Fossati
Cerci (Atletico Madrid) Ganz (Pescara via Juventus) Bessa
Heurtaux (Udinese) Troianiello (Roma) Zaccagni
Silvestri (Leeds United) Pisano (Bristol)
Buchel (Empoli) Siligardi (Parma)
Caceres (Southampton) Bertolacci (Genoa)
Fossati (Cagliari) Lapadula (Genoa)  
Ferrari (Bologna) De Sciglio (Juventus)  

Antonio’s Grade: B+

Hellas Verona are back in Serie A where they should be. The mercato was decent enough to have many people saying that they will avoid relegation. They did a good job to keep some of their young talent like Bessa, Fossati, and Ferrari. Verde and Cerci add width and dribbling ability. Their defense has been improved by solid additions like former Juventus center back Caceres. Heurtaux was also brought in to solidify the defense. Kean could end up being the best signing, having shown so much promise in his youth career, and if they can hold on to him for a few seasons before he returns to Juventus, it will be a great deal for Hellas. Losing Siligardi may end up as a negative sale but they have added enough players that his loss won’t likely be felt. Still, they probably should have brought in some midfielders to add creativity as they are mainly relying on youngsters. If their goal is just to stay up, then I think they have done enough, but I don’t expect them near the top 10.

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Sebastiano’s Grade: B-

With the Cassano debacle finally done, Verona have settled what is for them a solid transfer season. Cerci and Caceres will hope to revive their careers as young prospect Kean will surely add some aggression and desire upfront. It is still too soon to tell how far this team can go, but with the pazzo Pazzini leading the front line, anything is possible.

 

 

Defending Champs Watch: Pats Win Again in Week 3

Positives

Passing Attack

For the second straight week, the passing attack is the highlight of a Patriots victory. Tom Brady finished the game 25/35 for 378 yards and five touchdowns, including the 25-yard game winner to Brandin Cooks. Rob Gronkowski had a second straight big game, despite leaving with a groin injury in last week’s game against New Orleans. He finished the game with eight receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown. After a week one in which he and Brady looked disconnected, it is nice to see Gronk back as an integral part of the offense. With the absence of Edelman, a consistent and healthy Gronkowski is the only way that I see the Patriots hoisting their second straight Lombardi Trophy.

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Brandin Cooks looked like the receiver the Patriots gave up a first round pick for. He led the team in receiving with five catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns. Not only was he making big plays, but he also created space for other receivers. Cooks was almost solely responsible for Chris Hogan’s two wide-open touchdowns, drawing the defenders away on both plays. Cooks also showed off his speed on a 42-yard touchdown and made an incredible toe-tap reception to win the game. Last week, I wrote that Brandin Cooks was a player to keep an eye on, given his performance in the first two weeks to go along with Brady’s history of having a hard time of integrating new wide receivers into the offense. If he continues to flash like this and draw away defenders on deeper routes, I was absolutely wrong.

Negatives

Devin McCourty

This was the worst game that I have ever seen McCourty play as a safety. He was at least partially responsible for two touchdowns. On the first, Deshaun Watson fired a 29-yard touchdown to Bruce Ellington, who was left in single coverage with Jonathan Jones. On this play, the eyes of the rookie quarterback fooled McCourty. To be fair, Watson looked to star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who got safety help almost all game, on the fake. However, it looked like Gilmore was playing pretty good man-coverage on Hopkins and McCourty did not need to jump the gun like he did. On the second touchdown, McCourty simply got beat in single coverage by tight end Ryan Griffin, who has never been known for his playmaking capabilities. McCourty was symptomatic of issues that the entire Patriots secondary faced against Watson, who completed 22 of 33 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions (one came on an attempted hail-mary at the end of the game). Watson had success scrambling, and he was also able to simply drop back and beat the Patriots defense. Being a veteran leader and an established player, I expect McCourty to bounce back next week, but this secondary, which was projected to be one of the best in the league, has raised many questions with no answers through three weeks.

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Offensive Line

Through three weeks, the offensive line has been the biggest issue with the team. I cannot remember a year when the Patriots had a remarkably good offensive line. I can, however, remember years in which the Patriots have had a bad offensive line. Those years, like 2007 when Brady was sacked five times for 37 yards in the Super Bowl, never end well. Last week, I wrote that this game against Houston would be a good test for the offensive line. After allowing five sacks for 41 yards on Sunday, it is safe to say that they failed, and were the reason that the game was much closer than it should have been. The fact that the Texans only recorded five sacks is a product of Brady’s amazing play.

According to Greg Bedard of Boston Sports Journal, the Patriots offensive line allowed pressure on almost 50% of Brady’s drop-backs. Going up against a Texans defensive front with J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney is a tough task, especially when missing right tackle Marcus Cannon who was out with a concussion. However, the biggest issue on the line was not LaAdrian Waddle, who was filling in for the injured Cannon; it was Nate Solder. According to Bedard, Solder was responsible for three sacks on Brady, and did not even touch the pass-rusher on one of them. If the Patriots wish to have success against defensive teams like the Texans, the offensive line will have to do better to protect a 40-year-old Brady.

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Things to Keep an Eye On

Third and One

So far this year, the Patriots are 1-5 on third and fourth down with one yard to go. Last season they were 19-26, boasting a success rate of 73.1%. Up to this point, the Patriots have only attempted a quarterback sneak with Brady once, a play that has been extremely successful in past years. This could be an effort by the Patriots to protect their 40-year-old star quarterback, but such inefficiencies in these short yardage situations may also be due to poor play from the offensive line. The Patriots currently rank 23rd in the league in rushing yards per attempt, which is likely a result of poor blocking. Third down efficiency is extremely important for this Patriots team, especially with the absence of Julian Edelman. They cannot afford to miss out on such short yardage opportunities, and the offensive line must do better to protect in these situations.

Next Week: Home vs. Carolina

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This game should be a big opportunity for the defense to rebound after allowing 26 points to Houston. Cam Newton is not playing well, and the Panthers put up a mere 13 points against an abysmal Saints defense last week. After allowing Deshaun Watson to have a big game, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots defense plays against another mobile quarterback. The Patriots should generally not have any difficulty moving the ball against a Carolina defense which carried it to a 2015 Super Bowl appearance but has since lost its edge. The New England defense should have a field day against a sputtering Carolina offense.

Prediction: Patriots 34, Panthers 16

MLB 2017 Postseason Wildcard Round Predictions

It’s that time of the year again. Leaves changing colors, exchanging your t-shirt for cozy sweaters, but more importantly, the MLB playoffs are here. As the season comes to an end and the playoff pictures becomes clearer, let’s take a look at how each team matches up with each other.

American League

New York Yankees/Minnesota Twins vs Cleveland Indians

The Cleveland Indians are undoubtedly the hottest team in baseball right now, coming off of a historic 22-game win streak and winning 27 out of their last 29 games. In all facets, the Indians look unstoppable. With Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Ramirez leading their high-powered offense, and potential Cy Young winner Corey Kluber spearheading the league’s lowest ERA pitching rotation, the Indians are currently favorites to win the World Series.

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The Yankees recently completed a three-game dismantling of the Twins, and all signs point to an Indians vs. Yankees wildcard matchup. No matter the winner of that game, neither team has the ability to matchup with the Indians in a five-game series. The Yankees, despite averaging a league second 5.31 runs per game, have some uncertainties regarding their starting rotation due to injuries and the shakiness of fallen ace Masahiro Tanaka. The Twins have a similar problem with a mediocre starting rotation but also a weak relief team.

Winner: Cleveland Indians

Boston Red Sox vs Houston Astros:

The Astros offense ranks first in the league in batting average, number of runs scored, slugging percentage and on base percentage. The talented offense, led by likely AL MVP Jose Altuve, is now coupled by a strong rotation of Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr. and new acquisition Justin Verlander. Despite the Indians being the favorite to come out of the American League, Houston is an extremely balanced team that can make a lot of noise this postseason.

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One big question for the Red Sox will be whether or not they will be healthy enough to compete this postseason. Already losing Tyler Thornburg, Josh Rutledge and Marco Hernandez to season-ending injuries, the Red Sox also have third baseman Eduardo Nunez and second baseman Dustin Pedroia dealing with knee injuries as well as David Price still building up arm strength from his long stint on the DL. Additionally, the Red Sox lack power as they rank 27th in number of homeruns hit, which can prove to be a huge issue, especially in the playoffs.

Winner: Houston Astros

 

National League

Colorado/Arizona vs. LA Dodgers

Colorado’s offense has been struggling as of late, scoring less than two runs per game in the past six games and batting a measly .233 during this stretch. However, the Rockies rank second in the league in batting average overall this season and their biggest weakness lies in their pitching, as they have very little clue as to what their playoff rotation will be. The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, are a team that nobody wants to face. Overshadowed by the division-leading Dodgers, the Diamondbacks are an extremely well rounded team led by a loaded lineup of Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb, David Peralta and J.D. Martinez and a pitching trio of Zack Greinke, Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray.

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While the Dodgers still hold the best record in baseball, they have gone a poor 9-21 in the past 30 games, including three losses to the lowly Philadelphia Phillies and three losses to the San Diego Padres. At one point this season, the Dodgers were 91-36 and will have to find that groove again against their potential matchup with Arizona, who they have lost their last six matchups to.

Winner: Arizona Diamondbacks

Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals

After an abysmal start to the season, the defending champion Chicago Cubs have really turned it around in the second half. With Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant leading the offense and star closer Wade Davis having an almost perfect regular season in terms of saves, the Cubs currently look poised to make another run at the title.

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Cruising to first place in the weak NL East Division, the Washington Nationals’ biggest issues include their bullpen and Bryce Harper getting warmed up after his 40-game stint on the disabled list. Other than that, the Nationals have enough hitting power and starting pitching to make a run in the playoffs.

Winner: Washington Nationals

 

 

 

Five Bold Predictions for the 2017-2018 NBA Season

The NBA has recently been widely commercialized like no sport has ever been before, showing a clear-cut direction: up. Of course, this only refers to its popularity; many die-hard NBA fans have been quick to dismiss the recent NBA’s excitement because of its modern-day lack of competition. Nonetheless, we see that professional basketball’s popularity will not cease anytime soon, with its seemingly continuous stream of headlines ranging from what shoes LaVarr Ball is wearing, to rumors of Kevin Durant’s multiple twitter accounts. This is compounded by a newly introduced NBA Awards show, a platform for annual NBA recognitions to be commercialized and dramatized in order to milk as much money as possible out of NBA fans all over the country. With all of this being said, one thing is clear: businesses will always be businesses; but where there is demand, there will always be fandom.

My NBA fandom continues to grow, which means that even though I grow tired of hearing Kyrie Irving have to explain his decision of asking for a trade to the media despite his complete liberty to advance his career however he wants, I still continue to speculate about how this next season will go. Here are some of my bolder predictions (cue the Law and Order “dun dun” sound):

Avery Bradley will be an All-Star and First-Team All Defense

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The Detroit Pistons have a glaring flaw on their roster without a clear-cut scorer. My grandma can shoot better free throws than Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson is a roster nightmare, Tobias Harris is good but not great and Stanley Johnson talks big but doesn’t back it up. This opens the door for the Pistons’ only promising offseason acquisition: Avery Bradley. Bradley was a huge snub for All Defensive Team honors this past season, and the same mistake won’t be made again, as he will show his worth on both ends of the floor for Detroit. Bradley has always been one of my favorite players for his gritty play that doesn’t always show up on the box score, but he gets buckets too! Bradley has seen his scoring average increase over the past three seasons, and the same can be expected as he joins a team with much less talent and depth than that of his former team, the Boston Celtics. He’s a hard worker with a solid three point shot, and while his team may not make any noise this upcoming season, you can expect Bradley to make headlines on both ends of the court.

Boogie Cousins will be a Wizard by the Trade Deadline

My Washington Wizards are for real, but Marcin Gortat showed his age and his lack of versatility in the 2017 Playoffs. The Wizards clearly need one more star player to compete against the Cavs and the Celtics, and with a solidified backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal along with Otto Porter Jr. on a max contract, that player should play the four or the five role. Cousins works perfectly into their roster, as he and Wall were college teammates at Kentucky and got along beautifully – something which not many teammates of DeMarcus Cousins could say.

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The Pelicans experiment is definitely interesting, with a talented roster including Cousins, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, but a lack of expected success could lead to bickering among teammates and the necessity to make some tough decisions in the front office. The West is now loaded, making a team that has the talent to be a 1-4 seed have doubts about whether it could achieve that success. In a situation where there may be nothing wrong, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Pelicans quickly go into panic mode after falling behind teams like the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, Timberwolves, and possibly the Nuggets, Grizzlies, Blazers, Jazz and Clippers. WOW. With all of this kind of talent in a conference, compounded with the fact that Cousins is set to be an unrestricted free agent come next summer, it would be mutually beneficial for both the player and the team to make a switch. Cousins would gel easily into a team that plays in the East, and the Pelicans will be able to get some assets that they can work with in order to build for the future.

People Will Remember How Good of a Player Melo is in 2018

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Whether Carmelo Anthony plays this upcoming season for the Cavs, the Rockets, the Trailblazers, the Knicks, or some other team, there is no doubt in my mind that Anthony will have a revitalizing season in 2018. Everybody loves the “Hoodie Melo” videos surfacing on the web, featuring several impressive offseason basketball showings by Anthony while sporting a hoodie, but nobody has stopped to think about whether or not this will translate into the regular season. I think that it will. Carmelo Anthony hears everyone’s criticism, and he is eager to respond. His ranking as the 64th best player in the NBA by ESPN was the icing on the cake. Meanwhile, the oddsmakers at Sports Betting Dime give Carmelo 12/1 odds to finish in the top 10 in scoring this season. Phil Jackson’s triangle offense never gelled with Anthony’s playing style, and assuming that he stays on the Knicks, he has plenty of young support around him to help propel him into being a highly effective veteran leader. A weak Eastern Conference provides a clear-cut opening for the Knicks to possibly make a run for a seven or eight seed, with only the likes of the Sixers, the Heat and the Pistons to stand in their way (assuming that the Celtics, Cavs, Raptors, Wizards, Bucks and Hornets all make the playoffs). The Eastern Conference provides a huge opportunity for Melo to make a comeback, be it as an All-Star, or simply as one of the top scorers in the East.

De’Aaron Fox is your Rookie of the Year

Oddsmakers have five different rookies above Fox as favorites to win the ROTY award, but my money is on the speedster from Kentucky. Lonzo Ball is the favorite, but Ball is a high-volume passer, not a high-volume scorer. Ball could very well have a better season than Fox, but the award has historically been given to players who can primarily put points on the board. Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz rank second and fourth on odds sheets respectively, but their productivity could nullify each other in their rookie seasons. Along with Joel Embiid, a high-volume scorer in JJ Redick, a developing Dario Saric looking to improve on his stellar rookie campaign and more young guys looking to get their names out there, it will be difficult for anyone to especially distinguish themselves. Last but not least comes Dennis Smith Jr., who has wowed fans with his inhuman athleticism. Smith is an interesting prospect who may very well vie for the award, but he is very raw at this stage in his career and most likely could have used another year or two in college if this was a different era of basketball. Fox looks to be more talented defensively, has a better assist to turnover ratio, and most importantly shines more as a leader on the court. Smith can dunk the basketball better than any other rookie in the draft, but today’s game is about spacing the floor, and Fox does a better job of this than Smith does.Fox_Summer_League.0
De’Aaron Fox got drafted to a team that is desperately searching for a new face of their franchise. George Hill and Buddy Hield are solid, but Fox truly has an opportunity to stand out. He may not even start at the beginning of the season, with the depth chart projecting him to be Hill’s backup, but the Kings will soon change this as they begin to fall out of playoff contention. The Kings’ roster features plenty of young talent, and fans can expect Fox to rally these guys together and produce a great rookie season.

The Timberwolves Will Win 50+ Games EASILY

 Bleacher Report projects Minnesota to win 39 games in the 2017-2018 season, but I think that they could even eclipse 55 wins if they play their cards right. Minnesota didn’t just address their obvious flaws this past season, but they also addressed their underlying ones. Problems like being able to finish games out and play better in the fourth quarter (which was one of their biggest problems last season) were nullified with the addition of one of the best late-game performers in the NBA. Butler isn’t afraid to take that last-minute shot, but more importantly, he can guard anyone in the league when the clock is ticking down. Karl Anthony-Towns was absolutely robbed of an All-Star berth this past season, and hopefully, history doesn’t repeat itself as Minnesota gets more national viewership with its stacked roster. People also forget that Jeff Teague ranked seventh in the NBA this past season in assists per game, trailing five high-usage players in James Harden, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and LeBron James, along with Ricky Rubio. Aside from Paul (who handled the ball every time the Clippers marched down the court last season), no other player in front of him played more minutes. Teague will surely get players like Andrew Wiggins, KAT and Butler involved, while scoring on his own at the same time.

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The team has also managed to acquire depth that puts them among the most solid rosters in the NBA. Shabazz Muhammad returns on a bargain deal that puts him with promising rookie Justin Patton, defensive stud Taj Gibson, starting caliber big man Gorgui Dieng, veteran scoring threat Jamal Crawford, and the human alphabet Nemanja Bjelica. With capable deputies in every position, this team looks set to completely do a 180 on their 31-win season.

While this team certainly looks good on the stat sheet, we must also account for team chemistry. Newcomers in Butler, Crawford, Gibson and Teague look to play big parts in the team’s game plan next season, so it is important that the team gels well. This would normally be a bigger concern of mine, if the coach of the team wasn’t Tom Thibodeau. Thibs has had a storied history coaching Butler and Gibson in Chicago, and will have no problem rallying this team together to win even more games than he did with his 50-win Bulls in the 2014-2015 season. Minnesota looks primed for a playoff run, and expect that to come sooner rather than later.

Defending Champs Watch: Analyzing the Patriots’ Week Two

Sunday’s one o’clock game against the New Orleans Saints featured a far more Patriot-like performance than that of last Thursday’s opener against Kansas City. The 36-20 decisive win featured a clicking offense, an improving defense, and, of course, brilliant play at the quarterback position. The game was effectively decided after a 20-3 first quarter in which Brady completed 11 of his 15 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns. He finished 30 of 39 for 447 yards, the fourth most in his career, and three touchdowns. Despite an impressive start, the Patriots were far from perfect. Here are my positives, negatives, and nit-picks from Sunday’s win.

Positives

The Passing Attack

The Patriots offense in the first quarter was the biggest takeaway from their week two game in New Orleans. They scored touchdowns on all three opening drives pummeling 75 yards down the field twice, and 67 yards once. After an underwhelming performance in week one by Brady and his receiving core, the offense looked to spread the ball around, with nine players recording receptions (compared to six players from week one). Rather than attempting to force the deep passing game, New England moved back to their bread and butter, 10-20 yard intermediate passes and exploiting whatever matchup they saw fit. It was good to see the Patriots distancing themselves from the deep passing game plan that we saw in week one. After a subpar week one from Rob Gronkowski, James White and Chris Hogan, they turned it around to lead the receiving corps in week two. Most importantly, the Patriots were six of twelve on third down, improving on five of fifteen from week one.

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Unheard-of Defensive Players

In the first two weeks, I have seen nothing impressive from the Patriots’ top defensive players, which I will address later. But in their absence, a few surprising players stepped up and turned in big performances. Defensive End Deatrich Wise, the Patriots’ fourth round draft pick this year, led the way for a New England defensive line which allowed 185 rushing yards to the Chiefs in week one. Wise recorded two tackles, a sack, a run stuff, and five hits on the quarterback in a disruptive day on the line for him. Wise’s strong start overshadowed veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch’s poor performance. Against New Orleans, Branch saw his playing time reduced, and failed to record a single tackle. I would like to see an even better performance from the run defense which allowed 4.8 yards per carry this week against the Saints. However, week two was certainly an improvement on the run defense compared to week one, and Deatrich Wise was a big reason why.

The biggest defensive standout from Sunday was cornerback and second-year undrafted player Jonathon Jones. He finished the game with two passes defended, the same amount as big-name corners Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore combined. The highlight from his game was breaking up a would-be touchdown reception from Ted Ginn Jr. and forcing fourth down. If Malcolm Butler continues to struggle, Jones may see an increase in playing time.

Negatives

Big-Name Defensive Players

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It has not been a good couple of weeks for Malcolm Butler. The Super Bowl 49 hero-turned stud cornerback had some offseason conflicts with the Patriots organization over his contract negotiations. The restricted free agent refused to sign his restricted tender, which would increase his salary to $4 million, as he was asking for more. At one point, it seemed as though a trade with the Saints involving Butler was imminent. When talks fell through, I was under the impression that Butler would still be an effective member in the Patriots secondary, especially in a contract year. Through two games, he has been anything but effective. Butler was benched at the start of week two against New Orleans in favor of Eric Rowe (who later suffered an injury which put Butler in the game). It was the first time since the beginning of the 2015 season that Butler did not start a game. However, Butler does more than just start; he plays almost every single down. Since 2015, Butler has been on the field for 98% of defensive snaps. However, his recent poor play earned him a spot on the bench. If Butler fails to improve his play, his name could join Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins on the list of Patriots who were traded in a contract year.

Things to Keep an Eye On

The Brady-Cooks Connection

It is impossible to deny that wide receiver Brandin Cooks has talent. However, earning the trust of Tom Brady is not an easy thing to do. Many receivers have failed to get on the same page with Brady, and never shine in New England. Through two weeks, Cooks has yet to flash the prowess that he showed on the Saints. Despite a couple of big plays, he has not had a few weeks. It may just be an adjustment period, but I’m not too sure that a big-play receiver like Cooks will fit well in the Patriots’ short yardage passing attack. It is far too early to be pressing the panic button, but Cooks may need a prolonged adjustment period, and may not work out as a Patriot.

Second Half Performance

Do the Patriots have an issue late in games? Through two weeks, the Patriots have scored a mere 16 points in the second half, and only three points in the fourth quarter. It is easy to look at the game against the Saints and believe that the game was over after the first quarter, and so the Patriot offense took their foot off the gas. While this may be the case, New England was outscored 28-10 in the second half and 21-0 in the fourth quarter during their week one game against Kansas City. The Thursday night opener was the first game in Tom Brady’s career in which he lost a home game with a lead in the fourth quarter. Normally, I would not worry over a lack of offensive production after a 36-20 win featuring a 20-point quarter, but given the second half of week one, I would say that the Patriots’ second half performances are something to keep an eye on.

Red Zone Production

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So far this season, the Patriots have not had much of an issue with moving the ball. They currently lead the league in total yards, a statistic aided by Sunday’s 555-yard performance. However, New England has struggled to cap off many of their drives once they reach the red zone. In two games, the Patriots have scored touchdowns in six of their thirteen trips to the red zone, ranking twentieth in the NFL. The last time that the Patriots finished the season ranking outside of the top ten in red zone efficiency was 2009 when they ranked twelfth. You don’t win the Super Bowl by kicking field goals, and if the Patriots continue to settle for three points in the red zone, the offense may come up short in the playoffs.

Next Week at Home vs. the Houston Texans

This game will be a big test for the Patriots offensive line, as the go up against J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilous and the rest of that relentless Texans pass rush. Marcus Cannon may miss the game with a concussion, providing even more of a challenge for the questionable offensive line. With some recent turmoil in the secondary, pay attention to who will cover star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Stephon Gilmore is the safe bet, given his height and the poor play of Malcolm Butler. The Texans offense currently ranks 29th in the NFL in both total yardage and points per game. Their two games have featured a 29-7 blowout at the hands of the Jaguars and a 13-9 win against Cincinnati. If the defense has problems in this game, they will likely have problems all season.

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Prediction: Patriots 30, Texans 6