Greetings and salutations, Nuclear Warheads. The first of many massive Premier League weekends of 2015 is upon us. There are title, top-four and relegation implications aplenty.
Oh! Don't forget, there is also a tackle football game this Sunday night worth watching. This has been one of the most enjoyable Super Bowl build-ups in recent memory. You know you have loved every second of it. The whole deflategate thing was ridiculous, but that is what made it so great.
For the first time in recent years there haven't been the force-fed storylines. Remember when America pretended to care about Jerome Bettis for two weeks playing a Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit — as if it were some well-known fact he was from Detroit. Or last year when it was just nice-guy QB vs nice-guy QB and all we had was a bunch of people accusing Richard Sherman of being a thug? This year is so much more fun!
The 'talk about the game!' crowd is missing the point. We don't want to talk about the game itself. As much as we love football in this country, very few people actually understand it. I played high school football and barely have a working concept of how offenses and defenses work. But that is what makes football so great. You don't need to know how/why the safety blew the coverage on the 86-yard bomb; you just cheer when you see it. You don't need to know which tackle missed his assignment that led to Russell Wilson getting a piledriver into the turf; you just high-five the nearest dudebro when it happens.
We LOVE storylines like deflategate. It just adds to the circus that is the Super Bowl, which, at this point is more like a WWE title match than it is a sporting event — which I believe is a good thing. This has game has everything. The good-guy Seattle Seahawks against the ball-deflating bad-guy Patriots. The grumpy Bill Belichick against the possible 9/11 Truther Pete Carroll. The owner of the cheating Patriots being buddy-buddy with the evil Roger Goodell. The media getting their feelings hurt by Marshawn Lynch after all the sacrifice they made to make the NFL what it is today. Oh, and don't forget about the TAKES. HOT ONES. Some of the hottest takes ever. Throw in halftime show starring Katy Perry's outfits and a new Fast & Furious 7 commercial and we may have the greatest Super Bowl of all time.
And all of it will be a nice way to wind down on Sunday night after the main event of Chelsea playing host to Manchester City on Saturday morning.
Onto the matches!
No. 1: Manchester United vs Leicester City at Old Trafford
When: Saturday at 9:00am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: The last time the newly promoted Leicester City played at the Theater of Dreams was back in 2004, when the proprietor of this here column was still in high school. United won 1-0 on a Gary Neville goal. United would go on to finish third that year behind some Invincible Gunners and the Blues led by Claudio Ranieri.
Nothing like starting your weekend off with a 4 vs 20 Premier League match! Slim pickings before the main event of Chelsea vs City. I rank this one slightly ahead of the 6:45am offering of Hull City vs Newcastle. Oof. I got carpal tunnel just typing that.
They may dwelling in the cellar but don't sleep on these Foxes! They have knocked both Newcastle and Tottenham out of the FA Cup this month. Their last four in the league include wins over Aston Villa and Hull and a 2-2 draw at Anfield against Liverpool. Love to see this kinda fight from a newly-promoted side that could just as easily board up shop and call it a year.
Sitting on 17 points, a win could get them out of the drop zone completely. It was a rough road back to the Premier League for the Foxes after relegation in 2004. They even dropped down to League One in 2008 before finishing first in the Championship a year ago. It would be cool to see them stay up. They have a cool logo and play at a place called King Power Stadium – by far the coolest stadium named after a company.
United don't exactly come into this one dealing aces. They have only won two of their last five in the Premier League and couldn't find the net in a scoreless draw against League Two side Cambridge United. To put that into baseball terms for those new to soccer, it would be like the Yankees or Red Sox failing to beat a Single A minor league team. Whoops!
This has been a weird year for United. They sit in fourth on 40 points but they aren't … what is the word I am looking for … good? Or maybe consistent is a better word. Either way, It appears to be only a matter of time before Arsenal (39 points), Spurs (37) or Liverpool (35) pass them in the battle for the last two Champions League spots. All three of those clubs have won four of their last six league matches.
United can't afford to lose any ground now. They are in a very soft spot of their schedule that includes a run of matches against Leicester City, West Ham, Burnley, Swansea and Sunderland. After that, they have a gauntlet from March 16th to May 15th that includes Spurs, Liverpool, Manchester City, Everton, Chelsea and Arsenal.
United are the betting favorites to get the win Saturday and I can't argue with that. Hopefully those plucky Foxes keep things interesting while we wait for the big 1 vs 2 showdown.
No. 2: Chelsea vs Manchester City at Stamford Bridge
When: Saturday at 11:30am on Big Boy NBC
Last year: Chelsea stole all three points in the 90th minute after Fernando Torres (seriously) took advantage of a miscue between Nastastic and Hart and slotted home a 2-1 winner. The local Chelsea supporters in Minneapolis celebrated accordingly.
Blargh. Where to even start?
Nice little sports weekend for NBC, huh? They get the best sporting event in the world AND the Super Bowl. Everything is coming up Peacock!
I guess lets just start with the basics. League-leader's Chelsea hold a 5-point lead over second place Manchester City. Chelsea can run their lead to 8-points heading into February with 14 matches to play. City can trim the lead to a much more manageable 2 points and everybody boldly proclaim THE TITLE RACE IS BACK ON!! Or they can tie and we can end the day where we started.
That is what we know. But as I sit here and write this on Thursday afternoon there is still plenty of unknown. Will Costa be able to play? Did Chelsea sign Cuadrado? Did Jose Mourinho have a good birthday? Will Rand cheapen something on Twitter before the day is out?
OK. Enough time has passed that I now have answers to the above questions.
- No, no he will not.
- It appears so, yes.
- A spokesperson from Chelsea Football Club confirms that Mr. Mourinho had a quiet birthday celebration with his family on Monday.
- Yes. I mean, I assume so. There was no massive internet outage or zombie apocalypse so he must've found time to take credit away from somebody who so clearly deserved it. He is probably cheapening some 4th grader's Student of the Month award as we speak.
Well, lets start with Costa. His three-match suspension from the FA was upheld Friday after he appealed on Thursday. The suspension comes from Tuesday's League Cup match vs Liverpool where Costa stepping on Emre Can was ruled intentional and violent.
Listen, we can debate until steam comes out our ears if this deserved a suspension or not but it will be pointless. Only Costa knows for sure if he meant to do it. Obviously the side you take depends on the color of the jersey you wear each weekend. On one hand, he wasn't looking down at Can when he placed his foot and was clearly trying to run off. On the other, it was a chippy game and he had a similar incident later against Skrtel.
Regardless of your stance on Costa and Chelsea (Cam was fine, by the way), it always stinks when big players can't play in these potentially title-deciding matches. Which brings us to Manchester City, who will be without midfielder/super hero Yaya Toure while he continues into the knockout round of the African Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast.
This just adds to the already long list of decisions both managers need to make heading into this game. Manuel Pellegrini knows a loss will not only likely cost City a chance at the title, but could also cost him his job. City were embarrassed and out-classed two week ago by Arsenal at home. Then, he makes the idiotic decision to have his team fly home from a friendly four time-zones away the night before playing, and getting beat 2-0, by the mighty Middlesbrough in the FA Cup. City have only taken full points in one of their last four league matches and know they need to come out attacking against a Chelsea backline that shipped four goals at home last week to Bantams.
Mourinho has the upper-hand here with the five-point lead, but still faces numerous tactical decisions. Does he start the 36-year old Drogba up top in place of Costa or does he go with the Loic Remy? If Cesc Fabregas and his 17 assists and tight hamstring can't play, does he go defensively and start Jon Obi Mikel knowing that City are going to be pressing? Lord knows you don't have to twist Jose's arm into playing for a draw. Or is the chance to step on City's necks at home and go 8-points clear too much to pass up?
SO MANY QUESTIONS. WHY IS IT NOT SATURDAY NOW?! I PICKED THE WRONG WEEK TO STOP SNIFFING GLUE.
All this and we haven't even touched on the return of Frank Lampard to his emotional and spiritual home of Stamford Bridge. He has to start, right? There is no way he doesn't start. Chelsea fans, although a bit hurt with how things have gone down, will know doubt give him the ovation of all ovations. Afterall, it was Chelsea that let him go. He thought he could keep playing at a high-level and has proven that. So good on him. I, like a lot of Chelsea supporters, would do about anything for Lamps. Lend him some cash? Sure. Wash his car? Absolutely. Drive across the Canadian border to hide a body? Totally. Lets take my car. We love that handsome, goal-scoring, trophy-lifting lad so much. We just hope he doesn't score any goals Saturday and doesn't lift any trophies come May. He can still be handsome, though.
Enough juicy storylines to satisfy even the boldest of palates. In the 38-game playoff that is the Premier League, this is one of the biggest. Too emotionally invested to offer a prediction here. Enjoy the match. The Chelsea contingent in Minneapolis is watching at Brits. Haven't decided if I will be there. I do much better at home during matches like this, where pacing around and swearing is less frowned upon.
No. 3: Arsenal vs Aston Villa at Emirates Stadium
When: Sunday at 7:30am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Believe it or not, Villa got the money at the Emirates last August 3-1. This led Arsenal supporters to believe the sky was falling, only for them to go on a multi-month run at the top of the table, only for them to flame out and confirm their supporters' original fear that the sky was falling. Classic.
This match actually has some huge implications that I am guessing a lot of people need to be reminded about:
You can't eat buffalo wings all day on Super Bowl Sunday unless you start in the morning. And what better way to start your day with a breakfast 12er while watching Arsenal beat Aston Villa?
On paper, this seems like a cut-and-dry Arsenal win, so that means they will absolutely find a way to pooch it. Kidding. This match even seems Arsenal-proof.
Villa are bad. Real bad. Their last wins came with back-to-back victories against Leicester City and Crystal Palace on December 2nd and 7th. That was two months ago. Their last win before those? You have to go back to September.
Villa have been flirting with relegation the last three seasons, finishing 16th and 15th twice. Their 22 points is good for 15th in the league right now but they are only 5 points away from the bottom bunk. Making matters worse, they haven't scored a goal in over 500 minutes.
The Gunners are riding high after their shock-win over City two weeks ago. They are also lone big club to survive The Great FA Cup Massacre of 2015 last weekend. So they'll bag three points this weekend and, depending on what United and Southampton do, could find themselves back in the top four. That should give them plenty to smile about heading into next Saturday's derby at White Hart Lane against rivals Spurs.
Alright, that will do it for this week. This thing has gone over 2,000 words and I don't want to make Rand cranky on a Friday having to read through this entire thing to find the lines I put in that aren't suitable for his family-friendly newspaper's website.
Enjoy the first big sports weekend of 2015. Tweet me your Wing Count over the weekend.