Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Thoughts: The NFL Race

The NFC East is so weak, and so open, the New York Giants can still make the playoffs. And, that will be a tragedy for several other teams in the NFC.

Already two of the six playoff spots are filled, those being the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. They are two of the very best in the NFL right now and both should finish with 11 wins, at least.
That's how we do!
The Back-door Giants
That means bad news for a few other teams in the NFC who will likely finish with good winning records such as the Chicago Bears, the Detroit Lions or my team, the Carolina Panthers, who are starting to gel under a quarterback who is beginning to show why he is Superman.

Cam Newton is the quarterback that can define this generation of dual-threat quarterbacks – fast, big, and when at his best, surgical, cold and controlled in the pocket.

Anyway, back to subject.

The Panthers may finish with nine wins, or even 10, this season but that may not suffice because 8-8, as many predicted, will be enough to win the NFC East.

It’s not a scandal, just a pity. It’s how the system is, everyone knows it.

In fact, funnily, whichever team qualifies from the NFC East may go furthest in the playoffs because they’ll be battled hardened and gelling. That’s what these Giants always do, that’s when they are most dangerous – winning two Super Bowls (in 2007 and 2011) and one (2011) with a 9-7 regular season record.

It’s moggy.

The Green Bay Packers are starting to be dangerous. They have the best quarterback in the game in Aaron Rodgers, and with Eddy Lacy they have elevated to a higher plane because they have a double-threat – a good running game added to magic of quarterback game of Rodgers. And, a good run-game is always the basis of a great NFL offence. Always.

If the Packers can keep improving on defence, they are a top three, top four contender for the championship. That is to say: they are going to the Super Bowl!

The AFC is a bit weird this year. But, the Kansas City Chiefs are the real deal.

It looks like the best teams in the AFC are Kansas, the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and the Cincinnati Bengals who are still underrated because somehow quarterback Andy Dalton is underrated. The boy is a star. And AJ Green is a superstar.

But, Kansas. An 8-0 start? Brilliant. They have an identity; they have a defence; which is the most important building block in all sports – rugby to football.

The Colts still have Andrew Luck, even though they have lost Reggie Wayne for the season. Luck, really is as good as people claimed – ESPN quarterback guru Jon Gruden said Luck was the greatest prospect he’d ever studied before last year’s draft.
Cam Newton
New England, of course, have Tom Brady. Not much more needed to say there.

The one team that has to prove something to me is Denver. Peyton Manning is a great quarterback. However, he still only has one Super Bowl appearance (which he won, to be fair) and he still has to prove, to me, he can consistently lead a team over the hump, like Brady.

Denver look exciting and explosive; maybe too exciting and explosive, forgetting the fundamentals, like New Orleans did three years ago, or Green Bay two years ago, or Brazil at the ‘82 World Cup.

Overall, I’d love the Panther to win the Super Bowl, of course. That’s my team! Never say never. Cam Newton is Superman.

But, top four teams, gun to my head: Seahawks, 49ers, Packers, New Orleans Saints.

The NFL champion is coming from there.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Thoughts: Orlando Pirates deserve a knighthood

After beating Esperance in the semis, there's just one more game
to go for the Buccaneers
Just one more game to go. Well, two – the Caf Champions League final is played over two legs.

Still, it should be a wonderful occasion and a great opportunity for Orlando Pirates. One can already imagine the Orlando Stadium for next weekend’s final first leg against Al Ahly – it should be a spectacular afternoon.

Pirates deserve tremendous credit. They have been amazing in this year’s Champions League and they have given credibility back to South African football on the African continent.

Pirates are also setting a new way for clubs in South Africa.

They are serious. Not haphazard, just going through the motions. They are bringing a new standard. They are competing in all competitions and they have their own stadium, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

Dr. Irvin Khoza has a vision for the club and has been working hard on it for several years. His determination and ambition are paying off.

Pirates are no ordinary club.

They have a super squad, genuine top-class players across the board, a growing culture of winning and a very passionate fan-base.

Roger de Sa also deserves credit. He has been on the receiving end of some undue criticism ever since his appointment as coach last September. But, a year into the job and he has done fantastic work.

Still, De Sa will be judged by trophies, and what better way to start than to add the second star.

Lioli may soon deserve a knighthood too

Happy times in TY...
Another team doing great things is Lioli. They are becoming the Real Madrid of Lesotho. Yesterday’s 4-1 win over Melele was their sixth in seven games, the only blot on their record this season being a 1-1 draw with Linare.

Looking at that result against Linare, and their loss (on penalties) to Bantu in the Independence Cup final, one could argue Lioli are yet to beat a top team this season. Even so, to this point no side has played with as much swagger as Tse Nala.

Like Pirates, Lioli have an ambitious president in Lebohang Thotanyana, a wonderful fan-base and an intimidating home fortress – all of which aren’t regular in Lesotho.

It is difficult not to envisage a period of Lioli domination for the next few seasons. After winning the league in May, Tse Nala immediately went on a strengthening spree in the off-season adding eight players. Two weeks ago they signed Likuena striker Tšepo Lekhoana, who was at South Africa’s Maluti FET College last season, on a free transfer. It is quite a squad they have in Teyateyaneng now.

Lioli’s credentials will be tested to the maximum, however, over the next two months. Tse Nala face Matlama, LMPS, LCS, Bantu and LDF in their next five games, a very difficult run of games. It is a period which will tell us a lot about Lioli, whether or not they really are the real deal.

Till then it is looking very good for Tse Nala.

Friday, October 18, 2013

All eyes on Napoli

On Saturday the waiting ends and the theatre of the Italian Serie A begins. As always there are plenty of storylines – from Inter Milan’s new beginnings to Roma’s rich promise – but the headline act is Rafael Benitez’s new Napoli.

After four years of bullish football, a gung-ho three-man defence and Edinson Cavani, 2013/14 represents a new frontier for the Partenopei.

The mastermind of the mad orchestra, Walter Mazzarri, is gone, to Inter, and his centrepiece Cavani has been sold to Paris Saint-Germain for €64 million.

On Saturday evening, against Bologna at the Stadio San Paolo, the Rafa-lution starts.

The Rafa-lution

Benitez’s arrival at Napoli is his second foray into Italian football management. His first was a tumultuous spell at Inter in 2010 that lasted just six months.

However, unlike in Milan, there’s an air of enthusiasm in Naples around Benitez’s appointment and the evolution he represents for a club seeking to entrench itself as a major force in Italy, and Europe. Benitez is a successful coach – a winner of two Spanish league titles, an FA Cup, a Uefa Cup, the Europa League and the Uefa Champions League.

It’s a perfect match.

Fever & Excitement
Napoli fans are expectant...
Napoli too provides Benitez the ‘project’ he’s been craving since leaving Inter. At Napoli he has the freedom to bring in his players and the backing to implement his ideas.

The club’s summer activity has revealed as much, seven new signings have arrived while Benitez’s remodelling of the team’s shape has been swift. Benitez is a disciple of the 4-2-3-1 formation – a system he popularised at Valencia with Pablo Aimar as the focal point and perfected with Steven Gerrard at Liverpool. He has immediately ditched the 3-4-3 set-up Mazzarri so loved.

Napoli’s new signings
Dries Mertens
Pablo Armero
Rafael Cabral
Jose Callejon
Real Madrid
Raul Albiol
Real Madrid
Gonzalo Higuain
Real Madrid
Pepe Reina (loan)

However, while a more orthodox approach will be adopted, it doesn’t mean Napoli will become a defensive side.

The classification of Benitez as a defensive coach is inaccurate; rather he aims to establish a solid base to build from. At Valencia, his first league winning team of 2001/02 registered a return of just 51 goals in 38 games. In their second title success, two years later, Valencia scored 71 goals.

Similarly at Liverpool, his 2008-09 side had evolved into well-oiled offensive unit that produced several memorable performances, not least a 4-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford.

The Rafa-lution means a more studious approach at Napoli, with the emphasis on establishing balance between the offence and the defence.

The Offence

Losing Cavani’s 29 league goals would be a blow to any side. However, in Gonzalo Higuain the Partenopei have acquired a gifted replacement, one malleable to the Benitez vision.

Higuain is a proven scorer in his own right, as his 107 league goals in 190 games for Real Madrid attest to. Last season the Argentine had a shot accuracy of 51.8 percent and an excellent conversion rate of 28.6 percent. Given the service, he will score.

Gonzalo Higuain Stats – La Liga 2012/13

Still, Benitez’s signings and pre-season combinations indicate the plan for a more flexible attack, one not reliant on Higuain alone to replace Cavani’s goals.

Whereas Napoli under Mazzarri increasingly became centred around Cavani’s talents (Cavani scored 40 percent of Napoli’s goals last season), Benitez has always advocated a system with offensive diversity containing players providing width (Dries Mertens), others a direct physical threat (Jose Callejon) and technical ball-players able to retain possession (Goran Pandev).

The pieces he’s put together fit his model: a fluid offensive unit that presents opponents different threats and attacking angles.

Behind Higuain, Mertens scored 18 goals in 37 appearances for PSV last season while Hamsik had 11 Serie A goals. Callejon, Pandev and the emerging Lorenzo Insigne are also goal-threats.

The Defence

In order to win major titles, however, a team’s offensive potential has to be balanced by a defensive integrity – goals may win games, but defence wins championships.

Benitez has clearly tried to address Napoli’s defence, an area for improvement if the aim is to be a championship winning team

Napoli have been Serie A’s entertainers in recent years – last season they scored a league-high 73 goals. The defence, however, has been an area that’s repeatedly held the Partenopei back. Case in point: last season Napoli conceded 12 more goals than champions Juventus.

A closer look Napoli’s 2012/13 stats reveals two startling flaws.

For a start, Napoli conceded a disturbing 44 percent of their goals at the end of each half, not only suggesting tactical frailties but mental and physical deficiencies also.

Secondly, although Napoli only conceded 36 goals last season, they allowed 12.8 shots per game, the most of Serie A’s top four sides. The figure is all the more concerning considering Napoli averaged 54.2 percent ball possession through the season (the fifth highest in Serie A) and illustrates the team’s vulnerability as soon as they lost possession.

Both issues explain why Napoli didn’t keep a clean-sheet against any of their immediate rivals and both were instrumental in disappointing losses to Chievo (2-0) and Bologna (3-2) which ultimately derailed Napoli’s bid for the Scudetto.

Shots conceded per game
AC Milan
Via WhoScored

Napoli against the Top Four
Napoli 2-1 Fiorentina
Juventus 2-0 Napoli
Napoli 2-2 AC Milan
Fiorentina 1-1 Napoli
Napoli 1-1 Juventus
AC Milan 1-1 AC Milan

These are areas Benitez, with his meticulous attention to detail and devotion to fitness, should improve while the deployment of two midfielders in front of the defence also provides further security.

Benitez has also made upgrades in personnel bringing in Pepe Reina on loan from Liverpool to replace the error-prone Morgan De Sanctis in goals. Similarly, Albiol is a more measured option at the heart of the defence than Hugo Campagnaro.

Probable Napoli team vs. Bologna
Maggio            Cannavaro       Albiol              Armero
Inler     Behrami
Pandev            Hamsik            Insigne

The Forecast

Can you hear us coming?
Napoli's Marek Hamsik
Benitez has taken charge of Napoli with the club on the up. The Partenopei finished second in Serie A last season, their highest finish since the title-winning season of 1989-90. That alone brings expectation.

However, just remaining in the Serie A’s top three Champions League spots will be a challenge in itself. Juventus remain the class of the league. AC Milan will be stronger, so too will be Inter. Roma’s loaded squad can only improve while Fiorentina are a rising force bolstered by shrewd signings.

Taking into account Benitez’s previous spell in Italy and the high hopes in Naples, this revolution, as with any in history, could go one of two ways – really bad or really good.

Nevertheless, Benitez may well be the man to steer Napoli over the Scudetto hump. And it all begins on Saturday against Bologna.

Originally written for BSports StatsInsights: August 23, 2013