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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sebastian Vettel

#MSCBeastOfTheYear - 2013
Sebastian Vettel
Vettel’s 2013 Season
13 race wins (from 19 Grand Prix)
9 consecutive race wins
397 points
4th consecutive Formula One title

Sachin Tendulkar

Farewell to a legend...
Sachin Tendulkar

Career Stats







Saturday, December 28, 2013

NFL - The Final Weekend

The Goal...
It is the final weekend of the NFL regular season and, with division titles, seedings and playoff spots on the line, there is plenty on the line for several teams.

One is the Carolina Panthers.

Last week the Panthers stunned the New Orleans Saints in what felt like a team-defining win, but, their work isn’t done. Not even close. It is the nature of attainment; after climbing one mountaintop there is always another to scale.

This week’s hurdle is the Atlanta Falcons, at the Georgia Dome.

The Panthers have to win to secure the NFC South title and a first-round bye.

It is vital; it would allow top receiver Steve Smith an extra week to nurse his knee, and seven more days for Cam Newton’s ankle to clear up. And, for an offence that has struggled against top-end defences recently, those two details are crucial.

It won’t be easy, though.

The Falcons – 13-3 last season but now 4-11 – are still a decent football team, as they showed in their fight on Monday against the San Francisco 49ers. And, they will be up for it as they seek to give retiring legend Tony Gonzalez a fairytale sending off.

From my point of view, even if home-field advantage is not a guarantee in the playoffs, it is vital for the Panthers if they are to have any chance of reaching, and perhaps winning the Super Bowl.

I believe they can do it; Newton is now an elite quarterback, Luke Kuechly a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, the team unified.

With the young talent they have, one Super Bowl could potentially open the gates for a dynasty.

But, the Panthers have to seize the moment now; and that starts with sealing the NFC’s second seed, because at this point in their development, the Panthers remain a team that needs as much favour as it can get, if they are to win it all.

Dynasty talk?

Talking dynasties, I feel similarly about the Seattle Seahawks. Even more than the Panthers, Seattle are a complete team with a superb quarterback (Russell Wilson) a go-to running back (Marshawn Lynch) and a brutal defence.

Their loss to the Arizona Cardinals last weekend did give the rest of the division needed hope that Seattle can be beaten at CenturyLink Field (that is where the NFC’s road to the Super Bowl will go through). Nevertheless, the Seahawks remain heavy favourites to reach the Super Bowl.

At this moment the smart money is on a Seattle–Denver Broncos Super Bowl, where the old master (Peyton Manning) will go up against the young prince (Wilson).

The rest of the pack

It is a tragedy the Arizona Cardinals will not make the playoffs, something I wrote about previously (#Thoughts: The NFL Race).  They are a post-season worthy side – great coach, solid defence, steady offence and a talented quarterback (Carson Palmer) that is reborn.

I feel they will beat the 49ers on Sunday, but the Saints will beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home and thus eliminate Arizona.

Fear them... Richard Sherman and the Seahawks
The other drama in the NFC this weekend is the two winner-takes-all showdowns – Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears.

You have to feel for fans of the Cowboys. There seems to be little accountability there, the same mistakes are repeated over and over. Still, even though enigmatic quarterback Tony Romo has usually been at the heart of them, the Cowboys will miss him. He is still their best chance in a must-win game and if the Cowboys don’t make the playoffs – for a fourth year in a row – you have to wonder if the axe will finally start to fall.

In the other division title decider, Bears coach Marc Trestman has stuck to his guns by favouring Jay Cutler at quarterback over back-up sensation Josh McCown. The problem is the Bears were blown away by the Eagles last week and Cutler is still to prove he is a top-level quarterback.

This is another chance for him, of course, but with Aaron Rodgers returning for the Packers you favour Green Bay to win.

This is actually an interesting gauge match for the Packers. Rodgers’ return changes the whole Green Bay team, and this match-up against the Bear will gauge whether the Packers can be a dark-horse for the Super Bowl, as they were in 2010.

My projected NFC playoff seeds
1. Seahawks
2. Saints
3. Eagles
4. Packers
5. Panthers
6. 49ers


The AFC is the Super Bowl dark horse in the sense that it isn’t as competitive as the NFC this year but it has champions in Peyton Manning and his Broncos and the New England Patriots – champions who’ve done all it before and, perhaps crucially, who might not be as beaten up as their NFC counterparts.

Losing Von Miller is a massive blow for the Broncos. Although they went 6-0 without him at the start of the season while he was serving a suspension, he is their defensive quarterback. Nevertheless, Manning is playing at such a godly level you feel he can overcome any setback – which he has most of the time this season.

"Peyton Manning is playing at a godly level"...
The New England Patriots will be the AFC’s second seed. They have the peerless Tom Brady, who like Manning has adapted and thrived this season. However, in a direct shootout, in Denver, I would still have to go with the Broncos.

AFC also-rans

As far as this final weekend is concerned, I feel the Cincinnati Bengals will beat the Baltimore Ravens. It is in fact a minor miracle the Ravens are even in contention for a playoff place after dismantling their championship-winning team. Even so, last week’s 41-7 loss to the Patriots showed how far off the top they’ve fallen and the Bengals, who’ve put up 40 points in each of their last four home games, should be too strong.

The Ravens’ likely ruin gives the Miami Dolphins a chance to make it into the playoffs for the first time since 2008. However, their opponents, the New York Jets, want to finish the season at 8-8. And, against the Cleveland Browns last week, rookie quarterback Geno Smith showed tremendously positive signs with his throwing and natural athleticism.

More than any other sport, the NFL is a one-game sport - one game can change everything. The Jets will be confident and, hungry, going up against a banged-up quarterback in Ryan Tannehill.

That leaves the road open for the San Diego Chargers. They face the Kansas City Chiefs who will be resting starters – a perfect opportunity. With Phillip Rivers playing the way he has been (good enough to be rated above Tom Brady... ), he should be able to lead the Chargers to a victory I feel will see them into the Promised land – the NFL Playoffs.

My projected AFC playoff seeds
1. Broncos
2. Patriots
3. Bengals
4. Colts
5. Chiefs
6. Chargers

Whatever happens, it should be a wonderful regular season finale.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sevilla Villa Bella – The Quest For Balance

Sevilla 2013... Searching for balance

That’s what it’s about for Sevilla this season.

After a summer of upheaval and balancing of the books, Sevilla now has to balance the eternally high expectations of their Sevillitas with the reality of a quality sapped squad.

This is Sevilla’s current truth.

Gone are the days when they were a Champions League club eliciting nervous behind-the-shoulder glances from Spain’s big two, Real Madrid and Barcelona. As BSports’ projections confirm, Sevilla’s challenge in 2013/14 is simply to make La Liga’s top eight.

For Sevilla fans, and La Liga followers in general, it is part of a worrying trend – the rich are getting richer and the poor, very poor. With Real and Barcelona hoarding 46.6 percent of the league’s TV revenue (roughly €140 million), two leagues have emerged within La Liga.

Unlike for Real and Barcelona, life for the rest of the division is a delicate compromise between sporting goals and financial survival, and the consequence has been the fall of several potential challengers to the big two.

Sevilla is one such club that has fallen by the wayside. After back-to-back Uefa Cup titles in 2006 and 2007 and consecutive Champions League qualifications from 2008 to 2010, the last two years have been a struggle for the Andalucía club.

For the past two seasons Sevilla has limped into ninth place, gaining 50 points on both occasions – the club’s worst total since their return to La Liga in 2001.

For flamboyant president Jose Maria del Nido the solution this summer has been to sell players, trim the financial fat and source less costly replacements.

In all 18 players have left Sevilla so far, including Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas who joined Manchester City for a combined fee of €45 million.

Of the €82 million recouped on transfers, €29 million has been used on 15 signings as Sevilla not only looks to improve on a disappointing 2012/13 campaign but plot its way out of a worrying slump.

Players In
Raul Rusescu
Steaua Bucharest
Racing Santander
Marko Marin
Chelsea (loan)
Las Palmas
Nicolas Pareja
Spartak Moscow
Carlos Bacca
Club Brugge
Daniel Carriço 
Diogo Figueiras
Paços de Ferreira
Kevin Gameiro
Paris Saint-Germain
Stephane Mbia
QPR (loan)
Sebastian Cristoforo
Vicente Iborra

Players Out
Andres Palop
Bayer Leverkusen
Antonio Luna
Aston Villa
Luis Alberto
Bernardo Espinosa
Sporting Gijon
Emir Spahic
Bayer Leverkusen
Jesus Navas
Manchester City
Manu del Moral
Miroslav Stevanovic 
Lautaro Acosta
Club Atletico Lanus
José Campaña 
Crystal Palace
Alvaro Negredo
Manchester City
Hiroshi Ibusuki
Valencia Mestalla
Alberto Botia
Elche (loan)
Gary Medel
Cardiff City
Geoffrey Kondogbia

Glory days...
Sevilla lift the second of their back-to-back Uefa Cup
titles (2007) 
It won’t be easy, though.

For a start, Sevilla has lost its two best players.

Negredo, the club’s top scorer since joining four years ago, is gone.

His boots will be difficult to fill.

Last season Negredo scored 25 of Sevilla’s 53 league goals, equating to 43% of the team’s goals – the joint-highest ratio in Europe’s top five leagues (alongside PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahmovic).

Navas, who became a club symbol and a main attacking outlet with his pace and skill during his decade's service, is also departed. Last season, Navas averaged 1.7 dribbles per game, the eighth most in La Liga, and 2.1 key passes per game, bettered only by eight players. To better illustrate his importance; 40 percent of Sevilla’s attacks last season came down the right flank.

Attack Side
Middle of the pitch


It's not just the departures of Negredo and Navas that's causing headaches. Fellow top performers Luis Alberto, Antonio Luna, Jose Campana and Gary Medel have also joined the Premiership exodus heading to Liverpool, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Cardiff City respectively while Geoffrey Kondogbia, a star of France’s recent Fifa Under-20 World Cup win, has signed for Monaco. It is, for all intents and purposes, a considerable nose bleed.

To stop it Sevilla has gone for the low-priced, potential-based buys typical of the model sporting director Manuel ‘Monchi’ Rodriguez has masterminded since his arrival at the club in 2002.

Marko Marin has joined on a season long-loan from Chelsea while other highly-rated prospects Vitolo, Jairo and Sebastian Cristoforo have been added on the cheap from Las Palmas, Racing Santander and Penarol.

Around €13 million has been spent on strikers Carlos Bacca (from Club Brugge) and PSG’s Kevin Gameiro to replace Negredo while Cameroon midfielder Stephane Mbia has joined on loan from QPR to replace Kondogbia.

Once again Sevilla are banking on a strategy that has unleashed talents such as Dani Alves, Luis Fabiano and Seydou Keita. But, as with any gamble, immediate return on investment is not guaranteed.

The jewel of Seville, Jesus Navas
Achieving Balance

Sevilla’s goals to achieve balance need to extend to the field as well.

For one, Sevilla needs better balance between their home and away form. Sevilla’s home has always been their strength but last season the disparity was alarming with 40 of Sevilla’s 50 points coming at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

It's a concern. Sevilla’s record of 10 points on their travels was the joint-worst alongside Celta Vigo and relegated Real Mallorca while their only away win was over relegated Deportivo La Coruna last September.

So, in spite of a home record bettered only by Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Valencia, Sevilla only finished 13 points above the relegation zone.

A simple reason for Sevilla’s away struggles was a lack of balance between attack and defence.

Last season Sevilla’s offence was ok. Despite their below-par campaign Sevilla – as is traditionally the case – still ranked high in average possession, pass accuracy and shots per game.

Rayo Vallecano
Athletic Bilbao
Real Madrid

Pass Accuracy
Real Madrid

Shots Per Game
Real Madrid
Rayo Vallecano
Real Sociedad
Stats via WhoScored

The Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan...
Red, loud and crazy
Sevilla’s Achilles Heel, however, has always been at the other end; and over the past two seasons it has been amplified. Worryingly, a lack of depth, experience and quality in defence remains un-addressed.

Federico Fazio is prone to errors and lacks pace. New signing Nicolas Pareja is out for up to two months. Israel Puerto, a Spain Under-20 international and Sevilla youth product, is promising but raw. Daniel Carrico, on loan from Reading, had a solid pre-season but he’s set to be sidelined until October and, because of injuries, new midfield signing Vicente Iborra has already had to fill-in at the back.

Glimpses of Sevilla’s defensive fragility have already been seen - in the side’s league opener at home to Atletico Madrid where Sevilla lost 3-1, despite enjoying 63 percent of possession, because lapses in defence.

The Outlook

This is the state of affairs Unai Emery has to work with in what is his first full season in charge.

Emery, as he does, worked wonders after taking over from Michel in January. Finding Sevilla just six points clear of the relegation zone, he steadied the ship and guided the club up to ninth. For the most part it wasn’t exciting but it was effective, and Emery managed to give the team an identity it lacked under his predecessor.

Nevertheless, instead of building on a promising first six months there is more evolution to face.

Much, then, will depend the club’s established players such as José Antonio Reyes, Piotr Trochowski, Coke and Ivan Rakitic.

Rakitic, in particular, is central to Sevilla’s chances. The Croatia midfielder was one of La Liga’s top performers in 2012/13 scoring eight goals and adding 10 assists, the joint-fourth highest assists total last season. Rakitic also averaged an impressive 2.9 key passes a game, the highest mark in La Liga. His intelligence and ball retention are crucial to the methodical style Emery prefers.

Ivan Rakitic 2013/14 La Liga Stats
Shots per games
Key passes per game
Dribbles per game
Dispossessed per game
Turnovers per game

Thumbs up for Ivan!
Ivan Rakitic holds the key to Sevilla's season
New addition Marin has also quickly become crucial to Emery’s famed tactical fluidity. So far this season the German has been used the support to the central striker and Marin has shown the ability to either drop deep to give Sevilla a 4-2-3-1 shape or push higher up, alongside the centre-forward, to make it 4-4-2.


Emery has clearly been headhunted for his record of achieving success on a tight budget (see Almeria and Valencia) and his ability to nurture underrated players, such as Roberto Soldado, to superstardom.

However, it may be a few seasons before Sevilla can challenge for Champions League spots again.

What's most important now for Sevilla now stability (Emery is Sevilla’s sixth coach in three years).

Eighth-place sounds about the best the the Andalucíans can hope for in 2013/14.

For this season it’s all about Sevilla’s quest for balance.

Originally written: 2 September, 2013 for BSports StatsInsights