Thursday, December 20, 2012

Champions League Draw: The Big Three Ties

The draw for the knockout stages of the 2013 Champions League was released while almost all of America was sleeping, but the matchups created will be dreams and nightmares for the casual watcher and die hard fan alike this year.  As with any UEFA draw, there are some awesome matchups and some bad ones; some easier paths for the more famous clubs and harder paths for the more famous clubs.  So let's get down to it.

Manchester United vs Real Madrid: A tie that many saw coming prior to the draws' release, it is a cruel injustice that two teams who have a legitimate shot to win the whole thing must play each other in the first round.  Still, this clash has the storylines of a final: Cristiano Ronaldo returning to the stadium where he made his name for the first time since leaving United; Madrid manager Jose Mourinho coaching against the team many have pegged him to manage after Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement.  The star power on both sides is relentless, with Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, and Sergio Ramos just beginning to scratch the surface.  These two matches will be among the most watched and anticipated of the whole season, and a great team will be through no matter who wins.
Barcelona vs AC Milan: The Catalans have recently lost their coach, Tito Villanova, for a while as he recovers from surgery to battle with his second occurrence of a throat cancer.  Still, Barcelona have just one game between La Liga and Champions League play and are still the best team with the best player in the world.  This clash has fewer storylines than most because of Milan's poor performances across the board this year, but is still a tie with rich history and tradition as Barcelona have won two crowns in the last four years and Milan have won seven European cups.
Arsenal vs Bayern Munich: Bayern, who many consider to be the best team in the world not in Spain or England (or just Spain), are crushing the Bundesliga this year and have only lost one match while conceding a measly seven goals.  They made the final of this competition last year only to run into the lucky Chelsea train, throwing away multiple chances to win in their home stadium.  Back with a vengeance, they take on an Arsenal side that have been in disarray for most of the season despite their standing in the Premier League and may be forced to sell Theo Walcott before the first leg is played.  Bayern look like the clear favorites, but Arsenal are improving with health.

The first legs of the round of 16 begin in February.  Until then, there is a ton of interesting domestic action to watch across Europe.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Showdown Sunday Predictions

This week in the NFL, there will be six match ups between teams with winning records, a record for week 15 or later.  All of these games will have playoff implications, and should be great games.  It's a shame one of them couldn't be flexed to Monday night, so we don't have to watch the Jets and the Titans.  But I digress.  Time to pick some games.

Denver at Baltimore - The Ravens' defense has not been at full strength all season, with Ladarius Webb, Ray Lewis, and Terrell Suggs missing significant time, sometimes at once; Lewis is expected back for this game, while Suggs is doubtful. Still, the Birds are in disarray at this point.  They have thrown away two consecutive games against average teams that they have been leading late and just got their offensive coordinator fired.  Jim Caldwell's likely conservatism when calling plays Sunday has the potential to limit the damage caused by lethal pass-rusher Von Miller, but it's not close on the offensive side of the ball: Denver's high-flying passing attack is much better than Baltimore's.  The best hope the Ravens have is to give the ball to Ray Rice 35 times and hope he can keep the ball and the possession battle in their favor. Broncos 31, Ravens 13.

Monday, December 10, 2012

BCS Championship: Matchup Analysis

After the Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the Georgia Bulldogs in an SEC Championship game for the ages on December 1, what many assumed prior to that game became a reality: Alabama will play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for the National Title on January 7.  A matchup between two of College Football's most decorated and storied programs, the game will be endlessly hyped and will be a cash cow - the least expensive seat in the house right now is listed at just over $1700.  On paper, it shapes up as a classic.
Alabama's participation will mark the seventh consecutive year that an SEC team has played for the crystal football, and their presence in the game is because of their adherence to Saban and the SEC's style - bruising, smashmouth, football in the trenches that relies upon controlling the line of scrimmage.  Brian Kelly's team are the same way.  That's why, though some expect Alabama to roll right through Notre Dame, this game should be a compelling matchup.  Take a look at the breakdown beyond the break.
Offense: Led by their tandem of running backs, the shifty TJ Yeldon and the bruising Eddie Lacy, Alabama has scored 35 touchdowns on the ground this year and rushed for 350 yards and three scores in the SEC Championship against an excellent Bulldogs defense.  This is made possible by their almost NFL-caliber offensive line, which includes three All-Americans and Barrett Jones, who won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in the FBS last year.  Make no mistake, Alabama will run the ball relentlessly, setting up their play-action packages and utilizing freshman wideout Amari Cooper - and not using junior QB AJ McCarron a lot unless they absolutely need to.  Notre Dame plays a very similar style of football, only averaging 22 fewer yards per game on the ground than Alabama and maintaining a slight advantage, about four yards, in average passing yards per game.  Like the Tide, the Irish will attempt to set the tone with a physical running game and will not ask QB Everett Golson to do a lot.  In my book, this game will come down to which offensive line can make more room for their running backs.  In that case, the edge goes to Alabama, and their average points per game (38.5) vs Notre Dame's (26.8) illustrates this.

Friday, December 7, 2012

London: Days 80-83 and Final Thoughts

With nothing on my docket except for a few classes and handing my papers in for the rest of my time in London, I spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday exploring the city again and spending time with friends.  I went to go see Wicked on Wednesday night and had a great home cooked meal before going to a music bar on Thursday night, my last in the capital.  My flight took off at 4 on Friday, across the Atlantic, closing a wonderful 11 weeks.

Things I learned while abroad:
1. Public transport in Europe owns.  Never once did I wait for a subway train in any city, but particularly London, for more than six minutes.  The buses in London are easy to figure out and multiple routes intersect, so you can often take multiple buses to get to the same place in the heart of the city.  Going back to the WMATA, especially in Ballston, is going to be terrible.  First world problems, I guess.
2. When you have such a terrible exchange rate as US dollars to British Pounds, you learn to ration your money well.  I was able to feed myself for about 25 pounds a week in terms of groceries, which was really critical to keeping my costs down.  I also kept all my change and used it, which sounds stupid, but it really does add up in London - especially because they actually use 50 pence pieces, unlike in the US.
3. Europeans don't hate Americans.  They hate people who can only speak English, and laugh at you behind your back if you can only speak English.  Hey, I laughed too.
4. The Swiss have an unreal quality of life, which leads to everything to be very expensive and nicely done.  The exchange rate between the dollar and the Swiss Franc is almost 1:1, but a train ticket is 12 francs, a hotel breakfast is 19 francs, and a cheap dinner is 15 francs.  Still, Zurich is very beautiful and the water is so clear that fountains spring up all along the roads that border the river and lake with water directly from those waterways - it's potable.  Truly amazing, and the water was delicious.
5. I can't thank everyone around me for what has been an incredible 11 weeks that have changed my life for the better.  Being able to spend to much time in my grandfather's homeland and really experience another country is something that I never thought I would get to do, and it was incredible.

Monday, December 3, 2012

London: Days 77-79

Saturday was another frigid day in London, with temperatures barely climbing out of the 30s.  I slept in a little bit before going for my run and eating breakfast; I then sat down in order to finish editing two of my five papers due on Thursday.  That took me two hours, and at 2:30 I went downtown to do some of my Christmas shopping before coming back to my room, eating dinner, and watching Man United win a crazy 4-3 game in my flat.  At 8, I headed downtown again to Piccadilly Circus to watch the SEC Championship game, which Alabama won at around 1 AM local time.  It was worth it, but I didn't get to bed until 2.
Sunday, I slept in again after my late night and went for my run before doing some more editing of papers and then watching football downtown with some friends.  I was home by 9 at that point and went to bed early in what was a very quiet and relaxed day.
Monday was a lot warmer, so I was able to go for my run around 9 without my hands freezing, which was a bonus compared to the last week.  I then went downtown to do some more paper editing and sourcing, nearing the very end of my work for the semester.  By that time, it was only 3, so I took the tube down to Tower Hill and walked around the Tower of London, the Tower Bridge, and the HMS Belfast along the Thames before coming home, cooking dinner, and watching some TV.  With class early the next day, I was in bed by 12.