This column is getting long enough in its own right so I'm not going to write much of a preamble this time around. Before we get to it though, I'm going to solicit feedback on two aspects of the column. I've added what I'm thinking will be regular fixtures under #1 and #2 . I have been mixing fantasy and reality comments in this column thus far this season. That isn't going to change but I want to make sure I'm doing enough fantasy stuff since that's generally why you're here reading. The other thing I've added in at the end is related to my other sports interests. Is it entirely self-indulgent, yes it is. Should you care? You tell me, that's why we have a comments section. I hope you like the new format additions.
1. Players I'm Buying - I'm going to start this feature off with this category each week from here on out:
- Sturridge - He looks like the player Chelsea always hoped Kalou would become. With a lot of very strong weapons, I'm sure his fantasy production will be up and down as they tend to be with players whose main source of points is goals but he seems to be earning a starting spot.
- Agbonlahor - He's gone from us wondering if his season two years ago was an anomaly after he did next to nothing last season to us all coming to the realization that when he's healthy, he's really good. We're also finding out how bad a manager Houlier was for Villa last season.
- Ramires - He didn't do much this weekend but I watched the Chelsea match and he was in good positions and could easily have scored again. He'll be up and down as well but he's gone from "useless" to "good inexpensive play" which is a huge step up for the Brazilian.
- Szczesny - The commentators on Fox Soccer here in the US were critical of him on Walker's winner and I suppose there is a school of thought that says that if you get a hand on a shot, you should be able to save it but that was a heck of a shot. That shot aside, I'm not sure I can think of any of the (many) Arsenal goals conceded that can be hung on his head. I can, on the other hand, think of a bunch of saves that have kept them from being in an even worse spot than they actually are.
- Ba - I really liked him last season and he seems to be picking up where he left off now that he's figured out who his teammates are. He is what he is and that seems to be a solid top ten or twelve goal-scorer in the league.
2. Players I'm Selling - I'll be following up the regular "Players I'm Buying" segment with the reverse made up of players who have played well or have big reputations who I'm not as impressed with.
- Lampard - If the entire league were as charitable as Bolton, then I'd be more convinced by his hat trick but here's the thing - if you watched those goals they were mostly of the "right place at the right time" variety as opposed to being of the "reinvigorated superstar" variety. He isn't the focal point of the attack the way he used to be. He'll get some numbers by the end of the season but given his current price, he's way overpriced.
- Anderson - I know I picked him to score this past weekend and he did (and I'm happy for those of you who followed that advice) but he isn't a good fantasy player by any definition and I'm still not convinced that he's a good player in the real world either. He isn't bad enough to undermine a very talented United team but he's really not adding anything to the mix.
- Ramsey - Another one who scored over the weekend that you shouldn't get excited about. Outside of the goal he was very poor. He had played very little when he suffered his horrific injury against Stoke but his injury-enforced absence seems to have raised his stature in our eyes. Either he has lost some of his form due to the injury or he just isn't ready for the big time. Who knows if he has "great" in him or even "solid" but if he does, he's not there yet.
- QPR - Apparently the brief display of adequacy was a mirage and there's nothing to lead us to believe that Fulham have turned the corner and become a team that will be capable of scoring 6 goals on a regular basis. At least SWP is producing mediocre fantasy points for a really cheap price. The rest of the group seems to have had a blip rather than having meaningfully come together.
- Balotelli - He is undeniably talented but despite two goals in two matches, there are two things that will prevent him from being a fantasy contributor on a regular basis. First is Dzeko - he may have pissed off Mancini in midweek but he's still a better fit for City at forward when he's on his game. Second is Balotelli himself - he hasn't done anything stupid since the pre-season but we all know its a matter of time. If you know he's going to be starting, he's worth it but it won't happen enough for you to get too excited about it.
3. Newcastle: Best of the Rest - They drew on the first day of the season and we all thought it was a fortunate outcome for Newcastle. As things have evolved, we may have been all wrong. Given their schedule thus far that features one club that currently resides in the top half (Aston Villa), I'm not ready to anoint the Magpies as legitimately deserving of the place they currently occupy in 4th but I'm prepared to say that based on what we've seen so far they are very likely to be ascending to the spot occupied in recent seasons by Everton and Villa. That is "the best team with no real hope of qualifying for the Champions League". They seem to be taking care of business and getting points from the matches they should get points from. That's a good sign. If they continue to do that, it won't matter what they do against the big boys.
4. Bolton: Fading Fast - I think that all neutrals were in favor of the idea of Owen Coyle trying to transform Bolton from Big Sam's beasts to a team that plays an attractive brand of soccer. As much as we might like the idea, the reality has been pretty horrible since the early going of last season. Even more depressing on Sunday was the fact that they really didn't seem ready to be playing on the same field as Chelsea. Losing to a Top 3 side even at home is no disgrace but the effort and the organization (or lack thereof) were a bit of a disgrace. Yes, they've had an ugly early schedule with Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool making up five of their six straight losses but having lost at home to Norwich in the midst of that streak does not bode well.
5. The Champs Survive - I'm not sure how to take United's 2-0 win in the grander scheme of things. The optimistic/partisan way of looking at it would be that they played a lot of reserves (Lindegard, Jones, Evans, Valencia, and Park) and still won and picked up a clean sheet. The pessimistic way of looking at it would be that they SHOULD have given up 3 or 4 goals if Norwich could have shot even a little bit straight. If you're of the latter point of view then you have to worry that United's defensive frailties will catch up to them sooner or later. I could be that they'll ride their luck until Vidic comes back to anchor the back line which will take pressure off of guys like Smalling and Jones who are going to be very good but aren't quite there yet.
6. City Thrive Late - I watched the United match over the City match but from all reports City dominated for the entire match but couldn't find the goal early. They obviously remedied that late and poured on the offense to wind up with a 4-0 away win. All four goals were scored after the league's leading scorer Kun Aguero went off early with a groin problem (no, I haven't seen any updates on the prognosis yet). Yes, it was only Rovers but it was still on the road and playing without their best goalscorer. On this week's evidence, City can feel a half-step ahead of United. But only for now.
7. Video Replay - It meant nothing to the final outcome but we can't get upset at the unwillingness of the league to introduce video replay on critical plays only when they would have determined the outcome of the match. Bolton clearly (on replay) scored a second goal that wasn't awarded. There will likely be no huge outcry in the papers tomorrow because Chelsea won by four. However, it appears that Bolton are headed for a relegation battle and goal differential may well make a difference in their season. If they end up going down by one goal then the powers-that-be in the league will have something to answer for at the Reebok. The worst part is that there's just no good argument against using it. If anyone has one that doesn't just sound like old bureaucrats trying to avoid change then please enlighten me.
8. Arsenal Not Themselves - It struck me as I was watching the North London derby. There are a lot of things not to like about what is going on at Arsenal right now. Perhaps the most distressing is the fact that they aren't playing like their old selves. Sure, they're still making the same braindead mistakes on defense and especially on set pieces but that's really the only resemblance to Wenger's best Arsenal teams. We used to write volumes about Arsenal's excellent-but-sometimes-too-elaborate passing game. The current bunch can hardly be accused of that. Even worse, it seems that they can barely pass at all in the attacking third. On Sunday, that inability moved from the attacking third to the entire field. They made idiotic passes in attempting to move the ball from defense to midfield. They were consistently off-target with what looked like relatively easy passes. They seemed to exhibit poor judgment when trying to make an incisive pass when a simpler one would have done the trick. In short, they are either trying too hard to be The Invincibles or they just aren't very well suited to Wenger's preferred style of play. I'm not sure which it is but it is distressing to watch because it is robbing me of the thing that drew me to Arsenal in the first place (well, other than Bergkamp).
9. Spurs In Poll Position - Well, for the fourth Champions League spot at any rate. Sure, Newcastle is keeping their spot warm for now but with a match in hand and matches with both City and United behind them Spurs gained their second consecutive win in the mini-league with Liverpool and Arsenal, the presumed competitors for the fourth spot. The fact that Spurs will (presumably) get healthier in the center of their defense as well should have them headed in a great direction assuming that there aren't any major injuries and K2 doesn't decide he's had enough.
10. Still Not Sold On Liverpool - You just get the feeling that they should be doing better don't you? Rightly or (very definitely) wrongly they had their local rivals right where they wanted them when Rodwell was sent off (another reason replay would be a solid idea). Despite being up a player and more talented than their cross-town rivals it never really felt like they were in control. Three points is three points and I'm sure they'll be happy with the derby win because that's what winning a derby is about but like United, this was unconvincing as a 2-0 win could possibly be. There just seems to be something missing, not sure what it is. The pieces just don't seem to fit.
11. American Sports (Fantasy and otherwise) - Looks like a mixed bag for me this week. I'll probably end up 2-2 in my four fantasy NFL games but still have a slight chance of going 3-1 which would be pretty good stuff. The Eagles, my team in the NFL, wrenched out my guts by losing a big lead in the second half playing against a bad team at home. The hype was always too much at the beginning of the season but they've certainly underperformed even the lower expectations I had of them. It felt like I watched two Arsenal matches today which is not a compliment. The thing I hope keeps me going as my fantasy EPL team, Arsenal, and the Eagles continue to disappoint me is the Phillies. They opened up and smacked the Cardinals around in the first game of their best-of-five playoff series. They are currently leading Game 2 4-3 in the bottom of the 5th inning so I'm going to go watch that and hope that they can rescue my Sunday.