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Diary: Kickin ' it with Brazil's next superstars

David Hirshey Jun 17, 2014
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Diary: The U.S. are in like Clint

David Hirshey Jun 17, 2014
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Apr 21, 2014

The Premier League's Game of Dethrones


Whoever wrote the script for this season's epic title race sure has a twisted sense of drama and humor. It feels as if it were dreamed up by the love child of George R.R. Martin and Lady Gaga. I mean, of all the teams that figured to play a decisive role in determining the eventual champion, who in their right mind would have predicted Sunderland? That's right, Sunderland, a club so firmly rooted to the bottom of the table that earlier in this season of comic absurdity it was the scene of a player revolt after then-manager Paolo Di Canio banned ketchup from the training table. Yet on Saturday, the hapless (but now ketchup-fueled) Black Cats did a real service to mankind, not to mention Liverpool. They essentially knocked Chelsea out of the title race and all but handed the trophy to the Reds, who moved five points clear at the top after overcoming a brave and spirited bunch of Canaries from Norwich. - Marcotti: Mourinho a sore loser - Worrall: Chelsea's title hopes mauled - Delaney: Jose loses more than his cool - FC TV: Special One lacking dignity? If Liverpool go on and win their first league crown in 24 years -- and there are still three games remaining, including one against the Blues at Anfield next weekend -- don’t be surprised if they order a couple of extra championship medals for the latest legends, Fabio Borini and Jozy Altidore. Seriously, Jozy Altidore? What's next: Is Man United going to sack David Moyes after less than one season in charge? I told you this season defies belief. Lest we forget, this was a Liverpool team that finished seventh last season and started this campaign with its mercurial superstar, Luis Suarez, having to sit out the first six games (to finish his 10-game ban) for eating one too many opponents, its dynamic English striker Daniel Sturridge looking like he was made out of glass, its venerable captain Steven Gerrard showing worrying signs of fatigue and diminished pace at 33, its defense leaking goals at an alarming rate and its transfer haul featuring such game-changers as Kolo Toure and Iago Aspas. (On a side note, who names their kid "Iago"? If you're gonna name him after a vile character from classic fiction, why not "Jordan Belfort"?) Even viewed through the most red-tinted spectacles on Merseyside, the best anyone could imagine for Brendan Rodgers' "work in progress" was for Liverpool to squeak into the Champions League. Even that was considered a bit of a stretch considering the Reds couldn't qualify for the Europa League the previous year. The Premier League title? That figured to be the exclusive province of those billionaire-funded examples of Financial Fair Play, Chelsea and Man City. Oh sure, a few understandably deluded United fans thought the team might make a run just based on the afterglow of Sir Alex Ferguson's magic. And I know of at least one mustachioed Arsenal lunatic who thought the Gunners could sneak in there because, well, that's what the Gunners do in lieu of actually winning anything. What no one could have foreseen was that the ensuing season would make a mockery of all logic, reason and gum-chewing Fergie voodoo. For instance, at the start of the campaign, Rodgers considered Borini a surplus and loaned him out to Sunderland. On Saturday at Stamford Bridge, all the Italian did was score the goal that essentially put a wrench in Chelsea's title hopes. The fact that it came on a controversial penalty and resulted in Jose Mourinho's first Premier League home defeat in an astonishing 78 matches made it that much sweeter. It was a joy to watch for pretty much every neutral fan who couldn't bear the thought of the title going to the home of The Special One, The Special Billionaire (Roman Abramovich) and The Special Jerk (John Terry). The great thing about Chelsea is how easy they make it for people to dislike them. Consider the class with which the Blues acquitted themselves after Borini calmly beat Mark Schwarzer from the spot with nine minutes remaining. Conveniently, everyone in blue forgot that referee Mike Dean had somehow completely missed Ramires face-blasting Sebastian Larsson prior to the iffy but fateful penalty call against Cesar Azpilicueta. The Chelsea defender appeared to slip as he attempted to block a cross from Altidore in the box, and the American went on to tumble over the Spaniard's outstretched leg. Let's take a delicious minute to comprehend the ridiculousness of that scenario. Azpilicueta is one of the best fullbacks in the league and Altidore one of the worst strikers. The best way to prevent him from scoring is to roll him a ball, point him toward an empty net, sit back and watch him shank it into the stands. Yet when his legs got tangled up with Azpilicueta's in the area, Altidore had the good sense to fall down. It wasn't a dive as much as it was reckless defending, the kind that just begs for a ref to point to the spot, which is what Dean did. Chelsea felt aggrieved, but who doesn't in those situations? The big boys just grumble and move on. The Blues grab their panties and start twisting them. Mourinho's trusted lieutenant, Rui Faria, personified Chelsea's grace under pressure by charging toward Dean with such fury that it took three of his fellow coaches to restrain him. The Special One has described Faria as his "right arm, the guy that understands best my information and the way I work." Faria certainly acted the part of Mourinho's goon on Saturday -- and not for the first time. Twice before in his career assisting his compatriot -- he has worked with Mourinho at Porto, Inter Milan and Real Madrid -- Faria has been involved in unsavory incidents, once defending his boss in a parking lot altercation with the coach of Sporting Gijon and another time getting sent off for his vein-bursting tantrum in the 2006 Petr Cech concussion game against Reading. Far be it from me to suggest that the Special One had orchestrated the whole kerfuffle as a way to deflect attention from the historic defeat, but at least Mourinho didn't poke anyone in the eye and, unlike Faria, didn't get sent to the stands. Already involved in a bitter fight with the English FA over a $12,000 fine for unsportsmanlike conduct after the Aston Villa defeat, Mourinho knew that another incident would put him in Pardew Land for the rest of the season. But Mourinho did save his worst for last, playing the WWE villain in his postmatch interview where he laid out a carefully crafted four-point response, each of which can be summarized in one word: "Waaaaaaaaaah!" It certainly was a welcome relief that he rescinded his recent ban on talking to the press to share those salient thoughts. All along, even when Chelsea sat atop the Prem earlier this season, Mourinho claimed his team wasn't good enough to win the league. We all thought it was just another of his tedious mind games, like calling Arsene Wenger "a specialist in failure." In fact, Chelsea turned out to be the specialist in failure when it came to beating those plucky no-hopers near the bottom of the standings -- Sunderland, Villa and Crystal Palace, all of whom upset the Blues down the stretch. In the end, there was no one in Mourinho's side to lift Chelsea when they needed it most, no one with a forceful enough character, not even their talismanic captain Terry, to summon the spirit and desire from them to grind out wins against clubs playing for their Premier League lives. By contrast, Rodgers instilled a mental toughness in his men to complement their joyful, free-flowing style of play. Exhibit A was their 3-2 win at home against Man City, accomplished after the visitors had clawed back from a 2-0 deficit and appeared to be taking command of the game. Exhibit B happened on Sunday at Norwich where the Reds surged to a 2-0 lead in just 11 minutes and went up 3-1 just after the hour mark before the Canaries made it 3-2 with 13 minutes remaining and laid siege to the Liverpool goal. - Usher: Finish line in sight for thrilling LFC - Brewin: Sterling's value - FC TV: Now's the time for Liverpool It was at this point that I was relieved not to have a barking dog in the title race. The battle for fourth place between Arsenal and Everton is stressful enough to justify multiple Stellas before 10 a.m., but it was nothing like the nerve-shredding tension radiating from all the Liverpool supporters surrounding me at the Football Factory. Not even the rousing sight of Raheem Sterling unleashing a surface-to-air missile that took a slight deflection on its way into the top left corner could allay the Scousers' anxiety at the bar. It's as if, after 24 years of waiting, they sense that some terrible catastrophe is about to befall them and rip the trophy from their grasp. (You'd think they were owned by a consortium connected to the Red Sox or something.) Even when Suarez scored his 30th goal of the season (which, remarkably, doesn't include a single penalty kick) after a sublime passing sequence involving Jon Flanagan and Sterling to make it 2-0 inside of 11 minutes, the dread was palpable. "You just can't relax when you have a defense as shaky as ours," said Liverpool-supporting bartender Mickey, who appeared to have his heart in his mouth -- right next to a piece of Nicorette gum -- every time Norwich flung over a cross into the Reds' goalmouth. Sure enough, his fears were realized in the 54th minute when Liverpool's keeper Simon Mignolet flapped at a high ball and Gary Hooper side-footed into an empty net. But Liverpool refused to wilt, and again it was Sterling who exemplified the Reds' resilience. It seems a lifetime ago that the teenage marvel memorably clashed with Rodgers when the manager first took charge at Anfield in 2012. Their training ground confrontation, which occurred during Liverpool's preseason U.S. tour, was filmed as part of the behind-the-scenes documentary "Being: Liverpool." "You need to improve your attitude," Rodgers had snapped at the then-17-year-old when he interrupted his team talk, "or you'll be on the next plane home." Instead, unless Roy Hodgson's eyesight is as dull as his tactical approach, Sterling will be on the plane to Brazil with England's World Cup team and maybe even in the starting lineup if he keeps up this torrid form. His second and decisive goal against Norwich was a wonderful piece of opportunism, speed and craft as he intercepted a wayward pass in the center circle and surged past two Norwich defenders before taking a shot that took a generous deflection before looping up over Canaries keeper John Ruddy and into the net. "Was it lucky?" sputtered Mickey the bartender. "Sure, but luck favors the bold." So after 35 games, Liverpool are now inches away from the Prem title. But then so were Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City at various points during this manic season. Even with only three games left to play, it's still too early to engrave Liverpool's name on the trophy. But no matter who steadies their nerves long enough to win the league, one thing's for sure: The Gunners are finishing ahead of Spurs!