Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category
The assumption, when Rafa Benitez started laying into fans and criticizing the board in a post-match radio interview Wednesday, was that he had lost it, that this was his Kevin Keegan “I would love it!” moment. And then he came in to address the written media and said exactly the same thing, almost word for word. The answer to the first question was 394 words long.
Make no mistake: this wasn’t a beleaguered manager suddenly snapping, although the cheeriness of that first press conference 13 weeks ago has slowly become weariness. What Benitez said after his team had beaten Middlesbrough 2-0 was calculated and pre-planned.
That raises all sorts of questions about motive, but let’s start with the words themselves.
“This group of fans are not doing any favors to the team, while they are wasting time singing and preparing banners,” Benitez said. “They have to concentrate on supporting the team. Every game they continue singing and preparing banners they are wasting time. They have to take responsibility. They need to support the team. They have to realize they are making a big mistake because the rest of the fans would like to see the team in the Champions League next year. They are not the majority, but if that group of fans continue with their agenda, they are not supporting the team.”
There is, of course, great irony to this given the reason Chelsea fans hate Benitez — in so much as there is a reason — is that in 2005, while manager of Liverpool, he made a dismissive comment about the plastic flags they wave at European games, which supposedly revealed his contempt for the club. At Liverpool, he implied then, there was real atmosphere as fans brought their own flags and banners. So if nothing else, Benitez has at least encouraged Chelsea fans in banner-making, even if they were mainly using the craft to attack him, and even if he doesn’t now seem so keen on the idea.
“I am professional,” he went on. “I want to win every game, but I will pick my team and make my decisions. I have been in charge of teams for 26 years and I’ve won trophies in three countries. The fans have to support the team and the players and we will do our jobs. If we cannot achieve what we expect to achieve, that is to be in the top four and be in the Champions League for next year, I will leave; they will stay in the Europa League. They don’t realize that this is a team in transition. We have really good players with talent, but it is a time of transition. I am trying to do my best, and I will do my best until the end, the last minute. They can blame me for everything that goes wrong, but if we get into the Champions League I will be the happiest man in the world, but I will leave because my contract ends.
“This minority are damaging the image of the club and that of the rest of the fans. Most people think Chelsea fans are all the same, they aren’t — the majority are splendid. I understand the reasons [of the minority]. I was the Liverpool manager, and we played Chelsea in some massive Champions League games, but I want to clarify that I’m doing my best, and if they carry on this agenda they are damaging the team and the club.”
No manager under Roman Abramovich has won fewer of his first 27 games than Benitez — although just how useful that is as a metric is perhaps called into doubt by the fact that Avram Grant stands top of the list. And this is a squad in the process of being overhauled — a process Andre Villas-Boas, whose Tottenham side now stands above Chelsea in the league table, was brought in to oversee. Perhaps brilliant results and brilliant football would have won enough of the fans who are against him round, but given the squad, given the circumstances, given Benitez and his preference for long-term planning and occasionally staid football, that was never likely.
But Benitez and the fans is one thing — everybody seems to have underestimated their antipathy to him, at least until the outburst of booing that greeted his first appearance on the touchline for that game against Manchester City; Benitez and the board is something else.
“It’s because someone made a mistake,” he said. “They put my title [as] interim manager, and I will leave at the end of the season, so they don’t need to waste time with me. Someone decided it, but it was a mistake. I am the manager. Look what I’ve done in 26 years. I have won the Champions League, the FIFA [Club] World Cup, the FA Cup, the Italian Super Cup, the Spanish League twice, nine trophies, all the trophies you can win at club level.”
Asked for clarification as to whether he agreed to the “interim” part of his job title, Benitez was categorical: he had not. Perhaps he overstates the effect of that in encouraging his opponents, but it can hardly be doubted that it undermined him. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, after he announced his retirement — later abandoned — in 2001, found players less responsive. Why would a powerful core of players used to getting their own way ever listen to a manager they know is a lame duck?
The issue is also indicative of the generally dismissive attitude at Chelsea to managers — although the list of candidates is running short, given that of the seven managers who have won the Champions League in the past 10 years, four have already managed Chelsea, Sir Alex Ferguson is never going to leave Manchester United for anything other than retirement and Pep Guardiola is about to take up a new role at Bayern Munich. Which leaves Frank Rijkaard, last seen parting ways with Saudi Arabia after a poor showing in World Cup qualifying.
Presumably Benitez thought he could overcome that — or perhaps from the start he recognized this as a no-lose way of getting back into football that came with a hefty paycheck. Certainly Wednesday’s comments felt like a manager with nothing to lose, effectively saying to his bosses, “OK, sack me now, see if I care.” Whether it’s significant it came after reports of two separate bustups with senior players — both denied, although with rather less vigor the second time — is impossible to say, but Benitez wouldn’t be the first Chelsea manager to find the opposition of players intractable. The likelihood is he will go sooner rather than later, but what Wednesday’s outburst ensured is that come May at the latest, Chelsea will be seeking yet another new manager, the 10th of Abramovich’s 10-year reign.
Chelsea has become such a basket case that nobody can be blamed for failing there. And that, really, is the biggest problem. Perhaps there was good reason not to appoint Roberto Di Matteo — after all, although he won the Champions League, he actually failed in his appointed task, which was to get Chelsea into the top four — but having appointed him to dismiss him when they did was baffling, and to appoint Benitez, a manager not merely unpopular with fans but also whose ethos seemed so different to that of Di Matteo was only going to cause further upheaval. That results have suffered since is hardly a surprise.
The difficulty now is that the culture of soap opera is so ingrained it’s hard to see how it will ever end, or at least not under Abramovich’s leadership.
SI.com is laying out offseason road maps for all 32 teams as they start their journey for the Lombardi Trophy — two teams per day, from the teams that need the most work to contend in 2013 to the ones that are in pretty good shape. See them all.
2012 Record: 9-7
Key Pending Free Agents: Ramses Barden, WR; William Beatty, OT; Martellus Bennett, TE; Rocky Bernard, DT; Chase Blackburn, LB; Kevin Boothe, G; Domenik Hixon, WR; Sean Locklear, OT; Kenny Phillips, S; Keith Rivers, LB; Lawrence Tynes, K; Osi Umenyiora, DE; Andre Brown, RB (RFA); Stevie Brown, S (RFA); Victor Cruz, WR (RFA)
List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (19), 2 (51), 3 (81), 4 (113), 5 (145), 6 (177), 7 (209)
Available Cap Space: $3.1 million
GM/Coaching Moves: Lost defensive assistant Al Holcomb to Carolina. Lunda Wells was promoted to assistant offensive line coach. Front-office man David Gettleman left to take Carolina’s GM job.
The reigning Super Bowl champs were in prime position to defend their title at the season’s halfway point. The Giants opened 6-2, chalking up wins over both the Cowboys and Redskins along the way. But as the schedule toughened late, the Giants wilted.
Over its first eight games of 2012, New York played just two teams that would qualify for the playoffs; it faced five after the turn for home, and a 3-5 close resulted. That slip left the Giants at 9-7, one game back of the Redskins in the NFC East and out of the wild-card picture.
The turning point was a Week 9 defeat, in which the Giants blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead at home and lost to the Steelers. One week later, Eli Manning and the offense struggled in a pitiful 31-13 loss in Cincinnati.
When the Giants won in 2012, they won big — six of their wins (Carolina, San Francisco, Cleveland, Green Bay, New Orleans, Philadelphia) came by an average of 25.7 points. Conversely, most of their losses were painful, with four setbacks decided by a touchdown or less. The outliers there: Back-to-back defeats in Weeks 15 and 16, at Atlanta and Baltimore, respectively, by a combined 67-14.
While the offense never really took off as the Giants hoped, it was a 31st-ranked defense that caused most of the problems. The 6,134 yards New York allowed in 2012 was a franchise worst.
20. Sacks allowed on Eli Manning, the fewest in the league.
The Giants’ pass protection was one of the strengths of this team last year. No offensive lineman gave up more sacks than David Diehl’s four — despite, according to Pro Football Focus, Diehl playing about 540 fewer snaps than starting left guard Kevin Boothe. Diehl was put back into the Giants’ lineup late in the season in place of the benched Sean Locklear.
There is some uncertainty up front headed into 2013. Diehl’s contract bumped up to $4.475 million because of his 2012 playing time, so he would be a likely cut candidate — except Locklear is a free agent, coming off a major knee injury, and both Boothe and starting left tackle William Beatty are pending unrestricted free agents.
Keeping Beatty around will be one of the Giants’ main goals this offseason, even if it takes the franchise tag to get it done. The team also reportedly wants to get Boothe re-upped, so that right tackle spot shared by Diehl and Locklear may wind up being the only hole.
A dark horse to win that job? James Brewer, a 2011 fourth-round pick of the Giants, who stands 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds.
1.72. The number of yards Corey Webster gave up per snap in coverage, per Pro Football Focus. That was the second-worst yards per snap coverage number of all cornerbacks.
For starters, the Giants need to ask Webster to take a pay cut. He’s set to earn $7 million (with a $7.25 million cap hit) in the final year of his six-year deal, but it’s hard to justify that pay day for a cornerback who allowed a higher QB rating on passes his direction than 92 other players at his position, according to Pro Football Focus. Somehow, the Giants have to figure out a way to reduce or eliminate that salary burden.
It might be time for the Giants to turn their top two CB spots fully over to Prince Amukamara and Jayron Hosley — that duo combined for 17 starts in 2012. Amukamara finally started to tap into some of his potential last season after an injury cost him most of 2011; Hosley showed well when given the chance, even outplaying Webster late in the year, when Amukamara was sidelined again by injuries.
New York did re-sign Terrell Thomas, who’s coming off his third ACL tear, but he looks like nothing more than a backup option right now (possibly at safety, as well as cornerback).
Amukamara, Hosley, Webster and Thomas would provide the Giants with a nice base, to which they could add a mid- to late-round rookie or pluck a cheaper veteran out of free agency. But limiting Webster’s snaps in favor of Hosley is a start.
1. Upgrade at linebacker. The Giants finished 25th against the run last season, then cut Michael Boley to kick off February. Pending free agents Blackburn and Rivers could leave, too. And even if Blackburn returns, as it sounds like he might, the Giants need to get more athletic here.
The quickest solution? Address the linebacker spot in the draft, where there are a number of talented, versatile options — Georgia’s Alec Ogletree, Kansas State’s Arthur Brown and Rutgers’ Khaseem Greene all could be fits in a 4-3, for starters.
2. Restore the defensive line’s dominance. The Giants dropped to 33 sacks last season, down from 48 in 2011. Twenty-one teams bested that number, which is almost unfathomable given Big Blue’s plethora of riches up front, including Jason Pierre-Paul (6.5 sacks), Osi Umenyiora (6.0), Justin Tuck (4.0), Linval Joseph (4.0) and others.
Umenyiora is a free agent and likely headed out, while the Giants cut DT Chris Canty. Can Joseph and Shaun Rogers hold down the middle of this attack? If the Giants don’t believe so, they may have to add another body there.
Out wide, the emergence of Adrian Tracy or Adewale Ojomo would help … and would keep the Giants from moving Mathias Kiwanuka back to the line from his current LB spot.
3. Decide on a running back. All signs (especially Ahmad Bradshaw’s release) point to David Wilson being the No. 1 guy. Is he ready for that role? Andre Brown should provide some help, but only if he’s 100 percent healed after breaking his leg in 2012. Tom Coughlin likes having multiple options in the backfield, so someone could be added to the Wilson, Brown and Da’Rel Scott group before September.
Barring any stunning developments, like restricted free agent Victor Cruz being swiped by another team, the Giants should enter 2013 as one of the NFC East favorites and a possible Super Bowl contender.
Even after a flurry of cap-saving roster moves, the Giants do not have a lot of cash to throw around, so this may be a case of what you see right now is what you get. Assuming Beatty (and/or Boothe) stays, the mysteries will be limited.
All eyes will be on Wilson and Brown come camp. Assuming the Giants’ defense and pass rush improves in 2013, a solidified run game could put this team over the top.
Story By: by Lauren Frayer
Lance Armstrong’s ex-teammate testified Tuesday at the trial of a Spanish doctor accused of masterminding one of the world’s largest doping rings. Tyler Hamilton, who was stripped of his 2004 Olympic gold for doping, says he was a client of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. He described secret meetings with the doctor at the side of a highway in Spain, and how he and the doctor used secret telephones to arrange blood transfusions. Hamilton told the court that one 2004 transfusion from Fuentes went bad, and turned his urine black.