Iceland: World Cup Preview

So a dentist walks onto the biggest stage in International Football… no seriously. A nation of just over 300,000 people have seemingly done the impossible and put together a formidable international football squad, and yes their manager is a full time dentist. Establishing themselves in Euro 2016, Iceland made it to the Quarter finals where they lost out to France 5-2 but enjoyed victories over Austria and England, while drawing Hungary and Portugal along the way.

Group D:
– Argentina
– Croatia
– Iceland
– Nigeria

Players to watch for Iceland:

Gylfi Sigurdsson – Not only fun to day, Everton’s midfielder is the big name player on Iceland for the World Cup. He earned a big money transfer away from Swansea last summer after an impressive Premier League season and amazing Euro Cup run the year before. He is the wind beneath the wings of Iceland’s hopes, and is so so so good on the ball. He is tricky, slick, has great vision, and is deadly on dead balls or on shots outside the box. Gold star this guy, he’s fun to watch.

Johann Berg Gudmundsson – A boisterous midfielder on Burnley, the Premier Leagues shock team of the season last year, Gudmundsson will patrol the midfield along with Sigurdsson. He is very physical and not opposed to get up in the attacking play. Watch out for long shots as well, as he rarely shies away from an opportunity to put one on net for the Clarets.

Alfreð Finnbogason – This veteran striker managed three goals for Iceland in their qualifying matches, trailing Sigurdsson by only one for the team lead. He isn’t young, but is lively in the box as proved by his 12 goals in 22 games for Augsburg in the Bundesliga last season. He can capitalize on his midfielders to bang em in for the KSI squad.

In a surprisingly tough group Iceland will be hard-pressed to escape the group stage. Nigeria is a very fast team that can counter attack with pacey players like Iheanacho and Musa. While the Modric led Croatian team will hold possession with a strong midfield. Argentina are the odds on favorite to win the group, but as Messi and everyone who follow Argentina know, the foot of Gonzalo Higuain giveth and taketh away in the World Cup.

I say GO VIKINGS, and cheer them on, the only kink in their plan for World Cup domination and cavity eradication is the knee injury Gylfi Sigurdsson is battling. If he is fit then bet on him to lead Iceland out of the group stage.

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Big Changes in Little Green Bay; Packers Look to Regain Dominance of Past

 

A lot is changing for the 2018 Green Bay Packers. This includes players as well as management. With a satisfactory season behind them, Green Bay has fired long time GM Ted Thompson, and replaced him with former director of player personnel, Brian Gutekunst. He has been working within the Packers organization for 20 years and knows his team’s roster as good as anyone. It’s a welcome change from Ted Thompson who is notoriously stubborn when it comes to adding talent via free agency. While I appreciate his view of “draft and develop from within”, I think there has to be a balance of home grown players as well as acquired players through trade and free agency. Why is a balance important? Just look at Ted Thompson’s biggest outside acquisition – Charles Woodson. He is one of the rare big name players that he signed as a GM. What were the results? A defensive MVP season for Woodson and a Super Bowl for Green Bay.

That brings us to Gutekunst, who in his short time has already made a huge splash in free agency and shown the world that Green Bay means business again. Two big names have been added to the roster for Mike McCarthy and new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to take advantage of. Jimmy Graham and and Muhammad Wilkerson. Sadly, in order to fit Graham’s salary, Jordy Nelson was cut from the team. But losing from a position of strength where Davante Adams has overtaken Nelson as the teams top WR, and gaining one of the best receiving tight ends in the league, could prove to be a big boost. Nelson’s end zone ability will be missed for sure, but let’s remember that Jimmy lead all tight ends in touch downs just last season. I’m genuinely excited to see what him and Rodgers are capable of doing together. And just to top it off, Gutekunst has also signed veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis who is widely considered one of the leagues best blocking tight ends. Talk about taking a weak position and turning it into a very strong one!

Muhammad Wilkerson will be a huge addition to Green Bay’s defensive front. Drafted in the first round in 2011, he has amassed 45 sacks for the Jets, and has shown flashes of dominance, specifically in 2015 where he had a career high of 12 sacks and made the pro bowl. He will join fellow pro bowler Mike Daniels to steady the Packer’s defense.

The secondary should also see a boost with First round draft pick Jaire Alexander looking to steal a starting spot, and former fan favourite Tramon Williams returning to Green Bay to give some much needed help to Ha-Ha Clinton Dix.

All there is left to do is sit and wait to see if there are any other moves up Gutekunst’s sleeve. Adrian Peterson has vocalized interest in coming to Green Bay, and Dez Bryant is another name that seems to be linked to them as well. Is signing either of these players the right move? Probably not as Dez will be commanding too much money and AP is a shell of his former self. But it’s nice to have that feeling of possibility instead of “Nope, Thompson doesn’t do the whole off season thing”. We already know what Rodgers thinks of the whole Dez Bryant idea;

At the end of the day it is Brian Gutekunst’s decision and if he feels like Dez is worth the gamble, we could very well see him in Green Bay soon. It would be a strange look for sure.

The Manziel Effect

Don’t look now, but a few more ex-NFL players have joined the CFL after Johnny Manziel and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. One thing that needs to be accepted by a lot of die hard CFL supporters too, it isn’t bad for the league or the game either.

So who are these players migrating in the path of Johnny Football?

Lorenzo Taliaferro

The ex-Raven running back out of Baltimore is joining up in Hamilton with Manziel in hopes of revitalizing his professional status. A career committee running back, Taliaferro was buried in Baltimore when they couldn’t seem to find a starting running back after the Ray Rice arrest and suspension. Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, Kyle Juszczyk – all are names sure to give Taliaferro nightmares, splitting and stealing opportunities from the young back in Baltimore.

His career season was 2014. In 13 games he rushed for four touchdowns but just 293 yards that season, with a avg yards per carry of 4.3. Not excpetional but stats that show just how much of a committee back he was. At 26 years old Taliaferro still has a lot to give, and will bring with him three years of NFL experience. Hamilton will get a back with something to prove, and a companion for Manziel who knows the NFL struggle.

Tre Mason

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are adding former third round pick from the then St. Louis Rams, Tre Mason. Loads of potential and only 24 Mason’s issues were never really on the field, but more discipline issues that slammed his promising career short. For Mason it appears that the lifestyle of a celebrity athlete overwhelmed him mentally and eventually led to issues with the law.

His career fell off a cliff with mental health issues related to his lifestyle, and after being cut by the Rams no other team wanted to take a shot on him. In his rookie years in 2014 Mason rushed for 765 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 2 100+ yard games. His production significantly dropped in his second year as the issues with his personal life started to compound and effect his play.

What Mason will get in Saskatchewan is the exact opposite of a lavish, highroller lifestyle. The prairies lack a lot of Big City accouterments and will isolate him from a lot of distraction allowing him to focus on his game. This move looks good for both sides really – Mason gets the chance to focus in on his game again and the Riders have an opportunity to catch lightning in a bottle with a dynamic back who has hopefully grown up.

The CFL offers a lot more than just a career rehabilitation track for ex-NFL players but as far as it goes now, its a symbiotic relationship. Stars will pull the ever coveted American viewership, and the league’s different rule set will allow for some stars to flourish. Will the pilgrimage continue for ex-NFLers? As long as Mason, Talaiferro, and Manziel look good I would imagine we’ll see some more big names North of the boarder!

The Chargers’ TE Debacle

Antonio Gates just can’t get away from the Chargers. Or is it the other way around?

The 37 year old Gates, (who will be 38 by seasons start), had been the ultimate safety net for quarterback Philip Rivers. For 15 NFL seasons, all played with the Chargers, the basketball player turned NFL tight-end amassed an astonishing 114 touchdowns and 11,508 yards on 927 catches. That absolutely screams consistency. Even last season while only starting 4 out of 16 games, Gates finished the season with 3 touchdowns and 316 yards on 30 catches. While it’s down from his 14/15 YPC in past years, 10 YPC isn’t bad for a man who’s older than some coaches.

Despite his only slight decline in production, the Chargers predictably decided to cut ties with the future Hall-of-Famer at the end of last season. They had been grooming up-and-coming 3rd year tight end Hunter Henry, who despite starting 3 times as many games as Gates, only finished with 1 more touchdown and 137 more yards. But this is just how things go in the NFL. Hunter is 14 years younger, and primed for a huge start to a great career in his own right. It was his turn.

It would get my vote.”
– QB Philip Rivers on bringing his old partner back

Disaster strikes. Hunter Henry out for the season with a torn ACL. And no Antonio Gates on the roster.

While this is a terrible break for the 23 year old, I can’t help but think about the Chargers as an organization here. The last time they had tried to groom another TE to take over for Gates was a few years ago with Ladarius Green. With Green they had a mix of a player who was not only build like a tank, but could out-run the opposition defense after the catch. Just when you thought Gates’ time was up, down goes Green. After another stop in Pittsburgh to try and revive his career, he unfortunately hasn’t recovered.

So this seems to open up a crack for Antonio to fill. If he’s at all interested, that is. And who knows! To me it’s a no-brainer. You bring back a leader, a Hall-of-Famer, a guy who knows the playbook and has had thousands of yards of chemistry built up with your QB. If I’m the Chargers I’m already penning the deal.

The only thing holding this up is Gates’ teaming up with LeBron at Staples Centre in October to really round out his story-book career.

Spain: World Cup Preview

A heavy hitter in World Cup contention, Spain are here and ready to re-stake their claim atop European and World football. Flush with top tier talent, Spain are to be taken seriously by all competition and are currently sitting behind only Brazil and Germany in betting odds. Their team is solid from front to back, and will look to dominate possession with a world class midfield waiting to pounce on opportunities worked into existence.

Group B:
– Iran
– Morocco
– Portugal
– Spain

(Some of the many) players to watch for Spain:

Sergio Busquets – Ask any Barcelona fan, player, hater, or bystander who that team relies upon to organize them, keep them tight on defense, and manage the game – its Sergio Busquets. The defensive midfielder is an absolute beast in possession and link up play. He is no spring chicken at 29 years old, and wont fill the score sheet (1 goal, 5 assists this season) but he is the definition on intangible player for an elite team like Barcelona, which will translate onto the field for Spain.

David de Gea – I’ll say it, he is the undisputed best keeper in the world (sorry Neuer fans) and he proved it this season. At Manchester United, he was rarely off form in 2017/18. 18 clean sheets in league play with four more in Champions League play; he is definition of game stealer and elite. Big game player and total gamer, de Gea will bring it for Spain this tournament.

Iago Aspas – Maybe a bit of a weird pick on a team with so much talent but Aspas, 31, is a legit goal scorer in one of the toughest leagues in the world. Not on either Madrid team or Barcelona, Aspas netted 22 goals this year, following up 14 and 19 goal seasons. Without elite talent he can put em in the net, and given the chance with the Spanish first team, look out!

 

With only Portugal challenging for a spot to escape the group stage, Spain should cruise through Iran and Morocco. The team is so deep and boasts players like David Silva, Iniesta, and Isco in the midfield attack who can embarrass players at will. They have an aging team, and unlike some other contender teams like Germany, Belgium, and France, they are not taking this opportunity to overwhelm the first team in young players to introduce them to international duty. Spain are all in, and we’d all be smart to believe they can do it!

Saudi Arabia: World Cup Preview

Maybe it’s a little insensitive and mean, but Saudi Arabia has already achieved their World Cup success by making the tournament. Despite a 67 rank globally by FIFA, Saudi Arabia had taken advantage of their qualification match-ups and surprised a lot of teams

Group C:
– Egypt
– Russia
– Saudi Arabia
– Uruguay 

Players to watch:

Mohammad Al-Sahlawi – The team’s undisputed superstar, Al-Sahlawi took home the award for (joint) goal scoring leader in World Cup qualifying matches with 16 goals. All success this team will have will flow through their centre-forward. For club this season he has scored ten goals and three assists in nineteen matches, the man can score! His career international total for goals is 28 in 38 – the veteran striker will drive the bus for his team.

Fahad Al-Muwallad – The LaLiga right winger has impressed in his World Cup qualification nabbing four goals in eleven matches, with an assist too. At only 23 years old, Al-Muwallad is a solid pick to contribute to the score sheet for Saudi Arabia in this tournament and will likely be a factor in their future international team as well. Speedy down the wing, and not afraid to carry play into the box, Al-Muwallad is a spark plug for the team.

Not flush with superstars, Saudi Arabia will need to capitalize on their underwhelming team. They can put goals in he net as they have proved in qualification this year, and if they can catch teams by surprise they can capitalize on a rather weak group. Never say never people, this has a chance to be Upset-City!

 

Egypt: World Cup Preview

Before this Premier League season Egypt was going to be a cusp team if they made it to the World Cup for 2018. Fast forward to now and Egypt claims the most explosive player in international football, Mohammad Salah. The Liverpool forward has lit the Premier League on fire and looks to continue his form into Russia, where he can hopefully pull his country deep into the tournament.

Group A:
 – Egypt
– Russia
– Saudi Arabia
– Uruguay

Players to watch for from Egypt:

Mohammad Salah – Winner of the Premier League scoring title, Salah netted 32 goals this season, and added 11 assists. In 15 Champions Leagues matches he scored 11 goals with 5 assists. The man can score goals. He will elevate his entire team and will likely need to for Egypt to secure success in this tournament. Salah is showing superstar power that could be lightning in a bottle for Egypt!

Mohamed Elneny – Arsenal’s holding midfielder is playing for both country and team as he is looking to impress his new manager back in London. In hopes of securing regular playing time, Elneny should be the key transitional player for Egypt linking possession turn overs to Salah’s boot and the offence.

Ahmed Hegazi – Newly relegated West Bromwich and Albion defender Hegazi turned his season around at the end of the season. He too has more than national pride to play for, as his professional career can be rescued from the English Championship with a solid tournament. He gets up into set piece play really well and transitions from stalwart defender to aerial box threat very quickly.

 

Egypt has the ability to take advantage of their group and build some momentum early in this tournament. Most would assume Uruguay, led by Edinson Cavani of PSG, will win the group outright, with Saudi Arabia probably losing out. That leaves Egypt and host nation Russia to duke it out and challenge Uruguay. Simply put, the dynamic playmaking and goal scoring of Mo Salah can seal this group up for Egypt. He is fun to watch and will make Egypt a dangerous team this year.

THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE WRINKLE

It couldn’t have just been a clean final, win or loss, for Mo Salah eh? Twenty minutes into the final against Real Madrid a suspicious looking tackle from noted dirty player Sergio Ramos saw Salah’s arm grabbed and pinned under the Spanish defenders body, resulting in a dislocated shoulder and forced substitution.

In tears as he left, Salah was saddened to let his team down with this injury, but the bigger picture looms: Egypt’s hopes at this tournament lie in his hands. Without his pace and offensive talent there is little to no hope for the Egyptian team – and that’s not being harsh on them.

It appears that Salah will be out for three weeks now, a convenient time line seeing as that would take him to the start of the World Cup, but hopefully he can put it behind him in time. Those who have suffered dislocation injuries know that there is no standard when it comes to these injuries and they vary in severity and recovery time.