Nuclear Wessel: Your EPL weekend guide, including the Battle of Manchester

nuclearDana Wessel produces the K-TWIN Morning Show with Rider, Eric Perkins and Rena Sarigianopoulos on 96.3 K-TWIN Monday-Friday 5:30am-10:00am.

Happy Halloween, Nuclear Warheads!

We are at the quarter point of the season and, as expected, Southampton and West Ham are fending off Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool for the third and fourth spots in the table. As a couple former colleagues of mine like to say, “as expected.”

A fun slate of matches this weekend to take us into November, highlighted, of course, by the Manchester derby Sunday morning.

But before all that happens, get out there and spread some holiday cheer on Halloween. Blah, blah, bars are crowded, blah, blah people are annoying on Halloween. Stop being a killjoy and listen to me when I tell you this stat: the next time Halloween falls on a Friday will be 2025. Seriously. Look it up. You will be a whole decade older by then. Get out there and get a little weird on All Hallow’s Eve.

Also, don’t forget the MLS playoffs this weekend!

Saturday:

Columbus vs New England at 3:00 – Not televised

Real Salt Lake vs Los Angeles at 7:00 – NBC Sports Network

Sunday:

New York vs DC United at 3:00 – Not televised

FC Dallas vs Seattle at 8:00 – ESPN2

Alright, onto the slate!

 

No. 1: Newcastle vs Liverpool at St James Park

When: Saturday at 7:45am on NBC Sports Network

Last year: This one ended as a draw last October at St James Park. Liverpool equalized twice, once with a Steven Gerrard penalty and the other came in the 72nd minute when Daniel Sturridge scored one of his 21 league goals last season.

Who let Newcastle out of the fridge the past few weeks? Seems like just yesterday Newcastle fans were showing up to St James with pitchforks and torches wanting to kidnap Alan Pardew and pee in his gas tank.

Now they get a win at City in the League Cup on Wednesday after getting back-to-back league wins at Tottenham and home vs Leicester CIty. Wait!! I just looked even further back in their schedule. They also tied Swansea City three weeks ago. Unbeaten in their last four! Pardew for Manager of the Year! Newcastle in Europe!

OK, lets not go that for. But they have looked better than Liverpool their last few matches. Liverpool have issues. Not because they got taken out behind the woodshed against Real Madrid. Madrid does that to a lot of teams. It runs much deeper than that. They are still built as if they have Luis Suarez on their team and, they, well, don’t have him anymore.

Last year they gave up a ton of goals but it was totally cool because Suarez scored a ton x 10. That isn’t a good way to build a soccer team but it worked for Liverpool and almost won them a trophy. But now they face a problem. Stay with me during this next math equation.

A ton of goals given up – (a ton x 10 goals scored) = your team has serious issues.

They have scored 13 goals and given up 12 in 9 games. And their knight in goal-scoring armor Daniel Sturridge is still a few weeks away from returning.

Making matters worse is that Liverpool has an Old Yeller issue when it comes to Steven Gerrard. It is always tough to phase out a legend. Just ask Chelsea and Manchester United over the past few seasons. They’ve had to do it a lot. But it appears Liverpool don’t exactly have a graceful exit strategy for ol’ Stevie Me.

He is clearly a step slow and it is almost tough to watch. With Frank Lampard, the England midfielder he was linked with his entire career, Chelsea phased him out slowly, using him in spots and matches they know he could be successful and not hanging him out to dry in matches he couldn’t be.

This was made a lot easier for Chelsea because they had the young horses to step up and play in Lampard’s spot. This isn’t the case for Liverpool, and they are forced to try to keep rolling him out there in awkward spots even though he is a few steps slow, can’t play defense and hasn’t scored a goal from the run of play since Raheem Sterling was 16.

But the show must go on for the Reds. Qualifying for Champions League is cool and all, but it is only impressive if you can continue to qualify. They sit in 7th place right now, tied with three other teams on 14 points.

They play a suddenly-confident Newcastle team at St James Park. They need the points to stay in that log-jam right now fighting for the third and fourth spot in the league. More importantly, they need to find a way to live life After Suarez. If they can’t, last year will just be a one-off and they’ll be back to watching Champions League on TV every Tuesday and Wednesday.

 

No. 2: Chelsea vs Queens Park Rangers at Stamford Bridge

When: Saturday at 10:00am on NBC Sports Network

Last year: This match didn’t happen last year, with QPR being relegated and whatnot. But it did happen in January of 2013 and the visitors won 1-0. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Chelsea players no doubt have some anger and frustration after that United debacle that they’ll no doubt look to take out on the bottom-feeders QPR.

It was actually quite sad after the game on Sunday. In case you missed it, Branislav Ivanovic got a red card late into stoppage and Robin van Persie scored the equalizer at the death to finish in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford. Tough one, yes. But the players took Instagram like teenagers upset after a varisty soccer loss. Be bigger than that, Chelsea. The reffing was shady at times, but when isn’t it? It isn’t like United played with 16 men and released hounds trained to bite the color Blue.

Before we go any further, can we talk about how amazing Didier Drogba is? What a professional. In less than a week, he comes off an ankle injury, scores in a Champions League match, scores in a Premier League match at Old Trafford and plays 90 minutes, then follows it up by starting and scoring in a Capital One Cup match on Tuesday. Three matches, three goals in three different competitions in less than a week at the age of 36.

I just want to hug him. I never want him to retire. I want him to eventually come to MLS and play until he is 53. Then, him and I become best friends and have our own reality show called Dana & Drogba where he hang out, eat wings, and travel around in an RV doing cool stuff. You’d watch.

But anyway, Chelsea have had six days to stew about QPR and will  no doubt be looking to take some anger out in the London derby against the team currently 19th.

As far as QPR goes, lets just say it: they are terrible. They did pick up one of their two wins on the season last time out against Aston Villa, but that’s like getting excited because you dunked on a kids Fisher Price hoop.

Looks like QPR will also have Diego Costa to deal with. Jose Mourinho said in his press conference Friday morning that the Spaniard will be available after missing the Manchester United match with that lingering hamstring situation.

Should be a party at Stamford Bridge on Saturday but Chelsea fans remember thinking the exact same thing two years ago.

No. 3: Manchester City vs Manchester United at Etihad Stadium

When: Sunday at 7:30am on NBC Sports Network (No Big Boy NBC)

Last year:

Put me in the camp that believes the United debry has turned into the premier (no pun intended)  matches on the calendar each year.

This obviously has a lot to do with the resurgence of Manchester City in the past five seasons. I think a lot of people in this country took notice of the Premier League in run-up to the title in 2012 and City lifted the trophy in the most dramatic way possible. That was the first time I remember Premier League matches doing bigger numbers ratings-wise. Plus, because of the City’s rise to power, it made an old rivalry fresh again. For people on this side of the pond, this had always been a one-way street. Now it is fresh and exciting and people love fresh and exciting things.

But even more so, it has become the most exciting fixture on the calendar because crazy (expletive) always seems to happen. Sit down, children and let Nuclear ‘Mr Rodgers’ Wessel change sweaters and take you down memory lane.

2009-10: Craig Bellamy scores in the 90th minute to level things at 3 and nearly guarantee the then-on-the-rise City would get a point against the defending champions in their own backyard. But Michael Owen scored the winner in the sixth minute of stoppage time United would edge City 1-0 later that year at the Etihad.

2010-11: After a 0-0 draw at Manchester City, the two played an all-time classic at Old Trafford in February. Wayne Rooney provided one of the all-time great goals and images in Premier League history with that bicycle kick goal (you know the one I am talking about) and the ensuing celly.

2011-12: After the frustration of the past two seasons, City beat United for the first time since 2007 and only the fifth time since 1989. It was a 6-1 thrashing at Old Trafford. The noisy neighbors showing they weren’t messing around anymore. This match is often referred to as the ‘Why Always Me?’ match. Remember when Mario Balotelli was good?

2012-13: Robin van Persie gets the last-minute winner at City in a 3-2 match where a fan threw a coin at Rio Ferdinand, leaving him bloody, and keeper Joe Hart having to restrain fans from going after him after match. Scary stuff. A few months later City then beat United by a goal at Old Trafford.

2013-14: City do the double over United in humiliating fashion, winning both games by a combined score of 7-1. No late-match heroics needed,  but still a huge chapter in the recent history of these two.

Now fast-forward to the present day. United are off to their worst start in Premier League history, grabbing just nine points in 13 matches. City, however, aren’t exactly lighting the table on fire, either. They have 17 points and have already lost two league matches at home and just dumped a Capital One Cup match Wednesday to lowly Newcastle.

If anything, I think United actually have some confidence coming into this one. Sure, their equalizer against Chelsea last Sunday was janky as all get-up, but a point is a point, and it is sometimes more than a point when it comes against the league leaders.

United also got a boost when it was announced Wayne Rooney is fit to play. Rooney hasn’t exactly had a lot to brag to the birds at the club about this season, but he is the leading scorer in Manchester derby history with 11 goals. So, ya know, that must count for something.

On the flip side of that, Manchester City will be without David Silva after he picked up a knock Tuesday against Newcastle and will be out for three to four weeks. That hurts for City.

This one will definitely be worth waking up for, especially since that magic clock thingy happens on Saturday. This one is truly up for grabs.

City won three derbies in a row. Can they win four in a row for the first time since 1970? Can United get their first signature win under Louis van Gaal? Does Wayne Rooney look like a munchkin that fell into a vat of toxic waste?

The answer to all these questions will come Sunday at 7:30am! Except the last one. That one is an obvious yes.

Alright, friends and lovers. That’ll do it for this week. Stay safe tonight and remember that an Uber will cost you about $95 a block.

Until next time, keep your shinguards taped and your sheets clean.

TFD: With Maddon destined for the Cubs, let’s get serious about Molitor vs. Lovullo

lovullomolitorJoe Maddon was a nice diversion. Our own La Velle E. Neal reported that the Twins at least had preliminary discussions with Maddon’s representatives. We’re assuming that went nowhere. We wish it had gone somewhere. We’re guessing the Twins could have and should have tried harder. But it’s moot now, since most of the free world is reporting that Maddon to the Cubs will be a reality very soon.

The attention now returns to the Twins candidates we’ve known about for quite some time. While some of the discussion now could be recycled conjecture, the popular sentiment is that Doug Mientkiewicz is the third-party candidate here and that Paul Molitor and Torey Lovullo are the main challengers for the job.

Honestly, we liked Mientkiewicz the most of the three. If this were a real election, we would still vote our hopes, not our fears. But for reasons that boil down to not much more than instinct and a desire to see what is broken fixed, we would prefer Lovullo over Molitor.

Again, this is probably situational. Lovullo is younger (49 vs. 58), has a reputation for embracing a new way of thinking and has had success as a minor-league manager. He also comes from the outside and was a marginal major league player — something that seems to be a boon when it comes to being a manager, as opposed to being a superstar like Molitor. The theory is that someone who has struggled can relate better and teach better than someone who has excelled. We’re not sure we entirely buy it, but we see the logic and we also know the list of great players who became great managers is not a long one.

Had this been a decision the Twins were making after 2010, or even 2011, before the franchise went into a prolonged spiral, we would have been on board with Molitor with few questions asked. Perhaps it isn’t fair to downgrade his candidacy based on the feeling that he offers more of the same because in all reality he might offer a very different voice and direction for the Twins.

The strange thing is, we know a certain segment of the population would still view Molitor as a home run hire. And we know another segment would be bored to tears with that move. Lovullo is a riskier PR move, but perhaps a more savvy one?

At least we should know soon. Monday would mark the five-week anniversary of the search, and we’re not sure what the gift is for that kind of anniversary.

Twins among teams with longest odds to win 2015 World Series

twinserrorThis might come as a shock, but a team that has lost 90 games in each of the past four seasons, doesn’t have a manager, doesn’t figure to spend much money and had their best prospects waylaid for much of the season and thus delayed their major league arrival … well, that team is not expected to do very well in 2015.

As a matter of fact, the Twins are at 100 to 1 odds to win the World Series — tied with the Rockies, Astros and D-Backs for the longest odds in the majors.

No team is better than 15 to 2 right now, though, so if you have a strong conviction, money can be made.

 

Thursday (Bumgarner and a World Series what-if) edition: Wha’ Happened?

bumgarnerThere’s not much more that can be said about Madison Bumgarner after what he did in the World Series, but let’s just all agree that it is in the discussion for greatest pitching performance ever in a Fall Classic — right up there with two performances that involved the Twins.

The first was in 1965, when Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers pitched back-to-back complete game shutouts (the second in Game 7 on just two days of rest) to defeat the Twins in seven games. The second, of course, was Jack Morris’ 10-inning masterpiece in Game 7 of the 1991 series (he was 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA in three series starts that year, not too shabby).

Bumgarner allowed just one run in 21 innings, and throwing five innings on two days of rest is the modern equivalent of what Koufax did. It’s hard to declare one greater than the other, so let’s just say all of those performances were magnificent.

However, we do still have one giant “what-if” about the ninth inning of Game 7: what if the Royals had sent Alex Gordon home from third base after his two-out hit that rolled all the way to the wall?

Plenty of folks online have insisted he would have been out from anywhere between 15 and 40 feet, but we’re not so sure. Watch the highlight of the play and you’ll see Gordon was between halfway and two-thirds of the way to third base by the time the ball was cleanly retrieved and was heading back toward the infield. Then shortstop Brandon Crawford, fielding the relay about 150 feet from home plate, had to scoop a short-hop throw right as Gordon was slowing down upon reaching third.

We would contend that, at the very least, it would have taken a decent throw from Crawford to get Gordon. That would have been after two Giants players — perhaps with nerves frayed — had already misplayed the ball. Is Gordon probably out? Sure, seven out of 10 times. Then again, opponents had 9 hits in 21 innings off Bumgarner in the World Series. We might have taken our chances on the relay being true vs. getting a hit off of a pitcher who was locked into that kind of zone.

We’ll never know, of course, what might have happened. But at least some of us will always wonder.

TFD: Vikings have a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs

playoffsWe tend to get obsessed with playoff odds in various leagues (in case you didn’t notice with our various posts at various times last year updating you breathlessly on the percentage chance the Wolves and/or Wild had to make the playoffs).

Know what? We’re still obsessed, so we’re here to tell you the Vikings have a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs at the midpoint of their season, per Football Outsiders.

That’s based on what has already happened, plus 50,000 simulations of the rest of the season.

So in, um, 500 of those simulations the Vikings make the playoffs.

These things have a way of changing quickly, though, when expected losses turn into wins (before the Tampa Bay win, the Vikings were at 0.4 percent). We would imagine a victory over Washington on Sunday would bump the odds up a few percentage points, and another one over Chicago after the bye would turn the dial even more.

For now, though, the Vikings are 1 percenters. We will make sure to keep you up to date as further events warrant.

A natural comparison between Vikings’ Bridgewater, Washington QB

teddytampaVikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater fielded questions Wednesday about his similarity to Washington QB Robert Griffin III, politely brushing the notion aside while complimenting the playmaking ability a healthy Griffin has. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer fielded similar questions about the two QBs, saying he prefers not to make comparisons at all.

That’s good because the two QBs couldn’t really be much different. Yes, they were both first-round draft picks. Yes, they both happen to be black — a similarity that should matter zero when it comes to comparisons.

Griffin is a magnificent athlete — so much so that Washington rode his unique gifts and an unconventional read-option offense to the playoffs in his 2012 rookie season. He can be a good pocket passer, too, but the threat of him running is the thing that gives him the biggest edge.

Bridgewater is a classic pro-style passer who is nimble enough in the pocket to buy himself time and can run when he has to, but in his past two starts he has run a total of two times. (Griffin, by contrast, has averaged 7 rushing attempts per game in his career). He’s a good athlete — all QBs are, to some extent — but he does not rely on athletic gifts to succeed. Rather, his game is built around accuracy and being able to read defenses, skills that will take some time to build in the NFL.

As a matter of fact, he more closely resembles a different Washington QB in terms of his skill set: Colt McCoy. Yes, Bridgewater should have a higher ceiling and was a first-round pick compared to McCoy’s third round selection, but if you compare the scouting reports from NFL.com on the two pre-draft, it’s uncanny:

BridgewaterA calculated, football-smart, precision-matchup rhythm passer, Bridgewater would be best suited entering a warm-weather or dome environment such as those most common in the South divisions. Would stand to benefit heavily from operating a short, dink-and-dunk rhythm passing game. Compensates for a lack of elite arm talent and prototype measureables with the intangibles and football intelligence that could elevate the other 52 players around him.

McCoy: McCoy is a natural leader with high character. Played with a lot of intelligence in Texas’ system which he mastered. Was extremely productive. Possesses a quick release. Displays great accuracy in the short passing game and puts the ball in a position to set up his receivers for run after the catch. Has the foot-speed to avoid the rush and buy extra time. … McCoy lacks a cannon for an arm. Can fit the ball into spots on intermediate routes at times but will struggle with the deep ball.

It’s unclear whether McCoy — who was quite good for Washington in Monday’s upset over Dallas — or Griffin will play Sunday against the Vikings. If it is Bridgewater vs. McCoy, you’ll see two very similar QBs — far more so than if it’s Bridgewater vs. Griffin.

Wednesday (Five things about the Timberwolves) edition: Wha’ Happened?

rubioWe’ve been accused in years past of having an overly optimistic view of the Timberwolves going into seasons, only to see great expectations (or, let’s face it, even modest ones) blow up in another lost season. This optimism even explains the piece of art you see with this post; friends say our annual “the Wolves could be better this season” blog season preview is a good reminder to check your smoke detector batteries.

As such, we’re trying something a little new this season: tempered realism. We’ll let the Wolves try to exceed our modest expectations. Under-promise and over-deliver. That’s the way to get ahead in 2014. As such, here are five things we think about this year’s team:

1) In the long run, we think the Wolves are better off having made the Kevin Love trade. We don’t think he could be the No. 1 player on a great team, and we don’t think the Wolves could have added anyone better than him without trading him. So we stand by this post from a few months ago: David Kahn, in botching Love’s contract, quite possibly saved the Wolves. It forced them to trade Love in his youthful prime, and we can’t imagine ever getting a better haul than what Flip Saunders achieved this offseason.

2) That said, we most definitely think there will be a drop-off in victories this season from last year. Our gut says even when you factor in all the close losses last season, Love was worth an extra 10 victories from last year to this one. So we’re saying this year’s Wolves are a 30-win team.

3) While including Thad Young in the Love trade could be construed as a sign the Wolves aren’t fully committed to a rebuild (they could have had a future first-round pick instead), we do like what Saunders is doing with the roster. Having a few veterans sprinkled in with all this youth is a good thing, in our mind, and it was encouraging to hear Saunders talk after the Wolves cut J.J. Barea about the move being geared toward the future and not wanting to give up on a promising young player like Glenn Robinson III instead.

4) Of all the young players on the roster, we think Zach LaVine will need the longest leash when it comes to figuring out just how good he is. LaVine is a great athlete, but his freshman year at UCLA was nothing special. Sounds a lot like Russell Westbrook (3.4 ppg, less than 1 rebound and assist per game as a UCLA freshman). We’re not saying LaVine is the next Westbrook. That would be crazy. But this was a pick that will take a couple of years to judge.

5) The Wolves should have a pretty nice bench this season. We look at their roster and see a lot of useful players and not a ton of roster filler. The downside is we’re not sure the starting five will be all that much better than the next five. We’re also not entirely sure how this team is going to score points on a nightly basis, which is half of the object of the game, but we certainly foresee this being a more motivated team and a better defensive team than in the Rick Adelman years. Maybe that adds up to a few more close wins. Maybe the youth comes together more quickly than we think. For now, though, 30 wins is our guess. But check those batteries anyway.

TFD: Illinois fraternity in trouble over “Gut the Gophers” sign

In the grand scheme of things, this is not as bad as other recent ideas, but still members of an Illinois fraternity are in trouble because over a Gophers football-related sign they made over the weekend.

Here’s a tweet with a picture of the sign:

And here’s the report from the News-Gazette out of Champaign:

Members of a fraternity are expected to meet soon with University of Illinois officials following its posting of a sign that depicted a knife-wielding American Indian posed over a gopher.

The giant paddleboard placed on the Delta Chi lawn during Saturday’s homecoming game against the Minnesota Gophers featured a Chief Illiniwek-like character in a headdress leaning over a gopher. Painted on the sign were the words, “Gut the Gophers.”

Mid-day talker: If the Twins don’t at least try to go after Maddon, it’s a big mistake

maddongardyTwo paragraphs from La Velle E. Neal’s Monday update on the Twins’ managerial search:

The Twins on Friday expressed interested in speaking with Joe Maddon, who opted out of his contract managing the Rays and became a free agent. According to the source, the Twins had not contacted Maddon as of Monday but are keeping that option open.

To do that, the Twins would have to extend their search into November, which isn’t likely. All signs point to the club making its decision sometime this week on a new manager.

In other words: The Twins said they were interested in talking to Maddon; a weekend passed and they still haven’t tried to do that. If they really want to do that, they will have to stretch out their search. But indications are they are going to name a manager this week, so why even bother trying to go after Maddon?

This line of thinking is, well, maddening (Maddoning?). We will reiterate two things we have said multiple times regarding the Twins and Maddon: 1) If the Twins really have an interest, then they should show that interest and do something about it. Call Maddon’s people. If they get rebuffed, that’s fine. 2) If we were running the Twins, we would essentially give Maddon a blank check. Does he want $5 million a year? Fine. How about $6 million a year? Sure. Because in modern baseball, the number of impact free agents at that price are few and far between — and far less likely to have the kind of impact a very good manager could have.

No offense to Paul Molitor or Torey Lovullo, who are said to be the front-runners for the job, but neither has even close to the track record of Maddon. If the Twins have, in fact, reached out to Maddon and been rejected but won’t say so because they are worried about offending other candidates or making an eventual hire be perceived as a second choice, they shouldn’t be. A lot of good coaches weren’t the first choice. Two of them are leading the Gophers football and men’s basketball programs right now. The public perception backlash is greater if the perception is that the Twins didn’t even really try for Maddon.

This is about exploring a unique opportunity — one that probably wouldn’t work, but you never know.

Tuesday (McHale, Saunders most likely NBA coaches to be fired) edition: Wha’ Happened?

flipmchaleThe start of the NBA season is upon us, and you know what that means: prop bet time!

Yes, the start of any season allows the most desperate of gamblers to wager on normal things like projected win totals to completely speculative things like …

Who will be the first head coach replaced on a full time basis in the 2014-2015 season?

That’s the exact wording from Bovada, a master at timing the release of these prop bets to generate publicity. And we bought it, mostly because of the curious names at the top of their list.

The favorites — the coaches with the shortest odds — to be fired: 1) Kevin McHale of Houston, at 7 to 4; and 2) Flip Saunders of the Wolves, at 2 to 1.

This is strange and comical on a number of levels. First, of course, the two used to work together in Minnesota, and McHale fired Saunders about a decade ago.  … Then McHale and Rick Adelman essentially swapped places, with McHale going to coach Houston and Adelman coaching the Wolves. … Then Saunders replaced Adelman in Minnesota.

We can understand McHale being on the list at the top, since there are still major expectations for the James Harden/Dwight Howard-led Rockets, who have yet to win a playoff series under McHale.

But Saunders? Is Bovada aware that Saunders is also a minority owner with the Wolves as well as President of Basketball Operations — meaning there are a lot of layers to get rid of him?

As noted on Twitter, though, it could be pretty lucrative:

Regardless, we’d take Scott Brooks (8 to 1), Randy Wittman (10 to 1) or Dave Joerger (10 to 1) if we were betting. (That’s a former Wolves player, a former Wolves coach and a would-be Wolves coach, if you are scoring at home and still looking for a Timberwolves connection).

(Photo from 2001 preseason Star Tribune photo shoot. We just rediscovered it, and it is magic).