Bolivia v Argentina: Match report

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Argentina’s World Cup hopes were left hanging by a thread as they slumped to a 2-0 defeat against Bolivia in La Paz. Juan Carlos Arce and Martins Moreno grabbing the goals to sink the 2014 World Cup finalists.

 

The visitors were without Lionel Messi after the Argentina hero found out he was to be suspended for the next four games for using foul and abusive language towards an official during Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Chile. This just five hours before kick-off in the Estadio Hernando Siles, meaning the Barcelona forward will be available for just the final qualifier which, by the time it comes around, may be all but irrelevant should La Albiceleste fall further behind the pack.

 

Still it was the home side that started the brighter pressing the inexperienced Argentina side, that manager Edgardo Bauza had made eight changes to, and using the high altitude to their advantage with the ball gliding unusually through the pitch.

 

Winger Pablo Escobar gave Argentina cause for concern early one with two dazzling runs and crosses picking out his Bolivian teammates. Frantic Argentina defending stopped Moreno from giving his side an early lead.

 

Argentina tried valiantly to get to grips with the conditions as quickly as possible yet painted a picture of frustration as passes often went astray, and when they did get them right the first touch let them down.

 

It took the Messi-less visitors until the 28th minute to render their first clear opportunity, Angel Di Maria who was slipped through by Angel Correa only for the ball to escape the Paris Saint-Germain forward after his first touch, allowing Carlos Lampe to obstruct the ball’s path goalward.

 

If Argentina did not feel sick from the altitude of playing nearly 12,000 feet above sea level they soon would be feeling sick from Di Maria’s missed chance. Just three minutes later Bolivia took the lead through Arce. A hopeful Escobar cross was met by the diminutive midfielder and his clever flicked header alluded goalkeeper Serigo Romero on its way into the Argentina goal.

 

The goal did not seem to wake the Argentines up as the hosts carved their opponents, their swashbuckling attacking energy too much for Marcus Rojo and company to cope with.

 

Guido Pizarro made his debut in the engine room of the Argentina midfield but failed to stamp his authority on the game. Forward Lucas Pratto was preferred to Man City marksman Serigo Aguero up front. However, the Sao Paulo forward could do little to convince spectators that he deserved to add to his five international caps.

 

Bolivia went into half-time with their opponents on the ropes, yet with such attacking verve at Bauza’s disposal many would have been forgiven for thinking the solitary goal advantage would quickly evaporate after the interval. It did not happen.

 

Instead Bolivia picked up from where they left off in the first half. The second half was just six minutes old when Moreno doubled his sides advantage. With Matias Caruzzo ball watching, Martins Moreno took no chances once collecting Jorge Flores’ cross, after the left back had beaten Mateo Musacchio for pace, belting the ball past Romero.

 

Soon after seeing the deficit doubled, manager Edgardo Bauza called for Aguero to fish his team out of a sizeable hole. Aguero one of the high-profile names to be left out of the starting line-up along with City team-mate Nicolas Otamendi, Juventus hitman Pablo Dybala and former Napoli favourite, Ezequiel Lavezzi.

 

Aguero was unable to rescue his side from what would be a fourth defeat in seven visits to the Bolivian capital. Instead it was Aguero’s strike partner, Pratto, that spurned the best chance to get the World Cup finalists back into the game. Pratto managed to get himself free at the far post before heading his effort comfortably wide. Di Maria could only look on in exacerbation, perhaps knowing what was on the horizon should his side fail to find a way back into the contest.

 

Bolivia could have added to their lead with Moreno unable to wriggle free from two markers to put away another inviting ball from Flores.

 

In the end the victory was not enough to save Bolivia, but it certainly deepened Argentina’s crisis. After losing their captain and star man hours before kick-off the inquest from the scathing Argentina media will begin about where Argentina go from here.

 

A colossal encounter with Uruguay in Montevideo in September now awaits Bauza’s squad, the Uruguayans one point ahead of Argentina in the qualification table, with Colombia, Ecuador and Chile breathing heavily down their necks.

 

Messi will be eligible to return to the starting line-up for what could be a crunch encounter against Ecuador. But while Argentina fans circle October 10th on their calendars for his return they face a must win, or rather a must not lose, clash against Luis Suarez and company before awkward visits from Venezuela and Peru, Peru still not mathematically eliminated from qualification either.

 

Argentina’s World Cup hopes hang perilously in the balance. One more defeat in a tight qualification group could see them all but eliminated. A performance as flat as week old Coca-Cola in La Paz. Bauza may use the Messi suspension as a smokescreen to shield his side, and indeed himself, from further criticism but Argentina’s problem run much deeper than that.

 

How sport helped guide me through the darkest period of my life

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It has been little over six months since I lost my mother. During which time, I have had to confront grief, stress and deep depression. All of this on top of having to tackle the everyday issues that we all face.

 

Many have helped me get through this period. Family and trained professionals have tried to guide me through the abyss to see me come out the other side Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption style. Yet the place where I often found the most solace was when glued to my screen watching sporting drama unfold.

 

When my mother passed in early September me and my father made the journey from Lincoln to Oldham four days later to grieve as a family. Yet on that day the first Manchester Derby of the 2016-17 Premier League season was also taking place. For an hour and a half, I sat with my family utterly absorbed by the occasion. My uncle Fernando screaming at the television desperate for his beloved Manchester City to be victorious.

 

I myself had no stake in the game, but for 90 minutes all my sadness evaporated as I watched Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola duel on the touchline while superstars draped in sky blue and red played out a pulsating encounter. It made me forget. For however brief the amnesia the game eased the heartbreak and transported me to a world where I did not matter. All that mattered were the 22 men on the field and the thousands in the stands willing them on.

 

Mum’s funeral was some three weeks later. An occasion that provoked reflection amongst other things. Yet even in the early hours of the morning of that exhausting day I found myself sat with my cousin Chris and two friends debating the right back position. A chance to debate and think in depth and compare player X against player Y provided escapism for my brain leaving behind reality.

 

Escapism has been key. Being alone with your thoughts and all the time in the world is enough to drive any person insane. Yet amid a deep depression those thoughts turn dark. They turn to thoughts of suicide, regret and self-loathing. Nothing is more depressing than questioning with your own mortality and if life is worth it when such pain exists. You can often make a compelling case that it is easier and worth it to end it all. To not have to face the trials and tribulations of life and be reunited with loved ones.

 

The day after I watched Manchester United destroy champions Leicester 4-1 before listening to Arsenal produce a scintillating half of football to gun down Chelsea 3-0. A three-hour period that brought a much-needed catharsis. It was an opportunity to become absorbed in something other than reality.

 

While sport shares many traits with the normalcies of commonplace life it was one of these similarities that I relished most: unpredictability. Mum’s death hit home, harder than ever, that life was unpredictable and sometimes cruel. Yet it was this characteristic that I loved dearly about sport. I appreciated that I knew nothing about the outcome of whatever sport I sat down to watch – and that gave me comfort.

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The day after that I sat in a friend’s kitchen watching the Green Bay Packers open up their 2016 season against the Jacksonville Jaguars. We had to leave at the end of the third quarter. We got back just in time for the final drive of the game where I was less composed journalist and more fanboy watching his team try and hold on for an opening day victory. I was so close to the television that nobody behind me could see a thing. I remember I was sent home from work that day after it all got too much. I broke down in the kitchen, then, emotionally spent, I fell asleep once my step-mum collected me from work. When the first ball was kicked in Jacksonville I was as awake as ever. All my difficulties fell away. The only thing that mattered was Aaron Rodgers and company marching Green Bay up and down the field. While they sweated in 30 degree heat they unknowingly provided a strange therapy for a man, whom felt more like a small boy, who had lost his direction in life.

 

In the immediate aftermath of my mother’s passing I fell into a deep depression. Forcing every emotion that was not a frown. Smiles were forced rather than naturally occurring, even when I had reason to smile I could not find it within myself to raise one. But when football, NFL or darts was on the emotions flooded back and the drama unfolding in front of me made for a sturdy dam keeping negative emotions at bay. All screams, smiles and large exhales were spontaneous. Each televised sporting occasion became my own outer body experience as I rose from the cocoon of despair and grief to be reunited with emotions of joy and exhilaration.

 

In mid-November I was sat watching the Dallas Cowboys defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a gripping encounter. Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant ended the game with six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Without context, his stat line means little. But less than 24-hours earlier Bryant had lost his father. His Head Coach and teammates paid homage to his toughness in the locker room after the game.

 

Watching an emotional locker room rally around Bryant slapped me back into reality. Bryant could perform due to his dedicated support group. Much like what I had around me. It also reminded me that, as much as we may not want to, life must go on. We must perform our duties in work and home life. He played his position at the highest level less than a day after his devastating loss (fast forward to 1:10 on the video). Bryant used playing sport the same way I used watching and analysing it. An escape from reality, a form of therapy, even if only for a fleeting period.

Not long after I sat in work watching a story on Philadelphia Eagles’ long snapper Jon Dorenbos, whose father murdered his mother when he was just 12-years-old. I shed tears. Not only because the story was touching in its own right but because suddenly I could relate. After experiencing such a devastating loss of my own I could offer sympathy on a personal level. Even if that person had no idea who I was.

 

Sport illustrated better than anything that in a split-second anything can happen and with that lives are changed forever. For better or worse sport painted the picture that in the moment anything is possible. It taught me not to assume anything no matter how stacked the odds are in your favour, or against it.

 

For me, my mum was superhuman. She was going to be around even after rapture. But trying to make sense of a passing of that magnitude is hard to convey in the spoken or written word. Yet unknowingly sport demonstrated it perfectly. Sport is a collage of hundreds and thousands of moments, strung together along an undetermined timeline until a certain outcome is reached. It is only after the final moment can a post mortem be carried out to examine what moments mattered most.

 

My own reflective stage taught me to string together the moments that mattered most when remembering my mother: the trip to Barbados, being with her on my graduation, watching the 2004 F.A. Cup final together and seeing a young Cristiano Ronaldo blossom in Manchester. These moments, in hindsight, mattered more significantly than I could have ever imagined at the time. Just like all the moments in sport matter.

 

For the last six months’ sport has provided a wonderful, yet surreal, haven for myself. A bridge between fantasy and reality allowing for brief moments of distraction while being present in the moment. Everything about sport as an industry made it feel surreal. The level of skill on show, the very nature of it being on television and the vast amounts of money on display allowed for an experience unable to be pinned down in reality.

 

After turning to alcohol, work, family and many other outlets for, not help, but a way out it was in sport that I found the most comfort. After all, all I am after, is an escape.

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England vs Lithuania: Match report

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Jermain Defoe scored his first England goal since 2013 and Jamie Vardy fired home also as England maintained their lead at the top of Group F, and remain on course for Russia in 15 months’ time, after a 2-0 win over Lithuania at Wembley.

 

the last time Defoe was on the score sheet for the Three Lions, against San Marino, his club career at Tottenham was eroding away with the instinctive finisher making the long trip to the Great White North, Canada, and his international career looked to be on ice too with Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Harry Kane, to name a few, all preferred in the Roy Hodgson pecking order.

 

Defoe led out England mascot, admire and friend Bradley Lowery before leading the England line. The latter proved to be of much frustration as the Lithuania defence sat as deep as the could.

 

The visitors frustrated the hosts with banks of four and five often deployed to stifle Gareth Southgate’s attacking line-up. And while England were dominant they almost came undone just before the half time interval when Vykintas Silvka looped an innocent enough looking header over Joe Hart, a goalkeeper desperate to avoid anymore headlines questioning his decision making, and required the help of John Stones to save his blushes.

 

England were rarely threatened, more gently reminded, by their Eastern European opposition when they dared to venture out of their own half.

 

England probed for the first whistle with accurate passes looking to find any cracks in the opposition back line and it took until the 21st minute for them to finally break the deadlock. Raheem Sterling’s lightning quick dip of the shoulder and charge into the penalty area gave the Manchester City winger plenty of time to side-foot a cross just in front on the penalty spot where Defoe was waiting to ponce. The Sunderland striker cooly slotted past Ernestas Setkus in the Lithuania goal. A trademark finish that has seen him register 14 goals at club level this season, and over 150 Premier League goals.

 

The man of the hour was replaced on the hour, by Vardy, having completed his work in giving Southgate’s side the advantage. His biggest fan Bradley offering up the biggest applause from the stands.

 

Marcus Rashford was also introduced to proceedings and ran at the robust visitors with great power while Kyle Walker raided up and down the right side providing width at will as England continued to pepper the Lithuania box with Vardy, Dele Alli and Eric Dier spurning chances to extend the already convincing lead.

 

England continued to boss possession with Sterling having a glorious chance to double the lead just after half time but were reduced to rather speculative efforts from there on with the yellow Lithuanian wall bending but never breaking.

 

Their patience was rewarded as Vardy calmed tucked away the ball after a delicious touch from Adam Lallana. The duo almost linked up again with Lallana’s cross finding the Leicester forward who this time found his effort smothered by scrambling visiting defenders.

 

England got the result that they desired but have often travelled this road before in qualification, looking slick and sharp against far superior opposition – Iceland aside – before stagnating against much more complete opposition. However, Southgate’s tactical switch against Germany, followed up by an optimistic outing against the World Cup holders, before reverting to a 4-5-1 approach at Wembley.

 

Whether this England will be any different to the squads that have gone by and faded away remain to be seen but we were offered yet another glimpse of optimism England fans have become so accustomed to seeing down the years.

A historic night for Barcelona but PSG’s mental frailties rear their ugly head again

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Sergi Roberto struck with virtually the last kick of the game sending Barcelona through to the last eight of the Champions League. Facing an impossible task of being 4-0 down to Paris Saint-Germain after the first leg and then facing a 5-3 deficit with just 28 minutes remaining Barca needed more than a miracle.

 

However, while the world will marvel at Barcelona’s three goals in the final seven minutes of the match, what should not be ignored is PSG’s mental frailties. It was on a plate for the French powerhouse and it seemed for all the world they would shatter their mental block with manager Unai Emery on the touchline. The former Sevilla manager was seen as the secret weapon to guiding PSG through the tie after going toe-to-toe with Barcelona many times when in charge in Seville.

 

However, it was not to be. Yet another cross examination will be carried out by PSG’s hierarchy on how this collection of extraordinary talented individuals cannot band together and dig in when they are required to.

 

The collapse against Luis Enrique’s side evoked memories of their 2014 capitulation against Chelsea in the quarter-finals. After winning the first leg commandingly 3-1, with Javier Pastore scoring in injury time to ‘all but put the tie beyond Chelsea’, the Parisians collapsed in London as Demba Ba netted an 87th minute strike to send Jose Mourinho’s side through on away goals.

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In 2013 Paris faced Barcelona in what would soon become a European rivalry. After Blaise Matuidi struck deep in injury time in the Parc des Princes to give PSG a fighting chance when heading back to the Nou Camp the French outfit then shrunk in the spotlight again. After taking the lead through Pastore the Catalans struck back through Pedro. The scoreline will forever read 1-1 and that Barca advance via the away goals rule but the reality paints a different picture, PSG were in control of the game – on a night when Lionel Messi was relegated to the bench, still recovering from a thigh injury. But when the chances came PSG could not take them and inevitably succumbed to Barcelona’s will.

 

This time the autopsy will take on a different manner. No team had ever come back from a 4-0 first leg deficit to emerge victorious in a Champions League tie. Trailing 3-0 it seemed Barca would at least take the game into extra time, and then the Nou Camp fell silent as Edinson Cavani expertly lashed his shot past Marc-Andre ter Stegan putting Paris Saint-Germain firmly back in control and only needing to resist for 28 more minutes with Barca requiring a trio of strikes to get through – even the most die-hard Catalan must have thought it was over. To go from 4-0 to 4-3 with an hour still to play is a collapse in its own right, but to then leave Messi and company needing another 3 goals after Cavani made it 3-1 on the night – and still lose- is a catastrophe like no other.

 

Emery’s stay in Paris may be a short one after domestic dominance is now being challenged with PSG chasing the pack, rather than setting the insurmountable pace, in Ligue 1 and being dumped out of Europe’s elite club competition in the most extraordinary fashion.

 

Perhaps such a failure felt inevitable, Barcelona have rarely felt like the team of five or six years ago, yet all week the players and their manager maintained unwavering faith: “If they can score four we can score six” remarked Enrique with Neymar adding “It is practically impossible. But we cannot give up.” Barca did not give up – in the week Luis Enrique told the press and his players he would be stepping down at the end of the season the miraculous turnaround felt like the players did it for their departing manager.

 

PSG by comparison felt like a 3-1 defeat would be job done, even 4-1 or 5-1. After all they had the all-important away goal and all that mattered was getting through the tie. After realising they were in a game after Messi’s penalty made it 3-0 on the night and had social media exploding with ‘they couldn’t, could they?’ PSG fell complacent – even conceited – after their star striker netted what should have been the final nail in Barcelona’s Champions League coffin.

 

The difference between the great and the very good were encapsulated in 185 pulsating minutes. Barcelona’s stars banned together as a true team refusing to give in – for PSG the questions once again musts be asked of leadership, selflessness and gut. It truly was a night of history for both teams, and for polarising reasons, one they shall both never forget.

 

Jamison Crowder set for a breakout 2017

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DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon are all but done in Washington. The pass catching duo are set to hit the open market leaving the door open for third year man Jamison Crowder to fill the void left behind.

 

Crowder will probably be taking the role of Jackson as his playing style is like that of the former Philadelphia Eagle. Crowder ended the season with more receptions than Jackson and amassed 847 yards and seven touchdowns.

 

Jackson by comparison recorded his fifth 1,000-yard season of his career to go along with four scores in 2016. However, with Jackson’s injury history and his six-million-dollar salary in 2016, plus his age, it makes sense for Washington to usher in the Crowder era in the capital.

 

Crowder has exceptional quickness, being able to get out of his break and have the ball in his hands in open space. At a mere five foot eight the fourth-round pick does not have the physicality to deal with big corners in press man. Last season Sean McVay did an excellent job of putting Crowder in bunch formations allowing the receiver to get into space quick on slant patterns and post routes – utilising the game-breaking speed of the former Duke sensation.

 

These are all traits synonymous with Jackson – except now Washington are hoping to get the same, or greater, production at a much cheaper cost and with a younger guy. Crowder is owed just $751,406 in 2017 and at 23-years-old the hope is that he will only get better. McVay is no longer there with Washington but the new offensive coordinator should keep some of the things the now Los Angeles Rams coach put in place.

 

Washington will also be hoping that 2016 first-round selection Josh Doctson returns healthy for the 2017 season after battling a myriad of problems during his maiden season in the NFL. Doctson has the height and speed to really trouble number one cornerbacks leaving Crowder free to capitalise on coverage from elsewhere.

 

While Jackson became more of an exclusive downfield threat Crowder is an exceptional route runner capable of operating as the X, Y or Z receiver. Offering quarterback Kirk Cousins the luxury to go underneath to the 23-year-old with a quick slant pattern or go deep to him with a nine route.

 

Such a versatile weapon forces the defense to play him honestly and while Crowder does not have the imposing size that often sees wide outs feared his instant acceleration and 4.5 speed terrifies not only cornerbacks, but also safeties, as he can get on top of them quicker than they anticipate.

 

Washington also like to deploy Crowder in the red zone with three of his seven scores coming from there. Should Crowder build on his impressive second season and inherit the snaps from Jackson and some from Garcon then Head Coach Jay Gruden will have a younger, quicker attack in 2017, with matchup nightmare tight end Jordan Reed also in the mix to cause defences even more problems.

 

 

 

In the NFL, talent will only get you so far. Luckily for Crowder he is an excellent effort guy. Willing to block in the run game he shows his willingness to fight for his team leading him to being on the field more than perhaps anticipated. Sometimes overpowered by bigger linebackers but that is not a problem as Crowder can sometimes do just enough to allow the running back that extra yard or to squeeze through the crease to pick up the first down. If Crowder can bulk up in the off-season to make himself a more effective blocker, as well as make him more physical as a pass catcher, then Washington will start to have a real prize asset on their hands.

 

With everything in Washington going in Crowder’s favour he is a good bet to get his first 1,000-yard season of his pro career – potentially putting up double digit touchdowns too – and lay down a real marker heading into his contract year in 2018. 2017 is the perfect platform for the former fourth rounder to establish himself as one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL.

Green Bay Packers’ top 5 priorities this offseason

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With just two teams remaining this season the other 30 NFL establishments fade away into the background to be forgotten. Head Coaches and General Managers work frantically after their season is over to ensure that they are not forgotten so easily in a years’ time.

 

Tinkering and overhauling is now underway and for the Green Bay Packers, a team who has been on the cusp of Super Bowl contention for the last three years, they have a huge offseason ahead of them. If they are to get a second ring in the Aaron Rodgers era and quieten debates of wasting the talents of the quarterback in the last ten years here is what they must do:

 

  1. Better special teams play

This may not seem like a huge deal but teams this year showed that big kick and punt returns change momentum in a big way. Green Bay get very little from their special teams outside of Jeff Janis. The Packers had just 151 yards on punt returns in the 2016 season ranking 29th amongst NFL teams. With Dom Capers’ defense struggling throughout the season it would have helped the paly calling if the special teams unit could pin opposing offenses back inside their own ten or five yard line.

 

Green Bay lack a return specialist – look at the impact Tyreek Hill had this season for the Kansas City Chiefs not to mention Devin Hester’s impact as recently as his stint with the Seattle Seahawks (if the Seahawks did not kill themselves with penalties on his returns). Green Bay have not had a kick return or punt return touchdown since week 11 of the 2014 season when Micah Hyde took off for 75-yards against the Philadelphia Eagles.

 

In a year where all the focus was on Green Bay’s porous defense and their offense catching fire – their special teams unit was sneaky bad and they would do well to improve it ahead of the 2017 season.

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  1. Clear the murky Running Back position

Eddie Lacy is a free agent to be as is Christian Michael, whom they picked up off waivers after Seattle discarded him, Ty Montgomery impressed when making the switch from wide out to running back but his success needs an asterisk affixed to it, After taking over as the permanent back the second year pro averaged just under eight attempts per game with a 16 attempt performance against the Chicago Bears in week 15 inflating the statistic even further. During the post season Montgomery averaged a meagre 3.6 yards-per-carry on 25 rushing attempts.

 

For Lacy the situation is much more complex, plagued by injuries and weight issues the past two seasons the former Alabama bruiser has showcased his ability to be a true three down back when healthy and at the right weight. Unfortunately, Lacy has proved to be unreliable when maintaining a healthy weight for a running back. For all the hype in the 2015 offseason that he had slimmed down by almost 25 pounds rumours started to circulate that by October he had put the weight back on. The dilemma facing Green Bay and perhaps Packers fans, too, is that Lacy is obviously talented and it is not hard to imagine him changing franchises, getting a fresh start and fulfilling his potential as a workhorse back.

 

The draft class is deep at the running back position this year, but Green Bay have more pressing needs on their team. Free Agency also does not offer a glamourous alternative at the position. Maybe Lacy gets one more year with Montgomery as the change of pace mismatch back.

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  1. Re-sign key cogs

Ted Thompson is good at this part at least. Randall Cobb and Mike Daniels got paid last offseason and this year Thompson must try and find a way to give money to: TJ Lang, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season, Micah Hyde, Nick Perry, who led the team in sacks this year, Jared Cook (word out of Green Bay is he is a priority this offseason) and there are question marks over Julius Peppers, Datone Jones and the aforementioned Lacy.

 

Last season Thompson let Casey Hayward walk out of the door and Packers fans had to watch him flourish in San Diego while their secondary floundered. They can’t afford to make the same mistake with Hyde who has been a consistent performer for the Pack. Green Bay can ill afford to lose members in a secondary which was historically bad last year.

 

Josh Sitton was a surprise cut last offseason after an All-Pro season so there is evidence that Thompson and Mike McCarthy are not afraid to let go of players coming off playing at a high level – it is all about timing. Lang is consistently underappreciated and will have teams clamouring for his services if Green Bay do not see his true value.

 

Nick Perry picked up the slack from Clay Matthews this season and in his ‘prove it’ season he racked up double digit sacks. He should now get paid.

 

Cook showed that, when healthy, he can expand the Green Bay offense and is a nightmare for linebackers and safeties. A priority this offseason and if he can stay healthy for 16 games we may see Rodgers produce his late season magic from the September – which would be terrifying.

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  1. Re-tool the defense

The last time the Packers spent a first round pick on offense was 2011. Since then they have drafted 23 players on defense and while they have got steals in Mike Daniels and Pro Bowl calibre players in Ha-ha Clinton-Dix it is hard to recall any of the 23 picks having a monumental impact on this defense. This unit needs a lot of work – better coaching, maybe even new coaching (that won’t happen Dom Capers will be in Green Bay until Rapture.)

 

Clay Matthews, often the building block of the defense, has had two seasons wrecked by injury and ineffectiveness. Julius Peppers is weighing up retirement but even if the former Carolina Panther returns he will be 37-years-old and no more than a situational pass rusher.

 

The back end needs serious work. Sam Shields went on IR after suffering a concussion and Damarious Randall had all confidence sucked from him after returning from injury. Randall constantly gave wide receivers a free release off the line and was often blown by when getting into a foot race. Undrafted Free Agent Ladarious Gunter had a nightmare postseason being burned by both Dez Bryant and Julio Jones with both receivers going off for over 100 receiving yards.

 

Capers’ defense got to a point where they were so vulnerable against the pass they seldom played the run. Even with two safeties constantly over the top to help out their demoralised corners the secondary got picked on.

 

Green Bay’s sack total was surprisingly good with them finishing sixth overall with 40 total quarterback takedowns. However, considering that opposition offenses were forced to pass to try and keep pace with Rodgers it made teeing off on signal callers a touch easier. However, pass rush is a need. Matthews has dropped off former first round pick Datone Jones has been a bust and Kyler Fackrell is still quite raw.

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  1. Be aggressive in Free Agency

 

When your franchise quarterback goes public with subtle tones of wanting the organisation to be more proactive in their recruitment, you know it is a real issue. Rodgers said the Packers ‘need to reload a little’ and he is not wrong. Injuries exposed the severe lack of depth across the board. We are not long removed from thinking the Packers’ roster was the deepest in the league and now it is perhaps one of the thinnest.

 

But depth for the sake of depth does not solve anything. Thompson must get the Packers strength in depth whereby there is only a small drop off between starter and back up.

 

In 2014 offseason, Green Bay made similar noises with over $30m in cap space available to splash out. To their credit, they did bring in Peppers and Letroy Guion who have both been welcome additions to the roster and with Cook joining last offseason it is a head scratcher as to why Thompson does not dive into Free Agency more frequently as he can clearly identify pieces to fill holes in the jigsaw.

 

There is a real sense that the Packers are just one or two players away from getting back to another Super Bowl and there is now also a sense that Aaron Rodgers’ window is closing. He ended the season playing at a historic level but the fact that questions were even asked about his window and that he is now 33-years-old shows that we are all starting to think about Green Bay making the most out of their all-world signal caller. The Denver Broncos loaded up on defense for Peyton Manning’s final run going all in for one more Lombardi. While Rodgers is nowhere near the desperation of 2015 Manning it may not be a bad idea for the Packers brass to look over what the Broncos did to give Rodgers the best shot to get another ring.

Liverpool title chase a lost cause with a bad defence

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Saturday’s 3-2 home loss to Swansea saw Liverpool’s season in a microcosm. While breathtakingly entertaining, their weak backline became exposed. It’s the third time this season that The Reds have shipped three goals in a single game.

 

Jurgen Klopp’s side have already conceded 27 goals this season, more than five title winning sides conceded over a 38-game span. The average number of goals conceded by a title winning team is 32 and Liverpool are set to go over that number, probably by some distance.

 

Having based their recent title-tilts on attack over defence Klopp’s Liverpool is now facing the same problem as Brendan Rodgers’ did during their 2013/14 title charge. Liverpool conceded 50 goals that season while scoring an almighty 101. Winners City conceded 13 less while scoring an equally impressive 102 goals.

 

The Reds’ erratic defending has heaped pressure on their forwards. Starting as they meant to go on their opening day clash with Arsenal saw them roar into a 4-1 leading midway through the second half only to hang on for dear life as their defence capitulated allowing Arsenal to get the score back to 4-3 with just 15 minutes remaining. While many praised Liverpool for not buckling while The Gunners attempted to stage a great comeback the bigger issue at hand was that Liverpool could not go an entire season conceding at that level. Unfortunately, the issues that plagued them in August are still there in January.

 

Klopp has invested in his back line with the additions of centre-backs Joel Matip, Ragnar Klavan as well as goalkeeper Loris Karius to provide competition for Simon Mignolet. While Matip shows signs he will develop into a very good centre half Estonian international Klavan remains a liability at the back. Klopp has turned to James Milner to help fix their problem at left-back with Alberto Moreno lacking positional sense. Neither Karius or Mignolet cuts a figure of a shot-stopper who can be the backbone of a title-winning side.

 

Only twice has a team lifted the Premier League when conceding at least 40 goals – Manchester United on both occasions. Liverpool have conceded at least 40 goals for six straight seasons and look odds on to make that reach seven.

 

Swashbuckling attack has never been an issue for Liverpool with them able to match the very best when going forward. Klopp has moulded an exciting array of firepower but what his side lacks when compared to front-runners Chelsea, and the great Manchester United sides of years gone by, is organisation at the back with solid defenders and a world class goalkeeper. For all their brilliance going forward the method simply is not sustainable.

 

Liverpool’s approach at times could often be labelled as chaotic – perhaps much like their brilliant German manager. Their attack so fast and furious the opposition can’t have a moment to breath, head-spinning speed and movement and in Saido Mane they have a forward with power as well as pace. Their chaos is a double-edged sword however, transferring to their backline where The Reds all too often scramble around making it painfully obvious that their organisation and communication is a huge weak spot.

 

For the next few transfer windows Klopp’s objective should be clear: get better defenders. Dejan Lovren has not recaptured his form which earned him a move to Liverpool from Southampton, James Milner, while having an outstanding season at full-back, is more there out of necessity due to Alberto Moreno’s ineffectiveness. Nathaniel Clyne has been solid in his right-back role and, along with Milner, is their most consistent performer in defence.

 

Klopp has certainly brought his “heavy metal” football to Anfield, his vision is starting to take shape to the joy of spectators but their lack of solid foundations at the back is what has always been, and continues to be, their undoing.