Sunday, June 07, 2015

BoBA ISML 2015 Predictions: Aquamarine Match Day 1

Let's do this. It's time.

ARENA 01: [Kuriyama Mirai] Minami Kotori by >=500
Over/Under: 9000
Over

ARENA 02: [Kurousagi] Terminus Est by <=1000
Over/Under: 9000
Under

ARENA 03: [Nishikino Maki] Latifa Fleuranza by >=500
Over/Under: 8500
Over

ARENA 04: Yazawa Nico [Onodera Kosaki] by >=600
Over/Under: 8500
Over

ARENA 05: [Sakura Chiyo] Yaya by >=1500
Over/Under: 8650
Over

ARENA 06: Shiba Miyuki [Jibril] by <=1600
Over/Under: 8950
Under

ARENA 07: Konno Yūki [Stephanie Dola] by >=400
Over/Under: 8860
Under

ARENA 08: [Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko] Sonoda Umi by >=700
Over/Under: 8700
Over

ARENA 09: Aihara Enju [Kirisaki Chitoge] by >=1000
Over/Under: 8800
Over

ARENA 10: Shokuhō Misaki [Tachibana Marika] by <=800
Over/Under: 8970
Under

ARENA 11: Tobiichi Origami [Yukinoshita Yukino] by >=600
Over/Under: 8990
Under

ARENA 12: Azuki Azusa [Yoshino] by >=800
Over/Under: 8600
Over

ARENA 13: [Ayase Eli] Sento Isuzu by <=600
Over/Under: 8700
Over

ARENA 14: [Tokisaki Kurumi] Tina Sprout by >=1600
Over/Under: 8600
Over

ARENA 15: [Yuigahama Yui] Shichimiya Satone by >=1300
Over/Under: 8600
Over

ARENA 16: [Yatogami Tōka] Himeragi Yukina by >=1800
Over/Under: 9100
Under

ARENA 17: Akame [Asada Shino] by >=1200
Over/Under: 8750
Under

ARENA 18: [Shiro] Miyazono Kaori by >=2000
Over/Under: 8800
Over

ARENA 19: [Aisaka Taiga] Konjiki no Yami by >=1200
Over/Under: 9000
Over

ARENA 20: Hirasawa Yui [Illyasviel von Einzbern] by <=500
Over/Under: 9000
Under

ARENA 21: [Nakano Azusa] C.C. by >=1200
Over/Under: 8600
Over

ARENA 22: [Yūki Asuna] Kashiwazaki Sena by >=1300
Over/Under: 8700
Over

ARENA 23: [Oshino Shinobu] Nagato Yuki by <=1000
Over/Under: 8750
Under

ARENA 24: Holo [Tōsaka Rin] by >=2000
Over/Under: 9000
Over

ARENA 25: [Yuzuriha Inori] Senjōgahara Hitagi by >=1500
Over/Under: 8900
Over

ARENA 26: [Nibutani Shinka] Chitanda Eru by >=1100
Over/Under: 8700
Over

ARENA 27: Makise Kurisu [Nyarlathotep] by <=600
Over/Under: 8700
Under

ARENA 28: Kōsaka Kirino [Aragaki Ayase] by >=2000
Over/Under: 9000
Over

ARENA 29: [Eucliwood Hellscythe] Sengoku Nadeko by >=2500
Over/Under: 9000
Under

ARENA 30: [Saber] Suzumiya Haruhi by >=1000
Over/Under: 8600
Over

ARENA 31: Hasegawa Kobato [Itsuka Kotori] by >=1300
Over/Under: 8800
Over

ARENA 32: Charlotte Dunois [Shana] by >=1200
Over/Under: 9000
Under

ARENA 33: [Shiina Mashiro] Yui-nyan by >=1000
Over/Under: 8900
Over

ARENA 34: Yūki Mikan [Takanashi Rikka] by >=1000
Over/Under: 9000
Under

ARENA 35: [Kuroyukihime] Nakamura Yuri by >=700
Over/Under: 8500
Over

ARENA 36: Momo Belia Deviluke [Aoyama Nanami] by >=800
Over/Under: 8900
Under

ARENA 37: Levi [Araragi Koyomi] by <=1000
Over/Under: 9000
Under

ARENA 38: [Hikigaya Hachiman] Otonashi Yuzuru by >=1000
Over/Under: 9000
Under

ARENA 39: [Emiya Shirō] Togashi Yūta by <=600
Over/Under: 9000
Under

ARENA 40: [Sora] Takasu Ryūji by <=1200
Over/Under: 8600
Over

ARENA 41: Katsuragi Keima [Accelerator] by >=1000
Over/Under: 8600
Over

ARENA 42: [Sakata Gintoki] Akasaka Ryūnosuke by >=1000
Over/Under: 8600
Over

ARENA 43: [Gilgamesh] Orihara Izaya by <=1000
Over/Under: 8800
Under

ARENA 44: L Lawliet [Kanda Sorata] by >=300
Over/Under: 8700
Under

ARENA 45: Kaneki Ken [Edward Elric] by >=400
Over/Under; 8600
Under

ARENA 46: [Mikoshiba Mikoto] Okabe Rintarō by >=300
Over/Under: 8800
Under

ARENA 47: [Emiya Kiritsugu] Yato by <=700
Over/Under: 8700
Under

ARENA 48: Itsuka Shidō [Shiba Tatsuya] by >=200
Over/Under: 8650
Over

ARENA 49: [Nozaki Umetarō] Ichijō Raku by >=1000
Over/Under: 8600
Over

ARENA 50: Sakamaki Izayoi [Kanie Seiya] by >=1200
Over/Under: 8700
Over

ARENA 51: [Maō Sadao] Aikawa Ayumu by >=1300
Over/Under: 8700
Over

ARENA 52: [Kyon] Heiwajima Shizuo by <=800
Over/Under: 8800
Under

ARENA 53: [Okazaki Tomoya] Satomi Rentarō by >=400
Over/Under: 8600
Over

ARENA 54: Archer [Kamijō Tōma] by <=600
Over/Under: 8800
Over

ARENA 55: Watari Ryōta [Isaki Kaname] by >=500
Over/Under: 8000
Under

ARENA 56: Dōraku Utage [Minamiya Natsuki] by >=2000
Over/Under: 8000
Under

FC Barcelona: 2014-15 UEFA Champions League Champions


For Gerard Piqué, it had been a long day, one that had begun rather too early for his liking. He had woken up early in the confines of his luxury suite at the five star Grand Hyatt hotel in Berlin. Perhaps it was because of the unfamiliar surroundings, maybe because he was feeling a few pre-match nerves. Understandable, of course. Today wasn’t just any old day; it was the most important day of the year so far: UEFA Champions League final day to be exact.

Throughout his illustrious career, Piqué could count himself fortunate enough to play in two previous European Cup finals, a European Championship final and a FIFA World Cup final, amongst others. He knew how to handle the pressure, to manage his nerves and channel any slight anxiety he felt into a positive performance for his team. But still, there was something about today that felt different…although up until now, he hadn’t quite been able to put his finger on it.

Then, as he sat down on the bench, deep in the bowels of the Olympiastadion in the Barça dressing room, Gerard leaned back and it was then, with a cigar in his mouth as he posed for a photo with his friend Gabri, the long-serving kitman that it hit him. Suddenly, he understood perfectly just what was so different about today, about this game that had been bothering him earlier…

Tonight wasn’t just about winning a singular, isolated match; no, this had been about something more. A greater cause, a higher purpose: the chance to truly rewrite history and achieve perfection.

By beating the Serie A champions, Juventus FC in Berlin, FC Barcelona would become the first club to ever record two separate treble-winning campaigns, and as such, there was an accompanying level of pressure following the Blaugrana in their trip to the German capital. After closing out the La Liga season in style and emphatically defeating Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final, Barça were heavy favourites to lift the trophy tonight and while there were wobbles along the way, they lived up to that status and perhaps even exceeded their billing.

Recovering from a shaky opening couple of minutes, Barcelona wasted no time in demonstrating their offensive prowess and putting the Bianconeri to the sword. Lionel Messi was integral in the game’s opening goal, but in truth, it was a real team effort. Messi’s cross-field pass was expertly cushioned back to Neymar by the overlapping Catalan full-back, Jordi Alba and even if the Brazilian’s first touch was uncharacteristically lacking, he kept his composure to maintain the pressure and save the attack.

With a shimmy of the hips and a swerve of his slender frame, Neymar juked past one Juventus defender with relative ease to create enough space for another pass: this time to find the ghosting run of Barcelona’s pale-faced midfield assassin, Andres Iniesta.

Andres himself is no stranger to the spotlight, nor is he a newcomer to this grand stage; yet even so, the subtle genius and sheer ruthlessness in his play was staggering. Rather than chance his arm with a shot of his own, Iniesta was selfless, shirking the responsibility on to his Croatian midfield partner, Ivan Rakitic. Simplistic and ruinous, Iniesta’s simple pass across handed Rakitic a simple tap-in; after just four minutes, FC Barcelona were ahead.

And it was from there that they threatened to run riot on their seemingly helpless opposition. For a period it appeared as though every attack, every pass in the final third could lead to a goal – and that just about anyone on the Barcelona side was capable of doing the damage. Nominal right-back, Dani Alves came closest to doubling the advantage but his powerful and well-placed effort was matched by a spectacular, game-saving piece of heroics from Gianluigi Buffon.

Wave after wave of attack was keeping the Juve midfield penned into their own defensive third and while the Italians survived that onslaught to launch a retaliatory spell of pressure, the first-half ended on a similar note: with a barrage of Barça attacks. Suarez was next to be denied by Buffon’s stupendous performance and at the interval, the world was in awe of the Barcelona juggernaut.

However, with just a single goal to their name, Barcelona’s lead was fragile and their position precarious. Try as they might to grab that all-important second goal, they faced spirited resistance, again from Buffon but also from his defence – Suarez was denied once more, but Messi also missed the target with a chance of his own.

And all it took was one mistake, one defensive breakdown and Juventus were level.

Dani Alves’ clearance was rushed and Neymar’s attempt to salvage the situation and retrieve the ball was futile; Juventus had won it back, in space with time to assess their options and attack the Barcelona backline. Even so, it took a moment of magic from Claudio Marchisio, arguably their best midfield performer on the night, to unlock the Barça defence. A cute back-heel unleashed Stephan Lichtsteiner and his subsequent cutback found Carlos Tevez in space for a shot on goal.

Under pressure from Piqué, Tevez’ effort was well-saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen but the rebound was kind to Max Allegri’s side, as the ball ricocheted to the left – into the grateful path of Alvaro Morata who applied the finish.

A former product of La Fabrica with a dagger to the heart of Barcelona’s Champions League dream. It could have been poetic; alas, the Blaugrana were not to be denied…

***

For Luis Enrique, you can forget about today. For him, it had been a long season – albeit one that had threatened to end quite prematurely. In January, he had taken the decision to leave Lionel Messi and Neymar out of the starting line-up against Real Sociedad following their extended periods of absence over the winter break. At the time, he was certain that it was the right decision; by the time that night was over, he feared for his job.

Against all the odds, an under-performing Real Sociedad outfit coached by David Moyes had defeated his Barcelona by a solitary goal and the pressure was starting to tell. There were disagreements in the dressing room, on the training ground and stories began to surface in the media. All those changes he had enforced, all the hard work he had put in since his appointment in May…it seemed as though they would count for nothing. Luis thought for sure that he was on the way out of the Camp Nou.

But the board, preoccupied with their own internal strife, handed him the vote of confidence – a stay of execution. His long-term future was not certain by any means, but for now, Enrique remained in his role as Barcelona head coach.

In some respects, he was thankful for the opportunity. In others, he was tired of the pressure and tired of the criticism; in his eyes at least, he wasn’t doing anything wrong. Rather, it was the players who couldn’t see the bigger picture.

The solution was simple; desperate to succeed on his terms, he merely changed the delivery. The underlying principles remained the same, but he adapted his style to suit the dressing room, to soothe the egos and manage the squad as a whole. Rotation remained pivotal to all this but he knew how to package it, and crucially, he learnt from the players when it was required.

At the time, the Sociedad defeat seemed like a curse, destined to tarnish his reign in charge of his former club, but it was now as he felt a sense of pure jubilation, having been thrown in the air by the very players he had won over that Luis Enrique realised the truth…

He had been right all along.

With Juventus back on level terms, the match was now on a completely different path. While it had previously seemed as though the Blaugrana were coasting to victory and their second treble in six years, now it was Juve who were in the ascendency and taking the game by the throat. Morata, again, Tevez and Paul Pogba went close; though never did Barcelona waver.

They sat back, took the punches and responded in kind with a flurry of their own. It was about Round 8 of 12 in this heavyweight slugfest and the Blaugrana, weary though they might have been, turned the tables through sheer willpower alone.

The scorecards had been even up until this point, but the Barcelona frontline remembered the wise words of wisdom that their trainer had imparted on them in preparation for this bout; Lionel Messi took the ball, drove at the Juventus defence and went for goal. His effort wasn’t good enough to beat Buffon outright, but it was enough to force a rebound and Luis Suarez, sharp of mind and quick on his feet was first to react.

Reaching the ball before Patrice Evra was the hard part, but courtesy of Enrique’s teachings and trainings he was well prepared and went on to apply the finish with consummate ease. Never say die, FC Barcelona were back ahead and back on track in their quest for the treble.

***

For Neymar, today had been a good day. For him, it had been about the realisation of a lifelong dream. Ever since he was a child, he had wondered what it might be like to play for biggest clubs in the world, to line up with the best players and to score in a major final. And now here he was, the little kid from Mogi das Cruzes was in Berlin, phone in hand, wandering over to the FC Barcelona support to take a selfie with the travelling Culés having scored the goal that secured the club’s fifth UEFA Champions League title.

Even now, some six years into his career as a professional footballer, Neymar struggles to comprehend just how he has scaled these heights and how he now features alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Clearly, he has a lot to be thankful for, to God, and the band tied around his head is symbolic of his deep Christian faith.

With a smile on his face, he’s patient, waits for the camera to focus and presses the button. Not once, not twice, but a few times – you know, just to be sure. He wanted to capture this moment, this elation, this euphoria, and treasure it forever. It’s only after the fact as he’s scrolling through the photos to see which one to upload and share with his fans that Neymar realises something…

This is just the beginning.

The minutes were ticking by, but all too slowly for the Barcelona players, management and fans alike. Everyone had seen what Juventus were capable of given the chance; every moment that the score remained at 2-1, the nerves, the anxiety levels in the stadium increased.

Pogba, Marchisio and Tevez all tried in vain to help their side find an equaliser, but Barcelona were equal to their efforts, fending off their desperate attempts at goal. Maybe they were taking a few more punches than they would have liked, but the Blaugrana remained calm and deep into the 12th and final round, they delivered a hay-maker, the knockout blow in this title fight courtesy of the left boot of Neymar Jr.

Gerard Piqué was involved, so too was Luis Enrique’s final substitute, Pedro Rodriguez but the star of the show had to be the Brazilian. Having previously seen a goal chalked off for handball, Neymar wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass and after yet more selfless work from Pedro, he drilled the ball past the despairing dive of Buffon to seal the tie and secure the title.

***

It was a goal, and a performance that served to epitomise FC Barcelona under Luis Enrique: that all for one and one for all altruistic spirit, as the individual talents seamlessly come together to form a greater collective and a team that seems virtually unstoppable.

50 wins in 60 matches. Three trophies out of three – FC Barcelona once again achieved perfection in 2014/15 – and while for now, Enrique’s future might be uncertain there is a great sense of optimism around the camp and a pervasive feeling that current success considered: the best might yet be to come.


American Pharoah: 12th Triple Crown Winner


ELMONT, N.Y. -- There he was parading about in the winner's circle, the world's greatest athlete, his muscles and veins bulging as if he were hooked up to some overheated generator about to explode.

American Pharoah was sweating profusely under a fading sun, huffing and puffing and flaring his nostrils for dramatic effect after conquering a mile-and-a-half test of character and will that had broken so many lesser horses before him.

The bay colt turned his head just so to shoot a bloodshot glance from his left eye at the unruly admirers fighting to take his picture. I was almost close enough to reach out and touch him, not that I would've ever dared. In the presence of greatness, I couldn't help but think this horse deserved to be written up on Steinbeck's laptop, or Hemingway's, and certainly not mine.

American Pharoah started his Saturday in an old barn with weary green-colored siding, hard by the Hempstead Turnpike and right across the street from a Wendy's. He took his prerace bath behind Barn 1 (with some oblivious motorists whizzing on by, honking at each other), accidentally stepped into the white bucket carrying the soapy water, and ultimately made the long walk toward the paddock and the monument to Secretariat, the ghost all Triple Crown hopefuls chase at the Belmont Stakes.

And then Victor Espinoza took him out of the gate and into the early lead, just like that. Suddenly, the 37 long years that had passed since a teenage wonder named Steve Cauthen guided Affirmed home became a closed chapter in a wildly entertaining -- if unfulfilling -- book. Years after Affirmed beat Alydar in three epic confrontations to win the last Triple Crown before Saturday's, Cauthen was reminded that only five horses ran at the Belmont.

"Actually," he said, "there were really only two."Actually, there was really only one on the Belmont track Saturday evening, not eight, and he treated this closing Long Island marathon as if it were a walk in Central Park. American Pharoah, the perfect horse with the imperfect spelling, made 90,000 witnesses sound like 900,000. He nearly flipped the building on its ear as he protected his lead around the massive oval and won by 5½ lengths, his triumph punctuated by the sight of Espinoza punching the air with a straight right hand.

As horse stories go, this wasn't Seabiscuit giving all underdogs a lift during the Great Depression, or Secretariat thrilling a nation haunted by Vietnam and Watergate. This was just a powerfully elegant animal, born on Groundhog Day, refusing to surrender to the inevitability of another Groundhog Day finish at the Belmont.

Thirteen horses had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness since 1978, and 12 of them made it to the Belmont and failed to finish the job. War Emblem stumbled. Smarty Jones got a bum ride from his jockey. California Chrome was nicked out of the gate and beaten by a Preakness-skipping opponent, sending one of Chrome's co-owners on a nationally televised, amateur-hour rant. Funny Cide was swallowed whole by conditions so treacherous that one of his small-town owners later told ESPN.com that the Belmont should've been canceled, and that he should've scratched the horse when it wasn't.

You knew all the stories, all the names and faces of a drought started when the Derby and Preakness winner Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin the morning of the '79 Belmont. The drought began three years before David Letterman debuted as a late-night TV host, and survived his entire career.

American Pharoah wasn't ever going to contribute to one of those stories. The loser on California Chrome, Espinoza, entered 0-for-2 in Triple Crown chances, and the trainer, Bob Baffert, entered 0-for-3. Friday night, Baffert had dinner with his friend, Joe Torre, at Del Frisco's on Sixth Avenue, and the Hall of Fame manager who had won four World Series with the Yankees saw certainty in the trainer's body language and words.

"He was as cool as a cucumber, a lot cooler than I would've been before a Game 7," Torre said as he waited to join Baffert on the stage for the trophy presentation. "He knew this horse was something special from the get-go ... There really was no hesitation in how he was talking about this horse."

Torre had been fired three times as a manager before George Steinbrenner gave him his big break in the Bronx. He mentioned that the fourth time turned out to be the charm for his guy Baffert as well.

The trainer's three Triple Crown near misses, Torre said, "was sort of like getting to the World Series and never winning it. He can finally raise the trophy today."

Before climbing up to the stage, Torre admitted something that every great manager in every sport should admit. "You've got to have the right horses," he said. "Just like the time when I managed the Yankees -- I had the right horses."

Yes, mercifully, Saturday was about the horse instead of the humans. Baffert and Espinoza -- who grew up on a Mexican goat farm and became a teenage bus driver to help pay the bills -- were fascinating characters under the watch of their more fascinating owner, Ahmed Zayat, an Orthodox Jew who made his fortune selling beer in Egypt. Torre didn't need to point out that Zayat has a lot of Steinbrenner in him, defined by his blustery proclamations; emotional, quick-trigger decisions (he fired and rehired Baffert, his own Billy Martin); and dubious business associations.

In fact, after all the coverage of Zayat's high-stakes legal issues and bankruptcy case, and after all the printed claims that he was either slow to pay his debts or in the habit of never paying them at all, it seemed like he was the one about to run the race. So as security guards rushed him through a delirious mob, I barked a question at him about the magnitude of his moment in the sun.

"Forget about me," he shouted back. "I'm happy for this sport. It's all about the horse, a brilliant horse. Now he can find greatness. He was a good horse, and now he's a great horse. He's a legend. It's all about the horse."

After making the 25-mile trip from his Teaneck, New Jersey, home, the toughest bargainer out of Teaneck since that noted NBA tough guy, David Stern, had made the appropriate concession at the appropriate time. It was never about Zayat, or Baffert, or Espinoza, and when it was over all three were in complete agreement on that.

"He's the one who did it," Baffert said of his horse. "We were basically passengers."

And what an indelible ride it was. American Pharoah won the Derby by a length, and then blew away the field in the slop at the Preakness. On his prerace walk to Barn 1 at the Belmont, Baffert jokingly complained he didn't get the rain that he wanted and that some weathermen had predicted. He looked up toward the sunshiny skies and said, "Too late now."

But American Pharoah didn't need a muddy track, and he didn't need the kind of gut-check rival that pushed Affirmed the way Alydar did in 1978, back when Cauthen compared the two competitors to Ali and Frazier. All this beautiful horse needed, really, was for the human beings to get the hell out of his way.

American Pharoah was born to be the 12th winner of the Triple Crown. If you stood next to him in the winner's circle Saturday, and watched him flex his muscles and celebrate his tired, glorious self, you didn't need some weathered horse whisperer to tell you that.