Lockout dampens year where Kings reign supreme

Updated 28 December 2012
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Lockout dampens year where Kings reign supreme

TORONTO: National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman kicked off 2012 toasting the New Year at the lucrative outdoor Winter Classic game, painting a glowing picture of a league whose stock was on the rise.
But as the year draws to a close, a dour Bettman is painting a much gloomier portrait of a league bleeding cash in the midst of a labor dispute with locked-out players that could wipe out the entire 2012-13 season.
At a lavish New Year’s Eve party in Philadelphia, the good times rolled as the NHL celebrated a $ 2 billion television deal, record revenues, attendance and TV ratings along with a feeling that the league had finally arrived on the US sporting scene.
There were still a few nagging trouble spots to consider, like trying to unload the league-owned team in Phoenix, but the problems appeared small as the NHL prepared to open the second half of the season with its signature Winter Classic between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.
Even as 50,000 chilled fans exited Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park after a 3-2 Rangers win, Bettman was meeting with the media, singing the praises of the outdoor game that has scooped more sports marketing and business awards than Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky in his prime.
More good news followed in March when Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the face of the NHL, returned to the ice after missing most of two seasons recovering from concussion like symptoms.
Concussions and a lockout have robbed fans of watching one of hockey’s best players in his prime, the 25-year-old Canadian playing in 28 games since absorbing two hits to the head in successive games in early 2011.
The NHL would cap the season in glorious fashion, watching the seeds of the southern expansion planted decades ago finally bear fruit with the Los Angeles Kings beating the New Jersey Devils 4-2 in a best-of-seven series for their first Stanley Cup championship since entering the league in 1967.
After qualifying for the playoffs as the last seed from the Western Conference, the Kings upset the top-three seeded teams, the Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes, en route to becoming the first eighth seed to win a Stanley Cup.
A team that played in obscurity for many years, overshadowed by the Staples Center’s more celebrated tenants, the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, the Kings were suddenly the talk of Tinsel Town.
But in a city built on celebrity, fame is fleeting and there is concern that hard won fans may have already moved on as the Kings’ Stanley Cup banner that was to be raised to the rafters at their home opener in October gathers dust.
In his state-of-the-league address during the Cup finals, Bettman again gushed about the NHL’s success, boasting that teams played to 96 percent of capacity in the regular season, pulling in nearly 21.5 million fans while generating a record $3.3 billion in revenue.
Despite Bettman’s glowing report card, the NHL has not played a game since, owners locking out players in mid-September when the previous labor agreement expired with the two sides demanding concessions from the other.
Having endured four work stoppages in 20 years, including one that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, frustrated hockey fans are all too familiar with the tedious tug-of-war as owners and players squabble over how to split $3.3 billion in revenue.
While it is not the kind of hockey fight fans are used to seeing on the ice, the lockout has produced a heavyweight scrap between Bettman and NHL Players’ Association chief Donald Fehr.
The standoff between has already cost both sides millions of dollars with 526 regular season games, or 42.8 percent of the season, lopped from the schedule. Among the list of casualties are the All-Star Game and 2013 Winter Classic.
The NHL had been planning to ring in 2013 with a week-long hockey festival in Detroit culminating with an Original Six game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs in front of record crowd of over 110,000 fans at Michigan Stadium.
Instead, the New Year will likely begin with a whimper and plenty of uncertainty that will be felt all the way to corridors of International Olympic Committee headquarters in Switzerland with the NHL’s decision to remain part of the Olympic program a bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations.


Heart and courage needed as Liverpool and Roma prepare for Champions League semifinal

Updated 49 min 56 sec ago
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Heart and courage needed as Liverpool and Roma prepare for Champions League semifinal

  • Both sides shocked more-fancied opposition to reach last four.
  • Tremendous atmosphere expected in first leg at Anfield.

If football is about guts and glory, about matches that linger in the mind long after the final whistle has blown, the Champions League fulfils a curious role. On the one hand it is both symbol and agent of much that is wrong in modern football, the corporate culture, the ludicrous inequality of resources that have rendered many domestic leagues processions. But on the other it does offer more chances for those immortal nights than any other competition — and perhaps particularly so when the teams involved are Liverpool and Roma.
Roma have not won Serie A since 2001; Liverpool have not won the English top flight since 1990. These are not sides who will take success for granted. Whatever happens in the remainder of this season, fans of both teams will remember their quarterfinals with fondness: Liverpool for the way their side twice beat the runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City, a 20-minute blast in the first-half of the first leg in which they scored three times proving decisive; and Roma for their remarkable comeback from 4-1 down after the first leg to go through on away goals.
Roma again have the second leg at home, where they are yet to concede in the Champions League this season, having shut out sides of the calibre of not only Barcelona but also Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. That is, theoretically, an advantage but equally it is hard to conceive of this Liverpool side failing to score anywhere, which in turn means that Roma probably need a goal at Anfield. Liverpool themselves, for all their reputation for defensive fallibility, have kept clean sheets in each of their last four home Champions League games, and have generally been much improved at the back since the arrival of Virgil van Dijk in January.
That development is part of an overall sense of progress at Liverpool. In that regard, Jurgen Klopp is in a similar position to Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham. It is evident that there has been an improvement in each year he has been at the club but there is a growing sense that it would be nice for that to be validated by a trophy. And if that trophy can be the Champions League, so much the better.
Perhaps there are still concerns that the midfield does not offer the central defenders quite the protection it could, particularly when the full-backs are as attacking as they are, but Liverpool now have options in that area — and will probably perm three from Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Milner and Georgino Wijnaldum — and have a unit that is quick, powerful and combative.
Given how Juventus wilted in the last 16 against Tottenham’s press, that physical advantage Premier League teams perhaps have over Italian sides, could be a major factor — particularly given the likelihood that Roma will start with the 34-year-old Daniele De Rossi as a fairly static playmaker behind Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan.
Against Barcelona, Eusebio Di Francesco opted for a back three for only the second time this season. That was probably a specific ploy to overman Barca’s 4-4-2 in the center. A return to the more familiar 4-3-3 seems likely here but one of the beauties of games at this stage, particularly in cauldrons like Anfield and the Olimpico, is that at least as important as the tactics are more visceral factors, like heart and courage.

KEY CLASH

MOHAMED SALAH v FEDERICO FAZIO

The first question any opposition manager has to answer when facing Liverpool is how to deal with Mohamed Salah who has scored 41 goals this season, cutting from the right into the space created when Roberto Firmino drops deep. One way to counter him might be to use a right-footed left-back to deal with those incursions inside, much as Rafa Benitez once switched Alvaro Arbeloa to the ‘wrong’ flank to deal with Lionel Messi. More likely here, though, is that the left-sided center-back Federico Fazio will be asked to guard against him, even if that means stepping out from the back-line. That, in turn, increases the defensive responsibility on Daniele De Rossi. There may even be a case for bringing in Juan Jesus, who did such a good job against Messi, either instead of Fazio or at left-back in place of the injury doubt Aleksandar Kolarov.