Narratives invert after Chelsea routs Aston Villa

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After one of the most lopsided matches you’ll ever witness at soccer’s top level, Chelsea is no longer the shriveling shell of a European champion emasculated by a shaming trip abroad. And Aston Villa is no longer the feel-good story of a consolidating youth movement smolten by an up-and-coming coach. After 90 minutes and eight goals Sunday at Stamford Bridge, those narratives were destroyed, Chelsea handing Villa an 8-0 thrashing in London.

With a score that lopsided, it goes without saying it could have been worse. Chelsea put 15 shots on target to Villa’s one. They also had a penalty kick saved by Brad Guzan, the Villa keeper’s last act of defiance after goals from Fernando Torres, David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic, Frank Lampard, Ramires, Oscar, and Eden Hazard gave the American a platoon of tormenters to take to the team psychologist. Villa was so bad, they let Ramires score twice, the Brazilian’s 90th minute goal mercifully ending the embarrassment.

The performance crushes any notion Aston Villa are on the rise. They came into the match in 16th place, only three points above the drop, but having gone undefeated in six, Villa was thought to be the ascendent. Now you look back at their run and see a League Cup win, games with Reading, Queens Park Rangers, and Stoke, and a home draw with a brand-over-substance Arsenal.

But Aston Villa’s win last week at Liverpool — a 3-1 victory that saw Christian Benteke and the Villa counter bayonet the Reds — would have been enough to carry hope into today’s match. Even if their unbeaten run was built more on wish-casting than results, the victory at Anfield was enough to expect better on Sunday. Have any expectations been so devastatingly ill-placed?

But just as the narrative of a surging Villa was eviscerated at Stamford Bridge, so was the Chelsea fans’ worry after a demoralizing trip to Japan. There they lost the Club World Cup, leaving the few (mostly South American) players who care about the competition bawling on the field as Corinthians celebrated a world title. That tactics sheets pulled from the team’s garbage misspelled the name of Corinthians’ goalscorer while stating obvious strategic admonitions (watch for counter attacks after corner kicks) added a layer of farce to a cringeworthy trip.

Crushing another Premier League team always has a was of making everything seem better, especially when there are so many positives beyond the ridiculous score. The win moved Chelsea back into their place, the team holding a game in hand on the collection of challengers who’d temporarily passed them. Frank Lampard was back. David Luiz looked good in midfield (and over dead balls, as the second goal showed). Fernando Torres actually scored a goal. All the ancillary positives meant the game could have ended 2-0 and given Chelsea one of their most positive afternoons of the season.

And it’s with that perspective that today’s true significance lies. As far-fetched as an 8-0 scoreline seems, it’s only one result. One team got three points. The other got none. Where the real implications lie are in the future.

(MORE: Other talking points on the 8-0 shellacking)

For Chelsea, there’s little doubt the Rafa Benítez mistake is starting to come good. It was a bad hire at the wrong time, but a man with his track record is bound to bring some positives to the job. After such an unambiguous sign that the fall’s worries are receding, Chelsea fans can discard their misgivings and begin to embrace the melancholy of the next six months.

No, Chelsea’s not title contenders. And yes, life with Rafa’s going to be a six months of waiting for a terrible roommate to finally move out. But now, there’s something positive to build on.

For Aston Villa, they’ve stumbled back down the stairs. For all the positives fans have seen in Paul Lambert’s first season, the team is still a relegation candidate. While they’re not favorites to go down, they’ve shown themselves capable of that special kind of horrible that may never assuage doubts. Not even the good runs can been seen as independent of the specter that another Stamford Bridge waits around the corner.

Villa’s now three points above the drop and have the worse goal difference in the Premier League. And their next game is against Tottenham, a team just as capable as Chelsea of exploiting the terrible defending on display at Stamford Bridge. And there’s no guarantee Brad Guzan will be as good on Wednesday.

That’s the power of 90 minutes. Chelsea and Aston Villa had spent weeks building their narratives, and within 90 minutes (much fewer, if you consider the disparity was clear long before the final whistle) their stories were destroyed. The surging swapped places with the morose.

You see that about as often as you see an 8-0 final.

UEFA says Europa League trophy not damaged after being stolen

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
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NYON, Switzerland (AP) UEFA says the Europa League trophy was not damaged after being stolen in Mexico.

The silverware was at a promotional event in the central city of Leon when it was reported by authorities to have been taken from a vehicle.

The theft came ahead of the semifinals of Europe’s second-tier club competition.

UEFA says the “Europa League trophy was in Mexico for a partner event and got briefly stolen. It was quickly recovered and has suffered no damages.”

In the semifinal first legs next week, Arsenal plays Atletico Madrid and Marseille takes on Salzburg.

Serie A: Roma prep for Liverpool by beating SPAL; Benevento win at Milan

Elisabetta Baracchi/ANSA via AP
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Premier League preview ]

SPAL 2013 0-3 Roma

A few hours after a reserves-heavy Liverpool side played last-place West Bromwich Albion to a 2-2 draw in the Premier League, Roma, the Reds’ UEFA Champions League semifinal foes beginning Tuesday, hammered 17th-place SPAL on the back of goals scored by Radja Nainggolan and Patrik Schick.

Roma shocked the world — and Barcelona — to reach the semifinals, but still have a battle on their hands to finish inside Serie A’s top-four and qualify for next season’s Champions League. Following Saturday’s victory, Eusebio Di Francesco’s side is three and four points clear of fourth- and fifth-place Lazio and Inter Milan, respectively, though both of the chasing sides play on Sunday.

AC Milan 0-1 Benevento

The 2017-18 season has treated AC Milan, who spent massively last summer, far worse than Roma. Following Sunday’s home defeat to first-year top-flight (and last-place) side Benevento, Gennaro Gattuso’s side sits sixth (final automatic Europa League place) and lead seventh-place Atalanta, who play on Sunday, by just two points.

Pietro Iemmello scored the game’s only goal in the 29th minute.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Sassuolo 1-0 Fiorentina

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Cagliari vs. Bologna — 6:30 a.m. ET
Lazio vs. Sampdoria — 9 a.m. ET
Chievo vs. Inter Milan — 9 a.m. ET
Atalanta vs. Torino — 9 a.m. ET
Udinese vs. Crotone — 9 a.m. ET
Juventus vs. Napoli — 2:45 p.m. ET

Barcelona cruise past Sevilla, lift historic 4th straight Copa del Rey

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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MADRID (AP) Barcelona became the first team in 85 years to win four straight Copa del Rey titles after blowing away Sevilla 5-0 in the final on Saturday.

Luis Suarez scored twice, and Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Philippe Coutinho also made the scoresheet for Barcelona’s record-extending 30th Copa triumph, and sixth in the last decade.

Sevilla was trying to win a sixth Copa and save a season which will end without any trophies and maybe not even a place in the Europa League next season.

The final took place at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in the capital amid the ongoing political turmoil involving Catalonia’s bid for independence.

There were jeers by part of the Barcelona crowd when the national anthem was played, but the boos were largely subdued by the reaction of the numerous Sevilla fans in the crowd. Spain’s King Felipe VI smiled and saluted the fans after the anthem.

No other team had won four Copa titles in a row since Athletic Bilbao from 1930-33. The only other team to do it was Real Madrid from 1905-08.

Barcelona lost a chance to win the treble when it was eliminated by Roma in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but it is three points away from winning the Spanish league.

PL Sunday preview: Man City’s title trot; Wenger’s farewell tour

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Manchester City will play as the confirmed champions of the Premier League, though they won’t celebrate as such for a couple more weeks, on Sunday. Meanwhile, the only manager Arsenal have known for more than two decades begins saying goodbye

[ MORE: Man United come back to beat Spurs, reach FA Cup final ]

Arsenal vs. West Ham United — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

So begins the Arsene Wenger farewell tour, and with a London derby at that. Wenger announced on Friday that he’ll leave Arsenal at the end of the current season, which has little to no chance of seeing the Gunners finish in the PL’s top-five, let alone the top-four. Sunday’s clash with West Ham will be the first of Wenger’s three remaining games at the Emirates Stadium, including the Europa League semifinal against Atletico Madrid on Thursday. Unfortunately for Wenger, three of his final five PL games (four of seven in all competitions) will be played away from home, where his side has lost five straight in league play.

Speaking of lost and wayward seasons, 14th-place West Ham are almost mathematically clear of relegation (there’s currently three places and six points between themselves and 18th-place Southampton). It’s hardly the future they imagined upon moving to the London Stadium at the start of last season. Andy Carroll scored the late equalizer in the Hammers’ 1-1 draw with Stoke City on Monday, which rescued perhaps a perfectly timed point with all five remaining games to be played against sides currently in the top-nine (Arsenal, Man City, Leicester, Man United and Everton).

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Henrikh Mkhitaryan (knee), Santi Cazorla (achilles); QUESTIONABLE: Jack Wilshere (ankle) | West Ham — OUT: James Collins (hamstring), Sam Byram (ankle), Winston Reid (knee), Michail Antonio (hamstring), Pedro Obiang (knee)


Stoke City vs. Burnley — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Here’s what’s at stake at the bet365 Stadium on Sunday:

Stoke sit two places and five points adrift of safety from relegation, with four games left to play (17th-place Swansea City have a game in hand, to boot). After 10 seasons in the PL, it’s looking more and more likely that Paul Lambert (with a tip of the cap to Mark Hughes earlier in the season) will take the Potters back to the Championship for the first time since they won promotion in 2008.

Burnley trail Arsenal by just two points (though the Clarets have played one more game than the Gunners) in the race for sixth place. A sixth-place finish would be the club’s highest top-flight finish since 1966 (3rd).

INJURIES: Stoke — QUESTIONABLE: Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting (groin) | Burnley — OUT: Steven Defour (knee), Scott Arfield (calf), Robbie Brady (knee), Jonathan Walters (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: Ben Mee (knock), Georges-Kevin Nkoudou (hamstring)


Manchester City vs. Swansea City — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

While Man City won’t lift the PL trophy until their May 6 clash with Huddersfield Town, Sunday’s visit from Swansea will be Pep Guardiola‘s side’s first outing since clinching the title courtesy of Man United’s defeat to West Bromwich Albion last weekend. Guardiola’s focus has turned to breaking the all-time PL points record (95 — they currently have 87 with five games still to play).

“In the past, I won the league at Bayern and at Barca with five, six or seven games (left) but the next games were not good,” he said this week. “We have to think about how many points we can get, it can be a good argument. What we need to do is already done, the points record is not the most important thing, but maybe it can help us to be focused. It would be uncomfortable to finish in a bad way, there always has to be a target and maybe scoring the most goals and winning the most points will be a good focus.”

INJURIES: Man City — OUT: Sergio Aguero (knee), Benjamin Mendy (knee); QUESTIONABLE: John Stones (thigh) | Swansea — OUT: Wilfried Bony (knee), Leroy Fer (achilles), Renato Sanches (hamstring)