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.

Kevin de Bruyne questionable for injury-laden Belgium

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Belgium, already without superstar Eden Hazard for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Greece, will now be without playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who picked up an injury in training on Friday and will miss both the match against Greece and the subsequent friendly against Russia three days later…maybe.

The Belgian National Team official Twitter account sent out a quote from manager Roberto Martinez that confirmed De Bruyne would miss the pair of matches, but the tweet was quickly deleted.

Instead, this one was pushed out in its place, correcting his availability and also updating the type of injury:

Should De Bruyne miss out, it means Belgium would likely rely heavily on Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas for the playmaking duties, with midfielder Radja Nainggolan potentially taking on a more attacking role as well.

Belgium and Martinez also confirmed that right-back Thomas Meunier will miss out after failing to recover from an ankle injury, while Marouane Fellaini‘s status is unknown after he was held out of Thursday’s training session.

The injury also leaves De Bruyne’s status for Manchester City up in the air, with a pair of massive games in London in quick succession after the injury break. City visits Arsenal next Sunday, followed by a hop over to Stanford Bridge on Wednesday.

Landon Donovan retires again, this time for good

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After coming out of retirement last fall to join the LA Galaxy for one more shot at an MLS Cup, Landon Donovan has once again called time on his career, saying he’s certain he will not play again.

With a number of other ventures on his plate, the USMNT all-time leading scorer is looking forward to spending his time elsewhere.

“Yeah, I’m done,” Donovan said. “I’m done. No more playing for me. I have not [gone public with it yet]. But that is definitely the case.”

Donovan scored one goal in nine games for the LA Galaxy in his comeback bid, with the club ravaged by injuries and still gunning for the Cup. However, after the season was over with a loss to Colorado in the Conference Semifinals, the Galaxy confirmed it was nothing more than a short-term stopgap.

“With Landon, when he came back, it was always going to be a short-term thing,”team president Chris Klein said to the L.A. Times in December. “He’s enjoying what he’s doing and we see we’re comfortable in the direction that we’re headed.”

In January, reports claimed Real Salt Lake had offered Donovan a Designated Player contract, but it appears he’s turned it down, and will now have time to concentrate on his other ventures. Off the field, Donovan is an analyst on Fox’s soccer coverage, is on the advisory committee for the Los Angeles 2024 Olympics bid, and has joined the ownership group attempting to bring an expansion MLS team to San Diego.

Former Spurs midfielder Paulinho scores thunderbolt for Brazil

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Brazil topped Uruguay 4-1 to move on the verge of World Cup qualification, but there was much more to the first half of this match than meets the eye.

Uruguay went ahead 1-0 on a 9th-minute penalty won and scored by Edinson Cavani, and for a moment it seemed like the home side might find its way to pull within a point of Brazil at the top of the CONMEBOL standings. That would not last very long.

[ MORE: Full roundup of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying action ]

Just 10 minutes later, a bad giveaway near the midfield stripe saw Neymar casually feed Paulinho a good 50 yards from goal. The former Spurs man took matters into his own hands, charging forward and unleashing a vicious strike that continued to rise until it ripped the chords in the top-right corner.

 

Not only was the goal a sight to behold, it was an important moment in the match. Brazil was back level at 1-1, and Paulinho would be on his way to an eventual hat-trick with a pair in the second half. Neymar scored once as well to complete the 4-1 final scoreline, and the three points for Brazil saw them remain perfect in the World Cup qualifying round as they march seven clear of Uruguay at the top of the standings.

For Paulinho, the hat-trick brings him to four goals in the World Cup qualifying round, adding to his score in the 3-0 win over Argentina. They also mark an important moment for the Chinese Super League, where Paulinho now plays, having moved from Spurs in July of 2015. Some national team coaches have left players on the outside of the squad for moving to leagues such as the Chinese League or Major League Soccer, but Paulinho has clearly been an asset to Brazil despite his club situation. In fact, in China, Paulinho has scored four goals in his four league matches for Guangzhou Evergrande this season plus another in the Asian Champions League, leaving him in top goalscoring form coming into this international break, something which has clearly translated directly to international play.

The 28-year-old had lost his place in the national team squad in 2014, going over two years without a single international appearance, but has been a mainstay in the Brazilian side during this World Cup qualification cycle.

Dele Alli banned three European games for straight red card

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Spurs may be out of the Europa League this season, but should they end up qualifying for the Champions League next season, they will start the campaign short-handed.

Tottenham will be without midfielder Dele Alli for the first half of the group stage after his horrifying tackle on Brecht Dejaegere of KAA Gent in their 2-2 draw which saw Spurs out of the competition on aggregate in the Round of 32.

Alli went to ground on the 39th-minute challenge, and made contact on high up on Dejaegere’s leg with both his studs, finishing with a scissior-whip motion. It was a blatant red card, and now UEFA’s disciplinary committee has handed down the three-match ban. Straight-red cards for violent conduct only carry a minimum penalty of one match in UEFA tournament play, but the disciplinary committee clearly thought a longer punishment was necessary, with the ability to sentence anyone up to five matches.

The straight red was the first of Alli’s professional career. Alli apologized to Dejaejere after the match, according to the Gent midfielder. He’s since scored in four straight matches, and when asked on Sunday if that moment was still in his mind, he said, “I’m never going to say sorry for wanting to win or trying as hard as I can but things happen and you have to learn from them.”

Spurs currently sit in second place in the Premier League table with 59 points and look to be in a strong position for Champions League qualification, with a seven-point cushion on fifth-placed Manchester United.