Premier League roundup: Chelsea’s Dr. Jekyll, Reading’s big comeback

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There’s no explaining this Chelsea team. The ups and downs are too extreme, too often. In the last month, they’ve lost to Corinthians, Queens Park Rangers, and Swansea (the last two at home) while beating Aston Villa and Southampton by a combined 13-1.

Today was more of the latter, though they got some help. Two own goals from Jon Walters staked the Blues to a 2-0 lead. Sprinkle in insurance  via Frank Lampard (from the spot) and Eden Hazard and Chelsea was back in the win column. Combined with Spurs’ draw at Loftus Road, the 4-0 result vaulted the Blues back into third place.

The scoreline was deceiving, though. Chelsea weren’t that good. Through most of the first half they looked the better team in talent but not in execution. The match was playing out as a game Stoke could steal via defensive mistake or a set piece.

But fortune went the other way, starting in first half stoppage time. Walters headed a cross into his own net to send Chelsea into halftime up 1-0. A second own goal in the 63rd minute and Lampard’s 194th goal for Chelsea (second on the club’s all-time list) two minutes later eliminated all doubt. Hazard’s tally was pure icing.

It’s the type of result that will obscure the fact Chelsea are still performing nowhere near their capabilities. People will see the lopsided score and make positive inferences, but it’s unclear this team is making progress. They may be within four points of second place Manchester City, but Chelsea are still more third/fourth place battlers than title contenders.

Which, incidentally, is right where most predicted them to land at the beginning of the season.

Mid-week, I rolled out the trite Dr. Jerkll and Mr. Hide analog (though I used it incorrectly). It’s cliché, but it’s an apt shorthand for Chelsea’s schizophrenia behavior, especially if you’re trying to avoid too many mental illness metaphors.

You really can’t predict which Chelsea team is going to show up. Today, the good one got three points at the Britannia.

source: Getty ImagesEight minutes, three goals, three points for Reading

When QPR drew this morning, we talked about the importance of going for three at home, especially if you’re fighting relegation. One point is nice, but at this juncture of the season, holding serve is not enough.

Through 80 minutes on Saturday, Reading weren’t even in frame for a draw. Nineteenth and 69th minute goals from Romelu Lukaku gave West Brom a 2-0 lead at the Madejski Stadium. The Baggies were on their way to snapping a two-match losing streak.

Then came the onslaught. Jimmy Kebe broke through in the 82nd minute, with mid-week hero Adam Le Fondre equalizing from the spot two minutes later. Not content with the lesser comeback, Reading got a winner from Pavel Progrebnyak in stoppage time to claim their third win in 22 games.

With neither Aston Villa nor Wigan winning, the three points loom particularly large. Not only did the Royals vault out of the basement, they’re now within three  of both the Villans and Latics. Plus, Brian McDermott’s team holds the goal difference advantage on each.

The comeback underscores the importance of full points. QPR walked off the pitch at Loftus Road feeling good about their 0-0 with Tottenham, but after the result at Reading, Rangers are worse off than they were before the day’s opening whistle.

Elsewhere in England

Aston Villa 0-1 Southampton – Ricky Lambert’s first half penalty conversion holds up to move Saints into 15th place. Villa drops into the relegation zone. Make a list of the potential reasons you should replace a coach mid-stream then ask yourself whether Villa should move on from Paul Lambert. Given their recent managerial history, is easier said than done, but it’s hard to see how, based on what he’s done at Villa, Lambert’s the man to keep them up.

Everton 0-0 Swansea – Swansea hasn’t lost since a 1-0 at White Hart Lane on Dec. 16. In that respect, this is an understandable result for Everton, though for a team chasing a Champions League spot, this looks like points dropped.

Fulham 1-1 Wigan Athletic – A 71st minute Franco Di Santo goal gets the Latics a valuable road point, temporarily pulling them out of the drop. Fulham started all of Dimitar Berbatov, Mladen Petric and Bryan Ruiz but were unable to snare a crucial second goal before Martin Jol started changing things just after the hour.

Norwich City 0-0 Newcastle – Everything I said about Paul Lambert, above? Apply them to Alan Pardew. Newcastle snaps a three-match losing streak (in league) but are only two points above the drop.

Sunderland 3-0 West Ham United – It’s the kind of result that makes you wonder if West Ham’s hat a wall. You can point to the absence of midfielder Mohamed Diamé, but it takes more than one man’s absence to explain conceding three times to Sunderland. Seb Larsson, Adam Johnson, and James McClean scored for a Black Cats side who’ve taken nine points from their last five games.

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.