Chelsea's Bertrand challenges Newcastle United's Debuchy during their English Premier League soccer match in Newcastle

Mr. Hyde shows up as Chelsea falls at Newcastle


Newcastle may be much improved after spending their winter window hitting “Buy It Now” on French soccer Ebay, but it’s difficult to look beyond Chelsea when trying to explain today’s result. The Blues allowed themselves to go behind on a Jonas Gutierrez header before taking a 2-1 lead through Frank Lampard and Juan Mata just past the hour mark. Yet thanks to two goals from new midfielder Moussa Sissoko, Chelsea leaves St. James Park 3-2 losers and destined to be pulled back into a race for third.

The Blues came into this weekend action with a four-point lead on Spurs for fourth, but returning to London without a point, they’re dangerously close to being pulled into a second successive fight for Champions League. With a draw from Everton (against Aston Villa) and a win by Arsenal (over Stoke City), Chelsea’s now only four-points away from sixth.

Rafa Benitez has been terrible — we know this — but Chelsea’s a team that has always had a strong player leadership culture, one that was able to carry the likes of Avram Grant to a Champions League final. Didier Drogba is gone, but Frank Lampard, John Terry, and Petr Cech are not only still there, they were on the field when Chelsea gave up today’s lead. No matter what you think of Benitez, it’s hard to see how he got in the way of this win, particularly when a bench thinned by injury, suspension, and Cup of Nations left him with no meaningful way to tinker.

Beyond Benítez or the wane of Chelsea leadership, today’s issue is one pundits and followers have been harping on all season. As Moussa Sissoko scored a late double in his second Premier League match, you saw the type of drive, strength, and resolve that would bolster an underperforming Chelsea midfield. How do Spurs end up with a player like Sissoko when taking a flyer on him (or any other player like him) would cost Chelsea a fraction of their transfer budget?

Late in this match, as he became the most important player on the field, you couldn’t help but ask how he was allowed to do that? How can this player that had struggled of late for Toulouse be dropped into the league and, a week later, win matches against the European champion?

MORE: United’s flawed, fabulous season continues at Fulham

Obviously there are a lot of problems at Chelsea right now, but if that question even needs to be asked, those problems might run deeper than we had previously thought. Through most of this season Chelsea’s been a troubled if stably third place side, but while giving up today’s lead they showed the type of perpetual vulnerability that defined last year’s slide. Now it’s worth asking whether the Blues are much better than the team that finished sixth last season.

Of course, there is a big difference. Last year’s slide was make possible but Roberto Di Matteo putting all of the team’s eggs into the Champions League basket. What’s this year’s excuse?

There’s also the possibility Newcastle’s come together. They have Sissoko, Yoann Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy. Yoann Cabaye is healthy, as is Steven Taylor at the back. This team is better than a 15th place side, even if they’ve rarely looked it.

MORE, EPL Roundup: Fellaini England’s best?

But Chelsea was up 2-1. They are the more talented side. They have the players to close out that game. Chelsea should have taken full points.

For the last two months we’ve likened Chelsea to Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde, but with the team falling back into a race for their Champions League lives, the pressure mounts to find a cure to their constant bipolar transformations. Why is Mr. Hyde showing up more often than Dr. Jeykll?

Barcelona, Neymar make it formal: Signed into 2021

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 19: Neymar of Barcelona holds off pressure from Raheem Sterling of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League group C match between FC Barcelona and Manchester City FC at Camp Nou on October 19, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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T’s are crossed and i’s dotted on Neymar’s new contract, keeping him at the club through the 2020-21 season.

Neymar, 24, will make his 100th La Liga appearance with his next step onto the pitch.

Lionel Messi’s deal runs through 2017-18, and Luis Suarez’s goes through 2018-19.

[ MORE: Guardiola on Aguero omission ]

He’s scored 59 goals in league play, and has 91 total when you include all 150 of his matches in a Barca kit.

Neymar is on a similar scoring rate to last season, when he netted 31 times. The Brazilian also has 49 international goals in 73 caps.

Guardiola seethes at reports Aguero unwanted at Man City

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 14: Sergio Aguero of Manchester City is congratulated by Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League match between Manchester City FC and VfL Borussia Moenchengladbach at Etihad Stadium on September 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Pep Guardiola is seething with reports that claim star striker Sergio Aguero is not in his plans for Manchester City’s future.

Aguero started on the bench for Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League loss at Barcelona, inspiring talk that the Argentine star wasn’t long for the Emirates Stadium.

[ MORE: Conte on Mourinho, Pogba ]

Guardiola says that’s garbage, and that he simply needed more midfielders for his attack. Next time, just ask.

From the BBC:

“It was a tactical decision. I wanted one more midfielder, I tried to keep the ball in the Camp Nou and when you have the ball, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez don’t.

“I spoke with Sergio and he was understanding, I thought in the last 30 minutes, with the Barcelona centre-halves tiring, he could help a lot from the bench. When Sergio decides to leave it will be his decision. Next time before you (the media) decide he is not in my plans you can call me.”

Still, not using Aguero is risky business.

The striker believes, rightly, that he’s among the most dangerous players in the world. Guardiola has said as much, too.

While few would put him in the class of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s difficult to imagine either being sat for tactical reasons against one of the best teams in the world.

Chelsea: Conte expects warm reception for Mourinho; Terry is fit

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  A fan wears a Chelsea scarf with the image of the club's former manager, Jose Mourinho before the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Watford at Stamford Bridge on December 26, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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The managers are meeting the media ahead of this week’s Premier League matches, and many eyes are trained on one specific match-up.

Chelsea and Manchester United meet on Sunday, the first time Jose Mourinho will manage against his old side since his unceremonious exit last winger.

[ USWNT: Holiday has tumor removed ]

Mourinho, of course, led Chelsea to the 2014-15 title only to see a miserable start to the following campaign. He was hired at Manchester United this summer, but Conte thinks Mourinho’s Chelsea laurels have earned him some love from Stamford Bridge.

“I have great respect for Mourinho. He deserves a good reception. He was an important man for Chelsea and wrote part of the club’s story.”

Conte also touched on Paul Pogba‘s decision to head back to Old Trafford. Pogba is coming off a starring role in United’s 4-1 win over Fenerbahce, and Conte guided the French midfielder during their time at Juventus.

“It was Paul Pogba’s dream was to return to Manchester United. I wish him well, but only after this game.”

Conte said John Terry is available to return for Chelsea, and that could be invaluable against a big, strong forward like United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With the Red Devils having played Thursday, Conte will like his chances a bit more than usual.

Canada vs. U.S. among top-notch CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals

VANCOUVER, CANADA - JUNE 20:  Gershon Koffie #28 of the Vancouver Whitecaps brings the ball up field against Dax McCarty #11 of the New York Red Bulls at B.C. Place on June 20, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jessica Haydahl/Getty Images)
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The bracket is set for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, and ensures that at least one MLS vs. Liga MX semifinal will happen next Spring.

No. 1 seed New York Red Bulls will cross the continent to meet No. 8 Vancouver Whitecaps, with the winner moving on to face the victor of Mexico’s Tigres UANL vs. Pumas UNAM.

[ VIDEO: Previewing all 10 PL matches ]

The possibility of an all-Liga MX or all-MLS final still exists, with Pachuca and FC Dallas on opposite sides of the bracket. Arabe Unido gives Panama hope for its first CCL semifinalist, while Saprissa can be Costa Rica’s first semifinalist since 2011.

Of the remaining teams, only Pachuca has won a title in the CCL era (2008-present). Tigres lost in the 2016 final, the only other team to make it that far.

Full schedule
New York Red Bulls (1) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (8)
Tigres UANL (4) vs. Pumas UNAM (5)
Arabe Unido (2) vs. FC Dallas (7)
Pachuca (3) vs. Saprissa (4)

The first legs will be played in late February, and the bright side to the intra-league quarters will be one MLS side waiting a round before facing a more in-form club playing a traditional season schedule (though that’s an overblown excuse at this point).

Some fans don’t care much for the tournament, while others — myself included — are extremely keen to see an MLS team win the CCL and represent North America in the Club World Cup, where it can get a high profile litmus test in a serious competition (Real Madrid beat Cruz Azul 4-0 in a 2014 semifinal).