Rafa Benitez returns to a very different Liverpool

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Now seems like  a good moment to assess Brendan Rodgers’ first season in charge of Liverpool.

It’s his 50th game as manager tomorrow as the club hosts Chelsea – whose interim manager is Rafael Benitez, the Spaniard adored by Liverpool fans for a six-year spell that brought the Champions League in 2005 and second place in the Premier League in 2008-09. His family still live near Liverpool.

Since many Chelsea fans detest Benitez, he can expect a much better reception from opposition supporters than from his own club’s traveling fans at Anfield. Benitez brought Xabi Alonso and a then-useful Fernando Torres to Liverpool and finishing as runner-up to Manchester United was a credible achievement for a club that has not won the English league title since 1989-90. Their impressive total of 86 points might have brought the championship trophy in another, less competitive season.

After four successive top-four finishes under Benitez between 2006 and 2009, Liverpool are about to miss out on the Champions League for the fourth year in a row. They ended up eighth in the Premier League standings under Kenny Dalglish’s management last year and are currently seventh under Rodgers, ten points adrift of Arsenal, in fourth.

Rodgers has been forced to slash the wage bill by the club’s American owners after heavy transfer spending on the likes of Andy Carroll failed to pay off. The former Swansea manager says the club are a work in progress.

“I am very hopeful we can meet the challenge going forward and we can try to be a consistent team to get into those top four places,” he told reporters.

But it is a big ask and you only have to look at Chelsea themselves. They finished sixth in the league last season and they had a net spend of over [$108m] in the summer in order to try to get back into that top four… It is an ongoing process. I’ve signed here for three years and I would hope from the first day I came in until the final day I leave we will be in a better position. But I don’t think you can put a timeline on it. Without that lightning bolt of investment you have to build and coach your way towards it and mould the team. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen overnight but I’m not crying for time, it is just the reality of the club.”

Two points behind last year’s tally of 52 points with five fixtures remaining, Rodgers is likely to surpass the mediocre total that contributed to Dalglish’s exit. But Liverpool trail low-budget neighbors Everton: never a good look in the red sector of the city. And Rodgers has spent money on transfers. Some $70-0dd million, much of it on former Swansea players Joe Allen and Fabio Borini, whose impact is debatable. Without Steven Gerrard’s class and Luis Suarez’s goals, Liverpool would probably be closer to the relegation zone than the European qualification places.

It’s rare these days that a manager of a high-profile club gets to write off an entire season as a transition period. Owners and fans want quick results, even during a comprehensive roster overhaul. Rodgers may argue the rebuild will take every minute of those three years, and he may be right. But he’ll have to mount a more sustained and serious challenge for the top four next season.

Liga MX wrap: Pachuca earns first win, Leon stays unbeaten

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All of Saturday’s action from around Mexico’s top flight…

Pachuca 3-1 Lobos BUAP

A strong first-half push from the hosts was all Pachuca needed on Saturday night to earn their first victory of the 2018 Clausura season. Angel Sagal brought the home side in front after just 10 minutes off of a near-post header, before Pachuca’s lead soon doubled 14 minutes later from the penalty spot when strike Franco Jara converted on the dead-ball attempt.

Just prior to halftime, Pachuca was out to a 3-0 advantage when 20-year-old outside back Erick Aguirre tallied his first goal for the club.

Last-place side Lobos got on the board three minutes into the second stanza via a finish from Heriberto Olvera, however, it wasn’t enough to provide anything more than a consolation for the visiting side.

Necaxa 1-3 Chivas Guadalajara

Mexican international Alan Pulido made it a dream start for the visitors from Guadalajara at the Estadio Victoria, however, that lead was cancelled out in first-half stoppage time after Carlos Gonzalez leveled the match up at 1-1.

The difference proved to be with 25 minutes left to play, when a goalkeeping error by Marcelo Barovero allowed Chivas to regain possession inside the Necaxa penalty area, before Ronaldo Cisneros tapped home the winner.

Then, a third goal came just prior to the end of regulation when Edwin Hernandez killed the game off for Matias Almeyda’s men, who also earned their first victory of the Clausura season.

Rest of Saturday’s Liga MX action

Cruz Azul 0-0 Club Leon
Queretaro 0-0 Tigres UANL
Monterrey 0-0 Club Tijuana

Sunday’s matches

UNAM vs. Club America — 1 p.m. ET
Santos Laguna vs. Morelia — 7 p.m. ET

The 2 Robbies: Alexis/Mkhitaryan transfer saga and more

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle recap all the key stories from the latest Premier League Saturday fixtures including Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Newcastle (0:20), Chelsea’s 4-0 victory at Brighton (10:15) and the latest on the Alexis Sanchez/Henrikh Mkhitaryan saga after wins for Arsenal and Manchester United (19:00). Plus, a closer look at the bottom of the table and thoughts go out to James McCarthy after his serious injury against West Brom (29:00).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Video: Stoke’s Imbula scores stunner on loan at Toulouse

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Stoke City supporters know the name Giannelli Imbula, and perhaps they’ll be clamoring for the Frenchman to return to the bet365 Stadium if he can score more goals like this.

[ MORE: PL Roundup — Top three all victorious; Gunners thrash Palace ]

The holding midfielder is currently on loan with Ligue 1 outfit Toulouse, and for the first time this season, Imbula opened his goalscoring account in some fashion.

Right on half-hour mark, Imbula unleashed a left-footed strike from nearly 40 yards out to give Toulouse the lead over Montpellier (below).

Imbula joined Stoke during the 2015/16 PL season, and has made 26 appearances for the Potters in his time with the club, prior to his loan to France.

Willian proves he’s Chelsea’s x-factor against Brighton

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There’s a considerable difference when watching a Chelsea team that plays with and without one of its Brazilian influences in the attacking part of the field.

Willian — who first debuted for the Blues back in 2013 — hasn’t always managed to be a regular starter for Chelsea, whether it was Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink or current manager Antonio Conte at the helm, though.

[ SOURCES: Jack Harrison expected to join Stoke City this winter ]

The 29-year-old plays with considerable flair, something that certainly isn’t uncommon amongst many players that have grown up in Brazil.

At times Willian’s overconfidence is a significant blessing, and at others it can be considered a curse, however, the former Corinthians player’s presence is something that Chelsea needs now more than ever.

That was on display on Saturday during the side’s 4-0 win at Brighton, a match in which Chelsea dominated from start to finish with Willian on the pitch. While the performance cannot solely be attributed to the attacking midfielder’s showing, it’s easy to argue that the Blues midfielder is becoming the club’s biggest x factor — one that can determine the outcome of a match.

Just look six minutes into the match, when the Blues put together one of the best team goals you’ll see in a match this year (or any year for that matter), which of course, was started and finished by none other than Willian.

What stands out about the play isn’t the brilliant slicing shot into the near post corner by the veteran playmaker, but instead the confidence that Willian exudes and brings to a Chelsea lineup that has plenty of talent to be considered one of the best teams in England and all of Europe.

After all, Conte’s group is just a season removed from winning the Premier League and still sits inside the top three in the world’s top league.

Then, there’s the Blues’ third goal against Brighton, which was set up by a smart, and instinctive, through ball played into the path of Eden Hazard by Willian (below).

Even though Hazard ends up with a ton of time on the ball to make his next decision, which was ultimately to cut inside on his preferred right foot, the run by Willian towards the end line dragged a defender away from the Belgian international — allowing the sequence to progress.

Arguing Willian’s importance isn’t a knock on Hazard — a world-class player in his own right — or Alvaro Morata, who has had the intolerable task of replacing a key player like Diego Costa.

Instead, it simply shows that Chelsea has a plethora of talent, and that some of the club’s attacking struggles throughout the 2017/18 season can be chalked up to Willian being left out of the starting XI on a regular basis.

[ MORE: Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City ]

The Brazilian international has scored eight goals and added seven assists this season in all competitions for the Blues, despite only starting 19 matches.

The mind of manager Conte is an ever-changing one, so maybe Willian still doesn’t get the starting nod on an every week basis, but just by watching the team’s performance at the Amex Stadium it’s quite hard to argue against the player being on the field as much as possible.