Graham Zusi keeps making it harder for Landon Donovan to get back into U.S. national team

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SANDY, Utah – The more Graham Zusi delivers performances like the one in Tuesday’s second half, when the Americans finally punched a hole in the Honduran defensive dam, the more Landon Donovan’s return to the national team scene disappears into doubt.

Donovan is on the provisional roster for the Gold Cup, and he will probably be called once the 23-man roster is handed into CONCACAF – and presumably made public that day – on June 27.

But there is a little bud of a theory developing around the U.S. camp that Donovan’s estrangement could become more or less permanent, that the team is doing fine without him – and it’s hard to argue the point at the moment. That could change when the opposition improves, but for now …

It’s certainly fair to debate whether Donovan’s presence next year in Brazil – We can all agree that the United States is going, right? – would be an asset. If he can add just a little more polish to his game with the Galaxy, folding in more consistency to the performances, Donovan would certainly be an upgrade over other attackers in the pool now appearing regularly on Jurgen Klinsmann’s depth chart.

(MORE: U.S. player ratings vs. Honduras)

Klinsmann clearly isn’t happy with the message Donovan delivered last year through some of the player’s choices regarding the national team. Donovan maintains that he did what he needed to do to prolong his career – and it’s hard to argue that point, too.

But if Klinsmann wants to cut ties in a bigger way … well, what better time to do so than now? Take the PR hit now before the relatively low-profile Gold Cup, get it over with and move on well ahead of next year’s World Cup, when Donovan’s roster omission would potentially become a talking point distraction.

Which brings us back to Zusi, who was nominal in presence through the first 45 against Honduras beyond those set piece dandies (something else he does expertly, helping to mitigate Donovan’s absence). Zusi isn’t quite as versatile as Donovan, unable to deliver crosses with either foot the way Donovan can. We saw it once Tuesday as the Sporting KC attacker got into position along the left but badly over-hit a centering ball.

(MORE: What we learned about the United States in Tuesday’s win)

Zusi also misses Donovan’s burst of speed and instincts near goal, too. But while the dropoff is noticeable in those areas, it certainly isn’t fierce. Plus, other elements of Zusi’s game, the tidy work in tight spots, the defensive tracking and the overall awareness, are roughly equal.

(Talking about awareness: How sweet was that dummy to help spring Fabian Johnson, which set up Jozy Altidore’s game winner?)

Zusi was a major influence on the U.S. attack throughout the second half; almost everything dangerous after the break went through him at some point, arranging balls for Clint Dempsey, aiming more of the dead-eye restarts toward Omar Gonzalez and finding more of the spaces against a tiring Honduran defense.

(Some of his slow first half was about Brad Evans, who was quite conservative along the right; a bigger push from the makeshift U.S. outside back would have forced Honduran defenders into choices, which would have pried open more room to roam for Zusi.)

Either way, here’s how the MLS All-Star explained the change from first half to second:

“It was a gritty game [early], very physical, not a whole lot going on,” Zusi said. “A lot of possession changes toward the middle of the field. I think our play in the first half wore them down a little bit and it allowed us, in the second half, to spread the field a little bit and get in behind them a little more often. So the second half we could be more dangerous in creating opportunities.”

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.

Mata seems to confirm Champions League is Man United’s priority

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With the Premier League title all but wrapped up, English top flight teams are beginning to put their true focus onto competitions they still have a realistic shot of winning.

Manchester United sits in second place in the Premier League table, but they are a full 18 points back of rivals Manchester City, as so with a Champions League match against Sevilla on Wednesday afternoon, Juan Mata all but confirmed that the Red Devils are putting their main efforts into Europe’s largest competition.

[ MORE: Messi pegs back Chelsea despite winning tactics ]

“If we had less of a gap with respect to the Premier League leaders and we had a chance to fight for it, it wouldn’t be so tough to be eliminated from the Champions League, but now our aim is to progress from every round,” Mata said to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser. “It would be a big blow to be eliminated in the last 16.”

Last season, a similar story played out. Manchester United was out of reach of a top four finish in the league, so manager Jose Mourinho publicly admitted they were putting their main focus on the Europa League due to the automatic berth the competition’s winner received into next year’s Champions League. The gamble paid off, as Manchester United won the competition and earned their spot in the Champions League this season.

Sevilla has not progressed past the Round of 16 since 1958. Manchester United, meanwhile, has not made it past the Champions League quarterfinals since their runners-up finish in 2011, when they lost to Barcelona in the finals at Wembley Stadium.

Wenger confirms Ospina will start pair while Ozil, Ramsey miss out

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Arsene Wenger confirmed in his pre-match press conference that goalkeeper Petr Cech will get an extended rest with a pair of Cup games on the horizon for Arsenal.

In his place, David Ospina will start both Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32 match against Ostersund and Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Manchester City. Ospina is no stranger to this type of rotation, with the Colombian owning just 30 starts over the last three seasons in national and international Cup competitions compared to just seven Premier League appearances.

In addition, Wenger also confirmed that Mesut Ozil will miss out for Thursday’s match due to illness, but is expected back for Sunday’s EFL Cup final. Arsenal has a 3-0 lead over Swedish club Ostersund after the first leg, with the second leg to be played at the Emirates.

Wenger said Aaron Ramsey is back in training, and while he will not be risked in the Europa League match in his return from a groin injury that saw him miss the North London derby loss, he could be in contention to play against Manchester City. [Ramsey] is not in the squad tomorrow, he had a good training session. We will see how his evolution goes between now and Sunday. I don’t rule him out.”

Ramsey scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Everton in early February, but has played just 181 minutes since picking up a hamstring injury in mid-December.

Finally, Wenger said that Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will both receive starting spots against Ostersund, as will some unnamed youth products. Welbeck has been out of Premier League action since mid-January, stuck behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he received four minutes off the bench in the North London derby and will get another opportunity in the Europa League to prove his worth.

Conte admits job security speculation will always exist at Chelsea

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Antonio Conte admits that he will always face speculation about his tenure as manager while he is employed at Chelsea, but dismissed it as “no problem for me.”

There is a general acceptance that Conte will part ways with Chelsea at the end of the season given the tough times the club has seen this campaign. The Blues are hanging on to a Champions League place by a thread, and struggled through a January that included just two wins across all competitions in six matches.

“I’ve said it very clearly: I’ve got a contract until 2019 and I intend to respect this, but you know anything can happen in football,” Conte told Italian publication Mediaset. “It takes two to be happy and continue a marriage. Our work is unique because we’ve always got our suitcase in our hands.”

Conte did issue somewhat of a warning to Chelsea, however, that if he were to be fired, it could come back to haunt the club, as he would have no shortage of offers. “My intention is to respect my contract, but if something were to happen, it would open up different scenarios.” Big clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid could have job openings this summer if their lofty goals aren’t met, and those places would be attractive destinations for Conte, who won the Premier League title with Chelsea just last year.

“It’s a bit the history of Chelsea and inevitable when, in the past, in 14 years, 10 coaches have been changed,” he said. “Clearly when there is this habit, let’s say, the press play on it and as soon as there is a result or two which don’t go your way, they try to put the pressure on.

“But it’s no problem for me. I hope that this pressure doesn’t harm the players, not me, because I go looking for pressure.”