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Three swoops for Dynamo Kyiv help close the gap with Shakhtar Donetsk

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Dynamo Kyiv, one of the two traditional powers in Ukraine, seemed to have other things to worry about than Shakhtar this summer. While the Donetsk club were making waves in last year’s Champions League and winning their league by 13 points (losing only once in 30 games), Dynamo was fighting emerging challengers Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk for second place. Ultimately, Myron Markevych’s Metalist claimed the league’s second Champions League spot, relegating Dynamo to the relative indignity of Europa League.

I say relative indignity because while European soccer has its own charms, it’s not where Dynamo’s supposed to be. At least, it’s not where they’re supposed to be at the beginning of a campaign. They’re one of Ukraine’s big two. One of those Champions League spots should be theirs on renown alone. It’s bad enough that they’d become a notable second behind Shakhtar, but to be passed by Metalist? And have Dnipro on their heels? It’s a concerning if subtle fall.

Dynamo clearly realize their plight and are solving it the way all club soccer troubles are solved: With money and new players. With three swoops, Dynamo have not only started to address the growing talent gap between themselves and their rivals, they’ve also lured three talents who had been linked with bigger leagues.

The most renown of the trio is Montpellier’s Younes Belhanda (pictured), a 23-year-old Moroccan attacking midfielder who had been linked with moves to England, Italy and Turkey. The specOne of the best players on the MHSC team that claimed Ligue 1 in 2011-12, Belhanda has been linked with higher profile moves for the last six months. That he ended up in Kyiv (for a speculated $13/€10 million) is a minor coup for Dynamo.

So is the capture of 27-year-old Dieumerci Mbokani, a DR Congo striker who scored 34 goals in 53 league games during his two years at Anderlecht. Thought Mbokani struggled during spells at Monaco and Wolfsburg, he has improved since his 2011 return to the Juliper League, where he’d previously stared for Standard Liege. That improvement, also seen for a DR Congo side the qualified for the last Cup of Nations, will complement Brown Ideye and Belhanda in Dynamo’s attack, albeit for another $13 million.

But that attack will feature a third surprising addition, that of 25-year-old Dutch winger Jeremain Lens, who agreed with Dynamo two weeks ago. The former PSV man makes the move to Ukraine after his most productive season in the Eredivisie, scoring 15 goals in 30 league games, production that made for another $13 million fee, according to reports. Where most Dutch league stars with that kind of production make their way to Germany or England, Lens has instead been lured to Kyiv, rounding out an attack that may more than rival Shakhtar’s.

The defending champions will line up with Luiz Adriano up top, some trio pulled out of their grab bag of Brazilian attacking midfielders: Alex Teixeira, Ilsinho, Douglas Costa, Taison, Wellington Nem, Fred, and Alan Patrick behind. With Henrik Mkhitaryan (and Fernandinho, deeper in midfield) all but gone, Mirseau Lucescu will have to adjust. What that adjustment looks like, it’s too early to say.

That adjustment could be brilliant, given all the talent Lucescu has at his disposal. But with Razvan Rat also gone (having left for West Ham United), this can be seem as a minor regroup for Ukraine’s champions. And if that’s the case. Dynamo’s attack of Lens, Mbokani, and Ideye being supported by Belhanda may make up that gap.

It will be fun if Metalist and Dnipro can somehow keep up. Even if they don’t, this year’s Ukrainian Premier League looks to be more interesting than last’s.

Allardyce on Palace’s “great victory” over Boro

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 25:  Sam Allardyce manager of Crystal Palace signals during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough at Selhurst Park on February 25, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images
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Big Sam got a big win, and he knows it.

Two days after tearing into his players for not adapting to his system, the Crystal Palace boss was glowing with praise after the Eagles knocked off visiting Middlesbrough in a relegation six-pointer on Saturday.

[ MORE: Palace 1-0 Middlesbrough ]

The win lifts Palace out of the drop zone, a point ahead of Leicester City who plays Monday. Allardyce is shaping his own Premier League table and he’ll try to lift a sort of Bottom Seven trophy after the season

From the BBC:

“It’s a great victory. I think the two-week break helped us refocus and that showed – today they made a lot of very good decisions.

“The three points are important as it puts us in amongst the pack, out of the bottom three and a bit closer to Bournemouth.

“I see the bottom seven as the Premier League table we need to try and win. If we can achieve more then that would be great but we need to make next week’s game against West Brom a game to win.”

Crystal Palace have too much talent to be in this spot, and Allardyce’s acumen as a “never relegated” manager has not been questioned much despite the Eagles falling into a worse spot than they were when Alan Pardew was fired. Is this finally their move out of trouble, or just a clean sheet against a Boro team that can’t score?

Conte delighted with his ruthless Chelsea machine

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Chelsea are a machine.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The Blues beat Swansea City 3-1 at Stamford Bridge on Saturday to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League to 11 points as the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal are all on a weekend off due to the EFL Cup final.

Facing a stubborn Swansea side, Chelsea went ahead through the excellent Cesc Fabregas and even when they were pegged back right on half time through Fernando Llorente’s header you expected them to kick on win the game.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

They did just that as Antonio Conte‘s men were relentless throughout and goals from Pedro and Diego Costa late on made it 20 wins from 26 games this season as their title procession continues.

Speaking after the game, Conte was asked if this win was simply another step on their way to winning the title.

“Yeah, I think it is another step,” Conte said. “For sure a good game, a good win and it wasn’t easy to play against them because I watched Swansea’s games against Liverpool and City and they played very well. I think today we deserved, a lot, to win the game. We created many chances in the game, we dominated the game in the first half.

“It is a pity for the goal we conceded at the end of half time. In the second half we started again and created chances with Hazard and then Cesc hitting the crossbar. I am pleased because now, to play the ball is not easy because the season is going to end. In this moment it is very important to have the performance of my players.”

The Italian manager also admitted that a pivotal moment in the game went Chelsea’s way. With the score still locked at 1-1 with 20 minutes to Gylfi Sigurdsson‘s trickery saw Cesar Azpilicueta handle in the box. Referee Neil Swarbrick waved away the penalty calls but Conte admitted the ball hit Azpilicueta’s hand despite it being very close to Sigurdsson and perhaps unintentional.

Moments later Pedro scored to put Chelsea ahead as they powered to yet another victory, their 10th straight at home in the Premier League.

Nobody looks like catching this Chelsea side as Eden Hazard and Fabregas dazzled in the drizzle at Stamford Bridge and Costa was at his clinical best.

A brief defensive lapse aside, this was a dominant and well-deserved win against a dogged Swansea outfit.

In the words of Jay Z – “On to the next one.”

That’s a trip across London to West Ham on Mar. 6, as games against Stoke City and Crystal Palace follow. The way Conte’s side are playing and finishing teams off, they could have this thing all but sewn by April 1 when they face Manchester City at Stamford Bridge.

Men In Blazers podcast: Pochettino, Lloris discuss “To Dare Is To Do”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Hugo Lloris of Tottenham Hotspur and Mauricio Pochettino, Manager of Tottenham Hotspur after the goalkeeper was substitued during the Premier League match between Everton and Tottenham Hotspur at Goodison Park on August 13, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
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Rog speaks with Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, and head of coaching and development John McDermott in a preview of his film, “Premier League Download: Tottenham Hotspur: To Dare is to Do” which airs Sunday at 11 a.m. ET after Spurs vs. Stoke City on NBCSN.

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Watch Live: Watford vs. West Ham (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Troy Deeney of Watford (L) struggles to hold off Michail Antonio of West Ham United (R) during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Watford at Olympic Stadium on September 10, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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Vicarage Road is the scene for a Saturday afternoon clash between top half hopefuls West Ham United and Watford (Watch Live at 12:30 p.m. EDT on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Irons have 32 points and the hopes of continuing an upward climb to the position they wanted back when this season began in August.

The Hornets are two points below West Ham, having dealt with a woeful stretch in form to climb back to within sight of 10th.

LINEUPS

Watford: Gomes; Janmaat, Kaboul, Britos, Holebas; Cleverley, Behrami, Capoue; Zárate, Deeney, Niang. Subs: Arlauskis, Prödl, Cathcart, Zúñiga, Doucouré, Success, Okaka.

West Ham United: Randolph, Cresswell, Fonte, Reid, Antonio, Obiang, Kouyate, Noble, Snodgrass, Lanzini, Feghouli. Subs: Adrian, Byram, Masuaku, Collins, Fernandes, Ayew, Calleri.