Gold Cup: Wondolowski hat trick leads U.S. in 6-1 rout of Belize

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PORTLAND, Ore. – The name on his back may have undermined his renown, “Wondowlowski” erroneously ironed onto his jersey, but after 42 minutes on Tuesday at JELD-WEN Field, nobody was talking about the typo scrawled across his shoulders. Instead, the buzz around Chris Wondolowski centered on his second, third and fourth international goals, all scored before halftime, with the reigning Major League Soccer Most Valuable Player lifting the U.S. to a 6-1 win over Belize in their opening match of the 2013 Gold Cup.

Belize’s only goal came the 39th minute, with defender Ian Gaynair heading home a restart to briefly pull the underdogs within one. But building on Wondolowski’s third just before intermission, second half tallies from Stuart Holden, Michael Orozco, and Landon Donovan helped push the U.S. to the top of Group C, their goal difference giving them a tiebreaker advantage over Costa Rica.

The Ticos also sit on three points after winning the night’s opening match, getting two goals from midfielder Michael Barrantes en route to a 3-0 win over Cuba.

(MORE: U.S. player ratings from Tuesday’s win)

Belize, playing in their first major international competition, were expected to offer little resistance to one of the tournament favorites, so it was no surprise when the U.S. dominated play from the opening kick off. Forcing two corner kicks in the first 90 seconds and maintaining over 80 percent of the match’s possession over the first 10 minutes, the Americans quickly pushed their opponents deep into their own end. With the ball rarely in the U.S.’s half,  the Americans appeared destined for a quick break through.

That break through came in 12th minute when left midfielder Jose Torres beat Belize right back Evan Mariano to get a far post cross in from the byline. There, Joe Corona out-jumped his man to head the cross down into the six, where the ball was left for Chris Wondolowski to open the scoring from close range.

(MORE: A few takeaways from the United States’ win)

After another spell of U.S. control, Belize nearly equalized, a freak deflection of a Deon McCauley 24rd minute shot sending the ball looping toward Nick Rimando’s left post. The Real Salt Lake keeper leapt and got a hand to a ball that appeared destined to nail his post.

The U.S. had a number of chances to double their lead near the half hour mark, with Corona firing a ball into Woodrow West’s feet in the 32nd minute before Torres’s 36th minute half volley  went over the bar from six yards out. One minute later, however, a cross from the right from Kyle Beckerman found Wondolowski in middle of the Belize area, his header powered past West to make it 2-0.

Four minutes later, the U.S. gave the goal back. A foul along Belize’s right flank by Landon Donovan gave up a set piece, one converted by a Ian Gaynair header after Elroy Smith found him unmarked just outside Nick Rimando’s six-yard box.

But it was only two minutes until the U.S. restored their lead, with Wondolowski completing his hat trick after diving onto a cross from Corona. Raising this international total to four goals in 13 caps, Wondolowski returned the U.S. to the two-goal lead they’d enjoyed for much of the half, sending his team into intermission up 3-1.

In the 58th minute, the U.S. padded their goal difference when Stu Holden, who had come on for Beckerman at halftime, finished from six yards out, recording his first international goal in four years. Off a far post cross from Corona, Donovan headed down for the still returning midfielder, whose third international goal marked the latest step in his comeback from repeated knee injuries.

For Donovan, it was his 50th international assist, reaching a plateau he passed in goals on Friday with his double against Guatemala. It wasn’t long, through, before the country’s all-time leading scorer added his second assist of the night, his restart from deep on the U.S.’s left flank swinging onto Orozco in the six-yard box, the defender heading home to put the U.S. up four.

In the 77th minute, Donovan added to his scoring record, scoring from the penalty spot after a Belize hand ball, registering his 52nd career goal.

The win leaves the U.S. even on points with Costa Rica at the top of Group C ahead of Sunday’s match with Cuba, but with goal difference being the tournament’s first group stage tiebreaker, the team’s +5 difference leaves the one spot above the Ticos, who beat Cuba by three in the night’s opener.

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.”