Juan Mata the hero for Chelsea, as Spaniard sparks second half comeback (video)

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LONDON — It has been a rough start to the season for Chelsea’s Spanish midfielder Juan Mata.

But the diminutive attacker from Northern Spain showed all his mettle on Saturday, as he climbed off the bench at half time to turn the London Derby on its head.

Mata, 25, was playing in just his third league game of the season and made a massive difference to Chelsea’s offensive offerings at White Hart Lane.

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has publicly criticized Mata’s recent displays, but chose to bring on the playmaker to change Chelsea’s fortunes in the crucial Derby against Tottenham. And it worked.

“I think this is the way players have to say ‘I want to play'”, Mourinho said. “Conversations with you [the press] is not good, the agents blah, blah, blah, behind is not good. Good is this, the effort that he made against Swindon [in midweek] and the way he changed the team in the second half. And because of that I am a very happy manager.”

(MORE: All-square between the master and his apprentice, as Chelsea fight back for draw at Tottenham)

As for Mata himself, he was delighted to help the team produce a rousing second half comeback, after Spurs dominated Chelsea for vast swathes of a fiery first half.

“Well I just tried to do my best for the team,” Mata said. “From when I came on and that’s what I’m going to try and do until the end. Obviously everyone wants to play. As I said last week, I’m a professional and I enjoy all my teammates and what I want to do is enjoy on the pitch and today I did it.”

Mata played a part in the pivotal moment in Chelsea’s comeback, as his 40-yard left-footed free kick found John Terry at the back post, who headed home the equalizer in the 65th minute. Mata wheeled away in delight and punched the air, he deserved that moment after battling it out with Tottenham’s giants in midfield and forcing his way between the lines of defense and midfield.

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Jose Mourinho is delighted with Mata’s resurgence.

He certainly caused Spurs plenty of problems, and Andre Villas-Boas agreed that Mata’s arrival changed the game.

“Mata played very well, I think he changed the game. He is an extremely creative player, I think he had the impact on the game that Chelsea and Jose wanted. And made another assist for JT to score.”

(MORE: Tottenham 1-1 Chelsea: Lively derby ends in a draw)

Mata’s teammate, Petr Cech, could see things from both the managers and players perspectives, but is over the moon to see the Spanish magician back to his best and pulling the strings for Chelsea.

“If you aren’t doing exactly what he asked you to, then you can’t argue with him, because he is the boss,” Cech said. “It’s a simple as that. But it’s really nice to see Juan play very well the last couple of games and that he looks happy and fit.”

The Spanish international wasn’t even in the squad for Chelsea’s last Premier League game against Fulham, but he proved just how essential he is to their attacking rhythm, as those around picked up their game after half time. Oscar looked much more comfortable cutting in from the left, while Frank Lampard and Ramires also looked at ease dovetailing to support Mata’s roaming runs towards Tottenham’s defense. Last season Mata was the creative hub of Chelsea, scoring 21 goals and adding 29 assists to lead the way.

(MORE: Jose Mourinho fuming at Jan Vertonghen, as Fernando Torres sees red)

On Saturday, Mata made Chelsea a better team with his second half arrival and as Mourinho alluded to in his post-match press conference, Chelsea really should have won the game had Fernando Torres not been controversially sent off.

“In the second half we played very, very well,” Mourinho said. “We played tactically well, we played with a very good spirit and strong mentality. It leaves us in a situation where people are getting their confidence and I think this second half is probably the best we’ve played. Also the first half against Hull City but I think this is our best performance.”

And ahead of their Champions League game in Romania against Steaua Bucharest on Tuesday, Mourinho revealed that Mata will start, after starring in Chelsea’s determined second half comeback.

“I can say this 72 hours in advance, that he plays against Steaua Bucharest. He won that by himself.”

Mata is back in the picture at Chelsea, he’s done it the hard way. But he’s shown the ‘Special One” just how special he can be, with a terrific cameo display.

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.