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.

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

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Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

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Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

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Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”