Jose Mourinho hails Chelsea’s ‘maturity’ as title charge begins to gather steam

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LONDON — After his sides stunning second half fightback against Southampton on Sunday, Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho didn’t go as far as declaring that his side are ready to lift the Premier League title.

But he does feel his young side are adapting well to the challenges of a title race as they brushed Saints aside 3-1 with a mature and composed display.

Stunned by Jay Rodriguez’ early goal, Mourinho’s men trailed until the 55th minute but fought back superbly to go second in the table and sit just four points behind leaders Arsenal. Asked whether this win signified a team who are ready to lift the title, Mourinho was cautious.

“It’s the sign of a team that is going step by step and understands my ideas and mentality,” Mourinho said. “Some of the players are progressively feeling the responsibility. Feeling that Chelsea, in December, cannot be completely out of the title race. They must feel the responsibility to play for Chelsea and that was a sign of maturity. We were losing after 10 seconds, but we said ‘keep calm, let’s go.'”

(MORE: Chelsea 3-1 Southampton: Stirring comeback sends Blues second)

The Blues pressed in the first half as Artur Boruc saved splendidly from Fernando Torres’ close-range header and Chelsea went in 1-0 down at the break. But Mourinho’s men kept their heads, and after the interval Gary Cahill and John Terry used theirs in quick succession to nod the West London side ahead.

Mourinho was impressed with his sides second half display as Southampton couldn’t cope with their rampant attack lead by a fired up Torres. The Spanish forward, returning to the starting lineup after injury, was serenaded by the home crowd as cries of ‘Torres, Torres’ reverberated around Stamford Bridge as he was replaced late on. Mourinho told me this when I asked about Torres: “The way he’s working for us, it’s fantastic.”

However it was a tactical switch at half time that swung the game in Chelsea’s favor as the ‘Special One’ sent on towering striker Demba Ba for midfielder Michael Essien and switched formation to 4-4-2 in order to hassle and harass Southampton’s two central defenders.

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John Terry’s header put Chelsea 2-1 up as a second half comeback, masterminded by Mourinho, put the Blues within touching distance of top spot.

It worked a treat, as Jose Fonte and Dejan Lovren were forced to go long and give up possession as Chelsea continually picked up the ball and started free-flowing attacks.

Mourinho masterminded yet another victory — as Chelsea stretched their unbeaten run at home in the PL to 67 games under their Portuguese manager — after another early substitution worked in his favor.

“We changed to the 4-4-2 and I think we gave Southampton a different game, a game that they didn’t expect. I think it was difficult for them to cope with the situation,” Mourinho said. “We were not producing enough. I tried to give the opponent a new problem, one they were probably not ready for. They like to play it from the back, the fact we played with two strikers pressing Fonte and Lovren, I think they started going long and that allow my team to start creating chances.”

In the next six days Chelsea now face two tricky tests away from home against Sunderland and Stoke, before welcoming strugglers Crystal Palace to Stamford Bridge in three games that will test their mettle not to drop points against weaker opponents.

But hovering on the horizon is a pivotal clash with league-leaders Arsenal on December 23, which could decide who is top of the table at Christmas. Mourinho brushed off suggestions that he’s setting big targets and goals for his side and instead wants to focus the players improving… whilst staying in the title hunt.

“I can’t establish targets and say ‘I want to win five straight games’ or ‘I want to be top of the league then.’ No. I want nothing,” Mourinho said. “I want to work with them, to feed the young players and the new team which has been working with me for a few months. By the time we are doing that, we are there. That’s the importance thing. If you are 10-12 points behind, you’re building… but you’re not fighting for the title. If you are 4-5 points behind, you’re building and evolving but you’re fighting for the title. These boys have to cope with the responsibility of being there.”

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

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Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.