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.”

Conte: Costa “situation was very clear” in January

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At this point, there is no doubt Diego Costa‘s future lies away from London and Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte broke his silence on the Brazilian-born Spain international striker, saying he’s been ready to move on from Costa since January, when Costa and Conte had a disagreement following a big-money offer from Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian during the winter transfer window.

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“I don’t like to talk about players who are not here but the only thing I can tell you [is that] in January, the Costa situation was very clear, for the club for him and his agent,” Conte told reporters Friday. “For me the situation is closed.”

It’s an amazing turn of events after Costa scored 20 Premier League goals in Chelsea’s title-winning 2016-2017 season, including 14 goals through the end of December. But after falling out with Jose Mourinho a year earlier, the same issue happened again under Conte, with Costa proving much less effective down the stretch.

But Conte and Costa were able to put their differences aside on the field, photographed multiple times hugging after wins, as well as after winning the title.

Costa is reportedly now agitating for a move back to his former club Atletico Madrid, but the Spanish club’s transfer ban until the next window complicates matters. In a World Cup year, would Costa be willing to sit out half a season just to leave Chelsea?

If Costa’s time in the Premier League is up, he’ll go down as one of the league’s best pound-for-pound goalscorers. He scored 52 goals in 89 Premier League appearances, with seven more cup goals in his three-year spell at Chelsea.

And if he is gone, defenders across the Premier League will sure be happy to wave goodbye.

Sparta Prague signs France midfielder Rio Mavuba

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PRAGUE (AP) Sparta Prague says it has signed France midfielder Rio Mavuba to a three-year contract.

The 33-year-old Mavuba comes from French club Lille, which he joined in 2008. Before that, he played for Bordeaux and Spanish club Villarreal.

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Mavuba was on the France team at the 2014 World Cup.

He is the 10th player signed by Sparta after Italian coach Andrea Stramaccioni took charge in May.

Mexico 1-0 Honduras: Pizarro strikes early to put El Tri in Gold Cup semifinals

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Mexico had little trouble dispatching Honduras as El Tri won 1-0 in Glendale, AZ and eased into the Gold Cup semifinals.

Just four minutes into the game, Mexico took the lead as they got Honduras on its heels, with Rodolfo Pizarro sticking the ball in at the far post at the end of a scramble. Jesus Duenas carved a ball through the defense, and while Elias Hernandez whiffed on the tap-in, Pizarro was right behind him to finish the chance.

Mexico settled in after scoring, while Honduras tried to out-muscle El Tri, with the latter receiving a pair of yellow cards in the first 45 minutes. There were precious few other chances throughout the first half, with Honduras completely incapable of creating anything in the attacking half.

Mexico continued to dominate out of the halftime break, but they lost Monterrey midfielder Jesus Molina in the 65th minute with discomfort, replaced by Chaka Rodriguez. The best moment for Honduras as they chased the game late came in the 78th minute as Jose Corona made a spectacular save when substitute Alexander Lopez nearly scored directly from a corner. They came close again in stoppage time after a set-piece as Alfredo Mejia scuffed a shot agonizingly wide.

Honduras ended their Gold Cup without a single goal scored. They technically defeated French Guyana 3-0 in the group stage, but that came on the typical forfeit scoreline, whereas the actual game played ended in a 0-0 draw.

Meanwhile, Mexico will take on Jamaica in the semifinal in a rematch of last tournament’s final.

Manchester United beats City 2-0 in preseason Derby

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Manchester is Red, at least for the preseason.

Manchester United used quickfire first-half goals from Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford to topple Manchester City 2-0 in Houston as part of the International Champions Cup.

The first half-hour saw plenty of action, but nothing in terms of goals. New Manchester City full-back Kyle Walker made a great run to cut down Rashford before he could shoot, while goalkeeper Ederson was required to keep out Paul Pogba.

On the other end, Chris Smalling was active often, nearly conceding a penalty with a pull on the shirt of Patrick Roberts, while also cleaning up after a high City press caught United in their own defensive third.

[ MORE: West Ham signs Chicharito ]

Just before halftime, United went in front thanks to their prized new striker. Pogba launched an absolutely brilliant long-ball, and Lukaku streaked to meet it, heading past a charging Ederson before cutting from a tight angle into the empty net before defenders could recover.

Immediately after, Rashford put United 2-0 up on a cool finish from the right with space after a ball from Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The score is Rashford’s third goal of the United States tour.

After a host of changes at halftime that saw City keep just four players on the field, it didn’t help as United kept on the pressure. Rashford almost scored an accidental long-range chip as his long-ball to the far post nearly went in, but Ederson tipped it over. Moments later, Lukaku thundered a howitzer into the crossbar.

United made a host of changes past the hour mark, and they nearly had another if not for the offside flag raising on Phil Jones after a double-save by Ederson. City had a big chance in the final 10 minutes, as a great ball from Samir Nasri found Gabriel Jesus, but the Brazilian put it well over.

Ederson had a solid game in net for Manchester City despite the loss, while Kyle Walker and 17-year-old City youth product Brahim Diaz also stood out. For United, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was bright as were Paul Pogba and goalscorer Marcus Rashford.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea (Romero 45′); Valencia (Fosu-Mensah 77′), Lindelöf (Bailly 45′), Smalling (Jones 45′), Blind (Darmian 45′); Herrera (Fellaini 62′), Pogba; Rashford (Martial 62′), Mkhitaryan (Carrick 62′), Lingard (Pereira 78′); Lukaku.

Manchester City: Ederson; Adarabioyo (Otamendi 45′), Kompany (Mangala 45′), Fernandinho, Yaya Toure (Sane 45′), Walker, Foden (Zinchenko 74′), De Bruyne (Diaz 45′), Sterling (Jesus 45′), Aguero (Stones 45′), Roberts (Nasri 45′).