Chelsea's head coach Mourinho reacts before their Champions League soccer match against Schalke 04 in Gelsenkirchen

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.

source: Getty Images
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.”

VIDEO: Man United’s Marcus Rashford scores 3 minutes into his England debut

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 26:  Marcus Rashford of England arrives at the team hotel on the eve of their international friendly against Australia at the Hilton Gateshead on May 26, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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12 months ago Nine months ago Six months ago Three months ago, if anyone asked you, “who is Marcus Rashford?” you, just like me, probably would have responded as such: “I haven’t a clue. Should I know who he is?”

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

Stars are, of course, born overnight in the sports world, and the 18-year-old Manchester United striker, who spent 12 years with the club’s youth academy, is just the latest example. On Feb. 25, he made his first-team debut and scored twice in the Europa League. Three days later, he made his Premier League debut, again scoring twice.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

Fast forward to Friday, and Rashford is a fully-fledged England international. In keeping up with the theme of his other debuts this season, he marked his international debut with a goal against Australia after just three minutes of play at the Stadium of Light.

It remains to be seen whether Rashford completes his hat trick of debut braces this year. We’ll update this post if he does so.

Croatia gets 2-match World Cup stadium ban for fascist chant

POZNAN, POLAND - JUNE 10:  Croatian fans light up flares during the UEFA EURO 2012 group C between Ireland and Croatia at The Municipal Stadium on June 10, 2012 in Poznan, Poland.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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ZURICH (AP) Croatia has been ordered to play two World Cup qualifying matches in empty stadiums for repeated cases of fans chanting fascist slogans.

FIFA fined the Croatian soccer federation 150,000 Swiss francs ($151,000), and ordered the stadium bans to take effect when Croatia hosts Turkey on Sept. 5 and Finland on Oct. 9.

Chile was also ordered to play one World Cup qualifier away from its national stadium over fans chanting anti-gay insults, FIFA said in disciplinary rulings announced Friday. FIFA also fined five Latin American soccer federations for “discriminatory and unsporting conduct by fans,” including anti-gay insults, at World Cup qualifiers.

[ MORE: USMNT-Bolivia preview | Castillo replaces Chandler ]

Croatia fans were guilty of discriminatory chants at friendlies against Israel and Hungary in March, FIFA said.

Croatia “had already been sanctioned for similar incidents by FIFA and UEFA” in previous seasons, the world soccer body said.

Before the 2014 World Cup, FIFA banned Croatia defender Josip Simunic for 10 matches for leading fans in a World War II-era chant used by the country’s then-puppet regime.

After incidents of anti-gay chants at the last World Cup in Brazil, FIFA has cracked down on insults aimed by Latin American fans at players on rival teams.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine UCL final ]

Chile cannot use its national stadium when it hosts Bolivia on Sept. 6 and must pay a fine of 30,000 Swiss francs ($30,250). A second stadium-ban sanction was deferred for a two-year probationary period.

In other sanctions for soccer federations, FIFA fined Honduras 40,000 Swiss francs ($40,300), Mexico and El Salvador 35,000 Swiss francs ($35,275) each, Paraguay 20,000 Swiss francs ($20,150), and Peru 15,000 Swiss francs ($15,115).

UEFA Champions League final preview — Madrid’s finest Real or Atleti?

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 27:  Diego Simeone head coach of Atletico Madrid looks on during an Atletico de Madrid training session on the eve of the UEFA Champions League Final against Real Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 27, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final isn’t quite the unstoppable force against the immovable object — Real’s defense is good and Atleti has plenty of attacking intent — but it’s fair if you’re expecting the Madrid Derby final to be Diego Simeone’s diligent defenders attempting to counter Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid’s potent attack.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed ]

Simeone’s built his name on tight teamwork, and La Liga teams broke Atleti down a mere 18 times in 38 matches this season. Before you crow about the weakness of Spain’s top flight from top to bottom, Real only managed a single goal against Atleti in a 1-1 draw that came at the Vicente Calderon. Atleti triumphed 1-0 at the Bernabeu to take four of six points from their derby mates.

But this is the big one, and a rematch of the late thriller we saw in the 2014 final. That’s when Diego Godin’s 36th minute goal came within seconds of being the difference, only for Sergio Ramos to net in stoppage time and Real to score three goals in extra time for a 4-1 win.

[ MORE: Torres ready for “game of my life” ]

Ronaldo will be fine to go, which is obviously bad news for Atleti. While his goal at the end of the 2014 final was just chiseled-ab window dressing, he has scored in both of his UCL finals (He scored for Manchester United in the 26th minute of their 2008 defeat of Chelsea).

(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

The beauty of Atleti’s defense is how well it springs into the attack, with Godin and Filipe Luis both capable of providing offense.

But really, with respect to Gabi and Antoine Griezmann… that defense! Atleti allowed three goals in the group stage, and just seven across its 12 UCL matches.

How will Simeone aim to stop Real this time around? Will it be banks of four or five, with Torres and Griezmann waiting to strike on a fleet-footed counter? That could serve their disciplined unit well, but something tells me Simeone has something special cooked up for this much-anticipated rematch, and manager is a distinct edge for Atleti against a still-learning Zinedine Zidane.

As an aside, Griezmann has been fantastic, scoring 32 times this year with seven coming in the UCL. Torres is second in scoring, with 12.

Championship playoff preview: Sheffield Wednesday vs. Hull City

DERBY, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 14:  Eldin Jakupovic of Hull City celebrates as Andrew Robertson of Hull City scores their third goal during the Sky Bet Championship Play Off semi final first leg match between Derby County and Hull City at the iPro Stadium on May 14, 2016 in Derby, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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One is hoping to rejoin the Premier League at the first time of asking, while the other to see its first top flight action since 2000 with a win in Saturday’s promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

Hull City did not make the top flight from its inception in 1904 until winning the playoffs in 2008. Since, the Tigers have spent a pair of 2-season stints in the Premier League.

Sheffield Wednesday, for its part, spent nine seasons in the top tier from 1991-2000, but fell as low as League One in the 21st century before a run to the playoffs this season.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine UCL final ]

Hull’s stingy defense allowed 35 goals this season, tied for the second-best mark in the league, while scoring the fourth-most goals (69). The Tigers finished in fourth place to Wednesday’s sixth, and the sides drew 0-0 at Hull and 1-1 in the reverse fixture.

Uruguayan striker Abel Hernandez was far and away Hull’s most deadly scorer, notching 21 goals in the Championship this season, while Sam Clucas paced the club with 8 assists.

Wednesday’s scoring was paced by former Watford attacker Fernando Forestieri’s 15 goals. Veteran Gary Hooper added 13 for the Owls, who got a team-best eight assists from Ross Wallace.

It’s the “richest game in sports”, and kicks off at Noon ET Saturday.