Quick Six: Chelsea’s second halves, Fulham helps Cardiff, and the rest of the headlines from this weekend’s Premier League action

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1. CHELSEA MASTERS OF SECOND HALVES, PREMIER LEAGUE

Half time on Saturday at Stamford Bridge brought plaudits for the way Tim Sherwood had prepared his team. The second half brought reality. Jan Vertonghen’s slip and corresponding back pass allowed Samuel Eto’o to open the scoring in the 56th minute, with a red card three minutes later to Younes Kaboul leading to a penalty conversation from Eden Hazard and a late brace from Demba Ba.

(MORE: Chelsea 4-0 Tottenham Hotspur: Blues blitz Spurs to extend their lead at the top)

Playing down a man, things got out of hand for Spurs, producing a final score that doesn’t reflect the quality they showed over the first 55 minutes. From Chelsea’s point of view, the result builds on the second half dominance they showed at Fulham, where Andre Schürrle scored three times between the 52nd and 69th minute. Go back one earlier, and John Terry’s scoring a stoppage time winner against visiting Everton.

The explanatory mechanism here is José Mourinho; or, more readily, his style. Avoid mistakes, make adjustments, wear down your opponent, and seize your opportunities. No doubt that’s a greatly oversimplified view of what’s happening with the Blues, but over the last three weeks, that’s how life at Chelsea has played out. The Eto’os, Willians, Schurrles that Mourinho brought in have produced an intensity and depth’s led to wins like these.

The end result: Chelsea are now seven points clear in the Premier League, and while much of that is do to having played more games than Liverpool (one), Arsenal (one), and Manchester City (three!), Mourinho is still putting pressure on the chasers. As the season enters its final two months, perfection may be required to prevent Chelsea from re-claiming the title.

source: AP

2. FULHAM SPARKS CARDIFF’S HOPES OF SURVIVAL

Through much of what’s become a nightmare season, Fulham could placate itself with the league’s inability to distance themselves from the bottom dwelling Cottagers. After Sunday’s loss in Cardiff, however, that’s no longer the case. Even if Felix Magath’s team wins next week against visiting Newcastle, they’ll still be in last place. Important side note: The last time Fulham won a Premier League game, True Detective wasn’t on television.

(MORE: Cardiff City 3-1 Fulham: Bluebirds win the relegation dogfight)

This has gotten really bad. On form as well as record, the Premier League had two clearly inferior teams before Saturday’s kickoff at Cardiff City Stadium, yet Ole Gunnar Solksjær’s team proved a clear step ahead of their relegation rivals. Two goals from Steven Caulker and an own goal from Sascha Reither sent Fulham to a 3-1 defeat – a result that leaves them five points from safety.

The obligatory caveat is the ‘one hot stretch’ rule, but how is that stretch going to come? Or, as important, who cares enough to fight for those results? Fulham looks is a collection of players already looking toward their next moves, and perhaps rightly so. Almost all of them have the talent to hook up with another Premier League team. Together, however, they’re about to end the Cottagers’ 13-season run in the top flight.

3. WEST BROM GIVES MAN UNITED REASON TO SMILE

That’s more like it, was David Moyes’ reaction after his Red Devils took a 3-0 win out of the Hawthorns, but given how poorly the Baggies have played under Pepe Mel, the result looks more obligatory than a sign of progress. With West Brom slipping closer and closer to the drop (and a series of games in hand for Sunderland looming large), the hasty dismissal of Steve Clarke looks like a terrible idea. The backbone the former boss had in place could have carried West Brom into the summer, when Richard Garlick could have made a more prudent move.

(MORE: West Bromwich Albion 0-3 Manchester United: Baggies in real danger after loss (video))

With that in mind, we should hold off praising Manchester United too much. Yes, in accordance with a long-standing tradition was put in place in August, we have to overreact to every United result, but 28 games into the season, the Red Devils have a well-established record of slightly above-averageness. Likewise, West Brom has an ever-growing collection of performances that hint it’s barely a Premier League-quality club.

In that context, a 3-0 for the Red Devils isn’t surprise, particularly considering West Brom have been trended downward ever since Mel came on board. Whereas their entire body of work hints the Baggies are among the league’s 17 best, recent returns say this is one of the first division’s worst teams. They’re down to 10 games to prove otherwise.

(MORE: David Moyes on Manchester United’s win vs. West Brom: “That’s more like it”)

4. JON WALTERS GOOD; JOHN WALTERS BAD

Walters’s foul on Alexander Tettey seemed more instinctual than a sign of maliciousness, but contrary to contrarian thinking, some soccer instincts can be rather dangerous, and danger is something players are asked to avoid. When the Republic or Ireland international saw straight red in the 78th minute at Carrow Road, I sympathized, knowing I would also recoil and try to protect myself in the same situation. I also know that a recoil that leaves my spikes in another man’s g will send me walking. Stoke finished the match with 10.

Thankfully for Mark Hughes’s club, Walters had just blasted a penalty conversion past John Ruddy, pulling the Potters even with the Canaries. After twelve minutes of holding off there hosts, and Stoke City had another result. Though Norwich had been terrible in its previous match, losing at Aston Villa, 4-1, Stoke City isn’t beyond seeing the value in a road result. With a point at Carrow Road, Stoke have only lost one in six, a run that’s pushed them to 12th in the Premier League.

(MORE: Norwich City 1-1 Stoke City: Result helps neither side feel safer)

This is the best Stoke could have hoped for in their first season without Tony Pulis. Much of the squad still reflects their old boss’s style and preferences, meaning Hughes was always destined to go through a transition season. If that transition means mid-table safety with minimal relegation drama, break out the bunting and book the aircraft carrier: Mission accomplished.

5. J-ROD GOAL ENOUGH FOR SAINTS AT PALACE

The middle of the season has been about adjusting expectations around a Southampton team that teased Champions League relevance in the season’s opening months. The team’s fall to ninth place has left the Saints a relatively forgotten side, albeit one that continues to play some of the most attractive soccer in the Premier League. Not going to Europe but also not battling the drop, Southampton is left to play out of string of games that will serve as Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez, and Luke Shaw’s auditions for World Cup 2014.

That’s not to say the team’s no longer capable of strong results. On Saturday, at a Crystal Palace seem seemingly capable of drawing anybody at anytime (see: Swansea, last weekend), Mauricio Pochettino’s side got a well-earned goal from Rodríguez, whose ability to fight through Julian Speroni showcased one of the individual talents that have distinguished Southampton from the league’s bottom half. Able to hold the Eagles at arms’ length for the final 53 minutes, Southampton snapped their two-game losing run, defeating Palace, 1-0.

(MORE: Crystal Palace 0-1 Southampton: Rodriguez’s bizarre strike seals Saints’ win)

Given Pulis’s arrival at Palace, Saturday’s was a result that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Teams with more talent than the Saints have struggled with the refurbished Eagles, yet Southampton were able to seal their result early. They may not be competing for anything, but the Saints are still showing signs of progress.

source: AP

6. FA cup conflicts? not a problem, unless you’re Arsenal

Manchester City was either terrible, has a very specific Wigan problem, or fell victim to a Latics team that is secretly upper-Premier League quality. In terms of the first division’s title race, however, Sunday’s upset loss to Wigan has a huge silver lining. Where fixture congestion posed a problem for the Citizens’ quest to claim a second Premier League title, the team will soon be down to one competition. No FA Cup semifinals. No final. Likely, no more Champions League (already trailing 2-0 ahead of a trip to Barcelona). In a short period of time, Manuel Pellegrini will be able to leverage his club’s depth to pursue their main goal.

Arsenal, however, remains in the race for the FA Cup, their emphatic, 4-1 victory Saturday over Everton making the Gunners favorites to claim their first honor since 2005. While memories of the 2011 League Cup will keep Arsenal fans from being too assumptive, their club will be heavy expected to move past Wigan next mont. Survive those giant killers, and Hull or Sheffield United will meet them in the final.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).