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After another blown lead, is it time to reconsider our assumptions about Real Salt Lake?

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Here’s what we thought we knew about Real Salt Lake, even if we hadn’t explicitly discussed it:

  • Despite winning only three of its first seven games, the team appeared to have picked up where it left off last season when they won the Western Conference;
  • The transition from Jason Kreis to Jeff Cassar appears to have been a smooth one, with the team’s characteristic formation, style, and performance preserved;
  • The backbone of the team — Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, Javi Morales, and Álvaro Saborío — appeared as strong as ever, particularly with a healthy Chris Schuler.

After Saturday’s night’s 2-2, come-from-ahead draw against visiting Vancouver, however, it may be time to reconsider our assumptions. With late goals from Nicolas Mezquida and Sebastian Fernandez, the Whitecaps became the fourth team to snare a comeback draw against RSL – the second to come back from a two goals down.

That RSL had it so easy in the game’s opening minutes made the comeback even more surprising. When João Plata (2′) and Saborío (9′) had the team up two before the 10-minute-mark, it looked as if the league’s last undefeated team would cruise. Ensuring chances for Plata and Saborío were denied by David Ousted and the cross bar, but RSL remained in control. Going into the final moments, there was no indication this would be San Jose all over again.

Then, in the 86th minute, the defense broke, allowed Darren Mattocks to have a crack on Rimando, and let Mezquida pounce when their keeper spilled the shot down in front of goal. Eight minutes later, a heavy touch from Saborío as RSL tried to break out of its own end eventually allowed Fernández to tee off from 30-plus yards. Rimando, failing to get down for the shot, gave Vancouver a point, relegating RSL to its fifth draw in eight games.

From the pure number of goals allowed, to the timing of them, to their effect on the final results, this is not the type performance we expect from one of the league’s best teams, and while it’s difficult to imagine the season ending without Real Salt Lake among the circuit’s strongest sides, Saturday forces us to question whether Cassar’s team is there right now. On one hand, they are undefeated – the only MLS team that can make that claim. On the other hand, the team’s last three performances have failed to impress. They weren’t convincing against (what we now see as) a poor Philadelphia, they had trouble with a winless Portland, and they dropped points at home to Vancouver.

Let’s go back to what we thought we knew, implicitly acknowledging each of item (and more) is part of the complete RSL package – one that would leave the team among the best in Major League Soccer. The identity is in place, the backbone has typically played well, but they haven’t quite picked up where they left off.

In these late match capitulations, we see flaws that weren’t present in November and December. We see a particular defensive frailties that only surface at the end of games. We see an inability to control the moments that matter most.

We may also be seeing nothing more than a phase. But in that phase, is Real Salt Lake really as good as, say, Seattle? Thankfully for them, the question’s pretty meaningless, right now.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs Manchester United (Lineups & Live Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02:  Louis van Gaal of Manchester United waves to the crowd before the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on February 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Louis Van Gaal takes on the squad his potential successor built as Manchester United travels to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea, live on NBCSN at 11:00 a.m. ET or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

Should they fall, the Red Devils would be stuck on 40 points, their lowest-ever point total at this point in any Premier League season.

[ WATCH LIVE: Chelsea vs Manchester United live online at NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Nothing is new on the injury front for either team. Chelsea’s striker problem remains as Loic Remy, Pedro, and Radamel Falcao are all out, leaving young Bertrand Traore on the bench backing up Diego Costa. For Manchester United, Marcos Rojo, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones and Luke Shaw are all out injured and not available for some time.

Chelsea will be looking to maintain a nine-match unbeaten streak alive against Manchester United across all competitions, having won five and drawn four against the Red Devils in that span.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Ivanovic, Zouma, Terry, Azpi; Mikel, Matic; Willian, Fabregas, Oscar; Diego Costa.
Subs: Begovic, Baba Rahman, Cahill, Loftus-Cheek, Pedro, Traore, Hazard.

Manchester United: De Gea; Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Borthwick-Jackson; Fellaini, Carrick; Lingard, Mata, Martial; Rooney.
Subs: 
Romero, McNair, Varela, Schneiderlin, Herrera, Pereira, Memphis

Pato eager to make his mark with Chelsea

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Brazilian attacker Alexandre Pato has joined Chelsea on loan until the end of the season and the former AC Milan star is looking to make his mark in Europe once again.

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In an exclusive partnership with Chelsea Football Club, NBCSports.com provides even more access to life at Stamford Bridge.

Sign up to the Chelsea Fan Club Plus now to read the full edition of this month’s Chelsea magazine. Members also gain access to Chelsea TV featuring behind-the-scenes action from the Chelsea training ground and exclusive interviews with Guus Hiddink and his players.

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Below is the feature article on Pato from Chelsea’s magazine.


The chances are you will have known Pato’s name long before he signed for the Blues. After all, he was a teenage sensation for club and country, impressing in Serie A with

AC Milan and joining the long line of thrilling forwards to have graced the Brazilian national team.

There is also a chance that, until his arrival here, you hadn’t heard his name too much lately. That’s because Pato has been back in his homeland, playing for Corinthians and Sao Paulo, before making his return to Europe with a loan deal at Stamford Bridge until the end of this season.

Still only 26, he is visibly excited about the move and the prospect of playing Premier League football, and as we sit down to talk to him during his first week at Chelsea, his famous boyish grin is pretty much a permanent fixture.

“I am very eager to play,” he says enthusiastically. “I am eager to train with my team-mates and to incorporate myself into the group here. I know it’s a fight against time because there is not so long until the end of the season, but I am very keen to get started.

“The first few days have been very important. To be back in Europe again at a big club like Chelsea is a dream come true. I’m very happy to be here because I have worked very hard for the last three years in Brazil.”

He arrives with the team looking to push itself back to the more familiar upper echelons of the league table and with crunch FA Cup and Champions League fixtures against top opposition fast approaching. In short, it’s an exciting period and Pato knows he will have to hit the ground running.

“The season is not over,” he states. “There is a lot to play for and a lot of things Chelsea can achieve. This sequence of better results we are having now is just the beginning of something the team can continue to build on. Since I arrived I have been made to feel very welcome, not just by the Brazilian players but everyone. The coach met me here at Cobham and introduced me to all the staff from all the different departments. He has given me the support to have a great rest of the season at Chelsea.”

Pato is a versatile and mobile player. He is always on the lookout for gaps to exploit, holes in the defence or a swift change of direction which might open up the pitch. A great many of his goals involve a sudden burst from deep, his acceleration taking him away from defenders.

Then there is the footwork in tight spaces, the body swerves and the tricks that allow him to slalom in and out of players. The Brazilian domestic season finished in early December but Pato has been keeping himself fit in preparation for a possible move during the January transfer window, and believes he just needs to get himself up to speed.

“I feel very good physically,” he tells us. “Obviously as a player you need game-time to be at your best but I feel prepared, I have been training well, and hopefully with games and time I can adapt.
“I know I only have a few months until the end of the season but what I can promise is that I am prepared to play to the best of my ability to help during the few months left of the campaign.”

Alexandre Pato, Sao Paulo FC
Alexandre Pato at Sao Paulo FC

He adds that, after injuries hampered his last two seasons with Milan, he has changed a few thingscand learned “what to do before training, during training, after training, even after the match.

“I learned a lot about myself and how to look after myself, and now Chelsea have opened the doors to me for this opportunity I am very happy to be back in Europe.”

As for English football, Patois well aware of the different challenges the Premier League is likely to present to him, but more than anything he is excited to test himself here. He has experience of
playing English clubs in European competition and pre-season friendly tournaments, and in the dressing room here he has plenty of friends who have been filling him in on the intricacies.

“I already knew Willian, OscarKenedy and Diego Costa,” he says. “There are some players I know from friendship and others I have once played against. It’s a big thing that they can help me settle down at Chelsea. They will help me express myself with freedom and to be incorporated into the team. The players all helped me to settle in my first few days.

“I know how hard the Premier League is. Diego, Willian and the boys have been telling me that it is very hard here, but I feel I have to improvise so I can find the space on the pitch, get my timing right and get myself into spaces. I have heard a lot about the Premier League and I also had the chance to play against English opposition when I was at AC Milan. For example, I played against Chelsea in a friendly match in the USA. It’s a different league – very hard, very physical, with a lot of contact, and hopefully with my pace and ability I will be able to help the team. I’m hoping to contribute a lot and have a great time here.”

Bournemouth 0-2 Arsenal: Ozil, Ox strike quick for Gunners win

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07:  Mesut Oezil of Arsenal celebrates as he scores their first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Arsenal at the Vitality Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hit goals just 88 seconds apart, enough to knock Bournemouth off its feat and give Arsenal a 2-0 win at Vitality Stadium.

The Cherries seemed up to the task, challenging Arsenal in every facet of the game except finishing, where the Gunners proved far superior.

The first big moment of the game came in the middle of the pitch eight minutes in. Mathieu Flamini slid through the feet of Dan Gosling on a challenge just into the Arsenal defensive half, a foul which referee Kevin Friend deemed fit for a yellow card, although it certainly looked dangerous enough for worse.

As the two battled ferociously back and forth, there were thumping challenges that kept the quality of the game down early. It wouldn’t stay that way for long. On 23 minutes, Aaron Ramsey floated a pinpoint ball to the back post. It met the head of Olivier Grioud who sent it back in front of net where Ozil roofed it on the volley, breaking a streak of 328 minutes without a league goal for Arsenal.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Gunners continue to charge forward, and they bagged another just a minute later. Ramsey again outside the top of the box found Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain streaking down the right, and the England international beat Charlie Daniels at full speed, firing low to the far post where it struck the woodwork and pinged in for a 2-0 lead. The goal is Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first ever league goal away from home, ending a streak of 37 Premier League games for the 22-year-old without scoring.

Bournemouth wouldn’t capitulate immediately. Harry Arter struck a powerful left-footed shot from the left corner of the penalty area on 27 minutes, but Petr Cech matched it by acrobatically tipping the weaving shot over the bar.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

That was all the major action for the first half, but the second half started with a flurry of moments around each goal. Ozil sent in a cross for Ramsey just three minutes after the break that sailed just over the Welshman’s head, and down the other end Matt Richie skied one just over the Gunners’ goal.

Bournemouth brought on Junior Stanislas and Josh King, and they maintained an attacking intent throughout much of the second half, but it wasn’t enough to break down the Gunners defense that was comfortable absorbing pressure as the game went on. Every time the hosts moved into a dangerous position, the ball would end up miles over the bar.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Cherries had one last opportunity to get on the board early in added time as a brilliant chance fell to Steve Cook right on the penalty spot but Petr Cech made an outstanding save down to his left before also keeping out the rebound.

Arsenal’s win moves the Gunners into third position, even with Tottenham on 28 points, which puts them five back of the leaders Leicester City. Bournemouth remains six points above the relegation zone, and also sit that distance off the top half of the table.

Barcelona tops Levante, ties club record with 28 unbeaten

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Jordi Alba of Barcelona celebrates scoring his team's first goal with his teammate Andres Iniesta during the La Liga match between Levante UD and FC Barcelona at Ciutat de Valencia on February 07, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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Sir Alex Ferguson described the 2010/11 Barcelona team as the best team he ever faced.

This year’s Barcelona side has matched them.

With a 2-0 victory over La Liga basement-dwellers Levante on an own-goal forced by Jordi Alba plus a late score from Luis Suarez, Barcelona has gone 28 matches unbeaten in all competitions, without a loss since a 2-1 defeat to Sevilla on October 28.

Manager Luis Enrique, though, is unmoved. “What matters to me are the team’s objectives,” said Enrique after the win. “These are nice numbers, if they help us win titles at the end of the season, fantastic. We are in good position, but there is still a lot left.”

The Levante victory marked Luis Enrique’s 100th game in charge of Barcelona.

That 2010/11 season, led by Pep Guardiola, Barcelona came a Copa del Rey finals loss to Real Madrid from a quadruple, winning the league, Champions League, and Supercopa de Espana. This time around, they’ve already secured the Supercopa, sit atop the league table by three points over Atletico Madrid and seven above Real Madrid, have yet to lose a game in the Champions League, and the second leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal against Valencia is a complete formality. What’s more, the numbers from this streak are eerily similar to that wildly successful squad five years ago.

That campaign, Lionel Messi scored 31 league goals and 53 overall. An injury sapped him of time in this go around, but Suarez and Neymar have picked up the slack. There has been just one league game in which all three of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez has been held scoreless this season, and to find it you have to travel all the way back to the second game of the year, a 1-0 win over Malaga that saw Thomas Vermaelen score the winner. Those three have combined for 48 league goals this year, more than every team in the Spanish top flight save Real Madrid.

Paris Saint-Germain has a similar streak going at the moment, currently unbeaten in league play throughout the entire season, but their 1-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League on November 3 means their streak across all competitions sits at 19 games.