Will Chelsea’s savvy rebuild win them the Premier League title?

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One of the most famous TV sitcoms in England is called Only Fools and Horses. In that long-standing show the main protagonist is named Del Boy, a South London street merchant who is a wheeler-dealer extraordinaire. No matter what lies in front of him, ‘Del’ always seems to land on his feet.

Right now in West London, Jose Mourinho is proving himself to be a modern day Del Boy.

This summer Chelsea’s manager has performed one of shrewdest overhauls in Premier League history. Veterans Ashley Cole, Samuel Eto’o and Frank Lampard are gone, plus Romelu Lukaku and David Luiz left for a massive profit. In came star striker Diego Costa, midfield sensation Cesc Fabregas, talented goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois back from a loan spell, legendary forward Didier Drogba on a free and Brazilian defender Filipe Luis.

Mourinho managed all that and made a profit Del Boy would be proud of. His squad is now truly starting to take shape.

[RELATED: PL season previews]

Since returning to Stamford Bridge last summer Mourinho has been threatening to overhaul Chelsea’s roster and finally he has done so. One of the greatest coaches in soccer history doesn’t get much wrong, but he should have wheeled and dealed last summer when he arrived. Now that he has, are Chelsea the favorites to win the Premier League? The bookies have them down to win the PL and those chaps usually aren’t too far off the mark. That, plus the optimism of fans in West London, points to the fact that this could be Chelsea’s year.

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Can Jose mastermind more silverware for Chelsea this season? He needs to.

The Blues have not won the PL title since 2009-10, when Carlo Ancelotti was in charge. Mourinho won no silverware last season and the pressure is slightly on the man they call the ‘Special One.’ Chants of “your not special anymore, your not special anyyyymore!’ rang around stadiums last season as Chelsea huffed and puffed their way to a third place finish. Mourinho waved away those shouts from the terraces whenever they arose but he is all in this season. This is his team. The 51-year-old has signed new players and has cast aside plenty of stars to mold his unit together. Last year he brought in the likes of Nemanja Matic and Mohamed Salah during the season and shipped out the hugely talented Juan Mata. Many questioned what he was doing.

[RELATED: Mourinho: Fabregas is the future]

Mourinho knows what and who he wants and has constructed the strongest squad in the PL over the summer. Now it is all about execution and giving the right players the chance to flourish. He referred to his players as “kids” many times last year and that famous reference to the Blues being ‘a small horse that needs milk to run and jump. Next season we will be ready to race.’

Below is what I think is Chelsea’s best starting lineup, plus seven subs, as Mourinho’s horse is ready to run.

Chelsea’s best starting lineup

Cech

Azpilicueta—Cahill—Ivanovic—Luis

Matic—Ramires

Oscar—Fabregas—Hazard

Costa

Subs: 
Courtois (GK)
Terry
Willian
Schurrle
Salah
Drogba
Torres

source:
New signing Cesc Fabregas has been dubbed “the future of Chelsea” by Mourinho.

This team has the potential to obliterate the PL this season. If Diego Costa settles into life in England quickly, which his style of play and attributes suggest, Chelsea could have the final piece of the jigsaw they’ve been looking for. 25 plus goals from a striker. Fabregas is a genius in a central midfield role and his balls should supply Costa with plenty of chances to score. The problem area at left back has been plugged with Brazilian Filipe Luis and there will be a right ding-dong battle for the goalkeeping jersey between veteran Petr Cech and one of the world’s most outstanding young goalkeepers, Courtois.

When you look at the lineup above and the likes of John Obi Mikel, Marco Van Ginkel and Victor Moses aren’t even making the bench, you know Chelsea got a lot stronger over the summer. After going to the UEFA Champions League semifinal last season, they can do one step further and make the final this season, although you sense success domestically is what Mourinho is after. He wants to win it all and he has to win something during this campaign or his second stint at Chelsea could come to an abrupt end for the man who proclaimed on his return last summer that he wants to remain at Stamford Bridge for 10, 15 years or more.

Mourinho has managed Real Madrid, FC Porto and Inter Milan. He has won silverware at all three but Chelsea is where he became a household name. Just like Del Boy, Mourinho put in the man hours and is a hero because of that. Del Boy slaved away for decades selling whatever he could to get by and one day he hit the jackpot and was worth millions. All his dreams had come true… then he blew it all and he’s back to where he started. South London, hustling to make a living and always trying to reinvent himself. The TV show ended without us ever getting to see if Del Boy made it back to the riches he so craved.

Jose Mourinho is back at Chelsea searching for the silverware he won in his first spell at the club. Unlike Del Boy, we will get to see if Jose succeeds or fails this season and beyond. This season he has gone for broke in search of glory. It’s a case of all or nothing for the ‘Special One’ in the second season of his second stint in charge at Stamford Bridge.

To borrow one of Del Boy’s most famous catchphrases, as it seems rather poignant, “he who dares, wins.”

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.