Premier League Playback: Why Chelsea are now title favorites

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CHELSEA THE CHAMPS?

Chelsea has won seven on the spin. They are top of the Premier League and the Blues are breezing past opponents.

[ MORE: 3 things on Chelsea’s win ]

Antonio Conte has seamlessly turned his new team into a well-oiled winning machine in a matter of months.

So, why are the now title favorites?

In previous outings they’ve kept six-clean sheets and have relied on hitting teams on the counter with their new 3-4-3 system giving them much more defensive solidity. Against their London rivals Tottenham on Saturday, they had to play in an entirely different way and they still won.

Trailing Spurs 1-0 in the first half, Conte’s side were outplayed and should’ve been behind by more. They couldn’t cope with Spurs’ high-pressing style but unlike when they crumbled to defeats against Arsenal and Liverpool earlier this season, they found a way to dig in and grab a win.

[ MORE: Hazard selects title favorites ]

That’s the sign of a true champion and with Conte tweaking a very talented team subtly, he is rekindling the spirit Chelsea showed two seasons ago to win the league. Remember Manchester City’s record in recent years? After twice winning the title, they’ve fallen off in each season after that before getting back to to their best. Chelsea is showing signs they can follow that model of reincarnation.

Speaking after the game, Conte told ProSoccerTalk that had the team he had earlier the season played on Saturday, they’d have lost to Tottenham. Chelsea had negotiated one of their biggest hurdles to date.

“Now, we are another team compared to against Liverpool and Arsenal. This is for sure,” Conte told ProSoccerTalk. “Because if we were the same team today as were against Liverpool and Arsenal, we lose the game. For sure. For sure. Now we are another team. I am pleased for this. I am pleased for the players because we have another type of confidence. We are working a lot and they enjoy this type of football but it is normal in this type of game you can’t dominate for the whole game. Today we won and I am pleased for this because today it wasn’t easy.”

Chelsea showed a spirit, determination and ruthlessness about their play against Spurs which once again underlined their title credentials.

In recent away wins at Southampton and Middlesbrough they kept clean sheets (that run of six-straight shutouts was ended by Spurs) and their ruthless efficiency shone through. In those games they took the lead in the first half and then sat back expertly, protecting their lead and hitting teams on the counter.

Against Spurs they had to fight back from 1-0 down and show different qualities. They passed their latest test against another title contender with flying colors.

Early on a fired up Spurs, obviously still smarting from their UEFA Champions League exit a few days earlier, came flying out of the traps with Mauricio Pochettino’s trademark high-pressure approach working a treat.

In the past, Conte’s Chelsea had struggled with the high-press of Arsenal and Liverpool’s attackers. Now, against another fellow title rival, they found a way to figure it out and drag themselves back into the game.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Pedro’s stunner right on half time dragged them level and changed the momentum of the match. In truth, Chelsea didn’t deserve to be in with a shout following Tottenham’s dominant first 30 minutes. But, as all good champions always seem to, they found a way.

Of course, Chelsea aren’t champions yet (despite Eden Hazard’s very confident statement about predicting the title race in late November…) and they have a long way to go, but everything is set up rather nicely for their clash against Manchester City on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as Conte and Pep Guardiola collide at the Etihad with just one point separating the title contenders.

If Chelsea’s victory against Tottenham was the biggest test of their title credentials since they switched to a 3-4-3 formation in September, Saturday’s trip to third-placed City is much bigger.

Right now, it seems like Conte’s team is finding ways to win however they can and they seem to usurped City as most people’s favorites for the title. Would you really bet against Chelsea exposing some of Man City’s defensive weaknesses and heading back to west London with all three points on Saturday? Didn’t think so.


WHAT IS MOURINHO GAINING FROM HIS ANTICS?

After Jose Mourinho was sent to the stands for the second time in as many months, I’m struggling to see anything positive he’s gaining from his rash antics.

Mourinho kicked a water bottle down the touchline after Paul Pogba was booked for simulation. Yes, Mark Noble‘s tackle was a bit reckless, but he was nowhere near Pogba and the Frenchman tried to deceive referee Jon Moss. Mourinho wasn’t having any of it and neither was Moss as he sent him to the stands and an inevitable FA charge is likely heading Mourinho’s way. 

[ MORE: United drop more points at home ]

Coupled with his sending off against Burnley last month which resulted in a one-game touchline ban, Mourinho should be expecting the same of maybe even worse considering his conduct over the past 12 months.

He was fined by the FA for comments against referees both last month and last October, while he was also sent off by Moss and handed a one-game stadium ban last December.

Why does he keep doing this? What does he think this is achieving?

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

It didn’t work at Chelsea last season and it certainly doesn’t seem to be having a positive impact at United with his team 11 points off the top of the Premier League and many already writing off their title challenge for another season. It may be slightly early for that, but Mourinho’s frustration is clear as his side have now drawn four-straight home games and arguably should have won all four to be just three points off the top.

But they didn’t win those games and they have to move on quickly.

Mourinho’s antics are helping nobody and harming plenty, including himself.


BRADLEY OFF THE MARK BUT PLENTY OF WORK TO DO

Bonkers. Madness. Crazy.

No words will really do Swansea City’s 5-4 win over Crystal Palace justice. It will go down as one of the all-time classic Premier League encounters, even if the standard of defending was akin to a pub league, especially from set piece situations. Minor details…

It is also hard to sum up just how important Bob Bradley’s first win in the Premier League will be for Swansea City in their fight against relegation but the American is extremely grateful Fernando Llorente somehow scored twice in stoppage time to secure a memorable victory.

  • Swansea led 3-1 with 75 minutes on the clock
  • They trailed 4-3 with 90 minutes on the clock
  • They led 5-4 with 93 minutes gone and held on for the win

All of that being said, the lack of having those minor details in check, especially in defense, means Bradley has so much work to do with the squad he has inherited. He knows it.

Yet, the significance of this victory, in terms of confidence and belief, is huge. It also underlines that if Bradley can improve the Swans’ defensive unit over time (which just so happens to be his forte) he has plenty of goals in his team. With Gylfi Sigurdsson their attacking hub, Leroy Fer adding goals from midfield and Llorente back fit and among the goals, he has plenty to work with.

At the sixth time of asking Bradley won in the Premier League and he became the first American coach to win a Premier League game. It’s a small milestone in a season which will push him and his players to their limits as they aim to stay up in the Premier League. A pivotal run of games now awaits them between now and Jan. 1.

Swansea’s incredible win reveals there is hope but it also underlines just how much work the New Jersey native has to do to turn this ship around and steer it away from danger. The last word on this manic game is saved for Bradley.

“It was an incredible game in all ways. You want to be happy after that but you also want to kill a few guys,” Bradley said. “At the end the character to fight through tough moments, the team has gone through a lot, sometimes you need something to fall your way – the players made that happen. Now we have to build on this. We needed something to just change the luck and course of events, if today doesn’t do it I don’t know what will.”


KOEMAN’S RETURN SWEET FOR SAINTS

Everyone connected with Southampton Football Club celebrated their win over Everton on Sunday a little bit more than they’d celebrate a usual win.

Ronald Koeman decided to leave Saints in June for Everton, citing a greater ambition from the Toffees, and although he was booed and jeered by the vast majority of home fans on Sunday, Charlie Austin’s game-winning goal after just 41 seconds made the atmosphere more of a jovial one than one slathered in animosity towards the Dutchman.

[ MORE: Saints show they’re just fine without Koeman ]

Saints should have won by more than the 1-0 scoreline. Koeman knew it. Even if he criticized his entire squad when asked about the performances of Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku, there was little his team could do to stem the flow of Saints’ attacks, who themselves were missing Dusan Tadic, Sofiane Boufal and Steven Davis through sickness and injury.

Koeman’s project at Everton is in its infancy. He has plenty of work to do, especially defensively, and this display was as much a reminder of that as it was of Southampton’s ability to continue to move forward and progress despite losing its best players and managers season after season.

Claude Puel’s men have endured an up and down start to the current campaign, with their woeful display in the 1-0 defeat at Sparta Prague in midweek perhaps the worst of the bunch. They followed it up with a dominant performance  which should’ve resulted in a greater margin of victory.

Players come and go. So do managers. Having a clear philosophy and a plan is what remains. Are there any clubs in the Premier League better run than Southampton?

Who knows what might happen for Koeman not only at Everton but in the rest of his coaching career. Maybe in many years to come, Koeman may regret his decision to leave Saints when a bigger check book came calling.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

LIVE – Everton kick off Europa League campaign

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Wayne Rooney will play his first competitive game for Everton in 13 years.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores

That storyline will dominate Everton’s return to Europe as they kick off their 2017-18 UEFA Europa League campaign in front of a packed house at Goodison Park on Thursday.

The Toffees welcome Slovakian side MFK Ruzomberok for the first leg of the third qualifying round as they aim to make it back to the group stage for the first time since 2014-15.

Click on the link above to follow not only Everton’s game but all of the Europa League qualifiers going on across Europe this afternoon with the likes of AC Milan, Fenerbache, PSV, Marseille and Athletic Bilbao all in action.

If Ronald Koeman‘s side successfully navigate their way past Ruzomberok then they will be in the play-off round which is the final hurdle before the group stage.

Bob Bradley named first-ever LAFC head coach

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Bob Bradley is heading back to Major League Soccer and will be the first-ever head coach of Los Angeles Football Club.

LAFC announced Thursday that Bradley, 59, would take charge of the new MLS club for their inaugural season in 2018.

The former Chicago Fire, New York MetroStars, Chivas USA, U.S. national team, Egyptian national team, Stabaek, Le Havre and Swansea City head coach is back Stateside for the first time since 2011 when departed his job with the USMNT.

Bradley won the 2007 Gold Cup, took the U.S. to the 2009 Confederations Cup final and reached the 2010 World Cup Round of 16 while in charge of the USMNT.

LAFC announced the news in an unconventional manner with the video below as Bradley is back in the game after leaving Premier League side Swansea City in December 2016 as he became the first-ever American to coach in the PL.

MLS’ newest team is already pushing ahead with its 22,000 capacity soccer-specific stadium in downtown LA with construction underway on their swanky new home.

The club also boast a huge number of high-profile owners including Mia Hamm, Magic Johnson, Will Ferrell, Vincent Tan and many others with entrepreneur Peter Guber the executive chairman.

Barcelona praise Man United; Mourinho lauds Pogba

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Barcelona beat Manchester United 1-0 in their International Champions Cup clash at FedEx Field on Wednesday and the Spanish giants were quick to praise Jose Mourinho’s side after the narrow victory.

[ VIDEO: Man City hammer Real Madrid

New Barca boss Ernesto Valverde certainly has his hands full in his first few weeks in charge at the Nou Camp as Neymar’s future is the main topic of conversation around the Catalan club.

That said, after the win (which came via a goal from, you guessed it, Neymar) Valverde had plenty of kinds words to say about United and the job Mourinho is doing at Old Trafford.

“Obviously it hasn’t been well lately, but I mean they won the Europa League. This year they are going to be in the Champions League. Their presence by itself is impressive. They impress. I think they are going to be a really hard team to beat,” Valverde said. “For me, they are contenders to win and they are going to be hard to beat in the Premier League and the Champions League. I wouldn’t want to face them in the Champions League.’

Mourinho was asked about the situations regarding the top talent in world soccer and the huge transfer fees, and he picked out that moment to praise the current most-expensive player in the world Paul Pogba.

“(Lionel) Messi and Neymar, there is only one; there is not two,” Mourinho said. “(Luis) Suarez, (Andres) Iniesta, (Gerard) Pique, (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Gareth) Bale, (Luka) Modric, Toni Kroos; there is only one so they can only play for one club, not for two clubs. We can’t have them, they belong to the clubs. But I have to say that Paul Pogba showed the level… he showed he belongs to that level.”

This is certainly a big year for Pogba after his up and down start to life back at Old Trafford in 2016-17.

Sure, he he hadn’t plenty of pressure on his shoulders with the huge price tag, his emoji spinning around the pitch and much more, but he helped drag United through the season and achieve their main aim of getting back to the Champions League.

After a strong preseason Stateside where the won four games and lost a tight encounter to Barcelona, it appears Mourinho has things moving in the right direction.

Whether or not United will challenge for the PL title and Champions League this season remains to be seen but you can’t argue that Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof aren’t huge additions and if Mourinho can add one or two more he will have the required balance to made the Red Devils a formidable unit.

LA Galaxy fire Onalfo, hire Sigi Schmid

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Sigi Schmid is back in the game.

On Thursday LA Galaxy announced that Curt Onalfo had been relieved of his duties “effective immediately” and that Schmid had been hired.

The former UCLA, Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders coach is back for his second-stint with the Galaxy — he previously coached the Galaxy from 1999-2004 — as the man with more wins than any other boss in MLS history is tasked with saving LA’s season.

Schmid has won two MLS Cups, a record five U.S. Open Cups and three MLS Supporters’ Shield over his illustrious career.

LA Galaxy President Chris Klein explained the decision to bring in the experienced coach after Onalfo’s promotion form LA Galaxy II failed to work out with the MLS giants currently languishing in ninth spot in the Western Conference.

“After a great deal of evaluation and careful consideration, we believe that Sigi Schmid is the best person to coach our team for the remainder of this season and into the future,” Klein said. “Sigi is one of the most experienced coaches in the history of soccer in the United States and he is an extremely successful manager that has proven himself to be a winner within Major League Soccer. Sigi has been one of the best coaches the history of our league and we have full confidence in him to lead our team moving forward. Our goal remains to win trophies and be the best club in North America and we believe that Sigi gives us the best opportunity to achieve this. Curt Onalfo has been a loyal servant to the Galaxy and Galaxy II for a number of seasons and we wish him well.”

From the start Onalfo was on a hiding to nothing with Bruce Arena departing for the U.S. national team last season and Onalfo tasked with an almighty rebuild following his great work with bringing through youngsters at LA Galaxy II.

Schmid knows the league inside out and his main aim will be to rally a talented group of Galaxy players to one of their famed second half of the season surges as they search for another MLS Cup to add to their record haul of five.

With LA in ninth spot in the West they are only three points off the bottom of the standings but are also just five points from the final playoff spot.

For so long Schmid plotted LA’s downfall as head coach of the Seattle Sounders from 2009-16, but now he’s back in LA and as fate would have it his first game back in charge of the Galaxy is against… the Sounders this Saturday at StubHub Center.