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

Wild day in American soccer: Crew relocation, NASL LOIs, USL reserves

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The top three soccer leagues in the United States of America are dealing with varying bits of turmoil this Tuesday in October.

It began late Monday with reports that Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt aims to take the MLS founding member to Texas, seemingly only paying lip service to the idea of investment keeping the team in Ohio.

[ MORE: Leicester sacks Shakespeare ]

Some have said Precourt’s goals have always been to find a way out of Ohio, and the Crew owner was asked what has changed in the four years he’s owned the club (From ColumbusCrewSC.com):

Q:When we read your story about your purchase of the team, this was back in 2013, part of that was that it was very important to the Hunt family that the Crew remained in Columbus and you said at the time that you were committed to that. So what’s changed?

AP: I was committed to that and I believe that I demonstrated my commitment through significant investment in infrastructure, in personnel, in the quality of our product on the field. What has changed? Our League has grown leaps and bounds, it’s been unprecedented the improvement we’ve seen year over year and new markets that have come in the League have shown dramatic attendance. Let’s look at Atlanta with over 70,000 fans over their last few games, with Orlando building a new facility and averaging over 30,000 fans a game, with New York City FC. The list goes on and on. Our peers get stronger and stronger, year in and year out and I have to get back to our ambition as a club. This is key: our ambition as a club is to be a standard bearer in Major League Soccer, to be respected on and off the field in terms of our soccer operations and our business operations and to operate world-class, soccer-specific infrastructure. We’re going through growing pains now. It’s time for us to explore building a world-class, soccer-specific stadium so that we can be celebrated and successful and sustainable.

So, yes, barring a king’s ransom — word use intended — from the Ohio business community, it’s not being cynical to read Precourt’s intention to leave Ohio as very strong. The idea is very sad for the league, and makes every pro/rel honk’s argument against the closed model.

Then there’s the NASL, where it’s almost head-spinning to keep abreast of the future of the league. New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso has taken the wheel in an attempt to not only see the NASL rise, but remove Sunil Gulati from power at the United States Soccer Federation in the hopes of a complete overhaul. In what should not be read as a footnote, the NASL is currently suing the USSF.

There are reports that the league could have as many as 17 teams next season in a bid to regain sanctioning from the Unites States Soccer Federation, including a series of teams from the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League.

According to SocTakes.com, the NASL has letters of intent from NPSL clubs in Boca Raton, Boston, Detroit, Arizona, New Orleans, and Virginia Beach. Additionally, there’s interest in Hartford and it may not be the NPSL club.

Then came this Tweet:

Now here’s a league, the USL, whose only issues have been perception-related. Growing well and instituting a D-3 companion, the biggest concern has been the mentioned MLS Reserve sides creating a minor league feel for the league.

All of this is manageable, and you could argue that the disappearance or at least rebranding of most of these reserve sides would be a boon for the league.

Taken in a vacuum, any of these stories has the potential to carry a day’s news. Together, and in the wake of the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, they give Tuesday one of those Soccer-USApocalyptic feelings.

UEFA Champions League Weds. preview: Chelsea, Man Utd look to break out

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Only one of 16 teams was held off the score sheet on Tuesday. Could the same level of entertainment reach the UEFA Champions League a day later?

Two more Premier League teams take the pitch on Wednesday, with Manchester United facing its stiffest test of the group stage and Chelsea with a tricky visit from AS Roma.

[ MORE: Champions League Tues. wrap ]

Manchester United has a significant challenge in Benfica, and may need a man familiar with the Estadio da Luz to help them out. Center back Eric Bailly remains out for United, which could bring Victor Lindelof into the fold to help stop Haris Seferovic, Gabriel Barbosa, Raul Jimenez, and especially Jonas.

Coming off a sleepy weekend draw versus Liverpool in an underwhelming derby, United will take on a desperate Benfica team which is traditionally strong but lost at home to CSKA Moscow and was crushed in Switzerland by Basel.

(AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Speaking of the need to rebound, Chelsea’s loss to Crystal Palace still has many scratching their heads. Fortunately, Roma is also in a mini-funk after a weekend loss to Napoli that ended a five-match winning streak.

There’s a reunion for Antonio Rudiger inside Stamford Bridge with Roma in town. I Lupi has been pretty one-dimensional in terms of offense, with ex-Man City man and reigning Serie A capocannoniere winner Edin Dzeko. He’s scored eight times in nine matches for Roma this season.

Full Wednesday UCL schedule
All kickoffs at 2:45 p.m. ET except where indicated

Qarabag vs. Atletico Madrid — Noon ET
Anderlecht vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Benfica vs. Manchester United
Juventus vs. Sporting Lisbon
Barcelona vs. Olympiacos
Chelsea vs. Roma
Bayern Munich vs. Celtic
CSKA Moscow vs. Basel

U-17 World Cup wrap: England advances to meet USA

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The United States now knows it’ll have to take down England’s best to get to the semifinals of the U-17 World Cup in India.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

England, don’t laugh, won in penalty kicks after a scoreless match with Japan, advancing to meet the Baby Yanks.


England 0-0 (5-3, PKs) Japan

There wasn’t a single miss amongst the England shooters, as Rhian Brewster (Liverpool), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea), Phil Foden (Man City), Nya Kirby (Crystal Palace), and Curtis Anderson (Man City) converted from the spot to set up a date against the U.S.

Mali 5-1 Iraq

Lassana Ndiaye scored twice to join France’s Amine Gouiri atop the goal scoring list for the tournament as Mali advances to face the winner of Ghana vs. Niger.

France 1-2 Spain

Barcelona prospects Juan Miranda and Abel Ruiz get the better of France to set up a date with high-flying Iran.

 

Iran 2-1 Mexico

Iran conceded for just the second time in the tournament, but not before Mohammad Sharifi and Allahyar Sayyad (both of Iranian club Saifa) made it 2-0 by the 11th minute.

UEFA Champions League wrap: Tables turned on wild day

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One clean sheet in eight Tuesday matches certainly helped the entertainment value of the UEFA Champions League, and the group ramifications follow suit.

Borussia Dortmund whiffed on a chance to take advantage of Real Madrid’s home draw versus Spurs, while Sevilla was waxed in Russia, and Besiktas continues to strut in UCL play.

Real Madrid 1-1 Tottenham HotspurRECAP, VIDEO

Raphael Varane’s plans to mark Harry Kane were subverted by the French defender’s unwitting legs, but Serge Aurier chopped down Toni Kroos in the 42nd minute for a yellow card and penalty that Cristiano Ronaldo sent beyond the reach of Spurs backstop Hugo Lloris.

It was Lloris’ outstanding day, along with a couple timely Keylor Navas saves, that kept the score line 1-1 after 90 minutes. The backstops will likely match wits again come Nov. 1 at Wembley Stadium.

Manchester City 2-1 NapoliRECAP

Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus scored in the ninth and 13th minutes as City has been an unwelcoming host for the Neapolitan side. Ederson stopped a Dries Mertens penalty, adding insult to Napoli’s twin concessions, but Napoli would get a second penalty kick and pulled back a goal courtesy of Amadou Diawara.

Monaco 1-2 Besiktas

Reported Newcastle United and Crystal Palace target Cenk Tosun scored a pair of goals as group-leading Besiktas came back to beat Monaco after Radamel Falcao made it 1-0 to the hosts.

Feyenoord 1-2 Shakhtar Donetsk

Similar story in the Netherlands, where Ex-Watford man Steven Berghuis gave the Eredivisie hosts a lead only to see a Bernard brace lead Shakhtar at De Kuip.

Spartak Moscow 5-1 Sevilla

Liverpool’s score line was a bit surprising, but this one raised eyebrows even given Sevilla’s long road (or flight path) to Russia. Quincy Promes scored twice to make Sevilla consider its Europa roots (though plenty of time remains in the group stage).

Spartak’s Luiz Adriano scores past Sevilla’s Sergio Rico (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Maribor 0-7 LiverpoolRECAP

Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds are sent their finishing demons off a cliff. It was 3-0 after 20 minutes, 4-0 at half, and when all was said and done there were braces for Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah to go with single markers from Philippe Coutinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

APOEL Nicosia 1-1 Borussia Dortmund

A significant step backward for BVB, who would’ve done well to take advantage of Real and Spurs drawing at the Bernabeu. The Germans even trailed for five second-half minutes before Sokratis Papastathopoulos provided the equalizing goal.

RB Leipzig 3-2 Porto

Five first half goals felt like the start of something special, but the upstart Germans held on through a scoreless second half to claim their first UCL win.