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

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

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Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.