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

Vancouver adds versatile Juarez, formerly of Monterrey, Celtic

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Efrain Juarez is bringing his game to Major League Soccer.

[ MLS: 2018 Mock SuperDraft ]

The 39-times capped Mexico veteran has inked a deal with the Vancouver Whitecaps, joining a strengthened unit which came within a point of winning the West last season.

Juarez, 29, was unveiled as a midfielder by the ‘Caps, though he’s primarily played right back in his club career. He’s played at Celtic, Real Zaragoza, Club America, Monterrey, and Pumas.

Last capped by El Tri in 2012, Juarez has played every position except goal, center attacking mid, and center forward in his career (picture a ‘U’ on the pitch).

“I’m so happy and excited for this new stage in my career,” Juarez said. “It’s an opportunity for me to keep growing in a new league and to be a part of an amazing club in Vancouver. From the moment they showed interest me, Carl Robinson and the Whitecaps staff have made me feel very important. I promise to put all my effort into this club and do my best to help us achieve our goals.”

VIDEO: Asensio goal ends Real Madrid’s winless run

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Marco Asensio’s eighth goal of the season and second of this Copa del Rey put an end to an unlikely Real Madrid winless run in a 1-0 victory at Leganes.

[ MLS: 2018 Mock SuperDraft ]

The 21-year-old darted in front of a defender to volley home from in-tight, giving Real Madrid a first leg lead in the tournament quarterfinals.

More importantly, perhaps, it gives struggling Real a boost in morale after draws with Celta Vigo and Numancia, and a loss to Villarreal.

Real is home to Deportivo de la Coruna in La Liga before hosting Leganes in the second leg.

Hopeful Newcastle buyer Staveley: Offer still on the table

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Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley is probably happy that his for-sale club is away this weekend, even though his side’s up against Manchester City.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines — Week 24  ]

That’s because hopeful buyer Amanda Staveley has responded to claims that her hopeful takeover of the team won’t be happening any time soon.

Talks had stalled, said Tuesday reports, much to the chagrin of an #AshleyOut brigade that at times can make Arsenal’s #WengerOut brigade look like a yard full of happy puppies.

A “source” had said, “Attempts to reach a deal have proved to be exhaustive, frustrating and a complete waste of time,” but Staveley shot back on Thursday to reignite the fire. From the BBC, taken from The Times:

“Our bid remains on the table. This is an investment, but it has to be a long-term investment. Newcastle would be run as a business, but we want it to be a successful, thriving business that is an absolutely integral part of the city.”

She also said that popular manager Rafa Benitez is integral to her interest in the team, and that fact combined with her insistence that an offer remains on the table will have many Newcastle fans seething with current ownership (and there have been protests for years). It’s Ashley’s move now.

2018 MLS Mock Draft: LAFC, Galaxy hold the keys

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Major League Soccer’s latest batch of hopeful rookies learn the next steps of their professional careers beginning Friday with the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft.

There are several intriguing prospects, including accomplished Stanford center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce and dangerous Michigan winger Francis Atuahene.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

An MLS mock draft is always tricky given the wildly varying opinions on players from the college game. This year, it’s even trickier as clubs without picks and some with multiple first round picks may be looking to move up and down even more than the norm.

Here’s how we think the draft could play out:

  1. LAFC – Tomas Hilliard-Arce, CB, Stanford
  2. LA Galaxy – Jon Bakero, FW, Wake Forest
  3. DC United – Francis Atuahene, FW, Michigan
  4. Montreal – Joao Moutinho, LB, Akron
  5. Minnesota – Wyatt Omsberg, CB, Dartmouth
  6. Orlando City – Ema Twumasi, FW, Wake Forest
  7. Montreal – Chris Mueller, FW, Wisconsin
  8. New England – Mo Adams, MF, Syracuse
  9. New England – Chris Lema, MF, Georgetown
  10. Real Salt Lake – Justin Fiddes, LB, Washington
  11. FC Dallas – Marcelo Acuna, FW, Virginia Tech
  12. San Jose – Brandon Bye, RB, Western Michigan
  13. Sporting KC – Ed Opoku, FW, Virginia
  14. Atlanta – Alex Roldan, MF, Seattle
  15. Chicago – Mason Toye, FW, Indiana
  16. New York Red Bulls – Alan Winn, MF, North Carolina
  17. Vancouver – Tristan Blackmon, RB, Pacific
  18. Sporting KC – Jon Gallagher, FW, Notre Dame
  19. New York City FC – Daniel Musovski, FW, UNLV
  20. Houston – Mo Thiaw, FW, Louisville
  21. Columbus – Brian White, FW, Duke
  22. Seattle – Tim Kubel, MF, Louisville
  23. Toronto FC – Oliver Shannon, MF, Clemson

There are a few players to keep an eye on for the later rounds that I won’t project for the first round due almost exclusively to first person bias (Some I’ve seen play in college, others at other levels). Afonso Pinheiro from Albany produced like crazy until this season, and Bowling Green defender Alexis Souahy has a skill set that could really transmit to the MLS level.

Mac Steeves (Providence) is a prototypical big body scorer, while Evansville’s heady Ian McGrath has a flair for the absurd and can play almost every position up the center of the pitch. Charleston’s Thomas Vancaeyezeele was a D-2 monster and is probably worth a shot earlier than people suspect.