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

New St. Louis stadium plan calls for state land contribution

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ST. LOUIS (AP) Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has made it clear he’s opposed to state funding for stadiums, yet a revised proposal for a $200 million soccer stadium in St. Louis calls for the state to contribute land that’s potentially worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, a city aldermanic committee delayed a vote Thursday to advance a measure putting the proposal, which also requires city voters to approve $60 million in funding, on the April ballot.

[ MORE: Galaxy adds Portugal CM ]

The investor group SC STL’s proposal calls for a 22,000-seat stadium near Interstate 64 and Union Station, a key component in the group’s effort to lure a Major League Soccer expansion team. MLS officials have expressed strong interest in St. Louis, but only if a stadium is built.

Time is of the essence: The league is expected to award two new expansion teams in the fall, with play starting in 2020.

St. Louis’ project was on life support after Greitens, a Republican who took office this month, said repeatedly that he opposed taxpayer funding for stadiums, calling it “welfare for millionaires.” SC STL had been seeking $40 million in state tax credits.

But a provision of SC STL’s revised financing plan, presented at Thursday’s meeting at City Hall, says the state would contribute the majority of the 24-acre project site, which is currently owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation, and perform some site clearing and infrastructure work.

The value is still being appraised, but given its location and the amount of land, it likely is worth several million dollars.

Greitens spokesman Parker Briden told The Associated Press in a statement that the governor “remains opposed to state funding to build the soccer stadium.” He did not immediately respond to a question about how the potential donation of land doesn’t conflict with Greitens’ hard-line stance.

[ MORE: Jones labels Howard’s comments “dangerous” ]

The first hint of compromise with the governor came in an email from SC STL spokesman Jim Woodcock late Wednesday, when he wrote that a “path forward” had been reached after two weeks of meetings.

“Gov. Greitens has made it clear to us that he is very supportive of adding a new professional sports franchise to the State of Missouri, and that’s a sentiment we wholeheartedly share,” the statement said.

The stadium project also requires taxpayer help from the city. The city Ways and Means Committee heard from SC STL officials Thursday, but no vote was taken on whether to ask the full Board of Aldermen to place the issue on the April ballot. The committee is expected to reconsider the measure Monday.

SC STL would be responsible for at least $95 million of the project cost, the entire $150 million expansion fee and all maintenance costs going forward.

Bundesliga returns: Will Bayern hold off competition again?

MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 05: Sebastian Rudy of TSG Hoffenheim is challenged by Douglas Costa of FC Bayern Muenchen during the Bundesliga match between Bayern Muenchen and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at Allianz Arena on November 5, 2016 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images)
Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images
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Germany’s top flight returns to action Friday when Bayern Munich travels to Freiburg in an attempt to keep the pressure on new boys RB Leipzig.

[ MORE: Galaxy adds Portugal CM ]

For those who haven’t paid a ton of attention to the Bundesliga this season or need a bit of a refresher after several weeks away, here’s what to monitor over the next several months.

Really Big surprise Leipzig looks to keep title race going

Formed in 2009, RB Leipzig is a lot of German fans’ least favorite club after cash infusions caused a rapid rise into the top flight.

The new club is looking down at most of the haters, however. League leaders for much of the first half, Leipzig is three points shy of league leading Bayern Munich.

Bayern waxed Leipzig 3-0 before the holiday break, and the two sides won’t meet again until May 13. How long can the new boys keep up the show?

Historic relegation candidates

What does USMNT strikers Bobby Wood and Aron Johannsson share besides a national team? Both are on sides that have been in Germany’s top tier longer than the players have been alive.

Wood’s Hamburg has six national titles and hasn’t seen the second tier in 54 years. That’s the longest stretch in the league, two more seasons than Bayern Munich. Hamburg is a currently third-bottom, which would force them into a relegation-promotion playoff against the third-placed team in 2.Bundesliga.

As for Johannsson, his Werder Bremen side is just three points ahead of Hamburg. Bremen has been in the top flight for 36 seasons.

Chasing the Golden Boot

Robert Lewandowski has scored the most goals in two of the past three seasons, with Alexander Meier of Eintracht Frankfurt seizing the honor in 2014-15.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is leading the pack by three goals, but is with Gabon at the Africa Cup of Nations to help open the door for the rest of the bunch.

Koln’s Anthony Modeste is second with 13, while Lewandowski has 12. Two players, Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) and Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim), have nine.

Can surprise Europe-chasers hold up?

Hertha Berlin was in 2.Bundesliga a few seasons ago, while Eintracht Frankfurt was there a season prior to that. RB Leipzig, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t even a club until 2009.

Eintracht made a Europa League run one year later, but neither was expected to be competing for a spot in Europe this season. As it stands, all three are in the mix.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 16 12 3 1 38 9 29 7-2-0 5-1-1 39
 RB Leipzig 16 11 3 2 31 15 16 6-1-0 5-2-2 36
 Hertha BSC Berlin 16 9 3 4 24 16 8 7-0-1 2-3-3 30
 Eintracht Frankfurt 16 8 5 3 22 12 10 5-3-0 3-2-3 29
 1899 Hoffenheim 16 6 10 0 28 17 11 4-5-0 2-5-0 28
 Borussia Dortmund 16 7 6 3 35 19 16 5-3-0 2-3-3 27
 1. FC Köln 16 6 7 3 21 15 6 4-4-0 2-3-3 25

Report: El Tri’s Chicharito to LAFC in 2018

Bayer Leverkusen's Javier Hernandez, left, and Atletico Mineiro's Mattheus Rolden fight for possession of the ball during the first half of a Florida Cup soccer match, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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It makes a lot of sense, you know?

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will turn 30 in 2018, not a spring chicken for a striker but still plenty productive if healthy.

His national team, Mexico, will likely be revving its engines for the World Cup, and won’t be upset to have the forward playing a bit less soccer and a lot closer to home.

[ MORE: Top 5 Premier League storylines ]

And Los Angeles FC will want to make a massive mark as it seeks to butt its head into a market dominated by the LA Galaxy (and, perhaps still then, Mexico national teamer Giovani Dos Santos).

So, tell us more, Steve Brisendine of MLSSoccer.com:

“[LAFC] are going to do everything possible to sign the current Bayer Leverkusen player, whose contract ends in 2018 and could therefore leave for a reduced fee. That’s what AS.com has confirmed with sources close to the project. LAFC hope to announce their new manager this spring and dream, a little later, to do the same with Javier Hernandez, aka Chicharito.”

Make it happen. Make. It. Happen. We’re already reserving his spot on our MLS fantasy teams.

Transfer rumor roundup: Jagielka, Begovic, Berahino, Zarate

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 13: Saido Berahino of West Brom challenges for the ball with Phil Jagielka of Everton during the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Everton at The Hawthorns on September 13, 2014 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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There’s action all over England, from those defending the goal mouth to others striving to conquer it.

[ MORE: More transfer gossip ]

— Bournemouth wants an upgrade on Artur Boruc, according to The Telegraph, and that could come in the form of Chelsea backstop Asmir Begovic.

The Cherries reportedly had a $12.5 million bid turned down by Antonio Conte, who has Thibaut Courtois in the No. 1 seat and Portugal national team backup Eduardo in the ranks (along with three keepers on loan and young goalie Mitchell Beanie).

— Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger shut the door on acquiring West Ham wantaway Dimitri Payet according to Sky Sports’ Transfer Centre:

“We have many players offensively who can play in this position. You are interested by the quality of the player but there needs to be a need as well, and we have no need in this domain.”

— Clubs in need of experienced Premier League backs need look no further than Everton, where manager Ronald Koeman has admitted that England international Phil Jagielka could leave Goodison Park. The 34-year-old center back has 40 caps for England and has made 337 appearances for Everton. He could be a massive upgrade for Sunderland if David Moyes is up for a reunion.

— Stoke City chairman Peter Coates says a purchase of Saido Berahino from West Brom is not contingent on a sale of Bojan Krkic. The latter has been linked to Middlesbrough.

— Mauro Zarate may be returning the Premier League. Watford boss Walter Mazzarri has been largely let down by his strike corps as Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have taken steps back this season. Could $4 be enough to bring the ex-West Ham and QPR man from Fiorentina to Vicarage Road? Zarate has four goals in nine matches for La Viola, and has nine goals in 40 Premier League matches.