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Conte finally has selection issues with Costa, Kante suspended

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LONDON (AP) Deprived of probably his two best players this season, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte finally has some selection issues to consider as the English Premier League leaders aim to extend their winning run to 12 games.

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Top scorer Diego Costa and midfield enforcer N'Golo Kante are both suspended for the home match against Bournemouth on Monday.

During Chelsea’s winning streak that started on Oct. 1 and has put the team six points clear in the standings, Conte has made a total of just six game-on-game changes in personnel and used only 13 players as starters. His goalkeeper, three-man defense and wing backs have remained unchanged throughout, for example.

Selecting a lineup has been pretty straightforward for Conte, until now.

[ MORE: Thursday’s transfer rumor roundupWednesday | Tuesday ]

“For this reason, it’s a good test for us,” the Italian coach said Thursday. “It’s important for this test to evaluate the group situation, also to have the possibility to play some players who until now are not playing a lot or to find another solution.

“It’s important what my eye is seeing this week.”

Chelsea needs three more wins to break the Premier League record (13) for consecutive victories in a single season, held by the Arsenal team of 2001-02. For a coach in his first season in English soccer, it’s some achievement by Conte.

The hectic festive schedule is proving a headache for many Premier League teams, as they face three games in eight days, including two matches inside 48 hours in some cases.

Chelsea, however, has its three games over 10 days, and has a four-day break between its first and second games (Bournemouth on Dec. 26 and Stoke at home on Dec. 31) and another three days without a game until Tottenham away on Jan. 4.

Also helping is the fact that Conte’s men don’t have to leave London over the festive period.

[ MORE: PL Player Power Rankings — Who’s in the top 20 right now? ]

Conte gave his players three days off this week in a bid to manage the squad’s physical and mental fitness and after what he described as a “real intense period” of fixtures.

Yet, the schedule is Chelsea’s friend this season, given the team isn’t playing European competition and has already been eliminated from the League Cup.

If Conte stays loyal to the 3-4-3 formation that has brought Chelsea its 11 wins in a row, his central-midfield two will likely be Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic while Michy Batshuayi is expected to replace Costa as the striker.

Batshuayi’s only starts since joining from Marseille for 33 million pounds (then $44 million) in the offseason have come in the League Cup. All 10 of his appearances in the league have come as second-half substitutes, with the Belgium international scoring one league goal.

“It’s not easy to arrive in this league and play,” Conte said. “It’s difficult to adapt, this league is very tough and physical. I think Michy is working very well. We must work with him to help him to improve, and the next step is to play more.”

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.