PL Playback: Analyzing the big calls as Chelsea surge clear

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REF WATCH: BIG CALLS INCORRECT

It seems a little early to say this but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway: this is Chelsea’s Premier League title to lose.

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Ahead of Week 22 Chelsea they could’ve seen their lead at the top cut to three points. Now it has been extended to eight as Antonio Conte and his players sat back and watched title contenders stutter on Saturday and they finished off Hull ruthlessly on Sunday for their 15th win in their last 16 games.

[ MORE: Latest odds for PL title winners ]

It is a case of advantage Chelsea in the title race, but plenty of their title rivals (if we can even call them that anymore) can feel aggrieved to have seen key calls go against them this weeekend.

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The referees were at the heart of several key moments of games involving title contenders and sadly they got many of the big calls wrong.

Let’s focus on the three biggest mistakes, all of which involved penalty calls, that will likely have big ramifications in the title race…

  • (A) No penalty kick awarded to Man City vs. Tottenham with City leading 2-1
  • (B) Penalty kick awarded to Arsenal vs. Burnley in 98th minute, as they won 2-1
  • (C) No penalty kick awarded to Hull City when trailing Chelsea 1-0

(A)  – There is no doubt that this was the worst of the bunch. See the video below as Raheem Sterling raced through and looked destined to put Man City 3-1 up and out of sight to get them back in the title race and close the gap on Spurs. Sterling was punished for staying on his feet. He was too honest and as he fell he took a shot which Hugo Lloris saved easily. Walker should have been sent off and City should have had a penalty but referee Andre Marriner waved played on. Man City should be 10 points behind Chelsea in the title race but now they’re 12 points back. Their title chances were slim before this weekend. After this decision, they’re gone.

(B) – This 98th minute decision was wrong on two different levels. One: Laurent Koscielny was offside when the cross came in. Two: Although Ben Mee is trying to hook the ball away with a high foot, Koscielny is stooping his head down. You have to let calls like that go in the box. Referee Jon Moss had earlier correctly given Granit Xhaka a straight red card for a lunging tackle on Steven Defour and then given Burnley a penalty kick in the 92nd minute after Francis Coquelin fouled Ashley Barnes. The latter decision incensed Arsene Wenger so much he was sent to the stands and now has to deal with an FA misconduct charge as he appeared to push fourth official Anthony Taylor on his way down the tunnel. Back to Moss. He got his third big decision of the game wrong and maybe after Xhaka’s sending off, awarding a penalty to Burnley, calling away a penalty shout for Arsenal earlier when Shkodran Mustafi went down and then seeing Wenger’s angry reaction he tried to even things up in front of the home fans who were baying for blood. There’s no doubting Mee’s foot was high, but that’s not a penalty for me and Moss should’ve been helped out by his linesman who had a better view. After all of that, Arsenal will feel they’re back in the title race as they prepare for a trip across London to face Chelsea on Feb. 4 at Stamford Bridge.

(C) – Another pivotal call among the title contenders went in Chelsea’s favor. Leading Hull 1-0, they should have given away a penalty kick just after half time. Marcos Alonso clipped Abel Hernandez in the box and it was a blatant PK for Hull. Nothing was given and you could clearly see the relief on Alonso’s face. Chelsea knew they had got away with one and if Hull had equalized early in the second half, who knows what would have happened? Those are the kind of breaks you get when you’re at the top and more often than not in recent weeks those kind of breaks are going Chelsea’s way and against their title rivals. Advantage Chelsea indeed.


LEICESTER IN BIG TROUBLE

From the title contenders, we now switch our attention to the title holders.

Leicester City are five points above the relegation zone and having a torrid time defending their crown, as they have the lowest points tally of any defending top-flight champ ever after 22 games and they are without an away win in the Premier League.

Claudio Ranieri must be applauded for his honesty in taking the blame for Leicester’s humbling 3-0 defeat at Southampton on Sunday but his self-pity doesn’t cover up the glaring fact that the reigning champions are increasingly in a battle against the drop.

Why?

Well, there are a number of reasons.

“Slacking off over the summer after winning the PL title in incredible fashion?” Perhaps.

“Losing N'Golo Kante to Chelsea?” Yep, definitely a big part of it.

“Other teams focusing on their strengths?” That’s key too.

Yet, when we look at this Leicester, despite Ranieri playing three at the back against Chelsea last time out and then a diamond in midfield in the first half at Southampton, both of which went horribly wrong, not much has changed. That’s the biggest problem. Don’t get me wrong, I was fully on board the Leicester bandwagon along with the rest of the sporting world last season. It was incredible.

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However, was Ranieri really ruthless enough over the summer to strengthen the team where they needed to? No. In theory, Leicester needed three new signings throughout the spine of the team.

They could offer big wages and UEFA Champions League action and they should’ve plundered their cash on three big name players at center back, in central midfield and up top. They bought in Luiz Hernandez in defense, who could be on his way out already. They also signed Nampalys Mendy who has been injured but is no Kante and they brought in Islam Slimani who has been hot and cold. The biggest issue (as the stat above suggests) is in defense. Leicester are leaking goals at an alarming rate and Wes Morgan and Robert Huth seemed to have aged 10 years over the summer.

There’s an argument to be made that they should have gone for PL experience and paid a little over the odds to buy two or three experienced players from within the PL rather than seven or eight newbies to the PL.

Leicester have done the latter and so far that plan isn’t working.

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Their run to the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 has been the priority and some would say rightly so but with Swansea and Hull picking up below Leicester, the Foxes’ margin for error is getting smaller each week.

They had the lowest pass completion percentage over the weekend which is much like last season. Pretty much everything is the same, expect for the results. That’s the most worrying thing for Leicester’s fans, players and manager.


ROONEY SETS RECORD IN STYLE

It just had to be this way.

Wayne Rooney became Manchester United’s all-time leading goal scorer on Saturday — passing Sir Bobby Charlton who had held the record on 249 for over 40 years — as he curled home a sublime free kick in stoppage time to grab his side a point at Stoke City and extend their unbeaten run to 17 games in all competitions.

[ MORE: World reacts to Rooney’s record

Rooney, 31, scored his 250th goal for United in fine fashion and it was indicative of a career which has promised so much and more often than not delivered with spectacular goals such as the bicycle kick against Manchester City, the volley against Newcastle and the halfway-line lob against West Ham littering the way.

When we look back on his career in a decade or two, it’s likely he will finally get the credit he deserves for his sublime talent on the field since the age of 17 when he burst onto the scene. Right here, right now, Rooney is often undermined with his fitness and impact questioned on a daily basis.

Wayne Rooney is now the all-time leading scorer for England and Manchester United. Let that sink in. He is truly a legend of the game.

[ MORE: Rooney talks about his future at United ]

Speaking at the Football Writers’Association tribute dinner on Sunday at the Savoy Hotel in London (Rooney’s impeccable timing meant he set the record just 24 hours before being honored by the FWA) Rooney admitted that going forward he wants the media and England’s players to work closer together to benefit everyone.

“The media is a massive part of football and I’ve seen firsthand since I’ve become captain of Manchester United and England,” Rooney said. “I’ve recognized it has had a huge influence on the game and the players and especially the young English players because they are the ones who have to go out and perform. It’s tough. I also feel like it is sometimes a bit unfair.

“The one thing I think, for me, that should happen is we need to realize and the media need to realize that at this moment in time there is a huge gap between the media and the players. I think the quicker the media and players can come together and meet in the middle, then the better it is for English football.”

Here’s a look at some of Rooney’s best goals from his incredible career which he intends to keep going at Manchester United for now but also admitted his frustration at not playing regularly this season.

Whatever the future holds, Rooney has written himself into folklore forever.


GET WELL SOON, RYAN

Week 22 of the Premier League ended with a sobering sight.

Hull midfielder Ryan Mason, 25, was involved in an aerial collision with Chelsea skipper Gary Cahill in the first half of the Blues’ eventual 2-0 win. Mason did not get back up.

The England international suffered a fractured skull and after carefully being treated on the pitch he was transported to St Mary’s hospital in central London for surgery.

Hull gave the latest update on Mason on Monday, as players and staff from both Chelsea and Hull visited him in hospital.

The Club can confirm that Ryan has been visited this morning at St Mary’s Hospital by Club Captain Michael Dawson, Club Doctor Mark Waller, Head of Medical Rob Price and Club Secretary Matt Wild. Ryan has been speaking of the incident yesterday and will continue to be monitored at the hospital over the coming days where the Club will remain in close contact with Ryan, his family and the staff at St Mary’s.

Ryan and his family have also been extremely touched by the overwhelming support they have received  and would very much like to thank all of those who have posted such positive comments both on social media and in the press over the last 24 hours.

It was a horrible sight and was made even more shocking due to the innocuous nature of the challenge.

Get well soon, Ryan.


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.

How to stop Alexis? “Padlock, tie him up,” says Sevilla boss

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“Well, maybe we can lock him up with a padlock or tie him up with rope.”

Vincenzo Montella has mixed it up with Alexis Sanchez in the past, and he’s not relishing the need to stop him again without using non-traditional means.

[ MORE: Chelsea-Barca recap | JPW’s 3 things ]

The Sevilla boss, 43, said he “remembered well” the Manchester United star from the Chilean’s playing time at Udinese,.

“He has improved his style a lot during his career and I think he can be a really good player in transition,” Montella said. “I think they have really good speed in attack.”

That padlock joke wasn’t the only quality quip from Montella, who said of Paul Pogba:

“He is a complete player. I hope he doesn’t play.”

Sevilla hosts United at 2:45 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium.

Conte gets tactics spot on but Messi has last laugh

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LONDON — Before the game Antonio Conte‘s tactics were the talk of the press room at Stamford Bridge, plus pubs and television studios around the world.

After the game his decision to play Eden Hazard in a false nine position, flanked by Willian and Pedro, and leave out his two star center forwards, Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud, was lauded. This was a reminder of the man who led Chelsea to Premier League glory last season and also a reminder of Chelsea’s successful past against the Catalan giants as they’re now unbeaten in their last eight UCL encounters as the clash of styles continues.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Recap

Conte is under pressure with just five wins in his last 13 games in all competitions, but this was a tactical masterclass from the Italian coach as his side totally bought into his plan and without a mistake from Andreas Christensen late on, it would have been an archetypal Italian defensive display leading to a 1-0 win to take to the Nou Camp.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Conte believed his players were incredibly unlucky to not win the game as Willian struck the post twice in the first half and they threatened multiple times on the counter.

“We were very close to playing the perfect game. One mistake and we know very well when you make a mistake against Barcelona and players like Messi, Suarez and Iniesta you pay. It is a pity because tonight, at the end of the game, we are disappointed for the final result,” Conte said. “We hit the post twice with Willian. There is a bit of disappointment but I think that this game must give us confidence to trust that in the second leg that qualification is open. It won’t be easy. We must be realistic. We are talking about Barcelona. Tonight we showed that if we are ready to work very hard together defensively, but at the same time you continue to have the right feeling when you win the ball to create chances to score, we can try to do something incredible at the Nou Camp.”

The one wrench in Conte’s plan was always going to be one incredible player: Lionel Messi.

Without a goal in eight games (730 minutes in total) against Chelsea, the five-time World Player of the Year stroked home a killer away goal 15 minutes from time to swing the tie back into Barcelona’s favor after Conte’s masterclass. Messi, 30, once again arrived at the pivotal moment for the La Liga leaders and the Argentine star sprung into life as Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta made the most of Christensen’s mistake.

Messi’s presence on the ball sparked nervousness within the Chelsea defense but it looked like he would leave empty hand once again until he was gifted a chance to silence the doubters.

Barcelona had 73 percent of possession on Tuesday and attempted 887 passes to Chelsea’s 325. They looked comfortable in a cauldron of noise at Stamford Bridge and even though they were vulnerable on the counter, they never looked too flustered but only had two real chances via Paulinho in the first half and Suarez in the second.

Despite following the blueprint to get a result against Barcelona almost to a tee, Cesc Fabregas believes the Blues will have to be more expansive at the Nou Camp in the second leg to get through to the quarterfinals.

“We have showed that we can compete and we will need another excellent performance at the Nou Camp to go through,” Fabregas told BT Sport. “You have to have a lot of personality to play against this team who has 70 percent of the ball. We have to go there to attack and score because 90 minutes defending at the Nou Camp is an eternity, it is a suicide mission. We have to play our game.”

As for Barcelona’s manager Ernesto Valverde, he admitted that he was a happy man to escape West London with a draw but urged his side to respect Chelsea’s style of play in the second leg.

“It has been a clash of styles this game, two different teams,” Ernesto said. “We tried to control the game, had a lot of possession and got close to the area. We were just lacking a little bit of extra quality in the final third. They defended very well. The good thing is we managed to get an error and get a goal out of them. We will go back to the Camp Nou happy.”

Conte was happy his players followed his gameplan and believes they must believe they can deliver killers blows on the break in Barcelona in two weeks time with Willian, Pedro and Hazard key to the plan.

“I must be pleased because the players did a great effort and they followed the plan we prepared,” Conte said. “In 15 days we must be ready to prepare for another game against Barcelona. We must be prepared to suffer together but in the moment you are suffering, you must know that the moment you are in possession you can create a chance to score.”

Chelsea need at least one goal to go through or to take the game to extra time, but given their spirited display at Stamford Bridge there’s renewed hope that Conte can mastermind another defensive masterplan to get them into the last eight for the first time since 2014.

Fabregas: Chelsea has to avoid “suicide mission,” push Barca in 2nd leg

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Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas has seen Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi work plenty of magic in his career, and he preferred it much better when he was on their side for such brilliance.

[ MORE: Recap | JPW’s 3 things ]

But the Blues’ midfielder will feel as good as a player can following a tactical masterclass from Antonio Conte was betrayed by one miscue in Chelsea’s 1-1 draw versus Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

Barca was held, arguably, without a true chance before Andreas Christensen‘s miscue helped Iniesta cue Messi up for a second half equalizer.

And Fabregas, who was La Liga and the Copa del Rey with Barca, is already thinking about the second leg at the Camp Nou. From the BBC:

“It is such a shame really. I thought we were very good, we executed the game plan really well, we were compact, solid, played as a team and created lots of chances – Willian could have had a hatrick – but we go home sad because a fantastic performance is not a fantastic result.

“You have to have a lot of personality to play against this team who has 70% of the ball. We have to go there to attack and score because 90 minutes defending at the Nou Camp is an eternity, it is a suicide mission. We have to play our game.”

True story, though one easier planned than executed against Barca. Conte said he lost a lot of sleep coming up with his tactics for the first leg, and he’s going to have to put on some coffee a few times before March 14.

Three things learned: Chelsea v. Barcelona

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LONDON — It was honors even at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday as Chelsea and Barcelona battled to a 1-1 draw in an intriguing UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg.

The familiar foes (this was their 13th meeting in the Champions League) played out a tight game with Willian hitting both posts in the first half with sumptuous curling efforts before scoring the opener in the second half, while Lionel Messi equalized late on to grab a crucial away goal.

Chelsea are unbeaten in eight Champions League games against Barcelona, who have won just once in their seven trips to Stamford Bridge, yet Barca are among just four teams who remain unbeaten in the UCL this season and they’ll fancy their chances of getting by the Blues at the Nou Camp on Mar. 14 in the return leg with a vital away goal in the bag.

Here’s what we learned from another massive European night between the clubs in west London, as Chelsea need a score draw 2-2 or higher or a win at the Nou Camp to advance to the UCL last eight for the first time since 2013-14.


WILLIAN, HAZARD DAZZLE

This wasn’t the Messi and Luis Suarez show. Chelsea’s dynamic duo of Eden Hazard, and particularly Willian, took charge early on Tuesday.

Hazard has yet to really carry Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League and it was his job to take the game to Barcelona in the first leg. He did the best he could, and although he had little support, he caused problems for Barca on the break.

With Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata both left on the bench from the start, Hazard was asked to play a role he has rarely flourished in. His talents are much better suited to playing in a No.10 role floating off a front man or cutting in from the left flank.

Hazard, 27, flashed an effort over the bar early on and wriggled free of Barca’s defense on a few occasions as he slammed another effort over the bar. Then Willian took over.

The Brazilian continued his fine form after two goals last time out against Hull City and he smashed each post with trademark curling efforts from outside the box. Antonio Conte stood with his head in his hands on the sidelines, but deep down he knew he’d got his tactics spot on.

It was a case of third time lucky for Willian as in the second half he hit a low shot into the bottom corner to put Chelsea ahead. Chelsea’s dynamic attacking duo of Hazard and Willian had delivered.

Suarez’s drought in front of goal was now his worst in the Champions League, while Messi’s peculiar lack of potency against Chelsea looked to be continuing…


MESSI’S CHELSEA CURSE IS OVER

A moment in the first half acted as a precursor to Messi’s magic. It was a warning for Chelsea that they didn’t heed.

The Argentine magician is a joy to watch in the flesh and the way he simply glided past N'Golo Kante and Antonio Rudiger summed up that his gearbox us more than capable of cranking up five gears at a time with minimal fuss.

Yet Messi didn’t get too many chances to click through the gears as Barcelona’s pragmatic approach saw both he and Suarez left isolated for much of the game as the La Liga leaders struggled to get going until late on. He only needed one chance to grab the all-important away goal.

Barca’s defensive record was the best in the Champions League this season going into this game and although Ernesto Valverde has added steel to their swashbuckling style, too often they lacked cutting edge in the final third.

Messi, now 30, may not come up against Premier League clubs many more times in his career but he provided a dagger of an away goal 15 minutes from time to end the talk of him struggling against Chelsea.

It took over 730 minutes, but Messi finally has a goal against Chelsea and it was a hugely important strike.


CONTE GETS TACTICS SPOT ON

The decision to not start with Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud up top was a bold one from Conte and it paid off brilliantly.

Some may call it boring. Some may criticize him for not playing with a recognized striker. Yet Conte’s tactical masterplan to have Hazard, Pedro and Willian charging at the center of Barca’s defense whenever they could worked to perfection.

Ahead of this clash Conte admitted he didn’t sleep well because he was concocting a plan to stop Messi and Co.

“I must be honest… it was a bit difficult to sleep well,” Conte said. “When you have to play this type of game, you have to prepare. You have to prepare everything. You have to prepare big things, but the smaller details too.”

He got the small details spot on as the Blues retreated into a 5-4-1 formation at times with Conte screaming at Thibaut Courtois for lumping the ball long to Hazard and Willian. He wanted the Blues to keep the ball, give it to Cesc Fabregas and have Hazard, Pedro and Willian running behind Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti.

They launched several counters in the second half but could only finish one of them off, while one mistake from Andreas Christensen cost them dear.

That said, Chelsea will use this same gameplan in the second leg at the Nou Camp with confidence that they can at least take the game to extra time.

Even though Conte has won just five of his last 13 games in all competitions, this display will fill his team with confidence they can get the job done on the road in Barcelona.