Three things we learned from Chelsea’s win at West Ham

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LONDON — Chelsea beat West Ham United 2-1 at the London Stadium on Monday as Antonio Conte‘s men extended their lead atop the Premier League table.

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Goals in each half from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa did the damage as Chelsea took the sting out of the London derby and Antonio Conte’s men continue their canter towards the Premier League title despite Manuel Lanzini‘s stoppage time consolation.

Here’s what we learned from a routine win for Chelsea.


TEXTBOOK CHELSEA

If Chelsea’s season could be summed up in one goal it would be their opener against West Ham.

The Hammers had a free kick on the edge of Chelsea’s box but Mark Noble took too long to pick out his cross and was dispossessed by N'Golo Kante. Eden Hazard raced through and combined with Pedro before rounding Darren Randolph and slotting home. Simple.

As talented as Chelsea’s squad is, perhaps the biggest reason why they’re top of the Premier League is due to Conte’s ability to simplify the game. He has also simplified the team selection with just 21 players used in the Premier League campaign this season, the fewest in the league, and just 24 team changes.

Familiarity breeds success and so does simplicity. It’s almost as if Conte has looked at Leicester City’s blueprint from their success last season and copied it.

With better quality players the Leicester-esque counters are even more devastating. Nobody expected this style of play from Chelsea. Even though Conte’s teams are often direct and physical, many expected more a possession based style from Chelsea this season with Cesc Fabregas, Hazard and Co. to pass teams to death. That’s not what Conte has delivered but his players do possess the quality that when they go ahead in games they can keep the ball and force their opponents to force the issue and then pick them off ruthlessly with inch-perfect passes into the final third.

He has delivered a ruthless winning machine which is capable of beating teams in multiple ways.


HAZARD UNPLAYABLE

With Costa’s goals and Conte’s switch to a 3-4-3 formation stealing much of the headlines around Chelsea’s stunning form this season, the form of Hazard has flown under the radar.

The Belgian winger was in sensational form on Monday, springing devastating counters time and time again and West Ham’s defense were petrified of him around the box.

In the first half he showed Jose Fonte a clean pair of heels and gained about 15 yards of space all with one drop of his shoulder. In the second half he got free on the right, cut back in and then flicked a delicate ball around the corner to Costa whose turn and shot was pushed wide.

Hazard was unplayable at times on Monday night, just as he has been for most of this season. He was subbed out with 17 minutes to go and West Ham’s fans and players breathed a sigh of relief. The fact that his replacement was Willian said it all.

This Chelsea juggernaut has strength in-depth and with Hazard’s trickery and Costa’s goals leading the way, they look unbeatable.


BLUNT HAMMERS

West Ham had a clear game plan before this encounter and for the opening 25 minutes it worked.

Until Hazard’s opener they were snapping into tackles, getting the ball wide to Robert Snodgrass whenever possible and getting Andy Carroll in dangerous positions, Bilic’s plans were causing Chelsea plenty of problems.

But when Carroll plays there’s no Plan B.

Dimitri Payet used to deliver that moment of magic to score a goal out of nothing, that change of play which would open up at an opponents defense to set up a cross. Now, all of that creative pressure falls on Manuel Lanzini’s shoulders. Despite his clinical finish late on, the Argentine isn’t quite up to carrying this West Ham team in his injury hit season. Like most of West Ham’s team, he should be focused on next season.

West Ham will be fine and finish in midtable, which is not something to be scoffed at after their form in the opening half of the season which suggested they’d be involved in a relegation battle.

Bilic still hasn’t been offered a new deal and he may need to give West Ham’s owners a little more promise before he is entrusted to take this project to the next step which means the Hammers challenging for a top six finish like last season. Right now that seems a long way off.

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.